Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Art of Reading Poetry

On impulse, I bought Harold Bloom's "The Art of Reading Poetry" this week -- part of its appeal was surely the brochure size of the book. I could -- and did -- read it in a matter of two or three hours. If I understand him correctly, Bloom claims that the art of reading poetry is the art of comprehending the meaning of poetry, learning the ways the meaning is constructed in poetry, and then learning to interpret the meaning. No argument from me there, except maybe Bloom's "cognitive" quality is not sufficient to characterize the ways poetry affects us on the level of sound.

I'm struggling to find English-language poetry that I could connect with on an emotional rather than intellectual level. The best way I've figured out to approach this project is to read a lot quickly, until something catches my eye, and then read that something more attentively. The line that stopped me in Bloom's book was from Tennyson's poem "Ulysses": "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield." Something about this line struck me as deeply familiar, and after a moment's pause -- I suppose I translated the line automatically in my head -- I realized that this line was a motto of a character from my favorite novel growing up. "The Two Captains" by Veniamin Kaverin was favorite to several generations of Soviet children the way children of different generations grew up with Jules Verne or Mark Twain.

The connection between Tennyson and Kaverin immediately made sense when google helped me remember that this line was used on the gravestone of the British explorer of the Antarctica, Robert Scott. Kaverin's main character, Sanya, made it his life quest to find out what happened to an explorer of the North, a fictional figure modeled largely on the British explorer of Antarctica. Scott had reached the South Pole only to discover that he had been preceded there by a Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. Dispirited, Scott and his team died on the journey back to their ship. The words on his grave come from the concluding stanza to the Tennyson poem:
"One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."

This phrase, "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield," -- or its Russian translation, "Бороться и искать, найти и не сдаваться" -- has accompanied me through life in a very literal sense. At the age of nine, I, copying my hero, Sanya, took it up as my motto and wrote it on the first page of my diary -- and have been ritualistically rewriting it on the first page of every new book I've since designated as my diary. (I am very loyal to my rituals).

I've now gone back to Tennyson and reread "Ulysses" several times -- slowly, it's starting to develop some meaning for me on the emotional level. The sentiment -- Ulysses's striving for something to do after the Trojan war and his return to Ithaca -- is colored by what I perceive as the meaning of the sentiment on Robert Scott's memorial and is colored by Sanya's quest -- it signifies to me on all of these levels, and cannot be separated from the later interpretations. Perhaps, to truly commit to this poem, I should memorize it.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Post-trip randomness

Dave and I returned to San Francisco on Saturday, so technically, the trip is over. But endings are never that simple. For example, I still have about two dozen browser tabs open: research on the places we visited. Some of them I can close with no regrets: I have five tabs dedicated to microbreweries in Beijing we wanted to visit our last full day there. It turned out, most of the pubs listed online have gone out of business, and the only one we found still in business, is a Japanese company that makes beer with a Russian name, Okhotsk. Actually, Okhotsk is a town and also a sea, the sea that separates Japan from the continent, and where the group of the disputed Kuril islands is located. Just the other day, these islands were in the news again, when President Medvedev went there for a visit, and Japan temporarily called their ambassador back from Russia. Never mind, I'm supposed to be closing tabs, not opening new ones.

Two more sites we visited our last day in town: Silk Street and Pearl Market, one of the places to go in Beijing for knock off purses. I wonder what the career paths of the girls who work there will be: the place is an amazing training ground for an army of aggressive sales reps. In the evening of our last day, we ended up at Sanlitun, a neighborhood of all-American bars, restaurants, shopping. There's a mall there that reminded us very much of the refurbished downtown LA (Nokia Center). The place was mildly creepy in its blandness, so we got out as quickly as possible. A couple of days prior, we'd walked by another touristy restaurant area mentioned in many tour guides, Nan Xin Cang, built in a restored old granary. It's another Disneyfied recreation targeted at tourists, and so stripped of any real personality.

Here's a cool discovery:, a Chinese equivalent of Yelp. The website is entirely in Simplified Chinese, but thanks to Google translation tools that wasn't a problem. We searched it for some fun restaurants and also it led us to a very decent and well priced foot massage place. Meanwhile, according to, the best restaurant in Beijing is a place called ebeecake. Cake sounded good, and we decided to seek this place out -- especially since the address showed it to be located at the 798 Art Space the day we were going there. Big mistake. Turns out, the right way to read the name of the place is e-Bee-Cake, that is "electronic" cake. When we finally found the right building in the middle of the 798 Art Zone, it turned out to be a wholesale bakery, and they asked us where we wanted our cake delivered. They gave us a pretty catalog with over a dozen titles, and told us that there was a cafe next door that served ebeecake. We found the cafe, but out of all the dozen pretty cakes on the brochure, the cafe was serving cheesecake and tiramisu. We turned up our noses at that, and opted for pizza and ice cream at a cafe down the street.

My other open tabs take me all the way back to Shanghai. Here's a blog by an American guy, Jonathan, that's been really helpful to me in finding the foreign-language bookstores in Shanghai. Jonathan is studying at a university in Nanjing, and his blog is a good source for information about the expat life in China. I've added his RSS to my Google Reader.

Dave's coworker, Laura -- she's an interpreter freelancing for Dave's company -- told me the story about the Soong sisters, three very influential women of the 20th C Chinese politics. The eldest of the three, Soong Ai Ling was married to the richest man and a finance minister of China. The middle, Soong Ching Ling was married to the founder of modern China, Dr. Sun Yat Set. And the youngest, Soong May Ling married Chiang Kai Shek. I immediately wanted to know more about them. Apparently, there was a 1997 Hong Kong film made about the three, but what I'm really looking for is a good novel :) While in Shanghai, I went to Soong Ching Ling's residence and memorial, memorial being a museum dedicated to the life of Soong Ching Ling from the point of view of the Communist party. The residence itself was like a small English country house, albeit with a few oddly angled walls. One very neat thing I noticed: she had her typewriter set up in the bathroom, right next to the tub. I wonder what her writing routine was.

Also, while in Shanghai, I walked down Duolun Road, a street famous for many turn of the 20th C writers who lived there. The street is enjoying something of a renaissance these days, and features some new cafes and bookstores and even one Museum of Modern Art. I walked into this museum to discover an exhibit of сontemporary Saudi Arabian art, a part of the World Expo.

Finally (for this mishmash post), David and Cici, our gracious guides through Hangzhou, left me with a list of (popular 20th C) Chinese writers I should check out. I have no idea when I will get to this, but here at least are the names they put down in my notebook: Jin Yong, Wei Si Li, Lin Yu Tang, Zhang Ai Ling, Xiong Yao, Lao She (the only name familiar to me on this list), Ding Ling, Han Han, Bing Xin, Lei Yu, Ba Jing, Guo No Ruo.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Ring 4

My nose seems capable of producing infinite amounts of goo. Both Dave and I have been sniffling all week; it's no big deal -- no other symptoms, except red noses -- but it is making it difficult for me to sleep or lie down in general, my nose gets immediately stuffed up. Yesterday, we decided to get foot massages, and I was breathing so loudly in my reclined chair, that a woman working on Dave's feet brought me some pretty gel-capsuled pills to take, presumably to clear my nose. I took some NyQuil instead, and more or less slept through the night.

On the other hand, stuffed nose is a fine symptom to have when walking through a neighborhood fire. As we were walking back to our hotel last night, having gotten our foot massages, our path took us down a street that was blocked off to automobile traffic. My first thought was that they were clearing an accident: we've already seen one accident the day before, where a motor-powered rickshaw collided with a motorcycle. With the aggressive local driving style, accidents must be frequent. As we kept walking, we started seeing fire engines on both sides of the street, and then finally passed a small crowd gathered at an entrance to a side alley: one of the buildings some ways down the alley had caught on fire.

Beijing's city plan divides the city with wide automobile streets into neighborhoods, rectangular blocks of houses separated from each other by narrow and sometimes very ancient alleys (hutongs). Many of these alleys are inaccessible to cars, and only pedestrians, bikes or motorbikes can get through. So when trying to put out a fire, the firemen had to extend great lengths of hose all the way down the alley, by which time the fire probably spread from the first building to the next and maybe to the next. The buildings are made of brick, but they are located so close to each other, that the fire, once started, is difficult to put out. As we passed that alley, we entered a cloud of smoke so thick Dave thought the cause was a smoke bomb; it was hard to imagine this kind of smoke being caused by a single house burning five hundred feet away.

Beijing is a grid city, but like Moscow, is circumscribed with several concentric ring roads. I am not sure what in Beijing is considered the first ring -- perhaps, the walls of the Forbidden City -- but most tourist sites and activities seem to be contained within the Second ring (except Summer Palace, where we haven't been yet). The residential city is much wider, extending out in all directions to 4th, 5th and 6th rings. This is where most of the millions of people inhabiting Beijing actually live: not in the historical and atmospheric hutongs of the city center, but in the Soviet-style (or post-Soviet, more contemporary) apartment blocks. I feel very much at home in these neighborhoods. Here are the shops for the middle classes: grocery and clothing mega-markets, stores selling washing machines, offices of the telecom companies, bakeries, a random pipe and tobacco shop.

We ended up in this part of town following a lead recommended by my friend Yvette (her recommendations have led us to some very unique and fascinating places this week): to find 798 Art Zone. It's an old auto factory that fell in disuse and was taken over by artist-types that converted it to their own needs. The project achieved legitimacy on the governmental level as Beijing was gearing up for the Olympic games. The old factory neighborhood was re-zoned from industrial to "artistic," and large-scale tourist-friendly construction began. Today, the area features many cafes and restaurants (most of them with some international flare, even if that simply means pizza and tiramisu), bookstores and stores with artistic souvenirs (lots of souvenirs that feature art from 798 galleries), and most importantly, a countless number of galleries, workshops, ceramic studios, etc.

And all of this is located in the middle of the otherwise nondescript middle class neighborhood, past rows and rows of apartment blocks. Tourists who know what they are looking for, find it, but otherwise -- forget it. You're never going to stumble upon it by chance.

Read Dave's blog for more details about the art we've found at 798.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Sightseeing in Beijing

We've been walking around Beijing the last few days, took a bus ride to the Great Wall, but then came back to the city and continued viewing the sites. There are many major attractions here that are on every tourist's must-see list, and we've barely covered those yet. The Wall, for one, also the Temple of Heaven. Planning to spend half a day at the Forbidden City today, and maybe will make it to the Summer Palace on Friday. Distances are huge, and once you get to a site, it absorbs you in a multitude of pavilions, corridors, landmarks -- and soon enough it's 5 pm, when everything closes down. Sure, we're not very dedicated sightseers, we get out of the hotel very late, by noon at best, and prefer to stay out as long as we can in the evenings -- exploring the neighborhoods, getting lost in the alleys, finally finding our way to the night markets, settling down for dinner, going to shows.

I feel very ambivalent about visiting the must-see sites. I am not huge on taking pictures, and the massive hoards of tourists are frightening. The Great Wall, at least the most popular stretches of it, is a huge tourist trap; the loveliest thing about it is the ability to hike from one mountain crest to the next, and to enjoy the autumn. We don't see much of this kind of fall in San Francisco -- the Wall was covered in soft yellow glow from all the trees around it, dry weightless leaves gathering at the bottoms of each staircase and by the parapets. It really seems that the "Wall" is a misnomer -- it's not much different from the Roman road, a way to connect distant provinces to the empire center. Any army that scaled those mountains can easily take the wall, not that much higher than any wall aristocrats built around their palaces and gardens in Beijing or Shanghai.

Yesterday, Dave and I visited the Palace and the Garden of Prince Gong, similar in its vision to Yu Garden in Shanghai, but also featuring a separate mansion with nine inner courtyards. The Garden of Prince Gong is rumored to have inspired Cao Xuequin's "The Dream of the Red Chamber" (or "The Story of the Stone"), the one classic Chinese novel that I've (partially) read. The garden with its multiple pavilions and several man-made lakes was completely overrun by tour groups, so Dave's and mine vague notion of having a tea and resting a while in one of the pavilions seemed absurd. But we did meander around, climbing the rocky paths on the second and the third level above ground, and this way managed to sneak by a few particularly ugly bottlenecks. This, to me, was the most surprising discovery about these traditional gardens: their three-dimensional architecture. Somehow, from the books, this part never became apparent to me, that the traditional garden is not conceived on a plane, but also in the vertical space. This is also one aspect the smaller-scale gardens like the ones in Portland or Vancouver cannot replicate.

Beijing clearly presents itself as a much older city than Shanghai. Walking down a seemingly random alley, we've come across a sign that marked the existence of this same alley from the 13th century. Also, we've walked into a store with wooden triangle roofs and a series of courtyards, labeled with a plaque: this store was a pharmacy built in 1606 and served the emperor and the court. There were several different shops located on the premises now, but the only one still open (it was after 5 pm) was a state-run shop with traditional souvenirs, tea and candy.

My friend Yvette has been telling me of the ever-present danger in Beijing that the new bout of construction will destroy yet another historical neighborhood; that the traditional compounds will be replaced with ultra-modern office buildings and hotels. She herself has been writing fiction, short stories and novellas, that explore the changing cityscapes and social structures of contemporary Beijing. I am thinking about her stories as I walk around and look at the tremendous construction sites that border every neighborhood, that meet you every time you turn a corner from a well-trodden tourist path. Yvette's project, to reflect and remember, resonates with me: I also keep thinking about the one skyscraper, the infamous Okhta Center or Gasprom tower, that may or may not be built in the next few years downtown St. Petersburg.

Read Dave's blog for a more detailed account of what we've been up to.