Friday, May 23, 2014

For the Art Students of Glasgow

"Fire in the Architectural Institute

Fire in the Architectural Institute!
through all the rooms and over the blueprints
like an amnesty through the jails...
Fire! Fire!

High on the sleepy facade
shamelessly, mischievously
like a red-assed baboon
a window skitters.

We'd already written our theses,
the time had come for us to defend them.
They're crackling away in a sealed cupboard:
all those bad reports on me!

The drafting paper is wounded,
it's a red fall of leaves;
my drawing boards are burning,
whole cities are burning.

Five summers and five winters shoot up in flames
like a jar of kerosene.
Karen, my pet,
Oi! we're on fire!

Farewell architecture:
it's down to a cinder
for all those cowsheds decorated with cupids
and those rec halls in rococo!

O youth, phoenix, ninny,
your dissertation is hot stuff,
flirting its little red skirt now,
flaunting its little red tongue.

Farewell life in the sticks!
Life is a series of burned-out sites.
Nobody escapes the bonfire:
if you live—you burn.

But tomorrow, out of these ashes,
more poisonous than a bee
your compass point will dart
to sting you in the finger.

Everything's gone up in smoke,
and there's no end of people sighing.
It's the end?
                  It's only the beginning.
Let's go to the movies! 
Andrei Voznesensky (1958); English translation, by Stanley Kunitz
in Antiworlds, (Anchor Books, 1967) p135.

I learned of this poem as a student, years ago, by reading Michael Sorkin's book Exquisite Corpse: Writings on Buildings, in which he says: "The poet Andrei Voznesensky originally intended to become an architect. His plans were interrupted. In 1957, shortly before graduation, The Moscow Architectural Institute burned."  He recalls this story in the context of his own experience of a fire on June 14, 1969, at the Yale Art and Architecture Building (designed by Paul Rudolph).  The essay is entitled "Auto Da Fe" after the novel by Elias Canetti first published in 1935.  The first American edition was called The Tower of Babel, perhaps for fear no one would bother looking up the Latin for the burning of heretics.  The original German title was Die Blendung, or The Blinding. 

As Mackintosh's masterpiece, the Glasgow School of Art, burns, we think also of the fire that ate the Library of Alexandria (again vulnerable), and the fictional fire depicted in Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose.

No one is to blame.  History repeats itself.  And the wisdom of Heraclitus smolders on.