Showing posts from May, 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


spring moon
in the darkening

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 ge…


a soap bubble
splits the sun
by the black walnut


the time of day
between day and night
a bird swallowing a worm


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

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. Y…

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 sis…

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


the unlit candelabra
of the swiss stone pine--
long white gloves

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…


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 tru…

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;

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 & Rea…

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."…

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 t…


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

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 s…

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 con…

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


under the hot sun
and a duo of sporting mallets
bamboo pipes gurgle


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


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

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…

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 Bus…

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 overthro…

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 persona…

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 Al…

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…


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

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, a…

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


the pale muscles
of young men
blameless in the sun


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

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 …


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

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 …


winter trees
fossils from the ocean bed
lifted to the light