Author Archives: Kelly

Air

Jorge Armenteros
Spuyten Duyvil ($16)

by Lacy Arnett Mayberry

Craving escape from a stifling relationship, a perfumery student with an innately strong sense of smell stumbles into lodging at a “fourth class hotel” run by a man who hasn’t changed his shirt—or left the site—in years. The characters in Jorge Armenteros’s second novel travel between Paris, Guadalupe and Marrakesh, searching for themselves and one another. They are both drawn to and repulsed by the hotel proprietor, known only as “Striped Tunic” due to his civet-smelling apparel, who becomes central to the story, acting as an eerie and unwanted oracle.

Imena is the first to arrive at his red door in Marrakesh, drinking in the city’s novel scents—“soft, ethereal, and tender.” At night, the pungent Striped Tunic listens to her howling in her sleep. She so yearns to expose a truth within herself that on her way to the public bath, “the idea of entering a gathering place and disrobing herself in front of others produced a sense of delight.” She takes up with a sculptor of torsos, though he proves just as draining as the relationship she recently fled. Ultimately, she turns to her intuition and training to meld scents into the cure she can find no other way. Although her internal struggle can feel a bit abstruse at times, Armenteros’s direct prose carries the reader willingly through her plight.

Imena’s overbearing professor-boyfriend, Patricio, follows shortly afterward in desperate search of her. He laments that her “absence leaves me facing my past, alone.” He is left to remember his childhood in Buenos Aires, the traumatic death of his mother, and his current identity crisis, which comes from being unwilling to face his past. He grasps onto Imena as a way of muting his pain and when she leaves him, rather than turning to the true problem, he frantically scrambles to find her, wasting his effort and strength on an ultimately fruitless quest.

Meanwhile, René, Patricio’s graduate student, undergoes a much more complex identity crisis—that of gender. “What he despised most were his hanging testicles and flaccid penis, a grotesque sight, an indelible stain.” The reader follows René in his quest to become “Renée,” an often violent journey in which he abandons his past entirely and suffers botched surgery and predatory stalking, among other dramas—unflinching and graphic scenes that confront us with the character’s unique pain.

The novel crosses between past and present. Armenteros introduces his characters by braiding stream-of-consciousness first person with distant third in a seemingly random fashion. The reader flies from Patricio’s past into Imena’s thoughts, to the omniscient viewpoint of the happenings at the hotel. The effect is one of deep character immersion, compelling the reader through each short section and toward what feels like the story’s inevitable ending.

One of the most fascinating characters, of course, is Striped Tunic, the enigmatic recluse seen by his tenants as “possessing a piercing truth.” An otherworldly figure going through his own transformation, this nameless man forces each character to look more closely at inner wounds and also witnesses their, at times, brutally inflicted physical wounds. At the same time, Striped Tunic inspires delusion among his guests. At different points in the narrative, Imena, Patricio, and René each express belief that he or she can fly, that “the air will hold me.” Armenteros charges that air—alternately perfumed and rancid—to deliver a compellingly erratic narrative.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2016/2017 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2017

George Saunders VIP Reception

Wednesday, March 1, 2017, 6:00 pm
Parkway Theater
4814 Chicago Avenue South, Minneapolis

We are pleased to invite you to a private reception for George Saunders, who will give a reading for Rain Taxi at 7 pm at the Parkway Theater in Minneapolis. Tickets to this pre-reading reception are $110 each, which includes reserved seating at the 7 pm presentation, a signed copy of Lincoln in the Bardo, and the knowledge that YOU are making Minnesota’s biggest book event—the Twin Cities Book Festival—happen!.

RSVP by February 24, 2017

SUSAN STEWART and ANN HAMILTON

Saturday, March 18, 2017, 2:00 pm
Minneapolis Institute of Art
2400 Third Avenue South, Minneapolis

Rain Taxi proudly hosts its first event ever at the Minneapolis Institute of Art! Join us as poet Susan Stewart and artist Ann Hamilton, both acclaimed figures in their respective fields, present their collaborative pieces “Channel” and “Mirror” along with other works at this special afternoon appearance.

This event is free and open to the public, and is presented by Rain Taxi and Mia in collaboration with the College of St. Benedict and Graywolf Press. We hope to see you there!

Susan Stewart is the author of five books of poetry, including Columbarium, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her latest book, Cinder: New and Selected Poems (Graywolf Press), gathers poetry from across her thirty-five-year career, including many extraordinary new poems. This retrospective collection presents the development of one of the most ingenious and moving lyric writers in contemporary poetry. A former MacArthur Fellow and a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, Stewart teaches at Princeton University.

Ann Hamilton is an internationally renowned visual artist known for her the sensory surrounds of her large-scale multimedia installations. Noted for a dense accumulation of materials, her ephemeral environments create immersive experiences, and her attention to the uttering of a sound or the shaping of a word with the hand places language and text at the tactile and metaphoric center of her installations. Hamilton has received a MacArthur Fellowship, Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship, NEA Visual Arts Fellowship, United States Artists Fellowship, the Heinz Award, and many other honors. She is a Distinguished University Professor of Art at The Ohio State University.

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Photo credit: “Channel,” As Part Of The “Habitus” Exhibition. Photos By Jessica Naples Grilli.

Paul Auster Broadside

This broadside, an excerpt from Paul Auster's novel 4 3 2 1, was printed by supersessionpress on the occasion of Paul Auster's appearance in the Rain Taxi Reading Series on February 15, 2017.

Limited edition, letter press broadside measures 14" x 11". Limited to 75 copies. Each copy is SIGNED by the author.


Available with a donation of $100 to Rain Taxi, a nonprofit literary organization. Donations are deductible to the extant allowable by law.

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Lost Profiles: Memoirs of Cubism, Dada, and Surrealism

Philippe Soupault
Translated by Alan Bernheimer
City Lights Books ($10)

by John Toren

Philippe Soupault, along with Louis Aragon and André Breton, was one of the "three musketeers" of the Surrealist movement. His brief memoir of those heady times of artistic creativity and incendiary intellectual revolt appeared in France in 1963, but it has only now been translated into English. Should we care?
Well, all such "present at the creation" memoirs carry a certain interest because the tone is anecdotal rather than scholarly, the judgments strikingly personal rather than sourly academic, and the form reflective rather than narrative or analytic. Soupault's memoir would not be out of place in the company of such minor classics as Ambroise Vollard's Recollections of a Picture Dealer, Manuel Rosenthal's Satie, Ravel, Poulenc, Jean Cocteau's Professional Secrets, or even Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast.

Soupault's own poetry has been described by Paul Auster, in the introduction to the Random House Book of Twentieth Century French Poetry, as displaying a charm and humility that's often absent from Surrealist work. This memoir exhibits the same qualities. Soupault has a kind word for everyone (unlike Hemingway, for example) and tiptoes around his impressions, layering his observations in an almost Proustian fashion.

In his discussions of the origins of Dada, for example, Soupault emphasizes how he and others only gradually came to realize that the content of their manifestos was less important than the public's negative reaction to them: “The insults that were abundantly hurled at us in every tone, not to mention the rotten eggs, tomatoes, and pieces of meat, persuaded us that we were on the right path.” Yet he doesn't shrink from emphasizing that the Dadaists goal was nothing short of a moral critique of post-World War I society, and he suggests that in more recent times "the reign of the absurd" might still have an important role to play.

But Soupault's reminiscences range well beyond the movements referred to in the book's subtitle, spanning the decades from Apollinaire and Proust to Georges Bernanos and the painter Henri Rousseau. He recalls, for example, that the poet Pierre Reverdy's “gaze was as disturbing as his smile because it pinned you, like a butterfly pinned to a corkboard."

Reverdy's conversational style was similarly unusual. Soupault describes their first meeting as follows:

I made no secret of my admiration, which, though it astonished him, he judged to be sincere. But he didn’t give me a chance to talk about it. When it was his turn to speak (and he took the first turn in any conversation), he did not readily relinquish it. When I ventured to agree with him, he cut me off and said most sincerely and without any irony, “Please, let me get a word in . . . " The only thing to do was to keep quiet.

The accumulation of choice details leaves us with the impression that at an advanced age, Soupault continued to look back on the past fondly—and to inhabit, in his own quiet way, the world that had been explosively dramatized decades earlier by Dada and Surrealism, wherein events counted for more than aesthetic artifacts. Or as Blaise Cendrars had taught him, "You have to live poetry before you write it; writing, that was superfluous."

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2016/2017 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2017

Marketa Lazarová

Vladislav Vančura
translated by Carleton Bulkin
Twisted Spoon Press ($22.50)

by Jeff Bursey

When one considers the early 20th century literary works of Czechoslovakian writers, the names that come first to mind are Karel Čapek, Jaroslav Hašek, Franz Kafka, and Richard Weiner. Their contributions to Modernism (and, especially in Kafka’s case, to how we regard the world) are noticeable and undeniable. In apparent contrast is Marketa Lazarová (1931), which may initially look like a throwback to an earlier style and mode of thinking than that possessed by Vladislav Vančura’s aforementioned contemporaries. This is partly because it is set during an unspecified time in “the Mladá Boleslav region of Bohemia, during a time of trouble, the king struggling to maintain the security of his highways, facing severe difficulties with the literally criminal conduct of the nobles. . . .” What’s presented are the rough lives of brigands—chiefly the family and followers of the robber and patriarch Kozlík, and secondarily those of another highwayman, Lazar—and a captain of the army, Pivo, whose duty is to end the career of Kozlík by assaulting his forest stronghold in the dead of winter.

The frequent references to God, along with quotations and examples from the Bible, might also contribute to making the novel seem out of step with Modernism. Internally, those things have little sway on the nature of the criminals. “Not even the Lord’s commandments would they heed,” says the narrator of Kozlík’s gang, and the matriarch, Lady Kateřina, in stunning certitude, blindness, and self-importance, believes “in Jesus Christ, I long for Him without pause. If only He had been a guest at my wedding, if only I lived in my old matrimony in Heaven. . . . [Kozlík’s] soul,” she continues after he has been captured by Pivo, “will ascend and alight with the souls of the just on the robe of the Loving Judge, as bees alight on the robe of the beekeeper.”

Throughout Marketa Lazarová there is the contest of strong men—Kozlík and his son Mikoláš versus Captain Pivo—as they jostle for supremacy. The Lazar family becomes more entwined than ever with their fellow brigands when Marketa, their fourth daughter, is taken by Mikoláš as recompense for damages to his person and his honor. She is understandably unhappy with this—“See her take a step back and tremble with horror”—but fairly quickly finds herself less torn between a once-upon-a-time imagined future where she would take the veil and the experience of violent sex that introduces her to sensual pleasure and, eventually, love. For not being totally consumed by guilt at enjoying her lover, Marketa is seen as a “slut” and a “harlot,” just as Alexandra—another of Kozlík’s children, who falls for a German count named Kristian—is called by that man’s father a “trollop” the moment he sees her.

If that summarized the entirety of this novel then there would not be much to commend it, but more is going on. Vančura (1891-1942) was a successful short-story writer and novelist who belonged, throughout the 1920s and 1930s, to an avant-garde group of artists; he was also a filmmaker, and in this novel he sweeps from panorama shots to close-ups of the principals while deflating the pretenses of the earlier time period. No sooner has Kateřina spoken of Christ then the narrator undercuts her hollow piousness: “What’s this? Speaking to brigands of the Kingdom of God? For in truth, I am not sure whether this is the best fount from which to draw instruction for these lads. They dig at the earth with heel and sword, and not a single one lifts his eyes from the ground.” Her children are earthbound and rarely look to Heaven, and in this respect they cannot be saved.

In one of many asides addressed to the reader, the narrator stops describing events to speak of the content of the story: “What’s that, this tale of bygone days is not to your liking? Don’t you take even a smidgen of pleasure in hearing about frosts so bitter, about men so impetuous and ladies so comely? Compared to the delightful complexities of modern literature, don’t you find this tale as smooth as a threshing floor?” Present-day readers might find it harder than Czech audiences did in 1931 to appreciate the slyness underneath the depictions of Bohemian battles and to see the modernity in the at times belittling, at times ambiguous, references to abstracts or higher powers (God, the Church, Imperial rule), though the self-awareness of the narrator will jump out. When Marketa Lazarová was first published Czechoslovakia had existed for only thirteen years, its creation due to the negotiated peace that followed the First World War. Today we might read the hostility and bitter words about sovereign might, soldiers, and cruel customs of earlier times as expressions of a healthy distrust towards any authority, such as those who governed empires and led them into a long-lasting bloodletting.

In the 1920s Vančura was a member of the Communist party, but membership didn’t last the decade. In the late 1930s he joined the resistance movement against the occupying German power. Captured by the Gestapo in 1942, his life ended when the Nazis killed a great number of Czechs following the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, Deputy Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia (parts of the by-now former Czechoslovakia). In those roughly twenty years his output of novels and short stories was constant, with Marketa Lazarová one of his most popular. As Vančura is seldom rendered in English, we are fortunate to have so lively a work now available.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2016/2017 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2017

Proensa: An Anthology of Troubadour Poetry

Selected and Translated by Paul Blackburn
Edited by George Economou

NYRB Classics ($16.95)

by Erik Noonan

Two people shaped Paul Blackburn’s life and art: his mother, a poet and lesbian named Frances Frost, and Ezra Pound. Frost, whom he idolized, mailed him a book by W.H. Auden when he was in the Army, and his first poems were imitations of the expatriate queer English poet. Blackburn visited Pound at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., where the controversial American had been confined after being declared unfit to stand trial for treason. Blackburn corresponded with Pound and followed his example, studying the Occitan tongue and the troubadour corpus at the Universities of Wisconsin and Toulouse, and producing a Master’s thesis that he published under the title Proensa with Robert Creeley’s Divers Press in Mallorca in 1953. He would continue to expand and revise his free renditions until he died of esophageal cancer in 1971.

In Europe on a Fulbright Scholarship as a young man, Blackburn located within the cultural heritage of the relatively high-context societies of the Mediterranean littoral an objective correlative for the cultivated emotions of recondite postmodern American poetry, and his poems transformed these idealized places into the imaginary cities of a paradiso terrestre. His work appeared in the anthology The New American Poetry alongside that of Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, and Charles Olson, and his translations of Julio Cortázar’s fiction are still in print today. Returning to the United States, Blackburn founded the Saint Mark’s Poetry Project on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and developed a persona that allowed him to advocate for his fellow writers. At the same time, he adopted an adversarial stance toward contemporary American society. With a set of maladaptive psychic defenses against a repressive and turbulent period of U.S. history, Blackburn smoked and drank heavily, self-medicating in the name of sensuality, which cut his life short at the age of forty-four, even as he became a professor at SUNY Cortland, found true love, established a household, and became a father. An expanded Proensa, edited by George Economou, was published by the University of California Press in 1978. The title presently under review is a reprint of that edition.

Thirty poets are represented, some more substantially than others, along with their biographies, written by a contemporary. Ambiguities, obscure passages, translation choices, and variants are discussed in Blackburn’s notes, which are glossed in turn by editor Economou. Critical commentary is limited to evocations of historical context. Whereas for Pound the ultimate troubadour was Arnaut Daniel, in whose work he found a reflection of his own preoccupation with the beauty cults of Parnassian Paris and Decadent London, Blackburn’s favorite was Peire Vidal, whose oeuvre offered him a theoretical precedent for postwar nonconformity. Vidal wrote in a hybrid genre, half love lyric and half political commentary, self-conscious and literary. The events of his biography are extrapolated from the text of his poetry, and they’re unreliable, except as a legend—one in which the major tropes of troubadour poetry are not only treated as biographical fact, but exaggerated to the point of allegory.  “Sirventes,” one of Blackburn’s early poems, declares an affinity for Vidal: “master of the viol and the lute / master of those sounds, / I join you in public madness, / in the street I piss / on French politesse / that has wracked all passion from the sound of speech.” Proto-Romantic, driven “mad” by “passion,” Vidal is said in his biography to have been banished from a castle at Marseilles for stealing a kiss, and to have gone on crusade in his grief at being separated from his liege; one of his poems can be dated between the end of his travels to the Holy Land and his being allowed to return to court:

I suck in air deep from Provence to here.
All things from there so please me
when I hear
in dockside taverns
travelers’ gossip told
I listen smiling,
and for each word ask a hundred smiling words,
all news is good

for no man knows so sweet a country as
 from the Rhône down to Vence.

The troubadours are valuable for being the second body of imaginative literature written in a modern European vernacular (the first was written in Irish), and Proensa is the only substantial selection of translations that’s written in the grain of contemporary American poetry, as William Carlos Williams called it. This book is a significant contribution to several disciplines.

Pedants didn’t welcome Blackburn’s work. “Mr. Blackburn does not know his paradigms sufficiently well to translate correctly,” sneered the Hudson Review. The poet replied: “I was taken with the idea of Vidal sitting out his exile in various parts of the Mediterranean, homesick, keeping check on the doings back at Marseilles by pumping newcomers for gossip two months old, buying them drinks, asking questions.” Among Blackburn’s papers one sometimes happens upon a poignant—and maddening—lack of self-assurance, as when he announced while pitching Proensa to the Clarendon Press at Oxford University, “I only want everyone to relax and enjoy it.” That august body rejected his versions of the Occitan corpus, claiming that “they do not render it accurately either in sense, material form, or spirit.”  After all, Clarendon opined, “There is such a thing as a surfeit of love.” This rebuke from a prestigious university press seems to have dissuaded Blackburn from compiling a finished anthology of final versions of the poems, and thereby staking his claim to academic legitimacy, even as his fellow poets recognized the value of his work.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2016/2017 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2017

The Conspiracy Against the Human Race

Thomas Ligotti
Hippocampus Press ($25)

by Matthew McGuire

In horror fiction there is the trope of the forbidden book containing secret knowledge that causes the reader to go mad. Wouldn’t such a tome be grand? Imagine writing something so profound, so true that the reader could never return to reality. Who could write such a thing?

The Conspiracy Against the Human Race is an amalgamation of philosophy, literature, and scientific research relating to pessimism. Its author, horror auteur Thomas Ligotti, has spent the majority of his career in obscurity due to his refreshing lack of self-promotion and his inconsistent publishing. His fiction occupies a niche within the horror genre, a heavily stylized supernaturalism that evokes European writers like Thomas Bernhard and Stefan Grabinski.

Conspiracy is Ligotti’s only book of non-fiction in a small but outstanding body of work. It is a long essay collecting various artifacts of pessimistic philosophy and literature, from Sweeney Todd to Peter Wessel Zapffe. His central thesis can be boiled down to “1) there is nothing to do; 2) there is nowhere to go; 3) there is nothing to be; 4) there is no one to know.” Human existence is an uncanny puppet show played to an empty theater. We dare not look to the dark, idiot force that animates us, instead choosing to believe in the vast web of conspiracy of purpose and optimism, from the undying belief that our situation can always get better to the unspoken assumption of a “self.”

The book does not unfold as a narrative; the philosophical fragments that pepper the text function more as diary entries, confessions of those who do not find life to be alright. Accompanying them are abstractions, fables, and epigraphs that are a testament to Ligotti’s imagination as a writer: “With eyes that see through a translucent veil shimmering before us, we look at life from the other side. There, something escorts us through our days and nights like a second shadow that casts itself into another world and fastens us to it.” These little beauties put forth no argument, advance no doctrine, solicit no response. Rather, they immerse us in the atmosphere of a dream that slowly sours. Existence becomes a hackneyed horror film where dialogue is imposed on rapidly moving lips, the plot moves towards no meaningful ending, and an array of latex monsters whose mouths stretch with the pose of overly-enthusiastic laughter terrorize us. Everything we do or say, everyone we have ever met or loved, everywhere we have ever been is, in Ligotti’s phrase, “MALIGNANTLY USELESS.”

The trouble with pessimism as a comprehensive worldview is that it negates everything, even itself. In a pessimistic universe, there is no reason to subscribe to positivity or negativity, as both positions are equally meaningless in the eternal scheme. Ligotti openly admits this fault, saying “It’s all a matter of personal pathology. Put more simply, pessimism can never compel us to action, it can never ask us to do or believe in anything because pessimism denies that there is an “us” that “does” or an “anything” in which to believe.

Because there is no gospel of pessimism, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race is certainly not an evangelical text, but it does provide supreme catharsis to the already converted. Indeed, the knowledge that there are others who feel similar to yourself is the one bulwark against the crushing meaninglessness of existence.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2016/2017 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2017

3arabi Song

Zeina Hashem Beck
The Rattle Foundation ($6)

by George Longenecker

Zeina Hashem Beck, winner of the 2016 Rattle Chapbook Prize, writes complex poetry about her Arab culture—verse rich in detail and metaphor. A native of Tripoli, Lebanon, now living in Dubai, Beck is a performance poet who integrates Arabic and French words into musical, skillfully crafted poetry of love, longing, and diaspora.

In order to make the poems more accessible, Beck includes a page of translation and background notes, and if the reader takes time to read these, the poems indeed come more alive. For example, several words in the poems are Arabizi; the author says “3arabi is the Arabizi way of writing ‘Arabic.’ ‘Arabizi’ comes from the combination of the words ‘Arabic’ and ‘Englizi’; it uses numbers to represent sounds that are specifically Arabic.” Unfortunately the author does not explain how to pronounce these sounds, but that’s a minor distraction in these culturally rich texts.

These are elegiac poems of people and culture under attack. “You Fixed It” looks at the sorrow of living in a broken world. “And if you didn’t have enough / books you fixed it, read that French-Arabic dictionary the size / of your torso, stared at words crépuscule and الشفق. / . . . / if your sorrow hardened, you fixed it / by dipping it in sea water, and if your country / hardened . . . you fixed it / by dipping it in song.”

“Listen,” a poem shaped like an hourglass—or explosion—tells of fear and terror as each stanza repeats itself in reverse order, like a movie replaying itself backwards:

Not even the gods could, who could have possibly—I mean listen:
the sea, still; the children; the figs almost bursting,
viscous—this August heat; the city, the day
flows, ebbs; the Chiclets in the street
boys’ arms, the sumac, noon,
the laundry, the domes of
the mosque, this Friday
it explodes
did you
hear
that?

Some readers may find this form too clever and gimmicky and the unconventional punctuation distracting; however, the form is effective in evoking the terror of a bombing. Beck also pays attention to conventional form, as in “Ghazal: The Dead”:

You asked about the men chanting to Allah on the plastic chairs—
Were they real? Were they grieving the dead?

You wanted to linger, to listen, to dance beside
their voices, this believing, the dead.

In “Ghazal: Back Home (for Syria, September, 2015)” Beck writes of the tragedy of diaspora in the voice of refugees. “Bahr” is Arabic for sea:

Tonight a little boy couldn’t walk on water or row back home.
The sea turned its old face away. Again, there was a no, no, back home.

Bahr is how we were taught to measure poetry,
bahr is how we’ve stopped trying to measure sorrow, back home.

Zeina Hashem Beck’s poetry is edgy, scholarly and multi-cultural. At a time when Arab and Islamic culture is under attack from xenophobes and ideologues, her verse provides hope and portent. As she aptly says:

The heart—
never learns
keeps coming back
to the same songs,
the same wars.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2016/2017 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2017