Friday, June 22, 2012

Poem Meets Painting

On Wednesday of this week, I had the rather strange sensation of realizing that several years ago I wrote a poem that describes a painting I saw for the first time only yesterday.

Thanks to a gift of the membership to the Philadelphia Museum of Art from Eli and Maya, I was able to attend an exhibit yesterday called “Visions of Arcadia” that centered around the works of Cezanne, Matisse and Gauguin.  The main idea of the exhibit was to trace elements of pastoralism and the bucolic life as an idyll or ideal from the Greeks and Romans (especially Virgil’s “Eclogues”) in the movements of 19th and 20th century French art. 

In addition to the big three painters that everyone knows, however, were a number whose work was unfamiliar to me.  One painting that especially struck me was Robert Delauney’s massive “City of Paris.” Like the work of Picasso and Braque, whose paintings flanked it, it was an experiment in cubism, having a fragmented Eiffel Tower on the right and a scene of the bridge and river on the left, but in the middle, in keeping with the theme of Arcadia, were the Three Graces from classical painting.

For some reason Delauney’s painting stuck in my head, perhaps because it was at once still representational enough that my conservative mind could recognize elements of it but experimental in a way that even I could follow.  Of course, I also liked the idea of pulling an ancient theme into a contemporary venue.  I was driving through Philadelphia, on route to bringing my grandson Andrew’s birthday gifts out to him with the idea in mind that  Delauney painting was ripe for some kind of ekphrastic poem when I realized that I’d written a poem years ago that actually came close to accomplishing what I wanted to do. 

The occasion had been Maya’s wedding.  Judi had flown in and, one at a time, Dawn, Amber and Brandi also arrived.  I don’t think that Judi even know that all of them were coming.  I had not seen them in a number of years and their presence in Philadelphia, a city that prides itself on its tough image, was just such a total “breath of fresh air” that it caused me to rescind my cynicism for a while.   Here are the first two stanzas. (I’ll spare everyone the saccharine third stanza which I have never been happy with):

Philadelphia embraces its hard edges.
From the phallic thrust of skyscrapers
To the corner pretzel sellers caw
To the plosive me-me-me of horns in traffic
To the hip hop slam of words and dance
Disparities pile on like a Raushenberg collage
Or an overstuffed deli sandwich too large to bite.

Into this summer clamor you unfurl
Three summer julian breezes, muses of the south
translating  through guileless grace
the city’s ersatz hardness into tunes
unbound by fevered beats and gattled raps
seeing through unembittered eyes
Homophony in all the newness that you meet.

True, this is about Philly, but it struck me that considered visually it is virtually a translation of  “City of Paris.”  Though I had never really had occasion to think about it, phrases like “muses of the south” and “guileless grace” clearly juxtapose my nieces to the fragmented barrage of Philadelphia that they have stepped into in the same way that Delauney’s Three Graces (which, I believe, were originally a separate painting in themselves) both intrude upon  yet at the same time become part of the fabric of Paris.

Whether I will actually ever finish the poem, now that I’ve seen Delauney’s mural is subject to question, but having this kind of a head start, I don’t know that I have a whole lot of excuses.

Friday, June 15, 2012

For Fathers in 2012

                                                            Three of my favorite dads

In my father’s generation, the qualifications for being a good father basically consisted of bringing home a paycheck, making sure the family had a working car, and taking out the trash.  Dads today who meet only those requirements would be lucky to receive a C- rating.   For most modern Dads, part of the normal week includes cooking meals, doing the grocery shopping, getting the laundry done, and sharing equal responsibility for child care.  Going out with the boys after work means coming home to their sons, not a trip to the local pub. 

I was reading a Father’s Day card in a drugstore today that said  -
Question: Why is Father’s day in June?
Answer: Because a month after Mother’s day, some guy said, "Hey, wait a minute…”

For men of  my generation, this characterization of  the status of Father’s Day might have been spot on.  Films like “Three Men and a Baby” were probably an accurate portrayal of the kind of parenting most of us were capable of - but for twenty-first century Dad’s the bar has really been raised dramatically.  They have a lot to live up to.  I’m glad to say that the three of them that I know best clear that bar easily – they would have no problem figuring out how to change a baby. 

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

War of 1812

Eli has had a front row seat to an amazing sight from his office overlooking the Baltimore Harbor.  In celebration of  the bicentennial of the War of 1812, huge sailed ships from countries all over the world have been gliding right past his window, and, as his photograph above shows,  he can walk right out to the dock and take pictures.

Baltimore is a natural place for this celebration.  It was one of the country's largest ports in 1812, and Ft. McHenry was one of the most memorable battlegrounds of the war.  It was from watching the British firing on Fort McHenry, of course, that Francis Scott Key drew his images for writing the Star Spangled banner (which he set to the tune of an old British drinking song).  Aside from that, however, very few Americans today know much about the War of 1812.  It is the forgotten war.  At least, that is what the show about the war that I saw on PBS last night said, and it is certainly true of me.

Another thing that the PBS documentary pointed out was that while the British troops were very disciplined and belonged to the most powerful country in the world at the time, the United States relied on a volunteer army of its citizens, primarily farmers.  One of those involved in the war was a Northen family ancestor named Edward Jones Northen. He was a captain in the 41st regiment of the Virginia Militia.  More than likely he was a captain not through any training but because his father owned a fair portion of land and was influential in the town.  The records don’t say anything about skirmishes he was involved in, but we know that he was on duty in the summer of 1814 along with a servant because he put in a request to be reimbursed for expenses after the war.  That was about the time, though, that British troops tried to invade Richmond County where Edward Northen lived and were turned back at Farnham Church.

Edward appears to have been a more upstanding man than his grandfather William (see last blog) whose only effort during the Revolutionary War seems to have been to sell men rum.  Edward became town constable as well as holding other positions, as did his son after him.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Domestic Problems are Nothing New

 In doing research on the Northen family, most of  the material that  I run across are lists of names and dates, but occasionally something colorful comes along that shows what some of our ancestors were really like.  That is the case with William Northen and his wife Abigail.  William was born in 1719. He and  Abigail were married in 1738 and lived in Richmond County, Virginia.  In 1775 (one year before the Declaration of Independence), Abigail sued her husband. What happened?

Apparently William posted  a note on the courthouse door saying that he was selling four or five hundred acres of land long with all of his cattle, household goods and eleven slaves.  Abigail went to court to stop him.  Why would she want to do that?  Well, they had seventeen children and he had not supported them in any material way for the past two years. Abigail claims he had not even given her linen to make clothes for the kids. 

The truth is, William had not been around for some time.  Six years early he had built another house for himself about a quarter mile away. The reason for the second house originally was that it was a sort of store for him to sell the brandy that he made.  As marital problems increased he began staying away more and more at the second house.

For his part, William claims that one night  he had to stay late at his store. When he climbed into bed with Abigail that night she told him that she was going to cut his throat.  Given the predicament he left her in, it was probably lucky that was the only thing she threatened to cut.  He began sleeping in a different bed but did come home for dinner until according to William one day she said she was going to poison him, so he set down his knife and fork and moved out. William claims his old place had become "a Harbour of horse roges and bastards."

It seems as if the court decided  in favor of Abigail, but eventually William  did sign over his property to one of his sons, Peter (unfortunately, not our direct ancestor) and moved down  to Edgecombe County, North Carolina.  I guess he couldn’t take the heat.  If there's any moral to the story it's probably  that, as much as we may romanticize the past and talk about how great family values were in “the good old days”, they probably had the same basic problems we have today and weren’t coping any better.

An interesting note on the Northen name is that some of the court papers spelled it Northen and some spelled it Northern.  What eventually happened  was that those family members who moved to North Carolina  began spelling it Northern, whereas  those in Virginia (up until mid 1800’s at least) still spelled it Northen.

By the way, William’s son, George, our direct ancestor, was given a hundred dollars and cut out of his father’s will.  He inherited nothing.