Thursday, July 31, 2008

Edith Wharton's "The House of Mirth"

It's hard to feel much sympathy for, or identification with, Lily Bart. Moving among the nouveau riches of New York City, she aspires to marry someone wealthy. In her better moments, she wishes to transmute the money into something finer in life, to create beauty. But, more often, she wants the money in order to lead a life of ease, to escape from her horror of shabbiness. Unfortunately, Lily seems to own the knack of sabotaging her own well-laid marital schemes. Her eventual friend Mrs. Fisher describes her well, in terms which explain Wharton's project in this novel. "Sometimes," Mrs. Fisher says, "I think it's just flightiness--and sometimes I think it's because, at heart, she despises the things she's trying for. And it's the difficulty of deciding that makes her such an interesting study."

Lily's difficulty in deciding should give rich tragic material, but the novel seems undecided whether to be a tragedy or a satire, and so its view of Lily is wavering, and its judgment uncertain. It's never clear to Lily, and to the reader, what the alternative to the vanities of society is, besides some abstract ideals of beauty and taste. Her limitation appears to be not only her society's, but also, damagingly, the novel's own.

The novel tries to embody the alternative in the person of Selden. However, this romantic hero, despite his learning and taste, is a limited creation. For someone praised for his ironic detachment from materialistic and frivolous society, he spends a lot of time, in the novel, in that society. We don't see him in any other contexts, not in his legal profession, not in some like-minded company, with the exception of genuine but dull Gerty Farish. His attitude towards the social circle of the Van Osburghs, the Trenors, and the Dorsets is, at best, ambivalent.

"I don't underrate the decorative side of life. It seems to me the sense of splendour has justified itself by what it has produced. The worst of it is that so much human nature is used up in the process. If we're all the raw stuff of the cosmic effects, one would rather be the fire that tempers a sword than the fish that dyes a purple cloak. And a society like ours wastes such good material in producing its little patch of purple! Look at a boy like Ned Silverton--he's really too good to be used to refurbish anybody's social shabbiness. There's a lad just setting out to discover the universe. Isn't it a pity he should end by finding it in Mrs. Fisher's drawing room?"

As a critique of that society, surely Selden's judgment is overly forgiving and near-sighted. Despite its use of manufacturing and economic terms (produced, used up, process, raw stuff, wastes, good material), it does not see the actual workers who temper the sword or dye the cloak. Its sympathy lies, instead, with a silly, sentimental upper-class boy like Ned Silverton, whose worst possible fate is ending up in a well-appointed drawing room. And despite its talk of fire and sword, the man himself is not particularly energetic nor active in pursing his goals in life; what those goals may be we are not told, but we are told who his favorite author is.

His limitation shows up again in his view of Lily. A marvelous scene in the novel is the tableau vivants put up as part of a lavish entertainment. Lily appears in the last tableau, as Reynolds's "Mrs Lloyd," a choice which shows off her natural beauty, and her natural taste.

The noble buouyancy of her attitude, its suggestion of soaring grace, revealed the touch of poetry in her beauty that Selden always felt in her presence, yet lost the sense of when he was not with her. Its expression was now so vivid that for the first time he seemed to see before him the real Lily Bart, divested of the trivialities of her little world, and catching for a moment a note of that eternal harmony of which her beauty was a part.

The passage is not intended to be satirical, but serious. But how can we take seriously Selden's judgment that the artistically arranged Lily is the real Lily Bart, that, enmeshed in the expenditure of the tableau vivants, she is "divested of the trivialities of her little world"? More subtly, how can Selden, the perceptive man, not suspect that beauty has its evil aspect as well as its good?

The limitation of the romantic hero, and thus of the alternative offered to Lily Bart, marks the limit of the novel's moral vision. Another marker is the depiction of the Jewish social climber, Rosedale. Much of his unflattering depiction may be laid at the door of the society to which he is so eager to gain entrance. But some of it shades too easily, too indistinguishably, into the narrative voice, and leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Paris Diary

July 23, Wed
1332 Eurostar from St. Pancras to Gare du Nord. Apartment in gated community, on Rue Lamerciere, in Pigalle. Had dinner at Chartier, on Faubourg Montmartre, popular low-priced eaterie, with Belle-Epoque decor, the set for many movies. Drank at Raidd Bar, where, at midnight, the go-go boy showered in a glass stall set in the wall. I think I can live in Paris every summer. The light is beautiful here.

July 24, Thu
Breakfast at Point Bar, larg expresso and croissant. Finished reading Kim. Visited Musee National Picasso: Sleeping Woman, The Kiss, The Swimmer, Child Playing with Truck. The Goat. Impressed by the range of his experimentation with modes, materials and methods, while remaining inspired by the human figure. Striking series of photos of the artist taken by people like Man Ray and Cartier-Bresson. The photos show how much he resembled his female heads physically. Visited Nortre Dame while as mass was going on. Sat in the Jardin du Luxembourg for a while, enjoying the sights. Had bad Thai food at Chez Tsou, and drank at the Open Cafe.

July 25, Fri
Musee d'Orsay: Monet's Blue Water Lilies, and Regatta at Argentueil; Gustave Caillebotte's The Floor Planers; Camille Pissaro's Peasant Girl Lighting A Fire and Red Roofs; Paul Signac's Les Andelys, The River Bank; Edward Burne-Jones's The Wheel of Fortune. Started reading The House of Mirth. Had Chinese in a nearby restaurant, and then went to Amnesia, Raidd for the shower show, and then back to Amnesia lower bar for dancing.

Claude Monet (1840-1926)
Blue Water Lilies
Between 1916 and 1919

July 26, Sat
Center Pompidou: Georges Rouault: Clown; Henri Matisse: Decorative Figure on an Ornamental Ground, Violin Player at the Window; Jean Dubuffet: Dhotel nuanced'abricot; Jean Fautrier: Le sanglierecorche; Jean Atlan; Jean-Marc Bustamante. Went to The Depot in the evening.

July 27, Sun

Walked round Montparnasse Cemetery, and saw the tombs of Sarte and de Beauvoir, as well as chess champion Alekhine. The latter brought back memories of my chess-playing days. In the evening, walked round St. Louis before having my last drink at Amnesia and Radd. I am still thinking of spending part of my summer every year away from NYC. Should I write in London, Paris, or, my latest wildcat idea, India?

Friday, July 25, 2008

The Fathers in Rudyard Kipling's "Kim"

In this Bildungsroman, Kim, the orphaned son of an Irish solder in British India, finds a colorful assortment of fathers: the Tibetan lama who left his hills and monastery to find the river flowing from an arrow shot by the Buddha; the Pathan Mahbub Ali, horse-trader and British spy; Colonel Creighton, a spymaster in the guise of head of the ethnological survey; Lurgan sahib, the healer of pearls, who trains spies with his ‘magical’ powers; Hurree Babu who spies for the British but really longs to join the Royal Academy for his ethnological contributions.

Teaching Kim who he is and can be, these fathers cultivate different relationships with the boy. Colonel Creighton is only interested in Kim’s usefulness as a tool in the great game. Lurgan Sahib is proud of his most gifted protégé whose success enhances his own departmental prestige. Hurree Babu treats Kim more like a colleague than a subordinate he is supposed to supervise.

The two most significant relationships to Kim are also the two introduced from the novel’s beginning and with which the book ends. Mahbub Ali collected bazaar gossip from Kim before the street waif’s talents were recognized. Ostensibly a Muslim, the horse-trader is a man pragmatic about matters of religion, and interested in power, knowledge, and reputation. He also loves Kim. After advising Kim to be a sahib when he’s with sahibs, he is stumped for a while when Kim asks him who Kim should be when he’s with the folk of Hind, who Kim is: Mussalman, Hindu, Jain, or Buddhist. Mahbub Ali cystallizes his philosophy in his answer:

“Thou art beyond question an unbeliever, and therefore thou wilt be damned. So says my law—or I think it does. But thou art also my Little-Friend-of-all-the-World, and I love thee. So says my heart. This matter of creeds is like horseflesh. The wise man knows horses are good--that there is a profit to be made from all; and for myself--but that I am a good Sunni, and hate the men of Tirah--I could believe the same of all the faiths. Now manifestly a Kathiawar mare taken from the sands of her birthplace and removed to the west of Bengal founders--nor is even a Balkh stallion (and there are no better horses than those of Balkh, were they not so heavy in the shoulder) of any account in the great Northern deserts beside the snow-camels I have seen. Therefore I say in my heart the faiths are like the horses. Each has merit in its own country."

It is a great, and completely unpretentious, statement about the difference between what the law says and what the heart. Its authority is supported by Mahbub Ali's life experience, here indicated by his professional knowledge about horses, just as so much of the novel's authority comes from Kipling's knowledge of and love for India. The humility of the statement lies in qualifying what the law says with "or I think it does." This qualification, this perspectivism, is also the method of the novel. The novel gives us fully-fleshed and contradictory perspectives, while ranking them at the same time. Mahbub Ali's perspective is closer to the heart of the novel than Colonel Creighton's or Hurree Babu's. His perspective has as its great opposite Teeshoo Lama's outlook on life, its desire to be freed from the wheel of life, its criticism of the flesh, its single-minded quest for the Buddha's river.

And these mutually exclusive perspectives remain unresolved, unresolvable, in the end. The lama falls into a river, and is rescued by Hurree Bubu and Mahbub Ali. The lama thinks he found his river. He reached the great soul but returned in order to guide his disciple, Kim, whom he loves so much, along the path of salvation. Mahbub Ali thinks the lama is mad. We would, now, categorize that under the heading of near-death experience. The novel gives the lama the last words:

"So thus the search is ended. For the merit that I have acquired, the river of the arrow is here. It broke forth at our feet, as I have said. I have found it. Son of my soul, I have wrenched my soul back from the threshold of freedom to free thee from all sin--as I am free, and sinless! Just is the wheel! Certain is our deliverance! Come!"

He crossed his hands on his lap and smiled, as man may who has won salvation for himself and his beloved.

We may not have the lama's certainty. His faith may even strike us as naive, and his belief in his own sinlessness self-deluding. But we must lack imagination if we do not warm to this man in gratitude. Greater love has no man than he who lays down his life willingly for another. But what about the love of one who wrenched his soul back from the threshold of freedom?

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

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

after Francis Bacon


Under the lip of the jar, after the passions’ flight,
clings another passion, a bat the size of an orange
sucked dry from within, on each shoulder no wing
but a white finger. Her name is Expectancy. Blind,
she sniffs, furry neck stretching, the burning leather,
when a fierceness pierces a woman, and a germ
is released. When the baby comes, slightly deflated,
and cries for air, sucking it in like blood, a wing,
pale, hairless, unfurls from its muscle of a heart.
Joining in the cry, the internee bat keens and keens.


The bandage over the window is soaked with sun,
exposing the nerve in the wood, the stone fracture,
the nails oxidizing in the burrows they bit through.
It does not help to move house. The x-rays follow,
filming the densest parts of passions, the skeleton
of full-grown bats grasping its fingers with its arms.
It does not help to return to a cell. Darkness calls
to them. The fluorescence flutters. The one key, brass
plated with nickel, is lubed by the sticky hand,
but there is no lock. Only a mouth full of teeth.


The knife is pulled from the body, more easily
than it was nudged in. Blood follows it outdoors
to welcome the avenger. He is a familiar face,
all mouth, all howl, the portcullis teeth too small,
the orifice that received the oracle delicate.
A gang of bats is hurtling down his throat, lit
by the tall gleaming lamps of his teeth. Reeking
of exhaust and gasoline, the blood he released,
sinking between the grass, drips into eye sockets.
The dead push against the ground but it does not give.

for Helaine

*The painting

Monday, July 21, 2008

London Diary

July 13, Sun
Arrived late at Parliament View Apartments, along Albert Embarkment. Danced at Fire, in Vauxhall.

July 14, Mon
Walked round Westminster and Soho. Watched Billy Eliot the Musical at Victoria Palace Theatre. Drank at Comptons. 

July 15, Tue
Spent afternoon with Anna and James at Hyde Park. Had dinner with Mary and Derek in Soho. Drank at Comptons and G-A-Y. 

July 16, Wed
Walked along South Bank. Visited Tate Modern: Bacon and Picasso room; Pollock's Summertime. Watched stand-up comedy at Royal Vauxhall Tavern. Drank at Barcode Vauxhall.

July 17, Thu
Watched King Lear at Shakespeare's Globe. Dinner at the Box. Drank at Rupert Street and 79 CXR. 

July 18, Fri
Visited the British Museum: the Parthenon Marbles. Danced at G-A-Y. 

July 19, Sat
Visited Sir John Soanes Museum: Hogarth's Election and The Rake's Progress. Visited National Gallery: Cezanne's Bathers (Les Grandes Baigneuses); Seurat's Bathers at Asnieres; and Velazquez's The Rokeby Venus. Concert at St. Martin-in-the Fields by Belmont Ensemble and English Chamber Choir: Handel's Zadok the Priest and Dixit Dominus. Drank at Village and Rupert Street.

July 20, Sun
Walked to Hyde Park Speaker's Corner. Visited Handel House, where he composed Zadok the Priest, Music for the Royal Fireworks and Messiah. Drank at Profile and Rupert Street. 

July 21, Mon
Visited Tate Britain: Victor Pasmore; Wolfgang Tillmans; but missed the Francis Bacon which was taken off yesterday. Visited the Charles Dickens Museum, his house at 48 Doughty Street, where he finished writing the last 6 monthly numbers of The Pickwick Papers, the whole of Oliver Twist, and the whole of Nicholas Nickleby

July 22, Tue
Had lunch with Susan at the Wolseley. Bought books at Foyles. Disappointing concert at Royal Albert Hall: Rossini's William Tell Overture, Haydn's Cello Concerto, and Elgar's First Symphony. Drank at Friendly Society and Profile. 

Friday, July 18, 2008

King Lear at Shakespeare's Globe

It was a straight performance of King Lear at the Globe, no modernizing, adaptation into another culture, or abridging (as far as I could tell), which is appropriate, of course, in this re-creation of a theater Shakespeare wrote for and acted in. David Calder was a powerful and moving King Lear; his eyes were especially expressive. He was completely convincing in his physical and mental deterioration. Sally Breton was malicious anger as Goneril, while Kellie Bright distinguished Regan with an oily manner, which hid a vicious and sensual nature. She bit Gloucester's eye out. Jodie McNee was unsympathetic as Cordelia; she managed to make that saint come across as a busybody. Daniel Hawksford, as Edmund, played for laughs at a few points, and made the character incoherent. Trystan Gravelle, black-haired Welsh opposite Hawskford's blond, played Edgar with a certain nobility, but spat out his lines too quickly. All of them were directed by Dominic Dromgoole, the Artistic Director of the Globe.

Particularly interesting was the "Celtic" music played for this pre-Christian drama. The instruments--voice, shawms, bagpipes, sackbuts, long trumpets, recorder, drums, oud, hurdy-gurdy and symphony--were related to their forebears in Anglo-Saxon England, such as the bone flutes, carnyxes (or war horns), harps and lyres which were brought over from Scandinavia. The music material was created from a variety of sources, the most important of which was the harp music transcribed by the Welsh harpist Robert ap Huw. The melodies and rhythmic style came mainly from ancient Norwegian songs and dances ('Springleiks' and 'Gammeldans'). A female ballad singer, an idea Irish in origin, combined the voice of narrator, commentary and bard. She spoke her commentary in old English, using words from "The Wanderer" and "The Seafarer" OE poems. 

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Poem: Visiting London with an American Boyfriend

xxThe parliament of fools in session: we
are new republics freed from monarchy.
One man may be an MP, and so may
another, as a day succeeds a day,
not as a son, but as a term of light
both after and before the close of night.
You call that man a Representative
whose babel tongue, creaturely and creative,
transforms a people’s will into their laws,
amending constitutions when there’s cause.
xxRepublicans, outside the residence
of royal pomp and London circumstance,
we watch the changing of the palace guard,
and see the toys we thought we lost returned.
They come back with the force of all we lost—
queen mother, nursery, Sunday pot roast—
pictures that grow more valuable with age,
fading the massacres, disease, and rage.
xxBut if we give the past memory’s due,
let it not take the future hostage too,
for both of us, adolescent and child,
cried out in a nightmare terror, wild
for a soft bosom or a gentle word,
and welcomed as a parental safeguard
oily-tongued, bloody-deviced tyranny.
How well I know that officious nanny.
She bankrupts dissent. Citizens she fines.
Once whipped a boy for stealing traffic signs.
xxGreater your years of blood and liberty,
you watch the palace with an amused eye—
too vigorous to be symbolic native,
but ready to be representative—
and put the past back in its proper place,
behind the fancy gates, then behind us.

Billy Elliot The Musical

Having enjoyed the film, The Quarterback and I went on Tuesday to watch the musical at the Victoria Palace with great anticipation. Perhaps our high expectations let us down. The musical did not live up to its rave reviews. Stephen Daldry, who helmed the film, directed the musical as well. Lee Hall, the scriptwriter, wrote the book and lyrics, while Elton John wrote the music.

The songs were not particularly memorable. I don't remember any repetition or development of musical motifs in the second half, except for the sentimental duet sang by Billy and his mum. Fox Jackson-Keen, who was a new Billy, had stage presence, but was always theatrical, unlike the very natural Jonty Bowyer, who played his chunky gay pal. Jackie Clune was wonderful as the dance teacher, Mrs Wilkinson, bringing a bittersweetness to the role. 

The dance numbers were well executed, but it was weird to see striking miners dancing. Also odd, though crowd-pleasing, was the Disney-like number when dresses on hangers danced with the two boys playing dress-up. In a show about ballet, there was too much tap-dancing. Jackson-Keen was a talented and committed dancer, but there are severe limits to what a child-dancer can do, limits which extended to all the pieces involving Billy. The final song was not as rousing as such a rousing story should be; during the curtain call a company dance, with the men putting on tutus, was tacked on to try to lift the show. 

The show ran for a full three hours, which felt an hour too long. The Christmas pantomime, mocking Margaret Thatcher, put up by the miners as a play-within-a-play, detracted from the main story, and could have been cut, though that was a part of the show that earned it critical kudos for being political. The problem is not with politicizing a genre not usually political; the problem is that the politics should remain background to the real story: what does it mean for a working class boy to aspire to dance when ballet is an art associated with the rich and the effeminate? 

In the film, Billy's father and older brother see themselves as emasculated by his ballet, while the miners see themselves as emasculated by their loss of jobs, and then the failure of the strike. The film probes, sympathetically but acutely, working class male anxieties. That subtlety is gone in the musical which celebrates working class solidarity unabashedly, and denounces Thatcherite politics. Its own politics gets confused when, during the Christmas pantomime, a miner mocks Thatcher by dressing up as the Iron Lady. So is cross-dressing a criticism of gender-crossing, or a celebration of it? If Thatcher is to be attacked, she should be attacked as a politician, and not as a woman. To do the latter is sexist, whether the attacker is straight or gay. 

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter"

To be perfectly honest, I would not have stuck with The Scarlet Letter if it is not reckoned generally to be an American classic. The action is reduced to sketches (typical chapter titles are "The Prison-Door," "The Interior of a Heart," and "Hester and the Physician"), the characters are predictable and unsympathetic, the psychology of hidden guilt is coarsened into symbolism. As for the style, the attendant on the my flight into London hit it on the head, Hawthorne takes fifty words to say what can be said in ten. 

Take for an instance, the narrator in the tedious introductory sketch "The Custom-House" says:

It contributes greatly towards a man's moral and intellectual health to be brought into habits of companionship with individuals unlike himself, who care little for his pursuits, and whose sphere and abilities he must go out of himself to appreciate. 

The age was more tolerant of rotundity in style, but "It contributes greatly towards" is not great style in any age, nor is the letter-to-the-editor cliche "a man's moral and intellectual health." The sentence wavers from the man to his unlikely companions, and back to him; it lacks direction. 

Hawthorne also loves to swell his sentences with parenthetical clauses. When he explains why Hester Prynne does not leave Salem, the parenthetical clauses get in the way, instead of performing little hops of insight:

It may seem marvellous that, with the world before her--kept by no restrictive clause of her condemnation within the limits of the Puritan settlement, so remote and so obscure--free to return to her birthplace or any other European land, and there hide her character and identity under a new exterior, as completely as if emerging into another state of being--and having also the passes of the dark, inscrutable forest open to her, where the wildness of her nature might assimilate itself with a people whose customs and life were alien from the law that had condemned her--it may seem marvellous that this woman should still call that place her home, where, and where only, she must needs to be the type of shame. 

The three parenthetical clauses (between the repetition of "It may seem marvellous") are syntactically equivalent but are not equal ideas. The first ("kept by no . . . Puritan settlement") is a condition of her liberty, the second and third ("free to return to her birthplace . . ." and "having also . . . the forest open to her") are that liberty's possible destinations. The syntax hides that relationship between the three places (Puritan settlement, Europe, and forest), instead of clarifying or amplifying it. 

The narrator continues:

But there is a fatality, a feeling so irresistible and inevitable that it has the force of doom, which almost invariably compels human beings to linger around and haunt, ghost-like, the spot where some great and marked event has given the colour to their lifetime; and still more irresistibly, the darker the tinge that saddens it. 

Fatality is "a feeling so irresistible and inevitable that it has the force of doom," and so the appositive phrase adds very little to the idea of fatality. Consider the difference if the two were switched: "But there is a feeling so irresistible and inevitable that it has the force of doom, a fatality . . . ." The single word "fatality" would then not only concentrate the idea before it, but also give it the force of a recognition. Also, the qualifier "almost" in the passage quite spoils the effect of inevitability; what to make of a fatality that is almost invariable? And what is "still more" irresistible than irresistible? or more like a ghost than to haunt? 

Monday, July 14, 2008

ContraDiction approved by authorities

Yi-sheng, the organizer, just notified me that ContraDiction, the gay pride reading in Singapore, will go ahead on Aug 7 (details in sidebar). We are reading in Theaterworks, a well-known local theater company, and so may reach more people than two years ago when we read in a gay bar. The program, a mix of poetry, fiction, drama, and singing, includes

1. Ng Yi-Sheng - Invocation

2. Teng Qian Xi, Standing Figure, Crossings at the Green Man, The Evolution of Language

3. Zhuang Yisa, Dog Lovers, the Tough Guys, I Sit to Write This Letter of Hurt

4. Yen Feng and Chan Sze-Wei - Poem beginning with a line by a dying man, Out of our eyes like Butterflies, Fragile grave

5. Iris Judotter (first sequence)

6.Dominic Chua - Three Sundays On, Psalm Concerning the Heartland

7. Nicholas Deroose- The Singaporean Dream

8. Koh Jee Leong - Head, Roof of the Mouth, Jaws and the Jaw-hinges, Temples, Forehead, Chin, The Finger-Nails

9. Jasmine Seah - I'm Not A Very Good Gay, In the City

10. Iris Judotter (second sequence)

11. Lee Yew Leong - Key West, 2008, Knowledge Can Change Your Fate

12. Adrianna Tan - Why I Am Still A Feminist

13. Jacke Chye - The Pot Luck Club

Well, if you are in Singapore, do drop by. It would be lovely to see you there.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Travel and Helium

I'm visiting London and Paris over the next two weeks, and then Singapore in the following two weeks. There is a gay pride reading in Singapore, on 7 Aug, that I am participating in. It's the same series, called ContraDiction, at which the government banned my reading of "Come on, straight boy." This year, I'll be reading parts of "The Book of the Body," if they are approved by the censors. I'll post some travel reports in this blog, and, hopefully, a few poems during this time.

Joined Helium last month, a "citizen journalism outlet offering a platform for writers to write articles on topics about which they are knowledgeable." You write and post articles, rank other people's articles, and get paid. My 8 articles have earned a grand total of $ 0.13 since I joined. You get paid more, I think, if you write about travel, restaurants, auto, and stuff that people really want to read online. The site is addictive. My short essay on my first ball game, and a review of Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth won me my second writing star. I can't wait to get my third writing star, and my second rating star.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Take Me Out to the Ball Game

I went to my first ball game last night, at the house that Ruth built, in the Bronx. I had moved to the States five years ago, from Singapore, but got involved with a jock only in the last year. He played football in high school but baseball was always there, in the background, in the bleachers of Carbondale, Illinois, where he grew up and took off for New York.

Just outside the B and D train station, also named Yankee Stadium, shops down one side of the road sold baseball uniforms, tees, caps and pennants. Earlier in the day, The Quarterback had tried to buy Tampa Bay Rays caps, but they were selling at a rip-off price of $35. We did not bother to check out the busy stadium shops. A few open-front bars, looking like beach bars, were crowded with pre-game celebrants. The new stadium was supposed to be nearby, but I could not see round the long dirty walls of the old one.

A man, burly, balding, in his fifties, had attached himself to us on the train. He is from New Jersey, and, since he was in the city on business, decided at the last minute to catch the game. His breath smelled of beer and smoke, but he was sober, and chatty. He hoped to buy his ticket from the box office. Failing that, he would buy from anyone outside the stadium, selling just one ticket. The Quarterback gave him the seating plan he had printed out from the Yankees website. The man said he would try to get a seat near us, in the Field Box section. We lost him in the crowd.

We passed through the ticket turnstiles, and entered the closed passageway round the stadium. A young woman thrust into our hands a discount card for a steakhouse. More shops, and the concessions selling popcorn, hot dogs, and sodas. I bought a program which cost $8. The glossy magazine had many photographs of the Yankee players, write-ups about proud parents, players’ statistics—2B, 3B, TB, BB, SB, RBI OBP—correct a month ago, scoring pages, and ads.

Walking into the stadium, I was straightaway struck by its ardent shape. The only other open-air stadium I had been in was the National Stadium, back in Singapore, where, once a year, on the 9th of August, the country puts up an elaborate ceremony of strictly choreographed mass displays. That stadium was oval, shaped like an egg in a nest, or the nest. This was like the bow of a ship, and the sky was also the sea.

We found our seats, blue plastic, with backs. The diamond was to our left, looking smaller than on TV. A row in front of us sat a young couple, the tall dark-haired boyfriend blocking our line of sight, the blond girlfriend disappearing from her seat a number of times during the game. Two lawyers and two bankers sat behind us. After talking office politics, they swapped stories about the Yankees. They agreed that it was very unclassy of Alex Rodriguez's wife to publicize the divorce and A-Rod's philandering.

Two rows behind us were a mother and her two small boys. Sitting next to them were two men, in their mid-forties. Later, when they connected with the lawyers and bankers sitting in front of them, one of them let on his friend fought in Iraq. To the expected question, the friend told a story about how he bluffed a squad of Iraqi soldiers to put down their weapons, when he had no ammo in his rifle. One of the lawyers congratulated him on having balls, and joked that was why the soldier was in Iraq, and not him. The soldier said the situation there was getting better. The Iraqis, he said, were beginning to get it, the benefit of having the Americans there.

I was thirsty, and wished I had bought a drink at the concessions. About ten minutes before the game began, the guys came around selling beer (“Budz from the cuz!”), sodas, hot dogs, and Cracker Jacks. A Bud cost $8.50. A bottle of water $4.75. We shared three Bud Lights, only the second of which was chilled. The trick was, The Quarterback realized and explained to me, to buy from the seller who had almost sold all his beer. The beer left in the ice-filled box then was the coldest.

While the players were warming up in the field, boys, as well as grown men, pressed against the guarding wall. They begged the players to throw them a ball when Jeter or Posada happened to look in their direction. Before the game started, the protective nets and fences were removed, and the green we had been looking at suddenly concentrated into emerald. The sand around it was padded flat, and then hosed down. At 7.05, after some announcements, players and fans stood for "The Star-Spangled Banner." There were 53,089 people there last night, near full capacity.

The Quarterback and I were supporting the Rays partly because his parents, who retired to Tampa, are supporters. I am a sucker for the underdog, who looks likely to win, and so the Rays' surprise success story this year has some purchase on my imagination. It was the same thing with the New York Giants last season, going up against the fancied Patriots in the Super Bowl.

It was different, though, cheering for the underdog at home, and in a stadium packed with wild home fans. My cheering for the Rays was very discreet. I contented myself with a "yes" hissed under my breath when Kazmir struck out a Yankee, or with a single pump of the arm when the Rays made a sharp defensive play, knocking out a double. I was gladder than ever that we did not buy Rays caps. There was not much to cheer for, anyway, since the Rays batted badly, or else Andy Pettitte pitched brilliantly.

After the 7th inning, the stadium was prompted to stand, for a minute of silence, to remember the servicemen fighting abroad. The silence was broken by the singing of "God Bless America," followed by "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." The stadium was looking majestic by then, at about nine-thirty, the ship's bow blazing against the dark blue sky. The Rays were still trailing by 2. Then the Yankees hit a home run, and the Rays were down by 3. The Quarterback suggested, and I agreed, that we leave before the final inning, and the inevitable crush.

Outside the stadium, the shops and bars were almost lost behind their bright lights. A petite woman handed us a flyer for Sin City. I remembered seeing the gentlemen's cabaret, a warehouse-like building, every time I had taken the train back to Bronxville, where I had studied creative writing. I had not realized it was so close by. Many women, young, svelte, in tight jeans, stood outside the bars, not paying us—couples, families, sober—any attention. I thought of the guy from New Jersey, and wondered where he was. We walked past the women, with a growing stream of people, to the station, carrying my souvenir program, and congratulating ourselves for beating the crowd.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The New Yorker, July 7 & 14, 2008

from Joan Acocella's article "Romeo, Romeo" on Mark Morris's "Romeo and Juliet" based on a lost Prokofiev score:

Morris's habit of standing inside a dance as he creates it is different from what many other choreographers do. . . . Morris is famous for the viscera quality of his dances--the fact that they are fleshy, muscular, that you can feel them on your body--and this is surely due in part to his habit of choreographing from inside, or starting there.


His most frequent correction was that he wanted the company to dance harder, with more attack. His other, constant complaint was about entropy--the fact that the dancers, two days after he taught them something, would start to slur it. Composers can comfort themselves that, if one performance is not to their liking, the next may be. The score survives. In dance, there is no score. The piece is what is performed.


from Adam Gopnik's article "The Back of the World" on G. K. Chesterton:

His aphorisms alone are worth the price of admission . . . the deeper ones are genuine Catholic koans, pregnant and profound: "Blasphemy depends on belief, and is fading with it. if anyone doubts this, let him sit down seriously and try to think blasphemous thoughts about Thor." Or: "The function of the imagination is not to make strange things settled, so much as to make settled things strange." Or: "A key has no logic to its shape. Its logic is: it turns the lock."


[from Chesterton's novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill] "A city is, properly speaking, more poetic even than a countryside, for while nature is a chaos of unconscious forces, a city is a chaos of conscious ones. The crest of the flower or the pattern of the lichen may or may not be significant symbols. But there is no stone in the street and no brick in the wall that is not actually a deliberate symbol--a message from some man, as much as if it were a telegram or a post card."


[from Chesterton's novel The Man Who Was Thursday] "Listen to me," cried Syme with extraordinary emphasis. "Shall I tell you the secret of the whole world? It is that we have only known the back of the world. We see everything from behind and it looks brutal. That is not a tree, but the back of a tree. That is not a cloud, but the back of a cloud. Cannot you see that everything is stopping and hiding a face? If we could only get round in front--"


from Alex Ross's article "Symphony of Millions" on the Chinese music boom:

Western music formally arrived in China in 1601, when the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci presented a clavichord to Wanli, the longest-ruling of the Ming emperors. . . . the Emperor's eunuchs experimented with the instrument for a little while and then set it aside. . . . Of succeeding emperors, Kangxi and Qianlong showed the most enthusiasm for Western music; the latter, who ruled China for the better part of the eighteenth century, at one point assembled a full-scale chamber orchestra, with the eunuchs dressed in European suits and wigs.


[During Mao's rule] Nonetheless, composers made fitful attempts to modernize their art, especially during the Hundred Flowers period, when Mao permitted them to "apply appropriate foreign principles and use foreign musical instruments."

The onset of the Cultural Revolution, in 1966, effectively shut down the Central Conservatory. . . . Composers had to work within the often peculiar stylistic boundaries that Jiang Qing set up; on one occasion, she extolled Aaron Copland's film score for "The Red Pony," and another time she outlawed the tuba.

. . . When the Central Conservatory reopened, in 1978, eighteen thousand people applied for a hundred places. Present in that first class was a group of composers who define contemporary Chinese music today: Tan Dun, Chen Yi, Zhou Long, Chen Qigang, and Guo Wenjing. . . . Almost all the students had been forced to perform manual labor or study folk music in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, and they arrived at the school with a strong grasp of Chinese heritage.


. . . By combining Cage's chance processes and natural noises with plush Romantic melodies, Tan concocted a kind of crowd-pleasing avant-gardism. In March, at the Egg, he demonstrated that sensibility with a concert of "Organic Music," with the China Youth Orchestra; in "Paper Concerto" and "Water Concerto," the Japanese percussionist Haruka Fujii crinkled paper and swished water in amplified bowls and other receptacles. In a further feat of packaging, Tan relates this music to shamanistic rituals of Hunan province, where he grew up. With such deft gestures of fusion, Tan has satisfied a Western craving for authentic-seeming folklore-based music.


At the core of Guo [Wenjing]'s worj is an encyclopedic sympathy for Chinese traditional music. In the nineteen-eighties, he collected folk songs in the mountains around the upper Yangtze River. His hero was Bela Bartok, who immersed himself in Eastern European folk music . . . . Guo was also drawn to Dmitri Shostakovich, master of the Soviet symphony; Guo's mature works, with their martial rhythms, flashes of biting wit, and explosive climaxes, have much in common with Shoatakovich's, even if the musical material is drastically different.


[Guo Wenjing:] "I am anti-fashion. I look down on the trend. I want to escape the whole question of sounding like the West or sounding like the East. Non-Europeans always have to have their cultural identity, their symbols. In Germany or France, they have real freedom. They absolutely have the freedom to write what they want."


The project of revitalizing Chinese tradition has fallen to younger artists like Wu Na, who, at the age of thirty, has mastered what some consider the supreme aristocrat of instruments: the guqin, or seven-stringed zither. It is more than three thousand years old, and has a repertory that reaches back to the first millennium. Philosophers and poets from Confucius to Li Bai prided themselves on learning it.


There is a vague likeness between the art of guqin and Western experimental music: the scores indicate tunings, fingerings, and articulations but fail to specify rhythms, resulting in markedly different interpretations by performers of competing schools.

Poem: The Wine Bottle Holder

The Wine Bottle Holder
after reading Eavan Boland’s “The Wild Spray”

From Paris you brought back your first gift
for me, a stainless steel wine holder, arched
back in a single curve, seen from the side,
and, from the top, a shiny sharp-edged plane.

It was the most defined thing in my kitchen
where mismatched mugs squatted in the sink,
the gas cooker was bronzed with spits of sauce,
and ripe bananas hung over the trash.

I stashed it in some cupboard and forgot
those early days of careful give-and-take.
Now, taking out the holder from my mind,
and flashing it, this way, that, in the sun,

I see it keeps its clear and severe lines,
the boundaries of being, and within
the first material it is made of,
the graceful arch still of that of a bridge,

but, more, the months have worn its cutlass shine
to a glow, cutlery’s, and here it sits,
its empty mouth also a steady hand,
to hold the bottle of Bordeaux we choose.

TLS, July 4, 2007

from Seth Lerer's review of Alastair Minnis's Fallible Authors: Chaucer's Pardoner and Wife of Bath:

From the so-called "academic prologues" to canonical Latin texts, Minnis recovered a critical idiom that could explain the nature of authorial intention, the quality of reader response, and the relations of form and rhetoric that would inform not just the reading of classical and religious writers, but the writing of imaginative, vernacular fiction. Compilatio and ordinatio were the governing prinicples of literary structure: the first, an activity of reading, bringing source materials and previous authorities together; the second, an act of writing, organizing this material into structures that would give voice to an argument. 


from Then and Now, a 1922 review of Isaac Rosenberg's poems by Ernest de Selincourt:

His definition of "simple poetry," in a letter to Mr. Gordon Bottomley, is itself an indication of the difficulty of his approach to it: "simple poetry--that is, where an interesting complexity of thought is kept in tone and right value to the dominating idea so that it is understandable and still ungraspable. . . ."


from Richard P. Novick's review of Cynthia Fox's Cell of Cells: The global race to capture and control the stem cell:

It is interesting that religions are far from unified on "ensoulment". According to Thomas Aquinas (following Aristotle and St. Augustine), ensoulment of males occurs at forty days and of females at ninety days. Many modern Catholic theologians would allow research before the development of the "primitive streak" (the brain primordium) at fourteen days. Jewish views hold that hES [human embryonic stem] cell research entails no moral issue since genetic (ie, embryonic) materials are not even part of a human being until implanted in a womb. Islamic views generally place ensoulment at the 120th day and hold that a very early embryo has no moral status. And some US Protestant denominations have expressed support for embryonic stem-cell research, including the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church and the United Church of Christ.


from Frances Wood's review of T. H. Barrett's The Woman Who Discovered Printing:

The Chinese technology [of woodblock printing] is frequently misunderstood and dismissed as primitive and impractical. yet, as Joseph Mcdermott showed in his Social History of the Chinese Book (2006), the Protestant missionary William Milne reported n 1820 that traditional Chinese woodblock printing was the most economical and efficient method for the publication of translations of the Bible, more efficient and cost-effective than European-style movable-type printing.


Our heroine, the Empress Wu (628-705), herself comissioned a set of 3,000 manuscript copies of the Lotus sutra, totalling 21,000 paper scrolls, "for the posthumous karmic benefit of her parents", and at least one set of the entire Taoist corpus, in about 2,000 scrolls, in memory of a son who died. Despite her manuscript commissions, she may also have made the order that started China's printing industry.


from Linne R. Mooney's review of Kathleen L. Scott's Tradition and Innovation in Later Medieval English Manuscripts

The third essay examines the complicated two-page illustration following the text of The Abbey of the Holy Ghost in a British Library manuscript, dated to the second quarter of the fifteenth century. The text offers "spiritual guidance for those living in a mixed life--in the world and of the spirit";  . . . Scott concludes that the images therein are intended to lead the user through a series of meditations on the allegorical meaning of the Abbey text. A splendid diagram laid over the two-page image illustrates this beautifully.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Jhumpa Lahiri's "Unaccustomed Earth"

Raising the Volume Quietly

In Lahiri's Pulitzer-winning debut collection, Interpreter of Maladies, the stories take place in a deliberately limited period of time: an electricity blackout ("A Temporary Matter"); a guided tour ("Interpreter of Maladies"); an academic season ("When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine"); a baby-sitting job ("Mrs. Sen"); the beginning and end of an extra-marital affair ("Sexy"). This strategy gives a natural and aesthetic shape to Lahiri's material--the experiences of immigrant Bengalis in America--and the shape can impress the mind deeply, like an archetype, as in the poignant anthology-worthy piece "A Temporary Matter." 

In Unaccustomed Earth, her second collection, two stories follow the same strategy. The title story takes place during a father's visit at his married daughter's home. The occasion for "A Choice of Accommodations" is a high school reunion. The other three stories in Part One, and the three linked stories in Part Two, however, are plotted over a span of months, years even; they are shaped not by the exigencies of plot, but by those of life. "Only Goodness" traces the trembling uncertainty of a brother's alcoholism. "Hema and Kaushik," the chain of stories, begins when Hema is thirteen years old, and ends when she is in her mid-thirties. While the stories may lose the pleasures of predetermined form, they gain thereby the terror of indeterminable flux. They are scarier.

They begin quietly, as we have grown accustomed to in a Lahiri story, but, in a development of her material, they end at a more violent volume. "Hell-Heaven" concludes with a woman who douses herself with lighter fluid in her backyard. "Only Goodness" threatens us with a baby left alone in a filling bathtub. There is an actual fight near the conclusion of "Nobody's Business." Cancer infects "Once in a Lifetime," the first of the linked stories. The ending of "Hema and Kaushik" is too good to give away, but it more than fulfills, tragically, the promises of destruction in the earlier stories. 

Though not violent, the description of marital sex  in a high school dorm, in "A Choice of Accommodations," is a part of the potentially lurid material the writer is probing in this collection. This risky probe gives lie to the criticism sometimes directed at Lahiri, that she write about the same subject. Like the photojournalist Kaushik who learns his job in turbulent parts of South America and the Middle East, Lahiri is absorbing into her fiction the violence racking our world. 

What remains true in this book is that Lahiri is more penetrating on inter-generational immigrant experience, than on the experience of second-, or later, generation immigrants struggling with work, love, and raising a family in America. In "A Choice of Accommodations," the husband's revelation of his martial disillusionment feels mundane, though intended to be epiphanic.  "Nobody's Business," a story about the hopeless love a Bengali woman has for a philandering Egyptian boyfriend, just does not have the subtle psychology manifested in almost every sentence in "Unaccustomed Earth." The latter unravels the tensions underlying a daughter's betrayal of a father's hopes, the shared (and not quite shared) loss of a mother and wife, a father's growing love for another woman. 

These father-daughter tensions are conveyed through alternating third person points of view, a device not seen in the first collection. The alternating viewpoints appear again in the linked stories, but this time in the first person, as well as the third. The first story "Once in a Lifetime" is narrated by Hema, the second "Year's End" by Kaushik, the third "Going Ashore" by a third person narrator, and then, in its last section, by Hema in her own voice. The child's perspective, used so effectively in "When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine" in the first collection, is again completely convincing here in "Once in a Lifetime." 

The voice of Kaushik, a college senior in "Year's End," is less persuasive. I realized why only when I read the final story. The narrator, quiet, observant, poised, sounds like Hema recalling her childhood in the first story; in fact, she sounds like the narrators, whether in first or third person, in the whole collection. Lahiri's style, so beguiling and true, rings false in the mouth of Kaushik because it is insufficiently distinguishable from the writer herself. Compare Kaushik in "Year's End" with the narrator in "Unaccustomed Earth," both describing the aftermath of a meal:

[Kaushik] When we were done eating, Chitra cleared all the plates and took them into the kitchen, just as she had the night before, allowing my father and me to relax after dinner in a way that we'd never been able to during the last years of my mother's life. We no longer had to assume the responsibility of scraping the plates and loading the dishwasher so that my mother could rest. I sat finishing my drink, and Rupa and Piu slithered out of their seats and returned to the sectional to watch more television. My father got up and followed them, settling into his recliner with the newspaper. He opened it to a large ad for Lechmere that featured cameras for sale, circling things with a ballpoint pen. 

[Lahiri-narrator:] After finishing with the dishes he dried them and then scrubbed the inside of the sink, removing the food particles from the drainer. He put the leftovers away in the refrigerator, tied up the trash bag and put it into the large barrel he'd noticed in the driveway, made sure the doors were locked. he sat for a while at the kitchen table, fiddling with a saucepan whose handle--he'd noticed while washing it--was wobbly. He searched in the drawers for a screwdriver and, not finding one, accomplished the task with the tip of a steak knife.
In both passages, all the clauses begin with a proper name or a personal pronoun. Independent clauses are joined by the coordinate conjunction "and." If they are modified, they are modified by participial phrases (e.g., "settling into his recliner with his newspaper") or by subordinate clauses beginning with "when" and "after." The verbs are very common ones (finish, take, put, sit, make sure) and so the occasional colorful verb jumps out, for instance, "slithered." The diction is colloquial without being slangy, but a certain formality appears now and then, in the first passage in "assume the responsibility," and in the second in "accomplished the task." 

More than in grammar and diction, the style shows itself in what it chooses to observe. Both passages detail the numerous actions involved in clearing up a meal, actions usually ignored in other writers, or subsumed under a more general category. This precision in observation extends to the ordinary instruments the characters use for their ordinary tasks. In the first passage, Kaushik's father circles the ad with "a ballpoint pen." In the second passage, Ruma's father tightens a saucepan handle with "the tip of a steak knife." 

The tools deployed are not intended to be symbolic, I think, but their lack of symbolism serves an important function in the style. These simple, and yet easily missed, observations authenticate the realism of the style. They also mark its limitation. To convince us of its version of reality, the style has to be seamless, consistent. But how can such seamlessness convey different versions of reality, in other words, distinguish between what belongs to Kaushik and what to Lahiri? 

What belongs to Lahiri, and what she gives, is an uncommon sensibility. She is a writer who feels her way to the truth. Unbounded by any ideological outlook or literary allegiance, she travels this unaccustomed earth, with open eyes, ears, and hands.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

George Eliot's "Middlemarch"

Reading Middlemarch immediately after The Portrait of a Lady, I was constantly comparing the two novels, and the two masters, in my mind. The crude comparisons came readily--marriage plot, idealistic female protagonists tried by changed circumstances, the great theme of What Makes A Good Life--but the subtler differences of outlook and style I find harder to express to my own satisfaction.

I did find, at the beginning of the novel, Eliot's characters crudely drawn, compared to James's complexity. Wealthy Featherstone's grasping relatives who gather around his deathbed are caricatures imported from Dickens. The Garth family are almost unbelievable in their practical goodness and wisdom. Even Dorothea and Lydgate, passionately and convincingly imagined, fall in with certain types. This aspect of her art is what James described and faulted in an otherwise admiring review in The Atlantic Monthly (May 1885):

We feel in [George Eliot], always, that she proceeds from the abstract to the concrete, that her figures and situations are evolved, as the phrase is, from her moral consciousness, and are only indirectly the products of observations. They are deeply studied and elaborately justified, but they are not seen in the irresponsible plastic way. The world was, first and foremost, for George Eliot, the moral, the intellectual world; the personal spectacle came after; and lovingly, humanly, she regarded it, we constantly feel that she cares for the things she finds in it only so far as they are types. The philosophic door is always open, on her stage, and we are aware that the somewhat cooling draught of ethical purpose draws across it. This constitutes half the beauty of her work; the constant reference to ideas may be an excellent source of one kind of reality--for, after all, the secret of seeing a thing well is not necessarily that you see nothing else. Her preoccupation with the universe helped to make her characters strike you as also belonging to it; it raised the roof, widened the area, of her aesthetic structure. Nothing is finer, in her genius, than the combination of her love of general truth and love of the special case; without this, indeed, we should not have heard of her as a novelist, for the passion of the special case is surely the basis of the storyteller's art . . .

James's evaluation of her art tries for evenhandedness, but it is clear that he values "the special case" over "the general truth." The Portrait of a Lady, published in 1881, nine years after Eliot's novel, is a study of "the special case." I will risk an oversimplification, which has probably been stated better elsewhere: James the novelist is a psychologist, whereas Eliot is a moralist. And it is Eliot's Victorian moralism that James senses as "the somewhat cooling draught of ethical purpose." There is no inherent reason why that ethical purpose should make her rooms feel draughty, instead of fresh and cool, but James here is more sensitive to, more representative of, the changing climate of the times, an aesthetic and moral weather his own art helped to usher in. Living in that changed climate, I find Eliot old-fashioned, but James a contemporary. That is a matter of the quality of my experience reading them, not a matter of the quality of their writing, or of my enjoyment of both writers. A patina of antiquity, as Yvor Winters said of his verse, can be very attractive. 

The titles of the novels suggest another deep difference. Middlemarch, the name of the town in and around which the action takes place, with the exception of a few chapters in Rome,  is subtitled "A study of provincial life." Its gallery of characters are drawn from a deliberate cross section of rural society: from the leisured landed gentry to the complacent manufacturers and poor tenant farmers on the great estates. In contrast, James's novel depicts (with the exception of two English lords) a handful of American expatriates living in Europe. No matter how long or how successfully these expats have settled in Europe, they know and feel themselves to be American, thus foreign, to their chosen habitations. Middlemarch, on the other hand, is a closed society in which newcomers, like Lydgate and Bulstrode, remain suspect. This difference gives the protagonists' search for self-definition a distinct orientation. Isabel Archer's problem is too much liberty, Dorothea's problem too much confinement. 

A related aspect. In The Portrait of a Lady, there is much talk about beautiful, and expensive, objects, but not much calculation of actual sums of money. Money is readily inherited, used, conspired after, but it is as airy as talk. Not so in Middlemarch, where money's grubby influence on suppliants, businessmen, and debtors are made painfully concrete. Money troubles humble the most aspiring of spirits. And the power of money to do good is what concerns Dorothea's conscience after she inherited Casaubon's property. She is happy to give up the fortune in order to marry Will Ladislaw: " We could live quite well on my own fortune--it is too much--seven hundred a year--I want so little--no new clothes--and I will learn what everything costs." Middlemarch calculates not only spiritual costs, but also very material ones, and, seen in this aspect, it appears to encompass more of life, than A Portrait, with its more rarefied atmosphere. 


[Will Ladislaw]: "Language gives a fuller image, which is all the better for being vague. After all, the true seeing is within; and painting stares at you with an insistent imperfection. I feel that especially about representations of women. As if a woman were a mere coloured superfices! You must wait for movement and tone. There is a difference in their very breathing: they change from moment to moment."


We are all of us born in moral stupidity, taking the world as an udder to feed our supreme selves: Dorothea had early begun to emerge from that stupidity, but yet it had been easier to her to imagine how she would devote herself to Mr. Casaubon, and become wise and strong in his strength and wisdom, than to conceive with that distinctness which is no longer reflection but feeling--an idea wrought back to the directness of sense like the solidity of objects--that he had an equivalent centre of self, whence the lights and shadows must always fall with a certain difference.


In that hour she repeated what the merciful eyes of solitude have looked on for ages in the spiritual struggles of man--she besought hardness and coldness and aching weariness to bring her relief from the mysterious incorporeal might of her anguish: she lay on the bare floor and let the night grow cold around her; while her grand woman's frame was shaken by sobs as if she had been a despairing child. 


Her finely-touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Reading Boland's "Outside History" (1990) Part 2

Violence in the poem “Object Lessons” is depicted on the husband’s coffee mug: a hunting scene with dogs, hawks, picnic linen and pitches, a wild rabbit, a thrush, and a lady smiling as the huntsman kisses her. Violence is also literal here, not just pictorial. With a “shiver/ of presentiment,” the couple found the broken pieces of the mug—pieces of the sparrow hawk and the huntsman’s kisses—on the floorboards they had sworn “to sand down and seal/ with varnish.” The description of the mug evokes Keats’s Grecian urn, an allusion strengthened by the repeated references to the picnic pitches. But the poet not only breaks the mold here, she also shows the immediate, human surroundings of the aestheticised mug/urn: the rough, unvarnished floorboards of a new house.

The next poem “On the Gift of The Birds of America by John James Audubon” is, aptly, an elegy. The bird book speaks to the poet of “the celebration of an element/ which absence has revealed”; the creatures of the air remind the poet of her earthliness, and of her fear of losing her spot on earth. The poem ends with the memory of a day in May, on the Clare hills. The poet can still hear the music of swans flying overhead, and remember how she and her husband looked up, “rooted to the spot.” County Clare is located on the west coast of Ireland, northwest of the River Shannon. By introducing the Clare hills at the end, remembered in the new country of America, the elegy mourns for the loss of home, as well as the loss of life.

In “The Game” the poet varies her main strategy in this section. Instead of describing a concrete object symbolically, she describes, not the card game she overheard as a child in the strange country of England, but her own imaginary game, in which she dreamt of flying over water. That childish game gave her a sense of freedom and control, unlike her feeling in the card room where “the red-jacketed and cruel-eyed fractions of chance” lay abandoned by the players. The poem has a brilliant final stanza:

Later on I would get up and go to school in
the scalded light which fog leaves behind it;
and pray for the King in chapel and feel dumbly for
the archangels trapped in their granite hosannahs.

The English fog, described at the beginning of the poem as “tattering into wisps and rags,” alienated the Irish child, but also enabled her flights of fancy. More painful was “the scalded light” after the fog, when she had to leave the sanctuary of her room for school. In school, not only did she not play the game of “queens and aces,” she also had to “pray for the King.” For the unidentified flying object she imagined herself to be, she found in school the objective correlative: “the archangels trapped in their granite hosannahs.”

The poems in this section Object Lessons experiment with different verse forms. “The Black lace Fan My Mother Gave Me” is written in quatrains, “The Rooms of Other Women Poets” in couplets of roughly equal length. The six-line stanzas of “Object Lessons” are diamond shaped. The stanza of “On the Gift of The Bird of America” has three lines of decreasing length, the third, of 3-5 syllables, very much shorter than the other two. “The Game” is another poem in quatrains. The experimentation is interesting, but the most convincing of them all, in the confluence of subject, argument and tone, is the tercets of the next poem “The Shadow Doll.”

According to the author’s note, a shadow doll was sent to the bride-to-be in Victorian times, by her dressmaker. It consisted in a porcelain doll, under a dome of glass, modeling the proposed wedding dress. The poem begins with apparent innocence, and then gathers, into that innocence, understated menace:

They stitched blooms from ivory tulle
to hem the oyster gleam of the veil.
They made hoops for the crinoline.

Now, in summary and neatly sewn—
a porcelain bride in an airless glamour—
the shadow doll survives its occasion.

The decorum of the occasion is matched by the decorum of the lines in the first stanza, each line making up one whole unit of meaning. The decorum is enhanced by syntactical parallel (“They stitched . . . . They made . . . .”). By compressing the second sentence into one line, the stanza ends with a summarizing effect, an effect named by the next stanza, and equaled with the completion of the doll.

In the second stanza, the second line summarizes the doll in yet another way: the materiality of its meaning, in both its porcelain and its airlessness. The third line summarizes the past. The doll survives, the occasion does not. Both stanzas, in different syntactical ways, are complete in themselves. It’s astonishing how quickly the poet has moved—from doll making to Victorian wedding to the present—in the space of six lines.

The doll stays discreet about “visits, fevers, quickenings and lusts,” and also about how the bride saw herself in the doll. The doll’s discretion is part of the poem’s tact. Boland imagines the fake glamour of marriage represented by the doll, but does not ascribe her own imagining to the Victorian bride. Instead, she connects herself to that bride through the making of marital vows

I kept repeating on the night before—
astray among the cards and wedding gifts—
the coffee pots and the clocks and

the battered tan case full of cotton
lace and tissue paper, pressing down, then
pressing down again. And then locks.

The last line ends a sentence beginning 14 lines (4 stanzas) before it. The whole poem consists of only five sentences, the last of which is the shortest, a final catch. A reference to the shadow doll’s tulle and crinoline, the cotton lace and tissue paper are a weight and a casing so soft and so inescapable. The repetition of the vows sets up the rhythm in these stanzas: the accumulated wedding gifts; the coordinate conjunction “and”; the phrase “pressing down”; and the inevitable “and then.”

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Literary Imagination Volume 10 Number 1 2008

Literary Imagination is a journal of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics (ALSC), published by OUP. It is edited by Peter Campion. After joining ALSC, I received the journal in May (?), but put it aside for summer reading. It is a pleasure to read.

 The academic articles are scholarly but not overly specialized, with useful explanatory footnotes and references. They are written in clear, accessible prose, more formal than the belle lettristic, but without the technical vocabulary of Theory. I especially enjoyed James Sitar's transcription of a talk by Robert Frost, Janet Gezari's "Kurtz's Night Table" (which approaches the teaching of Heart of Darkness through Coppola's Vietnam war film Apocalypse Now), John Koethe's "Wittgenstein and Lyric Subjectivity," and William Edinger's "Yvor Winters and Generality: A Classical/Neoclassical Perspective." The last is particularly insightful, in describing the greatness in Winters' poetry, its classicism and modernism. "The Slow Pacific Swell" and "To the Holy Spirit" are poems I'm glad to have encountered.

The common concern in these very different essays is to bring Literature and Criticism, History, Philosophy, Film, and Pedagogy into a closer relationship, in a broadly Western humanistic framework. J. Hillis Miller is mentioned in passing, but the touchstones are Aristotle, Longinus, Samuel Johnson, Coleridge, M. H. Abrams, Northrope Frye, Frank Kermode. Excepting the classical authors, the tradition is firmly Anglo-American. Interestingly, Stewart Justman ends his long survey of the canon "Literature and the Turn from History" by discussing Ha Jin's novel Waiting. The keynote speaker at the next ALSC conference is Jhumpa Lahiri.

This issue also includes a piece of short fiction by Mary O'Donoghue, poems by David Wojahn, Alan Shapiro, Reginald Gibbons, Mary Meriam, and Elizabeth Arnold, and translations of Virgil, Racine, Julio Martinez Mesanza (Spanish poet), and Mihai Ursachi (Romanian poet) by, respectively, David Ferry, Rachel Hadas, Don Bogen and Adam J. Sorkin. Having enjoyed Alan Shapiro's Song and Dance, I am pleased to find I like his two poems here very much. "Night" is about his dead brother, a Broadway actor, the grievous subject of his book too.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Reading Boland’s "Outside History" (1990) Part 1

This book consists of three sections: Object Lessons with 11 poems; Outside History, a 12-part sequence; and Distances with 12 poems. This three-section division was used for the first time in the previous book The Journey, and, like that book, the middle section gives the collection its title. The division reminds me of a triptych, with its central and flanking panels.

Another similarity to The Journey lies in the opening poem. Like “I Remember,” “The Black Lace Fan My Mother Gave Me” is a poem about Boland’s mother, and functions as a kind of invocation to the Mother Muse, most explicitly sought out in Night Feed.

“The Black Lace Fan” also sets the strategy of this section Object Lessons. The fan, a gift from an ex-lover to the poet’s mother, is described in such a way as to evoke character and situation. Its “wild roses . . ./ darkly picked, stitched boldly, quickly” suggests the mother’s passion. Its tortoiseshell, though it has “the reticent, clear patience of its element,” is “a worn-out, underwater bullion,” and keeps “an inference of its violation.” What is violated is not only the Hawksbill turtle, but also the mother’s trust in her fickle lover. The violence used to make beautiful objects is a theme in this section.

The past, in the form of the fan, is passed from mother to daughter, but its story is always incomplete. The poet has to “improvise,” to imagine what happened after the lover left her mother. She imagines that, after having her heart broken, her mother, like a blackbird on a sultry morning, puts out her wing—“the whole, full, flirtatious span of it.”

In “The Rooms of Other Women Poets,” the violation is inferred from the wild flowers “dried and fired” on the saucer, “a savage, old calligraphy” which the poet refuses to have in her room, and wonders whether other women poets think the same way. She thinks they, like her, prefer the “unaggressive silence” of cane chair and plain table bearing up a quire of foolscap. She imagines they share similar rooms, with “honeyed corners, the interior sunless,” and through the windows see

the bay windbreak, the laburnum hang fire, feel
the ache of things ending in the jasmine darkening early.


Rogue Scholars and Active Ingredients Readings

Just did two readings this last week. The first, on June 26, at Cornelia Street Cafe, was hosted by Miriam Stanley who edits the Rogue Scholars. I read the new stuff written in response to Eavan Boland. Quite raw, but I wanted to give them an airing so as to get ideas for revision.

Jean Lehrman read, accompanied by Dan the bartender/musician on vibraphone. I liked a prose piece she read, about a relationship that developed between a case worker and a client. It has something of sweet despair in it, with no cloying sentimentality. I've heard James Maynard read a couple of times at the Pink Pony open-mic, and always enjoyed his poems. His pastoral and love poems are dreamy as waters, with a strong current of feeling. His poem on leaving White Cap Creek, a river in Colorado where he helped build a bridge, is the best kind of nature poem: passionate affiliation.

Last night, at The Stone, Nemo's Active Ingredients hosted We Sing the Body Electric: Whitman and His Children. Thomas Fucaloro, Jane Ormerod, John Marcus Powell, and Iris N. Schwartz took turns to read "I Sing the Body Electric," before I read excerpts from my sequence "The Book of the Body." The four readers also read their favorite Whitman as well their own poems inspired by him. The Whitman selections were off the beaten path: "Song of the Broad-Axe," "Earth, My Likeness," "O You Whom I Often and Silently Come," "That Shadow My Likeness," "We Two--How Long We Were Fool'd," and "When I Heard at the Close of the Day."

The original poetry was varied and interesting. Jane's "Preparation for the Body (Exhumed)" was an imagistic collage about a dead mother. Thomas read short, often ironic pieces, that qualify or contradict Whitman ("I am the body neglected"). Iris read sexy lyrics. John Marcus, in his deeply authoritative voice, read a long narrative poem about voyuerism called "Parallels."

Thanks, everyone who attended the readings. Also, the guy who bought a copy of Payday Loans. Rick Mullin reviews the evening (scroll down). Here's the note I wrote for the program:

I Sing the Body Electric: Whitman and his children

Walt Whitman (1818 – 1892) is usually read as an American, or gay, or shamanic poet. He is all that, and more. Not only did he write “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” the Calamus poems, and “Song of Myself,” he also wrote the Children of Adam poems, of which “I Sing the Body Electric” is the longest part, and so, the key.

Singing the Body electric, Whitman touches what is common to us all, gay or straight, male or female, American or otherwise. “This is the female form,” he declares, and “the male is not less the soul,” nicely destroying the polarity of male-soul and female-body. He was concerned with the social injustice of his time—for the man’s body at auction, and the woman’s body at auction. He was also concerned with our existential lot, asserting that “each has his or her place in the procession” of the universe.

His animal spirits, his ethical idealism, and his metaphysical daring inspired me to write my sequence of poems “The Book of the Body.” I wanted to test that fighting optimism against our present conditions that seem so adverse to it. Plagued by religious hatred, historical divisions, and economic rivalry, how can one sing of, as Whitman has it, “the exquisite realization of health”? Still, as an act of faith, I am using as an epigraph Whitman’s statement of faith: “O my Body! I dare not desert the likes of you in other men and women, nor the likes of the parts of you.”

In the spirit of this Adamic poet, the reading tonight gathers together readers of different nationalities, ethnicities, and sexualities, though not in any comprehensive way (impossible anyway since “the body balks account,” as Whitman reminds us). “I Sing the Body Electric” enlarges our conception of Whitman as poet. Perhaps the reading will enlarge his circle of children.

Jee Leong Koh
June 22, 2008