This is a huge banner. And the largest ever protest by Native Americans at a Washington home game. pic.twitter.com/CHVFiMPa9p— Mike Wise (@MikeWiseguy) December 28, 2014
Tomaž Šalamun (1941-2014)
When Tomaž Šalamun arrived at a poetry festival in San Miguel de Allende two years ago with a bad back, which he had hurt tobogganing down the Great Wall of China, I was not surprised to learn that he had risked life and limb to have a little fun. The Slovenian poet seemed to possess the gift of eternal youth until he passed away on Saturday, at his home in Ljubljana. He was always alert to what young poets were doing -- they fed his imagination -- and they repaid him in kind with translations and imitations of his work; it is a great irony that although he wrote in a language spoken by less than two million people English versions of his poems have for several decades profoundly influenced American letters. What surprised me about his Chinese adventure was that he had not escaped unscathed. I had imagined him to be indestructible.
He was born in Zagreb, Croatia in 1941, raised in the coastal city of Koper south of Trieste, and studied art history at the University of Ljubljana. Jailed when he was 23 for editing a literary journal, he was released after five days, thanks in part to pressure from the international media, and in his newfound celebrity decided to devote his life to poetry. Robert Hass notes that his is "a poetics not of rebellion but of quest," influenced by Rimbaud and Lautréamont, French Surrealism, the Russian Futurists, and the New York School. In one of his first poems, "Eclipse," he established the terms of an aesthetic argument that he would conduct in his improvisatory style through scores of books: "I grew tired of the image of my tribe/ and moved out." His would be "a world of sharp edges./ Cruel and eternal." Here is the second section of "Eclipse":
I will take nails,
and hammer them into my body.
Very very gently,
very very slowly,
so it will last longer.
I will draw up a precise plan.
I will upholster myself every day,
say two square inches for instance.
Then I will set fire to everything.
It will burn for a long time,
it will burn for seven days.
Only the nails will remain,
all welded together and rusty.
So I will remain.
So I will survive everything.
He did indeed survive, though for some time the Yugoslav authorities forbade him from holding a regular job. At one point he was reduced to selling encyclopedias and how-to books door to door, without much success. One woman told him she was not interested in the books he was peddling. What do you like to read? he asked her. I only like Kafka, Proust, and Šalamun, she replied. I am Šalamun, he said. Meanwhile he exhibited environmental and conceptual art in Yugoslavia and at the Museum of Modern Art, and in 1970 he was awarded a fellowship to the University of Iowa's International Writing Program; the friendships he forged there with Anselm Hollo and Bob Perelman, who translated his poems into English, along with his discovery of the work of Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery, Walt Whitman and Wallace Stevens, expanded his sense of possibility. For the rest of his life he would take advantage of every opportunity to return to this country -- for residencies at artist colonies, visiting teaching positions, reading tours.
The vast spaces in America opened his cells, he said, insisting that his poems did not begin to breathe until they had been translated into English. The publication of an edited selection of his work in 1988 introduced him to American readers, just as Yugoslavia was imploding. It seemed as if he had prophesied the wars of succession: "No one is allowed on my land," he wrote in "Eclipse." And he was in despair when I met him in Ljubljana in the summer of 1992: Serbian-run concentration camps for Bosnian prisoners had come to light; the cruel, sharp-edged world he had glimpsed in a poem was taking shape all around him; he did not write for four years.
After the carnage ended, though, poetry returned to him, as he once said, dropping "like stones from the sky," and soon he was named the cultural attaché at the new Slovenian Consulate in New York City. "Tomaž Šalamun, please," was how he answered the phone, as if he were the Muse himself. I visited him on his first free day, which we spent translating his poems. His wife, the acclaimed painter Metka Krašovec, had warned him not to rent the first apartment we were shown after we had finished working, knowing that breathing life into his poems in English would leave him so exhilarated that his judgment about real estate would be impaired. Which is exactly what happened. Whenever I visited them in their small flat on 14th Street, Metka would tease me about our working methods, which sometimes resembled a comedy routine. If I asked Tomaž what a certain line or image meant, he might reply, "Apparently," or "I don't know." Rational logic was the enemy of his poems, which ricocheted in every direction:
Tomaž Šalamun is a monster.
Tomaž Šalamun is a sphere rushing through the air.
He lies down in twilight, he swims in twilight.
People and I, we both look at him amazed,
we wish him well, maybe he is a comet.
Maybe he is punishment from the gods,
the boundary stone of the world.
Tomaž Šalamun was in fact a gift from the gods, a soft-spoken man blessed with the gentlest soul, and this gift, his poems, will keep on giving for a very long time. They will survive.
Christopher Merrill directs the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. His books include, Only the Nails Remain: Scenes from the Balkan Wars (nonfiction), Boat (poetry), and, as editor, The Four Questions of Melancholy: New and Selected Poems of Tomaž Šalamun.
This morning Woody Johnson informed John Idzik and Rex Ryan that they will not be returning to the team in 2015.— New York Jets (@nyjets) December 29, 2014
Head Coach Mike Smith was released from his contract today.— Atlanta_Falcons (@Atlanta_Falcons) December 29, 2014
#Bears have informed GM Phil Emery and coach Marc Trestman they will not return to team.— Chicago Bears (@ChicagoBears) December 29, 2014
If planners for Bethesda, Maryland fully realize a conceptual vision now being offered to community leaders and the public, the once-quiet but now-bustling suburb's downtown could become a nationally relevant example of urban sustainability.
While the thinking is in its infancy, the Montgomery County Planning Department - under Maryland law, the county has legal authority - is considering a comprehensive green overhaul of Bethesda's downtown plan, currently being updated by for the first time in twenty years. Particularly significant, in my opinion, would be two to three neighborhood-scaled "ecodistricts" within the downtown that would lead the way with showcase practices to accelerate and intensify environmental performance. The Department is being exceptionally cautious in stressing that for the moment its ideas are only conceptual and preliminary in nature, and will be subject to extensive review and refinement, but they point in the right direction.
Bethesda, just a few miles outside of Washington, DC, has been a leader in the smart growth and urbanist trends that were born in the 1990s and are still being put in place in many jurisdictions. A lot of progress has been made, and most of its downtown is now highly walkable and transit accessible, especially for a suburb. But, with a few exceptions, the community has not taken the next step to become "green" as well as "smart." What was progressive two decades ago is merely good practice now. Leadership requires more, and the county's new initiative is timely.
Bethesda was once best known for housing beautiful, upscale, single-family neighborhoods, the National Naval Medical Center, and the neighboring National Institutes of Health. (Those in the know also made the trip from elsewhere in the DC metro region to Bethesda for the Tastee Diner, Gifford's Ice Cream and O'Donnell's Seafood Restaurant.) But the sleepy suburb's downtown area was transformed in the last few decades by the region's booming growth and, in particular, by the arrival of the region's MetroRail system, which has a busy station in the heart of the commercial area.
It is now one of the region's most walkable suburban downtowns, served also by one of the region's most popular bicycle trails, multiple bus lines (including a downtown Circulator) and soon, I fervently hope, the long-delayed Purple Line light rail system intended to link Bethesda with other suburbs to the east. While some of the downtown's architecture is a bit undistinguished and not sufficiently relatable at the human scale, there are important exceptions including what in my opinion is the country's very best example - and certainly one of its most successful and popular examples - of a mixed-use, walkable retrofit of what was previously a very run-down, automobile-oriented suburban strip. (See photo immediately above.) Over 10,000 residents live within the downtown planning boundary.
Judging by slides presented to a planning board meeting in December and posted online, the planners did a good job of identifying downtown Bethesda's strengths and weaknesses. Assets include established residential neighborhoods, adjacency to the two major federal employers, excellent arts, entertainment and nightlife, and good walkability and transit service. But the presentation concedes that downtown lacks central green spaces and continuous tree canopy, contributes an abundance of impervious cover within watersheds with substandard water quality, and provides insufficient affordable housing. The presentation also notes that Bethesda has committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 80 percent below 2005 levels by 2050.
Green responses to these conditions are infused throughout the planning framework, which includes attention to such sustainability concepts as vegetated walls and roofs, habitat restoration, tree canopy, streetscape character, urban agriculture, bicycle infrastructure, shared streets, "parklets," and public gathering spaces, including expanded green spaces.
I took a close look at the proposals for two of the nine planning districts: First, the Woodmont Triangle, a low- to mid-rise sector northwest of the heart of downtown, is being considered for enhancement as an arts district with mixed-income housing, improved water quality, and enhanced green space. Second, the Wisconsin Avenue corridor is Bethesda's main commercial street, running north-south with the Bethesda Metro station at its heart. The current streetscape is seriously unappealing to my eye. It would be slated for multi-modalism (including a bus rapid transit line and better sidewalk and pedestrian infrastructure), enhanced "downtown atmosphere," and energy conservation and generation. The historic Farm Women's Cooperative Market, south of the Metro station, would become the centerpiece of "a newly green and connected civic space."
Both Woodmont and the area around the Metro station in the Wisconsin Avenue corridor are under consideration for treatment as ecodistricts, according to a story written by Katherine Shaver and published in The Washington Post. Shaver, who spoke to a county planning official, describes the districts in terms of their environmental, economic and social goals:
The 'environmental' piece could include more environmentally friendly high-rise office and condo buildings, perhaps with renewable energy sources such as solar panels, and surrounded by more trees and green space. The 'social' goal eyes more public gathering spots and better-connected paths to encourage walking and cycling. The 'economic' goals could include more affordable housing and retail space.
Tina Schneider, a senior environmental planner for the county, said planners want to 'push the envelope' to make downtown Bethesda a 'really vivacious, desirable place that's seen as being innovative and technically advanced.'
'It would be doing more good for the community and the ecosystem rather than doing less harm,' Schneider said. The designated areas, she said, would 'function in a way that's not depleting our resources but perhaps even improving them.'
Bethesda already has decent green-building incentives, but the designated high-performance areas, according to the presentation, would seek to reach an enhanced level of environmental sustainability by further reducing energy demand and water use, using green infrastructure - including green roofs - to control stormwater runoff, and employing green streets with enhanced tree canopy and high efficiency street lighting, among other things. There's a slide headlined "getting to zero," which implies that the ultimate goal in these districts would be to achieve net-zero performance for energy and water.
The conceptual framework also references good sources of standards, including the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, among many others. (The Natural Resources Defense Council, which cofounded LEED-ND, has been working with clients and partners to use the system to guide sustainability planning across the country, including in downtown Los Angeles's Little Tokyo neighborhood.) Planners say they will aim high for the showcase districts, to create national models of sustainability and design, accelerate performance to reach goals sooner than in other parts of the planning area, and use density bonuses among other tools to reward developers for pursuing environmentally progressive techniques.
(I didn't take the time to watch the full, two-hour video of planners' presentation to the planning board, but it's on the website for those who want more.)
It's all a bit vague, to be honest, and at best the vision would take decades to fully realize. Shaver's article quotes a local developer as grumbling that county environmental requirements are already stringent enough, which only reinforces my hunch that the preliminary framework points in the right direction. This is not a time in the history of our planet when we should be resting on our laurels. Local environmentalists would do well to push the planning department and, ultimately, the County Council, to pursue these objectives with specificity, rigor, and dedication.
Will Bethesda indeed become the sort of national model that its planners envision? It's way too soon to know, but I applaud the effort.
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Kaid Benfield writes about community, development, and the environment on Huffington Post and in other national media. Kaid's latest book is People Habitat: 25 Ways to Think About Greener, Healthier Cities.