Showing posts from August, 2008

Paul Muldoon's "The End of the Poem"

These essays are based on the lectures Muldoon gave as Oxford Professor of Poetry. In each essay, he analyzed a single poem, mainly in terms of its diction and imagery, in order to show the poem's associations with other poems and writing by and about the same author, and with the poem's poetic forebears. 
I find many of the associations made, in this approach which Muldoon named stunt-reading, persuasive and insightful, though other links seem more tenuous. These less convincing links are usually based on the repetition of very common words. The links may be tenuous but they cannot be disproved, for we know that the poetic imagination works in mysterious associative ways. If Muldoon ends up by making every poet sound like him, perhaps that is partly due to the same imagination at work in writing poetry. Muldoon believes that the poem wants to write itself through the poet.
A believer also in Bloom's theory of the anxiety of influence, Muldoon is attuned to the various ways …

My new blog about my forthcoming book

I am celebrating the inking of my book contract by starting a new blog about the forthcoming book, Equal to the Earth. The book of poems will be published in April 2009, by Poets Wear Prada, the same press that put out Payday Loans. I am going to try to keep the new blog very focused, in contrast with this one, which is more like a big scrap book. The new blog will provide updates on Equal to the Earth, and also thoughts and ideas on publication.

Exiles, Manicules, New Bibles, Rajput Landscape, Distracted Theory, Things

TLS August 22 & 29 2008
from Clive James's review of Joseph Horowitz's Artists in Exile: How refugees from twentieth century war and revolution transformed the American performing arts:
Not even the basket cases could honestly say that they had fallen among Philistines. They had fallen into a larger competitive market than the one that they had been driven out of, and even if they failed in it they would have liked to succeed.
Some of them felt limited by the indifference of the audience to anything labelled as art, but there was always a minority audience for that. There was a minority audience even for Schoenberg. On a world scale, Schoenberg's audience . . . is still a minority today, but most of the minority is in America, where minorities are larger.
European and American culture have always been a two-way interchange and to talk about either of them exclusively is like trying to cut water with a knife. Joseph Horowitz says that Stokowski's dream of a democra…

Sally van Doren's "Sex at Noon Taxes"

These are poems about the female body, sex, and sexual politics. They try to be playful and deep, but I find most of them tiring and slight. All of them are written in fourteen lines, but only in a few instances--"Proposition," "Connecticut Sonnet," "Odalisque"--does the form find its justification in the content. The language is an uneasy mixture of registers: slangy, crude, academic, lyrical, archaic. Sometimes, unintentionally funny, as in the title poem, which opens the collection. Describing sex as a gallop up a mountain, the sestet goes:
The steeds bear us upslope. We reach the muddy cleft between Maroon Bells and Crested Butte, gnawing on caribou and warmed liver of once noble elk. . Maroon Bells? Crested Butte? 
The poems are organized into four numbered sections. I find the second most wearying. The poems in it have titles like "Preposition" and "Pronoun/Punctuation." "Conjunctions" begins:
Furthermore, until but dethrones howe…

[title of show]

I watched this musical about producing a musical at the Lyceum last night, the same theater where I watched Patrick Stewart's Macbeth. [title of show] was wittily self-referential: the trials and triumph of four struggling actors (nobodies in New York, as one song puts it, allliteratively) in bringing their show to The Great White Way. A lot of insider jokes, which I didn't get, but there was enough in the clever lyrics and winsome acting to enjoy. 
The actors played themselves. So Jeff Bowen, the composer and lyricist, was the introspective composer and lyricist Jeff in the show. Hunter Bell was the flamboyant writer. Susan Blackwell and Heidi Blickenstaff completed the quartet of actors. The gay guys were amusing, camping it up, but the women were charismatic on stage. Blackwell had impeccable comic timing, and a dark interiority. Blickenstaff held us enthralled when she sang the nostalgic "A Way Back to Then." 
The characters would have been more sympathetic if they…

Diebenkorn in New Mexico

This exhibition, at the Phillips Collection in D.C., concentrates on a formative period of Richard Diebenkorn's art: the three years, from 1950-52, he spent in Albuquerque as a student at the University of New Mexico. The exhibition is prefaced by figurative and abstract compositions of a more mature period, exhibited in the museum's lobby. Particularly interesting to me was the juxtaposition of his Interior with View of the Ocean and Matisse's Studio, Quai Saint-Michel, which Diebenkorn saw at the Phillips:

Interior with View of the Ocean, 1957

Studio, Quai Saint-Michel, 1916

Both paintings are interested in the interplay of interior and exterior spaces, in planes forming themselves into a corner, in the analogy between windows and paintings, in exposing and thinking about one's working process. The differences are striking too. Matisse is dedicated to the study of the human figure and its ground, whereas Diebenkorn decomposes the scene into its constituent triangles and…

Ian McEwan's "The Cement Garden"

This one has the feel of an archetype, with its attendant strengths and weaknesses for a novella. The domineering but insecure father. The loving but helpless mother. The capable oldest daughter who takes on the mothering when both parents die suddenly. The second-oldest son browbeaten by dad, lusting for the sister, masturbating constantly. The third child, another daughter, the studious and sensitive one. The youngest boy who likes dressing up as a girl, and holding hands with his male play-mate. The archetype gives the family drama a strong sense of inevitability but the predictability at the same time weakens the drama.

Part 1 begins with its promised end, the father's death coinciding with Jack's first wet climax. It is a beautiful demonstration of how a son comes of age by killing (indirectly) his father, but, despite its sure narrative and precise language, or, perhaps, because of them, it does not escape the feel of being a demonstration. Part 2 is messier, within the p…

The New Yorker July 28 and Aug 4, 2008

from James Wood's review of Aleksandar Hemon's fiction:

[On "the portable provincialism of exile":] Jozef watches the CNN pictures of his besiged city, but, Hemon write, "he only watched the images to recognize the people in them."


Sometimes his English has the regenerative eccentricity of the immigrant's, restoring buried meanings to words like "vacuous" and "petrified." A sentence like this one stands at a slight angle to customary English usage: "I piled different sorts of blebby pierogi and a cup of limpid tea on my tray." "Blebby" is wonderful, but, perhaps more wonderful, how many native English speakers would ever describe tea as limpid? Occasionally, he flourishes a lyrically pedantic Nabokovian bloom, as with the "fenestral glasses" a character wears.


. . . he is a postmodernist who has been mugged by history. When he "lays bare the device" (an old Russian Formalist phrase for the techn…

Jason Irwin's "Watering the Dead"

I read some of these poems in Jason's chapbook Some Days It's a Love Story; in this full-length collection, which won Pavement Saw's Transcontinental Poetry Award, the poems reappear with even greater force, partly due to the larger narrative of which they now form a part. Watering the Dead accumulates power in its depiction of the stunted lives and thwarted dreams of small-town, blue-collared America, specifically, Dunkirk in upstate New York, a town which was, as one angry poem puts it, built and then abandoned by the railroad industry. 
Novelistic in its close observation of people and places, but unmistakably poetic in its arrangement of symbolic details, and its canny handling of the linebreak, the book has as its chief virtue a deep empathy for people who are suffering and cause suffering to others. The sufferers are family: divorced parents (the father is seen with more painful irony than the mother), a grandma with cancer, a grandpa who lost his house, uncles who wa…

Cave Paintings

from Judith Thurman's essay "First Impressions" on cave paintings (The New Yorker, June 23, 2008):
[Henri Breuil] divided the era into four periods, and dated the art by its style and appearance. Aurignacian, the oldest, was followed by Perigordian (later known as Gravettian), Solutrean, and Magdalenian. They were named for type-sites in France: Aurignac, la Gravette, Solutre, and La Madeleine.
. . . Chauvet was a bombshell. It is Aurignacian, and its earliest paintings are at least thirty-two thousand years old, yet they are just as sophisticated as much later compositions. What emerged from that revelation was an image of Paleolithic artists transmitting their techniques from generation to generation for twenty-five millennia with almost no innovation or revolt. A profound conservatism in art, [Gregory] Curtis notes, is one of the hallmarks of a "classical civilization." For the conventions of cave painting to have endured four times as long as recorded hist…

Poem: Decorative Figure On An Ornamental Background

Time almost up, Ravana climbs the tower
to survey Rama’s army ranged at him,
a sea of fur, teeth, claws, and seething blood
ready to dash against daybreak, or smash
the stronghold of the demon king, and save
Rama’s beloved Sita, the loyal queen.

The play is almost done, Ravana thinks,
the silly ploy to catch the girl, the sweet
talk to fool her he’s ravenous for sex,
the sub-plot to give Rama’s monkey spy
run of his private rooms—all to entice
the jealous lover to the jailor’s island.

Ravana checks his irony, relief.
He can still smell her fear when his hand clamped
over her mouth. Her voice, rejecting him,
rings in his ears a distant temple bell.
Even the monkey’s conscious courage throbs
beside the immense calm of his great heart.

And when Rama runs his sword through him,
the demon king, the kidnapper, the god-
killer, and realizes who Rama is—
Lord Vishnu, the Preserver, nothing less—
the human coming into the divine
will strum and strum the raga down the blade.

Ravana shivers slightly. That’s to come.

Rabindranath Tagore (translated by William Radice)

From a deep appreciation of the varied imperfections of earth, Tagore's poems yearn for the single, perfect ineffable. The narrative poems tell the stories of ordinary people, but tell them in such a manner as to evoke that deep yearning, so that the ordinary matter is suffused with immense dignity. The allegorical poems are dream-like and imaginative, at once passive and active. The lyrics are his supreme achievement, to my mind. Ardent, yet harmonious, they map human love onto the love of God.

According to Radice, the ideas in "Yaksha" lead right into the heart of Tagore's religious and artistic thought. In Creative Unity (p. 35), in the chapter on the Creative Ideal, Tagore writes: "this world is a creation . . . in its center there is a living idea which reveals itself in an eternal symphony, played on innumerable instruments, all keeping perfect time." Radice identifies this 'living idea' with the Yaksa's ideal, with his Beloved. However, th…

TLS August 15 2008

from Gabriel Josipovici's review of "The Poetry of Silence," an exhibition of Vilhelm's Hammershøi's paintings in the Royal Academy:

His rare comments on his art suggest someone who has thought long and hard about his craft, is totally confident about his aims and ambitions, though unwilling to probe too deeply into his motivations. "Why do I use just a few, muted colours? . . . It seems perfectly natural to me, but I can't say why . . . . I'm utterly convinced that a painting has the best effect in terms of its colour the fewer colours there are." And: "What makes me choose the motif are . . . the lines, what I like to call the architectural content of an image. And then there's the light, of course. Obviously that's also very important, but I think it's the lines that have the greatest significance for me."

"Interior with Woman at Piano, Strandgade 30" (1901)
. . . Hammershøi'sm pictures establish a rhythm, and…

Walter Pater's "The Renaissance"

from the Preface:
The aesthetic critic, then regards all the objects with which he has to do, all works of art, and the fairer forms of nature and human life, as powers or forces producing pleasurable sensations, each of a more or less peculiar or unique kind. This influence he feels, and wishes to explain, by analysing and reducing to its elements. . . . Our education becomes complete in proportion as our susceptibility to these impressions increases in depth and variety. 

from "Pico della Mirandola":
For the essence of humanism is that belief of which he never seems to have doubted, that nothing which has ever interested living men and women can wholly lose its vitality--no language they have spoken, nor oracle beside which they have hushed their voices, no dream which has once been entertained by actual human minds, nothing about which they have ever been passionate, or expended time and zeal. 

from "The Poetry of Michelangelo":
And to the true admirers of Michelange…

Kurt Andersen's Vanity Fair piece on Beijing architecture

The article begins in the same way as so many like it, wowing and drooling over Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron's National Stadium, Steven Holl's Linked Hybrid complex, Rem Koolhaas's China Central Television headquarters, and Norman Foster's Terminal 3.  At the end, however, instead of condemning Beijing for not building for its local population or the environment, or criticizing the Chinese government for its human rights record, Andersen justifies (persuasively, to my mind) the architects' engagement with China. 
His first move is to put China's record in context by comparing it with America's past and present report card. This move does not aim to whitewash that record, but to show that the wrongs are not unprecedented, and that the same wrongs are still perpetuated by American policy, for instance, doing oil business with tyrants in Saudi Arabia. Andersen warns fellow Americans, ". . . let's not completely conflate our national self-interes…

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

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 skeletons
of full-grown bats grasping their fingers in their arms.
Over every bed, behind the eye, a shutter blinks.
The fluorescence flutters. Hurry! The key, brass
plated with nickel, is lubed by the s…

Markus Zusak's "The Book Thief"

Narrated by Death, this story does not belong to Death so much as to Liesel Meminger, the book thief of the novel's title. It is a Bildungsroman of a German girl living with foster parents, the Hubermanns, in Himmel Street, in Molching, a town outside Munich, during World War II and the Holocaust. While the novel empathizes deeply with Jewish suffering (in the description of Max Vandenburg, a Jew hidden by Hans Hubermann, and of the marches of the Jews through Molching on their way to Dachau), its ambition is to depict ordinary Germans living through a harrowing time. 
There is the promise-keeper Hans Hubermann, who was saved by a Jew during WWI, and tries to repay the debt by hiding his savior's son in the basement of his house. There is Frau Holtzapfel who loses both sons to the Russian front, one of whom cradled the other dying in the hospital. There is Frau Diller, the fervent Nazi, who keeps the candy store. There is Ilsa Hermann, the mayor's wife, who mourns in her bi…

Singapore Diary

My last night in Singapore. I am flying back to NYC tomorrow, transferring at Heathrow, and I am so ready to leave. The weather has been intolerably hot, only slightly cooler after the rains of the past two days. I saw a lot of friends this time: former school-mates, national service mates, ex-colleagues from the school I taught at, writer-friends, clubbing friends. I enjoyed catching up with people, but felt as if I was dropping in on their lives, parachuting in, and then ejecting out, and their lives continue as before, like mine. Since I no longer live here, in any meaningful sense, these brief meetings are like the rains: intense, over quickly, hopeful of new growth.

Tagore, whom I've been reading in Singapore, loves the rain. For him, it represents inspiration, refreshment, vitality. His poem on rain begins: "My heart, it dances like a peacock, it dances, it dances." He is a marvelous lyric poet, but allies his lyric gift with metaphysical daring. "Last Honey&qu…

Tom Stoppard's "The Invention of Love"

Singapore Jade had been insisting that I read this Stoppard play for quite some time, and finally made it impossible for me to put her off by giving me a copy the other day. Plays don't come alive to me until I see them performed, and The Invention of Love struck me, on first reading, as more brainy than acute, more showy than moving. But Stoppard's Housman and Wilde came back to me again and again in the last few days, while I was waiting for the bus, or listening to a friend's chatter, or working out in the SAFRA gym near my house.

The desire to lay down your life for your lover. A desire represented in the play by repeated references to the Theban band, an army made of same-sex lovers, slaughtered by the Macedonians. Housman wants to lay down his life for his love, Moses Jackson, but the latter is straight and does not love him back, and Housman remains closeted all his life. Wilde, on the other hand, gives his life and reputation for his love, refusing to run from stand…

Ford Madox Ford's "The Good Soldier"

After reading this novel, I don't think I understand this "saddest story" about the emotional entanglement between two couples, but I had a strong sense of permanent bewilderment, which is, perhaps, the effect the author sought for. Dowell, the conservative American, is an unreliable narrator, but is his unreliability a matter of ignorance, secrecy or deception? It may be impossible to tell, as David Bradshaw's Introduction argues by adducing evidence for each interpretation. Dowell comments on his own narration thus:
I have, I am aware, told this story in a very ambling way so that it may be difficult for anyone to find their path through what may be a sort of maze. I cannot help it. I have stuck to my idea of being in a country cottage with a silent listener, hearing between the gusts of the wind and amidst the noises of the distant sea, the story as it comes. And, when one discusses an affair--a long, sad affair--one goes back, one goes forward. One remembers point…