Sunday, December 26, 2010

Catullus 101

Multas per gentes et multa per aequora vectus
advenio has miseras, frater, ad inferias,
ut te postremo donarem munere mortis
et mutam nequiquam alloquerer cinerem.
Quandoquidem fortuna mihi tete abstulit ipsum.
Heu miser indigne frater adempte mihi,
nunc tamen interea haec, prisco quae more parentum
tradita sunt tristi munere ad inferias,
accipe fraterno multum manantia fletu,
atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale.

- Catullus

Crossing many nations and many seas
I arrive bereft, brother, at your grave's edge
To formally repay the last of death's duties
And question, in vain, the mute dust.
Now that fortune has torn you away from me -
Oh pitiful brother snatched too soon from me -
What else now but to perform these ancient customs
Handed down from dead to living, rites of distress,
Offerings you must accept, soaked in a brother's tears
And so forever, brother, hail and farewell.

[The translation is mine, though it draws heavily on the notes in Anne Carson's Nox (I don't read Latin) and is probably best thought of as a variation on the original rather than an accurate rendition. You can find a more accurate translation here.]


Not an event but an unfolding. Not a death but a life.

The accordions of grief swell and subside. Music, like breath, does not come easily. Mourning is memory turning in on itself. Turning its back on History.

Faces remembered in the turning away.

Fragments of old injuries combine to make an ache. You seek the current beneath the surface, the blue beneath the bruise. The blush of first blood, reconstructed, re-construed.

Repent means "the pain again".

These are the rites by which we translate thoughts to language, the dead to the lost. Poems, like funerals, customary but incomplete, render meanings from absence, end in surrender.

The elegy like a tree growing in a graveyard, uncertain of where to point. Bare lines containing nothing. Buried roots.

The truth about feelings. Feelings about the truth.

[after reading Anne Carson's latest, from which the line in italics is taken]

Saturday, December 25, 2010

People Play

The childhood we want to return to is not the same as the childhood we are trying to escape from.

That is the meaning of all our games.

This miserable man longs for a company of actors, an epic tragedy, something that will lend weight to the lightness of his disquiet.

The light of these words to explain the nameless shadows. Even if it means distorting their shapes.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Music

If you live in North America, you've spent the last month or more being bombarded by kitschy muzak in the name of Christmas . So now that the night has finally arrived, I figured the best way to celebrate would be with real music: the coming together of one greatest songwriter of all time with one of the last century's most glorious voices:

Merry Christmas, Everyone.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

On the Road

I walk away from the processions of others
Seeking the abandoned places where it all began
Like a man who stands outside his lover's house
Trying to recall that first feeling.

- Hu Ming-Xiang

Friday, December 17, 2010

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Wanderer: Twilight

I travel from horizon to horizon
Seeking a sky that will accept my night.
But the sun refuses me wherever I go
And the songs of the orioles mock me.

- Hu Ming-Xiang

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Slapstick Eden

What if the first fruit was a banana, and Eve left the peel lying around?

And what if God, walking by, slipped on the peel and fell, and being unable to admit that the fall was anything but deliberate, has been forced to act like a clown ever since?

Friday, November 26, 2010

Thanksgiving 2010

And this above all
I've come to be thankful for
The ungrateful world.

Battlefield Song

Who comes to the battlefield to hear the bones singing?
Tomorrow the birds bear these songs to our wives.
Long are the roads that we left at their doorsteps
And faded the horizons, like our goodbyes.

- Hu Ming-Xiang

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


The seed you planted has refused to sprout. All you have to show for two years of labor is a blank piece of earth, a fertile absence, the ground, diligently watered, turning to mud.

Desperate to know where it all went wrong, you bring a trowel, start to delve. You dig and dig, but all you find is pebbles. Was that the cause? Did you plant stones and dream of growing mountains?

You sow matches in the wind, wait for the sun to come up.

You run frantic with grief. You are in such a hurry to get away you forget to wash your hands.

Twenty years later, in a foreign country, you open your wrinkled palms to the rain, and the smell of home blossoms under your nose.

Monday, November 22, 2010


The juggler is in the marketplace, calling for the knives of murderers, knives that have been used to kill.

One by one they approach him, running quickly out of the shadows and retreating before they can be recognized. Grizzled old men whose hands have lost their blood lust, shy children too innocent to know what they offer, abandoned wives reluctant to let go of that last keepsake, however tainted its past. And who's to say one of these shadowy figures is not in fact a shade, the knife like a flower plucked straight out of its wound?

And the knives! Straight and curved, long and slight, a Babel of blades proving murder multilingual, there being as many ways to kill a man as there are races or creeds. Yet look how easily each knife he receives is added to the act, the steel flashing as it is tossed into the air, taking its place among its brethren in a circuit that grows ever higher, ever more elaborate, until it is difficult to believe that all this is the work of two lone hands.

Then you realize it isn't. At some point the juggler must have passed a knife to another, because they are going back and forth through the crowd now, the blades flickering in the air above you like so many metal dolphins leaping out of the sea. And you are amazed at how many accomplices the juggler has, until you notice that you too are a part of it, and you watch entranced as your fingers reach up and pluck a naked blade out of the air, only to throw it back a second later, catch and release, catch and release, and you feel exhilarated because you are no juggler, because you never dreamed you had this in you, and because you are proud to be part of this, whatever this is, the provenance of the knives already forgotten, mere arcs of steel connecting person to person, hand to hand.

What happens when the show is over? Will he be able to catch them all?

Last Rites

The crop in the field is burnt.
The cricket sings under my bed.
I have filled the buckets with water
And wait for the moon to come.

- Hu Ming-Xiang

Friday, November 19, 2010


Not who we dance with, but what we dance around.

Not closeness, but distance made aware of itself. The heartbeat in the next room, eyes meeting in the crowd.

Turn it inside out and every emptiness is an ache. Angles of expectation add up to desire.

We must return to the old savageries. You bring the broken dances, my love. I'll bring the fire.


Just returned from watching a performance by the Zenon Dance Company, the highlight of which was the premiere of luciana achugar's glorious Structures of Feeling, but which also included a mesmerizing performance of a 1992 piece by Susana Tambutti called Like An Octopus - a sort of deconstruction of the tango that is also the inspiration for this post.

Thursday, November 18, 2010


There is a man with a bag full of ashes. There is a man with a bag full of crumbs.

There is a third man with a pocketful of seeds.

There is a bird that could be either a dove or a pigeon, but which believes it is a phoenix and opens its wings to the dawn light.

There is a tree going over its branches, reviewing the blueprint of its choices to see where the sky went wrong.

There is a sliver of ice on your doorstep instead of a newspaper. The war has hardened and shows no sign of melting.

There is a siren instead of a song.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

An Offering

The sun has traveled a long distance
To lay its bones upon this grave.
I too have nothing but my embrace
To offer the indifferent earth.

- Hu Ming-Xiang

Friday, November 12, 2010

The difference between Blogger and Facebook

is that Blogger is based on the assumption that if what you do or say is interesting, people will like you; and Facebook is based on the assumption that if people like you they will find what you do or say interesting.


Reading Zadie Smith's piece on Facebook in the NYRB (on which I may have more to say later), I'm struck again by how much more brilliant Smith is as an essayist than as a novelist.

And I say this as someone who quite enjoys her novels.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


To build a house lay one stone on another.
To make a road just lay them side by side.
For some shall live together as lovers
While others must walk away as friends.

- Hu Ming-Xiang

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

The stupid gardener

plants too many seeds.

No one really needs
a thousand flowers

no matter how sincere
their devotion to the sun;

haphazard as explosions
that do no damage

they are acts of pure sentiment
or failed attempts at speech,

predictable products of their season
and species

that a more discerning hand
would swiftly prune.

It takes a special kind
of stubbornness

to let them all bloom,
to bask content

in these riches
of embarrassment,

each awkward bud granted
its broken ground,

its mouth of air.

A special kind of madness to plant
flowers everywhere,

knowing that one or two
are all that will bear

fruit, all that will last;
to know the futility of the task,

and care enough
not to care.

R.I.P. P. Lal

Friday, October 08, 2010

Day Break

The stars are fading, the shadows almost broken
The window is pale with a distant light.
Disarmed by beauty, I make the moon my shield
Seeking reflections in the twice-touched water.

- Hu Ming-Xiang

Monday, October 04, 2010


[with thanks to km, who recommended this]

The first thing you hear when you enter Heaven is Ode to Joy. Note after triumphant note, the music announces the final victory of brotherhood, the end of all despair. Beethoven himself, his hearing restored, stands on the dais, conducting an orchestra of angels dressed in dazzling white. Your heart soars. You march towards the ivory gate holding your head straight and your shoulders high, proud to be part of this immortal company, to have joined, through long hardship, the ranks of the blessed.

It is only when you get closer that you notice the circles under the composer's eyes. He looks haunted, worn. He motions desultorily with his baton, secure in the knowledge that the angels will play the piece perfectly even if he directs them wrong.

And you begin to imagine what it must be like for him: the greatest composer in history, the man who changed music forever, author of masterpiece after masterpiece, each angrier and more sublime than the last; and to be rewarded for that lifetime of furious perfection with this job as a glorified organ-monkey, conducting the same piece over and over, on endless repeat.


The first thing you hear when you enter Hell is Mozart's Dies Irae. And there he is himself, long hair flying, feet strutting like a rock-star's, smile leery with mischief, Wolfgang Amadeus and his orchestra of demons, volcanoes blazing behind him, winged monsters screeching through the air.

The music like a hammer-blow of judgment, beating you down.

Only there is something different about this piece. It sounds not wrong exactly, but a little strange. Is that a phrase from Don Giovanni? And surely that drumming comes from Sabbath? You look again at the orchestra and realize the players are sweating, struggling to keep up. Mozart is wrong-footing them, twisting the music in mid-air, whimsically changing the score on the sheets even as they are playing it. And it begins to dawn on you that this is not the Dies Irae you listened to on Earth. This is something altogether more unexpected, altogether more treacherous. In the centuries that he has been here, Mozart has subjected his score to a thousand variations, twisted and turned it a million different ways. What remains is an organic labyrinth of music, an endless architecture of harmonies only his agile mind can find its way through.

The music stops. Mozart's face lights up with an impish grin. His eye gleams. He waits just long enough for the orchestra to get their tired breath back, then launches into a furious new allegro. The music is loud, almost overwhelming, but as you pass by the dais you can faintly hear the sound of the maestro humming to himself.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Yes, it's all just an act

That's what you want to hear, isn't it?

What else do I have to say before you'll pretend to believe me?

What confessions do I have to make to consider myself forgiven?

Journey's end in lover's meeting

Do not imagine that the river has slept
though it blink in its bed in the morning light.
Don't think your absence has gone unnoticed
though we meet as friends who were never apart.

- Hu Ming-Xiang

Saturday, September 18, 2010

In that case, what's the question?

If you have to ask
let's pretend there's a Question
we both answer to.


Final prophecy:
a man staring into the
bottom of his glass.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Serenity lost

Like a child chasing a firefly
too deep into the forest
I turn, imagining a glimpse of you,
and find myself lost.

- Hu Ming-Xiang

Sunday, September 12, 2010


"What if there's no God?"


"What if there's no God?"

"What made you think of that now?"

"I didn't."

"But you just said..."

"I mean I didn't think of it just now. It's something I've often thought about."


"Off and on."

"And you were thinking about it again?"


"Here? Now?"

"Sure. Don't you ever just lie in bed and daydream?"

"Not about God."

"What do you daydream about then?"

"I don't know. Parties. Vacations. Winning the lottery."

"Well, think of it as a vacation from God."

"Or like unwinning the lottery."


"And that's really what you want to talk about?"


"I need some coffee."

"Oh, come on, it'll be fun."

"All right then. My Vacation from God or What I did in my Summer Holidays."

"No, seriously."

"Seriously, I can't see that it would make much difference."

"To you?"

"To us. To people like us."

"People like us?"

"People who don't matter."

"To whom?"

"To anyone."

"You matter to me."

"Thank you. You matter to me too. But that doesn't matter. Because we're both nobodies, you see. We're a solipsism. We cancel out."

"And God?"

"God doesn't come into it because even if he"

"or she"

"even if he or she did exist, he or she wouldn't bother with people like us."

"Non-people like us."

"Exactly. We're like the leaves in the forest no one notices because they're too busy listening for a tree to fall."

"And God is the wind."


"God is a crazy drunk hurricane uprooting all the trees."

"Or sowing them in new places."

"But if God is the wind then he's whirling us about too."

"No, we're just caught up in him."

"Same thing."

"Not at all."

"You're saying God doesn't pay attention to us."


"Because he's focused on the trees."


"But what about him"

"or her"

"being omniscient? Watching the sparrow fall and all that?"

"Look, my GPS knows where I am all the time. That doesn't mean it cares."

"You're saying God watches us but doesn't care."

"If there is a God, yes."

"Wouldn't lift a finger?"


"But maybe he"

"or she"

"cares about all things equally?"

"He or she would have to be pretty stupid to do that."

"Fair enough. You're quite the cynic aren't you?"

"What can I say? It's a cynical forest. And I haven't had any coffee."

"A cynical forest in which we're all leaves and there may be a wind or there may not be but either way there's no escaping gravity."

"More like there's nothing to escape for."

"What about the afterlife?"

"What about it?"

"If there is a God, then there could be an afterlife. That'd be something worth escaping for."

"Why? We'd only be more insignificant."

"We would?"

"Stands to reason. We'd have a whole history of somebodies piled on top of us."

"We'd be the bottom of the heap."

"Exactly. Bring on the bonfire."

"But what if we weren't nobodies."

"But we are."

"How do you know? Maybe unknown to you you're really a somebody."

"I'm a poet and I don't know it."

"What if you're God?"

"What if I'm God and I don't exist?"

"What if you're God and you do exist?"

"Then I'd say Let there be Coffee! And take the rest of the week off."

"What if there were no coffee?"

"Then I'd make some. I'm God, remember."

"What if there were no coffee and you weren't God, though God did exist?"

"What if there were God and no coffee?"


"I'd rather have it the other way round."

"But what if?"

"I suppose we would all sleep really, really soundly."

"Knowing God was watching over us?"


"I don't know. Have you ever tried sleeping with someone watching over you?"

"I wouldn't know. I'd be asleep."

"I had a boyfriend who used to watch me while I slept. It creeped me out."

"So now I'm not God but your ex-boyfriend is?"

"No, I'm just saying. I don't know that having someone watch over you is as comforting as they make it sound."

"But it'd be different with God."


"I don't know. Maybe because you wouldn't feel so judged."

"Not judged? This is God we're talking about."

"Ya, well. Isn't God supposed to be all loving and shit. Like a mother."

"You obviously haven't met my mother."

"I don't particularly want to."


"So you're saying if there is a God he's like a creepy ex-boyfriend."

"or girlfriend."

"or like a creepy ex-girlfriend?"

"Not ex-. A creepy boyfriend or girlfriend you can't break up with."




"A good thing there isn't a God then."

"You're saying there isn't?"

"I hope not. Unless there's something you're not telling me? You're not in a relationship with God, are you?"

"And if I am?"

"I suppose we could just pretend he doesn't exist."

"And hope he's not omniscient."

"And hope he's not omnipotent. I can't compete with that."

"You sure? You want to try?"

"I'm going to need some coffee first."

"Coffee? Really? That's what you're thinking about right now?"

"Hey, you were thinking about God!"

"We're both going to hell, aren't we?"

"Only if there is a God."

"What if there isn't?"

"Then I'd say we've got it pretty sweet."


Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Not Me Blues

Who wouldn't make a deal with the Devil
given half a chance?
I got a soul made out of paper
I'd sign away without a glance.

I got a thousand invitations
signed Opportunity
all offering consolation
'cos the Devil won't deal with me.

[sorry, Robert Johnson overdose]

Monday, September 06, 2010

Wooden Ships

A windless day, and still the boats
Are proudly holding up their sails.
This must be what it means to hope.
This must be how it feels to fail.

- Hu Ming-Xiang

Sunday, September 05, 2010


As I grow older, it becomes increasingly difficult to tell the pretence of reading from reading itself, so that I begin to suspect that theree is a quality of attention I am no longer capable of, a willingness to be absorbed by the page that I no longer possess. As it is, I find myself glancing at my Blackberry every ten minutes, holding it's gaze for the two seconds necessary to ascertain if the light is blinking, the tiny wink that tells me I am wanted, that my attention is required, as it already is, elsewhere.

All the unfinished stories

"Once he wrote that a story wasn't finished
until every line he loved most was omitted.
Yes, but the human spirit cannot withstand such revision
& we write to undo the wrong we cannot alter in our lives."

- Philip Schultz 'Lines to a Jewish Cossack: For Isaac Babel'


I never could decide whether she meant to kill me. The poisoned mushrooms may have been a mistake, after all. That's what I assumed they were, waking up in that hospital bed, being told how lucky I was to be alive. But then she didn't come to visit me for two days, and I began to wonder.

They told me on the third day. About the overdose. How she'd blamed herself for the poisoning, how she'd said she couldn't go on living without me. How they'd waited till I was strong enough for the news. And for weeks I felt miserable, guilty for doubting her. But then I thought, what if she had meant to kill me, and failed? What else could she have done or said? What better way to escape investigation, stay out of prison? And perhaps she thought I would follow her example, and she would have killed me another way?

The truth is, I didn't think I could live without her, but I have. Ten long, haunted years; haunted not by the memory of her, but by my own failure to reciprocate, alone with the possibility of being the one more loved. And who's to say it isn't the doubt that's kept me alive? The not-knowing whether I've outwitted her or betrayed her. A lifetime seeking answers to questions I dare not ask.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

You say we're out of options

You say that the battle is over
Though the fighting hasn't even begun:
No one's stepped on the field, neither us nor the enemy,
No lines have formed, no flag
Has summoned scattered comrades
Or told of the enemy's location.
You say that the battle is over
Though we haven't even begun to fight.

You say we're out of options:
Our bodies are broken, our hands are weak,
We cannot bear the stone of injustice -
The stone of injustice, the mountain of grief -
One touch and we all stepped to one side
Matched words with words and were satisfied.

Friends, in the dust of the beloved's street
Shall our blood no longer shine?
Shall no gardens blossom crimson
In the dust at the beloved's feet?
Shall this mourning not be broken
by the returning cries of lovers
who demand their rights?
The slogans of those not afraid to die?

The tests that grief set us she set us,
The wounds we bore we bore.
There are more wounds owed yet,
More life and limb to be mourned,
More bitter tests to be borne.

- Faiz Ahmed Faiz (translation mine)


The original (for a reading, go here)

Tum ye kehte ho ab koi chaara nahin

Tum ye kehte ho vo jang ho bhi chuki
Jismen rakha nahin hai kisi ne kadam
Koi utraa na maidan mein dushman na hum
Koi saf ban na pai na koi aalam
Muntashir doston ko sadaa de saka
Ajnabi dushmanon ka pataa de saka
Tum ye kehte ho vo jang ho bhi chuki
Jismen rakha nahin humne ab tak kadam

Tum ye kehte ho ab koi chaara nahin
Jism khasta hai, hathon main yaara nahin

Apne bas ka nahin bar-e-sang-e-sitam
Bar-e-sang-e-sitam, bar-e-kuhsar-e-gam
Jisko chukar sabhi ek taraf ho gaye
Baat ki baat main zee-sharaf ho gaye
Doston ku-e-jaana ki nameherban
Khaak par apne roshan lahoo ki bahar
Ab na aayegi kya, ab khilega na kya
Is kaf-ey-nazneen par koi lalazar
Is hazin khamoshi main na loutega kya
Shor-e-aavaz-e-haq, naara-e-giro-daar
Shouk ka imtihan jo hua so hua
Jism-o-jaan ko ziyan jo hua so hua
Sood se peshtar hai ziyan aur bhi
Doston matam-jismo-jaan aur bhi
Aur bhi talakhtar imtihaan aur bhi

- Faiz Ahmed Faiz

After the War

After the war the flowers are all suspect
Escaping too easily from the bone-prisoned earth.
I pluck a soldier's heart to give to my love
No way of knowing whether friend or foe.

- Hu Ming-Xiang

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Beat Memories

Again and again in those final years he returned to a single image - the view from his kitchen window - squat East Village skyline, propellers of shrubbery, an open window flirting with the wind, and half a dozen droplets of rain shining on a clothesline, meaning nothing symbolic, you understand, no poetry as high wire act, placement of words on the taut line, points of focus making the scene come true, only the instinct of an old poet, his empathy for all that clings by a thread, familiar alchemy of shabbiness to sadness achieved by fragile means.

And all around that image the photographs of his friends from the old days - Burroughs, Corso, Kerouac - all that mad and generous generation, so easy in their young men's faces, so tired in their old, a gallery of portraits in impromptu glory, resplendent as drops on a clothesline, that hold, their fall inevitable, true to the light.

[Inspired by an exhibition of Ginsberg's photographs at the National Gallery of Art]

Update: Edmund White in the NYRB on the exhibition

Sunday, August 29, 2010

On Beauty

You want to believe beauty can save you, but it can't.

You want to believe you can save beauty, hold on to it, preserve it, and you can, but you won't.

The only relation possible between you and beauty is the one between the mirror and the light: both suffer endlessly for the other, but neither can bear the other's touch.

Saturday, August 28, 2010


A raindrop on an autumn leaf
Reminds me of all the ways
New beauty is vulnerable
And the hurt in her eyes.

- Hu Ming-Xiang

Sunday, August 22, 2010

How would we know if time passed us by?

I smell the dust by the roadside.
I join the procession of ghosts.
Then the wind lifts like a summer veil
And the evening is empty again.

- Hu Ming-Xiang

Sunday, August 01, 2010

The suspicion of beauty

...clings to every fragile thing.

Perhaps it is the hysteresis of suffering, that makes us helpless in the face of helplessness. Or a proactive nostalgia for what must soon be ruined.

Perhaps it is a dangerous sense of our own presence, like the wonder of a child watching the cobweb billow with his every breath.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

As tears go by

You sit, weeping, on the banks of the river.
The tears bitter on your young lips.
But the river will flow a long way from here
And your tears will sweeten the tongues of the sea.

- Hu Ming-Xiang

Friday, July 23, 2010

Locked Out

The day they locked the door to the temple
We learned to tell a knock from a prayer.
Now the path to heaven is covered in moss
And I return home with a beaten heart.

- Hu Ming-Xiang

The meek SHALL inherit the earth

...mostly because the bold shall push their way into heaven.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Raindrop Effect

A single raindrop in Japan today could set a kaleidoscope of butterflies fluttering through a Brazilian rain forest two weeks from now.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Maslow's Pyramid Scheme

via the NY Times' 'Idea of the Day', a call for revising Maslow's heirarchy, replacing self-actualization with parenting.

Personally, I think the idea that the apex of human desire is to be a parent is so much garbage, but I'll spare you the Nietzschian griping about the need to transcend the human, not propagate it [1], as well as the obvious criticism that parenting is already in there, two levels down, with family and belonging. And I won't even start on how using parenting as a means of self-actualization is how children end up buried under the frustrated dreams of their parents.

The larger (though perhaps subtler) problem with placing parenting on top is that it's too easy. It's always seemed to me that Maslow's heirarchy is based not so much on emotional significance as on difficulty of attainment. At any given point, the need most salient to us is the one we have the greatest hope of satisfying, so that it's only when we've satisfied an easier need do we move on to one that is more difficult. Or perhaps, given that value comes from scarcity, we value the attainment of some needs more precisely because they are harder to attain. In any case, our needs are arranged heirarchically in the increasing order of the effort required to satisfy them. Or, put another way, if a higher order need were more easily attainable than one lower down in the pyramid, why wouldn't people just leapfrog to the higher order need?

Which is why putting parenting on top doesn't work. Being a parent is too easy an accomplishment [2] to merit being at the top. It makes little sense to make the apex of human desire a state that almost anyone can achieve, and almost everyone does.

(and that almost everyone manages to feel smugly satisfied about - I'd be more willing to put parenting on top of Maslow's pyramid if more parents responded to their babies like this)


[1] Of course, Nietzsche would argue that self-actualization is a pre-requisite for parenting (see Thus Spake Zarathustra, Part I, Chapter 20)

[2] Being a good parent is exceedingly hard, but that's a whole other story.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The trouble with violent solutions

And so the Teacher took him to the cart and said, "Your first task is to untie this knot."

And the boy examined the knot for a while, and when he could see no way to undo it, he took out his sword and cut it in two.

The Teacher said, "For decades men have struggled with this knot, yet none have thought to do what you have just done."

The boy smiled.

"Now, for your second task", said the Teacher, "tie the knot back."

Friday, July 09, 2010


[Five pieces inspired by solo dance performances by the recipients of the 2008 and 2009 McKnight Fellowships that I watched at the Southern Theater tonight.]

Floor Plan

Memory: the arrangement of emptiness into space. A fugue of small adjustments. The discovery of the familiar in the placing of hands.

To hold on to what is lost join a circle of repetitions. Pretend the clock is you.

No one is fooled.

Fragment of Adam

Only a madman would bring the moon roses. Epiphanies of the not-blue. Blood, rose, moon. A bouquet of tongues folded into each other.

What remains of the lover when the petals have been spilled? Only the beast Desire, eating raw flesh. Only the current that dances on the crest of the waves , marking the place where electricity drowned.


The weight of the world is carried on bent backs. This is politics: the suffering of women, the making of hay. A raised harvest of hands from which the sun rises, singing, beating down. The dance of the tree standing silent, proud.


Every note of this suicide is a beautiful dream. A soldier dances in the uncrumpled moonlight, his uniform held at arm's length. Like an enemy. Or a lover. All is fair. All is fair.

The Lamb

Long chains of cattle cars rattle the night. The damned are brought screeching to the furnace of hell. Death has a mind of metal, he weeps from rusted eyes.

In Hiroshima, the heat of the explosion turns walls to shadow, light to ash. The breathing door shuts tight. The outstretched hand leaves the air unmarked.

The names of the victims do not matter now that masks are mass-produced. Every skull a gesture of solidarity. A million photocopies of the one human face.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Brazil in Pictures

You ask for photographs, I give you photographs. Now you may have been thinking Brazil = pictures of beaches filled with hot bikini-clad women, but you really should know me better than that. Instead I give you:

Christ on the Mountain
Corcovado, Rio de Janeiro

Beach Debris
Ilha Grande

Boat passing in the twilight
Ilha Grande

Dry Salvages
Angra dos Reis

A Wilderness of Flamingos
Parque des Aves, Iguacu

The March of Progress
Itaipu Dam

Itaipu Dam

And just to prove that it wasn't all depression and gloom:

Iguacu Falls

Sunday, June 27, 2010


To enter Rio is to enter Byzantium. The young in one another's arms, the dolphin-torn sea. Just walking the streets here I feel ragged, stick-like, which is to say I am conscious the city is more attitude than place, is the catalyst for an emotional reaction to which leaves me inert. Everywhere I look people are living out their test-tube vacations, bubbles of laughter fizzing from their eyes.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Attribution Error in the Blogosphere

To credit all positive comments to your own perspicacity and talent, and blame all negative comments on the stupidity and prejudice of your commenters.

Well said

"For many centuries in the Western tradition, how well you expressed a position corresponded closely to the credibility of your argument. Rhetorical styles might vary from the spartan to the baroque, but style itself was never a matter of indifference. And “style” was not just a well-turned sentence: poor expression belied poor thought. Confused words suggested confused ideas at best, dissimulation at worst."

That's Tony Judt over at the NYRB blog. It's a point of view I happen to wholeheartedly agree with, if only because empirical observation proves it to be true. People who write badly think badly. Every now and then I'll grit my teeth and try to read something that's ungrammatical and badly structured because what it says might be 'important' (for a particularly egregious recent example, see here), and almost without exception the piece in question will turn out to be illogical, incoherent or just plain silly.

(This doesn't work in reverse, of course. The most exquisite prose may make no sense whatsoever).

I think the point is that lucid writing is a byproduct of a process of careful thought. The more deeply you think about an issue, the more word choices start to matter, the clearer the purpose of each phrase and each sentence becomes, and the more the sentences themselves fall into a natural order. Clarity of thought produces clarity of writing.

It's a standard too few people seem to care about.

Spending Time

If it were possible to spend what one does not own, I would trade the restlessness of the ocean for this moment of silence, you and I alone on the balcony, high above the traffic, afraid to look down. You say you are afraid of falling. I say I am afraid of heights. What we have in common is that we understand these two fears are not the same. The balcony is a cage of glass and air. We both wish we didn't have to fly.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Peter Orlovsky 1933 - 2010

No, the madness didn't destroy him. He outlived them all: Cassady, Kerouac, Allen himself. Survived the drugs and the alcohol, the sex and the protests, to die unoutrageously of lung cancer at the age of 76.

No, he was not his animal. In the poems he is an altogether quieter, more domestic presence, a shadow you barely see. And yet he is there on the front page of Kaddish, an angel of grief, and there again twenty years later, lending his back and strong shoulders to Ginsberg Sr., being told not to grow old, and (as we now know) ignoring the advice. He is there in the elegies to O'Hara and Cassady, lending his sympathetic ear and voice to the general sorrow. Again and again, when death intercedes, he is there to comfort, console.

When they first met, half a century ago, Allen wrote:

"discovered a new young cat,
and my imagination of an eternal boy
walks on the streets of San Francisco,
handsome, and meets me in cafetarias
and loves me."

and here they are, 40 years later, two old men sitting in companionable silence around a dining table; two bowls, chipped and almost empty, laid side by side.

No, he wasn't the best mind of his generation. But what he was, and what he had, is hard not to envy. And if even some of the power of those poems draws strength from his presence, that is more than most of us can hope to contribute.


Ginsberg quote taken from 'Malest Cornifici Tuo Catullo' . Ginsberg and Orlovsky image taken from this piece by Gordon Ball in Jacket, July 2007.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

That poetry makes nothing happen

may be one of its chief delights.

To create something that has immediate and practical application is to be a cog in the utilitarian machine. But to make something that has neither definable quality nor discernible purpose is to experience first hand the joy of original creation.

Adam gave names to all the animals. We give the animal back to the names.


As you may have already figured out, it's been a particularly rewarding weekend, poetry reading wise - D.A. Powell's Cocktails, Rachel Zucker's Bad Wife Handbook and Armantrout's Up to Speed, with Geoffrey Hill's Selected Poems to follow. Happiness.

E-2 Brutus

Yet more evidence of the NY Times inability to do math / willingness to turn almost anything into a puff piece:

Over the last two and a half years, 8,468 requests for E-2 extensions have been filed, and their approval rate does appear to have dropped, according to figures provided by William G. Wright, a spokesman for the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. So far in the 2010 fiscal year, he said, 82 percent of the applications have been approved. In 2009, 84 percent were approved, and in 2008, 91 percent.

This from a piece that talks about "the forgotten story of immigration" and the trend towards more E-2 application rejections.

Never mind the deduction of a 'trend' from three data points. Never mind that without more information it's impossible to tell whether an 8 percentage point drop in approvals is significant and / or whether 91 percent in 2008 was average or high. Never mind that it seems fairly reasonable, given what the economy has been like the last few years, to suppose that an additional 10% or so of people may have seen a drop in their income which would put them in a marginal income category.

Even if you buy these numbers completely, we're still talking about 8, 468 requests in 2.5 years = 1,700 requests in the last six months, 8% of which is 136. That's all of 136 additional people who've been denied visas this year as a result of this frightening new trend. Maybe there's a reason it's a forgotten story.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

They learn in suffering what they teach in song

"Here's the thing. I am basically willing to do anything. I'm basically willing to do anything to come up with a really good poem. I want to do that. That's may goal in life. And it hasn't happened. I've waited patiently. Sometimes I've waited impatiently. Sometimes I've 'striven'. I've made some acceptable poems - poems that have been accepted in a literal sense. But not one single really good poem.

When I look at the lives of the poets, I understand what's wrong with me. They were willing to make sacrifices that I'm not willing to make. They were so tortured, so messed up.

I'm only a little messed up. I'm tortured to the point where I don't sleep very well sometimes, and I don't answer mail as I should. Sometimes I feel a languor of spirit when I get an email asking me to do something. Also, I've run up a significant credit-card debt. But that's not real self-torture. I mean, if you stand back from my life just a little - maybe thirty-five yards - I am a completely conventional person. I drive mostly within the fog lines. My life is seldom in crisis...I'm in considerable pain but this little crisis of mine does not resemble the crises that Ted Roethke or Louise Bogan went through, or James Wright, or Tennyson, or Elizabeth Barrett Browning, with her laudanum. Or Poe."

- Nicholson Baker, The Anthologist

One of the chief delights of The Anthologist (and it's a book chock full of little delights - not a particularly good novel as a whole, but brimming with nice little touches - how can you not be charmed by a book that contains the sentence "Swinburne was like the application of too much fertilizer to a very green lawn"?) is its marvelous portrayal of the inherently quixotic nature of the poetic enterprise. The way the decision to write poetry is both ridiculous and heroic, with the former being the cause of the latter. We believe our poems are not good enough, can never be good enough, but we go on writing them anyway, and insist on comparing ourselves to precisely those we can never equal. Self-doubt and self-importance being the lift and drag that hold the viewless wings of poesy in balance.

Suffering does not make for great poetry. If it did, Gitmo would have the world's finest MFA program, the asylums would overflow with the murmur of lyric stanzas, and great bards would run riot through the streets of Haiti. If anything suffering, real suffering, makes poetry both impossible and irrelevant.

Where does that leave our familiar specter, the tortured poet? It is not suffering that makes poets great, but great poets who make suffering real. Make it convincing. Even to themselves.

P.S. Post title taken from Shelley.

Dryden's Tea Party

Whose differing Parties he could wisely Joyn,
For several Ends, to serve the same Design.
The Best, and of the Princes some were such,
Who thought the power of Monarchy too much:
Mistaken Men, and Patriots in their Hearts;
Not Wicked, but Seduc'd by Impious Arts.
By these the Springs of Property were bent,
And wound so high, they Crack'd the Government.
The next for Interest sought t'embroil the State,
TO sell their Duty at a dearer rate;
And make their Jewish Markets of the Throne,
Pretending puclick Good, to serve their own.
Others thought Kings an useless heavy Load,
Who Cost too much, and did too little Good.
These were for laying Honest David by,
On Principles of pure good Husbandry.
With them Joyn'd all th' Haranguers of the Throng,
That thought to get Preferment by the Tongue.
Who follows next, a double Danger bring,
Not only hating David, but the King,
The Solym├Žan Rout; well Verst of old,
In Godly Faction, and in Treason bold;
Cowring and Quaking at a Conqueror's Sword,
But Lofty to a Lawfull Prince Restor'd;
Saw with Disdain an Ethnick Plot begun,
And Scorn'd by Jebusites to be Out-done.
Hot Levites Headed these; who pul'd before
From the Ark, which in the Judges days they bore,
Resum'd their Cant, and with a Zealous Cry,
Pursu'd their old belov'd Theocracy.
Where Sanhedrin and Priest inslav'd the Nation,
And justifi'd their Spoils by Inspiration;
For who so fit for Reign as Aarons's race,
If once Dominion they could found in Grace?
These led the Pack; tho not of surest scent,
Yet deepest mouth'd against the Government.
A numerous Host of dreaming Saints succeed;
Of the true old Enthusiastick breed;
'Gainst Form and Order they their Power employ;
Nothing to Build and all things to Destroy.
But far more numerous was the herd of such,
Who think too little, and who talk too much.
These, out of meer instinct, they knew not why,
Ador'd their fathers God, and Property:
And, by the same blind benefit of Fate,
The Devil and the Jebusite did hate:
Born to be sav'd, even in their own despight;
Because they could not help believing right.
Such were the tools; but a whole Hydra more
Remains, of sprouting heads too long, to score.
- John Dryden, from Absalom and Achitophel
Reading Dryden this weekend, I am struck by how eerily contemporary the politics in his poems seems: the uneasy alliance between anti-government paranoia, corporate interest, religious fundamentalism and xenophobic bigotry that comprises what we now call the hard Right.

Does the perspicacity of the old masters come from a unique insight into the human condition, or is it just that history is so inherently repetitive that a moderately competent description of one age echoes familiarly in another? Either thought is depressing, though the former suggests a personal failure, and the latter a more general one.

These poems also render a much finer sense of the political in poetry, reminding us that the political poem can be more than an act of witness or protest, more than an impassioned outcry against perceived wrong. In the hands of Dryden, or Marvell, or (for that matter) Lucan, it can be a thoughtful argument for a point of view, laying out intelligently and forcefully the causes and consequences of the big picture.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Isle of the Dead

No, the dead are not an island. They are the sea restless, encircling. The sound of shells held to our ears.

It is we who are marooned. We go about our everyday business and barely notice their presence surrounding us. Only now and then, when we feel the tug of the tide calling us, do we go down to the water, stare out across the impossible distance, and wonder: "Is there life beyond?"

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Jesus vs. Christ

The essence of faith is negative choice.

To accept one's fate implies more than resignation, it implies a recognition of one's capability for change and the decision not to use that capability. A man who lives in poverty because he has to is a beggar, a man who chooses poverty is a saint.


Adam Gopnik, in this week's New Yorker, argues that the double helix of the tolerant and humble Jesus and the miracle-working, apocalypse-preaching Christ is fundamental to the DNA of Christianity [1]. As he puts it:

This fixed, steady twoness at the heart of the Christian story can’t be wished away by liberal hope any more than it could be resolved by theological hair-splitting. Its intractability is part of the intoxication of belief. It can be amputated, mystically married, revealed as a fraud, or worshipped as the greatest of mysteries. The two go on, and their twoness is what distinguishes the faith and gives it its discursive dynamism

Friday, May 21, 2010

The sound of one hand...

...playing the piano. Ravel's glorious Piano Concerto for Left Hand (here performed by Richter) which I heard played this evening in a superb performance by Marc-Andre Hamelin and the Minnesota Orchestra.

Other highlights of the evening included Strauss' Don Juan (which puts a whole new spin on horniness!) and a passionate rendition of Ravel's brilliantly subversive La Valse under the baton of Gilbert Varga, bubbles of disquiet under the swirling surface of the music.

Thursday, May 20, 2010


What if every truth was a lie we couldn't see through? And every lie we saw through a truth in disguise?

What if the purity of heaven meant an eternity of not touching, an infinity of white.

No protest but silence. No context but the light. Books filled with pages too wise for words.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Marsyas born again

si come quando Marsia traesti
de la vagina de le membra sue

- Dante, Paradiso I.20-21

Life as gestation. The soul ripped bloody and crying from the flesh.

Hard to imagine Apollo as a midwife. Hard to believe in the waiting room's holy trinity. The father, the son, the holy smoke.

What is hell but the desire to return to the body, its warm and secret cave?

Sunday, May 16, 2010

La gopi e mobile

Listening to La Traviata right after reading Denise Levertov's translations of songs in praise of Krishna, it occurs to me that this whole Radha-Krishna thing would make such a brilliant opera. I mean, Radha is the quintessential Puccini heroine (whiny, self-sacrificing, terrible taste in men) and Krishna bears a strong family resemblance to the Duke in Rigoletto. Just add the baritone voices of Balaram and Kans, throw in a lot of flute solos and some liberal use of cowbells, and before you can say Figaro three times very fast you've got a melodrama that is guaranteed to have them in tears by Act III.

Plus, can you imagine the faces of the Shiv Sena goons when they discover their beloved god looking something like this.

Shelf Life

"My books, a bizarre accumulation of the learning and knowledge of all eras: history, travel, religions, cabala, astrology....There is enough here to drive a wise man mad; we shall see whether there is also enough to make a madman wise."

- Gerard de Nerval, Aurelia (translated by Kendall Lappin)


cosi da questo corso si diparte
talor la creatura, c'ha podere
di piegar, cosi pinta, in altra parte;

- Dante, Paradiso I. 130-132
The way a heat-seeking missile, speeding towards its target, may be distracted by an object that burns momentarily brighter, and so lose its way.

Heaven in a wild flower

Don't go wandering in the park; there's a garden deep inside you.
Sit at the petaled heart of the lotus; you can see the infinite.

- Kabir (translation mine)

The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that Kabir and Blake would have got along like a heaven on fire.

Note: The Kabir in the original:

Baagon na jaa re na jaa, teri kaaya mein gulzaar
Sahas-kanval par baith ke tu dekhe roop apaar.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Manguel on Reading

Just finished reading Alberto Manguel's A Reader on Reading, which turns out to be both a fascinating and dissatisfying read.

In many ways, Manguel is the epitome of the intelligent reader: his knowledge of books is extensive, his tastes broad, if not quite eclectic, his engagement profound, his appreciation heartfelt. He's the kind of reader who makes writing seem worthwhile.

Which is why it's disappointing that A Reader on Reading is not a more compelling book. Oh, it's interesting enough: the individual essays are cogently argued and exquisitely written, combining personal anecdotes [1] with insightful commentary. But underlying these essays is a larger argument, a defense (in the traditional sense) of reading, which runs something like this:

Reading - by which Manguel means serious reading, the kind that challenges the reader - matters because it is critical to human development. Critical, thoughtful reading expands our imagination, deepens our sympathy, and enhances our ability to think clearly and analytically; abilities that are essential to the flowering of the self, and, by extension, to the creation and preservation of a just and equitable social order. If all moral failure is first a failure of the imagination, then reading is the essential antidote; the elixir by which we may be transformed into better citizens and better human beings.

For this elixir to take effect, however, two things are required. First, the art of reading must be kept alive. We need readers who understand that reading is no casual undertaking, but a talent that must be honed through rigorous application and experience; readers who understand that great books are often slow and difficult, that it is this that makes them rewarding; readers who are willing to make the effort that reading requires. Second, we need writing that justifies such effort. Not the easy pap of advertising and journalism and mass-produced pulp fiction, all carefully designed to appeal to its audience tastes and confirm them in their prejudices, but books that challenge and frustrate their readers, taking them out of their comfort zones and allowing them to discover the new and unexpected [2].

It's not that I disagree with Manguel's perspective. On the contrary, I'm largely supportive of what he's saying, even if I find some of his opinions a tad reactionary. My problem with this argument is that it strikes me as being too sterile, too somber, too self-important. As Eliot would have it: "Are we then so serious?". Saying that reading matters because it helps us grow as human beings is like saying sex matters because it enables us to reproduce. What's missing from the argument is the profound joy of the act itself, its abiding and overwhelming wonder. As every book-lover knows, to read a great book is to experience an emotional, intellectual and aesthetic transcendence, to be taken out of yourself and then returned to a world that seems both more nuanced and more vivid. The fact that reading has a redeeming social purpose is just gravy, if it served no such purpose it would still be worth championing, if only for the thrill it affords. Because that kind of intensity may be the most the human animal is capable of or can aspire to, and for the great mass of people to be deprived of its magical power is a shame indeed. Beauty needs no justification; it is, and always will be, its own reward.

One could argue that making pleasure the basis of literature's claims plays straight into the hands of the hacks who judge the quality of their books by their popularity. After all, if the purpose of reading is to deliver pleasure, then surely bestsellers are the ones who serve this purpose best. What this ignores, of course, is the quality of the experience. It is important not to confuse entertainment with joy. There may be people for whom reading Dan Brown or Chetan Bhagat is a revelatory and transformative experience, who step away from these authors with their minds alight and their senses on fire. Good for them. But for most people, I suspect, reading these authors is no less or more enjoyable than watching a sitcom on TV or gossiping with their colleagues over lunch. And the point is that reading is capable of delivering so much more. If you've never finished a book and come away with the sense (however fleeting) that the world is different, then you've never truly read a book. And believe me, you're missing out.

In any case, pragmatic considerations are hardly the strong suit of A Reader on Reading. If you're going to try and convert people who don't read seriously or see reading as trivial, writing a book that celebrates Dante, Homer, Borges and Cervantes is hardly the right way to go about it. Nor is extolling the civic importance of reading, which only serves to convert what is a privilege into a duty, what is an indulgence into a chore. I consider myself quite seriously committed to reading, but by the end of Manguel's umpteenth sermon about why reading matters even I was starting to chafe at the bit. There is much to delight in in Manguel's book, but it is a book meant for preaching to the choir, a set of essays by a quintessential book lover that only other book lovers will truly appreciate. Which is why it's frustrating that Manguel, who is clearly passionate about books himself (the man finds solace in a hospital bed re-reading Don Quixote!), confines himself to these dry abstractions in defense of reading, never explicitly acknowledging its more visceral delights.


[1] The man spent his early years hanging out with Borges! Color me bright green with envy.

[2] Manguel doesn't explicitly spell this out, of course, it's my reading of what he's saying, though I think it's a fairly accurate one. In any case, as Manguel himself would argue, a book is what the reader interprets it to be.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The light whose smile kindles the universe

"La gloria di colui che tutto move
per l'universo penetra, e risplende
in una parte piu e meno altrove"

- Dante, Paradiso I. 1-3

The universe as a shattered mirror. In it, a dark figure moving, its most mundane gestures multiplied and distorted into something profound, something ineluctably beautiful.

The title is, of course, from Shelley's Adonais. Poetry reflects from page to page.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Small Narcissisms

Every language has its own silence. To translate between them is to write between the lines and hope that no one will find out. You collect snowflakes like butterflies, pinning them down in display cases from which they vanish in summer. The lukewarm drop retains no reflection. The rain tastes different under every sky.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Socialist Fantasy

"whether there's something in the form of the writing that lends itself to radical or subversive aesthetics"

- China Mieville in a decade-old interview in the International Socialism Journal (can you say desperate for content?) via SB

Or, alternately, is there something about left-wing ideology that lends itself to fantasy? After all, what sci-fi / fantasy writer has ever conceived of an alternate reality half as compelling as the socialist utopia of Marx and Engels?

Das Kapital may be the most influential work of sci-fi / fantasy ever.

P.S. No, I haven't fallen prey to the Mieville-groupiedom that seems to have overtaken the blogosphere. Never read the man. Have no immediate plans to. Life is too short.

P.P.S. Am I the only one who finds silly Marxist screeds (see the Mieville interview) against Tolkien amusingly pathetic? One could claim just as convincingly (I would argue more convincingly) that LoTR is an allegorical depiction of the inevitable decline of the aristocracy (Elves, Frodo) and the rise of the working class (Dwarves, Sam) to take over the new world. Tolkien may wax nostalgic every now and then, but his perspective on the engines of history is clear-sighted, and, unlike his critics, he is no slave to ideology. All of which is, of course, irrelevant to the magic of his work.

P.P.P.S. Ironically, one could legitimately argue that Sauron is the embodiment of the Marxist enterprise: not the triumph of the working class, but the emergence of the police state.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Albee / I need a drink

Watching Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (in a superb production by the Jungle Theater) I begin to understand why gladiators were so popular in Ancient Rome.

The visceral spectacle of two people tearing at each other, no hope of escape. The pettiness of victory in the sport of pain.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go find that bourbon.


I sit with my back to the fire and watch
The shadows dancing in the softer dark.
When you sent me away your voice was hard
But a hint of regret was in your eyes.

- Hu Ming-Xiang

Saturday, May 08, 2010


I dwell in a house of ghosts
My presence disturbs them
They would ask me to leave but
They don't know what I'm here for
Or where I'm meant to go.

- Hu Ming-Xiang

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Trade Winds

Each fall the clouds arrive like merchants
Bringing storms all the way from your distant shore
Though I strip every leaf from my father's forest
I never have enough to repay the winter.

- Hu Ming-Xiang

Monday, May 03, 2010

A Distant Beauty

The reflection of the tree slips away on the water
Though it has grown on this bank a hundred years.
What has the moon to do with the new chrysanthemums?
A distant beauty touches your face.

- Hu Ming-Xiang

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Fear Himself

Like meeting a mirror in a darkened room.

Love divides him from himself. Split into two, he is aware of the contradiction but not confused by it. An equality of opposites seems to balance the room.

Look away and you are lost, he thinks. But he looks anyway, and where the door used to be there is only emptiness. In a frame. He tries mouthing his name in the air but his words make no impression. We are all anonymous inside our own heads.

If he looks back now there will be no escape. They will remain in hell together, lover and beloved, flesh and shade.

Who can tell the stone from its image? The Gorgon God from her statue?

Time petrifies.

The queue the most basic unit of civilization.

It's all there: the social contract, Pareto optimality, the principle of fairness, the power of norms. All the frustration and safety of the democratic process.

You can tell so much about a nation by the way its people stand in lines.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Point Omega

The triumph of the merely human over the abstraction of ideas.

If all thought is a landscape then words are the houses we are contained by. The offer us shelter, perspective, cut the world down to our size. We sit on the porch, watch the sunrise, and pretend that the act of seeing makes it all ours, but the idea is still there when we turn away, stretching away to a conclusion we can barely imagine and never reach, and meanwhile the night howls at our door and we would be lost without these words to keep us safe.

If you see me from your window, wave.


Just finished reading Don DeLillo's new novel. An arrangement of hypnotic gestures in search of an idea.

Monday, April 19, 2010

When Push comes to



There are times when night does not fall. It sneaks up behind you and pushes.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Kaczynski funeral

There is ash in heaven today. Flight is repudiated, gravity made more profound. In the dove-cotes of Europe the planes hold their wings out in impotent salute. And we walk under an invisible cloud, conscious of broken connections, of lost homecomings, of the absences that will stand beside us, their shoulders too light for our grief.

Truth is stranger than fiction, and more lyrical than poetry.

Saturday, April 17, 2010


Oracles multiply in the wake of disaster.

Prophecies like an emperor's bastard children, imagining ways to inherit the throne.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Broth

The broth thickens as it cools.

Stray images rise to the surface with every turn of the spoon, forgotten ingredients, bubbles of dream. The debris of what might have been slipping easily beneath the surface.

Now and then he brings the ladle to his lips to see if the broth is ready, but there is always something missing, always something unnamed.

The pot is deep, the fire old. What meat there was dissolved long ago in the stirring. A rubbish of bones settles at the bottom, unsifted by disturbances that seem so very far away.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Going Downhill

Climbing up the mountain this morning
All I saw before me was the gap of the pass
But now the world opens wide below me
And I know from here it's all downhill

- Hu Ming-Xiang

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Looking Back

The soaring eagle nests among ruins
The moon returns to the barren branch
And the road winds back to the broken gate
Of the house where you lived so long ago.

- Hu Ming-Xiang

Saturday, April 03, 2010

A rain of characters

Yesterday your letter arrived like a cloud
And a shadow fell on my anxious heart
Until I opened myself to the rain of your characters
And when I looked up again the world was shining.

- Hu Ming-Xiang

Bare ruined choirs

The parliament of
branches is ruined. Winter
an argument lost.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Boats Passing

Stopping to rest on our journey downriver
We tied our boats together, side by side
But the knot on yours came undone in the night
And it has floated away I know not where

- Hu Ming-Xiang

Considering letters

Let us consider letters--how they come at breakfast, and at night, with their yellow stamps and their green stamps, immortalized by the postmark--for to see one's own envelope on another's table is to realize how soon deeds sever and become alien. Then at last the power of the mind to quit the body is manifest, and perhaps we fear or hate or wish annihilated this phantom of ourselves, lying on the table. Still, there are letters that merely say how dinner's at seven; others ordering coal; making appointments. The hand in them is scarcely perceptible, let alone the voice or the scowl. Ah, but when the post knocks and the letter comes always the miracle seems repeated--speech attempted. Venerable are letters, infinitely brave, forlorn, and lost.

Life would split asunder without them. "Come to tea, come to dinner, what's the truth of the story? have you heard the news? life in the capital is gay; the Russian dancers...." These are our stays and props. These lace our days together and make of life a perfect globe. And yet, and yet ... when we go to dinner, when pressing finger-tips we hope to meet somewhere soon, a doubt insinuates itself; is this the way to spend our days? the rare, the limited, so soon dealt out to us--drinking tea? dining out? And the notes accumulate. And the telephones ring. And everywhere we go wires and tubes surround us to carry the voices that try to penetrate before the last card is dealt and the days are over. "Try to penetrate," for as we lift the cup, shake the hand, express the hope, something whispers, Is this all? Can I never know, share, be certain? Am I doomed all my days to write letters, send voices, which fall upon the tea-table, fade upon the passage, making appointments, while life dwindles, to come and dine? Yet letters are venerable; and the telephone valiant, for the journey is a lonely one, and if bound together by notes and telephones we went in company, perhaps--who knows?--we might talk by the way.

Well, people have tried. Byron wrote letters. So did Cowper. For centuries the writing-desk has contained sheets fit precisely for the communications of friends. Masters of language, poets of long ages, have turned from the sheet that endures to the sheet that perishes, pushing aside the tea-tray, drawing close to the fire (for letters are written when the dark presses round a bright red cave), and addressed themselves to the task of reaching, touching, penetrating the individual heart.
Were it possible! But words have been used too often; touched and turned, and left exposed to the dust of the street. The words we seek hang close to the tree. We come at dawn and find them sweet beneath the leaf."

- Virginia Woolf Jacob's Room

Ah, the joys of re-reading. I've probably said it before, but it deserves saying more often: Woolf is brilliant, brilliant, brilliant.

The complete text of Jacob's Room (not Woolf's greatest novel, perhaps, but the one where she really finds her voice) here.

Sunday, March 28, 2010


When I step through the doorway the earth is darkened
When I enter the lake the waves run away
And today when I joined the dance of the snowflakes
They turned to tears at the touch of my hand.

- Hu Ming-Xiang

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Open Window

All night the leaves drift in through the window
Left open to hear the cicadas singing
To scatter like the ghosts of vanished friends
When the winds of morning are unfurled

- Hu Ming-Xiang

Friday, March 26, 2010

In Dubious Battle

or Why Arundhati Roy is a Waste of Space

The first thing that occurred to me, after I finished reading Arundhati Roy's article on the rebels in the Dantewada forest in Outlook (hat-tip: SB), was how fundamentally unconvincing the whole piece was [1]. This, it seems to me, is mostly Roy's fault. One page through the eight pages of the article it's pretty clear where Roy's sympathies lie, and those sympathies proceed to systematically undermine any credibility her article might have otherwise had.

The problem is not that Roy sympathizes with the cause of the rebels, even though that sympathy seems less about the specific problems of the people of Dantewada and more about Roy's own long-standing position against government / big business / institutions generally. The problem is that Roy seems incapable of admitting the slightest nuance into her support for the rebels. Hers in the unquestioning belief of the true zealot, and the blindness of her convictions renders her incapable of anything approaching intelligent analysis. Not only does Roy seem to enter Dantewada with an entirely uncritical perspective [2], when potential criticisms of the rebels do occur to her she provides her own justifications for their actions, without even bothering to put these criticisms to the people she is profiling. As a result, we learn what Roy thinks the rebels are thinking, rather than what they really are thinking. I can't think of a worse waste of journalistic access. The result is a piece so partisan as to be virtually propaganda.

Worse, when the rebels do tell her things, Roy seems happy to believe them without the slightest corroboration. It never seems to occur to her that there may be two sides to the stories she's being told, or that the rebels, may, in fact, be feeding her misinformation [3]. No effort is made to speak to anyone outside the rebel troops (like, say, villagers who are not part of the 'army'), nor does Roy ask any questions about how the operations of the rebels are financed, how their 'soldiers' are recruited, how decisions about attacks are made, etc. The irony here is that Roy is strident in declaring our need to be wary of official news reports about the Dantewada situation, yes she seems just as credulous when it comes to swallowing whatever she is told by the rebels.

A sense of irony, alas, is the other quality completely missing from Roy's report, a shocking omission for someone who used to write fiction. In one passage, Roy quotes a young rebel called Nilesh, describing his brother, who has become a Special Police Officer:

“He was very young,” Nilesh said, “he got an opportunity to run wild and hurt people and burn houses. He went crazy, did terrible things. Now he is stuck. He can never come back to the village. He will not be forgiven. He knows that.”

The irony, of course, is that the same description could be applied to Nilesh himself. He too is very young. He too has got an opportunity to run wild and hurt people. He too is (probably) stuck and will not be forgiven.

Again and again through the piece Roy speaks of the rebels as children, describing herself, at one point, as being "surrounded by these strange, beautiful children with their curious arsenal". Ironically, this only serves to discredit the rebels, because it raises serious questions about whether they know what they're doing. It does not, however, as Roy seems to think, make them seem less of a threat. I don't know about you, but personally I can think of few things more dangerous than sophisticated weaponry in the hands of angry children, and if that's what the rebels are (since that's what Roy seems to make them out to be) then we have even more reason to be afraid.

(I'm particularly bewildered by Roy's account of one Kamla, whose beautiful smile receives a lot of attention in the article. As though her having a beautiful smile somehow made her less violent or dangerous.)

The larger problem, I think, is that Roy's is a curiously binary world view, a world divided into good and evil, right and wrong. (Ironically, again, this is a world view shared by no one so closely as the erstwhile Bush administration that Roy claims to despise). Since government and big corporations are evil, it must follow that whoever opposes them, by whatever means, is good, and the means themselves justified. Roy's identification of the rebels with the 'people' is automatic and unswerving - it never occurs to her that there may be more than two sides to the conflict. What reason, after all, do we have to believe that the rebels represent the interests of the people of Dantewada? They claim to do so, certainly, but so does the government, and it's not clear to me that one claim is any more legitimate than the other. Terrorists everywhere are quick to claim the people's backing - are we to accept that the Taliban speaks for the Afghan people, that the Shining Path speaks for the people of Peru, that Al Qaeda speaks for Muslims everywhere? In each of these cases, the organization in question represents itself as the people's champion, yet there is considerable reason to believe that a significant majority of the people they claim to represent consider their ideas wrong-headed and their presence a source of fear. Just because the government and big corporations are evil and oppressive (and let's say, for the moment, that they are), doesn't mean the rebels aren't as well. Just because the government and big corporations don't have the people's best interests at heart, doesn't mean the rebels do.

Understand that I'm not saying that the rebels in Dantewada are like the Taliban or Al Qaeda. I'm saying that Roy's piece provides no evidence that they're not. Nothing in her report suggests that the rebels are legitimate representatives of their people's interests. On the contrary, I'm willing to bet that you could write a piece virtually identical to Roy's article about almost any terrorist organization in the world - they're all sure to have smiling, beautiful children as recruits.

I titled this post In Dubious Battle, because reading Roy's descriptions I was reminded of nothing so much as Milton's Pandemonium:

"that fixt mind
And high disdain, from sence of injur'd merit,
That with the mightiest rais'd me to contend,
And to the fierce contention brought along
Innumerable force of Spirits arm'd
That durst dislike his reign, and me preferring,
His utmost power with adverse power oppos'd"

- Milton, Paradise Lost Book I

To recognize this is to remember that it is easy to romanticize rebellion, easy to cast the outsider as hero. If Roy's description of the Dantewada rebellion has an almost mythic quality (and it does - reading her description of the forest celebrations I found myself imagining Friar Tuck putting in an appearance, surrounded by men in Lincoln Green), it is because she sees it through red-tinted glasses (pun intended), and that is reason to be suspicious of the veracity of her account.

In her piece, Roy attempts to justify the rebel's actions on utilitarian grounds, arguing that it is the only solution available to the 'people' because all other avenues are bound to prove unsuccessful (even though it's unclear, from her account at least, whether all other avenues have, in this particular case, been tried).

Even if one were willing to accept that there were no other options, and that violence, in such a case, is justified, one is forced to ask - is violence really a solution? What, realistically, are the odds of the rebels winning? Are they significantly better than the odds of success from more peaceful means of protest? And in the meantime, are the people of Dantewada better or worse off than they would have been without the armed rebellion? Based purely on Roy's piece, it sounds to me like the rebels have only made things worse for the people of Dantewada. On the one hand, they have undermined the potential for widespread public support that a more peaceful movement that brought the plight of the Dantewada people to public attention may have enjoyed, and compromised the efforts of any and all activists trying to further the people's interests by other means [4]. On the other hand, they have made the tribal people fair game for those who are trying to oppress them / drive them out. Roy talks a lot about genocide and Salwa Judum, but could these atrocities really exist without the sceptre of the Maoists to provide them cover? It seems to me that the Salwa Judum needs the Maoists, and that by choosing the path of violence the rebels have played straight into the hands of the very interests that seek to destroy them. This is not to suggest that Salwa Judum's actions are justified, or that the rebels have brought this on themselves. It is only to say that if realpolitik be thy plea, as Roy's is here, then it is worth considering that the rebel's path leads, realistically, to a worse outcome for their alleged people than ever before.

(There is the separate question of whether, if the rebels did somehow miraculously succeed, this would actually result in empowerment of the people. Nothing in the history of communism suggests this would be true, but never mind.)

But of course, these ideas are largely Roy's own, and there is little evidence that they are shared by the rebels themselves. In fact, from Roy's account, there is little evidence of anything resembling a larger plan in the rebel's actions. For the most part, the rebels she talks to seem to be motivated by frustration catalyzed by a need for revenge. Reprisal, indeed, seems to be the dominant theme of the article, with the motif of 'they did something bad to us, so we did something bad to them' cropping up again and again (the question of what preceded the bad thing they did is, of course, never asked). These sort of childish (children again!) he-hit-me-first protestations hardly amount to a political philosophy, much less a political agenda. It seems a travesty to call these people Maoists, when from Roy's account they seem to have little idea who Mao was or what he believed in. And it seems misguided to think of this rebellion as a 'revolution' when there seems to be little evidence of a coherent end game or of strong visionary leadership.

What emerges from Roy's account, when you read beneath her naive and breathless paeans to the wonders of the forest and the beauty of the child soldiers, is a portrait of a splinter group of disenchanted people driven to embrace violence by frustration, anger and a thirst for revenge, all cloaked in trappings usurped from the Maoist playbook. What emerges is a portrait of children indoctrinated into a way of violence through the constant repetition of a litany of evils real and imagined, without any sense of the larger issues or the true history of the communist movement [5]. But most of all, what emerges is the portrait of a writer so in love with her own indignation that she's unable to ask even the basic questions that any reasonable adult would want to raise.

If you really want to learn about Maoist rebellions, watch Woody Allen's Bananas. You'll learn about as much there as you will from Roy's piece.

[1] I lie. The first thing that occurred to me was how much like the script for Avatar the whole thing sounded. But this was a close second.

[2] I have to wonder whether her being uncritical was a factor in her getting the kind of access she did.

[3] I mean seriously. If you were a rebel organization and a celebrity reporter from a major national news magazine was coming to do a cover story on you, wouldn't you manipulate every piece of information she got to make yourself look good and your enemy look bad?

[4] The other reason I titled this piece In Dubious Battle was in homage to Steinbeck's lovely novel of the same name, which deals with another group of communist workers trying to win rights for workers. Unlike the rebels, however, the means they employ do not involve using guns and explosives. Now there's a set of communist activists I'd wholeheartedly support.

[5] This is, of course, the modus operandi of terrorist organizations everywhere. It is, indeed, how Hindutva recruits its most violent followers. Take a close look at the footage of the Babri Masjid demolition and you're sure to find plenty of children with beautiful smiles.

Chang Hu

She Sings an Old Song

A lady of the palace these twenty years,
She has lived here a thousand miles from her home -
Yet ask her for this song and, with the first few words of it,
See how she tries to hold back her tears.


Of One in the Forbidden City

When the moonlight, reaching a tree by the gate,
Shows her a quiet bird on its nest,
She removes her jade hairpins and sits in the shadow
And puts out a flame where a moth was flying.

- Chang Hu (translated from the Chinese by Witter Bynner)

Cricket Poems?

Reading through Thayil's 60 Indian Poets anthology (on which more later), it suddenly occurred to me that I can't think of a single poem by an Indian poet about / involving cricket [1].

This is surprising because

a) We're supposed to be (and I would argue are) a nation obsessed with the damn game.

b) By way of contrast, I can think of several poems, and by fairly well-respected poets at that, that involve baseball

c) Though I'm not generally a fan of the game, I have to admit it has an almost ballet-like grace that should, logically, lend itself to poetry.

Are there poems out there about cricket that I've missed? Or is there a reason why nobody writes poems about cricket?

[1] On cricket poems more generally, I can do no better than direct you to the Minstrels theme: here, here, here, here and particularly here.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Baby Steps

Chandrahas Choudhury's Arzee the Dwarf

[warning: some spoilers]

(The first in what may - or may not - become a series of posts about recent Indian Writing in English. Like there isn't enough of that around.)

There are many reasons to celebrate Chandrahas Choudhury's Arzee the Dwarf. First, unlike the vast majority of IWE novels I've read in recent years, this one is neither a thinly veiled recycling of the author's own life story, nor a lightly fictionalized attempt to tell the 'truth' about contemporary India. Instead, it is a genuine cut-from-whole-cloth exercise in fiction, one with no agenda other than what belongs to the novel: to tell a story, to develop characters, to bring a world to life.

Second, Chandrahas can write. A slight tendency to wax eloquent notwithstanding, the prose in Arzee fluctuates between the serviceable and the inspired, which by itself places the book head and shoulders above much of what - if, say, Penguin's First Proof series is any indicator (I just read First Proof 5, and thought it was quite bad) - is out there.

Third, Arzee is, in both plot and spirit, a comic enterprise, one that brings wry gusto and a lightness of touch to the shabby realities of its characters' lives. This is a surprise - I had expected something altogether more grim - and one that I am entirely grateful for. It would have been easy to turn the story of Arzee, a 28-year old dwarf burdened with gambling debts, impending unemployment and a broken heart, into a maudlin tale about suffering, disillusion and the resilience of hope. Instead, we get a spunky, upbeat narrative that hums along with almost Rabelaisian energy.

Most of all, though, Arzee is notable for its charm. Peopled with a cast of delightful characters - including Ranade, the ghostly stock-broker; Dashrath Tiwari, the philosophical cab-driver; Deepakbhai, the kind-hearted gangster; and Rajneesh Sharma, the sentimental seth - all orbiting around the book's magnetic protagonist, Arzee is a brisk and easy read, a glimpse into a fantasy world of crumbling movie-theaters and gleaming hair salons, where complication piles on comic complication, and disaster dances on the fringes, never seriously threatening harm. At its best, Arzee reads as though a R.K. Narayan novel had been transplanted from Malgudi to modern-day Mumbai, and was a little bewildered by the relocation.

Its best, however, is short-lived. Charming as the book is, and shot through with glimpses of true talent, Arzee is also, in many ways, a stunted and inadequate book. To begin with, there's the main character's annoying habit of incessantly breaking into internal soliloquy, as though hidden inside that dwarf body were the spirit of a character out of a Marlowe play. An example:

"So it's come to this," he mused, and his compacted body seemed to pulse with these stirrings. 'It's not the best result, but it's something, and something's better than nothing. Ha - that's what everybody always told me to believe, that something's better than nothing. They told me to be thankful that I wasn't blind, or orphaned, or jobless - that my only burden was to be small. They couldn't understand what this being small was like - it was only two words to them. But enough of crumbs! On the move! This sky's so low, I feel I could touch it with a jump. And even if I can't, I'm still going to be able to reach it in a little while, because now the room in the sky's all mine. I'll drag down the body-proud like beasts, like cattle, and leap right above them like a shooting star!'"

This sort of thing goes on, page after page. The first few times these monologues kick in, with their oh-so-obvious sentiments and their childish bombast, the effect is, admittedly, somewhat comic; but it isn't long before they start to jar. It isn't just that in these ramblings Arzee tends to run on and on, frequently repeating what the reader has already been told or has surmised, or that as records of an interior monologue these speeches (there is no other word for them) seem curiously artificial; it's also that the use of the technique itself is bewildering, since Chandrahas can, and frequently does, use indirect reports of Arzee's thoughts to good effect. It's almost as though, in trying to introduce us to Arzee's inner life, the writer found himself torn between first and third person narratives, and arrived at an unhappy compromise that does justice to neither.

And it isn't just in his own head that Arzee talks like this. Every now and then he launches into one of these monologues in the middle of a perfectly mundane conversation. Consider, for instance:

"It's not that, Deepakbhai. Even if my parents belonged to the same religion, Deepakbhai, I think I would find it hard to believe. Because...because faith in God also means faith in other human beings, Deepakbhai. It means faith in the system. That's what makes for a faith. a way dwarfhood is its own religion, Deepakbhai. If I don't belong in the world of normal people at other points, then why should I be with them when they turn to God? I won't - I'll be myself instead!"

This goes on for another half page, but you get the idea.

As a speech of Shakesperian self-awareness this is splendid [1]. As part of a casual conversation about religion with a gangster Arzee barely knows, it is bizarre. It isn't just that the words seem desperately out of context (though they do); it's also that they seem completely out of character. How does someone who shows so little self-awareness, such a complete lack of irony, as Arzee regularly does in his monologues to himself, suddenly come out with this kind of insight in the middle of an everyday exchange? And why, in a novel, with all the possibilities for exploring a character's inwardness that the form affords, does the author feel the need to stick this in the middle of a conversation?

What's particularly disappointing about this is that Chandrahas has a fine ear for dialogue when he chooses to use it. Just a dozen pages before the passage quoted above, there's a long conversation between Arzee and the head projectionist's daughter Shireen that is pitch-perfect in its appreciation for the nuance of social exchange, a mix of politeness and flirtation so expertly done that you can imagine it taking place in your own drawing room.

Nor are Arzee's monologues the only problem with the book. A second problem is that the book is padded with a great deal of description that serves little discernible purpose. Consider:

"A sombre grey light had infused the scene of his daily descent. Down below in the market shopkeepers were exaggerating, customers haggling, feet advancing and retreating, hands pointing and waggling. Any moment hissing raindrops would come pouring down, umbrellas would spout everywhere, and tarpaulins would bloom; people would take refuge beneath the shop awnings, and drenched dogs squeeze in amidst their legs. Arzee spat in a corner and went skipping down the stairway, whistling through his crooked teeth. Suddenly he stumbled on a crack in the steps, but as he was about to fly headfirst into the street, he grabbed at the railing just in time to save his skull. And at this sudden threatening motion all the pigeons amassed at the kabutarkhana under the stairway rose up around him and went skittering away into the sky with a great beating of wings, and at that very moment the first raindrops began to come down."

It's an unexceptionable description (except for the repetitive -ing sounds at the start). It is also entirely unnecessary.

The problem, I think, is that Arzee's claim to realism is too frail to bear the weight of such oppressive detail. For all its careful descriptions, the book has little sense of place, mostly because the plot and characters seem to belong in a fantasy world, some Panglossian Mumbai where gangsters are understanding and kind, bar-girls are sentimental and obliging, and all things are bound to turn out for the best. Part of this is Arzee himself - charming as the dwarf is, his charm lies primarily in his hapless naivete, which seems difficult to credit in a 28-year old living poor and disabled in Mumbai. Compare Arzee to Indra Sinha's Animal, for instance, and it's hard to escape the sense of the former as fundamentally unreal.

And then there's the plot. When the gangster sent to collect Arzee's gambling debts befriends and helps him, you raise an amused eyebrow. When Arzee drifts effortlessly into a romantic relationship with a woman who seems inexplicably yet passionately in love with him, you swallow your incredulity and tell yourself not to be cynical. But when revelation piles on revelation, and then, just as you're actually starting to feel sorry for Arzee, all the challenges he faces are brought to a pat and satisfactory resolution, it becomes simply impossible to suspend your disbelief. If Chandrahas had managed to resist the temptation to tie up every loose string (and more, to tie it up happily), this would have been a much better book. As it is, the plot of the last twenty pages reads like something out of a Terry Pratchett novel.

And that, I think, is both Arzee the Dwarf's gift and its undoing. On the one hand, the novel amuses because it presents a vision of a charmed circle of characters living in some alternate world of general optimism, kind heartedness and good fortune. On the other hand, it is precisely this unreality that detracts from any emotional power the novel might have had.

In sum, Arzee the Dwarf is a novel of considerable comic potential that suffers from being both overwrought and overplotted. In Arzee, Chandrahas has created a truly delightful protagonist, one worthy of Shakespeare's Falstaff, or the comic plays of Moliere, but in transmuting so inherently dramatic a persona to the more prosaic atmosphere of the novel, Chandrahas both diminishes the character and overheats the book.

Still, as Arzee himself says, something 's better than nothing. I, for one, look forward to a novel that combines the considerable gift for comedy on display here with a more pragmatic narrative, and a more consistent style. Now that would be a book truly worth celebrating.

[1] In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that while I've never met Chandrahas, we've exchanged a number of e-mails and he's the author of an extremely insightful and extraordinarily positive review of etudes. I'd like to think that has no influence of my assessment of his book, but you never can tell.

[2] Shakespeare, or Shakespearian speech, seems a constant presence in the book. Consider, for instance (from one of Arzee's internal monologues): "Can they deny me my kingdom, and buy my consent with their sympathies"