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Showing posts from March, 2012

Lovers, Sisters and Brothers

Anthony and Cleopatra is my favorite Shakespeare play. It has the most gorgeous poetry. In the 1974 TV adaptation of an RSC production, Janet Suzman is utterly believable as Cleopatra. What she lacks in looks she more than makes up for in her mercurial sensuality. As Anthony, Richard Johnson may be less grand than I would like, but is otherwise human and persuasive. The stand-out is Patrick Stewart as Enobarbus. His betrayal of Anthony near the end, and his ultimate regret, is very moving. This TV movie, entirely shot in the studio, is directed by Jon Scoffield and produced by Trevor Nunn.

Iron Jawed Angels, a 2004 HBO docudrama about the 1920s fight for the 19th Constitutional Amendment, giving women the vote, got my back up right from the start. It tries so hard to be cool. The hip music. The slangy script. The pretty faces. The Hollywood romance. The chirpy colors.  Director Katja von Garnier has little confidence in her compelling material and her MTV audience. The unfortunate effe…

Jhumpa Lahiri's "The Namesake"

I knew before reading The Namesake that the novel is deeply concerned with migration, but I did not know that it is also deeply concerned with chance. It is by chance that Ashoke is rescued alive from the train wreck, a page from the Short Stories of Nikolai Gogol falling from his clutch and so attracting the attention of rescuers. This miracle turns his mind to living abroad. It is by chance that the letter from grandmother is lost in the mail and so Ashoke and Ashima give their newborn the same of Ashoke's favorite author as a temporary measure that becomes a permanent part of him. By chance too, Gogol Ganguli recovers the book of Gogol's short stories, Ashoke's long-ago birthday present for him, before the contents of his childhood home on Pemberton Road are sold or given away. The striking coincidences of an immigrant life become, in this novel, a comment on the role of chance in everyone's lives. When we move, even if the move is to the next neighborhood, we open …

"I will walk on"

TLS March 16 2012

from Emilie Bickerton's Commentary piece on Simone de Beauvoir:

Beauvoir always called herself a literary writer rather than a philosopher. "I am not", she said, "the creator of systems." It is worth remembering this before falling into the familiar description of her as a philosopher first and novelist on the side. She herself felt the pressure of the distinction between lived reality that serves as inspiration for fiction, and the cooler process of elaborating a philosophical system.  In her earlier diaries we read of her early squabbles with her fellow philosophy student Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who accused her of excessive emotionalism and questioned the virtue of putting as much value as she did on lived experience, when she was in the business of exploring ideas, and believed in the universal human subject. But the young Beauvoir, who did feel emotions passionately, from murderous jealousy to desperate adoration, sticks to her guns:

Drama …

Cage/Cunningham

At the Baryshnikov Arts Center last night, two separate works by life-long collaborators and real-life partners John Cage and Merce Cunningham were brought together in magical combination. Cage's Four Walls (1944) was played by Russian pianist Alexei Lubimov with great dynamism and coherence, with Joélle Harvey singing the soprano part. Cunningham's Doubletoss (1993), in which a double roll of the dice determined the order of the movement sequences, was restaged by his assistant and dancer Robert Swinston. Besides displaying Cunningham's use of chance as a choreographic principle, last night's Doubletoss Interludes also exemplified another of his ideas: the independence of music and dance. One might not take one's eyes off the dancers but one's ears were hearing music with a pulsating life of its own.

Though duets, trios and quartets formed throughout the dance, each of the eight dancers performed like a soloist, as accentuated by their differently-colored shir…

Clothing and a Glass Jar

Last night Harriet Walter was splendid as she recited various passages from literature related to the trope of clothing. Woven together with explanatory stitches by Helaine Smith, the passages came from Shakespeare, Robert Herrick, Alexander Pope, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Richard Wilbur, and Elaine Sexton. The performance, called Clothed in Words, was held in conjunction with a current show of hats at the Bard Graduate Center. The audience, mostly white, mostly women, mostly older, laughed appreciatively and burst out in spontaneous applause when Walter read out Elizabeth Bennet's reception at Netherfield Park after trekking three miles in mud. I last saw Walter as Queen Elizabeth in Schiller's Mary Stuart, a Donmar Warehouse production that moved to Broadway. She was very fine there too.

Two Thursday ago, March 8, LW and I watched Katori Hall's play Hurt Village at the new Pershing Square Signature Center. Set in a south Memphis housing project, during the "Second …

They Study Us More Than We Do Ourselves

TLS March 9 2012

from David Arnold's review of Michael J. Franklin's Orientalist Jones: Sir William Jones, poet, lawyer, and linguist:

[Franklin] ... begins, rather than ends, with Jones's most celebrated achievement--the "world-modifying" address made to the Asiatic Society in 1786 in which he revealed the close affinity between Sanskrit, Greek and Latin, and hence the ancient connection between India and Europe .

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Franklin rejects the idea that Jones was an arch-imperialist, who used his Orientalist learning to help impose Western hegemony over India, whose command of law and language was a route to colonial mastery. Franklin argues that this misrepresents Jones, divorcing his Indian years from his earlier career, and makes a travesty of his lifelong hatred of tyranny. Jones merits recognition instead as a multiculturalist who made deep connections between cultures.

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from Rosinka Chaudhuri's review of Arvind Krishna Mehrotra's Partial Recall: Essays…

Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique"

Written as long ago as 1963, this book still speaks with a fresh, combative yet engaging voice. Friedan set out to understand the nagging sense of emptiness that American suburban housewives felt in the 1950s. Marshaling the data and arguments of psychology, sociology and history, she made the case that this existential nullity resulted from the attempt to live according to what she called the feminine mystique, the idea that a woman's sole purpose in life is to be a wife and a mother. In different chapters, Friedan analyzed and criticized the contributions of Freudian psychoanalysis, functional sociology (including Margaret Mead's later writings), sex-directed education, post-war uncertainties and rampant consumerism to the feminine mystique. The synthesis of research and polemic is quite compelling.

Equally persuasive is her demonstration of the deadly consequences of the feminine mystique. Taking the home as the boundaries of her world, the American housewife exhausted hers…

Not Yet 64

Today's my birthday. I'm 42. I've just had breakfast with GH at our local diner Three Stars, talked to my mum, sister and niece on the phone, and finished a load of laundry. After typing this, I will be heading into Woodside, my old neighborhood, for a haircut and then lunch at my favorite Thai restaurant Sripraphai. On my way home I will pick up a birthday present and a bottle of wine for friends with whom we are having dinner tomorrow evening. The present is for their little girl who has the same birthday as I. I hope the afternoon stays warm enough to continue reading in the park Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique. Is there a more truthful and less man-hating book written from the perspective of American feminism? Tonight, when GH comes home, we will have dinner at Mirabelle, a French restaurant I love.

This is also the birthday of Lalita Sahasranaama. Born in 1984, she is 28 today, but could pass for someone much older. She is from Chennai, the capital of Tamil …

In the Flesh and Tokyo Sonata

Last Thursday we watched In the Flesh (1998), a gay whodunnit directed by Ben Taylor. Ed Corbin plays an undercover cop who falls for a young hustler, a very attractive Dane Ritter. Nothing very original there. Ritter witnesses the murder of his john and becomes a suspect. In the only sex scene of the movie, Ritter fucks a female friend in missionary position. The boys lie naked together in bed, but that's it.

Tokyo Sonata (2008), which we watched on Friday, shows the extent to which Japanese men would go to hide their unemployment from their families. Without a job, a man's authority in his home crumbles. Teruyuki Kagawa is convincing as a man who does not know what to do after his social scripts as employee, husband and father are torn up. His blankness is nicely counterbalanced by the suppressed passion of his long-suffering wife, played by Kyôko Koizumi, who attempts escape by driving off with a bungling burglar.

The family is finally brought back together by the piano-play…

To the Glory of God

Last Thursday GH and I heard a concert of French sacred music in the beautiful gothic church of St. Ignatius of Antioch at West End Avenue and 87th Street. Under the music direction of Phillip Cheah, the Central City Chorus presented à la glorie de Dieu. The program connected medieval French composers with their modern counterparts.

According to the program notes, La Messe de Nostre Dame by Guillaume de Machaut (ca. 1300-1377) is often cited as the earliest complete setting of the Ordinary of the Mass attributable to a single composer. Cheah writes, to my great interest:

The text of the Ordinary falls into roughly two categories: one short, with the conciseness of poetry (i.e. Kyrie, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei), and the other extended and prosaic (i.e. Gloria and Credo). Machaut sets the texts of the former group as self-contained abstract formations that seem almost more instrumental than choral in the drawn out syllables, while the latter are set in accordance with the text phrases to m…

The Cherry Orchards

Richard Eyre directed the BBC TV production of Chekov's "The Cherry Orchard" (1981). I watched it over three nights, straining to hear the often-muffled sound. The poor sound might have to do with the age of the DVD. Using a version written by Trevor Griffiths, the production seemed overly English. As Madame Ranevsky, Judi Dench was affecting in certain scenes, as when she debated with herself whether to return to her Parisian lover, but was otherwise unconvincing as a Russian aristocrat who had to sell her family estate, including the famous cherry orchard. More likely was the performance of Bill Paterson as Lopakhin, the eventual buyer of the estate. The character was the richest of the lot. Upwardly mobile, commercially-minded, he gloried in the purchase of the land on which his father had worked as a serf. Anton Lesser was also very fine as the "eternal" student Peter Trofimov.

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Over the last two weekends we watched two gay movies about adopting a child. S…

Review of "Collective Brightness"

On Lambda Literary, David Eye reviews Collective Brightness: LGBTIQ Poets on Faith, Religion & Spirituality, edited by Kevin Simmonds:
... There is more forgiveness and wisdom in these pages than anger or cynicism. Parents and preachers are pardoned. Even Ted Haggard, the evangelical pastor who hired male prostitutes and used meth, receives patience and understanding (and a voice) in Jee Leong Koh’s “The Cretan.” 
Eye makes the interesting suggestion that the poetic strategies of the anthology may fall into three kinds: rewriting, re-inventing and reifying. Read more.

Poem: "In the Mind of God"

In the Mind of God


This world is not conclusion

          Emily Dickinson


I’m not the son of a carpenter, your every look told me.
Living in mistaken circumstances, I’m the son of a king.

I tried to please my father by picking up the rip saw
but I could see, even at five, words cut more readily.

I’m the son of a king, so I thought and thought until
a star dropped from the sky, then I’m the son of God.

I bade you farewell, wiped your eyes with my wrists,
set off to find the falling star and seize my destiny.

The men, the neediest men, I ordered to follow me.
The women I pitied for their strength and told not to sin.

When they told me you were outside, asking for your son,
I knew then I didn’t belong to you, I belonged to them.

Be strong, woman, the cross you see is not a cross. Far
away, a woman will write, This world is not conclusion.

Be comforted, woman, all of us are never who we seem.
My son, this is your mother. My mother, this is your son.

"Spring: 11 Poems"

Spring: 11 Poems 


The bright yellow shouts/of new-bloomed forsythia and daffodils

       Donna Smith, “Untitled”


They lift their body weight in an overhead press, daffodils, muscle boys of the park.


Losing an hour of spring is not equal to gaining an hour of winter; we lose all our lives.


In Tompkins Square the cherry blossoms flaunt their dual citizenship.


Two mysterious lights in the sky, too low to be satellites, too high to be helicopters.


The woman behind the cash register smiled at us when you picked up Hot Men with Dogs.


We carry grocery bags over the threshold, and pressed shirts and red wine.


Painting represents light, photography makes use of light, I am a painting made from a photograph.


Last spring you showed me the forsythia; this spring I see them by myself.


Spring show at the Met: La Coiffure, a woman brushing another woman’s hair.


You have to take a test before spring begins, the first question, where did winter go?


The smell of fried salmon stays in the room, on my fi…

Poem: "For Zora Neale Hurston"

For Zora Neale Hurston 


She was not happy/with fences.

          Alice Walker, “Mississippi Winter II”


Her Florida was in the South
back when the South was still the South.

She took her degree in the North
but took her studies to the South.

She caught in books the black dialect,
unlettered poetry of the South.

To find a lost society,
a vanished place, south of the South,

down, down, to Honduras she went
as if there were no end to south. 

There was an end. She found her place
in a wild Garden in the South.

Heroic Maid, the unmarked grave
is a free tribute from the South.

Poem: "Suddenly, in Sweden"

Suddenly, in Sweden 


O the chimneys

     Nelly Sachs



The very tall chimney on the very tall building
has been glumly silent all winter.
This morning, finally, it has something to say for itself.

Whatever it says
shoots up so quickly that it is lost in the space
behind the sky.

The black smoke flies after it, haltingly,
then spreads out like a net
that catches nothing but its own unknotting.

I say smoke, but it could have been hair.
I say sky, but it was a handcart of discarded clothes.
I say silent, but the chimney has been speaking in German.

Poem: "End of Days"

End of Days 


Everything is still and separate.

          Doris Kareva, “I don’t know if all roads lead to truth”



The blades of grass stand up, no two alike,
green by its own projection lamp,
tipped like a fingerprint.

The grains of sand point in different directions
that end where they started
after researching the wheels’ revolutions.

The sea stops and separates
into loaves and fishes.
Look! The sea has stopped.
We may approach the water with our baskets.

Poem: "Lament for the Mind"

Lament for the Mind

saw my face in a pond/with a hundred-year-old carp
            Shirley Kaufman, “Unhinged”


In a light waning and warp, saw my face in a pond with a hundred-year-old carp.
A camel under a tarp talked Spinoza to my hand in a light waning and warp.
Across from the scarp, saw my shank in a frond with a hundred-year-old carp.
Interrupting the harp whined a cricket band in a light waning and warp.
Lucerne cold but not sharp. Saw my breast in a second with a hundred-year-old carp.
Crying like a baby, burps keep-home cat who’s found, in a light waning and warp, with the hundred-year-old carp.

Poem: "You Ask Me If You Could Paint Me"

You Ask Me If You Could Paint Me

here comes another, this one with a brush instead of a book, or rope, or whip
Dilruba Ahmed, “The Other Side (on Gauguin)”

If you will paint me, paint with the good book. Its leather smelling of tanneries and smeared crimson makes a lifelike print. The sermon on the mount may tattoo in blue the blessed head.
Paint also with a rope, rub it across the hands that all may see my long self-restraint and guess my release. Then nail the hemp to the canvas, top right corner, to outface me with its reality.
With your brush, whip my torso into flesh. The violence without must be met by violence within. Strike! Harder! Let my body writhe, a commotion contained in the cool and hard figure of a pear.

for Valerie

Wallace Stevens' "The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words"

Just read three essays from the "Poetics" section at the back of Volume One of The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry: "The Poetry and the Present" by D.H. Lawrence (1919); "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" by Langston Hughes (1926); and "The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words" by Wallace Stevens (1942). The first is an artful polemic for free verse in contact with the "insurgent naked throb of the instant moment." The second is a spirited rejoinder to a young Negro poet who wanted to "write like a poet--not a Negro poet." The third, my favorite, is a wide-ranging meditation on the nature of poetry and the role of the poet. So many grand things said but I will only quote a few passages:

I am interested in the nature of poetry and I have stated its nature, from one of many points of view from which it is possible to state it. It is an interdependence of the imagination and reality as equals. This is no…

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

The musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying was better than we had expected. GH picked the show for his nephew who was visiting New York this week. He had just graduated from college and is applying to do his PhD in Economics. Business and Economics are a world apart, of course, but the story about a young man on the make, we thought, would interest someone about to choose the course of his career.

The most wonderful aspect of this revival was the set. The gigantic silver frames slid together from the wings to form windows, out through which the cityscape of New York beckoned. The windows were also covered by panes of different colors at different times, forming a changing backdrop to match the mood of the scenes. The song-and-dance also took place on the different levels of similar-looking but much bigger frames. Designed by Derek McLane, the set was simple but ingenious. The lighting design was by Howell Binkley.

Nick Jonas was a very creditable J. Pierrepont Finch,…

Poem: "Singapore Buses Are Very Reliable"

I received my green card in the mail on March 1. GH left two official-looking envelopes on my table. One was a questionnaire to find out my eligibility to undertake jury duty. The other held my permanent residency. Responsibility and privilege come hand-in-hand, they say. I will have to live here for five years before I can apply for citizenship. I don't know yet if I will, since I am reluctant to give up my Singapore citizenship. Neither government encourages dual citizenship, unfortunately. I think I will try to write a poem about dual citizenship sometime.

Last night, at the Son of a Pony reading, I shared the good news and the audience responded warmly. Then I read this poem, which I introduced as the other face of becoming a permanent resident in a foreign country.

Singapore Buses Are Very Reliable
And they told him that in Prague his mother died.
            Polina Barskova, “Motherhood and Childhood”

She will tell me herself that she has died. She won’t let anyone else call…

Giuseppe Tornatore's "Cinema Paradiso" (1988)

I watched this film over two nights, last Sunday and Monday. It was a film to savor. In fact, I could not bear to finish watching it, and decided to view it again the same night, Monday, with the additional commentary that came with the DVD. Then I realized that I was watching a drastically edited version made for the box office. That the director's cut, lasting nearly 3 hours, had a much darker vision of the relationship between life and art. Great art comes at the expense of life and love, as Salvatore Di Vita discovers. His film mentor, the humble projectionist of his village cinema in Sicily, gave him art but denied him love.

Philippe Noiret plays the Devil/God in the form of Alfredo the projectionist. Salvatore Cascio is the precocious child Salvatore, nicknamed Toto. Marco Leonardi plays the teenager in love with both film and Elena (Agnese Nano). Jacques Perrin is the adult film-maker who returns to the village after an absence of nearly 30 years to attend the funeral of Al…