Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Two Films and a Haiku

Last two nights we watched movies borrowed from the library. The Jane Austen Book Club (2007), directed by Robin Swicord, could have been wittier and more literary, but it was watchable. Kevin Zegers plays a student who hits on his uptight French teacher, Prudie (Emily Blunt). Hugh Dancy is so immensely likable as Grigg, a computer geek. The women, drawn in very broad strokes, learn about courtship, heartbreak and second chances from Austen. No discussion about class, please. We are Americans.

At the age of 11, Li Cunxin was taken from his parents and poor village by Madam Mao's cultural delegates to Beijing to train as a ballet dancer. On a cultural exchange with Houston Ballet, he falls in love with an American woman and defects. Mao's Last Dancer, directed by Bruce Beresford, and based on Li's autobiography, is tightly plotted and beautifully shot. Unsurprisingly, it hews to the story of individual freedom so beloved by the West, and the story of poor boy made good so beloved by Americans. The film shows Li in some anguish over the fate of his parents in China, but it also proves the rightness of his decision by having his parents attend Li's performance in The Rites of Spring in an emotional reunion at the end. The film does not ask really hard questions, such as, should Li have defected knowing that his defection may endanger the lives of his parents? The film puts the blame wholly on the Communist government. That is correct but it is surely not the whole ethical problem. Li remains a cipher in the film, and perhaps in his own autobiography too.


liable labial
the wind is writing this hour
in half-rhymes

Monday, March 30, 2015


printed in the tarmac
a branch with five points
alternative hollywood

Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky

Fabulous exhibition at the Met. Beautiful Indian artefacts from pre-contact to present time. Headdresses made from crow and eagle feathers, one feather for every notable victory in battle. Saddle bags, called parfleche envelopes, ornamented with porcupine quills and glass beads. Buffalo skins drawn with stories of war and hunting or with abstract patterns involving the Thunderbird, a guardian spirit. Pipes carved in the form of human effigies. A long courting whistle in the shape of a snipe. Graceful and concise wooden sculptures of buffalos small enough to be held in the hand. Horse masks. A long cherry wood branch transformed miraculously into a snorting galloping horse. A drawing with the silhouettes of more than 80 species of animals, birds and fish that made up the living environment of a people. A winter count chart, on which the the tribal historian drew a picture representing each year, and so provided the storyteller with a mnemonic: the 80th winter shows the lynching of three Native Americans. Hypnotic, creative, spiritual, tragic: the remnants of a lost world.

Image from Met website

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Boyhood and Haiku

Watched Boyhood, directed by Richard Linklater, last night. I admire it for its technical mastery (filmed over 12 years) and for the performance of the main cast. Ellar Coltane, as Mason Junior, grows up before our eyes, with the kind of acting that never seems like acting. Ethan Hawke as dad and Patricia Arquette as mum turn in utterly convincing performances. And here's the but - the story is conventional and some of the minor characters are stereotypical. The Texan grandparents give Ellar a Bible and a gun for his birthday. The veteran husband turns to drinking. The Mexican worker goes to school, on Ellar's mum's advice, and makes good as a restaurant manager. The token Asian appears in the form of Ellar's sister's college dorm-mate. The children--both Ellar and his older sister--are remarkably unscarred by the abusive husbands their mother married. Throughout it all, Ellar retains a heart of gold and an air of innocence. He is dreamy, introspective and wee bit alienated - just enough to gain our trust and liking. He is even artistic - he has a talent for photography. I'd feel less antagonistic towards the film if it was titled Texan Boyhood or White Boyhood, or even American Boyhood--some qualifier--and not with its universal moniker.


first up
high wind
what was the dream

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Sunday, March 22, 2015

A Memorial for Elise Partridge

Elise Partridge told me that she had met Goh Poh Seng. A brief encounter between two naturalized Canadian poets. I did not quiz her about it and now will never get a chance. She died of colon cancer in January. A memorial service was held yesterday in the Ceremonial Hall of the New York Society for Ethical Culture. The windows looked out at Central Park, still in the grip of snow. Did the meeting take place in Toronto or Vancouver? I don't remember.

transfixed by the thorns
of the short-lived honey locust
the second day of spring

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Turning 45 and a Haiku

Grateful to my well-wishers on Facebook:

Thank you for your birthday wishes! I had a terrific Day. Guy gave me a special breakfast treat - pastry and special coffee - and presented me with a chic striped shirt and neat blue jacket. Better still, he went in late for work! Then I worked on new posts for my arts website Singapore Poetry, before having a simple lunch of soup and cheese sandwich. After lunch, I started reading THE NEW VILLAGE, a collection of poems by Chinese-language poet Wong Yoon Wah, translated by Ho Lian Geok and Ng Yi-sheng. So much to learn about Singapore! For dinner, Guy took me to one of my favorite restaurants in New York, Commerce, on, you guess it, Commerce Street. I had a tasty Toscana and Guy an even tastier Rhone wine. My duck was delicious, just two thick slices, cooked just right, pink and crispy in the right places. Guy had a very flavorful curry with root vegetables. Then we had a couple of drinks at Monster Bar, before heading home. I feel very lucky.


In The New Village, Wong Yoon Wah mythologizes the struggle of the wild yam, the pitcher plant, and the mangrove to survive in a landscape dredged by British tin-mining operations and then abandoned. I am reminded of the restoration work now going on around the reservoir in Central Park.

each time the bridle path
receives a season of gravel
it grows potholes

Friday, March 20, 2015

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Boey Kim Cheng's "Clear Brightness"

These are poems of an assured mastery, of a voice arriving at itself, even as it speaks of loss. Although Boey has migrated to Australia and become an Australian citizen there, he cannot help but speak of Singapore--its loss due to time, urban redevelopment, deaths in the family, and migration. Poems such as "Dinky's House of Russian Goods" and "The National Theatre, Singapore" bring lost places back to the life. Sequences such as "To Markets" and "Chinatowns" are rich with details and associations, recalled in memory. Most impressive, to my mind, is "The Disappearing Suite," which produces from a very particular life a universal music. It touches the depths sounded in Eliot's "The Four Quartets," though without the latter's religious angst. Who said that a poet's task is to make of his or her life a symbol? In "The Disappearing Suite," and more generally in Clear Brightness, Boey has succeeded in doing so.


looking out of place
at the beginning of spring
ice leavens the sod

Monday, March 16, 2015

Joseph H. Carens's "The Ethics of Immigration"

I read the TLS review of the book and knew I had to read it. I'm so glad I did. The book is obviously a culmination of many years of thinking and research on immigration. It is comprehensive in its scope, persuasive in its argument, and lucid in its exposition. Working on the basis of our common intuitions about our democratic commitments, Carens shows how the present immigration system is or is not compatible with what we profess. From the ground up, he builds up a theory of social membership that is humane and logical. The second part of the book is devoted to an argument for open borders. I find the argument utterly convincing, although others will find its claims too radical. Carens's most effective tactic is to compare closed borders to feudalism, both of which privilege birth unfairly, whether it is birth into a class (as in feudalism) or birth into a country (as in the present closed order). Human brings have a right to move wherever they wish. The curtailment of that human right requires very serious justifications. I know The Ethics of Immigration will be my go-to resource for many years to come.


As Bashō longed for Kyoto when he heard a cuckoo in Kyoto, I long for the city where I live.

wiping spurts of mud
off my old leather shoes--
even in new york…

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Featured in Singapore's Straits Times

Thanks, Akshita Nanda, for the feature in Singapore's Straits Times:

Poet Koh Jee Leong Had to Leave Singapore to Engage with It 

Shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize for English poetry last November, Jee Leong Koh says he ironically found his voice only after leaving the country in 2003 to study in the United States.

He lives in Manhattan with his partner, teaching in a private school, but continues to engage with Singapore in his critically acclaimed verse. Take the collection Steep Tea, to be published in July by UK publisher Carcanet Press.

It is partly Koh's response to women poets such as Ireland's Eavan Boland or American Rachael Briggs, who co-wrote the titular poem as a call-and-response Japanese "renga" form.

The collection also includes Koh's reactions and thoughts on Singaporean icons such as the old KTM Railway Station at Tanjong Pagar and poet Lee Tzu Pheng's well-known and much-discussed poem about life here, My Country And My People.

"When writing my poem Recognition, I found myself trying to find the details of my own life in her life and writings," says Koh, 45, who came to poetry through the writings of Philip Larkin and other English poets and did his degree in English literature at Oxford University. Though he had read and loved the works of Singapore-born Boey Kim Cheng many years ago, he encountered Lee's work only recently.

He says he felt an instant connection to her poem and plans to send her a copy of Steep Tea.

"I grew a bean plant as a school science project. Did she? I reared a chick in my then-new housing estate. Did she? Nothing is certain until the final comparison, that I have written poems, just as she did. I am less interested in the details of her personal life, than in the fact that we both write poems, that we both try to make sense of ourselves and our country through our imagination."


Steep Tea by Jee Leong Koh will be published by Carcanet Press in July. Read the rest of the article here.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Friday, March 13, 2015

Haiku and Book Cafe

the first crocus
flashes its green card
at airport security


On March 7, Saturday evening, I read at the Singapore Literature Prize event at Book Cafe, with M. Ravi, Hidayah Amin, Josephine Chia and Yong Shu Hoong. Organized by the Book Development Council of Singapore and moderated by Jason Erik Lundberg, readings by the five authors were followed by pertinent questions about writing and publishing. Most of the people present were from the Singapore Writers' Group, which mostly consists of expatriates living in Singapore. The last time I was in Book Cafe was many years ago, when I attended a reading given by Cyril and met Jason Wee there. It was good to see the place thriving in the competitive cafe business. Eric Norris and Cheryl Koh came for the reading.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Poetry Workshop at Dunman High

I'm going to teach my first poetry workshop in a Singapore school this afternoon. The one-hour session, with 20 students, marks my return to the Singapore classroom after an absence of 12 years. What will I find? Continuities or changes? How will these students respond to THE PILLOW BOOK?