Multitudes

14 February 2010

Lord of the Birds, Graciela Iturbide (1984), via.

I’ve always loved the little-used collective nouns that English accumulates — your shrewdness of apes, your exaltation of larks; clattering of jackdaws & mumuration of starlings. Just to list them is to become intoxicated by the accumulation. (We forget, of course, that even the commonest ones, flights & flocks & schools & herds & gaggles & troops, look odd from the outside, in translation, obscure groupings.) The most esoteric & the loveliest attach themselves to birds, & so when I think of nouns of multitude I remember Graciela Iturbide, whose photographs I saw at an exhibition at the Getty in ’08 — looking for them now, I can’t find the two I liked best, one of a cloud of birds suddenly frightened from a tree, hundreds of them surrounding it like a halo, & the other of a veternarian’s arm holding a pelican (I think?), backlit into shadow in front of an x-ray of its bones, the two inverted mirrors of each other, the bones white on black, the bird black on white.

Over Christmas I read John Crowley’s Ægypt & wrote down in my commonplace book a little moment on p. 254: ‘“exalted” as Axel said, by wine.’ What if, as with nouns of multitude — parliament of owls, siege of bitterns — there were verbs of intoxication? Exalted by wine, melancholied by gin, belched by lager, peated by scotch, embittered by ale. Extemporized by brandy . . .

Surely you can think of some better ones.

Carnivale in Bilbao, as I’ve said, brass bands in the streets, light rain, txiquiteros singing through glasses of crianza, the whole city in costume from the children to adults, groups, multitudes, in theme, disguised collectively. I’ve seen gingerbread men, firefighters, fields of strawberries, snowmen, professionals of every occupation, an entire army of playing cards armed with spears attacking a float manned by the Queen of Hearts in drag. And still, it should be said — this is nothing compared to Venice, to Cadiz. Halloween is the palest shadow.

Briefly noted

12 February 2010

Snowing in Bilbao yesterday & today — nothing like the storms 5,000 miles away to my left, but there are hailstones in the street & patches of unmelted slush & on the low hills that circle the city (Bilbao is el botxo, they say here, ‘the hole’) there is a covering of bright, white ice & snow that shines in the morning; I look at them from my window when I wake up. And despite all of this, I’m not as cold here as I was last year in Jaén, shivering in an uninsulated house, the hot water out.

El botxo — I thought something this morning, breath smoking while I huffed my way up the hill to school in Galdakao, something about this city I’d never thought about before: What is Bilbao doing surrounded by hills? This seems like an irrelevent question — it’s on the river, it’s a shipping hub — but it’s really not if you’ve lived in Andalucía, where every old city is elevated and has a fortress at the center. No fortress, in Bilbao. There were walls, but the only trace of them is near the church & bridge of San Antón, symbols of the city. Bilbao wasn’t a city, really, not more than a village, until after the Reconquista, after the colonization of the New World, after iron was discovered in the hills & it became a shipping center — that is, Bilbao, unlike every city in the South, is a post-industrial city, and it feels so natural it was only now, this morning, that I was struck by how strange it was to live in a Spanish city that wasn’t fortified, that hadn’t been built in the face of five centuries of intermittent warfare.

In K2, a bar named after the mountain with free wifi & good music that I use as my office in the afternoons, there are dreamcatchers & Indian headdresses made out of colored paper hanging from the ceilings (Penacho de Toro Sentado, reads one). It’s Carnivale, of course, which is why they’ve decorated — I’m dressing up as Clark Kent, myself — but that still doesn’t explain the weird, cartoony cultural appropriation. (There is a toy ax taped to the wall in front of me.)

In Corazón tan blanco, things are beginning to come to a head — Marías has accumulated a certain number of disparate elements, developed them, brought them to a point where now we are in the present (the present perfect, usually, but that’s Castillian Spanish for you) & he has begun to arrange them on the table & put them in relation to one another. The Macbeth references which began with the epigraph itself (from which the title is taken) have piled up, are beginning to be repeated — the impossibility of translating ‘thinking so brainsickly of things,’ which Marías’ narrator renders as vacillating between pensar con tan enfermo cerebro and pensar tan enfermitizamente con el cerebro (I wonder how this is worked out in the English translation?) — and the English fragment, amidst all this Spanish, repeated: “I have done the deed.”

There is a nice bit that asks whether we read literature or look at art for conocimiento or reconocimiento (that is, for understanding, or just for recognition? The parallel is neater & more elegant, of course, in Spanish).

What else? I learned the Basque word for ‘rainbow’ yesterday. I’m baking an apple pie tomorrow, which is the furthest thing from a tarta de manzana even though it’s the only way to translate it. Over on my tumblr, I’m puzzling over a quotation from Tom McCarthy that ends, “The Internet reifies a logic that was always already there,” & I mention this because I don’t usually use that scrapbook to write at length, but it ended up long, & I could use some help in the comments.