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Showing posts from July, 2006

Gay Poetry Reading in Singapore

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Together with other Singaporean poets, I will be reading my poems at ContraDiction, the second gay poetry reading in Singapore. The reading is on Thu, Aug 3, at 7.30 p.m. Place is Mox Bar, 21 Tanjong Pagar Road, within walking distance from the Tanjong Pagar MRT station. Everyone is invited to the party!

Exilic Time

I’m flying back to Singapore for a two week visit. I don’t know when Singapore stopped feeling like a home to me. It happened earlier than my flight to New York to write poetry and come out as gay. Earlier than my undergraduate years at Oxford when the Anglican church appeared a more favorable spiritual home. National service, with its regimentation, terror and unreason, only confirmed, but not initiated, my feeling of alienation.

The loss of a home is not the same as leaving home. Leaving involves personal choice. In Singapore, you decide to get married, and you leave home to set up a home of your own. In Britain or the States, you leave home to set off on the adventure of college, expecting to make your own way after that decisive break. My American friends who return home to live with their parents after college always speaks of that homecoming with a rueful sheepishness. You don’t have a choice, however, in losing a home. The loss comes to you, whether in the form of a letter or a …

Read Bill Knott

He is consistently original in language and thought, and he is posting his poems on his blog. I read The Unsubscriber, and poem after poem blew me away.

Here's the beginning of the first, and titular, poem of that book:

Like all children, you were a de facto
Member of the Flat Earth Society,
Believing nothing but what you could see
Or touch or whatever sense led act to...

The four lines are the first quatrain of a very contemporary sonnet. His non-reverent use of traditional forms is also an exciting aspect of the book.

Antigone in the Shower

Why should I bury him and die for it,
a sister's blood splashed over a dead brother?
But what is water if it isn't wet?

He led the city while I followed the spit
baptising the brother we called our father.
Why should I bury him and die for it?

Exiled, he partied with the Argive set.
So let his lover bury his own lover,
for what is water if it isn't wet?

He led the Argive army to commit
treason. My brother killed my brother
(Why should I bury him?) and died for it.

The gods will understand. I will forget
this foolishness. I must finish my shower.
Why should I bury him? To die for it.
What is water if it isn't wet?

The Long Slide

"When I see a couple of kids/And guess he’s fucking her...” Philip Larkin

In the American season of paradise,
I hear through the plywood wall
my roommate fucking his girl at 3 a.m.
They mouth the same script every time,
he going aargh, Aargh! she yelping,

to encourage him, perhaps. In my poetry
workshop, the girls fuck their dads, their mums,
their best friends’ pets, and the poems
never sound happy. They always blame
their dads, their mums, the pets, themselves

or they complain a good fuck doesn’t last.
I start a poem about a good fuck
but it slumps into a complaint in the end.
It refuses to be happy, as if sadness,
or badness, is the only mirror for the soul

and the only way to end a fucking poem.
Rather than words comes the thought of a slide,
long, but not straight long, curling long
round and down, and the slider sliding down
so fast he keeps catching sight of himself.

Sexual Harassment

It’s hardly my fault. There I was
reading Maurice in a corner seat
when this brownhaired undergrad
staggered in with a stack of books
and decked them all on the low table

between us. His quick fingers browsed
the shelved bookspines, parted them
and shoved returns into the gap.
I tried to read the face of his back
but his thick checked shirt was a curtain.

Then he reached for the higher ledge,
as if putting his hands up on the wall,
and drew his drape up slightly.
The sun lit the line of hair that slid
from the torso’s nape into the jeans.

Given to ogling at stage-flats,
non-interactive things, I held
my paperback like a program.
He did not catch me looking at
him when he turned to pick up books.

Chastity-belted in thermal wear,
my groin snarled, I admit, to chance
the law’s, and his, displeasure, bang
him on the table, send books flying
off dusty shelves, medieval racks,

but I honestly swear I did not lay
the tiniest finger on him, I did not
say a single word, and certainly
did not, despite the book, hope
he’d es…

7. Parting Gifts

The seventh, and last, part of the sequence:
1. Hotel Peninsula
2. Daylilies
3. Clear Wrap
4. Visual Sense
5. Galapagos
6. Natural History

7. Parting Gifts

I know you told me not to get you anything from Singapore, but I really wanted to give you something…

Here’s one more for your album. Let me give you Queens,
the one borough you did not see. A boulevard
of body shops and billboards, it’s an old graveyard
abandoned by the Irish and Italians it weans

from suckling at familiar pubs and tombstone tits.
Others have moved in, with their gods and groceries,
and make (lawyers as mediums) with authorities
their various accommodations, their different debts.

In the day they maneuver, working their controls,
their bodies up the levels and around the screen.
At night they play the same game, only the scene
has changed. The pitch or maze or city is the soul’s,

in which the aim, as in the day, is mastery.
Opening bakeries or books needs a sharp eye.
Practice makes love, and taekwando, perfect. Try
again because we cann…

6. Natural History

I've posted this before but out of sequence. So here it is, the sixth part of my as-yet-untitled sequence:
1. Hotel Peninsula
2. Daylilies
3. Clear Wrap
4. Visual Sense
5. Galapagos

6. Natural History

I've come to change my mind about Americans. Am sitting in the American wing at the museum...

This is the dinosaur mummy, fossilized thing
of mesozoic flesh, tendons and tubercles
bumpy as birds’ feet. The cladogram labels
the features of Charles Sternberg’s find in Wyoming.

This diorama of the black mountain gorilla,
conceived by Carl Akeley who loved Mount Mikeno
and buried himself there, is backed by that volcano.
The tutsan tree, the pendant bedstraw, so real! Ah,

the Yakut Shaman! Slipping into a deep trance
to free this sleeping woman captured by demons.
A faithful record based on Waldemar Jochelson’s
description of a true tobacco-influenced dance.

Here’s the American wearing his bible belt
below protuberant waist, his nonflammable flag
flying above him. The precision of that price tag!
And see, …

5. Galapagos

Fifth part of a sequence:
1. Hotel Peninsula
2. Daylilies
3. Clear Wrap
4. Visual Sense

5. Galapagos

Isn’t it possible to have a great conversation with a gay man without talking about sex...

We shall not talk about sex. We shall not talk
about Jacques Torres hot chocolate on Water Street
nor Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory in summer heat.
No more talk about sex. We shall talk about New York.

We shall not talk about sex. We shall not talk
about the bags and multiple pairs of shoes
you bought from Macy’s, nor the round-island cruise
we never took. Yes, we shall talk about New York,

we shall not talk about sex. We shall not talk
about Darwin and natural selection though
we have observed the turtles of Galapagos.
We shall not talk about reptile sex in New York;

we shall not talk about sex. We shall not talk
about that Arab waiter we both eyed at Tut
nor the white woman at the harpsichord my gut
yearned for so much I could not talk. This is New York

where, if we shan’t talk about sex, we shan’t talk
about the ebony b…

Stevie Smith

I love reading Stevie Smith. She always cheers me up, or haunts me, even when it is a poem I have read several times. She is the girl with whom I run away into the woods, the older sister I curl up against, knowing that she is as frightened as I am but pretends that being lost is quite fun, really. Not that she does not acknowledge her own fears. But she tells of them in stories that charm me, and make me laugh or cry.

Scorpion

'This night shall thy soul be required of thee'
My soul is never required of me
It always has to be somebody else of course
Will my soul be required of me tonight perhaps?

(I often wonder what it will be like
To have one's soul required of one
But all I can think of is the Out-Patients' Department--
'Are you Mrs Briggs, dear?'
No, I am Scorpion.)

I should like my soul to be required of me, so as
To waft over grass till it comes to the blue sea
I am very fond of grass, I always have been, but there must
Be no cow, person or house to be seen.

Sea and gra…

4. Visual Sense

The fourth part of a series that should be read in sequence:
1. Hotel Peninsula
2. Daylilies
3. Clear Wrap

4. Visual Sense

Thank you for making it comfortable for me—the meals, the leisurely sightseeing, the photos that you so gamely took so that I won’t look like an ant.

You know how hopeless a photographer I am.
With no manual knack, I own no visual sense,
not enough anyway to frame beautiful scenes
into souvenirs. Thank goodness for the Digicam!

Freed to retake my mistakes in memory sticks,
I reached for Liberty’s diadem-spears and torch.
You, my dear R., appeared the size of a cockroach,
a poor picture among the improvised picnics.

Focused on you, your pixie, but not pixelled, face,
another photo showed your Mona Lisa smile,
but Liberty became the grayish granite wall
guarding the entrance into the American base.

Lying down to shoot upwards, like in my bed,
I saw you stand shoulder to shoulder with Liberty.
From that temporary place, I also captured me
and, looming over me, Liberty’s handsome head.

3. Clear Wrap

The third part of a series which needs to be read in sequence. The first two sections are:
1. Hotel Peninsula
2. Daylilies

3. Clear Wrap

Friends are the flowers in life’s garden.

I brought you a long-stemmed rose wrapped in cellophane,
bought from the Peas ‘N’ Pickles in my neighborhood.
It was a birthday gift. It also said: I would
love you always. You said it wilted on the plane.

2. Daylilies

This is the second part of a series I'm writing on a friend's visit to NYC. It should be read after the first part, "Hotel Peninsula."


2. Daylilies

I normally don’t comment much about my surroundings as I prefer to absorb whatever I see, take in the sights. It’s like if I talk, I’m afraid I will ‘lose’ whatever I’m trying to keep in my heart.

There was a Chinese garden in the Garden of
my memory: paper lanterns flying to the moon-
shaped entrance to an artificial, green lagoon
reflecting the pagodas and lotuses above.

Perhaps I fell in the lake after you said you cried
on seeing Hangchow’s bridges span its wide canals.
Perhaps a Chinese garden forms in all locales
where past and present, hurrying to meet, collide.

Perhaps. The fact remains my memory was wrong.
Also mistook the name of your hotel, Pennsylvania,
for my Peninsula. My vast metropolismania
constructs a virtual city where I may belong.

But you were staying in Penn’s Woods, and in the Bronx
we walked through native forest …

Reading Muriel Rukeyser

Rukeyser's first book, Theory of Flight, won the Yale Younger Poets Award when she was twenty-one. "Sand Quarry with Moving Figures" turns her father's construction business, which made the family rich, into an evocative account of the distance between speaker and father. Landscape, narrative details and dialogue are skilfully deployed to set up the stumbling descent into hell:


Father and I drove to the sand-quarry across the ruined marshlands,
miles of black grass, burned for next summer's green.
I reached my hand to his beneath the lap-robe,
we looked at the stripe of fire, the blasted scene.

"It's all right," he said, "they can control the flames,
on one side men are standing, and on the other the sea;"
but I was terrified of stubble and waste of black
and his ugly villages he built and was showing me.

The countryside turned right and left about the car,
straight through October we drove to the pit's heart;
sand, and its yellow canyon and stan…

1. Hotel Peninsula

I'm writing a series of poems for a very good friend of mine who visited New York City for the first time last month. The writing is gaining in momentum though my ideas on the narrative, characters and themes are only developing as I write. So the pieces posted are rougher than my usual ones. Here's the first part:

1. Hotel Peninsula

Thanks for bringing me around New York City! Have enjoyed my time with you, especially when it’s just me and you alone...

Who did I think I went to meet at JFK?
A friend, of course, of ten uneven years, an ex-
colleague, a Malay woman, to whom race and sex
counted for less than yet another damn birthday,

at least on your first outing to my new birthplace;
the first old friend I told about my first boyfriend,
an outing of a different kind that puts an end
to false romantic barricades like age and race.

You saw me before Hudson News, and recognized
what? My face? Arms folded across blue tee? A glow?
Convenient signs that told you where to find Cosmo
or me on your…

Natural History

This is the dinosaur mummy, fossilized thing
of mesozoic flesh, tendons and tubercles
bumpy as birds’ feet. The cladogram labels
the features of Charles Sternberg’s find in Wyoming.

This diorama of the black mountain gorilla,
conceived by Carl Akeley who loved Mount Mikeno
and buried himself there, is backed by that volcano.
The tutsan tree, the pendant bedstraw, so real! Ah,

the Yakut Shaman! Slipping into a deep trance
to free this sleeping woman captured by demons.
A faithful record based on Waldemar Jochelson’s
description of a true tobacco-influenced dance.

Here’s the American wearing his bible belt
below protuberant waist, his nonflammable flag
flying above him. The precision of that price tag!
And see, this life-sized cast, his hero, Roosevelt.

L. E. Sissman

I read Anthony Hecht's poem "To L. E. Sissman, 1928-1976" week before last (in his Collected Later Poems, a magisterial, in both senses of the word, volume) without knowing who the dead dedicatee is, and promptly forgot the name though not the poem. On a trip to the local secondhand bookstore here in Brooklyn Heights, I picked up Sissman's first volume of poems, Dying: An Introduction, because of its beguiling use of meter. After reading and enjoying most of it, I was surprised to find the same name topping Hecht's poem to which I returned, Later.

Here's a section showing how Hecht praises Sissman's poetry:

Dear friend, whose poetry of Brooklyn flats
And poker sharps broacasts the tin pan truths
Of all our yesterdays, speaks to our youths
In praise of both Wallers, Edmund and Fats,

And will be ringing in some distant ear
Whem the Mod-est, last immodesty fatigues,
All Happenings have happened, the Little Leagues
Of Pop and pop-fly poets disappear

To join with all th…

Hollinghurst's "The Line of Beauty"

I finally got round to reading "The Line of Beauty" after buying it from "Bon Voyage" in Provincetown. I had sensed that I would enjoy reading the novel, and putting it off was a way of enjoying the luxury of anticipation. It is a beautiful novel, saturated by desire--sex, power, class, wealth--intimacies thwarted one way or another except for the intimacy of individual aesthetic appreciation, in reading or appreciating fine furniture or architecture. The protagonist's self-willed illusion is that the appreciation of beauty can bring one closer to lovers, politicians, patricians and millionaires. Here is the protagonist, in bed with his male Arab British lover, explaining the novel's title:

He slept there from time to time, in the fantasy of the canopied bed, with its countless pillows. The ogee curve was repeated in the mirrors and pelmets and in the wardrobes, which looked like Gothic confessionals; but its grandest statement was in the canopy of the bed, …

If the Fire Is in Your Apartment

You live in a combustible building, love,
so warns the fire notice on your door.
Sure, the apartment is controlled for rent,
above a laundromat and liquor store,

but have you not observed the plaster tear
and the hardwood floor curl its long-nailed toes
when flames, for regulated gas, consent
and sear cod fillet and asparagus?

Or when you plugged in the a.c. with hand
damp from an afternoon of sex, were shocked
by the hideous circuit hidden in cement,
unplanned combustion in what’s built and blocked

from us who live in this construction sham.
So read this notice. Plan your escape route.
Run if things ignite, despite intent,
and hammer every door on your way out.

Why I Cannot Be a Muslim

Of the five acts prescribed by the Prophet
for purity—plucking the hair from armpit,
clipping the moustache, slivering the nails,
shaving the pubes, removing the foreskin—

I have obeyed and performed only one
(my nails are short), another ritual act
being impossible since I keep my face
clean shaven to receive the kiss of sun,

so I must represent impurity,
hair and skin growing in disfavored places,
shedding apart from or against my will
on wash basins, enamelled baths, and bodies,

but I will still keep my fingernails short
for making love, the teeth’s ferocity
notwithstanding, for moving on the stretch
inside, without a puncture or a scratch,

and I will still shave my face every day,
no party to the Prophet’s clipped moustache
nor to his foes, the beardless polytheists,
still rave about earth’s sun-woven toupee.

For Lonely

Lying on top of you, my arms and knees
support my body even as I grope
for how much of me your frame will carry.

You hold me closer, you’re not heavy. So
I lean a ladder into you, step hard
up, and clamber to the top window

to hear you play Chopin’s Etude in C
Minor. I enter through the window and drop
into your room. I sit down quietly.

You come to a passage hazardous and slow
like footsteps on decaying floorboards
of an old house. The pedal mutes the piano.

Then I become afraid you will not be
playing, beside me, with such quiet hope
forever, for night-fall, for lonely,

and what that will do to me. I tiptoe
to the window while stroking your forehead,
lean back into myself, walk away below.