Showing posts from July, 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…

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 pa…

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 final…

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."

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 "Th…

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, K…

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 d…

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 affl…

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 t…

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 unidenti…

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 t…

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—si…

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 scu…

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.

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.

"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…

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 …

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 Cincinnat…

Birthday Number Two

Bench Press celebrates its second anniversary! I am giving away three free books on Facebook.