Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Collected Poems of Li He

The Collected Poems of Li He, translated by J. D. Frodsham (Calligrams Series, The Chinese University Press/New York Review of Books, 2016)

This collection of the works of the lesser-known Tang-era poet Li He (790-816) was long-awaited.  It is a republication of Frodsham’s original translation that first appeared in 1970, then again in 1983, now further updated and with a new preface by Paul Rouzer.  Li He is described in the introductory material as a kind of doomed Romantic or an ancient Chinese Rimbaud.  He did die young, apparently of tuberculosis, and his poems are often littered with images of death and otherwordly figures.  His work was left out of the standard Tang anthology, for being supposedly too weird.  Yet, it seems a tiny bit of a stretch to me to compare him to Kurt Cobain or to a contemporary teenage Goth, as Rouzer does in his preface.  These Western analogues make for good selling points, but in reading the whole of Li He’s oeuvre, not just the wilder pieces that the introductions and back cover focus on, it becomes clear that he was more often than not working within the conventions of Chinese poetry than breaking them.

Though the more well-known Tang poet Li Po (701-62) is mentioned by Frodsham only once (and then only in passing), Li He’s corpus often follows contours close to his predecessor’s — he overarchingly utilizes the same metres and line-lengths, and similarly there are poems about drinking wine, of sad farewells to friends, there are court poems (often dense with allusion and allegory), songs of singing women, “harmonizing” poems, travel poems, and imagistic nature poems.  A nice example of the latter is Li He’s “Walking through the South Mountain Fields,” which reads in part,

Pool-water deep and clear,
Insects whining,
Clouds rise from rocks,
On moss-grown mountains.
Cold reds weeping dew,
Colour of graceful crying.
That the red moss “weeps” dew is a nice touch here, personifying the natural scene and lending the poem a slight hint of melancholy.

Both Lis also dabble in mysticism from time to time, writing ecstatically of gods, goddesses, and immortal beings who inhabit heavenly realms beyond ordinary human experience.  Li He was greatly influenced by the early (c. 200 BCE) shamanistic series of poems titled the Chu Ci, and in his own “Song of the Magic Strings,” one of his most remarkable poems, he writes,

Blue raccoons are weeping blood
As shivering foxes die.
On the ancient wall, a painted dragon,
Tail inlaid with gold,
The Rain God is riding it away
To an autumn tarn.
Owls that have lived a hundred years,
Turned forest demons,
Laugh wildly as an emerald fire
Leaps from their nests.
Here, it seems to me, the Western analogue is not the Romantics or even the Symbolists, but the Surrealism of André Breton.  This is also an ekphrastic poem in part, with certain lines responding to a temple fresco (“On the ancient wall. . .”).  It is stunning imagery, and though not all of his work is quite as intense, this volume is more than worth it for having poems like these.

A similarly arresting poem is “Song of an Arrowhead from Chang-ping,” where Li He visits an ancient battlefield and feels the presence of ghosts:

Desolate stars,
Black banners of damp clouds
Hung in void-night.
Souls to the left, spirits to the right,
Gaunt with hunger, wailing.
Not only can we say that Li He was, at times, haunted, but that the poem itself is haunting, still today some further 1200 years on.

One point of divergence between Li He and the slightly earlier Li Po is that where Li Po was decidedly Taoist in philosophy and religion, Li He bends toward Buddhist thought — a cherished text for him being the Lankāvatāra Sūtra.  Yet, I am not sure even these differences are really all that great.  The Lankāvatāra Sūtra, in its discussion of the emptiness of form and self is not so far from Taoist texts such as the (admittedly Buddhist-influenced) Qingjing jing (Scripture on Clarity and Tranquility).  And, for that matter, the Chu Ci poems are often seen as iterating an early or proto-Taoist perspective.  While Li He frequently satirizes Taoist external alchemy (the misguided attempt to create and ingest an elixir of life), he nonetheless seems to delight in religious ritual of all sorts.

A further poem that I found interesting is “The Caves of the Yellow Clan,” which depicts aboriginal natives of southern Guanxi/western Guangdong, who were in the process of being colonized by the Chinese imperial government.  Li He describes them as “Treading like sparrows, they kick up the sand / With sibilant feet,” . . . “High-pitched voices shrilling like apes. . . .”  Li is clearly taken by these people and the spectacle of their massed ranks: “Coloured cloth around their hanks, half-slanting, / On river banks their war-bands muster / Gorgeous as arrowroot. . . .”  He seems sympathetic to them, despite their otherness (for him), and goes on to critique his own government for their unnecessary slaughter.  But the poem is also noteworthy as an early example of primitivism, in a way similar to early depictions of Native Americans, or Caesar’s descriptions of Gaulish culture, alternating between fascination and disgust.  With more awareness of such a dynamic, we in the West might even sometimes question our approach to reading Asian poetry, so it is another odd twist to remember that China, ancient and modern, is also an imperialist society that has engaged and does engage in the same kind of primitivizing, colonialism, and exploitation that the West has also often been guilty of.

Frodsham’s translations in this book are exceedingly well-wrought, following a pattern of their own: Li He’s five-character lines retain their single lines in English, rendered in quatrains or octets, while the seven-character lines spill over into two (broken after the fourth character).  This roughly brings across the feel of the original classical Chinese forms, and while Frodsham dispenses with the strict rhyme and tone-patterns, his English verse is rich with alliteration, slant-, and internal rhyme.

A final note, which should not discourage anyone from acquiring this volume, but nonetheless it needs to be said: There are far too many typos here than one would expect from any professionally published book, much less from a university press.  Unfortunately, this seems to be something of a trend as of late.  Presses absolutely must retain (or, apparently, hire) full-time proofreaders, or risk losing credibility.  Perhaps it is a symptom of disappearing funding and slashed budgets, but it is nonetheless unacceptable that typographical standards are getting so low in the publishing world.  One is able to muddle through, as here the mistakes are, in the scheme of things, infrequent.  But taken as a whole, they add up to too much.

Once again, though, this book is well worth the time spent and includes Frodsham’s copious notes for context and explanation.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Thinking Continental Pre-Orders

Thinking Continental: Writing the Planet One Place at a Time is a multi-genre, eco-critical anthology, published this November by the University of Nebraska Press.

Edited by Tom Lynch, Susan Naramore Maher, Drucilla Wall, and O. Alan Weltzien, it includes a poem by myself.

It is already available for pre-order, here:

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Review of Get Out (Jordan Peele)

Jordan Peele’s first film, Get Out, is a great début.  I’ll confess that it is rare for me to care all that much about a newly released horror/thriller film these days, but of course this one is different than the usual.  It was interesting to me in that it consciously plays on many of the tropes of the genre, but then does weird things with them, like Kubrick did in The Shining (though it only somewhat resembles that film in places).  In many ways it is akin to Rosemary’s Baby or The Wicker Man (I’ve also seen it compared to The Stepford Wives) — except that the ultimate evil here is not Satanism or paganism or anything supernatural, but rather whiteness itself!  The first half of the film wittily explores the various microaggressions that black people are frequently subject to in American society, and is thus a kind of well-rendered social commentary.  These, however, are bizarrely heightened, and so for example the main character’s interaction with a cop is laden not only with the usual layer of fear that many, especially African Americans, might feel in such a situation, but also with the expectation of potential terror that you get in the horror film.

Then, in the second half (spoiler alert!), we learn that these microaggressions (exemplified especially at the white girlfriend’s family’s party) spring from more than just the usual subconscious or even conscious racism that still widely exists in the supposedly more enlightened America of today.  In fact, the white family wants the protagonist’s black body (because, they say, black people have stronger physical genes, propagating yet another stereotype) — they are essentially turning them into zombies, re-enslaving them in a sense, and ultimately transplanting the brains of their dying, rich white friends into the bodies of kidnapped African Americans whom they have lured to their house in one way or another, here through the girlfriend, who is in on it, but sometimes, with the help of the girlfriend’s younger brother (who plucks them off of the street).  Upper-class whiteness is suddenly revealed as a kind of sinister cult, hiding behind a liberal veneer, but enacting a horror just as evil as anything that occurred in past history.

On one hand, then, Get Out is a wry satire, but on the other an eerie intensification of the real fear that exists for many, and finally is a metaphor for contemporary America.  It is amazingly filmed, which may or may not be a surprise from a first-time director who came to prominence for a comedy sketch show (I personally was always a fan of Key & Peele, and thought it was excellently directed).  In a way, it is odd that the film is being promoted in such a mainstream way (though good for Peele).  Peele has the eye of a more “artistic” director and seems to be taking cues from people like Kubrick, Lars von Trier, and so forth.  The opening sequence is an impressionistic montage of a forest, with a nice play of light, and there are unexpected dream-like sequences that occur when the protagonist is hypnotized by the girlfriend’s mother, and so on.  Call me a snob if you want, but sitting through the 20 minutes of awful “Hollywood blockbuster”-type action-movie previews before Get Out even began felt incongruous, and reminded me why I never see them.  But in this case it was well worth it.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Louisville Conference 2017

Get to the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture since 1900 early!  This Thursday the 23rd I’ll be presenting on the Santa Fe poets of the 1920s!  Tell your friends!

Here’s my panel:

A- 2  Mythologies of Modernist Poetry
Thursday 1:30 PM − 3:00 PM    Room: Humanities  207
Chair: Daniel Ross, Columbus State University
·  Elysia Balavage, University of North Carolina at Greensboro
“Dionysian Modernism: Chaotic Release in the Poetry of Ezra Pound and H.D.”
·  Michael Begnal, Ball State University
“'visiting with a strange mesa': Modernist Mythologies and the Poets of Santa Fe”
·  Patrick Jackson, Columbus State University
“Singers and Scavengers: The Myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in Ted Hughes’s Crow Poems”

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Free State Review 7

I have an essay in the new issue (#7) of the Free State Review.  It is a great issue, with many wonderful co-contributors.  My piece is a somewhat scholarly, somewhat subjective view of the ancient Chinese Taoist poet Li Po.  Editor Barrett Warner saw fit to put me on the cover.  Thanks for that. . .

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

David Stone, The Memory Strait

David Stone is a poet I’ve written about on this blog and elsewhere a number of times (see here, here, here).  His newest book is called The Memory Strait (Macauley, 2016).  It includes not only text, but mail-art / collage / painting by the late Guido Vermeulen, and cover art by Cheryl Penn.  Here’s a brief excerpt from Stone’s poem “A Phenomenology of Night”:
Spectral agents
ground on foot
the rotating
seconds fed
the thirst
after laughter
The apocalyptic
police steered
the demand
for the outcome
of planetary gains...

Monday, January 16, 2017

Formative Albums

This is something that originated on social media — people posting lists of albums important to their teenage years, as opposed to say all-time favorites, or what have you.  I rarely if ever do these things, but those who know me know that, aside from poetry, I also write about music.  So, my list.  Here, I’m really thinking something like ages 14-18 or so.  As it’s 12” albums, I’ve left off important 7”s, and I’ve also only gone with one per band, in no exact order (though I guess they’re roughly in the order of my coming to them).  Again, this is not an all-time favorite album list, which would be rather different   I’m sticking with the “influenced you in your teenage years” thing.  Here are eleven.  [Bracketed comments in regard to live shows.]

Ramones, first album 
I actually first listened to this when it came out in 1976, when I was 10, due to the fortuitous presence of a long-time family friend who gave it to my parents.  Afterward, I went through a couple of different phases of musical development, including popular AM radio groups, then a serious Beatles period ages 13-14, then some “new wave,” and then at 14 got into true punk rock again in a big way, with the Ramones gracing my record-player frequently.  In fact, they still do.  This album is probably the ultimate punk album (certainly one of the all-time best albums, period), and I imagine my life might have been very different without it.  [I finally saw the Ramones live in 1985.]

Sex Pistols, Never Mind the Bollocks 
While the lustre of this one has kind of worn off for me (if I ever listen to the Sex Pistols these days, it’s mostly the rarities or B-sides), I would be lying if I said it wasn’t a major record for me during the early part of my punk career.  (I use the word “career” because I was in a band already — Wasted Talent — aside from just being “a punk”).  Out of the “big three” of the British punk bands (Pistols, the Clash, and the Damned), I would now unhesitatingly go with the Damned as my favorite, and even throw in Sham 69 and the first Wire album over the Pistols.  Strange how that happens.  [I never saw the Pistols live, as they broke up when I was 11, but I did see the Professionals with Steve Jones and Paul Cook.]

The Plasmatics, New Hope for the Wretched 
As it turns out, this band was originally a performance-art project created by their manager (I think it was), but then weren’t the Sex Pistols too, in a way?  When this album came out (1980), they were pretty much the biggest thing in American punk rock, and I even remember seeing them on Entertainment Tonight or one of those shows, blowing up a car on stage as part of their live act.  You might dismiss them as a gimmick, but the real test is in the music — they were a surprisingly good band, and Wendy O. Williams was a great singer and front-woman.  Best tracks: “Butcher Baby” and “Monkey Suit.”  [Never saw them live.]

Dead Kennedys, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables 
The DKs were a pretty well-known band in the early hardcore scene, though they don’t sound as hardcore as some on their early stuff.  I started buying their singles, then saw this album in the store.  My favorite tracks were probably “Let’s Lynch the Landlord” and “California Über Alles.”  Jello Biafra’s voice is the kind of thing you either love or hate.  What I also liked about the DKs is that they had a pretty original guitar sound, with weird surf influences, etc., not just the standard bar chords.  Highly political (maybe even more so on their subsequent releases), one could argue that they are once more relevant, given the era we now live in.  To be honest, though, I don’t listen to them much anymore. Just a subjective thing.  I guess, like the Sex Pistols, I kind of wore them out.  [Never saw them live.]

Germs, (GI) 
The Germs, however, never get old for me.  Darby Crash had one of the best punk singing voices out of anyone.  Despite his self-created image as a drunken lout, his lyrics are some of the most poetic or literary lyrics in punk rock.  The Germs took the best of the original ’77 punk sound and intensified it, creating (along with a few other bands) the L.A. hardcore sound.  Pat Smear’s guitar is unrelenting.  There’s not a whole lot in the way of leads, but his bar chords are hard to beat.  This is still one of my favorite albums.  [Never saw them live.]

Black Flag, Damaged 
As is Black Flag’s Damaged.  Since I’m only going with one album per band, it was a toss-up between this and Flag’s other great album, My War.  But since I’m still focusing on earlier influences, I chose Damaged.  I can’t count how many times I played this album at age 15 and 16, over and over, very much into the lyrics and the viscerality of the music, and the way they were able to evoke intense emotion more so than probably any other band I can think of.  You want pathos, you got it!  But it doesn’t so much speak to the teenage condition as it does the human, and that’s one reason why it still holds up as art for the ages.  [I first saw them live in May 1982, and ten times after that.]

V/A, Flex Your Head comp 
As everybody knows, Washington, D.C., had the best hardcore scene in the country, or at least the best bands.  This compilation is proof: The Teen Idles, Untouchables, S.O.A., Minor Threat, Government Issue, Youth Brigade, Red C, Void, Iron Cross, Artificial Peace, and Deadline all on one album, without a single throwaway track.  Even though I think I was just 15 when I got this, it made me want to quit school and move to D.C. to be part of it all.  In retrospect, there was at least something to be said for staying in State College, PA, for a couple more years, as awful as it seemed at the time, and being in the band I was already in.  [Of the bands on this compilation, I saw live shows by Minor Threat, Government Issue, Void, Iron Cross, and Deadline.]

Minor Threat, Out of Step 
Along with Black Flag, and then very soon the Bad Brains, Minor Threat was one of the let’s say top three bands that represented “me” and how I felt about life and how I put myself forward in the world at the time.  Focusing on personal politics and positing a straight-edge philosophy (in fact, vocalist Ian MacKaye originated the idea and the term, as we all know), MT was and is the quintessential East Coast hardcore band, the sine qua non of the genre, and have never been surpassed (sorry, Fugazi fans; sorry NYHC fans; etc.).  Out of Step was their only album, but it didn’t come out until the spring of 1983.  By that time, it was an “event,” and it was worth the wait — it’s indisputably a great record.  Before it, though, their two 7” EPs were almost constantly on my turntable.  [I saw Minor Threat twice, in May 1982 and June 1983.]

Bad Brains, Rock for Light 
Though I had listened to their ROIR cassette and of course really liked it, and had a few of their tracks on compilations, I didn’t really get into the Bad Brains in my own way until 1983, when Rock for Light came out.  “Ah, yes,” I thought to myself, “now I see why Henry Rollins and Ian MacKaye argue that the Bad Brains are the greatest hardcore band ever.”  People say their heyday was a year or so earlier, and maybe it was, but Rock for Light is one of the best and most original hardcore/punk/whatever albums imaginable, in sound, fury, and content.  Sure, it’s a toss-up between this and the ROIR album, in fact many of the songs are the same, but I give this one the edge here for production and my own personal investment at the time.  And, the three reggae tracks on this album are great!  [I saw the Bad Brains twice in 1985, shortly after they re-formed.]

Hüsker Dü, Zen Arcade 
I got Hüsker Dü’s first album shortly after it came out and thought it was so-so.  Then, however, I was blown away by both Everything Falls Apart and Metal Circus.  Either of these latter two could be on my list, but Zen Arcade, wow.  It came out in the summer of 1984, so I was either still 17 or had just turned 18.  It was that point in time where the original hardcore scene was just starting to fragment and evolve (if not the beginning of the end), and this double album pointed a way forward.  It still retained the speed, roughness, and noisiness of hardcore (a few songs were still outright thrash), but brought in all kinds of other influences at the same time: 60s garage/psych, hard rock, an “emotional” lyricism, there are a couple of acoustic tracks, vocal melodies, some tape loops, etc., but they never lose their punk edge and intensity.  Zen Arcade is a landmark album, and still one of my favorites.  [I saw Hüsker Dü twice, in December 1983 (with the Minutemen opening) and in the spring of 1985.]

The Stooges, Fun House 
It’s hard to know where to begin with Fun House.  Any of the three Stooges studio albums could’ve been on this list — in fact, I first bought Raw Power when (I think) I was still 14.  But, I started getting into Fun House when I was 17 or so, partly because Henry Rollins (via Chuck Dukowski’s influence) had talked it up in an interview.  My initial point of comparison was Black Flag’s My War LP, the way both albums had this subtle departure in mood between side one and side two, with the back half getting wilder and more free-form.  But Fun House quickly took on a life of its own for me, at a time when (as I alluded to above) I was looking for something beyond what had increasingly become a hardcore formula (well, I stayed with the hardcore sound for a while more, too).  Much has been written about this album (indeed, readers of my blog know that I write about the Stooges myself from time to time), and its importance to my own art from that period on cannot be overstated; there’s no other record like it.  In my opinion, it is the greatest rock’n’roll album.  [Never saw the Stooges live, though I did see a couple of Ron Asheton shows (with Empty Set, and Dark Carnival) and a couple of Iggy Pop shows.]

Since narrowing it down is difficult, here’s a supplementary twenty-two more formative albums.  Again, no particular order except rough personal chronology, same time period (age 14-18).  And I’m obviously leaving off many other important ones.

Gary Numan & Tubeway Army, Replicas
New York Dolls, first album
Iggy Pop, Soldier 
Lydia Lunch, Queen of Siam 
Dead Boys, Night of the Living Dead Boys 
V/A, The Decline of Western Civilization soundtrack
V/A, Hell Comes to Your House comp
V/A, Boston Not L.A. comp
Circle Jerks, Group Sex 
Misfits, Walk Among Us 
Faith/Void, split LP
V/A, Let Them Eat Jellybeans comp
V/A, Not So Quiet on the Western Front (MRR) comp
SS Decontrol, Get It Away 
D.Y.S., Brotherhood 
Ruin, He-Ho 
Necros, Conquest for Death 
Marginal Man, Identity
Black Sabbath, Paranoid 
The Velvet Underground & Nico
The Doors, first album
MC5, Kick Out the Jams