All posts by mara.ahmed

imagery in poetry

here’s a great article on poetry, written by gary smith, that uses one of t. s. eliot’s poems as an example:

Preludes by T.S. Eliot

The winter evening settles down
With smell of steaks in passageways.
Six o’clock.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days.
And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet
And newspapers from vacant lots;
The showers beat
On broken blinds and chimney-pots,
And at the corner of the street
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.
And then the lighting of the lamps.
The morning comes to consciousness
Of faint stale smells of beer
From the sawdust-trampled street
With all its muddy feet that press
To early coffee-stands.
With the other masquerades
That time resumes,
One thinks of all the hands
That are raising dingy shades
In a thousand furnished rooms.

This poem was written in 1917, when there was a worldwide critique and questioning of the values of contemporary western civilization. Due to many factors, especially the First World War and the economic depression, many artists, poets and philosophers felt that modern industrial civilization had lost its sense of meaning and direction. There was a general criticism of the status quo. Preludes falls within this ambit. In this poem, Eliot describes the modern city as a vacuum of meaning and uses imagery to intensify this feeling.

The first lines suggest a feeling of decline and despair. How does the imagery help to achieve this effect? Notice the use of “winter” images. Winter is usually associated with a lack of growth and a loss of vitality. The poem is suggesting that the modern city is in a state of “winter” and has lost its direction and vitality.
The poet builds on this image to suggest a further delineation of the modern state of mental societal decadence. The image of ” smell of steaks” paints a picture of a polluted and mundane environment. The fourth line emphasizes this feeling of loss of vitality coupled with urban squalor. The day, and the society, is associated with an image of a burnt-out (read loss of energy) cigarette end.

The poet carefully couples images of decadence with images that we usually associate with the modern urban milieu, like steaks and cigarettes. He places these ordinary images into a context that suggests a criticism of the modern world and lifestyle. The point is again emphasized with another image of decadence and dirt in “The grimy scraps”.

The image of ” withered leaves” again points to the winter motif and paints a clear picture of death and decline. Always remember that the poet is not only referring to leaves here; he is using this image, through association, to connect to the general idea of loss of meaning in the modern urban world.
The second stanza intensifies its attack on the modern world. The first two lines clearly express the idea that modern life is little more than a drunken hangover. The feeling of personal and social decadence is strengthened by the images in these lines:
“The morning comes to consciousness
Of faint stale smells of beer”

The final image of the second stanza achieves a brilliant but shocking image of the essence of the poem.
“One thinks of all the hands
That are raising dingy shades
In a thousand furnished rooms.”
This image presents us with a particularly clear impression of the intention of the poem. We can imagine all the people repeating the same meaningless actions. They all raise ” dingy shades” to greet the day. Note the use of the adjective to describe the shades, which again points to the sense of squalor and decadence of the modern city. More importantly, this image suggests a sense of repetitive meaninglessness. Throughout the poem the poet uses the images to bolster and construct his impression of the modern city. Once the function of these images is understood, then the meaning of the poem becomes clear.

coffe-mara-copy.jpg

pan’s labyrinth

only once in a while do you see a film with this level of artistry. pan’s labyrinth is dark, complex, beautiful, universal. the film draws a parallel between the rule-bound simplicity of fairy tales and the brute force and finality of the real world. good is set against evil with the stark contrast of so many ombres chinoises. the film brings to life the horror and violence inherent in most fairy tales (a witch who eats children, a defenseless granny devoured by a wolf, a stepmother hiring an assassin to murder her daughter) in a way that shakes us out of our inurement. elements of a child’s fantasy are intermixed with recognizable reality – the ambiguity of war in the name of ideological certitude, operatic human cruelty, selfless sacrifice, revenge, loneliness, courage. this brew of what is beautiful and vile, innocent and grotesque, noble and bestial, magic and quotidian is unsettling yet irresistible. some of the scenes are shockingly graphic but one is compelled to watch, to be a participant in this perverse fable. the underlying musical theme is a haunting lullaby – again a collision between what’s deceptively comforting and child-like and the vicious adult world. it is a beautiful piece of music composed by javier navarrete – check it out.

john lennon

i’v been listening to the instant karma cds (part of amnesty intl’s campaign to save darfur) for a while now and i have fallen in love with john lennon, all over again. first of all kudos to the artists who participated in this project and produced some amazing music. i have to single out those who captured the spirit of the songs but also made them their own. to take songs that are as well-known, as well-loved and as meaningful to so many and be able to imbue them with one’s own brand of fire, one’s own musical vibe without compromising anything is huge.

U2’s “instant karma” is first on my list along with green day’s “working class hero”. the following are some of my other favorite john lennon song renditions: christina aguilera’s “mother” (she was perfect for this song – that ache in her voice), jake dylan and dhani harrison’s “gimme some truth” (brings back to life the passion of john lennon the activist), jackson browne’s “oh my love” (exquisite, tender, beautiful), youssou n’dour’s charming “jealous guy”, snow patrol’s “isolation” (haunting, very cool), regina spector’s excellent rendition of “real love”. this is truly a terrific assemblage of great songs performed by some very strong and stylistically diverse artists. you can now get the album for $16.99 from mtv.com. go for it!

john lennon

i’m back

after much personal busyness (harried but pleasurable) we’ve finally been able to spend our first weekend at the lake house. we invited over my parents, two sisters and brother along with their spouses and six young children, the occasion being the celebration of my parents’ 40th anniversary. it was a wonderful opportunity to enjoy lake canandaigua on a hot summer day, get together with my entire family and honor our parents. we’re back in pittsford now and things are settling down. the kids have summer camp at the memorial art gallery and i get to spend some time at starry nites, sipping hot chocolate and catching up with my blog. i’m back…

canandaigua lake

michael ondaatje

i saw michael ondaatje on tavis smiley last night. although i obviously know him from the english patient and anil’s ghost, i have never read his books and didn’t know much about him as an author. i found him fascinating and identified strongly with both his life and his artistic aesthetic. his life is a cultural melange encompassing 3 continents. he was born in sri lanka. his ancestors were originally from india but his genetic make-up is dutch-tamil-sinhalese-portuguese – he calls himself a mongrel. he went to school in england and finally moved to canada in 1962.

his artistry is predicated on ditching the conventional form and using a non-linear, multi-media collage technique in his writing. in the words of anthony chandler: “one of the most remarkable aspects of ondaatje’s work is the fashion in which he juxtaposes and blends the media of poetry, prose, and photography, making reading an almost multi-media function while remaining on the printed page. like film montage, ondaatje’s fiction often walks the line between narrative and imagery, leaving the reader puzzled with what she has just experienced. but ondaatje’s work is more precise than montage, and his mixing of media shows an acute awareness of form and function while still calling both into question: if narrative prose is selected to carry the story, and poetry is chosen to convey emotion, his use of photographic images often shows us that we may be wrong about everything; that we need to dig deeper in holes already dug.”

because of his multi-ethnic, multi-cultural life experience, he talked about having “double vision” – being able to see different points of view at the same time. i can relate to that. i can simultaneously feel like an insider and an outsider in many cultures. i know what it is to have doubts, to never be quite sure, quite comfortable in any milieu. there are no absolutes, just an endless, ying-yang tug of war between the many sides of every issue.

ondaatje’s latest book is divisadero.

michael ondaatje

cafe colonial and the goog

while in nyc last february we had breakfast every morning at cafe colonial, 276 elizabeth st, at houston. the freshly squeezed orange juice, delicious omelets and fruit salads were a great start to the day. the decor is brazilian and the ambience very french. i highly recommned it.

we got a chance to see the “el greco to picasso” spanish painting exhibition at the goog. the guggenheim is stunning museum space. the exhibition was extraordinarily extensive and unique in how the artwork was displayed – rather than being chronological, the display was thematic and had no qualms about mixing up 5 centuries of spanish art. only when you see juan sanchez cotan’s classic “still life with fruits and vegetables” hanging right next to the modernist “still life with newspaper” by juan gris, that you begin to see the similarities. who would have thought that pablo picasso’s portraiture was somehow rooted in velasquez. it’s amazing how juxtaposition can lend a completely new meaning to art. it was the first time that we saw picasso not as a french painter but as an artist closely aligned with the spanish aesthetic.

velasquezpicasso

richard foreman

while in nyc, my friends and i went to see richard foreman’s “wake up mr sleepy! your unconscious mind is dead” at the ontological theater at st mark’s church. what an experience. first we were late (it took us a while to figure out how to navigate the nyc subway system). we literally ran out of our cab and rushed to the theater. after a couple of wrong turns and missed theater entrances, we finally got in. it was exactly 8pm. however, there had been a strong directive to arrive at least 15 minutes before the start of the play. as we tried to present our tickets, an old professorial-looking, bespectacled guy told us we were late and couldn’t get in. i tried to argue that it was 8pm sharp. he was adamant. we should have come earlier. one of my friend chose the “appeal to sympathy” approach and told him we had come all the way from rochester to see this play. finally he recanted. he told the usher to seat us on the narrow stairs, in between aisles. we were happy to sit anywhere. we later found out that our tormentor had been mr foreman himself.

the play was a multimedia, multi-layered work of art. my friend sarita likened the experience to stepping into an abstract painting.

in foreman’s own words: “will i be punished if i tell the truth about my motives? i want above all, to make a play that escapes what i see as the tunnel vision of unified subject matter – creating instead a play about ‘nothing’ except the evenly distributed grid of all things at once.

most plays are built with events, adventures, ideas. but i believe this focus has locked us all in a psychological/spiritual isolation chamber, fixated on the limited plateau of always inherited, second hand desire and experience.

i want instead –
TO MAKE A FASCINATING event that – through multilayered filigree of sound, image, light, verbal statement, gesture – makes that ‘texture’ be, all by itself, a new way of ‘being’ that creates or evokes a self no longer in need of the false ‘kick’ of events, no longer needing to latch onto focused intention. but a new self that can be energized in simply HOVERING over the field of total, evenly distributed ‘multi-possibility’.

does this sound like denying what has been the very basis of theater? so be it. but this is my aesthetic obsession, my love – to make ‘theater’ that spreads in the mind, spreads the mind itself, spreading evenly until there is… ‘nothing’? and yet one is thereby vibrating, and fulfilled.”

here’s the ny times review by ben brantley.

wake up mr sleepy!

the blue note and nyc

listening to wynton marsalis reminded me of going to the blue note. three of my friends and i went to nyc for a weekend in feb 2007. we rented a small apartment in the village and spent our first evening at the blue note, legendary jazz club and greenwich village institution. we had to stand in line for an hour, in spite of reservations, but it was worth it. the mulgrew miller trio performed first. miller has played with the duke ellington orchestra, under mercer ellington, and is an accomplished pianist. the donald harrison quartet was next. harrison’s confidence and ease with the sax were immediately apparent and so was his knack for badinage. the atmosphere was intimate and convivial. some of harrison’s young band members stood out. grammy-nominated christian scott was amazing on the trumpet. esperanza spalding is this beautiful young bass prodigy and vocalist who blew everyone away. i was interested to find out later that she opened rochester’s international jazz festival this year.

esperanza spalding

dog and cat diaries

got this really funny email from my friend amra. this post is dedicated to phoebe, our sweet pomeranian…

Dog diary

6:00am – At last! I Go Pee! My favorite thing!
8:00 am – Dog food! My favorite thing!
9:30 am – A car ride! My favorite thing!
9:40 am – A walk in the park! My favorite thing!
10:30am – Got rubbed and petted! My favorite thing!
12:00pm – Lunch! My favorite thing!
1:00 pm – Played in the yard! My favorite thing!
3:00 pm – Wagged my tail! My favorite thing!
5:00 pm – Milk bones! My favorite thing!
6:00 pm – They’re home! My favorite thing!
7:00 pm – Got to play ball! My favorite thing!
7:45 pm – Quarter to eights – food! My favourite thing!
8:00 pm – Wow! Watched TV with the people! My favorite thing!
11:00 pm – Sleeping on the bed! My favorite thing”

“Excerts from a Cat’s Diary”

Day 983 of my captivity. My captors continue to taunt me with
bizarre little dangling objects. They dine lavishly on fresh meat, while
the other inmates and I are fed hash or some sort of dry nuggets.
Although I make my contempt for the rations perfectly clear, I nevertheless
must eat something in order to keep up my strength. The only thing that keeps
me going is my dream of escape. In an attempt to disgust them, I
once again vomit on the carpet.

Today I decapitated a mouse and dropped its headless body at their
feet. I had hoped this would strike fear into their hearts, since it
clearly demonstrates what I am capable of. However, they merely
made condescending comments about what a “good little hunter” I am.
Bastards!

There was some sort of assembly of their accomplices tonight. I was
placed in solitary confinement for the duration of the event.
However, I could hear the noises and smell the food. I overheard that my
confinement was due to the power of “allergies.” I must learn what this means,
and how to use it to my advantage.

Today I was almost successful in an attempt to assassinate one of my
tormentors by weaving around his feet as he was walking. I must try
this again tomorrow — but at the top of the stairs.

I am convinced that the other prisoners here are flunkies and
snitches. The dog receives special privileges. He is regularly released – and
seems to be more than willing to return. He is obviously retarded.
The bird has got to be an informant. I observe him communicate with
the guards regularly. I am certain that he reports my every move. My captors have
arranged protective custody for him in an elevated cell, so he is safe.
For now…

phoebe

wynton marsalis at the eastman theatre

just saw wynton marsalis, the jazz at lincoln center orchestra and ghanaian percussionist yacub addy’s nine member ensemble odadaa play their new composition “congo square”. during french colonial rule, congo square in new orleans, also called la place des negres, was where slaves were allowed to congregate on sundays. they could set up market and sing and dance. the more uptight english protestant states did not allow such unsupervised, “savage” freedom of expression. however, in new orleans congo square allowed slaves to create a community rich in african tradition. much of that music and dance tradition survives to this day. as marsalis explains: “any music with a rhythm section has roots in congo square. if it has a bass and drum together, the roots are in congo square”.

creating this bridge between african percussion-based music (including different drums and congas) and jazz as we know it today is what “congo square” strives to achieve. and how eloquently those ties are established in this jazz suite. the associations are strong yet complex, the transitions are clear yet elegant. marsalis credits bassist carlos henriquez for developing a sound rhythmic understructure that allows this effortless meshing of music.

all in all, the music was vigorous, the performances flawless, the atmosphere charged with energy. there were many standing ovations and much thunderous applause. wynton marsalis is the man!

congo square 1700s

where are the moderate muslims?

i’ve often been asked why the moderate muslim majority in america is so silent and invisible. there is a two-part answer to that question. first of all, everyday muslims are afraid to raise their voices and be labeled “troublemakers” for going against the grain. in an environment where any anonymous phone call can land you in a tête-à-tête with the CIA, where your house can be arbitrarily ransacked and your personal possessions confiscated, where you can be detained indefinitely for “questioning” without recourse to due legal process and where the FBI can open a file and spy on you to their heart’s content, it’s better to lie low and not provoke anyone. secondly, it’s not easy for muslims to be heard or seen. even if moderate muslims are courageous enough to speak out and voice their opinions (which is something that many have done), you will never know about it. newspapers will not print what they have to say and broadcasting companies will not show you what they look like.

for example, PBS broadcast a series of documentaries under the title “america at a crossroads”. they gave an hour to richard perle, known as the prince of darkness in washington circles, former likud policy adviser, associated with the american enterprise institute and the project for the new american century, an architect of bush’s foreign policy and an ardent supporter of the war in iraq, to this day. they gave an hour to irshad manji, disaffected muslim with no scholarship in religious studies or islam and writer of “the trouble with islam” which can best be described as a collection of personal anecdotes. all in all, 11 documentaries were broadcast by PBS including perle’s “the case for war: in defense of freedom” and manji’s “faith without fear”. other topics included a secret sunni muslim sect, jihad, al-qaeda, terrorism in europe, terrorism in indonesia and the gangs of iraq. in the midst of all this fear mongering there was no place for an alternative voice – a documentary called “islam vs islamists – voices from the muslim center” which was, interestingly enough, funded by tax-dollars (up to $700,000 of them) but dropped by PBS. i’m not sure about the content of this documentary but it seems to me that it would have been a good idea to include the voices of moderate muslim scholars and mainstream american muslims. it’s not that we don’t want to be seen or heard, it’s a question of access. maybe the rest of america out there needs to talk TO us and not just ABOUT us!

untitled darfur play

talking of darfur, i was lucky to see “untitled darfur play” by winter miller as part of geva‘s hibernatus interruptus festival of new plays. that was oct 14th, 2006. this year in april the play made it to manhattan at the public theater. it is now titled “in darfur”. winter miller is a playwright as well as a research assistant to nicholas kristof, the pulitzer prize-winning ny times columnist. she has traveled to sudan with kristof. the play is an alejandro gonzalez innaritu-style pastiche of different stories that coalesce into a powerful whole. there is an american journalist trying to make a difference, an aid worker and a courageous darfuri woman. joanna settle directed the reading i went to. it was harrowing to experience a small slice of the violence being committed in darfur.

darfuri refugee in chad

working class hero

just saw the video by green day – it is arresting. the song is obviously john lennon gold. it’s part of an amnesty international campaign to stop the genocide in darfur. yoko ono donated all royalties from lennon’s song book to support this campaign. the resulting album, instant karma, has 20 john lennon covers by the likes of u2 and rem. you can buy it at amnesty’s website or by calling toll free 1-800-862-0411.

la tunisie – part 3

yasin dropped us off at hotel khamsa corinthia in gammarth. that evening we met badi again. the kids (and i – i have to confess) were dying for some american food. badi took us to champs, which was a pretty good rip-off of the original. there were huge plasma tvs with loud sports events (a soccer match), and gigantic coke bottle and plaster of paris replicas of football players. the food was awesome – we all had hearty cheese burgers with fries and lots of ketchup! it hit the spot. the kids were finally satiated and up for anything. we went to a shisha cafe next and tried some apple-flavored tobacco. i just had one puff. the best part was spending some down time with badi. what a great finish to a really long day!

on april 12th we had a leisurely breakfast, followed by a trip to the hotel’s indoor pool. for lunch badi took us to a hip little restaurant (very manhattan in look and feel, but way more mellow). the food was fantastic. next on our agenda: sidi bou said.

sidi bou said

la tunisie – part 2

on april 10, 2007 we left tozeur to visit the oasis villages of chebika and tamerza tucked away in the jebel en-negueb mountains, near the algerian border. these berber villages were roman defense outposts. in those days berbers used to communicate with mica mirrors thus the roman title “castle of light”. chebika means spring. this earthen village follows the contours of the mountain, rising and falling elegantly to accomodate pretty gorges, waterfalls and palms trees. the kids headed to the streams and waterfalls to catch tiny frogs and geikos. we climbed rocky staircases carved into the side of the mountain to access different levels. the town must have been enchanting. both chebika and tamerza were abandoned in 1969 after freak torrential rains resulted in a literal meltdown. we had tasty grilled lamb on skewers for lunch at hotel tamerza palace. this beautiful hotel, brought to life by a profusion of colorful berber rugs, overlooks the old town of tamerza.

that evening we left for nefta and for a rollercoaster ride along shapely sand dunes. the remote ong jemel (camel’s neck) was the location for films such as the english patient and star wars. one star wars set thrives still in the middle of the desert and attracts numerous tourist buses. we ran into a group of japanese tourists several times that day and were in turn amused by their face masks (the desert heat probably takes care of most airborne viruses) and impressed by their high tech wireless earphones which connected them to their guide. the desert sand was incredibly fine. it was cool on the surface but still warm underneath. we took our shoes off and let our feet sink into the sand. the sunset was vast and magnificent. the desert puts everything in perspective.

on april 11th we checked out of our hotel in tozeur and almost missed our train, le lezard rouge. this historic train passes through the selja gorges. the track was originally used for mining phosphates. the landscape we encountered was stunning: vertiginous crags, surprising waterfalls, precipitous ravines and quiet streams enfolded in vegetation. we had lunch at hotel gafsa palace and then began our long journey back to tunis (about 6 hours).

le lezard rouge