Sunday, February 26, 2012

Between Empathy and Experience

Tribes, a new play by Nina Raine, asks hard questions about stigmatized identities and minority communities. The London production won an Offie Award and was also nominated for both Olivier and Evening Standard Awards for best new play. A new production opened on February 16 in Barrow Street Theater, New York City. It is acted by an all-American cast and directed by David Cromer whose production of Our Town last season won acclaim.

Billy (Russell Harvard), who is deaf from birth, lives with a family that has tried to treat him as if he has no hearing defect. He speaks to them using his own voice and understands them by lip-reading. He does not know sign language. Things change when he meets Sylvia (Susan Pourfar), who grew up in a deaf household and has lived mostly within the deaf community. She is not deaf but is becoming so. They fall in love and upon her encouragement he took up the job of transcribing criminal suspects to aid their prosecution.

Newly independent, Billy decides to leave home after an acrimonious quarrel during which he accuses his family of never really trying to reach out to him. The father Daniel (Will Brill) is apoplectic about Billy going over to "the other side." The mother Ruth (Gayle Rankin) is more sympathetic but bewildered by the accusations. The brother Christopher (Jeff Perry), who is becoming psychotic, pleads with Billy to stay for he needs him to be the disabled one of the family. The sister Beth (Mare Winningham)... well, it is not clear what she thinks, for she gets rather shunted to the side as the play progresses.

The production last night still felt rather raw. The actors were not inhabiting their roles fully, and so appeared rather one-dimensional, in particular, Will Brill playing the father. The scenes were not shaped as effectively as they could have been. Some of the problem might be attributable to the script, but a challenging script requires an even firmer directorial hand. The scene in which Billy brought Sylvia home to meet the family showed such a hand. The hard-edged banter was well-paced. Most affecting was the end of that scene when Sylvia played on the family piano but could no longer hear what she was playing. It brought home what she insisted on, against political correctness, that deafness is a handicap in a hearing world.

The play resonates, as it is intended to, beyond the deaf/hearing divide. When Billy learns sign language, joining the deaf community and distancing himself from his non-signing family, Daniel, his father, compares his newfound ability to coming out as gay and wearing a burka. What the stigmatized minority sees as essential solidarity, the majority sees as willful separation. It is a gap that empathy can only partially fill. Or, more precisely, the gap measures the difference between empathy and experience.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

"Revolution! The Atlantic World Reborn"

Last Sunday GH and I went to the New York Historical Society to look at a few of its current exhibitions. "Harlem," a show of photographs by Camilo José Vergara, was only of passing interest.  "Hudson River School Highlights" was a small show of Romantic landscapes mainly by Asher B. Durand. We also saw "Urban Views: American Cities 1717-1986." That show concluded with a photo-montage of Canal Street, New York City, by architect and photographer Claude Samton. GH who lived in the neighborhood in the 1980's was very happy to see restored his memories of various stores selling art supplies, metal scrap and rubber tires.

After he left, I took in the wonderful show "Revolution! The Atlantic World Reborn." From the Society's website:

Revolution! The Atlantic World Reborn is the first exhibition to relate the American, French and Haitian revolutions as a single, global narrative. Spanning decades of enormous political and cultural changes, from the triumph of British imperial power in 1763 to the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815, Revolution! traces how an ideal of popular sovereignty, introduced through the American fight for independence, soon sparked more radical calls for a recognition of universal human rights, and set off attacks on both sides of the Atlantic against hereditary privilege and slavery. It also recounts the famed careers of such revolutionaries as Thomas Paine, Jean-Baptiste Belley and Dominique Toussaint L’Overture.

The show gathered together a fascinating array of artifacts. Displayed for the first time outside the U.K., the original Stamp Act passed by Parliament in 1765 that set off the riots leading to the American Revolution. The only known surviving copy of the first printing of the Haitian Declaration of Independence. A wooden model of the slave ship Brookes, produced for the French revolutionary leader Mirabeau, intended to be used as a prop in the National Assembly’s debate on ending slavery in France. Three vodou sculptures and a video interview of a Haitian vodou practitioner. Anne-Louis Girodet’s portrait of the Saint-Domingue military and political leader Jean-Baptiste Belley, which the curatorial write-up carefully analyzes for the painter's mixture of admiration and condescension.

Having read Wordsworth's sonnet on Toussaint L'Overture for the first time last summer, I was especially pleased to learn more about this Haitian revolutionary--Catholic, inspiring, conservative, tyrannical--at the show. As always, the man is more complex than the poem. But the poem is rousing, a reminder of the idealism of young Wordsworth.

TOUSSAINT, the most unhappy man of men!
   Whether the whistling Rustic tend his plough
   Within thy hearing, or thy head be now
Pillowed in some deep dungeon’s earless den;—
O miserable Chieftain! where and when
   Wilt thou find patience? Yet die not; do thou
   Wear rather in thy bonds a cheerful brow:
Though fallen thyself, never to rise again,
Live, and take comfort. Thou hast left behind
   Powers that will work for thee; air, earth, and skies;
There’s not a breathing of the common wind
   That will forget thee; thou hast great allies;
Thy friends are exultations, agonies,
   And love, and man’s unconquerable mind.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Revision: "Labyrinths"

Labyrinths

1.

Set in a grid, the streets of San Telmo should have been easy to navigate, but the symmetry meant all intersections looked the same. All corners were rightangled. Inside the maze, it was hard to remember which direction was north. The streets were named after countries in the Americas, and so we wandered up and down Venezuela, Perú and Chile, or did we wander east and west? The world map was useless. Here, in Buenos Aires, Estados Unidos was south of México.

Where was the oldstyled parilla al carbón we liked? What was its name? On our last afternoon we stumbled on La Poesia Café and sat beside Victoria Ocampo at the bar.

2.

Friday afternoon milonga at the Confitería Ideal. The mazy footwork of tango crisscrossed the palatial dance hall. The light was the color of dust. After a set of songs, the dancing couples released each other and returned to their own tables. The women sat along one wall like a gallery of yellowing photographs. The men hardly touched their beer. A short elderly woman threaded her way through the small tables and asked me to dance. Shaking my head, I smiled hard so that she would not be too offended by the rejection. She retreated like a small animal from a baited trap. I could not look her way again.

3.

We searched desultorily for Eva Peron’s final resting place at La Recoleta. The sun was burning. The champion of women’s suffrage was locked in the Duarte family vault. Music, music, please!

4.

The Rochester Concept Hotel, where we stayed, did not have a gym. To get to the gym, you had to go around the block to the Rochester Classic Hotel. To change hotels, you had to pay US$30.00 more for each night. The leg of our bed flew out one night. We made the change. The new room was bigger, it had a bath, but now you missed the private balcony and said so. There was no winning with you on this trip.

A hotel is a labyrinth with your own room key.

5.

So many Caucasian porteños. Blond hair, skin. Where are the Indians?

Back in New York City, I made the observation to a colleague who asked about my vacation. My friend, who teaches history, explained that the European immigrants killed the Indians off to clear the pampas for rearing cattle. Charles Darwin wrote about a Spanish governor putting out the eyes of an Indian with his thumbs.

6.

We were used to seeing old Chinese women rummage through trash for recyclable bottles and cans on the streets of New York City. In Buenos Aires boys did the same, looking for paper, sitting on the sidewalks amidst the spilling garbage.

Downtown Buenos Aires celebrated New Year's Eve by throwing confetti, made from shredded office documents, down to the streets. Somebody had to pick up the bits of paper the next day. Send in the boys, now mutated into ashy men hanging off the municipal dump trucks.

7.

In the nearly lifesized painting Manifestación by Antonio Berni, the demonstrators pressing towards you look in every direction. You are relieved to find a pair of eyes looking straight at you, as if to say this is the way out.

8.

This Japanese woman, short hair, in a white suit, came this way before me. She looks nothing like Virgil in the photograph, or what I imagine Virgil to look like. Of her journey she wrote,

            I travel through city streets where right turns are prohibited
            Turning endlessly to the left, heading toward the center of the labyrinth
            Led by the blinking stoplights, turning left and left again
            (This is the direction of death)

9.

Men and women, they walked through the train cars and left whatever they were selling on the thighs of the seated commuters: lottery ticket, pocket guidebook, page of stickers. Then they retreaded their steps and retrieved their wares. It was a kind of contact, rhythmic, fleeting, closer than the oratory of a pious plea or the seduction of a folk guitar on the New York subway.

Our longest train ride was our daytrip to Tigre, a town built on the Paraná Delta. The only way to explore the web of rivers and streams was by boat. But the vintage mahogany commuter launches would not ferry you up and down every waterway; they plied a certain route.

"Tigre" means jaguar, Panthera onca, which used to roam the area. Once in a while the news reports a sighting. Then people brace themselves for a train wreck.

10.

I read Borges’s Labyrinths in the labyrinths of Buenos Aires. Afterwards I wrote on my weblog, “There are marvels in Borges's mazes, but there are no monsters, or, more precisely, the monster is the maze.” The entry was dated Saturday, January 07, 2012.

Three days before the train crash at Once Station that killed 49 passengers and drove one car nearly 20 feet into another, a black jaguar was sighted swimming in the Paraná Delta. A coincidence? The difference between onca and Once is only one letter.

11.

The monster is the marvel too.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

"Getting Closer": Bridge, Kareva and Barskova

This Presidents' Weekend, I read three recent books by three women poets from different countries. Born in Wellington, New Zealand, where she now lives, Diana Bridge is the recipient of the 2010 Lauris Edmond Memorial Award for Poetry for distinguished contribution to New Zealand poetry. Aloe & Other Poems (2009) is her fifth book of poetry. I was turned on to the next poet by a TLS article. Doris Kareva is one of Estonia's leading poets. Shape of Time collects poems from three previous books. It is translated by Tina Aleman and introduced by Penelope Shuttle. I found a signed copy of Polina Barskova's The Zoo in Winter while browsing in St. Mark's Bookshop and bought it on the strength of the opening poems. She was born in St. Petersburg, then known as Leningrad, and moved to the States when she was 20. Regarded as a child prodigy, she published her first book of poems at age 15.

Bridge is a poet of seeing. A scholar of Chinese culture and Indian art, she writes her finest and most ambitious poems by viewing and reflecting on ancient artifacts. Her poems are about Chinese vases, Japanese prints and Indian temples. Her descriptive powers are considerable, and her meditations never uninteresting. "Sequence, Sarnath" in the early part of the book is even stronger than the concluding sequence "Temple," perhaps because the earlier poem focuses on a specific temple instead of allegorizing explicitly a ritual of worship. In the Sarnath sequence, Bridge first sees the statue of a seated Buddha by turning a corner, then measures the real distance to the base of the statue. In the second section, she contrasts her companion who likes to theorize and herself, who is "simply addicted to looking." Looking at Gupta sculpture, the third section considers the postmodernist dictum that "to look is never/ neutral" and then observes that the circle of stone closest to the head of the sculpture is completely free of ornamentation, "a plainness which stands in for silence." The final section is transformative. Changed herself, the speaker takes the sky for the stupa and grasps, without grasping, that all is changing:

You think you're getting closer to it, to what is real--the re-
arrangements of your mind like leaves adjusting to the light.

If some poems in this book follow a predictable order of description first, reflection next, at her best Bridge fuses observation and meaning into a whole of looking and thinking. She writes well about trees too (hence the title of her book). In fact, her tree poems in PN Review convinced me to read more of her work.

Doris Kareva must be nearly impossible to translate. She writes short lyrics with densely patterned music. Shape of Time prints the poems in Estonian and the English translations side by side. The Estonian weaves rhyming, consonance and assonance tightly together in a manner impossible to render faithfully in English. A small example. The last stanza of "When the fear of death becomes so great" reads:

The most dreadful
gravitation is fear.

This rather banal phrasing does not convey the music of the original:

Hirm on hirmsaim
gravitatsioon.

I don't know Estonian, but the spelling suggests the importance of repeating "Hirm" and the sound of "on" in the last syllable of "gravitatsioon." Without such repetition, the English translation loses the finality and force of that stark assertion.

Because Kareva is primarily interested in the philosophical dimensions of her world, her images are simple and universal, although they are drawn mainly from nature. Without the music of language to carry them, these plain images can come across as too easy, as in the devotional poem "Countless and wonderful are the ways to praise God--." There are no dappled things here, just "song and prayer, work, creation and dance."

The more successful poems in English here are those that double back on their path of thought to find a sudden turn. The lovely "That which is can be expressed" is such a poem. In others, the epiphany succeeds through sheer originality, independent of music or imagery.

I don't know if all roads lead to truth,
but every truth is a road.
The sea is salty from the glad tears
of the rivers, when they meet.

Into that apocalyptic water
I throw all my delusions,
into the clean water dregs of the times,
black pepper into the golden honey.

Suddenly there's lightness. Suddenly it's clear.
Everything is still and separate.

"Still and separate" is the perfect description of the end of a watery apocalypse.

If Diana Bridge looks to art for inspiration and Doris Kareva looks into herself, Polina Barskova looks to the tremendous Russian literary tradition in which she moves and has her being. Her poems engage in a very lively manner with canonical writers such as Pushkin, Nabokov, Akhmatova and Brodsky. In the sequence "Pantheon," she riffs off the name of Pushkin by inventing poetic lookalikes such as Khlopushkin, Pliushkin and Peshkin. Her engagement with the tradition is at the same time deeply personal. On a visit to Prague, she writes movingly in "Motherhood and Childhood" about the death of Nabokov's mother in that city.

Besides the giants, she is also well-versed in a whole host of less-known Russian authors. The endnotes to this translation by Boris Dralyuk and David Stromberg usefully identify her references, but since I do not know the authors I read the poems feeling like an outsider peering into a rather grand house. Barskova loved Shakespeare from the beginning, as evinced in a series of poems written in the voices of various characters from Hamlet. Later, her residence in the United States has drawn her to American poets such as Elizabeth Bishop, to whom her poem "Brazilian Scenes" owes a creative debt.

Unlike Bishop, however, Barskova's imagery often strikes me as arbitrary rather than precise. Sometimes the juxtaposition of images produces a frisson, but at other times the clash falls into a heap. I don't understand, for instance, why "Verses of Winter Gone By. From Henry VI" begins with Hecate, continues with Dante, and ends with Antinous. The same poem shows a tendency to overwrite. "What do you feel yourself to be on nights like this?" asks the poet, and answers:

A pimple on the brow of angered Hecate,
Whose menstrual blood distends the sunsets
Across the surface of the skies.

I hear Anne Sexton in these lines, and they are more gross than engrossing.

Barskova writes classically restrained poems, however, and one of the finest is "Reflection." As the speaker and her lover gaze at their reflections in a piano, they enter a chasm, "And the further, the deeper, the darker the lacquer." Barskova seems to be pursuing a course into the depths while ranging high and free over the steppes. She is a very stimulating writer to read.

Three formidable women and poets. They are very different not only in their styles, but also in the sources of their inspiration. They have in common, however, a silence about gender issues. They may allude to differences but these conflicts remain at the periphery of their poetic visions. Art, religion and literature are the territories they traverse.

Monday, February 20, 2012

"Between Sculptural and Flat"

Last Saturday, after a dinner of fried chicken with R, L and S, we headed over to numberthirtyfive gallery for the opening reception of SAME BUT INDIFFERENT. The new show by Robyn Voshardt and Sven Humphrey consists of a large-scale video installation called Insert Pause Here, and photographs. I particularly liked the photographs, especially Domination of Red I and II, the titles of which allude to the Wallace Stevens poem "Domination of Black." The red photographs were intense, the blue ones cool. They were all both sharp and tentative. The press statement describes them very well:
Voshardt/Humphrey’s photographs experiment with similar regenerative concerns and derivative processes across media. Metaphorical edits and cuts appear as bold diagonals and gashes. Colors and patterns are intense and reflective, or densely black. The image origin or reference point from within the artists’ own archive appears deliberately negated or obscured. Some images began as drawings and paintings, others as analog or digital photographs, and settle only temporarily in a fixed, unified surface before being reshuffled into another combination and form. In this process, the action of moving images affects the behavior of a page’s edge and its representation in the image. This occurrence places the work somewhere between real and manipulated, sculptural and flat.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

"Midnight in Paris" Is Blond and Bland

I don't understand why Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris is nominated for the Oscars unless they are all irremediable Francophile at the Academy. GH and I finally got round to watching it last night. The characters are one-dimensional, the humor weak, the pathos non-existent. You can see the plot turns coming from a mile. The message--"We all long for a Golden Age"--is hammered home mercilessly. The parade of famous writers and artists in Paris of the jazz age is relentless, a procession of cartoons. Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein? You gotta be kidding. Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams, the couple who find out that they are a poor match, are so blond and bland that they are like projections screens for passing vehicular headlights. Insipid.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

No Celebration: "David's Birthday"

Marco Filiberti directs this overlong Italian soap opera. Two couples rent a beautiful house by the beach. A son returns and sets off longing in the husband of the other couple. The older man finally gives in to his desire, and the movie ends predictable in tragedy. The characters are clumsily sketched, the acting indifferent. Thyago Alves, the swimsuit model son, provides some eye candy. Massimo Poggio is ruggedly handsome as the tempted Matteo. Christo Jivkov plays the boy's uncle, who drops in with his depressive loneliness and then drops out.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Reprint Journal and Divining Divas

So nice when someone writes you out of blue, asking for permission to reprint a poem of yours, first published in an e-zine and forever archived in dusty electrons, because someone else has turned him onto you and he read your poem and admires it. Thanks, Tammy Ho of Cha for suggesting my name, and thanks, Reprint Journal, staffed by editors who refuse to divulge their names, for reprinting "If the Fire Is In Your Apartment." Republished today, Feb 14, the poem reads more than ever like a health warning about love. Thanks too, Shit Creek Review, for liking the poem first.

Another reprint appears in the anthology Divining Divas, edited by Michael Montlack. I am one of 100 gay men who contributed poems on their muses, according to the collection's subtitle. I love the velvety feel of the cover, with its Klimt look-alike. My poem "Study #5: After Frida Kahlo" is a part of the title sequence of my latest book Seven Studies for a Self Portrait. Thank you, Michael, for the inclusion.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Poem: "Dragonfly"


Dragonfly

Trying to escape its own fire a firefly dies

            Yamada Mizue


Motorcyclist of the air, look out
for oncoming summer, the roar of flies
dangling like daredevils from tiny wings.
You too are a devil, serpent, but fly
at full stretch, with deadly purpose,
at accidents. Look out for ponds,
the frogs’ hunting ground. Throttle back,
release. See water boil noiselessly.
This is how all life began and you
beget too, a Levitical line. Dragon,
look out for the significant detail
of yourself, the hardest job, goggle eyes,
the long but useless legs, the shape
a cross with two horizontal bars,
the top for the nails, the lower,
slightly larger, for powering up.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Hail Shostakovich!

Heard Orpheus Chamber Orchestra again last night, at Carnegie Hall. Did not care very much for the score or the playing of Tippett's Divertimento on "Sellinger's Round" with its English musical allusions.  Jean-Yves Thibaudet, the French pianist, came on next to play, with Louis Hanzlik on trumpet, Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No. 1 in C minor. First time I heard the piano concerto, and I loved it for its youthful brio. It brimmed with ideas and moved with zip. Thibaudet was poetic where the music was poetic and brash where it was brash. A tad too civilized, perhaps, but that might be my prejudice against the French.

After the intermission, we heard Honegger's languorous evocation of a summer morning. Pastorale d’été was quite lovely, if not exactly ground-breaking. Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings concluded the program. Lush and sentimental. I hated it. I thought the musicians were on auto-pilot. Here was where an original interpreter--a conductor, say--could have made a difference. The others--GH, P and J--all liked it most of all the pieces of the program.

Afterwards, we had dinner at Vice Versa, a very gay restaurant in Hell's Kitchen. Good food if small portions. My chestnut tagliatelle with venison ragout was delicious though a little salty. A place to try again. The merlot and zinfandel brought by P and J were very good. By the end of the meal, I had quite forgiven the brusque waiter.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Poem: "A Poem to a Poet"


A Poem to a Poet

I am a poet, I have had my day
For I have written one immortal line;
Nor Greek nor Latin ever wrote more fine—
The Poem: Edna St. Vincent Millay.

            Cora Millay, “A Poet to A Poem,” quoted in Nancy Milford’s biography of Vincent


You had pleasure at my making, happiness
rolling in foam that on the scalloped shore
raises to a gull shout and creaking oar
an astonishing figure in an astonishing dress.
Hardship you had also, the heavy progress
from island to wild island, store to store,
to have shut in your face the frightened door,
before one dared receive you, your largesse.
Mother! The name is too small for a lover,
like Hestia who yielded her throne and fled.
For dandelions, mustard, pig-weed, clover,
abandoning the flowers of marriage bed,
you search, jealous as Hera, the world all over.
I am the best thought springing from your head.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Poem: "The Death Mask of Lorenzo de' Medici"

"The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini" at the Met is a fabulous show of paintings, sculpture, drawings and commemorative coins. It begins with artwork commissioned and executed in Florence, the center of the early Italian Renaissance, before moving to the courts of Milan, Bologna, Ferrara and Naples, ending finally with another burst of splendor in Venice.  If the profile portraits at the beginning of the show obeyed Leonardo da Vinci's advice to look for three important points of a face--forehead, nose and chin--the portraits at the end of the show examined the human face from many more angles. Along the way the Dutch influence is introduced by way of Memling and other Low Countries artists, to create a more psychologically acute and intimate style.

Almost all the people portrayed belonged to the wealthy or noble families of Italy. There are a few ecclesiastical portraits, including the unexpectedly voluptuous "Fra Teodoro of Urbino as Saint Dominic" by Giovanni Bellini, but the sitters were overwhelmingly the rich and the powerful outside the Church, of men and of women. Fra Filippo Lippi's "Portrait of a Woman with a Man at a Casement" could have been painted for a nuptial union. I love the knowing smile in Antonella da Messina's "Portrait of a Young Man." Domenico Ghirlandaio's "Portrait of an Old Man and a Boy" is most moving in its evocation of intergenerational ties. I also like very much the formal abstraction in paintings such as Antonio Pisano's "Leonello d'Este Pisanello" and Gentile Bellini's "Portrait of a Doge."

The stand-out pieces for me were depictions of two brothers. Lorenzo and Giuliano de' Medici, the de facto rulers of the Florentine Republic, were attacked by assassins sent from a rival family. Lorenzo escaped with a stab wound, but Giuliano died. The bust of Giuliano wrought by Andrea del Verrocchio probably just before his death shows a noble and lively young man, his beauty set off by the horrible face of Medusa on his medallion. The other work, a death mask of Lorenzo de' Medici, made such an impression on me that I wrote a poem about it this morning.



It is a face on which vie
every part for prominence.
From a full sensual mouth
the lower lip thrusts a ledge,
while the clear forehead
overhangs, like a cliff,
a dizzy switch of space
into thick feathery brows,
and separated on the banks
of the broad shattered bridge
of the nose, in bone caverns
doubling as an image must,
the eyes quiz the universe
even when they are closed.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Poem: "Gertrude and Adrienne"


Gertrude and Adrienne

Shall I praise the former’s void or shall I praise the latter’s substance?

            Taniguchi Den-jo, “Chiyo and Utagawa: Two Women”


Gertrude Stein of 27 Rue de Fleurus collected geniuses while Alice amused their wives with stories of the cats and recipes. The writer put down her words evenly like paint so that every word had its own value. The writer put down her words evenly like paint so that every value had its own word. I admire that. Adrienne Rich gathered Black Panthers and Vietnam protesters in her New York apartment. After they separated, her husband drove into the woods and shot himself. This writer breaks down the order of words and builds it up anew. There is an order that is not oppressive, if it can be found. Shall I praise the former’s tender buttons or the latter’s diving wreck?

            American radicals, I think of you when I hear the presidential candidates.

After I wrote this and read it again, I realize that I have neglected two other duties. One, to thank Alice. Two, Alfred Haskell Conrad, the husband, an economics professor, to mourn.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Poem: "In Death As In Life"


In Death As In Life

In some city, Trieste or Udine…

            Pier Paolo Pasolini, “The Day of My Death,” translated by Mary di Michele


Your mother wants her body
donated to science, she wants
            to be useful
in death as she is in life,
            to brain,
            eye, uterus,
and even skin researchers.
She wants to be all used up.

We are more selfish. You wish
            to be cremated
and for your ash to run across
            the Great Lawn
            we live by,
lift off like a warm grey scarf
            before landing
on grass you have traveled to.

I surprise myself by wishing
            my ash dispersed
over the sea south of Singapore,
the city-state I have left behind.
            That’s too far,
            you complain.
It’s not, I say. Come August
I’ll show you the exact spot.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Winter: Five Poems


Winter: Five Poems


Those who compose poems must regard feelings as of foremost importance.

                        The Nun Abutsu, The Night Crane: Treatise on Poetics


Philosophy’s toothache a poet takes to be the throbbing of an open mouth.

You cannot walk toward the sun without trying to open your eyes, not here.

I rose to write, you moved the space heater to the workroom and went back to bed.

The day is growing longer but I am not waiting for anyone at the end of it.

To modulate without line breaks, remove glove, run hand over the lime tree.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Inceptions

I was probably too tired Friday night to give Gus Van Sant's Mala Noche, his first feature-length film, a fair viewing, but the desultory plot and lacklustre acting did not help. I remember vaguely, however, some beautifully shot street scenes. Based on the autobiographical novel by Walt Curtis, the movie tells the story of a young manager of a liquor store who falls in love with a Mexican lad, an illegal immigrant who cannot speak English.

Inception directed by Christopher Nolan was far more gripping. The whole dream-versus-reality setup is familiar, but within the genre's confines Nolan builds like his architect-thieves level after level of action and connection. The final action sequence, when Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) finally wakes up from a dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream-within-a dream, is a rush. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays another thief Arthur. Ellen Page was yet another, the aptly named Ariadne. Tom Hardy is heart-stoppingly good-looking as Eames. It does not hurt the film that he is also a good actor. Marion Cotillard plays Mal, Cobb's wife who confuses dream for reality, to deadly effects.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Reading at the Williams Center

On Wednesday the William Carlos Williams Cooperative held their monthly reading at the Williams Center in Rutherford, New Jersey. Ocean Vuong and I were there as the features. John J. Trause had kindly invited us to present our work after hearing us read together at David Lawson's reading at Jujumokti Tea Lounge in the East Village. One things leads to another, as they say.

I really liked the format of the reading. It always begins with someone reading from or speaking about Williams, this time John talking briefly about the new biography of that very American poet. The feature then comes on, followed by an open reading. And the evening ends with a last poem from the feature. If I ever organize a reading series, I will follow a similar format. It pays respect to an important past poet, it ensures that everyone hears the feature before reading for the open-mic, it makes time for the open reading, and it returns attention to the feature at the end of the event.

It was lovely to hear Ocean read new work. I especially enjoyed his poem about a dancing lesbian couple. We traveled back together to NYC on NJ Transit Bus 190. It took about 20 minutes to pull into Port Authority. Not too long. Small wonder so many people commute.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Ralph Fiennes's "Coriolanus" (2011)

I am not into modern updates of Shakespeare, especially those with a political axe to grind. Such updates seem to condescend to the audience, as if we cannot be trusted to draw our own conclusions from a straight production of the Elizabethan Shakespeare. In movies, the contemporary imagery also tends to overwhelm the Shakespearian language. Ralph Fiennes's modern adaptation of Coriolanus does not escape these pitfalls. The battle scenes, set in a war-torn city that could be Baghdad or Kabul, could have been lifted from any number of modern combat movies. The riot for bread played like an angry protest on TV. I was also struck by how inefficient film conventions are compared to those of the stage. When Coriolanus approached Aufidius to offer himself as an ally, the camera followed Coriolanus slowly through a dark tunnel to the enemy headquarters. On stage, he would have just appeared in Aufidius' presence.

But Fiennes managed to capture on the big screen the nuances of the complex relationships between Coriolanus (Fiennes) and his nemesis Aufidius (Gerard Butler), and between Coriolanus and his mother Volumnia, a powerful and poignant Vanessa Redgrave. Yes, the plot pivoted on Coriolanus' patrician contempt for the unwashed masses. The emotional crux, however, lay in his absolute allegiance to the truth of himself, early on encouraged by Volumnia. That such absoluteness is lonesome may explain Coriolanus' eagerness to find in Aufidius an opposite and a twin. When Volumnia pleaded with her son to betray himself by sparing Rome, she was in effect asking him to destroy himself. Aufidius was merely the convenient knife. The terrible nobility of such self-justification was the source of the sublime in this film version.