in the summer the heat just hangs
but an inch of window at night lets in a mile of parkland
from street level and tumbling up
and it’s like living in the flats of the valley
with the hills and canyons next door
but instead of george clooney, now it’s raccoons and orphan upstate fauna
and i like it up in this part of the city because i can kind of say fuck you to everyone (and not quite mean it)
a middle-of-nowhere for the noncommittal if going off-grid is too real
it’s the city
my landline is a (212)
on breezy evenings the pesticide spray curls out from the bodegas
and the kids take outdoor shelter from hot old buildings with no a/c
you have to make the effort and i came here prepared that nobody would
i get dark in the summer
as it stays light later
i hear the columbia students clinking hard cider on the rooftops
an everything i feel ascending in their starry eyes
an irrepressible optimism
and there i am below
looking for their inner lives
wondering what’s in their middle distance
or in the frozen reach of their hand-model hands
i grumble as some teenager skateboards into the shot
i sweat into my sunscreen and it stings my eyes
senses are curses
they smother rather than unwrap
they crush, bear down
all my brain can be is a primitive filing system
a shitty computer that turns the haywire creative
but on those nervous days i only want it to compress the data
to make it lossy and aliased and pleasantly unrecognizable
i get dark in the summer
as the soot claims the stucco
pore by pore
“you’re not from here”
is a game i like to play
in my head
i mean i KNOW they’re not from here
it’s not just the blonde glow and winning confidence
the self-belief that ate europe
the teutonic tennis tans and single-payer health care
it’s the fascination in their scrutiny of the subway tracks
in times square after they’ve stamped their passports with a broadway show
rats the size of cats
and they nod about it to the second generation south dakota blondes
milk-fed and broad-shouldered
too anchored in geography to be as angelic as their freckles imply
definitely not from here
no death stare
no tensed-up jaw
no distraction from exceptionalism and mild unbothered amusement
i see you
you’re not from here
if you see me
i’m new yorking as new yorkly as i can
now and forever
so when you call up that shrink in Beverly Hills
you know the one, the one at Wilshire and Doheny you went to before she took a job somewhere else and passed you off to a nurse practitioner
doctor everything’ll be all right if your insurance approves the claim
doctor on the list of the grad-school social worker you saw one day for a panic attack
and the doctor laughed at you for straight-up ASKING for Xanax
like going there is not horrifying enough already
the paperwork and the questions
doctor everything probably is gonna be all right
but in that second that it feels like it’s not
i bet Prince got panic attacks too
my heroes aren’t fearless
there’s no challenge to fearlessness
they work through stuff
they stare it down
that’s where the real shit happens
transmuting nervous energy into electricity
into the sublime
we could all die any day
the colony could collapse
the collapsing will flatten
into a rolling plain of trampled flowers
dusting the dust
ashing the foreheads
dirtying the minds
like filthy Thanksgiving
a cornucopia of filthy generosity
passed around on unspeakable blankets
lions in new-world pockets
19. The beginning of the downcast “Not the Red Baron” orbits around a C minor chord, sometimes almost subliminally switching into major. The effect is unsettling, like déjà vu, like one of the dramatizations in the old commercials for Time-Life Books’ Mysteries of the Unknown.
20. Adding to the hint of a teetering paranormal in “Not the Red Baron” is the subtlety with which Amos intersperses pictures of death and fire and devils with less prominent ones of beautiful heels pointed and “girls with red ribbons, the prettiest red ribbons.”
21. Red, the color of blushing virginal cheeks, cherry lollipops from the pediatrician, prostitution, war, blood, hell, the Shiseido lipstick of the feminine Christ from “Muhammad My Friend,” and Amos’s famous hair.
22. Orange, the color we associate with radation, smoggy sunsets, Donald Trump, herbicidal warfare—“Agent Orange” slinks dissolutely from the shadow of those girls with the prettiest red ribbons like a cabaret act through moth-eaten curtains. “Mr. Agent, yeah / He’s my favorite,” Amos sings, dewy with sarcasm and history, and the song dissolves from an ascending walking-blues piano line into the magical-realism of an eternally swimming woman in an underwater city.
23. The “doughnut hole” of “Doughnut Song” has a double meaning. There’s the negative space at the center of the doughnut, the part we eat around because it’s just air, and there’s the product bakers sell from the leftover dough that has been punched out, like Entenmann’s Pop’ems. And it can be a metaphor for a heart, or a person. Are you someone who walks around with an emptiness inside you, or are you capable of making yourself into a whole, standalone product? Annie Zaleski’s wonderful Boys for Pele appreciation in Salon rounds up past quotes about Amos’s impetus for the album; the singer-songwriter talks about negotiating the desire to take creative control and “jump off a cliff” without the strong male presences she’d always had, but also using her then-recent breakup as the catalyst to figure out who Tori Amos the human being actually was when off-duty. Amos’s countermelody in the second verse highlights this dualism too: it’s her voice and her voice, and one is mixed to be more forward and has the same melody as the first verse, but which one are we listening to? Which one should she listen to?
24. That walking blues of “Agent Orange” makes another appearance on “In the Springtime of His Voodoo,” jump-cut into a baroque psychedelia fit for a satanic majesty’s request. It’s not her best song, but it has an Eagles shoutout, if you want it.
25. The one that made me lose it when I was all lost in the supermarket one rainy January night with my headphones on, “Putting the Damage On,” is the one with references to orange rinds and Angie Dickinson. (I was fine; I just probably bumped into a shelf from going “wow” too much.) Again, that psychic junk that can be either associative-riffing-as-coping-strategy or, as Amos sings, a “ghost passing through.” It’s a quiet piece. It’s a wind-down.
26. And the even quieter “Twinkle” closes Pele, revisiting the album’s motifs of strength and self-discovery. The girl who’s “twice as hard” as the boys? Grab your thesaurus: she’s difficult, she’s rock-solid, and she’s likely some other things that wouldn’t pass a family show’s standards and practices. But knowing all that, it’s a place for her to start.
11. The long, slithery sibilance of “Shissseido red” on “Muhammad My Friend.” The tenebrous marsh of sustain and bottom end in its intro section.
12. “Muhammad My Friend” has flickers of radiance but lacks true, consistent incandescence. The music has a whiplash momentum, but the lyrics are where it falters; nothing there’s as electric as “Moses I know / I know you’ve seen fire / But you never seen fire / Until you’ve seen Pele blow,” and once you’ve introduced Hawaiian volcanic goddesses, more rote phrases like “on that fateful day” feel like something to pad out a Reader’s Digest word count.
13. But listening now, her half-whispered aside of “Used to be so sweet to me, well” transcends a lyric that isn’t instantly quotable. It’s not a song I hear “wistful” in, for all its fragmented fury about women’s erasure from the historical record and the double standard they’re held to and the wrath they might let run riot, but for two seconds I do.
14. I wonder if it’s intentional that “Hey Jupiter,” the ninth track of 18 on Amos’s third album as a solo artist people think of as baring her guts, includes the line “This little masochist, she’s ready to confess.” I wonder if it’s intentional that on subsequent records, she took sanctuary behind bigger production values and eventually shed her experiments with industrial for a generic soft-rock template. Confession is hard, and it’s exhausting, and if you’re a guarded introvert you can adopt the survival skill to keep that shit in the abstract or just point your brain-car somewhere else. But “Hey Jupiter,” as direct as it is with its vulnerability, offers a universal connection it’s hard to find with other Amos songs.
15. And then there’s the callback: “And this little masochist / She’s lifting up her dress.” The dress is a charged image in pop music. We get devils in blue ones and long cool women in black ones and party dresses being taken off, but we also get Polly Harvey playing with the male gaze when she sings about putting one on and ponders whether there “Must be a way I can dress to please him,” and Courtney Love reversing the gaze with “You look good in my dress,” and Kim Gordon’s agitated narrator not only wanting someone to take off her dress but to “shake off your flesh.” Lifting up a dress is something little girls are scolded for; heaven forbid they’re unladylike even when they’re not yet ladies. And of course, it’s a minefield for adult women as well. You’re damned either way, and probably a masochist.
16. Filler lyrics can work sometimes, too. “Gonna meet a great big star / Gonna drive his great big car” is the stuff of moon/June/spoon, but on “Way Down” she’s “with a band, you know,” and not necessarily thrilled about it, judging from her intonation. Star/car is breathy and hyperfeminine, a Marilyn/Angelyne surrogate, a damsel looking for a widescreen Mulholland Dr. moment. The affectation only lasts for those two lines; then she gets morose.
17. Amos does Southern Gothic better when it’s implied than when she’s spelling it out, and the “Hominy / Get it on a plate, girl” MFA-workshop clichés of “Little Amsterdam” ring false. Besides, her D.C. suburbs are more bagels and lox than hominy.
18. “Talula” is an upliftingly weird maypole dance. And to match the congressman of “Professional Widow” and the upbringing around the District, the song’s got a senator, perhaps the same one from Under the Pink‘s “The Wrong Band.”
To be continued. Previous entry here.
- Interesting thing about Tori Amos’s diction: she enunciates well when she chooses to, displaying a small bit of loyalty both to her conservatory roots and her early reputation as a “confessional” singer-songwriter. It’s interesting because throughout her career, she’s spent a lot of time not doing that. She mumbles and garbles and elides and slurs, and it’s maddening when she’s written a clever line that could actually get a laugh with the right delivery and syllabic emphasis, but it can only ever be her own private joke if listeners aren’t following along with printed lyrics. Regrettably, this puts her in a similar category to Darius Rucker: his mushmouthed lines about Michael Stipe and the Miami Dolphins aren’t funny, but they’re an evident stab at bittersweet humor. While Amos’s opening lyrics to Boys for Pele are opaque as poetry, the album does start with her singing them very clearly.
- That opening track is “Beauty Queen/Horses,” and after the former’s sotto voce incantation, we get classic Tori: Southern Gothic, Tubular Bells rain-on-tin piano, the slow-burn epic turmoil of a 1970s miniseries.
- While sexual trauma looms over “Blood Roses,” and while half-cocked ears might hear Amos’s vocal leaps and flurry of harpsichord as thrashing, the track makes an excellent case for her ability to let artistic agency have the upper hand over unedited emotion. “Chickens get a taste of your meat, girl” is atavistic and darkly carnal, but “chickens” is also a funny word, reminding me of Bob Dylan’s “The sun’s not yellow / It’s chicken” from “Tombstone Blues.” Dylan’s keen sense of impressionism often makes him favor phrases that are arresting and unusual-sounding over a more risk-averse approach. So too Tori: she leans into the second syllable of “chickens” just a little, enough to make it a percussion instrument, and “get a taste” is the rat-a-tat on top.
- She breaks rules. On “Blood Roses,” she deploys almost unswerving vocal fry, so much so that the intent is undeniable: it’s a tool. She saves the pure, breath-supported belt that was in her all along for the “God knows I’ve thrown away / Those graces” section two thirds of the way through. The key changes come out of nowhere, springing from dead silence into battle, vocal and harpsichord in entrance lockstep. Her vowels are pregnant with diphthongs and heys, and again she chooses it because part of creating emotional impact is going up to those walls of taste and deciding how hard you want to push.
- The piano on “Father Lucifer” almost pulses. Downbeat-upbeat-downbeat-upbeat, mezzo-forte, mezzo-piano, metronomically. And a reprise of the K sound: milkmaid, and she transitions cleanly from the K to the M.
- Amos’s voice and primary keyboard sounds are recorded beautifully on Pele; as a producer and arranger, she doesn’t quite know what to do with the supplementary instrumentation.
- I’ve never liked “Professional Widow,” neither the album version nor the Armand van Helden remix. The sweetly sinister “Strike a deal, make him feel like a congressman” a cappella line smartly anchors the S.S. Tori through the storm, but in the main the song and her performance read as colicky and bitter. It’s the rare example on Pele of Amos failing to alchemize emotion into a valuable artistic statement.
- It’s unfair, then, that “Professional Widow” clocks in at a Cage-ian 4:33 while the intriguing “Mr. Zebra”—echoing the Beatles’ “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” and inventing a surrealist Ken Russell music-hall fever dream—sneaks through at 1:07. Perhaps the burial was premature, she said and smiled.
- I like the lope of “Marianne.” “Horses” at the album’s beginning would suggest a graceful trot from its title, but its sweep is ultimately too vast; “Marianne” teases that idea back in, tentatively. It’s a coaxing beat, comforting on the surface but pulling us under, to a place of grief and mourning. But she’s still a writer: her bruised heart is on her sleeve but she’s taking the overcoat on and off. A lot of what’s here is Amos putting a frame around the junk that moves through our minds as we’re figuring stuff out, making the clutter a piece of the work, showing us how key those thoughts are whether we want them in our heads or we desire to reach an end-state we decide is healthier.
- The long, slithery sibilance of “Just bring your sssson” on “Caught a Lite Sneeze.” The way the melody of “buildings tumbling” arches up before retreating.
To be continued…
Planetariums During Wartime: Walther Bauersfeld, Rudolf Straubel, and Inventions in an Era of Global Upheaval
The modern planetarium is a worldwide tourist draw, a setting for rock ‘n’ roll laser light shows, and a training instrument for pilots (PDF) and astronauts. “Planetarium” can refer to the instrument enabling simulated night-sky viewing or the structure that houses it, and the projection-style attraction that’s so iconic today is merely one variation, and one that’s less than a hundred years old. While depictions of the night sky have traceable roots as far back as 1500 BCE (such art on ancient Egyptian tombs represented the Pleiades star cluster and the coming spring), the story of the projection planetarium and its designers, scientists Walther Bauersfeld and Rudolf Straubel, situates us in Germany’s wartime decades.
A 1928 “Voice of the People” letter from one O. J. Schuster to the Capital Times newspaper entreats readers to imagine an America in which a 25-cent admission buys the best ticket in town. In this scenario, lucky attendees can take in an immersive view of the heavenly bodies rivaling the best of the then-nascent entertainment industry. The Virginia-based Schuster asks, “Would not that interest you more than any movie in which ‘Movie Stars’ are actors?” On the threshold of the Gilded Age’s drop into the Great Depression, the public wanted to be dazzled.
At that time, the letter-writer’s subject of interest—the Zeiss planetarium—only existed in European cities, and mostly in its originating country of Germany. That editorial came four years after the Carl Zeiss company debuted the first projection planetarium at the Deutsches Museum. The museum’s founder, Oskar von Miller, had requested a “rotatable star dome.” Miller commissioned this, along with a geared orrery (YouTube), in 1905. His curiosity was based on meetings with the director of the observatory at the University of Heidelberg and other ideas from the Chicago Academy of Sciences and the Zeiss engineers themselves, including Bauersfeld.
Work had stopped because of World War I, but after that delay, the planetarium emerged in 1924, displaying heliocentric and geocentric motion, with 180 bulbs projecting stars against a wall, and an orbit of Saturn that was 11.25 meters in diameter. It proved so popular that one year after its permanent installation in Munich in 1925, six other German cities had their own Zeiss planetarium projectors.
Today, not much information circulates readily about Walther Bauersfeld’s life, but a 1954 profile in the Rotarian reveals him as the working-class “son of an embroidery designer and grandson of a cobbler,” a painter and pianist, and an adept conversationalist with a fondness for “merry hospitality.” He served as the president of the Heidenheim-Aalen Rotary Club, started out as an assistant professor of turbine construction at the Technical Institute in Charlottenburg, and upon achieving a certain level of career success had Planetoid 1553 renamed Bauersfelda in his honor. The profile also praises his “revolutionary method” of design for a now-familiar steel-webbed dome. In the expansionist mania of the twentieth century, authorship for technological advances wasn’t always assigned to the right person. It turns out that the geodesic dome’s original architect never patented it, and another figure built on those plans and took the victory lap for them.
To most fans of architecture and twentieth-century thought, “geodesic dome” surely has an instant association with one particular eccentric: R. Buckminster Fuller. Geodesic domes are unusually strong, with the bond created from making spheres out of triangles. Their high ratio of interior space to exterior surface area was a selling point for quickly urbanizing post-war environments where undeveloped land was at a premium. These domes are energy-efficient, wind-resistant (military bases and airports use them to house temperamental radar equipment), portable, and easy to construct and maintain. The architect envisioned the domes providing accessible human shelter for a range of income levels. But although they never caught on as domiciles in a mainstream sense, they did become beloved staging areas for exhibition sites such as World’s Fairs and museums, and this brings us back to the original geodesic dome that housed the Zeiss projection planetarium. Fuller may have patented the dome in 1951, but the core concept belonged to Bauersfeld and the Carl Zeiss staff.
By the time of Fuller’s patent filing, the United States had begun to experience unprecedented economic growth and opportunity. But World War II had thrown Europe into a tailspin, and recovery would be slow. Roughly 130 engineers and technicians from Zeiss’s original factory had moved to the Contessa manufacturing facility in West Germany’s Stuttgart, forcibly evacuated and relocated by the U.S. Army out of Soviet territory. During the Russian occupation of East Germany, Soviet troops had stormed the town of Jena—where Zeiss was headquartered. Eventually, by confiscatory decree, Zeiss’s new, Russian owners were allowed to pocket the company’s amassed assets and trademarks and exist as a state-controlled entity. The Western outpost enjoined its old location in the German Democratic Republic from operating under the Zeiss business name.
As the dust of the war was settling and with Zeiss now split in two, the aging Bauersfeld stayed with the West German business. He would go on to further refine his projection models, creating the ZKP 1 (for small planetariums) in 1952, before passing away in 1959 at age eighty.
Back in 1920s Germany, writes Daniel Engber in a 2014 article for Slate, the Zeiss projection planetarium “dazzled with a Jazz Age marriage of science and style,” casting “dots of light against the curved ceiling of a darkened theater, making stars that twinkled like the sequins on a flapper’s dress.” And Bauersfeld, the engineer, indeed came up with the idea for the projection and was celebrated as such, with a 1933 Elliott-Cression Gold Medal from Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute.
But according to a Californian computer programmer named Peter Volz, that celebration by rights should have included the project’s other significant force. Volz’s paper in the International Planetarium Society’s journal, Planetarian, is an effort to correct the record and restore due acknowledgement to Zeiss scientific director Rudolf Straubel. At the time of the Franklin Institute fête, Straubel had recently been pressured into leaving his position. His resignation from Zeiss came because of the company’s unease with his Jewish wife during the Nazi Party’s rise in Germany, and indeed as time went on and Bauersfeld took sole credit for the planetarium, Straubel continued to suffer persecution under the Third Reich. Later in the 1930s, he lost his university lecturing position for his longtime affiliation with Jews, and a rocky few years after that he died of kidney cancer in 1943.
As much a company man as a science man, Slate’s Engber says, Straubel often served in managerial functions, signing off on his paperwork with the business name rather than his own. His humility in this regard may help explain why Straubel’s reputation is only beginning to catch up with Bauersfeld’s. Or, as with Buckminster Fuller patenting the geodesic dome, perhaps his name just got lost amid the flurry of the twentieth century’s infatuation for invention. Yet the Zeiss name does endure, now evoking images of a troubled past and a scientific team whose individual accomplishments were slow to find recognition because of antisemitism and the cultural instability of the times.
After World War II, the craze for planetariums and the ascent of the United States as an educational and space-exploration powerhouse was a factor in Americans, along with the Japanese and the British, assuming the mantle of cutting-edge projection design. Zeiss merged back into one company from its East German/West German bifurcation and found its feet, but never did anything as groundbreaking in projection design as the domed marvel that debuted in Frankfurt in 1924. Yet with eleven offices across the United States alone, Zeiss thrives as a company, parlaying its strengths into such fields as biomedical research and vision care. The projection planetariums, while not generating immense profit, remain a point of pride for them.
In 2015, new technology has given projection planetariums amenities that would amaze Bauersfeld and Straubel: 5.1 Dolby surround sound, crisp digital picture, and the most current satellite data not only of outer space but of the natural beauty on our home planet. The Capital Times’ O. J. Schuster would surely find the experience as engrossing as—perhaps even more than—a day at the movies.
I never got around to writing the seventh poem in my week-long poetry project, so here it is after some delay.
an eyesore in an orrery
or a relapse in an apse
an abecedarian abcess
two tuataras abreast
attuned and atonal
onanists on an atoll
on and on and up
To flex my creative-writing muscle, I am writing a short poem every day this week. Here’s the sixth.
soap is the thing with alkaline carbonates and oleaginous matter—
that perches in the bath—
next to the phthalates for my shampoo
cymbopogon schoenanthus extract for my no-poo
shamwow for my fraudulent astonishment
To flex my creative-writing muscle, I am writing a short poem every day this week. Here’s the fifth.
death of a clown
the nose goes blue
and the seven bucks and a rubber will be gone by morning
tonight all night this new year’s eve he awaits the paramedics on the open-grid lawn
where grass flits up the diamondscape sides in funny tufts
and the high-pressure sodium lanterns flooding down from diagonal corners
so noir in the pictures
bathe his bow in unromantic jaundice