Tuesday, July 31, 2007

New Australasian Poetry Journal: Mascara

The first issue is out online. From the website:

Mascara is an online journal seeking to promote poetry of excellence and originality. We are especially interested in the work of contemporary Australasian poets. Our criteria for selection are quality of image, language and innovation.

The word ‘mascara’ entered the English language in 1890. It derives from Spanish, Arabic and French origins, its meaning evolving from the word mask, masquerade, to darken, to blacken. The Arabic word ‘maskhara’ means buffoon.

Our Editors

Boey Kim Cheng

Boey Kim Cheng was born in Singapore and is now an Australian citizen. He has four collections of poetry: Somewhere Bound (1989), Another Place (1992) Days of No Name (1995) and After the Fire (2006). He teaches Creative Writing at the University of Newcastle.

Michelle Cahill

Michelle Cahill is Anglo-Indian. She writes poetry and fiction. Her first collection of poetry The Accidental Cage was Best First Book with Interactive Press in 2006. She studied medicine at Sydney University and has an Arts Major in Creative Writing from Macquarie University.


after reading Love in the Time of Cholera

Love makes Florentina Ariza cunning, it makes me helpless.
Love makes him mad with a pen, it makes me mute with desire.

Does cholera commit the lover to lifelong devotion
to the one loved? I don’t know. I only know malaria,

the Kenyan sun branding the flesh inside out,
the icy river swirling round the crossing cattle,

and the mottled darkness inside the mosquito net
hanging like a ancient wedding veil over me.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Resistance and Biographical Landscapes

Two exhibitions now at the International Center of Photography are worth catching. "Let Your Motto be Resistance: African American Portraits" features 86 works drawn from the collections of the National Portrait Gallery. "Biographical Landscapes: The Photography of Stephen Shore 1969-79" presents 164 color prints of this American photographer, including his series "Uncommon Places."

Arranged in roughly chronological order, "Resistance" begins wonderfully by juxtaposing two photographs. In the first, Jack Johnson, the first African American heavyweight boxing champion, flexes his right bicep, his arm stiff and straight, a gesture of phallic strength paralleled by the metal stake behind his bicep. Whereas he is half naked, W. E. B. Du Bois, in the second photo, is starched up in collar, tie and suit. His forehead is a gleaming dome of intelligence, and his well-kept moustache and beard give him classical gravitas.

Addison N. Scurlock
W.E.B. Du Bois, c. 1911
Gelatin silver print
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

The rest of the exhibition presents an arresting array of photographs: political leaders and activists, musicians, composers, singers, writers, athletes, actors. As the curatorial note observes, the photograph does not merely record African American achievements, but also iconizes the achievers, transforming them into emotional focal points for the community, and into visceral refutation of white racism.

In this process of symbol-making, one of the most powerful photos interestingly does not capture achievement, but death. In the photo of a dead Martin Luther King, his youngest daughter's mouth forms an "o" of shock when she sees hum lying in his casket. I wonder what other equally powerful portraits could have been exhibited, if the curatorial direction has been broadened beyond the symbols of achievement. Besides the expected photo of Rosa Parks, what other iconic images of common African Americans provide portraits of resistance? After all, lionization is only one aspect of icon-making. Perhaps the limitation of the exhibition lies partly in the limitation of the portrait genre, as conventionally conceived.

A related thought has to do with the absence of curatorial notes on the photographic styles and conventions, though the exhibition blurb claims to "explore both aesthetic and vernacular styles." The note beside each photo explains carefully the achievements of its subject, but says nothing about the photographer. The effect of walking through the exhibition is that of a history lesson, when it could have been that and an art class. The one African American photographer featured is Arnold Eagle, as a subject, and not an artist. I would have liked to see his photos and what he would make of a theme like "portraits of resistance."

Arnold Eagle
Gordon Parks, 1945
© Estate of Arnold Eagle
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

The other exhibition, on the lower level, is about place, and not people, despite a few portraits. The photos are very often without people, even when the setting, for example, a motel room, is patently a habitat. Many of Stephen Shore's photographs remind me of the beauty of Edward Hopper's paintings, minus the human presence.

Stephen Shore
Room 316, Howard Johnson’s. Battle Creek, Michigan, July 6, 1973
© Stephen Shore
Courtesy Aperture Foundation

In the middle years of "Uncommon Places," Shore composed his photos with a center focus and linear perspective in mind. He discovered an astonishing range of objects to serve as the center, from a wooden pillar of the balcony of a house to a green car picked out from the scattered cars of a parking lot, from the corner of a roof projection to the diminishing point of a road. My favorite is the photo centered on the red light of a traffic signal, around which all the other elements of the road intersection scene fall into place, as if disposed like the oranges and apples of a still life painting. I can't find that one on the Center's website, so here is the one focused on the (small) green car:

Stephen Shore
Fifth Street and Broadway, Eureka, California, September 2, 1974
© Stephen Shore
Courtesy Aperture Foundation

What impresses me most about these photographs is their apparent artlessness. Shore worked with Andy Warhol's Factory, and was familiar with the uses of the found object and of popular culture. Those influences are evident in the works. However, whereas Pop Art wants to put the mundane into museums, Shore seems, to me, to put the muse back into the mundane. The man also has a mischievous sense of humor.

Stephen Shore
West Ninth Avenue, Amarillo, Texas, October 2, 1974
© Stephen Shore
Courtesy Aperture Foundation

Phil Grabsky's "In Search of Mozart"

At many points, this film documentary has a made-for-TV feel to it. There are the talking heads, the role-plays, the snippets of music. There is also a slightly desperate air in its attempts to make Mozart our contemporary. The operatic productions shown are often in modern costumes and sets. The routes across Europe Mozart took are now replaced by crowded motorways. The biographical information presented seems basic, and straightforward. The film corrects some factual inaccuracies in Milos Forman's "Amadeus" (no, he did not die a pauper, nor was he buried in a paupers' grave), but raises no scholarly controversies about the life, or the works. What makes the film worth watching on the big screen is the beautiful cinematography. Some of the visuals are quite stunning. Also, to echo one reviewer, the performers are terribly good-looking.

Friday, July 27, 2007

The Chinese in "Love in the Time of Cholera"

The novel invites me, as the reader, to identify first with Juvenal Urbino, the husband of Fermina Daza, the man who has it all, before seducing me to empathize with Florentina Ariza, the man who lost Fermina to Juvenal but loves her for the rest of his life. Both identifications, so cunningly sequenced, require only imaginative empathy, which I give willingly to get into the skin of characters otherwise so different from myself. So it is with a shock, not of identification, but of recognition, that I read the satiric set-piece on the Poetic Festival, and the Chinese winner:

When a bewildered Fermina Daza read out the name, no one understood it, not only because it was an unusual name but because no one knew for certain what Chinese were called. But it was not necessary to think about it very much, because the victorious Chinese walked from the back of the theater with that celestial smile Chinese wear when they come home early. he had been so sure of victory that he had put on a yellow silk robe, appropriate to the rites of spring in order to accept the prize. He received the eighteen-carat Golden orchid and kissed it with joy in the midst of the thundering jeers of the incredulous. He did not react. He waited in the middle of the stafe, as imperturbable as the apostle of a Divine Providence less dramatic than ours, and as soon as it was quiet he read the winning poem. No one understood him. But when the new round of jeers and whistles was over, an impassive Fermina Daza read it again, in her hoarse, suggestive voice, and amazement reigned after the first line. It was a perfect sonnet in the purest Parnassian tradition, and through it there wafted a breath of inspiration that revealed the involvement of a master hand. The only possible explanation was that one of the great poets had devised the joke in order to ridicule the Poetic Festival, and that the Chinese had been a party to it and was determined to keep the secret until the day he died. The Commerical Daily, our traditional newspaper, tried to save our civic honor with an erudite and rather confused essay concerning the antiquity and cultural influence of the Chinese in the Caribbean, and the right they had earned to participate in Poetic Festivals. The author of the essay did not doubt that the writer of the sonner was in fact who he said he was, and he defended him in a straightforward manner, beginning with the title itself: "All Chinese Are Poets." The instigators of the plot, if there was one rotted in their graves along with the secret. For his part, the Chinese who had won died without confession at an Oriental age and was buried with the Golden orchid in his coffin, but also with the bitterness of never having achieved the only thing he wanted in his life, which was recognition as a poet. On his death, the press recalled the forgotten incident of the Poetic Festival and reprinted the sonnet with a Modernist vignette of fleshy maidens and gold cornucopias, and the guardian angels of poetry took advantage of the opportunity to clarify matters: the sonnet seemed so bad to the younger generation that no one doubt any longer that it had, in fact, been composed by the dead Chinese.

The irony against the different subtle kinds of racism is right on target. Last Friday, after I read at the open-mic at Cornelia Street Cafe, a woman told me that I read very well. I thanked her, but could not help wondering what she meant by it. If she liked the poems, could she not have said that instead? Why evaluate my performance as if there is an invisible tag to her words: for a Chinese?

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Trilling's "Art and Fortune"

In the interview with Mark Halliday, Bidart spoke of his love during his undergraduate years for Trilling's The Liberal Imagination. He quotes from "Art and Fortune" a sentence that concludes a passage about "the beautiful circuit of thought and desire" (James' phrase):
The novel has had a long dream of virtue in which the will, while never abating its strength and activity, learns to refuse to exercise itself upon the unworthy objects with which the social world tempts it, and either conceives its own right objects or becomes content with its own sense of its potential force--which is why so many novels give us, before their end, some representation, often crude enough, of the will unbroken but in stasis.

Bidart comments on this passage:
This image of the will "unbroken but in stasis"--after having "exhausted all that part of itself which naturally turns to the inferior objects offered by the social world"--and which has therefore "learned to refuse" ... This image has haunted me: it seems to me a profound pattern, one of the central, significant actions that many works have, in different ways with different implications, felt as necessary.

The will "unbroken but in stasis" is an alluring image for me too. But some questions arise in my mind about Trilling's statement, that perhaps would have been easily answered by reading the entire essay. "Learning to refuse," in such close quarters to words like "virtue" and "tempts," sounds like a species of puritanism. It is cousin to denial of the world and the flesh. It is telling that the "unworthy objects" are offered by the "social world" from which the will turns away to contemplate its own personal autonomy. The turn is not merely from "unworthy objects" to "right objects," it is also a rejection of the social world in favor of the individual domain.

This rejection is reinforced by the will becoming "content with its own sense of its potential force." Though worded as another possibility besides the will conceiving its own right objects, the will's sense of its own force seems to be Trilling's grand prize. This interpretation is supported by the concluding phrase "the will unbroken and in stasis." A will that conceives its own right objects will not be in stasis. To conceive, however meant, is an action, an action that presumably leads to other actions, such as the exercise of affection towards those objects. The will is in stasis, however, when it "becomes content with its own sense of its potential force." Contentment and potentiality are the vocabulary of stasis.

So, according to Trilling, the novel's long dream of virtue is, ultimately, about the will becoming content with its own sense of its potential force. Why does that alluring idea also terrify me? Because it leaves too much up to me. To sense the will's own force is also to sense its sheer arbitrariness. Why do I love one person and not another? The right answer may be Trilling's: it's a matter of the will, our wilfulness. The will's force is directed at the external world. It has force inasmuch as the will has its will over the external world, has an autonomy apart from the dictates of the external world. Its force is most visible when I love, not what is reasonably or commonly agreed as most deserving of love, but whatever I will to love. The will preserves its autonomy when it chooses to love what reason dictates, but it brandishes (gloriously, to Trilling, terrifyingly, to me) that same autonomy when it does not love what reason dictates; in other words, the will is most itself when it follows its own dictates.

What about the will conceiving its own right objects? "Conceive" is a very interesting choice of word here. I take it to mean in this context "to form its own ideas about." It is the opposite of "to receive received ideas about." To conceive emphasizes the activity of the will, as well as the individuality of that activity, and of the activity's result, own ideas. But how does the will know its ideas about its objects are right? What is "right" in this situation? "Right" according to some standard apart from the will? I don't think that is what Trilling means. "Right" here means right for the will, for the person. But "right objects" are also contrasted with "unworthy objects," so some kind of valuation is implied. So "right" means not only right for the person, but also "person" conceived as the worthiest form of herself. So drug addiction is not "right" for the person even if the person's will conceives of drugs as its own right object. On the other hand, intellectual growth is not right for the person until her will conceives of such growth as right for itself.

Addiction and growth are less debatable (non-)goods. Love is trickier. I've only read about half of Love in the Time of Cholera. Florentino Ariza falls in love with Fermina Daza after catching sight of her sewing when he delivers a telegram to her father. He does all the crazy things lovers do: writes love messages, reads love poems to the sea, plays his violin below her window at night, and proposes marriage to her again fifty-one years, nine months and four days after he first declared his love for her, having reserved his heart for her all that time. Against the dictates of reason, commonsense and experience, Florentino's will conceives of Fermina as the right object for it, in Trilling's terms. How are we to judge this? Foolish? Self-deceiving? Virtuous? Heroic? A Waste of a Life? Behind any answer lies our idea of what makes a good life.

Could one fall in love on such a slim excuse of an occasion? Let's enlarge that occasion beyond a mere glimpse, let's say, a five minute conversation in a bar followed by mutual jerk-off in a bath house. But you can't possibily know the other person in that time. Now that's a laughable objection. It assumes that falling in love is based on knowledge rather than ignorance. We fall in love with someone at the beginning of knowledge. My hypothetical situation is only different in degree from more conventional scenarios, but not in kind. But the occasion was all about lust, not about love. Can we make such a hard and fast distinction between lust and love? Can one not shade imperceptibly into the other? Do many loves not begin with physical attraction, and grow to be something more? Such "love" is merely the passion of a moment; it does not last. That objection confuses the nature of a thing with its duration. Fire is still fire though it may die on a bed of ashes in a matter of minutes. And just like fire, for love to last, it needs to be fed.

It is wrong to dismiss the possibility or the reality of love prompted by such an occasion, a glimpse through a window, a hand round a beautiful cock. To be dismissive is not to give any allowance to the power of the will to "conceive its own right objects" and not to give any consideration to the mystery and the holiness of the heart's affections.

Bidart on "action" in poetry

from Mark Halliday's interview of Frank Bidart (appendix to In the Western Night):
The notion of "action" in Francis Fergusson's The Idea of a Theater is crucial to my understanding of poetry (and of writing in general)--so crucial, that I want to get polemical about it. It source, of course, is Aristotle's Poetics, the statements that "tragedy is the imitation of an action." Fergusson cites Kenneth Burke on "language as symbolic action," and quotes Coleridge: unity of action, Coleridge says, "is not properly a rule, but in itself the great end, no only of the drama. but of the epic, lyric, even the candle-flame of an epigram--not only of poetry, but of poesy in general, as the proper generic term inclusve of all the fine arts."

But the sense that a poem must be animated by a unifying, central action--that it both "imitates" an action and is itself an action--has been largely igrnoed by twentieth century aesthetics. It was never an animating idea in the poetics of modernism. That doesn't mean that poets have ignored it in practice. When Pound, for example, writes that he has "schooled" himself "to write an epic poem which begins 'In the Dark Forest,' crosses the Purgatory of human error, and ends in the light," he is describing, of course, an action--a journey undertaken and suffered by the central consciousness of his poem, a journey that begins somewhere, goes somewhere, ends somewhere, a journey the shape of which has significance. But though Pound's poem was intended to imitate this action, the action that the actual poem he wrote inscribes is, we now all know, quite different. Its shape is tragic, and far more painful.

The notion that a poem imitates an action, and is an action, seems to me so necessary now because it helps free poetry from so many dead ends--"good description," the mere notation of sensibility, "good images," "good lines," or mere wit. Let me emphasize that an "action" s not a moral, or merely something inteded that the poet cold-bloodedly executes. Like Pound, a poet may intend that the action have a certain shape: but (again like Pound) any writer who is serious, as he moves through his materials, will inevitably find that what his poem must enact, what it embodies, is more mysterious, recalcitrant, surprising. (If only in detail, it's always, I think, at least different.)

What I've been arguing applies not only to long poems, but, as Coleridge suggests, to lyric. Kenneth Burke has a great essay called "Symbolic Action in a Poem by Keats."

This rings true to me. Even in The Waste Land, that great modernist collage, Eliot said he discovered the use of myth to order disparate materials: the Arthurian quest, the fisher-king's death and resurrection, the breakdown of marriage. The poem can only be described metaphorically as a "collage" since the experience of it is literally chronological, a fractured narrative. We cannot experience a poem the way we can experience an art collage.

Note to self: read more novels.

Math is like music, statistics is like literature

A friend sent me this link to Andrew Gelman's blog on statistics. In that post, Gelman writes:
Dick De Veaux gave a talk for us a few years ago, getting to some general points about statistics teaching by starting with the question, Why are there no six year old novelists? Statistics, like literature, benefits from some life experience.
The first few slides in De Veaux's presentation are relevant to the issue.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Love in the Time of Cholera

Started reading Love in the Time of Cholera at Christopher Street Pier this afternoon. The Statue of Liberty was small but clearly visible from where I sat. Once in a while, the interval unmeasured by me, the yellow river taxi motored to the pier. Across the Hudson, the tower blocks of New Jersey. In front of me, a very young man, bare-chested, sat in a lotus position. Then he stood on his head. Then he sat down, and bent his leg in an impossible position behind his back. Two guys and a girl sat to my left, with a dog, and a stuffed white tiger. Two men, who had obviously been spending a lot of time at the gym, were talking about their boyfriends, one speaking in a girlish tone that issued so unexpectedly from his mighty chest.
It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love. Dr. Juvenal Urbino noticed it as soon as he entered the still darkened house where he had hurried on an urgent call to attend a case that for him had lost all urgency many years before....

Monday, July 23, 2007

James Baldwin's "Giovanni's Room"

The significant action takes places in rooms: the huge house south of France, in which David recalls and recounts his relationships with Giovanni and his fiancee Hella; the jail cell, in which Giovanni waits for his execution; the bar where David first meets Giovanni; the room above the bar where Giovanni murders Guillaume. And Giovanni's room, at the back of a mean building, far away from the city center, near to the zoo, a room which is also all the other rooms: memory, prison, love tryst and crime scene.
I scarcely know how to describe that room. It became, in a way, every room I had ever been in and every room I find myself hereafter will remind me of Giovanni's room. I did not really stay there very long--we met before the spring began and I left there during the summer--but it still seems to me that I spent a lifetime there. Life in that room seemed to be occurring underwater, as I say, and it is certain that I underwent a sea change there.

To begin with, the room was not large enough for two. It looked out on a small courtyard. "Looked out" means only that the room had two windows, against which the courtyard malevolently pressed, encroaching day by day, as though it had confused itslef with a jungle. We, or rather Giovanni, kept the windows closed most of the time. He had never bought any curtains; neither did we buy any while I was in the room. To insure privacy, Giovanni had obscured the window panes with a heavy, white cleaning polish. We sometimes heard children playing outside our window, sometimes strange shapes looked against it. At such moments, Giovanni, working in the room, or lying in bed, would stiffen like a hunting dog and remain perfectly still until whatever seemed to threaten our safety had moved away.

A few paragraphs later, David thinks about why the room is so dirty and disorderly:
But it was not the room's disorder which was frightening; it was the fact that when one began searching for the key to this disorder, one realized that it was not to be found in any of the usual places. For this was not a matter of habit or circumstance or temperament; it was a matter of punishment and grief. I do not know how I knew this, but I knew it at once; perhaps I knew it because I wanted to live. And I stared at the room with the same, nervous, calculating extension of the intelligence and of all one's forces which occurs when gauging a mortal and unavoidable damger: at the silent walls of the room with its distant, archaic lovers trapped in an interminable rose gardem and the staring windows, staring like two great eyes of ice and fire, and the ceiling which lowered like those clouds out of which fiends have sometimes spoken and which obscured but failed to soften its malevolence behind the yellow light which hung like a diseased and undefinable sex in its center. Under this blunted arrow, the smashed flower of light lay the terrors which encompassed Giovanni's soul. I understood why Giovanni had wanted me and had brought me to his last retreat. I was to destroy this room and give to Giovanni a new and better life. This life could only be my own, which, in order to transform Giovanni's, must first become a part of Giovanni's room.

It is a room from which David, afraid of his own feelings for a man, escapes, in the end, only to realize that he can never escape from it, for "every room I find myself hereafter will remind me of Giovanni's room." Even sex, fleeting sex, leaves its mark, however lightly and faintly, let alone love offered and rejected.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

James Midgley's Review of "Payday Loans"

James, who edits Mimesis, reviewed my chapbook for the Roundtable Review, an on-line journal of the arts, based in the UK. Scroll down the page to find the review.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Fiction Catch-up

I am embarrassingly behind in my reading of fiction (and poetry, and essays, and philosophy and...), and so I went to the Strand this afternoon and made a rash purchase of $80.00 worth of fiction, just to make myself feel better. What did I buy?

Ian McEwan's Atonement
Don DeLillo's The Body Artist
Faulkner's Light in August
Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera
John Updike's Rabbit Redux (I could not find Rabbit, Run)
James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room

and because I am a good poetry citizen, I also bought poems: Charles Simic's The Voice at 3.00 A.M.. I feel so much better already.

W. H. McLeod's "Exploring Sikhism"

I decided I need to know more about Sikhism in order to refer to it in my "Book of the Body" sequence. (Perhaps I should change the title now that I know Frank Bidart has a collection and a poem with the same name. The ass-pain of being johnny-come-lately.) Started reading McLeod's collection of essays on Sikhism, while sunbathing on the grass patch on Christopher Street pier this afternoon.

Contrary to the older idea of Sikhism as a hybrid of Islam and Hinduism, McLeod argues that the Islamic contribution is not fundamental nor direct. Many of the ideas that seem most Islamic--such as the unity of God, the role of the religious preceptor--could also have been derived from the Sant tradition (a devotional tradition of North India which stressed the need for internal spirituality as opposed to external observance), with important secondary contribution from the Nath tradition (a yogic sect).

McLeod also takes issue with the supposed "syncretism" of Sikhism. He argues that there is little evidence that Guru Nanak, or the other Sikh gurus, consciously and deliberately took the best from Sufi Islam and "Hinduism" in order to meld them into a system. Instead, McLeod prefers the use of "influence" and "assimilation" to describe the partly conscious, partly unconscious, partly individual, partly social process.

Very interesting is the form of the janam-sakhis, a collection of hagiographic biographies of Guru Nanak. Though they protray Guru Nanak besting his Sufi opponents in religious debate-- in Islamic centers such as Mecca, Medina and Baghdad no less--they do so using the anecdotal literary form of the Sufi tazkiras (collections of biographical anecdotes). Talk about using your enemy's weapon to beat him.

I especially enjoy the chapters "The Nanak of Faith and the Nanak of History" and "The Development of Sikh Panth." The first gives a few stories of Nanak from the janam-sakhis. After submerging himself in the Vein river for three days, Guru Nanak emerged to proclaim, "There is no Hindu; there is no Mussulman." His idea is that the spiritual seeker must transcend conventional Hinduism and Islam in order to reach the truth.

The other chapter describes the evolving features of the Panth, a word which can mean "a 'path' or 'way'; system of religious belief or practice" or "community observing a particular system of belief or practice." Spelled with a capital letter, the Panth refers to the Sikh community. I can't help remembering the Tao, which can also mean "way," besides "communication."

Three things about Guru Nanak's religion attract me: its emphasis on internal spiritual change and quest as opposed to external observance, its renunication of caste in favor of spiritual egalitarianism, and its provision of spiritual songs--poetry, really-- for communal singing (kirtan).

The chapter also refers to the ninth guru Tegh Bahadur, whom I referred to in my poem. His execution by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb in Delhi was interpreted as martyrdom, and rewakened hostilities between the Panth and the imperial authorities. This tension, in turn, led to the arming of the Panth, and the breakout of fighting. The Panth ideal became the sant sipahi, the servant of the Guru who combines devotion with valor. This, for me, explains the Sikhs' reputation for martial prowess. McLeod adds another dimension to the explanation. He suggests that the social constituency of the Panth included large numbers of Jats (rural lower caste in Punjab) very early in the development of the community. These Jats could have also contributed to the Panth their own warlike tradition, so at odds with the mercantile class members.

Woody Allen's "Manhattan"

Watched Manhattan on Thu at Film Forum, and was impressed by its moral penetration in the guise and instrument of comedy. After watching Match Point, and Hannah and Her Sisters, I did not understand the fuss over Allen. Watching Manhattan makes me want to watch Hannah again to see what I missed. Last night, browsing at Shakespeare and Company, invaded by the Potter fans waiting for the midnight launch of The Deathly Hallows, I came across a book of interviews given by Allen. He was not happy with Manhattan after finishing it; he was seldom happy with any of his pictures after finishing them. They did not turn out how he would have liked them. Still, unlike the procrastinating artists/writers in his films, he had sufficient integrity and determination to complete his projects, though they did not satisfy him.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Revision of "Only the Scene Has Changed"

Talk about New York
for R.

1. To 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...

Whom 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

coming 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 put an end
to false romantic barricades like age and race.

You saw me before Hudson News, and recognized
what? My face? Arms akimbo? Pose contrapposto?
Convenient signs that told you where to find Cosmo
or me on your arrival. Defamiliarized

through your dark eyes, I saw my solid ghost direct
the cab to Madison Square Garden, overheard
me overhearing the Algerian driver flirt
on his phone, feared again the fear of being wrecked.

The Honda spurted through the tunnel of the night
lit by occasional lamps jammed in the black wall.
No sights worth seeing. No names I could name at all
except self-interpreting road signs, green and trite.

Then, at the tunnel’s end, light reached in and pulled us
out before straightening itself up to skyline.
Manhattan! I cried needlessly. It was a sign
you recognized from Woody Allen’s magnum opus.

All too quickly the image decomposed to blots,
streaks, drips and splatters, then to spats of neon light
our taxi shot, from traffic light to traffic light,
veering from swabs, solicitors and World Cup sots

confusing—triumph, trade and travel—street corners.
Unfazed, our Algerian cabby navigated
us to Hotel Peninsula, susurrated
to his phone, took his tip, and pushed off from the shore.

Peninsula! A name that conjured vast pictures
of home—pasir, bukit, sungei, kuala, pulau—
and travel—beach, hill, river, estuary, island—
a name you chose from hundreds in online brochures

as if to find, in this old island, an isthmus
between friends, straight woman and homosexual man,
between what are, in this new place, familiar and
recognizable, sign and meaning, between us.

2. Visual Sense

…the leisurely sightseeing, the photos that you so gamely took so that I won’t look like an ant.

You know how helpless 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 pixeled, 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, as 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. Daylilies

...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 sticks it to me that I was wrong.
Also mistook your hotel’s name, Pennsylvania,
for my Peninsula, my metropolismania
programmed to build a city where I may belong.

But you were staying in Penn’s Woods, and in the Bronx
we strolled through local forest the geography
teacher in you explained when asked—canopy,
understory and floor—, then glimpsed two quick chipmunks

scuttling into the shrubs. Cheeky reminder that
we weren’t home climbing Bukit Timah, leading the way
for students, playing parents for less than a day,
recognizing the will of the brown-nose or brat.

You paused, and read from a botanical park sign:
that tree, a pine-like species, was deciduous—
a fact that contradicted the world known to us
who thought that every conifer was evergreen.

We walked on, slightly changed, around the real estate
camouflaged by daylily and rose gardens. Dazed
by the noon sun to silence, we walked on, amazed,
before our bodies caught up with us at the gate.

4. Clear Wrap

Words cross-stitched on your card: 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.

5. Galapagos

Sorry if I have not made such a terrific “fag hag” (what a terrible name)…. Isn’t it possible to have a 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
or 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, or the round-the-island cruise
we never took but talked and talked about. In 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 Tutt
or the pale 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 beautiful black man on the F train
ranting, I’ll kill ya, black bitch, to the windowpane
of everyone’s blank face. We shall talk about New York.

6. Natural History

I've come to change my mind about Americans. Am sitting in the American wing at the museum, so forgive me if the card is disjointed.

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 godhead, Roosevelt.

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 with mighty, minor, mad authorities
their various accommodations, their different debts.

In the day they control their bodies like consoles,
in houses, shops and factories filling their screens;
at night, the same computer game. Only the scene
has changed—the minefield, maze or motor-race 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.

Their children’s children will inherit canopy,
understory and floor, and find the country real
because those children can remember nothing else
not in the museum of natural history.

Whole week I walked my new birthplace with you, my dear.
Since citizenship doesn’t follow coming-out,
but childlessness does, we understand our whereabouts
is recognizable but never familiar.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Reinaldo Arenas and "Before Night Falls"

I was browsing Netflix when I came across this 2000 film, directed by Schnabel, based on Arenas' autobiography of the same name. Reinaldo Arenas, according to the blurb, was a "famed Cuban poet and novelist." The blurb continues, "[a]lthough vilified for his homosexuality in Fidel Castro's Cuba, Arenas finds success as a writer but must eventually emigrate to New York City to enjoy unfettered creative freedom."

The formula should have alerted me to the film's potential bias, but, not knowing much about Cuba, let alone the gay situation in it, any alarm bells would have been stilled by my desire to be absorbed in the movie, to abandon myself to its powers.

The movie makes much of anti-gay persecution in the form of political trials and forced confessions, labor camps, and incarceration. The harrowing scenes are reminiscent of similar ones played out in Soviet USSR, facist Germany and Maoist China. Arenas is depicted as a noble, and finally tragic, spirit who fought against oppression by insisting on his sexual and artistic freedom.

I have to confess that this standard script has a tremendous power to move me. And it did so, in "Before Night Falls," but throughout the film, I was also dissatisfied by its shapelessness despite the conventional narrative arc. The episodes do not have cumulative power. Minor characters enter and exit the film (Johnny Depp appears as both a transvestite inmate and as a warden who forces Arenas to suck his .45). Arenas remains a cipher; idealism, lust, fear and righteous anger do not a character make. There is insufficient darkness to make him believable.

Curious about the man, I read his bio at Wiki. Then found this long essay by Jon Hillson, written as a response to what he perceives as the film's distortions of the truth. According to the bio at the end of the essay, Jon Hillson (1949-2004) was a Los Angeles union and political activist, and a staunch supporter of the Cuban revolution. His poems were published in more than two dozen journals in the country.

In his essay, Hillson argues that the film is of a piece with right-wing and liberal attacks on revolutionary Cuba. It does not show the exploitation of the Batista regime which Castro overthrew, but romanticizes rural poverty as a source of Arenas' creative freedom. It does not show any of the country's achievements in human rights, especially women's rights, but homes in on the abuses. And central to Hillson's argument is the idea that the anti-gay campaign was of a historical moment, the 1960's, from which the country has moved away since. So what is portrayed in the film as the essence of Castro's regime is, according to Hillman, a bad mistake now rectified by a better understanding of homosexuality and revolutionary principles.

And he offers the following facts as proof:

--In 1975, the Cuban Supreme Court overturned Resolution Number 3 of the Council of Culture, predecessor of the Ministry of Culture. This rule had been used to implement the anti-gay declarations of the 1971 cultural congress, setting "parameters" limiting employment of homosexuals in the arts and education.

--Also in 1975, after extensive popular debate and discussion, Cuba adopted its Family Code. Among other wide-ranging changes, it called for equal sharing of child-care and other domestic responsibilities by men and women, further institutionalizing female equality as a goal of the new society

--In 1979, the new Cuban penal code decriminalized homosexuality.

--In 1981, In Defense of Love, by Dr. Sigfried Schnabl, became a bestseller in Cuba, due to its frank and honest treatment of human sexuality. Homosexuality, Schnabl wrote, "is not a sickness, but a variant of human sexuality"....Soon afterwards, Cuba's Ministry of Culture republished Schnabl's popular Man and Woman in Intimacy, which devoted an entire chapter to homosexuality.

--In 1987, a new police directive forbade harassment of people based on appearance or clothing, which had been carried out under statutes against "ostentatious" behavior.

--In 1992, Fidel Castro responded to several questions on sexual issues posed by former Sandinista Nicaraguan government official Tomás Borge in A Grain of Corn. The volume, which covers a range of topics, was published in Havana. Like many books in Cuba, this work enjoyed brief and brisk sales, then became unavailable. Castro's remarks are even less well known outside of Cuba. They are worth quoting at length.

"You speak about sexual discrimination," the Cuban leader responded to a question by Borge. "I told you that we have eliminated sexual discrimination. More precisely, I could say that we have done everything that a government can do, that a State can do, to eradicate sexual discrimination against women.

"We could refer to a long struggle, that has been successful, that has had many great results, in the area of discrimination against women. There is still a lot of machismo in our people, I believe it's at a level that is lower that anywhere in Latin America, but there is machismo. This has formed part of what is the idiosyncrasy of our people over centuries and it has many origins, going back to the Arab influence in Spain as well as the influences of the Spaniards, because we got our machismo from the Conquistadors, just as we received other bad habits.

"It was an historical inheritance. In some countries more than in others, but in none was there more struggle than in ours and I believe that in none have there been more tangible and practical successes. This is true, something we can see, that can still be seen, and above all, can be seen in the youth. But we cannot say that there has been a total and absolute elimination of sexual discrimination, nor can we drop our guard. We have to continue struggling in this sense, because it's a historical ancestral legacy against which there has been much struggle; there have been advances and there have been results, but we must continue to struggle.

"I'm not going to deny that, at a certain point, this machista thing, influenced the approach that was taken toward homosexuality. I personally -- you are asking me my personal opinion -- do not suffer from this type of phobia against homosexuals. Truly, in my mind, that's never been there and I have never been in favor nor have I promoted it, nor have I supported it, policies against homosexuals. This is due to, I would say, a certain period and it is very due to the legacy, that thing of machismo. I try to have a more human explanation, a more scientific explanation of the problem. On many occasions this has become a tragedy, because you have to see how the parents think, there are parents who have a homosexual child, and it becomes a tragedy to them, and you can't help but feel sorry that such a thing happens and that it becomes a tragedy for the individual.

"I don't see homosexuality as a phenomenon of degeneration, but rather I see it in another way. The approach has been of another sort: a more rational approach, considering the tendencies and natural things of the human being, who simply must be respected. This is the philosophy with which I view these problems. I think that there has to be consideration shown toward the family that suffers these situations. I would hope that the families would have another mentality, that they would have another approach when something of this sort happens. I am absolutely opposed to any form of repression, disdain, contempt or discrimination with respect to homosexuals. That's what I think."

Two things impress me about this speech. First, Castro acknowledges the powers and the limits of what a government can do to effect social change, an acknowledgement that does not defend the status quo but seeks to advance greater justice. Second, Castro shows human empathy for parents struggling with having a gay child, though they have no rational basis for their negative feelings; emotions cannot be explained away by reasoning.

I really don't know enough about Cuba to weigh Hillson's argument, and the value of his factual proofs. At the very least, the experience of reading his essay has shown me another way of thinking about immigrant and gay narratives.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Fire Island

1. Sayville Ferry
2. Atlantic Ocean
3. Beach
4. Cherry's Bar
5. Ocean II
6. Beach II

7. Fire Island

It came to me days after my return
xxxxxxxfrom the island,
xxxxxxxthe real ending,
the resolution of this brief resort
to old symbols, experience, of a sort,
and, most of all, memory’s cold, calm burn.

Staring into memory’s eyes, I saw
xxxxxxxthe Atlantic,
xxxxxxxthen the island,
and on a towel small as a handkerchief
my hollow body sleep, no joy, no grief,
like a swan’s wingbone tossed up on the shore.

The beach, burning up the air, was empty,
xxxxxxxsucked me to it,
xxxxxxxto the body
and I entered it. I opened my eyes
and I knew something that rises and flies
from the Ocean had penetrated me.

I am no small matter. There is an ease
xxxxxxxin a gold helm,
xxxxxxxwith a gold shield,
that tells me I’m born to overthrow gods,
born to whistle till night comes and the cold
land gives up its ghost like a steady breeze.

TLS, July 13, 2007

from Robert Irwin's review of Ken Jacobson's Odalisques and Arabesques:
…Jacobson shows that the history of Orientalist photography begins weeks afer the invention of photography itself. The secrets of Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre’s method of trapping light were revealed to a joint session of the Académie des Sciences and the Académie des Beaux-Arts on August 19, 1839. Eighty days later, the Orientalist painter Horace Vernet made a daguerreotype of the entrance to the Harem of Muhammad Ali in Alexandria. From the first, the history of Orientalist photography developed in parallel with that of Orientalist painting.


from Matthew Peters' review of Peter Brooks' Henry James Goes To Paris:
In an interview published in 1994, Brooks spoke of the "temptation" of writing a biograpy of a literary figure. Biography, he believed, was "one of the few forms that a literary critic can use, in our culture, to reach a large audience."


Brooks contrasts the concentration on surfaces and impressions of Flaubertian narrative techniques with James's commitment to a Balzacian form of representation, which was "less concerned with the details of the real than with what it signifies and connotes, less attached to the surface of things than to what may be suggested and concealed, behind and beneath." Brooks argues that, valuable as these French experimental techniques were to James's own narrative methods, he should be considered a novelist not of impressionism but of "expressionism" -- a term to which Brooks gives the specialized and suggestive definition: "the effort to make surface yield something that is not purely of surface"; a "drama of ethical substance". Flaubert, accordingly, was an intensely provoking and problematic figure for James.


from Ian Thomson's review of Kenneth M. Bilby's anthropological study "True-Born Maroons":
Maroons existed throughout the Carribean (notably in Surinam); according to Bilby, they were named after the Spanish cimarrón, originally used to refer to feral cattle in mountainous Hispaniola. The runaways of eastern Jamaica, tall and athletic Africans transported from the Gold Coast, were led by a Coromantee tribeswoman known as Nanny, who fended off British troops (according to Jamaican legend) by catching cannonballs with her buttocks. A Boadicea figure, Nanny is now a national hero of Jamaica, and her likeness appears on the JA$500 banknote ("Give me a Nanny!" street beggars implore).

Image taken from the website of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition


from Joshua Marcus' essay on traveling along the Magdalena, the Colombian Mississippi that inspired Gabriel García Márquez:
The bridge over the Magdalena between Puerto Salgar and La Dorada, a little downriver from Honda, is this Márquezian concentration of time in solid form. As I walked along the east bank, state-of-the-art fighter jets from Palanquero Air Force Base filled my ears with sonic booms. A handful of soldiers armed with M-16s guard the steel-and-concrete-trussed bridge and ordered me not to take any pictures while I walked across it. The Magalena drained Colombia's garbage like a giant gutter beneath me. On the other side, I descended the bank beneath the bridge to an outpost of huts, mud, sunken canoes, and families. They had no electricity or running water and, of course, no boats for sale. I tried to take photographs but a villager warned against it because it is in a military zone. This prohibition was the one thread connecting the two sides. If visual depiction is restricted, perhaps that is why stories are so prevalent.

The two banks are opposite sides not just of a river but also of a century. In between flow all the history, all the stories, the natural and human cycles that have occurred to get from this "godforsaken village whose streets remained flooded even in the crudest droughts" to a military installaton with a twenty-first-century arsenal funded by a nation thousand of miles away...


The epigraph to his (Márquez's) autobiography is "Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it."

Map of the Magdalena watershed (picture from Wikipedia)

Monday, July 16, 2007

TLS, July 6 2007

from Harold Love's review of Brian Vickers' Shakespeare, "A Lover's Complaint", and John Davies of Hereford:

Using computer and stylistic analysis, Vickers proves that "A Lover's Complaint" is not by Shakespeare, but he is too positive that the last poem of the Sonnets is by John Davies of Hereford.


from David Hodgson's "Partly Free," a defence of a limited free will against a wholly materialist explanation of our decisions and actions:
But there can be a positive role for a person's conscious experiences in plausible reasoning, if that reasoning proceeds otherwise than as precisely determined by rules: namely, by contributing to appropriate decisions through gestalt experiences to which we can respond, even though they are too feature-rich to engage as wholes with general rules. My support for this premiss is an original argument of mine, which I will briefly summarize here. I accept that our conscious experiences correspond with physical processes of our brains, and I accept that there is accordingly a sense in which any information contained in our experiences must be contained or encoded in those physical processes; but it is important that this information, as experienced consciously by us, is characteristically combined into unified wholes or gestalts. My suggestion is that, although these gestalts cannot, as wholes, engage with laws of rules of any kind, they may plausibly as wholes make a positive contribution to our decisions, becaise we can respond to them.

Richard Serra's "Sculpture: Forty Years"

One can say that Band obliterates the distinction between inside and outside, that Torqued Torus Inversion does so for up and down, and that Sequence does the same for start and end. One can say those things, and other stuff, and completely fails to capture the experience of entering into these works. For these works require your participation, a requirement that is, as Patrick McCaughey in TLS puts it, "more demand than invitation."

It is disorienting, threatening, awe-inspiring to travel along the walls and corridor of these torqued works. Their weathered steel walls, slanted and curved, remind me of mountainsides sliding precipitously towards me, or of cliffsides hanging over me. The narrow, slanting portals are like the mountain entrance to Petra in the pictures I have seen, but they open out, not to anything habitable or human, but to canting chambers of space.

Traveling inside the works, I long to understand their overall shape but the experience confounds that understanding. The MoMA pictures, from an elevated perspective, show the shapes of these works, but my advice is to view those photos only after you have walked into and through these works.

Free Book Ads @ Muses Review

Roxanne, my publisher, submitted a free book ad for Payday Loans to the Muses Review. Click on this link and scroll down to see the ad. I wonder how many people view these ads each day, week, month etc. Not that many is my guess.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

John Guy's biography of Mary, Queen of Scots

It is a terrific read. Deeply sympathetic towards his subject, Guy brings to life Mary's winning qualities and her struggles with Scottish lords and English opponents, including Elizabeth I, her cousin queen (actually, her father's cousin). The archival research is mind-boggling, the interpretations sure and nuanced, the writing clear, argumentative, and exciting.

It opens with a set-piece description of the execution, and closes with a narrative of Mary's final hours. In the first, we follow the movement, and view, of Sir Thomas Andrews, the sheriff of the county of Northamptonshire, as he knocked on Mary's door; in the closing, we are in the room with Mary praying with her servants when she heard the fateful knock. The heart of the book is Guy's detailed interpretation of the casket letters, documents the Scottish rebels made up to prove Mary's guilt in killing her husband and king, Darnley.

And the epilogue, like the closing chapter of eighteenth century novels, describes the fates of the main players in Mary's life, underlining their unhappy ends, in contrast with Mary's posthumous vindication in her son's re-burial of her in Westminster Abbey, her transformation into a Catholic martyr and saint, and her exoneration by history of any blame in the murder of her husband.

And, most prettily, vindication too in the form of a popular nursery rhyme I had learned and never realized referred to her:

Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockleshells
And pretty maids all in a row.

As Guy explains, the garden refers to the ornamental garden at the palace of Holyroodhouse, in Edinburgh, where Mary stayed between 1561-67.

Picture from Royal Residences website.

The silver bells are the Sanctus bells used in Mary's private chapel at Mass. Here's a picture of a Sanctus bell in St. Mary's Ecclesfield in Sheffield.

According to the church bell-ringers' website: "The purpose of a Sanctus bell was to signal to the village and those not able to attend the service that Mass was being celebrated. The Sanctus bell is dated c1520 making it the oldest bell in the tower. It is 15" diameter mounted on a timber headstock."

The cockleshells refer to the pilgrim badges obtained from the shrine of Saint James in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain. These badges were pinned or sewn on pilgrim hats.

Picture from Fish Eaters website.

And the pretty maids are the four Maries who were Mary's playmates and companions for as long as she could remember.

My websurfing shows that the nursery rhyme is capable of other interpretations, but I am partial to Guy's, since it fits so well into his narrative. Mary is quite contrary.

A Home, a Prick and a Phoenix

I have not read the Michael Cunningham novel but "A Home at the End of the World" the movie (2004) failed to move or even convince me. The depiction of the ménage à trois flounders on the unbelievable innocence and virtue of the bisexual man, played by Colin Farrell. The issues also seem overly simplified to one of possessiveness and jealousy among three partners, finally "resolved" when the straight woman left the two men. The film also conforms to the common double standard of depicting onscreen sex. While Colin Farrell's character is stripped naked when having sex with the woman (titillating both staight women and gay men), the character is always fully clothed when gropping the gay guy, played ably by Dallas Roberts. Roberts is also always fully clothed even in scenes depicting his tricking.

Against this American fantasy of innocence and self-sacrifice, the much older British film "Prick Up Your Ears" (1987) seems almost radical. More than a biopic of 1960s playwright Joe Orton, the film examines the fallout from the shift in power in a relationship: Joe rises from provincial innocent to acclaimed writer while his lover Kenneth Halliwell falls from mentor and aspiring novelist to a subordinate role as Joe's "wife" and friend. The bloody end of the relationship is shocking but entirely believable. The film also looks at how a writer exploits his and others' lives for his art. After his mother's funeral, Orton gives her teeth as a prop to an actor in his play about a mother's death. The film is also cleverly framed by the story of John Lahr's writing of Orton's biography. In the pursuit of his subject, Lahr sidelines his wife, though the work begins as a collaborative project. As another mark of the British film's greater realism, Orton's tricks, found at public latrines (called "cottages"), parks and bus-stops, do not look like Ryan Carnes or River Phoenix.

The only tricks in "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" are magic and movie. The colors in the film are lush, even when dark. The storytelling makes no concessions to ignorance of the Potter story. Because it is that good, I wish it is longer. The acting is excellent. A coincidence I just noted: Gary Oldman who plays Sirius Black in "Phoenix" also played Joe Orton. Or, as one might say, from prick to trick.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Kevin Sessum's "Mississippi Sissy"

I enjoyed Sessum's memoir about growing up gay and effeminate in the American South of the 1960s. The writing is witty and well-wrought. He has a knack for telling a nicely-turned anecdote though, in a few places, the writing strains for metaphorical resonance. As in this attempt to link Eudora Welty's carefully vague love story to her bourbon (a drink introduced in the first sentence of the chapter, Skeeter Davis, Noël Coward, and Eudora Welty):

They were mostly circumspect when discussing their lost loves. Frank (theater journalist and Sessum's friend) would often allude to his "dusky endeavors," as they had come to refer politely to his interest in young African Americans, some of whom had touched him deeply with their aspirations and narratives of maternal love. Miss Welty welcomed these stories of nuanced carnality, as Frank was careful not to tell her the details. One especially hot night under the glow of the big light that hung over his kitchen table, Miss Welty, her upper lip damp, did hint at the feelings she had for one young man long, long ago. Frank had tears in his eyes as she lyrically, elliptically, without ever admitting the depths of her own emotions but not denying them either, told us of a young poet who could obviously still summon a profound sadness within her all these years after he had moved away from Mississippi, from her, and taken up residence in San Francisco and Italy, places more "welcoming to his kind, to yours," she told us as her voice came to a halt and she perhaps heard only his now lost one in the sudden comfort of her silence. She finished neither the carefully diluted story nor the freshly diluted bourbon in front of her, both making it too dangerous that night, she seemed to reason in her reverie, for her to drive back home to a house forever musty with familial love alone.

I know zilch about Welty, so I wonder who her poet was. The polite understatement and indirection in Frank's and Welty's exchanges are typical of the South, I guess. In contrast, the last sentence of the extract is too naked, too close to sentimentality. It might still be alright if, instead of projecting "she seemed to reason in her reverie," the writer focuses on himself making that conjecture. I don't know; may be I am putting to fine a point on it. But "dusky endeavors" feels very different from "a house forever musty with familial love alone."

"Brother" featured on The Ledge website

Timothy Monaghan, editor-in-chief of the The Ledge, wrote to tell me that my poem "Brother" is the featured poem for July 2007 on the magazine's website. Earlier, he had also nominated the poem for the 2007 Best New Poets Anthology, published by Meridian Press, but I have not heard from the Meridian people. Is that a good or bad sign?

Friday, July 13, 2007

Fire Island

1. Sayville Ferry
2. Atlantic Ocean
3. Beach
4. Cherry's Bar
5. Ocean II

6. Beach II

I keep a respectful distance,
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXafter this morning’s incident,

In the summer evening light,
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXfootprints on the beach appear

Some vacationer has left
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXa squarish tower standing,

arranged in ascending height,
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXthe fourth side two lines

Just outside the stockade,
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXlike a medieval midden,

A little further on,
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXanother keep, short driftwood

protected by sand ramparts,
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXwith an entrance facing

Playing on the beach,
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXby some survival instinct,

against the ocean,
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXand strongholds shaped
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXlike castles, mountains or camps,

or we learn from young,
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXlaughing and assiduous,

Fire Island

1. Sayville Ferry
2. Atlantic Ocean
3. Beach
4. Cherry's Bar

5. Ocean II

I hailed the Ocean today, as if it was a friend,
buoying me up as if I was bodiless. Then

one huge wave caught me, not unaware, not
unprepared, but with zero opposing force.

This was what being overpowered felt like:
my feet were swung over my head, my torso

was lost to my mind, my mind was thrashing
underwater in the flooded cave of the nose.

Only when I staggered up the beach did I
remember putting out my desperate hands

to stop myself from being dashed against sand.
The cuts on my left palm were many but tiny.

Don’t be a baby, I scolded. Back in my room,
I washed away the sand caking my balls, stuffing

my ears, and corking up my ass. No tweezers,
so my nails picked at the chips buried in my palm,

tearing the tiny tears bigger to remove them.
When I lowered my head, my nose watered,

the Ocean’s reminder that it is not my friend,
not even an enemy, but impersonal, like eternity.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Fire Island

1. Sayville Ferry
2. Atlantic Ocean
3. Beach

4. Cherry's Bar

(after Frank Bidart, tentatively)

Abandoning Hyperion,
because of its imitation of Milton,
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXKeats asked his reader to pick out some lines from the poem

and put an “x” next to “the false beauty proceeding from art” [like this: X ]

and a double line next to “the true voice of feeling” [like this: = ].

What he discovered:

Ginger, the drag queen, was having a rough night.
The crowd was thin and hard

was it then the foul-mouthed performer decided
as she had done so successfully
in other bars where the crowd was thin

In her Farrah Fawcett wig, and shimmering scarlet sheath of a dress, she said

—My man broke up with me after we were together for SIX years…


XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXhe went back to Mexico,
XXXXXXXXXXXgot married and had five children….the


he has a little dick
and yet he complained so much;—
…I love my Mexican

[X or = ?]

Then she sang, or, rather, lip-synched
with Heartbreak:
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXshe grabbed her fake breast painfully,
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXshe reeled round the invisible ropes of the little stage,
She stared into space

[X or = ?]

he has a little dick
and yet he complained so much;—
…I love my Mexican

The crowd was no longer thin and hard to please.


XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXour break-ups as if they happened yesterday.

We were RAPT; our SOULS stolen by ART—
XXXXXXXXXXXXXso, for some minutes,
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXwe were NOT responsible for what we did and felt;
we were dictated to:

he has a little dick
and yet he complained so much;—
…I love my Mexican

and we moved, as if despite ourselves, forward

You don’t stop singing when the going gets rough.
You don’t abandon love when love abandons you.

After that number, Ginger changed
into tight black lace
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXand lip-synched Madonna’s Hanky-Panky.

Returning to myself, alone
at the bar,
I thought about Keats and the unfinished Hyperion.
I thought about how a break-up makes the past

And when I tried to go over my past lines in my mind:

XXXXXXXX—I feel so lucky, holding hands with you, and just walking around;

XXXXXXXX—Both are equally important to me, my writing and you;

XXXXXXXX—I miss your body so much,


[X and = ?]

Fire Island

1. Sayville Ferry
2. Atlantic Ocean

3. Beach

Like an iron, the sun
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXis pressing me

I can feel
XXXXXXthrough my towel
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXthe heat of the sand,

and the lumps of sand,

Save me, Ocean,
XXXXXXXXXXXI cry half-heartedly,

The ocean roars
XXXXXXXXXXXvery far away
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXin my seashell ears,

but beach sweat runs
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXdown to the small

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Fire Island

1. Sayville Ferry

2. Atlantic Ocean

In order to preserve my solitude.
In order to preserve the spirit.

I’m resorting to the ocean for help
because the ocean is deeply impersonal.

The waves are strong and cold and give
me courage to disown these gay men

sunbathing nude on the beach. You, I say,
have nothing to do with me. Waves roar

with approval. I disown nation and race too,
and the women, bare-breasted, who represent

humanity, and so, heat, decay, death.
I have nothing to do with you, reindeer.

The waves are that strong, that consoling.
I’m borne aloft by the ocean’s cold lift.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Fire Island

1. Sayville Ferry

It is to be a short crossing from Long
xxxxxIsland to Fire
xxxxxIsland, the sun
a tent on the steel field that is the sea.
All is ready for a mythology,
including the shortness of the crossing.

But the idea, island, acquires a face,
xxxxxthe white and red
xxxxxstripes of Cherry’s
Bar, the rainbow flag, and the Stars and Stripes,
and, nearer still, the beach hotel, which pipes
Madonna’s biggest hits from the eighties.

Soon I will be landing, trying my feet
xxxxxon the boardwalk,
xxxxxtrying the key
to the air-conditioned standard room
sleep and, hopefully, sex will make a home,
and hours of existential defeat.

Now to face the arrogant survivors
xxxxxappraising the
xxxxxpale arrivals—
bronze helmets of seasonal residents,
bronze shields of departing experience—
“We found the fire. We are burned. Here it is.”

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Daryl Hine's "Puerilities"

Read this on the Chinatown bus traveling back to NYC. The heat of these erotic epigrams from the Greek Anthology was preferable to the stuffy warmth of the bus. One seduces, while the other reduces.

I thought Hine's prose introduction says the obvious in unnecessarily complicated language. The very first sentence is a labyrinth:
The twelfth book of The Greek Anthology compiled at the court of Hadrian in the second century A.D. by a poetaster Straon, who like most anthologists included an immodest number of his own poems, is itself a part of a large collection of short poems dating from the dawn of Greek lyric poetry (Alcaeus) down to its last florescence, which survived two Byzantine recensions to end up in a single manuscript in the library of the Count Palatine in Heidelberg--hence its alternative title, The Palatine Anthology, usually abbreviated to Anth. Pal.

What is the focus of this sentence? What is the antecedent of "which"? Why the bombast in "florescence" and "recensions"?

The stuffed pomposity becomes unintentionally funny when Hine talks about the epigrams' carousing:
Alcoholic beverages, best known in the form of wine to the peoples of ancient Greece (though some, like Callimachus as resident of Ptolemaic Egypt, might have been familiar with the ancient Egyptians' everyday liquid refreshment, beer) were, like everything else important to life, celebrated as the gifts of god and were themselves godly.

How could alcoholic beverages be "godly"? The sentence reads like a parody, except that it is of a piece with the rest of the introduction.

Fortunately, Hine's poetic translations bear no resemblance to this prose. I don't know Greek, so I cannot tell how accurate or expressive of the originals the translations are, but the poems sing, swagger and sigh in English. They are compelling.

Meleager, in particular, has captured my heart. His metaphysical conceits:


Praxiteles once from marble sculpted some
Image of beauty, lifeless, stony, dumb.
His modern nakesake, by his magic art,
Modelled Love's lively likeness in my heart.
The name's the same; his works are more refined:
Instead of marble he transforms the mind.
I wish that he would kindly mould my whole
Nature and build Love's temple in my soul.

His personal urgency:


Help! I have only to set foot on land,
Having survived my maiden voyage, and
Love drags me here by force and shines his light
On this boy's beauty: what a lovely sight!
I dog his steps, and grasping for his fair
Imaginary form, I kiss thin air.
Have I escaped the briny deep and found
Bitterer depths of longing on dry ground?

His caustic, subversive wit:


His eyes flash beauty sweet enough to scorch:
xxxxxDoes Love equip young boys with thunderbolts?
xxxxxBringing a sexy gleam to mortal dolts,
Myiscus, shine on earth, my darling torch.

His saucy, surprising imagery:


My skipper's Venus, Cupid mans the helm,
xxxxxHolding my spirit's rudder in his hand;
Desire blows hard enough to overwhelm
xxxxxMe, breasting a sea of boys from every land.

His directness:


When I see Theo I see everything;
But when he's absent I can't see a thing.

Strato, the anthologist who packed the collection with his own poems, seems to be more acidic, less sentimental than Meleager. His poems tend to focus less on the beloved and more on his loving and lusting, as in this tight epigram:


I loathe a boy who won't be hugged and kissed,
Raises his voice and hits me with his fist,
Nor do I wish the wanton willingness
Of one who in my arms at once says, Yes.
I like one in between who seems to know
The secret of saying at once Yes and No.

You can hear the poet rubbing his hands in glee, at hitting upon the last line. The secret of desire is that of poetry too.

Back from Virginia

I've just returned from Fairfax, Virginia, about 30 minutes from D.C. During the past week, besides celebrating 4th of July, I also visited the National Air and Space Museum, at the Steven F Udvar-Hazy Center. Never a military nor an aircraft enthusiast, I still enjoyed seeing the actual Flying Fortress that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima (though I could not stomach the story of scientific and military triumph the guide was telling about it), the British Hurricane fighter that fought against the Luftwaffte, and the Enterprise space shuttle. A Concorde took pride of place in the civil aviation section. It had tiny windows.

On Saturday, I was in Williamsburg. Its historic downtown was a colonial pageant. Shops and taverns sold triangular hats and women's white caps, fruit preserves, blue and white porcelain, and "colonial lunches." Costumed colonials gave directions at the building entrances, re-enacted historical scenes, and marched from the Capitol to the Governor's Palace, playing fifes and drums. It's all cosy, defanged history, but complaining about that is like accusing Disneyland of not teaching us anything about mice. From Williamsburg, I went to Yorktown, which has a strip of beach.

Talking about the beach, I'm looking forward to spending the next five days on Fire Island, a barrier of sand dunes, just off Long Island. Should be fun, and, who knows, I may be able to get some writing done.

Friday, July 06, 2007

8 Things About Me

8 things Brent tagged me to tell about myself:

1. I chipped the back of a front tooth on the carrying handle of an M16 rifle during national service training. Your tongue will only feel the bump of the dental filling.

2. Of grandparents, I knew only my mother's mother and my father's father. Po-po ran a mahjong den in Chinatown after her husband died. Grandfather was a champion walker. He also walked out on his family to take up with someone else.

3. I've never been to China (including Hong Kong, excluding Taiwan).

4. When I was about seven or eight, I accidentally stepped on my pet chick. I tried to stuff the innards back but the chick died still. The only thing I kept after that was a bean sprout plant in a blue jelly cup. Don't over-analyze this.

5. I was a good boy when growing up, which is why I remember the crimes and punishments. My mother rubbed chili on my tongue when I told lies. When I was ten, I was caned in school for swinging on the wooden scaffold erected for a paint job. Two strokes. On the butt.

6. I had malaria in Kenya.

7. My biggest regret about Oxford is over my decision not to attend graduation, despite the fact that my family flew from Singapore for the occasion. I reasoned (!) that the Latin ceremony would be boring.

8. My first love was Darren Strange. There. I've named my love.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

I observed 4th of July in two different countries. They were about half an hour apart.

In Fairfax County, Virginia, for a week, I attended a crafts fair in the morning, held at the Vienna Coummunity Center. The highlight of the fair was the antique cars show. Lovingly maintained, polished to a shine, the cars ranged from early twentieth century open carriages to classic 1960's convertibles. Visitors were encouraged to vote for their favorite car. A few of the cars carried plaques declaring their winning places in previous years' polls. The owners, lounging behind their machines or lingering to answer questions, were all white, all men.

The visitors were predominantly white too, many of whom were older couples, some were young families, a few teens. Past the cars, a country music band tuned up on an improvised stage. The fair stalls were pitched in a baseball field. I saw two East Asian couples, and another East Asian and white couple, strolling among the stalls. My sister told me there were more East Asian families at the pony rides and the bouncy castles. There were more asians at the fair, but they were sellers, the craftsmen, if you will, and not visitors. One Hongkong couple were selling bags they made themselves at home. A trio of Thai were selling knick-knacks of an Indochinese appearance. The sole black person I saw was an African American woman selling, you guess it, African artefacts: totemic and animal carvings, bead necklaces. There were white sellers too, of course, hawking less ethnic-defining wares like potpourri, greeting cards, artistic photographs and rock fossils. One woman was selling beer bottles flattened by a slow process of heating.

The center, which housed more stalls in the basketball court, seemed to be a hive of community activities. Besides a Phoenix Club for young people, it organized activities and tours for more mature residents. Immediately outside its main entrance was a stone memorial, in a blaze of flowers, commemorating a man called Martinelli who had been mayor, planning commissioner, and architect of the center.

The other world I entered in the evening was the Lake Fairfax Park. Cars snaked into the parking lots, disgorging would-be viewers of fireworks, adding to cars and families already there in the day. Here it took some time to find a white face. Latin, Mexican, South Indian and black families staked their places around a barbecue, a football, or, as it grew dark, a squib. The families must have learned from past experience the best spots in the park. As in the Vienna fair, I did not see any gay couple or family.

Nearer the lake stood the food stalls, one selling funnel cake, the second chinese snacks like lo mein and spring rolls, the third hot dogs and hamburgers. The line for funnel cake was the longest. Another stall sold American flags and long flourescent sticks that could be bent into circlets.

The end of the "national anthem," played over the public address system, signaled the start of the fireworks. The display was quite spectacular. But before it had quite ended, families were moving to their vehicles, and vehicles were making bravely for the main road. No one wanted to be trapped in the crush.

Thinking over my two disparate experiences later that night, I remembered the one place that bridged the two in my day. In Tysons Corner, a shopping mall, different peoples mingled as both sellers and consumers. Two men heading towards an exit, bags in hand, looked as if they were a couple. I bought a tank top from H&M and got the second one free. I would bet the man in front of me in the line was gay. But of course, unlike at the Vienna Fair or Lake Fairfax Park, no one in Tysons Corner was sharing a communal and symbolic experience with anyone he or she did not come with. Unless shopping is the representative experience of Independence Day.