Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Roberto Calasso's "Ka" 2

After a long interval, I finished reading Calasso's retelling of the Indian myths. I summarized the first six chapters in this blogpost. This post will be briefer on the next nine chapters.

Chapter VII describes the sacrifice of the horse, the "king of all sacrifices," Calasso writes, for he who celebrated it became king of all kings and would obtain everything he desired. Before the horse died, it was allowed to wander any land it wished, protected by four hundred armed guards. During the wait, stories (pariplavas) of the deeds of gods and kings were endlessly recited. Narrative thus became

. . . a way of preventing the relationship with the wandering horse from being broken. The narrative wandered around like the horse. The secret thought of the narrative is the horse. The secret thought of the horse is the narrative.

When the horse returned, it was strangled, and then the king's first wife lay with the dead horse, its phallus introduced into her vulva. When morning came, the queen returned to her feet. The horse was cut up while the priest asked who was cutting it up, and answered himself, Ka

Chapter VIII is organized as a collection of stories about and sermons by the rsis, the holy men. Here's a beautiful example of the philosophizing of these men, this by Bharadvaja:

Why should the mind be before and after every other thing? Because it can never be found in the world. You can open up any body, any element, with the finest of metal points, you can turn everything inside out and expose all that has been hidden, until matter becomes a whirr of dragonflies. To no end: you will never find so much as trace, not even the tiniest, of the mind. The banner of its sovereignty is precisely this: its not being there. 

Chapter IX recounts the story of the old rsis Cyavana who got the divine twins the Asvins to return him his youth, in exchange for a chance to win the favor of his wife, Sukanya. 

Chapter X is about the soma, the drink that gives gods and men immortality, the "one quantity that was also quality." "The stories of the soma tell of repeated conquest, repeated loss," writes Calasso, and as an instance he narrates the quest of Indra, king of the gods, for that divine substance. The soma in Chapter X is associated with knowledge, as conveyed through a parable strikingly similar to Plato's cave. In Chapter XI, the soma is linked to desire, imaged in circulating waters. So the most beautiful of Apsaras, Urvasi, distracted the gods Mitra and Varuna from their ritual, and so was cursed to fall in love with a mortal, Pururavas. 

In Chapter XII, Krsna (Krishna) is the protagonist. He steals butter from his mother, and hearts from the gopis, the cowgirls. In Chapter XIII the mature Krsna joined Arjuna as a bosom friend, but not before Arjuna won Princess Draupadi for his wife, and the enjoyment of all five Pandava brothers. All that is preface to the Indian epic Mahabharata. Of its narrative frame, Calasso writes, quite wonderfully:

There is no story so complicated as the Mahabharata. And not just because of its length, three times as long as the Bible, seven times as long as the Iliad and the Odyssey put together. But why did Vyasa choose this of all ways to tell the tale of a war fought between cousins in a plain of northwest India? Why is the frame in which the narrative is set so complicated that it alone would be enough to generate a sense of vertigo? Was it an artifice to allude to the infinite complication of existence? That would be banal--and wouldn't have required such an enormous effort. Even a tenth of the stories would be enough to generate the same impression. . . . The war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas is a "knot" (and the books that make up the Mahabharata are called parvans, "knots"), just one of the innumerable stitches in the weave of everything with everything. Going back in time to what came before it, or forward a little, after it ended, we encounter a net that brushes against us on every side--and immediately we are struck by the conviction that we will never see the edges of that net, because there are no edges. And already this is a less obvious reflection: that end and beginning, terms the mind is ever toying with, don't, in themselves, exist at all. When the seers speak of the beginning, and push as far back as they can to where the existent and the nonexistent hadn't as yet been separated, even this point is not a beginning but a consequence. A residue. Something happened before--a whole other world happened before--in order to bring about that lump that drifts like flotsam on the waters. The beginning is a shipwreck. Such was the unspoken premise of the seers. And likewise of the Mahabharata

Again, on the beginning of stories:

The Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge looked like a single tree: when the branches rustled, that was the Vedas who were its leaves, speaking; hen the air was still soma dripped from its trunk, offering life without end. Look at that huge plant carefully, you saw that there was in fact two trees, inextricably twisted together. One thrust its branches upward, the other towards the ground. They were a sami and an asvattha. It was hard to see which was which. On opposite branches, at the same height, two birds could be made out, "inseparable friends." One was eating a berry, the other was watching it intensely. To light a fire you need to rub a twig of asvattha against a twig of sami. Pushing out its aerial roots, the asvattha slowly strangles the sami. Consciousness slowly strangles life. But life exists--or is perceived to exist--only to the extent that it allows the parasite of consciousness to grown upon it. 

In a later passage, Calasso links Krsna and Arjuna to these two birds of the Vedic hymn, no longer on opposite branches of the same tree, but on a war chariot. Arjuna the archer was the bird that ate the berry, while Krsna the charioteer watched, like the other bird, "without eating." 

And, yet again, on the beginning of stories:

In every story, if you go back, as far back as you can, to the point where every horizon disappears, you find a snake, the tree, water. It's either a snake that covers a spring of water with its coils or a lump, a knot drifting on the waters, a circular cushion bearing a divine figure as it slithers across the waves. Or a snake coiled around a trunk growing out of the water. And you can also find all this by looking inside yourself, as the Katha Upanishad claims some people did long ago . . . . 

The second to last chapter is about the Buddha. Try as Calasso may, to show how the Buddhist teachings flow from, and react against, the Hindu myths, Chapters XIV is just not as interesting as the earlier ones. The problem seems to be the lack of stories, the emptiness of characters. Nirvana, in other words. The story of the Buddha's awakening is a well-trodden path, and Calasso adds little that is new. The aridity of these chapters is consonant with the Buddha's avoidance of imagery, and his love for analysis, repetition and numbers: four noble truths; the path is eightfold; the objects of grasping are five. In Calasso, what makes the Buddha humanly graspable is his blundering disciple and cousin, Ananda. It was Ananda who persuaded the Buddha to admit women into the priesthood. It was Ananda who feared death and lusted after women. Ananda means joy. 

Chapter XV, the final chapter, is a brief recapitulation of the themes: earth, beginning, residue, the Self, being, wakefulness. The book ends with its beginning, Garuda awakening from his sleep, his claws still grasping hymn number 121 of the tenth book of the Rg Veda,  his eyes still focused on the syllable from which everything had issued forth: Ka. 


Monuments of Magnificence

TLS November 28 2008

from Alexander Murray's review of Byzantium exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts (until March 22):

This strong concept of state was expressed in the Emperor's status. Constantine's move had exposed the imperial office to theocratic traditions older and stronger than anything comparable in the West, traditions which saw a ruler as quasi-divine. These traditions were now to be reflected in the Emperor's cult and court, and included such embellishments as those singing birds made of gold, which Liudprand of Cremona saw on a visit in 949-50, and which would inspire W. B. Yeats in "Sailing to Byzantium". 

*

Consider the ubiquitous Byzantine image of Christos Pantocrator, "Ruler of All". Is he really human, or superhuman? The same man surely could not also have undergone torture and death, like a criminal. This tension left its mark on many artefacts, among them the early crucifixes . . . . Even then, a crucifixion image had to show next to it the resurrection, to give reassurance that Christ was still God incarnate. And that reassurance not withstanding, Christ on the cross was for a long time still not shown as dead. He has his eyes open and his head straight, unlike that of a man dying or dead (as in item 129, from c600-50, possibly Egyptian). Only in the early eighth century, and then only intermittently, does the notion of God who died and suffered become digestible, so that his eyes appear closed or his head droops, as in a crucifix from late tenth-century Constantinople . . . . In the thirteenth century, finally, but only at the innovative Western end of the Byzantine cultural zone, Christ's suffering is fully confronted, as here in a two-sided processional cross from Pisa. 

Monday, December 29, 2008

Human Meat, History Books

TLS December 5 2008

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

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

*

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

*

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

*

. . . "Figure Study II" is the work in which another of Bacon's motifs--or obsession--unequivocally makes an entrance: the gaping mouth, open in a scream of terror, a snarl of hatred or a howl of impotent rage. Indelibly fixed in Bacon's imaginary by Picture Post shots of Goebbels and Mussolini haranguing the crowds, Poussin's "Massacre of the Innocents: and the nurse's silent scream in The Battleship Potemkin, in "Figure Study II", where it is appended to a crouched or kneeling half-clothed form, the mouth powerfully subverts those reliable signifiers of bourgeois respectability, umbrealla, herringbone tweed and potted plants.

*

But he also spoke repeatedly of his desire to make paintings that would "return [the viewer] more violently to life", by which he meant, as I understand it, shock that viewer out of habitual or self-protective ignorance and into awareness of his own physical reality.

*

As with Eliot in poetry, Bacon's art sinks deep roots into the whole psycho-physical life and attempts a reinvention of tradition ("the figurative thing") . . . .


***

from John Barnard's review of David Pearson's Books As History:

"The death of the book" is a topic which has attracted strongly emotional responses for and against ever since Marshall McLuhan predicted it in 1962.

*

We have to cease to regard books as valuable because they are carriers of texts. They should be valued instead as part of our national cultural heritage, since printed books, unlike digital texts, bear the physical evidence of ther own past history and intended meanings.


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

Edel takes a chronological approach to his subject, beginning with sharp portraits of Henry James Sr. and Mary Walsh, before taking in the years of their son's life, from 1843 to 1870. The first installment of this five-volume work ends with the death of Minny Temple, James's beloved young cousin, and with his return to Boston after a year's travel in Europe. 

The chronological narrative is occasionally interrupted by sidebar discussions of significant events in young James's life, for instance, his nightmare based on his experience of the Louvre. These discussions highlight what Edel sees as the themes of this writer's life. The nightmare, illuminated by other incidents, illustrates the fierce sibling rivalry between William and Henry, the latter obsessed with being second born, and so with being inferior to the elder. 

Another theme is James's fear of female sexuality, a fear his biographer lays at the door of--not quite persuasively--his mother's "vampirish" consumption of his father's energies. The same fear emasculates any possible courtship of Minny Temple, and genuine though Henry's grief was for this young woman her death also provided his mind and his art with an ideal image. I am disappointed that Edel does not discuss James's sexual feelings for men. 

A third theme is Henry's "obscure hurt," which Edel settles in favor of a lower back injury, and not, according to rumors that solidified into fact, castration. Henry--or Harry as he was nicknamed, partly to distinguish him from his dad--suffered his injury at the outbreak of the Civil War, which he, like his older brother, sat out. His younger brothers, Bob and Wilkie, did enlist, and this probably strengthened Harry's self-conception of feminized passivity. 

In lucid prose Edel's story-telling is well-paced, though the seemingly endless succession of European hotels and houses through which Henry was dragged up by his father is a little wearying to read. Edel makes copious but not non-critical use of James's own memoirs Notes of a Son and Brother and A Small Boy, as well as letters written by James and various family members and friends. Where appropriate, he points out the links between life and art, such as the governess who probably inspired the same character in "The Turn of the Screw," or, more obviously, Minny Temple who was the inspiration for Milly Theale in The Wings of a Dove

Beyond characters, Edel is also quick to trace in James's carpet of writing the patterns in the life. Such explanations, of life and art, are what we have come to expect of biographies, but their effect runs counter to Edel's avowed aim, as given in an epigraph quoting James: "To live over people's lives is nothing unless we live over their perceptions, live over the growth, the change, the varying intensity of the same--since it was by these things they themselves lived." To explain is not quite the same as to live over. What is wonderful in James's writing is the tone, the shape, the size of his perceptions, and explanation, like narrative, must baffle itself before it can touch perception. 


Sunday, December 28, 2008

Afterimages of Life

TLS December 19 & 26 2008

Karl Miller reviews Dennis O'Driscoll's Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney:

God is no longer dead, at all events, as Heaney may have been moved, with his generation, to wonder in the 1960s. The poet sees ghosts, and his poetry, when it began in him, was experienced as a "redemptive grace". There is, if not an afterlife, an "afterimage of life".

*

[Heaney:] "The dark matter of the news headlines needed to get into Field Work, but the light I was hoping for is the kind that derives from clarity of expression, from plainer speaking . . . ".

***

Neil Forsyth reviews Nigel Smith's Is Milton better than Shakespeare?

The "gums of gluttonous heat" that make the Lady stick to her chair in Comus Smith describes as "frankly, spermatic", which is taken to be a sign of Milton's inability to confront sexual issues directly. But Smith soon follows this up with the interesting fact that Milton changed "joyfully" to "jollily" in one of the divorce tracts because "joys" connote sperm. This may actually be right.


Friday, December 26, 2008

"Consider it Poetry of Architecture"

I had been unimpressed by the architecture of San Francisco, seeing in the motley houses and buildings some individual charm but lacking in coherence, a bigger totality. Until my walk this morning to the imposing Pacific Heights neighborhood, to the Swedenborgian Church along Lyon, at Washington. Having read Leon Edel's account of Henry James Sr.'s conversion to that religion, I was keen to meet a building devoted to its worship, out here on the West Coast. 

I cannot describe it better than Kevin Starr, whose leaflet I picked up from the back of the chapel. According to the yellow leaflet, Starr was formerly City Librarian of San Francisco, and is today a Visiting Professor at the University of Southern California. Re-typing his words feels, to me, like running my fingers over the handmade maple chairs again. His writing is so aware and textured, knotted with precise details, slotted with vivid sketches, and glistening with just opinions.

Joseph Worcester and Kindred Souls

First of all, the Swedenborgian Church can be ascribed to [architect A. Page] Brown only in that his office was formally responsible for it. The church is, in reality, an Arts and Crafts collaboration. As such, it shows another side to Brown's character and personality. An upper-class establishment architect, accustomed to major projects, most of them conventional in purpose and traditional in style, Brown was also capable of joining this band of free spirits to produce a building teeming with utopian purpose. 

The demi-urge behind the project was the Rev. Joseph Worcester, pastor of the Swedenborgian Church and an architect in his own right whose simplified shingled homes of Russian Hill helped to create an idiom of domestic architecture known today as the Bay Region style. The Boston-born Worcester was at once a Swedenborgian mystic and Telegraph Hill bohemian, a worshipper of nature (as a revelation of the mind of God) and a lover of history, human culture and the art past. 

All in all, Worcester stood in delightful contrast to most of Brown's clients from the haute bourgeoisie. Under the pastor-architect's guidance, Brown assembled the talented collaborators who in turn produced a building that, like any successful art, was at once a simple thing--yet a score of other things. To sort out the intentions and influences that went into the making of the Lyon Street church is to unravel the skein of avant garde aesthetic consciousness in fin-de-siecle San Francisco.

An Underlying Mediterraneanism

Take the matter of Mediterraneanism, the persistent belief that California should take as its aesthetic model the art, architecture, and lifestyles of Southern Europe. The first formal inspiration behind the Swedenborgian Church is from this movement. Returned from Italy, [artist Bruce] Porter showed Worcester a sketch he had done of a hillside church in the Po Valley near Verona. Worcester wanted this sketch as the basis of design, but with an element of Mission Revival thrown in because the Franciscans had first brought Mediterranean architecture to California--hence, the brick-and-concrete church's general orchestration of arch, grillwork and wall, tower and tiled roof. To complete the link with missions, a cross from Mission San Miguel in Salinas Valley was emplaced in the garden.

Spirit and Nature: A Garden Parable

Worcester also wanted his church to be a mini-cathedral of Swedenborgianism, suggesting the interpenetration of spirit and nature, the seen and the unseen. To do this, Brown and his collaborators drew upon that fascination with Japanese and japanoisierie that was also characteristic of the fin-de-siecle: in this case, the appropriate Shinto tradition of the walled-off garden shrine in which a subtle but deliberate landscaping makes a symbolic statement. Around a serene pool in the center of the garden of the Swedenborgian Church was planted a rich array of trees--cedars of Lebanon, olive, sequoia, elm, pine, myrtle, hawthorne, maple, plum, crabapple, Irish yew--the whole of it intended as an allegory of the worlds of the Bible, Europe, America, and the Far East (there was also a Japanese vase and gong on the premises) finding confluence and resolution in this one quiet spot, this hortus conslusus in San Francisco.

The Interior: An Arts & Crafts Domesticity

For the interior of the church, Porter designed two circular stained-glass windows--a dove alighting on a fountain, against a background of apple blossoms; St. Christopher carrying a Christ Child across a swollen river--and William Keith painted four murals depicting the subtle changing of the California seasons. In lieu of pews and conventional church appointments, there is an atmosphere of arts and crafts domesticity, to include an off-center fireplace in the rear of the church and 80 handmade maple chairs with seats woven from tule reeds from the Sacramento Delta. Madrone tree trunks with bark left on--selected and cut on the Glenn Ranch in the Santa Cruz Mountains, wrapped in burlap and shipped up to San Francisco by wagon so as to avoid damage--arch overhead in support of the ceiling, an effect at once Gothic and Californian. 

The Madrone arches were the idea of the young Bay Area architect Bernard Maybeck, the woodcarver's son who would do such wonderful things with wood in the course of his career. After graduation from L'ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, Maybeck worked briefly in St Petersburg, Florida and with Ernest Coxhead in San Francisco before joining Brown in 1891 as a draftsman and being put to work in the Crocker Building. Maybeck's madrone arches are declarations of intent, a gesture in the direction of the half-century of wood-building ahead. It is to Brown's credit that he welcomed Maybeck's naturalism and that as a consequence arches of California madrone found a perfect setting in an Italian hillside church re-created in San Francisco.


Gwee Li Sui's article "The Road People"

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

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

Asiatic, a journal of English Language and Literature published by the International Islamic University of Malaysia, is worth looking into for itself. It publishes not only scholarly articles on Asian literatures in English, but also book reviews, interviews, and creative writings in the genres of poetry, fiction and drama. The contributors to Volume 2 Number 2 come from Australia, Bangladesh, Germany, India, Malaysia, Singapore, and the USA. Toh Hsien Min has a fine poem in it: "Tiong Bahru."


Thursday, December 25, 2008

SFMoMa

Built around a squarish stairwell, the interior of the museum presented to the eye a series of cuboid faces, which resolved, as one climbed up the stairs, round and round, into circular shapes at the very top, a metal bridge spanning the stairwell, leading to the final galleries. Martin Puryear's craft-like sculptures were on display at the top, and having seen them in New York MoMA I enjoyed making my acquaintance with them again, especially the "Circle" series. 

Just below the top floor, a whole level was dedicated to participation art, which I am not interested in, and so did not visit. Another level for photography showcased images of microscopic specimens and telescopic sights. Walking through that space I felt I was looking at natural history, instead of art. The SFMoMA seemed to suffer from a multiple personality disorder.

On the second level were the paintings and sculptures from the permanent collection. The exhibition space was not large, and so most painters were represented by one work, with the exception of crowd-pleasers like Matisse. One Dali. One pre-Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock, based on Indian mythology about spirit guardians. One Gorky, an energetic "Enigmatic Combat." One Dubuffet, "Scarred Face." One Franz Kline, "LeHigh, V," a moving calligraphic reference to the railway trestle in his hometown Lehighton Pennsylvania. One Diebenkorn, a wonderful orange and green painting from the "Berkeley" series. One Frida Kahlo, depicting her marriage to Diego Rivera, painted in SF for the art dealer Bender, who became one of the founders of SFMoMA. 

A few lucky artists were represented by two works. Miro. Diego Rivera had a surreal landscape, with chopped off hands and fingers, and a Marxist depiction of statuesque workers struggling with the weight of a heavy flower basket. Max Beckmann's landscape was forgettable but his "Woman at toilette with white and red lilies" was captivating. Framed in a narrow portrait format, the fleshy woman, washing her hands, dressed in black, appeared trapped in her domestic setting. From a blue vase at the bottom left of the painting, the lilies sprayed upwards to gush into two red and one white flowers, two of which crossed the woman's breasts. The note said that Beckmann painted this in Amsterdam, after fleeing the Nazis in Germany. 

I saw Matisse's "Woman with Hat" and "Girl with Green Eyes" for the first time. Both works displayed his non-representational use of color, his radical break with convention. The first,a portrait of his wife, with its patches of colors, was vibrant but seemed unresolved. The green eyes of the "Girl," however, fought off competition from her multi-hued background for the viewer's attention. 

With treasures like these, yet the small Museum decided to give space to photos of Earth in space. 


Monday, December 22, 2008

Strange suspended world

I'm flying to San Francisco today, on United Airlines Flight 15. The plane will take off from JFK at 3:00 PM EST, and land at San Francisco International at 6:37 PM PST. I will retrieve my red rucksack from the overhead compartment, shuffle behind a college student returning home for Christmas, thank the smiling flight attendant, stroll down the box corridors with their commanding signs, and, exiting that strange suspended world, walk into time and James. 

What will we find in that little fold of time, when time slows down for itself, and stands in its own feet? How will time sleep during the week?


Sunday, December 21, 2008

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

This first part of a four-volume biography quotes James in its epigraph:

To live over people's lives is nothing unless we live over their perceptions, live over the growth, the change, the varying intensity of the same--since it was by these things they themselves lived.

"The varying intensity of the same" is the particularly Jamesian note, I think, both in the focus on intensity, and the focusing, of the observing eye, on "the varying . . . same." 

Edel writes with much sympathetic quickness of Henry James, Sr.'s rebellion against his Presbyterian father, and his discovery of the Swedenborgian God. His portrait of Henry Jr.'s mother, Mary Walsh, is less persuasive. He sees her as the Queen of the household, the power on whom Henry Sr. depended, but I don't see why such dependence should lead to a dissolution of masculine vitality, a dissolution so marked that Henry Jr. writes it up as a Vampire theme in his stories. Dependence, and thus, security, could have led to inspiration and action. There is something more here than meets the eye.

Given the same name as his father, Henry Jr. fought to achieve an individual identity. This fight was complicated by the fact that he was the second born. Edel is very good at laying bare Henry's fierce sense of rivalry with his older brother, William, who is in everything a step ahead of him. That rivalry is a key to interpreting James's nightmare about Galerie d'Apollon in the Louvre. 

In the nightmare, James was at first defending himself against the attempt of someone to break into his room. Suddenly the tables were turned, and James forced the door open in a blaze of aggression, and the nightmare retreated in terror before him. James wrote,

The lightning that revealed the retreat, revealed also the wondrous place and, by the same amazing play, my young imaginative life in it of long before, the sense of which, deep within me, had kept it whole, preserved it to this thrilling use; for what in the world were the deep embrasures and the so polished floor but those of the Galerie d'Apollon of my childhood? The "scene of something" I had vaguely then felt it? Well I might, since it was to be the scene of that immense hallucination.

The nightmare was turned into a triumph, as the appalling presence--the father, the older brother--was put to flight, appalled by James. Edel links Apollon suggestively with Napoleon (whom James admired) and Appalling, words that share similar syllables and sounds, in order to describe the equation in James's mind: Art and Love, Power and Glory, Fear and Terror.


Friday, December 19, 2008

Marlene Dumas at the MoMA

The New Yorker, December 22 & 29, 2008

Peter Schjeldahl writes on the Dumas exhibition at the MoMA:

There is a heaviness to the paintings of the South African-born, Dutch-based artist Marlene Dumas, as if they might fall off the wall and break the floor. And yet they are thinly brushed, for the most part, on ordinary canvases. There's a flypaper stickiness about them, too, though their usual surface is matte and dry. The impressions are emotional.

*

Her art rarely conveys feeling so much as excites it and then absorbs it, to the benefit of the work's authority. She doesn't give; she takes.

*

[Of "Stern" (2004), based on Gerhard Richter's "October 18, 1977" (1988), itself in turn based on photographs of the Baader-Meinhof militants] she drags the drama of a particularly haunting tragedy back to the secondhandedness of the photograph from the thirdhandedness of Richter's painting. By this and analogous uses of imagination, Dumas suggests, a life of feeling may be sustained in times that can seem engineered to crush it.


Artwork on newyorker.com

Soundzine

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


Thursday, December 18, 2008

Better Early Than Late

from Henry James's The Ambassadors:


And when after this little Bilham, submissive and responsive, but with an eye to the consolation nearest, easily threw off some 'Better late than never!' all he got in return for it was a sharp 'Better early than late!' This note indeed the next thing overflowed for Strether into a quiet stream of demonstration that as soon as he had let himself go he felt as the real relief. It had consciously gathered to a head, but the reservoir had filled sooner than he knew, and his companion's touch was to make the waters spread. There were some things that had to come in time if they were to come at all. if they didn't come in time they were lost for ever. It was the general sense of them that had overwhelmed him with its long slow rush.

'It's not too late for you, on any side, and you don't strike me as in danger of missing the train; besides which people can be in general pretty well trusted, of course--with the clock of their freedom ticking as loud as it seems to do here--to keep an eye on the fleeting hour. All the same don't forget that you're young--blessedly young; be glad of it on the contrary and live up to it. Live all you can; it's a mistake not to. It doesn't so much matter what you do in particular, so long as you have your life. If you haven't had that, what have you had? This place and these impressions--mild as you may find them to wind a man up so; all my impressions of Chad and of people I've seen at his place--well, have had their abundant message for me, have just dropped that into my mind. I see it now. I haven't done so enough before--and now I'm old; too old at any rate for what I see. Oh, I do see, at least; and more than you'd believe or I can express. It's too late. And it's as if the train had fairly waited at the station for me without my having the gumption to know it was there. Now I hear its faint receding whistle miles and miles down the line. What one loses one loses; make no mistake about that. The affair--I mean the affair of life--couldn't, no doubt, have been different for me; for its' at the best a tin mould, either fluted and embossed, with ornamental excrescences, or else smooth and dreadfully plain, into which, a helpless jelly, one's consciousness is poured--so that one "takes" the form, as the great cook says, and is more or less compactly held by it; one lives in fine as one can. Still, one has the illusion of freedom; therefore don't be, like me, without the memory of that illusion. I was either, at the right time, too stupid or too intelligent to have it; I don't quite know which. Of course at present I'm a case of reaction against the mistake; and the voice of reaction should, no doubt, always be taken with an allowance. But that doesn't affect the point that the right time now is yours. The right time is any time that one is still so lucky as to have. You've plenty; that's the great thing; you're, as I say, damn you, so happily and hatefully young. Don't at any rate miss things out of stupidity. Of course I don't take you for a fool, or I shouldn't be addressing you thus awfully. Do what you like so long as you don't make my mistake. For it was a mistake. Live!' . . . Slowly and sociably, with full pauses and straight dashes, Strether had so delivered himself; holding little Bilham from step to step deeply and gravely attentive. 


Sunday, December 14, 2008

Alex Ross on Leonard Bernstein

The New Yorker, December 15, 2008

Of Bernstein conducting Mahler's Second Symphony, the "Resurrection," Ross writes:

At the climax of the first movement, the brass unleash militant chords that turn fearsomely dissonant, while a scale grinds downward in the remainder of the orchestra. The sequence ends with a violently plunging octave figure. I remember Bernstein flinging down his arms to produce it. On the recording, you can hear the echo sail down the nave of the cathedral, like a hammer thrown with enormous force.

The moment exemplifies Bernstein's ability to render almost any abstract sequence of notes or chords as a physical act, a sweatily human gesture. . . . 

The American gesture. American Expressionism. Abstraction as a physical act, a "sweatily human gesture."


*

Of Bernstein's democratic taste and global syntax:

In childhood, Bernstein was an omnivorous consumer of music, blissfully unaware of the distinctions between high and low, elite and pop. He happily took in Gilbert and Sullivan, Yiddish folk songs, Beethoven symphonies, Chopin nocturnes, jazz, bel-canto opera, dissonant modernism, and more or less everything else. Children tend to listen this way--they solemnly chant commercial jingles and dance giddily to Bach. Bernstein's genius was never to let go of his boyish avidity, and to combine it with an analytic awareness of how disparate styles fit together. He had an X-ray-like ability to perceive melodic kinships beneath sonic surfaces, and in his ambitious Norton Lectures, of 1973, he attempted to construct a global syntax of music, along the lines of Noam Chomsky's structural linguistics. The theory can be picked apart, but Bernstein's compositional practice goes some way toward proving it.

American omnivorous and innocent consumption. Beethoven as opposed to Bach. Avidity and analysis. Melodic kinships beneath sonic surfaces. A global syntax of music, akin to the Glass Bead Game. Practice as partial but sufficient proof. 


*

On the man:

A man genetically incapable of saying anything but what he really meant, he presents a rude challenge to the attitude of professional caution that now prevails in so many precincts of the arts--the aesthetic of avoiding entanglements, of looking over one's shoulder, of perpetually hedging one's bets. In a culture of cynical chic, Bernstein teaches the power of impassioned affirmation. His 1973 Norton lectures--titled "The Unanswered Question," after Charles Ives--end with a concise credo: "I'm no longer quite sure what the question is, but I do know that the answer is Yes."

Impassioned affirmation--yes, like Beethoven, even at the risk of sentimentality. 


Henry James's "The Golden Bowl"

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

The work is divided into two parts, the first told mainly from the Prince's perspective, the second from the Princess', that is, Maggie's, both in a limited third person point of view. "Point" is perhaps the wrong word for the rich and subtle depiction of the consciousness of each protagonist, a consciousness compared in the novel to wine filling a bowl. The work is a heady draught. It is an intoxicating drama of realization, a drama I now see as the essence of James's late novels. In The Wings of the Dove, Merton Densher realizes what he is asked to do by his lover Kate Croy, in wooing the dying heiress Milly Theale. In The Ambassadors, Lambert Strether realizes the truth in the relationship between the young man Chad Newsome, whom he comes to Paris to save, and his mistress Madame de Vionnet. 

In both novels, as in The Golden Bowl, what is realized is far less important than how the realization comes about. How does the Prince come to understand the bowl of marriage in which he has been offered from father to daughter, and the bowl of passion which Charlotte offers to him? How does the Princess come to grasp the bowl of deception in which the illicit lovers have so tenderly placed herself and her father? But if human consciousness can hold so rich a brew, it cannot hold everything. We never find out what exactly transpired between the Prince and Charlotte during the Matcham weekend, the sum total of their "affair." That memory belongs to Charlotte, who has to leave her lover finally, the man for whom she would do anything. 


Saturday, December 13, 2008

Poem: Translations Of An Unknown Mexican Poet (7)

Translations Of An Unknown Mexican Poet

7.

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

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

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

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


Friday, December 12, 2008

Poem: Translations Of An Unknown Mexican Poet (6)

Translations Of An Unknown Mexican Poet

6.

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

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

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

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


Thursday, December 11, 2008

Poem: Translations Of An Unknown Mexican Poet (5)

Translations Of An Unknown Mexican Poet

5.

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Poem: Translations Of An Unknown Mexican Poet (4)

Translations Of An Unknown Mexican Poet

4.

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Poem: Translations Of An Unknown Mexican Poet (3)

Translations Of An Unknown Mexican Poet

3.

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

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

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

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


Monday, December 08, 2008

Poem: Translations Of An Unknown Mexican Poet (2)

Translations Of An Unknown Mexican Poet

2.

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

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

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

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


Sunday, December 07, 2008

The Genius of the Brandenburgs

Thomas Forrest Kelly, a professor of Music at Harvard, spoke on Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, in particular, No. 3, this afternoon. The talk, held in the Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse, was part of the Insights Series organized by the New York Philharmonic, and featured musicians from that orchestra as well as The Julliard School. As requested by Lorin Maazel, who is conducting his final season, the NYP is playing all six of the Concertos. 

Kelly showed some great slides of the manuscript which Bach presented to the Musgrave of Brandenburg. His talk was insightful (for someone like me, at least) and refreshingly irreverent, especially towards Bach's influences, Corelli and Vivaldi. He explained the ritornella, and how its parts were mixed and recombined with increasing sophistication as the concerto developed. In Corelli, the orchestra played the tune while the soloist played the fancy stuff. Vivaldi, in developing the concerto, gave the soloist, as well as the orchestra, a tune. 

The first movement of Concerto No. 3 plays with the conventions. Instead of having an orchestral part and a solo part, Bach gave solo parts to all three trios of violins, violas and cellos. The second movement in the manuscript consists only of two chords. According to Kelly, no one knows what Bach's intention was, but Kelly suggested that Bach at the harpsichord might have improvised on that instrument an adagio that ended with those chords. The third movement is unlike the first in that it does not give solo parts to the trios; instead, its large-scale repetitions are more in the form of French dance. 


Poem: Translations Of An Unknown Mexican Poet (1)

Translations Of An Unknown Mexican Poet

1.

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, December 03, 2008

My favorite NYC restaurants

I am always at a loss when asked to suggest a nice restaurant in NYC, though I have been to some pretty good ones. With the dumbfoundedness in mind, I am keeping on this blog a list of tried and tested restaurants I like.

-Sripraphai Thai Restaurant: $$, great food, good service, good atmosphere, Queens

-Pudding Noodle, Italian: $$, great food, good service, crowded, Brooklyn Heights

-Nook, eclectic and international: $$, good food, poor service, cosy atmosphere, BYOB, Hell's Kitchen

-Eatery. New American: $$, good/okay food, okay service, people-watching atmosphere, Hell's Kitchen

-Cornelia Street Cafe, New American: $$, good food, good service, lovely atmosphere, Village

-7A Cafe, diner: $$, good food, good service, okay atmosphere, East Village

-Buddakan, Chinese: $$$, okay food, overly attentive service, chic atmosphere, Chelsea

-Overseas Asian, Malaysian: $, best Malaysian, good service, no-frill atmosphere, Chinatown

-New Malaysia: $, great food, good service, good atmosphere, Chinatown

-Singapore Cafe: Malaysian: $$, good food, friendly service, no atmosphere, Chinatown

-Nyonya: Malaysian: $$, good food, quick service, kitschy atmosphere, Chinatown

-Sentosa, Malaysian: $$, good food, good service, good atmosphere, Flushing

-Gobo, vegetarian: $$, excellent food, good service, noisy atmosphere, Village

-Nooch, Japanese & Thai: $$, good food, attentive and cute service, good atmosphere, Chelsea

-La Lanterna Caffe, Italian: $$, good food, winter garden seating area, jazz, Greenwich Village

-Quartino, Italian, vegetarian: $$, good food, cosy bar and restaurant, East Village

Wine Bars

-Gottino, $$, small plates, very popular, Greenwich Village

Cafes

-Caffe Reggio (since 1927)$, good food, good service, crowded with tourists, Village

-French Roast, dessert: $, good food, good service, European cafe atmosphere, UWS and West Village


Places to try

-Porchetta, pork sandwich: $, 110 E 7th Street between First Ave and Ave A.

-Ippudo NY, Japanese: Akamaru modern ramen, $, 65 Fourth Ave between 9th and 10th Sts.

-Falai, Italian: tarragon pappardelle, $, 68 Clinton St between Rivington and Stanton

-Scarpetta, Italian: foie gras ravioli, $$, 355 W 14th St between Eighth and Ninth Aves.

-Socarrat Paella Bar, Mexican: 259 W, 19th St, between 7th and 8th Aves.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Lugar de Mala Muerte

Spanish Composition 2:

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

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

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

Me mira por un pocos segundos, y continua.

Después del trabajo familiar, se para frente a casa hasta que una voz le dice que puede salir. Entonces sale.