Yang Gui Fei
By Victoria Chang
Surely you know I will rule your besieged kingdom in the afterlife,
build the rivers so they flow into a great bath,
populate the land with plum trees, foliate the skies
with golden birds.
Once I was more than a woman, more than a gold hairpin,
more than three thousand bathing concubines.
Once the soldiers followed the scents of my long braiding curls,
cording around my neck.
They followed a peeling leader who trailed me the way
a buzzard steals breath from the dying.
Surely you know that on this slope, aspens and spruce
will eventually be wrapped in fencing,
honeysuckles hung with mesh, petunias draped
by a stockade fence, tethered animals
will go round and round a tree until they strangle themselves.
My body will hang without its shadow.
From Poet's Choice in today's Washington Post Book World. "As an art to do with memory, which is to say the bridges between past and future, poetry often engages the afterlife," writes Robert Pinsky. In Chang's book Circle, he adds, "she gives a voice -- prophetic, superior, angry -- to a favored concubine of a T'ang emperor. Chang's note accompanying the poem tells us that the woman, Yang Gui Fei, was 'forced to commit suicide on the slopes of Mangwei Village.'" This poem is one that exemplifies for Pinsky "how poetry, like memory itself, can reside in the infinite, overwhelming realm between the powerful dead and the living who hear their voice or feel their touch."
We had a lovely full Saturday to make up for a quiet Friday. In the morning, older son worked in my mother's Hebrew school classroom and younger son had soccer (they lost again, he is quite fed up...he was fed up when he was one of the weaker players on a very strong team, but when one's team has not won a single game, it gets frustrating). After lunch, we went downtown to the phenomenal and very crowded Katsushika Hokusai exhibit at the Sackler Gallery, where my younger son impressed me by looking at Beneath the Wave off the Coast of Kanagawa and saying, "Jennifer Cutting's Ocean Orchestra had that on their banner" and then counting all the crabs in "Crustaceans" (a hundred and twelve, I think?) I don't know nearly enough about Japanese art to say anything really coherent, but the very first scroll one encounters when entering the exhibit, "Thunder God," looks so contemporary that the kids at first thought it was from some manga they don't know, and the animals, deities and seascapes are amazing. This exhibit leaves after next weekend, so anyone near DC with any interest, I highly recommend it!
We also went through the smaller Hiroshi Sugimoto exhibit, "History of History", which is a mix of Sugimoto's own photographs, designs and found objects with a collection of Japanese ritual objects dating back thousands of years. I'm afraid that the kids' favorite was Testament of a Penis, an enormous stone rod dating back thousands of years, on a contemporary hospital gurney, but mine was probably Treasure Pagoda With Seaview Crystal Ball, a miniature 13th century pagoda with a crystal on a lotus dais that was reflecting, in miniature and in reverse, all the other artwork in the room. There is a retrospective of his photos at the Hirshhorn Museum as well.
We had parked on the Freer Gallery side of the complex and younger son had seen a poster advertising Whistler's Peacock Room, which was moved nearly intact from London to Freer's home in Detroit before he gave it to the Smithsonian. (Read the story at that link if you're interested -- Whistler apparently had a big falling-out with his patron which affected the decorations in the room.) The museum had an activity booklet for kids involving counting the peacocks and working on repeated motifs, and younger son, who can get rather restless in art museums, was completely engrossed for 20 minutes in this single gorgeous room.
Since we were in the Freer I also dragged everyone through Freer and the Ideal of Feminine Beauty. The exhibit describes Freer as a lifelong bachelor -- code for what I think it's code for, as with Jamie Wyeth at the Brandywine Museum, I bet, given the exhibition's assertion that "Freer seems to have identified himself with the spiritually and aesthetically sensitive subjects of these artworks." I know that Whistler was supposed to have been an arrogant bastard, but his women are glorious. So are those by Thomas Wilmer Dewing and Abbott Handerson Thayer whose work is also included in this exhibit.
We went briefly to The Smithsonian Castle, which has a small exhibit on Legendary Coins and Currency, including some massive US gold coins that are worth far more than their weight in gold uncirculated. The Castle also has rotating examples of other representative Smithsonian possessions -- everything from equipment taken to the moon to a miniature of Robert Indiana's LOVE sculpture to Frank Lloyd Wright's place settings designed for the Imperial Hotel to one of Edison's first lightbulbs to a giant stuffed bearskin.
And then we went to the zoo, intending to see the new baby sea lions, but by the time we got there, they were apparently inside for the day. That was the bad news; the good news was that the baby panda, also inside for the day with Mei Xiang, was wide awake and showing off for visitors, and although he was behind glass we were much closer to him than we ever were when we saw him sleeping outdoors and the crowds were minimal...they let us walk right in without tickets!
The little guy dutifully followed his mother everywhere, getting in her face whenever she sat down to munch.
Here is the father, Tian Tian, who only sees his offspring through glass. It's hard to tell whether he resents getting less attention or is just as happy to eat in peace.
But really, is there anything cuter than that peeking face?
We also saw the seals, beavers, wolves and eagle, since they live right near the sea lion enclosure, as well as the pelicans who live inside it, and the Przewalski's horse, which is extinct in the wild and which the zoo is trying to breed for release. Then we came home and, being in a horse mood, watched the Kentucky Derby, about which I always have mixed feelings (I know all about the evils of horse racing so far as the animals are concerned, and find it undeniably exciting anyway). What a magnificent athlete Barbaro is. Though I was sort of rooting for Sinister Minister just because that's a great name and it's a lovely horse.
At night we watched the first half of Tristan and Isolde (turned off after an hour because both kids were watching and interested but they have Hebrew school in the morning and we agreed to wait for them). It's very King Arthur -- stripped of the fantasy element, no love potion, no immutable prophecies -- which I think actually makes the love story more compelling, since they fall in love as people rather than archetypes even if they are outrageously pretty and I suspect the costumes wouldn't pass historically accurate study. There's lots of swordfighting and very nice cinematography...again like King Arthur, easier if you forget beloved previous versions of the source material and just sit back and enjoy the story for what it is, which so far has been several nifty battles that the kids liked and the expected feminist rant against arranged marriages. Part two Sunday after The West Wing, I suppose, and after a Beltane ritual and birthday party at Shadowlands!