January 30, 2013 § 5 Comments
I am sorry, once again and for always, for the absolutely crap blog post titles.
I have three reviews out in Pop Matters:
- Joanna Luloff’s The Beach at Galle Road: Stories from Sri Lanka
- Aman Sethi’s A Free Man—this one messed with my head a little, or a lot, and thus the review is an incoherent mess; it just seems difficult to rate a book about poverty, written by an educated journalist from a different class, as “good” or “bad” or profound or moving or well-done or whatever, without implicating oneself in the consumption of these narratives.
- Sibylle Lewitscharoff’s Apostoloff—this is the first book I’ve read by Lewitscharoff and she has such a great style, strengthened by the bleakly funny, whip-smart voice of the protagonist, and this book has about a billion frustrating and revelatory Eurocentric anxieties and neuroses to wade through, or drown in.
Is it in bad taste to link to one’s own reviews and then rant about someone else’s review? Probably; all the more reason to do it.
I was reading the review of Sheila Heti’s latest in the LRB and I was (am) so perplexed:
Much has been made of the fact that How Should a Person Be? passes the Bechdel Test (two named female characters must talk to each other about something other than a man, invented by the graphic novelist Alison Bechdel), but its woman-centredness also hints at feminism’s dirty secret: that feminists might be feminists because they are supremely interested in themselves, even if that interest is in the shape of self-doubt.
“that feminists might be feminists because they are supremely interested in themselves” – this is such a coy argument. Is the reviewer objecting to or applauding the narcissism of Sheila Heti’s character? Does the reviewer think that feminism—FEMINISM IN ITS ENTIRETY—only exists because feminists are supremely interested in themselves? Does being “supremely interested” in oneself preclude the desire/ability to be “supremely interested” in other things? Is this form of supreme self-interest only to be found in feminism and/or woman-centred narratives, although the reviewer seems to think these are interchangeable / mean the same thing? Is this state of supreme interest in oneself a problem or not a problem, reactionary or revolutionary? Why is Sheila Heti, or the Sheila Heti of the book, a stand-in for feminism? Whose feminism?
“Woman-centredness” = “feminism” = feminists “supremely interested” in themselves (“even if that interest is in the shape of self-doubt”).
I think it’s interesting that this review takes the book’s “woman-centredness” and presents it as feminism’s “dirty little secret” without making an explicit value judgment, although much of its judgment, or what it thinks of “woman-centredness”, is contained within its use of the phrase “dirty little secret.” How nice to be able to mime at making an argument without making an argument. It’s such a useful way to say something provocative and yet distance oneself from the implications. In this way, it becomes nonsense. And the arrogance in the assumption that a broad movement like feminism, with its multiple global proliferations and histories, can be assessed and diagnosed by narrowing it down to how two (fictionalised) North American women, Sheila Heti and Margaux Williamson, relate to each other.
Not just a secret, but dirty, too.
July 23, 2012 § 4 Comments
(Fragments of thoughts on Genet that was supposed to go on Tumblr until it grew too long. The value of shutting up–I’ve yet to learn it.)
I read Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers, and now I’m reading The Thief’s Journal. I seem to have reached a point where Genet’s voice is what I really need. (Well, his and Fiona Apple’s.) Genet’s voice is the voice I need to get me through sad and sullen days, or nervy, awkward, self-conscious days. It’s the voice that says, Fuck all these people and their reactions to you, look instead at the shape of this cloud, take note of the precise tone of colour of the sky, devote your attention to the charmless gestures of a man with an unexpectedly beautiful smile. Which is really strange, because Genet is nothing if not in his body and extremely self-conscious, always excessively aware of his physical being in relation to others, always watching himself through others, always keeping tabs of his place in relation to others. But maybe intensified self-consciousness can become a space, a refuge, from the need to feel/know the consciousness of others, and maybe a temporal liberation is what Genet achieves in his writing, and what he’s able to convey to (some) of his readers.
There is always someone saying that reading is dead in the age of the internet or some such nonsense, but to read Genet is to recognise that reading is not dead, just dreaming. To check tweets in the middle of reading Genet is to undream. No tweeting, no tumbling, no texting, no external words, just the Genet-words on the page or screen. Dreaming as reading as immersion. This dream-state of Genet-reading is fevered. You, the reader, get in the way of the text all the time, and so does Genet. He gets in the way of your reading. His words are profoundly disorienting; they will undo you. Genet knows this, knows that you know this, and enjoys it. No, I mean I think he strives for it—writing isn’t writing if this doesn’t happen.
In the the 600+ page Saint Genet, Sartre says a lot of things about Genet until Genet ceases to be Genet, but he does say one thing about Our Lady of Flowers that rings true to me: “No wonder Our Lady horrifies people: it is the epic of masturbation.”
And Genet’s narrator is perpetually always on the edge of orgasm, one presumes, because he is fervently, religiously jerking off:
It was a good thing that I raised egoistic masturbation to the dignity of a cult! I have only to begin the gesture and a kind of unclean and supernatural transposition displaces the truth. Everything within me turns worshipper. The external vision of the accessories of my desire isolates me, far from the world.
Pleasure of the solitary, gesture of solitude that makes you sufficient unto yourself, possessing intimately others who serve your pleasure without their suspecting it, a pleasure that gives to your most casual gestures, even when you are up and about, that air of supreme indifference towards everyone and also a certain awkward manner that, if you have gone to bed with a boy, makes you feel as if you have bumped your head against a granite slab.
“a pleasure that gives to your most casual gestures … the air of supreme indifference towards everyone” — masturbation as strategy for navigating the trauma of the social. One of the ways to attempt to love your queer self in a society that deems your sexuality monstrous is make love to yourself. But it’s never that. It’s onanism and masturbation and selfish pleasure but rarely ever spoken of as self-love. Genet forces you to reckon with the hierarchies of acceptable bodily pleasure. Genet forces you to reckon with the anguish of being an undesirable desiring the desired. (“What could I commit so as to be worthy of his beauty? I needed boldness in order to admire him.”)
Guattari in “Genet Regained”:
It is true that Genet’s creative process always made a strong appeal to fabulation (masturbatory or otherwise) but his fundamental aim nevertheless remained a poetics with a social impact.
Genet makes you think about shit a lot, which is very uncomfortable for me because I am not fond of shit. Regrettably, this makes me sound like Sartre, who says in Saint Genet: “Genet is excrement, and it is such that he asserts himself … As for myself, I am not as fond of shit as some people say.” One part of this formulation is false; either Genet isn’t excrement or Sartre is extremely fond of shit, because Saint Genet is about Sartre the heterosexual man’s man trying to “philosophically diagnose” Genet, in Sontag’s words, in order to love him better. But also to outdo him; Sartre’s worldview in Saint Genet is so limited, so conservative, so heterosexist, that I think it drives Sartre crazy to know that a man like Genet exists, that a radically different version of masculinity is not only possible, but desirable. (Dear Sartre, I don’t mean to get Freudian on you. But in the final analysis, you know I’m right.)
Genet on love:
I should like to play at inventing the ways love has of surprising people.
It enters like Jesus into the heart of the impetuous; it also comes slyly, like a thief.
Love makes use of the worst traps. The least noble. The rarest. It exploits coincidence.
If masturbation is a kind of redemption from everyday anxieties then love is the path that takes us right back to it. Love is trauma. It’s a kind of horror, actually, because I get the sense that Genet’s hyper-corporeality (explicit, almost tender descriptions of bodily fluids, wastes, processes) is a way to transcend the body he so loathes. Loving another is hard when you hate your body. Or rather, allowing another to love you is hard when you hate your body.
There are “problems” with Genet. His fetishisation of a certain type of normative masculine beauty, and of the sexuality of black men (large appendages, always); the odd comment about Arabs and their odours. This prefigures his later politics, where he spoke of the Black Panthers and the Palestinian struggle as aesthetic projects, as Things in which he can find a space for himself. But there is something here: if Genet is writing against bourgeois values (i.e. hypocrisy), then his writing never lets you forget that you are complicit, or a part of it; and sometimes you wonder if he’s merely writing through these hypocrisies to test them out on the reader, to see how far he can push. You wonder if the text is showing up your own prejudice. “Our future burglar starts by learning absolute respect for property,” Sartre tells us of Genet, and perhaps this is true: Genet also writes to investigate his own complicity.
The other “problem” with Genet is the Problem of Women. Meaning, the lack of women. Women as absent-mothers. Men mother each other; then turn on each other. Within a patriarchal society Genet’s queer men identify as women, or want to be women, or recognise some element of femininity in themselves, and hate themselves because society hates them. But in his writing Genet is perpetually in drag. I can’t help but read the text of Our Lady as a parody of phallocentrism. (Sartre, meanwhile, thinks Genet is FAKE: a FAKE man, a FAKE woman, writing FAKE prose, but in a GOOD way.)
And I can’t help but think of Genet as Hermes, appropriately enough. Genet seems to embody the trickster in terms of how he presents his art/writing and how it is received. In Trickster Makes This World, Lewis Hyde writes that “trickster stories themselves have been told in ways that marked them as ‘special speech,’ so that, no matter how profane their content, they belonged to an anomalous category, a sort of sacred lack of the sacred.” This wrestling with the sacred is the core of Our Lady. Genet venerates that which polite society is perpetually trying to ignore. The excluded, the marginalised, the spat upon, the lost, the anus, thieves, shit, doubt, queers, self-doubt, unwanted erections, artifice, base desires, pretension — these are some of Genet’s favourite things (to write about). As Hyde says about Hermes:
For a human community to make its world shapely is one thing; to preserve its shape is quite another, especially if, as is always the case, the shape is to some degree arbitrary and if the shaping requires exclusion and the excluded are hungry. So along with shapeliness comes a set of rules meant to preserve the design. “Do not steal. Do not lie. Do not blaspheme. Do not gamble. Do not pick things up in the street. Behave yourself. You should be ashamed … ” Whoever has the wit to break these rules, whoever puts the guards to sleep, slips across the threshold and floods the sacred meadows with contingency, whoever steals the boundary stones of clear distinction, that person strips design of its protective glamour. Hermes does all this and by it he disenchants the world into which he was born.
Later Hyde reminds us that Hermes, in the Homeric Hymns, tells his mother that “either they give me honor or I steal it.”
I’ve been thinking about the idea of beautiful writing lately, and what it means when I say it and when others say it, or when it becomes sort of an institutionalised demand. Beautiful writing as good business. The idea of “beautiful writing” as a mechanism to limit and to police, to keep writing within acceptable boundaries of acceptable taste. Prose that is polite and distant. In contrast, reading Genet in all his wrongness and his flaws cracked my world right open.
(I don’t know how to explain it but maybe what I’m trying to say about writing is what Voyou says about football and Euro 2012 and Spain’s neoliberal style: “In flexibly-specalized postfordist capitalism, to be businesslike is to be virtuosic.” i.e. Spain’s football team is Michael Chabon. This makes complete sense to me. I fall asleep watching Spain play; I’ve tried to read the much-praised Michael Chabon about four or five times now but had to stop because I only ever felt crushing boredom: Death by eminently well-adjusted prose. To be fair, this also applies to Safran Foer, Lethem, Barnes, later Amis and Rushdie, and The Franzen.)
Sartre: “(Genet) has no particular desire to produce a ‘well-made work'; he is unconcerned with finish, with formal perfection.” A huge part of me is attracted to this lack of finish in Genet, excited by this undone-ness. I know I’m not the only one who thinks that “writer’s block” or the inability to write feels like constipation; finishing something often feels like you’ve just had a good shit. (Kate Zambreno: “My blog I think is a sort of toilet bowl.”) I feel that way; I think I started this blog in order to shit things out, but because of my aversion to excrement, my disgust, I prefer to stay constipated. It’s not pleasant; not for me, and not for anyone reading my jejune thoughts about shit/writing, but Genet makes you think, Fuck that shit, just write shit down.
Genet, on writing:
Since it is impossible to make a ballet of it, I am obliged to use words that are weighed down with precise ideas, but I shall try to lighten them with phrases that are trivial, empty, hollow, and invisible.
I’ve been thinking about ugliness lately. (Lately? All the time.) I was thinking about how I felt—like I was about to burst—when I first read Virginie Despentes and she acknowledges it:
Of course I wouldn’t write what I write if I were beautiful, so beautiful that I turned the head of every man I met. It’s as a member of the lower working class of womanhood that I speak, that I spoke yesterday and am speaking again today. When I was on unemployment I was not ashamed of being a social outcast. Just furious. It’s the same thing for being a woman. I am not remotely ashamed of not being a hot sexy number but I am livid that—as a girl who doesn’t attract men—I am constantly made to feel as if I shouldn’t even be around. We have always existed.
Genet, too, he writes as one of the ugly ones. He writes ugly down: all of the things you want to clean up, forget, pretend doesn’t exist.
I need to be reminded, often, that beauty doesn’t always take you places.
December 3, 2011 § Leave a comment
October 9, 2010 § Leave a comment
Maggie Nelson’s Bluets was initially meant to be my bedtime reading, a sort of break from the cacophony of voices that litter Roberto Bolano’s The Savage Detectives when it clearly became much too noisy to handle before my nocturnal wind-down. Bluets is another one of those genre-fucking books like Bolano’s, and written with such clear-headed evaluation for both personal pain and philosophical observation that it did nothing to help me sleep – by the end of it, I was sobbing into my pillow.
So… restful read? Not so much.
It seemed interesting to me, or sort of serendipitous not in a romantic-comedy way but in a sad literary way that the two books I picked to read concurrently were not written in easily-identifiable forms. The publisher of Bluets, Wave Books, categorises the book under “Essay/Literature”, although I’m unsure if 240 propositions constitute an essay. Maggie Nelson is known for having written both poetry and intriguing works of nonfiction in the past, and for me it seems like Bluets is poetry done as philosophy.
“Philosophy ought really to be written only as a poetic composition,” is something that Wittgenstein said, and it comes as no surprise that in interviews Nelson has alluded to Wittgenstein’s influence on Bluets. Having never read her other work, it’s useless for me to say that Nelson seems to make a home in, and out of, poetry. However, her approach to theorising colour, by way of personal experience and singularly, by way of emotional pain, seems to have been tailor-made for prose that is expressly poetic. And by “poetic”, I mean language that is highly-attuned to itself, not merely to narrate or describe or explain, but by its very act of creation, language that allows itself simply to be and permits fluid, changing modes of expression – from confessional to abstract.
Philosophy is an inquiry into the nature of things – forgive me if there’s something more abstract to it than that. And Nelson’s inquiry into the nature of colour – the colour blue, that is – is delicately layered between two over-arching themes; that of love or obsession or coupled with desire (who can tell the difference, sometimes?) and loss. Nelson’s exploration of loss is intrinsically aware of its relation to yearning; that you can only lose what you had and all yearning is the consistent pining for something or someone you had for awhile and is now gone. In Bluets, this is explored through the speaker’s deep loss over a terminated love affair as well as through Nelson’s shared anguish with a good friend’s loss of her physically-mobile, able-bodied self after a serious accident.
With references to Goethe’s Theory of Colours, Mallarme, Leonard Cohen, Catherine Millet, Cezanne, Gertrude Stein, and various miscellaneous real-life and fictional people of religion, literature, science, and philosophy, Bluets is a solid testament of the work of art in the Information Age. The reading experience of Bluets is so smooth yet if you flip through the pages it appears to be nothing more than a cobbling together of information, facts, tidbits and interesting “nuggets” in 240 paragraphs of varying length. But the propositions are schematic, layered, and ordered – each inquiry into a quote, or a piece of information, is the backdrop for further exploration of an idea, such as:
69. When I see photographs of these blue bowers, I feel so much desire that I feel I might have been born into the wrong species.
70. Am I trying, with these “propositions,” to build some kind of bower? – But surely this would be a mistake. For starters, words do not look like the things they designate (Maurice Merleau-Ponty).
71. I have been trying, for some time now, to find dignity in my loneliness. I have been finding this hard to do.
72. It’s easier, of course, to find dignity in one’s solitude. Loneliness is solitude with a problem. Can blue solve the problem, or at least keep me company within it? – No, not exactly. It cannot love me that way; it has no arms. But sometimes I do feel its presence as a sort of wink – Here you are again, it says, and so am I.
Bluets can look like an easy Facebook note patched-together with random factoids, but the proliferation of ideas from these bits and pieces of carefully-reconstructed information is stunning. Nelson deftly weaves acutely-felt emotions into her intellectual musings. Can desire be satisfied with not-having its wants fulfilled? Yearning thrives on unfulfilment; desire too is properly set aflame only from a distance. “Do not, however, make the mistake of thinking that all desire is yearning.” Much of Nelson’s explorations on love acknowledges its Janusian other face, obsession. If love sets you free, supposedly, obsession is right there to tie you down. How is loving a colour different from loving a person? “Are you sure – one would like to ask – that it cannot love you back?”
What of the female gaze? “There are those, however, who like to look. And we have not yet heard enough, if anything, about the female gaze. About the scorch of it, with the eyes staying in the head.” There are numerous references to “fucking” – an interesting choice of word when used in relation to the intensity of her obsession with the man in question. No “making love” here; straightforward lust is juxtaposed with endless longing for the other person who cannot be had. It’s a deeply-unsettling effect, as when she writes: “Fucking leaves everything as it is” (italics hers) only to say this, pages later: “For better or for worse, I do not think that writing changes things very much, if at all. For the most part, I think it leaves everything as it is.” From writing to fucking to creating – everything leaves things as it is yet seems to profoundly alter the subject behind those acts.
One gets the impression that Nelson wrote Bluets mainly as a form of record-keeping, in the manner in which writers can sometimes take comfort and pleasure in how words on a page can give shape to memory and stand testament to a lived experience. The intellectual inquiries into the nature of things and ideas and people form the architecture of this house of words; but it’s the emotions germinated by those cerebral explorations that inhabit every room and fill the space of every corner.
Fittingly, the final page contains this proposition:
238. I want you to know, if you ever read this, there was a time when I would have rather have had you by my side than any one of these words; I would rather have had you by my side than all the blue in the world.
Bluets is a thin, unassuming book that runs riot in ideas and feelings, the kind that makes your head and heart ache with newly-blooming thoughts and feelings just like the best poetry and philosophy should do – regardless of what you want to call it.
May 3, 2010 § 2 Comments
A poem of mine appears in the April edition of Quarterly Literary Review Singapore. It’s my first poem to be published, as such, if I don’t count the poem that appeared in the now (sadly) non-active Poetika zine. I remember it was the ‘Women’s Issue’ of Poetika, and instead of the usual editor (and founder) Jerome Kugan, that edition of Poetika featured two female guest editors, one of whom was Sharanya Manivannan.
Poetika was a great effort… I remember picking up copies at Silverfish Bookstore in Bangsar with all the excited anticipation of a teenage girl. Which I was, sort of.
My writing attempts, till this point, have always been done in fits and starts. But this year, although I seem to be having a generally shit year in terms of people and “career”, I can’t seem to be able to stop writing. I think that’s a good thing, obviously, and I almost wept with joy when I was told my poem was accepted by QLRS.
It almost feels like if I could just keep going with my writing, the cliché that “everything will be alright” will come to be true. Despite the general shittiness of life this year.
March 8, 2010 § Leave a comment
The world inside Robin Ekiss’s The Mansion of Happiness is a beautiful, grotesque, tragic world of miniature machines, toys, and automata. Enclosed within these tiny objects are large, messy feelings – carefully circumscribed and concealed by their narrow boundaries, allowing Ekiss to explore the disturbing detritus of emotions that lurks just outside what is ‘normal and acceptable.’ It’s a feat that works throughout much of the book and one that makes The Mansion of Happiness a thoroughly absorbing and rewarding collection of poetry.
I first heard about Ekiss when I was browsing through Poets & Writers magazine in Kinokuniya. Once in awhile, that bland vanilla publication promoting the interests of white-bread authors comes up with something interesting. One of it was the feature on upcoming poets to watch. In that little one-page interview, Ekiss described her inspirations – the toys of her childhood, because her mother made dollhouse furniture and accessories, and her paternal grandfather’s home was filled with toy mechanical banks – which I found pretty intriguing. Looking around online, I came across some of her poems and thought them beautifully-written, suggesting sparse, controlled elegance, but clearly indicating an avalanche of deeper, darker, messier emotions beneath. That precise juxtaposition has always intrigued me in poetry.
Plenty of clear, arresting, and disconcerting images abound in her poems. For example, in ‘Meanwhile, under the shade palms’ (which you can also read here), Ekiss begins the poem with an intriguing scene: “the Turks are inside the egg / on the backs of elephants. / It’s customary to describe their attire: / feathered headdresses / shedding quills in ribbons of heat, / moustaches and slippers / curled fetal at the ends.” Those slippers, “curled fetal at the ends” already suggest an ominous tone about either a maternal presence or a thwarted vision of motherhood. Possibly, there is a suggestion of barrenness – both emotional and physical: “Nothing happens inside the egg: / the Turks are yoked to their carpets” and later, “Her egg is small, encrusted / with diamonds. Death watches / through the emerald window.”
In ‘Edison in Love,’ also published here, she writes, “Rene Descartes, too, traveled alone / with a doll-in-a-box / he called his daughter. Francine / Francine… is it better to be silent / and wait for everything / we were promised? / Or should we love them back, / The way a train loves a destination, / as if we have the machinery necessary for it?”
That’s gorgeous – to imply that the obligation of having to love someone is like a train loving a destination, because equipped with the machinery necessary for it; no choice but to keep going, keep loving.
In the poem ‘The Mansion of Happiness’ (Ekiss writes in her notes that the title is taken from one of the first board games published in the U.S., the precursor to Milton Bradley’s contemporary board game, The Game of Life.), Ekiss sets up a rather disquieting version of her recurring theme – a present but seemingly disturbed mother – “In another room, / mother played her clavichord / while I practiced my infant alphabet- / then, bored, took up the doll / which could always stand undressing.”
She builds layers of images, tying dolls – vulnerable, passive – with the presence of her mother, who hovers about the periphery, vague and overwhelmingly present in her absence. In ‘At the Doll Hospital’ Ekiss writes that the dolls have “started to look entirely like children – barefoot, sexless.” In one of my favourites, ‘The Question of My Mother’ (also published here), she writes, “The question of my mother is on the table. / The dark box of her mind is also there, / the garden of everywhere / we used to walk together.” The disturbing yet beautiful images throughout – of “fallopian city ingrained in memory,” or “dark arterial streets, neglected ovary / hard as an acorn hidden in its dark box / on the table” is painful, suggesting a deeper loss that cannot be assuaged, which leads to the plaintive final lines: “Mother, I am / out of my mind, spilling everywhere.”
There is also a paternal presence throughout, as well, no less chilling in its apparent offhand cruelty of neglect, or misguided attention. In ‘Elegy for My Father, Not Yet Dead,” Ekiss asks (tells) us: “When I pass my dead father on the street, / will I say about him what Kierkegaard said / of Hegel: he reminds me of someone.” Elsewhere, the lines, “There was no refraining. / My legs snapped shut / as clothespins” occur in the same poem as “You be the father / and I’ll be the daughter. / For God’s sake, / if that door’s bricked up – / try another.” In another poem, there is this: “During the fever, Father circled relentlessly / with new toys. I could hear the perforated music / of his breath approaching”.
Games, toys, and pretty, tiny things – the diversions of childhood mingle with family dynamics to create an intensely claustrophobic world that fairly ripples with underground tensions waiting to blow up the smooth facades. Much like a ticking time bomb planted in a sweet-faced doll, Ekiss’ poems reflect the ambiguity of relations between parents and children more than anything else. Her poems are linguistically and emotionally tightly-wound, subtly lodging itself under your skin for days after. These poems don’t scream out at you during the first reading, and Ekiss is confident enough to allow the reader to want to come back to them, over and over again – and anyone who appreciates gorgeous language and intriguing images and poetic tropes will want to approach these poems repeatedly.
I’ve had The Mansion of Happiness at my bedside for weeks, and it’s likely to stay there for quite some time. I would definitely recommend this for people who are interested in contemporary poetry, but who have been put off by much of contemporary poetry that’s just self-absorbed poets wanking off to their own narcissistic impulses, writing poems shrouded in deliberately oblique (and often meaningless) language. Whoops, sorry. That was a digression, and an extended way of saying – read this book. Really. It’s an intensely rewarding poetic experience.