Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Brooklyn Book Festival 2013

After a long night of rain, Sunday turned out to be gorgeous. Again, I shared a table with RH of Poets Wear Prada Press. I decided to sell CW's and JI's Math Paper Press books, as well as my own. GH helped me design a sign, Singapore Poetry, which I taped to the top of the stand, and in front of the table.

Singapore Poetry was certainly a draw. People who have lived in Singapore, have visited Singapore, or have a cousin who have been to Singapore came over to talk. Singaporeans came bounding to the table, surprised and pleased to find Singapore Poetry at the Brooklyn Book Festival. A nunber of Asians checked out the books too. And a Brooklyn bookseller who really liked the design of the Math Paper Press books.

I sold three times the number of books sold last year. It was a good idea to sell the books at a generously discounted price. Many other tables were doing so as well, including the university press at the next table. People liked a special offer. Having collected contacts for a mailing list, I am thinking of sending out a monthly newsletter about Singapore, New York and poetry.

PR came, and introduced his husband to me. He and I talked about promoting Singapore Poetry at the festival in some larger way next year. It was an exciting day for me, and it ended perfectly with a drink with P and J at a neighborhood bar-cafe.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Akira Kurosawa's "Rashomon"

Watched this 1950 film last Tuesday, and was wowed by it. I prefer Seven Samurai, but can totally understand why someone may think that Rashomon is the greater film. Essentially a crime drama, it provokes big philosophical questions about the nature of truth. A samurai (Masayuki Mori) is killed and his wife is raped, but those are the only agreed-upon facts in the four tellings of the story. In three of the four versions--by the woman (Machiko Kyô), the bandit (Toshirô Mifune) who raped her, and the dead man speaking through a medium--the teller confesses to the killing. Each version also sheds light on the character of the teller, and why he or she wishes to incriminate himself or herself.

The fourth version is by a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) who revises his initial story to reveal that he was an eyewitness to the murder, but lied to hide his theft of the samurai's dagger. The three other confessions are further complicated by the fact that they were retold by the woodcutter to a commoner under the ruined gateway called Rashomon. The first words of the film "I just don't understand this story" also describe the viewer's reaction at the end of it, but that reaction is coupled with a tremendous impression of the subjectivity of truth, and our capacity for self-deception.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Dipesh Chakrabarty's "Provincializing Europe"

Chakrabarty's project in this book is not so much to subvert the rational-secular view of history, inherited by postcolonial societies from the European enlightenment, as to see around the limitations of that view. In order to do so, one has to give up historicism, the idea of development in history, and of stages in history. Instead, one holds on to the idea of the heterogeneous present, when different world-views are not judged as pre-modern, modern, or even, post-modern (all stageist concepts) but as all life-possibilities. Only when we see the present as irreducibly plural, can we give an accurate account of the past of post-colonial societies. That is the challenge posed by subaltern studies to the dominant European paradigm. The book lays out its theoretical argument in its first part, and illustrates its argument in the second part with specific case studies about Indian widowhood, Indian nationalism, a form of Bengali sociality called adda, and salaried labor. The author freely describes his own theoretical orientation as derived from Marx but inflected by Heidegger.

In my favorite passage, Chakrabarty shows, incidentally, the relevance of his argument to so-called minority pasts in the predominant secular-rational tradition, in this case, the Christian view.

We can--and we do usually in writing history--treat the Santal [Indian peasant] of the nineteenth century to doses of historicism and anthropology. We can, in other words, treat him as a signifier of other times and societies. This gesture maintains a subject-object relationship between the historian and the evidence. In this gesture, the past remains genuinely dead; the historian brings it "alive" by telling the story. But the Santal with his statement "I did as my god told me to do" also faces us as a way of being in this world, and we could ask ourselves: Is that way of being a possibility for our own lives and for what we define as our present? Does the Santal help us to understand a principle by which we also live in certain instances? This question does not historicize or anthropologize the Santal, for the illustrative power of the Santal as an example of a present possibility does not depend on his otherness. Here the Santal stands as our contemporary and the subject-object relationship that normally defines the historian's relationship to his or her archives is dissolved in this gesture. This gesture is akin to the one Kierkegaard developed in critiquing explanations that looked on the Biblical story of Abraham's sacrifice of his son Isaac either as deserving an historical or psychological explanation or as a metaphor or allegory, but never as a possibility for life open today to one who had faith. "[W]hy bother to remember a past," asked Kierkegaard, "that cannot be made into a present?" 
To stay with the heterogeneity of the moment when the historian meets with the peasant is, then, to stay with the difference between these two gestures. One is that of historicizing the Santal in the interest of a history of social justice and democracy; and the other, that of refusing to historicize and of seeing the Santal as a figure illuminating a life possibility for the present. Taken together, the two gestures put us in touch with the plural ways of being that make up our own present. The archives thus help bring to view the disjointed nature of any particular "now" one may inhabit; that is the function of subaltern pasts. 

Friday, September 13, 2013

New Poems

Long Run

Let me in your
adda, shoot the
breeze and hang
up my Adidas.

Living Room

You turn up the
Bose speaker as
you draw the
loft to be built by
Carnegie Hall.

Money Shot

Who gives the smacks
to make these bad gay
movies with such corny
scripts that we keep
getting from Netflix?

Recycled Paper

It’s easy to misread
my handwriting in
the Hallmark card,
to read to have for
its partner to hold.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Group Portraits

Watched Seven Samurai over two nights, and loved it. One of the imdb reviewers put it best, there are certain directors who just "get" it, who get the medium, and Akira Kurosawa is one of them. I was tired, I was doing what I thought of as a "duty," but I was mesmerized throughout the movie (3 hours, 27 minutes). Total involvement, that must be a criterion of great art, surely. Takashi Shimura, who plays the leader of the band, provides the moral center against which Toshiro Mifune's antic samurai tilts. Isao Kimura is the young untested warrior who falls in love with a farmer's daughter.

Less involving but still absorbing is the 1970s cult classic, the break-out novel by Ryū Murakami, Almost Transparent Blue. A group portrait of Japanese hippies (drugs, sex, and rock and roll), it is narrated by a young arts student called Ryū too. The scenes, numbing and addictive, are almost too painful to read, especially the one in which the Japanese had group sex with African American soldiers from the U.S. base. The squalor and pain are balanced by a single scene of beauty, when Ryū and a lover wander in a field of tomatoes, discover an abandoned schoolhouse, and gaze at a plane speeding off on a runway.

Poem: "Stored Value"

Stored Value

Before my MoMA
card expires, I will
top up my plastic
bottle with Perrier.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Poem: "Quality Care"

Quality Care

Don’t slip and sit
hard on the floor
by stepping on
the lemon-scented
overspray of
Furniture Polish.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Poem: "Heavy Weight"

Heavy Weight

I lift the Bench Press
book off the top
shelf and read you
the poem about
love’s carelessness.

Monday, September 09, 2013

Poem: "Science Fiction"

Science Fiction

In your 2(x)ist
underwear I bought
for your birthday you
sighed in our cot,
I woke up in Paris.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Poem: "Short Straw"

Short Straw

Why don’t we have any
A-list friends, you spit
and stick your purple
toothbrush aslant my
Oral-B, blue and down
the middle transparent.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Poem: "Small Help"

Small Help

It doesn’t treat but takes
away the itch, this cream
from Singapore, Mopiko
for mosquito bites, made
of menthol and camphor.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Death as Radical Discontinuity

TLS August 2 2013

from Marci Shore's Commentary piece "Out of the desert: A Heidegger for Poland":

[Krzysztof] Michalski's childhood had coincided with Stalinism in Poland; his adolescence with attempts to purify the Communist system of its Stalinist deviation without abandoning Marxism. At the core of Marxism remained Hegel's claim that "the truth is the whole". "Does the understanding of something suppose finding a unity in that which one wants to understand? Is it only then--when we are able in each fragment see a part of some whole--that we can discover some meaningin the multifariousness of the experienced world?" These questions, Michalski said in an interview, had kept him awake at night since his first years of university. They were at the heart of his book on Heidegger, published in 1978, and at the heart of his book on Nietzsche, published some thirty years later. Coud there be meaning--the kind of meaning that imbues life with value--without wholeness?

My own questions, exactly, but phrased with a precision beyond me.


"Life and history," Michalski wrote, "do not go on independently of our participation, like a carousel you can ride or jump off of at will." For Michalski the imperative was to resign from the illusory conviction that there is some point of view from outside time on which we can look at our "now" sub specie aeternitatis and in this way relativize it. No, the time in which we are living possesses its own finality. We are the co-creators of meaning in this time. And so all meanings are fragile, temporary, open to change--but for all that no less deep and binding and real. These meanings are the only ones we have and the ones we must use. 

Yes, that's the paradox: fragile, temporary and changeable, but also deep and binding and real.


In an essay of 1974 that Michalski translated for Znak, Potocka described how for Heidegger, responsibility is not a relationship to something that is, to some kind of being, but rather an ontological trait of Dasein--that is, of our own being. ("Patocka used to say," Vaclav Havel wrote in "The Power of the Powerless", that the most interesting thing about responsibility is that we carry it with us everywhere.") This flowed from Heidegger's philosophical project, described by Potocka as "the first radical-to-the-depths attempt to build philosophy on the ground of finitude". This was a fundamental idea that Michalski, too, absorbed from Heidegger: that the condition of possibility for freedom, responsibility and meaning is human finitude--that is, death. Death is always hanging over us, defining our being, for being-in-the-world means being-towards-death. Angst for Heidegger is an anxiety that, unlike fear, has no tangible object. Angst is rather our feeling of not-being-at-home-in-the-world in the face of the nothingness we move towards; it is our confrontation with death. In our daily behavior we flee from that confrontation. In moments of angst our true condition is disclosed to us. In Michalski's reading of Heidegger, human finitude--death as a possibility "not to be outstripped"--is not negative, but is rather the condition of any meaning at all. This finitude is not a prison of the soul, but rather than which reveals the authentic meaning of human existence as freedom.

Angst is not adolescent but adolescents get it. "Heidegger was for me," Michalski wrote, "the philosopher who was able to disclose the weight of each step of my life or of yours."


Michalski read Nietzsche similarly, as conceiving of history as "yet another name for the world in which we live: the world of becoming, the world of constant change and irreducible diversity. Attempts  at discovering a goal, a totality, a 'truth' beyond it, attempts at discoverin the 'transcendent meaning' of the world in which we live, or else at understanding in reference to some 'external' system of eference--all these end . . .  in utter failure". For Nietzsche, the attempt to impose some kind of rational whole was life-negating. It was, in essence, nihilism. How can nihilism be overcome? Ultimately, through the confrontation with death, the most radical discontinuity. Death discloses instability, the suspension of meaning. "Death is not a 'something,'" Michalski wrote in The Flame of Eternity: An Interpretation of Nietzsche's Thought, "it is not an object that we need to incorporate into a greater whole. The integreation of life and death disturbs the identity of the former; it shows us that there is no 'whole' to be made of it."

That flips the usual meaning of nihilism: a negation of life by imposing on life a rational system. It sounds right, however, death as a radical discontinuity.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Summer Reading

My big summer reading book was The Tale of Genji, which I read and blogged about in an earlier post. My feelings toward the book are colored by the start of summer and by summer's long afternoons in Central Park. I borrowed from the school library E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime, which I liked enough to be happy to find another novel by him in the apartment in Nice. The Waterworks, my second Doctorow, has a rather predictable plot and characters that seem more symbol than flesh-and-blood. It is a pleasant enough way, however, to learn more about New York City in 1871. For instance, where the New York Library now stands, there used to be a reservoir.

My second loan from the school library was Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground. I swear that I have tried to read the great D many times, but failed every time to get past Chapter One. I thought that the slimness of Notes might help me get into the great Russian, and, boy, did it. I loved its tortured protagonist, who tries so hard to savor his humiliations. "I am a sick man . . . I am a wicked man" is as great an opening as "Call me Ishmael." The bipartite structure of Notes is also interesting. The philosophical part one explains, and is explained by, the narrative part two. Since both parts took place twenty years apart, they comment separately on two different periods of Russian history. Notes has given me the nerve to try again Crime and Punishment.

As for poetry, I read Matt Rasmussen's Black Aperture, which won the Academy of American Poets' Walt Whitman Award, given for a first book. The poems look at his brother's suicide in different ways, through rather surreal imagery. The verse is competent, but nothing took away my breath. At the end of the book, I am left with the rather banal thought, what will he write about next? That is a problem, I think, with books that are too narrowly thematic. And isn't calling oneself "Matt" rather too informal? I am reminded of a Facebook post by an editor who complained of emails from strangers addressing him by his first name.

I decided to bring Anna Akhmatova's Selected Poems with me to France. I wanted to like them more than I actually did. The translator, Walter Arndt, took care to render the poems in matching meter and rhyme. The resulting poems in English feel rather dainty and dated, not the qualities that are usually associated with Akhmatova. I thought of Edna St. Vincent Millay while reading the translations. More unusual, more original, in translation, are her long poems. Requiem, translated by Robin Kemball, is very moving in its depiction of her grief at her son's imprisonment by the Soviet authorities. "A Poem without a Hero" is powerfully phastasmagoric. Of the lyrics, I like best "The river dawdles, valley waters gathering" for its vivid detail, "The cathedral doors are flung wide open" for the specificity of its locale, and the wonderful "Lot's Wife," who "laid down her life for a single glance back."

I also read David Kinloch's In My Father's House, after reading his Finger of a Frenchman. I like both books very much; they share a colorful learnedness and lively curiosity about the world and other people. I prefer, however, In My Father's House, mainly because the more personal themes are more, as my students put it, relatable.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Decatur Book Festival 2013

Front: Wayne Koestenbaum, Megan Volpert, Theresa Davis
Back: Jee Leong Koh, Pablo Miguel Martinez

I was at the Decatur Book Festival this weekend to launch the anthology This Assignment Is So Gay: LGBTIQ Teachers on the Art of Teaching. The launch at Decatur High School, introduced by Georgia State Representative Karla Drenner, and moderated by the school's English Head of Department Cara Cassell, was well-attended. I read with Pablo Miguel Martinez, Theresa Davis and anthology editor Megan Volpert. Ed Madden could not make it to due to a neck problem, but Wayne Koestenbaum kindly stood in, and read two of Ed's poems. The Q&A session after the reading was filled with questions from the audience. How would you motivate homeless LGBTIQ youth to study? What has given you hope recently in your teaching? I was pleased that someone bought a copy of my Seven Studies after just hearing me read one of my poems.

Karla Drenner and Megan Volpert

The Decatur Book Festival is billed as the largest independent book fair in the country. It was certainly very well run. The air-conditioned hospitality suite for authors was a very welcomed respite from the heat. I attended an informative session on self-publishing by the CEO of BookLogix. I also heard Richard Blanco, Obama's 2nd inaugural poet, read in the Decatur Presbyterian Church. I was somewhat discomfited by the arc of his reading, which went from a search for home to finding it in his patriotic inaugural poem "One Today." The audience (congregation?) stood to applaud him at the end of the reading; I remained seated as I did not think that the quality of the poetry deserved my standing.

Laura McCullough and Tom Lux provided more substantial poetic fare at the City Hall stage. Her poems wrestled with violence, particularly gun violence, seen through the lens of bringing up her son. His poems, many of them, described his childhood love for killing things. Since they read in a kind of round-robin fashion, they seemed to be answering one another in the different stances that their poems took towards this knotty problem.

I bought from a clever seller three books for $10. Ryū Murakami's Almost Transparent Blue, Graham Swift's The Light of Day, and Irène Némirovsky's Suite Française. On hindsight, I paid for them from the proceeds of the sale of one copy of my book. It was a good festival.