Showing posts from July, 2010

A Fetish for Good Poetry

Edited by Rose Kelleher, Issue 12 of the Shit Creek Review is kinky in the best way. It makes us think about the relationship between poetry and perversion. One might say poetry is a perversion of everyday language. Saying so not only sexualizes poetry, but also politicizes it. For who gets to say what is normal and what is perversion? Under whose regime are we still living, no matter how hard we try to liberate ourselves?

What does it mean for me to publish my poems about a father's belting, anal sex, underaged sex,  SM and fisting under the rubric of "perversions"? The line in the sand is always shifting: is anal sex still considered perverted or is it on its way to normalization? Normalized under what regime? There must always be lines, as there must always be regimes of control.

The Latin root of "pervert" means "to overturn" or "to subvert." The meanings overlap but they are not the same. Subversion is the diligent, secret work of sappe…

Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-1917

He returned from Morocco in 1913, and before departing from Paris to Nice in 1917, painted some of his most challenging works. In the geometric construction of the paintings, you can see his response to Cubism, and in his use of blacks and grays his response to World War I. Instead of focusing on the aesthetic or political context of this body of work, the MoMA show throws a light on its physical production, how Matisse scratched and etched and repainted the canvases, or else left them "unfinished." The result is an exciting glimpse into Matisse at work in his studio.

Why the physical effort, and then to leave the evidence so clearly on the paintings? Matisse wanted to fight in the war but was rejected because of his influenza. poor eyesight and age. He spoke (or wrote?) about fighting the war in his own way, on his canvases, and so he did, I believe. But who was he fighting against? Not the Tradition, which he loved, but Himself. He fought to paint a different way from how …

Xie Zhiliu (1910-1997) at the Met

The title of the exhibition says it all: Mastering the Art of Chinese Painting. Unlike many Chinese artists, Xie Zhiliu, a native of Changzhou, kept the copies and sketches he made throughout his career, and these now provide an absorbing account of the development of a traditional Chinese painter working in the twentieth century.

Copying the masters and working from nature were the complementary disciplines of such an education. Not knowing the tradition in which he worked, I found it hard to distinguish between Xie's work and the work of his chosen masters, like the Ming painter Chen Hongshu (1599-1652) and other bird-and-flower painters. I could see that his lines, as a young painter in his twenties, were less sure than theirs, but I could not see how he departed from them deliberately. Even the drawings done from nature looked as if they had been traced.

I was most impressed by the work in the last gallery. (I could not find any images of the work on the Met website.) The year…

Buggermania and Other Madnesses

TLS July 9 2010

from J.P.E. Harper-Scott's review of Roland John Wiley's Tchaikovsky, and Adam Zamoyski's Chopin: Prince of the Romantics:

Very touching are Tchaikovsky's letters to his brother Modest in 1876, which show him racked by his urge to perform sexual acts that he admits are contrary to his Christian belief. "Buggermania," he writes. "forms an impassable gulf between me and most people." Admitting to thoughts of joining a monastery, Piotr implores his brother, whose sexual interests were similar, to exercise control over himself. Some of the letters are more explicit than others. of Josef Kotek, fifteen years his junior, he writes, When he caresses me with his hand, when he lies with his head inclined on my breast, and run my hand through his hair and secretly kiss it . . . passion rages within me with such unimaginable strength . . . . Yet I am far from the desire for a physical bond. I feel that if this happened, I would cool towards him.…

Pedro Almodovar's "Law of Desire" (1987)

I think I may have gone off Almodovar. I could not watch to the end his tale of obsessive love (of Antonio Banderas's crazy rich young man for Eusebio Poncela's narcissistic filmmaker). There was little that was new in the film's exploration of obsession and narcissism, and so I was left with two unpleasant characters for whom it was hard even to feel repulsion. The acting was fine (titillating to see Banderas buggered by Poncela), but the plot was thin. The one bright spot was the portrait of the filmmaker's transsexual sibling. Carmen Maura was by turns terrified and tender, and gave the film what heart it had.

So Many Artists, So Little Time

The New Museum block party, at Sara Roosevelt Park on Saturday, was a small neighborhood affair, consisting of about 8 small tents and mineral water sponsored by Whole Foods. Good enough, I suppose, for fitting in, but not for reaching out. The museum however was crowded. GH and I watched Patrick Pleutin's animation short Bamiyan (2008), shown as part of the REDCAT International Children's Film Festival. The 14-minute film narrated, in French and Chinese, with English subtitles, the visit of Chinese monk Xuanzang to Bamiyan, Afghanistan, where he saw the giant statues of Buddha. The statues were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, and children living in the valley told the legends of that destruction. The colors of the film were as gorgeous as stained glass, but they moved and changed.

Both GH and I liked the work of Brazilian artist Rivane Neuenschwander, but we liked different parts of it.  GH liked At a Certain Distance (Ex-Voto Paintings) (2010) for their architectural rende…

Lucian Freud at the Centre Georges Pompidou

TLS June 11 2010

from Mark Hutchinson's review of "Lucian Freud: L'Atelier" at the Centre Georges Pompidou:

Where, then, does the heart of Lucian Freud's originality lie? Over and above his unquestionable technical virtuosity, there are two areas of his work in which Freud can be said to have opened up new ground. One is the series of portraits he made of his mother, who posed for him in his studio more than a thousand times between 1972 and her death in 1989 . . . not only are they among his most powerful paintings but, as Jean Clair, the man who first championed his work in France, observed some years ago, the theme of the son watching over the dying mother is a visual counterpart (and an unusual one) to one of the most haunting images in Western art, that of the mater dolorosa.

The second area, of course, is his nudes, in which the model's genitals are, often as not, positioned at or near the centre of the composition; and, by extension, at the very heart …

Toni Morrison's "Song of Solomon"

I was some way into the novel before I realized that it is, basically, a Bildungsroman. It charts the growth into maturity of Macon Dead, Jr., nicknamed Milkman. Born into middle-class affluence, and suffering from its ennui, Milkman is torn between a dominating landlord father and a loveless, hopeless mother. He wishes to escape from home, from the heavy hand of the past, but he does not know what he wishes to escape to. In search of the gold his Aunt Pilates had supposedly taken from a white man she and her brother killed, Milkman journeys to the South (Virginia) where he experiences black communal life--connected to Nature, free of the North's materialistic individualism--and so recovers his lost family history.

If this sounds like romanticizing the black South, it is. Sure, Morrison depicts the South as proud and violent (Milkman gets into a fight in the store), as racist and greedy (Macon Dead Sr.'s father was shot dead by the whites who wanted his farm). But the Southern…

"A Disappearing Number" and "Perfect European Man"

Two plays in two days in two very different settings, the first attended yesterday with LW and friend S, the second today with TH.

Appearing as part of Lincoln Center Festival was Theatre Complicite's A Disappearing Number in its New York premiere. High-tech set, including video and direct projection, fluid stage transformation, polished acting, cross-cultural interactions spanning UK, India and the USA. The production, conceived and directed by Simon McBurney, moved like a film. It spliced the life of mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan (Chetna Pandya) with a contemporary romance between a math professor Ruth Minnen (Saskia Reeves) and a futures trader Al Cooper (Firdous Bamji). It meditated on the different kinds of mathematical infinity, and sought consolation for death in the idea of infinite series, or Things Are Connected When They Happen One After Another. It was also about the idea of beauty. The Cambridge mathematician G. H. Hardy (David Annen), who worked with Ramanu…

Andrew Howdle's review of "Equal to the Earth"

Andrew Howdle has been a keen reader of my poetry for a number of years. His review of my book Equal to the Earth is informed by his intimate knowledge of my work as well as by our regular correspondence. If I suggest that his review is so far the best reading of my book, I do so not because he is highly complimentary, but because he reads it with high intelligence and broad sympathy. He is sensitive to the various ways technique contributes to emotion, and so neither is discussed in isolation or, worse, as if they are contradictory. Instead, he explains both the vision and the viscera of the work.

The Lion, the Werewolf and the Harlequin

I was expecting theatrical magic from The Lion King, when I watched it with my family on July 4. The show was engaging, but proved to be less than enchanting. When I watched the parade of puppet-animals on YouTube, accompanied by the song "The Circle of Life," I cried. At the Minskoff Theatre, the song sounded tinny, and the puppets by Julie Taymor, beautiful individually, were too few to really impress. Only one elephant? One rhinoceros? Everything seemed smaller than the YouTube video had led me to imagine.

The less heralded stage design, by Richard Hudson, was for me much more impressive. Pride Rock rose in a majestic spiral from the stage floor. In contrast, Scar's cave was a slanted bed of rock limited by a triangular ceiling. The staging of the wildebeest stampede, during which Mufasa fell to his death, was wonderfully imaginative.

The singing, by the ensemble as well as by Dashaun Young (Simba) and Chauntee Schuler (Nala), did not do justice to the Elton John musi…

Fausto Melotti's "I magnifici sette"

You never know who you are going to stumble into at the Chelsea galleries. Almost two weeks ago, SW, visiting from Singapore, and I were wandering in the neighborhood when we walked into Gladstone Gallery, and met Fausto Melotti's I magnifici sette (The Magnificent Seven), 1973. Made of brass and stainless steel, the seven forms look like power grids but frame what appears to be outlandish musical notation.

The effect is strict, even severe, as befits Melotti's credo that "Art is an angelic, geometric feeling. It addresses the intellect, not the senses." But does the work provoke contemplation of order in the cosmos, or its opposite? The press release cannot decide. It quotes Melotti, "It is not for us to know, though a genius might, whether the thousand effervescent thoughts, so much in contrast today, like never before, are beginning to agree like the voices in a choir, to finally emerge together in a single voice or whether it shall all collapse in a dark tor…

Lyndall Gordon's "A Private Life of Henry James"

The full title of this 1998 biography is A Private Life of Henry James: Two women and his art. It is not one biography, but three, and focuses on the intersections--social, emotional and imaginative--between the writer and the women. James met his cousin Mary (Minnie) Temple when he was still a young man, and was immediately taken by her bold, capacious approach towards life. Later, already an established writer, he met Constance Fenimore Woolsoon, or rather she met him, for she journeyed to Rome after reading his fiction, hoping to find a common spirit and a willing mentor.

In adopting this biographical approach, Gordon makes no bones about what she is doing. In the sphere of art, she aims to elevate the women, in particular Woolson, from mere muses or handmaidens to actual collaborators in James's fiction. She does not mean that Woolson helped write James's works. Rather, the stories that Woolson wrote elicited a conversation with James who replied in his own stories. In exp…

Nicholas Ostler's "Empires of the Word"

Ostler's erudition is encyclopedic. All by himself, he wrote this handy one-volume language history of the world, ranging from Sumerian, Akkadian and Aramaic in the ancient world to English in our contemporary scene, discussing Egyptian, Chinese, Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Spanish, and Russian in the course of his immense story. The narrative is not one of a triumphal march; rather, it is a subtle plotting of the rise and fall of languages, and so puts the current prevalence of English in much-needed perspective.

Throughout the book Ostler is at pains to correct the misconception that empire-building has carried the burden of language spread. Some conquerors in fact adopted the language of their vanquished foes. Even when military might led to language spread, what was more vital for the permanent adoption of the foreign language was the growth of the language community, in which a parent, often the mother, taught the children her native language. The hearth and not the battlefield wa…

"Du Fu: A Life in Poetry" translated by David Young

Like all the other Chinese scholars of his time, Du Fu aspired to serve the court in the country's vast bureaucracy. He was passed over again and again, and lived with his family in poverty for much of his life, intermittently relieved by the generosity of friends and patrons. The country's loss is poetry's gain. Du Fu might have written as much and as well if he were a high-ranking official (although that is very doubtful), but he would not have been as innovative in his subject matter.

Struggling with the various miseries of poverty, he gained a profound sympathy for the weak and helpless, and wrote wrenching poems about commoner families suffering from devastating warfare. Separated from his family in order to find work, he celebrated in verse the simple joys of playing with his son and watching chickens scratch in the backyard, when he was finally reunited with them. Equally new was his expression of romantic sentiments for his wife. Before Du Fu, feelings of affection…


It rained so hard that we canceled the hike for fear of landslides. Instead of tramping along the flank of Tiger Leaping Gorge, we visited Yufeng temple, a Scarlet Sect lamasery at the southern foot of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. The main hall of the temple was undergoing reconstruction, and so we climbed to the topmost courtyard to pay court to "the King of the Camellias."

We were too late to see the thousand camellia blooms. The tree flowered in the spring and early summer for 100 days, putting out 20 000 blooms in 20 batches. Without its floral attraction, the tree was still an impressive sight. It was not very tall but held up a great canopy of branches. The 500-year-old tree was planted in Emperor Chenghua's era in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), which made it older than the temple. It was completely appropriate that the temple was built around the tree, and not the tree grown in the temple.

If the tree was blooming, a close examination would show that it put out two k…

Five Poems in PN Review

Five poems inspired by Eavan Boland appear in PN Review 194. They are "Attribution," "The Rooms I Move In," 'Not Demonstrative," "A Whole History," and "What the River Says." They mark my third appearance in the poetry journal edited by Michael Schmidt. They will be a part of my fourth book tentatively titled Infinite Variety.


Alive in Memory or Alive in Use

It was a good idea to approach the imperial city of Beijing from Yunnan Province, the home of a great many ethnic minorities in China. The approach immunized against the unqualified admiration of Chinese power and destroyed the illusion of a homogeneous Chinese culture. Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province, is dominated by Han Chinese. They thin out in the smaller cities and towns where the Hui, the Naxi and other peoples live, not as ciphers of internal exoticism, but in communities of their own.

After driving six hours through stunning mountain scenery, our bus pulled into the city of Dali, the home of the Bai people, who are related to the Tibetans. I felt an immediate connection with the city. I could live here, I said in half-wonderment. The city appeared all of a piece. The unity came from the common architectural style, whitewashed walls bordered by marble panels painted with birds, animals and plants. The slate roofs curved gently upward into two ears. There was no spectacu…

Chinese but does not know Chinese

Walking around the narrow treasure gallery in the Forbidden City, I was jostled by the Chinese tourist horde. I turned to a girl pushing behind me, and snapped "Don't push me" in English before I registered the uselessness of saying so in a language that she would probably not understand. She, in turn, said in sneering Mandarin to her father, "A Chinese but he does not know how to speak Chinese."

The grandmother of one of the home stay families complimented me on my grasp of Mandarin. When I protested, more out of honesty than modesty, that my Mandarin is actually very poor, not having taken my lessons seriously when growing up in Singapore, she would have none of it. She also would not hear of me calling myself Singaporean. For her, a Chinese anywhere in the world is still a Chinese.

Criticized or complimented for my Mandarin, I never felt at home in China during my 18-day sojourn. No reason why I should feel that way, for my personal history has little to do …

Back from China

Got in yesterday afternoon, but have been on the move still since then. I need a long session of quiet to put together some thoughts on my experience of China. Half my mind was here when I was in China. Now I am back, half my mind is in China.

Will write soon, I promise myself.