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Showing posts from October, 2008

Dry Salvage

When "inoperancy" (to use Eliot's word) threatens, as it does this early morning hour, after useless attempts to read, first, The Wings of the Dove, then, Time Out New York, I experience the time as dry. So did Eliot, in the red rocks of "The Waste Land", and in the empty pond of "Burnt Norton." I read "The Four Quartets" essentially for consolation, I realize this morning. For a description of spiritual desert, and then for a description of the plenitude of the sea.


The river is within us, the sea is all about us;
The sea is the land's edge also, the granite
Into which it reaches, the beaches where it tosses
Its hints of earlier and other creation:
The starfish, the horseshoe crab, the whale's backbone;
The pools where it offers to our curiosity
The more delicate algae and the sea anemone.
It tosses up our losses, the torn seine,
The shattered lobsterpot, the broken oar
And the gear of foreign dead men. The sea has many voices,
Many gods and…

To map a cough

To map a cough, using schlieren photography, Dr. Gary Settles, an engineering professor, teamed up with Dr. Julian Tang, a virus expert from Singapore. 

Grammar of Earth

TLS October 24
from William J. R. Curtis's review of The Essential Frank Lloyd Wright: Critical writings on architecture, edited by Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer:
In another suggestive passage, from "In the Cause of Architecture IV: The meaning of materials--stone" (1928), Wright underlines his obsession with strata of rock as an inspiration for horizontal stratification in buildings, and reiterates the larger theme of "Nature" as a model for architecture.
Read the grammar of the Earth in a particle of stone! . . . For in the stony bonework of the Earth, the principles that shaped stone as it lies, or as it rises and remains to be sculptured by winds and tide--there sleep forms and styles enough for all the ages, for all of Man. 
We might bear this in mind when looking at Wright's later masterpiece, Fallingwater (1936), with its cantilevered concrete ledges, rusticated stone walls and natural boulders. Not that one should expect simple linkages in either direction betw…

Give Chase At Once to Soul And Body

Longinus, in A Treatise on the Sublime, describes Sappho's achievement thus:
Do you not wonder how she gives chase at once to soul and body, to words and tongue, to sight and colour, as as if scattered abroad, how, at variance within she is frozen and burns, she raves and is wise? For she is either panic-stricken or at point of death; she is haunted not only by one single emotion but their whole company, All things befall a lover, but she took the extremes of love's history and binding them in one achieved a masterpiece (trans. by Frank Granger).
The description is alluring, especially given the fact that, not withstanding the recent discovery of a nearly whole poem, all we have of Sappho's poetry are fragments. And few, therefore precious, are the glimpses of poetry in this ALSC conference where the linguistic currency is made up largely of abstraction.
I was glad to encounter a poet I did not know in Sarah Barnsley's talk on "Sappho, Mary Barnard and American Mode…

Leo Bersani's "Homos"

In this 1995 book, Bersani begins with a stark statement: “No one wants to be called a homosexual.” He is not thinking, primarily, of closeted gay men or women, but the aversion to “homosexuality” on the part of self-identified homosexual activists and theorists.

According to Bersani, queer theorists like Monique Wittig, Judith Butler, and Michael Warner have taken “queer” to delineate political rather than erotic tendencies. In their writing, they have erased the specificity of gay identity in favor of transcendence over the homo-hetero binary, or of social constructivism or of historicizing the category; these theorists fear, rightly, to essentialize gay identity, a move that would fall in with heterosexist practice.

Though he is opposed, like the other theorists, to essentialist definitions, Bersani wants to reinstate the specificity of gay identity—same-sex desire—because one needs to oppose heterosexism on behalf of something, from the position of somewhere, however compromised som…

The tongue a stabbed wafer?

Remedial reading continues. TLS August 1 2008.
From Chris Andrews' review of Donald L. Shaw's Spanish American Poetry after 1950: Beyond the vanguard:
[Shaw] points out, for example, how [Olga] Orozco's Esbozos frente a un modelo (Sketches in Front of a Model), where the idea that writing poetry is like trying to "translate a text written in a constantly changing code", echoes Borges's famous statement in La Muralla y los libros (The Wall and the Books): "this imminence of a revelation which does not occur is, perhaps, the aesthetic phenomenon".
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The young ultraist Borges believed that metaphors are the primordial element of poetry, and that they should be both novel and "effective" (eficaz), but by the 1950s he had decided that the real primordial element is rhythm and that all good metaphors are variations on familiar ones. Shaw suggests that Borges had lost faith in metaphor's capacity to "open up new dimensions of reality". …

Princeton Reprise

A friend, Jane McKinley, is the musical director of The Dryden Ensemble, which specializes  in performing 17th and 18th century music on period instruments. The group was playing an all Bach program in Princeton this afternoon, and so I hopped onto the New Jersey Transit from Penn Station, and was in the university town in about 80 minutes.
I had planned time to visit the Princeton University Art Museum before the concert. It is a small teaching museum that is also open to the public, and free. I did not care very much for its small collection of 16th-18th century European (many Dutch) paintings, although I liked Abraham Bloemaert's The Four Evangelists(1612-15) for its inquiring lion looking so incongruous beneath the table. 
In the 19th to mid-20th century section, I was very taken by Gabriele Munter's Self-Portrait in front of an Easel, and by Edouard Vuillard's gorgeous Woman in an Interior (Madame Hessel at Les Clayes). The lower galleries held collections of ancient As…

Poem: Leave with Nothing

Who needs ten shirts when two will do, one on the back,
the other in the wash? Who needs five pairs of jeans?
Who, in his right mind, needs two pairs of underwear?
Too many! Who goes to the laundromat in briefs?

I have lived with little, I will live with less.
These books, accumulated like a secret vice,
seduced even the saint, and so must be reduced
to ten, no, five, no, two, no, no, how about one?

None! So, when a man needs you, he says, to go,
same man who needed you a year ago to stay,
you won’t leave with a rucksack and three shopping bags,
but fill your empty pockets with your empty hands.

You have lived with little, you will live with less.
Welcome, welcome, welcome to your new address.

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Cold Medium and Hot Stream

TLS July 25 2008 (yes, I know, it's a while ago):

from Anthony Grafton's review of James Simpson's Burning to Read: English fundamentalism and its Reformation opponents:

In [James Simpson’s] view, the great translator William Tyndale did not liberate the human spirit by turning the sacred texts of Christianity into English. Rather, he imprisoned it in chains of paper. Tyndale and his ilk caused what Simpson calls the rise of “fundamentalism”, the literalist form of religious reading that has repeatedly shown the power, especially in recent yearsm to provoke violence and hatred around the world.

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Debates on small points, instead of being settled by conversation, turned into mortal combat simply because scholars conducted them in print. The new medium, cold, distant and precise, enabled writers to excerpt, anatomize and mutilate their opponents' words, paragraph by paragraph and sentence by sentence, using all the textual violence they could devise.

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In the end, Simpson arg…

Roberto Calasso's "Ka: Stories of the Mind and Gods of India"

Calasso retells the Indian myths in this book, and makes them gripping, probing and mysterious. In the first story, Garuda, the eagle, is born to save his mother from slavery to her own sister. The method of the myths and of the retelling is described by Garuda himself: "So many things happening, so many stories one inside the other, with every link hiding yet more stories . . . And I've hardly hatched from my egg."

After freeing his mother, Garuda decided to devote himself to reading the Vedas in the Rauhina tree. Reading hymn one hundred and twenty-one in the tenth book of the Rig Veda, he found the question that gave the book its title: "Who (Ka) is the god to whom we should offer our sacrifice?"

Estuary to a hidden ocean, that syllable (Ka) would go on echoing within him as the essence of the Vedas. Garuda stopped and shut his eyes. He had never felt so uncertain, and so close to understanding. Never felt so light, in that sudden absence of names. When he ope…

Paperoles and Glass

Last night I made another stab at reducing the pile of unread magazines and journals, and read TLS July 11 2008.

from Peter Brook's review of Michael Murphy's Proust and America:

But Murphy subtly and convincingly argues that Proust's sense of the "metaphorics of retrospection" has an Emersonian cast: the "looping-the-loop" by which we return to our earlier selves, and which opens on to Marcel's eventual discovery that the writer's task is that of translator--of life, of nature--recalls Emerson's sense of nature as a place of signsm a place engaged in a perpetual writing. Proustian metaphor espouses the famous Emersonian credo that words are signs of natural facts, and natural facts are signs of spiritual facts.

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If "love" in Proust is self-torturingm riven with jealousy, doubt and a masochistic need to witness the beloved's infidelity, this is part and parcel of the detective work that characterizes his novel, as it does Poe'…

Irish Hungers

I just read again Swift's "A Modest Proposal" in order to teach a class for a colleague. The savagery of the satire strikes me as hard as before. The outrage over the suffering of the Irish poor in 1729. The bitterness against England's exploitation. Particularly moving are the passages detailing groups such as begging mothers, and, more unexpectedly, young laborers. After dismissing the problem of the "aged, diseased and maimed," who take care of themselves by dying and rotting away, the speaker argues that the same is happening to the laborers.
And as to the younger laborers, they are now in almost as hopeful a condition. They cannot get work, and consequently pine away for want of nourishment to a degree that if at any time they are accidentally hired to common labor, they have not strength of perform it; and thus the country and themselves are happily delivered from the evils to come.
Thinking about this monument of English prose, I am reminded of another…

To be industrious and original

from T. H. Breen's review of Jan de Vries's The Industrious Revolution: Consumer behavior and the household economy:

Between 1650 and 1850, the households throughout north-west Europe and British America responded to consumer incentives not only by working harder, but also by redefining the character of work. . . . In general, men and women worked longer hours. They had fewer holidays. The major force driving the "industrious revolution", however, appears to have been the labour of women and children. Women devoted themselves to productive activities that expanded household income; they stopped making articles at home that they could now purchase. Some engaged in proto-industrial pursuits--spinning and weaving flax and cotten, for example--while others cultivated crops to be sold on the market. A surprisingly large number of women ran small shops.

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A major break in the story occurred around 1850, when the industrious household gave way to an entirely new structure, whi…

T. Schreiber Studio's "Twelfth Night"

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My first visit to the T. Schreiber Studio last Thursday, with The Quarterback, to watch Cat Parker's production of Twelfth Night, or What You Will. The direction banked on chic, rather than depth, replacing Elizabethan songs with the steampunk music of Cloud Cult, projecting backdrops and stage scenes onto the back screen. The actors were encumbered by the task of filling in a large crossword puzzle in the middle of the stage with words like "melancholy," "love," and "gentleman."

The acting was uneven. Jacqueline van Biene, who played Viola, brought a certain charisma to the performance. Her Viola was intelligent and passionate, qualities which make it even more mystifying how she could fall for the lethargic Duke Orsino. Julian Elfer was a very funny Malvolio; the genius of his performance lay in making him almost tragic. In the cell scene, he was not just pitiable in his deception, but, struggling to remain standing despite his agonizing bewilderment…

Louis Menand on Lionel Trilling

In The New Yorker Sep 29, 2008, Louis Menand wrote a long article about Trilling as a literary critic, public intellectual and fiction writer. One section, of interest to me, depicts Trilling's attitude towards being Jewish.

"It is never possible for a Jew of my generation to 'escape' his Jewish origin," Trilling explained, in a symposium on Jewish writers in 1944. Still, he said:

I cannot discover anything in my professional intellectual life which I can specifically trace back to my Jewish birth and rearing. I do not think of myself as a "Jewish writer." I do not have in mind to serve by my writing any Jewish purpose. I should resent it if a critic of my work were to discover in it either faults or virtues which he called Jewish.

Around the same time, Trilling was asked to address Jewish students at Columbia. There is no innate quality of Jewishness, he told them. The culture of an American Jew is not Jewish; it's American. Jewishness exists only bec…

Umor, amor, and bookworm repellent

Reviewing The Cambridge Companion to Lucretius (ed. Stuart Gillespie and Philip Hardie), Emily Gowers writes (TLS October 3 2008):
By rejecting transliterated Greek terms like atomi in favour of metaphors like semina (seeds) and genitalia corpora (generative bodies), [Lucretius] craftily presumes the material nature of the smallest units of life in advance of further proof. And the exaggerated trickle of word into word in his honeyed verse is the cleverest means of suggesting organic interrelations in the physical world, most famously through fortuitous phonetic connections: the link between lignum (wood) and ignis (fire) "proves" the metamorphosis of timber into ashes; that between umor (semen) and amor (love) reduces sex to an exchange of bodily fluids.
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The poem on "all things" [i.e. De rerum natura] is also a compendium of all stylistic moods and registers, with an almost organic identity of its own: a shifting amoeba living out its predicted cycles of growth, …

Journeys Across Race, Place, and Time

Before going to the Kundiman poetry reading at Fordham University last night, Pauline and I had dinner at Nook in Hell's Kitchen. Dinner was very pleasant, sauced by talk about the ekphrastic stories she is writing, and about the book of poems I am publishing next April. She gave me a copy of her essay published in an anthology of women's writing, Homelands: women's journeys across race, place, and time (edited by Patricia Justine Tumang and Jenesha De Rivera, and published by Seal Press). Pauline's essay charted her own journey towards accepting her ethnic identity as a Korean adoptee, and her gender identity as a transgendered woman.

The essay--and the life--is remarkable for the geography it traverses. At the age of eight months, Pauline was flown from Seoul to Tokyo, then to Anchorage, and then to Chicago, where she was picked up by her foster parents, and brought back to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. That flight set the pattern for a peripatetic life afterwards. Madison fo…

Elia Kazan's "A Streetcar Named Desire"

Watched the film on my laptop on Sunday night, the 1993 re-release with the cuts restored. It felt melodramatic, rather than dramatic. I would like to watch the play, and compare it with the film. Film robs the drama of its physicality, I think, the menacing swagger of Stanley Kowalski, the sexual tension between Stanley and his wife, Stella, and the shocking rape of Blanche DuBois. On film, the smashing of windows and crockery blended into the soundtrack. 
I still remember the visceral shock of watching Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge in the theater. The actor who played Eddie Carbone was a powerful physical presence. He dominated the stage in all three dimensions, and then some. Film not only converts flesh into celluloid, it also demystifies the body by making a picture of it.

Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick"

Moby-Dick is not a novel, but a Dramatic Poem. Its sources are Homer, Shakespeare, Milton, and the Bible. Its spirit is not realistic, but idealistic; it sees in the things of earth shadows of things in heaven, or, as Ahab puts it, “Not the smallest atom stirs or lives on matter, but has its cunning duplicate in mind.” Its strategies are self-consciously dramatic: dialogues that rival for color and comedy the exchanges between Lear and the Fool; soliloquies that aim for the grandeur of Hamlet; and action that extends its import, as in Homer, through extended metaphors. Where it pauses to catch its breath, it sees analogies everywhere, in the parts of the ship, in the members of the crew, in the stages of killing and boiling down a whale. Ahab, who sets out to kill the White Whale, discovers he is the White Whale, just as Ishmael, who sets out to tell the story of Ahab, finds out, in this obsessive narrative, he is Ahab.

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Chapter I Loomings—Not ignoring what is good, I am quick to perce…

Best of the Web

Valparaiso Review announces its three nominations for the Best of the Web anthology from Dzanc Books, a non-profit independent publisher. 
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Howard from PFFA drew attention to a neat idea: a poet laureate map. Another Canadian first?

Victoria Chang's "Salvinia Molesta"

Victoria Chang dances with three Muses in her second poetry collection: Clio, the Muse of history; Erato, the Muse of love; and Melpomene, the Muse of tragedy. Though all three hover over every section of the book, each Muse presides over her own section. 
The first section deals with Chinese history. It begins with the poem "Hanging Mao Posters" and ends with the poem "After Hanging Mao Posters." The formal gesture (it makes me think of theater banners) prepares the reader for the section's meditation on big themes, such as the Cultural Revolution, the Nanking Massacre, and China-Taiwan relations. 
Chang approaches the Cultural Revolution symbolically (a poem about Mao's "Four Pests" campaign against rats, flies, mosquitoes and sparrows), empathetically (a poem speaks in the voice of Jiang Qing, Mao's wife, who committed suicide while under house arrest), and in identification (a poem describes an uncle who "disappeared" after he was …