Thursday, February 28, 2008

Chinese Ballad

Pity the Second Emperor.
He'll never be the first.
He burned more books and killed more kids
but nothing slaked his thirst.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Gay & Lesbian Reading Group Resources

This website has a wealth of resources on GLBT literature and films. It also announces the titles the NYC-based reading group will be reading in the coming months. March 13 is Lawrence Durrell's Balthazar. April 10 is Sarah Waters' Night Watch. May 8 is Plato's Symposium.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Patricia Markert's "Watched You Disappear"

Saturday afternoon I went along to the Jefferson Market Library to hear my friend Pattie read from her newly published poetry chapbook. Built of a collection of styles--High Victorian Gothic, Neo-late Romanesque, and Neuschwanstein-inspired--the library is a branch of the New York Public Library. It was built originally as the Third Judicial District Courthouse, but ceased its judicial function in 1945.

I heard Pattie read before, from her collaborative chapbook "To Genesis," but that reading did not prepare me for the powerful stuff she read from this new book. After reading the book myself, my appreciation for the book's emotional honesty and creative artistry only grew.

"Watched You Disappear," as its title suggests, is about love and loss. At its heart is a sequence of seven letters written by the grieving mother to a dead teenage daughter. "Letters to Elizabeth" are painful to read. They bear reading only because their language is so understated, so restrained that the grief held in check within the lines feels utterly genuine. This is a paradox. Grief is supposed to be so overwhelming--think of Lear mourning over dead Cordelia, a reference made in one of the letters--that it leaves no room for other thoughts. But this is not so, or as Markert puts it in the chapbook's last poem "In the Shower": "I can't cry on cue the way he wants me to." One may still grieve though one does not manifest the outward signs of grief. And in the room unlocked by that grief, Markert writes of the sensation of irreparable loss.

And losses, for the book reflects on other dispossessions such as aging, young love, death of a grandfather, changes in the city. The title poem "Watched You Disappear" observes the husband wading deeper and deeper into the ocean, and compares that disappearance with the vanishing, with age, of his senses, before concluding with a perfect resolution of the image. Another perfect poem, my favorite of the book, is "Night Fishing in a Speed Boat." Here, the man hooks the woman's eyelid with his fishing hook, and howls for her pain, his face scrunched up "like a gargoyle's." The short poem concludes with the woman realizing she hates learning how much he loves her.

A swimmer strokes her way through many of these poems, at times the figure of the mother, at other times that of the daughter, and at yet other times that of a mere woman. Strong but vulnerable, disciplined yet liberated, the swimmer is also the poet at work. In these poems Markert not only dives to a great depth, she also, quite miraculously, emerges to the light, grasping golden tokens of the dark.

No Country for Old Men (Spoiler Alert)

Why does the film quote Yeats's "Sailing to Byzantium"? In the poem, the sensual world of the young is not for the old because it is at the same time the world of death. Seeking to transcend death, the speaker leaves that country for Byzantium, for "the artifice of eternity." While the brothers Coens' film is certainly concerned with human mortality, it is not impressed by the Yeatsian longing for artistic immortality. Yeats's dualism does not drive the film; the film, and the fates of its characters, are driven by the monochromatic force of chance.

If the film is not in dialogue with Yeats's poem, that is partly because it is a monologue. Before the first half hour is up, you get its thesis: chance decides our fate, and the hunter can easily become the hunted. For the first part of the thesis, you get the coin toss practised by the psychopathic hitman, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), to decide if his victim lives or dies; for the second part of the thesis, you get Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) hunting pronghorn antelope before he is hunted down by Chigurh for making away with drug money. Without a countervailing force (the resigned wisdom of the sheriff, Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), is more choric than active) the movie moves, unresisted, and for far too long, to its anticipated climax. I don't object to unrelieved bleakness, but the lack of relief here, the lack of hope, is grimly gleeful.

Take the ending of the film. It tempts the audience with generic conclusions, only to take them away. Moss, the good guy, does not kill the psychopath, as would have happened in an action film, but is killed by him when he jumped into bed with a woman he happened to meet by a hotel pool. Moss's wife, Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald), refuses to call heads or tails, in order to teach Chigurh that he chooses to kill, and not the coin. Chigurh does not learn this humanist lesson, but checks his soles for blood before leaving Carla Jean's house. Then, a car running a red light crashes into Chigurh, and, here, we think, is poetic justice: the man who stands for fateful chance dies by fateful chance. However, Chigurh crawls out of his car, bone sticking out from his arm; he survives and wanders off, alive somewhere. In all these reversals of conventional endings, I sense a manifesto, a program, and so, while I was sickened by the blood and casual violence, I was never seriously shaken to the foundations of my being, the place I think the film is shooting for.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Readings at Verlaine and Fairleigh Dickinson University

Read for Kundiman, at Verlaine, on Sun, Feb 17, with Jennifer Kwon Dobbs. Sold two copies of my chapbook. Joseph and Sarah, the people running Kundiman, gave me a present of Chinese black tea, a shimmering pearly bowl, and Ashbery's Where Shall I wander.

Read there , in New Jersey, last Tuesday, for an event billed as "In and Out of Love," with Melissa, who is lesbian. A good friend, Chloe, who teaches Comp and Creative Writing at the University, organized the reading. She has an office in the Mansion, a stately home converted to school use. The reading took place in the Orangerie in the library, a big high-ceilinged room, with lovely tall windows. David Daniel, the Director of the BA Creative Writing program was there as well, as were about fifteen undergraduate students.

After our readings, we fielded questions. How do you balance job and writing? Where do you get your inspiration from, personal experience? Do you find it difficult to read something intensely personal? Afterwards, a student came up to me to ask me how to spell "Jee." Another, the chairperson of GASP (Gay and Straight Peers) congratulated us on the reading, and bought a copy of my chapbook. It was nice to read, and hopefully reach out, to students, gay and straight.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Spring Break at Bacchus

We tasted wines from Spain and Latin America this evening. Nothing that was very exciting. One was too vegetal. Another had a great floral bouquet, but very simple flavor. One wine smelled like a Riesling, but did not taste as good. The grape Carmenere, a spicier version of Merlot, I did not care very much for. The only wine that I liked was the Monte Oton Garnacha. I also had my first fresh Caipirinhas. It was made in front of us with lime, Domino sugar and Leblon Cachaca. Leblon Cachaca is a rum, but made with pure cane sugar, instead of the refined stuff, and so it is a little more potent, like having dashes of tequila. It was a refreshing mixed drink.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

TLS February 8 2008

from Richard Sieburth's review of Paul Claudel's Knowing the East, and Victor Segalen's Steles:

The sixty-four steles displayed in Victor Segalen's imaginary museum, each poem-tablet lineated into short prose paragraphs and framed by a rectangular rule, are thematically divided according to the spatial coordinates of traditional Chinese cosmography. The initial "Steles Facing South", spoken in the persona of an emperor of the fictional Kingdom of the Self, mock the various foreign religions that had implanted themselves in China--Nestorian Christianity, Manichaeism, Buddhism--in world-weary tones that recall the ironic fatalism of Cavafy's "Waiting for the Barbarians". The subsequent section, "Steles Facing North", explores the opaque relation between Self and Other on a more personal level--the vagaries of male friendship, unrequited desires. "Oriented Steles", perhaps the weakest section of the book, in turn moves into lyrical poems of praise of the beloved, with fragments lifted from the Confucian Books of Odes and Li Po, here recomposed into the sensual, anaphoric cadences of the Song of Songs. In "Occidental Steles", the devotion the poet feels for his Sovereign Lady is translated into the loyalty the soldier shows to his Prince even in the face of death: the fundamental conflict between Subject and Object is here dramatized in epic fashion as the battle between Warrior and Foe. The following "Steles by the Wayside", many of which are spoken by the stone tablets themselves, apostrophizes various passers-by in celebration of spirits of the place, while the final section, "Steles of the Middle", leaves two-dimensional space altogether in order to delve into the netherworld of the innermost (and most ineffable) Empire of the Self--the domain of the Hidden Name, a secret realm beyond all representation and . . . inaccessible to all forms of knowledge.


Writing to his mentor Jules de Gaultier in 1913, he observed:

The Chinese stone steles contain the most tiresome of literature: the praise of official virtues, a Buddhist ex-voto, the pronouncement of a decree, an exhortation to good conduct. It is therefore neither the spirit nor the letter, but simply the "Stele"-form itself that I have borrowed. I deliberately seek in China, not ideas, not subjects, but forms. I thought the "Stele"-form might lend itself to a new literary genre, which I've tried to establish with a few examples: a short text, bordered by a kind of rectangular frame in the mind and presenting itself to the reader in frontal fashion.


from Robert Irwin's review of Encyclopedia of Erotic Literature, edited by Gaetan Brulotte and John Phillips:

The (very interesting) article on furniture concludes as follows: "In the fin-de-siecle, eros crosses over into sickness, and the furniture is caught up in the epidemic: the chaise lounge [sic] itself is sick with desire and pleasure. As the dominant notions of pleasure changed over time, so did the furniture."


Zakani's definition of a "virgin" as "a noun with no referent".


from Sophie Ratcliffe's review of James Wood's How Fiction Works:

Any distinctive textual voice, as Geoffrey Hill has pointed out, is a product of the way in which one writer registers the voices of others. The creation of an individual tone involves both admitting and excluding other tones.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Gregory Woods's "Quidnunc"

At the end of the long narrative poem “Sir Osbert’s Complaint,” Osbert Sitwell hopes he would be admitted into heaven for being a “Sceptical believer with a decent turn of phrase.” That self-description is applicable to Gregory Woods in his book, Quidnunc. He believes in the world but is skeptical of its human sufficiency. He believes in the poetic tradition but is skeptical of its modern relevance. The rhetorical strategies he pursues—parody, satire, mimicry, gossip—follow from such believing skepticism, but, instead of tracing these larger devices, I want to look at Quidnunc at the level of the phrase, and its decent turn.

A good illustration of the book’s turning of the phrase, the opening poem “Civilization” begins:

We tilled a land ungenerous with its
resources, barely scratching at the surface

for its reluctant benison. Between
its gaunt, eroded outcrops we conserved

a topsoil dry and sparse but capable
of nurturing our basic needs . . .

What strikes me in these lines is the attention given to adjectives; the writing draws my attention to the modifiers. In line 1, “ungenerous” is highlighted through the inversion of the usual adjective-noun order, through the contrast between its many syllables and the other one-syllable words in that line, through the sonic sympathies between it and “resources,” and, most significantly, through the use of its unusual prefix “un-.” The adjective proffers the possibility of generosity, but decides that the opposite is truer. Its skepticism is bracing; it braces us to accept a modest—modified—faith in the world’s oxymoronic “reluctant benison.”

The oxymoronic use of an adjective appears over and over again in Woods’s adjective-noun pairs throughout the book: “rustic irony,” “suggestive silences,” “a land-bound piranha,” “this tentative display of fussy organization,” “a prosaic drama,” “an eager martyr,” “delicious guilt,” “the saturated breeze,” and, most movingly, in the conclusion of “A Triumph” when the Greek soldiers, suffering from exhaustion and loss, fell asleep along the shore, before the evening’s “bleak debauchery.” The oxymorons cover a wide range of tones, and subjects such as ideas, places, people, time, and experiences: they surprise, complicate, deflate, insinuate, joke.

Another use of the adjective in Woods seems apposite to the creation of an oxymoronic effect. The adjective also appears in the form of a cliché. In the hands of Woods, however, though the phrase sounds familiar, its meaning is refreshed by its poetic context. In “Civilization,” the topographical term “surface” in line 2 prepares us for other such references—between, outcrops, topsoil—so that by the time we reach “basic needs,” we read the cliché with new eyes. How appropriate the contrast between the bare topsoil and our basic needs. The contrast not only highlights the thinness of the world’s adequacy to our needs, it also emphasizes the depth, and perhaps the regenerative power, of our needs.

Sometimes the refreshing wit is contained within a line. In “Sir Osbert’s Complaint,” when Osbert fell indiscriminately in love with David Horner, he was “Too enchanted by a hairstyle to have time for splitting hairs.” Sometimes the wit is contained within the form, as in “Cablegram,” which begins:

Am bleeding. Send bandages
with all dispatch. Have been
reduced to bitter tears.

Sometimes the wit, like echolocation, is heard bouncing between poems within the book. The cliché “the common herd” is such a refrain. The herd in “Heart of Cold,” in which the speaker includes himself, salivates over a young man with “muscles, lightly haired/ And honey-tanned.” The phrase is heard again in Osbert Sitwell’s fascistic sentiment that “It would take a leopard shepherd to direct this herd of sheep.” And, marvelously, in “Quidnunc,” the upper class speaker in the first vignette wishes his present subordinates were as imaginative in flattering him as once “Maltravers Senior did,/ hot from the rugby pitch/ and desperate, transformed into a truffling pig.” The adjective-noun pair at the close compresses in itself the foregoing “tr,” “u,” “f,” “p,” “i,” and “g’ sounds.

The refurbishment of a cliché suits Woods’s skeptical beliefs. If a cliché captures a conventional sentiment, the twist given to it is like thumbing one’s nose at convention. If a cliché conveys a commonsensical notion, the play on it is poetry’s revenge on commonsense. But the skepticism is, ultimately, premised on some belief in convention and commonsense: it seeks to renew both, and not to demolish either.

A third use of adjectives in Woods is, for lack of a better word, structural. Looking again at “Civilization,” at lines 3-6:

its gaunt, eroded outcrops we conserved

a topsoil dry and sparse but capable
of nurturing our basic needs . . .

we see the outcrops “gaunt, eroded,” and the topsoil “dry and sparse but capable.” While the outcrops are described with two adjectives separated by a comma, the nurturing topsoil is described with three adjectives more leisurely separated by conjunctions. To be “dry” is to be totally without moisture, but to be “sparse” is not to be totally without soil. To be “sparse” is midway to a limited “capable.” These numerical, grammatical and semantic features of the deployment of the five adjectives prepare the reader to accept the poetic turn at the conjunction “but,” to accept the capability of the soil to nurture, though the turn appears abrupt at the level of surface meaning.

This use of the adjective to “structure” a poem is deployed to great comic effect in “The Newstead Fandango,” a 19-part narrative in the voice of Lord Byron, deflected through the Odyssey myth. In section 11 titled “Circe,” Byron compares the ease of winning a boy’s sexual favors to a woman’s:

The truth is simple. What you have to do to win a lady—
From flattering her Mummy in the manner of a toady
To making conversation with her dullard of a Daddy,

Who by a constant rule must be, at best, a fuddy-duddy—
Is apt to leave you unenthusiastic, dull and moody,
And when at last you reach the daughter she becomes a bloody

Beguine, her pious drone unchanging as a hurdy-gurdy:
Suburban, earnest, churchy, turgid, surly, worthy, wordy. . .
Whereas a boy arrives equipped with nothing but his body

Forever primed with neat testosterone, alert and rowdy,
His appetite unmitigated by a conscience, seedy
As pomegranate, the precise embodiment of bawdy

--His mind is like his body: dirty, flexible and hardy—
And leaves you, by the time you’ve finished, feeling spent and giddy.
Yet, when the hurly-burly’s done, he’s still erect and ready!
Among many other things, this section fires off the adjective pyrotechnics. The string of adjectives for the woman forms a mucky iambic heptameter line of its own, only to be undercut by the crisp line about the boy “with nothing but his body.” “Nothing” is not only a sexual pun, it is also a sly allusion to the absence of encumbering adjectives in that line.

All three uses of the adjective are present in the last poem of the collection, an elegy for Thom Gunn, “My Sprig of Lilac.” The speaker in the “happy doldrums’ of a morning sees his lilac tree on the turn, its “brief abundance” fading, its “modest pyrotechnics” sputtering out. He picks up his paper and reads Gunn’s obituary. He thinks that the morning’s problem would be to try to imagine a life without new poems from the master, but his mind turns instead to imagining Gunn’s new life, how

While we down here are moithering in pointless sadness,
He’s chatting up the Seraphim. It’s cool, it is, this deadness.

“Chatting up” is exactly right in its offhand casualness, setting up the final punning adjective of the collection—cool—which, in turn, is set off by the arrest of “dead” in a noun.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Conor McPherson's "The Seafarer"

Went to see "The Seafarer" yesterday at the Booth Theater, a play written and directed by Conor McPherson. The Booth has an understated classiness, with its intimate size, oak-panelled walls, and an unusual middle aisle that runs from the back to about the middle of the orchestra seats. It reminded me of a ship cabin, a setting well suited to the play which takes place in Baldoyle, a coastal settlement north of Dublin city. According to the program notes, from this coast one can see Howth Head (Binn Eadair), a hill on the Howth peninsula which marks the northern arm of Dublin Bay. Howth Head attracts to itself many myths and legends.

"The Seafarer" is a Christmas fable. James 'Sharky' Harkin (played by David Morse) is a man who played a game of poker with the Devil, and the Devil has returned to win his soul in another game of poker. All the dramatic conflict pivots on this game which begins only in Act Two and lasts throughout that Act. As such, Act One feels like one long, long set-up for the second act.

The play also does not quite solve the problem of this genre: how to make Everyman, caught between the Devil and God, more than a mere cosmic pawn, more like a real person. I did not feel anything for Sharky, not when we learn, from others' reports, his ex-wife has taken up with a friend, the good-looking Nicky, his present feelings for the wife of his boss, his drunken beating to death of a wino, his tender care for his cantankerous older brother Richard. Morse's acting did not help the writing. When the high stakes game turned, unexpectedly, to his favor, the ending struck me not as cathartic or uplifting, but sentimental.

The real achievement of the play lies in the creation of the character of Richard. The writing here is wonderfully alive, and Jim Norton's acting brought out every nuance in it. Richard is the Christ-like figure in this drama of salvation, but this Savior is dictatorial, drunken, blind, bullying, posturing, funny, and helpless. Unlike Milton's Satan, the Devil here (played by Ciaran Hinds) is merely and mostly self-pitying, and Richard's parting shot when the Devil leaves is right on the money: God, what a maudlin fellow! Richard is too knowing to be maudin, and this knowingness makes him entirely believable, despite his assigned role of God in the symbolic drama. The play is worth seeing just for Norton's performance, but you also get Conleth Hill who played Ivan Curry, a friend of the Harkins. Hill made sincere drunkenness emotionally and physically convincing.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Reading at McNally Robinson Bookstore

The reading took place in the bookstore cafe area, and so the atmosphere was relaxed and intimate. I was delighted to see my name, and the names of the other readers, advertised in the shop window, as if we were real authors. Scott Glassman joined the reading late, but he was there too, and was the first reader of the evening.

The evening was treacherous, with heavy snowing and icy sidewalks, and so I was very happy and grateful that friends from school, poetry workshop, and Cornelia Street Cafe turned up to hear the reading.

Eshuneutics' review of "Payday Loans"

Here's a recent review of my chapbook. I am chuffed that it compares me to the early Thom Gunn.

Payday Loans (Poets Wear Prada, 2007) is a short selection of poems by Jee Leong Koh. It is offered as a chapbook of 30 sonnets, all of which were written as part of Poetry Month, 2005, at the rate of one per day. Jee Leong Koh, judging from the content of his blog, Song of a Reformed Headhunter, his numerous poetry readings in New York, and his elegant emails in my direction, is a scrupulous and intelligent poet committed to the poetical voice: not just the structure on the page, but the form in the air. . . . (Read the rest.)

The African American National Biography

I went to the New York Historical Society last Thursday to hear Henry Louis Gates, Jr. on the launch of the AANB he co-edited with Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. I didn't know anything about Gates, Jr., except that he is a prominent black scholar, the writer of the preface to the edition of Their Eyes Were Watching God I use in my teaching. He is a short but compact man, jolly and bluff in his self-presentation, quite unlike my studious image of a Harvard scholar. He seemed to thrive in the pre-talk conviviality, expertly receiving the congratulations of many people who came up to him, and introducing some to others in so smooth a manner that he seemed to be the host, rather than the guest, of the event. I had seen him earlier, I realized. He was the man washing his hands in the restroom, to whom another guy was pitching talk (and dropping the fact that he himself was Oxford educated) about some high-flier who is retiring in his forties after amassing a fortune.

Gates, Jr. began by talking about the origin of his fascination with biography. After his grandfather's funeral, his father looked through the contents of the dead man's trunk, and found a newspaper obituary of the dead man's mother, Gates, Jr.'s great-grandmother. The woman was a much sought after midwife. Gates, Jr. pointed out how remarkable it was for a black woman's death to be noticed in a white newspaper of that time.

After that personal anecdote, he launched into a Powerpoint presentation, giving us a series of mini-biographies of people featured in the AANB. There were prominent black civil rights activists, writers, musicians, athletes, ministers--the usual suspects--but there were also a black pioneer in the New World of the seventeenth century, black soldiers who fought in the Revolution, black slave-owners, and a black cross-dressing entertainer. Evelyn Higginbotham, in her talk, gave more examples, this time of people related to New York. The impression given was one of variety of life, recovery from obscurity, delight in idiosyncracy, but not--perhaps due to the format of the talks--of complexity of relations.

In the Q&A that followed, someone asked if the slaveowners are cross-indexed as slaves, as the case might be. The answer was no. Another questioner, a Creole woman from South Carolina, asked the editors how they defined "black." To which Gates, Jr. replied that they followed the standard governmental definition (Did I correctly hear him say, a drop of blood from the last one hundred years?), before saying that being black is as much "a state of mind" as skin color. I found myself wishing the editors had given a clearer insight into their deliberations over these matters. But the event was more celebratory in nature than scholarly, and the presentation ended with the award of the Du Bois medals to the three financiers of the research project, all great friends of Gates, Jr., two of whom his family vacations regularly with in Jamaica.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Spinoza on Love

In Amsterdam, that curious strand,
a man of trading blood was banned
for thinking it was very odd
for man to worship man in God
and not the God of love's demand.

Demand of me, my Love, demand
I give up all to understand
the ordinary and the odd
in Amsterdam.

Devoting all to understand
what stayed or traded on that strand,
he thought, therefore I am--how odd!--
the intellectual love of God,
the love that binds, what once was banned
in Amsterdam.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Marjorie Garber on "Unequal Friends: Antonio, Falstaff, and Orsino"

I attended this Shakespeare Society event tonight, and found Garber thought-provoking on the bard. She is William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of English and American Literature and Language at Harvard, and wrote four books on Shakespeare, including Shakespeare After All (Pantheon, 2004).

In between her discussions with the Society Executive and Artistic Director, Michael Sexton, 4 actors dramatized exchanges from Henry IV, The Merchant of Venice, and Twelfth Night, as well as read sonnets which echo these exchanges, such as Sonnet XX ("master mistress"). Garber talked about the double plot of the sonnets, (they are "about" writing as much as they are about love), the aesthetic functions of reported scenes, the admirable complexity of Hal, the posture of melancholia, the motif of the woman who suffers silently from unrequited love. Throughout, she was incisive yet generous, a very good teacher, as my friend remarked.


A woman's face with nature's own hand painted,
Hast thou, the master mistress of my passion;
A woman's gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women's fashion:
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue all hues in his controlling,
Which steals men's eyes and women's souls amazeth.
And for a woman wert thou first created;
Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she prick'd thee out for women's pleasure,
Mine be thy love and thy love's use their treasure.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Wislawa Szymborska

from The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry:

As an "unsurpassable model of the writer's craft and a constant encouragement to trascend the obvious with thought," she has cited Montaigne's adage "See how many ends this stick has!"

Here's one that fits, despite such different circumstances, Singapore, as well as Poland:

Unexpected Meeting

We are very polite to each other,
insist it's nice meeting after all these years.

Our tigers drink milk.
Our hawks walk on the ground.
Our sharks drown in water.
Our wolves yawn in front of the open cage.

Our serpents have shaken off lightning,
monkeys--inspiration, peacocks--feathers.
The bats--long ago now--have flown out of our hari.

We fall silent in mid-phrase,
smiling beyond salvation.
Our people have nothing to say.

Translated from thye Polish by Magnus J. Krynski and Robert A Maguire

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Well Met

Visited the reopened European galleries again today, and this time, Monet's The Path through the Irises caught my attention.

The Path through the Irises, 1914–17
Claude Monet (French, 1840–1926)
Oil on canvas; 78 7/8 x 70 7/8 in. (200.3 x 180 cm)

The painting is big, a size that suggests its importance for Monet. The slight turn in the path, so easily overlooked in real life, composes the painting. Gary Tinterow, in his note on the Met website, suggests that "like those he made of water lilies, his paintings of irises were meant to rise from the particular to the universal. In this work, the most highly finished of the series, the flowers are offered not as botanical specimens but as archetypes." I thought I detected all the seven colors of the rainbow in the painting. Tinterow saw "the unusual harmony of ocher, violet, blue green, and yellow green." A poignant biographical detail he noted was that "although the artist was already experiencing great difficulties with his eyesight, any grower of irises will recognize that he knowingly found the reddish purple tint that hides within every blue iris."

I also visited the Jasper Johns: Gray exhibition the second time, and got more out of it. I did not enjoy the iconic flag of America paintings, but like the paintings inspired by poets like Ted Berrigan, and Frank O' Hara, especially the haunting drawing on paper Diver, inspired by Hart Crane's suicide.

Periscope (Hart Crane), 1963, Oil on canvas; 67 x 48 in. (170.2 x 121.9 cm)

Diver, Jasper Johns

Degas' Bathing Nudes at the Met

I saw the pastel Nudes only on my second visit to the reopened galleries of late nineteenth and early twentieth century paintings. They are beautiful. They are not luminous. They are not monumental. They are not sensual. They are not sacred. They are themselves, women caught up with themselves, doing the most ordinary things like wiping your back dry with a towel, or wiping your feet propped against the bathtub, or, in the painting below, bathing in a shallow tub. And they are studies of the female back. They prove, without the rigidity of a proof, that the human back is worth our attention as much as the human front.

Woman Bathing in a Shallow Tub, 1885
Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas (French, 1834–1917)
Charcoal and pastel on light green wove paper, now discolored to warm gray,
laid down on silk bolting; 32 x 22 1/8 in. (81.3 x 56.2 cm)
H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929 (29.100.41)

The Met note: "When Degas exhibited his "suite of nudes," which included this pastel, at the eighth and last Impressionist exhibition in 1886, critics viciously attacked the ungainly poses of his bathers. After the exhibition, Degas gave the picture to Mary Cassatt in exchange for her Girl Arranging Her Hair (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.)."

The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry

Started reading this anthology, edited by J.D. McClatchy, some time back, and then got diverted to Nadler's biography of Spinoza, then to What I Loved, then to Vendler's Poets Thinking, then to Hard Times. It's so hard to settle on one thing, when life eddies around you. The other day I heard Nemo reading a poem at Nightingale Lounge, a poem with a brilliant iambic pentameter refrain "Widening, widening, widening," and thought about how ripples lose power as they move outwards from the dropped stone. There is a great stillness in the widening of a ripple. Does one necessarily lose energy as one takes in more of the world?

The world in the Vintage anthology comprises Europe (39 poets), the Middle East (5 poets), Africa (7 poets), Asia (12 poets), Latin America (11 poets), the Caribbean (6 poets). Do the numbers reflect the editor's knowledge or taste? If knowledge, the big factor of course is the availability of English translations, crucial in the case of non-European languages. If taste, what does the omission of Australia say?

This morning I read two poems by Hans Magnus Enzensberger (Germany, b.1929). The directness of his language appeals to me. The authoritative cadence. We are always writing our own elegies.

For the Grave of a Peace-Loving Man

This one was no philanthropist,
avoided meetings, stadiums, the large stores.
Did not eat the flesh of his own kind.

Violence walked the streets,
smiling, not naked.
But there were screams in the sky.

People's faces were not very clear.
They seemed to be battered
even before the blow had struck home.

One thing for which he fought all his life,
with words, tooth and claw, grimly,
cunningly, off his own bat:

the thing which he called his peace,
now that he's got it, there is no longer a mouth
over his bones, to taste it with.

Translated from the German by the author and Michael Hamburger

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Readings so far...

I've done a few readings this year, and more to come, so I am thinking of a way of keeping track of things . . .

Jan 26 Brownestone Poets, at 5th Ave Restaurant & Diner, Brooklyn.

Jan 28 Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church, East Village

Feb 4 Saturn Series at Nightingale Lounge, East Village

My workshop with Marie Ponsot at 92nd Street Y began again last night. I submitted my "Equal to the Earth" manuscript since I have not added enough to "The Book of the Body" to justify another discussion of it. The original ten students have dropped to six, so now each 2 1/2-hour session will be devoted to one manuscript. Mine is coming up for discussion next week. Hopefully I will get a lot out of the class. Last night, Marie read something by Robert Louis Stevenson, but I could not place it. Going down the river with trees on both sides etc.

Jane read a good poem about the rippling aftershocks of maternal love. Kevin read a John Hollander poem from "The New Yorker." I did not understand why Hollander chose "March" in a line "the dead March of a dry winter" when depicting winter's freeze. The (unintended) pun is distracting, and the temporality of a month seems to contradict permanent stillness. Audrey told of being at a picnic in the Lakes District with William Empson. He was working on some math equation the whole time, and was served and chivvied around by his formidable South African wife.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

TLS January 11 2008

from Richard A. Fortey's review of Pascal Richet's A Natural History of Time, translated by John Venerella:

. . . in 1896 the physicist Gustave Le Bon actually announced to the Academy of Science in Paris the discovery of black light.


Leonardo da Vinci had recorded in his notebooks observations of the time needed to form sediments and raise fossils above the present sea level that were, as always, astonishing prescient. . .


Halley worked out how long it would take for the oceans to attain their saltiness from the input of salt from rivers, but he was--wisely, perhaps, given the implications--vague about his inferred long timescale. . . .


Georges-Louis Leclerc, later Comte de Buffon, performed a series of experiments by heating up and then cooling steel balls of various sizes. He then scaled up the results to account for the conditions remaining on earth today, assuming a molten origin for the planet--and came up with an age for the earth of slightly less than 200, 000 years. The importance of the result lies not in its accuracy--it is wildly inaccurate--but in the application of reasoning and experiment to the problem, and the abandonment of the old methods of chronology. . . .


. . . by the end of the eighteenth century . . . the utility of fossils in mapping rock strata soon became patent. William Smith's geological map can be inspected today by any interested visitor to the Geological Society's premises in Piccadilly in London.


The production of energy from radioactive decay rewrote all the equations Lord Kelvin had used for his estimates. The earth was a boiler, not a cooling potato.


The answer finally came fifty years ago, with the dating of meterorites that had formed at the same time as our nascent earth: creation was 4.55 billion years old. . . . The beginnings of bacteria were probably at about 3.5 billion years, so the start of life was calibrated, too.


From Ronald Blythe's review of Will Cohu's Out of the Woods: The armchair guide to trees:

First you have to meet a tree head on, preferably an alder by the caff, the one you have parked under and never recognized, the one with the chip papers flapping against its tall, slender, beautiful trunk, a tree which should be down by the river by rights, sheltering boats, not cars. From this humble start Cohu guides us to Berkeley Square where the plane trees are "best" . . .


Mungo McCosh's moody woodcuts accompany the text to perfection, catching its style, adding to its teachings. . . . He shows the London plane was "the greatest negotiator among the discordant spaces of cities". . . . Will Cohu and Mungo McCosh: one might call them a pair of knowing lads in the diaspora of the forest.


From Jim Endersby's review of Steven Jones's Coral: A pessimist in paradise:

In 1868, T. H. Huxley rose to speak at the Brill Hall in Norwich, where the British Association for the Advancement of Science was meeting. His reputation as a speaker--and as a bishop-baiting Darwinian firebrand--ensured that a large crowd had gathered to hear him. At first sight, Professor Huxley's topic could hardly have been duller: he spent ninety minutes lecturing on the significance of "the bit of chalk which every carpenter carries around in his breeches-pocket". He kept his audience spell-bound; one of them rose at the end of the talk and declared that science had never before seemd to him "so vast and mere creeds so little".

Huxley used his piece of chalk to explain two of nineteenth century's most important scientific theories: Sir Charles Lyell's geological ideas and their immediate offspring; and Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. . . .


The accumulation of tiny changes over countless millions of years was the common feature of Lyell and Darwin's theories. Given enough time, purely natural forces could transform one species into another, just as microscopic corpses could accumulate into layers thick enough to define a landscape.


Coral is not just a miner's canary, it is also a vital part of the globe's carbon cycle, because in the process of secreting calcium carbonate the polyps absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere--"at almost twice the rate of a rain forest".


In a coral reef, for example, crabs will clean the surface of sea cucumbers, and are thus allowed to take refude from predators in the cucumber's anus.


[Corals] were intriguing [to Darwin] for several reasons, not least because they seemed to blur the boundary between animal and plant, suggesting a deep link between life's diverse kingdoms.


From Fiona Gruber's review of Sasha Grishin's John Wolseley: Land Marks II:

. . . the Wallace Line, a meandering path of evolutionary separation that runs in a north-easterly direction through the Java Sea, dividing Bali from its neighbor Lombok, and Borneo from Sulawesi, before skirting the Philippines to the south. To the north-west are the animals, birds and insects of Asia; to the south-east the distinctive zoology of Australia and its adjacent islands. In the middle where, to a limited extent, species overlap, is a area known to biogeographers as Wallacea.


Even the paper Wolseley uses can be palimpsestic. In the early 1990s, he tore up a selection of his prints and put them into a papermaking vat along with fragments of his father's etchings. . . . As Wolseley wrote at the time:

I am hoping that there will be suspended within the paper a juxtaposition of different images as in a dream, and on the surface there might emerge a detail of an etching of a long forgotten European landscape, or part of some older text--or even a single word.


John Wolseley puts it beast in notes written to accompany his 1991 exhibition, "Life in Mud and Sand":

Just as creatures of the natural world are "the canaries in the mine" so also I would like my bits of paper to be seen as Litmus papers. Litmus which absorbs the nuances of air, or water, or honey, or the tracks of hermit crabs.


From Martin Schifino's review of Julien Gracq's Reading Writing, translated by Jeanine Herman, and The Narrow Waters, translated by Ingeborg M. Kohn:

[Gracq:] A book that has seduced me is like a woman who places me under her spell . . . .All I expect from your critical discussion is the right vocal inflection that will give me the sense that you are in love, in love the same way I am.


Gracq puts it with commendable clarity: "On fairly extensive map, a distortion will appear in relation to reality. . . .There is no remedy for this, but there is a palliative; provided the depicted surface is very small . . . the distortion will be considered negligible". By the same token, in literary analysis "only the remarks that arise from an almost pinpoint observation are convincing in their immediate rightness."


At their best, however, Gracq's aphorisms read like condensed arguments, and are worthy of Chamfort: "A history of literature, contrary to history plain and simple, should comprise only the names of the victorie, since the defeats are a victory for no one". It works in both directions; longer lines of reasoning may acquire aphoristic texture: "What controls the effectiveness of a writer's use of words is not a capacity to clasp meaning tightly, it is an almost tactile knowledge of the layout of their property lines, and even more, their litigations over common ownership. For the writer, almost everything in the word is a border, and almost nothing is contained."

Friday, February 01, 2008

Jennifer Kwon Dobbs and Li-Young Lee at AAWW

A friend attending the AWP Conference in NYC asked me to join her at the Asian American Writers' Workshop last night to hear the two readers. The room was crowded with women. Two white women sitting in front of me hung on every word Lee said, nudging each other when he made a gesture, or smiling at each other when he said something especially wise or self-deprecating. During the short Q&A, a woman, East Asian, asked Lee a barrage of questions that showed a devoted knowledge of his books. One of her questions was about an angry poem in his new book, an emotion new to his work. When Lee explained he hesitated writing in anger because he did not wish to arouse that emotion in the reader, the woman said that reading the poem only made her feel stronger. Another woman, short-haired, boyish-butch-looking, asked Lee how fatherhood has affected his writing. My friend, who noticed all this with wry amusement, confessed to me once we reached home that she found Lee very sexy too. She said it's his hair, slicked back and wet-looking, as if he had just stepped out of the shower. It's also his slightly stooped stature, buffeted by his family tragedies, and yet possessing of such strength. How could Jennifer Kwon Dobbs compete? She is stunningly beautiful, but the men in the room that night were happy to let the women do all the talking.