Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Knots of Time

TLS July 26 2013

from Adam Thorpe's review of The Summits of Modern Man: Mountaineering after the Enlightenment by Peter H. Hansen:
Two essential elements of modernity are the foundation myth and the assertion of solitary will: both illustrated by Petrarch's ascent of Mont Ventoux in 1336. Interrupting his admiration of the view by opening St. Augustine's Confessions at random, Petrarch fell on a stern admonition: "And men go to admire the high mountains . . . and pass themselves by". He hurried back down in silence, convinced of the vaster landscape of contemplation. Five hundred years later, Jacob Burckhardt identified this moment in Provence as the arrival of the inward-looking "modern man", the beginning of the modern age. 
This need for firsts, is, of course, in itself modern; and, as Hansen points out, the assignment of Petrarch's ascent as a boundary moment coincided with the rise of modern mountaineering. Peaks are, as he claims early on in The Summits of Modern Man, "a vantage point from which to observe the braiding together of self, state and mountain in historical knots of time". Hansen owes the concept of time knots, or multiple temporalities held within a single moment, to the Bengali historian Dipesh Chakrabarty, whose Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial thought and historical difference (2000) is perhaps not sufficiently acknowledged here. Provincializing, however, is Hansen's main emphasis, as he transposes the romantic generalities of mountaineering's history into the particular, the contingent and the local. The simple act of defying death by climbing Mont Blanc . . .  becomes entangled in local histories, and most particularly in those of regional sovereignty and enfranchisement. Paccard, Balmat and others are part of a dynamic, a continuum in which the beginnings so cherished by modernity enter a far broader flower than individual achievement and lonely heroism.

[After reading this review, I bought Chakrabarty's book.]


from Zinovy Zinik's review of Bowstring: On the dissimilarity of the similar and A Hunt for Optimism, both by Viktor Shklovsky and translated by Shushan Avagyan:
Since the words "form and "uniform" are identical in Russian, any conversation in this book [A Hunt for Optimism] about literary forms also implies a political or even military allegiance. 

Monday, July 29, 2013

Summer: Three Poems

Out in the right season. My "Summer: Three Poems" has just appeared in First Literary Review-East's 2013 Summer Issue. Thanks, Cindy Hochman, for publishing it. She writes:

Wait! Your summer reading is incomplete unless you've checked out the sexy, sultry (and seasonal) poems in this big, juicy summer issue of First Literary Review-East.   We are particularly happy to feature talented poets from around the world (and, to that end, we have respected the particular spellings from each country).  ENJOY!    

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes

Chandigarh, India

GH and I took advantage of MoMA's early members-only viewing hours and enjoyed the le Corbusier exhibition in relative peace from 9:30 to 10:30. It is an inspiring show that covers his many areas of achievement: architecture, interior design, painting, urban planning, and photography. Radically he advocated demolishing a big area of central Paris in order to make way for workers' high-rises. In Chandigarh, he designed and built India's first post-independence city, with the largest of his Open Hand sculptures.

In architecture, he was the first to raise a building above the ground, supporting it on pilotis. He advocated for the use of raw concrete for its versatility and appearance. He designed curves inside rectangular walls. He flattened roofs for gardens, facilities and sculptural forms. After the show, GH wants to see his buildings in France during our coming trip, and so do I.

 the church of Notre-Dame-du-Haut, near Ronchamp, France.

The Five Points of the New Architecture, which Le Corbusier finally formulated in 1926, included (1) the pilotis elevating the mass off the ground, (2) the free plan, achieved through the separation of the load-bearing columns from the walls subdividing the space, (3) the free facade, the corollary of the free plan in the vertical plane, (4) the long horizontal sliding window, and, finally, (5) the roof garden, restoring, supposedly, the area of ground covered by the house. The Five Points are mostly clearly realized in the house Villa Savoye, in Poissy-sur-Seine, France.

Villa Savoye, Poissy-sur-Seine, France

Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Oranges and The Details

American movies that are ostensibly about family are really about individualism. The family become the context, the arena, in which the individual struggles for genuine happiness or authentic conscience. This truism came home to me after watching The Oranges last Thursday and The Details last night, both films from 2011.

The Oranges, directed by Julian Farino, is set in an area of New Jersey where the cities all have the word "orange" in their name. The Wallings and the Ostroffs share a long friendship until the wayward Ostroff daughter (Catherine Keener) returns and has an affair with David (Hugh Laurie), the head of the Walling household. The resultant shake-up makes everyone realize their unhappiness and seek change. Oliver Platt puts in a pitch-perfect performance of the hapless Ostroff, father of the young siren. He is partnered by the always worth watching Allison Janney.

The Details, a black comedy, casts Tobey Maguire as Dr. Jeff Lang, who lives an outwardly perfect suburban life with a beautiful wife and a cute kid, but who resorts to internet porn when his wife (Elizabeth Banks) refuses to give it up. His life unravels when he decides to have sex with an old friend and accepts sex from a crazy neighbor (Laura Linney). Following the path of least resistance leads this anti-hero to blackmail and murder. Jacob Aaron Estes directed his excellent cast well, but his writing could have tighter.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Jem Cohen's "Museum Hours"

A film looks at paintings in a museum, and then turns that vision on the world outside the museum. Everyone learns afresh to look, Johann (Bobby Sommer) the museum guard, Anne (Mary Margaret O'Hara), the museum visitor whom he befriends and to whom he shows Vienna, even the docent when she is challenged by an obnoxious skeptic.

Bruegel is the presiding genius of the film. His radical acceptance of the mundane, lowly and gross into his canvas. His mixture of realism and allegory. His eye-directing compositions. Like his paintings, Jem Cohen's film will reveal new details each time it is viewed. Its richness does not overwhelm because it is so well composed.

WL, who watched it with me, commented on Johann's sense of irony. His gentle irony is directed at crass museum visitors and at himself. But irony is also structural in the film; by providing commentary as the voice-over, he constantly directs us to the gap between phenomenon and meaning.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

E. L. Doctorow's "Ragtime"

I enjoyed the tapestry of lives in the first half of the book, which weaves together fictional and historical characters like Harry Houdini, Pierpont Morgan, Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, and society lady Evelyn Nesbit, whose husband shot her lover, architect Stanford White. Tha narrative drifts in an indeterminate but compelling manner. The short sentences are brisk and factual.

In the second half of the book, however, the narrative is taken over by the single story of Coalhouse Walker, a black musician who seeks revenge against a racist fire chief who humiliated him and destroyed his Model T. Coalhouse's story borrows from the German novella Michael Kohlhaas by Heinrich von Kleist, published in 1811. Doctorow has acknowledged the borrowings on many occasions, but still it's strange to end such innovative music on such a traditional note.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

"The Poet's Notebook"

The pleasure of writing is that the mind does not wander, any more than it does in orgasm,--and writing takes longer than orgasm.

--Donald Hall

Aperçus like the one by Hall above made me read The Poet's Notebook with curiosity and joy. There is a real attempt by the editors Stephen Kuusisto, Deborah Tall and David Weiss to include a great variety of note-taking concerns and styles. I discovered what draws me, and what repels. I am drawn to the irreverent, earthy and child-like. I am repelled by the pretentious, earnest and showy. Both are self-presentations, of course, for if the poet started making the notes for herself, she selected these notes for others, for the readers of this anthology. The self-presentation that gave me most light and delight was that of Charles Simic. Reading his notes made me want to read more of his poetry. A sample of his notes below:

It's the desire for irreverence as much as anything else that brought me first to poetry. The need to make fun of authority, break taboos, celebrate the body and its functions, claim that one has seen angels in the same breath as one says that there is no god. Just thinking about the possibility of saying shit to everything made me roll on the floor with happiness.

Here's Octavio Paz at his best: "The poem will continue to be one of the few resources by which man go beyond himself to find out what he is profoundly and originally."

The lyric poem is often a scandalous assetion that the private is public, that the local is universal, that the ephemeral is eternal. And it happens. The poets turn out to be right. This is what the philosophers cannot forgive the poets.

I love Mina Loy's: "No man whose sex life was satisfactory ever became a moral censor."

Christ, like Sappho, challenges the tribe. Their message is, you have no tribal obligations, only the love for the Father in the first case and the love of your own solitude in the second case.

Imagination equals Eros. I want to experience what it's like to be inside someone else in the moment when that someone is being touched by me.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Three weeks in Singapore, June 27 to July 17.

1 Visit to Gardens by the Bay. I took parents to the Flower Dome and Cloud Forest. We were rather underwhelmed, I think. Much more enjoyable was our visit to the Botanic Gardens, where a Talipot Palm in its 80th year was flowering for the one and only time before it died.

2 Parties. Pink Dot party at Park Royal Hotel, and a party at KA’s lovely home in Tiong Bahru. Met CCYC for the first time at Pink Dot. She took me to a party in Park Royal Hotel, one of many gay parties that night that overlooked the mass gathering. The host N knows CW from university days when they sang in the same choral group. Met there a number of young Singaporean artists, and a curator DC from the Singapore Arts Museum, who just returned from the Venice Biennale. He was trained in Goldsmith, in London. Met a cute couple there, H who is Malay and a civil servant, and V who is Chinese and an architect. Also was introduced to KA, who heads Heritage Conservation at the URA. It was a queer arty circle, quite new to me.

3 Plays. The Finger Players’ The Book of Living and Dying, and the Wild Rice productions of Alfian Sa’at’s Dream Play: Asian Boys Volume One, and Cook a Pot of Curry. DC invited me to join him for The Finger Players’ performance of The Book of Living and Dying, at the Esplanade. We had a nice dinner before that. The production was magical. The core story was about the fraught relationship between a dying white transvestite and his adopted African American daughter. Framing that story was a reincarnation tale about the theft of a holy lamp from a Buddhist temple. The lamp turned out to be the African American daughter, taken from her roots. Throughout the production, actors drew props and patterns on the floor and walls with chalk, and then erased the chalk marks to form patterns of absence. Paper cutouts in the form of skeletons and dinosaurs paraded before a bright lamp threw enormous primeval shadows on the walls. All the elements of the production came together in a really absorbing way. I thought that the show was as good as many things that I’ve seen on Broadway or off-Broadway.

Dream Play: Asian Boys Volume One, and Cook a Pot of Curry, both part of the Wild Rice Theater spotlight on Alfian Sa’at, were performed at LaSalle College of the Arts. Asian Boys was campy with an edge; it could have been better written and edited, but it had its moments. Cook a Pot of Curry, a docudrama, organized into a collage monologues by actors representing a cross-section of Singapore society interviewed by the playwright. The monologues were loosely joined together by ironic songs-and-dances. I thought that the play tried too hard to be even-handed in addressing the issue of the huge influx of foreigners into Singapore. I would rather know, or better, feel, the playwright’s stand. I think the play will date badly.

4 Art Shows. The Picasso prints show at Singapore Tyler Print Institute was very focused and well organized. Four series of prints exhibited different aspects of Picasso’s artistic process. The series with the two nude women was especially interesting to me. The prints became increasingly abstract in a way that does not simplify, but complicates instead. The works on paper, small and intimate, done near the end of Picasso’s life, reminded me of Matisse’s cutouts. One finds a way to continue, even with reduced physical capacities. At the SAM, I saw with R the interesting Arab show “Terms and Conditions.” The films were particularly compelling. There were also a number of pieces that appropriated other art traditions for political protest. Also saw at the SAM the work of Boo Junfeng for the first time at the President’s Young Talents show. I liked his bifurcated film “Mirror.” DC and I also went to Singapore’s first hotel art fair, at Park Royal. The fair was quite dreadful, except for some Singapore watercolors of street scenes, which were delicate, even anxious.

5 RJC friends. SS, TY, SW and HW. DL came for my reading. SS is now married with two boys, living in Belfast, and teaching at a Waldorf-Steiner School. TY just graduated from the SE Asian Studies program at NYU, and is still rock-climbing. SW is making a kind of peace with Singapore, and is freelancing as a writer and editor, mainly with URA. HW is still leading the NUS Science School as VP.

6 New Friends. Yes, now I count as friends CCYC, KA and bf N, and DC. I also had a very pleasant coffee with TXW at the SAM extension , and then a beer with him at Boat Quay. He was nice enough to come for my reading at Select Books when his meditation retreat was canceled. I also met HF of Ethos Books at the reading. KA and N also came.

7 Fellow Travelers. AP, JW and DC. I had dinner with CW, his bf S and his roommate D, in Clementi Avenue 2, where they now live. YSH came for the reading.

8 Former Students. HY, LG, PF, G, PF had dinner with me at the Jewel Box on Mount Faber. JN, YZH and W came for my reading, as did PF, and HY and her husband CK.

9 Dinners With My Parents. Barbecued Stingray and crayfish were delicious at Alexandra Village market, but the best meal was actually chicken porridge in Chinatown, with fried fritters and raw fish. That was lunch, however, not dinner. We ate a lot.

10 Dollars for a Glass of Wine. Reasonably priced drinks at Tantric Bar. One reason, among many, why that was my gay bar of choice in Singapore. The other reasons leave little to the imagination. Tip your servers, peeps!

11 Old Friends, Including Their Children. The category can be subdivided. 1 Foundation Course mate: HM, who turned out to be the Director of Select Books. 3 Former Colleagues: RK, FT and KC and their little girl T. 4 Church Friends: SL, TCH, EY and ET with her two children at the Science Center. There were others whom I wish I had time to meet, but didn’t. Still, I feel very lucky for keeping these ties.

12 Books I carried from New York to Singapore. My poetry books are now sold at Select Books, Singapore. Buy them for Christmas presents! It’s never too early.