Revisiting "For Godot"

In Fall 2008, Stephen McLaughlin and Jim Carpenter edited an anthology (3785 pages) featuring 3164 poets. McLaughlin and Carpenter did not ask any of the writers for permission to print their works. In fact, the poems attributed to the individual poets weren’t even written by them.
The anthology, needless to say, attracted much attention from the ‘featured’ writers, who were indignant, flattered or vocally indifferent. You can read some discussion on Harriet and download the PDF of the issue (3.9 MB).
Someone told me that if you are in the anthology, that means you have some sort of web presence. “How else did the ‘editors’ find you?” The poem I didn’t write was titled “A Marble” (it is on p. 3380). I rather liked ‘my’ poem, partly because it has ‘graves’ in it and they have capitalised the ‘M’ in my name.
A marble

Disconsolate crowns and monumental sealing-waxes
Grave marbles and dispiriting graves
Disconsolate as a
           diadem .
Like a diadem
                                      Tammy Ho Lai-Ming

Last night, J brought me a beautiful blue marble; it reminded me of the poem and the anthology.


Parts of this post were first written in March this year (9th March and 11th March). Revised on 17th November, 2010.
Recently, I read Melanie Benjamin‘s Alice I Have Been (2009), which is a fictional account of the life of the historical figure Alice Liddell Hargreaves, the inspiration for the character of Alice in Lewis Carroll’s famous stories. I was interested in the book for two reasons. First, my undergraduate dissertation was on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass (And What Alice Found There) and I have long loved the texts. Second, my current research is on novels which re-imagine Victorian times and works.
I admired several parts of Benjamin’s novel, especially when the heroine is a young girl, who is often witty and rebellious,1 much like the Alice of Carroll’s stories. I also enjoyed the final chapters when an elderly Alice is believably and sympathetically depicted. I was very moved reading those chapters; the scene in which the old Alice meets the ‘real’ Peter Pan (i.e. Peter Llewelyn Davies) was particularly memorable. However, the middle (and large) part of the book, which deals with Alice’s adolescence and early womanhood, was not pleasant for me to read. I was indifferent at best to the heroine’s tiresome emotional turmoil and romantic relationships (there is one between Alice and Mr Dodgson (i.e. Lewis Carroll) and another between Alice and Prince Leopold). I was also offended by the exploitative and uninformed way John Ruskin is incorporated in the book, although the author admits taking ‘greatest’ liberty in his portrayal: ‘I deliberately made him a more important figure in Alice’s life than he probably was’ (351). Such a conventional and limited view of Victorian men we are presented with: if they did not have a ‘normal’ love relationship, they must be pedophiles.
1 For example: “When I was six, I had known nothing. Now that I was seven, however, I couldn’t help but be impressed by how very wise I was growing.”
I was also not completely enthralled by Tim Burton’s Alice in his latest Alice in Wonderland. The film tells the story of a 19-year-old Alice’s return to Wonderland, which is repeatedly referred to as Underland by the locals. Alice’s original trip is mentioned constantly within the film, although many of the characters doubt that she is the same girl. Whether she is the true Alice is important because it has been prophesied that she will defeat the tyranny of the Red Queen by slaying the Jabberwocky, who is a kind of WMD within Wonderland. As you can perhaps guess from this setup, Burton’s version is much more a Hollywood adventure story than it is a faithful retelling of Carroll’s tale.
Burton is above all a visual director2 and there is unsurprisingly much to admire in his vision of Wonderland. I felt that the use of 3D within the movie was even less intrusive and subtler than that in Avatar. One of my favourite images is when the Cheshire Cat, voiced by a suitably pompous Stephen Fry, disappears into a puff of smoke only to reappear in the moon. Another affecting visual is when a shrunken Alice is forced to jump from floating head to floating head (all those heads!) to cross the moat into the Red Queen’s palace. Apart from the visuals, I also thought the soundtrack was exceptional in evoking the atmosphere of the place.
Finally, I enjoyed a number of performances, especially that of Helena Bonham Carter as the arrogant and loud Red Queen. She steals every scene she is in with her enlarged heart-shaped head. I thought Anne Hathaway was also good as the flighty White Queen. I liked Alan Rickman’s hookah-smoking Caterpillar as well (it’s Alan Rickman! My beloved Professor Snape!). But it is Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter that I found the most endearing. Although many critics have been saying the equivalent of ‘Off with his head!’, Depp’s turn as someone beset by madness and loneliness is very powerful. There are several heartbreaking moments when he realises that he is mad but cannot do anything about it. (Another blogger feels sorry for Depp’s Hatter as well.) It’s perhaps more torturous knowing you are mad than being mad but oblivious to the fact. (Yes, I feel strongly about ‘mad’ characters; their minds trapped. See here.)
Indeed, I was struck by a sadness running throughout the film. For example, Alice, uninspiringly played by Mia Wasikowska (what a shame — she is superb in HBO’s In Treatment), does not smile once. Although in the original story, the heroine is also faced with an absurd adult world full of politics and has to assert her own existence and authority, Carroll’s work is filled with wit, wordplay and surprises, which keeps the text charmingly light-hearted. Whereas Carroll’s work is full of twists and turns, which leave the reader as lost as the heroine herself, Burton’s film is a joyless and straightforward march to the end in which all this is lost. We are left with a prophesied mission, reminiscent of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, the ending of which we know right from the start. This prophesy also adds a seriousness and false weightiness to the story. The movie is additionally plighted by its feminism. One of the great things about the original Alice is that she is a strong independent girl and they have tried to keep this characterisation in the film by turning Alice into a modern feminist tale. Of course, this message is undercut by the fact that Alice’s story is foretold — even as she is asserting her own independence, she is merely fulfilling her fate. For me, all of this points to what I found so sad about the film: the difficulty of giving an afterlife to a much-loved character. No matter how good the execution, it just never lives up to the original.
2 My dear friend Cyril corrected me on this point: “It would be more accurate to say that he used to be a director concerned with contents as much as visuals, and that he has mostly given up on contents in the past few years.”

I’d like to mention Stephanie Bolster’s award-winning collection of Alice-inspired poems, White Stone: The Alice Poems (2006) as well. I found the poems mostly sensitively written and more evocative than Benjamin’s Alice I Have Been. Not only does Bolster imagine the fictional Alice in and out of Wonderland, she also explores the life of the real Alice Liddell and at times even identifies herself with the character in some of the most engaging poems in the collection.
There are many poems I enjoyed reading; some of the lines are beautifully crafted:
[…] This room is long and narrow, full
of longing. Outside, cups clink.
–from “Dark Room”, p. 14
Her blue eyes tight buds.
Her mousy thatch straight across
the forehead. Spring everywhere threatening
to open them both: tense in that unfurling
garden, during the long exposure.
–from “Aperture, 1856″, p. 15
What use in posing as a goddess
who would not be seduced –
when there’s no danger of seduction
now? Not all beloved girls grow up

to beauty. Your hair’s brittle 3
as last year’s nests; only your name
is worth a second glance.
–from “Pomona”, p. 26
Certainly Alice would have been tempted
by the fragrance of warm sliced apples,
the idea of something hard in there.
–from “Portrait of Alice with Persephone”, p. 46

[…] She wants to sway
to the beat of his heart in her ear, slow
as “Are You Lonesome Tonight.” In sleep
their tear-blotched faces could be anyone’s.
–from “Portrait of Alice with Elves”, p. 50

The first man to call me beautiful
wears the caterpillar’s manic
grin and breathes out the same
dazed smoke. We kiss by the river
within sight of luckless fishermen.

With him I find a patch of sky,
see tiny driveways bordered
with crocuses, backyards
with swingsets.

When he says goodbye I cry into the phone
for hours until he says he has
to go. I hang up first.
–from “The Poet as Nine Portraits of Alice”, p. 54

[…] I pretend she
understands, but she and many

of these stars are dead. Their light
is not for me and is not her.
–from “Portrait of Alice as the Poet’s Universe”, p. 56
Of all the poems, I guess “Portrait of Alice, Annotated” (p. 43) particularly touches my research. The poem contains the stanza below:
The critics overwrote each other
till all their words were tattooed black
upon her. Have mercy, she cried as they came
with the thousand-volumed weight of archives,
but those words were not hers either.
One can sense that Bolster believes the re-imagination of Alice in poetry is a better treatment of the character than having her analysed and dryly dissected. The metaphor of ‘tattooing’ is interesting: it makes one think of the ink that writes and the ink that dyes the flesh parchment of the body. Tattoos are often a form of art (I have seen some beautiful ones in my days), no more or less than poetry. But here, the persona seems to suggest that the black tattoo Alice receives from critics is like a slave tattoo; she is being written, she is branded for eternal life. Weighed down by the excessive volumes of academic work, the persona imagines Alice to be helpless: “Have mercy, she cried[.]” But I can’t help but think that this is somewhat hypocritical, for Bolster’s words in the poetry collection are not Alice’s either.
3 ‘Not all beloved girls grow up // to beauty’ — There is something universal, though: we all grow up old!
extra Listen to the song “Jabberwocky”, sung by Jennie Avila.

"The Scholars" by W.B. Yeats

The Scholars

Bald heads, forgetful of their sins,
Old, learned, respectable bald heads
Edit and annotate the lines
That young men, tossing on their beds,
Rhymed out in love’s despair
To flatter beauty’s ignorant ear.

All shuffle there, all cough in ink;
All wear the carpet with their shoes;
All think what other people think;
All know the man their neighbour knows.
Lord, what would they say
Did their Catullus walk that way?

–From The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats (1935), p. 158

Cutlery couples

This post was originally posted on 18th July, 2009.

Today we went shopping in the upmarket neighbourhood of Chelsea. Our first stop was the famous John Sandoe Bookstore. The store, which sells new books, is absolutely packed, much more in the style of a used bookshop where books are placed wherever they fit at the moment. In the basement, where we spent most of our time, there were three sections: poetry, drama and children’s books.
I spent a while browsing the substantial poetry selection. At one point, I picked up a book by Billy Collins, who we have published in Cha previously. The former Poet Laureate of the USA, Collins has a talent for writing about relationships and life experiences in a charming manner. In his recent collection, Ballistics (2008), there was a poem titled “Divorce”, which is about a cutlery couple; that is, two pieces of cutlery which are in a relationship:


     Once, two spoons in bed,
     now tined forks

     across a granite table
     and the knives they have hired.

I like how as the relationship progresses, the couple changes from two loving spoons into piercing forks. I also like the cutlerification of lawyers as knives.
The poem also reminded me of a cartoon which I taught in the course Introduction to Language and Communication at the School of English, HKU. The cartoon (see below) depicts two sets of cutlery couples: one is made of a fork and a knife, and is assumed to be a regular Western couple. The other, formed of a fork and a single chopstick, represents a mixed couple: half Western and half Asian. The joke which accompanies the illustration is: “Don’t say anything, but I’ve heard she’s a mail-order bride.”
Image source

Apart from the joke itself, which I like, I also think the cartoonist manages to make a comment (whether consciously or unconsciously) about the difficulty of mixed relationships. After all, it is much harder to eat with one fork and one chopstick than it is to eat with a knife and fork, or with two chopsticks. I do wonder, though, if it would be better to have a knife as a wife, or a chopstick?

PS. A couple of pieces of over-analysis: 1. Two spoons (and later two forks) — is the couple in Collins’s poem homosexual? 2. In the cartoon, we would have to assume that a normal Asian couple is made of two chopsticks but a Western couple is made of a fork and a knife. It is a little strange that the Asian couple is made of two identical pieces of cutlery but the Western couple is made of two different but complementry pieces. Surely, according to yin and yang theology and basic heterosexual relationships, the Asian couple should also be made up of two complementary utensils. I wonder what this all means. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
12 Responses “Cutlery couples” →
July 18, 2009
Observations from Reid:
“Spooning” means (in 19th century English) courting AND it also refers to a sexual position. As for your blog, “spooning” could apply to homosexual sex as well. But at some time a spoon meant a simpleton, so somebody acting foolish or silly was “spooning” and that came to mean being silly in love, which then came to mean courtship. All meanings should be available to Collins. (Well, the simpleton meaning is no longer current–i don’t think.)
Shadowy figure
July 18, 2009
Forks are quite self-sufficient: you can eat most foods without a knife. And best foods are those that you don’t need any utensils for.
July 18, 2009
Ah! You are saying the men in the cartoon are quite self-sufficient, whereas the women…..
July 18, 2009
Forks can be romantic, not just spoons:
July 19, 2009
Some questions and thoughts:
If a knife and a fork is a couple, which one is the husband, and which one is the wife?
Chopsticks always come in a pair. A fork or a knife can serve some purposes on its own, but one chopstock alone has absolutely no use. The chopstick “couple” has a much closer relationship – they can’t survive without each other.
July 19, 2009
I like your interpretation about the chopsticks. I think in the cartoon, the fork is the man.
July 19, 2009
As one (a fork or a knife, depending on the day – sometimes cutting and blunt, other times more four-pronged and pokey) who married a chopstick, I have to say, I just have no idea. Two chopsticks? a knife and fork? What fits where and who and how? Who’s to know? Who’s to say?
I’ll say this, though, you could marry a girl or boy from your same tribe on your same small island from your same small gene pool and still, her family could just as easily have buttered their toast butter-side down or, God forbid, not toasted it at all. Two people marry and they’ve got differences to negotiate. On my blunter days I of course tie my choptick to the floor and force her to toast her bread and butter it right side up. Dammit!
July 19, 2009
I need some females to participate in this discussion.
July 20, 2009
In India we use our fingers to eat. It takes a whole family of fingers to get the job done. Although messier, is life softer without pointy or serrated appendages?
July 20, 2009
Messier — but perhaps more fun?
July 20, 2009
and what about the other way:
first – flying knifes and at the end, after 10, 20 60 years of living (and loving) two gently hugged spoons…