Poem: Dante Lucked Out

T. S. Eliot held that Dante was lucky

to live in the Middle Ages

because life then was more logically organized

and society more coherent. The rest of us however

can’t be as sure that if we’d had the fortune

to walk along the Arno and look at the pretty girls

walking with their mothers in the fourteenth century,

then we, too, would have composed “La Vita Nuova”

and the “Divine Comedy.” It is on the contrary

far more likely that we, transported

to medieval Florence, would have died miserably

in a skirmish between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines

without the benefit of anesthesia

or would have been beaten, taunted,

cheated, and cursed as usurers

two centuries before the charging of interest

became an accepted part of Calvinist creed

and other reasons needed to be produced

to justify the persecution of the Jews.

David Lehman’s “New and Selected Poems” was published by Scribner in November 2013. He is the editor of “The Oxford Book of American Poetry” and author of “A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs,” which won ASCAP’s Deems Taylor Award in 2010. 

The Ear of the Beholder

When I worked for Warner Bros. Records, I spent a good deal of my time trying to calibrate, coordinate and prognosticate the exact moment the headlining artist would take the stage. This involved calls to the manager, the road manager, the box office, the artist and spiritual mediums. In four years there, I never once saw an opening act.

I bring all of this up because I recently found myself listening to something called Nestling Willy, an opening act for something called Caroline’s Spine. Nestling Willy sounded like a trio of pneumatic drills, slightly out of tune and amplified to the point of pain. I did not decipher one single word that they were singing — screaming, actually. They could have been screaming in another language for all I know, but I can’t even imagine what other culture could produce such a mess. Sadly, we can’t blame this on Afghanistan.

The reason I suffered so has to do with a girl named April who is as lovely as a spring day and knows the drummer, the pneumatic drill in the middle. She invited me to meet her at the show. "Do you like them?" she asked.

This was the moment in the movie when everything stops and gets all fuzzy. I think: Could I be with someone who actually likes this music? I mean, if she was an Al Qaeda operative, we could agree that she simply wasn’t worth the trouble, but where exactly do you draw that line? How low would you go? I don’t expect everyone to have as great taste in music as I, but how much sacrifice is expected in order to let romance flourish? I might have walked through the fires of hell to woo fair April, but even Dante would have hesitated to conjure this trio.

If, as part of my elaborate plot to win her favors, I tell her I do like them, I’m setting myself up for a lifetime of headbanging. Then, when I tell her I don’t want to walk down the aisle at our wedding to the strains of Metallica, she’ll know I was patronizing her. A refrain of the great romantic poet Meatloaf comes to mind: "I would do anything for love, but I won’t do that."

Yet, if I answer truthfully, "No, they suck," I’ll probably never get a chance to find out if this is the music she likes to listen to at top volume during the sexual act. (On the other hand, I don’t think I could perform to my usual high standards if this music was being played anywhere in the vicinity.)

Why don’t I like these guys? I used to be a pretty "with it" cat in my day. I try to keep up with the kids, but I don’t know if this was "grunge," "speed" or heavy metal. Heavy mental is more like it. I’m sure it would take a while to get a straight answer out of these three nincompoops as to what exactly it is they think they’re playing. It could be something called "alternative," but an alternative to what, I wonder? Good music? I sprinkle some applause their way in recognition of the effort.

At least it was free. My friend Charlie got me "on the list" — as though free admission was recompense for being tortured at the hands of amateur musicians.

I counted 41 people in the club. We were small in number, but we were mighty. Then April asked me to sign up for the band’s mailing list, which she was passing around on a clipboard. I would gladly have signed anything she presented to me, including a credit card receipt for their bar tab. After completing a lap of the crowd, she shilled for the band, pulling some guy out onto the dance floor with her, which had been utterly deserted to this point, as if the band was on fire and the audience was afraid of dancing too close to the flames. She abruptly abandoned him to continue her direct marketing solicitation, leaving the poor slob stuck out there, shaking his groove thing all alone with his shattered rock ‘n’ roll dreams lying in a heap all around him.

I know just how he feels. It seems April and Ringo might be more than just friends, which makes me a groupie for their groupie — chewed up and spit out by the star-maker machinery.

I exited quietly before the inevitable encore, crossed a barren Fairfax to my waiting car and turned on the radio. Ella Fitzgerald was taking the Ellington band through "Caravan." Order is restored.

J.D. Smith is banging his head @ www.lifesentence.net.

Towering “Inferno”

“E come i stornei ne porta l’ali nel freddo &’009;&’009;tempo,

a schiena larga a piena,

Cosi quel fato li spiriti mali,

di qua, di la, di giu, di su li mena,

nulla speranza li comforta mai,

non che di posa, ma di minor pence.

E come i gru van catando lor lai,

faccendo in aere dise lunga riga,

Cosi vid io venir, traendo guai,

ombre portate da la detta briga.”

— Canto V of Dante’s “Inferno”

It was a postcard-perfect Pasadena day on the beautiful grounds of the Huntington Library when Ronald E. Steen led 16 women on a descent into Hell.

Well, sort of…

Steen, of Steen Art Study, was conducting a tour at the Huntington’s Virginia Steele Scott Gallery, currently home to Ruth Weisberg’s “Canto V: A Whirlwind of Lovers,” an exhibit of paintings and prints inspired by English artist William Blake’s etchings of Dante’s “Inferno,” circa 1827. And in attendance that day was the artist herself, personally providing context to her show for Steen’s group.

As Weisberg later told the Journal, “With Dante being Catholic and William Blake being Protestant, there was an emphasis on sin, which didn’t interest me. One measures oneself by similarities as well as differences, and I am interested in the idea of eternity, which relates to Jewish concepts of the world to come. I’m also interested in the concept of redemption, which in Judaism means remembering or memorializing, and that’s something I do constantly as an artist.”

Adds Steen, “She uses emulation to put us in contact with traditional art but updates it for modern society at the end of the 20th century.”

In “Canto V: A Whirlwind of Lovers,” isolated human figures writhe in a purgatory of desire and torment almost as gnarled and twisted as the bedsheets that tangle around them. The central piece, the massive 12 x 23 ft. “Eternity of Unfulfillment,” follows a progression of two figures — a man and a woman — swirling into a vortex, like a downward spiral into hell. As she told her gallery audience, Weisberg attempted to portray a “tenderness and disappointment” with her soft washes, employing an elegant use of gesso to simultaneously enunciate the bodies and emote body heat.

As with 1994’s “Sisters and Brothers” — a 14 x 18 ft. canvas derived from Torah stories of Jacob, Esau, Leah and Rachel — Weisberg aims with “Canto V” to envelop the view with the physical grandeur of her installation.

Weisberg did not hesitate to use her son and his girlfriend as nude models for the central canvas of “Canto.”

“My children and people close to me are very used to being asked to pose. I like to draw the people who are dear to me. It isn’t awkward. My son has been posing for me all his life and my daughter as well,” says Weisberg, who stood up on a ladder above the figures to capture the vertiginous view she capitalizes on in her compositions.

Schooled at the prestigious Chicago Art Institute and the University of Michigan, Weisberg says that her parents were “extremely supportive” of her artistic ambitions. Her parents socialized with many artists, as her father was a prominent architect. And, in keeping with the family lineage, Weisberg’s own children are pursuing creative careers — her son a musician and filmmaker; her daughter an art history Ph.D. candidate.

“I’ve been involved in my Jewish identity over a long period of time,” says Weisberg, who also relishes her role as Dean of Fine Arts at USC. She is now entering her fifth year working with up-and-coming artists.

“The arts are being very much promoted and supported. We have a wonderful president [Steven Sample] and provost [Lloyd Armstrong] at the University,” says Weisberg. “The students are very interested in issues of identity and values. They’re very stimulated and interested in traditional and digital media.”

The work displayed in the “Canto” exhibit is an extension of her love of Dante’s Inferno, an affinity she developed as a young woman in Italy, where she studied art and Italian. Some prints, like “Leviathan,” are one-off monotypes — a format merging printmaking and painting techniques — executed during a week’s stay in Fairbanks, Alaska, where she was keynote speaker at an art educators conference. These images display the influence of her visit, with the drapery slithering around the figures easily doubling as a glacial Alaskan mountain range (“Sort of an aurora borealis effect,” says the monotypes creator).

Other figure renderings, like the black-grounded “Tempest” and “Above/Below,” convey a sweltering, primordial light source through pastel highlights to echo themes of anguished desire.

At the moment, Weisberg — represented in Los Angeles by Jack Rutberg Fine Arts — is looking forward to one of her upcoming commissions: producing artwork for an embellished version of the 1 million selling, Leonard Baskin-illustrated haggadah, produced 25-years-ago by the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

“It’s going to mean a lot of studies of haggadahs and talking to people about what their seders mean to them. That’s going to be an immense privilege; it’s going to be wonderful,” says Weisberg.

So what parallels does the artist find in Dante’s writing and in her own life? Weisberg would rather leave that to the viewer’s imagination. But she does say, “I used the stories to mediate things that are more personal. I think artists often use metaphors and analogies for something close to their hearts. I certainly do.”

Ruth Weisberg’s “Canto V: A Whirlwind of Lovers” will be on display at the Huntington Library through Jan. 30. For more information, call (626) 405-2141; or visit www.huntington.org.