Colin W. Sargent's Blog: Divagations

February 19, 2017

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Multifaceted Book Explores the Beauty of the Outcast

Virginian Pilot Review by Jackie Mohan

Author André Berthiaume once wrote, “We all wear masks, and the time comes when we cannot remove them without removing some of our own skin.” The latest novel from author, playwright and poet Colin W. Sargent, “The Boston Castrato,” grapples with the same crisis of identity through protagonist Rafaele Pèsca, Americanized as Raffi Peach, who himself laments, “So much of life was hidden behind the drapes of things.”

Sargent’s is a novel about the beauty of the outcast, and a critique of the perverse push and pull of society’s simultaneous exploitative fascination with and disgust for those who are different. Sargent, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate, lives in Portsmouth and in Kennebunkport, Maine, and his time spent stationed in Naples is reflected in his crafting of a novel about an Italian immigrant in America.

Raffi lives on the streets of Naples until he is 6, when a priest, Father Diletti, persuades him to join his choir. Diletti violates the church’s ban and castrates Raffi so that he may grow to be the next great castrato singer, like Alessandro Moreschi. Upon discovering this violation of its rules, the church sends Raffi to America to get him out of Italy. Before he leaves, the church makes Raffi swear that he will never sing again, leading to a lifelong internal struggle between his desire to celebrate his gift and to hide it out of shame.

After he travels between Italy and America for years off the page, we pick up with Raffi, abnormally tall with an androgynous voice and appearance, returning to Boston in 1922, 16 years after that fateful day in Italy. In Boston, he finally begins to reckon with himself and his past. His struggle with his identity, his desire to make something of himself, and his search for someone who will love and accept him are set against a backdrop colored with the brightest and darkest parts of 1920s Boston.

Raffi’s journey touches the most elite parts of Boston and sinks to dangerous depths as he works at a variety of places, from the famous Parker House hotel to communing with the dead for the Boston Society for Psychical Research. His zigzagging odyssey includes a rival from his past, the Italian mob, and has him grappling with the loss of loved ones. Although Raffi initially feels alone with his secret, he meets friends in both similar and vastly different situations and explores his identity. As he seeks the freedom to feel comfortable inside his own body, he also questions the consequences, as when he and his new friends cross-dress for the night:

A sunny freedom sailed over him. He’d never been so far outside himself. He was accustomed to women’s eyes being on him, either out of curiosity or pity, and to unsettling glances from lonely blades, but here were gentlemen’s eyes, too. Passing to the ballroom, he caught a glimpse of himself in a gold-veined mirror – nightmarish lipstick, eyeliner, rouge, and all. “You look very becoming,” the reflection said to him. “But what are you becoming?”

Through this journey, Raffi becomes increasingly focused on an upcoming performance by his idol, the castrato Moreschi. In all of his suffering, Raffi finds solace in knowing that Moreschi has gone through the same and come out thriving. However, Raffi, always observing and questioning himself as well as those around him, begins to doubt his own belief that Moreschi will hold all the answers he needs.

For weeks, he’d wondered about his need to talk with Moreschi and decided it was because Moreschi had plunged on ahead of him – an explorer on an expedition of hurt. Maybe culture, and particularly embarrassment, had a line of descent, too.

He feels a deep connection with Moreschi, often dubbed the last great castrato, as Raffi was the last boy castrated with the intention of following in his footsteps. Sargent’s novel is about the lonely life of an outcast, but also the connections forged through that loneliness.

One of the book’s most admirable accomplishments is the sheer range of characters and its commitment to showcasing a wide variety of self-defined outcasts, whether due to gender, age or physical impairment, and how they embrace their differences.

Sargent’s critique of 1920s society resonates today, calling for understanding and acceptance in the face of anything considered less than normal. In its colorful illustration of 1920s Boston, impressively showcasing Sargent’s extensive knowledge of both castrati and 1920s Boston culture and his carefully constructed prose, the story at times veers a little far into the bizarre, such as in a section told from the point of view of bacteria encased in canned clams. However, ultimately, Raffi’s multifaceted journey celebrates the strange and proves an endlessly entertaining ride through his world and the challenges he faces. From revenge, murder, lifelong rivalry, and love, little cannot be found in Sargent’s “The Boston Castrato.”
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Published on February 19, 2017 04:43 • 56 views

February 14, 2017

Destination Mirth



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The Voice Behind The Boston Castrato, Author Colin Sargent

Colin Sargent’s Novel Makes U.S. Debut in Style

By Nina Livingstone


Within two months of its U.S. release, Colin W. Sargent’s latest novel, “The Boston Castrato” (Barbican Press, London), was selected as the first Runner-up in the General Fiction category of the New England Book Festival. (A private ceremony will be held later this month honoring the winners.)

In a recent interview, Colin Sargent sat down with writer Nina Livingstone at Boston’s famous Omni Parker House to discuss his award-winning novel. The selection of the Parker House was not a coincidence, however, as it was there that Sargent places his main character, Rafaele Pèsca, using Boston’s blend of history and rich literary linage as the book’s backdrop.

In his novel, Sargent escorts readers on a journey accompanied by “an angel-voiced orphan” named Rafaele “Raffi” Pèsca, whose life begins in Naples. It is there that Rafaele is taken under the wing of Father Diletti, a renegade priest, who has the 6-year-old boy castrated to protect his one and only grace. Because the barbaric practice had been recently banned by the church, a cover-up ensues and Rafaele is forbidden ever to sing again, at all, for any reason — his voice, “having been disfigured by the devil, is now an abomination against God.”

In explaining Raffi’s decision to allow the castration, Sargent says, it was his “desire” that turned the tables. “Because he wants to be a famous singer [Raffi] lets Father Diletti go forward, long after castration has been banned.” It is this that separates Raffi from being a victim.

“I knew that I couldn’t make Father Diletti completely evil because it's even more terrifying to me that he thought he was doing the right thing,” says Sargent.

As punishment, it is Raffi Peach who is exiled to America, later making his way to Boston where he joins the wait staff at the Parker House Hotel. Despite the city’s xenophobic reputation, Raffi is led into the literary circles by Victor, the Parker House’s blind maître d’. Here he finds himself in the company of poet Amy Lowell and her lover Ada Russell, later expanding his world to include Boston Brahmins, mobsters, murderers, immigrants, and the working underclass.

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“If I could change my writing life, I wouldn’t spend the first 20 years writing about a 6-foot white man as a main character,” said Sargent. “But I had to give something up to write about a person who had been castrated. It’s a limiting thing where some people will be completely put off . . . .”

“But it’s really a fable about what we’re all missing,” explains Sargent.

In somewhat stark contrast, Sargent says that “The Boston Castrato” began with Jane Austen.

“My inspiration for this book is ‘Mansfield Park,’” he says, explaining that Austen’s main character, Fanny, is sent to live in the household of wealthy relatives to relieve her overburdened family. Because of Fanny’s financial situation, “she doesn’t want to impose so she adjusts her behavior and dreams and lives in a state of perpetual embarrassment. It isn’t what Fanny has, it’s what she doesn’t have . . . ,” Sargent says.

“Great characters are always in need of something,” he points out.

To fulfill his own life, Sargent has allowed his career to take him in several directions. A relation of John Singer Sargent, who also splashes an appearance in the book, Colin W. Sargent is a poet, playwright, novelist, and founding editor and publisher of Portland Monthly magazine. A graduate of the United States Naval Academy, he has an M.F.A. from Stonecoast and a Ph.D. in creative writing from Lancaster University in the UK. He divides his time between the coasts of Maine, Virginia, and, when possible, the rest of the world. Sargent is married to Dr. Nancy Sargent and together they have a son, Colin S. Sargent.
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Published on February 14, 2017 09:01 • 163 views

January 7, 2017

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Here's a review of The Boston Castrato in Washington City Paper by novelist Eve Ottenberg. See her reviews also in The New Yorker, New York Times Book Review, and Vanity Fair.

The Boston Castrato Is a Brutal Story
Set in a Bygone Era

The new novel by Virginia [& Maine] author
Colin Sargent – tough story
set in 1920s Boston.


Mutilation is not an easy fictional theme, especially when a story opens with the castration of a six-year-old. This brutal, gory start is referenced repeatedly in Virginia-based author Colin Sargent’s new novel, The Boston Castrato, and it is not the only mutilation explored; foot binding is referred to, as are the podiatric agonies of ballet dancers. “It was every dancer’s secret shame. Each of her toes was bunged and purple with blood and coagulant, pus oozing from her split and ingrown nails.”

The idea, clearly, is the physical suffering endured for art; but the novel extends it to include the social and emotional contortions associated with music, dance, and poetry. With this theme, the novel sometimes succeeds and sometimes does not. When it does not, though, it is usually because a graphic description is deployed when a simple, realistic one would work much better. And realism does not require that every gaudily gruesome detail be exposed, merely that a social world that could exist, that may exist, be evoked.

The best sections of The Boston Castrato recount with easy realism the hero’s work in a hotel, another character at work in a shipyard, and other such seemingly mundane activities. The novel vividly renders the hotel—the Parker House—from the subterranean dish-washing stations to the gleaming wood of the bar, to the perfectly appointed dining room, to the owner’s office, and more. Indeed, the Parker House is more than mere setting, it is practically another full-fledged character, largely due to its pellucid rendering as a social milieu.

Then there are the literati and other luminaries. Since the book is a period piece, set in 1920s Boston, that era’s famous people—the art patroness Isabella Gardner, John Singer Sargent, and, from Vienna, Anna Freud—make appearances, while numerous others are mentioned: Sacco and Vanzetti, Henry James, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Bernard Berenson, and D.H. Lawrence.

There are also allusions to the Russian revolution and the vogue of imagist poetry, which give the novel pizzazz, while the plot and subplots provide substance. But at the center of The Boston Castrato is the hero Raffi’s mutilation, which throws a terrible obstacle in the narrative’s path, namely the reader’s pity for him.

At one point Raffi gazes into the eyes of a circus freak: “Dare you come into my loneliness?” is what he sees. This has nothing in common with some happy, 21st century tale of transgender redemption through surgery. Raffi was swindled out of his manhood and repeated mention of the bloody act impedes appreciation of who he becomes.

The Boston Castrato’s real strengths lie not in evoking a bygone era or the physical torments endured for art, but in its characterization and how it weaves together subplots. Raffi’s friend and boss at the hotel, a blind African American named Victor, is in many ways the book’s central concern. A subplot involving an Italian immigrant family and a communist Harvard student who travelled to Soviet Russia somehow holds your attention better than the details of cross-dressing and catty infighting in the upper crust, blue-blood, gay precincts of ragtime Boston.

There are also strong portrayals of crooked pols, hit men, imposters, gangsters, aspiring singers, and psychics—pictures that advance the plot and subplots—which don’t really pick up steam until halfway through the book. But when they do, they barrel on to their dramatic conclusions, finally pulling the reader past that crippling pity for Raffi to an appreciation of this novel’s achievements.
–Eve Ottenberg

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Published on January 07, 2017 07:06 • 130 views • Tags: parker-house

June 20, 2016

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The Sargentology Conference at the University of York was wonderful. My favorite presentation was Dr. Charlotte Ribeyrol's "J.S. Sargent: In the Key of Mauve," about how mauve was the secret shade of Edwardian mystery and sexuality, a doorway to intrigue.

Among the striking paintings discussed was John Singer Sargent's masterpiece The Daughters of Edward Boit. "What's psychologically compelling and new in this painting is Sargent's decision to depict their mysterious disconnection...It's a portrait of the vases, but a still life of the girls.” Early reception for this painting was: "Too French, too intense, and too nervous." But today, suddenly, "There's an edgy elegance. A whiff of danger, unease, distance. A contradiction of the [expected] emotional disengagement and the squirming of the sitters. The little girl's expression could bend spoons... Oscar Wilde called this painting 'vicious.' The depravity of the children. Some scholars trace the painting as the inspiration for Henry James's The Turn of the Screw."

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There was lively discussion about John Singer Sargent's "ambiguous position in society... He’s from Italy, Paris, Boston, London, and Nowhere. An ex-pat isolate." But he belongs to a certain 'Sightgeist.' This was narrowed down to Tite Street in Chelsea, a "transitional and unstable space perfect for Sargent when he began his portfolio of male nudes." Around Tite Street, Oscar Wilde's street, "there was an atmosphere of sexual permissiveness and fear after the trial of Oscar Wilde. Even 'collecting' was considered feminine and gender bending."

More interesting talk was focused on the way "Sargent was always aware of the distance between his private self and his sitters." We took in a presentation on Sargent and the American Girls, lovely portrait commissions with a subtext that only emerged when you considered the debutantes as a group–vacant-eyed and almost cruelly simple.

Then Sargentology moved on to Le Pave Rouge, never translated into English. In Le Pave Rouge. Quelques reflexions sur 'L'Oeuvre of Mr. Sargent, which first appeared in Le Arts de la Vie, No. 18, June 1905, pages 329-348, Count Robert de Montesquiou skewers Sargent for his "bad taste that created what amounted to fake royal portraits which in turn created fake royal furniture and thus the bourgeoisie." We all have our discreet charm.

Science had its day, too. Two scholars from the Tate Museum showed x-ray examples of Sargent's brushstrokes that we now know were reconsiderations painted 'after the signature.' Then they gave us their theories on why he returned so late to each canvas for a change.

Mary Burns, author of Portraits of an Artist, talked about John Singer Sargent's emergence as a trendy character in fiction.

During a wine tasting at the end of the second day, I was the closing presenter in dreamy surroundings (a 12th century castle updated with 16th century Tudor paneling). I read the chapter with John Singer Sargent, Isabella Stewart Gardner, and Royal Cortissoz in Fenway Court. Afterward my distant cousin Richard Ormond, the author and art expert who has been the deputy director of the National Portrait Gallery in London, chatted warmly with us with his wife. "I thought the dialogue was wonderful," he said. "It was like having a movie or teleplay all around you."
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Published on June 20, 2016 06:30 • 330 views

May 29, 2016

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Now this is something. Between my book-tour stops in the UK, I get a phone call from the BBC's Nicola Holloway, the host of "Open Book." I'm in London when I take the call, staying at The In & Out Club on St. James's Square. Nicola has just read The Boston Castrato:
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"Utterly Appalled, Absolutely Fascinated"

Nicola Holloway: "I was utterly appalled and had to hold my hands over my eyes during the surgery section. Then I was absolutely fascinated. The story is very lively, vivid, and incredibly real. You make 1922 such a colorful time. I’ve been to Boston before, some time ago, and it was a distinct pleasure to be whisked back there with Raffi during such a time of change. Why did you pick 1922?"

My answer: "I liked how Boston was going through hallucinations of modernity back then. It was a dress rehearsal for 1968, with The Unbearable Lightness of Being and all the tanks, the Summer of Love. Eliot wrote The Waste Land in 1922. Nineteen twenty-two was a trap door to the paranormal, a great hinge between the Edwardian and ‘modern’ world. There was such xenophobia in Boston in 1922, with all the Puritans investing in canning companies advertising '100 percent pure.'

More 1922 upheavals:

The BBC is started
Mussolini marches on Rome
Freud publishes
The Pleasure Principle
Hitler & Goering meet
Stalin appointed General Secretary
James Joyce's
Ulysses is published
Michael Collins killed (ambush)
Irish Free State begins
Gandhi arrested, sentenced to 6 years
60,000 die in China from typhoon
King Tut's tomb discovered
Dirigible
Roma explodes
Kafka publishes
The Castle
Fitzgerald's
The Beautiful & Damned
Britain gives Egypt independence
First microfilm, first aircraft carrier, first Eskimo Pie


Guru Paramahansa Yogananda in Boston, 1922

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Nicola: "How did the story come to you?"

"From early childhood, I’ve wondered about love and attraction. It’s so important, but we know so little about it. This story wonders, shouldn’t we first identify ourselves through our humanity before we jump into our Mars and Venus allegorical codifications? I wanted Raffi’s essential humanity to shine until we slowly realize he’s the only whole person in a castrated society."
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Published on May 29, 2016 06:31 • 70 views

May 4, 2016

Statue of Oscar Wilde in Dublin's Merrion Squaredescription

Dublin native Oscar Wilde on his death bed: "Either this wallpaper goes, or I go."


We arrive in Dublin at night to discover a world capital that exceeds every description, every expectation.

Checking into the Merrion Hotel, a series of 18th century brick townhouses drawn together with spectacular grace, we wonder, "Who could have lived here?" Then we see the plaque: The Duke of Wellington.

Everywhere in Dublin you're close to the moment, close to the heart. Huge crowds spill from a nearby assembly building. They mass on the street, exchanging hugs and handshakes before walking home. Sinn Féin has just had an election. Gerry Adams has won.

Why does every Dubliner feel such a deep connection to the Irish patriots who were collected and executed by British soldiers here exactly a century ago, in 1916? Why hasn't time softened any of this? How might Americans feel if someone had captured the incendiary revolutionary radicals Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, Samuel Adams, George Washington, Nathan Hale, James Madison, Patrick Henry, John Hancock, James Otis, and murdered them? Visit http://www.taoiseach.gov.ie/eng/Histo...

It's a smoldering anger. Could there ever be a smoldering forgiveness? Many Dubliners admire QE2 for her 2011 visit when she dared to visit the Garden of Remembrance (honoring Irish freedom fighters who fought for independence) and wore a matching green hat and overcoat for the occasion. She was asked about the blood sacrifice. She said 'I have lost, too.' (Lord Mountbatten and his grandson were killed by an IRA bomb in 1979.)

She is the first British ruler to visit Ireland in over a century.

Strangers love this city on sight. The River Liffey glows with pubs and lights up Nighttown, made famous by James Joyce in Ulysses. At Stag Head Bar on Dame Court, we watch "Strolling Through Ulysses," a one-man show featuring author/attorney/actor Robert Gogan. With skill and bravado, Grogan condenses Ulysses into a single manic evening, and he absolutely entertains. Especially when he shapeshifts into Molly Bloom.

A memorable place to finish any evening is The Brazen Head, the oldest pub in the area, on Lower Bridge Street. In Dublin, 'old' means 1198 AD.

What's so Irish about The Boston Castrato? Every Dubliner I chat with considers Boston a part of Ireland.

Then there's the wistful ballad about 17th century Dubliner Molly Malone. I reference the song in "A few people had taken ill in Somerville from the clams, even before the newspapers had gotten wind of it and run the headline ‘Canned Cockles and Mussels Alive, Alive, Ooooh,’ and a faculty member from MIT had been brought in to have a look."

In Dublin's fair city,
Where the girls are so pretty,
I first set my eyes on sweet Molly Malone,
As she wheeled her wheel-barrow,
Through streets broad and narrow,
Crying, "Cockles and mussels, alive, alive, oh!"
"Alive, alive, oh,
Alive, alive, oh,"
Crying "Cockles and mussels, alive, alive, oh".
She was a fishmonger,
But sure 'twas no wonder,
For so were her father and mother before,
And they wheeled their barrows,
Through the streets broad and narrow,
Crying, "Cockles and mussels, alive, alive, oh!"
(chorus)
She died of a fever,
And no one could save her,
And that was the end of sweet Molly Malone.
But her ghost wheels her barrow,
Through streets broad and narrow,
Crying, "Cockles and mussels, alive, alive, oh!"


If you come to Dublin for a literary pub crawl, don't miss James Joyce's house (15 Usher's Island) and Oscar Wilde's family mansion on 1 Merrion Square (now home to American College).

A dreamy place to book browse: The Winding Stair on 40 Lower Ormond Quay. It sparkles right into river.

Writers are the conversation here. Locals James Joyce and Samuel Beckett have bridges named for them. More Dublin scribes: Jonathan Swift, William Butler Yeats, Bram Stoker, Maeve Binchy, and Elizabeth Bowen. My friend, novelist George Green (Hound, Hawk), is from Dublin. The bridges of Dublin's writers reach everywhere in the world.
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Published on May 04, 2016 09:45 • 50 views

May 3, 2016

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Back in England! We're just an easy drive north of Luton Airport when we're first stalked, then mugged by kismet. Heading through the countryside, with ancient abbeys flashing by, we sense the rooves (the quaint British spelling) of lovely homes turning slowly to thatch. Half-timbered dwellings gather and rush toward a town. We're driving through Stratford-Upon-Avon on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death.

As we tour the historic sites, we find we're in most unusual company. Helen Mirren, Prince Charles & the Duchess of Cornwall, Dame Judy Dench--must everybody be in line ahead of us? If you come here, don't miss Anne Hathaway's house, with its noumenal tulips. Then enjoy a glass of London Pride while you carve your way through the beast of the day at The Old Thatch Tavern on Greenhill Street. (On the lighter side, try the Homemade Cottage Pie.) This pub is at least 500 years old. It's a startling answer to, "Hey, we're looking for a place that really knows its way around diners–15th century, maybe, steps from Shakespeare's house. By the way, we're in a hurry."

As we dine, the crowds on the street get larger and larger, lifting each second higher in the air. If "what's past is prologue," what's the future? Overheard: "Where did everybody park in Shakespeare's day?"

Horns, masks, stirring souls. All of which leads to an outdoor performance under the stars near the river, where the skittish Prince Charles takes to the stage and asks, "To be, or not to be?"

Tonight, we fly to Ireland and another coincidence. Dublin is in an ecstasy of mourning and pride. It's the 100th Anniversary of the Uprising.
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Published on May 03, 2016 16:48 • 86 views

April 13, 2016

Back in the USA! The U.S. launch of The Boston Castrato is October 2016, but I've smuggled books across the pond from London for a sentimental journey.

This reading is a publication party at The Writer's Center, a magnet for writers all over Washington D.C.. I've been a member here since the year it started, when the Center was located in Glen Echo Park, Maryland, on the Potomac River near Georgetown. It's impossible for me to come here without thanking inspirations like Writer's Center founder Al Lefcowitz, Barbara Lefcowitz, Ann Darr, Roland Flint, Phil Jason, Merrill Leffler, Linda Pastan, Paul Zimmer, David Hilton, Susan Sonde, and Rick Peabody. The Writer's Center is all about listening to, and discovering, voices. Gifted executives like Sunil Freeman ensure this continues to happen rather magically.

It's amazing who shows up today, out of the blue. If you're lucky enough to have a perfect performance space like The Writer's Center (for years now located on Walsh Street in Chevy Chase, just off tony Wisconsin Avenue), you learn pretty quickly that no one writes alone.

Reading with me is poet Mary Helen Snyder, as she celebrates her new book of poetry, Never the Loss of Wings. Her background in psychotherapy makes her work immediate, personal, probing, and courageous.

After the reading (I dip into the chapter where Raffi holds his hand to the glass at the Parker House so he can 'hear' the couple outside in the rain), I drive with friends to see the original location of the Writer's Center, in Glen Echo Park, created in 1891 to host the National Chautauqua Assembly.

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I walk around, drinking it in. How can places, let alone people, seem so aware? The park is still closed for the winter, making it more mysterious. I snap a picture of the carousel through a window that dissolves and pulls me in until the horses take me home.


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Published on April 13, 2016 09:40 • 130 views

April 12, 2016

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What a fantasy, to stay at the same dreamy hotel where Amy Lowell and Ada Russell stayed when they visited London to join the Imagists as World War I dawned.

This is a luxuriant home base with no holds barred. No place on earth is more comfortable than the Berkeley.

Waiting in our room when we arrive is a bottle of champagne, treats, and chocolate swirls on a plate that spell out The Boston Castrato. The hotel staff is aware I'm chasing Amy here with a breakfast reading in Lowell's honor at the Berkeley in the morning.
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Who cares about Amy Lowell in England? More people do after I read Lowell's exquisite "East, West, North, and South of a Man," which first appeared in Harper's in 1924 and was the leadoff poem in Lowell's posthumous volume What's O'Clock, which won the 1926 Pulitzer.

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The poem is ahead of its time. It prefigures some of Sylvia Plath's scorching lines in "Lady Lazarus" and "Daddy." To read it, visit http://www.poetrynook.com/poem/east-w...

Lowell could be sweet, too. We explore some of her famous "Chinoiseries," her singular form based on the haiku. We read two of her love poems to Ada. One of them is "In A Garden": http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/...

Guests at this breakfast reading include top novelists Miranda Miller (The Fairy Visions of Richard Dadd: A Novel) and Sarah Walton (Rufius), who enchant with their conversations and listen intently to tales of Amy Lowell's London sojourns, almost floating to her through time in this spot a century ago. Lowell would have admired their gifts to see beyond the seen.
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Published on April 12, 2016 14:15 • 56 views

April 8, 2016

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Passing through Rome from Naples, there's just time enough to see the Spanish Steps.

The first time I was here, I was in my early twenties, disastrously preoccupied with myself, dreaming of meeting her, Nancy, the love of my life.

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I sat on the stairs, stuck with my sulky interiority. Forty years later, it stuns me to realize what I wasn't taking in. I didn't realize that the Spanish Steps flank the Keats-Shelley House on 26 Piazza di Spagna, where poet John Keats spent his last days. You can go into his very room and look down at the stairs.

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I knocked on the black door, ascended to the museum and was shocked to see that among the thousands of books on display, a relative of mine, William Wetmore Story, had sculpted busts of Shelley and Keats. I felt the immediate presentiment that Amy Lowell, who so loved Keats she wrote a biography of him, had been here, too.

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Keats died so young (25), with such incredible gifts. The room where he died is open to the public. The same white marble fireplace is there that Keats used. When you walk to his window at night, as Keats did in tubercular fever, you look out and see the steps spread out in the dark like a dazzling white accordion.

Crowds are talking, laughing, brooding, searching for themselves, looking for an ATM.

It's easy to gaze out this 19th century window and see the future--not so easy the other way around: to feel chilling excitement of the past, a past that is secretly alive, red-blooded, impatient.

Don't take it from me, take it from Keats, in his riveting "This Living Hand, Warm and Capable":

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calmed—see here it is—
I hold it towards you.

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Published on April 08, 2016 10:37 • 90 views

Divagations

Colin W. Sargent
Notes from the underworld of The Boston Castrato.
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