Wednesday, August 31, 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.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

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.

At the end, the circle of family killings is saved from completion when Orestes and Iphigénie finally realize who the other is, or, in Orestes’ words, “where I am.” Diana is lowered down to stop the fighting between the Scythians and the Greeks, as if to say that though we cannot be pure in the world, we can be purified through suffering.

The production, by Stephen Wadsworth, was quite beautiful. The stage was divided by a very thick wall between the temple glowering in red and the outside freezing in blue. Inside or out. Guilty or innocent. Life or death. The wall separates but also joins.

Monday, August 29, 2011

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 Dumbledore. Both sons prove themselves true heirs by the end, one inspiring the British Empire to fight against the Axis powers, the other inspiring the British Boarding School to fight against the forces of darkness. Lineage is the sub-text of these two British films.

The other two films also center on sons, but these sons are estranged from their family to become artists. In Brideshead Revisited, the film directed by Julian Jarrold, Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode) is drawn to Brideshead because it is so completely opposite of his home and father. Love Is the Devil, subtitled Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon, directed by John Maybury, does not show anything about the painter's Anglo-Irish background, but its black-out only makes visible the missing family in Bacon's circle of friends and lovers. So here is another myth: that one must disavow one's family to re-invent oneself. It helps, in the re-invention, if one falls in love with someone of the same sex, as Ryder did for Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw), and Bacon (Derek Jacobi) did for George Dyer (Daniel Craig). It helps to break the rules.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

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, are keenly observant. What makes a few of them memorable is the addition of black humor. "Maternal Love Triumphant," which opens the Collected Poems so promisingly, speaks in the voice of a "Virtuous Female Spider," who eats her mate to keep her strength up for her unborn babies. After their birth, she feeds them by killing two bluebottle-lovers and a host of silly butterflies. Convinced that a mother's love "bears no blame," she looks forward to her heavenly reward when she dies. The complacent self-justification is developed through ten ballad octaves rhyming ababcaca, the first a and the last a using the same word. The poem is virtuosic in a very attractive manner.

Another memorable method is the complete and convincing transmutation of nature to meaning. In "Stormcock in Elder," the cock perching on the broken roof of the speaker's hermitage is described with gorgeous detail:

The large eye, ringed with many a ray
Of minion feathers, finely laid,
The feet that grasped the elder-spray:
How strongly used, how subtly made
The scale, the sinew, and the claw,
Plain through the broken roof I saw;

The flight-feathers in tail and wing,
The shorter coverts, and the white
Merged into russet, marrying
The bright breast to the pinions bright,
Gold sequins, spots of chestnut, shower
Of silver, like a brindled flower.

The language owes a great deal to Hopkins (minion, bright breast, brindled) but is made over into the speaker's own acute observation of her bird. The splendor described here earns Pitter the right to compare the brightness of the stormcock to the glory of the angel Gabriel at the end of the poem.

The felicitous use of the technical terms "flight-feathers" and "coverts" indicates how possible it was for Pitter to go the way of Marianne Moore. But she did not, perhaps because she was finally seeking not a way to live on earth, but a way to transcend nature. Moore's favorite critter is land-based and armored--the pangolin is functional, adaptable, paradoxical. Pitter's favorite creature is ornithological--nightingale, bird of paradise, phoenix, sparrow, stockdove, lark, swan, cygnet, sandmartin, cuckoo, crow, robin, chaffinch, owl, goose, swift--figures for song, flight and transcendence.

One of her best poems, an allegorical lyric, "The Bird in the Tree," says it best. Looking at "that tree" and its "haunting bird," the loves of her heart, the speaker asks, "where is the word, the word,/ O where is the art?" Desirous and unsatisfied, the poem prays:

O give me before I die
     The grace to see
With eternal, ultimate eye,
     The Bird and the Tree.

The song in the living green,
     The Tree and the Bird--
O have they ever been seen,
     Ever been heard?

The poem has the jewel-like clarity of a medieval illuminated manuscript.

The "living green" is evoked in many poems about plants and trees, another of Pitter's favorite subjects. The best of these green poems is "Morning Glory," which achieves the Blakean aim of seeing the universe in a grain of sand. But more interesting to me is the path not chosen, the moving post-war poem "Funeral Wreaths," in which plant life is already dead. It begins with uncharacteristic directness:

In the black bitter drizzle, in rain and dirt,
The wreaths are stacked in the factory entrance-yard.
People gather about them. Nobody's hurt
At the rank allusion to death. Down on the hard
Cobblestones go the painted girls on their knees
To read what the foot-ball club has put on the card.
There is interest, and delight, and a sense of ease.

The matter-of-fact tone is all the moving for being so matter-of-fact. The wreaths are "stacked." We are not at a shepherd's hut or autumnal grove, but at the entrance-yard of a factory. The wry speaker of "Nobody's hurt" sees the ironies in the all-too-human behavior of the "painted girls." The music of the verse is so subtle and personal that we may not notice the end-rhymes at first. These opening lines strike a "modern" note not heard elsewhere in Riiter's work. But the poem continues with one of her favorite devices, the asking of rhetorical questions:

Is it only that flowers smell sweet, and are pretty and right,
Or because of the senseless waste of so many pounds,
Or because in that dreadful place the unwonted sight
Of a heap of blossom is balm to unconscious wounds--
The mortal wounds that benumb, not the sharp raw pains
Of the daily misery, but the fatal bleeding inside?

These questions upset the balance in the earlier lines between observation and attitude. They are undigested ideas. They reveal other faults in Pitter's style too: the archaism of "unwonted," "balm" and "benumb"; the cliches of "senseless waste," "mortal wounds" and "daily misery"; the over-modification. Then, after a transitional thought, also untransformed--"Here is the supernatural to be bought with the gains/ Of the spectral torment," Pitter hits upon the surprising image of the hearse as a luxury sedan. And she is off, combining description and allegory in her inimitable manner:

The soul can go for a ride with the rich young dead.
It makes you feel like a wedding. The Gates Ajar,
The Broken Column, the Pillow with "Rest in Peace,"
The sham Harp with its tinsel string allusively bust,
The three-quid Cross made of flaring anemones,
The gibbetted carnations with steel wires thrust
Right through their ranking midriffs, the skewered roses,
Tulips turned inside-out for a bolder show,
Arum lilies stuck upright in tortured poses
Like little lavatory-basins.

It is a fantastic imagining of gain and loss, of life and death. Overwhelmed by its own vision, it vomits into those "little lavatory-basins." Alas, the poet feels the need to control the power of these lines by instructing the reader: "This is the efflorescence of godless toil," and by resorting to another favorite device, that of ventriloquism ("We are the lost, betrayed ones. We are the Crowd./ Think  for you must do something to let us in."). Despite of its unevenness, or perhaps because of it, this poem shows how Pitter could have "modernized" herself while retaining her former strengths. The later dream poems have a certain eerie beauty, but nothing of the "intolerable wrestle with words and meaning" (T. S. Eliot) evinced in the strongest parts of this poem.

Friday, August 26, 2011

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.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

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 suffrage movement, the male-dominated literary marketplace and the rise of Fascism. She was more than the delicate envelope of human consciousness, she was also an acute analyst of contemporary history. To marginalize her  analysis because it focused on gender relations is itself a political act.

Lee does not attempt to excuse Virginia's personal faults, for instance, her snobbishness and petty cruelty. Instead, she shows from Virginia's diary and letters that the writer was well aware of her shortcomings, and experienced much internal self-contradiction. Virginia gave to others what she could spare from her bouts with madness and with writing. She shared the anti-semitism of her age but her marriage to Jewish Leonard gave both much happiness, and almost certainly enabled her to write. Her love for her sister Vanessa, fellow novelist Vita Sackville-West and composer Ethel Smythe caused much jealousy, anxiety and heartache, but she was never in doubt that her life lay with Leonard.

The command of detail in this biography is astonishing. So much was read, considered and synthesized in this 755-page tome. The portraits of the Bloomsbury group are lively. The writing is lucid and graceful, sympathetic yet exact. Lee has a particular feeling for describing Virginia's homes, in the country or in London, a sensitivity that goes well with the writer's life-long meditation on and in rooms. The description of World War II gives the narrative a natural climax, but the war did not cause Virginia to drown herself, Lee makes clear. The cause was the fear of the onset of another season of insanity. Having lived through at least two major bouts of madness, Virginia did not want to, could not, do it again.

Monday, August 22, 2011

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.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

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 sustainability. The first point was "produce locally." The second was "don't buy from China." Good old-fashioned protectionism in the guise of forward-thinking solutions.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

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 the village of Rodmell, Sussex, above the Ouse valley. Houses, and the room they afford, are a vital motif in Virginia's writing. Besides the obvious Jacob's Room and A Room of One's Own, one think of the house from which Clarissa plunges into London, and to which she returns to host her party.

My own thoughts are full of home and rooms too. GH and I moved into this apartment on the Upper West Side at the end of February. We have lived here for six months, the months of early spring and summer, half of our one-year lease. It felt like a vacation home at the beginning, but after returning from hotels and friends' houses, it feels like home home. Two days ago, someone stuck a notice on the inner vestibule glass door: "An apartment was broken into. Please don't buzz anyone in you are not expecting." Just before reading the notice, on my way in after a run, I was jingling my keys, and thinking, the small key for the big door, the big key for the small.

Friday, August 19, 2011

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 intellectual idealism that drove Clarence in his theological studies leads to his spiritual crisis. The sharp descent in the family's status and wealth causes Teddy's insecurities. Petted and pampered by her parents, though for different reasons, Essie grows to believe that she is the center of the universe. Neglected by a celebrity mother, Clark turns to one who gives him a sense of destiny. These people are not hard to understand. The same continuities that tie them together as a family appear in their individual characters. They develop but they don't change. There is no radical break in family or character.

When all is clear, all is too clear. And here is my reservation about the novel: though it struggles with the dark topics of religious doubt and death, it betrays a certain optimism in its power to illuminate the struggle. On the plot level, the optimism reveals itself at the end in an act of heroism. Despite everything, Updike seems to say, there is hope. James Wood in London Review of Books (quoted in Wikipedia) expresses the criticism more trenchantly:

For some time now Updike's language has seemed to encode an almost theological optimism about its capacity to refer. Updike is notably unmodern in his impermeability to silence and the interruptions of the abyss. For all his fabled Protestantism, both American Puritan and Lutheran-Barthian, with its cold glitter, its insistence on the aching gap between God and His creatures, Updike seems less like Hawthorne than Balzac, in his unstopping and limitless energy, and his cheerfully professional belief that stories can be continued; the very form of the Rabbit books – here extended a further instance – suggests continuance. Updike does not appear to believe that words ever fail us – ‘life's gallant, battered ongoingness ', indeed – and part of the difficulty he has run into, late in his career, is that he shows no willingness, verbally, to acknowledge silence, failure, interruption, loss of faith, despair and so on. Supremely, better than almost any other contemporary writer, he can always describe these feelings and states; but they are not inscribed in the language itself. Updike's language, for all that it gestures towards the usual range of human disappointment and collapse, testifies instead to its own uncanny success: to a belief that the world can always be brought out of its cloudiness and made clear in a fair season.

What Wood describes, stripped of its negative evaluation, is characteristic of Comedy. Updike may be usefully seen as a comedic writer. Wood's judgment, like mine, may, finally, say more about the spirit of our times than about the novel. The Tragic is, we think, a more suitable mode for representing our world. We want our literature to render us speechless.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

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 Zarathustra: "And this is all my creating and striving, that I create and carry together into One what is fragment and riddle and dreadful accident." A mighty epigraph, demanding a mighty book.

By my lights, it is exactly that.... More

Monday, August 15, 2011

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, it resembles the contemporary website.

Her second chapter examines the legacy of Brazilian concrete poetry. To defend it against the charge of the "iconic fallacy," or Cratylism--the belief that the sound and visual properties of a word have mimetic value--Perloff distinguishes between two types of concrete poetry. The father of concrete poetry, the Swiss Eugen Gomringer, strove to simplify a poem into a sign or an object that is easily comprehensible. The Brazilian concretists, who started out with Gomringer but soon diverged, and who called themselves Noigandres, were as concerned with the semantics of a word/poem as with its look and sound. The group, which includes the brothers Haroldo and Augusto de Campos, and Decio Pignatari, sees itself as recovering the discoveries of the earlier avant-garde (Pound and Mallarme), discoveries which never integrated into the mainstream due to the disruption of the world wars. It also discovers in the Internet the  right medium for their concrete poetry.

In Chapter Three Perloff approaches Charles Bernstein's libretto Shadowtime through the lens of the Oulipo. Founded in 1960 by François Le Lionnais and Raymond Queneau, the Ouvroir de Littérature potentielle invents important poetic constraints for the generation of literature. Its exemplar is Georges Perec's novel La disparition, where the disappearance of the vowel e points to the elimination of eux (them) by the Nazis in World War II. Though Bernstein's Shadowtime is too eclectic to be considered strictly an Oulipo work, its eclecticism is rule-bound and so dramatizes the obsession of its protagonist, Walter Benjamin, with ordering a very disorderly life. It exemplifies the Oulipo axiom "A text written according to a constraint describes the constraint."

The next chapter, on Susan Howe's The Midnight, I find the least interesting. The juxtaposition of original poetry, documents, photos and pictures of objects in Howe's elegy for her mother already feels dated and conventional as a method. The method is too consumable, too pretty. Like Anne Carson's Nox. More resistant to market relations are the exophonic and multilingual writing discussed in the following chapter, but the works of Caroline Bergvall and Yoko Tawada analyzed here strike me as trite.

Most stimulating is Perloff's interpretation, in the last chapter, of Kenneth Goldsmith's book-length poem Traffic, the second part of his New York trilogy. The work is a result of the application of the ideas of Conceptual art to poetry. In his appropriation of Sol LeWitt, Goldsmith writes in his "Paragraphs on Conceptual Writing" that "the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an author uses a conceptual form of writing, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes the machine that makes the text." Traffic comprises the twenty-four-hour WINS traffic reports that take place on a big holiday weekend. But what seems literal transcription Perloff shows to be carefully selected and shaped. It conforms to the Aristotelian unities; it moves from exposition to complication(s) to resolution. Its hyperreality becomes surreal: it becomes metaphoric. But would anyone, beside a literary critic, read it? Perloff quotes John Cage who quotes a Zen koan: "If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, try it for eight, sixteen, thirty-two, and so on. Eventually one discovers that it's not boring at all but very interesting."

In her Afterword, Perloff points out that, even in a poetry of appropriation, poetic choice is necessary, and so personal taste is involved. To my mind, that does not make genius unoriginal; it locates originality in a different place, in the idea, perhaps, instead of the execution. Some people will see this as unnecessarily limiting: why not be original in both idea and execution, instead of choosing one or the other? But such a limitation has produced a very different kind of poetry. The fact remains that every kind of poetry is produced by a certain set of limitations. Limits are necessary to art. The fun now appears to be exchanging one set of limitations for another. The difficulty is in choosing a set of limitations that resonate now and for a very long time.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

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.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

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 democracy. GH loves Peter Zumthor's writing, and so I bought his Thinking Architecture for him. I want to read it too.

Dinner at Ideale in North Beach was good but not outstanding. We went to the bar Rebel to meet his friend, who drove us to watch his friend fo a shower show at Truck, another gay bar. The two shower boys were ripped but the shower stood poorly lit in a negligible corner of the bar. The friend drove us to Club Dragon in SoMA, where GH and I had a good time dancing. It was not as crowded as I remembered it.

Friday, August 12, 2011

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 painting of two women, was very beautiful. Matisse looked at women with so much tenderness. The force came from the desire to get the vision right.

Nearby the Jewish Contemporary Center mounted a complementary show, focusing on Gertrude Stein. The five stories, in the show title, organized her life into artists' images of Stein, Stein's domestic partnership with Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude's friendships with other artists, Gertrude's later celebrity, and her posthumous influence. The first story was most interesting of the five. In it, Gertrude changes in her pictures from a modern girl to a Buddha to a Caesar and to a matronly yet butch figure. She exploited the power of the image to enhance her power and prestige, a venture ably supported by Cecil Beaton, George Platt Lynn, and Carl van Vechten, among others.

The second story documented how well Alice ran the household while Gertrude conducted her literary and artistic affairs. Interesting here were the photos showing the two women using the conventions of spousal photography to suggest their committed union. I did wish that the show said more about others' reaction to the couple or the dynamics of the relationship. How did Alice see her role in the relationship? The images depict her as a wife, in the shadow of the dominating Gertrude. Was Alice happy with that subservient role?

The show was admirably frank about Gertrude's friendships with men, who had more power than women to promote her. Gay men, more likely than straight men to admire her unapologetic lesbianism, were also more inclined than straight men to surrender to her patronage or to collaborate in work. Gertrude wrote the words for Four Saints in Three Acts, while Virgil Thomson wrote the music for it. His lover provided the dramatic contexts that made sense of Stein's word experiments. The pigeons are in the grass alas. The opera debuted in America with an all-black cast. A great publicity stunt.

The last two stories were disappointing, the fourth chronicling Gertrude's triumphant tour of the USA, the last a paltry display of playbills, and less-than-inspired art cramped together in a corner. It is sad that Stein's influence on literature is not examined. The show was captivated by Gertrude's self-image.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

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 Scottish artist, Andy Goldsworthy, the netting focused attention through the intriguing device of a hole in the net. Then two big paintings, both named In the Beginning in German, by Anselm Kiefer, were monumental and strangely moving. They were anguished attempts to begin all over again.

The winery did not permit picnics on its beautiful grounds, but we found a lovely spot in Mont la Salle, a Christian Brothers conference and retreat center, next to the winery. Beside a group of tall redwoods, we ate our cheese and wine, chicken salad pasta and fruit. GH drove us back to SF, over the Golden Gate Bridge, its tops again covered with fog. We visited Baker's Beach and wondered how anyone could enjoy the beach in such cold. After driving through Golden Gate Park, we returned the Dodge, and checked into Kensington Park Hotel near Union Square. We had a very good dinner at Cafe Claude, a chic French restaurant in an alley off Sutter Street. We met a friend of GH for a drink at a bar near Church muni station, whose name has Owl in it.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

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 and away from each other in a mesmerizing manner. Inside the house were artworks by the likes of Matta and Jean Dubuffet. There was a painting of a gorilla skull on a green background by Francis Bacon. Huge antique French barrels stood on both sides of the beautifully proportioned wine storage room.

At Rombauer the pride of place was not given over to art but to nature. Standing on a hillside, it gave stunning views of the valley vineyards and opposite hills. The gardens were carefully cultivated, the wandering paths among them charming. GH and I liked the Rombauer merlot and chardonnay, and bought a bottle of each. GH took us on a long drive around Lake Hennessey. It was lovely to be up closer to the hill tops. The lake was dammed to pipe water to the valleys. On the way back to the hotel, we tried Caymus but the wine tasting was over. We walked over to Beaulieu too but did not fancy its crowded tasting room and commercial atmosphere. We liked very much St. Helena's Olive Oil Company, and tasted it's delicious olive oils, jams, honey infused with truffle, and smelled its soaps and lotions.

We had GH's birthday dinner at the Culinary Institute of America. His birthday is this Friday, but he wanted to eat at this special place. We had a drink on the outside patio and watched the darkening hills. We had dinner inside the restaurant where we could enjoy watching the chefs in training cook in the open kitchen. GH had a vegetable risotto while I had a crispy chicken confit. Both were well constructed and blended, simple but delicious. It was a lovely end to the day.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

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 also owns the Flora Springs Vineyards and Winery. We enjoyed a free wine-tasting at their new tasting place called The Room. We also visited Turnbull Winery, formerly owned by an architect whom GH met a long time ago. The Turnbull cabernet was complex and balanced. In the evening we walked about St. Helena's, and had a lovely dinner at Cindy's Back Kitchen. GH had a very fresh tomato and cheese salad while I had a crisy and juicy duck.

Friday, August 05, 2011

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 have been attempts to make it objective (i.e. the New Criticism) and pragmatic (Poetry as activism). As an expression of the longevity of Romantic theory, the lyric has remained dominant in the poems written today.

Comparing Coleridge and Wordsworth, Abrams make clear the superiority in the former's aesthetic ideas. The latter is the better poet, but also an outstanding example of how a great poet does not necessarily make a great theorist. I would not go so far as to say one cannot be both, but it is certainly very rare. Abrams concludes about Coleridge:

In sum, Coleridge holds that the greatest poetry is, indeed, the product of spontaneous feeling, but feeling which, by a productive tension with the impulse for order, sets in motion the assimilative imagination and (balanced by its antagonists, purpose and judgment, and supplemented by the emotion inherent in the act of composition itself) organizes itself into a conventional medium in which the parts and the whole are adapted both to each other and to the purpose of effecting pleasure. The paradox that what is natural in poetry includes art, and results from an interpenetration of spontaneity and voluntarism, is not merely an abstract product of Coleridge's philosophical frame of reference. The fact is attested by the creative poets of all ages who, in various idioms, assert that they write according to prior plan and as the result of skills acquired by laborious practice, but that on occasion the central idea takes control and evolves itself in a way contrary to their original intention, and even to their express desire; yet retrospect shows that they have written better than they knew.

How did Coleridge manage to balance feeling and logic, spontaneity and voluntarism, nature and art? Abrams:

It was above all in his exploitation of this new aesthetics of organism that Coleridge, more thoroughly, than Wordsworth, was the innovative English critic of this time. At the same time, it was, paradoxically, because he retained a large part of the neo-classic critical tenets and terms which Wordsworth minimized or rejected that Coleridge's criticism is much more flexible and practicable--more adequate to the illumination of a great diversity of specific poems--than Wordsworth's. The logical maneuver by which Coleridge managed this feat, through sharply differentiating 'poetry' from a 'poem,' is awkward, and has certainly led to a wide misunderstanding of his intention. But by it, he was enabled to maintain his double view, capable of dwelling on a poem as a poem, and on a poem as a process of mind. By this device, he was also able to make use of the pregnant concept of the poem as a quasi-natural organism, without sacrificing the indispensable distinctions and analytic powers of the concept that the writing of poems is basically a rational and acquired art of adapting parts to parts, and of bending means to foreseen ends. By this device, finally, he remained free to maintain that the judging of poems (as his eighteenth-century schoolmaster Bowyer, had so strenuously impressed on him) must proceed on the assumption that poetry has 'a logic of its own, as severe as that of science; and more difficult, because . . . dependent on more, and more fugitive causes.'

I love the parenthetical reminder of Coleridge's teacher. One does not forget easily what has been well taught.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

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 feeding on the mice that Terri caught for it.

Monday, August 01, 2011

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 pretentious sub-title "The Art of the Epigraph" and put up in its place "Thinking with Women Poets."

I received another hint for my book over the weekend. Hermione Lee, in her biography of Virginia Woolf, discussed the novelist's deep-seated concern with biography, or, the term she preferred, life-writing. For her, her father's life work, the Dictionary of National Biography, was the old-fashioned, hypocritical, monumentalizing form that fails to capture the luminous interiors of life. She would work instead in a more fragmentary but revealing mode.

I already had the plan of dividing the book into eleven sections, the central section to be filled by "The Pillow Book." Lee's discussion gave me the idea of grouping the poems according to the forms and formal elements that are most relevant to the women poets I have chosen, and, more importantly, to match the sections like a passage of mirrors, the first and last sections inverting each other, the second and the second to last sections, etc. The book will begin with "Myth" and end with "Mystery." The central section will be titled "Miscellaneous Jottings." In this manner, the structure of the book will mirror the infinity in the title, while the different poets and poems will provide the variety.