Showing posts from August, 2007

Stapleton on Moore (3)

T. S. Eliot, when persuading Moore to republish Observations with the addition of a small number of new poems, offered a useful guideline on deciding what makes up a "book" of poetry:

The point at which one has "enough" for a book (of verse) is not a quantitative matter alone: it comes at the end of a paragraph, or chapter, however short; it's a question of form. One only has not enough, when one feels that the poems written require the cooperation of certain poems not yet written, in order to be themselves quite.

The paragraph, or chapter, metaphor suggests that a book of verse should have a completed shape, not necessarily a narrative arc, but whatever is proposed at the beginning of the paragraph or chapter would have been developed to some satisfying (Moore would have said, joyful) conclusion. Demanding as the metaphor may sound, it is also liberating, for a paragraph or a chapter is not the whole book, is not the whole work of a lifetime. There is time and s…

Stapleton on Moore (2)

I've just finished reading Stapleton's chapter on Moore as a literary reviewer. In discussing Moore's approach, Stapleton says something very true and just of the task of a literary critic:

For a critic to praise justly, and without exaggeration, is hard; it may be harder still, when praise is due, to make it relevant--to make it mean anything specific in reference, and specifically alive in statement. This difficult art goes to the root of criticism. For praise that counts is not encomium, is certainly not compliment, but attempts identification. It no longer adds a mere plus (or when not bestowed, a minus sign); it ceases to refer primarily to the writer, and becomes the predicate attaching itself to the work in question. Because Marianne Moore exemplifies the reserve and the "immunity to fear" of the true writer, her praise of the work she admires suggests the outline of her poetics. [bold emphasis mine]
The predicate metaphor is beautifully apt. The literary wo…

from Laurence Stapleton's "Marianne Moore: The Poet's Advance"

Moore: "The individuality and emotion of the writer should transcend modes. I recall feeling over-solitary occasionally (say in 1912)--in reflecting no 'influences'; to not be able to be called an 'imagist'--but determined to put the emphasis on what mattered most to me, in a manner natural to me" (in a broadcast on American poetry).

Earlier in the same broadcast, Moore said, "rhythm was my prime objective. If I succeeded in embodying a rhythm that preoccupied me, I was satisfied."

Grace Paley dies at 84

Grace Paley joined Sarah Lawrence College in 1966, and from that beginning had been closely associated with its creative writing program. By the time I enrolled in the graduate course in 2003, she had not been teaching there for some time, but still could be seen at college events and readings.

I read her short story "Wants" not long ago, and was impressed by the economy of her prose, especially her adroit use of a short verbal exchange to convey an entire marriage and its breakdown. The NYT obituary mentions her first ambition was to be a poet, and she studied with Auden for a while at The New School. I googled and found this:

Here I am in the garden laughing
an old woman with heavy breasts
and a nicely mapped face

how did this happen
well that's who I wanted to be

at last a woman
in the old style sitting
stout thighs apart under
a big skirt grandchild sliding
on off my lap a pleasant
summer perspiration

that's my old man across the yard
he's talking to the meter reader

New Yorker Profile of Ian McKellen

When Ian McKellen visited Singapore on a R.S.C. tour, Yawning Bread pointed out the bad publicity that must result from Singapore's anti-gay law:

So McKellen lands here, he reads the highly prejudiced letters in the press, he mixes with gay Singaporeans and hears their stories. He watches a gay play in which Section 377A of the Penal Code is discussed. What do you think he's going to say about Singapore after he's left our shores? He, the celebrity with huge access to the media all over the world?
Sure enough, the New Yorker profile of the gay actor, written by John Lahr, includes a paragraph on McKellen's response to Singapore. As part of his interpretation of Lear, McKellen strips completely naked in the storm, but not in Singapore.

In Singapore, where gay sex is punishable by up to ten years in prison, Lear was forced to wear underwear in the storm scene and McKellen spoke to the press protesting the community's "personally offensive" anti-gay strictures.…

Becoming Jane

For a movie that aims to show how Austen was transformed by a love affair into the great novelist, you would have thought a better title is "Becoming Austen." But Austen, played by Anne Hathaway, is all and always Jane in this film: unconventional, romantic, beautiful. She plays cricket better than the boys. She elopes with her lover, Lefroy. She has a supermodel figure. So the title is true to the real spirit of the film after all. Just don't look for Austen in it.

Faulkner's "Light in August"

Faulkner is a terribly depressing read. The fatalism that permeates the novel is sometimes described as supernatural: the characters are so many chess pieces moved by a Player with some unknowable plan. But all the time it is clear that the characters are fated by their own characters to live, die, kill, love. So even Lena Grove's optimistic persistence in searching for the father of her child has its fatalistic aspect: she cannot help herself; she has as much power to stop searching as the father Lucas Burch has to stop running away. Byron Bunch's love for Lena is instantaneous and overwhelming, and he acts thereafter according to the dictates of this love. Hightower, a disgraced clergyman who has withdrawn from life, intervenes to save the life of Joe Christmas, but his intervention has as much effect as the wooden table hiding Christmas from the vigilante's gun.

This fatalism has a sonic accompaniment, a musical motif. Throughout the novel we hear the hooves of horses. H…

Mark Doty on Walt Whitman

from his VQR essay "Form, Eros, and the Unspeakable: Whitman's Stanzas":

[On the third form of the unspeakable, that which is wordless, undefined]...It is the most difficult form of silence to talk about, since once a word exists for something, it does, and the quality of being nameless, outside the realm of speech, becomes irrecoverable. Samuel Delaney tells an instructive story about this problem in one of his essays; he describes meeting a man in a Times Square porn theater, a shoe fetishist who’s passionately turned on, in several wordless encounters, by the writer’s sneakers. When Delaney needs to buy a new pair, he figures he might as well make the guy happy, and so he breaks their silence and asks him what kind of new sneakers he’d most enjoy. The questioned man is speechless, stricken; he flees; later he returns and manages to choke out only the words, “light blue.” But though the desired shoes are purchased, the sexual relationship is never the same. Delaney spec…

Meridian's Best New Poets 2007

Wheeee! I am going to be in Meridian's Best New Poets 2007.

Meridian magazine, from the University of Virginia, publishes this annual anthology. Each year, Best New Poets features the work of fifty emerging poets selected from nominations by writing programs, literary magazines and an Open Internet Competition.

Here's the announcement by Jeb Livingood, Series Editor:

We'd like to congratulate the following 50 poets, whose submissions to Best New Poets 2007 were selected by Natasha Trethewey [My note: Natasha Trethewey's Native Guard won the 2007 Pulitzer Poetry Prize]:

*Name* *Poem* *Source*

Beth Bachmann "Nesting" Open Competition
JoAnn Balingit "History Textbook, America" Open Competition
C. Bentley "Fortune" Open Competition
Erin Bertram "[Mesmerist]" Open Competition
Craig Blais "Sister at the Airport" Wichita State University
Kara Candito "Carnivale, 1934" Florida State Uni…

TLS, August 17, 2007

from Peter Holland's review of William Shakespeare: the Complete Works, edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen:
On King Lear--"The coronet, the commentary assures us, "must be of material that can be broken in half", but this is to read Lear's instruction to "part" it too literally, to assume that the speech and a stage-event are aligned. The exhilarating theatrical point may be precisely that the coronet cannot be divided, that, try as they might, neither Lear nor his sons-in-law can split the metal ring, that the circle, such a potent sign of wholeness, will not break--especially in a play fascinated by the way "The wheel is come full circle", as the dying Edmund puts it.

from Barbara Everett's Commentary piece on biographies of Shakespeare, "Reade him, therefore":
In an important sense Shakespeare did not live in his life, if by life we mean circumstantial existence. Neither a dreamy aesthete nor a dithering incompetenet…

Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art

Visited the Center in Brooklyn Museum on Saturday. The long term installation, Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party (1974-79), was a disappointment. Banners flanking the entry to the banquet hall proclaimed the work's own iconic importance in portentous Biblical language and childish drawings. The curatorial notes did not explain why the dinner table was in the shape of a triangle, when a circle would have better conveyed communion and equality. The ceremonial feel, in the banquet tables, wall mirrors and subdued lighting, was subverted by the colloquial title of the work, and the glitzy, cursive script used for writing on the white tiled floor the names of the other 999 honored women.

The porcelain plates had raised central motifs based on vulvar forms. This had the strange effect of making the vulva seem the food of choice. Why would anyone want to eat anything off their sex organs? Sappho? Much as straight men love their penises, I can't imagine them wanting to lick the sauce…

The Days of Summer

Summer expires in a drizzle. Tonight, returning from the gym, I noticed that the day had turned dark at 7.45 p.m. The weather has turned colder yesterday and today. It should get warm enough for a last dash to the beach next weekend, but it does feel like the gasp of a dying creature. I thought about what I had achieved over this summer, having spent most of it in the city, instead of travelling elsewhere.

My main disappointment is that I have not worked on "The Book of the Body" sequence at all. At the beginning of summer, I had the excuse of reading up for it: Guy's biography of Mary Stuart, and McLeod's essay on Sikhism. Then I read Bidart on narrative in poetry, and realized that I don't have a story for the sequence. The sequence needs a narrative to meld its parts into a body; otherwise, it remains a miscellany, despite its conceptual framework.

Dissatisfaction with myself can be highly productive some of the time, and merely depressing at other times. So I r…

Parents' Visit Aug 17 (Fri)

Last day of visit. They are leaving tomorrow morning for Virginia. What did we do today?

Breakfast-Chinese pastries
Morning-Rested at home
Lunch-Dim Sum at Gala Manor: taro cake, siew mai, preserved egg congee, shark's fin dumplings, phoenix claws (chicken feet), braised pork ribs. The egg tarts were excellent: fluffy pastry and a center that was not too sweet or eggy.
Afternoon-Walked around Flushing
Late afternoon-Walked around Times Square; watched "The Invasion" starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig
Dinner-Cafe Asean, in the Village: duck spring rolls, sauteed Chinese broccoli, roasted striped bass with papaya, Malaysian curry chicken

Radio Show Rescheduled

The Poets Wear Prada show has been rescheduled. Here's the announcement from the producer:

Due to the unfortunate passing of jazz legend Max Roach, regular radio programming has been pre-empted on WKCR from tonight until next Wednesday. Max was very close with the radio station, and has been interviewed on it many times by Phil Schaap.

The "Poets Wear Prada" radio shows have therefore been rescheduled to Friday, August 24th (as before) and Friday, September 7th, from 9-10 PM.

Show #1, on Friday, August 24th will feature:

Alex O. Bleecker
Jee Leong Koh
Susan Maurer
Bob Heman

Show #2, on Friday, September 7th, will feature:

Roxanne Hoffman
Efrayim Levenson
Sheryl Helene Simler

The shows will air on WKCR FM NY (89.9 FM, from 9 to 10 PM on Art Waves.

Max Roach, bebop/hard bop percussionist, drummer and composer. Image from Wikipedia.

Parents' Visit Aug 16 (Thu)

Breakfast-Cheesecake bought from Flushing
Morning-Union Square; Washington Square; Greenwich Village
Lunch-Cafe Condessa: ham and mushroom omelette, goat cheese and asparagus omelette, cobb salad, grenache/syrah, albarino
Afternoon-Rested at home
Evening-Brooklyn Bridge
Dinner-Iron Chef Japanese restaurant: sashimi, tempura, teriyaki, beef negimaki
Night-Brooklyn Heights Promenade

TLS, Aug 10, 2007

Extracts from David Martin's review of John Gray's Black Mass: Apocalyptic religion and the death of utopia:
Gray acknowledges a clear debt to Norman Cohn's pathbreaking The Pursuit of the Millennium (1957), but obvious precursors like S. N. Eisenstadt, in his Fundamentalism, Sectarianism and Revolution (1999), subtitled The Jacobin dimension of modernity, and J. F. Talmon in his classic Political Messianism: The Romantic phase (1964) are at best buried in the endnotes.


The French may think master-narratives are out, along with belief and morality, but in fact the language of politics, even in secularist France, is saturated in a teleological moralism. Political language is, as Georges Sorel eloquently showed, profoundly mythic.


Our democratic order is not founded on some secular version of Christian Providence but a vulnerable local achievement, only exportable by violence on the mistaken assumption that, once you strike away the chains of history, tradition and cultur…

I'm reading on radio tomorrow night

Along with the other Poets Wear Prada writers, I'll be reading on Columbia University radio tomorrow (friday) night between 9 and 10 NY time on the Art Waves show hosted by Anne Cammon, on WKCR FM NY (89.9 FM) and on their website at (if you live out of the city). If you tune in, you will hear my poised and inimitable self.

Show #1 (Friday August 17, 9 to 10 PM) Alex Bleecker Jee Leong Koh Susan Maurer Bob Heman

Show #2 (Friday August 24, 9 to 10 PM) Roxanne Hoffman Efrayim Levenson Sheryl Helene Simler

Parents' Visit Aug 15 (Wed)

Breakfast-Stop Inn Restaurant, an Irish diner: 2 eggs well done, crispy home fries, toast and pancakes
Morning-Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville
Lunch-Calvin's Restaurant: indistinguishable chicken, shrimp and pork dishes.
Afternoon-Rested at home; walked around Flushing, NYC's 2nd Chinatown
Dinner-Sentosa Restaurant: roti canai, char kway teow, hokkien fried noodle, barbecued skate.
Night-Played Rumi-o again, and dad and I finished the Canadian Shore Creek Riesling he had brought. The wine was a little drier and less fruitier than the German Rieslings.

What To Do When Parents Visit NYC

My parents arrived for a week's visit last Saturday, and we've been together 24 hours for the last three days. Since they don't share many of my interests, I've been racking my brains to think up places and activities that they may enjoy. Mum loves to shop, and dad likes to take in new places. This is what we have done so far:

Sat. Aug 11, 2007
5 p.m.-They arrived on the Apex Bus at Allen Street. Walked round Chinatown: East Broadway, Mott Street up to Prince Street. Mother bought dried ingredients for making soups.
Dinner-Nonya Restaurant: roti canai, Hainanese chicken, kangkong belachan

Sun. Aug 12, 2007
Breakfast-Subway omelette sandwiches
Morning-Shopping at South Street Seaport and Century 21.
Late lunch-Panini place: tuna melt panini, smoked turkey panini, Asian sesame chicken and ginger salad, spinach salad
Afternoon-Rested at home
Evening-Watched Spamalot
Supper-Chinese takeout place: Cantonese wanton noodle, beef stew noodle and fishball noodle

Mon. Aug 13, 2007


Watched only my third Broadway musical yesterday night, after Wicked and Sweeney Todd. As before, after the show was over, I wondered why I don't watch more musicals and plays than I do. They are usually such entertaining affairs. The cost is prohibitive but the money goes in other more insidious ways. Spamalot was hilarious, the second half was even better than the first. Not a Monty Python fan, I don't know how much the musical rips off or riffs off the TV show and film, but a lot of the musical makes fun of the genre itself. I love the rompish queering of the text. Launcelot, that perfect courtly lover in medieval lit, rescues a prince, instead of a maiden, in distress, and discovers his inner gay. Sir Robin, the coward, discovers his Grail in his talent and passion for, what else, broadway musicals. Yes, the humor, lacking verbal sophistication or strong set-up, relies heavily on visual gags and references to pop culture. But this musical succeeds by combining parody and p…

Razminovenie, or Non-meeting

Razminovenie, or Non-meeting

Though I dream all the time of union, cold air
aerated by air, coursing water saturated by water,
I’ll imagine never meeting you, my imaginary love.

Perhaps you are in the apartment above mine,
hooked up with my neighbor, cursing softly, and I wish
you could read, here, the entry of your voice: fuck.

Perhaps you are not so near in time and space.
On a planet dried of air or water you survive
by reciting poetry from memory, a line of verse—

you’re exerting a force equal to the earth’s—
a capsule taken, paradoxically, by spitting it out.
This is not so ridiculous as some may think,

for didn’t Tsvetaeva and Pasternak live like this,
not on one planet, but on two hurtling asteroids.
We have nothing, Marina wrote Boris, except words.

A poet’s boast, carried by neither air nor water.
But, oh, we can live for months by howling
the medial syllable of razminovenie: no.

TLS, August 3, 2007

from Rachel Polonsky's review "A higher romance" of Catherine Ciepiela's "The Same Solitude: Boris Pasternak and Marina Tsvetaeva"

Although Pasternak fantasized about travelling to Switzerland with Tsvetaeva to visit the dying Rilke, and there were intermittent urges and unrealized plans to meet over the years, actual encounters played no part in the "love" that their letters mutually proclaim. As Tsvetaeva later wrote to Pasternak, "we have nothing except words." Her shrewd sense of how meeting in person might jeopardize the communion available to them in letters (and dreams) was part of a longstanding philosophy of "non-meeting" (razminovenie) with other great poets, which, in its turn, contributed to what Joseph Brodsky calls her retreat into an ever-expanding "sphere of isolation".

I, too, have this intuition about meeting great poets, the fear of being disillusioned, but I did not know that there was a "longst…

The Impatience

When will my love, my love, be true?
When will my love be true?
When will my love, my love, be you,
and when, my love, will you?

When will my days, my day, be bright?
When will my days be bright?
When will my nights, my night, be night?
When will my nights be night?

When will my death, my breath, be dead?
When will my death be dead,
if you, my breath, are not yet dead?
When will my breath be dead?

Ancestral Worship

My parents gave up their ancestral ghosts
when, midwived by their only son, they were born
again as children to the Lord of Hosts.

I, in turn, gave up a young man’s faith worn
on the sleeve, first as heart, and then as rank;
I burned my uniform. I am gone

to pen my invitations on the blank
tablets, to burn joss paper as a man
incinerates his carbon days, to thank

the ghosts returning in a caravan,
coupled with aliens and aborigines,
back from Seleucia and Samarkand.

Son of the Yellow Emperor (and queens),
I trace my lineage from the man who lined
the yellow bed, a house for in-betweens,

whose dragon-draped sheets twisted and twined
round his throat like a necklace or a noose.
Desire fathers knowledge, body mind,

thus was born Master Zhuang, the skilled recluse,
cousin to Heraclitus. War and change
enkindled his mind, conflagrated, Use

uselessness, like One-Foot, and you will range
like fire through bushfire without getting hurt.
My forebears, village scum, floated to strange

banks, ember-hearts inside their …

Indignation 2007: Pride Season in Singapore

Here's a link to the calendar of events. If you can't be there, you can still get a taste of what's in store for the island. Ian McKellen, who performed in King Lear and The Seagull in Singapore, left a video message in support of Indignation. He also spoke in support of gay rights in interviews on Singapore TV and radio. The government banned a lecture (a lecture!) on same-sex legislative trends in Asia, and a same-sex kissing photographic exhibition. You may read about those bans on Talking Bread too.

The bans are intellectually inconsistent and indefensible. The common thread, from the accounts in Talking Bread, is that the homophobic campaign, which includes letters to the press, is being waged by conservative Christians in Singapore, many of whom are influential in the government. Religious fundamentalism is the issue of the twenty-first century, and I am not referring only to the Islamic variant. One letter, written by a self-identified Christian, said, ""E…

Transformers: the Movie

I enjoyed Transformers: the Movie. The spectacle of metamorphosizing machines is, for me, mesmerizing. There is something steely and logical about it, though you cannot see for sure which part of the car turns into which part of the robot. It is enough that the head of the 18-wheeler is now the chest of Optimus Prime. Like a heroic knight of old, Prime wields a sword. The Decepticon Starscream is a Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor, while Barrricade, a Saleen S281 Mustang, subverts the public trust in the police, by posing as a cop car. When the human soldiers see Starscream and think that air support has arrived, Starscream fires upon them in a horrible parody of friendly fire. Megatron, disguised as another fighter plane, flies through a skyscraper in an echo of 9/11. The secret government agency reveals that modern technological advancements, like lasers, have been achieved through the study of Megatron when he was retrieved from the North Pole, frozen in ice. The movie aims to be a par…

Reading "Light in August"

I could not resist the shape. Yesterday, the first day of the month, I started reading Faulkner's Light in August in Central Park. The August light burnished the trees with a final coat of summer polish, but the gold was also funereal. Then a cloud moved, and the light was shown up to be a trick. The grotesque did not take very long to appear in the woods, in the novel.

Neo Rauch, Contemporary Photographs, Manet

Neo Rauch sounds like a new art movement, which is almost true since a loosely-organized German school has arisen around this Leipzig artist (b. 1960), according to the curatorial note. The paintings, specially done for this Met exhibition, mix Surrealist and social realist images. I found the paintings hard to appreciate because most of the time I felt I was trying to read code without a key. I did like a few of the paintings. "Hunter's Room," with its cartoon figures in a social realist setting, reminded me of Otto Dix and fellow German expressionists.

"The Next Move" struck me as humorous in its juxtaposition of the artists thinking about their next projects, and the seduction in bed behind them.

I also looked in at "Hidden in Plain Sight: Contemporary Photographs from the Permanent Collection." Jean-Marc Bustamante elevates a newstand in a narrow alley into an image of great formal beauty, full of light and shade.

I saw William Eggleston's works …

Ian McEwan's "Atonement"

This is how I know I have read a masterpiece: I walked out of my apartment, and my neighborhood seemed far less real than the world of Robbie Turner, Cecilia Tallis and Brioni Tallis. I loved them, and feared for them more fiercely than I had for anyone real. The love and fear came from an imagination so thoroughly awakened that its previous life had the quality of a dream.

I think Alan Hollinghurst is a greater prose stylist than McEwan. The Line of Beauty has passages of such lyrical, yes, beauty, exquisite passages that Atonement could not match. McEwan sometimes resorts to commonplaces. Sunlight is described as a "parallelogram," a "wedge," and then "geometry."

But McEwan is not after beauty per se; his prose probes and delineates the subtle psychology of his characters. Many reviewers compare him rightly to Jane Austen for his strength in this regard, though McEwan is, I think, fundamentally non-ironic. Who said that there are only three literary modes…

Futoshi Miyagi's "Island of Shattered Glass: In the Bondage of Quicksilver Daydreams"

The title is schmaltzy, and so is the show. No amount of art criticism (i.e. promotion), no amount of talk of the fleeting nature of memory, of the cultural implications of forgetting (never spelled out), can rescue this small exhibition from its enormous self-indulgence. The work, which uses the Japanese myth about Nirai Kanai (an island from which all things depart and return), lacks development and formal interest. From the exhibition blurb:

While Robert Smithson used broken glass for Atlantis, Miyagi’s Atlantis consists of thin strips of shredded “chigiries” portraying moments in the artist’s childhood diffused by layers of memory and fantasy. Miyagi violently shreds his “chigiries” after completion, so that the island of “Nirai Kanai” takes shape on the gallery’s floor from shredded memories. However, the original “chigiries” are preserved albeit distanced by their photographic documentation and abstraction in faded black and white prints, which hover around Miyagi’s island. In th…