Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Departures and NaPo 15

Departures, directed by Yôjirô Takita, is somewhat sentimental, but I could not help but be moved by the home-coming story. Daigo Kobayashi (played by a lovable Masahiro Motoki) gives up a musical career playing the cello and returns to his hometown. There he stumbles into the job of preparing corpses for burial, a work called nokanshi, or "encoffineer." It soon emerges that he is a man wounded by his father's abandonment at the age of six. By sending off the dead in a tender and professional manner, and thus comforting the mourners, he finally achieves consolation for himself. There is a wonderfully comical scene when Daigo has to model as the corpse for a training video featuring his boss and teacher Ikuei Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki). The symbolism of the scene becomes clear gradually as Daigo undergoes a form of rebirth.


spring wind
walking to work
no sweat!

Monday, April 14, 2014

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Second Saturdays and NaPo13

The second edition of the Second Saturdays reading series was hosted last night by Paul and Al. It was a pleasure to hear Vijay Seshadri read from 3 Sections. Other readers were very good too. Ten readers, but the hour went by quickly. Colin Goh's rendition of the Lord's Prayer into Singlish was hilarious, without being disrespectful. He and Damon Chua each read an extract from their stories in the forthcoming collection Singapore Noir. Marcus Yi read a satirical piece and Teo Kiat Sing read a darker poem by Marcus. Eric Norris read two fine poems, one about Kyoto, and one after Horace. Kenneth Lim read his well-turned poems about love. Christine Chia read a couple of new poems that strongly linked political and romantic disunion. Halfway through, Teo Mei Ann led us in creating a piece of collaborative theater. Contributing one line each, we wrote a discontinuous narrative about coming together as a community.


spring wind
I can go left
or right

Friday, April 11, 2014

A Reading and NaPo 11

Read last night with Charlie Bondhus, Steven Cordova and Walter Holland at the Bureau of General Services--Queer Division. Greg, who works full-time at the Bureau, was lovely to talk to. Al and Paul Rozario-Falcone came, as did Eric Norris. I read "Profiles" and a couple of the ghazals from Seven Studies, "Eve's Fault" from the forthcoming book, and "The old Chinese poets" from The Pillow Book. Eric thought it was the best reading that I had done. I thought so too. I could hear myself relaxed into the music of the lines.


mute swan
a child's drawing
on blue paper

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Sunday, April 06, 2014

NaPo 6

Happening upon Matisse's Jazz cutouts at Indiana University Art Museum, Bloomington

green shoots
the old magician
on a sax



Happening on Jazz was but one of the many happy incidents in Bloomington. The annual ALSCW conference ended last night with a banquet in the beautiful Tudor Room in Indiana Memorial Union, where the conference took place. The eating was followed by readings from the association's journal Literary Imagination. Jim McGregor paid a lovely tribute to his wife Sallie Spence, the founding editor of the journal, by reading a poem by Mark Strand published in the very first issue. Sallie read a poem by the Meringoff prize winner George Kologeris, a poem about his father blessing the house with a spring of basil. Archie Burnett, the current editor, read a non-fictional piece on the commas in the famous first sentence of Austen's Pride and Prejudice, and the same punctuation mark in Milton's Paradise Lost. John Burt regaled our table with Civil War stories. It was lovely to talk more with Misha, Kevin and Dustin, with Helaine and Phil completing the table.

This is my third ALSCW conference. I was feeling terribly awkward and overawed at my first, in Philly. My second, in Athens, Georgia, last year, was better but still suffused with the anxiety of leading an academic panel for the first time in my life. I still feel woefully out of my depth at this third conference, but the colleagues here have been kind and supportive. I exchanged books with Greg Delanty. Many paid compliments to the panel on Asian American poetry. John Briggs, the President, again said last night that he was going to seek out Goh Poh Seng's Lines from Batu Ferringhi, even though it is out of print. This last is of special meaning to me. One reason for writing the essay on Lines was to bring greater notice to the wonderful poem. To do so at such a conference in the States is gratifying. It encourages me to do more research on Goh. John's interest also validates my belief about the ALSCW, that here is an bunch of people who genuinely and deeply care for imaginative literature.

So much to learn from these scholars and writers. I was very impressed by three panels in particular, one on literary translation from German and Slavic Languages, another on compassion in Renaissance Literature, and the third on the chorus in Athenian Tragedy. The presenters showed thorough and passionate mastery of their material and argued eloquently for their topic. The papers were also related in either theme or method, and so gave a ranging sense of the field. The imaginative sustenance for the three days came from the poet George Kologeris. His seriousness of purpose, sincerity of feeling, honesty in diction, made his poetry a wholesome and welcomed meal.

Friday, April 04, 2014

NaPo 3 and 4


green shoots
on a cutting board
for a winter soup



green shoots
new testament
of old roots

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Poetry Event at City College--CUNY

My friend Helen Dano organized a very interesting evening of poetry and discussion at City College--CUNY last night. She invited Rowan Ricardo Philips, Adam Fitzgerald and Bejan Matur not only to read, but to intersperse their reading with responses to questions from the moderator David Groff and City College MFA students. The three poets were very different in their styles and approaches to poetry. Philips was logically rigorous; his poetry showed a feeling for argument and form, and his answers a penchant for accuracy. Fitzgerald wrote much more associative verse, and his answers were more casual and personal. Bejan Matur was the most interesting of the three. The Turkish poet was genuinely and thoroughly mystical in her writing and poetics. There was no irony in her poetry, unless it was the deep irony of being alive in a deadly world.

I had not realized that City College-CUNY had such beautiful stone buildings, an actual campus. After the reading, KM and I went to an Italian restaurant, where I had a so-so seafood risotto. The chocolate cake was superb, however, slightly crusty on the outside, gooey on the inside. It made for a delicious belated birthday celebration.

NaPo 2


green shoots
from the rich loam
outside the condo

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Gandhi

Gandhi (1982), the biopic by Richard Attenborough, was absorbing for all of its 191 minutes. It is to be expected that a film of such magnitude and with such backing would be hagiographic and would ignore all the controversies about the man, but once that reservation has been put aside, the film is an incredible piece of cinema, and well deserves its Oscar and Globe in best direction. Ben Kingsley is a very believable Gandhi, complete with Bapu's Indian-influenced English. Rohini Hattangadi is a very lovely Kasturba Gandhi. Roshan Seth brings some complexity to his portrayal of Pandit Nehru. He is the human working with the superhuman Mahatma.

Oh yes, we also watched Chef's Special (2008), an okay gay comedy directed by Nacho G. Velilla, starring Javier Cámara, Lola Dueñas, and Fernando Tejero, who plays a cute ex-footballer.

National Poetry Writing Month 2014


the rain changes
to snow then to rain
the bus is here

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Rainbow Book Fair 2014

It was a very successful outing for Singapore Poetry at the Rainbow Book Fair yesterday. Sold lots of books and talked to lots of interesting people who stopped by the table. Michael Broder, representing A Midsummer's Night Press, was at the next table. Roxanne Hoffman and her Poets Wear Prada Press was just behind me. Paul Rozario, who was kind enough to help man the table for part of the day, discovered a talent for selling books by chatting people up! We gave out the bookmarks promoting the Singapore Literature Festival in New York in October. I enjoyed reading at the Poetry Salon organized by Nathaniel Siegel. Alex Goh and Christine Chia came for the reading; Sarah Sarai and Charlie Bondhus stayed after theirs. Bryan Borland and Matthew Hittinger came by the table. The only regret was that I was so busy that I could not find the time to look around the fair and say hello to friends.

Singapore Poetry with Costa Rican hat (photo by Alex Goh)


Reading at the poetry salon (photo by Christine Chia)

New friends, Peter LaBerge and Talin Tahajian

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

H. W. Brands's Biography of FDR

Written with a full appreciation of Roosevelt's accomplishments and a frank understanding of his flaws, Traitor to His Class is an engrossing read. The chief burden of the book is to explain how a man of Roosevelt's class and privilege could have become so firm a supporter of ordinary men and women, and so visionary an architect of American internationalism. Part I "Swimming to Health 1882 - 1928" covers the early period, right up to his becoming the Governor of New York. Part II "The Soul of the Nation 1929 - 1937" traces his path to the Presidency and the implementation of New Deal as a response to the Great Depression. The final part "The Fate of the World 1937 - 1945" examines America's entry into WWII and FDR's record as Commander-in-Chief. I was intrigued to learn that, in a moment of carelessness, FDR promised Winston Churchill to send American troops to defend Singapore. The Atlantic Charter was an important document supporting self-rule among the colonies. It explained why newly decolonized nations looked to American instead of the old imperialistic powers of Europe. The only child of an adoring mother, FDR was filled with a sense of his greatness from young. He died, praised by Churchill as "the greatest man" he had ever known.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Great Beauty

Before I forget, for I will:

Really liked Paolo Sorrentino's film "The Great Beauty" ("La grande bellezza") for its leisurely beauty and heartfelt melancholy. Toni Servillo was superb as Jep Gambardella, who launched himself into Rome's elite circles on the wings of a brilliant first novel, sustained his altitude on seductive charm and cutting wit, but could not write another novel because he did not find the great beauty, even after years and years of half-hearted searching. Bringing in the Saint at the end, a nun who had devoted her life to serving the poor in Africa, did not feel cheesy, but provided proper foil to a wasted life. Yet who can say the life is wasted? For if beauty comes in fragile flashes, all we can do is to catch it while we can. The soundtrack was magnificent.

"7 Virgins" ("7 vírgenes"), directed by Alberto Rodríguez, was not a great film by any standarrds, but it was very watchable. Tano, played by an engaging Juan José Ballesta, was given 48-hour leave from the juvenile reform center to attend his brother's funeral. He lived those hours with the devil-may-care insouciance of a teenager raised in the blue-collar district of southern Spain. By the end of his leave, however, his world has crumbled around him. The title is a reference to a superstition that if you light two candles before a mirror, you will see your future in the mirror.

The Paul Gauguin show at the MoMA was very informative. The prints and transfer drawings revealed an artist who worked and reworked motifs across a wide range of media. I did not know before that Gauguin's mother's family came from Peru. In fact, the artist spent his earliest years in Lima. His father died during the voyage from Paris, and so his mother, wearing traditional costumes, was his all-in-all. That explains, in part, his obsession with the "primitive" women of French Polynesia. His use of the long format in painting was influenced by temple frieze, in particular, those of Borobudur. The colors of the paintings were very strong and sensual. No wonder Matisse fell under their influence.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Thought of a Novelist

from an interview Philip Roth gave to Daniel Sandstrom, the cultural editor at Svenska Dagbladet, for publication in Swedish translation in that newspaper and in its original English in the NYT Book Review:

Whoever looks for the writer's thinking in the words and thoughts of his characters is looking in the wrong direction. Seeking out a writer's "thoughts" violates the richness of the mixture that is the very hallmark of the novel. The thought of the novelist that matters most is the thought that makes him a novelist. 
The thought of a novelist lies not in the remarks of his characters or even in their introspection but in the plight he has invented for his characters, in the juxtaposition of those characters, and in the lifelike ramifications of the ensemble they make--their density, their substantiality, their lived existence actualized in all its nuanced particulars, is in fact his thought metabolized. 
The thought of the writer lies in his choice of an aspect of reality previously unexamined in the way that he conducts an examination. The thought of the writer is embedded everywhere in the course of the novel's action. The thought of the writer is figured invisibly in the elaborate pattern--in the newly emerging constellation of imagined things--that is the architecture of the book: what Aristotle called simply "the arrangement of the parts," the "matter of size and order." The thought of the novel is embodied in the moral focus of the novel. The tool with which the novelist thinks is the scrupulosity of his style. Here, in all this, lies whatever magnitude his thought may have.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Business of Self-Betrayal

from Marc Robinson's review of The Long Voyage: Selected letters of Malcolm Cowley, 1915 - 1987, edited by Hans Bak:

After reading Malcolm Cowley's first collection of verse, Blue Juniata (1929), Conrad Aiken asked: "What do you think or feel which is secretly you? Shamefully you? Intoxicatingly you? Drunkenly or soberly or lyrically you?" In the poems, to Aiken's eye, "this doesn't come out", their creator having "avoided the final business of self-betrayal". 
"[Malcolm Cowley:] It's really easier to give your life to a cause than to hold out for a particular sentence that embodies your way of looking at life -- yet if you surrender on the wording of a sentence, and another sentence, pretty soon you find yourself living for the opposite cause to the one you had intended to die for." As a description of "self-betrayals" possible in style alone, this can hardly be bettered.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Haruki Murakami's "Norwegian Wood"

Death is not the opposite of life but a part of it. This is what Toru Watanabe, the protagonist of the novel, learns from the suicide of his best friend Kizuki at the age of seventeen. Toru and Kizuki's girlfriend Naoko, joined by this incommunicable sadness, struggle in their different ways to live with the knowledge of death. The novel is a tender depiction of this struggle, its momentary successes, its relapses, its endurance. Naoko finally puts herself in a progressive mental health farm, Ami Hostel, in the hope of getting better. On a long bus ride to visit her, Toru passes through interminable cedar woods, broken only by small rural villages. The landscape of that bus ride becomes, very quietly, a metaphor for living with death.

The supporting cast is vividly drawn. Reiko, Naoko's older roommate at the farm, is a wise, loving guitar-playing, Malboro-smoking presence. Nagasawa, who lives in the same student dorm as Toru, treats life as a test of will, whether he is out looking for girls or learning Spanish from TV to embark on a high-flying career in the Foreign Ministry. Midori is the filth-talking student who finally brings Toru back to the side of life. One of the most memorable scenes in the novel happens when Toru accompanies Midori to visit her dying father in hospital. Looking at Toru eating hungrily a cucumber wrapped in nori and dipped in soya sauce, the father asks for some too. The crunchy freshness of cucumber is the taste of life. It is the taste for life.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Albek Duo and Poem

Debbie Chou invited me to a concert at Steinway Hall last night. The ornate building was put up in 1926, white marble from Italy, green marble from Greece. I was glad to see it before the company's move at the end of the year. The performers were the Albek Duo, twin sisters from Switzerland. Ambra Albek played the violin and viola, Fiona Albek the piano. They opened the program with pieces by American composer William Perry, who was present in the audience. I enjoyed very much their performance of Edvard Grieg's Sonata No. 3 in C minor, Opus 45, (1886). Their musicianship shone through. They were lovely in person too, when we talked a little during the reception afterwards.

Wrote another haiku this morning. Not related to the concert last night.

I forgot
my heavy coat--
miss you.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Postmodern American Poetry

I've been ploughing through the Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry, more out of a sense of obligation than anything. I am surprised, however, by the amount of pleasure I received. Sure, there were many things that I would not care to read again, but the poets that I would sue to know better were not a few.

I still think Charles Olson is over-rated. John Cage I read with anthropological interest rather than aesthetic delight. Robert Duncan's mysticism is too hand-wavy for me; I am more for Denise Levertov's "ecstatic Protestantism," as editor Paul Hoover puts it. "Illustrious Ancestors" and "Where Is the Angel?" bear re-reading. I am also drawn to Barbara Guest's lyricism. Her "Red Lilies" begins so practically: "Someone has remembered to dry the dishes;/they have taken the accident out of the stove," and ends with magical flight: "The paper folded like a napkin/other wings flew into the stone." Robert Creeley I find thin, despite of his musicality.

The New York School has weathered very well. They are fun to read. James Schuyler's "The Crystal Lithium" is a beautiful and convincing nature poem. "Letter to a Friend: Who Is Nancy Daum?" is terrific, as is "Korean Mums." Kenneth Koch is sharp and funny. Jack Spicer I find pretentious, but I did enjoy his re-writes of the tales of Arthur's knights, Gawain and Percival. Frank O'Hara is a joy. John Ashbery I don't get most of the time. He gives me the feeling that I have been had.

Larry Eigner's poetry is very spare, Japanese. He wrote what he observed from his wheelchair. Ed Dorn's "On the Debt My Mother Owed to Sears Roebuck" is very moving. Gregory Corso is a wild thing; witness "Last Night I Borrowed a Car." I have always liked Gary Snyder's "Riprap," and like here his homespun wisdom in "Hay for the Horses," "The Bath" and "Axe Handles." Amiri Baraka, who died this year, is all ideas.

I enjoyed Susan Howe's This That but the poems in this anthology, not as much. The extracts from Lyn Hejinian's My Life drift pleasantly but do not seize nor excite. Nothing to hold the attention from Joan Retallack to Wanda Coleman. Ron Silliman cannot forget that he is a critic even in his poetry. I got more out of re-reading Mei-mei Berssenbrugge than the first time.

The Language poets bore me to tears.

Bin Ramke's long poem "The Ruined World" is compelling. I'd like to read more of his work. I don't like Eileen Myle's way of breaking lines into one or two words. I enjoyed John Yau's cinematic poems, and was tickled to read his poem about Singlish called "ing Grish." Myung Mi Kim's poetry does nothing for me, does nothing to me, whereas Mark McMorris' does. I like the tone of intimacy in his Letters to Michael. Yes, he does talk about grammar and the torque of syntax, but his poems are one person speaking (or writing) or another: "The wound cannot close; language is a formal exit/is what exits from the wound it documents."

Of Kenneth Goldsmith and conceptual poetry, let me quote one avant-gardist against another. Drew Gardner, one of the "founders" of Flarf: "Conceptualism repeats gestures that were vetted and digested forty years ago in the art world and displays them in the poetry world virtually unchanged: it is a remake. Poetry is too out of it to notice. And thus Conceptualism hits an intellectual pitch. The intellectual pitch, it could be noted, of the art history professor" (in "Why Flarf Is Better Than Conceptualism").

I like what Elizabeth Willis wrote in her essay "The Arena in the Garden: Some Thoughts on the Late Lyric": "The language of progress tyrannizes poetry. . . . What's new is obsolete within seconds." Her poem "The Witch" is sexy, challenging and self-aware, permanent qualities of lyrical poetry. I hope she outlasts the noisy K. Silem Mohammad. Linh Dinh is another poet who turns his imagination to critical use. "Continuous Bullets Over Flattened Earth" is terrific, as are "Vocab Lab" and "Body Eats." They may sound didactic outwardly, but their inner voice is discovery.

And I certainly want to read more Eleni Sikelianos.

Christian Bök is one ingenious dude. Drew Gardner's Flarf poetry is good for a laugh, which is more than you can say for most of the poets in this anthology. "Chicks Dig War" is clever pastiche.

The Black Mountain poets have their Black Mountain college. The Language poets have their University of California, Berkeley and their SUNY-Buffalo. There is a coterie formed of the alumni of Brown University too. Now, every avant-garde must develop from a coterie, if only for mutual support and encouragement. But I prefer the coteries that are not based around institutions like universities and do not transmit their doctrines in a classroom, but are rather informal networks of friendships. Whether they are the New York School or the Flarf group, a ridiculous joie de vivre survives in their verse.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Cathay Cinema Connection

GH and I have been watching a number of French gay movies. "Times Have Been Better" (2007), directed by Régis Musset and starring Bernard Le Coq, was one of the better ones. Gay son comes out to liberal parents, who freak out.

Watched last week Greta Garbo and John Gilbert smolder in "Flesh and the Devil" (1926), directed by Clarence Brown, with cinematography by William Daniels. The black-and-white silent film, based on Hermann Sudermann's novel The Undying Past, was completely absorbing. After seducing the John Gilbert character, Garbo marries his childhood friend, played by the very handsome Lars Hanson. When her husband finds the two of them in a compromising position, the men fight a duel. In an attempt to stop them, Garbo falls into the icy lake, in a memorable scene. A melodrama, sure, but very pretty.

Last evening, I watched quite a different movie, Yasujiro Ozu's "An Autumn Afternoon" (1962). The Japanese director's last film, it returns to the theme of "Late Spring." A father (Chishû Ryû) seeks to marry off a daughter before she becomes too old for marriage. Unlike the daughter in "Late Spring" who is contented to serve her father for the rest of her life, the daughter (Shima Iwashita) in "An Autumn Afternoon" has her eyes on a young man, but loses him, because she feels obligated to serve her father and younger brother.

The social canvas is much wider in the later film. It takes in the father's former classmates, all successful businessmen now, and their former teacher, whose poverty and reliance on his spinster-daughter serve the protagonist as warning. It also takes in the relationship between the older son and the son's wife, a young couple eager to own a modern convenience such as a refrigerator.

The war is also part of the film. In "Late Spring," it was the cause of the daughter's illness, and so, unfitness for marriage. In "An Autumn Afternoon," the father, who commanded a warship, runs into a crew member. Whereas the subordinate remembers the war fondly as a time of mission and discipline, the father remarks gently that perhaps it is better that Japan did not win the war. I learned from Wikipedia that Ozu was sent to Singapore during WWII to make a film with Chandra Bose. Stationed in Cathay Cinema, he had little inclination to work, but watched American films provided by the Army information corps. In my poem "Heads," I wrote about Japanese soldiers watching American films in Cathay Cinema. Little did I know that one of them was Ozu!

Monday, February 17, 2014

LoveSingapore? Call It Hate Instead.

Over the weekend, proof was uncovered of a systematic campaign of hatred against LGBT people in Singapore. A secret guide, compiled and distributed by LoveSingapore, the proselytizing arm of Faith Community Baptist Church, calls for churches to form "Action Groups" to pressure the government to uphold Section 377A of the Penal Code. The infamous law, a legacy of the British colonial government, criminalizes sodomy, and so stands in the way of equal rights for all citizens of Singapore, straight and gay. Titled "Support 377A: a simple guide to giving feedback," the church document is astonishing in its deviousness, hypocrisy and self-deception.

































































































































































































































Good Morning, Late Spring

The plot of Late Spring (1949) reminds me a little of The Golden Bowl. A daughter who loves her widowed father so much that parting, in the form of marriage, is such sweet sorrow. Setsuko Hara plays Noriko Samiya with real inwardness. Having just recovered from an illness during the war, she is seen at the age of 28 to be ripe for marriage. Her father (Chishû Ryû), knowing her attachment to him, and concern for his old age, tricks her into leaving him by pretending to contemplate marriage with a widow. I was thrilled to see Ryōan-ji in the film. The visit to the famous dry garden in Kyoto is the last trip that father and daughter take together, before she leaves the home to be married.

Set in suburban Tokyo, Good Morning (1959) is a humorous satire of postwar consumerism and adult mannerisms. Two boys, brothers, take a vow of silence when their parents refuse to buy them a TV. Their silence comments nicely on the use of small talk as a social lubricant in the adult world. The boys can't understand why the adults talk so much. They give greetings, gossip, carry tales, and, in the case of two young people (Chishû Ryû and Yoshiko Kuga), exchange pleasantries about the weather, instead of expressing their feelings for each other. Yasujirô Ozu drew sterling comic performances from all the child actors.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Foucault Reader

After encountering the critical thought of Nietzsche, I have wondered how to apply it to social and political problems. Foucault shows one way of doing so, through the genealogical analysis of power relations in society.

From an interview in Power/Knowledge:
The history which bears and determines us has the form of a war rather than that of a language: relations of power, not relations of meaning. History has no "meaning," though it is not to say that it is absurd or incoherent. On the contrary, it is intelligible and should be susceptible to analysis down to the smallest detail--but this in accordance with the intelligibility of struggles, of strategies and tactics....

What makes power hold good, what makes it accepted, is simply the fact that it doesn't only weigh on us as a force that says no, but that it traverses and produces things, it induces pleasure, forms knowledge, produces discourse....

From the essay "Nietzsche, Genealogy, History":
Humanity does not gradually progress from combat to combat until it arrives at universal reciprocity, where the rule of law finally replaces warfare; humanity installs each of its violences in a system of rules and thus proceeds from domination to domination....

From Discipline and Punish:
The perpetual penality that traverses all points and supervises every instant in the disciplinary institutions compares, differentiates, hierarchizes, homogenizes, excludes. In short, it normalizes....

Traditionally, power was what was seen, what was shown, and what was manifested and, paradoxically, found the principle of its force in the movement by which it deployed that force. Those on whom it was exercised could remain the shade; they received light only from that portion of power that was conceded to them, or from the reflection of it that for a moment they carried. Disciplinary power, on the other hand, is exercised through its invisibility; at the same time it imposes on those whom it subjects a principle of compulsory visibility. In discipline, it is the subjects who have to be seen....

The "Enlightenment,"which discovered the liberties, also invented the disciplines....

From an interview with Paul Rabinow, titled "Space, Knowledge and Power":
Liberty is a practice.... The liberty of men is never assured by the institutions and laws that are intended to guarantee them. This is why almost all of these laws and institutions are quite capable of being turned around. Not because they are ambiguous, but simply because "liberty" is what must be exercised.... The guarantee of freedom is freedom....

From The History of Sexuality, Volume I:
This new persecution of the peripheral sexualities entailed an incorporation of perversities and a new specification of individuals. As defined by the ancient civil or canonical codes, sodomy was a category of forbidden acts; their perpetrator was nothing more than the juridical subject of them. The nineteenth-century homosexual became a personage, a past, a case history, and a childhood, in addition to being a type of life, a life form, and a morphology, with an indiscreet anatomy and possibly a mysterious physiology. Nothing that went into his total composition was unaffected by his sexuality. It was everywhere present in him: at the foot of all his actions because it was their insidious and indefinitely active principle; written immodestly on his face and body because it was a secret that always gave itself away. It was consubstantial with him, less a habitual sin than as a singular nature. We must not forget that the psychological, psychiatric, medical category of homosexuality was constituted from the moment it was characterized--Westphal's famous article of 1870 on "contrary sexual sensations" can stand as its date of birth--less by a type of sexual relation than by a certain quality of sexual sensibility, a certain way of inverting the masculine and the feminine in oneself. Homosexuality appeared as one of the forms of sexuality when it was transposed from the practice of sodomy onto a kind of interior androgyny, a hermaphrodism of the soul. The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species....

From Preface to The History of Sexuality, Volume II:
But I reflected that, after all, it was best to sacrifice a definite program to a promising line of approach. I also reminded myself that it would probably not be worth the trouble of making books if they failed to teach the author something he hadn't known before, if they didn't lead to unforeseen places, and if they didn't disperse one toward a strange and new relation with himself. The pain and the pleasure of the book is to be an experience.

From Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics:
No! I'm not looking for an alternative; you can't find the solution of a problem in the solution of another problem raised at another moment by other people. You see, what I want to do is not the history of solutions, and that's the reason why I don't accept the word alternative. I would like to do the genealogy of problems, of problematiques. My point is not that everything is bad, but that everything is dangerous, which is not exactly the same as bad. If everything is dangerous, then we always have something to do. So my position leads not to apathy, but to a hyper- and pessimistic activism....

I think the ethico-political choice we have to make every day is to determine which is the main danger....

There were exercises in order to make one master of oneself. For Epictetus, you had to be able to look at a beautiful girl or a beautiful boy without having any desire for her or him. You have to become completely master of yourself.

Sexual austerity in Greek society was a trend or movement, a philosophical movement coming from very cultivated people in order to give their live much more intensity, much more beauty. In a way, it's the same in the twentieth century when people, in order to get a more beautiful life, tried to get ride of all the sexual repression of their society, of their childhood. Gide in Greece would have been an austere philosopher....

I think that from the theoretical point of view, Sarre avoids the idea of the self as something which is given to us, but through the moral notion of authenticity, he turns back to the idea that we have to be ourselves--to be truly our true self. I think that the only acceptable practical consequence of what Sartre has said is to link his theoretical insight to the practice of creativity--and not of authenticity. From the idea that the self is not given to us, I think that there is only one practical consequence: we have to create ourselves as a work of art....

From an interview with Paul Rabinow in May, 1984, about polemics, politics, and problemizations:
I like discussions, and when I am asked questions, I try to answer them. It's true that I don't like to get involved in polemics. If I open a book and see that the author is accusing an adversary of "infantile leftism," I shut it again right away. That's not my way of doing things. I don't belong to the world of people who do things that way. I insist on this difference as something essential: a whole morality is at stake, the morality that concerns the search for the truth and the relation to the other. 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Monday, February 10, 2014

A Separation

Watched last night "A Separation," a superb Iranian film written and directed by Asghar Farhadi. A couple seeks a divorce because the wife wants to leave the country to give her daughter a better future whereas the husband wants to stay to look after his father suffering from Alzheimer's. The separation begins a chain of events that is completely involving in its human drama. The acting is uniformly strong: Peyman Moaadi as the husband Nader; Leila Hatami as the wife Simin; Sarina Farhadi as their daughter Termeh; Sareh Bayat as the hired help Razieh; Shahab Hosseini as Razieh's hot-tempered husband Hojjat. Even the minor characters such as Termeh's teacher and Razieh's young daughter are entirely believable.

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This morning's haiku does not have anything to do with the film. Or does it?


what kind of birds
live in these nests of snow?
they must fly young

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Saturday, February 08, 2014

Friday, February 07, 2014

Zen Landscapes

I'm still thinking about Zen Landscapes by Allen S. Weiss. The unity of Zen aesthetics in landscaping, flower-arrangement, ceramics and poetry, all ultimately informed by the tea ceremony. A stone on a bed of gravel may constitute a garden worthy of contemplation. Raked to represent waves, the gravel is thus both fixed and moving, permanent and transient. Flaws are part of the beauty of the contemplated object. I don't think W. H. Auden was into Zen, but he captured the sentiment in "And the crack in the tea-cup opens / A lane to the land of the dead."


again I passed
the garden without looking,
some snow, a stone

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Missing Subject Line

Wrote a poem to thank Elsa for her Christmas present of Arthur Yap's Complete Poems. The poem "Missing Subject Line" is now published as part of a Singaporean collaboration with Prairie Schooner in the latter's Fusion series. Thanks, Alvin Pang, for editing the Singapore selection. Thanks, Kwame Dawes, for the brilliant idea behind Fusion.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Learning Japanese

I started learning conversational Japanese yesterday. Met Chisato, recommended by PB, at Panera Bread and looked at basic traveler's phrases. Pronunciation is not difficult. Memorization will take some effort.

I've been dipping into Buson's haikus for a month or two now. I do love the warmth and immediacy of his poetry. He makes me want to be a haiku poet. Never had that feeling when reading Basho and Issa. But it's hard to write haiku when the heart is in a state of agitation.

Bought Zen Landscape at the New Museum bookstore. Allen S. Weiss writes with genuine feeling about Japanese dry gardens, tea ceremony and ceramics. Wabi-sabi. Mono no aware. An aesthetics of simplicity, asymmetry, use value, old age and the seasons.

I'm really looking forward to our trip to Japan in August. I will launch the Japanese translation of The Pillow Book in Tokyo. GH and I are also thinking of visiting Kyoto, and a hot spring town between the two big cities.

Chikatetsu wa doko desu ka?

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Yeng Pway Ngon's Poems of Rebellion

I must confess that I don't know any Singapore poetry written in languages other than English. Alvin Pang and Goh Beng Choo perform a signal service for me and others like me by translating Yeng Pway Ngon, an important poet who writes in Chinese. Born in 1947, Yeng has written not only poetry, but also essays, fiction, plays and literary criticism, 24 volumes so far. He was the editor and publisher of two literary magazines, Teahouse in the 1980s and Encounter in the 1990s. He has had a long and distinguished literary career. In 2003 he received Singapore's Cultural Medallion for Literature.

The pamphlet I bought from Books Actually last summer offers a selection of his early poems, published between 1967 and 1970. It is intended to be the first part of a series of translations of Yeng's poetry. Titled Poems 1 [Rebellion], the work is very much that of a young man, as he agonizes over his place in the world and lashes out at careerism and consumerism.

Steeped in the Anglo-American poetic tradition, I hear in these poems echoes of T. S. Eliot. The opening poem "Aria" begins with the image of a rose garden and goes on to describe how "the heart of each afternoon is thick with weeds." The second poem "Cafe," with its depiction of ennui, deploys a refrain similar to the one in "Prufrock," and urban images that resemble those in "Preludes." The third and longest poem is titled, in an allusion to the most famous image in "Prufrock," "On the Operating Table." And yes, it refers to a wasteland. These are poems of a young poet absorbing and finding a use for his poetic influences.

I hear a more original voice emerging in the next poem "Telephone Booth." Comparing the public telephone to a woman, the poem is witty and sexy. It develops the comparison in non-obvious ways, before reaping the rewards of directness.


all she does is fool around with chewing gum
standing between mirrors
calling her own name
falling in love with shifting colours on glass surfaces

still for her sake you lift the receiver
stroke her face
stick your piece of nickel into her

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Roberto Bolaño's "The Savage Detectives"

Just finished reading The Savage Detectives this afternoon, and loved it for the poignant depiction of the loss of youthful hopes. The formal ambition is also thoroughly admirable. The first and third parts are written by a young visceral realist novitiate Juan Garcia Madero in the form of diary entires. The second, and largest part, consists of the stories of about 50 people whose lives crossed with those of the founders of visceral realism, Ulises Lima (based on Bolaño's friend Mario Santiago) and Arturo Belano (Bolaño's alter ego). Written as if they are being interviewed, these stories show how impossible it is to pin down who the poets are; everyone has a different take on them. The parallel in the detective plot lies in the quixotic search by Lima and Belano for the stridentist poet Cesárea Tinajero, the mother of visceral realism.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Haruki Murakami's "Underground"

I'm planning to visit Japan in August and so when I found Haruki Murakami's work of journalism Underground at Kramerbooks in D.C., I bought it immediately, for who can resist a book subtitled "The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche"?

The first, and bigger, part of the book consists of interviews with the victims of the gas attacks, and the family of those who died. These interviews are ordered according to the subway lines on which the Aum attack on March 20, 1995, a Monday, took place. Dissatisfied with the presentation by the Japanese media of a collective image of "the innocent Japanese sufferer," Murakami wanted to discover and document the actual people behind the label of victims, to recognize that each person had, as he puts it, "a face, a life, a family, hopes and fears, contradictions and dilemmas." Most interesting, and moving, are the interviews of the subway staff who had to respond to the emergency. Their interviews are suffused with pain, guilt, horror, self-justification, and, above all, bewilderment over unanswerable what-if questions.

Part Two of the book consists of interviews with former and present members of the Aum sect, though not with the attackers who were imprisoned or still on trial at the writing of the book. Most members interviewed have struggled with the meaning and purpose of life since young, while feeling alienated from the conformism and competition that they saw around them. They report their strong sense of relief when they became a renunciate and pledged themselves to follow Asahara, the leader of the sect, unconditionally. Even after the gas attack, they hold on to the idea that there is some good in the sect's teaching, and some try to locate a point in time when the organization went wrong.

Intriguing detail, from Akio Namimura's interview: when the police took him in for questioning, for being an Aum member, they asked him to trample on a photo of Shoko Asahara to prove that he had renounced his faith, "like it was in the Edo period when they made the Japanese Christians renounce their faith by stepping on a drawing of Jesus," Namimura comments.

In an essay that concludes Part One, Murakami reflects on what actually happened in the Tokyo Subway on that fateful day. Thinking about how Aum members actively sought to be controlled by Asahara, he wrote some perspicacious remarks about narrative:

If you lose your ego, you lose the thread of that narrative you call your Self. Humans, however, can't live very long without some sense of a continuing story. Such stories go beyond the limited rational system (or the systematic rationality) with which you surround yourself; they are crucial keys to sharing time-experience with others. 
Now a narrative is a story, not logic, not ethics, nor philosophy. It is a dream you keep having, whether you realize it or not. Just as surely as you breathe, you go on ceaselessly dreaming your story. And in these stories you wear two faces. You are simultaneously subject and object. You are the whole and you are a part. You are real and you are shadow. "Storyteller" and at the same time "character." It is through such multilayering of roles in our stories that we heal the loneliness of being an isolated individual in the world.

Aum members, however, gave up the complications and confusions of their own narrative and accepted the simplified, junky, and cobbled-together narrative put out by Asahara. Murakami, however, turns the knife further and deeper, by asking the reader:

Haven't you offered up some part of your Self to someone (or something), and had taken on a "narrative" in return? Haven't we entrusted some part of our personality to some greater System or Order? And if so, has not that System at some stage demanded of us some kind of "insanity"? Is the narrative you now possess really and truly your own? Are your dreams really your own dreams? Might not they be someone else's vision that could sooner or later turn into nightmare? 

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.