In mid-February, we mark an event whose contemporary incarnation is nearly universal in the West and popular well beyond, the Feast of Saint Valentine. Geoffrey Chaucer is often credited with having penned the first poem in its honour; his ‘Parliament of Fowles’ features the first extant reference to the date as an amorous occasion—noisy, lustful birds in the Garden of Love. As the sun sets on this Saint Valentine’s Day, we think not only of Chaucer’s birds but also canine creatures, with the Year of the Earth Dog commencing 15 February. Dogs are known as the humanitarians of the Chinese zodiac, valued for their loyalty and principled nature. They make very good friends but rarely do they offer grand romantic gestures. While celebrating amour, then, perhaps we might also reflect on bonds that go beyond the romantic, to an expanded form of love of fellow-humankind that early Christians called agape and which exists in so many spiritual traditions. This other form of connection can be achieved regardless of the stars that winked over our birth; with this in mind, let February be a time to remember the exemplary few among us who have fought, sacrificed and strived for the right to human connection in all its diverse forms. Thoughts turn particularly to those in the LGBTQI community—to name but a few, consider Xulhaz Mannan, founder of Bangladesh’s first LGBTQI magazine, murdered a year ago in Dhaka; Arsham Parsi, who from self-imposed exile in Canada has helped countless queer Iranians seek asylum abroad; and Dameyon Bonson, who long before Australia’s historic parliamentary decision to recognise gay marriage had been working to prevent suicide among Indigenous youth who bore the double stigma of their community’s underprivilege and their sexuality. Looking to such models is, in the broadest sense, an occasion to feel the love.
Lucía Puenzo is a novelist as well as a director, and her restrained films have a subtlety suggestive of a prose writer’s slow-boil approach to dénouement. XXY (2007) tells the story of Alex, a suitably androgynous name for an intersex teenager who recently stopped taking the hormones that suppress her masculine side. Alex’s family lives in a remote part of Uruguay, where her father, a marine biologist, studies, among other creatures of the deep, the clownfish—a species that exhibits sequential hermaphroditism, wherein the male becomes female. A plastic surgeon from Buenos Aires arrives to visit the family, bringing his wife and teenage son, Álvaro, whose sexuality is unclear but who is clearly attracted to Alex. The surgeon’s cold appraisal of human bodies and the feverish intensity of an early crush are dissonant elements in Puenzo’s compassionate depiction of love, which encompasses puppy love, fierce parental love and the challenge of loving one’s self. The film feels like an early version, not deficient but different, of last year’s seductively beautiful Call Me by Your Name.
In November 2016, the queer Tejana composer Pauline Oliveros died at the age of 84. Oliveros was a sui generis sound artist who collaborated with Terry Riley, Morton Subotnick, Steve Reich and John Cage. We are lucky she left to us, among other works, ‘A Love Song’, a plaintive and mesmerising piece of music that defies categorisation. Oliveros’s musical education and repertoire were wide and deep. She played accordion, tuba and French horn, then studied composition, becoming fascinated by electronics and tapes (she was one of the first members of the San Francisco Tape Music Center). Composed for voice and accordion in 1985, ‘A Love Song’ was part of her album The Well and the Gentle. The accordion drones; the vocals are transporting. Her touchstone was, ‘Listen all the time and remind yourself when you are not listening.’ This magnetic piece of music never lets your attention drift.
Indigenous LGBTQI Australians face particular difficulties in asserting their right to live and love freely. Intersectional pressures leave many feeling incredibly alone. In 2016, Dameyon Bonson won the Dr. Yunupingu Award for Human Rights for the suicide-prevention work he has done in remote Aboriginal communities. Growing up in Australia in the eighties, he wrote in the Guardian, he ‘swooned over Han Solo and envied Princess Leia throughout the original Star Wars trilogy’ even as he experienced homophobia inflamed by the AIDS epidemic. He also witnessed his father agitating for equal rights as an Indigenous man: ‘My father, like many others, lived the first few years of his life not recognised as an Australian citizen. He carried an Exemption Certificate, often referred to as “dog tags” or “dog licences”. The 1967 referendum brought citizenship but the racism never stopped. Faint but distinct memories of “abo”, “bong”, “coon” being hurled from cars or at the footy infiltrate my childhood memories.’ Bonson’s upbringing and experiences moved him to found Black Rainbow, an organisation dedicated to preventing Indigenous LGBQTI suicide and self-harm, which are the result of hazing and violence as well as ‘unintentional heterosexism and Eurocentric privilege.’ Black Rainbow aims to combat all these ills so as to fortify a vulnerable community.
The Paris Review Podcast takes the tidy paper package of the illustrious journal and brings it to vivid swimming life with the help of some wonderful voices. Episode 2 features two stories about relationships. The fashion documentarian Hailey Benton Gates reads Erica Ehrenberg’s prose poem ‘Pause at the Edge of the Country’, which blends tropes of motion and stillness to convey physical attraction. ‘I want to lie in this damp towel in these starched sheets forever while another body that just moved through me clips its toenails and opens a beer,’ writes Ehrenberg. Whatever the narrator thinks or feels, she knows her lover ‘does it back to me, objectifies me, tries to love me, feels contemptuous, gets angry.’ ‘My wife, In Converse’, a short story by Shelly Oria, is read by the actress and playwright Donnetta Lavinia Grays. The warm, burnished timbre of Grays’s voice captures the intimacy and longing at the heart of a lesbian marriage that is fraying. Oria’s female narrator enjoys saying the words ‘my wife,’ she tells us, for the frisson of surprise they elicit even in the most liberal of listeners. We also get the impression she likes saying those words for the feeling of ownership they impart. Her wife, wanting to take a cooking class solo, says curtly, ‘ “We are not one person, you know.” ’
The British-born portrait artist Douglas Chandor (1897–1953) held the distinction of painting Winston Churchill, Queen Elizabeth II, Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and several of his portraits hang in the White House and the Smithsonian; still, he liked to say that he painted to pay for his garden. In tribute to his second wife, Ina Kuteman Hill, Chandor created seven lush, interlocking gardens in bone-dry Weatherford, Texas, a speck of a city west of Fort Worth that was Ina’s hometown. The Chinese-influenced gardens include a koi pond, a ‘Moon Gate’ made of antique roof tiles, a bowling green, and a 20-foot waterfall courtesy of Ohio governor James Cox, whose portrait Chandor painted and who, upon hearing of the eccentric artist’s fond dream to install an ambitious water feature in an arid land, decided to underwrite it. The horticulturist Steven Chamblee has kept the vision alive and also updated it, planting 500 azaleas to honour the original concept of a spring garden and adding annuals such as bluebonnets and zinnias and exotics such as snake sansevieria and voodoo lily. Open to the public, Chandor Gardens plays host, no surprise, to a good number of nuptials.
The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda dedicated a collection of 100 love sonnets to his longtime mistress and third wife, Matilde Urrutia: ‘I built up these lumber piles of love, and with fourteen boards each I built little houses, so that your eyes, which I adore and sing to, might live in them.’ In 1953, Neruda built Urrutia an actual house, La Chascona, in Santiago’s Bellavista neighbourhood. Urrutia wrote in her memoirs of the afternoon they found the site, a piece of land pitched at a steep slope. ‘We were charmed by a water sound...a real waterfall coming by the canal, on top of the place. Pablo was plethoric with joy. “This is the most beautiful thing I‘ve ever seen”, he told me.’ The couple built the house over many years, in increments, with ever-shifting blueprints; they didn’t so much grow into the house as the house grew with them, alongside them. At first, during the years Urrutia was still a secret lover and lived alone in the house, there was only a living room and a bedroom. With the architect Germán Rodríguez Arias, Neruda and Urrutia added a kitchen and dining room, and later a bar and a library. The final additions, made in 1958, were the work of the architect Carlos Martner. ‘Sometimes [Neruda] bought windows and furniture in demolitions,’ Martner recalled. ‘I remember once he had a window, a painting and a sofa he liked very much. He wanted to create a space that included all those things, with the half point window facing the mountains. He wanted to adapt the space to the object, the whole to the part.’ The property is now a museum operated by the Pablo Neruda Foundation, open to the public year round (closed on Mondays).
Afterglow is a series of love letters from a poet to a pit bull terrier. The tough, trenchant, never-treacly Eileen Myles adopted a rescue puppy in 1990 and named her Rosie, and the two lived together until Rosie’s death in 2006. Myles’s homage to the animal is full of whimsy and affection. They imagine Rosie being interviewed by a toy puppet to whom Rosie discloses that she actually ‘wrote virtually every poem by Eileen Myles from 1990 to 2006,’ that she privately refers to her owner as ‘Jethro’, and that she still loves Jethro despite their ‘whining “Why can’t anyone see I’m a genius?” ’ Another chapter sees Myles gathering Rosie’s old things—a bottle of painkillers, a plastic cone—so they can toss them out. The dog’s food bowl makes them remember the way ‘the orange sauce would stain your [white] maw.’ Myles addresses the late Rosie: ‘You liked snow, and rain and air and sun and the beach. You loved these things and I brought you to them and you smiled.’
Bernd and Hilla Becher were aligned matrimonially and visually. They met at a Düsseldorf ad agency and were soon taking pictures together, very straightforward pictures of structures such as water towers, blast furnaces, gas tanks, mineheads, cooling towers and grain elevators. They grouped images of these ‘anonymous sculptures’ into typologies, with grids that emphasised similarities. Before she met Bernd, Hilla was an apprentice to Walter Eichgrun, one of a family of photographers to the Prussian court. Eichgrun practised and taught what Hilla called ‘direct, descriptive photography… clear, clean images—with a complete tonal range, with appropriate depths—devoted to the subject’. It was a philosophy she took to heart and deployed in her work as an architectural photographer. Early in Bernd’s career, he became enchanted with a commercial photograph of an ironworks. By the time he visited the site and tried to draw it, the ironworks was being disassembled, and he instead captured it in 35mm. In 1959, two years after he and Hilla met, they began driving around Germany to photograph the unlovely structures whose beauty they discerned and brought out, practising a form of historical preservation in the midst of deindustrialisation. They came to conceive of some of these structures as ‘nomadic architecture’, for instance, a blast furnace dismantled by Chinese workers in Luxembourg that was then reassembled in China. For their plain, rigorous labours of love—and the preservation efforts they occasionally inspired—the Bechers were awarded the Erasmus Prize for European culture in 2002.
Illustrations by Jeffrey Cheung.
‘Where do we begin? Begin with the heart.’