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!