Showing posts from January, 2008


Today I visited Kaikodo, or "The Hall of Embracing Antiquity," which deals in Chinese and Japanese paintings, bronzes and ceramics. Its current exhibition is "Let it Snow." Among the ten paintings I saw, I really liked Li Ta's "Country Villa in Snow," painted with his fingernails.

Li Ta (early 18th century)
Country Villa in Snow
Hanging scroll, ink and color on paper
65 3/8 x 36 1/4 in. (166 x 92 cm.)

The vertical cliff edge divides the painting into two, a partition ended by the horizontal roofs of the villa, as if human habitation, small and precarious though it may be in comparison to mountains, can still have the effect of softening the inhospitality of nature. Like other traditional Chinese paintings, the snow in this painting is the color of the unpainted canvas: significant white space. The fingernail scratched ink onto the cliff edge, rendering the cliff sharp in a way perhaps unachievable by brush.

Plato's "The Apology"

Read "The Apology" for a reading group last week. Unlike the Platonic dialogues, "The Apology" consists of speeches given by Socrates at his trial, though there is a short dialogue, more like a cross-examination, between Socrates and his accuser Meletus. There are three main speeches. The first is Socrate's self defence. The second, given after he was found guilty, proposes a counter-penalty to the death sentence (Socrates proposes outrageously that he be fed by the City in the Prytaneum, as is fitting for a poor man who has served his City well). The third speech was made after his death sentence by drinking hemlock had been confirmed.

I enjoyed reading the well-known phrases in their original context, here translated by R. E. Allen in his The Dialogues of Plato. Vol. 1:

About prejudices inculcated in us since childhood--"Again, there have been many such accusers, and they have now been at work for a long time; they spoke to you at a time when you were espe…

Helen Vendler's "Poets Thinking"

A friend gave me the Vendler book on Shakespeare's sonnets a while back, and I spent an absorbing weekend reading her analysis, and seeing the sonnets in a new light. She is particularly good, I think, at tracing the workings of the poetic imagination as it proposes, considers, disposes, and re-proposes. In her readings, the third quatrain becomes the site of acutest insight.

Now I am reading her on Pope, Whitman, Dickinson and Yeats in her book "Poets Thinking." Her interest, in this book, in particular, and in her literary work, in general, lies more in "developmental questions pertaining to an author's poetic oeuvre as a whole, and in single poems as examples of aesthetically directed fluidity, than . . . an all-purpose theory of lyric or a single aspect (rhetorical, imagistic) of technique. When, as a young student, I read literary critics, I longed for them to dwell on, and above all to explain, the aesthetic intent governing the unfolding of an individual p…

Bacchus' I LOVE NEW YORK Wine Tasting

The event was much cheaper than usual, and the place was crowded, mostly with women, who came in pairs and triplets. Most people dressed comfortably, and so the atmosphere was more casual than ever.

The wines for tasting are from either Finger Lakes or North Fork, Long Island. The vineyards on Long Island have the benefit of ocean breezes, the advantage apparently enjoyed by many famous European vineyards. Of the pinot gris, chardonnay and riesling on offer, I like Hunt Country Semi-dry Riesling best. It is sweet and big. The owner of Hunt Country is a six generation wine-maker. The reds include merlot, pinot noir, and cabernet franc, grapes that can do with a shorter period on the stalk.

We tried an unusual grape, Dr. Konstantine Frank's Rkatsiteli, which we really liked. The description from the winery's website:

The grapes were picked mid-October after a long cool ripening season. The grapes were crushed, pressed and the juice was cold settled. The juice fermente…

Nook and Canny

Nook, a tiny restaurant in Hell's Kitchen, has the feel of a hobby, rather than of a business. It does not make much of an effort to please or attend on you, but its food is fresh, delicious and comforting. I had egg benedict for brunch, and it was so tasty that I went back for dinner the next day. The beef tenderloin, a special, was juicy and firm. The restaurant does not serve alcohol, but you can bring your own bottle, a good way to save money and to drink your preferred poison.

Two European Films Watched A Week Apart

The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005) French
Directed by Jacques Audiard, and starring Romaine Duris as a young property shark.

Black Book (2007) Dutch
Directed by Paul Verhoeven, and starring Carice van Houten as a Holocaust survivor you have never seen before.

Black Book has the nicest Nazi officer I've ever seen in a movie. The Beat has Bach, and how can anyone not like Bach?

Art Waves WCKR NY Reading and Interview

Roxanne is a wizard. She uploaded my interview with Anne Cammons on, and all I have to do is to cut and paste the code on my blog. Thanks, Roxy! Now I can inflict my voice on the world! To play, just click on the orange title bars. You don't have to buy/pay for anything, despite the misleading format.

Click here for more information about the songs
Click here to create your own MySpace Playlist

Steven Nadler's "Spinoza: A Life"

Most annoying: my secondhand copy has pages 211-242 missing, and in their place a duplicate of pages 147-178. So I have not read Nadler's discussion of the appendix "Metaphysical Thoughts" Spinoza added to his Descartes' Principles of Philosophy, nor his discussion of Spinoza's Ethics. The latter is what I was especially eager to read in this biography, my introduction to the seventeenth century philosopher.

So little is known of Spinoza's early life that the first chapters of this book are more historical than biographical, more speculative than documentary. Nadler makes the case that Spinoza was banned or excommunicated at the age of 24 from the Portuguese Jewish community in Amsterdam for his unorthodox views on God, the Bible, and the human soul. Consistent throughout his life, and developed in his writings, his views were, very roughly, that God is Nature which is all that is, that the Bible is a compilation of human writing with the moral message of &qu…

Jane Ormerod at Cornelia Street Cafe

I've heard Jane read at various venues in NYC, but last Friday's feature at Cornelia Street Cafe was my first full-length exposure to her work. It's still impossible, two days later, to describe the impact of that reading on me. That evening many open-mic readers read good poems: striking ideas, surprising phrasing, brilliant images. But Jane's reading crushed all of us, or, at least that was how I felt.

Her poems--discontinuous, imagistic, chant-like, wide-ranging in its references, sonically dense--challenge more traditional ways of putting a poem together. She made us sound old-fashioned, more, she made us sound artificial, our tidy methodical artefacts simulacra of reality, instead of the postmodern reality caught and then broadcast like a radio signal from her poems. She does not make me want to write like her, but challenges me to write better in my own way, to prove that my style is also adequate, in some sense, to reality.

You can read her work on her website, …

Harold Pinter's "The Homecoming"

Directed by Daniel Sullivan

Max: Ian McShane
Lenny: Raul Esparza
Sam: Michael McKean
Joey: Gareth Saxe
Teddy: James Frain
Ruth: Eve Best

Watched "The Homecoming" yesterday at the Cort Theater, one of the older theaters in Broadway, built with three levels, orchestra, mezzanine and balcony. The play was contained ferocity, the walls of the old house always about to fall. Its minimalism made "August: Osage County" look like a fat old tart. Its mystery made "Rock and Roll" sound like a Presidential candidate. A sign of my terrible memory: I wrote on "The Homecoming" in an undergraduate essay, but only remembered doing so in the middle of the play when Ruth spoke about moving her stocking when she moved her leg. What is it about a stockinged leg that jogged my memory? The veil and the flesh? The sexy gesture? John Lahr has more coherent thoughts in his article on this 40th anniversary production of the play.

from John Lahr's article "Demolition Man…

Connect the Poem Version 3

Over at Pffa, we are playing "Connect the Poem." Come and play, or just listen to this spontaneous, communal playlist.

1. Paired Things, Kay Ryan
2. Crows in Winter, Anthony Hecht
3. Juniper, Graham Mort
4. Song, Brigit Peggen Kelly
5. Southern Song, Margaret Walker
6. Variations on Southern Themes, Donald Justice
7. Lines Written at Thorpe Green, Anne Bronte
8. My Mouth Hovers Across Your Breasts, Adrienne Rich
9. Dime Store Erotics, Ann Townsend
10. You Don't Know What Love Is, Kim Addonizio
11. Stop All The Clock, W. H. Auden
12. Do Not Pick Up the Telephone, Ted Hughes
13. Rondeau After a Transatlantic Phone Call, Marilyn Hacker
14. Her Toys, Robert W. Service
15. True Love, Robert Penn Warren
16. Scenes from the Playroom, R. S. Gwynn
17. Table Manners, Aimee Nezhukumatathil
18. Who Among You Knows the Essence of Garlic?, Garrett Hongo
19. Lesbos, Sylvia Plath
20. To a Daughter, Brian Chan
21. The Bistro Styx, Rita Dove
22. A Moment, Ruth Stone
23. My Papa's Waltz, Theodore Roethke
24. …

Jason Irwin's "Watering the Dead"

A postcard announcing a new book of poetry:

Jason's time at Sarah Lawrence overlapped with mine. He was the mentor for this international student from Singapore who was the only one to turn up dutifully for Jason's guided tour of the campus, and the village, as Bronxville likes to be called. I read in poetry workshops a few of the poems in his debut collection, and loved them. They are clear-eyed portraits of Dunkirk in upstate New York, a town typical of so many dying industrial towns in the north. The poems have something of Philip Levine in them, a poet Jason loves, but the cast of characters, so memorably evoked, are all Jason's own.

Here's one of his poems, from the Pavement Saw website:

Going Home

Across from the Babe Ruth Field—
where Eddie Zappie pitched three perfect games
and could’ve made it,
if not for booze and Stacy Watson—
I kick the dust in the parking lot
at the old steel mill
where both my grandfathers did time,
watch the sun through broken
windows, the bricks a…

Over There: Poems from Singapore and Australia

I arrived home today and found my five copies of the anthology. It looks like a good read. 49 poets from Australia and 25 from Singapore. It's probably not as clear-cut as the numbers suggest, as the case of Miriam Wei Wei Lo indicates. A solo bridge between the two sections, she was born in Canada, grew up in Singapore, and now lives in Margaret River, Western Australia. Boey Kim Cheng, who has settled in Australia, appears in the Singapore section. I'm surprised Singaporean Alfian Saat is not in it. Whose decision, I wonder. Missing from the Australian section are the very few poets I know: Les Murray, A. D. Hope. More new names to savor.

Let This Year

Let this year be a year better than the past,
the months twelve disciples at supper, one a traitor and accomplice of the Lord,
the weeks a triumph of life, met by love, crowned by rest,
the days awarded each day with a watermelon and a word.

Let the sky be a glass of water, and the sea a plate of fried fish.
Let the man thin with thought drink and eat,
and, if it’s her wish,
let the woman plump with worries diet.

In our travels, let the train arrive on time, and, if that’s impossible, let the train
not trip over the track.
In our work, let the ropes hold tight, and, when the tower rises again,
let the ropes go slack.

Let our love be as our travel and our work,
earning a common currency here on Earth.
Let passion be the night dreams of a small-town clerk.
Let young love be full of eyes, and let old love be full of teeth.

A year is too brief to empty prison camps, so let a few go free.
A year is long enough for a change of heart.
Let hearts recover liberty.
Let camps be broken by candlelight.

Let the soul …

Steppenwolf's Production of "August: Osage County"

This family drama lasts three hours, but I was hooked by every minute of it in the Imperial Theater. The characters are sharply delineated, the scenes well-constructed, the dialogue intelligent, the plot believable, and, finally, moving. The set showed a cross-section of a two-storeyed house. The action moved fluidly from room to room--porch, living room, dining room, stair landing, attic--taking place at one point, quite operatically, in all the rooms when the house was filled with altercations.

The patriach of the family, Beverly Weston, quotes T. S. Eliot in his first speech, and later he kills himself by drowning. His bloated body is found days later, his eyes eaten by fish. The three daughters converge on their mother in the family home in Oklahoma, and all their lives unravel in accusations and acrimony. The older generation grew up in poverty and abuse, the younger in vain attempts to live up to some older standards. All marriages are in trouble, one way or another, all plans to…

Octavio Paz "Early Poems 1935-1955"

Lola, my beautiful Spanish colleague, gave me the gift of Octavio Paz for Christmas. I had not read him before, and, reading these early poems, I was impressed by the lyrical, almost mystical, intensity of this young man who became the 1990 Nobel Laureate.

This is a perfect lyric:

Live Interval

Lightning or fishes
in the night of the sea
and birds, lightning
in the forest night.

Our bones are lightning
in the night of the flesh.
O world, all is night,
life is the lightning.

The later poems of these early collections are longer, more meditative, in which Paz "feels his metaphysics," as Muriel Rukeyser puts it in her introduction. One that combines thought and feeling to an erotic intensity is "Hymn among the ruins," which begins thus:

Self crowned the day displays its plumage.
A shout tall and yellow,
impartial and beneficent,
a hot geyser into the middle sky!
Appearances are beautiful in this their momentary truth.
The sea mounts the coast,
clings between the rocks, a dazzling spide…

Anna Scott-Brown's "Creation Song"

A dear friend of mine from Oxford has just published her children's story Creation Song. Her lyrical reworking of the Genesis story is exciting and excited in the best senses of those words. It is beautifully illustrated by Elena Gomez.

From the start:

In the beginning there was God.
And not much else.

In fact, apart from God there was

So God was all alone.

Not foreign but unfamiliar

I'm reading Gary Shteyngart's first novel The Russian Debutante's Handbook, and re-reading Jhumpa Lahiri's fiction debut, the short story collection Interpreter of Maladies. Lahiri's characters are Indian, while Shteynagart's anti-hero is a Russian Jew, but all feel "foreign," to various degrees, in these United States. The novel and the short stories deal with the feelings of living in a no man's land, between the old country and the new, unable to return home, and unable to feel at home. The styles are a study in contrast. Lahiri's restrained and transparent prose probes and empathizes. Shteyngart is funny, exuberant, and bewildered.

Despite the sharply different instruments, in order to render the "foreign," both reify the "native." So, in "A Temporary Matter," the first story of Lahiri's collection, the marital breakdown between Shoba and Shukumar is contrasted with the marital partnership of their neighbor…

Blanden Art Museum exhibiting Kate Javens

Working Horse, Hauling, 1995. Kate Javens.
Oil on theater muslin. 100 x 110 inches.
Palmer Museum of Art. Gift of Joseph D. and Janet M. Shein

The Blanden Art Museum, in Fort Dodge, Iowa, is exhibiting Kate's work. The exhibition, titled "American Beasts," closes on February 16. I have seen some of her animal paintings in her studio space in New York City, and have been deeply impressed by their artful integrity.

Studio view of Moths, oil on theater muslin, 2005

You can see more of her work in Marcia Wood Gallery, in Atlanta, Georgia.

From Richard Sorabji's "Self"

Plutarch On Tranquility 473B-474B:

But just as the man pictured in Hades plaiting a rope allows a grazing donkey to consume what he is plaiting, so forgetfulness, unaware of most things and ungrateful, snatches and overruns things, obliterating every action and right act, every pleasant discussion, meeting, or enjoyment, and does not allow our life to be unified, through the past being woven together with the future.

Is Plutarch's advice on achieving tranquilitythrough using our memory sound? One problem that Plutarch recognizes is that those who wallow in bad memories will not gain tranquility. But more serious may be the case of those who have traumatic memories and may need to do something more complicated than weaving in the dark patches.

Second, it is perhaps even more important to weave in future projects. The late Russian neuropsychologist, A. R. Luria, wrote a book about a man who had lost his memory of who he was through being shot in the brain in the Second World War. His …

TLS October 26 2007

from Matthew Reynolds's review of Tate Britain's Millais exhibition:

This discomfiting fascination with the relationship between human bodies and what they are in - both clothes and setting - is one of Millais's distinctive qualities. Through all the variation in style and genre which this exhibition amply documents, he remains absorbed by the idea that a setting can become a kind of vesture, the vesture project an image, and the image tally uneasily with the human being to whom it is attached. No character has been more comprehensively sunk into a natural setting than Ophelia, and yet the effect of ths is the opposite, it seems to me, of that suggested in the exhibition's detailed and generally perceptive catalogue: "the depicted cycles of growth, maturation and display doubly absorb Ophelia into a natural process, and render her insignificant". Of course the silvery embroidery of her dress mingles with the stream and connects with the sprays of white dog ros…

This Hour of Hours Is Not Ours

This hour of hours is not ours, but theirs,
mild-mannered lovers dancing to midnight,
throbbing, nobody thrashing, to the beat
in this airtight can of caramelized airs.
Like spoons in a drawer, forks not used in pairs,
they fit their bodies, feet to shuffling feet,
they kiss the mouth to taste, and not to eat,
their clothes a napkin none the worse for wear.

No! Don’t persuade me passion is the stronger
the closer but not closed when is the deal,
Or that it burns brighter when it burns longer,
Or that unconsummated love is ideal.
When dainty lovers usher in the wrong year,
we’re served morsels, though hungry for a meal.