Wednesday, September 30, 2009

"Bull Eclogues"

I've completely rewritten the last poem of the sequence, and revised a number of the other poems. I decided not to use as epigraph Nietzsche's warning about fighting monsters because it sounds too moralistic for an introspective and lyrical sequence like this one. So back to using Ted Haggard's words, which represent for me not so much biography as a common state of being.

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 room smells clean.

I know I should have sacrificed you to God,
I should have raised the knife despite its stone
and saved its bullion in your bullcow 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, deep from the deeps,
the violence rises, the pressure lessening,
as if a ship is dragged up from the sea.

The Island

From week to week I walk on water, fight
the urge to look down at the deluged faces
whose liquid fingers prod my stony feet
for telltale qualities of softening.

When squalls rise up and shake the longstemmed brain,
even the faithful look for land, and land
their bodies on the strong arms of a beach,
the grass of books, tobacco flowers, night streams.

Turned, blown, off course, I landed on this room.
For here the krikri leaps with the white hills,
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.

The Drug

Did you offer it first or did I ask?
Or did this ecstasy fall from the sky
and pulverize to powder on the floor?
We snort into the brain dead snowflakes.

This liquid crystal slammed into the vein
like lethal waste pumped from cattle farms
is either nourishment or oblivion.
What speed does the blood crave, the heart endure?

Supernaturally heavy, hard and high
but collaring a name that’s not my own
I don’t confuse a zealous fuck with love.

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

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 won
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 my most authentic word is fuck.

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’m 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?

The Cave

To be found out sounds like a sharp relief,
for godless enemies, and not for me,
the wide primetime report—ripping sheets
off private beds—of public sentencing.

Or else it sounds like holy disbelief,
confusion in the ranks, complicity,
on stony floors the awkward scrape of seats
pushed back, the quiet airconditioning.

At home it makes a smaller sound, like grief.
The click of a light switch. No mercy
in the darkness or the light the house repeats,

but hiding for a time, however brief,
in me, as in my den, I hear the plea
of an unfired bullet in the drawer firing.

The Brazen Bull

The thing I love and hate, the thing I killed,
erects a pattern for the spilling hours
and night that pours into the sprue and gate
sets round the thing I killed, the thing I love.

Breaking the mold, to see the thing I cast,
I see the thing’s resemblance to the dead.
I look again, and then the mask falls off:
I am the thing I cast, the thing I killed.

How artfully made is the look of death.
It is not an ending, the thing I hate,
but a thing hardening and hollowing.

Enduring is the thing I love and hate          
I enter as into my core and fit
and entering it, the thing, I close the door.


Monday, September 28, 2009

"Where's Al?"

Saw the MoMA show "Ron Arad: No Discipline" this afternoon with TH. Arad (Israeli, b. 1951) produces objects that aim to blur the boundaries between design, sculpture and architecture. Oh dear. I could not get IKEA out of my head when I saw the numerous chairs displayed on the shelves. There were ripple chairs, butterfly chairs, chairs made of stainless steel rods, carbon fiber armchairs, and chairs inside of another chair. I liked the monumental-looking one, scooped out of a huge twisting hunk of steel. The other favorite was "A Mortal Coil," which could conceivably function as a book case. The long sloping seat of "Let Sleeping Dogs Lie" looked like the back of a dog. Most of the objects looked like design to me, interesting designs, but still design.

I enjoyed the Conceptual Art show more than I thought I would. "In and Out of Amsterdam: Travels in Conceptual Art, 1960-1976" exhibited about 75 works by artists related to Amsterdam in one way or another. Dutch Jan Dibbets' "The Shortest Day" showed the view outside his window, in the form of eighty photographs, taken at 8 minute intervals on the day of winter solstice in 1970. I found the waxing and waning of the light incredibly lyrical and poignant. American Allen Ruppersberg's "Where's Al?" juxtaposed vivid photographs of his friends and index cards with snippets of dialogue all asking in different ways where he is.  The missing artist was also powerfully presented in a series of self-addressed envelopes sent to Hilton Hotels all over the world. Suriname-born Stanley Brouwn was represented by a piece titled something like "Dirt on Paper." The 10 or so pieces of paper showed shoe prints and other dirt marks. Ephemeral debris. The traces we leave behind. The youthful wit and humor of the works in dealing with permanent questions were very appealing.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

"Bull Eclogues": "The Cave"

"Bull Eclogues" is a sequence of poems I am writing, in the voice of a Ted Haggard-inspired speaker. The central conceit is to compare Haggard to Pasiphae, the Cretan queen who fell in love with a bull. I've completely rewritten Poem Six, which covers his outing by the sex worker.

The Cave

To be found out sounds like a sharp relief,
for godless enemies, and not for me,
a wide primetime report--ripping sheets
off private beds--of public sentencing.

Or else it sounds like holy disbelief,
confusion in the ranks, complicity,
on stony floors the awkward scrape of seats
pushed back, the quiet airconditioning.

At home it makes a smaller sound, like grief.
The click of a light switch. No mercy
in the darkness or the light the house repeats,

but hiding for a time, however brief,
in me, as in my den, I hear the plea
of an unfired bullet in the drawer firing.


Saturday, September 26, 2009

Steve Jacobs directs Coetzee's "Disgrace" (2008)

The film was utterly compelling throughout, from the first sight of Professor David Lurie's eyes peering from behind window blinds, to the last shot of him and his daughter Lucy going into her house. There was the danger of David Lurie losing all sympathy from the audience at the beginning of the film. (John Malkovich who plays him, said in an interview, that he could make any character unlikable.) But the risk is part of the bigger risk the film took: there will be no easy sympathy in this movie.

The shift in political power in South Africa leaves Lurie fearful, and this fear expresses itself in his concern for his daughter living out in the country by herself. When she is raped by three young black men, his worst fears are realized, and he seeks police action against the "criminals." His own earlier affair with a reluctant student he sees as Byronic passion and not as wrong. The latter understanding comes to him only through his daughter's experience.

Lucy, as played by Jessica Haines, possesses a stone-like stubbornness. Her actions are wholly guided by her decision to stay on in South Africa, and not flee like many whites did. So she decides to have the baby, and to become the second wife of Petrus (Eriq Ebouaney), her black tenant, and, as is revealed later, the brother-in-law of one of the rapists. In exchange for her land, Petrus will bring her under his protection. Lucy has come to terms with black power as "a fact of life."

To call the film--or for that matter, the novel--an allegory would be to oversimplify it, so rich are its nuances and ironies. I did not like the scene with the university commission investigating Lurie. The commission comes off as politically and morally naive. But that scene is an exception in a film usually quietly observing itself. Although the film stays faithful to the novel, it changes the novel in one essential aspect. Whereas the novel is compact and also witty, the film slows down the pace of the story, and, in the sweep of its camera over the magnificent landscape, speaks in near-epic tones.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Elia Kazan's "East of Eden"

The movie came out in 1955, 3 years after the novel by John Steinbeck. It stars James Dean in his first major film role. Cal Trask, the black sheep, loves his father Adam (Raymond Massey) who favors the good son Aron (Richard Davalos) instead. When Adam's long-haul vegetable shipping venture failed, Cal Trask recoups his father's losses by speculating in beans. But Adam refuses to accept Cal's war profits. Cal hugs his father and begs for his love, in a scene melodramatic yet primal.

To take revenge, Cal tells Aron that their mother Kate (Jo Van Fleet), whom they believed dead, is actually living, and works as a madam. To escape the truth, Aron goes to war, and his departure causes Adam to suffer a stroke. Aron's fiancee Abra (Julie Harris), who transfers her affection from Aron to Cal throughout the movie, persuades Adam to show his need for Cal in order to save his son. This the father does, asking the son to get rid of the nurse and stay with him instead, and the film ends with reconciliation in the dark, sick room.

Beyond the obvious themes of sibling rivalry and generational conflict, the film is also concerned with the inhuman face of human goodness. Adam Trask is a good man. He is a fair wartime draft board chairman. He saves a German neighbor from a mob incensed by the loss of sons in the war. He rejects war profiteering. At the same time, he is also unable to understand his son's hunger for his love. His goodness is also cited by his wife as the reason why she had to leave him to be her own woman. If goodness is rightly unyielding, there is a wrong sense in which it is so.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Hearing Adrienne Rich at 80 at 92Y

Adrienne Rich first read at the 92Y in 1958, at the age of 29. Last night, she returned to open the Center's reading season, at the age of 80. The Kaufman Hall was full. When she walked on stage, the audience applauded warmly, and a group of women gave her a standing ovation. It was tremendously moving to see this slight woman, her head disproportionately big, sink into the armchair, shuffle her papers with trembling hands, and then read in a steady voice.

"All of her life she has been in love with the hope of telling the utter truth." What W. S. Merwin wrote of Rich reminds me of the choice between truth and beauty my classmates and I were asked to make and reflect upon in a workshop exercise. I wrote down "truth," but realized afterwards that it was what I felt I should choose, and not what I would choose. Truth seemed to be a nobler, larger, claim than beauty; it still seems so to me. It provides a real resistance, an unmovable rock against which one may pit one's strength, one's life. It is a pit which the flesh of a fruit may enclose.

Beauty, in contrast, feels soft and impressionable. Its viscosity seeks a permanent and perfect form but whatever form it fills, it fills because it is flesh. Beauty is softness hardened, whereas truth is hardness enclosed by what is soft. In both truth and beauty--to borrow a line out of context from Rich's reading--"there are poverties and there are poverties."

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Reading Neil Aitken's "The Lost Country of Sight"

When I roomed with Neil Aiken at the Kundiman poetry retreat in 2005, I recognized in him another migratory spirit. Neil was born in Vancouver, but grew up in Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, and various parts of western Canada and the United States. When we met, he was doing his creative writing MFA at the University of California, Riverside, and two years later his first book won the 2007 Philip Levine prize.

A road runs through The Lost Country of Sight. A road that observes intently the country it enters, and leaves, and then re-enters. Individually keen, the observations do not, however, describe external realities so much as internal states. The poetry is essentially introspective. This is its strength, but also its danger. It risks making one country very much like another. Love, loss, longing--these psychological states are distinctly evoked in poem after poem, whereas Taipei, Hsin Chu, Kaohsiung, Saskatoon, Astoria (in Oregon), Los Angeles, they are really interchangeable in this poetry.

That interchangeability, in turn, poses a question for deeper introspection. If one loves a country so much, why does one leave it? If one longs for a city so much, why does one not return to it? The book does not provide an answer. What would such an answer look like? It will say something about the poet,  something perhaps less immediately likable, say, an addiction to the rush of novelty, or a ruthlessness in remaking life into poems. It will also say something about the places, something more opinionated, say, Canada is too small for ambition, or Taiwan too corrupt for poetry. To speak of love and loss alone can leave so much unsaid.

Love and loss are eloquent, however, on the subject of people. Unlike the places in the book, people pass away, and so they cannot be revisited, except in memory. An achievement of this book is to map the loss of a father on the loss of one's place in the world. Some poems take an indirect approach, as in the wonderful "The Shape of Things." It begins with an assertion: "Nothing about us that we can see is permanent," but casts doubt on it in the very next line: "Or so it seems." In a series of magical images, the poem illustrates what remains after death, "[h]ow loss/ clings to a shape, how it loves a form. Like water":

or the late summer rain which cannot halt the last leaf's fall,
but blesses the oak nonetheless, a consolation of sorts,
a farewell the color of lightning and flame. Whatever it is--
that having filled its measure, must ultimately overflow.

"Shape," "rain" and "measure" make me think of a rain gauge in the last line. "Overflow" is a kind of loss but the image transforms loss triumphantly into fulfillment and abundance. How right that "ultimately" is. Rising to the brim is not the last step; there is still the final, irrevocable, step of overflowing. The logic is found in the image, and not imposed from outside.

The poems that speak of the father's death directly are no less powerful. Exceptional among them is "Traveling through the Prairies, I Think of My Father's Voice," which C. G. Hanzlicek, the prize judge, praised as "a perfectly made poem." The poem approaches the death rattle from an unexpected angle: "How we must have seemed like twins over the phone." The opening at once captures both ideas of similarity and difference, similar material, different locations. The poem wonders if the twinning-over-distance was caused by "genetics" or the influence of "mockingbirds and mimeographs." Dismissing both science and fancy as explanations, it then offers the truly imaginative reason:

                                                          I have heard two trains sound
almost alike till they passed, like the one last night bending westward,
the other slowing to a halt, the earth shuddering in the dark between,

while the stars held their place overhead, a thousand points of tin and fire.

The brevity of the passing moment ("almost alike" is so short in the long verse line) is tremendously moving. That much we share with our parents before we roll on with our lives, while they must pull into some station. The more conventional view is that we follow behind our parents in our common trudge to the grave. But Aitken here has seen, or heard, the possibility of imagining it otherwise, in the image of passing trains. And while the earth between us measures our growing distance, the stationary stars are still a fixed reference point for our common mortality.

The poem goes on to speak of "the straight road" that brought the speaker to where he stands. He has seen the bareness of the land, despite the green fields of new wheat, rye and canola. That oxymoronic landscape affords the speaker a view of the grain elevators being taken down, leaving only "small metal bins." The imagination sees in this complex image the way the disease took the father by degrees, "the body jettisoning what it could." The metal bins become "the steel doors" of his eyes, holding the storm rattling within. The last thing to go was his breath, "the body's voice," repeating the only name it knew. And in a final imaginative move, the breathing is compared to

a lullaby sung to a restless child on a heaving deck, a hush we only learn
in the quiet dark long after the boat has gone and the waves have ceased.

The "restless child" could be the dying father or the father as a (migrant) child; it could also be the speaker, in the past or present. The combination of possibilities gives force to the "we," another brief moment of togetherness. The trains changed into a car have morphed into a boat, which not only crosses the waters of death but also transports the soul on the next stage of its journey. If the end of the body's storm is a relief,  the ending "the waves have ceased," paired in parallel structure with "the boat has gone," also conveys a profound sense of loss. The ending is also exquisite.

Neil credits me with getting him to drop his earlier title for the book. I don't remember what it was, but it must have been pretty dire. The strange thing was, though I sensed in him a kindred migratory spirit, I was more impressed at that time by a difference, that he was Mormon and I was lapsed Baptist. There are two or three poems in his book very different from the rest. "Litany" and "To Jeremiah, Dreaming" are religious poems. I don't think they are very good but in them something more than a contemporary lyric voice can be discerned. A voice that prays to angels.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Jazz, Genes, and Jizz

TLS September 11, 2009

from Stephen Brown's review of Richard Williams' "The Blue Moment: Miles Davis's "Kind of Blue" and the remaking of modern music":

Try this experiment, sing the first seven notes of the major scale, doh, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti . . . and stop on that seventh tone, the "ti." You'll feel the aching incompleteness that so wants the satisfaction of a final "doh." This is the quality that makes "doh" the central tone of the scale, and makes us feel the other tones in relationship to it. A whole system of harmonies grew to support this centredness, granting the listener a reference place in musical space skin to the position in visual space that perspective grants the viewer of a picture. And like perspective, the tonal system was rejected by Modernists. In effect, there had been, by the 1930s, two "modern" revolutions in music: a violent one under Schoenberg and his twelve-tone system; and a velvet (though ultimately more profound) one under Debussy, Satie and Ravel.


As Debussy discovers to his delight, you can then take the most directional of chords, whose resolution would have been utterly predictable in a tonal context, and slide it freely up and down the keyboard. An enormous weight has been lifted from music's shoulders, allowing it to seem to float. At the same time, a great many listeners find themselves not particularly keen on having a determined location in relationship to the music they're hearing. They welcome the opportunity to feel lost in musical space. Some of them are happily lost there still.


Instead of a constant sequence of chord changes, one mode sustains for sixteen bars; the same mode a half-step higher is heard for the eight-bar bridge; and then the original mode is heard for another eight. Time, compared to conventional jazz tunes, seems to dilate. The soloist has the luxury to work out the consequences of an idea with silence, repetition, variation, without the compulsion to adjust to a constantly changing harmonic environment.


from Bettina Bildhauer's review of Merry Wiesner-Hanks's "The Marvelous Hairy Girls: The Gonzales sisters and their worlds":

Sometime around 1537, Petrus Gonzales was born on Tenerife with a rare genetic disorder that made hair grow all over his face and across his body. He was recognized as one of the "wild" or "dog-faced" men believed to exist at the outer reaches of the world, and was sent as a curiosity to the French court of Henry II and Catherine de Medici. There, he was raised as a courtier, married a smooth-faced women and had at least seven children with her. Most of them shared his furriness and also became minor court celebrities, but eventually settled together in an Italian village and fell from historical record.


from Euan Dunn's review of Jeremy Mynott's "Birdscapes: Birds in our imagination and experience":

[A bird's "jizz"] has been defined as roughly the sum of everything about the bird that cannot be completely described--an amalgam of character, personality, Gestalt--its essence. It is this ineffable feel of the bird that an increasingly well-informed and discriminating bird-watcher nowadays expect field guides to convey and which, once mastered, is key to identifying a species in the field under testing conditions such as a fleeting glimpse at distance.

The Pushcart Time of the Year

The poetry and tattoo journal Holly Rose Review has nominated "Brother" for both the Pushcart and the Best-of-the-Net. My second Pushcart nom. The first was "Childhood Punishments," put up by Kartika Review.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

A Poetic Celebration of the Hudson River

Too tired to say much about the reading, but just want to note it on the blog. Hosted by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, at the newish Battery City Park Ferry Terminal, the event commemorated the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson's discovery of the river that now carries his name. The poems were written for the occasion, and read by the poets: Eavan Boland's "The Port of New York, 1956," John Ashbery's "In One Afternoon," Toon Tellegen's "A Poem for Henry Hudson," Jorie Graham's "No Bearing and Disproportion" (an extract), Paul Muldoon's "Lines for the Quartercentenary of the Voyage of the Halve Maen," and John Koethe's "The Great Gatsby." Michael Schmidt introduced each poet. The ferry engine, coming by at regular intervals, competed with and accompanied the voices.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Proust on the boredom of writing

WL sent me this sentence by Proust:
For some time past the words of Bergotte, when he pronounced himself positive that, in spite of all I might say, I had been created to enjoy pre-eminently the pleasures of the mind, had restored to me, with regard to what I might succeed in achieving later on, a hope that was disappointed afresh every day by the boredom I felt on settling down before a writing-table to start work on a critical essay or a novel. "After all," I said to myself, "perhaps the pleasure one feels in writing it is not the infallible test of the literary value of a page; perhaps it is only a secondary state which is often superadded, but the want of which can have no prejudicial effect on it. Perhaps some of the greatest masterpieces were written while yawning." --Proust, "Within a Budding Grove" (trans. Scott Moncrieff, Kilmartin, and Enright), p. 530
It is a provocative speculation, a wonderful excuse. I think the pleasure of writing is not a test of a masterpiece, but a masterpiece is not written without the pleasure of writing.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Why I do not call myself an Asian American poet

Larina in the AAP forum asks:
Jee, I've found in some circles that poets of a particular ethnic background are sometimes bothered by an assumption that they were influenced by other poets of that ethnic background. Do you find that you are sometimes categorized as an Asian American poet and how do you feel about that?

And here is my reply:
I have been sometimes categorized by publishers, editors and readers as an Asian American poet. It bothers me because that designation does not describe at all my person and my poetry. Read more.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

CHICAGO the musical

Watched this satire of media fame at the Ambassador Theatre yesterday afternoon with TB. Directed by Walter Bobbie, Choreography by Ann Reinking, Lyrics by Fred Ebb, Music by John Kander, Book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse. The original production was directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse. Late 1920s Chicago was less a Scene than a matrix of social interactions; the orchestra on stage formed an integral part of the entertainment called American justice.

Bonnie Langford was a vivacious Roxie Hart who shot and killed her lover, and so gained, for a while, the notoriety that she had always longed for. Visibly past her sell-by-date, Langford's Roxie was fueled by a convincing desperation. Her husband Amos Hart was played by a very funny Raymond Bokhour. His rendition of "Mister Cellophane," as he swayed slightly on his feet, was entirely memorable. He filled the stage with his presence while remaining compactly himself. Tom Hewitt played the crooked lawyer Billy Flynn. He was correct in everything, but lacked the extra bit of something.

Buxomy Kecia Lewis-Evans, who played Matron "Mama" Morton, sang her solo "When You're Good to Mama" with soul and energy, but her acting was colorless. Deidre Goodwin was a velvety Velma Kelly. She held her  own in her big numbers like "All That Jazz" and "Cell Block Tango." Her best singing, inflected with feeling, was in the duet with Mama, "Class." R. Lowe, who played the reporter Mary Sunshine, surprised those of us who did not know the part involved cross-dressing.

I was expecting more from the choreography. It was professional, but hardly innovative, to my inexperienced eye. The cast seemed to be dancing at half-energy, especially in the first half.  James T. Lane stood out for his committed and precise dancing, his face as expressive as his body.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Release of GANYMEDE #5

Gay men¹s lit/art print quarterly published quarterly in New York as a paperback book.
Table of contents and readable sample pages. Purchase (print or download) here.

--EDMUND WHITE on writing gay
--OSCAR WILDE's delicious 1889 dialogue on art, ³The Decay of Lying²
--GLENWAY WESCOTT's rare 1928 story of a little boy going to a ball in drag
--BERGDORF BOYS by Scott Hess: first of four parts serializing a complete novel, both witty and dark, about gay party boys in New York
--TEN gay poets in 36 pages--the finest survey of gay poetry in print today
--EIGHT cutting-edge gay visual artists from around the world
--SUSAN GLASPELL's 1917 story ³A Jury of Her Peers,² now a discovered text in feminist lit
--INDIE EYE returns with tips on obscure movies to rent, including the first gay Bollywood flick!
--The Paris of Our Dreams: the 19th-century transformation of Paris coincided with the birth of photography, and the rise of archival photographers who snapped parts of the city either rising or falling. Our portfolio shows these precious images.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Steven Cordova's "Working Authors Reading Series"

Steven Cordova kicked off his new reading series called "Working Authors" by featuring six poets from Best Gay Poetry 2008, edited by Lawrence Schimel. I read last night, together with Chip Livingston, Timothy Liu, Jason Schneiderman, Emmanuel Xavier and the curator himself. The room in the LGBT center was nicely filled up. I read "Glass Orgasm" from the anthology, and "Florida" and "Montauk." The last two worked well together. Despite stumbling twice, my reading I judge was compelling. TH and EN were there, as was SS who swopped her new book The Future Is Happy for mine.

The Friday before last I read at Cornelia Street Cafe, curated by Kat Georges. I did my best ever reading then. Hit every musical phrase with precision and made every structure sensible. The poems were mostly about my father, from the first section of my book. EN was there.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

"A Room With a View" the movie (1985)

The Merchant-Ivory film is a travesty of Forster's novel. I know, I know, we are all supposed to be viewers sophisticated enough to know a film adaptation is never the book. But I am not objecting to the liberties the film takes with the book's plot. Nor am I protesting the irreconcilable features of two very different media. What bothers me is that the film exorcises the spirit of the novel. It takes what is an existential question wrapped in social comedy, and turns it inside out, into a comedy of manners decorated with philosophy, along with lavish sets, costumes and music.

This is most clearly seen in the character of George Emerson. When we first see him in the film, he is playing with his food, forming a question mark with it, and then showing the plate, with a roguish smile, to Lucy Honeychurch. His action is not in the novel. It slights the despair the young man feels in the novel, a despair born out of a sense that things in the world do not hang together. The question mark drawn over the washstand, which is in the novel, is played for laughs in the movie. Watched by Lucy and Charlotte Bartlett, George marches into the room with mock-dignity, and hides the question mark by turning the painting over. This is completely inconsistent with the the gloomy but direct young man of the novel, who would not care who sees his mark. Since the movie-George is not out of love with the world, he cannot fall in love with it, and with Lucy, after the killing of a man in Piazza Signoria. When movie-George repeats Forster's words: "For something tremendous has happened . . . . I shall want to live," the words make no sense.

The film also distorts Forster's depiction of Lucy. In the novel, blinded by social prejudices and personal immaturity, she cannot see that she does love George. She is in a "muddle," and acts out of that muddle by running from Florence to Rome, agreeing later to marry Cecil Vyse, and after breaking that engagement deciding to travel to Greece. In the film, however, Lucy knows early on she has fallen for George, and so she does not undergo an education of the affections. In the denouement, when Old Emerson points out that she loves George, movie-Lucy says, "But of course I do. What do you all think?" Forster has her still in denial: "How dare you! . . . Oh! how like a man!--I mean, to suppose that a woman is always thinking about a man." The denial is rich with ironies. It also sets up the struggle for Lucy's soul between Old Emerson and the Reverend Beebe, the former representing passion, the latter asceticism, another form of denial. There is no such struggle in the film. Reverend Beebe does not even appear in the scene.

Helena Bonham Carter as Lucy pouts her way through the film, and clearly learns little of value in life. Julian Sands is an all-too-charming George. Maggie Smith is a correct Miss Bartlett, but seems to know little of genteel poverty. Denholm Elliot is a credible Old Emerson. Judi Dench is a surprisingly one-note Miss Lavish. Rosemary Leach is a full-body Mrs. Honeychurch, a minor character who achieves roundness. The best acting belongs to Daniel Day-Lewis, who plays Cecil hilariously as a Decadent first, and then wrings a dignified pathos from the character when he is rejected by Lucy. That interiority is sorely missing from the other characters, and from the film. The view of beauty here is all surface.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Muir Web

TLS September 4 2009

from Peter Coates's review of Eric W. Sanderson's Mannahatta: The natural history of New York City:

On September 12, 1609, Henry Hudson, a British navigator in the employ of the Dutch East India Company, entered the river that now bears his name. He was searching for the elusive Northwest Passage to the Orient, and continued upriver for over a hundred miles in his yacht, the Half Moon. Neat the site of Albany, New York State's future capital, the water became too shallow for further progress and Hudson finally accepted that this wasn't the way to Cathay. The consolation prize was the discovery of the island that the local people, the Lenape (a branch of the Algonquin Indians), called "Manna-hata" [In the Algonquin language, "Island of Many Hills"].
One of [Sanderson's] project's most innovative contribution to historical ecology is the concept of the "Muir web". Named after one of Sanderson's heroes, John Muir, the prominent American conservationist and pioneering advocate of national parks, this web maps the dense network of connected parts that constitute the natural world, showing the full set of requirements and associations of every plant, animal and habitat features. . . . Sanderson has provided a block-by-block, street-by-street guide to the former ecology of the city. Visit the project's lavish website (, type in a location, and you can see what it looks like now and what it looked like then.
Mannahatta's main ridge line, along which ran a Lenape hunting trail, is now occupied by Broadway. The bit of Manhattan that bears the closest resemblance to Mannahatta is easy to locate: Inwood Hill Park, a largely unmodified patch of hilly ground at the island's northwest tip, contains the last remnant of forest and salt marsh, as well as evidence of Lenape use and habitation.
Strange as it may sound, Manhattan is already one of the greenest places in the nation, with a space-saving concentration of people and high use of public transport. . . . As we increasingly live in cities, we must work out how to make them more habitable and sustainable. This is especially so because, as Sanderson reminds us, cities aren't necessarily a bad thing. In fact, by concentrating our ecological footprint, cities can be just what the earth's non-human life needs to relieve human pressure elsewhere.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Re-reading Forster's "A Room with a View". . .

. . . I have been impressed by the figure of Old Emerson who stands in the novel for the views of the American Transcendentalist, the Sage of Concord. Old Emerson is given to philosophizing, a trait at least potentially irritating if his words are not suffused with such human warmth. He speaks for direct experience, as opposed to reliance on authority and tradition, and for that most direct of experiences, sexual passion. A passage from Ralph Waldo's essay "Nature" (1836) is so pertinent to the Sacred Lake episode, when the three men stripped to play in a natural pool in the woods, that I wonder if Forster had the Sage's words before him as he wrote. The passage is famous.

To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child. The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood. His intercourse with heaven and earth, becomes part of his daily food. In the presence of nature, a wild delight runs through the man, in spite of real sorrows. Nature says, -- he is my creature, and maugre all his impertinent griefs, he shall be glad with me. Not the sun or the summer alone, but every hour and season yields its tribute of delight; for every hour and change corresponds to and authorizes a different state of the mind, from breathless noon to grimmest midnight. Nature is a setting that fits equally well a comic or a mourning piece. In good health, the air is a cordial of incredible virtue. Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear. In the woods too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life, is always a child. In the woods, is perpetual youth. Within these plantations of God, a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand years. In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, -- no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, -- my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, -- all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances, -- master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance. I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty. In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature.

Not only would the passage provide the woods setting of the novel, its water imagery ("bathed by the blithe air," "the currents of the Universal Being") might suggest the Sacred Lake. The emphasis on the child's special powers of appreciation is reflected in the novel's stress on the childlikeness of George Emerson, and the youthful abandon over to which the men, including Reverend Beebe, give themselves. In taking off his clothes, a man "casts off his years," as the passage exhorts. The dominant note, in Emerson as in Forster, is one of joy.

Near the end of the novel, Old Emerson, weakened by his son's despair, is still strong enough to see through Lucy's lies. Unmasked, but undecided, Lucy appeals to Reverend Beebe, and so the battle for her soul is joined. Would she strike for a sanctifying passion or a devilish asceticism? Forster despicts this spiritual struggle with potent yet realistic details, such as the Bible commentaries that hem in the room and permit no outside view. Meanwhile, her family calls her name impatiently from their waiting carriage, their voices assuming the tones of the saved--or are they the lost? Kiss me, Lucy cries out to Old Emerson, and I will have the courage to tell the truth.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Martha C. Nussbaum's "Cultivating Humanity"

Subtitled "A Classical Defence of Reform in Liberal Education," the book presents a philosophical argument for world citizenship, and the relevant educational reform, as well as a descriptive picture of what is actually happening in American campuses. The argument enlists Socrates and the Stoics, in the main, to argue for thinking of ourselves as inquiring world citizens. The description of college reform relies on information gathering and hundreds of interviews from a "core" group of 15 institutions chosen to represent  different types of colleges and universities. The combination of philosophical and empirical approaches achieves what many polemics on higher education don't: a coherent and reasonable argument backed up by a rich picture of actual reality.

The world citizen, which American universities should produce, is characterized by three traits: Socratic self-examination, understanding of different cultures, and narrative imagination, the last of which encourages empathy for others. Nussbaum devotes a chapter to each trait. In "Citizens of the World," she describes with enthusiasm the Cultural Encounters program at St. Lawrence College.

The Cultural Encounters program is a model of responsible teaching in several areas of human diversity. By design, it encompasses not only the encounter with a foreign culture but also related issues of gender, ethnic and religious pluralism, and sexuality, presenting issues of American pluralism in relation to those of global cultural diversity. Its interdisciplinary character ensures that these issues will be faced from many interlocking perspectives, including those of literary study and anthropology, long prominent in multicultural teaching, but also those of economics, biology, philosophy, and foreign language teaching. 

The process by which the faculty put together the program is fascinating, Most interesting to me is the faculty's preference for the term interculturalism to the terms multiculturalism and diversity, since the latter are associated with relativism and identity politics. Nussbaum writes,

Interculturalism, by contrast, connotes the sort of comparative searching that they have in mind, which, they argue, should prominently include the recognition of common human needs across cultures and of dissonance and critical dialogue within cultures. The interculturalist, they argue, has reason to reject the claim of identity politics that only members of a particular group have the ability to understand the perspective of that group. In fact, understanding is achieved in many different ways, and being born a member of a certain group is neither sufficient nor necessary. Knowledge is frequently enhanced by an awareness of difference (my italics). 

The next three chapters of the book defend the place and importance of African American Studies, Women's Studies and the Study of Human Sexuality in American higher education. Throughout Nussbaum rejects identity politics, separatism, and relativism, and criticizes postmodernist thinking. She places these special interdisciplinary studies in the context of globalization, and shows how essential they are to relating ethically to others. I have much more to say, but will do so in another post.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

The Academy and the New Worlds

Larina Warnock read my poem "Brother" on the Bench Press website, and liked it so much that she invited me to be the Guest Poet this month on the online discussion forum of the Academy of American Poets. She asked for a note on my poetics, and so I wrote something of my current thinking for her:

A forthcoming review of my new book says, quite correctly, that my language faces three directions: Singapore, England and the USA. Loitering at the place where three roads meet, my person cannot travel down all three and be one traveler, but my poetry attempts that impossible integration, and so records the successes and failures of that attempt. The disparate elements are not just those of place, but also of time, people, idea, feeling, and what lies below feeling. If modern life has been characterized by fragmentation, I sense a new—old—desire for wholeness. Wholeness not based on discredited formulas—for salvation, community or knowledge—but on new, and renewed, forms that realize the individual elements in the process of integrating them, temporarily. Poems are such a kind of forms. My poems work for that personal integrity: to be a fragment and a whole.

I have also joined the advisory board of Mascara, an Asian Australian literary journal, on the invitation of Kim Cheng Boey and Michelle Cahill, the editors.

A bi-annual literary journal founded in 2007, Mascara is particularly interested in the work of contemporary Asian, Australian and Indigenous writers. The word ‘mascara’ entered the English language in 1890. It derives from Spanish, Arabic and French origins, its meaning evolving from the word mask, masquerade, to darken, to blacken. The Arabic word ‘maskhara’ means buffoon.

The journal just added a new section called New Worlds, which features new voices from the postcolonial antipodes. I think my job is to introduce Asian American writers to the journal and vice versa.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Translations of an Unknown Mexican Poet (6): "The Pigeon"

This takes the place of the old No. 6.

The Pigeon

Even the light crumples in this city, let alone
the takeout menus thrust from street corners,
the flowers bandaged in cellophane, the fire
escapes, the fat-lidded women on the train.

In some back kitchen the men are crumbling
a bag of peas into the soup. In some back alley
the washing machines are muttering distractedly.
The light is still trying to straighten its wrinkles.

This is not a rat ironed flat on the road. This is
a pigeon. See the wings flattened out to feather.
See the white fluff still not completely blackened.
Affixed to the ground, the animal ruffles the light.

Hard to tell the difference but it is a pigeon.
Hard to tell the difference but it is still bright.

Li Yu's "A Tower for the Summer Heat"

The Ming-Qing playwright, novelist and publisher Li Yu (1611-80) is an ingenious writer, and he is proud of his ingenuity. Time and again the narrator of his short story collection Shier Lou (Twelve Towers) praises his own inventiveness, especially in subverting some literary tradition, cultural assumption, or social hierarchy. In A Tower for the Summer Heat, Patrick Hanan has selected and translated six of the twelve stories (or "towers"), enough to give a very good idea of Li Yu's range. I have read and enjoyed Silent Operas, Li Yu's earlier collection, but I think the Towers rise above the Operas.

The title story literalizes the imagination in the form of a Western optical invention, which a man deploys to court a local beauty. In the next story "Return-to-Right Hall," invention is embodied in a successful con man. The story proves that a reformed man is greater than a good man. In "House of Gathered Refinements" a homosexual ménage à trois runs afoul of a tyrant who also loves to play "in the back courtyard." The subversion here is not so much of hetero-normality as of class. The homosexual shopkeepers are cultured and refined whereas the tyrant betrays his moral corruption.

"The Cloud-Scraper" transforms a stereotype of the maidservant. Instead of acting as a corrupting pander to her mistress, Nenghong secures marriages for both her mistress and herself, to the same man! As an antidote to the romantic comedies in the collection, "Homing Crane Lodge" offers a stoic and bleak, but also profound, view of love and life. The last story "Nativity Room" gives such an amazing series of coincidences that it amounts to a parody of the idea of fate. Singular Yin may have only one testicle, but he leaves numerous descendants behind, each born with a single testicle. In him individualism (as opposed to communalism) is shown to be socially and culturally productive too.