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“A Certain Amount of Insanity”:
Tessa Hadley in conversation
with Curtis Sittenfeld

EDITOR’S NOTE: The evening of January 24, 2019 came with sub-zero temps in the Twin Cities, but that didn’t deter a dynamic crowd from attending Rain Taxi’s first literary event of the year: acclaimed British author Tessa Hadley in conversation with Minnesota’s own Curtis Sittenfeld, author of several works of fiction (most recently You Think It, I’ll Say It) and an avowed Hadley fan. The pair had a captivating chemistry, and offered attendees a lively discussion focused on Hadley's new novel, Late in the Day (Harper, $26.99)—though it also covers composition habits, novels vs. short stories, feminism in literature, and the teaching of writing, among other topics. The transcript below has been lightly edited for clarity.


Curtis Sittenfeld: I’m sure that there are some people in the room here who have read the book, or read the reviews—but in your own words, what do you feel this book is about?

Tessa Hadley: It’s about two marriages, I suppose. And about long marriages. Because it’s been dawning on me more and more—as my own marriage has lasted longer and longer— that if people stay together, marriages last for an extraordinarily time. My parents have been together for nearly sixty years. So we think that we’re hopeless now, with so many marriages ending in divorce, but the truth is that in the old days most marriages ended with a death, quite simply. So these decades of hanging on to one person, as they change, are something new. I use this metaphor in the book somewhere—it’s drawn from a folktale—where you grab your lover and you hold him and he holds you, while he metamorphizes. I think in the folktale the lover becomes a dragon and a lion, a strange beast: we recognize all of that in our husbands and partners, I’m sure. And they recognize it in us! So, that’s sort of where it began. Two couples though, not only one—because that’s so much more fun—and then I was thinking about doing wicked things with them, so that it isn’t always so A & B and C & D, but sometimes A & C, and B & D, and so on. And then I asked myself: what’s the biggest, most monstrous change I can inflict on these four, and it was to have one of them die. My original idea had been to run the novel chronologically. Always, first of all, my idea is to run an incredibly simple, narrative line—and then that often proves to be impossible. I felt that somehow it would be cheating the reader if my character died three-quarters of the way through. It would have been mean, it would’ve been a blow, and I’m not sure that the fabric of the novel would have taken it. So as soon as I thought that actually the nicest one of the four of them drops dead, I knew the book had to begin with that. And so it does.

CS: How many pages had you written before you realized that you had to start the story that way?

TH: None. This is all thinking in advance. I don’t know what you do, Curtis, but when I’m writing one novel I would always be kind of panicky if I didn’t have another one that I’m getting ready. Some of those getting-ready ones never come to anything. But I have to be getting ready.

CS: And is the getting-ready all just thinking, or are you taking notes?

TH: A few notes, but not very many.

CS: When you thought, I’m going to start another novel, did you have multiple getting-ready ideas to choose from?

TH: No, this was the one. I probably had ten pages of notes, and bits of the people. And I’d been thinking, Well, that could happen, and then that… That’s the really thrilling creative time with a story, isn’t it? Before you’ve committed yourself to any words, or made anything that you’re then going to have to deal with as part of the fabric. Because you are just dreaming freely: and actually, you have lots of your best thoughts during that time. Do you recognize what I’m describing?

CS: Oh yeah, I think that a lot of times you can sort of cure yourself of wanting to write a story or novel by starting it. And discovering the huge discrepancy between what you imagine the quality to be, and what it is. If you were thinking about marriage as being longer, did you do any research, in terms of talking to friends or reading about marriage?

TH: No. I mean, because we just live it. What would you find out, by researching? Other stuff, I feel more guilty about not doing any research on. As for that thing that I said about marriages lasting such a short time on average in the past, I do know that’s a fact, but I didn’t find that through research; I read a history book about it twenty years ago, which just fascinated me for its own sake

CS: Because you’ve written several story collections and novels: How do you know if an idea is for a story or a novel?

TH: Well, it seems to me a short story ought to just come to you all at once—you may of course have to work it out a bit, just push it a little. Sometimes you might walk around thinking rather deliberately: I really need to write another short story. But your mind has a way of drying up when you give it that instruction. The right story usually comes sweetly, without trying too hard. On the plane from Seattle today, I got the whole of two characters—two sisters. They just delivered themselves as I looked down out of the window. Now I just need a little something to happen to them. But my two sisters can’t make a novel, I just know it. I think that the ideas for novels are more like sweated labor, I have to work harder at those. Like deciding I could make one out of those two couples. Almost I’m thinking, when I’m preparing a novel: how can I make something people will want to read? What’s fun? Which sounds like an awful thing to say about a book that begins with a death, and has got a lot of sadness in it. But in the end it’s got to be for fun, because reading novels is for pleasure. And pleasure, of course, comes in strange ways, and it comes from sad things: but in the end your role is to entertain and charm and beguile.

CS: As a reader, I can say it’s very charming and very entertaining. Regarding short stories vs. novels, do you enjoy writing one more than the other? Or do you feel any pressure from your publisher? Certainly in the U.S., any commercial publisher, or mainstream publisher—as opposed to independent publisher—would dramatically prefer that their writers pick novels, because they are much more widely purchased.

TH: And that’s true even more so in the U.K., because at least here in the U.S. you have some wonderful outlets for short stories—we have none. Well, next to none. We have Granta, which is now full of Americans anyway.

CS: Sorry!

TH: You’re just too damn good at them! It’s really not fair. But otherwise . . . almost nothing.

CS: Is writing stories something that you do for your own pleasure and writing novels something you do because your publisher wants them?

TH: I like both. Probably if I were more commercially-minded, then I would be writing more novels.

CS: Back to this particular novel . . . is there a section that you want to read that either would intrigue us or that captures the essence of it?

TH: This book actually hasn’t come out in the U.K. yet, so reading from it is really new for me. I’ve just done three readings so far; I haven’t even got to know how it sounds yet. Already, though, I can see that it’s very tempting to read the beginning over and over, but I’d like a change from that. I’ve already hinted that Zachary drops dead in the book’s opening pages. I’m going to read you from the second day. Friends and family are in absolute meltdown and shock, and they’ve all gathered at Christine and Alex’s home. They’ve invited Zachary’s wife Lydia to stay with them, his brother is staying with them, his daughter is staying with their daughter. The family and a few intimate friends have eaten together—they’ve managed to eat something for the first time in 48 hours. They’ve said words, but it’s still catastrophe-time. Christine and Alex, are Lydia and Zachary’s best friends, and as the book goes on we drop back to see the four of them together in their twenties, and then in their thirties, and then in their forties—so that we see lots of Zachary alive in the rest of the book. I’m going to read from a section where Christine and Alex—Lydia is asleep, or lying awake downstairs—are going to bed together on the first real night they’ve had since their friend’s sudden death.

(reads passage)

Hmm, I read you a very dark part of the book.

CS: Well, I feel like we can be your test run. There are shifting viewpoints in the book; do you feel like you have a favorite character?

TH: I don’t know that I have a favorite character, but maybe there’s one that I found most congenial to write, and it’s probably Christine. In some way she was natural and easy for me. I think I’ve done more with her than I have with the other three. Which one did I like best? I don’t even know. When you know people as intensely as I knew them from writing them and watching and studying them, then those judgements of liking and not liking fall away, don’t they?

CS: I do think that the question of whether a character is likeable comes up much more often among reviewers and readers who are not writers themselves. Do you agree with that?

TH: Yes, definitely.

CS: With the forthcoming paperback of my short story collection, there are discussion questions for reading groups, and I ghost-wrote some of them. And I wrote one that said something like: Do you think that Curtis Sittenfeld’s aim is for her characters to be likeable? I couldn’t believe that the publisher let me get away with it, but they did.

So the character of Christine, she’s a painter. I try not to do this, but I find it irresistible—whenever there’s a character who has some sort of artistic pursuit, it seems like so often, the description of that artistic pursuit could describe writing or the act of writing. Does her painting feel like a stand-in for writing for you personally or generally?

TH: Yes, to some extent. I wanted her to have that thing, that creative work, at the centre of her life. There’s a passage just before what I read, where she first hears the news of the death and she goes downstairs and locks up her studio and thinks that this has been the place that’s most important to her. Nobody else necessarily knows that about her; it’s private. I kind of have some of those same feelings about my desk. But at the same time, when you’re writing a book about a visual artist, you feel a responsibility to make that art work quite different from the work a writer does—as realistic-feeling as you can. So she isn’t a writer and she’s not me. But I was interested in a woman who was more and more drawn into doing her work and loving it. I was imagining this lovely, happy, fulfilled work and then this personal catastrophe just sort of smashing across that, seeming to spoil it.

CS: But the painting did feel very persuasive as itself, and also in terms of what it gave her emotionally—that resonated so much for me, that it comes from her but it’s so surprising and so consuming. I’m interested in the way you write about women. I think that all of your characters are three dimensional and have these rich inner lives. Somehow that can get conflated with feminism. Do you feel that your work is making a comment on women’s shifting roles? Obviously some of your characters have lived—maybe they were born in the ’50s or a lot has changed during their lifetime. Is there a way of summarizing what you are trying to say or do you feel that they are their own story and it’s not an essay or bumper sticker?

TH: It’s not an essay or a bumper sticker, but feminism is so interesting. How could one not have it filling out the world of the characters that I describe? My fascination is with men and women and their relationships, and women’s relationships together—for that matter, men’s relationships together, which I don’t feel nearly as expert in, though I’m just as interested in it. It’s true, I think that women struggle with writing men alone together, without women, actually.

CS: That’s interesting to think about. Are you familiar with the Bechdel test?

TH: Yes, I often think of it. It’s where you must have a scene with women alone together, without men present, and where the women aren’t talking about men.

CS: And the women have to be named, right? It’s a movie test, which a shockingly high proportion of movies fail.

TH: I think that I was consciously aware of that. My women do quite a lot of talking about men, I’m afraid. Partly because I notice that that’s what women do actually do, especially when they’re younger. Perhaps they get less interested as time goes on. We come to have other things to talk about.

CS: Before we turn over to the audience, I want to ask a few questions about the arc of your career. If I’m not mistaken, you were forty-six when your first book was published; I was reading some interviews with you and something you said was: “I wouldn’t change having had that twenty years of no one listening to me.” And then during those years when you were writing but maybe had not yet been published, you said this about writing: “I couldn’t do it and I couldn’t not do it.” When did you start trying to be published and how do you think it affected your perspective or the work itself?

TH: I always wanted to be a writer. And I think one has to have—and I don’t know if you agree with this, Curtis—a certain amount of insanity, to do it. An insane perseverance, against all of the thwarting and the failure and the flatness and deadness on the page that you talked about, when you‘re striving with a false idea. Only in my case, there were several whole books that I wrote for two years each: writing sort of secretly, slightly ashamedly and furtively. To my lovely family and friends, how embarrassing to say: I’m writing a novel. And then the novels were really no good, and in my heart of hearts somewhere all the time I was working on them, I knew that. And I knew nothing about publishing. I usually just sent the finished book to one publisher —and when they sent back a form letter that says something like: we do not think you are suitable for our list, I would just think: “No, I know. The book was awful, you’re right, and I won’t try and do it again.” And then I would give up for awhile, until I was seized again by the insanity of feeling I had to have another try, start over. If I wanted to diagnose myself, I would say that I’m very impressionable and I’m easily in love with other writers’ work. I was trying to write other writers’ books. Some novelists begin so young with their own strong stamp, which is brilliant. That wasn’t how I was. So I tried to write other people’s books: and therefore there are some terrible wrong novels of mine rotting in landfill somewhere.

CS: How recently have you looked at any of those books?

TH: Oh they’re gone. They are really in landfill.

CS: Really?

TH: Yes.

CS: Because I feel like the fact that one publisher turned them down, doesn’t—

TH: No, but I knew. The books were awful.

CS: Did you have some breakthrough? Was it Accidents in the Home, the first one that was published, or . . . ?

TH: I went on a writing course. Like an MFA. I was very skeptical and scornful of courses. I thought, no writer I respect has ever been on a writing course. But I also thought, I must have a watershed, I must test this thing, because if I just carry on failing I’m going to have a very miserable life. So, I applied to study for a Creative Writing MA. And it’s true that nobody can teach you to write, nobody taught me to write. But something about having a real audience at last—instead of thinking vaguely I want to be Tolstoy, or J. M. Coetzee, or Nadine Gordimer, and writing for no one—that was crucial. Suddenly, I was writing for five people on Thursday, and—it sounds so banal, but I was asking myself: What would they like? What would be fun to read to them? It was as if I took control of my material, on my own terms, in some way. Also, there’s a degree of competitiveness. I would think, oh she was good last week. . . . I can do that better. Anyway it was a wonderful year, and I loved it.

CS: It was just one year?

TH: It was an MA, just one year. And the book I wrote that year was a hybrid, so it was actually all over the place, not a success in itself. But at last I was writing little passages which I knew were much better. And I was writing some short stories too—actually I still had no clear idea of how to write a novel, but I seemed to be able to get somewhere with the short stories. So I thought: what if I wrote a succession of short stories, about the same people, in chronological order? I had learned how to achieve that sprung tension that holds a short story together, makes something happen. Also, I learned how to be in control. I could think: make this better. Make something happen, twist things around at the end. Until then I had almost written as if I was reading the books I was writing, wondering what was going to happen next. That’s no good, is it? It’s your book, you’ve got to decide, you’ve got to make something happen. It’s up to you to take charge.

CS: If I’m not mistaken, you were pretty quickly teaching in the program where you had been a student. Are you still teaching there?

TH: I am, but I am going to retire. I’ve done it for about twenty one years now.

CS: And have you enjoyed the experience? None of us will tell, we’re far away from—

TH: I have loved it. When I first worked there, I was teaching literature rather than creative writing. I loved that. One of my thoughts, at the end of the MA - because I still hadn’t written anything that was right yet, although I was more hopeful—I thought: this is going to make me miserable if I go on failing, so let’s try doing the other thing that’s so much easier. Let’s teach literature. And I had a joyous time teaching undergraduates about all the books I loved.

CS: And then how long did you do that until you started teaching creative writing?

TH: For years I did both, and then I began cutting back the literature teaching, simply to have more time for my own writing.


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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2019 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2019

Empty Words

Mario Levrero
translated by Annie McDermott
Coffee House Press ($16.95)

by Adrian Glass-Moore

I’m writing this review by hand, something I rarely do. No matter how hard I try, I find it impossible to write legibly, let alone beautifully, and my handwriting has been this bad since at least high school. But if I’m to follow the example set by Mario Levrero, I should try my best not to get distracted from the task of handwriting.

Empty Words is the first novel to be translated into English by the Uruguayan author Levrero (1940-2004). Originally published in 1996, the book follows the attempts of the narrator (a stand-in for the author who, for the purposes of this review, I’ll call Levrero) to improve his handwriting through daily writing exercises. He hopes this “self-therapy” will help him improve in other areas of his scattered life, but when he sits down to his exercises, he can’t help but be distracted. Noise, heat, life responsibilities, family members, pets, and his own mind all conspire against him. He records these distractions, incorporating them into the exercises, although this results in a contradiction: without the distractions, Levrero would supposedly be happier, but the book would be less interesting. He writes: “If I want my handwriting to be good, I can only write about my handwriting, which becomes very monotonous. But writing only about my handwriting keeps my mind on what I’m doing and means I form the letters properly.”

Empty Words contains two threads: the handwriting exercises (complete with distractions) and what Levrero calls “The Discourse,” which has the stated aim of being about nothing. These two threads are interspersed throughout and every entry is dated. In the “Discourse,” Levrero believes writing about nothing will eventually reveal something authentic. “There’s a flow, a rhythm, a seemingly empty form; the discourse could end up addressing any topic or idea.” As with the writing exercises, the rules here are strictly limiting. Seen another way, they are freeing. By throwing off the burden of an idea, Levrero can follow his “Discourse” wherever it takes him. He quickly turns to his dog, Pongo, as subject matter. “It’s false content,” Levrero writes, “or perhaps semi-false, since, like all things, it could easily be seen as symbolic of other, deeper things.”

Levrero writes about gradually pushing open a gap in the fence so that Pongo could escape. When the dog returns from its disappearance with a bad eye injury, the author is overwhelmed with guilt. But what did he expect? Throughout the book, Levrero demonstrates a habit of falling into his own traps. It might be that Levrero focuses so much of the “Discourse” on the needy and neglected Pongo because he sees so much of himself in the dog. If he notices this parallel, he doesn’t say. The author admits to being afraid that the reader “who isn’t me would have already have found something of the true content of the discourse in these lines. . . . How humiliating to give myself away to the reader before I’ve given anything away to myself, blissfully unaware that anything’s been given away at all!”

When Levrero turns his attention to an impending move, his anxiety ratchets up, and when he moves into the new house and notices a nearby electric substation that won’t stop buzzing, he feels even worse. In response to this and other frustrations—including the demands of his nagging child Ignacio and his partner Alicia, who he thinks doesn’t understand his decision-making process—he retreats into his exercises: “Concentration. Relaxation. Focus on forming the letters and focus on your muscles.”

Given how unhappy he is with his surroundings, why doesn’t Levrero pack up and leave? Is he afraid of returning, like Pongo, with some injury inflicted by the outside world? “When you reach a certain age, you’re no longer the protagonist of your own actions: all you have left are the consequences of things you’ve already done,” he writes. “I can’t get free of the tangle of consequences, and there’s no point trying to be the protagonist of my own actions again, but what I can do is find my lost self among these new patterns and learn to live again, only differently.”

What I’ve written down is barely legible, especially the letters g and r. I wasn’t able to concentrate on forming the words because I was too distracted by the difference between Mario Levrero and the character Mario Levrero created of himself. On the bright side, there were no interruptions.


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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2019 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2019

The Popol Vuh

translated by Michael Bazzett
Milkweed Editions ($16)

by Maximilian Heinegg

The Popol Vuh, literally the “book of the woven mat,” is equal parts creation tale, hero’s journey, and genealogy of the K’iche’, the indigenous people of Guatemala. Named for where the K’iche’ would sit to hear the story recited by a tribal elder, the work informed the Mayan worldview before their confederacy of city-states fell to a combination of drought, disease, war, and exhausted natural resources. While original Maya script was logographic (the oldest kind of writing) and written in folded codices of fig bark, The Popol Vuh text was written down by K’iche’ elites around 1554-1558; it was probably transcribed from an oral performance in an effort to preserve their history from the destruction authorized by Spanish missionaries. In 1701-1703, Francisco Ximenez, a Dominican friar, copied the work and translated it into Spanish to help priests refute the K’iche’ religion, which he thought Satanic. Hundreds of years passed until the book began to receive attention in 1941, when Adrian Recinos discovered it in the Newberry Library in Chicago. Since then, The Popul Vuh has been translated into multiple languages, and is now considered a classic of world literature. Counter to his intent, Ximenez’s work ultimately gave Guatemala its national book, and preserved the mythological mind of the Maya that he worked to convert.

Michael Bazzett, a contemporary poet, improves upon previous translations of The Popul Vuh in regards to accessibility, fluidity, and lyricism. To illustrate, we can compare translations of the scene in which the Maya Hero Twins Hunahpú and Xbalanqué dance before tricking the Lords of Death into sacrificing themselves. First is Dennis Tedlock’s 1996 prose translation: “And then the hearts of the lords were filled with longing, with yearning for the dance of Hunahpu and Xbalanque.” Then, here is Allen Christensen’s 2007 “literal verse translation”:

Rejoice their hearts

One Death,
Seven Death.

Like these they dance
They sense it.

Finally, here is Bazzett’s rendering:

One Death and Seven Death
rejoiced in their hearts,
as if they’d done it themselves

as if they’d entered and felt
the pulse of the dance.

Using enjambment, modernizing the syntax, and taking liberties with the text, Bazzett gives us a more vividly imagined poem. Tedlock reads easily, Christensen is the most accurate, but Bazzett makes the Mesoamerican epic come alive, adding clever bits like starting the story’s ritual ballgame with the classic American phrase, “play ball.” Dividing the book’s columns of unlineated prose into four parts, he creates sensible divisions so the creation story bookends the monomyth. Adding chapters where Ximenez placed gaps in his translation, Bazzett gives the reader breaks. Using lines of tetrameter and trimeter, the narrative flows easily, a la “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Bazzett’s decision not to translate the second half of the epic, a tribal history of the K’iche,’ leaves us the most relatable parts of the epic, making it about the length of Beowulf (and one-fifth of the Odyssey).

Although the influence of Christianity is present, the book is not merely a hybrid. The gods speak the world into existence, but only to be worshipped. When the first versions of humanity are deemed a failure, a flood is sent that makes God’s judgment seem like a slap on the wrist. There is a forbidden tree in Xibalba (the underworld), but it has a severed head in it; there is forbidden fruit, but Lady Blood wants to taste it without being tricked; her godlike sons are conceived sexlessly from spittle, and they die so humanity can be (re)born, but they ritually sacrifice and reincarnate themselves to do it! Lady Blood (female sacrificial blood was used to conjure spirits) is like Mary and Eve, but she’s her own phenomenal woman. She’s from the underworld (her father is one of the Lords of Death), so when she becomes pregnant, she has to fake her own sacrificial death to leave, and her actions pave the way for the creation of humanity. So while the Christian elements are visible, the original can be detected readily in the Hero Twins: From their grandmother’s chili broth to their bird-killing blowguns, from Hunahpu’s beheading (by a bat!) to their apotheosis as the sun and moon, the pulse of the tale is Mayan.

With Bazzett’s translation, The Popul Vuh has been reincarnated—not in its original logographic form, nor in transliterated K’iche’, nor in the Spanish of Ximenez, but in a clear, elegant English that allows the reader to visualize the epic adventures of the Hero Twins and the universal story of human creation. It’s a boon for readers everywhere.


Click here to purchase this book
at your local independent bookstore
indiebound
Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2019 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2019

Zak Sally

Worship of Venus, Titian (defaced) 28" x 34" ink on manila board

Zak Sally is a cartoonist, printmaker, publisher, musician, and educator. He self-published his first comic zine on a photocopier at the age of thirteen.

Sally has been nominated for two Eisner awards for the third volume of his Recidivist series; a fourth volume was published in September 2014. He owns and operates his own award-winning micro-press concern, La Mano, for which he runs the risograph and offset presses.

Sally has designed and/or drawn record covers, posters, zines, illustrations, and comics on an international platform for over twenty years. He has also curated gallery exhibitions, served as the United States liaison to the PFC (an international experimental comics residency/think tank based in France), formed an experimental art school (Schoolhaus, with Dan Ibarra), and is one of the eight organizers/board members/ founders of AUTOPTIC, a bi-yearly festival of independent culture in Minneapolis.

His current ongoing project is Sammy the Mouse. He teaches at MCAD.

Volume 24, Number 2, Summer 2019 (#94)

Volume 24, Number 2, Summer 2019 (#94)

To purchase issue #94 using Paypal, click here.

INTERVIEWS

NANCY STOHLMAN: Clowns, Flash, and Lounge Metal | interviewed by Zack Kopp
ED PAVLIĆ: If the Dead Could Speak | interviewed by Ken Walker
MICHAEL JOYCE: The Telling Falls in the Full of Time | interviewed by Erin Lewenauer

FEATURES

Widely Unavailable: Northrop Frye Unbuttoned | by Richard Kostelanetz
Remembering Tony Hoagland | by Mike Schneider
Black Market Reads: Ross Gay | by Lissa Jones
The New Life | a comic by Gary Sullivan

PLUS:

Cover art by Zak Sally

NONFICTION REVIEWS

Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely | Andrew S. Curran | by John Toren
The Banished Immortal: A Life of Li Bai | Ha Jin | by Patrick James Dunagan
Tosh: Growing Up in Wallace Berman’s World | Tosh Berman | by Christopher Luna
Native Enough | Nina O’Leary | by Christina Schmid
Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport & Hugh Kenner | Edward M. Burns, ed. | by W. C. Bamberger
The Poem Electric: Technology and the American Lyric | Seth Perlow | by Christopher T. Funkhouser
An Informal History of the Hugos | Jo Walton | by Ryder W. Miller

FICTION REVIEWS

Passing | Nella Larsen | by David Wiley
Instructions For a Funeral | David Means | by Erin Lewenauer
If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi | Neel Patel | by Cindra Halm
A Student of History | Nina Revoyr | by Julia Stein
The Secret History of My Sojourn in Russia | Jaroslav Hašek
and Sentimental Tales | Mikhail Zoshchenko | by M. Kasper
Everything Under | Daisy Johnson | by Micah Winters
Coldwater Canyon | Anne-Marie Kinney | by Eric Aldrich

POETRY REVIEWS

Sight Lines | Arthur Sze | by M. Lock Swingen
Kill Class | Nomi Stone | by Jason Ericson
The Blue Clerk: Ars Poetica in 59 Versos | Dionne Brand | by John Bradley
Mitochondrial Night | Ed Bok Lee | by Jeremy Flick
Fake News Poems | Martin Ott | by Erik Noonan
A Memory of the Future | Elizabeth Spires | by Paula Colangelo
Suspension | Paige Riehl | by Denise Low
Waiting for the Wreck to Burn | Michele Battiste | by Denyse Kirsch

COMICS REVIEWS

R. Crumb’s Dream Diary | Robert Crumb | by Jeff Alford
The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth | Ken Krimstein | by Michael Workman

To purchase issue #94 using Paypal, click here.

Two Takes: Aviaries

Review by Jeff Alford     |       Review by Seth Rogoff

Aviaries
Zuzana Brabcová
translated by Tereza Novická
Twisted Spoon Press ($16)

reviewed by Jeff Alford

Composed like a twenty-first century flashback to Nikolai Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman,” Zuzana Brabcová’s excellent, final novel Aviaries is a surrealist collage of memories, anxieties, and fantasies. Loosely episodic, Aviaries follows the daily journals of a mother fading into obscurity: although full of unconditional love for both her daughter and aged mother, she feels too far removed from both generational poles to be an effective feminine force. She drifts through her past and through cut-up histories (both contemporary and long forgotten) in search of some kind of resonance amidst all the meaninglessness around her.

Brabcová’s prose rests comfortably, strangely, in between, caught somewhere in the middle of past and present, fantasy and reality, literature and poetry. Lines from psalms by Czech poet Ivan Diviš are scattered throughout the book, seamlessly integrated between blurry dream sequences. Aviaries repeatedly spirals out in madcap surreality, all while humming with a real-life relatable humility. In one scene, the narrator visits her psychiatrist, Dr. Gnuj (“Jung” in reverse), and while it’s easy to get unglued amidst the novel’s trippy waiting-room antics featuring talking masks and a lounge piano, the fantasies melt away as the narrator learns she could collect disability benefits on account of her being unfit to work.

Seemingly non-sequitur vignettes are riddled throughout Aviaries; as jarring as they are memorable, they expand the book’s themes of interstitiality. In one, Brabcová recounts a “fatal printing error” in which “Gennady Musatov’s illustrations to Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov went astray and ended up in the Czech edition of In Search of Lost Time.” In a later diary entry, the narrator explains “while the contours of some memories were preserved and stayed intact, others collapsed and blended together.” In a digression about Rorschach tests, “even memory is just a play of colors and shapes behind eyelids shut in a desire for non-existence.” These moments transform the novel into something larger than simply an experimental work about memory and surrealism; Brabcová circles around a metaphysical, inescapable transition, when a person’s presence and influence dissipates into another’s remembrance.

The relationship between the narrator and her daughter, a dumpster-diving punk named Alice, provides some clues. In another drifting memory, “this was an image of you, Alice,” she recalls. “You’re already dissolving, receding, changing, thinning, waning into the distance, and yet it’s as if someone has burned the image into the back of my brain.” By the end of the novel, she finds a way to untangle Jung: Brabcová includes a passage directly from the psychoanalyst, which details his understanding of the female archetype and her spirit (which he calls the “Kore”):

The psyche pre-existent to consciousness (e.g., in a child) participates in the maternal pysche on the one hand, while on the other it reaches across to the daughter psyche. We could therefore say that every mother contains her daughter in herself and every daughter her mother, and that every woman extends backwards into her mother and forwards into her daughter.

The fractured, psychologically prismatic Aviaries could be considered a diagram of a mother’s brain. Despite its nightmarish hallucinations, talking animals, hidden traumas, and journal entries with dates like “the Fifty-first of Marchember, 2851,” Aviaries, above all, is about motherhood in flux. Brabcová hides a devastating layer at the novel’s core about mothers continuing to live through the lives of their daughters, and shows the struggle of one mother coming to realize the increasing importance of her memories and the woman she was, and how these past moments may overshadow any further potential left in her life.


Aviaries
Zuzana Brabcová
translated by Tereza Novická
Twisted Spoon Press ($16)

reviewed by Seth Rogoff

Aviaries begins in the days after the death in 2011 of the political dissident, playwright, and first post-communist Czech President Václav Havel. Soon after Havel’s passing, the novel’s narrator Běta, opens up a comments stream under an online article about him and finds the post, “Hope he’s rotting in hell.” She reflects, “In the murk of scum, in the silent and holy night, revulsion stirred.”

Havel’s loss sets the stage for this bewildering book. If Havel represents the triumph of good over evil, hope for a better future, and humanism winning out against totalitarianism, his death symbolizes the vanishing belief in the promise of a euphoric post-totalitarian era. More than that, Havel’s death seems to have awoken powerful social forces made up of people who never believed in the causes he represented. In Aviaries, the crashing down of this grandest of national myths splinters into a fragmentary narrative amid a surreal and bleak urban landscape—one that feels horrifying true. Post-Havel Prague, in Brabcová’s vivid imagination, is a world of fetishistic materialism, neoliberal social disaster, sickness, and death. An uneasy refrain echoes through the book’s pages, setting the novel’s mood: “Something is happening. Something’s in the air. Something isn’t right.”

Aviaries is structured as a collection of textual fragments written or curated by Běta, a woman in her mid-fifties. Běta has been out of work for over a year when the novel opens. Her daughter Alice has left Prague for the south of Spain, where she has embraced an anti-materialist lifestyle and the practice of dumpster diving. In addition to being poor, Běta also suffers from mental illness, and parts of the narrative flow through her visits to the psychiatrist Doctor Gnuj. Together, the breakdowns of her family structure and health push Běta to the social margins, isolating her socially and economically. This alienation sharpens her ability to observe the details of everyday life among other specters of the metropolitan periphery—the poor, the homeless, the addicts, the chronically insane. The process of untethering from the “normal” opens up Běta to a kind of truer vision of the world, despite the vision’s temporally chaotic, fantastical quality. This irony—the imaginative and surreal as truer than the real—is reflected in an interaction between Běta and Doctor Gnuj, when the psychiatrist tells her: “Your inner world is like that basement lair of yours. Kick down the doors, file through the bars! Do you even notice the world around you?” Běta responds, “I do. Don’t you worry. I know well enough what the world around me lives for: the season of wine tastings and exhibitions of corpses.”

Two relationship triads provide a modicum of structure to the book. The first and most significant triad is that between Běta, her aged mother, and her errant daughter Alice. More than any other element, this generational dynamic creates a temporal rhythm in Aviaries, blending past and present, gesturing toward the future: “One minute Alice is bouncing around in the blueberries, she’s two years old, the next she’s barely hobbling along, an old woman she is yet to become.” Or this startling line, after Běta witnesses a girl wearing a Microsoft T-shirt, a junkie, “writhing and undulating” against the “piss-soaked wall” of a bus stop, “long past due for the morgue.” Běta tells her daughter, “In another time and place this was an image of you, Alice. You’re already dissolving, receding, changing, thinning, waning into the distance.” Brabcová deploys the figure of the snake, with its Jungian overtones of both creativity/fertility and destruction/death/danger, to hold this triad in a quivering relational field:

I’m coming back home, down the hallway by the basement stalls. . . . Above my head, the lights turn on automatically, one by one. I suddenly spot a snake edging toward me across the concrete floor. It goes still. I go still. It raises its head, flat and speckled. We watch each other warily, a barely audible hiss from the light bulbs.

The second relational triad connects Běta with the homeless lunatic Melda and to the girl in the Microsoft T-shirt, who eventually comes to squat in the “ruin” across the street from her apartment. Melda seems to be Běta’s playful double. With Melda, Běta slips into a parallel mode of existence in which mundane scenes of poverty and degradation transform into a realm unbound by the straightjacket of realism. A trip to the supermarket, for example, ends with the following: “But the Harpies at the checkout counters, half-women and half-bird, those goddesses of storm winds, let us pass through without a fuss, as though we were two transparent fly wings passing them, the crackling wing-cases of nothingness.” If the symbol of the generational triad is the snake, that of the lunatic triad is the caged bird; after Melda’s disappearance from the basement, Běta runs into him while in IKEA with her sister, and finds him “completely plastered with black feathers like a raven puppet.” She asks where he lives now:

He stayed silent for an unusually long time. . . .
“It’s a secret, but I’ll tell you . . . Every day I wait here till nine when IKEA closes. Then I hide in one of the storage spaces in the bedroom department, and I come out when the coast is clear and it’s all empty and quiet. At night I wander around a quiet IKEA that belongs to me alone.”

The bleaker version of Melda’s absurd capitalistic aviary is the cage of the girl with the Microsoft T-shirt. She has come to occupy the dilapidated building across the street, and appears in the space just as Melda vanishes—Melda’s creative lunacy morphing into a dismal, hopeless, self-destructive madness. Běta describes the scene when she offers the girl a bread roll: “She snatched it out of my hand and bit into it greedily. I looked around: no guts, no lungs, no liver—just a layer of plaster on a cement floor, just boarded-up windows, just a layer of plaster on the girl’s sores, just her eyes boarded up.”

Aviaries is an unsettling, provocative novel that gets richer with each successive reading—and it demands and inspires multiple readings. Tereza Novická’s translation sparkles, moving fluidly across Brabcová’s intricate assemblage, and the novel’s haunting refrain seems perfect, a mantra for our age: “Something is happening. Something’s in the air. Something isn’t right.”

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Wild Milk

Sabrina Orah Mark
Dorothy, a publishing project ($16)

by Rachel Hill

It is difficult to know how to define what scuttles, mutters, and lactates across the pages of poet Sabrina Orah Mark’s newest collection Wild Milk. Are these bewildering fables? Mumbling poems? Truncated shorts? Whatever they are, one thing is clear: They are excellent.

Surreal and experimental, it is no surprise that Wild Milk is released by Dorothy, a publishing project, a small press established by Danielle Dutton specializing in literary fiction by women. Among Dorothy’s other titles is The Collected Stories (2017) of surrealist artist Leonora Carrington, a writer of bizarre fairy-horrors which has clearly influenced Mark’s work.

The collection’s title story, “Wild Milk,” handily encompasses many of the book’s consistent themes of motherhood, anxiety, and the limits of language, as expressed through a glitchy dialogue and veers into the unexpected. The protagonist, a nameless mother, leaves her child in the daycare of Miss Birdy. Later, discussions about this child’s behaviour quickly devolve into musings on ephemerality: “‘It was a sound that sounded like a sound,’ says Miss Birdy. ‘Like a sound a sound would make.’” Mark’s chanting words use absurd tautologies to breed half-glimpsed new meaning and musicality, imbuing the concept of sound with an almost creaturely agency.

“Tweet” also mobilizes repetition and the absurd, to illustrate how perception is put through the daily meat-mincer of social media. In a frenzy, we are told, “The towel is tagged. We take turns touching the tag. God, it is lovely. It is a lovely, lovely tag. That we should all one day be tagged by a tag as lovely as this tag.” With the relentlessness of an out-of-control conga line, “Tweet” excellently captures a culture of constant distraction, where the glitter of temporary stimulation runs concurrently with the news cycle’s breakneck speed. Rather than mothers, here we are all rendered children, breathing only through the oxygen of attention. To extract oneself from this digital twittering milieu is to become exposed, left leaderless and asking, “Who will keep us warm? How am I supposed to know where to go?”

Lack of substantial leadership is elegantly addressed in the post-apocalyptic “For the Safety of Our Country.” It begins with a list: “Today is a new batch. The Presidents come from all over. Perishable Presidents in thinning sweaters. Presidents bent like moons.” So the Presidents arrive at the White House, disembarking from a school bus like a band of unruly children. Set against a background of environmental collapse, where “it might have rained had rain not ended,” the world the Presidents should save and protect instead becomes a source of extreme discombobulation for them. With its sense of metaphysical grief and inured disappointment, this story demonstrates how necessary Samuel Beckett and the theatre of the absurd are for Mark’s work.

On the whole, these stories have the saturnine gorgeousness of a lepidopterist’s collection—each story a different breed, each sentence a different wing-facet, each word another enticement. Mark’s work crystallizes how the absurd is not only a reasonable response to our untenable now, but displays how the silliest-seeming of responses can harbor the most succinct of critiques. Alongside its lavish sparseness and knife-fight speed, these stories are also surprisingly funny. We may have heard of writing as protest, but here is writing as riot.

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Light Reading

Stephan Delbos
BlazeVOX ($16)

by Kenneth J. Pruitt

“Light reading” is an odd little phrase that stands in for myriad literary desires, typically ones that involves easy digestion. When the world is too much, we occasionally want our free time spent with books that do not require too much of us. In an era of collusion investigations, climate change denial, and rising nationalism, it is hard to deny ourselves such escapism.

Stephan Delbos, a poet based in Prague, manages a clever feat with his new collection, Light Reading—he crafts an easily accessible opening with self-aware poems that lure the reader in and gain their trust for the more challenging poems that follow. The collection is set up in three parts: The first title section mostly contains extremely short poems that hinge on final information discovered via the title, which is printed after the body text, springing the reader back to the top again upon completion. A majority of the time, these please with satisfying humor or astute observation. For example, the entirety of the poem “Fight/Flight” is: “they came for me I was gone.” This style impresses best when the micro-form directly augments the content at hand. “Fifty-Year Flood” reads:

water bridges

bridges

Here, form equals content equals form in a tightly wound poetic machine.

The second section, “Bagatelles for Typewriter,” is the longest and most ambitious section, and like most attempts at innovation, it yields mixed results. According to the poet’s notes, a bagatelle is “a French term meaning a trifle. It is most often associated with short classical music compositions.” With the reader’s only clue that the poems are trifles, one is made to wade through a vast collage of literary references and sharply specific images that are all sussed out in the poet’s notes at the end. Without the notes; they can be difficult to navigate; nonetheless, there are jewels to be found. The last four zigzagged gorgeous lines for “Bagatelle for Györgi Ligeti, Eternal Light & Honeycomb” are:

when we call for silence
we only want
the single sound
foghorn or boatman’s call

The third and final section, “Arrangements,” contains poems that are all catalogs or lists of ten, but lists of poems themselves. After a few predictably executed poems within this template, things start to get pleasantly weird. Instead of lines like “1. A poem in terza rima / 2. A poem of 18 lines,” the external world creeps in with lines like “7. A parquet jigsaw / 8. Childhood sleepovers and Micro Machines.” These imagistic cracks in the expected flow of the list format become narratives that readers can hang their own experiences on, connective tissues around which the speaker builds the poetics posited therein. In other words, the most successful poems in this third section become more than just the sum of their parts.

The same could be said for most of what works in this challenging collection. Delbos approaches his craft without any semblance of fear, and seems to expect that same thing of his readers. How refreshing.


Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2019 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2019

Cathedrals & Parking Lots:
Collected Poems

Clemens Starck
Empty Bowl ($20)

by John Bradley

Given that so many poets support themselves by teaching, there’s a surprising disclosure in the biographical note included in Clemens Starck’s Cathedrals & Parking Lots: Collected Poems: “A Princeton dropout and former merchant seaman, he has supported his literary and intellectual interests for more than fifty years by working with his hands, mainly as a carpenter and construction foreman.” Most of these collected poems, drawn from six previously published books, spring directly from Starck’s working life, testifying to years of physical labor. They also display a seemingly effortless craftsmanship.

Work as a subject in American poetry has been and still is unusual. Philip Levine comes to mind, but after that it’s hard to think of a poet who devoted books of poetry to this topic. Starck has much to say about labor, such as in “Slab on Grade,” about pouring concrete:

What could be flatter or more nondescript
than a concrete slab?
For years people will walk on it,
hardly considering that it was put there
on purpose,
on a Thursday in August
by men on their knees.

The fact that physical labor and laborers are unappreciated in our nation perhaps offers one reason why we don’t see more poets writing about work. “Me and Maloney” offers another reason. At first the poem seems as if it’s about the camaraderie of workers: “And I’m left with Maloney, / who likes to drink beer after work / and tell stories. / Construction stories. Ex-wife stories.” Then the stories start to feel unsettling, “like how he clubs possums to death with a two-by-four.” The very last stanza reveals why the speaker must drink with Maloney and listen to his creepy tales:

I work
for Maloney Construction.
When it rains we work in the rain. When it snows
we work in the snow.
I am Maloney’s right-hand man:
When he laughs, I laugh too.

Not all of Starck’s work poems are grim, however. There’s often playfulness. In “Keats and Shelley,” for example, we learn about a worker much taken with the poetry of the Romantics and their ilk. Well, perhaps there’s an element of envy too: “Tenured now / in the English Department of every university, / they’re resting on their laurels.” The speaker asks a friend, Ernie, what he thinks of the two “immortal poets”:

“Keats and Shelley?
You mean Sheets & Kelly. Used to be
a plumbing contractor
in Springfield.”

One of the main influences on Starck’s writing style can be seen in many of his poem titles: “Two Chinese Poets,” “In the Middle of the Night, Waking from a Dream of My Children, I Go Downstairs and Read Du Fu,” “The Chinese Way.” His reading of classic Chinese poetry helps explain his directness, his ability to make poems into an intimate construct of thought and emotion, always located in a time and place. In “On My Way to Work I Pass Bud’s Auto Wrecking and Think about Su Dongpo,” for example, he admits that Bud’s Auto Wrecking “is not something you’d expect to find / in a Song dynasy / landscape painting.” (179) And yet he soon sees a figure there who resembles Su Dongpo. This perception collapses in the last stanza:

Wait a minute! That’s not Su Dongpo,
it’s me—stumbling along
with my toolbox and an instruction manual,
a funny-looking, bald-headed old geezer who doesn’t
really need
parts for a Volvo, although
you never know . . .

As for so many American poets, such as Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder, Carolyn Kizer, and many others, classical Chinese poetry offers a class in poetics for Starck.

Cathedrals & Parking Lots shows the author writing ably on subjects other than labor—Barbara Stanwyck, the Red Sox, his cat Misha, and yes, love. But it’s the poems about the working life that reverberate long after you leave this book. A poem like “Dismantling,” about workers making a house “disappear,” (66) haunts us with its detail, simplicity, and sly humor. Here’s how it ends:

And when we have finished,
what will there be at Ninth and Van Buren?
A square of bare earth
where a house was.
Sidewalk. Foundation. Concrete stoop.
Two steps up
and you’re there.

Like that foundation and concrete stoop, the poems of Clemens Stark appear to be simple, but they’re built to endure.


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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2019 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2019