Sunday, September 30, 2012


Christopher Ricks gave a brilliant reading of Hardy's poem "Wives in the Sere" at the ALSCW-sponsored panel at Poets House on Friday. He defended Hardy's rhymes from the criticism of John Crowe Ransom and showed how the two atypical rhymes in the poem "unknows" and "muser" carry the burden of significance. After the talk, EN and I walked from Battery Park City to the West Village and had dinner at the Irish pub Dublin.

S and R came to stay with us last night. In the afternoon they went by themselves to the Cloisters. Then we went with them to the Met, to the rooftop to see Cloud City, and the real city sparkling in the blue night. We whizzed through the Andy Warhol show. I looked only at his works and not at the work of his imitators and followers. I was resistant at the beginning, but at the end his work was so clearly superior to others around it. A consistent insoucience that dared to laugh at all the pretensions of serious art, its power was corrosive. The last room, covered with his cow wallpaper and filled with silver balloons that he called silver clouds, made me feel very happy. BUT he had no effect on Matisse when I saw the French master's works after the show. Matisse is impervious to Warhol, but I cannot explain why.

After brunch today with S and R, we went to the Museum of Art and Design. Doris Duke collected Islamic art and built a house on Honolulu to live amongst her collection. Shangri La, as the house is called, was gloriously photographed for the MAD show. The doors, screens, tables, clothes, jewellery, mosaics were intricate and beautiful. After seeing the show, GH was more amenable to a possible visit to Hawaii.

This evening, Rhina Espaillat read at Carmine Street Metrics. I have always found her poems witty and skilful. The dramatic monologue at the end, about the rejection of love, went deeper. It was psychologically acute and genuine moving. TM read a good poem about a chalk giraffe on a sidewalk. EN's poem about the twentieth-century dead, spoken from Charon's point of view, was strong. I also enjoyed John Foyle's poem about boys taking apart a TV set for the presents and weapons that could be fashioned from the machine.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Rineka Dijkstra's Mid-Career Retrospective at the Guggenheim

I have seen and liked Rineke Dijkstra's beach portaits of adolescents around the world, and so went to see her mid-career retrospective at the Guggenheim last Wednesday. The beach portraits (1992 - 2002) were as mesmerizing as ever, as were the group portraits of teenagers in parks in Amsterdam, Berlin and Barcelona. In the hands of a lesser photographer, the portraits could have been mistaken for advertisements for United Colors of Benetton, but the teenagers were seen so sympathetically and individually that there was no mistaking the artistic eye. The young people were wearing branded clothes, but they were shown to be so much more than their brands.

The Amerisa series, begun in 1994 and on-going, followed a young Bosnian girl who sought Dutch asylum through her gradual integration into mainstream Dutch culture. The last photograph shown was of Amerisa carrying her baby. I was also fascinated by Dijkstra's Olivier series (2000 - 03). It traced the physical and psychological changes in a young man who enlisted in the French Foreign Legion.

The photographs, in the last room, of Israeli soldiers taken immediately after military exercises I found much less satisfying. The men posed too self-consciously with their machine-guns. The jungle and hills in the background distracted from the focus on the subjects. The landscape lacked the the formal symmetries and symbolic meanings of the edge of the sea in the beach portraits.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

6 more days...

... to the October 1 deadline for papers for Translating Asia panel!

 “A good translator is an exquisite ambassador,” writes poet and scholar Waqas Khwaja in his introduction to the 2010 anthology Modern Poetry of Pakistan. “Just as the creative artist suggests new ways of looking at the commonplace, the translator opens up to readers a whole new world, a whole new mode of perception and experience, they may hardly have suspected of existing.” The comparison with an ambassador suggests that a translator be conversant not only with the languages of composition and translation, but also with the different cultures. As Khwaja puts it, “How, despite what are seen as virtually insurmountable odds, can translation happen so that it does not undervalue, misrepresent, or (not an unknown phenomenon) utterly dispense with the original?” The panel aims to consider literature from South, East, and South-east Asia.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Jee Leong Koh's Pillow Book

Received my copies of The Pillow Book from Kenny Leck last week. The chapbook, fifteenth in the Babette's Feast series published by Math Paper Press, looks lovely with its cream-colored paper and clean design.

I like the stack of syrup-covered pancakes on the cover very much. The illustration is done by Anna Sai. The image refers to one particular section of the book where a very nice man made pancakes for me after we spent a night together. Food, sex, New York City and other delights are very much the subjects of the book. I hope the writing retains the delicacy of Sei Shōnagon but also joins with it a kind of voraciousness. That one can have both a big appetite and a fine palate.

The book is available from Books Actually bookstore in Singapore. Unfortunately it is not available on-line. I will be selling copies at the Brooklyn Book Festival tomorrow. Find the book at Table 100, Poets Wear Prada.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Asian American Poetry in Mascara

This special issue of Mascara Literary Review presents work by 17 Asian American poets. I'm honored to publish new poems by John Yau, our featured poet, and by many established and new writers of diverse ethnicities, regions and ages. The poetry covers a wide range of subjects and explores an exciting variety of forms. You will enjoy reading the work of Wendy Chin-Tanner, Floyd Cheung, Kim-An Lieberman, Jennifer Tseng, Lee Herrick, Katie Hae Leo, Jenna Le, Jeffrey Hecker, Yim Tan Wong, Rey Escobar, Tiel Aisha Ansari, Jason Wee, Vanni Taing, Jason Bayani, Minh Pham and Lisa Shirley.

In addition, in the prose section, Singapore critic Gwee Li Sui interviews Timothy Yu on his study of experimental and Asian American poetry Race and the Avant-garde; Meena Alexander reminds us of the "intimate violence" of racism; Jennifer Kwon Dobbs introduces the poetry of the Korean adoptee diaspora; and Joseph O. Legaspi explains the special place of Kundiman, a non-profit devoted to the cultivation of Asian American poetry.

I hope this Mascara issue will expose readers everywhere to this thriving literature, and build ties of understanding between Asians in America and Asia.

Jee Leong Koh

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Poem: "Hong Kong"

Hong Kong

some curio of the change

            Tzu Pheng Lee, “Prospect of a Drowning”

We found it among the small antique shops
in the Soho district of Hong Kong. Below
Mao posters and beside porcelain Michael J.

stood at smart attention a terracotta soldier,
an officer of some rank, the height of my hand.
Factory plaster has been painted a gritty grey

and in the hair pulled back to show a broad
forehead, in the protective vest, in the folds
of his sleeves and in the creases of his shoes,

a brown as fine and light as sand as if he has
just been dug up from a centuries-old grave.
It was a lovely copy, meticulous, affordable,

but we were searching for a Mao statuette
for Ty and Di. The only keepsake I wanted
was not photos or knickknacks but memories.

You urged me to get it. You knew better than
to keep me to my words when my hands
returned to weigh the soldier again. Now he

stands guard over my laptop, eyes unblinking,
under a moustache a steady, serious mouth.
If he could speak, what changes he could tell.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Poem: "Steep Tea"

Steep Tea

A Traditional Autumn Kasen Renga

Started: August 25, 2012
Finished: September 11, 2012

Written by Rachael Briggs and Jee Leong Koh

sunset steeps the world in red
red maple, apple, bee balm bloom
we sip jewel tea

the fire temple disappears
a watery moon

chili dip
on a seaweed cracker
thesis antithesis crunch

oral defence 
visiting mum in Syracuse 

cherry blossoms
soft artillery that liquefies in my hand
... or was it snow?

recategorized from 4C to 442 
swear unqualified allegiance to ... 

(le) poisson rouge 
Taka Kigawa 
Die Kunst der Fuge 

alien fauna of George Street
a kangaroo with gears for ears

you on the 
exercise bike, come share 
my yoga mat 

can we be Lion and Thunderbolt, Hero and King Dancer?
I'm in!

Mount Fuji 
the dance 
before the dance 

my skipping stone cavorts
between dust and river bottom

the moon 
cools her feet 
in a red basin 

tiptoe possum
stolen plum

hot off the press 
New Jersey doctor delivers 
new verse 

the Syracuse University of New Brunswick

impossible boys 
hardy, kind and smart 
chrysanthemums in winter 

musical theater in juvenile hall
we snuck a sunbeam through the metal detector

twigs and gray fluff
in the boarded-up window
also an egg

he's writing a book 
on women poets 

what is she knitting
in the seminar room?
a conclusive argument

loopy loop 
the clock rings 5 o'clock 

school's out!
Teacher sets down his no. 2 pencil
picks up a frisbee

this summer Bali 
next summer Kyoto 

Tetsuo Ishihara's confections
wax, flatiron, horsehair, foam bumper
garnish with kushi

strand of hair on the pillow 
drop of ice cream on his thigh 

cozy Sunday
breakfast in bed with my lover
give or take the breakfast

Jesus I love you 
no longer 

bitter moon sighs
over false Solomon's seal
no more berries

the first fall wind, he says 
a spirit, almost 

about to rain 
but did not rain on Labor Day 
no thunder either 

"I don't care if the sun don't shine"
she sings, heedless of tempo and key

a woman in a tub 
The Singin' Rage 

goddess, sing the inflammation of my Achilles tendon
rowers are back on the Charles, and I tried to sprint beside them

let's run to the tidal basin 
to view the cherry blossoms 

bring red cordial and the first wild strawberry
we'll invite the hummingbirds to lunch

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Rohinton Mistry's "Such A Long Journey"

Rohinton Mistry's debut novel is not an optimistic book. The communal courtyard of Khodadad Building, so lovingly described at the beginning of the work, is destroyed by municipal authorities for the purpose of urban development at the end. The morcha organized to protest peacefully against government corruption turns into a deadly riot. Ordinary Indian citizens are helpless against the powerful machinery of government, just as Gustad Noble the novel's kind-hearted protagonist is caught up unwittingly in the corruption of the Indira Gandhi years. The only things salvageable from the mess, but at great costs, are family, friends and art.

Mistry writes very well about the complicated relationship between fathers and sons. Gustad idealizes his grandfather, a strong man and a furniture-maker, and his father, an intellectual and a bookseller. He wants to be his grandfather and father to his son Sohrab, but the latter resents history's domination in his life.  He does not wish to live out his father's dreams, even though his own dream of pursuing art is vague and unrealized. He rebels by leaving home but returns at the end of the novel like the Prodigal Son to see why his father is so admirable.

Gustad is admirable for his enormous capacity for friendship. He got into trouble for the sake of his old friend Major Jimmy Bilimoria, an agent of RAW, the Indian version of the CIA. Deeply grateful for acts of kindness, he cannot forget how Jimmy carried him in his arms, when he was injured in a road accident, to the Bonesetter who healed him almost miraculously. In his bank colleague Dinshawji, Gustad looks beyond the man's clownishness to see his zest for life despite chronic illness. The comic-tragic portrait of Dinshawji is one of the best things in the book. The erotic satire throughout the novel is sharp and humorous, but the deepest feelings seem, to me, to be reserved for these friendships between men. When Tehmul, the local idiot, died from a flying brick thrown by a rioter, Gustad carried him in his arms away from the street and up to his apartment so as to give the dead man his final dignity. The action, an imitation of what Jimmy did for him, is a moving tribute to friendship between men.

The third thing that can be salvaged from death is paradoxically saved by being lost. Exasperated by the human filth along the compound wall, Gustad invites the itinerant pavement artist to draw the deities of various religions on the wall. The pictures of the deities, saints and sacred places soon make the smelly latrine into a fragrant shrine. Though the wall is demolished along with the communal courtyard at the end, the pavement artist regains his former sense of freedom and detachment. He will move elsewhere and draw again in chalk, instead of of oils. Mistry's prose, usually accurate and invisible, rises to lyricism when he describes the spiritual freedom that the pavement artist has lost by attaching himself to a place:

But the artist began to have misgivings as the wall underwent its transformation. Bigger than any pavement project he had ever undertaken, it made him restless. Over the years, a precise cycle had entered the rhythm of his life, the cycle of arrival, creation and obliteration. Like sleeping, waking and stretching, or eating, digesting and excreting, the cycle sang in harmony with the blood in his veins and the breath in his lungs. He learned to disdain the overlong sojourn and the procrastinated departure, for they were the progenitors of complacent routine, to be shunned at all costs. The journey--chanced, unplanned, solitary--was the thing to relish.

It is of course no coincidence that the last sentence alludes to the novel's title. There are more than one kind of journey in the novel. The journey of life that Gustad Noble undertakes, full of communal yearning and sorrow. And then there is the journey of art--chanced, unplanned, solitary. Both resonate in the writing of Mistry who migrated from Bombay to Toronto but who writes as if he has never left.

Monday, September 03, 2012

What's New on Governor's Island?

Went with GH and SH to Governor's Island yesterday. We walked along the promenade to Picnic Point, where we had lunch at Eva's. Pulled pork sandwich, corn on the cob, blueberry pie, Shiraz, yum. We looked directly into the distant face of the Statue of Liberty, through the legs of Mark di Suvero's giant steel sculptures.

The Sculptors Guild was holding an exhibition titled "Process" in one of the old four-storeyed buldings. I liked Elaine Lorenz's organic-looking sculpture of fiberglass and resin. Jeremy Comins's work also caught and held my eyes. The wooden frame hung on the wall reminded me of homely shelf displays and of a box of children's blocks. The single figure sitting and clutching his knees looked quite sad. The work had a strange mixture of domesticity and isolation.

We sat down on a lawn, under another di Suvero piece, and chatted and read the papers desultorily. The New York Times told the history of New York City through 50 objects, beginning with a fragment of mastodon's tusk and ending with the campaign poster of Taiwanese-American Grace Meng, who won the Democratic primary for New York's newly redrawn 6th Congressional District. If she wins the general election in November, she will become the first Asian American member of Congress from New York City.

I always enjoy talking to SH about his art and career. When he asked me what's new in poetry, I couldn't say straightaway. Unoriginal poetics? Ambient poetry? Hybrid artefacts like Anne Carson's Nox? Poetry seems to be taking its lead from the other arts, instead of working with them at the vanguard.