Sunday, January 06, 2013

Jee Leong Koh's The Pillow Book

The Pillow Book sleeps on the zuihitsu tradition, on the writings of Sei Shonagon. Her work may or may not have been intended for publication. But even if a writer does not write for publication, they write with an awareness of a reader in their head, even if that audience of one is the writer. This, I would argue, is the breathtaking quality of this chapbook: its equivocal voice, its ability to be internal and external, at once a writer speaking to himself and a voice speaking to a readership.

Stephen Fellner is an astute critic and his review of The Pillow Book is to be applauded: yes, he has the nerve to risk reading the new. But he does, so often, hit a wrong note. “As a reader, you begin to want there to be more arbitrariness.” Really, The Pillow Book isn’t about randomness, just repeating the Japanese tradition. It’s a book about two cultures, East and West, and the conflict/agreement between intention and indeterminacy, what is made and what is found in this life (of a poet). Philip F Clark, though he writes an intelligent review for Lambda Literary also strikes a flat note in this respect. “Koh’s solid truths are like chess pieces moving strategically...” That intimates a strict sense of planning, which isn’t the real tone of The Pillow Book.

Both Fellner and French are correct in using their trained critical senses to recognise that The Pillow Book is piece of quality writing. And one that draws its life from a sense (almost hermetically) of a path to be taken, but where will it go, and looks what's ahead and behind, and over there... It is a book of personal events, a peregrination, yet it isn’t biography: the personal events are a discovery of images, not of self, rather of the life of images.

The Pillow Book is a book of changes. It is about massive shifts within a person’s life. But it is done with such delicacy that these changes are floated through, not as in a surreal dream, but with a sense of meditation. Reginald Shepherd wrote brilliantly in Orpheus and The Bronx on identity poetics…his contempt for a writing that fastened itself to the gay identity and forgot about passion for poetry. The Pillow Book is about being gay, opening with Jee Leong Koh moving to New York to find out if he was “gay and a poet”. That “and” is vital… “and a poet”. This book is about a twinned discovery (not accidental the author has a twin-bed). In love, the author describes himself as “a song without a singer”. The Pillow Book is an enquiry into that: how song and singer and lover unify-- Orpheus improvising on the harp, remembering, wondering, observing...far removed from David singing his predictable psalms (having forgotten Jonathan). In "A Lover's Recourse", from Seven Studies for a Self Portrait, Jee Leong Koh alludes to Barthes' Fragments d'un discours amoureux, a rather heavy-handed work in which Barthes is often clever and knowing rather than open and absorbing. I think The Pillow Book has learnt from that reading experience and achieved a better balance between memory and revelation.

The Pillow Book is a revolutionary art, but done with such subtlety you hardly feel the cut or stroke, the knife or the quill.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Alchemy of Return.

We go, says Eliot in Four Quartets, “Towards the door we never opened/Into the rose-garden.” (Burnt Norton, 13-14), yet that journey forwards is really a journey backwards through memory to that first place: Eden. As Milton saw it, that sacred place where grew “Flowers of all hue, and without thorn the rose”. (Paradise Lost, IV, 256). Life is always a double-movement in which turnings involve re-turnings, until time brings moments of personal meaning, that glowing point in which seconds are humanised, and thorny time is stripped of its spines.

Eliot’s image is, as well known, Christianised. The crossing of Time and Timelessness is the incarnation of eternal Christ in the temporal body. And salvation, dis-embodiment is its counter-point. But the image that Eliot draws upon reaches beyond Christianity, it touches the archetypal, as does the shamanic and the hermetic. In a 5000 year old celebration of the Tree of Knowledge, from Sumaria, the branches reach upwards and forwards towards endings as the “root of white crystal” stretches deep into the earth and towards the beginnings of everything.

One of the finest expressions of this theme in mystical literature, has to be Henry Vaughan’s “The Retreat” (1650). Vaughan was a Welsh Catholic. His twin brother, Thomas Vaughan/Eugenius Philalathes, was an alchemist. In “The Retreat”, which is about spiritual retirement and return, the Christian and the Hermetic flow into one another almost as if they reflect the bonding between the two men. (The psychic bonding of twinship as regards these two brothers is beautifully discussed by the novelist Stevie Davies in her book for Seren Press, Henry Vaughan). At the opening of his poem, Vaughan begins with a wonderful phrase for childhood, “angel infancy”. It is a beginning which shines, even before the child grows up to have “white, celestial thought”, by which he means white/gwyn, blessed. Vaughan was aware of the whole tradition of conversations with winged beings, be they messengers in the Bible or winged-spirits in Hermeticism. And for him, childhood was its root, for he implies that even the silent child without language (infant=without word) was already twinned (hyphenated) with angels and so able to converse with them. Though fallen, the Eden-child still communions with Raphael. The child came into childhood in touch with his angelic origins, knowing as it were, the language of the Spirit. The structure of Vaughan’s poem is very simple. It begins with reflection, stretches beyond birth, man’s first race, then begins to grow up through mankind’s “second race”. The Vaughan-child delights in the natural world and begins to reach forward towards the " shadows of eternity”. At this point, the poem goes into retreat, moving from the dangers done through speech backwards and towards the point of birth once more and “shoots of everlastingness”. As a flower, he feels the end in the beginning.

This repeated mythology of return, ranging forth and back, to go forth again, would have been no surprise to Thomas Vaughan. Alchemy is all about cycles, where ends become beginnings, the ouroboric circle where the mouth of the snake eats its tail.

Indeed, alchemy had a central theme which was the birth of the divine child. Out of chaos came youth, which grew towards age and corruption, which then had to revert to a young and innocent state once more.

Vaughan’s meditation on childhood, is written in two parts. The first part depicts a human picture. But in the second part, a more literary picture appears. It is the equivalent of reading one alchemical woodcut and then a second. The first has been transformed into something else. It resembles, but is of a different nature. Now, as Vaughan longs “to travel back” along the “ancient track”, his vision extends through the Bible. The reader is taken in reverse through a biblical/spiritual journey to Pisgah, where Moses in old age saw the City of Palms, the original and eternal Heavenly City. Then moving through the Hermetic world of the Phaedo where the soul staggers, the reader is taken through “forward”, “love”, “backward,” move” until the twinned rhymes “love” and “move” identify this return as a desired regression. Fittingly, the final word in the poem is “return”, so the poem finishes on the page, in time, but offers “return” as a reflection on timelessness. The Vaughan-adult regresses to the Vaughan-child to finish with an innocent truth: all is reflection and return: “What we call the beginning is often the end/And to make an end is to make a beginning” (Little Gidding). Why asks Vaughan, are we so eager to run away from our enchanted childhood?

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Seven Studies for a Self Portrait: Part 1 (of 7).

Jee Leong Koh’s new book of poetry is a significant work. But significant in how many ways? The literary critic, Nicholas Liu, describes it as a “mighty book” for Singaporean literature. This he is well qualified to judge. I believe it is no less a great book in terms of gay poetry— a statement which needs explanation given the current dissatisfaction with the term gay poetry. And a forceful book in terms of Hermeticism— a claim which is probably going to need just as much clarification.

Reginald Shepherd said almost everything that needed to be said in his attack on identity poetics. A poetics that exists to push a gay agenda serves the wrong god. The Greeks ascribed poetry to Apollo, not Eros. A poet must be first and foremost a poet. His allegiance is to creativity, not fucking. But a writer who is prepared to push his sexuality to the margins and declare himself a writer who happens to be gay, as if his core is an accidental, also makes an error. In the High Renaissance, Hermes, the god of writing, became a cipher for the link between overworld and underworld, between inspiration and dark (homo)erotic desire. I don’t see the term gay poet as a belittling term in anyway: such simply honours a twinning, a Hermetic union. Jee Leong Koh serves Hermes, and in doing so his new book is a disciplined work about sexuality and poetry: it is written with a technical passion.

Seven Studies for a Self Portrait opens with a quotation from Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra (1891):

And this is all my creating and striving, that I create and carry together into One what is fragment and riddle and dreadful accident.
In reviewing SSfaSP, Nicholas Liu reads this epigram in terms of self-identity. This leads him to add a qualification to the “mighty book”. He states that the book fails to “present the magisterial composite of the self” proposed by Nietzsche. Perhaps, he is correct, but perhaps the author never intended to reach the dizzying heights of complete self-awareness. (Nicholas Liu, to his credit, does revise his initial view and suggest that the Nietzsche is a decoy). Perhaps, Nicholas Liu has also misread the meaning of Zarathustra. To “carry together into One” is a re-statement of the Hermetic “Many-in-One”. And to transport bits and pieces of trickery into Unity is clearly an echo of Hermes’ working methods: he was both trickster, maker of mistakes, and unveiler of secrets. Behind Zarathustra’s declaration (the epigram above) there is a passage from The Gay Science (1882) in which Nietzsche speaks of how weakness and strength must be assimilated into one…by the writer…who is interested in “giving style”, who seeks to identify himself through artistic organisation. The novelist who most recognised this, in the last century, was Herman Hesse. Hermes was his guiding genius; especially in his master-work on mystical artistry, Das Glasperlenspiel. Like Aeschylus, he encounterd Hermes as "Master of the Game".
In a recent interview, Jee Leong Koh acknowledges that he sees poetry as Hesse’s “glass bead game”. It would be more accurate to read the Zarathustra quotation, not as a quest for total psychological wholeness, but as Jee Leong Koh’s belief in artistic style and integrity. SSfaSP is a book about “giving style” and accepting that every little thing, strong or weak, has its place in poetic life. The Nietzsche quotation recognises the poetic aims of the book: it is built from “riddles”, “I am My Names”; from “dreadful accident”, “Bull Eclogues”; and fragments, “A Lover’s Recourse” pays tribute to Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse, which is subtitled “Fragments”-- a book that is about the style of “accidents…and the amorous subject” (p.6). In "giving style", Jee leong Koh is concerned with what poetics can teach him (as a teacher in daily life) about love and relationship (to himself and others). Hermes, Apollo, Eros.

Silent Structure: Part 2 (of 7)

The term gay poet recognises an ordering of the creative agenda. And that ordering implies much more than writing about gay sex or writing with a gay sensibility. The gay poet draws from a desire for a defining style/Hermes/Thoth, god of the stylus, creates through technique/Apollo, and includes sexual experience into what is created/Eros. This “giving style”, for Nietzsche, involved bringing all contradictions under “one yoke”, a kind of discipline that exerted pressure on many unequal points and brought them to a single focus. (Very Poundian). This dedication to style and identity is something that characterises the gay poetic tradition as it runs through the hands of Robert Duncan, H.D. and Reginald Shepherd. (Duncan and H.D. are unquestionable Hermeticists and Shepherd follows a decidedly hermeneutical bent). In his truly perceptive review of Seven Studies for a Self Portrait, Nicholas Liu’s claims that Jee Leong Koh’s project, in SSfaSP, is “Elotian”. I think this is an over-emphasis and leads to a restrictive view of the book and erases the sexual element in favour of a disincarnate English poetic. In a somewhat Nietzschean manner, Nicholas Liu attempts to make many fragmentary influences fit into one: the style is Eliot’s. The taste of the poem is Eliot’s. Really there are many varied sources, however, if a reader listens to the music of the poems. There is a tightness derived from Dickinson, a looseness born of Whitman, a symbolic sharpness from Yeats, even the quiet deadliness of Larkin. And there are moments that take flight like Rumi.

SSfaSP is a book of sevens. There are seven sequences and the seventh sequence, made of 49 ghazals is 7x7. As a number deeply associated with The Bible and the Christian tradition (being the number of Creation and the Gifts of the Holy Spirit) seven shapes the book, yet the content continuously pulls against the shadow of Puritanism. This is not a volume that awaits “The dove descending…with incandescent terror.” (Four Quartets, Little Gidding, IV, ll 200-201). As "Study #1" concludes in reply to Durer’s portrait of himself as Logos: “Word can stand down, leave by the door.” It is words and memories which sit on the poet’s tongue, a cock in the mouth rather than the eucharist. This silent structuring, in SSfaSP, evokes a tradition running from the medieaval period and sets a context for the spiritual enquiries within the book. Such a quiet, over-arching structure suggests the roots of Jee leong Koh's spiritual identity. He still feels an older architecture. Yet, his quest for identity is not, like Eliot's, set within a framework of Christian possibilities.

Studies: Part 3 (of 7).

The first sequence in Seven Studies for a Self-Portrait has the same title as Jee Leong’s Koh’s book. This sequence of ekphrastic poems, in which poetry speaks to visual art and portrait speaks to poet, sets the tone for the volume. The seven studies follow a biographical order, 1500-1996, from Durer to Morimura, and they gradually change in tone, in response to art history. Durer’s portrait of himself as Christ is an affirmation of representational art and Christianity. God created Man in His image, so Durer, as new-Adam, paints himself as Christ. At the other extreme, Morimura’s appropriation of Marilyn Monroe shows how unstable self-portraiture has become in Modern Art. Morimura becomes Monroe to create an illusion that is neither Morimura nor Monroe. If Durer’s self-portrait suggests incarnation, Morimura’s suggests implantation. Nicholas Liu makes a brilliant perception when he observes that these ekphrastic poems have Morimura as “the presiding spirit”. He notes that Morimura inhabited 4 /7 of the self-portraits chosen by Jee Leong Koh: “Study #2 After Rembrandt van Rijn; “Study #3 Vincent van Gogh; “Study #5 After Frida Kahlo”; “Study #7 After Yasimusa Morimura”. Actully, Morimura did 6/7 of the self-portraits in the book: he cast himself as Egon Schiele and Andy Warhol, “Study #4 and Study #7”. In the first sequence, Morimura stands as a type for the Artist in search of an identity after Durer…a world of identity in flux beyond Christianity.

Self-portraiture has to be boldest statement an artist can make. Not only is the self painted, but it is painted in the style of that self. In the first sequence of poems, Jee Leong Koh plays, as Morimura plays, there is a sense of self-conscious entertainment. And what emerges in this sequence, as in the whole book, is a series of studies, fragments towards a whole, but no complete self-portrait of Jee Leong Koh. The first sequence is a world of implication. Where is the author of these poems? Is it in the queer world of Warhol? “Recognisable by the cock”? Is it in the straight world of Schiele? “Look at me, cock in my claws”. Or is it in Van Gogh and the brutality of Logos: “God sank a mineshaft into me for a reason”. The first 7 poems are a mirror in which poet and reader chase images of selfhood, creations made by an “accomplice” (SSfaSP, “Mirror”, p.88). The technique of these poems is at its best in “Study #5 After Frida Kahlo”.

The poem opens simply, but powerfully:
I dream I am a wreck of a woman.
Kahlo speaks of creativity, “I dream”, yet the sentence does not close, but opens further “I dream I am”. The “I am” confirms existence. Then the suggestion of wholeness is negated by “a wreck”. In the double world of the ekphrastic poem, the voice of Kahlo and Jee Leong Koh meet. Who is shattered? The final “a woman” says Kahlo or is this the poet (like Morimura) switching gender?

The next line is finely measured, adding a grandure that is denied:
I am not grand like ruins, I am not a broken column.
Identity is a sinking into the ordinary:
I am the traffic accident on morning radio.
The banal image undercuts any sense of tragic immensity.

The study continues:
A bus handrail is sticking in my uterus like a huge thumbtack.

My collarbone hangs from my throat like a necklace.

In this line, the rich /o/ of “bone” fittingly sticks and the subtle distant rhyme between “wreck” and “neck” contrasts collapse with a terrifying image of natural ornamentation.

Kahlo is an articulated woman, and her body, like art, is pieced together.

This closes one five-line section of the poem. Another five-line section opens like the first, “I dream”. But this time the poet/artist dreams a monkey. Usually, the monkey is a symbol for lust. In what follows, however, the music is tender and precise, re-creating the monkey, as in Kahlo’s self-portraits of herself with monkeys, as a creature of empathy and sexuality. In Hermeticism, the monkey is a symbol for Man, the Microcosm. Here it becomes a small male lover:
I dream a monkey is picking up bits of my spine with his pale hands.

The monkey is carefully arranging me back together.

I hear the Professor say the monkey is the traditional symbol for lust.

My monkey is very gentle.

When he is finished, I will take him to my breast, and offer him my nipple.

In the seventh line finely controlled by the rolling “r”, the curves of the monkey’s actions are captured. At its close, the poem replicates the picture, as short syllables capture the quickness and tenderness of Kahlo’s animal. The one word that carries weight is “breast”. The weight of sexuality and sexual restoration is caught by this sound-image.

Three Studies: Part 4 (of 7)

As already said, Seven Studies for a Self Portrait contains seven sections. The sections are of even lengths, apart from the seventh section which constitutes almost half of the book. The sections which follow “Seven Studies” expand in difficulty, opening to what is the tour de force among the short sequences: “Bull Eclogues”. There is an enigmatic quality to “Seven Studies”. And this is followed by three further puzzles. These sequences could be compared to musical studies, short pieces that create a single mood or mode of expression. The best musical parallel I can think of would be the piano studies of Satie, at once mystical, poised, and singular— but whereas Satie can become eccentric, Jee Leong Koh is elliptical.

The title “Profiles” immediately suggests an ambiguity. A profile is a short description and a figure painted from the side. Each of the poems in “Profiles” describes a “He”, an unknown man viewed in miniature and from a side-view. The poems are oblique shots of human lives. In some ways, the poems also seem distanced by time. The controlled free verse, which is actually the most relaxed poetry in the volume, creates a sedative atmosphere (reminiscent of Cavafy), one in which imperfect lives exist, without any real identity, without any real guilt.

The sequences “I Am My Names” and “What We Call Vegetables” use a rigid metric. The poems in “What We Call Vegetables” are still-life drawings. They peel open, revealing fragments of the body/self. The poems in “I Am My Names” sketch 7 characteristics of the author: son, lover, poet, homosexual, Singaporean, Chinese, father, in the sense of ghazal 42, “Deep in your words, you realise you are your own father”. These are exquisite reflections on fractions of the whole self.

In “Translations of An Unknown Mexican Poet”, Jee Leong Koh has created a substantial personae poem. Originally published in PN Review as six poems, SSfaSP re-instates “Pigeons” to its justified place. It is a sequence about “giving style” and finding identity. The original poet has no name. He is a person removed from knowing. He is known in his work, but he is removed from this also: it is to be experienced in English. The sequence amounts to an interesting game about what can be known in poetry. Translations are a significant part of the poetry world. Every translator is involved a battle between meaning and technique, how to convey both, when to accept that only one aspect will carry over. And every compromise is a step away from the identity that created the original. It is interesting that the sequence opens with the threat of death, "I'm going to kill myself unless the day lets me in" (SSfaSP, p.51) because in one sense the poet has already died and passed from memory into death, the unknown, but is being brought back to life. What does exist of any author in what they write? That depends on the school of criticism followed!

Gay Poetry and Transgression/Bull Shit and Bull Eclogues: Part 5 (of 7)

Currently, on Lambda Literary Blog, Saeed Jones has opened up a debate on the connection between gay identity and poetry. His article emerges from an interesting debate that ran on his blog about a year ago: What makes a poem gay? A debate to which Jee Leong Koh contributed. This debate has some bearing on “Bull Eclogues”.

An overview of that debate looks like this. According to Jerome Murphy, the gay poet is fragranced with “lavender”. Such intimates a weak stereotype. Think "Cavafy". (A contestable start indeed). He wishes for a stronger image and suggests that the gay poet is a “trickster” with “double vision”. That is worth considering. The double vision was literal in Robert Duncan’s case…which became a metaphor for his double-meaning world of Hermeticism. For Duncan, puns opened up depths within language, crossways at which the divine entered. Yes, the gay poet has always been a “trickster”, in the sense explored by Lewis Hyde in Trickster Makes This World. The gay poet seeks a “disruptive imagination”. Unfortunately, Jerome Murphy then dissolves the gay poet into the acid of alchemical Hermaphroditism: all great poets are Androgynes, so sexuality doesn’t really matter in the long run because poetry is all about touching this deep, contradictory level. He wishes to ‘complicate the idea of “gay”’ into a transgressive“sensibility” that pervades all great works of art. There is a world of difference, however, between the gay poet…and Sylvia Plath (his example) writing like Eliot and being a man-woman…and there is an even bigger difference between Plath and H.D. as a Gyandrous, Lesbian poet subverting a whole psychological, spiritual, cultural tradition to create Trilogy. And yes, there is a chasm between the notion of a gay poet with lavender deoderant and Essex Hemphill writing as a Black gay poet (in Vital Signs) under the guidance of the rebellious Signifying Monkey.

Dante Micheaux entered the debate at a more basic level: the gay poet writes about homoerotic desire and gay poetry includes that desire. That is equivalent to Dr Samuel Johnson kicking a rock to show that the world existed outside the mind. What is gay poetry if it does not connect to gay experience (which can of course be very wide)?

Ocean Vuong positioned himself somewhere between the two: sexuality is part of the gay poet, but that sexuality should not “overshadow” the poem. Non-gay readers should be able to find some point of emotional identification within the poem, so as it still speaks to them.

Putting these practical views together, the gay poet emerges as someone who writes about same sex love, but is able to universalize the emotions such that they speak beyond gay culture: Eros gives way to Apollo. And the gay poet is a transgressor, a contradictory messenger: Hermes.

Saaed Jones, in his recent Lambda article, rather throws himself into the Jerome Murphy camp, ignoring the assimilation suggested on his blog. The gay poet has been transformed into the Queer Poet. Homoerotic desire is insignifcant, the gay poet/queer poet is simply a transgressive agent: s/he queers language,and shows an allegiance to all writers who have a bent to twist language into new forms. Vocabulary and syntax make identity:

If we embrace poetry as a means of making/re-making realities, we are queer poets, not because of who we sleep with and love, but because of what we do to the world – and how.

I believe that this is a fundamentally misguided approach which has grown out of previously half-understood ideas about Hermeticism and disruptive imagination. And it begs this question: does transgressive language necessarily make a valuable poem or identity?

When Jee Leong Koh started the debate, he had this to say:

…When I write, I try to write as good a poem as I can, and I do not think about how gay it is. When I read, I ask myself if the poem is any good, and not if the poem is any[way] gay.

That was a cautious, introductory answer! And it suggests a different direction to the debate which followed. He is primarily a poet who serves Apollo. He is interested in whether a poem is “good” not how far it transgresses, not whether it is gay /queer. Yet, included in that “good” is a desire to subvert historical forms, to play technique against emotion (drawn from his experiences as a gay man).

“Bull Eclogues” is a trangressive sequence: its mythology begins with sexual transgression and the birth of the Minotaur. It deals with homoerotic desire. It speaks with a wider cultural resonance. It seeks a transgressive sonnet language that will deal with religious trespass. And it is within this context that a study for a self-portrait begins.

Bull Eclogues: Part 6 (of 7)

In 2005, Times magazine listed Ted Haggard as one of the most influential Evangelical leaders in the USA. At that time, he was the leader of the National Associations of Evangelicals and a public figure welcomed at The White House. In 2006, a scandal broke which exposed him as a homosexual— a great setback for his Evangelical homophobia. This is the context for “Bull Eclogues”, a sequence in which its author presents the spiritual crisis of Haggard and by painting a portrait of him sketches his own personal concerns, as a gay man, about Evangelical Christianity. Durer casting himself as Christ in “Sketch #1” mutates into Haggard’s tortured view of himself as Christian martyr. This sequence is a wonderfully energetic analysis of the sins of Christianity.

The “Bull Eclogues” are written with a sharp sense of irony. Nicholas Liu, with true insight, observes that Jee Leong Koh’s sonnets are Petrarchan. (They have the familiar turn of mood as octet becomes sestet). The Petrarchan sonnet originated as a priest gave up his religious vocation for love. The “Bull Eclogues” begin as Haggard forfits his Christian mission for homosexual lust. And there are further ironies. Petrarch’s sonnets to Laura, are works of unrequited love. The first poem in the sequence, “Cretan”, describes how Haggard’s desire is accepted. An “eclogue” has its origins in the Greek ekloge/choice. Poetic eclogues present chosen worlds— of natural order. But the main echo here is Christian. As Milton put it in his great definition of choice, angels were made “sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.” (Paradise Lost, III, ll.98-99). Though an Evangelical angel, Haggard chose to fall…to become a Minotaur in a labyrinth of denials and lies.

“The Cretan” begins:

You come out of the shower, warm and wet,
and towel your head with rough deliberation.
Those wide shoulders untouched by a plough,
you wear like a smile, and the room smells right.
The poem opens with a staged gay scenario. The reader’s tongue lingers with the speaker’s on the alliterative “warm and wet”. The speaker acknowledges his physical attraction, though this man is no pastoral lad with a plough. This is an anti-eclogue in which Christian pastors are not pastoral. His instincts aroused, the speaker descends into smell. The brilliant choice of word, though, is “deliberation.” It at once describes the calculated manner of the seducer and reminds the reader that this word has its roots in liberation. Haggard is shown as sensing his own freedom, giving up his conservative theology for something more liberal. He is dwelling on a dangerous free thought.

The poem continues:

I know I should have sacrificed you to God,
I should have raised the knife despite its stone
and saved its bullion in your bull-cow heart,
I should have turned from fucking with a beast.

With a sense of his own importance, the speaker compares his testing to that of Abraham, reminding a reader in the process that he did not adhere to God’s will like that great patriarch.

At its conclusion, the poem falls into a world of violence. Haggard admits he has surrendered, almost comically, to “the altar” of “lust”. His world is pornographic melodrama…a conversion of his Evangelical world. There is something pornographic about the extremities of Evangelical language, its medieval Bosch-like obsession with infiltrating its own diseased notions of sexuality.

The writing in “Bull Eclogues” sustains the wit and energy of it opening. As the portrait of Haggard develops, layer upon layer, the reader becomes aware of the poet who put those words on the page and into the ear. A secondary sketch begins. This sketch shows a poet writing with understanding and contempt, shaking off Protestantism as Haggard protests. Behind this trangressive poem there is an ethical mind. This, I think, is something that characterises the gay poet (in the Nietzschean sense of characterisation whereby every little thing is weighed up and disciplined into a style of expression): having been wounded and pushed into exile by morality the return to health comes from establishing a counter ethical centre. It is from that centre that opposition grows. Transgression is ethical. The jokes of the trickster are serious.

The Vital Gay Universe: 7 (of 7)

The final sequence of SSfaSP is "A Lover’s Recourse". Technically, this includes 49 ghazals. Each ghazal is made from 7 shers (couplets), includes a radif (mono-rhyme at the end of each couplet), and concludes with a maqta (poetic signature or tag). (The form, as used by Jee Leong Koh, does not include a set metre and a set rhyme that runs through all the odd-numbered lines). This variation on the ghazal is effective, allowing both openness and closure, a sense of variation and linkage. The sequence itself alludes to Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse (1978). This text was defined by its author as a “running here and there”, an apt description for the work is deliberately without style, is not allowed to unify into a portrait of Barthes or to become a love story. In choosing Barthes as a point of departure, and it is a point of departure, not agreement, the ghazals further Jee leong Koh’s interest in portraiture. The change of “Discourse” to “Recourse” intimates a different intent: the ghazals are a “turning towards”, giving support to a life. To echo Barthes, “So it is a lover who speaks and who says”…and that voice, in the seventh sequences, is that of a lover of poetry and men. “Bull Eclogues” offers no sense of transcendence. Religious hypocrisy is a lie to be condemned. In “A Lover’s Recourse”, which is intimate (rather than confessional), there is a real sense of substance and personal transubstantiation. A reader experiences a mind in search of itself amidst the minutiae of existence. There is a Hermetic maxim, with biblical basis, that the most insignificant stone rejected could be the one of greatest value. That sense runs through “A Lover’s Recourse”, as images are returned to within a ghazal and themes are returned to within the long poem. This is a poem outside Eliot’s Christian universe, beyond Evangelicanism; a poem which doesn’t speak to hermetical angels, but is Hermetic in its awareness that everything matters— not least of all being gay. The great strength of this sequence is that it is moral without moralizing— that is best left to a Christianity that has strayed from ethics and self-awareness.

Choose perfection of the life or of the work,

cries the large angel with a soft voice like a pigeon.

The final sequence of SSfaSP is a whole, but is marked into sevenths—river, stone, bed, pigeons, wound, fountain. This sher from the beginning of the third seventh (ghazal 22) takes its opening from W.B.Yeats’ “The Choice” (The Winding Stair, 1933). In that poem, Yeats recognises that an intellect which chooses Art hasn’t the time for Religion and in doing so must “refuse” Heaven. That is one significant theme in these ghazals: the devotion to poetry is a grand refutation. Another two significant themes occur in “Wound” and “Fountain”.

When I think I can live without being queer all my life,

a morning happens, and the scar unlocks the wound

Increscunt animi, virescit volnere vitus, Jee.

Spirits increase and vigour grows, through a wound.
Out of Nietzsche (via Gellius on Bibaculus), these shers acknowledge the Hermeticist’s sense of necessary wounding, a shamanic awareness that a wound opens up spiritual data.

And a core statement:

Jee, you may carry from the sun the finest stone.

A form, without love’s pressure does not make a fountain

Rumi, Michelangelo, Duncan, all would pay tribute to that perception.

The poetry in “A Lover’s Recourse” shows “love’s pressure”, as the ghazals return to imagery of currents, flow, opening, containment, blocked entrance, penetration, holding to, routines, routes, and epiphany.

Nicholas Liu’s review of Seven Studies for a Self Portrait is a strong piece of reviewing. Its strength resides in the fact that it is strong enough to be argued with, so different to the thin poetry reviews which too often appear on the internet and in journals. He does Jee Leong Koh a great act of critical friendship by writing at length on the strengths and weaknesses, as he perceives them. I cannot test his claim that “A Lover’s Recourse” is the “most compelling long poem or poem sequence” in Singaporean literature. I would wish to claim equally, however, that the ghazals offer much enjoyment intellectually and emotionally and are a significant sequence in terms of other literatures, standing alongside Andrew Waterman’s Out for the Elements and D’Aguiar’s Elegies.

SSfaSP is a compelling sketch of how vital a gay identity can be.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Robert Duncan's "An African Elegy".

the blackness beyond black.
Robert Duncan’s An African Elegy is a key poem within the poet’s body of work, an unlocking of desire and language. Surprisingly, it is not easily available today: the Selected Poems (Bertholf) does not bother to include it among the “Early Poems.” The poem is also significant for biographical and cultural reasons, which are part of its mystery. An African Elegy was written at Berkeley, 1942. It was submitted to and accepted by the then fairly young Kenyon Review, but following Duncan’s courageous, public and political declaration of his homosexuality (in Politics, 1944) the editor, John Crowe Ransome, refused to publish it. Readings of the poem have been fascinated with the question: is the poem about homosexuality or not? Much more interesting is why Duncan wrote an “African” death-song as a formulation of desire…as an attempt to map out early, spiritual, hermetical questions.

In the opinion of Ransome, the darkness of the elegy referred to hidden homosexuality. Duncan’s riposte was that the poem was about what cannot be known in the human mind: as he knew about his homosexuality, the darkness was not a metaphor for that. So, what is the darkness?

An African Elegy opens with a somewhat innocent view of Africa’s groves. In their “natural wonder/the wildebeest, zebra., the okapi, the elephant,/have entered the marvellous.” It is a child’s, enchanted perception. (Duncan records in The Years as Catches how Rosario Jimenez read Lorca’s Oda da Rey de Harlem to him and her reading awoke “some realm of my childhood dreams of wild and splendid animals and negro kings”). From this point, An African Elegy crosses over into an adult world and that of Lorca. The exultant and rhetorical repetitions (“distil there their red”, “distil/from their leaves the terrible red”) are a trademark of Lorca’s ode, as is the central image of “red”, blood, wildness, which recalls “tus rojos oprimidos” and “tu sangre estremecida”. As Lorca’s Black Harlem frames Duncan's africa a gay context emerges. (An African Elegy and Oda da Rey de Harlem are powerful outpourings of desire in a world where love is a “great sadness… a heart’s famine”). Yet Duncan does not rest with this. He extends his animal imagery into wolf/Woolf and through a mythological re-telling of Virginia Woolf’s suicide connects the poetry to a Neo-Platonic, hermetical view of life whereby Amor contains mor(s osculi) and Love appears as the “consort” of Death. The blackness of Africa, “the negro armies in the eucalyptus”, herald “our solitude” in the world and how we look through love at “the more complete black-out”.

The whole of An African Elegy is a poem about tides of feeling. Images ebb, flow, and merge. Anticipating H.D.’s hermetical method in her later poetry, Duncan’s images break in the sub-conscious and merge with its suicidal flow. Virginia Woolf releases “wolf” and becomes the Virgin/Ophelia/Desdemona just as the male writer becomes identified (implicitly with Hamlet and explicitly) with the Black Moor, Othello: “in jungles of my body, there/Othello moves”. Of course, the poet is all of this, especially the homosexual poet who erects an exulted male self but allows the remarkable feminine principle within him. At the close of the poem, Duncan draws back from “the halls of Africa” and terms them as “barriers”. He appears to suggest a Freudian awareness in which imagery of black Africa belongs to the super-ego beyond which the blackness of the id opens like a sea. The poet stands in his “towering Moor of self”/ego overlooking what hermetical tradition terms the blackness beyond blackness, nigrium, nigrius nigro. Love embraces death and child-like eros loosens the chains of the body into more than sexual pleasure.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Burnings, Ocean Vuong

Like many (USA) poets, Ocean Vuong has published quite widely within internet journals. (His blog contains a comprehensive list of these places). Two points ought to be made in the light of this: 70% of his chapbook, Burnings, can be read via the net; Burnings has been well-edited, such that is contains a high quality selection of his electronically published work. And putting those two points together, internet publishing can easily dilute poetic achievement (because of the lack of attention to type-setting and weak critical standards by editors with insufficient literary experiences) and nothing can replace the pleasure of a well-structured volume of poetry enjoyed at length. And that is what Burnings offers. It is a chapbook with structural integrity (and judicious editing) which affords as much insight and intelligence as a first book.

Burnings is an effective title for this volume. (More gutsy and descriptive than the original Arrival by Fire). The whole consists of a thoughtful Ars Poetica followed by two sections that show a sensitive and sensual poet at work. Each section contains 12 poems that react like macrocosm and microcosm. Section (i) seeks to relate the poet to a historical, geographical, cultural context. Literally, a matrix, for the wider world is experienced through the Mother—mother, grandmother, the subconscious Anima. Section (ii) shows the Anima at work, the poet reaching from the motherland within to confront love. Significant Modernists have worked with the Mars-Venus concordia discors much valued by the Renaissance. For Pound, AMOR-ROMA, symbolised how ROMA (patriarchy) could be reversed to AMOR (matriarchy). The power of light issuing as divine love within the female destroys darkness to construct civilisation in The Cantos. In Trilogy, the female angelic spectrum is conjured by rejuvenate a post-war Europe destroyed by men. Duncan’s Passages rise out of Pound and H.D. to depict the eternal battle between Love and War. Burnings works within this grand field, but at a highly personal level as it refers back to The Vietnam War. As the poet hides in a deathly dark “Where…the sins/promised by out fathers/could not find us” (“Revelation”, ll 3-5), he also awakes to the living light of the grandmother who “kisses as if to breathe/you inside her” (“Kissing in Vietnamese”, ll 12-13). Section (i) contains memorable, grand poems such as “Song of my Mothers”; also, poems that quiver with memory, like “Time-Maker”, which longs to turn back time and heal a violent parental conflict. There are occasional moments when grandure succumbs to bare philosophising: Like all photographs/this one fails/to reveal the picture (“The Photograph” ll12-14); moments when the poetry is strained. Mainly, though, the poetry sings with finely cadenced lines and perfectly timed imagery:

On the balcony—a woman hanging rags,
her voice delicate, almost fractured

as it weaves through the gray sheet
framing her silhouette.

(“Sai Gon, again”, ll3-6).

That is finely done. A plain image. One that comes alive as the voice begins. The brittle voice is caught in the material of language, heard in the bony “ate” and “act”. The verb “weave” carries the sound into the cloth, as it absorbs. And finally, the blurred voice becomes a faint image, “her silhouette”. Constantly, against the executions of war, Ocean Vuong creates breath-giving linguistic execution. He understands the quiet power of language. Like the voice entering the cloth which receives the woman’s projected image, he has a gift for projecting the matrix of the Mother into language:

I did not think how the wind stopped hissing
through the cracked window, or how

she softly exhaled as I pulled closer knowing
this was not right: a boy reaching out

and into the shell of a husband…

(“The Touch”, ll 11-15).

What a re-creation of the Oedipal myth.

Section (ii) of Burnings is “a boy reaching out”. It is an account of a young man coming to terms with his different sexuality, one that must balance the burning world of the Father with the watery world of the Mother. This section could have easily become an anti-climax after section (i), just another collection of coming out poems. Mercifully, this is not the case. The quality of writing is sustained and the sense of individuality isn’t lost.

What is most admirable about Burnings is how the poems have been arranged so as they inter-relate and the attention to details. So, in section (i), an originally underweight “If you are a Refugee” has 2 stanzas added to it—it is important that this biographical poem resonates. And in section (ii), in the wonderful “Song on the Subway” (where music carries the poet on an alchemical, regressive journey back into infanthood and a violin’s womb) telling revisions are made. A clich├ęd “It kills me” is removed. A rhetorical “iron jaws” is replaced by more realistic “steel jaws” (doors on a train). And a redundant “something like” is removed. These changes suggest a poet who cares about his craft (and a Press that cares about its work).

The cover-work for Burnings portrays a Munch-like mouth. It is a dramatic image that fits with the re-occurring mouth image within the volume. For Ocean Vuong, the mouth is the source of a scream, the opening for sexual pleasure, the origin of kisses that bind memory and the symbol of starvation. The mouth is also an indicator for what Ocean Vuong has found in this volume: a poetic voice that leaves the page and speaks to the reader. And yes, his finely told narratives, with their revealed psychological content, often have the quality of myth, which derives from "a mouthing".

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Lightly in the Good of Day

Bob Hart’s first full-length book of poems, published by Bench Press, is evocative work: in an almost magical sense of that word for the poems read like conjurations. As Jee Leong Koh notes in an effective and thoughtful introduction, Bob is a Robin, a Robin Goodfellow, a Puck of Midsummer. True, he is also a kind of Prospero, who as performance poet/mage understands the dramatic nature of words.

Writing in his introduction to this volume (by a mature poet that has the feel of a Selected Poems), Jee Leong Koh makes three important observations. Firstly, Bob Hart is a poet of the “Naughty nothing number zero”. Secondly, he is a trickster. Thirdly, his language recalls that of Dylan Thomas. All of these are interesting perspectives.

From an Hermetic view-point, Puck is The Fool of The Tarot. This card bears the Zero. It is the nothingness, the 0-like egg of Orpheus, from which creativity begins. And that creativity is a place of cancellation, where positive and negative meet. This is, perhaps, the major tone that a reader feels in Lightly in the Good of Day. Light and shadow meet in balance. The poetry contains a modern, metaphysical wit, which sees the darkness of life. Yet, this is done with a lightness of touch and dance of intellect:

You again might be
So kindly sympathetic with the Deity
You’d go one on one
With the awesome quantity of Nothingness
To sustain a Circumstance
For God’s eternity.
(Ludwig and Emily for Instance, p.28).

A nice touch, to see Donne’s circling compasses, Blake’s circle of containment, re-imagined as a “Circumstance”.

Art can be perceived through many connected words: artisan, artistry, artistic. The Trickster is known through a more subtle connection—articulated. S/he is a player with the articulations of the body, the bones and how they fall; with the skeleton of syntax and the rattle of words on the page. The poems in Lightly in the Good of Day are fuly aware of this. Their syntax swings and tumbles acrobatically. Fortunately, they never become the dreary word poetry so beloved by certain quarters in the USA. Bob Hart’s poetry sparkles within its veils, so the poem, like a cloud “is a shimmersuit for the naked sun” (The Well Showered Woman Auto-Racer, p.14).

Hermeticism has provided some vital metaphors for criticism. Bloom’s connection of Kabbalah and criticism is one major example. Most striking is Bloom’s claim that a poet is often engaged in a struggle with another poet, with chains from which s/he must break free, often by imitation, then transcendence. More often, with contemporary poetry, I am reminded of the alchemist in his laboratory with shelves of bottles, tinctures, aromas and tastes. Poetry, as in Bob Hart’s, isn’t a wrestling with any particular cosmic angel, like Jacob, so much as a blending of forms into something new. The poems in this volume are reminiscent of the early Dylan Thomas. They hold a rich surrealism. But none clearly echo any of his poems. (This isn’t a metaphysical reaction as in the poetry of Vaughan and Herbert). If anything the poems are closer to the disciples of Thomas, poets such as W.S.Graham:

Let me measure my prayer with sleep as an
Infant of story in the stronghold eyelid
Left by a hedge with a badge of campions…

(Let Me Measure, p.22 Collected Poems).

Participation in that petal’s flush
echoes blushingly in self:
song; heard caused to bloom in me—
(In that Petal Flesh, p.10)

In other words, Bob Hart writes within a tradition of pastoral and metaphor and rhetoric— but a light rhetoric, one distilled, like Graham. In the poetry many echoes appear, the profound simplicity of Emily Dickinson, the “zingy and swift” diction of e.e. cummings, the urbane jazz tone of Langston Hughes, even the energetic delicacy found in the better Futurist poets such as Ardengo Soffici. But the poems are very much in the voice of the poet! Sometimes, the world of fairy and Ariel jars with this reader, but the poems in the main are exciting and original. They are translucent visions of human feeling...double rainbows in which light is inverted...devilishly good...“iridescences”.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Into Suez by Stevie Davies: Posting the Truth.

In a short story from 1998, “My Father’s Greatcoat”, Stevie Davies asks a question: “How did he become so maternal , my Forces father?” (A Second Skin, p.97). The greatcoat is viewed as a symbol of comfort, a secure and fixed point amidst endless “postings” from Egypt to Germany. In her latest novel, Into Suez, Stevie Davies returns to this world of movement and “postings”, to Egypt, into the canal of imperialistic dreams, which the novel reads as a metaphor for communication between people and countries.

The term “postings” suggests many things within this novel. It indicates the movement/transporting of the Roberts family from Wales to Egypt. On a deeper level, it recognizes a life in flux, how all the characters within the novel are in search of a place/post to root themselves; a quest deeply felt by the volatile Mona Serafin-Jacobs, whose married name unites the unpositioned worlds of Palestine and Israel. At a subterranean level, it is a sign of Hermes, god of communication, who carries postings/communications between the living and the dead. Ailsa Roberts, living her life between birth and death, peace and war, witnesses this as she delivers a baby after visiting the Egyptian tombs of death.

In one of her scholarly works of criticism, The Idea of Woman in Renaissance Literature, Stevie Davies traces the myth of Eleusis and how it became the field of creativity for Spenser, Shakespeare and Milton. Demeter’s loss of Persephone offered a fertile myth for Renaissance writers, a deep image which could be eternally re-worked in contemporary stories. The myth became a “greatcoat” of motherhood in which male writers could find security. In the Rites of Eleusis, it is Hermes who guides the initiates between dark and light, as he did when he carried posts from Demeter into Hades in search of Persephone. Subconsciously, it is this myth which inspires Stevie Davies within Into Suez. The novel splits into a double narrative in which Egypt is experienced first through the mother-daughter bond of Ailsa-Nia and again as Nia, the lost daughter, strives to embrace memories of her mother. Stevie Davies, writing with the quicksilver skill of Hermes, fuses a deep psychological narrative and a finely researched historical narrative. Like the great writers of the past, she spins her novel, taking the mothering myths into female hands.

Into Suez, is a dazzling novel. It poses a great question: how do you maternalize patriarchy? Can the Father learn from the wisdom of the Mother? And all of this is investigated through animated narrative, exact description and convincing characterization. Stevie Davies writes in the tradition of May Sinclair, Sylvia Townsend-Warner and H.D.: she combines strong intellectual characterisation with mythical narrative and intense psychological awareness.

This is a novel of subtlety. And such should be realised. Some of the novel’s recent reviewers have focused on the hard-hitting nature of the language inside Into Suez. And yes, that is true. Stevie Davies does not avoid the language of patriarchy: its violence and racism. But this is a finely crafted novel and the brutality of war is balanced by gentle, lyrical writing. There is one point of crisis when Nia is building sandcastles (a symbol of Empire if ever there was one). Her father is speaking:

“And you know there is plenty of sand, “ he added, “ Out there. And most of it in my ears and nose and mouth.”
“Orifices!” said Nia.
“Where did you get that?”…
“Mami,” said it.
He had no answer to that.

Nia stops the mouth of Joe with the mind and language of her mother. Into Suez is written by an author who desires to close the mouth of the fatherland and its endless wars. And this can only be done by women who dare to speak, by those who take off the scold's bridle and dare to dissent. Into Suez is a courageous novel, a work full of heart, one which touches the pulse of the common reader, reminding her or him that literature is written to change perceptions.