Topaz in Canton, NY - St. Lawrence University For the Signlanguage Exhibit, Reading, Signing and EE FoTR

Canton, NY - St. Lawrence University,

Source: Topaz's report as first published on HoT

Poetry Reading & Signing - St Lawrence University, Canton, NY 3.1.03
Poetry Reading & Signing - St Lawrence ….
© Topaz. Used by permission.

Topaz (Toronto, Canada), March 2003
(originally posted on The House of Telcontar):

On March 1st I had the privilege of being part of the events at St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY, and meeting Viggo in person. It was an incredible, amazing experience, and I'll try to put it into words....

I'll start with a list of Viggo's photographs that were on display at the art gallery at SLU, with references to the books where one can find them.

Photographs by Viggo Mortensen at St. Lawrence University, Canton, NY, February 28 - April 5, 2003

From the book Signlanguage:

Year One, 2000 (cover)
Amsterdam #5 and #6, 2000 p. 17
Going Out #3 p. 19
Chris' Dogs, 2001 p. 25
Subject, 2000 p. 26
Told, 2000 p. 29
Signlanguage, 1997 p. 30
With Jose, 2000 p. 31
Winter, Venice, 2000 p. 32
Fell, 2000 p. 38
Lost #2, 2000 p. 40
Lost #5, 2000 p. 40
Lost #4, 2000 p. 40
Lost, 2000 p. 40
Later, Red, 2000 p. 52
7 November, 2001 p. 53
Amsterdam, 2001 p. 61
Cheek, 2000 p. 67
Leaving Christchurch, 2000 p. 81

From the book Coincidence of Memory:

Noon, 2000 p. 26
Shipshape #6, 2000 p. 29
Shipshape #2, 2000 p. 30
Shipshape, 2000 p. 30
Shipshape #5, 2000 p. 31
(& 1? or 3? more of these....)
Scared Brigit, 1998 p. 47
Sueno del Retiro, 2001 pp. 54-5

From the book Hole in the Sun:

Pool #2, 1998 cover, & p.17
Green #4, 1998 p. 21
Red #3, 1999 p. 23
Blue #4, 1998 p. 35
Blue #5, 2002 p. 59

Here is a transcript of the introduction to the FOTR (EE) movie was shown in the evening on March 1st. I believe that the man who introduced Viggo was the head of the SLU drama department. I enjoyed what he said:

"As the various artistic events on campus this weekend demonstrate, Mr. Mortensen is not just another of Hollywood's handsomely cleft chins. He paints, photographs, writes poetry, plays jazz music, speaks three
languages fluently, sits a horse with grace and command, wields his own sword, sings, and has no trouble convincing us that an elfin princess of otherworldly beauty would gladly sacrifice her..... immortality... for the chance to gaze, if only a few years, into those soulful blue eyes. How did Mr. Mortensen come by these rare and difficult arts? I suspect nature played a role. But surely too, culture had a part. Here at St. Lawrence Mr. Mortensen picked up majors in Spanish, and government, he spent a year on our program in Madrid, and he acted in student productions. From Canton, Mr. Mortensen went to Denmark, then to New York, and then to Hollywood. The Internet Movie Data Base tells us that he has appeared in 48 films -- from Witness to Hidalgo, still in post-production. [They were actually still filming it.] In the early films, Mr. Mortensen's name appears down the list of credits. Over the years one finds it rising inexorably towards the top. Today, with his phenomenal success as Aragorn in the Tolkien movies, Mr. Mortensen has arrived at star billing. From what I have seen and heard of this man's commitment, his intensity, his generosity, I believe we'll be seeing Mr. Mortensen's name above the title for a good while yet. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Viggo Mortensen...

Viggo's introduction to The Fellowship of the Ring, Extended Version:

Thank you for your kind remarks. I won't take too long -- I know we're running a little late, and the movie's pretty long.... So, welcome to St. Lawrence, those who aren't from here, and welcome in a few minutes to Middle Earth.

I'm glad that you're getting to see this particular version of The Fellowship of the Ring, because the additional nearly half-hour isn't just a bonus for confirmed Tolkien fans, or Peter Jackson fans. I think that woven as it is into the original theatrical version, complete with a half-hour more of original score by Howard Shore, it's a more complete, far better movie. It's a completely different movie.

And because you don't stop at all to think, as an audience, or question things about different characters, or about the elves -- you're given more information -- and you don't stop to wonder what's going on as much, I think it's more fluid; and it actually feels shorter, even though it's nearly a half-hour longer. I think we've all been to movies that are 80 or 90 or 95 minutes long, and they feel like they're about four hours long. And likewise, once in a while -- and I think this maybe was one of those -- you get to see a movie that's close to three hours long, and it feels a lot shorter. And you're ready to see more at the end of it.

For me, the way I look at it, it's also in this version that it's increasingly clear that what matters most is not what happens to the individuals in the Fellowship, or whether the Ring gets to Mount Doom where the Fellowship hopes that it will be destroyed. What seems increasingly important is the fact that individuals of different races, different cultures, are getting together for a common purpose -- and most importantly that they're doing so of their own free will, without being coerced, without propaganda. They're just doing it because they know it's the right thing to do. And I think that this solidarity, this concerted effort toward compassion, is the only hope for Middle Earth in one of its darkest hours. And it may be that movie audiences have felt -- because the movie did so well, and the second one has done very well -- that this is also true of our world at this time, and therefore many have strongly related their lives to the fiction that you're about to see. Anyway, I hope that you enjoy watching it as much as we enjoyed making it down in New Zealand. Thanks for your patience tonight.
Now I'll go and start at the beginning.....
For me it was Saturday March 1st when it all happened. I had recently found out that this date was both Aragorn's birthday and the date of King Elessar's death. What better day to go to Canton to celebrate and remember?

I had taken my two daughters to Kingston the night before, to spend the weekend with their dad. So bright and early Saturday morning I set out for Canton. I drove along the sunlit highway, surrounded by ice-covered crystal trees. It was beautiful. I stopped several times to take pictures -- I'm sure Viggo would have too -- and from reading some other reports, he did. There were more crystal trees on the SLU campus, right in front of the building where it all look place. So I took more pictures, and then went inside to look at HIS pictures.

The gallery was beautifully set up, with some of Viggo's poems printed on the walls, and the photographs with their mostly brilliant colours in vivid contrast to the white of the walls. The first poem one "met" on the wall was Back to Babylon. I was really glad they had put it there, since it was so fresh and immediate. The others were Clear, Hillside, Ontario, and "You are sweating in your sleep..." There were some beautiful tropical flower arrangements, too. There were very few people, so all was quiet and very peaceful. The larger room on the right (where Viggo later signed books) also had a number of black-and-white photographs, the highlight being the large Sueno del Retiro (which is on the cover of Coincidence of Memory). I stood there gazing at it for ages, always discovering new things.

Someone had asked that those of us who go to the exhibition write something afterwards about our impressions of the photographs at the gallery. So as I stood there, I began writing things down about what I saw. What I wasn't prepared for, but what happened to me (one of those surprise presents one is given!) was that I found I was writing poems about those photographs that really spoke to me. I haven't written poetry since highschool (and I graduated from highschool the same year Viggo did, so that was a while ago!) But these just came to me, as fast as I could write them down, and they may give you some sense of the impression these pictures made when I saw them in real life, rather than in a book. The first one I did was about the Sueno del Retiro photo, which in real life is huge (about 4' x 8' ? or a bit bigger?), and four about the four "Lost" photos which Viggo took when he was lost in the forest one night in New Zealand (these are also black and white, and about 8x10" each). I was amazed at the way it just happened. It felt like a dream. A good dream....

Sueno del Retiro

Light, pulsing
from the outside in,
from dark edges
to centre of brightness,
the darkest trees
the golden garden.
Touches of grey,
the roughness of granite,
blinding sheets of rain
or the breath after rain.
Blurred presences
rooted in shadow,
lifting the luminous blossoms
awakened in the heart
of the labyrinth,
embraced by the darkness
the strength
the dark beauty
of the earth's

Lost #2

It is there.
Black on white.
Take it or leave it.
No ambiguity.
A black branch
grasping my sight.
There it is.
And yet
far away
not so clear --
not so defined --
a grey dream
of branches flowing

Lost #5

Fern fronds
delicate as gossamer
as pen and ink
in faithfulness
to the infinite detail
of nature,
abundance of perfection
in every fringed leaf...
And then letting go,
giving itself up
to the light,
to the ultimate

Lost #4

A slender twig,
curving with abandon,
tossing tiny joyful leaves
and faint slips of vine --
fine blacks and greys.
Japanese brush
on rice paper,
springing to life
catching the phrase
of pan pipes
and delicate dew
at morning
like pearls
touching my skin
and whispering of you....

Lost 2000

I have built
a lattice of leaves,
of strong supple sinews,
symmetrical hearts
twinned and expectant,
in snow light
with hidden stars
and unknown trajectories
to mystery
of white.
Will it be enough
to hold my heart
in its frame,
protected from pain?
Or will it yield up
from its chrysalis
a new creature
to dare the sky?

At the gallery I met several women whose names I knew from my computer screen (from the House of Telcontar site), but whom I had not met before (except Buttercup, who is also from Toronto and with whom I had shared the adventure of getting tickets for these momentous events -- but that's another story!) Buttercup was there with her friend JK, and Mo had come from Montreal. The four of us spent a good part of the day together, and it was so nice to get to know them in "real life". This turned out to be a lovely, and for me unexpected, part of the weekend -- meeting others whose lives have been touched by this awesome man we all came to see. Thank you Mo and Buttercup for sharing that wonderful day with me! And thanks to Clarissa for giving Mo and me tickets for the Fellowship of the Ring screening in the evening (instead of just mailing her two extra tickets to the people who couldn't be there to use them, she let us use them first! -- yes, they're being mailed back to you as we speak....) We had lunch in the cafeteria, and then it was time for the poetry reading.

The president of the university introduced Viggo, starting with the comment that when he looked up Viggo Mortensen on the Internet, he found 86,800 references! (and that he didn't read them all.) When I tried to do that a year ago, to find out who this man was who played Aragorn in LOTR, I think I got about 500....

We sat in the 3rd row right at the end with the podium, but Viggo sat instead on the edge of the stage in the centre to read. We were told before Viggo came out that it was fine to take flash photos at the start and at the end, but not once he began to read -- which was only common sense. I don't think he minded all the flashing cameras at the start, and everyone was certainly respectful and refrained from doing it during the reading. This was the first time I have seen him in the flesh. He looked wonderful, but that didn't surprise me. He wore a pale (beige?) suit with stripes woven into it, and a dark green shirt. His hair was sandy blond, and fairly long [as I later discovered, the "Hidalgo look"]. The button on his lapel said "US troops out of the Middle East". He read 11 poems, all from Coincidence of Memory except his new one, "Back to Babylon". The ones he read were:

Clear (for which he said he had "no explanation whatsoever")

Hillside (where he talked about the importance of what we say, as well as what we wish we hadn't said)

First Light (which he introduced by talking about his time in NZ and how he chose to drive everywhere so that he could see more of the country, saying he had written this while driving)

Back to Babylon (his new poem written in February '03, for Poets Against the War)

(a quote from James Madison)

Matinee (".... you exit a theatre after having taken in the restored version of 'The Hero Returns' and find yourself wanting to be treated special.") -- I love that. It was written in 1997, long before LOTR!

Edit (another reference to the precarious life of actors!)

Keepsake (which he said was connected to his son, but he dedicated this reading to his mother who was there)

They roll over on the swells...

Chaco (in Spanish), which he translated


Fossils (which he dedicated to the people of Iraq, Afghanistan, and the United States).

He spoke with simplicity, candour, humility, but also eloquence -- about his experiences when writing the poems, about his feelings, about how important it was for people to have the freedom to question, to discuss, in order for momentous decisions about things such as war to be made consciously and for the right reasons. He was very respectful of others' views in all he said, and his sincerity was very moving. He dedicated "Fossils" to the people of Afghanistan, Iraq, AND the United States.

At times having trouble finding the poem he wanted. (It occurred to me that if he'd said out loud which one he was looking for, there were probably many in the audience who could have told him on which page of Coincidence of Memory to find it!) He was the one who chose all the poems, but he chose all the ones I would have wanted him to read. He has a wonderful voice -- it was a privilege to hear him read.

And then came the book signing. This would be the moment when I would really MEET him! Buttercup and JK had saved Mo and me a place in line, so we all entered the gallery quite early in the afternoon. Viggo did look somewhat tired, but he spoke to each person with genuine interest and caring. The line was VERY long, so it was no wonder the gallery people told us we could only have a very short time with him, and couldn't have any posed photos, only candid ones.

Buttercup was in front of me. She was giving him lots of presents from friends from her abundant gift bag, and I was taking pictures. She had also decided to give him six little cans of the latest Canadian version of V-8 vegetable juice, named appropriately enough V-GO! I was waiting for the reaction to the juice. We'd been drinking it at our house for the past few weeks and enjoying it -- in fact I had a large bottle of it in the trunk of my car at that very moment. He looked at it, at first a little puzzled why she'd be giving him juice, and then he saw the label and burst out laughing -- it was such a genuine laugh of surprise and delight. Happy birthday, Aragorn! My camera snapped at just the right moment. (As soon as I can get these pictures on CD, I'll send them. That one is GOOD!)

And then it was my turn. There were too many things I wanted to say to him, and I knew I couldn't say them all. So I had written a letter to give to him, and I was glad I had.

I am a composer. I love setting poetry to music, and have wanted to set some of Viggo's poetry (in fact he had just read all the poems I had in mind for this!) I had written to him about it, and sent him some of my music (before October), but hadn't yet had a reply. I had brought along a CD of my new composition to give to him. I was able to say a little about how much he'd inspired me by who he was. (In retrospect it felt inadequate, but he had the letter.) I gave him the CD, and mentioned I'd sent him some other music before -- and he remembered me. He also remembered I was Czech. He asked me how to say "thank you" in Czech. ("Dekuji.") Then he asked me to spell it so he could write it in my copy of Hole in the Sun (next to Blue #4 which I love, and which was hanging in the next room.) And when I asked him if I could set some of his poetry to music, he smiled and said sure, that was fine.

He was fully present during the brief time we had together, and made me feel that I had his undivided attention. He genuinely cared. I could feel what a KIND man he was. It must take an enormous amount of energy to do this for each person who comes, and a new person every few minutes, for four hours. (Someone later said he took a two-minute break once!) He is very generous, and I hope that all the love his fans have for him can help him to feel good about what he does for people.

When it was Mo's turn I was still in a bit of a dream, and almost forgot to take pictures with her camera! The gallery people wanted us to leave pretty soon, but we managed another good look at the second room before leaving. We went out for some supper, and soon Mo and I had to be back for the 7:30 screening of the extended Fellowship of the Ring. On our way in I got the big bottle of V-GO out of my trunk, put it in a plastic bag, and as we walked past the gallery door (yes, there were still people lined up and yes, he was still being attentive to each one...) I handed it to the friendly gallery lady (as opposed to the other, unfriendly gallery lady whose job it was to shoo people out!). She remembered Buttercup giving him the little cans of V-GO, so I told her this was a refill and could she please get it to him? She said she would, and as we went around to look in from the far door, I could see the big bodyguard carrying my bag over to Viggo's desk and putting it with his growing pile of gifts. So I hope he enjoys it!

While we were waiting for the movie, we saw Viggo's mother come in. So we decided to go and talk to her. She is a lovely, elegant, gracious lady (anyone surprised?) She too seemed genuinely interested in us, where we came from, and what it was about Viggo that had inspired me. (Help! Once again I was being asked to put it into a few brief sentences-- I can't do it!) Yes, her name is Grace. And in fact she reminded me of Grace Kelly (and maybe also Katharine Hepburn?) I'd just read something in the local paper I'd found very sweet -- that when she watches movies with her son in them, she often gets so wrapped up in the story that she forgets he's in them! It was a surprise to hear her say her father was from Nova Scotia -- that would make Viggo 1/4 Canadian!

All the events of the day were about 20 minutes late, so Viggo arrived about 7:45. (I have already written what he said, as well as what the man who introduced him said.) To hear Viggo talk about my favourite movie (well, The Two Towers is up there too, but they're really all one long one, aren't they?) was a real treat. I love what he said at the start of the TTT Visual Companion, and this too focused on the need for co-operation and compassion between people of different backgrounds. In contrast to those who have recently been misinterpreting TTT by claiming it was pro-war and particularly pro-US/Iraq war, it was good to hear Viggo say that he believed today's audiences were drawn to both movies precisely because they are about this need for compassion. More than an hour later, when Strider pulled down his hood to say "Are you frightened?" , the audience burst into applause and cheers. And so we traveled again the road from the Shire to Bree to Rivendell to Moria to Lothlorien to Amon Hen.... What a journey. At the end of it Mo and I went back to the gallery where we wandered until it closed at midnight -- "and he end of all our exploring was to arrive where we had started, and know the place for the first time" as T.S. Eliot said. Not all who wander are lost....

We stayed at a motel in Potsdam about 10 miles away, since most accommodations in Canton were full due to a track and field meet (not to mention Viggo's events). The next morning I drove back to Canton, to spend some quiet hours in the Fine Arts wing of the same building, working on adapting The Hobbit into a Grade 5 play.... but that's yet another story. As I drove those 10 miles I listened to the soundtrack of The Two Towers, and the "Leave-taking" music of the elves began. That's when the emotion of it all really hit me, and tears began streaming down my face -- because it was over, although it would never really be over because it would live in my heart forever; because it had been so glorious; because he had such a wonderful spirit that we were all privileged to be touched by it; because I had truly met him and now I KNEW that no matter whether he was a star, or the sexiest man in Hollywood, or whatever label one might give a famous person, that he was so very HUMAN, so genuine, vulnerable, caring, earnestly trying to follow his calling.

He had doubts and fears, and he felt all the things I've felt. I'd really noticed the melancholic elements of his temperament -- the brooding artist, with sadness in many of the poems and photographs, the fine attention to detail in everything. And I'd also heard him speak more lightly, and LAUGH -- I'd heard his REAL voice, rather than his "acting voice". He is a terrific actor -- but when he is with people as he was here, he doesn't act -- he just is himself. And now I have glimpsed who that is, and I am filled with gratitude for that.

The Leaving of the Elves. The leaving of what took place at St. Lawrence University, of being a part of it all.... Leave-taking. No going back to Montreal, Viggo going to spend time with his family, Aragorn and Legolas and Gimli going to rescue Merry and Pippin.... It all brought back the time last summer when I was reading The Return of the King. After all the horrendous and glorious events, the hobbits eventually say good-bye to the King, and then to Gandalf, and they travel the journey of the Fellowship in reverse -- every step taking them away from grandeur and into the ordinary world. There is a sense of loss in that, and it is not easy -- but they are able to do it because they are changed. They are different because of what they had experienced. They can do anything. They can cope with anything. They have inner strength that is empowering and invincible. And I could feel something of that in me. One stage of my journey is over -- another begins. And when fear comes and I know my defenses have to hold, I hear that voice: "They will hold."

I'll end with one more poem that came to me while I looked at what has now become my favourite swimming pool photograph,

Blue #4

vigorous growth
of exuberant green
made blue,
seen through the heart's
filter of light....
Love and tenderness
tangled together

Norfolk Island pine
stirring the wave
in a world of blue....
and my world
my heart
my heart
my world
is swimming
is singing
in blue brilliance,
a fountain of light
a gift
of caring
of kindness
of memory
of blessed coincidences
of love
of the blue of the sun
of the blue of his eyes.

Joy fills me
surrounds me
It lifts me
to heights of yes....
Thank you.
It is I who am thankful,
forever thankful,
for his infinite gift.

For more information and images visit our Events Gallery:

Signlanguage Exhibit - Richard F Brush Art Gallery, Canton, NY 2.28.03
Poetry Reading & Signing - St Lawrence University, Canton, NY 3.1.03
Last edited: 23 June 2006 14:58:54
© Topaz. Used by permission.