Tuesday, January 29, 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.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

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 especially credulous--some of you children, some only a little older--and they lodged their accusations quite by default, no one appearing in defense. But the most absurd thing is that one cannot even know or tell their names . . . For it is impossible to bring any one of them forward as a witness and cross examine him. I must rather, as it were, fight with shadows in making my defence, and question where no one answers.


For to fear death, Gentlemen, is nothing but to think one is wise when one is not; for it is to think one knows what one does not know.


If you kill me, you will not easily find such another man as I, a man who--if I may put it a bit absurdly--has been fastened as it were to the City by the God as, so to speak, to a large and well-bred horse, a horse grown sluggish because of its size and in need of being roused by a kind of gadfly. Just so, I think, the God has fastened me to the City. I rouse you, I persuade you, I upbraid you. I never stop lighting on each one of you, everywhere, all day long. Such another will not easily come to you again, Gentlemen . . .


Perhaps someone may say, "Would it not be possible for you to live in exile, Socrates, if you silently kept quiet?" But this is the hardest thing of all to make some of you believe. If I say that to do so would be to disobey the God, and therefore I cannot do it, you will not believe me because you will think that I am being sly and dishonest. If on the other hand I say that the greatest good for man is to fashion arguments each day about virtue and the other things you hear me discussing when I examine myself and others, and that the unexamined life is not for man worth living, you will believe what I say still less.


It is not difficult to escape death, Gentlemen; it is more difficult to escape wickedness, for wickedness runs faster than death.


But the Sign of God did not oppose me early this morning when I left my house, or when I came up here to the courtoom, or at any point in my argument in anything I was about to say. . . . What do I take to be the reason? I will tell you. Very likely what has fallen to me is good, and those among us who think that death is an evil are wrong.

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 poem, and wanted as well to see them track the aesthetic determinants of an entire oeuvre. What I did not find, I have tried to create--a criticism guided by the poem as an exemplification of its own inner momentum rather than as an illustration of a social, philosophical, psychological, rhetorical, or theoretical thesis. Criticism, I believe, while being alert to the smallest nuances of language-use, ought to infer from the text the emotional motivation that not only compelled a poet from silence into speech but also produced the originally unforseeable contours of the evolving inner form of the work of art." And that, I think, sums up pretty well the aim of good literary criticism. She is a poets' critic.

I have just finished reading her chapter on Pope, and am beginning the one on Whitman. In Pope, Vendler saw his thinking as characteristically miniaturizing, modelling, and mocking ideas. In her hands, "The Essay on Man" is not a museum of outmoded ideas, but the electrification of the received ideas of Pope's day. It is not an essay, in the sense of a short non-fictional literary composition, but in its original sense of weighing, and testing. The testing is not of "ideas" against "ideas," but of "ideas" against the vivification of poetic form.

I find her reading of the magnificent opening to Pope's second Epistle both acute and moving.

Detached from all reference to his own biograhy, Pope is not, here, the warm friend, the social companion, the scourge of dullards, or the pious son; rather, he is looking at himself in his interior solitude. Before his eyes, in a secular Ecce Homo, he places himself: the strange genius-cripple, the frustrated yearner, the inquisitive skeptic, the self-deluding self-satirist, the baffled inquirer, the language-tethered visionary. He is bold enough to think that what he sees in himself can be generalized to the rest of us, as he describes archetypal Man:

Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A Being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the Stoic's pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast;
In doubt his Mind or Body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reasoning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much:
Chaos of Thought and Passion, all confused;
Still by himself abused, or disabused;
Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of Truth, in endless Error hurled:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

Friday, January 25, 2008

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 fermented in stainless steel and the fermentation was stopped after four weeks with a small amount of natural sugar remaining. The wine was racked, filtered, cold stabilized and adjusted for bottling.

The Rkatsiteli shows its characteristic fruity complexity resulting from early bottling. Along with the intense fruit are the typical spicy notes as well as pineapple and mango notes. The wine is presented in a dry version with the crisp acidity, the residual sugar and the tremendous fruit providing a very pleasant balance. The Rkatsiteli remains one of Dr. Frank’s greatest achievements in the Finger Lakes.

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.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

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 hypster.com, 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.

Monday, January 21, 2008

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 "Know and love God, and love your neighbor," and that the human soul will die with its body. Innocuous they may sound today, in his day, Spinoza's ideas were condemned not only by the Sephardim but also by the Dutch Reformed Church, and their political allies in the States General.

One of the book's many revelations to me is the controversy over Cartesian philosophy. Descartes' philosophical skepticism, separation of mind and matter, and mechanistic explanations of the natural world challenged religious world views. My own slight reading of postmodern theory has seen him as some kind of naive rationalist, and it's nice to see him a little better in his own historical context. While Cartesian ideas strengthened Spinoza's belief in human reason and his interest in the physical sciences, Spinoza seemed to have gone further than Descartes in naturalizing religious ideas, and opposing institutional religion.

In his discussion of Spinoza's Theological-Political Treatise, Nadler argues:

Central to Spinoza's analysis of the Jewish religion--although it is applicable to any religion whatsoever--is the distinction between divine law and ceremonial law. The law of God commands only the knowledge and love of God and the acions required or attaining that condition. Such love must arise, not from fear of possible penalties or hope for any rewards, but solely from the goodness of its object. The divine law does not demand any particular rites or ceremonies such as sacrifices or dietary restrictions or festival observances. The six hundred and thirteen precepts of the Torah have nothing to do with blessedness or virtue. They were directed only at the Hebrews so that they might govern themselves in an autonomous state. The ceremonial laws helped to preserve their kingdom and ensure its prosperity, but were valid only as long as that political entity lasted. They are not binding on all Jews under all circumstances.

Spinoza writes in his Treatise:

A catholic faith should therefore contain only those dogmas which obedience to God absolutely demands, and without which such obedience is absolutely impossible`.`.`. these must all be directed to this one end: that there is a Supreme Being who loves justice and charity, whom all must obey in order to be saved, and must worship by practicing justice and charity to their neighbor. . . .

[As for other dogmas], every person should embrace those that he, being the best judge of himself, feels will do most to strengthen in him love of justice.

This, as Nadler comments, "is the heart of Spinoza's case for toleration, for freedom of philosophizing, and for freedom of religious expression." And Spinoza makes clear in the Treatise that the political entity that best suits, or, even, guarantees, these freedoms is the secular democratic state.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

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, and listen to her reading on Myspace and Youtube. None of it quite captures the electricity of her live performance. She is not merely a terrific performer; she makes the old distinction between page and stage obsolete.

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" in "The New Yorker":

For “The Homecoming,” he began with a sentence, the play’s opening words: “What have you done with the scissors?” “I didn’t know who was saying it,” he said. “I didn’t know who he was talking to. Now, the fellow he was talking to—if he had said, ‘Oh, I’ve got them right here, Dad,’ there would have been no play. But instead he says, ‘Why don’t you shut up, you daft prat?’ Once that’s said, there’s a spring of drama, which develops and follows its own course. I had no idea what the course was going to be. I hadn’t planned anything. In the back of my mind, I think I knew there was another brother going to come back. I think I saw them quite early in a big house, with the doors being taken down, leading to a stairway. I saw them moving in that space.”


No other British playwright since Noël Coward has so dominated and defined the theatrical landscape of his time. Even Coward, who hated the New Wave that put him out of fashion, considered Pinter an exception. “Your writing absolutely fascinates me,” he wrote to Pinter in 1965 after seeing his third full-length play, “The Homecoming.” “You cheerfully break every rule of the theatre that I was brought up to believe in, except the cardinal one of never boring for a split-second. I love your choice of words, your resolute refusal to explain anything and the arrogant, but triumphant demands you make on the audience’s imagination. I can well see why some clots hate it, but I belong to the opposite camp—if you will forgive the expression.”


Pinter had taken the narration out of theatre: “The Homecoming” offered no explanations, no theory, no truths, no through line, no certainties of any kind. I was drawn to the charisma of the work in the same way that Pinter—I later learned—had been compelled by Shakespeare. “You are called upon to grapple with a perspective in which the horizon alternately collapses and re-forms behind you, in which the mind is subject to an intense diversity of atmospheric,” he wrote in “A Note on Shakespeare,” in 1950, six years before he started to do a similar thing with his own plays.

I am teaching "King Lear" now. It's good advice to look at its "intense diversity of atmospheric" instead of reducing it to a morality play.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

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. The Dance, Willam Carlos Williams
25. Why I Am Not a Painter, Frank O' Hara
26. Oranges, Mary Pryor
27. I Stop Writing the Poem, Tess Gallagher
28. Poem of Low Lattitudes, Mike Dockins
29. Lime Cure, Gustavo Perez-Firmat
30. Goblin Market, Christina Rossetti
31. Late Summer, Ko Un
32. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Samuel Taylor Coleridge
33. L'Albatros, Charles Baudelaire
34. The Archaeopteryx's Song, Edwin Morgan
35. The Pangolin, Marianne Moore
35. Smell, William Carlos Williams
36. Edward Lear, W. H. Auden
37. Piano, D. H. Lawrence
38. Home Is So Sad, Philip Larkin
39. Music I Heard With You, Conrad Aiken
40. Object lesson, Octavio Paz

Monday, January 14, 2008

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 and rust, ten years
since anyone worked here.

Downtown it’s just as quiet,
a few old men on benches and kids
on bikes racing red lights.
All the stores went in ’75,
now there’s a Wal-Mart out by the Thruway.

On Center Street it’s the same fat girl
behind the counter at the convenient store,
the same empty box cars
on the Third Street overpass and at Sara’s Tavern,
the same faces drink the once local draft,
day after day, like the old women
who chant novenas and lust
after the priests at St. Mary’s.

I can hardly imagine what Dunkirk was like
when my mother was young, let alone
in 1851, when the first train arrived with President Fillmore
and Daniel Webster onboard.

There are people here who talk of leaving,
but only go as far as Bruce’s Corner Store,
or the Greek diner at the dock.
Maybe it’s the view of the hills to the south,
or the three smoke stacks
of the electric plant at sunset, that keep us here,
or maybe it’s the sound of my own voice,
reciting the streets named for birds and fish
as if they were the names of saints.

“And now that I’ve left I dream only of returning” says Jason Irwin in Watering the Dead. In this debut--part love song, part elegy to the dying factory towns of America--nothing is lost, nothing forgotten. These poems swivel on bar stools and race trains on back roads. Boy leave small towns for war or prison and fathers talk about “someday” like it’s a day on the calendar. These are poems of honor and witness; they pray and rage. Irwin gives us no easy vision of escape, instead in this powerful first collection he gives us poems of rough beauty.

--Victoria Redel

The poems in Jason Irwin’s debut collection, Watering The Dead, are filled with human experience and emotional complexity. Every line is spare, devoid of ornate, yet posses lucid images that are opulent in their ability to convey truth through the lives of ordinary people. Listen carefully and you will hear a heart beat in every line. you will also discover integrity—a quiet integrity that pervades these poems—a gift the poet shares with you, the reader, again and again.

--Kevin Pilkington

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.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

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 learn it is nothing without the body,
and the body learn it is not alone
among the rousing rose, oratorical orchid and lilting lily
the world grows in its spiral garden.

Let this year not be a decade better, for that hope would not be serious,
not a day better, for that would not be a blast,
and not a year worse, for that would be to go in reverse,
but let this year be a year better than the past.

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 marry a matter of complication and compromise.

One weak aspect of the writing is in the character of the Native American live-in help. Johnna Monevata is too obviously a dramatic device. Also, while the writing, from moment to moment, is always pointed and entertaining, the play does not transcend the genre to speak of something beyond family: it is artful, but not archetypal. One reason for this may be that it hedges its bet with too much art--T. S. Eliot, Faulkner (Light in August), Dickens (Satis House, with its drawn shades and artificial light), Nabokov (Lolita)--and the allusions do not cohere into one deep image.

The ensemble acting was consistently superb. The stand outs, for me, were Deanna Dunagan who played Violet Weston the mother, and Amy Morton who played the eldest daughter Barbara.

Playwright: Tracy Letts
Director: Anna D. Shapiro
Scene Design: Todd Rosenthal

Saturday, January 12, 2008

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 spider;
the livid wound on the mountain glistens;
a handful of goats becomes a flock of stones;
the sun lays its gold egg upon the sea.
All is god.
A broken statue,
columns gnawed by the light,
ruins alive in a world of death in life!

How bold is that assertion "All is god," and how justified by the imaginative re-creations of these ruins and resurrections. It makes me want to write a poem about Singapore, a poem that is not bitter nor ironic, but a paeon.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

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.

Friday, January 04, 2008

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 neighbors, the Bradfords. In the second story "When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine," the "native" tradition of Halloween trick-or-treating acts as a foil for the violent bloodshed of Indo-Pakistani war over Bangladesh. In Handbook, Vladimir, whose childhood was spent in Leningrad, falls in love with Francesca mostly because she is seen as American.

In colonial narratives, writers describe the exotic as a means of distinguishing between us and them, depicting either us or them as a single, stable, ahistorical essence. I wonder if contemporary immigration narratives are doing the same thing. In narrating the crises of personal and national identity, these immigration narratives depict the "native" as an essence, whether as a goal for assimilation, a standard for measurement, or a weight for overthrowing.

To conceive of oneself as foreign, one needs to conceive of the native. No foreigner, no native, and vice versa. But not all polarities in thought are equally pernicious. Foreign : native can be reformulated as unfamiliar: familiar. The latter makes room for becoming familiar with what is, on first encounter, strange, threatening, alien; becoming familiar through contact, experience, conversation, imagination; becoming familiar with not only the good and the strong, but also the bad and the weak; becoming familiar, not becoming the Other, but becoming, as the etymological meaning of the word suggests, family.

So, instead of calling languages "foreign," we can call them "unfamiliar languages," a term that will always need contextualization. Instead of "foreign policy," we will have "policy towards the unfamiliar." And those we see passing through our airports, our cities, our schools are not "foreigners," but cousins, great-aunts, grand-nephews, perhaps, mother, perhaps, son.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

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 life's project was trying to discover who he was and writing a diary at the rate of about a word a day describing his efforts. Luria comments that those of his patients who lost the ability to plan future projects disintegrated far more than those who had lost their memories. For tranquility, no doubt, this man would have had to succeed in remembering his past. But to have a firm identity, the continuing project was enough. . . .

Third, there is the danger of self-serving falsification, if identity is allowed to depend upon memory. In fact, in its earliest version wtih Epicharmus in the 5th century BC, the Growing Argument's fragmentation of the self was designed to disclaim responsibility for what was done by selves falsely deemed to be other. If the fragmentation is to be repaired by weaving a narrative, the weaver must not be allowed to weave a narrative that equally falsifies by wrong inclusion and exclusion of data. Some such problem was later to attend Locke's account of the self as constituted by memory. Self-creation by use of memory is more liable to falsification than self-creation through the choices one makes. . . . (175-176)


Aristotle further approves, in Nicomachean Ethics 1.10 Solon's saying 'Call no man happy until he is dead', and adds 'if then', meaning that one cannot evaluate a life except as a whil and in the light of its outcome and whether its projects finally come to fruition. . . . In the story told by Herodotus, Croesus, king of Lydia, was prematurely considered happy for his wealth. But when conquered by Cyrus, king of Persia, and placed on top of a bonfire for burning, he cried out, 'Oh, Solon! Solon!' Cyrus asked the meaning and on being told that Solon had said 'Call no man happy until he is dead', he was so impressed that he brought Croesus down from the bonfire. (178)

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

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 rose above; and the purple loosestrife on the bank calls out to the poppies, violets and daisies of her bouquet now scattered on the water. But this weaving of pretty patterns will not assimilate the bare bits of her moribund body which stick up above the surface: her cupped hands, which are shaped like lily flowers but whose cold fleshiness repeals the thought of the comparison as soon as it occurs; her lips, which are not at all like an opening bud; her cheeks, which are pink but hardly rosy. The painting sets up and worries at a contrast between what can be taken as decoration - leaves, flowers, and dress material - and what, here at least, cannot: the woman's body.

John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-52

It is a paradox of Pre-Raphaelite art that the more accurately natural forms are rendered in oils the more artificial they appear. Millais was the painter who most noticed this peculiarity and turned it to advantage. In "Mariana", leaves from the detailed autumn trees outside have come into the interior, perhaps through the window, or a door out of shot, or perhaps gathered by Mariana to serve as models for the leaf-and-flower embroidery with which she is passing the time (this piece of woman's work shows that Millais was responding to "The Lady of Shalott", with its weaving, as well as to the other poems by Tennyson that were his main sources, "Mariana" and "Mariana in the South"). The embroidery has a kinship to the gilt leaf pattern on the walls, which in turn finds an echo in the semi-abstracted leaf-cum-star-cum-lily background to the Annunciation depicted in the stained glass; it takes a further step from representation into ornament in the gold and silver filigree of Mariana's belt. The painting draws attention to the processes of pattern-making, of becoming decorative, in which it too is engaged. As with "Ophelia", the popular success of "Mariana" as something nice to look at, and its consequent mass reproduction, are a part of the work's "design".

John Everett Millais, Mariana, 1851

And yet there is something else in the painting which protests against this drift: Mariana's body, which asserts itself with its aching pose, complaining perhaps of pregnancy or of period pain but more likely of everyday bad posture. The two-fold aspect of these pictures is like the switchbacks of tone which occur in the dramatized lyrics and dramatic monologues that were the dominant forms in Victorian poetry: as for instance in Tennyson's "Mariana" itself, where the woman's repeated complaint, "I am aweary, aweary" pushes unavailingly against the surrounding third-person description, which goes on pleasurably detailing the setting for her pain.

Millais must have been sensitized to these dislocation of body and surrounding texture by his working practices: one reason why Ophelia looks at odds with her location is that the model for her, Lizzie Siddal, shivered in a bath in London while Millais inserted her into a scene brought home from the Hogsmill river at Malden; Mariana, too, was cut-and-paste together with trees observed in an Oxford garden and glass inpsired by Merton College chapel. For all the skill with which they are assembled, the pictures' elements retain the feel of their divergent origins.

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.