Showing posts from 2012

O Carib Isle!

On Tuesday we arrived at Chateau Cervantes in old San Juan. The hotel was done up in a sharp, moden style, but it was strangely empty. We wandered down to the promenade by the bay. The promenade was opened in 1991 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the discovery of the Americas. GH loved the bluish tiles paving the roads. The city wall rose on one side of the promenade. It opened in the San Juan Gate, through which visiting Spanish dignitaries used to pass into the city. A little square by the right side of the gate was very charming. It had a little fountain and a pool. The colors were so brightly present. We had a very late lunch at Aureole, a restaurant bar across from San Jose Plaza. Our first taste of how slow service was here.

The rest of the afternoon was spent wandering around the narrow streets, peeking through wrought iron lattices into homes, GH photographing all kinds of architectural details. I especially liked Salvador Brau Plaza, with its wide and gentle slope. On …

Pick, Pick, Pick

Nice morning surprise. My Pillow Book has been selected as a Staff Pick by Wendy Chin-Tanner at Lantern Review. Thanks, Wendy and LR!

Had a wonderfully relaxing time at Aires Ancient Baths yesterday afternoon. GH and I luxuriated in a series of pools of different temperatures. The 97 F warm pool was a gentle introduction. Going from the 102 F hot pool to the 61 F cold pool was supposed to improve one's blood circulation. The propeller jet bath prepared one for the massage, which we added to the bath package and were very glad that we did. My favorite tub was the salt water pool at 100 F, in which one surrendered oneself to the water and floated. There were a steam room too and a lounge to drink tea. The baths were patronized by straight young couples on the day that we were there.

We had dinner afterwards at Thalassa, a Mediterranean and Greek restaurant, also on Franklin Street. The fish specials and on the menu were displayed in ice. I chose the Lavraki, which came with royal gr…

He Saw First

Last weekend, in DC, I saw Ai Weiwei's show at the Hirshhorn Museum. His work attempts to marry sleek formalism with political protest. The two aims clash, in my view, neither arising organically from the other. Is a huge serpent made ingeniously out of knapsacks really the most emotionally convincing way to protest the deaths of children in a Sichuan earthquake when their school collapsed due to poor construction and regulation? Ai has obviously learned a great deal from American minimalism during his stay in New York City in the 1980's. The application of these lessons to Chinese issues seems to have been unproblematic in his practice, and that is the problem of his art for me. His art is made for Western consumption. In two big photographs, he shows his middle finger to both the White House and Tiannanmen Square, but only in the latter is the image of the Great Helmsman poked in the eye. There is nobody in the White House photo.

Nam June Paik, "Zen for TV" 1963/198…

R. Nemo Hill's "When Men Bow Down"

I thought of writing about the power of observation in R. Nemo Hill's book of poems When Men Bow Down, and how that power undergirds the philosophical statements in the poetry. I thought of writing about the quiet authority of the poems, how they do not need to shout or leap or flash for attention, but find their way to something akin to epiphany but much more understated, a kind of understanding. I thought of writing about the gay sensibility of the book, how it is so refreshingly different from what passes for gay poetry nowadays. I thought of writing about the book's craftsmanship, its adroitness with blank verse, rhyming couplets, quatrains, sonnets and ghazals. I thought of writing about the achievement of a Western but non-exotic view of places such as Bali, Java, Myanmar, and Thailand, for with the same sympathetic but rigorous eye the American speaker looks at a young homeless couple in New York City, a teenage junkie in San Francisco, and his aging parents in Massape…

Julith Jedamus' "In Memory of the Photographer Wilson 'Snowflake' Bentley..."

How right that a poem about perfection is nearly perfect! The strongest poem in the book, to my mind, is written “In Memory of the Photographer Wilson ‘Snowflake’ Bentley, Who Died of Pneumonia after Walking through a Blizzard Near Jericho, Vermont, December 23, 1931.” It is about a man killed by the perfect beauty that he sought.
Composed in lines of three strong beats and in terza rima, with its unavoidable associations with hell, purgatory and heaven, the poem consists of six sentences. Three and its multiples govern this poem.
The first sentence describes the beauty of snowflakes, the subject of Bentley’s photography.
Beauty was, for him, cold, hexagonal, perfect in all its parts, beheld
once and once only.
Just as a snowflake is hexagonal, the poem has six sides or sentences. The idea of “parts” supports the listing of Beauty’s qualities, a device that is over-used elsewhere in the book, but is justified by its subject here.
The second sentence inverts the syntactical order o…

Paul Muldoon as Himself

Was lucky enough to take a weekend class with Paul Muldoon at Poets House. Two afternoons of poetry with the man whom the TLS called "the most significant Engish-Language poet born since the Second World War." Right from the beginning of the class he insisted that we don't write our poems, but that our poems write themselves through us. I don't think he meant that in any mystical sense. Rather, in calling us to remove the ego from the writing, he reiterated Eliot's theory of impersonality.

In reading our work, he was very quick at sniffing out not only weaknesses in the poem's language and construction, but also their influences, like Heaney, Bishop and Williams  He thought that the ending of my poem "Eve's Fault" has not sufficiently advanced from its beginning. He is himself a poet of rapid movement, of course.

Many of his remarks were too woven into the discussion to be quoted without lengthy explication of context. The following bon mots st…

Matisse: In Search of True Painting

I have not seen the show yet, but bought the beautifully produced catalogue at the Met. All the essays examine the show's focus: Matisse's work in pairs, trios or series. Landscapes, still life, interiors, nudes--these genres at the heart of Matisse's painting--saw intense experimentation in the re-working of an original. What is striking about Matisse's pairs is that they were very often painted in the same format and size. These were very controlled experiments. More radically, they were also shown by Matisse as finished paintings in their own right. The sketch was traditionally hidden from sight but not Matisse's. Later in his career, he showed, together with the painting, the photographs that documented the progress of the painting. He was responding to the charge of easy conservatism. He insisted that he was a painstaking artist who was constantly pushing the boundaries of his art.

Of Interior in Yellow and Blue (1946) and Interior in Venetian Red (1946), Mat…

Collected Poems of Sara Teasdale

Familiar only with her short lyrics, I did not know that Sara Teasdale attempted dramatic monologues in her early book Helen of Troy and Other Poems (1911). They are very readable though they are insufficiently dramatic. Marya Zaturenska, who wrote the insightful introduction, rightly describes Teasdale's work as poignant, but not tragic. Still, one comes across luminous passages like this one spoken by ill-fated Helen:

I will not give the grave my hands to hold,
My shining hair to light oblivion. 
The great bulk of Collected Poems, however, comprises lyrics. Here are the anthology pieces such as "Coney Island" and "Let It Be Forgotten." Teasdale probably wrote too much and wrote too easily, for a lot of the work is unremarkable. Images of trees, flowers and birds abound. She achieves a more distinctive note when she turns to her contemporary life as an upper-middle-class woman for inspiration. So in the poem "Jewels" she compares turning her eyes fr…

Books Virtually

Books Actually, an independent bookstore in Singapore, now sells on-line. You can buy my latest book The Pillow Book for SGD15.00 (USD12.30), including shipping. Go check out the many wonderful books on its list. Congratulations, Kenny and all at the store, on the launch!


TLS November 9, 2012

from Stephen Brown's review of Beth E. Levy's Frontier Figures: American music and the mythology of the American West:

Writing in 1974, the art historian Terry Smith said that provincialism, "far from encouraging innocent art of naive purity ... in fact produces highly self-conscious art obsessed with the problem of what its identity ought to be".

Cloud Atlas and Family Matters

During the Thanksgiving break, at GH's parents' home in Cincinnati, I spotted a heavily discounted copy of Cloud Atlas at Kroger's and could not resist getting it. Sorry, take a number, Laura Riding. David Mitchell's novel is ingeniously constructed, six stories nestled in one another like Matryoshka dolls. Each story plays with the conventions of a particular genre, so "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing" is a Melvillian sea yarn, "Letters from Zedelghem" is an epistolary novel about a young music genius, "Half Lives: the First Luisa Rey Mystery" proclaims it is a thriller in its title, "The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish" is a Borgesian story about intertexuality, "An Orison of Sonmi-451" is a piece of dystopian sci-fi, and "Sloosha's Crossin' an Ev'rything After" is a post-apocalypse island tale.

Though the overall construction is brilliant, the individual stories run the risk of sounding o…

A Pack of Nobodies

I watched my last two White Light Festival events this week. On Wednesday LW and I watched "I went to the house but did not enter," a staged concert in three tableaux, at the Rose Theater. Conceived by German composer Heiner Goebbels, the production staged three modernist texts, T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," Maurice Blanchot's "The Madness of the Day," and Samuel Beckett's "Worstward Ho," with Kafka's short story "Excursion into the Mountains" functioning as an interlude between Blanchot and Beckett. The Hillard ensemble, a British early and modern music group, sang. Of the three tableaux, I found Blanchot most interesting. The fragmentation of self into "a pack of nobodies" (Kafka's phrase) was given dramatic and visual force by the isolation of the men in separate rooms of an ordinary-looking house. The gurgle of a washing machine, the siren of a passing ambulance, the clang of a d…

Six Books of Poetry

Internet is back up after going down for four days. This post is a composite of things.

First off, I just finished reading Cyril's new book Straw, Sticks and Bricks. As the title suggests, this collection of prose poems is built on the idea of language as a possible home. Each poem is a "protracted" sentence, joining clauses and phrases with the useful glue of semi-colons. Formally, the book is the the most unified sequence that Cyril has written. That formal unity undergirds an expansion of subject matter. These poems venture from meditations on self to criticism of society. "Notes from a Religious Mind" and "Programme for Transcending Acquisitiveness" aims at social deformations indicated in the poems' titles. The more relaxed form of the prose poem permits Cyril, it seems to me, to experiment with other tones besides the  fiercely and exquisitely lyrical voice that he has perfected. My favorites of the collection are "Telephone," &qu…

Mo Yan's "Red Sorghum"

These ancestors are larger than life. In their loves and infidelities, in their fight against the Japanese army, in their endurance of horrific tragedies, they are the stuff of legend. In the depiction of Northeast Gaomi Township, where these ancestors lived and fought, the novel brought a sense of place in the 1930's and 40's thrillingly to life. The red sorghum that surrounded the village became a potent metaphor for blood and passion. The bridge over Black Water River was the setting for unforgettable scenes of confrontation. It was a time when people were not only fighting off corpse-eating dogs but were dogs themselves. A milita dressed itself in dog pelts. Living under later Communist rule, the narrator, who records the heroism of his grandparents and parents and fellow villagers, is ashamed to be a mere rabbit. One who repeats the words and wishes of others, with no voice of his own.

Julith Jedamus's "E.T. in the Isère"

If I have been "diligent" in analyzing the poems, the effort has been due to the poems' knottiness, in both thought and language. I am a city mouse, not a country mouse, and so many of Jedamus's natural terms are new to me. I had to look up "combes" and "cols," for instance. The poems collect such terms together quite lovingly, for their images and sounds, the way a hiker rescues brown leaves or a beachcomber picks up bits of shell. Also, a British reader would probably be familiar with Belle Tout, Rievaulx Abbey and the Lucombe Oak, and so did not have to research them. I only had the advantage of having seen the Uffington White Horse, which was a marvelous and unforgettable sight. It always brings back the memory of a girl of whom I was very fond.

I am not bothered by the poems' loose meter or slant rhymes. I found myself more troubled by the occasional lack of line integrity, the way two different phrases having little to do with each othe…

The next five poems in "The Swerve"

I am posting here only my parts of a discussion thread on Julith Jedamus's The Swerve. Read the complete thread here.

I enjoyed your keen analysis of "Bob-Mill." I agree that its intent is much clearer than the first two sonnets. It has a dense, alliterative music that reminds me of Hopkins. The children's hands are "numb, thumb thick as thimbles." They live "close-clipped lives." Jedamus's opening line "Down the dean they came on skim-milk/mornings" echoes, to my ear, Hopkins's "I caught this morning morning's minion, king-/dom of daylight's dauphin" ("The Windhover"). The religious note may not be so irrelevant: it comes into play in the next poem. "Bob-Mill" could have come across as sentimental (Ah, poor chillun) but the final question is tough-minded: "who grieves for you now...?" The point here is that to grieve for these dead children now is mere sentimentality, when grief for…

Picasso Black and White

"Picasso Black and White," now on at the Guggenheim, is worth every cent of the $22 entrance fee, and more. The exhibition showed the Spanish master deploying the stark colors in every phase of his career. And he did so not only in his nudes, but also in his still-lifes and political works, most famously in "Guernica," represented in the show by two harrowing studies made for the final painting.. By stripping his paintings of color, he wished to display more clearly the anatomy and structure of his work.

This concern for volume answered a question I always had about his investigations into Cubism. For a painter who was so sensuous in his apprehension of the world, Cubism seemed overly analytical and angular. The apparent contradiction is resolved, for me, in the understanding that Picasso's sensuousness is a matter of the handling of volumes, not of fingers running over surfaces, and even less of eyes drinking in the hues of objects. The range of ways in which …

Steve Fellner's review of "The Pillow Book"

Steve Fellner reviewsThe Pillow Book on his blog, Pansy Poetics. The review is generous and kind, although it strangely links me to Joe Brainard and Charles Simic, poets to whom I bear no resemblance and owe no debt. What it calls aphoristic is actually written in the form of a tanka, for instance, "The sun casts shadows, and so why am I surprised that love makes darkness, as if I am not in its way?" Perhaps laying the tanka out as a single line hides the form from sight.

Like another reviewer of my previous book, he raises the question of whether the book is too "highly structured ... to give unequivocal respect to the form." The form refered to here is zuihitsu, or, in translation, following the brush, taken to mean a kind of casual jotting. I am no expert in zuihitsu but Sei Shōnagon, whom I took for my model, revised her Pillow Book for years after retiring from court, before releasing it to the world. The spontaneity of the form is more apparent than real. Wh…

Yevgeny Yevtushenko's "Stolen Apples"

When Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko asked ten of the best American poets to translate a collection of his poems that he had assembled for Doubleday and Company in 1971, he gave his translators "full freedom" in their work, for only "a free and unrestricted translation can in any way claim to be poetry." The translators would only translate the poems that they liked and translate them in the manner that they chose. So it is apt to call the English poems that resulted from this remarkable Cold War collaboration "translation adaptations," as the front cover does. The Yevtushenko obtained in Stolen Apples is not the man himself, but the image of the man as seen through the lensing personalities of James Dickey, Geoffrey Dutton, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Anthony Kahn, Stanley Kunitz, George Reavey, John Updike and Richard Wilbur.

It is a remarkable characteristic of the Russian's work that poets as different as Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Richard Wilbur resp…

John Henry Mackay's "The Anarchists"

I was selling my books at this year's Rainbow Books Fair, when someone came by who seemed to recognize me but whom I didn't recognize. Too embarrassed to ask him about himself, I watched speechlessly as he signed a book and gave it to me. The book was a centenary edition of The Anarchists by John Henry Mackay. The man was, as I just this week discovered from the signature in the book, the editor Mark A. Sullivan. Tired of reading poetry and wanting to immerse myself in prose, I picked up the book and read it over two days.

The Anarchists is the first of a pair of books that Mackay himself called propaganda, not novels. (The other book is called The Dreamseeker.) The polemic advocating Anarchism is thinly fictionalized. Carrard Auban, the intellectual who walks with a limp, clearly represents Mackay and his political philosophy. His best friend Otto Trupp, always described as a well-built fellow, is the Communist agitator whom Auban tries to convert. Mackay is at pains in this …

François Jullien's "In Praise of Blandness"

I found François Jullien's In Praise of Blandness last summer in the great architecture and design bookstore in Bras Basah Complex, where I brought GH to buy art supplies. I have read Jullien's The Impossible Nude years ago with a great deal of interest while I was working on the poems for The Book of the Body. In Praise of Blandness examines not just Chinese art, but also Chinese philosophy, ethics, music and poetry for a common denominator called dan, which Jullien translates as fadeur, and his English translator Paula M. Varsano translates as blandness.

In his Prologue, after acknowledging the difficulty, in fact, the undesirability, of defining blandness, Jullien describes the word thus, at the same time summarizing the movement of thought in the book:

Blandness: that phase when different flavors no longer stand in opposition to each other, but, rather, abide within plenitude. It provides access to the undifferentiated foundation of all things and so is valuable to us; it…

Lois Potter's "The Life of William Shakespeare"

I enjoyed Lois Potter's The Life of William Shakespeare tremendously. Subtitled "A Critical Biography," the book looks at all the works by the Bard not only as literary artefacts but also as living process. On the poems, she observes the pressures on an ambitious young man aspiring to make his mark on literary London. On the plays, she is particularly acute on Shakespeare and his collaborators. She is also sensitive to how the plays were written or adapted to capitalize on star actors and boy performers. Different audiences, whether at the theaters or the Inns of Court or the royal palaces, accounted for different versions of the plays. Publication of the plays were economic and political decisions, and not just literary ones. The process of producing the work was messy, contingent, opportunistic, and it is a testament to Potter's writing that she is able to bring a clarity of form to her mastery of detail. One useful device is to begin every chapter with a quotatio…

Between Ecstasy and Truth

TLS October 19 2012

from Llewelyn Morgan's review of Stephen Halliwell's Between Ecstasy and Truth: Interpretations of Greek poetics from Homer to Longinus:

Homer's works were already, alongside everything else, a meditation on poetry's power to transform the pain and impermannence of mortal existence into kosmos, a lasting order or design. An overarching theme of Halliwell's discussions is the tension repeatedly diagnosed by Greek thinkers between poetry's capacity to transport its audience to another psychological place and its claim to offer insight into the truths of this existence, the "ecstasy and truth" of his title. Homer himself fails, ultimately, to square these two principles, and Halliwell arrestingly ties Homeric poetics to the figure of the Muse, an embodiment of poetry transcendent and beautiful, but representing a resolution only truly achievable on a divine plane, and only glimpsed by mortals.  *  However we choose to think about it,…

The ART of Modeling

My very good friend Andrew Howdle, who works from Leeds, UK, has a beautiful portfolio of photographs and drawings out at Dimension Magazine. Titled cannily "The ART of Modeling," the work is as much about seeing the model Arnold Aziza as showing him off. "Arrival," a professional-looking fashion shot, reminds us of the various meanings of the key word in the title: "Model (N) a new system of seeing (1593); an exemplar (1693); a person drawn by an artist (1873); (V) to wear clothes for a fashion display (1904).

The work looks better than much of what GH and I saw in Chelsea during our gallery hop yesterday. Alexander and Bonin showed the "Airmail Paintings" of Eugenio Dittborn, a Chilean artist. According to the press release, the collages on lightweight fabrics that could be folded and mailed to friends circumvented the constraints of working under Pinochet's dictatorship. The format was formally and politically resonant but the collages themse…

Julith Jedamus's poem "Belle Tout"

Belle Tout, also the title of the second poem in Jedamus's book The Swerve, is a decommissioned lighthouse located on a cliff at Beachy Head, East Sussex. The poem opens by describing it as "Beautiful, futile," adjectives which immediately make me associate the lighthouse with Art. Why is the Art-Lighthouse beautiful and futile? Because it gives "a flash, then darkness." Its beauty lies in its transient brilliance, its futility lies in its incapacity to provide steady illumination. It is also "Cliff-/bound, cliff-threatened." High Art must risk falling over the edge: the cliff is its natural environment. So far, so good.

Then the poem makes a leap that I find hard to follow. The poet, who has been addressing the lighthouse directly in the second person, describes its face as "minatory," or threatening. It led men "not to safety but their graves." This accusation is accurate historically, for Belle Tout, situated so high that mists …