Showing posts from August, 2009

Eshuneutics' hermetical takes on "Equal to the Earth"

What little I have learned about hermeticism, I have learned it from Eshuneutics' blog. He has written about Equal to the Earth in three separate posts, each highlighting a different hermetical aspect of my writing, by looking at an individual poem. His post Sea reads that image in the book and in the poem "Fire Island." Androgyne interprets my poem "Brother" rightly against Plato's Symposium. Mermen looks at the poem of the same name, contrasting its use of hermetical imagery with Simon Lowy's.

Matthew Gavin Frank"s "Sagittarius Agitprop"

Unable--or, unwilling?--to distinguish between a muskrat and a wheelbarrow ("Zodiac"), these poems perform metaphoric transformations, at times with blinding speed. "Saucer" begins:
Here is the saucer upon which my father's head pools like coffee. He's beyond medication. The hummingbirds have overtaken him, bricking his smile with sugarcubes.
There is precise observation:
The mosquito wrinkles against the glass ("Mirror")
There is magnification. About Brussels sprouts, Frank, who also authored a food-and-wine memoir Barolo, writes:
Architecturally-correct, each is a habitat with staircases.
My favorite poem of this debut collection is one I wish I have written. "The Dressmaker's Dummy" begins with a description so sensitive it turns spiritual:
She stands
as if nobly eviscerated, rib- cage inflated as a balloon, a balloon's
skeleton, a mold, a blueprint . . .
and develops with an anecdote about his wife in a thrift store, sensing "female k…

"Passing Strange," the Movie

TB and I watched this Spike Lee film at the IFC last night. He spliced together his filming of the last three performances of the similarly-titled Broadway show, created by rock musicians Stew and his partner Heidi Rodewald.
The story, loosely based on Stew's life, is simple but well-told: young African American man leaves his middle-class South Central Los Angeles Baptist home for Europe in search of art and "the real." Amsterdam gives him "the keys" to a druggy, sexy paradise, but when love calls, he escapes to Berlin where he encounters nihilism, and, in order to belong, passes for "ghetto black."
The story ends with him returning to LA for his mother's funeral, where he realizes the value of real love. The message is finally conservative, though the resolution, with its rousing music, still packs an emotional punch. We seek the real in art, because we miss the real in life. For an artist, passing as an existential condition, perhaps. Behind &…

The Long Wait

"Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu," so begins the Prologue to Ha Jin's novel Waiting (1999). The beginning must rank as one of the most striking openings in English-language fiction. Persuaded by his parents, Lin married Shuyu so that she could look after them in the country. But the army doctor working in the city falls in love with Manna Wu, a nurse, who returns his feelings, and so condemns herself to wait for the divorce. The novel traces waiting's terrible and quotidian effects on love.
Manna Wu reminds me of another lover who waits for years, Florentina Ariza in Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera. However Ariza maintains his idealistic passion for Fermina Daza, mostly because, I think, he does not have much contact with the beloved through the years. Distance enables one to keep up one's illusions. There can be no distance in the army hospital. No distance between the lovers who work together. No distance bet…

Steven Cantor's "What Remains: the Life and Work of Sally Mann"

Sally Mann, The Perfect Tomato, 1990

Since it is moving pictures, a film necessarily captures--produces--a process. It turns photographs into the making of photographs. It joins moments ("spots of time") into a Life. This I expected watching Cantor's documentary on Sally Mann's creation of the exhibit "What Remains." So photographs of a long-dead beloved greyhound "lead" to photographs of the Civil War battlefield of Antietam, to photographs of Mann's Virginian farm bloodied by the police killing of a runaway convict, to photographs of decomposing bodies in a forensic study site, as if each group of pictures forms an independent yet preparatory stage in the creative process.
What I did not expect to see is the influence of the film-making on the photography itself. Mann begins to think of her exhibit as a "narrative," and wants the narrative of death to end on a more uplifting note. With such an idea in mind, she takes close-up pictur…

Chen Ruoxi's "The Execution of Mayor Yin"

I've been putting together a mini spring course for my seniors, a course on the Chinese short story. I settled on the rather arbitrary number of three writers. Having read Li Yu (Ming-Qing) and Lu Xun (Republican era) at Sarah Lawrence, I know I would want to discuss their consummate and subversive artistry in class. I want a modern woman writer to complete the trio, and Chen Ruoxi fits the bill perfectly. I did not know her work until WL pointed me to her.
The Execution of Mayor Yin and Other Stories from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution is a collection of eight stories. They tell, in a powerful and subtle manner, how Mao's disastrous experiment affected--destroyed--the lives of ordinary people. Their dominant tone is not denunciatory or self-righteous, but empathetic and observant when narrated in the third person, and self-protectively detached or complicit when narrated in the first. Many of the narrators share Chen's background: a former overseas scholar who …

Hermes reads "Brother"

Eshuneutics gives the best reading of my poem "Brother" so far. Read the poem first, before the post. That I did not know of hermeticism before I met Eshu is an argument for, rather than against, the validity of his interpretation.

The Death of Art and the Art of Death

What drives artists to destroy their chosen medium? Why "compose" noise? Why paint anti-paintings? Sure, old artistic conventions must be destroyed to create new ones. That is the dynamic of original creation. Strong poets "misread" their strong predecessors, is one way of putting it. But some artists seem bent on smashing not just conventions, but the medium itself. They want to strike at the fundamentals. So Ad Reinhard, who created his black paintings in the last decade of his life, wrote, "There is something wrong, irresponsible and mindless about color; something impossible to control. Control and rationality are part of my morality."
Michael Scott, whose solo exhibition I saw at the Gering & Lopez Gallery yesterday, was inspired by Reinhard to create his early series of "target" paintings. The series, consisting of black and white concentric circles that appear identical with only slight variations, was intended to remove "judgmen…

"Borstal Boy" the movie (2000)

Directed by Peter Sheridan, the movie about an IRA member finding love in a prison is somewhat sentimental. And somewhat unrealistic too, I thought, until I found out that it is "inspired by," though not based on, the autobiography of Brendan Behan, Irish freedom fighter and writer. Behan was from the educated working class. His father read Zola, Maupassant and Galsworthy to him at bedtime; his mother brought the children on literary tours of their city, Dublin. But the only thing we learn from the movie about his background is that his father is a house painter. So when the movie Behan (Shawn Hatosy) put on a barn performance of "The Importance of Being Earnest" and start reading and writing poetry, he is the terrorist who discovers his sensitive side.
While the love that develops between Behan and fellow jailbird Charlie Milwall (Danny Dyer) feels overly romanticized, there is something touching in the performance of both young actors. Part of this is due to their…

Four Poems in ArLiJo

Previously unpublished in any journal, four poems from my book Equal to the Earth are reprinted in the Arlington Literary Journal. ArLiJo is sponsored by Gival Press and edited by Robert L. Giron.
From the website:

The intent of ArLiJo is to feature a variety of authors/poets/artists from around the globe whose work provokes readers to comtemplate issues, etc.

In this spirit, the editor, Robert L. Giron, invites authors/poets/artists to share their work which promotes understanding and sensitvity across borders, even if initially the work may cause one to take a double-take.

From the cultures of curiosity

TLS August 14 2009
from Jim Endersby's review of The Scientific Correspondence of Sir Joseph Banks, 1765-1820, edited by Neil Chambers:
Sweden's commercial interests had pesuaded Linnaeus that new, simpler and more accurate names were needed in order to ensure that botanists' time and money were well spent. [Joseph] Banks shared these concerns, and the adoption of the new names marked an important shift away from the cultures of curiosity, within which gentlemen like Banks had traditionally operated. Until the mid-eighteenth century, educated virtuosi such as Banks had collected anything and everything that was rare and curious; the practical uses of such collections were beneath a gentleman's notice. However, Linnaeus's standardized names were intended to put the plant world to work, to transform rare flowers into commodities that could be bought and sold, traded and transplanted. Linnaeus's names allowed accurate communication between naturalists around the wor…

Nietzsche's "Thus Spoke Zarathustra"

Just finished reading this weird hybrid of philosophy, biography, myth and poetry. The cross-breeding (or -bleeding) of genres makes the book sound like a monstrous plant from a hothouse or an alchemical tome from a monastery. It is not. It is a book conceived while striding on mountains. It is best read in the open air, as I did, much of it, in Central Park, American elms arching above the Literary Walk to form the vaulted ceiling of a cathedral.
From one perspective (and Nietzsche is very much--essentially?--about perspectives), the book can be seen as a parody--a competitor--of the gospels. So Part 1 begins with Zarathustra "going under" from the mountain to the marketplace to preach to the people. Much of the book is made up of these "sermons," often in the form of parables. (Part 4 is different in that it is a continuous narrative.) And like Jesus, Zarathustra gathers round him disciples, is tested by various trials, provides a last supper, and receives a fina…

A life in musicals

Band of Thebes directed me to this Guardian article "A life in musicals: Arthur Laurents." Two snippets:
The vicissitudes of Hollywood defy analysis, he says, but Broadway shows go wrong for the same reasons. When the script for the musical Wicked was in development, the producers came to Laurents for advice. He told them they didn't know what the show was about. "They said, yes, it's about Oz. I said no it isn't. I said it's about the friendship of two girls. I said start tracking that. That whole thing made the show an enormous success."
He wrote a play a week for army radio, where he learned economy and banished the notion that "length equals importance". His single greatest discovery was that "emotions precede thought, emotions determine thought; plays are emotions".
Full article.

Rob A. Mackenzie's "The Opposite of Cabbage"

In Scottish poet Rob A. Mackenzie's debut book of poems, "opposites collide--reality and delusion, political activism and apathy, friend and enemy, life and death." The voice that registers these collisions is by turns satirical, probing, tender, and always entertaining. He stops at this blog for the final stop of his virtual book tour to answer some questions. You can read here a good number of the poems we discuss.

Jee: At an earlier stop on your book tour, you said that you spent quite a bit of time deciding on the first and last poems of the collection. “Light Storms from a Dark Country” is a strong atmospheric start to the book, to my mind. “Freak lightning tears its jack-knife/ through the sky” is such a menacing image. What made you decide to begin your first book with this poem? The last poem “The Scuffle” is, aptly, about endings. What is it about a fox attacking a teabag in a garden that makes it so attractive as the book’s final image?
Rob: Quite a few poems vi…

Solutio and Singapore

Eshuneutics reviews my poems Equal to the Earth, focusing on the alchemical meaning of the sea.(A longer review is forthcoming.) Harry Rutherford reads my book as part of the Read the World Challenge. So, for one, I am the Solutio, for another, I am Singapore. Coincidentally, both live in the UK. What do we make of this?

Frank Lloyd Wright: From Within Outward

The Guggenheim celebrates the golden anniversary of its landmark building by mounting an exhibition of its architect's work. Wright (1867-1959) died six months before the opening of the museum. The building, conceived as a temple of art, is a beautiful articulation of interior as free flowing space.
I discovered I did not like, however, Wright's architectural style in the main. In designing vast (unbuilt) projects like the Crystal City for Washington D.C. (1940) and Plan for Greater Baghdad (1957), which includes a university and an opera house, the use of plinth and ziggurat struck me as grandiose. The concern for geometry, for sculptural forms, seemed to dominate other considerations. The plan for the Mile-High Tower, which shoots its elevator out of the sheath of the building, giving the riders stunning views, seemed inconsistent with Wright's concern for interweaving urban spaces with nature. I was not attracted to his vision of an ideal city.
Perhaps the presentation …

Willa Cather’s “Death Comes for the Archbishop"

Willa Cather must have been an avid listener of stories. She is certainly an enthusiastic teller, and re-teller, of stories. The outermost frame of this novel is the story of Father Jean Marie Latour, who goes to New Mexico in 1851 as the Bishop of the newly American territory. The book begins with him rejected by the Mexicans, lost in the monotonous red sand-hills. It ends with his funeral, attended by Mexicans, Americans and Indians, in the cathedral he built into the land. His story is one of sweet sacrifice to a vocation at once divine and earthly. If Father Latour is devoutly religious, he is also deeply human. The cathedral, built in Midi Romanesque style to remind him of his native France, replaces in his life his dear friend and fellow missionary Father Vaillant. And yet the cathedral is not an alien imposition on the land. It is a glory that arises from his work in that land, for his story honors work--laborious, dangerous, creative--as a means of settling a strange land.

My Interview on The Joe Milford Poetry Show

I was interviewed on the Joe Milford Poetry Show last night: one-and-a-half hour unedited conversation about my new book of poems Equal to the Earth. We talked about my Singaporean background, art and autobiography, the mythic sea, use of meter and form, sense of humor (!), the objective correlative, children's playfulness, Chinese homosexuals, and love.

From the show website:

The Joe Milford Poetry Show archives readings and interviews from acclaimed and established poets as well as up-and-coming poets from America and Canada. The Joe Milford Poetry Show prides itself on its candid and organic nature infused with a lively discussion of poetics, genre, the writing process, and myriad theories and movements of poetry. Join us once a week for regularly scheduled shows on Saturdays at 5pm Eastern Time, and watch for special edition shows by announcement. Add The Joe Milford Poetry Show to your MySpace Friends by going to the links page.

"Basic Writings of Nietzsche" translated by Walter Kaufmann

Why Nietzsche inspires me:
1. He is a philosopher but he is also a writer; in fact, the two in him are indistinguishable.
2. He loves what is noble, instead of what is good; he hates what is contemptible, instead of what is evil.
3. He is a psychologist.
4. He is a historian.
5. He stares into the abyss, and sends art over it. Against absurdity, pessimism, asceticism, he opposes the will to power, the will to recreate values.
6. He values sex for its own sake, as a force for life.
7. He is a prophet.
From Ecce Homo:
On taste:
In all these matters--in the choice of nutrition, of place and climate, of recreation--an instinct of self-preservation issues its commandments, and it gains its most unambiguous expression as an instinct of self-defense. Not to see many things, not to hear many things, not to permit many things to come close--first imperative of prudence, first proof that one is no mere accident but a necessity. The usual word for this instinct of self-defense is taste. It commands us…

Nietzsche's "Genealogy of Morals"

The Genealogy comprises three related essays. The first essay searches for the origin of the ideas "good and evil" and "good and bad." Briefly, "good and bad" belongs to a master, or aristocratic, morality: what is noble is good, what is contemptible is bad. The idea of "good and evil," however, belongs to a slave, or subordinate, morality, based on ressentiment: what removes suffering is good, what imposes suffering is evil. Nietzsche argues that with the triumph of Judaism, through Christianity, slave morality has trumped master morality.
The second essay seeks to explain the origin and history of such ideas as "guilt," and "bad conscience." After relating the ideas to business contracts, Nietzsche hypothesizes that bad conscience is "the serious illness" contracted by man under the stress of becoming a part of a peaceful society, when all his instincts drive him towards "the wilderness, to war, to prowling, …

Olivier Assayas's "Summer Hours"

Watched “Summer Hours” with WL at the Quad yesterday. The Times’s A. O. Scott thinks it is a masterpiece despite its apparently modest ambition. I think the film, written and directed by Olivier Assayas, is rather more modest in its success.Three siblings, Frédéric (Charles Berling), Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) and Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), have to decide what to do with their inheritance—a charming country house holding a valuable art collection—after their mother’s death. While Frédéric wants to keep the house and art together for their children, Jérémie and Adrienne want to sell and, to minimize taxes, donate the art to a museum. The film sees things mainly through Frédéric’s eyes, though, to its credit, sympathizes with the other two globetrotting siblings as well.The family house is not a new symbol for national patrimony. Here it is divided not just by the old power of death, but also by the newer forces of globalization. Jérémie, who works for a sneakers company, sees his futur…

Nietzsche describes Singapore's past, present and future

from Beyond Good and Evil Part Nine (translated by Walter Kaufmann):
Now look for once at an aristocratic commonwealth--say, an ancient Greek polis, or Venice--as an arrangement, whether voluntary or involuntary, for breeding: human beings are together there who are dependent on themselves and want their species to prevail, most often because they have to prevail or run the terrible risk of being exterminated. Here that boon, that excess, and that protection which favor variations are lacking; the species needs itself as a species, as something that can prevail and make itself durable by virtue of its very hardness, uniformity, and simplicity of form, in a constant fight with its neighbors or with the oppressed who are rebellious or threaten rebellion. Manifold experience teaches them to which qualities above all they owe the fact that, despite all gods and men, they are still there, that they have always triumphed: these qualities they call virtues, these virtues alone they cultivate.…

Nietzsche's "Beyond Good and Evil"*

As translated by Walter Kaufmann.
Nietzsche's perspectivism:
The fundamental faith of the metaphysicians is the faith in opposite values. It has not even occurred to the most cautious among them that one might have a doubt right here at the threshold where it was surely most necessary--even if they vowed to themselves, "de omnibus dubitandum."
For one may doubt, first, whether there are any opposites at all, and secondly whether these popular valuations and opposite values on which the metaphysicians put their seal, are not perhaps merely foreground estimates, only provisional perspectives, perhaps even from some nook, perhaps from below, frog perspectives, as it were, to borrow an expression painters use. For all the value that the true, the truthful, the selfless may deserve, it would still be possible that a higher and more fundamental value for life might have to be ascribed to deception, selfishness, and lust. It might even be possible that what constitutes the values …

Cyril Wong's "Let Me Tell You Something About That Night"

cover image from Transit Lounge website

After publishing seven acclaimed books of poetry, Cyril has written his first collection of fiction. Let Me Tell You Something About that Night is subtitled "Strange Tales," a label elastic enough for Western fairy tales and Eastern mythologies, both reworked in this eclectic volume. Here are stories about elves and knights, heavenly devas, a dreaming angel, and a dragon prince. The protagonists have names like Lin, Julie, Ram, Anuar, Van Phan, Enzo, Thomas, and the Old Man with the Golden Voice. They are straight, gay, and indeterminable. They are also animals. The turtle and the hare, for example. Or the butterfly that changed into a rabbit that changed into a bear that changed into a woman. In transforming these fantasies into strange tales, Cyril has availed himself a variety of sources in order to write about the core preoccupations of his poetry: familial and sexual love, memory and identity.
In the opening story "The Lake Ch…