Monday, January 31, 2011

The Interminable Suicide of Gregory Church

LW has been introducing me to some of the best shows that came through town. Last night, GH and I joined her at St. Ann's Warehouse to watch "The Interminable Suicide of Gregory Church," a monologue written and performed at a furiously voluble--or volubly furious--speed by Daniel Kitson. The show, which won an Edinburgh Fringe First Award in 2009, tells the discovery of a trove of letters written by Church when Kitson was house-hunting in Yorkshire. The first letter Kitson could read, still sitting in the typewriter, was a suicide note. What followed was one obsessive man's quest to understand another obsessive man. It was a most compelling performance, with no other prop, but a notepad, a glass of water, a restless body and a voice that hurries over its occasional stutter.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

A Self-Governing Ensemble

TB and I heard Orpheus Chamber Orchestra at Carnegie Hall last night. Founded in 1972, the self-governing ensemble performs without a conductor, rotating musical leadership roles for each work. The program last night: Schumann's Overture to Hermann and Dorothea, Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Krzysztof Penderecki's Serenade, and Brahms's Serenade No. 2 in A major.

I enjoyed the first and third movements of the Prokofiev, but was hooked by the Penderecki. From the program note: "There are Baroque leanings in the opening Passacaglia, referencing the compositional technique that builds variations over a constant repeated pattern. Penderecki's Passacaglia roils the underlying ground, but nearly every figure shares the distinguished stamp of three chromatic notes rising or falling, the layers interwoven with imitation and counterpoint. The Larghetto, with its lush harmonies and emotional intensity nods to the great string serenades of the 19th century..."

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Coen Brothers' "True Grit"

Less than impressed by this re-make of a John Wayne classic, both adapted from a Charles Portis novel of the same name. Good acting from Jeff Bridges (Rooster Cogburn), Hailee Steinfeld (Mattie Ross), Matt Damon (LaBouef), and Josh Brolin (Tom Chaney). Beautiful cinematography by Roger Deakins. Sympathetic score by Carter Burwell. But the story is just so-so. Young girl hunts for her father's killer with the reluctant help of a drunken U.S. Marshal and an insecure Texas Ranger. As was expected of me, I admired Mattie's gumption, appreciated Rooster's dishonorable honor, and liked LaBouef's show-off. And I was mildly bored, because these characters did not surprise me or themselves. If this is a Western classic, no wonder the genre has never had much appeal for me. I have read reviews that try to see the film as a postmodernist take on the genre, but that interpretation does not persuade me. What is left in me is a couple of surrealistic, non-essential scenes. The man hanged very high up from a very high tree. The medicine man with a bear head for a hat.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Honors for Stephanie Bart-Horvath

Stephanie Bart-Horvath, who designed my new book of poems, art directed and designed Dave the Potter, which just won the Caldecott Honor and Coretta Scot King Illustration awards for 2011. Congrats, Steph! This achievement follows last year's 2010 Pura Belpré Award for Book Fiesta, which she also art directed and designed. I am lucky to have such a fine designer for Seven Studies for a Self Portrait.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Desire and Unseen Orders

TLS January 12 2011

from Julian Bell's review of Deanna Petherbridge's The Primacy of Drawing: Histories and theories of practice:

... Klee's notion of "taking a line for a walk", or Matisse's "desire of the line"...

***

from John Ray's review of British Museum exhibit "Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead":

O my heart of my mother, my heart of my forms, do not stand against me as a witness, do not oppose me in the tribunal, do not incline against me in the presence of the Keeper of the scales, for you are my spirit which is in my body, the god with the potter's wheel who moulded and made safe my limbs. Go on to the happy places to which we speed.

In ancient Egypt, these were the words that were needed during the judgement of the dead. The subject's heart is being weighed in a balance, in the presence of the most awesome of the gods. In the opposite pan of the scales is the feather of truth, and the heart of the righteous is required to weigh no more and no less than this feather. But the heart of the owner's forms (the different stages of his life) is also his conscience, and it may choose to upset the balance and condemn him at the critical moment. If this happens, the monster called the Devourer (part crocodile, part lion and part hippopotamus) is waiting at the foot of the scales. Hence this spell, intended to quieten the heart, which is known to Egyptologists as Chapter 30B of the Book of the Dead. It was also inscribed on scarabs or other amulets and placed on the chest of the mummy.

***

TLS January 21 2011

from N. J. Enfield's review of Paul Bloom's How Pleasure Works: The new science of why we like what we like:

Seemingly irrational devotion to a cricket ball [batted by Brian Lara to break Garry Sobers's world record Test match high score of 364 runs] only makes sense if you have a predilection for what Bloom calls "realities that are not present to the senses". What's required is a psychological bent for "unseen order", a term William James used in characterizing the object of human religious thought and experience.

*

To "see" an author's intentions in ink marks is to put them there, in a way that only humans know. Paul Bloom's engaging account shows that desire is mostly just like this, but not because such depths are unique to it. The depths of desire are the same depths we see in all the kinds of hidden meaning that shape our human lives.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Inheriting Craziness and Other Courtesies

Thomas Fucaloro read from his new book at Cornelia Street Cafe last evening. inheriting craziness is like a soft halo of light, published by Three Rooms Press, collects poems about family, love and the commercialization of modern life, and their persistent tone is comical self-deflation. The speaker in them almost always manages to be bathetic and pathetic at once. The main poetic strategy is one of juxtaposition, of different registers, images and situations.

Thomas is a very likable reader, and his poems make plain their desperation to please. This desperation is a source of the poems' strength, but it is also a cause of their weakness. They are made to give a big pay-off only at the end, but occasionally the ending does not deliver. The last poem he read last night "Tom and Jerry" delivered in his quite inimitable manner. What seemed to be a poem about sexual appetite wound up to be a poem about self-division. It is refreshing to approach existential angst through the silliness of old cartoons.

After I read my poem for the open-mic, the man who sat next to me thanked me. He said nothing else. He just said, "Thanks." It is the best thing anyone could say to me after hearing or reading my poems.

This morning, I reviewed the proofs of my new book of poems. The book felt nice and thick in my hand. The cover has turned out very well, though it would have looked even better matte instead of glossy. But Amazon Createspace has only the glossy option. The photo spreads at the head of each poetic sequence look much bolder than they did in the pdf files. I like the boldness. Delicacy and strength, restraint and force, these pairs of antitheses are very much on my mind.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

"Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom"

Watched Salò (1975) last night. Found it to be as disturbing as it is reputed to be. I almost retched when the Duke forced one of the girls to eat his shit, with a spoon. The power of an image. My room may not be the cleanest place in the world, but it is not a pigsty. When the victims were treated to a banquet of feces, however, I could almost smell and taste their fare. Worse followed when they were tortured by scalping, branding, cutting of tongue and gorging of eyes, while the four Fascist libertines took turns to watch from a window. I looked at the victims through their torturers' binoculars.

This update of Marquis de Sade was intended by its writer and director Pier Paulo Pasolini to be a critique of Italian Fascism. The Republic of Salò was the Fascist-occupied portion of Italy in 1944. The film began with the Duke, the President, the Bishop and the Magistrate giving their daughters to each other in marriage as a way of sealing their pact. But the visceral images of horror became detached, for me, from the political commentary. They had a force that went beyond any allegory.

Closer to explaining the film's effect is the idea of the commodification of the human body under late capitalism, a belief held by Pasolini. But the film itself does not seem to illustrate the workings of capital; it shows instead the twisted desires of four powerful men, aroused by four prostitutes who told stories of sexual humiliation in their past. The film does give instances of human feelings that are contrary to sadism. One of the white guards falls for a black servant, and they are making love when they are found and shot. Two of the female victims find some consolation in their feelings for each other. One of the prostitutes, who played the piano during the storytelling, finally cannot bear the sounds of the torture, and throws herself through a window and falls to her death. How do these people become the exceptions if they are living under baleful capitalism too?

But locating good and evil in individual persons is not much of an explanation either.  If this film offers an insight into the human condition, that insight is not so much political or economic as it is socio-psychological. That obsessions require ritual, as shown in the first Circle of the film, and that ritual has an element of obsession. In the second Circle, our disgust with feces has to do with our fear of death. The third and last Circle, that of blood, is less easily understood in this way. From that circle, not only do I remember the bloodletting, but also the only erotic scene of the movie: a camp guard barebacking the Bishop. The camera caresses the guard's muscular back and, when the sheet slips off, his beautiful buttocks. What has that to do with blood?

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Let This Year Be

The Flea's Broadsheet No. 12 has just been published. Poems by various hands, including my bloody one.

*

I am hooked on Updike. I finished reading Rabbit, Run yesterday (my first e-book), and felt I had discovered a new guru. Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom knows he is made for something better than a stale life with wife and kid. Running off in pursuit of the good, without a map or a destination, he leaves behind him a trail of pain and disappointments, a trail that ends in a tragedy. What elates me is how, despite all kinds of social and personal pressures, Rabbit finally rejects responsibility for the tragic accident. The easy way out was to accept responsibility and so be locked into a socially sanctioned but personal intolerable reunion with his wife and kid, but Harry runs off, for the third time in the novel, winged by the painful and dubious joy of being alone responsible for one's life.

*

What does Rabbit say to me as I look with GH for an apartment in which to start a joined life? I should be running into this new life, or this new life is not for me. And I am. And it is.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Poem: "No Snow Day"

No Snow Day

We counted on a Snow Day,
counted on impassable roads,
on schools closed at long last,
even if for a day, counted
on sledding in the morning
and, when tired of the wind
flattening our face, counted on
shimmying under our sheets
to feel the cold melting into
a pool, we counted, we did,
on a Snow Day, on being
irresponsible as the dead,
on a likable stammer, a shuteye,
but the snow never came.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Poem: "Terrorist"

Terrorist

“the one no-one could put a stop to
stopped herself before night fell.”
—Marina Tsvetaeva, from Playacting, trans. Christopher Whyte

She was the flying ball
at the end of the string
and the white hand at
the other end spinning.

She was the blue string,
winding round the hand,
that brings the flying ball
closer and closer in.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Poem: "Sculptor"

Sculptor

"The sun is unique, but it strolls through every city.
It belongs to me. And I don't intend to share it [...]"
-Marina Tsvetaeva, from Playacting, trans. Christopher Whyte

"Not marble, gold nor bronze, but branches
disfigured by snow or burrowing insects.
Christmas lights budding from plastic vines.
Magnetic tape gutted from cassettes. Spark plugs.

"She is dressing up a totem or a room, she thinks,
but ends up fixing another memorial to him,
not the husband who feeds the dogs and walks
the two dueling ones, but the handsome druggie son."

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Poem: "School Teacher"

School Teacher

"Friendship's against the rules, and loving you's
impossible!"
-Marina Tsvetaeva, from Playacting, trans. Christopher Whyte

"Too much, too much school in you!
Perfect hair. Unhappy family.
Your habit when coming to the phone
of authorizing, This is she.

"You took nothing for granted, ever.
Drew in your books with a steel ruler.
You graded every night and every day
was preparation for another."

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Stephen Burt's "Close Calls with Nonsense"

Over the New Year weekend, spent on the bus and in the Woodstock home of D and T, who kindly took in a pair of holiday orphans, I read Close Calls with Nonsense, Stephen Burt's collection of essays on contemporary poetry, in particular, the kind he baptized Elliptical in an earlier article. To that article (included in this collection) he appends a 2004 postscript, in which he defends the notion of such a poetic "school."

I think it is interesting to try to identify the common features of several vital poetic styles, especially if they seem to develop in response to the historical moment, and if they attract emulation by younger poets. But such an identification could have the effect of rendering poets who do not write in such a style even more invisible to the literary public. This is of course a natural consequence of championing any particular school. Burt is a gentle champion. He does not make grand claims with evangelistic fervor for the Elliptical poets but invites the reader to try some rather difficult poets that he himself have enjoyed working out. With me he succeeds most with his essays on Rae Armantrout (a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet) and Liz Waldner. The most useful piece in this section of the book is the essay about the influence of John Berryman on Mark Levine, Lucie Brock-Broido, Kevin Young, Susan Wheeler and Mary Jo Bang, among others.

Despite Burt's identification with the term he invented, Close Calls actually shows the catholicity of his taste. Not only does he write sensitively of the sadness of John Ashbery, he also enjoys the sociability of James Merrill's formalist verse. He is appreciative of both Robert Creeley's laconic lines and Frank O'Hara's spontaneous chatter. He attends smartly to Thom Gunn's "Kinesthetic Aesthetics" and to A. R. Ammons's "Marvelous Devising." One section of the book is devoted to non-Americans such as James K. Baxter, Les Murray, John Trantor, Denise Riley and Paul Muldoon. The last poet considered in a chapter of his own is William Carlos Williams. He is celebrated here not for his Americanness but for his innovative music.

In every essay Burt is concerned to describe what is singular in his chosen poets, what they should be valued for. And he finds very different values. If the values share anything in common, they are broadly humanistic, generously liberal. They are ethical but non-religious. Throughout he is suspicious of prescriptions, poetic or otherwise. He is interested, instead, in the development of an individual style.