Monday, May 31, 2010

Strawberry Picking on Blue Ridge Mountain

Memorial Day weekend with my sister and her family in Fairfax County, Virginia. My parents have been staying with her for about a month now, and they were glad to see me. Not that we have very much to say to each other, but the visual contact was necessary. My dad is not able to walk about much now; he feels tired and breathless easily. He plays with his granddaughters but nothing strenuous like kicking a ball around or chasing them. Last night he sat for a while watching Barney with Hannah. My mother is somewhat stronger. She worries about her hair showing white under its henna dye. I understand better now what Rushdie says in Midnight's Children about characters coming to an end when they have run out of stories and energy. My parents have poured their lives into me and my sister, and now they have nothing left for themselves. I see my sister and brother-in-law doing the same for Hannah and Liesel, and doing it with such love and dedication. It is horrifying.

Yesterday we went strawberry picking on Blue Ridge Mountain. The farm was like an advertisement for itself, for the rural life. Children were entertained by the giant trampoline since they could not be expected to be entertained by the simple pleasures of feeding the chickens. Even babies got their Diaper Derby. This sounds more disaffected than I actually felt when I was pressing back the tangle of strawberry runners to find the biggest fruits. I wanted to take off my shirt to feel the brilliant sunshine, but I was too self-conscious to do so. There was a lot of discussion among the Singaporean families whether it was safe to eat the strawberries without washing them first. The adults tasted them tentatively, and wiped the fruits on paper towel before handing them to the kids. On the wagon back to the farmhouse, a Virginian mother forbade her young son from sitting on the step of the swaying carriage.

Lunch at a fried chicken restaurant. The chef came out to take our orders, a huge hearty man who looked like he was destined to be a chef. Two families are returning to Singapore very soon. Others will replace them when they come to work at the HQ of Exxon Mobile. A wife remarked that she will miss the freedom of American life. They are all thinking about how to adapt to Singapore again. Could their children cope with learning Chinese in school? I think they have never stopped being Singaporean. I too am damned.

We drove back to the Bluemont Vineyard for wine-tasting. It perched on a hillside, and gave a great view of the rolling hills. They were blue as reputed. The green gentleness of the fields reminded me of England. The woman dispensing the wines for tasting was busy and brusque, and so I did not want to ask her too many questions. I liked the vineyard's Vidal Blanc. It was citrusy and refreshing. It had the taste of something grown for a long time locally.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

A Memorial for John Stahle

A memorial website has been set up for John Stahle. He was the publisher of the gay men's cultural journal Ganymede, a wonderful graphic designer, and a friend. He encouraged me to set up my own press, and designed my first full-length book of poems. He is sadly missed.


Saturday, May 29, 2010

Take Heart

Cimarron Review Issue 171 arrived yesterday. I have a ghazal in it, accepted by Alfred Corn, one of the three poetry editors.  "Take heart and sing of love's recourse: the river" opens my ghazal sequence. Poets in the issue I recognize are Dorianne Laux, Edward Byrne, David Shapiro, Jennifer Michael Hecht, Billy Collins, Christopher Phelps, Michael Montlack, and Brent Goodman. Good company. Seeing my name in print, I feel like a poet again.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Denied or Denial

When does a life stay still?

I am quietly terrified that I will not finish all the work I must before I leave for China in about two weeks. I have just announced at school the selection of the Common Book--Eboo Patel's Acts of Faith--but the books are still not in yet for distribution. There is a report on the diversity survey that I promised but have not written. I am traveling to Fairfax County, Virginia, this weekend, to see my visiting parents and my sister. The certain duties. The uncertain doubts. I escape into the gym almost every day so as to narrow my thought to the weights I am pressing. A hopeful thing, which brings along its own trepidation, is the daily email I am exchanging with KD who seems to make a great boyfriend. All the time the anxiety of these days is permeated by horniness, so that I want to smash my body against someone, and annihilate myself in an instant of pleasure. Watched a mildly good, mildly bad gay film last night called Denied. (Lee Rhumohr plays a jock in love with his best friend who cannot decide if he likes men or women.) These days feel a lot like being denied, or else like denial.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Seamus Heaney's essay "Feelings into Words"

I did not say in yesterday's post that another attractive aspect of Heaney's essay is its tender and non-ironic feel for sex. About his poem "Undine":

It was the dark pool of the sound of the word that first took me: if our auditory imaginations were sufficiently attuned to plumb and sound a vowel, to unite the most primitive and civilized associations, the word "undine" would probably suffice as a poem in itself. Unda, a wave; undine, a water-woman-- a litany of undines would have ebb and flow, water and woman, wave and tide, fulfillment and exhaustion in its very rhythms. But old two-faced vocable that it is, I discovered a more precise definition once, by accident, in a dictionary. An undine is a water sprite who has to a marry a human being and have a child by him before she can become human. With that definition, the lump in the throat, or rather the thump in the ear, undine, became a thought, a field of force that called up other images. One of these was an orphaned memory, without a context, obviously a very early one, of watching a man clearing out an old spongy growth from a drain between two fields, focusing in particular on the way the water, in the cleared-out place, as soon as the shovelfuls of sludge had been removed, the way the water began to run free, rinse itself clean of the soluble mud, and make its own little channels and currents, And this image was gathered into a more conscious reading of the myth as being about the liberating, humanizing effect of sexual encounter.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

"The Poet's Work" edited by Reginald Gibbons Post 2

I finally made my way to the end of The Poet's Work: 29 Masters of 20th Century Poetry on the Origins and Practice of their Art, edited by Reginald Gibbons. Some pieces are fully developed essays, some are collections of working notes or of aphorisms, a few are interviews, and a few more are poems. Most I forgot the moment I finished reading them. Except for Karl Shapiro's polemical piece "What Is Not Poetry?" Americans writing on poetry bore me. Too often they reduce intuitions to theories. Australian A. D. Hope does the same in his systematic exposition of "The Three Faces of Love." The Spanish are much more readable. Lorca on the duende. Antonio Machado on the sparing use of imagery in intense lyrical poetry.

Of those writing in English, Seamus Heaney, in his essay "Feelings into Words" comes the closest to evoking the spiritual in poetry. His figures--the digger, the diviner, the Tollund Man--are originally and finally mysterious. He is everywhere alert to how poets rationalize what begins as a lump in the throat. He gives me faith, instead of doctrines, process instead of procedures. Unlike Lorca's chaotic proliferation, however, this faith has its own discipline.  Heaney writes, "I like the paraphrasable extensions of a poem to be as protean as possible, and yet I like its elements to be as firm as possible." Proteus held against the rock.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Clive James on Peter Porter

TLS May 14 2010

Clive James on Peter Porter 1929-2010:

He had spent much of his career caught in a fork, punished in Australia for trying to please the Poms, and punished in the UK for being an Aussie expatriate with a frame of reference above his station. Later on, he won acceptance in both camps, and by the time of his death he was a living example of the old country's culture reinforcing itself with the energy of the new, and of the new country's culture gaining scope from an expanded context. From the Australian viewpoint, if Les Murray was still the king of the stay-at-homes, Porter was the king of the stay-aways, the position of expatriate artist having at last come to be seen as a contribution rather than a betrayal. For the British, his work and stature added up to a powerful reminder that the old Empire lived on as an intellectual event.
*
To a painful extent, his character was shaped by what didn't happen: nobody, as he later complained, was ever kissed less often. From that experience, of lack of it, grew his strange conviction that women found him negligible. (He was notorious for saying that there really were two nations, but they were the attractive and the unattractive.)
*
Speaking to an interviewer concerned with the eternal non-question of which of his two nations he felt nationalistic about, Peter said "patriotism and allegiance are small matters in comparison with my egotism".

I just bought from the Book Depository Porter's Selected Poems The Rest on the Flight.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic

I think I may fall in love with Leonard Bernstein. His Symphony No. 2, inspired by W. H. Auden's poem "The Age of Anxiety," is melancholic yet optimistic, colorful yet witty, and, in its hospitality to different musical genres like jazz and big band, so generous. It captures what I like to think of as the best of New York. Bernstein is supposed to have said that he did not prefer any particular cuisine, musical genre or form of sex. A discriminating omnivorousness. Jean-Yves Thibaudet was poetic and funny on the piano. The Los Angeles Philharmonic, under Dudamel, attacked the music with discipline and gusto. (Glyn Maxwell wrote an interesting piece comparing the poem unfavorably to the symphony.)

It made Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 "Pathetique" sound very old hat to me after the intermission. LW had the opposite reaction. The music was sculpted with emotional precision by Dudamel and his musicians. I could almost see the swirl of cream in the air above the orchestra. It was a rich confection out of an old-time bakery, but last night I wanted something savory and adventurous.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Found Poem

Found Poem

Two birds shat on my window. Two thumbprints, ridges and whorls. Dribbling a tail, they look like spermatozoa swimming up the sky. My landlord, who is also a cop, will be after me to clean the glass.

*

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Almost Overnight Sensation

Googling my name idly this morning, I discover Equal to the Earth has been briefly reviewed by The Tower Journal:

This first, full-length collection of poems by Jee Leong Koh, reveals why this young man has become an almost overnight sensation. His poetry can't be classified. It is at times internal and deep, then mundane and urban and even sarcastic and humorous. His language, mythic and crass, reveals a bold desire to comprehend love and human interactions. He uses words, rhythm and images like a daring, young master. Buy this book and watch this poet's future! You won't be disappointed.

The Tower Journal is edited by Mary Ann Sullivan.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Side Effects of the Cocaine

Walnut Literary Review Issue 01 is out. Poems by Annie Finch, Ocean Vuong, and Zhuang Yusa. I have three poems in it.

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The Side Effects of the Cocaine, a comic, tells the story of David Bowie's life from April 1975 to February 1976. Addled from the addiction he claimed to have picked up in the USA, Bowie saw Jesus in a vision, which saved him from self-destruction and launched his Thin White Duke persona. Controversially he was quoted as saying that "Britain could benefit from a Fascist leader."

The story in the comic, written by Sean T. Collins, is tight, in a before and after structure. It does not explain too much, but enough for anyone who does not know Bowie's story to follow the comic. It compares rock stars to Hitler the expert manipulator of media, and asks why we give ourselves up to druggies and dictators. The serious message is inflected by a keen ironic awareness of role-playing. Near the end of the comic, when Bowie is asked by an interviewer whether he stands by everything he said, he replies, "Everything but the inflammatory remarks."

The drawings done in ink give a stark black and white look. The look accentuates Bowie's initial emaciation, and at the end imaginatively transforms, in consecutive full-page panels, Bowie singing on stage. The last panel is all black, with the Duke faintly picked out in white. The Jesus vision, which "changed" Bowie, is rightly given its two-page spread of glory. There the Lord appears on a cross, as if in a Renaissance or Baroque altar, the Nazi swastika on his right and left, the passion scenes behind him re-created as a comic strip. The illustrator is Isaac Moylan, and you can read the comic on his website.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Lin-Manuel Miranda's "Into the Heights"

Energetic dancing, rousing music, memorable songs, a story that shows its emotions on the sleeve, "Into the Heights" deserves its Best Musical Tony Award I discovered at the Richard Rodgers Theatre yesterday afternoon. Miranda, who grew up with his abuela in Washington Heights, started writing the musical when he was a sophomore at Wesleyan, and it performed on Off-Broadway before moving into the Great White Way. I especially enjoyed the crystalline voice of Janet Dacal (Nina) and the smoky singing of Christopher Jackson (Benny), who played lovers. David del Rio (Sonny) had great comic timing.

The theater was packed with school groups, and there was plenty of whistling and sighing when Nina and Benny kissed, with a nod to West Side Story, on a balcony. Somehow the good-natured catcalls belonged to this stage re-creation del barrio as much as the salsa horn lines, bachata guitar lines and hip-hop. If the song "We are Powerless" was as much about political helplessness as it was about an electrical blackout, the typical optimism of musical theater was here suffused with the youthful aspiration of a rising generation.

Friday, May 14, 2010

So Soft and So Masterful

The first of two ghazals accepted by qarrtsiluni is now up on their website. The theme for the issue is New Classics. You can download the podcast of me reading the poem.

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Heard with LW last night Kurt Masur conducting the New York Philharmonic. The performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 1 was crisp and unified. It gave off the impression of great mastery, on the part of both composer and conductor. It was the first time I heard Number 1 live. I was too tired to pay close attention to Bruckner's Symphony No. 7, which followed after the intermission. Lots of swirling passages but I could not make sense of it in my sleepy state. The program notes tell me that Bruckner was a late bloomer. He composed the first of his nine symphonies in 1865-66, when he was 41.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Donald Margulies's "Collected Stories"

This tale of an older woman writer mentoring a younger one came alive only in the second act. When Lisa Morrison (Sarah Paulson) wrote about Ruth Steiner's (Linda Lavin) long ago affair with Delmore Schwartz, the mentor threatened to stop the novel from going to press. The expected questions arose. Is it morally right to use someone else's life in one's writing? Where is the line between homage and exploitation? What are the claims of gratitude to a beloved mentor?

Of all the justifications Lisa offered, the most intriguing one was that Ruth had given the story to her when she had told Lisa the story, that Ruth wanted Lisa to write it because she herself could not. I wish the playwright had pursued that line of thought, but the confrontation was diverted elsewhere. The whole exchange, the raison d'etre of the play, was somewhat repetitive and formless. Director Lynne Meadow did not help. The play's questions are my questions, but it gave off more heat than light.

TH compared the play very aptly to "Red," another play about another mentorship, one between painters. The comparison throws into stark relief the weaknesses of "Collected Stories." "Red" has a real giant of art in Mark Rothko, whereas "Collected" has to build Ruth Steiner up from scratch. "Red" is marvelously visual whereas "Collected," since it is about writers, stands or falls by its talk about a verbal art. "Red" turns from its first minutes on the question of whether Rothko will paint the Four Seasons murals. "Collected" has no such dramatic center, and so the first act plods as it sets up the relationship between the women for the quarrel in the second act. In "Red" there is real and vital disagreement about the nature of art, and the personal stuff comes out incidentally but powerfully. In "Collected," Ruth and Lisa has no disagreement about what they are doing as fiction writers. The play moves wholly in the realm of the personal.

Both Molina and Lavin were wonderful in their different ways as two very different mentors. Molina was fiery and tortured, Lavin was wry and melancholic. The younger artists, however, were not equal. Sarah Paulson was too needy to be a sympathetic character. She lacked the nobility of true aspiration. The production is still playing in the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Emily Dickinson in New York Botanical Garden

The Garden joined forces with the Poetry Society of America to present a series of readings of Emily Dickinson's poems. Last night's kickoff had Billy Collins, Marie Ponsot and Brenda Wineapple (a biographer). Collins, reading partly from his introduction to a selected Dickinson, was particularly witty and concise. The Garden Cafe was packed to overflow, with about 150 people who had traveled to this location twenty minutes by train from Grand Central Station.

Before the reading, HS and I wandered in Emily's Victorian homestead, recreated in the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory. We admired the tulips, heliotropes, bellflowers, camelias, daisies, columbines, peonies, and roses but were especially taken by the spectacular foxgloves. The lilacs, HS's favorite because of their lovely smell, were gone. When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd...

Sunday, May 09, 2010

The Rite of Spring

An 11 AM concert on Saturday was a great idea. Rested the night before, I was alert and attentive throughout the All-Stravinsky program I heard with SB. In the first half, Valery Gergiev conducted the New York Philharmonic in Symphony in Three Movements (1942-45) and Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments (1923-24; rev. 1950). I liked the Concerto more than the symphony. The orchestration was lean but still sounded lush. Two flutes and piccolo, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, four trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, and basses. Alexei Volodin was marvelously quick on the keyboard.

After the intermission, what the audience came for, Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) (1911-13). I remembered Helen Gardner playing it to her class at Oxford while explaining the clashing juxtapositions in "The Waste Land." The abstract, Cubist ceiling of the concert hall seemed to me a perfect accompaniment to the music: rigorous, scientific, elemental, basic. The marvel was that so much civilization was needed to pierce into the primitive. The fertile and ebullient musical ideas were recalled again and again to the two-beat rhythm of footsteps. After we left the concert hall and walked into the sun, we looked at Spring differently, and welcomed it.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Liviu Campanu, translated by Patrick McGuinness

On my way to school on Thursday, I was completely excited by reading Campanu's poems in PN Review 192. A Romanian poet (1932-94) exiled by the Ceausescu regime to Constanta (Roman Tomis that also hosted Ovid's exile), he wrote about place and placelessness in a voice at once witty, regretful and lyrical. The poems from The Ovid Complex (1989) are astonishing.

The combination of thought and sight:

Drift is what they worship here:
on the cast iron shore
the sea is rolling its dice and the heron,
the only bird who cane make flying look difficult,
hauls himself up on a ramp of wind
like a geriatric on his stairlift. (from VIII)

The knotty self-questioning expressed in self-irony: "I test my weakness...

against some idea of fortitude, my impatience
against the stoic or the socialist ideal...
and I'm happy enough to be found wanting,
or would be if I knew what it was I wanted. (from I)

I have bought McGuinness's book Jilted City, which contains these translations, as well as his own poems of exile.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Andy Quan reviews "Equal to the Earth"

Am I becoming controversial? "The Grand Historian Makes a Virtue of Necessity" is a mere reading list, according to Nicholas Liu, but Andy Quan thinks that the whole sequence "uses Asian images and ideas in ways that are not kitsch but instead playful and original and matches it with a voice that crackles with energy." Besides the question of personal taste, the different opinions pivot on a number of interesting issues, such as the reviewer's familiarity with Chinese history, his attitude to the same history, his poetics regarding historical references, his stance towards the recuperation of a lost tradition, in this case, that of Chinese homosexuality. That both Liu and Quan are part of the Chinese diaspora--Liu is Singaporean whereas Quan is Canadian--only makes the comparison more interesting.

Quan's review has just appeared in Mascara Issue Seven. The same issue publishes new poems by Patrick Rosal, and a youtube video of Franz Wright reading "Night Flight Turbulence."

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Nicholas Liu reviews "Equal to the Earth"

I missed seeing this review when it first came out in April, in the Quarterly Literary Review of Singapore. It is a piece of intelligent criticism of my book. Though I disagree with several of his evaluations of phrase, line and poem, I find myself agreeing with a greater number than I am happy to admit. The comments on "The Grand Historian" and "Cold Pastoral" are particularly acute. I accept too that I am overdrawn at the Bank of Keats, as Liu so wittily puts it. He has a keen ear, and I am glad Singapore Literature has recruited an independent young critic.

Koh Jee Leong's debut collection — discounting his intriguing chapbook of sonnets, Payday Loans (Poets Wear Prada, 2007) — can fairly be described as overdue. Koh is no journeyman poet, and the best of these poems make important contributions to the Singapore lyric, such as it is. (One dares to dream that had this book been published sooner, we might even have been spared some of the past few years' more dismal entries in that overcrowded genre.) His liberal use of poem sequences and rigorous forms is also welcome, both being fairly thin on the ground here. Regrettably, the less accomplished of his poems lack grace as well as that beauty which comes with certain sorts of awkwardness. When technique fails in this way, there is very little to hold one's attention, for Koh's poetry, although highly literary, is not in any sense difficult. He speaks a language any experienced reader can understand; you can gobble up a poem of his in one go, which is all very well when the poem is good (which is often enough), but makes it all too clear when the poem is insubstantial. [Read more]

It is a relief, too, not to be discussed in terms of one's background, but simply to have it taken for granted.

Monday, May 03, 2010

David Mamet's "Race"

I enjoyed the play, performed in the Barrymore Theatre, more than I thought I would. When LW watched it, she walked out after the first act because she did not find its portrayal of racial issues in America convincing. She also explained, interestingly, that because she grew up in the South, she has a certain idea of racism. Not having grown up in the States, I have no idea how "true" the play is to racism in America. The perspectives depicted in the play may be unrealistic, overdrawn or cliched to many Americans, but I still find the play thought-provoking.

A legal firm, with a white male principal, a black male principal and a black female associate, decides if and how it should defend a white man accused of raping a black woman. Jack Lawson (James Spader) is the tough-minded white lawyer who investigated Susan more extensively than other non-black applicants, before hiring her for being talented and black, although she lied in her application. Henry Brown, played by a forceful David Alan Grier, is the black middle-class professional, clear-eyed about racial prejudice and proud of speaking the unspoken truth. He is the most likable of the characters, and in him I sense a leniency of judgment on the part of the playwright and director Mamet. He is also subordinate to Jack, although both men have built up the firm together. Twice, on Jack's orders, Henry sees their client out. Jack is the only character who remains on stage throughout. The play is very much about Jack, and in this sense both black characters serve as means to the end of his self-epiphany.

Kerry Washington played Susan with just the right amount of idealistic naivete. The role is limited but she filled it out with purposeful intensity. Her anger was all the more effective in the denouement for being barely restrained. Richard Thomas, as the alleged rapist Charles Strickland, was perfectly hateful in his assumption of white privilege.

When Jack asks Susan to model in court the red sequin dress that Charles is supposed to have torn off his victim, the play makes clear that it is almost as much about sexism as it is about race. Hard to speak of one without bringing in the other.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Ecumenical Humanity

TLS April 2 2010

from Andrew van der Vlies's review of Chinua Achebe's THE EDUCATION OF A BRITISH-PROTECTED CHILD:

The lecture extols the virtue of the "middle ground", the point of view not given to extremism or "fanaticism." This is a space much appreciated in the Igbo society of Achebe's youth and one that informs his own insistence on considering the complex effects of the colonial encounter: "I could have dwelt on the harsh humiliations of colonial rule or the more dramatic protests against it", he writes, but he remains "fascinated by that middle ground . . . where the human spirit resists an abridgement of its humanity". For many, it is Achebe's nuanced sense that while this "space was to be found primarily in the camp of the colonized", it was also "now and again" visible "in the ranks of the colonizer too", that lends his assessment of colonial contact its gravitas and pathos. Ikem Osodi, the journalist character in Anthills of the Savannah (modelled in part on Achebe's late poet-fighter friend Christopher Okigbo), is a spokesman for this middle ground,  declaring that "those who would see no blot of villainy in the beloved oppressed nor grant the faintest glimmer of humanity to the hated oppressor are partisans, patriots and party-liners".
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In an essay from 1989, Achebe restates his position that he writes in English "not . . .  because it is a world language", but because it is the language in which Nigeria "transacts a considerable portion of its daily business": it has become an African language, and central to the identity of nation states that might otherwise be further fractured by their multiple linguistic heritages.

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TLS April 9 2010

from Ferdinand Mount's review of Roberto Calasso's TIEPOLO PINK:

As Calasso points out, "the Wurzburg ceiling is an anthropological experiment. For the first time and--until today--the only time, we find assembled here a literally ecumenical humanity, idiosyncratic and in reciprocal contact".
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We must never forget how much he had in reserve as his hand moved with amazing speed over the damp plaster. It is calculated that he covered the ceiling of the Palazzo Labia in Venice at the rate of five square metres a day. But the speed caught the vision, rather than smothering or coarsening it. Tiepolo was so various and so masterly that he did not need to pretend to be slow.

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from Gabriel Levin's Commentary piece on D. H. Lawrence's Sketches of Etruscan Places:

Beholding the painted walls in the burial chambers and reimagining the lives of the Etruscans . . . , Lawrence at long last found what had eluded him time and again in his travels: here was a society whose members manifested a spontaneity, a naturalness, a vitality, and --a word that Lawrence reverts to with increasing frequency--a quickness that had long been lost to modern man.
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Lawrence is touched to the quick. He enters into rapport with flying dolphins and ducks and serpents, with galloping lions and goats and horses and other heraldic beats and, crucially, with the Lucumone, the religious seer, leader in the sacred mysteries, beheld on the lid of alabaster sarcophagi--ash chests--and holding in his hand the sacred patera, "the round saucer with the raised knob in the center, which represents the round germ of heaven and earth". The little round saucer will become the symbolic centre of Lawrence's adopted cosmic vision, the nucleus of what he will call, not without controversy, phallic consciousness: the flowing, continuous life-force uniting dualities, "the terrific and the prolific" . . . heaven and earth, fire and water. 

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)

I have not read any Mishima but thought this interesting-looking film, directed by Paul Schrader, scored by Philip Glass, would introduce me. The film alternates between three sequences. The first, in "naturalistic" colors, shows Mishima and his cadets making their way to the Army Headquarters, where he harangues the assembled regiment on selling out to the capitalists instead of upholding the ancient samurai code of honor, before he proves his own honor by committing seppuku. The second, in black and white, flashes back to Mishima's childhood. The third, in "symbolic" colors, shows segments from three of his works "The Temple of the Golden Pavilion," "Kyoko's House" and "Runaway Horses." The film is further subdivided into four thematic chapters: "Beauty," "Art," "Action," and "Harmony between Pen and Sword." All this is heavy machinery for telling a version of the life of this writer.

The heavy-handedness is made watchable by a number of things. Ken Ogata, who plays Mishima, is truly charismatic and makes me believe in the writer's power to inspire loyalty to death. The score by Glass is beautiful and evocative. He uses a string quartet for the black and white sequence, a string orchestra and synthesizers for the fictional dramatizations, and a full symphonic orchestra for the docudrama. The flashback scenes are also quietly taut with human drama. In one, Mishima's sick grandmother prevents the boy from visiting his mother by asking him to rub her legs. In another, he balances himself on a stile and wrestles a playground champ to the ground. I wish there were more of such scenes, instead of the highly stylized re-creations of his works, which come off to me as one-dimensional.