Sunday, November 04, 2012


As a little kid, maybe primary school age, my family bought a “painting” to hang over the fireplace.  It was from Monkey Ward where my father was working because it was wartime and there were no tires or gas for his field work.  This was considered a Major Decision.  Most of our art was cut out of magazines by my mother, who put them in dimestore frames, except for a fine oil still-life of geraniums, a copper kettle, and a ceramic hen.  My mother’s aunt was an accomplished artist.  After long and solemn discussion, we bought a print of two swans on a pond which I “knew” was Laurelhurst Pond in the Portland park where our family had picnics.  It was a symbol of family, tranquility, safety and Wordsworthian nature.

When I was older, I became enamored of Anna Pavlova who is closely identified with a dance called “The Dying Swan.”  It’s full of pathos and delicate, doomed fragility -- a flower that cannot bloom for long.  I was about as ethereal as a Jersey cow, but that was the attraction, wasn’t it?  Thanks to YouTube, you can check it out.  The pallor, the hollow eyes, the fluttering tendril arms.  Very Goth. 

Then there’s a slightly healthier version with a more recent ballerina, Maya Plisetskaya.  She’s still Russian and we see her at first feeding real swans, in case we’ve forgotten what they are like.  She’s beautiful and effective, but not so pathetic.

Here’s the one that dumps everything on its head:    This is called “jookin’” (not “jukin”) and is a kind of dancing that has developed in the street to include things like hip-hop and a lot of unnamed personal styles of whole-body dancing, mostly done by young urban black men.  How Lil Buck knows about the dying swan is beyond me.  He has to know only pond swans, ornamentals, both black and white.  Maybe it was the movie about the neurotic little ballerina who had to be violated to make her an adult (meaning sexual.)  

Lil Buck is not just a street boy anymore.   From Wikipedia:   “Lil Buck practices a kind of dance called jookin’ which started in Memphis, Tennessee. His technique and that of other dancers who dance in similar styles have been lauded as "iron technique." Lil Buck leads a dance team called New Styles Krew. “

But I want to keep thinking about the swan.  A subject of mythology (Leda and the Swan) and films (go to and you’ll find Grace Kelly practicing to be a princess (1956) and a reality show about an ugly duckling using plastic surgery to become beautiful  (2004) for which you will need to know fairy tales to get the proper background.  Fairy tales from the northern parts of Europe throng with swans.

Back to YouTube.  I found music I have never heard before by a band called SWANS:  “My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky."    It’s intense.

Half a century ago on the high Montana prairie we hunted geese every fall, going out in the pickup over the swelling, wind-beaten grass among the frozen pot holes left by glaciers millennia ago.  One year there were swan permits and we bought a permit, but only winged our swan.  On foot it fled over the prairie with us plunging breathless after it.  When we caught it, we were bitten hard, bashed with the cruxes of its wings like cudgels.  But we captured it and took it home to study.  I’ve preached about this and written about it.  The actual bird with its smells and sounds and big flapping feet, its gaping mouth and blobs of shit.  It would have loved the music of the band called SWANS.  In fact, when I listen to the music I hear that big bird’s heart beat, its hissing, its clangouring will to live, though it was technically a mute swan, not a trumpeter.  Sort of Zen Wagner.  Triumphant and transcendent at once.  Swans go up in a rope to the sky.

We ate it.  It was as good as any Canada goose.  It had been in the freezer and in order to thaw it, I had to shear it with scissors -- I couldn’t pull the feathers out and they were effective insulation.  Swansdown really is that soft and fluffy.

Grounded literally, nourished by the land but always seeking to escape up the sky or burrow into the earth or glide across the water -- I see spirituality as being just like this.  My material culture is mostly circumpolar, since that’s where I’ve been all my life.  But for the past half-dozen years I’ve watched the urban Cinematheque boys dance along the Seine, in cobbled alleys in twilight, on paths in boreal forest.  They don’t dance their hearts OUT -- they dance them IN.  Alone and together.  Hip-hop, jookin’, bounce, B-boyin’, Crip Walk, Clown Walk, The Dougie, Jerkin’, Krumpin’, Lockin’, Poppin’, Electric boogaloo, Strobin’, Tuttin,’

When people begin to moan and groan over the death of civilization and the rotting of culture, I laugh, because they just can’t see it.  The new aristocracy is survivors.  Ultimately that’s what all the religious tropes are about:  survival.     Michael Gira writes, he draws, he propels the musical group called SWANS along a trajectory that might or might not include major success.  Michael Gira, when asked what inspires him, says,  “Fear of death.”  He doesn’t do cute or elite or class.  He ain’t forgettable, baby.  Whatever happens, it’s earned.

Culture is the means, not the end.  I suspect that Anna Pavlova would love Lil Buck and spend time trying to learn how to do what he does, laughing at the impossibility.  It’s more of a challenge to love SWANS, but Yo-yo Ma crosses cultures with his cello all the time.  The Grace Kelly swan proved that being a princess will not keep you safe.  The “Black Swan” ballet movie was mostly jerking off, which was why it was a bad survival strategy for little ballerinas.  For real swans?  Migration is the secret. 

As for that other Black Swan guy, the Lebanese quantifier named Nassim Talleb, I think he might join me in the idea that the ultimate anti-fragility is spirituality.  The more it is pounded and twisted and threatened, the richer and denser it gets.


Tracy D said...

Remember the fairy tale, The Swan Princes? Their sister had to knit nettle sweaters for them to turn them back into humans. She knitted until her fingers bled so much, she died with the twelth sweater half-finished. That brother retained one wing instead of an arm.

I've always seen the story as a metaphor for the sacrifices women will make for those they love.

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

Yes, I used this for a Sunday School story once and was rebuked by a shrink in the congregation for being inappropriate. I rewrote a version of this story to be about a a woman artist who falls in love with a black man who has only one arm that turns into a wing at night. It's on this blog somewhere, but I haven't found it. I wrote it a few years ago. That version was more about loving someone who has some quality that scary and inconvenient -- maybe an addiction or just a cultural difference.

Prairie Mary