Monday, December 31, 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 the eastern side of the square was the Carlos Albizu University. At the south-eastern corner rose San Francisco Church. After resting in our hotel, we strolled back to Le Convento, a former convent turned into a hotel. Outside the imposing building on the north side of Cathedral Square, a basker played his guiter and sang. Several of us tourists drank in his voice. Dinner in the terrace restaurant was well worth the wait.

In the morning we visited San Felipe Del Morro Castle. El Morro, as it was called locally, sat on the north-western headland of the city and guarded the entrance to San Juan harbor. On the left of the road to the castle was the calm baby blue of the bay, on the right was the restless aquamarine of the Atlantic Ocean. The massive fortification consisted of six levels. The main gun deck gave a beautiful view of the deadly bottleneck of the bay. Lunch at Sam's Bar, two doors away from Aureole, fortified us for more walking. We thought that la Perla might be a charming village by the ocean, but it turned out to be a destitute neighborhood, stinking of garbage heaps. We explored Sol and Luna Streets and saw the homes of Concrete Poetry and of the father of Puerto Rican music. Luna Street was the home of the literati. I fantaszied about renting a place here during my sabbatical, to learn Spanish and to write.

The next day we flew from the smaller airport of the two to the island of Vieques. We saw seafood flown in together with us. The nine-seater plane was steadier than we had thought. GH drove our rented jeep to the Green Beach at the western end of the island. Horses roamed freely in the fields. They were rather small and mostly brown. The water at the Green Beach was amazingly clear. It was also warm. The algae gave the water a greenish tinge. Our hotel Trade Winds was on the Caribbean side of the island, in the town called Esperanza. Before driving south, we treated ourselves to a massage at the W, and then had drinks at its lounge. The massage was, quite frankly, disappointing, but the lounge had a stunning view of the ocean.

We went to the Mosquito Bioluminscent Bay with the adventure company called Abe's. In our eleven kayaks, our group paddled out into the dark waters, following the green light tied to the head of our leader. When the full moon went behind the clouds, we could see better the light in the water created by planktons. The light, when we stirred the water with our hand or paddle, was white or bluish-green, very faint. You could tell that the light was not that of the foam because it appeared in the water, and not only on top of it. After riding back into town, we had dinner at a very fine restaurant El Quenepo, opened years ago by a couple who retired from the mainland. I had the local dish called mufongo. It was like a yam basket but made out of mashed plantain. Mine was filled with lobster.

Our second day on the island, we wanted to see as many beaches as possible. The Sun Bay was a long and lovely stretch of sand, lined with palm trees. A wedding rehearsal was taking place while we were there. I liked La Chivas, or the Blue Beach, better, however. It was smaller, more scaled to humans. It was empty enough for me to sunbathe in the nude. Between the two beaches, we visited the other town, Isabel, on the northern coast. It was a forlorn sort of place, with dilapidated houses and abandoned stores. We ate at Bieke's Bistro, the only place opened for lunch, it seemed. A Puerto Rican woman who grew up in the US served us; she preferred the laid-back life of this seaside town to the hassle of the mainland. Dinner was at the overly expensive Orquideas, back in Esperanza, because the cheaper places were crowded or unappetizing.

In the morning, we had time before our flight back to the main island. We drove to see the famous ceiba tree near the long pier. More than three hundred years old, the tree was known to me as kapok. It grew not only in the Americas, but also in Africa and Asia. Africans living in the Americas would stuff their pillows with the white fluff to remind themselves of home. The Vieques tree was colossal. It reminded GH of an elephant not only because of its age but also because of its wrinkled folds of bark. The tree was much bigger than an elephant. Some of its roots rose to a height taller than me. These roots formed walls as hard as stone. The younger branches, a green one shooting into the air, were spiked, to deter feeders, I suppose. The leaves, for such a huge tree, were very small. Two birds chirruped in its branches. A lizard of some sort scurried into a hole in the bole when I came near.

The plane that took us back was even smaller than the one in which we came. We flew over the towns of north-eastern Puerto Rico. Almost every house had its own swimming pool. It was easy getting a cab from the airport to Condado, to the neighborhood of Ocean Park, where our hotel was. Pamela's Numero Uno was an address as well as a boast. The first house on Santa Ana, it faced the Atlantic Ocean directly. Outside the gated community ran McLeary Road, a relatively quiet residential street that turned into touristy Ashford Avenue, and beyond that, Calle Loiza, with local shops, restaurants, pharmacies and supermarts. We had dinner at La Chola, a Peruvian Carbon restaurant on Loiza. My chaufa mixto was delicious, fried rice with chicken, beef and shrimp. Is "chaufa" Spanish transliteration for Chinese chow fun?

It was Saturday night, a night for drinking and dancing. I had heard about Splash from the couple sitting next to us during lunch at Mango's. The bar on Calle Condado had a patio and a small dance floor with a deejay, but nobody was dancing. We decided to walk to Circo Club in Santurce. On the way we found a darkroom bar but nothing much was happening. Circo was better. It had three bars on two levels and, later at night, opened another room, a grander affair, for dancing. GH talked to a couple from Toronto. Days before, a family from Toronto flew with us to Vieques. Whether from New York or Toronto, we were all in Puerto Rico looking for warmer weather.

On our last day, I wanted to see the Museum of Art, which GH passed. We had a very good brunch together first at a Caribbean cafe on Loiza. Bob Marley grinned from its wall. I had a Puerto Rican pot of Provincial rice with chicken and meat. The museum was housed in a Neo-classical building. I saw the portrait of the governor's two daughters, by the father of Puerto Rican painting, Jose Campeche. The still lifes--soursops and avocadoes--of nineteenth-century Francisco Oller combined Impressionism and Realism. Abstract art came late to Puerto Rico and the art on display was not very compelling. The video of a boxer punching high at a bunch of plantains was mesmerizing. When the bottom fruit finally broke off, the stalk dripped sap suggestively. The retrospective on Rene Santos, a Nuyorican who died young of AIDS, was revealing of a painting practice based on newspaper ads and photo-novels.

At the Museum of Contemporary Art, the best thing was the show on Richard Pagan, a Puerto Rican artist who died in Italy at the age of 35. The influence of Matisse was clear in the coloring of the paintings in the first room. In the next two rooms, the works showed the influence of De Kooning, whom he came to know while living in Southampton, New York. The last room, with its big-format paintings, showed, however, his successful fusion of the styles of Post-Impressionism and the New York School. In a free-floating blue, his figures swam or flew over suspended patches of color, seen as if beneath water. I was reminded of my recent flights over the ocean, when one was both flying above the water and swimming in it, so clear and faded were the masses of greens and blues under the surface of the water. Pagan gave up marine biology in favor of art but the love of the ocean, its translucencies, dissolutions and liberties, suffused his mature art.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

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 greens, and it was delicious. GH had the horiatiki, a Greek peasant salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and peppers with Dodonis feta. The Greek cabernet I ordered was very good. GH had a Greek wine, whose name I cannot remember and cannot find on the website. The menu was not cheap. Our check came to $100. The service was, however, very attentive but not at all intrusive. The restaurant gave us gratis an exquisite shrimp fritter as an appetizer, and, when we did not order dessert, presented us with desert wine and a plate of candies.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

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" 1963/1982

More exciting was the retrospective of pioneering video artist Nam June Paik at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Inspired by the then-new TV, Nam made works that were, in turn, playful, metaphysical, spectacular, self-reflexive. "TV Clock," "TV Buddha," "Zen for TV" and "TV Garden," once seen, are unforgettable. GH's older brother SH was one of Nam's assistants when he assembled his TV Robots series. He even traveled with the artist around Europe. I love how Nam took the functional form of the TV and made something beautiful with it. He saw first and then led others to see it. It was my first visit to the American Art Museum. I was very impressed by the curatorial arrangement of twentieth-century American art works. They spoke to one another in a big but elegant hall.

Today I saw the Matisse show at the Met. "In Search of True Painting" looks at the French Master's work in pairs and trios. The Vence paintings throbbed with radiant color in the last room. "Large Red Interior" (1948) is itself a study of pairs. On either side of a central black line are two tables, two rugs and two artworks. Of the artworks, a colored composition balances an India ink drawing. The central black line ends midway down the painting at the top of an empty chair.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

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 Massapequa, Long Island.

I could have written about all these strengths of the poetry, for the book will bear close examination under any of these rubrics, but I don't, because doing so will put me at an analytic distance from these poems, when what the work says, most essentially, is Come with me. And See. And Isn't this interesting? I know Nemo and have heard many of these poems at readings around NYC. He is a friendly soul, but in his poetry he has distilled an intimate companionship. I would go anywhere with someone who could write poems such as "Silver Lining," "Soon," "For a Gardener," "Men Like These," "Saint Junkie" and "The Mandarin Orange Tree." "Not Far" is the title of one of the poems; it is also the inviting call of this poet. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

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 of the first by listing the qualities first before naming “his flakes” as the subject of the sentence: “Locked/ beneath his lens,/ light-spun/ and light-refracting, flecked/ with coal dust and pollen.” This sentence focuses on the beauty captured by Bentley’s lens. As such, the lines are highly musical, the liquid l’s lilting and light-footed, the d’s and n’s exercising a delicate hold on the flow.  Appropriately, after so much light, set off by the dark flecks of coal dust and pollen, the snowflakes “shone with lunar/ loveliness.” The expression gives the snowflakes an unearthly beauty. All the foregoing l’s and n’s concentrate in the final phrase “lunar loveliness.”

An ellipsis brings the reader back to the present when we can see Bentley’s old prints. The enjambment here is particularly cunning. The stanza enjambment after “And we can” throws a huge stop on “see,” also set off by caesura. The line enjambment after “these hundred-year-“ puts “old prints, plain evidence” in the same line, thus equating “old” and “plain.” “Prints” and “evidence,” the poem’s synonyms, share sonic sympathies. What we can see in the old prints is evidence of Bentley’s qualities, also given in a list: “attention,” “care” and “chilling confidence.” Furthermore we can also see in the old prints certain aspects of “the manifold world”: “its willed evanescence,” “its subtle signs” and “wild and blinding storms.” Three aspects of the world to match the three qualities of the photographer. “Willed” in “willed evanescence” is interesting. Who is doing the willing? The snowflakes or some bigger force willing the snowflake to be evanescent? In human terms, when Bentley walked through the blizzard that killed him, did he will his death or did some higher power will it?

“Evanescence” and “storms” provoke the next, and fourth, sentence, a question mimetic of surprise, “Did it/ surprise him, to be killed// by a surfeit of white…?” Then follows a brilliant description of a blizzard. It was, counter-intuitively, “a blazing increment,” the last word also bringing up its ghost, “inclement.” It was a bewildering mix of “stars, ferns, wands and bright/ escutcheons,” of things belonging to the sky and to the earth; of weapons of attack and of means of defence. The blizzard was “an argent/ army of perfectness.” The army was both clad in silver armor and wielding silver weapons. “Argent” also brings up its ghost, “ardent.” A cold fury. And why “perfectness” instead of the more usual “perfection”? It’s there for the rhyme, but, more importantly, it raises its peer, “highness.” This army is royal. It belongs to the King, to be exact, the King of Kings.

The fifth sentence commands the reader to “Look,” not at a snowflake any more but at Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley, and see, in the final list of the poem, “his wind-bent// back, his boots caked with ice,/ his glazed eyes.” The poem directs its lens from his back to his boots and then zooms in on his eyes. We will see his eyes as he once saw his snowflakes, with attention, care and chilling confidence.

Then a second ellipsis, balancing the first, sends the reader back to the past, into Bentley’s mind. The last sentence of the poem is a question-within-a-question.

                        Did he have,
in his last seditious

delirium, one brave
black thought: did God murder
us all with too much love?

The delirium is “seditious” because he is struggling against a royal army. In his delirious state, his mind makes a wild leap from storm to God. Just as the snowflakes were flecked with “coal dust and pollen,” this human snowflake is darkened by his last “black thought.”

But … is the insistence on “too much love” too much? We already know the love, as symbolized by the blizzard, is too much since the storm is “a surfeit of white.” Also, “murder” does not rhyme with the initial pair of rhymes at the beginning of the poem, “cold” and “beheld.” God, however, does rhyme. Wouldn’t the poem have ended more perfectly if it ends: “did God/ murder us with love?”

True, true, but the poem wouldn’t have ended by being nearly perfect, would it? It wouldn’t have been a snowflake flecked with coal dust and pollen.

Monday, December 10, 2012

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 stand relatively freely:

"The real poem is to one side of the written poem."

"Imagine each word costs a thousand dollars--now what do you have to say for yourself?"

"You can't write like Lowell without getting into trouble. You can write like Bishop and get out of trouble."

Of a participant's poem: "In a strange way one can't argue with it. Partly it's to do with its incantatory quality. You can't argue with a chant. Yeats says, one may refute Hegel but not a song of sixpence."

"I don't make any distinction between shit and brutality. Abstract, concrete or loose."

"Do you believe in the collective unconscious? You'd better. It believes in you."

And, finally, the words of a truly great poet, "I've been writing this poem the last few days but I don't think I'm fit to write it. I may mess it up."

Saturday, December 08, 2012

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), Matisse wrote to an old friend, quoted in the essay by Cecile Debray:

Wishing to make a kind of painting that is related to my drawings, those that come to me directly from the heart and are traced with the greatest simplicity, I have set out on a very hard road that seems troublesome to me because of the little time that my age will grant to me. And yet, to be at peace with myself, I cannot do otherwise. With the sort of color relations that I am led to use to render what I feel, freed from the accidental, I find myself representing the objects without the vanishing lines. I mean FRONT VIEWS, one almost next to the other, linked to one another by my feeling, in an atmosphere created by the magical relations of color. To be logical why not use only local tones, without reflections? Human figures on the same plane as in a game of Aunt Sally[;] on these elements of simplified representation, put a color coming from the exalted local tone, or even invented altogether in accordance with my feeling, warmed by the presence of nature itself--a kind of poem.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

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 from her lover to women putting away "The jewels they have worn at night/ And cannot wear in sober day." Another lyric "Thoughts" becomes the life lived in dressing rooms and nurseries.

When I can make my thoughts come forth
   To walk like ladies up and down,
Each one puts on before the glass
   Her most becoming hat and gown. 
But oh, the shy and eager thoughts
   That hide and will not get them dressed,
Why is it that they always seem
   So much more lovely than the rest? 

Teasdale stuck resolutely to traditional poetic forms and diction throughout her career. She liked some of the Modernists but was not influenced by them. "The Voice" is exceptional because it begins with a very modern juxtaposition of different kinds of diction.

Atoms as old as stars,
Mutation on mutation,
Millions and millions of cells
Dividing yet still the same,
From air and changing earth,
From ancient Eastern rivers,
From turquoise tropic seas,
Unto myself I came.

But it lapses into fusty Edwardian abstractions in the end, when the speaker hears the different voices of the atoms telling her, "Forever/ Seek for Beauty, she only/ Fights with man against Death!" She did not find her way out of her period style. She did not feel the need.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

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!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012


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".

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

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 overly familiar, and so lose the reader. The ingenuity also tends to over-shadow genuine human passions. Of the six stories, only the relationship between Robert Frobisch and his correspondent Rufus Sixsmith in "Letters" sounds any depth. The ending of the novel, in which Adam Ewing preaches about the need for cooperation if the human race is to survive, sounds didactic and simplistic, if it is not intended to be ironical in a postmodernist way.


I finished reading Rohinton Mistry's Family Matters at the end of summer. I have been meaning to blog about it but kept putting it off. It's hard to do justice to the delicacy with which Mistry depicts the humilations of growing old and useless, and the tragicomedy of seeing a family cope with an aged father. Suffice to say, perhaps, that Family Matters may lack the scope of his A Fine Balance, but it trains its microscope to detect all our human squirmings.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

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 dumpster lid punctuated the music with a ghastly wit.

Last night, at the Baryshnikov, TB and I watched Malavika Sarukkai perform in "The Spirit of the Body." The classical Indian dancer presented four dances of her own choreography, showing her versatility and skill. She was a forceful and precise dancer, more light than fire. Some of the lighting effects were unnecessarily theatrical, and detracted from the dancing. I thought the musicians were wonderful. I could hear Chitrambari Krishnakumar sing vocals for hours. Srilatha Shamshuddin played the nattuvangam, Balaji Azhwar the mridangam, Sai Shravanam Ramani the tabla, and Srilakshmi Venkataramani the violin.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

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," "Da Capo," "On Reading," "Lies that Build a Marriage" and the summative poem "Zero Hour."

For months now I have been dipping into Hyam Plutzik's Apples from Shinar in bed. The opening poem "Because the Red Osier Dogwood" inspired me to write a poem after its repetition of "because." All the poems in the book are finely weighed, with lush imagery and alluring music. Many poems are written in regular quatrains. "A New Explanation of the Quietitude and Talkativeness of Trees" convinces me that trees "belong to the genus thunder." There is an angry poem written "For T.S.E. Only" that tries to see the latter's pain in his anti-Semitism. The refrain "Come, let us weep together for our exile" tries to find common cause. The metaphysical and image-making powers of the book come together most dizzyingly, for me, in the ten-line poem "The Geese." The "miscellaneous screaming" of the birds raises the speaker's eyes to the geese pressing southward. Seeing the hopeless will of the birds to prevail against time, the poem concludes, "Value the intermediate splendor of birds."

Marina Tsvetaeva is, pardon the cliche, a force of nature. In the translations of Elaine Feinstein, that force also shows its formal intelligence. I read "POEM OF THE MOUNTAIN" in Brooklyn's Prospect Park, and the poem transported me elsewhere, to the mountain, on the mountain, away from the mountain. Her passion ennobles her, as the poet is very well aware:

Let now some neighbour say whether your
hair is black or fair, for he can tell.
I leave that to physicians or watchmakers.
What passion has a use for such details.

No American poet could have written this. The American poet, and those poets influenced by the American tradition, will feel as an ethical imperative the compulsion to express her passion through details. Tsvetaeva brushes such details aside, because they belong to the common world of gossip, medicine and work.

I finished reading Natalya Gorbanevskaya's Selected Poems a while ago. She is a poet very much to my taste. Perhaps she is less passionate than Marina Tsvetaeva but she is intelligent, restrained and concise. She writes a poetry of clear statements, enlivened by surprising turns of thought or phrase. The translation by Daniel Weissbort does not reproduce her rhymes, but seems to have caught her directness. In Last Poems of the Last Century, she advises,

A citizen?
So, live independently.
A poet?
So, travel the world...

That tough matter-of-factness is very attractive. After arousing the ire of the Soviet authorities, she escaped to France and lived among the Russian emigre community in Paris. She lived there long enough to see the city change.

How few pinball machines now in Paris,
what's more, no smoking in cafés,
you screw up your eyes, like a half corpse,
insufficiently cooled.

I picked up Zhang Er's book of poems Translating Rivers and Cities at the Brooklyn Book Festival in September. The book brings together a selection of poems from three earlier books. A modern Chinese poet, Zhang writes in free verse, with surrealistic imagery to depict some interior landscape. She has been living in New York City since 1986. The poems go on for too long, too loosely, to hold my attention. The translations, done by six different people, render the foreign in all-too-familiar English. I like best the poems in her first book The Autumn of GuYao. In those poems, she re-writes Chinese legends by inhabiting imaginatively the minds of female protagonists: NuChou (Ugly Girl) from The Legend of the Western Lands; NuWa Jing Wei (Baby Girl, Jing Wei) from The Legend of the Northern Mountains; Princess NuShi from The Legend of the Central Mountains; and XiHe, the wife of the Emperor Zun, from The Legend of the Great Beyond to the South.

Effigies collects the work of four Indigenous poets, selected and introduced by Allison Adelle Hedge Coke. dg nanouk okpik is an Inupiat-Inuit from Anchorage Alaska, Cathy Tagnak Rexford is Inupiaq, French/German and English from Anchorage too, Brandy Nalani McDougall, from Upcountry Maui, is of Kanaka Maoli, Chinese and Scottish ancestry, and Mahealani Perez-Wendt, from Hawaii, is of Spanish, Hawaiian and Chinese ancestry. The danger in such a book is exoticization, and it is a danger that poets and editor do not successfully overcome, in my opinion. The problem is knotty: how does one who live among "baleen row, razor clam edge, rabid willow ptarmigan plume ... white buds of plumeria, gardenia, lei, shaded grave of dried lauhala and graying niu" (from Editor's Note) write about these things without sounding exotic to readers from the American mainland? The best poems in the book treat these wonderful images as background to an unfolding human drama that readers can understand from their own lives. So in "Oblong Moon," Perez-Wendt writes,

The night Harry Pahukoa died
He was driving up from Honomanu
After laying net
He had to lay the net
Before the full moon.

The poem also succeeds in reaching out to the reader because it does not assume that its reader will understand the timing of laying a net. It explains without condescension or servility. The opening is also a skilful exercise of suspense.

Monday, November 12, 2012

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.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

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 other beyond plot are jammed together into a line. The poems also do not follow the structure of a sonnet, with a turn from a larger section (usually an octave) to a smaller section (usually a sestet). Lacking that internal dynamism of a sonnet, the poems feel more to me like a block of fourteen lines, capped with a sonnet's rhyme scheme.

"E.T. in the Isère" is the last poem of this opening sequence of eight sonnets. It is interesting that the sequence ends outside of England. Isère is a department in the Rhône-Alpes region in the east of France. The places names are given in French, but they are strongly reminiscent of England. For instance, terre calcaire reminds me of the limestone landscape of southern England, the landscape of the White Horse and the Dover cliffs. The poem refers to Bois Noir and Arras but the flora and fauna--beeches, cirrus, yarrow, sloe, nettle, black boars, crows--can be found in England too. The effect is that of an Englishwoman abroad, who finds in the French landscape echoes of England. If that is the intended effect, the sequence ends with the suggestion of successful transplantion of a Colorado native to southern England. The name of the addressee of the poem, E.T., may clinch the effect, for few names are more English than Edward.

This is a love poem. Love acquires a local habitation and a name, to steal Master Shakespeare's words. The landscape is harsh, flinty. The beeches are scored with "old injuries" like the carving of lovers' names, the "blaze of axe or of lightning." The speaker pays her love, Edward, a high compliment by asking him, "What figure/would you find in their scars?" and so making him the poet. She anticipates his poem-response eagerly, for "no beauty's too slight, no fear too deep to escape your notice." His chief virtue is one of attentiveness. Which makes him the perfect reader of her poem too.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

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 them while they were still living might have saved them from hell. Who are the children for whom we should grieve now? 

The next poem "The White Horse" describes the Bronze Age figure of a horse carved into the upper slope of a hill in the parish of Uffington, Oxfordshire. The poem is divided into three parts: (1) in L1-6, the poet asks herself what she is looking at; (2) the next four lines give the literal answer: grooves in the ground. This literal answer reminds me of the literal eyes of the gulls in the first poem "The White Cliff." But, whereas the earlier poem wishes for the gull's literal eyes, this later poem is not satisfied with the literal answer; (3) in the last four lines, the poem pulls back from the site to stand on a ridge or to fly "hawk-high" in order to see all the grooves forming into the "harrowed grace" of the horse. 

So, the poem is a puzzle that can only be solved by looking from a further or higher perspective. But what does the puzzle of the horse stand for? The initial description gives some clues:

xxxxxWhat is this broken body? Flesh
xxxxxdissolves, bones fill green charnels,
xxxxxxxxxxxxblood's washed 
xxxxxinto grooves and channels.

Looked at too closely, the horse is human decay, human mortality. No one will remember us, just as "No one/remembers the battles fought here." The language at the start is sacramental: broken body, blood. So, the solution to the puzzle is redemptive in nature. When we see the horse whole, we see her harrowed "grace." 

My problem (I must have one, musnt't I?) with this narrative is that even as the speaker asks herself "Who can read this poem?" she is already imposing Christian symbolism on the horse. The figure has been dated between 1400 - 600 BC, i.e. very much pre-Christian. Nothing about the horse supports a Christian meaning, however secularized. So to ask "Who can read this poem" is to be disingenuous. The poem knows the answer even before it has asked the question. 

Besides the mention of long-forgotten battles, the other attempt to situate the horse historically is perfunctory. 

xxxxxWhite runnels run. They are a kind
xxxxxof rune.

Ha! Rune! Ha! Druids! The sound-patterning here--runnels, run, rune--comes off as comical, not what the poem intends. I think the poet has allowed her hope for grace to run off with the horse.

Perhaps because the next pair of poems is about ruins (I am a diehard Romantic) and same-sex desire (I am a diehard romantic), it moved me far more than the poems that we have read so far. The two poems “Rievaulx I: The Abbey” and “Rievaulx II: Aelred” are related to one another as an institution and an individual are related, that is to say, in a complicated manner. Jedamus asks “The Abbey,” “Where is … your stronghold of love?” A humane institution should be a stronghold of love, protecting those who love it and those who love each other inside it. The Abbey failed on both counts: it did not protect its adherents nor did it sanction its adhesive brothers. 

The final image of “The Abbey” is haunting:

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxIn recent rain,
xxxxxstone basins fill near mossy crevices
xxxxxwhere abbots dried the feet of novices. 

The stone basins still fill up, with rain coming through its missing roof, but there are no longer any abbots serving novices in the way that Jesus recommended Mary Magdalene to his disciples. 

The theme of love is carried over to the next poem, “The Lucombe Oak.” Named after William Lucombe (before 1720 – after 1785) who bred the oak by crossing Turkey Oak and Cork Oak, the tree was, in Jedamus’s lovely phrase, “this evergreen error.” It was also an “accident” and its parent was found “by chance” in a garden in Devon. The emphasis on accident is pertinent, of course, to the theme of love. Lovers find each other and come together by chance. Even parenthood is by chance: one may decide to have a baby but one cannot choose the kind of baby that one gets, at least that was what my sister, who have two beautiful girls, told me. 

The middle portion of the sonnet is devoted to the story of the man who found the oak’s parent. He loved the tree so much that he cut it down so as to save the boards for his coffin. But he lived longer than the boards. They rotted before he died. The lesson? You can’t take love with you. Trying to do so only kills it. 

The sonnet ends with the speaker asking her lover to listen to the creaking of the Lucombe Oak. The tree is falling, it is “no lesson.” Still, the speaker begs her lover to listen to the falling tree, for, really, its falling is a lesson for those who listen.

Monday, November 05, 2012

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 he perceived the volume of the female head and body is astonishing. It makes Matisse look very conservative.

Unforgettable are "Woman with Flowers Writing," with its spare yet graceful graphic lines, "The Milliner's Workshop," a dancing mosaic, and "Dead Cock and Pot," a very late work, which I read as a meditation on human mortality.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Steve Fellner's review of "The Pillow Book"

Steve Fellner reviews The 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. Whether my book appears spontaneous is, of course, a question of readerly judgment. In Steve's view, the brevity of my entries in the book--the longest is less than two pages--counts against its spontaneity. This is an interesting insight into American poetics.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

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 responded so strongly to it. The angry protestor is heard in Ferlinghetti's translation of "Flowers & Bullets." Wilbur translated one of my favorite poems in the book, "Procession with the Madonna." In simple, precise quatrains, rhyming abcb, the poem looks at the hopeful young girls at the front of the procession, before looking at their "fates impending," the strong but cynical women at the back. The speaker turns out to be not a spectator but a marcher too. She marches beside the Madonna, between the girls in their white dresses and the women in their black attire, finding in the candles no "glad radiance," but "a muddled vision/Full of sweet hope and bitterness at once."

The poem shows a poet strongly self-divided, between styles, between political engagement and lyrical introspection, between manic exuberance and despairing acuity. The poem also shows a poet dramatizing powerfully the life lived in that division. His own foreword to the book is an uneasy mixture of inordinate pride and chastizing humility. He quotes Pasternak's line "Being famous isn't pretty" for the title of his foreword, but claims that by doing so "I've acted without arrogance or self-disparagement, a thing far worse than pride." These are not the words of a man who had arrived at a serene judgment of himself, but speak of constant tiring and tiresome evaluations and re-evaluations.

This sense of being both the judge and the object of judgement is expressed through the trope of hunting in another favorite poem, "Mating Flight of the Woodcock," translated by Stanley Kunitz. The poem is in four quatrians. The last two lines of every quatrain end with the same word, creating a doubling effect. This effect is explicitly stated in the third stanza, which doubles the word "double" itself. "Hunter, he is your unarmed double./You are his doomed and wingless double." Hunter and woodcock are mirrors of each other. Kunitz translated another poem that I like very much, "Incantation," with its haunting repetition at the beginning and end of the poem.

Think of me on spring nights
and think of me on summer nights,
think of me on autumn nights
and think of me on winter nights.

I don't much care for the free-verse poems with long lines that descend like steps across the page. But one, translated by James Dickey who had a taste for the grotesque, is riveting for its premise. "Doing the Twist on Nails" pictures not Jesus but Mary Magdalene dancing on nails "shot through" the stage. At the end of the poem, the speaker wishes to wash the wounded feet, not like a brother would do for a sister, but "like a sister for a sister." This doubling casts the poet as both the dancing Magdalene (the suffering artist) and Magdalene the healer.

One of the most moving poems in this collection approaches the death of Anna Akhmatova with the idea of the double too. "In Memory of Akhmatova," translated by Anthony Kahn, is in two parts. The first part is a hyperbolic elegy for one of Russia's best-loved poets. It ends with a conventional use of the double to praise Akhmatova's uniqueness.

For, certainly, two Russians cannot ever
exist or two Akhmatovas be made.

The second part, by undercutting that assertion, veers into new territory. It describes the funeral of a peasant woman "near Akhmatova in age." She has "nothing left to darn or wipe or sweep." She lies "absolvingly serene," in a telling detail, "her dry hands folded on her breast." She cannot be more different from Akhmatova, "disdainful, droll," an "Aristocrat." The two women belong to two different Russias, "a Russia of the hands and of the soul."

Then the poem begins to draw out their similarities. Akhmatova's hands, in writing, too "labored to their limit." In her funeral posture, she, too, lies "absolvingly serene," "resigned/and fragrant with a peasant girl's fatigue," with "fingers met upon her breast." The nameless peasant woman never looked on Nice but "on her brow/appeared Akhmatova's stern grace." She was not only a reader of the Russian poet but a worshipper, for above her body hung "Akhmatova's patrician profile."

So by comparing the funerals of these two women, otherwise so different in social situation, the poem brings them together. It elevates the death of this unknown domestic while underscoring the humanity of the dead poet. In doing so, the poem also reconciles the doubleness in Yevtushenko's poetry, between high and low, between cosmopolitan and local, between writer and reader, concluding that "between them there was no frontier."

Thursday, November 01, 2012

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 book to distinguish Individualist Anarchism from so-called Anarchic Communism.

The former proceeds on the fact and value of egoism, whereas the latter, in Mackay's, and so in Auban's, view, builds Utopia on the false idea of human altruism. According to the Individualist Anarchist, the State is the problem because it protects the oppressors against the oppressed. His solution is to get rid of the state, in order to free competition not only in labor but also in capital. To the Anarchic Communist, the problem is the market. His solution is to get rid of the market and then get people to behave according to their noblest impulse, as captured in the formula, from each his best, to each his need. The breach between the two friends, Auban and Trupp, is inevitable. The unspoken attraction of Auban for Trupp, who is in a way a younger, better, version of himself, lends that breach some poignancy.

I have been influenced by my life in the States in a too-unthinking manner to question the current link between anti-statism and rightwing politics. The call to reduce Government seems to come from either the rich who are resentful of taxation, or from social conservatives who reject top-down changes to their social beliefs. The progressives, on the other hand, see the government as a bulwark against economic and social injustice. What Mackay's book argues is that the State protects the status quo, which always favors the powerful and the privilege. Whatever little redistributive justice that it performs is a mere sop to the exploited who cannot obtain the full value of their labor as long as there is no full competition in capital markets as welll.

The Anarchists accompanies its social arguments with horrifying pictures of the condition of the poor in London in the 1880's. On his own, and also led by Trupp, Auban wanders through hellish neighborhoods in the East End. He sees the corpse of a homeless man who died of starvation. A group of children, so morally distorted by their misery, torture a cat by gouging out its eyes and hanging it up by its tail. Mackay also records the radical workingmen's clubs of the time, hospitable to German, Russian and Jewish immigrants. He is very good at giving a sense of the heated discussions that swirled around the Haymarket trial in Chicago of the eight anarchists accused of throwing a bomb against the police. A chapter is devoted to a vivid account of the clash between protestors and police around Trafalgar Square when the authorities suspended the freedom of assembly at the square.

What comes through these descriptions is a deep compassion for the poor and oppressed. Anarchism must be understood as a political philosophy rooted in that compassion, and not in the winner-takes-all mentality too often associated with American libertarianism. But is the State really the source of all evil, as Mackay contends? Will its dissolution bring about not just liberty, but equality of opportunities, as he seems to promise? Even without the help of the State, what is to stop the rich and powerful from forming their own private army to guard the gains that they have made or inherited? It would be nice if everyone respects the liberty of others, as they wish their own liberty to be respected. But isn't that wish as idealistic as the Communist hope for altruism? Who will guarantee our liberties?

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

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; its neutrality manifests the potental inherent in the Center. At this stage, the real is no longer blocked in partial and too obvious manifestations; the concrete becomes discrete, open to transformation. 
The blandness of things evokes in us an inner detachment. But this quality is also a virtue, especially in our relations with others, because it guarantees authenticity. It must also lie at the root of our personality, for it alone allows us to possess all aptitudes simultaneously and to summon the appropriate one in any given situation. 
On this common ground of the bland, all currents of Chinese thought--Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism--converge in harmonious accord. None of these systems conceive of it as an abstraction (for the purposes of establishing a theory) or, at the opposite extreme, as ineffable (in the service of some mystical calling). But it is precisely the bland that the arts of China reveal to us through their uncluttered spareness and allusive depths. 
By taking us to the limits of the perceptible, that place where perceptions assimilate and nullify each other, the bland brings us to experience a world beyond. But this movement does not open up onto another, metaphysical world, cut off from the senses. It simply unfurls and expands this world (the only one): drained of its opacity, returned to its original virtual state, and opened up--forever--to joy. 

I am drawn to the possibility, alluded to here, of experiencing the transcendent in immanence. That blandness may be the source of ceaseless unfurling, and so give off the sense of infinity within a finite moment or life. This sense is captured by the Chinese and repeated in a musical motif, as Jullien points out. In the History of the Song, the poet Tao Yuanming is described thus:

Tao Yuanming knew nothing of music, but he had at home a simple, unadorned zither without any strings. Whenever he experienced, in drinking wine, a feeling of plenitude, he touched the zither in order to express the aspiration of his heart.

Jullien comments,

The poet did not have to "trouble himself" to produce individually each note "from above the strings." The body of the instrument contains, within itself and at the same time, all possible sounds (the very image, of course, of the Dao). 

Tao Yuanming and his stringless zither became a touchstone and a shorthand for later artists, writers and critics when they alluded to the quality of blandness.

It is too easy to accuse Jullien of treating Chinese culture as a mere foil for the West. That in differentiating Chinese thought so sharply from Western philosophy he is distorting the Chinese tradition. Jullien's has at least two defences, I think. One, he displays a genuine love of authentic Chinese artefacts. In Praise of Blandness reproduces the paintings and calligraphy alongside quotations from primary written texts for the reader's appreciation. Two, he is alert to the distinctions made by the Chinese themselves between different schools of art. So he quotes Su Dongpo's "Postface to the Poetry of Huang Zisi," in which Su contrasts the great Tang poets Li Bo and Du Fu with the earlier poets of the Wei and Jin Dynasties:

By virtue of the brilliance of their talent, they surpass all other generations and excel over all poets past and present. But at the same time, that air of having risen above the world of dust, which we find [earlier] in the poetry of the Wei and Jin, is ever so slightly lost.

Jullien comments suggestively,

... the most accomplished work of art is not necessarily the most effective; indeed by virtue of its very perfection it is found lacking. If the calligraphy of the great masters of the Tang is the most accomplished, it must nevertheless surrender its supreme position, at least from a certain point of view, to that of the preceding period, a period that was profoundly simple, whose characters appeared on the page as most spare and scant, as if they had simply been left there, abandoned by the brush, rather than as the fruit of concentrated attention, of the focused practice of an art. Far from seeking to impose their dynamic rhythm on us, far from actively demonstrating qualities of consistency and vitality, they seem to have lost a bit of their density, to already be somewhat less than fully present, as if on the verge of taking their leave.... These written characters are transitory vestiges of an inspirtation come from somewhere else, which animates them from afar and of which they preserve a certain nostalgia: these written lines are perceived only as traces, and so exude an air of renunciation hat surrounds calligraphy with a halo of indistinctness and solitude. 

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

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 quotation from Shakespeare. The quotation launches a brief discussion of the theme of that stage of Shakespeare's social and writing life.

What she does not know, she says so. What she is unsure of, she speculates cautiously. I like the suggestiveness of some of her outside references. In her discussion of Anthony and Cleopatra, she considers Jungian archetypes of gender.

Jung's "Perfection is a masculine desideratum, while woman inclines by nature to completeness," though a wild generalization, works remarkably well as an account of the duality of this play. Jung went on to insist that, "just as completeness is always imperfect, so perfection is sterile." Macbeth may be the most perfect of Shakespeare's plays, in the sense of being self-contained and atmospherically unified, but its power comes from the evocation of a universe that eventually shrinks to the dimensions of Macbeth's obsessed mind (and his marriage is, at least in the play's present, famously sterile). In Anthony and Cleopatra, on the other hand, Shakespeare emphasizes the fertility of the Nile and "All the unlawful issue" of the two lovers, while never mentioning the children that the historical Anthony had by Octavia. 

Potter is also very suggestive when defending Shakespare against the suspicion that somebody more learned wrote his works.

One effect of situating Shakespeare among other writers may be to make the anti-Staffordian argument irrelevant. If he can be seen as an author like any other, there is no need to talk about his "genius" and no need to displace him with someone else. "Genius" is a term unpopular in scientific circles because it makes no distinction between potential and achievement. It is however a term that people like to use about Shakespeare, and perhaps the main reason people like to read books about Shakespeare is that they hope to discover some cause of "genius" that they themselves can imitate. Yet what they most need to imitate is his productivity. As Dean Simonton writes, "the single most powerful predictor of eminence within any creative domain is the sheer number of infuential products an individual has given the world." As I have already indicated, it is the sheer number of Shakespeare's surviving plays and poems, and the fact that few people can claim both breadth and depth of knowledge in them all, that makes them an inexhaustible field of study. We are all, forever, trying to remember him.

I am guilty of reading books about Shakespeare, such as this one, to discover how I can be a "genius" like he was. It is interesting to think that what I have to do is to produce as many influential products as I can within my short lifetime.

Monday, October 29, 2012

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, as the Muse, or as a peculiar sensation in the pit of the stomach, what the Greeks were reaching for, in Halliwell's paraphrase of Plato, was "something in poetry which resists fully rational analysis by anyone".


from Frances Wilson's review of Belinda Jack's The Woman Reader:

There are hundreds of visual depictions of the woman reading, all of which explore the strange dissolution of time and space--what Michel de Certeau calls the neither "here nor there"--that occurs when we are lost in a book but, as Jack reminds us, the male reader transported by his text is rarely the occasion for a painting. The reading reverie is a state associated only with femininity. 

Sunday, October 28, 2012

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 themselves lacked visual interest. Another politically-engaged artist was Ahmed Alsoudani showing eight new paintings at Haunch of Venison. Alsoudani grew up in Baghdad, escaped to Syria during the Persian Gulf War and then obtained asylum in the United States. His surrealistic paintings of monsters, amputated limbs and machine parts were very much in the Western tradition. The interest of his work, to my mind, seemed to lie more in his personal history than in his artistic achievement.

At Andrew Edlin Gallery, the curators brought together an eclectic assemblage of art associated with the empyrean. The title of the show "Collectors of Skies" came from a short story by French art critic Champfleury (1820–1889). Of the 18 artists, I liked best the two works there by Henry Darger. He is very odd. A true outsider's art.

Matthew Marks Gallery displayed the work of Tony Smith in two separate shows. The first, "Jackson Pollock & Tony Smith: Sculpture: An Exhibition on the Centennial of Their Births," comprised works created by both artists over a single weekend in Smith's backyard, just a few weeks before Pollock's death in a car crash. I thought the sculptures, mostly of discarded concrete pieces, were slight. In contrast, the second show highlighted a monumental piece by Smith called "Source." Made of steel painted black, the massive form had faceted sides, with a limb projected out like a fashion runway. The wonder was the sheer weight of the work; little else held the attention.

Andreas Slominski's show "Sperm," at Metro Pictures, started well and then lost its way. The first work  "Sperm of a Black Man and a White Man" displayed two drip-dried stains on the wall, one yellower than the other. Which is which? In the same room, bales of hay were stacked in such a way as to create steps. "Sperm of the Pilots," seen on the wall above the hay-steps, played with the ideas of take-off and a roll in the hay. The other rooms, splashed with the sperm of other animals, were far less interesting. They were still more provocative than the new paintings and collages of Richard Hawkins at Greene Naftali. The latter were poorly painted and, like some of the other shows, traded on literary references and name-dropping.

More paintings this year than last, but none of them very good. GH remarked on the lack of ideas in American art right now.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

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 too-often covered it and the cliff-edge obscured its light from ships, was a bad, bad lighthouse. That was why another lighthouse was built at the bottom of the cliff and Belle Tout was decomissioned. But in what sense does Art lead men not to safety but their graves? The poem is unclear on this point, but insists on the deliberate fatality by asking the lighthouse, "who could have guessed your motive?" Now, neither lighthouses nor literature can have motives. The question raises more questions, such as whose motive is the poem talking about? A writer? The poem convicts the lighthouse of even greater intention, for "Lives/ were your trophy." So this combative lighthouse kills to display its scalps. If the white cliffs in the previous poem are too "unconscious," this lighthouse is overly conscious: it has a motive and a preening vanity. At this point, I am beginning to doubt my own equation of lighthouse and Art. 

The poem goes on to take away even the beauty first ascribed to the lighthouse.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxBelow, waves wound
xxxthemselves on the shingle, and white cliffs rise,
xxxcancelling your beauty.

So both waves and cliffs, natural energies and formations, are superior in beauty to the lighthouse. The poet thinks "How fortunate" that the lighthouse was moved back inland from the crumbling cliff-edge. Fortunate for the lighthouse, of course, but also fortunate for sailors, who were no longer betrayed into crashing rocks, and for nature-lovers who no longer need to bide the competition of the lighthouse with the white cliffs and waves. 

"Blind and disarmed," the lighthouse now "guard[s] the green endangered downs." This concluding claim is highly ambiguous. If the lighthouse is "blind and disarmed," how can it guard the downs? Or is it only good for guarding the downs, and not the cliffs? But the downs are "endangered"; surely they require a better guard than one that is blind and disarmed! Furthermore, the lighthouse held human lives as nothing more than war trophy, so how could it be trusted with guarding the downs? The best interpretation that I can come up with is that the lighthouse, now re-deployed as a popular bed-and-breakfast and a famous landmark for filming, will ensure that the surrounding downs will be left untouched. It is now designated as Heritage and so the surrounding views are protected along with it. But the poem does not allude to these new uses of the lighthouse. It assumes extra-textual knowledge. If this is indeed what the poet intends, then that assumption, to my mind, is a flaw.