Tag Archives: Fall 2013

GLOSSOLALIA: New & Selected Stories

David Jauss
Press 53 ($19.95)

by Benjamin Woodard

The greatest hits album is an interesting beast, for while an artist’s most popular work is compiled into one tidy parcel, allowing easy access for the casual fan unconcerned with deep cuts, the effort often feels Frankenstein-ish in construction. By removing songs from their original presentation, themes mash together in awkward juxtaposition, concepts get lost in the shuffle, and the listener is frequently left with a rather jarring experience, one shifting between sonic extremes with little rhyme or reason. This same peril translates to the world of short literary fiction and essays, where careers are also cobbled together into sampler format. Though this presentation permits the reader to witness the evolution of a writer’s craft and voice, many of these “best of” books fail to maintain the rhythm of the writer’s original collections. Like their musical brethren, the sampler doesn’t resonate as a complete work.

David Jauss’s Glossolalia, a gathering of new and previously collected stories (from Black Maps[University of Massachusetts Press, 1996] and Crimes of Passion [Story Press, 1984]) is the exception; outside of one outlier, it escapes the foibles of the “greatest hits” packaging. Culled from over thirty years of writing, these stories complement each other remarkably well, with common threads—broken marriages, the Vietnam War, outcasts—acting as spine and connective tissue to a body that is, nevertheless, speckled with wide-ranging ideas. Castaways and pariahs may propel most of the seventeen narratives, but they do so in such pleasingly odd ways that Glossolalia evokes the quality of both retrospective and comprehensive collection.

Black Maps’s “Torque,” about a man obsessed with the idea of building his own limousine, is an example of this oddity. The protagonist, Larry, is a dreamer of sorts, and though his aspirations ultimately cost him his family, his job, and most likely his home, he continues to grasp for the impossible, grafting together steel while his world slowly crumbles. Striving for seemingly unobtainable or uncontrollable goals slithers throughout the mindset of many of Jauss’s characters: The narrator of “The Bigs” wants to make it in pro baseball; Alec in “Rainer” wants to find peace with his ex-wife after the death of his son; Sister Anastasia, in “The Stars at Noon,” wants nothing more than to pass softy into the afterlife (“She had no fear of dying. She was a bride of Christ: death was her dowry, nothing more.”) Their aim may vary wildly, from the subtle to the outlandish, but the outlook of these men and women parallel. They belong together on these pages.

And yet, these characters continually fumble toward ecstasy. After stubbing his toe on a concrete slab, the protagonist of “Brothers” (one of the brightest of the newly published narratives) says, “That was a mistake, one of many I made that day.” Jauss ratchets the tension in his stories by driving characters further down the rabbit hole of their obsessions, usually until they’re blind to the repercussions of their actions. Though Ted realizes in hindsight the error of his ways, in the moment he cannot help but make one poor decision after another. Likewise, in the smart “What They Didn’t Notice,” also a new story, it takes an omniscient guide to lay out all of the details overlooked by the story’s inhabitants. After Frank tells his wife he has cancer, for example, this guide says “he did not notice the anger that tinged her voice when she asked him why he hadn’t told her about his symptoms or his trips to the doctor. Nor did he dare notice that he was angry, too, offended even, that she would go on living without him.”

The lone wolf in Glossolalia, while individually enjoyable and cleverly built, is “Apotheosis.” With its layered histories of Friars and mendicants, it just doesn’t fit in with its companions. This is a relatively minor quibble, however, for overall, Glossolalia sparkles, providing readers the opportunity to engage with one of the unsung heroes of modern American short fiction. Jauss’s stories are quietly haunting. This is the kind of work that sticks to the soul, waiting to be carried long into the night.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013


Demetria Martínez
University of Oklahoma Press ($14.95)

by Jenn Mar

In her highly anticipated The Block Captain’s Daughter, Demetria Martínez lays the groundwork for a new understanding of Chicano and Mexican-immigrant identity in a novella that follows six activists and immigrants as they experience the vicissitudes of recognition and daily life.

Months after crossing the Mexican border on foot, the protagonist, Lupe Anaya, waits tables at a local taqueria in the “humble promised land of Albuquerque, New Mexico” while waiting for the birth of her child, Destiny. Her baby’s Salvadorian father, Marcos, has left the country, so at night Lupe reads Harry Potter books aloud to nurse fantasies of an Ivy League-bound baby and writes letters to Destiny. These letters are built on fears of her child becoming a “ketchup Mexican,” on resentments toward the North American Free Trade Agreement that destroyed countless Mexican families, and on hopes for a better life, never failed and never delivered until Destiny’s arrival.

Supporting Lupe are two activist couples: Peter and Cory, and Maritza and Flor, whose private recognitions about their cultural identities are plaited together. In the company of his partner, Cory, a mestiza with deep cultural roots, Peter sees himself as “just another white guy” suffering from cultural amnesia, who co-opts cultures by mastering foreign languages and perpetually reinvents himself. We come to see their relationship differently when Cory reveals that she can barely roll her R’s and feels like “Peter’s English subtitle.” The second couple struggles to define a private life within their activist obligations: Maritza finds their three television sets intolerable, but Flor, in the wake of 9/11, is transfixed by news images, fearing that “something else might happen.”

Written across many voices and points-of-view, the book is interspersed with Lupe’s letters. This innovation gives readers a series of variant interpretations of characters, thereby fixing and complicating identity.

The Block Captain’s Daughter welcomes possibilities more than dangers. At times Martínez’s characters come off as too agreeable and unfailingly dignified, even in circumstances where their political histories are at odds. Most of the drama happens offstage, and characters, inconceivably perceptive about their political representations and inner lives, have a propensity to spout expository history and leftist wisdom on “anti-immigration racists,” “capitalism . . . in its death throes,” and factory relocations that left “hundreds of [Mexican] women with no way to earn a living.” Still, these features point to the book’s intellect, its admirable concern for immigration reform, and positive representations of diverse communities.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013


Anthony Varallo
Triquarterly Books/Northwestern University Press ($17.95)

by James Naiden

Anthony Varallo’s third collection of stories brings together disparate elements of his characters’ lives, the uneven hinges that make up the human condition. Think of Me and I’ll Know often displays superior writing even if the page-by-page execution of the story itself is not always consistent; to portray absurdity and pathos takes a command of irony, and Varallo manages this with aplomb.

In “Time Apart Together” we meet Brad, a college dropout and the only progeny of a disharmonious marriage in which his father has taken to chopping down trees and playing decades-old LPs. Of course he has a girlfriend of sorts, named Ursula, who keeps talking about Kevin, apparently a former boyfriend, and comparing the two. But as a telephone solicitor for a bank, Brad seems to know how to liven up his temporary calling in life:

During breaks, I sat in a too-brightly lit cafeteria and made fun of the people I’d just spoken to. I made fun of the woman who shouted, “Diane Sawyer told us about you!” and the man who made me sing “Hail to the Redskins” on speakerphone, or the umpteen million callers whom I’d put on hold while I pretended to take their names off the phone solicitation list. I made fun of the phone solicitation list. I made fun of Phil, a coworker who wore his headset during break, and who read the sales script with the grim intonation of a hostage testimonial, and who often sat across from me at break, making fun of me making fun of him.

The divagations in the story are at first predictable: Brad doesn’t return to college and breaks up several times with Ursula, tired of her refrains about Kevin. But then suddenly Kevin appears, an exact doppelganger of Brad:

Kevin looked up at me, his face mine, his expression mine, the look I sometimes turned on Ursula when she told me she loved me, me wanting her gone. There was something Kevin’s look wanted to reveal to me, but it wasn’t until Kevin reached out and pulled my shirt from its buttons and placed the first of his many punches against my temple that I understood what it was.
“Kevin!” Ursula was screaming. “Kevin, don’t!”
And I felt Kevin’s blows against my head and tasted blood on my teeth and finally grasped, at long last, the impossible possibility of love.

That’s where the story ends. Varallo leaves his meaning ambiguous—not unlike many of his characters and their mundane situations.

In “No One At All,” eleven-year-old Jonas has a friend, Toby—two years older, self-centered, unreliable, and totally indifferent to the feelings of others. They are on vacation with the younger boy’s parents in Atlantic City’s Boardwalk area. At one point, Jonas buys a live crab and names it “Horace.” Toby wants to kill it, even torture it but he doesn’t get his wish: on the car ride home, the crab dies in its little box. Jonas is upset, but Toby, narcissistic as ever, has no interest in the younger boy’s grief, as a plane flies low overhead near an airport. Here are the concluding lines:

Toby stuck his head out the window, the wind taking his hair. “It’s like it’s going to land on us,” Toby said. A shadow lengthened across the car. A roar descended, like a sustained thunderclap. Jonas looked at Toby and saw the shadow swallow him whole.
“We’re dead,” Toby said. “Dead, for real dead.”

Varallo’s terse realism bleakly suggests the worst in human nature and fate, and this direness distinguishes the collection. In Think of Me and I’ll Know, one is entranced by the story itself, despite the lack of upbeat endings.

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013


Eric Lundgren
Overlook Duckworth ($25.95)

by Daniel Green

Although nothing definitive can be said about prevailing assumptions in American writing by considering any particular first novel, Eric Lundgren’s The Facades seems to reflect an understanding of what makes a work of fiction “unconventional.” Whether such an understanding arises from influences absorbed in a creative writing program, through the halls of which many younger writers do indeed pass, or simply from noting what works get called “innovative” by critics and reviewers, many ambitious novels embody a widely-held conception of a departure from convention. However, this conception encourages a preference for a certain kind of narrative more than it encourages any challenges to narrative.

The Facades does exemplify this preference, but the first thing that should be said about it is that it is a well-written, well-paced, atmospherically persuasive novel that rewards the reader’s time. It compels attention from its first few lines:

I used to drive downtown every night, looking for my wife. The rush hour traffic was across the median and I traveled the westbound lane of I-99 without delay or impediment, sure I was going the wrong way. The city assembled itself, scattered lights in the old skyscrapers meandering the night sky like notes on a staff. What could I have hoped to find there? People didn’t just disappear, I thought at the time. They left fingerprints, notes, receipts, echoes. If Molly had walked from her opera rehearsal to the corner deli and had not materialized there or returned, she must have left a residue behind.

Unlike some novels, The Facades continues from this memorable and compelling opening to satisfy the reader’s curiosity about the narrator’s predicament. The narrator, Sven Norberg, searches for his wife, a prominent opera singer, but he finds only “echoes” of her presence. In the meantime, his relationship with his son deteriorates to the point that the son leaves to join a religious cult. As Sven roams through the fictional city of Trude, his experiences give the reader a sense of the city “assembling” itself—although Trude, a version of a Midwestern rust belt city in decline, is in such a state of disrepair that the impression we get is of a city disassembling itself as well.

Sven is very aware of Trude’s degraded status, but his voyage through the inner depths of the city only confirms this degradation for the reader, while the entropic city also mirrors the loss of energy and purpose in Sven’s life in the wake of his wife’s disappearance. The most devastating manifestation of the increasing disarray and loss of control Sven experiences is the growing alienation of his son, Kyle, who finds both purpose and a surrogate father in Bob Lily, head of the First Church of the Divine Purpose.

Other subplots also dramatize the general loss of function encountered everywhere in Trude. Among the problems confronting Trude is, of course, a financial crisis, and the city’s oafish mayor has decreed that all public libraries will be closed to save money. In defiance of this decree, a group of radicalized librarians occupy the main downtown branch, and throughout the narrative are engaged in a standoff with the police. Sven has a more direct experience with the police himself, in the form of two detectives supposedly investigating his wife’s disappearance but who at best produce only fabricated evidence and at worst rely on the dreams of one of the detectives (nicknamed “The Oracle”). These episodes are half satirical and half surreal, but they never quite stray from the realm of possibility, nor do they descend into freakish whimsy such that the novel loses its direction among superficial distortions of fantasy. The book refuses to indulge in the sort of facile surrealism, increasingly common in American fiction, that takes from the modernist surrealism of the early twentieth century its distortions of reality but without its specific philosophical intentions—as if simply to depart from the protocols of literary realism remains a bold move. The vision of American decline presented in The Facades is appealingly askew, but it is also close enough to the existing circumstances of decline that the novel’s fictional world seems both aesthetically autonomous and uncomfortably recognizable as the world we live in.

The Facades could plausibly be described as a post-apocalyptic narrative, which has been popular enough among contemporary writers (among them Cormac McCarthy, Steve Erickson, and Ben Marcus) that it has developed into a genre of sorts, incorporating elements of both literary fiction and science fiction. Although no particular national trauma or catastrophic event has resulted in Trude’s devastation, as a de-industrialized Midwestern city it represents a culmination of a phenomenon long in the making but here rendered starkly as an urban dystopia, a fate that indeed may await more than one rust belt city in decline. Unlike much post-apocalyptic fiction, however, which frequently succumbs to sensationalist plot devices or is too obviously didactic, The Facades avoids narrative melodrama and refrains from heavy-handed allegory. Lundgren does not distort his fictional world in order to offer a warning about the dangers we court in our present practices, but creates a subtly distorted world and allows it its own logical integrity. If this novel shows the influence of the post-apocalyptic setting, it does so in a more seamless way than many other entries in the genre, without repeating overused conceits or settling for the expected effects.

A primary feature of the fictional world that is Trude consists literally of its buildings, and thus Sven casts his observant eye on the landmark structures he encounters, including the Ringstrasse, a labyrinthine shopping mall that was built by the Austrian emigrant architect Klaus Bernhard and is his “greatest statement on the impossibility of fulfillment with a capitalist culture,” now itself mostly reflective of Trude’s decline:

The Ringstrasse still made quite an impression as you approached on I-99, the whitewashed spirals of concrete looming under the night sky. Bernhard had envisioned it as the locus of a second city, a new downtown for an ideal Trude to replace the declining original. He wanted the mall to look Greek, noting wryly that the Oracle at Delphi was once surrounded by junk dealers and souvenir sellers. The exterior of the mall was blinding in its early years. It gave off an almost holy radiance. . . .
As we walked in the west entrance, I had to admit that Bernhard’s detractors had a point. It wasn’t very successful as a mall. The vast echoing chambers, the blank concrete, exposed the ultimate hollowness of the retail urge. This was especially the case in the mall’s outer rings, where the large department stores were housed. One tiled path might lead you directly to a perfume counter, while another curved around to a copper statue of Hermes presiding over a dried-up fountain full of rusty pennies.

We also get detailed views of the Opera House, where for years Sven’s missing wife Molly presided as a local diva, and the Trumhaus, a home for senior citizens where Sven’s mother currently resides and where Bernhard himself spent his final days, an account of which we get at the novel’s conclusion. This conclusion reinforces the parallel between Sven and Bernhard in their common state of loss—it may be that Sven’s loss may just be a later, faint echo of Bernhard’s, who not only also lost the woman he loved but ultimately “failed to create a world he could live in.”

Sven Norberg finds himself inhabiting the city built by Klaus Bernhard, if anything now even more unlivable, but it becomes increasingly apparent that Molly Norberg, at least, has voluntarily escaped the dreary confines of Trude (and thus avoided the metaphorical fate or Bernhard’s beloved Ulli, who, Bernhard claims on his death bed, is buried “under the labyrinth” of the Ringstrasse.) As Sven is told by a resident of the Trumhaus, however, people like Sven and Bernhard “could never leave Trude.” They are necessary parts of the landscape, the American urban landscape that in both its human and its human-created forms is finally the real subject of The Facades. Lundgren’s achievement lies in skillfully invoking this landscape and making us believe in it enough that we might think we inhabit it ourselves.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013


Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics
Edited by TC Tolbert and Tim Trace Peterson
Nightboat Books ($27.95)

by Matthew Cheney

Lori Selke’s biographical note at the end of Troubling the Line gives some sense of what is both at stake and at play in this extraordinary anthology: “Lori can’t decide on a gender or a pronoun: she, s/he, they, butch, pirate, genderfuckable.” Pronouns are a common theme throughout the book’s more than 500 pages. English limits us, imposing binary standards that don’t work for these poets, people who do not accept the neat, strict separation of he or she. “My name’s Reba,” Reba Overkill says. “I like the pronoun ‘it’, but you can use ‘they’ if the other makes you uncomfortable.”

New language offers new possibilities, but also some losses. D’Lo’s poem “Growing’s Trade Off” begins:

Since I have started using male pronouns,
I have come to miss the communities of “she”.
I never knew that’s what the trade off was
In coming closer to a “me” that better fit me.

A “me” that better fit me is also a theme through many of these poems: the search not only for a pronoun, but for some way to express a sense of identity that doesn’t fit the most easily inherited, most socially normed models. Identities are partly constructions from available materials, partly aspirations, dreams, desires, intuitions. What Troubling the Line so vividly demonstrates is the multiplicity within any identity. Most of the fifty-five poets in the book are represented with a statement on poetics, and these statements provide opportunities for us to see the diversity of thoughts, feelings, aesthetics, and politics that are embodied by and envisioned through the poems. Stephen Burt writes: “I am a gender-dysphoric, looks-wrong-in-the-mirror, says-so-when-asked once-again (but not enough) cross-dressing dad and husband and writer and professor and ex-Minnesotan and current New Englander, a disappointed political partisan, a secular Jew, a forty-year-old bourgeois, a classical-curious indie-rock fan, a supporter of the 2011 WNBA champion Minnesota Lynx. All those identities animate some of my poems.”

The wonder of Troubling the Line is that editors TC Tolbert and Tim Trace Peterson have allowed the book to be big and vehemently eclectic, and so the diversity of writers and poems across its pages is animated by such a rich diversity of identities that generalizing about them becomes impossible. For any seemingly useful generalization there is likely an exception somewhere here. For identities such as trans and genderqueer this is especially important, because these identities are so marginalized within the general culture that it is easy for even well intentioned readers to assume that such identities are predictable or able to be summed up in simple equations. For the equation Trans/genderqueer poetry = x, this anthology offers at least fifty-five solutions for x.

Though there is, thankfully, no single definition of trans or genderqueer or poetry herein, there are commonalities, overlaps, echoes, and reiterations. Bodies, borders, and childhood are often a topic of concern and consideration. The names of Gloria Anzaldúa, Judith Butler, and Audre Lorde come up regularly. There are almost no traditional, European poetic verse forms evident.

But more common than commonalities are differences and multiplicities. The anthology’s organization heightens this effect: the poets are presented in alphabetical order of first initial (Meg Day appears between Max Wolf Valerio and Micha Cárdenas). Performance poets are next to Stein-influenced experimentalists who are next to confessional lyricists, and all of them are next to poets who mix up those (admittedly inadequate) categories with glee. One statement on poetics after another speaks to the queering of language and the queer will to language and the queer impulse within language, but often from vastly different, even contradictory, perceptions of queerness and of language. For some of these writers, poetry is a form of politics; for others, poetry is itself identity; for others, language is its own world; for others, all of the above, and then some.

Anthologies are, by their nature, a mixed bag, and they are often problematic in appearing more inclusive and definitive than any single book about any but the most narrow of subjects could be. The genius of Troubling the Line is to start with that knowledge and to turn it into a mission statement and act of generosity. Because the book offers so many different types of poems and poets, it is impossible to see it as definitive—it suggests possibilities, not canons. There are no totalities here, even within specific poets’ work (“All those identities animate some of my poems”).

Reading the book, with all its diversities, can be dizzying—and it’s a glorious feeling. Rarely do anthologies capture quite so much energy of expression. No reader is likely to find all of these poems to their taste, and that is part of the fun, because as we traverse the types and tones, we are challenged to define our own tastes, desires, and identities. Who am I when I read this book? we ask. And: Who might I be?

Regardless of our own relationship to gender, to bodies, to love, lust, and loss, we will find ourselves somewhere within these pages, within these lines. Here are voices to hear—voices that, because of all their differences, are ineluctably human: our friends, family, neighbors, ancestors, lovers, selves. Listen to Ari Banias: “who is ghost, is the translucent almost / who is flotilla, is footless / is died and come back, who is sheet / and oooo who is remembered” and Jenny Johnson: “Oh, Lord of Parts, Oh, Holy Tool Shed, / When I rise from these sore bones, / What have you taken? What have you left me?” and Oliver Bendorf: “Call me tumblefish, rip-roar, pocket of light, / haberdash and milkman, velveteen and silverbreath, / your bitch, your little brother, Ponderosa pine.”

Who cannot inhabit these words? Who cannot be thrilled, awed, beguiled by them?

The poems and statements on poetics present paths and potentials. Some writers are their own subjects, others reject subjectification. Some writers claim a comfort within expressions of masculinity or femininity, others claim multitudes of gender identities, others write elegies to gender or celebrate its demise. The writers are of various ethnicities, various degrees of able-bodiedness, various classes and contexts. Lilith Latini’s biographical note states that she is “as yet unpublished in print,” while Stephen Burt has a poem in a recent (as I write this) issue of The New Yorker. To readers who assume that trans and genderqueer are stable, static, predictable, narrow identities, Troubling the Line stands as evidence otherwise. It is among the most diverse anthologies you are likely to read any time soon. Queerness is about the expansion of possibility and identity within selves, societies, and languages. We need more pronouns, not fewer.

The question of the pronoun problem in English is solved by Julian Talamantez Brolaski. If proposed new pronouns such as hir cannot catch on because they fit awkwardly into standard English, these poems say, don’t give up on the necessary new but rather the standard, unfitting old. Brolaski’s poems are some of the most exciting in a frequently exciting anthology because here the language quite literally becomes queer:

who hath bespoke
wheelis flyan upright
who sat bolt upright in thir coffin

There are traditions even in this magnificent neologizing—traditions of orature and dialect, but also traditions deep in written languages and literatures: the writers in Europe before orthography settled down in dictionaries, or the lone wolves and idiosyncratics such as the writer redolent in Brolaski’s lines, Gerard Manley Hopkins. Queerness has always been among us.

“We are attempting to sturdy and thicken a conduit for expansions,” writes j/j hastain. It would be another way to think of this book: not as an anthology, but as a conduit for expansions, a tool to trick out the “me” that better fits me, you, us.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore

Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013


Volume Four: North African Literature
Edited by Pierre Joris and Habib Tengour
multiple translators
University of California Press ($39.95)

by Brooke Horvath

The first two volumes of Poems for the Millenniumanthologized experimental poetries from the fin de siècle to the end of the twentieth century; the third gathered those Romantic and Post-Romantic poets out of whose work the several varieties of modernism emerged. All three volumes made room for writers from around the world but focused primarily on North Americans and Europeans. Volume Four, described by its editors as “a natural progression from its predecessors,” compiles work primarily from the Maghreb (North Africa from Tunisia west to Mauritania) and from al-Andalus (eighth- to fifteenth-century Moorish Iberia). Although their primary interest is poetry, the editors have made room for creation myths, folk tales, legends, riddles, pictographs, parables, and proverbs as well as excerpts from novels and from a great variety of nonfiction—from Ibn Sharaf al-Qayrawani’s eleventh-century “On Some Andalusian Poets” and Maimonides’s Guide for the Perplexed to Tahar Haddad’s 1929 plea for equal rights for women, Frantz Fanon on the “colonized intellectual,” and Malek Alloula on postcards and the colonial gaze.

In myriad ways, historically North Africa has been deeply involved with western thought and culture, and to remind us of how far back this connection goes, editors Pierre Joris and Habib Tengour open with “A Book of Multiple Beginnings”: brief selections from, among others, Hanno the Navigator (sixth century B.C.E.), the Greek poet and scholar Callimachus, early Church Fathers Tertullian and Augustine, Lucius Apuleius (author of The Golden Ass), Magos (whose Punic treatise on agriculture survives only in Greek and Latin fragments), and the sixth-century C.E. Roman poet Luxorius of Carthage. Following are five diwans (meaning a “collection” or “gathering”). The first is devoted primarily to examples of early Andalusian, Sicilian, and Maghrebi lyric poetry. The second, “Al Adab: The Invention of Prose,” samples thirteen prose authors from the eleventh to the sixteenth centuries; the third gathers prose and poetry from the five centuries of “cultural slumber” following the fall of Grenada in 1492 and is followed by “Resistance and the Road to Independence,” which presents work written during the years of colonial rule. A sizable double diwan of postcolonial work subdivided by country brings the collection into the present.

Inserted between the principal diwans are six briefer sections. Three are devoted to oral traditions—transcriptions of often anonymous tales, songs, fables, and folk poetry as well as recent examples drawn from working-class “bards and popular tellers of tales”—while the other three sections highlight topics of special interest: esoteric Sufi poetry (“A Book of Mystics”), examples of Arabic calligraphy (“A Book of Writing”), and “A Book of Exiles,” which spotlights both writers (such as Jacques Derrida and Hubert Haddad) who emigrated from the Maghreb and writers (Paul Bowles, Juan Goytisolo, Cécile Oumhani) who made North Africa their home. Brief introductions preface each section, offering concise remarks on poetics, history, and politics (these are sufficiently up-to-date to consider the up-in-the-air consequences of the Arab Spring). In lieu of headnotes, most selections conclude with a short “commentary” that provides biographical information, comments from other scholars, and information otherwise meant to aid comprehension and appreciation. The editors, however, do no more than nudge readers in helpful directions; nowhere do they insist that we notice and admire what struck them, or understand the texts as they do.

Although repressive regimes have taken their toll of the possibilities for poetry over the past half century, post-independence North African literature is extremely well represented with ninety-six authors anthologized (the majority from Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco). The premodern poetry assembled, important in its own right and both accessible and charming, serves also as context for the modern work, limning “the historical processes that led to the most innovative contemporary work” from the Maghreb. However, the evolution of Maghrebi poetry is explained rather piecemeal throughout via the abbreviated introductions and commentaries, and a more sustained account would be welcome. Additionally, given that this anthology constitutes the fourth volume in the series described above, more might have been done to chart the cross-fertilization of North African and European literatures (especially given the editors’ emphasis on twentieth-century innovation). The impact of colonialism; the continuing choice of whether to write in French, Spanish, or Arabic; Europe as haven from persecution and locus of publishing opportunities: these facts are clear. Less clear is how the anthologized writers have reworked the literary lessons of European modernism and postmodernism, or what European writers have learned from them. When an infrequent nod is made in this direction, the gesture is telling. For instance, the editors relay scholar Robert Irwin’s suspicion that “Ibn Shuhayd’s fantasy of an afterlife . . . may have indirectly inspired Dante’s famous Divine Comedy,” but how this may have (indirectly) happened is unelaborated. Again, Ezra Pound’s insistence that European lyric poetry began “in the French/Occitan troubadour tradition” remains “canonical” to this day, the editors observe, despite the fact that since 1928 it has been known that “the obvious root oftroubadour is the Arabic tarab,” hence pushing the origins of lyric poetry across the Mediterranean or into al-Andalus, but this information goes nowhere save to provide an example of another “deeply denigrating attitude” toward Arabic achievement and influence.

These are, however, small complaints, and the editors have rightly kept their focus on the literature itself. Perhaps for similar reasons, they have elected not to annotate individual texts, a task that, once begun, would doubtless have left a good third of many pages deep in footnotes. A glossary might alleviate some occasional puzzlement, for it proves difficult to keep in mind terms that, once defined, are subsequently deployed elsewhere; the assumption seems to be that readers will plow straight through these 744 pages (and indeed I did so for this review, but that’s not how anthologies typically get read), and that they all have excellent memories. What, again, does naqd mean? NajdMuwashshadaRazzia? Also useful would have been a bibliography listing the several books and articles mentioned passim in the commentaries.

I suppose I could keep nickel and diming my betters: why are writers who have published volumes of poems represented instead by excerpts from novels in a book professedly devoted to poetry? Why are five Maghrebi writers singled out for inclusion in the “Book of Exiles” when more than a dozen others located elsewhere in the book also seem to have left North Africa for good? However, the principal point to be made is that this is a magisterial effort by two absolutely serious and accomplished poet-scholars. It is an important addition to the Poems for the Millennium series and significant in its own right, both expanding and complicating notions of the modern by introducing us to many writers we might not otherwise encounter. Moreover, as one turns from the spare poems of Mohamed Sibari to an excerpt from Tahar Ben Jelloun’s early novel Harrouda, or from an ancient Berber tale about the first humans to Omar Berrada’s curious meditation on ’pataphysics and the work of bpNichol, from examples of Shawia amulet inscriptions or an eleventh-century drinking song to Tuareg proverbs or Sheikh Nefzaoui’s fifteenth-century list of “The Names Given to Woman’s Sexual Organs,” the variety and manifold pleasures on offer quickly come clear.

Although female poets were few in the Arabic past, they are well represented in the later diwans, and even in the eleventh century, Wallada bint al-Mustakfi wrote straightforwardly from Córdoba, “By Allah, I’m made for higher goals and I walk with grace and style. / I blow kisses to anyone but reserve my cheeks for my man,” while Hafsa bint al-Hajj Arrakuniyya, a twelfth-century woman writing in Granada, averred, “If I keep you in my eyes until the world blows up I’d still want more.” With equal flirtatiousness, the Shawia bard Aissa al Jarmuni al Harkati (1885–1946) offers this four-line wink:

You are Jews and your black veils are pretty,
and how beautiful is your women’s talk!
My fate is to die with so much pain inside
for I don’t know how I can forget your beauty!

Less amorously, the contemporary Algerian poet Hamid Skif manages to violate at least a couple taboos in “Poem for My Prick”:

Today they are burying my dog of a prick.
The imams surround it,
Those crows at all major feasts
Its arrival in Paradise.

Just as disenchanted, if for different reasons, is Hamid Tibouchi (b. 1951), who laments while looking out a train window, “my god! so many beggars! / they have replaced the trees / that once lined the sidewalks,” or Mustapha Benfodil (b. 1968), who protests, “I asked the hill for a light / It gave me a tank / Pulverized by a scream.” Similarly, Mohammed Bennis (b. 1948) despairs, “Will I speak to you of people resisting exile and suffering? / Will I speak to you of a village where men women / children were exterminated? . . . What do you want me to tell you?”

Under the influence of modernism, much of the recent poetry gathered here becomes more elliptical, more recognizably innovative, as in this stanza from Amin Khan’s prose poem “Vision of the Return of Khadija to Opium” (first published in 2012):

you are no more the sensitive prisoner rolling in the flight the rust the hair the bleached static of your body captive memory stopped in the silence of midday perfumes the odor of liberty white opacity that expands it’s the death of you that touches me and brushes me with your fingers and pulls me toward your body of sadness neglecting

Or again, these lines from Jean Sénac’s “Heliopolis”:

So each was allowed to perish according to his joys.
The words no longer encumbered the vertebrae
Nor the marrow our horizon.
All hurdles abolished, you followed into the steps of those
who no longer expect the halt.
And they know what is stardust around our blood,
which is the paraphrase of nothingness.

“Raise your voice / with the tongue / of your pen,” wrote the early cabalist Abraham Abulafia more than seven hundred years ago, and this is what these writers have done for millennia, writing in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, classical and vernacular Arabic, French, Spanish, Amazigh. Reading them provides more than the pleasure of seeing “what the poets in North Africa are doing these days.” Although Stephen Watts insists in the Summer 2013 issue of Banipal that this anthology “should not be read as filling a gap in our ignorance, but rather as indicating a source of difference . . . another regime of cultural viability,” I cannot see why erasing a smidgen of our ignorance would be wrong, for as Joris and Tengour calmly observe, this literature arrives from a part of the world “whose cultural achievements—including their impact on and importance for Western culture—have been not only passively neglected but often actively ‘disappeared’ or written out of the record.” Perhaps Watts means to discourage an idle curiosity or premature readiness to deny differences, to see only oneself in these others. Still, given the amount of bad press countries of the Maghreb routinely receive here in America and the number of unfortunate caricatures misinforming the West from foreign-policy assumptions to popular culture, acknowledging difference can be only half of the story. The other half must be the encouragement of empathy and identification. Thirteen years into our new millennium, that would constitute a welcome difference.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore

Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013


Jim Cohn
Musex Records ($25)

by Kirpal Gordon

Although Venerable Madtown Hall is postbeat poet/scholar/musician Jim Cohn’s eighth CD of spoken word and music, it’s his first to come with a DVD, and he couldn’t have chosen a better date. Filmed in black and white by Katrina Miller and William Garrison, The Making of Venerable Madtown Hall is an ars poetica, a delight for eye and ear, and highly useful for fans, poets, and musicians making sense of this tradition.

In writ-oral-aural fashion, one can read the poem (at https://www.poetspath.com/homepage/listeningroom.html) before listening to it on the CD or watching Cohn speak the poem on the DVD with the band. All three are quite different experiences. Observing Cohn phrase his poetic line is a study in Whitman-Kerouac-Ginsberg cadences and Dylan-Waits-Neil Young double entendres. He’s blessed with an impeccable sense of time, his syllables are elastic and his honey-gravel-bourbon-inflected voice whispers, laments, and celebrates his lyrics—but it is the deep-pocket rapport he builds with Bob Schlesinger on keyboards and Chris Engleman on bass that turns the session into a seminar on the art of collaboration. Cohn unites word to note and “leaves room,” as the nuns told us when we danced too close to our partners in high school, “for the Holy Ghost.” There’s plenty of space for everything in this bardo blues project, and because nothing is rushed, all is revealed in Cohn’s smoky, spooky, indeterminate delivery.

Cohn’s willing not to know what he’s after until it happens. Like Miles Davis in the studio, he keeps instructions to a cryptic minimum, and the result is Miles-like: the musicians discover new ways to cohere the score. In the opener, “Extraterrestial Girl,” for example, Cohn shares a few laughs on the title, asks for “trance music, kind of Philip Glass,” listens with rapt attention, and then lays down lyric as if he’d been rehearsing it to this melody all his life, the final chorus—“Things that cannot possibly exist are utterly real. / You’ll see me again and never know it”—hanging in a stunning “Crystal Silence”-type mood.

The magic’s in the interaction, and watching Schlesinger search out a blues “more gnarly, dirty and grunge” on “Medicine Verbs,” one can see how the trio invents. Engleman’s electric bass line opens tasty and phat, the organ wails a gospel prayer and Cohn sings-speaks-haunts these lines as if across a thousand galaxies: “You and I speak to one another in medicine verbs. / These are the words we live by after we die and there are no words.”

The music does more than give form or accompaniment to the words. It totally changes the context, enlarging the poem’s possibilities, drawing out its enigmatic elements, suggesting alternate meanings. “When Hard Times Take Everything,” the final track, a Schlesinger ballad of exquisite beauty, turns Cohn’s last lines—“Many life forms have evolved beyond us. / Although their transmissions are murmurs, / They grow within our children and transform who we become”—into a joyous hope, the embodiment of Venerable Madtown Hall’s theme.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013


Malachi Black
Argos Books ($10)

by Tikva Jacob

The best way to read Malachi Black’s Quarantine may be to start at the end. Or in the middle. Of course, there’s always the option of starting at the beginning—if you can find it. As a collection of crown sonnets, this chapbook is extremely cyclical. Black trudges from desperate pleading to fervent gratitude, from solitude to singularity, from life to death to rebirth. He recognizes the inherent activity and monotony in the crown sonnet structure and utilizes it to explore a period of quarantine in his house, in his thoughts, and in his faith. He sees himself, his ailments, and his god as if through a shifting kaleidoscope: with vibrant colors, shapes, and variations of light, too fleeting to preserve but too impressive to dismiss.

To travel the thematic aspects of this work, the reader must consider Time. Black explores the passage of time and the repetitious flow of thoughts and emotions. He transfers the reader through time but he simultaneously levels time’s partitions, dissolving hours into one constant wheel of motion: “There is no end: what has come will come again/will come again: and then distend: and then / and then: and then again: there is no end.”

The individual poems themselves echo the progression in time. The poems are arranged according to the time of day and titled according to that hour’s liturgical office: Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, Compline, Nocturne, Vigils, and Matins. Thus, Black recounts his time spent in thought and in search of the divine.

While Matins are generally considered the beginning of the service (the midnight prayer, said after a short rest period), Black uses this title for his last sonnet. As opposed to separate prayers, Black’s poems become one continuous prayer, one constant appeal. His faith wavers, then wanes, then strengthens. “Matins” ends with the words, “Somehow I am sturdier, more sure.”

Left at this point, the poems tell the tale of a successful hero, stronger, solidified, and definite. But Black didn’t merely write a series—he wrote a rotation. On the second round through the book, the reader will notice that the first words of “Lauds” are, “Somehow I am sturdier, more shore.” Though the words sound the same, “shore” is one rising and falling tide, one disappearing stain on the sand away from “sure.” It is clear that Black wakes with the sense of uneasiness, aware that some form of stability has been lost somewhere in the transition of time.

Through the book’s circular motion, Black sooths the reader into the lulling journey ofQuarantine. The constant gain and loss of proximity and understanding produces a relentless “one step forward, two steps back” effect, which resonates within our human core. It is painful but it is beautiful. Even when faced with our transience, all we have and all we need is the reality that Black chimes: “I am that I am.”

Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013


Jen Hofer
Little Red Leaves ($12)

by Marthe Reed

Jen Hofer’s new chapbook Front Page News, a series of newspaper cut-ups clipped from the front page of the Los Angeles Times, leads its readers through a recitation of the matter-of-fact violence that characterizes the pages of newspapers everywhere. Part of a longer manuscript which Hofer composed each day over the course of a year, using the front page of the newspaper of whichever city she woke up in, the pages of Front Page News are taken from a fifteen-day period in Los Angeles, where Hofer resides. These cut-ups, held together by careful clipping to include a connective tissue of the white space of the paper, crack open reportage to create new texts that call into stark relief the sensationalized, quotidian violence of the newspaper writings from which they are composed.

Each page in Front Page News bears the iconic “Los Angeles” from the front page of the Times along with the date, which ranges from Saturday, April 23, 2011, to Saturday, May 7, 2011. The gray/creamy paper of the clippings is lined along the green-on-white gridlines of calendric accounting sheets, emphasizing the temporarily and gridded layout of the source material. Hofer’s individual titles accentuate the drama of headlines—predators, prison, battlefield, security—the type-sizes varying according to the Times’ editors’ intent: shadow, diplomacy, KILLS. This latter poem is composed almost entirely of the word “kill” itself or its near kin, though the font size is tiny in comparison to that of its bloated title:


In this poem, Hofer calls out the hyperbolic principle of newspaper headlines and storylines, with their subtext—a response to the pressure of selling ad-copy and getting eyes-on-pages—being what sells: “a corpse / crowds / the / people.” A corpse, indeed, is what passes for news.

In the poem dated Sunday, April 24, 2011, Hofer tenders a compressed moment for the inhabitants of Chernobyl, post-nuclear meltdown. The poet pushes the source material beyond “human interest” or environmental reporting, past even headline fascinations with war, death, and disaster. In the compression of language and syntax, Hofer transforms the abstraction of news (always happening elsewhere to someone else) and returns to it the immediacy of people caught in the midst of life’s exigencies: “in radioactive / breath / we eat / we drink / trying . . . the years were / a casket.” For a moment, in the midst of these lines, “we” are caught in the toxic air, our feet planted on the contaminated ground, our lives reduced to the relenting countdown of an atomic clock.

As an object, the chapbook owes much to the contribution of publisher Dawn Pendergast at Little Red Leaves. Using several of Hofer’s collages printed on cloth as a cover, Pendergast has sewn the chapbook together by machine, mimicking the mechanical processes of printing newspapers yet, like Hofer, bringing it back to the immediate and personal, one woman feeding the cloth beneath pressure-foot and needle. It is thus a pleasure to hold and admire, as well as to read.

Political, ambitious, visual, and compact, Jen Hofer’s Front Page News pulls its readers out of quotidian distraction and into a heated cynosure, the clipped, cryptic language reconfiguring the blatant emotional manipulation of news media and our own hunger for its “sizzurp.” It’s a remarkable collection, and makes one long for the full-length manuscript to find its way into print soon.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013


Alfred Corn
Press 53 ($14.95)

by James Naiden

Alfred Corn has published nine volumes of poetry since 1976. He has also published a novel and a book of essays as well as a book-long study of prosody. So he knows, presumably, how to construct a readable poem. Unfortunately, in his new book Tables, he stuffs many of his poems with overwhelming information, too much for the reader to find a coherent idea. An example is a long effort—I’m not sure whether it’s verse or prose poetry—titled “Oklahoma,” a dense, rambling testament to the near South. Here are middle lines of this three-pager:

Lawton’s Fort Sill, Tulsa’s Lockheed, and McAlester’s ammunition
Plants evidence the martial character of a people whose staked claims
Were often guaranteed by gunfire, and whose blood paid for conflicting
Rebel and Yankee loyalties. No better training for war than team
Spirit—just ask Jim Thorpe, or, since you can’t, inspect the medals displayed
In his house at Yale. Where’s the Wrestling Hall of Fame but in Stillwater?

If this is poetry, it’s also pedantic; Corn’s eagerness to tell you all about this or that frequently gets in the way of his intended art. When he is more disciplined in his lines, Corn writes well, if coyly, as in the first four (of seven) couplets written during a flight from England to Russia:

Mind, though they’ve banned material counterparts,
Your conscious page and pen got past the guards.

Think back to Mandelshtam at the Black Sea,
Composing silently, invisibly . . .

“It must be memorable.” Yes, or else
Our uninscriptions will unwrite themselves.

Then, too, if bombs incinerate this brain,
It won’t recall so much as my own name.
(“In-Flight Couplets Composed During a Bomb Alert”)

Corn is also fond of sonnets, and shows a playful side in constructing them—sometimes Italian in form, sometimes Shakespearean, sometimes a mix. The form limits his loquacity, and sonnets such as “St. Anthony In The Desert” and “Domus Caerulea” demonstrate that Corn can ennoble his writing with discipline. We see it too in the final six lines of his masterful “After Valery”:

Sleeper, massed gold and shadowed indolence,
Tranquil abandon its own best defense,
Doe, forever couched near mounds of grapes,

If the soul is absent, summoned to Hades,
Your form, whose womb a fluid forearm drapes,
Is awake. Your form’s awake, and your lover sees.

Corn also knows how to wave to friends in the crowd. In Tables, he writes “letters” to famous poets whose paths he’s crossed over the decades—Marilyn Hacker, Robert Pinsky, Grace Schulman, James Fenton—and refers to other literary figures such as the late Joseph Brodsky, all obviously intended to make the reader well aware of his connections, that he’s read the right books, and knows all the inside jokes. But one can tire easily of such name-dropping, however much one might appreciate the erudition and literariness of it all.

At his best, Corn can write a pithy effort of simple beauty—as in the final poem of Tables, “Lighthouse”:

Pilot at the helm of a hidden
headland it steers free
from convergence with the freighter
when fog and storm clouds gather

Sparking communiqué no full stop ends
its broadcast sung in a three-sixty sweep
the cycle burning up five solar seconds

Midnight eye that blinks away
invisibility      a high beam
revealing as it scans whatever seas
or ships return terra firma’s landmark gaze

Here, the poem hews to brevity, rather than expanding the basic trope into a dissertation. Alfred Corn seems to know this course is better, but he too often ignores this most basic element of craft: sculpting one’s work.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013