Afterland


My mother introduced me to Mai Der Vang, calling me up after reading about her in The New Yorker. Took me a while to get around to getting a copy and once I did, it was a slow read, rather than something one can plow through. A lot of emotionally difficult poems about alienation, immigration, land mines (Vang is Hmong, an ethnic group notable for being discriminated against by virtually every government in Southeast Asia and which often found itself on the wrong side of bombs from both sides during various American adventures in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos).

Formally speaking, she frequently writes in couplets, which had the added effect of inspiring me to pull out a copy of Pope.

Advertisements

Hafiz Of Shiraz


When, sometimes, it becomes difficult to believe that these are truly directed towards God, you see this:

I have, honestly, never read nor wanted to read much of the trifecta of popular, mystical, Islamic poets known to western, non-Muslims (Hafiz and his even more popular compatriots, Gibran and Rumi), but I was glad I made an exception for Hafiz. And I have read enough into Sufism to understand that the erotic, alcoholic message is, truly a spiritual metaphor (and is it any more erotic than the religious poetry of Teresa de Avila?).

‘Phrasis’ By Wendy Xu


I read her chapbook, Naturalism, some time back, and this fuller collection has a few crossover poems (including the titular Naturalism).

Phrasis is a very good and enjoyable collection, but not truly great. It struck me as the work of a very good poet, but it wasn’t one of those that really bowled me over, you know? Wordsworth bowls me over, but that can’t be the standard, can it? The first books I read by both Cathy Linh Che, Charles Simic, and Anne Carson both bowled me over.

But I don’t want to damn with faint praise. It’s very, very good. Sometimes she engages in some colloquialism or profanity that never quite takes – I don’t think she’s quite ruthless enough in her use of it – but her more ‘poetic’ lines and stanzas (that vast majority) are great.

The Tale Of Genji: The Blue Trousers


This volume I have tentatively nicknamed, A Tale of Mellow Genji.

Every so often, Murasaki lets us know approximately how old characters are, but it’s intermittent and she likes to do multiyear jumps forwarded. Genji turns forty during this volume and appears to end it in mid or even late forties.

There is more than a bit own petard hoisting, as Genji finds himself cuckolded. Though he really doesn’t feel that bad about it and is not nearly so embarrassed as you might think (though, of course, he still keeps it relatively secret, even though his son suspects).

He is pressured into marrying his half brother’s (a former emperor who abdicated the throne) favorite daughter, in order to guarantee she is will cared for. To modern sensibilities, this is icky for a couple of reasons, not the least of which is that the girl is thirteen and very childlike (she carries on a correspondence with Genji’s favorite concubine about the “activities” of her dolls).

One of his son’s friends develops an infatuation and has one night stand, as it were, with her (the novel constantly portrays it as being almost rude for a woman to say no to sex if the man has succeeded in getting her alone in a room and past a modesty screen), resulting in child which, based on the lack of recent sex (a year, Genji specifies) between her and her husband, is clearly not the product of the marriage bed.

The friend dies of grief and shame (sort of) and Yugiri goes on to seduce his widow.

It’s that kind of book.

Lady Murasaki (the character, not the author) dies, as well, leaving Genji, the reader feels, without a moral center.

I started to read the next volume and was quickly shocked. It opens with the country in shocked mourning because Genji is dead. This hit me pretty hard and I was legitimately upset and had to put it down for a bit.

Narratively, it makes sense because, ultimately, the personal narrative of Genji is of a man who constantly lets his lust and passions direct him. Whether trying to seduce two different girls he informally adopted, sleeping with the only girl for a hundred miles while in exile. He comes across not so much as sex-obsessed, but as someone who is easily distracted by the appearance of even the slightest chance of a some sly nookie.

But, still… sigh. I was constantly repulsed by his actions and thoughtlessness, but the author did her work well, because I miss him, in spite of it all.

The Tale Of Genji: A Wreath Of Cloud


I picked up Genji again after a long absence and, after some initial struggles getting back up to speed (it’s got a huge cast of characters and is episodic, so it’s both easy to lost and easy to make yourself push through to the next ‘episode’ or event), I was quickly re-immersed in that world.

While Genji himself has mellowed a little with age (he ends this third book of the tale in his late thirties), it is getting easier to see him as the villain of his own story.

He is more or less running the country on behalf of the Emperor (who is, secretly, his son, having had an affair with his father’s concubine, which is not nearly the creepiest sexual encounter of his life so far), but honestly doesn’t seem to be paying that much attention to affairs of state. As usual, women take a great deal of his attention.

There was a long, running thread of finding the long lost daughter of a woman who Genji had loved, but whose lover was not the titular protagonist, but his friend and sometimes rival, To no Chujo.

A series of coincidences allow Genji’s servant to rescue her and bring her to his palace where he immediately reunites her with her father, To no Chujo. Just kidding. He tells everyone she’s his daughter and manages to both encourage suitable men to court her and also to try and sleep with her himself. He doesn’t succeed, but the moral center of the tale, his primary spouse, Murasaki, reminds him that before they became lovers, she was a young girl he was raising as a daughter.

The beautiful flow of the tale and the strangeness of the time and place (at least to a western reader) often lets the reader glide past these things, but every so often, you think… yucky.

As always, a reminder that modern sexual mores about pre- and extra-marital sex are pretty recent (the sort of adopted daughter’s husband is basically chosen by which one she lets sneak into her room and make love to her).

And some personal fantasy nostalgia for a time and place where people would communicate by poetry on an almost daily basis (most written communication takes the form of short poems, with more or less allusive meanings).

Not Catching Up


I am trying and not completely succeeding in catching up on my periodicals. The more timely ones like Foreign Affairs and The New Yorker are first and Poetry gets relegated because its news doesn’t get old.

But if you find this one somewhere, it has a great poem by Aracelis Girmay (another Floridian, by the way).

‘Late Fame’ By Arthur Schnitzler


Many years ago, while still in college, I read Schnitzler’s Road to the Open. I was inspired by some reading about fin-de-siecle Vienna and a reference to Freud calling him his ‘doppleganger’ (intellectually, not physically, I gather).

For most of the book, I read it as a sort of building satire, wending its way to an uncomfortably cringeworthy comic moment.

And then it didn’t. Continue reading