Showing posts from 2008

Roberto Calasso's "Ka" 2

After a long interval, I finished reading Calasso's retelling of the Indian myths. I summarized the first six chapters in this blogpost. This post will be briefer on the next nine chapters.
Chapter VII describes the sacrifice of the horse, the "king of all sacrifices," Calasso writes, for he who celebrated it became king of all kings and would obtain everything he desired. Before the horse died, it was allowed to wander any land it wished, protected by four hundred armed guards. During the wait, stories (pariplavas) of the deeds of gods and kings were endlessly recited. Narrative thus became
. . . a way of preventing the relationship with the wandering horse from being broken. The narrative wandered around like the horse. The secret thought of the narrative is the horse. The secret thought of the horse is the narrative.
When the horse returned, it was strangled, and then the king's first wife lay with the dead horse, its phallus introduced into her vulva. When morning c…

Monuments of Magnificence

TLS November 28 2008
from Alexander Murray's review of Byzantium exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts (until March 22):
This strong concept of state was expressed in the Emperor's status. Constantine's move had exposed the imperial office to theocratic traditions older and stronger than anything comparable in the West, traditions which saw a ruler as quasi-divine. These traditions were now to be reflected in the Emperor's cult and court, and included such embellishments as those singing birds made of gold, which Liudprand of Cremona saw on a visit in 949-50, and which would inspire W. B. Yeats in "Sailing to Byzantium". 
Consider the ubiquitous Byzantine image of Christos Pantocrator, "Ruler of All". Is he really human, or superhuman? The same man surely could not also have undergone torture and death, like a criminal. This tension left its mark on many artefacts, among them the early crucifixes . . . . Even then, a crucifixion image had to show ne…

Human Meat, History Books

TLS December 5 2008

from Alan Jenkins' review of Francis Bacon at Tate Britain:

Yet, as John Russell pointed out nearly thirty years ago, "perhaps the most persistent of Bacon's preoccupations is the problem of what a man is to do when he is alone in a room" . . .


Bacon would sometimes, to achieve the desired "thickness", model his single figure on a sequence of photographs from Eadweard Muybridge's The Human Body in Motion that showed two men wrestling--though at a glance, they could be having sex. . . . Then, once he had begun to show two or more people, the coupling--as in those earlier exceptions--becomes explicit.


In her catalogue essay Victoria Walsh cites Foundations of Modern Art by Amédée Ozenfant (1931) as having perhaps fertilized the insatiably curious young painter's imagination in ways that would lie dormant for years: "The search for intensity dominates the whole of modern painting. There can be no intensity without simplification,…

Leon Edel's "Henry James: The Untried Years"

Edel takes a chronological approach to his subject, beginning with sharp portraits of Henry James Sr. and Mary Walsh, before taking in the years of their son's life, from 1843 to 1870. The first installment of this five-volume work ends with the death of Minny Temple, James's beloved young cousin, and with his return to Boston after a year's travel in Europe. 
The chronological narrative is occasionally interrupted by sidebar discussions of significant events in young James's life, for instance, his nightmare based on his experience of the Louvre. These discussions highlight what Edel sees as the themes of this writer's life. The nightmare, illuminated by other incidents, illustrates the fierce sibling rivalry between William and Henry, the latter obsessed with being second born, and so with being inferior to the elder. 
Another theme is James's fear of female sexuality, a fear his biographer lays at the door of--not quite persuasively--his mother's "vam…

Afterimages of Life

TLS December 19 & 26 2008
Karl Miller reviews Dennis O'Driscoll's Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney:
God is no longer dead, at all events, as Heaney may have been moved, with his generation, to wonder in the 1960s. The poet sees ghosts, and his poetry, when it began in him, was experienced as a "redemptive grace". There is, if not an afterlife, an "afterimage of life".
[Heaney:] "The dark matter of the news headlines needed to get into Field Work, but the light I was hoping for is the kind that derives from clarity of expression, from plainer speaking . . . ".
Neil Forsyth reviews Nigel Smith's Is Milton better than Shakespeare?
The "gums of gluttonous heat" that make the Lady stick to her chair in Comus Smith describes as "frankly, spermatic", which is taken to be a sign of Milton's inability to confront sexual issues directly. But Smith soon follows this up with the interesting fact that Milton change…

"Consider it Poetry of Architecture"

I had been unimpressed by the architecture of San Francisco, seeing in the motley houses and buildings some individual charm but lacking in coherence, a bigger totality. Until my walk this morning to the imposing Pacific Heights neighborhood, to the Swedenborgian Church along Lyon, at Washington. Having read Leon Edel's account of Henry James Sr.'s conversion to that religion, I was keen to meet a building devoted to its worship, out here on the West Coast. 
I cannot describe it better than Kevin Starr, whose leaflet I picked up from the back of the chapel. According to the yellow leaflet, Starr was formerly City Librarian of San Francisco, and is today a Visiting Professor at the University of Southern California. Re-typing his words feels, to me, like running my fingers over the handmade maple chairs again. His writing is so aware and textured, knotted with precise details, slotted with vivid sketches, and glistening with just opinions.
Joseph Worcester and Kindred Souls
First …

Gwee Li Sui's article "The Road People"

Li Sui was kind enough to send his Asiaticarticle to the poets he cited in it. The long scholarly discussion analyzes the relationship between some Singaporean poems and that country's restless urban flux, represented by the constant dilemma of roads. Having just motored from Santa Cruz back to San Francisco last night, I was especially taken by the contrast Li Sui alludes to between postmodernist visions of infinite roads, and Singapore's anxiety-ridden views of limits.

Poems by Lee Tzu Pheng, Boey Kim Cheng, Paul Tan, Felix Cheong, Alvin Pang and Aaron Lee predict, lament, visualize, and compose those limits. One of my early poems, "Going Home from Church on Bus 197," included in No Other City: the Ethos Anthology of Urban Poetry (2000), is part of Gwee's discussion.

Asiatic, a journal of English Language and Literature published by the International Islamic University of Malaysia, is worth looking into for itself. It publishes not only scholarly articles on Asia…


Built around a squarish stairwell, the interior of the museum presented to the eye a series of cuboid faces, which resolved, as one climbed up the stairs, round and round, into circular shapes at the very top, a metal bridge spanning the stairwell, leading to the final galleries. Martin Puryear's craft-like sculptures were on display at the top, and having seen them in New York MoMA I enjoyed making my acquaintance with them again, especially the "Circle" series. 
Just below the top floor, a whole level was dedicated to participation art, which I am not interested in, and so did not visit. Another level for photography showcased images of microscopic specimens and telescopic sights. Walking through that space I felt I was looking at natural history, instead of art. The SFMoMA seemed to suffer from a multiple personality disorder.
On the second level were the paintings and sculptures from the permanent collection. The exhibition space was not large, and so most painters wer…

Strange suspended world

I'm flying to San Francisco today, on United Airlines Flight 15. The plane will take off from JFK at 3:00 PM EST, and land at San Francisco International at 6:37 PM PST. I will retrieve my red rucksack from the overhead compartment, shuffle behind a college student returning home for Christmas, thank the smiling flight attendant, stroll down the box corridors with their commanding signs, and, exiting that strange suspended world, walk into time and James. 
What will we find in that little fold of time, when time slows down for itself, and stands in its own feet? How will time sleep during the week?

Leon Edel's Biography of Henry James: "The Untried Years"

This first part of a four-volume biography quotes James in its epigraph:
To live over people's lives is nothing unless we live over their perceptions, live over the growth, the change, the varying intensity of the same--since it was by these things they themselves lived.
"The varying intensity of the same" is the particularly Jamesian note, I think, both in the focus on intensity, and the focusing, of the observing eye, on "the varying . . . same." 
Edel writes with much sympathetic quickness of Henry James, Sr.'s rebellion against his Presbyterian father, and his discovery of the Swedenborgian God. His portrait of Henry Jr.'s mother, Mary Walsh, is less persuasive. He sees her as the Queen of the household, the power on whom Henry Sr. depended, but I don't see why such dependence should lead to a dissolution of masculine vitality, a dissolution so marked that Henry Jr. writes it up as a Vampire theme in his stories. Dependence, and thus, security, cou…

Marlene Dumas at the MoMA

The New Yorker, December 22 & 29, 2008
Peter Schjeldahl writes on the Dumas exhibition at the MoMA:
There is a heaviness to the paintings of the South African-born, Dutch-based artist Marlene Dumas, as if they might fall off the wall and break the floor. And yet they are thinly brushed, for the most part, on ordinary canvases. There's a flypaper stickiness about them, too, though their usual surface is matte and dry. The impressions are emotional.
Her art rarely conveys feeling so much as excites it and then absorbs it, to the benefit of the work's authority. She doesn't give; she takes.
[Of "Stern" (2004), based on Gerhard Richter's "October 18, 1977" (1988), itself in turn based on photographs of the Baader-Meinhof militants] she drags the drama of a particularly haunting tragedy back to the secondhandedness of the photograph from the thirdhandedness of Richter's painting. By this and analogous uses of imagination, Dumas suggests, a life of …


Charles Musser, the Managing Editor of Soundzine, emailed me to say that three poems have been accepted for the February issue. So you can hear me read "Ribs," "New Year Resolution," and "Little Men" on that audio-journal of poetry come Feb. The journal also publishes beautiful art and photography. "Ribs" will be the first part of "The Book of the Body" to be published, appropriately, since it is about genesis. 

Better Early Than Late

from Henry James's The Ambassadors:

And when after this little Bilham, submissive and responsive, but with an eye to the consolation nearest, easily threw off some 'Better late than never!' all he got in return for it was a sharp 'Better early than late!' This note indeed the next thing overflowed for Strether into a quiet stream of demonstration that as soon as he had let himself go he felt as the real relief. It had consciously gathered to a head, but the reservoir had filled sooner than he knew, and his companion's touch was to make the waters spread. There were some things that had to come in time if they were to come at all. if they didn't come in time they were lost for ever. It was the general sense of them that had overwhelmed him with its long slow rush.
'It's not too late for you, on any side, and you don't strike me as in danger of missing the train; besides which people can be in general pretty well trusted, of course--with the clock o…

Alex Ross on Leonard Bernstein

The New Yorker, December 15, 2008
Of Bernstein conducting Mahler's Second Symphony, the "Resurrection," Ross writes:
At the climax of the first movement, the brass unleash militant chords that turn fearsomely dissonant, while a scale grinds downward in the remainder of the orchestra. The sequence ends with a violently plunging octave figure. I remember Bernstein flinging down his arms to produce it. On the recording, you can hear the echo sail down the nave of the cathedral, like a hammer thrown with enormous force.
The moment exemplifies Bernstein's ability to render almost any abstract sequence of notes or chords as a physical act, a sweatily human gesture. . . . 
The American gesture. American Expressionism. Abstraction as a physical act, a "sweatily human gesture."

Of Bernstein's democratic taste and global syntax:

In childhood, Bernstein was an omnivorous consumer of music, blissfully unaware of the distinctions between high and low, elite and pop. He h…

Henry James's "The Golden Bowl"

In The Golden Bowl, James finds the perfect metaphor for his material and his method. The comforts of life, enjoyed by rich Americans Adam Verver and his daughter Maggie, are rounded and finished off by their collection of art. To this connoisseurship of life and art, they add the Italian Prince, immensely cultured, immensely poor, whose marriage to Maggie initiates the plot. The marriage also initiates a crack in the blessed cup since the Prince was intimately involved with Maggie's friend Charlotte Stant before the marriage, but chooses to hide that intimacy from his bride. Maggie's marriage disturbs the loving equilibrium between father and daughter who advises him to re-marry, so that he will not be alone. The circle closes when Adam Verver, to please his daughter, marries Charlotte, and the impoverished girl accepts the older man for the sake of her passion for the Prince. This outline is but a mould, whereas the novel itself is the golden bowl. 
The work is divided into t…

Poem: Translations Of An Unknown Mexican Poet (7)

Translations Of An Unknown Mexican Poet


The storm blew out the trees, and night became the night
all of the dark crossed the dark. The mountain heaved
to stony feet and climbed the straining rope of a track,
hand over hand over hand over hand over hand over hand

the ground the mind slept on and dreamed of thinking,
the water the river fed to generous and gated pipes,
the fire the home subdued from lightning and burned,
the air the body breathed without breathing. All’s over.

The mountain climbed, and we hanged off its back,
a rope curling from waist to waist to waist to waist
to an empty noose that hanged straight by its weight.

The storm blew out the trees, and night became the night
all of the dark crossed the dark, on Christmas night.

Poem: Translations Of An Unknown Mexican Poet (6)

Translations Of An Unknown Mexican Poet


Even the light crumples in this city, let alone
the restaurant menu thrust from street corners,
the river trying forever to straighten its creases,
the raveled sleeve of care, the knifing of a king.

In some back kitchen the witches are crumbling
a bag of ears into the soup. In some back alley
the washing machines are muttering at three a.m..
The river tries forever to straighten its creases.

The deed is done. But does it smooth the wrinkles
or shrivel the dark to a thudding heart, to a skip?
Or does the dead, the deed, slip in between the turn
and the twin? How can we bear this trying river,

this crumpling light in the city, this let alone,
if all our heeding doesn’t end with a beheading?

Poem: Translations Of An Unknown Mexican Poet (5)

Translations Of An Unknown Mexican Poet


This house has not grown too tight for Juan yet,
or too last season for a new sense of the world,
but the discontented walls provide no pockets
for half-chewed gum, a shiny quarter, hands.

And the boy is searching for pockets everywhere.
Not the room shared with his sister, not the bed
which sheds its blue cotton skin without warning,
Not even the body turning out its pockets quietly.

My son, there is a silver lining in the mind,
a seam we follow like a suture, then a scar,
and then an igneous ridge on which genius runs,
scrambling and scraping some, to the very head

and see the chewed-up jungle and the shiny cities
kept safe and secret in the pocket of the palm.

Poem: Translations Of An Unknown Mexican Poet (4)

Translations Of An Unknown Mexican Poet


No one is reporting the mysterious package
left in the middle of the packed train platform
but everyone round the package must have seen
the red gift paper tied up with a thread of string.

No one must get hurt, least of all my Rocio,
breathing like a newborn in her big new bed,
white breast unbuttoned by her pink pajamas
and cupped by the night air’s big warm hands.

I hear the rush of trains in my head, the screech
of brakes that power the new engines, the crowd
driving from every direction towards the door—
compulsive ecstasy—before getting on and off.

Someone has to see the mysterious package.
Someone has to say something to the cops.

Poem: Translations Of An Unknown Mexican Poet (3)

Translations Of An Unknown Mexican Poet


After the dark has leaned in the corner for hours,
the corner of the kitchen where I sat to write,
the notebook opened like a souvenir matchbook
down to its last match, the ashtray on my right;

after the dark has looked for hours from the corner
of her eye, has looked pale, lovely, almost white
under her translucent sheath, her mouth a startling
ruby, her ring catching the history of moonlight;

after the dark has listened for corners in the hours,
has listened for the figure in the formless night,
the ranchera in the blood repeating its black plea
for an inhabitable country out of human sight;

I strike my last match and the dark comes to me.
The flame looks and looks, and then it fails to see.

Poem: Translations Of An Unknown Mexican Poet (2)

Translations Of An Unknown Mexican Poet


I’m married to the Mother of unbecoming sorrows.
I approach her like one would approach a shrine
smashed by boys throwing stones for ball practice.
What has a husband to do with sacred fragments?

I’m married to the Mother of unbecoming sorrows.
The children eat from cartons while the bone china
rattles from the cool dark of the heirloom dresser.
Tomorrow I will trash the plates. Or I won’t.

She was a girl, once, green as a stalk of grass
I held between my teeth. She was the dew, once,
translucent sun on the tip of the stalk of grass
I bit into. She was the sap, once, in the grass,

now she’s the Mother of unbecoming sorrows
I’m married to, I’m married to, I’m married to.

The Genius of the Brandenburgs

Thomas Forrest Kelly, a professor of Music at Harvard, spoke on Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, in particular, No. 3, this afternoon. The talk, held in the Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse, was part of the Insights Series organized by the New York Philharmonic, and featured musicians from that orchestra as well as The Julliard School. As requested by Lorin Maazel, who is conducting his final season, the NYP is playing all six of the Concertos. 
Kelly showed some great slides of the manuscript which Bach presented to the Musgrave of Brandenburg. His talk was insightful (for someone like me, at least) and refreshingly irreverent, especially towards Bach's influences, Corelli and Vivaldi. He explained the ritornella, and how its parts were mixed and recombined with increasing sophistication as the concerto developed. In Corelli, the orchestra played the tune while the soloist played the fancy stuff. Vivaldi, in developing the concerto, gave the soloist, as well as the orchestra, a tune. 

Poem: Translations Of An Unknown Mexican Poet (1)

Translations Of An Unknown Mexican Poet


I’m going to kill myself unless the day lets me in.
Every face is a closed door. Every tree is a curtain.
The street pigeon, a cheap doorbell, doesn’t ring.
The bright air gives way, but doesn’t give in or out.

My so-called friends scold, from my dark pint,
Get a grip, amigo! My hands are holding on
to Lola and little Maria, lovely Rocio and Juan,
but they’re so light one moment, so heavy the next,

cursed suitcases, wrong clothes, discontented bodies,
dislocated souls. I’m going to the Brooklyn Bridge,
to the middle of the bridge, to throw myself over it
to find another door since the day won’t let me in,

unless some tree decides to part its curtain an inch,
unless some bird, perhaps a seagull, begins to sing.

My favorite NYC restaurants

I am always at a loss when asked to suggest a nice restaurant in NYC, though I have been to some pretty good ones. With the dumbfoundedness in mind, I am keeping on this blog a list of tried and tested restaurants I like.
-Sripraphai Thai Restaurant: $$, great food, good service, good atmosphere, Queens
-Pudding Noodle, Italian: $$, great food, good service, crowded, Brooklyn Heights
-Nook, eclectic and international: $$, good food, poor service, cosy atmosphere, BYOB, Hell's Kitchen
-Eatery. New American: $$, good/okay food, okay service, people-watching atmosphere, Hell's Kitchen
-Cornelia Street Cafe, New American: $$, good food, good service, lovely atmosphere, Village
-7A Cafe, diner: $$, good food, good service, okay atmosphere, East Village
-Buddakan, Chinese: $$$, okay food, overly attentive service, chic atmosphere, Chelsea
-Overseas Asian, Malaysian: $, best Malaysian, good service, no-frill atmosphere, Chinatown
-New Malaysia: $, great food, good service, good atmosphere, Ch…

Lugar de Mala Muerte

Spanish Composition 2:

Él dice hay una agencia gubernamental en cada ciudad que atiende gente quienes mueren sin dejar un testamento. Trabaja para tal agencia pero prefiere pensar que trabaja para esta gente. No, no un trabajador, más como un familiar que los muertos no tienen.

Cuándo la llamada teléfonica llega, como se sabe que debe llegar, él conduce a la casa, cerca del lugar de mala muerte, y entra al apartamento con la llave del muerto. Siempre da la vuelta la casa, casi esperando ver al muerto cortando las zanahorias en la cocina o doblando los calzoncillos en el dormitorio, antes de hacer una lista de articulos de valor. Dos floreros chinos. Un escritorio de roble. Ciento setenta y cuatros libros. Un juego de cubiertos de plata.

Durante este trabajo cariñoso, se imagina qué va a pasar cuándo muera. ¿Quiénes van a asistir a su funeral? ¿Quién va a decidir qué hacer con su cadáver? ¿Quién va a entrar a su casa y hacer una lista de articulos de valor?

Me mira por un pocos segundos, y…

Gus Van Sant's "Milk"

Milk is Harvey Milk, California's first openly gay elected official who was assassinated in 1978 by fellow San Francisco supervisor, Dan White. A well-made biopic, the film does not try to go beyond the conventions of the genre. At 128 minutes, it also feels on the long side. 
Part of the problem is that the Harvey Milk character is not fully fleshed out, and so he appears in the film something of a saint. There are allusions to shadows--he has not come out to his own parents, he likes to help vulnerable young men--but they remain oblique to the main action. The struggle between social activism and personal losses--one lover leaves him, another lover hangs himself--is depicted, but in dramatically predictable manner. 
The real conflict in the film takes place between the Castro Street activists and the bigoted Christian campaigners, Anita Bryant and State Senator John Briggs (Denis O'Hare), over Prop 6 that sought to fire gay teachers and their supporters. But since the homophob…

William Eggleston at the Whitney

I have not seen all that many photographic exhibitions (Diane Arbus, Robert Mapplethorpe, Stephen Shore, Walker Evans, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, James Bidgood spring to mind) but William Eggleston: Democratic Camera, Photographs and Video, 1961-2008 struck me as the best I have ever seen. It was consistently eye-pleasing, thought-provoking, and heart-warming; it was also very funny in places. Refusing to rank or exclude objects from his democratic field of vision, Eggleston trains his camera everywhere, making what the exhibition justifiably calls "indelible images" out of common things. 
I remember a green-tiled bathroom, with a green bathtub. Though a little moldy between the tiles in the corner, the bathroom glows of cleaning. A light coming into the bathroom creates a chapel-like arch above the green tiles, and the bathtub becomes a baptismal pool.
A man in his fifties sits on a bed covered in a rubber sheet. He is balding, and he stares vacantly into the air of …

Poem Nominated for Pushcart Prize

Sunny Woan, the editor of Kartika Review, has just told me that not only will the review be publishing my poem "Childhood Punishments" in Issue  #4, but it will also be nominating the poem for the Pushcart. What a brilliant surprise for this Thanksgiving! I am celebrating by eating my Shin Bowl Noodle Soup. Yum.

Rephotographs and Counterlife

The New Yorker, October 15, 2007

Yes, yes, it's a really old number. Reading Peter Schjeldahl's review of Richard Prince at the Guggenheim reminds me of my own reaction to the retrospective of this American appropriations artist. Of Prince's rephotograph of a Garry Gross photograph, of a naked Brooke Shields, aged ten, her prepubescent body oiled and face given womanly make-up, Schjeldahl writes:

The Guggenheim's chief curator, Nancy Spector--who, working closely with the artist, has installed the show with excellent rhythm and clarity--hastens, in an essay in the catalogue, to defend the work as social criticism, "a portrait of desperation" exposing the American pursuit of fame at any cost. But she thereby fails to credit (if that's the word) Prince's omnivorous connoisseurship of kink, as in paintings (which have been selling for millions at aunctions) from covers of semi-smutty romance novels featuring nurses. He doesn't diagnose decadence. He sw…

Soy de Singapur

I started learning Spanish last month, weekly lessons with a tutor who comes to my place. Why Spanish? I don't know, really. Small causes turned the floating needle. Getting to know a Spanish colleague. Reading Octavio Paz and Marquez. Wanting to read Neruda and Lorca. Moving among so many Spanish speakers in NYC. Thinking of visiting Central and South America for the first time. Intrigued by Moorish culture in southern Spain.

After putting it off for a couple of weeks (I am not a very good student), I finally wrote, with the help of, my first Spanish composition for my tutor. I found the experience liberating in some ways. Freed from the rage for perfect order, I enjoyed the simple act of putting down one word after another. I was happy to learn that the word for "lovers" is "enamorados," and to remember that "fiesta" means "party."

Soy de Singapur, un pais en Asia del sudoeste. Hay seis milliones de gente en este pais, la m…

Henry James's "The Ambassadors"

I finish reading this novel feeling exalted and cowed by what a man may accomplish in a work of fiction. Human relationships, so various, so changing, so beautiful, are so variously, changeably and beautifully conceived here that they constitute a cause for moral uplift and terror. Flying from an apparent bedrock of ethical certainties, fine discriminations flutter in the air, and cannot find a sure place to land. All (a word that punctuates the novel like an orgasmic cry) is guesswork: who is the "wicked" Frenchwoman holding Chad Newsome back from returning to Woollet, Massachusetts, to take up his responsibility as heir to a great manufacturing concern? how is Lambert Strether, himself a fiance and supplicant to Chad's formidable mother, to convince the prodigal son of his duty? what, really, is one's duty to life?
The third person narrative, told entirely through the perspective of Strether, dramatizes the changes in his consciousness wrought by the atmosphere of t…

Jesus in a scalding bath

I had never heard of Faithful Teate (the father of Nahum Tate), and so was interested in Elizabeth Scott-Baumann's review of his "epic lyric" Ter Tria, edited by Angelina Lynch. Scott-Baumann (following Lynch?), defines the epic lyric as "a contradictory category that conveys the sense of a public poem, but one with some of the introspective intensity of more personal lyrics by greater seventeenth-century devotional poets." 
While devotional poetry of the period often used monarchical images to describe Eden as a court and God as king, Teate, a Puritan, portrayed Eden as a "treasurie", a "Minting-house" and a naval stronghold. Images of reading and writing pervade the poem: Christ is a "new Edition" of Adam and the Old Testament is "the coppy". Jesus, in his first-person narrative at the Last Supper, employs intensely visceral language in the mode of the Jesuit poet Robert Southwell. He demands of his disciples, "Can …

Elizabeth Peyton at the New Museum

With Kevin, I visited the New Museum for the first time today. The building, made up of staggered white boxes, looked self-consciously contemporary in the row of old apartment buildings along Bowery. The space inside was bare. An uncovered concrete floor. Lots of glass and whitewashed walls. What was perhaps intended to be casual chic felt to me non-committal. The space was inarticulate.
"Live Forever: Elizabeth Peyton," the exhibition of a fifteen-year career, took up two floors. Peyton drew portraits, ranging from historical figures (Ludwig II of Bavaria, Napoleon), to cultural icons (Kurt Cobain, Sid Vicious, Lady Diana Spencer), to artistic contemporaries and friends. Most of the portraits were small oils on board, a number were drawings, a few were done in color pencil. Despite the range of subjects, the portraits resembled each other uncannily: androgynous, youthful, cropped hair, luscious mouth, and defined jaw. The attraction here was noble youth and its vulnerability…

"Love is the desire to prostitute oneself"

Leo Bersani's Baudelaire and Freud (1977) operates on the fundamental Freudian assumption that "no text is fully present to itself." Attention to its "lack" will propel the reader from the text into "a fascination with other texts having the same potential for both fixing and scattering our attention," in this study, Freud's texts. Bersani is careful not to view Freud's texts as a master-key to unlock the meaning of Baudelaire's poetry; instead, Freud's texts "bring a certain coherence to the given literary text and accelerate its disruptive interpretive mobility," a statement which I take to mean, Freud will give a meaning (not the meaning) of Baudelaire, and will clarify the subversive nature of his poetry.
I am wary of psychoanalytical (or Marxist or feminist or queer) readings of literature because all too often they reduce literary works to codes to be cracked by the theorist, and the decoded meanings sound distressingly…

"That deep, true, inner form"

Singapore Jade sent me this wonderful Hugo von Hofmannsthal letter purportedly written by Lord Chandos, the younger son of the Earl of Bath, to Francis Bacon, explaining his abandonment of literary activity. "What is man that he is full of plans?" he asks, and then proceeds to describe in ecstatic detail the literary projects he envisioned in his youth: a history of Henry VIII, a key to ancient fable, a compendium of maixims. In those days, he "divined that all was an allegory, that each creature was a key to all the others; and I felt myself the one capable of seizing each by the handle and unlocking as many of the others that were ready to yield."

Poem: Seven Studies for a Self-Portrait (Study #7)

Study #7
after Yasumasa Morimura

After strapping the tits to my narrow chest
and pulling the famous hair over my scalp,

I talk to Marilyn about loving Art, playing
dumb blonde, being typecast as one thing.

She answers, with a toss of her head,
her nipples erect as the stalk of a fruit,

Grab me. I demur. Out of politeness
or fear or disbelief. She takes my hands

by the wrists, presses them between her
thighs. Now we can talk about anything.


The Pearl Theater Company's "The Oedipus Cycle"

Last night I watched all three Theban plays by Sophocles, one after another: Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone. The performance lasted about three hours, with a ten-minute intermission between each play. The experience of watching three tragedies in a row approximated that of Sophocles's audience, who would watch a tragedian's trilogy (and a satyr play) in one day of the Dionysian festival, and then come back for another playwright's tetralogy the next day.

Sophocles did not write his three plays for the same festival. Antigone is the earliest of the three, followed by Oedipus Rex, and then Oedipus at Colonus. Written earliest, Antigone is the weakest of the three, and so last night ended somewhat anti-climactically. The translation (a world premiere) for the performance is by Peter Constantine. It is direct and modern, without lapsing into untoward colloquialism, though I missed the poetry of the Fitzgerald translation.

Eight actors took on all the parts. The a…

Poem: Seven Studies for a Self-Portrait (Study #6)

Study #6
after Andy Warhol

Why be a man when you can be a brand?
Be copies the machine clicks to the market
to compete against other copies for a niche.
Not Nietzsche, but Benjamin. My fancy
education. My immigrant genes. My coming
out or not coming out, and other agony stories.
What are they but printings on silkscreens,
recognizable by the cock or white shock of hair?
I’m waiting, like a dupe, in a photo booth,
thinking if I should pay for duplicates.


Poem: Seven Studies for a Self-Portrait (Study #5)

Study #5
after Frida Kahlo

I dream I am a wreck of a woman.

I am not grand like a ruins, I am not a broken column.

I am the traffic accident on morning radio.

A bus handrail is sticking in my uterus like a huge thumbtack.

My collarbone hangs round my throat like a necklace.

I dream a monkey is picking up bits of my spine with his pale hands.

The monkey is carefully arranging me back together.

I hear the Professor say the monkey is the traditional symbol for lust.

My monkey is very gentle.

When he is finished, I will take him to my breast, and offer him my nipple.


Henry James's "The Wings of the Dove"

John Bayley, in his introduction to my Penguin Classics edition, describes the novel acutely as "the most sensational combination of a stage drama, indeed a melodrama, with a lengthy and elaborate novel, unfolded with the greatest delicacy and sophistication." He quotes James from his Notebooks, "The divine principle is a key that, working in the same general way, fits the complicated chambers of both the narrative and the dramatic lock."

The plot is simple: Kate Croy, poor and dependent on her aunt, Mrs Lowder, manipulates her lover Merton Densher to marry the American heiress Milly Theale, fabulously rich, young, and dying. The drama lies in the twists and turns of the conspiracy and its unexpected outcome. More significantly, the novel dramatizes Merton's gradual understanding of Kate's plan, and the effect of that understanding on their love. Bayley aptly compares them to Macbeth and his wife, united in their conspiracy to kill the king, only to be undo…

Poem: Seven Studies for a Self-Portrait (Study #4)

Study #4
after Egon Schiele

Look at me, cock in my claws,
comb-crimson from scratching.
Skinny arm kinks round my
back, but can’t kill the itch.
The hand can’t scratch its bone.
I snapped off the black arrows
but their featherless beaks peck
at the sacs. Their broken feet
scratch in the scattered flesh.
I stretch the canvas on the rack.


Poem: Seven Studies for a Self-Portrait (Study #3)

Study #3
after Vincent van Gogh

God sank a mineshaft into me for a reason
I could not see in the coal-mining district.
Coal dust ate the potatoes and beer.
When a man slammed into a woman, the dust
rose in their heads and formed a cloud.
I carried away what was mine, and burned
black into blue, red into rose, yellow to gold.
I burn the stars and each becomes a galaxy.
I burn the fuse of flesh and my face bursts
into a wheel of fireworks, a vase of sunflowers.


Poem: Seven Studies for a Self-Portrait (Study #2)

Study #2
after Rembrandt van Rijn

The guarantee is your willingness to pull faces
at yourself, and to let the weather do likewise.
No plastic surgery. No wrinkle cream. No hair dye.
Laugh lines, you call the creases in the parchment.
The titles at the top, you call, of course, headlines.
This face is, you say, with a mental flourish, me.
Well, in that case, who am I? Who is this writing
about you, making you up as I paint and repaint,
giving you the best lines, begging a few laughs?
Who is this dour worrier, but your dear guarantor?


Poem: Seven Studies for a Self-Portrait (Study #1)

Study #1
after Albrecht Dürer

Double eye. Double bind. Double blind.
The dark paints the dark in the dark.
I am the Christ. I am not the Christ.
I am not making any claims, so I claim.
Look at my eyes. They are mine, so dark
they are black. They endure, they endure.
When the doormaker throws the light in
my face and shows my eyes are brown,
you shan’t take my word for it any more.
My word can stand down, leave by the door.



Poetry-Free-For-All is getting people to write seven poems in seven days, starting on the seventh of the month, i.e. this Friday. It is a week-version of National Poetry Writing Month (NaPoWrMo), in which you write a poem a day for 30 days. Seven seems like a good distance to me, to write at full stretch, and it gives three weeks for rest and recovery before the next race. Seven is such a potent figure too, inspiring all kinds of magic and myth. 
I plan to write "Seven Studies for a Self-Portrait." Each study will be written after a well-known self-portraitist. That "after" is very open. My seven masters will be Albrecht Durer, Rembrandt van Rijn, Vincent van Gogh, Egon Schiele, Frida Kahlo, Andy Warhol, and Yasumasa Morimura. Rembrandt and van Gogh are obvious suspects; the others came to me as I googled the net. I did not know Morimura's appropriation art till this morning, and he seems to make a good endpoint since he photographs himself in the garb and postu…

Poem in "Best Gay Poetry 2008"

Just heard from Lawrence Schimel, of A Midsummer Night's Press, that my poem "Glass Orgasm" has been accepted for this year's Best Gay Poetry. The anthology will be published in December. Nice to get some good news.


The New Yorker, October 20, 2008
from Dana Goodyear's profile of Gary Snyder:
Snyder's most complex and difficult work is "Mountains and Rivers Without End," a poem cycle that absorbe him from 1956 until 1996, and whose title is taken from a category of Chinese landscape paintings. . . . The poem--which was published in 1997 and moves through terrain as varied as the Northwestern highway 99, New York City, and Kathmandu, invoking Buddhas, telling old folk stories, explaining geo-history, tracing rivers, meeting talking animals--is structured, to some extent, like a Noh play. "It follows jo-ha-kyu," Snyder said. "Jo means 'serene introduction.' Ha means 'extended and detailed narrative information.' Kyu means 'an ending which is surprisingly sudden.' . . . The Japanese say, 'Listen to the birdsong, it has a jo, a ha, and a kyu.' To them it's completely natural."
from Joan Acocella's "Second Look" at…