Monday, December 31, 2007

At the New Year

The doors are about to close. The train must go.
You know you will make it, as you made it
year after year. None will be left behind.
So who are these men standing in the snow,
curious and formal like old documents?
The whistle blows--listen!--so does the wind.

Over There: Poems from Singapore and Australia

You can now buy the anthology online. I have a few poems in it.

From the publisher's website:





Curated by two of the foremost literary figures of their generation, the ground-breaking Singapore-Australia anthology of poetry brings together for the first time the contemporary work of the finest poets at work in Singapore and Australia today. OVER THERE: Poems from Singapore and Australia features a fresh selection of established as well as previously unreleased work from writers such as Edwin Thumboo and Cyril Wong from Singapore, and Dorothy Porter and Kevin Hart from Australia. Over 20 writers from each territory are featured, representing the diverse and interesting voices currently at play in both territories, and creating an ongoing discourse between the exciting literary cultures of the two Pacific neighbours.

The anthology ranges across many themes: from an ever-shifting sense of cultural, urban and personal identity to place, politics, sex, religion and more, with clear resonances and connections bridging the two territories.

The book, made available in both territories, marks the first time that a major Singaporean literary anthology is released to the wider Australian market.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Throat

Should I ask this beautiful man after dinner
at the best Thai restaurant in the city
if he would come back to my place and fuck,
though I know my friend T is positive?

There is no cocktail of drugs for this knowledge, this fear
infecting my body, this fear of the infected body
no knowledge of virus or precaution
can cure.

For the same reason, no-reason, T’s boyfriend refuses him,
though he’s a dentist, and a scientist should know better.
For the same reason, no-reason, T doesn’t disclose his health
to his tricks. What you don’t know can’t hurt you.

And I, knowing, am sick,
choke back the question, and swallow
beef sautéed with lemongrass and chili,
after chewing carefully.

TLS October 19, 2007

from Don Garrett's review "All Necessarily So" of Steven Nadler's Spinoza's "Ethics": An introduction:

. . . the whole [Ethics] is arranged in a forbidding "geometrical order", an austere and magisterial structure of definitions, axioms, postulates, propositions, corollaries, demonstrations, and scholia modelled on Euclid's Elements. . . .

Spinoza was a necessitarian, holding that everything follows with absolute necessity from its equally necessary grounds or causes, in a way that leaves no room for contingency in nature. Nadler takes seriously the worry that the content of the Ethics therefore requires expression in its deductive geometrical format.

*

. . . many . . . have seen in Spinoza's monistic metaphysics - positing as it evidently does a single space-time entity whose local variations of forces, governed by pervasive natural laws, constitute physical "objects" as states of the universe rather than as component parts of it - a strikingly appropriate conceptual framework for contemporary physical theory. "Supersubstantivalism" , roughly the doctrine that space-time is the only substance and that physical objects are identifca; with regions or regionalized properties of it, is becoming something of a hot topic in contemporary metaphysics just now, and it is a view that obviously owes a good deal to Spinoza.

*

Similarly, Spinoza's account of the relation between the mental and the physical, which entails the identity of the human mind with the human body, was certainly provocative in its day . . . but it is equally so in our own. By treating the mental and the physical not simply as two different kinds of things or two different kinds of qualities, but instead as two fundamentally different dimensions of being that all things - with all their qualities - exemplify or express, Spinoza was a pioneer of "panpsychism", the doctrine that everything has some degree of mentality. . . . The attraction of panpsychism, as William James showed so vividly, lies partly in its compatibility with the kind of incremental naturalism that seeks to explain fundamental features of human thought - such as consciousness, representation and will - not as sudden and unpredictable interruptions in the course of nature but rather as sophisticated developments of features that pervade the naural world in a broad range of degrees, beginning with the very rudimentary.

*

Spinoza's ideas about freedom and responsibility are of comparable relevance and imporant to present-day philosophy. As Nadler emphazises, Spinoza's necessitarianism involved an unequivocal denial of free will, if having "free will" means that human beings can be causally undetermined in their voluntary behaviour. As Nadler also shows, Spinoza recognized and valued a different kind of freedom, a natural causal determination through one's own determined nature (rather than through external forces) that is attainable only in proportion to one's virtue.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

The New Yorker, December 10, 2007

from "The Checklist" by Atul Gawande, in "Annals of Medicine":

Yet it's far from obvious that something as simple as a checklist could be of much help in medical care. . . . In 2001, though, a critical-care specialist at John Hopkins Hospital named Peter Pronovost decided to give it a try. He didn't attempt to make the checklist cover everything; he designed it to tackle just one problem . . .line infections. On a sheet of plain paper, he plotted out the steps to take in order to avoid infections when putting a line in. Doctors are supposed to (1) wash their hands with soap, (2) clean the patient's skin with chlohexidine antiseptic, (3) put sterile drapes over the entire paient, (4) wear a sterile mask, hat, gown, and gloves, and (5) put a sterile dressing over the catheter site once the line is in. Check, check, check, check, check. These steps are no-brainers; they have been known and taught for years. So it seemed silly to make a checklistjust for them. Still, Pronovost asked the nurses in his I.C.U. to observe the doctors for a month as they put lines into patients, and record how often they completed each step. In more than a third of patients, they skipped at least one.

The next month, he and his team persuaded the hospital administration to authorize nurses to stop doctos if they saw them skipping a step on the checklist. . .

. . . Pronovost and his colleagues monitored what happened for a year afterward. The results were so dramatic that they weren't sure whether to believe them: the ten-day line-infection rate rate from eleven per cent to zero. So they followed patients for fifteen more months. Only two line infections occurred during the entire period. They calculated that in this one hospital, the checklist had prevented forty-three infections and eight deaths, and saved two million dollars in cost.

. . . The checklists provided two main benefits, Pronovost observed. First, they helped with memory recall, especially with mundane matters that are easily overlooked in patients undergoing more drastic events. (When you're worrying about what treatment to give a woman who won't stop seizing, it's hard to remember to make sure that the head of her bed is in the right position.) A second effects was to make explicit the minimum, expected steps in complex processes. Pronovost was surprised to discover how often even experienced personnel failed to grasp the importance of certain precautions. In a survey of I.C.U. staff taken before introducing the ventilator checklist, he found that half hadn't realized that there was evidence strongly supporting giving ventilated patients antacid medicine. Checklists established a higher standard of baseline performance.


***

Question: if you were to come up with a beginner's checklist for revising poetry, what would it look like?

(1) Have your writing make sense (garyg's admonition).
(2) Describe your sentences grammatically. (E.g. Subject [noun phrase] + Main Verb + Indirect Object [noun clause] + Direct Object [noun])
(3) Remove all adjectives and adverbs and see if that makes a difference.
(4) Mark the significant sounds in your first line, and then the recurrence of those sounds in the poem.
(5) Circle the images in the first line(s), and then related imagery in the poem. (Suggestion: use different color pens for different image clusters.)

The Stomach-Sac

The body is a limit,
so Papa Mann taught little Manns at the pastry shop,
where Thomas ate cream rolls, cream cakes, cream puffs
until his body screamed, stop!

The book has another story about greed, a parable.
Two men were told by a rich landowner
they would receive all the land their feet could circumscribe
before sunset.

The first man took note of the position of the sun in the clear sky,
measured his stride, estimated his speed, and walked, and turned
right angle, and walked, and turned again, and walked the square
which he settled with farm, wife, four kids, and a gaggle of geese.

The other man, the greedy one, ran
faster than his legs could carry him, stumbling on flat land, thrashing through thickets,
ran curving in when he remembered the countdown, ran straightening out
when he remembered his dream of a commonwealth—cream cakes for everyone—

his body screaming, stop! and, when he refused, his body
stopped him in his tracks, as they say,
and he collapsed,
just as the sun conveniently set on him.

Father, you gave me that book for my birthday. Look, Father, I’m running,
big is my appetite, strong are my feet
wavering between line and curve,
my circle incomplete.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Ordinary People (1980)

Gripping family drama, based on the novel by Judith Guest. Strong ensemble acting, especially a young Timothy Hutton playing the younger son who survived the boating tragedy that killed his brother.

Director: Robert Redford

Calvin Jarrett: Donald Sutherland
Beth Jarrett: Mary Tyler Moore
Conrad Jarrett: Timoth Hutton
Dr. Tyrone C. Berger (the shrink): Judd Hirsh

"Tapestry in the Baroque" at the Met

I found the first room more interesting than the later rooms. I like the playful wit of "Garden with Diana Fountain" from a five-piece set called "Garden Scenes with Mythological Fountains" (good title for a series of poems that plays against Moore's "imaginary gardens with real toads in them"). Next to the fountain, with its lifelike hounds tearing into the stag, a real dog is defecating. In the foreground two man-servants shift a huge urn in line with all the other urns of flowers (every document of civilization. . . ). And pushed by the beautiful geometrical garden to the left, villagers busy themselves with unremitting rural chores, in sharp contrast with the stately mansion on the right of the tapestry.

In the next room, Rubens spoilt things by introducing Baroque painting into tapestry-making. Now the tapestries display the plump women and muscular men so familiar from the paintings of that period. Yes, the "Decius Mus" designed by Rubens dramatizes vividly the death of the Roman general, a self-sacrifice that enabled the victory of the Roman army over the Latins, seen falling back and escaping to the left of the tapestry. But don't we already have this kind of thing in painting, after painting? Why import it into tapestry? An inevitable follow-up: in place of the wild borders of old tapestries--flowers, fruits, mythological figures, grotesques--artists started designing borders like picture frames.



The Battle of Veseris and the Death of Decius Mus (detail)
Sixth panel of an eight-piece set of the Story of Decius Mus
Modello and cartoon by Peter Paul Rubens, 1616–17
Woven in the workshop of Jan Raes II in collaboration with Jacques Geubels II, Brussels, between 1620 and 1629
Silk, wool, and silver and gilt-metal wrapped thread; 13 ft. 1 1/2 in. x 19 ft. 3/8 in.



Then another break-through: Rubens conceived "The Triumph of the Eucharist" series as a trompe l'oeil: "two-level gallery of columns, from which hang depictions of tapestries containing the pictures of the series," says the curatorial note. In other words, the tapestries show paintings of tapestries showing the paintings. Clever, huh? So clever, that the idea spread like wildfire. Jacob Jordaens trompe l'oeiled his eight-piece set of "Scenes of a Country Life." We are now very far from the defecating dog and the hard-at-work rural laborers.

The later rooms charted the fickle fashions. The large figure histories and mythologies championed by Rubens and others fell out of favor in 1660s. A new style, pioneered by Le Brun at the Gobelins manufactory (near Paris), emphasized more elegantly drawn figures in richer landscape settings.

One tapestry from the last-to-one room saved the day for me. "The Striped Horse," from a ten-piece set called "Old Indies," exhibits the animals, plants and landscape from North-eastern Brazil, embellished with non-native creatures. In its center, a South American jaguar has just leapt on a horse with zebra stripes, and sunk its teeth on the terrified animal. Real toads in imaginary gardens, indeed.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

TLS December 21 & 28 2007

from Matthew Cobb's review "Polymath of Style" of Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon's Oeuvres, edited by Stephane Schmitt and Cedric Cremiere:

This year marked the tercentenary of the birth of two of the greatest naturalists of the eighteenth century - the Swede Carl Linnaeus (1707-78) and the Frenchman Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon (1707-88). In April, Linnaeus's 300th birthday was celebrated in the scientific journals, museums put on special exhibits, newspapers published articles about his influence. But for Buffon's birthday, in September, there were no candles on the cake. Even in France, not much fus was made - a conference in Dijon, a few displays at the Museum national d'Histoire naturelle, a flurry of publishing, and that was it.

*

Buffon had a long-running dispute with Linnaeus over the validity of the multi-level classification outlined in Systema Naturae, which permeated the whole of L'Histoire naturelle. Buffon argued that only species were real, and that the rest of Linnaeus's system (kingdoms, orders, classes and genera) was entirely fictitious. We now know that, strictly speaking, Buffon was right - taxonomists have since supplemented Linnaeus's list by a growing set of phyla, sub-phlya, domains and other interpretative frameworks, which they cheerfully accept do not exist in nature. But Linnaeus's classification not only helped impose order on the natural world, it containe within it the implicit logic of evolution, of a path of development, which would be put to such devastating use by Darwin. For simple heuristic reasons, Linnaeus's system triumphed, and Buffon's criticism are now forgotten.


***

from Joyce Carol Oates's review of Philip Davis's biography "Bernard Malamud: A writer's life":

One of the surprises of this biography is a virtual treasure trove of writerly pensees, scattered through 570-plus pages, that might one day be gathered and reissued as a writer's diary of sorts, to set beside such a gem of the sub-genre as Leonard Woolf's Virginia Woolf: A writer's diary. Here Bernard Malamud emerges as a tireless craftsman, trusting not to rushes of inspiration but to "so much labor":

What I can't add or develop, I refine or twist. Can't you see that in my work?

Rewriting tends to be pleasurable, in particular the enjoyment of finding new opportunities in old sentences, twisting, tying, looping structure tighter, finding pegs to tie onto that were apparently not there before, deepening meanings, strengthening logicality in order to infiltrate the apparently illogical, the apparently absurd, the absurdly believable.

Today I worked in mosaics, sentences previously noted, and put together in many hours. . . . Today I invented sunshine; I invented it in the book and the sky of the dark day broke.

I must experiment. I must express myself - my belief in life. I must work to handle material originally - original form. I must try symbolism. I must work for art. I must try harder. I must hit my highest possible level.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

2005 Reading at The Back Fence

Just stumbled on this old video when browsing Roxanne Hoffman's press website. It takes me back: The Back Fence, bar in Greenwich Village, where I first met Rox and Brigid, and was invited to read as a feature on Jan 15, 2005. Rox recorded me reading "Ten Poems on the Plum Blossom." Go ahead, watch the video, and laugh.

TLS December 14 2007

Julian Bell wrote a wonderful review of the exhibition of British art at Ghent's Museum of Fine Arts. Describing each exhibition room in turn, and the art works in each, the review takes the reader through the different galleries of "British Vision: Observation and imagination in British Art," thus tracing the curatorial intentions nicely. "Hooze and his advisers, who include British art scholars like John Gage and Timothy Hyman, " writes Bell, "are showman in the best sense: their persuasion is visual, a matter of inspired display. With so many star exhibits at their disposal, they know how to give the aura of each its due and still draw sparks from making them interact." Here's Bell giving the tour, with which I try to pair the art works he mentions:

We enter at first a close warm space. We are among eighteenth-century group portraits and nineteenth century crowd scenes, including "Work", the urban material of which leads on to pictures of the poor - photos taken for Henry Mayhew's 1862 London survey, for instance - and of heavy industry in its Victorian heyday.




Joseph Wright of Derby, A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery, in which a Lamp in put in Place of the Sun, c. 1766, Oil on canvas, 147.3 x 203.2 cm, Derby Museums and Art Gallery.




Ford Madox Brown. Work. 1852-65. Oil on canvas, arched top, 53 15/16 x 77 11/16 in. Manchester City Art Galleries.


The claustrophobic heat increases as we pass through to a room of caricature. The roaring drunks of Hogarth, the leering debauchees of Rowlandson, Fuseli's fetishistic fantasies and Lear's 'nonsense' noses, the murderous sardonic mayhem of Gillray - all jostle and trip the viewer: this is a printsellers' market gone mad. [JL: Bell does not mention specific prints, and so here's a Rowlandson etching from the Royal Academy.]




Thomas Rowlandson 1757 - 1827, Doctor Syntax made free of the cellar, Hand-coloured etching with aquatint 110 X 189 mm, Royal Academy of Arts, London.


Then suddenly, we are released into a cool, open clearing. A gallery with just five canvases from the later eighteenth century: three landscapes by Richard Wilson, two by Joseph Wright of Derby: the former mindful of classical precedent, the latter of industry and science, but each spellbound by light.



Richard Wilson (1713 - 1782), Snowdon from Llyn Nantlle c1765, Oil on canvas, 101 x 127cm, National Museum at Liverpool


From this breathing space onwards, the land and how to describe and interpret it become the theme for several galleries. An outstanding selection of small-scale visual experiments represents the recording practices that grew up in tandem with the Industrial Revolution - watercolour, the camera lucida and photography - as well as the sciences of geology, meteorology and botany that evolved with them.




Robert Howlett (British, 1830–1858), Isambard Kingdom Brunel Standing Before the Launching Chains of the Great Eastern, 1857, printed 1863–64, Albumen silver print from glass negative; 11 x 8 7/16 in. (28 x 21.5 cm), Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Here the large-scale works are those that embody the land's normality - as a working space for towmen and farmboys in "Flatford Mill" and for the jockeys of Stubbs's Newmarket, as a walking space for townspeople in Charles Collins's wonderfully deadpan view of "May in the Regent's Park." The dense greens and reds of that Pre-Raphaelite panel have by now settled in as the exhibition's dominant color scheme, and we are still no further on than the mid-nineteenth century.




John Constable, Flatford Mill (`Scene on a Navigable River') 1816-17, Oil on canvas, Tate Collection.




Charles Collins, May, in the Regent's Park 1851, Oil on mahogany, Tate Collection.


But the very next doorway is a kind of cliff-edge. Two cataclysms resonate across a semi-circular hall: Nash's "Menin Road", his three-metre-wide-wide panorama of the Flanders trenches in all their hideous beauty in 1918, and the apocalyptic black "Deluge" imagined by John Martin eight years before. An awesome Epsteins alabaster carving of Christ rising from the dead and a Henry Moore "Falling Warrior" - almost the exhibition's only sculptures - reinforce the hang's visceral impact. Other images, from Stanley Spencer, David Bomberg and others at their giddiest and wildest, register as aftershocks. I'm not sure if the addition of Holman Hunt's similarly extreme "Scapegoat" isn't too much here, yet the layout of the galleries permits a deft onward transit from this thunderous array. . .




Paul Nash, The Menin Road, 1919, oil on canvas, 182.9 x 317 cm, Imperial War Museum, London.



John Martin (1806-70), The Deluge, 1834, Oil on canvas, 66 x 102 inches.



Holman Hunt, The Scapegoat, Oil on canvas 87 cm x 139.8 cm, Liverpool Museums.


. . . to the tiny, fierce heart of visionary Britain, namely to the prints and drawings of Blake and Samuel Palmer.




William Blake, The Circle of the Lustful, 1824-1827, Watercolour, Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery.


And after Palmer, it seems quite fitting to turn to the neo-Romantic, pastoral values of Graham Sutherland or of David Jones: the twentieth century has now been brought into the drame. The great historical caesura represented by Nash's war image has more or less been bridged, and in its wake we can revisit the categories of landscape (an Auerbach "Primrose Hill", a Hepworth bronze), of caricature (Edward Burra and early Hockney) and of portraiture (early Freud, for instance).



Frank Auerbach (b.1931), Primrose Hill, Oil on board, 86.4 x 117 cms (34 x 46 inches), 1954.



David Hockney, Bedlam (from "A Rake's Progress"), 1961 - 3, Etching in two colours, 30 x 40cm.


The survey comes to an end in the early 1960s, but its last really climactic image is Spencer's "Shipbuilding on the Clyde", his 1940s altarpiece to heavy industry. Spencer in effect becomes the hero of the show's later sections.





Stanley Spencer, Panel from 'Shipbuilding on the Clyde' (early 1940s), Imperial War Museum, London.


After the guided tour, Bell reflects on the British-ness proposed by this Ghent exhibition, and then suggests the deliberate limits of this exhibition's vision of British art.

What kind of imagery, then was the prospering new united kingdom to make its own? One answer was suggested by the empirical philosophy of Locke, the influence that also informed Britain's scientific and technological advances. The artist was to collect items of experience and combine them, in a spirit of dedicated recording - as a topographer, for instance, or much later as a photographer. . . . But this impulse to accrue, item by item, was also a incentive that promoted capitalistic enterprise. Money, running through the hands of London's entrepreneurs and enabling the import of cultural goods and their schemes of modernization, was apt to send artists' imaginations reeling in a kind of vertigo. . . .

It [The exhibition] is an explicitly partial, angular treatment of a nation's art history, and while many selections fo present artists at the height of their originality . . . , there is not the slightest will to treat all candidates judiciously. As a matter of principle, Britain's would-be internationalists are shown the door. Hardling any Reynolds . . . or Lawrence or Leighton, let alone the Bloomsbury artists. These exclusions help sharpen the visual argument, but a more significant limitation on the Ghent interpretation is that the two painters by whom Britain has probably been best known on the Continent fail to come into focus. It's probably inevitable that a show pivoted on Constable will sequeeze Turner into uncomfortable corners - at one end a gritty quasi-realistic country road, at the other the mysticallyirradiated "Interior of a Great House", with too little to bridge the big distance between. But Francis Bacon, in his own way another great reinterpreter of the European tradition, also makes only an oblique appearance: his confined to two figure studies of untypical tastefulness and restraint, and a study after the life mask of William Blake that says more about the subject's cultural significance than the artist's. . . .

. . . How far is it possible, in all historical seriousness, to uphold the separateness of the island tradition? The more one ploughs through the imposing bulk of scholarship collected in the 420-page catalogue, the more one touches on all the other stories that might have been told with this material. . . .

. . . This huge and provocative display finds a place for Lewis Carroll's own deeply bizarre drawing of Alice, as well as a Tenniel engraving; for a telescopic description of the Moon, drawn by John Russell in 1976; for a gorgeously painted canvas of uncertain attribution, executed in 1786, which shows a British soldier among his Indian womenfolk, the type of union that would later be thrust beyond the pale of Imperial respectability. The interplay of glances between the major, the begum, the ayahs and the children is as warm as the palette - yet all is tremulous, and the family portrait was never finished. An alternative history and an alternative Britishness might have taken root there.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Heel

Not at the polar caps is where
imaginations fail,
not in the deserts of despair,
but on the rocky outcrop, on the heel

sticking out of water, exposed to the feathered arrows of the sun,
there, despite our fearlessness and care,
is predicted the cause of our fall, the course—upside-down direction!—
the weapon, the war, when, and where.

TLS November 23 2007

from Gabriel Josipovici's review of The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain 950-1492 edited and translated by Peter Cole:


The title of Cole's anthology is taken from a remark by the leading Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish: "Andalus . . . might be here or there, or anywhere . . . A meeting place of strangers in the project of building human culture . . . . It is ot only that there was a Jewish-Mulsim co-existence, but that the fates of the two people were similar . . . . Al-Andalus for me is the realization of the dream of the poem".


Poem by early-fourteenth century Todros Abulafia:

The day you left was bitter and dark,
you finest thing, you - and when I think of it,
it feels like there's nothing left of my skin.
Your feet, by far, were more beautiful,
the day they mounted
and wrapped my neck in a ring.

Mark Behr's "The Smell of Apples" (spoiler alert!)

Behr's debut novel is less about South African society than it is about an Afrikaner family. Sure, it records, through the eyes and ears of eleven-year-old Marnus Erasmus, such horrific events as the burning of a colored child for a petty theft, the virulent patriotism of the whites who believe themselves beleaguered and bereft by blacks, the manuevers of the political elite against international isolation, the unremarkable day-to-day prejudices of a master class towards its servants (one of the most telling incidents occurs when Marnus' mother could not give the last name of her long-serving housekeeper while attempting to visit the latter's burnt son in the hospital).

Still, rather than a dissection of a society, the novel is a portrait of a family, and its most remarkable figure is that of the patriarch, square-jawed, strong-shouldered General Johan Erasmus. Lover of culture and country, big-game hunter, marlin-fisher, ocean swimmer, the General also loves little boys, a secret revealed with devastating effect when Marnus discovers his father forcing sex on his best friend, Frikkie. Devastating, not to the country, but only to Marnus who idolizes his superman-father. The closeted pedophilia may symbolize the hypocritical oppression of society at large, but, within the compass of the novel, has no social repercussions. It falls, however, on the son, like a bomb.

But what kind of a bomb is it? My-dad-is-a-faggot? My-pop-is-a-pedophile? Not either, but crucially both: my dad loves little boys but does not love me.

Marnus loves his dad. He appreciates his mum's beauty and pities her for giving up her operatic career for husband and family. He even begins to like the prettiness of little Zelda, the poor white girl. But Marnus loves his dad with all his heart. A crushing episode: after struggling with a sand-shark on his fishing line for what seems like an eternity, and then losing the fish, Marnus hears his father say, the shark beat you. But his love is more than the desire of boys to live up to paternal standards; it is suffused with longing, as when he watches dad and mum dress for an important dinner. He sees his mum dressing:

She stood in the front of the mirror, slipping her long golden earrings through the holes in her earlobes. She tossed her blonde hair to one side, and pushed the tiny hooks through, first left, then right. She was wearing the long purple evening dress she'd had designed specially for the occasion by Elsbieta Rosenworth. It was Mum's first real designer dress since she and Dad were married.


but he undresses his dad with his eyes:

Dad was using Oupa's [grandfather's] old shaving brush to lather his chin in quick little circles. The handle of Dad's shaving brush is inlaid with ivory from the bottom ends of tusks of an elephant that Oupa shot next to the Ruvu in Tanganyika. The tusks are mounted on either side of the fireplace in our lounge. Dad's hair was combed back with tonic. Even though my hair is still fair, I know it will go dark like his when I get older, because on Uncle Samuel's photographs and slides of Tanganyika, where Dad is still a boy, you can see his hair also used to be light.

I watched Dad in the mirror, and I wished I was old enough to shave. The shaving cream always smells so fresh and strong. Because Dad is six feet tall, he has to bend forward to see into the mirror. The razor crossd his chin and slid down close to his white collar. I watched it closely, and every time it went down I wondered if a drop of bright red blood might appear on the stretch of cleared skin. Dad's chin is almost completely square and Mum says you can know by just looking at it, that a man with a chin like that should be in uniform.


Unlike in the mum passage, the narrator inserts the desiring subject "I" into the dad passage: I watched. . . I wished. . . I watched it closely. . . I wondered. And in desiring the love-object, the narrator identifies himself with "Mum." To say "a man with a chin like that should be in uniform" is a form of erotic fantasy.

In the novel, Marnus does not recognize his sexual attraction to his father, not even in the flash forwards depicting the lieutenant's desperation to live up to a father's standards, and dying for them, in a sense. I don't know how to read this non-recognition. Is it repression? Is it transmutation? Open wound in the struggle to achieve selfhood? The novel escapes easy abstractions, as do the ambiguities of the words "to be loved" in the epitaph quoting the Afrikaner poet Antjie Krog: Only one life we have in which we wanted merely to be loved forever.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Sidnea D'Amico at Reaves Gallery

Reaves Gallery opened recently along Market Street, SF. The space was a white box, when I visited it this morning, with works by many artists on its three walls, and a big office desk at the back. I was particularly drawn to the work of the Brazilian artist Sidnea D'Amico, who settled in the US to develop her art career, mainly in the genres of painting and mixed media. The brilliant primary colors of her paintings seem to harken back to her days as a jewellery designer, while the geometric shapes and lines, the playfulness of which reminds me of Miro, the minimalism of Mondrian, seem to owe something to her study of photography.

I cannot find the painting that I like especially: it has a cheerful yellow background, with coiled red wires hanging from the ceiling of the painting. But this painting from her website, from the same series "Siesta in the City," also gives a good idea of her work.





Another series, "Whimsy," orchestrates line, color and shape in a joyful, carnivalesque dance.



Dim Sum, Juicy Couture and Plumpjack

Had dim sum in Gold Mountain in Chinatown late morning, in one of those huge Chinese banquet halls, packed with tables, and tram-lined by steel trolleys of food. The dim sum was tasty and sturdy. I am tempted to say that it's better than anything I've tasted in NYC Chinatown, though that may just be my vacation mood. The restaurant was at the top of Grant Avenue, and this location brought to mind a song from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "Flower Drum Song" called, yes, "Grant Avenue":



western street with eastern manners,
Tall pagodas and golden banners
Throw their shadows through the lantern glow.

You can shop for precious jade
or teakwood tables or silk brocade
Or see a bold and brassy night club show,
On the most exciting thoroughfare I know.

We call it
Grant Avenue, San Francisco,
California, U.S.A.
Looks down from Chinatown
Over a foggy bay.

You travel there in a trolley,
In a trolley up you climb,
Dong! Dong! You're in Hong Kong,
Having yourself a time.

You can eat, if you are in the mood,
Shark-fin soup, bean cake fish.
The girl who serves you all your food
Is another tasty dish!

You know you
Can't have a new way of living
Till you're living all the way
On Grant Avenue. --Where is that?--
San Francisco, That's where's that!
California U.S.A.



After dim sum, it was shopping time. I've never heard of Juicy Couture till now. And, as you would expect, Wikipedia has an article on the clothing line:

Juicy Couture is a contemporary line of casual cute apparel based in Pacoima, California, founded by Gela Nash-Taylor and Pamela Skaist-Levy. Owned by the Liz Claibonne fashion company, Juicy is known for their terrycloth and velour tracksuits.


The article also gives the marketing and clothing slogans, such as "Wake up and smell the Couture", " Go Couture Yourself", "Cupcake Couture", and "Dude, Where's my Couture?".

The signature Juicy Crest, as well as the phrases "Love, G&P" (formerly "Love P&G") are stitched on the inside tag of each item of Juicy apparel. The order of the initials changed in early 2006 after a lawsuit by the Procter & Gamble corporation. Their slogan "Made in the Glamorous USA" found underneath the crest was changed to "Born in the Glamorous USA" after being purchased by Liz Claiborne and having much of its production shifted to East Asia.

A story, in miniature, of American manufacturing. No, I didn't buy any Juicy. I'm not into drag, yet. Bought a maroon hooded sweat from Old Navy. Yeah, that's the kind of boy I am.

Dinner in Plumpjack, a restaurant in Nob Hill recommended by a colleague. It was tastefully done up in silver and gold. Long couches, silver seat and gold back, offered comfortable seating. The walls were silver, the lamp brackets gold. The service was attentive without being condescending or obsequious. I had a good Bordeaux, from the Chateau Haut-Gojon, complex and soft, with more Merlot than Cabernet in it. The turbot was so-so, quite bland, but the duck breast was good, the flavor locked in the medium rare flesh, four thick slices arranged like campfire wood on a bed of sweet cooked pears, a sour veg, and roasted sunflower seeds.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Napa Valley Wine Tour

Jerry was the guide fom Wine Country Tour Shuttle. He's been in the business for more than twenty years, and could reel off facts about San Francisco and the surrounding counties like nobody's business. He said he was married, but so many of his mannerisms and interests were so stereotypically gay that I did wonder if the wife was fictional, though I could not imagine any reason for such an invention.

The shuttle picked us up from the Ferry Terminal along the Embarcadero, and traveled over the Golden Gate Bridge, into Marine County, Sonoma County and then Napa County. Between and below the grass-and-dirt mountain ridges, the vineyards swelled and unfolded, acre after acre of harvested vines--rows and rows of brown Hanukkah lamps side by side.

First stop was Domaine Chandon, a sparkling wine winery. The winery still works closely with its parent winery in France, sending its wine-makers there for apprenticeships, for instance. Respecting the wish of France to keep the name of champagne to wines actually made in that region, Chandon calls its products sparkling wines. Meredith, the vineyard guide, explained the wine-making process. The first fermentation takes place in huge steel vats which looks like missile silos. Chandon started making still wines (i.e. the usual, non-sparkling wines) in the 1990's. They were fermented in oak barrels carefully stacked on metal racks in a huge and clean cellar. The whole winery was a cross between French standards and American methods.

We tasted three sparking wines from their Classic Collection. The Chandon Brut Classic was made of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Munier, and tasted of apple, pear and citrus notes. The Chandon Blanc de Noirs, Pinot Noir and Pinot Munier, tasted more of cherry, strawberry and currants. The Chandon Riche was very sweet, tasting of honey and peaches. I liked the second one best, but sparkling wines are not really my thing.

V. Sattui Winery looked more like a traditional winery. It celebrated its centennial in 1985 by building a beautiful two-storey stone house and cellar. Its vines looked older: thicker and more gnarly. The wine-tasting, deli and shop were all in a huge converted barn. We stood by the bar and tasted a number of wines. The stand outs: an off-dry Johannisberg Riesling with flavors of apricot and melon, a Chardonnary, Carneros tasting of ripe pear and apple, a rich and complex Merlot from Henry Ranch with flavors of dusty berry chocolate and plum. We had a picnic lunch on a bench outside, in the cold sun. The polenta was okay, but the jambalaya rice was very flavorful, as was the chopped broccoli, walnut and apple salad.

Third stop was Rutherford Ranch Winery. The woman in charge of the tasting made too much of a sales pitch, I think, in the midst of her patter about her wines. We tasted a 2006 Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley, a 2006 Chardonnay, Napa Valley, a 2004 Merlot, Napa Valley, and a 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon. The last wine, a 2005 Rhiannon, Napa Valley, we tasted before and after a bite of dark chocolate. It was delicious: a Bordeaux-style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot (29%!), Syrah and Petite Syrah.

Andretti Winery was the last winery we visited, a venture of a famous former motorcar racer, and a famous former CEO of Wal-Mart. Built like an Italian villa, purposefully aged, the winery stood some distance away from the main roads, and so enjoyed a measure of quiet. I can't remember what we tasted. By then, I could not taste anything, to be honest. Everything tasted like mouth-wash.

The shuttle took us to Vallejo, where we boarded the ferry for the one-hour "cruise" back to the ferry terminal. The sun setting behind the mountains, studded with houses, was a pale and misty orange. Oh, the color of the Golden Gate Bridge is not red, it's international orange. Jerry would have been so proud of me for remembering that.

Friday, December 21, 2007

San Francisco Again

Arrived last night, and staying at the Parker Guest House, a few blocks from Castro. Parker is a fancier Bed & Breakfast. Danced for a while at Badlands, where a friendly and diverse crowd was having a good time. Today goes on a wine tour of Napa Valley.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Dinner at Nizza

Nizza, in Hell's Kitchen, 9th Avenue between 44th and 45th, is a swanky bistro and bar, with Italian small dishes. Nizza is Italian for Nice. The executive chef is Andy D'Arnico. For appetizer, I tried the bruschetta, which had very fresh tomato and broccoli chopped very finely. For the main, I had the crab ravioli which was delicious: a touch of fresh herb lifted the cream sauce. I also tried the Wild Boar Lasagne, which was sweet but not cloying so. The desert, semolino bodino, a kind of bread pudding cake, was accented with pistachio and cream. My glass of Montepulciano was smooth and easy drinking. The Nero, which I tried, was very dark and big, and I did not like it at all. The server was very friendly, and the bistro well-designed. Certainly worth a second visit.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

TLS November 30 2007

from Gabriel Josipovici's Commentary piece on Modernism "Fail again. Fail better":

Why is it that a composer such as Haydn could write a hundred symphonies and only a few years later Beethoven, no less industrious a composer, could only write nine? Quite simply because Haydn did not feel he had to start from scratch. What he had to do was fill a form, a mould. . . . Unfortunately, after Beethoven, . . . composers were left with nothing to hold on to except their individuality, and without Beethoven's dynamism and optimism, this gradually led, in the course of the nineteenth century, to an art less and less time-driven, more and more prone to stasis, dreaminess and disintegration. The composer at the start of the twentieth century, an Adrian Leverkuhn or an Arnold Schoenberg, was thus caught btween repeating forms he could no longer believe in and trusting a subjectivity which was growing daily more problematic.

*

Genres were the sign of submission to the authority of tradition, to the authority of the fathers, but the novel was the new form in which the individual would express himself precisely by throwing off the shackles that bound him to his fathers and to tradition. But here it faced a pradox. For if it threw off all authority, whee then did it get its own authority from? The answer had to be from the novelist's inspiration or experience of aspects of life not known to the reader. But who conferred this authority upon him? No one but himself.

*

[Kierkegaard:] "To find the conclusion it is necessary first of all to observe that it is lacking, and then in turn to feel quite vividly the lack of it."

*

Ninety-nine percent of writers and publishers and reviewers at work today go their merry ways as if nothing [i.e. no Modernism] had happened, publicly expressing their earnest desire to write like Dickens and do what the novel has done since Defoe, that is, pass themselves off as truth; or else, in a spirit of postmodernist insouciance, asset their ability to use every tradition available to them, but without any sense of understanding the implications of what they are doing. All, with varying degress of sophistication, appear to be going through the motions, and as a consequence reading them leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth.

*

And the choice it faces us with is a stark one: either the Modernists were right in their suspicions, and those who would ignore them are wrong, their work not worth the paper it is written on; or, the current tacit assumption that the Modernists, however honest and laudable their intentions, were misguided, is correct, and we should openly acknowledge as much. If I incline to the first view, I also recognize that may be largely because of who and what I am.



JL: I have no clear answer to the question, but I don't like stark choices, especially ones formulated for me by someone who thinks the work of anti-modernists like Philip Larkin and Martin Amis not worth the paper it is written on. I love Larkin and I love T. S. Eliot. Who speaks the truth? Who is speaking for the truth? How the heck do I know? But isn't it wonderful that the universe speaks through both of them?


***

from Daniel A. Dombrowski's review of Peter Bien's Kazantzakis: Politics of the spirit:

Kazantzakis, spurred on by journeys to Russia and Spain, believed that the age of bourgeois decadence and flabbiness was coming gradually to an ened; that we lived in a transitional age wherein a new world view was forthcoming; that the remedy for decadence and flabbiness would be a vigour at once physical and "spiritual"; that this vigour entailed the substantiation (metousiosis, or metabole, or their cognates) of matter into spirit; that to live responsibility was to align oneself with whichever groups of people exhibited this vigour to the greatest extent; that these groups would hasten the end of the age of decadence and flabbiness, but that, of course, the better world for which they hoped would not arrive in their own lifetimes. . . . "Tell me what you do with the food you eat", says Zorba, "and I'll tell you who you are. Some turn their food into fat and manure, some into work and good humour, and others, I'm told, into God."


JL: the age-old dichotomy between matter and spirit, and its imaginative and emotional vistas. How to see things differently? What would a Whitmanian Soul-is-Body and Body-is-Soul vision look like now, at the beginning of this century?

Turning Homosexuality Off and On

Interesting NYT article on fruitflies research. I was alerted to it by Harry's blog, Heraclitean Fire. After reading some of the comments on the article, this one by Randy sticks with me:

A drug that could effectively control sexuality would be a bad deal for homosexuals and they will have contributed to the deal. The gay community has badly argued that their sexuality is something that they can’t control and THAT’S why they should not be discriminated for it.

What they should be arguing is that sexuality is a private and personal mattter and THAT’S why they shouldn’t be discriminated for it.

With the ability to change effectively their sexual orientation there will be no reason to argue against bigots who think that homosexuality is morally wrong and reprehensible, and who promote anti-gay bias and discrimination.

It’s time for the gay community to stop making the “I can’t help that I’m gay” argument, and start making the “Stay out of my sex life” argument now.

Little Children and Kolja

Two movies about children, kind of. "Kolja," a Czech movie directed by Jan Sverak, depicts a child's power to transform the self-centered life of a concert cellist. It skirts the cliff-edge of sentimentality, but never falls over it, mainly because of the strong acting of Zdenek Sverak (Louka, the cellist, and the father of the director). The plot is also nicely complicated by the fact that Kolja is a Russian child in Soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia: no ponderous symbolism, but the human conflict of feelings towards a child of the oppressors.

"Little Children" is less conventional in its attitude towards children. The adults invest in their guardianship less admirable motives and feelings. Their lives exemplify Thoreau's words: "Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them." Todd Field directs the movie with empathetic insight into these desperate lives, and with a subtle eye to symbolism in characters and settings. Kate Winslet plays Sarah Pierce, the Madam Bovary figure who saves herself from falling into the abyss. Patrick Wilson plays the buff ex-jock who is not yet ready to leave the golden age of adolescence for married life as a stay-at-home dad. Jackie Earle Haley is utterly convincing as the paedophile persecuted by Noah Emmerich's ex-cop character, Larry Hedges.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

New Yorker, Dec. 3, 2007

from "Darwin's Surprise" by Michael Specter:

Viruses reproduce rapidly and often with violent results, yet they are so rudimentary that many scientists don't even consider them to be alive. A virus is nothing more than a few strands of genetic material wrapped in a package of protein--a parasite, unable to function on its own. In order to survive, it must find a cell to infect. Only then can any virus make use of its single talent, wihc is to take control of a host's cellular machinery and use it to churn out thousands of copies of itself.

*

Thoses viruses were often highly infectious, yet their impact was limited by their ferocity: a virus may destroy an entire cutlure, but if we die it dies too. As a result, not even smallpox possessed the evolutionary power to influence humans as a species--to alter our genetic structure. That would require an organism to insinuate itself into the critical cells we need in order to reproduce: our germ cells. Only retroviruses, which reverse the usual flow of genetic code from DNA to RNA, are capable of that. A retrovirus stores its genetic information in a single-stranded molecule of RNA, instead of the more common double-stranded DNA. When it infects a cell, the virus deploys a special enzyme, called reverse transciptase, that enables it to copy itself and then paste its own genes into the new cell's DNA. It then bcomes part of that cell forever; when the cell divides, the virus goes with it...

*

The earliest mammals, ancestors of the spiny anteater and the duck-billed platypus, laid eggs. Then, at least a hundred million years ago, embryos, instead of growing in a shell, essentially became parasites. While only balls of cells, they began to implant themselves in the lining of the womb. The result was the placenta, which permits the embryos to take nourishment from the mother's blood, while preventing immune cells or bacteria from entering. The placenta is essentially a modified egg. In the early nineteenth-seventies, biologists who were scanning baboon placentas were surprised to see retroviruses on a layer of tissue known as the syncytium, which forms the principal barrier between mother and fetus. They were even more surprised to see that all the animals were healthy....

*

Luis P. Villarreal has posed that question many times, most notably in a 2004 essay, "Can Viruses Make Us Human?" ..."Viruses are molecular genetic parasites and are mostly recognized for their ability to introduce disease." Yet he goes on to argue that they also represent " a major creative force" in our revolution, driving each infected cell to acquire new and increasingly complex molecular identities....

For Villarreal and a growing number of like-minded scientists, the conclusion is clear: "Viruses may well be the unseen creator that most likely did contribute to making us human."

The Book of the Body Now in Sidebar

I read as a feature at Pink Pony last night. The crowd was of a fair number, but the number of fresh faces reading good stuff was certainly higher than normal. Tamiko Beyer read from her manuscript. I followed her, by reading sections from my sequence "The Book of the Body." People seemed to like the reading.

I have put the sequence in the sidebar of this blog, if anyone is interested in reading it and following its progress. Just touch a part of the body, and read the book.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Ogden on Reading Byron

from binkrozby (of PFFA):

George Gordon Lord Byron
The Destruction of Sennacherib

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.

Like the leaves of the forest when Summer is green,
That host with their banners at sunset were seen:
Like the leaves of the forest when Autumn hath blown,
That host on the morrow lay withered and strown.

For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed;
And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill,
And their hearts but once heaved, and for ever grew still!

And there lay the steed with his nostril all wide,
But through it there rolled not the breath of his pride;
And the foam of his gasping lay white on the turf,
And cold as the spray of the rock-beating surf.

And there lay the rider distorted and pale,
With the dew on his brow, and the rust on his mail:
And the tents were all silent, the banners alone,
The lances unlifted, the trumpet unblown.

And the widows of Ashur are loud in their wail,
And the idols are broke in the temple of Baal;
And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,
Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord!


Ogden Nash
Very Like a Whale

One thing that literature would be greatly the better for
Would be a more restricted employment by the authors of simile and metaphor.
Authors of all races, be they Greeks, Romans, Teutons or Celts,
Can't seem just to say that anything is the thing it is but have to go out of their way to say that it is like something else.
What does it mean when we are told
That that Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold?
In the first place, George Gordon Byron had enough experience
To know that it probably wasn't just one Assyrian, it was a lot of Assyrians.
However, as too many arguments are apt to induce apoplexy and thus hinder longevity.
We'll let it pass as one Assyrian for the sake of brevity.
Now then, this particular Assyrian, the one whose cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold,
Just what does the poet mean when he says he came down like a wolf on the fold?
In heaven and earth more than is dreamed of in our philosophy there are great many things.
But I don't imagine that among them there is a wolf with purple and gold cohorts or purple and gold anythings.
No, no, Lord Byron, before I'll believe that this Assyrian was actually like a wolf I must have some kind of proof;
Did he run on all fours and did he have a hairy tail and a big red mouth and big white teeth and did he say Woof Woof?
Frankly I think it is very unlikely, and all you were entitled to say, at the very most,
Was that the Assyrian cohorts came down like a lot of Assyrian cohorts about to destroy the Hebrew host.
But that wasn't fancy enough for Lord Byron, oh dear me no, he had to invent a lot of figures of speech and then interpolate them,
With the result that whenever you mention Old Testament soldiers to people they say Oh yes, they're the ones that a lot of wolves dressed up in gold and purple ate them.
That's the kind of thing that's being done all the time by poets, from Homer to Tennyson;
They're always comparing ladies to lilies and veal to venison,
And they always say things like that the snow is a white blanket after a winter storm.
Oh it is, is it, all right then, you sleep under a six-inch blanket of snow and I'll sleep under a half-inch blanket of unpoetical blanket material and we'll see which one keeps warm,
And after that maybe you'll begin to comprehend dimly
What I mean by too much metaphor and simile.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Bacchus: Bordeaux Basics & Beyond

I do like Bacchus the wine store on Broadway between 70th and 7st. It's not the cheapest wine store in the world, but it has good lighting, and a beautiful new cellar space that displays wine in tasteful wooden shelves. In the cellar too is the space for wine-tasting events, separated from the rest of the cellar by folding glass doors.

Tonight, Lisa Granik, Master of Wine, led us through a tasting of 7 Bordeaux wines. How does one become a Master of Wine? Four days of testing, on three of which a candidate has to identify wines from different vineyards around the world. The candidate brings her own glass, so that she cannot complain of possible contamination.

Lisa Granik was obviously a connoisseur but she was not a very good teacher. She did not find out the state of wine knowledge of her participants, but talked on, sometimes digressing, rather than informative. She spoke about the merlot from the Left Bank (more clayey) and the cabernet from the Right Bank, but the presentation would have been more useful if she had pointed to a map. She was also snobbish in a peculiarly American way. About people who mistake "legs" for quality when they swirl their wine in glasses, she said that they are judging wine in the way Italian peasants used to do.

Of the seven Bordeaux, I like very much the first one, a Merlot. It was, like Lisa described it, elegant and subtle. I do like Lisa's comparison of drinking wine to having a conversation with a stranger. Let the wine talk to you. Here's the list of wines I tried having a conversation with tonight:

(1) Chateau Magdelaine Grand-cru, Saint-Emilion, 2003: elegant, subtle merlot
(2) Chateau Lafleur-Gazin, Pomerol, 2004: heftier merlot, with some cabernet franc, mushroom, limestone
(3) Chateau La Fon Du Berger, Haut-Medoc, 2005: cabernet, balanced, elegant
(4) Margaux Private Reserve, Schroder Scyler & Cie, 2005: cabernet, charcoal, tar, black tea, raspberry
(5) Chateau Brown, Pessac-Leognan, 2001: cabernet, darker, gravelly, smokier, muscular
(6) Chateau De Pez, Saint-Estephe, 2004: cabernet, brawny, pencil lead, masculine
(7) Moulin de Duhart Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite), Pauillac, 2004: cabernet, power, high alcohol content.

Lisa Granik: "If you are open-minded, you are always open to another bottle of wine."

Tom Stoppard's "Rock and Roll"

Saturday matinee. GREAT seats in the orchestra, seats reserved for people with disabilities. The rocker Syd Barrett (of progressive rock band Pink Floyd), the god Pan fluting from the wall to a young girl gazing dreamily at him; the diehard professor, Max Morrow, who remains in the British Communist party after 1956 Hungary; his protege, Jan, a Polish supporter of Dubcek's "socialism with a human face," who returns to Poland after the Soviet invasion of 1968; Max's wife, Eleanor, who teaches Sappho, who is dying of cancer; Ferdinand, the Havel figure, who is always getting others to sign petitions to the Czech government; the Plastic People of the Universe, the rock band persecuted by the Czech authorities, and so becomes a celebrated symbol of resistance when all they want is to be left alone to play their music. The philosophical exchanges are fast, furious and razor-sharp. Many of the characters, especially Eleanor, were moving. But the ending was too neat when Esme goes off with Jan back to Czechoslovakia since nothing earlier in the play suggests any romantic feelings between them, or what one sees in the other.


Director: Trevor Nunn
Set Designer: Robert Jones
Costume Designer: Emma Ryott
Lighting Designer: Howard Harrison

Max: Brian Cox
Eleanor/older Esme: Sinead Cusack
Jan: Rufus Sewell
Lenka: Nicole Ansari
Younger Esme/Alice: Alice Eve
Ferdinand: Stephen Kunken

Friday, December 07, 2007

Edward Albee's "Peter and Jerry"

Watched the play at Second Stage Theater last Tuesday. The play has two acts. Act Two: The Zoo Story was written in 1958, while Act One: Homelife recently fell from Albee's mind on the page...intact, as he wrote in the playbill. The Zoo Story, mostly a melancholic and menacing monologue spoken by down-and-out Jerry to Peter, was much more engaging than Homelife, mostly unconvincing banter between Peter and wife Ann about their dangerously safe marriage. The role of Jerry was written from inside out; Ann was observed from the outside. Peter, for whose sake the first act was written in order to flesh out his character, remains a cipher. Johanna Day played Ann, Bill Pullman Peter, and Dallas Roberts a magnetic Jerry. It was directed by Pam MacKinnon.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Klimt at Neue Galerie

Visited the Neue Galerie for the first time last Sunday. The gallery, housed in a lovely town mansion facing Central Park, exhibits German and Austrian Art. The star attraction now is Gustav Klimt. Many more drawings than paintings, which was a little disappointing. Many drawings are of women masturbating. And I thought it was more than a little weird to stick Hope II to the back wall of Klimt's studio on exhibit, making it much harder to examine the painting. The figure of the woman is inspired by Egyptian sculpture, and features Klimt's favorite image of a pregnant woman. Her bowed head is echoed by the three bowed female heads forming a kind of pedestal.




Hope II, 1907-08


His wall mural, Beethoven's Frieze, is interesting: wispy women floating wraith-like around the walls, the artist as a knight-errant setting out to battle the monster Typhoon in the shape of a huge ape flanked by his medusa daughters, the chorus of women suspended in the air, their feet pointing down. The narrative climaxes in an embrace of naked man and woman, blue stringy lines around their feet looking like pants they have just let drop.


The other paintings on show are very famous ones. I really like The Dancer, a sweetness about the face and posture. The use of flowers and tapestries to flatten traditional perspective. The six Japanese-like figures floating in the left background, like cherubs around the new Madonna.




The Dancer, 1916-1918



Adele is obviously Klimt. Her distorted hands show off her long, slender fingers.



Adele Bloch-Bauer
, 1907

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Irving Layton reads Osip Mandelshtam

Thank HowardM2.


Osip Mandelshtam (1891 - 1940)

I once did an hour-long T. V. show reading
from your Stamen and Tristia: out there
were my compatriots who had never before
heard of your name and pain, your nightmare fate;
of course, the impresario spoke impressively
about your stay in Paris where you mastered
the French symbolists, your skill as translator
(what pre-Belsen Jew hadn't promiscuously
shacked up with five or six gentile cultures?),
the Hellenic feeling in your prose and poems
-- to be brief, he filled in the familiar picture
of enlightened Jew, ass bard to the winds

Butr when that self-taught master symbolist
il miglior fabbro put you on his list of touchables
that was the end; you perished in the land waste
of Siberia, precisely where no one knows and few care
for in that stinking imperium whose literature
you adorned like a surreal Star of David
you're still an unclaimed name, a Jewish ghost
who wanders occasionally into enclaves
of forlorn intellectuals listening
for the ironic scrape of your voice
in the subversive hum of underground presses

I know my fellow Canadians, Osip;
they forgot your name and fate as quickly
as they learned them, switching off
the contorted image of pain with their sets,
choosing a glass darkness to one which starting
in the mind covers the earth in permanent eclipse;
so they chew branflakes and crabmeat, gossip, make love,
take out insurance against fires and death
while our poetesses explore their depressions
in delicate complaints regular as menstruation
or eviserate a dead god for metaphors;
the men-poets displaying codpieces of wampum,
the safer legends of prairie Indian and Eskimo

Under a sour and birdless heaven
T. V. crosses stretch across a flat Calvary
and plaza storewindows give me
the blank expresionless stare of imbeciles:
this is Toronto, not St. Petersburg on the Neva;
though seas death and silent decades separate us
we yet speak to each other, brother to brother;
your forgotten martyrdom has taught me scorn
for hassidic world-savers without guns and tanks:
they are mankind's gold and ivory toilet bowls
where brute orl dictator relieves himself
when reading their grave messages to posterity
-- let us be the rapturous eye of the hurricane
flashing the Jew's will, his mocking contempt for slaves.

-- Irving Layton

Sunday, December 02, 2007

On Reading Walcott's "Omeros"

HowardM2, from PFFA, referred me to this Cecil Gray's poem on reading Walcott:


"On Reading 'Omeros'"
February 1991

The patio bent its hooked finger to hold us,
an ell collectiong our thoughts in its corner,
particles of faith we had that a poet
at the helm of his craft could unfix
the blank stare aimed at things in his mirror.

Each slow lift of the head raised the question
whose ears turned, whose eyes showed recognition,
who listened from here and heard and applauded
him lifting like Atlas the stones of these islands
from the indifferent slap of the ocean.

Pulling in nets we caught worlds that his pen had
created and found our little green places
drawn with strokes of his words on maps of the globe.
A sunrise of pride suffused us. but faces
clouded with queries and quickly changed season.

Our sentences cried. Are aloof New York Times
reviewers blinded by stereotypes, unravellers
of metaphors smelt from links of our chain?
Are they, by proxy, readers that strain at the seine
while the catch that is ours drifts without owners?

We sat and we wondered what gives him the power
that labours unpraised by these cays. Distant sounds
of thunder responded. Not for praise nor garlands
does he shape a village. Love sustains every image
and serves, like communion, every word on the page.

--Cecil Gray

Saturday, December 01, 2007

On Reading Shakespeare

Poets-Free-For-All comes through for me yet again! Kind souls there point me to many poems on reading other poems. I will be posting them on my blog a few at a time. Here are two on Shakespeare, one by Milton, the other by Arnold.


On Shakespear

What needs my Shakespear for his honour'd Bones,
The labour of an age in piled Stones,
Or that his hallow'd reliques should be hid
Under a Star-ypointing Pyramid?
Dear son of memory, great heir of Fame,
What need'st thou such weak witnes of thy name?
Thou in our wonder and astonishment
Hast built thy self a live-long Monument.
For whilst toth' shame of slow-endeavouring art,
Thy easie numbers flow, and that each heart
Hath from the leaves of thy unvalu'd Book,
Those Delphick lines with deep impression took
Then thou our fancy of it self bereaving,
Dost make us Marble with too much conceaving;
And so Sepulcher'd in such pomp dost lie,
That Kings for such a Tomb would wish to die.

-- John Milton

*

Shakespeare

Others abide our question. Thou art free.
We ask and ask—Thou smilest and art still,
Out-topping knowledge. For the loftiest hill,
Who to the stars uncrowns his majesty,
Planting his steadfast footsteps in the sea,
Making the heaven of heavens his dwelling-place,
Spares but the cloudy border of his base
To the foil'd searching of mortality;
And thou, who didst the stars and sunbeams know,
Self-school'd, self-scann'd, self-honour'd, self-secure,
Didst tread on earth unguess'd at.—Better so!
All pains the immortal spirit must endure,
All weakness which impairs, all griefs which bow,
Find their sole speech in that victorious brow.

--Matthew Arnold

"Natural for a Man" in Barefoot Muse

My poem appears in Issue #6, Winter, of this metrical e-zine edited by Anna Evans. Annie Finch is the featured poet. Submission is now open for the next issue.

Cyril Wong in TIME magazine

Cyril Wong is the finest poet Singapore has yet produced. No qualification. And he's only 30.

A PASSIONATE POET FROM STRAITLACED SINGAPORE
by Ishaan Tharoor, TIME (Asia Edition) Wed, Nov 28, 2007

It is one of the more delicious workings of karma that Singapore, which criminalizes homosexuality, should have as its leading young poet an openly gay man. But while Cyril Wong relishes waving "a purple flag" in socially conservative faces, his work expands beyond simple sexuality — being "just a gay poet," as he puts it — to embrace themes of love, alienation and human relationships of all kinds. His latest volume of verse, Tilting Our Plates to Catch the Light, is due to be published this month, hopefully to burnish further the international reputation that the previous five collections have established for him.

Wong, 30, burst onto the scene in 2000, with Squatting Quietly. It was, like many debut collections, a document of rebellion — in this case, against the values of his Christian, middle-class Chinese upbringing, and the social alienation that his sexuality entailed. Much of the latter had been brought into stark relief during 2 1/2 years of national military service, during which, he jokes, he was "too campy in the camp." His natural levity masks the loneliness and vulnerability he felt in the barracks. But ultimately it was poetry, rather than humor, that gave Wong a means of working through the frustrations driving him, at times, to a suicidal state of mind. "It helped me wash my dirty linen in public," he says.

In this respect, Wong's poetry differs from that of older Singaporean poets such as Edwin Thumboo and Lee Tzu Pheng, who typically concerned themselves with questions of national and cultural identity (indeed, Thumboo has spoken of Wong's "remarkable inwardness"). Wong worries less about his cultural provenance and more about his own isolation amid the boom and bustle of the cityscape. In one poem, he bemoans his distance from his mother: she "sits in front/ of the television every day,/ afloat in a dress too large/ for her body, fanning herself/ with a magazine, feigning contentment." He compares his father, who has refused to accept Wong's sexuality, to a cockroach hiding in a chair. "We are furniture to each other," says Wong. (The two men still don't speak.)

Some of Wong's rawness was tempered in Unmarked Treasure (2004) and Like a Seed with Its Singular Purpose (2006) — two volumes praised for their probing, reflective study of love and desire. In the poem "Practical Aim" from Like a Seed, Wong asks: "After deep loss, what does the heart/ learn that it has not already understood/ about regret? When all light finally/ forsakes a room, do we take the time/ to interrogate the dark, and to what end?" Other poems simmer with sexual energy; an aircraft landing on the tarmac becomes heady foreplay with the "slow lick of its wheels/ against the runway's/ belly."

Wong ran afoul of Singapore's censors when they threatened to pull National Arts Council funding from his second volume due to the gay content of some poems. But he learned to cope with the restrictions, and they haven't prevented him from attaining mainstream acceptance, represented by his winning the Singapore Literary Prize in 2006. If he's proud, Wong doesn't show it. Self-deprecating and mirthful, he describes himself as lazy, living off his partner's patience and generosity. Though he cites the succinct, confessional styles of American poets Sharon Olds and Raymond Carver as his most direct influences, he feels little in common with contemporary American poetry, which he sees as solipsistic. "There's a boring sameness to it all," he says. "I wish they would stop harping on about their penises and their nose hairs."

Not that Wong has been above some of that in the past. But his recent work strikes boldly into new territory. Tilting Our Plates emphasizes the musicality of poetry rather more than his previous collections, while taking as its core a love story between two shape-shifting Hindu deities. Like those beings, the poet also enjoys inhabiting different avatars. At literary festivals from Adelaide to Edinburgh, Wong, a trained opera singer, has been known to "invoke Whitney Houston," belting out renditions of I Will Always Love You that leave stunned fellow authors wondering how they are going to follow on. If straitlaced Singapore is unhappy about being represented by charming camp like that, well, you could call it poetic justice.


____
Soft Launch:

TILTING OUR PLATES TO CATCH THE LIGHT
by Cyril Wong
01 Dec 2007, 8pm, The Arts House (Earshot)

Cyril Wong's latest collection of poems brings into play his background in music. Reminiscent of a concerto, an orchestra is invoked by poems that celebrate the lives of lovers distant and near, while a single narrative arises like a solo instrument amidst their chords, often blurring a distinction between the universal and the particular.

Interwoven with the motifs of time and death, these poems segue into each other like movements in a symphony, singing of equal parts tragedy and joy.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Poems on Reading Poems

A poem written on a work of art is called ekphrastic. What about a poem written on reading another poem or poet? I don't mean poems that allude to other poems or that gossip about other poets, like Thom Gunn's "Keats at Highgate," much as I like that sonnet; I mean poems whose subject is the experience of reading itself. A poem like Keats' "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer," for instance.

And why do poets write poems about their experience reading other poems? Some of it has probably to do with the common instinctive response to beauty: we want to reproduce it, whether by telling someone about it, by drawing what comes to mind, or by blogging about it. Some of it has to do with trying to make sense of, or impose some form on, a powerful but inchoate experience; it relieves psychic pressure. Some of it has to do with claiming literary ancestors or mentors or rivals, or with distracting readers' attention from the real ancestors, mentors and rivals by writing about someone else.

And how does the poet, in writing such poems, avoid redundancy if what she does is merely to reproduce the other poem's essence? How avoid the charge of parasitism? Or the charge of excessive literariness and self-referentiality since one must know the original poem if one is to appreciate the response-poem?

Or think about the issue of audience. In writing about another poet, what does our poet assume about her audience? How much of the original poet can our response-poet assume her audience would know? To what extent does our response-poet think it is her job to explicate the original? What about cross-cultural audience? Or multi-cultural?

I am led to these thoughts by two sonnets on Chaucer written by two American poets. I like the cummings poem much better than the Longfellow one. They gave me the idea of collecting poems on the topic of reading poems.


Chaucer

An old man in a lodge within a park;
The chamber walls depicted all around
With portraiture of huntsman, hawk, and hound,
And the hurt deer. He listeneth to the lark,
Whose song comes with the sunshine through the dark
Of painted glass in leaden lattice bound;
He listened and he laugheth at the sound,
Then writeth in a book like any clerk.
He is the poet of the dawn, who wrote
The Canterbury Tales, and his old age
Made beautiful with song; and as I read
I hear the crowing cock, I hear the note
Of lark and linnet, and from every page
Rise odors of ploughed field or flowery mead.

-Longfellow


*

honour corruption villainy holiness
riding in fragrance of sunlight (side by side
all in a singing wonder of blossoming yes
riding) to him who died that death should be dead

humblest and proudest eagerly wandering
(equally all alive in miraculous day)
merrily moving through sweet forgiveness of spring
(over the under the gift of the earth of the sky

knight and ploughman pardoner wife and nun
merchant frere clerk somnour miller and reve
and geoffrey and all) come up from the never of when
come into the now of forever come riding alive

down, while crylessly drifting through vast most
nothing's own nothing children go of dust.

-e. e. cummings

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Philoctetes Center

I went to the Philoctetes Center tonight to hear Marie Ponsot talk about Donne. Unfortunately I could only stay for half an hour, but managed to hear her on "Good Morrow." The Center, housed on the third floor of the NY Psychoanalytic Institute, pursues the interdisciplinary study of the imagination (neuroscience, psychology, mathematics, psychoanalysis, humanities and art, philosophy and theology). Besides roundtable discussions, they hold readings and film screenings.

I took the Center's version of the Philoctetes story from its website:

Philoctetes is a mythological character from the Greek tragedy by Sophocles, a warrior who was on his way to the Trojan War when a serpent bit him.

The smell of his wound was so noxious that he was left on the island of Lemnos and ostracized by his countrymen. When the war started, Cassandra, the seer, said that without the bow of Heracles, which is only possessed by Philoctetes and which he inherited from his father, the war could not be won. Many believe that it's the Trojan Horse that is the key to winning the war, but actually it's the bow of Heracles.

So the Argives have to humbly go back to Philoctetes and ask him to rejoin them. At first he says no. From all the pain that you have given me, even if I could regain my glory, I reject you, even if it's at the cost of my own redemption. Even at the cost of reconstituting my own existence. Eventually, there is a deus ex machina that comes in to relieve him of the burden of this decision, and so the Argives regain the bow and eventually go on to win the war.

The Philoctetes myth reappears in a book by Edmund Wilson called The Wound and the Bow: Seven Studies in Literature. Wilson modernizes the story, tying the wound to psychic trauma and the bow to the healing power of insight. And so the creative personality is the one who uses art as a way of transcending trauma. The artist chooses the road of insight over that of pathology.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Kay Ryan's "The Niagara River"

I have always enjoyed Kay Ryan's poems in POETRY. They are well made, surprising analogies. So when I slipped into a book store at Penn Station while waiting for a New Jersey Transit train to carry me to a housewarming party, I decided to get Ryan's Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize winner, The Niagara River.

The title poem displays all her strengths.

As though
the river were
a floor, we position
our table and chairs
upon it, eat, and
have conversation.
As it moves along,
we notice--as
calmly as though
dining room paintings
were being replaced--
the changing scenes
along the shore. We
do know, we do
know this is the
Niagara River, but
it is hard to remember
what that means.

A tiny poem and yet it holds the river in it through the two "as though"s, assumptions we make forgetting we make them until the poem reminds us. This poem tells us what we have always known (We do know, we do know), and that is the source of its power.

The weaker poems in this collection fail because the analogies are not surprising enough, like in "The Elephant in the Room," "Hailstorm" and "The Light of Interiors." They are still-births. Other poems suffer from too much argument unsupported by the imagery. I am thinking, in this connection, of "Felix Crow," "Shipwreck" and "The Self Is Not Portable." Ryan is partly aware of this second pitfall, this reverse side of her wit. The poem "Added Significance" addresses this issue scathingly.

In the wake of
horrible events
each act or word
is fortified with
added significance,
unabsorbable as
nutrients added
to the outside
of food: it can't
do any good.
As if significance
weren't burdensome
enough. Now
the wave-slapped
beach rocks not
just made to talk
but made to teach.


I like this poem very much but its limitation is that it only sees the danger of added significance after "horrible events," and does not see it everywhere. And not in itself: with the addition of "it can't do any good," the poem has stopped talking and started teaching.

On the back cover, J. D. McClatchy blurbed that Ryan is "as intense and elliptical as Dickinson." The comparison is instructive. Ryan is odd, even original, but she is not elliptical. There is nothing in this collection that approaches Dickinson's mysterious bees and birds. There is no God with whom and of whom one has to talk cryptically. An imaginative image-maker, Ryan does not make myths. That gives her poetry its commonsensical outlook, and, despite its awe at humans and their world, its earthly boundaries.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Poems in Mascara #2

Mascara #2 is out, edited by Boey Kim Cheng and Michelle Cahill, based in Australia. Four of my poems appear in it: "Valentine to Volume," "Lachine Canal, Montreal," Section 7 of "Fire Island" and Section 3 of "Talk About New York."

My first encounter with Adam Aiken, and I really like his poems in this issue: the sense of living at the end of something, the surprising imagery, the careful lineation. The first poem begins enticingly, drawing speaker and reader into a reading of this girl:

Fin de Siècle
Between two climates she'd be waiting, the slender young émigré
so dark and delicate the wind passed right through her,
always there before you, the bright architect of love
who knew her way around the café chairs, the Latin lovers.

The last poem meditates on East Asian time through a Western point of view to unearth the ironies of a Johnny-come-lately capturing a scene with which he is captivated.

The Book of the Body: The Brain in Its Folds Inside the Skull-frame

The Brain in Its Folds Inside the Skull-frame

We have no reason to think
a present experience is preferable to a past experience,
but we prefer smelling a rose
to remembering the nose.

We have no reason to think that my seeing the sunset
is preferable to your seeing the sunset,
but, I can vouch, for better or for worse,
I prefer my view of the splendid decadence to yours.

The husband of the Justice suffers from dementia.
The husband of the Justice falls in love with one who suffers from dementia too.
The Justice loves her husband. The Justice is happy for her husband.
We have no reason to think we deserve praise or blame for anything we do.

Turner at the National Gallery of Art

The biggest Turner exhibition ever in the States, it aimed to overwhelm and to please the crowds. I found myself overwhelmed and not pleased. One huge Turner in an elegantly appointed Victorian room would bash the eye into submission. Imagine Turner after Turner after Turner jostling their hunky frames on the exhibition walls, and the idiom begins to feel more bombastic than dramatic. I turned away from the famous setpieces like Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps (1812), The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805 (1823-1824) and Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus--Homer's Odyssey (1829) in search of something more personal, more human.

I saw a lovely impressionistic Willows by a Stream, a gorgeous dissolution of forms into yellows. I also liked very much his painting of the coal ships at Newcastle. In silvers and blues, the moonlit scene offered a relief from the incandescent sun that burned picture after picture in the exhibition.



Keelmen heaving in Coals by Moonlight, 1835 – oil on canvas


And then there was that almost domestic scene, a terrace with a dog and a few women who are there to enjoy themselves and not to serve as walk-ons for a heroic or mythical theme.



Joseph Mallord William Turner
Mortlake Terrace, 1827