Thursday, January 01, 2009

Thoughts on the Old and New Years

I'm reading this afternoon at the Bowery Poetry Club for the 15th Annual Alternative New Year's Day Spoken Word/Performance Extravaganza, called EX TENEBRIS RISING. Alternative to what, I hear you ask. No one has told me, but my guess is alternative to the new year's reading at St. Mark's Poetry Project. Both Bowery and St. Mark's are great New York institutions, if the former has a reputation for grungier experimentation. I have read in both places, St. Mark's more recently, and I am looking forward to reading on the huge stage at the Bowery again. Given three minutes, like all readers, I will probably read three sonnets from Payday Loans, to see if I could sell a few more copies of the book.

The last days of 2008 were spent proofreading the galley for my new book, Equal to the Earth (Poets Wear Prada Press, March 2009). Roxanne, my publisher, has been marvelously patient as we went back and forth via emails over the smallest detail. That collaboration would have been impossible with a big press, though it is not certain with a small one. Besides correcting typos, I also made some revisions to the poems, especially the last sequence "Fire Island." Who was it who said a poem is never finished but only abandoned? There is a feeling of abandonment--both senses of the word--in casting the poems on the waters of the world. What will return with the tide? Roxanne made a number of suggestions that improved the pacing and rhythm, and I am grateful for her eye and ear throughout this process. 

The cover. I proposed its design, as I did for Payday Loans too. Roxanne reproduced my crude mock-up and decided on the lovely font for the title and author. 




I think I have seen too many Rothkos this past year, not to be influenced by this religious painter. I like simple forms that suggest much, and the three bands of colors, I hope, suggest the themes and the methods of the poems. Is there such an art term as abstract figurative? There should be. I hope this simple cover conveys something of the sensual serenity Matisse's paintings give me. That Rothko was a naturalized American also appeals to me. I am going to apply for permanent residency this year, and so the question of my relationship to the States has become more urgent than before. 

I have lived here for five years four months now, almost twice the length of my life at Oxford. If Oxford happened round the cusp of my twenties, and Singapore occupied my twenties, the USA is taking up my thirties. More accurate to say New York City, perhaps, since I cannot imagine living anywhere else in the States. My Christmas trip to San Francisco reminded me how much I love NYC. A good friend wished me rootedness, among other blessings, in the year ahead. Rootedness has not been my goal, but should it be? Reading Edel's biography of Henry James, I draw strength from that writer's cosmopolitanism, how his rootlessness does not vitiate his writing. His novels, however, work and rework the same ground, the relationship between America and Europe. One has to root one's work in something, one thing. I used to think of myself solely as a love poet (the lover is a whole country), now, having been questioned by Marie Ponsot's workshop and Marie Howe's new book, I also think of myself as a religious poet. God is not dead, and the big questions in this century circle round the proper relation between God and human. 

The Indian myths, in this matter, are immensely suggestive. They form a body of thought so different from Christianity as to provide a counter-force. Now that I have read the Ramayana, the Bhagavad Gita, some of the Puranas, and Roberto Calasso, I should tackle the mountain of the Mahabharata. The third force in this world of the spirit is Chinese Taoism. I have loved Zhuangtze since I read him at Sarah Lawrence. Time to go to the earlier texts, to Laotze. There is so much to read, and so little time to do it. Courage fails.

A body of thought. I used that expression so unthinkingly, but the body is vital to my mind. The body is the mind, or, at least, the mind as we know it. Someone asked me recently why sex with many partners is so important to me. My knee-jerk answer, kept in my mind, was that sex inspires my life and poetry; since gay sex is never reproductive, I associate a variety of partners with fertility and potency. Promiscuity is promise. Of course there are baser answers to that person's question, but there are higher ones too. Still more mysterious is the sensation of traveling from body to body, connecting to each one for a while. That sensation is kin to my homelessness--rootlessness, if you wish--and to my desire for intense, though brief, connections. How could it be otherwise if one is seeking the Ideal, which is, by definition, not the real though the real gives access to it. When a good friend suggested that I would never be contented with a monogamous relationship, I said I could be, if I were fucking, and fucked by, God. No reason to settle for less. 


7 comments:

Eshuneutics said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Eshuneutics said...

"A religious poet"...Oh God, I hope not :-)

Jee Leong Koh said...

There are worse things to be, I guess. :-)

Calder said...

Happy New Year Jee, may it be filled with much happiness and successes. Cool deal on the book galley and cover design. Exciting times friend!

Peace and love!

Jee Leong Koh said...

Thanks, R. Jay!

Larry said...

I'm very excited about this forthcoming book. Your willingness to take on the base and the sublime in stride is inspiring to me. Anything looked at closely enough is religious.

Jee Leong Koh said...

Hi Larry,
So good to hear from you again. I like very much your idea of the religious. Happy new year!