Last Week/This Week: highs and lows

by Ashley Bales


There’s a funny thing about living in times where horror and tragedy are around every corner; media hops along, led around by the nose from one horror to the next, and it becomes harder and harder to find conversations focused on furthering literary interests that don’t stray into the mix.  Here lies the conundrum of conformity vs. individuality in the social media age.  How to rise up from beneath the dog-pile of commentary and proclaim: “But my voice! I deserve attention!”  It takes a mighty voice, indeed.  The most a lowly MFA student, slaving away at weekly blog posts, can manage is a meager belly-flop, more pratfall than splashing glory, onto the mess.  I demure.

But the conundrum got me thinking about the variety of dialogues accessible in our troubling times. There are venues for engagement—and for god’s sake, engage—but there is additional loss accrued in abandoning personal commitments: to craft, practice, discourse not pre-occupied with the current socio-political moment, enjoyment in a sunny day.  These are privileged commitments.  The value of directing our privileges towards engagement cannot be understated, but we must allow ourselves time to explore individual voices amid the collectivism.             


I went to the opera this week.  Actually, I went to two operas, which, despite being in the cheap seats, puts me in the 1% of something.  The first opera, Norma, premiered in 1831 when its composer, Bellini, was 30.  Walt Whitman was a particular fan of the opera, as I learned from Barone’s piece in the Times.  Relevant because Whitman is the subject of Aucoin’s (age 27) opera, Crossing, which finished it’s run at BAM’s Next Wave Festival yesterday.  Whitman saw Norma in 1853, when he was 34, two years before he referred to it in Leaves of Grass, and nearly 10 years before he left New York to find his wounded brother and spent the next year volunteering as a nurse in a Union hospital outside of D.C.  Whitman recounted these experiences in Memoranda during the War, which served as Aucoin’s inspiration and source material for Crossing.

There is no explicit connection between Norma and Crossing, but operatic tropes run deep.  Norma is the story of love and betrayal across battle lines (Druid v. Roman) and Crossing focuses on Whitman’s love for a patient of his Union hospital who turns out to be a Confederate deserter.  In my program notes, Aucoin informed me “…Whitman considered opera the pinnacle of human expression...” and, he adds, “…opera is a primal union of animal longing, as expressed in sound, and human meaning, as expressed in language.” 

Only amid the pomp and drama of operatic tradition could Norma’s climactic “Son io” (“It is I.”) –sung at volumes shattering even across the soaring expanse of the 3,800 seat Metropolitan Opera House—be deemed understated.  The Met’s always excellent program notes describe Bellini’s choice to “…strip away the orchestra entirely, leaving Norma’s voice bare and exposed…” as “…simple and honest…” I love opera for its extravagance.  As a writing student, however, I am warned to be cautious of melodrama.  Opera doesn’t play by the same rules; perhaps Whitman didn’t either.

Aucoin drew his opera’s title from Whitman’s poem, Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.  It was written prior to Whitman’s time in the hospital and long before the publication of Memoranda during War, but Aucoin chose it for the line: What is it then between us?  This line opens and closes the show, asking the viewer to question what separates us, what draws us together: audience and viewer, author and reader, Union and Confederate, more timely political dualities.  And Aucoin, too, adapts Whitman’s words to present concerns:

You—America—contradictory, confus’d, ill-assorted, cruel and generous mother!...
…I have asked—is this humanity—these butchers’ shambles? I have asked—will the devils in us win the day?
I have asked what the bond is between us.


This week on the blog, Phil Lemos considers what novels best embody the most loved and notorious US presidents, Garrett Zecker discusses the daunting task of choosing what to read, and David Moloney talks storage units.

Ashley Bales is a current student of The Mountainview low-residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.  She holds a Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology, teaches in the Math and Science Department at Pratt Institute and is web editor for Assignment Magazine.