Ignatz on Road Trip

by Olivia Zhu

Right now, I'm somewhere in the American Southwest, surrounded by what my high school biology teacher would remind me is called a “desert chaparral.” I'm road-tripping from Austin to California, both a far cry away from the cold climes where I first encountered Monica Youn, and her second book Ignatz.

Krazy_Kat_panel

As a child of the 90s, I had no clue that Ignatz referred to the Krazy Kat comic strips, and similarly had no idea who Monica Youn was (CliffNotes version: she's a notable lawyer and poet, and Ignatz is her second book). When I first read “X as a Function of Distance from Ignatz,” or “Ignatz Domesticus,” or any of the other bits and pieces of her book available online—well, they were a bit inaccessible. I thought it because I didn't know Krazy Kat, didn't know the original Ignatz. To be perfectly honest, I still don't know if Ignatz is meant to be male or female, and I confess I haven't been perfectly diligent in my research here; even now, I read Youn's work in fragments, on the road. But—I hope my argument that poetry is a matter of being at a point in time, at the right moment in time, is no less obscured for that fact.

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Old King in the New World: Restraint and Art in ‘Madame X’

by Olivia Zhu

MadamexThe pale neck of John Singer Sargent’s most notorious portrait subject graces the cover of William Logan’s latest book, a collection of poetry that pays homage to the artist in its themes and style. Madame X, named after the painting, opens with two epigraphs that establish the themes of the work: the first explicitly links Herman Melville’s Ahab to “that wild Logan of the woods,” in reference to a Native American chief who literary historian Jonathan Elmer calls “a melancholic relic,” of the same lonesome breed as both captain and poet (119). The last of his kind, fanatically in search of a poetic white whale: this is how Logan announces himself.1 The second epigraph, a quote from Roman Holiday, reveals the object of his pursuit. Gregory Peck’s expat character, attempting to resist an undressing, Shelley-reciting Audrey Hepburn, advises her to “Keep [her] mind off the poetry and on the pajamas and everything will be all right.” Taken together, the two inscriptions position the poet as an old king, yearning for the classicality of the Old World, its elegant poetry, and its restrained sexuality. Madame X, with all its recurring images of ancient soldiers and overexposed young women, is a testament to Logan’s self-assigned role as a guardian of taste and timelessness.

Like Logan, Sargent might have also been called an “old king.” Toward the end of his career, Sargent’s devotion to his brand of “realism was viewed increasingly as anachronistic and facile,” paralleling Logan’s fidelity to “a certain sense of tradition that was antipathetic to the traditions that most of the poets [his] age were following” (Churchwell; qtd. in Jalon, 16). Nevertheless, the artist and poet soldiered on. Both have defended their relatively traditionalist work, and the very first poem of Madame X hints at the poet’s artistic loneliness in doing so. “The Hedgehog in His Element” indicates that Logan, oft-maligned for his “miserable” and “bullying” criticism, is the titular creature, very much at home in his attitude and medium (1). During a phone interview, Logan admitted he “was attracted to the sense of a hedgehog as a masochistic figure—it looked as if he had been shot full of arrows.” Is Logan’s tenth work a vindication of how he has suffered for his formal style? Its introductory poem suggests so, for “like a Sherman tank forced out of the brush,” the poet is made to emerge and set up a defense in whatever prickly way he might choose (“Hedgehog” 2). The image of a self-sacrificing soldier is driven home by the poem’s concluding image of “St. Sebastian bristling with arrows,” with the patron saint of warriors—and a martyr twice over—shown as angry and defiant even when wounded (“Hedgehog” 3).

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Do Good Books Improve Us?

by Emrys Westacott

ScreenHunter_465 Jan. 20 11.14Does reading good literature make us better people? The idea that exposure to good art is morally beneficial goes back at least to Plato. Although he was famously suspicious of the effects that tragic and epic poetry might have on the youth, Plato takes it for granted that art of the right kind can be edifying and that therein lies its primary value. Most educators from Plato's time to the present have made similar assumptions, even though they may disagree over what sort of effects are desirable and therefore which sort of books should be read. In the past a lot of powerful art has glorified tradition, upheld religion, celebrated national identity, and helped foster social cohesion. This is the sort of art that often appeals to conservatives. Today, by contrast, much more emphasis is placed on art's critical function, its capacity to make us more informed, aware, self-aware, thoughtful and questioning, particularly in relation to aspects of contemporary culture that the artist finds troubling.

Obviously, no one expects every important work of fiction to precipitate some great moral awakening or social reform after the fashion of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Nor do we expect to see patrons of a New York literary festival dispensing cash to street people as they wait for their cabs after a reading. The moral and social benefits of art identified by critics are usually more subtle. Typical academic commentary on fiction, for instance, will see its importance as lying in the way it enlarges our moral imagination, helps us to grasp another's point of view, sensitizes us to another's feelings or sufferings, warns us against certain kinds of illusion, exposes insidious forms of cruelty, shows us how to avoid self-deception, impresses on us some profound truth, strengthens our sense of self, and so on. This approach receives theoretical support in works such as Richard Rorty's Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Martha Nussbaum's Love's Knowledge, and John Carey's What Good are the Arts?

A huge amount of literary criticism is of this sort, and it can certainly be interesting, insightful, and entertaining to read. But I also believe that it might be useful, for once, to meet it with a robust, even vulgar skepticism. I would not deny that literary works are sometimes capable of having desirable effects of the kind just mentioned on individuals and society. But I believe that in most cases, such benefits are either negligible, or short-lived or non-existent. They certainly provide a rather flimsy reason for valuing the works. Compared to the much more obvious good of the enjoyment we derive from reading fiction and poetry, their value as instruments of edification is like the light of stars against the light of a full moon.

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Here a quack, there a quack

by Gautam Pemmaraju

Coppersmith_Barbet_I_IMG_0006As the Bombay heat began to set in this morning at nine o'clock, I heard amidst the cawing crows, the shouts of a street vendor, local kids playing cricket, and cars and motorcycles, a long metronomic birdcall emitted from a tiny, fleeting visitor. The Coppersmith Barbet, adopted as the city's official bird, is known so because of its signature call – a metallic evenly paced sound, “tuk…tuk…tuk (or tunk), reminiscent of a copper sheet being beaten”. Rickshaws were passing by raucously; on occasion one would sputter into action after picking up a fare. It is intriguing to consider the only similarity between the two – how the sounds they make are described in speech. If the little crimson-throated visitor's call can be described with a set of phonemes that attempt to approximate it, then the rickshaw's steady rhythm as it charges down streets have led to it being named onomatopoeically. From the tuk-tuk in the tree to the tuk-tuk on the street, it is both the ubiquity and the boundaries of onomatopoeia that is fascinating. I cannot recall now, if I sipped my tea, or slurped it, as the Barbet's sound ceased and the distressing white-noise of the water-pump took over.

From babbling brooks to angry oceans, soft breezes to fierce gales, trains, bullets, rockets, machine guns, and the purrs, meows of cats to the roars of wild beasts, we find ways, in all cultures and languages, to phonetically transform the sounds we hear into words that can be spoken and written. Songs, poetry, and literature are suffused with the sounds of the world we live in through onomatopoeic words.

The steady rhythm of human life itself, the beating of hearts, is cross-linguistically broad in description – from bumm-bumm in German, lab-dab in Tamil and Telugu, doki-doki in Japanese to tum-tum in Arabic, the way chests throb and pulses race find varying phonetic forms across the globe. Boom-boddie-boom was the way it went for Peter Sellers and Sophia Loren in the promotional song for the 1960's film The Millionairess, and in Hindi cinema, we have long known of dil ki dhadkan and the pulsating dhak-dhak. From the diastolic to the systolic, to aches and sighs, the heart and its cadences is widely found in song form.

Onomatopoeia-Is-A-Straight-Forward-Disease-Comic-By-Cyanide-HappinessThe role of onomatopoeia in evolutionary linguistics is highly disputed, and the theories of ‘opprobrious names', the ding-dong, bow-wow, and pooh-pooh, which do not heed visual signs and cues, writes EL Thorndike, are largely discredited. However, the role phonetic elements play in mimetic gestures is an interesting one and the links between sound and sense is an essential aspect of language and speech.

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To Run Aground

by Gautam Pemmaraju

Last month, while on my way to 7 Bungalows, a neighbourhood in Bombay’s northern suburb of Andheri, I stuck my head out of the rickshaw as we were momentarily caught up in traffic at Juhu Beach. Just a week earlier, on June 12th, a large merchant ship, charmingly named MV Wisdom, had run aground. A faint drizzle nimbly animated the monsoon skies and I wiped my glasses clean on my T-Shirt to look out at the enormous ship and the several people gathered on the beach. They ate chaat and ice creams and gawked at the derelict, wretched old vessel, none the wiser to its impending fate. The unmanned giant was being tugged from Colombo to a ship-breaking yard on the coast of Gujarat. Its demise was imminent.

News reports mentioned that the vessel had inadvertently broken free from its grim escort, and as it set adrift in the then perturbed waters and inclement weather, it narrowly missed colliding into the Bandra-Worli Sea Link bridge – Bombay’s latest showpiece. It however remained fortuitously adrift enough to not rudely bump into the city’s latest public display of inept governance and poor planning, but instead lumbered on to the iconic Juhu Chowpatty, with what one can imagine to be, ponderous fatigue corroded over many seafaring years, and a groan like none other.

These were the scenes to be seen:

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Expressing Fidelity Through Sorrow’s Hope

By Maniza Naqvi

Faizphoto Separated for now, from Ami, in this journey of life and death, I feel myself displaced: trying to find meaning in everything, wanting to be able to express her being in everything that I do and struggling to not feel muted and exiled. I feel her touch each time that sorrow becomes overpowering as though to say—I am here with you:

With such love, oh beloved, at this time, the memory of you has placed its hand on my heart’s visage/ A sensation, still, though now it is the morning of separation, set the day of exile, arrived reunion’s night.”

Is qadr piyaar sey, eh, jan e jahan rakha hai/Dil ke rukhsaar par is wakht teri yad nay hath.

Yun guma ho tha hai garchey hai abhi subhay firaq/Dhal, gaya hijr ka din ah bhi gayee wasal ki raat.

And in this moment as I write this piece which is meant to be about this photograph and about the immortality and intensity of poetry and poets, I search for Ami’s gentle touch. Ami with her perfection in relating her understanding of meanings, her precision of thought, her clarity of language and her passion for prose filled my life with poetry. My understanding of Urdu poetry was through Ami and my father. Ami recited poetry to me and helped me read it in my mother tongue—she explained and translated the difficult vocabulary and gave meaning to its detailed and often culturally specific symbolism and context of my motherland. With Ami’s help I read and understood a handful of shers contained in Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s book of poetry called Nuskhaye Wafa, on the inside cover of our copy of the book I had scrawled in pencil my own alternative title:—“A Prisoners and Exiles Guide to Survival.” One of my favorite poems or ghazals of Faiz begins with:

Merey dil merey musafir, Huwa pir sey hokum sazir key watan badar hon hum tum.

My heart, my traveler, Once again we are ordered into exile you and I.

It is this photograph of Faiz Ahmed Faiz that I want to write about. But in this moment I cannot see it through any other lens then that of the sorrow and loss of Ami, my mother whose intekal or transition from this life occurred January 17, 2011.

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Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird — and at Obama

by Evert Cilliers (aka Adam Ash) and Wallace Stevens

 squawking

In 1917, Wallace Stevens, to my mind the best American poet of the 20th century (sorry, Sylvia Plath fans), published one of his most famous poems, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” What with Barack Obama being our first black President, and also a leader who elicits a variety of responses, from the sensible to the absurd, I thought it might be interesting to look at Obama through the lens of this poem.


(Note: this piece is shorter than my usual 8,000-word epic rants. Last month I wrote a 17,000-word saga, mixing stories about my strange family with social commentary and snippets of the history of South Africa, where I grew up. I didn't get the usual fifty plus readers comments, but the ones I got were so enthusiastic and heartfelt that I am honor-bound to repeat this personal anecdote/social commentary form again. I thank all those 3QDers who read the whole damn thing and expressed their thanks. You make me love what I do, and make me love 3QD for letting me do what I do. BTW, if you're brave enough to climb this Mt. Everest, google “The World Cup, my White Afrikaner Skin, my Fascist Parents, Mandela, Obama and Forgiveness.” And now on with a mercifully shorter piece.)


I

Among twenty snowy mountains,

The only moving thing

Was the eye of the blackbird.


The problem with Obama is the problem with democracy, as famously described by Churchill in a Commons speech in 1947, after the British voters repaid him for saving civilization by throwing him and his party out in 1945: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Obama is the worst form of president, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. Today there are a few pols that are mildly interesting — Nancy Pelosi, Ron Paul, Anthony Wiener, Paul Ryan, Bernie Sanders, Howard Dean, Jeb Bush, Barney Frank, James Webb, Newt Gingrich, Alan Grayson — but none to match Barack Obama. Among the snowy mountains of Washington, his is the only eye worth catching. He can still summon the mojo to enchant a crowd (to see him in top form, google “realclearpolitics Obama: Republicans want to bamboozle you”).


However — and this is what makes Obama really interesting — he appears to have lost his progressive base somewhere between Air Force One and the White House urinal. Obama may be the smartest guy in any room, but when it comes to keeping his loyal base loyal, he has moved into full possession of an ear of tin, a tongue of lead, and a brain of plank.


II

I was of three minds,

Like a tree

In which there are three blackbirds.


Looking at candidate Obama in 2008, three mindsets pertain:

(a) Obama was the hope of the universe, the dawn of a new day, a progressive nation changer of unfathomable potential, an avatar of Dr King, Gandhi, Mandela and FDR.

(b) Obama was a socialist demon Nazi Hitler Lenin Antichrist Arab Muslim, the real-world manifestation of super-conservative America's worst hates and fears.

(c) Obama was a blank slate on whom we could all write ourselves; he was whatever you wanted him to be, a projection of your innermost desires, the change that was us that we were waiting for.

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