Saturday, March 25, 2017

Being 17

"Being 17" ("Quand on a 17 ans") (2016) is a study of two very different families, whose 17-year-old boys discover, in a stumbling and aggressive fashion, their love for one another. Directed by André Téchiné, the film is beautifully shot, alternating between the snowy mountains of Thoma's farm and the rooms of Damien's suburban house. Sandrine Kiberlain is wonderful as Damien's doctor mother, Marianne. Kacey Mottet Klein (Damien) and Corentin Fila (Thomas) both put in persuasive performances.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Viet Thanh Nguyen's "The Refugees"

SW lent me this collection of short stories before we heard Nguyen read at 92Y last Thursday. I had read his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Sympathizer and admired it very much. At the Y, Nguyen read an excerpt from his novel, an opinion piece on refugees, and the beginning of the first story from The Refugees. The juxtaposition of fiction and non-fiction was canny, prompting persistent questions about genre from the moderator Alexander Chee afterwards. It was also canny in a more commercial sense: a good way of enticing the audience to buy both of his books.

The first story "Black-Eyed Women" blew me away. It was a complexly layered narrative about ghosts and ghostwriting, a powerful meditation on what the living tries to forget in order to go on living. One of the two epigraphs for the book is a quotation from James Fenton's "A German Requiem":

It is not your memories which haunt you.
It is not what you have written down.
It is what you have forgotten, what you must forget.
What you must go on forgetting all your life.

The second story "The Other Man" about the coming to consciousness of his sexuality of a gay Vietnamese refugee offers interesting portraits of gay expatriate couple (one from Hong Kong, the other from England) but lacks drive in its plot. The next three stories "War Years" (the Vietnamese living on the West Coast rally support for the overthrow of the Communists back home), "The Transplant" (a man receives a liver transplant from a dead Vietnamese), "I'd Love You to Want Me" (an elderly Vietnamese man grows senile and calls his wife by another name) may lack the power of the first story but are very poignant in their effect. The next three stories are less strong but only by comparison with the strength of the earlier stories. They highlight the heroic stature of flawed fathers who had not only survived the flight from Vietnam but brought their family with them, as the earlier stories highlighted the heroism of obdurate mothers. Together the stories in this collection offer piercing insights into the condition of having been a refugee.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Contemporary Art and Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin's library card


With Y, I saw the show "The Arcades: Contemporary Art and Walter Benjamin" at the Jewish Museum today. A few of the contemporary works were well worth seeing, but the show as a whole was disappointing. Benjamin's unfinished project The Arcades assembled a miscellany of quotations and commentaries based on a principle and a purpose. The principle was represented by these iron and glass vaulted shopping malls in Paris, the cultural capital of the nineteenth century. The purpose was to mount a critique of capitalism through an examination of the materiality of experience. Both gave Benjamin's project its coherence and interest. The principle of the museum show was Benjamin's text. Its purpose was to put up a museum show. As such, the selection of contemporary art works, from various times, places, and artistic practices, failed to illuminate any particular time, place, or practice. Worse, they failed to illuminate Benjamin's text, using it merely as a convenient way of organizing a show. The wall signs included Kenneth Goldsmith's annotations of the artworks with appropriated texts that purportedly extended Benjamin's reflections on Paris to New York, the capital of the twentieth century. As the TLS reviewer of Goldsmith's book remarked, the poet's collage speaks ultimately about ... the poet. There is a whole chapter devoted to Robert Mapplethorpe, Goldsmith's archetypal avant gardist artist. Such self-regard, in Goldsmith's work and in the museum show, restricts the potency of Benjamin's work and of art and poetry in general. Still, I'm very glad to have seen, among other works, Andrea Bowers' "The Triumph of Labor" (2016), a work of marker on cardboard reproducing a woodcut that celebrated Labor Day. It gives to labor the dignity and beauty of an arras. The Pierre Charaeu show on the ground floor was beautifully and tastefully designed by Diller Scofidio and Renfro.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Am I a Chinese poet?

"Growing up in Singapore, I was teased by Chinese schoolmates for being a banana, yellow on the outside, white on the inside. They were mocking my love for the English language and my apathy towards Mandarin Chinese. At home my family spoke a mixture of English and Cantonese. Mandarin was for me a school language. The schoolyard teasing turned me off from learning it properly. Now, as if in belated protest against those ancient taunts, I’d like to think of myself as a Chinese writer who writes in English, if only to expand the notion of what a Chinese writer is." Read the interview. Thanks, Jennifer Wong, for interviewing me, and Peter LaBerge, for publishing the interview.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Ode to Billy Joel

This 1976 film attempts to provide the answers to the questions raised in the haunting 1967 Bobbie Gentry song of the same title. Why did Billy Joel McAllister kill himself by jumping off the Tallahachee Bridge? Set in the Mississippi Delta, in a time before the boondocks had seen television and indoor plumbing, the film apparently shows how eighteen-year-old Billy Joel persists in his courtship of beautiful sixteen-year-old Bobbie Lee, forbidden by her father to receive gentleman-callers. The end turns suddenly tragic when at the county fair, instead of helping himself to the hired whores, a drunk Billy Joel gives in to his desires and has sex with a man. Robby Benson is terrific as Billy Joel, as is Glynnis O'Connor as Bobbie Lee Hartley. They carry the film on their slim young shoulders, helped by a very watchable supporting cast. Directed by Max Baer, Jr..

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Complication as a Form of Explication

My proposal has been accepted! I will be speaking about my hybrid creative and critical work-in-progress "Does grass sweat" at Oxford University, Rothermere American Institute, on May 19, for the symposium "Special Relationships: Poetry Across the Atlantic Since 2000." Abstract below. I've read parts of the work at Rutgers at the invitation of Patrick Rosal. So excited to read more of it at Oxford! Thanks for publishing parts of it, H.L. Hix, Bryan Borland, Vivek Narayanan, Eric Thomas Norris, Cindy Arrieu-King, Ryan Wilson, Bry Hos, Cy Rai, Haikuist Network, Rattle, Gulf Coast, Hayden's Ferry, Dusie, Almost Island, Queer Southeast Asia, From Walden to Woodlands, Alba, Assaracus, Literary Matters, Kin, Ten Thirty, The Capilano Review.

Abstract: Complication as a Form of Explication 
by Jee Leong Koh

My work-in-progress "Does grass sweat: translations of an insignificant Japanese poet" deploys the tropes of literary translation and critical commentary to question the boundaries of nation, culture, language, race, and sexuality. Ostensibly written in Japanese by an unknown poet and translated into English by a queer Singaporean writer, student of British poetry, and permanent resident of the USA, the cycle of haiku represents New York City’s Central Park as an expatriate’s daily walk to work. 50 years after its acclaimed publication, in a New York utterly changed by radical conservatism, a queer American of Japanese, Jewish, and German heritage sets forth his own commentary on the haiku “as a way of preserving the park as a public commons, if not in actuality, then in the imagination,” as he puts it. The commentary historicizes the supposedly timeless poems while personalizing them in a highly idiosyncratic manner by referring to a diverse American poetic tradition. By practicing explication as a form of complication, I wish to give voice to the many folds of poetic identity and to the varied contingencies of poetic influence. If my proposal is accepted, I will read the Translator’s Note by Jee Leong Koh and the Commentator’s Preface by Sam Fujimoto-Mayer, before presenting some haiku and their accompanying commentaries.