Saturday, October 31, 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 last book published when he was still sane, the same writer whose Zarathrustra gives me the epigraph for my book: “I walk among men as among the fragments of the future—the future which I envisage. And this is all my creating and striving, that I create and carry together into One what is fragment and riddle and dreadful accident.” Needless to say, Durer, like Nietzsche, was German.  I have bought Cumming's book to read. According to the review, she writes about the other self-portraits I did--Rembrandt, van Gogh, Schiele, Kahlo--but not Warhol and Morimura. 

 From Elizabeth Lowry's review of Laura Cumming's A Face to the World: On self-portraits:
The most immediately recognizable of these [self-portraits] is Albrecht Durer's full face self-portrait of 1500, with its fur collar and long streaming hair, "a triangle of metal bright locks, not a single tendril out of place". Cumming is excellent at annotating the picture's "peculiar golden radiance", its charisma and almost oppressive vitality. It is the defining advertisement for Durer the man and artist, an icon rather than a representative image . . . . And it seems to have been worshipped as an icon by future generations of German artists, appearing in numerous later prints and in Georg Vischer's "Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery" as the face of Jesus.
Cumming argues with great brio that this most pictorialized of self-portraits in fact embodies the fusion of art and artist. The serenely detached pose, shoulders squared, the finger of Durer's right hand pointing meaningfully at his own chest, is baffling until we look at it closely. The triangular mass of hair, the crossbar of the beard: what are they other than the counterpart, writ large, of the A of Durer's own trademark initial in the top left-hand corner of the painting? The maker and his image, the product of his prodigious talent, are one. Yet Cumming perhaps dazzled by the self-confidence of that face, stops short of drawing the obvious conclusion. If the face is Christ-like, it is a Christ meant for a humanist age, exalting the divine in man. "Whatever he feels, whatever he senses in his fingers, ought to connect straight up to the face, but when you get there all explanations are frustrated." Really? Look again. The finger, the face, are quite clearly saying "Ecce Homo", Durer's is, as Cumming rightly claims, the alpha and omega of self-portraits.

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 does not know if Creon is telling the truth, but his attempt at weakening Antigone's resolve signally fails. 

There is much meta-reference to the audience's need for a heroine who embodies purity and fate, in the midst of filthy compromise and random chance. I am particularly impressed by the scene in which Antigone dictates a love letter to a guard for her fiance Haemon (again not in Sophocles). Unworldly idealism is transcribed by self-serving interest. Events overtake the writing, and the guard never learns for whom the letter is intended. This scene is a poignant allegory itself of a writer's condition in the world.

Friday, October 30, 2009

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 her actions, Medea's murder of her children risks appearing sheer madness. Hecuba, on the other hand, depicts the terrible losses the queen suffers, in the form of an apparently never-ending stream of bad news, and so explains the terrible revenge she is motivated to perform, when Agamemnon refuses to give her justice. Hecuba is a kind of reverse Medea. As if in response to the critics of his children-slaughtering mother, Euripides imagined a mother who suffers the losses of her children at the hand of others.

Hecuba, written soon after Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, also seems to respond to that great play. The blinding of Polymestor with brooches reworks Oedipus' self-blinding with his wife-mother's brooch. The difference is striking. Oedipus' action acknowledges the inescapable power of fate and the gods. Polymestor's punishment, however, is wrought clearly by a human. HS pointed out at the reading group that no gods appear in this play, and hardly any mention of them. Hecuba then is set in a world of sheerly human suffering, justice and revenge.

And being so human, Hecuba is difficult to interpret, let alone judge. In the first half of the play, our sympathy is clearly with her. Messenger after messenger come with news of death and loss. In a beautiful and terribly ironic speech, Hecuba cries out:

how shall I deal with this thronging crowd of blows.
these terrors, each with its petition, clamoring
for attention? If I try to cope with one,
another shoulders in, and then a third
comes on, distracting, each fresh wave
breeding new successors as it breaks.

The image of petitioners, so familiar to the former queen of Troy, resonates throughout the play. Only when her petition to Agamemnon for justice is rejected, does she take matters in her hands. Though her blinding of Polymestor is understandably "just," what is one to make of her killing of his two young sons? It is not poetic justice: a son for a son is not only hideous logic here, but strict equivalence, if such a thing is ever possible, would demand she kills one son, and not two. The ambiguity extends to the mock trial Agamemnon holds after her act. Though Agamemnon's judgment of Polymestor is right, the judgment is a foregone conclusion since the Greek king has made a pact with Hecuba beforehand. Even justice is tainted by injustice.

This human messiness is related to human ignorance. Thinking she is at the bottom of fortune's wheel, Hecuba is ignorant of her plight at the start of the play. The messengers bring her knowledge, which devastates her but also enables her to act. The play ends, however, with Polymestor "prophesying" the fates of Hecuba and Agamemnon, an action that emphasizes their return to ignorance. No such return is possible in Oedipus Rex. Oedipus finds out, and suffers. If knowledge is suffering in Sophocles' play, knowledge is action in Euripides', a brief decisive action, before we sink back into the mud of ignorance.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

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 thrilling in its unforgettable final image.  Before reading "A Sketch of the Great Dejection" with the philosophical seriousness it deserves, Pinsky remarked with admiration that Gunn was plain, but never obvious.

Tom Sleigh was another good reader of Gunn. He read "Saturday Night," "Yoko," ""All Do Not All Things Well," and "Memory Unsettled." Though the poems' rhetorical structure did not come through as clearly as with Pinsky, he read with a great deal of sincerity, if that is the right word. He was most comfortable with "Yoko."

Wendy Lesser read two great poems of Gunn: "Duncan" and "Lament." She read well, but her reading made me think that Gunn could only be read aloud by men. "Lament" is conceivably written by a woman, but read in a woman's voice, it sounded a little too shrill, even too sentimental. I don't think I am being sexist here. There are certain women poets who cannot be read aloud by men without losing too much. Sharon Olds, for example. Perhaps the body, and the embodied voice, in these poetries is so insistently male or female that an opposite sex reader sounds transgendered. That performance is fine if it is part of the poet's agenda, but neither Gunn nor Olds wants to be so, I think.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


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 eyes--sympathetic, engrossing but finally uncomprehending? Or shall I look at Joe as if I am dead Jack? What the fuck, Joe, would you want to start a blog for, when we are all going to die? Do I have a choice, whether to be Joe or Jack today? Or will the weather decide for me?

Monday, October 26, 2009

"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 divergence. Neel's painting "Well Baby Clinic" was a scene from hell.

Mexican-born Marius de Zayas, who with Alfred Stiegltiz, brought the first Picasso show to New York, was represented by his satiric cartoons of American personalities. The images of Joaquin Torres-Garcia's New York street scenes might prefigure Pop Art, but they were even more interesting in their abstract relationships. You could see the artist developing that abstraction into a language he called Universal Constructivism. There was a hard curatorial balance to maintain between relating Latin American artists to their more famous American and European counterparts and seeing them as themselves. I think the show succeeded in maintaining that precarious balance.

In the permanent collection, a big painting called "Totemism" was peculiarly compelling to me. I don't remember the artist's name, and could not find it by googling. Unlike most images of totem, this one not only zoomed in but also filled merely the left half of the painting. The right half was painted in a bold yellow that was fierce and spiritual. The painting was both abstract and figurative, line and color, in a fusion that was totally original.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

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."

Friday, October 23, 2009

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 as a method by which he arrived at his positive doctrines (such as the will to power and eternal recurrence), and not as a more radical critique of philosophical thinking. So the experience of reading Kaufman on Nietzsche is very strange. You are grateful for his clear exposition of Nietzsche's ideas, but keep feeling he is missing the point.

On Nietzsche's perspectivism, S turns me on to Alexander Nehamas' Nietzsche: Life as Literature. I hope to read that soon because its aestheticist thesis sounds instinctively right to me. As Hazlitt has it, the language of poetry is closely aligned to the language of power. Nietzsche's will to power is directly related to the will to create, or re-create. Max Cavitch, in his American Elegy: The poetry to mourning from the puritans to Whitman, makes a passing reference to Nietzsche's debt to Emerson's Over-Soul for his idea of the Over-Man. Nietzsche did make a reference to Emerson somewhere in his writings; I should try to find it. The connection between Nietzsche and Emerson, Nietzsche and Goethe, points towards Nietzsche's Romantic precedents, though he is heavily critical of the German Romantics such as Schiller.

Besides its Romanticism, the Protestantism of Nietzsche's self-overcoming also appeals to me. S calls it, perhaps unintentionally derogatorily, self-help. That label minimizes the abyss we all face after the death of God: nihilism. Or to put the problem positively, what should we live by. Eternal recurrence may or may not be a cosmological doctrine in Nietzsche's book, but it seems to me a noble ethical ideal. Amor fait. To love one's fate enough to desire the recurrence of one's exact circumstances. I can't desire that at the moment (what a waste my twenties appear to me), and that gives me ethical, and creative, work to do. "You shall become who you are" is how Nietzsche put it in The Gay Science.

At the end of his chapter "Morality and Sublimation," Kaufmann summarizes beautifully Nietzsche's ethical views:

Our impulses are in a state of chaos. We would do this now, and another thing the next moment--and even a great number of things at the same time. We think one way and live another; we want one thing and do another. No man can live without bringing some order into this chaos. This may be done by thoroughly weakening the whole organism or by repudiating and repressing many of the impulses: but the result in that case is not a "harmony," and the physis is castrated, not "improved." Yet there is another way--namely, to "organize the chaos": sublimation allow for the achievement of an organic harmony and leads to that culture which is truly a "transfigured physis." 

The will to power also offers an alternative to the Darwinian will to survive, which has always struck me as too minimalist an explanation. The will to survive may explain why we have a thumb, but I would rather know why Shakespeare wrote the works he did, and not Ben Jonson. It's a stretch to claim that the writing of The Tempest is fundamentally a matter of survival. More likely, as Prospero reminds us, it is a matter of power, and its surrender.

As Nietzsche himself wrote in The Genealogy of Morals of the will to power:

. . . the material upon which the form-giving and ravishing nature of this force vents itself is man himself, his . . . animalic . . . self--and not . . . other men. This secret self-ravishment, this artists' cruelty, this pleasure in giving form to oneself as a hard, recalcitrant, suffering material--burning into it a will, a critique, a contradiction, a contempt, a No--this . . . work of a soul that is willingly divided against itself and makes itself suffer--this whole activistic "bad conscience" has . . . been the real womb of all ideal and imaginative events and has this brought to light an abundance of strange new beauty and affirmation--and perhaps beauty itself.--What would be "beautiful" is contradiction had not first become self-conscious, if the ugly had not first said to itself: "I am ugly"? 

Thursday, October 22, 2009

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.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

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 in English sat throughout the interview in his wheelchair. He spoke slowly, even haltingly at times, an idea searching for a word. He was completely unpretentious. Appiah, opposite him, was the dapper cosmopolitan, with the practiced manners of a Harvard don and circuit speaker. Achebe, in contrast, appeared old and simple and grand.

Monday, October 19, 2009

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 way to fat-cat politicians at the Democrat National Convention. An African American infant left alone to fend for itself in an empty bar turns into a cherubic white boy enscounced between the protective figures of two women. Sometimes the link is linguistic. Stars on the flag in one photograph, and in a diner on the next become a Hollywood starlet in the third.

LW remarked on the rhythm set up by this visual procession. Many of the photographs actually show people in motion. Where they are still, they are photographed in a tilted manner that lends them dynamism. Cars and roads appear and reappear like a musical motif. A man who died in a motor accident still speaks of the thrill and danger of the road. Nietzsche describes the decadent style as one which has lost organic unity, so a part leaps out at the expense of the whole. "The Americans" have memorable individual images, but the whole of it seems greater than the sum of its parts. Perhaps that was the promise of the relatively young art of photography: a way of overcoming decadence.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

"Equal" Reviewed in O&S

 Grady Harp reviews Equal 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.


Saturday, October 17, 2009

"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 critics argue that closeted homosexuality gave force and subtlety to the early novels. That may be true for some writers, but Forster did not seem to belong to that tribe. Or he grew away from that tribe. Such criticism may also be allied with the unspoken desire that homosexual writers keep their nastiness out of sight. Why do queer writers flaunt their queerness, is one version of this kind of criticism, which may come from both straight and gay readers.

Friday, October 16, 2009

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—my mother hold her tongue.
What did he fear? Not we would turn our backs.
He feared the angry loving of the young,
the ambulance duty and the air attacks.
Told he recovered, miraculous relief,
he celebrates, I suffer, our reprieve.

Lovers enjoy the lightning bolt of love,
which charges blind motes in the atmosphere
and makes wide differences a matter of
interest, first, then, contention, and so, cheer.
When the sick load falls screeching from above
and flattens the town, all seems familiar
but not a blade of grass grows from the ground,
and then the bloody crying fails its sound.

There can be no fair symmetry between
the dying and the living, young and old.
We suffer in advance what pain has been
for dogs, for homos, the prehistoric cold
that calls for overcoming the unseen;
we learn to live in weathers not foretold.           
I may yet learn to live with your decline;
if not, I have to learn to live with mine.


Thursday, October 15, 2009

"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 her mad speeches.

The minor characters had very little stage presence, with the exception, perhaps, of Gwilym Lee as Laertes. In his duel with Hamlet, Jude Law was convincingly the better fencer. The direction brought out subtly the homo-erotic feelings Horatio (Matt Ryan) has for Hamlet, I thought. Finally, the poetry, the inspired poetry, survived it all. "The play's the thing,/ in which to catch the conscience of a king."

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

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 and put my arms around his waist.
His muscles twitch like the needle on a motorboat’s dashboard
as he turns a porcelain plate against a rough cotton cloth.

The light from the window looks like a huge, blank sea.
In this other house there will be time to fill it but now
the bell rings with a deep gold tone, and here, on a surprise
visit, are my sister and her two girls coming through the door.


Monday, October 12, 2009

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.


Sunday, October 11, 2009

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 are the result not of mutations but of being jostled in utero; temperature, not chromosomes, will determine the sex of a crocodile; the free martin, a sterile and hermaphrodite cow, results from hormone having passed over from a male twin.
Nor, Blumberg's second argument goes, should genes be blindly invoked in such behavourial matters as learning to walk, since "there is no need to hardwire that which is learned through experience". Blumberg's monsters . . . are able to thrive thanks not to hardwiring but the opposite--innate flexibility--and discover ways to walk expertly on their hands, or coordinate graceful movements with a conjoined twin.
It was Pere Alberch who reconsidered the Darwinist position; the "infinite" external forces of natural selection had to be constrained, Alberch believed, by internal rules of development. Monsters, Alberch argued, offer a window on to these rules, as "they represent forms which lack adaptive function while preserving structural order. There is an internal logic to the genesis and transformation of such morphologies, and in that logic we may learn about the constraints on the normal".

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 lightning bolt,
the murmur of Tasso’s waves, and a judge’s
closing on the spirit of the law on marriage.

If poets and judge are real, so are we,
the strangers permitted into your country,
for we hear you, a scholar and a poet,
to mean I want when you say I do.

for Chloe and Hans


Saturday, October 10, 2009

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 their heads.
Not the tourists. They see his swollen eyes
and drop a coin in his tin.


Friday, October 09, 2009

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 for an academic still anxious whether he would get tenure. The play was short, more like an one-acter, elongated by the slow rolling up and down of the blinds between scenes.

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?


Thursday, October 08, 2009

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.


Wednesday, October 07, 2009

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.


Monday, October 05, 2009

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 because he is most familiar to the reader, but also because he ranks very high in Copland's pantheon. Other composers mentioned more than once include Palestrina, Bach, Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Webern, Roy Harris. As to be expected from a contemporary composer, Copland makes a pitch for modern music: it is difficult, he acknowledges, but it is continuous in its use of musical elements with what has gone on before.

To illustrate "free" forms, Copland, rather surprisingly, refers to Bach.

Bach wrote a good many preludes (very often followed by a balancing fugue) many of which are in "free" form. It was these that Busoni pointed to as an example of the path that he thought music should take. Bach achieved a unity of design in these "free" preludes either by adopting a pattern of well-defined character or by a clear progression of chordal harmonies which lead one from the beginning of a piece to the end without utilizing any repetition of thematic materials. Often, both methods are combined. By these means Bach engenders a feeling of free fantasy and a bold freedom of design that would be impossible to achieve within a strict form. When one hears them, the conviction grows that Busoni was quite right in saying that the future problems of handling form in music are bound up with this Bach-like freedom in form.

There is a chapter on opera and music drama, in which he lines up the composers on opposing sides based on whether they exalt the word or the music. Wagner he praises for his music, but deplores for his ideas and words: total art was a failure. A chapter on film music, a genre Copland himself wrote, focuses on the process of composition and collaboration.

A good part of the book's fascination for me lies in this insider's point of view, the perspective of the maker. In an introductory section, Copland defends the "expressiveness" of music against the proponents of "pure" music. That defence seems to rest on the idea of authorial intention. The composer hits upon a musical theme and develops it the way he does because he wishes to express "something" through the music. Though that "something" is necessarily general, like an emotion, it matters as what the composer wishes to communicate to his listeners.

Copland urges the reader to listen for "the long line," the path along which a piece of music develops, and finally coheres. He describes la grande ligne this way:

It is difficult adequately to explain the meaning of that phrase to the layman. To be properly understood in relation to a piece of music, it must be felt. In mere words, it simply means that every good piece of music must give us a sense of flow--a sense of continuity from first note to last. Every elementary music student knows the principle, but to put it into practice has challenged the greatest minds in music! A great symphony is a man-made Mississippi down which we irresistibly flow from the instant of our leave-taking to a long foreseen destination. Music must always flow, for that is part of its very essence, but the creation of that continuity and flow--that long line--constitutes the be-all and end-all of every composer's existence.

In his references to the evolution of musical forms, he highlights the trend, without reifying it, towards the blurring of boundaries between sections, movements etc., and therefore a greater organicity. The "dissonance" of modern music lies in our unfamiliar ears, and is not so very different from the dissonance of earlier innovative music in the ears of its own contemporary audience. The difference is a matter of degree, and not of kind.

Because music is more "amorphous" than, say, words, Copland explains, it needs repetition to establish itself in the listener's mind. I think music's "amorphous" nature is also its advantage over the word. Anyone can enjoy a musical note for itself, but most people would not enjoy a word for itself, but demand it means something. This need for "meaning" in poetry determines, in part, I think, the art's conservatism. I don't think that is necessarily a good or bad thing, but it is a fact to contend with, if one wishes to create a new music in poetry.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

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 "real life" homosexual experience. Carey, perhaps wisely, does not indulge in further speculation, though he notes that when Golding's daughter published a novel, it was one in which the heroine's father "reveals that he was in love with another man before meeting her mother".


TLS October 2 2009

from Rowland Smith's review of Seneca's De Clementia, edited by Susanna Braund:

A growing interest among modern philosophers and cultural historians in the analysis of the emotions and the role of evaluative judgement in their formation, and in Graeco-Roman representations of philosophy as a therapeutic enterprise, a spiritual "art of life", has prompted renewed attention to Seneca's essays and letters: his "care of the self" intrigued Foucault in the 1980s, and subsequent expert readings (notably, Brad Inwood's) have built a strong case for him an an innovative and important Stoic philosopher in his own right. The focus on firsthand ethical and emotional experience in the essays is seen now as central to Seneca's philosophic purposes--and as resonating also in his drama: the theme of "constructed selfhood" and its pathologies in extemis figures strongly in recent literary analysis of the tragedies.


from Denis Feeney's review of New Directions in Ancient Pantomine, edited by Edith Hall and Rosie Wyles, and Demons and Dancers: Performance in late antiquity, by Ruth Webb:

The mime was performed by a troupe of male and female actors, without masks, mounting plots of everyday intrigue involving song and verbal wit; the pantomime displayed a virtuoso dancer--before the Byzantine period, almost invariably a man--who wore a mask with no mouthpiece, or a succession of such masks, as he silently took on the various roles of a mythological story that a singer or a chorus sang to musical accompaniment. . . . Of the two forms, the pantomime was the more popular and the more fascinating, attracting stringent censure and fanatical partisanship, with critics and fans alike mesmerized by that adaptable body, capable of gliding mid-step from being a conquering hero to a swooning widow.

For a culture as obsessed with maintenance of gender identity and hierarchy as was the Roman Empire, there was phenomenal electricity to be generated every time thousands of people gaped at a man transforming himself from his "natural" state into that of a woman and back again. These metamorphoses were accomplished with no aids beyond a change of mask, and even that was apparently not de rigueur. Otherwise, Rosie Wyles tells us in a fascinating chapter on costume, the artist had nothing but a standard robe, a scarf and metal-plated sandals with which to carry his body's multiple illusions. Webb cogently argues that this ability to occupy so many different human possibilities in sequence blurred the lines between the real and the artificial in ways that heightened already long-standing anxieties about the perils of taking on an alien habitus or watching someone else do it.


As Webb points out, the pantomime was a far more charismatic, uncanny and disquieting figure than the mime. We can all imagine being the dummy husband or the adulterous wife, but that enigmatically silent mask atop that constantly metamorphosing body posed quite different problems of identification: no surprise, then, that Webb claims to know of no funerary epitaph where the pantomime speaks in his own voice, as opposed to the many examples we have of a mime speaking in the first person.


Physically, pantomime was a highly-demanding profession, with a punishing training from childhood. A number of Hall and Wyles's contributors stress that the performers ended up being--to quote what Billy Elliot says to his father--"as fit as athletes". The ancient world too had its equivalents of Billy Elliot's father, those who scored the effeminacy of the dancer without realizing that it took a lot of hard work to look that soft . . . .


The legal and social status of the performers was nominally an extremely lower one, a notch above slavery: this is, after all . . . a society where you could brag on your tombstone about how upwardly mobile you had been in turning yourself from a musician to a pimp. In ways that are reminiscent of the status of actors and actresses in the modern world until fairly recently, the performers' nominally low status did not ba them from the possibility of mingling with the highest in society.


The interplay between the Roman and Greek dimensions of the form is very intriguing. The word "pantomime" is itself a Greek one, meaning "someone mimicking all the roles". But according to the second century AD Greek writer Lucian it is in fact the word used by those who spoke Latin; residents of the Greek East just called the artists "dancers" or referred to the form as "rhythmic tragic movement".


from Frances Wilson's review of Noralee Frankel's Stripping Gypsy: The Life of Gypsy Rose Lee, and Rachel Shteir's Gypsy: The art of the tease:

Gypsy Rose Lee (1911-70) preferred the term "Striptease Intellectual" to "ecdysiast"--from the Greek for moulting--which is the word coined by the cultural critic H. L. Mencken to describe what she did. . . . . according to Rachel Shteir, her stage appearances posed the question: "what is left when we reveal everything?".


"There must be something amusing about a naked woman talking", Gypsy speculated. "Most of the fan, muff and bubble dancers keep their mouths shit--then I came along with dialogue and they laugh at anything."

Put more accurately, Gypsy came along with monologue and her audience found themselves with better cause to laugh than to leer. It is no coincidence that her style of verbal striptease, in which she clothed her broad-hipped, flat-chested body in one-liners and double entendres, took off in the year that talkies were born. The achievement of Gypsy Rose Lee was not only to make nakedness witty, but to do so without ever being fully naked. "You don't have to be naked to look naked", she explained. "You just have to think naked."


[Shteir's study] is . . . a satisfyingly short and smartly analytical study in which cultural commentary and biography are deftly woven together, and Shteir's conclusion, that Gypsy exposed America's "pathological urge to reveal everything", is surely right.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

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 Kleenex.

The large vagina-like flowers associated so strongly with O'Keeffe I found boring. Much more compelling were her studies of white and yellow sweet pea. In those two paintings, the flowers are flowers, with their intricate and sensual layers and folds. Most painters paint flowers from a distance (you see them in a vase, for instance), but O'Keeffe plunges the viewer into them. This close-crop technique she credited Stieglitz's nude photographs of her. The show also displayed those close-ups of her hands, her breasts, her bottom.

I also saw "Steve Wolfe on Paper," an interesting repudiation of Andy Warhol's silkscreen paintings. Whitney website: "Working in the tradition of trompe l’oeil, his pieces often quite literally fool the eye on first inspection: tattered books, worn album covers, and vinyl records appear pristine but these are objects made from modeling paste, screenprints, drawings, and many other media, and they reproduce not just the thing but the individuality an object takes on as it is consumed by one or more individuals. Wolfe's objects are, in real life, ones that must be used and physically manipulated in some detailed way—books have every page turned, records every groove worn. The patina of time is thus inevitable and necessary, and leaves a record of the object’s meaning as it passes from the user's hand to mind."

The books included Gertrude Stein's short stories and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, Jack Kerouac's On the Road, Susan Sontag's Against Interpretation, George Bataille's Literature and Evil. They looked like well-used, well-loved objects.

Friday, October 02, 2009

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.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

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 Franco for their final heart-to-heart. Langston Hughes was duly re-invoked, in the title of Franco's destroyed manuscript: America Will Be.

Michael McKean played Arthur with a slumbering numbness, which might be right for his character, but not very interesting to watch. His many soliloquies about his past broke up the pace of the action, instead of giving painful perspective. Jon Michael Hill (Franco) was funny and moving in places, but went in and out of character. None of the other characters was completely believeable. Or to put it another way, they were too much of a type. The ambitious Russian immigrant. The tough woman cop who falls in love. The Trekkie. The baddie and his henchman. The bag lady who dispenses wisdom about life. It's sad.