Thursday, December 22, 2011

Discovering Raymond Queneau

PN Review 202 is filled with interesting translations, of Jean-Paul de Dadelsen by Marilyn Hacker, Hester Knibbe by Jacquelyn Pope, Pier Paolo Pasolini by N.S. Thompson. I like most the poetry of Raymond Queneau, translated by Rachel Galvin. The fourteen short lyrics from his book Hitting the Streets describe his walks about Paris with a keen eye and a sharp ear, and an imagination that is lively and sympathetic. "The Concierges" observes an "old verdigrisy grey-beard/ sobbing in his doorway." "Rue Paul Verlaine," with its amulet of a street name, begins with a vision of a street that the street hardly understands:

Sometimes I have a strange, penetrating vision
Of a street made of off-white and maternal tin
on either side the walkway beats like a wing
while the road bears all the weight of its being

The ghosts of Baudelaire and Rimbaud, besides that of Verlaine, haunt these poems as well as these streets. "Rue Paul Verlaine" is written in the sonnet form. "Elsewhere" is in flowing free verse that imitates casual wandering, and discovers in the middle of the stroll, in the middle of the poem, an unexpected view of a sea port, before going on its way.

The sense of loss, however, is not far away from the sense of discovery or rediscovery. In "The Flies," the speaker almost whimsically bemoans that "The flies of today/ are no longer the flies of yore." In his childhood, the flies of yore killed themselves joyfully, by gluing themselves to flypaper, by shutting themselves in bottles, "by the hundreds, maybe the thousands." In contrast, the flies of today "watch their step."

These are transitory, delicate, sympathetic poems. I was surprised to learn from Galvin's introductory note that Queneau founded Oulipo in 1960.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

"Enlightenment" Music

This was a while ago: GH and I heard the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center on December 11 Sunday, at Alice Tully. The program was Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach's Romantic Sinfonia in C major for Strings and Continuo (1773); Heinrich von Biber's Mystery Sonata No. 10 in G minor for Violin and Continuo, "The Crucifixion" (c. 1674); Georg Philipp Telemann's unusual Concerto in D major for Four Violins (c.1720) and his Suite in G major for Strings and Continuo, "Don Quixote" (c. 1726-30), very picturesque; Antonio Vivaldi's Concerto in G major for Cello, Strings, and Continuo (after 1720) and Johann Sebastian Bach's Concerto in E major for Violin, Strings, and Continuo (before 1730), played the least satisfying of all the pieces in the program.

I particularly enjoyed the playing of Amy Lee, who seemed to secure a rich tone from her violin consistently. Ida Kavafian, who played in most of the pieces, took a mercurial delight in fiendish technique. The young Danish cellist Andreas Brantelid was spotlighted in the Vivaldi concerto, and came off very well. His playing had a refreshing matter-of-factness about it. He carried his boyish good looks with similar nonchalance.

If Baroque, a term borrowed from art history, means bizarre, mannered or excessive, the concert program opined, then it is a term better applied to the period of Monteverdi (c. 1600s) extending as late as Biber (1670s). "The era of Bach, Vivaldi and Telemann," it suggested, "might better be called Enlightenment...." Alas, the popular term "Baroque" has stuck for this period, and so will continue to confuse new listeners.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Nancy Milford's Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay

Savage Beauty does not dispel the impression that Edna St. Vincent Millay was a major life but a minor poet. This well-written biography quotes many poems in full, including "Renascence," which early won Millay warm admiration from poets and editors, and financial support for an education at Vassar. The biography occasionally grades the poems it quotes, saying of one "extraordinarily lovely" and of another "masterful." It is, however, more interested in identifying the addressee of the poems, and other details from Millay's life. A discussion of the style of "The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver" begins insightfully but ends too quickly by linking the harp with a woman's head to the lap loom on which Clara Millay, Vincent's mother, wove hair for a living. Interesting identification, but it is surely not the last word on the poem.

Matters are not helped when emphasis is placed on the astonishing attraction of Millay's low reading voice. In returning to this over and over, Nancy Milford is but tracing the strong reactions of Millay's listeners. But this obsession with her voice has the unfortunate effect of marking Millay as a performer. Not only did she reach thousands through her reading tours, she also read on radio, reaching many other thousands. Her celebrity played a part, surely, in her decision to write propagandistic poetry against Fascism and American isolationism in the run-up to War World II. She was sincere in her political beliefs, but sincerity does not by itself create poetry. In a letter from that period, she talked about the need of a lyric poet to engage the world if she is not to say the same things again and again. Her political engagement, to my mind, is insufficiently self-doubtful. Her longtime friend and a poet Arthur Ficke expressed his reservations about her war effort "The Murder of Lidice" in a way that resonates for me:

I cannot, I will not, believe that this war is an ultimate conflict between right and wrong: and though I do not doubt for a moment that we are less horrible than the philosophy and practice of Hitler, still I think we are very horrible: and I will not, I must not, accept or express the hysterical patriotic war-moods of these awful days.

Millay's poetic sympathies lie with the High and Late Victorians. Her influences, as she describes them, are Tennyson, Browning, Hardy and Housman. She seems to have little to say about Eliot, Pound and Auden, and nothing to say about her female contemporaries like Marianne Moore, Gertrude Stein and H.D.. Milford refers to a satire in verse she wrote against T.S. Eliot that targeted "The Waste Land," but does not describe its contents, let alone delineate its poetics. Late in her career, Millay became the darling of the people and of collectors who lapped up the expensive special editions of her books. She seemed divorced from the poetry debates that raged around her, in Europe as well as her native America, and so the avant-garde, which she appeared to embody in the 1920s in the form of the New Woman, left her behind.

Still, belonging to no party or school, she found the freedom, and spared the time from her work, to recommend poets whom she believed in for the Guggenheim. What she said about the sanctity of a writer's work, apart from whatever politics he or she chooses to profess, is still generous and relevant:

Of the six writers I am recommending this year, three are definitely revolutionists, one is definitely a classicist, one is probably mad and the other is doubtless trying to recover from shell-shock. What are you doing to do about them? ... I have come loudly out into the open, and am running the risk of making an utter fool of myself. I think the Guggenheim Foundation cannot properly be administered on any other terms; we may not foster the conservative at the expense of the experimental; the solid at the expense of the slippery; we must take chances; we must incur danger. Otherwise we shall eventually become an organization which gives prizes for acclaimed accomplishment, not fellowships for obscure talent, tangible promise, probable development, and possible achievement.

Was she thinking of her own history when she wrote the last sentence? She emerged from the abysmal poverty of a small-town Maine childhood, after her mother sent her good-for-nothing father packing and undertook to bring up the three daughters, Vincent, Norma and Katherine, by herself. Clara Buzzell Millay took up the job of a home-nurse and had to be away from her family most of the time. Besides suffering the absence of a beloved mother, Vincent at a young age was responsible for the two younger sisters.  Milford is very good at conveying the power of this family romance for all the women involved, and scrupulous in detecting the darker undertones of abandonment, jealousy and anger.

Also detailed and interesting is her depiction of Millay's unusual marriage with Eugen Jan Boissevain, a Dutch American importer. He believed completely in her poetic gift and strove to provide an environment for its flourishing. Unwilling to play the part of the possessive husband, he gave Vincent the freedom to pursue her romantic obsessions, in particular, her love affair with the younger George Dillon, the future editor of Poetry magazine. It is true, however, that the balance of power in the marriage shifted when Millay's writing began to bring home the bacon. Boissevain became the manager of the household at Steepletop, the estate they bought, releasing his wife to focus entirely on writing. I am reminded here to Leonard Woolf, who spared Virginia of the many distractions against writing too. Leonard, however, had Hogarth Press. Eugen had nothing, but the protection of Vincent, whom he guarded with perhaps overbearing vigilance. Like many partnered writers, Millay could dedicate herself to writing because she could bank on others' dedication to her.

Monday, December 19, 2011

"The Tillman Story"

I found this documentary film while flicking through Netflix. The film is directed by Amir Bar-Lev and narrated by Josh Brolin. The story, when it broke in 2007, passed me by completely. One more bullet into the corpse of belief in the integrity of governments. Pat Tillman, an American football player, enlisted in the army after the September 11 attacks. When he was killed in Afghanistan, the military lied to his family that he died from a firefight with the Taliban. Apparently they did not want to make an unpopular war even more unpopular by reporting the death by friendly fire of an All-American athletic icon.

The family, in particular, the mother Mary 'Dannie' Tillman, pursued the truth of what had happened, and found the cover-up extending all the way up into the Bush White House. It was infuriating to watch in the film Donald Rumsfeld and military top brass claim forgetfulness regarding a confidential memo sent to them about the friendly fire. Led by Democrats, the Congressional Oversight Committee questioning them did not do its job. In his turn President Obama promoted the General who covered up the truth.

After watching the film, GH raged against the family for being stupid enough to enlist, and then to complain when the military deceived them. They should have known better than to support the war and believe their government. I was surprised that he was more upset by the family than by the government. When I told him so, he said that he assumes the government will fuck you over.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Poem: "Do You Think I'd Let You Go?

Do You Think I’d Let You Go?

In the winter he had the reddest cheeks
of the Lincoln College crowd who included me and you.
He was not popular like Darren, looked puny beside Anthony,
but in the winter he had the reddest cheeks.
He walked out on you and the kids, you wrote, in the New Year.
The older boy is difficult, the younger came down with swine flu
in the winter. He had the reddest cheeks
of the Lincoln College crowd who included me and you.

for Sara

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Poem: "I Do, I Do"

I Do, I Do

In me (the worm) clearly
is no righteousness, but this—


            H.D., “The Walls Do Not Fall”

I’m eating my way through the books
of dead women poets—

Aemilia Lanyer’s garden
where Eve is blameless

the robin-eye
in Elizabeth Bishop

Phillis Wheatley’s bird-

the swart swan
song by Marianne Moore

Anna Wickham’s strangled cry
the tunes of Li Qingzhao

Annie Finch, not the American anthologist,
the Countess of Winchilsea

the living
are eaten too

Elisabeth Bletsoe’s Sherborne Woodcock,
Pied Wagtail, Starling

Molly Peacock
Rita Dove

And one born in Ghana
whose name is

a birdcall
Ata Ama Aidoo

Monday, December 12, 2011

Poem: "Gingko Leaves"

Gingko Leaves

I go to the things I love
with no thought of duty or pity

            H.D., “The Flowering of the Rod”

When I put down my book and step out of the dream
into the poky kitchen, the counter stained with sauce,
to chop celery, bell peppers, mushrooms into cubes
and stir them into sliced chicken for Monday’s dinner,
I am not going to love, my love, I am going to duty.

When you rage against the computer for being slow
or not doing today what it did so quietly yesterday
or eating up your files or not saying what is wrong,
and I come to you to put my hands on your shoulders,
I am not going to love, my love, I am going to pity.

I go to a river, its waters secretly continuous, out of love,
to wet gingko leaves that renders the earth their ground,
to a glass of wine, loud dance music and men in trance.
These things I go to with no thought of duty or pity,
as when you turn in bed and wave me on with a kiss.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Thomas Bradshaw's play "Burning"

In a Slate interview about the New Group production of his play Burnings at Theater Row, directed by Scott Elliott, Thomas Bradshaw explains that his characters are so different from mainstream theater's because they say what is on their mind and they do what they want, without hypocrisy or self-deception. "Where my work departs from traditional drama," he says, "is the fact that my characters pretty much have no self-awareness and are almost acting on pure id. There is never any subtext in my plays." It is a bold artistic aim that is mostly but unevenly achieved in Burnings.

Two partnered white men adopt a 14-year-old white boy for help around the house and for their sexual satisfaction. A successful black painter commits adultery against his white wife by visiting a black prostitute. A white brother-and-sister pair swear to uphold their deceased parents' neo-Nazist beliefs. All of them say what they want, and pretty much do what they want in the next scene. But confusing the stated artistic goal is a half-hearted, unconvincing attempt to humanize a few of the characters, to give them egos and superegos, in addition to their ids. And so the neo-Nazi brother Michael (Drew Hildebrand) is shown to look after his disabled sister Katrin (Reyna de Courcy) with exemplary brotherly care, going so far as to masturbate her when she asks for sexual release while he is bathing her. The scene is extraordinarily tender and moving but, despite its incestuous overtones, is not the work of pure id.

Neither is the relationship between Chris the 14-year-old (Evan Johnson) and his playwriting boyfriend Donald (Adam Trese). Donald gives up the production of his play by taking Chris away from the household of the aging theater gods Jack (Andrew Garman) and Simon (Danny Mastrogiorgio). Chris, who reads Marquis de Sade on following one's natural desires, stays instead with Donald when the latter dies of AIDs.  Also unlike id-ish behavior is the understanding forged between the grown-up Chris (Hunter Foster) and the black adolescent Franklin (a terrific Vladimir Versailles) who bond over the fact that both their mothers died of a drug overdose.

By injecting a shot of psychological realism into some of his characters, but not others, Bradshaw confuses his avowed method and goal, and raises questions about his objectivity. By objectivity, I mean a writer's ability to view every part of his work with equal distance, like in Pinter. Instead of describing formally the workings of id, the play chooses sides in bad faith. All playwrights choose sides, but what makes it vexing in this case is Bradshaw's disingenuous claim to present action without judgment. Any arrangement of action must involve judgment, if only to decide on priority. All texts involve subtexts. In claiming that "there is never any subtext in my plays," Bradshaw is being insufficiently postmodernist.

One such subtext comes at the very end of the 2-hour-45-minute play. After Peter the successful black painter (Stephen Tyrone Williams) had sex with a Sudanese prostitute Gretchen (Barrett Doss), he had an epiphany that he was still deeply in love with his dead cousin Lucy, whom he glimpsed at the age of 9 having sex with her boyfriend. After he was killed by the skinheads, his wife Josephine (Larisa Polonsky) mixes his ashes with Lucy's ashes so that they can be together in death, if not in life. Apart from the fact that it is hard to imagine a betrayed wife doing that (and the forgiveness that Josephine dispenses to everyone automatically does not help matters), it is also striking that no one thinks to ask whether Lucy would want her ashes mixed with Peter's. She may be his one true love, but there is no clear indication in the play that he is hers. The fantasy here is clearly masculinist. The absent dead, as happens often in a literary work, becomes the text's unconscious.

Poem: "Cold Blue Eyes"

Cold Blue Eyes

My Brother, if we are not careful, we would burn out our brawn and brains trying to prove what you describe as “our worth” and we won’t get a flicker of recognition from those cold blue eyes.

                        Ama Ata Aidoo, “A Love Letter”

Trying to prove my worth, I am burning out my brawn and brains.

Burning to prove my brawn, I am trying out my brains and worth.

To prove my brains, I am trying out burning my worth and brawn.

To prove my trying, I am burning out my worth, brawn and brains.

To Brains, prove I am trying my brawn and burning out my worth.

To Brawn and Worth, prove I am trying out my, my, burning brains.

My brains and my brawn trying to prove I am burning to worth?

I am burning, my worth, brains and brawn prove to my trying out.

Trying and burning brains, out to prove my worth, I am my brawn.

Out, burning brawn, trying to prove my worth, I am my brains and.

My trying worth, burning out to prove my brains and brawn, I am.

Trying to prove my worth, my brawn and brains, I am burning out.

Burning out my worth, brawn and brains, I am trying to prove my…

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Poem: "I Understand and I Wish to Continue"

Mark Burnhope suggested I write a poem taking off from the title, after he visited this blog and read the warning page. Thanks, Mark!

I Understand and I Wish to Continue

Before he comes home, tired and faintly greasy
from office disappointments and crowded train,
I flick open my laptop to get off the head of steam
accumulated from an hour of workout at the gym.

The two men, one darkhaired and toned, a regular,
the other faircolored and fresh from his “first time,”
the website-speak for a solo jerkoff shoot, greet
each other’s body with no surprise but with speed

suggesting desire. They know the routine, as do I,
first one, then the other, sucking the other’s dick,
the tongue, through circles that it draws, darting,
the thrilling amble like an elephant’s into the ring.

The shouts mount in well-timed urgency, released
like flying handle bars and caught again on return.
The head falls backwards before the camera locks
on his dick when he can’t help what his body does.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Poem: "Abstract Shapes"

Abstract Shapes

        those abstract shapes of who I was
which she found so much easier to love

            Julia Alvarez, “Folding My Clothes”

The army uniform that I hated
my mother spa every Saturday,
and rested on a bamboo pole
to dry with her flesh-colored bra.

The supporter of my oppressor
is my oppressor too. My mother
is an oppressor who does things
for me, like your mother for you.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Simone de Beauvoir's "The Second Sex"

Finally finished reading Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex last Monday. "One is not born, but rather becomes, woman," so translate Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier that resounding challenge. So many terrific things in de Beauvoir's analysis of how one becomes woman. Nietzsche is transmuted into the existentialist project of self-transcendence. Part One rejects the idea of female destiny, as promoted by biological, psychoanalytical or historical materialist views. Part Two recounts the history of women from the hunters-gatherers to the twentieth century, highlighting the theme of patriarchy and its need for woman to be the Other. Part Three tackles the sexist myths about women, elaborated by Montherlant, D. H. Lawrence, Paul Claudel and Breton, before looking at how Stendhal romances real women. All that in Volume I.

In Volume II Parts One and Two, de Beauvoir describes the lived experience of contemporary Western woman, from her childhood, through sexual initiation and marriage, to old age. The description cites psychiatric studies, literature, gossip and history, and integrates these citations in the heat of imagination. Every man should read at least the three central chapters: "The Married Woman," "The Mother" and "Social Life" to try to grasp the world from women's eyes. de Beauvoir contends that if women can be said to own a Character, that Character is entirely shaped by her historical subordination to men. Part Three examines three justifications that woman has employed to deny her powerlessness. She has been the Narcissist, the Woman in Love and the Mystic. In Part Four, the last part of the volume and book, de Beauvoir reflects on the growing economic independence of women in the twentieth century. She finds that encouraging but insufficient for true independence. The old myths, the old models for womanhood, and the old system have tenacious roots, and will not be removed easily. Contemporary women find themselves trying to be both independent (as defined by herself) and feminine (as defined by men). de Beauvoir's analysis still challenges, I think, women who think that they can be both, and men who think that they can have everything.

Some favorite passages:

Of D. H. Lawrence's belief in monogamous marriage: "There is only a quest for variety if one is interested in the uniqueness of beings: but phallic marriage is founded on generality."

Of Stendhal's love of women: "...while he is walking around Rome, a woman emerges at every turn of the page, by the regrets, desires, sadnesses, and joys women awakened in him, he came to know the nature of his own heart..."

Of the lack of a penis: "It is sure that the absence of a penis will play an important role in the little girl's destiny, even if she does not really envy those who possess one. The great privilege that the boy gets from it is that as he is bestowed with an organ that can be seen and held, he can at least partially alienate himself in it. He projects the mystery of his body and its dangers outside himself, which permits him to keep them at a distance: of course, he feels endangered through his penis, he fears castration, but this fear is easier to dominate than the pervasive overall fear the girl feels concerning her "insides," a fear that will often be perpetuated throughout her whole life as a woman. She has a deep concern about everything happening inside her, from the start, she is far more opaque to herself and more profoundly inhabited by the worrying mystery of life than the male. Because he recognizes himself in an alter ego, the little boy can boldly assume his subjectivity, the very object in which he alienates himself becomes a symbol of autonomy, transcendence, and power: he measures the size of his penis; he compares his urinary stream with that of his friends; later, erection and ejaculation will be sources of satisfaction and challenge. But a little girl cannot incarnate herself in any part of her own body....

Of the need for action: "Violence is the authentic test of every person's attachment to himself, his passions, and his own will; to radically reject it is to reject all objective truth, it is to isolate one's self in an abstract subjectivity; an anger or a revolt that does not exert itself in muscles remains imaginary."

Of the attitude of straights to gays: "The homosexual man inspires hostility from male and female heterosexuals as they both demand that man be a dominating subject; by contrast, both sexes spontaneously view lesbians with indulgence."

Of marriage: "But the principle of marriage is obscene because it transforms an exchange that should be founded on a spontaneous impulse into rights and duties; it gives bodies an instrumental, thus degrading, side by dooming them to grasp themselves in their generality; the husband is often frozen by the idea that he is accomplishing a duty, and the wife is ashamed to feel delivered to someone who exercises a right over her." and "Eroticism is a movement toward the Other, and this is its essential character; but within the couple, spouses become, for each other, the Same; no exchange is possible between them anymore, no giving, no conquest. If they remain lovers, it is often in embarrassment: they fee; the sexual act is no longer an intersubjective experience where each one goes beyond himself, but rather a kind of mutual masturbation."

Of the link between marriage and colonialism: "Marriage incites man to a capricious imperialism: the temptation to dominate is the most universal and the most irresistible there is; to turn over a child to his mother or to turn over a wife to her husband is to cultivate tyranny in the world; it is often not enough for the husband to be supported and admired, to give counsel and guidance; he gives orders, he plays the sovereign; all the resentments accumulated in his childhood, throughout his life, accumulated daily among other men whose existence vexes and wounds him, he unloads at home by unleashing his authority over his wife..."

Of the lack of genius: "How could women even have had genius when all possibility of accomplishing a work of genius--or just a work--was refused them? Old Europe formerly heaped its contempt on barbarian Americans for possessing neither artists nor writers. "Let us live before asking us to justify our existence," Jefferson wrote, in essence. Blacks give the same answers to racists who reproach them for not having produced a Whitman or Melville. Neither can the French proletariat invoke a name like Racine or Mallarme. The free woman is just being born; when she conquers herself, she will perhaps justify Rimbaud's prophecy: "Poets will be. When woman's infinite servitude is broken, when she lives for herself and by herself, man--abominable until now--giving her her freedom, she too will be a poet! Woman will find the unknown! Will her worlds of ideas differ from ours? She will find strange, unfathomable, repugnant, delicious things, we will take them, we will understand them."

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Harmonic Intervals

TLS November 25 2011

from Julian Bell's review of "Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan" show at the National Gallery:

Perhaps variety is what this exhibition, this collection of the outstanding remains of a one-man civilization, is best fitted to offer. If you seek the coherence to all these phenomena you might need to turn to the scientific vision behind them, as Martin Kemp did in his illuminating book Leonardo da Vinci: The marvellous works of nature and man (1981). There you are led to consider the concept of the movements of the mind as a special case of a comprehensive investigation into movement. Whether through cogs and pulleys or through their fleshly equivalents (a parallel sometimes made explicit in the show's anatomical drawings), whether through patterns of plant growth and rock formation or through the workings of water and light, all that appears before our eyes must be governed by movement, a universal process organized around harmonic intervals.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Brother Outsider

I was in Philadelphia, from Wednesday to Saturday, attending my second People of Color Conference. My first experience of the conference took place in Denver, and I wrote about my impressions of that conference on this blog. Learning from that experience, I decided to be very selective about the talks and workshops I would attend, and so had a much more pleasant time than before. It was also fun to be with KH and A.

The highlight of the conference, for me, was the screening of the documentary feature film Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin, directed by Nancy D. Kates and Bennett Singer. A Communist briefly in his youth, a lifelong pacifist, and an openly gay man, Rustin has been erased from traditional accounts of the civil rights movement in the States. He mentored, however, the younger Martin Luther King, Jr. and organized the 1963 March on Washington. After the screening, during the Q&A, a black female teacher from Alabama swore that she would fight to right the records when she returns to her state. A black male teacher, who teaches History, affirmed that his own research had led him to the same conclusion as the film's, that Rustin was a crucial figure in the struggle for civil rights. I was happy to hear the two teachers speak in support of the film and the figure.

The other film screening was also interesting. Why Us? Left Behind and Dying, another documentary feature film, followed a small group of inner-city African American high school students from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who explored why HIV infection rates are disproportionately high in black communities. Guided by documentary-maker Claudia Pryor Malis, the students interviewed research scientists and public health experts from both the USA and Africa, as well as HIV/AIDS activists and people in their own neighborhoods. Many causes were examined, including genetic, gender, social and psychological factors. The film was a frank and thoughtful look at a tough topic.

My interest in the conference turned out to be very much related to LGBT matters. I attended the workshop given by Rye Country Day School on the introduction of a Gay-Straight Alliance student club in the Middle School. The club caters to seventh and eighth graders. The students interviewed for the short video were mostly articulate about why it is important to support friends who may be LGBT. After the workshop, I was persuaded that more diversity work should take place in the Middle School at my school. Those years are crucial for the formation of identity and perceptions of others. The students grow more closed, more cynical, more brittle, when they go into the Upper School.

Before attending the workshop on the African American Iconic Images Collection, I had not realized that Philadelphia was a city of murals. Originating from the Anti-Graffiti Network in the 80s, the non-profit group has since been incorporated into the city government as the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program. Their murals encompass more than African American subjects and more than traditional mural techniques. The program evolves with changes in the city's neighborhoods. It is now looking to curate a collection of Latino images as well. It is also open to new artistic methods, such as the use of LED lights.

I took an afternoon off to visit the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The twenty-five-minute trek from Marriott Downtown was worth it. The Rodin Museum, passed on the way, was unfortunately closed, but there was plenty to see at the PMA. It had a large collection of Impressionist art. I was particularly drawn to the landscapes of Camille Pissaro, which showed a great sensitivity to movement in the picture plane.  In one painting, a road disappeared into a vanishing point while a train sped towards the viewer. The painting of a walled garden was divided by strong horizontals.

I was also very pleased to see Marcel Duchamp's early paintings (like his wonderful The Chess Game) and later readymades, including the bicycle wheel and the fountain. His cubist Nude Descending a Staircase (Number 2) was also on show. The Mexican Modernists had their own gallery here. David Alfaro Siqueiros's War and The Giants were sculptural images. I cannot remember the name of the artist of my favorite image of the afternoon. A man was shown pulling his shirt over his head. The bent muscular torso was rendered enigmatic by the hidden head.

I ended my walkabout in the Museum's reconstruction of an Indian temple. It was a dark and silent space, in which to rest one's feet and recover one's breath. A temple to art now, it was a refuge from the city's unquiet life. I was sitting out, for a while. Bayard Rustin drew inspiration from Gandhi's belief in non-violence, and put his body on the line for causes that he fought for. That was a form of self-transcendence that is beyond me.

The next afternoon, I walked around the historic district in the direction of Penn's Landing at the waterfront. In Washington Square I saw the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which commemorates the war dead in the American Revolution. The entire square used to be a burial ground. The diagonal path took me through Independence Square, and then to the Carpenters' House, where the Continental Congress first met to discuss action against Great Britain. From Penn's Landing, I walked to the Korean War Memorial, put up by George W. Bush, and then to the Vietnam War Memorial. Pine Street, lined with beautiful houses on both sides, led me back to the downtown area. I stumbled upon Giovanni's Room, an LGBT bookstore, with a white-haired man behind the counter, before walking up Queer Street, 12th Street, back to the hotel. I had the illusion of taking quite a chunk of American history in my stride.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Umbrella's Fifth Anniversary Edition

Umbrella, a journal of poetry and related prose, celebrates its fifth anniversary with a special showcase of Carmine Street Metrics poetry. I have a poem in it. Congrats, Kate Bernadette Benedict, on five good years. Thanks, Patricia Carragon, for first publishing the poem "The Children and the Swans" in the Brownstone Poets Anthology. Thanks, Eric, for asking me to read for Carmine Street.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Steve Fellner reviews "Seven Studies for a Self Portrait"

Steve Fellner recommends my book to readers and critics. Hear him, you all!
One of the most ambitious and overlooked book of this year is Jee Leong Koh’s Seven Studies for a Self Portrait.  Even though presumably autobiographical, don’t expect any mushy confessions here.   As good as anything I’ve read this year, Koh’s poems are curiously distant... but in an enticing and exciting way.... [more]

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Returned, Filled

We stayed with D & T near Woodstock from Wednesday to Saturday. For Thanksgiving, T cooked and fed a company of nine people. I met Jan Harrison, a painter and sculptor, and her architect husband Allan. Carol-Ann, a feminist performance artist, came with her new boyfriend, an Australian documentary filmmaker called George, who covered the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and is now covering Occupy Wall Street. Burroughs also made documentaries, but of jazz musicians. GH was the other architect, and I was the representative poet. As for our hosts, D worked with videos and T had worked for MoMA. So much art present at the table, but reality, in the form of George's wars, dominated the talk.

The day after, we drove two hours to the town of North Adams to visit MASS MoCA. The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art is housed in former factory buildings with beautiful hand-cut stone, covered bridges and exposed brick walls. The buildings were put up in the late 1800's, by Arnold Print Works, a textile company. When it moved out in 1942, it was replaced by Sprague Electric, which moved out, in its turn, in 1985. Walking in the factory yard, along the canal that ran between the buildings, I could smell the nose-wrinkling smell of paint, a pungent mixture of old and new. The white on the peeling birches seemed painted on.

I did not care much for the art on display. In the main gallery, the size of a football field, Katharina Grosse's installation of spray-painted gravel, sand and styrofoam, One Floor Up More Highly, looked arbitrary, inert and cheap. The retrospective on Sol LeWitt's wall drawings was mind-numbing in its iterations. I liked the wall drawings very much more at Dia Beacon where they formed a chapel-like space. Here, the walls stood in rows on their own in the middle of the galleries. The geometrical exhibition walls were much less interesting than the exposed brick of the building, interrupted at precise yet human intervals of windows.

The most intriguing work on display was Nari Ward's Sub Mirage Lignum. The last word refers to Lignum Vitae (the wood of life), a tree whose bloom is the national flower of Jamaica, where Ward was born and left as a teenager to live in the USA. The monumental centerpiece of this multi-room installation borrowed its form from a small conical basket-woven fish trap used by Jamaican fishermen. In Ward's Nu Colossus, broken bits of weathered furniture seemed both caught in the trap and woven in as part of the trap. Facing this gigantic basket of memories was a 30-foot long wooden boat held up by three large sheets of glass. The boat seemed to float in the air. It also reminded me of tourist souvenirs, of which ships in a bottle are only one variation. Ward's boat, however, leaned alarmingly on one side, creating a palpable sense of distress. The other parts of the work were less compelling. The sound and sculptural installation called Stall was too easy. Mango Tourists was as quickly exhausted as a double entendre. The two films Sweater and Jaunt were unoriginal.

We were all tired after the drive back home. T had the great idea of watching the film of Andy Goldworthy, the British land art sculptor. He practices, to my mind, an art of recuperation. Subtitled "Working with Time," the film showed the artist doing just that, creating temporary forms that appear and disappear with time. Having seen the spider-web made of twigs and thorns at the Hesse Collection, and the Storm King Wall, I was happy to follow their making in the film. Most astonishing was the urn-shaped structure made from balancing stones. It was built as an offering to the sea, which the sea accepted by washing over it, and when the tide receded, the sea returned the urn offering, only this time filled, not empty.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

An Encounter like a Flash

TLS November 18 2011

from Patrick McCaughey's review of the De Kooning retrospective at the MoMA:

The most telling example of de Kooning's progress through renunciation comes in the breakthrough years of critical acclaim 1948-53. He held his first one-man show in 1948 at the Charles Egan Gallery, a small and relatively obscure venue in New York, where he showed black-and-white paintings of the past two years. Most of them were just above easel scale, but they radiated an intensity of feeling, lightening white movements rent the unsteady black grounds. They rivalled the masterly, contemporaneous drip paintings of Jackson Pollock. Although they are abstract paintings with only the most fleeting reference to identifiable images--a roof, the letters spelling Orestes--they are burdened with an ominous foreboding. De Kooning prowled Manhattan by night and the black-and-white paintings hint at a city illuminated by erratic flashes of light, felt rather than observed. A famous remark made by him years later that "content is a glimpse of something, an encounter like a flash" applies perfectly to these early masterpieces of Abstract Expressionism....


The ferocity and grotesqueness of the Women of 1950-53 brought its own criticism of the artist. The pictures were seen as a misogynistic attack on women--a complaint that has not entirely died out. The Women retained their transgressive nature. The slashing brushstrokes and the physically violent attack on the surface rendered the image of women as raw, primitive and defiant and it shocked the 1950s. "Beauty becomes petulant to me. I like the grotesque. It's more joyous."The shock remains even as they continue the grand line of Cezanne's "Bathers" to Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" and Matisse's "Dance."

Sunday, November 20, 2011

From Passion to Compassion

In last night's Passio-Compassio, the Bach rearrangements by Music Director Vladimir Ivanoff sounded unconvincing to my ears. The string quartet, saxophones, bass clarinet, Arabic nay and qanun, Turkish ney, kanun and kemence, harpsichord, organ and frame drums, playing excerpts from Bach's Passions, sounded like a garage jam session. Bach's music was too strict, too self-contained, to admit foreign influences easily. When the music turned more improvisatory, more open-ended, as in the Syrian Orthodox chants and traditional Turkish songs, the different musical traditions melded into a sparkling stream. The experience taught me the usefulness of open forms in accommodating vastly different worlds: jazz improvisations, Arabic musical ornamentation, mystical refrains.

The Lebanese contralto Fadia el-Hage sang beautifully in the first half of the program. The Syrian chants were intricately embroidered by her warm yet brilliant voice. Particularly memorable was her rendition of Kefnet kmo zavnyn ("My nature took revenge on me"). In the second half Turkish singer Mustafa Dogan Dikmen stole the stage with his expressive performance of what I think was Ya llahi ("Oh Lord") in Ottoman Turkish.

Ali Ufki, the composer of Ya llahi, had a fascinating history. The concert program: "Born in 1610 to a Protestant Polish family (probably in what is now Lviv, Ukraine), this musician and scholar, whose original name was Wojciech Bobowski, had an improbably life. He was taken prisoner at an unknown date by Crimean Tartars and sold to the Ottoman court of Sultan Murad IV on the strength of his musicianship. He later converted to Islam and served as an interpreter of some 16 languages--and as Ali Ufki, he became one of the most prominent composers within the Ottoman empire before his death around 1675."

The Mevlevi dervishes appeared in both parts of the program, in imitation of their four "welcomings" (selamlar): four times, the dervishes greeted each other and the leader (sheik) of the group and started whirling. Their whirling was slow; their union with God was not ecstatic but contemplative. Their tall hats represented the tombstone and their white skirts symbolized the burial shroud for the ego. Casting off their black cloaks represented being reborn into the truth. According to the program, the dervishes are neither dances nor monks. They are real estate agents and merchants in daily life. Some have families. "They meet weekly to practice their ritual. Their concerns are togetherness and good deeds." It was strangely beautiful to gaze on grown men twirling about in long white skirts.

Throughout the performance, verses by Rumi were dimly projected to the back of the stage. I remember best his wish for the Beloved to put his lips on him, so that the mystic could, like a flute, sound out a blast of music.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Timothy Yu's "Race and the Avant-Garde"

In this work of criticism, Tim Yu brings together two groups of poets not usually considered together, the Language poets and the Asian American poets. The first is usually thought of along aesthetics lines whereas the second is usually described as a social category. By thinking of the avant-garde as life praxis, Yu illuminates the common origins of both Language and Asian American poetries in the New Left politics of the 1970s.

Faced with the splintering of the Left into what they saw as identity politics, the Language poets, mostly straight white men, had to confront the ethnicization of their own subject positions. Their Beat precursor Allen Ginsberg in writing his auto poesy provides a clear example of how not to be mix poetry and politics in the 1970s, as Chapter One discusses. Chapter Two examines Ron Silliman's attempt, both in his correspondence with other Language poets and in his book Ketjak, to acknowledge his ethnicized position and still maintain his centrality.

Discussed in Chapter Three, the project to create an Asian American identity was supported by a great deal of poetry writing appearing in new Asian American publications such as Gidra, Aion and Bridge. Poets such as Janice Mirikitani, Lawson Fusao Inada and Naohiko Oka were forging a poetry that would distinguish itself from being Asian and being White American. They borrowed inspiration and poetic strategies from the Black Arts movement, but were also embarrassed by their borrowings.

Chapter Four looks at the two opposite ways of reading Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's book Dictée, published in 1982, and canonized in Asian American studies by the mid-1990s. One way reads Dictée as an experimental poetry of form, a reading that has sometimes emphasized Cha's foreignness. Another way is to read the book as an "ethnic" writing of pure content. Yu argues that Dictée shows both ways of reading to be inadequate: it stages, instead, the clash between these strategies of interpretation.

John Yau is held up in Chapter Five as a poet who is both experimental and Asian American. In de-essentializing the Asian American identity through formal innovations, Yau continues the tradition of experimental Asian American writing started in the 1960s and 70s. The tradition has been obscured by the rise of introspective lyrical poetry written by poets such David Mura and Li-Young Lee in the 1980s. One of the achievements of Yu's book, then, is the restoration of the link between early and contemporary experimental Asian American poetry. Yu writes, "Like those early avant-gardists, Yau takes Asian American identity not as a given but as a product of the poem's own formal strategies--an identity that is thus provisional, shifting from poem to poem and even from line to line."

This description of Yau's project strikes a chord with me. I have said elsewhere that I don't consider myself Asian American, having neither the history nor the papers. After reading Yu's book, however, I now see that my own ontological project bears great similarity to that of Asian American poetry. If not (yet) a signed-up member of the Asian American community, I am certainly an ally. Yu's book is an absorbing read. The analysis of individual poems is deft. The prose is clear and jargon-free.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Carol Chan's Review of "Seven Studies for a Self Portrait"

I take my reviewers seriously. I take them seriously because I really like to know how my poetry impinges on an informed and acute sensibility. I take them seriously because I want to know the faults and limitations of my writing, and so learn how to write better. A negative review is more useful to me than a fulsome, ignorant one. What follows is my attempt to read a review carefully in order to understand its reservations and learn from it. It is also, of course, a piece of self-justification, but I hope it is not merely that.

Carol Chan does not like Seven Studies for a Self Portrait. For her the book "unfolds like a series of scientific experiments that don't quite take off." By "experiments" she means to indict me for being overly intellectual: "He frequently makes the wrong bet, falling in love with the idea of a poem, the idea of art." To support her contention, she quotes in full "Bulb" from the sequence "What We Call Vegetables." After criticizing the poem for its "weak" imagery and "clumsy" execution (though she acknowledges the poem's apt mimetic music), she judges that "The reason 'Bulb' exists is that it accompanies an idea, is part of an experiment...." That is true of the process of writing the sequence. I would not have written "Bulb" if I were not writing "Bud," "Leaf," "Stem," "Tuber," and "Fruit." Her description connotes, however, that the poem is merely an intellectual exercise, i.e. an experiment.

She continues, "But I'm not quite convinced that there is any substance here...." She then defines substance by referring to A.C. Bradley's 1901 lecture "Poetry for Poetry's Sake." She interprets Bradley as saying that "the poetic is that which satisfies the reader's contemplative imagination." The obvious implication is that "Bulb" does not satisfy her contemplative imagination. But why not? She does not explain of this poem. Is it because of the "weak" imagery? But what is weak about the poem's deployment of the onion image? No explanation. Is it because of the "clumsy" execution? But Chan herself commends how the poem's sound patterning "recreates aurally the acts of 'slipping', 'unbuttoning'."

A clue to her dissatisfaction may lie in the next part of her paraphrase of Bradley--"A poem convinces the reader of a particular world or moment it inhabits." A particular world or moment. I gloss that formulation by looking at the poems that do satisfy Chan's contemplative imagination. After praising the title sequence "Seven Studies for a Self Portrait" for its precision in words and imagery, Chan highlights the first three lines of "Study #3, After Vincent van Gogh":

God sank a mineshaft into me for a reason
I could not see in the coalmining district.
Coal dust ate the baby potatoes and beer.

She comments, "Not a word is out of place--the gravity and bleakness of much of van Gogh's work immediately translates onto the page with the apt word ("sank") and vague, ubiquitous detail ("coal dust")." Gravity and bleakness do characterize the "particular world" that the poem depicts. It is a "world" recognizably human, what with its mineshafts, coal dust, baby potatoes, beer and God.

Not so much a "world," but a particular "moment" is another extract that Chan quotes with approval, this one from "The Cave" in the sequence "Bull Eclogues" about a speaker very much like Ted Haggard, the ex-Evangelical pastor exposed for paying for gay sex.

At home it makes a smaller sound, the grief.
The click of a light switch. No mercy
in the darkness or the light the house repeats, 
but hiding for a time, however brief,
in me, as in my den, I hear the plea
of an unfired bullet in the drawer firing.

Chan reads this sensitively. She comments, "Koh's specific shade of grief is "the click of a light switch", startling, acute, blinding, immediately omnipresent," and then states flatly, "this is poetry--an experience composed of but cannot be reduced to that puree of sound, image, rhythm, substance." To my ears, "this is poetry" sounds dogmatic and absolute although it intends to praise. Sure, the lines are one form of poetry, but poetry comes in many forms. Contra Bradley, it is not limited to depicting a realistic world or a psychological moment. It may not be grounded in a recognizable lyric subjectivity. In fact, Seven Studies, as its name suggests (and not Seven Portraits, the shorthand that the review uses for the book), explores the different ways of looking at the self. The sequence "What We Call Vegetables" looks at the self as the communal "we," as still-life paintings that come to life, as a form of conceit linking human and vegetables. Here is "Onion," which Chan holds up as Exhibit A of my "inclination towards the cerebral, literary":

When we unbutton
our skin, our whole
body slips through, 
and leaves behind
more fleshy skin
for unbuttoning, 
and skinnier body
for slipping through
the shrinking hole. 
The rounded life.
An onion. A mouth.

The poem does not depict a world or a moment. That is not what it sets out to do. It enacts, instead, an idea of a form of life. Call the life self-devouring. Chan is right to call attention to the poem's ideation, but why can't such thoroughly enacted ideation provide something for a reader's "contemplative imagination"? The speaker is not van Gogh nor Ted Haggard, a lyric subjectivity; it is, instead, an onion, a mouth. The poem does not resemble Pope's "An Essay on Criticism" or protest poetry, but neither poetries would have fallen into the ambit of Bradley's definition either. When I wrote the sequence, I underestimated its challenge to a predominant, if fusty, view of poetry. Now I think that this sequence, and others to which Chan objects, gives the book whatever traction it has in questioning our sense of self.

Chan also feels the disjuncture between subject and form in the sequences "I Am My Names" and "A Lover's Recourse." "I think," she writes, "I could imagine the rationale behind his choice of the ghazal in his meditations of unrequited/lost love, and the riddle to explore responsibilities and definitions of the self--but I only understand these decisions intellectually." It is a pity that she does not expand on what she thinks is the rationale behind the choice of the forms. It is a curious feature of the review that it does not engage with any of the work's stated intellectual influences, not with the Nietzsche epigraph nor with the Roland Barthes of the ghazal sequence. Instead, Chan quotes Bradley and American critic Stephen Burt for an essentializing view of poetry--"this is poetry"--in order to find my book wanting.

When Chan comments on the riddle form, her critique puzzles me. "Visually, and read aloud, the riddle only almost works--the declarative answer at the end of each poem ... hints at pretension in the poet's claim to universality...." I don't understand how the answer to a riddle claims universality. An answer to a riddle is ... an answer to a riddle, somewhat gleeful if the answerer gets it wrong, somewhat deflated if the answerer gets it right. To give an answer like "My name is Anon. I am a father" seems more personal than universal. Personal too, the evasion of the poet's own name throughout the sequence.

Of the final ghazal sequence of the book, Chan writes, "Here, as in elsewhere, one gets the sense that Koh is writing for the sake of writing, because he has to fill up the pages...." As is typical of Chan's critical method throughout the review, she cites examples from the poetry without explaining why the quotations are "throwaway lines," "cliches," or "awkward imagery." Why is "Time is a river. That is if you are a fish./ If you are a sunflower, time is a fire" a throwaway line? Why are caves, windows, train stations necessarily cliches? She gives "door as apple's skin" as an instance of awkward imagery, but she gets the comparison wrong. I wrote "The apple wears its skin so well--I mean, so tight--/ I cannot find the catch to open the door."

And yet she can read the ghazal form sensitively. Of the bell ghazal, she writes, "In each couplet, the bell is variously a metaphor for the poet's ego, conscience, sexual desire, poetic voice and critic. The bell is presented via a different voice--a command, a musing, an irritation, an action, an effect. These voices and situations work with the central image to develop the complex tensions in desire, thought and action, rendering the abstract "bell" in the final couplet all the more meaningful and powerful in the light of the lines before...."

So alert to tones, Chan puzzles me when she fails to consider that apparently throwaway lines are intended to sound casual or flat. "I see I am the last man drinking in the bar" works only because of its starkness. Or that what Chan cites as "clumsy lines" have good reason to be awkward. In a road accident, the result is not always smooth-flowing but is often grotesque, as Frida Kahlo discovers: "a bus handrail is sticking in my uterus like a huge thumbtack." The sound must seem an echo to the sense, as Pope says. The sound of a line cannot be judged apart from its sense.

Chan has in mind a particular sound, just as she has in mind a particular conception of poetry. We all do, but it's worth asking ourselves whether our conception limits what we read and write or opens us to different senses and sounds. At one point in the review, Chan accuses me of intellectual "hubris." It is a severe charge, of impiety to the poetry gods. What then should I make of her conclusion on my book that "In his risk and search for the 'bigger picture' (meta-narrative and intellectual coherence of the collection), it seems that Koh has not quite come to terms with the value of poetry ... --what poetry is for, why we write." I am a proud man, but I don't assume that I know what poetry is for, and certainly don't think that everyone should agree on the same reason for writing. The presumption in "we" quite takes my breath away.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Contra Eliot

After hearing Stephen Dillane read "The Four Quartets" at the Clark Studio Theater last Friday, my longstanding love affair with the poem may be over. The still small voice of the poem that I had always heard in my head was suddenly and merely expressive in the mouth of the actor, expressive of a conservative religion, a contempt for other people and an authoritarian disposition that I knew were there, but had ignored as in the flush of love. I still admire the questing spirit in the poem--"Old men should be explorers"--and still respect the scrupulous scrutiny with which Eliot examines his life. Like Wagner's return to Christian symbolism in Parsifal, which caused Nietzsche to break with him, Eliot enters in "The Four Quartets" a dead end that no one else can follow, except his co-religionists.

The contrast with Beethoven's late String Quartet in A minor, which supposedly inspired Eliot, could not have been vaster. Played feelingly by the Miro Quartet, the music was achingly human. Even in its most divine aspect, the slow middle movement of the five, the divine is the expansion and elevation of the human spirit, and not a denial of it. The music makes me proud to be human, to belong to the same species as the man who composed it. The music is, ultimately, life-affirming.

Yesterday afternoon, GH and I listened to the Vienna Symphony Orchestra play at Avery Fisher, under the baton of Fabio Luisi. The program was completely Romantic: Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto in C minor and Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 in A Major. Lise de la Salle, the twenty-three-year-old wunderkind from France, was mesmerizing at the keyboard. I did not think she reached the depths in the first movement of the concerto, but she was delicate in the second movement, and dazzling in the third. She disappeared under the orchestral sound at some point in the first movement, but was strong and commanding otherwise. I was surprised by how slow the work was played.

The same slow pace governed the Beethoven symphony, and destroyed it for me. Masterful precision in tempo and volume civilized the carnivalesque spirit of the work. The painful inarticulacy of the second movement sounded to my fanciful ears like operatic declamations. I would like to hear the Vienna Symphony Orchestra under a different baton, for the strings sounded wonderful, blended and warm. This performance of Beethoven, however, was Bacchus in coat-tails.

Sunday, November 13, 2011



until a name/ and all its connotation are the same.

Elizabeth Bishop, “Conversation”

When he asks me for my name, I give him Jee.

No, your real name, he insists. Don’t patronize me because I am American.

I tell him my name is Jee Leong, but in America I go by Jee.

Jee Leong, he elongates, now that is a beautiful name.

He is right I didn’t think he could remember Jee Leong

but he is wrong to think I made Jee up for him.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Mascara Call for Asian American Poetry

Mascara Literary Review will publish a special issue of Asian American poetry in July 2012. I am guest-editing it. The issue aims to present the vitality of poetry written by Asian American poets now. Essays and reviews are also welcomed, but please query me first with a writing proposal.

A bi-annual literary journal founded in 2007, Mascara is particularly interested in the work of contemporary Asian, Australian and Indigenous writers. The journal is supported by the Australian Council for the Arts and the National Library of Australia. It now receives 5000-7000 visits per month from 70 countries.

Submissions to Mascara Literary Review are by e-mail. Only previously unpublished work will be considered. Simultaneous submissions are acceptable as long as you notify the journal immediately of an acceptance elsewhere.
Send 3-5 poems and a short bio in a single Microsoft Word doc as an attachment, labeled with your name. Write “Asian American poetry” in the subject title of your e-mail. The response time is 3-6 months. Please do not query before 3 months. Send your work to submissions[at]mascarareview[dot]com. The deadline for submissions is March 31, 2012.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Poem: "Tearjerker"


My mum would insist on watching
the latest release with Dad and me, some action flick
like Iron Man or The Fast and the Furious.
Clanks and clashes notwithstanding, she would fall slack, snoring.

The plot, said Dad, is too complicated for your mum.

But she could tell you everything you want to know
about some 100-episode Cantonese tearjerker,
who is sleeping with whom and not his wife,
why he sells out his partner, how she takes her revenge,

what is the relationship between real life and TV.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Poem: "Tracing Death"

Tracing Death

We trace the pow’r of Death from tomb to tomb

                        Phillis Wheatley, “To a Lady on the Death of Three Relations”

The life that sailed from sight, the life to come,
the life that scribbles softly in between—
we trace the pow’r of Death from tomb to tomb.

A woman fell backwards, stunned in her womb.
Extracted from her dry eyes by the men
the life that sailed from sight, the life to come.

Elsewhere a bride is waiting for her groom,
around her mouth sweat gathers to a sheen.
We trace the pow’r of Death from tomb to tomb.

Studying Virgil in the children’s room,
the slave hears from the Carthaginian queen
the life that sailed from sight, the life to come.

The writing starts, and stops, and then resumes.
In graceful elegies out of her pen,
we trace the pow’r of Death from tomb to tomb.

Pray for us, Lady of our certain doom,
that we may bring home safe by line nineteen
the life that sailed from sight, the life to come.
We trace the pow’r of Death from tomb to tomb.

Monday, November 07, 2011

"Eve's Fault" has been published in tongues of the ocean, a journal of Bahamian, Caribbean and related poetry, edited by Nicolette Bethel.

I wrote the poem during one of PFFA's 7/7s, and then workshopped it on the poetry board. Nico liked it so much that I had to give it to her.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Katori Hall's "The Mountaintop"

As a friend commented, Angela Bassett tore up the play at Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre last night. She was phenomenal, the heat and the heart of the action. She played the hotel maid who turned out to be an angel who had come to tell Martin Luther King Jr. (Samuel Jackson) that it was time for him to die. I was somewhat dismayed at first by the revelation that she was angelic because she was so full-blooded and interesting an earthly being, but the turn of events led to some well-judged comedy, in particular, a funny phone conversation that King had with Grandmother God, which ultimately underlined the pathos of a man coming to terms with his untimely end.

The 90-minute play, directed by Kenny Leon, humanized the monument that is the civil rights leader. It opened with King shouting to his friend to buy him Pall Mall. The smoke, which generated high sexual tension between a flirtatious King and Bassett's comely Camae, was also a sign of their shared humanity. King entered his motel room, coughing badly, and when he relieved himself in the bathroom we heard the icon passing water. His shoes were a particularly potent symbol. In their stink, they reminded the audience obliquely of the civil rights marches--the blacks' sacrifice and the whites' violence. Later, Camae put on King's coat to tell him what she would say if she were him, but she refused to wear his stinking shoes. In that refusal, Hall the playwright was also subtly pointing out that no one else could have walked in the man's shoes.

Instead of trying to be King, his successors should "carry on the baton" dropped by his death. That quotation became a rousing refrain when Camae the angel showed King the future before he died. Accompanied by original music by Branford Marsalis, the motel room gave way to a slide projection that highlighted the major events, as seen from an African American perspective, from King's assassination to Obama's inauguration. The last speech made by Samuel Jackson as King was very moving. He was no longer a reverberating voice, as heard at the start, but a man pleading quietly with other men and women.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Helaine L. Smith's "Homer and the Homeric Hymns"

My dear friend and colleague Helaine has just published a wonderful textbook for teaching Homer or studying him on one's own. Homer and the Homeric Hymns provides substantial selections, freshly translated, from The Iliad, The Odyssey and eight Homeric Hymns. These passages, focusing in turns on the different gods, are accompanied by thoughtful commentary on Homer's art, with detailed footnotes on background, literary terms and vocabulary. Each chapter ends with questions for discussion, and suggestions for analytic and creative writing exercises. There are even sample essays to aid training in composition. Indices of mythological and literary terms enable easy cross-referencing.

Helaine is a master teacher. She has taught English for over thirty-five years, and this book is really a treasury of those years of experience. As a colleague, she is always generous in sharing ideas and resources. When I taught sixth-grade English for the first time, her guidance meant the world to me. In the mythology unit, I used with great success the passages and exercises from what would become her book. Particularly affecting and memorable to the students was our discussion of Hephaistos. When Zeus and Hera quarrel at a feast in The Iliad, Hephaistos not only tries to persuade, with proper deference, his mother to reconcile with Zeus, but he also moves around to serve the other gods wine, knowing that his limp will draw their laughter and so defuse the tense atmosphere. Helaine's discussion of the incident alerts the reader (or teacher) to Homer's psychological subtlety as well as his imaginative power.

If the material in the book is not beyond a class of bright sixth-graders, it is certainly suitable for high school and college composition classes. The advantage of using this book is that the student becomes familiar with some of the foundational stories of Western literature and culture, besides developing reading and writing skills. Homer and the Homeric Hymns does not assume any prior knowledge of the epic poet. The introduction places Homer usefully in his historical context. This book encourages, instead, an informed appreciation of Homer's vitality to the Western imagination.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

"3 Idiots" Feels Good

Recommended by friends, 3 Idiots is an extremely well done, extremely entertaining comic caper, with a big heart and boundless energy. After watching it last night, I wanted to watch it all over again, all 170 minutes of it. It had such life in it.

Netflix plot summary: "While attending one of India's premier colleges, miserable engineering students and best friends Rancho (Aamir Khan), Farhan (Madhavan) and Raju (Sharman Joshi) struggle to beat their school's draconian system, which, in their eyes, unfairly values grades over creativity. Loosely based on Chetan Bhagat's best-selling novel Five Point Someone, this entertaining Bollywood comedy also stars Kareena Kapoor (Rancho's love interest) and Boman Irani (the tyrannical dean of the Imperial College of Engineering)."

The film narrative takes the form of a search for Rancho by his two former friends, the college scenes played as flashbacks, and so ends with finding Rancho, and the fulfillment of his free-thinking and optimistic philosophy of "Aal Izz Well." The plot is unrealistic and inconsistent at many points but only a pedant would dwell on these points and miss the magical conception of the whole. Tropes established at the beginning recur with gaiety in different guises throughout the movie.

The most eye-catching of them is the pulling down of one's pants. It is first introduced when Farhan forgets to pull on his pants in his hurry to join Raju in his search for Rancho. It returns in the hazing of the college freshmen, to which Rancho refuses to submit. When a senior tries to punish him by pissing outside his dorm room, he is electrocuted by Rancho's impromptu engineering. The scene reminds me of Rushdie's Midnight's Children, when Saleem as the Budhha is electrocuted in the same manner. The pants motif concludes triumphantly when the three friends display their victory over their conformist ex-classmate by showing him their butts.

The movie is held together miraculously by Rancho, the engaging college-man and presiding spirit of play. Aamir Khan is a revelation to me. He was 44 when he made this film but he is thoroughly convincing as a student engineer in his mannerisms, gait and boyish smile. The portrayal is even more striking when he appears so different in his previous movie, Ghajini, where he plays a bulked-up revengeful recluse. I have just put a number of his movies on my Netflix queue.

The cinematography of 3 Idiots, by C.K. Muraleedharan, is highly intelligent, as is the art direction by Rajnish Hedao. The colors are not beautiful in a conventional sense, but they elicit a strong emotional connection to the scenes. When the two friends finally find Rancho in his village school, the ethereal colors are buoyant, expansive, paradisal and fantastical. The happy ending in which spiritual freedom and worldly success come together may be a piece of daydreaming, but, boy, does Rajkumar Hirani the director make it feel good.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

de Kooning Retrospective at the MoMA

de Kooning's paintings make sense for me when they are seen as a part of the whole, a restless, always-moving whole. They are experimental in spirit, and so they change in method, materials and manner, although the themes of women and landscape recur in the oeuvre. The women appear in early abstracted interiors, then appear in later abstracted landscapes, and they become landscapes in the third Woman series. He is Matisse painting outdoors. His textiles and fabrics are the patchworks of light. He abstracts his figures more radically than Matisse ever did, reducing them to floating fragments and suggestions, but the love of women holds him, as it did Matisse, to figuration. His art is essentially erotic.

The breakthrough black-and-whites, painted in 1945, I find fascinating, even moving. They make beautiful, entangled shapes. Again and again, as if fighting against a strong innate feeling for shapeliness, de Kooning breaks his compositions apart. He does to achieve intensity. He puts pressure on his forms. He is wary of mere graphic prettiness, of commercial art. He wants to be taken seriously. He takes his perceptions with utmost seriousness. This, yes, heroic effort renders the ethereal last paintings utterly poignant. The slick white surface, the ribbons of blue and red, splashes of yellow, are almost too pretty. They come close to hotel lobby art. But they are suffused by a spiritual light. They have the glow of tremendous force applied and then withdrawn. They are an outcome. They show what a late-style can feel like.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

War Requiem

This afternoon, LW and I heard Britten's War Requiem (1961-62) performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Gianandrea Noseda. Slovenian Sabina Cvilak sang soprano, Ian Bostridge tenor and Simon Keenlyside baritone. I was especially taken by Cvilak's singing. The London Symphony Chorus, directed by Joseph Cullen, and the American Boychoir, directed by Fernando Malvar-Ruiz, completed the roster of performers.

The Requiem has six movements: Requiem aeternam, Dies irae, Offertorium, Sanctus, Agnus Dei and Libera Me. In counterpoint to and ironic commentary on the Latin text are poems by Wilfred Owen. The bell-ridden first movement, for instance, is countered by "Anthem for Doomed Youth" ("What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?"). The effect is intended to be jarring, or at least dissonant, but I found myself wishing that Britten had not tried to combine prayer and protest. As a protest, the work came off as hectoring. As a prayer, well, it wasn't one.

"Strange Meeting," the longest poem by Owen in the Requiem, received the most beautiful and poignant musical setting. Bostridge and Keenlyside sang their parts with lyrical sensitivity.

Joy Sonata

Last Wednesday, GH and I heard the London Symphony Orchestra, led by Sir Colin Davis, performed an all-Sibelius program at Carnegie Hall. Nikolaj Znaider soloed in the Violin Concerto in D minor, and he was terrific, warm and delicate in the quiet passages. I have his performance of Elgar's Violin Concerto on my iPad, and listen to it over and over again. For some reason I did not care so much for Symphony No. 2 performed after the intermission.

It was a rather more unconventional program last night at Alice Tully. A part of White Light Festival, "A Homage to J. S. Bach" looked at how Russian composers have been influenced by Bach's musical forms while using a modern tonal idiom. The program was headlined by Gidon Kremer, who played with beautiful intonation a chaconne from one of Bach's partitas. I also enjoyed very much Shostakovich's Piano Trio 2, which Kremer played with cellist Giedre Dirvanauskaite and pianist Andrius Zlabys, both from Lithuania. Kremer, an American, was originally from Riga, Latvia. The three musicians melded their sounds together into a whole while retaining their distinctive parts.

Two other Russian composers were also heard on the program. Both worked unknown during Soviet rule but now are being heard more and more in the West. "Dedication to J.S. Bach for violin and piano (quasi echo)" by Valentyn Sylvestrov was performed with solo violin that night. Sofia Gubaidulina's Chaconne for piano called for fiendish technique, very capably met by Zlabys. Her Sonata for violin and cello (“Rejoice!”) unusually juxtaposed the string instruments' normal tones with harmonics. She explained that this leap from one realm to one higher above is, for her, the definition of joy.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

New Poetries V

Received my copy of New Poetries V yesterday. It's a beauty. It has a nice thick feel to it. The cover image, by Isabel Schmidt, is full of overlapping gentle things in soft colors.

Beyond advocating for his poets, Michael Schmidt's preface says a number of useful things on the principles that should guide an editor or anthologist:

Editors who are not promoting a movement or a group, when they tear open an envelope or click an email attachment, hope to be surprised by the shape on the page, by syntax, by the unexpected sounds a poem makes, sometimes with old, proven instruments used in new ways. They might hope to find evidence of intelligence. And they respect creative disobedience. Where there are schools they look for the truants; where there is a consensus with its levelling decorums, they edit against it. They are not looking for unschooled talent but for poetry as discovery in form and language. And the question of relevant subject-matter need arise only if it does arise. Nothing is prescribed.

Useful things to bear in mind as I consider whether to guest-edit an issue of Mascara.