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by Deanne Sole

6 Mar 2009

Weeks ago I came across a secondhand one-dollar copy of a hardcover Everyman’s Library anthology named Minor Poets of the 18th Century. The old Everymans make a beautiful set of books: small, neat, studious, green. The covers, with their blunt-edged knots, are plain enough to suggest surprises.

The surprise here was a blank-verse four-part poem called The Fleece written by a man named John Dyer. I’d never heard of it before. Searching online for a version of the poem that I could link to this post, I found nothing more than a single old, scanned copy at Google books. Not all of the poems in Minor Poets are that obscure. Etexts of William Collins’ “Ode to Fear” are available in several places, and Anne Finch’s “The Owl Describing her Young Ones” was once the Poem of the Week over at the Guardian‘s book blog. Even taking its age and minor status into account, it seems safe to suggest that The Fleece is not well known.

Welsh by birth, Dyer tried his hand as a painter and parson as well as a poet before dying in 1758 at the age of 59. His one great success came in 1727 with the publication of a nature poem named Grongar Hill. The idea behind Grongar Hill is simple. Our narrator climbs a hill and admires the countryside, which, he tells us, is a place of “Pleasure” where “Quiet treads”.

“Now, even now, my joys run high
As on the mountain turf I lie”

“Dyer,” remarked Samuel Johnson, “is not a poet of bulk or dignity sufficient to require an elaborate criticism. Grongar Hill is the happiest of his productions.” Wordsworth liked the poem so much he wrote a posthumous ode in Dyer’s honour. The Fleece is wobblier than Grongar Hill, but it’s also more ambitious, an attempt to take the idea of Virgil’s Georgics and re-mould it to tell the story of the contemporary international trade in British wool. Dyer was not alone in his inspiration—other poets of the same time wrote georgics on the subjects of cider, sugar cane, and hops—but as far as I know he was the only one who chose sheep.

He introduces himself to us in a deliberately classical tone, like this:

“The care of sheep, the labours of the loom,
And arts of trade I sing. Ye rural nymphs,
Ye swains, and princely merchants aid the verse.
And ye, high-trusted guardians of our isle,
Whom public voice approves, or lot of birth
To the great charge assigns: ye good, of all
Degrees, all sects, be present to my song.”

This introduction lets us know that The Fleece is not going to be a small-scale poem like Grongar Hill, taking place on a single spot of countryside. This is going to be an epic that will embrace as many people and parts of life as possible. Trade is society, Dyer suggests. The shepherds and merchants are not only subjects of the verse, they also “aid” it. Buried under that self-conscious ‘ye’ is a basic egalitarian cry—come one, come all, gather round, listen, this poem is yours. The unsteadiness that runs through The Fleece has its origins in the contrast between Dyer’s heightened language and the hucksterish sociability of that cry, and between his abstract ideas of Ancient Rome and the concrete fact of a sheep. Between, in short, simplicity and artifice. Sometimes he lets one swallow the other. A ram’s head “is fenced

With horns Ammonian, circulating twice
Around each open ear, like those fair scrolls
That grace the columns of the Ionic dome.”

In lines like this his attachment to the classics—to the ideas they stood for at the time, to scholarship and respect, to the invisible footnote that pipes up like a schoolchild, “I’ve read Latin!”—uproots him from himself. The horns like column scrolls are falsely conceived, not felt, not seen: forced. This is part of the reason why the poem is not completely successful, why it has been assigned to a book of minor poets. Dyer doesn’t completely trust his own experience. He can’t free himself from this self-consciousness, or find a way to merge with it as other poets have found ways to reconcile themselves with their uncertainties. Parts of his own work have been allowed to fight against him.

by Sean Murphy

6 Mar 2009

John Cepahs, R.I.P.

Sad news coming across the wire this morning.

A nice appreciation in today’s Washington Post.

Of course, it gets tiresome adding another name to list of indelible artists whose departures leave us shaken, and much worse off without them. When it comes to John Cepahs, we are not only losing great voice, we are losing a type of language, a way of communicating that, once gone, will never come back. This is not something to unduly or excessively mourn, it is (to invoke an odious but inevitable cliche) the proverbial cycle of life. It is a facet of evolution; of course it has happened going back as far as people have created. But it still hurts. And it seems right, or at least respectful, to selfishly want more while being grateful for what we already received.

Here is Cephas, along with his partner Phil Wiggins doing an incandescent take on Skip James’ classic “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues”.

by Vijith Assar

6 Mar 2009

I suppose I have to open with the disclaimer here.  Until recently, I was an employee at the Music Resource Center, a non-profit recording studio for kids in Virginia.  While there, I worked with many fledgling musicians and attempted to teach them the proverbial ropes (insofar as I knew my way around them myself, which is still a work in progress).  That’s where I first met Colin Steers, the lanky self-professed dork currently featured as a contestant on the second season of Bravo’s reality TV/game show/fashion expo Make Me a Supermodel, which premiered Wednesday at 10pm.

In high school, Colin played bass in the wonderfully spastic pop quartet Body For Karate, seen here tying him to the train tracks.  Up in front was Ross Bollinger, a prodigious young songwriter who spat out hectic chirps without the slightest hesitation and pumped his ukulele through a giant tie-dyed amplifier.  Together, they cooked up a slew of riffs so catchy that it didn’t really matter that an electric uke was a bizarre way to go about executing them.

Even that wasn’t their most oddball tactic, though—at one awesomely disastrous performance, half the power infrastructure fizzled mid-song, taking out everything but the tie-dyed amp.  Without missing a beat, Ross pulled out his Gameboy, plugged it in, and dove into a game of Tetris while the drummer jammed along with the 8-bit theme, buying us some extra time to figure out what had gone wrong.  These days, he’s more inclined toward using a bright yellow $20 toy guitar for his “gigs” with the Dead River Company, a Brooklyn-based musical flash-mob that runs in and out of subway cars and parties playing quirky folk without really giving a damn whether you want to hear it, but at least now we know the weirdness quotient is stable.  (You know, just in case the pictures don’t already make that clear.)

All along, B4K entertained an unhealthy fascination with robots, resulting in numerous songs ending in “-tron.”  Foremost among these is “Uktron 3000 (4000),” which features some of Colin’s most spirited backup singing and some neat half-synthetic drum parts but is still driven primarily by an astonishingly addictive keyboard part.  After the first couple EPs, however, scheduling problems kept the band from meeting up at the studio, so “Parry Thrust Thrust Parry” eventually turned into a bedroom recording project, much to the dismay of the staff. It’s distressingly lo-fi, but probably their most mature work in nearly every other respect.

I’m glad Colin’s appearance on national TV gives me cause to post his old band’s music here; when they were at their peak, I was just starting my career moonlighting as a music writer (also still a work in progress) and have always thought the songs deserved a broader audience than I was able to give them at the time.  I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed for him while watching the show over the next couple months, but if there’s any sort of talent portion of the program a la the more straightforward beauty pageants, it’s all over.

by L.B. Jeffries

6 Mar 2009

This post acknowledges the existence of sex and various game related ways of engaging with the act. Be warned.

As the moral outrage at a Japanese sex game involving rape called Rapelay continues to spread, game critics are confronted with a fairly tricky problem. On the one hand, why is our artistic medium not allowed to discuss rape? It’s not as if books and film did not long ago breach the topic. Blue Velvet, Boys Don’t Cry, or Thelma & Louise all feature incredibly graphic rape scenes. Literature has obviously covered the topic extensively as well, from Wuthering Heights to The Kite Runner. People arguing that these books are superior in their content because they handle the topic maturely are on shaky ground because, frankly, who wants to detail how to tastefully portray rape? As soon you establish some kind of standard you’re just going to inspire something more revolting because the entire point of discussing a topic like rape is the awfulness of it. If Rapelay is the standard of what games should not do, someone will create something just to cross the line.

On the other hand, this is not really the game to stage a protest over. This is not the first filming of two men kissing on-screen in an elegant discourse on the plight of men dealing with H.I.V. in Philadelphia or something equally valid. It’s a bad Japanese dating sim targeting people with a disturbing fetish. Another problem is that considering this is a medium that is short on female protagonists and even shorter on portraying loving relationships, video games haven’t really earned the right to talk about rape. Both film and books long ago covered love and relationships in every way imaginable before discussing this sort of violation. Video games, drawing close to 40 years old, do not have much that demonstrates they can even handle the topic of sex in the first place. So, in the spirit of our last post on sex games, we’re going to discuss another video game that handles the topic of sex responsibly.

It’s debatable whether the creators of the rumble feature in game controllers knew what they were getting into, but the uses for such a device outside strict gaming have been discussed before. A vibrating controller is going to have its uses for anyone with a private moment and a locked door. What’s interesting is that up until now there was never a game that gave you direct control over the vibrations. The girl in the linked article describes a few games where you could get this state going indefinitely, but Rez’s attempt at coordinating vibrations with techno music was the first real breakthrough in consistency for her. The Xbox Community game Rumble Massage has changed all that. For a measly 200 points you can download the game and adjust the vibration rate of your controller and massage any part of your body that you choose. Another addition allows a partner to control this aspect for you over Xbox Live. In essence, one person is moving the joystick adjusting the vibration rate while the other holds the vibrating device. It all works a bit like the vibrating egg from Shortbus without the awkward remote or invasive egg. Fans of the game, it seems safe to say, should keep one controller locked away somewhere.

It all goes back to interaction when it comes to games. The reason people get so upset about sex in games is because the player is interacting with it. The reason people have so much fun with games is because they’re interacting with it. I don’t think any of the sex games we’ve discussed in this series could accurately be called a simulation, but they do represent a unique conceptualization of sex. I’ve not played the game, but Rapelay’s biggest problem might simply be the failure to represent interacting with sex in a way that isn’t one-sided. If Rumble Massage or The Dark Room Sex Game are any indication, sex games seem to always best maintain their dignity as co-op experiences. If YouTube videos like the tasteful Everybody Daylight are acceptable depictions of the act, I suppose video games can manage something eventually.

by Thomas Hauner

6 Mar 2009

The minimalist folk music of Ida was so ethereal, concentrated, and beautiful at times, it’s as if they had coaxed their sounds from the earth’s elements—air, for the bellows of various sound-boxes and the music’s lightness; fire, igniting and electrifying Dan Littleton’s guitar; earth, procuring their instruments’ bodies; and water, the common solvent, generating a lyrical flow. No other sources would be sufficiently raw or beautiful.

The intimate setting of Joe’s Pub was ideal to listen to Ida’s delicate harmonies and sentimental melodies. Though a time-constrained set, the group—consisting of Littleton, singers Elizabeth Mitchell and Karla Schickele, violinist Jean Cook, and percussionist Ruth Keating—relished the venue’s sensitive acoustics and the crowd’s attentiveness. 

Their first song didn’t start so much as emerge. Littleton and Mitchell played complimentary rolling patterns on mini hand-held xylophones, and as they ebbed and flowed together they slowly added harmonies, singing, “I have not been here before.”

The somber lucidity of Mitchell’s vocals were arresting and soothing at the same time.  And when paired with Littleton’s parallel intonations, or the entire band’s gentle backing vocals, their sound was sonorous and lush.

Ida sounded equally fragile and sparse too. The majority of their instrumentations and accompaniments began with faint strumming and would eventually swell into all-encompassing droning tones, with the help of Cook’s even-handed violin bowing or Mitchell’s harmonium. Their attention to sonic textures made for really interesting combinations of tones and layered together made Mitchell’s plain but increasingly gorgeous voice float above it all.

Their tactile focus made their song structure become increasingly repetitive, however, and one had to scrutinize the lyrics or melody to find distinctions between numbers.

Littleton added density with electric-guitar cadences on “Late Blues”, creating monstrous distortion and feedback during the chorus and bridge. It was a jarring contrast to the verse’s introspective shell.

The best song of the night used to be about America, we were told, but instead had simply become another Dolly Parton cover, “The Pain of Loving You.” The treat was that they ditched their mics and exploited the small room’s acoustics singing a cappella.

Ida’s last song was the closest they’ll “ever come to ‘We Will Rock You’”. They got everyone tapping the song’s simple beat in unison on tables/people, revealing further their elemental nature.

 

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