Showing posts from February, 2010

Human Varieties and Universals

TLS February 12 2010

from Ben Hutchinson's review of Frederic Hölderlin's ESSAYS AND LETTERS, edited and translated by Jeremy Adler and Charlie Louth:

Yet by 1797, Hölderlin is moving away from philosophy, writing to Schiller that "I now consider the metaphysical mood as a certain virginity of the mind". In 1798, he writes that philosophy is a "hospital where poets afflicted as I am find honourable refuge", and by 1799 he foes so far as claim hat he has made himself unhappy by cultivating "activities that seem to be less well-suited to my nature, such as philosophy". . . . Like the early Nietzsche, whose distinction between the Dionysian and Apolline he seems here to anticipate, Hölderlin looks to the Greeks to unite poetry and philosophy, speaking admiringly of the "strictness with which the ancient writers distinguished between the different kinds of poetry".*Achilles represents for Höolderlin the "ideal being", since Homer pr…

Evident Merit

The New Yorker electronically rejected my electronic submission thus:

We regret that we are unable to use the enclosed material, in spite of its evident merit. Thank you for giving us the opportunity to consider it.

The Editors
Should I take consolation from the phrase "evident merit"? Or is this what they write on all their rejections?


Watched another play-turned-into-film yesterday. Unlike Doubt, however, Proof shows fewer signs of its theatrical origin. It is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by David Auburn, who also wrote the screenplay. The film, directed by John Madden, is about genius and its anxieties. But it is so much more. It is about the responsibility and heartache of taking care of a crazy parent. It is about detaching one's identity and work from a famous and loved parent, and how that detachment feels like killing him. Gwyneth Paltrow, Anthony Hopkins, Hope Davis and Jake Gyllenhaal gave strong performances. In thinking about Doubt, I quest…

Talking Head

Spent two hours in a tiny, stuffy, not entirely sound-proofed recording studio last night. Swiss artists Daniel Glaser and Magdalena Kunz sculpt head busts and animate them with facial expression and voice. I am to be one of their 21 Talking Heads in a new installation work which will be shown in June at a gallery in Turin, Italy. They are also looking to exhibit in New York.

The Heads will be divided into three groups of seven each, and I belong to the "Poets" group. Two of my ghazals bookend this group's script. In between, we sound out on environmental destruction, artificial foods, ennui, new methods of reproduction, death, and other exit strategies. First time I read from a tele-prompter. My most memorable line (besides my own poems) was "Marine marsh islands" read slowly as if it were a news headline. I also got to swear in Hokkien.

After two complete takes, the artists made me repeat some lines several times. Their desire to get it right was admirable.

Speaking Of The Teaching Life

Yesterday I spoke on an alumni panel at Sarah Lawrence College about life after the MFA. There were three other speakers, Joel Aure, who was my classmate, and two other women, Melissa and Karen. All three took the route of adjunct college teaching, whereas I represented teaching at an independent school.

I was fascinated and horrified by how they "glue" (Joel's neat word) together a living from adjunct teaching, substitution calls, and workshop gigs. At the very last moment, a college may call to cancel a course due to poor enrollment, or to add one. The adjuncts are also miserably paid. All the creativity and energy that could have gone into their writing have to be spent on networking and follow-up and frenetic lesson preparation and thankless piles of grading.

What was I thinking when I thought of taking that route after graduation? It is the kind of life that only a young person can sustain and enjoy. The speakers were in their late twenties and early thirties, and a…

Zuihitsu with Kimiko Hahn

Wheeeee! I have been accepted for an 8-week workshop with Kimiko Hahn on Japanese poetic forms such as the haiku and zuihitsu. Cave Canem offers it free for African and Asian American poets. Hahn's bio from the website:

Kimiko Hahn is the author of eight collections of poetry, including Toxic Flora, forthcoming from W. W. Norton in May 2010; The Narrow Road to the Interior (W.W. Norton, 2006); The Artist's Daughter (2002); Mosquito and Ant (1999); Volatile (1998); and The Unbearable Heart (1995), which received an American Book Award. She is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts, as well as a Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Writers' Award, the Theodore Roethke Memorial Poetry Prize and an Association of Asian American Studies Literature Award. She is a Distinguished Professor in the English Department at Queens College/CUNY. About her own work and its place in Asian American writing, she has said: &qu…

Out In Print reviews EQUAL TO THE EARTH

Jerry Wheeler from Out In Print reviews my book of poems:
The stark simplicity of the geographic formations which adorn the cover of Singapore-born poet Jee Leong Koh’s Equal to the Earth has much in common with the poems inside. They are products of their environment – rooted and grounded in water, earth and air –and all the more beautiful for it. . . . [Read more]

Renewing an old devotion

Heard with EN last night the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, led by a young vivacious conductor, Yannick Nézet-Séguin. The strings were especially silky and bright. Jean-Yves Thibaudet played Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 2 in A major (1859) with great panache, but the work strove too hard for effects and seemed to lack a coherent shape. I did not enjoy much either Richard Strauss's programmatic Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life) (1898), though the orchestra played it with gusto, and received calls for an encore after it. Three trumpets left the stage at one point, and played off stage to sound like faraway horns. Neat effect. The piece I liked best of the evening was the program opener, Messiaen's Les offrandes oubliées, méditation symphonique (1930). In contemplating the Cross, the Sin and the Eucharist, it renewed convincingly an old devotion. 

Kim Cheng Boey's "Between Stations"

I knew from his poetry that Boey was a restless traveler, but I did not know how restless until I read his recently published collection of essays Between Stations (Giramondo, 2009). The essays range, with its backpacking author, from Xian in China to London, via Calcutta, Kashgar, Cairo and Alexandria. The essays and their migrant author finally settle in Australia. Despite the ground covered, the book is not so much about travel as the reasons we travel.

Boey has many reasons for leaving his native Singapore but his deepest reason is to find a Singapore he has lost. Calcutta, with its street life, reminds him of Singapore in the late 60s. The crumbling colonial buildings and the waterfront of Alexandria bring back Singapore's old Esplanade. And inextricably entangled with these childhood memories is the memory of a father who abandoned the family time and again, and reappeared each time to take the son on walks around the old haunts.

There are wonderful evocations of travel dest…

John Patrick Shanley's "Doubt" (2008)

I did not see this Pulitzer-Prize winning play when it was staged on Broadway, and so thought I would see the movie, directed by the playwright, who also wrote the screenplay. The movie was shot in the Bronx, the play's location, in the Catholic elementary school Shanley attended. To bring that Irish and Italian neighborhood and the Sisters of Charity (who run the school) to life, the movie begins with a strong attention to detail that is not quite integrated into the action. As a result the opening feels slow, feels like scene-setting.

The confrontation between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn over the latter's illicit involvement with a black student sizzles due to the sharp dialogue, and Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman's performances. I did not feel, however, that the issue of certainty in an uncertain world is explored to any revelatory depth. Sister Aloyisus's pinched certainty is vindicated in the end when Father Flynn resigns and so "confesses"…

Poem: "Progress"

porque la luz canta con un rumor de agua, con un rumor de follaje canta el agua —Octavio Paz, “El cántaro roto”
Not more light for dangerous streets but more light for staircases of the soul. Not more leaves for shade from the sun but more leaves for the sake of leaves. Not more water for botanical gardens but more water for broken water jars.
We do not say it is not progress to have safe streets, sunshade and gardens. We do not say it is not progress to have hospitals, gas stations and stock markets. We do not say it is not progress to pipe clean water to every thirsty home.
But the soul keeps to streets paved with light and fears to climb dark staircases. But the leaves hold out the blistering sun and do not hold the lightest look. But the broken water jars are unearthed, labeled and displayed after gardens die.
So let the soul climb dizzy staircases even when lying down in a hospital. So let the leaves flex in their vigor the sun’s large energies at a gas station. So let the water jars,…

Poem: "Hard Fire"

Hard Fire
duro fulgor resuelto ya en cristal y claridad pacífica —Octavio Paz, “El río”
I burn my body up. or rather it burns me, not for a greasy plate but brilliant clarity.
Not eye nor stub of toe, not even strand of hair, in lighting up the night my furious heart will spare.
Not smoke nor flickering but an unearthly blue will pierce the veil of sky when burning me is through.

Poem: "Cinema"

Allá del otro lado, se extienden las playas inmensas como una mirada de amor —Octavio Paz, “¿No hay salida?” We may pilot a refitted three-masted collier or a state-of-the art starship, it does not matter which, when we have sailed too long at sea or in space, the mission, to find breadfruit or survivors, shriveled to a hard monotony. When land swings into sight, as it eventually does, in glorious Metrocolor, the shore bristling with a thousand spears closely packed as a wheat field, how can it not bear the look of love as well, a planet like Earth, but better? There will, of course, be a father, a powerful king or a brilliant professor, who raised love to perfection and shielded her from pricks of knowledge. He will have a servant, a robot capable of producing silk dresses overnight or a translator trusted by the island and wise in the ways of the intruders. The natives are expendable. They can line up to hold a curious fishing net or the planet can be all landscape and empty of people. Cru…

Poem: "The Man Who Looks for Prophecy"

I hate list-poems and so I had to write one.

The Man Who Looks for Prophecy

el que pedío su cuerpo, el que su sombra, el que huye de sí y el que se busca —Octavio Paz, “Máscaras del alba”
The man who looks for prophecy in the bones of dead birds The man who reads the nightly news with a crooked smile The man who carries his daughter three days to a hospital tent The man who leaves the sleeping woman to clean his rifle The man who digs in his yard and hears his spade ring out The man who thinks of the bad crop as he turns over the ground The man who weeps quietly in his cell but not for his crime The man who writes long novels and burns them for heating The man who strides across the piazza just before day breaks The man who waits on the train platform for what he does not know The man who works in the library and jerks off in the stacks The man who plies his ferry at the waist of the black river The man who pans the river banks for gold deposits The man who loses his salary at the mahjong table and slu…

Poem: "The Mountain"

The Mountain
palabras que son flores que son frutos que son actos. —Octavio Paz, “Himno entre ruinas”
The mountain is too small to be a mountain but the legend of a lovelorn princess who hanged herself and drops from the trees like a fruit, slows down the childish walk up to the top, if childish heart dares leave the school’s wire gate.
The mountain in the school is friendlier. One grade climbs naturally to the next, affords a higher ledge on which to view the world prostrate beneath the childish feet, the word a flower becoming a fruit the act.
The deception of flowers! The lie of fruit! What is full of life is also full of death. The word refuses to live with the act. The school, and its wire gate, lies in ruins. The mountain flowers still, shading the sun.

Poem: "Bougainvillea"

Por un instante están los nombres habitados —Octavio Paz, “Semilla para un himno”
When the island is starved for a hymn, this land of bougainvillea, illegible graves, and car dealerships, where eating has usurped the offices of sex, where sun is oppressively silent and rain everywhere gossips,
as the ear remembers one musical phrase, we clutch our name, given by a long dead mother, harnessed by a hardworking father, and agonize over eating our name or planting it in the soil.
We look over the wall to see what our neighbors do. Their garden is smooth like a piece of paper. They look as hungry as yesterday. When they ask us pleasantly, “Have you eaten yet?” they sound obscene.
Shall we eat it? We are so hungry. It will recall the satisfactions of lying with a woman or a man. No! We must plant it. But what if our name has grown too old to grow?
The bougainvillea puts out pink and purple flowers, paper-thin. The graves settle back with defeat. The cars exchange hands like trophies. The sun is si…

Poem: "No Dancer"

No Dancer

A la española el día entra pisando fuerte —Octavio Paz, “Untitled”
We have no dancer to match the Spanish dancer. We have no sport like the gold-plaid ceremony of bullfighting.
Day stumbles across the boards, a young ballerina, loses her voice, the old wayang singer, for no one hears her sing.
The Emperor orders, “We will have singing and dancing,” and singers warble his strain and dancers fall over his feet.
We snigger aloud at different volumes in different places. We know we have no dancer to match the Spanish heat.
Day bends over hot factories and cold shopping malls but all the water has been treated by treatment plants,
even the water in the river, by the Emperor’s order, gargles in a cement throat and into the ocean rants.
So we watch in horrid fascination when one of us cuts her throat in slow and fierce movement, to an order
implicit in the day the ball of her hand rises and falls, to a voice that beckons from the center and the border
she sings back with an ancient absolute concentr…

The middle way between earth and fire

Not feeling too well, but chugging along. Curled up in bed last night, like a kid, to read Dick Davis's translation of Shahnameh, the Persian Book of Kings. Part of my project to read the ancient classics of all civilizations. I have read so far Gilgamesh, Ramayana, Bhagavad Gita, Zhuang Zi, the Analects, Beowulf, Iliad, and Odyssey. I appreciate suggestions for reading.

Shahnameh, the Persian national epic, was composed by the poet Abolqasem Ferdowsi in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries C.E. "Its subject matter is vast," writes Davis in the Introduction, "being nothing less than the history of the country and its people from the creation of the world up to the Arab conquest, which brought the then new religion of Islam to Iran, in the seventh century C.E." The scope is vast but the telling, in Davis's prose translation, interspersed with verse, is pleasingly simple.

The battle is between just kings and nasty demons who make themselves tyrants of …

Of Self

Fascinating and useful summary of the evolution of the word "self" in TLS January 22 2010. From Peter Hacker's review of Galen Strawson's SELVES: An essay in revisionary metaphysics:

The word "self" has a venerable pedigree reaching back to the tenth century. It was employed as a pronoun and pronominal adjective (akin to ipse) that evolved into "itself" or "the thing itself". Together with a personal pronoun (as in "Ic sylf") and "he sylfa") it evolved into the reflective pronouns myself, himself, herself. With the possessive genitive, as in "her self visage", it became equivalent in such contexts to "own" ("her own visage"). Used as an adjective, as in "this self knyght that" it became "same", and from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries "one self" had a use to mean "one and the same", which still survives in the phrase "the self same th…

Chloe Miller and Blog Promotion

I am giving away free one copy of my book EQUAL TO THE EARTH, if you link to Chloe Miller's blog, and your name comes up in a draw. Details here. Deadline is midnight tonight.

Chloe and I were at Sarah Lawrence together, and I am glad we are still in close touch. She took the route of adjunct college teaching, whereas I was lucky enough to land a job teaching in an independent school. I was a guest at her wedding, and wrote a poem for her and Han afterwards, Ideas of the Real. Her mind buzzes with all kinds of creative projects, a real inspiration to the self-made writer.

Update: Marsha Pincus won the draw.

Talking Heads

Heard Joe Fritsch read at Bengal Curry last night. It was hard to hear him above the whining of the fridges in the Indian restaurant. But he gave me copies of the poems afterwards. Also met with Daniel and Magdalena, two Swiss artists, who are working on a sculpture installation piece called "Talking Heads." They asked me, and I agreed, to be recorded reading my poems in 6 one-minute segments. They would use the video to create an animated clay figure of me, one of twenty-one figures in the installation about the voices in a person's head. They also asked Joe to be a Talking Head too.


Jerry Wheeler of Out in Print, a queer book review site, asked me to send him EQUAL TO THE EARTH. Another connection made on Facebook.