Author Archives: Kelly

The Endless Summer

Madame Nielsen
Translated by Gaye Kynoch
Open Letter ($14.95)

by Richard Henry

Danish artist Madame Nielsen is best known for her multiplicity. After declaring the death of her birth-identity in 2001, she produced work under multiple names (Anders Claudius West, Peter Hansen, etc.) before arriving at “Madame Nielsen,” an evolution accompanied by a switch from male to female pronouns. Nielsen, who identifies as multi-gendered, works in a number of different artistic zones, ranging from performance art and music (her latest album Mum and Dad has just been released) to acting and writing novels. Her 2014 novel Den endeløse sommer has now been translated into English as The Endless Summer.

While Nielsen’s creative work is often the site of identity issues, surprisingly few drive The Endless Summer as its multiple dramas unfold. At most are the introductory scenes playing off the opening line: "The young boy, who is perhaps a girl, but does not yet know it. The young boy, who is perhaps a girl, but will never touch a man, never strip naked with a man and rub skin against his skin, never ever, no matter how titillatingly repellant the notion might be.” So goes the young boy, "so fetching, so delicate," who sleeps platonically with his stepsister as a matter of love and comfort. Eventually, however, the non-sexual drifts into the sexual, a sexuality that is simply part of the landscape here, an ordinary exploration into the human experience: "the girl and the sensitive, slender boy, who across the years, and every time they return from each their travels and each their adventures with other, unfamiliar or far too proximate genders, have kept on meeting up and resuming something that is long since over."

Is The Endless Summer a love story? Perhaps. As the narrator says: "all this improbable but entirely credible love story is, like every story in this story, a story in itself, which must constantly be interrupted and then resumed until every story has reached its more or less tragic ending." This larger story, a story which must constantly be interrupted, focuses on a woman and a much younger man from Portugal; they find each other by chance and discover a kind of happiness amidst the swirl of summer. The woman is married, however, and her relationship with the Portuguese hitchhiker actually constitutes her second affair. The reader learns that the woman’s husband, saddened by his wife’s first affair and the overwhelming demands of running a large estate he has inherited, vanished in the night—all with barely a comment from the narrator. In the fallout from his disappearance, the nameless woman drifts and eventually takes up with the nameless Portuguese man. The woman’s children, including the unnamed step-siblings and “handsome Lars,” drift also. The course of the novel is nearly dream-like as the characters move about as if in a cloud, as if lost in Nielsen's prose.

Perhaps The Endless Summer is more an elegy—an elegy for the beautiful boy, whose death marks the end of summer. It is the beautiful boy, the handsome boy, Handsome Lars, the sensitive slender boy, the boy who sleeps with his stepsister (who might as well be his brother). And with the passing of Handsome Lars, not from "those three letters of the alphabet, or at least in the silence that follows them," but from a "cold [that] turns into pneumonia, but it's not pneumonia, the doctor says, it’s it,” summer has ended, all things are undone. The mother and her Portuguese lover part ways, and so forth and so on, as the drama unfolds from sentence to sentence.

The Endless Summer is a lush read, best done in a single sitting, for its prose is luxurious and tumbling. Indeed, what most drives the narrative is Nielsen's style, a style captured by translator Gaye Kynoch as she moves from "The young boy, who is perhaps a girl, but does not yet know it" to "through the Word, unto eternal life."

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018

Michael Ondaatje Broadside

This broadside, an excerpt from Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight, was printed by supersessionpress on the occasion of Ondaatje's appearance in the Rain Taxi Reading Series on May 21, 2018.

Limited edition letterpress broadside, Printed in black and brown inks on French Mod Tone paper, measures 11" x 15". Limited to 60 copies. Each copy is SIGNED by the author.

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


Black and Blur - Epistrophies

Black and Blur
consent not to be a single being

Fred Moten
Duke University Press ($27.95)

Jazz and the Literary Imagination

Brent Hayes Edwards
Harvard University Press ($35)

by Patrick James Dunagan

In a recent interview in The Brooklyn Rail, poet Fred Moten says this when describing the “blur” resisting “individuation” of an artwork: “Everything is going on. There is an enigmatic line I always wondered about that Coltrane has in the poem that he wrote to accompany the third part of A Love Supreme, something like, It all has to do with it.” Moten also recalls

reading this great essay by Baraka called “The Myth of a Negro Literature” where he’s actually saying, There is nothing in this literary tradition that approaches the music, in terms of its complexity and depth. This was a commonplace formulation that seemed empirically true though there’s a great new book by Brent Edwards called Epistrophies: Jazz and The Literary Imagination (Harvard, 2017) which calls that so-called empirical truth into severe question. Still, for many, the music is at the top.

Moten’s Black and Blur joins with Edwards’s Epistrophies in challenging this longstanding status music has consistently held as “the top” influence within the African American artistic tradition. Exploring and exposing how this idea becomes a limitation, both books engage in a push to broaden the status quo, contributing to an ongoing re-formation of critical considerations shaping the tradition. Where Edwards offers an academically astute critical reading of a vein running through a broad cross-section of jazz history at points where themes or motifs of “literature” intersect, Moten implodes the subject area, assessing the various influences on artists and thinkers across the board—musicians, poets, philosophers, dancers, visual artists, etc.—what all is in the stew from out of which emerges an ongoing, if previously submerged, tradition that Moten is now a part of.

Edwards, it should be noted, is “attempting to do something more than provide nuanced interpretations of the formal interrelations between jazz and literature.” While later chapters do consider where and how jazz is taken up by poets such as Nathaniel Mackey and Ed Roberson, and there is (not too surprisingly) a chapter on Sun Ra’s poetry and music, other chapters focus on Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Mary Lou Williams, Cecil Taylor, James Weldon Johnson, and Langston Hughes. The reach is broad. In many cases, Edwards dives into the archives of writings by these artists, including reproductions of manuscript pages and transcriptions, in order to push our traditional understanding of what constitutes the literary; in doing so he offers a fresh perspective on how writing itself embodies the physical experience.

For example, in regard to Johnson’s versification in God's Trombones : Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, Edwards finds a distinctive “technique of transferring the ‘swing’ from the vernacular performing black body into the formal ‘body’ of the poem. In its manipulations of line, measure, and punctuation, the poem itself begins to be sketched out as a ‘breathing,’ ‘syncopating’ body.” Edwards sees Langston Hughes as having extended this practice into a “true compositional strategy.” He also examines the “zoning” practices found in Mary Lou Williams’ music by way of looking over her daily note-keeping, and includes a fascinating consideration of her musical relationship to Cecil Taylor’s practice as evidenced by the pair’s live concert album Embraced.

Edwards closes his book by asking “shouldn’t a criticism so deeply engaged with the art of innovation itself be innovative?” This is an exciting proposal, but as engaging as Epistrophies is, it comes nowhere near the complete revisualization presented by Black and Blur of what a critical text might be and how it might operate. Moten’s poems are decidedly of the experimental sort, often with a prose appearance, yet his prose here is most definitely neither poetic nor recognizable as a standard academic text. It is most definitely a creative critical engagement.

Implicit in Moten’s work is the idea that there are no firm boundaries. European critical theory and classical music are as relevant to the discussion as is consideration of contemporary art. In other words, while the engagement is with “blackness,” the discussion is ever attending to the (artistic) endeavor itself:

Blackness, which is to say black femininity, which is to say black performance, will have turned out to be the name of the invaginative, the theatrical, the dissonant, the atonal, the atotal, the sentimental, the experimental, the criminal, the melodramatic, the ordinary. It is and bears an aesthetic of the trebled (troubled, doubled) seer’s voice disturbed by being seen and seeing up ahead where escape, crossing over, translation will have meant the continual reanimative giving—unto the very idea of freedom—of the material.

Firmly grounded by his experiential perspective as a black man, Moten’s work enacts a broadening redefinition of the formal constraints of criticism: “it is our task to make an alternative practice, not form an alternative identity.” Reworking the expected narrative of a critical text by embedding a “blackness” throughout that refutes assimilative forces.

Moten slings astute references to postmodern theory with the best of them, but is equally not to give a nod to a friend’s remark. Consideration of a musician leads to a riff on a personal remembrance of deep recognition felt with an artist’s work, back into a passage from one philosopher or another followed by a further riffing from this or that performance or exhibit. The whole is a swirl of relations bound together by Moten’s discernment and critical reading as he follows the flow of associations along. Moten’s writing more than welcomes that motto of Coltrane’s he mentions in the Rail interview cited above: “It all has to do with it.”

In the same interview, Moten acknowledges, “When I read Derrida the first time it wasn’t like I knew what was going on, it was just that I knew I wanted to read more. So I kept reading.” That sums up how readers might best approach Black and Blur: Be ready to be wowed; be ready to be challenged; most of all, be ready for the long haul. It is, apparently, the first in a planned trilogy. Moten is tracking his own course, and it’s fast-moving and spectacular.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018

Late Empire

Lisa Olstein
Copper Canyon Press ($16)

by Denyse Kirsch

In Late Empire, Lisa Olstein’s fourth poetry collection, the poet throws herself into a disturbing discussion about 21st-century realities, pinpointing, questioning, and exhorting. It’s a riveting picture of the micro, day-to-day busy-ness against the macro, overshadowing struggle of existential survival. “We bring the world to bed with us, / its weather, its moving maps, / and its wars.” The writing is inclusive; we are all in the same bunker, facing constant trauma. This is well portrayed in “Night People”:

we are all Malaysia Airlines
as we like to say, as we have learned
to say, as it somehow comforts us
to say. Tonight, this week, for as long as
we can bear it or until something
pulls us away we are all one hundred
and fifty-three Chinese nationals and
six Australians and three
Americans . . .

Structurally, the collection is divided into five sections, each written in a different form: sonnets, prose poems, poems written in tercets based on Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, and lyrical one-stanza poems that open and close the book. The atmosphere intensifies from section to section. A mystery figure, Whistle, enters the prose poems and becomes Olstein’s sounding board.

With repetition and short sharp sentences in the poem “The Disaster,” Olstein brings home the effect of round-the-clock reporting moving from catastrophe to catastrophe: “The disaster is not / our affair. The disaster takes care / of everything.” Additionally, Olstein is a master of poetic syntax. Her words paint fresh, beautiful images, as in “Glitter-spilled stars / velvet the gaze,” or “The foot / of the lake meets the mouth of the river.” Her sensitive lens focuses on our most basic dreams and fears: “Mark, what if / by chance I met my true love when I was / too young to know to keep him?”

Olstein also vents her frustration at our neglect of the earth. “Monday / it’s a report on the impossible future of bananas. Tuesday it’s / the story of limes held hostage by cartels. Both still appear / on our shelves, but we don’t know for how long.” “A Poetics of Space” deals with our connection with our surroundings, including the “intimate data” of shells and walnuts, garrets and rooms. Perhaps “I Want to Save This Whale” is the poet at her most ecologically passionate:

She’s tangled in nets and lines
and there’s only one way to
get her out, she tells us
with her bathtub-sized eyes
one at a time because we
have to swim around to see.

Lisa Olstein’s perceptive voice cuts through our “safe house” of complacency. She calls on us—and on the empire to which we belong—to take note of what’s going on before it’s too late.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018

Remembering the Magic Year:
An interview with Danny Goldberg

Interviewed by Rob Couteau

Danny Goldberg has been passionately involved in the music business ever since the late 1960s. At the age of nineteen, he reviewed the Woodstock Festival for Billboard and later wrote for publications such as Rolling Stone and the Village Voice. In 1980 he co-produced and co-directed No Nukes, a film documenting the 1979 “No Nukes” concert at Madison Square Garden. He has since held many posts in the music and entertainment fields: president of Atlantic Records, Chairman of Warner Bros. Records, and CEO of Air America Radio among them. In 1999 he created his own independent label, Artemis Records, and in 2007 he formed Gold Village Entertainment, an artist management company that he still presides over in New York. A devoted political advocate, he serves on the Board of Directors of The Nation Institute, The ACLU Foundation of Southern California, Americans for Peace Now, Brave New Films, and Public Citizen.

Goldberg is currently working on a memoir about his friendship with Kurt Cobain, the former lead singer of the band Nirvana, which he managed in the 1990s. In addition to his latest book In Search of the Lost Chord: 1967 and the Hippie Idea (Akashic Books, $25.95), he is also the author of Dispatches from the Culture Wars: How The Left Lost Teen Spirit (Miramax Books, 2003) and Bumping Into Geniuses: My Life Inside The Rock and Roll Business (Gotham Books, 2008). This interview was conducted in February of 2018.

Rob Couteau: While reading In Search of the Lost Chord, I began to wonder if the principle thread running through the counterculture movement is the theme of agape, or universal love: a term you use at various times.

Danny Goldberg: I don’t think there was just one counterculture going on. So, I’m not sure that all the members of the SDS, who were an important part of the fabric of the ’60s, would agree. It depends on how you define counterculture. Tom Hayden used the word “counterculture” to distinguish it from political radicalism. Others use it in a way that includes, in its purest sense, the “hippie idea,” and what Allen Ginsberg was talking about a lot of the time, and the Beatles with “All You Need is Love.” To me, agape was certainly the aspiration.

RC: If one broadens the definition of agape, one could say that the long-term goal, even for the SDS, was a concern beyond the personal self, yes?

DG: Yes, it was. That’s where there was commonality. The policy goals—to end the war, to have more economic egalitarianism, to end racism and sexism—were consistent with the spiritual values. But there were certain people who were rationalists, who were informed by Marx, and who didn’t believe in mysticism, but who had an ethical construct that was their guiding light. Again, the goals and issues that were prevalent in ’67—antiracism, antiwar—were consistent with that. Not everyone who was a radical liked mysticism, Allen Ginsberg, the Maharishi, or Donovan’s records, but everyone who was a hippie was against the war.

RC: You begin with a wonderfully nuanced account of the January ’67 Be-In. Was this the first collective expression of agape at that time?

DG: It was the biggest one until that time. There were smaller things happening all during ’66. In Haight-Ashbury there were concerts, and things in the park that were organized. But the Be-In increased the scale of that experience by a significant factor.

RC: Did it serve as an ideal template for what the counterculture represented and for what might be possible on a broader scale in the future?

DG: That was the hope. It was a moment in time. And then, dealing with the reality of the day after, or the week or month after, was a different set of conversations. There were also Be-Ins in New York and Los Angeles on Easter Sunday. And in between, I’m sure there were plenty of others in different parts of the country. I think that was the idea, that it could provide an example and prove the concept, at least for an afternoon.

RC: What you just said about the aftermath reminds me of what Joseph Campbell says in his Power of Myth series. Everyone remembers that he said “Follow your bliss,” but he also said we must follow our “blisters.”

DG: I didn’t remember that, but I’m definitely going to use it going forward. It’s a terrific modification.

RC: I thought of this when you wrote about the Be-In, or perhaps it was one of those other events, when Allen Ginsberg went on stage and said: Now we have to focus on our “litter karma.”

DG: Yes! That was the end of the Be-In, when he told everyone to clean up. To the extent that there was one person who was the closest thing to embodying a lot of what was best in that incoming culture, it was him. For me, the political hero was Dr. King, and the cultural hero was Allen Ginsberg. They’re human beings, they had imperfections, but they came the closest to being role models that I would retrospectively want to look up to.

RC: They were so different in terms of personal style, yet their hearts were focused upon the same thing. What did they represent for you?

DG: To me, King is on a pedestal of his own, a kind of American saint. I often listen to his speeches and sermons. The more time that goes by, the more I’m impressed by how extraordinary he was as a being. Not just his political effects, but also as a spiritual prophet. He talked so much about the soul and the inner world, and he made it come alive. He’s one of the great figures in Western history, and he happened to live at that time, and was part of the mix. In addition to how extraordinarily brilliant and morally grounded he was—and effective and tactically brilliant—he had such a difficult time with the people around him. It was not as if he got a lot of support. To go back, and to realize how many opponents he had in both the black and white community, makes his steadfastness even more remarkable. As far as we know, he never took psychedelics, but he didn’t have to. He was there. He talked about agape all the time. He would conduct sermons where he would say: The Greeks talked about three different kinds of love. This was part of his regular language. It’s just incredible that he lived; he’s one of the greatest Americans, right in the top five all-time greatest. But in the context of that period, a lot of people that I admired—the black power movement and the hippies—didn’t necessarily realize that. I, myself, as a kid, didn’t appreciate him as much as I do now. And he knew who his enemies were: J. Edgar Hoover, and all the mainstream civil rights groups, and the young radicals! And then, within the SCLC, there was complete infighting and chaos—all the time. It’s unbelievable that he stayed centered through all that; it’s saintly. There’s no other word for it.

In terms of Allen Ginsberg, he had just an unbelievable life. Certainly, along with On the Road, “Howl” is one of the two most important works of the Beatnik culture. And unlike Kerouac, Ginsberg continued to be relevant in every subsequent decade of his life. In the period of time that I write about he was particularly powerful culturally, because he was almost unique in his ability to be accepted and respected in all these different subcultures, which otherwise detested one another. The fact that everyone from Emmett Grogan to William F. Buckley accepted Allen Ginsberg is mind-blowing. As Whitman writes, he “contained multitudes.” Over Allen’s bed, in the last place he lived, was a picture of Whitman. It was the only picture over his bed; it wasn’t as if he had a zillion pictures. So, that was certainly his north star.

My favorite poem by Allen is “Wichita Vortex Sutra.” That, to me, is his quintessential ’60s poem. It’s a fully mature commentary on what was happening in America at that time. I recently wrote a review of the Ken Burns documentary of the Vietnam War, and I said: “If you want to know what was actually happening, you’re better off reading ‘Wichita Vortex Sutra.’”

RC: Is the broadening awareness that we possess today about narcissism connected to the blossoming of agape in the ‘60s, especially since love and empathy are the antidotes of narcissism?

DG: The way that it’s often used, “The ’60s” is a kind of shorthand for the different countercultural rebellions, because obviously there were plenty of other things happening at that time, too. In some instances, the ’60s helped to be an antidote of narcissism, but in others it reinforced narcissism. That’s the whole thing even about psychedelic experience. Ram Dass says that if you think everyone is God, you’re a saint, but if you think only you’re God, they put you in a lunatic asylum. So, there’s this balance. There were people who became more narcissistic; for example, the cult leaders, the ultimate being Charles Manson. But he was by no means the only one who developed this kind of cult of personality by wrapping himself in the ’60s and the psychedelic world. There were others who saw it as an antidote, and it drew them closer to egalitarianism or agape.

RC: As you chronicle in your book, psychedelics played an enormous role during this period. What insights did you gain from dropping acid, and how were you able to integrate them into your life?

DG: It imbued me with a kind of optimism that I didn’t have before. It was like being given permission to be happy: that it doesn’t mean that you’re intellectually unserious to have joy or happiness. My notion of what it was to be a smart person was based on whatever the intellectual influences were that I grew up around. The canon in my home was T.S. Eliot, Eugene O’Neill, J.D. Salinger, Bernard Malamud. It was all: “To be smart you had to be depressed and cynical” and people who were too happy must be stupid or not have depth. It’s like that scene in Annie Hall when Woody Allen—who I doubt ever took LSD—says: “Obviously, people who are happy are just stupid.” You know, that kind of “modernism.” And it really allowed me to just experience the joy of looking at a strawberry, or to just feel the moment. That was a big deal to me, because it was the closest thing to a spiritual experience I had at that point. It also opened the door to the idea that, even if I wasn’t attracted to the limited religious options that were presented to me while I was growing up, there was something bigger than just the external reality of what your grades were, how much money you made, what your résumé said, and all that sort of thing. This paradigm shift was greatly liberating; it allowed me to have a little more confidence for the rest of my life.

For me, it was particularly helpful because I was not a good student. According to my parents, I had a so-called high IQ, and I did well on the SATs. But today I’d probably be considered ADD. I had a hard time at homework. I never found teachers that “got” me. I was just this huge failure in my mind, at fourteen or fifteen, because I wasn’t getting good grades. So my parents, who thought they had this smart kid, were disappointed. They were very lovely people; I miss my parents. But I was pretty unhappy with their disappointment in me at that time, particularly my mother’s. The psychedelic experience gave me this other way of defining myself. And then it turned out that there were all these other people that were going through the same thing. And so, it was like, overnight, I’m part of a community. I’d never been a part of a community; I’d been a loner. Maybe I had one friend every year, or two at the most, and we didn’t even like each other that much, but we were all that we had. But then, suddenly, I was part of this community, where you just look down the street and feel connected with somebody. Psychedelics were part of that; it wasn’t only politics or all the other things. So I’m very grateful for that. But ultimately, I felt it was no longer useful. I went completely antidrug, personally. I was arrested before my eighteenth birthday, and I was so freaked out that I’d put myself in that position that I just stopped. I’m not saying that I never did drugs again, but I didn’t do it for a long, long time. In terms of psychedelics, I haven’t felt the calling to revisit it since my early twenties. But I’m very grateful for the role it played. It opened me up to the idea of spirituality in a way that nothing else in my life had, until that point.

RC: What was the connection between agape and LSD?

DG: For me, and for many of those who took LSD—not everybody, but certainly in my experience with it and with that of many others such as Allen Ginsberg, Tim Leary, and Richard Alpert—it triggered a consciousness of love. People would look at a glass and say, “God is in the glass; the molecules are all from the same energy,” and see this commonality. It’s similar to what Aldous Huxley wrote about, a decade earlier, regarding his mescaline experiences. It gave us a temporary experience of universal love; it was not permanent. And how people reacted when they came down varied. Not everybody had that experience; there were those who had bad experiences. But what made it so popular for a lot of us was this feeling of enormous love that wasn’t just transactional or romantic love but was love of the universe: of whatever was in front of you. That was something that a lot of us experienced, and it was what we loved about it.

RC: One of the charming things about your book is the evocative title, which is borrowed from a Moody Blues song. What’s the metaphoric significance of the “Lost Chord” for you, and what are the notes it comprises?

DG: The metaphor alludes to what you said earlier, which was that there was this period that’s largely been forgotten. It was before the cartoon version of the ’60s became the established narrative of most of the media. Before the assassinations, and some of the darkest aspects of it, there was this genuinely idealistic feeling. It was what I felt as a teenager; it’s what inspired me. Why it’s “Lost” is that the media and the cartoon version, with the co-option of many of the external symbols, replaced this feeling with a sort of plastic version of the ’60s. And it’s a “Chord” because it was a product of a lot of different things that, together, if you were a teenager at that time, you were experiencing.

I very much wrote the book based on what I, as a kid, was influenced by—there were many things going on that were equally important to other people. Even though it’s a history and not a memoir, it’s a history of things told through my eyes: of things I was inspired by. This includes the antiwar movement, civil rights, psychedelics, and music. It includes a general curiosity about non-Western spiritual paths and an openness to it. And it includes an empowerment of young people that was also temporary but which, in the moment, felt very exciting. It really did feel as if everything was changing for the better and that one could be part of it—even if you were sixteen, seventeen, or eighteen. This combination of things didn’t last. I would argue that, certainly, by the end of ’68, the balance of those notes was different. Again, we lost two of our great political leaders, Robert Kennedy and Dr. King. And Nixon gets elected by the end. And in general, the drugs got darker. There was more speed and heroin, and there were drug dealers instead of psychedelic missionaries. It didn’t disappear, but it changed by then. You know, it’s arbitrary; it wasn’t exactly the calendar dates. But the collection of things that happened in ’67 was a good stand-in for a collection of feelings that I remembered as creating hopefulness, an optimism that society might get better.

RC: You also take 1967 and hold it up as a sort of prism through which many other events in the ’60s are seen. And I think that writing a subjective history of the ’60s is in keeping with the spirit of the time.

DG: By definition, any history is subjective; I’m just being open about it. CNN’s history of the ‘60s is also highly subjective. Part of it was this beginning of decentralization, of people in small communities thinking that their opinions mattered. Their ideas about God, sexuality, psychedelics, spirituality: all these things mattered, as opposed to just being told what to do by the authorities. The results weren’t all good, but that was the nature of the time. Initially, the phrase “a gathering of the tribes” just meant the radicals and hippies. But there were hundreds of tribes, because everybody in every living room was a tribe at that point. When I did the publicity stuff for the book, people would come up to me, and everyone would have their own story, and they weren’t exactly the same stories. For some, it was seeing Jimi Hendrix; for others, it was joining a sit-in at a college president’s office or studying TM. For some people, drugs were a big part of it; for others, drugs weren’t a part of it at all. So it’s inherently a subjective experience. But it’s my version of it, and I think many others saw the same picture that I saw.

RC: Your book certainly brought back many memories of things both big and small. For example, you talk about Jung’s Introduction to the I Ching: as you say, that became a huge best seller at the time.

DG: Oh, my God, the I Ching was such a big deal for me in high school! Even decades later, I’d meet people who would say: “You turned me on to the I Ching,” or that I’d remember had turned me on to the I Ching. It represented a way of thinking about cosmic issues in a different perspective, without having to join a church or sign onto any set of behavioral agreements. And it was a way of honoring the idea that there was another consciousness that’s smarter than the conversations that we have in day-to-day life.

In retrospect, the fact that Jung wrote the Introduction was such a big deal, because he was validating it from his perspective. I’ve reread his Intro; it’s fantastic. I don’t know as much about Jung as I’d like to, but what I know about him is just so cool; he’s such an interesting figure. And obviously, the I Ching long predated the ’60s. As I say, the ideas and values of the ’60s were not original to that time; they’d been around for centuries. What was unique was that they became part of mass culture.

RC: When things reach an extreme point, sometimes they can turn into their opposite, which is the fundamental principal behind the changing hexagram lines in the I Ching. How much of what occurred was due to a counterpoint reaction to the repressive atmosphere of the ’50s?

DG: Tim Leary said that you could not understand the ’60s without understanding the ’50s. Certainly, Leary was a guy who very much felt that it was connected. Although the Beats emerged in the ’50s, they were an influence on a lot of ’60s people. The Grateful Dead bonded over their shared enthusiasm for Jack Kerouac. Ken Kesey, an important ’60s figure, had Neal Cassady on the bus. The civil rights movement took a huge leap forward in the ’50s with the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The roots of the Vietnam War were in the ‘50s: the reaction to the Korean War, the Cold War, and the first military advisors in Vietnam. There was the general mass culture in the ’50s, which was, to a lot of people, pretty shallow. There were only three television channels, and there was a fake, plastic notion of what families were like. It seemed as if one day that was reality, and the next day it was a joke. Somewhere in between there was Mad magazine making fun of this, and that set the stage for the joke side. You know, it’s a continuum. There isn’t anything in the ’60s that you can’t connect to something in the ’50s. In that one chapter in the book, I tried to give some context to this, so it wasn’t coming out of nowhere.

RC: Besides Dr. King, probably nobody did more to advance the cause of civil rights in the ’60s than Robert Kennedy, although that’s often ignored by mass media. What isn’t widely known is that RFK was not necessarily opposed to the intelligent use of LSD. During a Congressional probe on LSD experimentation by federal agencies, Senator Kennedy was quoted as saying: “I think we have given too much emphasis and so much attention to the fact that [LSD] can be dangerous and that it can hurt an individual who uses it . . . that perhaps to some extent we have lost sight of the fact that it can be very, very helpful in our society if used properly.”

DG: I wasn’t aware of that, and if I had been I certainly would have included it in the book! But I’m not surprised. I very much view Robert Kennedy as a ’60s character. The Jefferson Airplane, who’d never supported any other candidate that I know of, publicly supported him. And he met them and invited them to Hickory Hill.

RC: You say that Kennedy’s wife included a copy of the Airplane single “White Rabbit” in the jukebox at Hickory Hill.

DG: Yes. I spoke with Grace Slick, and she was very happy to talk about it. Her take was, “Look, we didn’t really know if they ever listened to ‘White Rabbit.’ There’s a very good chance that it was just done because they knew we were coming over, and they were using us as a way to get to the youth vote. But we were happy to be used by Robert Kennedy; who better?” You know, he wasn’t necessarily quoting the lyrics! [Laughs]. But, nonetheless, it’s true, and they were there. This showed a certain level of awareness of other parts of the culture that most senators didn’t have.

RC: You also describe how President Kennedy crossed picket lines to see the film Spartacus, which was scripted by the blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo. Would you agree that the Kennedys were, in many ways, well ahead of their time?

DG: Yes. I’m a fan of John Kennedy; I feel he’s been underrated by history. I mean, look, Chappaquiddick was a bad thing. And with John Kennedy, I’m sure the stories about his behavior with women are, to some extent, true. But as a political leader he’s really underrated when they do these ratings of the presidents. He was only in office for three years. But the fact that there was not a war over the Cuban Missile Crisis is such a monumental achievement, especially given that, from what I’ve read, the entire military wanted him to attack.

RC: The Joint Chiefs of Staff were encouraging him to launch a nuclear first-strike—but they didn’t realize there were over 160 ready-to-go nuclear warheads aimed at the United States from Cuba!

DG: Right. And on civil rights, he took steps, in terms of moral leadership, that Eisenhower was never willing to take. The Test Ban Treaty was also a big deal. No one knows what he would have done in Vietnam, but I believe he wouldn’t have done what Johnson did. After he died, his brothers were against the war. He had been to Vietnam as a young man; he knew that it was bullshit. And he’d already confronted the military; he wasn’t going to be pushed around by them. So, that’s what I choose to believe.

RC: The evidence leans heavily in favor of what you’re saying, because President Kennedy organized a major conference on the war that was held in Honolulu, shortly before he was killed, in order to lay the groundwork for pulling out of Vietnam. But again, that’s been suppressed by the media.

DG: Yes. There’s this whole revisionism of how great LBJ was. Look, he did some terrific things, largely because he had the legacy of the love for Kennedy and this wide margin of Democrats in both houses in Congress. He was a New Deal guy, and he wanted to do the right thing on those issues. But without John Kennedy, there is no Great Society. I think you’re right: Republicans in the right wing put a lot of energy into trying to tarnish Kennedy’s legacy, and they succeeded.

RC: Emmett Grogan and Peter Coyote, both members of the Diggers, took a malign view of the media’s effect on the counterculture, while Abbie Hoffman regarded it as a powerful tool to be exploited. Talk about the difference between the Diggers on the West Coast and the Yippies on the East Coast.

DG: The Yippies were influenced by the Diggers; there’s no question about that. Abbie Hoffman spent time with Emmett Grogan and Peter Coyote. A lot of the language, and the sense of theater, such as throwing money onto the Stock Exchange, was out of the Digger playbook of trying to create theatrical events in public that would illustrate a larger point. When I interviewed him for the book, Coyote was still complaining about it, even though he softened to the point of saying he did believe Abbie was a good person, and was compassionate, and trying to do the right thing. But he felt betrayed by the self-aggrandizement and the publicity-seeking ways of Abbie. The Diggers had this very austere, purist notion of what was righteous. They were obsessed with anonymity, they were obsessed with “everything should be free,” and they criticized almost everyone else who wasn’t a Digger. It’s hard to find anyone who was active in the counterculture that they had good things to say about, although initially they got along with the Black Panthers. The Panthers used the Digger’s mimeograph machine for the first issue of their newsletter.

Abbie hung out with the Diggers, but then he left them. They felt that, when he published Steal This Book, it contained a lot of their ideas but that he put his name and face on it. By all accounts, Emmett and Abbie hated each other. There are those who believe the Diggers were the real thing and the Yippies were posers, but I don’t agree. I respect the Diggers’ intellectual originality, courage, and commitment. They were on the cutting edge, particularly in the formation of the Haight-Ashbury community. But they also became bullies, and they were not open-minded about other people trying to work in different ways at the time. Abbie Hoffman was an egotist, and he did like attention, but he also had this sense of theatricality. His understanding of the media allowed me, as a teenager, to hear about these ideas. Thanks to his interest in McLuhan, and the media, and his commitment to communicating to the masses, Abbie reached people that the Diggers would never have reached. So, they both played their role, and neither of them was perfect.

In retrospect, I’m not a big fan of the protests at the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968. Although I could have gone, I had no interest in going. Ginsberg was against it, and Peter Coyote says that he also cautioned against it for reasons that are now clear. I do think that the Yippies meant well. But they got too intoxicated with their own drama to see how rapidly things were changing, and what the playing field was, and all that. I respect the Yippies, and I particularly respect Paul Krassner, who’s one of my favorite acquaintances, and who led an exemplary life. But again, I was more of a hippie, not a Yippie. I was always put off by the amount of anger that was in what they conveyed. Hoffman died tragically, and he had his issues, but he was an extremely positive force. They didn’t have any long-term vision, and they made some mistakes, but I think they were on the right side of things. But listen, Tom Hayden, coming from the nonpsychedelic, non-Digger influence of the left, was also there in Chicago. The Chicago Seven included Hayden and other SDS people. So, it’s not like the political radicals have more to be proud of.

RC: Was it a mistake to create this language of an “us” versus “them,” of “straights” versus “heads”? What’s the lesson to be learned from that today? I’m thinking of the politically correct jargon that’s alienated so many, on sides.

DG: Yes, this was one of the big mistakes. I certainly thought that way; I definitely wanted to know who was a “head” and who wasn’t. In those days “straight” meant not taking drugs; it didn’t have a sexual connotation. That there was “us” and “them,” and that they were “shallow”—that created resentment. Many felt left out of the party, and that helped fuel the divisions that we live with today, in this society. The language of many of those that I admired back then reinforced this idea: of dehumanizing what we called the Establishment.

Back then, to criticize civilization was morally correct, given the racism, materialism, and militarism. But to not recognize the good things about it was ridiculous. So yes, the “us” and “them” thing, the polarization, we contributed to it, those of us in the counterculture. Even the word “counterculture” says this. It contributed to the polarization, which led to the resentment of some of those that support Trump. I did an e-mail correspondence with Ram Dass about this, and his answers show that, clearly, he reached the same conclusion. He’s never shied away from thinking that LSD was a good thing, but he felt the polarization was counterproductive. And so, we have to try to heal the damage that was caused by this.

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Knowing Knott:
Essays on an American Poet

Edited by Steven Huff
Tiger Bark Press ($16.95)

by Cindra Halm

From the beginning, Bill Knott and his poems survived his life and his death. When a young Midwestern poet calling himself Saint Geraud (1940-1966) (a "virgin and a suicide," as described on the book jacket) came onto the scene in the mid-1960s, the literary community was startled, swept, prodded, even electrified/electrocuted by his stark, capacious voice—one that crafted intense, syllable-conscious, emotional truths of "sleep, death, desire." In an astonished tone, Paul Carroll writes a preemptive homage in his Foreword to The Naomi Poems: Corpse and Beans (Big Table, 1968): "Lyrical poets of this order speak all but exclusively of the business of the heart—its fetishes, obscure needs, nostalgias, angers, rituals, longings for oblivion, masks, miseries, and its splendors . . . This is that lyrical voice which speaks over centuries to all men and women regardless of culture or race or time."

Fast-forward to 2017, to a collection of essays in which both mortal writer and immortal words are parsed, contextualized, puzzled over, and elegized. Bill Knott, the earthly inhabitant of the otherworldly pseudonym, inspired, perplexed, maddened, and blessed those he touched in his seventy-four years as a complex, often acerbic personality; a brilliant, driven, self-deprecating poet; and a nurturing, exacting teacher. Knowing Knott: Essays on an American Poet, edited by Steven Huff, gathers fifteen friends, colleagues, students, writers, editors, publishers, and collectors, after his unexpected death of 2014, to try and make sense of their sometimes uncomfortable, always unconventional, relationships with Knott's dissatisfied body/mind/incarnation and deeply affecting art. What emerges is overarching acceptance and awe, even amid recountings of childhood traumas, social awkwardness, self-sabotaging & self-ostracizing behavior, and unusual generosities. Knott, whose impassioned, often irreverent poems and theater of personas created a loyal following in contemporary literature's post-confessional, Vietnam War-wracked surrealism, was loved by these intimates. The memorials function as spoken eulogies do for any eccentric, often dysfunctional family member: they don't spare difficult truths, but tender them with humor, with the speakers' own foibles, and with ballasting acts of beauty in order to render a full humanity.

One of the most consistent and common anecdotes among the essayists involves the wheres, whens, and hows of encountering Knott's poems for the first time, most often through the aforementioned debut, The Naomi Poems: Corpse and Beans (Big Table, 1968) or the same publisher's The Young American Poets (1969). If you are a Knott fan, you know these crisp lyrics and indelible, startling/stalking image-insights, so it's fun to read how others in the club became initiated. Paul Carroll's early praise and declaration of promise rise again in the voices here as well. One oft-cited, Zen-koan-like poem has traveled not only in the memories of Knott’s admirers but with the poet himself over the arc of his career and life/lives; part of it was placed, by poet and executor Robert Fanning, on his gravestone:


Going to sleep, I cross my hands on my chest.
They will place my hands like this.
It will look as though I am flying into myself.

Stephen Dobyns writes about Knott's famous wit and wrung out, carefully chosen language and affect: "He used puns and especially liked the pun on his name: ‘The way the world is not’ is the first and fourteenth line of a love poem . . . He liked the denial of not, liked the negative; he liked erasure and disappearance; he liked the contradiction of being not. As he wrote in a poem called ‘Poem:’ ‘Nothing has its own niche.’" This collection both honors the poet with his name-punning, and erases the erasure: "Knowing Knott" becomes "No-ing Not," and the double negative transmutes into a resounding and heartwarming affirmation, collectively summoned by his community and proclaimed on the cover for all.

The cover also features one of the poet’s unnamed paintings (a presumed self-portrait?)—a floating, bony face with glittering jewels for eyes that nonetheless drift slightly away from the viewer and seem to indicate the poignancies within both the face and the pages. That the collection gives us this as well as six paintings in the book's center is a gift that includes and extends Knott's imaginative gestures as well as the pathways for knowing them and knowing him.

Necessary and welcome are two women's perspectives. Star Black, long-time student, friend, collaborator (more of Knott's paintings appear in their Saturnalia 2010 poetry/art book, Velleity's Shade) and sometimes live-in partner, offers domestic life and work habit insights with a sense of traveling through various literal and figurative geographies:

Bill was easy-going and content at home when focused on his activities: writing and revising, ordering poems, printing poems, making his own paper or paintings or drawings or artist's books. He kept telling me, when teaching me how to assemble and to bind a hand-made book via Japanese stab-binding, a patterned sewing process using waxed thread, that making anything “is a thousand little details,” and that “tiny faults are part of it.” . . . We both had weird, hobbling flaws. He was, in many ways, more healthy than the distracted emptiness behind my drawn curtains of yin. He had energetic impatience.

Leigh Jajuga, a personal assistant and presumably the last friend to see him alive, writes, "There was a quiet understanding that we were not to discuss poetry together, despite his request for a student in the poetry department for help to organize his books and go to the store. I never questioned it, and in fact, it gave me a great ease to avoid these conversations. I didn't want to constantly feel myself measuring my intellect, going back over the conversations day-by-day, worrying that Bill had doubted my competence." Over time, as trust and friendship developed, Knott encouraged her to self-publish and start a small press, giving her his Mac laptop, refusing any money for it. These quieter reflections counterbalance many more strongly opinionated remarks about his work and career.

John Skoyles: “I miss Bill Knott. I foolishly thought he'd always be around—I think many of us did—because he had always been there to remind us of some folly taking place in the world of literary favor-trading and blatant careerism. Always there to heckle the poetry establishment with high wit and devastating humor."

Timothy Liu: "Bill Knott's genius has/had something to do with subversion, both in the way he wrote his poems and in the way he published them. Rather than play by the rules that were handed down by rote, he changed the game, raging against the dying of some primordial light, his inner orphan unwilling to kowtow to rampant cronyism run amok. He not only put his money where his mouth was, he also bit the hands that fed him, and in many ways, paid a heavy price. Idiot-savant outlier and/or cautionary tale for recent MFA grads? In my own incredulous eyes, he was a Trickster/Maverick sine qua non the likes of which I'd never seen before and haven't seen since."

Acquaintances will grieve and marvel alongside these faceted voices of anecdote. Aficionados of his work will sink more deeply into the man of masks behind the piercing images and ideas. Curious students of poetry will meet a deeply wounded human whose profound talents and inner convictions and compulsions carried him, ever lonely but reaching, battling the edges of private and public, into the literary canon.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018

Ryszard Krynicki:
Our Life Grows and Magnetic Point

Our Life Grows
Ryszard Krynicki
Translated by Alissa Valles
New York Review Books ($14.95)

Magnetic Point: Selected Poems 1968-2014
Ryszard Krynicki
Translated by Clare Cavanagh
New Directions ($18.95)

by John Bradley

Zbigniew Herbert, Czesław Miłosz, Tadeusz Różewicz, Wisława Szymborska, Adam Zagajewski. To the list of great Polish modern poets, another name must be added: Ryszard Krynicki. Two new publications of his work firmly establish his importance.

Krynicki was born in a Nazi labor camp near Vienna in 1943. He grew up in a Poland “poisoned and paralyzed by political repression, economic corruption, censorship of the press and the arts, and state-sponsored campaigns against Jews and intellectuals,” translator Alissa Valles tells us in the introduction to Our Life Grows. As a young poet, he was one of the leaders of the “Generation of ’68” or “New Wave” of Polish poets who dared to speak out against the official lies. His work was censored and eventually banned; for a time, his name could not appear in print in Poland. Our Life Grows was published in Paris in 1977; the present New York Review Books volume also includes And We Really Didn’t Know (Early Poems).

These early poems show a fearless poet boldly confronting official propaganda, “the manifold lie, that everything could be erased, / that you could forget it all / and pretend nothing had happened.” Krynicki’s dark humor often appears even in the early poems, as can be seen in passages concerning “Nikita / Kruschchev’s posthumous / state of health,” and observations such as “the longer the speeches lasted—the longer the bread lines / got.” Yet we see a striking concision in the later poems of Our Life Grows. Take “My Daughter Learns to Read,” here in its entirety:

My little daughter, faultless until now,
is learning to read and write
and only now does she begin to err

and I live my old errors of humanity
all over again.

Kyrnicki uses an oxymoron in his poem “My Beloved,” a phrase that describes his work well: “intimate distance.” This “intimate distance” allows him to feel great compassion for those manipulated by a repressive political system, and the anger to expose it: “human evil, / capable of everything, / prepared for anything, / is infinite, / and more inhuman / then we can possibly imagine.” Imagination harnessed as a tool of resistance serves as the main source of sustenance in these poems, as can be seen in “O,” a poem dealing with optimism, or at least the form offered by the government:

you speak through the O,
you spy through the O,
you listen in through the O,
you satisfy the intimate needs of the O,
falling asleep with a fat O in your mouth

Krysinski’s dark humor once again surfaces, his pessimism seen sprouting from the second letter of the word “optimism”—which generates, what else, "pessimism."

Magnetic Point, the New Directions volume, casts a wider net than Our Life Grows, as it includes poems from 1969 to 2014. In her informative introduction, translator Clare Cavanagh notes Krynicki’s “compression, mysticism, [and] wit.” To that list should be added his bittersweet empathy, as can be seen in the short poem “How to Write?”:

To write so that a hungry man
might think it's bread?

First feed the hungry man,
then write so that his hunger
won’t go in vain.

Here, in five lines, is the author’s ars poetica. Writing has an important role, Krynicki believes, but there is a more essential priority, and once this has been satisfied, poetry may well threaten those in power. “How to Write?” clearly reveals why Polish authorities during the Cold War feared and censored this poet.

The last book from which Magnetic Point selects poems is Haiku from Last Winter (2009-2010), and it comes as no surprise to see Krynicki, always a lover of concision, embrace haiku. Like Issa, Krynicki often takes note of insects:

In today’s mailbox
alongside ads and bills:
a shrinking spider.

Because both the NYRB and New Direction volumes offer translations from Our Life Grows, the reader often has a chance to compare versions of the same poem. Here’s the opening of the title poem as translated by Alissa Valles:

Our life grows like astonishment and dread
forgotten for a moment in a lover’s arms,
our life grows like a line for bread

Here are the same opening lines, as translated by Clare Cavanagh:

Our life grows like fear and panic,
our life grows like bread lines

The compression of the Cavanagh translation aptly suits Krynicki’s style, but it does leave the reader wondering about that second line in the Valles translation. Did Cavanagh drop it? Did Valles invent it? Elsewhere in the same poem, Cavanagh’s translation proves to contain more bite; where Valles offers “our life grows like a fruit and like hunger,” Cavanagh is blunter: “our life grows like a fetus, like famine.”

While Magnetic Point provides the better overview of Krynicki’s poetry, readers are fortunate to have both volumes of this poet, who speaks to our own time. It may sound odd to say this about a Cold War survivor, but consider this excerpt from “Truth?” with its questions many Americans are now asking:

What is the truth?
Where are its headquarters?
Where is its board of directors?
Where is its legal team?
Where are its bodyguards?
Where is its PR division?
Where is its marketing?
Who are its overseers?
Who handles follow-up?
Who are its media sponsors?

Don’t be surprised if one day soon Ryszard Krynicki joins Czesław Miłosz and Wisława Szymborska in winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.

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Mouths Don’t Speak

Katia D. Ulysse
Akashic Books ($15.95)

by Julia Stein

Katia D. Ulysse’s powerful first novel Mouths Don’t Speak explores suffering, both physical and emotional, and one woman’s search for closure. The Haitian protagonist Jacqueline lives in Baltimore and struggles with deep psychological wounds inflicted by her mother, who still lives in Port-au-Prince. The novel challenges stereotypes of Haiti—extreme poverty, unstable communities, etc.—by capturing the lives of its wealthier residents: Jacqueline’s parents, Annette and Paul, had two luxury department stores and were friends with the President, but Annette dumped their daughter in a U.S. boarding school, abandoning her for years. In the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, however, Jacqueline is driven by guilt and grief to travel back to the country she left as a child twenty-five years prior.

The novel’s title comes from Psalm 135; 15-18: “The idols of the nations are silver and gold, made by human hands. They have mouths, but cannot speak.” Ulysse criticizes those humans who gorge on silver and gold like Annette, while managing to capture another aspect of Haitian culture: its deep religiousness. As a young woman, Jacqueline found sanctuary in regularly attending church and drew inspiration from the pastor Sister Marsha, who vowed to be the loud voice “for those who can’t or are too scared to speak for themselves. Mouths don’t speak, they say, but I refuse to keep the secrets of evildoers!”

Ulysse creates strong, believable characters—starting with the callous Annette, who thinks her estate should be a fort protecting her from “democracy seekers.” Many characters have deep wounds: Annette’s husband Paul, crippled in the 2010 earthquake, is kind but ineffectual in his protests to his wife; Jeanette, an art teacher, mother, and wife, is still angry at how she was abandoned as a child; Jeanette’s husband Kevin has PTSD from fighting in U.S. wars. In Baltimore, Jacqueline suffers when watching the 2010 earthquake destruction from afar but then decides to study Haitian Creole as a way of reconnecting with the culture. At first she is shocked that her teacher Leyla is a blue-eyed, very blonde American, but soon learns that this blonde spent twenty years in Haiti doing research and also worked helping penniless rice farmers begin other businesses, saying, “How can you make a living when the country is littered with cheap rice from the good old US of A?” In Mouths Don’t Speak, what counts are one’s actions and words.

In the second half of the novel, Ulysse describes at-length how characters struggle to heal from their traumas. After the earthquake, Jacqueline finds healing through studying Creole and learning how to dance to vodou jazz—a loud, angry, and political music—while impoverished Haitians start a new bazaar with market stalls near her parents’ house. Annette and Paul have an estate full of fruit and breadfruit trees they rarely eat, but now the hungry poor “just slipped through the holes in the wall and harvested a few.” In one sense, the hero of the novel is really Annette and Paul’s groundskeeper Pachou, who has worked for Annette for sixty years; readers will cheer as he stands his ground and demands his rights. In this fascinating novel about Haitian life, Ulysse beautifully braids together the struggle for personal redemption with the struggle for dignity and human rights.

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Frankenstein in Baghdad

Ahmed Saadawi
Translated by Jonathan Wright
Penguin Books ($16)

by Matthew M. Pincus

Ahmed Saadawi’s new horror novel has the simple but timely premise of retelling Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in the context of Baghdad during the Iraq War. Hadi, a junk dealer who lives in a dilapidated building in the historic district of town, brings back body parts blown up by explosives, attaches them together, and brings the result to life through an unknown astrological magic. The monster, here called Whatsitsname, then goes missing from Hadi’s residence and starts killing.

Shelley’s original narrative is complicated by the fact that Baghdadi citizens are already in a constant state of terror before Hadi creates his monster. Multiple bombs go off in the city throughout the day (some explosions worse than others), and minor characters are steeped in Iraqi history. Hadi’s neighbor Elishva still waits for her son who went missing in the Iran-Iraq War; her other children who live in Melbourne wish her to leave but she stubbornly refuses, waiting for her son to return. Abu Anmar, the owner of the Orouba Hotel, moved from Northern Iraq. Aziz the Egyptian, who owns the coffee shop, is an expatriate who came to Baghdad for a better life. Colonel Brigadier Majid, head of the Tracking and Pursuit Department, is trying to stay alive as a loyalist of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime.

Saadawi’s village of characters all have their own stories and motives, but it is clear that the community is entrenched in stubborn fear and class inequality. Faraj the realtor wishes to buy as many properties in the Bataween district as possible to make a maximum profit. Ali Baher al-Saidi, the publisher of the magazine al-Haqiqa, is only interested in his own well-being and notoriety as an editor. Brigadier Majid hunts the Frankenstein monster not for the safety of the community, but for his own political desires to become a more powerful military figurehead.

When a journalist obtains recordings of the monster, we discover that the Whatsitsname, ironically, is the most eloquent individual in the entire novel. The monster’s belief in extrajudicial justice for murderers and war criminals in Iraq leads people to an insurgent movement complete with astrologers and magicians able to predict future explosions and the locations of enemies. The monster must continually replace his body parts with those he murders because they consistently melt and deteriorate in battle. By the end, Hadi is arrested for his crimes and Whatsitsname is left snuggling with the old lady’s cat in the junk dealer’s residence.

Americans are always at the periphery of this novel, whether as menacing soldiers, an army with impunity, or just those from whom there is consensus among Iraqis to stay away. Frankenstein in Baghdad answers the question, “Who or what is a terrorist?” with “That depends.” To all the citizens of Bataween, the monster Hadi creates is as frightening as any American soldier. More conspicuously, the city of Baghdad is a constant place of fear because a suicide bomber could come at any time to cause suffering, destruction, and mass tragedy.

The Whatitsname is a bodypolitik of Iraq from 2008-12, the by-product of sustained violence in a Middle Eastern urban cultural and social center. It shows that whether people live peacefully or violently, arguing over ideology, political affiliation, or racial and religious divisions, they always end up in the same layer of history. A national culture and historical memories collide and ferment to create the present social reality of the Bataween neighborhood.

Frankenstein in Baghdad is a rare novel for how simple its structure and tone are on the surface. Saadawi’s sentences are smooth, crisp, and McCarthy-esque; translator Jonathan Wright does an incredible job of bringing the haunting, brooding rhythm of the words to life. The war novel after Iraq is alive in America, and an Iraqi perspective here gives a shot of high voltage to a reanimated discussion.

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Blossoms and Blood

Mark SaFranko
Murder Slim Press ($12)

by Zack Kopp

The title of Mark SaFranko’s new installment of his fictional alter-ego Max Zajack’s biography comes from a snippet of Norwegian author Knut Hamsun’s Victoria: “all love’s ways are strewn with blossoms and blood.” SaFranko’s style is a distillation of that founded by Hamsun in the late nineteenth century and refined further, in America, through Nathanael West, Charles Bukowski, John Fante, and others—a style of individualized assertion coupled with an atavistic divination of the modern world.

Blossoms and Blood may be considered a prequel to SaFranko’s Hating Olivia (Harper Perennial, 2010), which detailed the adult Max’s torrid affair with its tempestuous title character. It displays a reverence in recounting the facts of the author’s early life in fictional form comparable to that of Charles Bukowski in Ham On Rye—a crucial difference being that while Hank Chinaski’s parents were, by turns, abusive or complicit in the author’s abuse by the world at large, Max Zajack‘s parents Bash and Jake are ecumenical in their accepting stance, simultaneously enabling yet delimiting his outlook with their cynicism:

The atmosphere at 810 Iowa had always been oppressive, but it had gotten even heavier. Whenever I could figure out how to escape, Frankie and I ran the streets. In fact, Bash and Jake took to calling me “the Runner”—among other things. . . . Bash always bitched about me and Jake warned me of the dangers of turning into a hoodlum, but they couldn’t force me to stay indoors all the time.

A “weird old bugger” named Knight “who wore a ski-cap and a flea-bitten winter coat even in the dog days of August” lives in Max’s neighborhood. Peering through this old man’s window one day, our kid comes face to face with a rat, and when Knight is found dead in his house later, Max imagines rats eating the corpse. The rats don’t keep him from returning for a clutch of flowers he spotted in the backyard, though, as they are perfect for giving to the girl he loves. Indeed, Young Zajack’s captivation by his classmate Astrid Perry, the “ice queen” with “cornflower blue eyes,” is this book’s engine. “Suddenly every single thing about her cut me like a wild razor,” he says; “. . . I couldn’t stop looking at her. Even her pink fingernails were painfully beautiful. Her school jumper was the luckiest thing in the world—it got to cling to her body.”

Max must reconcile these exciting new feelings with the dogmatic conditioning he’s simultaneously receiving from his Catholic education, the good-natured hard-heartedness of the tough guys he runs with, and the general stoicism of the house he lives in with his cynical parents, where things like love are never mentioned. As a result, Max’s mental arithmetic is essential, as opposed to mathematical, resulting in his heartfelt, inchoate vows made in passing Astrid’s residence becoming the stepping stones to his greater familiarity with the laws of reality:

Would I be invited into that house one day? Yes. No doubt about it. God would see to it. I’d prayed to Him, and He would answer my prayers.
I turned for home, full of confidence.
But nothing happened. Nothing whatsoever changed. . . . how could a person tell the difference between God’s indifference or his nonexistence? It seemed strange, even embarrassing and humiliating, to beg for someone’s attention anyway, but I couldn’t figure out an alternative.

In passages like this, treating existential considerations with nuts and bolts phrasing, SaFranko’s book displays great reverence for language without seeming self-aware, exemplifying that beautiful miracle of difficult simplicity too infrequently practiced these days. Notably, where others might recount their childhoods from an ostensibly wiser adult perspective, this child-protagonist stands on the verge of having made any such writerly decisions, being as yet concerned only with elemental basics such as competing for Astrid’s affection with other young hoods in his unnamed northeastern city:

His face was a blank, neither happy or sad. Having Astrid Perry fall for him apparently meant nothing to him, or next to nothing. Maybe he was a half-wit, a moron. Didn’t Astrid realize that Mike Vesuvius was nothing but a cipher, and that there was something singular about Max Zajack? Didn’t she see the rare mark of the genius on my forehead? I knew it was there. How could she have missed it?

Taking one’s life as the model for one’s literary art seems to be a dying art in American lit. SaFranko’s adherence to this venerable tradition has redirected him, in recent years, to the European market’s archivists of that Old Style Greatness—in this case, publication by the United Kingdom’s Murder Slim Press. Consequently, his work has received lesser exposure stateside, despite the fact that the New Jersey author got his start via an encomium from John Fante’s son Dan Fante (as detailed in the P.S. section of Hating Olivia). One can only hope that more of his fellow citizens come around to joining Europeans in thinking highly of this very talented writer.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018