Saturday, July 30, 2011

"The New Twenty" (2009)

The debut feature of director Chris Mason Johnson, and the inexperience shows. But as one sympathetic imdb reviewer puts it, the rough-round-the-edges quality paradoxically gives the movie its authenticity and appeal. Seven years after graduation, five college friends living in New York City find their relationships tested by sexual infidelity, drugs and an internet start-up.

What I find interesting is that the movie is not about being gay or Asian, though it has three gay characters and two Asian American characters in it. Sure, the gay couple (played by Bill Sage and Andrew Wei Lin) has to tussle with one of them being HIV positive, and the gay single (Colin Fickes who gives the best acting of the movie) goes on-line to hook up, but there is no angst-filled coming-out or starry-eyed first love or strident political protest, the usual topics in gay movies. Of the two Asian characters, one (played by Nicole Bilderback) is an investment banker who got her job by telling her interviewer that she has Merrill Lynch tattooed on her breasts; the other (Andrew Wei Lin) is some amorphous marketing freelancer. Their ethnicity does not matter to their roles in the movie; they could be black, Latin or Middle Eastern without changing the story.

This avoidance of traditional gay or ethnic subject matter is, of course, deliberate on the part of the director, who also co-wrote the script. The tagline of the movie is "Gay Is the New Straight; Friends are the New Family." The New Twenty is an attempt to depict a "post-gay, post-racial" society, in which sexual orientation and race are non-issues. That this can be done with a smidgen of believability is due to the fact that the characters move in a very tight circle, that of the college-educated, professional/bohemian set living in New York City.

It is thus appropriate that the outsider who breaks up this charmed circle is a homophobic, womanizing venture capitalist (Terry Serpico) who displays in his apartment a man-sized silver banana sculpture. The banana is, among other things, a not-so-subtle allusion to Asians who try to act like Whites, who are yellow on the outside but white on the inside. Nicole's fiance (played by Ryan Locke) is at first repelled by Terry's aggressiveness, but later accepts his financial help in starting up his internet company. In doing so, Ryan's character is implicitly becoming more like Terry's venture capitalist. When we see Ryan's character last, he has broken up with Nicole but is dating another Asian American woman.

Despite the director's attempt to go "beyond" sexual orientation and ethnicity, they slip back into the film in multifarious ways. How could they not since American society is neither post-gay nor post-race? To portray that society with any degree of realism entangles one in the realities of prejudice and fetishization.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

John Russell's "Matisse: Father & Son"

What was it like to be the son of Henri Matisse? It depended on whether you were the first or second son. Jean, the first son, only appears in the periphery of John Russell's biography Matisse: Father & Son, but he hovers just at the corner of the eye like a fiery ball of resentment. Pierre, the younger, the son of the book's title, escaped from his father's shadow by moving to New York City, and opening his own art gallery. From the Pierre Matisse Gallery Archives comes this fascinating tale about a young man finding his own place in the world, and becoming the respected confidant of a powerful artist-pater.

As an artist, Henri Matisse described himself as passionate and egoistic. The passion smoldered within, for, as the letters between him and Pierre reveal, he was much more comfortable writing about his feelings than talking about them. In fact, Matisse ascribed the troubles in the family to their inability to talk frankly with one another. His egoism meant that painting for him took priority over everything else, much as he loved his family. The family arranged itself around his commitment to his art. This was a source of much happiness, but also, predictably, of great unhappiness. Lydia Delectorskaya, Matisse's model and amanuensis, divided the family, and even led to his separation from his wife, but Matisse must have her, and he did.

About such divisions, Pierre, as emerges from this book, tried not to take sides. Cautious, circumspect, and sensitive, he brought these qualities not only to his relationship with his father, but also to his art-dealing. The bulk of the book is taken up with tracing his relationships with the artists whose works he bought and sold, and whose careers he promoted in his understated way. The artists were names to be conjured with: Joan Miró, Balthus, Georges Rouault, Alberto Giacometti, Yves Tanguy, Jean Dubuffet, among others. Pierre Matisse played a significant, if not decisive, part in putting their works in major American museum across the country. Much of the correspondence had to do with the day-to-day business of running a gallery, but Russell highlights the artists who revealed themselves as personalities in their letters. In between individual running chapters on Miró, Balthus, Giacometti and Dubuffet, he weaves chapters on Henri Matisse writing to Pierre about his paintings and the family.

Like his subject, John Russell is very fair-minded in his dealings with others. He always strives to give both points of view in a family or business quarrel. He manages this adroitly so one does not feel that he is sitting on the fence or sugarcoating any unpleasantness. Still, his warm feelings towards his longtime friend Pierre Matisse are unmistakable. If he sympathizes sincerely with the artists' complaints of delayed payments for their work, he excuses too readily, I think, Matisse's tardiness on the grounds that running a gallery was stressful and busy. Matisse should have given up his cherished notion of dealing with his artists personally, and hired office help, so that his artists could pay their bills, and not live in terrible insecurity. Matisse also sat on too much of his artists' work because, as Russell explains, he wanted to place the right work in the right hands. But that strategy meant that a lot of work was not shown and known. As a poet, I would be outraged if an editor accepted my poems but does not publish them for years.

Matisse, however, did have the best of intentions for his artists. When Miró desperately needed money, Matisse even foolishly tried to enter Spain illegally in order to bring money to him. The fact that many of his important artists stayed with him, despite tempting offers from rival galleries, was evidence of their trust in the man so vital to developing their American audience. The exhibition catalogues designed by Matisse were praised again and again by Russell for their subtle artistry. It is a pity then that there are no pictures of them in the book. Neither are there photographs of the gallery shows, which Matisse would hang himself, often on Sundays, before the exhibition openings. Russell has written an admirable portrait of an exemplary art dealer. Since the rise of mega corporate galleries and the international art market, it is, alas, a portrait of the past.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Water, Chocolate and Silver Tassie

The actions of Pedro (Marco Leonardi) and Tita (Lumi Cavazos), the lovers in this 1992 Mexican movie Like Water for Chocolate, directed by Alfonso Arau, cannot stand up to ethical scrutiny. Unable to marry Tita because in her family the youngest daughter must stay single to look after her parents, Pedro marries her oldest sister Rosaura (Yareli Arizmendi) to be near his true beloved. Tita too is not innocent, as she leads her kind doctor on, finally breaking their engagement to be with Pedro. But the film is not about ethics so much as it is a fable about an all-consuming love. It opens with Tita's great-niece retelling the romantic story as she has heard it from her mother. It is also about the stories that women, across generations, tell each other. The story, for instance, about having a box of matches inside each of us, that must be lighted one at a time. If lit all at once by an overwhelming passion, the conflagration will kill us, as it does to Pedro and Tita when they finally consummate their love.

Reinforcing that framework of women's transmission is the food motif. Tita discovers that she has the power to infuse her cooking with her emotions. As Saleem discovers too in Midnight's Children, this power is more passive than active. It is the power of the helpless. The really powerful in the movie is family custom, represented by the matriarch (Regina Torné). This is a male perspective, I think, but the male director identifies at least in part with Tita who ultimately finds the courage to rebel against tradition. The middle sister Gertrudis (charismatic Claudette Maillé) runs away naked with a soldier and returns as a commander of men. In her the director gives a picture of the strong independent woman that feminists like me admire, but he is also saying, I think, that he is not Gertrudis. He is Tita who cooks and cries.

The cinematography is beautiful, with a fiery red and orange palette. The food preparation is finely observed. The supporting cast is very good.


The Silver Tassie, written by Seán O’Casey, is a protest against war, specifically, World War I, but it does not want anything to do with pity. It eschews character development, the most common means of eliciting pity. As Frank McGuinness writes in the program note, "The demands of this experiment also ensure that O'Casey keep in creative check that response so readily, too readily, available to any contemplating the waste of The Great War--pity for the dead, pity for the doomed, pity for the unknown, unnamed mass of suffering human beings enduring this torture."

The protagonist Harry Heegan is an unlikable and unintelligent braggart, played by Garrett Lombard almost too sympathetically. When he returns from the war, paralyzed from the waist down, and finds his sweetheart with his best friend, we don't pity him so much as pity his circumstance. The distinction is crucial. Far too often our sympathy is dependent on someone else's likability. It takes a larger sympathy to see that war is pitiless, not because it kills this person we like or that person we admire, but simply because it kills. The play promotes a kind of impersonal sympathy, if that is not too much an oxymoron.

The same feeling extends to the survivors. It is too easy to judge the sweetheart Jessie Taite (Charlie Murphy) for abandoning Harry. But because she is such a nonentity, a character that the play deliberately refuses to develop, it is hard to hate her very much. Instead her circumstances become abstracted from her character, and we consider the simplified but powerful abstraction for its own sake. The Cup Final win, achieved in Act 1 during the soldiers' leave, is finally celebrated after Armistice in the last Act. It is both proper and ironic to celebrate. Even the detestable Susie Monican (Clare Dunne), who forced religion down on everyone, allows herself to drink and dance in relief. At the end of the play I did not judge the party nor pity Heegan, but am compelled to acknowledge the logical consequences of war. The last image of the play was that of the battered wife Mrs. Foran (Marion O'Dwyer) trying to drink from the battered Cup, the Silver Tassie, and falling down to the floor, drunk.

GH and I watched this Druid Theatre Company production, a part of Lincoln Center Festival, at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater yesterday. It was directed with flair by Garry Hynes and designed by Francis O'Connor. Eamon Morrissey and John Olohan were tremendous as the choric comic pair Sylvester Heegan and Simon Norton. Of all the songs in Act 2 sung by the boys resting by their tank, I liked best the heartbreaking "Stretcher Bearer's Song."

Oh, bear it gently, carry it soft--
A bullet or a shell said stop, stop, stop.
It's had its day, and it's left the play,
Since it gamboll'd over the top, top top.

Oh, carry it softly, bear it gently--
The beggar has seen it through, through, through.
If it 'adn't been 'im, if it 'adnt been 'im,
It might 'ave been me or you, you, you.

Carry on--we've one bugled reason why--
We've 'eard and answer'd the call, call, call.
There's no more to be said, for when we are dead,
We may understand it all, all, all.

My favorite poem in "New Poetries V"

... is Lucy Tunstall's "One Day a Herd of Wild Horses Came into the Garden and Looked at My Mother." Janet Kofi-Tsekpo and I wrote about our responses on the book blog. James Womack has a piece on Sheri Benning's "The song that goes." Lucy Tunstall is very good on William Letford's "Taking a headbut." Other selections by the poets anthologized will be forthcoming, so do follow the blog, run by Evan Jones. The anthology editor, Michael Schmidt, is also quoted on the blog about the problem with "voice."

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Launch of Tribes 13

Read at Poets House for the launch of Tribes 13 yesterday. It was a day of record heat, but cool in the Battery Park home for poetry. The circular exhibition room showed some interesting first editions and letters, by Robert Duncan, Pound, Ginsberg, H.D., among others. No Asian American poets there. No Asian American poets too up on the wall in the quiet reading room. The narrative of American poetry, even in a liberal and progressive space, does not include them. For the first time I felt the enormity of the challenge of becoming a part of American poetry.

Okka said hi in the exhibition room. She had heard of me from a Singaporean poet friend, and was visiting Poets House when she read my name on a flyer advertising the Tribes reading. An Indonesian, she has been writing since young, and will be taking up a writing residency at the Vermont Art Studio next month. We sat together for the reading. The turnout was very good. There must have been close to 100 people there. I read "The square root of minus money is a movie" from the magazine, and then three Studies from SSSP. I was nervous before I read, but the feeling dropped away when I took the mic. The audience was very hospitable to poetry.

The magazine is impressive. Kat Georges' design is clean and modern. Artwork is paired in thoughtful ways with the poems and fiction. The art images are consistently interesting. Outstanding are David Haines's watercolor Untitled (Man Eating Dirt); Paolo Pelosini's collage Via Reggio; John Outterbridge's mix media sculpture Ritual Consoled; and David Hammons' witty take on the American flag, African American flag, with red and black stripes, and what looks like black stars on a green background. There are well-known names among the contributors but I did not enjoy their poems very much. More original is Ron Kolm's "The Summer They Killed The Spanish Poet," beautifully paired with Lina Puerta's miniature home-made tree in a glass dome, Cellvatico. "Pleading Before History," by Najwan Darwish, translated from the Arabic by Kareem James Abu-Zeid, is wonderful. It is a great example of how political poems should be written. Notwithstanding a few fine poems, I must say that the art in the magazine is much stronger than the poetry.

The interview with Matthew Shipp, a leading figure of the New York downtown improvisational music scene, strikes a chord with me. He sounds out many of the themes I work with too. To the question of how much of his performances are thought out beforehand, Shipp said,

Well, I practice a lot. I practice my language a lot. When I sit down I try to clear my mind and I try to start from scratch and generate a new cosmos every time, but there are certain underlying premises that  I work on all the time. And I work on ways of trying to expand my language. And I work on ways of trying to open my imagination that have nothing to do with what I'm playing. If I have a few hours, I'll sit down and play Bach's Fugues, which have nothing to do with what I do, but it gets my musical imagination going, and it gives me material in a certain way in my subconscious. I mean, I have millions of things that I do. So, if I sit down and I play something that's completely spontaneous, there's hours of preparation in order to be able to do something intelligent in real time.

I love the way he kept repeating the word "trying." The language in the passage is improvisatory too. When he talked about the influence of Taoism on his music, he shows an intuitive grasp of it when he said, "Its essence is to feel it or just be there. There is no explanation." Of Genet's novel Our Lady of the Flowers, he recalled, "it took me so deep into myself that I had stuff happen in my head that transcends any language. I had things going on in my head that I don't know where the fuck they came from. But there's a constant alchemy that goes on. I consider myself an alchemist of sorts." And how could I not warm to someone who describes "The Four Quartets" as a sacred text.

For Shipp, jazz was still an "underground language," though elements of it have been incorporated into the mainstream. Shipp was frank in saying that he does not understand why people, even blacks, don't want to hear jazz. He guessed that it may be because it takes too much effort. He does not want to think too much about it, he said, "I just want to push the notes down when I play."

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Amon Miyamoto's "The Temple of the Golden Pavilion"

Based on the novel by Yukio Mishima, this production was staged ingeniously at the Rose Theater on Thursday when I saw it, but it left me cold. It was too easy to dismiss Mizoguchi's despair as adolescent angst, his obsession with the Golden Pavilion as a son's unconsolable grief for his dead father. When he set fire to the Temple, his motive was not complex but obscure. When he repeated "I want to live" at the end of the play, one was tempted to retort, "Why don't you?"

Some of the problem lay with the actor, Go Morita, a member of a popular Japanese boy band called V6, who did not go beyond surface gesture. Some of it lay, however, in the rather simplistic depiction of the adults. The loving father. The scolding mother. The hypocritical Master. The jealous Deacon. None of them showed any sign of struggling with Mizoguchi's despair, in their youth or adulthood, and so the despair seemed very much a part of being young, Mizoguchi with his stutter, Kashiwagi with his club foot, Tsurukawa with his death-wish wrapped in smiles. Sousuke Takaoka played Kashiwagi with the requisite bravado, while Shunsuke Daito was a winning Tsurukawa.

It is possible too that all the hi-tech projection robbed the Temple of its imaginative beauty. There was so much to look at on the stage, including the muscular dancing of Dairakudakan, that the Temple was just one more spectacle. Fuyuki Yamakawa, who played the Phoenix (Symbol of the Golden Pavilion) is a Tuvan throat-singer, and his singing did lend the Temple an otherworldly air. But after Mizoguchi set the Temple on fire, the screaming red lights at the back of stage were just that, screaming red lights. There was a lack of trust in the imagination of the audience. I imagine that another production, an intimate and spare one in a black box theater, may render both the beauty and the agony more visible.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Randall Mann's "Breakfast with Thom Gunn"

I was curious to read this book of poems, a 2009 Lambda finalist. Thom Gunn is in the title. I have run into  Randall Mann's name on the Internet many times but had not read his poetry. I like to know what other gay poets are writing, especially writers near my age (Mann was born in 1972). My exact contemporaries lived lives different from mine, but could have been mine. In Mann's case, I don't know when he moved from Florida to San Francisco, but he moved from a world to a world, like I did. Unlike me, he lived through the AIDS epidemic at what was arguably its North American epicenter.

The book begins with exhaustion. At a time when "desire is a dirty word," the speaker finds himself "wanting,// again, a man I do not want" ("Early Morning on Market Street"). In "Election Day," he is "Tired// of the age of irony,/ everything a gesture, tired of the word gesture." The tiredness shows in the language. In the same poem,

The day does its melancholy thing.
I come home, watch pornography,
fast-forward the scenes in which a friend--

back in his methamphetamine years--
has unrepeatable things done to him.

This is language barely burning, until it flares up in the word "unrepeatable." The things done to the friend are unrepeatable in polite discourse, like poetry. They are also unrepeatable because the friend has gone off meth. He survives because he did not continue, repeat, his addiction. His fear saved him, but for a diminished existence. The poem makes the point awkwardly, "On the street,// a bag of paranoia costs less/ than a moderately priced meal out." Moderation saves, but at a cost. But at what cost? How much is a moderately priced meal? The poem gets the word "moderately" in, but obscures the comparison of paranoia to meal.

In the midst of cautious exhaustion, the poems risk fragile boasting. In "Song," the speaker brags in parenthesis "(One time, I swear to God,/ I fucked for weeks and weeks.)" But the past is not the only time for boasting, the present is too, when the "queens," lured to the speaker's house by the promise of the best crystal money can buy, "beg to sit on my fist." The boastfulness here is brittle, as indicated by the italicized over-emphasis. It is one aspect of the survivor's condition. But I am somewhat disturbed by the contemptuous and reductive picture given of the "queens." Aren't the queens survivors too? Instead, they arrive at the house, "prim." Their talk about antiques and art, which the speaker dismisses as "boring stuff," marks them as snooty. So rather unpleasantly intertwined with the speaker's brittle boasting is a delight in humiliating others from a different class, in making them "beg."

This limited sympathy is displayed, in a more off-hand manner, in "Fetish." The first of its five sections, each a tercet, begins:

Another Saturday, and the straights
and amateurs will come to my ghetto tonight.
Suspension of rights for all, I say.

"Straights" is a fairly neutral term, but "amateurs" is not. Both "straights" and "amateurs" are slumming, visiting the "ghetto" on a weekend, but why reserve a special malice for gay men who do not live in the ghetto? The half-joking tone is no explanation, for the mockery does not extend to the straights. This unequal treatment is particularly ironic since, in calling for "suspension of rights for all," the speaker alludes to the rights denied to gay men. But there are gay men, and there are gay men, the poem implies, those who live in the ghetto (what is the opposite of amateur?) and those who do not. And so a small community is made even smaller, as if in self-defence. It is a relief to come to a poem about a ghetto citizen, "Queen Christina," for there the poet shows his full powers of wit and sympathy. To celebrate his final Pride, the speaker's friend dying of AIDS dresses up in drag. When he compares himself to Greta Garbo, the speaker counters that he looks more like a "hobo-/sexual in heels." "We howled," the speaker says pithily and poignantly.

Perhaps self-defence is the natural response to the enemies of the ghetto. Dan White, who shot dead Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, was found guilty of manslaughter rather than first-degree murder, and given a jail sentence of seven years. The poem "The Mortician in San Francisco" targets not so much White as the jury, who represents the homophobia in the wider society. The charge against the jury is made, however, in very tentative terms:

... the twelve who held his life in their hands
maybe didn't mind the death of Harvey Milk;
maybe, the second murder offered him a shot
at serving only a few years.

The tentativeness is only fair, for who could have read the minds of the jurors at that time? One can only speculate. But this uncertainty disrupts the sense of inevitability at the poem's end, a sense implicit in the narrative structure of the poem, and its sestina form. The poem loses its conviction, in both senses of the word.

The speaker of the poem is the titular mortician, a queer who prepared for burial the Great Anti-Queer. Mann's poem reworks consciously a poem by Gunn, in the latter's AIDS book The Man with Night Sweats. In Gunn's poem "The Beautician," the titular character makes beautiful the hair of a dead friend, as if she has "shaped an epitaph by her action." What Mann does is to take a poem that is primarily about a friendship and turn it into a matter of politics. In doing so, however, the Mortician becomes a mere mouthpiece, and not fully a person as the Beautician is. The story he tells of the shooting and its aftermath can be told by anyone. He becomes useful only in the very last line of the poem, to deliver the poet's parting shot against Dan White (and those like him), "And he was made presentable by a queer." How does it feel to be queer and to prepare your enemy for burial? The poem does not look into the human complexity of that situation, and so passes up an opportunity to go one up on Gunn, and, instead, goes one down. More, Gunn's Beautician is a figure for the poet himself: the reference to an epitaph (which, at one level, is the whole of The Man of Night Sweats) clues the reader in. The figure is, typically of Gunn, modest, "being a beautician after all." Mann's Mortician is a different kind of poet, injured, outraged, partisan, and still consumed by surface ironies.

Superficially the two poets are similar, not least in their reliance on meter and rhyme. This reliance is real and vital to their art, but it is not dogmatic. It shapes, it modulates, it invents, it continues the link between individual poet and the poetic tradition. Gunn wrote and Mann writes free verse as well as tight, rhyming quatrains. D. A. Powell in his blurb for Mann's book even goes so far as to praise Mann for "formal prowess equal to the master to whom he pays homage." Not quite. Mann is very skillful. "Bernal Hill," a love lyric, is masterful in its control of the short iambic trimeter line, and the rapid rhymes. But I don't see why "The Mortician in San Francisco" has to be written in sestina form (with the predicable pun "spilt milk" on one of its end-words). The envoy is unaccountably missing. The pantoum form in "Politics" seems to drive the poem, instead of the poem driving the form. There are poems here titled "Aubade," "Ode," "Night: A Fragment," "Short Short," "Pastoral," "Syntax," "Poetry" and "Fiction." They lend the book a very self-conscious literary air.

This atmosphere is most pronounced in the second section of the book, which refers to writers, artists and mythological characters like Ganymede and Orpheus. Chief in this section is the title poem "Breakfast with Thom Gunn."  It is a strange tribute. For one, it does not paint a very flattering picture of the poet that it is memorializing. He goes to a cheap hotel. He talks rather than listens. He insults someone to a stranger as a "sleaze." He drops names in a fake casual manner. He does not stop the younger poet from "gush[ing]" about his books. And when the poem turns to praise him unambiguously for something, the best it can come up with is the rather sentimental gesture of giving "his change to men/ who've lost their homes and looks." The poem ends with the appropriate elegaic tone--"I hug him in the cold./ And then the train is gone"--but the poem's Gunn is not a poet nor a man, whom one will miss.

"Career" takes up a similar theme, the relationship between an older and a younger gay poet, but in a satiric mode. The older poet gives the younger a blurb in exchange for a sexual favor. The satire, however, is not very sharp, partly because such a transaction has become almost a cliche, partly because both poets are described in general terms that do not refresh the cliche nor identify the culprits. The only specificity to the older poet lies in his blurb--"If Bishop wed Magritte, these villanelles would be their spawn"--and his quotation of Bishop's line "love's the burning boy." A Bishop lover then, but there are so many! The satire would also have greater authority, if Mann does not behave, in another poem, like the fawning poet that he mocks. "Stranded" is the lowest point of the book. At a holiday party, the kind hosted by a man with bleached teeth, and attended by tipsy supermodels, the speaker wonders who is "that exquisite man// by the fire, stirring/ a highball with his clauses?" He thinks, "It is Mark Strand," and, after a stanza break the equivalent of rubbing his eyes, concludes "It is still Mark Strand." The poem has no reason to be, but to fawn.

If this poem has any value, it has to be read alongside the other poems about the relationship between older and younger men. In "Ganymede on Polk Street," the boy-whore must seduce his "ancient trick" as well as "take [his] shit." He is the vulnerable party. His seemingly confident assertion that "I'm foul but beautiful" is qualified by both the conjunction "but" and by its placement within parenthesis. There is fear, and there is debasement. In the companion piece "Orpheus at Café Flore," the older man teaches his "boy" the art of "not looking/ as if you are looking// for a man." The teacher, however, is unable to get the boys he wants, unless it is "With luck." Since the older man here is Orpheus, the poem is also about poetic inspiration. Age disparity in love is a rich seam for Mann. The poems that open the seam can delve deeper, below the polish of wit.

One genre in particular, not yet mentioned, Mann has made his own: the nature poem. "The Lake of Nostalgia" is a little gem. The finest poem in the book is rather pretentiously titled "The End of Landscape." It begins strikingly by observing what is usually overlooked, a pool of water beside an airport runway.

There's a certain sadness to this body of water
adjacent to the runway, its reeds and weeds,
handful of ducks, the water color

manmade. A still life. And still
life's a cold exercise in looking back,
back to Florida, craning my neck

like a sandbill crane in Alachua Basin.

The lines move with slow but assured cadence from the sad pool of standing water to Florida, a movement forward that is also a movement back. The philosophical observation, that life's a cold exercise in looking back, is slipped in unobstrusively between the concrete particulars of waters and birds. In Florida, in the past, the speaker obsessed about living inside Spanish moss, but was warned by the funny anecdote about a professor who did and was then covered with mites. In the present, flying out of San Francisco, he watches his lover watch the Sacramento river and sees the same effect on him as leaving Florida had on him. By his understanding of another person, the poet earns his conclusion that "everything is truer at a remove," as much as he does by his exact recall. It is an insight gleaned from being restlessly on the move.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Walking around Long Island City

Hot, but a beautiful day for a walk. I had visited Long Island City for dinner, but had not walked around the neigborhood. We followed a guide in Time Out. After coming out from the underground at Hunters Point, we tried to get brunch at M. Wells diner, but it was still packed at 1:30. We walked over to Vernon Boulevard and ate at Tournesol instead. I had a delicious terrine with foie gras. The server answered my questions about the menu very patiently. Both GH and I had a Bloody Mary, which was also very good.

We walked to the new condominium developments at the waterfront. Everything was very well laid out, even overly planned, but the wild grass fringing the boardwalk was sensibly left alone. We dutifully saw the big Pepsi-Cola sign that looked over the East River. The wooden deck chairs and double hammocks were thoughtful additions to the Gantries Park. We walked to PS1 but did not go in. On 45th Avenue was a row of Italianate houses that date from the 1880s, the homes of the affluent in 19th century Hunter's Point. Walking along Jackson Avenue after that, we passed by the Supreme Court House built in the English Renaissance style. It looked strangely flat, like a painting.

From Jackson Avenue, we turned into Purves Street, and popped into the SculptureCenter. The building was formerly occupied by a derricks and hoists company, and so had a very high ceiling. The front courtyard, surrounded by concrete walls, was covered with gravel. The effect was Zen-like, helped by a sound installation by some artist. We did not see the exhibit Time Again, but we may very well find our way back to the center again.

The industrial park along 43rd Avenue was a bit of a wasteland. At the end of the guided walk was the Z New York Hotel. We did not like the look of it very much, and turned back to Vernon Boulevard to get a drink. That strip of restaurants and bars was still our favorite place in Long Island City.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Poem: "Ditty"

Poem I wrote yesterday but did not post.


Is utterly my own.
Far less exterior than skill,
It comes from the deep centre of the will.
—Anna Wickham, “Comment”

I hear my father’s breathless fear
lowering my voice.
I hear my mother’s coaxing ways
when I talk to boys.
From teachers, multiple and good,
I learned to hide contempt.
My lovers, oh, my lovers,
they teach me how to tempt.

Why I put out all the names
is not to assign blame,
but touch, with a deep will, the cause
of my nature’s laws
and sing, with a light heart, the tones
in a singular tune.

A Wine Bar and a Cathedral

Before heading over to Lincoln Center, WCT and I had dinner at Barcibo Enoteca, an Italian tapas and wine bar. WCT did an interesting thing: she picked buffalo mozzarella and Quadrella di Bufula, a semi soft-washed buffalo milk cheese from Lombardy, for the comparison, she said. The salame she chose was a tasty dry aged cured meat, Bresaoloa. I started on a refreshing glass of Lugana while waiting for WCT, and drank Monica, a red wine from Sardinia, during the meal. My pulpo, calamari and shrimp salad was fresh and tasty, though I could not deal with so much octopus tentacle. Putting together a restaurant is a kind of art, Barcibo suggested.

The Cleveland Orchestra played as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. For their concerts here, Music Director and conductor Franz Welser-Möst has paired three Bruckner symphonies with works by John Adams. He was quoted in the program as saying: "I sometimes say that Bruckner is in many ways the grandfather of minimalism and I truly believe that the music of John Adams would be unthinkable without what Bruckner wrote." The program note continued, "Welser-Möst's discussion of the connection brings much to the table, from Bruckner's rhythmic intensity and repetition to his protean bits," or in Welser-Möst's words, the "small little elements he uses to build something much larger and extremely powerful."John Adams touched on this structural grandeur when he explained that he is a fan of "large-scale, formal architecture."

I was also struck by Adams' claim that he has never abandoned tonality in his compositions. "I use tonal centers, " he said, "to create very large landscapes." This reminds me of Matisse's allegiance to the human figure throughout his career, and Eliot's connection to meter, which he renovated but never abandoned. After the concert, WCT and I talked about artists who find themselves in the transitional period between two great aesthetic movements--in the case of Bruckner, between Romanticism and Modernism--and having to decide what to keep of the old and what to invent of the new. Matisse in his Cubist phase is another example of such a struggle. I believe we are now in another such transition. Post-modernism is running out of steam, but what is next?

I felt I was able to "follow" John Adams' Guide to Strange Places (2001) because of its architecture. The program described the intensities as dark, but I felt it as restful though surging. The music was not lost; it knew where it was going. Weird coincidence. I came across a reference to Nixon in China yesterday while reading Carl Phillips' Paris Review interview of Geoffrey Hill. Hill's wife, Alice Goodman, wrote the libretto for the Adams opera.

The Cleveland Orchestra played Bruckner's Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major (1876) with passionate conviction. The minimalist elements were more obvious to me in the first two movements, both Adagios, than in the last two movements. The finale seemed to look back to Beethoven more than it looked forward. I joked to WCT that I will remember No. 5 as the two-note symphony, since out of that bit of stone the composer built a cathedral. The orchestra was given a standing ovation. Fewer people left hurriedly than at a typical New York Philharmonic performance.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Poem: "The Odalisque and the Painter"

The Odalisque and the Painter

It is our business here to make a song—
Whoever is sore, whatever is wrong.
—Anna Wickham, “In the House of the Soul”

It doesn’t look anything like me, but you’re the artist.
I’m the slave, the chambermaid
ordered to remove my clothes, then ordered to lie on the mattress.
I was hoping to get laid

but I guess the sultan is not up to it, today.
You’re cleaning your brushes, back to the color of your hair,
and looking so far away
you are not really here.

Hey! Have you heard this one,
this French painter who waters his fish to keep it gleaming? Isn’t that cheating?
He throws it back into the sea after he’s done.
Pity. Fish is for eating.

I guess I’d better pick up my stitches.
Coming here is such a risk.
My husband’s a jealous son of not one, but two bitches.
But it’s nice to be for an afternoon an odalisque.

Deprived and Porous

TLS July 1 2011

from Robert Wells's review of Complete Poetry, Translations, and Selected Prose, by Bernard Spencer, edited by Peter Robinson:

In his story ["Baa, Baa, Black Sheep"] Kipling links Punch's loss with a precocious compensatory passion for language. Spencer remarks on a similar preoccupation in himself: "I used to pray that I should be a traveller abroad when I grew up, just as I used to pray that I should be a poet". For him the two wishes are inseparable, committing him to a quest for a reality to replace the one taken from him. "The poet's immoderate, promiscuous love" has its origin in an immense deprivation.


Spencer died in an accident at the age of fifty-three. The accident was unforeseeable, yet in the later poems there are many such presentiments that a denouement was near. Spencer vanished one evening from the clinic in Vienna to which, in a state of delirium, he had been admitted after the sudden worsening of an unidentified illness. The next morning he was found dead beside a suburban railway track, having apparently been struck by a train. His shoes were worn out, and he must have walked some distance. In his delirium he had been possessed by the conviction that he needed to return to India.


Outside the poetry he is really no writer at all.


TNY July 11 & 18, 2011

from "The Prodigy," Peter Schjeldahl's review of Blinky Palermo at Bard and Dia:

Palermo's [art] is a cheerful name-dropping art, like none other I know: never imitative, but collegial. His borrowings pay generous tribute to their creditors. This rare characteristic partly explains his neglect in America, where a national bent for proprietary branding can confuse a signature look with quality. In truth, Palermo's "porosity" (a word applied to him by Beuys) is a tremendous distinction. Angelically hip, he affects his fans, including me, as a cosmopolitan escort of the imagination, with ready access to the smartest and best people and ideas in the world.

Sharp insight into Palermo and America. His photo shows an East Village hipster.

Old "Warhorse"

Watched Warhorse last Saturday night with GH, at the Vivian Beaumont, a part of the Lincoln Center Theater. I heard such high praise for this production, directed by Marianne Elliot and Tom Morris, that I was inevitably somewhat disappointed by it. Adapted by Nick Stafford from a novel by Michael Morpurgo, the play had a very simple story. The first half, which traced the bonding between the horse and his boy, between Joey and Albert Narracott, dragged as slowly as the hunter-farmhorse pulled the plough. There was nothing unexpected or nuanced about the development of that bonding. The foal and full-grown horse puppets, designed by Adrian Kohler, with Basil Jones, for Handspring Puppet Company, were wonderful, but their novelty lasted only so long.

In the second half, the action quickened and some nice links were made. Learning to pull the plough saved Joey's hide, as he was put to work pulling the ambulance-cart, and so was not ripped to shreds by machine guns and barbed wire (A total of eight million horses died during World War I, said the program notes.). The sergeant who scoffed at Albert's mission to find his horse turned out to be the one who rescued Joey from no man's land. The long-anticipated reunion between the horse and his boy was rather sentimental, but I did feel a twinge in this cold heart. Seth Numrich, who played Albert, was better-looking than his picture in the program. Alyssa Bresnahan played Albert's mother, Rose, with brusque lovingkindness. Madeleine Rose Yen was heart-rending as the little French girl Emilie, traumatized by war.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Poem: "The Woman and the Idea of Trouble"

The Woman and the Idea of Trouble

You are the wall at my road’s end,
Open your gates, and let me through to God.
—Anna Wickham (1883–1947), “Prayer to Love”

In the day room a woman stupefied from masturbation.
Another flirted with Bonaparte. A third delivered nightly
a hundred babies and in the morning killed their mouths.
A painter, once a great beauty, had rubbed all her hair out.

The troublesome idea was that you were not so different.
You recognized them as fun-house distortions of your lust,
your love of power and of babies, your aspiration for art.
The quinine, delivered in a kind tonic, queried your head.

When your husband dragged you shouting from the garden
to the confines of the house, you put a fist in the glass door.
Your poem was a symptom of madness, as was your belief
that your husband, an astronomer, did not understand you.

Now you lived in a house that arranged its barred windows
for your pleasure. Your head had not one, but two doctors.
What you loved to do—singing and playing the piano—
you were encouraged to do because it was good for you.

You could have turned mad, but you spoke to the painter,
listening to her tell of a thwarted love for another woman.
You wrote to her brother about the sense she was making.
You rubbed her head with Harlene. The hair began to grow.

After you were discharged, as determined by another man,
you made up your mind to be your own woman, falling
in love with an American heiress, writing, writing, writing,
keeping house for struggling writers and painters and sons.

One evening, after the war, you looked through a window
and, thinking to open the French window, hanged yourself.
It was a troublesome idea that you were not so different.
Your son, the baby, denied it, who found you in the dark.

Most of the details, and some of the phrasing, are taken from Jennifer Vaughan Jones’s biography Anna Wickham: A Poet’s Daring Life.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Cone Collection at the Jewish Museum, NY

Last Wednesday LW and I saw at the Jewish Museum the special exhibition, "Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters: The Cone Sisters of Baltimore." Miss Etta and Dr. Claribel, as their friends called them, were introduced by their fellow Jewish Baltimoreans Leo and Gertrude Stein to Matisse in Paris. Like the Steins, they were avid collectors, financed first by their father's wholesale grocery business, and then by their brothers' hugely successful textile enterprise. Trained as a gynaecologist, Claribel became the Professor of Pathology at Baltimore Women's Medical College, and taught in both America and Europe. LW remarked on the near-invisibility of such accomplished women in the history of the USA held in most people's heads. Etta, six years younger, ran her father's household. She had a strong romantic attachment to Gertrude Stein. Both sisters remained unmarried to the end of their lives.

I enjoyed the exhibition mostly for the Matisse paintings and sculptures that I had not seen before. There were drawings that showed Matisse's deft draftsmanship, and bronzes of women's heads and one, which I liked particularly, of two negro women holding each other. The work was not big but it was massive. The paintings were the greatest draw for me. Interior, Flowers and Parakeets (1924). Seated Odalisque, Left Knee Bent, Ornamental Background and Checkerboard (1928). Large Reclining Nude (Pink Nude) (1935). Striped Robe, Fruit and Anemones (1940). Matisse was a canny promoter of his work too. Knowing that Etta intended to bequeath her collection to a major American museum, he sent her twenty-two photographs of Large Reclining Nude in progress, and so secured her interest to buy it. He wanted to be represented by a major work in the States.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Poem: "Re: Reading"

Re: Reading

A poet, I don’t remember who, once said, I don’t read widely,
I read over and over four or five books.
If I heed his advice, what will my reading be?
What raises a house from multiple looks?

I read The Book of Changes at five
when we moved from a communal flat.
I read the bamboo scroll again to survive
moving to here and there, with this or that.

The Book of Nature I have neglected,
preferring The Book of Art.
The variety of life, strong, strange and selected,
I will commit to the staring heart.

There is a well-thumbed paperback
I carry around with almost a religious sense of duty,
or it carries me like a rack,
The Book of Love and other Cruelties.

One more! The dwelling that hosts them all—
in intimate rooms and splendid halls,
I re-discover re-discovery.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Poem: "Telling Difference"

Telling Difference

“Man, to be critic, must be connoisseur.”
—Anna Wickham, “XXXVI Friend Cato”

Since I ran around Central Park
the park has shrunk.
I was proud of my hard-bitten body,
but the cost of victory!

When we watched Amarcord,
Fellini’s small-town record,
you complained that it did not have a plot.
I couldn’t tell if you were serious or not.

I explained the rounds of sex and seasons.
You were not persuaded by reasons
so abstruse.
I saw I could run rings around you.

I was in danger
of thinking you a stranger
when I remembered you walking into the heart of the park with me
and identifying the tulip tree.

How reckless I was to figure
that a park equals its perimeter,
just because I ran around it
for a bit.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

"Anna Wickham: A Poet's Daring Life" (2003)

Anna Wickham was famous in her time. She was friends with D. H. Lawrence, Malcolm Lowry, Lawrence Durrell and Dylan Thomas. She moved in the circle of Natalie Barney, the American heiress and lesbian author who drew the fashionable artistic and literary set to her Paris salon. The poetry of Anna Wickham was published in England by Harold Munro of The Poetry Bookshop, and in America by Louis Untermeyer. It received favorable comments from Pound and Eliot. After World War II she killed herself (by hanging) and dropped out of sight.

Jennifer Vaughan Jones, the author of this biography, has performed a real service by bringing back to vivid life this compelling woman. Building on the work of R. D. Smith, who published his memoir of Anna Wickham, with a generous selection of her poetry and her prose, in The Writings of Anna Wickham: Free Woman and Poet at the centenary of the poet's birth, Jones researched the archives of three countries, looking at newly discovered correspondence, and interviewed Anna's family to write her book. Anna's own "Fragment of an Autobiography" was also mined, critically.

The story Jones pieces together travels from Victorian London to colonial Australia, back and forth between London and Paris, before settling down in Hampstead Heath, the home of writers. The story traces not only the evolution of a poet, but also the development of a feminist consciousness. Her husband, a passionate student of Romanesque churches and then of astronomy, wanted her to be his muse and audience. Her desire to be a mind in her own right led to violent quarrels in the marriage. Encouraged by her father to win fame as a writer, to compensate for his own failure, and mesmerized by a strong-willed dramatic mother, who carried the family through hard times in Australia, Anna Wickham could not be contented to be any one's wife merely.

Her poetry records that determined struggle, as does this biography in accessible and measured prose. Also in the book are photographs of Anna and her family, which show why she struck such an impressive figure among the literati. There is also a bonus of 14 poems included at the end. The selection begins with the much-anthologized "The Fired Pot," the poem that led me to the poet. "Envoi" gives a strong sense of the poet's voice:

God, thou great symmetry
Who put a biting lust in me
From whence my sorrows spring,
For all my frittered days
That I have spent in shapeless ways,
Give me one perfect thing.



My work has the incompetence of pain.
—Anna Wickham, “XL Self Analysis”

Living in rented rooms, I do not care for stuff,
for cherished things will complicate the move.

A string breaks? I carry fewer books.
A friend died? I hurry through the wake.

Even love I hold with light fingers
as piano chords, not longer.

I have avoided pain by accommodating it.
I have avoided pain so that I can write

with objectivity
of pain that is less than agony.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Peter Brook's "A Magic Flute"

Freely adapted by Peter Brook, Franck Krawczyk, and Marie-Hélène Estienne from Mozart's opera, "A Magic Flute" stripped away all superfluities of staging to focus on the singers' relationship to the music. The score was played expressively by Franck Krawczyk on solo piano at stage right. A cluster of upright canes served as forest, prison, and Masonic temple. It is interesting, however, that the simple staging drew attention to its own ingenuity. It did not help when the singers knocked down the canes. Throughout the evening at Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College, a small part of my mind kept wondering when the next cane would fall. The two actors who played incidental parts in the action were an inelegant solution to the problem of scene change.

The singers were exposed by the lack of spectacle. Adrian Strooper who sang the heroic and lovesick Tamino on July 5, when I watched the production with TB, came through beautifully. So did his lover Pamina, sang by Jeanne Zaepffel, though less consistently. Malia Bendi-Merad, as Queen of the Night, was more than a head shorter than her daughter Pamina, and this height difference was physically unconvincing, though she sang well. Thomas Dolié, as Papageno the birdcatcher, was mildly funny. His sweet dove Papagena was sang indifferently by Dima Bawab. As Sarastro, the Masonic Master who brought the lovers together, Luc-Bertin-Hugault had a rich voice but with little variation in emotion. Raphaël Brémard was a cartoonish Monostatos, the would-be seducer of Pamina.

The first time I watched a full version of The Magic Flute. Now I know where the snatches from the film Amadeus come from in the opera. That when the Queen of the Night goes on her high F's she is commanding her daughter to commit the dastardly deed of assassinating Sarastro. That when Papagena shows her true beautiful self to Papageno, the man can only stutter the first syllables of her name, which are also the first syllables of his, pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

A Weekend with a Lot of People

A weekend with a lot of people, or so it seems to us, living in moderate isolation now on the Upper West Side. On Friday we took the Trailways bus to Kingston to stay with T and D, who live near to Woodstock. The two-hour bus ride turned closer to three due to traffic. On arrival, our hosts whisked us to dinner with their friends, G and R, at the Steel House Restaurant. We sat in the patio and watched the boats on the Rondout River. It was very pleasant and relaxing. Before turning in, at T and D's house, we watched an old PBS documentary on being gay. There was nothing very special about the gay men and women interviewed, but perhaps their very ordinariness was part of the point.

The next day T and D drove us to see their friend C, who liked staying with T and D so much that he rented a vacation home near them for his family for a week. The large house, with three double and two single bedrooms, sat on top of a hill and had beautiful views of the country. GH knew C from Cincinnati too. We met his wife and two young children, his parents-in-law, and his brother-in-law and wife. C looked as WASP-ish as they come, his wife was Jewish. The wife of the brother-in-law grew up in Germany, and still held British citizenship. She spoke in both English and German to her toddler. We splashed with the children in the pool, and then worked on a jigsaw puzzle in the low-ceilinged living room. J, the son, was inquisitive, perceptive and delightful. We were invited to have dinner with the family. I was gently quizzed on my Singaporean background and use of the English language. There was a question about what the number on sun block lotion bottles really means. C's father-in-law answered it. He leaned over and told me that he had been a dermatologist before retirement.

C drove us back to T and D, who had left earlier to feed the dogs and take a nap. T played a VHS copy of Fellini's Amarcord, his favorite film by the Italian director. My first Fellini. GH hated its lack of plot and deep characterization. I liked it very much for its dreamy mood and bawdy scenes. It was a lovely depiction of the rhythm and ritual of small-town life seen in the cycle of seasons from spring to spring. The peacock scene, which T loved, was stunning. The boys pelting snowballs at the belle of the town were stopped by the sight of the Count's peacock, fanning open its gorgeous tail feathers. The film was also about men's imaginative desire for women. Writing this now, I am struck by our uncanny resemblance to T and D, at least in our aesthetics. T and I are rangingly intellectual about beauty, whereas D and GH are deeply intuitive.

During breakfast on Sunday, T and I talked about poetry again. I told him about John Ashbery's forthcoming translations of Rimbaud's Illuminations. He had already read about it somewhere. When he discovered that I didn't remember Rimbaud's "Antique," he showed me the poem about the gracious son of Pan. The ending, we agreed, was marvelous. I was very moved, although too embarrassed to show it, when T said the day before that he read my verse aloud to himself and found it musical.

On our way to the bus station, we stopped by G and R's auction place. Two major estates had just come in, and they were busy cataloguing marble busts, iron fretwork, lamps, clocks, pottery, an old-fashioned crib, a polished canoe, and other such remnants for the auction next weekend. We all admired the paintings of a local artist who, through the permutations of style, kept a colorist's eye. She was much better than the local artists that I saw displayed in the front gallery of the Woodstock Museum. After leaving G and R, we had lunch, at T's suggestion, at an old-styled diner. Built like a railway dining car, the restaurant had a sense of its own history, summarized on the cover of the menu. That sense was unfussy, however, and the food was fast and cheap.

Sunday evening we met A and D for drinks at the Rocking Horse Cafe in Chelsea, the same restaurant where we exchanged email addresses and phone numbers. The conversation proceeded in typical American style--rapid exchanges of information and anecdotes with little space for questions and thinking--and I took a while to get a word in. A works with electron microscopes in his art and with a big hospital in his day job. D works in IT and is between jobs. We walked over to the Gansevoort Hotel and had more drinks on the rooftop. It was a gayish party, with many women swanning around. We split after an hour or so, and GH and I went dancing in the Greenhouse. A cute Asian boy came up to me, and I could not place his familiar face. It was P.

On Independence Day, we took the one-and-a-half hour train and bus ride to Jacob Riis Park. The park was named after a photographer famous for shooting slums. The beach was no slum, but big abandoned buildings gave it a forsaken atmosphere. We walked to Bay 1 where the gay and the nude congregate. A party of Latinos celebrated the seventh anniversary of Carlo and his man. Their boom box broadcast their cheerfulness. The day was hotter and sunnier than the weatherman had predicted. We were both slightly burned. All the talk about sun block lotion did not help us. I stubbed my big toe while walking and looking at the lifeguards. Favoring it, I felt the other parts of my sole getting sore, unused to the additional pressure. GH and I liked the beach a lot, and will return to it.

In the evening, it was TH's July 4th party, in his apartment in Hell's Kitchen. A's family was there, and many of their gay friends. It was lovely to see WL and M, and then J and P. P and I had a nice conversation about his mentorship of a student in a Bronx high school. I tried to draw out a few other people, but their shyness or shallowness made the effort futile. The fireworks was spectacular, and GH enjoyed the view over the Hudson very much. No open field, barbecue or watermelon, but a high-rise, fried noodles and skewered fruit capped a very pleasant July 4 weekend in New York.

Monday, July 04, 2011