Poetry Month, 2017

Chosen, they say, because ‘April is the cruelest month.’

I have been remiss this year. Not that I really do that much to celebrate it. I’m actually an introverted kind of fellow. In my professional life, I can be as hail-fellow-well-met as the next flak, but in my personal life, I am something else. And poetry is part of my personal life. And I’ve been sick, I’ve been busy, I’ve been traveling, I’ve been dealing with urgent personal matters, and then I look up and April is almost over and National Poetry Month with it.

‘For this revolt of thine, methinks, is like another fall of man.’

If don’t celebrate National Poetry Month, what does that say?

I’ve read a good deal of poetry, though I haven’t finished any new collections. I brought a selection of books by the sometimes crazed nineteenth century English pastoral poet, John Clare, with me on a trip. I rediscovered my copy of the partly Kenneth Rexroth edited Women Poets of Japan (which  contains, I have heard, at least one poem by a fictional Japanese women who is actually Rexroth himself, which feels more problematic than it used to). I read the latest edition of Poetry (the magazine). I read a bit from that strange, Japanese collection, Cat Town.

Maybe this was month for turning inside one’s self. Which, while valid, is poor timing.

Reading Print

Last Sunday was my day to sit down and read the print publications that I subscribe to. Mostly because I was sick and couldn’t go outside because the allergies would have, in my weakened state, killed me (though it killed me inside to miss, for the second year in a row, after having attended for eight years in a row, Shakespeare’s Birthday Bash at the Folger Shakespeare Library).

I actually subscribe to a decent number of print publications. I get the Sunday Washington Post (this was a Living Social deal, which I mostly purchased to get online access to the paper), Foreign Affairs (which is a gift from my father), Poetry (I think I saw this deal on facebook – one year of Poetry for an absurdly low price), and Brooklyn Rail (a tabloid format monthly, mostly about art and culture in Brooklyn, which I got as part of the deal with Poetry). I’m also getting the New York Review of Books (which I got for $10; let me repeat that: $10!!!!), but that hasn’t started arriving yet.

The Sun Also Rises has a scene where the narrator/protagonist is deciding which of the two bullfighting newspapers to which he subscribes to read first. They would have the same news, he acknowledged, but one tended to have slightly better writing. Notably, he did not say that he wouldn’t read them both, in the end (and I tend to think that he would read them both).

My mother once gave me a short story to read. I think it was by Saki. One of the characters was English member of the upper class who had gone bankrupt and so joined the army, which got him posted to a tropical village (Saki was born in Burma, so I’m going to guess that’s where it was). Once a year, he took his leave and went back to London and hung out with the wealthy friends of his former life and, most importantly, for my current purposes, he would purchase a year’s worth of the ‘papers,’ which he would read back in (Burma?) at the rate of one a day, one year after their initial publication.

Both of which literary references are to say that I love the ritual of reading magazines and papers.

Donald, Aldous & George

There have been a few essays lately that argue that we were all blinded by the Cold War-infused popularity of 1984 that we missed the real threat, which more resembled the soporific entertainments of Brave New World, because it was the mindless, meaningless, fact-free Huxleyian discourse of Fox News, et al, that led to Trump. Because it’s all just spectacle (hints of Bataille, eh?), the results can be argued to be effectively meaningless, but what matter is something, anything different to shake things up and make things less boring (also a contrarian response to measured stoicism of ‘No Drama Obama?’).

But now that he’s president, let’s take a moment to raise our glasses to Orwell.

No, I don’t think he’s going to lead America to an authoritarian dystopia driven by an ideology-free ideology (which means, if he does, I’ll be one of those excoriated in future histories for not having recognized the danger posed by an authoritarian, racist, anti-semitic, delusional, narcissist rising to the presidency… which does sound pretty bad, when you say it out loud).

But when you read how large numbers of Trump supporters think he’s accomplished a great many actual things in this, the first 90-odd days of his presidency, when so far, his only tangible accomplishment was nominating Neal Gorsuch for the Supreme Court (his confirmation was solely down to the hard work of Mitch McConnell and his selection was done by those most uber-establishment of establishment folks at the Heritage Foundation). Call ’em alternative facts, call ’em lies, call ’em spin, call ’em what you will, but it all comes down to ‘it just ain’t so.’

And I don’t think that many of those supporters are unaware that he hasn’t actually accomplished, in any real sense, well, anything. We are all guilty, I suspect, of some kinds of antinomial thinking, but this is more of the willful ignorance than Kant’s antimonies. And Winston always wondered if most people actually believed or just accepted because it was easier to go along with those who did truly believe (which, again, bodes poorly for how people like me will be characterized in future histories).

But no, I’m still not predicting the end of American democracy. Neoliberal twit that he can be, I still hope that Fukayama’s predictions of an enduring liberal order are correct, in broad strokes. Maybe, on an intellectual level, I’m just hedging my bets here.

Matisse/Diebenkorn At SFMOMA

While in San Francisco for a wedding (congratulations, L-!), my better half and I visited the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

While I appreciate the theory behind pairing Diebenkorn with Matisse to bring attention to the work of a NorCal painter (and I applaud SFMOMA for staging a blockbuster style exhibit that highlights a local artist) and appreciate them trying to find a new way to show a lot of Matisse paintings that isn’t just another retrospective, but… it all came together in a way that was unjust to both artists.

Besides the obvious: very few artists will not see their work pale with paired with one of the greats, like Matisse.

But also, Diebenkorn, someone I had not been familiar with before, but who is clearly an amazing painter, is reduced to his relationship to the influences of Matisse (for myself, I saw more Cezanne and Hopper than Matisse, but my opinion is suspect because, by the end, I was openly rebelling against the exhibit’s paradigm).

And we are presented with all these wonderful Matisses and they feel suffocated on the walls. Many of these works needed a little room to breathe and be appreciated for their own sake and not smushed (psychically and geographically) with someone else’s oeuvre.

Unrelated, they had two metal floor sculptures by Carl Andre that I made my better half stand on (because you could – as long as you wore shoes).

I first encountered his work at the Pompidou Centre. I swear it was his 144 Zinc Squares. An internet search revealed that that museum has Tin Squares, but my memory is so clear, I have to believe that it was Zinc Squares that I saw that day. But this is all besides the point.

The first time I saw 144  [Some Kind of Silvery Colored Metal] Squares, my mind was blown. But I didn’t realize you could walk on it. I went back (because I loved that museum so much) and read that visitors could walk on it. And if my mind was blown the first time, then this time, well, insert some kind of metaphor (maybe something involving nuclear explosions, but nothing tasteless that directly references actually nuclear disasters, which includes the dropping of the atomic bombs in World War II and morally outrageous nuclear tests on Pacific islands, but feel free to make some kind of Godzilla reference). To this day, I can still remember the sensation of walking on a piece of art and the electric sensation that ran from my feet to my brain. Probably, my love of conceptual art stems from that day.


Let me take a step back and explain. My better half was out of the country, managing family matters for nearly six months, while I was living the bachelor life, last year; and then again for a little over two months, this year.

During that time, she started watching Korean soap operas. Because she was watching them, I started watching them too (also, peppering my Korean viewing habits with some ultra violent action movies). Now, we watch them together, though our tastes differ slightly.

In those soap operas, characters drink a lot of soju, a clear, malted liquor, similar to sake, but with a much rougher feel. At it’s best, it’s taste could be compared to a combination of the flavors of vodka (real vodka, not whatever flavored garbage they’re selling to college kids with fake IDs) and sake. At it’s worst, it tastes like something that could power your riding lawnmower. I like it, either way.

I like it, but it can be damnably expensive. Schneider’s in DC carries almost everything, but it’s soju options consist of an overpriced ($33.99) bottle or a Japanese brand that costs less ($17) but whose taste is more on the lawnmower fuel side. Presumably, I could go to an H Mart (a Korean grocery store chain), but I mostly go to one in Montgomery County, Maryland, where local laws don’t allow the store to sell alcohol. I could go to Virginia, I suppose, but my better half and I were walking around the edges of neighborhood when we passed a liquor store that had a Korean looking fellow behind the counter and another Korean looking fellow chatting with him. We went inside and were directed to nice looking bottle of $9.99 soju. Haven’t tried it yet, but it looks very promising.

The man behind the counter told use that soju had become wildly popular in Korea again because of the same soap operas that turned me onto it. Twenty years ago, only old men would have been seen drinking, but now, because it featured so prominently in beloved television shows, people everywhere in the country were quaffing unhealthy quantities.

So, I guess the point is, I am as shallow as a Korean soap opera buff. Hurray for me, I guess.

Recent Reading

Because Derek Walcott died, I started carrying Omeros in by satchel and reading from it, though not, necessarily, reading the book length (history? digression? epic) poem on the Caribbean in systematic fashion.

I finished Patrick Modiano’s In the Cafe of Lost Youth, my first stab at the Nobel Prize winner (as was Walcott, by the way). Similar to the next book on the list, I felt an immediate stab of disappointment at the ending, but then came around to it (coming around more fervently, though, than with the next book). The ending seemed too abrupt and unearned, but I came around to an understanding that the book itself was about the unknowability of others.

I finished the final book of the Tearling trilogy, Fate of the Tearling. I’m still not sure if this isn’t actually a young adult book. I’m still not sure if that statement says more about me than about young adult literature. But actually, I’m pretty sure that it says more about me. And, even more than it says more about me, it says a lot about the fantasy genre (and not in an entirely good way, however much I love it). I came around to the deux ex machina ending, but that didn’t make it earned and the book lost much of the goodwill earned from the first two, but credit where credit is due: this was a genuinely feminist series, with serious advocacy for birth control and female sexual agency. The final book also become decidedly anti-religious. Earlier books had posited the fantasy world’s church leaders as enemies, but now it got pretty anti-religious. Meh. Not going to argue that point.

Finally, I really loved The Dragonbone Chair, the first book in a series I had long heard about (and mentioned as a precursor to Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice, though this series has more magic in it, though it’s not necessarily hugely heavy on magic). Tad Williams hooked me pretty quickly (though he also takes his time, with something like half the book taken up with careful world building, done through the eyes of an awkward kitchen boy in his early adolescence) and as soon as I was done, I immediately downloaded the second book (sadly, not available at the library). My one quibble is that some of the world building uses some lazy thievery from the ‘real’ world. The great king, whose death opens the way for the turmoil that makes up the plot, is Prester John. Some of the cultures and their naming customs are too obviously taken from Western Europe. Not a major issue (and the world itself is quite unique), but just felt lazy.