Saturday, March 30, 2013

Map Is an Unwelcomed Trope

Bani Abadi, Pakistan, The Boy Who Got Tired of Posing, 2006

"No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia" is the first installment of a three-part project of the Guggenheim UBS Map Global Art Initiative. I saw the exhibition on Wednesday and was impressed by the variety of works on show. June Yap, from Singapore, is the curator of the show. I don't know anything about South and Southeast Asia art, and so cannot tell whether the chosen artists are the usual suspects of the international art circuit. The Singaporean artist Tang Da Wu I vaguely know as an art pioneer, and his modern sculptural reworking of a Chinese story is pleasing in its abstract simplicity and emotional resonance.

Do read, however, the essay by Philippine art critic Eileen Legaspi-Ramirez, who is critical of the Guggenheim's belated attempt to "map" the world of global art. She questions how much leeway and resources the Guggenheim gave to June Yap:

What I’d like to know though is if she was enabled to spring any surprises, any ventures risky enough to stir the pot by way of targeting generational and art-historical blind spots? Given that so many of these “local” histories remain unwritten and that too much writing on contemporary art in the region is, however smartened-up, problematically complicit with the marketing of auctions and fairs, just how much is the Guggenheim willing to wager to make this work? Surely quick trips that only allow one to touch base with the usual suspects in a focus country doesn’t cut it? You’d think that if they’d taken this much time to come around to “contemporary Asia,” surely they could be more enterprising about negotiating contradictions and navigating under-researched terrain?

Legaspi-Ramirez's questions make me think of another: why choose a curator from Singapore, with its relatively short history of art-making? Why not a curator from India or even from the Phillippines, with their much longer traditions of not just art production but also critical discourse? I am nationalistically proud that a Singaporean was selected for the job, but suspicious about the reasons. Did the Singapore government's economic-minded promotion of the arts get the attention of global players like the Guggenheim? Did the selection board think that a curator from cosmopolitan Singapore would fall in more readily with the project's assumptions and practices? These are troubling questions with no clear answers, precisely because the powers-that-be, like the Guggenheim, hold no brief but for themselves.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

John Adams: The Gospel According to the Other Mary

Heard last night the New York premiere of John Adams's Easter oratorio The Gospel According to the Other Mary (2011-12). The libretto by Peter Sellars is based on Hebrew Bible and Christian Testament sources, with texts by Dorothy Day, Louise Erdrich, Primo Levi, Rosario Castellanos, June Jordan, Hildegard von Bingen, and Ruben Dario. Gustavo Dudamel conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic beautifully. The Los Angeles Master Chorale sang.

According to the program notes, Adams and Sellars wanted to set the Passion in "the eternal present," like in paintings. This they did in the oratorio by having the biblical Mary and Martha running a house of hospitality for homeless women in Bethany, and, later, having them participate in the farm workers' strike against Teamsters and big growers. Also unusual was the depiction of Mary. Moving away from the conventional image of a "reformed prostitute," the creators made her a complex human being, suicidal, ecstatic, repentant and sensual. Kelley O'Connor sang the part well, but was perhaps too sweet and cultivated a voice. I didn't believe that she would cut herself.

The oratorio was absorbing throughout, but there were certainly high points to it. One of them was the death and resurrection of Lazarus in Act One, which Sellars described as a "rehearsal" for the Passion in Act Two. Not only was the music dramatic and atmospheric, the enactment of Lazarus's resurrection by the two male dancers (Michael Schumacher and Anani Sanouvi) covered in the shroud was eerily believable. At other times, however, I found the dancers redundant, even distracting. At one point, the female dancer (Troy Ogilvie) fluttered her hands by Mary's sides in a cliched imitation of wings. Russell Thomas who sang Lazarus had a deep and rich voice. A musical highlight was his performance of the Primo Levi text about Passover.

Tell me: how is this night
different from all other nights?
Tell me, how is this Passover
different from other Passovers?
Light the light, unbar the door
so that the traveler may enter,
be he Gentile or Jew:
perhaps the prophet is hidden under his rags.
Enter and sit with us,
listen, drink, and sing and celebrate Passover.
Eat the bread of affliction,
lamb, sweet mortar, and bitter herbs.
This is the night of differences,
the night we eat the bread of affliction.
This is the night when we put our elbows on the table,
because the forbidden is prescribed
so that evil may turn into good.
We'll spend the evening telling tales
of age-old wonderful events,
and because of all the wine
the hills will prance like rams.
Tonight the wise, the heathen, the fool, and the child
ask each other questions,
and time changes direction,
today flows back into yesterday,
like a river silted at its mouth.
Each of us has been a slave in Egypt,
has soaked straw with clay and sweat
and crossed the sea with dry feet:
You, too, stranger.
This year in fear and shame,
next year in strength and justice.

The line "Each of us has been a slave in Egypt" was rendered even more powerful as Russell Thomas is African American.

In Act Two, my favorite parts are the farmworkers' strike and the women's all-night prayer, very effectively dramatized by the music and staging; and the spring song of the peepers, with its beautiful bubbling effects. The Golgotha, Night and Burial scenes I experienced as disappointing. Perhaps I should listen to them again, but I did not get what Adams was doing.

The oratorio ended with the resurrection of Christ, which is unusual for the genre. Bach's Passions end with the burial. Adams's Narrators were a trio of countertenors, the device that links this Easter work to Adams' Nativity oratorio El Niño. The Narrators had the last line. When they sang, "Jesus saith unto her, Mary," Mary turned and saw Jesus in all the performers: Martha, Lazarus, the narrators and the dancers. Called by her name, she recognized Jesus for who he truly is. Strangers have become Friends. Otherness has become Self.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Fantasy Birds

Somebody had the bright idea of collecting Mary Oliver's bird poems, and voila! Owls and Other Fantasies was born. 16 out of 25 poems (i.e. about a third of the book) came from earlier books, as did 1 of the 2 essays. The book is obviously targeted at birders and Mary Oliver's fans; its commercial considerations overshadow whatever aesthetic merit it has.

The verse is best described as pandering. Its questions are obvious, its spirituality is tinselly, its consolations cheap. The first poem of the book begins:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. 

I want to shout back, "But I want to be good! I want to walk on my knees through the desert! Who are you to tell me that I don't have to?" Certainly not someone who tempts me with such an easy way out as "the world offers itself to your imagination." The cliches abound, like birds, in this collection.

The earlier poems offer glimpses of an earlier power. "The Swan," from House of Light (1990) is delicate and observant, though not without its clunkers. "Little Owl Who Lives in the Orchard," from the same book, is half-in-love with death. These poems question nature as well as themselves. They do the real work of spiritual quest that the book only pretends to.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Facing the Light

Andrew's book of photographs and drawings of Arnold arrived last week. It's a beautiful book, a moving record not only of Arnold's life, but also of the collaboration between artist and model. From the back cover:

Arnold Ziza, a model from Manchester, came to the United Kingdown as a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. That transition changed his life and his sense of self. This book is a biography in images, a record of his outer and inner changes from late boyhood to early manhood. 

Produced with both imagination and passion, it's a gift that I cherish.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Everything Looks Beautiful

Philip Guston, "Shoes," 1972, oil on panel

Life got away from me, and so I've not been able to blog it down. So here's catch-up.

March 15 evening: GH and I attended a Singapore get-together at P and A's home. I was expecting an informal potluck event, but that showed how out of touch I am with my Singapore friends. A is Singapore's ambassdaor to the UN, and so lived in appropriately well-appointed circumstances. A man took our jackets, another tended to the bar. Yet another took away our dishes after we were done feasting on the buffet dinner. Fortunately P and A were a very down-to-earth couple. Unlike some of the suits there, A was wearing just shirtsleeves. They soon made us feel welcomed. I had not seen P for years, and was pleased to see that she has not changed in appearance or manners, at least not at first re-acquaintance. I met a woman who works for one of the UN bodies, and her husband who teaches management studies at Columbia. There was also a fiction-writer who lives at Morningside Heights. A ceramist named Wee Hong Ling told us her fascinating story about switching from doctoral studies in Gepgraphy to working with ceramics. Our lives possess the interest of variations upon a theme.

March 16 evening: W and I celebrated our birthdays together, with GH, at Briciola, a wine bar in Hell's Kitchen. The food and wine were good, though the service was a little lackluster.

March 20 evening: GH took me to hear Bach at Avery Fisher for my birthday. Quebecois Bernard Labadie conducted the NY Phil. The German violinist had the rather wonderful name of Isabelle Faust. The hall was far too big for the music. Hearing the Violin Concertos in A minor and E major one after another was too much of a good thing. I thought the orchestra and the soloist came together only in the second concerto. The program ended with a bang with Orchestral Suite No. 3.

March 21: went with L and XF to the Met Museum. Street, a new video by British-born artist James Nares, was as mesmerizing as watching people on the street. After filming the crowded streets of New York with a high-definition camera from inside a moving car, Nares edited the film by slowing down the movement. The effect made everyone look beautiful. I didn't know if that was due to the new quality of our attention or due to the inherent beauty in people that we too often miss in our rush. The film formed the centerpiece of an exhibit of works from the Met's permanent collection, selected by Nares as points of entry to his work. Most striking was an Egyptian relief carving showing the graceful hand of a female priest, letting drop a globule of fat. The William Eggleston show in the next room, At War with the Obvious, had one truly beautiful photograph: at the far end of a wooden table perch the hot sauce, salt and pepper. The Impressionist fashion show was surprisingly blah, given some of the wonderful paintings on exhibit.

We walked from the Met to McKee Gallery to see the centennial show of Philip Guston. L loved his work ever since she was first befuddled by it. She compared him to Homer in his brutality and humanity. I liked the smaller pieces better. They have the thinginess of things in them, without the magniloquence. Afterwards, XF brought us to a Grand Sichuan restaurant where I had a delicious bowl of dan dan mian.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Happy Birthday to Me

I asked for one of Diana's dresses on auction, and he gave me a pocket Spanish dictionary. It comes with a virgin vinyl cover, he adds, in his best poetic manner. Oh well, tonight he's going to bring me to Bach, and there are tickets to the Southeast Asian show at the Guggenheim in the offing. He is a man after my heart...

Monday, March 18, 2013

Strong Opinions

The Best Poems of the English Language? Who could resist opening an anthology so named to see what's in it? Especially when it has the name of Harold Bloom on the front cover. It's typical of this giant of a critic's eternal self-confidence, of course, that he should name his selection the Best Poems. He begins with Chaucer, born around 1343, and ends with Hart Crane, born in 1899, and admits that by setting the latter limit, he is evading the difficult task of choosing the Best Poems by poets born in the twentieth century. Into his chronological net fall 108 poets (aside from Anonymous), with 24 given "in something like their full abundance." The 24 include poets that Bloom has always championed: Shakespeare, Milton, the major Romantic poets, Whitman, Dickinson, Frost, Stevens, and Hart Crane.

No anthology is without its critics over who is in and who is out. Such quarrels are par for the course. Bloom himself throws down the gauntlet in the first words of his Introduction when he declares that since the book is intended for personal use, irrelevant to its purpose are both literary history and considerations of political correctness. What he means by "political correctness" becomes clear when he continues, "The best poems published by women before 1923 are here, chosen entirely on the basis of their aesthetic value." The first woman to appear in the anthology is Julia Ward Howe, represented by a single poem "Battle-Hymn of the Republic." But what about the writing of eighteenth-century women, recovered by such ground-breaking anthologies as Roger Lonsdale's? Are we to believe that not one of their poems has "aesthetic value"? That not one of them is better than the jog-trot of "The War-Song of Dinas Vwar," included as one of two poems by Thomas Love Peacock? Whose fourth stanza begins:

We there, in strife bewildr'ing,
Spilt blood enough to swim in:
We orphaned many children,
And widowed many women.

This strange bias in selection makes Bloom's aesthetic judgment seem more idiosyncratic than authoritative. In the introductions to individual poets, Bloom shares biographical facts such as his early love for Hart Crane, and his growing appreciation for the Pre-Raphaelite poets such as the two Rossettis, William Morris and Swinburne (all represented by at least two poems). He does not seem to see, however, that these personal notes, charming though they are, suggest that aesthetic standards are not absolute and universal, but inflected by personal experience and cultural context. Yes, I too believe that the selection of poems for such an anthology must be based on aesthetic value, but I am not at all certain that my judgment should be taken as the yardstick by everyone.

Bloom's taste is broad and his judgment deep. The poems that he has selected are to be savored. He includes lesser known names but personal favorites like George Darley, Jones Very, John Brooks Wheelwright, Lionel Johnson and Leonie Adams. A number of his introductions to the poets or particular poems are really essays. In them, he still challenges preconceived notions. He considers, for instance, T. S. Eliot's "Preludes" to be his best work. Marianne Moore, he argues less controversially, is at her best in her long collage-poem "Marriage," which he judges, unexpectedly, as better than "The Waste Land." Some readers may find his constant comparisons of poets, and of a poet's poems, irritating. I think these comparisons provoke critical thought and discussion.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Speak, Memory

I finished reading Nabokov's Speak, Memory on Feb 17, during our stay with T and D in Kingston. It is a beautifully written memoir, full of tender things in it. Tender because irretrievably lost. Chapter Five, to my mind, is the best thing in it. It's about Nabokov's French governess, Mademoiselle. Having moved from Switzerland to Russia, she was not only geographically but culturally displaced. After she returned to her own country, she would speak of her time in Russia as her best years. The chapter leavens the prevailing pathos of the book with good-natured comedy.

I do find myself resisting Nabokov's style a little. It has that over-deliberateness with which James Wood charges Flaubert. To paraphrase Woods very roughly, both writers press the cold gel of a detail too hard, and so it bears the marks of their fingers all over it. It'd hard to give up oneself entirely to a lover who is not half-swooning himself.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

More Apollo Than Dionysus

I heard the London Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of Vladimir Jurowski, twice last week. On Sunday, Vadim Repin was the spell-binding soloist in Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor. The performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 after the intermission was intelligent and nuanced, more Apollo than Dionysus.

Then on Monday Hélène Grimaud performed a highly individualistic performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4. The first movement was more frilly than strong. The second slow movement made up for the first. It sounded the depths, I thought. In the last movement, she seemed to be fighting against the music instead of playing it. It was a remarkable display of a fine musician imposing her will on a mighty music. I heard the Concerto in a way that I had never heard before, but was it Beethoven? 

I did not care for Mahler's Symphony No. 5 performed after the intermission. The orchestral effort was heroic: the five movements added up to 72 minutes in all. But the music sounded theatrical and grandiose. The emotional contents were overwhelmed by the enormous means at hand. If Romanticism privileges sentiment over style, whereas the Baroque prizes style over sentiment, Mahler seems to be that impossible creature, a baroque Romantic.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Poem: "Poetry"

Man with umbrella squats against a black background

Still studying Spanish A1.2, but thought I'd work on my Spanish by translating today's poem into la castellano.


It’s just a black umbrella
bought some time ago
from a fella outside the subway

but its broken spokes
like a wind chime

against pelting rain and roaring drains.


No es más que un paragua negro
compré hace bastante tiempo
de un tipo a la entrada del subte

pero sus rotos radios
como un carillón de viento

en contra de lluvia impacto y alcantarilla clamoroso.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Poem: "Love in the Third Year of This Affair that We Won’t Call Marriage"

Wrote this for PFFA's Valentine Contest this year. Based on popular vote, the poem came in joint second with Rachael Briggs's "Romantic Comedies Give Me the Screaming Me-Mes."

Love in the Third Year of This Affair that We Won’t Call Marriage

Faces have passed into memory through long beholding.

accounts pay for joint conundrums.

There will be no trade of reading materials before bed,
except books on relief
from the public library.

Unspoken rule for eating out:
the one that moves fast gets the inside seat.

Shoe size is an open secret.

Since the subject was handpicked,
double digits
must be corrected for bias.

Questions have been domesticated
but not yet neutered.

Jealousy makes up a frolicsome threesome
when it is not acting scopophiliac
or agoraphobic.

Nicknames have stuck like darts.

Certain gestures have become shorthand
for affection and disquiet.

Enough time has flown
to speak with deep nostalgia.

A fight, when a fight could be spared,
has all the vowels in it.

for staying together have been expertly

Contrary to expectations,
the universe has not changed,
a cause for thanksgiving.

There is no more excuse for loneliness.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Poem: "you stroke the cream paper with a pencil"

you stroke the cream paper with a pencil

floor of a house
a fishing rod
a ladder’s step
eyelids of a god

heart’s flatline
flight of a ball
line at the end
it was a shawl

here or there
short or long
yours or mine
right or wrong

a row of trees
a dovetail joint
a lottery queue
trace of a moving point

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Poem: "For All I Know"

My sis sent me two easy reads on India for my birthday, Holy Cow: An Indian Adventure by Sarah MacDonald, and Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India by William Dalrymple. Reading the latter, and coming home yesterday, gave me this poem this morning.

For All I Know

When I come home, my neighbor does not bark,
her dog does, short, sharp cuffings of the musty air,
but she’s not home yet or else ignores my tramping
up the stairs. In two years, I have seen her, maybe,
three or four times. Once, with a young man her age
never seen again, unlocking her door. On a Saturday,
coming down the stairs with her dog, brunette terrier.
Yet another time, she was alone, pushing open ahead
of me the building entrance, sliding in her boyish hips.
For all I know, she could be a dear votary of Yellamma,
dedicated to sacred prostitution, one of the nine lives
recorded by William Dalrymple in his Indian travels,
or a hereditary singer of the Rajasthani epic of Pabuji.
Do the singers even like dogs? For all I know, they are
kept for meat. For all I know, they sing for their supper.
Dalrymple does not say. Dogs are outside his ambit. 

Friday, March 08, 2013

Poem: "On My Way to a Photo Exhibition of Trees in New York City"

Photo by Benjamin Swett; cover image for his book New York City of Trees

On My Way to a Photo Exhibition of Trees in New York City

I’m walking into the wind.
Now I know what the sail
feels, the tiller in another’s
hand. Now I know the sad
flapping of clothes pegged
to a short line. The street
sign quavers on its metal
stem like a cymbal struck.
It is not a human sound,
and the black coats, feet
scratching the sidewalk,
will strain in their drift
toward a human sound,
but, as Dante observed,
before he heard the love
that Francesca da Rimini
bore for her husband’s
handsome young brother,
the lights are mute here. 

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Poem: "Mira, Miro"

Borrowed from the library of Instituto Cervantes the MoMA catalogue of its 1993 Miró show. The catalogue essay Peinture-Poésie, Its Logic and Logistics by the show curator Carolyn Lanchner gives an interesting overview of Miró's oeuvre. What Picasso said to the young Spanish pretender became the opening of a new poem. I quoted, and, in a few cases, modified, titles of Miró's paintings for the rest of the poem. Miró loved poetry, and gave his paintings poetic titles. To my mind, it is somehow apt to incorporate and orchestrate his painting titles into a poem.

Mira, Miro

La Guitarra advised the Catalan peasant, pretend you’re waiting
for the subway; you have to get in line. Wait your turn, after all.

Painting. A bird eyes the hunter in a pinkish Catalan landscape.
Person throws a stone at a bird. Painting. Hand catching a bird.

A white bird floats above the carnival of harlequins. Painting.
A yellow bird orchestrates a Dutch interior (I). (II). And (III).

The bird as a nightingale sings at midnight and morning rain.
Painting. Women by a lake irradiated by the bird as a swan.

The bird in the form of a little dog barks at the moon. Painting.
The bird stars as escape ladder. Painting. The bird as sunrise.

Painting. Woman haunted by the passage of the bird-dragonfly.
The rose dusk caresses the sex of women and of birds. Painting.

Painting. The bird, with a calm look, looks, its wings in flames.
The bird with plumage spread flies toward the silvery tree.

La Guitarra was right and wrong. He must wait. He musn’t wait.
He’s one pushed in front of el tren. Painting. He’s one pushing.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Reading at Yippie Museum Cafe

It was kind of Sarah Sarai to invite me to read with her for Mike Graves's Phoenix reading series. The Yippie Museum Cafe on Bleecker Street has undergone a thorough refurbishment and now is a chill place to hang out. It was pleasantly filled with people and laptops this afternoon, and so we had a bigger audience for the reading than I had anticipated.

Sweta Srivastava Vikram was the first to read. Her work was concerned with understanding her multicultural and multinational background. She grew up in India and North Africa, before moving to NYC ten years ago. Her new book gave voice to oppressed women in India and the Middle East. After the reading I chatted with her and her husband, and found out that her sister-in-law lives at Telok Blangah Road, very near to my parents.

I read next, from Seven Studies and The Pillow Book. Then Sarah read, from The Future Is Happy, which I reviewed on this blog. She also read new poems. I enjoyed hearing her read, more so than before. I thought that she would enjoy Carmine Street Metrics' monthly reading, and she said that she would try to attend next month's.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Submissions Call for PFFA Anthology

Call for Submissions for “Try to Have Your Writing Make Sense - The Quintessential PFFA Anthology”

The Poetry Free-for-all will publish an anthology of poems – “Try to Have Your Writing Make Sense – The Quintessential PFFA Anthology” - at the end of 2013. For those of you who are new, PFFA was founded in 1999 by Béla Selendy and remains one of the preeminent online poetry workshops. It is still intent on the improvement of the writer’s craft. The anthology’s aim is to present the quality and diversity of work that has been developed and critiqued at the site.

Remember: We’re mean. We’re nasty. We’re merciless. We’re cruel. We’re vile. We’re heartless. We’re an evil clique conspiring to annihilate your self-esteem, so observe the following rules for submission or we’ll slash your soul to ribbons: 

• Only poems that have been workshopped in the critical forums at the site will be considered for publication. Those forums are: C&C, High, and Merciless.
• If you would like to submit work written during NaPoWriMo or Seven/Seven, run, do not walk, to workshop those poems in the above-mentioned forums. 
• While we prefer unpublished work, previously published poems are fine. You must, however, own the rights to all work submitted and should indicate the journal of first publication.
• Simultaneous submissions are also acceptable as long as you immediately inform us of acceptance elsewhere.

With all that in mind:

• Email up to 5 poems to with your name and “PFFA Anthology” in the subject line.
• Poems should be copied and pasted into the body of the email. (Any special formatting will be addressed upon acceptance.)
• Please include a brief biography (max. 80 words) with your real name and PFFA handle and a short statement of how PFFA has (seriously, adversely, humorously, fill-in-the-blank) affected you as a writer.
• Deadline for submissions is May 31, 2013.
• Every contributor will be paid with one copy of “Try to Have Your Writing Make Sense”. Any profit will go toward the care and feeding of PFFA. 

Questions? By all means email us at 

For the PFFA Anthology,
Editors Howard Miller and Donna Smith