Saturday, December 28, 2013

Pure, Explicit, Invincible

Read three novels while visiting GH's family for Christmas. The first was a recommendation by his father, who is an avid reader. Calico Joe, published in 2012, is touted as John Grisham's first baseball novel. In my teens I used to tear through Grisham's legal thrillers, absorbed in the arcane world of courtroom drama. Baseball is just as arcane to me, but my ignorance was no barrier to enjoying this fast-paced novel. A boy is torn between his baseball idol and his baseball father, who play against each other in one fateful match. Grisham is a good storyteller, who knows how to put a story through its paces. What annoyed me was the times when he tried for some deeper meaning, and sounded pretentious instead. It's pretty obvious that the story is about the all-American hero and his evil twin. There is no need to hammer home the dualistic point. The characterization is not very complex, but the father comes off as the most interesting character because he was the most injured and the most injuring.

My second book was Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Memories of My Melancholy Whores. The protagonist, a newspaper columnist, turns ninety and decides to abandon all for a night of wild love with an adolescent virgin. To his surprise, he falls in love with the girl and names her Delgadina. He is revived by love and its sufferings. This is a short novel, but it is full of lovingly observed detail, which renders the texture of an old man's experience so utterly believable. It makes me want to write a book about my beautiful porn star who died of an overdose of prescription medicine.

No One Writes to the Colonel, also by Marquez, is a collection of short stories. The title story is quite long, however, and is the most substantial of the lot. The eponymous colonel and his wife live in the most penurious circumstances while waiting for his government pension. They share the little that they have with a fighting cock, whom everyone in town believes will win the coming cock fights. The animal very quickly becomes the symbol of hope for a hopeless community. The colonel's wife tries to persuade him to sell the cock so that they could get some food. He relents but repents in time to retrieve the bird. The conclusion is powerfully poignant. He is asked by his wife about what they would eat in the meantime.

It had taken the colonel seventy-five years--the seventy-five years of his life, minute by minute--to reach this moment. He felt pure, explicit, invincible at the moment when he replied: 
"Shit."

The other stories are all set in the same town of Macondo. My favorites are the heartbreaking "Tuesday Siesta" and the heartwarming "Balthazar's Marvelous Afternoon." The first is about the death of a thief, the second about the gift of a beautiful bird cage. In both, human emotions are "pure, explicit, invincible" too.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Saturday, December 14, 2013

John Berger's "Selected Essays"

It is astonishing to me how consistent John Berger was in over 30 years of art criticism. His judgment of an artist could become more developed and refined, more elaborated, but the underlying sense of the artist's purpose and value remained the same. This consistency of seeing came from a coherent philosophy of art criticism. As Berger puts it in his "Introduction" to Permanent Red, which is also aptly the introductory essay of this Selected Essays edited by Geoff Dyer, the art critic must first answer the question: What can art serve here and now? For Berger, the answer that drove his looking was another question: Does this work help or encourage men to know and claim their social rights?

Berger was not looking for Socialist propaganda, but saw his answer/question as the logic of his historical situation. In the second half of the twentieth century, the most important historical movements were the fights for national independence, civil rights, gender equality, and peace. And so the questions that were posed to artworks were those of the times. To the extent that an artwork reminded the viewer of his potentialities, it encouraged him to claim the social rights in his life. Those who claimed a different purpose for art were simply out of step with their times, or as Berger writes, "The hysteria with which many people today deny the present, inevitable social emphasis of art is simply due to the fact that they are denying their time. They would like to live in a period when they'd be right."

How ironic then that the times have changed, and Berger seems now to be the one out of step. The old confidence about social rights is gone, not just about the viability of securing them, but even the desirability of attaining them. We are more ambivalent, I think, about the value of the new nationalisms, for instance, and of the triumph of secularism. The early Berger essays refer to the uneven development of the world, with the confidence that the new and less-developed nations will climb on board the train of Western Enlightenment and espouse its ideals. A number of later essays, born of visits to Turkey, are less sure of this linear, stageist view of history.

The times have changed. We are more concerned with the rights of representation than with the social rights as defined by the West. So the imperative in contemporary art to be inclusive or to admit to its exclusivity, to its necessary subjectivity. It's a dilemma. How can one claim to represent anything except oneself? The problem is most acute in painting, of all the arts, because it is, finally, a single static framed object. It is little wonder that so many artists have migrated to film and installations, to motion and environment, in other words, since the problems of painting seem intractable.

Berger's later essays pay attention to the global power of capital. Everything everywhere is up for buying and selling. The point here, as I see it, is that all the movements for social rights played into the hands of capital. The newly independent nations are now free to buy and sell. Women are now potentially equal to men in purchasing power. The poor wants to be rich. Peace is good for business. The essential fight, it seems to me, is against capital, not on behalf of labor, but on behalf of humanity. We need to resist the commodification of everything. To do so, we have to find intellectual resources from anywhere we can find them, even in such unlikely places as John Berger's socialism.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Poem: "Top Ten Books of 2013"

Top Ten Books of 2013


10. Magritte at the MoMA, The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926–1938

9. From the open-air market in Nice, fresh figs, goat cheese, baguette

8. The young astrophysicist in the hotel shower

7. The Seven Samurai

6. Splash Bar closing. Any reference to dancing in my writing is in part a reference to the dance floor at Splash.

5. Your excitement inside Cité radieuse in Marseilles

4. After reading One Hundred Years of Solitude, I saw an old man walk by with his grandson

3. The Talipot Palm flowering for the first and last time before it dies

2. Massage oil 

1. The garage mechanic in Tara Bergin’s This Is Yarrow and his black hands—“everywhere they touch will be evidence of him.”

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Poem: "Gift Set"

Gift Set


Elsa, I’ve just received the package of bones you sent!
I’ve always wanted the complete set
to check if his throat cancer left a mark.

What fun to hold a familiar funny bone and hear
it speak of a painted scroll,
I know the stupid bird can never eat the stupid peach 

and another, smooth pebble, never seen before,
a pig is a very compact arrangement,
and wonder where it fits.

The bone for his friend Keith
keeps its silence about a word—

Alex Au, the blogger
facing charges of holding the courts in contempt,
guessed the word is gay,
Cyril (remember him?) reckons it goodness,
I fancy you

and so the linguist speaks eternally.

Ha, ha! Arthur Yap, I have your bones all in one place,
as others do who cherish completeness
far from home, above the ground, and unquiet.

Thank you.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Poem: "An Argument Against An Objective Materialist Universe"

An Argument Against An Objective Materialist Universe


The wallpaper has a pattern of eyes,
life-sized, brown, with double eyelids.
I spin but cannot catch any one blinking.

When I change in the morning
to get ready for work,
they appraise me from all angles.

In the evening, after work,
when I’m masturbating in bed,
I swear a tear glistens at the corner of every eye.

Just before I fall asleep,
they look like the eyes of my boyfriend
who is away in Brazil.

I can’t get them to stop looking at me.
I can’t stop looking at them.
It’s the same way even if I write,

the wallpaper has a pattern of eggs. 

We have no wallpaper in our bedroom.
You’ll have to take my word for it.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Poem: "The Murderous Sky"

The Murderous Sky

after Magritte 


The sky has been raining dead birds all morning.
They strike the ground so hard that they bounce
up to the waist and disappear into the blue air,
not without leaving a blot of blood, a bull’s eye.
I try to avoid stepping on the red shots but there
are so many that it’s impossible not to cross
a firing line. Other people don’t seem to care,
not the schoolgirl thumbing her phone, not the
short pizza delivery man hurtling by on his bike.
In the distance, however, a woman is steering
her black stroller as if she is avoiding puddles.
A young man on a bench looks up from his book.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Poem: "The Ideology of Aggressive Interior Attack"

The Ideology of Aggressive Interior Attack


The fire will climb from the 59th, that’s
how old I am, to the 86th floor observatory.
The fire engines are on their way.
One firefighter will lose his life trying
to rescue a woman in a bathroom.
He is 34, Irish and divorced. Sees his two daughters
on alternate weekends. About to be promoted.
I have read tomorrow’s papers by mistake.
The woman’s safe. The cause of the fire unknown.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Poem: "Getting Dressed"

Getting Dressed


After I pull down my pullover,
 the front collar of my t-shirt is too high. 
It is in fact the back collar.
I have my t-shirt on back to front.

Pulling off my pullover, I realize
my mistake is in fact a mistake,
I have my t-shirt on right.

The shirt must have ridden up
inside the pullover.

I pull my pullover over my head
and the knitted arms over my arms.
The front collar is riding high again.
I pull at it but it won’t go down

because it is the back collar.

I pull off my pullover again.
In fact I check the mirror.
I am wearing the t-shirt right.
The front collar is in front,
showing the collar of flesh below the neck,
except when it is the back.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Poem: "Who Wants To Know The Answer?"

Who Wants To Know The Answer?


I’m reading John Berger on Magritte.
On the radio, a young man has a question
about his Toyota Corolla Hatchback.

You’re from Eugene? the auto expert asks.
Eugene, Oregon.

There’s a liquid leaking from his dashboard.
Is it greasy? the auto expert asks.
Yes, it’s greasy.

A phone shrills in the studio.
Why isn’t anyone
attending to it?

That’s a problem, the auto expert says, when you’re out on a date.

Yeah, it’s a real problem. It was leaking
all over the floor, all over my good shoes.
I tried soaking it up with newspapers,
but it was hopeless, it was leaking so much.

The phone shrills and shrills.

Oh, it’s not in the studio
but nagging behind me, in the kitchen
of the house where I’m staying,
a wallphone hooked up above the microwave.

Should I answer it? It’s not for me.
It’s an unexpected call.
Nobody’s home.
Would John Berger answer it?

The phone shrills on.
Finally, the auto expert, for he is the expert,
picks it up
and asks in a voice falsely gruff,
hello, who is this?


Sunday, December 01, 2013

Love, from the Beginning to the End

This year's thanksgiving was a time with family, friends and movies. We watched three movies with R and S, and then another movie when we got home last night. The Big Wedding (2013), directed by Justin Zackman who also co-wrote the screenplay, suffered from a lack of direction. The best thing, and the cutest thing, in it was Ben Barnes, who played the Columbian son adopted by white parents. When his religious biological mother came for his wedding, the family bent over backwards to hide the fact that dad and mum were divorced. It was a flimsy premise for a film, and it showed.

Bahz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby (2013) more than made up for the disappointment. I loved the excess of it, the garish house, the lavish parties, the rap music, the over-the-top art direction. I was not looking for a faithful rendition of a great novel into film. I was looking for, from Luhrmann the director of Romeo and Juliet, and of Moulin Rouge, a re-envisioning of the world, and he gave us one, tarted up, and dared us to disavow it. Leonardo DiCaprio surprised me by depicting Jay Gatsby with sufficient complexity. Tobey Maguire was out of his depth as Nick Carraway. Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan was a fairy princess; we see her through Gatsby's eyes, as one who can wipe away the past and restart one's life at a pure beginning.

I also enjoyed The Way Way Back (2013), which we watched the next night. Directed and written by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the teen comedy had the distinction of not condescending to teenagers and not sentimentalizing them. Liam James played a shy 14-year-old Duncan, whose face was not so much blank as uncertain. The story had the expected happy ending, but James's acting lifted it above the ordinary.

Last night, we watched Be with Me, the 2005 film by Singapore director Eric Khoo. The film wove together three stories with beautiful cinematography and minimal dialogue. The parts were all played by non-professional actors. In the first, a lonely elderly shopkeeper fell in love with a blind and deaf woman when he read the story of her extraordinary life. The second story traced the love and then the break-up of a teenage lesbian couple. In the third, a security guard matched his obsession with food with his obsession with a woman in his building. One of them would die looking for love.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Monstrosity is the Untruth

TLS October 25 2013

from Jack Flam's review of T. J. Clark's Picasso and Truth: From Cubism to Guernica:

Although Clark takes a rather long and circuitous route to conclude that Picasso is a monist whose art is amoral--not from indifference, but from a reality principle (the world itself being amoral)--his discussion of parallels between Nietzsche and Picasso contributes to a better understanding of Picasso's uniqueness as a thinker as well as a painter. It also provides an implicit rebuke to Jung's expectation that great art be "good" as well as beautiful. Following Nietzsche, Clark maintains that the way monstrosity collapses normal terms of identity and difference can be a substitute for truth: "Monstrosity is the Untruth--the strangeness and extremity--inherent in everyday life".

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Arthur Danto's "The Transfiguration of the Commonplace"

In this work of philosophy, Danto wishes to define art, and to show why contemporary art, having attained self-consciousness, is asking the same questions as philosophy. His approach throughout the book is to compare artworks with what he calls mere real things, when both are indiscernibly alike. The two classes of things, as he argues, belong to different ontological realms, hence, the title of his book. The artist performs a transfiguration of the commonplace when he makes of his materials a work of art. Danto has been criticized for his belief in duality, underlined by the Christian or Catholic figure of transfiguration, and reiterated throughout the book in his references to the body and the soul. I am not sure if the two ontological realms are as separate as his tropes imply, for his argument proceeds by making nice distinctions between, first, a representation and an object, and, then, between a representation and an artistic representation. If the categories are finally different, they are also procedurally nested in one another.

Very roughly, if I understand him rightly, the difference between a representation and an object is that the former is intended. The difference between a representation and an artistic representation is that the latter is artistically intended, meaning, the artist, with his knowledge of the artworld and art history, intends to make a work of art. So Andy Warhol's Brillo Box is a different thing from the Brillo box in the supermarket even though they look indiscernibly the same. In order for the viewer to grasp the artistic intention behind the art work, the viewer must know or come to understand the meanings that the artist infused into the work. The structure of the artwork is thus very close to the structure of a metaphor.

So the artwork is constituted as a transfigurative representation rather than a representation tout court, and I think this is true of artworks, when representations, in general, whether this is achieved self-consciously, as in the arch work I have been discussing, or naively, when the artist simply happens to vest his subject with surprising yet penetrating attributes. To understand the artwork is to grasp the metaphor that is, I think, always there. (172)

Danto draws out many implications from the last statement, one of which has to do with the limits of art criticism:

The first is that if the structure of artworks is, or is very close to the structure of metaphors, then no paraphrase or summary of the artwork can engage the participatory mind in at all the ways that it can; and no critical account of the internal metaphor of the work can substitute for the work inasmuch as the description of a metaphor simply does not have the power of the metaphor it describes, just as a description of a cry of anguish does not activate the same response as the cry of anguish itself. (173)

The task of art criticism is not only to interpret the metaphor but to provide the viewer with the necessary information to respond to the artwork, information lost to time or unknown due to place.

Criticism then, which consists in interpreting metaphor in this extended sense, cannot be intended as a substitute for the work. Its function rather is to equip the reader or viewer with the information needed to respond to the work's power which, after all, can be lost as concepts change or be inaccessible because of the outward difficulties of the work, which the received cultural equipment is insufficient to accommodate. It is not just, as is so often said, that metaphors go stale; they go dead in a way that sometimes require scholarly resurrection. And it is the great value of such disciplines as the history of art and literature to make such works approachable again. (174)

The argument about art leads Danto to expound a view about man.

My view, in brief, is an expansion of the Peircian thesis that "the man is the sum total of his language, because man is a sign. . . . it is not merely what a man represents, but is the way in which he represents it, which has to be invoked to explain the structures of his mind. This way of representing whatever he does represent is what I have in mind by style. If a man is a system of representations, his style is the style of these. The style of a man is, to use the beautiful thought of Schopenhauer, "the physiognomy of the soul."

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Frank Ching's "Ancestors"

It is a curious thing to me that I am non-curious about my ancestors. I read to discover literary ancestors--predecessors and mentors--who can give me help. I cannot imagine spending years of my life, as Frank Ching did, researching actual ancestors, as if they have anything to do with me but for the accident of blood. Would I feel different if I discover how illustrious my ancestors are, like Ching's list of top court officials, brilliant scholars, famous poets, noted failures, and even a notorious traitor?

Though illustrious, their lives in dynastic China followed the same basic pattern, which makes for dull reading. These men (for only scholar-class men had their lives recorded in government, city or clan histories) studied throughout their teens and twenties, and sometimes thirties and forties, for the civil-service examinations. When they passed them, they were posted to various government positions throughout the empire to carry out their various duties and effect their various reforms. The pattern was so unremittingly set that when one ancestor spurned the examinations in favor of a life of poetic solitude, he became a hero in this reader's eyes.

The founder of the clan was a poet. Qin Guan was one of the famous four disciples of the Sung Dynasty poet Su Dongbo. The story of how they met is charming. Hearing that the master poet was passing through Yangzhou, Qin Guan was sure that he would travel to Daming Monastery and visit Pingshan Hall, erected by Su's late mentor. To arouse Su's curiosity, Qin Guan wrote a poem in Su's style on a wall of Pingshan Hall. The famous poet recognized the homage and subsequently asked to meet the writer. The rest, as they say, is history. I wish there were more stories like this one in Ching's book, stories that reveal a cunning mind and a spirit of self-promotion. Instead, the ancestors are dug up from the graves of history and embalmed again in reverence.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Two Queer French Films

Dans la maison (In the House), 2012, directed by François Ozon, is many things. It is a story about a cynical teacher and a talented student. It is also a study of the sexual frustration of middle-class women, the art gallery owner married to the teacher, and the housewife married to a corporate hick. At the heart of the film is the voyeur in everyone of us, the student (compelling Ernst Umhauer) who wants to see what a perfect family looks like, the teacher (Fabrice Luchini), and his wife (Kristin Scott Thomas). It is an homage to Teorema by Pier Paolo Pasolini, in which a stranger enters a home and seduces everyone in it, maid, son, mother, daughter, and father. And, most profoundly, the film is an allegory for the creative process. The fact that all these levels cannot be separated from one another easily as the film moves towards its unexpected ending is a testament to the skill and vision of the director. GH and I watched it last weekend, and we still felt its impact last night as we watched another French gayish movie.

Directed by Zabou Breitman, L'homme de sa vie (The Man of My Life), 2006, is a lesser film, but is nevertheless lifted above the average by its beautiful cinematography and the acting of its leads. Charles Berling plays Hugo, the gay man who walks into the life of married man Frédéric, who is played by Bernard Campan. The chemistry between the men was understated but powerful. Frédéric is attracted to the unconventional and articulate intellect in Hugo, and its promise of freedom and ecstasy. Hugo, whose attraction grows more slowly, is drawn to Frédéric's open sincerity, so different from his own dogmatic stance against marriage and relationships. Léa Drucker is wonderful as Frédéric's wife, realizing and then watching with anguish her husband falling in love with another. The minor characters were less well-integrated into the film than they could have been. The editing was somewhat choppy, and the surrealistic scenes were cheesy. The film is, however, persuasive in showing how a man, who has always taken his heterosexuality for granted, learns that he is capable of some other feeling.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Reading at Hunter College

Alison Park invited me to read to her Asian American Studies class at Hunter College last Wednesday. The class consisted of about 20 students, half of which were Asian American. There were a few more women than men. The students were taking the class to fulfill the requirement for pluralism in their studies, so not everyone there was an English major. In fact, someone there majored in Computer Science. They were a little quiet and shy at the beginning but warmed up soon.

I read them some family and New York poems from Equal to the Earth, stopped for questions, and then read from The Pillow Book as a lead-in to Sei Shonagon and her use of the list form. The students wrote their own list for "Things That Sound Beautiful," a topic suggested by the class. After they wrote down some ideas, I asked them to write them out again, this time aiming to elaborate, organize, paragraph, and delete. They came up with some great descriptions. I remember, in particular, wind chimes, a minor chord on a violin and the laughter of friends. I really enjoyed my time with them.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

3 Poems in Axon

All three poems have epigraphs from Lee Tzu Pheng. Alvin Pang was the Consulting Editor for this issue of the Australian journal Axon

Monday, November 11, 2013

Vijay's Seshadri's "3 Sections"


Vijay's third collection, and it's well worth waiting for. The book is marvelous, constantly surprising. I enjoyed again the lacerating "Memoir" (which first appeared in The New Yorker) and the three apocalyptic visions of "This Morning" (which I first heard at a PSA reading). "Three Persons" is still a particular favorite. The theme of containing multitudes recurs in different guises throughout the book, culminating in the transformative ending of "Personal Essay," where the faces seen in a trance are themselves and more than themselves. I also love the memoir "Pacific Fishes of Canada" and will be sharing it with a colleague who teaches Moby Dick. The book takes many risks in its language--colloquial, mythic, sentimental, scientific--but rides the waves through the energy of its sentences.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Old Work, New Work, Public Work

Shakespeare's Globe is in New York, and I was lucky to get two tickets to the production of Richard III at Belasco Theatre last Friday. Disconcertingly, Mark Rylance played Richard for laughs, and achieved a new horror. Liam Brennan was brilliant too as Clarence, as was Paul Chahidi as Hastings. The rest of the cast was below par. It was an all-male cast. Of the men playing the women, the strongest was Joseph Timms as Lady Grey. The scene in which Richard tried to persuade Lady Grey to give her daughter to him in marriage was both funny and heartbreaking. Rylance's comic timing, aided by a stutter, turned seemingly innocuous lines into bombshells of laughter.

Yesterday was a beautiful, brisk day for gallery-hopping. GH and I saw the new sculpture by Richard Serra. Inside Out (2013), a single work made out of two curved plates, was tremendous. You think you know Serra's signature monumental work, and will therefore be unmoved by it. But I was, yet again, at the Gagosian gallery on 21st Street. At the other Gagosian on 24th Street, GH loved the patina achieved on the standing slabs of weatherproof steel in Intervals (2013). I was taken by the simple mass of Grief and Reason (for Walter). Reason was, I think, a bigger cast-iron block supporting a smaller block. Grief, next to it, was a smaller block supporting a bigger one.

Sean Scully also had new work, exhibited at Cheim & Read. The additions to his on-going series Wall of Light I found less compelling than the earlier ones. Much stronger was a new series called Landline. According to the press release, Scully has been spending much time in the Bavarian countryside south of Munich, Germany. The winter-time palette of grays and whites has led to a"softening, almost metaphysical approach" to his work. Night and Day, a bigger canvas than anything else by Scully that I had ever seen, was powerfully rhythmic in its eight bands of grays, whites and blacks. My favorite was Landline Pink (2012) with its uncovered streaks of blue and red.

A wonderful example of public art was Sheep Station by Francois-Xavier Lalanne. On display were 25 of the epoxy stone and bronze 'Moutons' by the late French artist. Grass and sheep overran the former Getty filling station at the corner of 10th Avenue and 24th Street. A pastoral dream too good to be true, it was the inaugural exhibition of Getty Station, a new public art program by Michael Shvo, real estate developer and art collector, and Paul Kasmin Gallery. The photo was taken by GH.


Francois-Xavier Lalanne, Sheep Station

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Tara Bergin's "This Is Yarrow"



I can't praise highly enough this first book of poems by Tara Bergin. I'm into my second reading, and it's even more compelling than the first round. Favorites, familiar from PN Review or from New Poetries V, are here--"Looking at Lucy's Painting of the Thames," "Himalayan Balsam for a Soldier," "The Undertaker's Tale of the Notebook," "This Is Yarrow"--but now set in the company of poems that deepen and broaden their resonance.

"Acting School" acknowledges the distance between art and life, but brilliantly concludes that "there is a sufficient amount of physical truth" in the former to approximate, and even vivify, the latter. That physical truth I find confirmed, again and again, in the musicality of the verse. It is not drinking water, but in drinking air, poetry comes close to life.

The contradictions and tensions in married life are conveyed with nervous, even harrowing, energy. I love the poem "At the Garage." I was reading the book in Central Park, and had to share that poem with GH, who does not read much poetry. He liked the poem immensely too. The idea, and image, of smearing with grease everything one touches. Being a hands-on kind of person, he could appreciate fully the comparison of ink in tins that etchers use.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Lines from Batu Ferringhi

QLRS has just published my essay on Goh Poh Seng's book-length poem Lines from Batu Ferringhi. Thanks, Hsien Min and Shu Hoong. (In the same issue also, my answers to Shu Hoong's Proust Questionnaire.) The essay will have done its work if it interests someone to re-issue this vital work of Singapore literature.

Batu Ferringhi is a beach area in the north of Penang Island in Malaysia. In the 16th century, Portuguese traders from India stopped at Batu Ferringhi to replenish their water supplies, and their visits gave the place its name. "Batu Ferringhi" means "Foreigner's Rock". At this liminal space between land and sea, one seeks the foreign in one's familiar self. In the 1970s it was famous as a hippie's hangout, as a place where foreigners came to swim "in the nude at the freshwater pools" (according to Wong Chun Wai's 'Life's a beach in Penang'). Goh was not a hippie. He was a married man with children, a doctor, a man-of-letters and, as the Chairman of the National Theatre Trust Board from 1967 to 1972, an arts administrator. Lines from Batu Ferringhi does not refer to this portfolio of public selves, except for one mention of his family. It was as a private man that Goh escaped to Batu Ferringhi in search of renewal and refreshment.  
 In July 1974, Goh stayed at Batu Ferringhi for seven days and celebrated his 38th birthday on the fourth day of his stay. This life-event thus took place in the exact middle of his stay. The symmetry of this division is reinforced by the organisation of his book. Lines from Batu Ferringhi is divided into 10 sections, each section recording a day. The birthday makes up the four middle sections – the heart of the book – flanked on each side by three day-sections. The graceful organisation is, however, only apparent on hindsight. Reading from the beginning of the book, one encounters each section in the same way as the speaker experiences the succession of days: linear, yet unpredictable, or, as Goh puts it, "unguessable". Read more

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Set Honor in One Eye and Death i' th' Other

Saw the Donmar Julius Caesar at St. Ann's Warehouse last night. I liked the concept very much. The play-within-a-play was set in a women's prison. Two levels of meaning ran simultaneously through the play. Shakespeare's Roman world of ambition and betrayal. Also, the modern prison system, with its goal of reform and lust for spectacle. The women were Caesar, Brutus, Cassius, Portia, Calpurnia and so on, but they were also tough broads, rightly or wrongly incarcerated.

In that criminal world, Harriet Walter playing Brutus seemed to come from a different sphere, or from a different play. Her noble poise and her classical training fitted awkwardly with the rest of the cast. Jenny Jules as Cassius took some warming to, but was the most sympathetic figure by the end of the play. I loved the originality of having Mark Anthony (Cush Jumbo) sprawling on the floor, surrounded by a gun-toting mob as he started on his famous funeral oration, but the speech quickly became predictable as he mastered completely the will of the Roman crowd. Clare Dunne was a sensitive yet courageous Portia. Jade Anouka, as Calpurnia, allowed her character's tenderness to show through her haughty bearing.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Three Meta-meta Questions

TLS September 27, 2013

from Kevin Mulligan's review of A. W. Moore’s The Evolution of Modern Metaphysics:

Moore asks three central meta-metaphysical questions. There is the Transcendence Question: can we make sense of “transcendent” things? Then there is the Novelty Question: can we make sense of things in radically new ways? Finally there is the Creativity Question: can we be creative in our sense-making, perhaps in a way that admits of no distinction between being right or wrong, or are we limited to looking for the sense that things already make? Moore’s own view of metaphysics is that it is a “fundamentally creative exercise.” This is partly explained by distinguishing between “propositional” and “non-propositional” knowledge and understanding. Propositional knowledge is knowledge of truths or facts; non-propositional knowledge includes practical knowledge, and the kind of understanding provided by art which shows things it does not say. Metaphysics, he also thinks, should put normative philosophy first: “the most important and the most exciting” way in which metaphysics is able to make a difference to us is by “providing us with radically new concepts by which to live.” He holds that metaphysics is at its best when it employs a mode of expression which is closer to that of art than that of theory. As for necessary connections or truths philosophers have often sought to identify, Moore is attracted by a view he attributes to Wittgenstein: “For something to be a necessity is for our stating it to be an enunciation of one of our grammatical rules.” This deflationary account of necessity is just one of the many part of Wittgenstein’s view of philosophy that Moore finds compelling, and which serve as an object of comparison in many of his chapters.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

singaporepoetry.com

After three weeks of fussing with WordPress, getting stuff together and asking people for permissions, today I launched Singapore Poetry, an e-gallery of all things poetic about Singapore, including poetry! Three people are following the website, after the first day. I am designing an email newsletter using MailChimp to reach out to my sign-up list.

The inaugural page of SP consists of 12 posts:

(1) Singapore Writers Festival
(2) Featured Image: Jason Wee's "Vanishing Distance 5"
(3) Featured Poem: Alvin Pang's "What It Means To Be Landless"
(4) Tan Pin Pin's new documentary To Singapore, with Love, about political exiles
(5) DesignTaxi
(6) Joshua Ip's new book of poems Making Love with Scrabble Tiles
(7) Loh Kah Seng's history book Squatters into Citizens
(8) Singapore's Favorite Poem: a student nominates Cyril Wong's "A Kind of Hush"
(9) new books from Math Paper Press
(10) a newish on-line paper, The Independent, Singapore
(11) Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research, and
(12) a science article about how poetry is like music for the mind.

There are three threads so far. One called Featured Image, the other called Featured Poem, and the last called Singapore's Favorite Poem.

Here's what I wrote on the Welcome page:


Dear Reader,

Thank you for visiting Singapore Poetry. I’m a Singapore poet living in New York, and this website is about poetry by Singaporeans, and all things poetic about Singapore.

When I tell people that I grew up in Singapore, they usually start talking about how clean it is, or how good the street food tastes, or they ask me if bubble gum is really banned in the country. Yes, the pavements in Singapore are so clean that you can eat off them. Yes, the food courts and hawker centers are a paradise for the gourmand. No, you can chew as much bubble gum as you like; you just can’t import it. 

Until they meet me, even the well-traveled, well-read cosmopolitans that many New Yorkers are do not know of any Singapore writers. They may have read Derek Walcott, but they have not heard of Edwin Thumboo. They do not know that there is a continuous tradition of Singapore poetry written since Singapore became independent of the British in 1965.

What’s more, the tradition is very much alive and kicking in this still-new century. Small independent presses have grown up alongside the established outfits. Bookstores like Books Actually and Select Books champion local literature. The annual Singapore Writers Festival showcases Singaporean as well as international authors. Singapore writers travel all over the world to read at literary festivals.

These are the exciting developments that I hope to bring to your notice. If you love good literature, this website is for you. If you love Singapore, or are intrigued by it, having visited, lived or worked in the country, or know someone who has visited, lived or worked in the country, this website is also for you. 

Though the spotlight is on Singapore poetry, this website will also showcase all things poetic about Singapore. By poetic, I don’t just mean beautiful or lyrical; I also mean some quality that cannot be measured in economic terms, but is pursued for its own sake. These other forms of poetry may be found in the performing and fine arts, music, film, design, landscape, people and, yes, food. Singapore Poetry is especially interested in news of doings, happenings, and beings that travel off the beaten track, fly under the radar, and break new ground. Things not already supported by government agencies or public institutions.

So, send me news of all things poetic about Singapore. Or comment on what interests you about the website. Follow Singapore Poetry via email or Word Press. Forward what you like to family and friends. Tell me what your favorite Singapore poem is. In the old word association game, you hear a word and say the first word that comes to mind. Next time someone says Singapore to you, say Poetry.

Cheers,

Jee Leong Koh

Monday, October 14, 2013

Macedonia Brook State Park


Saturday was a glorious day for hiking. P and J rented a zipcar and drove us to Macedonia Brook State Park, near Kent and the village of Macedonia in Connecticut. We took the Blue Trail, which crossed Cobble Mountain and gave us beautiful views of the Catskills and Taconics. Halfway through the trail, we changed to the Green Trail, and walked back to the car along the eponymous brook. There was a bit of rock scrambling in the first half of the hike, but the second half was a leisurely walk on an old pebbled road, under the cathedral ceiling of pines. Yellow leaves floated down in front of us in slow motion. Our feet crunched the dry leaves below.






Then, to celebrate, we made our way to Millbrook Vineyards and Winery for wine-tasting. The winery was in the Hudson Valley region, but it was not too difficult to drive there from Macedonia. We walked about the vineyards--Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Chardonnay, and the vineyard specialty, Tocai Friulano--and picnicked by the small man-made lakes on the estate. The tasting was worth doing, although I would recommend the more expensive Reserve tasting for the discerning wine-drinker.




Saturday, October 12, 2013

New Edition of "Payday Loans"



The cover for the new edition of my first book of poetry, Payday Loans. The design is by by Shellen Teh. It was a real pleasure working with Shellen and with Jocelyn, the editor. They are so professional, and so willing to listen and make adjustments. And of course Kenny Leck makes it all happen. Big thank-you to the Math Paper Press team.

If you magnify the image, you can read my synopsis on the back cover.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Leslie Chamberlain on Roman Jakobson

TLS September 20, 2013

from "Dreams of displaced men" by Leslie Chamberlain:

The flexible way with truth and personal identity that Jakobson learnt seemed to have entered his work both indrectly, in his treatment of encoded meanings in poetry, and indirectly, in his praise for the poetic lie. His essays of the 1920s and 30s celebrated the emotional lie that sustained the hear, and the literary forgery that sustained the nation. Poets, he felt, lived in their personal myth, which was a special kind of truth. . . . In his poetics he cherished the freedom of the word always to mean something else. As he puts it in "What is Poetry" (1933), "Poeticity is present when the word is felt as a word and not as a mere representation of the object being named or an outburst of emotion, when words and their composition, their meaning, their external and inner form, acquire a weight and value of their own instead of referring indifferently to reality". 
... 
If Mayakovsky transcended his misery "in the form of a cycle of transformations undergone by the hero", then Pasternak's lyric prose was "a railway journey during which his excited hero experiences a change of locality . . . ". There Jakobson imagined the vertical axis of imagination and contrasted it with the horizontal, not as evidence of the different ways in which speech can become imparied, but reflecting how, to escape an impossibly shut-down reality, the creative self can still dream; or it can lose itself in displacement. Two fundamental possibilities of continuing self-expression, metaphor and metonym, were open to the soul under pressure.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Brooklyn Book Festival 2013

After a long night of rain, Sunday turned out to be gorgeous. Again, I shared a table with RH of Poets Wear Prada Press. I decided to sell CW's and JI's Math Paper Press books, as well as my own. GH helped me design a sign, Singapore Poetry, which I taped to the top of the stand, and in front of the table.




Singapore Poetry was certainly a draw. People who have lived in Singapore, have visited Singapore, or have a cousin who have been to Singapore came over to talk. Singaporeans came bounding to the table, surprised and pleased to find Singapore Poetry at the Brooklyn Book Festival. A nunber of Asians checked out the books too. And a Brooklyn bookseller who really liked the design of the Math Paper Press books.

I sold three times the number of books sold last year. It was a good idea to sell the books at a generously discounted price. Many other tables were doing so as well, including the university press at the next table. People liked a special offer. Having collected contacts for a mailing list, I am thinking of sending out a monthly newsletter about Singapore, New York and poetry.

PR came, and introduced his husband to me. He and I talked about promoting Singapore Poetry at the festival in some larger way next year. It was an exciting day for me, and it ended perfectly with a drink with P and J at a neighborhood bar-cafe.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Akira Kurosawa's "Rashomon"

Watched this 1950 film last Tuesday, and was wowed by it. I prefer Seven Samurai, but can totally understand why someone may think that Rashomon is the greater film. Essentially a crime drama, it provokes big philosophical questions about the nature of truth. A samurai (Masayuki Mori) is killed and his wife is raped, but those are the only agreed-upon facts in the four tellings of the story. In three of the four versions--by the woman (Machiko Kyô), the bandit (Toshirô Mifune) who raped her, and the dead man speaking through a medium--the teller confesses to the killing. Each version also sheds light on the character of the teller, and why he or she wishes to incriminate himself or herself.

The fourth version is by a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) who revises his initial story to reveal that he was an eyewitness to the murder, but lied to hide his theft of the samurai's dagger. The three other confessions are further complicated by the fact that they were retold by the woodcutter to a commoner under the ruined gateway called Rashomon. The first words of the film "I just don't understand this story" also describe the viewer's reaction at the end of it, but that reaction is coupled with a tremendous impression of the subjectivity of truth, and our capacity for self-deception.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Dipesh Chakrabarty's "Provincializing Europe"

Chakrabarty's project in this book is not so much to subvert the rational-secular view of history, inherited by postcolonial societies from the European enlightenment, as to see around the limitations of that view. In order to do so, one has to give up historicism, the idea of development in history, and of stages in history. Instead, one holds on to the idea of the heterogeneous present, when different world-views are not judged as pre-modern, modern, or even, post-modern (all stageist concepts) but as all life-possibilities. Only when we see the present as irreducibly plural, can we give an accurate account of the past of post-colonial societies. That is the challenge posed by subaltern studies to the dominant European paradigm. The book lays out its theoretical argument in its first part, and illustrates its argument in the second part with specific case studies about Indian widowhood, Indian nationalism, a form of Bengali sociality called adda, and salaried labor. The author freely describes his own theoretical orientation as derived from Marx but inflected by Heidegger.

In my favorite passage, Chakrabarty shows, incidentally, the relevance of his argument to so-called minority pasts in the predominant secular-rational tradition, in this case, the Christian view.

We can--and we do usually in writing history--treat the Santal [Indian peasant] of the nineteenth century to doses of historicism and anthropology. We can, in other words, treat him as a signifier of other times and societies. This gesture maintains a subject-object relationship between the historian and the evidence. In this gesture, the past remains genuinely dead; the historian brings it "alive" by telling the story. But the Santal with his statement "I did as my god told me to do" also faces us as a way of being in this world, and we could ask ourselves: Is that way of being a possibility for our own lives and for what we define as our present? Does the Santal help us to understand a principle by which we also live in certain instances? This question does not historicize or anthropologize the Santal, for the illustrative power of the Santal as an example of a present possibility does not depend on his otherness. Here the Santal stands as our contemporary and the subject-object relationship that normally defines the historian's relationship to his or her archives is dissolved in this gesture. This gesture is akin to the one Kierkegaard developed in critiquing explanations that looked on the Biblical story of Abraham's sacrifice of his son Isaac either as deserving an historical or psychological explanation or as a metaphor or allegory, but never as a possibility for life open today to one who had faith. "[W]hy bother to remember a past," asked Kierkegaard, "that cannot be made into a present?" 
To stay with the heterogeneity of the moment when the historian meets with the peasant is, then, to stay with the difference between these two gestures. One is that of historicizing the Santal in the interest of a history of social justice and democracy; and the other, that of refusing to historicize and of seeing the Santal as a figure illuminating a life possibility for the present. Taken together, the two gestures put us in touch with the plural ways of being that make up our own present. The archives thus help bring to view the disjointed nature of any particular "now" one may inhabit; that is the function of subaltern pasts. 

Friday, September 13, 2013

New Poems


Long Run


Let me in your
adda, shoot the
breeze and hang
up my Adidas.




Living Room


You turn up the
Bose speaker as
you draw the
loft to be built by
Carnegie Hall.




Money Shot


Who gives the smacks
to make these bad gay
movies with such corny
scripts that we keep
getting from Netflix?




Recycled Paper


It’s easy to misread
my handwriting in
the Hallmark card,
to read to have for
its partner to hold.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Group Portraits

Watched Seven Samurai over two nights, and loved it. One of the imdb reviewers put it best, there are certain directors who just "get" it, who get the medium, and Akira Kurosawa is one of them. I was tired, I was doing what I thought of as a "duty," but I was mesmerized throughout the movie (3 hours, 27 minutes). Total involvement, that must be a criterion of great art, surely. Takashi Shimura, who plays the leader of the band, provides the moral center against which Toshiro Mifune's antic samurai tilts. Isao Kimura is the young untested warrior who falls in love with a farmer's daughter.

Less involving but still absorbing is the 1970s cult classic, the break-out novel by Ryū Murakami, Almost Transparent Blue. A group portrait of Japanese hippies (drugs, sex, and rock and roll), it is narrated by a young arts student called Ryū too. The scenes, numbing and addictive, are almost too painful to read, especially the one in which the Japanese had group sex with African American soldiers from the U.S. base. The squalor and pain are balanced by a single scene of beauty, when Ryū and a lover wander in a field of tomatoes, discover an abandoned schoolhouse, and gaze at a plane speeding off on a runway.

Poem: "Stored Value"


Stored Value


Before my MoMA
card expires, I will
top up my plastic
bottle with Perrier.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Poem: "Quality Care"


Quality Care


Don’t slip and sit
hard on the floor
by stepping on
the lemon-scented
overspray of
Furniture Polish.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Poem: "Heavy Weight"


Heavy Weight


I lift the Bench Press
book off the top
shelf and read you
the poem about
love’s carelessness.

Monday, September 09, 2013

Poem: "Science Fiction"


Science Fiction


In your 2(x)ist
underwear I bought
for your birthday you
sighed in our cot,
I woke up in Paris.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Poem: "Short Straw"


Short Straw


Why don’t we have any
A-list friends, you spit
and stick your purple
toothbrush aslant my
Oral-B, blue and down
the middle transparent.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Poem: "Small Help"


Small Help


It doesn’t treat but takes
away the itch, this cream
from Singapore, Mopiko
for mosquito bites, made
of menthol and camphor.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Death as Radical Discontinuity

TLS August 2 2013

from Marci Shore's Commentary piece "Out of the desert: A Heidegger for Poland":

[Krzysztof] Michalski's childhood had coincided with Stalinism in Poland; his adolescence with attempts to purify the Communist system of its Stalinist deviation without abandoning Marxism. At the core of Marxism remained Hegel's claim that "the truth is the whole". "Does the understanding of something suppose finding a unity in that which one wants to understand? Is it only then--when we are able in each fragment see a part of some whole--that we can discover some meaningin the multifariousness of the experienced world?" These questions, Michalski said in an interview, had kept him awake at night since his first years of university. They were at the heart of his book on Heidegger, published in 1978, and at the heart of his book on Nietzsche, published some thirty years later. Coud there be meaning--the kind of meaning that imbues life with value--without wholeness?

My own questions, exactly, but phrased with a precision beyond me.

*

"Life and history," Michalski wrote, "do not go on independently of our participation, like a carousel you can ride or jump off of at will." For Michalski the imperative was to resign from the illusory conviction that there is some point of view from outside time on which we can look at our "now" sub specie aeternitatis and in this way relativize it. No, the time in which we are living possesses its own finality. We are the co-creators of meaning in this time. And so all meanings are fragile, temporary, open to change--but for all that no less deep and binding and real. These meanings are the only ones we have and the ones we must use. 

Yes, that's the paradox: fragile, temporary and changeable, but also deep and binding and real.

*

In an essay of 1974 that Michalski translated for Znak, Potocka described how for Heidegger, responsibility is not a relationship to something that is, to some kind of being, but rather an ontological trait of Dasein--that is, of our own being. ("Patocka used to say," Vaclav Havel wrote in "The Power of the Powerless", that the most interesting thing about responsibility is that we carry it with us everywhere.") This flowed from Heidegger's philosophical project, described by Potocka as "the first radical-to-the-depths attempt to build philosophy on the ground of finitude". This was a fundamental idea that Michalski, too, absorbed from Heidegger: that the condition of possibility for freedom, responsibility and meaning is human finitude--that is, death. Death is always hanging over us, defining our being, for being-in-the-world means being-towards-death. Angst for Heidegger is an anxiety that, unlike fear, has no tangible object. Angst is rather our feeling of not-being-at-home-in-the-world in the face of the nothingness we move towards; it is our confrontation with death. In our daily behavior we flee from that confrontation. In moments of angst our true condition is disclosed to us. In Michalski's reading of Heidegger, human finitude--death as a possibility "not to be outstripped"--is not negative, but is rather the condition of any meaning at all. This finitude is not a prison of the soul, but rather than which reveals the authentic meaning of human existence as freedom.

Angst is not adolescent but adolescents get it. "Heidegger was for me," Michalski wrote, "the philosopher who was able to disclose the weight of each step of my life or of yours."

*

Michalski read Nietzsche similarly, as conceiving of history as "yet another name for the world in which we live: the world of becoming, the world of constant change and irreducible diversity. Attempts  at discovering a goal, a totality, a 'truth' beyond it, attempts at discoverin the 'transcendent meaning' of the world in which we live, or else at understanding in reference to some 'external' system of eference--all these end . . .  in utter failure". For Nietzsche, the attempt to impose some kind of rational whole was life-negating. It was, in essence, nihilism. How can nihilism be overcome? Ultimately, through the confrontation with death, the most radical discontinuity. Death discloses instability, the suspension of meaning. "Death is not a 'something,'" Michalski wrote in The Flame of Eternity: An Interpretation of Nietzsche's Thought, "it is not an object that we need to incorporate into a greater whole. The integreation of life and death disturbs the identity of the former; it shows us that there is no 'whole' to be made of it."

That flips the usual meaning of nihilism: a negation of life by imposing on life a rational system. It sounds right, however, death as a radical discontinuity.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Summer Reading

My big summer reading book was The Tale of Genji, which I read and blogged about in an earlier post. My feelings toward the book are colored by the start of summer and by summer's long afternoons in Central Park. I borrowed from the school library E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime, which I liked enough to be happy to find another novel by him in the apartment in Nice. The Waterworks, my second Doctorow, has a rather predictable plot and characters that seem more symbol than flesh-and-blood. It is a pleasant enough way, however, to learn more about New York City in 1871. For instance, where the New York Library now stands, there used to be a reservoir.

My second loan from the school library was Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground. I swear that I have tried to read the great D many times, but failed every time to get past Chapter One. I thought that the slimness of Notes might help me get into the great Russian, and, boy, did it. I loved its tortured protagonist, who tries so hard to savor his humiliations. "I am a sick man . . . I am a wicked man" is as great an opening as "Call me Ishmael." The bipartite structure of Notes is also interesting. The philosophical part one explains, and is explained by, the narrative part two. Since both parts took place twenty years apart, they comment separately on two different periods of Russian history. Notes has given me the nerve to try again Crime and Punishment.

As for poetry, I read Matt Rasmussen's Black Aperture, which won the Academy of American Poets' Walt Whitman Award, given for a first book. The poems look at his brother's suicide in different ways, through rather surreal imagery. The verse is competent, but nothing took away my breath. At the end of the book, I am left with the rather banal thought, what will he write about next? That is a problem, I think, with books that are too narrowly thematic. And isn't calling oneself "Matt" rather too informal? I am reminded of a Facebook post by an editor who complained of emails from strangers addressing him by his first name.

I decided to bring Anna Akhmatova's Selected Poems with me to France. I wanted to like them more than I actually did. The translator, Walter Arndt, took care to render the poems in matching meter and rhyme. The resulting poems in English feel rather dainty and dated, not the qualities that are usually associated with Akhmatova. I thought of Edna St. Vincent Millay while reading the translations. More unusual, more original, in translation, are her long poems. Requiem, translated by Robin Kemball, is very moving in its depiction of her grief at her son's imprisonment by the Soviet authorities. "A Poem without a Hero" is powerfully phastasmagoric. Of the lyrics, I like best "The river dawdles, valley waters gathering" for its vivid detail, "The cathedral doors are flung wide open" for the specificity of its locale, and the wonderful "Lot's Wife," who "laid down her life for a single glance back."

I also read David Kinloch's In My Father's House, after reading his Finger of a Frenchman. I like both books very much; they share a colorful learnedness and lively curiosity about the world and other people. I prefer, however, In My Father's House, mainly because the more personal themes are more, as my students put it, relatable.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Decatur Book Festival 2013

Front: Wayne Koestenbaum, Megan Volpert, Theresa Davis
Back: Jee Leong Koh, Pablo Miguel Martinez

I was at the Decatur Book Festival this weekend to launch the anthology This Assignment Is So Gay: LGBTIQ Teachers on the Art of Teaching. The launch at Decatur High School, introduced by Georgia State Representative Karla Drenner, and moderated by the school's English Head of Department Cara Cassell, was well-attended. I read with Pablo Miguel Martinez, Theresa Davis and anthology editor Megan Volpert. Ed Madden could not make it to due to a neck problem, but Wayne Koestenbaum kindly stood in, and read two of Ed's poems. The Q&A session after the reading was filled with questions from the audience. How would you motivate homeless LGBTIQ youth to study? What has given you hope recently in your teaching? I was pleased that someone bought a copy of my Seven Studies after just hearing me read one of my poems.


Karla Drenner and Megan Volpert

The Decatur Book Festival is billed as the largest independent book fair in the country. It was certainly very well run. The air-conditioned hospitality suite for authors was a very welcomed respite from the heat. I attended an informative session on self-publishing by the CEO of BookLogix. I also heard Richard Blanco, Obama's 2nd inaugural poet, read in the Decatur Presbyterian Church. I was somewhat discomfited by the arc of his reading, which went from a search for home to finding it in his patriotic inaugural poem "One Today." The audience (congregation?) stood to applaud him at the end of the reading; I remained seated as I did not think that the quality of the poetry deserved my standing.

Laura McCullough and Tom Lux provided more substantial poetic fare at the City Hall stage. Her poems wrestled with violence, particularly gun violence, seen through the lens of bringing up her son. His poems, many of them, described his childhood love for killing things. Since they read in a kind of round-robin fashion, they seemed to be answering one another in the different stances that their poems took towards this knotty problem.

I bought from a clever seller three books for $10. Ryū Murakami's Almost Transparent Blue, Graham Swift's The Light of Day, and Irène Némirovsky's Suite Française. On hindsight, I paid for them from the proceeds of the sale of one copy of my book. It was a good festival.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Nice, August 17 - 24

The train ride from Paris to Nice took more than the promised four-and-a-half hours. The country views were brilliant--open blue skies, ochre rolling fields--and seeing the Mediterranean for the first time as the train hugged the coastline was very special, but next time we will take a plane instead. We left the crowded train station, picked up our apartment keys from a hotel nearby, and walked through the city, rolling our bags behind us. We were struck by how Italian the city looked. The first settlement was founded by the Greeks of Marseilles around 360 BCE. It came under the dominion of Savoy, then France, then Piedmont-Sardinia, and then back to France in 1860. After we had settled into the apartment on Rue de Suede, we took a walk along the famous Bay of Angels, by the Mediterranean.

Nice, Bay of Angels
The next day, the plan was to hit Coco Beach, some way out of the city, but we found an outdoors market when we walked about Vieille Ville, or Old Town. The Sunday market was a display of brilliant colors and enticing smells: olives, breads, nuts, fruits, cheeses, flowers, vegetables, handmade soaps, even fish. We decided to come back to the market after we had climbed Castile Hill. Standing on the old fortification gave breathaking views of the city and of the leisurely and magnificent sweep of the bay. I began to understand why painters like Matisse are drawn to Nice, and then stay. The light was very intense but also very soft. The city presented flat planes of solid red, yellow and brown. We were hungry after the climb. We bought food from the market and GH prepared a delicious lunch of fresh figs, olives, goat cheese and baguette back in the apartment. The rest of the afternoon was spent lounging on Castel Plage, the gayish part of the bay, near to the castle. The beach was made up of rounded stones, not sand. I winced my way to the sea but the cool water made up for the pain. In the evening, we walked along the bay in the other direction, on the famous Promenade des Anglais, and saw the palace-hotels The West-End, Le Royal, The Westminister, Le Negresco tart up in lights.

Altar of La Chapelle du Rosaire
The bus station was very close to where we live. We took Bus 400 the next day to St. Paul de Vence in the hills. St. Paul was a very well preserved medieval fortified village. It had been taken over, however, by art galleries and boutique shops and waves of tourists flooded its narrow streets. I was not too unhappy to leave, on the bus again, for Vence. We had lunch in its main square. I did not go inside the old church on the piazza and so missed seeing Chagall's mosaic there. But that left my eyes clear for Matisse's chapel, the real reason we were in Vence. La Chapelle du Rosaire, or The Chapel of the Rosary, was a marvel, unspoiled even by the harsh tone of the guide explaining in French its design. The front stained glass window showed the Tree of Life in bold yellow, blue and green. The colors--yellow sunlight, green cactus and blue sea--are repeated but in different shapes in the side windows. The three murals are painted in simple strokes in black on white ceramic tiles. By the side of the altar was Saint Dominic, the patron saint of the chapel, imposing in his frontal directness. The other side mural was a Virgin and Child surrounded by forms that could be bushes or clouds. The Christ Child stood up with arms outstretched. He could be on a cross or he could be learning to balance on his mother's lap. At the back of the chapel was The Stations of the Cross. Instead of separate stations, the mural was done as a continous flow, from the judgment of Pilates to the burial of Jesus, with the crucifixion taking appropriately the center of the wall. When I was there, the light through the windows washed the floor and the bottom edge of the murals in color. I guessed the light must illuminate the whole of the murals at some season of the year. Matisse had spent a year observing the light in the chapel before finalizing his design.

Antibes
The next day was another travel day, this time to Antibes. Due to traffic, the bus journey took an agonizingly long time, nearly three hours instead of one-and-a-quarter. The day before, a man who did not wash sat behind us on the bus. GH called him The Stinky Man. For the rest of our time in Nice, anything that went wrong was given the same name. Antibes had less beach than Nice. It perched close to the sea, on a rocky coastline. That gave the city a sense of drama that was in strange consonance with the sailboats gaily waving in the distance. Antibes, for me, was Picasso City. The painter was invited by the then Grimaldi Museum to stay and paint in its rooms. Picasso stayed for six months and then donated some works to the museum such as "The Goat" and "La Joie de Vivre." The museum renamed itself Picasso Museum and received more donations from the painter and his family. Built on the foundations of the ancient Greek city of Antipolis, the Château Grimaldi was an imposing stronghold for Picasso's art. I especially admired his large canvas "Ulysses and the Sirens." There was also a big display of his ceramic plates with drawings of goats, fish and women. There were many still-lifes of sea urchins, eels and fish. The artist was very happy during his time at Antibes. He gave up the minotaur for the faun. After walking about the town for a while, we decided to take the train back, instead of the bus. The train ride took us only 20 minutes.

Lunch in Aix-en-Provence
We rested well and the next morning saw us on the train again, this time to Aix-en-Provence. It was lunch time by the time the train pulled in. Cours Mirabeau, the main drag, was grand but also packed with tourists. GH found a delightful bistro in one of the many sidestreets. He decided to do some drawing while I was seeing the "Grand atelier du Midi" show at the Musée Granet. There were some interesting Cezanne landscapes in the show, but I don't remember much else. We were, I think, more tired by our constant movement than we thought. The spa Thermes Sextius was supposed to be the highlight of the day, but GH did not think very much of its reception area. We decided not to splurge, but had a long coffee in a quiet street before returning to the train station. In the evening, we took the tram to the gay bars, overshot the right stop, and then had a nice dinner at Place Garibaldi. We discovered afterwards that the bars were just around the corner, but they were more restaurants than bars at that hour, and so we left.

Matisse, The Swimming Pool
GH wanted to look at some modern buildings in Nice, and so I went by myself on the bus to Cimiez, where the Matisse Museum was located. Inside the Genoese mansion, I wandered in bliss through room after room of Matisse. There were a few paintings, but drawings, sculptures and cutouts dominated. The standouts for me were les gouaches découpées "Danseuse créole"1951 and "Fleurs et fruits" 1952-1953. Then, in a wonderful climax, I wandered into the room of the most recent donation. Matisse's grandson Paul Duthuit had the artist's cutout "The Swimming Pool" done in ceramic tiles. The work swam, dove and tumbled around the walls of the room in a joyous spirit of refreshment. It was an amazing work from a master who was very close to death. I carried it like a splash of cold water in my head, on the bus down the hill, through lunch in a cheap neighborhood bistro, and into the Mediterranean, where the outside finally met the cool inside.

We were unsure if we were up to traveling to Marseilles the next day, but fortunately we decided that we could not miss this possible chance-in-a-lifetime, and went. We were so glad that we did. The second biggest city in France, Marseilles proved to be a relief from all the picturesque French Riviera and Provencal towns that we had been visiting. It was big, bossy and bustling. Walking towards the sortie of the Metro, we could already smell fish. Unlike in Nice, where the old port was separated from the promenade by Castle Hill, the main drag in Marseilles emerged directly out of the old port. Marseilles was less a French city than a Mediterranean one. It bore a relationship to its country in an odd analogy to the one that New Orleans bears to the United States. A place that refuses to be circumscribed by the national narrative.

Villa Méditerranée
Declared the European Capital of Culture in 2013, Marseilles wore its pride on its sleeve. Shining like the reflective mirror that it was, on the promenade around the old port, was Foster and Partners' Ombrière. Yet, just steps away from the touristy brasseries was a neighborhood joint cooking up an authentic Berber couscous served in plates and bowls of colorful fired clay. The Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations had an eye-popping new extension. The cube-like building was clad with an organic pattern of pre-cast concrete. Next to it was the new Villa Méditerranée, by Boeri Studio, an international center for dialogue and exchanges about the Mediterranean and its peoples. Instead of rising to the sky, it projected itself in its high-tech look over the ancient green waters of the sea. When we were there, we saw half-naked teenage boys jumping off the high embankment into the water, just as they, and their fathers, had always done.

Cité radieuse
There was something else that we had come to Marseilles to see. Inspired by the Le Corbusier exhibition at the MoMA, we wanted to see his Cité radieuse (Radiant City), built on his modernst principle of the Unité d'Habitation. The building combined residential, commercial and office spaces, including a school for children. Its massive and colorful geometry underlined its artistic aspirations, as did the sculptural concrete forms on its roof. The rooftop also afforded a wading pool, sunbathing bays, a pantry and social room, a concert stage, an art school for children and viewing decks for the appreciation of the mountains on one side of the building, and the sea on the other. The third floor housed a restaurant and shops, the fourth floor offices. It was the most inspiring building that I had ever seen. GH was in heaven and could not stop clicking his camera.

I really liked Marseilles and wished that we had more time to see it. Of all the places that we visited in the south, we would return to Nice and Marseilles. Much as we enjoyed the old and the picturesque, our hearts are really with the modern and the vibrant. The latter qualities seem to require a certain size. The next day, we took the train back to Paris, then the Metro and the RER to the airport, then the plane to New York, and finally the subway back home. It was a long, long day of travel but still it did not afford enough time to detach ourselves from the dream of France.