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The Catch

Fiona Sampson
Chatto & Windus / Random House UK ($18.95)

by Kevin Holton

In The Catch, Fiona Simpson displays the minutiae of suburbia with frenetic energy, so even the calmest acts, from standing on a ferry and watching the shore to listening to animals scurry about as the sun sets, become chaotic. The poems in this collection, almost uniformly written with a consistent stanzaic structure, are fluid, filling an impression of form rather than being entirely free or traditionally written. This amplifies the book’s theme of the natural world not needing to be confined by human rules, a theme given life through her descriptions of people walking barefoot through roses even when in downtown apartments or subway trains.

“Clothesline” exemplifies this by blurring the border between daily chores and a profound experience with the environment. The narrator is hanging wet sheets out to dry when there is a “rise in clouds from the clean sheets,” adding significance to the otherwise unremarkable image of sheets blowing in the wind. The poem ends with “I will swim down to the river/ arm over arm among slips/ and sheets and pearled river lights,” showing how the speaker perceives few defining boundaries surrounding domestic life, using the river image to show beauty in those banal tasks.

Some of the poems lend themselves more easily to the nature theme. “Arcades,” for example, may trick younger readers into thinking it will be about a video game arcade, if they don’t know that the primary meaning of the word is “a long passageway that is covered on both sides.” These are often created by tree branches bending toward each other, or vines curling around a trellis. The definition makes the meaning of lines like “one continual linked pouring/ the way arcades go” clearer, in this case referring to the way each vine blurs into the other. “They do not/ know the morning or the evening” is made clearer here too, as the arcade provides shade throughout the whole day, especially since it is “in the shade under/ the cypress tree” creating an additional layer of darkness upon the already darkened pathway underneath, which might trick the unaware into thinking day and night are one.

It isn’t easy to make the mundanity of daily life interesting, but Sampson accomplishes this with ease. Her lyric style and poetic form blend seamlessly, as do nature and the cruel concrete of modern cities within her work. Fluidity reigns throughout these pages, and readers can swim through her vibrant imagery much like her narrators do through streams or down cracked sidewalks. Contemporary mankind and the aged earth, so often opposed, fit neatly together here, a yin and yang as familiar as black ink on white paper. This is a fitting collection for any reader’s shelf, whether that reader is looking to celebrate the balance of two separate worlds, or looking to reclaim one they have lost.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2017 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2017

The Folly of Loving Life

Monica Drake
Future Tense Books ($15)

The Folly of Loving Life, Monica Drake’s book of interconnected short stories, bears an earnest title that might make a certain reader roll their eyes, but its darkly funny tone and sharply drawn characters are anything but obvious. The collection follows the lives of sisters Vanessa and Lucia, a binary star with the city of Portland, Oregon as its contrarian core. Place and sense of self are intimately tied here; in the early story “The Arboretum,” for example, Drake describes how Vanessa and Lucia’s mother suffers a psychotic breakdown after they leave the city for a house at its periphery. Sections called “Neighborhood Notes” help pull the camera outward, repeatedly demonstrating how Portland—like the sisters themselves—has become more crowded with reference and opportunity for delirium. The freely associative prose can occasionally muddy the narratives, but sudden jerks into lucid insight or observation suggest a larger strategy on Drake’s part, one that emphasizes how hurling ourselves heedlessly into the world may be a means of counterbalancing our own sad, vivid mythologies. Any heavy-handedness is also buoyed by a comedic sensibility (one of the longer stories is called “S.T.D. Demon”) that is satirical but rarely self-satisfied. These first-person voices negotiate absurdity with admirable self-awareness, in fact—always flirting with their own destruction in push-pull orbits around Portland and the world.

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2017 Really Short Review. Return to Really Short Reviews

Dwelling in Illegibility

Editor's Note: Elisabeth Workman gave this presentation at the Asemic Translations event, sponsored by Rain Taxi and held at Minnesota Center for Book Arts on March 25, 2017.


by Elisabeth Workman

When Eric said tonight’s theme was right up my alley I took him quite literally & want to begin tonight, as a way of speaking of the asemic, in an alley in Powderhorn—the 36th Street end of the alley between 13th and 14th avenues south, where I live with the graphic designer Erik Brandt, our creatures, and a mutant, sometimes asemic surface on the side of our garage, visible to pedestrians & eastbound traffic on 36th Street.

Visible but not always legible. Fictional but not false.

Erik’s project, Ficciones Typografika (the name ½ nod to Borges, ½ extension of his visual communication practice inspired by conglomerate identities, and also the name of a Czech typographic union), began in 2013, with an invitation to artists/designers around the world to submit their own typographical fiction (which has become a very open category for experimental work that’s non-commercial-based).

Visible but not always legible. Fictional but not false.

Statecraft insists upon legibility. Tools of legibility include the design of cities, the standardization of language, and the creation of permanent last names.1

Weirdly signatures are frequently illegible stamps on our ostensible legibility. Though not asemic they are interesting to look at as visual forms. Just as in one signature you might see a spaceship or opera house or flight pattern of a dragonfly in another you might see the rigidity of reductive binary thought or a heart attack or as the poet Nada Gordon has observed: a klan meeting.


Ficciones Typografika has its origins in a design problem Erik assigns to his typography students, in which they deconstruct Letraset forms to create new assemblages that often look like letters but are language-less, speculative typography, if you will.

In design pedagogy the prompts are referred to as problems and the outputs solutions. (Imagine creative writing classrooms if we referred to poems as solutions. A simultaneously utopian/dystopian prospect.) What fascinates me about these typographical fictions are the questions and really possibilities that are opened when designers stray and turn their back on capitalism and the state—the solutions are ambiguous, often illegible, even mysterious—they court our capacities for uncertainty, doubt, and difference.

In “The Delusions of Certainty,” Siri Hustvedt writes: “Doubt is fertile because it opens a thinker to foreign thoughts.” 2 Given writings about the asemic that so often include “the reader” in its definition and inspired by the way Hustvedt begins her essay by exploring the mysteries of the placenta (as a temporary mind), I am prompted to think of the asemic encounter as a kind of third mind experience, a transient, nutritive organ between the perceiver and the perceived and just as contingent, in its semantic potential, upon the “written” as the “reader”—the encounter through which we behold an illegibility ripe with possibility.

Visible but not always legible. Fictional but not false.

What is the threat of illegibility? That it can’t be controlled? Or marketed? Or branded? Or identified for dehumanizing purposes? While so much of the feedback we have received about this billboard for mystery in our alley has been positive and curious, there is one neighbor critic who we can sometimes hear talking, or rather yelling, back to the posters. Because they are often not in English? Because they are indecipherable? Because implicitly they communicate complexity, nudifference?

Beatrix Brandt, Ficciones Typografika 907-909 (24" x 36"). Installed on June 28, 2015.

Tobias Textor, Ficciones Typografika 373-375 (24" x 36"). Installed on April 13, 2014.

In Seeing Like a State (which, incidentally I was reminded I wanted to read when I saw it in a neighbor’s free library box a couple blocks from our house) James C Scott observes that “state simplifications [or processes of legibility], the basic givens of modern statecraft, were . . . rather like abridged maps. They did not successfully represent the actual activity of the society they depicted, nor were they intended to; they represented only that slice of it that interested the official observer.” And they weren’t just maps. “Rather,” writes Scott, “they were maps that, when allied with state power, would enable much of the reality they depicted to be remade.” 3 Fast forward to this moment in which we face the implications of an artificial reductive reality of such mapping—red state vs. blue state, “legal” vs. “illegal,” real vs. fake, “normal” vs “other”—in the hands of fascists and how does this sentence end?

Giandomenico Carpentieri, Ficciones Typografika 1135-1137 (72" x 36"). Installed on March 13, 2016.

Ines Mena Silva, Ficciones Typografika 1258-1260 (72" x 36"). Installed on July 31, 2016.

What if asemic surfaces were more a part of our dailiness? That we might open the New York Times and behold a full-page spread of asemic print, or drive down the highway and see a billboard emblazoned as such? What if the asemic was more visible. Visible but not legible. In fact in its illegibility, asemic writing is paradoxically radically inclusive, and in its imaginative engagement, fictional but not fake. May this difference—increasingly important—be spreading.



1 Scott, James C. Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998, p. 2.

Hustvedt, Siri. A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays in Art, Sex, and the Mind. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016. p 149.

Scott, p.3.


Elisabeth Workman is a poet and writer with a background in dance. Her newest publication from Dusie Press is ENDLESSNESS IS NO DESOLATION. Other works include ULTRAMEGAPRAIRIELAND, OPOLIS, ANY RIP A THRESHOLD, and IN THE EVENT OF NOT HAVING AN ANSWER, among others.

Workman Brandt is the recipient of a 2009 Jerome/SASE Emerging Writer Fellowship, a 2010/11 McKnight Artist Fellowship in Poetry, a 2012 Marcella DeBourg Fellowship from the University of Minnesota, and honors/awards from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and the Minnesota State Arts Board.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2017 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2017

Save Twilight: Selected Poems

Julio Cortázar
translated by Stephen Kessler
City Lights Books ($17)

by John M. Bennett

Julio Cortázar (1914-1984), the great Argentine novelist whose highly innovative and experimental fictions have had a lasting and influential impact on literature world-wide, was also an excellent and innovative poet, and his work in that genre deserves to be better known. Fortunately, the author of Rayuela (Hopscotch) is well represented as a poet in a new and greatly expanded edition of Save Twilight, Number 53 in City Lights' Pocket Poets series. Originally published in 1997, this new, plump little volume (which would only fit in the largest pocket of your cargo pants) is an excellent introduction to the author's poetry, which is as fascinating and compelling as anything he wrote.

Cortázar's poetry varies in style and tone. His most frequent voice is a personal one in which he is not writing “poetry” but rather talking to himself or to a listener. This is a style found also in some of Roberto Bolaño's poetry; Bolaño was from a younger generation, but both writers are best known as novelists, and both professed poetry as their first love. What is striking about both poets' language is the emotional intensity they achieve while using an extremely conversational diction. This is a very difficult effect to create, and can only be done when the poet is speaking of things he or she feels very strongly and immediately. Some of the poems are set up as “prose,” and use the same sort of diction.

But this is not the only voice in Cortázar's repertoire. There is also a kind of surrealism in the vein of early Pablo Neruda, although it has a stronger socio-political aim (“where shrieking rats on their hind legs / fight over scraps of flags”), and there are a number of more formal poems—a series of sonnets, for example, reminiscent of the sonnets of Mallarmé. The poems in this somewhat Parnassian mode are so mysterious, so ensconced in their language, that they resist being translated, except perhaps in a strictly literal way, but there are others, too, often written in rhyming quatrains, that are truly excellent poems, though probably not to the tastes of many current English-language readers of poetry. Save Twilight focuses on the more conversational and explicitly personal poems, such as “Profit and Loss,” which suggests that Cortázar's interest in world affairs, in contrast to intense and intimate issues, is something tranquilizing and calming:

Sometimes you return in the evening, when I'm reading
things that put me to sleep: the news,
the dollar and the pound, United Nations
debates. It feels like
your hand stroking my hair.

What is poetry for Julio Cortázar? In a number of places, he addresses this question. In an untitled prose text in this book (indexed as “A friend tells me . . .”) he deplores “that seriousness that tries to place poetry on a privileged pedestal, which is why most contemporary readers can't get far enough away from poetry in verse.” He continues by saying “Putting this book together . . . continues to be for me that chance operation which moves my hand like the hazelwood wand of the water witch; or more precisely, my hands, because I write on a typewriter the same way he holds out his little stick.” In another prose poem, “Most of what follows. . . ,” he quotes Dr. Johnson from Boswell's Diary: “‘Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.’”

Cortázar was a poet who can be seen as taking a big step beyond the styles of Latin American Modernismo, which was itself a reaction against late romanticism and is considered by many to be the first uniquely Latin American style in poetry. Cortázar's roots are in Modernismo, however, and some of the sense of loss and exile that runs through his work can be traced to leaving behind the elegant poetic modes of the early twentieth century. A poem not included in this selection, “Éventail pour Stéphane,” is a poem in a rather Modernista style and form addressed to Mallarmé, one of the poets admired by the Modernistas because he conjoined Symbolism and Parnassian aesthetics in his work. Using the principal symbol of Modernista aesthetics, the swan, it is a poem which suggests that poetry formed the foundation of Cortázar's literary activities:

Pues sin cesar me persigue
la destrucción de los cisnes.

But ceaselessly I am pursued
by the destruction of the swans.
(my translation)

I have already mentioned Roberto Bolaño, but it might be useful to compare Cortázar's poetry to that of other major Latin American poets. The Chilean Nicanor Parra, Cortázar's contemporary and the creator of “Anti-poetry,” brings up the question of how much the Argentine can be considered an anti-poet. In the sense that his poetry takes several steps beyond the poetics of Modernismo, he can be called that. The same would hold true for Pablo Neruda, and for the at times desperate and expressionistic surrealism of Vicente Huidobro, who preceded Cortázar by a generation. Or Huidobro's contemporary, César Vallejo, whose early poems contain traces of Modernismo which evolved into some of the most intense Futuristic poetry ever written, much of it constructed on a base of conversational language. The Nobel-winner Octavio Paz's highly literary and elegant poetry is quite different from Cortázar's but also has its roots in that early twentieth-century revolution in poetry. All of these poets reacted against Modernismo in unique ways, and each subsumed Modernismo in their work; it is the matrix from which they grew.

Stephen Kessler's expanded edition of Save Twilight is a real gift; his translations are eminently readable and repay repeated readings: the poems will seem different each time. Cortázar is a poet of many styles and voices, and this selection has spurred me to revisit his poetry, and re-read some of his great novels, an experience that is greatly enriching. What more could one ask of poetry, pocket or otherwise?

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2017 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2017

Before the Wind

Jim Lynch
Alfred A. Knopf ($26.95)

by Daniel Picker

Both the waters of Puget Sound and family figure prominently in Jim Lynch’s novel Before the Wind, as grown and nearly-grown children grapple with their parents to set their own independent courses. Lynch’s fictional family, the Johannssens, are a boat-building and sailboat-racing family. The family business revolves around a company that has faltered as its racing vessels have been surpassed by even more expensive high tech designs sought by the noveau riche.

Two of the Johannssen sons were named for famous sailors: Josh for Joshua Slocum, author of Sailing Alone Around the World, and Bernard for Bernard Moitessier, the legendary sailor who all but won the first single-handed, round-the-world yacht race in 1969 but inexplicably sailed on, embarking on circumnavigating the globe once again, thus foregoing not only the glory, but also the monetary award. The strength of Lynch’s novel lies in this same sort of indomitable spirit.

Josh, a boatyard mechanic and sailboat repairman and the narrator of the novel, has remained closest to his father and grandfather, the patriarchs of the family business, while Josh’s mother, a physics teacher, remains obsessed with the Navier-Stokes equations she hopes to solve. Her youngest, the preternatural and incandescent Ruby, holds the hope for family resurrection as she sails at an Olympic level, but she has her own ideas and will meet even greater challenges. Ruby is the most interesting and perplexing character in the novel, and Lynch evokes her so fully that she inspires pathos in the reader.

Josh is aware that the owners of boats in the boatyard where he works cannot always afford to maintain their vessels, and that these sailboats have become as close and as important as family members. In effect, some of the down–at–the-heels boat owners remain driven by the same irrational spirit which drives Josh’s father, Bobo Jr., and his grandfather, Grumps: a love of sailing. Before the Wind captures this love; this is not merely a book with a sailing backdrop, and the Johannssens are as far from haughty prep schoolers as a reader might find.

The father’s hope is to reunite the family, including the wayward and errant Bernard who sails through Steinbeck’s beloved Sea of Cortez far south of Olympia, Washington. While Bernard seems to have drawn the attention of government investigators, Bobo dreams of bringing the family together to compete in their own Joho 39 in the Swiftsure Race on Puget Sound.

Before the Wind is at its best when Lynch captures the excitement of sailing. The novel sails toward the climatic race where the family reunites:

“Eight knots!” Grumps cried, scanning the instruments. “Eight-point-three-knots upwind!”
. . . Prone on the bow, Ruby watched the slot between the sails and said absolutely nothing, which meant everything was perfect, the foils curved like raptor wings for maximum velocity. Even Mother looked excited, silver bangs blowing across her inquisitive eyes.

The camaraderie of this sailing family is analogous to that of Mack and the boys in Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and the paisonos in Tortilla Flat; those memorable characters, as do the Johannssens, live both on the page and on the fringe of society, seeking contentment, meaning, and livelihood. Steinbeck, in fact, gets alluded to more than once in this entertaining fiction, so the influence is evident—and earned.

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The Home Place: Essays on Robert Kroetsch’s Poetry

Dennis Cooley
University of Alberta Press ($49.95)

by Garin Cycholl

In the post-factual Americas, we play roles in a lunatic’s epic, a demented history of spaces beyond or outside recall. Narrative’s plasticity disfigures personal and public boundaries. Distant and scrolled, the “news” strains credulity. Who owns the story? Who owns the portals, anchor, and cables? Recovery of story is essential to knowing who we are and were.

The Home Place, Dennis Cooley’s recollective exploration of the long poems of western Canadian poet Robert Kroetsch is a solid point of departure in this act of recovery. Riding the impulse of “local epic,” Kroetsch’s work chronicles not only his native prairie, but also the distinct shifts that propelled poetries in the Americas in the late twentieth century. What emerges is a new and redeeming sense of “place” in its mythic, social, ecological, and linguistic energies. As Kroetsch writes, “in the prairies the small town and the farm are no longer real places, they are dreamed places . . . a remembered condition, an explanation of where we come from, a myth.” How does the poet speak from these margins?

Kroetsch argues that “too many Canadian writers . . .” treat language “like a heap of fresh bear shit.” The prairie’s central reality for him was “dislodging”—neighbors whom Kroetsch had seen turned out of their homes in the 1930s. His work searches for the voices gone in “lost or usurped home surfaces.” Recovered as local, “our genealogies are the narratives of a discontent with a history that lied to us, violated us, erased us even.” In Cooley’s analysis, Kroetsch in his long poems is engaged with both recovering that past as well as finding how to retell it. Cooley writes, “Is he inventing, or is he recording here? . . . He was a fierce regionalist but he also was immersed in formal innovation . . . As a regionalist he understood that language gestures to the world, that it can tie us to the world, and that it is profoundly social. As a postmodernist he realized that those connections are profoundly unstable. . .” The “local” rediscovered through a deeper engagement with the stories that turn around it.

Seed Catalogue, which Kroetsch published in 1977, is found poetry, a catalogue unearthed by the poet a few years earlier. Among its entries from the marketed and promised “summer garden” is a list of absences, what’s disappeared from the prairie—most notably for Cooley, “the mysterious hand that hovers over the market place.” Relentlessly local, the poet recollects himself among tales told in bars, at work, and across kitchen tables. The poem works from “the outward, the vernacular, the low and local.” As Cooley notes, “Gone are the troubadours; the jokesters have come to take over. . . . The bullshitters speak the language, the poet listens.” Here, Kroetsch gathers the voices on the margins to reclaim that place. For Cooley, the poet “writes his way home.”

Kroetsch speaks from the provinces; “The margin speaks its one small change against the design of the center, and on that speaking everything turns.” His “catalogue” is a sweeping account, one that forces us within and beyond ourselves. Reminding us that no real boundaries exist or remain between Canadian prairie, American West, and Mexican North, the poems’ conversations with that cold distance reacquaint us with maps, both defining and strange. Cooley’s reflections on Kroetsch are warm, complete, and vital.

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On Borrowed Wings

Chandra Prasad
Washington Square Press ($20.99)

by Dennis Barone

Some say a novel begins with the question “what if?” Chandra Prasad has a simple proposition for the creation of her 2007 novel On Borrowed Wings: What if the first woman to attend Yale University did so in the mid-1930s instead of decades later?

Prasad’s novel has four sections: summer, autumn, winter, and spring. The main character, Adele, has a brother, Charles, who has been accepted at Yale and will enter the freshman class that fall. He dies that summer, however, and Adele—who is just as smart as her brother (if not smarter)—decides to go in his place disguised as Charles.

That’s the what if; what follows is ingenious and speaks clearly to issues current on today’s campuses as well as those of mid-30s university life. On Borrowed Wings is not a farce, but a serious look at issues of race, gender, and class by way of the cross-dressing Adele.

Adele, after all, lives on campus in a dorm. She has to take gym class. She obtains a work-study position with a bigoted professor. How she negotiates these challenges makes for entertaining and thought-provoking reading. Near the beginning of her matriculation as she looks at Old Campus, Adele’s “eyes wandered to single elements: an ancient iron gate, ivy vines twisted about its rusty crooks and spokes; a resplendent panel of stained glass, its colors wistful in the waning light. As dusk descended, the buildings of the university were almost too wondrous to take in.” During the course of her first year, however, her idealized view of Yale will change.

Her relationship with Professor Spang in the Department of Social Demography and Intelligence (a fancy name for eugenics) especially disheartens, then enrages, and finally inspires Adele to action. Spang studies immigrants, or as he puts it when he first meets Adele/Charles to explain his project: “What this study will address—the meek and diseased, the criminal class . . . They’re immigrants mostly, though not all. They’ve come here because they know they won’t have to do anything for themselves. They’re leeches.”

Spang is not a sympathetic character. Little does he know that Charles is actually Adele and that Charles/Adele comes from a working-class family—for Spang, one of those families of “leeches.” Adele triumphs over Spang, however: She gets the last word and the best word, and in doing so she aids a New Haven immigrant family.

Adele/Charles has other difficulties during this first year, this imagined what if year, but overall she triumphs. President Angell of Yale—the name of Yale’s actual president in the ’30s—calls “Charles” into his office near the end of the book to say, “’In only your first year . . . you’ve shown purposefulness, creative vision, and civic responsibility.’” She/he will return the next fall.

Prasad herself graduated from Yale, but the novel goes far beyond Connecticut local color. The poetry of its prose and the relevance of its 1930s issues to our present moment make this decade old narrative meaningful for our present moment. Even the title, I think, is splendid: On Borrowed Wings could refer to Adele attending as Charles, or a working-class student at a bastion of privilege and power, or more. As Adele put it: “I felt just as I had during the Activities Rally, like the great hand of fate had uprooted me from my humble station and flung me into a wonderland. Yale had to be the only place on earth where people swam in pools, ate with sterling cutlery, clashed swords for sport, and did it all with an air of breezy nonchalance.”

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The Winged Histories

Sofia Samatar
Small Beer Press ($24)

by Jane Franklin

Sofia Samatar’s second novel is an imagist epic fantasy, a feminist and anti-colonialist reworking of one of those spongy-thick novels with maps at the front (it has a map at the front) and, like her first novel A Stranger in Olondria, a book about books, reading, and language. It is dazzlingly beautiful and as close to perfect as a reader can hope.

In its four sections, separated by material entitled “From Our Common History”—perhaps a book, perhaps our actual common history given voice—four women experience a civil war: Tav, the duke’s daughter, who cons and charms her way into military training; Tialon, the daughter of the fundamentalist Priest of the Stone; Seren, a singer of the desert nomads; and Siski, the daughter of a noble house, brought up to be a pawn in a marriage intrigue. All the appurtenances of romance are here—the military training, the hopeless battles, the loyal retainer, the beautiful horses ridden superbly by nomads with flowing hair, the glittering parties and flashing swords—but this is also a story about the contradictions and limits in women’s use of language when language is formed by and purposed for patriarchy.

The imprisoned Tialon, for instance, writes the story of her dead father because her father’s story is what she tells herself is the important one, with her own experiences first creeping into and at last taking over the narrative. Seren sings the traditional songs of dead heroes and speaks the che, the women’s language with its artificially limited vocabulary— “[the] che inside me like a well of gold,” she says of her childhood. “And then I grew up and this gold was worth nothing, nothing. You can’t use it anywhere. It’s only for fighting with other women, or for crying.” And there are letters lost, forged, never sent, stolen and destroyed—women’s writing that doesn’t make it into history.

Didactic or critical fantasy often gives the reader questions to ask. “Look at the world and find out where the power really lies, or where the women are; ask who built the castle and whether they were free laborers or slaves, pay attention to who dies in the great battles.” It tells us what to look for. The Winged Histories is about what we can’t see because it has slid away, escaped, been hidden or lost. We as readers can see what is in the lost letters or Tialon’s sketches of herself traveling a world she’s read about but never seen; we observe Siski’s life as a refugee, when she calls herself Dai Fanlei, Miss Apple, and turns mattresses for a pittance. But these are the things that don’t make history—the paper ephemera, the experiences lived but never written down or spoken. It’s a kind of trick; we can see them in this book, which tells us that we can’t see them here, in our world.

Samatar’s prose, always wonderful, has really grown into itself. She has a fine mastery of tone—the passages from Our Common History, for instance, are ironic and sly, as when describing Prince Andasya: “‘His charm perfumes the air for a hundred miles,’ gushes a writer for The Watcher. Hearts flutter when he enters the army: if he should be injured or killed! But then—how heroic of him to enlist! When he puts on his scarlet guardsman’s jacket, his lips look redder than ever.” Even Samatar’s semi-colons are satiric, and her use of the present tense in these sections recalls Angela Carter.

The novel’s anti-colonial politics are visible throughout, but come to the fore in the elliptical chapter narrated by a grieving Seren, “The History of Music.” Here Samatar uses repeated images, phrasing and pacing to create a feeling of incredible tension. Seren is speaking to her lover Tav, who has returned from her failed uprising, the uprising which has not delivered an autonomous Kestenya but has instead killed many of Seren’s people:

But let’s say it, let’s say what there is to say. Let’s get it out, let’s write, let’s put it there: You are from everywhere and I am from Kestenya. You are from mansions and palaces and cities and mountains and emptiness and pleasure and I am from the great plateau . . . . Your grandfather prayed with the great Olondrian visionary who made your grandfather sleep on planks that brought out sores on his soft and timid body, and my grandfather slept in a mass grave on the road to Viraloi where he was hung by the heels with seventeen others until they died of thirst.

There’s tremendously more to this book—the strange sense of leisure imparted by how it lingers over snapshot-bright instants while eliding battles, councils, and meetings of the great, all of which take place in an allusive sentence or offstage; the imagistic landscape writing; the rare combination of a fantasy plot with a modernist psychological approach; the constant theme of misperception and hiddenness. And that is to leave out the “Drevedi,” the demons of myth who ruled—or so it is said—an Olondria before Olondria, and who exist as the real of the outside and the other, the strange and marvelous which can be sympathized with and loved (or cruelly killed, drowned in hot wax) but never explained into sameness. With its deft exploration of the tension inherent to inhabiting a marginalized subject position, The Winged Histories is one of the finest fantasy novels of 2016, or any year.

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handholding: 5 kinds

Tracie Morris
Kore Press ($22)

by Greg Bem

“Why do we take it? This uneven display. The unfairness, the fake, the array? We don’t need or eat it. We take in. We play. Where’s the leftover sent away to. Awetu. A weight too.”
—from “Consumption” in “If I Re-viewed Her” (Tracie Morris handholding with Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons)

What is the nature of collaboration, of one artist working with another artist to create something together? What happens when the collaborators come from different cultures, countries, incredibly complex and differing aesthetic histories? What is built upon and what is concisely shaven away? Where does the conversation begin, and where does it evolve during the creative process? Two hands being held is an image abstract though representative of collaboration, and it is also the image evocating balance, unity, gentleness, and a grateful reciprocity.

Tracie Morris, in handholding: 5 kinds, demonstrates what it means to collaborate on such levels, with the hands of two creators pressing inward toward each other. Here we have Morris inspecting her own spectrum of creative inquiry, paying attention to the crossing of time, of genre, and of style between those she appreciates and the voices and creative ranges within herself. This densely-built book, supplemented with digital recordings of all Morris’s pieces, is an exquisite folio of her explorations, interests, passions, and inquisitions of her other artists, of her aesthetic dualities. As much a book of Morris’s voices, handholding: 5 kinds affords new glimpses into the primary works of Morris’s dead and living collaborators: Eyes Wide Shut by Stanley Kubrick, Seven Songs for Malcolm X by John Akomfrah, Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein, Ursonate by Kurt Schwitters, and 4’33 by John Cage.

In each of the inspiring works, Morris has found conceptual approaches to redefine, readjust, and impress upon herself the key ingredients of these artistic masters. Morris identifies, attaches, and coexists before arising and creating something new. “eyes wide shut: a not neo-benshi read” is a poem that is also a performed script, a superimposing on the original that is designed to be experienced along with the played film. “Songs and Other Sevens,” on the other hand, provides similar direct responses to and evocations of the scenes and fragments of film (Seven Songs for Malcolm X) but, as Morris describes, can exist on its own, a chant-poem capable of funneling her personal and cultural history with X more directly, intently. The pieces crafted out of and in response to Tender Buttons, which fall under the name “If I Re-viewed Her,” focus on heavyset linguistics and form complex chains of delirious musing. I imagine Stein reading the re-view in dashes of pride and acceptance. With “Resonatæ,” the energy and sound poetry polemics achieved by Schwitters are taken even further with Morris’s slightly melodic, powerfully Dada approach to her own voice’s upper and lower limits. And finally, the Cage recording: pure, sweet, silence—the ultimate balance to the rest of handholding, and the ultimate homage to the environmental sound artist.

Opening the book brings us closer to Morris’s mind. Each primary artistic work is described and explored in detail via individual prefaces, providing the personal and artistic contexts and historical relationships Morris developed with her collaborators. In the case of Eyes Wide Shut, Seven Songs for Malcolm X, and Tender Buttons, the primary works themselves are provided in full in textual form and can be experienced through the book alone, though the recordings of Morris’s impassioned and poignant readings of the works are also available. Her works responding to Schwitters and Cage are described in the book with their own prefaces, but must be engaged auditorily to be experienced.

The collaborative processes seen in Morris’s book provide us with an ekphrastic and ecstatic way of looking at intentional artistic relationships. Though four of the artists have long-since passed away, hearing Morris describe their work through her new work is a close affirmation to the beautiful presence of their spirits in this century. Morris goes far to provide comprehensive explanations to these collaborations. Her work in such directions demonstrates a powerful level of depth in appreciation and awareness of the lineages we all face, admire, and hope to work with through our individual lenses. And how we work, as Morris demonstrates through her beautiful range, starts best with a holding of hands.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2017 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2017