Showing posts from December, 2009

Poem: "Bethlehem"


You come home to be counted but no room
is to be had at a cost you can afford,
having silenced the lathe and stilled the loom,
paying the hours with your heart toward
a vast accumulating sense of doom
that counts the certain end its own reward.
The journey stops, not in Jerusalem,
but backward, dirty, crowded Bethlehem.

Go into this unwholesome stable where,
before the beastly eye picks out its blank,
a stench of piss has stenciled in the air
muscular curve, bold stroke, animal flank;
hands, filling in detail of flesh, declare
the body a deposit and a bank,
care less what cock has shafted home what ass,
mad with desire and mad with disease.

The kings, they come with their gold offering,           
to bless the body’s lust with frankincense,
and bitter myrrh the body’s lingering.
The shepherds stand astonished by presence.
And you, unkept, soon to be undone, sing
of the swift massacre of innocence,
sing of the body’s torture on the thorn,
keep singing of the place where love is born.


Rob A. Mackenzie reviews EQUAL TO THE EARTH

Scottish poet Rob Mackenzie reviews EQUAL TO THE EARTH: "Koh's formalism serves the poems rather than the other way round. They are extremely well-written, moving, pointed and refreshingly unfashionable...." Nice to be read and compared with George Szirtes' latest book.

I knew Rob through the online poetry workshop PFFA. As a poet he is always innovative and yet principled. As a critter he balances judgment with generosity. His first full-length collection of poetry The Opposite of Cabbage was recently reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement. I conducted an email interview with him on his book.

A Single Man and Invictus

Am I the only one to hate Tom Ford's directorial debut "A Single Man"? I just read the imdb user reviews and they all lapped up the movie. The same things they loved--the parade of well-cut suits, the Kennedy-era authentic details, the cold detachment of the camera--repulsed me. Based on the Christopher Isherwood novel, the film is about a man's grief after the death of his lover. Colin Firth, who plays English professor George, goes through the motions of a day at the end of which he plans to kill himself. Firth looks uncomfortable in the picture, as uncomfortable as the British expatriate in  in his perfect Californian suburban house his character is. Julianne Moore has a wonderful turn as Charley, fading beauty, divorced and hopelessly in love with George, and nearly steals the show from Firth's grief.

I guess I don't believe in George's mourning for Jim (the handsome Matthew Goode). There is insufficient irony between his grief and the material perfec…

Rockettes and Ghazals

Saw the Radio City Christmas Spectacular yesterday afternoon with my sister, brother-in-law and two nieces, H who is five, and L who is one. The show was not as enjoyable as I hoped. The Scenes, as they were called, were lavish, but not very imaginative. That left the dancing, by the Rockettes. I thought the choreography was so-so, the range of emotions limited, and when the famous precision was less than precise, what was left? This sounds more disappointing than I actually felt, sitting in that grand theater, with its scalloped proscenium stage. Both H and L were captivated throughout. I thought H showed some taste when she said her favorite scene was the first, the one with the Rockettes dancing as reindeer, and pulling Santa's sleigh. It was fresh and fun then, before it felt like more of the same.

Precision and innovation. Watchwords for my ghazal sequence too. Sometimes surface precision can overshadow deep innovation. I think the full sequence of my ghazals will garner extr…

Laura Cumming's "A Face to the World: On Self-Portraits"

Why do artists paint self-portraits, Cumming asks, and so expose themselves and their art to the accusation of narcissism? Her answer is that self-portraits "make artists present as the embodiment of their art" and they often do so to ask who this person is who is looking back from the mirror. Cumming's book is a series of linked essays, roughly chronological in order, from Jan Van Eyck to Cindy Sherman, focusing mostly on paintings. 

A mighty gallery of artists are discussed under rubrics such as "Eyes," "Behind the Scenes," "Mirrors," "Stage Fright," "Loners," "Egotists," "Victims" and "Pioneers." Their inclusion demonstrates that self-portraiture is a main branch, and not a mere off-shoot, of the artistic tradition. Individual essays are devoted to Durer, Rembrandt and Velazquez, and these are the best chapters in a very interesting book. Cumming's discussions of Durer's Christ-like…

Poem: "Fever Fragments"

"Fever Fragments" is written in response to Idra Novey's "As in Cincinnati," which in turn responds to Kimiko Hahn's "these toys." This extending wire of communication, branching out into others, will be published online next summer as Telephone Project, edited by Jonathan Farmer, poetry editor of At Length.

Fever Fragments

Can you forget what happened before?
—Sappho, “Six Fragments for Atthis”

The picture is still so clear to me
I cannot imagine you cannot see.
The fire’s marks are red, and burn;
I turn and turn for your return.

Then I see what I did not see:
you see a different part in me
that when the cold and dark return
the fire in you will burn and burn.


All smoke now, the white stars, the stupid wax
that crouched too fast under the hooded heat.
No stub of toe, no crust of tears, no sex
but dissipating wisp, finished, incomplete.


I would make accusation a form of love
except it has been done before.


Sundays we watched the Giants fumble
another play, but so…

Marion Shaw's lecture "Larkin and Tennyson"

HS made me a copy of the revised text of the Distinguished Guest Lecture delivered at the Larkin Society AGM on 13 June 2009. In the lecture, Marion Shaw discussed Larkin's ambivalence towards Tennyson, how he at once excoriated the Laureate's silliness and envied the poet's, and his period's, "range, the colour, the self-confidence of it all" (Required Writing, p. 182).

Using Bloomian theory in The Anxiety of Influence (1973), a book Shaw describes as "slightly mad," she reads three poems by Larkin as  "corrections" of his poetic predecessor. "Lines on a Young Lady's Photograph Album" directly quotes "sweet girl-graduate" from Tennyson's The Princess. The "heavy-headed rose/ Beneath a trellis" also works within a field of Tennysonian reference, in particular that of his early English Idylls, perhaps "The Gardener's Daughter." The narrator of Tennyson's poem is a portrait painter who …

"Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Impassioned Eye" (2003)

JS, EN and I braved the snow last evening to see Robert Frank at the Met. It was strange: I did not like the show of photographs as much as the first time. Many of the photos were really not very interesting, and seemed to be there in "The Americans" for the sake of theme than for their individual aesthetic power. JS said that he has seen many images at Flikr as good as the ones in the show. I guess Frank should get some credit for doing it first.
Perhaps I have been influenced by the documentary on Henri Cartier-Bresson called "The Impassioned Eye" (2003). The photos of the French Master wielded great power, as a result of what he called the alignment of the eye, mind and heart. Some photos were more concerned with geometric form, others with emotional mystery, but they were all individually beautiful. I love the images of old Matisse with his birds. History was captured at the liberation of Paris, the death of Gandhi and the Communist takeover of China. This was a…

Colored Balls of Wool

TLS December 18 & 25 2009

from Frank Whitford's review of Vincent Van Gogh: The complete letters, edited by Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten and Nienke Bakker:

Though self-absorbed, the letters testify to both the uncertainty and single-minded struggle of a painter who suffered, in the beginning at least, from a lack of facility, even from clumsiness. Like Cezanne, Van Gogh had to work hard to achieve anything. Then he discovered how to take strength from his weaknesses.
High-key colors helped him convey his feelings and so influence ours. A key passage about his painting "Interior of a Cafe at Night" (1888) explains how he did this.
In my picture . . . I have tried to express the idea that the cafe is a place where one can ruin oneself, go mad or commit a crime. So I have tried to express, as it were, the powers of darkness in a low public house, by soft Louis XV green and malachite, contrasting with yellow-green and harsh blue-greens, and all this in an atmosphere like a dev…

Sarah Sarai's "The Future Is Happy"

If a poet can be cheerful without being nauseating, Sarah Sarai is she. Her optimism is undergirt by a restless intelligence, a hardheadedness about the world, and a willingness to be vulnerable. She hears happiness in a tenor sax and hipness in Count Basie's Band. Music buoys her sufficiently to dance and sing:

There's no foot in the grave, only the dead.
Swing time. Bebop. If you need more, I can't help you.
(from "The Future Is Happy")

Most of her poems, unlike the one I just quoted, are not crowd-pleasers in a poetry reading. They are too dense with cultural, historical and literary references to be understood at one hearing. They are better read and heard in the quiet of one's own room. They are friendly (many of them are dedicated to friends) but not flattering. Sometimes they are too heavy with cultural freight ("In Denzel Washington's Gaze" and "We All Know Things Together"), but at their best their knowingness gives them exten…

A fun interview to do

In To Views features a brief interview with me. It may be a fun interview to read.


Gregory Woods's "Articulate Flesh" Post 2

This book of gay poetry criticism is divided into two sections: Themes and Variations. Under the rubric of Themes, Woods examines The Male Body, Men of War, and Childless Fathers. In the first, he describes from the literature of men who desire men the specific attractions associated with each year of adolescence. After that fascinating chronology, he explores the three ideal male physiques in Western art, and their correspondence to mythical and historical figures that recur in gay male poetry. The discussion of Orpheus is of great interest. Woods writes:

Intact, torn and scattered: such are the three conditions of the body of Orpheus. The first, being the condition, also, of Apollo already dismissed, is negligible. But the second and third bear some relation to the nature of sexual appraisal and activity, insofar as looking at and making love to a person may be deeds of dismemberment. 'The true body is a body broken.' So says Norman O. Brown, before quoting Yeats: 'Nothin…

from Gregory Woods's "Articulate Flesh: Male Homo-eroticism & modern poetry"

The book begins with a white-hot description of the male body. "Three types of male physiques, " writes Woods, "three distinct ideals, occur in Western art: the adolescent pliancy of Narcissus, Apollo's form but graceful maturity, and the potency of Heracles, tacitly poised on the verge of deterioration." He elaborates:

The three physical types correspond with sexual types. The adolescent may be endowed with an indefatigable penis, but is chiefly admired for the delightful promise of his backside. Shakespeare is not interested in his boyfriend's penis (sonnet 20). . . .Heracles is the opposite type, unequivocally phallic. When he lays down his club, he is still heavily armed. His musculature seems designed for the pinning down of loved ones, while the phallus does its work. He and the adolescent, as sexual opposites, together form the perfect couple: Heracles and Hylas, Hadrian and Antinous.Between the two lies the adaptability of Apollo, the single couple: …

Gregory Woods's "A History of Gay Literature: The Male Tradition"

Gregory Woods is the Professor of Gay and Lesbian Studies at Nottingham Trent University. In A History of Gay Literature, he does not so much as constitute an alternative literary tradition as show the centrality of gay writing (broadly defined) to "mainstream" literature. It is astonishing that so much of what we take as the canon is written by men who loved men. This book then, almost encyclopedic in its scope, is not just for the gay reader who seeks to understand his literary heritage; it is also for the straight reader who wants to discover the sources of his pleasure in this writing.

Like other gay critics and anthologists before him, Woods names names. Many of the names are by now familiar, but others--like T. S. Eliot--are not usually discussed in this context. That is one pleasure of this book: the re-orientation of a familiar waste land. Yet other names still attract debate. The chapter on Shakespeare homes in on the interpretation of Sonnet 20, often used by strai…

Eboo Patel's "Acts of Faith"

Acts of Faith is the biographical story of a man growing up American, (South) Indian and Muslim. Patel's Ismaili Muslim parents moved from Bombay to the United States in search of a better life, and so Patel grew up between worlds. If the coming-of-age story sounds familiar, Patel enlivens it with well-chosen anecdotes and an interesting cast of characters, including a meeting with the Dalai Lama.

The book is also an argument for religious pluralism over what it calls "religious totalitarianism." Its main thesis is that behind religious terrorists, who are almost always young people, are charismatic leaders and established institutions who have reached the youths in a way that mainstream religious organizations have failed to do. While interfaith organizations have existed for a long time, they are dominated by greybeards ad so appear irrelevant to young people. Inspired by heroes in different religious traditions, and by the discovery of diversity within Islam itself, P…

Ten impressions of PoCC, and one thought

I returned last night from the People of Color Conference with a mixed bag of impressions and one main thought. The impressions first:

1. I do not like the term "People of Color." It implies White is not a color. It assumes too much similarity or solidarity between different ethnicities. It emphasizes racial and ethnic diversity over other kinds of diversity such as gender, sexual orientation and socioeconomic status. It is also not a term with which I can imaginatively identify.

2. John Quinones, an award-winning TV journalist, told the compelling story of his rise from immigrant poverty to mainstream success. The story highlighted the personal qualities of ambition, perseverance and talent. It described racist discrimination but also the advantages afforded by his ethnicity. My impression is that the crucial difference in Quinones lies, not in his circumstances, but in his response to his circumstances. The difference is the mystery of character.

3. It is easier to talk ab…

People of Color Conference Dec 3-5, 2009

I'm off today to Denver, to the three-day People of Color Conference, organized by the National Association of Independent Schools. First time attending the conference, first time in Denver too. The conference program looks packed, so there won't be time for gallivanting around the city. No time for shoot-em-ups.

According to wiki, the city is nicknamed the Mile-High City because its official elevation is exactly one mile above sea level. It sits in the bowl of the South Platte River Valley, east of the Front Range of the Rockies. Downtown is just east of the confluence of Cherry Creek and the South Platte River. Always good to know the names of the running waters nearby.

The 105th meridian west of Greenwich runs through Union Station, making it the reference point for the Mountain Time Zone. The zone is two hours behind Eastern Time Zone.

Perhaps I will bring back a poem from the wild West.


A dream

I woke up in a strange bedroom, a red plush chair standing from the clutter. I thought I had gone home with someone, and he would walk into his room any moment now. What would he be like? This must be a dream since I was sure I had fallen asleep in my own room. I tried to see my room in that room but the strange room stayed stubbornly. Then it left, and I was bereft.