<= 2016.02.22

Republic of Korea (2)

The old Seoul wall rings a central slice of the city that looks modest on the map and anywhere else would count as a large city in itself. Its lower courses tend to be buried under modern streets, but wherever there’s a hill, files of white stone will appear to climb it—rectangular with pointed cornices and small square openings, and winding back and forth like a dragon’s backbone. Threads of park run alongside it, and walking trails that can be hard to locate because pine and cypress groves hide them from the streets below. I enter twisted streets with that sewer-garbage smell of Barcelona (unusual in this generally clean city), pass between a park and hospital, and suddenly I’ve found my entrance and am lifted out of the city into slopes of pale purple wildflowers, with the wall on my left and magpies chattering everywhere, scruffier and with sharper beaks than the Euro-American kind, wings an especially brilliant blue.

The wall runs right over the mountain summits and my path takes me up Inwangsan, where after a point the trees give out and you find yourself scrambling up the glaring peaks of the moon. It might be the early sun that makes this mountain feel so much more strenuous than others I’ve climbed of late; it might be that the grade simply doesn’t let up. By this time there are a good many other hikers, lots of them with Republic of Korea flags stuck in their packs, which gives our procession a sense of endeavor and purpose. We're discovering the moon together.

The summit is a lone sun-blasted boulder. I reach and acknowledge it, and dizzy and thirsty, find the nearest trees in the lee of the wall. In my pack I have a protein bar and the Columbia Anthology of Modern Korean Poetry, which includes a magisterial prose poem by Cheong Chiyong about a climb up Paengnokdam. I am not meeting that standard. But I sit on a square rock in the pine grove, and make these notes in mind of some far away.

Republic of Korea (1)

We touched down at Incheon airport just before sunset, the low disc a color I’d never seen, an almost lavender pink (was the window tinted?), the Yellow Sea not yellow but metallic blue except where it gave back the lavender glow, and finely grooved as a phonograph record. All around the river’s mouth small dark islands projected forest and cliff.

Seoul from the air looks like ten or fifteen separate cities dropped into the vacant spots between palisades of green mountain. Once you’re on the ground, the high-rises (which outstrip humble California and clump together in centrally mandated ways that in Europe would indicate the Iron Curtain) block the peaks until one or another rears up in the opening of an avenue or river. At times a palace or museum more deliberately courts the effect. Very soon you learn to distinguish pyramidal Bugaksan, wide rocky Inwangsan, humped Namsan with its tower. I’ve never seen a city more situated in beauty—I can’t say “beautiful city,” since coherence of form is both lacking and superfluous to its purposes. It’s like London; old-new and huge, a place where it obviously all happens at once.

Die gewalt der musik

Reger in Bernhard’s Old Masters hates Reni, calls him the most tasteless of all the painters in the museum; which means at minimum that we’re supposed to take hating Reni as an intelligible position, perhaps consider what else might be entailed in hating Reni. And perhaps the answer is “not much”; Baroque is Baroque after all, and Massacre of the Innocents seems unreasonable, Saint Michael would be too much even without the nipples and navel on his armor, David With the Head of Goliath is one punchable kid.

There’s always something, though. His Saint Cecilia I saw in Los Angeles and stayed in front of a long time.

Why that figure—someone he knew? The crease under the eye. The neglectful grip on the bow, about to let it drop.

(I also find Bacchus and Ariadne hard to dismiss, I think because of the complete unreality of the scene: still life at the swimming pool.)

The funny thing about London is how everything feels like it’s trying to push you out. So all these people are trying to get in, but the city itself and the infrastructures that have been created and the social issues, everything is trying to push you straight back out. Everyone’s trying to fight to get into the middle, but then there’s something in the middle that’s just trying to force everyone out and it's saying, you’ve got to earn your place. But if you get pushed out, then someone else instantly fills your space. We feel a bit disposable.

—source quoted in Craig Taylor, Londoners (2011)

At dusk a foggy layer that spent all afternoon massing behind San Francisco breaks over the peaks and slides onto the water in a huge wall, like Ginnungagap. It hits the 80, all the cars slow to 15 and turn their wipers on.

κι άκουσε...
...ως τελευταία απόλαυσι τους ήχους,
τα εξαίσια όργανα του μυστικού θιάσου,
κι αποχαιρέτα την, την Καλιφόρνια που χάνεις

and hear, as a last delight, the voices,
the exquisite music of the mystic procession,
and bid her farewell, the California you are losing

“We have to stop winning.” The devil never even comes to collect his due. To him it’s enough that you take the gifts. I live to serve, he says, and means it. The old non serviam in heaven, that was an opening gambit. He knows he’s in a better place now.

• Vanity
• Chasing after the wind

Pulse flow

On the theory that life was going to pot, we took an unplanned 24 hours in Monterey. R. is now more interested in the natural world, will stare with her parents at sardines, mackerel, anchovies, lookdowns stamped from tinfoil with their spines showing, leopard sharks; though for some reason, what she most enjoyed was a piece of live-action theater on the history of the bay. Ohlone reed boats, Chinese immigrants night-fishing for squid with lanterns in baskets, collapse and recovery of sardines.

I was surprised by the recovery story (partial, temporary) of the Colorado River delta. (Journalism, journalism, video produced in the way of videos.) Old memories there, hiking through ten miles of gully until you get to the stream, because the stream is where the general hostility of things abates and you can stop for a while. Parts of the gully itself can also work, if enough rainwater collects for cottonwoods or sycamores to grow; but a stream is better.

I have to-read list of Analytical Work around this: Beyond the Hundredth Meridian; Cadillac Desert; Dead Pool.

The paintings I saw in L.A. are still in front of me—when I’m driving, say, in place of the road. The milliners are still on the clock.

Geoffrey Hill, To the High Court of Parliament

November 1994

Where’s probity in this—
the slither-frisk
     to lordship of a kind
as rats to a bird-table?

England—now of genius
the eidolon—
     unsubstantial yet voiding
substance like quicklime:

privatize to the dead
her memory:
     let her wounds weep
into the lens of oblivion.

Strange week for his death; I had been thinking about this poem in particular, with the UK taking itself apart. One of the great, mournful questioners into the nature of that country (PJ Harvey the other).

R. knows about gravity but wants to be told why the moon doesn’t fall down, and it turns out I can’t say; all I have is a paternal non-answer (“There's a thing called ‘stable orbit...’”). So I’m on notice that I’ll have to start looking things up.

By coincidence or very deep design I’ve been reading in Gravity and Grace after going to see Kaija Saariaho’s oratorio about Simone Weil: great music, her sweepy idiom with a chamber orchestra (a really good one, International Contemporary Ensemble) has more of a contemplative Webern sound, Julia Bullock sings like anything, and the libretto was biopic-grade sentimentalizing that ought to have just been replaced with words written by Weil herself. Which is why I’ve been reading them on the train. Notebook extracts and very short, suitable for a first sortie on the workday, if not for a desk calendar. Pour atteindre le détachement total, le malheur ne suffit pas. Il faut un malheur sans consolation.

And I like my job. But the lack of time is absolutely general, my drummer and bassist are too busy to write back, everyone is just trying to make a living out here in Pacific City, where every strongbox has a hole in the bottom. The ground itself, measured and priced, shrinks by inches under your feet....


Taking R. to a children’s museum. At the center of a large room is a small Plexiglas box on a stand. Inside the box is a lynx, sitting stomach to floor because it does not have enough room to stand or turn around. Directly in front of the lynx’s face is a small video screen on which colored patterns cohere and dissolve. It blinks; from time to time its tufted ears twitch. A sign beneath the box reads: QUIET. LEARNING.

“At least it’s learning,” I say with relief. “They wouldn’t keep it in there if this was bad for it.”

<= 2016.02.22

What goes on