Bryan R. Monte – (AQ14) Autumn 2015 Museum Review

Zero—Let Us Explore The Stars Exhibition, Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum   7 July to 8 November 2015
by Bryan R. Monte

If you are in Amsterdam on a rainy afternoon and the lines at the Van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum both wind down the street, may I suggest a visit to the Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum’s, Zero— Let Us Explore The Stars special exhibition. Even though I thought I was fairly well versed in “Modern” art, I was surprised last July to attend the press opening for a retrospective of an art movement about which I had no previous knowledge.

Zero is an exhibition about a group of optimistic, future-oriented, European (Dutch, French, German, Italian and Swiss) artists, who, in the 1950s and early ’60s, used simple, cheap, monochromatic and sometimes recycled materials in novel ways including puncturing, (Henk Peters), cutting and burning, (Otto Piene), mounting or stacking (Amando and Jan Henderiske) or just painting and/or displaying found objects (Jan Schoonhoven).

Zero artists (or spouses) with the Zero Manifesto on wall behind them at the Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum, (4 July 2015). Back row l. to r.: Elizabeth Goldring Piene, Christian Megert, Jan Henderikse and unidentified woman. Front row l. to r.: unidentified man, herman de vries and Uli Pohl.

Zero artists (or spouses) with the Zero Manifesto on wall behind them at the Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum, (4 July 2015). Back row l. to r.: Elizabeth Goldring Piene, Christian Megert, Jan Henderikse and unidentified woman. Front row l. to r.: unidentified man, herman de vries and Uli Pohl.

Just as with any new movement when people are experimenting with materials, some were more successful than others. Henk Peter’s Aquarel (1966, 2014 reconstruction), a wall of water-filled, triangular-shaped plastic bags filled and hung against a black background and illuminated by spotlights was for me the simplest yet most memorable work in the exhibition. The 20 rows of perfectly aligned bags of water catch the light in such a way that they actually shine against the black wall. Followed closely thereafter would be Yoyao Kusama’s One Thousand Boat Show (1963) a boat made of what looks like white stones, with hundreds of identical smaller images of the same boat projected around it, which seems to float in the room. And a third work would be Jan Schoonhoven’s R 62-16 (1962) mentioned above which, once painted white and mounted, shows the simplicity and the restful rhythm of its repeated structure.

Less successful in my opinion, however, are Amando’s tires mounted on a wall, Guenther Uecker’s chairs or TV sets with nails pounded in their sides or Jan Henderiske’s beer crate or cork sculptures, which although most students are accustomed to stacking crates in their rooms to make cheap shelving, I wouldn’t particularly call that art. In the same vein, herman de vries’ white, seemingly architectural, model building blocks don’t move me as much as Otto Pien’s perforated metal drum with its rotating internal light source that casts changing, expanding and deflating geometric images on the surrounding walls. Similarly the optical illusions that would come later in the sixties are preceded by works such as François Morellet’s, Sphère-trames, stainless-steel sculpture (1962) or the more dynamic optical illusions (albeit monochromatic ones) created by Günther Uecker’s, Heinz Mack’s and Otto Peine’s Lightroom gallery: Homage to Fontana (1964).

Some of Zero’s real treasures, however, are reserved for almost last. Two galleries to the left of the entrance hall (the last two if you follow the map provided by the museum) is a room of Zero videos. The best of these are the nude body painting performance art of Yves Klein with a live, seated audience and string quartet accompaniment in addition to Heinz Mack’s silver spaceman clothing, tall poles hung with round and banner-like silver reflecting material which seems set on another planet rather than on a North Sea beach. The former clearly seems to pre-date the later sexually-free counter-culture happenings that would take over campuses and the art world just a few years later.

Even if its sunny outside, I’d still recommend you take a break from the crowds on the Museumplein and use the opportunity to learn more about a relatively unknown (for me) 1950s and early ’60s European art movement which was the historical predecessor of the optically illusionary and happenings art of later ‘60s and early ‘70s. I guarantee your time at the Stedelijk will be well spent.

Bryan R. Monte – (AQ14) Autumn 2015 Book Reviews

AQ14 Autumn 2015 Book Reviews
by Bryan R. Monte

Nights at Rizzoli by Felice Picano. O/R Books, ISBN 978-1-939293-67-1, 224 pages.
The Don’t Touch Garden by Kate Foley. Arachne Press. ISBN 978-1-909208-19-3, 61 pages.
The Magic Laundry by Jacob M. Appel. Snake Nation Press, ISBN 978-0-9883029-9-0, 134 pages.
When I was a Twin by Michael Klein, Sibling Rivalry Press, ISBN 978-1-937420-91-8, 63 pages

My mailbag was much heavier this summer due to readers’ responses to my short, diaried memoir of Philip Levine and the books I received from publishers and authors. I have had plenty to read and I have selected one memoir, one book of short stories and two books of poetry to review for a good mix of genres.

The memoir, Nights at Rizzoli by former New Yorker and now Southern California resident, Felice Picano, is a small, handsome book with beautiful cover art—NYC building fronts (front) and artists, (back) by Max Wittert. It describes Picano’s work at the Rizzoli bookstore in “snotty, pushy, Upper Midtown Fifth Avenue” (across from Tiffany’s) in the 1970s, the store’s multi-national, polyglot staff and their celebrity customers. These included among others Mick Jagger, Philip Johnson, Salvador Dali, Rose Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Picano presents most of these encounters with celebrities as things that just happened to him, not meetings he sought since he fails to recognize both Kennedys until well into their first meetings and, in fact, he turns down a date with Johnson at his “nine-room penthouse suite overlooking the city.” Then there are the more unusual encounters such as the man who was building a new house in Montana who asked Picano one evening for suggestions on what sorts of books he should stock there to make his artist guests feel at home. Seven thousand dollars worth of books later, Picano helped him find an answer.

At his job interview, Picano is asked to make suggestions on how the store can improve its sales—“get more intellectuals and college students coming in…by offering Garcia Marquez, Octavio Paz, Lezema Lima.” Rizzoli continues to expand as Felice convinces the store manager, Mr. M., to display English-language, best-seller books in the store more prominently, especially Jaws for which Picano makes a special poster composed of “a pair of snorkel goggles I owned, splashed…with nail polish and added in my old rubber swim fins…chewed up with a box cutter.” Picano also assists in setting up Rizzoli’s art gallery next door whose opening features Erté’s work and includes the appearance of the legendary dancer, Josephine Baker, who arrives in a white Rolls Royce.

In addition to his bookstore duties, Picano also describes his activities as a nascent gay activist, as the leader of the Purple Quill gay men’s writers group and as a volunteer in an ad hoc vigilante squad through which on “Thursday(s)” from “midnight to 3 A.M.” he protected the gays and their suburban daddies who had sex in the empty meat and produce trucks parked “beneath what was left of the elevated West Side Highway” from teenage gangs from “the projects above 14th St.” Picano’s partner in this squad was an Afro-American transexual called Marsha Johnson who “kept three sharpened-to-stiletto-point Afro combs in her big “do.”” Picano’s memoir takes you close to the action—physical, historical and sexual. His writing style is very clean and his description has just the right number of details to place his reader firmly in the milieu making his memoir not only informative, but also entertaining.

The second book is The Magic Laundry by Jacob M. Appel. This collection represents his third prize for fiction writing in about a year. Winner of the Serena McDonald Kennedy Fiction Award, The Magic Laundry is a collection of eight interesting and quirky short stories. By accident, I was sent a few extra copies. Appel wrote that I could keep the copies for myself. I wrote him, however, that I would give them to my workshop students with the adage: “This is how you write good short stories!”—and that’s true. These stories are composed of characters from many walks of life all dealing with life’s unexpected twists and turns—from within or without—a university professor and Darwin descendant, whose daughter returns home at X-mas break with an orang-utan she liberated from her university’s animal laboratory, a Turkish watchmaker in Brooklyn who decides to join the fight against the construction of a sports facility in his neighbourhood because leading the charge is a very attractive woman only to discover, accidentally, that he has a talent for public-speaking and politics, and the cover story about a man who wants a nice, quiet job so he can study the classics and play baseball, whose parents set him up in the coin laundry business whose machines mysteriously seem to heal people’s ailments, creating problems with his customers and competitors. This collection marks the post-Modernist end of the Hemingway code where heterosexual men avoid “talky time.” Appel’s main characters are well-rounded, articulate (at least internally) and caught in multi-tiered conflicts, whose outcomes this reader usually found (seven out of eight times) delightfully unexpected. If you want to know more about how to write contemporary fiction, read this book.

Even though the old adage goes: “Never judge a book by its cover” the cover of Michael Klein’s new poetry book, When I Was A Twin, is certainly very attractive. Looking like “Wolverine goes to Fire Island,” Klein stands tall on the front cover with his brushed back hair and beard and big hands, wearing a P-coat on a wooden boardwalk which winds out towards the ocean. This is another exquisite cover from Sibling Rivalry Press—cover photos and art by Shef Reynolds; cover design by Seth Pennington.

The poem “Harmonium” begins this collection. It’s a haunting update about what has changed in the poet’s world and life (with a reference to Allen Ginsberg’s trademark harmonium playing at his readings) since the death of the person to whom it is addressed. The poet mentions Bruce/Caitlan Jenner’s transition, gay marriage, not going to cinemas anymore to watch films and: “Websites: So many websites like radium./There’s a website that consists entirely of lists/Whenever I look at a list with names on it/I think of death and awards.” With this poem, Klein deftly introduces the three subjects—death and lists and fame—which his book explores throughout.

His structural alternation of block prose poems with more experimental list poems, whose imagistic links change sometimes from line to line, and his use of these two forms to explore subjects such as film, theatre, actors, actresses, and horse racing, caught and kept my interest through the entire book. And the list poems with their fast changing-linking-build-your-own-narrative, rather than covering up or confusing the subjects actually strips away and clarifies them. Klein, like Trinidad in this issue, also has a poem about 9/11, “The planes I said and then the nothing afterwards,” which describes the cruel chance that determined who survived that day: “Did they ask for more/living at the intersection of alive and not living?” and the bewilderment of those survivors who lived to see the disaster wrought by Hurricane Sandy a few years later: “And now, or just last week, more disaster: the predicted water/took up something furious to wreck the houses down in Queens.”

But it is the sorrow for a sibling slowly drowning in depression at a distance which is the main theme of this book, an experience rendered painfully accurate in “The Motivation of an Actor”

….I watched my brother live, but couldn’t touch the flame around his life. And I didn’t want to be absorbed by art. I didn’t trust art to throw me back….

Klein’s poetic rendering of his relationship with his twin brother rings, unfortunately, very true to my own with a schizophrenic, artistic relative.

And I do have another confession to make. Even though I’m gay, I must admit I have more of an affinity for Klein’s poems about horses “Other Horses” (experimental poem) and “The Lives of Horses” (prose poem) than for those about the theatre and film, “Music for the Theater” and “Giuliette Masina” having gone yearly to watch a cousin compete in the equestrian arena at the state fair. I do still, however, enjoy Klein’s list poems such as “Things that Might Be True” and “The Medium” having also started to write my own series about past boyfriends and therapists and why things went wrong.

When I was a Twin is a book of well-written poems, some more challenging and experimental than others. (which, in my opinion, is exactly what a poetry book should offer). I think readers will experience much leesplezier (reading pleasure) as we say in Dutch from this thin volume of poetry, which I wholeheartedly recommend.

Last is a poetry book by British-born, Amsterdam resident and local treasure, Kate Foley. The Don’t Touch Garden is a compilation of poems from six of Foley’s previous books. These poems are about birth, adoption, childhood, family and and the search, albeit too late, for one’s biological parent. This new edition of these poems by Arachine Press is bound in a cover which includes a photo of a garden with a gate and a bench which, despite the book’s title, seems to welcome one in. This book, like Klein’s, is small enough to fit into a coat pocket and is the type of book I would read and meditate on when I was younger as I wandered around my town “looking for the trapdoor out of suburbia.” In “Bison” Foley comments on her almost lifelong lack of knowledge of her biological parents: “My pre-history is as blank as a people without pots/or bones.” Or with advancing age, suddenly finding our parents in the mirror as we begin to resemble them unwittingly physically and psychologically. The poem “Paradox” also discusses this voyage of discovery of parentage: “Mirror, mirror on the wall/the old joke goes/I am my mother after all.//but which ?” It also illustrates her advice in the introduction to this volume: “to parent the face we find in the mirror.” It is a brave book, which recreates what some children growing up were probably told to (and would like to forget), but which others feel impelled to explore to understand who they really are.

The Don’t Touch Garden includes poems about war-time Britain, (the title poem being the longest and the most interesting in this collection to me due to its historical nature), poems about young parents, “Corchipoo,” (including a young child overhearing her parents having sex) and an abusive, adoptive uncle “The Man on the Bike.” In this poem, the adoptive mother asks: “Tell me! What did he say?”//She means ‘What did he do?’” The tensions between wondering about who her birth parents were, to trying to find a place in a home where she doesn’t seem to fit due to her expanding poetic perception and her parents’ more restricted worldview (whom she takes care of as they age) continues throughout the book including the poem, “The End of a Long Conversation” where Foley meditates on her parents’ death and final separation without a proper good-bye. The Don’t Touch Garden is small, beautiful, thought-provoking book, which should be in every English-language collection about adoption and searching for one’s true parentage.

Bryan R. Monte – AQ13 Summer 2015 Book Reviews

AQ13 Summer 2015 Book Reviews
by Bryan R. Monte

Einde verhaal/End of Story by Philibert Schogt, Arbeiderspers, ISBN 978-90-295-3903-6, 2015, 344 pages.
Poor Advice by Lou Gaglia. Spring Up Mountain Press, ISBN 978-0-9863490-0-3, 2015, 216 pages.
The Best Women’s Travel Writing (vol. 10) edited by Lavinia Spalding. Travelers Tales, ISBN 978-1-60952-098-4, 2014, 305 pages.

This issue includes reviews of three books which I feel are guaranteed to provide AQ’s readers with enjoyable summer reading. The first is a novel, Einde verhaal/End of Story by Amsterdam’s Anglo-Dutch writer, Philibert Schogt. The second, Poor Advice, a collection of short stories by American writer, Lou Gaglia, and the third, The Best Women’s Travel Writing, Volume 10, a collection of women’s travel essays, edited by Lavinia Spalding.

Einde verhaal/End of Story is Schogt’s fifth novel, (the fourth published by the Arbeiderspers). It is the bilingual story of John or Johan Butler, an emigre Dutch-Canadian translator who lives in a little village just north of Amsterdam who is about to retire until he receives one last, controversial and potentially dangerous assignment. Butler, who has lived in the Netherlands for the last 20 years, receives the assignment to publish Tobey Quinn, a famous American novelist’s latest nover of the same title into Dutch. Since this novel contains a passage in which the God takes part in a celestial talent contest with Charles Darwin and the devil and loses, however, Quinn, Quinn’s publisher and ultimately Butler all receive death threats from a fundamentalist, Christian preacher—End of Story—end of you!” John/Johan Butler, nonetheless, translates the first chapter and when things heat up, travels back to Canada to his parents holiday camp, Butler’s Hideaway, near Algonquin Park for his own safety, to meet Quinn and to confront his Dutch-Canandian background which he abandoned twenty years previously when he decided to move to the Netherlands temporarily with his girlfriend Cindy for a year. After one year became two and two years two decades and John/Johan fell in love with and impregnated his publisher’s assistant for whom he was doing translation work, John/Johan’s stay finally became permanent.

But death threats and infidelity are just minor parts of this novel which is really about growing up bi-lingual and the type of cerebral and thus emotional attachment conflicts it creates. The protagonist is not one person but two—John in English and Johann in Dutch. And the novel is written in two languages—English to tell mostly John’s point of view and Dutch to reveal Johan’s. In addition, in the more epistolary English sense, John’s English part is told in the first person, whilst Johan’s more emotionally reserved Dutch part is told in the third person. As a result of this, the two parts of the story are not parallel. John tells much more about his sexual exploits on a secluded Canadian island with his high school girl friend who accompanies him to the Netherlands for 20 years, than his Dutch alter-ego ever does. Johan is also much more in love with his 20 year younger wife, his two daughters and his idyllic life in the village of Holysloot just North of Amsterdam, its back garden draped in apple blossoms, than his alter-ego John who writes his memoirs whilst Johan sleeps and who wants to return to Canada. It’s the death threat that finally tips the scales and enables John to drag Johan back to Canada to encounter the country where “they” both grew up which is now both familiar and foreign due to their 20 year absence. John/Johan also encounters many surprises towards the end of this story, which I will not give away, but which sustains the narrative suspense to the novel’s end.

This is a novel most bi- or polylingual writers, readers and artists will enjoy since its explains the cerebral bifurcation and emotional difficulties encountered by people raised in more than one culture and belonging wholly to none.

Lou Gaglia’s Poor Advice is a collection of humorous, entertaining short stories, set mostly in one of New York’s Italian-American neighbourhoods but occasionally branching out into other alternative settings. Due to his not-completely dependable narrators lack of education, however, they don’t always grasp the situations in which they find themselves. For example, the narrator in the title story goes to the opera alone after not being able to get up enough courage to ask a waitress out. He describes the interval of the opera as “half time” how he had trouble staying awake until:

Mimi went into one of those viscous coughing jags hacking up a storm while everyone, except the horses, looked on worried. Before she knew it, she was in bed dying, and the writer was bent over her, not even minding she was coughing in his face—a sure sign of true love when a girl can cough in a guy’s face and he doesn’t even flinch or get pissed.

Another interesting story is the surrealist “Tony, the Mustache,” during which a moustache is persistently worried about being shaved off because his wearer’s girlfriend doesn’t like the way he looks.

Tony lived in constant apprehension. As a result, he was a very jumpy mustache. He had horrible nightmares a few times a week, sometimes more….Tony could be described as a nervous wreck of a mustache, though his master would only refer to him as “this stupid mustache,” which sometimes left Tony depressed for days.

This narrative is even more interesting because not only does this moustache have consciousness, but it is also is able to talk to other moustaches it passes on the street.

“You look a little down in the bristles, Tone.” Ray said.
“I am.”
“Thinking about being shaved again?”
“What else?”
“Look. I told you. Stop reading that Satre.”
“I can’t help it. Anthony’s reading Being and Nothingness.
“You don’t have to read it. Curl your hairs.”

Although, many of these stories are satirical and/or humorous such as “Orca (A Madcap Thriller)” a satire of Jaws and “Days of Wine and Pratfalls,” about a waitress who infects her boyfriend with her clumbsiness as she learns to be graceful by practicing yoga, some stories such as “Little Leagues” and “This is my Montauk” delve into serious subjects such as the long-term effects of bullying and drugs in their narrators’ neighbourhoods. Both of these stories, due to their realism and candor are worth the sum of all the humour and entertainment in this book. Poor Advice is a fine, well-balanced, collection of short stories and comes with “A Reader’s Guide,” which could facilitate discussion of this book in secondary and tertiary educational settings. It is certainly one that will not disappoint recreational or academic readers.

The last book for the summer that I would like to recommend is Lavinia Spaulding’s The Best Women’s Travel Writing, Volume 10. I spent about a month reading one of these thirty-one travel vignettes each night before I went to sleep and enjoyed learning about travel and cultures from the Arctic “For the Sake of the Sin” (Norway) by Blare Braveman, and “Leader of the Pack” (Finland) by Peggy Orenstein to the tropics “Good is Coming” (India) by Angela Long, “Ashes over Havana” (Cuba) by Magda Montiel Davis and “Why did the American Cross the Road” (Vietnam) by Sarah Katin and the writers who describe the many countries in-between.

Many of these journeys are made by women with various goals in mind. Some are on errands, such as Davis in “Ashes over Havana,” where she first describes her frustration trying to get her father’s ashes back into the country he fled after the Cuba revolution and later trying to fulfill his wish to be strewn on the playing field of Havana’s baseball stadium. Due to the guards at the stadium’s entrance however, Magda decides to covertly deposit her father’s ashes outside of the stadium with an old friend, Ive, who has remained in Cuba since their childhood. Later at Havana’s seawall, she throws the last of her father’s ashes into the sea that separates Havana and Miami. But the ashes

…fly back inland, toward a pretty girl with brown skin kissing her boyfriend, a pretty brown girl now covered with my father’s ashes. Ive and I stare at each other. Ay, I say to the pretty brown girl’s boyfriend as he wipes the white off her face, her hair, her blouse, pernonanos. It’s O.K. he say, pronounced O-kah, the anti-imperalista, Revolutionary way…That’s O.K. I say….Dad’s happy going home with her tonight. He always liked brown-skinned girls best.

Other stories include accounts of women’s journeys made despite recent medical traumas or hardships and/or on-going disabilities. For example in “An Unwanted Guest” (Indonesia), Simone Girrindo describes not only the toll hiking through a Javan rainforest and a accidently stepping on a jelly fish took on her journey and her relationship, but also the added effect her chronic medical condition had on her own health and her relationship.

At home, my condition and his abilities had, somewhat magically, never been at odds, but here, the difference seemed stark and divisive. He belonged to the land of the healthy, where people move easily, their arms and legs vehicles that get them where they want to go. And I was on another island entirely, a place that, no matter how many times I circled it, offered no way off.

Many of the other stories in this collection describe women pushing themselves to their physical limits to discover and/or reclaim their bodies’ strength and resilience. This writing is also accompanied by a keen eye for the history and the culture of the people among which they are living. It is an excellent collection of travel essays, not only for women but also for men who want to share these women’s insights of their travels in different parts of the world.

Bryan R. Monte – AQ12 Spring 2015 Exhibition Reviews

AQ12 Spring 2015 Exhibition Reviews
by Bryan R. Monte

Ed Atkins, Recent Ouija Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam 21 February to 31 May 2015
Rembrandt van Rijn, Late Rembrandt, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam  12 February to 17 May 2015

Is Anyone There?

“Is anyone there?” was usually the first question asked at the beginning of a Ouija board game, played during adolescent sleepovers just before bed. Ouija is a game which requires the suspension of disbelief that one or more persons whose hands are resting on the planchette are not actually pushing it around the board to produce answers rather than supernatural powers. Recent Ouija is the name of Ed Atkins’(1982) has chosen for his one man, multi-media show held at Amsterdam’s Stedelijke Museum until 31 May 2015. The show in the museum’s basement is divided into nine spaces: #1 Warm, Warm, Warm Spring Mouths, 2013; #2 Counting 1, 2, 3,; 2014 #3 Bastard, 2014, #4 Ribbons, 2014; #5 Happy Birthday!!, 2014; #6 Untitled, 2015, #7 ‘No-one is more work than me’ flextime redux, 2014; #8 Even Pricks, 2013 and #9 Material Witness OR A Liquid Cop, 2012.

Gallery #1 features a computer generated model, one of Atkins’ avatars, which recites poety as its hair grows longer. One of the poems it recites (and one of the high points of this exhibition for me) is Gilbert Sorentino’s “The Morning Roundup” from his book, Corrosive Sublimate. Sorrentino’s meta-poetry and meta-fiction is intended to stand for itself with images that come fast and change quickly so that one must (at least partially) construct one’s own narrative to make sense of what is going on. (I was introduced to Sorentino’s work when I published my literary magazine, No Apologies, in San Francisco in the ’80s). Borrowing on Sorrentino’s modus operendi, Atkins offers meta-poetry and meta-imagery in his Recent Ouija paintings, video and audio pieces in which the visitor is to construct his/her own narrative. The Ouija effect, however of these installations (where meanings are to arise spontaneously as if created by the incorporeal other and not from the self as in when someone “consults” a Ouija board to find answers to questions) is not all that apparent to me nor was I surprised, perplexed, challenged, etc. by what I saw, heard or felt. In fact, the only image from Atkin’s work that momentarily startled me was on the cover of his Zürich/Mainz Kunsthallen/Julia Stoscheck Collection exhibition catalogue—that of a small hand grasping a much larger than scale thumb which momentarily appeared to me as another body appendage.

Perhaps it’s because I am aware of some of the sources of Atkins spoken or sung texts and visual iconography—classical music, advertising, postmodern poetry, gay culture, world events—that I readily made associations from my own experience or world events for his images and avatars so that this installation didn’t seem magical or its meanings did’t seem to come from unknown sources.

For example, the video of the male avatar in gallery #4 (Ribbons, 2014), naked and hiding under a café tables or shirtless with his head resting top of the café table, a cigarette burning to ash in his hand reminds me of Warmostraat backrooms from the 1990s and the Straight to Hell videos of a decade later, in which various straight-identified, young men were subjected to various sorts of gay sexual bondage and humiliating words for various bodily orifices or appendages were written on their heads. (Although the Internet is full of images and videos of many straight lager lads have also had some of written some of the same phrases on their foreheads of their inebriated, unconscious friends). However, I can’t remember too many of these young men with their heads on café tables singing “Erbarme dich, Mein Gott” (Have mercy upon me, My God) from J. S. Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion where Peter begs God tearfully for forgiveness for denying he knew Jesus thrice to save his own life. (Although this pairing of high-brow music with low-brow culture has also been used before in the film, Clockwork Orange, for example). Even the disembodied head in gallery #5 (Happy Birthday!!, 2014) with a bit of blood below its nose emploring: “Look at me, look at me!” and reassuring with: “It’s just a bit of blood” didn’t make me look or feel squeamish as I am of real blood. Thus, this technology and installation did not suspend my disbelief.

Perhaps for less literate, apolitical, twenty-something, virtual-native, X-box, thumb jockeys, these installations blur the distinction between fantasy and reality. But for this literate, political, 55+, virtual émigré (computer mainframe and personal computer user from 1984 onward), X-box virgin, I found Atkin’s Recent Ouija exhibition unsurprising and disappointing. I was always aware I was watching simulations, not reality. My senses were not tricked and delighted as they are when I viewed Rembrandt’s “The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis” with its mysterious, phosphoric-yellow light that seems to radiate from the canvas itself or saw Stanley Kubrick’s ride through time in 2001, A Space Odyssey during which the double planes of speeding lights on the screen made my theatre seat seem to move. Perhaps if Mr Atkins had tried harder to merger high- and low-art as did Kubrick in Clockwork Orange, then his work would be more interesting to me and accessible to older audiences. In addition, if it were possible to talk or interact with the avatars and installations and not know if their answers were computer or human generated (someone behind a screen somewhere) then they would blur the barrier between physical and virtual reality which is the goal of Ouija. Instead, I feel Recent Ouija is a poor example of what a combination of more conventional art and music and modern virtual art and technology can offer.

The Old Man’s Still Got It

From a completely different era, another one man show, not more than a few hundred metres away, the Rijksmuseum’s Late Rembrandt tries to unlock the secrets of the great man’s last years by bringing back together prints, etchings, pen and ink and drypoint drawings and paintings from all around world (but mostly from the UK). These media help demonstrate Rembrandt’s virtuosity and inventiveness even in the last decade of his life including some exceptional portraits he painted in those years.

These different media have been hung together into galleries with the following themes: “From Life,” “Conventions,” “Emulation,” “Light,” “Experimental Technique,” “Intimacy,” “Contemplation,” “Inner Conflict” and “Reconciliation.” The temporarily assembled collection (this exhibition will hang for only 100 days) includes the addition of the life-size Portrait of Frederik Rihel on Horseback, 1663 two versions of Lucretia from 1664 and 1666, The Jewish Bride, (which according to Vincent Van Gogh, was Rembrandt’s masterpiece) and which hangs next to the Portrait of a Family, both from 1665 and sharing some of the same poses and hand gestures and, of course as previously mentioned, The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis, 1661-1662 with its mysterious yellow light which seems to radiate from the canvas itself. With so many media and paintings from the same decade, this once-in-lifetime exhibit should have something for everyone interested in Rembrandt’s later life. A good guide for making your way through the galleries is the Rijksmuseum’s own pamphlet, Late Rembrandt, which individually names and describes all 105 items in the exhibition. This pamphlet can be found in a rack in the stairway beyond the lift in the “entrance” hall and is available for a free-will donation.

Despite the richness of this collection however, it’s shame that the galleries are so filled with people that it is difficult to see many of these masterworks, let alone move about. (Note: De Telegraaf, a Dutch national newspaper reported on 25 February, five days after my visit, that the number of visitors per two hour slot would be reduced from 1,500 to 1,000).

Hopefully, by reducing the number of people present by one-third, visitors will have more of a chance to view the masterworks and perhaps even sit down to contemplate some of them occasionally. Another problem, however, is that the etchings, drawings and prints, are hung at eye-level for visitors standing up. Those in wheelchairs have difficult viewing them even though the usual metal curbs have been removed in most places so it is possible to roll up right under them.

It’s unfortunate there wasn’t room available in the middle of the galleries to put these prints in glass cases, but of course, with the great number of visitors and the necessary safety precautions, this probably wasn’t feasible. Even with all the overcrowding, I’m sure visitors will see things they will remember and enjoy for years to come. However, they should also consider booking twice to come back and see what they’ve missed before this exhibition closes on 17 May 2015.

Bryan R. Monte – AQ12 Spring 2015 Book Reviews

AQ12 Spring 2015 Book Reviews
by Bryan R. Monte

Aquarium by Michael Conley. Flarestack Poets, ISBN 978-1-906480-37-0, 27 pages.
The Magician’s Daughter by Meryl Stratford.Yellow Jacket Press, No ISBN, 24 pages.
Reading the English by Bryna Hellmann. American Book Center Espresso Book Machine, ISBN 978-9491-03057-4, 290 pages.
Scouting for the Reaper by Jacob M. Appel. Black Lawrence Press, ISBN 978-1-937854-95-9, 186 pages.

Since last autumn, I have been receiving books to read and review for this issue of Amsterdam Quarterly. Most of these books have made their way to me personally via the authors, whilst a few have been sent through the post. I am happy to report that out of the dozen or so I have received, there are four I would very much like to share with my readers.

The first is Jacob M. Appel’s award-winning book of short stories, Scouting for the Reaper published by Black Lawrence Press and winner of the Hudson Prize. This book is so dark you’ll have to read it with a torch (Am. Eng.: flashlight) at midday to explore all of its shadowy corners. This collection is a fine example of postmodern, gothic American literature whose greatest exponent is Stephen King. In 186 pages Appel describes East Coast suburban America as a place where the creepiest, most unfortunate things happen to educated people who should know better.

In “Creve Coeur” men from two generations of the same family are drawn as the proverbial moths to a flame to do favours for a beautiful woman and her daughter. This attraction, however, ends in the electrocution of the father despite his wife’s warnings.

In “The Extinction of Fairy Tales” a single, female folklore researcher purchases a home in suburbia through an early inheritance due to her parents’ fatal automobile accident. Here she loses herself in her research, cut off from her neighbours, her only contact with the outside world, an African-American man, who mows her lawn. Decades later when he without notice suddenly fails to show up due to retirement, illness or death and her overgrown yard becomes a nuisance for her neighbours, the folklore researcher’s thin tether with reality is paradoxically cut leading to her quick demise. My particular favourite in this collection, however, is the title story, in which an undertaker makes his daughter wear a girlscout uniform to gain his potential customers’ sympathy and possibly more lucrative funeral arrangements.

In Scouting for the Reaper, Appel combines his knowledge of art, medicine, and East Coast American culture to weave tales that are frighteningly believable and which you will keep you reading to the very end.

Amsterdam resident Bryna Hellmann’s Reading the English, is an informative and entertaining book about the history of the English language written by the founder of the New School of Information Services, Amsterdam. In 275 pages of text, Hellmann describes the history of Western Europe starting with the last Ice Age and proceeding to the present day. She mentions the influence of the Romans, Anglo-Saxons and Christian monks on the first form of English spoken in the British Isles. Then, in simple, declarative phrases that don’t pull any punches (typical of those used in this book), Hellmann mentions the influence of the Viking invasions on English:

Around the 8th century, the first Danish Vikings landed on Britain’s Eastern shore. Crops were burned in the fields, books were ripped apart to get at the gold and jewels, and the monks protecting the churches treasures were murdered. Young women and children were taken as slaves, and men who didn’t get away in time were murdered.

In addition to an accessible text, Hellmann’s book is filled with maps, charts, and parallel translations, (for example, of an Old English Beowolf text, a middle English folksong or a King James Bible passage in modern English), which assist readers in understanding the geographical, historical and cultural as well as the linguistic development of English. Cultural elements include sidebars about the The Bayeux Tapestry, an excerpt from Sir Thomas Moore’s Utopia, and reproductions of the title pages of Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragicall Historie of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus and William Shakespeare’s Hamlet among others.

Hellmann pays especial attention to the Romantic poets and women novelists. She also covers the change in English literature, culture, fashion and women’s liberation in roaring 1920s from a refreshing London-based point of view rather than the usual New York, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Great Gatsby perspective. She explains the best way for her readers to familiar themselves with the changes in English literature in this period:

If you’re coming new to Joyce and Woolf, start with his story, The Dead and her novel, Mrs Dalloway. This works for Henry James too. His sentences and paragraphs and novels are all very long and need slow, thoughtful reading, so start with one of the novellas: Daisy Miller, Washington Square or The Turn of the Screw.

Hellmann has written a book that is both educational and entertaining and which will certainly help young readers better understand the English language and the literature that its various cultures, over more than the last millennium, have produced.

Michael Conley is a poet whose surrealistic poem, Aquarium, caught my attention in autumn 2013 in AQ8 in my review of the Flarestack Poets 2012 anthology, Sylvia is Missing. Aquarium is also the name of Conley’s own poetry chapbook published in 2014 by the same press. Based on this one poem, it does not surprise me that Mr Conley’s collection was chosen for publication. What did surprise me, however, was the sweep of his poetic themes and styles. Conley discusses themes such as the realistic description sex and death in the natural world and same sex partner relations in “A Romantic Picnic with my Lover, the Entomologist,” and “We Discover a Severed Thumb in the Woods,” the semi-surrealist “16.07.2003 After “The Death of Dr. David Kelly” by Dexter Dalwood” in which the narrator “pushes his palms against his eye sockets” to form “yellow spots” which later “turn white and float/towards the bridge of my nose to form/ a huge misshapen moon.” “Rising” with its scientifically entitled sub-parts: I. Oxygen, II. Lead and III. Anti-Gravity describes his grandmother’s final illness and death. These are just a few of the subjects and themes Conley explores in Aquarium. My favourites are “Gemella” in which Conley’s grandmother, eight months deceased, appears to him on the shore of Lake Como. “Gemella’s” lines also float down the page in four to eight syllable lines each a bit more indented then the one above which conveys both his grandmother’s state in the hereafter and her dementia before her death:

The question is/how she managed/to fool us with the illness/for so long. Ten years/since the day we caught her,//moon-eyed stashing butter/in an upstairs cupboard/accusing the neighbours/of stealing her slippers.

Another poem “The Greatest Joke Ever Told” charts the development of Conley’s surrealist wit at a young age. As a four-year-old, Conley asks “Mrs. Clegg’s husband” who’s identified a beech tree, if it is called that “because it goes to the beach/all the time.” In a more serious vain are the poems “Cartoonist” “We Are No Longer Interested in the Sea” “Body Double” and “Losing It” the first are about freedom of artistic expression (strangely prophetic post-Charlie Hebdo), the second about ecology and the last two about a son’s physical and psychological inheritance from his father. Aquarium is an inspiring, well-written chapbook. (I wrote two new poems—one for my multiple sclerosis series and another about my family—in pencil in its margins whilst reading it). I hope it also inspires you to take pen or brush to hand.

The second chapbook I’d like to mention is Meryl Stratford’s The Magician’s Daughter. It was the winner of the ninth annual YellowJacket Press Chapbook Contest for Florida Poets. Having been a third-grade school teacher for many years, Stratford knows how to write simple yet powerful and memorable lines. Her view of life, however, is far from simple. She addresses subjects such as the death of a parent and its affect on her students in “Goldengrove.”: “The lesson for today is grief/I write the word i before e/ on the board.” The children write poems about people or things they’ve lost and “After the last sentence, they look up/as if they’ve come back from far away,” an experience that most writers strive for: to be in the zone and out of themselves and time as they write about what is important and hopefully, eternal. Stratford continues her book with poems about childhood and adolescent development including young love in “How Knowledge Enters the World,” and “Green Lake” and “Nixie”, and she addresses the magic of the natural world in the book’s title poem. In “Mallory Square, Key West,” she explores the wonder of living in the moment: “o sun/melting/ filling the sky with yellow light/ drenching us in yellow fragrance/ we are here/we are all here.”

In “Lake Erie” and “When my Mother Died” she explores the consequences of her grandfather’s and her mother’s passing. In “We Could Use a Little Magic.” she presents world economic malaise in the metaphor of a “Magic Store…going out of business/unable to conjure customers.” and reasons that “We’d need Houdini himself/to get us out of this entanglement, /this short-sightedness, this smoke-and-mirrors/greed.”

Stratford’s poetry describes major life stages and wider social and economic issues with simple, metaphorical poetic language. As with Conley’s book, I started some of my own poems in its margins because I found it so inspiring. I’m sure you will also.

Bryan R. Monte – AQ11 Autumn 2014 Book Reviews

AQ11 Autumn 2014 Book Reviews
by Bryan R. Monte

The Heart Imagining Itself (and other tropical dreams) a journal for imagining the heart by Yolanda V. Fundora, 2014, UrbanAmish.com, 978-1-50028-053-6, 46 pages.

Mysterious Acts of My People, Valerie Wetlaufer, Sibling Rivalry Press, 2014, 978-1-937420-66-6, 87 pages.

Phoning Home, Essays by Jacob M. Appel, South Carolina Press, 2013, 978-1-611117-731-0, 177 pages.

Planetary Emotions by Yolanda V. Fundora, 2014, 978-1-50028-533-3, UrbanAmish.com, 121 pages.

The Talking Day by Michael Klein, Sibling Rivalry Press, 2013, 978-1-937420-27-7, 64 pages.

During the summer reading period, I received five books that I felt merited a review or mention in this issue. Two of the five books are books of poetry, two are journals (one blank and one illustrated), and the last is a book of essays. Two of the books “authors” are male and two are female and they discuss subjects in Jewish, Latina, lesbian, gay and straight American and European cultures.

Jacob M. Appel has worked as a Brown University professor of bioethics, as well as a doctor, attorney and New York City tour guide. He has written more than 200 articles, and in the last year, has had three books published including a collection of essays, Phoning Home, about his upbringing and thoughts as a third-generation, Flemish-Latvian-American Jew. Appel’s essays describe how his family’s relations over the last century and on two different continents have been influenced, tempered, tested, broken and even erased through exile, emigration and genocide.

What makes Appel’s essays so interesting and unique is his candid, stastical or professional approach and/or non-melodramatic description of his relatives’ experience. For example, in “Caesura—Antwerp, 1983” when one of his uncles happens upon a long-lost friend from the Antwerp Jewish Ghetto in a small Spanish village while searching for someone to repair his watch, Appel does not describe a Schindler’s List reunion. Rather, the two old men just embrace, shake hands and talk for as long as it takes to repair the watch, then go back to their lives on different continents.

Appel’s ability to see and write about things clearly, rationally and without melodrama also permeates his discussion of bioethics related to healthcare and the quality of life, “Opting Out,” “Charming and Devoted” and “Livery” and limits of political discourse in America due to death threats he’s received related to his openness about his opinions on end-of-life decisions, “Our Incredible Shrinking Discourse.” I must admit that Appel’s wish, “for the medical staff to place a plastic bag over my head during my sleep” once his body no longer functions as he wants it to, differs somewhat from my own wish to stay connected to whatever apparatus necessary as long as I can still write by moving an eyeball à la Jean-Dominique Bauby. However, he makes a good case for his own situation and that of his relatives. He is a keen observer with a wide and precise vocabulary and his sentences and passages vary in length and rhythm making them a pleasure to read. The essays in Phoning Home could certainly be used as a model and a source of inspiration for others trying to capture somewhat quirky family histories from a novel, detached but also realistic point of view.

AQ10&11 artist and contributor Yolanda V. Fundora submitted two journals she created. The first journal, The Heart Imagining Itself (and other tropical dreams), features richly illustrated images from Latina culture opposite empty, lined pages. This journal will be especially good for writers who benefit from visual prompts include a series of representations as to how the heart imagines itself as the the first day of spring, the sun, the moon, a cloud, a star, etc., in addition to those of the Virgin, a mermaid, the hanging woman, a cactus and different types of fruit trees. The colours are so vivid and the subjects sequentially-placed that I can’t image an ekphrastically-oriented or inspired writer being unable to discover or create new material working in this journal.

In contrast, the only illustrated part of Fundora’s second journal entitled, Planetary Emotions, is its cover which includes a representation of the stars in the winter sky revolving around the North Celestial Pole in prismatic colours. The 121 lined pages inside this 6×9 inch (15×23 centimetre) bound, paperback journal are blank and should provide enough space for one’s thoughts at least for a season (based upon the use of at least one page per day). It will certainly be small and light enough to take along on journeys or to work or class and should also be the right size to be stored later in a bookcase next to your favourite books.

I discovered poet Michael Klein’s book, The Talking Day, while “surfing” Sibling Rivalry Press’ website this summer. I had not heard of Klein before, and I found the four “example” poems, “Cartography,” “from “When I was a Twin,”” “Provincetown 1990,” and “The Poet” to be intriguing. These four sample poems are exceptional in their range and description. The first poem, “Cartography,” demonstrates the power of the poet’s imagination and how a map for him is like the backdrop to a story—in this case a village with smoking rising from it and a woman walking down a road. The next, “When I was a twin” is an elegy and expresses the poet’s shock at his loss. This shock is even stronger because the nature of the loss isn’t revealed until halfway through the poem. “Provincetown 1990” is a very chilling poem that describes both the force of sexual desire and the spread of the AIDS epidemic, and how it passed by the two men and changed them. The last poem is an account of the poet’s development, his ars poetica and his awareness of his history and that of another writer.

Other subjects covered by Klein include alcoholism, gun rampages in America and their aftermath (referring to the book’s title), aging, and urban gay life. Stylistically I find his prose poems, “Florida” and “Movie rain and movie snow” the most arresting due to their sudden turns right at the end. In addition to its excellent poems, The Talking Day, has an eye-catching, camp, erotic cover photo featuring a tan, naked man shown in a side pose in a garden, framed by hula hoops and some sort of net. This cover is certainly as intriguing and as beautiful as Klein’s poetry. I don’t know how I could have missed Klein’s career. I have only my emigration to the Netherlands twenty-one years ago and my ex-pat teaching career as an excuse. This being his third acclaimed (poetry) book, I feel I have some catching up to do.

Mysterious Acts of My People is a remarkable, debut poetry book by Valerie Wetlaufer. It covers a wide range of subjects such as love, loss, sex, violation, nature, religion and madness. The book’s title poem introduces a world in which life is cheap and violent. “They say you can get two redheads/for the price of one in this town,”… “More of my bones were broken in hospitals/than on playgrounds.” Wetlaufer also describes this world masterfully using a variety of typographical formats. Whether in “The Canyon” where she describes the natural world in prose poem blocks to draw her inner landscape or in “The Mind’s Boil” where words float all over the page to describe madness, Wetlaufer expresses herself in ways that are both arresting and memorable.

In addition to typographical variation, Wetlaufer is also able to employ monologue effectively to describe herself and her fictional and historical figures. “Insomnia with Solomon” (a page and a half column with no stanza breaks) describes Wetlaufer’s thoughts one after another starting with a phone call by her mother and thinking about the neighbour’s barking dog, why she should “stop eating red meat, take the train more often,” juxtaposed with “get my car washed, my eggs harvested,” etc. a long list of the important and the mundane which continues until it ends with the thought again of her mother’s call. Other interesting monologues include “Needle Pointing North,” about a settler gone mad, “The Window Smasher Speaks,” and “Glass Makes a Clean Cut,” by Mary Sweeny an asylum escapee and even an “erasure” poem, “The Margin of the Lake,” with lines from Dorothy Wordsworth’s journal: “I wore a dress of whisper to touch it feels smooth surprise/my face now flame colored.”

I hope you have a chance to explore Mysterious Acts of My People, or one of the other books mentioned above, during the long autumn and winter evenings. ‘Til March 2015!

Bryan R. Monte – (AQ10) Summer 2014 Book Reviews

Amsterdam Quarterly Summer 2014 AQ10 Book Reviews
by Bryan R. Monte

Later by Philip Gross, Bloodaxe Books, 2013, 978-1-85224-979-3, 80 pages.

The Other History: or unreported and underreported issues, scenes, and events of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries by Scott T. Starbuck, FutureCycle Press, futurecycle.org, 2013, 978-1-938853-41-8, 39 pages.

Towards a Digital Aesthetic: The Art of Yolanda Victoria Fundora by Yolanda V. Fundora, UrbanAmish.com, 2014, 978-1-49615-583-2, 122 pages.

During the past reading period, three titles have come to my attention, which I feel are relevant to AQ10’s theme of the earth, ecology and the future. The first two are books of poetry with environmental and philosophical themes and the third is a book about digital design which contains the artist’s/author’s images from both the natural and man-made world.

The first book, Later, is by 2009 T.S. Poetry Prize winner and English nature poet, Philip Gross, who is featured in an in-depth interview in this issue. In Later Gross continues his poetic explorations into his father’s failing health and death (the first 34 pages of the book) within the context and the limits of land, water, sky and language. To say, however, that this first section is just devoted to his father, however, would be misleading. gross_cover150X240 In fact there are also poems about natural landscapes, political change and language. In the first poem, “Flying Down Wales,” Gross describes Wales’ mountains as a“knobble-/back spine” and “surly wrinkles.” The next poem, “Home, 1990,” describes the effect that the end of communism and the lifting of the Iron Curtain had on refugees from Eastern Europe (and their families). “Come, you can come home now,” but instead the poem’s narrator looking into his father’s mind concludes: “Estonia was safe here, inside of you.” “Variations on the Theme from the Cornish” is as much a poem about language and culture as it is about Gross’ father’s decline.

To be sure there are poems almost exclusively devoted to Gross’ father’s illness such as “Stroke Ward,” “In High Care,” “Step,” “Survivor,” “Fall,” and especially “Birch his Book” which describes Gross’ father’s aphasia. Since some days I can type better than I can speak due to my MS, I think I understand a bit of Gross’ and his father’s frustration. Gross describes very well the situation where “few things and fewer each day answer to their names” and how he tries to teach his father the tree’s name, (a birch) as his father did for Gross when he was a child. The ambitious, eight-part poem entitled “Spoor,” (Dutch for train tracks or rails), mixes a journey to The Hague with his father’s physical decline and it relationship to his damaged neural network. I know very well the effect of the “blood shadow/ of stroke damage” and the “Scuff marks” in the brain that sometimes causes unexpected hesitations in my conversations due to my inability to find the right word or even substitute a simpler one. While I’m struggling, there’s also the added frustration of people finishing my sentences.

But as I mention in the beginning of this review, there is another side to Later, one in which I believe the poet, afer he has grieved, really begins to see the whole world again, especially its connectivity at the physical, social and metaphysical levels. In the book’s title poem, Gross uses the image of a bird that “stands up almost, on the water, up-and-un/ruffling wing of spray” as a metaphor for consciousness “…Yes, maybe that’s what self is, not/ a tight-inside-us nub/but what we are, thrown/out and off, un-self-seen,/ once-for-all,”. Gross moves forward in his poetic style in that he rediscovers his description of the social world which he explored in depth in his earlier collected volume, Changes of Address: Poems 1980-88. In Later, he links this social awareness with his ongoing concerns related to physics and metaphysics as can be seen in his poems “Barry Island, with Dante and Ducks” and “Goal.” As “Barry Island” concludes, the narrator is brought back from his expansive metaphysical meditations at the seaside “at the point of pure/ attention,/ the vanishing point,/ a kind of ever after” to the more local, temporal sights and smells of the place: “in the here and Thursday,/ with the smell of burgers,/ beach tar, spindrift pink/ of candyfloss, a bit/ of grace, a bit of luck.”

His next poem, “Goal,” uses the same method but in reverse. This time Gross starts with a pub crowd watching a football match: “goal! has lifted them clean off their bar stools/ and out of themselves/ their mouths wide, like one full-on/ gust of wind; there may be words / and somewhere, losers.” Two stanzas later, Gross compares this feeling of happiness with “launched/ like a toddler from a rough grip” and ends the poem in an expansive direction: “great laughter/like God’s….” The natural world, most especially the wetlands and seaside, remains the prominent setting for his poems, yet, I can’t help feeling personally that after he has worked through his father’s death, (perhaps the real Later of this book) Gross begins to notice and embrace the vibrant social world around him and integrate it within the big picture. Other favourites of mine in this collection are the literary “Glosa, Westron Wynde,” the technically-interesting, delicately-balanced, concrete poem “Whit” and the biographical poem, “Dirac, The Tower,” about the theoretical physicist, Paul Dirac.

It so satisfying to see a poet successfully address so many subjects simultaneously, and to do so by employing simple lines that seem to float effortlessly down the page. With this approach, Gross writes poetry with a great reach and accessibility without calling attention to the himself as observer, but rather to his subject matter. Lastly, I would like to mention that the beauty and simplicity of Later is also reinforced by its cover design: a very tasteful, blue-grey colour inset with Paul Klee’s painting, “North Sea, 1923,” à lá Turner with its horizontal bands of light pink, gray, green, purple, yellow and one of blue three quarters towards the top of the painting, suggestive of a coastline.

In contrast to the subtle beauty of Later’s cover, the cover of Scott T. Starbuck’s The Other History: or unreported and underreported issues, scenes, and events of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries features a dead duck covered in spilt oil. Similarly, Starbuck’s environmentally-concerned poetry doesn’t pull any punches. It is political, yet doesn’t fall into the standard trap of being purely polemic and/or programmatic.starbuck_cover150X228 Starbuck reaches to find new images to discuss events in American history that many are ignorant of either because they have been suppressed or ignored such as the removal and/or extermination of indigenous American peoples, the pollution of their once bountiful, pristine land and, until the Obama presidency, climate change.

The book begins strongly with the poem: “The Other History or How Federal and California Politicians Killed Indians.” “A student in my class says her history professor doesn’t believe/ Ishi’s people were killed for 25 cents a scalp then five dollars a head.” In the poem Starbuck explains how the California state government and the cattle ranchers “pacified” the indigenous Americans in the 1850s, “whose descendants (now) fight poverty with casinos.”

Starbuck brings the personal and the political quickly together as in his short poem about the melting ice caps, entitled “How It Is.” The poem begins: “Sometimes you forget Greenland exists/ like two pages stuck together in a novel…. Then it melts and Holland disappears.”

One of the most imaginative poems in this chapbook is “What If One Night a Highly-charged Comet Went By?” in which he explores what would happen if humanity experienced a technological, historical and personal amnesia in which computers were wiped clean, big business was unknown, “Libraries were shelves of paperweights” and people began to explore the natural world again with a new consciousness. He proposes a Utopia where: “People rose at sunrise/and went to bed at moonrise./The wheel and the sewing needle/became essential.” resulting in a rebirth of humanity and human consciousness “without countless pressures, distractions, /clogged airways, and moving images in boxes.”

On a more personal level, the book’s penultimate poem, “River Reflections,” reveals a lot about Starbuck’s environmental philosophy and his belief in the extent to which he can change things. In just 47 words, Starbuck simply states: “Like the elk/my vote/won’t be heard. // I have little/ economic/or political power. // I’m uninterested / in matters / lacking soul. // I gave up / television / when I was 15. // I am a nonessential / and unproductive / worker// yet a threat / to the machine/ merely by resting // and thinking.”

This is good, environmental-activist poetry reminiscent of Allen Ginsberg’s anti-nuclear poems, but sharper and quicker to the point. The Other History is soul-stirring and pragmatic and could be used to educate students about human and environmental disasters/atrocities not usually covered in standard high school/second-form or college/university textbooks. It’s heartening to see that 19 of this slim collection’s 29 poems have appeared in 19 literary and/or artistic venues. That said, it’s a shame that none of The Other History’s poems have been published in more mainstream publications like The New Yorker or The Christian Science Monitor. As a result, Starbuck’s poems may never reach the audience they deserve and thus, also will be less effective in initiating real change.

Technology and the reach of humankind, however, are not always the source of destruction in the natural world. Yolanda V. Fundora’s Towards a Digital Aesthetic demonstrates how digital images can enhance the viewer’s appreciation of the beauty in both the man-made and natural worlds. Her book’s introduction begins with a history of her involvement with digital technology following every change in the ‘80s and ‘90s and hoping that someday low-cost technology (computers and printers) would catch up with more traditional techniques to produce lasting works of art. TADAcover (I also experienced these technological changes in producing computer-generated books by typesetting my first magazine, No Apologies, in the mid- 1980s on the Brown University mainframe in CMS and saving it to reel to reel tape. Then in the 1990s, I designed books in GUI environments that produced bit-mapped type saved to 5 ¼ and 3 ½ inch “floppies” and CDs. And now  a generation later, I create multi-megabyte, word-processing and graphic application files for AQ’s websites and print-on-demand yearbooks that are saved to USB sticks and “the Cloud.”)

In the introduction to her book, Fundora also confesses that her love of art at a very young age caused her to ask adult strangers waiting in line at NYC’s MOMA or other museums if they could smuggle her in. (I too, share this experience with patrons of Cleveland’s main library, its Museum of Art and Severance Concert Hall.)

Her book, (which, like Starbuck’s, is available in both printed and digital formats) is divided into six parts: an introduction followed by her digital images grouped under the headings “Cityscapes,” “Landscapes & Trees,” “Abstraction & Symmetry,” “Musings and Ruminations” and “Noteworthly Floralities.” Four of her five paintings on display in this issue come from the first section. These include her bifurcated and partially denatured pictures of Amsterdam’s canals and her “Cleveland Park Fence,” and her “Rooftops of Amsterdam” with its Van Gogh style/Santa Fe colour sky and clouds. The fifth painting, “Waterfall Pilgrimage at Ohiopyle,” along with her other nature paintings in the second section, reminds me of Tiffany’s stained-glass windows, especially her “Dappled” and “Jockey Hollow” tree series drawn in broad brushstrokes and seemingly backlit. Just as interesting are pieces in other sections, the “Abstraction & Symmetry” section being my next favourite, especially the paintings entitled: “Organica” featuring what appears to be almost flower-like swirls of red, white, black and light blue, “The Birth of Galaxies” featuring swirls of colour sweeping out from a single point and “Magnificat” which looks like a combination of pastel and earth colour rock strata and crystal faces. Towards a Digital Aesthetic is truly a beautiful collection. It has inspired me to try my hand at creating digital art. I’ll begin with something simple like modifying some of my Amsterdam scene photos in Adobe Photoshop to create the sliders for  the AQ11 Autumn 2014 issue. I hope Fundora’s book also inspires you to take up your digital pen or brush to explore new techniques or styles to create your own visual art.

Bryan R. Monte — Spring 2014 AQ9 Book Reviews

Amsterdam Quarterly (AQ9) Spring 2014 Book Reviews by Bryan R. Monte

One Day Tells its Tale to Another by Nonnie Augustine, The Linnet’s Wings, ISBN 978-1480186354, 90 pages.
Poland at the Door by Evelyn Posamentier, Knives Forks and Spoons Press, ISBN 978-1-907812-69-9, 48 pages.
The Satirist, America’s Most Critical Book, Volume 1, by Dan Geddes, Omin Press, ISBN 978-90-819997-0-0, 180 pages.
The Wolf Inside by Donald Gardner, Hearing Eye, ISBN 978-1-905082-71-1, 56 pages.

Four books landed in my mailbag this quarter that I thought were worth reviewing in Amsterdam Quarterly. Two are by writers living in Amsterdam and the other two are by poets who make their AQ debut in this issue. In total there are three books of poetry and one collection of satirical essays, poetry, reviews and stories. In addition, three of the books were printed in the European Union.

I’ll begin with Amsterdam resident Dan Geddes’ The Satirist, America’s Most Critical Book, Volume 1, a collection of his satirical essays, poems and stories some which have appeared online on his website at www.thesatirist.com. In his book, Geddes satirically criticizes cults, politics, religion, wealth, taxes, self-help, etc.—the usual suspects. For example, Geddes book begins with a satirical essay, “The Seven Habits of Highly Efficient Cult Leaders,” the title reminiscent Steve Covey’s very popular self-help book.  Geddes’ seven traits include for example, grooming, delegation (“delegate all undesirable tasks,”) time management (“do not waste time on trivial personages within the cult,”) etc. He also mentions the importance of a First Disciple: (“(F)ind someone who believes in you implicitly… who is willing to walk through fire for you and who will hopefully be unfazed by the frequent contradictions you will be uttering.” Geddes mentions the ideal place to start a cult—a college campus—and to promise answers to life’s most vexing questions.

Geddes continues this contemporary satire with his “A Modest Proposal to Convert Shopping Malls into Prisons,” a nod to Jonathan Swift. He argues that using the malls will cut construction costs, guards can easily mount monitoring equipment and guns from the upper floors and skylights and merchants would easily profit from increased sales, especially from prisoners who couldn’t leave and who would be forced to feed themselves at the mall’s food courts. His calculation of 25k per prisoner per year he says would save US authorities 15K per year.

Other pieces in The Satirist include “Are You a Conspiracy Theorist? Take the Test” and Geddes’ reviews or reports of imaginary news, books and movies (the latter including, for example, Quentin Tarantino’s “Scent of a Banknote,” and Disney’s “1984” and “Animal Farm”). The Satirist is a book that, despite your religious or political background, will not fail to elicit at least a laugh or two.

Donald Gardner is an Englishman and Amsterdam resident. His book, The Wolf Inside, is a collection of 32 poems that describe his life in Amsterdam and England from the viewpoint of a mature poet. The Amsterdam poems include “Moonrise,” “In the Vondelpark,” “New Plans,” “Lady with a Little Dog,” “In the Berenstraat,” Those about the vicissitudes of growing old are, among others, “Reading the Poet as his Poetry,” “Kept Alive by Modern Medicine,” “Under the Weather,”and “Angela will see to my Correspondence,” which begins with the lines: “When I’m dead/I won’t need to meet any deadlines” or “Fear of Writing” the first two stanzas of which are: “The pollution of the white page/the lewdness//exposing myself to the world/best to keep it to myself” or “Old Age Express: “Getting older/I move slower//but my life/runs out faster.” Gardner’s strong poetic openings are definitely attention getters and his use of the short line, especially in “Morning Shift,” “Nothing on TV,” “Blown up by my own Time-saving Device,” “Retirement Benefits,” and “Old Age Express” show Gardner at his best. The Wolf Inside is a book that will inform poets and readers of all ages, but especially those who want to know more about an ex-pat’s life in Amsterdam.

The second book of poetry is Evelyn Posamentier’s Poland at the Door. It is a collection of short (one to six line) poems, each beginning with the title of the book. Poland can be read (as I did) as a sort of psychological exploration of the tenuous existence of that country (especially in the last two centuries due to repeated incursions by its German, Russian and Austro-Hungarian neighbours). The book has a very attractive cover design with a sepia map entitled: “Poland 1814” in a green frame on a cream background. (Unfortunately the book’s cover designer is not mentioned in the credits). What I interpret as invasion anxiety, for example, is exemplified in this short segment: “this is not a dream/Belarus is next door./ i invite minsk in./ oh, god I’ve left/ the door unlocked.” It also portrays the paranoia due to surveillance often found in the literature of Eastern bloc states: “just don’t answer it/it’s no one you know./ the ring of the phone/ alone in its secret code./ my code of madness/ like yours my friend.” Even the natural world seems oppressive: “the clouds with their sky/press against the door.” And its conclusion is an eerie confrontation of the past with the present: “the footsteps have followed history/into the town square./ they have passed. Posamentier’s collection of short poems is artistically arresting. It is a little book worth having if one is interested in writing very short, psychological poems that revolve around one theme or subject.

One Day Tells its Tale to Another is a book of poetry written by Nonnie Augustine who makes her AQ debut in this issue. Augustine is a former ballet dancer who co-founded the Albuquerque Dance Theatre, taught at the University of New Mexico and who later became a special education teacher. One Day Tells its Tale to Another is an interesting collection of poems, the most powerful of which are those that describe the natural world and European locations with an eye for detail. For example, her short poem, “Stone Poem,” moves like its subjects: “You stoop to select a stone/to toss down the lazy path./It rolls, reaches level ground, stops/Stays in place when you pass. Actions and moments in the present are balanced by those of the past and the distant future. The poem concludes with: “and then the stone is home/for another thousand years.” Her poem, “When George Took Me to Greece,” which contains some of her best writing, is also concerned with time over the centuries and its ending with short lines is worth mentioning here to show how atmospheric her writing can be: “The setting sun lit the hill/And the golden temples floated/above the shadowed slope./My back against the ancient/ teaching rock, I dissolved.” “Wine and Cheese Villanelle,” demonstrates how Augustine can use a traditional form to express the feelings of a group of contemporary women discussing their problematic and sometimes failed relationships. “We women talked of kids and men/and Carrie poured more Zinfandel/ We were four good friends in Alice’s den.”

Augustine’s power of observation and description also shows forth in her poem entitled: “After Dinner with Ted at the High Noon Café.” Her use of a combination of long and short lines shows how fast she can shift gears from describing a romantic encounter to seeing a murderer: “As Ted caught and kissed me, I glanced past his shoulder/to see young Emilio standing under his porch light/in a blood spattered shirt/Against his thigh dangled/ the glint of a knife.” These poems show Augustine’s writing at its best and I hope to read more of her poems in the future.

Bryan Monte – AQ8 Autumn 2013 Book Reviews

AQ8 Autumn Book Reviews
by Bryan R. Monte

Fairyland by Alysia Abbott, W.W. Norton and Company, 978-0-393-08252-4, 326 pages
Sylvia is Missing, Flarestack Poets Pamphlet Competition Anthology 2012, 978-1-906480-34-9, 32 pages.
Heartwrecks by Nicolas Destino, Sibling Rivalry Press, 978-1-937420-35-2, 82 pages.
Butcher’s Sugar by Brad Richard, Sibling Rivalry Press, 978-1-937420-25-3, 71 pages.
Little Blue Man, verse by Clive Watkins and photos by Susan de Sola, Seabiscuit Press, 978-9-082081-30-5, 29 pages.

Three publications from my mailbag, one book that caught my eye in the American Book Center, and one which I received personally from an editor this summer are the subject of this issue’s book reviews. The cover of Alysia Abbott’s Fairyland, (by San Francisco photographer Robert Pruzan) caught my eye because it has the same cover photo her father, Steve, used in 1980 for his poetry book, Stretching the Agape Bra, which I received from him when I lived just a block away in Haight-Ashbury. Steve died from HIV AIDS 12 years later, as did two dozen of my friends and acquaintances in the late 80s/early 90s.

Fairyland is a memoir; well, actually two memoirs. The first is of her father captured through commentaries on selected journal entries and poems, and the second, her own record of her psychological and artistic development as she grew up with her gay father in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury in the 1970s and 80s and attended the prestigious French School. Ms Abbott and her father had moved to San Francisco in 1974 after the death of her mother in an automobile accident in Georgia when Alysia was three. During her childhood in San Francisco, Ms. Abbott was entrusted to a series of unconventional baby sisters (drag queens, her father’s boyfriends, neighbours, children of housemates, etc.), some more reliable than others, so that Steve would have time to write. As a result, Alysia virtually ended up raising herself similar to Dharma Finkelstein’s situation in the popular television comedy series, Dharma and Greg. In addition, her domicile shifted annually between the cramped poverty of the one-bedroom, Haight-Ashbury apartment she shared with her father and the relative financial and spatial suburban comfort of her maternal grandparents home in Kankakee, Illinois where she spent her summer holidays. As a result, she became painfully aware at a very young age of how different her family life was compared with that of her classmates and her relatives and of the secrets she needed to keep from both.

Having known both Ms Abbott and her father personally, (I wrote my UC Berkeley honours thesis about the shamanistic tendencies in Robert Duncan’s, Aaron Shurin’s and Steve Abbott’s poetry and published Steve’s work in No Apologies, my literary magazine, in the mid-1980s), I can vouch for the veracity and authenticity of Ms Abbott’s account. In addition, her writing style is clear and concise thus making it a pleasure to read. Her memoir is well-illustrated with photos of Ms Abbott with her father and his poetry and cartoons. Unexpected pleasures for me in her book were her descriptions of her pre- and post-San Francisco years in Atlanta, Georgia and New York and Paris and her journey with her father in 1983 to Paris and Amsterdam where he read at poetry festivals. Even though I thought I knew Steve Abbott fairly well from the information I had gathered for my thesis, I was not aware how great his desire was to live in Paris, (Alysia eventually spread his ashes there), nor of his open relationship with Ms Abbott’s mother. In addition, Ms Abbott’s description of the 1980s AIDS crisis in San Francisco and the illnesses and deaths of her father and many of his friends, shows her ability to merge the personal with the historical and political which, I believe, would have made her father immensely proud of her.

Sylvia is Missing is an anthology of 21 poems selected from those submitted to Flarestack Poets for its 2012 Pamphlet Competition. Flarestack is based in Birmingham, UK and is edited by Meredith Andrea and Jacqui Rowe. Sylvia contains short, imagistic poems of one page or less. These are sometimes presented with a natural/outdoor setting, with characters walking or jogging along canals (typical of the waterways being restored in central England) at the beach or even speculating on the lost meaning of the town place names (i.e. trap grounds in a poem of the same name by Stephen Wilson). Some poems explore the changing relationships with partners and children or how life’s mundane matters hinder or restrain, “our pockets full of things/that hold us down,” (from “Beach Sofa” by Oliver Comins), and, of course, the perennial inadequacy of education or language to prepare one for or to communicate about life’s uncertainties.

One very different poem in Sylvia is Missing is “Aquarium” by Michael Conley about a man whose stomach is an aquarium, and the resulting drama which enfolds. It reminds me of some of Steve Abbott’s surrealist/absurdist poems. A doctor’s advice after examining the man “to drink as much as he pisses/and avoid contact sports” also demonstrates Conley’s sense of humour. “A Stretch of Water” by Gordon Dargie shows the tension involved in arriving late for a delayed ferry, only to find once on onboard, that it has to remain in dock for hours waiting for the tide to come in. It also contains an oblique reference to Psalm 137, “By the waters we sat down and waited//as the name of the river spread on the tide.” The poem, “For the she-ass, Lise”, by Gina Wilson is about a troublesome, barnyard donkey behaving badly whose “two foot pizzel/dangles like liquorice,” and whose shriek “scatters hens,/geese, guinea-fowl” and who at evening, “hooves in the earth” her “folly stands like ebony” against the stars. Wilson has a keen eye for description and this enables her to transform the earthly ordinary into the celestial extraordinary in the space of 17-lines.

The attractive graphic design of Sylvia is Missing and indeed the rest of the Flarestack chapbook series is also worth mentioning. Poems are set in Garamond type on clean, heavy stock, cream-coloured paper. Covers (produced using what editor Meredith Andrea refers to as a “template”) include just the publisher’s and poet’s names and book’s title set in a large, sans serif font on eye catching, delicious background colours such café latte brown, blueberry and lemon lime. The Flarestack poetry chapbooks are a welcome addition to my library of contemporary European anthologies and publishers and I highly recommend this press and its books to my readers.

Heartwrecks by Nicolas Destino is a book of poetry whose style reminds me both of the work of Getrude Stein, especially, Portraits and Prayers, because of its recirculation words and phrases to create new meanings and infuse rhythm into the description of a person and/or a scene. Its style also reminds me of the LANGUAGE Poets project, (whom Ms. Abbott coincidentally mentions in her memoir reviewed above) because the recirculated words are sometimes/somewhat disjunct and the text forces the reader to construct his/her own narrative.

An example of this rhythmic recirculation can be seen in Mr. Destino’s poem “Yet.” “Safe because it may not happen safe/ as in I am safe and we are safe/ in safety for the sake of not being kicked.” An example of creating your own narrative can be found in the first line of “Palimpest” “If today your find yourself deleted from the map drive invisibily toward the office of urban planning despite the centuries of names already established for you.” You need to be quick and nimble to construct a narrative from that. Other poems which travel at a somewhat slower pace are “Resurrection,” the book’s first poem which reminds me of e.e. cummings’ moon poems which usually referred to distant, unobtainable, ridiculous or unbelievable love or “Healing Process:” “My digestive system works better if I eat this type of yogurt/one year after his funeral I don’t bother to use a spoon/just let it reach room temperature and somewhat drink it/ from the cup.” Some of Destino’s images will strike a cord with most renters in poor neighbourhoods such as in The Conductor is Waiting:” “Your apartment comes with fists and oven grease” or urban commuters experience of isolation and exposure to crime.

Destino’s verse is not for lightweights. The reader definitely needs to bring something to the table to be able to make something out of this poetry. (In the spirit of full-disclosure I am within the camp of the San Francisco New Narrative writers and not the Language Poets due to my believe that plot and thematic elements need to be foregrounded and accessible to all readers on at least one level).

Another book from Sibling Rivalry Press which is more “my cup of tea” due to its more conventional narrativity is Brad Richard’s Butcher’s Sugar. This book uses Greek mythological and Christian images to poetically describe (and sometimes eroticize) events/passages in the author’s childhood, teenage and adulthood years. Some of these events/passages (either real or imagined) include being naked in one’s yard and neighbourhood as in “Aubaude, ” and his growing awareness of his alienation from other teenagers due to being gay, as in “A Changeling,” and “The Child and His Monsters.” Richard’s poetry can be sensual, mythological or religious or sometimes a combination of these elements. In Butcher’s Sugar, for example, the book’s title poem, the narrator describes his body’s “candied peristyle and sticky portals.” In “Dead Tongues,” he imagines the god Hermes “Kissing a drowsy boy,” (other poems include Ganymede and Narcissus) and in “Mater Dolorosa,” a church “where I never go.”

The best poem in this collection, “Eye Fucking,” is the artistic recreation of the murder of a gay man, Nicholas West, told through a monologue by one of his murderers, Donald Aldrich. Emotionally, the poem is difficult to read, but on a purely aesthetic level, it describes the murder in vivid detail—how the victim acted and how the two murderers showed no mercy to a man who couldn’t or wouldn’t fight back. Unrepentant at the end of the poem, Aldrich says: “If it happened all over again and I had a choice,/I’d do it all the same.” Perhaps poetry like this, which shows the deadly consequences of intolerance, helped change the political climate in America to the point that same-sex civil rights and marriages were upheld this summer by the US Supreme Court (though most states have decided not to grant rights or perform or recognize marriages at their level of jurisdiction.)

Richard’s poetry believes in “The Body, The Word,” where the body is the door to the spiritual mystery, the ineffable and indescribable: “the body/found itself between words, its image/the unreadable space” is perhaps his strongest and most persistent theme. This sensual transcendence is described again in his last poem, “Envoi” but with a more creative use of line breaks and description of the natural world. “Slowly the rain/thinks : / jamine/ thistle/withered fingers/of the poinsettia/budding—“ This is a type of poetic expression which I hope Mr. Richards will continue to pursue in the future.

Little Blue Man is an artistic collaboration between poet Clive Watkins and photographer, Susan de Sola (AQ5). In this book, the little blue man, (a Thunderbirds’ action figure from the 1960s television series of the same name), is placed in different situations—hanging in a Christmas tree, lying on his side at the bottom of a whiskey bottle, or pushing a silver pram across a mantle. Watkins has written a poem that complements de Sola’s photos. Here is part of what he writes to accompany a photo of the little blue man looking at his reflection in a Christmas tree ornament: “With what rapt attention must he view himself,/ diminutive Narcissus forced by the goddess of this place/ to hang among those faux pine-boughs!” Or his description of the little blue man lying at the bottom of what seems to be a bubble-trapped, hand-blown, glass bowl looking up as if he were right side up and walking towards the viewer: “Dashing homunculus of blue and dauntless eye,/ intrepid fingerling, dainty portable hero,/ stiff little plastic Galahad great of heart, steadfast pocket-deliverer, how did he fetch up here/translated into our world with its pitiless light?…” Little Blue Man is playful yet artistic, something for both adults and children perhaps to read together, children for the photos, adults for the verse.

Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum Reviews Summer 2013 (AQ7)

Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum Reviews, Summer 2013 (AQ7)
by Bryan Monte

In the last two months, two very important museums have reopened on Amsterdam’s Museum Square or Museumplein as the Dutch refer to it. These are the Rijksmuseum (the Dutch national gallery) and the Van Gogh Museum. The opening completes the triad of museums along the square including the Stedelijk (which reopened last autumn) and, which with the Concertgebouw just to the South, make up the cultural heart of Amsterdam. The reopening of the Rijksmuseum was the most dramatic having been closed for ten years due to construction problems, cost overruns, and the bicycle path under the museum’s main galleries that had to remain open and which forced the architects and builders to change their plans. (Bicycles are one of the Netherland’s sacred cows. Cylists are given more leeway in traffic than pedestrians and motorists).

The Rijksmuseum was reopened by Queen Beatrix, with fireworks, military and marching bands and speeches. The Queen also held a state dinner in the “Hall of Honour” with visiting dignitaries and royalty from around the world just before her abdication and the investiture of her eldest son and his wife as King William Alexander and Queen Maxima respectively.

Now that the smoke has cleared, the museum is open and the crowds of visitors in their thousands have returned (300,000 in one month according to the Rijksmuseum’s website), it’s time to take a look at the remodelled Rijksmuseum and evaluate its improvements. The jewels in the Rijksmuseum’s crown, paintings by Rembrandt, Frans Hals, Vermeer, Jan Steen and other 17th century notables, have been returned to their rightful places in the second-floor galleries. The paintings have been rehung on walls which are now a dark grey which makes the predominantly gold, brown, and grey tones on the canvases stand out.

At the end of the hall and the centre of attention of course is Rembrandt’s “Nightwatch.” It is hung just high enough so that viewers of the painting are the same height as some of the crowd characters on Rembrandt’s large canvas, so that from a distance, these viewers merge with the characters in the painting. The paintings in these galleries are on par with the Louvre’s best, but are presented in a much more intimate viewing environment. Few canvases are behind glass and viewers can walk within a meter or two of the paintings and take photographs unless specifically prohibited.

There are other improvements to the museum in addition to the darker gallery walls and access to the art. The paintings in many galleries are complimented and made more tactile by objects such as models, weapons, porcelain and furniture placed in the centre or to one side of the galleries. For example, spears and cannons are arrayed together in a gallery with paintings from the Netherland’s Indonesian or “Batavian” colonial period and ship’s model is the centre of a gallery with mostly maritime paintings. This breaks up the monotony of gallery after gallery of paintings and helps show artistic expression in the same period in different media and disciplines. Another improvement is the new Asian wing whose main features are a statute of the Hindu God, Shiva Nataraja, upstairs and two Japanese temple guardians downstairs.

Other major changes to the Rijksmuseum include its new main entrance and lobby area in two, underground, glassed-over, marble-lined courtyards bifurcated by the controversial bicycle path. The lobby can be reached by two, large, accessible, clear glass lifts on both sides of the bicycle path towards the North entrance along with two staircases at the South entrances. The new lobby/reception area includes a café, museum shop, bookstore, coat check, and restrooms. In addition, the second-floor lobby frescos, which were original to the building and Cuypers’ design and which had been covered over, have been restored.

Whilst the Rijksmuseum’s presentation of the paintings, sculptures, furniture and other artefacts in the various galleries is to be applauded, the layout of the museum’s new lobby, signage about how to navigate in the museum and the number and quality of facilities for the disabled invites criticism. Aesthetically, the museum’s new bifurcated marble and glass lobby is not welcoming but rather echoing, sterile and impersonal. Its clear glass roof is not as evocative or playful as rolling blue, glass roof over the British Museum’s courtyard, but more akin in construction to the hothouse roofs that dot the Dutch landscape. In addition, the restored Cupyers murals reveal why perhaps over the years they’d been painted over. Their idealized scenes of virtues and Dutch history are naïve, lifeless and flat compared to pre-Raphaelite or other Art Nouveau murals. Furthermore, the basement lobby’s hanging, treble-caged, white light and sound damping installations don’t lighten the lobbies’ atmosphere, but rather dangle heavily overhead like shark cages as was my experience when I ate in the café.

The café’s seating and service leaves much to be desired. The three times I’ve visited the museum, the café has been filled to overcapacity with people waiting on the staircases at both ends. The museum’s restaurant has not opened yet, so I assume once it does, this will take care of the overflow and shorten the wait for a table. The seating itself is disabled friendly with wide aisles although the sofa (lounge) chairs are set a bit low. There are conventional café chairs at round café tables that can be removed to accommodate someone in a wheelchair, but I did not see any tables specifically designated for disabled customers. Furthermore, what I also found lacking about the café was its service. When I sat down at 5 PM after my third visit, I had to literally, after waiting five minutes, flag down a waiter to take my order and then again later to pay my bill.

Signage in the museum is also too small or confusing. Immediately after visitors enter the museum through its marble portals, they see a sign which says: “To the Collections” which unfortunately sends visitors to the right through the medieval galleries and not to the left through the Renaissance galleries which lead to the lifts to the second floor Galleries of Honour which contain the 17th century paintings that most visitors want to see. Floor descriptions next to the lifts and signs for the toilets are generally too small for older patrons to read.

It’s also difficult following routes in the museum even though each floor on the official map has been colour-coded. I heard one gentleman in the Asian wing exclaim: “How do I get to the second floor from here?” meaning probably that he was trying to get there to see the “Nightwatch.” In addition, signs like those for the lift with a standing figure and arrows going up and down, are perhaps not understandable to non-European visitors. Directions in Chinese, Russian and one Romantic language in addition to Dutch and English would be advisable based on the composition of the crowds on the days I visited.

Futhermore, as you could probably predict from my last review of the reopened Stedelijk in AQ6, the museum needs be far more sensitive to accessibility for disabled people in its lobby, cafe, shop, bookstore, and toilets. When I first visited the museum, the weekend before the Queen Beatrix’s state dinner, access to the café, shop and bookstore was restricted to only the able-bodied who could use the stairs. Anyone wanting to use the lifts to these areas had to ask the security guard to use his/her magnetic key to unlock the lift. In addition, there are no handrails along the sides of the staircase (along the marble walls), just in the middle. Thankfully, on my second and third visits a few weeks later, one could operate these lifts without having to ask a guard for a key. However, the toilet in the sub-basement level is only wide enough for the able bodied and the doors to the bookshop are far too heavy for some disabled people to open.

Another area of concern in the lobby is unimpeded access to ramps – especially the ones on the north side leading to the toilets and one on the south which is a gallery exit. Access to these ramps was taped off on my two most recent visits to the Rijksmuseum. Both times when I exited the Delft’s Blauw and Keys Gallery 0.7 and wanted to descending into the lobby along a ramp, I found the ramp to be roped off at the bottom. Both times I tried unsuccessfully to get a guard’s attention to lift the tape so I could pass. Both times, I had to move one of the poles myself so I could squeeze around it with my Zimmer frame.

On my last two visits, I’ve also had to ask a guard to remove a tape barrier at the entrance of a lobby ramp so I could roll up to the main toilets. Furthermore, there’s only one disabled toilet on each side and the hallway that connects the two toilets areas in the bifurcated lobby, has four steps, which make it impassible for a disabled person to go easily from one side to the other side, should one of the two toilets be occupied.

In comparison with the Rijksmuseum, the newly reopened Van Gogh Museum just down the street has plenty to crow about, not only due to the quality and depth of its exhibition about its namesake, but also due to the quality and accessibility of its bookshop and café. Reopened not more than a month ago, the renovated Van Gogh has maintained the original integrity and design of its Gerrit Rietveld building and assembled perhaps the most complete exhibition of Van Gogh’s work one will probably see in his/her lifetime. Paintings are on loan from Dutch museums such as the Amsterdam Stedelijk, the Boijmans Van Beuningen, and Van Gogh Kröller-Müller, as well museums outside of the Netherlands, and most importantly, from private collections.

The Van Gogh exhibition has been chronologically arranged with early works on the ground and first (American English second) floors and his later periods on the second and third floors, so as one ascends, one goes forward in time. In addition there are many studies and versions of paintings such as the Potato Eaters, the Weaver (one from the Van Gogh, and one from the Kröller-Müller) and Sunflowers, (one from the Van Gogh, the other from the National Gallery in London). Viewers can thus compare Van Gogh’s execution of the same subject but with slightly different perspectives and/or colour pallets. The Van Gogh has also added interesting videos in different areas about Van Gogh’s history, his various styles and the conservation of his works.

As far as accessibility is concerned, the front entrance is accessible by a wheelchair lift at the far left of the staircase, though a museum guard had to lift the tape barrier so I could use the express lane with my museum card to enter. There are two lobby elevators: one for eight people and another for 21 people— both large enough to accommodate a wheelchair and a pram simultaneously. Even with busloads full of tourists, the flow in the museum on the two days I visited (one weekday afternoon and one Sunday afternoon) was well-managed.

The two bookshops both in the lobby entrance and the basement extension, have aisles wide enough for wheelchairs and a good selection of art books about various painters. The one in the basement extension is also a bit quieter and has comfortable surround chairs and a table where patrons can sit and leaf through books. The self-service café is also welcoming and accessible. The aisles in the dining room are wide enough for wheelchair users, though the tables themselves are a bit too close together. The food is very good. I had a coffee and a slice of the lemon cheese pie on my first visit and found both delicious. The salad, apple pie, and caffe latte on my second visit were also good. There are more than enough chairs and tables inside and outside the café to accommodate visitors and there is a large lift downstairs (all the way to the end of the seating area outside) to the toilets in the new extension.

Here, however, is where the Van Gogh falls short—with its disabled toilets. There is only one disabled toilet downstairs in the new wing and unfortunately, this space is also shared with a diaper changing area. On the second day I visited the second disabled toilet, at the entrance lobby, was out of order. Exiting the museum also required that I get a guard’s attention so that she could lift the tape by the entrance so that I could go from the exit lanes to the entrance lanes to get back to the disabled lift.

If you are pressed for time when visiting Amsterdam and can only see one of these two museums (especially if the queues to the Rijkmuseum are wrapped around the building), then I would recommend visiting the Van Gogh. I doubt, as I mentioned above, that a collection of this depth, with paintings, drawings and watercolours from many museums and private collections, will ever be assembled in one place in my lifetime. The Rijksmuseum’s paintings, though of equal importance, can wait for another visit, or if that’s not possible, many can be viewed on the museum’s website. But do try to visit both museums. It will be more than worth the effort.