Archive | November, 2012

Wallace Stevens at the River

28 Nov

There are certain personal associations between literature and place that are so strong you never quite lose them. I cannot visit a beach without recalling L’Étranger. Lately when I go to a river I think of Stevens’ poem about a woman who “sang beyond the genius of the sea”…

The Idea of Order at Key West

She sang beyond the genius of the sea.
The water never formed to mind or voice,
Like a body wholly body, fluttering
Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion
Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry,
That was not ours although we understood,
Inhuman, of the veritable ocean.

The sea was not a mask. No more was she.
The song and water were not medleyed sound
Even if what she sang was what she heard,
Since what she sang was uttered word by word.
It may be that in all her phrases stirred
The grinding water and the gasping wind;
But it was she and not the sea we heard.

For she was the maker of the song she sang.
The ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea
Was merely a place by which she walked to sing.
Whose spirit is this? we said, because we knew
It was the spirit that we sought and knew
That we should ask this often as she sang.
If it was only the dark voice of the sea
That rose, or even colored by many waves;
If it was only the outer voice of sky
And cloud, of the sunken coral water-walled,
However clear, it would have been deep air,
The heaving speech of air, a summer sound
Repeated in a summer without end
And sound alone. But it was more than that,
More even than her voice, and ours, among
The meaningless plungings of water and the wind,
Theatrical distances, bronze shadows heaped
On high horizons, mountainous atmospheres
Of sky and sea.

It was her voice that made
The sky acutest at its vanishing.
She measured to the hour its solitude.
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.

Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As the night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.

Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.


17 Nov

I’ve written about Auden elsewhere (like on my Japanese blog, introducing the poem “Musée des Beaux Arts”), and just thought I’d include here one of his relatively less anthologised poems (though a very good one).


“Epitaph on a Tyrant”

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,

And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;

He knew human folly like the back of his hand,

And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;

When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,

And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

Shirley Geok-lin Lim

8 Nov

I’m presently in Singapore, and actually happened to visit the Edwin Thumboo exhibition at the National Library (more on that to come). Today I thought it might be good to introduce a poem written by an author with close Singapore connections. This is “My Father’s Sadness” by Shirley Geok-lin Lim.

“My Father’s Sadness”

My father’s sadness appears in my dreams.
His young body is dying of responsibility.
So many men and women march out of his mouth
each time he opens his heart for fullness,
he is shot down; so many men and women
like dragons’ teeth rising in the instance
of his lifetime. He is an oriental. He claims
paternity. But in his dreams he is a young body
with only his life before him.

My father’s sadness masks my face. It is hard
to see through his tears, his desires drum in my chest.
I tense like a young man with a full moon
and no woman in sight. My father broke
with each child, finer and finer, the clay
of his body crumbling to a drizzle of silicone
in the hour-glass. How hard it is
to be a father, a bull under the axle,
the mangrove netted by lianas, the host
perishing of its lavishness.

Dennis Haskell, Part III

4 Nov

One last poem from Haskell for today, probably my favourite of his.



My brother and his wife had debated

whether to let their young daughter come

but she’d insisted, driven by a strained,

wanting-to-be-adult curiosity.

Stepping through the solid, salubrious,

clean brick entrance,

the light guardedly unglaring,

time seemed shut into itself,

the air had a lingering, sugared warmth.


When they wheeled my father in

I held my mother on my arm

like a reluctant suitor.

He was in a white box,

laced up to his chin

with a frilly, idiotic daintiness. Suddenly

she leant her frail weight

upon me, her knees bent

and bent, and bent,


towards the face

that had once been my father,

and remained fixed so long

I thought she would never rise,

her lips stuck to its coloured cheek.

‘He’s so cold’: the words entered

the air from a voice

achingly unlike her own,

‘so cold’. And I, the eldest son,

the reliable one, was lost


in that moment, forever.

Sincere words were as pathetic as silence.

The truth of him had left us

and entered the shyness of death.


My niece stood there

with a wild-eyed innocence

being cast aside. I finally raised

my mother with a shuddering arm

from this cruel imitation of her husband

innocent of us

in his Antarctic box.


Now just to recall those words

before his ultimate reticence

is to dig down in myself

scooping up the granules of dirt

where he lies in me

so deep, so cold.


Dennis Haskell, Part II

4 Nov

“After Fifty Years” and “Chance: A Conversation” are both remarkable for the incisiveness and the threat with which their conclusions are arrived at.

“After Fifty Years”

I counted off the tattoos

on all their numbered arms.

I stacked them up

like racks of brot.

I gave them bliss

through my almost silent

silencing song.

Those ink-stamped queues

of bones and shaven heads

in their own way

thanked me for it.

It was not like you think.

Mostly little fuss. Mostly quiet.

There was not much point

in protest. Methods

prove the existence of perfection.

They queued up for

their ration, their share.

I never discriminated

between them. I insist

that I treated them

all equally. At times

I almost thought

I could turn myself

on and off at will.


If I were human

I would have been capable

of anything.


Possibly my favourite poem of his (along with “Temperatures”) is this one, “Chance: A Conversation”. The final words remind me of the “first player” as King in Hamlet:


But, orderly to end where I begun,

Our wills and fates do so contrary run

That our devices still are overthrown.

Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own.

(III.2, 220-224)


Here’s the Haskell poem:

“Chance: A Conversation”

Chance, I know that my chances

of having a conversation with you

are slight, at the very best, I

know it’s no use taking exception

to your presence, but what on earth

are you doing in this life? Your place

seems so arbitrary; and

if we could sit down together

I know the talk would be hopelessly

haphazard, since you know no bounds

and anything could leap to anything else:

love could lead swiftly to gardens to garbage,

a line of poetry might read

‘kohl adrift more she role ti dah’.

There are those sure your heart belongs to dada

but you know its heart belongs to you.

So around the world we’d go on a

marvellous, maddening, richly frustrating excursion

in which go is only occasionally distinguishable from woe.

Some think you are not the ultimate

in godliness, which you find a glorious joke;

you who know no meaning know meaning best.

Only when we get to death, a subject

in which you have a role, we part company.

You say, ‘In the end that’s the topic

which is for you, but is not for me’.

Emily Jane Bronte

3 Nov

It is rare among authors accomplished in two disparate genres to see both their accomplishments receive equal acknowledgement. Robert Louis Stevenson’s essays are often urbane and stimulating, but we would sooner invoke the presence of a “Stevenson, author of Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” than a “Stevenson, author of Virginibus Puerisque D.H. Lawrence wrote very good poetry, but will almost always be thought of as “D.H. Lawrence,  novelist” before we recall the existence of “D.H. Lawrence, poet”.  Appreciation is somewhat more evenly distributed across the two spheres in Thomas Hardy’s case, but again it could be said that the memory of the novelist overtakes that of the poet.

So it is with Emily Jane Bronte. The achievement of Wuthering Heights so overshadows everything else she published that her poetry sometimes goes unread. But her best poems – “No coward soul is mine”; “Long neglect has worn away”; “Often rebuked, yet always back returning” – are equally deserving of attention.

The last is probably my favourite of her poems. “What have those lonely mountains worth revealing?” In this poem at least, what is worth revealing is all there, “Often rebuked, yet always back returning”. It’s a startling achievement:

Often rebuked, yet always back returning
   To those first feelings that were born with me,
And leaving busy chase of wealth and learning
   For idle dreams of things which cannot be:
To-day, I will seek not the shadowy region;
   Its unsustaining vastness waxes drear;
And visions rising, legion after legion,
   Bring the unreal world too strangely near.
I’ll walk, but not in old heroic traces,
   And not in paths of high morality,
And not among the half-distinguished faces,
   The clouded forms of long-past history.
I’ll walk where my own nature would be leading:
   It vexes me to choose another guide:
Where the grey flocks in ferny glens are feeding;
   Where the wild wind blows on the moment side.
What have those lonely mountains worth revealing?
   More glory and more grief than I can tell:
The earth that wakes one human heart to feeling
   Can centre both the worlds of Heaven and Hell.

Night Thoughts on George Steiner and James Clifford

1 Nov

An initial glance wouldn’t afford much sense of the similarities between George Steiner, humanist critic of Western culture, and James Clifford, self-reflexive anthropologist. I perhaps wouldn’t have seen it myself, truth be told, were it not for happening to read Steiner’s Grammars of Creation and Clifford’s The Predicament of Culture in succession. 

The former begins:

We have no more beginnings. Incipit: that proud Latin word which signals the start survives in our dusty “inception”. The medieval scribe marks the opening line, the new chapter with an illuminated capital. In its golden or carmine vortex the illuminator of manuscripts sets heraldic beasts, dragons at morning, singers and prophets. The initial, where this term signifies beginning and primacy, acts as a fanfare. It declares Plato’s maxim – by no means self-evident – whereby in all things natural and human, the origin is the most excellent. Today, in Western orientations – observe the muted presence of morning light in that word – the reflexes, the turns of perception, are those of afternoon, of twilight. (George Steiner, Grammars of Creation: Originating in the Gifford Lectures for 1990 [London: Faber & Faber, 2001], p. 1).

Immediately after encountering this opening passage I recalled a passage in The Predicament of Culture:

Ethnography, a hybrid activity, thus appears as writing, as collecting, as modernist collage, as imperial power, as subversive critique. Viewed most broadly, perhaps, my topic is a mode of travel, a way of understanding and getting around in a diverse world that, since the sixteenth century, has become cartographically unified. One of the principal functions of ethnography is “orientation” (a term left over from a time when Europe traveled and invented itself with respect to a fantastically unified “East”). But in the twentieth century ethnography reflects new “spatial practices” (De Certeau 1984), new forms of dwelling and circulating. (James Clifford, “Introduction: The Pure Products Go Crazy”, in The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1988], p. 13).

I do not want to dwell upon Clifford’s conception of ethnography here, but on his remark about the word “orientation”. Each author, we can see, presents the term quite differently. To my own knowledge, the word comes from the Latin orientem, from oriri, “to rise”. This sense, interestingly enough, itself recalls one particular theory of the etymology of the name “nihon” (日本), or “Japan”, as meaning “sun-origin” or (the land of the) “rising sun”.  This nomenclature apparently derives from Imperial correspondence with Sui Dynasty China and refers to Japan’s eastward position relative to that country. Still, the Latin derivation in any case literally meant “rising”, and did not contain these geographical connotations.

Clifford’s gloss on the idea of “orientation” recalls the history of those colonial and imperial projects Edward Said first explicitly linked with the profession of (particularly French and British) studies of the Orient, i.e. “Orientalism”. Though Said’s analysis goes as far back as to involve the work of Homer, Aeschylus, the Chanson de Roland, and Dante, in the modern sense of “orientation”, as distinct from the older history of the word “orient” as a noun, I can’t really argue with Clifford. Steiner seems to only view the term as a noun,  the sense of orientation as referring to the place from where the sun rises, free of the imbrication of this term in its metaleptic leap from noun to verb, from “transparent” indication of location to its new efficacy in later centuries being brought to “bear” upon that “Eastern” location as an instrument of action and will to power. And though the word “orient” as an old French noun, while preceding Dante, (though not Homer), is not what Steiner is referring to, it too could be implicated in the orientalism Clifford and Said draw attention to.

But Steiner is far from politically disinterested in these opening pages. At times he sounds almost as if he were channeling Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, albeit a Spivak leavened with concern for one of Steiner’s characteristic obsessions, the legacy of the Holocaust:

Inhumanity is, so far as we have historical evidence, perennial. There have been no utopia, no communities of justice or forgiveness. Our current alarms – at the violence in our streets, at the famines in the so-called Third World, at regressions into barbaric ethnic conflicts, at the possibility of pandemic disease – must be seen against the background of an exceptional moment. Roughly from the time of Waterloo to that of the massacres on the western front in 1915-16, the European bourgeoisie experienced a privileged season, an armistice with history. Underwritten by the exploitation of industrial labour at home and colonial rule abroad, Europeans knew a century of progress, of liberal dispensations, of reasonable hope. (Grammars, p. 2).

I call it the “legacy of the Holocaust”; Steiner might take me to task in saying so, though:

I do not want to enter into the vexed, in some manner demeaning, debates over the uniqueness of the Shoah (“holocaust” is a noble, technical Greek designation for religious sacrifice, not a name proper for controlled insanity and the “wind out of blackness”). But it does look as if the Nazi extermination of European Jewry is a “singularity”, not so much in respect of scale – Stalinism killed far more – but motivation. Here a category of human persons, down to infancy, were proclaimed guilty of being. Their crime was existence, was the mere claim to life. (p. 3).

This is a digression, however. The last word might have to go to the moment back to Clifford. Reading Steiner I thought of the criticism (perhaps all too easy, in the present conjecture, to make), that Steiner seems to suggest (thought he qualifies the impulse as not a new one in the Western context “the crises of the Roman imperial order…the apocalyptic fears at the approach of the first millennium AD…the wake of the Black Death and the Thirty Years’War” [p. 1]) to posit that “We have no more beginnings.” I certainly don’t disagree with Steiner here, in the sense that the aporia that has succeeded the end of messianic visions emanating from the West is inescapable; but it helps to read these sentiments against Clifford’s, even if I am weary of his sentiments about culture and identity necessarily being “inventive and mobile. They need not take root in ancestral plots; they live by pollination, by (historical) transplanting” (p. 15).

Twentieth-century identities no longer presuppose continuous cultures or traditions. Everywhere individuals and groups improvise local performances from (re)collected pasts, drawing on foreign media, symbols, and languages. This existence among fragments has often been portrayed as a process of run and cultural decay, perhaps most eloquently by Claude Lévi-Strauss in Triste tropiques (1955). In Lévi-Strauss’s global vision – one widely shared today – authentic human differences are disintegrating, disappearing in an expansive commodity culture to become, at best, collectible “art” or “folklore.” The great narrative of entropy and loss in Triste tropiques expresses an inescapable, sad truth. But it is too neat, and it assumes a questionable Eurocentric position at the “end” of a unified human history, gathering up, memorializing the world’s local historicities. (p. 14-15).