Saturday, March 31, 2007

NaPoWriMo 2007

The National Poetry Writing Month begins tomorrow: write a poem a day for the month of April. In NaPoWRiMo 2005, I wrote most of the sonnets of Payday Loans. In 2006, I wrote poems in hymn stanzas, some of which were revised and arranged into the sequence, "There Is No Safety in Distance." This year, the inspiration is Whitman's "I Sing the Body Electric." I hope to use section nine as a plan for a suite of poems about the history and the ethics of the body.


O my body! I dare not desert the likes of you in other men and women, nor the likes of the parts of you;
I believe the likes of you are to stand or fall with the likes of the Soul, (and that they are the Soul; )
I believe the like of you shall stand or fall with my poems--that they are poems,
Man's, woman's, child's, youth's, wife's, husband's, mother's, father's, young man's, young woman's poems;
Head, neck, hair, ears, drop and tympan of the ears,
Eyes, eye-fringes, iris of the eye, eye-brows, and the waking or sleeping of the lids,
Mouth, tongue, lips, teeth, roof of the mouth, jaws, and the jaw-hinges,
Nose, nostrils of the nose, and the partition,
Cheeks, temples, forehead, chin, throat, back of the neck, neck slue,
Strong shoulders, manly beard, scapula, hind-shoulders, and the ample side-round of the chest.

Upper-arm, arm-pit, elbow-socket, lower-arm, arm-sinews, arm-bones,
Wrist and wrist-joints, hand, palm, knuckles, thumb, fore-finger, finger-balls, finger-joints, finger-nails,
Broad breast-front, curling hair of the breast, breast-bone, breast-side,
Ribs, belly, back-bone, joints of the back-bone,
Hips, hip-sockets, hip-strength, inward and outward round, man-balls, man-root,
Strong set of thighs, well carrying the trunk above,
Leg-fibres, knee, knee-pan, upper-leg, under leg,
Ankles instep, foot-ball, toes, toe-joints, the heel;
All attitudes, all the shapeliness, all the belongings of my or your body, or of any one's body, male or female,
The lung-sponges, the stomach-sac, the bowels sweet and clean,
The brain in its folds inside the skull-frame,
Sympathies, heart-valves, palate-valves, sexuality, maternity,
Womanhood, and all that is a woman--and the man that comes from woman,
The womb, the teats, nipples, breast-milk, tears, laughter, weeping, love-looks, love-perturbations and risings,
The voice, articulation, language, whisperings, shouting aloud,
Food, drink, pulse, digestion, sweat, sleep, walking, swimming,
Poise on the hips, leaping, reclining, embracing, arm-curving and tightening,
The continual changes of the flex of the mouth, and around the eyes,
The skin, the sun-burnt shade, freckles, hair,
The curious sympathy one feels, when feeling with the hand the naked meat of the body,
The circling rivers, the breath, and breathing it in and out,
The beauty of the waist, and thence of the hips, and thence downward toward the knees,
The thin red jellies within you, or within me--the bones, and the marrow in the bones,
The exquisite realization of health;
O I say, these are not the parts and poems of the Body only, but of the Soul,
O I say now these are the Soul!

1. Wikipedia

Friday, March 30, 2007

The Phillips Collection

I really enjoyed my visit to The Phillips Collection, in Washington D.C., yesterday. The museum of modern art has split personalities: a Georgian Revival house and a modern white-wall gallery building. The jewel of its collection is Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party. After seeing so many reproductions in prints and books, I was surprised by the monumental size of the painting. Size is how an artist signals the importance of a painting to his oeuvre, a summation of his explorations, a claim to immortality. Another monumental painting is The Terrace (1918) by Bonnard. I was very touched by the elderly couple crouching in their garden in the painting. Their presence humanizes the monumentality of the canvas.

Richard Diebenkorn's Girl with Plant (1960) was particularly fascinating. Against the severe background of abstract expressionist wall, doorway and bed, the plant seems peculiarly alive. The brushstrokes are energetic and the strong colors look as if they were applied randomly. Since a frond seems to emerge from the side of the girl's head, the plant draws the more sombrely-colored girl into itself.

It was a Matisse that captured my heart, his Interior with Egyptian Curtain.

The artist understood all his elements perfectly. Elaine Scarry pointed out in her book on beauty that the palm in Matisse resembles the paintbrush, and thus symbolizes the artistic imagination. If that is so, then this painting is an altar to that imagination: the cross of the window lattice, the table with its bowl of fruits, the fabric column. The painting was strangely consoling to me, for a pain I was not even aware of feeling.

I was also entranced by the Rothko Room, where a painting hung on each of the four walls. After viewing the magnificent permanant collection, I found it a relief to the room, to sit and meditate on colors and shapes.

Green and Tangerine on Red

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Shit Creek Review has a new feature supplement

From the editors:

Shit Creek Review+II Plywood Edition is now online, with poetry by Lee Harlin Bahan, Sam Byfield, Michael Cantor, K.R. Copeland, Brian Dion, Richard Epstein, Larry Fontenot, Angela France, Jude Goodwin, Juleigh Howard-Hobson, Danielle Lapidoth, Amanda Laughtland, Dave McClure, Mary Meriam, Bee Smith, Kirby Wright, and essays by Norman Ball, Anna Evans and Rose Kelleher. There is art by Don Zirilli, Patricia Wallace Jones, Hanka Jaskowska, C.D. Russell and Valori Herzlich.

A new feature supplement, II, focuses on the Poetry of Tim Murphy, and includes three new poems by Tim, as well as a selection from his as yet unpublished prosimetrum, Requited; also an interview, and essays and perspectives by Janet Kenny, Henry Quince, Rhina Espaillat, Alan Sullivan, Daniel Haar, R.S. Gwynn, Richard Wakefield, A.E. Stallings, Rose Kelleher, and Wendy Videlock. Click on the big II on the front page of SCR.

We are calling for submissions for the July edition of SCR+II: for SCR, poems on all subjects; for II, poems on "Lives". Subs for the July issue close on the 21st May, 2007. See the Submissions page for details.

Happy Paddling!

The Editors

Monday, March 26, 2007

J. S. Bach: The Passion According to Saint John

When I was an evangelical Christian, of the four gospels, the one I loved most was John's. Sure, Mark writes the tautest plot, Matthew charms with his Christmas story, and Luke betrays the compassion of a doctor for the sick. But John, in the most argumentative and dramatic of the gospels, unveils the Power and the Glory:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

And that gospel-in-a-nutshell, that bribe disguised as a gift of love, that verse memorized in Sunday School and thrust into the faces of unbelievers:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.

So it was with some shock I heard John’s words again, in Bach’s Passion, and realized how anti-semitic the gospel is. The crowd, repeatedly called “the Jews,” bays for Jesus’ blood, despite Pilate’s insistence that he finds Jesus not guilty of any crime, and when Pilate offers to release him, the Jews ask for the release of Barrabas the murderer instead.

Charles Brink, the music director and conductor of the Grand Tour Orchestra performing the Passion, writes in the program:

Quite a lot has been written about the anti-semitic nature of St. John’s text, and the propriety of altering or preserving the words in modern-day performances. While not trying to explain away the disturbing elements of the text, I hope our performance will convey what I think are by far the most important messages in Bach’s St. John Passion—those of redemption, love, and forgiveness.

It is a hard decision to make, whether to alter or preserve the words, and I am not sure if I would decide differently if I were in Brink’s place. However, his explanation seems to exculpate Bach by putting the blame on John. According to Brink, the anti-semitism, “the disturbing elements,” belongs to John’s “text” while Bach’s Passion conveys the “most important messages…those of redemption, love and forgiveness.”

I think, in both John and Bach, the messages of redemption, love and forgiveness cannot be separated from the anti-semitism. John’s argument is that the Jews, by rejecting Jesus as their king, have given away God’s salvation to the Gentiles. Bach seemed to have understood in the same way the relationship between that rejection and his own salvation. His Passion orchestrates, and sharpens, that dramatic relationship he found in John’s text. As a Chorale puts it:

Christ, who makes us blessed
And has done no wrong,
Was seized for us like a thief
In the night,
Led before godless people,
And falsely accused,
Ridiculed, mocked and spat upon,
As is said in the Scriptures.

The artistic integrity of the Passion seems to me to depend on the dramatic confrontation between the Jews and Pilate over the fate of Jesus. And that integrity, with its unsavory underside, may be a better reason to preserve the words of the Passion.

Johann Sebastian Bach: The Passion According to Saint John
The Grand Tour Orchestra
Charles Brink, music director
Hélène Guilmette, soprano
Renée Lapointe, mezzo-soprano
Matthew Garrett, tenor
Randall Scarlata, bass-baritone

Conflitti di Voci Chorus

Sunday, March 25, 2007, 3 p.m.
St. Ann and the Holy Trinity Church

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Launch of "Mimesis"

Mimesis is a new international poetry journal edited by James AL Midgley. The just-launched website gives a sampler of the poems in the first issue.

48 Poems from:

Julie Carter, Brent Fisk, Rebecca Kutzer-rice, Jee Leong Koh, Taylor Loy, Rob Mackenzie, Ian McLachlan, Jon Stone, R. L. Swihart and Emily Stuart.

Also: an interview with poet Michael Laskey .

Artwork from:

Jesse Michael Renaud (cover), Amanda Rehagen and Sarah Hayes.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Journeys: Mapping the Earth and Mind in Chinese Art

I went twice to see the Chinese art exhibition at the Met, so enchanted was I by the artistic explorations of place: imperial inspection tours, scholars' fantastic mountain retreats, landscape as political allegory or lament, laborers' biking daily to work, pleasure gardens, gorges. In the traditional landscape paintings, the subject matter may appear limited, but the wonder is that a mountain can be painted in so many different ways.

Dong Qichang (1555-1636) advocated approaching painting like calligraphy, with an emphasis on abstraction and kinetic brushstrokes. His "Shaded Dwellings Among Streams and Mountains" reminded me of Cezanne's post-impressionist paintings of Mont Sainte-Victoire, though they are from such different periods.

I can't find that painting on the net, so here's another landscape by him:

Dai Benxiao (1621-1693) seemed to be heavily influenced by Qichang, to my ignorant eyes, when he painted "The Strange Pines of Mount Tiantai." The twisted pines of the title represent a generation of Ming loyalists who had to survive the dynastic change to Qing. Benxiao's own father committed suicide after he was injured fighting the Qing forces.

Another painting by Dai:

Another good story that accompanies a painting is that of Huang Xiangjian (1609-1673). After the fall of Ming Dynasty in 1644, when he heard no news of his parents, the artist set out in 1652 on an arduous journey from Suzhou to travel over 1400 miles to find his parents. He completed the round trip in 558 days. He became one of those ubiquitous stories of super-filial children in Chinese history and literature. The inscription on his painting, "A Journey Through Yunnan and Guizhou," expressed his hope that the painting would "exorcise the nightmares that still haunt him." The long horizontal scroll depicts steep and treacherous mountains and wide bodies of water. A narrow, almost invisible path runs through the scroll, sometimes disappearing behind mountains, sometimes stopped short by lakes. The pathos of the path is very moving.

Huang's "A Thousand Cliffs and Myriad Peaks":

Wednesday, March 21, 2007


In Mother’s womb, we started as a pair of lungs,
sea slugs hanging on to a reef. We grew toe rays,
brain sponges and gonads relaxed by the liquid song.

The Doppler ultrasound echoed our submarine
and found us one. The truth was monozygotic—
we sucked each other’s nub of thumb inside the brine.

When, headfirst, we were unceremoniously expelled,
we were halved like an egg sliced with a line of hair.
A beak plucked at the cord and knotted my navel.

Mother never speaks of you although I know
you were with me at sea. How else to understand
my panic playing hide-and-seek, the cracked canoe,

wet dreams of touching a man, waking up, a curse
crying, not knowing why, like a turtle washed ashore,
a lacquered carapace—these shimmering absences?

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Love Song for Whoever You May Be

Lifting weights for you, love, though
I've no idea who you are,
I'm rowing the bend-forward row,
chinning, just, the chin-up bar.
You're a stranger, friend or foe,
Live next door, perhaps, next star.

In Pyong-yang or Paumanok,
when our eyes meet finally,
gabbing gobbledygook
my body language will not be
but, like a cover to a book,
draw you forth to open me.

We'll laugh at Sentimentalists,
softest when they act so tough,
who consider who love is
reason good enough for love,
though he may be poor or pissed,
itch with danger or dandruff.

Unlike God or saints, we love
not unconditionally,
but require a strong enough
reason, and that makes us free
to love a woman for her muff,
or a man with HIV.

So while I work on lat dorsi,
you're improving your prospect
by memorizing poetry,
that you may say to one you expect,
mortal, guilty, but to me
big and beautiful your pecs.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Chinese Offer Fresh Food to the Dead

and now if you return to Daly City,
where he had driven you each Saturday

for five years for cheap and good dim sum,
for Metal Kuan Yin and chrysanthemum,

for sharp-clawed knuckles of stewed chicken feet,
yam cake with dark brown crust and starchy meat,

plump shrimp wrapped in scalloped dumpling skin,
you would ask for a table set for one.

for D.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

My Reading at Pink Pony Last Night

Well, the reading at Pink Pony Express I was eagerly anticipating is over! Someone asked if she could find on my blog one of the poems, a question that put in my head the idea of providing the links to all the poems I read last night. The nicest compliment I received was that my poetry is "precise and beautiful." Thanks, friends, for coming out in the sleety evening. If you could not make it, here are the poems for you:

Cold Pastoral
For Lonely
If the Fire Is in Your Apartment
My father doesn't know Zeus from Zeno (from Payday Loans)
Because my mother whispers on the phone (from Payday Loans)
The Grand Historian Makes a Virtue of Necessity
Little Men
Hungry Ghosts (Part 1); Hungry Ghosts (Part 2)
Approaching Thirty-Seven
There Is No Safety in Distance

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

What paintings influenced Dickens?

I remember reading Great Expectations for the first time in my second week at college. (The first week was darkened by reading Bleak House, and dashing out an essay on it.) I can't remember what I wrote on Pip or Miss Havisham or Magwitch; the name I remember spelling over and over again in my best handwriting is Wemmick's. He is a man split between work and home, the public and the private, and I knew how such a split could tear up a man from inside out.

That knowledge was kept from my paper. Though my tutor's comment was appropriately kind to an undergraduate, it pointed out that I kept a polite distance from Dickens' language. I did not understand his point then. Did I not pay careful attention to what I read? Did I not cite incidents to bolster my argument? Did I not quote the speeches that damn the speakers?

Re-reading the novel makes me realize what before I overlooked, or looked right through. Dickens is a great prose stylist. Sure, the characterization, despite its inventiveness, is flat, and the plot aims for the greatest happiness, and unhappiness, of the greatest number, but the style is wonderfully alive to social nuances and linguistic niceties. And the passages that stay with me this time are his vivid evocations of landscape.

After Pip's first encounter with his convict, he describes the marshes into which the fugitive disappears:

The marshes were just a long black horizontal line then, as I stopped to look after him; and the river was just another horizontal line, not nearly so broad nor yet so black; and the sky was just a row of long angry red lines and dense black lines intermixed. On the edge of the river, I could faintly make out the only two black things in all the prospect that seemed to be standing upright; one of these was the beacon by which the sailors steered—like an unhooped cask upon a pole—an ugly thing when you were near it; the other a gibbet, with some chains hanging to it which had once held a pirate.

The description, with its references to lines (horizontal and upright), color and prospect, is painterly. In the first sentence, clauses of almost equal lengths are joined "flatly" by semi-colons and coordinating conjunctions, grammatical devices that imply parity and parallelism between what they join. Delayed to the end of the sentence is the painterly word, "intermixed." The vertical beacon and gibbet, representing the alternatives of hope and death, cross the horizontals of marsh, river and sky. Since this is prose, and not paint, the passage does something more than what a realist painting can do: it makes visible what is hidden by space and time. The ugliness of the beacon close-up. The pirate no longer there.

Like a painter who paints in series, Dickens refers back to this passage in a later description of the Thames when Pip and friends are trying to row Magwitch to safety.

We got ashore among some slippery stones while we ate and drank what we had with us, and looked about. It was like my own marsh country, flat and monotonous, and with a dim horizon; while the winding river turned and turned, and the great floating buoys upon it turned and turned, and everything else seemed stranded and still. For now the last of the fleet of ships was round the last low point we had headed; and the last green barge, straw-laden, with a brown sail, had followed; and some ballast-lighters, shaped like a child's first rude imitation of a boat, lay low in the mud; and a little squat shoal-lighthouse on open piles, stood crippled in the mud on stilts and crutches; and slimy stakes stuck out of the mud, and slimy stones stuck out of the mud, and red landmarks and tidemarks stuck out of the mud, and an old landing-stage and an old roofless building slipped into the mud, and all about us was stagnation and mud.

The second sentence is a marvel. After the semi-colon, the subordinate clauses do not go anywhere but, ending in a stasis stapled by alliteration, turn out to modify the independent clause before the semi-colon. The energy of the turning river and buoys is subordinated to a "flat and monotonous" landscape.

Vessels, made for movement, are considered, only to be dismissed. The last ship disappeared round the low point. The last green barge "had followed" after, the past perfect tense reinforcing the passage of time since there was movement last. The ballast-lighters lay low. Each kind of vessel is simpler than the one before, the ballast-lighters "like a child's first rude imitation of a boat."

This reduction is not innocent. It is a kind of de-creation in which landing-stage and building, products of human civilization, "slipped" back into a primordial soup. It suggests Dicken's horrified fascination with stagnation, the formless mud from which his sentences, his bildungsroman, and his own life emerge, and into which they sink and see.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Approaching Thirty-Seven

After leaving my ex-lover sleeping in his bed,
I think about turning thirty-seven in ten days,
and about being alone the next thirty-seven years.

There are some advantages. Give myself to poetry
giant-heartedly, undiminished by love's demands.
Give myself to the unchanging arms of casual sex.

Back home, watching my all-time favorite porn flick,
the blond college freshman tied to the hammock
begging for the fist, I take all of ten minutes.

What to do with the other minutes after that?
My dog-eared books turn their backs to me. I scrub
the common bathroom that has not been cleaned for weeks,

but the toilet bowl grins like a loser's trophy.
I'm craving dully for the next hit, the bang of sex
or the wham of sounds transposing to a clear image.

In the interval between spunk and poetry lies death.
The freshman intuits that. Which is why he begs
for the gloved fist to enter him again and again.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

2007 Showcase at Poets' House

Roxanne, my publisher, is trying to get my chapbook out in time for the showcase. Go, Roxanne, go! She also sent me some information on the showcase. The Poets' House is well worth a visit, if you have not visited it before. It's a great resource for American poetry.

Saturday, March 31
The Poets House Showcase Opening Reception
Members Preview: 4:00-5:00pm
Public Reception: 5:00-7:00pm
Showcase on-view through April 30

The Poets House Showcase, an awe-inspiring display of
all of the poetry published in the United States since
last year, opens with a festive reception and the
chance to chat with fellow writers and readers about
the latest innovations in contemporary verse.

@ Poets House, 72 Spring Street, 2nd Floor
Admission Free

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Tomorrow's the Launch...

...of Poets Wear Prada Press, the people publishing my chapbook, Payday Loans. The program of reading can be found here. My chief feeling now is one of gratitude. To Roxanne Hoffman who likes the work enough to publish it. To my many readers, online and off, who commented on and supported these poems as well as my other scribblings. To my teachers at Sarah Lawrence College, in particular, Stephen Dobyns and Marie Howe, who taught me what a poem is and can be. To W., who inspired, critiqued and encouraged the work. I'll be reading these three poems from the sonnet sequence:

April 5, Tuesday

Rage, as before, against the Fall, Baghdad,
the body's prick, but in a villanelle?
If style's a way of being in the world, as Good-
man says, against what does the change rebel?
The termite temple of lust, fame and friends?
World closing in like water? From the shore,
the wave outruns and picks three out of ten.
The pope died yester—, no, the day before.
So long, pope! We're still left with Mystery
you poke and jab and slap and kick and hack
while crooning sweetly to her in your shack.
(Here it comes: the obligatory flattery.)
Your twelfth book opens with a tenor's plight,
brings down the house with “entry into night.”

for Stephen Dobyns, on the publication of Mystery, So Long

April 28, Thursday

I thought being gay saved me from being a man
and man's mistakes: great wall, sacked city, rape
and either/or. Victor or also-ran.
Pope or poop. Beta male or top ape.
Or, in my mind, Poet (upper case) or not.
Last week, before you read, your daughter ran
and tied your hand in hers. You loosed the knot
for a while, and read to strangers, students, friends.
I think of the women who lived, loved and wrote,
those who still do, as someone's daughter, wife
and mum. I'm that male poet who shuts his life,
so he can write, then read his work, and quote
Bradstreet, Dickinson, Smith, Browning, Glück,
Rossetti, Sexton, Moore, Plath, Brooks and Rich.

for Marie Howe

April 30, Saturday

In the first year, you said, a coin is dropped
into a bottle each time a couple fuck.
They take the rest of their lives, seconds copped,
to empty the decanter, with some luck,
coin by long coin. I think of your loose change
tossed into the cup—quarters, pennies, dimes
—silver and copper that came from a range
of corduroy you wore at different times,
and become sad. Then I recall you would
pick up some coins before we left the house
so as to pay with exact cash for goods
I enjoyed as more than friend and less than spouse.
Over the cup, thinking of memory's sum,
I read on a dime e pluribus unum.

Monday, March 05, 2007

I want my body to be a river

I want my body to be a river.
I fear it is a swamp.
I want to surge and sing and shiver,
and not to be damp.

Cleo in her Egyptian barge
flashes fire and ice.
Anthony, general and large,
doesn't step in the same river twice.

But a swamp in the tropics! How it sticks
to the conqueror's leather boots,
and croaks, "Be sympathetic!"
while the owl hoots.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Mouvements Perpetuels

after Poulenc

A stair runs down. The rain lets up.
An idea turns to brand.
Tomatoes ripening on a stalk
are plucked and canned.

A wrinkled rug. A wrinkled face.
Waves straighten on the strand.
Then I think of fucking you,
your dick in my hand.

A star burns out. A star caves in.
An aeroplane must land.
Tomatoes ripening on a stalk
are plucked and canned.

A spinning top spins to a stop.
The last song by the band.
Then I think of fucking you,
your dick in my hand.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Two Geoffreys on the English Language

Geoffrey Pullum: "I want to confess to a straightforward idiosyncratic personal linguistic preference — an aesthetic judgment, if you want to call it that. At the end I draw out a lesson from it. The confession is this: I simply hate the term person of color (along with its standard pluralization, people of color). I have never used it, and I never will. They can't make me."

Geoffrey Nunberg: "Most of my fellow linguists, in fact, would say that it is absurd even to talk about a language changing for the better or the worse. When you have the historical picture before you, and can see how Indo-European gradually slipped into Germanic, Germanic into Anglo-Saxon, and Anglo-Saxon into the English of Chaucer, then Shakespeare, and then Henry James, the process of linguistic change seems as ineluctable and impersonal as continental drift. From this Olympian point of view, not even the Norman invasion had much of an effect on the structure of the language, and all the tirades of all the grammarians since the Renaissance sound like the prattlings of landscape gardeners who hope by frantic efforts to keep Alaska from bumping into Asia."