Sunday, January 31, 2016

Speaking for Itself

I do not recognize my book in this review in the QLRS.


TLS January 8 2016

from Karen Thomson's Stephanie W. Jamison and Joel P. Brereton's The Rig Veda: The earliest religious poetry of India, and Roberto Calasso's Ardor, translated by Richard Dixon:

As Rudolph Roth wrote over a century ago, "A translation must speak for itself. As a rule, it only requires a commentary where it is not directly convincing, and where the translator does not feel secure".


from Norma Clarke's review of Stephen Bernard's The Literary Correspondences of the Tonsons:

It was Tonson who began the pleasant practice of giving dinners to his authors when contracts were signed. He enjoyed the feasting and at the same time created a sense of obligation in his poets. Pope said he used flattery and food strategically: "Jacob creates poets, as kings sometimes do knights, not for their honour but for their money". Was he "genial Jacob" or avaricious? He was known for his gift-giving and also for his money-making. Dryden thanks him for two melons in the first line of his first letter here; others were treated to cider, wine, books.


TLS January 15 2016

Henri Astier's review of Pierre Boncenne's Le Parapluie de Simon Leys and Simon Leys' Quand Vous Viendrez Me Voir Aux Antipodes: Lettres a Pierre Boncenne and The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays:

As Lu Xun, Leys's favourite modern Chinese author, wrote: "If there are still men who really want to live in this world, they should dare to speak out, to laugh, to cry, to be angry, to accuse, to fight - that they may at least cleanse this accursed place of its accursed atmosphere!" 

A related theme often stressed by Leys is that of "Belgianness", the idea that coming from a small nation was the best safeguard against pomposity. Those born in a great country tend to think that its tradition encompasses the whole of human experience, and do not feel the need to look elsewhere. It is they, paradoxically, who are most at risk from provincialism. In an article on the "Belgianness of Henri Michaux," he noted that as a young man, the Walloon poet dared to mock both his native land and those countries he visited - an attitude typical of an outsider who does not take anything too seriously. But after moving to Paris, Michaux lost his levity: he was at the centre of the civilized world and could not question the prevailing orthodoxy. Leys, by contrast, continued to live on the periphery, and from Australia was able to hold on to his humble Belgianness. He regarded humour as an essential quality, and one that in no way precluded seriousness of purpose. Leys was fond of quoting G. K. Chesterton on the subject: "My critics think that I am not serious, but only funny, because they think that 'funny' is the opposite of 'serious'. But 'funny' is the opposite of 'not funny' and nothing else".

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Haiku and Singapore's Lies

So much snow
written off
by January


Lies, half-truths, excuses. At the UN's Universal Periodic Review, Chan Heng Chee defends discrimination against LGBTI people on behalf of the Singapore government: "... we treasure every Singaporean. LGBTI persons are part of our society. And we acknowledge their contributions, like we do for all our citizens. Let me say that Singapore is basically a conservative society. We have to manage such issues sensitively and in a pragmatic way without fracturing our society. Even in developed countries with more liberal societies, LGBT rights remain a divisive issue. We inherited the law on sodomy, Section 337A of the Penal Code from Britain, through the Indian Penal Code and the Straits Settlement Penal Code during our colonial history, but our position today is not to proactively enforce Section 377A. On October 2, 2007, there was a long and intense debate in Parliament on repealing 377A. Parliament eventually decided to retain the status quo. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made the following points. One, that Singapore is a conservative society. Two, it is better to accept the legal untidiness and ambiguity of leaving 377A as it is and not proactively enforce it. And three, it would not be wise to force the issue, to settle the matter one way or the other. In fact, LGBTI persons are free to lead their lives in Singapore. The Civil Service does not discriminate against LGBTI applicants. They hold an annual LGBT rights rally called Pink Dot, which was attended by more than 28 000 people last year, as reported in our national media. They are free to write and stage plays about LGBTI issues. And there are bars that are frequented by LGBTI persons. Our approach is to live and let live, and to preserve the common space for all communities in Singapore. We firmly oppose discrimination and harassment, and we have laws to protect our citizens from such acts. Our view is that our society should evolve gradually. Our population has to decide collectively, rather than the government decides one way or the other."

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Simon Critchley on David Bowie

"The technical proficiency of what he did with his voice, given his vocal range (he didn’t think his voice was good enough, back in the day), is often overlooked, the amount of time he spent in the studio just trying to get the right effect. Robert Fripp shares this story about watching Bowie in the studio, trying for hours to get his voice to match the emotion in the music. That’s complete artifice, complete inauthenticity, and yet he’s able to hit those feelings in a way no one else could. And what you feel when you hear that is something simply strong, powerfully true." The interview.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Nothing Outside But Everywhere

TLS December 18 & 25 2015

from Steven Nadler's review of Jon Miller's Spinoza and the Stoics:

Both Spinoza and the Stoics identified God with Nature and believed it to be the unique, immanent casual source of all things. Spinoza, however, rejects the Stoic idea that this "divine" power acts teleologically, and especially that it does what it does for the benefit of human beings. While the Stoics would agree with Spinoza that there is nothing outside of God or Nature that serves as a goal for its actions, Spinoza goes further and makes it absolutely clear that God (or Nature) does not act to achieve any ends or purposes whatsoever. 
With respect to moral psychology, Miller examines the striving for self-preservation that both the Stoics and Spinoza identify as the nature of any individual. He shows that, in fact, the ancient thinkers had the more complex view of this fundamental tendency, whereby it develops into an elevated pursuit of rationality and also leaves room for altruistically motivated actions; for Spinoza, on the other hand, actions are egotistically (or hedonistically) motivated. and the striving for self-preservation remains paramount throughout an individual's lifetime. 
Miller shows how both the Stoics and Spinoza are committed to the view that eudaimonia (variously translated as happiness, flourishing and living well, and consisting in the perfection of one's rational condition) is the summum bonum for human beings, even if there are differences regarding what such flourishing consists in.


TLS January 1 2016

from Carol Tavris's review of Laurence Scott's The Four-Dimensional Human: Ways of being in the digital world:

""It's astonishing to think how in the last twenty years the limits and coherence of our bodies have been so radically redefined", he observes. "We have an everywhereness to us now that inevitably alters our relationship to those stalwart human aspects of self-containment, remoteness and isolation. ... But "everywhereness" takes a toll, "for it can make life feel both oppressively crowded and, when its promise is wasted, uniquely solitary"." 
""It has become part of the rhythms of almost every waking hour to look for a word or a sign from elsewhere". Because "everywhereness" demands a blurring of here and there, it "can produce a sense of absenteeism, and the suspicion that, despite being in many places at once, we're not fully inhabiting any of them"."

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Inspired Word

On Thursday night, I read from Steep Tea for The Inspired Word at Parkside Lounge, NYC. Thanks, Michael Geffner, for asking me to read and for taking these wonderful photos!

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Site Responsive

On Sunday, I trotted along to Marc Straus Gallery for the opening reception for Jong Oh's show. The Korean artist creates sculptures that plays off the space and light of a site. "Tenuous strings and shards of Plexiglas are pulled into form by small stones or metal pendulums tied almost invisibly to the 21-foot high ceiling," as the gallery website puts it. The sculptures were mostly boxy, either backed by a wall or hanging freely in space. Most impressive was the last work. Two rectangles made of string are suspended one on top of the other. Due to their subtly shaded coloration, they looked like pieces of glass. Walking under them gave me a terrifically uneasy feeling. The show was curated by gallery director Ken Tan.


On Monday, GH and I went to the Asia Society to hear architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien speak about their building of Asia Society Hong Kong. They transformed the Former Explosives Magazine Compound into a gleaming modern center for arts and culture. To avoid endangering the fruit bats native to the site, they angled their link-bridge into the shape of an elbow. The discussion was moderated by Alice Mong, the Executive Director of Asia Society Hong Kong. Asked about their complementarity as creators, Billie characterized Tod as restless and impatient of constraints whereas she was for the stillness and shelter within walls. The new Vice-President of Arts and Cultural Programming at NYC"s Asia Society, Tan Boon Hui, introduced the speakers with panache and concision. The hall on the eighth floor sat about 100 people. It was filled and additional chairs were added to the back. The event was webcast live.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

ARB Reviews Steep Tea

"Steep Tea by Jee Leong Koh, a Singapore-born, New York-based poet, is a wonderfully rich and lyrical narrative on self-identity, diaspora and love. As the title fittingly suggests, the poems articulate the embrace of otherness and changes while traversing different cultures. Koh’s lyricism reveals influences from modern poets such as Elizabeth Bishop, Mary Oliver and Eavan Boland and Singaporean poet Lee Tzu Pheng; his poetry is full of music, originality and imagination...."

- Jennifer Wong in Asian Review of Books

Saturday, January 09, 2016

Friday, January 08, 2016

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

The Tombs of Ravenna

PN Review 42:2 November - December 2015

From Yves Bonnefoy's essay "The Tombs of Ravenna," translated by John Naughton:

If nothing is less real than the concept, nothing is more real than this alliance between form and stone, between the exemplary and a body: nothing is more real than the Idea that is risked
Ornamentation belongs to that category of beings that joins together in its profound purity the universal and the particular. It is the Idea made presence, and in the joy it awakens in us, I tasted the savor of a true eternity. 
The universal is not a law that is everywhere the same and so never worth anything anywhere. The universal has its locale. In every place, the universal exists in the way it is looked at, in the way it is used.  
Poetry and journey are of the same substance, the same blood - I am repeating what Baudelaire has said - and of all the actions that are available to man, these are perhaps the only useful ones, the only ones that have a goal
I will say by allegory: it is this piece of the somber tree, this torn leaf of ivy. The entire leaf, constructing its immutable essence with all its veins, would already be the concept. But this torn leaf, green and black, dirty, this leaf that shows in its wound all the depth of what is, this infinite leaf is pure presence, and hence my salvation. Who could tear from me the fact that it was mine, and in a contact, beyond destinies and sites, that binds me to the absolute? Moreover, who could destroy it, since it has already been destroyed? I hold it in my hand, I hold it tight as I would have loved to hold Ravenna, I hear its tireless voice. - What is presence? It seduces like a work of art; it is rudimentary like the wind or the earth. It is black like the abyss and yet it reassures. It seems a fragment of space among others, but it calls to us and contains us. And it is a moment that will be lost a thousand times, but it has the glory of a god. It resembles death... 
Whoever seeks to make his way through sensory space reconnects with a sacred water that runs through each thing. At the slightest contact with it, one feels immortal. 

Haiku and Yield to the Willow

Morning runners
at the finishing line—
a gull wheels away


Don Wentworth's Yield to the Willow is a collection of very short poems, most of which are haiku, but not all. It's an enjoyable read but nothing earthshaking. He can be very concise, achieving insight and pathos through wordplay:

Sutra Blues

the haunted man
needs no house

A small household incident can turn into a question of ontology:

freeing centipede
trapped in the tub
I step inside

His observational powers can be matched by a delicacy in form:

bits of grit & oh oil in the ash

But too many pieces read like throwaways, and were probably written the same way:

in memory
in the moment,

or they are overly didactic, which even Zen-inspired verse can be:

hole in the center
of the snowflake
another koan

What compounds Wentworth's challenge is that he has chosen to begin each chapter with a quotation from a poetry or Zen master, and these quotations are hard to beat:

Butterfly, these words
From my brush are not flowers
only their shadows

-Soseki, translated by Harry Behn

Haiku is like a finger pointing at the moon. Once you've seen it, you no longer need the finger.

-Variation of an aphorism by Sixth Zen Patriarch, Hui-Neng

Poetry never forgets the all even when it is dealing with exclusively one thing.

-R. H. Blythe

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Saturday, January 02, 2016

Haiku and Noon at Five O'Clock

Brown leaves penned
in a field of winds
who will open the book?


Noon at Five O'Clock: The Collected Short Stories of Arthur Yap: This slim volume of 8 stories is significant mainly because it collects the prose fiction of a major Singaporean poet. Too much can be made of the resemblance of these spare, almost plotless stories to his minimalist poetry. The best story here is the first, "Noon at Five O'Clock," written when Yap was nineteen years old, an undergraduate at NUS. The style is spare too, but here the spareness is entirely fitted to the situation of a young boy's accidental discovery of a secret courtyard. A small moment is inscribed in plain yet highly conscious prose. The style is less convincing in the other stories in the collection. It feels rather more like a writer's handicap than like a precisely chosen instrument. When the later stories become longer, they turn to satire, dream, and formal pastiche. Nowhere do they give the hidden depths of a lightning-quick characterization. In a very interesting critical essay included in the volume, Shirley Geok-Lin Lim posits that Yap's preference for extreme privacy and reticence hinders the expression of the public privacies required in a short story. She may very well be right. A great poet may not make a great storyteller. Still, I'm grateful to Angus Whitehead for editing this collection. It adds to one's understanding of Arthur Yap's artistic powers and their limitations.

Friday, January 01, 2016

Yeo Wei Wei's "These Foolish Things"

Yeo Wei Wei sees the broken and hurting lives of her characters with a kind of dispassionate compassion. A wife finds her way home from mass devastation. An old woman in a home for the elderly. A blind painter. A female Math teacher abandoned by a younger lover. The subjects are ripe for sentimental depiction, but Yeo does not hurry to sympathize. Instead, with patience and care, she slowly delineates the details of their lives and the flush of their thoughts. The only exception, perhaps, is the story "The National Bird of Singapore," in which good and evil are too simply demarcated.

In other stories, the details become, as they should in a work of art, subtly suggestive, even symbolic. The yellow umbrella in the title story "These Foolish Things." The ivory carving of three apples in "Branch." The blue lamp and the blue flowers of the bunga telang outside an artist's house in "The Art of Being Naked." Not only are the stories are threaded with beautiful symbols, but they are also narrated with a soundtrack in the background. Mdm Goh in her lonely seniority used to listen to Teresa Teng in "Here Comes the Sun," the title itself coming from a Beatles song. In "Chin Chin" there is recorded birdsong in the airport bathroom. If we give ourselves to these visual and musical details, they open portals in the stories. It is no coincidence that the stories feature many doors, windows, and balconies, belonging most often to condos and bungalows. The Singapore that appears in this book is not the bustling HDB heartland, but the decaying propertied class.

The stories also give entry into the characters' minds. Settling there, we discover how their consciousness is richly burdened by memories and desires. The light-footed surrealism in some of these stories activates these memories and desires into action, blurring the line between past and present, even between person and person. The surrealism in "Beauty in the Eye" is humorous, as the protagonist discovers that he is a character in a story being written by his date. Darker in "Here Comes the Sun," the surrealism of talking animals prepares us for Mdm Goh's passing. Wrenching in "These Foolish things," the unreal haunts the story in the form of a ghost. In one instance, the device fails to carry the story, as in "The Beholder" when fruits, the supposed objects for painting, heckle the artist. The device is too cutesy. It is extraordinarily powerful, however, in the best story of the collection "Chin Chin," when it turns uncanny. How it plays out is too good to give away.