Showing posts from July, 2008

Edith Wharton's "The House of Mirth"

It's hard to feel much sympathy for, or identification with, Lily Bart. Moving among the nouveau riches of New York City, she aspires to marry someone wealthy. In her better moments, she wishes to transmute the money into something finer in life, to create beauty. But, more often, she wants the money in order to lead a life of ease, to escape from her horror of shabbiness. Unfortunately, Lily seems to own the knack of sabotaging her own well-laid marital schemes. Her eventual friend Mrs. Fisher describes her well, in terms which explain Wharton's project in this novel. "Sometimes," Mrs. Fisher says, "I think it's just flightiness--and sometimes I think it's because, at heart, she despises the things she's trying for. And it's the difficulty of deciding that makes her such an interesting study."

Lily's difficulty in deciding should give rich tragic material, but the novel seems undecided whether to be a tragedy or a satire, and so its view…

Paris Diary

July 23, Wed
1332 Eurostar from St. Pancras to Gare du Nord. Apartment in gated community, on Rue Lamerciere, in Pigalle. Had dinner at Chartier, on Faubourg Montmartre, popular low-priced eaterie, with Belle-Epoque decor, the set for many movies. Drank at Raidd Bar, where, at midnight, the go-go boy showered in a glass stall set in the wall. I think I can live in Paris every summer. The light is beautiful here.

July 24, Thu
Breakfast at Point Bar, larg expresso and croissant. Finished reading Kim. Visited Musee National Picasso: Sleeping Woman, The Kiss, The Swimmer, Child Playing with Truck. The Goat. Impressed by the range of his experimentation with modes, materials and methods, while remaining inspired by the human figure. Striking series of photos of the artist taken by people like Man Ray and Cartier-Bresson. The photos show how much he resembled his female heads physically. Visited Nortre Dame while as mass was going on. Sat in the Jardin du Luxembourg for a while, enjoying the s…

The Fathers in Rudyard Kipling's "Kim"

In this Bildungsroman, Kim, the orphaned son of an Irish solder in British India, finds a colorful assortment of fathers: the Tibetan lama who left his hills and monastery to find the river flowing from an arrow shot by the Buddha; the Pathan Mahbub Ali, horse-trader and British spy; Colonel Creighton, a spymaster in the guise of head of the ethnological survey; Lurgan sahib, the healer of pearls, who trains spies with his ‘magical’ powers; Hurree Babu who spies for the British but really longs to join the Royal Academy for his ethnological contributions.

Teaching Kim who he is and can be, these fathers cultivate different relationships with the boy. Colonel Creighton is only interested in Kim’s usefulness as a tool in the great game. Lurgan Sahib is proud of his most gifted protégé whose success enhances his own departmental prestige. Hurree Babu treats Kim more like a colleague than a subordinate he is supposed to supervise.

The two most significant relationships to Kim are also the t…

Poem: Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion

after Francis Bacon


Under the lip of the jar, after the passions’ flight,
clings another passion, a bat the size of an orange
sucked dry from within, on each shoulder no wing
but a white finger. Her name is Expectancy. Blind,
she sniffs, furry neck stretching, the burning leather,
when a fierceness pierces a woman, and a germ
is released. When the baby comes, slightly deflated,
and cries for air, sucking it in like blood, a wing,
pale, hairless, unfurls from its muscle of a heart.
Joining in the cry, the internee bat keens and keens.


The bandage over the window is soaked with sun,
exposing the nerve in the wood, the stone fracture,
the nails oxidizing in the burrows they bit through.
It does not help to move house. The x-rays follow,
filming the densest parts of passions, the skeleton
of full-grown bats grasping its fingers with its arms.
It does not help to return to a cell. Darkness calls
to them. The fluorescence flutters. The one key, brass
plated with nickel, is lubed…

London Diary

July 13, SunArrived late at Parliament View Apartments, along Albert Embarkment. Danced at Fire, in Vauxhall.
July 14, Mon Walked round Westminster and Soho. Watched Billy Eliot the Musical at Victoria Palace Theatre. Drank at Comptons. 
July 15, Tue Spent afternoon with Anna and James at Hyde Park. Had dinner with Mary and Derek in Soho. Drank at Comptons and G-A-Y. 
July 16, Wed Walked along South Bank. Visited Tate Modern: Bacon and Picasso room; Pollock's Summertime. Watched stand-up comedy at Royal Vauxhall Tavern. Drank at Barcode Vauxhall.
July 17, Thu Watched King Lear at Shakespeare's Globe. Dinner at the Box. Drank at Rupert Street and 79 CXR. 
July 18, Fri Visited the British Museum: the Parthenon Marbles. Danced at G-A-Y. 
July 19, Sat Visited Sir John Soanes Museum: Hogarth's Election and The Rake's Progress. Visited National Gallery: Cezanne's Bathers(Les Grandes Baigneuses); Seurat's Bathers at Asnieres; and Velazquez's The Rokeby Venus. Concert at St. M…

King Lear at Shakespeare's Globe

It was a straight performance of King Lear at the Globe, no modernizing, adaptation into another culture, or abridging (as far as I could tell), which is appropriate, of course, in this re-creation of a theater Shakespeare wrote for and acted in. David Calder was a powerful and moving King Lear; his eyes were especially expressive. He was completely convincing in his physical and mental deterioration. Sally Breton was malicious anger as Goneril, while Kellie Bright distinguished Regan with an oily manner, which hid a vicious and sensual nature. She bit Gloucester's eye out. Jodie McNee was unsympathetic as Cordelia; she managed to make that saint come across as a busybody. Daniel Hawksford, as Edmund, played for laughs at a few points, and made the character incoherent. Trystan Gravelle, black-haired Welsh opposite Hawskford's blond, played Edgar with a certain nobility, but spat out his lines too quickly. All of them were directed by Dominic Dromgoole, the Artistic Director o…

Poem: Visiting London with an American Boyfriend

xxThe parliament of fools in session: we
are new republics freed from monarchy.
One man may be an MP, and so may
another, as a day succeeds a day,
not as a son, but as a term of light
both after and before the close of night.
You call that man a Representative
whose babel tongue, creaturely and creative,
transforms a people’s will into their laws,
amending constitutions when there’s cause.
xxRepublicans, outside the residence
of royal pomp and London circumstance,
we watch the changing of the palace guard,
and see the toys we thought we lost returned.
They come back with the force of all we lost—
queen mother, nursery, Sunday pot roast—
pictures that grow more valuable with age,
fading the massacres, disease, and rage.
xxBut if we give the past memory’s due,
let it not take the future hostage too,
for both of us, adolescent and child,
cried out in a nightmare terror, wild
for a soft bosom or a gentle word,
and welcomed as a parental safeguard
oily-tongued, bloody-deviced tyranny.
How well I know that officiou…

Billy Elliot The Musical

Having enjoyed the film, The Quarterback and I went on Tuesday to watch the musical at the Victoria Palace with great anticipation. Perhaps our high expectations let us down. The musical did not live up to its rave reviews. Stephen Daldry, who helmed the film, directed the musical as well. Lee Hall, the scriptwriter, wrote the book and lyrics, while Elton John wrote the music.
The songs were not particularly memorable. I don't remember any repetition or development of musical motifs in the second half, except for the sentimental duet sang by Billy and his mum. Fox Jackson-Keen, who was a new Billy, had stage presence, but was always theatrical, unlike the very natural Jonty Bowyer, who played his chunky gay pal. Jackie Clune was wonderful as the dance teacher, Mrs Wilkinson, bringing a bittersweetness to the role. 
The dance numbers were well executed, but it was weird to see striking miners dancing. Also odd, though crowd-pleasing, was the Disney-like number when dresses on hangers…

Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter"

To be perfectly honest, I would not have stuck with The Scarlet Letter if it is not reckoned generally to be an American classic. The action is reduced to sketches (typical chapter titles are "The Prison-Door," "The Interior of a Heart," and "Hester and the Physician"), the characters are predictable and unsympathetic, the psychology of hidden guilt is coarsened into symbolism. As for the style, the attendant on the my flight into London hit it on the head, Hawthorne takes fifty words to say what can be said in ten. 
Take for an instance, the narrator in the tedious introductory sketch "The Custom-House" says:
It contributes greatly towards a man's moral and intellectual health to be brought into habits of companionship with individuals unlike himself, who care little for his pursuits, and whose sphere and abilities he must go out of himself to appreciate. 
The age was more tolerant of rotundity in style, but "It contributes greatly toward…

ContraDiction approved by authorities

Yi-sheng, the organizer, just notified me that ContraDiction, the gay pride reading in Singapore, will go ahead on Aug 7 (details in sidebar). We are reading in Theaterworks, a well-known local theater company, and so may reach more people than two years ago when we read in a gay bar. The program, a mix of poetry, fiction, drama, and singing, includes

1. Ng Yi-Sheng - Invocation

2. Teng Qian Xi, Standing Figure, Crossings at the Green Man, The Evolution of Language

3. Zhuang Yisa, Dog Lovers, the Tough Guys, I Sit to Write This Letter of Hurt

4. Yen Feng and Chan Sze-Wei - Poem beginning with a line by a dying man, Out of our eyes like Butterflies, Fragile grave

5. Iris Judotter (first sequence)

6.Dominic Chua - Three Sundays On, Psalm Concerning the Heartland

7. Nicholas Deroose- The Singaporean Dream

8. Koh Jee Leong - Head, Roof of the Mouth, Jaws and the Jaw-hinges, Temples, Forehead, Chin, The Finger-Nails

9. Jasmine Seah - I'm Not A Very Good Gay, In the City

10. Iris Judotter (second…

Travel and Helium

I'm visiting London and Paris over the next two weeks, and then Singapore in the following two weeks. There is a gay pride reading in Singapore, on 7 Aug, that I am participating in. It's the same series, called ContraDiction, at which the government banned my reading of "Come on, straight boy." This year, I'll be reading parts of "The Book of the Body," if they are approved by the censors. I'll post some travel reports in this blog, and, hopefully, a few poems during this time.

Joined Helium last month, a "citizen journalism outlet offering a platform for writers to write articles on topics about which they are knowledgeable." You write and post articles, rank other people's articles, and get paid. My 8 articles have earned a grand total of $ 0.13 since I joined. You get paid more, I think, if you write about travel, restaurants, auto, and stuff that people really want to read online. The site is addictive. My short essay on my first b…

Take Me Out to the Ball Game

I went to my first ball game last night, at the house that Ruth built, in the Bronx. I had moved to the States five years ago, from Singapore, but got involved with a jock only in the last year. He played football in high school but baseball was always there, in the background, in the bleachers of Carbondale, Illinois, where he grew up and took off for New York.

Just outside the B and D train station, also named Yankee Stadium, shops down one side of the road sold baseball uniforms, tees, caps and pennants. Earlier in the day, The Quarterback had tried to buy Tampa Bay Rays caps, but they were selling at a rip-off price of $35. We did not bother to check out the busy stadium shops. A few open-front bars, looking like beach bars, were crowded with pre-game celebrants. The new stadium was supposed to be nearby, but I could not see round the long dirty walls of the old one.

A man, burly, balding, in his fifties, had attached himself to us on the train. He is from New Jersey, and, since he …

The New Yorker, July 7 & 14, 2008

from Joan Acocella's article "Romeo, Romeo" on Mark Morris's "Romeo and Juliet" based on a lost Prokofiev score:
Morris's habit of standing inside a dance as he creates it is different from what many other choreographers do. . . . Morris is famous for the viscera quality of his dances--the fact that they are fleshy, muscular, that you can feel them on your body--and this is surely due in part to his habit of choreographing from inside, or starting there.
His most frequent correction was that he wanted the company to dance harder, with more attack. His other, constant complaint was about entropy--the fact that the dancers, two days after he taught them something, would start to slur it. Composers can comfort themselves that, if one performance is not to their liking, the next may be. The score survives. In dance, there is no score. The piece is what is performed.
from Adam Gopnik's article "The Back of the World" on G. K. Chesterton:

Poem: The Wine Bottle Holder

The Wine Bottle Holder
after reading Eavan Boland’s “The Wild Spray”

From Paris you brought back your first gift
for me, a stainless steel wine holder, arched
back in a single curve, seen from the side,
and, from the top, a shiny sharp-edged plane.

It was the most defined thing in my kitchen
where mismatched mugs squatted in the sink,
the gas cooker was bronzed with spits of sauce,
and ripe bananas hung over the trash.

I stashed it in some cupboard and forgot
those early days of careful give-and-take.
Now, taking out the holder from my mind,
and flashing it, this way, that, in the sun,

I see it keeps its clear and severe lines,
the boundaries of being, and within
the first material it is made of,
the graceful arch still of that of a bridge,

but, more, the months have worn its cutlass shine
to a glow, cutlery’s, and here it sits,
its empty mouth also a steady hand,
to hold the bottle of Bordeaux we choose.

TLS, July 4, 2007

from Seth Lerer's review of Alastair Minnis's Fallible Authors: Chaucer's Pardoner and Wife of Bath:

From the so-called "academic prologues" to canonical Latin texts, Minnis recovered a critical idiom that could explain the nature of authorial intention, the quality of reader response, and the relations of form and rhetoric that would inform not just the reading of classical and religious writers, but the writing of imaginative, vernacular fiction. Compilatio and ordinatio were the governing prinicples of literary structure: the first, an activity of reading, bringing source materials and previous authorities together; the second, an act of writing, organizing this material into structures that would give voice to an argument. 
from Then and Now, a 1922 review of Isaac Rosenberg's poems by Ernest de Selincourt:
His definition of "simple poetry," in a letter to Mr. Gordon Bottomley, is itself an indication of the difficulty of his approach to it: &qu…

Jhumpa Lahiri's "Unaccustomed Earth"

Raising the Volume Quietly
In Lahiri's Pulitzer-winning debut collection, Interpreter of Maladies, the storiestake place in a deliberately limited period of time: an electricity blackout ("A Temporary Matter"); a guided tour ("Interpreter of Maladies"); an academic season ("When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine"); a baby-sitting job ("Mrs. Sen"); the beginning and end of an extra-marital affair ("Sexy"). This strategy gives a natural and aesthetic shape to Lahiri's material--the experiences of immigrant Bengalis in America--and the shape can impress the mind deeply, like an archetype, as in the poignant anthology-worthy piece "A Temporary Matter." 
In Unaccustomed Earth, her second collection, two stories follow the same strategy. The title story takes place during a father's visit at his married daughter's home. The occasion for "A Choice of Accommodations" is a high school reunion. The other three stories in…

George Eliot's "Middlemarch"

Reading Middlemarch immediately after ThePortrait of a Lady, I was constantly comparing the two novels, and the two masters, in my mind. The crude comparisons came readily--marriage plot, idealistic female protagonists tried by changed circumstances, the great theme of What Makes A Good Life--but the subtler differences of outlook and style I find harder to express to my own satisfaction.
I did find, at the beginning of the novel, Eliot's characters crudely drawn, compared to James's complexity. Wealthy Featherstone's grasping relatives who gather around his deathbed are caricatures imported from Dickens. The Garth family are almost unbelievable in their practical goodness and wisdom. Even Dorothea and Lydgate, passionately and convincingly imagined, fall in with certain types. This aspect of her art is what James described and faulted in an otherwise admiring review in The Atlantic Monthly (May 1885):
We feel in [George Eliot], always, that she proceeds from the abstract to…

Reading Boland's "Outside History" (1990) Part 2

Violence in the poem “Object Lessons” is depicted on the husband’s coffee mug: a hunting scene with dogs, hawks, picnic linen and pitches, a wild rabbit, a thrush, and a lady smiling as the huntsman kisses her. Violence is also literal here, not just pictorial. With a “shiver/ of presentiment,” the couple found the broken pieces of the mug—pieces of the sparrow hawk and the huntsman’s kisses—on the floorboards they had sworn “to sand down and seal/ with varnish.” The description of the mug evokes Keats’s Grecian urn, an allusion strengthened by the repeated references to the picnic pitches. But the poet not only breaks the mold here, she also shows the immediate, human surroundings of the aestheticised mug/urn: the rough, unvarnished floorboards of a new house.

The next poem “On the Gift of The Birds of America by John James Audubon” is, aptly, an elegy. The bird book speaks to the poet of “the celebration of an element/ which absence has revealed”; the creatures of the air remind the …

Literary Imagination Volume 10 Number 1 2008

Literary Imagination is a journal of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics (ALSC), published by OUP. It is edited by Peter Campion. After joining ALSC, I received the journal in May (?), but put it aside for summer reading. It is a pleasure to read.
 The academic articles are scholarly but not overly specialized, with useful explanatory footnotes and references. They are written in clear, accessible prose, more formal than the belle lettristic, but without the technical vocabulary of Theory. I especially enjoyed James Sitar's transcription of a talk by Robert Frost, Janet Gezari's "Kurtz's Night Table" (which approaches the teaching of Heart of Darkness through Coppola's Vietnam war film Apocalypse Now), John Koethe's "Wittgenstein and Lyric Subjectivity," and William Edinger's "Yvor Winters and Generality: A Classical/Neoclassical Perspective." The last is particularly insightful, in describing the greatness in Winters&#…

Reading Boland’s "Outside History" (1990) Part 1

This book consists of three sections: Object Lessons with 11 poems; Outside History, a 12-part sequence; and Distances with 12 poems. This three-section division was used for the first time in the previous book The Journey, and, like that book, the middle section gives the collection its title. The division reminds me of a triptych, with its central and flanking panels.

Another similarity to The Journey lies in the opening poem. Like “I Remember,” “The Black Lace Fan My Mother Gave Me” is a poem about Boland’s mother, and functions as a kind of invocation to the Mother Muse, most explicitly sought out in Night Feed.

“The Black Lace Fan” also sets the strategy of this section Object Lessons. The fan, a gift from an ex-lover to the poet’s mother, is described in such a way as to evoke character and situation. Its “wild roses . . ./ darkly picked, stitched boldly, quickly” suggests the mother’s passion. Its tortoiseshell, though it has “the reticent, clear patience of its element,” is “a w…

Rogue Scholars and Active Ingredients Readings

Just did two readings this last week. The first, on June 26, at Cornelia Street Cafe, was hosted by Miriam Stanley who edits the Rogue Scholars. I read the new stuff written in response to Eavan Boland. Quite raw, but I wanted to give them an airing so as to get ideas for revision.

Jean Lehrman read, accompanied by Dan the bartender/musician on vibraphone. I liked a prose piece she read, about a relationship that developed between a case worker and a client. It has something of sweet despair in it, with no cloying sentimentality. I've heard James Maynard read a couple of times at the Pink Pony open-mic, and always enjoyed his poems. His pastoral and love poems are dreamy as waters, with a strong current of feeling. His poem on leaving White Cap Creek, a river in Colorado where he helped build a bridge, is the best kind of nature poem: passionate affiliation.

Last night, at The Stone, Nemo's Active Ingredients hosted We Sing the Body Electric: Whitman and His Children. Thomas Fuc…