Tag Archives: fall 1999

PIERCE-ARROW

Susan Howe
New Directions ($14.95)

by Aaron Kunin

"Admit that a character who is exiting can be seen only from behind . . ." --André Gide

The final sequence of poems in Susan Howe's Pierce-Arrow is entitled "Rückenfigur," which means something like "figure seen from behind," although within the sequence it's translated as "retreating figure." This image points to a brief tableau from an earlier sequence ("Barrier of trees a / Darkened wood Evening / retreating figure") and might suggest that Howe is concerned with the pictorial, or at least with the visible, but for the most part she seems profoundly uninterested in seeing anything beyond the words on the page. There are lots of characters in Pierce-Arrow—E. D. Brooks, who collects pens belonging to famous authors; the Greek hero Achilles; the lovers Tristan and Iseult of medieval legend—but none of them has a body to speak of. The bodies here are, at best, shadows, like that generic "retreating figure" in the wood at evening, or like the "shadow in the water" that alerts Tristan to the presence of King Mark (whose name says just what he is: a mark). The only detailed visual images of human figures in this book aren't pictorial descriptions but simply pictures, like the silhouette of George Meredith reproduced on page 37 (another shadow), or the doodles from Charles Peirce's notebooks reproduced throughout.

The poems in Pierce-Arrow are studded with facsimile pages showing Peirce's charts, drafts, doodles, and calculations. Howe is clearly very interested in making this material visible. Her prefatory note makes a special point of mentioning that the photographs on these pages "are not shot from microfilm copies or photocopies." Howe wants you to know that your experience of the Peirce manuscripts has not been mediated through some unwanted technology of representation; what she values in the manuscripts can only be transmitted by direct contact. Photofacsimile, however, is an acceptable compromise, even though print technology fails to transmit anything of value: "[Peirce's] work is unpublishable in print form." This is a strong claim. For these papers to be unpublishable in print form, they would have to possess some special quality that distinguishes them from other manuscripts; they would have to be made of something other than words (since anything made of words can be printed). Or they would have to be made of words that are different from ordinary words, words for which we have no types and for which types cannot be manufactured. "We should have to use words," as Peirce puts it, "like those the chemists use—if they can be called words." Here, Peirce is imagining the possibility of a scientific language.

His scientific language, however, remains on the level of possibility, while Howe claims to have discovered such a language in his manuscripts. Howe does everything possible to produce the illusion that you are seeing the Peirce manuscripts, but she doesn't try to produce the illusion that you are seeing Peirce; in fact, she does everything possible to emphasize that her account of Peirce is based in secondary sources, and that all of her characters are text-based. Either they are producers of texts (such as Peirce) or they are fictional characters borrowed from other texts (such as Achilles): in any case, their depiction in Pierce-Arrow is mediated through another piece of writing.

The "Rückenfigur" sequence, for example, retells the "Tristan and Iseult" story by focusing on the transmission of the medieval romance over time, with the result that Iseult is not only doubled as "Iseult aux Blanches mains" but is further reproduced as "salt / Iseut Isolde Ysolt Essyllt / Bride of March Marc Mark in / the old French commentaries." The appearance of the characters and the actions they perform in a particular version of the story are peripheral to the significance they acquire by changing between one version and another.

The opening pages of Pierce-Arrow provide a lucid prose exposition of Peirce’s failed academic career: in 1884 Peirce retired to a farm called "Arisbe" after losing his teaching position at Johns Hopkins, apparently as a result of his marriage to Juliette de Portàles Froissy, whose background is largely untraceable. Howe dwells at some length on Juliette Peirce's attempts, in the years following her husband's death, to support herself by selling off his papers, which no library seems to have been eager to acquire. At some point in this exposition, all the sympathy that Howe has generated for Juliette is transferred onto the Peirce manuscripts, which remain unread and unexamined while terms that Peirce coined (such as "semiotic") and systems of philosophy that he developed (such as "pragmatism") achieve wide currency. "Academia wore Peirce / out long before / the massive literature / of Pierciana."

The story is essentially one of normalization: Peirce's philosophy becomes incorporated into academic culture at the sacrifice of its real value (which is preserved, untouched and unpublishable, in the manuscripts at the Houghton Library). Elsewhere Howe tells an abbreviated version of the same story with the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl acting as protagonist: "Scraps of notepaper / Refusing to settle into / stable Husserliana." In previous books she has told similar stories about Emily Dickinson. The story is always the same: there's something in the manuscripts that resists incorporation into culture, something that's unique, ineffable, and unreproducible, and you can't talk about it but it's the most important thing about them.

Howe is maddeningly consistent on this point: she doesn't talk about it. If something is unpublishable in print form, that means it can't be described in print form either, so she never identifies the properties that can't be translated from manuscript to print. Instead, she reproduces pages from the manuscripts as though their significance were self-evident. One might suppose that the remarkable visual sensibility of these pages is what Howe values and what can't be reproduced in print. But I suspect that the graphic eccentricities in the manuscripts are only an emblem of a refusal to conform (just as the graphic eccentricities in some of her other work, notably A Bibilography of the King's Book, or Eikon Basilike, stand for nonconformity).

In Howe's account, the Peirce manuscript becomes a mystical text whose value can be recognized only by initiates: "Though the essay was never / completed only a rough draft / I can still see the room those / unmeant thoughts composed . . ." And, as with all mystical experiences, there's some question as to who is supposed to be having the experience: is the poem trying to initiate us into the mysteries? Or are we only watching someone have an experience that we aren't allowed to share? To put it crudely, who is the hero of Pierce-Arrow? I would argue that the real hero is neither Charles nor Juliette Peirce nor the collected papers, but rather the researcher who descends into the archives to rescue them, the poet who shows herself to be hardier than "the hardiest of scholars" who "have made use of [Peirce's] manuscripts . . . only by way of photocopies."

Howe's poetics has always depended on a relentless effort to mystify the act of writing. As she stated in a recent interview: "The moment a word is put on the page, there's a kind of death in that. But if it wasn't put on the page, there would be another kind of death." These two kinds of death have a lot in common in that neither one involves any actual dying. The kinds of death available to a word are necessarily verbal deaths, which is to say that they're metaphorical deaths (non-death standing in for death). There's nothing wrong with metaphor, of course—traditionally, making metaphors is what poets are supposed to do—but the implications of this one are disturbing. Take note of the double bind Howe puts you in: writing and not-writing are just different ways of killing something. Note, also, that the second kind of death (the death of the word that wasn't put on the page) entails the death of something that has no material existence. (Can you call it a word if it hasn't been articulated? An idea for a word?) A word is expected to enjoy some kind of existence prior to and apart from its material embodiment as a word; moreover, this inarticulate existence is where its value resides; and this is the part that has to die.

Howe didn't invent the notion that poetry is made of some special stuff that isn't speech or writing, and that converting it into verbal material, giving it form, effectively destroys it. But her commitment to this notion is more serious than anyone else's, she is more aware of its implications than anyone else, and she uses it to write poetry that exerts an extraordinary aesthetic and moral pressure. Her poetry can't finally be separated from the thinking that animates it or from its sometimes stagy gestures. Indeed, her achievement is so complete that it's difficult to see from outside. Her poetry, like that of Wallace Stevens, provides an elaborate set of terms for talking about poetry, generating a running self-commentary that is "compelling" in a transitive sense: it forces itself on you, no matter how much you distrust it. But I would argue that this self-commentary should ultimately be resisted; though Susan Howe is a great poet—among the best we have—she, like most poets, writes with words. And the words she writes with aren't substantially different from the words in other books.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 1999
| © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999

CONVERSATIONS WITH NATHANIEL MACKEY

Kamau Brathwaite
We Press and Xcp: Cross-Cultural Poetics ($15.95)

by Anna Reckin

Kamau Brathwaite's ConVERSations with Nathaniel Mackey is an extraordinary and provocative reminder of the possibilities of the interview, unfolding this hybrid form to embrace critique, explication, history, autobiography, performance, and poem (the capitalization of "vers" in the title is no accident). The main text (the basic conversation, or "confessations" as Brathwaite starts to call it towards the end of the book) is a transcription of a public discussion between Mackey and Brathwaite at Poet's House, New York City, in 1993, and it follows the standard format, "introduction, question-and-answer, questions from the audience." But as soon as we read the first section, set up as a kind of prologue, we know that we are in a different kind of space. "If we don't reach this lecture in Time, we'll never be real," scolds one audience member (overheard on the way to the hall); while a child being dragged along to the event complains, "me still tryin memember this afternoon dreama."

The "dreama"/drama that is enacted here recapitulates Brathwaite's life, work, and politics by interweaving new (post-interview notes and previously unpublished work) and old (already published) materials around the transcription. In the process, the asides that are often edited out of written-up interviews are expanded, or even added in. A "note on colonialism/neocolonialism," for example, tells us, "it was Fanon, I think, echoed by Tsetsi Dangarembga (1988) [Af female writer] who speaks of colonialism as a ‘nervous condition.’ This Conversations is really my first (& unexpected, unintentional) effort to deal w/my personal relationship to this the first stage of colonialism—in our case coming out of Plantation Slavery" and introduces a so-far unpublished schema of the stages of colonization. The source for the note quoted above, "The Love axe/I" is, Brathwaite tells us, "forthcoming since the mid-'70s but ‘delayed’ by Estab pub strategies and now forthcoming hopefully 1998/89—but again under pressure—the text lost sev times—the author increasingly weakened w/age and other commitments etc etc etc." Every text has its history, personal and political.

If a transcribed interview is basically an act of retrieval, it is not surprising that this supremely self-reflexive text should pay so much attention to lost and missing materials, in particular, the devastating loss of books, papers, and audio tapes swallowed up by the mudslide that engulfed Brathwaite's home in Irish Town, Jamaica, in the wake of Hurricane Gilbert. Even more harrowing is the account of the break-in to Brathwaite's apartment in Marley Manor, Kingston, Jamaica, and the physical attack that followed. Alongside the story of lost texts and lost history, then, is a mythic account of psychic retrieval.

The main thrust of Mackey's questions concern the change that Brathwaite identifies in his work after 1986. Brathwaite's answer over the course of ConVERSations is first a reprise of his politics and poetics, especially the work in his first two trilogies; then he takes us through the series of calamities that afflicted him: the death of his wife in 1986, the disaster at Irish Town, and finally the events at Marley Manor in 1990. In effect, the gunshot wound killed him, he says; he is no longer the same person. It almost seems like a coup de grâce: the end of the road that started with the lyric intensities of much of his earlier work now grinding to a halt among the horrors described in Trench Town Rock (and quoted inConVERSations): robbers who chop off a living arm to get hold of a woman's bracelet, scavengers stealing from the dead at the site of car accidents. The quotation of "Flutes" from Middle Passages would seem to bear this out: a few pages after lines such as "that stutter I had heard in some dark summer freedom / startles & slips from fingertip to fingerstop / into the float of the morning into the throat of its sound," Brathwaite records the impact of the hurricane: "gone . suddem . flatten. juss like that . where golden bamboo flutes is now is bleak and wet and mud and dumb and silence silence silence silence As if some Powvr wish to wash away even her ashes here and no bird sing as if Naipaul right after all."

But this would be a capitulation to what Brathwaite describes—critiquing V. S. Naipaul and early work by Derek Walcott—as the classic Sisyphean statement of Caribbean poverty and hopelessness, based on inappropriate European dialectics. Caribbean culture should instead be seen as "tidalectic," he suggests, represented by the mythic image of a woman sweeping the sand from her yard, early every morning: "in fact performing a very important ritual which I couldn't fully understand which I'm tirelessly tryin to . . . And then one morning I see her body silhouetting against the sparkling light that hits the Caribbean at that early dawn and it seems as if her feet, which all along I thought were walking on the sand . . . were really . . . walking on the water . . . and she was travelling across that middlepassage, constantly coming from where she had come from—in her case Africa—to this spot in North Coast Jamaica where she now lives . . ." "Like our grandmother's—our nanna's—action," Brathwaite says elsewhere in the text, "like the movement of the ocean she’s walking on, coming from one continent / continuum, touching another, and then receding (‘reading’) from the island(s) into the perhaps creative chaos of the(ir) future."

The violence of Jamaica in the 1980s and 1990s, even the violence of the hurricane, is ebb, rather than end, according to this reading, and it is the poet's task to record those horrors, in all their gruesome details, along with the possibility of recuperation: "I undergo some strange kinda resurrection from that mo. It doan make me no kinda better poet nor anything like that—But since I’m died, a strange set of circumstances begin to make themselves shall we say ‘possible’ And I begin to dream, stepping on these stones of pearl and peril, back into each early morning, re/living, re/learning." Like the "nation language" Brathwaite describes in his essay, "History of the Voice"—"organic, . . . person-centered, fluid/tidal rather than ideal/structured"—ConVERSations performs an act of "re/living, re/learning," a washing back and forth (re-versing) over his life and his work. Alongside the personal history, we see Brathwaite developing and rethinking his poetics: the role of hieroglyphs, the Sycorax typeface, the "video style" that is such a prominent feature of his recent work. The result is total immersion: painful, exhilarating, utterly compelling.


Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 1999
| © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999

TOUCHING THE EDGE: Dharma Devotions from the Hummingbird Sangha

Michael McClure
Shambhala ($16.95)

by Wayne Atherton

Stalactite Buddhist meditations descend from top center of each page, each poem a living organism, a biology of constant questioning. Here is evidence of a mind that is at once a bright beacon and midnight tidal pool; Pound’s natural object constantly made new; a love of all that is animal nature:

Outside
a buck with velvet antlers
is stalked by a small
calico
cat.
(from "Devotion 1")

Michael McClure possesses an extensive knowledge of Buddhist text and practice, occasionally punctuated with Eastern Indian reference. This is not about a Western man suddenly become Eastern man. It is, rather, a compelling East-West synergy of mudra, cocaine, Bodhidharma, Amtrak, wild poppies, landmines and uzis, Manjushri, movie [projected] on waterfall. This book is a celebration of tactile poetic sensibilities, a moving fog-mist of words rich with cats, dragonsmoke, hummingbirds, fragrances. Variations on emptiness and form, all occurring/reverberating within a present/nonpresent, personal/nonpersonal universe. The "voice" is delightfully fluid, musical:

The bell's
third ring
sounds
through clouds
while
the hummingbird
sips
from the white
trumpet
that peeps from purple
wrappings.
(from "Devotion 77")

Many readers may wonder at his unusual use of capital letters. In his own words (from the Author's Note to Rebel Lions): "By putting lines of capital letters in the text of the poem there was a disruption of the allure of the poem and a reminder that it was a made thing . . . Later I experimented with using the lines of capitals to signify a small shift of intensity in the voice or mind . . . The capitals never mean that the lines are shouted or that they are chanted."

Michael McClure is living lion totem, his new book a ROAR for peace. Touching the Edge is an important reference manual for our chaotic postindustrial era, and the first revolutionary document in the new Millennium’s cry, for the protection of all beings.

BEAUTEOUS ONE, GIVE ME
one drop of wisdom
now that I have one.
The future is lace
on the hem
of compassion,
it
is there
to decorate
the streams in the mirror

that
write
out
the sky's
story.

And,

Let this small house
sing
in the wilderness
and
allow beings
to
feast
here
in the memory
of friends.
(From "Devotion 72")

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MONEY UNDER THE TABLE

Lewis Warsh
Trip Street Press ($10)

by Gil Ott

Collage is uniquely suited to twentieth-century European and American culture. Its operation mimics the basic perceptual function of gestalt, yet its insistence on the independence of its parts renders wholeness elusive. Where this phenomenon may have been previously regarded as a simple trick, like an optical illusion, it became a means of challenging notions of high art and culture in the hands of Dada artists like Max Ernst and Tristan Tzara during the societal madness that was the First World War.

That subsequent decades have canonized the Dadaists and their work has not dimmed the appeal of collage. Most recently it has surfaced as an essential ingredient in postmodernism. Its appeal—evident in the popularity of writers like William Burroughs and Kathy Acker—parallels the difficulty of making sense of a highly diverse and multivalent world.

I admit it's a stretch to regard Lewis Warsh's excellent book of seven stories, Money Under the Table, from the perspective of collage technique. Warsh is a poet and publisher who has been active in New York since the '60s, and has had an enormous impact in defining the collective aesthetic that speaks for that time and place. Frank O'Hara and Paul Blackburn are more accurately his antecedents.

What puts me in mind of collage is the fragmented, paragraph-based construction in certain of these stories—"Crack," "Pickup on Tenth Street," and the brilliant "The Acting Lesson" in particular. It is not the technique of collage that is notable here, but the collage-like effect that these stories have on a reader. In Warsh's hands, narrative offers a thoroughly convincing surface which defies analysis. The extremities of alienation and free will, the making of one's way in a post-moral, urban world, are what drive the stories of Money Under the Table.

Unlike true collage, these stories are not made up of preexisting materials. But Warsh proves himself to be an excellent observer, and nothing seems invented. He takes concise fragments of the lives of those who inhabit his stories and carefully attaches them to a whole, his whole, a fabric.

The effect is dizzying. These inhabitants (I hesitate to call them characters because they are so present and real in their confusion) find meaning in the present fragment only, and project that meaning to cover their entire lives. They are troubled and too eager to understand, and so go off on self-destructive tangents, which ultimately verify their failures.

Consider this paragraph from "Crack:"

I felt like I was part of everyone I knew. I felt I was divided into parts and that I wasn't a person who could say "I did this" and really mean that it was "me." The "me" seemed like someone else, or everyone else, and not only that: not only did I have to keep the faces of everyone I knew suspended in my mind at all times, but I also had to keep track of the lights of the city, the cars, and even the music floating out at me from an open window. I felt I was a composite of all these things; the absence of any one thing was the source of my sadness, my regret. If you asked about "me" I would say: look at the light on the side of this building. Look at this tree.

It is people—the inhabitants—that these stories are about. I may not recognize myself in all of them, but I do recognize their uncertainty. The world is an overwhelming onslaught of influences against which they try to position and make sense of themselves. Adults, they seem not to have outgrown their own adolescence. They are unaware of their clumsiness in the world, being too wrapped up in a more interior conceit.

Take, for instance, the narrator of the title story. Sex for him is still a new thing ("I'd been a non-virgin for two years and could still name all the people I had slept with"), yet he is on the verge of discovering the possibility of erotic detachment. That discovery yields a mixture of pride and shame which sends his thoughts back to his first erotic encounters, his father's shady business dealings, and his older sister's estrangement during her own sexual awakening:

She had lost her virginity a few months before, or so I learned from reading her diary. She thought it was wrong for my father to take bribes. What difference did it make since we lived like paupers anyway?

Warsh's direct style, which allows for both detail and generalization, is an ideal vehicle for portraying this moral ambiguity. At all times the people in these stories either feel that they are in control, or they fake it. They believe in the existence of a larger picture, even when they contradict themselves or act in self-destructive ways. Their actions, conditioned by rationalization and denial, are wholly understandable.

Naturally, our sense of control, as readers, is intact. Like the moviegoer at a horror film, we wouldn't go down that dark hallway. Warsh's mastery of the present psychological moment emerges in the careful balancing of narrative clarity and moral ambiguity. Each story unfolds, piece by piece, to suggest an inevitable, seamless whole.


Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 1999
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RADIO DIALOGS I

Arno Schmidt
translated by John E. Woods
Green Integer ($12.95)

by Carolyn Kuebler

This, then, my credo : directed against all the literal=airy men and aged seekers of textual variants, bundles of stinkhorns in their crippled hands . . .

Weary of wandering wastelands of letters full of vacuous brainchildren and hidden in pretentious verbal fogs; disgusted with both aesthetic sweet-talkers and grammatical waterers of drink; I have resolved : to treat all who have ever written, whether out of love and hate, as alive and ever living ! - - -

Arno Schmidt, whose work is gradually being made available in English by the proficient and adventurous translator John E. Woods (also responsible for recent renditions of Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain and Buddenbrooks) is one of German literature's best kept secrets. Like Joyce, who is the subject of the final piece in the book, Schmidt indulged in unorthodox punctuation, spellings, and grammatical experimentation; his work is also acerbic, somewhat misanthropic, maddening and entertaining—the result, most likely, of the cruel segment of German history he witnessed, and of his lively intelligence. All of the characteristics of his fiction are toned down somewhat in this collection of "radio dialogs"—and understandably so, as these were his concessions to entertainment, his way of making a living. The dialogs do, however, make use of his radiant passion for literature, as well as some of his odd, but effective, punctuation.

Radio Dialogs I, which is the first of three volumes of such plays, contains five of the many "Evening Programs" Schmidt wrote for Süddeutsche Rundfunk (South German Broadcast). It's hard to imagine this being anyone's "bread and butter work," much less to imagine a radio station airing such programs today, but this was the late 1950s/early '60s; there were far fewer TV celebrities to vie with. While the scripts of Radio Dialogs I are animated by characters identified merely as "A.," for example, "tends to lecture," or "1st questioner; firmly-scornful," what makes these discussions so lively is that the voices all seem to be those of the sometimes-cranky, often-irresistible Arno Schmidt himself. In these discussions, for which he wrote all the parts, Schmidt plays all of his devils and their advocates with equal ferocity. Despite their sketchy descriptions at the offset, all of the voices take on large personalities as they pontificate on, and pillory, or simply ramble playfully about Schmidt's favorite subjects: literature, literature, and literature.

In these five dialogs, Schmidt takes on 17th-century poet Barthold Heinrich Brockes, whom he admires for his "realism" and surfeit ("we have everything right here in Germany); Ludwig Tieck, one of the "Four Great Romantics"; Christoph Martin Wieland, whose name appears more than a couple times in his own fiction; and the prolific SF writer, or "Great Mystic," Karl May. He ventures across the channel for his pieces on the Brontës and James Joyce, and along the way comes up with some idiosyncratic definitions of realism, romanticism, and classicism. Telling tales of these authors' lives, arguing about the texts, and citing long passages from the authors' work, the dialogs destroy any tendencies toward idol-worship but still convey a deep respect and fascination.

The piece on the Brontë sisters comes as the greatest surprise in the collection. Schmidt's radio persona tells a good rendition of the sisters' childhood on the moors, and especially of their 1000-page creation of Angria & Gondal, but his fascination with "the Dove-Gray Sisters" becomes most obvious when he says, "What is left is for the final salvation of many a youthful genius who finds her- or himself in extremity. What is left is -- (with impressive emphasis) : the < Extended Mind Game > !" Clearly, an author's ability to actively engage his/her own mind, preferably in a vacuum of sorts, forms the basis of much of Schmidt's literary taste. When defending Karl May, often considered a second-rate kids' author, "A." brings up May's dreary childhood with a particular sense of awe, describing how, as a result of poor nutrition, May was actually blind for four years.

In his discussion of Finnegans Wake, the ultimate literary mind game, one character proposes the idea of a "readable German rendering" of this Irish novel, while the others offer both encouragement and guffaws. Apparently Schmidt himself endeavored some translations of Joyce's most difficult book, and this play seems closest to capturing Schmidt's own writerly dilemmas, as well as the dilemmas of Schmidt's translator. Skeptical "B." says, "the English original is totally out-of-the-question for the German reader ! - He can only hope that sooner or later, there will be a passably clear, humanely-paraphrased and richly commented Germanization that mediates for him some notion of what Joyce intended with FW." I imagine Woods cringing at these words, his own task in translating Schmidt's fiction being similar in its seeming impossibility. One voice describes Finnegans Wake as "well-equipped with sawtoothed prefixes, bedraggletailed with sly suffixes, croaking away pseudo-profoundly in err-earthly details"—not a bad description of some of Schmidt's fiction as well.

Woods makes his way through Joyce via Schmidt with grace and humor. The Radio Dialogs convey more than a "passably clear" vision into Schmidt's mind games, at the same time illuminating a pathway toward the even more dense and rewarding phrasings of his fiction.

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KILLER IN DRAG | DEATH OF A TRANSVESTITE

Ed Wood
Four Walls Eight Windows ($9.95 each)

by Kelly Everding

Ed Wood has inspired an avid following—he even has a religion named after him, Woodism—and the reason may lie in his intense desire to weave fantastic tales. Four Walls Eight Windows has committed to reissuing the notorious director's pulp fiction, stories otherwise doomed to extinction or the dark closets of collectors. These reissues open up a whole new side of "the worst filmmaker of all time," a man intent on telling his story one way or another, despite his lack of taste or talent. But he did have talent, which is evident and enjoyable in these books that will appeal to the noir enthusiast and the retro wannabe alike.

Wood's titillating prose transports one back to a time when men wore hats and women's breasts torpedoed from their torsos. But there's a twist to Wood's noir sensibilities—or maybe a sashay. His hero isn't your average killer for hire and this story isn't your average tale of death and mayhem. Glen Marker is a man of many secrets: a cold-blooded killer, yet a man with a heart of gold. But what's his game? As he awaits the electric chair, Glen promises to weave a fantastic story that defies convention, that goes against the norm. As he says bitterly between drags on a cigarette, "Stock answers seem to be a format for all things in this world."

Glen doesn't play by the rules—not by the cop's rules, and not by society's either. He likes to wear women's clothing, but don't think this in any way interferes with his love life. Killer in Drag and Death of a Transvestite follow the harrowing life of Glen, a.k.a. Glenda Satin, as he/she escapes across country with the cops and the very thugs who hired him in pursuit. Wood's empathy with Glen/Glenda is not a secret: Wood wore women's clothing too, but he was all man. Glen/Glenda is a hero trapped in a conservative culture that rewards repression and punishes true feeling. Glen dressed up as Glenda is more himself, more empowered; as Glen, he has a more difficult time repressing Glenda's musical voice, her poise, her panache. He is, in short, more in drag as Glen than as Glenda.

Ed Wood may have published as many as seventy-five books in his lifetime—many of which he adapted into spectacularly unsuccessful films. But his drive and determination to entertain and to unlock the hidden sexuality, the duality, in every person rivals that of Reich or Freud. One needn't be a full-fledged Woodist to listen.

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A DIALOGUE ON LOVE

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick
Beacon Press ($25)

by Jennie Chu

In this memoir of her treatment for depression following recovery from breast cancer, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick sets out to explore the poetics of therapy; in the process, the author, one of the founders of queer studies, examines her own sexuality—a topic she has heretofore been reticent about. Her chosen medium is a kind of "texture book" in which diary entries are interwoven with haiku, excerpts from her therapist's notes, and threads of dialogue between therapist and patient. Why this peculiar genre? "A texture book wouldn't need to have a first person at all, any more than weaving itself does," she explains. A Dialogue on Love, then, is meant as a complex fabric in which two different perspectives (that of Shannon, the therapist, and of Eve, the patient) become mingled in an interpersonal braid that twists and complicates the division between first person and second.

Despite the promise of its interpersonal scheme, there remains something unavoidably, self-centered about the whole book. Shannon's voice is always subservient to Sedgwick's needs; his "first person" is never really more than a therapeutic "second person" for Eve to talk to. But the book's self-centeredness has an even profounder basis. Simply to publish a memoir of one's own psychotherapy requires grandiosity of a certain kind—grandiosity closely linked to the sort of impulsive exhibitionism that drives much of confessional poetry. Sedgwick lets the reader in on some of her most private thoughts and experiences: her many bizarre, elaborate dreams ("Fascist takeover by the faculty committee organized to choose the Anglican martyr for the annual celebration"); her weird incestuous tendencies ("I am pathetically in love with my mother"); her longstanding obsession with masturbation ("from as far back into childhood as I can remember, I was somebody who, given the opportunity, would spend hours and hours a day in my bedroom masturbating"); her sex life with her husband Hal ("When I do it, it's vanilla sex, on a weekly basis, in the missionary position, in daylight, immediately after a shower"); even erotic daydreams involving her therapist ("fantasy about taking [his] socked foot and masturbating with it"). The result of so many disclosures is not exactly a tone of intimacy, nor is it altogether off-putting: if anything, the reader feels perplexed by the author's motivation—or is it compulsion?—to put affairs of so confidential a nature on such public display. The disclosures might be better understood if they served to elucidate Sedgwick's academic writing on sexuality, yet they have no discernible bearing on the politics of queer identity or the oppression of homosexuals. This absence of any meaningful connection between Sedgwick's work on gay studies and her own sexuality is never really examined in the book, and it only makes her erotic revelations all the more puzzling.

Sedgwick's style is as ostentatious as her confessionalism. She has a reckless tendency to mix abstractions with words that are almost cartoonish in their wacky sensuousness and puerile tone: "such wonder, such cheerful eagerness, such hilarious arias of uncertain agency, never feature in the S/M fantasies of my waking sexuality"; "Shannon's sunny, resilient, lightly slobbish ways are great in this kind of fine-honed high-hysterical crunch"; "there's some fun in being able to say all my meanest things to him, only slightly cloaked in the sad severity of free indirect discourse." The gaudy pageantry of Sedgwick's prose often diverts the reader's attention from the real issues at stake, much as it often diverts the reader's attention from the ideas in her scholarly work: it is difficult to get a sense of the true Eve Sedgwick. But the book hints at one point that Sedgwick's real voice has become distorted by a routine of psychological ventriloquism perfected over the years. "You articulate quite an elaborate inner space, full of all kinds of voices," she tells her therapist. "Not to say the voices don't come from anywhere, they do—but they don't come /directly/ from anywhere. There's a lot of time and echoey, experimental space for them to take on a life of their own." Here is a strangely apt description both of Sedgwick's idiom and of the artifice that has come to fill in for her self: elaborate, echoey, experimental, full of all kinds of voices that don't come /directly/ from anywhere but have weirdly taken on a life of their own.

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.


Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 1999
| © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999

DEEP TIME: How Humanity Communicates Across Millennia

Gregory Benford
Avon Books ($20)

by Rudi Dornemann

Physicist/novelist Gregory Benford has written a nonfiction book that circles around the idea of "Deep Time"—that is, the future far beyond the planning horizon for most human activities. Benford's argument is that we should develop a habit of thinking in the very long term, of envisioning the distant effects of human endeavors.

He discusses four such Deep Time endeavors, either proposed or actual, in the course of the book. Two are projects with which Benford has been involved personally—the question of how to mark a proposed nuclear waste repository in the New Mexico desert with warnings that would still be understood 10,000 years from now, and the designing of a plaque to be attached to the Saturn-bound Cassini spacecraft. You might expect a science fiction writer like Benford to lead the reader through some interesting speculations on who the audience of these messages might turn out to be, and he does. But both projects eventually come down to questions of how to build messages that are their own Rosetta stones—able to teach their readers how to decipher them--and Benford develops these ideas provocatively.

The other two projects he describes don't fit as neatly under the book's subtitle, How Humanity Communicates Across Millennia, since they do not concern communicating specific messages. Still, the "Library of Life" and "Stewards of the Earth" proposals are imbued with a Deep Time perspective. The first concerns preserving biological information from animals, plants, even bacteria, that may soon be extinct. Ironically, here Benford proposes sending a message that will mean more to future eyes than it does to us, compiling a bank of living and frozen samples "to salvage biodiversity out of catastrophe." What we are unable to save in our time, he argues, we can at least preserve for the future to revive.

In Deep Time's final section, subtitled "The World as Message," the message becomes almost entirely metaphorical. Benford's subject is the conscious shaping the environment to sustain it (and humankind) into the future, and of all the projects he discusses, this is the one with the shortest timeline, offering results that could begin to be seen within a lifetime. He points out how, even in the prehistoric past, human activities have left their mark on the environment, and that very few places on earth have really been in an untouched "natural" state at any time in the last several thousand years. He proposes making carefully planned interventions in the natural world to reverse some of the unplanned side effects of past human activities. Benford backs up his arguments with intriguing facts and proposals that are surprisingly down-to-earth for all their potentially world-changing results—like dumping iron supplements into ocean water to stimulate algae growth which would then absorb some of the excess carbon dioxide in the air, or lightening the color of roads and roofs to absorb less heat in cities. As with the other projects outlined, this "Earth Stewardship" is the result of Benford's somewhat iconoclastic, perspective—a good start toward a Deep Time way of seeing the world and our place in it.


Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 1999
| © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999

FUTURE JAZZ

Howard Mandel
Oxford University Press ($26)

by Jon Rodine

Future Jazz is actually an unfair title for a book like this. "Future" implies a kind of crystal-ball agenda, an aficionado's index to what's ahead, or maybe a look at who's working on the edge of the modern jazz universe. But a good deal of Howard Mandel's book isn't about the future at all, and many of the musicians he profiles either refuse to call themselves "jazz" players or else resist the definition by the very nature of their music (or both). This slightly skewed title seems to reflect a small identity crisis in an otherwise strong book.

Mandel is a veteran music journalist (and teacher) with great taste and integrity, who's covered jazz and related topics in respected formats from Downbeat and Wire magazine to the Village Voice and National Public Radio. His book is a culmination of fifteen-odd years worth of interviews and journalistic sketches, from the early and mid-'80s until the present, covering a wide array of music and musicians. There are big stars like Wynton Marsalis and George Benson; successful-but-not-household-name figures like Cassandra Wilson and David Murray; many other veteran practitioners of creative, improvised or avant-garde music in the U.S. (New York City in particular). There are klezmer musicians and club owners; orchestra conductors and blues players; opera composers and record producers; bandleaders and soloists like Henry Threadgill, John Zorn, Muhal Richard Abrams, Geri Allen, John Scofield, James Newton, and so on. Mandel has a clear affection for those on the fringes, players expanding the boundaries of sound and organized music, making brave and dedicated advances, and it makes sense that his love for jazz was nourished in the revolutionary atmosphere of the '60s and early '70s, the days of John Coltrane, Archie Shepp, and Cecil Taylor; days when rock and funk and soul and "outside" jazz were happening all at once, changing minds and blurring definitions.

The book, then, seems to work best when it functions as an extension of those years of discovery, as a kind of Howard Mandel anthology. It's accepted that such a collection, being a record of individual passions, doesn't need to "make sense"; it calls for variety and a wide appetite. But Future Jazz is sectioned off categorically and given chapter headings that seem to strive for more than that; it seems to be trying to make a broader, more organized statement about jazz and the American "music scene," as fragmented and diverse as it is. In the process, he creates a confusing amalgam of the last fifteen years, with a sense of time and significance that seems a little askew. Statements and observations directly from the '80s are intertwined with those from the last two or three years, almost with a sense of concurrency. Groups that broke up years ago (like the Microscopic Septet) or projects like New York's 1980s "Black Rock Coalition," whose influence has definitely diminished with time, are discussed hand-in-hand with current accomplishments, or discussed alongside the more significant work and ideas of pioneers and veterans like guitarist John McLaughlin or pianist Hank Jones. The career of keyboardist Don Pullen is examined at length, with no mention of his early and tragic death from lymphoma within recent years. And the section on Cassandra Wilson, whose career in the '90s has surely earned this singer a significance and identity all her own, is sandwiched between two pieces discussing Steve Coleman and guitarist Vernon Reid, two of her compatriots from the early days, focusing chiefly on Blue Skies, her album from eleven years ago. And as eloquent and sharp as a twenty-two-year-old Wynton Marsalis was back in 1984 (and he was), is his commentary deep enough to deserve being used as a philosophical frame for the rest of the volume, for two decades of music?

Nonetheless, there are strengths in the book that aren't diminished by questions of purpose or chronology. Mandel is an acute listener who allows the musicians say what they need to say, without getting embroiled in the kind of artist/critic debate that some writers love. His own commentary reflects that kind of respect, and also has some compelling moments in unexpected places, like his brief take on the significance of one John Zorn saxophone solo in the midst of a Seder celebration at New York's Knitting Factory.

Mandel is, most importantly, a champion of experimentation and integrity, two qualities not naturally rewarded by the American music industry. Although Henry Threadgill talks to the author about the lack of a "shared repertoire" among musicians of his generation, Mandel's book—whether it is, in the end, more story or theory—is admirable for seeking out common threads of purpose within the indefinable world of "jazz" in America, thus reducing distances between players and their sometimes isolated pursuits. Whether the book is called Future Jazz or The Collected Howard Mandel may not matter in the end; his work, which reveals his vast respect and appreciation for the music, can contribute to the music world as much as the songs and sounds of the musicians themselves.


Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 1999
| © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999

HANS NAMUTH: Portraits

Carolyn Kinder Carr
Smithsonian Institution ($30.95)

by Elizabeth Culbert

Stop for a moment to imagine the abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollack at work on a canvas. More than likely, that image in your head is based on a Hans Namuth photograph. Between July and October of 1950, Namuth made more than 500 photographs of Pollack loosely tossing paint from his brush onto a canvas spread over the studio floor. When several of these images appeared on the cover and pages of Life magazine, the painter was viewed by the masses in the act of creating. Namuth's portraits elevated Pollack to near-heroic stature. Beginning with these photographs, and in going on to capture images of artists, architects and writers through the late-1980s, Namuth drastically influenced the public's vision of the twentieth century's greatest American artists.

Hans Namuth: Portraits is a beautiful and thorough collection that not only represents the seminal Namuth portraits, but also reveals his breadth of subject. The book comprises a portfolio of images recording one of the great cultural periods in American history, including portraits of Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Lee Krasner, Jasper Johns, Joseph Albers, and Hans Hoffman. But the real pleasure is in finding some of Namuth's less familiar work; his portraits of Julia Child, Edward Albee, Jerome Robbins, Gian Carlo Menotti, and Louis I. Kahn are masterful and intimate. Extensively researched, the book provides a detailed account of Namuth's life in an informative chronology and a scholarly essay by Carolyn Kinder Carr of the National Portrait Gallery. It expands our understanding of his subjects and the connections he felt among artists working in various genres and media.

In the years following World War II, American art's sudden gain in national and international stature drew the attention of the general public and raised its interest in the artists' private lives. Hans Namuth's portraits coincided with this rise of the artist as celebrity; they fed the public's fascination and understanding. Many of Namuth's commissions and exhibitions were generated by the nature of his subject, and Carr addresses this undeniable link between fame of subject and fame of photographer. She notes that his interest in photographing artists and intellectuals seems to have little to do with commercial aspiration and more with personal identification with the community of artists, writers, and musicians he photographed. Since his early days in Europe, Namuth had sought out artists and intellectuals and he relied on his charm and ability to create a rapport with them.

After a brief stint in the Midwest, where he first settled after arriving in the U.S. in 1941, Namuth moved to New York. His work was scattered until a chance meeting with Jackson Pollack led to a group of images about the creative process. Namuth knew these were important to his development as a photographer and he positioned himself to "capture the contemporary masters at work." He pursued this for the rest of his life. The creativity of his subjects fueled his own creativity; his interest in the symbiotic relationship between an artist and his or her work became the basis of a similar symbiosis in his own work.

Namuth was uncomfortable with the idea that people might view him as carrying out a paid assignment when he in fact felt personally compelled by his subjects and believed that he and they were "on common ground." He depended on the development of personal relationships with his subjects. He commented: "I must confess that I personally consider many of the photographs of these men and women the fruits of great rapport. They bring good memories and offer a challenge too. It still fascinates me to go out there and meet new subjects, and try to persuade him of her to become entrapped —forever, I like to think—in my mystical little black box."

Stylistically, Namuth used a minimum of tricks to create succinct portraits that reveal the artist's personality. He mythologized and humanized his subjects simultaneously; they were creators, yet they were mortal and susceptible to vice and folly. His portrait of Elaine and Willem de Kooning was not so much about Willem's Woman painting tacked to the wall behind them, but about the relationship between the two artists. Elaine, sitting to the side of the canvas, is as distracted as Willem is confrontational. She later commented that she wanted to be in the photograph to prove that she "did not pose for these ferocious women," but when she saw the image, she "was taken aback to discover in Hans's photograph that [she] and the painted lady seemed like one flesh."

Namuth will be remembered as the great chronicler of the New York art scene of the '50s and '60s, but he was not a passive recorder. His passion for contact with creative personalities drove him to actively participate in this world, using his talents for establishing friendships and making pictures. He worked from a vantage point few could rival. Namuth's goal was to "create an iconic portrait that would speak to present and future generations." This collection of portraits demonstrates his consistent success.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.


Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 1999
| © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999