Thursday, August 31, 2006

Reading at The Stone

R. Nemo Hill's Active Ingredients is presenting a series of poetry readings every Monday in October. I'm reading with Jane Ormerod, Paco and Thomas Fucaloro on the first Monday. It'd be lovely to see friends there, if you are in New York.

Date: 2 Oct 2006 (Mon)
Time: 8 p.m.
Tix: $10.00
Place: The Stone, 2nd St. & Ave C
www.thestonenyc.com

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Night Training

It’s like moving through a jungle,
alone in an Indian file of soldiers,
ears buzzing with insect static,
the radio held at the back squelched.

The jungle is so dark you only see
the half-inch blue cyalume straw
rubber-banded to the helmet in front.
You're a blue straw to the man behind.

Then the air flinches into lightning
and trees tilt into view. The soldiers,
like bayonets shedding green scabbards,
flash steel, then are sheathed again.

The lieutenant shouts, Antenna down!
You obey but your radio crackles
into life, a voice growling, Gold now,
gold! Final fire before the assault.

This happened many years ago
and you've always wondered
what it means or what it describes.
You are at a loss to explain it

though you know you are the radio,
and the lieutenant, and the men
in front and behind, in Indian file,
following a bobbing blue straw.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Gym Membership

I pound and pound this what-do-you-call-it,
Elliptical, EFX546,
pumping the body all that chemical shit,
shooting my morning its new daily fix,

instead of pondering over an old sonnet,
a room of straw for spinning into gold,
a debt requiring its pound of meat,
a mini made from an injection mould.

It’s true I haven’t moved although I’ve run
3 miles, and, like in writing, I’m as far
from what the mind wants and the mirror sees,
and though it’s true I pound like everyone
on manufactured wheels, my chariot-car
signals I’ve lost four hundred calories.

Floyd Burroughs

After viewing the Susan Sontag photographic exhibit at the Met, the images that stay with me are Walker Evans'. Here's one by that American social realist photographer, from the Snite Museum of Art collection:



ALABAMA TENANT FARMER (FLOYD BURROUGHS), 1936, printed 1950's silver gelatin print

Sunday, August 27, 2006

In Alexandria

Still on Forster, here's an old poem about his relationship with Mohammmad, an Egyptian, when Forster was working for the Red Cross during World War I. This relationship might have been Forster's first sexual experience. The epigraph, found in Robert Aldrich's Colonialism and Homosexuality, quotes a secret diary, which Forster presumably never showed to Mohammad.

[Poem removed for submission to journal]

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Revised Part 7 of "Only the Scene Has Changed"

I've revised "Parting Gifts," last section of the sequence, in order to round up the themes better. The original and the first six parts of the sequence are here. I will add the epigraph later.

7. Actual Landing

Here’s one more for your album. Let me give you Queens,
the one borough you couldn’t 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 consoles,
their bodies up the stairs and round the city’s screen;
at night, the same computer game. Only the scene
has changed—-the maze, pitch or battlefield is the soul’s,

in which the aim, as in the day, is to arrive.
Their children, born American, will be their signs
of actual landing in the city, citizens
of Flushing, 56th Street or Forest Park Drive.

Whole week I walked my new birthplace with you, my dear.
Since citizenship doesn’t follow coming-out,
but childlessness does, we understand our whereabout
is recognizable but unfamiliar.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Cynthia Ozick on "Maurice"

It is a shock to read Ozick's essay, "Morgan and Maurice: A Fairy Tale," written soon after the posthumous publication of Forster's Maurice. The shock lies less in Ozick's convincing argument that the novel is an artistic failure than in her evaluation of Forster's humanism, a humanism publicly demonstrated in his anticolonial writings and court appearances to defend artistic freedom of expression. Ozick's appraisal, or more accurately, a re-appraisal, resulted from the startling revelation of Forster's homosexuality. The question was, what does that homosexuality means for Forster's humanism? Ozick writes,

The shock of the publication of Maurice, then, is not what it appears to be at first sight: Forster as Forerunner of Gay Lib. Quite the opposite. He used his own position as an exemplum, to show what the universe does not intend. If that implies a kind of rational martyrdom, that is what he meant; and this is what shocks. We had not thought of him as martyr. For Forster, "I do not conform" explains what does conform, it does not celebrate nonconformity. He was a sufferer rather than a champion. Now suddenly, with the appearance of Maurice, it is clear that Forster's famous humanism is a kind of personal withdrawal rather than a universal testimony, and reverberates with despair.

JL: That last sentence formulates the "problem" with Forster's humanism. "Personal" withdrawal" is a tactful way of saying "smokescreen." Ozick is not without empathy for Forster's human situation; note the last clause, "reverberates with despair." This reading of Forster's humanism also implies a certain view of his novels: the scenes suggestive of homosexuality are not literary daring, but literary disguises. She goes on:

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in a recent Times review remarks that Maurice's homosexuality is "a symbol of human feelings."

JL: This reminds me of one common defence of "Brokeback Mountain": the love depicted is universal ("and not merely homosexual" is the implicit qualifier, made explicit in some reviews). The problem with this formulation, besides its defensiveness, is its incompleteness. The homosexual love between Ennis and Jack is both similar to and different from heterosexual love. Lehman-Haupt's remark, apparently liberal, dilutes the specificities of Maurice's homosexuality, specificities whose meaning Ozick offers this general interpretation:

But Forster would disagree (JL: with Lehmann-Haupt) that homosexuality stands for anything beyond what it is in itself, except perhaps the laying waste of the Cnidian Demeter. Homosexuality to Forster signified sterility; he practised it like a blasphemer, just as he practised his humanism as a blasphemer (JL: Forster rejected the Christianity of his day). There is no blasphemy where there is no belief to be betrayed; and Forster believes in the holiness of the goddess of fertility: Demeter, guardian of the social order and marriage.

JL: Ozick then goes back to the compromised universality of Forster's humanism by tackling one of his most daring ideas:

The most dubious social statement Forster ever made is also his most famous one: if I had to choose between betraying my country or my friend, I hope I would have the guts to betray my country. He says "I"; the note is personal, it is not an injunction to the rest of us. Maurice instructs us explicitly in what he understands by "friend"; in Maurice's boyhood dream the word "friend" foretells the love of a man for a man. We have encountered that charged word in Forster before. The statement about betrayal cannot be universalized, and Forster did not mean it to be. Declarations about bedmates do not commonly have general application.

JL: "bedmates" is a low blow. "Friend", to Forster, means more than sexual partner. Ozick's main reading of the meaning of "friend" to Forster is persuasive but it overlooks the accommodation of more than one meaning. The face-off between "country" and "friend" is also one between "abstract entity" and "concrete relations." One can be asked to sacrifice a person for some nationalistic ideal. Or, to see it another way, Forster's choice of "friend" over "country" is only as wrong as someone else's choice of "country" over "friend." The concrete details of the ethical choice are paramount, as Isaiah Berlin teaches, in order to adjucate between the competing claims of ultimately incompatible ideals. But Ozick is after some universally valid principle held without self-interest. This becomes clearer in her reply to a Mrs. A. F. who responded to the essay:

We are now unambiguously apprised of Forster's homosexuality, and Maurice makes it shudderingly plain that Forster considered homosexuality to be an affliction, the ineradicable mark of a fated few. To use language grown shabby from repetition, he regarded himself as part of an oppressed minority; and applying Only Connect, he could stand in for and champion other oppressed minorities--Indians under English colonialism, for instance, who suffered from the English public-school mentality precisely as he had suffered from it. But this, after all is a compromised liberalism. There is nothing admirable in it; it is devalued by the presence of the vested interest. It is no trick, after all for a Jew to be against anti-Semitism, or for a homosexual to be against censorship of homosexual novels. The passion behind the commitment may be pure, but the commitment is not so much a philosophy of liberalism as it is of self-preservation. Morality must apply some more accessible standard than personal hurt.

JL: I think Ozick exaggerates when she says "[t]here is nothing admirable" in Forster's anticolonialism. Many homosexuals of his time, hurt by the same English public schools, did not support decolonization. And it is hard to see any non-metaphorical vested interest for Forster in promoting Indian independence. But she strikes home, I think, about Forster's support for homosexual novels. His support was special pleading, disguised. I don't think that special pleading is wrong, but we should see it for what it was. It's so easy for me to get on my high horse when arguing for gay rights; it's harder to remember that the horse is not a thoroughbred. American political culture rallies one to fight for one's own rights; it is much quieter on fighting for the rights of others.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Or Your Money Back

After disaster there is disease controlled with a regimen of pills.

When the towers fell,
you say, I was barebacking this guy from Therapy.

I watched on CNN the second tower fall and knew I had to get away to America.

Your boyfriend is a medical intern who thinks there’s no safe sex with you.

Cops underground everywhere but I’ve never seen unattended baggage.

Your boyfriend’s favorite line is, I’m courting disaster; his second favorite, I’m leaving on a jetplane.

My landlord told me yesterday he’s going to Montreal for counter-terrorism training.

I love the city, you say, glass in hand, but does the city love me?

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

A Room With A View

I found myself happily vulnerable to Forster's brand of pagan humanism in this, his third novel, written between "The Longest Journey" and "Howards End." In a tale of heterosexual romance, the erotic center is the determinedly cheerful and healthy episode of 3 men bathing in the woods, two of whom are young in years, the third, a clergyman, young in spirit. Do they strip to their birthday suits or are they semi-covered in the obligatory loincloth? Forster is coy. Mr Beebe, the clergyman, seems to have jumped in with his underwear since, upon discovery by a trio of his parishioners, he crawls "out of the pond, on whose surface garments of an intimate nature did float." George, the romantic lead, confronts his discoverers "barefoot, barechested, radiant and personable against the shadowy woods." So he is presumably girded but the description lingers all over his nakedness. Pessimistic and passionate George, rumored to be a train porter (with proletariat muscles), turns out to be a station clerk with Ideas of his own.

Forster's tease begins when the men enter the pond:

"Water's wonderful!" cried Freddy, prancing in.

"Water's water," murmured George. Wetting his hair first--a sure sign of apathy--he followed Freddy into the divine, as indifferent as if he were a statue and the pond a pail of soapsuds. It was necessary to use his muscles. It was necessary to keep clean. Mr. Beebe watched them, and watched the seeds of the willow-herb dance chorically above their heads.

"Apooshoo, apooshoo, apooshoo," went Freddy, swimming for two strokes in either direction, and then becoming involved in reeds or mud.

"Is it worth it?" asked the other, Michelangelesque on the flooded margin.

The bank broke away, and he fell into the pool before he had weighed the question properly.


Describing George as "Michelangelesque" merely particularize, on one level, the earlier reference to "statue", reinforcing the idea of George's indifferent stillness at the edge of the pond. The charged adjective, however, also evokes in the mind the sculptor's ready-for-action statues, in particular, that of the thoroughly naked David. The adjective functions like a fig-leaf; it reveals more than it covers.

Also, Forster is surely having fun making the bachelor clergyman, the Christian antagonist to paganism, the voyeur of the bathing scene before he joins the young men in the pond. That Mr. Beebe's gaze is erotic, unknown to himself, is underlined by his attention to the willow-herb seeds dancing, "chorically" no less.

Finally, one wonders how the three men swim in the tiny pond without bumping into each other. The pond was only "large enough to contain the human body." Forster's answer: "Three gentlemen rotated in the pool breast high." You can imagine how short the radius of that rotating circle. Is it any surprise that after a little while of such rotation the men "began to play"? They splash each other with water, of course.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

SQ21, Modern Metrics, After the Fire

Edited by Ng Yi-sheng, "SQ21-Singapore Queers in the 21st Century" is a collection of 15 coming out stories, told by men and women, including a mother of 2 gay sons (the Singaporean novelist, Suchen Christine Lim).

Modern Metrics:a new, independent NY press that publishes chapbooks of formal poetry.

Boey Kim Cheng's new book, "After the Fire," collects selections from his three earlier books and new poems written after this itinerant Singaporean's migration to Australia.

Monday, August 21, 2006

There Is No Safety in Distance

I've posted the different parts at different times but not the sequence as a whole. All sections except one were written in April this year, as part of the NaPoWriMo. The exception, Section 9, was written on Aug 14. I've been moving the parts around and also taking out and putting in other parts. I think the present sequence makes the most sense and impact, primarily through narrowing the focus and capitalising on repeated imagery.


There Is No Safety in Distance

1.

The body is an authority
on heartache, burned or slashed.
The bottom of an amputee
drops like a bottle smashed.

The empty-chested veteran,
decorated with dread,
crumples like a soda can.
Despair, don’t you trash my dead!

2.

The cause of pain is cruelty,
concentration’s wire.
Bodhisattvas disagree;
they claim the cause, desire.

Biologists explain that genes
are really quite germane
while bombers show just what cause means.
The effect is the same.

3.

Tell me what your pain is like.
When did it begin?
In the ear of bone or muscle
or the eye of skin?

Does it flicker, pulse or beat?
Burn or scald or sear?
Pinch or gnaw or cramp or crush?
Does it disappear?

Is it black as love’s rejection
in a lovers’ park?
Is it accidental as
a throwaway remark?

So tell me what your pain is like.
Please articulate.
No doctor, I’m your auditor
and your advocate.

4.

The jury's out. It will come back.
Or have I imagined it?
But here’s my blinded torso, look--
lightning's exhibit:

black bulb, black bag, black dispatch
from mountainous Iraq.
Crouched in the courtroom of my crotch,
black dogs bark.

5.

Please don’t make me stand so still.
That’s not the way of dust.
You will I will I will you will
I will not readjust.

Please don’t make me stand so straight,
holding up my brain.
I hate you hate you hate I hate
you hate my trousers stain.

Please don’t make me stand so tall,
teeter on my spine.
I fall you fall I fall you fall
and we intertwine.

6.

I have no courage to leave my body,
its panic and its pain.
Why I conduct this thought experiment
is to ascertain

if I live daily with the body
solely out of choice,
the soul's hypothesis of love,
or cowardice.

7.

Cut by an edge, the body hurts
another with its knives.
The second spears the third who shoots
the fourth, and none survives.

There is no safety in distance,
in diamond or decree,
no sanctuary within the fence
of anonymity.

Give me your name, beautiful Stranger,
though the hearts misgive,
come closer to the bodies’ danger,
cut me and cry, forgive.

8.

Burn all flags except the flesh,
the banner hung from bone.
Soul, burn the five stars down to ash.
Burn the crescent moon.

Kiss the tits, the low brown stars
cresting heaving hills.
Kiss the folded belly scar,
kiss the testicles.

Kiss, oh, kiss the crescent slit,
uncover the full moon,
till the body present-lit
burns and does not burn.

9.

(To write with irresistible force,
light entering the eye,
abstract of things, without a loss,
simplify:)

The planet is a sphere;
peace is a wish;
and in a body of water here
soul is a fish.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

The Folded Star

Alan Hollinghurst's prose in this novel is as sensuous and sensitive as his later Man Booker Prize-winner. His style was an accomplished fact before writing "The Line of Beauty." Quiveringly and ironically, it traces the outlines of unrequited love and loss in the highly sexed-up world of homosexuals. What the earlier novel lacks is the political dimension of that world, the Thatcherite atmosphere and events so brilliantly captured in "The Line of Beauty." Though it depicts non-white and non-bourgeois characters, the earlier novel also lacks the texture, the tangled web, of class and race. What "The Folded Star" offers is an imagined Belgium, dreamed up by Edward Manners, the Englishman who falls in love with a boy he tutors. England, depicted in the middle of the three sections, is viewed in Edward's memory of his past romances, again giving the external world the feel of a dream, lost and irrecoverable, whether symoblized by the fatal motor accident of his English lover, or by the simultaneous sexual consummation and loss of the Belgian boy.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Death Comes Like a Revolution

Pitchforks and pikes in hand, the women stroll,
all maenads, down the park to the menagerie,
cull the roses and smash the coterie
of apollonian statues. Guns explode
and urge. The women free the cognac-gorged
lions, zebras, the snorting dromedary
and, hunger-maddened, raid the aviary
for heron, parrot, goshawk and flamingo.

Likewise Death overthrows the body’s shed--
the zoo assembly, parliament or diet--
over which the king surveyed his power and pomp.
Dragoons, attendants, nobles, all have fled.
Night closes on the unaccustomed quiet,
hushes the squawk out of the draining swamp.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Night Country

I'm flying from a place that banned my poem
to one that gave the poem. I have my papers
and fingerprints, ready to enter your home,
pull one of your white cotton shirts over me,
and when you come to bed, my night country,
rest my uncovered head on your left shoulder.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Burn all flags except the flesh

Burn all flags except the flesh,
the banner hung from bone.
Soul, burn the five stars down to ash.
Burn the crescent moon.

Kiss the tits, the low brown stars
cresting heaving hills.
Kiss the folded belly scar,
kiss the testicles.

Kiss, oh, kiss the crescent slit,
uncover the full moon,
till the body present-lit
burns and does not burn.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Sheila Majid's Legenda Concert



Sheila Majid sang at the Esplanade Concert Hall last night a song selection from her twenty years in music. She was a consummate performer, artistic in her song delivery, friendly and teasing with the audience. I don't understand Malay but the language in her voice became fully expressive in a way I had not heard before. She sang the ballads with particular feeling; the sayang tenderness of the language, potentially cloying, sounded a range of emotional clarities and nuances. She helped me hear a universe of expressive possibilities in a language I had thought, in my ignorance, unsophisticated and derivative. She made me see again what artistry can do for ignorance, prejudice and callused hearts.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Like a Seed with Its Singular Purpose

Cyril Wong's fifth poetry collection is out. It is a good read. It is also Cyril's most experimental to date: prose poems; long, sectioned poems; lists. The poem, "Before the Afterlife," about he and his partner moving in together, is a fine long poem. The plants on the balcony are there; I saw them.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Going Home from Church

First night in my old bedroom, I found myself reaching for the anthologies in which my early poems were published. Reading the poems made me squirm with embarrassment over their inexperience and infelicities. I am too much in love with them to wish them destroyed, so they will have to remain as testaments of a younger poetic self. "Testaments" is too solemn a description; more like acne, except that these poems are, unfortunately, not adolescent efforts, but a young man's stumblings.

I am intrigued by the thematic continuities in my writing: dislocation, religious revelation, memory. Same-sex desire, a present preoccupation, was a subtext.

"Going Home from Church on Bus 197" was published in "No Other City: the Ethos Anthology of Urban Poetry" (2000). It means something to me partly because a Singaporean blog quoted the poem's last line years ago, and thus I feel that the poem, with all its weaknesses, has met Auden's definition of poetry as "memorable speech."


Going home from church on bus 197
I thought how quickly new thoughts of heaven
Transubstantiate into old residue.
I looked around. There only a few

Fellow travellers, eyes free of vision,
Heavy heads lolled in humbled submission
To heat and dust. The mind recognises
In an instant, immune to surprises,

Its failure to connect dust to sleeping dust.
I thought, people are still people, and rust
Still rust, steel still steel, there is nothing new.
The bus rattled its metal cage and a queue

Of Thai workers stumbled, with careless eyes,
To the back seats. One, of the largest size,
Jabbed the window with insistent finger
And rapid mouth, sharp verbal reminder

Of their difference. The youngest replied,
His smile in his voice. A third supplied
A joke; all laughed, even the quiet one
In the corner. Touched with the light that runs

Across the ridges of their faces, I say:
Why do these men, living between narrow days,
Catch the sun of a passing moment and
Make me feel the alien in my own land?



The poem suffers from multiple faults: forced rhymes, clumsy phrasing, poor control of meter, a lack of visual imagination (what do those Thai workers really look like?). However, for me, it is evidence of my need to write in form even before embarking on myMFA in the States. My feel and urge for form are not derived from American neo-formalists, but go back to my early reading in British literature. "Lolled" is a Larkin word. "Transubstantiate" is an echo of R. S. Thomas. That quaint phrase "fellow travellers" smells of Wordsworth. Reading the poem now, I still like (except for that terrible interruption: "I say") the roll of that last sentence, the turns of phrase, the sonics in the very last line. Well, I did say that I am still in love with my younger poetic self.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Censored?

The Media Development Authority of Singapore, which is tasked with media censorship, licensed ContraDiction, a gay poetry reading, on the condition that one of my poems would not be read. The offending poem was "Come On, Straight Boy." MDA did not stop the printing and distribution of the poem, together with all the poems read that evening, in the event pamphlet but it drew the line at performance. I don't understand what logical and consistent rationale could be given for prohibiting the reading, but not the distribution, of a poem. Under the law, a poetry reading is considered a performance, and not a talk/lecture. Recent changes to censorship laws allow for the latter, in a private venue to an audience of a certain size, but a performance still requires a MDA license. What did the MDA fear I would do while reading the poem? Pull down my pants and waggle my dick at the audience? Go up to a straight boy and seduce him into a public same-sex act? Or does a performance, unlike the private reading, of a gay poem insidiously and conspiratorially undermines the precarious heterosexuality of straight members of the audience? It's all laughably outrageous. It seems to me that in its half-hearted approach to opening up a tight-arsed society, the government is forced to make untenable and illogical distinctions and categorizations. And to patronize its citizens, as is its wont.

Anyway, here's the poem, warts and all:

Come On, Straight Boy

Come on, straight boy, and make gay love with me.
One night of loving will not turn you queer
if queer is not what you will bend to be.
Loving a man is but a change of gears.

Why do it with a girl, an undulating
waterbed, and stress leaks pinched too late?
Why with an oven she loves regulating,
you stick your tray of cookies in, and wait?

Men love themselves when they love other men.
Loving themselves, they know well how to give
each other head, maneuver two or ten
round the bend of straightforward relief.

What have you got to lose? Leap, acrobat!
You can still fall back on pussy cat.



The night, billed as the second annual gay poetry reading in Singapore, was a significant event. It showed that there is an audience, gay and straight, for poetry that is personal and well written. It made gay writers more aware of each other's work, and thus feel less isolated. I'm glad to have read my work last night, to an audience who knows what Tiger Balm Gardens is or how important the oil refining industry is to the country, and so is better placed to understand additional dimensions to my poems, "Hungry Ghosts" and "Blowjob." The organizers deserve a lot of credit for their effort, courage and creativity. Thanks, people. Please do this again next year, or sooner.