Thursday, December 31, 2009

Poem: "Bethlehem"

Bethlehem

You come home to be counted but no room
is to be had at a cost you can afford,
having silenced the lathe and stilled the loom,
paying the hours with your heart toward
a vast accumulating sense of doom
that counts the certain end its own reward.
The journey stops, not in Jerusalem,
but backward, dirty, crowded Bethlehem.

Go into this unwholesome stable where,
before the beastly eye picks out its blank,
a stench of piss has stenciled in the air
muscular curve, bold stroke, animal flank;
hands, filling in detail of flesh, declare
the body a deposit and a bank,
care less what cock has shafted home what ass,
mad with desire and mad with disease.

The kings, they come with their gold offering,           
to bless the body’s lust with frankincense,
and bitter myrrh the body’s lingering.
The shepherds stand astonished by presence.
And you, unkept, soon to be undone, sing
of the swift massacre of innocence,
sing of the body’s torture on the thorn,
keep singing of the place where love is born.

*

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Rob A. Mackenzie reviews EQUAL TO THE EARTH

Scottish poet Rob Mackenzie reviews EQUAL TO THE EARTH: "Koh's formalism serves the poems rather than the other way round. They are extremely well-written, moving, pointed and refreshingly unfashionable...." Nice to be read and compared with George Szirtes' latest book.

I knew Rob through the online poetry workshop PFFA. As a poet he is always innovative and yet principled. As a critter he balances judgment with generosity. His first full-length collection of poetry The Opposite of Cabbage was recently reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement. I conducted an email interview with him on his book.

Monday, December 28, 2009

A Single Man and Invictus

Am I the only one to hate Tom Ford's directorial debut "A Single Man"? I just read the imdb user reviews and they all lapped up the movie. The same things they loved--the parade of well-cut suits, the Kennedy-era authentic details, the cold detachment of the camera--repulsed me. Based on the Christopher Isherwood novel, the film is about a man's grief after the death of his lover. Colin Firth, who plays English professor George, goes through the motions of a day at the end of which he plans to kill himself. Firth looks uncomfortable in the picture, as uncomfortable as the British expatriate in  in his perfect Californian suburban house his character is. Julianne Moore has a wonderful turn as Charley, fading beauty, divorced and hopelessly in love with George, and nearly steals the show from Firth's grief.

I guess I don't believe in George's mourning for Jim (the handsome Matthew Goode). There is insufficient irony between his grief and the material perfection of his life; the film runs too close to treating grief as a kind of conspicuous consumption. The flashbacks to a happier past with Jim are visual cliches: the handsome sailor hitting up George; both men lying on a beach; both men reading together in a couch, Jim with Breakfast at Tiffany's. The flashbacks do not flesh out Jim, why this man is so mourned by the living. Then those tedious shots of Firth turning helplessly in water, to show him drowning in his sorrow. Haven't we seen that image before and before?

"Invictus" is a very different kind of movie. Full of good intentions, it does not aim for subtlety; instead it wants to be a rousing hooray for Nelson Mandela and his vision of a reconciled South Africa. The film, based on historical events, shows Mandela's eye for political symbolism when he supported the national rugby team--associated with white Afrikaners and apartheid--in their quest for the World Cup. The film tries to humanize the icon somewhat by giving him a roguish and flirtatious sense of humor, moments which Morgan Freeman fully exploits, but the icon remains very much an icon, and speechifies instead of talks. Matt Damon plays the team captain Francois Pienaar with a kind of desperate stubbornness. He buffed up beautifully for the role, his hair cut to emphasize his golden youth.

The film is much too long and lacks dramatic pacing. More surprising to me, Clint Eastwood is not able to bring out the physical beauty of the game. The shots are generic TV, as are images of the enthusiastic stadium during the finals against the NZ All-Blacks. Except for the grunting from the scrums, the stadium noise drowns out any of the game's distinctive sounds. But one cannot help cheering for the team and the country once the credits roll.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Rockettes and Ghazals

Saw the Radio City Christmas Spectacular yesterday afternoon with my sister, brother-in-law and two nieces, H who is five, and L who is one. The show was not as enjoyable as I hoped. The Scenes, as they were called, were lavish, but not very imaginative. That left the dancing, by the Rockettes. I thought the choreography was so-so, the range of emotions limited, and when the famous precision was less than precise, what was left? This sounds more disappointing than I actually felt, sitting in that grand theater, with its scalloped proscenium stage. Both H and L were captivated throughout. I thought H showed some taste when she said her favorite scene was the first, the one with the Rockettes dancing as reindeer, and pulling Santa's sleigh. It was fresh and fun then, before it felt like more of the same.

Precision and innovation. Watchwords for my ghazal sequence too. Sometimes surface precision can overshadow deep innovation. I think the full sequence of my ghazals will garner extreme reactions. That is to the good. Five of them have been published in PN Review 191, along with poems by John Ashbery, Jeffrey Wainright, James Womack, Chris Peddle, Linda Gregerson, Fiona Sampson, Robert Gray, Fleur Adcock, and Elaine Feinstein. Buy a copy at the bookstore or subscribe online.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Laura Cumming's "A Face to the World: On Self-Portraits"

Why do artists paint self-portraits, Cumming asks, and so expose themselves and their art to the accusation of narcissism? Her answer is that self-portraits "make artists present as the embodiment of their art" and they often do so to ask who this person is who is looking back from the mirror. Cumming's book is a series of linked essays, roughly chronological in order, from Jan Van Eyck to Cindy Sherman, focusing mostly on paintings. 

A mighty gallery of artists are discussed under rubrics such as "Eyes," "Behind the Scenes," "Mirrors," "Stage Fright," "Loners," "Egotists," "Victims" and "Pioneers." Their inclusion demonstrates that self-portraiture is a main branch, and not a mere off-shoot, of the artistic tradition. Individual essays are devoted to Durer, Rembrandt and Velazquez, and these are the best chapters in a very interesting book. Cumming's discussions of Durer's Christ-like Self-Portrait of 1500 and of Velazquez's Las Meninas c. 1656 convey not only her fascination with the paintings, but also her love for them. The book is no dry scholarly tome, but is an articulate and informed response to a personal obsession. Cumming has been the art critic of the Observer since 1999. 

Looking at the lavish illustrations, I was drawn to Tintoretto's Self-Portrait c. 1546-1548, with his darkly handsome face; the muscular art of Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-c. 1652); and the friendly self-portrait of Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato (1609-85) who gave his name to the blue used as the background to his painting. Cumming thinks that painters have a strange tendency to behave in self-portraits as they would in life. I found myself responding to self-portraits as I would to people, mentally judging this one vainglorious, that one reticent, and yet another deep. So what about the three that stand out for me? Together they represent the virtues of honesty, power, and friendliness, the same qualities I hope to achieve in my own verbal art.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Poem: "Fever Fragments"

"Fever Fragments" is written in response to Idra Novey's "As in Cincinnati," which in turn responds to Kimiko Hahn's "these toys." This extending wire of communication, branching out into others, will be published online next summer as Telephone Project, edited by Jonathan Farmer, poetry editor of At Length.



Fever Fragments

Can you forget what happened before?
—Sappho, “Six Fragments for Atthis”


The picture is still so clear to me
I cannot imagine you cannot see.
The fire’s marks are red, and burn;
I turn and turn for your return.

Then I see what I did not see:
you see a different part in me
that when the cold and dark return
the fire in you will burn and burn.

*

All smoke now, the white stars, the stupid wax
that crouched too fast under the hooded heat.
No stub of toe, no crust of tears, no sex
but dissipating wisp, finished, incomplete.

*

I would make accusation a form of love
except it has been done before.

*

Sundays we watched the Giants fumble
another play, but somehow stumble
to a big touchdown.

Your hands were sure, ran down my zipper
and caught so well I took you for a keeper,
took you in my mouth.

*

I suspect the lonely ones who compose long poems
of hearts unbroken.
My suspicion is ungenerous, I confess,
fever of the forsaken.

*

Sappho, teach me to lay a curse on him that sits:
when boys eat his ass, give them a mouthful of shit.

 *

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Marion Shaw's lecture "Larkin and Tennyson"

HS made me a copy of the revised text of the Distinguished Guest Lecture delivered at the Larkin Society AGM on 13 June 2009. In the lecture, Marion Shaw discussed Larkin's ambivalence towards Tennyson, how he at once excoriated the Laureate's silliness and envied the poet's, and his period's, "range, the colour, the self-confidence of it all" (Required Writing, p. 182).

Using Bloomian theory in The Anxiety of Influence (1973), a book Shaw describes as "slightly mad," she reads three poems by Larkin as  "corrections" of his poetic predecessor. "Lines on a Young Lady's Photograph Album" directly quotes "sweet girl-graduate" from Tennyson's The Princess. The "heavy-headed rose/ Beneath a trellis" also works within a field of Tennysonian reference, in particular that of his early English Idylls, perhaps "The Gardener's Daughter." The narrator of Tennyson's poem is a portrait painter who invites the reader to look into the past. In Larkin's poem, it is the work of photography, "a different kind of recollection, harder, sharper, more accurate," as Shaw puts it. She goes on, "The twentieth century cannot tolerate too much in the way of roses."

She compares Larkin's "Here" to section CXV of Tennyson's In Memoriam by pointing out both poets' skill in working with different visual distances. Her conclusion here is a rich insight: "Although Larkin's Here" is bleaker and even slightly sinister, and Tennyson's poem is optimistic, both belong to the traditional pastoral form which finds in nature an echo of human emotion. Tennyson gave this kind of landscape writing, which of course does not originate with him, an apparent simplicity and large reflectiveness which Larkin could draw on, could mould to his own desires, could rewrite with a characteristic, clear-sighted focus on the parochial and the mundane."

Finally she reads Larkin's "Aubade" as a reworking of Tennyson's poem about the dawn "Tithonus." Larkin would have known the Tithous myth, but would have recognized that his readership would probably not know it. Shaw comments, "So his own dawn song swerves away from the glorious colour and self-confidence of his predecessor." Here I am reminded of Larkin's criticism of poets who resort to the common myth kitty, a comment that points to a highly self-conscious choice of poetic strategy. But one breaks with one strand of tradition only to connect with another. If not Tennyson, then Hardy. Larkin seems, to me, not to attempt an individualism like the American Eliot, but to choose his lineage carefully. Or is the difference between choosing and taking for granted the choice?

It is interesting to me that Shaw concludes her essay by quoting Heidegger, from his essay "What are poets for?" The German writes, "In the age of the world's night, the abyss of the world must be experienced and endured. But for this it is necessary that there must be those who reach into the abyss." Asked about the melancholic nature of his poetry, Larkin said, in Shaw's paraphrase, "ah, but writing something, no matter how sad, is a celebration, an achievement, like laying an egg." The abyss and the triumph over it through art is Nietzsche's central thesis. Nietzsche--Heidegger--Larkin. The line, preposterous at first glance, is not so silly. I don't mean the Nazi taint. I mean something more fundamental, a tragic view of the world.

Monday, December 21, 2009

"Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Impassioned Eye" (2003)

JS, EN and I braved the snow last evening to see Robert Frank at the Met. It was strange: I did not like the show of photographs as much as the first time. Many of the photos were really not very interesting, and seemed to be there in "The Americans" for the sake of theme than for their individual aesthetic power. JS said that he has seen many images at Flikr as good as the ones in the show. I guess Frank should get some credit for doing it first.

Perhaps I have been influenced by the documentary on Henri Cartier-Bresson called "The Impassioned Eye" (2003). The photos of the French Master wielded great power, as a result of what he called the alignment of the eye, mind and heart. Some photos were more concerned with geometric form, others with emotional mystery, but they were all individually beautiful. I love the images of old Matisse with his birds. History was captured at the liberation of Paris, the death of Gandhi and the Communist takeover of China. This was a photographer of a great many subjects and wide sympathies. 

In the European art galleries at the Met, we spent some time looking at Rosa Bonheur's dashing "The Horse Fair" (1853-5). The painter dressed up in man's clothing in order to sketch the horses unnoticed. She appears in the center of the oil painting as one of the riders, the only "man" without a mustache. We also enjoyed tremendously the huge canvas "The Organ Rehearsal" by Henry Lerolle (1848-1929). The figures were drawn in the strikingly stiff posture of Seurat's "A Sunday Afternoon," giving them a modern feel. EN thought that the painter depicted the organ music synesthetically as the light in the church. I am not so sure. For one thing, the light is too airy for the weight of organ music. For another, the windows at the top of the painting already explain the light naturalistically. Still, one of the nicer things of looking at paintings with friends is that one gets to disagree with them.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Colored Balls of Wool

TLS December 18 & 25 2009

from Frank Whitford's review of Vincent Van Gogh: The complete letters, edited by Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten and Nienke Bakker:

Though self-absorbed, the letters testify to both the uncertainty and single-minded struggle of a painter who suffered, in the beginning at least, from a lack of facility, even from clumsiness. Like Cezanne, Van Gogh had to work hard to achieve anything. Then he discovered how to take strength from his weaknesses.
*
High-key colors helped him convey his feelings and so influence ours. A key passage about his painting "Interior of a Cafe at Night" (1888) explains how he did this.
In my picture . . . I have tried to express the idea that the cafe is a place where one can ruin oneself, go mad or commit a crime. So I have tried to express, as it were, the powers of darkness in a low public house, by soft Louis XV green and malachite, contrasting with yellow-green and harsh blue-greens, and all this in an atmosphere like a devil's furnace, of pale sulphur.
His palette was unconventional; his colour combinations even more so--pink beside yellow ochre, dashes of Naples yellow beside citron. Most of these juxtapositions were surely intuitive, though Van Gogh did keep a box of variously coloured balls of wool to help him find unusual combinations. The box is in the exhibition (and may help explain his use, beginning in 1887, of long parallel strokes of pure, contrasting colors like patches of embroidery.

***

from Raymond Martin's review of Barry Dainton's The Phenomenal Self:

Like virtually every other neo-Lockean, Dainton is struck by what he takes to be the conceivability of oneself . . . surviving radical changes in one's physical constitution. But unlike most neo-Lockeans, he is equally struck by what he takes to be the conceivability of oneself surviving radical changes in one's psychological constitution. The importance that other neo-Lckeans, including [Derek] Parfit, assign to psychological continuity, Dainton assigns to experiential continuity. . . .
The central feature of the sort of experiential continuity that, in Dainton's view, is essential to one's continued existence is "a phenomenal unifying relationship" that binds together experiences in ordinary streams of consciousness. He says that this relationship, which he calls co-consciousness, is that of being "experienced together", a notion that he takes as primitive, but thinks will be "utterly familiar" to everyone. In his view a "compound conscious state consists of nothing more than experiences, and the unity of these experiences is the product of relationships of co-consciousness among its constitutuent parts". Hence, in his view, experience--that is, co-conscious experience--is self-unifying.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Sarah Sarai's "The Future Is Happy"

If a poet can be cheerful without being nauseating, Sarah Sarai is she. Her optimism is undergirt by a restless intelligence, a hardheadedness about the world, and a willingness to be vulnerable. She hears happiness in a tenor sax and hipness in Count Basie's Band. Music buoys her sufficiently to dance and sing:


There's no foot in the grave, only the dead.
Swing time. Bebop. If you need more, I can't help you.
(from "The Future Is Happy")


Most of her poems, unlike the one I just quoted, are not crowd-pleasers in a poetry reading. They are too dense with cultural, historical and literary references to be understood at one hearing. They are better read and heard in the quiet of one's own room. They are friendly (many of them are dedicated to friends) but not flattering. Sometimes they are too heavy with cultural freight ("In Denzel Washington's Gaze" and "We All Know Things Together"), but at their best their knowingness gives them extended wings. A poem about love, "Flight" moves swiftly from the speaker's white heart to Kilamanjaro to Greek heroes Jason and Aeneas to Lavoisier to Merriam Webster to Prophet Mohammed to the


belief in mountain spirits leading us
to something or someone to curl into.


She can be scathing, as when she criticizes the logic of war in "A Rhetorical Inquiry Into the Moral Certitude of Cause and Effect." She can also be delightfully sensual. "Six, Seven Strawberries" begins with an exclamation of pleasure:


Oh to be a strawberry so smashed on a slice
of buttered bread that insides and outs are
children standing, arms wide and mouths
open in the dancing downpour. Oh to feel
sugar sprinkled. We Swedes may be dumb
like smiles glossy from a nincompoop's
joke but try this and tell me life's bleak[.]


Grappling with life's mysteries, some poems fall back too much on vague abstractions (like "life's mysteries") but Sarah already knows that, and ends the beautiful poem "Unreasonable"--the image of silver nets in the breast is magical--with a sly twist on that tendency:


Tragedy is a shard, pottery, broken
and exhibited for its poignancy.
Life is full, holds water, cracks and
gets repaired. I've gone abstract
(again). What I need is another kiss.


The mind is everywhere seeking the body. They come together as a divinity Sarah names, simply, She. She is corporeal as a buttock but "an idea only is She an/ impulse defying all impulse" ("Incorporeal"). She is the created Creator who elicits from her creatures


the absolutely amazingness
of She Herself forming such
a thing as pine boughs shaken
by burning cold winds when
we're all alone and looking up


Looking up is what this debut book of poems does so naturally. The Future Is Happy is published by BlazeVOX.

*

Friday, December 18, 2009

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Gregory Woods's "Articulate Flesh" Post 2

This book of gay poetry criticism is divided into two sections: Themes and Variations. Under the rubric of Themes, Woods examines The Male Body, Men of War, and Childless Fathers. In the first, he describes from the literature of men who desire men the specific attractions associated with each year of adolescence. After that fascinating chronology, he explores the three ideal male physiques in Western art, and their correspondence to mythical and historical figures that recur in gay male poetry. The discussion of Orpheus is of great interest. Woods writes:

Intact, torn and scattered: such are the three conditions of the body of Orpheus. The first, being the condition, also, of Apollo already dismissed, is negligible. But the second and third bear some relation to the nature of sexual appraisal and activity, insofar as looking at and making love to a person may be deeds of dismemberment. 'The true body is a body broken.' So says Norman O. Brown, before quoting Yeats: 'Nothing can be sole or whole/ That has not been rent'.

In the chapter on Men of War, Woods discusses not just soldiers, but sailors, cops, bikers, firemen and toughs: symbols of hyper-masculinity. The most subtle analysis of the theme comes in the section on the enemy-as-lover. I find particularly interesting his finding that this erotic theme is relatively scarce in the literature of the Pacific half of the Second World War, of the Korean War and of the Vietnam War. Woods suspects that this scarcity may be due to "an unstated sexual racism, which magnanimously grants the Asian enemy the respect due to a human being, and the right to life, but not the visual beauty required of a warrior-lover."

That gay poets play father to their poems is a common enough topos. Most interesting in the chapter on Childless Fathers is the section on adoption. Because the attraction to one's "son" smacks of incest, this motif appears infrequently in gay male poetry. Woods insists, however, that "the adoptive relationship is no less strongly felt for being merely semantic--a matter of definition--the power of words being emotively greater than that of biological 'law'." I think this must be correct.

Section two discusses Variations on the themes in the work of five poets: D.H. Lawrence, Hart Crane, W.H. Auden, Allen Ginsberg and Thom Gunn. The poets are selected on the basis of the homosexual tendencies in their work, even if, as in the examples of Lawrence and Crane, they did not identify as such. Woods shows how their poetry is productively, and not reductively, read as homosexual. To deny such homosexual readings is to disfigure the work.

Woods's reading of Crane is so exciting that it sent me back to Crane's White Buildings, especially his sequence "Voyages," here read specifically as about homosexual love. My experience of re-reading Crane repeated my experience of reading him: first, excitement with his metaphorical density and suggestiveness, and then boredom with the luxuriance of the language. The chapter on Thom Gunn is persuasive in seeing Gunn's tough men as poseurs. Gunn knows that only madmen would conflate the person and the pose. The change in his later work towards tenderness is associated by Woods to Gunn's coming-out and to the gay liberation movement.

In his final paragraph, of the chapter and of the book, Woods defends the continued vitality of gay male poetry after liberation. It is a fighting, uncompromising statement.

I therefore take Gunn as a model of the contemporary gay poet in transition. As one who has progressed from pre-Wolfenden Cambridge to post-'Liberation' San Francisco, he has built a career in parallel with modern gay history. His leisurely growth into openness is a an affront to the sensibilities of those who believe that homosexuality, if it must exist, should be neither seen nor heard. Objecting to the openness is a question not, as some would claim, of aesthetic judgement, but of aversion to homosexuality itself. The explicit literature of homosexuality is problematical only to the extent that homosexuality itself is a problem. If we require homosexual men to behave like lunatics, sinners, and criminals, we must exclude their behavior from the limits we set to sanity, virtue, and legality. Similarly, if we require our homosexual writers to employ the elaborate fabrications of neurosis and guilt, we must censor them or, better still, demand that they censor themselves. Otherwise, we should welcome their emergence into lucidity.

Monday, December 14, 2009

from Gregory Woods's "Articulate Flesh: Male Homo-eroticism & modern poetry"

The book begins with a white-hot description of the male body. "Three types of male physiques, " writes Woods, "three distinct ideals, occur in Western art: the adolescent pliancy of Narcissus, Apollo's form but graceful maturity, and the potency of Heracles, tacitly poised on the verge of deterioration." He elaborates:

The three physical types correspond with sexual types. The adolescent may be endowed with an indefatigable penis, but is chiefly admired for the delightful promise of his backside. Shakespeare is not interested in his boyfriend's penis (sonnet 20). . . .
Heracles is the opposite type, unequivocally phallic. When he lays down his club, he is still heavily armed. His musculature seems designed for the pinning down of loved ones, while the phallus does its work. He and the adolescent, as sexual opposites, together form the perfect couple: Heracles and Hylas, Hadrian and Antinous.
Between the two lies the adaptability of Apollo, the single couple: a dual sexual nature in one physique. He is best depicted in three dimensions: for we must be able to wander at will from penis to buttocks to penis, gazing at his statue as though in his bed, making love with each aspect of him in turn. He has no one point on which to focus, and must be sculpted or described as the body, complete. . . . In the versatility of his manhood, Apollo is, perhaps, the ideal ideal.

How perfect of the perfect to be the god of song!



Ryan Daharsh, model

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Gregory Woods's "A History of Gay Literature: The Male Tradition"

Gregory Woods is the Professor of Gay and Lesbian Studies at Nottingham Trent University. In A History of Gay Literature, he does not so much as constitute an alternative literary tradition as show the centrality of gay writing (broadly defined) to "mainstream" literature. It is astonishing that so much of what we take as the canon is written by men who loved men. This book then, almost encyclopedic in its scope, is not just for the gay reader who seeks to understand his literary heritage; it is also for the straight reader who wants to discover the sources of his pleasure in this writing.

Like other gay critics and anthologists before him, Woods names names. Many of the names are by now familiar, but others--like T. S. Eliot--are not usually discussed in this context. That is one pleasure of this book: the re-orientation of a familiar waste land. Yet other names still attract debate. The chapter on Shakespeare homes in on the interpretation of Sonnet 20, often used by straight critics to argue that the speaker's interest in the young man is not sexual. Woods points out that, besides the boy's penis, "[m]uch remains to be made love to." He also quotes the convincing argument raised by Rictor Norton against critics who claim the whole sequence is merely conventional:

The sonnet reveals a man who is nearly obsessed by the fact that his lover has a penis. By expressing this awareness on paper, he had violated all the decorum proper to the missives between a faithful friend and his alter ipse. I can find no other example in Renaissance literature, either in England or on the Continent, in which a gentleman even hints at, much less so blatantly, his friend's genital endowment and its relation to his own pleasure. The tacky dismissal of its usefulness to him raises an issue that should otherwise have gone unnoticed. 

I confess it gives me a thrill to hear Woods call Shakespeare's lover his boyfriend.

Besides Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe and Marcel Proust get their own chapter. Other writers are discussed in chapters on their literary periods or movements, such as The Christian Middle Ages and The Harlem Renaissance. Thematic chapters lend variety to the chronological arrangement. I find the chapter on masturbation "From Solitary Vice to Circle Jerk" particularly exciting. There are chapters too on non-Western writers. I am in no position to judge the treatment of "Black African Poetry" but I think the chapter on Chinese and Japanese writers is too dependent on other specialists.

A poet himself, Woods also argues for the centrality of poetry to the gay literary tradition. His last chapter "Poetry and Paradox" tries to clear a space of difference for gay literature. He locates that difference in the use of paradox (Greek para and doxa, meaning contrary to public opinion). For authority, he refers to Cleanth Brooks who writes in The Well Wrought Urn (1949) that paradox is "the language appropriate and inevitable to poetry." If poetry is paradox, and gay literature is paradoxical, the argument goes, poetry must be an essential part of gay literature.

I am of course oversimplifying a nuanced argument, but reduced to a simpler form the argument appears to me to be at least problematic. The Brooks quotation suggests that all poetry, and not just gay poetry, uses paradox, and so the gay poet has no special claim to it. It also seems strange to me to rely on a New Critical conception of poetry, a conception that seems to me severely limited. Wilde, who appears as the first example, and the exemplar, is known more for his plays than his poetry. "Each man kills the thing he loves" may have a special gay meaning, but is hardly a gay idea.

It's a tricky issue, the gay difference. I am not even sure if there is such a difference, beyond the obvious difference of subject matter and theme. My feeling is that the deeper difference lies not so much between gay and straight writers, but between writers and the rest of society. There is something very queer about someone who retreats from fellow human beings to fiddle around with words.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Eboo Patel's "Acts of Faith"

Acts of Faith is the biographical story of a man growing up American, (South) Indian and Muslim. Patel's Ismaili Muslim parents moved from Bombay to the United States in search of a better life, and so Patel grew up between worlds. If the coming-of-age story sounds familiar, Patel enlivens it with well-chosen anecdotes and an interesting cast of characters, including a meeting with the Dalai Lama.

The book is also an argument for religious pluralism over what it calls "religious totalitarianism." Its main thesis is that behind religious terrorists, who are almost always young people, are charismatic leaders and established institutions who have reached the youths in a way that mainstream religious organizations have failed to do. While interfaith organizations have existed for a long time, they are dominated by greybeards ad so appear irrelevant to young people. Inspired by heroes in different religious traditions, and by the discovery of diversity within Islam itself, Patel founded Interfaith Youth Core, an international organization based in Chicago, that brings together young people from different religious backgrounds for service and reflection.

The writing is thoughtful throughout, bearing the influence of literary heroes such James Baldwin. The book does not attempt an in-depth analysis of religious terrorism. Its explanation of the phenomenon may seem biased by the author's personal quest for identity, however, the virtue of combining biography and analysis is that you know where the writer is coming from, unlike other seemingly more objective tomes.

I wish Patel explored the more troubling aspects of Islam; he is a little too eager, I think, to put Islam in a good light, though that impulse, given the Islamophobia in the USA, is understandable. Patel touches on potential conflicts in interfaith discussions, emphasizing that such discussions need to focus on the idea of service instead of truth. In his experience, young people who participated in such interfaith service return to their own religions with greater understanding and commitment. He does not, to my disappointment, discuss the status of atheism, and its relationship to interfaith discourse and organizations.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Ten impressions of PoCC, and one thought

I returned last night from the People of Color Conference with a mixed bag of impressions and one main thought. The impressions first:

1. I do not like the term "People of Color." It implies White is not a color. It assumes too much similarity or solidarity between different ethnicities. It emphasizes racial and ethnic diversity over other kinds of diversity such as gender, sexual orientation and socioeconomic status. It is also not a term with which I can imaginatively identify.

2. John Quinones, an award-winning TV journalist, told the compelling story of his rise from immigrant poverty to mainstream success. The story highlighted the personal qualities of ambition, perseverance and talent. It described racist discrimination but also the advantages afforded by his ethnicity. My impression is that the crucial difference in Quinones lies, not in his circumstances, but in his response to his circumstances. The difference is the mystery of character.

3. It is easier to talk about validating others than to practice it. For my first affinity group session, I attended the International, Non U. S. Citizen group. Three African men spoke about how they used to judge African Americans unfairly until they understood better the injustices of the African American past. The same men dominated the group discussion, pointing to various people to speak. They gave flirtatious and extended attention to a very beautiful African woman, and considerably less attention, and talk time, to the other women in the group. When a young African American administrator talked about the poor academic behavior of his African American students, one of the older African men "corrected" him by again referring to the need to understand the students' background. The same ageism appeared when an older Latin woman from Mexico felt the need to correct the understanding of a younger Chinese Canadian, although she misunderstood the Canadian's point. The African men and the Mexican woman are veterans of the PoCC. The behaviors I witnessed suggest that the Conference needs to understand better sexism and ageism.

4. Sexist language was deployed by two speakers at the opening ceremony. One, a white man, advised conference participants to moisturize their hands regularly because the air in Mile-High City is dry. Even manly men like lumberjacks do that, he said, oblivious to the gender implications of his words. The second speaker, a black man, spoke in another context of the need to "man up."

5. We see what touches us most nearly, and don't see what doesn't. The woman workshop presenter referred to those two examples of sexist language in passing, and obtained nods of recognition from women in the audience. She was making a very good presentation of a school course called "Freshman Foundations," which teaches health and diversity topics. One of the activities on this course is to get students to form a circle which another student has to try to get in. The activity illustrates insider privilege and outsider deprivation. The presenter, who does not look Asian, referred to the ethnicity of a student only once, when she described how an Asian student tried to get into the circle by threatening to tell the school the circle was racist if it refused to let him or her in. Why, I asked myself, did the presenter refer to the student's ethnicity when the example did not require that information? What assumptions about Asian students did the presenter unconsciously call upon? Why did I, one of the few Asian-looking people in the room, notice that, and not those members of the audience who nodded knowingly to what the presenter said?

6. I was very impressed by Kenji Yoshino, one of the general sessions speakers. I have heard him speak before, at the LGBT Center, in NYC. But this time, I admired not only his obvious intelligence and eloquence (he has to be as an NYU law professor) but also how his language embodied his ethics. He referred to himself as a gay person, instead of a gay man. When he referred to a general person, he used the pronoun she. This was not mere political correctness. Political correctness implies some form of social coercion, in this case, to use the "right" language. Yoshino's language was free of such social coercion; it was the natural result of an examined life and an examination of the world.

7. An AP English course that deals with race, religion, gender and sexual orientation. That sounded like something right up my alley, I thought. The course, however, was poorly conceived and superficial. The course reader, put together by its instructor, was a mishmash of extracts from Edward Said's Orientalism, Cornel West's Race Matters, the Bible, CNN online, some MD whose name I do not recognize, a poem by Langston Hughes, etc. The extracts, all photocopied, were not contextualized in the reader.

Each week the class met to discuss a different diversity topic, a format that does not seem to me to lend itself to deep or extended reflection. The instructor said he tried to present both sides of a topical argument, and not impose his view on the class. Someone in the audience pointed out that care must be taken even in the framing of the questions. For example, homosexuality was discussed as an issue of right and wrong, the students reading Leviticus as an indictment of it, and reading that MD for an explanation of its "naturalness." But racism would, and should, never be discussed in that way. The instructor would never invite a Klansman to speak to the class, though he invited an Evangelical minister to speak against homosexuality. Responding to this audience comment, the presenter repeated that it was not his purpose to impose his view on the class. The answer was a cop-out, with regard not only to the concern raised, but also to a teacher's responsibility for what he teaches.

The instructor's presentation and responses gave me little confidence that class discussion would be sufficiently thoughtful to deal with the wide (dis)array of materials and ideas. As if to confirm that conclusion, he showed an example of the summative project of the class, a video documenting their new understanding of a diversity topic. The supposedly exemplary video asked a large number of people to rate the level of racism in America on a scale of one to ten. One by one the interviewees gave a number but were not asked for how they arrived at their rating. After watching five minutes of this inanity, I left the room.

8. Twice conference organizers referred to the overwhelming experience of minority students who found themselves for the first time in the majority at the conference, and to the experience of majority students who found themselves for the first time in the minority. The speakers were thinking in terms of black and white. What about the minority students who found themselves in the minority even at the conference? I am not just thinking Asian or Middle Eastern; I am also thinking gay and transgendered.

9. The Chinese Canadian referred to earlier is my colleague. On the second day of the conference, she decided to attend the Asian/Asian American affinity group instead of the International group, after her husband, who is white, encouraged her to embrace her Asian identity. She told me she felt at home in the group, meaning they understood her without needless explanation.

10. My student, feeling maternal, said she wished I had found my group at the conference. I told her I was too much a student of Auden to regret not finding a group. Having studied Auden together this year, she knew immediately what I meant.

One thought:

Who am I? I am a poet. All other aspects of me--Chinese, Singaporean, gay, male, middle-class, middle-aged, and so on--are adjectival; the only noun is poet.  I hope I do not distance myself from my adjectives because I am ashamed of them in some obscure way. Where I am ashamed, I have to work on not being ashamed. However I consider them adjectival because I did not choose them. I chose instead to be a poet. I choose self-determination over all social determinants. I choose to exert my will over all that would overcome my will. I choose the ordering intelligence over the pieces that need ordering. I choose creation over obedience.

A matter of choice, my identity is also a matter of work. It is work in the sense of a vocation. It is work also in the sense of requiring effort, to write good poems, and to receive and understand fully my poetic heritage. And what a heritage. Wherever and whenever human beings have put words in some beautiful order. Homer is my forebear, as is the poet of Gilgamash. Tagore is as close to me as Su Tungpo. I am related to Keats far more intimately than to any cousin. To paraphrase Nietzsche, poets are kindred spirits who strive to overcome what is accident, chance and fragment in themselves, in order to create themselves as destinies.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

People of Color Conference Dec 3-5, 2009

I'm off today to Denver, to the three-day People of Color Conference, organized by the National Association of Independent Schools. First time attending the conference, first time in Denver too. The conference program looks packed, so there won't be time for gallivanting around the city. No time for shoot-em-ups.

According to wiki, the city is nicknamed the Mile-High City because its official elevation is exactly one mile above sea level. It sits in the bowl of the South Platte River Valley, east of the Front Range of the Rockies. Downtown is just east of the confluence of Cherry Creek and the South Platte River. Always good to know the names of the running waters nearby.

The 105th meridian west of Greenwich runs through Union Station, making it the reference point for the Mountain Time Zone. The zone is two hours behind Eastern Time Zone.

Perhaps I will bring back a poem from the wild West.

*

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

A dream

I woke up in a strange bedroom, a red plush chair standing from the clutter. I thought I had gone home with someone, and he would walk into his room any moment now. What would he be like? This must be a dream since I was sure I had fallen asleep in my own room. I tried to see my room in that room but the strange room stayed stubbornly. Then it left, and I was bereft.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Michael de Brito, figurative painter

Leslie Lohman was closed (for Thanksgiving?), and so KM brought me to Eleanor Ettinger Gallery on Spring Street to see an artist he aspires to be. Michael de Brito, 29, paints his Portuguese American family around a dining table, presided over by his Grandma. The paintings are photographic in their ability to capture the social interaction and the bric-a-brac around the table, but they are also wholly paintings in their confident brushstrokes.

Here they are, these people who would have looked so familiar if you pass them on the street, but who look so strange--or is the word, fresh--in a painting. The ubiquitous mineral water bottle appears familiar and strange too on the dining table. Traditional technique but novel subjects. Novel not only because contemporary but also culturally particularized. Not culturally theorized but particularized. Not detail instead of theory, but detail as theory. No ideas but in things.

And the technique so proudly recalling the Old Masters, for their authority and their mantle, this technique has also absorbed lessons from modern painters. The composition of the paintings, their tables slanting so precipitously towards the viewer, reminds me of Bonnard and Matisse, as does the loving attention to fabrics. A masterful and open style then. Where will it go next, when it has so many years ahead of it?

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Riccardo Muti conducts Honegger and Beethoven

Last night, with LW, I heard Arthur Honegger (1892-1955) for the first time, played by the New York Philharmonic. A native of Switzerland, he studied at the Paris Conservatory and banded with fellow students--Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, Georges Auric, Germaine Tailleferre, and Louis Durey, with Eric Satie as spiritual godfather--to become known as Les Six. Symphony No. 2 (1941), played by a string orchestra and a lone trumpet. was composed during the Nazi occupation of France, which Honegger refused to leave though he could claim neutrality as a Swiss. The symphony is in three movements. The trumpet comes in at the very end to support the strings in a chorale-like finish. An economy of means, fitting, perhaps, to a wartime symphony.

I always fear disappointment when going to a performance of Beethoven's symphonies. Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic are in my head, and no performance will, of course, sound like them. I thought Muti gave an uneven interpretation of the Eroica last night. The first movement sounded a little too ornamental for my taste, without sufficient propulsion. The third movement sounded slight, if that makes sense. But the slow second movement was wonderful: solemn, dignified, heartbreaking. The funeral procession broke off and restarted so many times, and each time the music did not drag but deepened. The set of variations in the final movement sparkled.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Vocabulary of Grief

AH, hearing of my breakup, wrote me a loving email of consolation. At the end of the message, he wished for me that I would find "the vocabulary of grief" to express my sadness. To speak, and to speak with all the precision and tact such a situation requires would be a relief. It is beyond me right now. But Auden comes to the rescue this morning. While grading poetry papers, I stumble on this lyric written in March 1936, that I knew but forgot.


Dear, though the night is gone,
The dream still haunts to-day
That brought us to a room,
Cavernous, lofty as
A railway terminus,
And crowded in that gloom
Were beds, and we in one
In a far corner lay.

Our whisper woke no clocks,
We kissed and I was glad
At everything you did,
Indifferent to those
Who sat with hostile eyes
In pairs on every bed,
Arms round each other's necks,
Inert and vaguely sad.

O but what worm of guilt
Or what malignant doubt
Am I the victim of;
That you then, unabashed,
Did what I never wished,
Confessed another love;
And I, submissive, felt
Unwanted and went out?


The first line suggests that the speaker is still together with his beloved, after the beloved's confession. Here, my story diverges from Auden's. But I can still say the line and call him "Dear" and still mean it.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Reading at Cornelia Street Cafe

Elizabeth Harrington asked Jackie Sheeler and me to read with her last night, and the reading at Cornelia Street Cafe was seamed with gold. Without prior consultation, all three of us read poems about family. Perhaps with Thanksgiving in our minds, we read about childhood, sickness, loneliness and loss. Jackie's poems deployed detail and imagery in a most telling way. Her assured performance elicited every response from the audience the poems aimed for. Betsy's reading voice was quieter, and perhaps more hesitant, but her poems came out of the deep pit of self.

I read mostly new poems, about my grandfather, my father and TH, and did not quite find my groove. Afterwards EN pointed out perceptively why. I was influenced by Jackie's accomplished reading, and so semi-consciously tried to read like her to get the same audience response she did, although my poems are built differently. EN and I thought it was my competitive streak showing up again. But this morning I think it had as much to do with insecurity as with competitiveness. The poems are rather new; I am not sure how good they are. I wanted to read them because together they chart the arc of my relationship with TH. I wanted to mark, in some way, our breakup.

1. Floor Tiling
2. What's Left
3. Attribution
4. You Know, Don't You
5. The Wine Bottle Holder
6. Albuquerque No. 7
7. Leave with Nothing
8. The Dying and the Living
9. A Whole History
10. In His Other House

*

Monday, November 23, 2009

Fiasco Theater's Cymbeline

Access Theater was not easy to get to. Located south of Canal Street, and not in the usual theater neighborhoods, it perched at the top of eight flights of steps. You might also mistake the other small theater on the same floor for it, as I did, since there were no signs except for xeroxed posters of Fiasco Theater's production of Cymbeline.

But access is not just a matter of geography, of course; it is also emotion and physicality. The last two Fiasco Theater had in spades in their exhilarating performance. No fancy stage sets or props to hide behind.  Just 6 actors and a trunk. With tremendous joyful energy, they pumped Shakespeare's late romance for all its poetry, comedy, melodrama and, yes, tragedy. The scene in which Belaria and the boys mourned over the supposedly dead Imogen was heart-breaking. The pathos turned abruptly, magically, into silliness when Imogen revived and touched the headless Cloten. Instead of smoothing out the play's mixture of genres, this production played up the clash of styles in a very intelligent manner.

It worked also because the cast was uniformly talented. Jessie Austrian was a convincingly tragic Imogen: girlish and all liquid gold. Noah Brody was a touch self-conscious but he had a great voice which he put to poetic effect in Posthumus' denunciatory speeches. Ben Steinfeld was a lovable Iachimo and Arviragus. Emily Young, who also played Frenchman and Belaria, was a funny Queen. Her son Cloten was played by Andy Grotelueschen, who switched easily to playing Cymbeline and Cornelius the doctor; he was a very good clown. Paul L. Coffey played Pisanio, Philario, Caius Lucius and Guiderius. Coffey stood out among the cast for his restraint. There was a deep interiority in this actor that made me want to see him again.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Reviewing Moira Moody's Review

In Cha, Moira Moody reviews Equal to the Earth, alongside Two Baby Hands, another book of poems by another Singaporean with the same last name. Fortunately the review makes no cutesy pun. It sees the two books' very different aesthetics but finally, unfortunately, shies away from any evaluation, settling for the anodyne conclusion that "Their volumes are equally promising and rigorous in the different directions they take, and together only suggest that the country's poetic climate is not easily reduced." For a very different judgment of Gilbert Koh's Two Baby Hands, read Nicholas Liu's review in QLRS. Liu enjoys wielding the knife a little too much, I think, but his opinion is incisive and well-supported.

Moody, on the other hand, has doubts about my style but does not quite come out to say them. The doubts are more or less consciously expressed in her choice of words. She refers, for example, to my use of "the rigidity of form" to contain subject matter. I am "playing with forces that [my] lines struggle to restrain." I use formal schemes well by "emphasizing their confining aspects."  These comments reveal a very limited view of form: that it necessarily constrains genuine emotion, subject matter, what have you. Form as a cage. The comments show no understanding that form can be so many other things: skeleton, song, house, sword, cloud. The bias is typically American, and so I am not surprised to learn from the contributers' bios that Moody is an MFA student at Rutgers University. She could not name the form of the last section of "Hungry Ghosts" but describes it as "constrained parameters in an ABA rhythm." ABA is not a rhythm, it is a rhyme scheme.

Moody grasps that my book should be read from beginning to end, and not be dipped into. She takes her own advice by beginning her review with an interpretation of the opening sequence "Hungry Ghosts." However, her reading of that Chinese homosexual history highlights only its "illicit love and sexual exploitation." She fails to see that if the Emperor has a male favorite ( a section from which she quoted), then homosexual love back then was not illicit, or at least, not merely so. She also fails to mention the committed and socially sanctioned relationship between two lovers in "He Bids Farewell to His Brotherly Lover" and the public entanglement of power and desire in "The Scholar-Minister Gives Career Advice." Instead, Moody sees only what most westerners see in gay culture: proscription and exploitation. She does not bring the right context to her reading of the poems, and is unable to generate that context--or at least an awareness of its difference--from her reading of the poems.

That inattention to context manifests itself in the writing of the review. When Moody quotes from my book, she often does not explain the poem's situation. The quotation from "Actual Landing" gives no clue to who "we" are. She quotes from "Razminovenie, or Nonmeeting" a quotation embedded in the poem but that quoted quotation would have been perfectly mysterious to someone who has not read the poem. One of the two quotations from "Hungry Ghosts" ends, and dangles, mid-phrase. The poem is not even allowed to contextualize itself.

Are there good things in the review? Moody points out the vital importance of the sea as a source of the poems. She also senses "the energy and mystery" that drive the book. But what to make of a sentence like "The poet writes to dominate the lines, but the writing sometimes dominates" coming after a discussion of the power of words to sustain love (in "Razminiovenie")? Or of the opening description of my poetry as "dynamic yet challenging," as if the two qualities are opposites? Perhaps Moody means "exciting but potentially offensive to readers who hate the idea of gay sex." Or "interesting but not as easy to read as People magazine." I don't know. It's hard to tell when a reviewer does not say what she means.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Nietzsche on Artistic Frenzy

Toward a psychology of the artist. If there is to be art, if there is to be any aesthetic doing and seeing, one physiological condition is indispensable: frenzy. Frenzy must first have enhanced the excitability of the whole machine; else there is no art. All kinds of frenzy, however diversely conditioned, have the strength to accomplish this" above all, the frenzy of sexual excitement, this most ancient and original form of frenzy. Also the frenzy that follows all great cravings, all strong affects; the frenzy of feasts, contests, feats of daring, victory, all extreme movement; the frenzy of cruelty; the frenzy in destruction; the frenzy under certain meteorological influences, as for example the frenzy of spring; or under the influence of narcotics; and finally the frenzy of will, the frenzy of an overcharged and swollen will. What is essential in such frenzy is the feeling of increased strength and fullness. Out of this feeling one lends to things, one forces them to accept from us, one violates them--this process is called idealizing. Let us get rid of a prejudice here: idealizing does not consist as is commonly held, in subtracting or discounting the petty and inconsequential. What is decisive is rather a tremendous drive to bring out the main features so that the others disappear in the process.

From Twilight of the Idols

Monday, November 16, 2009

Prairie Fire Reading at American Theater of Actors

Yesterday I read at Peter Chelnik's reading series, together with Susan Maurer and Patricia Carragon. The reading took place in the 140-seat Chernuchin Theater, one of four performance spaces in the American Theater of Actors. Since there were about 20 of us altogether, the raised seating looked rather forlorn, but the poetry and the attention more than made up for the numbers. Both Susan and Patricia read some really interesting pieces, and the open-mic was one of the best that I have ever heard. I read a poem from each section of ETTE: "Hungry Ghosts," "Florida," "Blowjob," "Brother" and "Montauk." I sold two books, one to EN who turned up despite a cold. JF also came, and the three of us had dinner afterwards at the Cosmic Diner, and chatted about family, heritage and intellectuality. EN told a wonderful tale about the vent that connected his parents' house to his grandparents'. JF came back at him with a mystery story: two versions of his grandfather, a State Supreme Court Judge, remembered by his father and his uncle, and whose version he believes more. I was on hand to bring out the brilliance in both of them.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Page Turner: The Asian American Literary Festival

The Asian American Writers' Workshop expanded its annual awards ceremony into a literary festival. The one-day event took place yesterday at the Powerhouse Arena, in Dumbo, Brooklyn. Two separate readings took place at every hour from 11 AM to 6 PM. I attended the 4 PM session "Sex and the Cities: Stories of Love & the Metropolis" with readings by Hari Kunzru, Monique Truong and Mort Baharloo. From where we sat we could hear the other reading, and so it was hard to concentrate, especially during the mic-wrecked question-and-answer that followed.

The day ended with a reading by Jhumpa Lahiri, the main reason why six students, who studied her work last year, came with me. This was my third time hearing her read, and she continued to wow me with her thoughtful poise. When someone from the audience asked an obnoxious question, she declined firmly but gracefully to give an answer. In her replies to her interviewer, she did not try to say more than she meant. One answer stayed with me. Writing, for her, is a place where she does not have to meet others' expectations. She has only to please herself.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Tribute to Marie Ponsot

I took a year long manuscript course with Marie at 92Y last year. In class she would ask us to describe a workshopped poem instead of judging it immediately, and we discovered that description is also a form of judgment, but keener-eyed. Last Thursday, the New School Writing program, where Marie teaches, and Pen American Center sponsored an evening's tribute to her. It also launched her new book, with the wonderful title, Easy.

The large Tishman auditorium was less than half filled. I felt a little sad about that. She has won all kinds of awards but I've always felt that she is in danger of being under-appreciated. The story most often told of her life is that of a poet who published a first book when young and then her second thirty years later. In that interval of apparent silence, she was raising seven children and spending a few minutes each day writing. The moral for young poets, which a number of readers that night rehearsed, is not to rush into publication. It is a noble lesson, but not a glamorous one. Marie attracts respect but not devotion. I don't think it bothers her.

The poems I remember from Springing: The Bird Catcher, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, are intricate timepieces. They exude a Swiss luxury. These kinds of poems reappear in Easy, poems like "Walking Home from the Museum," an inverted sonnet, and "Thank Gerard," a prayer of thanksgiving. But there are many more poems that are relaxed, carefree and even mischievous. The diction in them is simple. The rhyme scheme, if they have one, is playful. They are spoken in the voice of a cocky Head Turkey, a self-effacing middle sister of Peter Rabbit or one Grimm Brother to the Other.  Marie read a blues poem that she said she would not have put in a collection earlier because she would have thought it lacked gravitas. It was liberating to see a poet breaking free of poetic decorum.

The new poems are not just fun, but their freedom captures, paradoxically, something of the world's ineffability. One of the strongest poems in this collection is "This Bridge, Like Poetry, Is Vertigo." It is a response to Blake who proclaims in the poem's epigraph, "In a time of dearth bring forth number, weight & measure." A stirring line, but Marie would have none of it. She looks to cloud, instead, for a bridge, for "This dawns on me: no cloud is measurable."

The clarity of cloud is in its edgelessness,
its each instant of edge involving
in formal invention, always
at liberty, at it, incessantly altering.

"Each instant of edge" is very fine, the lines themselves illustrating through linked sounds what they say. The poem ends with an invocation:

Come to mind, cloud.
Come to cloud, mind.

The religious strain is strong in the new book, as in the others. It is governed by a consideration for others, and stimulated by an awareness that there is something bigger out there than us. Call it language, as Marie so often does.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Poem: "The Old Wallet"

The Old Wallet

he cannot see from the surface
of a wealth he cannot keep
--Eavan Boland, “Making Money”

Pocket of pockets, my old wallet keeps
the likenesses of long dead Presidents,
credit card, coins, stamps, memberships,
but not a photograph of love. My reason?
I thought that the mind is a fitter place
for images of illimitable grace.
The old wallet will do for society
but soul resides not in skin but in me.
Yet now I see the mind exchanges love
so easily for venom and forgets
the daily accumulation of its debts
and bad seasons it is a veteran of.
So I am asking for a photograph,
Love, on love’s behalf.—

*

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Poem: "A Whole History"

A Whole History

In the morning they were both found dead
     Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history.
--Eavan Boland, “Quarantine”

The floor is cold with the coming winter.
     I pull on white socks
and sit down before the blackout window
to think about our separation closing in.

We have a history longer than the two years
     that fitted like a shirt.
You learned a long time ago to enjoy ironing.
I always had someone ironing shirts for me.

But we go further back than birth, to furtive
     park encounters,
coded glances, tapping on bathroom walls,
ways of staying warm and white in winter.

Yesterday a young friend said it’s wrong
     to expose children
to a gay wedding. The chill hit me again.
Rage spread like blood over my clean shirt.

I cannot wash it off. You are no longer willing.
     In the closet the shirt,
part reminder of love, part reminder of rage,
is held up by its shoulders on thin twisted wire.

*

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Still Blue: Writing by (for or about) Working Class Queers

Wendell Ricketts, the editor of this online publication, calls for more fiction, essays, poems, memoirs by (for and about) working class queers. Read the villanelle by Colm Toibin and Maura Dooley. Submit, submit.

Poem: "Attribution"

Attribution

I speak with the forked tongue of colony.
--Eavan Boland, “The Mother Tongue”

My grandfather said life was better under the British.
He was a man who begrudged his words but he did say this.

I was born after the British left.
They left an alphabet book in my house, the same one they left at school.

I was good in English.
I was the only one in class who knew “bedridden” does not mean lazy.

I was so good in English they sent me to England
where I proved my grandfather right

until I was almost sent down for plagiarism I knew was wrong
and did not know was wrong, since where I came from everyone plagiarized.

I learned to attribute everything I wrote.
It is not easy.

Sometimes I cannot find out who first wrote the words I wrote.
Sometimes I think I wrote the words I wrote with such delight.

Often the words I write have confusing origins
and none can tell what belongs to the British, my grandfather or me.

*

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Poem: "What the River Says"

What the River Says

The body is a source. Nothing more.
--Eavan Boland, “Anna Liffey”

I too compare my life frequently to a river,
small hidden beginning, final dissolution,
body charged with a name but always changing.

It is a place to live by, to keep a few chickens
or raise a city famous for its graceful bridges,
if one cares for good eating or reaching across.

On mornings when the rear courtyard is stony,
how enjoyable to walk to the water and hear
its gossip about the young lovers parting upriver.

The annual swelling is a power for great evil
but also a pregnancy. It carries boats and people.
For explorers, there is a chance of a waterfall.

Sinners, those hybrid creatures, like centaurs,
may drive their reluctant horses into the flood
and experience total absolution in an instant.

So, if my body is a river, I won’t dismiss it
as a source and nothing more. It is a source
of my voice but it is also my voice: that is

what the river says on its way to the sea.

*

Monday, November 09, 2009

Poem: "The Scriptures"

The Scriptures

But I was Ceres then and I knew
winter was in store for every leaf
--Eavan Boland, “Pomegranates”

Because my father has no story to bequeath
his son, I make up stories to live by. I am
the Dragon Prince who falls into forbidden love
and so is banished from the palace of the sea.
On days when the sun brandishes its magic swords
I journey to the West as wily Monkey God
to fetch the Scriptures, fighting demons on the way.
From my right ear I draw my tiny magic pole
and whip the fox spirit with a springy cane
or else, expanding the prod to a temple pillar,
crush a snake demon with the majesty of heaven.
How powerful I feel then, how abject my foes,
how full of light the rounded world, a bursting peach,
until the ring my father set around my head
tightens and digs into my flesh, my skull. I roll
and tumble through the seven worlds but not the ring.
All of my reach contracts into a burning hole.
I cry, “Mercy!” and hear the fox squeal in my ears,
and hiss like the snake as my voice is squeezed out.
Just before the spot of consciousness disappears,
the ring unclenches iron and without a word
I know, bitterly, I have the Scriptures in my head.

*

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Poem: "One Humor"

One Humor

From where I stand the sea is just a rumour.
--Eavan Boland, “Our Origins Are in the Sea”

In medieval theories of medicine, one humor
escaped the logic of the lovely charts.
From where I stand the sea is just a rumor.

I love the way the year cycles into summer,
the sun characteristic as the parts,
in medieval theories of medicine, of humor.

But from the times, closely watched, swells a tumor
and the tide of recrimination starts.
From where I stand the sea is just a rumor.

Damn the homosexual. Blame the consumer.
Fault the degeneration of the arts
or medieval theories of medicine. Ill humor.

Fear grows like barnacles on baby boomers
while the young sails resent the ancient farts.
From where I stand the sea is just a rumor.

We hold to different memories of summer
as yellow bile possess our yellow hearts.
In medieval theories of medicine, one humor,
from where I stand to see, was just a rumor.

*

Almodovar's "Carne tremula" (1997) or "Live Flesh"

This may be my favorite Almodovar so far. "Live Flesh" may not be as haunting as "Talk to Her" or as moving as "Volver" but it is an idea perfectly executed. No self-indulgent bulges nor forced shortcuts, it is as well-proportioned as its dishy lead Victor Plaza (Liberto Rabal). Love and its obsessions play out with formal symmetry among two married couples and an outsider.

Elena (the very beautiful Francesca Neri) and David (Javier Bardem) are married, but Victor loves Elena. Sancho (Jose Sancho) and Clara (Angela Molina) are married, but David had an affair with Clara, and she has now fallen for Victor. After learning of David's affair with Clara, Elena made love to Victor. David wants to use Sancho to kill Victor, but finds out, from Victor, that Sancho, having found out about David's affair with Clara, fired the gun in Victor's hand at David and crippled him. David goes ahead to tell Sancho of Clara's affair with Victor. When Sancho tries to kill Victor, Clara kills Sancho and is killed in turn. David goes to Miami in remorse, and Victor wins Elena in the end. A plot summary like this one can only hint at the complications, but cannot convey the stylishness of the film-making.

Javier Bardem, who played the mad man in "No Country for Old Men," is frightening in his intensity even in this melodrama. Wheelchair-bound, his rage is only heightened by his restraints. Liberto Rabal is completely likeable as the young innocent who finally gets what he wants. Neri brings a heartbreaking vulnerability to her role, but the most sympathetic character is played by Molina. Abused by her jealous husband, used by her lover for his sexual education, Clara loves helplessly and hopelessly. When Victor turns her away, she cries the outcry of the damned, "But I have enough love for the two of us."

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Poem: "The Rooms I Move In"

The Rooms I Move In

the bay windbreak, the laburnum hang fire, feel
the ache of things ending in the jasmine darkening early
--Eavan Boland, “The Rooms of Other Women Poets”

I have moved in the rooms of other women poets
and, seeing African violets, checked if they needed water,

careful not to disturb the stolen time in the chairs,
the swivel leather seat, the one with a high cane back.

The desks, if there was one, were bright with circumstance
cast by an Anglepoise lamp, crooked, articulate.

The window might look out on an old monastery
but the door opened its ear to a cry or a creak.

Such rooms I moved in when I move between the men
thick with desire they thrust into another’s hand,

before your face I offer the flower of my mouth,
red in the red light but also out of the red light,

a wild hibiscus impossible to label chaste
if my red mouth is not so chastened by my need.

*

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Pound and Parody

TLS October 30 2009

from Christopher Reid's review of Helen Carr's The Verse Revolutionaries: Ezra Pound, H. D. and the Imagists:

. . . it does seem that, for Pound, authenticity of voice could only, or most reliably, be attained through translation or adaptation. Even those poems of his that might have come about solely as expositions of the pure Imagist manner--miniature masterpieces like "In a Station of the Metro" and "The Garden"--wear an air of pastiche, as if behind each of them lay some imagined original in a foreign tongue, most likely Japanese or French.

Reid's comment on Pound as pastiche helped me understand an editor's comment on the ghazals I submitted. He said, "They read like the most exquisite parodies of Pound translations from Chinese and Japanese, yet they also do work as original poems do." The slipperiness of imitation, translation and parodies! I did not write the ghazals as parodies, exquisite or not, but now I see how they could be read that way. This reading offends the Neo-Romantic ethic of sincerity in me, but it also pleases me to think how modernist it makes my writing look. I have been thinking about how to take modernism into account in my work, and lo and behold it is here among us.

A modernism not of Eliotian fragmentation, but of Poundian translation. How would the politics of this work out? It is easy for critics to dismiss my work as overly imitative (parodic) of the English poetic tradition, as colonial hangover. Neo-romanticism is still so powerful, in the UK, US, and in Singapore influenced by the USK, with its insistence on originality and individuality, and so parody, that parasite, is judged as inferior. One has to change the climate for parody. Not only to read every poem as always a parody of another, but also to sense behind every language "some imagined original in a foreign tongue." Parody: parallel song.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Max Cavitch's "American Elegy"

The full title of the book is American Elegy: The Poetry of Mourning from the Puritans to Whitman, and the book is as ambitious as its title sounds. It questions the bias of American literary criticism towards the novel and posits that poetry, elegy in particular, provides a powerful frame through which to view literary transactions with cultural transformations. Elegy had from ancient times been highly self-conscious of its mixture of precedent, transmission and invention. In the American Revolutionary and early national periods, elegy was "at once the most elite and demotic of mourning genres," Cavitch argues. It involved all reasonably literate people, as readers and writers; it was available to black writers who were still slaves.

To give shape to the vast mass of material, Cavitch focuses on a representative elegist or two for each period, while not neglecting other significant figures. To represent the Puritans, he selects Annis Stockton who memorialized her husband in an elegaic project that occupied her for over a decade. In her he finds, among other things, "the endless antagonism between the pressure to remember particular losses and the pressure to move, in a less encumbered way, into the historical future." This antagonism Cavitch relates to the nationalism of that period.

Writing of the poetic memorialization of George Washington, Cavitch cannily enlists two of the period's best-known novelists, Charles Brockden Brown and Susanna Haswell Rowson. Brown as an elegist "participates in the awkward but widespread poetic efforts to reconcile protoliberal ideals of individuation and republican ideals of depersonalization." Rowson, on the other hand, argues that the private indulgence of fancy is not incompatible with civic-mindedness.

William Cullen Byrant's elegaic poems in the voice of Indian mourners are a troubling instance of the politics of antebellum expansion. To examine the popularity of elegies for children, Cavitch discusses the complex example of Waldo Emerson. In both chapters, Cavitch attends sensitively to at least three different dimensions: the tensions within the genre, the corporatization of American life, and the elegist's own philosophical and political commitments. This kind of attention prevents the poems from becoming mere symptoms of history, or, the opposite danger, illusory autonomous art objects.

The same attention is brought to bear on African American elegists like Phyllis Wheatley and George Moses Horton. For them, writing elegies for elite whites enabled "a liminal incorporation into free society."They were, however, also enabled to speak of shared humanity--their suffering, rage and losses--in code.

The last chapter of the book "Retrievements of the Night" looks at Walt Whitman as an elegist. In the poetry of Drum-Taps,  Whitman practiced a writing of "remains," that is, "a writing not just about unassimilable pieces or fragments of wartime experience, including erotic experience and memorable glances, but writing that is itself characterized by patchwork, discontinuity, and open-endedness." In the process, he discovers "a moral substitute for statistical analyses of the costs of the war and for the forms of mourning--stoic, efficient, authoritative--that derive from such analyses." In his interpretation of "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" Cavitch would have Whitman succeeding, and not defeated, in generative re-combination. As he puts it, "Whitman lingers upon the experiential threshold of the swamp not as the thrall of traumatic repetition but in order to equip himself for a more creative dreamlike movement." I am not sure if his close reading of the poem persuades me this is so, but it is a very attractive thesis.

Monday, November 02, 2009

SITI Company's "Antigone"

Yet another Antigone, this one adapted for our times. Written by Jocelyn Clarke, directed by Anne Bogart, created and performed by SITI Company, this Antigone protests the American invasion of Iraq and rejects facile and sinister attempts at reconciling the real divisions in American society. It looks steadily, compassionately, at war's casualties, as the fighting proceeds street by street in the Theban war against Argos. Creon suspends civil rights in the name of state security, and puts the protesting Theban elders under house arrest. Pressed again and again to marry Haemon for the sake of national unity, Antigone refuses to compromise on her beliefs, though she loves her childhood friend. The political message is clear in this production, but it is also artful.

One aspect of its artfulness lies in its use of the Chorus. To counterbalance the play's contemporary allusions, the Chorus tells the story of the past. In captivating installments, he explains how Zeus's capture of Europa led to the founding of Thebes and Oedipus' tragedy. The Chorus makes literal what Antigone tries to make Creon understand: the past is not past, but how we see the past is who we are. Though Will Bond who plays the Chorus stumbles a few times over his lines, his voice is ravishingly beautiful, a storyteller's voice.

The staging of the play is also extremely artful. There is so little action in the Greek play, and so much verbal confrontation. Seizing that insight, the production sits the characters round four long tables put together into a diamond. When the characters are divided by debate or interrogation, they sit at opposite tables. When they persuade or negotiate, they sidle up to adjacent tables. Creon is first seen at a back table, the distant and forbidding tyrant, talking as if on TV. When he finally moves to a front seat, he appears monstrously big. When Tiresias comes to Creon, the blind prophet walks slowly on the tables and stands above the seated tyrant, and so makes visual his superior knowledge. When chairs are removed to the sides of the stage, their owners show their distance from the center of the action. The staging also obviates the need for exits and entrances; the characters stay on stage the whole time, sitting quietly or dimly lit when it isn't their turn to speak. LW remarked on the Sophocles-like swiftness of this production's pace.

Makela Spielman plays Antigone persuasively as a resolute human being. Akiko Aizawa's Ismene speaks with an accent, disconcerting to me at first, but later becomes a potent marker of the play's translation and transplantation from its origins; the Greeks did not speak with American accents either. In fact, the cast speak in a variety of accents. This may sound cliched, but Aizawa's face is mask-like, and I fancy that is closer to the Greeks than the others' more naturalistic acting. Haemon is another interesting casting choice. Leon Ingulsrud is a bulky, heavy-faced man, not what one would fancy for a romantic lead. But his acting is so convincing that he makes me change my idea of Haemon. Stephen Duff Webber is a very good Creon, the army commander turned incompletely into a civilian politician.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

My poem in "Los Angeles Review"

The sixth issue of Los Angeles Review, published by Ren Hen Press, is out. My poem "What We Call Vegetables" is in it, along with contributions by Michael Czyzniejewski, Lydia Davis, Barry Graham, Naseem Rakha, Deborah Ager, Alex Lemon and Steven Almond. Essays. Fiction. Poetry. Reviews. Get your copy.

Pedro Almodovar's "La flor de mi secreto" (1995)

Leo Macias, played by a vivifying Marisa Paredes, cannot accept her marriage is dead. Unable to write the romance novels she churned out under the pseudonym Amanda Gris, she takes a job as a book reviewer with newspaperman Angel (Juan Echanove). Not knowing she is Gris, Angel assigns her to review her own book. He also falls in love with her but she cannot return his love, since she still hopes her husband would return to her. When her husband Paco (Imanol Arias) kills all hope, she is so depressed that she attempts suicide, and then leaves Madrid with her mother to return to the latter's village. Weaving with the village women, Leo may recuperate but her desire for life is only rekindled when she finds out that her anti-romantic novel she trashed helped to fund a flamenco dance production put up by the son of her cook. So art saves her finally, saves her for life.

A comment on imdb credited this film with Almodover's turn from formless farces to rich melodramas. The Flower of My Secret is small compared to his later films, but it has a sweet perfection that is very watchable. In this film he assembles some of the themes, situations and characters that dominate the later work. Leo is one of a string of Almodovan women, strong but driven to near-madness. The power of sisterhood is depicted not only through the engaging relationship between Leo and her uglier and less successful sister, but also through the community of village women. Leo's relationship with her mother would become the main theme of the later film Volver, just as the trashed novel would give that film its plot trigger.

The Flower opens with an educational video teaching student doctors how to break bad news to relatives in denial. The film-within-a-film device is one of Almodovar's favorites. The medical analogy reminds me of Talk to Her, set mostly in a hospital, focused on women in coma. The dance production that revives Leo's hope for life also looks forward to the dance piece that opens Talk to Her. Here dance is hopeful--the cook returns in triumph to the stage, her son puts up the production of his dreams--but dance in Talk to Her is despairing and obsessive. That change speaks, perhaps, of a director's vision deepening.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Seven Studies for a Face

TLS October 23 2009

I had not read Laura Cumming's book A Face to the World when I wrote my poem "Seven Studies for a Self-Portrait." Reading Elizabeth Lowry's review of the book, I am amazed by the connections and coincidences between Cumming's Durer and mine. The divine in the human is exactly the theme not only of the Durer study of my "Seven Studies," but also of my next book, to be titled the same as its opening sequence. The book will begin with the Christ-like Durer, and end with a ghazal sequence, in which the last ghazal compares me to God: "Jee, the unlikely initial for God." According to Cumming, Durer also painted his self-portrait based on his trademark initial, A. The initial A also begins and ends a sequence in my book called "I Am My Names," in which A stands for Anonymous.

Furthermore, Lowry points out that Durer's finger in the self-portrait says, "Ecce Homo." That is, of course, also Nietzsche's last book published when he was still sane, the same writer whose Zarathrustra gives me the epigraph for my book: “I walk among men as among the fragments of the future—the future which I envisage. And this is all my creating and striving, that I create and carry together into One what is fragment and riddle and dreadful accident.” Needless to say, Durer, like Nietzsche, was German.  I have bought Cumming's book to read. According to the review, she writes about the other self-portraits I did--Rembrandt, van Gogh, Schiele, Kahlo--but not Warhol and Morimura. 


 From Elizabeth Lowry's review of Laura Cumming's A Face to the World: On self-portraits:
The most immediately recognizable of these [self-portraits] is Albrecht Durer's full face self-portrait of 1500, with its fur collar and long streaming hair, "a triangle of metal bright locks, not a single tendril out of place". Cumming is excellent at annotating the picture's "peculiar golden radiance", its charisma and almost oppressive vitality. It is the defining advertisement for Durer the man and artist, an icon rather than a representative image . . . . And it seems to have been worshipped as an icon by future generations of German artists, appearing in numerous later prints and in Georg Vischer's "Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery" as the face of Jesus.
Cumming argues with great brio that this most pictorialized of self-portraits in fact embodies the fusion of art and artist. The serenely detached pose, shoulders squared, the finger of Durer's right hand pointing meaningfully at his own chest, is baffling until we look at it closely. The triangular mass of hair, the crossbar of the beard: what are they other than the counterpart, writ large, of the A of Durer's own trademark initial in the top left-hand corner of the painting? The maker and his image, the product of his prodigious talent, are one. Yet Cumming perhaps dazzled by the self-confidence of that face, stops short of drawing the obvious conclusion. If the face is Christ-like, it is a Christ meant for a humanist age, exalting the divine in man. "Whatever he feels, whatever he senses in his fingers, ought to connect straight up to the face, but when you get there all explanations are frustrated." Really? Look again. The finger, the face, are quite clearly saying "Ecce Homo", Durer's is, as Cumming rightly claims, the alpha and omega of self-portraits.