Sunday, November 29, 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 authority and their mantle, this technique has also absorbed lessons from modern painters. The composition of the paintings, their tables slanting so precipitously towards the viewer, reminds me of Bonnard and Matisse, as does the loving attention to fabrics. A masterful and open style then. Where will it go next, when it has so many years ahead of it?

Saturday, November 28, 2009

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 last night. The first movement sounded a little too ornamental for my taste, without sufficient propulsion. The third movement sounded slight, if that makes sense. But the slow second movement was wonderful: solemn, dignified, heartbreaking. The funeral procession broke off and restarted so many times, and each time the music did not drag but deepened. The set of variations in the final movement sparkled.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

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 another love;
And I, submissive, felt
Unwanted and went out?

The first line suggests that the speaker is still together with his beloved, after the beloved's confession. Here, my story diverges from Auden's. But I can still say the line and call him "Dear" and still mean it.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

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 had as much to do with insecurity as with competitiveness. The poems are rather new; I am not sure how good they are. I wanted to read them because together they chart the arc of my relationship with TH. I wanted to mark, in some way, our breakup.

1. Floor Tiling
2. What's Left
3. Attribution
4. You Know, Don't You
5. The Wine Bottle Holder
6. Albuquerque No. 7
7. Leave with Nothing
8. The Dying and the Living
9. A Whole History
10. In His Other House


Monday, November 23, 2009

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 production played up the clash of styles in a very intelligent manner.

It worked also because the cast was uniformly talented. Jessie Austrian was a convincingly tragic Imogen: girlish and all liquid gold. Noah Brody was a touch self-conscious but he had a great voice which he put to poetic effect in Posthumus' denunciatory speeches. Ben Steinfeld was a lovable Iachimo and Arviragus. Emily Young, who also played Frenchman and Belaria, was a funny Queen. Her son Cloten was played by Andy Grotelueschen, who switched easily to playing Cymbeline and Cornelius the doctor; he was a very good clown. Paul L. Coffey played Pisanio, Philario, Caius Lucius and Guiderius. Coffey stood out among the cast for his restraint. There was a deep interiority in this actor that made me want to see him again.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Reviewing Moira Moody's Review

In Cha, Moira Moody reviews Equal 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 matter. I am "playing with forces that [my] lines struggle to restrain." I use formal schemes well by "emphasizing their confining aspects."  These comments reveal a very limited view of form: that it necessarily constrains genuine emotion, subject matter, what have you. Form as a cage. The comments show no understanding that form can be so many other things: skeleton, song, house, sword, cloud. The bias is typically American, and so I am not surprised to learn from the contributers' bios that Moody is an MFA student at Rutgers University. She could not name the form of the last section of "Hungry Ghosts" but describes it as "constrained parameters in an ABA rhythm." ABA is not a rhythm, it is a rhyme scheme.

Moody grasps that my book should be read from beginning to end, and not be dipped into. She takes her own advice by beginning her review with an interpretation of the opening sequence "Hungry Ghosts." However, her reading of that Chinese homosexual history highlights only its "illicit love and sexual exploitation." She fails to see that if the Emperor has a male favorite ( a section from which she quoted), then homosexual love back then was not illicit, or at least, not merely so. She also fails to mention the committed and socially sanctioned relationship between two lovers in "He Bids Farewell to His Brotherly Lover" and the public entanglement of power and desire in "The Scholar-Minister Gives Career Advice." Instead, Moody sees only what most westerners see in gay culture: proscription and exploitation. She does not bring the right context to her reading of the poems, and is unable to generate that context--or at least an awareness of its difference--from her reading of the poems.

That inattention to context manifests itself in the writing of the review. When Moody quotes from my book, she often does not explain the poem's situation. The quotation from "Actual Landing" gives no clue to who "we" are. She quotes from "Razminovenie, or Nonmeeting" a quotation embedded in the poem but that quoted quotation would have been perfectly mysterious to someone who has not read the poem. One of the two quotations from "Hungry Ghosts" ends, and dangles, mid-phrase. The poem is not even allowed to contextualize itself.

Are there good things in the review? Moody points out the vital importance of the sea as a source of the poems. She also senses "the energy and mystery" that drive the book. But what to make of a sentence like "The poet writes to dominate the lines, but the writing sometimes dominates" coming after a discussion of the power of words to sustain love (in "Razminiovenie")? Or of the opening description of my poetry as "dynamic yet challenging," as if the two qualities are opposites? Perhaps Moody means "exciting but potentially offensive to readers who hate the idea of gay sex." Or "interesting but not as easy to read as People magazine." I don't know. It's hard to tell when a reviewer does not say what she means.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

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 from us, one violates them--this process is called idealizing. Let us get rid of a prejudice here: idealizing does not consist as is commonly held, in subtracting or discounting the petty and inconsequential. What is decisive is rather a tremendous drive to bring out the main features so that the others disappear in the process.

From Twilight of the Idols

Monday, November 16, 2009

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: two versions of his grandfather, a State Supreme Court Judge, remembered by his father and his uncle, and whose version he believes more. I was on hand to bring out the brilliance in both of them.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

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 stayed with me. Writing, for her, is a place where she does not have to meet others' expectations. She has only to please herself.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

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 noble lesson, but not a glamorous one. Marie attracts respect but not devotion. I don't think it bothers her.

The poems I remember from Springing: The Bird Catcher, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, are intricate timepieces. They exude a Swiss luxury. These kinds of poems reappear in Easy, poems like "Walking Home from the Museum," an inverted sonnet, and "Thank Gerard," a prayer of thanksgiving. But there are many more poems that are relaxed, carefree and even mischievous. The diction in them is simple. The rhyme scheme, if they have one, is playful. They are spoken in the voice of a cocky Head Turkey, a self-effacing middle sister of Peter Rabbit or one Grimm Brother to the Other.  Marie read a blues poem that she said she would not have put in a collection earlier because she would have thought it lacked gravitas. It was liberating to see a poet breaking free of poetic decorum.

The new poems are not just fun, but their freedom captures, paradoxically, something of the world's ineffability. One of the strongest poems in this collection is "This Bridge, Like Poetry, Is Vertigo." It is a response to Blake who proclaims in the poem's epigraph, "In a time of dearth bring forth number, weight & measure." A stirring line, but Marie would have none of it. She looks to cloud, instead, for a bridge, for "This dawns on me: no cloud is measurable."

The clarity of cloud is in its edgelessness,
its each instant of edge involving
in formal invention, always
at liberty, at it, incessantly altering.

"Each instant of edge" is very fine, the lines themselves illustrating through linked sounds what they say. The poem ends with an invocation:

Come to mind, cloud.
Come to cloud, mind.

The religious strain is strong in the new book, as in the others. It is governed by a consideration for others, and stimulated by an awareness that there is something bigger out there than us. Call it language, as Marie so often does.

Friday, November 13, 2009

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.—


Thursday, November 12, 2009

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.


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

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.


Tuesday, November 10, 2009

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.


Monday, November 09, 2009

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 my voice is squeezed out.
Just before the spot of consciousness disappears,
the ring unclenches iron and without a word
I know, bitterly, I have the Scriptures in my head.


Sunday, November 08, 2009

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 tries to kill Victor, Clara kills Sancho and is killed in turn. David goes to Miami in remorse, and Victor wins Elena in the end. A plot summary like this one can only hint at the complications, but cannot convey the stylishness of the film-making.

Javier Bardem, who played the mad man in "No Country for Old Men," is frightening in his intensity even in this melodrama. Wheelchair-bound, his rage is only heightened by his restraints. Liberto Rabal is completely likeable as the young innocent who finally gets what he wants. Neri brings a heartbreaking vulnerability to her role, but the most sympathetic character is played by Molina. Abused by her jealous husband, used by her lover for his sexual education, Clara loves helplessly and hopelessly. When Victor turns her away, she cries the outcry of the damned, "But I have enough love for the two of us."

Saturday, November 07, 2009

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.


Wednesday, November 04, 2009

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 how they could be read that way. This reading offends the Neo-Romantic ethic of sincerity in me, but it also pleases me to think how modernist it makes my writing look. I have been thinking about how to take modernism into account in my work, and lo and behold it is here among us.

A modernism not of Eliotian fragmentation, but of Poundian translation. How would the politics of this work out? It is easy for critics to dismiss my work as overly imitative (parodic) of the English poetic tradition, as colonial hangover. Neo-romanticism is still so powerful, in the UK, US, and in Singapore influenced by the USK, with its insistence on originality and individuality, and so parody, that parasite, is judged as inferior. One has to change the climate for parody. Not only to read every poem as always a parody of another, but also to sense behind every language "some imagined original in a foreign tongue." Parody: parallel song.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

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 an elegaic project that occupied her for over a decade. In her he finds, among other things, "the endless antagonism between the pressure to remember particular losses and the pressure to move, in a less encumbered way, into the historical future." This antagonism Cavitch relates to the nationalism of that period.

Writing of the poetic memorialization of George Washington, Cavitch cannily enlists two of the period's best-known novelists, Charles Brockden Brown and Susanna Haswell Rowson. Brown as an elegist "participates in the awkward but widespread poetic efforts to reconcile protoliberal ideals of individuation and republican ideals of depersonalization." Rowson, on the other hand, argues that the private indulgence of fancy is not incompatible with civic-mindedness.

William Cullen Byrant's elegaic poems in the voice of Indian mourners are a troubling instance of the politics of antebellum expansion. To examine the popularity of elegies for children, Cavitch discusses the complex example of Waldo Emerson. In both chapters, Cavitch attends sensitively to at least three different dimensions: the tensions within the genre, the corporatization of American life, and the elegist's own philosophical and political commitments. This kind of attention prevents the poems from becoming mere symptoms of history, or, the opposite danger, illusory autonomous art objects.

The same attention is brought to bear on African American elegists like Phyllis Wheatley and George Moses Horton. For them, writing elegies for elite whites enabled "a liminal incorporation into free society."They were, however, also enabled to speak of shared humanity--their suffering, rage and losses--in code.

The last chapter of the book "Retrievements of the Night" looks at Walt Whitman as an elegist. In the poetry of Drum-Taps,  Whitman practiced a writing of "remains," that is, "a writing not just about unassimilable pieces or fragments of wartime experience, including erotic experience and memorable glances, but writing that is itself characterized by patchwork, discontinuity, and open-endedness." In the process, he discovers "a moral substitute for statistical analyses of the costs of the war and for the forms of mourning--stoic, efficient, authoritative--that derive from such analyses." In his interpretation of "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" Cavitch would have Whitman succeeding, and not defeated, in generative re-combination. As he puts it, "Whitman lingers upon the experiential threshold of the swamp not as the thrall of traumatic repetition but in order to equip himself for a more creative dreamlike movement." I am not sure if his close reading of the poem persuades me this is so, but it is a very attractive thesis.

Monday, November 02, 2009

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 of Europa led to the founding of Thebes and Oedipus' tragedy. The Chorus makes literal what Antigone tries to make Creon understand: the past is not past, but how we see the past is who we are. Though Will Bond who plays the Chorus stumbles a few times over his lines, his voice is ravishingly beautiful, a storyteller's voice.

The staging of the play is also extremely artful. There is so little action in the Greek play, and so much verbal confrontation. Seizing that insight, the production sits the characters round four long tables put together into a diamond. When the characters are divided by debate or interrogation, they sit at opposite tables. When they persuade or negotiate, they sidle up to adjacent tables. Creon is first seen at a back table, the distant and forbidding tyrant, talking as if on TV. When he finally moves to a front seat, he appears monstrously big. When Tiresias comes to Creon, the blind prophet walks slowly on the tables and stands above the seated tyrant, and so makes visual his superior knowledge. When chairs are removed to the sides of the stage, their owners show their distance from the center of the action. The staging also obviates the need for exits and entrances; the characters stay on stage the whole time, sitting quietly or dimly lit when it isn't their turn to speak. LW remarked on the Sophocles-like swiftness of this production's pace.

Makela Spielman plays Antigone persuasively as a resolute human being. Akiko Aizawa's Ismene speaks with an accent, disconcerting to me at first, but later becomes a potent marker of the play's translation and transplantation from its origins; the Greeks did not speak with American accents either. In fact, the cast speak in a variety of accents. This may sound cliched, but Aizawa's face is mask-like, and I fancy that is closer to the Greeks than the others' more naturalistic acting. Haemon is another interesting casting choice. Leon Ingulsrud is a bulky, heavy-faced man, not what one would fancy for a romantic lead. But his acting is so convincing that he makes me change my idea of Haemon. Stephen Duff Webber is a very good Creon, the army commander turned incompletely into a civilian politician.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

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 My Secret is small compared to his later films, but it has a sweet perfection that is very watchable. In this film he assembles some of the themes, situations and characters that dominate the later work. Leo is one of a string of Almodovan women, strong but driven to near-madness. The power of sisterhood is depicted not only through the engaging relationship between Leo and her uglier and less successful sister, but also through the community of village women. Leo's relationship with her mother would become the main theme of the later film Volver, just as the trashed novel would give that film its plot trigger.

The Flower opens with an educational video teaching student doctors how to break bad news to relatives in denial. The film-within-a-film device is one of Almodovar's favorites. The medical analogy reminds me of Talk to Her, set mostly in a hospital, focused on women in coma. The dance production that revives Leo's hope for life also looks forward to the dance piece that opens Talk to Her. Here dance is hopeful--the cook returns in triumph to the stage, her son puts up the production of his dreams--but dance in Talk to Her is despairing and obsessive. That change speaks, perhaps, of a director's vision deepening.