Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Flight tonight

Flying to Singapore tonight. I'll have to start packing soon. And mail off MC's book to TS for review. And get a haircut from my favorite barber at Woodside, and then lunch at Sripraphai. And buy presents from New York Historical Society, which was closed yesterday when I forgot that it would be and walked from 86th Street to 79th. I am really looking forward to spending time with my nieces, H and L. They must have grown so much since I last saw them. Now H is 8 and L is 4.

The summer is flying by, and taking me with it.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Raise the Chungking Express?

Watched Zhang Yimou's Raise the Red Lantern (1991) and Wong Kar Wai's Chungking Express (1994) last week, and found in both the triumph of style over substance. The themes of both films are straightfoward--concubinage in the first, and lost love in the second; neither has anything new to add to its theme, except the exotic settings of 1920s China and Hong Kong in the 1990s. To make up for that lack, Zhang indulges in heavy symbolism whereas Wong shows off the trendy technique of shooting with a handheld camera.

Bound by the ritualistic structure of Zhang's film, Gong Li had barely the wiggle-room to develop the character of her Fourth Wife believably. The friendly Second Wife is discovered to be the villain of the piece while the hostile Third Wife ends up the victim. The plot is soap opera-ish.

In Wong's film, pretty boy Takeshi Kaneshiro is completely unconvincing as a cop. The business with the canned pineapple is laughable, rather than insightful, the stuff of teenage mawkishness. The second story in the film is stronger, with better acting from both Tony Leung and Faye Wong. It plays whimsy against melancholia. But can anyone really call a film a masterpiece when only half of it is any good?

Sunday, July 22, 2012

"Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations"

Really enjoyed the Schiaparelli and Prada show "Impossible Conversations" at the Met yesterday. Civilized, subversive, intelligent. I liked it much more than the over-the-top spectacle of last year's Alexander McQueen.
The Met's Spring 2012 Costume Institute exhibition, Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations, explores the striking affinities between Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada, two Italian designers from different eras. Inspired by Miguel Covarrubias's "Impossible Interviews" for Vanity Fair in the 1930s, the exhibition features orchestrated conversations between these iconic women to suggest new readings of their most innovative work. Iconic ensembles are presented with videos of simulated conversations between Schiaparelli and Prada directed by Baz Luhrmann, focusing on how both women explore similar themes in their work through very different approaches.

The show was divided into seven themes: "Waist Up/Waist Down," "Ugly Chic," "Hard Chic," "Naïf Chic," "The Classical Body," "The Exotic Body," and "The Surreal Body." Schiaparelli explained that she focused on the waist-up because, in the cafe culture of her time, women displayed most that part of themselves when seated. Prada, however, focused on the waist-down because that part of the body is, for her, where life thrives, in sex and childbirth; it grounds the body to the earth.

Through their most radical collections, both designers expanded the definition of feminine beauty by combining power and softness. Schiaparelli's padded shoulders gave women a more angular silhouette. Her buttons, whether they are military brass or swinging monkeys, always called for attention. Prada used unconventional materials like plastic and feathers to toughen up the look of silk and lace. I was especially taken by one design in which the front of a dress is covered with animal fur, like the chest of a hairy man. Her feathers also broke out of the flat backs of most clothes.

This paragraph from the Met's website explains succinctly the different political and aesthetic affinities of the two women:
Schiaparelli, who worked in Paris from the 1920s until her house closed in 1954, was closely associated with the Surrealist movement and created such iconic pieces as the "Tear" dress, the "Shoe" hat, and the "Bug" necklace. Prada, who holds a degree in political science, took over her family's Milan-based business in 1978, and focuses on fashion that reflects the eclectic nature of Postmodernism.

Schiaparelli was certain that fashion design is an art. Prada countered that fashion design is creative, but not an art.  She continued, in a Postmodernist accent, what does it matter whether it is an art or not. She wanted to make everybody look beautiful.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Sydney Theatre Company performs "Uncle Vanya"

With EN last night, I watched Sydney Theatre Company perform Chekhov's Uncle Vanya at the New York City Center. It was an excellent production that accented the tragedy with comic overtones, so that love and ambition appeared pathetic in both senses of that word. Astrove, the suave doctor, fell backwards from his perch on the windowsill while oratorizing. Yelena, the second wife of the Professor, played a silly prank on Sonya by pretending to see a figure in the window behind her step-daughter. When Vanya came in, trying to shoot Professor Serebryakov, Yelena rode on his back in order to stop him. He missed shooting Serebryakov a second time, and the failure seemed the culmination of a long string of bad jokes that fate had been playing on these people.

The director Tamás Ascher is reckoned to be one of the foremost interpreters of Chekhov. His experience with the absurdist drama of Ionesco and Witold Gombrowics certainly colored his take on the Russian. I liked very much his instruction to Andrew Upton who adapted the play into English. Chekhov's characters are not florid in their melancholy. They are brutally honest and straightforward and so "each line has to be as simple and uninflected as a stone dropped into the pond."

The cast was uniformly strong. John Bell played Serebryakov, Cate Blanchett Yelena, Hayley McElhinney Sonya, Richard Roxburgh Vanya, Hugo Weaving Astrov. There were no obvious "stars." All was bent to the service of the play. If Blanchett looked physically the part of the beautiful young wife, she was also emotionally convincing as a woman who was bored with serving a petulant and hypochondriac husband and so was tempted by adultery. Uncle Vanya, voluble in his self-pity, could be highly irritating, but Roxburgh gave him a winning vulnerability. When he walked in on Yelena and Astrov kissing, his pain was palpable as the bunch of roses that he held.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Events Line-up in Singapore's Pride month

In its 8th edition this year, IndigNation, Singapore's Pride month, is "an annual showcase of Singapore LGBT community's multi-facetedness." Check out the Facebook page for the events line-up in August. The opening event, a screening of three short films followed by a panel discussion of LGBT history in Singapore, requires registration. The other events don't. They include discussions, readings and a Pink Picnic in the Botanical Gardens. The launch of my new chapbook The Pillow Book is also part of the celebration.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Rohinton Mistry's "A Fine Balance"

A deeply humane and beautifully written novel about India in 1975. Through the lives of four people, brought together in one household by chance, Mistry captures the ancient and modern cruelties of India and the power of ordinary Indians to endure. Living in an unnamed city by the sea, Dina, a young widow, has to struggle ceaselessly to maintain her own independence. Maneck is a college student who cannot forgive his parents for sending him away from their idyllic hill station. Ishvar and Om, uncle and nephew, are tailors fleeing from caste violence in their native village.

They will move from distrust to friendship to love, only when they tell one another their stories, the same way by which the reader gets to understand them. Mistry is, however, sensitive to the limits of storytelling. Sometimes, friendship is just not enough, and the novel, having brought them together, inexorably separates them as they confront growing up, marriage, political corruption, religious violence, the Emergency. The fine balance between hope and despair can only be maintained for a while.

Sewn into the main stories are tales of other colorful characters. Like Rajaram who collects hair for a living. And Shankar, the armless and legless beggar who rolls himself about on his wooden platform on castors, and works for the Beggarmaster. And Avinash, the student leader who dares to agitate for justice and is punished horribly. If they seem larger-than-life, they are also true to life, Mistry's writing assures the reader. In fact, he warns the reader right from the beginning by quoting Balzac in the book's epigraph:

"Holding this book in your hand, sinking back in your soft armchair, you will say to yourself: perhaps it will amuse me. And after you have read this story of great misfortunes, you will no doubt dine well, blaming the author for your own insensitivity, accusing him of wild exaggeration and flights of fancy. But rest assured: this tragedy is not a fiction. All is true."

Saturday, July 14, 2012

No Diagnosis

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
that struts and frets his hour upon the stage
and then is heard no more. It is a tale
told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
signifying nothing.

The production of Macbeth by the National Theatre of Scotland that GH and I watched last night took the despairing speech above and made it literal. Set in a psychiatric ward, which filled the entire Rose Theater stage and so dwarfed any human action, the production starred Alan Cumming as a mental patient who played all the major roles of the play. Cumming put in a virtuosic performance, switching from character to character fluently, declaiming almost non-stop for 1 hour 45 minutes. But the virtuosity of the performance created a problem for me. I was so engrossed in looking out for the switches that I was never fully immersed in the drama. The characters might have been cleanly delineated by the actor but they were not fully inhabited. Could they be, by any single actor?

Perhaps the patient himself, and not the Scottish tyrant, was supposed to engage our sympathies. Certainly, Cumming played the patient's anguish with great feeling, but since we did not know why and how he was hospitalized, we had little to go on to understand him. There were clues to his life before institutuonalization. One of the most brilliant moments came when Cumming drew out a tiny baby knitwear from a brown paper bag held his personal belongings. The knitwear then stood in for Macduff's son, slaughtered along with the rest of Macduff's family by Macbeth's murderers. Could the patient too have suffered such a terrible massacre? Was that what turned him insane? It was a tantalising thought. The production refused to confirm or deny it. The audience might have been watching him through a one-way observation panel as were his doctors, but we knew far less than the supposed medical experts. We watched but were not encouraged to diagnose.

John Tiffany and Andrew Goldberg directed this production.

Friday, July 13, 2012

"To Rome with Love" and "Starry, Starry Night"

GH and I went with P and J last Saturday to watch Woody Allen's new film "To Rome with Love" at the Angelika. I liked it more than his last movie "Midnight in Paris." For one thing, the Rome movie, unlike the Paris one, did not hang on a single conceit, and an endless procession of semi-believeable mimicries of famous personalities of 1920s Paris. "Rome" consisted of four stories, unrelated in plot, but connected through the common themes of love, fame and aging. The best story had a pair of Italian newly-weds coming from the countryside to the Eternal City for the first time to meet the husband's influental relatives. For them Rome was a place of confusion but also of experience. They returned to their small town, wiser and surer of their rightful place. Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi were pitch-perfect as the hapless innocents.

Another story had Alec Baldwin finding his younger self (played by Jesse Eisenberg) in Rome when he was falling in love with the wrong woman. The third story revolved around the discovery of a bathroom tenor by a retired maestro (Woody Allen) who refused to accept that his career was over. The bathroom conceit sounded cheesy but actually produced some hilarious and moving scenes. The last story was a tiresome satire on the cult of celebrity. An ordinary Italian family man, of no special accomplishments whatsover, was suddenly and unaccountably thrust into the media circus.


On Wednesday, I took WL's suggestion and saw "Starry, Starry Night" with DM at AMC Cinema in Times Square. Directed by Taiwanese Tom Lin, the film was an adaptation of Jimmy Liao's picture book. It was a sensitive and imaginative look at the joys and sorrows of childhood on the cusp of adolescence. The fantasy elements added to the psychological weave of being thirteen. I found some parts of it overly sentimental, but perhaps that too is an aspect of being young.

Poem: "Life and Time"

Life and Time

life is one thing/and time something else

            Hasina Gul, “Life and Time,” translated from Pashto by Sher Zaman Taizi

A dog bounding through the swirling smoke of sand stirred by its own running.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Poem: "Airplane Poems"

Airplane Poems

I have only now become acquainted with the meaning of migration.

            Yasmeen Hameed, “I Am Still Awake”

You said, every Singapore poet has an airplane poem.
Takeoff. Ascent. Window view. Turbulence. Landing.
We are a race of travelers and write what we know,
the illusion of reaching and leaving easily anywhere,
the airplane, in the language of logistics, an airbridge.

Belting up, on my annual flight to Singapore, I think,
migration is the opposite of travel. It initiates a break
that one tries to stuff with one’s body, like a psycho
pushing the bag of his victim into the back of his car.
Or one tries it with flowers, a paper cone of gerberas

lighting the edge of the grave of every vanished place.
Or else with airplane poems. Years I used to fall asleep
the moment the plane took off and sleep until landing.
Not any more. The belt pinches. The seat constricts.
I’m kept awake by the cabin light and the body’s aches.

for Ruihe

Lyndall Gordon's "Lives Like Loaded Guns"

This is a biography of Emily Dickinson and an examination of who gets to say who she was after her death. On the Life, Gordon is at pains to dispel the legend of a retiring and reticent poet, an image so at odds with the poetry. Gordon shows that Dickinson used her correspondence as so many "lassoes" to grapple kindred spirits to her. A chapter is devoted to her love affair with Lord Judge, to whom Emily wrote expressively, even passionately, of her feelings. Regarding her brother Austin's adulterous relationship with Mabel Loomis Todd, Dickinson was prevented by her dependency on her brother from attacking the affair directly, but she wrote many subtly barbed letters to Mabel Todd and refused to see her at all, despite approaches by the latter. Emily, in Gordon's hands, appears as a fierce and uncompromising spirit. Her seclusion, Gordon argues persuasively, was not due to disappointed love, as legend would have it, but the stigma of epilepsy. The Fit, as coded in many of the poems, gave Dickinson the sense of being among the Elect.

The second half of the book looks at the war between the houses over the control of Dickinson. The battle started by Sue Dickinson, Austin's wife, and Mabel Todd, Austin's mistress, was taken up by their respective daughters, Mattie Dickinson and Millie Todd. Lavinia Dickinson, the sister of Austin and Emily, took Austin's side against Sue at first, but went over to the other side decisively when she fought with Mabel Todd over Austin's promise of family land to his mistress. It is a testament to Gordon's skill at narration and characterization that the story of disputed contracts and legal battles retains high interest. She does not lose sight of how such prosaic matters have shaped, and distorted, a poetic legacy. If she has restored Emily to the original that she was, she has also recovered the real Sue Dickinson, the intelligent and sympathetic reader whom Emily held to her heart as her "Sister."

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Poem: "Carp Swimming"

Carp Swimming

this dissension into fish or birds

            dg nanouk okpik, “For-The-Spirits-Who-Have-Rounded-The-Bend”

Because I can look for hours at carp swimming,
red lightning, gracious torpedo,
although bullfrogs croak for a groggy season,
and mosquitoes breed irritation into fever,
Aedes mosquitoes, flying rats, carriers
of breakbone fever, water poison,
although the Chinese water snake, crepuscular in its habit, olive brown,
“a longitudinal stripe of dark salmon extending from head to tail,”
is hunted and killed for manufacturing snake oil
to cure arthritis, killed for being useful,
because I can stare for whole days at carp swimming,
although the willows bend their heads and cry
for god knows what,
because I can look at carp swimming
and see the lightning,
I have hope that I will survive the bullfrogs, the mosquitoes,
and even the snares of snake oil makers,
the hooked nets of usefulness,
because I can look at carp,
my gracious quarrel with the world,
I will survive the depredations of the spirit
and live in what I saw,
because I can look for hours at carp swimming,
and because I see the kingfisher dart into its kill.

after Hyam Plutzik

The quotation is taken from this webpage 

Monday, July 09, 2012

Poem: "Homage to Emily Dickinson"

Homage to Emily Dickinson

Born—Bridalled—Shrouded—/In  a Day—

            Emily Dickinson, “Title divine—is mine!”

Survivors—all—they tell of Burns
Inside the cell of Brain.
The polish shines the—groping—breaks
That lit—before—the grain.

There’s one—can blow apart and show
What fits her for the Hit,
The Aura of approaching—Sense
Into household white—

To find the Fork—the Juncture found
And travel—twisting—both
Down to the Smallest Severance,
Unspoused Lightning—unearthed—


Druid Theater Company, from Galway, is performing a cycle of three plays by Tom Murphy as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. Director Garry Hines describes the order of the plays as an archaelogical dig to find out how the Irish got to where they are today. The three plays share the common theme of immigration. LW and watched the whole cycle yesterday.

The first play "Conversations on a Homecoming" exploited the Irish genius for talk. Michael comes home from the United States to a small town in Galway in the 70s, and is forced by his drinking pals to realize the failure of his acting ambitions. I thought Marty Rhea was weak as Michael when this play required him to be convincing as the eternal optimist and romantic. Garrett Lombard who played the cynical teacher was much more believeable.

Next was "A Whistle in the Dark," the play that brought Tom Murphy to prominence, and comparisons with other Angry Young Men of the period. Niall Buggy was stupendous as the father who eggs his boys to violence in order to prove their manhood. Marty Rhea was much better in this play as the intellectual son who is finally drawn into the family's circle of violence, as they adapt aggressively to immigrant life in Coventry, England, in the 1960s.

The final play "Famine" looked at how the potato famine in the nineteenth century led to the mass immigration of the Irish to the New World. The style here seemed more documentary than dramatic. Both LW and I found ourselves falling asleep (it was already 9 pm, having started at 1), and so left the theater during the intermission.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Poem: "In Japanese, "longing for springtime""

In Japanese, “longing for springtime”

I feel as a weight almost too heavy to bear

            Tzu Pheng Lee, “Seki Shun”

In your last picture of me,
I was carrying a machine-gun,
a reluctant 22-year-old recruit.

Now, at 42, I am more likely
to chaperone a martini
amongst a different troop.

I prefer the martini
but I want that strong young man.

for Debbie, on reconnecting after 20 years

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Poem: "Temple Art"

Temple Art

from here to the base of the statue is quite a long way

            Diana Bridge, “Sequence, Sarnath”

The scorpion, ink black,
            looks out
                        from his muscled back,
            its eyes pierced
and piercing, its tail
                        poised to strike.

How like the temple guardians
            of China.
                        With sure violence,
            invisible noise,
they leave in you
                        a grit of lion.

Look too long at scorpion jet
            and you
                        are left
            with a drop of poison:
you are in the forecourt.
                        This is as far as you get. 

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Travels in China

Second journey to China, from June 9-30. This time, Beijing was the first leg of the journey, and so I saw it with fresher eyes and spirit. Again, I like visiting the Temple of Heaven most, for its atmosphere of worship, not completely disappeared from the remaining structures. Square Earth, Round Sky. Basic shapes and symmetries. As other tourists left the compound towards the end of the afternoon, the place became ever more quiet, and so recovered its sacrosanct nature. The Summer Palace, which I visited for the first time, was truly impressive, especially for the temple built on a tremendous rectangular rock base, but the Temple of Heaven was much, much older. It was an ancient place of sacrifice.

Returning to Kunming felt, to some degree, like returning home, if I could ever feel at home in China. I changed the program so that we would practice tai chi with enthusiasts at Green Lake Park on a Sunday morning. So glad I did. Tai chi was the combination of strength and gentleness that I have been looking for. Within ten minutes of the exercise, I was sweating pots. Yi rou chi kang, or, to conquer what is hard with what is soft. I was re-reading the Zhuangzi throughout the trip. The Taoist philosopher was as subversive of the ideas of his day as Nietzsche was, but without the German's egotism. The philosophy and the martial art seemed to go hand in hand.

YS and I visited the Military Academy, and found ourselves enjoying a tea-tasting session in the gift shop. Red tea, black tea, rosehip tea, pu-er tea. A good tea is always refreshing, to the mouth and to the spirit. Impurities in ingredient, preparation or brewing rob a tea of its rejuvenating powers.

We traveled from Kunming to Dali in fourteen-seater van. I was looking forward to seeing Dali again, for it was my favorite city on the previous trip. It did not disappoint. Old Dali was proudly but serenely immaculate. The Cang Mountains towered behind the city, while in front the Erhai Lake shimmered at all times. We stayed in Sam's Hotel again, a traditional family-owned establishment. This trip, we took the cable car up the Cang Mountains, and then walked along the Jade Belt Road that encircled the waist of the mountains. In Dali ancient city, I found a small bookshop selling secondhand English and Chinese books. I had a coffee there and read Carson McCullers's "The Ballad of the Sad Cafe." A well-written melodrama. You can see the ending coming a mile away, but that is the doomed feeling of love. Despite its troubles, to love is better, more tolerable, than to be loved. To be loved fills one with such resentment.

From Dali we drove again to Shaxi for the homestay portion of the trip. The chaperones stayed in the guesthouse of the Ouyang family, a prominent family in the area. The patriarch of the family served at the imperial court, before moving with his three sons to Yunnan Province. One son stayed in Kunming,  another in Dali. The youngest came with his father to Shaxi where they could live a secluded rural life. YS and I found a lovely cafe called Early Summer, owned by an ageless woman, hair bundled up by a kerchief. Her four-year-old son might suggest her age, but she was indeterminable in her appearance. She looked both young and old.

On the shelves in the cafe were Chinese translations of Marguerite Duras, Roland Barthes, Robert Bolano and other writers. Were they her books? The few English books by the drinks counter were less likely hers, George Orwell's Burmese Days, Charles Dickens's Great Expectations, T.E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom. I read V.S. Naipaul's letters to his father over the course of two mornings. The ambitious but dislocated post-colonial writer in England and at Oxford. The father's literary prospects dimmed as the son's brightened. Besides the cafe, the ancient town square made a deep impression on me. The ground was covered with red tiles. The opera stage faced the village temple so that the Buddha could watch the performance with the people.

The last leg of the journey was Shanghai, the biggest and most populous Chinese city, bigger than Beijing. I enjoyed the Shanghai museum very much. It had a good collection of paintings and calligraphy arranged chronologically and explained in English. The Urban Planning Center showcased the plans for Shanghai's future development. It played a 360-degree film of Shanghai made for the 2010 World Expo. Our stay in Shanghai climaxed in a visit to the top of the World Financial Center. We walked on the 94th floor first, before going further up to the 100th, where we saw the city twinkling in the fog below us.

I remembered reading Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz's book Globalization and Its Discontents at Kunming. Stiglitz contrasted the ways in which Russia and China made the transition from communism to capitalism. Whereas Russia took the advice of IMF to privatize immediately, the so-called "shock therapy" school of thought, China shifted to markets more gradually. As a result, Russia's state monopolies went into the hands of mafia-like oligarchs, while China was able to spread the gains from the shift more evenly among its population, and so won popular support for the policy change. I wonder what Stiglitz would make of the labor unrest now prevalent in China. Has China arrived at a point at which greater democratization is necessary for both stability and growth?

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Short, Fast and Deadly

My sequence of poems "Reproductive Rites" is featured in the June issue of Short, Fast and Deadly. The sequence was written by incorporating four consecutive words from each poem of Julia Alvarez's sonnet sequence "33." I am grateful to editor Joseph A. W. Quintela for featuring my work in his innovative magazine for short verse.

Matt Shoard wrote a highly imaginative analysis of the vowel-sound "o" in my poem "Razminovenie, or Nonmeeting" over at the blog of Cha. The Hong Kong-based journal, edited by Tammy Ho, first published the poem, which then appeared in my second book Equal to the Earth.