Sunday, November 30, 2008

Gus Van Sant's "Milk"

Milk is Harvey Milk, California's first openly gay elected official who was assassinated in 1978 by fellow San Francisco supervisor, Dan White. A well-made biopic, the film does not try to go beyond the conventions of the genre. At 128 minutes, it also feels on the long side. 

Part of the problem is that the Harvey Milk character is not fully fleshed out, and so he appears in the film something of a saint. There are allusions to shadows--he has not come out to his own parents, he likes to help vulnerable young men--but they remain oblique to the main action. The struggle between social activism and personal losses--one lover leaves him, another lover hangs himself--is depicted, but in dramatically predictable manner. 

The real conflict in the film takes place between the Castro Street activists and the bigoted Christian campaigners, Anita Bryant and State Senator John Briggs (Denis O'Hare), over Prop 6 that sought to fire gay teachers and their supporters. But since the homophobes are always one-dimensional, the fight very quickly becomes one between good and evil, with the expected success, followed by the expected tragedy. 

The acting is strong all-round, but not brilliant. Sean Penn plays Harvey Milk. Emile Hirsch is a credible Cleve Jones. Josh Brolin brings some genuine emotion to the tormented Dan White. James Franco, who plays Milk's first lover, Scott Smith, is drool-worthy. 

The film splices seamlessly old footage, of the police brutality, the TV appearances of Anita Bryant, the marches. Most genuinely moving is the opening sequence showing a police raid of a gay bar. The gay customers shield their faces, not just from police batons, but also from the cameras. The humiliation brought a lump to my throat. 

Despite my reservations about the film, I really hope it travels to and plays in Singapore. It is a film that gives courage. 


William Eggleston at the Whitney

I have not seen all that many photographic exhibitions (Diane Arbus, Robert Mapplethorpe, Stephen Shore, Walker Evans, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, James Bidgood spring to mind) but William Eggleston: Democratic Camera, Photographs and Video, 1961-2008 struck me as the best I have ever seen. It was consistently eye-pleasing, thought-provoking, and heart-warming; it was also very funny in places. Refusing to rank or exclude objects from his democratic field of vision, Eggleston trains his camera everywhere, making what the exhibition justifiably calls "indelible images" out of common things. 

I remember a green-tiled bathroom, with a green bathtub. Though a little moldy between the tiles in the corner, the bathroom glows of cleaning. A light coming into the bathroom creates a chapel-like arch above the green tiles, and the bathtub becomes a baptismal pool.

A man in his fifties sits on a bed covered in a rubber sheet. He is balding, and he stares vacantly into the air of the hotel room. Furnished with standard furniture, the room looks empty. The tiled ceiling looks enormous and threatening.

A street junction bristles with signboards, many of which advertise a car rental company (?), Karco. The repetition of the word in different directions and sizes, the sharp verticals and horizontals of the signs remind me of a Cubist painting.

On a brown table top so dark it looks almost black, five plastic toy animals are arranged, walking to the left. Nearest to the viewer, a blue pig. Behind it, two blue goats walking one after another. Behind them, a yellow duck walking before a red raccoon. Their colors (dye transfer process) are voluminous.

Two girls on a floral couch. One, dressed in a velvety blue, is lying down, pensive as a Pre-Raphaelite maiden, her hands together in front of her. The other, leaning against the back of the couch, brown hair flowing down and curling in imitation of the floral pattern of the couch, is talking to her. A glass, half-filled with water, holds an orange flower, just above the couch. The photograph has the sumptuous suggestion of a Renaissance painting. 

In Graceland, a spotlight shines on Elvis Presley's piano, and changes its gaudy gilding into brassy mirrors. But there is no piano stool in the pool of light. 

And my favorite, on a dresser an old-fashioned tape-player gleaming dully of care and age. Behind it a drawing of a classical building, its facade a colonnade of columns. The photograph was taken in the 1980's. 

The photographs are, in turn, nostalgic, lyrical, transcendental, humorous, piercing, sympathetic, and precise. Their compositions are carefully arranged to appear spontaneous. Their colors richly, never ostentatiously, complement their subjects and moods. They are hung, in this exhibition, according to the books Eggleston published, but they are individual art objects, and not parts of any series, not stages in any investigation. That approach gives each image its uniqueness. This exhibition convinced me that photography is a true art form. 


Thursday, November 27, 2008

Poem Nominated for Pushcart Prize

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


Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Rephotographs and Counterlife

The New Yorker, October 15, 2007

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

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


I too thought that the exhibition notes tried too hard to make Prince socially respectable. My reaction differed from Schjeldahl's in that I thought I detected gender and sexual anxieties in the works, and not just luxurious decadence.

I like how Schjeldahl describes the effect on him of the big glossy rephotographs:

His gorgeous prints of the cowboy photographs in Marlboro ads, a stock-in-trade since 1980, stick us with the fact that those pictures are beautiful. Any opinions we may have about advertising, cigarettes, and the West founder in our visual bliss. And I remember laughing with amazed delight when I first saw some of the "Gangs," from the mid-eighties--big sheets of rephotographed gridded photos, such as amateur shots from motorcycle magazines for which guys posed their girlfriends, lasciviously, with their choppers; or of big waves from surfer publications, which emit formulaic, subcultural rapture. If I liked one of those pictures, it occurred to me, I would be fated to like them all, insatiably; and for a moment, still, at the Guggenheim I can feel locked into their wavelengths of avidity.


Here is a critic who not only describes responsively the visual pleasure of these works, but also judges the moral quality of this pleasure ("their wavelengths of avidity"). Both description and judgment are crucial, interdependent critical tasks.

*

Another critic, this one of literature, I have come to expect to do the same, describing accurately and judging judiciously, is James Wood. His review of Roth's Exit Ghost makes me want to read the novel. Near the end of the review, Wood explains how Roth manages to be postmodernist without (in the words of Nathan Zuckerman, Roth's protagonist-writer in the book) "sacrificing the factuality of time and place to surreal fakery or magic-realist gimmickry." Wood concludes:

Fiction, for Roth, is not what Plato thought mimesis was: an imitation of an imitation. Fiction is a rival life, a "counterlife," to use the title of one of Roth's greatest novels, and this is why his work has managed so brilliantly the paradox of being at once playfully artful and seriously real. In "The Ghost Writer," Nathan Zuckerman, the young author, laments, "If only I could invent as presumptuously as real life!" . . . In "Exit Ghost," Zuckerman bewails hs sexual impotence: "Why must strength's abatement be so quick and cruel? Oh, to wish what is into what is not, other than on the page!" In the earlier novel, fiction yearns to keep pace with the scandal and presumptuousness and fictionality of life; in the later novel, life years for the scandalous freedom and fantasy of fiction. But for Roth there is no contradiction between the two positions. In both cases, the urge to create fiction--the urge to wish what is into what is not--is really just the urge to live more, to extend life, to bring back life, as Zuckerman yearns for the rejuvenation of his body. And both the urge to create fiction and the urge to extend life belong to the magical fantasy of endlessness.

What is true of fiction is also true of poetry (Plato was talking about the poets, actually). The road to postmodernism lies through hyper-realism.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Soy de Singapur

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

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


Soy de Singapur, un pais en Asia del sudoeste. Hay seis milliones de gente en este pais, la mayor parte ella es china. Los otros son malayos y indios. Hay también pequeñas comunidades de judios, arabe y armenios. La gente de Indonesia, Malaisia, Tailandia y Filipinas vienen a trabajar en Singapur. Ellos trabajan en muchos empleos, de docencia a construcción, de medico a sirvienta. Un pocos hacense ciudadanos de Singapur, pero la mayoría sale para sus paises. Ellas quieren ganar un buen sueldo en Singapur, y ellas pueden, pero Singapur no puede ganar su amor. Ellas dan su amor a sus patrias, o a sus familias o a sus enamorados que van a bañarlos en un million de besos.

Cada domingo, en la tarde, estas sirvientas, muchas de quienes son chicas de Indonesia o Filipinas, se congregan, en sus ropa de domingo, en el distrito de la compra. Ellas hablan fuerte; sus excitados voces vuelan a sus amigas para un gran aplauso. ¿Qué ellas dicen a sus amigas? ¿Preguntan ellas cómo te trata tu señor? o por qué tienes tu mucho sueño? o cuántos diamantes tu señorita lleva a la fiesta? or cuándo tu vas a visitar a tu padres? No sé, porque las veo desde una distancia y no puedo oirlas. Estoy curioso pero no debo perturbar a las pájaras, si no se alejan volando aunque sus ojos se quedan.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Henry James's "The Ambassadors"

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

The third person narrative, told entirely through the perspective of Strether, dramatizes the changes in his consciousness wrought by the atmosphere of the city of Paris. Yet, he does not bring nothing to the alchemical experiment; he carries a sense of advancing age and professional failure, a sense that is old with him, true, but also young enough for its modification, and, even, transformation. For in Chad, Strether sees a younger self that he never had. I use "had" deliberately. The fine women Strether encounters in Paris are described with deep admiration, but the handsome young man receives the only extended description of physical person. Arriving at Chad's house, Strether saw another young man smoking on the third floor balcony:

He was young too then, the gentleman up there--he was very young; young enough apparently to be amused at an elderly watcher, to be curious even to see what the elderly watcher would do on finding himself watched. There was youth in that, there was youth in the surrender to the balcony, there was youth for Strether at his moment in everything but his own business; and Chad's thus pronounced association with youth had given the next instant an extraordinary quick lift to the issue. The balcony, the distinguished front testified suddenly, for Strether's fancy, to something that was up and up; they placed the whole case materially and as by an admirable image, on a level that he found himself at the end of another moment rejoicing to think he might reach. The young man looked at him still, he looked at the young man; and the issue, by a rapid process, was that this knowledge of a perched privacy appeared to him the last of luxuries. To him too the perched privacy was open, and he saw it now but in one light--that of the only domicile, the only fireside, in the great ironic city, on which he had the shadow of a claim.

I find this passage extremely moving in its contrast of youth and age, its double seeing, its longing for transcendence and domicile ("perched privacy"), and its tenuous claim of belonging in a great ironic city. The style may be impressionistic--seeing the balcony in one light which may, and will, rapidly change to another--but it is also profoundly human. 

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Jesus in a scalding bath

I had never heard of Faithful Teate (the father of Nahum Tate), and so was interested in Elizabeth Scott-Baumann's review of his "epic lyric" Ter Tria, edited by Angelina Lynch. Scott-Baumann (following Lynch?), defines the epic lyric as "a contradictory category that conveys the sense of a public poem, but one with some of the introspective intensity of more personal lyrics by greater seventeenth-century devotional poets." 

While devotional poetry of the period often used monarchical images to describe Eden as a court and God as king, Teate, a Puritan, portrayed Eden as a "treasurie", a "Minting-house" and a naval stronghold. Images of reading and writing pervade the poem: Christ is a "new Edition" of Adam and the Old Testament is "the coppy". Jesus, in his first-person narrative at the Last Supper, employs intensely visceral language in the mode of the Jesuit poet Robert Southwell. He demands of his disciples, "Can you get sleep, whilst in this scalding bath / I melt away, / Blood-wet / In sweat?" That's hot.

In the same article, Scott-Baumann also reviews Re-reading Thomas Traherne: A collection of new critical essays (edited by Jacob Blevins). I read Traherne back in my undergraduate days but honestly don't remember much of it. Susannah B. Mintz's essay in this collection sparks an interest in re-reading him. She shows how Traherne was influenced by anatomical developments in the seventeenth century, but his spirituality resisted the increasingly mechanical view of man. In "Thanksgiving for the Body", he dissects the body's arteries, sinews and veins, but defers to the mysteries of God's "Hidden Operations". 

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Elizabeth Peyton at the New Museum

With Kevin, I visited the New Museum for the first time today. The building, made up of staggered white boxes, looked self-consciously contemporary in the row of old apartment buildings along Bowery. The space inside was bare. An uncovered concrete floor. Lots of glass and whitewashed walls. What was perhaps intended to be casual chic felt to me non-committal. The space was inarticulate.

"Live Forever: Elizabeth Peyton," the exhibition of a fifteen-year career, took up two floors. Peyton drew portraits, ranging from historical figures (Ludwig II of Bavaria, Napoleon), to cultural icons (Kurt Cobain, Sid Vicious, Lady Diana Spencer), to artistic contemporaries and friends. Most of the portraits were small oils on board, a number were drawings, a few were done in color pencil. Despite the range of subjects, the portraits resembled each other uncannily: androgynous, youthful, cropped hair, luscious mouth, and defined jaw. The attraction here was noble youth and its vulnerability. These were pictures of heroes before their tragic fall. 

The works on exhibit were uneven in standard. Some, particularly the earlier paintings, had the quality of illustration; they could have been done by a skillful street artist. The later painting were more interesting in their attention to composition and background. One closely cropped picture of a head lying down on an arm, one eye closed, was gripping in its abstraction. Another, with his nose bumping up against the right side of the frame, dramatized the relationship between positive and negative pictorial space. 

After viewing the exhibition, Kevin and I went up to the sky room which afforded a spectacular view of a sun setting behind shores of cloud, and piles of buildings. The fire subsided to yellow, and then to blue and black. But the last was not ash-like; it was thick and rich. We enjoyed a drink up there, and then went off our separate ways. 

Saturday, November 15, 2008

"Love is the desire to prostitute oneself"

Leo Bersani's Baudelaire and Freud (1977) operates on the fundamental Freudian assumption that "no text is fully present to itself." Attention to its "lack" will propel the reader from the text into "a fascination with other texts having the same potential for both fixing and scattering our attention," in this study, Freud's texts. Bersani is careful not to view Freud's texts as a master-key to unlock the meaning of Baudelaire's poetry; instead, Freud's texts "bring a certain coherence to the given literary text and accelerate its disruptive interpretive mobility," a statement which I take to mean, Freud will give a meaning (not the meaning) of Baudelaire, and will clarify the subversive nature of his poetry.

I am wary of psychoanalytical (or Marxist or feminist or queer) readings of literature because all too often they reduce literary works to codes to be cracked by the theorist, and the decoded meanings sound distressingly similar. Bersani's subtle reading of Baudelaire avoids that trap by and large. He reads Baudelaire consistently, but not simplistically, as exemplifying a critical moment of cultural history, when "an idealistic view of the self and of the universe is being simultaneously held onto and discredited by a psychology . . . of the fragmented and the discontinuous." To desire, as Baudelaire's poems enact, is to be scattered, partial, and mobile.

The one lapse in interpretative subtlety lies in Chapter 11, an analysis of Petits Poems en prose. After a discussion of Freud's idea of hypochondria as the failure of megalomania, the chapter concludes that "Baudelaire's relation to the old clown and to Fancioulle is very much like this crippled form of self-love: the poet's fearful sympathy for the unhappy artist is hypochondria allegorized." This is poetry as mental illness. Thankfully, the rest of the book is less reductive, and more stimulating.

Of particular interest to me is Chapter 10 in which Bersani takes Baudelaire's "realistic" poems about Parisian life as a springboard to talk about the relationship between literary realism and narcissism. Nineteenth-century fiction sees itself as holding up a mirror to the world. Bersani argues that the literary work does create a mirror, but it makes of the world a mirror in which to see itself. By willing his separation from his created world, the writer of realistic fiction has implicitly denied that he is mobile desiring fantasy. As a result, his "affectivity" is relocated in a world cluttered with things which he has to describe in order to see his own existence.

In the hero of realistic fiction the narrator sees a version of himself. Since the hero is an ideal version of self, he "embodies the danger and guilt of desire, and is therefore condemned by a conscience operating through the narrator's voice." In psychoanalytical terms, the death of the hero is also intelligible as "manifesting the narrator's paranoid terror of the self he would both passionately appropriate as an ideal and passionately reject as an instance of dangerously energetic desire." Think Melville and Ahab. I think this view of realist fiction is extremely suggestive.

The other key chapter, for me, is Chapter 7 "Desire and Death." In it, Bersani takes the unusual interpretative turn of using Baudelaire to read Freud. Freud explains sadism and masochism as arising from the will to master the world and self. However, he complicates his explanation by observing that, besides the will to master, the subject also desires to inflict pain. Pain, according to Freud, is experienced as sexual pleasure when it is strong enough to shatter the stability of self. Bersani questions Freud's complicated moves to explain the desire to inflict pain. It is simpler, and perhaps more accurate to see that sadism and masochism is primarily concerned with inflicting pain and pleasure, rather than with the will to master. The death drive and the pleasure principle are not antagonists, as Freud would have it. To put it crudely, desire seeks death.

The result appears counterintuitive. Surely, desire is about life: joy, vitality, regeneration, reproduction. To think of desire as death-seeking, however, reminds us that desire is painful, and seeks to put an end to its own pain. That end is achieved in orgasmic release, if not in physical violence. Orgasm is but momentary relief.

"That deep, true, inner form"

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

Thursday, November 13, 2008

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

Study #7
after Yasumasa Morimura

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

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

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

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

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

*

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Pearl Theater Company's "The Oedipus Cycle"

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

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

Eight actors took on all the parts. The acting was very uneven. The older actors and the women were better than the young men. TJ Edwards, as the aged Oedipus in the middle play, was terrifically moving and grand. In Antigone, he was very funny as the cowardly and verbose messenager. Dominic Cuskern was a suitably sober Choragos, with a quiet and expressive voice that tuned the ear to its pitch, rhythm and volume. Jolly Abraham was heartrending as Jocaste, and Antigone in Oedipus at Colonus, though she faded as the same character in the last play. Susan Heyward's highpoint was as the Second Messenger in Oedipus Rex, reporting on Jocaste's suicide, and Oedipus's self-blinding. Jay Stratton's acting was very naive, and one could not believe his younger Oedipus, and his Theseus. John Livingstone Rolle who played Creon in all three plays had a severely limited range of expressions.

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

Study #6
after Andy Warhol

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

*

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

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

Study #5
after Frida Kahlo

I dream I am a wreck of a woman.

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

I am the traffic accident on morning radio.

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

My collarbone hangs round my throat like a necklace.

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

The monkey is carefully arranging me back together.

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

My monkey is very gentle.

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

*

Monday, November 10, 2008

Henry James's "The Wings of the Dove"

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

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

Like a great play, the novel has some unforgettable scenes. It opens with Kate pleading to be taken in by her useless father, who turns her down, and advises her, instead, to return to her rich aunt, so that he can collect on Kate when she is matched with some wealthy suitor. The horror here is Dickensian, but James transmutes Dickens into a finer key. Another poignant scene depicts the lovers' tryst between Kate and Merton before the corruption sets in. The depiction of love is entirely believable, perhaps, a result of James's discovery of love for some young men who entered late in his lonely life, as Bayley suggests. In this aspect, and others, the novel is a clear advance on The Portrait of a Lady, in which Isobel Archer marries Gilbert Osmond not because she loves him, but because it is the right thing to do.

Some crucial scenes take place off-stage, and they appear through dialogue and meditation. Deduced through social interaction and debated by individual consciousness, the events are rendered deeply ambiguous. What is Milly's motive in receiving Merton? We cannot be sure. For a long time we are not even certain how ill Milly is, the same uncertainty that besets her predators, as it does in normal social intercourse in real life. The novel immerses us in the indirections, hesitations, complacencies of talk and thought; it refuses to tell us what to think. Here lies its immense challenge for the modern reader, and its immense aesthetic achievement.

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

Study #4
after Egon Schiele

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

*

Sunday, November 09, 2008

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

Study #3
after Vincent van Gogh

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

*

Saturday, November 08, 2008

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

Study #2
after Rembrandt van Rijn

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

*

Friday, November 07, 2008

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

Study #1
after Albrecht Dürer

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

*

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Seven/Seven

Poetry-Free-For-All is getting people to write seven poems in seven days, starting on the seventh of the month, i.e. this Friday. It is a week-version of National Poetry Writing Month (NaPoWrMo), in which you write a poem a day for 30 days. Seven seems like a good distance to me, to write at full stretch, and it gives three weeks for rest and recovery before the next race. Seven is such a potent figure too, inspiring all kinds of magic and myth. 

I plan to write "Seven Studies for a Self-Portrait." Each study will be written after a well-known self-portraitist. That "after" is very open. My seven masters will be Albrecht Durer, Rembrandt van Rijn, Vincent van Gogh, Egon Schiele, Frida Kahlo, Andy Warhol, and Yasumasa Morimura. Rembrandt and van Gogh are obvious suspects; the others came to me as I googled the net. I did not know Morimura's appropriation art till this morning, and he seems to make a good endpoint since he photographs himself in the garb and posture of iconic Western artists (including Kahlo) and actors. 

The names of the Seven give me my sound palette: du, rem, go, schiel, ka, war, mo. 

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Poem in "Best Gay Poetry 2008"

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

Jo-ha-kyu

The New Yorker, October 20, 2008

from Dana Goodyear's profile of Gary Snyder:

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

***

from Joan Acocella's "Second Look" at Christopher Wheeldon and his company Morphoses"

When, in today's ballet, you see man express his feelings for his lady by hurling her into the air, catching her upside down, and wrapping her around his neck like a pashmina, you are seeing the legacy of the Bolshoi. When, on the other hand, you see a woman in a leotard merely hold the man's hand as she flashes her legs out in eighty-two fabulous, clean ballet steps, and then, in a change of heart, fall into his arms and do something hair-raisingly sexy, like a front-facing split, you are seeing a child of "Agon." [choreographed by George Balanchine in 1957]

Saturday, November 01, 2008

The Most Original of the Fakers

The New Yorker, October 2008

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

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


I really wish I could have watched that proscenium-tearing Brando, because the film does not feel unbearable.

***

from Peter Schjeldahl's essay on Hans van Meergeren, art forger:

He became the most original of the fakers when, starting in 1936, he put aside mere canny simulations, mostly of the work of Johannes Vermeer, to create wildly implausible pictures which were presented as discoveries of a missing phase in the artist's conveniently spotty, little-documented opus.


Nice phrase: the most original of the fakers.

***

from Alex Ross's review of a Met performance of John Adams's "Doctor Atomic":

Oppenheimer's central aria, a setting of the John Donne sonnet "Batter my heart, three-person'd God," has a stark Renaissance eloquence, its melody a single taut wire.

*

(The physicist had the Donne sonnet in mind--"break, blow, burn, and make me new"--when he called the site Trinity.)


***

from Hilton Als's review of Simon McBurney's take on Arthur Miller's "All My Sons":

Shortly after the acclaimed opening of "All My Sons" on broadway, Miller seeking a return to normalcy, applied for a job through the New York State Employment Service and was sent to a factory in Long Island City, where he worked for minimum wage assembling beer-box dividers. Later he wrote of the experience, "The grinding boredrom and the unnaturalness of my pretence to anonymity soon drove me out of that place. . . . I was not the first to experience the guilt of success (which, incidentally, was reinforced by leftist egalitarian convictions) . . .: such guilt is a protective device to conceal one's happiness at surpassing others, especially those one loves, like a brother, father, or friend. It is a kind of payment to them in the form of a pseudo remorse."


Miller's words gloss my poem "The Grand Historian Makes a Virtue of Necessity," which opens the new book.