Monday, June 29, 2009

Willa Cather’s “My Ántonia”

The novel is deceptively artless. Its plainspoken language, so fit a match for the Great Plains pioneers it describes, can appear almost naïve. But it is not. According to Wikipedia, Cather’s first novel Alexander’s Bridge was heavily influenced by Henry James. She abandoned the Master’s ornate style in favor of a simpler language when she wrote about the Nebraskan homesteaders she knew while growing up.

Narrated by Jim Burden, the novel is his coming-of-age story when he moved from Virginia to live with his grandparents on a Nebraskan farm, after the death of his parents. The five books trace the different stages of his life. In Book I, he was a child who fell in love with the pioneering life. Book II narrates his teenage years in Black Hawk, a small town, when his grandparents grew too old to farm. In Book III Jim was a student at the University of Nebraska. About to enter Law School, he returned to Black Hawk for the summer in Book IV. In the last book, he returned to Nebraska again, but this time as a married man, and a successful New York City lawyer. Each book is shorter than the last, with some subtle results. First, the largest part of the book is given over to the childhood years, the best years, as the novel would have it. The construction also gives a strong sense of the accelerating speed of Jim’s life as he grows up, and, the reverse of the coin, the rapid loss of the earlier years. Not only in its mood, but also in its structure, the novel proves true Virgil’s line, quoted in the epigraph: Optima dies . . . prima fugit.

Intertwined with the Bildungsroman is a romance. Jim first sees Ántonia, and her Czech immigrant family, in the train that brings him to Nebraska. They discover they live on neighboring farms, and they become inseparable, first in each other’s company, and then in each other’s mind. Passionate, independent, tough, Ántonia is a fully realized, if highly romantic, character in Jim’s narrative. But she is more. In the novel’s introduction, Jim’s childhood friend agreed with him that Ántonia means to them “the country, the conditions, the whole adventure of our childhood.” The love for Ántonia is also a love for the country that is the Great Plains. That she is an immigrant reinforces the idea that American culture is immigrant culture at heart. Even Jim, like Cather herself, knows geographic displacement personally. When he returns in Book V to visit Ántonia and her large family, he sees in her a richly tempered mixture of the personal, national and universal:

She lent herself to immemorial human attitudes which we recognize by instinct as universal and true. I had not been mistaken. She was a battered woman now, not a lovely girl; but she still had that something which fires the imagination, could still stop one’s breath for a moment by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things. She had only to stand in the orchard, to put her hand on a little crab tree and look up at the apples, to make you feel the goodness of planting and tending and harvesting at last. All the strong things of her heart came out in her body, that had been so tireless in serving generous emotions.

It was no wonder that her sons stood tall and straight. She was a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races.


The last paragraph rises to mythic resonance, a considerable achievement when the literary fashion of Cather’s time did not consider the people she wrote about worthwhile material for even a novel. What this novel lacks in complexity, it more than makes up for in memorability, or what it calls “immemorial human attitudes," to love, loss, danger, survival, and the irrecoverable past.

NYC Pride 2009

Last Sunday I marched with the Gay Asian & Pacific Islander Men of New York, or GAPIMNY for short. Our theme was Beach Outing in the Heart of the City, which I thought was refreshingly non-ethnic. It also gave me a chance to walk down Fifth Avenue in my swimming trunks. Armed with a toy bucket, I distributed to Asian-looking guys in the onlooking crowd cocktail umbrellas on which was taped our group's website. Since I also gave out umbrellas to whomever wanted one, I was soon emptying my bucket.


Photo taken by DH


Q-WAVE, our lesbian counterpart, had the brilliant idea of flying two eye-catching home-made kites from extended fishing poles. The fish-shaped kites flew and dove as directed by those bendy poles. I carried one of them for a while, and felt the force of the wind against the pole. 


Photo taken by RK


From Fifth Avenue the march turned into 8th Street and Greenwich Village, down Christopher Street, past Stonewall Inn, before ending at Hudson Street. Our section of the march started at 12.30 and only stopped at about 3.30. Everyone was quite tired, though you cannot tell by the faces that smiled for the camera.


Photo taken by D


Yes, the march was overly commercialized, with too many corporate contingents. Yes, the march encouraged a strong exhibitionistic tendency (like mine). But when I handed a tiny umbrella to a little boy or girl, the parent smiling by the side, I knew I had given the child a good memory of gay pride. I was no longer overwhelmed and moved by the sheer number and diversity of gay people, as I had been when I watched my first march in 2004, but somewhere, in the crowd, another man was watching the parade for the first time, and, perhaps for the first time, felt it was a fine thing to be gay.


Friday, June 26, 2009

Herman Melville's "Billy Budd and Other Tales"

This Signet Classics edition collects together "Billy Budd," "The Piazza Tales," and "The Town Ho's Story" from Moby Dick. "Billy Budd" is based on the Harvard edition. There is a helpful "Afterword" by Willard Thorpe that explains Melville's turn to writing short stories for the magazines, after the commercial and critical failures of Moby Dick and Pierre. The "Afterword" (1961) also points to the critical controversies over the meanings of the more ambiguous stories, such as "Billy Budd" and "Benito Cereno."

I did not enjoy "Billy Budd" as much as I thought I would. The eponymous character is too much a symbol of Adamic innocence, and too little a human being. The interest in the first part of the story lies in the narrator's homo-erotic attraction to Billy, an attraction displaced on to Billy's admiring companions. But since Billy is as blandly exciting as a porn star, the displaced attraction lacks the kind of self-examination that might make for interest. Reading the first part of the story was a little like watching a porn producer getting off while watching his own product. The interest in the second part of the story lies in Captain Vere, the commander of the British warship, the Indomitable. He had to decide on Billy's fate after the latter accidentally killed his false accuser, the satanic Claggart. Captain Vere is too sure, however, of what he should do, and so he suffers no real anguish though the narrator assures us of the captain's better feelings.

"Benito Cereno," from "The Piazza Tales," is many things, one of which is a mystery story. Captain Amasa Delano tries to aid a distressed ship, the San Dominic, commanded by one Benito Cereno, who is strangely dependent on his black slave Babo for help. The story traces the confusion in Delano's mind as he tries to puzzle out what is actually happening on board the troubled ship. The shifting meanings of signs is a theme here; the difficulty of finding out the truth disturbs the other tales too. I did find my own mind wandering as Delano's mind wonders. The confusion goes on for too long, perhaps, or my patience is too short.

Melville writes like a post-Christian. He does not accept Christian dogma but cannot let go Christian symbols. More than symbols, he cannot let go a Christian view of the world, a dualistic view of innate good and intrinsic evil. Claggart in "Billy Budd," for instance, is described as naturally evil. Sometimes that view is complicated by his sense that the world comes to us in multiple, and often conflicting versions. So he ends "Billy Budd" by giving us an account of Vere's death ("Billy Budd, Billy Budd" on his dying lips),  a naval new report that depicts Billy as nothing more than a mutineer, and a poem written by the sailors that describes Billy as an experienced man-about-the-docks. While these different accounts problematize the authority of the narrator's own version, yet I don't get the sense that we are supposed to read the narrator's version as just one of many accounts. His version still holds sway, like the captain of the vessel. 

Among the piazza tales are plainly allegorical stories. In "The Lightning-Rod Man," the lightning-rod salesman thrives on the fear he claims to be able to assuage, and so is a neat satire of Calvinist ministers. "The Bell-Tower," with its allusions to the Tower of Babel, is a parable about man's hubris. The engineer Bannadonna invented the machine that killed him. Thorp comments, and I agree, that the pride targeted by Melville is the hubris of the newly prevailing scientific and materialistic theories of his time. The aptness of these allegories has a certain charm, but their aptness can also feel too pat. They are mysteries with a key, unlike the impenetrable mystery of the title character in "Bartleby." Bartleby the scrivener, with his stubborn "I prefer"s, represents the unexplainable will of man. It is not clear if Bartleby could explain Bartleby to himself.

The best story of this collection is not a story, more a collection of sketches. In the ten sketches of "The Encantadas, or the Enchanted Islands," Melville describes with great imaginative force and lyrical grace the geography, fauna and inhabitants of the cindery hell that is the Galapagos. Sketch First gives an overview of the islands. Sketch Second describes the two sides of a tortoise. Sketch Third looks at the stone tower Rock Rodondo, while Sketch Four looks out from it. Sketch Fifth tells the story of the U. S. frigate Essex's chase of a mysterious ship. Sketch Sixth describes Barrington Isle and the English Buccaneers who made that isle a safe hideout. Sketch Seventh narrates the tale of Charles's Isle and the Dog-King. Sketch Eighth, the story of Norfolk Isle and the Chola Widow. Sketch Ninth dwells on Hood's Isle and the Hermit Oberlus, the spawn of Sycorax. Sketch Tenth concludes with runaways, castaways, solitaires, gravestones etc., in other words, with the scattered remnants of death. Each sketch begins with a mood-setting quotation from Spencer's "The Faerie Queen," but the work this story most reminds me of is Dante's Inferno. Melville's tale describes the little hell on earth. In this tale, he plies the full power of his descriptive style, and the formal intelligence of his religious imagination. 

Thursday, June 25, 2009

When is like enough?

I don't love swimming enough to find a pool in NYC to swim regularly, but I do love swimming. The outdoor pool at Grove Hotel is small and cold. It is also too shallow at one end. Nevertheless, I swam happily for 40 minutes yesterday afternoon. This morning, turning round for another short lap, I remembered that my father taught me to swim, in the public swimming pool next to the Bukit Merah Bus Interchange. That pool, like so many things in Singapore, is gone. Behind locked gates, the empty pools stand like huge scummy cisterns. My father is not a great swimmer, but he knows the basics. School swimming lessons finished my swimming education. When I am swimming, I often imagine myself floating like a fetus in my mother. Since I am thrashing vigorously, and not floating, swimming combines the joy of independent action and the security of a womb. 

Before my swim yesterday, TCH and I walked along the beach to the Pines. I love beach walks too, and this one by the Atlantic was especially thrilling and peaceful at the same time. How does this ocean get its name, I wondered. I would like to live by the sea, I told TCH, and tried to get him to dissuade me by describing all the problems with a sea-side house. The houses at the Pines were bigger than those at Cherry Grove. Some looked as if they should be made of stone instead of weathered boards, the way they imposed themselves on the eye. Some had turned the dune into manicured lawns or artful gardens. I mocked the effort to domesticate the wild, to turn an island into a suburb, but I also appreciated the ingenuity and persistence in growing grass from sand. 

We spent much of the day reading, in the hotel room and in the restaurant Island Breeze. TCH liked the beginning of Hollinghurst's The Folding Star, but not enough to want to persist with its 400 over pages. Today he returned to his WWII novel. I persisted with Herman Melville's Billy Budd and Other Tales. The persistence was necessary since I did not take to it naturally and immediately. I was finally rewarded when I reached the tale "The Encantadas," more a series of descriptive sketches than a story. The writing there was so imaginative and masterly that I forgot all earlier strain, on my part as well as the author's, and let myself be carried away to the cindery hell that is the Galapagos.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Promising their love

Arrived on Fire Island yesterday with TCH, for a five-day stay at the Grove Beach Hotel. I was here two summers ago, alone, not having met TCH yet, and this summer I am here with him as an ex (and more). We had lunch at Cherry's Bar, where I had written the first part of "Fire Island," and where the drag performance in the heart of the sequence took place. This time, I plan to work on revising the ghazals. 

The bar was holding its annual Drag Attack competition, and a young queen who called herself Trashy Couture walked away with the golden blender. A few women there looked as if they could have been in drag, but were not. It was a jolly demonstration of gender indeterminacy. An older gentleman, with curly ginger mustache, kept warning me that I had to "pay" for the food and drinks TCH was plying me with. Another man, in just the right togs, wore a jacket that said "Mr. Fire Island Leather 2001." Competitions are a kind of communal ritual here. 

At night we heard Sherry Vine, a drag queen, sing at the Ice Palace. She had beautiful, shapely legs and a good voice. She sang songs she wrote to popular hits, and those were usually pretty obscene, lit here and there with wit. Unusually, they looked at the darker side of gay life: drugs, sexual addiction, tranny chasers. She also sang a couple of Broadway tunes, including the theme song from "The Kiss of the Spiderwoman." Most enchantingly, she sang "Amsterdam" by Jacques Brel, a Belgian songwriter I did not know. Something about the singing, and something about the song fused into an entrancing moment. Towards the end of the song, she sang:

In the port of Amsterdam
There's a sailor who drinks
And he drinks and he drinks
And he drinks once again.
He drinks to the health
Of the whores of Amsterdam
Who have promised their love
To a thousand other men.


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

I will be on TV tomorrow

Apology: The network lost the DVD and so did not broadcast the program. My apologies to everyone who tried to catch the show. I will let you know if I have a new date. 

*

I am reading my poetry on the Poetry Thin Air Cable Show, revived by George Spencer and Mitch Corber. The program will be broadcast on Manhattan Neighborhood Network Channel 67, this Wednesday between 12:30-1:00 AM (EST).

If you don't get MNN Ch 67, don't worry. You can get the internet stream by following the instructions below.

PC USERS
1. Download Windows Media Player here
2. Click on your channel 67 stream, here

MAC USERS
1. Download Windows Media Player here
2. Download Flip4Mac Player for QuickTime viewing here
3. Also download VLC media player from this page
4. Now, click on your channel 67 stream, here

Note: Try it now, or well before the show starts.

P.S. Any connection problems, email Mitch Corber Tuesday evening 9–11 pm (thinairvideo@earthlink.net). He will offer 1-on-1 phone support, so leave him your phone number.

Happy viewing!

*

Last night I read as the feature at the Saturn Series at Nightingale Lounge. Small crowd but it was nice to see friends like RNH, JMP, TF, SS, Obs and Mle in the audience. SP hosted, and DA and I had a good chat about Woodstock and the Catskills. A Facebook friend LALB, in town to do some readings, was also there, making the virtual real.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Father's Day at Citi Field

Just one more post today. About the Mets versus Rays game I watched yesterday with TCH at the new Mets Stadium. The $850 million Citi Field is a beautiful structure, fronted by the Jackie Robinson rotunda. The steel girders rise above the brick walls in an impressive show of strength and aspiration. Inside, the passageways are bright and airy, lit and refreshed by the openness of the steel frame.

It was Father's Day at the stadium. The big screen showed interviews of the players talking about their dads. The expected treacly stuff. The starting pitch was thrown by a kid, whose dad stood proudly by him. Fathers-and-sons won prizes sponsored by one company or another. The American genius for packing sports, entertainment and commerce into one enticing package. The whole Father's Day a-do affected TCH, who attended the game to distract himself from thinking he was not with his children on this day. We were supporting the Rays, the team his parents in Florida support. 

At one point the stadium cameras zoomed in on couples, and they appeared on the big screen, framed by a heart. Needless to say, the couples, though diverse in age and ethnicity, were all straight. It was a routine affirmation of hetero-normality. I realized afresh I cheer for a different team, a team not playing at home in the spanking new stadium. I was happy that the Rays beat the home team 10-6. 

Two Cautionary Tales

TLS June 19 2009

from Marina Frolova-Walker's review of Klara Moricz's Jewish Identities: Nationalism, racism, and utopianism in twentieth-century music:

Schoenberg's desire to ensure the supremacy of German music through his own work is well known, but Moricz shows that these concerns were not merely aesthetic:

[Schoenberg's letter to Alma Mahler, August 1914] I never had any use for all foreign music. It always seemed to me stale, empty, disgusting, cloying, false, and awkward . . . . Now I know who the French, English, Russians, Belgians, Americans, and Serbians are: barbarians . . . . For a long time this music has been a declaration of war, an attack on Germany  . . . . Now we shall send these mediocre purveyors of kitsch back into slavery, and they shall learn to honor the German spirit and to worship the German God.

Even the rise of the Nazis failed to cure Schoenberg of his German supremacism. From his American exile he lamented the fact that the Nazis had failed to recognize the kinship between his music and their ideology. In an English-language article published in 1948 he laid down a fascistic interpretation of his own twelve-tone system, in which the basic set of pitches acts as a "Fuhrer". . . . 

*

Unlike Schoenberg, Bloch embraced wholeheartedly the project of creating Jewish music. Had he been Russian or Hungarian, he might have followed a well-trodden path, collecting folk songs or chants, avoiding "impurities" caused by foreign influences, and assimilating the rest into his own voice. Bloch's problem was the Diaspora: Jews scattered over several continents, their communities subject to correspondingly diverse musical influences. In the absence of cohesive national characteristics Bloch turned to racial theory, and in particular to H. S. Chamberlain's The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century. No matter that this treatise was openly anti-Semitic (it was a foundation stone of Nazi ideology), it provided Bloch with the material he wanted. But Bloch's ambition to be a musical prophet for his "race" failed, as he regurgutated the old Orientalist cliches that had plagued previous attempts to construct a Jewish music. 


What's Wrong with a World without Limits?

TLS June 19 2009

from "World without limits," a version of the Presidential Address to the Classical Association, delivered by Richard Seaford:

As I argued some years ago in Money and the Early Greek Mind (2004), the pivotal position of the Greeks in world culture stems largely from the fact that the sixth-century polis was the first society in history (with the conceivable exception of China) to be pervaded by money. Coinage was invented  towards the end of the seventh century BC, and spread rapidly in the Greek city-states from the beginning of the sixth.

*

The new and revolutionary phenomenon of money itself underpinned and stimulated two great inventions in the Greek polis of the sixth century, "philosophy" and tragedy. "Philosophy" (or rather idea of the cosmos as an impersonal system) was first produced in the very first monetized society, early sixth-century Ionia, and--even more specifically--in its commercial centre Miletos. The tendency of pre-modern society to project social power onto cosmology (for example, "king Zeus rules the world") applies to the new social power of money and to much of the cosmology of the early philosophers: universal power resides not in a person but in an impersonal all-underlying, semi-abstract substance.

But the relationship of money and tragedy is no less striking. Tragedy was created shortly after the introduction into Athens of coinage. . . . Greek myth is, of course, largely pre-monetary, but in tragedy it is shaped by the new all-pervasive power of money. It is not only the obsession with money of some tragic tyrants (Oedipus, for example) that I have in mind. An entirely new feature of money is that its possession renders unnecessary in principle all pre-monetary forms of social relationship: reciprocity, redistribution, kinship, ritual, and so on. Money allows you o fulfill all your needs. It provides the power to increase itself. And it tends to promote predatory isolation. Hence the focus of much Athenian tragedy on the extreme isolation of the individual--from the gods and even (through killing) from his closest kin. I know of no precedent for this in literature, certainly not in the pre-monetary society depicted in Homer. This horrifying possibility is embodied in the figure of the tyrant (turannos), who in historiographic, philosophical and tragic texts characteristically kills his own kin, violates the sacred, and is much concerned with money as a means of power. The word "hero", the preoccupation of so much critical literature on the subject, barely occurs in Athenian tragedy, but turannos (or some form of that word) occurs over 170 times. 

*

Greeks of the classical period were anxious about the potentially unlimited scope and power of money, and this anxiety contributed to their explicit privileging of limit over the unlimited, especially but not only in metaphysics and ethics. For instance Plato in the Philebus states that limit should control the unlimited, and that the introduction of limit brings safety in countless spheres, notably in health and music. Aristotle says in the Nicomachean Ethics that "bad if of the unlimited, as the Pythagoreans surmised, and good is of the limited". This persists into the Pythagorean and Platonist philosophies that remained popular throughout antiquity.

But these Greek ideas are not confined to philosophical texts. If I was forced to characterize the outcome of Aeschylus' Oresteia in a single abstract formula, I would call it the victory of limit over the unlimited, in various respects that include the limitation of the potentially unlimited cycle of revenge and of the potentially unlimited accumulation of wealth. Among the ancient Greeks there is what I call a culture of limit. By contrast, our culture is characterized by hostility to closure (limit) in various spheres: economic, metaphysical, conceptual, narrative, and others.

This opposition is related to an opposition in basic forms of life. For the Greeks, the realm of freedom (economic and ethical) was stable self-sufficiency; and this determined the manner in which they . . . reacted to the unlimitedness of money. But we react to it in a manner determined by the fact that for us the realm of freedom is constant exchange. "Metaphysical categories", wrote Adorno, "are not merely an ideology concealing the social system; at the same time they express its nature, the truth about it and in their changes are precipitated those in its most central experiences". The same is true of the modern theoretical hostility to metaphysics, the postmodern fetishization of fragmentation, depthlessness, and indeterminacy, and its sublimation of the universe of free-floating images.


The impact of money on philosophy and drama, as outlined by Seaford above, is certainly an interesting one. Oedipus in Oedipus Rex, and Creon in Antigone are both afraid of the power of money to corrupt seers and citizens to work against them. I am less persuaded by Seaford's attempt, in the second half of the address, to distinguish between classical Greek society and modern society by valorizing the former's supposed "privileging" of limits, and condemning the latter's apparent "fetishization" of limitlessness. The distinction, and the evaluation, sounds like an over-simplification. Why is one called "privileging" and the other "fetishization"? 

The lesson taught by Walter Kaufmann in the prologue to his translation of Martin Buber's "I and Thou" comes to mind. Would-be prophets and moral teachers like to divide the world into two groups, and to place one above the other. Seaford's prioritization of the Greeks (first society to use coinage extensively), with only a parenthetical grudging admission that the Chinese could have been earlier, sounds like special pleading for an academic discipline that's losing prestige and clout. True scholarship would have encouraged a comparative approach: investigate the Chinese relationship between money and metaphysics, to see if the same Greek effect was true, and, if not, why. 

But the address is less concerned with scholarship than with with a moral critique of "the postmodern devotion to abolishing "Western" (that is Greek) metaphysics. The shorthand equation ""Western" (that is Greek)" is telling. (His commas round "Western" are cosmetic.) The "Western" is many things, besides Greek. And "Greek" itself is an impure composite. To link the postmodern critique of Greek metaphysics to unbridled greed for money--on the basis of the amorphous idea of limitlessness--as Seaford does here, is violently tendentious. Not only is postmodernism a complex phenomenon itself, irreducible to a single label or tendency, in some of those forms, postmodernism attacks the very same (capitalistic) greed criticized by Seaford. 

Limit or limitlessness--which better represents the hope for a more just and less destructive world? The question is false. Taoist and Hindu thought teach that dichotomies are inter-dependent. The truer question is, what limits, what limitlessnesses? And what limitless limits and other such complications? 

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s “Selected Poems”

Edited by Peter Fallon, this selection of poems comes from 6 books published over a period of 29 years, roughly one book every five years. Chuilleanáin was 30 when she first published Acts and Monuments in 1972, and 59 when she published The Girl who Married the Reindeer in 2001. In the first book she imagines herself reading “in a ruin/ By a sour candle” and compares the future death of a lover to a plane crash in which

You will be scattered like wreckage,
The pieces every one a different shape
Will spin and lodge in the hearts
Of all who love you.


In the last book death has come, and taken away people the poet loved. “Agnes Bernelle, 1923-1999” is a moving elegy that compares, with considerable tact, the departed with a spider “that makes her own centre every day,/ Catching brilliantly the light of autumn.”

Besides the fictions and facts of death, the poems also say life is a journey, traveling often by water. Born in Cork, Ireland, Chuilleanáin traveled to Oxford for her studies, and, later, moved to Dublin, where she teaches at Trinity College. So there are poems in this Selected about the journey back home, both literal and metaphorical. Odysseus appears twice, once in the first book, then in the second, Site of Ambush.

When the poet imagines herself the traveler, she also imagines traveling with her, leading her, the figure of a pilot. “I Saw the Islands in a Ring All Round Me” sees the pilot as “the pivot/ In the middle of a clockface.” The pilot is, possibly, many persons—lover, husband, father, and God—but he is always envisioned as male. There are tender love poems here, to a husband who is also a poet (Macdara Woods), and to a father, an academic, who was the poet’s intellectual light. The poems do not address God explicitly but he is felt behind every him.

When the woman figure is not a traveler, guided by a male pilot, she is envisioned as a lifeless body brought to life upon the action or discovery of a man. “Pygmalion’s Image” focuses on the coming to life of the stone image lying in the ferns, “a green leaf of language” twisting out of her mouth, but the title, especially in its possessive form, reminds us of the absent life-giver. “Permafrost Woman” should be read together with Seamus Heaney’s bog woman. “A Voice” also imagines a man discovering an ancient mutilated corpse of a woman. These middle poems about lifeless women are of a piece with the earlier “The Absent Girl.” This poet has a deep and abiding sense of, not the plenitude, but the blankness of life. The blank page is a recurring metaphor, a blankness that needs recurrent filling in.

When Chuilleanáin imagines women who take charge of their lives, she thinks of saints. Saint Margaret of Cortona who was “neither maiden, widow nor wife.” Saint Mary Madgalene preaching at Marseilles. These women are wonderfully independent, somewhat indifferent and mysterious to the religious establishment. Even more mysterious to men is the figure of the Virgin Mary. In “Our Lady of Youghal,” the wooden image is discovered on the beach by yet another of Chuilleanáin’s men, a lay brother. As he touches the image, “blessing himself in the entry,” the wooden image reveals itself to him in a sexual and spiritual climax,

The virgin’s almond shrine, its ivory lids parting
Behind lids of gold, bursting out of the wood.


In the marvelous repetition of “lids,” the opening of sex is equated with the opening of sight. “Lids” is so much more intimate than gates, ivory or horn, so much more embodied.

My favorite poem of this Selected is another Mary poem. In “Fireman’s Lift,” the speaker, with her lover-husband, looks at a painting of the Virgin’s ascension, in “the big tree of the cupola.”
She sees the Virgin spiraling to heaven, but she focuses on the “teams of angelic arms” that raise her.

This is what love sees, that angle:
The crick in the branch loaded with fruit,
A jaw defining itself, a shoulder yoked,

The back making itself a roof
The legs a bridge, the hands
A crane and a cradle.


Spiritual transcendence depends on bodily labors. A woman is raised up on the backs of men. The idea is so at odds with contemporary feminist ideas of sisterhood that it must constitute a challenge to those ideas. The mention of fruit recalls Eve's first disobedience, which the Virgin, in her obedience to God, now transcends. How to read this poet? Is she trapped in the male-dominated Irish Catholic and poetic traditions? Or is she a corrective to some of the excesses of radical feminism?

The poems must be their own justification. And this poem, observant, humane, and finally radiant, convinces me that those traditions are not so much deadwood of the past to be discarded, but living trees for some poet’s shelter. Marie Howe, Marie Ponsot, and now, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin. Committed to her religious and poetic traditions, Chuilleanáin finds a clearing in their woods for singing her own songs.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Sibelius' Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 43 (1901-02)

Lorin Maazel conducted the Sibelius this week. I heard it on Wednesday, and had one of those musical experiences in which everything made sense. Sitting with TCH in the second row of the orchestra, I could see the involvement in every string player's face. No sidelong smirk or knowing look. Just immersion in the anguished grandeur of the music. The second movement was particularly absorbing. The third moved into the fourth without a pause. In the fourth, the contrasting themes became one, and sounded as if they were supposed to be one all along, but was unfortunately separated by history, by time. 

From the program note:

When Rimsky-Korsakov remarked of Sibelius's Second Symphony, "Well, I suppose that's possible, too," he may have been referring to the restless sense of duality that seems to govern this score. The pastoral sunshine that bathes the opening of the first movement is soon swept away by icy winds; rather the opposite happens in the third movement, where what one might take as a snow flurry yields to a shepherd's call on the oboe. Bucolic sections are interrupted by passages that evoke grave concern or by terribly outbursts; these, in turn, are confronted by suggestions of proud defiance and resolute confidence.

Or perhaps Rimsky-Korsakov was thinking of Sibelius's distinctive orchestration. Some listeners find it thick and claustrophobic, but Sibelius was very particular about its details and they combine to create his own musical fingerprint. Consider his very typical use of the massed brass section, which often erupts into snarling crescendos (as it does prominently in the second movement). A report survives of a rehearsal of the Second Symphony conducted by Robert Kajanus, at which only two of the three trumpets were in attendance, the third having come down with the flu. Sibelius stayed only briefly and then interrupted the rehearsal to take his leave, explaining to Kajanus, "I can only hear the trumpet which isn't there and I can't stand it any longer."

The symphony was preceded by Lorin Maazel's own compositions, Monaco Fanfares, Op. 8 (1986), and Farewells: Symphonic Movement, Op. 14 (1998-99). The first was brisk as the the military fanfares played every day at the changing of the guard at the prince's palace in Monte Carlo. The second was apocalyptic in mood, with machine-like figures marching and clashing in a climax that leaves only "the dust of total destruction" (Maazel). The music was overly descriptive, I thought.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Martin Buber's "I and Thou"

"The world is twofold for man in accordance with his twofold attitude," begins Buber, translated by Walter Kaufmann. The twofold attitude to the world, I-You and I-It, is elaborated and contrasted at length in the First Part of this three-part treatise. The world as experience and use belongs to I-It, whereas I-You establishes the world of relation. When I encounter the Other (nature, human being, or spiritual being) as my You, he is not a thing among things nor does he consist of things. As You, he fills the firmament, "not as if there were nothing but he; but everything else lives in his light" (p. 59). 

The Second Part explains the history of the human race as an unfortunate increase of the It-world, and calls for a return to I-You. The Third Part argues that, whereas all other I-You's must lapse into I-It, the only eternal I-You is that which inheres in our relationship with God, the eternal You.  Relation, and not union, with God. 

I am glad I read Buber's text before Kaufmann's Prologue. In doing so, I experienced something of the spell Buber must have cast on his first readers. Primed to receive a word of wisdom and authority, I heard Buber as the You he describes. For a period of two days, I saw everything else in his light, and the light was melancholic, ecstatic and humbling. It was the light as voice, as language, attenuated as it was in translation. 

Yet Kaufmann insists that Buber's most significant ideas are not tied to his extraordinary language. In summarizing his ideas--the sacred is here and now; God is no object of discourse, knowledge, or even experience; God cannot be spoken of, but he can be spoken to--Kaufman breaks the spell. He puts Buber in context, which means Buber becomes a thing among things, and so is subject to analysis, judgment and use. How necessary It is, and splendid is I-It.

Key to his qualified admiration of Buber is Kaufmann's contention that "Man's world is manifold, and his attitudes are manifold," and not twofold as Buber states. In attitudes without a You, Kaufmann differentiates between I-I, It-It, We-We and Us-Them, apart from I-It. Even I-You comes in different modes. We like to be told, however, there are two worlds and two ways because that scheme is so tidy and comforting. And philosophers and prophets oblige us with different versions of twofoldedness. Freud's Das Ich und das Es came out in the same year as I and Thou, and its thinking too is deeply dualistic. 

Kaufmann has also interesting things to say about how much closer Buber is to Judaism than to Christianity, despite his adoption by Protestant theologians. In Buber's call for a return to God, the same return in the Book of Jonah read every year on Yom Kippur, there is no need for a sacrifice like Jesus's on the cross. To return, for Buber, is to re-encounter in the every day "the countenance of God."

Having just read Paz's "Modernity and Poetry" essay yesterday, I was struck by Buber's emphasis on the present (as opposed to the past and the future), and the presence of God. To dwell on--in--the present cures nostalgia for the past as well as fever for an utopian future. 

Sunday, June 14, 2009

A Poetry of Reconciliation

From Octavio Paz's "Poetry and Modernity," translated by Eliot Weinberger, The Tanner Lecture on Human Values, delivered at the University of Utah, 1989:

For the ancients the past was the golden age, the natural Eden that we lost one day; for the moderns, the future was the chosen place, the promised land. But it is the present that has always been the time of poets and lovers, Epicureans and certain mystics. The instant is the time of pleasure but also the time of death, the time of the senses and that of the revelation of the beyond. I believe that the new star — that which has yet to appear on the historical horizon but which has already been foretold in many indirect ways — will be the star of the present, the star of now. Men and women will soon have to construct a morality, a politics, an erotics, and a poetics of present time. This change toward the present naturally involves the body, but it need not and should not be confused with the mechanical and promiscuous hedonism of the modern Western societies. The present is a fruit in which life and death are combined.

Poetry has always been the vision of a presence in which the two halves of the globe are reconciled. A plural presence: many times, in the course of history, it has changed its face and name; and yet it remains, throughout all these changes, as one. It has not been erased by the diversity of its apparitions. Even when it has been identified with the void, as occurred in the Buddhist tradition and among certain modern poets in the West, it manifests itself — a paradoxical sign — as a presence. It is not an idea: it is pure time. Time without measure: this singular, unique, particular time that is passing by right now and that has passed by endlessly since the beginning. Presence is the incarnation of the present.

On various occasions I have called the poetry of this time that is beginning the art of convergence, and I contrasted it with the tradition of rupture: “The poets of the modern age sought the principles of change; thepoets of the age that is beginning seek the unalterable principle that is the root of change. We wonder if the Odyssey and A la recherche du temps perda have anything in common. The aesthetics of change emphasized the historical character of the poem. Now we ask: is there a point at which the principle of change will be fused with that of permanence? . . . The poetry that begins with this century’s end neither begins nor returns to its starting point: it is a perpetual re-beginning and a continual return. The poetry beginning now, without beginning, is seeking the intersection of times, the point of convergence. It asserts that between the cluttered past and the uninhabited future, poetry is the present.” I wrote those words fifteen years ago. Today I would add, the present is manifest in a presence and the presence is the reconciliation of the three times. A poetry of reconciliation: the imagination made flesh in a present without dates.

"Intertwined Ink"

Poet and essayist Molly Fisk says about Holly Rose Review's Passion issue: 

"I’ve never coveted a tattoo — I saw too many withered forearms at six a.m. on old longshoremen in San Francisco’s Eagle Café. But Holly Rose Review tempts me. Its images are dreamy and fierce, woven in and out of the poems as if they always had belonged together. Browse through the second issue on Passion — sampling pomegranate seeds from Pamela Johnson Parker, watching the mechanical spring hook of knee from Jee Leong Koh and Cengiz Eyvazoy’s green-faced self-dismantling Salvador Dali — and see what you think about this intertwined ink. I like it."

Saturday, June 13, 2009

"A Polycentric Literary Heritage"

TLS June 12, 2009

from Terence Hawkes’s review of Michael Holzman’s James Jesus Angleton, the CIA, and the Craft of Counterintelligence:

Holzman’s brisk, uncluttered book offers valuable access to previously untapped material on Angleton, who became the first head of the Counter-intelligence Staff of the CIA. In particular, it makes incisive use of his years as a student of English at Yale and the influence on him of the New Critics and modernist poets of his day.

*

[William Empson] identified a kind of universal, all-purpose ambiguity in human relations which melted simple-hearted trust and wrought havoc with lame notions of truth and clarity. One kind of dramatic irony may result:

Irony in this subdued sense, as a generous scepticism which can believe at once that people are and are not guilty, is a very normal and essential method . . . . This sort of contradiction is at once understood in literature, because the process of understanding one’s friends must always be riddled with such indecisions and the machinery of such hypocrisy; people, often, cannot have done both of two things, but they must have been in some way prepared to have done either; whichever they did, they will have still lingering in their minds the way they would have preserved their self-respect if they had acted differently; they are only to be understood by bearing both possibilities in mind.

*

Empson’s experience of a fractured society in China is obviously pertinent, particularly when he talks about the ambiguous fog enveloping his own world at that time. Speaking later of lines in Macbeth which some critics claim to be verging on nonsense, he insists that “no one who had experienced civil war could say it had no sense”. Confusion was widespread in those years, but Empson countered it with a peculiarly British concept of ambiguity: “When I was crossing the fighting lines during the siege of Peking, to give my weekly lecture on Macbeth, a generous-minded peasant barred my way and said, pointing ahead: ‘That way lies death’”. Empson’s response was foggy, gnomic but swift: “Not for me, I have a British passport”.

***

from Mark Thompson’s Commentary on Danilo Kis, the last Yugoslav writer:

His books carry an echo, the sound of literature seeking a frontier with its opposites: encyclopedias, police files, casualty lists, birth certificates, railway timetables, even gazetteers. He tests fiction’s possibilities, not by slighting our desire for stories, rather by drawing that desire into zones of history where it cuts against our hunger for unadorned truth. Nobody did more to prove that Europe’s twentieth-century experiments in fiction can take the measure of its experiments in totalitarianism, without blurring the crimes of the one or curbing the liberties of the other.

*

Far from being ethnically bestowed, a true relationship to literary tradition has to be won in the teeth of “kitsch and folklore—folk kitsch, so to speak”, which are “nothing but nationalism in disguise.”

In contrast to national culture and language, Kis sketched an “astrological” vision of a polycentric literary heritage “with no Sun as its Centre and Tyrant”, where “all the zones of influence are equally important and predominant and only the relationships change, the triumph of one influence is only a transient adventure . . . . For in this system, all particles act on each other”. These relationships do not correspond to the borders around “states, centuries, schools, nationalities, epochs, literary connections, individual talents, or the Zeitgeist”. The fact that this utopia could never be realized in political terms . . . was no reason not to establish it in the virtual paradise of literature. If history is a prison and biographical data are fate—as they were for Kis—then literature is a form of freedom which most reveals itself in its enemies’ imprisoning and fateful embrace.

*

Basil Bunting once quipped that collecting his poems was like screwing together the boards of his coffin. Kis seemed to feel the same, but with more dread.

*

Kis figures our experience as an ark that we carry around, or that carries us, through the splendid wreckage of our days: a cabinet of personal curiosities, bearing fertile and unsinkable possibilities. Everyone is their own ark, harbouring customized versions (doubles) of the world and its contents.

*

[Baptism saved the boy Kis from the Nazis.] In Crowds and Power, Elias Canetti wrote that transformation to escape an enemy

is universal, being found in myths and fairy stories all over the world. One creature is pursuing another, the distance between them diminishing all the time until, at the very moment when the quarry is about to be seized, it escapes by transforming itself into something different. the hunt continues, or rather, starts afresh.

Transformation stories lie at the root of the literary impulse. Kis’s baptism turned him into an image of himself: his own double. The priest’s words and holy water had cast a spell strong enough to hold death at bay five years later. One can be sure that this experience underlay both Kis’s faith in the fabulous power of language, and his fascination with documents.

*

Central European writers, Kis wrote in a fragment, are doomed to drag a piano and a dead horse behind them wherever they go. The piano holds, ark-like, the heritage of Western art, while the dead horse signifies the leaden legacy of local “battles and defeats”, “words and melodies that nobody outside the writer’s particular language can understand without long footnotes”.

Friday, June 12, 2009

In memory of Audrey McGinn

Audrey died of cancer on the morning of May 8. She was my classmate in Marie Ponsot's poetry thesis workshop, a year-long course on shaping a sheaf of poems into a book. She looked younger than her age, dressed carefully, almost distinguished, and talked with the soft and musical precision she must have advocated in classrooms for years.

I do not have her manuscript now, having thrown it out, along with other manuscripts from that class, during a bout of spring-cleaning. I do not remember its title. I remember the poems are about her grandfather and World War One. The poems are about Audrey's memories of her Scottish grandfather, and her journey, through art, literature and travel, to find out the meaning of the war. 

Some of the poems relied for their effect on stock images of that war, such as rats in trenches. Other poems put up with too much literary freight. But there were poems that stopped my heart: a collage of memories written in long, lonely lines; a narrative about visiting battle sites in Belgium; a small, tight, formal poem about a neglected corner of the world. 

Why the obsession with the grandfather and the war? The grandfather, who migrated to America after the war, was a curious figure to the child Audrey. He was otherworldly, not in a hopelessly mystical sense, but in a historically literal one. As a war veteran, he was a figure of romance and reality. Audrey never married. The poems about the grandfather were not erotic, but they were suffused with a longing for a nobler past. 

And did the war remind Audrey of the war in her body? The trench-fighting. The smoky break. The ignominious end. She was too decorous a poet to compare her suffering to a world war, but she could not let go the historical subject, and, in holding on to that subject, made it her own. 

Some poets have only one subject, or it may be truer to say that a subject sometimes makes one a poet. A grandfather and a war made Audrey McGinn a poet. In the first is life, in the second is death. And so Audrey made life and death her work.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Reinforced Concrete or Platonic Realm

TLS June 5 2009

from Tom Holland's review of Theodore Ziolkowski's Minos and the Moderns, and Cathy Gere's Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism:

Far more than the narratives associated with other legendary captials--Troy, Mycenae, Thebes--"the matter of Knossos" came with comparatively little baggage attached. No wonder, then, that throughout the twentieth-century, this combination of a clean cultural sheet with an undoubtedly archaic resonance should have inspired so many writers and artists to jump onto the Minoan bandwagon.

*

Many of the novels, poems and paintings that [Ziolkowski] describes in his book were veritable mazes of symbolism. So potentially resonant is a figure like the Minotaur, for instance, and yet so lacking in culturally sanctioned signification, that it seems that he can be made to stand for almost anything. Indeed, perhaps it is precisely the ability to play Theseus, to pin the monster down, to defy the tendency of the Cretan myth to overwhelm all those who would handle them, that can serve as the mark of authentic achievement. Joyce showed it, of course, and so too did Friedrich Durrenmatt who fashioned out of the story of the Minotaur a grim retrospective commentary on the twentieth century's experience of alienation. Most potently of all, perhaps, there was Picasso, whose masterpiece "Minotauromachy" (1935) is feted by Ziolkowski, and by many others, as "the finest graphic work of the twentieth century". It is telling, no doubt, that Crete was far from the only inspiration for Picasso's lifelong obsession with bulls. In painting after painting, of which "Guernica" was merely the most celebrated example, imagery conjured up from the Minoan labyrinth shaded into scenes drawn from the bullring of his native Spain. Antiquity and modernity, as a result, often ended up indistinguishable. "To me," Picasso declared ringingly, "there is no past or future in art": a manifesto perfectly suited to the swagger of his creative machismo.

*

The fabulously ancient palace of Knossos enjoys, as Gere points out in her arresting first sentence, "the dubious distinction of being one of the first reinforced concrete buildings ever created on the island". The complex of buildings gawped at by thousands and thousands of tourists every year owes less to the masons of the Minoan age than it does to the example of modernist archittecture. On Crete, the archaic and the contemporary, both of them recreated in the image of the other, would end up generating a cultural Mobius Strip. 

***

from Christopher Reid's review of Ian Hamilton's Collected Poems:

There [In Conversation with Dan Jacobson] he speaks of how, for him, the "need for a controlled structure" arose from "the sense of being involved in someone else's suffering while being helpless to do anything about it". Shortly afterwards, he offers this understanding of his own drive to write, or to catch, poems:

The "it" [he is picking up Jacobson's wording] you imagine out there to be discovered by you, or that will visit you, with its mixture of passion and control, is a poem of perfection. So you listen out for the poem, if you like, and you imagine it. It's as if the poetry you write is what you don't seem to be able to express in your ordinary day-to-day transactions. There's a sort of platonic realm of discourse that you occasionally manage to tune into. That is the impulse behind the poem--to be able to say in the poem what ordinarily doesn't and cannot get said or understood or listened to.

Unica Zürn's Drawings

I am so glad that VM asked me to see the drawings of Unica Zürn at the Drawing Center. The exhibition brings together for the first time 50 ink and watercolor works on paper spanning from the early 1950s to her suicide in 1970. Zürn was introduced in the 1950s to the practice of automatic drawing by her partner Hans Bellmer. The drawings that came out of that are strangely compelling.

They are mostly of animals, but animals combined into one finely detailed mass. From that scaly, feathery mass protrude beaks, webbed limbs, snail-like whorls and finny tails. Most noticeable are the eyes looking out at the viewer from unexpected places. And one eye usually serves as the starting point for the accumulation of lines and details, as the artist described it in The Man of Jasmine (1967):

“All her life obsessed with faces, she draws faces. After an initial moment when the pen “swims” hesitantly on the white paper, she discovers the place assigned to the first eye. It is only when she is being watched from the depths of the paper that she begins to get her bearings and, effortlessly, one motif is added to another.”


Using only lines and no shading, the drawings convey the volumes of sponges. JF, who met us at the Center, described the generation of those sponges as a kind of foaming into being. The creatures are clearly sexual, but they are not erotic; many are repulsive. They look like doodles that bright bored children draw in the classroom, full of imagination and obsession, but they haunt the viewer. It’s hard to tell what the eyes say. They look shy, defiant, observant, curious, alert, withdrawn: they stare. Art that emerges from being looked at, from being desired perhaps.

From the Center’s press release:

Unica Zürn was born in Berlin-Grünewald in 1916, and lived and worked in Berlin and Paris. . . . Zürn produced numerous expressionistic short stories . . . before moving to Paris with German surrealist artist, Hans Bellmer. During the following decade and a half, Zürn produced paintings and drawings while living in Paris, becoming acquainted and exhibiting with many artists in the Surrealist circle, including André Breton, Max Ernst, Man Ray, and Marcel Duchamp. From 1953 to 1964, Zürn composed nearly 125 anagram poems, many of which provided the central framework for her autobiographical novella, Dark Spring (1969), and more avant-garde texts such as Im Hinterhalt (1963) and Die Trompeten von Jericho (1968). In the early sixties, she began suffering a series of mental crisis leading to intermittent hospitalization . . . . on the morning of Octobr 19, Zürn leapt to her death from the balcony of the apartment the couple shared on the rue de la Plaine—as she had described in the last pages of Dark Spring.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Alan Ayckbourn's "Norman Conquests" 3

I saw Table Manners three weeks ago, and Round and Round the Garden last Thursday, both time with TCH. Garden concludes the trilogy triumphantly, if concludes is the right word for a trilogy so cunningly constructed to cover the same weekend in three areas of the same house. 

I remained deeply impressed by Jessica Hynes's Annie, trapped not only in a house, but in her own person. The third part of this trilogy belonged to Ruth, played by Amelia Bullmore, with a beauty that constantly suggested a handicap. In the first part, Amanda Root was a brilliantly controlling Sarah, and Paul Ritter was her very funny and passive husband, Reg. Ben Brantley, in his NYT review, suggested that they were all in love with Norman, because he represented their longing, unrestrained ids. The whole cast persuaded me they were actual people, and not actors inhabiting a role. 

The business with the deck chairs between Ruth and Tom (Ben Miles) was choreographed to humorous perfection. Stephen Managan, who played Norman, caught his foot in the bramble and fell, twice, with natural accident. Matthew Warchus' direction looked into the smallest aspect of the performance. We were sitting in the best position in the theatre-in-the-round to watch Miles's face during his monologue, and the face was a picture of comic sadness. 

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Rhetoric and Ruthlessness

TLS May 29 2009

from Brian Vickers' review of Renaissance Figures of Speech, edited by Sylvia Adamson, Gavin Alexander and Katrin Ettenhuber:

Sylvia Adamson discusses synonymia, a figure that was central both to classical courtroom eloquence, as a device of vehement emphasis, and to Renaissance writers seeking copia verborum, fertility of utterance. . . . Reading rhetoric depends on recognizing a figure's form and function, and the failure to detect a synonym may have created "one of the notorious oddities of St. Matthew's Gospel," where Jesus is described as riding into Jerusalem on two animals at once: the disciples "brought the ass and the colt, and put on them their clothes, and they set him thereon" (Mt 21:7). Adamson points out that Matthew had failed to realize that Zechariah, the Old Testament prophet whom he cites as prefiguring the event, used the figure synonymia to emphasize the lowliness of the Messiah: "Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion . . . behold, they King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt, the foal of an ass" (Zech 9:9). Renaissance schoolmasters, dailing dinning into their pupils a knowledge of the schemes and tropes . . . could have saved Matthew from his error.

***

from Theodore K. Rabb's review of "Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rovals in Renaissance Venice," at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, until August 16:

The emblematic story in the relationship of these three artists . . . took place in early June 1564. One of the rich and powerful charities of Venice, the Scuola San Rocco, was determined to make a splash by commissioning the finest decorations for its magnificent headquarters. Accordingly, a competition was announced for the oval canvas at the center of the ceiling of the albergo, the room where the Board met. As was customary, the finalists (Tintoretto, Salviati, Zuccaro and Veronese) were asked to come to the albergo with drawings of their proposed entries, which the assembled Board would judge. The four competitors appeared with their drawings, except for Tintoretto, who, when asked for his design, had the cardboard covering the ceiling removed to reveal his finished painting, "St Roch in Glory", in situ. Thanks to an accomplice on the Board, he had been able to install it secretly a few days earlier. To complete his triumph, he offered the picture to the confraternity as a donation, which they were bound to accept (though twenty of the fifty-one Board members still voted against it--another indication of the factions that swirled through the city). The consequences of this episode dazzle us to this day: the bast array of Tintorettos throughout the Scuola, of which he became a member, and particularly the enormous "Crucifixion" in the albergo, which Ruskin and others have considered the finest painting ever made.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Two Poems in Holly Rose Review

A poetry and tattoo journal, Holly Rose Review reprints my poem "Brother," and publishes for the first time "Valentine to Volume." You can read the poems and hear my reading of them as well. I am not a huge tattoo fan, but must say that some of the tattoos are quite fascinating. Tattoos look to me so permanent a mark on the body; they seem less susceptible to constant revision.

Serendipitously I am in the same issue with two Singaporean tattoo artists. Daphne Lazarus organized Singapore's first body suspension show in conjunction with the country's first tattoo convention. I have no idea what a body suspension show is, but the name sounds mighty interesting. Shane Tan's tattoo appears on the cover of Holly Rose. He specializes in Japanese art tattoos, and you can see more of his work on his website


Reading at Wholesome Earth

Mike Geffner curates the Monday Inspired Word Reading in the Mexican restaurant Tierra Sana in Forrest Hills, Queens. I read there last night, but not before drinking a delicious zapari (white wine and lime), and a couple of sample-sized cups of merlot. 

I read ten of my ghazals from "A Lover's Recourse," and they went down very well with the audience. It changed my strange idea that my ghazals are better read than heard. The emcee described my reading as Shakespearian, by which she meant, I would like to think, sonorous and cadenced. She elaborated later that my voice was so soothing, that she would like to fall asleep to it. I'm not sure what to think of that compliment. 

I was the sixth reader of eight altogether. Eight different readings were a lot to absorb for an evening. No open-mic. During the earlier part of the evening, what sounded like a religious service was taking place in the private function room at the back of the restaurant. I could not make out the Spanish, but there was some preaching, and much recitation after the leader. Poetry at the front of the restaurant, religion at the back.