Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Anna Wickham's "The Contemplative Quarry": XII

I am reading Jennifer Vaughan Jones's biography of Anna Wickham alongside the poems. Quite horrified to learn that her husband committed her to a mental asylum for no reason other than the suspicion of an illicit liaison, her emotional outbursts and her stubborn desire to write poetry. In one of these outbursts, from the garden, Anna had shouted at Patrick her poem "Nervous Prostration," which begins:

I married a man of the Croydon class
When I was twenty-two,
And I vex him, and he bores me
Till we don't know what to do!
It isn't good form in the Croydon class
To say you love your wife,
So I spend my days with the tradesmen's books
And pray for the end of life...

Little wonder that Patrick was angered by Anna's poetry, an anger easily transmuted into a "concern" for Anna's sanity. Though Anna suffered much fear and many indignities in Brooke House, the asylum, she secretly carried out of it at the end of her time there 80 poems she had written. These were to form the core of the collection "The Contemplative Quarry," published by Harold Monro, of The Poetry Bookshop, who became a staunch supporter of Anna's poetry.

Jones's biography discovered an intriguing link between Monro and Brooke House. The mental asylum, a long-established and well-run concern, was one of the sources of Monro's income, and so gave him the financial independence to promote the profitless business of poetry. Jones could not determine if Monro knew of Anna when she was in Brooke House. The doctor who gave Anna paper to write her poems could have told Monro of his unusual patient, knowing Monro's interest in poetry, but nothing can be proven. What is clear is the irony that the man who owned the mental asylum also owned the press and the bookstore.

"XII The Affinity" is about Anna's marriage to Patrick, but in at least one stanza it gains additional resonance when Monro is brought into the picture. The poem begins with great bitterness:

I have to thank God I'm a woman,
For in these ordered days a woman only
Is free to be very hungry, very lonely.

The compulsion in "I have to" is both external and internal, or, more accurate, external pressure changed into internal willfulness. "Ordered" is sharp choice of word, for it connotes not just "orderly" (as in the regimentation of a mental asylum) but also "being ordered around." "Very hungry" and "very lonely," two different conditions, can be read as appositives for each other, due to the missing "and." I find the stark language utterly compelling. The same language animates the rest of the poem:

It is sad for Feminism, but still clear
That man, more often than woman, is a pioneer.
If I would confide a new thought,
First to a man must it be brought.

These lines make me think of Harold Monro as well as Patrick Hepburn, her husband. Does Anna have Monro, her publisher and supporter, in mind too?

The poem goes on to argue in crystal-cut quatrains that "the true male never yet walked/ Who liked to listen when his mate talked," and so the speaker-wife has learned from "a wealth of living" that she "must be silent, if [she] would be loved."

The poem turns at this point, for it realizes that female silence is a potential source of strength: it forces her to do all her thinking "by stealth," like the early Christians who pray secretly in the catacombs. If she were allowed to speak, "the things [she] spoke/ Would fill the air a while, and clear like smoke." Forbidden to speak, she has to write down her thoughts and so she can "show them to the Town," and not just to a husband, and so she can "re-read" her own thoughts in the future. I find immensely moving the idea that writing, for this woman, is not just for a public audience, but also for her private self.

The poem ends by repeating the opening tercet, which is a line shorter than the quatrains in the poem's body, and so enacts the diminishment that the stanza describes:

I have to thank God I'm a woman,
For in these ordered days a woman only
Is free to be very hungry, very lonely.

I said "diminishment," but Anna Wickham made much of little.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Anna Wickham's "The Contemplative Quarry": V

The fifth poem of Wickham's second book "Need to Rest" begins with an arresting claim:

I have no physical need of a chair

Not sure if she needs the word "physical" but it is there to contrast with the mental need she describes later in the poem. Why does she not need a chair? Because

I can double my body anywhere

Yes, witty follow-up. The body can find rest in itself, by acting upon itself, "doubling" as it were. Self-reliant, it can rest on a "stone" or the "ground," no chair necessary. But what the speaker needs is to "feed my wit/ With beauty and complexity." The emphasis here is on the feeding, and not the having. For if she thinks she already possesses "philosophy," then she were "high man without complexity." "Man" here means primarily humans, but I think by using "man" she also takes a dig against male complacency at having the answers to life. The complacent man, the "high" man, would fling himself on "any natural sod/ To scan the zenith and remember God." In other words, the "high" man would rest on his possession of wisdom. When he scans the zenith, he does not discover anything new, but merely remembers the old idea of God.

This reading about human complacency is confirmed by the next lines:

But it is needful man shall strive
With tortured matter, so to keep alive.

Life, for Wickham, resides in striving with tortured matter, and not with resting on any natural sod. It is a dynamic philosophy of will, not a static wisdom of possession. After this statement of its point--its need--the poem goes on to elaborate in six uninspired lines:

Idle man would never live to age:
He would run mad and die in rage.
When fat accumulations cloy,
War brings her sword to ravage and destroy,
That through the smoke of the consuming real
Man sees a clearer and more sure ideal.

The boldness here lies in the thought of war as a necessary destructive force to wake man to his ideal life of constant strife, but the expression of the thought is mundane and clumsy. The rhymes cripple the poetry.

Returning to the beginning of the poem, I now find it rather misleading. The central contrast in the poem is between those who rest in complacency and those who ever strive. The opening lines, however, posits a contrast between resting in a chair, and resting without a chair. I think this misdirection is caused by the common problem of discovering an arresting start for a poem, and then wandering away from it in the subsequent argument. One is naturally reluctant to delete the wonderful opening that gives rise to the poem, even if it does not lead logically into it. Wickham's editor comments that she seldom revised her poems. Her poems show the freshness of spontaneity, as well as its flaws.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Dads, Superheroes and English Professors

Quick movie round-up. Before I forget. GH and I watched Beginnings before I left for Singapore. The second feature film of conceptual and graphic artist Mike Mills, Beginnings explores the relationship between a father, who comes out as gay very late in life, and his son, who is still struggling to commit himself to a woman. Cine 1.0 has a good review, by Felicia Feaster, which looks at some of the film's artistic influences. Christopher Plummer turned in a nuanced performance as the gay father Hal Fields, and Ewan McGregor submerged himself in the son Oliver. GH loved the movie for its understated and subtle depiction of human complexity. I liked it too, but found it a little unambitious.

On the way to and in Singapore, I watched three comics flicks. On SIA's Kris World entertainment system, The Green Hornet, directed by Michel Gondry, played for laughs. It turned out to be the only way to take the film seriously. Seth Rogen played the hero Britt Reid aka The Green Hornet, but Jay Chou stole the show as his sidekick Kato.

I have always loved superhero movies. They are like comfort food, romantic comedies and detective fiction: they are predictable. On my own, I watched in Plaza Singapura The X-Men: First Class. Stylish storytelling and cinematography, if it harps a little too much on the mutant versus human theme. "Mutant and proud" is a slogan for the age of Lady Gaga and her little monsters. James McAvoy traded more on his good looks than acting chops in playing Charles Xavier. Michael Fassbender did not bring enough coherence to the character of Erik Lehnsherr/ Magneto. The Aryan/Jew and rich/poor dynamic between them did not get enough traction. Jennifer Lawrence gave Mystique a piercing vulnerability. Lucas Till, who played Havok, was adorable.

With RK, I watched The Green Lantern at CCK Lot 1. The attraction here, for both of us, was Ryan Reynolds, who appeared accordingly buff and semi-naked again and again in the film. He seemed to have shrunk in size from his turn in X-Men, and now looked more normal. I liked the bulkier version better. It went oddly with his boyish looks. The film was poorly scripted and directed. The best parts were when Reynolds acted goofy like his usual acting persona.

Last night, after Gay Pride day, I watched Wit, about an English professor's struggle with terminal ovarian cancer. Based on a play by Margaret Edson, directed by Mike Nichols, the movie was carried on the shoulders of Emma Thompson, who played the John Donne scholar Vivian Bearing. Thompson was compelling in her disintegration into pain and remorse. A scholar who prized academic rigor above human kindness, she learned what it felt like to be the subject of aggressive medical research for the sake of "knowledge." The irony was sharpened when the research assistant turned out to be a former student. Jonathan M. Woodward played that brash and brilliant young assistant Jason Posner with convincing brightness.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

2011 Gay Pride

I arrived home, in NYC, a day after New York passed marriage equality. GH had heard the announcement on TV, and gone down to the Stonewall Inn to celebrate the historic occasion. I was happy to hear the news, though marriage equality has not been as important to me as it is to the LGBT community in the USA. I did feel, however, that I had missed the moment, as I did, and will do, for other moments, because I am always on the move.

GH and I cannot decide right now whether to march in the Parade today. It'd be odd for him to march with the Gay Asian Men's Group, and not till now do I feel the limitations of racial and ethnic identification. I would feel odd too marching with his church group, though less so than he would feel marching with gay Asians. I do not think of myself as Christian any longer, but will go to the church service this morning with my guy.

I question my need to identify as gay by marching today. It's easy to join in a celebration, much harder to stand up when it really counts. Still, it would be perverse not to march for that reason.

*

We did not march, after all, but walked up and down the parade route, on the sidelines, and so walked at least twice the parade length. We had a drink at Agave on Sixth Avenue, watched a little more of the parade (always the same section that had finally caught up with us), and then had dinner in the well-hidden back garden of the Brazilian restaurant, Cafe Bee.

The new Dream Hotel, on 16th Street, by 9th Avenue, threw a free Pride party. After lining up for a while, we got in. The rooftop gave beautiful views of the city, to the left the Hudson River, to the right the Empire State Building and beyond. Lots of beautiful, muscular boys in revealing tank tops or less. Always bittersweet to watch them, conscious of my own age, conscious of my difference, and of their unattainability.

The poolside party was even more testosterone-filled, two men swimming lazily in the narrow pool. The hotel decor was too self-consciously chic for me, without real elegance, but perhaps that was an appropriate setting for the fantastic display of the male body.

Monday, June 20, 2011

From Anna Wickham's "The Contemplative Quarry": II-IV

The next three poems, increasingly longer and more complex in thought, express Anna Wickham’s views of her art.

In “II The Singer,” the speaker does not have peace to sit and sing, but is “stung with goads and whips,” and so instead of making a lovely poem, she builds songs “like iron ships.” Goads and whips evoke horses and chariots, and so subtly prepare for seafaring vessels. Since the next poem refers to the old Greek myths, it is not too far-fetched to think that by “iron ships” Wickham had in mind Homer’s “hollow ships.” All this is to point out that the imagery in the quatrain is more martial than it may first appear. The poem concludes with a modest but affecting wish, built in a sturdy tetrameter couplet.

Let it be something for my song.
If it is sometimes swift and strong.

“III New Waters” is less successful a song. It is clunky and chockfull of abstractions: it is not sufficiently imagined. The speaker rejects the Greek myths as tales “over-told.” By a “new risen Attic stream,” a mortal singer dreamed a new dream.

There are new waters, and a new Humanity.
For all old myths give us the dream to be,
We are outwearied with Persephone,
Rather than her, we’ll sing Reality.

The quadruple end-rhyme is simply awful. The use of “we” is utterly unjustified: it loses the peculiar sympathy that Wickham usually elicits from a reader.

“IV The Egoist,” consisting of four stanzas, is structured as a somewhat rhetorical question and three answers of increasing depth. The speaker asks, in the first stanza, if she should write “pretty poetry” that is “Controlled by ordered sense” in her and with “an old choice of figure and of word.”

Her first answer is that she can make a “synthesis” of the dead poets and learn “poetic form” from them, but she will use the figure “that is real/ For me, the figure that I feel.” Intriguing here is her distinction between form and figure. I wonder from whom she got her terms. It seems Romantic to me to gloss “real” with “that I feel.” The desire to be both traditional and individual reminds me of T. S. Eliot’s essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” (Is “synthesis” a self-consciously modern word, like the “objective correlative” and the chemistry images in Eliot’s essay?) But Eliot’s example shows that to be truly individual one needs not only individual figure (“Where the evening spreads against the sky/ Like a patient etherized upon a table.”) but also individual form (like the disjunctive music of “The Waste Land”). Anna’s formal innovations are a smaller individuality.

She argues against ear-perfect rhyme in her second answer/stanza, but in a spirit of concession. She is not a “clerk” who “can list all language in his leisure time.” She does not have all the time in the world, but in her haste she can seize a pleasing infelicity. Or, as she puts it:

A faulty rhyme may be a well-placed microtone,
And hold a perfect imperfection of its own.

The balance in the couplet is reminiscent of Pope in “An Essay on Criticism,” although the couplet is in hexameter. But the diction, the figure of “micro-tone," sounds the modern note.

The last answer/stanza is the most general and philosophical. She drops her self-deprecation and asserts “A poet rediscovers all creation.” “Creation” here may refer to both Nature and Poetry. That a poet traces the lineaments of Nature in her poems is a Romantic idea. That a poet traces the lineaments of all past poetry in her poems smacks of Modernism. In this process of re-discovering, the poet’s “instinct” gives him “beauty,” which Wickham glosses aptly as “sensed relation.”

Then in a beautiful break-away from the common measures of five and six stresses, the poem concludes and justifies itself:

It was as fit for one man’s thoughts to trot in iambs, as it is for me,
Who live not in the horse-age, but in the day of aeroplanes, to write my rhythm free.

The penultimate line has nine stresses, the last has eleven. She won through to a small but significant freedom.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

From Anna Wickham's "The Contemplative Quarry": "I Amourette"

The poems in Wickham’s second book are numbered as well as titled, giving the appearance of a sequence. Though the poems focus on recurring themes, they are written in different stanzaic forms, most often as a single stanza. They often rhyme in couplets too. This marriage of strict numbering and varied forms creates an impression of great spontaneity.

“I Amourette” is a dialogue between the Woman and the Philosopher. Unusual to the dialogue form is a kind of prelude in which the two speakers talk to themselves about the other before they join in “argument.” The Woman asks herself how she can please man best. Two options present themselves: “Shall I be silent? Shall I speak?” The Philosopher does not question himself but rather questions whether a woman can be wise when “her philosophy is but a lure.” The Philosopher thus sees wisdom as antithetical to love, or, more generally, feeling. He does not want his wisdom to fall to the “arsenal of charm” and the “ammunition of her thought.”

Desiring the “thrilling combat of the wit,” the Woman confesses to the Philosopher in sadomasochistic terms that she takes “strange delight” in being “beaten,” this right at the start of their argument. He rightly identifies her as a “sensualist” and kisses her. She teases him by calling his forwardness at their first meeting “husbandry,” a loaded word. She promises him that from this “first pleasure” that he “sows” in her, she has the power to raise a shady grove for him. It is interesting here that the poet assigns masculine imagery to the Woman as well as the Philosopher.

Charmed by her answer, the Philosopher promises to return another night. The Woman concludes the dialogue with a complicated wish:

Dreams, dreams, stay with me till I sleep,
Then let oblivion steep
My senses in forgetfulness,
That when I wake, I may forget my loneliness.

Does “dreams” refer to the dream of the philosopher’s return or does it indicate that the charmed philosopher was a dream, an impossibility? It is disturbing to describe sleep as “oblivion,” especially in the context of a philosophical dialogue. Finally, does she forget her loneliness when she wakes because she has forgotten the lover during her sleep? If so, she does not seem to have gained her objective at the start of the poem. Is she winner or loser at the end? Wiser or foolish?

Despite the ambiguities, what is clear is the speaker’s intellectual and emotional isolation. She lacks a Philosopher-lover. By referring to her “senses,” she justifies the Philosopher’s description of her as a “sensualist,” and so perhaps feels even more acutely the absence of a man who understands her.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

From Anna Wickham's "Songs of John Oland"

According to the editor’s note, many poems of this privately printed collection (1911) were reissued in later volumes. This selection of 14 poems already presents the major themes, which recur in Wickham’s writings. The conflict between men and women is depicted in “Song of the Low-Caste Wife,” “Surrender,” “Divorce,” and “All Men to Women.” The ambition to be a writer appears in “Illusion,” “The Artist’s Life,” and “Inspiration.” The post-Darwin loss of religious faith inspires the poems “The Call for Faith,” “The Song of the Child,” and “The Sinner.” Finally, the theme of motherhood is expressed in “The Song of the Mother,” “The Town Dirge” (about the death of a poor couple’s child), “Outline,” and, most tenderly, in “Song to the Young John,” Wickham’s firstborn.

The poems in this first collection, as indicated in the repetition of “song” in many of their titles, are stirringly lyrical. “Illusion,” the best of the short lyrics, begins with gigantic confidence but soon discovers, by the end of the first stanza, the boundless limits of the world:

I who am great stalk above trees,
And come upon the world from heights.
I kick aside the little boxes of straight built towns,
Those great coveted houses!
Extend my arms to touch the round horizon,
and find the zenith just beyond my fingers.

The thought in the lyrics is not very complex or subtle. The more interesting poems are those that fuse more than a single thematic concern. “The Song of the Mother,” for instance, is about both motherhood and artistic ambition. The speaker warns would-be female poets to take heed of great female poets of the past, who gave up having children in order to produce great poetry, and now “Each rocks herself in mute grief,/ Seeing the vision of the unborn.” In contrast, the speaker hears herself singing a great song “For my children come out to greet me.” Having children, in Wickham’s poem, inspires the making of poems, and does not displace it.

The same faith undergirds the low-caste wife’s reproach of her king-husband in her “Song.” The king’s highborn people have turned merely conservative. They think only of “old victories” and lose “the lust of conquest.” The low-caste wife, however, comes from a people who “sang the song of exile in low places,” and so are “hungry from oppression.” Like her people, the wife is “full of lust”:

Give me for all old things that greatest glory
A little growth.

She has given sons to the king who will give their father the “king-descended” vision that he has lost.

Besides the tones of confidence and reproach, the poems sound other, darker, notes. In “Divorce,” the speaker whose duty is to “nurse” the fire in the house hears a voice from the dark heights calling her. From the hills come the exhilarating martial sounds of drums, and marching men, and a hero’s call. But the speaker can only beg an unnamed someone to let her leave the house. The second stanza goes:

Spirits that ride the sweeping blast,
Frozen in rigid tenderness,
Wait! for I leave the fire at last
My little-love’s warm loneliness.
I smother in the house in the valley below,
Let me out to the night, let me go, let me go.

“My little-love’s warm loneliness” is a neat turn of phrase to describe an isolating marriage. I admire how the anapests in the penultimate line drag the line almost to a halt before the rapid succession of stresses in the last line bangs desperately on the door.

Readings for SPARK and Books Actually

On June 15 met Nick Liu and Jen Crawford at NTU's School of Humanities and Social Sciences theatrette to be video-recorded for SPARK, a soon-to-be-launched online poetry archive. It is the hope that the archive will be to Singapore poetry what Poets.org, for instance, is to the Americans.

Following the format of the series, I read a poem that has influenced me, in my case, Boey Kim Cheng's "Day of No Name," talked about it, and then read a poem of mine that is related to the first. I chose to read "In His Other House." Not only does it refer to Boey's book Days of No Name, but it expresses a vision of an alternative Singapore that is implicit in Boey's writing. The poem is also further and happily linked to Boey as it has been published in Mascara, edited by Boey and Michelle Cahill.

I think I said clearly what I found helpful in Boey's poem, but afterwards I wished I had said something more about the usefulness of living away from Singapore to our way of looking at the country. To prepare for the session, I re-read his Collected Poems, After the Fire, and was struck by his growth and achievement in Days of No Name, which was his third book. There are wonderful poems in it, as strong as any I have read anywhere. The long poem about Gabriele Münter is even stronger than Simon Tay's long poem about Jackson Pollock, the latter having stayed with me all this time since I read it years ago.

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Books Actually, an independent bookstore run by Kenny Leck and Karen Wai, organized a Singapore launch for my book Seven Studies for a Self Portrait on June 16. A number of friends came for the reading: Cyril, Aaron, Hsien Min, Jen, Cheong How and Hui Wen. I met Yew Leong and Leonard Ng.

I read from both ETTE and SSSP, and afterwards held a short Q&A. There were questions about how I put sequences together, and about why I write in traditional poetic forms. There was also a question about how the distance between Singapore and the USA motivates my writing. The discussion then turned to the Singapore Literature Prize, and whether writers should seek to win awards. To the last question, there were both high-minded and practical answers, in other words, healthy differences.

Kenny invited me to make the reading an annual event at the bookstore, an invitation I gladly accept. I want to be engaged with the Singaporean literature scene. Next Thursday, I will attend Babette's Feast, a meeting of local writers at the store. It should be interesting to hear the state of the art.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

"The Writings of Anna Wickham"

I am participating in National Poetry Reading Month on this blog. Friends from PFFA, featherless biped, Janelo, Jeanne G, Pclem, Scott and scraps, are also blogging on their books.

I read Anna Wickham's "The Fired Pot" in the Norton Anthology, and was inspired by it to write a poem during NaPoWriMo. I decided that I had to get to know the woman and the poet better, and so bought a biography as well as The Writings of Anna Wickham: Free Woman and Poet, edited by R. D. Smith. The Writings, published to celebrate the centenary of Anna Wickham's birth, includes selections from her published and unpublished poetry, an autobiographical fragment and other prose writings.

The book's front material summarizes the bare facts of a life:

Anna Wickham was born in Wimbledon in 1884. At the age of six she went with her parents to Australia, where she was educated in Brisbane. In 1904 she returned to England and, after a period studying singing at the Paris Opera, she married Patrick Hepburn, a London lawyer and astronomer, in 1905. They had four sons, the first, James, born in 1907: their third son died at the age of five. From 1905 she lived in Bloomsbury and, from 1909 until her death in 1947, in Hampstead. She had a long friendship with the lesbian writer and patron of the arts, Natalie Barney. Other friends, who included Kate O'Brien, Dylan Thomas, Malcolm Lowry, Ezra Pound, David Garnett, and D. H. Lawrence, often spoke of her immensely powerful effect on people.

Anna Wickham started writing at the age of six, and wrote compulsively, producing over 1400 poems in her lifetime, encouraged by Harold Munro of the Poetry Bookshop and Louis Untermeyer in America. Her collections included Songs of John Oland (1911), The Contemplative Quarry (1915), The Man with the Hammer (1916), The Little Old House (1921). In 1971 her Selected Poems was published by Chatto & Windus. Nevertheless, her neglect by critics is, as Kunitz said, "one of the great mysteries of contemporary literature....

The autobiographical fragment runs to 106 pages and is subtitled "Prelude to a Spring Clean." The house is Anna Wckham's metaphor for her life. It is the domestic arena to which women have traditionally been restricted and against which Wickham fought for the right to write. What complicated this feminist story was Wickham's love for her children. Unlike some women writers, Wickham liked being a mother. In her prose analysis "The Spirit of the Lawrence Women," she defended women's procreative powers against D. H. Lawrence's denigration of it. In theory, a woman could be both writer and mother, but practicality militated against such a fruitful combination, at least in her time.

Her husband, a passionate scholar of Romanesque churches, 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.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Book Launch in Singapore

I will be reading on June 16 (Thursday) at the Singapore launch of Seven Studies for a Self Portrait, organized by the independent bookstore, Books Actually. Details are here on the Facebook event page. Kenny Leck, Karen Wai and Renee Ting are masterminding the event. I'm really looking forward to reading at home.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Natal Drama in Ocean Vuong's "Burnings"

Ocean Vuong's poems are quieter on the page than his dramatic reading style may suggest, and the poems benefit from their quiet inwardness. Burnings is the first collection of this Brooklyn College undergraduate, and already it showcases a significant lyrical talent. 

The book is divided into two sections. The first consists of poems about Vietnam, and Vuong's flight, with his family, to the United States. The second section takes for its subject gay love. The two sections have the same number of poems (12) but they are not equal in quality. The first section is superior. It shows a remarkable sensitivity to the plight of women, and finds the images and structures to express that empathy. 

The poem "The Touch" is emblematic of the section. The child sleeps with the mother on a hardwood floor, "bones cushioned/ with cardboard," and feels the mother shaking with crying. He wraps his arms around her waist, "the way a man does," but knows that the action, parsed as "a boy reaching out// and into the shell of a husband," is "not right." The illicit touch here is also inadequate. Despite the "warmth spreading" between them, the poem concludes that the "wings" on the mother's shoulders are only a boy's "hands." At the same time, however, putting a hand on a shaking shoulder is still a gesture of comfort. The poem captures the complex emotions of that touch in delicate and flexible couplets.

Eros becomes its own theme in the second section. Here, the romantic strain in Vuong's poems betrays it. "Moonless" is a rather simple celebration of sex. Lines like "the stars forgot their duties/ as constellations and fell,/ dusting our shoulders/ with the swirl of galaxies" are sentimental and grandiose. "In Defense of Poverty" romanticizes being poor; it wanders along a "trail of blood" to curl in front of "the oven's mouth," the images incidental rather than essential to the poem. Other poems reach for easy metaphors, comparing the anus to a sanctum and the body to a lyre. The last poem forces the recognition of beauty in terror. A young girl who has just received sight describes the planes hitting the Twin Towers as "beautiful." I cannot believe that any child--any one--would say that.

More believable, more moving, is the man-child who hears to his surprise a lullaby from the old country in "Saigon, Again," my favorite poem of the first section, and of the book. The song comes from a woman hanging rags on a balcony, and "weaves through the gray sheet/ forming her silhouette." It ties the ragged, darkened pieces of the past together for a moment. The speaker wants to sing with the woman to see her shadow "freeze" but what comes out of his mouth is "impossibly small." The poem finds an unforgettable image to represent the pain of separation, from mother, home and self. It is this natal drama that Vuong tells with delicate maturity.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Suspension of Time

An inspired pairing by Alan Gilbert: the world premiere of Sebastian Currier's Time Machines (2007) and Bruckner's Symphony No. 2 in C minor. Currier's rather literal and programmatic musical depiction of fragmented time, delay time, compressed time, overlapping time, entropic time, backwards time and harmonic time prepared the ear to hear the dynamics in Bruckner keenly. Gilbert writes in the program:

There are few composers whose music I could conduct every day for the rest of my life and be satisfied as a musician, and Bruckner is one of them. He is a traditional symphonist but what he does the symphonic form is truly personal. There's a kind of suspension of time in which all the elements that you expect from a symphony are there, but they unfold at a pace that he controls exquisitely, and very deliberately.

The New York Philharmonic played with committed urgency. The sound was in turns lush, etched, lyrical, precipitous, and powerful. The second movement, Andante, was particularly moving, but all four movements were very fine, the dotted rhythms tying them together.

I thought Anne-Sophie Mutter held herself in reserve for Time Machines while playing Beethoven's Romance in F major for Violin and Orchestra. Her playing in Currier's piece struck me as intelligent but rather impersonal.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

A Mixed Diet of Attention

from TLS May 27 2011

One of my favorite authors, Julian Barnes wrote in a Commentary piece in the TLS:

It is bad for a writer to become either the sole property of the general reader, or the private fiefdom of scholars. A writer is most usefully kept alive after death by a mixed diet of attention: from the "ordinary" reader, the living writer, the professional critic, the academic theorist, and the amateur scholar. Paradoxically, the greatest writers are often less intimidating to the outsider and the freelance.

After hearing in the past two weekends how academic theorists deal with authors, I agree wholeheartedly with Barnes. I would like to kept alive after death by a mixed diet too.