Thursday, November 29, 2007

Poems on Reading Poems

A poem written on a work of art is called ekphrastic. What about a poem written on reading another poem or poet? I don't mean poems that allude to other poems or that gossip about other poets, like Thom Gunn's "Keats at Highgate," much as I like that sonnet; I mean poems whose subject is the experience of reading itself. A poem like Keats' "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer," for instance.

And why do poets write poems about their experience reading other poems? Some of it has probably to do with the common instinctive response to beauty: we want to reproduce it, whether by telling someone about it, by drawing what comes to mind, or by blogging about it. Some of it has to do with trying to make sense of, or impose some form on, a powerful but inchoate experience; it relieves psychic pressure. Some of it has to do with claiming literary ancestors or mentors or rivals, or with distracting readers' attention from the real ancestors, mentors and rivals by writing about someone else.

And how does the poet, in writing such poems, avoid redundancy if what she does is merely to reproduce the other poem's essence? How avoid the charge of parasitism? Or the charge of excessive literariness and self-referentiality since one must know the original poem if one is to appreciate the response-poem?

Or think about the issue of audience. In writing about another poet, what does our poet assume about her audience? How much of the original poet can our response-poet assume her audience would know? To what extent does our response-poet think it is her job to explicate the original? What about cross-cultural audience? Or multi-cultural?

I am led to these thoughts by two sonnets on Chaucer written by two American poets. I like the cummings poem much better than the Longfellow one. They gave me the idea of collecting poems on the topic of reading poems.


An old man in a lodge within a park;
The chamber walls depicted all around
With portraiture of huntsman, hawk, and hound,
And the hurt deer. He listeneth to the lark,
Whose song comes with the sunshine through the dark
Of painted glass in leaden lattice bound;
He listened and he laugheth at the sound,
Then writeth in a book like any clerk.
He is the poet of the dawn, who wrote
The Canterbury Tales, and his old age
Made beautiful with song; and as I read
I hear the crowing cock, I hear the note
Of lark and linnet, and from every page
Rise odors of ploughed field or flowery mead.



honour corruption villainy holiness
riding in fragrance of sunlight (side by side
all in a singing wonder of blossoming yes
riding) to him who died that death should be dead

humblest and proudest eagerly wandering
(equally all alive in miraculous day)
merrily moving through sweet forgiveness of spring
(over the under the gift of the earth of the sky

knight and ploughman pardoner wife and nun
merchant frere clerk somnour miller and reve
and geoffrey and all) come up from the never of when
come into the now of forever come riding alive

down, while crylessly drifting through vast most
nothing's own nothing children go of dust.

-e. e. cummings

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Philoctetes Center

I went to the Philoctetes Center tonight to hear Marie Ponsot talk about Donne. Unfortunately I could only stay for half an hour, but managed to hear her on "Good Morrow." The Center, housed on the third floor of the NY Psychoanalytic Institute, pursues the interdisciplinary study of the imagination (neuroscience, psychology, mathematics, psychoanalysis, humanities and art, philosophy and theology). Besides roundtable discussions, they hold readings and film screenings.

I took the Center's version of the Philoctetes story from its website:

Philoctetes is a mythological character from the Greek tragedy by Sophocles, a warrior who was on his way to the Trojan War when a serpent bit him.

The smell of his wound was so noxious that he was left on the island of Lemnos and ostracized by his countrymen. When the war started, Cassandra, the seer, said that without the bow of Heracles, which is only possessed by Philoctetes and which he inherited from his father, the war could not be won. Many believe that it's the Trojan Horse that is the key to winning the war, but actually it's the bow of Heracles.

So the Argives have to humbly go back to Philoctetes and ask him to rejoin them. At first he says no. From all the pain that you have given me, even if I could regain my glory, I reject you, even if it's at the cost of my own redemption. Even at the cost of reconstituting my own existence. Eventually, there is a deus ex machina that comes in to relieve him of the burden of this decision, and so the Argives regain the bow and eventually go on to win the war.

The Philoctetes myth reappears in a book by Edmund Wilson called The Wound and the Bow: Seven Studies in Literature. Wilson modernizes the story, tying the wound to psychic trauma and the bow to the healing power of insight. And so the creative personality is the one who uses art as a way of transcending trauma. The artist chooses the road of insight over that of pathology.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Kay Ryan's "The Niagara River"

I have always enjoyed Kay Ryan's poems in POETRY. They are well made, surprising analogies. So when I slipped into a book store at Penn Station while waiting for a New Jersey Transit train to carry me to a housewarming party, I decided to get Ryan's Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize winner, The Niagara River.

The title poem displays all her strengths.

As though
the river were
a floor, we position
our table and chairs
upon it, eat, and
have conversation.
As it moves along,
we notice--as
calmly as though
dining room paintings
were being replaced--
the changing scenes
along the shore. We
do know, we do
know this is the
Niagara River, but
it is hard to remember
what that means.

A tiny poem and yet it holds the river in it through the two "as though"s, assumptions we make forgetting we make them until the poem reminds us. This poem tells us what we have always known (We do know, we do know), and that is the source of its power.

The weaker poems in this collection fail because the analogies are not surprising enough, like in "The Elephant in the Room," "Hailstorm" and "The Light of Interiors." They are still-births. Other poems suffer from too much argument unsupported by the imagery. I am thinking, in this connection, of "Felix Crow," "Shipwreck" and "The Self Is Not Portable." Ryan is partly aware of this second pitfall, this reverse side of her wit. The poem "Added Significance" addresses this issue scathingly.

In the wake of
horrible events
each act or word
is fortified with
added significance,
unabsorbable as
nutrients added
to the outside
of food: it can't
do any good.
As if significance
weren't burdensome
enough. Now
the wave-slapped
beach rocks not
just made to talk
but made to teach.

I like this poem very much but its limitation is that it only sees the danger of added significance after "horrible events," and does not see it everywhere. And not in itself: with the addition of "it can't do any good," the poem has stopped talking and started teaching.

On the back cover, J. D. McClatchy blurbed that Ryan is "as intense and elliptical as Dickinson." The comparison is instructive. Ryan is odd, even original, but she is not elliptical. There is nothing in this collection that approaches Dickinson's mysterious bees and birds. There is no God with whom and of whom one has to talk cryptically. An imaginative image-maker, Ryan does not make myths. That gives her poetry its commonsensical outlook, and, despite its awe at humans and their world, its earthly boundaries.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Poems in Mascara #2

Mascara #2 is out, edited by Boey Kim Cheng and Michelle Cahill, based in Australia. Four of my poems appear in it: "Valentine to Volume," "Lachine Canal, Montreal," Section 7 of "Fire Island" and Section 3 of "Talk About New York."

My first encounter with Adam Aiken, and I really like his poems in this issue: the sense of living at the end of something, the surprising imagery, the careful lineation. The first poem begins enticingly, drawing speaker and reader into a reading of this girl:

Fin de Siècle
Between two climates she'd be waiting, the slender young émigré
so dark and delicate the wind passed right through her,
always there before you, the bright architect of love
who knew her way around the café chairs, the Latin lovers.

The last poem meditates on East Asian time through a Western point of view to unearth the ironies of a Johnny-come-lately capturing a scene with which he is captivated.

The Book of the Body: The Brain in Its Folds Inside the Skull-frame

The Brain in Its Folds Inside the Skull-frame

We have no reason to think
a present experience is preferable to a past experience,
but we prefer smelling a rose
to remembering the nose.

We have no reason to think that my seeing the sunset
is preferable to your seeing the sunset,
but, I can vouch, for better or for worse,
I prefer my view of the splendid decadence to yours.

The husband of the Justice suffers from dementia.
The husband of the Justice falls in love with one who suffers from dementia too.
The Justice loves her husband. The Justice is happy for her husband.
We have no reason to think we deserve praise or blame for anything we do.

Turner at the National Gallery of Art

The biggest Turner exhibition ever in the States, it aimed to overwhelm and to please the crowds. I found myself overwhelmed and not pleased. One huge Turner in an elegantly appointed Victorian room would bash the eye into submission. Imagine Turner after Turner after Turner jostling their hunky frames on the exhibition walls, and the idiom begins to feel more bombastic than dramatic. I turned away from the famous setpieces like Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps (1812), The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805 (1823-1824) and Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus--Homer's Odyssey (1829) in search of something more personal, more human.

I saw a lovely impressionistic Willows by a Stream, a gorgeous dissolution of forms into yellows. I also liked very much his painting of the coal ships at Newcastle. In silvers and blues, the moonlit scene offered a relief from the incandescent sun that burned picture after picture in the exhibition.

Keelmen heaving in Coals by Moonlight, 1835 – oil on canvas

And then there was that almost domestic scene, a terrace with a dog and a few women who are there to enjoy themselves and not to serve as walk-ons for a heroic or mythical theme.

Joseph Mallord William Turner
Mortlake Terrace, 1827

Ingmar Bergman's "Sommaren med Monika" (1953)

I was surprised that the IFC theater was not full for the restored print of this Bergman film. Two working class teenagers take off in a motorboat to escape from jobs, adults and the city. When she gets pregnant, they return to civilization, and tragedy follows. A simple three-part structure. But parallel and contrasting scenes deepen and multiply the structure. Harry Lund's house is a decorated and silent grave while Monika's house roars with neighbors singing, mother shouting, brothers yelling and father drunkenly celebrating. In both transitions to the next part of the frame, the motorboat passes by Cubist buildings and under angular bridges, both uniformed in black and white, but, whereas the outward journey is a joyful escape, the inward one is an ominous return. Harriet Andersson played Monika with the brio and sensuality promised by the reviews. Lars Ekborg played Harry with a sweet innocence.

Friday, November 23, 2007

TLS, Nov 9 and 16, 2007

TLS Nov 9 2007: from Simon Scott Plummer's review of Alvyn Austin's China Millions: The China Inland Mission and late Qing society:

A year before [Henry Frost moved CIM headquartes from Toronto to Philadelphia in 1901], the mission's operations in China had been crippled by the last act of the Bozer Uprising, which targeted the late Pastor Hsi's followers (he had died in 1896) in Shanxi. On one day in Taiyuan, the provincial capital, forty-five foreign men, women and children were killed in front of the governor and their heads displayed on the city gate. By the time Hudson Taylor died (in Changsa, Hunan province), reparations had been made and missionary work resumed, but it was now less itinerant and more institutional. . . .


After its expulsion from China in 1950, the CIM changed its name to the Overseas Missionary Fellowship. Today, that organization, based on Singapore, remains the largest Protestant mission in East and South-East Asia.


TLS Nov 16 2007: from John E. Joseph's Commentary piece "He was an Englishman" on Ferdinand de Saussure:

. . . it was a commonplace view in the second half of the nineteenth century that all thought and all consciousness was purely differential and negative in nature. It was a defining feature of British psychology, as opposed to Continental (particularly German) psychology, which, before the British approach made inroads into it, took thought to be made up of ideas, maybe innate, maybe acquired, but with real substantive content.

For the late nineteenth century the locus classicus of diffentiality was John Stuart Mill's Examination of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy (1865), a scathing attack that brought far more attention to Hamilton's writings than their author had managed during his lifetime. Hamilton's "relativity of human knowledge" was one of the few things Mill agreed with, summarizing it as follows:

We only know anything by knowing it as distinguished from something else; all consciousness is of difference; two objects are the smallest number required to constitute consciousness; a thing is only seen to be what it is by contrast with what it is not.

TLS November 2 2007

from Francis Robinson's review of Journal of Emperor Babur, translated by Annette Susannah Beveridge; adapted and abridged by Dilip Hiro:

Babur was one of four warriors of Turkic-speaking stock who, in a period of
less than a century, founded a major state in the heart of the Eurasian region
reaching from the Balkans to Bengal. . . . When Babur died in 1530, he had
laid the basis of the Mughal Empire which was to last until 1858, and which to
the end of the seventeenth century was the greatest of these states in wealth
and power. While remaining religiously inclusive for much of its existence, this
Empire, nevertheless, continued to sustain the Muslim political frame,
established by the Delhi Sultanate, which led to the sub-continent becoming home
to one-third of the world's Muslims, a fact of major geopolitical


Babur is also rightly famed for his autobiography, the Babur Nama.
Throughout his life he kept a journal, which in his last years he worked into
autobiographical form. . . .

. . . He tells us of his first discovery of love, of unreasoning passion:
"In those days I discovered in myself a strange inclination, no a mad
infatuation - for a boy in the camp's bazaar, his name Baburi . . .".He found
himself speechless and overcome with confusion whenever he met the boy:

In that maelstrom of desire and passion, and under the stress of youthful
folly, I used to wander, bareheaded and barefoot, through streets and lanes,
orchards and vineyards. I showed civility neither to friends nor to strangers,
took no care of myself or others.


As a work of world literature it has been rated a worthy companion of the
confessions of St. Augustine and Rousseau, and the autobiography of Gibbon. Dale
[author of The Garden of the Eight Paradises: Babur and the culture of
empire in Central Asia, Afghanistan and India (1483-1530)
] rightly compared
it with that other most revealing autobiography of the sixteenth century, The
Life of Benvenuto Cellini, the Renaissance sculptor and goldsmith. In doing so
he goes on to make a further point that [E. M.]Forster also made, which is to
note the similarities between the late-Timurid worlds of Samarqand and Herat and
those of Renaissance Florence and Siena. In both there flourished egotism and
brutality alongside aesthetic sensibility and high cultivation.


from Dan Jacobson's Commentary "Border crossings" on Wordsworth:

At his best he was a peculiarly physiological poet--by which I mean that he
managed to articulate the anonymous, humble, non-volitional bodily processes
that precede all thought, and without which thinking cannot take place. In
addition to all the other modes in which he wrote, he was in effect a poet of
the autonomic nervous system, the spinal cord, the digestive tract, the
circulation of the blood; he was also preoccupied to an exceptional degree with
the capacity of people to notice things without being conscious of having done
so, and to retain an unrecognized memory of them until some later circumstance
should stir it into life.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

The New Yorker, Oct 22 2007

from Arthur Crystal's profile of Jacque Barzun, historian and cultural critic:

He demanded . . . that historical narrative include "the range and
wildness of individuality, the pivotal force of trifles, the manifestations of
greatness, the failures of unquestioned talent." His models were Burkhardt,
Gibbon, Macaulay, and Michelet, authors of imperfect mosaics characterized by a
strong narrative line. As for philosopher-historians like Vico, Herder, and
Spengler, Barzun held that they did not, despite creating prodigious works of
learning, write histories at all: "It is not a paradox to say that in seeking a
law of history those passionate minds were giving up their interest in


Like William James (his favorite philosopher), Barzun believes that feeling
is at the root of all philosophy and art. "The greatest artists have never been
men of taste," Barzun wrote, with Berlioz in mind. "By never sophisticating
their instincts they have never lost the awareness of the great simplicities,
which they relish both from appetite and from the challenge these offer to skill
in competition with popular art."


[Barzun writes:] History, like a vast river, propels logs, vegetation,
rafts, and debris: it is full of live and dead things, some destined for
resurrection; it mingles many waters and holds in solution invisible substances
stolen from distant soils. Anything may become part of it; that is why it can be
an image of the continuity of mankind. And it is also why some of its freight
turns up again in the social sciences: they were constructed out of the contents
of history in the same way as houses in medieval Rome were made out of stones
taken from the Coliseum. But the special sciences based on sorted facts cannot
be mistaken for rivers flowing in time and full of persons and events. They are
systems fashioned with concepts, numbers, and abstract relations. For history,
the reward of eluding method is to escape abstraction.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Robert Capa at ICP

This is Robert Capa:

Unidentified Photographer
[Robert Capa holding his 35mm Contax on a Japanese tank captured at the Battle of Tai’erzhuang, Xuzhou front, China], April 1938
Gelatin silver print
© Cornell Capa
International Center of Photography

Wasn't he a handsome twenty-something? He covered not just the Sino-Japanese War, and the Spanish Civil War, but also the Normandy beach landings, and the Allies' entry into Leipzig. Right place, right time to take a shot. Even to change cameras when shooting the picture of the American soldier downed by a German sniper.

Robert Capa
[American soldier killed by German snipers, Leipzig, Germany], April 18, 1945
Gelatin silver print
© Cornell Capa
International Center of Photography

What was Robert Capa thinking as he changed his cameras? What is the best format for this godsend?

Sunday, November 18, 2007


After Robert Mapplethorpe shot the tulips and calla lilies,
the book says,
he did not arrange them in a vase, or the vase in his apartment,
but trashed them immediately.

The book also says that Matisse never slept
with his odalisques
since it would be too much
like devouring the oranges one has a vision of.

When the American corporal fell backwards from the balcony,
through the doorway, to the floor, his blood
running into the apartment,
Robert Capa shot him, and changed cameras.

There is someone in me who approves of this.
Yesterday, at the I
CP, there was someone else in me who wished
art were otherwise.

Mark Strand's "New Selected Poems"

I met Mark Strand everywhere this weekend. In The New Yorker, Dan Chiasson reviewed his New Selected Poems, along with Hass's Time and Materials. I heard him read Friday evening at Cornelia Street Cafe. On the move, and on my back, I spent yesterday and today reading his new book. Now I meet him in my memory, remembering the Strand poem engraved in dark stone of the fountain in the relatively new Battery Park Condominiums Complex.

What do I remember after reading "New Selected Poems"? Chiefly the moving and funny sequence of poems from Dark Harbor. "XXXV" begins with the startling, and the deliberate disavowal of the drama of the startling. The disavowal is in the service of something deeper, more human, more poignant.

The sickness of angels is nothing new.
I have seen them crawling like bees,
Flightless, chewing their tongues, not singing.

Down by the bus terminal, hanging out,
Showing their legs, hiding their wings,
Carrying on for their brief term on earth.

In "XLIV," the speaker recalls his fear of the noise of the sea when he was a child. An adult now, he loves the "mystery of the sea that generates its own changes," a self-generative power the child had no way of knowing then. The poem ends:

But in those days what did I know of the pleasures of loss,
Of the edge of the abyss coming close with its hisses
And storms, a great watery animal break itself on the rocks,

Sending up stars of salt, loud clouds of spume.

There are many other strong poems, especially from the last two collections, Blizaard of One (1998), for which Strand received the Pulitzer Prize, and Man and Camel (2006). "Black Sea" appears in the latter. My favorite from the former is "A Suite of Apperances" written for Octavio and Marie Jo Paz. The fifth and last section of the suite combines Strand's metaphysical questioning and his love for earthly delights to make for a stunned conclusion.

Of occasions flounced with rose and gold in which the sun
Sinks deep and drowns in a blackening sea, of those, and more,
To be tired. To have the whole sunset again, moment by moment,

As it occured, in a correct and detailed acount, only darkens
Our sense of what happened, There is a limit to what we can picture
And to how much of a good thing is a good thing. Better to hope

For the merest reminder, a spectral glimpse--there but not there,
Something not quite a scene, poised only to be dissolved,
So, when it goes as it must, no sense of loss springs in its wake.

The houses, the gardens, the roaming dogs, let them become
The factors of absence, an incantation of the ineffable.
The backyard was red, that much we know. And the church bell

Tolled the hour. What more is there? The odors of food,
The last traces of dinner, are gone. The glasses are washed.
The neighborhood sleeps. Will the same day ever come back, and with it

Our amazement at having been in it, or will only a dark haze
Spread at the back of the mind, erasing events, one after
The other, so brief they may have been lost to begin with?

Beauty generates beauty. That is its chief distinction, argues Elaine Scarry. Reading Strand's newly selected poems makes me want to write poetry, which is how I know they are beautiful.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Mark Strand reads at Son of the Pony

Mark Strand was the featured reader at Cornelia Street Cafe last night. His reading was unhurried, unfussy and unshowy, relying on the precision and valence of words ordered well. Reading in a basement, he chose poems that resonated in the subterranean. They were funny, yearning, compassionate. They were also highly conscious of traditional forms. He read a ballad about a couple who met in an underground train station. He read "Black Sea" when someone in the audience shouted out the request. The poem blew the top off my head. Looking at it on the page, now, I just realized that it is a Shakespearian sonnet.

Black Sea

One clear night while the others slept, I climbed
the stairs to the roof of the house and under a sky
strewn with stars I gazed at the sea, at the spread of it,
the rolling crests of it raked by the wind, becoming
like bits of lace tossed in the air. I stood in the long,
whispering night, waiting for something, a sign, the approach
of a distant light, and I imagined you coming closer,
the dark waves of your hair mingling with the sea,
and the dark became desire, and desire the arriving light.
The nearness, the momentary warmth of you as I stood
on that lonely height watching the slow swells of the sea
break on the shore and turn briefly into glass and disappear . . .
Why did I believe you would come out of nowhere? Why with all
that the world offers would you come only because I was here?

(Text from Random House, which published Man and Camel in which this poem appears)

One of its many beauties: the changes rung on the verb and theme "become." The first quatrain ends with "becoming." The third quatrain begins with "became desire." The couplet opposes "you would come" with the inevitable "would you come."

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Aeschylus' "Agamemnon"

I read the first part of the trilogy, in Philip Vellacott's translation, last week for a book group. If Euripides is the psychologist, and Sophocles the priest-philosopher, then Aeschylus is the historian of the big three Greek tragedians. Agamemnon is vitally concerned with the rise and fall of noble houses, and the engine of history, vengeance. Agamemnon, with Zeus's harness on his back, ploughs over Troy for Paris' violation of the hospitality code. But to become the God's instrument, he sacrificed his own daughter to gain fair winds, an unkind act that aroused Clytemnestra's vengeance against him. The Queens kills her husband, and stores up wrath against herself.

Clytemnestra is a fascinating figure. Her speech on the passing of the fire signal is stunningly beautiful, a tour-de-force, really. Moving is her imagining the Greeks' victory and the Trojans' defeat, a passage that resonates today.

Today the Greeks hold Troy! Her walls echo with cries
That will not blend. Pour oil and vinegar in one vessel,
You'll see them part and swirl, and never mix, so, there,
I think, down narrow streets a discord grates the ear--
Screams of the captured, shouts of those who've captured them,
The unhappy and the happy. Women of Troy prostrate
Over dead husbands, brothers; aged grandfathers
Mourning dead sons and grandsons, and remembering
Their very cries are slaves' crites now. . . . And then the victors:
After a night of fightng, roaming, plundering,
Hungry to breakfast, while their hosts lie quiet in dust;
No rules to keep, no order of place; each with the luck
That fell to him, quartered in captured homes of Troy,
Tonight, at last, rolled in dry blankets, safe from frost--
No going on guard--blissfully they'll sleep from dusk to dawn.

How to describe the quality of that line "Hungry to breakfast, while their hosts lie quiet in dust"? What modern war poet would or could combine the savagery irony of "hosts," the understated empathy of "lie quiet in dust," and the matter-of-factness of "Hungry to breakfast" all in one line? And then, in vanquishing exhaustion, the Greek soldiers sleep, a sleep only they will wake up from when the sun rises.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Georges Seurat: The Drawings at MoMA

(Image from MoMA website)

Saw the drawings of the pontillist at MoMa the Sunday before last. I like the drawings much better than the paintings. Drawn with conte crayon on Michellet paper, the drawings are velvety, as a friend puts it. They are certainly softer, more tender, than the stiff and isolated figures in the big iconic paintings such as A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.

One drawing, of a boy in the artist's studio, shows such a gentle, vulnerable back shoulder of the boy that it almost made me weep. The drawing was a study for another big painting called Bathing at Asniers. In that painting, the boy has been transformed by so-called rational, scientific technique into a minor figure in the frieze of land and water.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Book of the Body: Armpit

If we see, as the book says,
the body of the world
through a missing slat of the defence
called skin,

one day the flashing heel,
another day the eye staring back,
and yet another day the whole head
missing its wig, trumbling past the slit,

today, licking you like your old dog
you are bringing home from the island,
how odd
it is to see the world the armpit of God.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Manuscript Submission to Open Readings

I have given up submitting my manuscript to contests. They are too much of a lottery. Open readings are a different fish, though, if they read manuscripts for free, and if they look to publish more than one title. Word Tech is such a fish. C&R Press is new. It is going to publish one title selected from its Open Reading, and it charges $10. I really should get my act together to submit Equal to the Earth to them.

(1) Word Tech

From the website: "WordTech Communications' 2007 reading period is November 1-December 31, 2007. Manuscripts postmarked in that time period will receive full consideration. This reading period is for all of our imprints. Selected manuscripts will be published under a royalty contract in the 2010 season."

(2) C&R Press
From the website: "Postmarked during the months of October and November only." $10 reading fee.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Alan Watts's "The Book"

(Photo from Wikipedia)

I came across Alan Watts while browsing the religion bookshelves at the Strand about a month ago. I was looking for books on Sikhism, and Watts's "The Book: On the taboo against knowing who you are" caught my eye, and then my mind. So many things he wrote resonate.

We do not need a new religion or a new bible. We need a new experience--a new feeling of what it is to be "I" (12).


...the physical world is basically vibration. Whether we think of this vibration in terms of waves or of particles, or perhaps wavicles, we never find the crest of the wave without a trough or a particle without an interval, or space, between itself and others. In other words, there is no such thing as a half wave, or a particle all by itself without any space around it. There is no on without off, no up without down (26).


(Of the problem of cause and effect) Again, this is a problem which comes from asking the wrong question. Here is someone who has never seen a cat. He is looking through a narrow slit in a fence, and, on the other side, a cat walks by. He sees first the head, then the less distinctly shaped furry trunk, and then the tail. Extraordinary! The cat turns round and walks back, and again he sees the head, and a little later the tail. This sequence begins to look like something regular and reliable. Yet again, the cat turns round, and he witnesses the same regular sequence: first the head, and later the tail. Thereupon he reasons that the event head is the invariably and necessary cause of the event tail, which is the head's effect. This absurd and confusing gobbledygook comes from his failure to see that head and tail go together; they are all one cat....

...The narrow slit in the fence is much like the way in which we look at life by conscious attention, for when we attend to something we ignore everything else. Attention is narrowed perception. It is a way of looking at life bit by bit, using memory to string the bits together--as when examining a dark room with a flashlight having a very narrow beam. Perception thus narrowed has the advantage of being sharp and bright, but it has to focus on one area of the world after another, and one feature after another....

...The truth is that in looking at the world bit by bit we convince ourselves that it consists of separate things, and so give ourselves the problem of how these things are connected and how they cause and effect each other. The problem would never have arisen if we had been aware that it was just our way of looking at the world which had chopped it up into separate bits, things, events, causes, and effects. We do not see that the world is all of a piece like the head-tailed cat.


At one extreme, then, we have the sacred individual--the unique personal ego, separate from both nature and God--defined as such by a society which, almost in the same break, commands him to be free and commands him to conform. At the other extreme is the coolie, the cog in the industrial-collectivist machine, or the mere "hand"....If one believes that the personal ego is a natural endowment of all men, as distinct from a social comvention, then the lot of the coolie is beak indeed--for one sees him as a repressed and frustrated person, though his own society may never have defined him as such.

However, there is a third possibility. The individual may be understood neither as an isolated person nor as an expendable, humanoid working-machine. He may be seen, instead, as one particular focal point at which the whole universe expresses itself--as an incarnation of the Self, of the Godhead, or whatever one may choose to call IT. This view retains and, indeed, amplifies our apprehension that the inidividual is in some way sacred. At the same time it dissolves the paradox of the personal ego, which is to have attained the "precious state" of being a unique person at the price of perpetual anxiety for one's survival. The hallucination of separateness presents one from seeing that to cherish the ego is to cherish misery. We do no realize that our so-called love and concern for the individual is simply the other face of our own fear of feath or rejection....

Let it be clear, furthermore, that the ego-fiction is in no way essential to the individual, to the total human organism, in fulfilling and expressing his individuality. For every individual is a unique manifestation of the Whole. as every branch is a particular outreaching of the tree. To manifest individuality, every branch must have a sensitive connection with the tree, just as our independently moving and differentiated fingers must have a sensitive connection with the whole body. The point, which can ahdly be repeated too often, is that differentiation is not separation. The head and the feet are different, but not separate, and though man is not connected to the universe by exactly the same physical relation as branch to tree or feet to head, he is nonetheless connected--and by physical relations of fascinating complexity. The death of an individual is not disconnection but simply withdrawal. The corpse is like a footprint or an echo--the dissolving trace of something which the Self has ceased to do.


The idea of the universe as vibration, and the image of the tree branch both remind me of the great ending of Yeats's "Among School Children":

O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

"POETRY" November 2007

My favorite poem of this issue is Fleda Brown's contribution, three sections from her poem "The Next Clause": FOR, OR, and NOR. OR is swirling thought set to stunning music:

The first four bars of Beethoven's sixth, the Pastorale,
repeat and repeat, always with variation: or, and or,
something to violate expectations, not fully antiphonal,
only an oar dipped into the measure to make an interior

swirl, pulling the craft slightly to the side, yet ahead,
still: little cupped trails alongside to mark where
the mind turned, questions were asked, and shed,
before moving on, nothing that can't be repaired.

I am eager to read the fully complete sequence.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

The Book of the Body: Ribs


It goes back, much further back than the fruit
Eve supposedly urged her husband to eat,
back to the rib
removed from his heart, man’s hatred of woman.

The opening of the flesh
in his side, the detachment of the bone from its tree,
and the closing up of the flesh
is a parody of the birth pang,

and when he calls her bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh,
what does he greet
his need to eat?

Forthcoming Anthology of Poetry from Singapore and Australia

Alvin Pang and John Kinsella are co-editing an anthology of poetry from both countries. It is a pairing of an earlier upstart with a later upstart, both so vitally connected to Great Britain. The anthology also makes a south-east asian kind of sense, since English is the lingua franca in both countries, crucial to the formation of national and regional identity in a way different from Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, or even the Philippines. A third way of reading this anthology is to look at it as island literature, and look for links to the chain of other island literatures, from Hawaii, the Caribbean, Sri Lanka, Japan etc.

Of more immediate interest to me, however, is how Singaporean poetry stacks up against the older and more established Australian bookpile. While Kinsella will presumably be selecting from a canon, Pang will be building one. Yes, there have been earlier anthologies of Singaporean poetry in English, but none put together under the pressure of measuring up to the world, and so this anthology will own a special authority. I have a selfish stake in this authority and this measurement, since I have five poems in the anthology: "Blowjob," "Mermen," "Brother," and two sonnets from Payday Loans.

In Singapore, the anthology will be launched at the annual Singapore Writers Festival (Dec 1 -9, 2007). Billed as one of the few truly multilingual literary festivals in the world, it will feature not only English writers, but also Malay, Chinese and Tamil.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Richard Prince at the Guggenheim

My brother-in-law wanted to see the Guggenheim when he visited a few weeks ago. My parents, my sister, and my toddler niece in tow, we entered this Frank Lloyd Wright shrine, took the elevator to the top of the rotunda, and walked down the spiraling ramp, viewing Richard Prince retrospectively.

Untitled (cowboy), 1999

Known for his appropriations of popular culture, Prince created works in series: the Nurse paintings, the Marlboro Man and the Biker Chicks rephotographs, the Muscle Car sculptures, the Joke paintings, the "gang" rephotographs. In a series, one can investigate or interrogate the subject, the treatment, the format and the medium, bringing to light unexpected parallels, contrasts and shadings. And once that investigation is over, one moves on to the next, often startlingly different in subject, treatment, format or medium. What holds the different series together is the artist's sensibility. In the case of Prince, it is his simultaneous fascination with and critique of American pop culture.

It is also his nervous attention to gender roles and stereotypes, for his subjects are not as random as they seem at first. The Marlboro Man and the Muscle Car are the masculine stereotypes of a certain class. Prince approaches them skeptically, but that skepticism is shot through with desire, even nostalgia. "American Prayer," a 1969 Charger chassis stripped, and mounted on and merged with a block, aims for transcendence.

(Picture from The New York Times)

The Nurses, taken from the covers of pulp fiction, are an idealized, even fetishized, image of femininity. But it was the artist's hand that painted out their context (other human figures and a romantic or titillating setting), thus presenting the Nurses for the viewer's examination.

Sonic Nurse

One running joke, in the abstract Jokes paintings, is about a cuckold finding out his cuckoldry. Another joke, repeated in a much later collage series, is about prostitution, how brothels run the best business since they sell and yet keep their goods.

No mention of this gender anxiety in the exhibition notes. The show casts Prince as a humanistic postmodernist, whose radical questioning of authenticity, originality and commercialism serves a progressive agenda. After seeing the show, my feel is that Prince is a much more complex, and thus a much more interesting, artist, than that.