I suffered some qualms after I realized I posted the poem below the day the levees broke in New Orleans. It is a lovely poem, certainly, and one I've been planning to post for a long time -- excusing this blog's (and my life's) general frivolity in the face of world disaster. But as the world disaster was more immediately present than usual, my timing here felt unfortunate. Such moral qualms about joy are of course the very thing the poem addresses, saying "Never mind catastrophe, look how gorgeous these roses are." Other poems in the collection look more closely at catastrophe, though, and one of the reasons I like Szymborska's poetry is that she says the catastrophe and the roses coexist: The roses -- nature (usually), art, history, time -- are our aspirations, our teachers, and our escape. (Szymborska's Nobel Prize lecture linked above is wonderful, by the way, and far more instructive on this subject than I am.)
On a similar note, Katy was staying with me this past week, and on Sunday she and I went to Kykuit, the Rockefeller estate near Tarrytown, New York. It's a lovely day trip from the city and a lovely house too: a four-story mansion and grounds-cum-art gallery and sculpture park, with a Brancusi on the porch and Picassos in the basement, comfort and luxury everywhere and a breathtaking view over the Hudson to the Palisades. Then on Wednesday we visited the Lower East Side Tenement Museum on Orchard Street -- truly how the other half lives: Three tiny rooms with low ceilings, rickety walls, and a heavy coating of coal dust sheltered a family of four or more, and at one time in the early 1900s, the neighborhood housed one thousand people per square acre -- the densest and most crowded place on earth. The contrast with Kykuit (which was built at roughly the same period) was exquisite. But the tour guide told us that the descendants of the LES tenement residents have moved out to suburban homes in New Jersey and Long Island, achieving something of the land and light and air of Kykuit . . . the American dream coming true, exactly as those LES residents must have hoped.
In the spirit of frivolity, Katy and I also:
- enjoyed our traditional summer high tea, this time at the Peninsula Hotel
- gossiped, drank lattes, and split a tub of Ben and Jerry's Mint Chocolate Chip at Whole Foods in Columbus Circle
- got pedicures -- shocking pink for her, candy-apple red for me (or "the color of sin," as I preferred to call it)
- participated in the Poetry Game Show at the Bowery Poetry Club (I won a book)
- went out for swanky drinks with the ever-so-swanky and wise Rachel
- ate at Two Boots, Shake Shack, Peep, the Horseman Pub in Tarrytown, Cafe Lafayette in Brooklyn, and Chez Cheryl, where I made a vanilla risotto with fresh caramelized peaches
- shopped for cool shoes for her and cool clothes for me
- rode the Cyclone at Coney Island, strolled in the surf, and attended a Brooklyn Cyclones game, where we got to eat Nathan's hot dogs and boo at umpires -- great, great fun.
Lastly on this subject: Tonight Ben and I saw "The Constant Gardener," starring Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz. She's a beautiful firebrand out to save the world (or at least defenseless Africans) from a corporate conspiracy; he's a mild-mannered British diplomat trying to be the good man in Africa, and becoming, after his wife's murder, someone more brave, more crazed, and altogether less polite. The film is a mystery, a thriller, a romance, and a documentary (parts were filmed in real time on the streets in Kenya); the cinematography is stunning, the acting impeccable, the scenery gorgeous -- and Africa's pretty too. But what sets it apart from "The Bourne Supremacy," say, or the James Bond films (to invoke the most shallow example of the globetrotting-spy genre), is the deep moral outrage it feels at these true-life horrific events, and the implication of all of us privileged Western viewers in the slow genocide of a continent. The film is about something real, in short, that's happening now, that we could do something about now (for the movie says even one driven person can make a difference in the world); and how strange and refreshing that is to hear in a well-made action movie, where we're so used to the roses being sealed away from the catastrophe. Go see it. And then do something.