Showing posts from November, 2009

Michael de Brito, figurative painter

Leslie Lohman was closed (for Thanksgiving?), and so KM brought me to Eleanor Ettinger Gallery on Spring Street to see an artist he aspires to be. Michael de Brito, 29, paints his Portuguese American family around a dining table, presided over by his Grandma. The paintings are photographic in their ability to capture the social interaction and the bric-a-brac around the table, but they are also wholly paintings in their confident brushstrokes.

Here they are, these people who would have looked so familiar if you pass them on the street, but who look so strange--or is the word, fresh--in a painting. The ubiquitous mineral water bottle appears familiar and strange too on the dining table. Traditional technique but novel subjects. Novel not only because contemporary but also culturally particularized. Not culturally theorized but particularized. Not detail instead of theory, but detail as theory. No ideas but in things.

And the technique so proudly recalling the Old Masters, for their aut…

Riccardo Muti conducts Honegger and Beethoven

Last night, with LW, I heard Arthur Honegger (1892-1955) for the first time, played by the New York Philharmonic. A native of Switzerland, he studied at the Paris Conservatory and banded with fellow students--Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, Georges Auric, Germaine Tailleferre, and Louis Durey, with Eric Satie as spiritual godfather--to become known as Les Six. Symphony No. 2 (1941), played by a string orchestra and a lone trumpet. was composed during the Nazi occupation of France, which Honegger refused to leave though he could claim neutrality as a Swiss. The symphony is in three movements. The trumpet comes in at the very end to support the strings in a chorale-like finish. An economy of means, fitting, perhaps, to a wartime symphony.

I always fear disappointment when going to a performance of Beethoven's symphonies. Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic are in my head, and no performance will, of course, sound like them. I thought Muti gave an uneven interpretation of the Eroica…

The Vocabulary of Grief

AH, hearing of my breakup, wrote me a loving email of consolation. At the end of the message, he wished for me that I would find "the vocabulary of grief" to express my sadness. To speak, and to speak with all the precision and tact such a situation requires would be a relief. It is beyond me right now. But Auden comes to the rescue this morning. While grading poetry papers, I stumble on this lyric written in March 1936, that I knew but forgot.

Dear, though the night is gone,
The dream still haunts to-day
That brought us to a room,
Cavernous, lofty as
A railway terminus,
And crowded in that gloom
Were beds, and we in one
In a far corner lay.

Our whisper woke no clocks,
We kissed and I was glad
At everything you did,
Indifferent to those
Who sat with hostile eyes
In pairs on every bed,
Arms round each other's necks,
Inert and vaguely sad.

O but what worm of guilt
Or what malignant doubt
Am I the victim of;
That you then, unabashed,
Did what I never wished,
Confessed anoth…

Reading at Cornelia Street Cafe

Elizabeth Harrington asked Jackie Sheeler and me to read with her last night, and the reading at Cornelia Street Cafe was seamed with gold. Without prior consultation, all three of us read poems about family. Perhaps with Thanksgiving in our minds, we read about childhood, sickness, loneliness and loss. Jackie's poems deployed detail and imagery in a most telling way. Her assured performance elicited every response from the audience the poems aimed for. Betsy's reading voice was quieter, and perhaps more hesitant, but her poems came out of the deep pit of self.

I read mostly new poems, about my grandfather, my father and TH, and did not quite find my groove. Afterwards EN pointed out perceptively why. I was influenced by Jackie's accomplished reading, and so semi-consciously tried to read like her to get the same audience response she did, although my poems are built differently. EN and I thought it was my competitive streak showing up again. But this morning I think it ha…

Fiasco Theater's Cymbeline

Access Theater was not easy to get to. Located south of Canal Street, and not in the usual theater neighborhoods, it perched at the top of eight flights of steps. You might also mistake the other small theater on the same floor for it, as I did, since there were no signs except for xeroxed posters of Fiasco Theater's production of Cymbeline.

But access is not just a matter of geography, of course; it is also emotion and physicality. The last two Fiasco Theater had in spades in their exhilarating performance. No fancy stage sets or props to hide behind.  Just 6 actors and a trunk. With tremendous joyful energy, they pumped Shakespeare's late romance for all its poetry, comedy, melodrama and, yes, tragedy. The scene in which Belaria and the boys mourned over the supposedly dead Imogen was heart-breaking. The pathos turned abruptly, magically, into silliness when Imogen revived and touched the headless Cloten. Instead of smoothing out the play's mixture of genres, this produc…

Reviewing Moira Moody's Review

In Cha, Moira Moody reviewsEqual to the Earth, alongside Two Baby Hands, another book of poems by another Singaporean with the same last name. Fortunately the review makes no cutesy pun. It sees the two books' very different aesthetics but finally, unfortunately, shies away from any evaluation, settling for the anodyne conclusion that "Their volumes are equally promising and rigorous in the different directions they take, and together only suggest that the country's poetic climate is not easily reduced." For a very different judgment of Gilbert Koh's Two Baby Hands, read Nicholas Liu's review in QLRS. Liu enjoys wielding the knife a little too much, I think, but his opinion is incisive and well-supported.

Moody, on the other hand, has doubts about my style but does not quite come out to say them. The doubts are more or less consciously expressed in her choice of words. She refers, for example, to my use of "the rigidity of form" to contain subject m…

Nietzsche on Artistic Frenzy

Toward a psychology of the artist. If there is to be art, if there is to be any aesthetic doing and seeing, one physiological condition is indispensable: frenzy. Frenzy must first have enhanced the excitability of the whole machine; else there is no art. All kinds of frenzy, however diversely conditioned, have the strength to accomplish this" above all, the frenzy of sexual excitement, this most ancient and original form of frenzy. Also the frenzy that follows all great cravings, all strong affects; the frenzy of feasts, contests, feats of daring, victory, all extreme movement; the frenzy of cruelty; the frenzy in destruction; the frenzy under certain meteorological influences, as for example the frenzy of spring; or under the influence of narcotics; and finally the frenzy of will, the frenzy of an overcharged and swollen will. What is essential in such frenzy is the feeling of increased strength and fullness. Out of this feeling one lends to things, one forces them to accept fro…

Prairie Fire Reading at American Theater of Actors

Yesterday I read at Peter Chelnik's reading series, together with Susan Maurer and Patricia Carragon. The reading took place in the 140-seat Chernuchin Theater, one of four performance spaces in the American Theater of Actors. Since there were about 20 of us altogether, the raised seating looked rather forlorn, but the poetry and the attention more than made up for the numbers. Both Susan and Patricia read some really interesting pieces, and the open-mic was one of the best that I have ever heard. I read a poem from each section of ETTE: "Hungry Ghosts," "Florida," "Blowjob," "Brother" and "Montauk." I sold two books, one to EN who turned up despite a cold. JF also came, and the three of us had dinner afterwards at the Cosmic Diner, and chatted about family, heritage and intellectuality. EN told a wonderful tale about the vent that connected his parents' house to his grandparents'. JF came back at him with a mystery story: …

Page Turner: The Asian American Literary Festival

The Asian American Writers' Workshop expanded its annual awards ceremony into a literary festival. The one-day event took place yesterday at the Powerhouse Arena, in Dumbo, Brooklyn. Two separate readings took place at every hour from 11 AM to 6 PM. I attended the 4 PM session "Sex and the Cities: Stories of Love & the Metropolis" with readings by Hari Kunzru, Monique Truong and Mort Baharloo. From where we sat we could hear the other reading, and so it was hard to concentrate, especially during the mic-wrecked question-and-answer that followed.

The day ended with a reading by Jhumpa Lahiri, the main reason why six students, who studied her work last year, came with me. This was my third time hearing her read, and she continued to wow me with her thoughtful poise. When someone from the audience asked an obnoxious question, she declined firmly but gracefully to give an answer. In her replies to her interviewer, she did not try to say more than she meant. One answer st…

A Tribute to Marie Ponsot

I took a year long manuscript course with Marie at 92Y last year. In class she would ask us to describe a workshopped poem instead of judging it immediately, and we discovered that description is also a form of judgment, but keener-eyed. Last Thursday, the New School Writing program, where Marie teaches, and Pen American Center sponsored an evening's tribute to her. It also launched her new book, with the wonderful title, Easy.

The large Tishman auditorium was less than half filled. I felt a little sad about that. She has won all kinds of awards but I've always felt that she is in danger of being under-appreciated. The story most often told of her life is that of a poet who published a first book when young and then her second thirty years later. In that interval of apparent silence, she was raising seven children and spending a few minutes each day writing. The moral for young poets, which a number of readers that night rehearsed, is not to rush into publication. It is a nobl…

Poem: "The Old Wallet"

The Old Wallet

he cannot see from the surface
of a wealth he cannot keep
--Eavan Boland, “Making Money”

Pocket of pockets, my old wallet keeps
the likenesses of long dead Presidents,
credit card, coins, stamps, memberships,
but not a photograph of love. My reason?
I thought that the mind is a fitter place
for images of illimitable grace.
The old wallet will do for society
but soul resides not in skin but in me.
Yet now I see the mind exchanges love
so easily for venom and forgets
the daily accumulation of its debts
and bad seasons it is a veteran of.
So I am asking for a photograph,
Love, on love’s behalf.—


Poem: "A Whole History"

A Whole History

In the morning they were both found dead
Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history.
--Eavan Boland, “Quarantine”

The floor is cold with the coming winter.
I pull on white socks
and sit down before the blackout window
to think about our separation closing in.

We have a history longer than the two years
that fitted like a shirt.
You learned a long time ago to enjoy ironing.
I always had someone ironing shirts for me.

But we go further back than birth, to furtive
park encounters,
coded glances, tapping on bathroom walls,
ways of staying warm and white in winter.

Yesterday a young friend said it’s wrong
to expose children
to a gay wedding. The chill hit me again.
Rage spread like blood over my clean shirt.

I cannot wash it off. You are no longer willing.
In the closet the shirt,
part reminder of love, part reminder of rage,
is held up by its shoulders on thin twisted wire.


Still Blue: Writing by (for or about) Working Class Queers

Wendell Ricketts, the editor of this online publication, calls for more fiction, essays, poems, memoirs by (for and about) working class queers. Read the villanelle by Colm Toibin and Maura Dooley. Submit, submit.

Poem: "Attribution"


I speak with the forked tongue of colony.
--Eavan Boland, “The Mother Tongue”

My grandfather said life was better under the British.
He was a man who begrudged his words but he did say this.

I was born after the British left.
They left an alphabet book in my house, the same one they left at school.

I was good in English.
I was the only one in class who knew “bedridden” does not mean lazy.

I was so good in English they sent me to England
where I proved my grandfather right

until I was almost sent down for plagiarism I knew was wrong
and did not know was wrong, since where I came from everyone plagiarized.

I learned to attribute everything I wrote.
It is not easy.

Sometimes I cannot find out who first wrote the words I wrote.
Sometimes I think I wrote the words I wrote with such delight.

Often the words I write have confusing origins
and none can tell what belongs to the British, my grandfather or me.


Poem: "What the River Says"

What the River Says

The body is a source. Nothing more.
--Eavan Boland, “Anna Liffey”

I too compare my life frequently to a river,
small hidden beginning, final dissolution,
body charged with a name but always changing.

It is a place to live by, to keep a few chickens
or raise a city famous for its graceful bridges,
if one cares for good eating or reaching across.

On mornings when the rear courtyard is stony,
how enjoyable to walk to the water and hear
its gossip about the young lovers parting upriver.

The annual swelling is a power for great evil
but also a pregnancy. It carries boats and people.
For explorers, there is a chance of a waterfall.

Sinners, those hybrid creatures, like centaurs,
may drive their reluctant horses into the flood
and experience total absolution in an instant.

So, if my body is a river, I won’t dismiss it
as a source and nothing more. It is a source
of my voice but it is also my voice: that is

what the river says on its way to the sea.


Poem: "The Scriptures"

The Scriptures

But I was Ceres then and I knew
winter was in store for every leaf
--Eavan Boland, “Pomegranates”

Because my father has no story to bequeath
his son, I make up stories to live by. I am
the Dragon Prince who falls into forbidden love
and so is banished from the palace of the sea.
On days when the sun brandishes its magic swords
I journey to the West as wily Monkey God
to fetch the Scriptures, fighting demons on the way.
From my right ear I draw my tiny magic pole
and whip the fox spirit with a springy cane
or else, expanding the prod to a temple pillar,
crush a snake demon with the majesty of heaven.
How powerful I feel then, how abject my foes,
how full of light the rounded world, a bursting peach,
until the ring my father set around my head
tightens and digs into my flesh, my skull. I roll
and tumble through the seven worlds but not the ring.
All of my reach contracts into a burning hole.
I cry, “Mercy!” and hear the fox squeal in my ears,
and hiss like the snake as m…

Poem: "One Humor"

One Humor

From where I stand the sea is just a rumour.
--Eavan Boland, “Our Origins Are in the Sea”

In medieval theories of medicine, one humor
escaped the logic of the lovely charts.
From where I stand the sea is just a rumor.

I love the way the year cycles into summer,
the sun characteristic as the parts,
in medieval theories of medicine, of humor.

But from the times, closely watched, swells a tumor
and the tide of recrimination starts.
From where I stand the sea is just a rumor.

Damn the homosexual. Blame the consumer.
Fault the degeneration of the arts
or medieval theories of medicine. Ill humor.

Fear grows like barnacles on baby boomers
while the young sails resent the ancient farts.
From where I stand the sea is just a rumor.

We hold to different memories of summer
as yellow bile possess our yellow hearts.
In medieval theories of medicine, one humor,
from where I stand to see, was just a rumor.


Almodovar's "Carne tremula" (1997) or "Live Flesh"

This may be my favorite Almodovar so far. "Live Flesh" may not be as haunting as "Talk to Her" or as moving as "Volver" but it is an idea perfectly executed. No self-indulgent bulges nor forced shortcuts, it is as well-proportioned as its dishy lead Victor Plaza (Liberto Rabal). Love and its obsessions play out with formal symmetry among two married couples and an outsider.

Elena (the very beautiful Francesca Neri) and David (Javier Bardem) are married, but Victor loves Elena. Sancho (Jose Sancho) and Clara (Angela Molina) are married, but David had an affair with Clara, and she has now fallen for Victor. After learning of David's affair with Clara, Elena made love to Victor. David wants to use Sancho to kill Victor, but finds out, from Victor, that Sancho, having found out about David's affair with Clara, fired the gun in Victor's hand at David and crippled him. David goes ahead to tell Sancho of Clara's affair with Victor. When Sancho tr…

Poem: "The Rooms I Move In"

The Rooms I Move In

the bay windbreak, the laburnum hang fire, feel
the ache of things ending in the jasmine darkening early
--Eavan Boland, “The Rooms of Other Women Poets”

I have moved in the rooms of other women poets
and, seeing African violets, checked if they needed water,

careful not to disturb the stolen time in the chairs,
the swivel leather seat, the one with a high cane back.

The desks, if there was one, were bright with circumstance
cast by an Anglepoise lamp, crooked, articulate.

The window might look out on an old monastery
but the door opened its ear to a cry or a creak.

Such rooms I moved in when I move between the men
thick with desire they thrust into another’s hand,

before your face I offer the flower of my mouth,
red in the red light but also out of the red light,

a wild hibiscus impossible to label chaste
if my red mouth is not so chastened by my need.


Pound and Parody

TLS October 30 2009

from Christopher Reid's review of Helen Carr's The Verse Revolutionaries: Ezra Pound, H. D. and the Imagists:

. . . it does seem that, for Pound, authenticity of voice could only, or most reliably, be attained through translation or adaptation. Even those poems of his that might have come about solely as expositions of the pure Imagist manner--miniature masterpieces like "In a Station of the Metro" and "The Garden"--wear an air of pastiche, as if behind each of them lay some imagined original in a foreign tongue, most likely Japanese or French.

Reid's comment on Pound as pastiche helped me understand an editor's comment on the ghazals I submitted. He said, "They read like the most exquisite parodies of Pound translations from Chinese and Japanese, yet they also do work as original poems do." The slipperiness of imitation, translation and parodies! I did not write the ghazals as parodies, exquisite or not, but now I see h…

Max Cavitch's "American Elegy"

The full title of the book is American Elegy: The Poetry of Mourning from the Puritans to Whitman, and the book is as ambitious as its title sounds. It questions the bias of American literary criticism towards the novel and posits that poetry, elegy in particular, provides a powerful frame through which to view literary transactions with cultural transformations. Elegy had from ancient times been highly self-conscious of its mixture of precedent, transmission and invention. In the American Revolutionary and early national periods, elegy was "at once the most elite and demotic of mourning genres," Cavitch argues. It involved all reasonably literate people, as readers and writers; it was available to black writers who were still slaves.

To give shape to the vast mass of material, Cavitch focuses on a representative elegist or two for each period, while not neglecting other significant figures. To represent the Puritans, he selects Annis Stockton who memorialized her husband in…

SITI Company's "Antigone"

Yet another Antigone, this one adapted for our times. Written by Jocelyn Clarke, directed by Anne Bogart, created and performed by SITI Company, this Antigone protests the American invasion of Iraq and rejects facile and sinister attempts at reconciling the real divisions in American society. It looks steadily, compassionately, at war's casualties, as the fighting proceeds street by street in the Theban war against Argos. Creon suspends civil rights in the name of state security, and puts the protesting Theban elders under house arrest. Pressed again and again to marry Haemon for the sake of national unity, Antigone refuses to compromise on her beliefs, though she loves her childhood friend. The political message is clear in this production, but it is also artful.

One aspect of its artfulness lies in its use of the Chorus. To counterbalance the play's contemporary allusions, the Chorus tells the story of the past. In captivating installments, he explains how Zeus's capture…

My poem in "Los Angeles Review"

The sixth issue of Los Angeles Review, published by Ren Hen Press, is out. My poem "What We Call Vegetables" is in it, along with contributions by Michael Czyzniejewski, Lydia Davis, Barry Graham, Naseem Rakha, Deborah Ager, Alex Lemon and Steven Almond. Essays. Fiction. Poetry. Reviews. Get your copy.

Pedro Almodovar's "La flor de mi secreto" (1995)

Leo Macias, played by a vivifying Marisa Paredes, cannot accept her marriage is dead. Unable to write the romance novels she churned out under the pseudonym Amanda Gris, she takes a job as a book reviewer with newspaperman Angel (Juan Echanove). Not knowing she is Gris, Angel assigns her to review her own book. He also falls in love with her but she cannot return his love, since she still hopes her husband would return to her. When her husband Paco (Imanol Arias) kills all hope, she is so depressed that she attempts suicide, and then leaves Madrid with her mother to return to the latter's village. Weaving with the village women, Leo may recuperate but her desire for life is only rekindled when she finds out that her anti-romantic novel she trashed helped to fund a flamenco dance production put up by the son of her cook. So art saves her finally, saves her for life.

A comment on imdb credited this film with Almodover's turn from formless farces to rich melodramas. The Flower of…