Ellen Doré Watson
Alice James Books ($15.95)
by Teresa Castellitto
Ellen Doré Watson’s latest poetry collection, pray me stay eager, is a meditation on the myriad ways the passage of time can be humorous, engaging, and devastating. Watson’s implementation of poetic form is as diverse as the range of experiences she explores; she moves quickly through lyrical rhyme schemes, blunt language, and enjambments that move the eyes and mind across and down the page in rapid bursts. Watson’s poetic exploration of the aging body, the ailing parent, the threat of assault weapons, and the fear of financial insecurity is both prayer and plea to retain the eagerness of youth, to avoid collapsing under the weight of so much knowledge. Divided into three sections, pray me stay eager assumes a stance that is open to the future, yet that remains firmly grounded in moments of awe fleeting through the present.
The collection begins with “Message in a Bottle,” a poem of six unrhymed tercets. It is one of the few poems here written in the third person, depicting an unnamed “her” whose “desk sits plopped lonely but points / true north,” although it ends with the first person “I” looking in a mirror at “her.” The poem illuminates all that a mirror does not reflect: a mother with a daughter whose birthday is not “regrettable” like her own. Concepts of “feast” and “fester” are equivocated as they relate to the love of forward movement for her daughter and dismay at her own aging. Watson juxtaposes words like “frets” and “bolds,” “lust” and “shame,” to underscore the range of topography trekked in the life of a woman of a certain age. The title, “Message in a Bottle,” may be a call to look beyond the vessel bobbing and floating at the surface and to discern the message inside.
“The Night Doesn’t Summarize the Day” further explores the theme of dueling dichotomies in fourteen lines of free verse laden with enjambments. This poem moves away from the obviously personal to explore ways in which we come together only to separate in fear. Invoking the recognition of Palestine creates a stark image of well-guarded borders whose impenetrability requires constant vigilance to the extent that even to question the soundness of those boundaries may wreak havoc. Watson’s language is provocative—“skin lanterns,” “waterboarding”—and instills instant discomfort. The juxtaposition, “Small doses / of darkness are permissible, light pretends to own / nothing, or everything” is consistent with the narrator of “Message in a Bottle,” who “Hates partitions and in- / decision.” What is more partitioned or indecisive as the fate of marooned Palestinians whose light is filtered through encroaching settlements surrounding specks of “something green”? The poem calls to mind a deft defense of a nation whose voice has been all but silenced by walls of political apologist chatter.
In “LAX to BDL,” Watson illustrates a brief fantasy of seducing a stranger on a plane. Beneath the craving for sexual fulfillment are fear and a bit of resignation, as she posits “¬real lust lately / gone underground from lack of habit and hope.” The divide between the narrator and the object of her interest is bridged as she catches his look: “sluggish, kind of watery, just like me.” It may not be him she desires but the distant her who had not yet become sluggish. Another example of the theme of post-menopausal intimacy can be found in “You Know What You Want and How Old Your Eggs Are.” Here Watson delivers a discreet mandate to women to seek love and sex on terms of engagement which make no false promises and will suffer no pretense. Using deceptively simple language (love, wet, dry, fluff, bluff), Watson distills the hyperbole of love and longing to reveal its naked core. There is force and certainty in this poem that has neither the time nor inclination to dawdle.
Moving from romantic love to familial bonds, Watson explores the relationship with her ailing father. In “Salad for Christmas,” she examines the discomfort of watching her father age and the frustrations and indignities that often accompany the process. The beginning of the poem employs “b” sounds that create a plosive staccato urgency that mirrors the emotion around the table—“empty of all but iceberg lettuce, / everyone but him bossed around.” She uses concrete images, “walker” and “commode,” as bulky reminders of the burdens of dependence. Chastising her own impatience, Watson conjures her arrival at the abyss and ends the poem with a reminder to self to keep walking, without losing sight of all that her father’s walks now entail. Watson continues to address the plight of her father in “Not Simple,” a poem that may be actual dialogue between daughter and morphine-impaired father. The poem utilizes bracketed asides that resemble stage direction to indicate the narrator’s actions and observations of her father during and after she’s administered morphine to him. The nonsensical utterances of the father are witnessed and grounded by the daughter’s sensible measured responses; through offers of water and pillow plumping, she seeks to connect to and comfort his loosely tethered psyche. It’s a brutal, heart-wrenching, funny, and pathetic moment, one of complete “edgelessness” where human need and disintegration are glaring.
Edgelessness, a theme running through this collection, is memorialized in the poem “Ode to Edgelessness.” The concept seems to drive Watson’s exploration of love, aging, and borders, as well as the physical and spiritual worlds; the collection’s wide array of topics and the sensitivity with which she engages them is apparent in the poem’s line, “And what is love but / us smudging edges, mad to rub them out.” pray me stay eager is a collection that seeks to erase borders wherever they arise, using language in ways that both please and provoke. The surging pace of the poems is balanced by still contemplations, creating whirls of momentum and reflection which embrace the future while cherishing the imperfect perfection of now.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018
University of New Mexico Press ($19.95)
by John Bradley
“Longing to repeat God’s opening salvo, ‘Let there be . . . ,’ / they roughed out doomsday.” This is the voice of journalist William Laurence in “Medialog: William Laurence,” the opening poem of Critical Assembly, describing those who created the first atomic bomb. This poem, a ghazal, shows the skill of the author. John Canady, who won the 2002 Walt Whitman Award for his debut book The Invisible World, has not only done extensive research on a huge cast (forty-six characters deliver monologues in this book,) but he’s transformed the events and facts into engaging literary works, no small achievement.
Some readers might believe that we’ve already heard from the Manhattan Project’s major players, such as Albert Einstein, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Leslie Groves, and Edward Teller, among others. But Canaday shows us while we may know something about these figures, we most likely do not know the internal friction between many of those involved in the Project. Here’s physicist Edward Condon, for example, on the strict control of General Groves, who oversaw the physicists: “He would redact our very souls, friendships / and loves blacked out by censors’ pencil strokes, / our wives kept ignorant as aliens, / all of us thieves in his fiefdom . . .” Canaday’s Kitty Oppenheimer presents some of the most bitter lines, comparing General Groves’ stomach to “a pregnant sow’s” and asking at a party when she’s drunk, “’how does one get the come / stains off a nightie?’” Poetry has never given us a Manhattan Project quite like this.
Canaday also brings in many voices readers have never heard from before, such as Antonio Martinez, a lab assistant, who struggles with his identity: “How can I bear / a Spanish name and speak in English / yet keep my Tewa soul?”, the very breaks in the lines suggesting his inner conflict. We hear from Appolonia Chalee, a maid, who disapproves of the gadgets used by Mrs. Fischer, the woman she works for: “I tell her discontented / spirits live in these machines, but // Mrs. Fischer twists her husband’s arm / to buy more gadgets . . .” the word “gadget” reminding us of the atom bomb, which the physicists referred to with the same term.
Essentially a series of dramatic monologues, with each poem named after the speaker, the book can easily be imagined as a play. One of the more fascinating characters is Edith Warner, a woman who came to the Southwest in hopes the dry climate would cure her tuberculosis. She opened a tea room near the Rio Grande, where she offered food and respite for the nearby physicists. Her voice is the most connected to the land of all the speakers, and reading her poems, it’s easy to see why the physicists would go to her tea room for comfort: “I will pickle winter pears, tomatoes, squash, / and then lay out tobaccy Dukey, lemons, and sardines . . . . “ But she’s nobody’s fool: “I recognize / the conversation of atomic specialists; I know / the sound of German and Italian natives, what it means / when such men staff a secret Allied military base. / They think I disapprove. They’re right. But not of them.”
Another memorable character, due to his ominous tone, is that of Peer de Silva, head of military intelligence at Los Alamos:
Oppenheimer’s childlike trust’s
the worst. Milk and honey
for some egghead’s Eden
fellow travelers think trust
is “only decent.” Blind
faith’s poison, even
smacks of treason. Gimcrack,
geegaw sentiment at best:
cheap beads he’s set
to trade Manhattan for.
Ideology is war.
In a section of Biographical Notes that Canaday includes, we learn that after the war de Silva “joined the nascent CIA”—no surprise.
The speakers are not only critical about each other, however; many of them have misgivings about the “gadget” itself and their role in creating it. Rose Bethe, daughter of physicist Hans Bethe, tells us: “They [the Nazis] made us all commit our lives / to evil. Which, with a will, we did.” Brigadier General Thomas Farrell views humans as less than heroic: “Puny, / blasphemous things, we dare / tamper with forces heretofore / reserved to the Almighty.” Robert Serber, a physicist, offers these words, which could be an epitaph for the Manhattan Project: “Please God / we weren’t monsters. But we loved our work.” His honesty adds pathos to his plea.
These are heavily allusive poems, and while the notes at the back of the book help a good deal, this book will be a challenge for those unfamiliar with the Manhattan Project. However, an ambitious work of poetry like this—reminiscent of Campbell McGrath’s XX: Poems for the Twentieth Century, which also contains multitudes and monologues—should be celebrated. While Canaday’s book does not include the voices of those in Hiroshima and Nagasaki who experience first-hand the product of the labor at Los Alamos, these poems do allow us to hear the psychological toll that creating this bomb had on all involved, including wives and laborers.
Critical Assembly arrives at a crucial time, when we hear casual talk of using “strategic nuclear weapons” and staging a “bloody nose attack” on a nuclear power. Joseph Rotblat, the physicist who left the Manhattan Project after the defeat of the Nazis, refusing to do further work on the atomic bomb, offers this advice to himself: “Leave the lab. Seek /naïve work and save / the heart. Grieve.” His voice resonates now all too clearly.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018
University of Regina Press ($20)
by W. C. Bamberger
In 2012, Anne Carson published Antigonick, a translation of Sophokles’ Antigone that is humorous in some places and Beckett-like in others. In 2014, she received a request from the Belgian director Ivo van Hove to do a more traditional translation, one that specifically fleshed out the characters for a production of the play to star Juliette Binoche. After first being “enraged” by the request to revisit a work she had already translated, Carson agreed. She and her husband then invited their friend Will Aitken, an American-Canadian novelist and critic, to attend rehearsals and the play’s opening in Luxembourg in early 2015. This book is the result of that fortuitous encounter.
Antigone Undone begins as a travel journal and record of the premiere. In Part I, Aitken records details of the production’s rehearsal, of the video backdrops and the actors’ physicality—the actor playing King Kreon “moves on action verbs,” for example—and of modern-dress production touches such as shelves of surveillance tapes. Aitken doesn’t intrude on the process of the actors’ rehearsals and staging details, but he does insert himself into the narrative he tells. As Binoche begins staking out the ways in which she will give her always-varying performances as Antigone, Aitken begins to find similarities between the interaction of Antigone and Kreon and conversations he had with his father. He begins to identify with Antigone, an identification that leads him to a bleak view of the modern world: “Nothing’s changed. In the two and a half thousand years since Sophokles wrote Antigone, the world persists unaltered.”
After the premiere, Aitken wanders Amsterdam for a few days, his thoughts occupied with emotional reflections prompted by the play: “Sophokles articulates suffering with a scary aplomb laced with scathing wit. That his world mimics my world terrifies me, for it flattens promise and any possibility of forward movement.” Aitken has a gift for presenting such thoughts effectively, even as he ties his feelings about the play into his own personal history of depression. All of this comes off not as self-indulgence, but as a clear guide to why this ancient play still works for us: namely because, despite all its wider moral and civic framing, its deepest effects come by way of the drama of individual moments.
Part II of Antigone Undone is a “collage interview” of the three principals—Binoche, van Hove, and Carson. Aitken interviewed them separately then edited their responses together to create the illusion of face-to-face interaction. Here Binoche talks about the “big themes” of the play, about how she wanted to perform an active character, someone who tries to move things forward. Carson discusses how after she had reluctantly done the second translation, Binoche requested further additions to help her give Antigone more layers—a request Carson feared could turn the play into a melodrama.
We become absorbed in this conversation—Binoche pointing to Antigonik to justify asking Carson to write an addition to the play, Carson responding that she refused to do so because it would have been the very definition of hubris, and more. (In the end, an added scene was created by the actor and director, allowing Antigone’s spirit to appear after her death, whereas she vanishes from the original two-thirds of the way through.) Then we remember that this conversation didn’t actually take place, but was created by Aitken to make the exchange of ideas the principals had during the production more immediate and real to us, the readers. Here Aitken, in part, is emulating the compartmentalized way Antigone itself proceeds—the isolated soliloquys of Antigone, Kreon, and Haimon; the emotional epicenter of the play coming in the messenger’s recitation of off-stage events—and how it is only in the audience’s experience that a whole is created. The many subtleties at work in Aitken’s writing suggest this echoing is no accident.
In Part III, Aitken moves into theoretical musing. He sketches Hegel’s pioneering writings about Antigone, and readings of it by Virginia Woolf, Judith Butler, and others. Aitken here plays the role of both messenger and chorus, bringing into his book the intellectual news from these distant sources.
Aitken gives Binoche the final words here. At Carson’s home after the next-to-last performance, Binoche says, “As an actor . . . you must embrace your character’s pain and the pain of the world. You must do that, or why bother?” This can easily be read as a final reminder of the parallels between the actor’s emotional engagement and Aitken’s own. It is a measure of Aitken’s skill as a writer that he is able to make this parallel movement a constant through this short book—at times overtly, at times almost subliminally—and, with only a few momentary lapses, not fall into melodrama.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018
Interviewed by Erin Lewenauer
The skill of a scientist and the gentle impressions of a keen observer meld in Amy P. Knight's absorbing debut Lost, Almost (Engine Books, $14.95). Selected as winner of the Engine Books Fiction Prize by Rebecca Makkai, Knight's novel tells the story of the very singular Adam Brooks, a physicist whose ambition alternately builds up and destroys those closest to him. Sometimes viewed through a microscope, sometimes a telescope, these characters' lives are explored with fascination and determination. I spoke with Knight this spring about the novel’s structure, settings, and points of view, as well as its author’s background in neuroscience and law.
Erin Lewenauer: Lost, Almost in places feels like a series of linked stories. Is this how it began?
Amy P. Knight: Sort of. It started out as a single story (which became the last chapter in the book), and then for a while it was two stories. Once it expanded beyond the two stories, I started to have a sense of an overarching timeline and arc, and that’s when I really started to conceive of it as a novel. I never conceived of the pieces developed later as stand-alone stories, even though many of them are in some ways self-contained.
EL: You have degrees in Cognitive Science, English, Creative Writing, and Law. Do you bring all your interests together when you write? Does working as a lawyer each day affect your writing?
APK: It’s definitely all connected. In the big picture, all of these fields are about understanding how people work, and figuring out new ways to explore and explain that. My specialty as a lawyer is death penalty defense, and a lot of the work that goes into that involves constructing narratives about who the people involved really are, and how they got to be that way. Writing fiction is good training for that—and vice versa. And of course, a good deal of the work that lawyers do is writing. That cuts both ways; I certainly stay in practice with the careful use of language, but it can also be immensely difficult to come home from a whole day spent writing a legal brief and then try to write fiction. That’s why I usually try to write for a while in the morning before I go to work.
EL: Your book orbits around brilliant physicist Adam Brooks and his family. Do you think brilliance/genius is isolating or at odds with forming relationships? And do you view high intelligence as a weakness or a strength?
APK: I think brilliance can be isolating. Almost by definition it involves going places alone—thinking thoughts no one has thought before. But it doesn’t have to be. Brilliant people can collaborate, or share their experiences with others, often to great effect. For Adam, isolation comes through a combination of brilliance, a job that requires utmost confidentiality, and his own personality. He is really driven and focused on one aspect of his own life and success—a quality I think is adjacent to, but not the same as, brilliance. He is of course highly intelligent in a lot of ways, but in other ways he’s clueless. There’s more than one way to be an intelligent person.
EL: Your book is set in various locations and you’ve lived many places. What appeals to you about the desert, the east coast, etc., and do all the places you’ve lived play into this novel?
APK: I’ve lived places that don’t make any appearance in the novel; for instance, I spent about two years in Montana (where I actually did a lot of the writing). That never enters in. I also went to college in New York state, and law school in the San Francisco Bay Area; the book contains a brief mention that Charlotte went to college in New York and law school in California, but that’s the extent of it. Right now, I live in Tucson, in the desert, and I plan to stay here for the indefinite future. I really like the desert. It’s beautiful, with mountains all around, and it continues to amaze me that things can grow here. We get the most incredible blooms in the summer when it rains. Much of the story is set in the New Mexico desert, and one scene in the Nevada desert; those locations were originally chosen, in terms of the historical events I write about, for their remoteness. I think the desert always retains some of that feeling, even though there are a million people here in Pima County now.
EL: What was it like writing child versus adult perspectives?
APK: I always struggle with writing children. I don’t have children, or really spend any time with them, and I often have trouble relating to children when I do encounter them in the real world. Often when I read fiction with children as characters I find it overly precious, or unoriginal; it’s really hard to write characters that feel authentically childlike but still genuinely engaging to adults. For this book, add on the layer that they are for the most part rather extraordinary children, and it was even harder. Of course, in some parts of the book, the children are the only sane and reasonable ones.
EL: Your book feels very character-driven, yet also very focused on theme. For example, you write:
“Mamma,” he says, “They’ve done it. They’ve split the atom.”
Years later, she would tell him that she had taken “atom” for his own name, Adam, that she thought he had been split in his mind, painfully divided in his heart between sharing her sorrow and joining the celebrations, and yes, these things are swirling around him, a nation split between victory and shame, caricatures of horn-blowing and hand-wringing, noise and high emotion and tears of every kind, but Adam is not a part of any of this. It riots around him as though he is a big steel bolt holding the spinning carousel to the earth.
What was your primary focus when writing, the characters or the themes you were interested in exploring?
APK: I definitely view it as character-driven. That’s my favorite kind of fiction to read, so that’s what I wanted to write. Themes certainly made their way into it—I am interested, for instance, in the role of our work in our lives, and in the degree to which we are obligated to use our gifts in certain ways. But it always has to be about the people for me, not the ideas. In fact, there was a whole section I worked on for years that started out as a concept rather than an authentic display of character, and I ended up cutting it. It just didn’t have the same life to it.
EL: You chose for the book an epigraph from John Milton’s Paradise Lost: “How art thou lost, how on a sudden lost, Defac’t, deflow’r’d, and now to Death devote?” Do you think the experience of studying or being immersed in science is a paradise lost? Or is the paradise lost that of childhood versus adulthood? Or none of the above?
APK: In Paradise Lost, that passage is talking about Eve, after she eats from the tree of knowledge. I was thinking two things when I chose that epigraph. First, I think of the idea that mankind, in inventing nuclear weapons, has “eaten the apple.” We might’ve had a good reason for doing it (did we?) but in the 1940s, we peeked behind the curtain and things have never been the same. We can’t go back. I also think the characters who give up really worthwhile things in their lives in the service of their work (and there are several of them) have, in some ways, fallen.
EL: Who do you view as the heroes or heroines of your story?
APK: It’s hard to choose one, in a book with an ensemble cast like this one. In some ways Adam is “our hero,” of course—but he’s an anti-hero at the same time. I’ve always had particular admiration for Ben, Adam’s grandson. He has a very different kind of heroism; he’s the only one in the family who manages to break free from Adam’s grip. It could be that that’s just how he’s built—it’s not really heroism because he has no choice—but he does it, and he survives. The very fact that he feels he has no choice could be what makes him heroic.
EL: The inevitable question . . . what’s next?
APK: I’m working on a new novel. I don’t want to say too much about it—that’s the best way to jinx a new project. But it’s going to be quite different from Lost, Almost. It’s not, for instance, historical or science-driven. I started Lost, Almost when I was in an MFA program, and wrote a lot of it in law school and while I had a job that was a little less demanding than the one I have now. These days I’m definitely doing more “squeezing in” of my drafting time than I had to do with the last book, but it’s getting there, slow and steady.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018
Radial Books ($14)
by Paul Buhle
The “proletarian novel,” so often praised for its vision and more often cursed for its supposed literary inadequacies, seems to be destined for perpetual renewal. In his saga of class warfare in a mining village of Colorado of the 1910s, novelist Ben Kostival offers us a new and remarkable bit of continuity.
A little background to the genre will be helpful. The proletarian novel is of distant, one might say almost ancient, socialist vintage, even in the still-young USA of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. One major part of our socialist literature remains little appreciated because it most often appeared serialized in languages other than English. The newspapers that immigrants found to be at once a comfort in their own language/culture, and useful in their coping with an often cruel American class struggle, also hosted original literature, both poems and fiction, frequently from the pen of the editor of the paper. First the Germans, then the Yiddish-language Jews, then a plethora of others, most interestingly perhaps the Finns—an editor of their women’s socialist paper was a proud feminist as well as a novelist—saw these legendary figures in their own small worlds. They wrote, edited, and toured, usually raising money to keep the paper going. They knew the proletariat up close.
The better-known second act of labor-radical novels, in the Socialist era of Eugene Debs, featured English language writers with sometimes large audiences, some of them writers still read today. Jack London and Upton Sinclair topped the list, with Theodore Dreiser close enough to have been serialized in the daily socialist New York Call. A third act, during the 1930s when the Communist Party commanded wide allegiance among intellectuals, was notably decried by liberals as artificial drama. The best of the near-Communists or sometime Communists, like Richard Wright, Jack Conroy, Tillie Olson, and Nelson Algren, defied such judgments, although a handful of the best of the latter-day novels were written in the 1940s to middle 1950s. Most often about everyday life rather than labor drama, these books offered human tragedy, usually depicting defeats without redemption.
Kostival takes us back to the Coal Strike days near the turn of the century, in part because he has absorbed John Steinbeck’s famed novel The Grapes of Wrath, but also because he found Sinclair’s King Coal, which he stumbled upon while himself working in Alaska, so overdramatized and far from the actual history of the strike.
We find ourselves, in The Canyons, with remarkable characters, so remarkable that they become altogether convincing. The notion that a skilled worker of 1910 or even a self-educated drifter of the Socialist Party or Wobbly type would not likely be a reader, let alone a reader of Greek or Latin, has become one more blurring of the past. The worker-socialist, in one of a dozen languages across parts of the U.S., was actually more likely to be a serious reader than his or her middle-class counterpart. The notion that a railroad white-collar or managerial employee automatically lacked sympathy for the proletariate is another of those assumptions, somewhat more accurate but only as a generality. Thus Kostival is a most useful iconoclast or code-breaker.
As the story—centered on a strike in a Colorado coal district—unfolds, the class contrasts are nevertheless hard set. Company towns with shacks for workers and fairly modest accommodations for the supervisory personnel—these are natural enough because the owners live far away and care only for steady profits, relying on a market for their product and labor peace to make those profits possible. With a middle-class so small as to be almost nonexistent, the class struggle atmosphere prevails; in many of these towns, it not this one in particular, socialist votes loomed significant.
Rare has been the left-wing novel that places a management figure, an opponent of a strike, sympathetically rather than casting him as the epitome of wickedness—and Harlan Baxter certainly is an agent of exploitation, an import (typical for management in distant mine villages) from the East, New York or Chicago. He is already disoriented in the first chapter and he spends the whole novel disoriented, in the sense that he does not really belong on either side of the class conflict. His wife hates her exile from middle-class, urban existence and from the proper environment for their growing children—and he can’t blame her for it.
His opposite number, labor organizer Max Hawkins, is straight out of radical labor lore, but not at all unrealistic for that reason. He’s well educated, not only in the auto-didact way but also in the shrewd understanding of how strikes can be won or lost, unions built or destroyed. I am not giving anything away by noting that Hawkins willingly puts his life in danger, not because he is eager for martyrdom but because he will do what the workers want, even if their strategy is wrong-headed. Left to himself, he would choose defeat of a local strike in the belief that success might be better had elsewhere—but he is not left to himself. He’s a follower of Eugene Debs, labor’s martyr several times over, and he’s willing to take the punishment for the sin of rebellion.
The bulk and sense of The Canyons is in the detail, and no review can do justice to the loving care with which Kostival treats the whole scene: the mine village, the mine itself, the ordinary proletarians and their families struggling for a decent existence—and, of course, the ruthlessness of the orders that emanates from the mine owners back East.
The “mine wars” figure among the most dramatic and brutal of the confrontations of labor and capital, certainly from the 1890s to the 1930s. John L. Lewis, himself mired in a history of personal corruption and yet the miners’ champion, led a campaign to civilize class relations and provide medical care for the victims of Black Lung. Today, the coal industry is almost gone but the scars remain. Among those scars, what we might call necessary wounds, is a history and a literature that will not let go.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018
Rescue Press ($18)
by Jeremiah Moriarty
Both fable-like bildungsroman and exhilarating ode to mid-’90s queer culture, Andrea Lawlor’s debut novel Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl is the story of Paul Polydoris, a gay man in his early twenties with the uncanny abilities of a shapeshifter: he can magically change his body from male to female at will, shifting from Paul to “Polly” with youthful zeal. Full of laugh-out-loud insights and dreamy escapades, the novel takes Paul on a journey to chase love (or something like it) across the binary and across the country, into record stores and cafés and dark Boystown backrooms. Along the way it posits questions about identity, pleasure, and queer theory with winged lightness—which is to say, it’s fundamentally, as Michelle Tea writes admiringly in her back-cover blurb, a “deeply cool book.”
The year is 1993 and Paul is a bartender at a gay bar in Iowa City, a college town rife with angsty punks, activist queers, and mysterious out-of-town visitors. A film major from New York with a very Gen-X love of zines and mixtapes, Paul is a disaffected student more interested in whatever lessons can be learned from a night out. The only person who knows his secret shapeshifting skill is his queer best friend Jane, a stylish grad student, though his activist roommate Christopher—an ostensibly stable counterpart to Paul and his wanderlust ways—is so unphased by Paul’s already gender-blurred aesthetic that it’s not initially clear if he knows or not. One of the novel’s many strengths, in fact, is its descriptions of clothes, style, and general aesthetic, as Lawlor demonstrates in this early scene where Paul is dressing himself before going out:
He changed into a clean tee shirt in the walk-in, carefully rolled the sleeves of his Viyella shadow-plaid above his biceps like the picture of Jean Genet on the cover of that new biography, and stuck a clean faded green bandana in the left pocket of his 501s. . . . Paul shrugged into his River Phoenix coat, dark blue corduroy with fleece lining, and walked out of the kitchen like he was walking into Studio 54.
Lawlor’s prose can be maximal in its use of cultural references, in its collaging together of keen observations and pop culture signifiers, but it also flows easily. It does occasionally, like Paul, take strange detours; the closed third-person perspective will sometimes loosen to omniscience and give way to fairy tale-like passages, complicating any simple origin story a reader might expect from a character like Paul or a story like this one. The warm tone and livewire voice remain consistent throughout, however, and the multiple origin stories add a radical potentiality to the novel. The breezy pace of the text feels like a fittingly swift slide for someone like Paul, who moves fluidly between sexes and states of being, between literal states and the relationships (if not responsibilities) that take him there.
Lawlor uses male pronouns for Paul throughout the novel, which likely has more to do with readerly coherence than anything else, but this fact—as well as Paul’s negotiation of historically female-only spaces like the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival—might complicate the experience of reading the novel, depending on the social positioning you bring to it. But culturally-identified queers of most persuasions will find themselves reflected back here, as the text largely eludes rigidity or judgement, and bringing a rigid politics to the proceedings would feel almost beside the point, as the delights of mutability—of desire, of life paths, of presentation—are intrinsic to the novel’s appeal.
In its nuanced treatment of a conceit that could easily yield to gimmick or cliché, Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl is a dazzling novel about the ordinary magic of inventing ourselves, about the uses of the body, and about containing Whitmanian “multitudes.” Lawlor is a magician, and a very good one, too.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018
What a Philosopher Is: Becoming Nietzsche
University of Chicago Press ($55)
Nietzsche’s Final Teaching
Michael Allen Gillespie
University of Chicago Press ($35)
Nietzsche’s Search for Philosophy: On the Middle Writings
Bloomsbury Academic ($29.95)
by Scott F. Parker
You might not know it from the recent and very public haranguing Steven Pinker delivered upon Nietzsche in his book Enlightenment Now, but more than a century after his death the “philosopher of the future” is every bit as studied and appreciated as he anticipated he would be.
Nietzsche, infamously, is one of those thinkers who can be made to say whatever one wishes. For one thing, his thinking underwent substantial revisions over the course of his writing; early, middle, and late Nietzsche regularly contradict one another in robust—Nietzschean!—language. For another, Nietzsche often favored an elliptical style that left it to the reader to connect the dots in his arguments, leaving himself susceptible to being taken out of context and used toward maleficent—or at least contrary—ends. “Most thinkers write badly,” he writes in Human, All Too Human, “because they tell us not only their thoughts, but also the thinking of their thoughts.”
These seeming ambiguities help explain the frequent misunderstandings of what Nietzsche’s writings mean. Sam Harris, generally more circumspect than this, has intimated on his podcast that Nietzsche is a proponent of nihilism and claimed that he is “irrelevant” to discussions of religion. Considering that the nihilism Nietzsche anticipated as a consequence of the loss of the religious worldview was among his most profound concerns and that his insights into the history and psychology of religion are among the most penetrating on offer, Harris proves to be as idiosyncratic in his thinking about Nietzsche and as superficial as Pinker, who finds Nietzsche’s anti-humanism culpable for “the megadeath movements of the 20th century,” thereby endorsing the Nazis’ own worst possible reading. Who, one wants to ask Pinker, has been more critical of nationalism and the herd mentality than Nietzsche?
But it is the sensitive reader whom Nietzsche most rewards. Thankfully, while Nietzsche is undergoing another of these periodic rounds of disparagement to which he has always been prone, scholars are reading his work carefully. We are right now amidst a spate of new monographs that bring sober and thorough attention to bear on Nietzsche’s project, ignoring the strawmen Harris, Pinker, and others make in his image.
In What a Philosopher Is: Becoming Nietzsche Laurence Lampert examines Nietzsche’s early writings through what he calls the first mature work—the fourth book of The Gay Science, known as “Sanctus Januarius”—in order to reveal the coherence of Nietzsche’s seemingly disparate projects.
Lampert’s method for telling this story follows two related tracks. The first is patiently scholarly. He writes, “Nietzsche’s thinking is a continuous development; what he advocates is discontinuous. The continuity he kept hidden in the workbooks is far more important than the discontinuity prominent in his books.” Readers might quibble here about what important means in this context—Nietzsche, for one, apparently did not understand it the way Lampert does. But reading the workbooks themselves does allow Lampert a convincing account of the continuity that is otherwise hidden. He shows, to take the most prominent example, that Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal recurrence of the same didn’t come from nowhere. It can be thrilling to see Nietzsche’s ideas contextualized this way, their coming to be documented exactingly—but a little goes a long way. Lampert’s recountings, detailed to the exclusion of all possible doubt, come across as excessive at times for the non-specialist reader.
The second, related, track Lampert takes to get Nietzsche to cohere follows what the philosopher himself set about to prove with the forewords he added to his earlier works after writing Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the first book of Nietzsche’s final phase—and the one that changed everything for him. In those forewords, Nietzsche reads his early books as necessary steps on his journey toward becoming the philosopher that with Zarathustra he became. By Lampert’s reading, “what drove him from the start, [was] the need to understand the Philosopher and the Artist in the context of modern culture.” We can see Nietzsche’s first attempt at an understanding in his early writings about (and deference to) the respective representative figures Schopenhauer and Wagner, the two looming influences from under whose shadows Nietzsche would emerge to enter, first, his Enlightenment-influenced middle period (about which, more below) and, eventually, his third, or “mature,” period. It is in the mature period, beginning with “Sanctus Januarius” (which Lampert dubs “a January of a Book, ending an old ‘year’ of human achievement and opening a new ‘year’ in Nietzsche’s work and beyond”), that Nietzsche is able to get a fix on the two types—an understanding made possible by his most profound idea and the conditions that allowed it: “Nietzsche became what he was as a philosopher and an artist during the hard summer of 1881, when his sickness granted him enough good days to take his daily six-to-eight-hour walks and gain his most fundamental insights and compose their fitting sentences.”
Picking up where Lampert’s account leaves off, Michael Allen Gillespie, in Nietzsche’s Final Teaching, treats Nietzsche’s theory of “the eternal recurrence of the same” as the linchpin of his mature philosophy. Gillespie argues that this idea, which first struck Nietzsche in 1881 as he walked around Switzerland’s Lake Silvaplana, resolved the questions that had preoccupied Nietzsche before 1881 and that orient all of his writing until his breakdown in 1889.
Most of us, stuffed with common sense, look askance at Nietzsche’s theory of eternal recurrence. It strains against our modern worldview even to consider it. Time is a loop? All of this repeats forever? How do we not but continue from there: Nietzsche was a bit of an eccentric, wasn’t he? Let’s appreciate his wit and style, let’s draw on his criticisms of Christianity, let’s acknowledge his contributions as a psychologist. But eternal recurrence—are we meant to take that seriously?
Gillespie takes it very seriously indeed. As he explains, Nietzsche thinks that eternal recurrence offers an escape from the meaningless and nihilism that follow the death of God. But only if one can affirm all things absolutely, by what Nietzsche calls amor fati. Unlike Faust, who affirms one moment, for Nietzsche eternal recurrence means that “in order to truly will any one thing, it is necessary to will all things.” It is this willing of the whole that makes each moment meaningful: it is vital.
The eternal recurrence establishes what Gillespie calls Nietzsche’s “(anti-)metaphysics”; it provides the ontology that coordinates what we can recognize as a corresponding anthropology, theology, cosmology, and logic, each drawn from Nietzsche’s most enduring ideas of the 1880s (the Ubermensch, death of God, will to power, and perspectivism, respectively). Of these, it is the logic in Gillespie’s account that is the awkwardest fit. Gillespie’s own writing demonstrates that a rational account of Nietzsche’s worldview is possible and that offering it can eliminate much of the ambiguity that otherwise attends. The rub, though, is that as clear a writer as Gillespie is, there is only one Nietzsche.
Gillespie shows how Twilight of the Idols and Ecce Homo, two works of 1888, are structured as sonatas and advance a musical rather than rational logic. Nietzsche’s “fusion of image, emotion, and form” in this period constitute what Gillespie calls “a mosaic of words”—or, as Nietzsche has it, “each word streams out its strength as sound, as place, as concept, to the right and left and over the entirety.” This is not, obviously, how we’re used to reading philosophy. It is also, again, why we love to read Nietzsche (and to a significant extent why we sometimes struggle to interpret him).
Even if “Nietzsche’s goal is not to persuade but to enthuse, entrance, and overpower the reader, to initiate him into sacred mysteries and impel him to action,” the question remains: to what end? Gillespie’s list of the thinkers and movements inspired by Nietzsche is too long to quote here. This consequence is due as much to what Nietzsche’s corpus doesn’t say as it is to how he says what he does. Gillespie argues compellingly that all of Nietzsche’s writings after his 1881 walk at Lake Silvaplana build toward a magnum opus—a thorough articulation of the eternal recurrence of same—that was precluded by Nietzsche’s collapse in 1889.
The eternal recurrence—Nietzsche’s “deepest thought”—is the hollow core around which the rest of his project orbits unsteadily. One open question is whether Nietzsche could have completed such an account if he had remained lucid. We might wish he’d completed the project so we’d have an easier time accepting or rejecting and preventing it from being adopted willy-nilly. But as we should expect, Nietzsche was up to something subtler than a naive naturalism. As Gillespie explains,
Nietzsche does not present the eternal recurrence as an absolute truth, but as a perspective, a perspective that is affirmed not because it is true or false but because it is most life-enhancing. Indeed, from Nietzsche’s point of view, we cannot possibly know whether it is true or false. To affirm the doctrine is rather an act of the will and means adopting a stance toward life that treats the doctrine as if it were true, and that consequently eschews all negation, affirming every possibility not merely as possible but as necessary. Affirming the eternal recurrence in this sense does not entail the rejection of any path or way of life, and indeed requires affirming them all.
This is a pragmatism of meaning, and it’s one Nietzsche adopted personally before extending publicly. Nietzsche “became convinced not only that he had a task that could give meaning to his life, but that this task was of world-historical importance . . . His task, he came to believe, was nothing less than the revaluation of all values, the complete transformation of European civilization.” The nihilism that he had confronted following the death of God was the nihilism that was bearing down on Europe. This is the neat circle of Nietzsche as destiny that eternal recurrence demands. Once he recognizes the problem, he becomes the (possible) solution. “Nietzsche thus claims that he is a destiny not because he wants to be but because as part of the unfolding of all things he is the moment in which the whole affirms and wills itself, the moment of the appearance of the god who in his eternal birth and death wills the constant renewal of the whole.” His destiny is to write the books that will bring about the future. In so doing he has so done. The texts perform themselves.
Nietzsche’s Final Teaching suffers slightly as a collection of stand-alone essays that repeat themselves—rather blatantly sometimes. But this is a small price for the reader to pay for such a resounding synthesis of Nietzsche’s later work. Gillespie makes an admirable attempt at completing the picture that Nietzsche didn’t.
Compared to the well-known works of Nietzsche’s “mature” period, his middle period has historically been given short shrift. For Lampert this relative neglect is warranted; the middle period represents for him a necessary failure. While Things Human All Too Human (Lampert’s preferred translation of the title) represents an important shift for Nietzsche away from his deference to Schopenhauer and Wagner, Lampert instructs that we “think of his first book on the free mind as erring in the modern way, deferring to Enlightenment orthodoxy as if that were true free-mindedness; treat it with the suspicion its deference deserves; count it too among the works in which he was not yet himself.” So a failure, but a necessary one: the free-mind books (Human, All Too Human; Dawn; and The Gay Science) allowed him to grow through his deference by requiring “the Enlightenment to perform intelligent surgery on itself: slice away that part that would consume its most valuable part; its mind, its Greek-science root, must cut away what seemed its heart, its Christian root.” Through this period lies what Nietzsche has always pursued: truth and an individual strong enough to bear it.
Again we see Lampert here following Nietzsche’s lead. Human, All Too Human is the book Nietzsche would come to see as a failed introduction to Zarathustra and which, before his idea for the Forewords Project, he wanted to destroy. In Nietzsche’s Search for Philosophy, Keith Ansell-Pearson takes a very different approach to this period. Reading the books not as gates to be passed through on the way to the real Nietzsche but as valuable works in their own right, Ansell-Pearson finds the middle period to be a success—possibly the high-water mark—for Nietzsche.
The core argument of Nietzsche’s Search for Philosophy—that we should not ignore the middle period—is impossible to disagree with. Ansell-Pearson’s discussion of the works in question describe a thrilling series that readers will likely find themselves inclined to consult directly. This is an inevitable challenge with Nietzsche: he provokes myriad responses, all of which suffer by comparison to their source. It is perhaps this way for all truly original writers. A critic can be inspired by Nietzsche to his highest articulation and still be just a critic. Ansell-Pearson himself is “mindful of Lawrence Hatab’s warning that when we ‘translate’ Nietzsche into our professional philosophical agenda, we do what must be done, but in so doing we bring to ruin something special and vital. . . . It seems we must ‘murder to dissect.’”
Nevertheless, the Nietzsche that Ansell-Pearson reveals is curious, grounded in science, and committed to his pursuit of moderation and sober thinking. But even in his Enlightened mode he is never simplistic. It’s easy to forget that when his madman delivers the news of the death of God in The Gay Science, one of the things Nietzsche is up to is criticizing “the village atheists . . . [who are] too easily satisfied with a secular materialism.” Pinker, Harris, and our other own village atheists might do well to give this Nietzsche another read.
One of Nietzsche’s fundamental insights from this period, to which Ansell-Pearson ably draws significant attention, is into the fetishization of truth as a substitution of one god for another. Inspired as he is in this period by Epicurus, Nietzsche pursues naturalism insofar as it is conducive to a “full and excellent life.” Metaphysics, in other words, is subordinate to ethics—and, for Nietzsche, to aesthetics too. “Gay scientists are ‘too experienced, too serious, too merry, too burned, too profound’ to have belief in a simple-minded love of truth.” Philosophy, for Nietzsche in his middle writings, is not a matter of articulating correct views on things. It is “a set of practices or exercises that seek to transform one’s way of life, indeed, one’s entire way of being and fundamental orientation in the world.”
Ansell-Pearson, along with Lampert and Gillespie, reminds us that Nietzsche has plenty to say to our time and to many of our conversations, if only we have ears to hear him. Likewise, these three books remind us that nuanced writers demand careful readers.
Click here to purchase
What a Philosopher Is: Becoming Nietzsche
at your local independent bookstore
Click here to purchase
Nietzsche’s Search for Philosophy: On the Middle Writings
at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018
Interviewed by William Stobb
Poet, memoirist, arts activist, and tarot enthusiast, Paula Cisewski’s been turning the Queen of Cups upright for the Twin Cities literary scene since the 1990s. The author of four poetry collections and several chapbooks including a lyric prose memoir, Cisewski has curated a number of reading series, mentors poets and writers of all ages and interests, and sees the work of community-building as the heart and soul of the literary life. In 2017, her two most recent collections hit the shelves, Quitter (Diode Editions, $18) and The Threatened Everything (Burnside Review, $13). I caught up with Cisewski on a blustery spring afternoon in northeast Minneapolis to talk about rage and joy and laughter in apocalyptical poetics.
William Stobb: You’re experiencing something right now that must be a rare moment for any writer, having two books out at the same time. What’s that like?
Paula Cisewski: It’s an embarrassment of riches, and I know what that saying feels like now: like a stroke of luck that may make it appear I’m more productive than I am. The Threatened Everything was accepted in 2014 and Quitter won the Diode prize in 2016. The set of circumstances that caused them to come out simultaneously (and seven years after my last poetry collection)—different lengths of time for each manuscript to find its home with a publisher and then the different production times for each—felt almost unbelievable. The boxes with my author copies of both books actually arrived on my front porch on the same day—I’ll probably never get over that.
WS: That’s wild.
PC: It’s extremely lucky, and I only hope to be a good enough shepherd of them both into the world. They’re very different projects: I was nearly dead when writing The Threatened Everything and the poems rail against feeling trapped there. Quitter spirals forward from that place, however lost for any solution (which is its partial resolution).
And it’s also been interesting hearing from a few people who’ve given me personal feedback: there’s almost always a strong preference for one book over the other, split about 50/50 in favor of each.
WS: I’m one of those people, I know. I like Quitter, but I fell head-over-heels in love with The Threatened Everything, right from the opening poem, “The Apocalypse Award Goes To—.” It strikes me as a great introduction to a lot of things that the book does in terms of themes and tones and voice, and it introduces this interesting idea that we’re living inside of an apocalypse, that the apocalypse is happening and we are in it. That resonates with me in terms of growing up in the Cold War era, and growing up as a Christian and a sci-fi fan—we get ideas of the apocalypse as something that’s going to happen on a given day, and then maybe there’ll be something after that, kind of like Mad Max or The Walking Dead, you know? But maybe it’s more realistic to look at what’s happening in the world right now as an apocalypse. Is that an artistic concept that the poem is built on, or is that a lived experience for you? Do you feel like we’re living in an apocalypse?
PC: First, thank you for spending time with the books and caring enough to have a preference! I don’t know about the apocalypse. I think about self-fulfilling prophecy and it almost seems—well, it doesn’t almost seem, there are people actively praying for the End Times right now, right? As salvation from perceived evil or as a relief from suffering or as a kind of cause and effect that makes sense. Because uncertainty is worse? Plus we as a species have increased our capacity for destruction in ways that seem inhuman to me. So much is terrible, looming indefinitely, and yet there have to be ways that we can know and engage with what is actually here, not what we hope or fear will be. Poetry is one way to connect rather than to succumb to despair or distraction or disinterest. I’m not sure if that exactly answers your question, but those are some of the concerns of both books, I think.
WS: The epigraph to The Threatened Everything from Virginia Woolf is telling: “The beauty of the world which is so soon to perish has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart, asunder.” Your poems work through painful situations with a very light touch and with a lot of tonal range—I find a lot of laughter and brightness of wit and brightness of observation in the poems. Do you recognize that in the poems? How can a poem be funny and also tragic? What do you think about tonal diversity in that way in your work?
PC: I suppose laughter is elemental to who I am—both as a dumbfounded response to frequent wonder and as a coping mechanism—so humor does show up in my work. The final section in The Threatened Everything is called “The Laughing Club,” because I spent a lot of time thinking about laughter: when it expresses joy, when it connects us, and when it’s derisive or divisive. As one part of my research, my husband and I attended a laughing club, which is a real kind of yoga that involves some willingness to be physically vulnerable in public and to make a lot of eye contact with strangers. I’m an introvert, and my husband said he kept his eye on me the whole time in case I bolted and he needed to follow me out.
Ultimately, almost nothing is just one thing. There’s hopelessness; there’s also hope. The “Empty Next Syndrome” poems in The Threatened Everything, for example, explore the altered identity of a parent whose child is becoming/has become an adult. The pain and joy of that experience quite literally shattered me. But it wasn’t about me, was it? It was about my son, who has grown into a loving, generous person in the world. Plus, I’m now grateful to have had the chance to reassemble myself.
WS: I’d love to hear you talk a little bit about the laughter epidemic in Tanganyika and how you encountered that history, which is the basis for the final poem in The Threatened Everything.
PC: I stumbled across the story in my laugher research—I don’t remember where. There was an actual episode of contagious laughter in a school in Tanganyika, which is Tanzania now. Reports vary, but I recall it was a manic, physical reaction to postcolonialism. That breaking apart. I felt that was a thing that tied all of the book together. It wasn’t just laughter as release. It held the possibility for healing, but it was also a symptom, and it was dangerous.
WS: What’s your sense of the possibilities for poetry as a force of social activism? I think of Auden, you know, “poetry makes nothing happen,” but then also of Williams and other people who’ve made arguments for poetry as the news that we need. What’s your feeling about poetry as a mode of expression that has some cultural impact? How do you feel about working with social activism energy through poetry?
PC: Well, Auden’s not wrong, but also, he doesn’t only mean the one thing, because something is being made to happen in that poem. Spending time, “in the valley of [poetry’s] making where executives / would never want to tamper,” is a kind of spiritual practice, which is so embarrassing to say that I’m not even going to take the statement back. When I’m writing and reading, I’m engaging with what is most beautiful, vile, impossible or possible, mundane, lofty, absurd, or lost in the world and in myself. And poets around the world are all doing the same thing. Coming together around that energy can be powerful. Not always. There are endless ways any gathering of people can result in nothing more interesting than a bunch of bruised or blustering egos, but still, I’m really interested in different ways poets make space: from longstanding reading series to house readings to work-in-progress salons. At our best we grow together, circle around each other in times of crisis. The 100,000 Poets for Change global events every fall take on their own identity as they take up a cause. Or, another very micro example, I’ve curated this Poetry Fort at art crawls and other events, which is a tent that can’t seat more than six or so people, two or three of whom are the “featured” poets. There’s an immediate reciprocity; a poet will read a poem and then a member of the quote-unquote audience will say, for example, “I know a song about that” and will sing it. Nobody’s going to achieve literary stardom in that space, but people bring to it and take from it something of real value.
WS: I really like the poem “Super Moon Report” in Quitter. It’s a bit of an homage to the Minneapolis community, where you’ve been central in building community. What’s that work like for you? Does it come naturally, and do you have projects now that you would like to talk about?
PC: I have been thinking back very fondly about when I started hosting an open mic in the late ’90s at the Artists’ Quarter, an amazing jazz club where I worked. I didn’t know any other poets and I needed them. But I was also a single parent and a student and a waitress, so I really needed to multi-task. I rushed in like The Fool in the Tarot deck, fully enthusiastic and totally inexperienced. The organizing work I did then and in later series—sometimes collaboratively—felt necessary. Space needed to be made, and people needed to come together, and it mattered, and so it didn’t occur to me that it was exhausting (a good kind of exhaustion).
Any of the MANY other curators and editors and micropress publishers and culture makers who keep our literary towns so vibrant could tell you the same thing. It is an incredibly fortunate place for a poet to live.
I am not curating more than a pop-up something or other nowadays, but I am thrilled to have recently joined you on the editorial staff at Conduit! It has been on the top of my literary magazine favorites list for decades.
WS: Your work seems to seek community with visual arts and other art forms. How does ekphrasis work for you? Are you actively seeking out visual arts to work with in your writing? What’s the balance or relationship in your life between poetry and other art forms?
PC: Partly, I am a would-be visual artist. I draw and collage mostly. In my office there are two desks: one for writing and one for making objects. When language runs out, I switch seats. Partly, I married a visual artist, Jack Walsh. We collaborate under the name JoyFace, and I can see that my ekphrastic output has increased drastically since we began to influence one another full-time. And partly, there is another great reading series in the Twin Cities called Talking Image Connection, founded by Alison Morse and now run by Luke Pingel, where writers are invited every few months to respond to installations, and I’ve been invited to do that a few times. The creative work of others is profoundly inspiring; responding to it is like picking up a conversation. The poetry manuscript I’m finishing right now is largely ekphrastic.
But I’m not only inspired by visual art. Quitter is full of Chopin and Bowie and Husker Dü and other music.
WS: There’s a lot of doubling and mirroring in both books—imaginative twins, a good one and a bad one, and this concept of an inner wolf/cave problem that your poet-speaker is manifesting. Where do these doppelgangers come from? Are they philosophical or symbological? Do they relate to personal experience?
PC: Even the books have each other as fraternal twins! I mentioned earlier that I was broken in half when writing the poems in The Threatened Everything. And as a culture, too, it feels like we’re divided—not just between antagonistic groups but within ourselves, and many of the poems process that kind of internal split. For instance, in “Cathedral Song, Part One,” the wolf/cave problem reflects on a part of oneself that is denied, or feared, which is probably the part that needs the most attention. In “Cathedral Song, Part Two,” the wolf, who the speaker feared will attack her, leaps out and it turns out that it was just starving, dying of neglect.
WS: Is that part specific for you? What is that part that needs attention but that hides and tries to get your attention?
PC: In this book, I think it was anger. I wasn’t raised with a lot of examples of people expressing anger in ways that were productive or healthy, so I really learned to tamp it down, to deny it existed in myself. I would think, “I am a rational person. I don’t get angry. I look for solutions.” But there’s plenty to be angry about, really, which is, among other things, where the poem “Rage Essay” comes in later.
WS: I don’t know if it’s okay for me to ask, but “Rage Essay” refers to a lost brother, and I’m wondering is that autobiographical? Can we talk about that?
PC: Yeah, it’s . . . yeah, we can talk about that.
WS: What happened to your brother?
PC: I have an older brother who was incarcerated and who was chewed up . . . entirely devoured by that system. I haven’t seen him since I was fourteen. He makes appearances in each of my poetry collections, and I’ve been struggling with how to communicate that loss in a memoir for nearly a decade (The chapbook Misplaced Sinister is part of that bigger project). Our nation’s incarceration addiction is devastating, destructive, dehumanizing, deeply racist. That’s about all I want to say about it.
“Rage Essay” is a pretty traditional sonnet, by the way; I hoped the strict constraint of the form would make the content feel caged.
WS: I hear the poem saying that you don’t want to lose contact with your anger. One of the things that’s trying about this political era is how it seems to be fueled by rage. The last election and some other aspects of our public discourse seem like examples of what can happen when rage takes control. Is there any argument that maybe suppression of rage could actually be a good thing?
PC: Losing contact with the anger wasn’t a choice really, since it existed. I was just choking it down, and so it couldn’t resolve or transform or get put to any good use such as fueling activism. It would come out in weird other ways that were also unproductive and unexamined. And, yes, in that way I was just another broken part of our system.
I don’t think there is any good argument for suppression, but for examining whatever feeling is coming up, without reacting or giving into it. Rage can be self-righteous and deeply ignorant. Sometimes it can provide cover—just a lot of noise so that you don’t have to think or feel anything about complicated solutions which might involve looking at the terrified or ugly part of yourself. That kind of rage can be a drug, really.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018
New Rivers Press ($17)
by Gwen Ackerman
In her debut poetry collection Deep Calls To Deep, Jane Medved immerses her readers in a world of contradiction as evoked by Jerusalem, the city she calls home. It’s a place where each stone has a story, if a person chooses to listen, and Medved does. The poet takes her readers through an ancient gateway into a universal subconscious, exploring the permeable membrane between time and place in a collection of poetry divided into five sections—the last, tellingly, titled “Prologue,” a clear display of belief that time is circular.
Time is also a force to be contended with, escaped only in sleep as the heavens look down on earth in “Month of Dreams”:
Who can blame the single-footed angels
if they pause in their appointed tasks
to stare in boundless curiosity
at our nightly impudence. These humans
who will not stay put, but venture out of
their domain with infinite audacity.
The section titled “The Ninth Villian” gives the reader Medved’s rendering of place, a Jerusalem that is never firmly situated in the present. In “The Last Time I Saw Herod,” the king’s vicious murder of his wife Mariamme lurks right above us:
He was banging on the gate
even though there is no way
to know that we are in here.
He was looking for his wife,
aren’t they all . . .
Place, time, and Medved’s interior life flow together in “Leaving a Note at the Western Wall,” a concrete, spiritual act at a sacred place where routinely
the matriarchs and their children press letters
into fists of stone while God sends back his answers—
No and no and no.
But all is never lost, as time is circular and there will always be a chance to begin again, as seen in the book’s closing “Prologue”: “Look, a piece of moon is carved off. That means we must start over. / That means we are counting again.” This is a collection in which ancient wisdom confronts modernity, the secular faces the sacred, and death is presented with life. Deep Calls to Deep is a fitting title for all the depth that is explored here.