Showing posts from October, 2009

Seven Studies for a Face

TLS October 23 2009

I had not read Laura Cumming's book A Face to the World when I wrote my poem "Seven Studies for a Self-Portrait." Reading Elizabeth Lowry's review of the book, I am amazed by the connections and coincidences between Cumming's Durer and mine. The divine in the human is exactly the theme not only of the Durer study of my "Seven Studies," but also of my next book, to be titled the same as its opening sequence. The book will begin with the Christ-like Durer, and end with a ghazal sequence, in which the last ghazal compares me to God: "Jee, the unlikely initial for God." According to Cumming, Durer also painted his self-portrait based on his trademark initial, A. The initial A also begins and ends a sequence in my book called "I Am My Names," in which A stands for Anonymous.

Furthermore, Lowry points out that Durer's finger in the self-portrait says, "Ecce Homo." That is, of course, also Nietzsche's la…

Jean Anouilh's play "Antigone"

I did not know Anouilh until I saw his Antigone in school last Thursday. It is usually read as an allegory of Vichy collaboration in occupied France, Creon representing the compromised older generation, Antigone the idealistic younger one. The play is slow-going at the start, what with the Chorus's dull explanations and the Nurse's tedious prattle. But it comes alive in the confrontation scene between Creon and Antigone. The conflict turns around pragmatism and idealism, chance and fate, job and family. 
Creon's speech about the death of Polynieces and Eteocles departs radically from Sophocles' play of the same name. In Anouilh, the brothers died joined together by the weapons they thrust into each other. They were then mashed by the battle beyond recognition, and one of these broken bodies was taken to be celebrated as a hero, and the other to be left unburied. So, Creon hammers home, Antigone cannot even be sure that she is burying her brother Polynieces. The audience…

Euripides' "Hecuba"

As I was reading Hecuba for the reading group last Monday, Hamlet's question rang insistently in my head, "What's Hecuba to him?" Euripides had a penchant for depicting strong women in extreme distress. Medea, abandoned by her husband Jason for a royal marriage, kills their children to pay him back. Left with only two children after the destruction of Troy, Hecuba is deprived of both, Polyxena sacrificed to the ghost of Achilles, and Polydorus murdered by a traitorous friend, Polymestor. To take revenge, she lures Polymestor to her tent, and has her women blind him and kill his two young sons.

I prefer Hecuba to Medea. Medea was written earlier, at the start of the Peloponnesian War, whereas Hecuba was written five years later, when the devastation of war became clear. Medea is motivated by sex-jealousy for Jason, but the play does not show us a man worthy of such jealousy. Instead, Jason is calculative, self-deceiving, and out-witted. Without sufficient motive for h…

A Celebration of Thom Gunn

The Poetry Society of America, together with Poets House and The New School Graduate Writing Program, presented last evening's reading, in conjunction with the publication of At the Barriers: On the Poetry of Thom Gunn. The editor Joshua Weiner introduced the evening with a rather formal though heartfelt speech on Gunn's work. He read Gunn's "My Sad Captains" and saluted Gunn as one too. He provided xerox copies of Gunn's revisions of that poem; what will survive of us is our handwriting. Before a mixed audience, Weiner was completely unapologetic about Gunn's homosexuality, and talked about the connection Gunn refused to deny between his head, heart and cock.

Of the seven readers, I liked Robert Pinsky's reading of Gunn best. EN said Pinsky felt the weight of the words in his mouth, and I agree. He read "Tamer and Hawk" with the rolling rhythm the lines and imagery of the poem demand. "The Gas Poker," in his mouth, was perfectly t…


I was shocked to learn a couple of days ago that Jack Wiler is dead. I met him twice, at poetry events in the city, and both times enjoyed his reading very much. He read in the same way as he talked. The poems are of a piece with the life. He exterminated pests for a living. After he read my book I sent him, he asked if he could do anything for me. It was a generous gesture. That Facebook exchange took place less than a month ago. Jack was tall, and, though gaunt, looked strong. He was fifty-nine.

Death and birth. Joe Fritsch, whom I also met at Cornelia Street Cafe, has started a blog. He is twenty-one, and has just moved into the city. I wish I am twenty-one. His poems are already crafty and poignant. But more, I recognized in him my restless ambition to make something of myself, to reach for whatever is swifter, higher, stronger (Baron Pierre de Coubertin). Perhaps I am projecting. Perhaps all my relationships are always about me.

Shall I see Jack's death through Joe's eye…

"Nexus New York: Latin/American Artists in the Modern Metropolis"

The lure was at least double. I had never visited El Museo del Barrio on upper Fifth Avenue and I did not know much about art in the Americas. The museum has just reopened after a modest makeover. I did not like the plasticky colors in its lobby and shop, both of which imitated the corporate look of better funded boutique museums. The lobby, shop and cafe space could have been given over to the art.

Because the art was so compelling, and still looked crowded in the slightly expanded galleries. The "Nexus New York" show was so much more than Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. They were there, she represented by "The Suicide of Dorothy Hale," and he by his drawing for the Rockefeller Center mural. But there were also Cuban Carlos Enriquez and American Alice Neel, husband and wife, and artistic rivals in their figurative art. Placed side by side, their paintings of each other,  their surviving daughter (one died),  and neighbors were a fascinating study of influence and di…

Gregory Woods reviews "Ganymede Poets One"

Gregory Woods, the professor of Gay and Lesbian Studies at Nottingham Trent University, reviews Ganymede's first anthology of poetry. Having enjoyed his book of poems Quidnunc (review), I am pleased by his mention:
...what impresses me here, before we even begin on the content, is the quality of the verse. Christopher Gaskins, for instance, impresses me not so much for what he says as by the way he says it in lean, sinewy, unsentimental free verse. The same might be said of Matthew Hittinger¹s syllabics and Jee Leong Koh¹s disciplined, rhyming quatrains. And there are always individual lines to take one¹s fancy: I did enjoy this sentence from R.J. Gibson¹s "On Main Street": "Like some classist / prat in a Forster novel with a boner for the help, you want a little trade."

Walter Kaufmann's "Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist"

In grappling with Nietzsche's ideas, Kaufmann appreciates fully his experimental style. He writes:

The elusive quality of this style, which is so characteristic of Nietzsche's way of thinking and writing, might be called monadologic to crystallize the tendency of each aphorism to be self-sufficient while yet throwing light on almost every other aphorism. We are confronted with a "pluralistic universe" in which each aphorism is itself a microcosm. Almost as often as not, a single passage is equally relevant to ethics, aesthetics, philosophy of history, theory of value, psychology, and perhaps half a dozen other fields.
Despite Kaufmann's appreciation of this "pluralistic" style, he wants to piece together Nietzsche's aphorisms and show his thinking is coherent and systematic. This program goes against not only his style but also Nietzsche's criticism of philosophic systems as a way of stopping thought. Kaufmann sees Nietzsche's perspectivism a…

Keith Huff's play "A Steady Rain"

Two Chicago cops tell the story of their suspension for being derelict of duty, a story of vice, alcoholism, drugs, cannibalism, marital infidelity, violent shootings, dead or dying children . . . and soon you begin to wonder how much more can the story take before descending into melodramatic TV cop drama, and then you realize not very much. Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman try hard to make the script work, but in vain. You wonder what their agents were thinking when they got their stars the gig. Jackman over-acts as the tough, trigger-happy, family man. Craig is more natural, easier to watch. His love for Jackman's wife is the most believable part of the Keith Huff script. The production at Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre is directed by John Crowley.

Chinua Achebe at 92Y

Chinua Achebe was interviewed by K. Anthony Appiah at 92Y last night. Things Fall Apart, the only Achebe novel I read, is about the coming of the Christian missionaries into Igboland, Nigeria. I read it after reading Ngugi wa Thiongo's The River Between as a teenager, and loving it. The occasion for the 92Y reading was the publication of The Education of a British-Protected Child, a collection of personal essays.

While Achebe's father converted to Christianity, his father's uncle resisted the missionaries' message. Achebe said last night he himself wants to hold to a "middle way," to see the good and the bad about the brief period of colonialism Nigeria underwent. He said that such a perspective is traditional Igbo. One of the good things was his own schooling at the government college set up by the missionaries. He described his amazement at the number of books in the library. It was a paradise for a story-loving boy.

The father of modern Nigerian literature…

Looking In: Robert Frank's "The Americans"

The Met exhibition features all 83 of the photographs in Frank's "The Americans," made on a cross-country roadtrip in 1955-56. The experience of seeing the photographs on the wall was very different from that of viewing the images in a book. Looking at the photos so carefully sequenced by Frank, I was led in a linear fashion from room to room, and so experienced in a small way the journey he undertook to record the common joys and sorrows of Americans. At the end of the roadtrip, I had the sensation of experiencing an epic.

Each section of his book, and of the exhibit, begins with a photograph of the American flag. The flag hides the faces of two women looking out of a tenement. It declares its patriotism from the top of a bar, between Washington and Lincoln. Translucent and bright, it descends from nowhere, like a spirit, onto a family picnic. The photographs are juxtaposed to bring out subtle connections and contrasts. Detroit workers on a hellish assembly line gives w…

"Equal" Reviewed in O&S

Grady Harp reviewsEqual to the Earth in the November issue of O&S. The review quotes generously from the book. The magazine is a beautiful production, showcasing the work of many artists and poets.


"The Cambridge Companion to E. M. Forster"

I read A Room With a View again, at the beginning of the school year, in order to discuss their summer reading with my students. This time I found the book dispiriting in its call for "courage and love," when its author did not heed his own call. Of course his times criminalized homosexuality--and punished it in a thousand other ways--but why call to the blood as if one is in the vanguard of change?

Forster stopped writing novels after publishing A Passage to India. Many reasons have been advanced for that, some of which are rehearsed in this 2007 collection of essays, edited by David Bradshaw. The reason I find most persuasive is one Forster himself alluded to in his diary. He was tired of writing heterosexual romances and marriage plots but was prevented from fictionalizing what he most desired: homosexual relationships. Maurice he wrote, but did not intend to publish. How many writers are willing and able to keep writing novels destined for the locked drawer?

Some criti…

Poem: "The Dying and the Living"

The Dying and the Living

Water came swimming inward as the tide turned.
They saw far off a stranded dog rushing madly around
A dry patch of sand that was getting smaller and smaller.
--Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, “Tower of Storms, Island of Tides”

Your dog is dying, and he is the first
creature you observe, at firsthand, decline
from sure health to the helplessness you nursed,
his heart swelling and choking off his wind,
decline so every symptom seems the worst,
but is, like a cloud darkening, a sign.
Your dog is dying, and you seem to die,
the hard part called confidence, to my eye.

You see your ex-wife holding up the life
of her collapsing mother, see from far
devoted love but not the deadly strife,
but you know for a fact the murder there.
My ex’s father does not know his wife
but claims all the familiar stranger’s care.
The dying and the sick exact sympathy.
They are the cloud you see and do not see.

My father, told of the death in his lungs,
the swollen walls, the fast-collapsing sacs,
would have—she said—…

"Hamlet" directed by Michael Grandage

The production from The Donmar Warehouse in London comes to Broadway, at Broadhurst Theatre. TH and I watched it on Tuesday. I think SS is right when she said Jude Law, as Hamlet, tried too hard. He did not manage to shake off his celebrity and immerse himself into the role, but overacted to the point of caricature. Contrary to his own advice to the players, he sawed the air too much with his hands.

Kevin R. McNally's Claudius was a defensive dictator. In his poignant prayer scene, you almost want to forgive him for killing his brother and king. I did not like Geraldine James as Gertrude: her queen looked the part but had no center. Peter Eyre was a very human Ghost, and an extraordinary Player King. His speech about Hecuba was the best thing in the performance. He recited the speech as a whole, living thing; Jude Law recited his soliloquies line by line. Ron Cook had Polonius down to a T. Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Ophelia came up with only inconsistency. I could not understand a word of…

Poem: "In His Other House"

In His Other House

In this house there is no need to wait for the verdict of history
And each page lies open to the version of every other.
--Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, “In Her Other House”

In my other house too books line the floor to ceiling shelves,
not only books on investment, catalogues, self help books,
but also poetry, Edwin Thumboo, Lee Tzu Peng, Alfian Sa’at,
and the one who moved away and who wrote Days of No Name.

My father comes home from the power station and when rested
(and this is how I know this is not real) he reads to us again,
for the seventh time, Philip Jeyaretnam’s Abraham’s Promise
in a sweet low voice, unbroken by a frightened young supervisor.

When he closes the book, my dead grandfather stirs from a dream
and says a word or two, that really says he has been listening.
And my beloved, knowing his cue, jumps up from the couch
to clear the dishes, for, as he says, dishes don’t wash themselves.

Softly brightened by a feeling I do not hurry to identify,
I move to the back of him an…

Poem: "Weight Lifting Man"

Weight Lifting Man

As the heat from the fire drew up the chimney,
The flame pressing, brushing out the last thread,
Constantly revising itself upwards to a pure line.
--Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, “Woman Shoeing a Horse”

In the city,
in a room lit
bright as a mortuary,

I have seen a pure line
quivering between

a man steeped in sweat
a weight,

dumb, repetitive, heroic,
and for that
I ache.


Freaks of Nature

TLS October 9 2009

from Jennie Erin Smith's review of Mark S. Blumberg's Freaks of Nature and what they tell us about development and evolution:

In 1998 the Spanish biologist Pere Alberch died in his sleep at the age of forty-three, nine years after having written a remarkable essay called "The Logic of Monsters".
Blumberg uses the subjects of this book--conjoined twins, men without penises, two-faced cats, Alberch's salamanders, and people born without legs--to advance separate but related arguments. the first is that the development of an embryo entails complex chemical ad physical processes involving temperature and gravity, along with proteins, toxins and myriad other molecules, of which DNA is but one. These "elaborate and complex, tortured and convoluted" processes, Blumberg laments, were intimately explored for centuries, then sidelines ever since the discovery of DNA. Yet there are myriad forms for which no gene can take credit. Two-headed ducks …

Poem: "Ideas of the Real"

Many things streaming in my head when I wrote this poem this morning. A lovely wedding yesterday. The National Equality March today. Immigration, always. What is real. What is true. What is beautiful.

Ideas of the Real

On Palm Sunday Sister Custor
Exposed her major relic, the longest
Known piece of the Brazen Serpent.
--Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, “The Real Thing”

Two days before Columbus, you find a better way
to prove a continent real: you are wedding you,
bringing strangers (family are strangers to a love)
together here to witness a special desire.

In National Newark Building, the murals dream
of freight trains pulling in, busy docks, canals,
the blending of peoples, the mart of all trades—
O, a city falters when its dreaming falters.

You build a small belief on the mezzanine.
Pivoting in the scattered ring of rose petals,
our seats arranged round like four low walls
as if to square the circle, you invoke

Neruda singing of disused military roads,
his words a blue bouquet and a lightnin…

Poem: "St. Thomas Preaching in Hell's Kitchen"

St. Thomas Preaching in Hell’s Kitchen

Now at the end of her life she is all hair—
A cataract flowing and freezing—and a voice
--Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, “St. Mary Magdalene Preaching at Marseilles”

Near the end of his life, his face is all eyes
and his hands two blisters.
Still he demands to see in order to believe,
to hold a joint as it burns.

In the restaurants the servers think
they are actors in disguise. They practice
their voice while reciting the specials in French.
They reappear at the right moment.

The tourists hope they are enjoying themselves.
They watch a play, they stroll the park,
they visit the museum
in the movie they play every Thanksgiving.

The bars are crowded with loneliness, that buzz
between drink and drunk.
Men grow old here,
without giving each other more than a glance.

Thomas knows them all, the servers and the lovers.
They hurry past him preaching on the street
or laugh at his owlish face.
When they curse him,

he knows, they will soon bless him, and ask him
to lay his blisters on th…

David Mamet's "Oleanna"

Directed by Doug Hughes, this production in Golden Theatre starred Bill Pullman as John, a liberal professor of education, and Julia Stiles as Carol, the student who accused him of sexual harassment. What seemed so clear-cut in the first scene was shown to be riddled with assumptions in the later scenes. "The play's title, taken from a folk song, refers to a nineteenth-century escapist vision of utopia" (Wikipedia). The 1992 Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings "crystallized and concretized" Mamet's dramatization (website of David Mamet Society).

The opening dialogue, laden with miscommunication and yet thick with emotion, was typical Mamet, according to TCH. Pullman was slightly theatrical, which might be explained as his professorial manner internalized. Stiles was somewhat opaque in the first scene, but came into her own later. She was revengeful, but also hurt. Designed by Neil Patel, the set, John's office, was beautiful, but perhaps too beautiful f…

Poem: "The Hospital Lift"

The Hospital Lift

The Virgin was spiralling to heaven,
Hauled up in stages. Past mist and shining
--Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, “Fireman’s Lift”

My mother is the aged Queen of the spin
of washing machines. Her body sags now
but when she was young eyed and toned
she washed St. Andrew’s Children’s Hospital,
whose best feature was its ancient lift.

I would close the iron grille with a clang,
thump the big black top button, grow up
watching the floors drop to my feet,

the bowl that glowed in underwater green

the babies crying, startled by the light

in blue gowns the kids chasing the clown

the professional look of clean white smocks

before arriving on the roof, the air
smelling of detergent, wind and sun,
the sheets flapping like giant birds.

When my mother turned to greet me
with a tight smile (now loosening indefinitely),
how was I to guess the magic act
of hauling up an ancient lift
by spinning modern washing machines?


Poem: "Woodwork"


I look, and fail, in the street
Searching for a man with hair like yours.
--Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, “I run my hand along the clean wood”

The wood to be turned into a door wedge
shows a pale grain and smells of incense.
Soft, like my palm, it keeps
the teeth marks of a vice closed too tight.
It shrinks from the metal lip of the plane.

The boy across the worktable
marks his piece with a soft pencil.
His hands, a shade darker than the wood,
handle his work as if it is a spinning top
or a Frisbee.

The workshop hums and curves
to the same drawing of a door wedge,
laminated edges fraying from past fingers.
The best mark goes
to the boy who makes the most exact copy.

Next month we work on metal.


Poem: "The Double Boy"

The Double Boy

The clock chatters; with no beating heart
Lung or breast how can she tell the time?
--Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, “The Absent Girl”

The double boy takes off his clothes.
He sees his body in the nude
face of the glass whose back is covered.

He points the mirror, like a telescope,
and the glittery dress waves
its short inverted sleeves.

No one is in the room.
The boy in the glass could get into the dress in the glass
and into the inverted bed.

The bed is rocking gently like a ship.
His body waves.
His bones wave like a flag.


Aaron Copland's "What to Listen For in Music"

A basic and helpful introduction to music for someone like me, i.e., no music training beyond playing the pianica in primary school, and strumming the guitar round campfires in high school. In this book first written in the 1930s, Copland distinguishes between listening on a sensuous plane (mere enjoyment of the quality of sound) and on expressive and sheerly musical planes. While not slighting the first, he contends that a better understanding of music increases our pleasure in it. Knowledge enhances passion, as I try (rather vainly) to persuade my students about poetry.

A chapter is devoted to each of the four elements of music: rhythm, melody, harmony and tonal quality, and the succinct discussion, giving just enough detail, builds clearly on what has been explained before. There are also chapters on traditional music forms, such as sections, fugues, and sonatas, as well as on free forms. Short passages of score illustrate the point made. They are often from Beethoven, probably be…

Transvestism, Pantomime and Striptease

TLS September 25 2009

from Allan Massie's review of John Carey's William Golding: The Man who wrote "Lord of the Flies":

The victim in Rites of Passage is the young clergyman Colley, who takes to his bed and apparently dies of shame after participating in a drunken homosexual incident on the lower deck. Some of Golding's friends believed that he had homosexual tendencies himself, and after a dream in which he had dressed up in his mother's clothes Golding wrote in his notebooks: "I pretend to be immune to such bent delights as homosexuality and transvestism, but my dreams won't let me get away with standard attitudes about myself." He dreamed of making love to two of his Oxford contemporaries and of being invited by a small Ethiopian boy "to bugger him". He declined the invitation "with a gloomy sense that he has missed the only thing the place has to offer". Such dreams represented his unconscious self, and he denied any &quo…

O'Keeffe's Abstractions and Wolfe's Trompe l'oeil

With JS I saw the show "Georgia O'Keeffe: Abstraction" at the Whitney last night. Known for her representational art (flowers, landscapes), O'Keeffe began in the 1920's as an abstract painter, and abstract painting continued to inform her dominant mode. The early charcoal drawings, which Alfred Stieglitz saw and showed at his NY gallery, were striking. In shades of gray that resemble early photography, they already showed a love for the spiral, as in the scroll of a violin, or the shiver of desert air as a train disappears into the night.

From gray she moved on to the mastery of blue. "Blue II" is a powerful spiraling in, that could be a hand or a fetus or something else. The surging organic spiral stands in sharp contrast with the sharp, flat, analytical abstractions practiced by contemporaneous European Cubism. I like her one or two-color paintings much better than the later multiple-hued pastel-like palette. A colleague described the latter aptly as …

Four Poems in "Softblow"

The October issue of Softblow, the journal edited by Cyril Wong, features four Singaporean poets: Yeow Kai Chai, Pooja Nansi, Zhuang Yisa and me. I am represented by "Cheeks," "Roof of the Mouth, Jaws and Jaw-Hinges," "The Wine Bottle Holder," and "Decorative Figure on an Ornamental Background." On Cha's blog, a reader posts a nice comment on my poems in Softblow.

Tracy Letts's "Superior Donuts"

Highly entertained and moved by the magnificent vitriol of August: Osage County, I was looking forward to Tracy Letts's latest play. Superior Donuts, playing at The Music Box, was disappointing. The plotting and characters seemed to have come out of an extended TV episode. The writing, sprinkled with punchy one-liners, was as funny as a superior sitcom.

Arthur Przybyszewski, the owner of a donut shop in uptown Chicago, evaded life and love until Franco Wicks, a young aspiring black writer who worked for him, changed him, and Arthur stood up for Franco and himself. He did so in a long fight sequence that was painful to watch because it was so bad. This was not the only mistake made by director Tina Landau. Another, more minor but telling, was the inconsistent behavior of the characters to winter in Chicago, as TH pointed out to me. The last scene compounded poor writing and directing. The characters made their excuses, one by one, to leave the shop, so as to leave Arthur with Fran…