Transfixed

“Transfix” is not a word one gets to use often. Last Thursday, three times, I found myself in a place and a condition that matches the definition: “make motionless or helpless, as with amazement.”  The word origins are more graphic. Think of the unfortunate butterfly or beetle mounted with a pin through its thorax. Here is an Etsy page with dozens of specimens. Instructions abound for doing this yourself, and unlike those 50 insects we were to capture, kill, and mount for 9th grade biology, the killing is now discouraged.

The occasion was the Arts Commission mixer, this iteration dedicated to poetry. The key to its success: A spoken word performer called Black Ceasar. Here’s a magazine article about him. This is his Instagram post about our event. Here he performs “Champagne Poetry” on YouTube. He does commercials for the Texas Rangers, available here from March 2023 in the Dallas Observer. An important sentence: “They’re also a leap in the right direction toward making fans of all cultural backgrounds feel welcomed and connected to an organization that has endured its share of diversity missteps.” In a similar but more pointed example, here he performs “For Change” sponsored by the Dallas Cowboys. For these he has been nominated for two Emmys.

His name is Kristoddie K. Woods. Originally from Mississippi, he performs and mentors, teaches and coordinates. Publishes. All those things are great, but on some level the most important are that he answers emails, makes it on time to Zooms, both with beauty and grace. Not everyone does that. “Nice” is not a very strong word, but having worked with him for a month on the mixer, I can assure you I am his fan first because he is legitimately, actively nice.

From an established, well-known figure, let’s move to a high school student, “a real find,” her “finder” Anne Perry said. Aryianah is a high school student who has won awards for her spoken word poetry. She’s in the National Honor Society and serves on her city’s Youth Action Council. She also teaches and mentors others in her craft. Her transfixing performance involved the story of a girl who doesn’t feel loved until she does. As with Black Ceasar, she takes you places. You have to be there.

In her own words, Empress Axa “wants to impress on the hearts and minds the good news of empowering encouragement”…and “is a poet of passion who delivers strong punchlines about loss, love, and life.” Empress has been named top 25 WOWPS Slam Champion (2021); ExtraOrdinary Women in the Arts (2022); and Denton Black Film Festival Slam Champion (2023). Here is her feature: Shoutout DFW in January 2024. A Duncanville native, she has a day job that requires clarity and strength, to which she brings charity and kindness. I met her the night of the event after exchanges of information in preparation (or, texts and calls. Why be wordy?) Somehow, I was elsewhere when she performed. We were outside when I was apologizing, and she said, “You didn’t miss anything.” She took a breath and gave me her performance. In its entirety. Just for me. Her eyes on mine for minute after minute of transfixed journe-making. Her work was about her mother, given with such depth and detail that I can only repeat—you had to be there.

A brief distinction between reading poetry and performing poetry: I can do the former. I cannot do the latter. As I have said before on these pages, I sometimes come across a poem I don’t’ remember writing. And I could no more quote you a single poem of mine than the man in the moon. No, I don’t perform, although I believe I can read my work better than anyone else. Not necessarily a good sign. I want to commend to you a poet who is better than I, Chris Mikesell. He read one of my favorites on Thursday, “Baptism by Night.” His work is not just clever; it can be funny, allusive, insightful. He takes us to places of the heart and of the mind. His presentation was not less than the others. It was different.

To conclude on being transfixed: Most people have heard the phrase “Water water everywhere and not a drop to drink.” It’s a slight misquote from “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” whose poet uses “Nor any drop to drink.” You can hear it here read by Ian McKellan. Long, but well done. A much shorter interpretation by Iron Maiden is here. AI images, too. I’ve heard of them, believe it or not. That’s about it. Genre-making apparently. The music for the Mariner is compelling. A galloping rhythm, guitarist/composer grandson explains. (“You’re not going to go to the drive-up window with that playing are you?”)

The phrase from the poem that our mixer’s performance poets made me think of is “He holds him with his glittering eye—” because now I know what that feels like, literarily speaking. Coming away from an event richer than you went in makes all the difference. Support the arts. Experience can’t be shared. Kim Campbell, co-founder and Executive Director of the Dallas Winds, ends his introduction of the group with “Be amazed!” It’s true. You’ll be glad you did. And transfixed, at least occasionally.

Netsuke

In February 2020, I wrote about kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing damaged pottery with gold. The month before the nightmare. But I recently learned about another art form called netsuke, tiny carvings originally made as button closures. Before ivory from living animals was banned, it was the usual material. I am thrilled to report that there are, in fact, huge quantities of mammoth ivory available these days. I didn’t know.

Last week, I toured a wonderful art collection with a few pieces of pottery that were used to hold these miniature works of art. And, of course, there was a story. During World War II, a Jewish family in Vienna lost their home to Nazis who also plundered their art collection. The father had amassed a large set of netsuke which were lined up on narrow shelves. Although they were in plain sight, the looters didn’t recognize their value and ignored them. The family’s housekeeper had been commandeered as well, and she took one or two out in her pockets.

The story is similar to Woman in Gold (2015) but on a smaller less gilded or personal scale. The film is well done, with Helen Mirren starring as Maria Altman. The woman in the Klimt painting is her aunt, the painting stolen from the family in the same way. The plot uses flashbacks to show the validity of her claim on the Austrian government to restore the masterpiece to its rightful owner. Ryan Reynolds plays the young attorney who helps her. There is more depth to the resolution so watch it if you can.

My parallel for today is size. Netsuke can be valuable. On eBay, the most expensive one today is $107,000. The record at a Bonham’s auction is $441,300. It’s not that element–-worth or value—for now, however. Nor is it ignorance. The family housekeeper knew what they had. The Nazis didn’t. Rather, I’d like to think about small gestures for a moment.

Recently, someone was asking if I had a conducting class in college. Yes. Her assumption was mistaken, though. She thought a conductor’s job is to give musicians cues when to come in. That may be what it looks like. But musicians know where they are and when to play. (Although once I was playing second flute in the San Angelo Symphony when the first flute learned over and asked where we were. I knew but was so startled that I didn’t know what to say and just pointed. Apparently, everyone was lost because soon the conductor bellowed out “KEY CHANGE” and we were back on track. Important fact: The SAS was actually the Dallas Symphony second stand players with some local talent thrown in. It was memorable, and a piano concerto to boot. This short video explains using examples of some “historically important” conductors. The small gestures often offer interpretation. The purpose can also be to “exalt” the orchestra. It’s not always pretty. Here are five conductors and the same piece of music (just 10+minutes).

It’s odd how a single second or two of time will hold a memory. Decades ago, the kids and I were at the mall in San Angelo. There was a large fountain in the center. The boys were bored and started putting their hands in the water and splashing it out. A security guard walked by, didn’t say anything, just moved his hand with a flick of his wrist that meant “get your hands out.” It was subtle and relevant. Graceful, even. The style was, also, memorable.

Tonight, at my music fraternity, one member noticed the sun was in someone’s eyes. She held a book up to block it. A small act, perhaps, but one that lasted until the shade was lowered. Most thoughtful gesture today.

David Brooks

It is 7:54 on Monday. Evening. Oh, wait. A friend called and needed help getting a message to someone because her internet isn’t working. We discussed a pending trip. Nothing else, I promise. It is now 8:17. Oh—a pleasant call back, 8:52. I really wanted to do this well. It’s an essence only.

My topic for the week is David Brooks’ new book, How to Know People. Last week, I attended a luncheon where he spoke and an evening conversation with him. Before the latter, he was signing books at the Interabang table (small independent bookstore). No one else was there. I’d brought my Amazon-purchased one, and with no shame said, “Will you sell my book?” Yep. There it is. The three people looked at me oddly, and I had to ask why. So, there was that.

The book is worth reading. Beyond that, I found it transformational in some ways. There are a zillion anecdotes and quotations, glimpses into his heart and mind, jokes and quips and allusions. While it could be summarized as “Be a good person, thoughtful and attentive, he offers two paradigms for How to Be and How Not to Be.

One is called Diminisher. This is one explanation: “Diminishers are so into themselves, they make others feel insignificant… If they learn one thing about you, they proceed to make a series of assumptions about who you must be.” Friends once took us to The Mansion, a legendary Dallas restaurant. It has its own Wikipedia page, for goodness’ sake. These people recounted hearing the story of two other couples arriving, looking at the crowd, and remarking, “Oh, nobody’s here.” Using people, not caring about their needs, and not seeing them as anything other than other—these are the marks of a Diminisher.

An Illuminator, on the other hand, has light within and can shine that light on another. That seems like a metaphor within itself, so think of it as having curiosity about people not just for what they’ve done or what they have but for who they are. Brooks has found two words to elucidate: nunchi, a Korean term for the ability to be sensitive to other people’s thoughts and moods. The Germans have herzensbildung, training one’s heart to see the full humanity in another.

There is a bit of a sting to realize sometimes I’ve been the former, not the latter. Listening—really hearing and not waiting to say something myself—needs attention. So does being what he calls a topper, someone who takes the speaker’s story but rather than acknowledge it and learn more adds her own story that is just above it in scope or seriousness or drama. That’s not hearing or seeing at all.

This is an important book, too. I wish there were a workbook. The concepts are important, but perhaps not completely original. If any of us truly lived The Golden Rule, the world would be different. I am humbled enough that you’d think I would catch on better. (At The Mansion, an entire, juicy, purple blackberry rolled down the front of my dress, mocking me all the way.) Brooks includes this which will serve as my conclusion as well: “If our country is going to come back from the inhumanity, and if our families are going to come back from the breakdown, and if our workplaces are going to thrive, we just have to be really good at this skill of seeing others, making them feel valid, respected, heard and understood.” Easier said than done, so let’s do it anyway.

(A link to a lecture from his book on character here.)