Sunday, May 31, 2015

Hike and Haiku

GH, WL, CC and I went to Cold Spring yesterday. We walked around the West Point Foundry Park, which was less a hike than a stroll. Some pretty views of the stream and the ruins of the red-bricked company building. We ate lunch at the viewing deck overlooking a pond covered with green scum. Wanting to hike more, we walked into the park opposite the Breakneck Ridge hike, and found a local beach. The water of the Hudson was clean enough up here for swimming. Then we hiked the White route below Breakneck but couldn't find the Yellow trail to lead us back to town, and so we back trekked and reached la Bouchon in time for our early dinner reservation.


as green as hot
through the taconic range
or was it bukit timah

Friday, May 29, 2015

STEEP TEA: Jorie Graham

GH started an Easter tradition: host brunch for a group of friends and then go for a walk in Central Park. These walks encourage intimacies. On the very first walk, which is the substance of my poem "Easter," two friends shared personal stories of an isolated childhood and a health problem. The stories became emblematic in my mind of the dying body, which will not be resurrected, unlike Jesus'. Threaded through these stories in my poem is a strong unease that came from the early days of living with GH. It's hard to join two separate lives into one. The surreal feeling of that attempt informs the strange atmosphere of the poem. I was writing differently.

The epigraph - "your body an arrival / you know is false but can't outrun" - is taken from the poem " "The Geese" by Jorie Graham. In the poem she compares the goal-directed movement of migrating geese to the texture-thickening work of spiders. She concludes that we live in between the geese and the spiders. When Graham achieves the right blend between philosophy and imagery, as she does in this poem, she is marvelous. Her poem is consolatory, finally. Mine refuses the consolation of the everyday in order to walk the tightrope of the body.


a soap bubble
splits the sun
by the black walnut

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Wednesday, May 27, 2015


late spring
the white flowers can barely lift
their heads from the dust

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

STEEP TEA: Mary di Michele

I am not the first, nor will I be the last to write poems in response to another writer's work. As Elaine Scarry wrote, beauty begets beauty. I don't know if my poems may be described as beautiful, but they are begotten by beauty. My poem "In Death As In Life" was written after Mary di Michele's translation of a poem by Pier Paolo Pasolini, that great Italian poet and filmmaker. Pasolini's poem speculates about the day of his death, how he would die and where, "in some city, Trieste or Udine," in di Michele's translation. The poem inspired me to make an important decision about my final resting place after living a migrant's life. I wanted to put on record the place to scatter my ashes.

Di Michele has a special link to Pasolini as she explained in her book of response poems THE FLOWERS OF YOUTH. After reading the book, I wrote this review on my blog:

You read up on a great writer and director, what he wrote and what others wrote about him. You find affinities in thought and temperament, though you live in different times and places. You fly to Italy for an academic conference and make the pilgrimage to the writer's grave at Casarsa. There, sitting on a bench shaded by cypress, weeping for a man you have never met, you hear a voice whispering to you in Italian, which you don't know how to write, but find yourself transcribing. Translated into English, the voice said,

I leave the city and discover the sky,
The world is bigger than I realized,
Where there's nobody the stars are myriad.

That was what happened to Mary di Michele, according to her book's prologue, and what inspired her to write The Flower of Youth. The title is the same as that of the volume of verse Pier Paolo Pasolini wrote in dialect about his coming of age in the countryside during World War II. The verse that di Michele heard at Pasolini's grave speaks of the affinities that she found in the Italian writer. The usual migration goes from the country to the city in the search of a bigger world. di Michelle and Pasolini, however, found their world enlarged by leaving the city for the countryside. In her case, that journey is also a return, a homecoming, from Canada to Italy. Born in Lanciano, Italy, in 1949, she moved with her family to Toronto when she was six.

The Flower of Youth is organized in four parts. The Prologue narrates in verse and prose di Michele's journey to Pasolini's grave. Part II "Impure Acts," the bulk of the book, speaks in the voice of Pasolini about the struggle between his sexuality and his faith. Instead of fighting in the war, he followed his mother into the countryside to set up a school for boys too young to be conscripted. di Michelle's poems take off from his own memoir about that period of sexual awakening. In Part III "After Pasolini," she translates the two very different versions of the poem that Pasolini wrote about his death, and she adds what she calls a permutation, a poem of her own about the reported circumstances of his death that deploys motifs from his poems. Part IV the epilogue explains the structure of di Michele's book.

The poems in Part II reproduce what di Michele discovered to her surprise when she read Pasolini's memoir. The World War is sidelined in favor of the internal battle. The bombs keep falling, but the real devastations are those of the heart and its desires. Most of the poems are written in quatrains with the last line of each quatrain shorter than the rest and indented. This stanzaic form proves to be admirably malleable and musical in di Michele's hands. The opening stanza of "Postscript(s)" introduces gently yet pointedly Pasolini's story in di Michelle's chosen form:

The fall of '47 I was 25 and still living
in Viluta. What made me stay so long?
What made me linger in that nothing place,
xxxxxxxxxxxthat hamlet of ten houses?

The enjambment after "living" subtly reminds us of the casualties of war. The repetition of "What made me" fills out the entire length of the third line and the next, which also contracts to round up the small hamlet. di Michelle is also fond of breaking a line between an adjective and its noun. That device works well in many instances to maintain narrative momentum, but may seem arbitrary in some places.

The sentiments traced in these poems are not extraordinary, but they are delicate. Sexual rendezvous takes place in discreet fields and secret woods, to which the reader's eyes are not privy, though enticed. In a few places, the plain language descends into conventionality, as when de Michele's Pasolini complains of a boy that "He erected invisible walls/ against me" ("Spring Far Behind"). The same poem, however, quickens in the end when Pasolini dreams of lying with him again in "a familiar bed," which for them is "some ditch fragrant with primrose." The invisible walls are unreal, a mere idea, but the ditch smelling of primrose brings the country and the sex to the nose.

In like manner the best poems of the book bring to life the physical environment in which the drama of love not only takes place but finds its embodiment. In "Hidden Corners/The Earth Moves," spring has returned and so has B. naked to the waist. He leads Pasolini into the woods, where

The dew had dried but the stones, gravel
from the river bank, still glistened; in the grove
where we lay together the Earth trembled
xxxxxxxxxxxxxwith the passing trains.

The trains unexpectedly and perfectly convey the temporary vibrations of the encounter. In "A Thousand Birds," it's summer and the boys go back to swimming naked at the pit, their playful cries harmonizing with birdsong. Sitting by the pit, distracted from his Tasso and Tommaseo, di Michele's Pasolini is keenly aware of his envy "for those meadows where B. stepped/ shoeless into the long grass." The mixture of the sacred ("shoeless") and the sensual ("the long grass") is captured vividly in a memorable image. With such images the book convinces us that the country is more bountiful than the city.

The Clark, Stonybrook and Haiku

Visited T and D on Memorial Day weekend. On Saturday we drove more than two hours to the Clark Museum, newly redesigned by Pritzker Prize-winning architect, Tadao Ando. GH and I liked the Lunder Center at Stone Hill more than the main museum itself. The Center had a pure and simple form. The museum was cluttered with too many pools and differently colored walls. Great small collection of art, especially portraits by Renoir, Gainsborough, Delacroix, and Théodore Géricault. Also Piero della Francesca's "Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels" and William-Adolphe Bouguereau's "Nymphs and Satyr." George Innes's atmospheric landscapes were very beautiful.

On Friday night we watched a documentary on the La Sagrada Familia, but I was too tired and fell asleep for most of it. On Saturday night, we watched François Ozon's Time to Leave (2005), about a young gay fashion photographer who learns that he has only three months to live. He pushes away his sister and his lover cruelly, and confides only in his grandmother. The film ends with him agreeing to have sex with a waitress and her husband so that they can have a baby. Survival of a sort.

On Sunday, we moved to stay with DM at his home in Stonybrook, Long Island. Had dinner, sang karaoke and watched two episodes of Sex and the City, including the one on threesomes. The next day, Memorial Day itself, we spent on Fire Island. It was chilly in the morning but very quickly heated up. DM drove us back from Sayville to Ronkonkoma Station, where we took a train to Penn Station. DM was very amiable company.

At home, GH and I watched Mark Thiedeman's Last Summer (2013), about two Arkansas boys about to separate because the smart one is getting out of town to go to college whereas the dumb one will remain stuck in their small town. Ravishingly cinematography. The unspoken and the unseen became utterly eloquent. The most erotic scene shows only their caressing shoes while they lie in bed together. Samuel Pettit plays Luke who remains, and Sean Rose plays Luke who leaves.

We also enjoyed Four Moons (2014) directed by the young Mexican filmmaker Sergio Tovar Velarde. imdb: "Four stories about love and self-acceptance: An eleven year-old boy struggles to keep secret the attraction he feels towards his male cousin. Two former childhood friends reunite and start a relationship that gets complicated due to one of them's fear of getting caught. A gay long lasting relationship is in jeopardy when a third man comes along. An old family man is obsessed with a young male prostitute and tries to raise the money to afford the experience." The many phases of a gay man's life.


silken orchids
cut from the spring rain
by bandage scissors

Friday, May 22, 2015

Monkey Business and Haiku

The panel on Haruki Murakami at the Japan Society was related to the journal Monkey Business as editors and writers. Intent on introducing new Japanese writing to an English-reading audience, Motoyuki Shibata and Ted Goossen founded the English-version of the annual journal in 2011. Volume 01 has a long interview of Murakami by the younger novelist Hideo Furukawa. The interview spans the course of Murakami's career. The chief impression is of a steady worker who keeps himself healthy to continue writing more and more ambitious books. 

I particularly like the collection of vignettes by Hiromi Kawakami called "People from My Neighborhood." Atsushi Nakajima's short story "Sandy's Lament" brings the characters from Journey to the West to life. "The Tale of the House of Physics" by Yoko Ogawa, about a retired editor who remembers his first book, is delicate and moving. 


the bald cypress
will lose its leaves in winter
its fern-like leaves

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Coin of the Realm and Haiku

After reading Carl Phillips' collection of essays, Coin of the Realm, I see more clearly what draws me to his poetry. His poems aim at seduction of the reader, through beauty that comes from authority that, in turn, comes, from athletic thinking. There are fine essays here on individual poets, such as George Herbert and T. S. Eliot, and on individual poems, such as George Oppen's "Psalm," Gwendolyn Brooks's "A light and diplomatic bird," and Sylvia Plath's "Winter Trees." There is also a long substantial essay on the Psalms. These essays give a strong sense of the poetic qualities that Phillips value: besides beauty, a prayerful attitude akin to desire in its openness; an exquisite control.

Fine as these essays are, I prefer the essays on poetics, which are illustrated by a wealth of examples from a wide range of poets. In defending the use of association in poetry, Phillips also points out its limits, of final clarity and ultimate pattern. His examination of what makes a prose poem is judicious and thoughtful, in the course of which he throws out this gem:

... the lyric poem is a torso. Without the extremities of arms, legs, head, the torso has to serve as representative of all that's missing, has to resonate in the manner of Rilke's archaic torso of Apollo. 

In the essay "Abstraction on Parnassus: American Poetry of the 1950s" he looks at the poetry of Ginsberg, Levertov, Creeley, Orson, Berryman and O'Hara to show how the post-war Americans wrote on the assumption that content determined form. It is clear that Phillips sees himself in the same American lineage.

Most valuable to me is his essay "Boon and Burden: Identity in Contemporary American Poetry." He begins the essay by describing how his class responds to a poem by Langston Hughes called "Island." Before he reveals the name of the poet, the class dwells on its "existential" meaning. After he tells them that the poem is by Hughes, the class becomes certain that the sea voyage in the poem is a veiled reference to Middle Passage. When Phillips adduces the fact that Hughes was gay, the inability to reach the island becomes, for the class, a metaphor for socially enforced isolation. Phillips thus shows how poetic identity can narrow the interpretation of a poem. He is against such narrowing.

I also enjoyed his coming-out essay "Sea Level." His interview, however, I find evasive. The two essays on books and reading do not give anything very new.


i tear the lid slowly
off the can of soup for lunch--
the mounted cop squeezes his thighs

Tuesday, May 19, 2015


I wrote "Talking to Koon Meng Who Called Himself Christopher" in response to a challenge during the Poetry Free-for-all Apprentice Contest. The challenge was to write a poem using dialogue. I still remember vividly a conversation with a student when I was teaching in Chua Chu Kang Secondary School in Singapore. Koon Meng was in the Normal Technical stream (a vocational track). Once a student was placed in a stream, it was nearly impossible for him to transfer to a better one. Koon Meng's lament to me reminded me of Caliban's words to Prospero, which go something like, you taught me to speak and my only profit on it is to learn how to curse. It was clear to me that Koon Meng was bright; the stumbling block was the compulsory study of the English language, for which his home did not prepare him.

The poem tries to dramatize the fraught issue of English in Singapore by having Koon Meng speak in Singlish and the teacher-speaker in standard English. This difference was true to life, but also thematically significant. Singlish is still seen in some quarters as incorrect or inferior, but in Koon Meng's mouth, it is a lively and idiomatic patois. The poem does not rest, however, upon a simplistic division between native adaptation and colonial imposition, for Koon Meng wants to get on in life and love, and to do so he must "improve" his English. He adopts a Christian name "Christopher" for it sounds more cool. So the poem displays, I hope, not a false dichotomy, but a spectrum of imperfect adaptations of Singapore's colonial heritage, its economic and social advantages, but also its personal and cultural drawbacks. The poem speaks of ambivalence.

I learned of Cai Yan (T'sai Yen) while reading A BOOK OF WOMEN POETS: FROM ANTIQUITY TO NOW, edited by Aliki Barnstone and Willis Barnstone. The irony of discovering this long-ago Chinese woman poet in an anthology edited by a pair of contemporary American editors was not lost on me. Cai Yan was no stranger to cultural dislocation. She was already a widow when she was captured by the Huns during a raid on the Chinese capital. Taken north to a harsh and alien land, she became a concubine to a Hun chief and bore him two sons. 12 years later, she was ransomed by the Chinese. Her great joy at returning home was mixed with great sorrow over leaving her young sons.

The daughter of a famous scholar and poet, Cai Yan was an accomplished poet herself. Only two poems survive from the destruction that raged throughout Chinese history. Another poem, the most famous, is of uncertain attribution. This is "18 Verses to a Tartar Reed Whistle" (as translated by Kenneth Rexroth and Ling Chung, in the Barnstones anthology), otherwise known as "Eighteen Songs of a Nomad Flute." In the poem, Cai Yan speaks with raw emotion and telling detail about the anguish of being separated from one's home, and, then, being separated from one's children. The poem is also appealing in its self-reflexiveness. Each verse, or song, ends with a reference to the poet as a singer, her musical instruments and the emotion that the verse aims to evoke. For instance, the second verse ends:

As I sing the second stanza I almost break the lutestrings.
Will broken, heart broken, I sing to myself. 

The parallelism of Chinese verse reinforces the identification of the will and heart with the lute, and springs the sting - "I sing to myself" - at the end. 

For the epigraph to my poem, I took the self-reflexive reference that concludes the first verse: "I sing one stanza to my lute and a Tatar horn." The lute here is technically the zither. The Tartar horn is a reed pipe known for its plaintive sound. Cai Yan was a singer with two very different instruments, a poet of two mutually hostile cultures. I hope some sense of that is carried over into my poem, which orchestrates its Singlish in iambic pentameter.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Other Love Songs and Haiku

The Cheah Chin Duo presented a concert of love songs yesterday afternoon at the Church of Saint Luke in the Fields. Trudy Chan and Conrad Chu were on the piano, with soprano Kathleen Cantrell, mezzo-soprano Catherine Hedberg, tenor Dennis Tobenski and bass Phillip Cheah. They presented Brahms's Liebeslieder, Op. 52, and Neue Liebeslieder, Op. 65, and John Corigliano's Gazebo Dances (1972) (Waltz and Tarantella) and Liebeslied (1996). Also influenced by Brahms was the middle set of art songs by American pianist and composer Stephen Hough. Other Love Songs (2010) set to music poems and texts by Claude McKay, Julian of Norwich, Langston Hughes, Laurence Hope, A. E. Housman and the Gospel of John. I especially liked the musical setting of Housman's poignant poem "Because I liked you better."

Because I liked you better
Than suits a man to say,
It irked you, and I promised
To throw the thought away.

To put the world between us
We parted, stiff and dry;
'Good-bye,' said you, 'forget me.'
'I will, no fear,' said I.

If here, where clover whitens
The dead man's knoll, you pass,
And no tall flower to meet you
Starts in the trefoiled grass,

Halt by the headstone naming
The heart no longer stirred,
And say the lad that loved you
Was one that kept his word.


an owl's calling
wakes up a late spring morning
to wit, who who who

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Chelsea, Disturbing the Universe, and Haiku

The weather forecast forced us to cancel a hike, so GH and I went round the Chelsea galleries instead yesterday. We both loved Erin Shirreff's show of Arm's Length at Sikkema Jenkins & Co.. Relief consisted of photographs of "handmade sculptural maquettes and assembled composite images." I loved Drop (no. 12) and Drop (no. 13), "hand-cut paper scraps [that] are translated into large sheets of hot-rolled, cold-rolled or Cor-ten steel, and hang in simple layered arrangements on steel rods. Also absorbing were the four new sculptures titled Catalogue (Object Lesson). They are composed of "shaped blocks of graphite-pigmented plaster balanced atop one another and along and underneath flat plants." The large-scale cyanotype photograms showed geometric forms and arrangements that echoed other works in the show. Born in BC, Canada, Shirreff now lives and works in NYC.

We also liked British painter Chantal Joffe's Night Self-Portraits at Cheim & Read. The women in the portraits were not conventionally beautiful, but their awkwardness and lack of proportion compelled attention. The coloring of chairs and fabrics reminded me of Matisse. Figure Ground, at Lennon, Weinberg, Inc., revisited a show that the gallery put up when it was in Soho 20 years ago. The current exhibition grouped together color lithographs, a charcoal-on-paper work, and a painting by Joan Mitchell, Willem de Kooning's lithographs, and Raoul Hogue's wood sculptures for an interesting meditation on the relationship of figure to ground. Over at Lori Bookstein, Henry Rothman's collages, using found scraps, displayed a keen eye for pleasing juxtaposition of colors, shapes and edges. GH liked Robert Motherwell's Opens paintings at Andrea Rosen Gallery, but I thought they did not give enough to the eye or mind.


On hearing that I am working on a book of essays, WL lent me Freeman Dyson's Disturbing the Universe.  He was a professor of physics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. "Born in England," the biographical note continues, " he came over to Cornell University in 1947 as a Commonwealth Fellow and settled permanently in the U.S. in 1951." A summary of his career, the next paragraph also indicates the topics of his essays: "Professor Dyson is not only a theoretical physicist; his career has spanned a large variety of practical concerns. His is a unique career inspired by direct involvement with the most pressing concerns of human life, minimizing loss of life in war, to disarmament, to thought experiments on the expansion of our frontiers into the galaxies."

From his essays, it is clear that Dyson is that rare thing, a man deeply passionate about both science and literature. His essays make reference to Goethe's Faust, Auden and Isherwood's The Ascent of F6, H. G. Wells's The Island of Doctor Moreau, John Milton's great defense of press freedom Areopagitica. The title of the book comes from T. S. Eliot's poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." The first essay "The Magic City," my favorite of the book, is a meditation on the frightening pertinence of  Edith Nesbit's children's story of the same name to the abuse of science in our contemporary world. Dyson himself is a very good writer, lucid and graceful.

The force of the writing comes not only from style, however, but also from the moral discrimination that Dyson wields in confronting his life and the world's problems. He blamed himself for not taking any action though he knew as a civilian statistician in Research Division that the Allies' strategic bombing of German cities in the last years of WWII was not only unconscionable but also ineffective and lethal only to the lives of RAF pilots. He made the interesting argument that it was the Americans' success at firebombing Tokyo that paved the way to the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima. Having built up a Strategic Bombing Command at great cost, the Allies were almost bound to use it.

In another fine essay, "The Blood of a Poet," Dyson paid a heartfelt tribute to his Winchester schoolfriend Frank Thompson whose intelligence and liveliness marked him out as a leader of men. He was a poet too. He joined the Communist Party and enlisted in the war from the start in 1939. While playing the dangerous role of the Allies' liaison with Bulgarian partisans, he was captured and executed by the Fascists, but not before giving his audience their common sign of liberty, a salute with a clenched fist, and thus inspiring the men captured with him to do the same and march to their deaths with heads held high.

The other portraits in this book are of his fellow physicists at Cornell and Princeton. Dick Feynman and his intuitions. His opposite, Julian Schwinger and his mathematical equations. The mercurial arrogance of Robert Oppenheimer. The humanity of Hans Bethe. Dyson contrasts the egotism of the physicists with the cooperative spirit of the engineers. He also astutely observes how all the Los Alamos alumni spoke nostalgically of the A-bomb project as a time of thrilling camaraderie. He is clear about the constant temptation facing scientists of treating all questions, even those with vast moral consequences, as merely technical questions. He humanizes the public perception of Edward Teller, who spoke against Oppenheimer at the latter's security hearings. The scientists, all intellectual giants, are shown to be human and fallible. The portraits, however, are not malicious. They are suffused with affection and admiration. Dyson is not therefore blind to faults.

The last section of the book, which takes up the subjects of space exploration and extra-terrestrials, is less interesting to me than the two earlier sections, "England" and "America." Someone of a more speculative cast of mind will enjoy these essays. When Dyson shades into mysticism in the last essay, finding a Mind behind the mind at work in making quantum observations, and the mind beyond brain cells and synapses, he loses me.


braving mid-may green
moving beds of flowers
aids walkers of new york

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Stephanie Blythe and Haiku

Heard Stephanie Blythe, mezzo-soprano, with LW at Carnegie Hall. The last time I heard her, she was singing Fricka, Wotan's wife, at the Met Opera. Last night's program was very different, a night of French mélodie and chansons, and English cabaret numbers. The moment she walked on stage, even before singing a note, the audience gave her a round of warm applause. She thanked us and said that everyone should have the same experience as she just had.

Then she launched into Francis Poulenc's Poèmes de Ronsard (1924-1925). I enjoyed the art songs, or mélodie, but liked the next set even more. It comprises Léo Ferré's "La vie antérieure" (1957) and "L'invitation au voyage" (1957), both based on poems by Baudelaire. According to the concert program note, Ferré (1916-1993) set out to challenge the distinction between mélodie and his chansons (lyric-driven French songs). I especially loved Blythe's magical rendering of "La vie antérieure." It was the best thing of the evening.

After Ferré, we heard three songs by Jacques Brel (1929-1978). "Les pieds dans le ruisseau," about a boy daydreaming by the river, was enchanting in its innocence. "Ne me quitte pas," a series of pleas to a lover not to leave, each one more self-abasing than the one before, was sung with much feeling. The next song "Amsterdam" was completely different. Blythe rendered the song about the sailors of Amsterdam and their eating and drinking and whoring with requisite gusto and appetite.

 The English came on after the intermission. The difference in national temperament between the French and the English was never brought home to me so forcefully as last night. Benjamin Britten's Cabaret Songs and Noël Coward's songs from his operettas and shows are witty, ironic, and sentimental. They don't begin to touch the depths of even the French chansons. Cabaret Songs (1937-1939) comprise "Calypso," "Johnny," "Tell Me the Truth About Love," and "Funeral Blues." The last two are based on Auden's poems. From Coward, Blythe sang "Zigeuner" from Bitter-Sweet (1929), "Nina" from Sigh No More (1945), "Mad About the Boy" from Words and Music (1932), "Mrs Worthington" (1934) and, to cap a beautiful evening, "The Party's Over Now" from Words and Music. She did oblige, however, with three encores. For the last one, she got us to join her in singing Irving Belin's "Always" (1925), which he wrote as a wedding gift to his wife.

Blythe was accompanied on the piano by Warren Jones. Before each set, they recited the English translations of the lyrics. Blythe was a good reader of poetry too.


in the yiddish songs
on public radio
i hear my father's hymns

Friday, May 15, 2015

STEEP TEA: Diana Bridge

I have made two visits to China so far, in 2010 and 2012. On both trips, I was chaperoning a group of students on their travel-study program. As a chaperone, I was supposed to be the responsible adult when what I wished to be was the irresponsible student. We saw a lot of temples, the most impressive, to me, being the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. I did not know how to write about what I saw, until I read ALOE AND OTHER POEMS by the New Zealand poet Diana Bridge. I bought the book after reading her lovely poems on trees in PN Review.

After reading ALOE, I wrote this response in my blog:

"Bridge is a poet of seeing. A scholar of Chinese culture and Indian art, she writes her finest and most ambitious poems by viewing and reflecting on ancient artifacts. Her poems are about Chinese vases, Japanese prints and Indian temples. Her descriptive powers are considerable, and her meditations never uninteresting. "Sequence, Sarnath" in the early part of the book is even stronger than the concluding sequence "Temple," perhaps because the earlier poem focuses on a specific temple instead of allegorizing explicitly a ritual of worship.

In the Sarnath sequence, Bridge first sees the statue of a seated Buddha by turning a corner, then measures the real distance to the base of the statue. In the second section, she contrasts her companion who likes to theorize and herself, who is "simply addicted to looking." Looking at Gupta sculpture, the third section considers the postmodernist dictum that "to look is never/ neutral" and then observes that the circle of stone closest to the head of the sculpture is completely free of ornamentation, "a plainness which stands in for silence." The final section is transformative. Changed herself, the speaker takes the sky for the stupa and grasps, without grasping, that all is changing: 

You think you're getting closer to it, to what is real--the re-
arrangements of your mind like leaves adjusting to the light.

If some poems in this book follow a predictable order of description first, reflection next, at her best Bridge fuses observation and meaning into a whole of looking and thinking."

The way she measures the real distance to the base of the statue speaks of the respectful restraint in her poetry. In my poem "Temple Art" I turned that restraint into something quite different, the inability to consummate an overpowering desire. By comparing a scorpion tattoo on a muscled back to the stone lions guarding a temple, I tried to give voice to a strong but delicate sense of sexual frustration.

The poem is dedicated to Katherine H. who was my co-chaperone on the first China trip, and who taught me to relish China's many delights.


Two men love the trees in Central Park so much that they have made a map. They spent two and a half years of their lives and $40 000 of their savings to produce the two-sided, waterproof, 36-by-26 inch map called “Central Park Entire: The Definitive Illustrated Folding Map.” 19 993 trees from 174 species are captured in detail.

overcast morning
i pay my debts to the park
by drawing up a calendar


at the end of may
the smell of new books
for summer reading

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

STEEP TEA: Rachael Briggs

I first met Rachael Briggs on-line, over at the internet poetry workshop Poetry Free-for-all. I have been a workshop member for years, even before I moved to the States in 2003. When Rachael found us and started posting her poems for critique, I was drawn to her voice (witty, interrogative, unafraid) and her artful ways with poetic forms. Once PFFA opened its Collaboration Ark, she and I decided to enter Howard's ship and write a renga (Japanese linked form) together.

At that time, having moved from upstate NY, she was living in Australia, and so was leading an expatriate life, as I was, and still am, in NYC. She loved the natural environment down under, and many exotic animals, birds and plants soon found their way into her poetry. We thought we could carry our antipodean seasonal references into the renga, and thus convey the enormous distance that was covered by our collaboration. The renga "Steep Tea" has become the title poem of my new book. We enjoyed writing it so much that we wrote another one.

We met in person twice, both times in NYC. The first time, she met two of my colleagues and delighted them with her intellectual liveliness. She and I read together at the Jojomukti Tea Lounge. She turned in a performance honed by experience in the Brisbane poetry scene. By then she had published her award-winning book of poetry FREE LOGIC. The second time, she stayed with me. I remember that visit chiefly for a memorable breakfast at Barney Greengrass, where Rachael ate her bagel and cream cheese with evident relish. We bonded over talk about poetry and love.

I hear she is moving back to the States. It'd be lovely to resume our conversation.

Rocket and Lightship and Haiku

Adam Kirsch discusses both ideas and literature in this enjoyable collection of essays. The first two essays examine the life of Charles Darwin and his legacy on the study of the arts, in particular, literature. The next two essays are on the end of history, seen in very different ways by Francis Fukuyama and a trio of European novelists, Houellebecq, Sebald and McEwan. Kirsch explains in an essay Hannah Arendt's antipathy toward the Jewish community. In the case of Walter Benjamin, he highlights how reading is for the German writer always a matter of interpretation. Kirsch is especially good on the multifarious ways in which a writer's Jewish identity may inflect his or her writing. The masterpiece in this mode is his essay on Susan Sontag.

If the first part of the collection examines the impact of ideas on literature, the second looks at the reverse, how literature may shape and present ideas in its own fashion. Kirsch is a very astute critic of fiction. He argues, quite convincingly to my mind, that E. M. Forster did not stop writing novels solely because he was tired of composing heterosexual romances. Forster felt the falsity of his rentier status too. In another essay, Kirsch traces sympathetically Cynthia Ozick's agon with Henry James. The essay on Bellow focuses on what Kirsch calls his "turbulence," imaged forth by the clatter of sewing machines all going at once in a garment workshop. Bellow is great because of his vitalism. There are many virtues in these essays, but the most important one, I think, is the supposition, which is also a hypothesis, that literature is an autonomous value. It cannot, finally, be explained and reduced to ideas. There is always something left over.


newspaper critics
get the best seats in the house
starling in hawthorn

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Village Voice Reading and Haiku

Joshua Mehigan curated a selection of poetry for The Village Voices. Many of the contributors read last night at the KGB Bar. John Marcus Powell read his remarkable poem about running into Quentin Crisp on the bus in New York, and another poem about another encounter. There was a woman who read some lovely odes to ordinary things, in imitation of Neruda. After the reading, Adam Kirsch signed my copy of his book Rocket and Lightship, which I had been reading avidly since Sunday.


spring evening
the pink flower has no smell
till it's crushed

Monday, May 11, 2015

Sunday, May 10, 2015


street lamps lighting up
the spring evening mist
a woman's hair in curlers

Saturday, May 09, 2015


the spring grass
has a new haircut
and an ancient smell

does grass sweat
when it is cut in the spring?
the smell says yes

Friday, May 08, 2015

STEEP TEA: Elizabeth Bishop

What to say about Elizabeth Bishop that has not already been said? What I find most valuable in Bishop is her strangeness, in poems such as "The Man-Moth," "First Death in Nova Scotia" and "Sestina." These poems are strange, it seems to me, because they retain a childlike innocence that all of us lose by growing up. Even the famous observational powers have something of childish wonder in them, as if the world is seen by a precocious child.

I wrote several poems in response to her work, but in the end only two made it into my book STEEP TEA. My poem "The Clocks" tries for Bishop's tone of astonishment. In her early poem "Paris 7 A.M.," the child-speaker makes "a trip to each clock in the apartment." It is so characteristic of her to describe her movements inside the confined space as trips. More, she has to check whether every clock in the apartment tells the same time, as if half-expecting some discrepancy, some fissure in time. This idea inspired my recall in my poem of a trip to Changi airport in Singapore, when I stood before the wall of world clocks, "all different and all right."

Her poems chart a love of travel, but also a skepticism about its value. Most potently, in "Questions of Travel," she asks, "Think of the long trip home. / Should we have stayed at home and think of here?" My poem "Kinder Feelings" is my personal reply to her question. When I first arrived in the States, I took the airport bus to Grand Central Terminal, where I would catch a train to Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville. I still remember my intense excitement standing in the middle of the grand hall, pushed here and there by the peak-hour commuter rush. I was where I longed to be, but, as Bishop knew, the moment of arrival is always backward-looking too. My poem ends with the patently naive attempt to find Singapore in the train timetables. Strangeness. Wonder is a bottomless well.

The Magical Art and Haiku

Last night WL and I attended the talk "The Magical Art of Translation: From Murakami to Japan's Latest Storytellers" at Japan Society. American translators Jay Rubin and Ted Goosen spoke about their personal encounters with Murakami. Motoyuki Shibata, the eminent translator of American literature into Japanese, gave the most interesting talk. He told the audience that Murakami wrote the earliest passage of his first novel in English, in order to try to get away from the decorum and burden of past literature. In this, he had a predecessor in a late nineteenth-century writer, who wrote the second part of his book in Russian, for the same reason. Aoko Matsuda, a young novelist, grew up with Murakami the classic at school. Satoshi Kitamura, a children's book illustrator based in London, showed slides of his very beautiful work, illustrations of poems by Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, Charles Simic, Edgar Allen Poe, amongst others. I am very glad to discover Monkey Business, the only journal featuring translations of contemporary Japanese literature in English. The journal, founded by Motoyuki Shibata and Ted Goosen, has just published its fifth annual edition.

the venerable translator
cannot explain murakami's appeal
welcomed as a check in the mail

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Sergio Ramirez

Went to the Americas Society last night to hear Sergio Ramirez, the great Nicaraguan writer, and Nick Caistor, the translator of his masterpiece Divine Punishment. The novel concerns a trial in Nicaragua in the 1930s when a man was charged with the murder of two high society women and his employer. Ramirez read the opening of his novel, about a pack of stray dogs, and the poison that people want to buy to kill them, like a lawyer, careful and emotionless. Later he revealed that he was trained to be a lawyer, although he never practiced.

Born to a merchant father and a headmistress mother, Ramirez grew up in a small town by the Pacific Coast. He was the first in the family to go to the University at Leon, to be trained for a profession. At college, he became involved in politics, quite against his will, for his mind was set on writing. He presented his first book of short stories to his father before he could present him his college degree. He joined the Sandinista movement to overthrow the Somoza dictatorship. When the revolution succeeded, he rose to become Vice President of the country for a number of years. He wrote Divine Punishment while in office, waking up at 4 am every morning to write until 9 am.  He did not regret leaving politics, for he was eager to return to full-time writing.

I did not buy a copy of the book because I hope to become proficient enough in Spanish to read it in its original language.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

STEEP TEA: Polina Barskova

Born in 1976, Polina Barskova is reckoned to be one of the best of the younger generation of Russian poets. Her work has been shortlisted for the Debut and Andrei Bely Prizes. A child prodigy, she began publishing in journals at the age of six, and released the first of her six books when she was 15. Two volumes of her poetry have been translated into English. I found a signed copy of her selected poems THE ZOO IN WINTER while browsing in St. Mark's Bookshop, and bought it on the strength of the opening poems.

In THE ZOO IN WINTER, Barskova, an associate professor of Russian literature at Hampshire College, looks to her tremendous native literary tradition. Her poems engage in a very lively manner with canonical writers such as Pushkin, Nabokov, Akhmatova and Brodsky. In the sequence "Pantheon," she riffs off the name of Pushkin by inventing poetic lookalikes such as Khlopushkin, Pliushkin and Peshkin.

Her engagement with the tradition is at the same time deeply personal. On a visit to Prague, she writes movingly in "Motherhood and Childhood" about the death of Nabokov's mother in that city. The very stark line "And they told him that in Prague his mother died" is very moving for the multiple dislocations that it conveys. It reminded me of my own mother's phone calls from Singapore, and I imagined her calling one day to tell me that she has died. (Two nights ago, she called me to say that one of my paternal uncles had died suddenly.) My poem "Singapore Buses Are Very Reliable" is all about immigrant guilt, as Nabokov and Polina would understand it.

The 79 poems in THE ZOO IN WINTER were selected by the translators Boris Dralyuk and David Stromberg to convey Barskova's range of subjects and tones. Barskova also writes classically restrained poems, and one of the finest is "Reflection." As the speaker and her lover gaze at their reflections in a piano, they enter a chasm, "And the further, the deeper, the darker the lacquer." Barskova seems to be pursuing a course into the depths while ranging high and free over the steppes. She is a very stimulating writer to read.

STEEP TEA: The Three Marias

I wrote my poem "Woodwork" in response to a poem by the Irish poet Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin. Section 18 of her long poem "The Rose-Geranium" begins:

I run my hand along the clean wood
And at once I am stroking the heads
Of everyone in the room.

The wood image immediately recalled, for me, the sessions of woodworking in secondary school. I was hopeless at turning a plank of wood into a door wedge or a pencil holder, but I did love the smell and touch of the material, which Ni Chuilleanáin's lines brought back so powerfully for me. The feel of the clean wood sends her out into the streets, on a failed quest.

I look, and fail, in the street
Searching for a man with hair like yours.

The eroticism of touch resonated strongly with me, and so I wrote a poem about handling a piece of wood and being unable to handle the boy across the worktable, who was working with such alluring mastery on his project.

Then I read A Book of Women Poets from Antiquity to Now, edited by Aliki Barnstone and Willis Barnstone, and came across the poetry of The Three Marias -- Maria Isabel Barreno (1939- ), Maria Teresa Horta (1937- ) and Maria Velho da Costa (1939- ). The three Portuguese authors in their early thirties collaborated in writing what is reckoned now to be a seminal work of Portuguese feminism, "New Portuguese Letters," which was modeled after a seventeenth-century Portuguese classic "Letters of a Portuguese Nun." The book by The Three Marias was banned on charges of obscenity and abuse of the freedom of expression. The women became a cause célèbre in the international women's movement. The charges were later dropped when the book was declared to be of literary merit.

Their poem "Saddle and Cell," translated by Helen R. Lane, uses very frank sexual language, reminiscent of Walt Whitman, but with a feminist twist. The third stanza reads:

The male is exposed and his erectness
may be like a flower
his testicles tender bulbs of life (giving milky water)
and so humble that the hand
may gather them like fruits or sever them.

Ouch! These women are fully capable of both tenderness and cruelty; they are changeable; they can choose. They are also fully alive to pain, in others, themselves and nature, as the sixth stanza shows:

I argue
that the wedge and the hollow are imprinted on everything
the tender drop of sap inscribed in the tree's rough trunk and bark
the piercing pain of losing the breast one day soon
 stamped upon its roundness.

These lines are as sensuous as the lines by Ni Chuilleanáin, but they are also couched in the form of a philosophical argument. I decided to take the extraordinary line "the wedge and the hollow are imprinted on everything" and extend it to queer desire. Gay men and their loves, and not just heterosexual pairings, are imprinted too by the wedge and the hollow. The line became the argumentative epigraph to my quiet poem of observation.

STEEP TEA: Suzan Alaiwan

I was introduced to the poetry of Suzan Alaiwan (also spelled Suzanne Alaywan) by the editors Kate Rogers and Viki Holmes in their world poetry anthology Not a Muse: The Inner Lives of Women (Haven Books, Hong Kong). "Suzan Alaiwan was born in Beirut in 1974 to a Lebanese father and an Iraqi mother. Because of the war, she spent her adolescence in Andalus, Paris, and Cairo. She graduated in 1997 from the faculty of Journalism and Media in the American University of Cairo. Now she is living in Beirut."

She writes in Arabic. Her poems in the anthology are characterized by an appealing gnomic wisdom. In "Poems," she wrote, as translated by Sayed Gouda, "When we stumble over a stone, / it guides us." The line played in my mind for quite a while. I wanted to respond to it both playfully and seriously, so I took the words "stumble," "stone" and "guides" and spun variations on them, and wrote my "Fall: Five Poems." It was first published by Pirene's Fountain as "Five Poems." You can find it on-line.

At the time, influenced by the short Japanese forms, I was writing a lot of one-line poems. I was pleased to discover that Suzan Alaiwan, who is also a painter, acknowledges the inspiration of Japanese art. She posts her art on a blog, and many of her works are accompanied by short poems. The art, faux-naïf in style, glows with candy colors. The photo of her is from her blog. She has published ten books of poems since 1994. A prolific artist!


an old man asleep
in his foldable wheelchair—
the bottom of the page

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

New FB Page for New Book

Well, I debated with myself for a while whether I should have a FB page for my new book. After all, I already have a personal page and an author page, so why inflict another page on the page-weary world? But when I published my second and third books, I did have blogs for them. If I don't have something special for this fifth child, he will be mighty jealous. If you are a parent, you know there will be hell to pay. I have woken up in the middle of the night and heard him whimpering that he is about to meet the world and I don't even have a lousy scrapbook to record his birth. Furthermore, he reminds me in his little yet-to-be-published voice, he is the FIRST book to be brought out in the UK, which makes him rather special, don't I think. And what's more, he is to be published by the renown Carcanet Press. Do I really understand what a big deal this is? This morning I received the final proof from the typesetter's, and I could see the almost fully developed lungs, and even a wisp of hair on the head. Two more months! He is expected in July. So with his tiny voice in my head, I am setting up this Facebook page to record the miracle. Indulge me. I am not a new parent but this is a new book. Expect lots of photos and messages and maybe even cries for help. Feel free to express your oohs and aahs, and extend your good wishes by writing on this page. Take him off my hands as often as you can. It takes a village etc etc. So pushy even before he arrives, what will he be like when he appears?

Libya and Haiku

Last night heard André Naffis-Sahely lecture on Alessandro Spina’s life and work at SF Vanni, the oldest Italian-language bookshop in the US. I got in touch with André after reading and enjoying the selection of his poetry in Oxford Poets 2013, published by Carcanet Press. At the lecture André read from his translation of Spina’s "The Confines of the Shadow," a cycle of historical novels charting the history of Libya from 1911 to the 1960s, which won Spina, a Syrian Maronite born in Benghazi, the Bagutta Prize. The first volume of three projected volumes will hit the bookshops in two weeks' time.


an old man asleep
in a foldable wheelchair
disappearing sun

Monday, May 04, 2015


the pale muscles
of young men
blameless in the sun


the nodding bluebells
send a sweet message--
campaign season's here

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Concert for Nuclear Disarmament

This year, 2015, is the 70th anniversary of the dropping of A-bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. My friend Jin Hirata has been involved in the movement for a "nuclear-free world" for more than 20 years. He thinks that "this year is particularly important because this could be the last year when we can directly hear the stories of Hibakusha, a-bombs survivors, whose average age is now almost 80." This year, 40 hibakushas will visit 50 high schools in NY area and share their experience as survivors of nuclear weapon attack with hundreds of students. GH and I, together with DW and D, joined Jin at last night's concert for nuclear disarmament, "With Love to Hiroshima and Nagasaki," at the New York Society for Ethical Culture.

The concert began with a slideshow by Robert Croonquist chronicling the last seven years of the school visits program. Anne Klaeysen and Clifton Truman Daniel, the grandson of Harry Truman, the President who ordered the bombing, gave the welcome. Animation shorts by Amber Cooper-Davis punctuated the six movements of the concert.

1. Gratitude - Joanna Macy and Jean Rohr spoke.

2. The Manhattan Project - A slideshow displayed the various places around Manhattan in which the Project took shape. The Oppenheimers' apartment on Riverside Drive hosted secret meetings, etc. Most interesting to me is a "hibakusha" statue of a Buddhist priest now standing on Riverside Drive. Anne Waldman read a collage of poems (including Ginsberg), accompanied by Yasuaki Yamashita's saxophone.

3. The Moment - Shigeko Sasamori, a hibakusha, spoke. Paul D Miller aka DJ Spooky performed an excerpt from Miller's Peace Symphony, together with Sugar Vendil (piano) and Kivie Cahn (cello) of the Nouveau Classical Project. The symphonic excerpt was very interesting.

4. The Bomb Today - Setsuko Thurlow, a hibakusha, spoke. Masaaki Tanokura played on the Jogaquin Hibaku Violin, which survived the Russian Revolution, was damaged by the Bomb, and then restored. He was accompanied very ably by Tomoko Sawada. The musical work was very sentimental, however.

5. The Power and the Waste - Clifton T. Daniel (woodwind) and Sam Sadigursky (violin) displayed superb musicianship in playing together.

6. The Journey Towards Nuclear Guardianship - Joanna Macy spoke about going beyond banning nuclear weapons to stopping the mining of uranium and taking care of the waste products already created. and Tomihisa Taue, a hibakusha, showed a long piece of yellow cloth on which are written all the names of her dead schoolmates who were in the city center of Nagasaki when the bomb dropped. Then the Hibakusha Himawari (Sunflower) Choir, which flew from Nagasaki, sang two songs in Japanese. They were then joined by the vocal students from LaGuardia Arts High School to sing the Anthem for Nuclear Disarmament, composed by Jean Rohe. I thought the Anthem met creatively the challenge of composing for singers singing in two dffeerent languages.

Epilogue - PIKADON Project: live art projections on the Central Park Wall of the New York Society for Ethical Culture, created with the participation of New York City high school students.

Saturday, May 02, 2015


now i’ve seen gion—
five eastern redbuds blossoming
behind knee-high fence

Friday, May 01, 2015

Kathleen Ossip's "The Do-Over"

This book of poems is dedicated to the poet's late stepmother-in-law. The best poems in it uses the dead woman's name as the basis for a triplet of acrostic poems. Appearing in the beginning, middle and end of the book respectively, "A. in May," "A. in January" and "A. in September" create a cycle of remembrance that goes with seasonal changes. As if to evade the fixity of the acrostic pattern, the poems are full of surprising shifts and effective repetitions, the latter showing the acknowledged influence of Gertrude Stein. The poems also offer haunting images. I will remember the dropped cherry pits in the first poem. The other acrostic poems, also dedicated to the dead--Amy Winehouse, Steve Jobs, Troy Davis, Lucian Freud and Donna Summer--just do not have the heft of shared lives. The more experimental poems in the collection do not strike me as entirely successful. There is a long story called "After," about a driven and manipulative colleague in a publishing company, that is interesting for its characterizations, but hardly intense enough to be a prose poem. The otherworldly sub-plot, which is supposed to convey the narrator's desire for transcendence, is actually less interesting than the office politicking. I do like very much the last poem of the book, "Oh, wow, mausoleums." The prose paragraphs are borne along by the syncopation of verse. How can anyone alive gainsay the wonderful line "There's no fooling the sweet dumb pulse."


winter trees
fossils from the ocean bed
lifted to the light