Saturday, February 28, 2009

Virtual Book and Birthday Party on March 20

I am planning a Virtual Book Party to launch Equal to the Earth on my birthday, March 20. Everyone is invited, and you don't even have to leave the comfort of your home, or wherever you find yourself that evening, at 8 pm (Eastern Standard Time). All you have to do is to visit the book blog or my Facebook page.

Latest: I hear you, and I am adding two more parties to the day: 8 pm (Greenwich Mean Time) and 8 pm (Singapore Standard Time/ Australian Western Standard Time)

I'm thinking of reading, in my sexiest voice, a selection of poems from each of the five sections of the book. If you have other suggestions for the party, do write them in comments. Virtual cheese and crackers will be provided. Bring your own bottle.

You may place an advance order for the book using Paypal (sidebar) or by mailing me a check for US$14.99 (3963 58th Street, Apt.2, Woodside, NY 11377).

You may also buy the book at the party, so don't forget your credit card or check book. I hope to see you there. I promise mindblowing acts and memorable speech.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Martin McDonagh's "The Cripple of Inishmaan"

Caught this play at the Altantic with TCH last night, the same black box theater where I saw another Irish playwright's work, Conor McPherson's Port Authority. Same theater, same man (TCH I mean), but all's changed.

The Cripple of Inishmaan (1996), the first part of the Aran Islands trilogy, is darkly comical, with a vein of violence running through its body. A teenage cripple Billy schemes to get into a Hollywood movie called Man of Aran. The play is as much about the representations of art, as it is about home, dreams, and disability. A self-reflexive scene: Billy rehearses his film part alone in a tiny bedsit in America. I didn't understand all he said, but the impact was visceral; the monologue was grueling for the actor.

Aaron Monaghan played a somewhat sweet and innocent Billy. Dearbhla Molloy and Marie Mullen, as Billy's adoptive aunts Eileen and Kate, were spot-on tough, tender and funny. David Pearse played Johnny PateenMike, the town gossip who, as it turns out, possesses a heart of gold. Andrew O'Connell played BabbyBobby, the sad widower who, as it turns out, possesses a bloody stick. Laurence Kinlan was memorable and cute as Billy's friend Bartley. Kerry Condon was a convincing Helen, the tough lass Billy loves. Garry Hynes directed.

The play remains a comedy to the end: Billy returns to Inishmaan, and gets his date with Kerry. We hear how Johnny PattenMike saved baby Billy from his parents who wanted to drown the crippled child. But it's comedy streaked with sadness. Billy's lie that he has TB becomes reality. Life returns to the narrow unsatisfactory affair it was before Hollywood came calling. No one will escape from Inishmaan; no one else has the heart to try.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Shakespeare on Film

This time of the year I teach two Shakespeare plays, Macbeth to the ninth-grade, and King Lear to the eleventh. Last night I watched Richard Eyre's King Lear and Roman Polanski's Macbeth. Such different approaches to translating Shakespeare to film. I agree almost completely with what Bardolatry says about both films: the Eyre and the Polanski

Ian Holm as Lear is absolutely compelling, but I do not like Victoria Hamilton's performance as Cordelia much. The subplot involving Gloucester ( Timothy West) and his sons (Paul Rhys as Edgar and Finbar Lynch as Edmund) is moving and dignified, a worthy counterpoint to the tragedy of Lear. 

The direction of Macbeth is visionary: a case of overpowering force meeting immovable tradition. The film is extraordinarily bloody, but so is the play. The director does not spare the audience. The bodies clash, twist, pull, gush, fall, pierce. Jon Finch as Macbeth looks too young, but gives off a brooding intensity. Francesca Annis is too soft and simpering for Lady M. 

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Met Opera National Council Auditions Grand Finals Concert

It's a mouthful of a name, but the singing was wonderful, to these untrained ears at least. The Finalists, winners of regionals, came from all over the country. They are all doing graduate work or apprenticeship with opera companies. Appearing at the Met was the result of years of hard work; it was also potentially the launch of a brilliant career. 

Thomas Hampson, a past winner at these Grand Finals, hosted. Each of the eight Finalists sang two works, one before, and one after the intermission. Anthony Roth Costanzo, a countertenor from Durham, North Carolina, sang Handel's "Rompo i lacci" from Flavio and "Stille amare" from Tolomeo. Noah A. Baetge, a tenor from Seattle, sang "Fra poco a me ricovero" from Lucia di Lammermoor (Donizetti) and "Pourquoi me reveiller" from Werther (Massenet). Kiri Dyan Deonarine, a soprano from Fair Lawn, New Jersey, sang "Piangero la sorte mia" from Giulio Cesare, and an English piece "The trees on the mountains" from Susannah (Floyd). Paul Appleby, a tenor from South Bend, Indiana, sang "Dal labbro il canto estasiato vola" from Falstaff (Verdi) and "O wie angstlich" from Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail (Mozart). 

Sarah Mesko, a mezzo-soprano from Hot Springs, Arkansas, sang "Svegliatevi nel core" from Giulio Caesare and "All'afflitto e dolce il pianto" from Roberto Devereux (Donizetti). Sung Eun Lee, a tenor from Seoul, sang "Ah! leve-toi soleil!" from Romeo et Juliette (Gounod) and "la donna e mobile" from Rigoletto (Verdi). Nadine Sierra, soprano from Fort Lauderdale, sang "Ah! Je veux vivre" from Romeo et Juliette, and "Ruhe sanft" from Zaide (Mozart). Jessica Julin, a soprano from Danville, California, sang "Non, cet affreux devoir...Je t'implore" from Iphigenie en Tauride (Gluck) and Lisa's Aria from The Queen of Spades (Tchaikovsky). 

Guest Artist Dolora Zajick sang "La luce langue" from Macbeth (Verdi). Her voice was aptly and admiringly described by DWF as "cavernous." She was a frightening Lady M. 

And the winners were Sung Eun Lee, Paul Appleby, Anthony Roth Costanzo, and Nadine Sierra, announced in that order (I don't know if the order was significant). I would like to think well of my taste since they were my picks as well, but the coincidence was due more to their outstanding performances. I did like Noah A. Baetge as well. Thanks to DWF for a such an interesting peek into the machinery of opera stardom. 

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Bonnard's Late Interiors at Met Museum

The exhibition tries to put the case for Bonnard as a modernist master, and not a mere Post-Impressionist working past the due date of the movement. Restricting the show to his late interiors, however, does not help to make the case. The color experiments look interesting, but not innovative; his pictorial language changed little in these paintings from 1927 to the end of his life in 1947. 

He painted the dining room, the breakfast room, the upstairs bedroom in his house at La Cannet, and the objects in them like a raffia basket of fruits, a vase of flowers, bottles of wine. The one still life that really held my attention was that of a bowl of cherries. And "The Breakfast Room" is noble. But I remember being bowled over by his paintings of the terrace and garden seen elsewhere. At this show I was underwhelmed. 

I don't understand why one critic called Bonnard "the most abstract of painters." These late interiors seem to me insufficiently abstract. They are concerned with narrative and character as much as, if not more than, form. They are about his wife and muse, Marthe, and his lover who killed herself when Bonnard finally married Marthe after living together for years.

The paintings do not imagine the old settings in radically new ways. Bonnard painted from his sketches, instead of direct observation, as if he wished to detach his retina from realism. His sketches, also on show here, were drawn with a personal code of dots and dashes, loops, and shading, to represent areas of different density of color. This method smacks of paint-by-numbers. 

The paintings whose forms are striking resemble, tellingly, Matisse. "The Work Table" with its different planes is one such instance. A drawing of Marthe naked in heels in front of a mirror was composed dramatically but also realistically, with proper perspective. The painting changed that composition by placing mirror and woman side by side in different "panels." That treatment reminds me of Matisse's "Bathers by the River" (1909), with its panels of block colors. 

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Baldwin's Freedom and McEwan's Hum

TNY Feb 9 & 16, 2009

from Claudia Roth Pierpont's article "Another Country" on James Baldwin:

Feeling more than usually restless, James Baldwin flew from New York to Paris in the late late summer of 1961, and from there to Israel. Then, rather than proceed as he had planned to Africa--a part of the world he was not ready to confront--he decided to visit a friend in Istanbul.


It is an incongruous image, the black American writer in Istanbul, but Baldwin returned to the city many time during the next ten years, making it a second or third not-quite-home.

. . . Istanbul was unlike any place Baldwin had been before and, more to the point, unlike the places that had defined both the color of his skin and his sexuality as shameful problems. Whatever Turkey's history of prejudice, divisions there did not have an automatic black/white racial cast. . . . In fact, during his first days in the city, he was nearly giddy at the sight of men in the street openly holding hands, and could not accept Cezzar's [his Turkish friend] explanation that this was a custom without sexual import. At the heart of the matter is the question of racial and sexual freedom--the city's, the writer's--and its effect on Baldwin's ability to reflect and to experiment in ways that he had not been able to do elsewhere.


TNY February 23, 2009

from Daniel Zalewski's profile of Ian McEwan "The Background Hum":

McEwan's empirical temperament distinguishes him from his friends Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, and Julian Barnes. McEwan recalls a recent afternoon spent with Barnes. "Julian was reading an article in the Guardian about a ship that, in 1893, got frozen in the polar ice. The explorers had set up a primitive wind turbine for electricity, and the captain's log described how they'd got it running just before the final sunset that marked the beginning of the dark Arctic winter. Julian handed the story to me. I read it and said, 'That's amazing. A wind turbine in 1893!' He said, "No, no, I mean the captain's description of the final sunset. What a beautiful piece of prose.' And I said, 'Oh. Yeah, yeah.'"


His plots defy what he calls the "dead hand of modernism." 

. . . On our walk, McEwan twice cited Henry James's dictum that the only obligation of a novel "is that it be interesting."


He went on, "When I'm writing, I don't really think about themes." Instead, he keeps in mind a phrase of Nabokov's: "fondle details." McEwan explained, "Writing is a bottom-up process, to borrow a term from the cognitive world. One thing that's missing from the discussion of literature in the academy is the pleasure principle. Not only the pleasure of the reader, but also of the writer. Writing is a self-pleasuring act."


In "Mother Tongue," McEwan explains that his surgical prose was, in part, a product of class anxiety. He composed words "without a pen in my hand, framing a sentence in my mind, often losing the beginning as I reached the end, and only when the thing was secure and complete would I set it down. I would stare at it suspiciously. Did it really say what I meant? Did it contain an error or an ambiguity that I could not see? Was it making a fool of me?


McEwan said that he never rushes from notebook to novel. "You've hot to feel that it's not just some conceit," he said. "It's got to be inside you . . . . "


He told me, "You spend the morning, and suddenly there are seven or eight words in a row. They've got that twist, a little trip, that delights you. And you hope that they will delight someone else. And you could not have foreseen it, that little row. They often come when you're fiddling around with something that's already there. You see that by reversing a word order or taking something out, suddenly it tightens into what it was always meant to be. 

For several days, McEwan played with the Heathrow image, and began conjuring his character. He imagined Michael Beard impatiently shifting under his seat belt in the darkening sky. He decided that his protagonist was flying into London from Berlin. But he didn't want to begin the novel with mere description. From the start, he wanted the "background hum" to catch in the reader's ear. So McEwan spent a few mornings, and suddenly the words tightened into a row: "He was running out of time. Everyone was, it was the general condition."

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Poem in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal

Cha, based in Hongkong, has just published my poem "Razminovenie, or Nonmeeting" in its sixth issue. The announcement from editors Tammy Ho and Jeff Zroback:

We are pleased to announce that the sixth issue of Cha: An Asian Literary Journal has now been launched. It features work by Inara Cedrins, Ching-In Chen, Kevin Hsu, Shara K. Johnson, Jee Leong Koh, Franky Lau, Jason Lee, Yew Leong Lee, Joey Li, Blair Reeve, Gillian Sze, Eddie Tay, Phoebe Tsang, Brian Urtz, Nicole Wong, Bryan Thao Worra, Xu Xi and Yuan Qiongqiong.

We would like to thank our guest editors for their efforts. Award-winning Hong Kong poet Arthur Leung generously lent us his time and expertise to help us read the poetry. Historian, writer and Cha regular Reid Mitchell provided feedback on the prose.

We would also like to let you know that Singapore-born poet and academic Eddie Tay has agreed to serve as our in-house book reviewer. Eddie has already written several excellent reviews for our journal, and we are excited that he will be joining us in an official capacity. If you have a book you would like reviewed or if you would like to submit a review yourself, please email Eddie at

Finally, our seventh issue is due out in May of this year. We are happy to announce that writer Royston Tester has agreed to help us read the submissions. The deadline for submissions is 1 April 2009. If you have a piece you think would be right for Cha, please do not hesitate to submit.

The Inner Classic, the Book of Hours, the Treatise and the Gospel

TLS February 6 2009

from Michael Stanley-Baker's review of A Dictionary of the Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen:

The roots of Chinese medicine lie in the rich textual tradition that began with the Inner Classic of the Yellow Emperor, or Huang Di Nei Jing, compiled over 2,000 years ago. The first organized canon of medical theory, the Inner Classic describes a range of ideas about the structure and patterns of the universe and the human body, from five-phase correlative cosmology, to yin and yang, qi and blood, acupuncture meridians and the relationship between the inner organs. 


"Heaven" and "breath," for example, form the term "weather". Thus "breath" not only animates the human body, but also storms, rainbows and hazy summer days. Small wonder then that Chinese doctors use terms for weather patterns when diagnosing the human body as well. 


from Ronald Blythe's review of Katherine Swift's The Morville Hours:

A book of hours was an aid to personal devotions in which the Church's year and the seasons went round together like a clock. Prayer and the growing years were intertwined on its pages. Prayer was textual, nature pictorial--the latter often magnificently so. The result was one of the best loved kinds of illuminated manuscript.


from James A. Harris's review of Paul Russell's The Riddle of Hume's Treatise:

Until the beginning of the twentieth century Hume was known as a purely negative philosopher, an irresponsible vandal who delighted in demonstrating the incapacity of reason to show that it is more likely that the sun will rise tomorrow than that it won't, and who had gone on to prove the baselessness of belief in both the ordinary world of enduring physical objects and a self that persists through time. This way of reading Hume was resisted by some, notably by T. H. Huxley in a now neglected book of 1881, but only began to be seriously questioned when Norman Kemp Smith drew attention in 1905 to what he termed as Hume's "naturalism." There was a positive, constructive, scientific dimension to the Treatise, Kemp Smith urged, in the form of a new theory of belief: that is, a new theory as to what belief is and what its origins are. Hume's main concern was to show that belief is not the act of an autonomous faculty of reasons, but rather a particular kind of sentiment, or feeling, generated by more or less mechanistic operations of the imagination. 


TLS February 13, 2009

from Brian Stanley's review of Robert Eric Frykenberg's Christianity in India:

Foreign missionaries emerge from Frykenberg's pages as too few in number, fallible in capacity, and potentially disruptive in their political impact to play the role cast for them by much Western historiography and contemporary Hindu vituperation. They were at best leaky conduits of information, imperfectly transmitting knowledge in both directions between India and Europe. . . . When Christianity did take deep root in a particular location through movements of group conversion, it did so because of local agency. Sometimes the agents of the gospel were high-born men or women of learning, such as the great Tamil poet, Nellaiyan Vedenayakan Sastriar, or, later in the nineteenth century, Ramabai Sastri Dongre, a brilliant woman who before her conversion was awarded the honorific title of "Pandita" on account of her unrivalled mastery of classical Sanskrit learning. Perhaps more frequently, they were people of humble, even polluting, birth, unlettered and often unremembered apostles who spread the word of the gospel, using a down-to-earth vocabulary of salvation, which spoke of freedom in Christ from fear of demons, from the terrors of sickness and the grave, and from oppression by caste Hindus. But in almost every case, where the Church saw growth, it did so, not because of external imposition but through local appropriation and indigenization of the Christian message. 


from Katharine Craik's review of David Schalkwyk's Shakespeare, Love and Service:

Schalkwyk regards the interactions of service (between master and servant, husband and wife, lover and beloved) as central to early modern identity and especially to experiences of love. . . . Shakespeare's intense expressions of love in the Sonnets reveal a longing for the reciprocal trust enjoyed not only between close friends but also through relationships of service. The sonnets addressed to the young man articulate the poet's painful awareness of his own social inferiority while noisily seeking the rewards of mutual affection.

If service necessitated a sacrifice of selfhood . . . then the player is the servant incarnate. The names of the players' companies accordingly declared their subordinate status: the Lord Admiral's Men, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, the Queen's Men and the King's Men. Schalkwyk makes clear the complex self-reflexivity involved in putting servants onto the early modern stage. If Caliban personifies contested service, the devoted steward Flavius in Timon of Athens shows that service could be ennobling if undertaken freely and voluntarily. Indeed, the Protestant idea of willing obedience, where bondage becomes freedom by the effort of imagining it as such, works only when service is understood as love.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Dustin Brookshire's Project Verse

Just spent most of the morning putting together the application for Project Verse, a poetry competition modeled after TV's "Project Runway." From the website:

Dustin Brookshire, through I Was Born Doing Reference Work in Sin and Limp Wrist, is proud to announce Project Verse, the self-proclaimed “Project Runway” of the poetry world.

Project Verse is a free competition set to be a grueling but fun competition for poets. It’s a 10-week competition, and the winner will be announced week 11. Each Monday, an assignment will be posted in I Was Born Doing Reference Work in Sin. Poets will have to complete and submit the assignment by noon Friday of the same week. The judges will read and score the assignments over the weekend, and the judgment will be posted in I Was Born Doing Reference Work in Sin the following Monday.

Why am I doing this? Because I have discovered I write good poems to order. A number of poems from my forthcoming book Equal to the Earth came out of a similar multi-round competition organized by Poetry-Free-For-All. Most of my chapbook Payday Loans was written, a sonnet a day, during National Poetry Writing Month. There's something about a competition that gets my jizz flowing. The trick is to hook up a particular writing challenge with a dark fish in the unconscious. There must be a hook and a fish, for this fishing trip to be a success. Come fishing with me, when it begins, if I get in, that is.

As part of the application, we are asked to respond to a statement by Ellen Bryant Voigt: "It's all a draft until we die." Here's my riff on the theme:

I am wary of theories about writing poetry, and of clear-voiced instruction, and well-meaning advice. They are abstractions of the experience of one poet or another, and not the stuff of poetry. They are arguments that the arguer herself would refute on another morning when she has another cup of coffee. They are rhetoric—all, they exhort, all a draft—and we remember what Yeats said about the difference between rhetoric and poetry. A strong poem will justify any theory; no theory has ever justified a bad poem.

I am wary of advice because I am so susceptible to it. I have a child-like need for guidance, a child-like faith in formulae. I have a tendency to think there is a particular way of writing that will create good poems, not automatically, but diligently. If I practice conscientiously this eight-fold path or those five pillars of faith, I will be saved. And how innocuous appears to be the advice to see a poem always as a draft. It smells of sweet sawdust from a hardworking carpenter’s shop. It speaks like bell-toned steeples rising from small green hills.

It smacks of Puritanism. And if one has been fighting against one’s own puritanical streak all one’s life, one is rightly suspicious of the call for religious discipline, unrelieved work, and moral seriousness. One might want to say, in opposition, a poem is not a draft, a poem is a revelry. A poem does not see life as sanctified drudgery, brought to a thankful rest by death. Instead, a poem celebrates its moment, and a revision of the poem celebrates its own moment. In revision, there are losses, as well as gains, just as a new best friend cannot ever replace a dearly loved one. And who would not prefer partying with friends to ploughing the fields, a solitary draft animal?

Monday, February 16, 2009

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

Volume Four is such a gripping installment of this biography that on reaching the last page I wanted to read it all over again. It begins with James's horrific failure at the theater, when he was booed off-stage for his play, Guy Domville. He became depressed, confused and self-doubting. Aging did not help; neither did the rise of young Turks in literature and criticism, as the age of Victoria came to a close.

Edel explained, quite persuasively, that James re-lived childhood hurts in his writing of this period, in an attempt to heal his psychic wounds. Between 1895 and 1900, James wrote a series of stories about female children and adolescents.

Taking them in their sequence as he wrote them, we begin in the cradle with Effie, who is murdered at four (The Other House, 1896); she is resurrected at five (What Maisie Knew, 1897) and we leave her at seven or eight, or perhaps a bit older. Flora is eight ("The Turn of the Screw," 1898) and the one little boy in the series, Miles, is ten. . . . Then we arrive at adolescence: the adolescence of an unnamed girl in a branch post office ("In the Cage," 1898). Little Aggie, in the next novel, is sixteen, and Nanda Brookenham eighteen when the story begins (The Awkward Age, 1899).

. . . There has been a revisiting of earliest childhood following the recoil from the horror of public rejection and the destruction of self-esteem. . . . In resuming the disguise of a female chid, the protective disguise of his early years, James performed imaginative self-therapy. The record of these stories can be seen as the unconscious revisiting of perceptions and feelings, to minister to adult hurts. As his old feelings and imaginings had defended his childish self long ago against the brutal world, they now served as aid against the new brutalities.

Edel also points out that whereas the little girls usually endure and survive, the one little boy, Miles, dies when he tries to assert his masculinity in the world. James's sense of his masculinity seemed fraught with insecurities.

After completing this series of writing, James took off for Italy. There he met Hendrik Christian Andersen, an ambitious young American sculptor, and fell in love with him. Andersen stayed three days with Henry in his house at Rye, and they met thereafter about five more times. James's letters to Andersen were full of physical, tactile language. Edel is cautious in interpreting this language. While he acknowledges that the letters speak for "a certain physical intimacy in their meetings, they can be seen also as forms of endearment in one who was overtly affectionate in public." He concludes finally that we don't know if the two men shared any physical intimacy, but the character of Henry's feelings is clear.

When Hendrik's older brother died, Henry wrote to him:

The sense that I can't help you, see you, talk to you, touch you, hold you close and long, or do anything to make you rest on me, and feel my participation--this torments me, dearest boy, makes me ache for you, and for myself; makes me gnash my teeth and groan at the bitterness of things. . . . I wish I could go to Rome and put my hands on you (oh, how lovingly I should lay them!) but that, alas, is odiously impossible. . . . I am in town for a few weeks but I return to Rye April 1st, and sooner or later to have you there and do for you, to out my arms round you and make you lean on me as on a brother and a lover, and keep you on and on, slowly comforted or at least relieved of the first bitterness of pain--this I try to imagine as thinkable, attainable, not wholly out of the question. There I am, at any rate, and there is my house and my garden and my table and my studio--such as it is--and your room, and your welcome, and your place everywhere--and I press them upon you, oh so earnestly, dearest boy, if isolation and grief and the worries you are overdone with become intolerable to you. . . . I will nurse you through your dark passage. . . . I embrace you with almost a passion of pity.

Hendrik must be extraordinarily obtuse if he could not see the nature of the feelings Henry expressed in his letter. Though Edel looks steadily at Henry's relationship with the young sculptor, I am surprised that this discovery did not lead Edel to review, if not revise, his study of Henry's life. Surely this homosexual feeling could not have come from nowhere? In his account, Edel emphasizes how Henry saw his younger self in Hendrik, whose name so uncannily resembled his. The inference is that his homosexual feeling was, at least in part, a love of self. I have heard stories of men discovering late in their lives feelings for other men. Did they repress those feelings in the past, or did they develop them later? It's an intriguing question that needs asking.

The effect of his new feelings on Henry was tremendous. Though the longing was agonizing, it was also energizing. It gave Henry a new motivation for life and art. The palace of art was insufficient; human desire must have its place. Falling in love enabled Henry to imagine love in his great late novels. Isabel Archer, who aims to cultivate the beautiful, gives way to Kate Croy, who risks all for the sake of love.

Edel rescues Henry from the charge of being sexually timid in his stories by highlighting what Henry wrote perceptively in essays about the inclusion of sex in fiction. In his essay on Matilde Serao, a Neapolitan novelist, James wrote:

Love, at Naples and in Rome, as Madame Serao exhibits it, is simply unaccompanied with any interplay of our usual conditions--with affection, with duration, with circumstances or consequence, with friends, enemies, husbands, wives, children, parents, interests, occupations, the manifestations of tastes. Who are these people, we presently ask ourselves, who love indeed with fury--though for the most part with astonishing brevity--but who are so without any suggested situation in life that they can only strike us as loving for nothing and in the void, to no gain of experience and no effect of a felt medium or a breathed air?

And he concludes his essay on D'Annunzio with a striking image to characterise the novels that fill their emptiness with sex:

Shut out from the rest of life, shut out from all fruition and assimilation, it has no more dignity than--to use a homely image--the boots and shoes that we see, in the corridors of promiscuous hotels, standing, often in double pairs, at the doors of rooms. Detached and unassociated these clusters of objects present, however obtruded, no importance. What the participants do with their agitation, in short, or even what it does with them, that is the stuff of poetry, and it is never really interesting save when something finely contributive in themselves makes it so.

In brief, sex in poetry is never interesting for itself, but for the expousal of values. Sex, in poetry, cannot be but means.

Tales by Augusto Monterroso

Practising my Spanish again. Here are my very basic translations of Monterroso:

The Mirror That Could Not Sleep

There was once a hand mirror who felt alone. Nobody saw himself in him, and so he felt really bad, as if he did not exist. The feeling was reasonable but the other mirrors made fun of him. At night, the other mirrors were kept in the same drawer of the dressing table. They slept profoundly, far from the concerns of the neurotic.

The Black Sheep

In a distant country there lived many years ago a black sheep. It was executed by firing squad. A century later, the repentant flock raised an equestrian statue that looked very nice in the park. Just so, ever after, every time black sheep appeared they were rapidly executed, so that the future generations of sheep, common and normal, could also be trained in sculpture.

The Imperfect Paradise

It’s true—the man said mechanically, without quitting the view of the flames that burned in the chimney that night in winter—in Paradise there are friends, music, also books; the only problem with going to Heaven is that there you cannot see the sky.


Augusto Monterroso (1921-2003) was a Guatamalan writer of short stories, who is widely considered a central figure in the Latin American "Boom" generation of writers.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

For a Limited Time Only

This art show, to be held in the Art Center Highland Park, Illinois, will feature ephemeral site-specific installations by Annie Heckman, Wendy Kveck, Marci Rubin, Shawn Stucky, and Jess Witte. (Jess and I met during my writing residency at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts) From March 6-29, 2009, the art works will disintegrate, dissolve, and disappear. In the words of its curator, Olga Stefan:

For a Limited Time Only concentrates on the urgency of the work, and encourages the artists, as well as audiences, to consider these projects philosophically, focusing primarily on the idea of the work as temporary experience rather than artistic mark, and memory rather than document.

The premise of the show so goes against my ingrained ideas about art that I am sorely tempted to fly to Highland Park to see the installations. Why create what will not last? Why create what is not portable, like a passport, but takes its very meaning from its location? There is a degree of intransigency in site-specific installations that challenges my aesthetics of permanence, possession, and identity. These works declare they are not for sale.

I have seen film or video recordings of such works, and have felt that these recordings undermine the boldness of such aesthetic claims. Why make an object of something intended wholly to be an on-site experience? And so, even though I will not be there at Highland Park, I hope I won't be consoled by some memory of it that is not of my own making.

Art and Love in Renaissance Italy

I'm glad I caught this exhibition yesterday, appropriately V-Day, before it ends tomorrow. Approximately 150 objects were on show: maiolica, bella donna dishes, birth trays, gift coffers, erotic drawings. On one birth tray, Venus shoots golden rays from her pudendum into the eyes of heroes from Classical, medieval and Biblical writings. Achilles and Paris. Lancelot and Tristan. Samson. I forget the last one. My favorite object was a pair of waffle tongs that impressed the host's name on waffles that the guests could bring home with them. 

A number of the paintings caught my eye. I like very much Giulio Romano's painting of a Roman prostitute. She is wrapped in a suggestively diaphanous cloth, the end of which she holds up with one finger. A green cloth fallen by the right of the painting alludes to the practice of hiding erotic or mistress paintings behind curtains or screens. I was in the world of Browning's "My Last Duchess." Alessandro's (?) painting of the Lupercalia was almost-balletic. Noble young men, loin-covered with pelt of wolves they killed, dance from savage mountains towards the women standing near or in the city's doors, in order to touch the women's barrenness with a tuft of wolf fur.

The most exciting discovery, for me, was Pietro Aretino, an influential satirist and inventor of modern literate pornography. To Giulio Romano's series of pornographic drawings, engraved by Marcantonio Raimondi, Aretino wrote sixteen ribald Sonetti Lussurioso. The work was titled I Modi. Wikipedia tells me that Michael Nyman set eight of the poems to music in 2007, but they proved no less controversial than they were at the time of their writing. Aretino had to flee Rome temporarily after the publication. 

This line engraving of the man, by Raimondo, illustrates Aretino's assertion that one should wear the organ of reproduction as prominently as a medal on one's hat. Another way of phrasing the same idea could be the Neo-Platonic formulation, highlighted by the Met curators, "All in all, and all in every part." Yes, that's a good way of putting it. 

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Richard Greenberg's "The American Plan"

TCH and I watched this play, produced by Manhattan Theatre Club, and directed by David Grindley, at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre last Thursday. At the Catskills, a strange young man, Nick Lockridge, woos a Jewish heiress Lili Adler, and they get engaged, with her formidable mother's blessings. Another man, Gil Harbison, appears, who turns out to be a lover the fiance fled. Gil proposes the American plan of the play's title: that they both marry rich women and be good husbands, while maintaining their "special" friendship with each other. 

As far as I can make it out, the play is about this devil's bargain. Richard Greenberg, the playwright, is gay and Jewish. Lili's father, a German Jewish refugee, gained his fortune by allowing manufacturers to sell his inventions without his stigmatized name. For closeted homosexuals and Jewish exiles, postwar America offers the good life in exchange for one's identity. A mentally capricious and compulsive liar, Lili can be seen, TCH suggested, as the collateral damage of such a bargain. 

The idea is promising, but the promise was never fulfilled. The characters were not sufficiently compelling. I could not empathize with damaged Lili, despite a sharply etched performance by Lily Rabe, nor with conflicted Nick. Part of the problem was the men's bland acting, but the thin script did not help. The patter was clever and humorous in places, but not layered and complex. Mercedes Ruehl brought a distinct flair to her performance of Eva, the mother, but the portrayal was not deep. I have no idea why the black maid, Olivia Shaw, was included, except as a sounding board for mother and daughter. 

The production was also less than stellar. The back curtains painted with trees looked flimsy. A front curtain moved distractingly across the stage to allow for scene changes. A single platform pier was rotated for the different scenes, creating a repetitive effect. Kieran Campion, who played Nick, did not maintain, unfortunately, the excitement of his first appearance, heaving himself on deck from the lake, his chiseled chest and strong limbs dripping with his swim.

A Valentine's Day Poem

I received my first real V-Day poem ("Roses are red" does not count), from a student. It has a nicely ironic touch. Since we are reading the play now, King Lear references find their way into this confection.

A sticky red flows through the rooms,
A corridor full of pink balloons.
A box of chocolates, sickly sweet,
Forewarns of future sickly teeth.

One needs to fill the hungry O's,
And palliate their aching souls.
A sugar sweetness is the thing
To take the role of love and king.

Like Lear, this day attempts to bake
A spiritual state into a cake--
Attempts to try, with all its might,
To mold love out of rosy light.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Bull Eclogues: "The Brazen Bull"

Bull Eclogues
“There's a part of my life that is so repulsive and dark that I have been warring against it for all of my adult life."

The Cretan
The Island
The Drug
The Oracle
The Maze
The God

The Brazen Bull

Great story, Pasiphaё. Queen falls in love
with a white bull, and builds a wooden cow
she hides inside to consummate her lust.
She’s not the cow, you see. She just needs help.

This thing of darkness, we all have one. Or two.
I’m working hard on changing, with God’s help,
my harmful ways of thinking, and my wife,
bless her, has stuck by me throughout this time.

I want to speak a straight word to my past.
M.J., I know you’re watching this, my friend.
I believe we’re not the creatures of our genes,

we can change. Who could have imagined this,
a young black man would enter the White House?
This is the golden currency of dreams.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Bull Eclogues: "The God"

Bull Eclogues
“There's a part of my life that is so repulsive and dark that I have been warring against it for all of my adult life."

The Cretan
The Island
The Drug
The Oracle
The Maze

The God

Bullshit. I’ll make you eat your words. I’ll—
I’ll crush your balls and make you drink it up.
When I’m done with you, cunt, you’d wish
you could crawl back to the hole you came from.

I thought I couldn’t feel it any more
but shame covers its face from cameras,
cowers into the cave, thrusts out the man—
pastor, husband, father—to brave the light.

But my shame is a flame. It lights the hand
that crushes me so as to make me new,
the light that plays the lyre for his praise.

And for his story, I will drink your words,
will eat the goat who glorifies my God.
Who else could change you, Judas, to a judge?

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Bull Eclogues: "The Maze"

Bull Eclogues
“There's a part of my life that is so repulsive and dark that I have been warring against it for all of my adult life."

The Cretan
The Island
The Drug
The Oracle

The Maze

Some say the puzzle is the palace. Home,
its gorgeous wall hangings, gold passages,
the hoofs stroll round, unable to kick down,
the kitchen an aroma of lamb stew.

Some say the world is riddled with tall caves
that beckon the explorer, strong and young,
deep into the intestines of intrigue,
and then the rectum's private resignation.

Between the world and home, I am lost to shame,
having given up the old habit, guilt.
What is this spool of red spun through the maze,

I cannot say but see it to the end.
The ball shrinks fast. The pattern almost done.
Why does the wool look so much like a web?

Mario Benedetti's "The Other I"

My Spanish tutor introduced me to Mario Benedetti, an Uruguayan fiction writer, poet and journalist. My homework was to translate his story "The Other I." I don't put my fingers up my nose, at least not in company, but I can certainly see how vulgarity could co-exist with poetry in the same person. Here's a fellow-exile.


It was about a common fellow: in his trousers mended with knee patches, he would read comics, make noise when eating, put his fingers up his nose, snore in his nap. He was called Armando. Common in every thing but one: he had an Other I.

The Other I used to have a certain poetry in his eyes, fall in love with the actresses, lie casually, get excited at dusk.

The fellow was very worried about the Other I, because the Other I made him feel uncomfortable in front of his friends. On the other hand, Other I was melancholic and, due to it, Armando could not be so vulgar as he wished to be.

One evening Armando returned from work, tired, took off his shoes, moved lethargically his toes and switched on the radio. On the radio Mozart was played, but the fellow fell asleep. When he woke up, the Other I was crying in despair. At that moment, the fellow did not know what to do, but pulled himself together and insulted the Other I consciously. This one did not say anything, but the next morning he committed suicide.

At the beginning, the death of the Other I was a rude blow for poor Armando, but at once he thought that now he could be completely vulgar. That was a comforting thought for him.

He mourned for 5 days only, when he left for the street with the intention of showing off his new and complete vulgarity. From far he saw his friends coming closer. That filled him with happiness and immediately he burst out in guffaws.

However, when they together passed him by, they did not notice his presence. Worse, the fellow caught up and heard what they said: “Poor Armando. To think that he seemed so strong and healthy.”

The fellow did not have any choice but to stop laughing and, at the same time, felt at the height of the breastbone a breathlessness that seemed full of nostalgia. But he could not feel real melancholy, because the Other I had taken away all the melancholy.


Mario Benedetti was born on September 14, 1920. In 1949 he published his first book of stories. In 1953 appeared his first novel, Who of Us. With Poems of the Office, published in 1956, Benedetti influenced the development of the Uruguayan poetry. In 1957, he traveled for the first time to Europe. Two years later, he published another key book in his corpus, Montevideanos, an excellent collection of stories that shows his urban conception of literature, but widened the social register and deepened the vision that took in the common man. For more than ten years Benedetti lived in exile, far away from the Montevideanos. “Nevertheless, I think that one positive effect that the Uruguayan dictatorship caused was to disperse my Montevideanos all over the world, and writing followed after them to different geographies of exile,” he affirmed. In this way he made Buenos Aires, Lima, Havana, and Madrid his cities of passage, but they also leave their imprints on him.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Cien Sonetos de Amor: XVIII

I read Sonnet XVIII on the train, and fell in love with it straightaway. It sings of ancient mountains and quarrels. It shoots the arrows of beauty into the heart. My overly literal translation follows the original. I'm learning Spanish, and would be glad to get some tips.


Por las montañas vas como viene la brisa
o la corriente brusca que baja de la nieve
o bien tu cabellera palpitante confirma
los altos ornamentos del sol en la espersura.

Toda la luz del Cáucaso cae sobre tu cuerpo
como en una pequeña vasija interminable
en que el agua se cambia de vestido y de canto
a cada movimiento transparente del río.

Por los montes el viejo camino de guerreros
y abajo enfurecida brilla como una espada
el agua entre murallas de manos minerales,

hasta que tú recibes de los bosques de pronto
el ramo o el relámpago de unas flores azules
y la insólita flecha de un aroma salvaje.


Through the mountains you move as the breeze moves,
or the brisk stream falling from the snows,
your fine hair, palpitating, confirms
the high adornments of the sun over the forest.

All the light of the Caucasus falls on your body
like in a little vessel, infinitely various,
in which the water changes its dress and song,
with every transparent movement of the river.

Through the hills the old road of warriors,
and, below, furiously shines like a sword
the water in the mineral hands of old walls,

until you receive suddenly from the woods
the bouquet—the lighting bolt—of blue flowers
and the strange arrow of their wild aroma.

Bull Eclogues: "The Oracle"

Bull Eclogues
“There's a part of my life that is so repulsive and dark that I have been warring against it for all of my adult life."

The Cretan
The Island
The Drug

The Oracle

I want to tell you how the White House calls
for faith to light again the public square,
and fight the culture wars: because of me
God has a hearing with the President.

I want to tell you thirty million heads,
chastised before the altar of great change,
pray after me, Your will be done on earth,
and watch the fire eat the ballot box.

I want to tell you all that I have done
but how can I? Outside this hotel room,
I am the man with no accent but God’s.

Inside I have no language except lust.
Outside I shout, God bless America!
Inside, Fuck my ass harder. Harder. Fuck.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Bull Eclogues: "The Drug"

Bull Eclogues
“There's a part of my life that is so repulsive and dark that I have been warring against it for all of my adult life."

The Cretan
The Island

The Drug

What do you have? Will you sell it to me?
This ecstasy fell from the sky one day
and pulverized to powder on the ground.
We snort into the brain dead snowflakes.

This liquid crystal slammed into the vein
like lethal waste pumped from cattle farms
in drinking water is forgetfulness.
Is this the speed you have? Will you sell it?

Or are you plugging that fool’s gold called love,
disguised as fucking bought and sold like fags,
lottery tickets, gum, or vitamins?

I puff a cloud and change into a herd
my human senses and intelligence.
My soul roots for a corn-fed meal, and squeals.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Bull Eclogues: "The Island"

Bull Eclogues
“There's a part of my life that is so repulsive and dark that I have been warring against it for all of my adult life."

The Cretan

The Island

From week to week I walk on water, fight
the urge to look down at the deluged faces
whose liquid hands support my stony feet
and hold on for the heart’s faltering hit.

When squalls rise up and shake the long-stemmed brain,
even the faithful look for land, and land
their bodies on the strong arms of a beach,
the grass of books, tobacco flowers, nightcaps.

Turned, blown, off-course, I throw me on this room.
For here the kri-kri leaps with the white mountains,
the citron bubbles in the hand, the olive branch

presented to a beast is not so beastly,
but promises a civilization
of the sea within, though not the sea without.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Anne-Sophie Mutter plays Mendelssohn

To put it in monetary terms, the first movement of Mendelssohn's Concerto in E minor for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 64, as played by Anne-Sophie Mutter with the NYP last night, was worth the price of the ticket. And more. It was piercing and sensitive. It was vigorous and delicate. Its softest note does not lose its expressiveness; its loudest chord does not lose its complexity. The other two movements were very fine, but the first was divine. 

I like too Overture to Ruy Blas, Op. 95, that opened the concert. Mendelssohn declared the Victor Hugo's play "beneath contempt," but did not want to disappoint the Leipzig Theatrical Pension Fund, the worthy organization that asked him for an overture to their performance of Hugo. James M. Keller's program note describes the piece: 

In the span of seven minutes, this angry, fiery work perfectly evokes the play's brooding atmosphere, with a stentorian motif of sustained chords for woodwinds and brass regularly punctuating the otherwise energetic proceedings at intervals. As one would expect from the mature Mendelssohn, the orchestration is inspired: with the second theme, for example, he achieves an altogether original sound by assigning the melody to the clarinets and bassoons (playing legato) against staccato doubling in the strings. The overture displays a vocabulary that is in certain ways similar to that of Verdi's hyper-Romantic operas of the ensuing decade. 

The third work of the all-Mendelssohn program, conducted by Kurt Masur, was Die erste Walpurgisnacht (The First Walpurgis Night), P. 60. It put to music a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a poem about the druids and their worshippers' successful resistance against Christian encroachment. Played rather briskly, the piece struck me as bombastic, just as the words sounded too triumphalist a note. I do like the sound and image of the last line, sang by the Druid Priest, and echoed by the Chorus (Westminster Symphonic Chorus): Dein Licht, wer kann es rauben? or Your light, who can take from us? 

A measure of Mendelssohn's popularity in his day: the Violin concerto premiered March 13, 1845, at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, and made its work across the Atlantic to a NYP premiere on November 24, 1849. Four years. Not bad at all for a new work of that time. 

Dear America, Don't Be My Valentine

From the press website:
The call for this edition of OCHO went out as a response to several political events in the Fall-Winter season of 2008-2009. The first, a moment in the Vice Presidential debates early November between Governor Sarah Palin and Senator Joe Biden, in which both candidates seemed to befriend the gay community while denouncing our right to marry. What an awful laughter relieved both the candidates and the audience, as if everyone were too embarrassed to discuss the validity of a gay relationship in the national discussion. Then, the passing of propositions 8 in California, 102 in Arizona, and Amendment 2 in Florida changing state constitutions and making it illegal for gays to marry. This historic election brought with it the disappointment and dissolution of 18,000 marriages and families directly affected by the Prop. 8 vote in California and, in Arkansas, an amendment making it illegal for gay couples to adopt.....

Poems by Eduardo C. Corral, Mary Meriam, Jeremy Halinen, Christine Leclerc, C. Dale Young, Julie R. Enszer, Matthew Hittinger, Steve Fellner, Linda Benninghoff, Scott Hightower, Franciszka Voeltz, Brent Goodman, Christian Gregory, Jen Currin, Charles Jensen, Tamiko Beyer, D.M. Solis, Brian Leary, Dean Kostos, Julie Weber, Blas Falconer, Francisco Aragon, Elizabeth J. Colen, RJ Gibson, Jee Leong Koh, Carol Guess, Christian Gullette.

Bull Eclogues: "The Cretan"

Bull Eclogues
“There's a part of my life that is so repulsive and dark that I have been warring against it for all of my adult life."

The Cretan

You come out of the shower, warm and wet,
and towel your head with rough deliberation.
Those wide shoulders, untouched by a plough,
you wear like a smile, and the world is new.

I know I should have sacrificed you to God,
I should have raised the knife despite its stone,
and saved its bullion in your bull-cow heart,
I should have turned from fucking with a beast.

Instead I let you lash my legs to you,
haul me through contracting caves, and grind
into the ground the altar of my lust;

yet, stubborn, round and gold, the violence rises
from the deeps, the pressure lessening,
as if a treasure is dragged from the sea.

Robert Urban previews "Equal to the Earth"

Jee Leong Koh's new book of poetry EQUAL TO THE EARTH contains thoughtful meditations on the poet's social, sexual, ethnic and cultural impressions, relationships and alienations – presented in a unique style of wistful desire mixed with muted resignation. The book's title appears as a phrase in two poems – "Blowjob" and "Razminovenie, or Nonmeeting." By way of explaining EQUAL TO THE EARTH's overall theme, the title may be interpreted as meaning that the great longing one feels for that which one cannot have is equal, in magnitude, to the greatness of that which one cannot have.

Such has been the nature of The Muse for many a poet, and Koh is an inheritor of that venerable artistic sensibility.

Technically, many of Koh's poems read as non-rhyming prose poetically arranged into short lines and stanzas. Yet quite a few of the poems make use of clever, complex and well thought-out rhyme schemes. These include "Chapter Six: Anal Sex," "For Lonely," "Pickup Lines" and "The Far Ships."

The book's five chapters of poems are loosely grouped thematically:

Chapter One harkens back to classic Asian Imperial Court accounts. It imparts, if the term "orientalism" may be used, that atmosphere of labyrinthine bureaucracy, court intrigue and officiated virtue. On the surface all is modes of conduct, mannered observances, moral correctness. Yet underneath a more modern sense of romantic and sexual desire simmers.

As if mindful of the cultural heritage that permeates the writer's thinking in his life – Koh begins his book with his ethnic and literary roots. His choice of style here is not so cosmic or typically "poetical" as Zen Bhuddism or Taoism – but perhaps more Confucian in feel.

Heading towards Chapter Two, the subject matter of Koh's poetry fast-forwards to modern daily life. Yet they often keep the same formal, remote, almost polite style. The poetry is now more descriptive of his own life – revealing the alienation of the author as tourist, foreigner, immigrant, world traveler.

Chapters Three and Four contain quite a few poems on sexual relations and social communications – alienated, dense with meanings, and somewhat voyeuristic. Some appear coded in Koh's personal experiences. Many chronicle his travels and encounters as an Asian gay man in the modern world, especially in the West and especially in the U.S. Chapter Five takes the reader to Koh's socially estranged experiences on stereotypically (and for Koh, somewhat superficially) gay Fire Island.

Koh is skilled at poetically deconstructing gay sex roles, gay-straight relationships, coming out, and even gay sex toys. He also manages to infuse poetic craft into such mundane, municipal topics as immigration, tourism and citizenship. No small task.

Ultimately, Koh remains somewhat of a stranger-in-a-strange-land in many of the book's poems – gently alienated from his topics, his own sexuality and other people. I was several times reminded of Joni Mitchell's conversational, outsider-styled song lyrics while reading this book.

Koh as a poet understands art & sex as forces that both come from the same dark, inner, hard-to-grasp place. He is that kind of artist that struggles within the eternal, pulsar-like oscillation between the Dionysian temptations of creating sex and the studied, Apollonian thoughtfulness of creating poetry about sex. Koh lives and writes in that space created by the tug between the two. EQUAL TO THE EARTH is one of his results.

--Robert Urban, Urban Productions, NYC

Friday, February 06, 2009

HD's "Notes on Thought and Vision"

"Central to Notes on Thought and Vision is HD’s belief in the over-mind, a “jellyfish” state, a kind of lens which allows vision. This is complimented by another lens, the love-mind." Read more.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

El papagayo disecado vive

Spanish Composition 3:

Me gustan los libros de Julian Barnes. Escribe muy bien para los lectores en Inglaterra y por todas partes, pero a los lectores en Francia les gusta más. ¿Por que los lectores francéses lo quieren mucho? El tiene una sensibilidad francésa. Es gracioso cuando escribe sobre las cosas serias y serio cuando escribe sobre las cosas graciosas. Su mejor libro es “El papagayo de Flaubert.” En este libro, una hombre enamorado con la escritura de Flaubert quiere encontrar el papagayo que se sentó en el escritoria de Flaubert por los dias último de su vida. El hombre se preocupa por la sobrevivencia de la papagayo aunque el pájaro es un criatura disecada. Le importa que el papagayo no cae en el olvido. Por suerte, porque es fan de Flaubert no pierde las esperanzas, el papagayo disecado vive.

Felix Mendelssohn and the Leipzig Tradition

Today is the bicentennial of Mendelssohn's birth. Last night I attended the talk "Felix Mendelssohn and the Leipzig Tradition," a part of New York Philharmonic's Insights Series curated by James M. Keller. 

Leipzig at the time of Mendelssohn's arrival from Berlin was a busy commercial center of population 45 000. It boasted a long musical tradition centered around St. Thomas Church, and the Gewandhausorchester. As Kapelmeister of the Gewandhause, Mendelssohn started a series of concerts that focused on important composers of the past. The practice was innovative since concerts then usually presented new works. Keller pointed to the music conservatism in the canonization of certain composers. For Mendelssohn, the three gods were Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. 

Mendelssohn would found the Conservatory, as a kind of third pillar of the scene, or as Masur describes it, as part of the music oikos. The motto of the Conservatory could be translated as "Joy is a very serious matter." Mendelssohn would invite composers and musicians to his house every weekend to make music. Relationships were close, and exchange was constant. 

Kurt Masur spoke about his long association with Leipzig and Mendelssohn. He described the chilling poverty he and other young musicians suffered as students of the Leipzig Conservatory in 1946/47. He and his friends would play dance and jazz music to make a living. In the 1970s and 80s, as the Kapellmeister of the Gewandhaus, he revived respect for Mendelssohn's music.

R. Larry Todd, who wrote the standard biography of the composer, explained the reasons for the decline of Mendelssohn's reputation after his death. Wagner attacked, with devastating effect, Mendelssohn's judaic ancestry, claiming that Jews could only write superficial music. Then, Mendelssohn's identification with English Victorianism did him no good when the modern reaction against it, led by writers like George Bernard Shaw, set in. 

Mendelssohn is often seen as a music lightweight. Masur defended him last night on the basis of his versatility and variety. He is never sentimental, according to Masur, but conductors and players tend to interpret him sentimentally. Masur is conducting Anne-Sophie Mutter in an all-Mendelssohn concert this week, and I am really looking forward to hearing the composer and the violinist. 

Musicians from the Philharmonic and the Julliard played the Scherzo and the Finale of the String Octet. The Octet was composed in Berlin, 1925, when Mendelssohn was sixteen, and premiered in Leipzig, 1836. Todd said that Mendelssohn's sister explained that the Scherzo was inspired by a scene in Goethe's Faust. Happening upon a witches' Sabbath, Faust and Mephistopheles listened to an insect orchestra. The Finale, however, quotes Handel's Messiah ("And he shall reign forever and ever"), as if to balance the diabolic with the sacred, resolving the two in the end. 

The Scherzo is noteworthy for its myriad textures. At times sounding like a concerto, and other times sounding like a symphony, and yet other times sounding like two quartets playing against each other, it ranges from 8-part counterpoint to eight-part unison. Last night, the music sounded virtuosic but also passionate, and dashing. Michelle Kim, the Assistant Concertmaster of the Philharmonic, gave a scintillating performance. The music from her violin sang, whispered, and praised.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Sound Bites and High Lights

I read three of my poems on Soundzine: "Ribs," "New Year Resolution" and "Little Men." So if you want to hear how I enunciate every phoneme, check out the poems. The journal also publishes prose, video, art and photography.

The Cartier Street Review features me as their Emerging Poet, branded by my poem "Florida." I sit pretty under the smokin' hot goddess of American letters, Patricia Smith. My new book Equal to the Earth is also blurbed there as the featured release, but don't be misled by the Payday Loans cover.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Racine's "Iphigenia"

A colleague has invited me to attend a reading of Racine's "Iphigenie en Aulide," in a new English translation by Rachel Hadas. Presented by Verse Theater Manhattan, Rutgers University and Handcart Ensemble, and directed by James Milton, the reading will take place at Kirk Theater on Monday Feb 9, and is free.

I just finished reading "Iphigenia" translated by John Cairncross, the first Racine I have ever read. My first impression is that the play is a pallid thing compared to Shakespeare. The characters are rather flat, the plotting is tight but small, the imagery decorous instead of devastating. Long speeches take turns, and so the scenes lack the life-like spontaneity, the human contingency, the swelling progress, the ironic self-reflexivity of Shakespearian drama. The minor characters in "Iphigenia" are entirely negligible; in Shakespeare, even a nameless knight, in King Lear, is individualized through a brilliant speech.

Racine took Euripides for his model, and his affinity and his debt can be seen in the interest in psychological realism. How would a father-king respond when the gods demand he sacrifice his daughter for a wind to launch his ships for Troy? How would the daughter react to this divine edict and paternal command? The most interesting character of the play, however, is neither Agamemnon nor Iphigenia, but rather Eriphile.

Taken by Achilles from her homeland, Lesbos, which he destroyed, Eriphile falls in love with the ravager. She is driven by her irrational passion to betray kind Iphigenia by attempting to stop her marriage to Achilles. She is a minor Medea, in her all-consuming passion, and the play would be a much more explosive thing, more akin to Euripides, if it takes Eriphile for its protagonist.

I'll probably change this quick impression when I read more Racine, or after I attend the Verse Theatre reading.