The month-long blog tour arranged by my publisher, Fiery Seas, has yielded a wonderful, thoughtful review of my novel The Renaissance Club. I’m very pleased at today’s review on the book blog, What Cathy Read Next. This sensitive reviewer has visited some of the places in the book — Rome and Venice — and seen some of Bernini’s art. One of my favorite paragraphs in the review connects my writing as a poet with descriptions of the carnival of beauty that is Italian Renaissance art.
The evanescence in British artist Andy Goldworthy‘s work is what first caught hold of me. (Click the link for Artsy’s wonderful Goldsworthy pages.) He works with nature to make sculptures of the moment, or perhaps the hour, using all natural elements. Ice, water, leaves, twigs, wind, rain are the easel, palette, paints, and media he sculpts with. It’s as if he’s having a conversation with nature and time, an intense wrestling almost. His work seems to say beauty is all around us but constantly changing, impossible to capture for long. It’s as if he’s trying to notate Nature’s delicate and constant singing.
Rivers and Tides, the splendid documentary on Goldsworthy and his work, actually is part of his work by letting us watch him work with fast disappearing natural elements. He describes his work as capturing something “intangible. It is here and then gone.” And Goldsworthy shows how quickly that intangible Something, a spirit of beauty in nature, arrives and departs. It’s a metaphor for life, of course. It’s about time and the sacredness of being alive.
Watching that documentary moved me to a tribute poem. I often like to write poems about pieces of art, but I think this is my only poem about an artist other than my father. This sonnet originally appeared in Image: Art, Faith, Mystery.
This week I lost my dearest brother, David Abramson, one of the kindest, gentlest people I will ever know. Sixty-four years was not nearly enough to be connected, so I’m sure we’ll meet again in the next rooms of existence. Among the several arts he pursued — visual and culinary as well — was the bliss of making music. He wrote songs, he led several bands, and he was always learning more about his craft. In the last year of his life, he was deprived of the ability to sing, and even to talk much. I’m posting this video generously shared on Facebook by his band mate Paul Henry so we can all hear his voice again. There are many more recorded songs, but few videos. I cherish this one! The guy with the long gray ponytail is David Abramson, my little brother who I recently awarded elder sibling status to for his wisdom and support. Rock on, Davey. I’m sure in the between-life you’re in now, there’s a band waiting for their lead singer.
Art was something we learned at home, from our painter father and musician mother. How making it, at any level, is bliss. I would watch my father at his easel, contemplating intently the strokes he had just made with the brush, dipping it in the jar of turpentine, and a little in the oils on his palette, maybe remixing a color, and then just a dab or two on the canvas. Then he would step back and observe. Then step in again with another idea, This could go on for hours.
I believe it was from observing a creative mind at work that David and I learned that creating is bliss. Our mother was at the piano, practicing her parts in the Pro Musica Chorale performances. Sometimes she would just play a whole piece for the beauty of it. We observed that same absorption and self-transcendence in those creative moments. He took up painting and I took up dance. He would up with music and I with writing as our main forms of making. I’m sure he will be making music in the next room where he has gone, and in the rooms of life beyond that one. I’m sure at some point we’ll again make things together, the way we made support and kindness for each other as siblings.
I’m measuring my grief in memories.
My interest in this kind of story could be defined as obsessive. What can be more obsessive than something you’ve lost or something you feel you never completely had? Novels about families and other groups fascinate me because my family never quite cohered and split apart pretty fast. So I read to replace it with a better family, though my secret wish is to see that all families or groups of closely connected people have the visceral conflicts and the unique quirks mine did — to see that whole panoply of psychological oddity that really is, in my view, the human condition. Perhaps growing up with my parents gave me that idea: a bipolar rocket scientist and painter for a father, and a mother whose idea of fun was to see what lay down any forsaken dirt road, especially if it led to a beach. And those were the pleasant qualities. The darker stuff was equally bizarre and led me to contemplate the labyrinth of light and dark we each are.
So when I began to write my time-travel novel, The Renaissance Club, knowing it would be set in northern Italy and involve an art history tour, I couldn’t resist populating it with quirky people. Is there really any other kind? I’ve been in search of a “normal” family life all my life, and have rarely observed one. When I did, it was so abnormal I suspected it for being a sham, as was the family of my best friend in junior high. All plaid, cheerleading perfection on the surface, roiling weirdness under the table manners.
After such a childhood, it’s no wonder I fell in love with naturalist Gerald Durrell’s marvelous My Family and Other Animals, as animals in menagerie quantity have played a part in my family life too. Or Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle (read it!). There’s a quirky family embodied as Dorothy’s companions in The Wizard of Oz. That series became my childhood reading, writing, and collecting passion. I still have the cloth bound editions with John R. Neill’s wonderful illustrations.
After conferring with a college teacher about the politics within a community college, I decided to set as my quirky family group in Italy a bunch of college instructors. The dean is Dad, his wife the mom who really doesn’t take care of anybody, and the professors just so many siblings squashed into an uncomfortable though sometimes dazzling road trip. And having lived in a communal house or two in Berkeley in the 60s, I feel qualified to translate family and housemates (or work mates) back and forth, as different categories quirky family. One day I will write about those large cottage-like group living houses in Berkeley, and the odd birds who inhabited them, bringing their even odder friends to dinner, or to dinner for a week at a time.
I’m coming down the home stretch (= two-thirds through) of what I sincerely hope is the final revision of my time travel novel, The Renaissance Club. I’m past fallen-in-love with Gianlorenzo Bernini — I’m in the forming-a-fan-club stage. If only for this sculpture of Apollo and Daphne, made early in his magnificent career as a sculptor. He was also the official architect of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome under two popes.
When I say buried I really mean it. Buried in research, juggling plot lines and character growth steps in my ever-expanding memory, metering out metaphors to enrich but not overburden the narrative — all while dancing to the tune of my clients’ fundraising needs and juggling all THAT sea of information. I feel like the Beach Blanket Babylon lady wearing the hat containing all of San Francisco, but thank God I have some props and poles to lean the weight on. Thank God for the Internet, or the pile of books near my bed and couch would be even worse. Thank God for laptops. Oh, and thank God for the Renaissance. And for the wise and comprehensive advice from my editor, Arielle Eckstut of The Book Doctors. Even while juggling all this, I’m sort of relaxed because I have a handy list of What Needs to Happen Next.
Today I’m working on my time travel novel set in Renaissance and present-day Italy, featuring the genius sculptor and architect who invented The Baroque style, Gianlorenzo Bernini. Of this sumptuous sculpture of Bernini’s beloved, Costanza Piccolomini, art historian Jonathan Jones wrote: “He has made an intimate monument to secret moments, a sculpted memento of his lover, whose marble reality dissolves, when you chance on her among the stony dead, into breath, life. Bernini’s genius for motion is dedicated to making his lover live for ever. Her wild hair and loose clothes speak of energy and passion. He has caught her mid-glance, mid-conversation, perhaps before or after sex.”
What was the truth of the Bernini’s relationship with his assistant’s wife? We may never know, though if you read my book, you could learn the secrets. Wikipedia tersely sums up the interesting facts: “… Costanza Bonarelli, with whom [Bernini] fell in love when her husband was working as Bernini’s assistant in 1636. The normally polite Bernini openly insulted the husband, which led Pope Urban VIII to intervene before anyone was killed. He advised Bernini to get married, which he did, in 1639, to Caterina Tezio. Their marriage lasted 34 years and produced 11 children.”
The only way to sanely start a week, if you’re a poet, is with metaphor. Reading to start and revising is the juice. I have three inches of print drafts to plow through, how many e-files, and am grabbing summer by the shorthairs to make a space for poetry. I need to make a fresh pile of worked-up stuff, need time and peace. Hedging my priorities. Here’s one from Gods of Water and Air. Have a luminous day.
|Gianlorenzo Bernini Sculpting in Clay|
I’m writing a story about a 17th century artist and a 21st century art historian meeting, and the big question is, what does he have to say to her, and what does she have to say to him? My main character has done her Master’s thesis on the sculptor/architect and meets him in person in St. Peter’s basilica, thanks to a magic time-shifting gold pen. Is she kind of his time-stalker? Can she reveal to him things about his future, and what will that do to him and his art?
I’m having fun pondering time travel dilemmas, not to mention how to craft a romantic relationship between a man who’s a pre-eminent male chauvinist and a career-oriented contemporary young woman. Big questions arise, but the ones that engage me are about time and history and whether or not history is truly fixed.
I’d love to hear thoughts about these issues, and also suggestions of well-written time-travel books that engage these questions. Ideas?
This photos shows Bernini’s rare clay models for his magnificent marble sculptures. They’re on view in the Franchetti Collection in the Ca d’Oro in Venice. The Metropolitan Museum in New York published a book, Bernini Sculpting in Clay, which had this to say about the bozzetti, or clay models:
“The brilliantly expressive clay models created by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598–1680) as “sketches” for his masterful works in marble and bronze offer extraordinary insights into his creative imagination. Marked with impressions from the artist’s fingers and tools, these models give the viewer a sense of looking over Bernini’s shoulder as the sculptures were taking shape. Most the models—especially his sketches, or bozzetti—are executed in a loose style that conveys great speed and dexterity, as well as the artist’s concern with developing the best possible design.”
Lovely day here, the breezy and brilliant kind of spring day I imagined from Monet’s painting, after which I wrote my poem. The traveling exhibition “Monet in Normandy” visited the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco some years ago and it inspired me to write back to several of the paintings. Bought the book too, so I can keep talking back to Monet — or rather, asking questions, as in this poem. Do you ever talk back to poems with your own poems?