Saturday, December 30, 2006

The Ogden Museum of Southern Art

The Museum opened in its new home in 2003. The special exhibition, when we visited it, was William Dunlap’s “Panorama of the American Landscape,” a fourteen-paneled work. Half of it depicted a snow-covered landscape in which a row of deer heads continued into infinity. According to the curatorial note, the deer heads stand for the human casualties at the Battle of Antietem during the Civil War. The other seven panels of the panorama were verdant, with two horse-riding hunters in the background, and a troop of hunting dogs occupying much of the foreground.

The juxtaposition of an upper class sport and a terrible battle was strongly dissonant, and made me unsure how to read the painting. The hunters didn’t seem to be responsible in the painting for the harvest of deer. They were figures of grace and civilization, whose elegant houses dotted the green landscape unobstrusively. The dogs were painted with loving detail that ennobled them without anthropomorphizing them. In an exhibition note, Dunlap claimed that that particular breed of dogs were the finest huntera, a claim borne out by his own hunting experience.

If the relationship between hunters and deer was not one of simplistic cause-and-effect, perhaps it was one of ambiguity. Ambiguity was a more generous reading of the painting than the alternative: a propagandistic nostalgia for the past. The work bore little resemblance to present-day America, North or South, though it was painted in the 1980s as the American landscape. In another painting, completed soon after the panorama, the same dogs appeared in the foreground. A palladian-styled mansion, a Jefferson’s Monticello look-alike, presided on a high ground over a viewshed spoiled by the smoke from factory stacks. Olympian Republican virtue, informed by classical Greek civilization, faced off with crass modernization. A familiar ideology but one I was surprised to find represented so baldly in this painting, and so ambitiously in the “Panorama.”

Other galleries gave more pleasure. I was happy to encounter George Dureau. I felt quite sure I have seen his “Scandal at the Forge of Vulcan Café” in a book before seeing the original here. One gallery was devoted to his drawings. The male nudes, in the heroic mode, were mostly muscular black men. A self-portrait, with him holding his camera, was hung together with one of Robert Mapplethorpe holding the same camera. The most finished drawing was “George with Some of His Closest Friends,” depicting the four men as centaurs trotting side by side, George leading the pack, the others’ heads turned towards him. The centaur is a familiar trope but the verticals of legs in the lower part of the painting gave the painting its interest.

Besides Dureau, I also enjoyed Will Henry Stevens’ paintings of ships on the Mississippi. The visual language was borrowed from late Cezanne but the paintings showed convincingly how it applied to ships and rivers as much as to mountains and quarries.

I thought the museum lacked depth in its attempt to be comprehensive. Not only did the paintings range over various genres, media and periods, the collection also included many other art works such as quilts, sculpture, pottery and glassware and, moreover, tried to represent each Southern state. All this in three small floors of exhibition space. This meant that, besides the lack of depth, things got stuffed into corners. The glassware, for example, appeared in one display cabinet along a side corridor. I think the Ogden is worth a visit, if only to find out which Southern artist is getting canonized, and perhaps why.

New Orleans

Written on 12/29 Fri:

Winston and I have been in New Orleans for five days now, and we’ll be flying back to NYC tomorrow. The idea of a working vacation has been a success for me. I spent the mornings revising and rearranging Payday Loans, my 30-sonnet sequence, for publication in January. It helped to have a spacious hotel room to work in, $75 a night at the Sheraton, and not some quaint but claustrophobic bed-and-breakfast.

Afternoons saw us wandering round different neighborhoods: the French Quarter, the Garden District (where we saw Anne Rice’s house, Rosegate, and Lafayette No. 1 Cemetery), Uptown, the Faubourg Marigny (with a gay bookshop, to our surprise), and the Warehouse District.

Wednesday night, we went to Oz, a gay bar, where we sat beside two godly-sized lesbians from Yorkshire. When I asked one of them if they hailed from York, she repeated Yorkshire, and went on to explain what a county is. The drag show we saw there (Oz, not Yorkshire) was amateurish and poorly-hosted. One, a skinny white drag queen, had real stage charisma though.

Thursday night, we attended a poetry reading at the Gold Mine Saloon, curated by Dave Brinks, the publisher of Yawp: A Journal of Poetry and Art. The Gold Mine Saloon has clearly seen better days; it was half-blind now. Dark pinball machines backed up against the walls were unnaturally quiet, and the pool table ate someone’s dollar. A roach lay on its back in the metal urine trench in the men’s.

An assortment of stuff was performed: rants, letters from a satirical website on Katrina, a gothic dream narrative in blank verse, guitar-accompanied songs, free verse poems. Mostly locals and regulars, the audience was audibly angry and sad still over Katrina. I read two sonnets, “Come on, straight boy,” and "I can’t decide which organic bread to buy,” and two lyrics in ballad form, “Don’t ask me more than I can give,” and “Cut by an edge.” The ballads went down better with the audience than the sonnets.

After the reading, we went to the club, Bourbon Parade, just across the street from Oz. The Student Body Competition, an excuse for college boys to flaunt some flesh, featured two competitors: a tall white guy (a junior?) with an hourglass build—Go, 79, go, go!—and a short white girl who wagged her voluptuous figure at the audience. No prizes for guessing who won.

Tonight we head back to Faubourg Marigny, to Frenchmen Street, where we may hear jazz with our dinner, or not. I think it would be fun to return to New Orleans during Mardi Gras or Southern Decadence.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s

I will be away in New Orleans from Christmas Day to the day before New Year's Eve. My first visit to that city, and I am looking forward to tramping round it, eating Cajun and Creole food and hearing some jazz. And doing some writing and reading in the mornings of the 6-day vacation.

On Friday, I viewed the Met exhibition on German portraits by artists such as Otto Dix, George Grosz, Christian Schad, Rudolf Schlicter and Max Beckmann. Known as the Verists, a branch of the New Objectivism, the artists prided themselves on depicting their subjects dispassionately, even cynically. Such "realism" was deemed the only adequate response to the crises of German society after World War II.


Otto Dix's paintings scrutinize his subjects mercilessly, exposing their weaknesses and vices. I have seen a few of the same paintings in the Dada exhibition in Washington D.C.. The Dada exhibition framed Dix as one example of an European and American artistic "movement," and emphasized the formal iconoclasm. In the Met exhibition, Dix's paintings are revealed as social satire, peculiar in subject and tone to a period of German history. I was especially drawn to Dix's painting of singer and performer, Anita Berber, which captures her demonic sexuality, as perceived by his contemporaries.

The painting I liked best in the exhibition is "The Old Actress" by Max Beckmann. Its simple, almost minimalist, lines, together with its few but bright colors that throw the woman's black outfit into relief, create a moving portrait of this woman. I read in the exhibition catalogue later that Beckmann considered this portrait one of his major works.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Terry Eagleton on "How to Read a Poem"

I'm enjoying this how-to book quite a great deal. Eagleton combines close reading of famous poems with a quick overview of poetic theory and criticism, in the belief that close reading and theory must inform each other. He is particularly good on the semiotics of Yury Lotman. The style is witty and opinionated.

Eagleton defines a poem as "a fictional, verbally inventive moral statement in which it is the author, rather than the printer or word processor, who decides where the lines should end." He readily admits that the definition sounds "unpoetic to a fault," but defends it as "the best we can do."

I am particularly intrigued by the element of morality in his statement. He writes,

...morality in its traditional sense, before the advocates of duty and obligation got their hands on it, is the study of how to live most fully and enjoyably; and the word 'moral' in the present context refers to a qualitative or evaluative view of human conduct and experience. Moral language does not only include terms like good and bad, or right and wrong: its lexicon extends to such epithets as 'rash', 'exquisite', 'placid', 'sardonic', 'vivacious', 'resilient', 'tender', 'blase', and 'curmudgeonly'.

Later in the same section, Eagleton continues,

Poems are moral statements, then, not because they launch stringent judgements according to some code, but because they deal in human values, meanings and purposes. So another opposite of the word 'moral' here might be 'empirical'.

His words express a vague feeling I've always had that a poem conveys a moral vision, whether it is "The Inferno" or "Jabberwocky." By "moral vision," I don't mean a coherent moral philosophy or a moral code, but a certain angle of looking at human behaviour. Another art, say, painting, may not have that moral vision at its heart. I can enjoy fifty paintings of apples in a bowl, for what they tell me about apples, but I cannot enjoy fifty poems about apples without wondering what they have to do with me.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Ron Mueck, Annie Leibovitz, John Currin

Last Sunday, I saw two exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum: Ron Mueck and Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer's Life, 1990-2005. Mueck made puppets for children's television before moving to sculpture, while Leibovitz's photos first appeared in Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and Vogue. Both artists thus began their careers in popular culture before they were taken up by the mainstream art world.


Mueck creates very lifelike sculptures out of fibreglass and silicone, almost Madame Tussaud, except they are much bigger or smaller than life-size. I liked The Spooning Couple, a small and delicate piece, in which the man and woman look so alone though lying down in that most intimate position. The other piece that held my attention was that of a young adolescent boy squatting down and looking sideways at himself in a mirror. It seems to capture so subtly youth's vulnerability. I did not find the other pieces interesting. Too often I had the impression that technique overwhelmed the message. Must the woman lying pensive in bed be of such a gigantic size? I sensed not joy but fetishization of technique.

The Leibovitz exhibition I found disappointing too. The celebrities are shot with all their glamorous allure and power, and not much more. I did not see the empathetic insight or the critical commentary of, say, Diane Arbus. Two photos were powerful. The first was of Brad Pitt, lying in bed, wearing leopard print pants. His orange shirt, and his blond shock of hair, glow in the orange-red light of the room. The photo brings out the androgyny that lurks behind that masculine form. The second photo was a head-and-shoulder shot of Mark Morris, with a mysterious facial expression, a mixture of concentration, pain and ecstasy. Only by looking at the tilt of the head, and the slight incline of the shoulder can one tell that the American choreographer had been caught dancing.

Yesterday I visited the Gagosian Gallery, on Madison Avenue between 76th and 77th, for the first time to see the John Currin exhibition. I had seen his work in a solo exhibition at the Whitney two (?) years ago, and enjoyed it very much. This time was no difference. Currin's paintings allude to Old Masters portraits, 1970s Playboy magazine ads, and mid-twentieth century films. That mixture of high and popular art often produces potent effects.

I was particularly drawn to a full-length vertical portrait of a tall, skinny woman pulling down her filmy underwear. The white gauzy material is echoed in the porcelain table-set placed unnaturalistically on the floor in front of her: one teapot, one tea-cup, one sugar bowl, one cream bowl, one plate, one salt shaker, one pepper shaker. Her nipples and lips are multiplied in the floral wallpaper behind her. On her left, an intricate candle holder, shaped like an epergne, carries a candle in one of its seven side-holders. The tall, skinny, white candle is lit, and its flame casts a glow on the top of the candle, the same gold band that can be seen around the woman's long slender neck. If the intricate work of the candle holder suggests the maze-like complexity of female sexuality, the flame pays tribute to her mind.

The same study of body and mind, or soul, can be seen in the other works in the exhibition. Porcelain tableware is a motif, as is the candle. Many of the women are reading a book, often while lying in bed. Other paintings depict graphic sexual acts; the favored position is that of a man behind a woman, thrusting into her sex. I think some of the paintings fail for a lack of body or of soul, but when they come together, as in the painting of the skinny woman, the union left a deep impression on me.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

I want to live with a beautiful man

I want to live with a beautiful man.
I want it so badly
I’ve waved good-bye, good-bye! to God and, worse,
embarrassed family.
I want him so badly.

I’ve seen the beautiful man in church
worshipped by the choir.
Last night he toweled in the locker-room
his cock, a pinkish pacifier,
and my heart rose like a choir.

I want to tie him to my bed, each limb a sweet arrow
pointing to the keep,
take him in my longing mouth
deep
and there the beautiful man keep.

All day I want to live with a beautiful man.
All night I lie down with me.
I know the world is not a breast
but when did we start starving babies?
Look! When I spin very fast, the mobile stars revolve round me.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Welcum Yule

A friend, Kate Irving, sings in the New York City choral group, The Canticum Novum Singers, founded and directed by Harold Rosenbaum. On Saturday, the Singers performed a concert of carols at St. Paul & St. Andrew Church, and Mark Nickels was kind enough to ask for me, and Kate kind enough to give, a complimentary ticket.

The sixteenth century Spanish carols, which opened the concert, sounded as if they were inspired by folk songs. They seemed to be suffused with a ruddy good cheer, and a wild rural spirit rattled out by the tambourine.

I really enjoyed the two works of Josquin des Prez (c.1440-1521), especially the Ave Maria. The soprano voices soared with such purity till they appeared to be coming out of the mouths of the two full-sized, wing-extended angels high up on both sides of the altar.

In contrast, the English carols after the intermission were full of earthy, Dickensian good cheer. The cherubs in Mendelssohn’s Hark the Herald Angels Sing were more akin to the Victorian angel in the house, than to any celestial being. The spiral downwards from heaven to hearth was a kind of fall.

The organ was temperamental, and so it played only for the concluding carol. To make it up to the audience, a sixteen year old chorus member (I can’t remember his name, though his good looks stay with me) played Debussy’s The Sunken Cathedral. Why do the opening notes immediately yell out FRENCH? The boy played the piece expressively, and the massive weight of that edifice could be felt rising from and then sinking in the waters. But I felt the cathedral remained a cathedral in the playing.


Program
-Three Spanish Christmas Carols of the Sixteenth Century (Anonymous)
1. E la don, don Verges Maria
2. Dadme albricias, hijos d’Eva
3. Riu, Riu, Chiu
-Ave Maria and Virgo Salutiferi (Josquin des Prez c. 1440-1521)
-Resonet in Laudibus (Orlando Lassus 1532-1594)
-Angel’s Carol (John Rutter b. 1945)
-Cradle Song (Nancy Wertsch, Words by William Blake)
-Lo, How a Rose E’re Blooming (Arr. Harold Rosenbaum)
-Fantasia on Christmas Carols (R. Vaughan Williams)
-Ding Dong! Merrily on High (16th Century French traditional carol)
-Away in a Manger (W. J. Kirkpatrick 1838-1920)
-Hark the Herald Angels Sing (Felix Mendelssohn 1809-1847)

Fred Sandback




On Saturday I saw Fred Sandback’s work in David Zwirner gallery. An American artist (1943-2003), Sandback composes sculptures made of “lengths of yarn stretched horizontally, vertically, or diagonally in a variety of configurations that include rectangles, triangles, U-shapes, and floor-to-ceiling vertical lines” (exhibition press statement).

The works in the exhibition range from wall reliefs to whole-room installations. I like the installations that “inhabit” a whole room. Though yarn is such a lightweight and thin material, the lines are not overwhelmed by the space; instead, the colored lines divide and multiply one’s perspectives of the pure white room.

Untitled (Sculptural Study, Seventeen-part Right-angled Construction) consists of 17 parallel L-shaped lines of red yarn, that begin from one side of the room and end about three-quarter way across the room. I tried to figure out the “reason” for the length of the horizontal yarn-lines, and for the spacing between each L. Standing behind the central, ninth L, I saw the ends of all 17 horizontal lines align with the vertical lines. In this way, the installation suggests a position for a viewer, and a direction for a view.

Directions for viewing are also embedded in the other whole-room installation. Broadway Boogie Woogie (Sculptural Study, Twenty-eight Part Vertical Construction) comprises 28 vertical lengths of acrylic yarn in red, yellow and blue that extend from floor to ceiling. At first I could not figure out the plan. Then I noticed that most of the lines are matched pairs of the same color. Aligning each pair in my sightline gave me different perspectives on the installation.

From one perspective, the lines group themselves into two factions: majority versus minority. From another perspective, the three corners of the installation, each marked by a different colored yarn, highlighted the absence of a fourth corner. Yet another perspective seemed, to me, to illuminate the minimalist beauty of vertical lines, and the planes or the entrances framed by a pair of lines. The arrangement that had seemed so random resolved into a deeply thought-through plan.

Then it struck me that there is no good reason why I should view the installation only through the alignment of yarns of the same color. Aligning two yarn-lines of any color multiplies the already plentiful points of view, and that thought is both daunting and generous. Color, the obvious signifier of race, may also stand for any markers of difference: sex, gender, religion, diet, ways of viewing art.

In the gallery room, the lines of yarn quiver in response to a draught from somewhere. They move in a way not expected of lines in a painting, say, Mondrian’s own Broadway Boogie Woogie. Sandback’s installation not only pays tribute to his conceptual and minimalist predecessor, it also suggests its sculptural differences from painting, and its affinities to architecture. Or as Sandback himself put it: “less a thing-in-itself, more of a diffuse interface between myself, my environment, and others peopling that environment, built on thin lines that left enough room to move through and around…A drawing that is habitable.”

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Changi Prison Chapel

The makeshift chapel, the man reads
from the plaque, is a replica,
a diorama of memories.

The seventh pew, where he was bent
double by dysentery, is not
scratched along its seat of lashed

poles, not with a pocket pen-knife
or any flinty implements
found in the flat dirt of the camp.

His fingers brushed the dark unscratched
pew, the wall planks, the altar stand,
like touching glass, hand in a glove.

Pinned to a cork bulletin-board
are handwritten notes on cards
or paper torn out of a journal.

Many wrote their fathers, husbands,
brothers and uncles were here. One
bride-to-be thanked all the soldiers.

Old quarrels. Old injustices.
Older than the altar cross
made from an artillery shell,

that used to promise suffering
cut, turned, beveled and set by love
into a shining salvation.

But let that jagged fragment stand,
he prays, for man’s love for making
do, for man’s makeshift love for man,

for among cholera and lice
someone, a soldier, found something
shiny in the dirt, something sharp,

and made the cross all of a piece.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Crabbing at Changi Beach

At the north-eastern end of the island,
an end extended by makeshift piers,
narrow planks floating on oil barrels,
sampans ride the harsh glint of the sea.

Fires in the water are ghosts of the sun.

Past the small brick customs office
boat-riders bob, as if still at sea,
smelling of fish, motor oil and tarpaulin.
Their hands are empty trawling nets.

The sea hawks its old throat and spits.

Three boys leaning over a wooden bridge
lower into water their crabbing nets,
and wait, expecting something close
to land will side-walk into their hands,

some years too young to launch a boat.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

For A Cousin Who Married Young

She climbs out of the sighing bed,
weighing her body on her toes,
soles, so as not to disturb him.
There’s tap-water to boil for tea,

but now a moment to herself—
stare out of kitchen window to
opposite windows black with sleep,
and hear the stray cats mew for god

knows what—she finds herself among
the old appliances. The new
alarm clock beeps. She wakes the three
children, the man she lets him sleep.

While the drowsy faces eat, she slips
into her uniform, and checks
their wallets for snack money, and
their bags the school-books for the day,

the Math the children scrawled before
her eyes last night. They kiss her, leave.
Now she wakes him up and, when sure
he lies awake, picks up her bag.

In the next room, the dowager
appears asleep, though she can’t tell
for sure. The quarrel last week meant
the children ate nothing for lunch.

She slings her bag, decides to call
home twice, during her lunch and break.
Her thoughts turn with her steps to work,
those long hours making someone happy.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Thank You, Thank You

I leave your house with a shoebox of rejection slips
editors enclosed in my self-addressed envelopes.
Good stationery. Polite form letters. Different types
of no to poems posted with thirty-nine-cent hopes.

A few took the trouble to scribble their subjectivities.
(These poems don’t meet our present needs.) Four
softened the blow by mildly singling out for praise
the flirt, the grovel, the hurt valve, or the soft core.

There's one, burgundy half-letter-sized, kept
face up, raised by the others sleeping facedown.
This one, generous in its plural pronoun, abrupt
in its brevity, added an afterthought, Try us again.

Submission seasons come and go. Every Sept-
ember burns in a shoebox, because of this one.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

A Tale of Two Gregs

On Saturday I heard my friend, Greg Bynum, play his recorder as a guest with the Brooklyn Baroque at the Morris-Jumel Mansion. The details of the concert program are below. Greg was the soloist in Boismortier’s Sonata in G Major for Recorder and Continuo. I thought his playing was particularly fine in that sonata, natural and sweet.

The soprano, Elizabeth Baber, sang the Bach and Telemann much better than the Scarlatti, to my untrained ears. Her voice was controlled and expressive, her interpretation of the Germans dramatic and persuasive. I thought, with her flowing blond hair and strong features, she looked like a Rhine Maiden. Greg’s playing in the Telemann matched her expression and intensity. I really like the Telemann piece, with its lurching rhythm in the opening lines.

Saturday night ended with another Gregg, Araki, on a very different note. Having enjoyed his well-directed "Mysterious Skin," I entertained some hopes of the earlier "Doom Generation." It was disappointing. Its hot male stars did not alleviate the tedium of its gratuitous violence: a head cut off by a machete, an arm shot off by a shotgun, a groin pierced by a sword, a penis snipped off by a pair of garden shears.

The visual analogies between sperm, sauce, blood and smoke, and the sexual tension between the teenagers, two guys and one girl, could have made for an interesting investigation, but the film is not interested in investigation. Winston nailed my impression of it: it is the work of an immature artist out to shock.


Music at Morris-Jumel, Saturday, December 9, 2006

Elizabeth Barber, soprano
Gregory Bynum, recorder
David Bakamjian, baroque cello
Rebeccca Pechefsky, harpsichord

Alessandro Scarlatti, Clori mia, Clori bella

Joseph Bodin de Boismortier, Sonata in E Minor for Cello and Continuo, Op. 50, No. 1, and Sonta in G Major for Recorder and Continuo

Johann Sebastian Bach, “Hochster, was ich habe,” from Brich dem Hungrigen dein Brot, BWV 30, and “Komm in mein Hersenshaus,” from Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, BWV 80

Georg Philipp Telemann, Hemmet den Eifer, verbannet die Rache, Kantate am vierten, Sonntage nach dem Feste der heiligen drei Konige.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Carapace

Mark Nickels wrote a poem for me. I think this is the first poem someone wrote for me, not counting verses penned by my students on cards. "Then hump in the catacombs while the highway thrums" is my kind of a line!

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Last Line

A last line of a poem hangs, like an empty picture frame, on a nail in my head:

a nude is not more nude than when he moves

Monday, December 04, 2006

Independent and Small Press Book Fair

During last weekend, I attended the Fair held at the Small Press Center. The Center is a member of the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen, a society whose quaint anachronism pleases me. The Fair itself was of a good size, with exhibitors in multiple rooms on four different floors. When I say "exhibitor," I really mean one table displaying the press's publications, ranging from one to, perhaps, twenty.

I picked up a number of poetry books at a good discount: The Good Thief by Marie Howe, Sakura Park by Rachel Wetzsteon, Cinder by Bruce Bond, Poems of Nazim Hikmet translated by Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk, and Open Field: Thirty Contemporary Canadian Poets edited by Sina Queyras.

I also bought H. L. Hix's Wild and Whirling Words: A Poetic Conversation. In Hix's project, thirty-three poets contributed one of their poems, which was then sent, without the poet's name, to six other poets for their comments. Besides the poem, the commentators got to read the comments written by the poets before them. The poems are published with the poet named, but the commentaries are anonymous. The resulting read is like a high-level poetry workshop, with many provocative insights into the nature and the craft of poetry.

Of A. E. Stallings' "Amateur Iconography: Resurrection," one poet praises it thus:

On first reading, I found this poem very attractive; its ambition--both thematically and formally--is immediately impressive and sets it apart from most contemporary poems I see...

before landing the punch:

While attempting to write a loosely iambic, rhyming poem and therefore to give the poem a formal dress to wear to its formal occasion, the poet, I believe, has overlooked more important formal concerns: there isn't a moment of syntactic drama or of linguistic excitement that remotely complements the narrative drama of the poem. In fact, the writing is very loose, careless even; the dead-as-leeks simile, for instance of line2--a lovely image wonderfully amplified and vivified by "the wispy hair" in line 3--becomes "like bulbs" in line 4. But leeks are bulbs, aren't they? Couldn't the "like" have been dropped from the line to create both greater precision and concision? Yes, of course. And so could most of the prepositional phrases be dropped and condensed, thereby energizing the language, but the poet let an ill-conceived notion of form get the better of her or him, and the lack of precision that followed undermines the poem.

One does not have to agree with the comments to learn from them. In fact, the more provocative comments compel me to re-examine the poem to see if any counter-arguments can be mounted. Or to appreciate more deeply the justice of the remarks.

Of a Charles Bernstein poem that begins: "every lake has a house/ & every house has a stove/ & every stove has a pot" and wends its unchanging way back to the lake: "& every house has a lake," one poet writes (justly, in my thinking):

I wonder why the poet didn't just write this poem, realize that he or she had something very artificial and slight here, and let it be unpublished. Sure, we could talk about it for hours, make stories of it, find import in our ingenious professional ways. But what has this to do with the art of high seriousness to which we've devoted our lives?

A remark like this reminds me why I want to be a poet, to join that company of cracked craftsmen, that verve of vain visionaries.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

The Cloisters

The way from 190th Street Station to the Cloisters lay through Fort Tryon Park. The Park had a collection of heather that was as showy as that subdued plant could be: quiet mauvre, obscure yellow and pale green. Perched on a hilltop below which the Hudson and a busy motorway ran, the park was named after the last British civil governor of Manhattan. Isn't that a strange choice of name?

The Cloisters itself was built, in the neo-medieval style, on the highest point in that area. I liked how the building incorporated into its own structure architectual elements from its collection. The Fuentiduena Chapel, with its high ceiling and half-barreled apse, was impressive.

During my visit, I was attracted to the silver-stained roundels in the Glass Gallery. The roundel pictures displayed a keen sense of drama, as well as composition in that tricky circular format. Besides the expected saints, martyrs, biblical characters, allegorical figures, there were two bare-breasted women holding heraldic shields.

In a diamond frame, outstanding among the nine roundels in its window, was a picture of three apes assembling a trestle table. Two apes were carrying the table top while waiting for the third to set up the second set of legs. What reinforced the sense of the picture's incongruity was the floor checkered in black and white, a touch that reminded me of modern visual trick-pictures or of surrealist paintings. What were those apes doing there among St. Jerome, courtly ladies, and the Virgin Mary? If they were a later addition, why add that touch of realism, a trestle table, as if the apes were setting up a table for a medieval feast? Curiouser.