Saturday, December 28, 2013

Pure, Explicit, Invincible

Read three novels while visiting GH's family for Christmas. The first was a recommendation by his father, who is an avid reader. Calico Joe, published in 2012, is touted as John Grisham's first baseball novel. In my teens I used to tear through Grisham's legal thrillers, absorbed in the arcane world of courtroom drama. Baseball is just as arcane to me, but my ignorance was no barrier to enjoying this fast-paced novel. A boy is torn between his baseball idol and his baseball father, who play against each other in one fateful match. Grisham is a good storyteller, who knows how to put a story through its paces. What annoyed me was the times when he tried for some deeper meaning, and sounded pretentious instead. It's pretty obvious that the story is about the all-American hero and his evil twin. There is no need to hammer home the dualistic point. The characterization is not very complex, but the father comes off as the most interesting character because he was the most injured and the most injuring.

My second book was Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Memories of My Melancholy Whores. The protagonist, a newspaper columnist, turns ninety and decides to abandon all for a night of wild love with an adolescent virgin. To his surprise, he falls in love with the girl and names her Delgadina. He is revived by love and its sufferings. This is a short novel, but it is full of lovingly observed detail, which renders the texture of an old man's experience so utterly believable. It makes me want to write a book about my beautiful porn star who died of an overdose of prescription medicine.

No One Writes to the Colonel, also by Marquez, is a collection of short stories. The title story is quite long, however, and is the most substantial of the lot. The eponymous colonel and his wife live in the most penurious circumstances while waiting for his government pension. They share the little that they have with a fighting cock, whom everyone in town believes will win the coming cock fights. The animal very quickly becomes the symbol of hope for a hopeless community. The colonel's wife tries to persuade him to sell the cock so that they could get some food. He relents but repents in time to retrieve the bird. The conclusion is powerfully poignant. He is asked by his wife about what they would eat in the meantime.

It had taken the colonel seventy-five years--the seventy-five years of his life, minute by minute--to reach this moment. He felt pure, explicit, invincible at the moment when he replied: 

The other stories are all set in the same town of Macondo. My favorites are the heartbreaking "Tuesday Siesta" and the heartwarming "Balthazar's Marvelous Afternoon." The first is about the death of a thief, the second about the gift of a beautiful bird cage. In both, human emotions are "pure, explicit, invincible" too.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Saturday, December 14, 2013

John Berger's "Selected Essays"

It is astonishing to me how consistent John Berger was in over 30 years of art criticism. His judgment of an artist could become more developed and refined, more elaborated, but the underlying sense of the artist's purpose and value remained the same. This consistency of seeing came from a coherent philosophy of art criticism. As Berger puts it in his "Introduction" to Permanent Red, which is also aptly the introductory essay of this Selected Essays edited by Geoff Dyer, the art critic must first answer the question: What can art serve here and now? For Berger, the answer that drove his looking was another question: Does this work help or encourage men to know and claim their social rights?

Berger was not looking for Socialist propaganda, but saw his answer/question as the logic of his historical situation. In the second half of the twentieth century, the most important historical movements were the fights for national independence, civil rights, gender equality, and peace. And so the questions that were posed to artworks were those of the times. To the extent that an artwork reminded the viewer of his potentialities, it encouraged him to claim the social rights in his life. Those who claimed a different purpose for art were simply out of step with their times, or as Berger writes, "The hysteria with which many people today deny the present, inevitable social emphasis of art is simply due to the fact that they are denying their time. They would like to live in a period when they'd be right."

How ironic then that the times have changed, and Berger seems now to be the one out of step. The old confidence about social rights is gone, not just about the viability of securing them, but even the desirability of attaining them. We are more ambivalent, I think, about the value of the new nationalisms, for instance, and of the triumph of secularism. The early Berger essays refer to the uneven development of the world, with the confidence that the new and less-developed nations will climb on board the train of Western Enlightenment and espouse its ideals. A number of later essays, born of visits to Turkey, are less sure of this linear, stageist view of history.

The times have changed. We are more concerned with the rights of representation than with the social rights as defined by the West. So the imperative in contemporary art to be inclusive or to admit to its exclusivity, to its necessary subjectivity. It's a dilemma. How can one claim to represent anything except oneself? The problem is most acute in painting, of all the arts, because it is, finally, a single static framed object. It is little wonder that so many artists have migrated to film and installations, to motion and environment, in other words, since the problems of painting seem intractable.

Berger's later essays pay attention to the global power of capital. Everything everywhere is up for buying and selling. The point here, as I see it, is that all the movements for social rights played into the hands of capital. The newly independent nations are now free to buy and sell. Women are now potentially equal to men in purchasing power. The poor wants to be rich. Peace is good for business. The essential fight, it seems to me, is against capital, not on behalf of labor, but on behalf of humanity. We need to resist the commodification of everything. To do so, we have to find intellectual resources from anywhere we can find them, even in such unlikely places as John Berger's socialism.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Poem: "Top Ten Books of 2013"

Top Ten Books of 2013

10. Magritte at the MoMA, The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926–1938

9. From the open-air market in Nice, fresh figs, goat cheese, baguette

8. The young astrophysicist in the hotel shower

7. The Seven Samurai

6. Splash Bar closing. Any reference to dancing in my writing is in part a reference to the dance floor at Splash.

5. Your excitement inside Cité radieuse in Marseilles

4. After reading One Hundred Years of Solitude, I saw an old man walk by with his grandson

3. The Talipot Palm flowering for the first and last time before it dies

2. Massage oil 

1. The garage mechanic in Tara Bergin’s This Is Yarrow and his black hands—“everywhere they touch will be evidence of him.”

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Poem: "Gift Set"

Gift Set

Elsa, I’ve just received the package of bones you sent!
I’ve always wanted the complete set
to check if his throat cancer left a mark.

What fun to hold a familiar funny bone and hear
it speak of a painted scroll,
I know the stupid bird can never eat the stupid peach 

and another, smooth pebble, never seen before,
a pig is a very compact arrangement,
and wonder where it fits.

The bone for his friend Keith
keeps its silence about a word—

Alex Au, the blogger
facing charges of holding the courts in contempt,
guessed the word is gay,
Cyril (remember him?) reckons it goodness,
I fancy you

and so the linguist speaks eternally.

Ha, ha! Arthur Yap, I have your bones all in one place,
as others do who cherish completeness
far from home, above the ground, and unquiet.

Thank you.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Poem: "An Argument Against An Objective Materialist Universe"

An Argument Against An Objective Materialist Universe

The wallpaper has a pattern of eyes,
life-sized, brown, with double eyelids.
I spin but cannot catch any one blinking.

When I change in the morning
to get ready for work,
they appraise me from all angles.

In the evening, after work,
when I’m masturbating in bed,
I swear a tear glistens at the corner of every eye.

Just before I fall asleep,
they look like the eyes of my boyfriend
who is away in Brazil.

I can’t get them to stop looking at me.
I can’t stop looking at them.
It’s the same way even if I write,

the wallpaper has a pattern of eggs. 

We have no wallpaper in our bedroom.
You’ll have to take my word for it.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Poem: "The Murderous Sky"

The Murderous Sky

after Magritte 

The sky has been raining dead birds all morning.
They strike the ground so hard that they bounce
up to the waist and disappear into the blue air,
not without leaving a blot of blood, a bull’s eye.
I try to avoid stepping on the red shots but there
are so many that it’s impossible not to cross
a firing line. Other people don’t seem to care,
not the schoolgirl thumbing her phone, not the
short pizza delivery man hurtling by on his bike.
In the distance, however, a woman is steering
her black stroller as if she is avoiding puddles.
A young man on a bench looks up from his book.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Poem: "The Ideology of Aggressive Interior Attack"

The Ideology of Aggressive Interior Attack

The fire will climb from the 59th, that’s
how old I am, to the 86th floor observatory.
The fire engines are on their way.
One firefighter will lose his life trying
to rescue a woman in a bathroom.
He is 34, Irish and divorced. Sees his two daughters
on alternate weekends. About to be promoted.
I have read tomorrow’s papers by mistake.
The woman’s safe. The cause of the fire unknown.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Poem: "Getting Dressed"

Getting Dressed

After I pull down my pullover,
 the front collar of my t-shirt is too high. 
It is in fact the back collar.
I have my t-shirt on back to front.

Pulling off my pullover, I realize
my mistake is in fact a mistake,
I have my t-shirt on right.

The shirt must have ridden up
inside the pullover.

I pull my pullover over my head
and the knitted arms over my arms.
The front collar is riding high again.
I pull at it but it won’t go down

because it is the back collar.

I pull off my pullover again.
In fact I check the mirror.
I am wearing the t-shirt right.
The front collar is in front,
showing the collar of flesh below the neck,
except when it is the back.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Poem: "Who Wants To Know The Answer?"

Who Wants To Know The Answer?

I’m reading John Berger on Magritte.
On the radio, a young man has a question
about his Toyota Corolla Hatchback.

You’re from Eugene? the auto expert asks.
Eugene, Oregon.

There’s a liquid leaking from his dashboard.
Is it greasy? the auto expert asks.
Yes, it’s greasy.

A phone shrills in the studio.
Why isn’t anyone
attending to it?

That’s a problem, the auto expert says, when you’re out on a date.

Yeah, it’s a real problem. It was leaking
all over the floor, all over my good shoes.
I tried soaking it up with newspapers,
but it was hopeless, it was leaking so much.

The phone shrills and shrills.

Oh, it’s not in the studio
but nagging behind me, in the kitchen
of the house where I’m staying,
a wallphone hooked up above the microwave.

Should I answer it? It’s not for me.
It’s an unexpected call.
Nobody’s home.
Would John Berger answer it?

The phone shrills on.
Finally, the auto expert, for he is the expert,
picks it up
and asks in a voice falsely gruff,
hello, who is this?

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Love, from the Beginning to the End

This year's thanksgiving was a time with family, friends and movies. We watched three movies with R and S, and then another movie when we got home last night. The Big Wedding (2013), directed by Justin Zackman who also co-wrote the screenplay, suffered from a lack of direction. The best thing, and the cutest thing, in it was Ben Barnes, who played the Columbian son adopted by white parents. When his religious biological mother came for his wedding, the family bent over backwards to hide the fact that dad and mum were divorced. It was a flimsy premise for a film, and it showed.

Bahz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby (2013) more than made up for the disappointment. I loved the excess of it, the garish house, the lavish parties, the rap music, the over-the-top art direction. I was not looking for a faithful rendition of a great novel into film. I was looking for, from Luhrmann the director of Romeo and Juliet, and of Moulin Rouge, a re-envisioning of the world, and he gave us one, tarted up, and dared us to disavow it. Leonardo DiCaprio surprised me by depicting Jay Gatsby with sufficient complexity. Tobey Maguire was out of his depth as Nick Carraway. Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan was a fairy princess; we see her through Gatsby's eyes, as one who can wipe away the past and restart one's life at a pure beginning.

I also enjoyed The Way Way Back (2013), which we watched the next night. Directed and written by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the teen comedy had the distinction of not condescending to teenagers and not sentimentalizing them. Liam James played a shy 14-year-old Duncan, whose face was not so much blank as uncertain. The story had the expected happy ending, but James's acting lifted it above the ordinary.

Last night, we watched Be with Me, the 2005 film by Singapore director Eric Khoo. The film wove together three stories with beautiful cinematography and minimal dialogue. The parts were all played by non-professional actors. In the first, a lonely elderly shopkeeper fell in love with a blind and deaf woman when he read the story of her extraordinary life. The second story traced the love and then the break-up of a teenage lesbian couple. In the third, a security guard matched his obsession with food with his obsession with a woman in his building. One of them would die looking for love.