Showing posts from November, 2008

Gus Van Sant's "Milk"

Milk is Harvey Milk, California's first openly gay elected official who was assassinated in 1978 by fellow San Francisco supervisor, Dan White. A well-made biopic, the film does not try to go beyond the conventions of the genre. At 128 minutes, it also feels on the long side. 
Part of the problem is that the Harvey Milk character is not fully fleshed out, and so he appears in the film something of a saint. There are allusions to shadows--he has not come out to his own parents, he likes to help vulnerable young men--but they remain oblique to the main action. The struggle between social activism and personal losses--one lover leaves him, another lover hangs himself--is depicted, but in dramatically predictable manner. 
The real conflict in the film takes place between the Castro Street activists and the bigoted Christian campaigners, Anita Bryant and State Senator John Briggs (Denis O'Hare), over Prop 6 that sought to fire gay teachers and their supporters. But since the homophob…

William Eggleston at the Whitney

I have not seen all that many photographic exhibitions (Diane Arbus, Robert Mapplethorpe, Stephen Shore, Walker Evans, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, James Bidgood spring to mind) but William Eggleston: Democratic Camera, Photographs and Video, 1961-2008 struck me as the best I have ever seen. It was consistently eye-pleasing, thought-provoking, and heart-warming; it was also very funny in places. Refusing to rank or exclude objects from his democratic field of vision, Eggleston trains his camera everywhere, making what the exhibition justifiably calls "indelible images" out of common things. 
I remember a green-tiled bathroom, with a green bathtub. Though a little moldy between the tiles in the corner, the bathroom glows of cleaning. A light coming into the bathroom creates a chapel-like arch above the green tiles, and the bathtub becomes a baptismal pool.
A man in his fifties sits on a bed covered in a rubber sheet. He is balding, and he stares vacantly into the air of …

Poem Nominated for Pushcart Prize

Sunny Woan, the editor of Kartika Review, has just told me that not only will the review be publishing my poem "Childhood Punishments" in Issue  #4, but it will also be nominating the poem for the Pushcart. What a brilliant surprise for this Thanksgiving! I am celebrating by eating my Shin Bowl Noodle Soup. Yum.

Rephotographs and Counterlife

The New Yorker, October 15, 2007

Yes, yes, it's a really old number. Reading Peter Schjeldahl's review of Richard Prince at the Guggenheim reminds me of my own reaction to the retrospective of this American appropriations artist. Of Prince's rephotograph of a Garry Gross photograph, of a naked Brooke Shields, aged ten, her prepubescent body oiled and face given womanly make-up, Schjeldahl writes:

The Guggenheim's chief curator, Nancy Spector--who, working closely with the artist, has installed the show with excellent rhythm and clarity--hastens, in an essay in the catalogue, to defend the work as social criticism, "a portrait of desperation" exposing the American pursuit of fame at any cost. But she thereby fails to credit (if that's the word) Prince's omnivorous connoisseurship of kink, as in paintings (which have been selling for millions at aunctions) from covers of semi-smutty romance novels featuring nurses. He doesn't diagnose decadence. He sw…

Soy de Singapur

I started learning Spanish last month, weekly lessons with a tutor who comes to my place. Why Spanish? I don't know, really. Small causes turned the floating needle. Getting to know a Spanish colleague. Reading Octavio Paz and Marquez. Wanting to read Neruda and Lorca. Moving among so many Spanish speakers in NYC. Thinking of visiting Central and South America for the first time. Intrigued by Moorish culture in southern Spain.

After putting it off for a couple of weeks (I am not a very good student), I finally wrote, with the help of, my first Spanish composition for my tutor. I found the experience liberating in some ways. Freed from the rage for perfect order, I enjoyed the simple act of putting down one word after another. I was happy to learn that the word for "lovers" is "enamorados," and to remember that "fiesta" means "party."

Soy de Singapur, un pais en Asia del sudoeste. Hay seis milliones de gente en este pais, la m…

Henry James's "The Ambassadors"

I finish reading this novel feeling exalted and cowed by what a man may accomplish in a work of fiction. Human relationships, so various, so changing, so beautiful, are so variously, changeably and beautifully conceived here that they constitute a cause for moral uplift and terror. Flying from an apparent bedrock of ethical certainties, fine discriminations flutter in the air, and cannot find a sure place to land. All (a word that punctuates the novel like an orgasmic cry) is guesswork: who is the "wicked" Frenchwoman holding Chad Newsome back from returning to Woollet, Massachusetts, to take up his responsibility as heir to a great manufacturing concern? how is Lambert Strether, himself a fiance and supplicant to Chad's formidable mother, to convince the prodigal son of his duty? what, really, is one's duty to life?
The third person narrative, told entirely through the perspective of Strether, dramatizes the changes in his consciousness wrought by the atmosphere of t…

Jesus in a scalding bath

I had never heard of Faithful Teate (the father of Nahum Tate), and so was interested in Elizabeth Scott-Baumann's review of his "epic lyric" Ter Tria, edited by Angelina Lynch. Scott-Baumann (following Lynch?), defines the epic lyric as "a contradictory category that conveys the sense of a public poem, but one with some of the introspective intensity of more personal lyrics by greater seventeenth-century devotional poets." 
While devotional poetry of the period often used monarchical images to describe Eden as a court and God as king, Teate, a Puritan, portrayed Eden as a "treasurie", a "Minting-house" and a naval stronghold. Images of reading and writing pervade the poem: Christ is a "new Edition" of Adam and the Old Testament is "the coppy". Jesus, in his first-person narrative at the Last Supper, employs intensely visceral language in the mode of the Jesuit poet Robert Southwell. He demands of his disciples, "Can …

Elizabeth Peyton at the New Museum

With Kevin, I visited the New Museum for the first time today. The building, made up of staggered white boxes, looked self-consciously contemporary in the row of old apartment buildings along Bowery. The space inside was bare. An uncovered concrete floor. Lots of glass and whitewashed walls. What was perhaps intended to be casual chic felt to me non-committal. The space was inarticulate.
"Live Forever: Elizabeth Peyton," the exhibition of a fifteen-year career, took up two floors. Peyton drew portraits, ranging from historical figures (Ludwig II of Bavaria, Napoleon), to cultural icons (Kurt Cobain, Sid Vicious, Lady Diana Spencer), to artistic contemporaries and friends. Most of the portraits were small oils on board, a number were drawings, a few were done in color pencil. Despite the range of subjects, the portraits resembled each other uncannily: androgynous, youthful, cropped hair, luscious mouth, and defined jaw. The attraction here was noble youth and its vulnerability…

"Love is the desire to prostitute oneself"

Leo Bersani's Baudelaire and Freud (1977) operates on the fundamental Freudian assumption that "no text is fully present to itself." Attention to its "lack" will propel the reader from the text into "a fascination with other texts having the same potential for both fixing and scattering our attention," in this study, Freud's texts. Bersani is careful not to view Freud's texts as a master-key to unlock the meaning of Baudelaire's poetry; instead, Freud's texts "bring a certain coherence to the given literary text and accelerate its disruptive interpretive mobility," a statement which I take to mean, Freud will give a meaning (not the meaning) of Baudelaire, and will clarify the subversive nature of his poetry.
I am wary of psychoanalytical (or Marxist or feminist or queer) readings of literature because all too often they reduce literary works to codes to be cracked by the theorist, and the decoded meanings sound distressingly…

"That deep, true, inner form"

Singapore Jade sent me this wonderful Hugo von Hofmannsthal letter purportedly written by Lord Chandos, the younger son of the Earl of Bath, to Francis Bacon, explaining his abandonment of literary activity. "What is man that he is full of plans?" he asks, and then proceeds to describe in ecstatic detail the literary projects he envisioned in his youth: a history of Henry VIII, a key to ancient fable, a compendium of maixims. In those days, he "divined that all was an allegory, that each creature was a key to all the others; and I felt myself the one capable of seizing each by the handle and unlocking as many of the others that were ready to yield."

Poem: Seven Studies for a Self-Portrait (Study #7)

Study #7
after Yasumasa Morimura

After strapping the tits to my narrow chest
and pulling the famous hair over my scalp,

I talk to Marilyn about loving Art, playing
dumb blonde, being typecast as one thing.

She answers, with a toss of her head,
her nipples erect as the stalk of a fruit,

Grab me. I demur. Out of politeness
or fear or disbelief. She takes my hands

by the wrists, presses them between her
thighs. Now we can talk about anything.


The Pearl Theater Company's "The Oedipus Cycle"

Last night I watched all three Theban plays by Sophocles, one after another: Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone. The performance lasted about three hours, with a ten-minute intermission between each play. The experience of watching three tragedies in a row approximated that of Sophocles's audience, who would watch a tragedian's trilogy (and a satyr play) in one day of the Dionysian festival, and then come back for another playwright's tetralogy the next day.

Sophocles did not write his three plays for the same festival. Antigone is the earliest of the three, followed by Oedipus Rex, and then Oedipus at Colonus. Written earliest, Antigone is the weakest of the three, and so last night ended somewhat anti-climactically. The translation (a world premiere) for the performance is by Peter Constantine. It is direct and modern, without lapsing into untoward colloquialism, though I missed the poetry of the Fitzgerald translation.

Eight actors took on all the parts. The a…

Poem: Seven Studies for a Self-Portrait (Study #6)

Study #6
after Andy Warhol

Why be a man when you can be a brand?
Be copies the machine clicks to the market
to compete against other copies for a niche.
Not Nietzsche, but Benjamin. My fancy
education. My immigrant genes. My coming
out or not coming out, and other agony stories.
What are they but printings on silkscreens,
recognizable by the cock or white shock of hair?
I’m waiting, like a dupe, in a photo booth,
thinking if I should pay for duplicates.


Poem: Seven Studies for a Self-Portrait (Study #5)

Study #5
after Frida Kahlo

I dream I am a wreck of a woman.

I am not grand like a ruins, I am not a broken column.

I am the traffic accident on morning radio.

A bus handrail is sticking in my uterus like a huge thumbtack.

My collarbone hangs round my throat like a necklace.

I dream a monkey is picking up bits of my spine with his pale hands.

The monkey is carefully arranging me back together.

I hear the Professor say the monkey is the traditional symbol for lust.

My monkey is very gentle.

When he is finished, I will take him to my breast, and offer him my nipple.


Henry James's "The Wings of the Dove"

John Bayley, in his introduction to my Penguin Classics edition, describes the novel acutely as "the most sensational combination of a stage drama, indeed a melodrama, with a lengthy and elaborate novel, unfolded with the greatest delicacy and sophistication." He quotes James from his Notebooks, "The divine principle is a key that, working in the same general way, fits the complicated chambers of both the narrative and the dramatic lock."

The plot is simple: Kate Croy, poor and dependent on her aunt, Mrs Lowder, manipulates her lover Merton Densher to marry the American heiress Milly Theale, fabulously rich, young, and dying. The drama lies in the twists and turns of the conspiracy and its unexpected outcome. More significantly, the novel dramatizes Merton's gradual understanding of Kate's plan, and the effect of that understanding on their love. Bayley aptly compares them to Macbeth and his wife, united in their conspiracy to kill the king, only to be undo…

Poem: Seven Studies for a Self-Portrait (Study #4)

Study #4
after Egon Schiele

Look at me, cock in my claws,
comb-crimson from scratching.
Skinny arm kinks round my
back, but can’t kill the itch.
The hand can’t scratch its bone.
I snapped off the black arrows
but their featherless beaks peck
at the sacs. Their broken feet
scratch in the scattered flesh.
I stretch the canvas on the rack.


Poem: Seven Studies for a Self-Portrait (Study #3)

Study #3
after Vincent van Gogh

God sank a mineshaft into me for a reason
I could not see in the coal-mining district.
Coal dust ate the potatoes and beer.
When a man slammed into a woman, the dust
rose in their heads and formed a cloud.
I carried away what was mine, and burned
black into blue, red into rose, yellow to gold.
I burn the stars and each becomes a galaxy.
I burn the fuse of flesh and my face bursts
into a wheel of fireworks, a vase of sunflowers.


Poem: Seven Studies for a Self-Portrait (Study #2)

Study #2
after Rembrandt van Rijn

The guarantee is your willingness to pull faces
at yourself, and to let the weather do likewise.
No plastic surgery. No wrinkle cream. No hair dye.
Laugh lines, you call the creases in the parchment.
The titles at the top, you call, of course, headlines.
This face is, you say, with a mental flourish, me.
Well, in that case, who am I? Who is this writing
about you, making you up as I paint and repaint,
giving you the best lines, begging a few laughs?
Who is this dour worrier, but your dear guarantor?


Poem: Seven Studies for a Self-Portrait (Study #1)

Study #1
after Albrecht Dürer

Double eye. Double bind. Double blind.
The dark paints the dark in the dark.
I am the Christ. I am not the Christ.
I am not making any claims, so I claim.
Look at my eyes. They are mine, so dark
they are black. They endure, they endure.
When the doormaker throws the light in
my face and shows my eyes are brown,
you shan’t take my word for it any more.
My word can stand down, leave by the door.



Poetry-Free-For-All is getting people to write seven poems in seven days, starting on the seventh of the month, i.e. this Friday. It is a week-version of National Poetry Writing Month (NaPoWrMo), in which you write a poem a day for 30 days. Seven seems like a good distance to me, to write at full stretch, and it gives three weeks for rest and recovery before the next race. Seven is such a potent figure too, inspiring all kinds of magic and myth. 
I plan to write "Seven Studies for a Self-Portrait." Each study will be written after a well-known self-portraitist. That "after" is very open. My seven masters will be Albrecht Durer, Rembrandt van Rijn, Vincent van Gogh, Egon Schiele, Frida Kahlo, Andy Warhol, and Yasumasa Morimura. Rembrandt and van Gogh are obvious suspects; the others came to me as I googled the net. I did not know Morimura's appropriation art till this morning, and he seems to make a good endpoint since he photographs himself in the garb and postu…

Poem in "Best Gay Poetry 2008"

Just heard from Lawrence Schimel, of A Midsummer Night's Press, that my poem "Glass Orgasm" has been accepted for this year's Best Gay Poetry. The anthology will be published in December. Nice to get some good news.


The New Yorker, October 20, 2008
from Dana Goodyear's profile of Gary Snyder:
Snyder's most complex and difficult work is "Mountains and Rivers Without End," a poem cycle that absorbe him from 1956 until 1996, and whose title is taken from a category of Chinese landscape paintings. . . . The poem--which was published in 1997 and moves through terrain as varied as the Northwestern highway 99, New York City, and Kathmandu, invoking Buddhas, telling old folk stories, explaining geo-history, tracing rivers, meeting talking animals--is structured, to some extent, like a Noh play. "It follows jo-ha-kyu," Snyder said. "Jo means 'serene introduction.' Ha means 'extended and detailed narrative information.' Kyu means 'an ending which is surprisingly sudden.' . . . The Japanese say, 'Listen to the birdsong, it has a jo, a ha, and a kyu.' To them it's completely natural."
from Joan Acocella's "Second Look" at…

The Most Original of the Fakers

The New Yorker, October 2008

from Claudia Roth Pierpont's essay "Method Man" on Marlon Brando:

[Of "A Streetcar Named Desire"] Without changing a word, the actor seemed to have expanded the role and turned Williams's original meaning upside down. Jessica Tandy, the British actress who played Blanche, was furious that the audience laughed along with Stanley's jokes at her expense--as though he were a regular guy putting an uppity woman in her place--and stunned that it openly extended its sympathies more to the executioner than his victim. The reason was not just Brando's youth: it was the comic innocence that fuelled the gibes, the baffled tenderness beneath the toughness. The face above the heavily muscled body was angelic; the pain he showed when he broke down and wailed for his wife was searing, elemental. And his intensity was almost unbearable. One critic wrote that "Brando seems always on the verge of tearing down the proscenium with his ba…