Tag Archives: FALL 2015

Mr. West

mrwestSarah Blake
Wesleyan ($24.95)

by Will Randick

It’s hard to get away from Kanye West—he finds a way to put his hand in so many different forms of art. Kanye has a large influence on today’s music and fashion, but what about poetry? In Sarah Blake’s Mr. West, the subject is viewed from an angle that is both personal and public.

Blake’s book should not be mistaken for a biography of West, as the poems in the collection have far more reach than one person. Motherhood, religion, language, and the body are all central themes in these poems. Kanye’s deceased mother Donda is discussed with empathy by the speaker, who in many of the poems is a mother to be, looking to Donda for tips on motherhood.

There are a few moments where Kanye seems like a forced punchline to a poem, but the poems are at their best when the rap icon finds his way into the poems naturally. When there is a strong connection between the speaker and West, the poetry gleams as brightly as “Kanye’s Glow in the Dark tour. / It reminds me of my son’s bones, glowing white / in ultrasounds, in a more wretched darkness.” Blake’s themes of birth and race are subtly reflected in these lines.

Some of the best lines in the book are spoken by Kanye, as Blake recontextualizes West’s words to fit into her poems. In a poem titled “I No Longer Have to Look Up Dates Like Your Birthday, June 8, 1977,” Blake recounts West’s thirtieth birthday inside a Louis Vuitton store. The speaker describes who is present at the party and how the cakes spell the subject’s name wrong, but the moment with the greatest wonder is Mr. West’s: “I’m in my 20s as we speak right now, but at midnight, I’ll be 30. I’m / already 30 in Japan and London and everywhere else.” These lines seem to speak to the never-ending self awareness that Kanye possesses, as well as to the self-mythologizing he has created, that we all collectively create.

Mr. West is at its most interesting when the speaker takes that larger than life self-mythologizing to a quiet moment of personal secrecy. Some of Blake’s lines feel whispered: “I’m afraid I will be a horrible mother because / I am a horrible woman.” This candor is touching amidst the book’s background of Rick Ross interviews, YouTube comments, and gold teeth.

Kanye is shown sympathy in the poems, but the speaker also embodies how hard it is to empathize with a celebrity one can barely see as a person. In “Jesus Walks,” named after Kanye’s early hit single, Blake’s speaker admits that there is so much distance between West and the rest of the world: “Kanye, if only I could write a poem for you and not about you.” It is difficult to relate to someone who is placed under the largest microscope, but Blake’s speaker seems far more concerned with the small microscopes put on domestic life. Her moments are a quiet contrast to the noise that surrounds West.

We all have our own versions of Kanye. My parents know him as the obnoxious rapper who interrupts award shows; I see him as the innovative voice of self-belief. Sarah Blake understands Kanye West as both a human and a concept, “half cannon, half ballet. / Half canonical, half prey.” West is to be taken seriously, and so is the poet writing about him.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

Leaving Leaving Behind Behind

leavingleavingInger Wold Lund
Ugly Duckling Presse ($9)

by Tova Gannana

“What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, hear more, to feel more.”
—Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation

Inger Wold Lund, a Norwegian living in Berlin, wrote Leaving Leaving Behind Behind in English. A book of poems in the form of a day-book or a day-book written to read as poetry, it offers a duality, a doubleness of language. Take the first poem/entry:

At home. Some weeks ago.

The branches I cut and brought inside grew roots.
The roots were a light shade of pink, like my own
skin. I sucked a finger to see if it would take on the
same nuance.

Of course, it’s possible that none of what is written in Leaving Leaving Behind Behind by Lund is true in the sense that these events actually happened. In “Some months ago. In My apartment,” dust is taking over the rooms; to avoid it, the people drink coffee in the shower and take interviews on the toilet, invoking an eerie naturalness. This theme comes to play also in “Half a year ago. At a store”:

The lady in the store told me the marks on the pumpkin
I had chosen had appeared during a hailstorm earlier
in the fall. Then she asked if I remembered the storm.
I said no.

Is this mere forgetfulness, or is Lund here rejecting the wreckage of the natural world? Or even the explanation of the woman regarding the natural world? There is often more in Lund’s language than we initially recognize:

Last Summer. At the border between two countries.

It was hot. The police wore white hats. In white leather
belts they carried guns. The guns were attached to
their belts with white cords, curled up like the cords
of old telephones. I thought of whom I would like to
kill if given the chance. Of people on my phone list:
One. Maybe two.

Leaving Leaving Behind Behind could be written for a lover, or for a former self. In this way, Lund leaves space in her poems for the reader to enter, and the book grows in our mind, continuing to take its place in an ever-present “after.”

Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

Mot, A Memoir

motmemoirSarah Einstein
University of Georgia Press ($24.95)

by Renée E. D’Aoust

Chosen by John Phillip Santos as the winner of this year’s AWP Award in Creative Nonfiction, Sarah Einstein’s Mot, A Memoir is a breathtakingly beautiful read. In this unique story of friendship, Einstein drives from her home in West Virginia to Texas to spend a week at a KOA “kampground” with her homeless friend Mot. The week will be an upgrade for Mot, who lives out of his car, but the KOA cabin will heighten his considerable anxieties (for example, Mot’s voices tell the pair where they can and cannot eat). Still, a week spent in a sanitized camping ground is also a much-needed break for Einstein, from her job and from her husband Scotti. While Scotti shares Einstein’s commitment to social justice, he’s taken his dedication too far, allowing a desperate woman named Rita to overwhelm his marriage.

Einstein is a kind, compassionate friend, whose understanding stretches convention. Mot doesn’t seem to need her in the same way she needs him, though we assume he does. Einstein reports that

A week of magical thinking has reshaped me into someone who finds augury in the black smoke.
Mot’s mental illness infuses everything with meaning. I’ve spent a week immersed in the unreal. It takes work to pull myself back into the world of simple cause and effect.

By living on the road, and on the edges of society, Mot uses perpetual movement to keep his inner voices in check. His story as a vet is desperately sad, but he is not a pathetic man.

The finely crafted narrative backdrop to Einstein’s and Mot’s friendship is Einstein’s marriage to Scotti. Scotti helps Rita, who is emotionally abusive, and Einstein helps Mot, who ultimately disappears (as he warned would happen). The marriage is a quartet of dysfunction. It’s clear this arrangement no longer works, if it ever did.

Einstein’s story of individuation propels the narrative forward. Having burned out helping others, she now acknowledges that she has subsumed herself through her almost obsessive need to be of service. Her dedication is worthy, but it makes it impossible for her to be a whole person.

Einstein makes another trip to see Mot—this time to a KOA east of Oklahoma City. Mot’s car breaks down, so Einstein brings him home with her to West Virginia, offering yet more help. Einstein is the kind of friend we would all do well to emulate. Mot’s car is left behind like road kill, but not Mot. On the drive home, Einstein reflects:

Two days of nothing to do but converse have left me without a single untold story or crackpot theory left to fill the silence. Mot, too, has grown quiet, although whether he is out of material or fretting over what to do is impossible to know. It’s Sunday. He turns the radio to NPR so we can let Garrison Keillor and Michael Feldman do the talking for us.
Mot says that he often goes months without anyone to talk to and that during those times the people on NPR are as close as he comes to having friends.

Sarah Einstein is a brave, compassionate writer, and in Mot, A Memoir, she honors a beautiful, honest friendship.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015


confluenceSandra Marchetti
Sundress Publications ($14)

by Heidi Czerwiec

The “confluence” of this debut collection of poems may refer to several things: how these poems blend the style of Elizabeth Bishop’s piercing observations to the dense dexterity of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ musical language; the ecstatic merging of words with ineffable experience; and the passionate union of the lovers featured here, an aspect that makes Sandra Marchetti’s poems transcend mere imitation.

Arranged in three sections, the collection opens with the delicious language of “Never-Ending Birds,” where Marchetti aspires to meanings beyond language by using parts of speech in unexpected ways:

Soft bulbs of morpho blue,
tight light pruned to a circuit,
the swallows feather and vector the wind.

I plume to watch, freshed in the ground;
they ring the trees as their own
sweet planets.

From here, the poems of the first section introduce the lovers as well as recurring images of transitory elements: flowers, birds, eggs, icy surfaces, deciduous trees, weather, and the play of light. The poems progress by accretion of image and sound, accumulating appositive phrases and ambiguously placed modifiers so that meanings are amplified exponentially, as in these stanzas of “Storm Dialogue”:

Storms turn on their stomachs and gain on us.
Cloud decks smoke the windows. Beating cold.

Rain comes in shifts and pisses. Moving west
is the gesture; the skies shave the city gray.

The second section begins with “The East Highlands,” a poem about breaking new ground, and while many of Marchetti’s motifs recur here, the play of light on surfaces takes on added urgency in this section. Words like “glaze,” “slick,” “glint,” “lumen” or “luminescence,” “flash,” and “gleam” persist, teasingly offering insight, as in “Saints”:

They say
a glass with water
is the very hardest thing

to paint, the light
reflecting, a globe suspended
in wet wonder.

But this “wonder” may be glimpsed equally in the shine of the Northern Lights or in the post-coital slick of a lover’s body.

The third part begins curiously with a poem titled “The Waters of Separation,” where “we wait riven.” In many of the poems of this section, “Everywhere is sharp edges / even outside rooms”; images of what’s cut away, split, or pruned back abound. In “Orange Bouquet,” Marchetti describes cleaning a cauliflower:

Without a knife, each flower
clicks clean from the stem

as you said it would,
in a backward crack,

a snap of the head.

But it’s this pruning of the self that allows the possibility of union:

By night
my body disconnects,

from joints I wash toward confluence,
dissolved in a room of night

and this leads to the epiphany of “Pastoral”: “This is why I go out, / I think; it is something to recover from.” While the poet yearns for imaginative transcendence, she is equally drawn to the physical world. Firmly in the Metaphysical tradition, Confluence reminds us that the sensory and the spiritual are one.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

The Kitchen-Dweller’s Testimony

Ladan Osman
University of Nebraska Press ($15.95)

by Wesley Rothman

Paradise is to ask whatever you like. A tea with God.
I have filled a book with questions I can’t remember.
—“Following the Horn’s Call”

kitchen-dwellerIn his “Preface” to Ladan Osman’s chapbook Ordinary Heaven (part of the Seven New Generation African Poets series, published by Slapering Hol Press and sponsored by the African Poetry Book Fund, Prairie Schooner, and Poets of the World/Poetry Foundation), Ted Kooser reflects on the poet’s inquisitive nature: “And inquisitive is perhaps too weak a word, so let me use questioning. Her work is questioning. She asks about everything; she wants to know about everything.” This is utterly true of the poems in The Kitchen-Dweller’s Testimony also, yet Osman’s work points to something well beyond, an insatiable desire to understand—this collection, awarded the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets, ventures to instigate and demand ways to answer these many questions.

By reading these poems we run into answers we often don’t realize we need. Osman often achieves this through dazzling leaps of lyric:

Neither of us knows the best prayers,
but we can pretend, we can let them strain
in the back of our throats as melody.
—“To Abel”

Earlier in this poem the speaker asks, “Who hears it when you keep its hum / at the base of your throat?” and answers by the line, “I do.” Throughout this book, Osman’s speakers ask, answer, and propose next-step possibilities for questions, in ways that confirm melody is something productive and endearing—as if to say that even when there are no words, there can be action.

With “The Key,” one of a few prose poems in the collection, Osman carries us from a father trying to find a job and a mother’s optimistic, “maybe we just haven’t found the right key, I’ll go look for it,” to a daughter’s collection of keys, which she tries on different locks. Eventually one works on a door in an abandoned mall:

It was a room with white walls, floor, ceiling. White squares of wood flat or leaning in every corner. The door closed behind me and no key would work. Maybe the room would swallow me and I’d get invisible if I didn’t stop screaming but then a surprised guy, white, wearing white, opened the door.

Narratives like this carry us into spaces we rarely access in daily life. The speaker (and the reader) enters a white room and effectively becomes trapped there, a fitting allegory concerning race in contemporary society. Similarly, the poem “Connotation” addresses a white woman spitting at the feet of the speaker, saying, “This neighborhood has changed since these people came.” In the context of the collection’s epigraph by Walt Whitman (“What living and buried speech is always vibrating here . . . . what howls restrained by decorum?”), Osman’s speaker can not respond because of decorum’s dictatorship: we place blind faith in decorum, yet that faith calls our attention toward appearance and away from facing and testifying to more important human truths: empathy, understanding, and appreciation, or varying degrees of lacking these. Very rarely, it seems, are people able to tend both their appearance and their actual minds.

With wildly imaginative and immediate sequences of story, image, and language, Osman delivers us to a space with which we are likely not too familiar, a space where we must ask questions of ourselves—how do our actions and attitudes speak for us? Does our opinion of ourselves really match the reality? —and be open to hearing honest answers (probably less favorably than we think, likely not). In “The Kitchen-Dweller Presents Evidence,” the speaker realizes, “Destruction: she answers questions I didn’t ask,” and like the speaker, we must figure out how to live with those unsolicited answers.

This collection commands honesty at all costs, on the parts of speakers and readers. In “Her House Is the Middle East,” we learn of a wife so used to her husband’s infidelity, the house is a place used to both conflict and inaction. Osman brings our attention to the reality of being conditioned to violence, to abuse, to decorum, to corruption, to suffering. Once we have been conditioned, how do we recognize injustice, how do we testify that it thrives, and how do we overthrow the force that has conditioned us?

Ladan Osman conveys a language and logic that is disturbingly fresh; it leaps from one observation to another and speaks familiarly yet obliquely enough to make us listen a little harder. These poems mimic what we hear in “That Which Scatters and Breaks Apart”: “From every space someone calls a question / and there echoes so many answers, it’s impossible to hear.” It seems impossible to hear, or at least difficult, but if we silence ourselves for a few moments, and listen completely to the voices coming through these pages, we will hear answers to some of the most trying questions of our time, and might discover a way to be better lovers and neighbors and humans willing to testify.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

The Late Poems of Wang An-Shih

latepoemsofwanganshihWang An-Shih
Translated by David Hinton
New Directions ($16.95)

by John Bradley

“Part peasant and part Prime Minister” is how translator David Hinton describes Wang An-Shih (1021-1086), as he has been known primarily for his Sung Dynasty populist political reforms. Now, thanks to Hinton’s new translations, “poet” can be added to Wang’s descriptors.

At the age of fifty-five, Wang become a “recluse”—wandering the mountains and writing poetry. His verse very much fits into the “rivers and mountain” tradition, offering lush views of natural beauty. Yet Wang An-Shih, a student of Ch’an Buddhism (an early form of what we now call Zen), often injects religious teachings into his work: “Why insist on clinging to what little you can still remember?” he asks at the end of “Talking with Manifest Sky Ascent,” promoting the Buddhist concept of non-attachment.

Wang’s poems feel most resonant when he reveals his vulnerability. Watching his reforms undone by those in power, his reputation smeared, Wang comments in “Chants,” number three: “How do you grow old living with failure and disgrace? / Stay close to the cascading creek: cold, shimmering.”

One of Hinton’s strengths as translator is his ability to capture nature, the setting of so many of these poems. Only someone who knows nature well could offer lines like this: “As plums scatter a few flecks of snow, / wheat founders in a long river of cloud.” Yet Hinton can be awkward at times, especially in the longer-lined poems, where he tries to capture too much. He closes “Sun west and low,” for example, with this confusing construction: “Ducks blurred in fire drift, gold on the chill of deep water, / dreams a ruins of distance and worry among this birdsong.” Who exactly is doing the dreaming here?

The short-lined poems, more distilled by Hinton, do not offer such problems. “Off-Hand Poem,” here in its entirety, flows with ease:

It’s a blessing, the ten thousand things
spoken. Don’t forget even a single line,

for I’m sending in these words a place
far from this loud world of confusion.

While not in the exalted ranks of such Chinese poets as Li Po, Tu Fu, Wang Wei, Wang’s poetry possesses the power to transport the reader to another time and place, far from our own “loud world.” For that, readers will be grateful, both to Wang An-shih and David Hinton.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

The Discreet Hero

discreetheroMario Vargas Llosa
Translated by Edith Grossman
Farrar, Straus & Giroux ($26)

by Ed Taylor

Novelists Ford Madox Ford and Joseph Conrad, beginning in 1898, began one of the more interesting collaborative projects in modern literature, writing three novels together. The books themselves are not great, but the collaboration sparked the pair to codify theories about the novel as a form. Ford wrote, "We saw that life did not narrate, but made impressions on our brains. We in turn, if we wish to produce on you an effect of life, must not narrate but render impressions."

The above explains why The Discreet Hero will disappoint a reader expecting more from Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa, the 79-year-old Peruvian fiction writer, teacher, journalist, politician, and all-around cultural statesman of a kind the U.S. just never allows to be created. The distinguished Vargas Llosa has here produced a telenovela, a soap opera, something that would fit seamlessly with the commercial fiction sold at a grocery store. In this book, the emperor has no clothes—a hard thing to say, when the emperor is not a pompous, vain, abusive tyrant but a demonstrably talented artist.

The Discreet Hero doesn’t render, as Ford instructs—it embodies what might be called the hubris of the pre-modern “author-as-God” model in which the reader is expected, like someone zoning out in front of a sitcom, to sit back and not think or feel or evaluate, but to be content with being told what to look at, what to think and feel. Every character, every place, every event, is explained—we’re not shown anger, we’re told someone’s angry, or happy, or aroused, or sad, or scared. There are few actual scenes here; the majority of the book is exposition. This is the author as puppet-master, not bothering to conceal the strings.

The novel revisits characters and settings from previous Vargas Llosa books: Felicito Yanaque, the working-class bootstrap peon who in late middle age heads his own trucking company in the small town of Piura, and Ismael Carrera, urbane octogenarian CEO of an international insurance company in Lima, Peru’s capital. Each faces a crisis—for Felicito, an extortion note, with a spider drawn at the bottom, tacked to his front door; for Ismael, it’s succession issues related to his financial empire and his venal, ungrateful sons.

What things devolve into is melodrama, revolving around wives and mistresses, in which all characters sound alike when they speak, whether 82-year-old Ismael or Fonchito, the teenaged son of Ismael’s right hand man and conscience, Rigoberto—an idealized Platonic teen who acts like an adult, like everyone else in the book.

Nothing much happens except for long patches of “splaining,” as Ricky Ricardo might phrase it, and un-nuanced exploration of morals and family, ending with jarringly neat resolutions of everything. Hints of complexity and shades of gray are eliminated by a kind of harsh bright light. Even side characters who seemed to be coming alive as rounded, real people are turned into cardboard. The end result is literal and uni-directional. Those who do bad things are wholly bad, and punished according to a kind of Romantic, chivalric code. Those who are good suffer nicks and bruises but essentially remain untouched by anything they’ve passed through. And, apparently, real happiness, real art and life, occur only outside of Peru—specifically in Europe’s great capitals. The denouement of the book occurs as the major characters all travel to Europe for a rendezvous in Rome.

There’s race and social class in Vargas Llosa’s documenting of Peruvian society, but it plays out in stereotypes. Women are figured as either maid, Madonna, or whore—and if a wife, all three. As for the other female archetype, the witch—there is one. There is also a subplot involving a character who may or may not be a pederast, or Satan, or a former priest, and this takes up a lot of earnest space and energy—but becomes eventually, in the surgically neat deus ex machina ending imposed on the goings on, a joke.

The prose is conventional, mostly plain, and whether that’s due to the translator or author, quien sabe? Translator Grossman, a major force in American letters, is responsible for, among other things, a definitive and beautiful contemporary rendering of Don Quixote. But here she translates a Piuran slang expletive as “Hey waddya think,” jarringly inserted into casual conversation: “‘Read it to me, Felicito,’ she said, giving it back to him. ‘I can see it’s not a love letter, hey waddya think.’” Whether this results from the tin ear of the writer or the translator, it’s clumsy.

I generally have too much respect for writers to tee off on someone’s work. However, The Discreet Hero raised questions on so many levels, from the micro to the meta, that it felt worse to say nothing. And if the author is playing a massive, post-post modern joke? It ain’t funny, hey waddya think.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

Your Face in Mine

yourfaceinmineJess Row
Riverhead Books ($27.95)

by Douglas Messerli

Jess Row’s fiction Your Face in Mine is a work about many things—perhaps far too many things! On one hand, it is the story of growing up and moving away from childhood connections, while still being pulled back into those adolescent roots. It’s the tale of a great dying American city, in this case Baltimore. It’s a tale of love found, lost, and possibly rediscovered. And, most importantly, Row’s work, as Richard Price describes it, “is a Swiftian fantasy of racial reassignment surgery.”

Having so many things on his mind—the fiction is also a kind of encyclopedic cataloging of various musical songs, a compilation of international languages, in some instances a menu of world cooking, and at times a somewhat academic recounting of Chinese poetry—Row also creates characters who are variously attracted to other cultures and people of other races, and who have dark secrets they are attempting to hide. On top of this, the author employs various genres of writing, including satire, critical essay, quasi-scientific disquisitions, taped interviews, dialogues with the dead, computer chats, travelogues, and op-eds. Incredible coincidence is attributed to the Buddhist notion of the inevitability of meeting everyone at least twice in your life. In short, this literary stew ought be a kind of unholy mess, and, at moments in its ambitious reach, it almost plunges into narrative chaos, particularly when we are expected to engage with long passages concerning characters (a teenage friend, Alan and the narrator’s wife, Wendy) who are dead even before the work begins. Yet Row has somehow managed to create a work that feels torn from the pages of today’s headlines, which makes this fantasy, in turn, nearly impossible to put down.

The author certainly could not have imagined when he set out to write Your Face in Mine that the very problems he details about Baltimore would be magnified and carefully explicated only a few months later in the daily news with the death in police custody of Freddie Gray and the following nights of rioting; nor might he have known that many of the same Baltimore locations that he describes in detail in his fiction would soon flash out across television screens while news commentators mouthed many of the same sentences about the city that his characters express.

Even more startling, Row could never have entertained the idea that a seemingly black woman working for the NAACP, Rachel Dolezal, would be discovered to be of only white ancestry, expressing that she identified as a black woman in much the same way as a central character in Row’s book, Martin Lipkin (later known as Martin Wilkinson) describes his condition: “Racial Identity Dysphoria Syndrome.” Could Row have guessed that his fictional Bangkok doctor, Silpa, who had previously operated on transgender individuals, might be a topic of national discussion after the less radical transformation of super-athlete Bruce Jenner into Caitlyn? Might Wilkinson’s gay father have been saved from his death by the marriage this year made legally possible for all gays and lesbians? If nothing else, one has to admit that Row had his finger on the pulse of issues of identity that would surface in the American consciousness in 2015.

I won’t even begin to attempt to relate the fiction’s various intertwined threads of plot. Let us just state that, years after growing up in Baltimore, and after living in New England, China, and elsewhere, the work’s narrator Kelly Thorndike returns to work in his home town of Baltimore at a dying radio station. Soon after, he accidentally (?) reencounters a former school mate, Martin, with whom he had once played in an amateur band. The shocking thing about their encounter is that Martin, once a white man, is now thoroughly black, a man well ensconced in city politics with a beautiful doctor wife (also black), lovely children, and an obviously wealthy lifestyle.

Martin, it appears, is determined to reveal to the world that he has undergone months of surgery, dialect study, and cultural assimilation to attain his new identity, and chooses his former high school friend Kelly to write up the narrative. Gradually, Kelly and the reader together discover that behind Martin’s personal messianic-like zeal for the possibilities of a new life, his real goal is not only to offer a service to wealthy customers throughout the world that would allow them their personal decisions regarding race, but to make millions of dollars in the process. Accordingly, although we may first hope that Martin sees his own transformation as a kind of moral position which might ultimately change everyone’s notion about race by offering nearly anyone who could afford it the possibility of racial transformation, we soon grow to perceive that behind any social pretensions, he is simply a voracious entrepreneur.

Gradually Kelly discovers that his “friend” not only has no moral compunctions, but is subtly bribing him through Martin’s knowledge that on the day their mutual friend, Alan, overdosed with drugs, Kelly was with Alan, and therefore might be subject to possible imprisonment as an accessory to the death. Shockingly, even when Kelly discovers that he himself may be part of a larger plot in which Martin will encourage the Chinese-speaking Kelly’s own transformation into a Chinese exemplar of Dr. Silpa’s surgical skills, he nonetheless maintains his relationship with the now clearly evil entrepreneur, the novel ending with Kelly’s joyful entry into a new world of his own choosing.

In other words, Row clearly realizes the moral and ethical arguments that are sure to be raised (and in Dolezal’s case already have been raised), but suggests that when desire is involved, even these barriers will ultimately be overcome. There is, accordingly, a kind of strange cynicism in this work, mixed with an even odder sense of hope and possibility. And although some of the issues Row raises seem nearly absurd, they also appear to be almost prophetic. One can surely see a time, in a world in which gender has already become a choice, and in which numerous countries have come to accept same-sex marriage and other gay and lesbian equalities, that the final issue, perhaps, will be race, and that, ultimately, the possibility of transformation may be a reality.

How will our culture react to that? And with that possibility, what might our culture be like? Might it even break down the barriers more thoroughly than interracial marriage already has? In Row’s fiction, wherein nearly all of the characters have already been involved in interracial marriage, the next step, perhaps, can only be their attempt to become that “other” they have already embraced.

I find Row’s work funny at times, outrageous at moments, troubling, even disgusting—but utterly fascinating and oddly appealing. What might it mean to us if race were a choice instead of simply a fact of birth? While Row’s work might remind one of dystopian classics such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and George Orwell’s 1984, Your Face in Mine ends, instead, on an entirely positive note, with the reconfigured Kelly, now a Chinese man, arriving on Chinese soil.

You’re here now, right? You’re home.
I’m home.

Even the idea of home, we are reminded in this brave new world, is a human construct.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

Please Talk to Me

pleasetalktomeLiliana Heker
Translated by Alberto Manguel and Miranda France
Yale University Press ($16)

by Jackie Trytten

In a moment, a casual comment spoken or action taken can change a life irrevocably. Liliana Heker, an award-winning writer from Argentina, writes of these moments in this translated version of her short story collection, Please Talk to Me. She skillfully condenses relationships into moments where a concealed feeling is revealed, its consequences are long reaching, and there is no turning back for any involved.

Heker presents everyday situations in small scenes; several times, what starts out as a story about family members turns into a message about distinctions of social and economic class. She doesn’t directly mention the years of dictatorship in her country, but the issues she writes about are a result of those times. In “The Stolen Party,” Rosaura, a maid’s daughter, anticipates the birthday party of Luciana, a girl in a house where her mother works, and then learns the boundary of social class cannot be crossed in a so-called friendship. In “A Question of Delicacy,” a middle-class woman, Señora Brun, distrusts a repairman in her home and makes a costly mistake trying to protect her possessions from him. In “They Had Seen the Burning Bush,” a young wife suggests her husband, a boxer, take a lower-status job and loses more than the security she sought from him.

In one of the stories written in a lighter tone, “Family Life,” Nicolas is a different person each day in a different household. He thinks he is caught in an endless loop of a computer program for soap operas he wants to write. “For several seconds he had borne the unbearable impression that reality had shifted, that everything he believed in was false, that his points of reference suddenly made no sense.”

Heker presents a new reality to readers, too, with her deceivingly simplest of prose. Her characters are authentically rendered—layered, well meaning at times, but flawed. She manages to draw out, in a phrase or two, their unsettling thoughts and actions—subtle or overt—that change relationships. Often, characters are left wondering about what they have lost and why. And even though these stories are easy to read, to catch the moment when the direction of the stories changes for the characters may take re-reading. Do it, because through Please Talk To Me, readers will be affected by those moments, too.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

Fall 2015


The Hole of Hypocrisy: A Conversation with Kent Johnson on the U.S. “Avant-Garde” and Other Fictions
Gadfly Johnson sheds light on the hypocrisies of American life, but his new book is an lyrical memoir about his meetings with poets over the course of his life. Interviewed By Michael Boughn

American Death Poems: An Interview with Scott Alexander Jones
Jones’s poems emanate from a Zen-inspired awareness of the ephemerality and absurdity of existence.
Interviewed by Shane Joaquin Jimenez

Vietnam Today: An Interview with novelist David Joiner
With its complicated cast of characters and evocative settings, Joiner’s debut book Lotusland is likely the most vivid novel set in post-colonial Southeast Asia that contemporary readers will encounter. Interviewed by Garry Craig Powell


Expect Delays
Bill Berkson
Berkson’s new wide-ranging collection includes Dante-inspired cantos, New York School-style prose, and excerpts from his diary. Reviewed by Joshua Preston

The Land Has Its Say
Henry Lyman
Lyman’s poems consider the past and our connection to it, those traces of others passing through before us, whose “footprints” we inhabit. Reviewed by Rebecca Hart Olander

Made in Detroit
Marge Piercy
Marge Piercy’s poems are richly layered with imagery inspired by her childhood and city—descriptive, sensual, and deeply personal. Reviewed by George Longenecker

Dan Beachy-Quick
In his latest collection of poems, Beachy-Quick summons the voices of the past in order to reanimate them in all their originary power. Reviewed by M. Lock Swingen

Mr. West
Sarah Blake
Through poetry, Kanye West is viewed from an angle that is both personal and public. Reviewed by Will Randick

The Kitchen-Dweller’s Testimony
Ladan Osman
Osman’s award-winning poems reflect an insatiable desire to understand, ask questions, and demand answers. Reviewed by Wesley Rothman

The Late Poems of Wang An-Shih
Wang An-Shih
While Wang An-Shi is better known for his Sung Dynasty populist political reforms, he was also a nature poet. Reviewed by John Bradley

Sandra Marchetti
In her debut collection, Marchetti touches on confluences of all kinds, between aesthetic styles, lovers, and the sensual and spiritual. Reviewed by Heidi Czerwiec


Let Me Tell You
Shirley Jackson
This third posthumous collection of Jackson’s previously uncollected or unpublished work compiled by her family members includes short fiction, personal essays, reviews, and family anecdotes, and lectures on writing. Reviewed by Rob Kirby


Burning Down George Orwell’s House
Andrew Ervin
Ervin’s angsty debut novel comes to readers ingeniously wrapped in a travelogue. Reviewed By Tina Karelson

The Anchoress
Robyn Cadwallader
While much of Cadwallader’s debut novel takes place in a single room, the scope of the work is sweeping and provocative. Reviewed By Nicola Koh

Jeremiah's Ghost
Isaac Constantine
In this debut novel, the titular ghost bounces through time and place, unraveling the threads of his young life and searching for a meaningful way to sew them back together. Reviewed by Jason Bock

The Guilty
Juan Villoro
Mexican author Juan Villoro’s short story collection is hilarious and wildly absurd, and now we can enjoy an English translation of it. Reviewed by Peter Grandbois

Loving Day
Mat Johnson
Johnson’s latest protagonist struggles with his mixed-race heritage in this semi-surreal and humorous novel. Reviewed by Elizabeth Tannen

Before and During
Vladimir Sharov
This Russian novel confronts big philosophical questions of death and memory, and justifies Sharov’s place in the Russian literary canon. Reviewed by Lori Feathers

Please Talk to Me
Liliana Heker
An award-winning Argentinian author writes of casual moments turned momentous in her recently translated short story collection. Reviewed by Jackie Trytten

Your Face in Mine
Jess Row
This multifaceted fiction accomplishes many things, among them a prescient commentary on racism echoed in contemporary news. Reviewed by Douglas Messerli

The Discreet Hero
Mario Vargas Llosa
Vargas Llosa’s new novel revisits characters and settings from previous books, with underwhelming results. Reviewed by Ed Taylor


Two by Dylan Horrocks:
Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen and Incomplete Works

If you want to read a masterful meta-comicbook, go no further than those devised by the endlessly creative mastermind of Dylan Horrocks. Reviewed by Stephen Burt


Writers to Read: Nine Names that Belong on Your Bookshelf
Douglas Wilson
A recommended reading list by conservative theologian Douglas Wilson, Writers to Read isn’t very revealing—except, that is, when it doesn’t intend to be. Reviewed by Mark Dunbar 

Anne Carson: Ecstatic Lyre
Edited by Joshua Marie Wilkinson
It’s high time that we had a book of essays on Anne Carson, one of our most important and anomalous writers. Reviewed by Mark Gustafson

A Philosophy of Walking
Frédéric Gros
The French philosopher presents insightful essays on the phenomenon of putting one foot in front of the other. Reviewed by John Toren

The Folded Clock: A Diary
Heidi Julavits
This luminous piece of life-writing creates a complex composite portrait of the consciousness that persists amid “soup spills and dirty dishes.” Reviewed by Lindsay Gail Gibson

Mot, A Memoir
Sarah Einstein
A breathtakingly beautiful read, Einstein tells a unique and compelling story. Reviewed by Renée E. D’Aoust


Homage to LeRoi Jones and Other Early Works
Kathy Acker
This chapbook collects some early work from the Acker archive at the David M. Rubenstein Rare Books & Manuscript Library at Duke University, and should stand as the first of many “new,” posthumous collections of Acker’s work from that source. Reviewed by Spencer Dew

Leaving Leaving Behind Behind
Inger Wold Lund
The author, a Norwegian living in Berlin, wrote this chapbook of poems in English in the form of a day-book, offering a doubleness of language. Reviewed by Tova Gannana

Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015