Showing posts from February, 2008

Chinese Ballad

Pity the Second Emperor.
He'll never be the first.
He burned more books and killed more kids
but nothing slaked his thirst.

Gay & Lesbian Reading Group Resources

This website has a wealth of resources on GLBT literature and films. It also announces the titles the NYC-based reading group will be reading in the coming months. March 13 is Lawrence Durrell's Balthazar. April 10 is Sarah Waters' Night Watch. May 8 is Plato's Symposium.

Patricia Markert's "Watched You Disappear"

Saturday afternoon I went along to the Jefferson Market Library to hear my friend Pattie read from her newly published poetry chapbook. Built of a collection of styles--High Victorian Gothic, Neo-late Romanesque, and Neuschwanstein-inspired--the library is a branch of the New York Public Library. It was built originally as the Third Judicial District Courthouse, but ceased its judicial function in 1945.
I heard Pattie read before, from her collaborative chapbook "To Genesis," but that reading did not prepare me for the powerful stuff she read from this new book. After reading the book myself, my appreciation for the book's emotional honesty and creative artistry only grew.
"Watched You Disappear," as its title suggests, is about love and loss. At its heart is a sequence of seven letters written by the grieving mother to a dead teenage daughter. "Letters to Elizabeth" are painful to read. They bear reading only because their language is so understated,…

No Country for Old Men (Spoiler Alert)

Why does the film quote Yeats's "Sailing to Byzantium"? In the poem, the sensual world of the young is not for the old because it is at the same time the world of death. Seeking to transcend death, the speaker leaves that country for Byzantium, for "the artifice of eternity." While the brothers Coens' film is certainly concerned with human mortality, it is not impressed by the Yeatsian longing for artistic immortality. Yeats's dualism does not drive the film; the film, and the fates of its characters, are driven by the monochromatic force of chance.

If the film is not in dialogue with Yeats's poem, that is partly because it is a monologue. Before the first half hour is up, you get its thesis: chance decides our fate, and the hunter can easily become the hunted. For the first part of the thesis, you get the coin toss practised by the psychopathic hitman, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), to decide if his victim lives or dies; for the second part of the t…

Readings at Verlaine and Fairleigh Dickinson University

Read for Kundiman, at Verlaine, on Sun, Feb 17, with Jennifer Kwon Dobbs. Sold two copies of my chapbook. Joseph and Sarah, the people running Kundiman, gave me a present of Chinese black tea, a shimmering pearly bowl, and Ashbery's Where Shall I wander.

Read there , in New Jersey, last Tuesday, for an event billed as "In and Out of Love," with Melissa, who is lesbian. A good friend, Chloe, who teaches Comp and Creative Writing at the University, organized the reading. She has an office in the Mansion, a stately home converted to school use. The reading took place in the Orangerie in the library, a big high-ceilinged room, with lovely tall windows. David Daniel, the Director of the BA Creative Writing program was there as well, as were about fifteen undergraduate students.

After our readings, we fielded questions. How do you balance job and writing? Where do you get your inspiration from, personal experience? Do you find it difficult to read something intensely personal? A…

Spring Break at Bacchus

We tasted wines from Spain and Latin America this evening. Nothing that was very exciting. One was too vegetal. Another had a great floral bouquet, but very simple flavor. One wine smelled like a Riesling, but did not taste as good. The grape Carmenere, a spicier version of Merlot, I did not care very much for. The only wine that I liked was the Monte Oton Garnacha. I also had my first fresh Caipirinhas. It was made in front of us with lime, Domino sugar and Leblon Cachaca. Leblon Cachaca is a rum, but made with pure cane sugar, instead of the refined stuff, and so it is a little more potent, like having dashes of tequila. It was a refreshing mixed drink.

TLS February 8 2008

from Richard Sieburth's review of Paul Claudel's Knowing the East, and Victor Segalen's Steles:

The sixty-four steles displayed in Victor Segalen's imaginary museum, each poem-tablet lineated into short prose paragraphs and framed by a rectangular rule, are thematically divided according to the spatial coordinates of traditional Chinese cosmography. The initial "Steles Facing South", spoken in the persona of an emperor of the fictional Kingdom of the Self, mock the various foreign religions that had implanted themselves in China--Nestorian Christianity, Manichaeism, Buddhism--in world-weary tones that recall the ironic fatalism of Cavafy's "Waiting for the Barbarians". The subsequent section, "Steles Facing North", explores the opaque relation between Self and Other on a more personal level--the vagaries of male friendship, unrequited desires. "Oriented Steles", perhaps the weakest section of the book, in turn moves into lyric…

Gregory Woods's "Quidnunc"

At the end of the long narrative poem “Sir Osbert’s Complaint,” Osbert Sitwell hopes he would be admitted into heaven for being a “Sceptical believer with a decent turn of phrase.” That self-description is applicable to Gregory Woods in his book, Quidnunc. He believes in the world but is skeptical of its human sufficiency. He believes in the poetic tradition but is skeptical of its modern relevance. The rhetorical strategies he pursues—parody, satire, mimicry, gossip—follow from such believing skepticism, but, instead of tracing these larger devices, I want to look at Quidnunc at the level of the phrase, and its decent turn.

A good illustration of the book’s turning of the phrase, the opening poem “Civilization” begins:

We tilled a land ungenerous with its
resources, barely scratching at the surface

for its reluctant benison. Between
its gaunt, eroded outcrops we conserved

a topsoil dry and sparse but capable
of nurturing our basic needs . . .

What strikes me in these lines is the attention …

Conor McPherson's "The Seafarer"

Went to see "The Seafarer" yesterday at the Booth Theater, a play written and directed by Conor McPherson. The Booth has an understated classiness, with its intimate size, oak-panelled walls, and an unusual middle aisle that runs from the back to about the middle of the orchestra seats. It reminded me of a ship cabin, a setting well suited to the play which takes place in Baldoyle, a coastal settlement north of Dublin city. According to the program notes, from this coast one can see Howth Head (Binn Eadair), a hill on the Howth peninsula which marks the northern arm of Dublin Bay. Howth Head attracts to itself many myths and legends.

"The Seafarer" is a Christmas fable. James 'Sharky' Harkin (played by David Morse) is a man who played a game of poker with the Devil, and the Devil has returned to win his soul in another game of poker. All the dramatic conflict pivots on this game which begins only in Act Two and lasts throughout that Act. As such, Act One fee…

Reading at McNally Robinson Bookstore

The reading took place in the bookstore cafe area, and so the atmosphere was relaxed and intimate. I was delighted to see my name, and the names of the other readers, advertised in the shop window, as if we were real authors. Scott Glassman joined the reading late, but he was there too, and was the first reader of the evening.

The evening was treacherous, with heavy snowing and icy sidewalks, and so I was very happy and grateful that friends from school, poetry workshop, and Cornelia Street Cafe turned up to hear the reading.

Eshuneutics' review of "Payday Loans"

Here's a recent review of my chapbook. I am chuffed that it compares me to the early Thom Gunn.

Payday Loans (Poets Wear Prada, 2007) is a short selection of poems by Jee Leong Koh. It is offered as a chapbook of 30 sonnets, all of which were written as part of Poetry Month, 2005, at the rate of one per day. Jee Leong Koh, judging from the content of his blog, Song of a Reformed Headhunter, his numerous poetry readings in New York, and his elegant emails in my direction, is a scrupulous and intelligent poet committed to the poetical voice: not just the structure on the page, but the form in the air. . . . (Read the rest.)

The African American National Biography

I went to the New York Historical Society last Thursday to hear Henry Louis Gates, Jr. on the launch of the AANB he co-edited with Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. I didn't know anything about Gates, Jr., except that he is a prominent black scholar, the writer of the preface to the edition of Their Eyes Were Watching God I use in my teaching. He is a short but compact man, jolly and bluff in his self-presentation, quite unlike my studious image of a Harvard scholar. He seemed to thrive in the pre-talk conviviality, expertly receiving the congratulations of many people who came up to him, and introducing some to others in so smooth a manner that he seemed to be the host, rather than the guest, of the event. I had seen him earlier, I realized. He was the man washing his hands in the restroom, to whom another guy was pitching talk (and dropping the fact that he himself was Oxford educated) about some high-flier who is retiring in his forties after amassing a fortune.

Gates, Jr. began by ta…

Spinoza on Love

In Amsterdam, that curious strand,
a man of trading blood was banned
for thinking it was very odd
for man to worship man in God
and not the God of love's demand.

Demand of me, my Love, demand
I give up all to understand
the ordinary and the odd
in Amsterdam.

Devoting all to understand
what stayed or traded on that strand,
he thought, therefore I am--how odd!--
the intellectual love of God,
the love that binds, what once was banned
in Amsterdam.

Marjorie Garber on "Unequal Friends: Antonio, Falstaff, and Orsino"

I attended this Shakespeare Society event tonight, and found Garber thought-provoking on the bard. She is William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of English and American Literature and Language at Harvard, and wrote four books on Shakespeare, including Shakespeare After All (Pantheon, 2004).

In between her discussions with the Society Executive and Artistic Director, Michael Sexton, 4 actors dramatized exchanges from Henry IV, The Merchant of Venice, and Twelfth Night, as well as read sonnets which echo these exchanges, such as Sonnet XX ("master mistress"). Garber talked about the double plot of the sonnets, (they are "about" writing as much as they are about love), the aesthetic functions of reported scenes, the admirable complexity of Hal, the posture of melancholia, the motif of the woman who suffers silently from unrequited love. Throughout, she was incisive yet generous, a very good teacher, as my friend remarked.


A woman's face with nature's own hand paint…

Wislawa Szymborska

from The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry:

As an "unsurpassable model of the writer's craft and a constant encouragement to trascend the obvious with thought," she has cited Montaigne's adage "See how many ends this stick has!"

Here's one that fits, despite such different circumstances, Singapore, as well as Poland:

Unexpected Meeting

We are very polite to each other,
insist it's nice meeting after all these years.

Our tigers drink milk.
Our hawks walk on the ground.
Our sharks drown in water.
Our wolves yawn in front of the open cage.

Our serpents have shaken off lightning,
monkeys--inspiration, peacocks--feathers.
The bats--long ago now--have flown out of our hari.

We fall silent in mid-phrase,
smiling beyond salvation.
Our people have nothing to say.

Translated from thye Polish by Magnus J. Krynski and Robert A Maguire

Well Met

Visited the reopened European galleries again today, and this time, Monet's The Path through the Irises caught my attention.

The Path through the Irises, 1914–17
Claude Monet (French, 1840–1926)
Oil on canvas; 78 7/8 x 70 7/8 in. (200.3 x 180 cm)

The painting is big, a size that suggests its importance for Monet. The slight turn in the path, so easily overlooked in real life, composes the painting. Gary Tinterow, in his note on the Met website, suggests that "like those he made of water lilies, his paintings of irises were meant to rise from the particular to the universal. In this work, the most highly finished of the series, the flowers are offered not as botanical specimens but as archetypes." I thought I detected all the seven colors of the rainbow in the painting. Tinterow saw "the unusual harmony of ocher, violet, blue green, and yellow green." A poignant biographical detail he noted was that "although the artist was already experiencing great difficulti…

Degas' Bathing Nudes at the Met

I saw the pastel Nudes only on my second visit to the reopened galleries of late nineteenth and early twentieth century paintings. They are beautiful. They are not luminous. They are not monumental. They are not sensual. They are not sacred. They are themselves, women caught up with themselves, doing the most ordinary things like wiping your back dry with a towel, or wiping your feet propped against the bathtub, or, in the painting below, bathing in a shallow tub. And they are studies of the female back. They prove, without the rigidity of a proof, that the human back is worth our attention as much as the human front.

Woman Bathing in a Shallow Tub, 1885 Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas (French, 1834–1917) Charcoal and pastel on light green wove paper, now discolored to warm gray, laid down on silk bolting; 32 x 22 1/8 in. (81.3 x 56.2 cm) H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929 (29.100.41)

The Met note: "When Degas exhibited his "suite of nudes," which…

The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry

Started reading this anthology, edited by J.D. McClatchy, some time back, and then got diverted to Nadler's biography of Spinoza, then to What I Loved, then to Vendler's Poets Thinking, then to Hard Times. It's so hard to settle on one thing, when life eddies around you. The other day I heard Nemo reading a poem at Nightingale Lounge, a poem with a brilliant iambic pentameter refrain "Widening, widening, widening," and thought about how ripples lose power as they move outwards from the dropped stone. There is a great stillness in the widening of a ripple. Does one necessarily lose energy as one takes in more of the world?

The world in the Vintage anthology comprises Europe (39 poets), the Middle East (5 poets), Africa (7 poets), Asia (12 poets), Latin America (11 poets), the Caribbean (6 poets). Do the numbers reflect the editor's knowledge or taste? If knowledge, the big factor of course is the availability of English translations, crucial in the case of non…

Readings so far...

I've done a few readings this year, and more to come, so I am thinking of a way of keeping track of things . . .

Jan 26 Brownestone Poets, at 5th Ave Restaurant & Diner, Brooklyn.

Jan 28 Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church, East Village

Feb 4 Saturn Series at Nightingale Lounge, East Village

My workshop with Marie Ponsot at 92nd Street Y began again last night. I submitted my "Equal to the Earth" manuscript since I have not added enough to "The Book of the Body" to justify another discussion of it. The original ten students have dropped to six, so now each 2 1/2-hour session will be devoted to one manuscript. Mine is coming up for discussion next week. Hopefully I will get a lot out of the class. Last night, Marie read something by Robert Louis Stevenson, but I could not place it. Going down the river with trees on both sides etc.

Jane read a good poem about the rippling aftershocks of maternal love. Kevin read a John Hollander poem from "The New Yorker…

TLS January 11 2008

from Richard A. Fortey's review of Pascal Richet's A Natural History of Time, translated by John Venerella:

. . . in 1896 the physicist Gustave Le Bon actually announced to the Academy of Science in Paris the discovery of black light.


Leonardo da Vinci had recorded in his notebooks observations of the time needed to form sediments and raise fossils above the present sea level that were, as always, astonishing prescient. . .


Halley worked out how long it would take for the oceans to attain their saltiness from the input of salt from rivers, but he was--wisely, perhaps, given the implications--vague about his inferred long timescale. . . .


Georges-Louis Leclerc, later Comte de Buffon, performed a series of experiments by heating up and then cooling steel balls of various sizes. He then scaled up the results to account for the conditions remaining on earth today, assuming a molten origin for the planet--and came up with an age for the earth of slightly less than 200, 000 years. Th…

Jennifer Kwon Dobbs and Li-Young Lee at AAWW

A friend attending the AWP Conference in NYC asked me to join her at the Asian American Writers' Workshop last night to hear the two readers. The room was crowded with women. Two white women sitting in front of me hung on every word Lee said, nudging each other when he made a gesture, or smiling at each other when he said something especially wise or self-deprecating. During the short Q&A, a woman, East Asian, asked Lee a barrage of questions that showed a devoted knowledge of his books. One of her questions was about an angry poem in his new book, an emotion new to his work. When Lee explained he hesitated writing in anger because he did not wish to arouse that emotion in the reader, the woman said that reading the poem only made her feel stronger. Another woman, short-haired, boyish-butch-looking, asked Lee how fatherhood has affected his writing. My friend, who noticed all this with wry amusement, confessed to me once we reached home that she found Lee very sexy too. She sa…