Sunday, May 15, 2011

Shipping, Poetry and Art at Salem

Accepted to read at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival, wanting to spend a whole day in Salem, I took the overnight Megabus, arriving at South Station, Boston, at 6.00 AM. Then I realized that the first commuter train from North Station to Salem does not leave until 8:30 on weekends. I had The Nibelungenlied with me, and so read How Siegfried Came to Worms, and How Siegfried Fought with the Saxons, and How Siegfried First Set Eyes on Kriemhild. The epic reminds me much more of Arthurian romances than of the Iliad. Love plays as big a part as War.

Arriving at Salem finally, I checked in with the Festival HQ, and then wandered down sleeping streets. I had eggs and hash in a diner run by Mexicans, before finding my way to Hawthorne's Custom House, where he wrote The Scarlet Letter while pacing back and forth from his office to the front door. Under the seaward gaze of the House, I walked out on Derby Wharf, which stuck out into Salem Harbor like a very long finger. Men on The Friendship of Salem, a replica of an eighteenth-century seafaring vessel, were hoisting the sails while standing, feet apart, on the rigging. I walked out to the tip of the wharf, and stood there unsteadily as if I were standing at the prow of a ship. At the height of Salem's glory, its trading ships sailed all the way to Canton in China. But its harbor was too shallow for the big cutters built from 1850s on, and so the city lost its overseas trade to Boston and New York and became the coastal mule for timber and coal.

I walked to the House of Seven Gables, but did not try to enter it, then strolled through the peaceful Salem Commons, and went into the Phillips Library. It was a very handsome building standing in a row of beautifully preserved Federal-styled houses. Facing these stately homes, however, were tacky souvenir shops selling witch-crafts, their names one continuous bad pun. It was sad to see a once-proud City becoming a one-note parody of its history.

I did enter into one of these shops, which offered tarot and palm and other kinds of readings, to buy something for GH. I picked out a black stone for him, his favorite color, which is supposed to bring grounding, balance of energies and favor at Court. Carried in its black bag in the left pocket, it is supposed to bring to its carrier good vibes. There was a reading in the seance room of the store, by first-book poets. They read some pretty good poems, poems that comfort rather than afflict. Most surprising was to hear from an elderly man, Arthur Boyars, who started the magazine Mandrake in 1946 with John Wain, while at Wadham College, my alma mater. He read from a new book of poems that broke a silence of forty years.

After wolfing down a grilled cheese sandwich in a nondescript cafe, I went into the Peabody Essex Museum. The Museum dates back to the East India Marine Society, started by Salem captains and supercargoes, with the charter to collect "natural and artificial curiosities" from beyond the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn. The oldest continuing operating museum in the USA, it holds one of the largest collections of Asian Art, especially in Asian Export Art. After looking at my blue-and-white china bottle, on which I based my PEM poem, I wandered round the galleries.

It was a strange experience to see the hybridities of styles, techniques, motifs and materials, combined by anonymous craftsmen for the international market. Is this porcelain plate Chinese, Arabic or European, when it is made with Chinese methods, from Arabic decoration and for European taste? I found myself resisting the lure of these objects, partly because they were commercial, and so lacked the autonomy of art that is now highly prized, partly because they are anonymous and so are silent about the history of an individual imagination, but also partly because they are transnational, and so confound the discourses around nation, ethnicity and race.

The one object I was truly drawn to was "Island Bride," by Brian White (b. 1960, Maine), an old-fashoned bridal gown made of steel, seashells, composition, marine epoxy, paint, jute and other materials. It was obviously non-functional, identified with an artist, and, from its exotic glamor, deducibly American. In contrast, the export art objects are orphans, belonging to no school, maker or country.

Looking and looking at these orphans now housed in a museum, I grew more and more uncomfortable with the idea of reading a poem about Asian art because I am supposed to be Asian. The equation is limiting in two ways. It defines me as Asian, and it defines me as non-American. I have never thought of myself as Asian before coming to the States, and I am not an American citizen. The other poets reading with me on the panel do identify as Asian Americans, and I wondered how they felt about reading their poems about Asian export art.

Of the five of us, the two Indian American poets Bushra Rehman and Purvi Shah chose to foreground their ethnicity in their poems, and challenge the dominant Western narrative. Joseph Legaspi and Ching-In Chen made their art objects into metaphors for love, dialogue and the body.  I did something similar, presenting lack as a motive for travel at the conclusion of my poem. Yim Tan Wong's poem was quite different from all of ours. Not only was it the strongest PEM piece, it threaded its chosen objects together with silk and wove a tapestry of birth, growth, death and the common hope for an afterlife. We were thinking of art as history, prompted by the museum setting, but Yim Tan was thinking of art as nature.

Our audience was small and scattered about the large Morse Auditorium, in contrast with the large crowd, mostly older white people, who listened to Mark Doty read from his new book Still Life with Oysters and Lemon in the session before ours. What looked like the same Doty crowd packed the special exhibition of Dutch and Flemish realist paintings, emptying the Asian Art galleries. From the museum website:
Nearly seventy paintings from the internationally acclaimed collection of Eijk and Rose-Marie van Otterloo illuminate one of the greatest artistic and cultural chapters in history. The Van Otterloo collection is virtually unrivaled for its masterworks by the leading Dutch and Flemish artists of the 1600s: Rembrandt, Frans Hals, Jacob van Ruisdael, Jan Brueghel the Elder, Aelbert Cuyp and many others. At PEM, over 20 examples of 17th-century Dutch and Flemish furniture and decorative arts, also from the Van Otterloo collection, are shown in the company of these glorious portraits, still lifes, landscapes and interiors.

In the first sentence, "history" stands grandly by itself, like a Dutch planter in Java, unqualified by a sobering adjective like "Western" or "European." The show encouraged viewers to pick up a magnifying glass to look at the marvelous details almost indiscernible to the unaided eye. I passed through the exhibition rapidly. Bourgeois realism, and its mundane transcendence, bores me.

No comments: