Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Catafalque and Quincunx

For me and my friends, and presumably others of that approximate generation, an essential part of the mid-70s/mid-teenage quasi-counterculture canon was the illustrated writing of Edward Gorey. Though we may have sensed his linguistically extravagant, at times absurdist, mock-horror was perhaps not precisely a lost continent from the map of early 19th century Gothic literature, I’m not sure we quite realized he was living and writing in New York City at the same time Television and the Patti Smith Group were playing at C.B.G.B. – at the very least he seemed to be some obscure and chronologically displaced pre-War New Englander like H.P. Lovecraft.

In any event, Gorey’s love of arcane words continued to intrigue me for many years as I gradually found out what they all meant, but I somehow missed the derivation of "Amphigorey", with which he titled a pair of collections of his work. Lazily conflating the prefix "amphi-" (meaning "both" or "double") with "anthology" and thinking it a portmanteau word with no other reference, I was surprised recently to find the French word “amphigouri” in the pages of Le Rouge et Le Noir and accepted my Larousse de Poche’s gloss of it as “gibberish”. A week or so later, I immediately stumbled upon it again, in an English translation of Raymond Queneau’s Witch Grass. Thinking the translator might have allowed herself a bit of liberty, I turned to the O.E.D., to find that “amphigouri” and “amphigory” are both accepted in English usage. The derivation is uncertain but perhaps related to “category” and “allegory”.

As for Queneau, his French title is Chiendent (dogtooth). Though "Witch Grass" may be the North American plant name for the exact species which that French name refers to (Dichanthelium boreale), it seems like the pun or multiple meanings of the title could have been echoed in translation with a little less botanical fidelity. How about "Hound's tongue", of the genus Cynoglossum, part of a family which includes wild comfrey, a Native American medicinal plant of uncertain relationship to the old World comfrey (Symphytum officinale), or "horehound" (brothels are a persistent theme in the book), a folk term for a flowering plant of the Lamiaceae family, which includes mint?

Monday, June 1, 2009


On a recent fine May midday, I set out to walk a pleasant two miles to Mazzotti Music to pick up a fixed guitar amp and found the usual plethora of books that seem to line my path everywhere. To begin with, a street giveaway carton yielded up four volumes of legendary early 70s Detroit ghetto naturalist Donald Goines. Whether I need to read all four remains to be seen - Daddy Cool went down fast like the kind of snack food that leaves you feeling a bit queasy.

A block party in Park Slope provided an exemplar of a somewhat different African-American literary aesthetic, Wanda Coleman, whose Heavy Daughter Blues: Poems & Stories 1968-1986 was published by Black Sparrow Press, so you know (if you are familiar with their work) what a distinctive look the book has. Coleman's curriculum vita (I see from the credits) includes a stint with Anna Halprin's Dancers' Workshop, so you might further connect the dots with having seen Daria Martin's Minotaur, a film of a Halprin-choreographed duet, when it was showing at The New Museum earlier this spring.

Strolling around street fairs in Brooklyn, I have found, gives you a reasonable chance of seeing The Gowanus Wildcats; Saturday was my second sighting. They are a drill team (not step dancers, as they always remind you), 10 early teenage girls from a public housing project, whose level of precision is perhaps more folk art than West Point, but all the more engaging for it (here's a segment).

Finally, guitar amplifier retrieved and bánh mì sandwich consumed, I headed off to the Cake Shop for an evening of what Time Out sort of touted as hipster metal. I got there in time for Darsombra, a one-man band from Baltimore. With 8-string bass, guitar, a vocal mike and about 30 effects pedals, Brian Daniloski (barefoot on his own Persian rug) creates huge throbbing waves of winedark sound that could pretty much pass for electronic music without the little bit of doom-metal subculture trappings. The set was perfectly paced and timed – quite exciting.

Philadelphia's Stinking Lizaveta followed – I have seen them a handful of times and felt respectful but never quite enthralled. On this occasion, whatever those inhibitions were got thrown to the wind and I felt, at least for the duration of their set, like they were the best band I'd ever seen, a form of selective amnesia that often affects for me some subset of a particularly good show, but doesn't always sustain itself to coming home and writing about it. Seismic exuberance, raw power...I fear I will cheapen my transcendent experience with rock critic hyphenations (instrumental prog-metal-skronk etc) but comparisons abound with all sorts of things from Return To Forever's epoch-defining Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy to Quebec's Voivod and everyone there knew they had seen something remarkable.