Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Just returned from a weekend with T and D who live in Kingston, near Woodstock. Friday night, after dinner at an Italian restaurant called Mint, we drove into Rhinebeck to Upstate Cinemas to watch "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel." A good-fun, feel-good movie, it followed a group of British retirees who traveled to India to stay at the eponymous hotel. The ensemble acting was good though the roles hardly stretched the talents of Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Maggie Smith and Dev Patel. India was seen very much through the eyes of these Britishers (a recent widow, a former civil servant, a retired High Court judge, an ex-governess), but it was to the credit of the firm, directed by John Madden, that it fleshed out a few Indian characters such as Dev Patel's hapless romantic. The dialogue was sharp, and the plot provided a couple of surprises ("twist" is too strong a word).

On Saturday, after eating lunch and walking about in Rhinebeck, which boasts the oldest tavern-inn in the country, we visited the Vanderbilt House at Hyde Park. The house and its grounds were bought and restored in the 1890's by Frederick Vanderbilt, son of William Henry Vanderbilt. and grandson of "Commodore" Vanderbilt who built his fortune on steamships and railways. We did not tour the house but enjoyed walking about the beautiful grounds, full of old trees. T pointed out a spectacular grove of European Weeping Beeches. The formal terraced gardens were built in the Italian style. A cherry tree walk led from the pergola to a pool with fish. At the far end of the lower rose garden rested a loggia. The Commodore grew up on a small farm on Staten Island before becoming rich. To give their wealth the prestige of age, his descendants busied themselves building luxurious homes in European styles in Manhattan, the Hudson Valley, Newport, MN, and Asheville, NC.

That night, after dinner in Woodstock, we went back to the house and watched "3," a movie about a husband and a wife falling in love separately with the same man. The German movie, directed by Tom Tykwer, was a plea to see sexuality in a less deterministic manner. The argument was supported by references to literature (the couple watched a stage production of Shakespeare's sonnets written to both a young man and a dark lady), dance and science. Devid Striesow, who played the aptly named man-in-the-middle called Adam, was a geneticist who was working to return skin cells to their stem cell state. Like his work, Adam signified the possibilities of new beginnings. The overly optimistic movie did not deal with the difficulties of being in a three-way relationship. It did not have to since its action focused on bringing the three people together, and leaving them blissfully satisfied in bed.

During the stay I read David Hockney's book That's the Way I See It from T's library. It described his struggle against naturalism, in particular, Renaissance perspective, and showed me how to read photo-collages. Picasso, for him, brought the viewer into the picture, into the midst of life, instead of fixing him as a voyeur looking through the keyhole or the window of the picture frame. The book gave me a few ideas on how to bring time into the timeless lyric without destroying the lyric. It may have rearranged my next book.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Disappointing Season Finale

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center season-finale-d with a somewhat strange program of French music. Two works by Saint-Saëns and, after the intermission, one by Ernest Chausson. Not exactly the way to go out with a bang. The program was neither populist nor adventurous, and so it fell between the stools.

I know Camille Saint-Saëns through his symphonies, and so was keen to hear his Trio No. 1 in F Major for Piano, Violin, and Cello (1864) and his Sonata No. 1 in D minor for Violin and Piano (1885). As the date indicates, the Trio was a youthful work. I did not care very much for it. I did enjoy the piano-playing of Juho Pohjonen, and was glad that he returned for the Sonata. He and violinist Elmar Oliveira made a fine pair. The music of the Sonata was captivating, and the musicians gave a passionate account of it. Someone three seats away described Saint-Saëns as an academician. There was nothing academic, however, about the performance, my neighbor and I agreed afterwards.

The Chausson work was Concerto in D major for Violin, Piano and String Quartet (1889-91). The performance suffered from a lack of intimate and intuitive understanding between the musicians. Everyone was doing his or her own thing. The difficult score became a mere technical challenge, a hurdles course.

This concert is the second programming disappointment in a row. I don't think I will be subscribing to the Chamber Music Society again for the next season.

Sunday, May 13, 2012


Watched Mike Bartlett's play Cock yesterday at the Duke with GH, TM and J. John could not decide between M (for Man) and W (for Woman). Directed by James Macdonald, the play focused quite relentlessly on gender and sexuality. At first the play seemed rather simple-minded about the complexities of people. After all, we are more than our gender. But it convinced me in the end that its single-mindedness paid off dividends. The choice was that much more stark.

The play opened in 2009 at the Royal Court Theater in London. It moved here with the creative team, but with an American cast. Cory Michael Smith was appropriately a cipher to the audience and to himself as John. As M, Jason Butler Harner was over-the-top and so provided a nice contrast with the cool and gentle Amanda Quaid as W. Quaid was the revelation of the evening, to my mind. Quick-witted and full of suppressed energy, she more than held her own against the men. Cotter Smith, as M's father who came to dinner to fight on his son's behalf, was rather forgettable, although, to be fair, the part was under-written.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Poems in PN Review 205

I have five poems in PN Review 205. Also, in the issue, poems by Sinéad Morrissey, Tara Bergin, Vénus Khoury-Ghata, David C. Ward, Alex Wylie and others. Get a copy! Subscribe!

I am particularly taken by Tara Bergin's poem "Looking at Lucy's Painting of the Thames at Low Tide Without Lucy Present." Its every move is a surprise, but all are united by the opinionated, offhand voice. The work of Simon Jarvis is new to me. His three short poems are sharp and evocative, especially the perfect "Colloquium."

Of the reviews, I enjoy David C. Ward's take-down of William Logan's selected early poems Deception Island. Who but Logan would allow himself to be blurbed as "the most hated man in American poetry"? I agree with Sasha Dugdale's estimation of Tiina Aleman's translation of Doris Kareva (conscientious but ultimately unsuccessful), and has bought Luljeta Lleshanaku's Haywire on the strength of Dugdale's strong recommendation.

In the editorial, Michael Schmidt stands up for Modernism and its progeny against the leveling tendencies of John Carey and the multicultural correctness of Fiona Sampson.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Fly a Kite for Afghan Women

"This Mother's Day, Amnesty [International] is inviting you to write a message of solidarity for Afghan women. We'll put it on a kite -- kite flying is a popular pastime in Afghanistan -- and fly it during the NATO Summit in Chicago, May 20-21, where President Obama and Afghan President Karzai will be discussing Afghanistan's transition."

To President Obama and President Karzai meeting in Chicago on May 20, 2012 without a single Afghan woman at the table 

I am shouting but you don’t answer—
One day you’ll look for me and I’ll be gone from this world.

      Zarmina, a landai

The pay phone is ringing, ringing—
For love, yet another woman has set herself on fire.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Reading at Barnes & Noble

Last night, at the Barnes & Noble at 82nd and Broadway, Lou Pizzitola hosted a reading of Divining Divas, an anthology of 100 poems by 100 gay poets on their muse. Editor Michael Montlack spoke about putting together the book, and then he read from it, followed by Guillermo Filice Castro, Lonely Christopher, Hansa Bergwall and Rigoberto Gonzalez.

I read my anthology piece, "Study #5: After Frida Kahlo," and then two other parts from the same sequence, "Study #6: After Andy Warhol" and "Study #7: After Yasumasa Morimura." For my second poem from the anthology, I read Steve Fellner's funny and heartbreaking "Ode to Miss Piggy," a poem I remembered enjoying from his book The Weary World Rejoices.

Despite the grey day and drizzle before the reading, the event room was packed, with about 75 people, a nice mix of both men and women. After the reading, the audience asked questions, mostly to do with editing the anthology. Then we signed books, printing our paw prints on the page of our poems. Eric came for the reading. GH was there too, and took these photographs.

(L to R: Hansa Bergwall, me, Guillermo Filice Castro, Lonely Christopher, 
Rigoberto Gonzalez, Michael Montlack, Lou Pizzitola at the podium)

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Exit Strategies

Music and words. Hard not to make one subservient to the other. Exit Strategies, the May 2 event organized jointly by PEN World Voices and the Met Museum, avoided the issue by and large by having music and words work separately, and so the chief interest of the evening for me lay in their dissonance. GH was less amused.

The music was provided by the Kronos Quartet with a long history of in-depth collaboration with composers like Terry Riley, Philip Glass and Steve Reich, and with musicians like Chinese pipa virtuoso Wu Man, Bollywoord "playback singer" Asha Bhosle, Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq, Mexican rockers Cafe Tacuba and Azeri vocalist Alim Qasimov. During the event, the quartet played imperturbably a wide range of music from around the world. The same could not be said of the writers who clearly felt that their words were intruding on the music.

Rula Jebreal, a French-Israeli journalist, asked her American audience a series of questions about the state of political debate in the country, before reading a harrowing account of violence in Iraq. Marjane Satrapi, the author and illustrator of Persepolis, extemporized on life under the Iranian theocracy. Her description of life without music was given added poignancy by the quartet's performance. Tony Kushner read a poetic description of the loss of a loved one to death. He read well, riding on the peaks and troughs of the music.

The evening would have been unexceptional if it had ended at this point, but it didn't. The quartet continued to play. They played music already spliced with words, one piece counting down to the dropping of the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima. Both Satrapi and Kushner were nonplussed by the invitation to improvise words to the solemn music and weighty themes. Not so Jebreal. She kept asking questions of the other two to press them for their opinions of the current American scene. In doing this, she was behaving like the tough interviewer that won her fame. Satrapi and Kushner evaded her every attempt to engage them in politics. Satrapi fell back on the "mystery" of the music that rendered words inapt and insubstantial. Kushner obviously felt the same, but also tried, quite unsuccessfully, to steer the conversation to less inflammatory topics. His questions, however, drifted into disquisitions instead, and so when they ran out of steam, Jebreal would persist with yet another question.

Finally the writers tiptoed off, giving over the stage to the musicians. They returned only at the end, to take their bows with the Quartet sheepishly. I was thrilled to see how the unscripted part of the evening turned out, even though language lost the game to music.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Eavan Boland's "A Journey with Two Maps"

Saw the book in Powerhouse Arena last Sunday when we were wandering around Dumbo, GH, WL, TB and me, bought it and started reading it immediately. It forms an interesting companion to this Irish woman poet's body of poetry. Again and again Boland returns to her memory of being a young wife and mother in a new suburb outside of Dublin in the 1970s, when violence in the North unsettled life in the South. "Domestic Violence," which ends the first section of biographical essays, records especially succinctly Boland's forceful attempt to subvert the received poetic tradition in order to make room for, and give significance to, the domestic poem.

The second section titled "Maps" consists of critical pieces on women poets who gave her help and direction in questioning the tradition that she loves. There are essays here on Adrienne Rich, Elizabeth Bishop, Charlotte Mew, Sylvia Plath, Edna St, Vincent Millay, Denise Levertov, Anne Bradstreet, Gwendolyn Brooks and Paula Meehan. The most illuminating essay is on Bradstreet. Boland shows how the contemporary of Marvell and Milton wrote herself into a Puritan New Englander. There are few surprises in the other pieces, though the judgments are always sympathetic and persuasive. The writing is sometimes more obscure than necessary, but the obscurity is partly a result of desiring to be suggestive, not definitive. 

The last section is made up of a single essay, a letter to an imaginary Young Woman Poet, in a conscious nod to Rilke. The letter exhorts the young poet to change the tradition, and not to change or curb herself to fit the tradition. As is the case in such missives, the letter-writer is writing mostly to her younger self. The final figure of friendship between generations is deeply humane and democratic.

Throughout the book Boland strives to recover the context of a poet's life in order to read the poet's text more deeply. It is an approach that runs counter to Pound's strictures against biographical criticism, also adopted by the New Critics. For Boland, however, the life is bigger than the poem, and too much is lost when the life is disregarded. This book provides Boland's life to go with her poetry.