Showing posts from November, 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 …

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…

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 sur…

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 SiècleBetween 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…

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.

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 Joh…

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 for…

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 awa…

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?


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 "…

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…

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 …

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.

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.

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.

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 ca…

"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.

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…

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 cri…