Author Archives: Kelly

Philip Guston & The Poets

Edited by Kosme de Barañano
Hauser & Wirth Publishers ($55)

by Mark Gustafson

As painter Philip Guston (1913-1980) and poet Clark Coolidge used to discuss (in conversations recorded elsewhere), the creative acts of painting and poetry have much in common. Guston liked talking with poets, and he liked reading their work. In fact, he read deeply and widely—from Baudelaire, Rilke, and Rimbaud to Beckett, Kafka, Kierkegaard, Jung, and many more.

Robert Hughes has written that "in terms of intensity and influence," Guston stands above all other American painters of the 1970s, because of his "leap back into figure painting from 'high' abstraction." Although he went through several definable phases over a long career, the most momentous change came after the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. Guston wanted, as he said, "to bear witness." He turned to painting banal, everyday objects—books, shoes, hands, lightbulbs, clocks—which he called "tangibilia" (or "crappola")—and, occasionally, hooded Klan figures.

Although the primary focus in Philip Guston & The Poets is on his work from that time, the gorgeous reproductions are sometimes juxtaposed with examples from earlier periods, to startling and instructive effect. An exhibition at the Gallerie dell'Accademia in Venice was the occasion for this publication; rich with Venetian and Renaissance treasures, that museum has a vested interest in showing Guston, who loved Italy and its painters—most notably Giotto, Masaccio, Piero della Francesca, and Tiepolo, as well as de Chirico. The hyperbolic preface by Paolo Marini, the museum's director, comes as no surprise.

The exhibition's curator, Spanish art historian and critic Kosme de Barañano, provides the commentary. The following poets and poems furnish his framework: D.H. Lawrence, "The Ship of Death"; William Butler Yeats, "Byzantium" and "Sailing to Byzantium"; Wallace Stevens, "The Sail of Ulysses" and "Domination of Black"; Eugenio Montale (translated by Jonathan Galassi), "Mediterranean," "Summer," and "The Lemons"; and T.S. Eliot, "East Coker." In keeping with the Italian emphasis, de Barañano leans especially on Montale. The rationale for this entire venture, however, feels a little shaky, or maybe it's better to say that it foils initial expectations—except in the case of Eliot, there is no direct evidence that Guston knew or cared for any of these poems or poets.

Late Guston paintings are surely "unique and challenging," and "they resist the siege of interpretation." Cartoonish for one thing, at first glance they may seem to be simple, although they are anything but. As de Barañano writes, "They do not belong to the traditional iconography of Western painting, but rather to the aesthetics of the metaphysical, transcendentalist, or imagist poets." They are more like the stuff of dreams, sometimes disturbing.

At the outset, de Barañano is careful not to claim too much for his comparisons. Aiming to "open parallel sensations," he wants to understand Guston's pictorial work "in relation to the poetic thought" of these five poets, "who also sought to express ideas not previously formulated." They are, he says, "the painter's spiritual brothers."

Parallelisms abound. De Barañano observes that Lawrence's "The Ship of Death" and many of Guston's paintings speak of the inevitability of the end. He also notes that as Yeats describes the act of writing in "Byzantium," so Guston describes artistic creation in his painting The Line. Such statements expose the hazards of this book's approach: death and poetry are two familiar poetic concerns, hardly exclusive to or even particularly characteristic of these poets. Still, we may agree with the statement that "all of Guston's late paintings are not only his 'Ship of Death' but also his 'Sailing to Byzantium,' his rite of reconciliation: his journey in search of his own vision of painting and of eternal life for the images of Painting."

Turning to Stevens, de Barañano says: "Nearly all of 'The Sail of Ulysses' . . . seems to refer to the themes of the night soliloquy which also defines the last phase of Guston's work." True enough—Guston usually painted at night, with artificial light—as the following is, too: "As with Stevens's poems, it is difficult to summarize what the image in a Guston painting is, what story it tells, and what it means." Again, this is hardly unique to Stevens. One might have sympathy for an art historian attempting to deal with this very demanding poet, but neither the Stevens aficionado nor the unversed reader is well served. De Barañano gives the distinct impression that he is flailing about, struggling to stay afloat.

The similarities between Guston's "simple yet strange" images and Montale's Ossi di sepia (Cuttlefish Bones), as well as "their political and existential concerns," is enough to convince de Barañano that Guston knew Montale's poetry, despite lack of proof. "Guston's canvas is like a beach that gives refuge to a random pile of debris and broken, dislocated things." Both artists revolted against the elevated and rhetorical fashion of their fellows, in favor of "a more humble, more agile vocabulary." They also share "a fragmentary syntax." While one might not share de Barañano's certainty (and might come up with other fitting matches), the pairing of these two artists is surely the most useful and rewarding one.

Last comes Eliot, the only poet here whom Guston explicitly references in a painting (entitled East Coker—T.S.E.). De Barañano hauls out an old Eliot chestnut: "The purpose of Guston's images, in terms of the objective correlative, is not to describe feelings, but to reveal an emotion, a thought." He also states that, "while both [Guston and Eliot] are highly educated and technical, they nevertheless allow themselves to be led by their instinct."

Overall, in an analysis like this, speculation is assumed; wild associative leaps are fine (the footnotes are rife with them); interpretation is interpretation. But at this point, the reader may feel adrift, on a fishing expedition in the course of which no fish have been caught. Some have been seen, yes, but only dimly. How to get back to shore?

Like a lifeboat, the epilogue, "From the Iliad to the Odyssey," appears just in time. Invoking two additional rather well-known poems, it rescues both the reader and the commentary, and the consequence is a sense of exhilaration. In the end, de Barañano says, "painting, like poetry, doesn't need descriptions but rather only accepts approximations." His best approximations are of the former. "Guston's enigmatic images invade us like disturbing dreams," he writes, "where some objects may be recognized but not their meaning. Guston creates a personal mythology, which arises in part from the world outside . . . but also from his deepest subconscious." That is a useful summation of the "visual poetry" of Guston's paintings.

Following the epilogue, a pleasing appendix of sorts includes brief introductions of each poet, full texts of the poems (and other material), and as a bonus, "two parentheses" of Guston's drawings made specifically for poems of Clark Coolidge and Musa McKim (Guston's wife).

Art criticism and literary criticism, at their best, can be illuminating and thrilling. In the present case, it might have been better to let the poets speak more often for themselves. Nevertheless, this is a beautiful and stimulating book that goes a long way to making intelligible the last and perhaps most quizzical phase of Philip Guston's work.

Click here to purchase this book
at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2017-2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018

The Disconnected

Oğuz Atay
Translated by Sevin Seydi
Olric Press (£50)

by Jeff Bursey

The first thing to be said about The Disconnected (Tutunamayanlar in its original Turkish) is that it is available in a handsome limited edition, so the curious should contact the publisher quickly at the link noted above if they want a copy. The second thing is that it is considered of great importance in its homeland. In this novel, originally published in 1972, Oğuz Atay (1934-1977) brings together local literary concerns (i.e., the culture and languages of the Republic of Turkey as well as its predecessors), Russian literature (Ivan Goncharov's Oblomov is often cited, as are Chekov and Dostoyevsky), and 20th-century European fiction. Multiple and shifting points of view, time jumps, and the medley of modes, along with the underlying moodiness of the work emanating from its two main figures, Turgut Özben and his dead friend Selim Isık, mark this as a Modernist work.

This is its first translation into English. Translator Sevin Seydi started working on it as the original sheets came out of Atay's typewriter and discussed it with him. What she has produced is a narrative filled with tones—sombre, tender, brooding, puckish, malicious, defeated, constrained, bookish, melancholic—and the flow of feelings reflects how life is experienced rather than resembling a collection of set pieces devised by an author. It is far from a work of realism, for Turgut converses with the shade of Selim (it gives nothing away to say he committed suicide) whenever he thinks about him or encounters him in one of the many pieces of paper in his or someone else's possession. "Ah Selim, you have scattered your life away, left and right! These notebooks are all that remain." It is through apostrophe as a figure of speech—addressing the missing as if present—that the dynamic of their complex friendship is conveyed.

His sleuthing into Selim's past often ramps up Turgut's emotions—anger, grief, and depression, among others. This is tied to what may be a key item of this aspect of the novel: "to understand the meaning of life I need the meaning of death not to remain obscured." The pursuit to uncover the why of Selim's death helps Turgut come to some kind of terms with an inexplicable act while revealing how much he didn't know about his friend. Süleyman Kargı shows Turgut Selim's dreadful unpublished poem, "Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow," which is the subject of a lengthy analysis by Kargı. Here is a brief example of each: "Year nineteen thirty-six: known to but few. / To him, for sure, it's an important date." The explication of these lines tells us Selim's birth year, and that he "weighed five kilos and eight hundred grams exactly when he was born." This figure is regarded with suspicion by Kargı on the grounds that without a midwife or doctor around the weight could not be so accurately gauged unless someone placed the baby on the local butcher's scales. "That Müzeyyen Hanım [Selim's mother], well-known for her cleanliness should consent to this; that in a butcher's shop, among animals hanging from hooks, with flies all around them, Selim, on a cold autumn day, should be placed on a dirty balance, seems a very distant possibility to me." Mythopoeic exhalation and academic wheezing inflate poem and poet in a pastiche by Atay that courts the reader's patience even as it entertains, for few things in literature are as tiresome as ridiculous praise given to a flawed literary work by a thoroughly negligible figure. This section's abundant humour and outlandish conceits save the criticism, and the poem, from descending into sheer whimsy, though it's a close call.

That is not the only instance of narrative teetering between one mood and another. Each venue Turgut enters in search of his friend—homes, nightclubs, brothels, and bureaucracies—is a foray into the occasionally painful unknown by a character and also an opportunity for Atay to provide lists, transcripts, an 80-page unpunctuated section, mini-biographies, diary entries, the language of commercials—"All along the road our advertisements will keep you company"—and much else, ranging from the elegiac to the satirical. How does one accept this often humourous telling of a story that is replete with Turgut's grief? Are we to laugh or cry or scoff at the whole enterprise? Either you put The Disconnected aside as not enough (or too much) of one thing or another, or you tussle with its competing demands. One of Atay's most significant achievements is making this a book you can't read passively.

In the assumed world of the novel's events, from the first page Turgut finds it hard to tell his wife, Nermin, how inconsolable he is. Apart from the matter of his friend, he recognizes that that he can't discuss a crucial aspect of himself that most readers could identify with:

So am I going into this with the whole of myself, without even protecting 'it'? It, that 'thing', a little bit of himself that no one knew about; difficult to describe, but whose existence was very clear to him. Would he endanger that too? He had never surrendered the whole of Turgut. Never. He had kept it to himself. A 'thing', the value of which was known only to himself. Others too hide many things; even so, they may be left with nothing for themselves. This was different: if told it would have no value; therefore it could not be told. And even if you did give someone the 'thing', they would hardly notice it.

The struggle to keep hidden this mysterious "it"—an ineffable part of each of us scarce capable of definition in a way that would satisfy everyone—and the desire to speak of "it" is one more example of stress in the novel. Such seesawing instills a delicious tension in the reading experience, and it often seems like the perpetual motion behind the entire work.

A further stress, one that is political and historical, surrounds The Disconnected. The novel first appeared one year after the eruption of a bloodless military coup in Turkey that endured for some time. It is impossible to read this work—which brings together socialism and Marxism, European and Russian ideas, personal identity and the sadness of those who feel they don't fit in with their own society—without thinking of Turkey in the light of 2016's failed coup against its authoritarian president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Selim, the disconnected of the novel, must have had numerous counterparts in real life for the work and its title to resonate so powerfully since it was first published, and as we read Atay now we can hardly remain blind to the disenfranchised, penalized, and arrested in contemporary Turkey.

Above I used the word "possession," and here it has a second important meaning. Everyone who has come into contact with Selim is haunted by him, and also wants to possess him. This is summarized by one member of the college cadre Selim and Turgut were part of when the topic of Selim's other friends comes up: "You went to the lady violinist's concert with this chap [a friend outside their group], didn't you? We would have embarrassed you, wouldn't we? We wouldn't have understood about B major . . . Only we here can be of any use to you." Turgut's encounters with other circles of friends eventually stop making him feel jealous or anxious. "We are not afraid any more . . . to hear what people have to say about Selim." When he reaches Anatolia, Selim's birthplace, he shares a cigarette with a peasant and thinks of his friend: "Was it to be your fate to be so alienated from one who makes his bread from the wheat sown by his own hands?" Fate, or social conditions, upbringing, poor spirits, tragedy; readers will arrive at their own judgments.

There is one last thing to mention about The Disconnected. The opening section, "The Beginning of the End," states the manuscript we are about to read was written by Turgut Özben and sent to an unnamed journalist (presumably Oğuz Atay) for publication. Then the "Publisher's Note" insists the events are "mere products of the imagination." This meta-device might seem to set the novel up as an extended joke, but, instead, amidst the humour The Disconnected is a mature consideration of grief's effects and a work that displays supple literary skill. We are fortunate to have it, finally, in English.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2017-2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018


Monday, April 16, 2018, 7 pm
American Swedish Institute, Larson Hall
2600 Park Avenue South, Minneapolis
This event is co-sponsored by Norway House

Rain Taxi invites you to meet internationally bestselling journalist and writer Åsne Seierstad, the acclaimed Norwegian journalist whose The Bookseller of Kabul was an international best-seller in the early 2000s, and whose most recent book, One of Us, was selected by the New York Times as one of their top ten of 2015. Seierstad will be discussing her brand new book Two Sisters: A Father, His Daughters, and Their Journey into the Syrian Jihad. In this riveting new work of literary reportage, Seierstad tells the story of two teenage Somali-Norwegian sisters who, in late 2013, left their family behind in Norway to join the Islamic State in Syria. Seierstad traces the sisters' journey, but she also tells their parents' story, as they attempt to bring the girls home and then struggle to accept that they may be gone forever. Books will be available for purchase. Don’t miss this chance to meet one of Norway’s pre-eminent writers of nonfiction!

This is a ticketed event. Advance tickets are $5 each and
can be purchased through this link:

Tickets are also available at the door—doors open at 6:30pm. All are welcome!

About the Book, Two Sisters:

Two Sisters, by the international bestselling author Åsne Seierstad, tells the unforgettable story of a family divided by faith.
Sadiq and Sara, Somali immigrants raising a family in Norway, one day discover that their teenage daughters Leila and Ayan have vanished—and are en route to Syria to aid the Islamic State. Seierstad’s riveting account traces the sisters’ journey from secular, social democratic Norway to the front lines of the war in Syria, and follows Sadiq’s harrowing attempt to find them.

Employing the same mastery of narrative suspense she brought to The Bookseller of Kabul and One of Us, Seierstad puts the problem of radicalization into painfully human terms, using instant messages and other primary sources to reconstruct a family’s crisis from the inside. Eventually, she takes us into the hellscape of the Syrian civil war, as Sadiq risks his life in pursuit of his daughters, refusing to let them disappear into the maelstrom—even after they marry ISIS fighters. Two Sisters is a relentless thriller and a feat of reporting with profound lessons about belief, extremism, and the meaning of devotion.

Åsne Seierstad decided to write Two Sisters after the girls’ father approached her about the idea. Sadiq was engaged in an effort to bring his daughters home, and to spread their story as widely as he could. (He also contacted filmmakers, who turned the story into a documentary, as well). As Seierstad writes in her author's note at the end of the book, Sadiq "was seeking better cooperation among parents, schools, mosques, and the police," and wanted to prevent this from happening to other families.

The first thing that Seierstad did was to interview the family. Sadiq and his wife Sara also gave Seierstad access to materials that their daughters left behind, as well as invited Seierstad into their home in Norway, and to Hargeisa in Somaliland. During the course of working on the book, Seierstad traveled with Sadiq to Hatay Province in Turkey, across the border from Syria. Sadiq and Sara read the finished manuscript before publication, and were given the opportunity to make corrections.

The result is a careful work of journalism that avoids heavy-handed moralizing or easy answers. It doesn’t pretend to tell a story that's representative of any one culture, but rather tries to document this single family's extraordinary story, and to shed some light on the recent history of ISIS, the experiences of immigrants in Europe, and the process of radicalization.

About the Author:

Åsne Seierstad is an award-winning Norwegian journalist and writer known for her work as a war correspondent. She is the author of One of Us: The Story of a Massacre in Norway—and Its Aftermath, The Bookseller of Kabul, One Hundred and One Days: A Baghdad Journal, Angel of Grozny: Orphans of a Forgotten War, and With Their Backs to the World: Portraits of Serbia. She lives in Oslo, Norway.

Praise for Seierstad’s previous book, One of Us (2015):

“A masterpiece of journalism . . . a brilliant, unforgettable book.” —Michael Schaub,

“The book attains an almost unbearable weight . . . From the opening pages it has an irresistible force.” —Eric Schlosser, The New York Times Book Review

“One of Us reads like a true crime novel, but it has the journalistic chops to back it up . . . Not only a stunning achievement in journalism, it’s a touchstone on how to write about tragedy with detail, honesty, and compassion.” —Samantha Edwards, The A.V. Club

“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t read the first half of One of Us with perpetually moist cheeks . . . If it is true, as Stephen Jay Gould contended, that ‘nothing matches the holiness and fascination of accurate and intricate detail,’ then Ms. Seierstad has delivered a holy volume indeed.” —Dwight Garner, The New York Times

“A brilliant if unrelenting piece of reportage, one that cements Seierstad as among the foremost journalists or our time.” —Oliver Poole, The Independent

“[One of Us is] a new In Cold Blood, an essential read.” —Heather Mallick, Toronto Star

We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy

Ta-Nehisi Coates
One World ($28)

by Chris Barsanti

Until recently, when the true desolation of the early Trump era has started metastasizing in even the most ardent optimist's heart, America had a script to use after a catastrophe. Whether a mass shooting, natural disaster, or police atrocity, each event was termed an opportunity for a "national dialogue" on guns, race, class, climate change, or what have you. Those conversations never happened because there was always another catastrophe, and in any case, the culture had mostly lost interest in the public intellectuals needed to push forward such a conversation. That changed, however, in 2014, when The Atlantic published one of the most talked-about pieces of writing in recent memory, Ta-Nehisi Coates's "The Case for Reparations." Suddenly, the country was having a conversation. And it wasn't an easy one.

When Coates published his first book, 2008's The Beautiful Struggle (Spiegel & Grau), there was no sign of the incisive political essayist he would become. A memoir about growing up in West Baltimore amidst the devastation of the crack wars and in the shadow of his ex-Black Panther father, it was lyrical and powerful, but primarily on a personal level. The larger issues that Coates would later tangle with remained largely on the sidelines. But that same year, Coates started writing for The Atlantic just as it was turning into the country's most important mainstream magazine of ideas. The results, captured in his new collection We Were Eight Years in Power, hit like a thunderclap reminder that white supremacy in America is a thing of the present, not the past.

Coates takes his title from a plaintive 1895 plea from Thomas Miller. One of the few black Representatives elected from the South after the Civil War, Miller was lamenting the painfully brief window of opportunity provided blacks in the old Confederacy before the anti-Reconstruction reactionary backlash. Coates mirrors that time frame with the eight years of the Obama presidency, tracking each year with a key Atlantic essay from that year and a running present-day commentary from Coates on himself during that year both professionally and personally. The result is not just a chronicle of the Obama years but the gestation period of a writer as he morphed from a popular blogger musing on politics, sports, and video games to perhaps America's most salient public intellectual.

The essays range from pinpoint to expansive. The First Year's "This is How We Lost to the White Man" is a portrait of both Bill Cosby's hectoring self-improvement speeches and a critique of bootstrapping harangues of black audiences dating back to Booker T. Washington. The Sixth Year's "The Case for Reparations" single-handedly reopened the previously taboo question of what America owes its black citizens for the centuries of pillage and pain. While Coates' voice develops and strengthens over the course of the book, the style remains much the same: lucid, curious, probing, and prone to a melancholic sense of tragedy. By always giving his essays a sturdy historical foundation, he keeps them from seeming like just a reaction to the newest outrage.

So even his most joyous piece, the Eighth Year's "My President Was Black"—a loose and celebratory take on the legacy of Obama, whose optimism Coates had often found unjustified—is shadowed by the institutionalized racism whose structure Coates spends much of the rest of the book tracing and explaining. The epilogue is "The First White President," an agonized exegesis of the white totalitarian assumptions at the core of the Trump presidency. On page after page, Coates fights the myopia over the "majestic tragedy" of American popular history, which so often ignores basic facts like how "racism was banditry . . . not incidental to America [but] essential to it."

It is too easy to call Coates the modern-day James Baldwin. Baldwin is the more consciously literary—Coates probably doesn't have a Giovanni's Room in him—while Coates hews to the style of a magazine writer looking for a punchy first line, like "Last summer, in Detroit's St. Paul Church of God in Christ, I watched Bill Cosby summon his inner Malcolm X" or "The first I saw Michelle Obama in the flesh, I almost took her for white." Still, Coates' second book, the meditative Between the World and Me (Spiegel & Grau, 2015), was inspired by The Fire Next Time, and both of their writings are oracular in tone and suspicious of easy solutions. When Coates writes that "there are no clean victories for black people, nor, perhaps, for any people," it's hard not to hear Baldwin's mournful moral urgency ringing through.

Coates might not be America's greatest writer. But right now, in the shadow of a resurgent white supremacy, he might be its most important.

Click here to purchase this book
at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2017-2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018

Silence: In the Age of Noise

Erling Kagge
Translated by Becky L. Crook
Pantheon ($20)

by Adrian Glass-Moore

Many of us live under constant attack by noise, a most insidious enemy since it passes itself off as a friend. We are likely to say "it's too quiet" whenever silence wins a brief (and it is always brief) victory over noise. Erling Kagge, a Norwegian adventurer, achieved extreme silence when, in 1993, he walked alone for fifty days in Antarctica to the South Pole. He purposefully discarded the batteries to his radio at the trip's outset, leaving him confidently devoid of any human contact for the duration.

"I was never bored or interrupted," Kagge writes of the experience in Silence: In the Age of Noise. "I was alone with my own thoughts and ideas. The future was no longer relevant. I paid no attention to the past. I was present in my own life." The book could just as aptly be titled Presence, which writer Fran Lebowitz argues persuasively is increasingly rare. If you are in the street and looking down at your phone, then you aren't in the street, she says—you're on your phone. It follows that had Kagge traversed Antarctica while tuned in to the radio, he would have been tuned in to the radio, not in Antarctica.

Thus, we can say that not only did Kagge travel to extreme places, he was there when he did so. This puts Kagge in a unique position to dispense information he gathered which we are unlikely to obtain on our own, since we are neither likely to visit such extreme places nor forego distractions while we are there. Whatever knowledge Kagge possesses he transfers largely by osmosis. He doesn't spell it out for us, opting instead to spread his ideas over thirty-two wide-ranging micro-essays, each no more than a few pages.

Silence is not only found in silence. Kagge found it on top of the Williamsburg Bridge, spanning the East River between Manhattan and Brooklyn, which he climbed with a fellow "urban explorer" in 2010. "I heard nothing," Kagge writes. "Below me, the traffic thundered past in four lanes, while the subway pounded rhythmically on its way in and out of the city centre. I was consumed by all that I saw and I shut out all the noise. You cannot wait for it to get quiet." Kagge also found silence, or presence, or beauty—whatever you want to call it—during a trudge through New York City's sewer system. Despite the "ceaseless noise," he writes, there was a "negative beauty—by virtue of all that is not present."

Kagge defines silence broadly as a state of mind, one that can be achieved without moving to Antarctica. But the fact is he did go to Antarctica. There is an urge within many of us to escape the physical din, not simply to tune it out. "It is not enough to withdraw from the mob, not enough to go to another place," wrote Michel de Montaigne. "It is our own self we have to isolate and take back into possession." Yet more than 400 years after Montaigne wrote that, physical displacement retains its allure, including for Kagge, who writes that he once "flew eighteen hours from Oslo to Sri Lanka in order to relax." Aware of the irony, Kagge can't help but report, "It was fabulous."

Click here to purchase this book
at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2017-2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018

Foolish Questions & Other Odd Observations: Early Comics 1909-1919

Rube Goldberg
Sunday Press ($35)

by Jeff Alford

Even before he was celebrated internationally for his zany inventions, Reuben Lucius Goldberg churned out cartoons like a machine. He built his comics around a simple premise, typically a recurring punchline or structural gimmick. His 1912 cartoon I'm The Guy features repeated wordplay, with characters who "put the ale in Yale" and the "con in congress." The 1914 strip Old Man Alf of the Alphabet turns familiar acronyms inside out: in one cartoon, a poker I.O.U. is explained to actually mean "I'm Often Untruthful." Some strips were riddles, with literary titles hidden in silly scenes: "Next station is Ferno," a train conductor announces in one puzzle, while two passengers muse about how a friend named "Bill Dante" lives in town. "What does this awful mess represent?" the cartoon asks.

Between 1907 and 1938, Goldberg created over 100 different cartoons, and while many of them were short-lived, a few proved to have substantial staying power due to their delicate balance of social satire and relatable humor. From 1909 to the mid-1930s, Goldberg penned a single-panel comic called Foolish Questions that repeats the same sarcastically screwball shtick with each new iteration. Every cartoon depicts a person in the middle of particular task, interrupted by an onlooker who asks, stupidly, if they're doing exactly what it looks like they're doing. The interlocutor, naturally, receives a snappy reply. "Feeding the cat, Lemuel?" a man asks, as another man tends to his feline. "No, you herring, I'm biting the horns off a goat." Some can be quite sassy: "Going to school, Sonny?" a man asks as schoolboy tromps by. "No you simp," he replies, "I'm on my way to an undertaking parlor to meet a bunch of live ones."

The formulaic nature of Foolish Questions allows little room for flourish, but Goldberg manages to capture the early 1900s in a vaudevillian shimmer and trades social niceties for some bite. In one cartoon, a major world event is brushed aside: "Oh, has the pole been discovered?" a man asks as another man reads the newspaper, its front page screaming reports of recent arctic exploration. "No, you rummy-this is an account of a dog fight in a frying pan."

Foolish Questions laid the groundwork for the machine drawings that would transform Goldberg into a household name. Goldberg realized through the strip that he could sink into a gag and let that machine run until its wheels fell off. His inventive chain reactions were absurdist, imaginative feats: one, for example, depicts a "Professor Butts" wearing his "Self-Operating Napkin," which connects his soup spoon to a headpiece carrying an alarm clock, a rocket, and an exotic bird, all of which would somehow lead to an automated face-wiping. By the 1920s, Goldberg was everywhere, from syndicated funny pages to progressive art magazines like Tristan Tzara's Dada. Today, his drawings and, more importantly, his influence, can be found in major art museums: much of Dada's mischief and the momentum of Futurism can be chained backwards to Goldberg's pen. Jean Tinguely's kinetic sculptures, for example, owe a mechanized tip of the hat to the cartoonist's pointed dreams of useless complexity.

Sunday Press's Foolish Questions & Other Odd Observations compiles over 250 of Goldberg's cartoons, including his complete Foolish Questions output for the Sunday Chicago Tribune from 1909-1910. To read them all in sequence is somewhere between mind-numbing, soothing, and positively transcendent. The book is beautifully produced, with the subtlest coloring that accentuates Goldberg's brilliant penstrokes and trailblazing lettering. But to have what is loosely the same joke repeated four times a page creates a bizarre new reading experience: the book's elegant presentation suggests there must be some way to unlock these gags and find some cohesive, metatextual glue between them all. Could there be repeated themes to the interchangeable variables of name, action, and put-down? Foolish Questions & Other Odd Observations feels like a riddle in itself, like there must be a code to crack their screwy simplicity.

In the end, we may not need to put the gold in Goldberg; these cartoons make as much sense as "playing auction pinochle with a musk ox", and that's perfectly alright. Left to their wacky inanity, they showcase a writer committing wholly to a simple goof, and that commitment alone boasts a marvelous sort of artistry. Perhaps it is because these gags do not transcend into something larger that makes them so special. While they may risk oversaturation and feel at times repetitive, they hold a remarkable mirror to the wonderful ridiculousness of daily life, reminding us that even when we have nothing to say we find a way to say it, day after day.

Click here to purchase this book
at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2017-2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018

from unincorporated territory [lukao]

Craig Santos Perez
Omnidawn ($17.95)

by Robyn Maree Pickens

Where a banyan tree is adventitious, with its branches and roots growing in a promiscuous tangle, from unincorporated territory [lukao] by Craig Santos Perez is ordered and carefully wrought. Beyond this initial comparison however, Perez deploys the banyan tree as both metaphor and symbol of two interrelated political pairings: colonisation/decolonisation and militarisation/demilitarisation. The book pivots on the tension between these two pairings, and on another dichotomy: birth/death.

Like the branches and roots of a banyan tree Perez constructs a dense weave of themes that are bolstered by formal (linguistic, stylistic, typographic) techniques, a method he recounts in "ginen understory (i tinituhon)":

i taotaomo'na : the spirits of before also dwell within the space
of i trunkun nunu : the giant banyan tree, whose aerial roots fall
from branches, intertwine, fuse, and root // as time passes, new
trunks form until a single tree becomes an archipelago

Perez rarely uses language for singular meaning: "archipelago," for example, refers to the Mariana Archipelago of Micronesia in the western Pacific, and to the project of Chamorro self-sovereignty. Chamorro are the indigenous people of Guåhan (Guam) and the Mariana Archipelago. (Perez is Chamorro but grew up in San Francisco from the age of fifteen; he currently teaches at the University of Hawai'i.) In the above passage, "i trunkun nunu : the giant banyan tree" symbolises the project of remaking Guåhan into a place where "i taotaomo'na : the spirits of before" can once again dwell. The proliferation of the banyan tree into an archipelago is a metaphor of Chamorro self-sovereignty. As such the project necessarily invokes colonisation/decolonisation, militarisation/demilitarisation, and birth/death.

from unincorporated territory [lukao] is anti-colonial, as the title makes clear. Guåhan is an unincorporated territory of the United States. This designation entitles Guamanians to American citizenship but not the right to vote. Their island is used primarily as a military base for the U.S army. It is from this colonised, militarised position that Perez situates his anti-colonial/anti-militarisation suite of work. from unincorporated territory [lukao] is preceded by 2008's from unincorporated territory [hacha], 2010's from unincorporated territory [saina], and 2014's from unincorporated territory [guma']. Each collection is a branch, an aerial root of a giant banyan tree on its way to becoming an archipelago of self-sovereignty.

[lukao] means procession, a thematic that enables Perez to encompass Chamorro creation stories of Guåhan's origins; reflections on the chain of nations who have colonised Guåhan (Spain, Japan, U.S); his own familial history; religious rites; and the birth of his daughter Kaikainali'i (addressed as "[neni]"). These themes are distributed throughout the four main sections of from unincorporated territory [lukao] under five titles (one of which has five subtitles). This distribution enables variant iterations and repetitions of words, phrases, and typographic strategies such as: double forward and backward slash (\\ //); square brackets ([you] refers to Brandy Nālani, Perez' wife); faded type (for extinct birds); strikethrough text (for banned Chamorro birthing practices); italicised text (English translation of Chamorro words); colon with a space on either side, as in "i trunkun nunu : the giant banyan tree" (perhaps to give equal weight to the two languages); ~~~ as separatory devices, and # to indicate both digital saturation and recent (and on-going) political movements such as #blacklivesmatter.

This list, although fairly comprehensive, shines only small shafts of light onto a dazzlingly complex architecture that supports intricate, multilingual, multi-register layers of meaning. The use of the double forward and backward slash at the beginning and end of phrases (in some poems), for example, is not a typographical conceit, but perhaps instantiates kåntan chamorrita, a Chamorro practice:

. . . \\ they stood in circles and chanted rhymed
verses back and forth // [we] call this communal poetic form
kåntan chamorrita (which translates as to sing both forwards and

There are many paths that sing forwards and backwards throughout this collection, but a good one to follow as it braids is lukao : procession. The first appearance of lukao occurs on the contents page with three untranslated Chamorro words held between tildes:

hånom håga' hånom

Although not a Chamorro speaker, I take the phrase to mean: water daughter water. Hånom : water occurs multiple times throughout the collection, and one close translation of håga' suggests daughter, which is fitting given that the birth of Perez' daughter Kaikainali'i is central to from unincorporated territory [lukao]. Kaikainali'i's imminent arrival is captured in the unspaced closing sequence from "ginen understory (i tinituhon)":


From birth, lukao leads the reader to Perez's grandmother, and the missionary strategy of the Spanish who colonised Guåhan in the mid-sixteenth century:

. . . // grandma lights votive candles,
dusts the wooden crucifix, and kisses her lisayu : rosary :
procession of prayers \\

This religious mandate and the impact it had on indigenous ritual practices is subsequently narrated in the second iteration of "ginen organic acts":

the spanish brought their god and bible, suppressed the story
of fu'una and puntan, and forbade the procession
to laso fu'a in humåtak bay

Fu'una is the first mother of Guåhan creation stories, and Puntan, the first father (Fu'una's brother). Laso fu'a names the creation point in Humåtak Bay where life began. The sacral procession to laso fu'a is made banal in the ersatz Liberation Day parade each July 21 when Guåhan "celebrates" their "liberation" from the Japanese by the Americans in 1944:

. . . The patriotic procession takes place on Marine
Corps Drive, our main highway

From civic banality, lukao cycles back to a recuperation and reconstitution of the original procession to the creation point in the third iteration of "ginen organic acts":

on that day in 2014, the cultural groups our
islands are sacred and hinasso* revived the lukao fuha, the annual
procession to humåtak bay in honour of fu'una and puntan \\
silenced for centuries //

{*the name of another group, which "translates as imagination, thought, memory, or reflection"}

In the fourth and final iteration of ginen organic acts, lukao returns to Perez's daughter Kaikainali'I ([neni]):


walks to her, opens her arms // grandma kisses her cheek,
breathes deep her baby scent \\ lukao between four generations

With the theme of lukao : procession, Perez weaves together the birth of Guåhan and his daughter, missionisation, religion, and the revival of ritual procession practices; through these manifestations Perez in turn encompasses Guåhan's historical and current colonisation and Chamorro resistance through reinvigorated ritual. The entire collection flourishes on this hinge of past and present: balancing loss with renewal, grief and anger with humor and touches of lyrical beauty. from unincorporated territory [lukao] holds the bitter (faded out calls of extinct birds) and the sweet (new life), as in the closing sequence from the fourth and last iteration of "ginen island of no birdsong":

i believe in the resurgence
of our bodies because
[we] are the seeds
ginen {from}* the last hayun lågu {native fire tree}
waiting to be rooted
into kantan chamorrita {to sing forwards and backwards},
waiting to be raised
once more into lukao {procession}

"kaaa-ah o asaina kaaa-ah o aniti"
"kshh-skshh-skshh-kroo-ee o asaina
kroo-ee kroo-ee o aniti"

{* = translation added}

Click here to purchase this book
at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2017-2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018

Attributed to the Harrow Painter

Nick Twemlow
University of Iowa Press ($18)

by Stephanie Burt

If you started writing, or reading, contemporary poetry in the 1990s, you may remember how disconnected from practical matters so many poets (mostly white ones) seemed; you may remember how many then—urgent questions about art and language and style spoke almost entirely (so it seemed then) to art and language and style. And if you've read what counted as contemporary poetry in the late 1960s, or the 1930s, you may already know what happens when once-detached poets get woke; how self-important, or shallow, the results can be. Poets write what they need to write, when they are acting as poets, whether or not it reacts to the news; poets, as Auden put it, seek "the clear expression of mixed feelings." Yet some of those feelings—especially in these rough times—can be "holy crap, I've been privileged! What have I missed?"; "Why do I keep writing poetry, when the world is on fire? Isn't it selfish, or pointless?" You may also ask (if you have kids) "How can my poems help my kids?"

All those feelings energize Nick Twemlow's disarming new book, Attributed to the Harrow Painter, which feels almost—but not quite—like a palinode, a taking back, of the more recondite, more evasive work that he and other members of his cohort were writing, and publishing, ten and fifteen years ago. It is, not by coincidence, also a book of autobiography, a book about parenthood (especially fatherhood), a book about realizing what you have inherited (like it or not); how you can inherit privilege and damage, shame and pride, at once; and what to do when you realize that your old conceptions of style no longer work for you.

For those questions, Twemlow has found a cadence that pursues disillusion, frustration, anticlimax, the sense that he and his past have let him down. He writes almost entirely in long demotic sentences broken up into choppy free verse, exactly right for flat questions like this: "Tell me / How your / Radical formalism / Saves lives / Exactly?" Or like this: "What do you need / To be reminded of your / Obsolescence? I can/ Go on, but do you need / Me to?" Such short lines, rich in anticlimax, dribble down the page for most of the book. What were the 1990s, for Twemlow? Answer: "We didn't just live / In a bubble, we built / The fucker breath by breath . . . We were students of something / Complicit / As two plugs of dirt."

Few poets so clearly committed, emotionally, to poetry have dwelt for so long on the dubious value of their own poetry, and Twemlow—whose poems do run long, like shaggy dog jokes—strives to convey the feeling that he is wasting his life: "These lyrics offer nothing, / Stolen & begged for, / They relieve / No one as they relive / The traumas . . . of my past, / Which I've grafted / Onto you." Twemlow sometimes prints the same kind of language as prose: "Why depict spiders skittering All over our dreams I didn't mean I didn't always Love my mother her Name is Robyn same As my wife." (No, Rain Taxi hasn't left out the virgules: that's how it looks in the book.) The Robyn who married Twemlow is Robyn Schiff, whose most recent book of poetry, A Woman of Property, pursues some of the questions that Twemlow asks—is poetry worth it? is art self-indulgent? what can we do for our kids, in these parlous years?—She and her husband have moved in opposite directions, he towards apparent mess and spontaneity, she towards the involuted and nearly Baroque.

Both address art history, too. The titular Harrow painter is one of those "people" art historians make up—nothing about him, beyond his work, is known. That work—ancient Greek vase paintings of beautiful boys—is regarded as minor, or inconsequential, as Twemlow fears or believes our poetry will be. "Classical Greece," like "civilization," like "poetry," promised a lot more than it can deliver now:

The great poem
Is chiseled rock.
The great poem
Rages with
White fire.
. . . . . . . . . . .
The great poem
Steals rolls
Of toilet paper
Every chance it gets.

"The great poem," we learn, might be no better, and no better for the young, than a tennis coach given to inappropriate touching: "I'm an artist, he told me." No wonder Twemlow's attention to visual art comes about almost reluctantly; there's more here about his teen and post-teen years, his smoke-filled hangouts with Kira, George, Andy, which might not be that different from poetry workshops, or urbane launch parties, with writers whose names you might know:

Poetry is super duper,
In a loop, say it with me.
I'm fine with all this
Pretend stuff
About how my friends are
My only real audience
Except didn't some of us
At least have slightly bigger

The word "slightly" hurts. So does Twemlow's admission, "Most of the poets / I've met felt ashamed": ashamed either of making their art merely personal (what the scholar Gillian White calls "lyric shame"), or of unrealistic, revolutionary vanguardist ambitions (radical critiques of capitalist language, comprehensible only to friends). They might be ashamed of their present lives, having settled in an English department rather than organizing Gulf Coast flood relief, and they might remain ashamed of their past, of the sexual trauma or class trauma or whatever trauma made them think creative writing would save them.

Attributed to the Harrow Painter talks back not just to White's idea of shame but to Ben Lerner's recent argument (in The Hatred of Poetry) that we look down on actual poems, and their authors, because no real poem can cash the checks that "poetry," that lofty concept, writes. Why does Twemlow use verse, if he's lost belief both in the old ambitions of verse (to be lyrical, to last forever, to save our souls) and in the new ones (to make us all modern, to attack cliché, to bring revolution)? One answer fits the kind of verse he chose: verse is the medium of introspection, of turning and turning back on oneself, of stopping yourself short as often as you go on. Twemlow's long poems (and they are long: "Burnett's Mound" lasts twenty-one pages) also partake of the offhand ongoingness familiar from book-length post-Beat works like Ariana Reines's Coeur de Leon and Bernadette Mayer's Midwinter Day: the verse fits not condensed conclusions but helpless impressions, reluctant notions, and unwanted, disorienting memories, as when Twemlow recalls being "So high coming / Back to [a high school] class one day, / Investing myself back into / My chair," and then, of course, laughing.

Is poetry just another fidget spinner, a way "To distract myself / From the need to / Distract myself"? Is there any point in "Conveying how just being / Just feels" when "My latest concern / Is our son"? Twemlow throws shade on the value of poetry, and and on the value of your time, if you keep reading him, but there is one source of value he never doubts: his and Schiff's son Sacha (named in the book). What kind of poetry can make the world more valuable, or safer, or more fun, for Sacha? If such a poetry exists, can Twemlow write it?

Maybe not—who knows?—but, having given up on older defenses of poetry, Twemlow can try. The title poem tells a sad, disturbing story, one whose ending I won't give up; the poem, and the story, ultimately suggest poetry, like the other arts, exists not because it can save us, but because some of us can't help but make it, and can't help but want it, or want more of it:

You read the wrong thing
At the wrong time
& poof! There it goes
All getting under your skin
For life!

Twemlow once worked reading commercial screenplays—anti-poetry, as it were; proposals for spectacles; he "learned to hate / Reading anything / That was for sale." Poetry might even sell—it might get you a job—but it's still a kind of resistance to practicality, to spectacle, to being told what to do, or doing what sells. So is toking up and skipping class, but poetry stays interesting for longer, at least when you're an adult. Poetry won't answer your scariest questions, but it can certainly help you ask them; poetry also—because it can be very short or very long; because its lines give writers a way to stop, or reverse, or restart, our sense of time; because it lets you listen to yourself—can help you address your own past; you might even find out what, if any, of your prior thoughts, of what you once thought you had to say, rings true.

Click here to purchase this book
at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2017-2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018

The World to Come

Jim Shepard
Vintage ($16)

by Ray Barker

1987's holiday film Planes, Trains, and Automobiles has nothing on Jim Shepard's recent short story collection, The World to Come. Nearly all manner of transport is explored: ship ("HMS Terror"), train ("Positive Train Control"), horse-and-buggy ("The World to Come"), and even hot air balloon ("The Ocean of Air"). Readers familiar with Shepard's previous short story collections would expect this; the title story from an earlier collection, Love and Hydrogen, depicts forbidden love aboard the doomed Hindenburg, after all. That story, and the majority of the ten here, are quintessential Shepard, mining historical events to illuminate human emotions.

As in his previous work, the primary sources Shepard consulted in the course of his research form the backbone of the bulk of his stories. (The list of those sources, offered in the books acknowledgments, could serve as its own experimental short story.) And as before, Shepard's tales are most effective when framed by a particular historical context. One can easily see this, for example, in The World to Come's opening story, "Safety Tips for Living Alone." In it, tragic and true events are filtered through the private lives of a handful of the husbands and wives affected by the collapse of a radar tower in Texas, 1961. The collapse of "Texas Tower no. 4 became one of the Air Force's most unlikely achievements and most lethal peacetime disasters, marooning nineteen wives including Ellie Phelan, Betty Bakke, Edna Kovarick, and Jeannette Laino in their own little stewpots of grief and recrimination." Shepard walks the reader through actual events with grace, offering both an instructive history lesson and a profound exploration of how regular lives are affected by national accidents.

Less successful is "Intimacy," an unintentionally ironic title as it is the least intimate story in the collection. Detailing the before, during, and after of a hurricane hitting sections of Australia, along with its devastating effects on three characters, the accumulation of details just pile up, with no broader significance. It almost reads like someone doing a sub-par imitation of Shepard.

When he's on, however, Shepard excels at creating authentic voices, regardless of the character. Journal entries form the narrative for "HMS Terror," where real-life Navy Captain and arctic explorer John Franklin's "lost expedition" is described by fictional crew member, Lieutenant Edward Little, from 1845 to 1848. As the unfortunate expedition progresses, the thoughtful entries slowly reveal a new tragedy each day:

Two more died in the night and when we set off in the morning two others, when it came time to pull, were unable to tighten their traces. We haul until everything goes black before our eyes. We sink to our chests in ponds of meltwater a quarter-mile across. My feet at days' end are yellow and wooden and swollen, and the toenails sugarcoat with frost while I inspect them. The soles have started to peel off.

As the horror unfolds (records indicate the crew eventually resorted to cannibalism to survive, at least temporarily), the narrator reflects on his still-felt romantic failures with a former classmate, and his personal failures are contrasted with the epic one. These entries, and Shepard's "historical fiction" in general, are not a dry telling of events, but rather evocative re-imaginings of a history that is told precisely and personally.

Click here to purchase this book
at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2017-2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018

The Clouds

Juan José Saer
Translated by Hilary Vaughn Dobel
Open Letter ($14.95)

by Erik Noonan

For the most part, contemporary fiction consists of dreams just about to come true, except that now and then a voice interrupts our slumber party, to invoke the tradition of Don Quixote and Lazarillo de Tormes. In this spirit, the anglophone reader who craves some profondeur in her divertissement will take pleasure in a new translation of The Clouds, a 1997 novel about madness in a millennial wasteland by Argentine author Juan José Saer (1937-2005).

His wife and sons having gone ahead to the seaside, Pinchón Garay, a Parisian academic from an unnamed city in the Southern Hemisphere, receives a disk from an old friend containing a transcription of an 1835 manuscript passed on to her by an archivist, and sits at his computer to read. The narrative relates a journey from Santa Fé to Buenos Aires, undertaken in August 1804 by a psychiatrist named Dr. Real, his guide Osuna, and five people who will become the inaugural cohort at Las Tres Acacias, an insane asylum soon to open at their destination: Prudencio Parra, who has gone mute and concentrates all his energy in a balled-up fist; Sister Teresita, a nun who has been reformed by the ladies of the evening she set out to reform; Troncoso, an aristocrat more at home in the company of the elemental forces of the universe than in society; Juan Verde, who crams everything he wants to say into the phrase Morning, noon, and night and never says anything else; and Juan's little brother, Verdecito, who expresses himself with every vocal sound imaginable except articulate speech. Beset by the terrible heat of the llano, the interpersonal dynamics of the group, their own maladies, and a gang of marauders led by the dreaded violinist-bandit Josesito, the little caravan makes its way to the closing pages of the story, whereupon the weather breaks, in the form of the clouds of the title, followed closely by a wildfire that lays the countryside to waste while the travelers take refuge in a lake until the blaze surrounds and passes them.

In this fiction, a doctor, the safeguard of the community's health, is the transmitter of civilization. The ruling passion of our narrator is bureaucratic—this is not an intrepid adventurer, but an efficient administrator—yet the chief pleasure of the book is Dr. Real's subtle commentary upon the action. Fearing public exposure as a psychiatric patient, Troncoso only ceases his antics when the doctor appears, while the latter remarks: "By revealing that connection to reality, he eased my concern, though only to an extent; experience has generally proven that, beneath that deceptive meekness, frenzy often grows impatient." When some local prostitutes adopt an adversarial stance toward the hypersexual Teresita, Real observes that "what the women took as an affront on the little nun's part, was, in a way, an homage she paid them." Reflecting on human behavior, Real reveals himself to be a naturalist: "A group of butterflies that all unmistakably perform the same motion at the same time puts our categories of individual and species to shame." In Saer's neoclassical prose, the simultaneity of the themes—life as a mere sojourn in the midst of transience, sanity as fortitude before dissolution, the cultivation of habit as the survival of culture—recapitulates the balance of the diction (epithets qualifying substantives) and the complexity of the syntax (subordinate clauses qualifying main ones), and this architectonics traces a line at the edge of barbarity, somewhat like the one that was thought to exist during the Enlightenment, but did not.

The trek of this crazy crew, a society in miniature, is an allegory for the transformations of a post-colonial, post-global Hispanosphere, gone astray in a wilderness of totalitarian regimes, corrupt democracies, and popular revolts, monsters born from the union of Evil and Reason. In Hilary Vaugn Dobel's excellent English version of the text, Juan José Saer visits us from an era that is like and unlike our own: "We were the effervescence of what lived," he writes, "things that vanish, in the very instant they arise, to that place we call the past, where no one ever goes," except sometimes in a novel.

Click here to purchase this book
at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2017-2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018