Showing posts from January, 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 datab…

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, Ne…

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."

"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 …

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 the…

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.

"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 unti…

"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 L…

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--a…

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.           

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.


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 clas…

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 si…

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…

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.


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 Mayflow…

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.

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…

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 conclude…

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!