Saturday, December 30, 2006
The juxtaposition of an upper class sport and a terrible battle was strongly dissonant, and made me unsure how to read the painting. The hunters didn’t seem to be responsible in the painting for the harvest of deer. They were figures of grace and civilization, whose elegant houses dotted the green landscape unobstrusively. The dogs were painted with loving detail that ennobled them without anthropomorphizing them. In an exhibition note, Dunlap claimed that that particular breed of dogs were the finest huntera, a claim borne out by his own hunting experience.
If the relationship between hunters and deer was not one of simplistic cause-and-effect, perhaps it was one of ambiguity. Ambiguity was a more generous reading of the painting than the alternative: a propagandistic nostalgia for the past. The work bore little resemblance to present-day America, North or South, though it was painted in the 1980s as the American landscape. In another painting, completed soon after the panorama, the same dogs appeared in the foreground. A palladian-styled mansion, a Jefferson’s Monticello look-alike, presided on a high ground over a viewshed spoiled by the smoke from factory stacks. Olympian Republican virtue, informed by classical Greek civilization, faced off with crass modernization. A familiar ideology but one I was surprised to find represented so baldly in this painting, and so ambitiously in the “Panorama.”
Other galleries gave more pleasure. I was happy to encounter George Dureau. I felt quite sure I have seen his “Scandal at the Forge of Vulcan Café” in a book before seeing the original here. One gallery was devoted to his drawings. The male nudes, in the heroic mode, were mostly muscular black men. A self-portrait, with him holding his camera, was hung together with one of Robert Mapplethorpe holding the same camera. The most finished drawing was “George with Some of His Closest Friends,” depicting the four men as centaurs trotting side by side, George leading the pack, the others’ heads turned towards him. The centaur is a familiar trope but the verticals of legs in the lower part of the painting gave the painting its interest.
Besides Dureau, I also enjoyed Will Henry Stevens’ paintings of ships on the Mississippi. The visual language was borrowed from late Cezanne but the paintings showed convincingly how it applied to ships and rivers as much as to mountains and quarries.
I thought the museum lacked depth in its attempt to be comprehensive. Not only did the paintings range over various genres, media and periods, the collection also included many other art works such as quilts, sculpture, pottery and glassware and, moreover, tried to represent each Southern state. All this in three small floors of exhibition space. This meant that, besides the lack of depth, things got stuffed into corners. The glassware, for example, appeared in one display cabinet along a side corridor. I think the Ogden is worth a visit, if only to find out which Southern artist is getting canonized, and perhaps why.
Winston and I have been in New Orleans for five days now, and we’ll be flying back to NYC tomorrow. The idea of a working vacation has been a success for me. I spent the mornings revising and rearranging Payday Loans, my 30-sonnet sequence, for publication in January. It helped to have a spacious hotel room to work in, $75 a night at the Sheraton, and not some quaint but claustrophobic bed-and-breakfast.
Afternoons saw us wandering round different neighborhoods: the French Quarter, the Garden District (where we saw Anne Rice’s house, Rosegate, and Lafayette No. 1 Cemetery), Uptown, the Faubourg Marigny (with a gay bookshop, to our surprise), and the Warehouse District.
Wednesday night, we went to Oz, a gay bar, where we sat beside two godly-sized lesbians from Yorkshire. When I asked one of them if they hailed from York, she repeated Yorkshire, and went on to explain what a county is. The drag show we saw there (Oz, not Yorkshire) was amateurish and poorly-hosted. One, a skinny white drag queen, had real stage charisma though.
Thursday night, we attended a poetry reading at the Gold Mine Saloon, curated by Dave Brinks, the publisher of Yawp: A Journal of Poetry and Art. The Gold Mine Saloon has clearly seen better days; it was half-blind now. Dark pinball machines backed up against the walls were unnaturally quiet, and the pool table ate someone’s dollar. A roach lay on its back in the metal urine trench in the men’s.
An assortment of stuff was performed: rants, letters from a satirical website on Katrina, a gothic dream narrative in blank verse, guitar-accompanied songs, free verse poems. Mostly locals and regulars, the audience was audibly angry and sad still over Katrina. I read two sonnets, “Come on, straight boy,” and "I can’t decide which organic bread to buy,” and two lyrics in ballad form, “Don’t ask me more than I can give,” and “Cut by an edge.” The ballads went down better with the audience than the sonnets.
After the reading, we went to the club, Bourbon Parade, just across the street from Oz. The Student Body Competition, an excuse for college boys to flaunt some flesh, featured two competitors: a tall white guy (a junior?) with an hourglass build—Go, 79, go, go!—and a short white girl who wagged her voluptuous figure at the audience. No prizes for guessing who won.
Tonight we head back to Faubourg Marigny, to Frenchmen Street, where we may hear jazz with our dinner, or not. I think it would be fun to return to New Orleans during Mardi Gras or Southern Decadence.
Sunday, December 24, 2006
On Friday, I viewed the Met exhibition on German portraits by artists such as Otto Dix, George Grosz, Christian Schad, Rudolf Schlicter and Max Beckmann. Known as the Verists, a branch of the New Objectivism, the artists prided themselves on depicting their subjects dispassionately, even cynically. Such "realism" was deemed the only adequate response to the crises of German society after World War II.
Otto Dix's paintings scrutinize his subjects mercilessly, exposing their weaknesses and vices. I have seen a few of the same paintings in the Dada exhibition in Washington D.C.. The Dada exhibition framed Dix as one example of an European and American artistic "movement," and emphasized the formal iconoclasm. In the Met exhibition, Dix's paintings are revealed as social satire, peculiar in subject and tone to a period of German history. I was especially drawn to Dix's painting of singer and performer, Anita Berber, which captures her demonic sexuality, as perceived by his contemporaries.
The painting I liked best in the exhibition is "The Old Actress" by Max Beckmann. Its simple, almost minimalist, lines, together with its few but bright colors that throw the woman's black outfit into relief, create a moving portrait of this woman. I read in the exhibition catalogue later that Beckmann considered this portrait one of his major works.
Saturday, December 23, 2006
Eagleton defines a poem as "a fictional, verbally inventive moral statement in which it is the author, rather than the printer or word processor, who decides where the lines should end." He readily admits that the definition sounds "unpoetic to a fault," but defends it as "the best we can do."
I am particularly intrigued by the element of morality in his statement. He writes,
...morality in its traditional sense, before the advocates of duty and obligation got their hands on it, is the study of how to live most fully and enjoyably; and the word 'moral' in the present context refers to a qualitative or evaluative view of human conduct and experience. Moral language does not only include terms like good and bad, or right and wrong: its lexicon extends to such epithets as 'rash', 'exquisite', 'placid', 'sardonic', 'vivacious', 'resilient', 'tender', 'blase', and 'curmudgeonly'.
Later in the same section, Eagleton continues,
Poems are moral statements, then, not because they launch stringent judgements according to some code, but because they deal in human values, meanings and purposes. So another opposite of the word 'moral' here might be 'empirical'.
His words express a vague feeling I've always had that a poem conveys a moral vision, whether it is "The Inferno" or "Jabberwocky." By "moral vision," I don't mean a coherent moral philosophy or a moral code, but a certain angle of looking at human behaviour. Another art, say, painting, may not have that moral vision at its heart. I can enjoy fifty paintings of apples in a bowl, for what they tell me about apples, but I cannot enjoy fifty poems about apples without wondering what they have to do with me.
Friday, December 22, 2006
The Leibovitz exhibition I found disappointing too. The celebrities are shot with all their glamorous allure and power, and not much more. I did not see the empathetic insight or the critical commentary of, say, Diane Arbus. Two photos were powerful. The first was of Brad Pitt, lying in bed, wearing leopard print pants. His orange shirt, and his blond shock of hair, glow in the orange-red light of the room. The photo brings out the androgyny that lurks behind that masculine form. The second photo was a head-and-shoulder shot of Mark Morris, with a mysterious facial expression, a mixture of concentration, pain and ecstasy. Only by looking at the tilt of the head, and the slight incline of the shoulder can one tell that the American choreographer had been caught dancing.
Yesterday I visited the Gagosian Gallery, on Madison Avenue between 76th and 77th, for the first time to see the John Currin exhibition. I had seen his work in a solo exhibition at the Whitney two (?) years ago, and enjoyed it very much. This time was no difference. Currin's paintings allude to Old Masters portraits, 1970s Playboy magazine ads, and mid-twentieth century films. That mixture of high and popular art often produces potent effects.
I was particularly drawn to a full-length vertical portrait of a tall, skinny woman pulling down her filmy underwear. The white gauzy material is echoed in the porcelain table-set placed unnaturalistically on the floor in front of her: one teapot, one tea-cup, one sugar bowl, one cream bowl, one plate, one salt shaker, one pepper shaker. Her nipples and lips are multiplied in the floral wallpaper behind her. On her left, an intricate candle holder, shaped like an epergne, carries a candle in one of its seven side-holders. The tall, skinny, white candle is lit, and its flame casts a glow on the top of the candle, the same gold band that can be seen around the woman's long slender neck. If the intricate work of the candle holder suggests the maze-like complexity of female sexuality, the flame pays tribute to her mind.
The same study of body and mind, or soul, can be seen in the other works in the exhibition. Porcelain tableware is a motif, as is the candle. Many of the women are reading a book, often while lying in bed. Other paintings depict graphic sexual acts; the favored position is that of a man behind a woman, thrusting into her sex. I think some of the paintings fail for a lack of body or of soul, but when they come together, as in the painting of the skinny woman, the union left a deep impression on me.
Thursday, December 21, 2006
I want it so badly
I’ve waved good-bye, good-bye! to God and, worse,
I want him so badly.
I’ve seen the beautiful man in church
worshipped by the choir.
Last night he toweled in the locker-room
his cock, a pinkish pacifier,
and my heart rose like a choir.
I want to tie him to my bed, each limb a sweet arrow
pointing to the keep,
take him in my longing mouth
and there the beautiful man keep.
All day I want to live with a beautiful man.
All night I lie down with me.
I know the world is not a breast
but when did we start starving babies?
Look! When I spin very fast, the mobile stars revolve round me.
Sunday, December 17, 2006
A friend, Kate Irving, sings in the New York City choral group, The Canticum Novum Singers, founded and directed by Harold Rosenbaum. On Saturday, the Singers performed a concert of carols at St. Paul & St. Andrew Church, and Mark Nickels was kind enough to ask for me, and Kate kind enough to give, a complimentary ticket.
The sixteenth century Spanish carols, which opened the concert, sounded as if they were inspired by folk songs. They seemed to be suffused with a ruddy good cheer, and a wild rural spirit rattled out by the tambourine.
I really enjoyed the two works of Josquin des Prez (c.1440-1521), especially the Ave Maria. The soprano voices soared with such purity till they appeared to be coming out of the mouths of the two full-sized, wing-extended angels high up on both sides of the altar.
In contrast, the English carols after the intermission were full of earthy, Dickensian good cheer. The cherubs in Mendelssohn’s Hark the Herald Angels Sing were more akin to the Victorian angel in the house, than to any celestial being. The spiral downwards from heaven to hearth was a kind of fall.
The organ was temperamental, and so it played only for the concluding carol. To make it up to the audience, a sixteen year old chorus member (I can’t remember his name, though his good looks stay with me) played Debussy’s The Sunken Cathedral. Why do the opening notes immediately yell out FRENCH? The boy played the piece expressively, and the massive weight of that edifice could be felt rising from and then sinking in the waters. But I felt the cathedral remained a cathedral in the playing.
-Three Spanish Christmas Carols of the Sixteenth Century (Anonymous)
1. E la don, don Verges Maria
2. Dadme albricias, hijos d’Eva
3. Riu, Riu, Chiu
-Ave Maria and Virgo Salutiferi (Josquin des Prez c. 1440-1521)
-Resonet in Laudibus (Orlando Lassus 1532-1594)
-Angel’s Carol (John Rutter b. 1945)
-Cradle Song (Nancy Wertsch, Words by William Blake)
-Lo, How a Rose E’re Blooming (Arr. Harold Rosenbaum)
-Fantasia on Christmas Carols (R. Vaughan Williams)
-Ding Dong! Merrily on High (16th Century French traditional carol)
-Away in a Manger (W. J. Kirkpatrick 1838-1920)
-Hark the Herald Angels Sing (Felix Mendelssohn 1809-1847)
The works in the exhibition range from wall reliefs to whole-room installations. I like the installations that “inhabit” a whole room. Though yarn is such a lightweight and thin material, the lines are not overwhelmed by the space; instead, the colored lines divide and multiply one’s perspectives of the pure white room.
Untitled (Sculptural Study, Seventeen-part Right-angled Construction) consists of 17 parallel L-shaped lines of red yarn, that begin from one side of the room and end about three-quarter way across the room. I tried to figure out the “reason” for the length of the horizontal yarn-lines, and for the spacing between each L. Standing behind the central, ninth L, I saw the ends of all 17 horizontal lines align with the vertical lines. In this way, the installation suggests a position for a viewer, and a direction for a view.
Directions for viewing are also embedded in the other whole-room installation. Broadway Boogie Woogie (Sculptural Study, Twenty-eight Part Vertical Construction) comprises 28 vertical lengths of acrylic yarn in red, yellow and blue that extend from floor to ceiling. At first I could not figure out the plan. Then I noticed that most of the lines are matched pairs of the same color. Aligning each pair in my sightline gave me different perspectives on the installation.
From one perspective, the lines group themselves into two factions: majority versus minority. From another perspective, the three corners of the installation, each marked by a different colored yarn, highlighted the absence of a fourth corner. Yet another perspective seemed, to me, to illuminate the minimalist beauty of vertical lines, and the planes or the entrances framed by a pair of lines. The arrangement that had seemed so random resolved into a deeply thought-through plan.
Then it struck me that there is no good reason why I should view the installation only through the alignment of yarns of the same color. Aligning two yarn-lines of any color multiplies the already plentiful points of view, and that thought is both daunting and generous. Color, the obvious signifier of race, may also stand for any markers of difference: sex, gender, religion, diet, ways of viewing art.
In the gallery room, the lines of yarn quiver in response to a draught from somewhere. They move in a way not expected of lines in a painting, say, Mondrian’s own Broadway Boogie Woogie. Sandback’s installation not only pays tribute to his conceptual and minimalist predecessor, it also suggests its sculptural differences from painting, and its affinities to architecture. Or as Sandback himself put it: “less a thing-in-itself, more of a diffuse interface between myself, my environment, and others peopling that environment, built on thin lines that left enough room to move through and around…A drawing that is habitable.”
Saturday, December 16, 2006
from the plaque, is a replica,
a diorama of memories.
The seventh pew, where he was bent
double by dysentery, is not
scratched along its seat of lashed
poles, not with a pocket pen-knife
or any flinty implements
found in the flat dirt of the camp.
His fingers brushed the dark unscratched
pew, the wall planks, the altar stand,
like touching glass, hand in a glove.
Pinned to a cork bulletin-board
are handwritten notes on cards
or paper torn out of a journal.
Many wrote their fathers, husbands,
brothers and uncles were here. One
bride-to-be thanked all the soldiers.
Old quarrels. Old injustices.
Older than the altar cross
made from an artillery shell,
that used to promise suffering
cut, turned, beveled and set by love
into a shining salvation.
But let that jagged fragment stand,
he prays, for man’s love for making
do, for man’s makeshift love for man,
for among cholera and lice
someone, a soldier, found something
shiny in the dirt, something sharp,
and made the cross all of a piece.
Friday, December 15, 2006
an end extended by makeshift piers,
narrow planks floating on oil barrels,
sampans ride the harsh glint of the sea.
Fires in the water are ghosts of the sun.
Past the small brick customs office
boat-riders bob, as if still at sea,
smelling of fish, motor oil and tarpaulin.
Their hands are empty trawling nets.
The sea hawks its old throat and spits.
Three boys leaning over a wooden bridge
lower into water their crabbing nets,
and wait, expecting something close
to land will side-walk into their hands,
some years too young to launch a boat.
Thursday, December 14, 2006
weighing her body on her toes,
soles, so as not to disturb him.
There’s tap-water to boil for tea,
but now a moment to herself—
stare out of kitchen window to
opposite windows black with sleep,
and hear the stray cats mew for god
knows what—she finds herself among
the old appliances. The new
alarm clock beeps. She wakes the three
children, the man she lets him sleep.
While the drowsy faces eat, she slips
into her uniform, and checks
their wallets for snack money, and
their bags the school-books for the day,
the Math the children scrawled before
her eyes last night. They kiss her, leave.
Now she wakes him up and, when sure
he lies awake, picks up her bag.
In the next room, the dowager
appears asleep, though she can’t tell
for sure. The quarrel last week meant
the children ate nothing for lunch.
She slings her bag, decides to call
home twice, during her lunch and break.
Her thoughts turn with her steps to work,
those long hours making someone happy.
Monday, December 11, 2006
editors enclosed in my self-addressed envelopes.
Good stationery. Polite form letters. Different types
of no to poems posted with thirty-nine-cent hopes.
A few took the trouble to scribble their subjectivities.
(These poems don’t meet our present needs.) Four
softened the blow by mildly singling out for praise
the flirt, the grovel, the hurt valve, or the soft core.
There's one, burgundy half-letter-sized, kept
face up, raised by the others sleeping facedown.
This one, generous in its plural pronoun, abrupt
in its brevity, added an afterthought, Try us again.
Submission seasons come and go. Every Sept-
ember burns in a shoebox, because of this one.
Sunday, December 10, 2006
The soprano, Elizabeth Baber, sang the Bach and Telemann much better than the Scarlatti, to my untrained ears. Her voice was controlled and expressive, her interpretation of the Germans dramatic and persuasive. I thought, with her flowing blond hair and strong features, she looked like a Rhine Maiden. Greg’s playing in the Telemann matched her expression and intensity. I really like the Telemann piece, with its lurching rhythm in the opening lines.
Saturday night ended with another Gregg, Araki, on a very different note. Having enjoyed his well-directed "Mysterious Skin," I entertained some hopes of the earlier "Doom Generation." It was disappointing. Its hot male stars did not alleviate the tedium of its gratuitous violence: a head cut off by a machete, an arm shot off by a shotgun, a groin pierced by a sword, a penis snipped off by a pair of garden shears.
The visual analogies between sperm, sauce, blood and smoke, and the sexual tension between the teenagers, two guys and one girl, could have made for an interesting investigation, but the film is not interested in investigation. Winston nailed my impression of it: it is the work of an immature artist out to shock.
Music at Morris-Jumel, Saturday, December 9, 2006
Elizabeth Barber, soprano
Gregory Bynum, recorder
David Bakamjian, baroque cello
Rebeccca Pechefsky, harpsichord
Alessandro Scarlatti, Clori mia, Clori bella
Joseph Bodin de Boismortier, Sonata in E Minor for Cello and Continuo, Op. 50, No. 1, and Sonta in G Major for Recorder and Continuo
Johann Sebastian Bach, “Hochster, was ich habe,” from Brich dem Hungrigen dein Brot, BWV 30, and “Komm in mein Hersenshaus,” from Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, BWV 80
Georg Philipp Telemann, Hemmet den Eifer, verbannet die Rache, Kantate am vierten, Sonntage nach dem Feste der heiligen drei Konige.
Thursday, December 07, 2006
Wednesday, December 06, 2006
Monday, December 04, 2006
I picked up a number of poetry books at a good discount: The Good Thief by Marie Howe, Sakura Park by Rachel Wetzsteon, Cinder by Bruce Bond, Poems of Nazim Hikmet translated by Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk, and Open Field: Thirty Contemporary Canadian Poets edited by Sina Queyras.
I also bought H. L. Hix's Wild and Whirling Words: A Poetic Conversation. In Hix's project, thirty-three poets contributed one of their poems, which was then sent, without the poet's name, to six other poets for their comments. Besides the poem, the commentators got to read the comments written by the poets before them. The poems are published with the poet named, but the commentaries are anonymous. The resulting read is like a high-level poetry workshop, with many provocative insights into the nature and the craft of poetry.
Of A. E. Stallings' "Amateur Iconography: Resurrection," one poet praises it thus:
On first reading, I found this poem very attractive; its ambition--both thematically and formally--is immediately impressive and sets it apart from most contemporary poems I see...
before landing the punch:
While attempting to write a loosely iambic, rhyming poem and therefore to give the poem a formal dress to wear to its formal occasion, the poet, I believe, has overlooked more important formal concerns: there isn't a moment of syntactic drama or of linguistic excitement that remotely complements the narrative drama of the poem. In fact, the writing is very loose, careless even; the dead-as-leeks simile, for instance of line2--a lovely image wonderfully amplified and vivified by "the wispy hair" in line 3--becomes "like bulbs" in line 4. But leeks are bulbs, aren't they? Couldn't the "like" have been dropped from the line to create both greater precision and concision? Yes, of course. And so could most of the prepositional phrases be dropped and condensed, thereby energizing the language, but the poet let an ill-conceived notion of form get the better of her or him, and the lack of precision that followed undermines the poem.
One does not have to agree with the comments to learn from them. In fact, the more provocative comments compel me to re-examine the poem to see if any counter-arguments can be mounted. Or to appreciate more deeply the justice of the remarks.
Of a Charles Bernstein poem that begins: "every lake has a house/ & every house has a stove/ & every stove has a pot" and wends its unchanging way back to the lake: "& every house has a lake," one poet writes (justly, in my thinking):
I wonder why the poet didn't just write this poem, realize that he or she had something very artificial and slight here, and let it be unpublished. Sure, we could talk about it for hours, make stories of it, find import in our ingenious professional ways. But what has this to do with the art of high seriousness to which we've devoted our lives?
A remark like this reminds me why I want to be a poet, to join that company of cracked craftsmen, that verve of vain visionaries.
Saturday, December 02, 2006
The Cloisters itself was built, in the neo-medieval style, on the highest point in that area. I liked how the building incorporated into its own structure architectual elements from its collection. The Fuentiduena Chapel, with its high ceiling and half-barreled apse, was impressive.
During my visit, I was attracted to the silver-stained roundels in the Glass Gallery. The roundel pictures displayed a keen sense of drama, as well as composition in that tricky circular format. Besides the expected saints, martyrs, biblical characters, allegorical figures, there were two bare-breasted women holding heraldic shields.
In a diamond frame, outstanding among the nine roundels in its window, was a picture of three apes assembling a trestle table. Two apes were carrying the table top while waiting for the third to set up the second set of legs. What reinforced the sense of the picture's incongruity was the floor checkered in black and white, a touch that reminded me of modern visual trick-pictures or of surrealist paintings. What were those apes doing there among St. Jerome, courtly ladies, and the Virgin Mary? If they were a later addition, why add that touch of realism, a trestle table, as if the apes were setting up a table for a medieval feast? Curiouser.
Wednesday, November 29, 2006
was always happy despite the cloud in the story.
Mr. Tickle learned when not to tickle but tickled
every other time. And when friends righted him,
Mr. Topsy-Turvy turned wrong side up again.
Chinese names, unlike Mr. Worry's, aim
too high. Yang Yang plays for glorious glory.
Swallow Peace, my sister, loses patience.
And mine raises the stakes: Jee Leong
shoots for (don't laugh) universal goodness.
What disappointments Chinese children are! What
a hoot to find out adults are like old cartoons.
There slinks Mrs. Divorce. Here comes Mr. Knife-
in-the-back smiling. And at her father's funeral,
radiant Miss Sun dries her eyes on the flowers.
Monday, November 27, 2006
Believing good friends should not live with ghosts,
though ghosts warm up a wintry student dorm,
bewail a good man’s fall in wedding toasts,
and wonder at coincidence and form,
I came to play the guest to your good hosts,
to your love nest at Squirrel Hill, your home
away from the home dreamed, New York City,
and from Dunkirk of childhood memory.
The ghosts would not leave us alone. Seduced
by spirits, round the table, poems we read
spoke: Wendi spilled a past life, wife abused
for bearing a son not resembling dad;
you wrote of foreign women who refused
to bend under the trash but in the yard
danced and danced in the direction of light;
I read my “Payday Loans.” Called it a night.
Next day, we drove to Dunkirk where your mum
welcomed us three and showed me her Elvis
memorabilia in a back room:
posters, snow globes, baseball caps, ashtrays,
head portrait in red wool, clock pendulum
rocking both quadrant legs and arc pelvis.
Only that room, the brightest, played music
since you left. Other rooms stored her antiques.
Thanksgiving dinner with the family
of Uncle Joe. On the way, you called on Todd
who died in his car flipped drunkenly.
Another desperate grade school mate who shot
and killed a cop might join that cemetery.
Someone remembered flowers; someone forgot.
A fence protected the Civil War tombstones
from restless teens who piled them up like loans.
Joe drove and gave to boxing’s hall of fame
his portraits of the greats, you almost boasted,
proud of one who gave his art a name.
His house a gallery, one small room hosted
baseball images, giants of the game.
Between mouthfuls of Aunt Stephanie’s roasted
turkey, Joe answered me about paintings.
And gave me the Big Blues’ head, Albert King’s.
After leaving your mum’s for Squirrel Hill,
we dropped by your dad’s place near Lake Erie.
Around the house posed photos of him still
youthful behind the wheel or by the sea,
and of his father, both alike as pills.
At lunch, he praised turmeric and tea.
The shots he asked you take of him last year
developed blank. You blamed the camera
but know the mind, better than any machine,
collects the fumes in serviceable shapes:
the killer drinking through a car-wrecked grin;
Elvis watching himself on videotapes;
Joe DiMaggio homerunning Marilyn.
So take heart, friend, the figure in the drapes,
Danger or Need, is a familiar ghost.
Let the lost find in you and Wendi host.
Thursday, November 23, 2006
and so I start to time how long it takes
to come up on the other side of the Hudson.
On my right, a boy, of college age, is reading
Genet's Funeral Rites. The book holds him
quite still, his body carved to hold the book,
just as my watch, a lover's gift, holds me
eyeing its hand wiping its white face. When
he turns a page, the bus sees day again.
It is not what you think. I have not been
resurrected through this fair freshman
and his encounter with a deathless art,
but this young man has touched eternity
because in the unheated Greyhound bus, the day
before Thanksgiving, I have taken time.
Monday, November 20, 2006
I think of you, your late night call that woke
my body's heat and blood. I think of you,
your tiny hairs curled tight against your head,
your strong back matted like a burlap sack,
your sex rubbing between my legs. I think
love is dreaming while desire's wide awake.
Sunday, November 19, 2006
with electronic devices. Troy jiggled
the wire antenna before he came
to bed, and my radio clock sang.
Ren downloaded the latest virus
protection program to my laptop
while massaging my anus. After Nick
climaxed, he showed me how to text-
message and shook his head, laughing
over my primitive cellphone. So
when I message some man whose eyes
sang last night while I jiggled him,
I think of Nick and his tremendous
laugh, and thank in my heart these handy men.
Tuesday, November 14, 2006
which stitches in
the broken skin
the worms that slip-swim to the eye,
bear tinier worms which in turn die,
loose from its fin
The cornea clouds up like the sky.
To stop from going totally blind,
your hosting body, drug your mind,
or kill the fly,
or climb upslope and leave behind
the river, eye.
Wednesday, November 08, 2006
Monday, November 06, 2006
Don't ask for more, for more
I cannot give. So let us live
and promise no more.
Don't ask me for my heart my heart
has eaten to the core.
Don't ask me for the teeth-marked part.
Don't ask me any more.
Don't ask me for a steady arm
for rowing to the shore.
A broken oar will do more harm
than settling for no more.
Don't ask me for my voice my voice
echoes in encore,
until it's hard to tell my voice
from yours asking for more.
Tuesday, October 31, 2006
Please do join us for the Queer Ink reading series this coming Sunday, November 5, from 4 to 6 at the Bowery Poetry Club. Queer poets in the month of Scorpio – how much hotter can it get? This time, we’ll feature three gay poets who will read from recent work, and we will have a brief open mic, so bring a short poem or two if you like. We’ll run it for about 20 minutes, and I’ll allot time according to how many sign up. I will host, as before, as graciously as my Scorpio nature allows, if I can control myself at all,that is.
This Sunday, Queer Ink features Jason Schneiderman, author of the recently released Sublimation Point; Michael Montlack, a finalist this year for the Frank O’Hara Chapbook Award; and Jee Leong Koh, a terrific reader whose work has been published in both Singaporean and American journals. Copies of their books and journal publications will be available at the reading.
QUEER INK: Gay Poets Read from Recent Works
Jee Leong Koh
PLUS a brief open mic
HOSTED BY: Richard Loranger
DATE: Sunday, November 5, 2006
TIME: 4:00 – 6:00 pm
LOCATION: Bowery Poetry Club, 308 Bowery (between Houston and Bleeker)
I’ve included brief bios below.
We only have these readings quarterly, so don’t miss it! Next QI will be on the first Sunday in February.
I hope you can make it by! And have an ardent November.
JASON SCHNEIDERMAN is the author of Sublimation Point, a Stahlecker Selection from Four Way Books. Schneiderman's poems have appeared in such magazines as Tin House, Grand Street, and American Poetry Review, and in such anthologies as The Penguin Book of the Sonnet and Best American Poetry 2005. For his work, he has received fellowships from Yaddo, The Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. He is currently a Chancellor's Fellow at CUNY and teaches creative writing at Hofstra University.
Most recently, MICHAEL MONTLACK’s work has appeared in Cimarron Review, New York Quarterly, Poet Lore, Cream City Review, Ledge, Lodestar Quarterly, Blithe House, and other journals. This year he was a Finalist for the Frank O’Hara Chapbook Award and a Semi-Finalist for the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center Winter Fellowship. His poem “Stein on Bishop” was just nominated for a Pushcart Prize and two of his poems will appear in At the Old Place, an anthology looking at the history of gay bars. A graduate of New School’s MFA program, Michael currently teaches at Berkeley College and acts as Associate Editor for Mudfish magazine.
JEE LEONG KOH grew up in Singapore. His poetry has been published in Singaporean anthologies as well as American journals such as Crab Orchard Review and The Gay and Lesbian Review. He is now looking to publish his first poetry manuscript. He lives in Queens.
Sunday, October 29, 2006
The second-century historian wrote,
Caesar first saw military service in Asia, where he went as aide-de-camp to Marcus Thermus, the provincial governor. When Thermus sent Caesar to raise a fleet in Bithynia, he wasted so much time at Nicomedes' court that a homosexual relationship between them was suspected, and suspicion gave way to scandal when, soon after his return to headquarters, he revisited Bithynisa: ostensibly collecting a debt incurred there by one of his freedmen.
Julius did not even have camp conditions to blame since his liaisons took place at court where, presumably, a variety of entertainment was available. I wonder how old Julius was then. He couldn't have been more than twenty (or younger?) since he was on his first military campaign. Don't you love the innocent and pliant expression "suspicion gave way to scandal"? The scandal-mongers, enemies of the then-powerful consul, were named later in the chapter:
Licinius Calvus published the notorious verses:
The riches of Bithynia's King
Who Caesar on his couch abused.
Dolabella called him 'the Queen's rival and inner partner of the royal bed', and Curio the Elder: 'Nicomedes' Bithynian brothel'.
Bibulus, Caesar's colleague in the consulship, described him in an edict as 'the Queen of Bithynia...who once wanted to sleep with a monarch, but now wants to be one.'...Moreover, Gaius Memmius directly charges Caesar with having joined a group of Nicomedes' debauched young friends at a banquet, where he acted as the royal cup-bearer...Cicero...wrote in several letters:
Caesar was led by Nicomedes' attendants to the royal bedchamber, where he lay on a golden couch, dressed in a purple shift...So this descendant of Venus lost his virginity in Bithynia.
The details in the letters seem to be chosen to emphasize the feminine and passive position to which Julius "was led." The assumption was that the King would naturally take the active role. "Descendant of Venus" is well-aimed venom.
Lastly, when Caesar's own soldiers followed his decorated chariot in the Gallic triumph, chanting ribald songs, as they were privileged to do, this was one of them:
Gaul was brought to shame by Caesar;
By King Nicomedes, he.
Here comes Caesar, wreathed in triumph
For his Gallic victory!
Nicomedes wears no laurels,
Though the greatest of the three.
I don't know the circumstances and motivations surrounding Seutonius' writing of this history, but isn't it interesting that he chose to compile a record of these accusations and insinuation, as if the names of the accusers and insinuators make the rumor fact? Am I way off the mark in sensing the gossip-monger's keen ear for a good soundbite?
Thursday, October 26, 2006
will separate from the goats, shinny up
ladders to (if there) paradise.
The goats will butt the ladders down,
do what goats do best (check the trash,
couple, bleat) and goats do worst (dream
of the good dancing down some stairs).
Wednesday, October 25, 2006
because we fear the dark; explains
life because we fear death; or love,
loneliness. I don't mind the dark,
family lost because they live,
but unmeasured time makes me pray,
Let me rest on the Seventh Day.
Sunday, October 22, 2006
at Saint Sebastian's Roman Catholic Church.
The three wooden doors, through which they pour,
resemble the doors set in the Greek skene
where, for an audience, violence always happened
off-stage. They might see the empty elbows
or the swinging body, but they would not see
the eyeball greeting the pin of the brooch.
For the celebrants at mass, violence happens
elsewhere too. Images commemorate facts
and so are not the facts: nails are not
the nails and, even if they are, have stopped
their piercing realization; and the flesh
tastes so much like mercy on the tongue,
round, hard and bland until saliva salts
and softens it, the wafer always tastes of us.
Thursday, October 19, 2006
Sevenlings by RODDY LUMSDEN
The sevenling is a poem of seven lines inspired by the form of this much translated short verse by Anna Akhmatova (1889 - 1966).
He loved three things alone:
White peacocks, evensong,
Old maps of America.
He hated children crying,
And raspberry jam with his tea,
And womanish hysteria.
... And he married me.
tr. D M Thomas From Selected Poems (Penguin)
The rules of the sevenling are thus:
The first three lines should contain an element of three - three connected or contrasting statements, or a list of three details, names or possibilities. This can take up all of the three lines or be contained anywhere within them. Then, lines four to six should similarly contain an element of three, connected directly or indirectly or not at all. The seventh line should act as a narrative summary or punchline or as an unusual juxtaposition. There are no set metrical rules, but being such as short form, some rhythm, metre or rhyme is desirable. To give the form a recognisable shape, it should be set out in two stanzas of three lines, with a solitary seventh, last line. Titles are not required. A sevenling should be titled Sevenling followed by the first few words in parentheses The tone of the sevenling should be mysterious, offbeat or disturbing, giving a feeling that only part of the story is being told. The poem should have a certain ambience which invites guesswork from the reader.
Two Sevenlings by Roddy Lumsden
A filthy West End night, the windows wide.
Now she's been gone a month and missed a week
and ached for all day long. Her sister waits:
she flips the Magic 8 Ball, walks in circles,
spreads mushy peas on cold, unbuttered toast
in the kitchenette. The record stops. She shouts,
put on some songs by four black guys in suits.
All those buzzsaw years I ran the show,
all those kids who asked me for advice,
The Architect, the Miraclist, The Man.
The starlets kick-line, that was my concoction,
the sailor boys, the peacock feather spotlights;
till one night in a blackout, I let slip
what it is I say to all the girls.
Tuesday, October 17, 2006
Sunday, October 15, 2006
Scully returned to these watercolors in the 90s and after, developing them into a series of meditations on the concrete and the evanescent, the abstract and the figurative. The “walls” comprise bricks, or stripes, with soft edges, colors that don’t stay within their lines, and brushstrokes that evoke what the curatorial note calls “a blurry luminosity.” In many of these paintings, for example, “Wall of Light Dark Orange,” 2001, the same color shines between the bricks, suggesting a light behind the wall. The grid that underlies the paintings recalls Mondrian but offers mood and place instead of cool intellectualism. It is a geometry rooted in geography.
"Wall of Light Dark Orange," 2001
In “Wall of Light Desert Night,” 1999, the cream-colored bars indicate sand while the darkening blues evoke twilight. In “Green Pale Light,” 2002, rural Mooseurach, a small town at the base of the Alps, where Scully has a studio, is seen in the greens, browns and grays. “Chelsea Red Wall of Light,” 2005, is ochre and white.
"Wall of Light Desert Night," 1999
Actually I find these abstract landscapes less compelling than the even less representational works. The painting I like best is the blue, white, pink and black “5.4.03,” 2003. (Unfortunately I can't find its online image.) It does not have bricks; it has blocks. The thickness of the rectangles and their strict alignment convey powerfully the impact of solidity. That the painting is a piece of paper suggests its pathos.
Saturday, October 14, 2006
Scenes d'Anabase, by Paul Bowles
Beth Anne Hatton, voice
Ishmael Wallace, piano
Vita Wallace, violin
Text read by Jee Leong Koh
Excerpts from Exile,
text read by R. Nemo Hill
Date: October 16, 2006 (Mon)
Time: 8 p.m.
Place: The Stone, 2nd St & Ave C (www.thestonenyc.com)
St-John Perse, or Alexis Leger, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1960. Born in Guadeloupe, the young Alexis felt like an exile when the family moved to France. His sequence, Pictures for Crusoe, gives voice to an old Crusoe who lives, barely, in the city and dreams of returning to his sensual island paradise.
From the section titled "The Wall":
...It is the sweat of saps in exile, the bitter oozings of plants with long pods, the acrid insinuation of fleshy mangroves, and the acid delight of a black substance within the pods.
It is the wild honey of ants in the galleries of the dead tree.
The style is a little too rhapsodic and overblown for my taste: too many exclamations of "O Despoiled!" and "Joy! O joy..." My favorite section is "The Bow" in which he conveys the pathos of aging, injects much-needed drama, and concludes that passage with an unexpected use of a recurring image:
Before the hissings of the hearth, numb beneath your flowered wrapper, you watch the soft undulating fins of the flames.--But a snapping fissures the singing darkness; it is your bow, on its nail, that has burst. And it splits along the whole length of its secret fibre, like the dead pod in the hands of the warrior tree.
(Translations by Louise Varese)
Tuesday, October 10, 2006
Monday, October 09, 2006
Hopper’s preoccupation with light is seen in the titles of some of his more famous paintings. “South Carolina Morning” depicts a black woman dressed sexily in red, standing in a doorway, and looking out at bright fields and sky.
In “Cape Cod Evening,” an elderly couple, in front of their house, watches their dog play in their long-grass lawn. The grass is light golden, echoed and enriched in the golden brown fur of the dog. Next to, and behind the house, stand dark blue trees. Light in this painting assumes symbolic significance, commenting on the lives of its human inhabitants.
Hopper seems to be more interested in these effects of light than its play on surfaces. The night in “Nighthawks” is psychological and moral rather than phenomenological. Hopper turns his early influence into a personal account of the universe as he sees it, what a major artist must do.
Influence is the topic of another Whitney exhibition. “Picasso and American Art” looks at the Spanish master’s influence on Roy Lichtenstein, Ashile Gorky, Lee Krasner, Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns, and Jackson Pollock. Was it the Times reviewer who commented on the textbook feel of the exhibition, with its didactic groupings of American paintings around the Picasso that inspired them? The organization did cramp my appreciation of individual paintings. Or was the appreciation clamped?
It seemed to me that the only paintings there that stood against the Picassos were by an artist I did not know before: Arshile Gorky. His “Organization” does not merely reproduce the geometry and bright colors of Picasso’s “The Studio.” It understands its forerunner; more, it personalizes, and deepens, the other’s questions. I really like the figurative “The Artist and His Mother” as well as the abstract “Enigmatic Combat.” Painted in opposite styles, the two are similar in their questioning of subject and method. Perhaps I am impressed by Gorky’s lack of complacency. One pays tribute to one’s artistic forebears by arguing with them.
Thursday, October 05, 2006
of a subterranean track.
It cannot carry pulp or foam
nor shrug them off its back.
I've waded in the muddy Nile
and walked with Eliot's Thames,
dreamt by carp-bellied Singapore,
delivering gurgling names.
Sure, this foul trickle does not grow
from glaciers or from glades,
but from the fractured concrete cast
still it descends from the same sky
as the Ganges and the Styx,
elementary the water
a rat, fat with rats, sips.
Friday, September 29, 2006
Thursday, September 28, 2006
stuttering on the phone,
snapping at the ghostliest slight,
or singing all alone.
This voice you hear snags on the branch
of my pelvic bone.
This voice is small enough to fit
the span of the headstone.
Tuesday, September 26, 2006
Date: 2 Oct 2006 (Mon)
Time: 8 p.m.
Place: The Stone, 2nd St. & Ave C
Sunday, September 24, 2006
and think well of myself,
hard to decide which ornament
to show off on the shelf.
One owns the virtue of diamond
cut to make it shine.
The other, fired earthenware,
is a vase I may call mine.
Men chase the value of the stone
in action and in word.
They embrace the other in love’s bed
or in the silent ward.
And I, much too poor to be proud,
much too weak to be good,
must leave the old shelf empty,
standing where it has stood.
Sunday, September 17, 2006
Thursday, September 14, 2006
Thursday, September 07, 2006
I read Gwee Li Sui's essay on Singaporean poetry (Harvard Asia Quarterly, Volume IX, Nos. 1 & 2. Winter/Spring 2005) in Cyril Wong's blog. The essay attempts to explain the lack of major Singaporean poets between Edwin Thumboo and Alvin Pang by analyzing poetry's withdrawal from the national sphere during the desert years. In his analysis, the interim poets disengaged from a national culture increasingly bureaucratic and economically-minded, and thus limited their artistic ambitions and impaired their poetic strength. Besides Lee Tzu Pheng, Gwee cites Boey Kim Cheng as another example of this impaired poetry:
We speak therefore of how poetry had only reassumed its pure space of freedom in the general failure of a stable sense of self and home to arrive distinct from infrastructural and economic concerns. We also assert that the catalytic conflict was indeed the key to its own mediation: what the politicising of art in a ban provoked was precisely an artistic response that would be as good as an agreement to the larger redrawing of boundaries. With this new relationship, poetry would be as free to pursue its own concerns as the state would be to fashion a whole national culture that could ignore its relevance through a top-down commandeering of language. The absolute social defeat poetry had suffered was converted internally into absolute self-sufficiency, a truth we must now re-expose through a different confessing voice, that of Boey Kim Cheng. This one-time protege of Lee established with "Somewhere-Bound" (1989) a fiercely intense pursuit of writing and reading that would lead him at length to choose an Australian citizenship in 2003. His early "“Cloud of Unknowing," in fact, shows an impotent wish to be revenged on the realigned world of social usefulness:
We never had
the architect's foresight, never knew
how to be useful, never had
the inclination to consult
the guides to happiness.
We strayed off the road
with books like On The Road.
Around us the smiling successes,
the stories of the rich and famous,
geniuses who are doctors and the like
from the moment of conception.
We remain incurable procrastinators,
waiting for our cloud's dispersal,
or the disappearance
of these useful people,
the only successful survivors
on this planet.
The clue to a lot of Boey's contemplations is his neurosis, depicted here as being "“on the verge / Of something state." In his characterisation of "“useful people," we imagine Thumboo's nation-makers--folks like his academic, civil servant, and city planner--but are struck by the further complicity of the poets Thumboo and Lee as citizens. The former's role is straightforward while the latter can now be construed as a beacon for others cast out by an imagination at odds with or untouched by the official social vision. The decisive question emerges: where then can a late-arriving poet go if he or she simply has no wish to stand outside inside and still yearns for a communal space to posit or propose a personal identity? Boey's poems are launched almost fixatedly to tear rootlessness out of uselessness; they throw themselves nervously into an assortment of locales around the world where, in some makeshift humanity, he sees himself more at home than in either Singapore or poetry. His devotion to place even recalls Thumboo's but is without their common origin, its strange exclusion foiling his own attempt to pass through a love of many peoples, cultures, and spiritual traditions into the universal. This is the price of exilic internalised poetry: its kind of poet's ungrounded and deformed sense of "country" must become the impediment to the full execution of his or her intense exploratory vision. A leap from Lee to Boey--a child of the annus mirabilis 1965--appears impulsive, but there has been no major poet born in the 1950s and few youthful voices that could convey the inner life of the 1980s. The silence itself spoke damningly through the first to break it, Boey.
I am disturbed by Gwee's idea that major poetry must be socially engaged, even, more narrowly, nationally engaged. Sure, Whitman's poetry celebrates America and much of Yeats cannot be read without understanding his politics. But what about Dickinson, Eliot, Stevens, and late Auden? Boey rejects national entanglements, and Gwee casts his poetic enterprise in the language of physical and mental ailments: impotent, neurosis, fixatedly, nervously, deformed, impediment. Gwee's rhetoric in the extract shifts to a higher gear, a possible sign of a writer's consciousness (semi-consciousness?) of a weakness in his argument. Why should changing one's citizenship lead to a "deformed sense of "country'", and why does that deformity (if it should be that) disqualify one from writing major poetry? Gwee does not answer these questions, but assumes their answers.
One may also question Gwee's evaluation of which Singaporean poets are "major" and which, presumably, though he diplomatically avoids the term, "minor." Though the Thumboo extract Gwee quotes supports his argument, it is poetically uninteresting. Arthur Yap is dismissed, with a single sentence, as a follower of Modernism. Surely it is too hasty to come out for Alvin Pang as a major poet when he has published only two collections. Alfian Sa'at, another example of Gwee's major poets, has turned to play-writing after publishing two slim poetry books. On the other hand, Cyril Wong, who has published five collections, is only mentioned in the essay as the dedicatee of a Sa'at poem; presumably he is not major because his subjects, eros, love and loss, are irredeemably private.
An evaluation of a national poetry will have its ideal National Poet (implicit or explicit, imaginary or real) who set the standards by which other poets are judged. Some of these standards have more to do with nationalism than with poetry, an unfortunate imposition, I think. What Singaporean poets need from critics is not more nationalism, but a thorough and critical explication of their poetry. Before the history of a country's poetry can be written, full-length works on individual poets should come first, works that aim to understand the poet's context, enterprise, methods and success. If the poetry is worthwhile, the critical effort will be passionate. From a postcolonial perspective, one must avoid the trap of defending a poet based on his national or regional origin, i.e. "Walcott is a great Caribbean poet," instead of "Walcott is a great poet," period. If it has not been done already, I would like to see an essay on one Singaporean poet written by a Singaporean critic published in the Harvard Asian Quarterly, with no mention of the nationality of either poet or critic.
Wednesday, September 06, 2006
Sunday, September 03, 2006
The chicks were softer than the straw in the set.
One, two, buckle my shoe, nine and a big fat hen.
They scratched the grass beside the shops for men.
They were the best present a boy could get.
I could not count to ten till I turned eleven.
Mother called out from above. That was when
I stepped back to answer her, stepped on my pet.
One, two, buckle my shoe, nine and a big fat hen.
The grass turned black. Its head was not broken.
Father could fix things but he was not home yet.
I could not count to ten till I turned eleven.
The Shopgirl cried out, Poke it back in! The mitten
with one loose strand was moving. It felt wet.
One, two, buckle my shoe, nine and a big fat hen.
My hands did what the woman said. Even then,
I could not save it. But I could not forget.
I could not count to ten till I turned eleven.
One, two, buckle my shoe, nine and a big fat hen.
Saturday, September 02, 2006
because of its good lighting.
Today I unbend
from my book of poetry,
dazzled, the library full of light
extended by windows that reach to the ceiling.
In the corner, a Chinese fan palm
vents through a flaking stem
a spray of green intensity.
Outside the window, pine cones,
not the ones seen on the road,
small crushed porcupines on dead leaves,
but hanging delicately from the tip
of a fir branch, bells
almost, a knot.
Mouths perfectly suited to sucking the fibrous teats,
they hang on with their teeth
for the one life they know.
One afternoon, strings unloosed,
they will descend
to join their fellows,
the journey long and different
they experience and owe.
Friday, September 01, 2006
of hibernation (the months I was silent).
The heart winters through it on minimum
nourishment. It lives by barely beating.
Then, mysterious as spring, the heart
takes a pen, breaks through the cocoon,
spins matter out of itself, develops feet
to crawl onto dry land, grows feathers.
I imagine you reading this in bed, your
cat curled against you, eyes opened,
wild to shred this fluttering thing
and eat, as one does after a long winter.
Thursday, August 31, 2006
Date: 2 Oct 2006 (Mon)
Time: 8 p.m.
Place: The Stone, 2nd St. & Ave C
Tuesday, August 29, 2006
alone in an Indian file of soldiers,
ears buzzing with insect static,
the radio held at the back squelched.
The jungle is so dark you only see
the half-inch blue cyalume straw
rubber-banded to the helmet in front.
You're a blue straw to the man behind.
Then the air flinches into lightning
and trees tilt into view. The soldiers,
like bayonets shedding green scabbards,
flash steel, then are sheathed again.
The lieutenant shouts, Antenna down!
You obey but your radio crackles
into life, a voice growling, Gold now,
gold! Final fire before the assault.
This happened many years ago
and you've always wondered
what it means or what it describes.
You are at a loss to explain it
though you know you are the radio,
and the lieutenant, and the men
in front and behind, in Indian file,
following a bobbing blue straw.
Monday, August 28, 2006
pumping the body all that chemical shit,
shooting my morning its new daily fix,
instead of pondering over an old sonnet,
a room of straw for spinning into gold,
a debt requiring its pound of meat,
a mini made from an injection mould.
It’s true I haven’t moved although I’ve run
3 miles, and, like in writing, I’m as far
from what the mind wants and the mirror sees,
and though it’s true I pound like everyone
on manufactured wheels, my chariot-car
signals I’ve lost four hundred calories.
ALABAMA TENANT FARMER (FLOYD BURROUGHS), 1936, printed 1950's silver gelatin print
Sunday, August 27, 2006
[Poem removed for submission to journal]
Saturday, August 26, 2006
7. Actual Landing
Here’s one more for your album. Let me give you Queens,
the one borough you couldn’t see. A boulevard
of body shops and billboards, it’s an old graveyard
abandoned by the Irish and Italians it weans
from suckling at familiar pubs and tombstone tits.
Others have moved in, with their gods and groceries,
and make (lawyers as mediums) with authorities
their various accommodations, their different debts.
In the day they maneuver, working their consoles,
their bodies up the stairs and round the city’s screen;
at night, the same computer game. Only the scene
has changed—-the maze, pitch or battlefield is the soul’s,
in which the aim, as in the day, is to arrive.
Their children, born American, will be their signs
of actual landing in the city, citizens
of Flushing, 56th Street or Forest Park Drive.
Whole week I walked my new birthplace with you, my dear.
Since citizenship doesn’t follow coming-out,
but childlessness does, we understand our whereabout
is recognizable but unfamiliar.
Friday, August 25, 2006
The shock of the publication of Maurice, then, is not what it appears to be at first sight: Forster as Forerunner of Gay Lib. Quite the opposite. He used his own position as an exemplum, to show what the universe does not intend. If that implies a kind of rational martyrdom, that is what he meant; and this is what shocks. We had not thought of him as martyr. For Forster, "I do not conform" explains what does conform, it does not celebrate nonconformity. He was a sufferer rather than a champion. Now suddenly, with the appearance of Maurice, it is clear that Forster's famous humanism is a kind of personal withdrawal rather than a universal testimony, and reverberates with despair.
JL: That last sentence formulates the "problem" with Forster's humanism. "Personal" withdrawal" is a tactful way of saying "smokescreen." Ozick is not without empathy for Forster's human situation; note the last clause, "reverberates with despair." This reading of Forster's humanism also implies a certain view of his novels: the scenes suggestive of homosexuality are not literary daring, but literary disguises. She goes on:
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in a recent Times review remarks that Maurice's homosexuality is "a symbol of human feelings."
JL: This reminds me of one common defence of "Brokeback Mountain": the love depicted is universal ("and not merely homosexual" is the implicit qualifier, made explicit in some reviews). The problem with this formulation, besides its defensiveness, is its incompleteness. The homosexual love between Ennis and Jack is both similar to and different from heterosexual love. Lehman-Haupt's remark, apparently liberal, dilutes the specificities of Maurice's homosexuality, specificities whose meaning Ozick offers this general interpretation:
But Forster would disagree (JL: with Lehmann-Haupt) that homosexuality stands for anything beyond what it is in itself, except perhaps the laying waste of the Cnidian Demeter. Homosexuality to Forster signified sterility; he practised it like a blasphemer, just as he practised his humanism as a blasphemer (JL: Forster rejected the Christianity of his day). There is no blasphemy where there is no belief to be betrayed; and Forster believes in the holiness of the goddess of fertility: Demeter, guardian of the social order and marriage.
JL: Ozick then goes back to the compromised universality of Forster's humanism by tackling one of his most daring ideas:
The most dubious social statement Forster ever made is also his most famous one: if I had to choose between betraying my country or my friend, I hope I would have the guts to betray my country. He says "I"; the note is personal, it is not an injunction to the rest of us. Maurice instructs us explicitly in what he understands by "friend"; in Maurice's boyhood dream the word "friend" foretells the love of a man for a man. We have encountered that charged word in Forster before. The statement about betrayal cannot be universalized, and Forster did not mean it to be. Declarations about bedmates do not commonly have general application.
JL: "bedmates" is a low blow. "Friend", to Forster, means more than sexual partner. Ozick's main reading of the meaning of "friend" to Forster is persuasive but it overlooks the accommodation of more than one meaning. The face-off between "country" and "friend" is also one between "abstract entity" and "concrete relations." One can be asked to sacrifice a person for some nationalistic ideal. Or, to see it another way, Forster's choice of "friend" over "country" is only as wrong as someone else's choice of "country" over "friend." The concrete details of the ethical choice are paramount, as Isaiah Berlin teaches, in order to adjucate between the competing claims of ultimately incompatible ideals. But Ozick is after some universally valid principle held without self-interest. This becomes clearer in her reply to a Mrs. A. F. who responded to the essay:
We are now unambiguously apprised of Forster's homosexuality, and Maurice makes it shudderingly plain that Forster considered homosexuality to be an affliction, the ineradicable mark of a fated few. To use language grown shabby from repetition, he regarded himself as part of an oppressed minority; and applying Only Connect, he could stand in for and champion other oppressed minorities--Indians under English colonialism, for instance, who suffered from the English public-school mentality precisely as he had suffered from it. But this, after all is a compromised liberalism. There is nothing admirable in it; it is devalued by the presence of the vested interest. It is no trick, after all for a Jew to be against anti-Semitism, or for a homosexual to be against censorship of homosexual novels. The passion behind the commitment may be pure, but the commitment is not so much a philosophy of liberalism as it is of self-preservation. Morality must apply some more accessible standard than personal hurt.
JL: I think Ozick exaggerates when she says "[t]here is nothing admirable" in Forster's anticolonialism. Many homosexuals of his time, hurt by the same English public schools, did not support decolonization. And it is hard to see any non-metaphorical vested interest for Forster in promoting Indian independence. But she strikes home, I think, about Forster's support for homosexual novels. His support was special pleading, disguised. I don't think that special pleading is wrong, but we should see it for what it was. It's so easy for me to get on my high horse when arguing for gay rights; it's harder to remember that the horse is not a thoroughbred. American political culture rallies one to fight for one's own rights; it is much quieter on fighting for the rights of others.
Thursday, August 24, 2006
When the towers fell, you say, I was barebacking this guy from Therapy.
I watched on CNN the second tower fall and knew I had to get away to America.
Your boyfriend is a medical intern who thinks there’s no safe sex with you.
Cops underground everywhere but I’ve never seen unattended baggage.
Your boyfriend’s favorite line is, I’m courting disaster; his second favorite, I’m leaving on a jetplane.
My landlord told me yesterday he’s going to Montreal for counter-terrorism training.
I love the city, you say, glass in hand, but does the city love me?
Wednesday, August 23, 2006
Forster's tease begins when the men enter the pond:
"Water's wonderful!" cried Freddy, prancing in.
"Water's water," murmured George. Wetting his hair first--a sure sign of apathy--he followed Freddy into the divine, as indifferent as if he were a statue and the pond a pail of soapsuds. It was necessary to use his muscles. It was necessary to keep clean. Mr. Beebe watched them, and watched the seeds of the willow-herb dance chorically above their heads.
"Apooshoo, apooshoo, apooshoo," went Freddy, swimming for two strokes in either direction, and then becoming involved in reeds or mud.
"Is it worth it?" asked the other, Michelangelesque on the flooded margin.
The bank broke away, and he fell into the pool before he had weighed the question properly.
Describing George as "Michelangelesque" merely particularize, on one level, the earlier reference to "statue", reinforcing the idea of George's indifferent stillness at the edge of the pond. The charged adjective, however, also evokes in the mind the sculptor's ready-for-action statues, in particular, that of the thoroughly naked David. The adjective functions like a fig-leaf; it reveals more than it covers.
Also, Forster is surely having fun making the bachelor clergyman, the Christian antagonist to paganism, the voyeur of the bathing scene before he joins the young men in the pond. That Mr. Beebe's gaze is erotic, unknown to himself, is underlined by his attention to the willow-herb seeds dancing, "chorically" no less.
Finally, one wonders how the three men swim in the tiny pond without bumping into each other. The pond was only "large enough to contain the human body." Forster's answer: "Three gentlemen rotated in the pool breast high." You can imagine how short the radius of that rotating circle. Is it any surprise that after a little while of such rotation the men "began to play"? They splash each other with water, of course.
Tuesday, August 22, 2006
Modern Metrics:a new, independent NY press that publishes chapbooks of formal poetry.
Boey Kim Cheng's new book, "After the Fire," collects selections from his three earlier books and new poems written after this itinerant Singaporean's migration to Australia.
Monday, August 21, 2006
There Is No Safety in Distance
The body is an authority
on heartache, burned or slashed.
The bottom of an amputee
drops like a bottle smashed.
The empty-chested veteran,
decorated with dread,
crumples like a soda can.
Despair, don’t you trash my dead!
The cause of pain is cruelty,
they claim the cause, desire.
Biologists explain that genes
are really quite germane
while bombers show just what cause means.
The effect is the same.
Tell me what your pain is like.
When did it begin?
In the ear of bone or muscle
or the eye of skin?
Does it flicker, pulse or beat?
Burn or scald or sear?
Pinch or gnaw or cramp or crush?
Does it disappear?
Is it black as love’s rejection
in a lovers’ park?
Is it accidental as
a throwaway remark?
So tell me what your pain is like.
No doctor, I’m your auditor
and your advocate.
The jury's out. It will come back.
Or have I imagined it?
But here’s my blinded torso, look--
black bulb, black bag, black dispatch
from mountainous Iraq.
Crouched in the courtroom of my crotch,
black dogs bark.
Please don’t make me stand so still.
That’s not the way of dust.
You will I will I will you will
I will not readjust.
Please don’t make me stand so straight,
holding up my brain.
I hate you hate you hate I hate
you hate my trousers stain.
Please don’t make me stand so tall,
teeter on my spine.
I fall you fall I fall you fall
and we intertwine.
I have no courage to leave my body,
its panic and its pain.
Why I conduct this thought experiment
is to ascertain
if I live daily with the body
solely out of choice,
the soul's hypothesis of love,
Cut by an edge, the body hurts
another with its knives.
The second spears the third who shoots
the fourth, and none survives.
There is no safety in distance,
in diamond or decree,
no sanctuary within the fence
Give me your name, beautiful Stranger,
though the hearts misgive,
come closer to the bodies’ danger,
cut me and cry, forgive.
Burn all flags except the flesh,
the banner hung from bone.
Soul, burn the five stars down to ash.
Burn the crescent moon.
Kiss the tits, the low brown stars
cresting heaving hills.
Kiss the folded belly scar,
kiss the testicles.
Kiss, oh, kiss the crescent slit,
uncover the full moon,
till the body present-lit
burns and does not burn.
(To write with irresistible force,
light entering the eye,
abstract of things, without a loss,
The planet is a sphere;
peace is a wish;
and in a body of water here
soul is a fish.
Sunday, August 20, 2006
Saturday, August 19, 2006
all maenads, down the park to the menagerie,
cull the roses and smash the coterie
of apollonian statues. Guns explode
and urge. The women free the cognac-gorged
lions, zebras, the snorting dromedary
and, hunger-maddened, raid the aviary
for heron, parrot, goshawk and flamingo.
Likewise Death overthrows the body’s shed--
the zoo assembly, parliament or diet--
over which the king surveyed his power and pomp.
Dragoons, attendants, nobles, all have fled.
Night closes on the unaccustomed quiet,
hushes the squawk out of the draining swamp.
Wednesday, August 16, 2006
to one that gave the poem. I have my papers
and fingerprints, ready to enter your home,
pull one of your white cotton shirts over me,
and when you come to bed, my night country,
rest my uncovered head on your left shoulder.
Monday, August 14, 2006
the banner hung from bone.
Soul, burn the five stars down to ash.
Burn the crescent moon.
Kiss the tits, the low brown stars
cresting heaving hills.
Kiss the folded belly scar,
kiss the testicles.
Kiss, oh, kiss the crescent slit,
uncover the full moon,
till the body present-lit
burns and does not burn.
Saturday, August 12, 2006
Sheila Majid sang at the Esplanade Concert Hall last night a song selection from her twenty years in music. She was a consummate performer, artistic in her song delivery, friendly and teasing with the audience. I don't understand Malay but the language in her voice became fully expressive in a way I had not heard before. She sang the ballads with particular feeling; the sayang tenderness of the language, potentially cloying, sounded a range of emotional clarities and nuances. She helped me hear a universe of expressive possibilities in a language I had thought, in my ignorance, unsophisticated and derivative. She made me see again what artistry can do for ignorance, prejudice and callused hearts.