Friday, July 31, 2009

Call for Submissions for Reginald Shepherd Memorial Poetry Prize

CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS (ONLY 3 DAYS LEFT TO ENTER): The 2009 Reginald Shepherd Memorial Poetry Prize. Final judge: Carl Phillips. Deadline: 8/1/09. Prizes include $300, $50, and $25 gift certificates to Powell's Books and publication of winning poems in Knockout.


Sunday, July 26, 2009

Change. No Change.

What has changed in Singapore: another new shopping mall, called Ion, selling more Prada and YSL and their ilk; the loss of the old National Library building to a road tunnel; Clarke Quay made-over with posh restaurants and bars, including a huge club called Zirca; bigger traffic jams; greater animus against Christian proselytizing and intolerance; specialized schools like the NUS High School for Math and Science; ever more obvious presence of mainland Chinese in service jobs, and Singaporeans who keep commenting on it.

What has not changed in Singapore: political cant; Singapore soccer team crushed by Liverpool 5-0; homophobic laws, and gays who want to let sleeping dogs lie; more private condominiums; saccharine songs in the run-up to National Day; my poems to be vetted by the government before I could read them at Indignation; the weather; over-eating.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Iris N. Schwartz's "If I Should Try to Replace the Late, Great Stella Graciella"

I'll be up in the air tonight, and come down to land only on Friday at 6.30 AM, Singapore time. In the meantime, here's a delightful poem by Iris N. Schwartz, a poet I enjoy hearing on the NYC poetry scene.

If I Should Try to Replace the Late, Great Stella Graciella

…by getting two

cats, I would name them

Eros and Thanatos.

More than likely, though,

I will adopt just one,

because I want a pet that pines

all day long for me.

A singular human-feline

bond sanctions no pussy-

footing with a third.

If I bring

home one cat,

I might name it



or Sven, because

it would be indecorous,

in the evening, calling

out for Eros

or Thanatos, alone.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Hedwig and Harry Potter

I was all ready to like Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001), but found myself disliking it. A transsexual punk woman from East Berlin tours the US with her band, playing in diners rather than clubs, as she tells the story of her life and follows an ex-lover who stole her songs and became a teen idol. What could have been a complex look at an injured soul became a me-me biopic. For Hedwig (John Cameron Mitchell, who also directed, and wrote the book with Stephen Trask), the world is divided into two camps: those who love me, and those who don't. Such narcissism is a potent subject, but the film does not acquire any distance from it for any analysis. The fall of the Berlin wall was a metaphor taken up the film sporadically. I am not a fan of punk rock, and the many numbers in the film, sung live by Mitchell over a pre-recorded band mix, did not change my mind.

I have not read Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and think that if I had done so the movie, directed by David Yates, would have felt even more somnolent. The plot is just not that gripping. Harry has to wheedle out of a new professor his memory of Tom Riddle. Malfoy plays peek-a-boo with a magic cabinet that transported the evil wizards into Hogwarts. The visuals are strong, but also feel familiar. The teenage characters are not charming or nuanced enough to make teenage romance interesting. The exceptions are Hero Fiennes-Tiffin (Tom Riddle at age 11), and Frank Dillane (Tom Riddle at age 16). The first had a compelling malevolent look; the second gave force and subtlety to his every word.

I am obviously not watching the right films.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Now I am on Brooklyn TV too

from George Spencer, the indefatigable host and producer of the Poetry Thin Air Cable Show:

Brooklyn Poets & Others;

Hopefully we are up and going with B-CAT. We will be on at 5:30 PM every Wednesday thanks to the hard work of Iris Berman, our Brooklyn Producer and Doer of Magic in organizing this.

This Wednesday is Jee Leong Koh and Miriam Stanley. They're on 35, 42, 68 and 83. If you want to watch it via the internet stream go to



2. THEN GO TO BCAT online

3. Now that you're on BCAT, LAUNCH BCAT 2 PLAYER

4. If it asks you to choose an application, check the VLC you just downloaded

5. The VLC player will pop up but the show won't play until you press the forward arrow.

Stay Tuned


Sunday, July 19, 2009

Francis Bacon at the Met

I saw again last night the huge Bacon retrospective at the Met. I had been dreading a second look because I had read some less than worshipful reviews in the meantime, and I wondered how they would affect another encounter with the works. I am glad to report that my worship has cooled down, not to disappointment, but to a strong admiration for the painter. It has become reasonable.

It is not easy to be reasonable with Bacon, because his paintings elicit--strive to elicit, in fact--visceral reactions. That contorted, broken body on the divan: if you don't submerge your eyes in its pain, you will only see the ridiculous melodrama--the faulty epistemology--of paint imitating blood and semen. It's no longer a surprise to see modern works splattered with blood and semen--and shit--but Bacon is more painterly than that. The effect must be achieved through paint. That intransigency is a strength. No collages for him, no "real-world" objects. He relies on photographs but uses them as older painters used the camera obscura. The photos do not get onto the canvas, not even in the elegaic last triptych of the exhibition, in which two headless bodies leave us through black exits, their faces painted like mugshots above the bodies. Using photos this way is a kind of triumph. It proves that photography has not made painting obsolete. More, it proves that photography has not made figurative painting obsolete, and so throws into question the apparent inevitability of the escape into abstraction.

Figurative painting, epitomized by the painting of the human figure. Bacon's bodies wrestle with each other in such a way that it's hard to tell if they are fighting or fucking. His subjects are desire and violence. Desire is violence. It is violent to the desired person, it is also violent to the desiring one. You see the first in paintings of couples, in the tributes to his lover George Dyer, who committed suicide. You see the second in paintings of solitary men in rooms, where the lack of desire--boredom--is equally violent. The impression I received reminded me of my poem "Approaching Thirtyseven," which ends with this tercet:

In the interval between sex and poetry lies death.
The freshman intuits that. Which is why he begs
for the gloved fist to enter him again and again.

Why is the human figure so horrifying in Bacon? Part of the force comes from cutting up and showing the insides, so that we are in a butcher shop when we think we are in a sanitized and conservative environment as an art gallery. Part of the force comes from the severe distortion of body parts, so that the stillest figure seems to be writhing. It has no place to rest, and this despite the constant appearance of beds, floors, divans, chairs and crosses. The painting that impressed me most on my second visit is "Studies for a Figure in a Room." The same person appears in all three parts of the triptych. In the center panel, he is twisting in a blue divan that is too big for him. In the right panel, he is about to fall off a tilting one-legged stool that is too small for him. In the left panel, he is seated in a much more stable position, but on a toilet bowl. As if to protect his privacy, he has his back to the viewer. It is entirely appropriate that the background of the triptych is unified by a brown that reminded me of shit. You want a ground of being that does not shift? Only in death and shit.

What about the famous horrifying mouths? They have been related to Mussolini, and to the Nurse in Battleship Potemkin. There are pictures of both at the Met show. I don't buy sociopolitical interpretations of Bacon, and so I think Mussolini matters less to Bacon than the Nurse. I was surprised to see that the Nurse's scream is toothless, in other words, her teeth are invisible to the viewer. There and not there, the Nurse's mouthful of teeth reminds me of the vagina dentate. Transfer that to Bacon's drawing of the mouth, for example, his early "Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion," and what you get is a monstrous cross between vagina, penis and teat (the Nurse), which bites you as you suck on it.

There is no sentimentality in Bacon. What I mean is that he does not rely on conventional values and feelings to move the viewer, not even on our usual response to bodies in pain. For that, he makes the pain again. As a creator of values, not a consumer nor an imitator, he can be reckoned to be one of the "free spirits" prophesied by Nietzsche. His paintings certainly strike me as beyond good and evil.

But there is more than one way to be unsentimental, to be truly creative. After seeing Bacon, I was compelled to see Matisse again. I needed some water after the fire. Looking at his "Three O' Clock Sitting," purchased by the Met in the last year, I was again impressed by the forcefulness of the conception, the quiet mastery. It offers a window out into the world when the room becomes too oppressive.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

New at the Morgan

Many interesting items at the exhibition, "New at the Morgan: Acquisitions since 2004." An Irving Penn photograph of T. S. Eliot has the poet seated, cross-legged, and hiding his hands behind him. Another Penn photograph has Norman Mailer sprawled on a chair, crotch defying the viewer. A Diane Arbus photo of Auden and Marianne Moore, arm-in-arm, taken at an Auden reading. A letter from Eliot to a college pal when both were in their late twenties, and Eliot was already famous includes a jokey poem about buggery at the altar. A letter from Robert Frost to Conrad Aiken about a tennis date, which reminded me his stricture against writing without meter. A letter from Henry James to Zola supporting the latter's public protest in the Dreyfus affair. An early draft of "In the White Giant's Thigh" by Dylan Thomas: his handwriting is, surprisingly, small and neat. A still life drawing, with chocolaterie, by Matisse showing the impact of van Gogh's draughtsmanship. A delicate chalk drawing of a girl's head by Watteau. And by John Sargent Singer a lovely watercolor portrait of Paul-Cesar Helleu, who painted the ceiling of Grand Central.

The other exhibition "Creating the Modern Stage: Designs for Theater and Opera" looks at the influence of Swiss designer Adolphe Appia (1862-1928) and his British follower Edward Gordon Craig (1972-1966) on modernizing stage design. Instead of illusionism, they opted for atmospheric forms and colors that evoked the emotive force of the drama. The second section of the show looks at how Central Europe, in particularly the Viennese Secession, applies their ideas, and the third section highlights the Russians. The fourth and biggest section focuses on the Americans. I like this section best, especially the drawings that combine more realistic forms with a heightened poetry. They have greater human warmth than the more purely abstract approach of the Europeans. The designer Robert Edmond Jones (1887-1954) embodies the more eclectic and amalgamated approach of the Americans, putting stage design at the service of the director's vision.

I am not a big fan of illuminated manuscripts, but "Pages of Gold" has some wonderfully bold and beautiful single leaves by the Italians. In one, a prayer for the Eucharist, the initial is decorated with a painting of the last supper. Unlike the other disciples, Judas is haloed in black, edged with scorpions. The scorpions are apparently an allusion to Augustine's idea about the minds of plotters. They remind me of Macbeth's "O full of scorpions is my mind."

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Poetry Thin Air Cable Show

A message from George Spencer, who hosts the Poetry Thin Air Cable Show. I'm on it on July 22.

Poets, Friends of Poetry Thin Air,

Tune in to our Poetry Thin Air Cable Show early Wednesday 12:30am to 1:00am (eastern time) for great interviews with George Spencer and guest poets, plus sharp video work by Mitch Corber.

This July 22, we feature Miriam Stanley and Jee Leong Koh. The show will be aired on MNN/Manhattan Neighborhood Network's Channel 67. Note: if you live outside Manhattan, or do but can't get MNN Ch 67, get the live internet stream of the show by following the instructions below.

PC USERS (2 steps)......
1. Download Windows Media Player here
2. Click on your channel 67 stream, here

MAC USERS (4 steps)......
1. Download Windows Media Player here
2. Download Flip4Mac Player for QuickTime viewing
3. Also download VLC media player from this page
4. Now, Click on your channel 67 stream,here

Stay Tuned..... George Spencer

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Nietzsche's "The Birth of Tragedy"

Nietzsche published this essay in 1872 at the age 27. He explains the birth of Greek Tragedy by focusing on the chorus, which existed before drama, and gave rise to it. The chorus, sung by satyrs, and devoted to the worship of Dionysus, was deeply associated with the god. Its dithyrambic music invited union with all of nature, and loss of individuation. When this music was cast into an image, in the form of the dramatic scenes, Tragedy was born. This clarification into image and persons Nietzsche associates with Apollo. The sweet calmness of the Greeks was Apollinian (Walter Kaufmann, the translator, follows Nietzsche's spelling), but Nietzsche's point is that we cannot fully appreciate Greek civilization if we do not understand the Dionysian passions it brought under control.

Less persuasively, Nietzsche associates the death of Greek Tragedy with Euripides. In the later playwright rose the spirit of Socrates, whose rationalism destroyed the power of the Greek myths. So Euripides' plays brought realism and psychology to the stage; they put the ordinary spectator on the stage, instead of the god speaking through the mask of Oedipus or Orestes.

Kaufmann, in his introduction to the essay, puts the relationship between Nietzsche and Schopenhauer nicely. He thinks that Nietzsche's very first book "constitutes a declaration of independence from Schopenhauer." While Nietzsche admires him for his pessimism, his facing up to the terrors of existence, Nietzsche himself celebrates Greek Tragedy as a superior alternative to Schopenhauer's "Buddhistic negation of the will." As Kaufmann puts it, "From tragedy Nietzsche learns that one can affirm life as sublime, beautiful and joyous in spite of all suffering and cruelty."

Some passages I like particularly:

The ancients themselves give us a symbolic answer when they place the faces of Homer and Achilochus, as the forefathers and torchbearers of Greek poetry, side by side on gems, sculptures, etc., with the sure feeling that consideration should be given only to these two, equally completely original, from whom a stream of fire flows over the whole of later Greek history. Homer, the aged self-absorbed dreamer, the type of the Apollinian naive artist, now beholds with astonishment the passionate head of the warlike votary of the muses, Archilochus, who was hunted savagely through life. . . . Compared with Homer, Archilochus appalls us by his cries of hatred and scorn, by his drunken outbursts of desire. Therefore is not he, who has been called the first subjective artist, essentially the non-artist? But in this case, how explain the reverence which was shown to him--the poet--in very remarkable utterances by the Delphic oracle itself, the center of "objective" art?

. . . In the first place as a Dionysian artist he has identified himself with the primal unity, its pain and contradiction. Assuming that music has been correctly termed a repetition and a recast of the world, we may say that he produces the copy of this primal unity as music. Now, however, under the Apollinian dream inspiration, this music reveals itself to him again as a symbolic dream image. The inchoate, intangible reflection of the primordial pain in music, with its redemption in mere appearance, now produces a second mirroring as a specific symbol of example. The artist has already surrendered his subjectivity in the Dionysian process. . . . The "I" of the lyrist therefore sounds from the depth of his being . . . . When Archilochus, the first Greek lyrist, proclaims to the daughter of Lycambes both his mad love and his contempt, it is not his passion alone that dances before us in orgiastic frenzy; but we see Dionysus and the Maenads . . .


In this sense the Dionysian man resembles Hamlet: both have once looked truly into the essence of things, they have gained knowledge ad nausea inhibits action; for their action could not change anything in the eternal nature of things; they feel it to be ridiculous or humiliating that they should be asked to set right a world that is out of joint. Knowledge kills action; action requires the veils of illusion: that is the doctrine of Hamlet, not that cheap wisdom of Jack the Dreamer who reflects too much and, as it were, from an excess of possibilities does not get around to action. Not reflection, no--true knowledge, an insight into the horrible truth, outweighs any motive for action, both in Hamlet and in the Dionysian man.


We talk so abstractly about poetry because all of us are usually bad poets. At bottom, the aesthetic phenomenon is simple: let anyone have the ability to behold continually a vivid play and to live constantly surrounded by hosts of spirits, and he will be a poet; let anyone feel the urge to transform himself and to speak out of other bodies and souls, and he will be a dramatist.


In the light of this insight we must understand Greek tragedy as the Dionysian chorus which ever anew discharges itself in an Apollinian world of images. Thus the choral parts with which tragedy is interlaced are, as it were, the womb that gave birth to the whole of the so-called dialogue, that is, the entire world of the stage, the real drama. In several successvie discharges this primal ground of tragedy radiates this vision of the drama which is by all means a dream apparition and to that extent epic in nature; but on the other hand, being the objectification of a Dionysian state, it represents not Apollinian redemption through mere appearances but, on the contrary, the shattering of the individual and his fusion with the primal being. Thus the drama is the Dionysian embodiment of Dionysian insights and effects and thereby separated, as by a tremendous chasm, from the epic.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Continuous suspension in the air

I first saw plans for the High Line at an Open House New York four years ago. Seeking to rescue the old freight train tracks from demolition, the plan was to transform the elevated tracks into a long narrow park winding its mid-air way, on the west side of Manhattan, from the Meatpacking District to the Clinton and Hell's Kitchen neighborhoods. The first section of the park, running from Gansevoort Street to 20th Street, opened on June 9.

I visited it yesterday, with GAPIMNY, and saw the plans turned into reality. A stone walkway running in the middle of the park guides the strollers. The slots cut into the stone at various places echo the pattern of railway ties, much of which remains by both sides of the walk. The same pattern is repeated in the many benches placed at strategic points for interesting views. The walkway widens into common spaces at a few points. One such space, provided with theater seating, overlooks 10th Avenue.

The plants flanking the walkway are ones commonly found growing along abandoned train tracks. According to the park website, many of the species originally found growing on these tracks were incorporated into the landscaping. Grasses, perennials, shrubs. They give the oxymoronic impression of lush neglect.

The tracks were deliberately built to run through the blocks, instead of over a main road. So the present park shoulders its way through some buildings, giving a level view of third or fourth floor windows of offices and homes, as well as some low rooftops. One could have seen such a view from some vantage point in some building, but before the park opened none could have seen so continuous a view suspended in mid-air. The art photos on the park website do not do justice to the novelty of this view. Perhaps only a film can.

Firsts in Death, Music, Art, and Poetry

TLS July 10, 2009

from Alex Burghat's review of Danielle Westerhof's "Death and the Noble Body in Medieval England":

The tight-knit relationship of body and soul was thought to continue even after death. The Church preached a connection between putrefaction and sin--whereas run-of-the-mill cadavers decayed, the bodies of the saints remained as incorrupt on Earth as their souls would be in Heaven. . . . Medieval nobles, Westerhof shows, extended this idea by seeking to conserve the form of their bodies, even in death. The crucial factor in this was the developing mindset of a new knightly caste which strongly valued and guarded its own physical prowess. So it was that the bodies which were preserved in life by ornate armour were, after death, preserved through embalming or (by the early thirteenth century) in stone effigy.


from Guy Dammann's review of the Aldeburgh Festival 2009:

Readers of Paul Griffiths's invaluable book Modern Music learn on the first page that modernity begins with Debussy's L'Apres-midi. Those who go on to study the subject at university will be reliably informed otherwise . . . , but they will be misinformed. There are of course lots of different ways to understand what constitutes musical modernity. The Second Viennese School's atonal sublimation of the Austro-German symphonic technique of developing vairations is one conception of it. But it is one whose musicological sway and influence have done some damage. Composers have often looked at the problem in other ways. For example, the sense of significant inevitability we think of as musical "logic" can, in non-tonal music, have sources other than thematic development; it may reside in the exploration of the implications of (non-tonal) harmony and timbre. In this respect, Debussy's L'Apres-midi and the lugubrious passions unearthed in the passage of the its arabesque are as good a starting point for considerations of the modern as any other.


from Christopher Stace's review of Samuel Y. Edgerton's The Mirror, he Window and the Telescope:

In or around 1425, Brunelleschi sat in the entrance to the Duomo in Florence and drew a picture of the eastern aspect of the Baptistery. This little panel is now lost, but its importance is inestimable, because it was the first time that the rules of linear perspective had been applied to painting. The principles had been known since Euclid, and there is abundant evidence of "empirical perspective" in earlier art (those diapered pavements and coffered ceilings sloping away to create an idea of depth): but these early works contained no true perspective, only an instinctive, unscientific impression of it.


from Jonathan Bate's Commentary piece on Algernon Charles Swinburne:

It could quite reasonably be argued that Swinburne was not merely the prophet of twentieth-century sexual revolution but the person who first gave open voice in the English language to the joys of lesbianism. . . . It is hard to imagine that the work of the lesbian poet "Michael Field" (Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper) would have been possible without Swinburne's role in shaping what his most dazzling modern interpreter, Yopie Prins, has called "Victorian Sappho".


. . . Yopie Prins wonders whether there is a suggestive connection between the beat of the birch and that of the verse. if Swinburne's two abiding memories of Eton were Greek prosody and the flogging block, is it surprising that he should have become both a masochist and a master-metrician?


"He does not, like another poet, have to think in his metre: his mastery compels the metre to think for him . . . . In each poem the rhythm and the arrangement of rhymes give the form a richness, a clear tangibility, which must be enjoyed for its own sake if a full half of the poem is not to be lost." Thus Edward Thomas on Poems and Ballads, in the astute critical book on Swinburne (Algernon Charles Swinburne: A critical study). . .


. . . on the centenary of his deth anyone with a taste for the high lyric tradition owes him at the very least the "Ave Atque Vale" in which he tendered to Baudelaire:

For thee, O now, a silent soul, my brother,
Take at my hands this garland, and farewell.
This is the leaf, and chill the wintry smell,
And chill the solemn earth, a fatal mother,
With sadder than the Niobean womb,
And in the hollow of her breasts a tomb.
Content thee, howso'er, whose days are done;
There lies not any troublous thing before,
Nor sight nor sound to war against thee more,
For whom all winds are quiet as the sun,
All waters as the shore.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Indignation V

Singapore's pride month, Indignation V, will take place from 30 July to 30 August 2009. The month-long celebration includes film screenings, plays, art shows, discussion panels, talks and literary readings. I will be reading from Equal to the Earth at the opening reception on August 1 (Sat).

That evening will also celebrate the launch of a booklet entitled "Coming Out" by Sayoni, the women's group, as well as the premiere of a short firm entitled "The Same Ties That Bind."

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Not Live but Interrupted

On June 25 the National Theatre broadcast live its production of Racine's Phedre to 73 cinemas in London and 200 more around the world. I watched the film, with TCH and HS, at the BAM last Thursday. Not live, alas, but we still enjoyed the infrequent interruptions of satellite transmission. The show was sold-out, even after a second smaller cinema was opened to accommodate the excitement.

I think it is fair to say that the audience was less than impressed after the show. There was little spontaneous applause, unlike the enthusiasm reported by the Guardian's reviewer watching it live in London's Chelsea Cinema. I don't think the scattered applause at the BAM was due to the convention of not clapping after a movie. I have seen audiences clap wildly after a terrific film. The response was lukewarm towards the production itself.

Helen Mirren playing the Queen who has fallen in love with her step-son was good, but not revelatory. Her first entrance struck a note of such emotional intensity that there was little room for it to grow, though she had plenty of reasons for it in the course of the play. I like her best in the scene in which she learned that Hippolytus was not as chaste as she had believed, but had fallen in love with Aricia. Mirren made jealousy real in her body, face and voice in a way she did not quite manage with concealed overwhelming passion.

Dominic Cooper as Hippolytus was good looking enough for the part, though HS disagreed, citing how his facial features seemed squished in a too-small face. My complaint was that he looked too slender and gentle to be a breaker of horses, and a would-be slayer of monsters. He was also posing more than he was acting, though he got better later in the play. Ruth Negga's Aricia was skinny but fiery. I was distracted by Margaret Tyzack's lisping as Oenone, Phedre's servant. Theseus, as played by Stanley Townsend, seemed to come from a different play altogether; TCH said he acted as if he were doing opera.

John Shrapnel delivered a captivating rendition of the big final speech when he described the death of Hippolytus. The poetry is Ted Hughes', who translated Racine's hexameters into free verse with some iambic pentameters thrown in. The Independent reviewer trashed the production for not using a translation more faithful to Racine. The Guardian reviewer praised the broadcast experiment for making theater a less elite and more democratic art form.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Autolatria, Fantasia and Habit

TLS July 3 2009

from Peter Hainsworth's review of SONGBOOK: The selected poems of Umberto Saba, translated by George Hochfield and Leonard Nathan:

Poets usually write about themselves, even when they are pretending not to. But few can have put themselves forward quite so much as Umberto Saba, the Triestine writer who has sometimes been rated one of Italy's best poets of the twentieth century and who, in his own opnion, was quite simply the greatest since Leopardi. What is strange is that the more you read Saba, the less the "autolatria" or self-worship, as Montale called it, seems off-putting. Rather than self-aggrandizement, it comes over more as an unstable, knowing series of self-projections, which the reader is implicitly asked to recognize and sympathize with and which, when everything goes well, give rise to poetry.


In 1921 Saba gathered together the considerable body of work he had already published as his Canzioniere, literally perhaps Songbook as Hochfield and Nathan have it, but suggesting in Italian an organized collected poems on the Petrarchan model with strong autobiographical overtones. The final version would not come out until 1948 . . . .


from Joseph Farrell's review of Italo Calvino's THE COMPLETE COSMICOMICS, translated by William Weaver, Tim Parks and Martin L. McLaughlin:

Calvino was a master of fantasia in the double sense of the Italian word: fantasy and imagination. All his life he was attracted by the genre of fantasy and displayed a creative imagination which raised him above his contemporaries.


The availability for the first time in English of all the tales that can be grouped under the cosmicomic heading can only enhance Calvino's standing. He returned to these idiosyncratic themes several times during his life, publishing new collections, rewriting or modifying previous versions, dropping some tales, adding others and reordering the works to give them greater coherence. While most of the tales were written and published in the period 1963-8, the last few appeared in 1984.


from Mark Vernon's review of Felix Ravaisson's OF HABIT, translated by Clare Carlisle and Mark Sinclair:

Ravaisson reconceives the nature of habit so that it does no jeopardize freedom, but rather represents a shift in the status of freedom, from that of idea to being. . . . Ravaisson redefines what is second nature to us in habit by arguing that habit is not a barrier of ignorance, but an embodied intelligence. Habit can be understanding by other means. To do so, he draws on the Aristotelian understanding of habit as a way of being, and suggests a third way between physical and mental conceptions of consciousness--a synthesis that may interest contemporary philosophers of mind: habit can be thought of as medicating between instinct and will.

Ravaisson proceeds by a completely general analysis of movement, which locates him in the world of nineteenth-century science. This may seem anachronistic today. Nonetheless, it allows him to conceive of movement as a means of engaging increasingly more profoundly with the world as a hierarchy of being which rises from inanimate existence to living and then conscious beings. "[For], although movement, as it becomes a habit, leaves the sphere of will and reflection, it does not leave that of intelligence . . . [it becomes] the effect of an inclination that follows from the will . . . [and] every inclination towards a goal implies intelligence."

Kartika Review's Inaugural Year Print Anthology

Asian American literary journal Kartika Review publishes its inaugural year print anthology. You can preview and buy the book here. I have a poem in it, "Childhood Punishments," which the journal nominated for the Pushcart. Fiction is edited by Christine Lee Zilka, Poetry by Sunny Woan, and Non-Fiction by Jason Wong.

From the journal website:

Kartika Review launched in September of 2007 as a national non-profit journal in support of the Asian American literary and arts community. We focus our efforts in two main directions: first, on challenging writers to bring forth innovative work that transforms preconceived limitations of "the multi-culti narrative" and second, on presenting creative writing that will cause readers to reconsider those preconceived limitations of "the multi-culti narrative."

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Toni Morrison's "Beloved"

The novel is a brutal indictment of slavery. Its protagonist, Sethe, a runaway slave, tries to kill her children when their owner catches up with them, and she succeeds in killing a daughter. Beloved haunts Sethe's house 124, first as a ghost, and then, when Paul D, Sethe's fellow slave at Sweet Home, chases it out, returns in person. And so the plot itself embodies the novel's truth: slavery is not over even when it is over. Its horrific effects continue to lash the freed, who will never be free.

The novel moves by visiting and revisiting the past, as one character, and then another, recalls ("rememories") their enslaved life at Sweet Home, their escape, their attempt to live as freed slaves (to lay down the sword and shield, as the novel puts it). Common memories, of great pain and sorrow, bind those who share them, and exclude those who don't. Different memories delineate the different experiences of men and women, and so encompass different kinds of savagery. Sethe giving birth to Denver in the open, with the help of a poor white girl. Paul D working in a chain gang. Baby Suggs, Sethe's mother-in-law, freed by her son's permanent enslavement. Stamp Paid giving up his wife to his master's son.

The one memory that sets Sethe apart from all the others is the memory of killing Beloved. The drama in the novel lies not only in her struggle with that memory, but also in the struggle of the others with the fact of the deed. Paul D, a figure from the common past, appears to offer Sethe a way out of that past, but he could not accept her when he learns of her deed. When he does accept her, at the end of the novel, I do not understand how he could have done so. The plot offers no reason. Perhaps he rejected her at first out of guilt for sleeping with Beloved. But that diminishes the moral disgust he expressed over the murder, and the more diminished the romantic obstacle is, the less noble and satisfying the final reconciliation. The ending of the novel strikes me as wishful thinking. The man, who fucked her dead daughter, who abandoned her, walks right back into the house and saves the dying woman.

My other reservation is inextricable from the aesthetic power of the book. In externalizing the consequences of Sethe's murder, through the figure of Beloved, the novel shows how actual our struggle with the past is. The novel loses by that means, however, the opportunity to depict the flickering light of consciousness. The drama is outside, not inside. Beloved is finally exorcised by a group of praying women, and not by any subtle but vital change of mind. When the characters speak of their inside, they "rememory" in the form of already coherent narratives. That is why the four brief "chapters" written in stream-of-consciousness technique stick out. They are not organic to the more traditional storytelling in the rest of the novel.

They are also not organic to the novel's dominant view of people, that people are moral beings, rather than psychological beings. At its least subtle that moral perspective creates unbelievable innocents like Halle, who buys his mother's freedom by paying a lifetime of Sunday work. Most of the time, however, that moral perspective is capable of fine distinctions. For instance, the Garners, owners of Sweet Home, may treat their slaves benevolently, but they are still masters of that universe. The moral perspective at work is consonant with the moral question of Sethe's infanticide, as well as the moral condemnation of slavery. Having chosen such a focus and such an intention, the novel, in adopting a moral perspective, is only being true to its focus and intention. To depict in a psychological manner the white schoolteacher who bridled Paul D's mouth with iron, lynched Paul A, burned Sixo to death would have muddied the moral purpose of the novel; it would offend our moral sense. That is the difficulty of approaching the topic of slavery any other way.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

How Not To Be Inclusive

Drunken Boat celebrates its 10th anniversary by publishing ten folios of work, ranging from electronic arts to tribal people. Four of my poems appear in the folio, Arts in Asia. The folio presents a corollary to the anthology, Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from Asia, the Middle East & Beyond, edited by Ravi Shankar, Tina Chang and Nathalie Handal. So electronic folio and printed book combine to form a kind of hybrid monster.

In his introduction to the folio, Shankar explains that the editors do not intend the book-folio to be "canonical the way cages are," but "open-ending, a pointing outwards rather than a closing down." His key words are inclusiveness and capaciousness. However, I think the choice of media is somewhat at odds with editorial intentions. A book, no matter how big, cannot be all-inclusive, and so it dictates a selection, and therefore a principle of selection. I have not read the anthology, but the folio's introduction does not give a principle of selection. On the other hand, an electronic folio is conceivably all-inclusive--and certainly more accessible than a book--but, having that technological capacity, why publish a book, with its material exclusiveness?

The fact of the matter is, as I see it, all-inclusiveness is an editorial chimera. You can include all Asian and Middle Eastern poets in a huge database, but few would want to read an indiscriminate hodgepodge collection of writings. Poets need to be evaluated, and to be contextualized, so that their selection means something more than a contribution to inclusiveness. The poets in the Arts in Asia folio, however, are arranged according to alphabetical order. This appears to me like an abdication of editorial duty. One may argue that such an arbitrary order facilitates encountering each poet on his own terms. But we never encounter a poet purely on his own terms. Not only does he write in a context, the reader brings with him his reading context as well. These contexts constitute the "thick" meaning of the poets, who otherwise, arranged arbitrarily, look rather "thin."

Perhaps the anthology provides such contexts, such explanations for the choice of poets. I don't know. The folio's introduction is dominated by the rhetoric of inclusiveness. This rhetoric reflects the American perspective of the anthology's editors. I call the imperative American because I suspect it does not have the same force or place in the poetries of Asia and the Middle East. The countries that most nearly embrace that aesthetic/editorial ideal are also the ones most influenced by the USA. For instance, Singapore (I am thinking here of the recent Singapore-Australia anthology Over There). I am of course implicated by my desire to be published in an American, that is, prestigious, journal. My desire is an indication of the reach of American cultural influence, represented materially by the book and folio, and geographically by the huge number of countries covered.

By appearing to criticize the editors, I may seem to be biting the hands that feed me. I am not. I think it is vital to think through what inclusiveness means, what it encompasses and excludes, and what are the difficulties of trying to understand the Other.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Facebook Page and Rainbow Reviews

I set up a Facebook Page for Bench Press this morning. If you have a Facebook account, you can be a Fan of the press by clicking here

JS tipped me off about Rainbow Reviews. A review site for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered books, it publishes new reviews every Sunday. Guidelines for author submission can be found on the website. It also has a separate authors promotion blog.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

J. Bronowski's "The Ascent of Man"

Based on the BBC television series of the same name, The Ascent of Man charts the development of human civilization through the lens of scientific progress. Though clearly intended to be only an introduction to its subjects, the book is tremendously wide in scope, taking in paleontology, architecture, alchemy, industrialization, quantum physics and genetics; noticeably, it has little to say about psychology. It is organised in powerful thematic chapters that are also more or less chronological. So it begins by looking at human fossils in Chapter 1 Lower than the Angels, and ends by discussing John von Neumann and game theory in Chapter 13 The Long Childhood. Since the book was published in 1973, I expect its discussion of contemporary science (and perhaps historical events and figures) needs updating. But, as the chapter titles suggest, the book is not so much concerned with presenting up-to-date facts as with creating "a philosophy for the twentieth century which shall be all of one piece" (from the Foreword). 

It is a philosophy that puts man at the center of things. He is, in this book, the seeker of knowledge, and seek using the tools of observation, reasoning, and conversation. I guess the philosophy can be called scientific rationalism. And one of the many achievements of this lucid and learned book is to restore the viability of this view. It does so by not ignoring the fall-out from technological progress, whether it be the harsh factories of the Industrial Revolution or the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagaski. It does so also by reminding us of the responsible actions taken by some industrialists and innovators in their respective situations, and so proves its point that science was not to blame, but man's uses of it were. Related to this, Bronowski deplores what he calls "the aristocracy of the intellect," scientists who move away from the needs of people, and into the arms of government, industry and corporations. Bronowski calls for, instead, "a democracy of the intellect." By that he means a society that not only allows the specialist to do specialist things, but also educates the non-specialists like us on how nature works. 

Jacob Bronowski was a British mathematician, biologist, poet and playwright. In reflection of the different facets of his mind, his prose is clear, organizing, poetic, with a strong feel for the dramatic illustration or detail. I read all 438 pages of the book in the course of two leisurely days. The accompanying pictures are often revelatory as well. At his death in 1974, a year after the publication of the book, he was a Fellow of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, La Jolla, California.

Some passages I particularly enjoyed: 

Yet Jericho has several features which make it historically unique and give it a symbolic status of its own. Unlike the forgotten villages elsewhere, it is monumental, older than the Bible, payer upon layer of history, a city. The ancient sweet-water city of Jericho was an oasis on the edge of the desert whose spring has been running from prehistoric times right into the modern city today. Here wheat and water came together and, in that sense, here man began civilization. Here, too, the bedouin came with their dark muffled faces out of the desert, looking jealously at the new way of life. That is why Joshua brought the tribes of Israel here on their way to the Promised Land--because wheat and water, they make civilization; they make the promise of a land flowing with milk and honey. Wheat and water turned that barren hillside into the oldest city of the world.


From an early time man made tools by working the stone. Sometimes the stone had a natural grain, sometimes the tool-maker created the lines of cleave by learning how to strike the stone. It may be that the idea comes, in the first place, from splitting woof, because wood is a material with a visible structure which opens easily along the grain, but which is hard to shear across the grain. And from that simple beginning man pries open the nature of things and uncovers the laws that the structure dictates and reveals.


The invention is a new form of the arch based not on the circle, but on the oval. This does not seem a great change, but yet its effect on the articulation of buildings is spectacular. Of course, a pointed arch is higher, and therefore opens more space and light. But, much more radically, the thrust of the Gothic arch makes it possible to hold the space in a new way, as at Rheims. The load is taken off the walls, which can therefore be pierced with glass, and the total effect is to hang the building like a cage from the arched roof. The inside of the building is open, because the skeleton is outside.


We have to understand that the world can only be grasped by action, not by contemplation. The hand is more important than the eye. . . . Henry Moore calls this sculpture The Knife Edge. The hand is the cutting edge of the mind. Civilization is not a collection of finished artefacts; it is the elaboration of processes. In the end, the march of man is the refinement of the hand in action. 


So when the alchemists tried to transmute base metals into gold, the transformation that they sought in the fire was from the corruptible to the incorruptible; they were trying to extract the quality of permanence from the everyday. And this was the same as the search for eternal youth: every medicine to fight old age contained gold, metallic gold, as an essential ingredient, and the alchemists urged their patrons to drink from gold cups to prolong life.


Pythagoras was a philosopher, and something of a religious figure to his followers as well. The fact is there was in him something of that Asiatic influence which flows all through Greek culture and which we commonly overlook. We tend to think of Greece as part of the west; but Samos, the edge of classical Greece, stands one mile from the coast of Asia Minor. From there much of the thought that inspired Greece first flowed; and, unexpectedly, it flowed back to Asia in the centuries after, before ever it reached Western Europe.


The Alhmabra is the last and the most exquisite monument of Arab civilization in Europe. The last Moorish king reigned here until 1492 . . . . It is a honeycomb of courts and chambers, and the Sala de las Camas is the most secret place in the palace. Here the girls from the harem came after the bath and recline, naked. Blind musicians played in the gallery, the eunuchs padded about. And the Sultan watched from above, and sent an apple down to signal to the girl of his choice that she would spend the night with him.


A ship indeed is a kind of model of a star. How does a star ride through space, and how do we know what time it keeps? The ship is a starting point for thinking about relative time.


The experiment was done by a young man called H. J. Hay at Harwell. He imagined the earth squashed flat into a plate, so that the North Pole is at the centre and the equator runs round the rim. he put a radio-active clock on the rim and another at the centre of the plate and let it turn. The clocks measure time statistically by counting the number of radio-active atoms that decay. And sure enough, the clock at the rim of Hay's plate keeps time more slowly than the clock at the centre. That goes on in every spinning plate, on every turntable. At this moment, in every revolving gramophone disc, the centre is ageing faster than the rim with every tun.


When energy is degraded, said [Ludwig] Boltzmann, it is the atoms that assume a more disorderly state. And entropy is a measure of disorder: that is the profound conception that came from Boltzmann's new interpretation. 


Heisenberg called this the Principle of Uncertainty. In one sense, it is a robust principle of the everyday. We know that we cannot ask the world to be exact. If an object (a familiar face, for example) had to be exactly the same before we recognise it, we would never recognise it from one day to the next. We recognise the object to be the same because it is much the same; it is never exactly like it was, it is tolerably like. In the act of recognition, a judgment is built in--an area of tolerance or uncertainty. So Heisenberg's principle says that no events, not even atomic events, can be described with certainty, that is, with zero tolerance. What makes the principle profound is that Heisenberg specifies the tolerance that can be reached. The measuring rod is Max Planck's quantum. In the world of the atom, the area of uncertainty is always mapped out by the quantum. 


It is obvious that sex has a very special character for human beings. It has a special biological character. Let us take one simple, down-to-earth criterion for that: we are the only species in which the female has orgasms. That is remarkable, but it is so. It is a mark of the fact that in general there is much less difference between men and women . . . than there is in other species. . . . In the language of biology, sexual dimorphism is small in the human species.

So much for biology. But there is a point on the borderline between biology and culture which really marks the symmetry in sexual behavior, I think, very strikingly. It is an obvious one. We are the only species that copulates face to face, and this is universal in all cultures. 

Friday, July 03, 2009

PN Review and Chroma

Six of my "Translations of an Unknown Mexican Poet" appear in PN Review 188 (July-August 2009). The current issue is not online, but you can buy it there. If you subscribe to the website, you will find a rich archive of past issues. I am inordinately pleased about this publication. I do see myself writing primarily in, and out of, the English poetic tradition (hello, Shakespeare, Keats, Auden, Larkin, and Gunn!), and this publication makes a private conversation public to an English readership. Serendipitously, the "Translations" are written in the form of English sonnets.

A British connection: Chroma, Britain's leading gay lit/art journal, published a long, glowing review of Ganymede #4. It mentions generously all photographers and writers, and this is what it says about my poems:

It’s fitting that Jee Leong Koh’s poetry follows after Panichi’s photographs as Koh is in a dialogue with the visual arts as well. Simmering with violence and bodily harm, Koh’s poetry hints at a dangerous past that makes itself felt in the movements of everyday life. Some of this poetry also seeks to create a self portrait while referring to specific artists, filtering their style into the poet’s unique form of self expression. Within his poems the body is annihilated to declare an individual is not simply defined by his physical form alone. Koh skilfully uses his artistic ancestors as a touchstone to understand himself.

The poems the reviewer read are "Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion," "Supper at le Monde" and "Seven Studies for a Self-Portrait." I am not sure how he detected "the body is annihilated to declare an individual is not simply defined by his physical form alone," since such a declaration is not part of my intention. In fact, my poetry doesn't make any declarations. How can I when I am still busy investigating?

Lynn Nottage's "Ruined"

Last night TCH and I watched this harrowing play, directed by Kate Whoriskey, put up by Manhattan Theatre Club, at New York City Center Stage 1.

Based on interviews with the women victims of Congo's civil war, the play trains the spotlight on Mama Nadi (played by Portia) who runs a bar-and-brothel in a small mining town. The girls recruited to please the soldiers and miners are already victims of rape, and "ruin." The play does not make clear the difference between rape and ruin, but suggests that ruin involves some kind of genital mutilation beyond that of gang rape. Scarred and traumatized themselves, the girls invite the soldiers to "forget their regrets," as one song puts it (all lyrics also written by Nottage), in the bar. A shelter of sorts, the bar is soon invaded by the surrounding war.

What makes the bar so richly symbolic is that it is not only a shelter from violence, it is also a sanctuary from love, and its painful rejections. If violence cracks the bar open to the realities of war, it also opens the bar to the possibility of love. The plot turns on the actions of love, the first a devastation, the second a salvation.

I am not sure why but I remained very detached from the action on stage before intermission. Perhaps the material is so dark I found myself resisting any artistic treatment of it. Or else I was being self-protective. But I could not suspend my disbelief. The actors were stubbornly actors play-acting. In the second half, however, the play dissolved my doubts, and absorbed me. The point at which this began to happen was Sophie's monologue. I was unimpressed by Susan Heyward (an understudy) up to that point, but the relative artlessness of the monologue drew me in. She narrated very simply how a group of soldiers, after raping her, tied her in a forest clearing, "like a goat," to cook and wash and satisfy them sexually. After she escaped, her village rejected her for being "ruined," and her husband, ashamed of her, chased her out. She was probably telling the story of someone's actual experience.

The other two girls who work in the bar are Salima (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) and Josephine (Cherise Booth). Both actors were good, if a little one-dimensional. Portia, who played Mama Nadi, came to life for me in the second half of the play. The revelation was Russell G. Jones, who played Christian, the trader who wooed Mama Nadi. Nicknamed the Professor, he was, in a sense, the heart and mind of the play, but filled his role with such vulnerable swagger that he was entirely believable. The men who played rebel and government commanders were suitably frightening but adhered to that label.

It was a tight and interesting production, by Donald Fried. The set, designed by Derek McLane, surrounded the relative openness of the bar with the encroaching trees, and so nicely reinforced the significance of Mama Nadi's place.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Launch of Bench Press

Bench Press: poetry that exerts pressure at every point, and so achieves a momentary rest

Bench Press, an independent publisher of poetry, will be launched on July 4, 2009. On that day its website will go "live," and unveil its logo.

The press is pleased to announce its first title: Jee Leong Koh's Equal to the Earth.

Of Koh's book, Vijay Seshadri writes: "Jee Leong Koh is a vigorous, physical poet very much captured by the expressive power of rhythm, rhetoric, and the lexicon. He is also, paradoxically, a poet in pursuit of the most elusive and delicate human emotions. The contradiction is wonderful and compelling, and so are the poems."

You can read and hear a poem from the book on the press website, and purchase a copy of the book. 

Thank you.