Thursday, March 29, 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 effect of all the air-brushing is to make one doubt the authenticity of the history presented. Yes, Hilary Swank puts on a good performance as Alice Paul, as does Frances O'Connor as Lucy Burns and Anjelica Huston as older suffragette Carrie Chapman Catt. One cannot help but to root for them after their courageous campaign against a war-time President (Bob Gunton as Woodrow Wilson) and their cruel prison treatment, which included force-feeding during their hunger-strike. But the genre of a biopic focuses too much attention on one woman at the expense of a movement; in order to create a heroine, it simplifies her allies into sidekicks and her opponents into enemies. Joseph Adams (Senator Thomas Leighton) and Molly Parker (Emily, his wife), with their emotionally nuanced performances, seem to belong to another, a finer, movie.

The Darjeeling Limited is my first Wes Anderson movie, and it leaves me wanting more. Three estranged brothers embark on a spiritual quest, by train, across India. Days into the trip, Francis (Owen Wilson) the oldest brother reveals their goal, to find their runaway mother (Anjelica Huston) who did not bother to attend their father's funeral. Peter (Adrien Brody), who witnessed their father's road accident, is himself running away from being a new father. Jack (Jason Schwartzman), the youngest, has a girlfriend back home whom he cannot abide but cannot leave. Stabbed in the heart of the action is the death of an Indian child, whom the brothers tried to save but could not. Picaresque in its plot, quirky in its characterization, the movie takes the train as its central symbol for life lived as experience and relationship. You can only get on it if you are prepared to leave your baggage behind.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

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 ourselves to chance.

In her short stories, as in the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Interpreter of Maladies, Lahiri shows a flair for evoking the lives of educated, middle-class Bengalis living as immigrants in the Northeast. She does the same in The Namesake: the confusions, the cooking, the parties, the subtle discrimination. But the novel's longer format also allows her to depict persuasively very different milieus. When Gogol falls in love with Maxine, he also falls in love with her privileged upper-middle-class white life (Greek Revival house in Manhattan, a house by the lake in the country). The dominant note in the description is one of wonder, at its love for beauty, its appreciation for quality, its lack of self-consciousness, its continuity across generations: everything that the Ganguli family is not. Maxine and her parents welcome Gogol into their lives but, as Lahiri notes, they will not change anything for him. Equally perceptive is Lahiri's description of the group of young married intellectuals living in Brooklyn. She serves up the self-satisfied chatter of this self-regarding society as deftly as one of them serves spaghetti alle vangole.

Yet another pleasure of this subtle novel is the quiet symbolism of its details and events. The grandmother's letter, lost between India and the States, is an example of such signification. A wonderful incident has the grade-school Gogol going on a field-trip to the house of some famous dead writer. Brought to a nearby cemetery, the children were told to find their name on the tombstones and make a copy of it. Of course Gogol Ganguli cannot find a namesake in that place, but he discovers the equally strange names of early Puritan settlers, names like Abijah Craven, Anguish Mather and Peregrine Wotton. In this act of identification, like her protagonist, Lahiri lays her claim to being American and an American writer, for to be American turns out to be migrant-settler.

Monday, March 26, 2012

"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 of my affections, pathos of life... Indeed, I have a more complicated, more nuanced sensibility than his and a more exhausting power of love. Those problems that he lives in his mind, I live them with my arms and my legs. Has he ever known months when all the days were only tears? I do not want to lose all that.... Only I must make myself stronger in order to walk on despite my burden. Two cowardly attitudes: keep the burden and sit down--(this is very cowardly)--throw off the burden and walk on. One good one: keep the burden and walk on. I will walk on.

Saturday, March 24, 2012


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 shirts. The colors were set in contrast with the black meshes and skin-colored leotards the dancers changed into and out of constantly. The fluttering meshes seemed to underline the common spirit that animated each individual. This alternation of color and mesh was enacted in the staging too. A translucent black scrim divided the stage into a main front area and a back corridor. The dancers moved back and forth between the two realms.

The dancers showed the highly articulated torsos, the balletic footwork, the modern shapes that I have since learned characterized Cunningham's style. There were many beautiful moments. One, in which dancers went beyond the humanly possible by leaning into space, supported by their partners. Another, a hieratic image behind the scrim, a woman held up by two men was laid face up on top of a man lying face down. The choreography was consistently unpredictable. I followed the dance, movement by movement, with no predetermined shape to suggest what would come next. If therefore the dance lacked inevitability. it gave the thrill and sadness of transience.

The dancers were not all equal. Some, I thought, were slotting their bodies and limbs into shapes they first saw in space with their eyes. Daniel Squire, who danced as a full-time senior dancer for Cunningham when he was alive, was different. He fully inhabited the dance. There was physical intelligence as well as strength in his movements. Conviction too. He was born in Halifax, West Yorkshire, a town that I visited on an evangelistic mission with my Oxford church many aeons ago. I'm very glad that LW asked me to see this special event.

Friday, March 23, 2012

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 Bush Dynasty," the action revolved around a family's attempt to move out of the drug-and-gun-ridden neighborhood for a better place. This aspiration drove Big Mama (a wonderful Tonya Pinkins), the matriarch of four generations under her roof, and was embodied in her precocious great-granddaughter Cookie (the rappin' heart of the show, Joaquina Kalukango). We watched the family struggle against the restrictions of their lives as Cookie watched, for a school science project, the fleas trying to jump out of a glass jar. The feeling of being trapped was intensified by the complete absence of any white characters.

They were in the audience, of course, for, except for a sprinkling of black and Asian faces, the audience was white. The polite attentiveness of the audience was thrown into stark relief by the strong language, punctuated by obscenities and curses, and nervy movements of the black characters and cast. Directed by Patricia McGregor, the rapid succession of scenes, TV-like, gave little concession to traditional notions of the well-made play. Hall's The Mountaintop, a dialogue between Martin Luther King Jr. and his hotel chambermaid, felt classical in comparison to this rich, dark, seething slice of life. I don't mean to tap into noxious stereotypes here, but Hurt Village derived its power from its straight line into the ground of African American lives at the start of the twenty-first century. It battered the senses that have not grown accustomed to living like this.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

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 .


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.


from Rosinka Chaudhuri's review of Arvind Krishna Mehrotra's Partial Recall: Essays on literature and literary history:

What he has given us, rather, is that which he says is so scarce in the Indian literary landscape that it appears "more barren than ever before": "critical scrutiny, intelligent encouragement, and credible evaluation". Running through it all is a sharp sense of anguish at the indifference of those who should care the most: "The great betrayal of our literature has been primarily by those who teach in the country's English departments, the academic community whose job it was to green the hillsides by planting them with biographies, scholarly editions, selections carrying new introductions, histories, canon-shaping (or canon-breaking) anthologies, readable translations, revaluations, exhaustive bibliographies devoted to individual authors, and critical essays that, because of the excellence of their prose, become as much a part of the literature as any significance novel or poem. Little of this has happened".

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

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 herself through unnecessary housework, bought into the promises of the latest gadgets, dominated her husband and children as her life projects, sought extra-marital sex in order to feel alive, and suffered nervous breakdowns. Friedan showed the tragedy of forbidding women to pursue meaningful and creative work outside of the home, in the knowledge that she was contributing to the wider society. The tragedy affected not just women, but men, and children. Her call for women's full participation in the world beyond the home was taken up by women in the 1960s. The epilogue narrates with great energy the formation of the National Organization for Women (NOW), the passing of the Equal Rights Amendment, and the march down New York's Fifth Avenue on the fifteenth anniversary of the vote.

The book is not without its blind spots, of course. In an otherwise admiring introduction, Anna Quindlen points out that Friedan underestimated the desire of some men to retain the services of a de facto servant class. My own criticism lies in Friedan's lack of understanding of homosexuality. So rightly skeptical of the Freudian idea of women's "penis envy," she accepted too uncritically Freud's explanation of male homosexuality as solely a case of maternal dominance. I think she was right to castigate as infantile some of the manifestations of male homosexuality of this period--mindless sexual promiscuity, love-hate for the Mother--but she was wrong to imply that same-sex love is necessarily immature.

Despite the blemishes, this book is still relevant to thinking about the balance between work and family, love and independence. In "Metamorphosis: Two Generations Later," written in 1997 and included in this edition, Friedan saw the need to re-conceive the masculine mystique. Given women's increasing success in competing with men in the wider world, given the loss of lifetime employment on which men have traditionally based their self-image, how should men think of themselves, and women of men too, so that both men and women can grow to their fullest human possibilities?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

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 Nadu. A graduate of the Ethiraj College for Women, she moved to Singapore quite soon after graduation. I have not figured out what she is doing in Singapore yet. She wants to be a poet, that I know. Happy birthday, Lalita, the playful, the beautiful!

Monday, March 19, 2012

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-playing of the younger son, a very fine Kai Inowaki. When he tries for admission to a high school of music, his performance of Debussy's Clair de lune articulates the pain and longing, for which the family had no language. The plot of this movie directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa may be incredible in places, but the emotions ring true. The film captures an important moment of Japan's economic history, a face of Japan not usually seen in the West, but readily identifiable.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

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 match the irregular patterns of prose.

Machaut was followed by Quartre motets sur des thèmes grégoriens by Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986). Brian Hamer who conducted this part of the program writes in the program about how each motet is built around the Gregorian melody associated with the text. Ubi caritas uses words from the Roman liturgy of Duruflé's day for the washing of the feet on Maundy Thursday, and an anonymous trope from the 9th or 10th century. Tota pulchra uses sacred texts from Song of Solomon and the Apocryphal book of Judith. Tu es Petrus is a setting of Matthew 16:18, a text usually sung on the Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul (June 29). Tantum ergo sets two verses from a series of euchartistic hymns attributed to St. Thomas Aquinas.

Nuper rosarum flores by Guillaume Dufay (1397-1474) was sung next by a quintet of men, with Phillip Cheah taking the countertenor part. This motet was composed for the consecration of the Florence cathedral on the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25, 1436, to mark the consecration of the dome designed by Filippo Brunelleschi.

O sacrum convivium! by Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) is a motet written in the key of F sharp major, a key which Messiaen apparently associated with the Divine. It may be minimally scored but to my untrained ears it sounded massive.

My favorite work of the evening was Messe en sol majeur by Francis Poulenc (1899-1963). Written in August 1937, it was Poulenc's first a cappella religious composition. The female soprano solo in the Agnus Dei was very beautiful. Poulenc drifted away from Roman Catholicism after his father's death, but returned to his childhood faith after the death of his friend and colleague Pierre-Octave Ferroud. The missa brevis (omitting the Credo) was dedicated to Poulenc's father.

Although varied, informing and deeply serious, the concert lasted for only an hour. It was the perfect length for a Thursday evening of music. I'm looking forward to hearing the Chorus again when they sing works that explore water and renewal in a concert titled Making Waves on June 2.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

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.


Over the last two weekends we watched two gay movies about adopting a child. Swedish film "Patrik, Age 1.5" (2008), directed by Ella Lemhagen, used the issue to illuminate the stresses of a relationship. Where one half of the relationship wanted a child more than the other half, the mistaken adoption of a 15-year-old homophobic teenager spelled trouble for the marriage. "Breakfast with Scott," a Canadian film released one year earlier, was more concerned with the machismo of certain gay men who try to pass as "normal." Eric McNally, a former Toronto Maple Leaf hockey player, tried to change his flamboyant charge, Scott, but found himself changed instead by the child. Another woman director helmed this film, Laurie Lynd. Interesting connection between women directors and the emerging genre of gay domestic drama. Why wouldn't men, straight or gay, touch it, though they write it? "Patrik" is based on a play by Michael Druker, "Breakfast with Scott" on a novel by Michael Downing. Does this phenomenon say more about film, the industry or men?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

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.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

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.

Monday, March 12, 2012

"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 fingers and on your mouth.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

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.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

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.

Friday, March 09, 2012

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.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

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.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

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

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

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 not a definition, since it is incomplete. But it states the nature of poetry.

What is his function? Certainly it is not to lead people out of the confusion in which they find themselves. Nor is it, I think, to comfort them while they follow their readers to and fro. I think that his function is to make his imagination theirs and that he fulfills himself only as he sees his imagination become the light in the minds of others. His role, in short, is to help people live their lives. Time and time again it has been said that he may not address himself to an elite. I think he mway. There is not a poet whom we prize living today that does not address himself to an elite. The poet will continue to do this: to address himself to an elite even in a classless society, unless, perhaps this exposes him to imprisonment or exile. In that event he is likely not to address himself to anyone at all. He may, like Shostakovich, content himself with pretence. He will, nevertheless, still be addressing himself to an elite, for all poets address themselves to someone and it is of the essence of that instinct, and it seems to amount to an instinct, that it should be to an elite, not to a drab but to a woman with the hair of pythoness, not to a chamber of commerce but to a gallery of one's own, if there are enough of one's own to fill a gallery. And that elite, if it responds, not out of complaisance, but because the poet has quickened it, because he has educed from it that for which it was searching in itself and in the life around it and which it had not yet quite found, will thereafter do for the poet what he cannot do for himself, that is to say, receive his poetry.


Yet the imagination gives to everything that it touches a peculiarity, and it seems to me that the peculiarity of the imagination is nobility, of which there are many degrees. This inherent nobility is the natural source of another, which our extremely headstrong generation regards as false and decadent. I mean that nobility which is our spiritual height and depth; and while I know how difficult it is to express it, nevertheless I am bound to give a sense of it. Nothing could be more evasive and inaccessible. Nothing distorts itself and seeks disguise more quickly. There is a shame of disclosing it and in its definite presentations a horror of it. But there it is. the fact that it is there is what makes it possible to invite to the reading and writing of poetry men of intelligence and desire for life....

It is hard to think of a thing more out of time than nobility. looked at plainly it seems false and dead and ugly. To look at it all makes us realize sharply that in our present, in the presence of our reality, the past looks false and is, therefore, dead and is, therefore, ugly; and we turn away from it as from something repulsive and particularly from the characteristic that it has a way of assuming: something that was noble in its day, grandeur that was, the rhetorical once. But as a wave is a force and not the water of which it is composed, which is never the same, so nobility is a force and not the manifestations of which it is composed, which are never the same. Possibly this description of it as a force will do more than anything else I can have said about it to reconcile you to it. It is not an artifice that the mind has added to human nature. The mind has added nothing to human nature. It is a violence from within that protects us from a violence without. It is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality. It seems, in the last analysis, to have something to do with our self-preservation; and that, no doubt, is why the expression of it, the sound of its words, helps us to live our lives.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

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, the window-cleaner who rose to become the Chairman of the World Wide Wicket Company. His voice was sweet though not very strong, and his dancing energetic and joyful. The cast was uniformly good. Michael Park who substituted for Beau Bridges in the role of J.B. Biggley on Wednesday night had a fine sense of comic timing. Stephanie Rothenberg who played Finch's love Rosemary Pilkington sang very well. I particularly liked the fine-tuned performance of two supporting actors, Ellen Harvey who played Miss Jones, the secretary to Biggley, and Shannon Lewis who played Miss Krumholtz, Rosemary's less lucky colleague.

This production playing at the beautiful Al Hirschfeld Theatre is directed and choreographed by Rob Ashford. The music and lyrics are by Frank Loesser. The book, by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock & Willie Gilbert, is based on the book by Shepherd Mead. Despite its joyful and smart presentation, the story does not shake off its old-fashioned air. After all, truly ambitious youngsters are no longer trying to climb the corporate ladder; they are making and re-making corporations in their own image.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

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 me from Singapore.

She will tell me first that my father has seen the lung specialist
who thinned his blood and helped him sleep better,
that Fourth Aunt has been diagnosed with breast cancer
and refuses to eat, that Raymond, my brother-in-law, is going
for minor heart surgery, or so he says. The girls are okay.

Finally she will tell me that she fell headlong from a bus,
like the time when bruises padded her eyes for weeks,
but this morning she could not get up from the road.
She had reached for the handrail, as I had urged her do,
but grabbed a fistful of air,

like that day when we were about to cross Orchard Road
and I refused to give my hand to her
for I was six.

Sorrow sorrow and sorrow.
She will compare one day to another. That’s what the dead do.

Friday, March 02, 2012

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 Alfredo. The memorable music, a grand symphony really, is by Ennio Morricone. It is incredible to think that Italian critics panned the movie for its sentimentality. I sank into it as I sank into Matisse's sofa. It is a film that makes me glad that I am alive to watch it.