Showing posts from December, 2008

Roberto Calasso's "Ka" 2

After a long interval, I finished reading Calasso's retelling of the Indian myths. I summarized the first six chapters in this blogpost. This post will be briefer on the next nine chapters.
Chapter VII describes the sacrifice of the horse, the "king of all sacrifices," Calasso writes, for he who celebrated it became king of all kings and would obtain everything he desired. Before the horse died, it was allowed to wander any land it wished, protected by four hundred armed guards. During the wait, stories (pariplavas) of the deeds of gods and kings were endlessly recited. Narrative thus became
. . . a way of preventing the relationship with the wandering horse from being broken. The narrative wandered around like the horse. The secret thought of the narrative is the horse. The secret thought of the horse is the narrative.
When the horse returned, it was strangled, and then the king's first wife lay with the dead horse, its phallus introduced into her vulva. When morning c…

Monuments of Magnificence

TLS November 28 2008
from Alexander Murray's review of Byzantium exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts (until March 22):
This strong concept of state was expressed in the Emperor's status. Constantine's move had exposed the imperial office to theocratic traditions older and stronger than anything comparable in the West, traditions which saw a ruler as quasi-divine. These traditions were now to be reflected in the Emperor's cult and court, and included such embellishments as those singing birds made of gold, which Liudprand of Cremona saw on a visit in 949-50, and which would inspire W. B. Yeats in "Sailing to Byzantium". 
Consider the ubiquitous Byzantine image of Christos Pantocrator, "Ruler of All". Is he really human, or superhuman? The same man surely could not also have undergone torture and death, like a criminal. This tension left its mark on many artefacts, among them the early crucifixes . . . . Even then, a crucifixion image had to show ne…

Human Meat, History Books

TLS December 5 2008

from Alan Jenkins' review of Francis Bacon at Tate Britain:

Yet, as John Russell pointed out nearly thirty years ago, "perhaps the most persistent of Bacon's preoccupations is the problem of what a man is to do when he is alone in a room" . . .


Bacon would sometimes, to achieve the desired "thickness", model his single figure on a sequence of photographs from Eadweard Muybridge's The Human Body in Motion that showed two men wrestling--though at a glance, they could be having sex. . . . Then, once he had begun to show two or more people, the coupling--as in those earlier exceptions--becomes explicit.


In her catalogue essay Victoria Walsh cites Foundations of Modern Art by Amédée Ozenfant (1931) as having perhaps fertilized the insatiably curious young painter's imagination in ways that would lie dormant for years: "The search for intensity dominates the whole of modern painting. There can be no intensity without simplification,…

Leon Edel's "Henry James: The Untried Years"

Edel takes a chronological approach to his subject, beginning with sharp portraits of Henry James Sr. and Mary Walsh, before taking in the years of their son's life, from 1843 to 1870. The first installment of this five-volume work ends with the death of Minny Temple, James's beloved young cousin, and with his return to Boston after a year's travel in Europe. 
The chronological narrative is occasionally interrupted by sidebar discussions of significant events in young James's life, for instance, his nightmare based on his experience of the Louvre. These discussions highlight what Edel sees as the themes of this writer's life. The nightmare, illuminated by other incidents, illustrates the fierce sibling rivalry between William and Henry, the latter obsessed with being second born, and so with being inferior to the elder. 
Another theme is James's fear of female sexuality, a fear his biographer lays at the door of--not quite persuasively--his mother's "vam…

Afterimages of Life

TLS December 19 & 26 2008
Karl Miller reviews Dennis O'Driscoll's Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney:
God is no longer dead, at all events, as Heaney may have been moved, with his generation, to wonder in the 1960s. The poet sees ghosts, and his poetry, when it began in him, was experienced as a "redemptive grace". There is, if not an afterlife, an "afterimage of life".
[Heaney:] "The dark matter of the news headlines needed to get into Field Work, but the light I was hoping for is the kind that derives from clarity of expression, from plainer speaking . . . ".
Neil Forsyth reviews Nigel Smith's Is Milton better than Shakespeare?
The "gums of gluttonous heat" that make the Lady stick to her chair in Comus Smith describes as "frankly, spermatic", which is taken to be a sign of Milton's inability to confront sexual issues directly. But Smith soon follows this up with the interesting fact that Milton change…

"Consider it Poetry of Architecture"

I had been unimpressed by the architecture of San Francisco, seeing in the motley houses and buildings some individual charm but lacking in coherence, a bigger totality. Until my walk this morning to the imposing Pacific Heights neighborhood, to the Swedenborgian Church along Lyon, at Washington. Having read Leon Edel's account of Henry James Sr.'s conversion to that religion, I was keen to meet a building devoted to its worship, out here on the West Coast. 
I cannot describe it better than Kevin Starr, whose leaflet I picked up from the back of the chapel. According to the yellow leaflet, Starr was formerly City Librarian of San Francisco, and is today a Visiting Professor at the University of Southern California. Re-typing his words feels, to me, like running my fingers over the handmade maple chairs again. His writing is so aware and textured, knotted with precise details, slotted with vivid sketches, and glistening with just opinions.
Joseph Worcester and Kindred Souls
First …

Gwee Li Sui's article "The Road People"

Li Sui was kind enough to send his Asiaticarticle to the poets he cited in it. The long scholarly discussion analyzes the relationship between some Singaporean poems and that country's restless urban flux, represented by the constant dilemma of roads. Having just motored from Santa Cruz back to San Francisco last night, I was especially taken by the contrast Li Sui alludes to between postmodernist visions of infinite roads, and Singapore's anxiety-ridden views of limits.

Poems by Lee Tzu Pheng, Boey Kim Cheng, Paul Tan, Felix Cheong, Alvin Pang and Aaron Lee predict, lament, visualize, and compose those limits. One of my early poems, "Going Home from Church on Bus 197," included in No Other City: the Ethos Anthology of Urban Poetry (2000), is part of Gwee's discussion.

Asiatic, a journal of English Language and Literature published by the International Islamic University of Malaysia, is worth looking into for itself. It publishes not only scholarly articles on Asia…


Built around a squarish stairwell, the interior of the museum presented to the eye a series of cuboid faces, which resolved, as one climbed up the stairs, round and round, into circular shapes at the very top, a metal bridge spanning the stairwell, leading to the final galleries. Martin Puryear's craft-like sculptures were on display at the top, and having seen them in New York MoMA I enjoyed making my acquaintance with them again, especially the "Circle" series. 
Just below the top floor, a whole level was dedicated to participation art, which I am not interested in, and so did not visit. Another level for photography showcased images of microscopic specimens and telescopic sights. Walking through that space I felt I was looking at natural history, instead of art. The SFMoMA seemed to suffer from a multiple personality disorder.
On the second level were the paintings and sculptures from the permanent collection. The exhibition space was not large, and so most painters wer…

Strange suspended world

I'm flying to San Francisco today, on United Airlines Flight 15. The plane will take off from JFK at 3:00 PM EST, and land at San Francisco International at 6:37 PM PST. I will retrieve my red rucksack from the overhead compartment, shuffle behind a college student returning home for Christmas, thank the smiling flight attendant, stroll down the box corridors with their commanding signs, and, exiting that strange suspended world, walk into time and James. 
What will we find in that little fold of time, when time slows down for itself, and stands in its own feet? How will time sleep during the week?

Leon Edel's Biography of Henry James: "The Untried Years"

This first part of a four-volume biography quotes James in its epigraph:
To live over people's lives is nothing unless we live over their perceptions, live over the growth, the change, the varying intensity of the same--since it was by these things they themselves lived.
"The varying intensity of the same" is the particularly Jamesian note, I think, both in the focus on intensity, and the focusing, of the observing eye, on "the varying . . . same." 
Edel writes with much sympathetic quickness of Henry James, Sr.'s rebellion against his Presbyterian father, and his discovery of the Swedenborgian God. His portrait of Henry Jr.'s mother, Mary Walsh, is less persuasive. He sees her as the Queen of the household, the power on whom Henry Sr. depended, but I don't see why such dependence should lead to a dissolution of masculine vitality, a dissolution so marked that Henry Jr. writes it up as a Vampire theme in his stories. Dependence, and thus, security, cou…

Marlene Dumas at the MoMA

The New Yorker, December 22 & 29, 2008
Peter Schjeldahl writes on the Dumas exhibition at the MoMA:
There is a heaviness to the paintings of the South African-born, Dutch-based artist Marlene Dumas, as if they might fall off the wall and break the floor. And yet they are thinly brushed, for the most part, on ordinary canvases. There's a flypaper stickiness about them, too, though their usual surface is matte and dry. The impressions are emotional.
Her art rarely conveys feeling so much as excites it and then absorbs it, to the benefit of the work's authority. She doesn't give; she takes.
[Of "Stern" (2004), based on Gerhard Richter's "October 18, 1977" (1988), itself in turn based on photographs of the Baader-Meinhof militants] she drags the drama of a particularly haunting tragedy back to the secondhandedness of the photograph from the thirdhandedness of Richter's painting. By this and analogous uses of imagination, Dumas suggests, a life of …


Charles Musser, the Managing Editor of Soundzine, emailed me to say that three poems have been accepted for the February issue. So you can hear me read "Ribs," "New Year Resolution," and "Little Men" on that audio-journal of poetry come Feb. The journal also publishes beautiful art and photography. "Ribs" will be the first part of "The Book of the Body" to be published, appropriately, since it is about genesis. 

Better Early Than Late

from Henry James's The Ambassadors:

And when after this little Bilham, submissive and responsive, but with an eye to the consolation nearest, easily threw off some 'Better late than never!' all he got in return for it was a sharp 'Better early than late!' This note indeed the next thing overflowed for Strether into a quiet stream of demonstration that as soon as he had let himself go he felt as the real relief. It had consciously gathered to a head, but the reservoir had filled sooner than he knew, and his companion's touch was to make the waters spread. There were some things that had to come in time if they were to come at all. if they didn't come in time they were lost for ever. It was the general sense of them that had overwhelmed him with its long slow rush.
'It's not too late for you, on any side, and you don't strike me as in danger of missing the train; besides which people can be in general pretty well trusted, of course--with the clock o…

Alex Ross on Leonard Bernstein

The New Yorker, December 15, 2008
Of Bernstein conducting Mahler's Second Symphony, the "Resurrection," Ross writes:
At the climax of the first movement, the brass unleash militant chords that turn fearsomely dissonant, while a scale grinds downward in the remainder of the orchestra. The sequence ends with a violently plunging octave figure. I remember Bernstein flinging down his arms to produce it. On the recording, you can hear the echo sail down the nave of the cathedral, like a hammer thrown with enormous force.
The moment exemplifies Bernstein's ability to render almost any abstract sequence of notes or chords as a physical act, a sweatily human gesture. . . . 
The American gesture. American Expressionism. Abstraction as a physical act, a "sweatily human gesture."

Of Bernstein's democratic taste and global syntax:

In childhood, Bernstein was an omnivorous consumer of music, blissfully unaware of the distinctions between high and low, elite and pop. He h…

Henry James's "The Golden Bowl"

In The Golden Bowl, James finds the perfect metaphor for his material and his method. The comforts of life, enjoyed by rich Americans Adam Verver and his daughter Maggie, are rounded and finished off by their collection of art. To this connoisseurship of life and art, they add the Italian Prince, immensely cultured, immensely poor, whose marriage to Maggie initiates the plot. The marriage also initiates a crack in the blessed cup since the Prince was intimately involved with Maggie's friend Charlotte Stant before the marriage, but chooses to hide that intimacy from his bride. Maggie's marriage disturbs the loving equilibrium between father and daughter who advises him to re-marry, so that he will not be alone. The circle closes when Adam Verver, to please his daughter, marries Charlotte, and the impoverished girl accepts the older man for the sake of her passion for the Prince. This outline is but a mould, whereas the novel itself is the golden bowl. 
The work is divided into t…

Poem: Translations Of An Unknown Mexican Poet (7)

Translations Of An Unknown Mexican Poet


The storm blew out the trees, and night became the night
all of the dark crossed the dark. The mountain heaved
to stony feet and climbed the straining rope of a track,
hand over hand over hand over hand over hand over hand

the ground the mind slept on and dreamed of thinking,
the water the river fed to generous and gated pipes,
the fire the home subdued from lightning and burned,
the air the body breathed without breathing. All’s over.

The mountain climbed, and we hanged off its back,
a rope curling from waist to waist to waist to waist
to an empty noose that hanged straight by its weight.

The storm blew out the trees, and night became the night
all of the dark crossed the dark, on Christmas night.

Poem: Translations Of An Unknown Mexican Poet (6)

Translations Of An Unknown Mexican Poet


Even the light crumples in this city, let alone
the restaurant menu thrust from street corners,
the river trying forever to straighten its creases,
the raveled sleeve of care, the knifing of a king.

In some back kitchen the witches are crumbling
a bag of ears into the soup. In some back alley
the washing machines are muttering at three a.m..
The river tries forever to straighten its creases.

The deed is done. But does it smooth the wrinkles
or shrivel the dark to a thudding heart, to a skip?
Or does the dead, the deed, slip in between the turn
and the twin? How can we bear this trying river,

this crumpling light in the city, this let alone,
if all our heeding doesn’t end with a beheading?

Poem: Translations Of An Unknown Mexican Poet (5)

Translations Of An Unknown Mexican Poet


This house has not grown too tight for Juan yet,
or too last season for a new sense of the world,
but the discontented walls provide no pockets
for half-chewed gum, a shiny quarter, hands.

And the boy is searching for pockets everywhere.
Not the room shared with his sister, not the bed
which sheds its blue cotton skin without warning,
Not even the body turning out its pockets quietly.

My son, there is a silver lining in the mind,
a seam we follow like a suture, then a scar,
and then an igneous ridge on which genius runs,
scrambling and scraping some, to the very head

and see the chewed-up jungle and the shiny cities
kept safe and secret in the pocket of the palm.

Poem: Translations Of An Unknown Mexican Poet (4)

Translations Of An Unknown Mexican Poet


No one is reporting the mysterious package
left in the middle of the packed train platform
but everyone round the package must have seen
the red gift paper tied up with a thread of string.

No one must get hurt, least of all my Rocio,
breathing like a newborn in her big new bed,
white breast unbuttoned by her pink pajamas
and cupped by the night air’s big warm hands.

I hear the rush of trains in my head, the screech
of brakes that power the new engines, the crowd
driving from every direction towards the door—
compulsive ecstasy—before getting on and off.

Someone has to see the mysterious package.
Someone has to say something to the cops.

Poem: Translations Of An Unknown Mexican Poet (3)

Translations Of An Unknown Mexican Poet


After the dark has leaned in the corner for hours,
the corner of the kitchen where I sat to write,
the notebook opened like a souvenir matchbook
down to its last match, the ashtray on my right;

after the dark has looked for hours from the corner
of her eye, has looked pale, lovely, almost white
under her translucent sheath, her mouth a startling
ruby, her ring catching the history of moonlight;

after the dark has listened for corners in the hours,
has listened for the figure in the formless night,
the ranchera in the blood repeating its black plea
for an inhabitable country out of human sight;

I strike my last match and the dark comes to me.
The flame looks and looks, and then it fails to see.

Poem: Translations Of An Unknown Mexican Poet (2)

Translations Of An Unknown Mexican Poet


I’m married to the Mother of unbecoming sorrows.
I approach her like one would approach a shrine
smashed by boys throwing stones for ball practice.
What has a husband to do with sacred fragments?

I’m married to the Mother of unbecoming sorrows.
The children eat from cartons while the bone china
rattles from the cool dark of the heirloom dresser.
Tomorrow I will trash the plates. Or I won’t.

She was a girl, once, green as a stalk of grass
I held between my teeth. She was the dew, once,
translucent sun on the tip of the stalk of grass
I bit into. She was the sap, once, in the grass,

now she’s the Mother of unbecoming sorrows
I’m married to, I’m married to, I’m married to.

The Genius of the Brandenburgs

Thomas Forrest Kelly, a professor of Music at Harvard, spoke on Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, in particular, No. 3, this afternoon. The talk, held in the Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse, was part of the Insights Series organized by the New York Philharmonic, and featured musicians from that orchestra as well as The Julliard School. As requested by Lorin Maazel, who is conducting his final season, the NYP is playing all six of the Concertos. 
Kelly showed some great slides of the manuscript which Bach presented to the Musgrave of Brandenburg. His talk was insightful (for someone like me, at least) and refreshingly irreverent, especially towards Bach's influences, Corelli and Vivaldi. He explained the ritornella, and how its parts were mixed and recombined with increasing sophistication as the concerto developed. In Corelli, the orchestra played the tune while the soloist played the fancy stuff. Vivaldi, in developing the concerto, gave the soloist, as well as the orchestra, a tune. 

Poem: Translations Of An Unknown Mexican Poet (1)

Translations Of An Unknown Mexican Poet


I’m going to kill myself unless the day lets me in.
Every face is a closed door. Every tree is a curtain.
The street pigeon, a cheap doorbell, doesn’t ring.
The bright air gives way, but doesn’t give in or out.

My so-called friends scold, from my dark pint,
Get a grip, amigo! My hands are holding on
to Lola and little Maria, lovely Rocio and Juan,
but they’re so light one moment, so heavy the next,

cursed suitcases, wrong clothes, discontented bodies,
dislocated souls. I’m going to the Brooklyn Bridge,
to the middle of the bridge, to throw myself over it
to find another door since the day won’t let me in,

unless some tree decides to part its curtain an inch,
unless some bird, perhaps a seagull, begins to sing.

My favorite NYC restaurants

I am always at a loss when asked to suggest a nice restaurant in NYC, though I have been to some pretty good ones. With the dumbfoundedness in mind, I am keeping on this blog a list of tried and tested restaurants I like.
-Sripraphai Thai Restaurant: $$, great food, good service, good atmosphere, Queens
-Pudding Noodle, Italian: $$, great food, good service, crowded, Brooklyn Heights
-Nook, eclectic and international: $$, good food, poor service, cosy atmosphere, BYOB, Hell's Kitchen
-Eatery. New American: $$, good/okay food, okay service, people-watching atmosphere, Hell's Kitchen
-Cornelia Street Cafe, New American: $$, good food, good service, lovely atmosphere, Village
-7A Cafe, diner: $$, good food, good service, okay atmosphere, East Village
-Buddakan, Chinese: $$$, okay food, overly attentive service, chic atmosphere, Chelsea
-Overseas Asian, Malaysian: $, best Malaysian, good service, no-frill atmosphere, Chinatown
-New Malaysia: $, great food, good service, good atmosphere, Ch…

Lugar de Mala Muerte

Spanish Composition 2:

Él dice hay una agencia gubernamental en cada ciudad que atiende gente quienes mueren sin dejar un testamento. Trabaja para tal agencia pero prefiere pensar que trabaja para esta gente. No, no un trabajador, más como un familiar que los muertos no tienen.

Cuándo la llamada teléfonica llega, como se sabe que debe llegar, él conduce a la casa, cerca del lugar de mala muerte, y entra al apartamento con la llave del muerto. Siempre da la vuelta la casa, casi esperando ver al muerto cortando las zanahorias en la cocina o doblando los calzoncillos en el dormitorio, antes de hacer una lista de articulos de valor. Dos floreros chinos. Un escritorio de roble. Ciento setenta y cuatros libros. Un juego de cubiertos de plata.

Durante este trabajo cariñoso, se imagina qué va a pasar cuándo muera. ¿Quiénes van a asistir a su funeral? ¿Quién va a decidir qué hacer con su cadáver? ¿Quién va a entrar a su casa y hacer una lista de articulos de valor?

Me mira por un pocos segundos, y…