Monday, August 31, 2009

Eshuneutics' hermetical takes on "Equal to the Earth"

What little I have learned about hermeticism, I have learned it from Eshuneutics' blog. He has written about Equal to the Earth in three separate posts, each highlighting a different hermetical aspect of my writing, by looking at an individual poem. His post Sea reads that image in the book and in the poem "Fire Island." Androgyne interprets my poem "Brother" rightly against Plato's Symposium. Mermen looks at the poem of the same name, contrasting its use of hermetical imagery with Simon Lowy's.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Matthew Gavin Frank"s "Sagittarius Agitprop"

Unable--or, unwilling?--to distinguish between a muskrat and a wheelbarrow ("Zodiac"), these poems perform metaphoric transformations, at times with blinding speed. "Saucer" begins:

Here is the saucer upon which my father's head
pools like coffee. He's beyond medication.
The hummingbirds have overtaken him, bricking
his smile with sugarcubes.

There is precise observation:

The mosquito wrinkles against the glass ("Mirror")

There is magnification. About Brussels sprouts, Frank, who also authored a food-and-wine memoir Barolo, writes:

Architecturally-correct, each is a habitat
with staircases.

My favorite poem of this debut collection is one I wish I have written. "The Dressmaker's Dummy" begins with a description so sensitive it turns spiritual:

She stands

as if nobly eviscerated, rib-
cage inflated as a balloon, a balloon's

skeleton, a mold, a blueprint . . .

and develops with an anecdote about his wife in a thrift store, sensing "female kinship" with the dummy and buying it. The poem ends, however, by contrasting the "scarily dependable" dummy hanging over the dinner table and the couple forking "the meat of all dinners// into our excited mouths." Noble evisceration is disavowed in favor of uncertain hunger.

Frank and I met on Facebook and swopped books. You can buy his here.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

"Passing Strange," the Movie

TB and I watched this Spike Lee film at the IFC last night. He spliced together his filming of the last three performances of the similarly-titled Broadway show, created by rock musicians Stew and his partner Heidi Rodewald.

The story, loosely based on Stew's life, is simple but well-told: young African American man leaves his middle-class South Central Los Angeles Baptist home for Europe in search of art and "the real." Amsterdam gives him "the keys" to a druggy, sexy paradise, but when love calls, he escapes to Berlin where he encounters nihilism, and, in order to belong, passes for "ghetto black."

The story ends with him returning to LA for his mother's funeral, where he realizes the value of real love. The message is finally conservative, though the resolution, with its rousing music, still packs an emotional punch. We seek the real in art, because we miss the real in life. For an artist, passing as an existential condition, perhaps. Behind "I am a rock musician," we hear the protesting, the regretful, the puzzled "I am not a _______."

Stew explained . . . "Somehow, we wound up on Broadway, which I'm still trying to figure out. It was funny, because it was the stoner rockers and the drama kids from high school, together. It was like a reality show."

"We had to keep reminding ourselves we were a band," Rodewald added, "because when you get surrounded by all these theater people, you could just feel the inclination to write a bunch of showtunes."

Stew nodded. "I tried writing a more theater-esque version," he explained, "but the theater people told us, 'This isn't you.' I realized they were right. The theater people reminded us we were rock people." (
Full article on Tribeca Film Fest blog).


Friday, August 28, 2009

The Long Wait

"Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu," so begins the Prologue to Ha Jin's novel Waiting (1999). The beginning must rank as one of the most striking openings in English-language fiction. Persuaded by his parents, Lin married Shuyu so that she could look after them in the country. But the army doctor working in the city falls in love with Manna Wu, a nurse, who returns his feelings, and so condemns herself to wait for the divorce. The novel traces waiting's terrible and quotidian effects on love.

Manna Wu reminds me of another lover who waits for years, Florentina Ariza in Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera. However Ariza maintains his idealistic passion for Fermina Daza, mostly because, I think, he does not have much contact with the beloved through the years. Distance enables one to keep up one's illusions. There can be no distance in the army hospital. No distance between the lovers who work together. No distance between the lovers and their gossip-mongering colleagues. At different times, the couple is viewed as adulterers (though they do not have sex), fiances, comrades, and spouses. Such pressures, both external and internal, Ha Jin depicts in a way described by The New Yorker as "bracingly tough-minded," but he is also delicately attentive to the flux of human emotions.

Love decays into compassion when Lin pities Manna for "waiting, waiting, only for a beginning or an ending between them." Jilted by a Commissar who might have provided an escape from the wait, Manna refused to look for another man, and so bound herself, with marital finality, to Lin. "Now, for better or worse, she preferred to wait for him. Probably it was already too late not to wait. So with rekindled passion and a heavier heart she returned to Lin." The mixture of "rekindled passion and a heavier heart" is a fine insight. Since they were not married, they were not allowed to walk together outside the hospital grounds. The hospital is thus also their cage, although "after so many years of restriction, they had grown accustomed to it."

In the background of the wait, China changes: the Cultural Revolution, the Gang of Four, the early years of Deng Xiaopeng. The national changes provide point and counterpoint to the personal story. And so without explicit comment, Ha Jin also alludes to the disillusionment and compromise in one's love for one's country. At the end of the novel, when another woman decides to wait for Lin Kong, a reader may feel what Lin feels: a clutching in the chest.

Ha Jin is the pen name of Jin Xuefei, born in Liaoning, China, in 1956. After the Tiananmen massacre, he decided to stay on in the USA, and to write in English. Waiting won the National Book Award and the Pen/Faulkner Award.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Steven Cantor's "What Remains: the Life and Work of Sally Mann"

Sally Mann, The Perfect Tomato, 1990


Since it is moving pictures, a film necessarily captures--produces--a process. It turns photographs into the making of photographs. It joins moments ("spots of time") into a Life. This I expected watching Cantor's documentary on Sally Mann's creation of the exhibit "What Remains." So photographs of a long-dead beloved greyhound "lead" to photographs of the Civil War battlefield of Antietam, to photographs of Mann's Virginian farm bloodied by the police killing of a runaway convict, to photographs of decomposing bodies in a forensic study site, as if each group of pictures forms an independent yet preparatory stage in the creative process.

What I did not expect to see is the influence of the film-making on the photography itself. Mann begins to think of her exhibit as a "narrative," and wants the narrative of death to end on a more uplifting note. With such an idea in mind, she takes close-up pictures of her grown up children, Emmet, Virginia and Jessie, who starred, as children, in her career-making collection "Immediate Family." Their faces, seen on a table placed in the middle of the "What Remains" show, are to speak of the survival of love and memory. Is that gesture a conclusion or a compromise with the unflinching look at death? Impossible to tell, not having seen the exhibit, but seeing the film inclines me to think it is a compromise. It fits too well a common American narrative. "What will survive of us is love" concludes the poem, but the realist Larkin qualifies the sentiment in the line before it as "almost true."

The DVD also gives Cantor's documentary short on the controversy over "Immediate Family." There Mann was impassioned in defending her photographs of her children, naked, injured or peevish, and her maternal responsibility. The artist there was in the thick of things, fighting, making, loving. The one in "What Remains" has her legacy on her mind. The film ends, however, with Mann turning her camera on herself. Her husband dying of muscular dystrophy, her children leaving home, she will be her own last subject. I was greatly moved by that final gesture and image, and very much wish to see those self-portraits sometime.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Chen Ruoxi's "The Execution of Mayor Yin"

I've been putting together a mini spring course for my seniors, a course on the Chinese short story. I settled on the rather arbitrary number of three writers. Having read Li Yu (Ming-Qing) and Lu Xun (Republican era) at Sarah Lawrence, I know I would want to discuss their consummate and subversive artistry in class. I want a modern woman writer to complete the trio, and Chen Ruoxi fits the bill perfectly. I did not know her work until WL pointed me to her.

The Execution of Mayor Yin and Other Stories from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution is a collection of eight stories. They tell, in a powerful and subtle manner, how Mao's disastrous experiment affected--destroyed--the lives of ordinary people. Their dominant tone is not denunciatory or self-righteous, but empathetic and observant when narrated in the third person, and self-protectively detached or complicit when narrated in the first. Many of the narrators share Chen's background: a former overseas scholar who returned from the USA to support the motherland. Despite their idealistic patriotism, they are doubly suspicious in Maoist ideology, first, for being an intellectual, second, for being an ex-American imperialist. These stories trace, in part, the disillusionment of these repatriates, who are sent to farms to be "re-educated" by labor.

The loss of idealism forms a painful backdrop to the strongest story of the collection "Geng Er in Beijing." The story stands out for its length and complexity, and also for the fact that it is not driven by a crisis, the way short stories usually achieve their direct impact. Instead, the crises in Geng Er's life are already over before the story begins. He loved and lost a woman to the Workers' Propaganda Corps. He loved a second woman but was prevented from marrying her by the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution. The life he leads now is a much diminished thing, brightened only by the lucky chance of securing one of 20 bowls of hot mutton soup in a popular restaurant.

Chen does not comment on her characters, but lets their situations speak for themselves. It is an art of selection and organization, and often succeeds brilliantly. Both "The Execution of Mayor Yin" and "Ren Xiulan" end with a scene that is also an indelible image. "Residency Check" appears to be inconclusive--why does Leng not divorce his apparently adulterous wife?--until one realizes that its very inconclusiveness is a part of the writer's tact. In this story about the destructive effects of prying curiosity, to keep private affairs private is a public statement.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Hermes reads "Brother"

Eshuneutics gives the best reading of my poem "Brother" so far. Read the poem first, before the post. That I did not know of hermeticism before I met Eshu is an argument for, rather than against, the validity of his interpretation.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Death of Art and the Art of Death

What drives artists to destroy their chosen medium? Why "compose" noise? Why paint anti-paintings? Sure, old artistic conventions must be destroyed to create new ones. That is the dynamic of original creation. Strong poets "misread" their strong predecessors, is one way of putting it. But some artists seem bent on smashing not just conventions, but the medium itself. They want to strike at the fundamentals. So Ad Reinhard, who created his black paintings in the last decade of his life, wrote, "There is something wrong, irresponsible and mindless about color; something impossible to control. Control and rationality are part of my morality."

Michael Scott, whose solo exhibition I saw at the Gering & Lopez Gallery yesterday, was inspired by Reinhard to create his early series of "target" paintings. The series, consisting of black and white concentric circles that appear identical with only slight variations, was intended to remove "judgment" from the viewing experience. Then, even more radically, he created a series of black and white line paintings with the idea of making them so intensely optical that they would be impossible for the human eye to view. Anti-painting paintings. Why? There is something so mind-full about such projects that even their verbal descriptions repulse me. These projects set their mind against life. Unleavened by ironic play or sensual delight, they are animated by a spirit of denial. To call it spirit is to give it too much substance. Death is not a spirit; it is an absence of spirit.

Scott returns from the abyss to paint a series of color line paintings that, in the words of the press release, "embrace their own viewing rather than deny it." The exhibition title and then he tried to swallow the world sounds hubristic until I heard the relief in it. To go from black to psychedelic colors must feel like returning from the void to the world. The color lines are uneven, imperfect, wavy, and so show evidence of the human hand. The best of the paintings seem to vibrate, and even to move--from left to right, or from right to left, depending on how you see them--and to give the illusion of depth. Some appear possibly figurative to me, a patterned deckchair or faded fence. I like the smaller format better. My favorite is #4. It shows its materials: wood and enamel.


ATHTTSTW #4, 2008, enamel on wood, 13 1/4 x 12 x 3/4 inches



Since it was nearby, I visited Marian Goodman Gallery too. The exhibition As Long as it Lasts brings together works by fourteen artists to "ruminate on the transitory nature of life, the contemplation of mortality, impermanence, and immanence of death" (press release). Not a promising introduction, but I enjoyed two films there, and was intrigued by another.

An animated film-work, William Kentridge's "Tide Table" (2003) brings back waves of memories to an old gentleman looking out into the sea. The erasure of pencil-mark represents potently the loss of love and youth. Since that erasure also appears in the motion of a boy skipping a stone over water, it speaks of the inevitability of such losses.

The other piece, by Tacita Dean, is a film portrait of Mario Merz (2002), the Italian Arte Povera artist, seen here ruminating moodily under a tree in the final days of his life. The camera captures the weathered nobility of the artist's fine head. I thought: this is what those of us who would like to think of ourselves as artists come to--fodder for younger artists.

Lars Laumann's Berlinmuren, 2008, is more documentary than art. It records the love of two women for the Berlin wall, one of whom coined the term objectum-sexual in the 1970's to define her "marital" relationship to the wall. One woman loves the wall for what it was when it still stood as a divider between East and West Berlin. The other woman loves the wall for what it is: torn down and colored by graffiti. Both women denied their love had anything to do with politics. The division of the wall into what was and what is allows them to share their love for the same object.

Friday, August 21, 2009

"Borstal Boy" the movie (2000)

Directed by Peter Sheridan, the movie about an IRA member finding love in a prison is somewhat sentimental. And somewhat unrealistic too, I thought, until I found out that it is "inspired by," though not based on, the autobiography of Brendan Behan, Irish freedom fighter and writer. Behan was from the educated working class. His father read Zola, Maupassant and Galsworthy to him at bedtime; his mother brought the children on literary tours of their city, Dublin. But the only thing we learn from the movie about his background is that his father is a house painter. So when the movie Behan (Shawn Hatosy) put on a barn performance of "The Importance of Being Earnest" and start reading and writing poetry, he is the terrorist who discovers his sensitive side.

While the love that develops between Behan and fellow jailbird Charlie Milwall (Danny Dyer) feels overly romanticized, there is something touching in the performance of both young actors. Part of this is due to their unconventional good looks. Part of this is due to the film's focus on the emotions, instead of the flesh. In this film, the face suffers the greatest exposure. A nice touch is in having Milwall thrown into jail for stealing, a habit that leads to the film's denouement. The out gay man is thus perceived to be a thief, someone who takes another's masculinity for his own.

In the film, Milwall dies as a fighting sailor, when the Prince of Wales is sunk by the Japanese (The Singapore connection!). Before he left the Borstal, he had given Behan's chain to Liz (the lovely Eva Birthistle), symbolically blessing their relationship, while dooming himself by giving up the protection of Saint Behan, the patron saint of navigation. Some may see homophobia in this (Brokeback Mountain, anyone?), but I see a noble love. The crucial thing here is that Behan chose Liz over Charlie in the denouement scene, and Milwall's withdrawal from the triangle is a choice in response to that. In any case, Liz does not get Behan either, who returns to Ireland after an early release.

The real Behan might have had more of a relationship with Milwall than the film suggests. I should read his book to find out. Behan also wrote plays, interspersed with songs, dances and direct addresses to the audience. One of these songs is "The Auld Triangle, " which introduces his play The Quare Fellow. (Wiki has the brother Dominic Behan down as the songwriter. Can anyone clear this up?) The prison in the play is based on Mountjoy Prison, along the Royal Canal in Dublin. The triangle was beaten daily to wake the inmates. A lag is an inmate serving a prison sentence of five years or more.

A hungry feeling, came o'er me stealing
And the mice they were squealing in my prison cell
And that auld triangle, went jingle jangle
All along the banks of the Royal Canal

Oh to start the morning, the warden bawling
Get up out of bed you, and clean out your cell
And that auld triangle, went jingle jangle
All along the banks of the Royal Canal

Oh the screw was peeping and the lag was sleeping
As he lay weeping for his girl Sal
And that auld triangle, went jingle jangle
All along the banks of the Royal Canal

On a fine spring evening, the lag lay dreaming
And the seagulls were wheeling high above the wall
And that auld triangle, went jingle jangle
All along the banks of the Royal Canal

Oh the wind was sighing, and the day was dying
As the lag lay crying in his prision cell
And that auld triangle, went jingle jangle
All along the banks of the Royal Canal

In the female prison there are seventy women
And I wish it was with them that I did dwell
And that auld triangle, went jingle jangle
All along the banks of the Royal Canal


Four Poems in ArLiJo

Previously unpublished in any journal, four poems from my book Equal to the Earth are reprinted in the Arlington Literary Journal. ArLiJo is sponsored by Gival Press and edited by Robert L. Giron.

From the website:

The intent of ArLiJo is to feature a variety of authors/poets/artists from around the globe whose work provokes readers to comtemplate issues, etc.

In this spirit, the editor, Robert L. Giron, invites authors/poets/artists to share their work which promotes understanding and sensitvity across borders, even if initially the work may cause one to take a double-take.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

From the cultures of curiosity

TLS August 14 2009

from Jim Endersby's review of The Scientific Correspondence of Sir Joseph Banks, 1765-1820, edited by Neil Chambers:

Sweden's commercial interests had pesuaded Linnaeus that new, simpler and more accurate names were needed in order to ensure that botanists' time and money were well spent. [Joseph] Banks shared these concerns, and the adoption of the new names marked an important shift away from the cultures of curiosity, within which gentlemen like Banks had traditionally operated. Until the mid-eighteenth century, educated virtuosi such as Banks had collected anything and everything that was rare and curious; the practical uses of such collections were beneath a gentleman's notice. However, Linnaeus's standardized names were intended to put the plant world to work, to transform rare flowers into commodities that could be bought and sold, traded and transplanted. Linnaeus's names allowed accurate communication between naturalists around the world. By adopting them, Banks aligned himself with Britain's mercantile concerns and devoted himself to the use of science in the cultivation of empire.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Nietzsche's "Thus Spoke Zarathustra"

Just finished reading this weird hybrid of philosophy, biography, myth and poetry. The cross-breeding (or -bleeding) of genres makes the book sound like a monstrous plant from a hothouse or an alchemical tome from a monastery. It is not. It is a book conceived while striding on mountains. It is best read in the open air, as I did, much of it, in Central Park, American elms arching above the Literary Walk to form the vaulted ceiling of a cathedral.

From one perspective (and Nietzsche is very much--essentially?--about perspectives), the book can be seen as a parody--a competitor--of the gospels. So Part 1 begins with Zarathustra "going under" from the mountain to the marketplace to preach to the people. Much of the book is made up of these "sermons," often in the form of parables. (Part 4 is different in that it is a continuous narrative.) And like Jesus, Zarathustra gathers round him disciples, is tested by various trials, provides a last supper, and receives a final revelation. The radical difference in Z's gospel is that God is dead, and man must find his ultimate value in himself, in overcoming himself, or, in Nietzschean terms, in becoming an overman. Z. is a prophet of the overman, and in his noblest moments is also a type of the overman.

Although so much of the book is noble and inspiring, parts of it are marred by a limited view of women. The book is the work of a very lonely man, whose hasty marriage proposals were all turned down. It is also the work of a man who suffered from bad health--bad headaches, bad eyes, sleeplessness--and so spoke of suffering with an obsessive vehemence. The miracle is the high praise the book accords to the body and to laughter. The book is thus a triumph of Nietzsche's will to power, the will to overcome oneself. Joy, not anguish, longs for eternity. The ultimate sign of acceptance and overcoming is a desire for eternal recurrence, not just of bliss, but also of agony. The book itself demands to be read over and over again.

*

On doing "I":

"I," you say, and are proud of the word. But greater is that in which you do not wish to have faith--your body and its great reason: that does not say "I," but does "I."

*

On being a good student:

One repay a teacher badly if one always remains nothing but a pupil. And why do you not want to pluck at my wreath?

*

On forgiving a friend:

And if a friend does you evil, then say: "I forgive you what you did to me; but that you have done it to yourself--how could I forgive that?" Thus speaks all great love; it overcomes even forgiveness and pity.

*

On human spirit:

Spirit is the life that itself cuts into life: with its own agony it increases its own knowledge. Did you know that?

*

On the relationship between power and beauty, power and goodness:

When power becomes gracious and descends into the visible--such descent I call beauty.

And there is nobody from whom I want beauty as much as from you who are powerful: let your kindness be your final self-conquest.

Of all evil I deem you capable: therefore I want the good from you.

Verily, I have often laughed at the weaklings who thought themselves good because they had no claws.

*

On the aim of creating:

"I walk among men as among the fragments of the future--that future which I envisage. And this is all my creating and striving, that I create and carry together into One what is fragment and riddle and dreadful accident. And how could I bear to be a man if man were not also a creator and guesser of riddles and redeemer of accidents?. . ."

*

On muddiness and clarity:

Many I found who were clever: they veiled their faces and muddied their waters that nobody might see through them, deep down. But precisely to them came the cleverer mistrusters and nutcrackers: precisely their most hidden fish were fished out. It is the bright, the bold, the transparent who are cleverest among those who are silent: their ground is down so deep that even the brightest water does not betray it.

*

On real nobility:

O my brothers, your nobility should not look backwards but ahead! Exiles shall you be from all father- and forefather-lands! Your children's land shall you love: this love shall be your new nobility--the undiscovered land in the most distant sea. For that I bid your sails search and search.

In your children you shall make up for being the children of your fathers: thus shall you redeem all that is past. This new tablet I place over you.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A life in musicals

Band of Thebes directed me to this Guardian article "A life in musicals: Arthur Laurents." Two snippets:

The vicissitudes of Hollywood defy analysis, he says, but Broadway shows go wrong for the same reasons. When the script for the musical Wicked was in development, the producers came to Laurents for advice. He told them they didn't know what the show was about. "They said, yes, it's about Oz. I said no it isn't. I said it's about the friendship of two girls. I said start tracking that. That whole thing made the show an enormous success."

*

He wrote a play a week for army radio, where he learned economy and banished the notion that "length equals importance". His single greatest discovery was that "emotions precede thought, emotions determine thought; plays are emotions".


Monday, August 17, 2009

Rob A. Mackenzie's "The Opposite of Cabbage"

In Scottish poet Rob A. Mackenzie's debut book of poems, "opposites collide--reality and delusion, political activism and apathy, friend and enemy, life and death." The voice that registers these collisions is by turns satirical, probing, tender, and always entertaining. He stops at this blog for the final stop of his virtual book tour to answer some questions. You can read here a good number of the poems we discuss.





Jee: At an earlier stop on your book tour, you said that you spent quite a bit of time deciding on the first and last poems of the collection. “Light Storms from a Dark Country” is a strong atmospheric start to the book, to my mind. “Freak lightning tears its jack-knife/ through the sky” is such a menacing image. What made you decide to begin your first book with this poem? The last poem “The Scuffle” is, aptly, about endings. What is it about a fox attacking a teabag in a garden that makes it so attractive as the book’s final image?


Rob: Quite a few poems vied to open the book before I submitted the manuscript to Salt. Then, up until the penultimate proof, the book began with ‘Voices’, but that poem is all one sentence and the syntax is complicated. A couple of folk who had read the proof felt it wasn’t the best poem to kick off with, even though they liked it. So I moved ‘Light Storms’ from the middle to the front. I wanted a strong poem, formally tight, which introduced the loose theme of opposites colliding, and this one did the job.

‘The Scuffle’ seemed like a good way to end the book, maybe too obvious as it is about endings. The fox/teabag image is absurd, sad and funny (to my mind), so it is fairly typical of the book. The poem gently satirises the big hopes people have for their artistic projects and how seriously they take them. It felt like an apt poem to close a poetry collection!


Jee: I want to re-open the question of national identity in your book by thinking about Scotland’s relationships to England and the USA. Your poem “Sevenling (Elizabeth had II)” comments drily on the political domination of England over the Union. The domination is also linguistic. As the poem puts it with such devastating concision:


The nineteenth century acts defined English

as a language and Scots a dialect. Gaelic was

a silence; the cane stroked it out the schools.


Are you a Scottish nationalist, that is, are you in favor of Scottish independence from the UK? Or is nationalism archaic, given the historical movement towards European union? After all, the Poles, as your poems remind us, are already in the country, their presence fiercely resented by xenophobic drunks and bus commuters in your poem “Everyone Will Go Crazy.” How does your politics, in these issues, influence your poetry?


Rob: I am in favour of Scottish independence, yes. However, I’m not a nationalist in any patriotic sense. I believe we’d be better to make our own decisions rather than have them made for us by a large, dominant power. That way, when we make mistakes, we’d only have ourselves to blame, and any successes would be ours too. But I have an inclusive view of Scottishness which includes everyone living here, no matter where they are from, and I believe in greater European integration. My poems are frequently political, although I try to stay off my soapbox. I want my work to engage with what’s going on around me. The personal and the political are nearly always linked.


Jee: Significantly, your book quotes two American poets, but not a single English one, in its epigraphs. In “Scottish Sonnet Ending in American,” Billy Collins is used, half-ironically, as a way of declaring cultural independence from English poetry. In “Moving On,” John Ashbery provides a way of evading traditional narrative. The Americans seem to point to a way of differentiating oneself from what has been done before.

Their example, however, is another sign of American cultural domination, an influence on Scotland playfully mocked in “How New York You Are,” and more seriously criticized in other poems about the corporatization and commercialization of communal life. What promises and dangers does American poetry, and culture, hold for a Scottish poet?


Rob: Scottish poets have often looked with interest to the USA. I really like writers such as Wallace Stevens, James Schuyler, Denis Johnson, Frederick Seidel, and several other U.S. poets. However, in my book, the USA represents another of those colliding opposites: on one side there is commodification, celebrity and crassness which threatens to engulf life in small nations like my own, but on the other there’s an amazing cultural richness and daring artistic imagination in the best poetry and prose from the USA. ‘Scottish Sonnet Ending in American’ represents the struggle between those conflicting tendencies on Scottish soil.


Jee: These poems employ many different points of view. The more personal poems are spoken by a lyrical “I.” A more public poem like “Scotlands” uses “we.” Then, there are those poems written in the second person: “Light Storms from a Dark Country,” “Homes of the Future Exhibition,” and “In the Last Few Seconds,” which begins with the terrific reiteration of “you”:


In a smudge of tail-lights you watch your soul go,

then you spin round corners you would have taken

slow before you gulped back the rum. The bottle

xxxxxxxrocks on the backseat.


These “you” poems are among my favorites in the book. When do you use the second person? How does that point of view help create a ‘successful’ poem?


Rob: Well, often the second person creates unsuccessful poems! So whenever I use it, I have to ask myself serious questions. In pop songs it’s often used to denote an abstract lover. It could well be the dominant mode in the rock lyric and I don’t think that translates well to poetry. I could have written all three of these poems in the third person, but that would have placed the characters at a remove. The lyric ‘I’ didn’t seem right.

I’ve heard some readers taking quite a hostile view of ‘you’ poems, those which address the reader directly. ‘I am not watching my soul go in a smudge of tail lights’, a reader might say, with some justification. Nevertheless, the poem is inviting the reader to place him/herself in that position. The same goes for “Homes of the Future Exhibition”, which features a ‘you’ cut adrift from everything around – possessions, family, words and names. I’m asking readers to stand in that person’s shoes and to consider how it feels. I hope most readers feel able to take the step and come along for the ride.

Some people are suspicious of the lyric ‘I’ and want poems to negate the self and its feelings. Some people are suspicious of ‘we’ and feel a poet can’t speak as a representative for anyone else. Some people are suspicious of ‘you’ for reasons stated above (and others). These suspicions encourage me to use all of them as often as possible.


Jee: There seems to be a conscious effort to be less narrative and more surreal than in your earlier pamphlet The Clown of Natural Sorrows. For instance, in “White Noise” the trumpet notes cry, in a surprising and memorable comparison, “like anarchic goats.” What or who inspired the change? Beyond achieving surface surprise, what does the change in method signify?


Rob: Most poets start by writing narrative. That’s no bad thing. You can develop a broad range of techniques and narrative can often be interesting, especially if it’s combined with good ideas and an imaginative approach. Great linear narrative poems are still being written and always will be.

I’ve moved away from linear narrative, partly because of what I was reading in the period between the pamphlet and the book, but I also became very conscious of how words can impact on a scene, of how constant narration can sometimes impede a poem’s depth. In “White Noise”, I could have moved immediately from the trumpet notes to the next stage in the narrative, but the comparison with the anarchic goats establishes them as a symbol – images of whiteness and lack of control run through the poem and are very much tied to the narrator’s mood. The trumpet notes themselves recur like a theme in a piece of music. That said, there is narrative in the poem. It just doesn’t happen in a linear way.

I like to challenge myself as a writer to progress from what I’ve done before. I think I’ve managed that with this book and I hope I’ll be feeling the same if I publish another.




Rob A. Mackenzie was born in Glasgow. He studied law and then abandoned the possibility of significant personal wealth by switching to theology. He spent a year in Seoul, eight years in Lanarkshire, five years in Turin, and now lives in Edinburgh where he organises the Poetry at the Great Grog reading series. His pamphlet collection, The Clown of Natural Sorrow, was published by HappenStance Press in 2005 and he blogs at Surroundings.

You can buy The Opposite of Cabbage (Salt Publishing) here. Readers outside the UK will find the book cheaper here.


Sunday, August 16, 2009

Solutio and Singapore

Eshuneutics reviews my poems Equal to the Earth, focusing on the alchemical meaning of the sea.(A longer review is forthcoming.) Harry Rutherford reads my book as part of the Read the World Challenge. So, for one, I am the Solutio, for another, I am Singapore. Coincidentally, both live in the UK. What do we make of this?

Frank Lloyd Wright: From Within Outward

The Guggenheim celebrates the golden anniversary of its landmark building by mounting an exhibition of its architect's work. Wright (1867-1959) died six months before the opening of the museum. The building, conceived as a temple of art, is a beautiful articulation of interior as free flowing space.

I discovered I did not like, however, Wright's architectural style in the main. In designing vast (unbuilt) projects like the Crystal City for Washington D.C. (1940) and Plan for Greater Baghdad (1957), which includes a university and an opera house, the use of plinth and ziggurat struck me as grandiose. The concern for geometry, for sculptural forms, seemed to dominate other considerations. The plan for the Mile-High Tower, which shoots its elevator out of the sheath of the building, giving the riders stunning views, seemed inconsistent with Wright's concern for interweaving urban spaces with nature. I was not attracted to his vision of an ideal city.

Perhaps the presentation of the exhibition focused too much on the aspects that I did not like. The videos and architectural models concentrated attention on the external forms, and not on the interior spaces. I did not get a strong sense of what it would have been like to live in a Wright-designed apartment block, or work in his office tower, or worship in his synagogue.

The visit, made with VM and LW, was not all disappointment. We also saw the painting exhibition "The Sweeney Decade: Acquisitions at the 1959 Inaugural." During his tenure from 1952 to 1960, director James Johnson Sweeney championed postwar abstraction, including Art Informel, CoBrA, Tachisme and homegrown Abstract Expressionism. I did not know most of the painters on exhibition, but painting after painting drew me to it. I liked the Hans Hartung: "T50 Painting 8." Color blocks covered or crossed out with black, in a manner that reminds me of stalks of wheat. Beautifully composed. The strongest painting there was a late Jackson Pollock, in which the painter struggled to return to the figurative. "Ocean Grey" swarms with gold and green movement. I had never seen a painting so turbulent.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Willa Cather’s “Death Comes for the Archbishop"

Willa Cather must have been an avid listener of stories. She is certainly an enthusiastic teller, and re-teller, of stories. The outermost frame of this novel is the story of Father Jean Marie Latour, who goes to New Mexico in 1851 as the Bishop of the newly American territory. The book begins with him rejected by the Mexicans, lost in the monotonous red sand-hills. It ends with his funeral, attended by Mexicans, Americans and Indians, in the cathedral he built into the land. His story is one of sweet sacrifice to a vocation at once divine and earthly. If Father Latour is devoutly religious, he is also deeply human. The cathedral, built in Midi Romanesque style to remind him of his native France, replaces in his life his dear friend and fellow missionary Father Vaillant. And yet the cathedral is not an alien imposition on the land. It is a glory that arises from his work in that land, for his story honors work--laborious, dangerous, creative--as a means of settling a strange land.

Folded into his story are many others. Like the one about a rebellious and charismatic Mexican priest, Padre Martinez, whose time has passed. And the one about a desperate and murderous American trader-turned settler. And the one about the beautiful Dona Isabella who refuses to admit her age though she will thus lose her inheritance. Some stories took place before Father Latour's time, and so have passed into legend. Like the one about Friar Baltazar, the venal Spanish missionary who came to a terrible end. And the one about the snake cave of the Pecos Indians. All the stories give a lively character and a vivid situation. Even on his deathbed, Father Latour, now the former archbishop of New Mexico, recalls these stories, and others: like the terrible one about the last stand of the Navajo Indians. If this book presents an indelible picture of a time, it does so not through a continuous narrative but through a gold seam of stories.

Most of these stories speak of travel--voluntary or compulsory--or are spoken of during travel. They are thus examples of an ancient trope: life as a journey. Cather refreshes that trope by describing brilliantly the New Mexican landscape through which the characters move. Her descriptions are more than poetic: they are mythic. They lend to human doings not just a specific place, but also a universal stage.

The ride back to Santa Fe was something under four hundred miles. The weather alternated between blinding sand-storms and brilliant sunlight. The sky was as full of motion and change as the desert beneath it was monotonous and still,--and there was so much sky, more than at sea, more than anywhere else in the world. The plain was there, under one's feet, but what one saw when one looked about was that brilliant blue world of stinging air and moving cloud. Even the mountains were mere ant-hills under it. Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky. The landscape one longed for when one was far away, the thing all about one, the world one actually lived in, was the sky, the sky!

In contrast with, and complementing, this intense sense of movement, is the unmovable solidity of landscape, most powerfully embodied in the mesas. If the plain is merely the floor of the transcendent sky, the mesas are always accompanied by their spiritual clouds, as Father Latour discovers on his introduction to mesa country.

One thing which struck him at once was that every mesa was duplicated by a cloud mesa, like a reflection, which lay motionless above it or moved slowly up from behind it. These cloud formations seemed to be always there, however hot and blue the sky. Sometimes they were flat terraces, ledges of vapor; sometimes they were dome-shaped, or fantastic, like the tops of silvery pagodas, rising one above another, as if an oriental city lay directly behind the rock. The great tables of granite set down in an empty plain were inconceivable without their attendant clouds, which were a part of them, as the smoke is part of the censer, or the foam of the wave.

The mesas, sheer rock, have been transformed by the imagination into censers and waves, an act of imagination both religious and natural. It is this human imagination that makes even the mesas hospitable, as the Acoma Indians have done, and the waves of peoples who come after them.

Friday, August 14, 2009

My Interview on The Joe Milford Poetry Show

I was interviewed on the Joe Milford Poetry Show last night: one-and-a-half hour unedited conversation about my new book of poems Equal to the Earth. We talked about my Singaporean background, art and autobiography, the mythic sea, use of meter and form, sense of humor (!), the objective correlative, children's playfulness, Chinese homosexuals, and love.


From the show website:

The Joe Milford Poetry Show archives readings and interviews from acclaimed and established poets as well as up-and-coming poets from America and Canada. The Joe Milford Poetry Show prides itself on its candid and organic nature infused with a lively discussion of poetics, genre, the writing process, and myriad theories and movements of poetry. Join us once a week for regularly scheduled shows on Saturdays at 5pm Eastern Time, and watch for special edition shows by announcement. Add The Joe Milford Poetry Show to your MySpace Friends by going to the links page.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

"Basic Writings of Nietzsche" translated by Walter Kaufmann

Why Nietzsche inspires me:

1. He is a philosopher but he is also a writer; in fact, the two in him are indistinguishable.

2. He loves what is noble, instead of what is good; he hates what is contemptible, instead of what is evil.

3. He is a psychologist.

4. He is a historian.

5. He stares into the abyss, and sends art over it. Against absurdity, pessimism, asceticism, he opposes the will to power, the will to recreate values.

6. He values sex for its own sake, as a force for life.

7. He is a prophet.

*

From Ecce Homo:

On taste:

In all these matters--in the choice of nutrition, of place and climate, of recreation--an instinct of self-preservation issues its commandments, and it gains its most unambiguous expression as an instinct of self-defense. Not to see many things, not to hear many things, not to permit many things to come close--first imperative of prudence, first proof that one is no mere accident but a necessity. The usual word for this instinct of self-defense is taste. It commands us not only to say No when Yes would be "selfless" but also to say No as rarely as possible. To detach oneself, to separate oneself from anything that would make it necessary to keep saying No. The reason in this is that when defensive expenditures, be they ever so small, become the rule and a habit, they entail an extraordinary and entirely superfluous impoverishment. Our great expenses are composed of the most frequent small ones.

*

On greatness:

My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fait: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it--all idealism is mendaciousness in the face of what is necessary--but love it.

*

On sex:

. . . The preaching of chastity amounts to a public incitement to antinature. Every kind of contempt for sex, every impurification of it by means of the concept 'impure,' is the crime par excellence against life--is the real sin against the holy spirit of life.

*

On his present situation:

Here every word is experienced, is deep, is inward; what is most painful is not lacking: there are words in it that are virtually bloodthirsty. But a wind of the great freedom blows over everything; even wounds do not have the effect of objections.

*

On inspiration:

The body is inspired; let us keep the "soul" out of it.--Often one could have seen me dance; in those days I could walk in the mountains for seven or eight hours without a trace of weariness. I slept well, I laughed much--my vigor and patience were perfect.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Nietzsche's "Genealogy of Morals"

The Genealogy comprises three related essays. The first essay searches for the origin of the ideas "good and evil" and "good and bad." Briefly, "good and bad" belongs to a master, or aristocratic, morality: what is noble is good, what is contemptible is bad. The idea of "good and evil," however, belongs to a slave, or subordinate, morality, based on ressentiment: what removes suffering is good, what imposes suffering is evil. Nietzsche argues that with the triumph of Judaism, through Christianity, slave morality has trumped master morality.

The second essay seeks to explain the origin and history of such ideas as "guilt," and "bad conscience." After relating the ideas to business contracts, Nietzsche hypothesizes that bad conscience is "the serious illness" contracted by man under the stress of becoming a part of a peaceful society, when all his instincts drive him towards "the wilderness, to war, to prowling, to adventure."

The third essay asks, "What is the Meaning of Ascetic Ideals?" Its deepest answer is that the ascetic ideal, though it is anti-life, a will to nothingness, is still an attempt to save the will, in the face of existential absurdity.

*

Nietzsche as historian:

. . . there is for historiography of any kind no more important proposition than the one it took such effort to establish but which really ought to be established now: the cause of the origin of a thing and its eventual utility, its actual employment and place in a system of purposes, lie worlds apart; whatever exists, having somehow come into being, is again and again reinterpreted to new ends, taken over, transformed, and redirected by some power superior to it; all events in the organic world are a subduing, a becoming master, and all subduing and becoming master involves a fresh interpretation, an adaptation through which any previous "meaning" and "purpose" are necessarily obscured or even obliterated.

*

On art:

(. . . art, in which precisely the lie is sanctified and the will to deception has a good conscience, is much more fundamentally opposed to the ascetic ideal than is science: this was instinctively sensed by Plato, the greatest enemy of art Europe has yet produced. Plato versus Homer: that is the complete, the genuine antagonism--there the sincerest advocate of the "beyond," the great slanderer of life; here the instinctive deifier, the golden nature. To place himself in the service of the ascetic ideal is therefore the most distinctive corruption of an artist that is all possible; unhappily, also one of the most common forms of corruption, for nothing is more easily corrupted than an artist.)

Olivier Assayas's "Summer Hours"

Watched “Summer Hours” with WL at the Quad yesterday. The Times’s A. O. Scott thinks it is a masterpiece despite its apparently modest ambition. I think the film, written and directed by Olivier Assayas, is rather more modest in its success.

Three siblings, Frédéric (Charles Berling), Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) and Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), have to decide what to do with their inheritance—a charming country house holding a valuable art collection—after their mother’s death. While Frédéric wants to keep the house and art together for their children, Jérémie and Adrienne want to sell and, to minimize taxes, donate the art to a museum. The film sees things mainly through Frédéric’s eyes, though, to its credit, sympathizes with the other two globetrotting siblings as well.

The family house is not a new symbol for national patrimony. Here it is divided not just by the old power of death, but also by the newer forces of globalization. Jérémie, who works for a sneakers company, sees his future in its Chinese operations. Adrienne, a designer, is about to marry an American, the artistic director of an internet magazine. As an economist, Frédéric understands the forces that separate his family, but is unable to stop the separation. Tellingly, his new book is about the impossibility of directing the international economy. My reservation about the film is how telling each detail is. The actors are impeccable and nuanced in their roles, but their characters feel like so many chess pieces on a predetermined game board. They are illustrative, beautifully so (director of photography is Eric Gautier), but still illustrative; they lack the vital potential for surprise that makes characters compelling.

The film is very careful in its construction. The opening scene, of the children playing in the garden, is matched by the closing scene of them throwing a party in the house, Frédéric’s daughter and her boyfriend climbing over a wall to be by themselves, like Adam and Eve exiled from the Garden. Yet the care in construction makes puzzling unnecessary scenes like the meeting between the museum curators to decide whether to accept the family’s art collection. The later part of the film feels a little leaden, a tedium Scott mentions in his review, but dismisses as the likely reaction of less sophisticated audiences.

Most interesting to me is the passion shared between the mother Hélène (Edith Scob) and her uncle Berthier, a noted artist who put together the art collection. This incestuous relationship is a twist on the family house trope. Keep it all within the family is a kind of incest. As is typical of the French, the incest is seen by the film as beautiful, rather than repugnant. Frédéric the eldest child is the only one disturbed by the thought of it; his disturbance is meant to be read, perhaps, as a sign of his jealous love for his mother, a love that makes sense of his desire to preserve what she has preserved out of her own love for her uncle. We don’t see anything of that love between uncle and niece (no indulgence in flashbacks), and so the film misses an opportunity to show what is individual in the rather generalized emotions depicted.


Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Nietzsche describes Singapore's past, present and future

from Beyond Good and Evil Part Nine (translated by Walter Kaufmann):

Now look for once at an aristocratic commonwealth--say, an ancient Greek polis, or Venice--as an arrangement, whether voluntary or involuntary, for breeding: human beings are together there who are dependent on themselves and want their species to prevail, most often because they have to prevail or run the terrible risk of being exterminated. Here that boon, that excess, and that protection which favor variations are lacking; the species needs itself as a species, as something that can prevail and make itself durable by virtue of its very hardness, uniformity, and simplicity of form, in a constant fight with its neighbors or with the oppressed who are rebellious or threaten rebellion. Manifold experience teaches them to which qualities above all they owe the fact that, despite all gods and men, they are still there, that they have always triumphed: these qualities they call virtues, these virtues alone they cultivate. They do this with hardness, indeed they want hardness; every aristocratic morality is intolerant--in the education of youth, in their arrangements for women, in their marriage customs, in the relations of old and young, in their penal laws (which take into account deviants only)--they consider intolerance itself a virtue, calling it "justice."

In this way, a type with few but very strong traits, a species of severe, warlike, prudently tactiturn men, close-mouthed and closely-linked (and as such possessed of the subtlest feeling for the charms and nuances of association), is fixed beyond the changing generations; the continual fight against ever constant unfavorable conditions is, as mentioned previously, the cause that fixes and hardens a type.

Eventually, however, a day arrives when conditions become more fortunate and the tremendous tension decreases; perhaps there are no longer enemies among one's neighbors, and the means of life, even for the enjoyment of life, are superabundant. At one stroke the bond and constraint of the old discipline are torn: it no longer seems necessary, a condition of existence--if it persisted it would only be a form of luxury, an archaizing taste. Variation, whether as deviation (to something higher, subtler, rarer) or as degeneration and monstrosity, suddenly appears on the scene in the greatest abundance and magnificence; the individual dares to be individual and different.

At these turning points of history we behold beside one another, and often mutually involved and entangled, a splendid manifold, junglelike growth and upward striving, a kind of tropical tempo in the competition to grow, and a tremendous ruin and self-ruination, as the savage egoisms that have turned, almost exploded, against one another wrestle "for sun and light" and can no longer derive any limit, restraint, or consideration from their previous morality. It was this morality itself that dammed up such enormous strength and bent the bow in such a threatening manner; now it is "outlived." The dangerous and uncanny point has been reached where the greater, more manifold, more comprehensive life transcends and lives beyond the old morality; the "individual" appears, obliged to give himself laws and to develop his own arts and wiles for self-preservation, self-enhancement, self-redemption.

All sorts of new what-fors and wherewithals; no shared formulas any longer; misunderstanding allied with disrespect; decay, corruption, and the highest desires gruesomely entangled; the genius of the race overflowing from all cornucopias of good and bad; a calamitous simultaneity of spring and fall, full of new charms and veils that characterize young, still unexhausted, still unwearied corruption. Again danger is there, the mother of morals, great danger, this time transposed into the individual, into the neighbor and friend, into the alley, into one's own child, into one's own heart, into the most personal and secret recesses of wish and will: what may the moral philosophers emerging in this age have to preach now?

These acute observers and loiterers discover that the end is approaching fast, that everything around them is corrupted and corrupts, that nothing will stand the day after tomorrow, except one type of man, the incurably mediocre. The mediocre alone have a chance of continuing their type and propagating--they are the men of the future, the only survivors: "Be like them! Become mediocre!" is now the only morality that still makes sense, that still gets a hearing.

But this morality of mediocrity is hard to preach: after all, it may never admit what it is and what it wants. It must speak of measure and dignity and duty and neighbor love--it will find it difficult to conceal its irony.--

Nietzsche's "Beyond Good and Evil"*

As translated by Walter Kaufmann.

Nietzsche's perspectivism:

The fundamental faith of the metaphysicians is the faith in opposite values. It has not even occurred to the most cautious among them that one might have a doubt right here at the threshold where it was surely most necessary--even if they vowed to themselves, "de omnibus dubitandum."

For one may doubt, first, whether there are any opposites at all, and secondly whether these popular valuations and opposite values on which the metaphysicians put their seal, are not perhaps merely foreground estimates, only provisional perspectives, perhaps even from some nook, perhaps from below, frog perspectives, as it were, to borrow an expression painters use. For all the value that the true, the truthful, the selfless may deserve, it would still be possible that a higher and more fundamental value for life might have to be ascribed to deception, selfishness, and lust. It might even be possible that what constitutes the values of these good and revered things is precisely that they are insidiously related, tied to, and involved with these wicked, seemingly opposite things--maybe even one with them in essence. Maybe!

*

On the philosopher and the personal:

[In contrast with the 'objective' scientist and scholar] In the philosopher, conversely, there is nothing whatever that is impersonal; and above all, his morality bears decided and decisive witness to who he is--that is, in what order of rank the innermost drives of his nature stand in relation to each other.

*

On new versions of the soul:

Let it be permitted to designate by this expression [the soul atomism] the belief which regards the soul as something indestructible, eternal, indivisible, as a monad, as an atomon: this belief ought to be expelled from science! Between ourselves, it is not at all necessary to get ride of "the soul" at the same time, and thus to renounce one of the most ancient and venerable hypotheses--as happens frequently to clumsy naturalists who can hardly touch on "the soul" without immediately losing it. But the way is open for new versions and refinements of the soul-hypothesis; and such conceptions as "mortal soul," and "soul as subjective multiplicity," and "soul as social structure of the drives and affects," want henceforth to have citizens' rights in science.

*

On the will to power:

Physiologists should think before putting down the instinct of self-preservation as the cardinal instinct of an organic being. A living thing seeks above all to discharge its strength--life itself is will to power; self-preservation is only one of the indirect and most frequent results.

*

On the will as a commander:

"Freedom of the will"--that is the expression for the complex state of delight of the person exercising volition, who commands and at the same time identifies himself with the executor of the order--who, as such, enjoys also the triumph over obstacles, but thinks within himself that it was really his will itself that overcame them. In this way the person exercising volition adds the feelings of delight of his successful executive instruments, the useful "under-wills" or under-souls-- to his feelings of delights as commander. L'effet c'est moi; what happens here is what happens in every well-constructed and happy commonwealth; namely, the governing class identifies itself with the successes of the commonwealth. In all willing it is absolutely a question of commanding and obeying, on the basis, as already said, of a social structure composed of many "souls." Hence a philosopher should claim the right to include willing as such within the sphere of morals--morals being understand as the doctrine of the relations of supremacy under which the phenomenon of "life" comes to be.

*

On spiritual independence:

Independence is for the very few; it is a privilege of the strong. And whoever attempts it even with the best right but without inner constraint proves that he is probably not only strong, but also daring to the point of recklessness. He enters into a labyrinth, he multiplies a thousandfold the dangers which life brings with it in any case, not the least of which is that no one can see how or where he loses his way, becomes lonely, and is torn to piecemeal by some minotaur of conscience. Supposing one like that comes to grief, this happens so far from the comprehension of men that they neither feel it nor sympathize. And he cannot go back any longer. Nor can he go back to the pity of men.--

*

On popular books:

Books for all the world are always foul-smelling books: the smell of small people clings to them. Where the people eat and drinks, even where they venerate, it usually stinks. One should not go to church if one wants to breathe pure air.

*

On tests for independence:

One has to test oneself to see that one is destined for independence and command--and do it at the right time. One should not dodge one's tests, though they may be the most dangerous game one could play and are tests that are taken in the end before no witness or judge but ourselves.

Not to remain stuck to one person--not even the most loved--every person is a prison, also a nook. Not to remain stuck to a fatherland--not even if it suffers most and needs help most--it is less difficult to sever one's heart from a victorious fatherland. Not to remain stuck to some pity--not even for higher men into whose rare torture and helplessness some accident allowed us to look. Not to remain stuck to a science--even if it should lure us with the most precious finds that seem to have been saved up precisely for us. Not to remain stuck to one's own detachment, to that voluptuous remoteness and strangeness of the bird who flees ever higher to see ever more below him--the danger of the flier. Not to remain stuck to our own virtues and become as a whole the victim of some detail in us, such as our hospitality, which is the danger of dangers for superior and rich souls who spend themselves lavishly, almost indifferently, and exaggerate the virtue of generosity into a vice. One must know how to conserve oneself: the hardest test of independence.

*

from Part Four Epigrams and Interludes:

The sage as astronomer.--As long as you still experience the stars as something "above you" you lack the eye of knowledge.

*

The degree and kind of a man's sexuality reach up into the ultimate pinnacle of his spirit.

*

There is no moral phenomena at all, but only a moral interpretation of phenomena.

*

The great epochs of our life come when we gain the courage to rechristen our evil as what is best in us.

*

Whoever fight monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.

*

Whatever is done from love always occurs beyond good and evil.

*

Poets treat their experiences shamelessly: they exploit them.

*

On the usefulness of a morality:

Every morality is, as opposed to laisser aller, a bit of tyranny against "nature"; also against "reason"; but this in itself is no objection, as long as we do not have some other morality which permits us to decree that every kind of tyranny and unreason is impermissible. What is essential and inestimable in every morality is that it constitutes a long compulsion: to understand Stoicism or Port-Royal or Puritanism, one should recall the compulsion under which every language so far has achieved strength and freedom--the metrical compulsion of rhyme and rhythm. . . .

Every artist know how far from any feeling of letting himself go his "most natural" state is--the free ordering, placing, disposing giving form in the moment of "inspiration"--and how strictly and subtly he obeys thousandfold laws precisely then, laws that precisely on account of their hardness and determination defy all formulation through concepts (even the firmest concept is, compared with them, not free of fluctuation, multiplicity, and ambiguity).

What is essential "in heaven and on earth" seems to be, to say it once more, that there should be obedience over a long period of time and in a single direction: given that, something always develops, and has developed, for whose sake it is worth while to live on earth; for example, virtue, art, music, dance, reason, spirituality--something transfiguring, subtle, mad, and divine.

*

On human beings of mixed heritage:

In an age of disintegration that mixes races indiscriminately human beings have in their bodies the heritage of multiple origins, that is, opposite, and often not merely opposite, drives and value standards that fight each other and rarely permit each other any rest. Such human beings of late cultures and refracted lights will on the average be weaker human beings: their most profound desire is that the war they are should come to an end. . . .

But when the opposition and war in such a nature have the effect of one more charm and incentive of life--and if, moreover, in addition to his powerful and irreconciliable drives, a real mastery and subtlety in waging war against oneself, in other words, self-control, self-outwitting, has been inherited or cultivated, too--then those magical, incomprehensible, and unfathomable ones arise, those enigmatic men predestined for victory and seduction, whose most beautiful expression is found in Alcibiades and Caesar, . . . and among artists perhaps Leonardo da Vinci.

*

On the benefit of suffering:

The discipline of suffering, of great suffering--do you not know that only this suffering has created all enhancements of men so far? That tension of the soul in unhappiness which cultivates its strength, its shudders face to face with great ruin, its inventiveness and courage in enduring, persevering, interpreting, and exploiting suffering, and whatever has been granted to it of profundity, secret, mask, spirit, cunning, greatness--was it not granted to it through suffering, through the discipline of great suffering? In man creature and creator are united: in man there is material, fragment, excess, clay, dirt, nonsense, chaos; but in man there is also creator, form-giver, hammer hardness, spectator divinity, and seventh day: do you understand this contrast? And that your pity is for the "creature in man," for what must be formed, broken, forged, torn, burnt, made incandescent, and purified--that which necessarily must and should suffer? And our pity--do you not comprehend for whom our converse pity is when it resists your pity as the worst of all pamperings and weaknesses?

Thus it is pity versus pity.

But to say it once more: there are higher problems than all problems of pleasure, pain, and pity; and every philosophy that stops with them is a naivete.--


Friday, August 07, 2009

Cyril Wong's "Let Me Tell You Something About That Night"

cover image from Transit Lounge website


After publishing seven acclaimed books of poetry, Cyril has written his first collection of fiction. Let Me Tell You Something About that Night is subtitled "Strange Tales," a label elastic enough for Western fairy tales and Eastern mythologies, both reworked in this eclectic volume. Here are stories about elves and knights, heavenly devas, a dreaming angel, and a dragon prince. The protagonists have names like Lin, Julie, Ram, Anuar, Van Phan, Enzo, Thomas, and the Old Man with the Golden Voice. They are straight, gay, and indeterminable. They are also animals. The turtle and the hare, for example. Or the butterfly that changed into a rabbit that changed into a bear that changed into a woman. In transforming these fantasies into strange tales, Cyril has availed himself a variety of sources in order to write about the core preoccupations of his poetry: familial and sexual love, memory and identity.

In the opening story "The Lake Children," Lin grieving for a daughter drowned in a lake was herself drowned in the same lake, and eaten up by creatures that looked like children. An allegory of a sort about grief's consuming power, the tale comes to life in its fully imagined details. The narrator describes the approach of the lake children in this way:

They looked the same age as Lan, but their skin was light grey, their heads, shockingly bald, their bodies utterly naked. Lin noticed that she could not see their private parts; it was as if they were sexless. As they swam towards her, she saw their little legs paddled effortlessly through the cold water, while their hands stayed by their sides. Then she noticed fins running down their backs starting from the base of their necks. There were also smaller fins on their wrists and ankles. Their eyes were milky and their irises were larger than usual. There were at least ten of them swimming towards Lin, whose body was floating in a way which suggested that she might be getting ready to settle into a comfortable chair.

The mother's observation of their sexlessness rings true; in an older time, a newborn would be examined for its sex. The gentle irony here is that these lake children are not newborn. Their number--at least ten--speaks of a more general grief. The master-stroke lies in the last detail: Lin's resting posture hints at the relief she finally receives from the hands of grief.

Mothers get good copy in this book. Two of them take loving care of Julie who is blind, and learns to talk to the moon. In another tale, after Anuar discovers his terrible gift for foreseeing people's death, his mother reassures him by revealing she shares his gift. Fathers do not get such kind treatment. They separate boys who fall in love with each other, as we learn in the dragon prince's rather self-absorbed letter to his dad. This symbolic revenge on a harsh father can spoil a story. "The Boy with the Flower That Grew Out of His Ass" is a beautiful and tender evocation of homosexual love. But when the father breaks the neck of the boy's lover, and drowns the boy himself, his violence is insufficiently motivated; the story assumes, a little too quickly, that fathers would kill their sons for just being gay.

These archetypes, Father, Mother, Lover, are familiar from Cyril's poetry. Writing about them in the form of tales, however, seems to give him a voice different from the deeply introspective one dominant in the poetry. He can be satirical, as in "The Sleeping Prince," or wise as in "The Turtle & the Hare." Sometimes that voice underlines its message too heavily, as in the moralistic story "The Monster." Sometimes that voice slips into overly familiar expressions that would never have appeared in the poetry (for instance, the train "plunged into darkness"). But this collection of strange tales is notable for expanding the range of an alluring voice. The last story imagines an old man so contented with his life that when he is given a magical wish he cannot think of anything to wish for. He finally wishes for "a beautiful voice I can sing with for hours and hours, so I may entertain myself on my daily rounds." That self-contentment, self-possession, is surely a new note of imagination in Cyril's songs.

You can buy the book from Transit Lounge. The illustrations by Jason Wing are beautiful and exact.