Most of what the National Council on the Arts does takes place behind closed doors, so I can’t tell you about it, except to say that Samuel Menashe paid us a visit and read several of his poems. Menashe is eighty-two, fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and spent most of the rest of his life working in obscurity and living in a fifth-floor cold-water flat in downtown Manhattan. Now he’s famous–by the standards of contemporary poets, anyway–and has had a volume of his verse published by the Library of America, the only living poet to be so honored.
I breakfasted with Menashe twice, on Thursday and Friday, and found him utterly charming. At one point I mentioned that I played bass, and he immediately recited from memory a poem of his that compares the plucking of a bass string to the croaking of bullfrogs. I told him that Benjamin Britten had used the same sound to the same end in The Rape of Lucretia. “So my poem is true!” he said. You could have lit up a small city at midnight with the gleeful grin that flashed over his face.
Between meetings I took Hilary and a half-dozen of my fellow council members to the Phillips Collection, where we met my friend Laura Good, whom I’d last seen at our wedding. It was Hilary’s first visit to the Phillips, and she loved it. (These were her favorite paintings.)
It happens that I’d also taken Laura to the Phillips for the first time several years ago, and last week she blogged about the experience:
visiting the phillips is like visiting a childhood haunt–except that it’s a childhood haunt i didn’t find until i was a fresh-faced, 22-year-old midwestern transplant. i’d never hailed a taxi or tasted rugulach, and i’d never learned how to love meandering from room to quiet room of an art museum. i remember staring, completely confused, at cezanne’s last painting, trying to see something–anything!–while terry recited to me the painting’s history, meaning, and life, and then fell rapt and silent.
this time, though, i could see the cezanne: the fermenting colors, the lifting blue strokes, all as brisk and evocative as a real, ruddy garden–all the more urgent, perhaps, because the painter knew it would be his last canvas. as terry took off his glasses and leaned forward, i realized that i was leaning in, too: not in mimicry, but in satisfaction.
From there Hilary and I went to Megan McArdle‘s apartment to eat her fabulous cooking and meet two of her writer friends (one of whom has a blog of his own). The next morning we attended the NCA’s public meeting, where Nathan Darrow and Jessiee Datino, two fresh-faced young actors from Kansas City’s Heart of America Shakespeare Festival, gave a piping-hot performance of the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, in which they appeared this past summer.
At morning’s end the council cast its votes, and Hilary and I subsequently returned to Manhattan by way of the Acela Express, Amtrak’s bumpiest train. For me it was the end of a near-uninterrupted month of travel. I slept for ten hours that night. I wanted to take the weekend off, but of course I never take weekends off: that’s when I see shows. On Saturday I went to the press preview of Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘n’ Roll, and my favorite blogger arrived the next day to spend a hectic week as my houseguest…about which more later!
(Last of five parts)