Saturday, January 30, 2010

Scraps and Bits

Thursday afternoon I heard for the first time an alto saxophone played like a woodwind, in a work for sax and piano by Bernhard Heiden (1910-2000). Born in Frankfurt-am-Maine, Germany, Heiden studied music composition under Paul Hindemith. He emigrated from Nazi Germany to the United States in 1935, and was naturalized as an American citizen in 1942. The work I heard was called Diversion. It displayed the qualities described by Nicolas Slonimsky of Heiden's music: "impeccable formal balance and effective instrumentation."

I have been listening to Quatour Ebène play string quartets by Debussy, Faurè and Ravel. The CD was a  wonderful gift from W. The French quartet comprises four good-looking young men, who pose like a boy band on the CD cover. The subtlety of French music is a welcomed relief from my German and Russian favorites. A tall cool drink with a dash of what might be lemon.


Just joined PEN American Center as an associate member last week, for its searchable database on poetry contests, but also for "protecting free expression and celebrating literature." International PEN was founded in 1921 as a direct response to "the ethnic and national divisions that contributed to the First World War." I do like PEN's international focus, symbolized by its popular World Voices lit fest. I hope to publish enough soon to apply to be a professional member.

With membership came their journal for writers and readers, Pen America. One loose-leaf sheet of paper printed the 224 characters that earned Liu Xiaobo 11 years in a Chinese prison. Jeffrey Yang translated three of Liu's poems that appear in the journal. "Longing to Escape," addressed to Liu's wife from prison, ends:

your toes will not break
a cat closes in behind
you, I want to shoo him away
as he turns his head, extends
a sharp claw toward me
deep within his blue eyes
there seems to be a prison
if I blindly step out
of with even the slightest
step I'd turn into a fish


On the other loose-leaf sheet of paper, a Persian/Farsi protest poem devised by Iranian protesters who took to the streets in June after the presidential elections. "The slogan refers directly to an insult levied at protesters by current Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who referred to them as khas-o-khaashaak, meaning dirt and dust, scraps and bits. The structure of this slogan (I am/you are) recalls a ghazal included in the collection Divaan-eh Shams by Rumi, the classic 13th century Persian poet...."

Aan kha o khaashaak to'i, past tar az khaak to'i,
Shoor manam, noor manam, aashegheg ranjoor manam,
Zoor to'i, koor to'i, haaleyeh bi noor to'i,
Daleereh bi baak manam, maalekeh in khaak manam!

PEN's Translation Slam showcases the art of translation by juxtaposing in a public forum two "competing" translations of a single work. The slogan translated:

You are worthless, you are waste, you are baser than dirt.
I am life, I am light, the lover with a grieving heart.
You are tyranny, you are blind, you are the halo without light.
I am brave, I am bold, I am the lord of this land.
(Translated by Sassan Tabatabai)

You're just riffraff, lower than dirt,
I'm the aching lover, blazing and lit.
You're the black halo, oppressive and blind.
I'm the brave hero and this land is mine!
(Translated by Niloufar Talebi)

I don't know Farsi but for my money Talebi's translation, as an English poem, wins hands-down.


Mike Geffner's Inspired Word reading has moved from a restaurant in Forrest Hills, Queens, to swanky digs, Le Poisson Rouge, in Greenwich Village, along Bleecker. The specially designed space "serves art and alcohol." It marries night club vibe and artsy frisson. I heard Hilary Hahn play Bach there when W. visited. Last night, four slam poets, including B Young and Kelly Tsai, took the stage. B Young was the most accomplished performer of the four, but Kelly took the prize for the brainiest. The reading takes place two Fridays of a month.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Invitations and Submissions

Came home today and found a flurry of invitations. Okay, not quite a flurry, but a couple more than the zero I normally receive. Anne Wenzel from Sarah Lawrence College, my alma mater, asked me to join an alumnae panel to speak on life after graduate school. Perry Brass also emailed me to ask if I would read with him and four other poets for a benefit, curated by Kat Georges, for the Greater New York Independent Publishers' Association. And two Swiss artists I met at the Alternative New Year's Reading want to know if I would participate in their video project called Talking Heads. Last and certainly not least, my sister invited me to join them to celebrate Chinese New Year in early February. I feel wanted.

I sent out a few mails of my own this past week. Sent out my book EQUAL TO THE EARTH to the Balcones Poetry Prize, the Shenandoah/Glasgow Prize, The Poetry Centre SF, Paterson Poetry Prize, and Devil's Kitchen Reading Awards. Submitted poems to American Poetry Review, New Madrid and Gulf Coast. Waiting to hear from The New Yorker and Slate. Let's see if the world wants my poems as much as they want my person.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Theory of Winter

Another ghazal published, this one in Raintown Review. Anna Evans chief-edits this formalist print journal, and Quincy Lehr associately edits. Quincy asked me to submit, and he (and Anna?) selected "I pluck my theory of winter from the violin."

Sunday, January 24, 2010

"A View from the Bridge" at Cort Theatre

After a hummus dinner, JF and I watched this Arthur Miller revival, directed by Gregory Mosher, at the Cort. Liev Schreiber was a terrific Eddie Carbone, dense, powerful, inarticulate, very human. You see the Italian American longshoreman unable to admit his attraction for his niece Catherine, and unable to let her go to the Italian illegal immigrant Rodolpho, whom Eddie thinks is "not right," meaning homosexual. Scarlett Johansson was adequate as Catherine, but hardly revelatory. Her independence from her guardian was not achieved but merely happened in the second act. Morgan Spector as Rodolpho was charming but not winning. All my sympathy was directed towards Eddie and little towards Rodolpho. Jessica Hecht was a very convincing Beatrice, a scolding pinched wife, torn between jealousy of Catherine and protectiveness of the girl, and ultimately a helpless spectator of her husband's dive into self-destruction.

The pacing of Act One felt slow. When Eddie kissed Rodolpho to prove to Catherine the Italian was not a real man, the scene was not electrifying the way it was in another production I watched (was it at Oxford?).  Perhaps I have gotten used to seeing two men kiss, in art and in life, as have contemporary audiences, and so the the charge of a taboo broken was weaker. But I think the scene's lack of power was also partly due to its staging. Eddie bent over Rodolpho on the dinner table to kiss him, which feels less violating than romantic or even domestic. In the other production, both men on their feet, Eddie grasped Rodolpho's head in his powerful hands and raped him with his mouth. It is an indelible image.

The second act heated up. The public telephone, which remained visible on stage throughout, became the incongruous site of Eddie's tragic destiny, when he called the Immigration hounds on the illegals. The denouement, a fight between Marco (Rodolpho's brother played by a likable Corey Stoll) and Eddie, ended short and sharp in the knifing of Eddie. It was a poignant moment, especially when Eddie, dying on the ground, turned away from Catherine's sobs and looked for Bea, who embraced him. Sentimental, perhaps, but powerful stuff.

The lawyer Alfieri (played by Michael Cristofer who has a great voice) concluded the play with words that still ring in my ears: that Eddie was pure, "purely himself," because he "lets himself be wholly known." The modern twist on the old Greek imperative "Know thyself" is apt. The difficulty in our overly refined age is not to know, but to be who we are. That conclusion receives another layer of meaning when we remember that the play was written in the McCarthy era, two years after "The Crucible." Given the latent homo-eroticism in "Bridge," to let oneself be wholly known was also the problem of the modern homosexual.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Rock and Loam of Eden

TLS January 15 2010

from Cairns Craig's Commentary piece "The last Romantics" on the influence of Herbert Grierson on Irish, English and Scottish modernisms:

To those who questioned whether it was possible for love poetry to "speak a language which is impassioned and expressive but lacks beauty", Grierson argued that Donne's was a "dramatic" poetry which "utters the very movement and moment of passion itself". More like a novel, Donne's poetry mimics passion in a "vivid realism" with profound psychological insights:
"The central theme of his poetry is ever his own intense personal moods, as a lover, a friend, an analyst of his own experiences worldly and religious. His philosophy cannot unify these experiences. [bold emphasis mine] It is used to record the reaction of his restless and acute mind on the intense experience of the moment, to supply a reading of it in the light now of one, now of another philosophical or theological dogma or thesis caught from his multifarious reading, developed with audacious paradox or more serious intention, an expression, an illumination of that mood to himself and to his reader."
The result was "a poetry of an extraordinarily arresting and haunting quality, passionate, thoughtful, and with a deep melody of its own". . . . unlike his great precursors Dante and Petrarch, Donne does not make love a route to religious spirituality; rather, Donne uses the "intellectual, argumentative evolution" of the medieval love poets "to express a temper of mind and a conception of love which are at the opposite pole from their lofty idealism", one which celebrates the body rather than denying it.
The meeting with Grierson and the confrontation with the Dublin audience in the following week were to transform Yeats's career. Grierson sent Yeats a copy of his edition of Donne in 1912; Yeats replied that
"Poems I could not understand or could but vaguely understand are now clear and I notice that the more precise and learned the thought, the greater the beauty, the passion; the intricacy and subtleties of his imagination are the lengths and depths of the furrow made by his passion. His pedantry and his obscenity--the rock and loam of his Eden--but make us the more certain that one who is but a man like us has seen God."
Grierson's Donne was just as crucial to the development of the young T.S. Eliot. Indeed, one of Eliot's most influential essays, "The Metaphysical Poets", was written as a review of Grierson's anthology, and a famous passage from it takes Grierson's account of Donne's poetic sensibility as the basis for a critique of the failures of English poetry:
"It is something which had happened to the mind of England between the time of Donne or Lord Herbet of Cherbury and the them of Tennyson and Browning; it is the difference between the intellectual poet and reflective poet. Tennyson and Browning are poets, and they think; but they do not feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose. A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility."
Scottish modernism was to be no less indebted. Grierson's account of Donne emphasized the tension in Donne's work between "the strain of dialectic, the subtle play of argument and wit, erudite and fantastic; and the strain of vivid realism". That opposition became, in G. Gregory Smith's Scottish Literature: Character and influence (1919), the defining element of the whole tradition of Scottish literature, which is shaped on the one hand by its "grip of fact", "its sense of detail", its realism, and, on the other, by its enthusiasm for "the horns of elfland and the voices of the mountains". The characteristic tenor of Scottish poetry is an "easy passing . . . between the natural and the supernatural", producing that "zigzag of contradictions" which Smith defined as "the Caledonian antisyzygy". Determined to create in Scotland the "Renaissance" that Smith described taking place in Ireland, Christopher Murray Grieve adopted that characterization of Scottishness in his invention of his poetic alter ego. Hugh MacDiarmid. To MacDiarmid, Grieve attributed the antisyzygetical energy--the desire to "aye be whaur/Extremes meet"--which Smith identified with the Scottish tradition.
Another of Grierson's editions, The Poems of Lord Byron, published in 1923, was to be equally significant to MacDiarmid. In a lecture of 1920, Grierson had placed Byron not only in the line of Donne but in the line of Burns: "Byron was masculine and passionate, as Donne and Burns had been before him".


from Kelly Grover's review of "Constantinople, or the Sensual Concealed: The imagery of Sean Scully":

For thirty-five years, he has built a reputation on repetition--on enormous canvases of cramped, abutting stripes, which refuse to confess connection to any living thing. Yet beneath the shouldered planks of filthy ochres, slate clays, and scabbing reds, stirs an unexpected warmth of vision which aligns the works more to the humid golds of Byzantine icons than to Rothko's vaporous saturations, more to the muscular light of Turner than to the frenetic flinging of Jackson Pollock.
Scully's physical stature is that of an ageing but still agile boxer (a sport he trained in before taking up painting full time), while his meditative conversation is that of a homespun philosopher, with a taste for aphorisms ("the paint loves to be loved") that best describes the late works.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Gabriel Orozco at the MoMA

His obsessions are outrageous with joy. His fluency is outlined by rigor. He does not see differently from most of us so much as sees longer. The delight in making, in drawing, photographs, paintings, sculpture and installations. His by-now classic works are there: La DS (1993), a Citroen automobile seamlessly streamlined to a single-seater; and Black Kites (1997), a human skull covered with graphite. The works that moved me most were the simplest. A lump of clay pressed by the sculptor's hands into something resembling the heart. A lump of plasticine, the weight of the sculptor's body, rolled all over a city, now looking filthy, scored and mortal.

Monday, January 18, 2010

"The Poet's Work" Edited by Reginald Gibbons

Poets writing prose about poetry. Some fundamental contradiction here, and these writings betray their awareness of that fact. They are reluctant, overly insistent, convoluted, self-conscious or polemical. But here and there a sentence or an image arrests the imagination, and they speak like the poets they in fact are. So far I have read Fernando Pessoa, Osip Mandelstam, Boris Pasternak, Federico Garcia Lorca, Luis Cernuda, Wallace Stevens, Eugenio Montale, Delmore Schwartz and Karl Shapiro, and the ones that still vibrate in me are Lorca (the Duende in art, in one's blood, the bullfight), Pasternak (poetry a sponge, not a fountain; the voice of life, the real), Montale (music) and Shapiro (the independence and unity of poetry). They speak eloquently of my present obsessions.

Pasternak in "Some Statements":

No genuine book has a first page. Like the rustling of a forest, it is begotten God knows where, and it grows and it rolls, arousing the dense wilds of the forest until suddenly, in the very darkest, most stunned and panicked moment, it rolls to its end and begins to speak with all the treetops at once.

The deep insight is "most stunned and panicked moment." Montale in "Intentions (An Imaginary Interview)":

I obeyed a need for musical expression. I wanted my words to stick closer than those of the poets I'd read. Closer to what? It seemed to me I was living under a bell jar, and yet I seemed to be hearing something essential. A subtle veil, almost a thread, separated me from the definitive quid. Absolute expression would have meant breaking that veil, that thread: an explosion, the end of the illusion of the world as representation. But this was an unreachable goal. And my desire to stay close remained musical, instinctive, unprogrammatic. I wanted to wring the neck of the elegance of our old aulic language, even at the risk of a countereloquence.

"Musical, instinctive, unprogrammatic," adjectives that describe a true poet, to my mind. "I obeyed a need for musical expression" is as good a way as any of explaining why I write.

Karl Shapiro in "What Is Not Poetry?":

It took me years of teaching and editing and poring over modern criticism to see the light. It was not poetry the big pontifical magazines wanted: it was Culture. Poetry was only a handy tool of culture. I firmly believe that whatever good poetry I have written was written because of my ignorance of criticism; I just was firmly believe that every poet of our age who has been too close to criticism has either given up poetry completely or has ruined his work because of it. . . . The greatest freedom poets can hope for in the twentieth century is freedom from critical theorizing and a return to the laissez faire amateur criticism of the audience. . . .

Ha! A supporter of reader-blogging. Elsewhere:

The meaning of poetry, as far as language is concerned, is the meaning of hey-nonny-nonny. . . .
The poet is always "one" with his experience; to that extent he does inhabit the realm of the supernatural. All artists search for a unification of the elements of a particular experience, the photographer cropping a negative no less than the painter choosing his landscape or model, or the poet looking for the poetry of the thing that engages him at the moment. The artist is different from other people in that he is in a constant state of "oneness" with his experience. When he is not, he is out of Paradise; he has fallen into the world of rationality where all dualisms run riot. . . .
Poetry is eternally out of favor with all forms of authority, not because it is antagonistic to authority (only inferior poetry battles against society) but because it does not recognize the reality of authority as it is practiced in society. . . .
All good poetry has an immediate impact upon its audience. This is proved simply by the existence of the greatest poetry in the form of drama and narrative. Nearly all Modern poetry fails in impact, immediately or otherwise. . . . If there is only one law of art, it is that the work must be capable of apprehension as a whole and at once. This is the nature of art, that it is wholly and immediately apprehended, like a tree or a woman.

Or a man, dammit, I would add. "As a whole and at once" not because the poem is simplistic or flattering, but because every element in it has been perfectly united to achieve one profound impression. The way to test out a poem is to read it aloud to an audience.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

"The New Poetry of Singapore" by Gwee Li Sui

The essay appears in Volume II of Sharing Borders: Studies in Contemporary Singaporean-Malaysia Literature, itself a part of the series Writing Asia: The Literatures in Englishes. In the essay, instead of rehashing the tired discourse of nationalism in the poetry of earlier Singaporean poets, Gwee focuses on younger poets who published their first books in 1997 and later. Relatively free from the control of both State and University, these poets put out, with the help of independent publishers, a series of works that have re-energized Singaporean writing. A chronology:

1997 - Alvin Pang's Testing the Silence, Aaron Lee's A Visitation of Sunlight, and Yong Shu Hoong's Isaac.

1998 - Grace Chia's Womango, Alfian Sa'at's One Fierce Hour, Felix Cheong's Temptation and Other Poems, Damien Sin's Saints, Sinners and Singaporeans and Gwee's Who Wants to Buy a Book of Poems?

1999 - Felix Cheong's I Watch the Stars Go Out, Daren Shiau's Heartland and Lim Hui Min's Mining for the Light

2000 - Cyril Wong's Squatting Quietly, Eddie Tay's Remnants and Daren Shiau's Peninsula, Archipelagos and Other Islands

2001 - Alfian Sa'at's A History of Amnesia, Cyril Wong's the end of his orbit, Yeow Kai Chai's Secret Manta and Toh Hsien Min's The Enclosure of Love

2002 - Koh Beng Liang's Last Three Women, Yong Shu Hoong's dowhile and Cyril Wong's Below: Absence

2003 - Felix Cheong's Broken By the Rain, Madeleine Lee's a single headlamp and Alvin Pang's City of Rain

2004 - Madeleine Lee's fifty three/zero three and Cyril Wong's Unmarked Treasure

2005 - Aaron Maniam's Morning at Memory's Border, Yong Shu Hoong's Frottage and Eddie Tay's A Lover's Soliloquy

2006 - Ng Yi-Sheng's Last Boy, Yeow Kai Chai's pretend I'm not here and Cyril Wong's Like a Seed with Its Singular Purpose

2007 - Daren Shiau's Velouria, Koh Jee Leong's Payday Loans, Nansi Pooja's Stiletto Scars, Colin Tan's The Evidence of the Senses and Aaron Lee's Five Right Angles

2008 - Madeleine Lee's synaethesia, Cyril Wong's tilting our plates to catch the light and Toh Hsien Min's Means to an End

2009 - Felix Cheong's Sudden in Youth: New and Selected Poems, Gilbert Koh's Two Baby Hands, and Koh Jee Leong's Equal to the Earth

(Correction: Daren Shiau's Velouria is not a book of poetry, but of micro-fiction. See also the qualification and clarification by Gwee in the comments.)

Yes, we are not many. But the list represents an explosion of sorts. What is most exciting is the sheer variety of subject matter, tone and style. Sure, there is plenty of gay poetry, in Cyril Wong, Alfian Sa'at, Ng Yi-Sheng and me, but we do not dominate in terms of numbers. There are satire, populism and defiance, besides the more meditative tone associated with an elite education. There are poets who write in meter and rhyme, and there are poets who do not. Influences may come from China and Malaysia as well as England and the USA.

After discussing the different poets on the list, Gwee ends the essay with some perceptive comments on my poetry.

The last most recent poet I want to introduce lives in New York today but aggressively uses the internet . . . to reach a transnational audience. Koh jee Leong is still more known in Singapore for "Come On, Straight Boy," his controversial gay love poem banned by authorities from being read publicly. He may have been contributing to the country's poetic and critical life for years, but his first book, Payday Loans, carrying thirty sonnets, appeared as late as in 2007. The "Hungry Ghost" sequence, from a second volume Equal to the Earth (2009), movingly describes his artistic journey:

I tell her my book rises on dammed desire,
a book my father would have called dirty.
Last summer, tired of being damned a liar,

I stopped Father from switching on the TV
and announced to my parents I am gay.
I talked too much. He didn't look at me.

When i wound down, he mumbled, It's okay,
and flicked the TV switch. In bed, that night,
he consoled Mother that every family prays

a secret sutra that is hard to recite--
a crippled son, retard or laughingstock.
Mother repeated to me his insight. (Equal 13-14)

These lines cut straight to the Asian gay poet's mundane struggles with far greater honesty and less flourish than the verses of Alfian, Ng, and even Wong. Koh's highly musical poems are talismans that hold down an inner life with much to exorcise even as he seeks new measures of acceptance and means to fix his mental arguments in verse.

Gwee continues, in a beautifully written paragraph that pays tribute to the new Singaporean poetry, and challenges it:

It should be palpable by now how the fullness of Singapore's new poetry is, in fact, demonstrated by its own lack of real opposites, counterpoints it does not already contain. As if each style or engagement has been overhearing all the rest, the writings fill in for one another: politics is answered by humour, ideology by confession, lyric by prose, form by flair, image by idea, consciousness by the subconscious. Moreover, contra what straightforward reviews say, the themes are seldom discrete, with, for example, travel itself troping existence which tropes locatedness even as location suggests myth, and so on. What this means is that the often invoked anxieties of postcoloniality and young nationhood can be overstated since most new voices share a different circle of reflection, one far more able to reposition the poets' emotions outside the discourses and urgencies of belonging. Their art of subtly managed inquiry indeed shifts its weight less to an exercise in reason than to a pursuit of private beauty, making it necessary for future academic engagers to forge a distinct critical language for them. While systems of effort like Thumboo's or of nomadism like Boey's may continue to be of some use, the worthier challenge is to dislodge notions of betweenness and volatility from those and tie them more to themes such as existential wakefulness, interrogations of privacy, transformations of self, the relation between art and wit, artistic and human influences, multi-lingual connections, the urban condition, the values of the absurd, and spirituality.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Alban Berg's Sledgehammer of Desperation

Last night the New York Philharmonic, with TB. Alan Gilbert conducted. Haydn's Symphony No. 49 in F Minor, La passione (1768), which I was too tired to appreciate. John Adams's The Wound-Dresser, for Baritone Voice and Orchestra (1988), sung by Thomas Hampton. Interesting music but the words sounded wrong in it. Adams unexpectedly appeared with singer and conductor after the piece, and was warmly applauded.

I was more awake after the intermission. I especially loved the first movement of Schubert's Symphony in B minor, D. 759, Unfinished (1822). The playing was passionate but controlled. The program ended with Berg's Three Orchestral Pieces, Op. 6 (1913-15), which Gilbert thought "completed" Schubert's Unfinished.

You often find Berg's Three Orchestral Pieces . . . at the beginning of a program. It can be seen as an extension of Mahler's Symphony No. 6; in fact, when we perform it, you'll see an incredible instrument at the back of the stage--an enormous wooden box with a huge sledgehammer--used in both the Mahler Sixth and the Berg Three Orchestra Pieces. Both Mahler and Berg were trying to express a kind of desperation in their music. a struggle ay a point in history when these pieces were written, a fin-de-siecle moment where prejudices and presuppositions were being questioned. I've decided to close the program with the Berg because when you get to this cataclysmic end--after this amazing and compelling and terrifying march that is the third piece--there's really nothing else to say.
But where did Berg come from? Yes, Mahler, but even before that Schubert. Schubert was one of history's greatest songwriters, and I think Berg was one of the great melodists. I hope that you, the audience, see elements inthe Berg that are extremely expressive and extremely beautiful--there's a reason that this is called expressionist music. I believe that if Schubert had continued to compose for the next 100 years, he would have ended up where Berg was.

The program also quotes Theodor Adorno in his 1968 study of Alabn Berg.

Berg let himself go with complete abandon in the March from the Three Pieces for Orchestra, an absolutely stupendous work, which has yet to be generally appreciated and whose analysis and explication must one day be the task of a definitive interpretation of Berg. When he showed me the score and explained it, I remarked of the first visual impression: "That must sound like playing Schoenberg's Orchestral Pieces and Mahler's Ninth Symphony, all at the same time." I will never forget the look of pleasure this compliment--dubious for any other cultured ear--induced. With a ferocity burying all Johannine gentleness like an avalanche, he answered, "Right, then at last one could hear what an eighth-note brass chord really sounds like" as if convinced that no audience could survive such a sonority...

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Poem: "Losing Art"

Losing Art

The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
—Elizabeth Bishop, “One Art”

It is too hard to end a line with “Art.”
It sounds too smug. It is full of intention.
The end is not dictated by the start.

If the hand begins to write from the heart,
paying the passions the right attention,
it is too hard to end a line with “Art.”

Or else the verse may be brought up too smart
for its own good, rhyming with intervention.
The end is not dictated by the start.

Imagination is no help for the most part.
All it wants is to have fun with invention.
It is too hard to end a line with “Art.”

Just at this stage most villanelles impart
some hardwon but elegant comprehension
like the end is not dictated by the start.

All this we fathom as we ride the cart
to the grave, sighing in sad contention,
It is too hard to end a line with “Art”;
the end is not dictated by the start.                       

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Poem: "The Dilapidated God"

The Dilapidated God

A depilated dog would not look well.
—Elizabeth Bishop, “Pink Dog”

He lives in a dilapidated god or he is one,
he isn’t very sure. The blurry windows are his eyes
or windows that will not rub clean and so are given up

to time’s deposits and air’s irreversible chemistry.
The roof is thinning, he is sure, for when it rains he feels
the water seep through the plaster of the ceiling, drip

on the furniture and lick his hands, leaving on them
a thin layer of mucus that stains everything he touches.
Or he is stained by what he touches. He can’t be sure.

When his god was strong, strong with the bright consciousness of strength,
his god was clearly two. His body was a vital stroke
and outside of his sword the world flashes like a sword.

But now the water in the sink goes down slowly and he
doesn’t know where the problem is. He knows he can’t fix it
but it would be some comfort to know what’s holding it up.


Monday, January 11, 2010

Poem: "Friday Speaks"

Friday Speaks

Friday was nice, and we were friends.
If only he had been a woman!
—Elizabeth Bishop, “Crusoe in England”

The heart is the most delicious part.
The part we do not eat is the feet, too tough the meat,
like . . . how do I explain it?. . . like
shoe leather. They are unclean, associated
with the meanest spirits, to be stamped down. They are
a . . . what is the word you use? . . . fetish,
no, taboo. That’s right, taboo. We pile them up
like an ill-assorted heap of shoes, and burn them afterwards.
When they burn, they smell different,
not like grass, but like the muddy roots of grass.

Things are changing now.
We wear shoes and so our feet are growing soft.
The young men, the wild men, the reformers,
are eating them to make their different points.

It was not like that. Not so long ago,
my enemies brought me to the island
to kill me because I had raped one
of their daughters. They had a duty to kill me
just as I had a duty to run away. But Crusoe
saved me. He saw me as a victim
and a better class of natives.
I obliged,
learning his religion and speaking his language.

He was making a lot of things in those days
to kill time. He told me he took months
to get the parasol right and was inordinately proud of it,
promenading along the beach twirling it.
He kept complaining of not having
a kettle, and tried explaining its usefulness to me.
A big hole in the belly for pouring water in
and a small hole at the end of a neck
for pouring water out. I still don’t see the need
for two holes when one will do for pouring in and out.
At first I showed him where
to find more liana a knife could reach easily, and how
to pry turtles open with a sliver of rock, to save the knife.
He would be pleased with me but the sun
would stay stuck for more hours,
no matter how many times he glared at it.
So I pretended not to know when the wild berries would ripen
and we trekked many happy days to the berry bushes
to check on the blushing globes.
The best thing about finding me, he said,
was that he got to make two of everything.
Not quite everything because I did not tolerate trousers,
but I let him make me shoes
and put them on my feet.

He said we had no sexual relations, did he?
Well, there were nights, after we prayed
but had more to say, except we had said Amen,
when it got really lonely
on the island, and it creeps into you, barely
parting the grass,
and pins you to the ground.
Some nights he treated me like a woman.
Other nights I treated him like a woman,
the way we do when we are many weeks on a hunt.

I have read his book. It brings back good memories.
It doesn’t get it wrong so much as simplify the story,
the way, for instance, he discovered
a single footprint.
I laughed aloud at that part.
The truth is always less mysterious but more complicated.
That is what I try to say
when I translate English books into my native language.
I rescue, for my feet-eating young men, my wild reformers,
not just what is useful
but what is made significant by toil, talent and time—parasol,
knife, goatskin trousers, shriveled shoes—
before they go down to time,
rescue them from Crusoe’s island for the main land.


Sunday, January 10, 2010

Poem: "In the Shower"

In the Shower

The water used to run out of the mouths
of three green soapstone faces. (One face laughed.
and one face cried; the middle one just looked….)
—Elizabeth Bishop, “Under the Window: Ouro Prêto”

Heavy glass door, with top and bottom metal bands.
The room inside rectangular, two shoulders wide,
long as a man lying down, if you were the man.

Below the shower head, two rectangular alcoves,
a tablet of white scentless soap in the left recess
and in the right hairthickening shampoo for your hair.

Between the niches one small handle, ceramic,
bulging slightly in the middle for an easy grip,
to turn from right to left from cold to hot and back.

Far enough from water to keep a towel dry,
an apse, rectangular too, with an altar cube
for you to stand up tall and to accept a mouth.

And on the walls, the floor, the alcoves and the apse,
small tiles, sea green, intense as lapis lazuli,
graze on the inside now of the sarcophagus.


Evangelical Disenchantment

TLS January 8 2010

from Bernice Martin's review of David Hempton's Evangelical Disenchantment:

Hempton's chapter on George Eliot introduces two of the recurring themes of these portraits: Evangelicalism's failure to live by what it proclaimed as its central value--the belief that God is love (th hook that initially caught young idealists such as Mary Ann Evans and Vincent Van Gogh); and its hypocrisy about sex and power, which was what alienated James Baldwin.
Quite often, eventual disenchantment follows from the emphasis on grace freely available to all, which trumps biblical literalism, restrictive dogmas about who can be saved, and eagerness for the eschatological violence of the End Times. Active love of neighbor in this world becomes more important than selfishly securing your own passage to a possible afterlife. This secularizing trajectory more readily empties liberal Evangelical churches than doctrinally conservative ones. Yet is also leaves the secular world significantly shaped by Evangelical idealism constructed around the person of Jesus as exemplar of love, forgiveness and self-sacrifice. Where secularized Calvinism characteristically mutates into a high, dry rationalism . . . , secularized Lutheranism elevated the spirit over the letter and leaves behind an emotional cult of authenticity and sincerity. It is not surprising that creative artists and social reformers are so often found in the second camp. And it is fitting that a distinguished historian of Methodism should remind us that secularization has been as much the working out of the interior contradictions of Evangelicalism as the consequence of rampant secularism as such.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Poem: "Kinder Feelings"

Kinder Feelings

Think of the long trip home.
Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?
—Elizabeth Bishop, “Questions of Travel”

So crowded here, Grand Central Terminal, people pouring
along the greatest number of train platforms in the world
(with a secret platform to whisk a President with polio
to the Waldorf-Astoria) to the Main Concourse, swirling
round the stones of tourists—moved unsurely by the rush—
dividing in intelligent streams into various passageways,
as if separated by an industrious chemist, Mercury perhaps.

So different from the one station in Singapore (one station!)
where on the walls rice is planted, rubber tapped, tin mined,
activities that happened, is happening, elsewhere, not there,
and on the platform waiting for the train I watched the grass
between the railway ties, burn, between the broken stones,
imagined miles of railway tracks crisscrossing everywhere
and stones rising to wing the helm of travel’s cathedral.

Now I am here, not brought by dream, but by engineering,
my eyes recording images my mind will work on later,
my body filling up with energy from bodies in friction,
and though tempted to disavow the broken ties of home
I look back at the kitsch with kinder feelings, learn to look
for Singapore in train timetables, at the information booth
with the fourfaced clock, each face a trembling molten opal.

for EN


Friday, January 08, 2010

Poem: "Christmas Trees"

Christmas Trees

until a name
and all its connotation are the same.
—Elizabeth Bishop, “Four Poems: I/Conversation”

The Christmas trees are to be mulched.
They have been stripped of lights and the green needles
that once pinned up the lights are now a dusky green.
The cones of needles no longer aim at the sky
in a hundred rooms. In the park, left in a pile,
looking like the skeletons of umbrellas,
with bits of green cloth still attached to the ribs,
the trees point their tips in the same but useless direction.
In the other direction,
the trunks thicken grudgingly to a thickness surprisingly small,
the girth of a man’s arm.
Instead of a star, the yellow stumps,
once earthed, once potted with earth,
now show a streaky, fibrous yellow, with small faint rings,
pale against all that dark wood,
a low constellation.


Thursday, January 07, 2010

Poem: "The Bowl"

Seven/Seven is here again, a new year, the last year of a first decade. For all my Seven/Seven poems this year, I have started a PFFA thread titled "Infinite Variety." From Anthony and Cleopatra, of course. "Age cannot wither her/ Nor custom stale her infinite variety." This month, for a week at least, let Miss Bishop be my muse, please.

The Bowl

I made a trip to each clock in the apartment
—Elizabeth Bishop, “Paris, 7 A.M.”

One clock is short. Another clock is dog
that bounds round every twelve years and barks
at dogs not yet born and dogs gone before.
The good clock in the kitchen is a bowl.
The one I check to go in step with New York City
rests in my pocket, next to my penis,
and that clock rings with a ringtone called Melody.

So many clocks! How does one keep track of time?
I have lived here long enough
to have had three loves, one of whom
is sleeping in my bed, visiting from the west coast.
He is soft, this clock, but nuanced. The second
goes all the way back to the Mayflower, he claimed.
The last is striking fiftyone today. He sounds sad.
How do I sound to him?
How do I sound in his tall apartment of clocks?
My collection of clocks
in that apartment, and that apartment, and that apartment in the city?

First visit to an airport, I was rapt by the world clocks,
Jakarta, New Delhi, Tel Aviv, Berlin, London, New York,
steel roundfaced timekeepers, all different and all right,
their hands ringing in my ears
the sound a wet finger makes rubbing round the rim of a water glass,
and I felt like a dog that is trying to catch its tail.
Dizzy, yes, but filled with so much joy
I think I have not left the spot.


Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Andrew Stanton's "Wall-E" (2008)

Watched this Disney/Pixar animated film on my laptop, which might not have been the best way to view its sumptuous and subtle visual effects. Witty touches throughout but the storyline is dreadfully conventional. The under-robot saves the world and gets the girl. The optimism, in view of the vividly imagined dystopia, seems facile. Andrew Stanton directs and co-writes the screenplay.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

William Zinsser's "Mitchell & Ruff: An American Profile in Jazz"

I don't know anything about jazz, but this book's opening chapter immediately transported me to the Shanghai Conservatory where in 1981 the two African American musicians introduced jazz to the Chinese. The Conservatory audience, steeped in the Western classical music tradition, were reportedly fascinated by the improvisations of jazz. At one point in their program, Willie Ruff invited a student to play a Chinese melody, before Dwike Mitchell improvised on it on the piano, and Ruff joined in on his string bass. For the Chinese students, this moment, according to Zinsser "was the ultimate proof--because it touched their own heritage--that for a jazz improviser no point of departure is alien." That is a beautiful idea; it makes me want to be the poetic equivalent of a jazz improviser, to take no point of departure as alien.

As proof of Zinsser's own cross-cultural understanding, he does not end the chapter on the triumph of American music in China. Instead, he ends by quoting Mitchell on that Chinese student who played that Chinese melody: "But, you know, that boy phrased his piece perfectly. The minute he started to play I got his emotions. I understood exactly what he was feeling, and the rest was easy. The notes and the chords just fell into place." Another wonderful insight into the process of communication in the arts: technique--feeling--feeling--technique.

Written in pelluid prose, the book alternates chapters on each musician with chapters of them making music together, a kind of jazz improvisation in its own way. After Shanghai, it moves to Dunedin, a small town in Florida, where Mitchell grew up as a poor black boy, and then to Muscle Shoals in Alabama where Ruff grew up. The two boys enlisted in the military and found themselves playing together in Lockbourne Air Force Base, near Columbus, Ohio, where they learned their craft as musicians. The next chapter moves to Davenport, Iowa, where the Mitchell Ruff Duo embarked on a punishing but typical schedule to play for schools, farming communities and the Rotary Club. The chapter illustrates the hunger for the arts in places outside the traditional centers like New York City and New Orleans. The arts are brought in by grassroots activity as well as big business patronage.

The last two chapters are more personal and introspective. In New York City, where he lives, Mitchell thinks about his work as a teacher and mentor to young men in whom he could see his younger self. He speaks naturally of his growing understanding of his strict father's love for him, as he himself grows older. Ruff, in Venice, wants to play his French horn in St. Mark's Cathedral where Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli, uncle and nephew, performed their polychoral compositions in the late 1500s. When Ruff finally gets his way, he plays from the Liber Usualis, 'the book of use,' which contains the hymns and chants most used in the Catholic liturgy, and colored by the music of the Byzantine church. The Book of Use is a perfect way to describe a living artistic tradition.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Broken Light: Alternative New Year Day Reading

Bruce Weber has now organized this annual reading sixteen times. It went on from 2 PM to Midnight, at the Bowery Poetry Club. I arrived at 3 and stayed till about 6. Read two poems "For Lonely" and "New Year Resolution." Sold one book (thanks, Stefanie with an "f") and another was probably thieved. I hope the thief loves the poetry.

Update: Just confirmed that AS bought a book from the reading. The mystery deepens. I don't care about the money. The volunteers manning the book table were juggling many tasks as best as they could. It is more romantic to think someone liked my book enough to steal it.

Katie Roiphe's essay "The Naked and the Conflicted"

Interesting comparison of two literary generations of male American novelists and their depiction of sex. Mailer, Roth, Bellow and Updike versus Benjamin Kunkel, David Foster Wallace, Michael Chabon, and Jonathan Franzen.

In his unruly defense of sexually explicit male literature in “The Prisoner of Sex,” Mailer wrote: “He has spent his literary life exploring the watershed of sex from that uncharted side which goes by the name of lust and it is an epic work for any man. . . . Lust exhibits all the attributes of junk. It dominates the mind and other habits, it appropriates loyalties, generalizes character, leaches character out, rides on the fuel of almost any emotional gas — whether hatred, affection, curiosity, even the pressures of boredom — yet it is never definable because it can alter to love or be as suddenly sealed from love.”

Wonderful characterization of lust. Where in poetry can we find an equally uncompromising, two-handed, and intelligent assessment of sex?

Roiphe concludes, on a lyrical flight:

Compared with the new purity, the self-conscious paralysis, the self-regarding ambivalence, Updike’s notion of sex as an “imaginative quest” has a certain vanished grandeur. The fluidity of Updike’s Tarbox, with its boozy volleyball games and adulterous couples copulating al fresco, has disappeared into the Starbucks lattes and minivans of our current suburbs, and our towns and cities are more solid, our marriages safer; we have landed upon a more conservative time. Why, then, should we be bothered by our literary lions’ continuing obsession with sex? Why should it threaten our insistent modern cynicism, our stern belief that sex is no cure for what David Foster Wallace called “ontological despair”? Why don’t we look at these older writers, who want to defeat death with sex, with the same fondness as we do the inventors of the first, failed airplanes, who stood on the tarmac with their unwieldy, impossible machines, and looked up at the sky?

Friday, January 01, 2010

Poetry that enacts the artistic and creative purity of glass

Two more ghazals published, this time in Glass. The editors asked for the deletion of a weak couplet from "In the cloister, in the Temple of the Sacred Fountain," and I obliged. It's a ghazal, isn't it, and so the couplets are more or less autonomous. I am not sure if I agree with their judgement but I have time to think and reinstate or revise the couplet for the book.

Happy New Year!