Tuesday, July 13, 2010

`He Tended to Speak Personally and Individually'

When my wife called Monday morning to tell me of Harvey Pekar’s death I was seated in the bleachers of the Bellevue Aquatic Center, reading John Williams’ anthology English Renaissance Poetry (1963) while my ten-year-old was swimming laps in the pool. News of death is always inconvenient and often undignified. I fear I’ll forever link the stench of chlorine with the death of Harvey and yet another piece of my spent youth, but Williams’ selection offers what I hope will prove happier, longer-lasting associations. Take “On the Life of Man” by Sir Walter Ralegh:

“What is our life? a play of passion,
Our mirth the musicke of division,
Our mothers wombes the tyring houses be,
When we are drest for this short Comedy,
Heaven the Judicious sharpe spector is,
That sits and markes still who doth act amisse,
Our graves that hide us from the searching Sun,
Are like drawne curtaynes when the play is done,
Thus march we playing to our latest rest,
Onely we dye in earnest, that's no Jest.”

“Musicke of division” refers to the entr’acte, music performed between the acts of a play. The association with Harvey, a longtime jazz fan and occasional critic, is pleasing. In his liner notes for the CD reissue of Gerry Mulligan-Paul Desmond Quartet in 1993, Harvey writes of Desmond (and he might be describing some of his own work):

“He had a small, pretty, vibratoless tone; an excellent upper register; and at his best an inventive, lyrical, improvisatory instinct.”

“Tyring houses” are another convention of the Elizabethan stage – the “attiring house” where actors dressed before a performance. The best parts of the film American Splendor are the “real” Harvey’s un-Hollywood-like, comically kvetching appearances. He was a natural actor when not acting. “Spector” is “spectator” with a suggestion of “spectre.” “Still” is “always” and “latest” is “last.”

In his brief introduction to Ralegh’s work, Williams (author of Stoner) provides a sort of epitaph for the poet that might likewise serve as Harvey’s:

“…he tended to speak personally and individually. Laconic, bitter, and defiant, his voice is one that strangely intimates the enigmatic loneliness of his life.”

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