Showing posts from August, 2011

Tragedy in London, Nixon in China

Bluebird, directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch, and written by Simon Stephens, at Atlantic Theater Company Stage 2 this afternoon. Strong performance by Simon Russell Beale as a London cab driver whose reticence elicits life-stories from his fares. He reveals at the end that he has a harrowing story of his own. LW and I ran into the actor at the Grey Dog Cafe after the show. He was very pleasant when LW told him how fantastic he was in the play.

Then I watched John Adams's opera Nixon in China on HD screen at Lincoln Center Plaza tonight.  Act 3, in which the Americans get roped into the story of the Communist Revolution is engagingly dramatic. The other acts are a little weird for my taste. The libretto seemed to be a patchwork of pseudo-philosophical statements and banal facts. The music with its minimalist repetitions is slightly more interesting. The opera has a kind of crude boldness that is more American than Chinese.

Gluck's "Iphigénie en Tauride"

Last night, with LW and AG, watched Iphigénie en Tauride by Christoph Willibald Ritter von Gluck. On the big screen, as it was, a part of the Met Opera’s annual HD Summer Festival. The plot reworks a play by Euripides, in which Iphigénie is not sacrificed by her father Agamemnon, but is rescued by Diana. Held captive by the Scythians, she (a passionate Susan Graham) is forced to conduct their human sacrifices as a high priestess.

The drama really begins when the Scythians capture her brother Orestes (Plácido Domingo), still fleeing from the Furies unleashed by his killing of his mother in revenge for her murder of his father and her husband. A terribly ironic cycle would be complete if Iphigénie kills her brother as a Scythian sacrifice to the gods. The seemingly inevitable tragic ending is complicated and delayed by Pylades (marvelous Paul Groves), Orestes’ companion in his flight, who loves Orestes enough to die for him. He is the only guiltless one, unlike the House of Atreus.


Four British Films in Two Weeks

Put them on record before I forget. Two triumphs over adversity, though the triumphs are very different, as are the adversities. In The King's Speech, directed by Tom Hooper, King George VI (Colin Firth) overcomes his stutter with the help of his speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) to speak to his people at the outbreak of World War II. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 1 watched on my laptop and Part 2 in the theater), directed by David Yates, the schoolboy wizard (Daniel Radcliffe) manages to destroy the horcruxes and so put an end to the evil Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes).

There are similarities between the films, however. King George VI's speech impediment is pinned by the film on his feelings of inadequacy, in particular, in failing to live up to his father's expectations. Potter too has big shoes to fill, those of his father who was the golden boy of Hogwarts, and who died fighting against Voldemort. He is also the spiritual son of headmaster Dumble…

Ruth Pitter's "Collected Poems"

Ruth Pitter lived in the twentieth century (1897-1992), but her poetry lives in an earlier time. It refuses to acknowledge Matthew Arnold's "melancholy, long, withdrawing roar" of faith, but struggles in isolation with religious doubt and meaning. As such, it is, on occasion, a powerfully individual poetry, but it is also radically cut off from the most significant movements of her time. The refusal to engage with Modernism and its aftermath stunts the poetry. The slightly archaic diction and windy abstractions persist into the late poems. The use of traditional verse forms (including the heroic couplet) evinces individual skill but makes no larger argument, unlike the work of Eliot, Auden and Larkin. A few late poems grapple with modern science, but the main thematic development in the Collected Poems is from the observation of nature to the description of dreams-visions, a movement backwards in time, from Romanticism to medievalism.

The nature poems, from the start, ar…

The Vital Gay Universe

Eshuneutics' seven-part review of Seven Studies for a Self Portrait gives itself away: it examines the poetry with generous attention, and reveals the reviewer's own disposition. Here is a man who is highly critical of any weak versions of what it means to be a gay poet, just as he is of any limited interpretation of the context and influences of a work of poetry. He calls for forceful expression and broad sympathy in writing and reviewing. Sincerity, that supposedly discredited Romantic criterion, is bolstered by knowledge and judgment, and so becomes hard-earned authority.

Parts One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six and Seven.

Hermione Lee's "Virginia Woolf"

Hermione Lee's Woolf is a major Modernist who in conscious reaction against Victorian society and in artistic competition with other modern writers (Katherine Mansfield, Lytton Strachey, among others) set herself formal problems and solved them in her novels. Revealing is her process of writing. The intensity of writing a complete first draft gripped her but the coldness of revision was repugnant. She revised with great reluctance and labor, for re-reading what she wrote often shook her confidence in the writing. She was to the end of her life terrified of being laughed at. Despite her concern with form, when she tried to define to herself the essence of literature, she settled on "emotion."

To argue for Woolf's significance, the biography also attends carefully to the political writing, primarily A Room of One's Own and Three Guineas. In doing so, it shows convincingly how Woolf developed her feminism in response to her traditional upbringing, the women's su…

Eshuneutics reviews "Seven Studies for a Self Portrait"

Eshuneutics is writing a seven-part review of Seven Studies for a Self Portrait, and has posted Parts 1 to 3 so far. Part 1 examines the significance of the collection as a book of gay poetry. Its emphasis on my attempt to "give style" to disparate experiences is completely accurate. Part 2 is a more philosophical meditation on the spiritual ethos of the book. Part 3 reads the opening title sequence closely for its poetic strategy and music. The on-going review looks set to complement Nicholas Liu's QLRS review very nicely.

The BMW Guggenheim Lab

Visited the BMW Guggenheim Lab at Houston and Second Avenue today. The disused lot, wedged between two apartment buildings, is now occupied by a mobile structure that hosts community discussions, lectures and film screenings. It is designed by Tokyo architecture film Atelier Bow-Wow as "a traveling toolbox."

On its website, the project is billed as
a mobile laboratory traveling to nine major cities worldwide over six years. Led by international, interdisciplinary teams of emerging talents in the areas of urbanism, architecture, art, design, science, technology, education, and sustainability, the Lab addresses issues of contemporary urban life through programs and public discourse. Its goal is the exploration of new ideas, experimentation, and ultimately the creation of forward-thinking solutions for city life.
On a bulletin board, titled "Legacy of the Lab," at the actual site, was a list of bullet points that seemed to be a summary of a round-table discussion on su…

Reading Hermione Lee's "Virginia Woolf"

It is a big book, 761 pages, and I am only at page 490 after working at it for two weeks. The mastery of detail is dazzling, the letters, the diaries, the writings, the biographies, the gossip, not just of Virginia, but also of her family and friends. Lee has a particular feeling for houses, just as Virginia had, and she describes them with much atmosphere. A tally of the houses:

Talland House, the Stephens' beloved childhood summer house at St. Ives; 22 Hyde Park Gate, the family's Victorian home in London;  the convivial house shared by Thoby, Vanessa, Virginia and Adrian, after their parents' death, at Gordon Square in Bloomsbury; the unhappy house shared with Adrian at Fitzroy Square after Thoby's death and Vanessa's marriage to Clive Bell; No. 38 Brunswick Square, where Virginia rented rooms to Maynard Keynes and his lover Duncan Grant, and, later, Leonard Woolf; Asheham, where Virginia and Leonard spent the first night of their marriage; Monk's House in t…

John Updike's "In the Beauty of the Lilies" (1996)

It is a tour-de-force, a novel that telescopes 80 years of American history through the lives of four characters. A Presbyterian minister who loses his faith. A young man who fears the world and so settles for the routine of mail delivery. A Hollywood star. A joiner of a religious cult. What connects them is family, for the cult follower is the son of the Hollywood star, who is the daughter of the mailman, who is the son of the minister. Through these four generational representatives, Updike traces the loss of religious faith in American society, and its attempted replacement by cinematic and fanatic illusions.

And yet the characters are no mere tools. I finish reading the novel, feeling that I have lived with Clarence, Teddy, Essie, and Clark, that they are people I could have known had I lived in their time and place. Their realism is borne out not only by the acute observations and evocative language of the novel, but also by the clear motive force in their psychology. The same in…

Nicholas Liu reviews "Seven Studies for a Self Portrait"

I think Nick has written an excellent review, not merely because he admires my book, and therefore shows good taste, but because he displays the informed and critical sympathy that a reviewer should have.

Koh Jee Leong's fine, if uneven, first book (Equal to the Earth, 2009) demonstrated at once his capacity for restraint and his willingness to sacrifice good taste in the service of a larger aesthetic aim. Sensibility and spirit have now crystallised into a mission, and Koh doesn't care who knows it. Or rather, he cares very much indeed. Not since kensai's ill-fated Maiden (2002) has a collection of Singapore poetry in English wanted to matter as much as does Seven Studies for a Self Portrait. Beginning with its summative, triply-alliterative title and its somewhat over-literal cover (seven photographs of the poet!), the book advertises its project loudly, erects its own museum placard. To top it off, Koh selects an opening quotation from Nietszche's Thus Spoke Zarathus…

Marjorie Perloff's "Unoriginal Genius"

From the point of view of this skeptical non-reader of avant-garde poetry, Perloff's book is an excellent introduction to the New Poetics of the twenty-first century. The new poetry, according to Perloff, is the poetry of citation and appropriation, a poetry that confronts the present-day challenge of managing, presenting and reframing the information so readily and abundantly available through the new technologies such as the Internet. Older poetry cited and appropriated too, but, Perloff argues, the new poetry does so to such an extent that it becomes a different kind. The inspiration for it is not so much Eliot's "The Waste Land" as Pound's Cantos, where citation becomes structural.

Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project, which Perloff discusses in her first chapter, is also a source of inspiration. In its organization into folders, its juxtaposition of quotations, its non-linear index, and its use of symbols to link one quotation to another on a different page…

SSSP Review in "Tidningen Kulturen"

Freke Räihä reviews Seven Studies for a Self Portrait for Tidningen Kulturen, a Swedish magazine of culture. The review, in English, is strongly impressionistic. Some of its phrasing, as in "nakedness amplified," is as salty as it describes the poetry to be.

Neighborhoods in SF

GH's birthday yesterday. We planned an easy day, lunch in a park overlooking the city, and dinner at Ideale, which he had tried unsuccessfully twice to get in. In the morning we shopped in Haight-Ashbury. The neighborhood has completed the process of gentrification that I saw starting two years ago. I bought two nice fitting shirts at the boutique Villains. We looked around the shop aptly called Creepy Crawly Things. We bought lunch at a deli and supermarket, and walked up Buena Vista Park. On top, four hippy-looking young people, two guys and two girls, had parked themselves at the best view. The two girls were doing yoga on the circular lawn. One said that they should form a sundial.

We walked down the hill to Castro, and enjoyed the relaxed Friday atmosphere. Then we went to the downtown architecture bookshop William Stout. I read in the store a book of photography about Louis Sullivan. The extracts from Kindergarten Chats combined uncompromising individualism and spiritual de…

Collectors and Promoters: the Steins

The Steins Collect at the SFMoMA is a big show. it reunites the collections of Gertrude, Leo, and Michael and Sarah Stein, dispersed after their deaths. Gertrude and Leo collected both Matisse and Picasso, among other artists, until they quarreled over Picasso's turn to Cubism. Leo rejected Picasso and became contented with looking at Matisse's new work in exhibition. Gertrude continued to champion Picasso, but not Matisse, for she saw an analogue in the Spanish master's experiments in forms to her own avant-gardism in writing. Michael and Sarah remained faithful to Matisse, who loved their son Allan and painted him many times. Portraits of Michael and Sarah by Matisse were hung in pride of place in their house.

There were so many Matisse works in the show that it was impossible to do them justice on one visit. I was enchanted by joyous colors of The Girl with Green Eyes, as well as a small delicate drawing of Madame Matisse in the olive grove. The Conversation, a paintin…

The Hesse Collection

We enjoyed our stay at Caymus Rancho so much that we were quite sad to leave it: the private balcony where GH sketched, I read, and we drank and read while watching the sun set; the tree outside the window in the morning, with leaves in gentle Pissarro colors; the old wooden floor; the split level which elevated the sleeping area, and so gave going to bed a sense of ceremony; and the movie loans for the end of a long, sunshine-saturated day.

The Hesse Collection was off the beaten track and on higher ground. The gardens were bursting with flowers and the lotus pond was a long stone rectangle. The art museum was subtly joined to the winery. I loved Robert Motherwell's Open No. 88 for its achieved sense of balance and proportion, while showing its process in the form of erased lines. It inspired me to think about incorporating process into my polish. I also liked Surface Tension, a netting made with twigs pinned together with hawthorn thorns only, no glue or nails. Made by a Scottis…

Napa Valley

A walk along shady Rutherford Crossroad while GH ran, and then continental breakfast at the hotel. A lazy morning reading papers and Updike's In the Beauty of the Lilies. We visited Rubicon Estate owned by Francis Ford Coppola, and admired its manicured grounds and house. There was an interesting display of magic lanterns. Behind glass windows and doors dusty vintage wines slept on undisturbed shelves, wines bottled as early as 1946. Drove to Calistoga, walked up and down its Main Street shops, and had lunch at a diner that is more than 100 years old.

Clos Pegase was designed by American architect Michael Graves in an eclectic style that combines a Spanish courtyard, Greek pillars and geometric forms. GH was inspired by him to turn from designing teapots to designing buildings. Many sculptures stood around the grounds. I especially liked the mobile sculpture of George Rickey. Its two lancets rotated on their own center, and as they swung gently with the breeze they danced towards…

San Franciso

Arrived in San Francisco on Saturday, after what seemed like an extraordinarily long flight, but was merely a reality check on the width between coasts. After checking in at le Meridien, into a room with a beautiful view of the bay, we walked around the Embarcadero. GH liked the restored Ferry Building, as I thought he would. At night we took the Muni to Castro, had dinner at a small Mexican joint and danced at Badlands.

The next day, we returned to Castro to shop. I picked up a corduroy jacket that I really liked. SF was colder than we thought, and the jacket came in handy. GH also bought a fitting jacket from one of nicer Castro shops. We did more shopping in Union Square. I am not a shopaholic, but it's nice to get a couple of good-looking things.

On Monday we picked up the car from Enterprise, and drove over the Golden Gate Bridge into wine country. We are staying at Rancho Caymus, a 26-suite inn built in the style of a Spanish hacienda. It is owned by the Komes family, which …

M. H. Abrams's "The Mirror and the Lamp"

I read this landmark book of criticism on Romantic theory while I was an undergraduate. It was immensely useful not only in examining the critical ideas of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Hazlitt, J. S. Mill and other Romantic theorists, but also in contextualizing these ideas in the Western critical tradition, from Plato and Aristotle to the Neo-classicists of the eighteenth century. The division of poetic theories into four main kinds--mimetic, pragmatic, expressive, and objective--each focusing on one main aspect of poetry--the world, the audience, the poet, and the work itself--is a rough but useful generalization.

Reading it again in order to prepare for a course on Coleridge, Wordsworth and Keats, I am struck by how many of my poetic ideas are Romantic in origin. I was not unaware of this, but realize afresh the depth of my debt. I am not alone in this, of course, for it can be argued that the mainstream of Western poetry has remained essentially expressive, though there …

Azazel Jacobs' "Terri" (2001)

Watched "Terri" with WL at the Angelika yesterday. A movie about an overweight teenage boy that does not divide people up into bullies and victims nor does it conjure up any miraculous transformation. Instead, it offers flawed people struggling to keep a shred of dignity, not least the headmaster Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly) who tries to turn Terri around when he himself is close to a divorce.

Jacob Wysocki is terrific as the titular character: a loving and sensitive young man hiding a deep well of rage and need. Bridger Zadina plays Chad, the fellow "monster" who reaches out to Terri. Olivia Crocicchia completes the trio as the girl with a bad reputation, Heather Miles. The scene with the three of them getting drunk on whisky and popping Terri's uncle's pills is a highly uncomfortable mix of aggression, seduction and hurt. It is one of the best things of the movie, besides the scene in which Terri catches sight of the beautiful hawk that has been feedin…

The Agency of Certain Women

Reading the TLS review of Robert Duncan's The H.D. Book, edited by Michael Broughn and Victor Coleman, I come across Duncan's explanation for his book:

I am searching out, a poetics . . . my initiation of self as poet in the ground of the poet H.D. . . . how I had found my life in poetry through the agency of certain women".
I am not yet a reader of Duncan, nor a serious reader of H.D., but Duncan's words here touch on my writing project, my next book Infinite Variety. I have been writing poems that take off from poems by women poets. Influenced by Michael Schmidt's description of a batch of these poems I submitted to PN Review, I have been thinking of the women's poems as points of departure. That description has been niggling my mind as not quite accurate, because I don't leave these poets behind me. They are with me. Duncan's words give me an alternative formulation. In my poems, I am thinking with these women poets. I think I will drop the rather pr…