Wednesday, March 31, 2010

GNYIPA Benefit Reading

It stands for Greater New York Independent Publishers Association. The audience was small tonight, at Cornelia Street Cafe, but the readers were all interesting in various ways. Four of the seven poets reading were queer, though GNYIPA is not a queer organization. I read "Hungry Ghosts," "For Lonely," and "Blowjob." Helen Dano came all the way from the Bronx, where she worked, to attend the reading, and bought a book. Perry Brass also bought a book, as well as Siddhath whom I met at the reading. The ratio of buyers to audience must be one of the highest ever for me. After the reading, I had a nice dinner with Helen at the oyster bar across the street.

Translating and Writing Tankas

In teaching the tanka, Kimiko drew our attention to the niceties of translating Japanese poetry into English. From Sato 1999 Symposium on translating Asian languages (see Manoa 11/2):

Finally, to state the obvious, syllabic value differs from language to language. Japanese is a polysyllabic, vowel-laden tongue; English isn't. English can express, on average, twenty to twenty-five percent more than Japanese can with the same number of syllables. You can guess what happens when the 5- and 7-syllable formations are applied in translating traditional tanka and haiku: the result usually says more than the original does.

Well, does all this matter? After all, Japanese and English are so different. Because the languages are different, shouldn't the assumption be that forms can't be transferred? Japanese poets may regard tanka and haiku as one-line poems, but it's highly doubtful that they have any notion of the "line" in the Western sense and, anyhow, one-line poems are non-poems in English--even though, yes, come to think of it, there's something called the monostich in the English poetic tradition. But of the monostich, the New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics says, "It is an interesting question whether a one-line poem is possible," doesn't it? [Note: the question has since been removed from the later edition of the encyclopedia.]

Kimiko writes tankas in English as a monostich: one long line that undergoes the kind of internal movement a tanka does. Besides including a nature image, she also aims for brevity.

My efforts for her workshop:

The sun casts shadows, so why am I surprised that loves makes darkness, as if I am not in its way?

*

Because this country has no mountains, we think highly of hills; look, we point to the peaks, where we can live.

*

Did you see the forsythia hanging over the road through the park on the first day of spring? I did, thanks to Helaine.

*

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

LA Review Reading at Nuyorican Cafe

A mostly white audience was in the house last night for the reading. They listened appreciatively and applauded politely after each reader finished. I missed the spontaneity at other readings, when the audience would murmur or snap their fingers or call out on hearing a particularly good line, and clap wildly after each poem. "We are so quiet," I turned round and said to the black lesbian writer sitting behind me. "I know what you mean," she said immediately.

I particularly enjoyed Jennifer Militello's reading. Her poems were strong in imagery. I traded ETTE for her book Flinch of Song, published after ten years of sending out and coming in as finalist, never winner, for numerous contests. She submitted it to Tupelo Press alone three times, before it finally won the press contest. Now she has a second book to send out, and not sure if Tupelo will take it.

I read the poem published in Los Angeles Review, "What We Call Vegetables." First time I read it, and it felt fresh in my mouth. I should read it more often. I think it works well read aloud. And its style is quite different from my usual. More Sylvia Plath than Philip Larkin. I also read "Childhood Punishments" and "Brother." On my way out, a good-looking dark-haired guy said, almost shortly, "Good job." Not the usual compliment. He cannot be a frequenter of readings. Which makes me appreciate his comment more.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

2nd Annual Rainbow Books Fair

Shared a table with Nemo and his Exot Press at the fair this year. I thought I would like the CUNY Graduate Center better than last year's location in LGBT center, but as the afternoon went on, the Concourse felt more and more sterile and the lighting harsher. Nemo described the place aptly as a filing cabinet. The LGBT hall was grungier and more homey. I sold six copies of ETTE, one to Roxanne Hoffman, one to David, one to Nemo, and a couple to friends who knew me on Facebook, and whom I met for the first time in person. At the poetry reading, I was moved by the sight of Mr. Leslie of the Leslie/Lohman Gay Art Foundation crying at the reading of Persistent Voices, an anthology of poems by writers who died of AIDS. I thought I would like my poems to provide some kind of comfort to someone grieving like him. They may not be about AIDS, but they could have an aesthetic shape that gives a recuperative effect.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Gillian Armstrong's "Charlotte Gray" (2001)

The film follows in the tradition of making a love story out of war material. The eponymous character (Cate Blanchett) signs up to be a British courier in occupied France in order to search for her downed pilot lover Peter (gorgeous Rupert Penry Jones). Working with a local resistance leader Julien (Billy Crudup), Charlotte learns that war kills and makes fools of those it spares. Aided by British treachery, the local resistance, all communists, were killed by the Germans. Julien has to decide between giving up his father Levade (Michael Gambon) and two Jewish children he has been hiding to the French collaborationist police.

The cruelties of war are heart-wrenching, but not particularly new. More interesting is what the film says about love. Love with the pilot was instantaneous and physical. It was powerful enough to motivate a woman to put her life on the line by going into service. But the awful experience shared with Julien finally binds Charlotte more closely to him than romance, sex and security. The shared knowledge of the horrors one has faced and done. The ignorance of all others. It helps that Blanchett is beautiful and Crudup good-looking, but the psychological outcome of their scarring experience does not need external beauty for its justification.

Directed by Gillian Armstrong, the film is based on a novel by Sebastian Faulks.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Paul Stevens reviews "Equal to the Earth"

Paul Stevens, the editor of The Chimaera, wrote a warm appreciation of Equal to the Earth:
It would be simplistic in the extreme to categorise Jee Leong Koh as a Gay poet, or an ethnic Chinese or Singaporean poet, or an Asian-American poet, or a poet in the English tradition, or a post-colonialist poet, or whatever. His work reflects all of these contexts and more, but also handsomely transcends them and amounts to an oeuvre greater than the sum of its contexts. . . . More.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Christopher Ricks's "True Friendship"

It is nearly impossible to summarize True Friendship: Geoffrey Hill, Anthony Hecht, and Robert Lowell Under the Sign of Eliot and Pound. Its method is one of accretion, of numerous small verbal echoes that may not appear much on their own, but add up to a profound and persuasive thesis. In this Ricks follows, as he acknowledges, Eliot whose critical idea it is. In this also Ricks follows, I think, the poets' working method, which lives on a predecessor's words and in turn gives life to them. Auden is right when he wrote that Ricks is the kind of critic every poet dreams of having.

Intellectually searching, Ricks does not propound an overarching theory of influence, in the manner of Harold Bloom. He is not after grand synthesis but quivering alertness. And so he shows that Geoffrey Hill is more generous and sympathetic in his poetry than in his prose towards Eliot. Ricks's defense of Eliot's late poetry against Hill's attack is thrilling to read. In the second of the three linked essays, he shows how Anthony Hecht grapples with both Eliot's poetry and anti-semitism. The ample quotation of Hill and Hecht's poetry not only supports Ricks's argument but also promotes an appreciation of both poets' strengths.

The essay on Lowell focuses more narrowly on his two sonnets about his friendships with Eliot and Pound, and the friendship between Eliot and Pound. The latter is the true subject matter. Ricks discusses the debt Little Gidding owes to Pound, as well as Dante. The familiar compound ghost is Ser Brunetto but he is also Pound. Eliot compounds hell and purgatory in the section, as if he could not condemn Pound to everlasting torment, but hoped for mercy for his old friend and master, as he hoped for himself. In this Eliot finally is different from Dante, who placed his sodomite teacher in Hell. Not that Dante was less feeling, but that Dante was more orthodox.

Again and again Ricks returns to the Brunetto passage in Dante to show its vital significance for all the poets he discusses in this book. He ends most poignantly by quoting Lowell's translation, which Pound read and recorded for his spiritual son. After walking with Dante for a while, because to sit and rest would burn with flames that cannot be brushed off, Brunetto has to let Dante go: "Give

me no pity. Read my Tesoro. In
my book, my treasure, I am still alive."

Then he turned back, and he seemed one of those
who run for the green cloth through the green field
at Verona . . .  and seemed more like the one
who wins the roll of cloth than those who lose.

Elsewhere in the book Ricks pointed out the dignity of the damned man. He is lost but, seen through Dante's loving and sorrowful eyes, seems to win instead. The book closes with an exhortation to read the poets, but that is hardly necessary. Well before the close, Ricks's discriminating admiration for these flawed men is already enticement enough.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Burt Kimmelman's "As If Free"

Traded books with Burt Kimmelman after befriending each other on Facebook. As If Free is his sixth book of poetry. The book arrived with a personalized form letter and a press release quoting reviewers. Of an earlier book, Robert Creeley writes, "This is a rare evocation of a luminous place indeed--the wonder of this world in itself." Not one of Creeley's better blurbs, I think, lardered as it is with stock phrases. Samuel Menashe says, ". . .Kimmelman strives for and often attains 'the simple / lettering stating / the facts'--his own words." He sounds non-committal, quoting Kimmelman on himself; he even qualifies what little he says in the quotation, by inserting the adverb "often."

What are the poems about? A mother aging and dying in a nursing home. Small observations of nature. Reflections on the visual arts. Too many poems about people having coffee and conversation in a cafe, which is presumably where Kimmelman goes to write. His subjects have not changed much from previous books, as can be deduced from a comment by another reviewer, John Curley, "Burt Kimmelman's poems flourish as they pivot from a repertoire of reiterated subjects--works of art, natural landscapes, family, the animal world--to a transfiguring notion of their properties and possibilities." The subjects are the same but I am not so sure about their transfiguration in the new book. 

Transfiguration, if there is any, must be effected by style. Kimmelman's style is plainspoken, so plain that it skirts the edge of prose, if it does not cross over. There are moments when style tightens into insight, as when the speaker's mother dancing in an "Old Age Home" is compared to "a tulip / too heavy for its stem." But the image is embedded in too much loose writing. The whole last stanza of the poem reads:

We went to dinner. Someone poured her
a glass of juice. She ate, spilling food,
with a sudden hunger. Afterward
we sat on some couches. Someone asked
her to dance. The music played. She danced
with slight, tentative steps, a tulip
too heavy for its stem. When we had
to go we kissed goodnight, and left her 
to lie down in her soft bed, her head
on her pillow, to slip into sleep.

The funny thing is that this passage would have been less bad if it were written out as a paragraph. There is a determination not to give details about the surrounding ("some couches") that would have defied the appetite for description in prose writing, and so created narrative interest and significance. The repetition of "Someone," another sign of the nondescript surrounding, produces a certain cadence. Written out as verse, however, the poem has too much non-essential information and too little concentrated music. 

The lack of music is surprising, given that Kimmelman adopts a verse line based on syllable count. The syllable count should have tightened the writing, but too often it exists as a kind of trestle over which the lines are draped like wet clothes. The ineffectualness of the principle becomes more obvious in poems with shorter lines,  as in "Visiting the Nursing Home," another poem about his mother:

Too weak for talk, she
looks up at me and
blinks her eyes, while I
settle her into
a wheelchair and roll
it through the door--out

into the spring sun
where, hidden among
the new leaves on the
distant trees, birds are
singing. I lift her
onto a white wood

bench, and she leans back,

and so on. Every line here consists of five syllables. The short verse line separates the sun, the new leaves, the trees and the birds, and so makes it hard to grasp their relationships in space and significance. The line feels wrong for this poem. It unsettles the reader, instead of giving the comfort the son wishes to settle the mother into. 

This weak ear is obviated in most of the book by the sameness of tone throughout. Quietness, however, can quickly become dull. In a few places, Kimmelman fumbles his one good tune. At the beginning of "Washing My Brother's Hair," he describes his brother leaning forward on his knees "offering himself to me," to wash we learn in the next line, but not before the unintended sexual innuendo intrudes. 

The short line can work very powerfully, as demonstrated in the most successful poem of the book, "Susan Sontag Has Died." The occasion prompts a poignant meditation on our common lot. Death

with the softest

of hellos, an
old friend we have

never met, drops
by one day for

a coffee and
conversation.

The body, the
body fails, at

last disappears
--yet we keep on

talking. A light
streams across the

table, its cups,
saucers and spoons,

these the remains
of a good life.


Every linebreak here is imbued with significance, a signal achievement if we consider how many there are. The lines themselves also work as autonomous units. I wish the poem had stopped at "saucers and spoons" because the final couplet is unnecessary and question-begging (good life?). But there is no question that, here, subject matter, voice and style come together in a very small space to find out what remains. 

Saturday, March 20, 2010

A Haibun for Turning Forty

Wrote a new poem this morning, a haibun for Kimiko's workshop. It is at the end of this post. Checked my email and found a lovely fish ghazal written for me by AH. I am a Pisces. Other friends, like WL, CM and TH, had emailed me earlier their birthday wishes. Read the TLS before having a quick lunch at the local Chinese takeout. Started reading Christopher Ricks's True Friendship: Geoffrey Hill, Anthony Hecht and Robert Lowell Under the Sign of Eliot and Pound. This beautiful book, beautiful in writing and design, is a birthday gift from HS. She loves Anthony Hecht and knows I love Eliot. Both of us admire Ricks's criticism. Mum called to wish me happy birthday. Took a nap because I was out late last night. Checked my email and read that another group of my poems, the Boland-inspired pieces, have been accepted by MS for the PN Review. That made up a little for the disappointment of not appearing on the Lambda list of finalists. Then attended KM's first solo art show at the Community Gallery. A good turnout. I bought one of KM"s recent oils, a portrait of a woman called Fran. KM bought a chocolate cake for me, which was sweet of him. Ran into RK and we went for dinner together, at Georgio's in Hell's Kitchen. The unplanned day has evolved quite nicely. After this, I'm going dancing. RK just called from Singapore.

And here's the haibun, still untitled:

I mark my place in books with bits of my life. A grocery receipt in Middlemarch. An unused bus ticket in The Rape of Nanking. In The Ambassadors a postcard from Paris. It occurs to me this morning while shelving my books that I mark my place in men with bits of my body. My dick in Todd. Big toe in David. Ed, whom I thought I was finished with, has my left elbow. The beautiful stranger last night whose name I did not get has all ten of my fingers holding him open.

You can open a book of poems
at almost any place. I want my life
to be a book of poems in that way.

*

Friday, March 19, 2010

Space on White

On Jack Tricarico and Evie Ivy's invitation, I read last night at Space on White, a relatively new arts space on White Street, in Tribeca. Nemo and Jane Ormerod also read. It was a pleasure to hear their poems. They are both writing incredibly well. Jane's husband was there, and so was Julian, Nemo's partner. Feeling alone, alone, I was consumed by self-pity near the end of the reading. I changed my mind about going to Splash and went home to read my emails.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Shakespeare Retold

I enjoyed these modern adaptations by the BBC. The plot on the back cover:

Macbeth is the chef in a three-star restaurant, slicing apart his celebrity boss, Duncan. Beatrice and Benedick are rival co-anchors on a nightly newscast whose open hostility masks passion of a different kind. . . . And the eccentric aristocrat Petruchio sets out to tame the conservative MP Kate in a politically incorrect marriage of convenience.

Of the three I watched, I enjoyed The Taming of the Shrew best. Shirley Henderson was an unforgettable Kate, small, nasty, winning. Rufus Sewell was convincing as a brutal, childish and cross-dressing aristocrat. In Much Ado About Nothing, Sarah Parish and Damian Lewis were charmingly antagonistic. Tom Ellis (Claude) was a dreamboat. I did not enjoy the film-noirish Macbeth at first, but then got into it. James McAvoy made it very watchable. The bloody special effects were also terrifically chilling.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Ganymede #7

Three of my poems from ETTE have been reprinted in Ganymede 7. Editor John Stahle on the new issue:

GANYMEDE #7 issue is out--at 400 pages, our biggest and best!

--new, unpublished poems from British great GREGORY WOODS
--short story by ALFRED CORN
--CHARLES HIGHAM's 1965 visits with the last giants of classic Hollywood, from Sam Goldwyn to Marlene Dietrich
--ABU NUWAS (756-814), master of classic Arabic poetry--and out gay! Poems and short story.
--concluding half of the complete novel "Bergdorf Boys"
--fascinating portfolios of photographers from around the world
--more stories by British gay cult author DENTON WELCH
--Oxford as Shakespeare: why you should care about this debate
--many other discoveries and surprises!

Details, purchase link, and readable sample pages:
http://www.ganymedenyc.com/

Poetry by: GREGORY WOODS (Britain), Saeed Jones, Jesús Encinar (Spain), Christopher Hennessy, Brane Mozetic (Slovenia), Peter Swanborn (Netherlands), Joseph McGreevy, Christian Gullette, Joseph Harker, Ocean Vuong, Niels Frank (Denmark), Ivar Sild (Estonia), Dante Micheaux, Christopher Voigt, Angelo Nikolopoulos, John Stahle, Jameson Fitzpatrick,  András Gerevich (Hungary), Jee Leong Koh, Abu Nuwas (Arabic, 756-814)

Short Stories by: ALFRED CORN, Robert Smith, Tim Tranchilla, John McFarland, Michael Mendolia, Jay Michaelson, Devon Gallegos, Abu Nuwas (from The Arabian Nights)

Photo Portfolios by: August Sander, Fabio Panichi, Federico Forlani, Joseph Murawski, Robert Frank

Monday, March 15, 2010

A Day on the Grand Canal

"a day on the grand canal with the emperor of china, or surface is illusion but so is depth" is a film by Philip Hass and David Hockney. Hockney explains the art of Chinese painting by examining a 72-foot long 17th century Chinese scroll by Wang Wei, depicting Emperor Kangxi's grand tour of his southern domains. In his explanation, Hockney usefully contrasts Chinese aesthetics with that of Europe, using a Canaletto painting as well as a later Chinese scroll influenced by Western perspectival theory. He also reminds the viewers that they see only what the camera is showing them, that the film too has its frame.

Unlike Western paintings, Chinese paintings have a movable frame as the viewer unrolls the scroll. The viewer, in other words, is in control of which section of the scroll he wishes to see, and is not fixed in his viewing position as when he views a Western painting. Viewing a particular section of the scroll, the viewer can also decide where to look, whether to follow the tiny people down a street, or to peer into the windows of a horizontal line of houses. The viewing experience is much more intimate than in a Western-style museum, because only one or two people are viewing the scroll at the same time.

Hockney points out the liveliness with which the people are depicted, small though they are. A group of men quarrel on the street. A beggar woman hugs a baby to her chest. A kneeling official tries to look around a horse to glimpse the Emperor. A procession of monks stroll the street from left to the right, against the main direction of the unscrolling view. There is even a group of foreign-looking men, probably Central Asian traders. Everywhere there is interest, even in the delicately shaded fish in the barrel of a shop.

A cross street is of particular interest. Unlike Western painting, in which there is only one line of sight, and what cannot be seen realistically from that point of view is hidden, the Chinese scroll deploys many lines of sight. So at the cross street the viewer can see down the street, the back of a house, into a window: the viewer is everywhere. In Western painting, the vanishing point which one can approach but never reach is symbolic of God. In Chinese painting, however, the divine is everywhere, even in the viewer.

The same ideas that undergirt perspectival painting led to the improvement of Western military arms. The Western cannon could fire more accurately and predictably. This is an important factor in the rise of the West and the decline of China.

Hockney is quietly enthusiastic as a critic and narrator. Instead of spouting jargon or theory, he asks the viewer to see what he find so interesting himself. He would have made a good companion on one's journeys round the world.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Steve Meador's "Throwing Percy from the Cherry Tree"

Traded books with Steve after befriending each other on Facebook. As the title of his book suggests, Throwing Percy is a collection of poems about childhood. Percy is a cat, not a boy. I wish Percy were a boy. Not that the book is not already filled with cruelty and pain--a drunken and abusive father, playground bullying, parental discord, a war veteran of a grandfather, sexual awakening--but that it would have been a little more surprising. The poems wear their honesty and simplicity like a badge of honor. They aim to tell the truth in an engaging and accessible way. It is a worthy aim, if not very ambitious.

The opening of the first poem is representative of the style of the book:

The Montgomery Ward in Beckley
seemed the ninth or tenth Wonder of the World
to someone who had only known shopping
at the stark commissaries on base,
and once at a cluttered Ben Franklin Five and Dime,
I fluttered through its two levels,
touched and played with as much as I could.
(from "Bleeding Madras")

The determined use of proper names specifies the setting and the aesthetics. I like how the Wonder of the World sets up the fantasies, and disillusionments, of childhood in the rest of the book. But the adult-sounding "someone who had only known shopping" clashes with the poem's subject. Commissaries and fluttered are interesting words, but little is made of them in the rest of the poem. "touched and played with as much as I could" is just weak writing.

The boy finds in the store The Bleeding Madras Shirt, which changes color when washed. He buys it and wears it every day, to get ahead of other boys, but his triumph is punctured when a kid asks him if he has only one shirt. That wound we can all identify with, but I find myself asking why is the shirt called "Madras" as well as "bleeding"? There for its exotic connotations, I guess, and so interchangeable with Sulawesi, Kabul and Lagos. One may defend the poem by arguing that the boy, like most boys, do not care where Madras is, and so the poem's indifference is reflective of that age. That may be so, but I wish for some indication of the adult speaker's awareness. The lack of a more mature, or more complex, perspective circumscribes the reach of the poem's pathos.

The most successful poem in the book comes out of a more mature consciousness and language. "Driving in Winter, 1960," the speaker's father passes through toll-booths that seem, in their light and warmth, like "harbors":

Twice along the way we drifted through
warm harbors, two booths of light,
one smelling of roast beef, the other apple pie.

My father dropped a quarter and it rolled to my feet.
I picked it up and placed it on the woman's soft skin.
The crunch of ice beneath the tires lost its voice.

Now, when I cannot dodge the solstice of solitude,
I think of the hearth on the turnpike,
the touch of the toll-taker's hand.

The language here is densely allusive though the diction remains simple. "The solstice of solitude" is a beautiful phrase, well earned by the poem's attention to the sensory experience, or, rather, sensory deprivation. The development from "harbors" to "hearth," aided appropriately by the woman toll-taker, is logical and conclusive. This is language plain yes, but also poetic.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Zuihitsu: "After They Return from Field Training"

After They Return from Field Training

After they return from field training, before they change out of their sweat-stiff uniforms or muddy boots, the servicemen clean their M16s. They snap their rifles apart. They pull a steel brush through the barrel several times and several times more a strip of flannel held in the eye of the cleaning rod. They dismantle the bolt carrier group, the guts of the gun, to wipe the carbon off the bolt carrier. When the soot comes off, the firing pin is pure silver. Then the firearm is reassembled, the parts clicking into place. The steel body is brushed with oil and the buttstock blackened with boot polish. The rifles are restored to their racks, a chain is run through their charging handles, the showers hiss. All this done with a fatigued swiftness still easy to recall now, so many years later, and so far away, sitting at my desk, writing. The speed and the exhaustion stays in the body, bright as the firing pin.

*

Friday, March 12, 2010

Zuihitsu: Wonderful Window

Wonderful Window

Jean François has a wonderful attic window. When I flop down on his bed, the ugly post-war houses disappear and ochre branches spring up to weave a basket of the sky. 

*

Jennifer K. Sweeney's "How to Live on Bread and Music"

Just finished reading Jennifer K. Sweeney's How to Live on Bread and Music, this year's winner of the James Laughlin Award for a second book of poems. The poems about siblings, in the first section, are not memorable in either image or music. The long poem "The Listeners" that makes up section two stretches a tolerable idea to intolerable length. One of its parts is about back-masking, a common enough subject rendered in a prosaic idiom:

The music teacher told her third graders
if you played "Strawberry Fields Forever" backwards
it would sing John is dead.
The children imagined her hand
steering the record counterclockwise
like witchcraft
revealing the secret warped message.

After five dead lines, the witchcraft simile sticks out like a fragment of a thumb. "Revealing the secret warped message" is a bathetic and redundant conclusion to the sentence. Sweeney continues by describing "scratchy" school movies:

After the credits rolled, the reels rewound.
Flowers sealed up, musicians laid their instruments
in their laps and the paper factory returned
its reams to the trees.

The flowers image lacks precision. The musicians image lacks interest. I like, however, the image of paper becoming trees again. There are such vivid moments of poetry dotting this book. They lure me to read on, only to be frustrated time and again.

Section three presents poems of places. Many of them are about natural places, forests, valleys and such, but the best poem here is urban. "5 O'Clock Poem" begins evocatively with "Descending the gray nudge of Market Street" and develops that nudge into a direction towards home. "The Arcata and Mad River Railway," which forms section four, uses a fragmented method deployed in a number of places in the book. But here the railway setting anchors the fragments, and they appear like lost and found objects along the tracks. 

The last section of the book is the strongest. "White Shadow" has genuine poetic power. It has density of thought and image, and its tercets orchestrate a music of meditation. There are a couple of poems here about teaching grade school, and they are boring as often such poems are. Throughout the book, Sweeney wishes to teach us "How to Make a Game of Waiting," "How to Feed an Orchid," "How to Uproot a Tree," "How to Grow a Mushroom," and "How to Tune a Xylophone."  Writing How-tos is potentially interesting but that strategy is not pursued rangingly, and that point of view not questioned rigorously. After reading How to Live on Bread and Music, I am no wiser. 

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Zuihitsu: All things diminish

All things diminish

All things diminish as they grow older, my friend of many years said last night. Even the expanding universe must contract. This morning, as I am boiling water to make coffee, his words come back to me, as sure as before, but smaller, because the whistling of the kettle takes up space. The steam was not so long ago a patch of snow. Love is what life boils into.

*

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Zuihitsu: Things that Quicken the Pulse

Things that Quicken the Pulse

Hurricane warning. Running the hand through a man’s thick hair. A merino wool cardigan. A flock of flamingoes taking to the air. Coming on Matisse’s The Red Studio. The thought of an approaching quarrel. The restaurant door opens, and lets in a draught.

*

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Zuihitsu: Things Subtle Yet Powerful

Things Subtle Yet Powerful

     A muscular back. The fragrance of shaving cream late in the day. The outline of summer lightning.
     There are things subtle but not powerful, like a woman’s voice. There are things powerful but not subtle, like a man’s opinion. Then they meet and tumble, drunk, in bed, and you get Sei Shonagon.
     My first lover prizes delicacy. In music he prefers the French to the Germans, the ivories of Debussy to the brass of Beethoven. In literature, he reads Kawabata, and not Kurt Vonnegut. He also has a brittle constitution. I am drawn to strength, brimming but restrained by the lip of a cup. The restraint I learned from him.
     The influence of a good teacher. That of a bad one. Freshly fallen snow.

*

Monday, March 08, 2010

Zuihitsu: Things Out of Place

Things Out of Place

A flute in a trumpet case. A red crayon slash on white linen. A spray of heath in a plastic pail outside a deli. A cheeky boy among mourners at a wake. A beautiful man married to a woman. A Singaporean in New York. The Singaporean in Singapore. The moon in a lake.

*

Listened with LW to the London Philharmonic, conducted by Vladimir Jurowski, at Lincoln Center on Sunday. Shostakovich's Five Fragments (1935) were minimalist delights. The conducting was precise but not prissy. Alexander Toradze played Ravel's Piano Concerto in G major (1929-31). The second movement was extremely moving, and I teared up. As LW said, the French is just so good at handling sentimentality with intellectual wit.

After the intermission the orchestra played Shostakovich's Symphony No. 4 in C minor. It was massive and manic, especially the first and last movements. Show-offish, but inventive and colorful, nevertheless. It was deeply indebted to Mahler for its woodland sounds and march-like melodies.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Zuihitsu: Things that Tilt

Read on Google Books some more passages from The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, as well as the introduction by translator Ivan Morris. We don't know much about Shonagon, we're not even sure of her name. Sei is a reference to her clan. Shonagon means Minor Counselor, a description of her position as a court lady-in-waiting, or of her relationship with the Empress, or of her qualities. The passages I read show more of the versatility of the form than the ones presented at the workshop. Here's one I particularly liked:

Things that Arouse a Fond Memory of the Past

   Dried hollyhock. The objects used during the Display of Dolls. To find a piece of deep violet or grape-colored material that has been pressed between the pages of a notebook.
   It is a rainy day and one is feeling bored. To pass the time, one starts looking through some papers. And then one comes across the letters of a man one used to love.
   Last year's paper fan. A night with a clear moon.

I like the brief anecdote in the middle of the list. It creates a feeling of spontaneity, provides room for the pleasures of story, and varies the tone.

My fumbling imitation:

Things that Tilt

   The Empire State Building in a snapshot. Rain. All the strokes of the letter W, upper or lower case. The fingers of a Bharata Natyam dancer.
   To watch something tilt is not to be a part of it. The airplane takes off and I am pressed against my seat, towards the earth. I want to fly, which is why I bought the ticket, but my body obeys an opposite force. Leveling in the air, like on the ground, permits the attendants to wheel out the food trolleys. This is necessary but not interesting.
   Earthquakes. Turning forty.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Talking Heads and Hungry Ghosts

Attended the Scope Arts Fair with VM this afternoon. Daniel and Magdalena's Talking Heads were the hit of the Fair, and put them in a good place to be invited to the Armory Show. I can't wait to see my Talking Head, when they bring the new installation to New York once it is done. Artworks I liked and remember: tires carved out of marble; a red Sasquatch painting; a big photograph of a broken chair in a courtyard paved with flagstones; tenements and alley painted on cardboard from discarded boxes; a blouse made up of ropes of brown hair. Can't remember the names of the artists, more's the pity.

After the art fair, I read at Otto's Shrunken Head, at the invitation of Obsidian and Hobo Bob. Read two poems from ETTE, and then the new poems that take Eavan Boland and Elizabeth Bishop for their departure. Greg came to hear me read, as did John Marcus. Sold a book to Alan Hyde, who learned about me from a friend who forwarded my poem to him. Traded books with Tom Savage.

Yi-Sheng emailed me to say that my poem "Hungry Ghosts" has been accepted for GASPP: a Gay Anthology of Singapore Prose and Poetry. A sequence of Chinese personae poems, it is the most directly Singaporean work in the book, I think.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

First Class of Workshop with Kimiko Hahn

So the first class was on Tuesday, as will be the second, third, fourth etc. But I've been trying to write one of these damn zuihitsus, and so have not blogged about the class. We read four examples from The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, Heian period 794-1185, translated by Ivan Morris. They look like list-poems, except that each item can be as long as a paragraph or a page.

In "In Spring It Is the Dawn"Sei Shonagon describes her favorite time of the day in each season. In spring it is the dawn. In summer the nights. In autumn the evenings. In winter the early mornings. Another zuihitsu is on Elegant Things, a list which includes the surprising item of duck eggs. Of all the Things that Give a Hot Feeling, the Captain in attendance at the Imperial Games is, to me, the hottest. Sei Shonagon, a young children-hating aristocrat herself, bitches about the common people, the elderly, and pregnant women in Unsuitable Things. Here is a slice of her scorn:

A woman with ugly hair wearing a robe of white damask.
Hollyhock worn in frizzled hair.
Ugly handwriting on red paper.
Snow on the houses of common people. This is especially regrettable when the moonlight shines down on it.
A plain wagon on a moonlit night; or a light auburn ox harnessed to such a wagon.
A woman who, thought well past her youth, is pregnant and walks along panting. It is unpleasant to see a woman of a certain age with a young husband; and it is most unsuitable when she becomes jealous of him because he has gone to visit someone else.
An elderly man who has overslept and who wakes up with a start; or a greybeard munching some acorns that he has picked. An old woman who eats a plum, and, finding it sour, puckers her toothless mouth.
A woman of the lower classes dressed in a scarlet trouser-skirt. The sight is all too common these days.
A handsome man with an ugly wife.
An elderly man with a black beard and a disagreeable expression playing with a little child who has just learnt to talk. . . . 

Monday, March 01, 2010

Lambda's new website

Lambda launches its new website today. The email blast quite rightly boasts that the design team has built a six-figure website on a four-figure budget. The site looks as professional as other major literary websites such as those of the Academy of American Poets and the Poetry Society of America. Less content, because the site is relatively new, but poised to grow.

Today the Lambda Literary Foundation announced the launch of a new online webzine and blog community for LGBTQ writers and readers. The newLambda Literary webzine will aggregate the best links from LGBTQ and mainstream book news websites and newspapers, feature provocative interviews, under-reported stories, and thoughtful, of-the-moment book reviews and nurture a social community that comments, critiques, links back, twitters, blogs, and interacts both online and in person.

The same email blast says that the finalists for the Lambda Awards will be announced in the week of March 15, not so many days away. I wonder what my chances are. I will soon find out.