Thursday, September 29, 2011

Susan Howe's "That This"

That This, about the death of Howe's husband, the philosopher Peter Hare, is an odd and sometimes beautiful book. The three parts that make up the book are very different, one might even say, at odds. Or so they seem.

The first part titled "The Disappearance Approach" is a rather conventional arrangement of diary-like prose entries. Beginning with the discovery of Hare dead in his bed, it proceeds by weaving fragments of memories with reflections on Jonathan Edwards and his family, Milton, W.H. Auden, Nicolas Poussin, and Ovid. The literary and artistic references give a sense of the couple's shared life, the Edwards reinforcing the New England connection, but they are also a rather familiar device to raise the tone and deepen the significance of one's loss.

Nothing particularly memorable is said about the writers. After quoting from a letter by Sara Edwards telling her daughter of Jonathan's death, Howe comments, "I love to read her husband's analogies, metaphors, and similes." In another fragment, she informs us that she's been reading Auden's The Sea and the Mirror. What does she get from it? "One beautiful sentence about the way we all reach and reach but never touch." Good enough for one's private journal but for a book of poetry? As if to make up for the threadbare observation, Howe continues, "A skinny covering overspreads our bones and our arms are thin wings." This writing is malnourished.

In the next part "Frolic Architecture," Howe has made type-collages of Hannah Edwards Wetmore's diary entries, with scissors, Scotch Tape and a Canon copier. The collages are startlingly beautiful on the page, clean and mutilated, in contrast with the six blurry and evocative photograms by James Welling that accompany the collages. Whereas the photograms bleed to the edges of their page, Howe's type-collages are sharply framed by their own cut edges in the middle of the page. In one collage, the words "ing body my body slipping" are sliced horizontally into two. They are followed by another line of words "d down full toward its own." After a bigger line spacing, the bottom half of the collage consists of three sightly misaligned columns of words:

secret     sermon     rough

a myst    sermon     of grac

a and i    sermon     sent to

The collages, like the one I just tried to describe, disrupt the conventions of type-setting and reading. The rupture echoes visually Wetmore's spiritual struggle and, by extension, Howe's tussle with grief. But the use of scissors, Scotch Tape and copier to produce this rupture feels like a form of play. It savors of art-and-craft. That this playfulness is intended can be seen in the title "Frolic Architecture." The first part of the book informed us that Peter Hare's father was "a modernist architect," and Hare's house in Buffalo, New York, into which Howe moved after their marriage, was filled with relics of family history. "Frolic Architecture" can be read, I suggest, as a playful subversion of the kind of grief memoir exemplified by the first part of the book. Its centered pieces also prepare readers for the reconstructed lyric of mourning in the third and final part of the book, also called "That This."

The first lyric, squarish in shape like all the others, continues in its diction the previous part of the book:

Day is a type when visible
objects change then put

on form but the anti-type
That thing not shadowed

The words are given heft because they are few in number. After reading "Frolic Architecture," however, the lyrics that follow also feel shreddable, contingent. Someone else may come along with her scissors and Scotch Tape. And in this way type is made to speak of anti-type, the visible to speak of "That thing not shadowed," form to speak of non-form. The present, re-written, reworked, is made to speak of the past:

That a solitary person bears
witness to law in the ark to

an altar of snow and every
age or century for a day is

For Howe, poetic form is inherited through refurbishment. I wish poetic language in this book is richer, less reliant on traditional tropes, but the book's formal innovation is stimulating.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Reading hosted by Boog City Newspaper

Boog City Newspaper, edited by David A. Kirschenbaum, hosted Poets Wear Prada at ACA Galleries in Chelsea tonight. I read with Austin Alexis, Joel Allegretti, Richard Marx Weinraub, Dorinda Wegener, Karen Neuberg, Maria Lisella and Carol Wiezerbicki. It was lovely chatting with Cindy Hochman for a bit, and to learn of her proofreading work. A reunion of sorts took place with Dorothy Friedman August, whom I met at Kate and Ron's writing circle some years ago. Her work struck me then as imaginative and idiosyncratic. Neither Cindy nor Dorothy was there to read, but were there to support their friends. Call our meetings serendipitous.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Poem: "Copy"

According to Writing: The Story of Alphabets and Scripts, by Georges Jean, when medieval scribes overlooked a line of writing, they would write it in the margin or at the bottom of the manuscript, and draw an arrow from it to the place where it should have appeared. The artist would even decorate the arrow with drawings of plants and animals climbing up the line of reparation.

This wonderful detail coalesced with my reading of Susan Howe's That This, a book of poems about her husband's death. The book is made up of three parts. The third part, also the title sequence, "delivers beautiful short squares of verse that might look at home in a hymnal" (back cover). Most of the poems there consist of two couplets separated by stanza break.

I follow that pattern in my poem "Copy" and include a missing line at the bottom of the poem, a line which should be re-inserted into the stanza break, where it belongs, with an arrow. The epigraph is from the first part of Howe's book.


     God is an epigraph

          Susan Howe, “The Disappearance Approach”

Scribe and inscribed
with parched minium

gothic black gold tape
a lumina manuscript

the woman writes in

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Poems in "Scythe"

Scythe, a journal edited by Chenelle and Joe Milford, grows out of their poetry radio show. Joe interviewed me way back in 2009, when my book Equal to the Earth was published. Chenelle wrote me a few months ago for some poems. Three of them, after Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, appear in the fall issue. The Milfords' dedication to poetry is heartening.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Spinning Bees

TLS September 23 2011

from Tim Blanning's review of Craig Koslofsky's Evening's Empire: A history of the night in early modern Europe:

No longer a time reserved for sleep, the night time was now the right time for all manner of recreational and representational purposes. This is what Craig Koslofsky called "nocturnalisation", defined as "the ongoing expansion of the legitimate social and symbolic uses of the night", a development to which he awards the status of "a revolution in early modern Europe."


The most effective instrument was street-lighting, introduced to Paris in 1667, Lille also in 1667, Amsterdam in 1669, Hamburg in 1673, Turin in 1675, Berlin in 1682, Copenhagen in 1683, and London, where private companies were contracted to provide the service, between 1684 and 1694.


It has always been the educated who had demonized folk beliefs, while the common people had made no automatic association between the night and evil or temptation. Particularly resistant, for example, in many parts of northern Europe was the "spinning bee", a nocturnal gathering of women to exchange gossip, stories, refreshment and--crucially--light and heat, as they spun wool or flax. It could also be the site of courtship, as young men could be admitted to add spice to these gatherings. Indeed, an illustration from Nuremberg depicts a regular orgy under way, including a priest "taking care of the cook".

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Tagore the Artist at Asia Society

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) began drawing and painting at the age of sixty-three. He grew up among artists but had no formal training himself. I found his drawings of animals and biomorphic forms and his portraits, on show at Asia Society, beautiful and mesmerizing. He did not title his works because he did not want words to come between the viewer and the artwork, but his lifelong work with words surely influenced his art, and gave him its central conception, that of rhythm. A happy coincidence that I was teaching just then Coleridge's "The Aeolian Harp," in which he describes "the one life within us and abroad" as "rhythm in all thought."

"Seated Woman: forward bend" (c. 1930-31), done with colored ink and watercolors on paper, is a dark enameled egg. The early ink-on-paper work "Striding Bird" (1928) is calligraphy in motion. I did not care so much for Tagore's landscapes, which struck me as rather sentimental and unoriginal. Figures and faces seemed to call forth his imaginative powers.

There were also a beautiful head of Vishnu and a gracious Cambodian (?) vase in the lobby of the Asia Society. The art was worth the visit, even though Leo Bar, the monthly gay happy hour at the Society, was rather stuffy. I have never seen so many suits at a gay party. David, one of the organizers, was nice enough to talk to me while I was waiting in a corner for WL and GH to arrive. But it's unlikely I will go back there for a drink.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Brooklyn Book Festival 2011

Roxanne was kind enough to invite me to share the table with her press, Poets Wear Prada. Somewhat to my surprise, I managed to sell seven books.

1. A woman quite soon after the start of the festival at 10 AM bought a copy of Seven Studies for her son, an English teacher who loves poetry.

2. Not too long after, another woman dipped into both of my books and bought Equal to the Earth on my recommendation that she get to know my work from the beginning. This sale is especially meaningful to me, for she liked enough what she read to pay for the risk of reading more of a stranger's work.

3. I sold another copy of Equal to a high-school junior who wants to write, and who loves T.S. Eliot, Allen Ginsberg and Cavafy.

4. A woman was thrilled to find Frida Kahlo and Egon Schiele in Seven Studies and bought a copy.

5. A colleague from school bought a copy of Equal.

6. An older gentleman liked what he read of Bob Hart's Lightly in the Good of Day, and bought a copy.

7. A music composer read Equal for a long while, went off, and then wandered back to buy a copy.

Besides my colleague, Sunu and Naomi dropped by too, the latter visiting for the weekend. Perry Brass, who organizes the Rainbow Book Fair, and Jerry Kajpust, who works for the Leslie / Lohman Gay Art Foundation, chatted with us. The day was a little chilly under the tent, but the sun brought the crowds out.

I did not go around the fair but did hear Kenneth Goldsmith speak as a part of a panel on the main stage. He was suited out in pink to play the provocateur, and gartered in pink-and-white-striped socks. After his reading, which I did not stay to hear, he walked past our table with flamboyant nonchalance.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Wild Reeds and Drug Mules

Last night GH and I watched Wild Reeds (1994), directed by André Téchiné. As an imdb reviewer observes, the film’s slight looseness does not matter in what is essentially, and beautifully, an insightful depiction of French coming-of-age in the time of the Algerian war. The title comes from the La Fontaine fable about the oak and the reed.

François Forestier (Gaël Morel), the model student who discovers he is gay, is the reed. He bends in the wind between the oaks: his Communist girlfriend Maïté Alvarez (Élodie Bouchez), his crush Henri Mariani (Frédéric Gorny), a pied-noir, an Algerian-born Frenchman, and his seducer Serge Bartolo (Stéphane Rideau) who lost his older brother to the war.

Politically uncommitted, sexually undecided, emotionally yearning, François is instrumental in bringing together his friends in the last extended scene of the movie. Swimming in the river or making love on its bank, the teenagers put down for an afternoon their burdens of loss and commitment, and relate to each other as bending reeds.

Maria Full of Grace (2004) was another movie on my Netflix queue for a while. I finally watched it last Friday. First-time director Joseph Marston made the movie after hearing her story from a neighbor in Brooklyn. Shot in documentary style, the film made astonishing use of its low budget. Sharp script (also written by Marston), convincing acting, unfussy cinematography.

Headstrong María Álvarez (Catalina Sandino Moreno), fired from her job of stripping roses of thorns, made pregnant by a boyfriend that she does not love and refuses to marry, decides to work as a drug mule, entering the USA with sixty-two pellets of cocaine in her stomach. After escaping the dealers, María wanders in a Queens neighborhood that I recognize. I think of Jackson Heights as a place for great Indian food. Gripping stories like María’s walk around in it too.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Poem: "Sex with Big Hands"

Sex with Big Hands

Desire, sight, Eyes, lips, seeke, see, prove, and find

     Lady Mary Wroth, “Pamphilia to Amphilanthus”

I want to hold up a boy’s big hands
and kiss him on his lips, gently first,
feeling the slight shock of contact
pass into a warming, then fitting
like a screw-top on a jar of jam,
when lips become mouths, mobile,
deep, and moist, tongues touching.

You know that moment when
a body that is holding itself in,
looking out, curious, cautious,
from behind a gauzy curtain,
relents and follows itself out
to greet your eager hips gladly,
that moment’s a proof, finding.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Poem: "domed/doomed/deem'd


This reading light on the poems of Lady Mary Wroth
is like my spot of consciousness. It decodes the marks,
grievous and oddly spelled, as in domed for doomed,
straightens out the urgent inversions, reconstructs
the labyrinth of sense into a familiar sonnet form,
and bathes (and I mean bathes) in the aura borealis.

Just beyond is darkness. Unseen, in the next room,
you finalize your drawings of the church renovation.
You said before, you love knowing that I am near,
hearing the couch sighing, or smelling my coffee,
whereas, submerged in my books, I am oblivious
to your existence, and so you feel outside of love.

Dear, you may be outside the circle of my thought,
but not the influence of love. As Lady Mary Wroth
writes, The knowing part of joye is deem'd the hart.
Know, if you must, a greater part lies in unknowing.
I am more than the heart, more than a reading light,
this coffee, this sighing, this darkness, is love too.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Poem: "Flinch"


Now, ten years later, when someone mentions 9/11,
you have learned not to flinch in your face or freeze,
or to flinch less visibly or to freeze less permanently.

for TS

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Poem: "The Cliché"

The Cliché

My mother will die with a cliché on her mouth—
I’m going to God or Love each other and live
she will embarrass me even in her last moment,
common as the Kleenex she blows her nose into.

Unlike Rita Dove’s Beulah, she will not think,
with horrified longing, There is no China.
She will not ask what she knows of Africa,
or the equivalent of a land of origin.

As far as she is concerned, China is Africa,
and Africa may as well be China as anything.
She is going to God. She has loved and lived.
My mother will die contented, non-tragic.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Poem: "Paragraph"


I tell my VI graders my favorite word is freedom.
It is a house with many rooms on a lazy afternoon,
and outside the house an overgrown path runs
to the woods, where a speckled stream gargles.
I tell them freedom is made up of two syllables.
The first sounds like the neighing of a runaway
horse, unbridled muscles in his voice. The second
echoes like a blow on the taut skin of a tom-tom.
And freedom, as all musicians and writers know,
is impossible without the discipline of the drum.
My students are impressed by my improvisation.
They turn to writing their paragraph with a will.
I look out the window of this old school building
and there’s the river, sun-lit, rippling green silk,
heading towards the sea. I don’t tell them the sea.
Or what becomes of a cart-horse with no master.
Or an abandoned house. I gently strike the drum.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Poem: "My Mother's Hips"

My Mother’s Hips

these hips are big hips

     Lucille Clifton, “homage to my hips”

They have a bicycle in them,
my mother’s hips. They move.
They have a washtub in them.
They do. Smell of soap suds.
They have a gas station too.
They don’t have a university
in them, they don’t, no, sir,
they don’t have a battlefield,
but they have training grounds
in Australia, they have India,
and the greatest city on earth,
New York, New York, where
I praise my mother’s hips.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Collective Brightness

Subtitled LGBTIQ Poets on Faith, Religion & Spirituality, the anthology is edited by Kevin Simmonds, published by Sibling Rivalry Press. The first part of my "Bull Eclogues" is reprinted; it looks helpless without the rest of the sequence. I think I may have made a poor decision to publish one part on its own. Many countries are represented in the anthology. I am amused to see Singapore listed immediately after the United States on the back cover. There are three of us in the anthology: Irfan Kasban, Cyril Wong and me. Gay. Singaporean. Poets. No women. It's a shame.

The anthology is very lightly edited. The poems are organized by the poets' names in alphabetical order. The introduction claims a number of firsts, but says little about queer poets' take on spirituality, beyond the general affirmation that through this book queer poetry has taken its place at religion's table. It has nothing to say about the historical relationship between queer poetry and religious faith. No mention even of Whitman and Dickinson, the obvious American precedents. The gap is perhaps just as well since the anthology's ambition is very modest. It aims to provide the general reader with an assortment of poems written by queer poets on matters religious. The poems, without any kind of contextualization, are left to fend for themselves. One that does it well is Benjamin Grossberg's "Beetle Orgy," which gives the anthology its name.

Poem: "Love and Lawlessness"

Love and Lawlessness

But love is lawlesse, every wight doth know

          Isabella Whitney, “The lamentation of a Gentilwoman upon the death of her late deceased friend William Gruffith Gent

We know it, but we know it suddenly
as a tree knows itself in a lightning-storm.
We know it fearfully, so most of the time
we’d rather not know it but fill in the form,
bring our own bags for bagging the grocery,
tear up the number, find an easy rhyme.

We know it, but we know it secretly
as a vineyard knows itself in the dark.
We know it nightly, so most of the day
we don’t remember it but hear the dog bark
with a deep blue sound, fumble with the key,
novelize a western township in decay.

We know it, but we know it privately
as a tulip knows itself in a tulip bed.
We know it flashily, so most of the thaw
we open to the sun our hearts and heads.
We know it and we know it defiantly,
but two is the beginning of the law.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Poem: "Indian Verandah"

Indian Verandah

Sister, you live in a very private place

     Meena Alexander, “Red Parapet”

I will visit you in New Delhi
in March, when school is out.

I will see your strange house,
verandah closing it around,

more like an old Malay palace
in Singapore than any rented

apartment in New York. I will
ask Raymond when he’s home

about managing a country’s oil
market, but say little about life

with Guy. I will run with Liesel
and read to Hannah the books

that she is fast out-growing. I
will be driven by your driver

through the old city, which will
remind me of the four long days

I was stuck in Calcutta when
my plane had engine trouble.

I will think that an itinerary
is always also an interruption.

In the relative coolness of
morning, I will sit with you

on the verandah, sipping tea
poured by your housekeeper,

both of us brightly polite
to her, neither of us used

to being served in our house,
if not by our young mother,

the tea strong, hot and sweet,
loose leaves from Dunagiri,

the air alive with insect
chirping and whirring,

which I cannot identify
and neither can you,

but you recall mornings,
before the girls were up,

when you came out into
the light and felt it wet,

and I listening to you speak
will close the time difference.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Lawson Fusao Inada's "Drawing the Line"

Inada's book of poems pays his respect to his elders, those in his family and beyond. It opens with a prose meditation on a photograph of Inada as a young boy and his paternal grandmother. There are poems to his grandparents and a long prose-poem to a larger-than-life uncle who made all kinds of horticultural life thrive in his "personal atmosphere." There are also love poems to his big Latina sisters and his fellow Latina brothers, with whom he grew up in their neighborhood in Fresno, California. A poem in 20 sections pays tribute to hardworking Hiroshi from Hiroshima, who migrated from Japan to work in Inada's grandfather's fish-store. There is a hint in the poem that Hiroshi is his grandfather's son from another family he had in Japan. These family portraits are drawn with so much love and admiration that it seems callous to ask for a more critical perspective. However, when in the poem "Picture," Inada invites the reader, and everyone, to join his family portrait, I think he empties the trope of family too much in order to extend his hospitality.

The language of the poems is very plain, enlivened by Californian colloquialism and Japanese expressions. The pace is very relaxed. At many points, plainness lapses into explicitness, which robs the poetry of the power of suggestion. Relaxation can also lapse into laxness. There is an attractive mischievousness running through the book, but the wit sometimes devolves into an irritating love of puns and homonyms. Inada loves to play with opposites, most variously in the poems "This One, That One" and "Over Here, Over There," most poignantly in the poem about Hiroshi, whose two expressions mezu-rah-shi (his way of saying "how special!") and moht-tai-nai (a combination of "what a shame" and "what a waste") describe first the fish-store, then the city dump, and finally the world.

The last poem of the book, also the title poem, remembers a different kind of ancestor. Yosh Kuromiya was one of the young men who resisted the draft after the government had interned him and his community in concentration camps during World War Two. Inada's plain language becomes eloquent in meditating on what it means for the young man to "draw the line." In the process the line changes from a line of resistance to the silhouette of Heart Mountain, which overlooked the camp. The simple line drawing becomes three-dimensional.