Friday, November 26, 2010

The Persian Book of Kings

Finally finished reading Shahnameh today, the Persian Book of Kings, translated by Dick Davis. Arranged like a royal chronicle, the book falls into two parts, the first legendary half, teeming with hero-kings and demons, and the second more "realistic" half, closer as the history is to Ferdowsi's own time. The turning point lies in the reign of Sekandar (Alexander the Great), who is depicted initially as a world conqueror, but later, more importantly, as a seeker of knowledge.

I like the legends better. They have more colorful characters, and livelier adventures.The defeat of Zahhak the Demon King by Feraydun, the Simorgh (magical bird) that raised Sam and helped him in his distress, the riddles posed to Zal by Manuchehr's priests, the seven trials of Rostam, the duel between Rostam and his son Sohrab, which I first read as a poem by Matthew Arnold. The characters in the second half may be more complex, less easy to pin down, but the struggle between hero and king is played out in never-ending, repetitive warfare.

The prose of the translation reads well, but the poetry is rather lame. Too much is sacrificed to rhyming the couplets. I don't know Ferdowsi's method of versification, but Davis's poetry reads like Pope's translation of The Odyssey. Fortunately, most of the translation is in prose. I know I will return to this treasure house of stories again and again.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Seduced by the Manganiyars

LW and I watched the U.S. premiere of The Manganiyar Seduction last Tuesday at the Rose Theater. Conceptualized and directed by Roysten Abel, conducted by Daevo Khan, the production was mesmerizing in its music and fabulous in its theatricality. In red-curtained boxes outlined by pulsing lightbulbs, which recalled both the red-light district of Amsterdam and the garish festival lights in India, thirty-six musicians sang and played the kamancheh (string), dholak (drum), murli (flute), kartal (wooden clappers), sarangi (string), morchang (percussion), bapang (string-percussion), algoza (woodwind) and dhol (drum).

A caste of Muslim musicians from the Indian state of Rajasthan, the Manganiyars are mainly settled in the districts of Jaisalmer, Barmer and Jodhpur, the heart of the Thar Desert. They played for kings, though nowadays they are far more likely to play for wealthy patrons, at births, marriages and feasts. Their repertoire encompasses secular ballads and Sufi poems. As their instruments suggest, their music is a fascinating blend of classical and folk. They also sing of Indian gods, a favorite being Lord Krishna. Their syncretism is immensely appealing. 

From "A Note on the Music" by Anjuly Chakraborty in the evening's program:
The performance is structured as a cyclic spiral, where the main song, "Alfat Un Bin In Bin," is rearranged to accommodate two other songs celebrating the ebb and flow of the life. The circles it creates are the dramatic narratives of the dance of delirium that Bulleshah performs to reach God.
Sufi song by Bulleshah: Alfat Un Bin In Bin 
... He praises the presence of God, who is visible everywhere in the three worlds: land, living things, and the universe. God has given his name to all of this; whatever you see and feel, you can experience God in it....
People make their pilgrimage to Mecca to find God, but Bulleshah thought that the holy place of Mecca was also present inside of his own heart....
... On his personal way to reach God, Bulleshah became a dancer who transcended his sexual identification and experienced the presence of God through his dance. 
Halariya: The birth of Lord Krishna
... When Krishna was born in Mathura, the musicians played dhol--the Indian drum--to welcome him and to announce his birth to the whole world and also to the Jat chieftain Gokula. The lucky mother of Krishna is praised for her glorious son. 
Neendarli
This song shows the love and affection of a wife for her husband. She wants to enjoy more time with him; therefore she finds many reasons why he should not sleep early [taste a special sweet wine, try a delicious dinner, walk in a beautiful garden--my words].

Monday, November 22, 2010

"Ganymede Unfinished" Reviewed and "Asymptote" Launched

Gregory Woods reviews Ganymede Unfinished, edited by Bryan Borland as a tribute to the late John Stahle.
... It is an apt tribute to Stahle, serious and stylish; even if it is, perhaps, less selective than he might have been with some of its weaker material. The creative content gets off to a reassuringly solid start, with fine poems by Jee Leong Koh and Matthew Hittinger....

***

Yew Leong Lee launches a new journal dedicated to literary translations. Conceived in Singapore, but edited from different parts of the world, Asymptote is now calling for submissions of translations of fiction, non-fiction, drama and poetry. From the website:

Already in the lineup for our quarterly online magazine, slated for a Jan 2011 launch, are a despatch from Afghanistan, translated from the Farsi, about the plight of women in the context of the ongoing war, an essay from Japan by a noted mathematician cum essayist entitled “Literature and Mathematics”, a group of poems from Melih Cevdet Anday, writing in the manner of a famous 17th century folk poet, translated from the Turkish by Sidney Wade and Efe Murad, a dramatic excerpt from the critically-acclaimed "Nadirah", translated from the Malay by Alfian Sa'at, one of Singapore's top playwrights, and an interview with the Golden Melody Award-winning Chinese lyricist who not only brought the 2010 World Cup Song into Mandarin but has done some nifty things with Cantonese and Mandarin as well.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Enjoying "The Weekend" with Peter Cameron

I read Peter Cameron's 1994 novel The Weekend in two short afternoons. It was that absorbing and delightful. From the back cover: "On a midsummer weekend, in a country house in upstate New York, three friends gather on the anniversary of the death of a man related to them all by blood or love. Their idyll is disturbed by the presence of two outsiders: a faux Italian dinner guest and a young gay man now involved with the dead man's lover." The premise may appear somewhat thin, but the novel spins gold out of straw.

The Weekend is clearly indebted to modern Masters; in fact it extends their tradition of acute social observation by incorporating into the novel's ambit the matter of gay relationships and HIV. Keenly aware of time passing, and of the complicated significance of social rituals, The Weekend reminds me of Virginia Woolf. The S-shaped stone wall in the woods, built by John, who keeps to the garden and so is associated with the spirit of the earth, is that mysterious thing, ultimately unexplainable, that one encounters in the fiction of E. M. Forster and D. H. Lawrence. The glittering material culture and the social ambition recall F. Scott Fitzgerald.

In naming Cameron's literary predecessors, I am following Joyce Reiser Kornblatt in her New York Times Book Review piece. She missed one more, I think. Italy, home of Laura Ponti the dinner guest, and of the dead man Tony, when he was young, is the foreign other, as it is in the fiction of Henry James. The observations of self and other in this novel may be less subtle, less fluttering than in the American expatriate's late fiction, but the skillful arrangement of people, in groupings of varying size and shade, is as complete as The Golden Bowl.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

David Fray plays Schubert and Bach

LW gave me her ticket to hear the young French pianist David Fray last night, telling me I was in for an Experience. She heard him playing a Bach concerto, and likened his playing to taking a lovely stroll through the park. Only the French, she insisted, could take one on such a walk. Not any American.

Pumped with excitement, I sat in Zankel Hall with AG, MC and her husband. The pianist walked in rather awkwardly, and so added charm to his glamorous good looks. Hunched over the piano, he banged out Schubert's Allegretto in C Minor and Allegretto from Klavierstücke, before attacking the German's Four Impromptus. Although there were passages of great delicacy, I felt that the pianist was not entirely at ease with the Romantic passion of the pieces. The playing was tentative, and then, as if to make-up for it, overly insistent.

A different pianist returned after the intermission to play Bach's Partita No. 6 in E minor. It was as if the "objective" quality of Bach's music relaxed Fray, and freed him from the task of being himself. As a result, he was all the more himself. He brought out beautifully the inner coherence of each dance in the suite: Allemanda, Corrente, Air, Sarabande, Tempo di Gavotte, and Gigue. He was in front of, behind, around each note he played, so confident he was of his understanding of the music. It was an authoritative performance, astonishing in a young man.

I don't usually buy the next day the music I heard the previous night. But I had to get Fray's performance of Bach's concertos, to hear for myself what LW heard. I have downloaded the tracks onto my iPad, and look forward to some blissful hours on the train or bus.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Telephone Project

From the on-line journal At Length, a poetic conversation:

"The Telephone Project is a poetic sequence stretching across aesthetics and identities. Each poet writes an original poem in response to the preceding poem, with just one parameter: we ask that writers be respectful of the poets who precede them.
The sequence’s two threads begin with the same poem, which is a response to translations of two fragments from Sappho."

The first thread is here, the second here. To read writers’ explanations of their responses, as well as brief bios for the participants, click here. My effort "Fever Fragments" is the third poem on the first thread.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

From Ah to Amen

Sacred music was the order of last evening at Alice Tully Hall. As part of the White Light Festival, the Latvian National Choir, conducted by Tõnu Kaljuste and accompanied by the Orchestra of St. Luke's from NYC, sang Bach's motets Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied (c. 1726-27) and Komm, Jesu, Komm! (before 1732). According to the program notes, "unlike the cantatas, with their many recitatives, arias, and duets, the motets entail choral music throughout."

The highlight of the evening was the U.S. premieres of two of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt's works. He composed Stabat Mater in 1985 for three voices and string trio, but rescored it for mixed chorus and string orchestra, the version GH and I heard last night. The work began with a piercing cry "Ah!" and ended with a humble assent "Amen." Its minimalist style was both postmodernist and medieval. After hearing it, I want to write a poem about Mary, Mother of God, for my next book Infinite Variety.

The second work Adam's Lament (2009) resonated less with me. The text, written by the monk Silouan of Athos (1866-1938), grieved over man's separation from God, and spoke of compassion for all suffering mankind. The music seemed less distinctive.

The Choir was superb technically, to my untrained ear. They sang Bach rather coldly, I thought. Their singing of Pärt, however, was more than technically perfect. It was full of the warmth and melodrama I associate with the Russians.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Poem: "Pacifism"

Pacifism

Love is what brought me to this end, and love
Was the end I wished. To break or to bend
Were the choices given when I chose to stand.
—Andréa Jarmai, “Tsuruhime: Greaves and Corselets”


I am a poor soldier, love, always the last
to find a way out of the jungle or breakfast

and the first to fall asleep on the watch.
I hated the uniform. Hard tack. Safety catch.

Called upon to lead a fighting company,
I stole behind a strapping Indian PC.

Hardship made me selfish. I pretended
not to see my turn to carry the wounded.

No, I am not proud of my army record.
The action never quite hit the word.

Will I change? Will I stand and break
for love? If there is anyone who can make

me a man, a woman, faithfulness,
you are he. But I am too much for peace.


for Guy

The Ghazal Ensemble

Last night SB and I heard at Zankel Hall at Carnegie the Ghazal Ensemble comprising Shujaat Husain Khan (sitar and vocals), Kayhan Kalhor (kamancheh) and Samir Chatterjee (tabla). From the classical synthesis of Indo-Persian music, they played three improvisations. Unfortunately I was so tired that I was only fully awake for the first. Variation succeeded variation like a very rich weaving, in this music.

The sitar produced tonal modulations very like that of a human voice when its strings were pulled sideways. The kamancheh, a spike fiddle that is ancestor to most bowed instruments throughout Asia and Europe, sounded like strings at one moment, and like woodwind at another, as SB remarked. The tabla is a pair of single-headed drums. The left-hand drum is called banya, the right-hand drum is called tabla. According to the program note, each drum stroke has its own name: Na, Ta, Dha, Dhin, Trik, and so on, and "the rhythmic patterns are transmitted orally through these onomatopoeic names.

I wish I could understand the words sung. I am not even sure if they were ghazals or some other kinds of lyrics.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Poem: "The Sign"


The Sign

we may give praise to the wrong God
and remember only what illuminates
—Laksmi Pamuntjak, “A Traveler’s Tale”


The sky was clear, as it had been clear for months
despite our prayers for rain. The younger priests
carried the one-year-old calf up the mountain, lifted
by faith, for how could our master Baal fail us?

We stacked the rocks we found into an altar
and dug a trench round it to catch the blood.
The calf, white as milk and smooth, was quickly
tied down with the thin ropes Jeroboam brought.

A circle round the altar, far enough not to be singed,
we prayed in turn like passing a stone, we prayed
in unison. We tore our clothes, we scratched our faces,
we wept for a sign from heaven, wept into each other.

When the fire came, my back burned. I knew then,
without turning round, an age was passing, passing.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Mendelssohn's "Elijah"

Heard Mendelssohn's Elijah last night with KM, and did not like it very much. The music was not particularly exciting nor memorable, with the exception of the Chorus at the end of Part I: "Thanks be to God, He laveth the thirsty land." After channeling Bach in his St. Paul, Mendelssohn turned to Handel when writing Elijah. The oratorio is, however, no Messiah. Perhaps the fault lay with the New York Philharmonic. I don't know. Of the five adult soloists, Gerald Finlay as Elijah stood out with his rich bass-baritone. We left at the intermission. Tomorrow night, ghazals at Carnegie Hall. I am really looking forward to that.

Poem: "William B. Youngblood Looks at a Filipino Go-Go"


William B. Youngblood Looks at a Filipino Go-Go

Everything I gave was to get rid of you
As one gives to the beggar. There. Go away.
—Margaret Atwood, “Cressida to Troilus:  A Gift”


His body swaying to music throws a glance
at me and, in turns, others through the cage.
I do not know the dancer or the dance

but attend every Friday on the chance
he’d sway and ache for me despite my age,
he’d grant, for pity’s sake, more than a glance.

He pauses, for a heartbeat, when I enhance
the bulge of his silk crotch with his paper wage.
O, I know what the dancer wants from his dance.

What do I want? The pectoral advance?
A wifely kiss? To fill the butt’s cleavage
with my old body? Night extends the glance

into a corridor entered in a trance,
to a dark room behind the strobe lit stage,
where we may know the dancer, not the dance.

I throw my jacket over all my wants,
domestic, holy, beggaring, savage,
and turn to leave, with a backward glance,
the dancers who are dancers when they dance.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

"Five Poems"

Five Poems

"When we stumble over a stone
It guides us."
--Suzan Alaiwan, "Poems"


He listens for the stumble in a poem, so he can find the stone.


On a white stone is scribbled this stark poem: "Our guide stumbled."


When you stumble over poems, don't pocket the stones, or else you can't move.


I do not say, O my body, you are a stone, but I do say I am home.


Take this stone: may it be to you a guide and a poem.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Poem: "The Cough"

The Cough

“the unfriendly ghost trapped in the friendly form”
—Erica Jong, “The Deaths of the Goddesses”

I don’t hear him until he coughs
from my throat, and then I know
he is here again.

Taking my hands, he pulls apart
the hours between rose and dark
and scatter them.

Getting in front, pushing me aside,
he rides my love who cannot tell
the difference.

He marches me to the cemetery
and through the tall iron gates
looks for a bird.

Unfriendly ghost, unfriendly life,
you beat time to my heart but you
are not the heart.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Poem: "Sons and Daughters"

Sons and Daughters

The women in our family do not die, my sister.
They live in their sons they favor over their daughters.
They live in their daughters as the unfavored.

The mother of our mother still sits enthroned
in her rosewood heart. She grieves for her first son
cut down by death. No son should go before his mother.

Her second son was bewitched by a fox spirit
into marriage. Her third was wrapped up with a snake.
Her fourth, the precious, migrated to Australia.

She was loud in her disappointments and loves,
louder still when ordering our mother and aunt around,
the ash from her cigarette graying the couch cushions.

She could not be pleased by women. They are not men.
They are faulty at birth, and grow faultier with the years.
The women in our family do not die, my sister.

You know this history of unfairness by heart.
Could this be why your body gave birth to girls,
to reserve all a mother's favor for the faultless?

And could this be why my body favors a man's,
with all our family's favors and faults mixed in,
so that I will not have to love daughters and sons?

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Poem: "Mr. Incognito and Critical Opinion"

Mr. Incognito and Critical Opinion

"Inside me, an Eastern European poet
Is trying to get out."
-Joan Hewitt, "Block"

The life of Mr. Incognito changed
after he published his second book of poems.
He was praised by true critics
for his brutal lyricism,
and condemned by fools for being old hat.
In any case he started to care
for what others thought, and that was dangerous,
living under Dictator Fear in the Regime of Sloth.

He drew the curtains,
stuffed paper under the door of his tenuous apartment
and tried writing in the dark.

It worked for a week.
Then the phone told him his book
did not win the prize he despised.

What was Mr. Incognito to do?

He took his hat off the hook,
slammed the door behind him and walked
down to the waterfront. There
hefty men he did not know were unloading
crates of oranges
that they had loaded on the boat in the morning.
This crazy country! Doing and undoing
what was done.
                         It was getting cold
but he shrugged and waited for a free orange
to roll his way.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Proud Owner of an IPad

First post to my blog made from my new iPad. An early Christmas present from my sis and brother-in-law when we were in the Bethesda Apple store. As I told them, I will have to reconfigure my life now. Instead of toggling between Google calendar and a black schedule book, I can now put all events on my iPad calendar, and bring it with me wherever I go. On the train, I can read Yeats or the New York Times or Winnie the Pooh without bringing any of them. I can also make notes for poems without searching for scraps of paper or bits of lead. After resisting the lure of iTunes, I have succumbed and bought Yo-Yo Ma's performance of Suite for Solo Cello, No. 1 by Bach. Finally I have computing power and the Internet on the go. Will this turn me into a techie? No chance of that, but it has dispersed some of my technophobia.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Reading at Sarah Lawrence College

Read last night at Sarah Lawrence College, with Ron Egatz, Jean Hartig and Rachel Eliza Griffiths. Rachel and I workshopped with Stephen Dobyns during our MFA. She is returning to Sarah Lawrence next fall, but this time as faculty. A number of students, undergrads and grads, came, and a few faculty, including Kevin Pilkington and Patrick Rosal.

A few people told me afterwards that they liked my reading. I hope they liked the poems as much, if not more. It's hard to tell since no one bought a book. I returned to the city poorer by the cost of my train fare. Chris Hanson-Nelson, who organized the reading, spent more time, effort and money than I did. It was generous of him. I don't think the college should presume on the generosity of its alums. It might not have the money to pay us for reading, but it could at least reimburse our travel expenses in some imaginative way.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Emptiness, Variety and Power

TLS October 1 2010

from Katherine Wharton's review of Buddhist Warfare, edited by Michael K. Jerryson and Mark Juergensmeyer:

Violent purges and insurgencies have occurred in all eras, with or without religious incitement. Yet there is something uniquely chilling about religious texts that justify or even aim to cultivate murder. For instance, the seventeenth-century Zen Master Takuan writes as follows:

The uplifted sword has no will of its own, it is all of emptiness. It is like a flash of lightning. The man who is about to be struck down is also of emptiness, and so is the one who wields the sword. None of them are possessed of a mind that has any substantiality. As each of them is of emptiness and has no "mind", the striking man is not a man, the sword in his hands is not a sword and the "I" who is about to be struck down is like the splitting of the spring breeze in a flash of lightning.

This is an application of the central Buddhist teaching of no-self that sees no evil in killing. Brian Daizen Victoria's excellent essay outlines the direct connection between Takuan's writings and the philosophy of Soldier-Zen promoted as part of military training during the Asia-Pacific War. Should Zen itself be held responsible for the genocide of 20 million Chinese during this campaign? Brian Victoria does not just blame Takuan: he also directly implicates D. T. Suzuki (1870-1966), the most influential proponent of Zen to the West in the twentieth century. Brian Victoria asserts that Suzuki gave his unqualified support to the "unity of Zen and the sword".

***
TLS October 8 2010

from Peter Thonemann's review of three books on Cleopatra:

So long as Cleopatra remains a means of thinking about race, gender and power, new Cleopatras, black or white, powerful or impotent, cynical or besotted, will continue to emerge. This should be no cause for distress. . . . Indeed, few figures from the ancient world better illustrate what Walter Benjamin beautifully described as the "secret heliotropism" by which "the past strives to turn towards that sun which is rising in the sky of history".

***

from Jennie Erin Smith's review of the show "Fern Hunting Among These Picturesque Mountains" at Olana:

[Frederic Edwin] Church was thirty-nine when his party departed for Jamaica, at the peak of his celebrity. A decade earlier, he had ventured to what is now Colombia and Ecuador, trading the lingering influence of Thomas Cole, his Hudson River School mentor, for Alexander von Humboldt's entreaty, in Kosmos, that landscape painters "shall be enabled far in the interior of continents, in the humid mountain valleys of the tropical world, to seize, with the genuine freshness of a pure and youthful spirit, on the true image of the varied forms of nature". The massive size and rich detail of the canvas that resulted, "The Heart of the Andes", caused a sensation at its unveiling in 1859.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Arabic Ghazals and German Reqiuem

My divan of 49 ghazals "A Lover's Recourse" appears in At Length. Edited by Jonathan Farmer, the online magazine specializes in publishing long poems. "A Lover's Recourse" is long enough to swim in. And, I hope, deep enough to sink into.

*

Yesterday TB and I heard Brahm's Ein deutsches Requiem (1865-68) performed by the Dresden Staatskapelle, conducted by Daniel Harding, and sung by Christiane Karg (soprano), Matthias Goerne (baritone) and the Westminster Symphonic Choir. Instead of using the Requiem Mass of Catholic liturgy, Brahms set to music text from Scripture: "Blessed are they that mourn," "Thus all flesh is like grass," "Lord, make me to know," "How lovely are Thy tabernacles," "Ye now therefore have sorrow,' "For here have we no continuing city," and "Blessed are the dead."

Movement Two, originally conceived as part of his early Piano Concerto, and then rescored as an elegy for Robert Schumann, was particularly affecting. As was Movement Six. The timpanist played almost like a soloist in Movement Two. Paul Schiavo, in the program note, compares the structure of the work to a Gothic arch, the fourth movement acting as the keystone. On the basis of this work, Brahms was elevated into the front ranks of European composers.

The concert was part of the new White Light Festival organized by Lincoln Center. According to the program write-up, the festival underscores "the diverse philosophical approaches to discovering, defining, and expressing spirituality." I will be listening to Bach and Arvo Pärt as well as the Manganiyars from Rajasthan.