Friday, April 30, 2010

POETZ launched today

Poetz is back. Jackie Sheeler is back in force. Now it has not one poetry calendar but six up-to-date calendars for different locations, including Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia and, of course, New York City. It also  has an in-house poetry journal called Poetzine. The spring issue publishes 12 poets. I have three ghazals in it.

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Poem: "After hearing Kimiko read from her latest book, I wrote this haiku"

Toxic flora. Poisonous fauna. Welcome, world.

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Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Pillow Book: The cartoons I loved

I thought I was done with my pillow book, but it is not done with me. I could replace the weakest link. Which one is it?

The cartoons I loved

xxxThe cartoons I loved to trace were Conan the Barbarian, wrists lashed with ropes to his ankles, and Flash Gordon, heaving under chains. Superhuman strength against unbreakable restraint.
xxxMatt tied to his bed, that was the first time I was hard enough to penetrate.
xxxTo make Wolverine, the adamantine has to go in.

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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Pillow Book 33. I mark my place in books

Here's the final poem of my pillow book, to make up the mystical number of thirty-three:


33. I mark my place in books

xxxI mark my place in books with bits of trash. A bus ticket in Great Expectations. A grocery receipt in Beyond Good and Evil. In The Ambassadors an old postcard from Singapore. 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 Doug. Eric, whom I thought I was done with, has my left elbow. The beautiful boy last night who did not give his name has all of my fingers holding him open.

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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Pillow Book 32. All Things

I made a small change to the title, and it has made all the difference.

32. All Things

xxxxxAll things diminish as they grow older, a friend of many years said last week. 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.

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Monday, April 26, 2010

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Pillow Book: 30. Things that Quicken the Pulse

30. Things that Quicken the Pulse

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

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Valery Gergiev conducts Stravinsky

Heard with TH last Thursday three Stravinsky works for the first time. Svadebka (Les Noces or The Wedding) (1914-23) was traumatic. The bride pleaded over and over again with her mother not to tear her hair in order to plait it. Scene Four: The Wedding Feast was anything but joyous. The work was sang by four soloists and the Chorus of the Mariinsky Theatre. The musical instruments were pitched and unpitched percussion and four pianos, mostly played as percussion.

Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920, rev. 1945-47) was brief--12 minutes--but colorful. Stravinsky used "symphonies" to signal the original Greek meaning of "soundings together." The work is dedicated to Debussy, whom Stravinsky met in 1910, when Debussy congratulated him enthusiastically on the premiere of The Firebird.

L'Oiseau de feu, or The Firebird, is based on a Russian folk tale. Originally a ballet score, it was written for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. The tale in brief: Prince Ivan frees the Firebird in exchange for one of its magical tail feathers. Lured by the most beautiful of 13 enchanted princesses into evil Lord Kashchei's trap, Ivan uses the feather to summon the Firebird which tells him about the egg that holds Kashchei's power. The Prince finds and smashes the egg, breaking the web of enchantment, and goes off with the liberated Princess.  Gergiev conducted the work with great passion, his hands, baton-less, sweeping and flickering through the air.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Pillow Book: 29. John Stahle is dead

29. John Stahle is dead

Talk. Fleshy jowls. Boys with ambition to publish. A call on Craigslist for cultivated homos. Moved with dad all over Europe from base to military base. Separate checks. Blowing his bench-pressing boyfriend. The Gnostic Gospels. It is a perfect scandal, he says, that for the lack of funds MoMA blocks off a whole level in its last renovation.

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Friday, April 23, 2010

The Pillow Book 28. The old Chinese Poets

28. The old Chinese poets

xxxThe old Chinese poets composed a shi after walking just a few short steps. The closest I have come to this was to write a lousy sestina in my head after walking up and down the Bronxville park bounded on one side by train tracks and the other by a motorway.
xxxWalking in a cemetery is charming when there is light. In the summer the headstones can still be scanned at eight, or even nine o’clock. In the fall the leaves litter the graves and give them a melancholic look of being forsaken. In the winter the bare branches bring out the grittiness of the stones. In the spring, when the trees put on their freshest green and the birds are almost intelligible, the cemetery turns into a sculpture garden, like the Tuileries.
xxxI also love to walk around a city. San Francisco with Winston. Amsterdam with Tim. New York.
xxxIt is comforting to walk along a familiar path. The mind returns from observing, deciding, and judging to itself. It is like wandering out and walking home at the same time. Doing just that along the East River one afternoon, I made up this tanka:

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

xxxThe deepest darkness I know is the long night marches during National Service, the battalion strung out in a single file, scraping and scrambling over the humpbacked ground, wading waist-deep in a river as black as tar, pressing through almost impenetrable thorn. The worst thing that could happen was to lose contact. All that kept the line intact was the blue Cyalume straw on the back of the helmet of the man in front, and of the man in front of him.

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Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Pillow Book: 27. Japanese Things

27. Japanese Things

xxxTamagotchi. The highest standard of living in Asia.
xxxA third language offered in secondary school, besides French and German.
xxxComics illustrating love between men, created by women for women.
xxxHugging pillow, also called a Dutch wife.
xxxHis cock still inside me, the man answered a call from his mother in Tokyo.
xxxSuicidal sects. Asymmetry.
xxxAfter the Japanese occupied Singapore, they purged the island. Among the men shot at Changi Beach were donors to the China Relief Fund, men with tattoos, and Hainanese. The death toll is claimed by some to be 100 000. The Japanese claims 5 000. The truth is buried in between.
xxxThe Red and White Song Competition. Akina Nakamori.

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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Singapore Literature Prize and Our Town

Today mailed off the books for the Singapore Literature Prize. I hesitated for a bit because of the big Lambda disappointment, but went ahead. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. I don't know who else it is up against, besides Hsien Min's new book. It is very interesting to me how the judges would square up the two books with somewhat similar formal concerns but quite different themes. The last two winning books were queer, and so I know that is not a problem in my case, unless someone feels that it's time a straight poet wins. Would the facts that I left the country, and that my book is self-published abroad count against it? All these are extraneous to the poetry, but it would be naive to think they are extraneous to the judging.

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The production of Our Town, directed by David Cromer, and performed at Barrow Street Theatre, was pure magic. I didn't know the play and so thought I was in for a large dose of cherry-hued nostalgia. Instead, I was moved to tears (yes, I teared up) by the tragedies of these small lives as well as entranced by their melancholic lyricism. The wedding scene was ordinary and traumatic. The last act, with a surprise staging that capped and deepened the action, reminded me what the best art does: to help us live more fully.

Michael Shannon, as the Stage Manager, was the Stage Manager, so seamless was the blend of actor and character. Kati Brazda played Mrs. Webb with a fine nuance in voice and gesture. James McMenamin was a winning George Gibbs, the louche adolescent growing into the awkward but sensitive young man.  As played by Dana Jacks at the performance I saw, Emily Webb was piercingly vulnerable. The rest of the cast was solidly in character.

The Pillow Book: 26. the Public Service Commission

26. The Public Service Commission

xxxThey have seen us all, these six men who interview the brightest in Singapore to decide on scholarships. Civil servants, military officers, and business leaders, they could have sat in that formidable row for thirty years, just as we, alone on the other side of the long table, are in a certain sense interchangeable. The idea does not diminish them or us.
xxxBut I am asking their support for changing me. I am asking for the Lee Kuan Yew Scholarship to become a poet. I explain it is time to develop more than factories, battalions and public housing, it is time to develop a language of our own.
xxxThey are not impressed. They can see through me. They know that I will quit Singapore for the States, that I am a queer one.
xxxWhat they cannot see is that working in a rented room in Queens I write by the light of Singapore, a tall fluorescent streetlamp with its cloud of flying insects. Rallying my troops with Matisse’s fighting words—to be a force that cannot be dismissed—I fear that I am too small to survive. Even when I dream, like Keats, to be among the English poets, I am making into an Abbey the mysterious power station in which my father worked for thirty years but I have never seen.

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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Pillow Book: 25. Things Out of Place

25. Things Out of Place

xxxA flute in a trumpet case. Red crayon slash on white linen. Sprays 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 City. The Singaporean in Singapore.
xxxThe moon in a lake.

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Monday, April 19, 2010

The Pillow Book: 23 and 24

23. Why I moved to America and not Britain

xxxWhen I walked in McDonalds in Welshpool, the floor sucked at my shoes. The server would rather rib his friend who came in after me than take my order. He gave me a cheeseburger when I asked for a quarter-pounder with cheese. He counted the change laboriously. The fries must have sat in the sieve for a long time for they were cold.
xxxThat was in 2002, when the Queen celebrated her Golden Jubilee, New Labor was losing its shine, and Nelson Mandela called Tony Blair "America's Foreign Minister." When I walked out of the joint, I had decided to go where real power resided. Since then I have discovered that the superpower does fast food badly too. That the corner where McDonalds is done the way McDonalds should be done is Singapore.


24. Things that Tilt

xxxThe Empire State Building in a snaphot. Rain. All the strokes of the letter W, upper or lower case. The fingers of the Bharata Natyam dancer.
xxxTo observe something tilt is not to be a part of it. An airplane takes off and I am pressed against the 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 attendant to wheel out the food trolley. This is necessary but not interesting.
xxxEarthquakes. Turning forty.

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Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Pillow Book: 21 and 22

21. After they return from field training

xxxAfter 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.
xxxAll 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 stay in the body, bright as a firing pin.


22. The Pledge

xxxSchool began day after day, as it still does, with the National Anthem followed by the Pledge.

We, the citizens of Singapore,
Pledge ourselves as one united people,
regardless of race, language or religion,
to build a democratic society,
based on justice and equality,
so as to achieve happiness, prosperity
and progress for our nation.

xxxIt is quite without charm, this iambic self-determination, except perhaps for the unintended link, through slant rhyme, of religion and nation. Or was the link intended from the start?
xxxLike a mantra, it is recited at every National Day Parade, when PAP MPs turn out in symbolic white, and the Opposition in motley colors. The Senior Minister, the Mentor Minister and then the Prime Minister also emerge in white, their faces impressive as icons.
xxxThe High Priest, the President of the Republic, is driven round the stadium to receive the praise offering of fifty thousand party clackers. After he ascends the altar, his batik shirt as colorful as garlands, he waves for silence, and the nation swells into the hymn “Majulah Singapura.”
xxxRight on cue, the heavenly sign appears, a giant Singapore flag, red and white, carrying a crescent moon and five stars. Suspended from a Chinook helicopter, the mantle flies slowly across the sky, its edges straight, its fabric fluttering in the strong winds.
xxxO, charming pageantry, that lends a body to abstract ideals. It moves me, this small nation’s effort to make something of itself, though it infuriates me at so many other times. Together with the Singaporeans around me, I stand up and cheer the marching contingents and then the mass displays.

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Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Pillow Book: 20. First Things

20. First Things

xxxThe first time I entered a storytelling competition, I told the story of the greedy dog. Snapping the bone in the water, he lost the bone in the mouth.
xxxThe first time I fell in school, I muddied my white shorts. Terrified of looking as if I had fouled myself, I tried to clean my arse on the white walls. The stain not only stayed but spread.
xxxI was thirteen the first time I published a poem. It was about looking at the rain lash the bronze back of the land.
xxxThe first time I fell in love, I was talking to God. After Darren prayed for me in Lee Abbey, I could hardly stay away from him. At the Lord's supper, I could hardly wait for the body of Christ to give each other the sign of the peace, when I could hold him briefly. I was twenty-one.
xxxI had to bring a date for the Civil Service Dinner and so I brought a girl out for the first time.
xxxThe first time I saw New York was like the first time I saw Oxford, although one was more like a movie and the other more like a book. A book is harder to close.
xxxI was thirty-three the first time I had sex. I was so excited that I could not come. I had to leave the bed and go to the bathroom to lose it.

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Friday, April 16, 2010

The Pillow Book: 19. Happiness

I am having such trouble with my laptop. The pointer keeps blocking text and dragging it all o ver the screen. If anyone can tell me how to fix this, I'd be so grateful.


19. Happiness

xxxI wrote this haiku for Kimiko's class:

xxxAn old man
walking an old dog.
xxxRain tonight.

xxxReading it again this morning with a great deal of self-satisfaction, I remember Stevens's great poem "Description Without Place." My pleasure reddens into happiness.

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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Pillow Book: 16. Mount Faber is a misnomer

16. Mount Faber is a misnomer

xxxMount Faber is a misnomer for the hill by which I grew up. It is not even the tallest hill in Singapore. I don’t know who Faber is, but the word has always sounded delightfully like fable.
xxxI went to a very small school on the hill. Radin Mas Primary School consisted of two distinct parts, the lower grades at the beginning of a long flight of stairs, the upper grades at the end. It was enough to teach one about large ambition and little achievement.
xxxAbout the efflorescence of Singaporean poetry in the last two decades, Gwee is right. It is not the result of cultural change, certainly not because of government programs. It has sprung up like wild flowers on a hillside, and it may die without altering the landscape. The best of us still aim to become admirals of a small navy, pioneers of second-rate products, prime ministers of an island. The dreamier of us turn to poetry.
xxxOn every visit to Singapore, I make it a point—of what?—to walk up Mount Faber, going by the road that winds cars and tour buses up. From the top I see on one side the public housing estates, intricate and useful, and on the other the featureless sea. Caught by the hand of the hill, as if thrown there by a storm, lodges a boat. To the hungry eye it is a seafood restaurant. To the hungrier eye it is an ark. I look at the sea again and now I see the ships on the horizon. I remember a tanka composed a while back:

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

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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Pillow Book: 15. Hateful Things

15. Hateful Things

xxxCaramel in chocolate. Hot rain all year round. Cold sea in the summer. A tulip browning in the spring. Babies. Pedestrians who hog sidewalks. Commuters who hog staircases. Small talk when I have not had a drink. Squeaky voices. They are especially unbearable when they read poems. They scratch like chalk on a chalkboard going on. Dates who talk about themselves the whole time. List poems. Dogma of any kind. It is even more hateful in the mouth of an ugly man. Beet. To be contradicted.

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Monday, April 12, 2010

The Pillow Book: 14. Her name was Margaret

14. Her name was Margaret

xxxI sat with a dying woman in the hospice, and her name was Margaret. She taught me how to use a fork and knife at a hotel buffet. She encouraged my writing by buying books for me. She brought me to Christ. Her name could have been Mother.
xxxNow she was asking me to promise her something. What was it? What was it? I didn’t want to promise it. In a voice frail and fretful, she asked me again and again to promise her. I’m dying and you won’t do this?
xxxA tree shot up from the broken ground. It raised a crown of whispering leaves. It rode as rigid as a scepter. Its name was Good and Evil. Its name was I Am Alive. Its name was Flame of the Forest.

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Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Pillow Book: 11, 12 and 13

11 and 12 go together. 13, written before NoPoWrMo, goes rightly after them, I think.


11. When I go home with someone

xxxWhen I go home with someone, there is always the question of how I leave.
xxxI untie his embrace and make to go, whether the sex has been good or not. This way, when he implores me to stay, his pleading eyes appear in a charming light, and his fingers tighten on me in a regathering of the seam.
xxxI stay if I like him or if it is late. He presses me against his chest or turns over to his side of the bed, and we sleep till day outlines the curtain in chalk. How delightful when he kisses me with his eyes and slips my hand down to his morning hardness. Yet another kind of delight when he bounces up to make breakfast. The smell of pancake wafts to the disheveled bed tasting of dried sweat and semen.
xxxOr I leave, despite his plea. He asks for my number and writes it in a graceful hand in a leatherbound diary. He comes to the door, unlocks it in the most reluctant manner, and promises to call. I walk back into the city, which wraps round me like velvet trimmed with stars. Sometimes it is charming if he will not leave me but walks me to the train station. It is definitely not charming when he leaves with me in order to do his laundry.
xxxA friend had the frightening experience of not being allowed to leave. The door was unlocked only after he had given him satisfaction. I do not say I want to be tied up but I observe that the men I like, they always let me go.


12. When someone comes home with me

xxxWhen someone comes home with me, there is always the question of how I will ask him to leave.
xxxIf the man has a good ear, he will not need any cue, but leaves at a natural pause in the rhythm of the meeting.
xxxIf he asks to stay the night, I give in. I bring him out for breakfast in the morning, at the Irish diner or Subway, so that he can hear the train.


13. Wonderful window

xxxJean 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.

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Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Pillow Book: 10. I impressed my first students

10. I impressed my first students

xxxI impressed my first students by reciting from memory “Nature’s first green is gold.” I had been reading them S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, and amidst the jaunty and raucous talk suddenly pealed the poem’s deep bell tones.
xxxIn the 90s, when I started to teach, Singapore required its citizens to think. The best schools of the country turned independent. Educators talked about thinking out of the box, and so nothing essential changed, except the school fees. When Pioneer Junior College wished to discard school uniforms, it was stopped by the Ministry. The situation is aptly described in the senryu:

The Prime Minister.
All the officers shoot up—
a field of lallang.

xxxThe independent school where now I teach is less likely to talk about lallang than laurel. Seated on the upper end of Manhattan island, it guards its autonomy fiercely. So fierce that a supervisor’s criticism is resented as an attack. “Experienced teachers,” says my colleague, “know by and for themselves what is wrong with their teaching.” Yes, but what about the things we don’t know we don’t know? More, I ask myself, what about the things we know we don’t know, but don’t have the heart to change? Thinking about the heart this morning, I wrote this haiku:

On a mountain hut
the roof removed from the ground
is good for shelter.

xxxI can’t abide Frost’s folksy wisdom now. Nothing gold can stay, and that garden variety of wilderness. Not when I have miles to go, and the snow is deep.

[Self-criticism: The senryu is witty and fresh. The haiku, however, is a little too picturesque. The rest of the prose poem is not without charm in places but its overall effect is overly earnest.]

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Tennessee Williams's "The Glass Menagerie"

Last Thursday TH and I saw Roundabout Theatre Company's production of this American classic. Directed by Gordon Edelstein, this production offered the innovation of setting the entire play in the New Orleans hotel room in which Tom Wingfield lives out his unfulfilled literary ambition, after he abandoned his aging mother and crippled sister. The staging made clear that the play is Tom's creation, from different parts of remorse and self-justification. We saw things from his point of view as oppressively as we remained in that dingy, spartan room.

As if to match the dourness of the setting, the lyricism of Tom's speeches had also been exchanged for the gritty realism of the work of an incompetent writer. Patch Darragh was rather inconsistent in his portrayal of Tom, at different times fey and butch, as one NYT reader commented. The interpretation leaves no doubt that Tom is gay, and that the movies is an excuse for frequenting the bars. Judith Ivey was convincing as the naggy, whining Southern belle Amanda Wingfield, who cannot forget she was a beauty in her youth. Ivey flashed a will of steel at times, steel wrapped in lace.

Keira Keeley played Tom's sister Laura as wholly a victim. Her temporary improvement, when wooed by the Gentleman Caller, did not seem persuasive because she was such a drip before that. The Caller Jim O' Connor was played by a forgettable Michael Mosley. The candle-lit scene between Laura and Jim dragged, fatally.

This was the first time I had ever seen Tennessee Williams performed on stage. I have yet to discover why he is so revered.

Friday, April 09, 2010

The Pillow Book: 9. The delicacy in gaudy things


9. The delicacy in gaudy things

xxxThe tip of a peacock feather. Porcelain spoons in a bowl of ice kachang. The face of a four-metre Guanyin. These are common examples of delicacy in gaudy things.
xxxMore uncommon is the delicacy not found at the edge of things, or in their finish, or at a height, but the opposite. Like the heart’s recognition of a gold Rolex watch.
xxxWhen one could show up the ignorance of an enemy, but refrains, that is delicate too.

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Thursday, April 08, 2010

The Pillow Book: 8. He gave me his name but I cannot give it


8. He gave his name but I cannot give it

xxxWhen I visit Singapore now, I stay with my parents. This means, among other things, that I sleep in my old bed, the bottom bed of a double-decker. The long pillow still stretches out there but it no longer hugs me back. The first man I brought home was an army warrant officer. I was in National Service again, only this time it was a pleasure. He gave me his name but I cannot give it.
xxxThomas’s family migrated from China to Vietnam to Singapore before settling in the United States. He in turn ran away from them by going to serve the Singapore army. Living in the barracks, he heard his officers entering their men’s rooms at night, and sometimes in the day. Their shadows would flit across his shutters. We were eating pork congee in Chinatown in the winter when he told me this, certain of being understood without explanation.
xxxWhen Yi-sheng told the army he was gay, he was categorized as medically unfit for operational duty.
xxxI heard and saw nothing during my time. The deregulation was within. When I watched surreptitiously my platoon in the showers. When a sergeant cocked a crooked smile at his map. Once, the guys carried up a popular mate, spread-eagled him in the air, and split his crotch against a pillar. It was done in jest but, oh, everyone was so excited!

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Wednesday, April 07, 2010

The Pillow Book: 7. Sharp Things

7. Sharp Things

xxxA clever child.
xxxMagnetite in a homing pigeon’s beak.
xxxPaper.
xxxA hairpin bend. A nail clipper.
xxxCook Ding’s knife. At first the whole ox. After three years the openings between the joints. Now perception and understanding have come to a stop and the spirit moves where it wants.

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Tuesday, April 06, 2010

The Pillow Book: 6. Chinese wedding banquets are insufferable


6. Chinese wedding banquets are insufferable

xxxChinese wedding banquets are insufferable. Guests arrive at the restaurant an hour late and dinner is served an hour later. Ten courses in clattering succession, from cold cuts to almond jelly. The couple, their parents, and the photographer struggle from table to table to table. The bridegroom is puffy red from too much drink. The bride, corseted in some heavy gown, purple or salmon, not white which is the color of mourning, looks as if she is about to cry from tiredness. There is nothing charming in the scene. Worst of all, one or the other of my parents would get drunk—mother turning loud and coarse, father sullen—and we would have such trouble getting them out of the restaurant, down the lift and into a taxi.

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Monday, April 05, 2010

John Logan's play "Red"

It was gripping theater, this play about Mark Rothko and his decision to pull out of the prestigious commission of muralling the fancy Four Seasons restaurant. Plenty of art talk, between Rothko, played by a tremendous Alfred Molina, and his studio assistant Ken, the young Eddie Redmayne who more than held his own against the older actor. But the art talk was so impassioned and so well-written that one was convinced, no, convicted, that art mattered to these men more than anything else in their lives. If red represented to Rothko life and passion, black symbolized death. But this obvious symbolism was challenged by his assistant, and Rothko revealed his actual fear, to be measured and found wanting.

If I have a quibble, it is that the character of Rothko could have been delineated more individually. At some points in the play, Rothko spoke as the Artist and little else. Ken, on the other hand, remained painfully and awkwardly human throughout. Redmayne brought out the vulnerability and strength of the young aspiring artist.

Director Michael Grandage kept the excitement level high. Lighting was used cunningly to illuminate stage and paintings. Rothko's paintings are vulnerable to bright natural light. At one point full lights were thrown, and both the painting and studio became nothing more than canvas and stage, denuded of their illusion of mystery. Most beautiful was the silent passage when Rothko and Ken covered a canvas with red backwash. Their movements were choreographed into muscular dance.

The production came over from the Donmar Warehouse, London.

The Pillow Book: 5. Musical Instruments

5. Musical Instruments

xxxI was on my way to hear the New York Philharmonic when a woman entered the car of my train and started to play a pianica. I was instantly transported back to the music room of my primary school, where a squad of boys fumbled on the keyboard of their instruments and blew lustily into the creamy white tubing. The pianica, the poor man’s piano. Under the direction of the busty music teacher, whose name I cannot remember, we blew out the music we had also to learn to sing. Humoresque. Sunrise, sunset.

Is this the little girl I married?
Is this the little boy at play?
I don’t remember growing older.
When did they?

After music practice, my father cycled me home. Perched on the top tube of the frame, I clicked down the long curving road, which covered up the hip of the hill at the bottom of which we lived.
xxxThe next instrument I learned to play was the guitar. It was the thing to do in secondary school. No more the small music room with its floor of flagstones, always doubling up as a passageway. The boy scouts had their own basement den, in which to pick up the major chords and talk about girls. Kong Nee taught us the Mandarin pop tune “The Flying Ships” and spoke glowingly of the Cedar girl at the last campfire. Lawrence found the chords for “Leader of the Band” played constantly on the radio then, and we all learned it. That was in 1983, two years after Dan Fogelberg released his album The Innocent Age.
xxxI also sang a lot. I loved the Baptist hymnal, and when the church split and I left with the pastor to form Faith Community, I took naturally to the choruses projected on the back of the stage of a cavernous auditorium. Five thousand voices sang “In Moments Like This” and “Jesus, I love You” over and over again, charging the words with the power to reach heaven. Often it felt we did. Eternity, the worship leader murmured, will be spent praising God. I thought I was a pretty good singer. I loved singing, and so I thought I could. Elsa, whom everyone decided sang like an angel, disabused me of that notion. I may still be trying to find a place where that notion holds true.

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Sunday, April 04, 2010

Dickinson, Darwin, Scorsese and Pigeons

TLS March 19 2010

from Benjamin Markovits' review of Lyndall Gordon's LIVES LIKE LOADED GUNS: Emily Dickinson and her family's feuds:

. . . Henry James's description of the writer's life from The Middle Years: "We work in the dark--we do what we can--we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art". Oe John Berryman's Dream Songs: "I am obliged to perform in complete darkness/ operations of great delicacy/ on my self".

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By dressing up such riddles as a kind of Hamlet ploy. Gordon obscures something important about Dickinson: her preciousness, her pretension. In the process, we lose what is moving about her story. For Gordon, Emily's refusal to publish shows a heroic unwillingness to bow to public expectations, rather than the self-defeating stubbornness of a lonely inhibited woman who has become suspicious of the way her passions alienate people. It is true that her first editors tended to pick the worst poems and edit them into something like conventionality. It is also true that any poem whose merit depends on the difference between a comma and a dash would not be worth preserving in the first place.

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TLS March 26 2010

from Samir Okasha's review of Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini's WHAT DARWIN GOT WRONG:

The authors are right that there are no strict "laws of selection" in their sense, but wrong to say that evolutionary history is merely a collection of historical narratives. This is a false dichotomy if ever there was one. Neo-Darwinism is replete with much advanced theory, a lot of it highly general; it does not find expression in "laws of selection" but rather in mathematical models. For example, a simple and elegant mathematical model shows that natural selection will generally lead species to have an even sex ratio, half males and half females. This is a paradigm neo-Darwinist explanation, and it applies widely, to a high diverse range of species. . . .

Good to know there are mathematical models between scientific "laws" and "historical narratives."

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from Leo Robson's review of Martin Scorsese's "Shutter Island":

Inspired by the example of Hitchcoks, Michael Powell, and others, Scorsese has often employed devices splashier and more expressionistic than the point-of-view shot, the close-up, and the voiceover. . . . Some viewers object to these devives on the grounds that they are obvious and hokey, but their repeated use amounts to a sustained effort to express, even to impart how it feels to be a man--the pain and panic, the nausea and drunken giddiness, the sweat and swagger. Being a man is to have a man's body. . . . A US Marshal, a wealthy aviator, and a Tibetan monk all have cause to wash their hands, for reasons of hygiene and symbolism; shaving is portrayed as a particularly messy business, from the character who reduces his face to a bloody mess in the short The Big Shave (1967) to the priest in The Gangs of New York, who advises his son: "The blood stays on the blade". And Scorsese is unusual in showing how awkward and tedious murder can be, even if you have a gun.

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from Patrick Evans' review of Barbara Allen's PIGEON:

Doves pop up everywhere: they visited King Arthur's Camelot, whispered Allah's truth in Muhammad's ear, and Cairo was founded on a dove's nest. Pigeons have it rougher; in medieval times surgeons cut live pigeons in half and clasped them to the heads of people suffering from melancholia. . . .

Their extraordinary aptitude as messengers made many pigeons heroes, like Winkie, who flew 120 miles across the North Sea to save a bomber crew in the Second World War. Pigeons have magnetite in their beaks, a kind of natural satellite navigation system, and the last pigeon postal service only ceased in 2004.

The Pillow Book: 4. Disorganized Things

4. Disorganized Things

xxx The Botanic Gardens after a storm. The apartment after a party.
xxx Before the command to come to attention, the enlistees relax in various states of sleep, their rifles entangled with their limbs.
xxx When I cross the checkpoint into Johor Bahru, I cannot help observing that the trees that are planted in regimental intervals now sprout in confusion. The city has poured and set around them, and not they for the city. If the trees have given the pleasure of pattern before, they now surprise with their surge of green.
xxx Disheveled hair.

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To Be Marina Abramovich

Marina Abramovich (Yugoslav, b. 1946) sits across from you, looking at you as you look back at her, in the atrium of the MoMA. She is sculptured in a long red dress. You are anyone who wishes to sit at the table for as long as you like. You are acutely aware that the performance piece is being recorded. And you wonder if you should switch that awareness to something else. But what? Marina Abramovich sits across from you.

From the outside of "The Artist is Present," you may sit or stand at any point around the square marked out in white tape on the floor. If you look at the two sitters from the side, you are reminded of so many paintings of just that view. Two human beings seated across from each other, not touching and yet everywhere seems to touch.

If you look at Marina Abramovich, she becomes the art object. Black hair tied back on beautiful gaunt head. A red triangle. You can imagine you are seated across from her, but you are not. You are outside the square. If you look at the other sitter, who could be you, he or she becomes the art object. Sit down and look at him or her. You realize that the artist has given you the gift of looking at another human being, without embarrassment or fear of embarrassing the other. You are Marina Abramovich.

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Upstairs, on the sixth floor, the exhibition of four decades of her work gives you the history of that body sitting so still in the atrium. That body had been stripped naked, shown off, tied up so that the audience could do what they liked to her, choosing from a table of assorted implements such as a chain, a handsaw, a gun, a bunch of grapes. It was always a dare. The body had leaned back, stretching the bow, before an arrow held by Ulay, her collaborator for many years. If the more recent work, with skulls and skeletons, smacks of theatricality, they come from a performance history that impresses with its single-mindedness and risks all for the sake of art.

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I like William Kentridge's (South Africa, b. 1955) animated drawings. But when he starts preaching, against tyrants, mine owners, tycoons, he becomes boring. The imagination is given over to the abusers, while the abused becomes a mass.

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Saturday, April 03, 2010

The Pillow Book: 3. Well-organized Things

3. Well-organized Things

xxxA dictionary. A rainforest. A supermarket.
xxxA columbarium, a place to urn the dead, is organized for the convenience of the living. The Civil Service, a place to earn a living, is organized for the dead.
xxxThe passport office in Singapore.
xxxA dragonfly. A quartz.

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Friday, April 02, 2010

The Pillow Book: 2. When my parents gave up their idols

2. When my parents gave up their idols

xxxxxWhen my parents gave up their idols for Christianity, they asked a priest from the nearest temple to send the household gods off. The altars, gold calligraphy on red sheet metal, were left at the base of a rain tree. The next day they were gone.
xxxxxThe altar table was not so easily removed. A dour work of dark pinewood, without any charm, it had stood in the living room for as long as I could remember. We tried changing its purpose, at one time storing my trophies and plaques behind its glass. They never looked right there. After it was finally hauled away, father had to paint over the soot left by burning years of incense.
xxxxxWhat to put in its place? My bookcase, from IKEA, sagged and leaned forward alarmingly. The corner was too small for the dining table, we rediscovered every New Year’s Eve when we sat together for my mother’s steamboat treat. Then there were no more reunion dinners when my sister and I moved to the States. My parents changed the round table for a rectangle and jabbed it into the space.
xxxxxNow the table holds boxes of tissue, biscuits soft enough for father’s gums, mother’s diabetes pills, and my white laptop when I visit during my summer break and wish to write.

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A Reading at McNally Jackson Bookstore, NYC

Last night, under the auspices of the Academy of the American Poets, three different poets read to a standing-room-only crowd. I did not know who Ed Sanders was till Gordon Gilbert explained to me the significance of rock band The Fugs. Sanders introduced himself as younger than the Beats and older than the hippies. The poems he read revolved around the Beats. One was about what he called the grand humanity of Allen Ginsberg when the latter helped, a la the Good Samaritan, a man beaten and left to die on an Indian road. Would Ginsberg have squirmed in his grave to be cast as Mother Theresa?

I heard Kimiko Hahn read before but that reading did not make much of an impression on me. Perhaps I am being trained by her workshop now to hear better the movement of her Japanese-inspired poetry. This time, I was really impressed by her reading. A wide-ranging and probing intelligence dressed in a spare elegance. The endings of the poems were particularly strong. Her forthcoming book Toxic Flora melds science and poetry. The technical challenge here is to convey the scientific information in an interesting and suggestive way. The poems she read began too similarly, in giving that information. But their conclusions were satisfying and well-earned. Soul is the addiction to human remains. Size is a vulgar advantage.

I was looking forward to hearing Henri Cole. He is gay and turned out to be white, with a French mother. I don't know what put into my head that he is black. The poems he chose to read last night sounded precious to my ears. A poem about his father. A poem about his mother. A poem about a small dying shark on the beach. Heard behind me in the line for the restroom: "He is so gentle." Genteel, I would correct.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

The Pillow Book: 1. I miss my pillow

It's National Poetry Writing Month again, and this year I am writing my own pillow book, after Sei Shonagon.


1. I miss my pillow

xxxxxI miss my pillow, the long pillow held between my legs and hugged to my chest from the time I was born to when I turned thirty-three.
xxxxxI have the impression that it was the same pillow although this could not be true. Perhaps it stayed the same because the slip would change. A fresh pillowslip smelled not unpleasantly of washing powder. After drying in the sun for hours, on a bamboo pole, it was hot to my thighs. I also liked the sensation of it cooling and, later at night, the sensation of warming it with the cleft of my body.
xxxxxThere was a dark brown pillowslip with small white squares. Another pillowslip was blue with white balloons. My favorite had the pattern of palm leaves.
xxxxxDarren laughed at the pillow when he visited me in Singapore and slept in the same room. We must get you a woman, he said. Darren had light blond hair and strong shoulders. At the beach he pulled on a green swimming trunk, the same lime cover that Matt Damon flashed in The Talented Mr. Ripley. The color picked him out in the crowd. I mean Damon but I could have been talking about Darren.
xxxxxIn the year I turned thirty-three, I moved to New York City, to find out if I was gay and a writer. For the first time in my life I bought my own mattress and bed linen. I learned about sizes: full, queen, king. Mine is twin. I have two pillows for the head but none for the body. I could not find one but I admit I did not look very hard. I gave up the long pillow to get something better.

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