Author Archives: Katie Provenzano

REACHING OUT WITH NO HANDS

Reconsidering Yoko Ono
Lisa Carver
Backbeat Books ($18.99)
Lisa Carver’s Reaching Out with No Hands honors Ono’s central status as a pioneering, groundbreaking artist by questioning her work each step of the way. It’s a highly personal and idiosyncratic account—at one point, Carver (herself a performance artist as well as writer) says, “I feel such intense appreciation for her, yet it is not a warm feeling”—but her willingness to wrestle with a great forebear makes her text relentlessly charming. Some of the book’s chapters are as brief as a paragraph, and it’s form makes sense: Carver skillfully plumbs Yoko’s story from the point of view of the mediated, the seen. Her chapter on Bagism, for instance, recounts how in 2003, reporter Peter Jennings attempted to interview Ono but “was dragged into the bag to become an unwitting participant in the exploration of finding the pure human.” That’s art.

Yoko Ono, thank you for all your art, and happy birthday.

WHAT I DID

Christopher Wakling
William Morrow ($15)

Told from the point of view of six-year-old Billy Watson, What I Did masterfully captures the restless childhood imagination that often flies free from reality. What Billy did was get his father, a loving yet volatile man under pressure at work, in deep trouble with child protective services. Christopher Wakling’s discerning grasp of the sponge that is a child’s brain results in a complexity of linguistic inventiveness, filled with malapropisms and elaborate mythologies that Billy devises to stave off the boredom of adult talk and tensions. But the deep bond between father and son cannot be broken so readily by suspicion or the father’s own pig-headedness. No one comes off very well, but the messiness of these relationships makes it a truer and more profound tale. As Billy says, “nobody is bad or good here, or rather everyone is a bit bad and a bit good and the bad and the good moluscules get mixed up against each other and produce terrible chemical reactions.”

LEO GEO

Jon Chad
Roaring Brook Press ($15.99)

It isn’t often that artistic innovation, high-level education, and just plain fun get crammed into the same package, but such is the case with Jon Chad’s marvelous children’s book Leo Geo. The book’s designed as a skinny vertical strip, as befits its topic: a journey to the center of the earth. Leo mellifluously describes the science behind his trip the whole way down (and back again)—though the story is not without some science fictional diversions along the way too, like the “quadclops” our explorer hero finds at the earth’s core. Chad’s vertical cartoon is an impressive architectural feat, and his playful sense of humor doesn’t take away from the fact that you (I mean, erm, your kids) will learn all about geology and biology along the way.

CECIL THE PET GLACIER

Matthea Harvey and Giselle Potter
Schwartz & Wade Books ($17.99)
Not even Gérard de Nerval’s pet lobster can rival Ruby Small’s pet glacier Cecil. Only the fertile and peripatetic mind of poet Matthea Harvey could cook up this children’s story of a recently calved glacier taking a shine to this normal little girl in a brown pinafore on a family trip to Norway. Ruby has had enough of eccentricity, what with the weirdness of her parents’ penchants (her father is a topiary gardener and her mother designs tiaras), and would much rather have a normal pet dog, but Cecil soldiers on and eventually proves his true devotion to Ruby. Gloriously illustrated by Giselle Potter, who manages to give a lump of ice personality, Harvey’s Cecil the Pet Glacier redefines what is normal or really should be normal: tolerance, acceptance, and unconditional love. With the threat of global warming looming, maybe all of us will need to adopt a glacier soon.

A FAMILIAR BEAST

Panio Gianopoulos
Nouvella ($10)
Panio Gianopoulos’s debut novella A Familiar Beast spans seventy-two pages in a 4”x6” format, but it reads like a long short story–think Alice Munro or perhaps an elaborate yarn from Stuart Dybek. The novella covers familiar territory for short fiction: domestic strife, confronting one’s relationship to nature. But with Gianopoulos’s knack for urban modernity, his precise and inventive syntax, and a narrator whose flaws are complex and compelling, he manages to dismiss the question of genre altogether and provide readers a fully realized work.

MY FRIEND DAHMER

Derf Backderf
Abrams ($17.95)
It’s increasingly evident that “graphic novels” are the perfect vehicle for memoir, breezily conveying the evanescence of memory in a way that prose and film just cannot. Take My Friend Dahmer by Derf, creator of the alternative comic strip The City. The book tells the saga of growing up with the weird kid who would turn out to be a serial killer, masterfully foreshadowing the horror while rendering the incipient monster as just another high school misfit. My Friend Dahmer was twenty years in the making and it shows; it’ll be considered one of the finest examples of its medium for decades to come.

THE FIFTH BEATLE

The Brian Epstein Story
Vivek J. Tiwary and Andrew C. Robinson, with Kyle Baker
edited by Philip Simon
Dark Horse/M Press ($19.99)

by John Eisler

Amidst the recent plethora of Beatles-related publications comes a graphic novel dramatizing the eponymous “fifth Beatle,” manager Brian Epstein. While the fab four are no strangers to the comics—indeed, they are veritable pop superheroes—here they play background characters in this well-wrought dramatization of Epstein’s too-short life.

The Fifth Beatle doesn’t exactly add anything new to Beatles lore; recounted are all the familiar moments that even casual fans may know, including Epstein’s marketing savvy (he dressed those rough boys in suits), pill addiction, and tortured homosexuality. But the book excels at rendering all of this as a graphic story. Vivek J. Tiwary has clearly thought about the arc and theme of his story, rendering Epstein as a visionary outsider undone by an inhospitable world, and his artist collaborators serve him well, giving the saga the appropriate epic sweep.

Indeed, the art is almost a character in this work. Settings both moody and mod evoke the unique style of a bygone era. Expressionistic color and framing help unveil the story, occasionally reversing the feel of reality and dream sequence. And the book’s European format (larger than American) offers the equivalent of Cinemascope, allowing artists Andrew C. Robinson and Kyle Baker (the latter of whom renders the Beatles’ infamous Philippines concert fiasco) bigger canvases on which to govern time through the magic of panel and page.

As of this writing Epstein has just been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a move presciently called for by Billy J. Kramer in his introduction to this book. It’s an honor a bit belated, perhaps, but certainly well deserved. Here’s hoping that cartoonist Howard Cruse is also foretelling the future in his afterword. In it, he discusses gay people’s struggles and how the Beatles’ music “helped make an unending expansion of human possibilities feel joyous instead of scary,” framing that advance in light of the current fight for marriage equality. What a fitting legacy for Brian Epstein that would be: not just Beatlemania, but love, love, love.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013

WRITING UNDER:

Selections from the Internet Text
Alan Sondheim
Center for Literary Computing/West Virginia University Press ($19.99)

by Sandy Florian

In his introduction to Alan Sondheim’s Writing Under, Sandy Baldwin recalls the announcement of Sondheim’s “The Internet Text” that defines itself as a “meditation on the philosophy, psychology, political economy, and psychoanalytics of Internet (computer) communication. “ He notes Sondheim offers up a “meditation,” as opposed to a “critique” or “theory,” and also notes the “parenthetical qualification of the Internet as computer,” which to Baldwin suggests “a focus on the node of the network, that is, on the subject and the body at the terminal, or even on the subject and the body as the terminal node of the network.” Baldwin uses the word “terminal” to mean a machine for entering information into and receiving information from a computer, a keyboard and monitor combination, one used as a vehicle for communication. Sondheim also uses the word terminal to mean the same thing in his piece “My Future is Your Own Aim” where he explores the political economies of electronic writing: “the dispersion of carrier usage, home broadband or dial-up terminals, etc.” In “Writing and Wryting,” he argues that electronic text is always performative because it is framed in a terminal: “electronic writing, within a terminal window is always a performance; it’s never static.” By this, I think he means that electronic text is performative because, unlike the printed page, it continually relies on sources of energy and power and is therefore continually alive. But the word terminal comes from the Latin terminus meaning situated at the end of something. Forming the extremity of something. A closing, a concluding. Growing at the end of a branch. Developing at the end of a bud. It means an end-point on a railroad. A stopping point of a bus route. A finalizing, a dying. The morbid stage of a fatal disease. And the person suffering from a morbid disease.

Writing Under is a collection of meditations on Internet text originally published on “The Internet Text.” An exploitation of the very idea of terminality, the collection is comprised of interminable lists and incomplete catalogues, of ideas, of questions, of modes, of contradictions. In the first piece, Sondheim describes his own work in forty-one different sections. He writes, “My work is simultaneously excess and denudation, artifice and natural deployment, ornament and structure . . .” He writes, “My work is based on the fissure, not the inscription; it’s based on substance, not dyad . . .” He writes, “My work is neither this nor that; my work is not both this or that.”

His obsessive lists do not move toward discovery or transcendence, but instead manifest a sort of involution. They curl up inside themselves, swirling around an absence. He writes, “i cannot write the book i desire; i think constantly, this text is an introduction. He writes, “the introduction inhales universal annihilation. there is no proper way to express this.” He writes, “the books i would write break down upon their enunciation.” Then, “the book, my book, the book.”

Exploring electronic writing, he lists, “Online work is continuous investigation, movement, within diffused sites, applications, networks, inter- and intra- nets, PDAs, cellphones, wireless and bluetooth, satellite and other radios, cable and other televisions . . .” Then it’s an “incandescent investigation, high speed, apparently but not really unlimited, names and movements, critiques, sources and files, coming and going, circulating decaying, disappearing, reappearing, transforming . . .” I find myself fixed on the phrase, “incandescent investigation.” Online work, is an exploration in light, I think to myself, “apparently but not really unlimited.” Then he describes and differentiates different forms of online writing in an admittedly incomplete list (“I don’t keep up”) that includes Hypertext, Flash, Animations, Blogs, Wikis, etc., SMSs and others, MOOs and MUDs, Gaming, Email and email lists, and Interactive or noninteractive websites. Some of the lists get erased, like the list of names of electronic writers. “At this point, I had a list of names; it continued, uselessly, to expand. I couldn’t choose among them.” He recommends we search ourselves and deletes the list. “Now, I’ve taken the names out.”

For the computer savvy, he offers up technical instructions on how to practice electronic literature using commands called “greps” and “seds.” He explains “string variables” that “refer back to the words lists.” There’s a list of questions posed by an imagined or real tenure committee intermixed with a list of answers that conclude, “Conclusion: On the one hand there isn’t any,” for there is no conclusion inside this terminal. In “Tenets of Wryting-Theory,” there are lists embedded within larger lists, as in “fractals, self-similarities, fluxes, flows, peripheral phenomena . . . spaces of echoes, ghosts . . .” (ghosts that glow incandescently in my mind) and that explain (explain?) the word “Imbrication,” a term from a larger list that includes The Real, Limb, Fissure, Mass, Everything, Nothing, and ends in Death, for “Death is the insomniac of terminology.” Is there a conclusion inside this terminal? According to the book, it seems there is a conclusion—for the book, like all books, ends. And that’s the problem. Writing Under ultimately falls short of encapsulating Sondheim’s incandescent investigations simply by delimiting them on the dead page. By doing so, his work loses much of its powerfully performative value. In order to witness the full range of Sondheim’s meditations, therefore, a look at the broader collection of “The Internet Text” is almost required.

I’ve been on one of Sondheim’s email lists through which he disperses what I will call “episodes” of “The Internet Text” for about a year now. Almost daily, there’s something in my email inbox from Sondheim of some media that he also posts on “The Internet Text,” which has, according to Baldwin, a total of around 25,000 pages of text compared to Joyce’s oeuvre of maybe 1,600. On the surface, however, it doesn’t look like 25,000 pages. The website under which “The Internet Text” is catalogued (www.alansondheim.org) looks like a long list of nonsense under the heading “Index of /.” Each one of the links on the list open to a number of .jpg, .mp3, .mov, and .txt files because the project is not limited to text. I engage with a few of these non-textual files when I receive them in my inbox, but most I don’t, because what interests me about Sondheim’s work is how he works with language.

His writing is at times machinic and entirely conceptual. For instance, on December 15 of last year, I received two episodes in my inbox, one of which was titled “my facebook friends friends” and which seemingly was a list of the number of mutual friends he shares with 1,080 people in some organized, ascending, yet cyclical order so that “78 mutual friends” repeated five times is followed by “79 mutual friends” repeated five times followed by “8 mutual friends” repeated twelve times followed by “80” repeated twice. Clearly this is a text not to be read. On the same day, I received another episode titled, “all my facebook friends i hope you are my friends” in which Sondheim lists the first names of all his facebook friends, and here, I do search myself, or I search for myself, and find my first name repeated twice, one presumably for me, and one presumably for Sandy Baldwin, as well as my last name in the latter part of the list. I nose around and find other people who are our mutual facebook friends, like Talan Memmott, Forrest Gander, and Claire Donato, our first and last names disjointed and dispersed. This is a text that is almost readable, but more importantly, it forces a sort of narcissistic engagement on the part of the reader. As we do with so-called “traditional texts,” we search for ourselves reflected in the text.

Some of his pieces are both conceptual and personal, as the one I received on January 31 of this year entitled, “My 70th Unbirthday this Sunday :-(” which begins:

3000 In the year 3000 my birthday falls on monday but I will not birthday, and credit card number as you enter the Topic set out, another birthday an hour away, and all I can think, where are we going. 1993 My fiftieth birthday; my parents sent some money and made a fuss—I in our arms, two days after her 18th birthday. We were closer to her than 94th birthday; Mark and Kathy were there and it was relatively peaceful 2009 My father’s birthday started out with Azure and myself taking a while. My father’s birthday started out with Azure and myself taking a birthday, humor, stars, i love you,:dirty, clean, soiled, sexy, sleazy, parents this weekend as well, my mother’s eightieth birthday, going to be going to a birthday party for her best friend and it’s her birthday too and they’re having a party together and everyone will be worse late than always your wife leaves cause you forgot her birthday searches: sexy, love, happy birthday, humor, stars, i love you,?

But sometimes his work is entirely personal, and then Sondheim’s meditations point more directly to the topic of physical death. This is the terminal as terminus, the end-point on a railroad, a finalizing, a dying. For instance, in his humorous and self-effacing “confessions—more of the same, the end of them,” he writes:

i realize my texts are barking up the wrong tree.
they’re absolutely useless and misshapen.
it’s not zen, it’s just clumsy plagiarism.
i’m lucky if i can write at all.
consider this a wordy piece of silence.
it’s an admission of guilt in the production of bad theory.
it’s an admission of tricks and subterfuge with tropes

And:

my writing isn’t barking up the wrong tree, it’s not
even writing, it’s not even theory, or it’s theory
intended to disguise my ignorance at any cost.
the only delight it brings is the usual shortness of the
pieces but sometimes i err further and produce what
appears on the surface like a meditation but in fact is
just a lengthy and stupid poverty of ideas

Then:

i can type myself to death that way and you’d be lucky
if i did

The “you” is almost always present as a witness to this dying, as in “When I need”:

I loathe my body and write of its death immediately beneath me, even
before it or I touch the ground. It’s this that stops me from
being a man; I am arrogant and angry and despairing, but I am not
a man; I flee even from the position of the coward. I am cowed. In
the face of other men I cannot urinate or breathe; in their face I
remain awake until sleep brings its nightmares to bare down on me.
I consider all of this existence, and ordinary existence, mediocre
existence. I have nothing to gain and always everything to lose,
even in the state of exhaustion or penury or just having finished
an improvisation. I attempt to improvise a life out of debris and
scar and sometimes I succeed on a momentary basis. I look around
and create an epistemology and it is the epistemology that lies
just beneath the surface, an abject epistemology within which we
bleed to death. At the moment of dying, if we are old, we are
transformed, and someone said we are no long human, we are things
sliding into the abyss. I am on the lip of the abyss and I write
of the lip. The writing makes me uncomfortable but I am the one
and many doing the writing and you are the one doing the reading
but it is my writing you are reading as control slips from me.

In an untitled piece recalling and contradicting Dylan Thomas’s poem “Do not go gentle into that good night,” Sondheim writes directly about that incandescent source of life:

i was orphaned at sixty-eight.
my father is dead and he is dead.
i’m no longer second-rate.
i don’t. unconscious what he said.

the dead can’t instigate.
the living can.
i can’t communicate.
with him i’m a dead man.

and a dead man i’ll be. and buried.
furious and harvested. i write.
against. my writing’s hurried.
i’m still in flight.

i won’t go into that damned night.
i’ll die in light. i don’t

For, though it is certain that Alan Sondheim will eventually die, his work, pixilated, enervated, dilated, and even obsolesced—will be incandescently ours, indeed, interred in the inter-net, buried alive:

panic attacks and my gift to you

i want to give away my “i”, my first-person pronoun,
nary that of an other, nor a third, but mine with
my troubled history, my abilities such as they are,
my acquaintances, my families, nothing but the “i”,
nothing else will occur, these potentials will take
effect after i have died, the potentials will assume
the gift and presence of the self i was, perhaps
would have been, if i had been better, they would
exist in the world as if i were still among them,
among you and those to follow you in the world, the
“i” of these potentials is their eye, participates
in the richness and fecundity of the world, and so
i will love among you and be with you among you,
and i will not have died or have lived in vain, you
will have assumed the “i”

Note: To find the source to the quoted selections from The Internet Text, go to http://www.alansondheim.org/, scroll down the files until you come to ra.txt, right-click on ra.txt, and save it as ra.txt.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013

MATSUO BASHŌ’S POETIC SPACES

Exploring Haikai Intersections
Edited by Eleanor Kerkhan
Palgrave Macmillan ($95)

by Joel Weishaus

Haiku is well known in much of the world as a short poem, usually written in three lines. Traditionally, in Japanese at least, it’s laid out in a 5-7-5 sequence and includes a seasonal reference. The word “haiku” was first popularized by Masoka Shiki (1867-1902), in order to distinguish it from the linked verses, renga, to which it was originally attached. Most of the contributors to Matsuo Basho’s Poetic Spaces use the term haikai, the genre’s original name, an abbreviation of haikai no renga. (I will use the modern term, haiku, except when quoting.)

Matsuo Kinsaku, later Bashō, was born in the village of Ueno, thirty miles southeast of Kyoto, during the rule of Japan’s Tokugawa shogunate (1600-1868), a period when the country was unified and at peace, although at the price of an iron-fisted feudal social order and xenophobic isolation. Jesuit missionaries from Portugal and their Japanese converts were executed, and except for a small colony of Dutch traders confined to the port of Nagasaki, foreign trade had been banned.

Bashō took his pen name from a bashō (banana) tree that grew outside a hut he lived in for two years. What set him apart from other haiku teachers was his freeing of the form from renga, making haiku a genre in its own right. He is also known for his tireless wayfaring to places made famous by former poets (utamakura), and for visiting poets in different provinces, along with patrons with whom he participated in evenings of linked verse composing.

Matsuo Bashō’s Poetic Spaces is divided into three sections: “The Artist as Thinker,” “The Artist as Poet,” and “The Poet as Painter.” In the first section, in an essay titled, “Reinventing the Landscape,” Peipei Qiu tells us: “From the earliest extant travel diary Tosa nikki (Tosa Diary, ca. 935) by Ki no Tsurayuki, the Japanese literary travel journal had followed a tradition of weaving poems and introductory narratives in a sequential order.” Bashō’s genius was to

re-present a classically defined landscape through a popular haikai vision and by using haikai language—the vernacular Japanese that did not have the refined hon’iof classical diction, and Chinese words that were not associated with classical poetic toponyms.

In other words, he took a traditional form and, as Ezra Pound famously advised poets to do three centuries later, made it new.

In both Japan and the West, most people who take up haiku ignore political or socially relevant themes. This is a shallow approach to the art, and to reading Bashō’s haiku. In “Skeletons on the Path: Bashō Looks Forward,” William R. LaFleur points out that in Japan during the 1960s, a “politically radicalized younger group of scholars had begun to dismiss or at least downgrade” Bashō, finding him “insufficiently critical of the political structure and powers of his own time.” At the same time, in America, especially among the San Francisco Renaissance poets, Bashō was being “celebrated as having incomparable authenticity and the courage to break from a suffocating society in order to see a range of optional personal and societal possibilities.”

LaFleur relates an incident recorded in Bashō’s first travel journal, “Journal of Bleached Bones in a Field,” in which he comes upon an abandoned child, a condition unfortunately very common in those days. After bemoaning its fate, instead of helping the child, he tells it to complain “to ‘heaven’.” He agrees with Haiku scholar, Yamamoto Kenkichi (1907-1988), who “insisted that what would be moral responsibility in the twentieth century may not be automatically imposed upon a time, place, and societal situation vastly different from our own.”

Then LaFleur goes through various possible sources that Bashō may have been referring to by his use of the word “heaven” (ten). What I find most relevant to our time is the one that implicates those who administer the regime; e.g., “whatever persons or agencies (that) were responsible for conditions of poverty, infanticide, child abandonment, and the like that the poet came upon while on his travels.” In addition, how can this celebrated poem by Bashō be read other than as a commentary on the futility of war?

Summer grasses—
all that remains
of ancient warriors’ dreams.

Harno Shirane, the author of Traces of Dreams, perhaps the most comprehensive study of Bashō’s aesthetics in English, opens the second section of this book with an essay titled, “Double Voices and Bashō’s Haikai.” He begins with some history.

By the middle of the seventeenth century, almost all samurai, now the bureaucratic elite, were able to read, as were the middle to upper levels of the farmer and chōnin(middle) classes. This newly literate populace transformed haikai, heterodox linked verse, into the first truly popular literature of Japan in the sense of being widely practiced and read by commoners.

This points out how a society’s poetry cannot survive without a literate population; in other words, without an education system that doesn’t measure performance with standardized tests, but by individual comprehension and creative interpretation. By the time Bashō was beginning his career as a haiku poet and teacher, “haikai books (over 650 separate titles) were second in popularity only to Buddhist texts among Kyoto publishers, who published an estimated 300,000 volumes in first editions alone.”

However, Shirane’s main thesis in this essay is not historical but aesthetical. Drawing on the work of Russian semiotician and literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975), he points out how, unlike “the thirty-one syllable quintessential classical form” of waka, and the orthodox linked verse of renga, haiku “drew freely on colloquial Japanese, regional idioms, Chinese phrases, Buddhist vocabulary, and other centrifugal languages . . . [It] was based on the notion of challenging, inverting, and otherwise subverting” the formality of previous genres.

In the same section, Horikiri Minoru focuses on a little discussed aspect of Bashō’s poetry; its soundscape, such as in this haiku:

After the temple bell stops,
its sound continues
from the flowers.

Strangely, if only in passing, Horikiri mentions Tsunoda Tadanobu and Sano Kiyohiko, who theorized that “Japanese, unlike people of other countries, perceive sounds such as the tinkling of streams and the chirping of birds with the right brain, which processes music, but not with the left one, which processes language.” Their theory smacks of racism, and happily Horikiri does not pursue it any further. Instead, he referring to the many commentaries as to the meaning of Bashō’s famous poem: “old pond / a frog jumps in / sound of water” (here translated by Cheryl Crowley), he writes:

Were we to compare Bashō’s ear to the modern-day ear, physiologically or biologically, we would not see any differences in sensory function; but in terms of social structure and environment, we might think, could it be that our ways of listening to that sound are very different?

In the last essay of Section Two, Eleanor Kerkham, the book’s editor, launches into a fascinating discussion of novelist and literary essayist Mori Atsushi’s “And Me Too, Once Again, Into Oku no hosomichi,” a monograph that was commissioned for the 300th anniversary of Bashō’s, “Narrow Road to the Deep North.”

Kerkham tells us that Mori, who died in 1992, “had no special relationship with Bashō or withOku no hosomichi.” However, “(b)oth were creative artists and both brought into being new literary worlds—worlds, as Mori sees them, into which they might lure their readers.”

Linking to one’s creative antecedents is very important, because, even if unconsciously, one’s text will always contain revenants, the ghosts in the text. As Kerkham says of Bashō, he “borrows constantly, and his text is a multilayered tapestry of stylistic and structural threads stretching out to many earlier texts.” Indeed, what is missing from most modern haiku is the expression of a lineage, and the inclusion of multitude of voices, preventing the poems from having the depth and breadth of ancient haiku.

For his presentation, Mori went back to his memories of time spent along the route that Bashō had walked three centuries earlier. (For a similar sojourn, by an Englishwoman, see Lesley Downer’s, On the Narrow Road: A Journey into a Lost Japan.) Most importantly, Mori trusted “that in the act of writing he would discover both his subject and its relationship to himself.” Here is the process of all creative work: letting one’s daemon speak for itself.

The last section of Bashō’s Poetic Spaces addresses the poet as a visual artist. As with all great creative souls, Bashō saw the whole range of arts and crafts as an expression of the Creative Spirit. Perhaps if he lived in this century he would pack a lightweight electronic tablet.

One would think that Bashō’s paintings would be in the traditional haiga format; e.g., as Joan O’Hara defines it in “Bashō and the Haiga,” “a painting (ga) that is accompanied by the inscription of, and is related to the content of, at least one seventeen-syllable verse.” While he did produce several dozen haiga, he also painted images that stand alone. Interestingly, there are also paintings by Bashō that contain a poem that has no direct relationship to the picture.

This section, which is generously illustrated, includes an essay by Eri F. Yasuhara on the poet/painter Yosa Buson. Born twenty-two years after Bashō’s death, “Buson’s debt to Bashō is considered almost a matter of historical fact,” and relationship that “has not often been subjected to critical analysis.”

Here is a lovely poem by Buson honoring Bashō:

Bashō is gone,
and ever afterward,
no year has ended as his did.

Yasuhara comments: “He has not been able to end any year the way Bashō did, on the road in pursuit of art.”

This review just brushes the surface of a valuable book that also contains the work of other scholars equal in insight to those mentioned above. For anyone interested Bashō, haiku, or Japanese literature in general, Matsuo Bashō’s Poetic Spaces is a journey worth taking.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013

SYSTEMS WE HAVE LOVED

Conceptual Art, Affect, and the Antihumanist Turn
Eve Meltzer
University of Chicago Press ($45)

by Pablo Lopez

There’s something immediately off-putting in the title of Eve Meltzer’s book, Systems We Have Loved: Conceptual Art, Affect, and the Antihumanist Turn. Uncomfortably, Meltzer’s title implicates the reader in loving systems—but aren’t systems the problem, something to resist if not oppose outright? After all, systems have long been a familiar mode of oppressive logic, division, and hierarchical order imposed upon human subjectivity. Rarely, if ever, do we willfully embrace, let alone love something so seemingly unworthy of affection. That changed, however, in the late twentieth century, when a number of artists abandoned overt sentimentalism and pathos in favor of the least artistic of palettes—gone was the legible, sensate work and picture plane, gone too was emotive figuration and abstraction, and in its place came the coolly scientific, numeric, and catalogic, the harshly mathematical and the fiercely structured. In short, a rigorously systematized art was brought to bear on the public, and if the public wasn’t thoroughly up to date with Saussurean structuralism, chances are they were left slack-jawed before this new and seemingly lackluster work.

This antihumanist turn, as Meltzer calls it, began in the early 1960s, with the proto-conceptualist work of Robert Morris, and developed into the fully articulated conceptualism of the 1970s, with such notables as Sol LeWitt, Hans Haacke, Mary Kelly, Robert Morris, and theoretician Rosalind Krauss making significant contributions that challenged a variety of aesthetic and theoretical discourses. To fully appreciate Meltzer’s argument, it is key to understand the careful attention she pays to the operative terms of conceptualism and structuralism, and how interwoven these terms are to their cultural context. Meltzer writes, “In the 1960s, by which time structuralist claims and polemics had encouraged the advent of conceptual art, they also raised intractable problems that conceptual artists were forced to process.”

Central to Meltzer’s book is what structuralism maintains: Human endeavor is inescapably governed by the structural order of systems and constitutes the human subject itself: “structuralists argued that all social and cultural phenomena could be mastered through a ‘science’ of the signifier . . . Perhaps most importantly, structuralism produced and made urgent the problem of the belatedness of subjectivity: the notion that the human subject is a mere effectof preexisting systems.” The notion and condition of belatedness is a key feature to any structuralist system; it followed that conceptualism would be forced to confront this issue on a fundamental level.

Meltzer argues that the many interventions made by conceptual artists have often done the necessary work to efface such strident claims made by structuralism. Crucial to the dislodging of belatedness is the administration of affect that conceptual art makes available, due in large part to the delicate but severely tense frisson that exists in the relationship (the in-between-ness) between the fixity of conceptual systems of permutation and external interference. It is an issue of encounter—not the expression of an idea or emotion—that is preeminent to the conceptualism in question. The artists under Meltzer’s examination often push back against the resolutely scientific structuralism they engage—those many systems of internal logic and self-sufficiency—most simply by subjective interplay, transpiring within and across the faintest of intensities and encounters of the unnoticed. While the results are varied and at times ambiguous, the affect that is sustained with its mutual intensities is far more crucial than the prescribed dialectical tension brought on by the proximity of disparate bodies brought into relation as part of a system. Notions of fixity and frailty are engaged and played upon in order for affect to be the encounter, that not only serves to provide for un-prescribed outcomes, but that defies the very systems that brought them to bear. Coded modes of activity lead to uncoded indeterminacies that challenge the normative progressions of a system and, ultimately, muddle the authority of internal logic.

Meltzer is at her most brilliant when discussing Mary Kelly’s evasive and expansive work, which serves to bracket the text. Meltzer initiates the book with a close reading of Antepartum, and returns to Kelly’s work in the final chapter with a thorough investigation of the six-year, multipart work, Post-Partum Document. Beginning in 1973, Antepartum and Post-Partum Documentcomprise the artist’s preoccupation with the “story of subjects.” While Antepartum is a visionary work, comprising of ninety seconds of film, it is Post-Partum Document that mesmerizes under the illuminative reading of Meltzer’s analysis. It is a careful parsing, not only of the information of grief and Lacanian science, but of the forms information assumes, and the complexes of interstitial space made available so that affect may occur—and better connect person to object, object to art, and, ultimately, person to person.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013