Saturday, March 20, 2021

Petunias, Patagonia, the Pampas and Politics:: a meditation

"Petunia" patagonica

I've posted pictures of this wonderful creature several times on Social Media, and they seem to attract more than passing interest. More like minor conflagrations of enthusiasm: rock gardeners who usually disdain the giant annual petunias go ape-sh#t (sorry, but it fits) over a cushion cousin with those ludicrously penciled corollas...what's it all about Alfie?

"Petunia" patagonica and Junellia

Here's a truly triumphal display in our glorious Steppe Garden at Denver Botanic Gardens: the clever staff there have gathered together a bevy of very choice Patagonians--several species of Junellia (the little lavender verbena cousin left and center), and of course our putative petunia upper right...when this is in bloom in late April to June I make regular visits to this altar like arrangement (although I try and avoid kow-towing)..

"Petunia" patagonica

Each clone is different--here this one has far fewer markings within. The large Patagonian slope in the Steppe Garden has dozens of enormous mounds of this: I look forward to the day when they're all brimming with flowers. Surely that day will come? Although they do seem to bloom better on these raised, trough like beds...

"Petunia" patagonica
One last little glimpse of a flower growing in a trough at Mike Kintgen's home: Mike was perhaps the first in Denver to really tame this challenging flower that Botanists are now thinking of relegating to another genus--perhaps Fabiana--saying it's not really that petunioid after all. No one is rushing to agree, so let's keep with our little fantasy of a spiffy cushion perennial petunia with pencilled petals...

It was those pencillings that have got me going in an interesting direction: who has not been dazzled by complexity, the labyrinthine pattering of frost, crenelation, incrustation and the Moorish grandeur of faience?

Faience at the Alhambra, October 2001

It's not TOO much of a stretch, is it, to go from the tracery inside a petunia blossom, to the elaborate complexity of Arabic lettering carved on the walls of the incomparable Moorish palace in Granada...and that city too became a center of yet another elaborate, extravagant sort of aural tracery--the magical sound of Spanish guitar....I'm carrying you by leaps and bounds, I know: but there is a method to my madness. I mean to suggest in the modest Blogpost of mine that ornamentation of the sublime sort--whether the petals of petunias, the tracery of Islamic wall art or the flourishes of guitar chords have other astonishing connections....which brings me back to Argentina, where I've been meaning to lead you all along...

As a very young man I had a dear friend from South America who introduced me to the rich musical traditions of South America: Maria Bethânia, Vinicius de Moraes from Brazil, Inti-Illimani and Violeta Parra from Chile, but a lots of Argentine musicians, one of whom I found especially haunting.  I purchased vinyl records which I played until the days of vinyl faded (for me) and I remembered from time to time how much I loved Atahualpa's guitar and his wonderful voice.

With Spotify, Pandora and Youtube, I have found a wealth of Atahualpa music I can play most any time I fancy. I'm one of those people who like to work on the computer with music in the background. I'm pretty fussy: baroque music (especially Bach, Vivaldi and Teleman are my favorites, but Spanish guitar is often even more soothing. And I discovered that Ata Yupanqui is an ideal work accompaniment.  It's one of the few musicians I can work to with songs with words, I don't know why. Although he's composed lots of instrumental songs as well. There is something so compelling about his music. Although very much a folk musician (he studied the indigenous folk songs throughout the high Andes as a young man) there is the complex rhythms and elaborate picking in his music that must derive from Gaucho guitar, which in turn has strong ties to Flamenco and the elaborate, complex Spanish guitar tradition. You can see where I'm going here--I find Atahualpa's music to be a correlative of the complexity of Islamic ornamentation, and in turn the complex patterning of flowers--all which seem so utterly, almost insanely complex, but which indeed have an ulterior and ultimately very simple end perhaps in mind. 

For the flower, the patterning of flower always leads to attracting pollinators and perpetuating its kind. The pencilling of the petunia is nowhere nearly as complex as things can get in this arena...

In Islamic art, the fantasy of faience is a sort of glorification of Allah--I wouldn't be surprised if the faience at the Alhambra spelled out verses from the Koran...

One of innumerable album covers of Ata's music

But what of Atahualpa's music, which seems so direct at times, and seemingly simple. Don't be fooled for a moment: I highly recommend (especially if you speak Spanish) listening to a River that never ceases to sing (click to go there), which was an hour long documentary about the artist for television. I found it spellbinding. It begins with his testament of sorts, a short prose poem to guitar where he expresses his philosophy. I transcribed the verses and translate them below:


Quién soy? Pues soy un argentino                              Who am I? An Argentine singer

cantor de artes olvidadas                                              of forgotten arts

que camina el mundo                                                   who travels the world                              

para que los pueblos no olviden                                  so that people will not forget

el mensaje sereno y fraterno                                        the peaceful and brotherly message

de los paisanos de mi tierra                                          of the country folk of my land.

aspiro a expresar los tres misterios argentinos            I aspire to express the three Argentine mysteries:

 la Pampa la selva el misterio de los Andes                 the Pampa, the forest and the mystery of the Andes

 de las montañas donde vagan libremente                    of the mountains where wander freely

vicuñas y guanacos y donde el cóndor                        vicuñas and guanacos and where the condor

rubrica la historia del tiempo Indio         `                    signs with a flourish the history of Indian times

sobre la mañana azul del territorio                               on the blue morning of the land

amo la naturaleza amo al música de Bach                   I love nature, the music of Bach

amo al árbol al viento y al caballo                               I love trees, the wind and the horse

y guardo un anhelo para mí profundo                          And I bear a deep desire

de sumarme un día a la región de los anónimos           to add myself one day to the anonymous region

Sin nombre sin imagen sin historia personal                without a name, nor image nor personal history

 sólo un canto de amor y de paz                                    just a song of love and peace

que el viento lleva hacia un mundo de hermanos.        which the wind carries to a world of brothers.


 I was so enchanted with rediscovering Ata (as he's often called) I did a bit of reading in various biographies: his lifetime parallels so many artists of his generation such as Pablo Neruda, Pablo Picasso, John Dos Passos, Hemingway, George Orwell: as a young man he became a Communist and spent much of his youth going into and out of jail for his political beliefs, and was banned for long periods of time--especially by Juan Perón. He spent much of his middle age in exile in France. He rejected communism in the early 1950's, although he maintained an enormous commitment to the poor and social justice all his life. The huge burden of exile and repression scarred his entire youth and middle age. As you listen to more and more of the words of his music you can see that the elaborate arabesques with the guitar, the seemingly simple lyrics "of the people" all are shot through with themes of freedom, ecological and social justice and a deep commitment to equality, democracy and love. This isn't just tinkle tinkle of pretty sounds or the hackneyed themes of so much popular music.

 Readers of my blog are aware of my lifetime interest and love of the writings of Vladimir Nabokov (henceforward referred to as VN), a writer who would SEEM to be poles apart from Ata, not to mention the decorations of the Alhambra!

 Nabokov's writings are often discounted as "formalist"--as elaborate, complex art for art's sake indulgences. I've read his work compared to Fabergé jewels. He's also reviled as heartless and cruel--which I find truly bizarre. VN was also boxed into the category of "white Russian" (many of whom were political reactionaries). His non-stop detestation of all things Leninist, or having anything to do with communism led many to assume he was a political reactionary. There is no question that word play, gorgeous images and fantastic settings and themes provide an exotic illusion when it comes to VN. As with the Argentine guitarist, the gorgeous, baroque notes of Nabokov beguile and perhaps disguise truths we'd rather not face. I have however always known that there was a rock solid base of ethics in his writing, and that his moral compass pointed rigidly towards Justice.

Over the last few weeks I read Andrea Pitzer's The Secret History of Nabokov. In this book she shows that much of the impetus and virtually every passage and every verse VN wrote is full of allusions to the enormous political calamities that effected his life at every turn, from the Russo-Japanese war of his childhood, the First World War, the Russian Civil War, Lenin's reign of Terror, The Stalinist purges, the rise of Hitler and the continuing tyranny in Russia and elsewhere around the world. He and those close to him barely escaped many of these calamitous events: in fact many did not. His father was assassinated by Russian fascists. His brother Sergei died in a concentration camp. Yes, he always hated communism, but makes a strong point of sympathizing with Social Revolutionaries, who were clearly socialist and often allied with the Kadets, his father's party. And he left Russia with guns shooting at his ship, and he and his family barely escaped France as it was being taken over by Nazi Germany. His writing is full of direct and subtle references to the politics of his time, and although he detests pontification and crude politicizing, this book reveals that a profound sense of the importance of intellectual freedom, hate for tyranny and sympathy for the underdog permeate both his prose and poetry. Having re-re-read so many of VN's books, I was almost embarrassed reading Pitzer's elegant monograph: I'd missed scads of subtle allusions to concentration camps throughout his work, to torture and the horrendous mass murders of the last century and especially his lifetime battle with anti-semitism. I now realize how much the terrors of our time were an obvious preoccupation for him In some ways, his works like all great art comprise a redemption of our collective soul.

Ornamentation is ridiculed by devotees of minimalism. Sometimes the only way that profound feelings can be expressed (or perhaps masked for their protection) is beneath carved intricacies of verbal and musical and literal faience. Atahualpa Yupanqui and Vladimir Nabokov--so seemingly different in so many ways, are perhaps brotherly in another more meaningful way.

If you made it to the end, I doff my Greek sailor cap to you.

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