Tag Archives: Fall 2017

Antígona González

Sara Uribe
Translated by John Pluecker
Les Figues Press ($17)

by Gabrielle Civil

At a time when the discourse of “bad hombres” and “building a wall” has poisoned U.S. society, Mexican writer Sara Uribe’s Antígona González emerges as an anti-toxin and prescription. A brilliant meditation on the wages of violence in contemporary Mexican society, the text takes up the classical figure of Antigone to speak out, remember, and reclaim the dead:

Me llamo Antígona González y busco entre los
muertos el cadáver de mi hermano.

My name is Antígona González and I am searching
among the dead for the corpse of my brother.

Translated with aplomb by John Pluecker, the text arrives in a fine bilingual edition, and was longlisted for the 2017 Best Translated Book Award. Like Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Antígona González can be read as a lyric essay or series of prose poems and fragments. Originally commissioned by actress and director Sandra Muñoz in 2012 for premiere in northern Mexico, it is also a subtle performance text.

In Sophocles’ original play, Antigone seeks a proper burial for her brother Polynices, in defiance of her uncle King Creon’s decree. Here, Antígona González (identified as Sandra Muñoz, Sara Uribe, and others) still operates in defiance of the state, but she has no body to bury. Instead, she remembers her brother Tadeo, and this memory must serve as a hedge against oblivion:

Tadeo . . . te pienso todos los días, porque a
veces creo que si te olvido, un solo día bastará para que
te desvanezcas.

Tadeo . . . I think of you every day,
because sometimes I think if I forget you, just one day
would suffice for you to vanish.

Throughout the text, memory operates as an urgent holding place, a site of both bittersweet nostalgia and urgent personal/political resistance. Ultimately, memory mobilizes action as the individual becomes collective:

Vine a San Fernando a buscar a mi hermano.
Vine a San Fernando a buscar a mi padre.
Vine a San Fernando a buscar a mi marido.
Vine a San Fernando a buscar a mi hijo.
Vine con los demás por los cuerpos de nos nuestros.

I came to San Fernando to search for my brother.
I came to San Fernando to search for my father.
I came to San Fernando to search for my husband.
I came to San Fernando to search for my son.
I came with the others for the bodies of our people.

Working in the style of documentary poetics, Uribe comes to report on an entire landscape of violence. She incorporates language from news bulletins, blogs, e-letters, and first-person accounts to link the personal and systemic and to showcase the lost and found:

Ciudad Altamirano, Guerrero. 22 de abril
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . encontraron a tres jóvenes
ejecutados, justo en las faldas de un cerro.

Ciudad Altamirano, Guerrero. April 22.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
three youths were found
executed at the base of a mountain.

Her project encompasses documentation and reclamation, not just of those lost, but also the people who loved them:

: No quería ser una Antígona
pero me tocó.

: I didn’t want to be an Antigone
but it happened to me.

This powerful sentence appeared posthumously in the journals of Columbian activist Diana Gómez, who also called herself Antígona Gómez. These words demonstrate how the identity of Antigone, truth teller and seeker of justice, is not an aspiration, but a tragic consequence.

The timeliness and timelessness of Antigone becomes another facet of Uribe’s text. As revealed in a copious notes section, Uribe references famous Latin American productions of the play and weaves in fragments from Judith Butler’s Antigone’s Claim: Kinship Between Life and Death, María Zambrano’s La tumba de Antígona [Antigone’s Tomb], Marguerite Yourcenar’s Fires, and more. In his excellent afterward, Pluecker also discusses his integration of various English translations of Antigone to mirror Uribe’s praxis.

Pluecker writes: “Translation allows both for difference to continue to exist and for us to work alongside each other as neighbors, people deeply implicated in a shared story.” This ethic of recognition and cooperation models the work of the U.S. reader and reinforces the overall message of Antígona González.

No, Tadeo, yo no he nacido para compartir el odio. Yo
lo que deseo es lo imposible: que pare ya la guerra;
que construyamos juntos, cada quien desde su sitio,
formas dignas de vivir; y que los corruptos . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . pudieran estar en mis zapatos, en los zapatos de
todas sus víctimas aunque fuera unos segundos.

No, Tadeo, I wasn’t born to share in hatred. What I want
is the impossible: for the war to stop now; for us—for
each of us wherever we find ourselves—together to
build ways to live with dignity; and for the corrupt . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . to be in my shoes, the shoes of
all their victims, even if only for a few seconds.

May these powerful words be part of our cure, in the United States, in Mexico and beyond.

Click here to purchase this book
at your local independent bookstore
indiebound
Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2017 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2017

Afterland

Mai Der Vang
Graywolf Press ($16)

by John Bradley

Make me the monarch / morphed from suffering” states a section title of Mai Der Vang’s debut book of poetry, Afterland. She’s referring to the suffering of the Hmong due to the Vietnam war, or more specifically the “secret war” in Laos, where many Hmong lived. The author, a Hmong-American, explores in this book the deep emotional turmoil of displacement, exile, recovery of the past, and the difficulty of inventing a new home in the “afterland.”

One poem in particular, “Dear Soldier of the Secret War,” focuses on the devastation of war and the betrayal of the Hmong by their allies, the Americans. The fate of the Hmong soldier left behind with a destroyed village is vividly contrasted with the American who left Laos: “Do you think of the American returning / to the coffee cup, // new linens / in a warm bed, // pulling into the driveway.” Vang does not downplay the horrors of war, as can be seen in this passage of the poem, which describes what happened when the Pathet Lao captured the Hmong soldier and his brother:

It was scalpel that day they captured
you both. They sliced off
and boiled his tongue,

forced it down your throat.

That the author feels a responsibility to tell the story of the Hmong can be seen from the first poem in the collection, “Another Heaven”: “I am but atoms / Of old passengers // Bereaved to my cloistered bones.” The unusual choice of the word “cloistered” reflects the poet’s need for solitude as well as for communal connection with those “passengers” who fled the war.

Two poems to the author’s grandparents, “old passengers,” carry the deepest emotion in the book. In “Matriarch,” we see the collision of memory and American culture as it attempts to define what happened in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. “She points at the television as if she could translate / Rocky, make sense of Rambo,” the poems begins. Perhaps the grandmother can’t translate the films, but the narrator can: “Rambo / Is carnage cloaked in her homeland mud.” There, in this Hollywood war fantasy, can be found the soil of the homeland, and while Rocky and Rambo merge, their eyes can be read; they resemble “dead stars” and speak of “A man omitted.” This the grandmother understands well, the poem tells us.

Much later in the book, in “Your Mountain Lies Down with You,” we hear the author tenderly address her grandfather. “You will see Mount Whitney is as beautiful as Phou Bia,” she promises him. But this beauty, this substitution comes at a cost: “The moon is sharp enough to cut your eat as the one from your village.” The poem closes with these moving lines:

Grandfather, you are not buried in the green mountains of Laos
but here in the Tollhouse hills, earth and heaven to oak gods.

Your highlands have come home,
and now you finally sleep.

The use of the word “home” brings comfort, as it means the grandfather’s geography now surrounds him, even as it contains the “oak gods” of another land.

While these poems reveal the emotional undercurrents of Afterland, they don’t convey the author’s bold linguistic play. In a recent interview for the Fairy Tale Review, she offers this advice to poets: “Bend. Risk. Distort. Create rupture.” Advice which she wholeheartedly embraces. Here are some of the lines that beautifully bend, risk, and distort: “The sky sleeps quilted in a militia of stars.” “Ants are spies for the dead.” “The dead cannot be reborn in metal.” “I go to funerals / to keep.” Vang is a skilled practitioner of the declarative sentence, her statements leading us to surprising discoveries. Take the last statement: We expect to hear “weep” but she withholds this, yet the similar sound of “keep” carries with it the emotion of weeping. The sentence doesn’t reveal what she keeps, but the poem suggests that the funeral allows her to keep memories, to keep stories of the past, to keep a culture alive, even as individuals die. Even as the task of carrying on the culture shifts to the next generation.

This stunning collection is not only the debut of a poet with a startlingly original voice; it also reminds the reader how long the legacy of a war lasts. The U.S. left Southeast Asia in 1973, and even now struggles to understand what that failed military engagement means. One sign of this struggle is the new documentary on the Vietnam war by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, which will be shown this fall. Another sign is our nation’s current questioning of our international role, and specifically our role in Afghanistan. For Mai Der Vang, the cost of war is not about abstractions of policy or theories of power. In “The Spirit Meal,” she writes, “Now the dead come to dine / in my kitchen.” No doubt they will find nourishment in Afterland, as will readers looking for poetry steeped in history.

Click here to purchase this book
at your local independent bookstore
indiebound
Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2017 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2017

Created Identities: an interview with Elvira Navarro

Interviewed by Jorge Armenteros

Elvira Navarro, born in Huelva, published her first book, La ciudad en invierno, in 2007. In 2009 she published La ciudad feliz, which won the Jaén Prize for best novel and the Tormenta Prize for best new author, and was published as The Happy City in an English translation by Rosalind Harvey (HispaBooks, 2013). Her work has appeared in magazines such as El Cultural, Ínsula, Turia, and El Perro as well as the newspapers Público and El Pais. In 2010, Navarro was selected by Granta magazine as one of the best Spanish-language writers under the age of 35. Her latest novel is La Trabajadora (A Working Woman), forthcoming in English translation by Christina MacSweeney from Two Lines Press.

This interview was conducted verbally this past spring in Madrid, Spain. A corner café near the CaixaForum museum provided the perfect setting for the exchange of ideas. I was looking for the author described by Enrique Vila-Matas as the “true avant-gardist of her generation.” And after the conversation unfolded, I knew I had found her. I later transcribed the interview and edited the content for length and accuracy. Once edited, I translated the interview from Spanish into English. The result follows below.

Jorge Armenteros: The story in your novel, La Trabajadora, takes place in the periphery of Madrid. The city is shown as a solitary and hostile urban populous, unleashing an “impression of a barren plateau.” Did you intend to include the city as if it were a main character in your novel?

Elvira Navarro: Yes, it’s the first time that I decided to include a city as a main character in a novel. I had been working on a blog for a while that’s called Periferia (Periphery) where I told stories about my walks through different neighborhoods in Madrid. My two previous novels, La ciudad en invierno (The City In Winter) and La ciudad feliz (The Happy City), already have an enormous urban presence, specifically in Valencia from my childhood. The books have The City in their names because they consist of stories that come from very specific streets. The first thing I visualize before I write is an urban setting. Ergo, my lexicon is directly related to urban landscapes.

On the other hand, due to the Internet and the strong presence of audiovisual stimulation, I have heard that the idea of a literary narrative taking charge of urban spaces doesn’t make any sense. This is due to the fact that we have an infinite amount of images of these spaces at our disposal and we even have the possibility to virtually stroll through any inhabited region on the planet. It is said that in the 19th century, Flaubert had to tell stories about Paris because not everyone could visit the city or see what is was like. Now we no longer need the type of 19th-century narrator to explain what a city is like. We have thousands of images of Paris and any other place. However, those who say that it doesn’t make sense to narrate these settings have forgotten something essential. Narration of urban settings is not a mere scenario or a transposition of a real place. It is make-believe. In a book, a place’s description is another fictitious fabrication, and has narrative functions: The space becomes impregnated by the tone, generates a certain atmosphere, and sometime acts as a metaphor . . . On the other hand, fiction normally leans towards recognizable spaces with landmarks, and I’m interested in unrecognizable spaces, like neighborhoods in Madrid, that rarely appear in works of fiction, and when they do, they are represented with stereotypes. I was living for a while in Carabanchel, in southern Madrid, a very rough neighborhood; this neighborhood is the inspiration behind La Trabajadora.

JA: In a certain way, Elisa’s inner world reflects the same qualities as the city, internal desolation. In reality, who influences whom?

EN: The city is merely a reflection of Elisa. Elisa is the one who sees something a certain way and creates that city. In reality, that city doesn’t exist. It only comes alive inside the character’s head, and yes, it is a type of barren plateau. The concept of the barren plateau is very interesting to me because Madrid is in the middle of a plateau. Despite the fact that there are mountains to the north and south, Madrid is rural, poor, and is more similar to Castile La Mancha, Don Quixote’s homeland. If you look at Madrid, the colors come from the plateau. If you look at the dryness of the streets, that dryness is the plateau’s dryness. The heat that radiates from Madrid is also the plateau’s heat. It is a very La Mancha city and lives off of La Mancha asceticism. The Castilian plateau, both “Castillas,” due to being historically poor, have transformed into involuntarily spiritual places. The people have had to suffer and get by with very little. This is learned from living with both scarcity and immensity: You look around and you can see the horizon everywhere. The land and the sky. The essential things.

JA: How did your own reality make its way into your novel?

EN: This story comes from a text that I wrote in 2003, when I was living with roommates in Carabanchel and looking for work. I saved the text and had a feeling that I would revisit it later on. Years later, when I was working as an editor, I hadn’t been paid for six months, and that’s when the idea of a novel about precariousness became especially intense. At that time, I had seen my horizon of middle-class expectations fade away and not only noted that my difficulty finding work during an era in which media outlets and then-president Aznar constantly exaggerated the idea that “Spain is doing well,” but also the gap between what the Spanish economy needed from working professionals (basically engineers for the brick industry) and what I had studied (Philosophy).

JA: Thinking of Borges, who once wrote “reality likes symmetry,” Susana and Elisa reflect each other like some kind of mirror trick. Does Susana become essential to Elisa and vice versa?

EN: I think the mirror trick works best in the case of Elisa reflecting Susana, but not Susana reflecting Elisa. Susana mirrors Elisa and plays with this power, with knowing her mirror. I wanted to make Susana a character that was conscious of the fact that identity is a made-up concept. For example, we do not know if her psychotic outburst really happened. For Elisa, Susana is a mirror that terrorizes her. However, for Susana, Elisa is a game. She doesn’t take herself too seriously and maybe in this way Elisa is also Susana’s mirror.

JA: In the novel, we see an unsustainable situation that makes us feel like everything is going to go wrong. Do you feel comfortable writing and being at the center of such anguish?

EN: I believe that without conflict, there is no story. It makes us talk about what we don’t know how to resolve. That is why we talk, that is why we try to resolve things with words. Even though I would never talk about anguish, but I would talk about fear in every phase of fear: fear of precariousness, fear of loneliness and madness. Anguish is merely a form of expression.

JA: Both characters face an abyss of insanity and an abyss of reality. Which abyss is more dangerous?

EN: I wanted to bring the framework of both insanity and reality to light, because I believe that what we classify as real is merely a result of consensual fiction. That means that I don’t believe in an unequivocal reality; instead I believe in a perceived reality. I don’t mean that there are no facts, but what we call reality is much more complex than a mere confirmation of actions and facts without reason—it’s tormented by interpretations and beliefs that coincide with our perception. Then what is madness? I suppose that if we were all crazy, that would be normal. Madness is used in a metaphorical way in this novel. My intention was not to write the novel about some crazy girls, but instead it was to talk about the construction of their identities. Susana plays around with hers and Elisa perceives reality as a threatening monster, because she’s in the middle of an anxious process in which the world is turning into a monster because her perception is controlled by fear.

JA: However, Susana is able to reinvent her life—she redeems herself through art. Would Elisa be able to save herself with her writing?

EN: I don’t know if Susana redeems herself or not because we don’t know what happens to her at the end. What I want to highlight is that she achieves something because she isn’t actively looking for anything.

JA: If the forces of madness and fiction were interlaced, would there be redemption?

EN: Why do we have to be redeemed? The word redemption infers that you’ve been guilty of something. I don’t believe in guilt, I believe that it’s possible to see and do things a different way.

JA: And to evolve, perhaps?

EN: To stop believing and stop wanting to be in control.

JA: Was the novel’s structure planned ahead of time or did it happen spontaneously?

EN: Spontaneously. I don’t usually plan anything. That doesn’t mean that I don’t know where I’m going. I know more or less where I’m going, but I’m open to changing my initial plans and accepting what happens along the way if I like it. Basically, I don’t get attached to my initial plans.

JA: That also allows you to have a certain degree of freedom and the power to explore without feeling married to a previous idea, which must be very exciting.

EN: Yes, for me that is the best part about writing, that it has an element of discovery.

JA: Do you think that La Trabajadora is an anti-novel?

EN: If we think about the novel using 19th-century standards, it could be an anti-novel because it doesn’t have uniqueness, totality, or linearity.

JA: If we take into account that classic realism is nothing more than an illusion, should the novel implement a calculated demolition of all things conventional and simply take flight?

EN: An illusion is everything, right? Classical and non-classical as well. We’re not going to debunk one myth so we can create another.

JA: What do you think about the modern day literary canon?

EN: It is very influenced by the market and, secondarily, by academics. In Spain, we read a lot of translated English language literature. My canon is forcefully being changed due to imperialism and cultural colonialism. They decide what non-English language writers become “canonized.” Bolaño has had a lot of success in the English-speaking world and this had made his work recognized worldwide as literary canon.

JA: This also indicates that what is available, what fits into this superior category, goes through a filtering system. It all begins with books that are written, then what is popular, what is translated . . . little by little everything is filtered out. It’s like a vast ocean that only gives us three or four drops of water.

EN: It certainly is a vast ocean. Of course, this brings up an interesting question. You would have to study every case individually. Obviously, it is very clear with mainstream literature and literary literature where the unknowns are, because there are so many good things that get left behind.

JA: What alternative narratives do you like to put out there as a writer?

EN: My alternative is that you don’t have to ask me about alternatives. Everyone is free to do as they please!

JA: I suppose that depends on whatever the project you’re working on requires of you.

EN: Exactly, every text comes with its own rules. You need to let the text speak for itself. I don’t impose anything on the text.

JA: What languages have your novels been translated into?

EN: My full-length books have been translated into English, French, and Turkish. Some other stories I have written have been translated into Swedish and Italian

JA: How will you know that the translation of La Trabajadora is faithful to the source material? Or as Borges said, is the original faithful to the translation?

EN: I have no way of knowing either way. I don’t speak English!

JA: What contemporary North Americans novelists are you most interested in reading?

EN: I’m more interested in short story tellers, like Lydia Davis, for example. When it comes to living novelists, I’m very enthusiastic about Siri Hustvedt. They both tell stories in such an unorthodox and intelligent way.

JA: What risks do you think come with writing non-traditional or experimental literature?

EN: Risk is a very excessive word to me. I suppose that you risk not being well understood, but in reality, you never know what type of luck a book can have.

JA: Could you comment on the end goal or intention of fiction writing?

EN: I don’t think there is a universal end goal. I think that every person writes fiction for different reasons. In my case, it has to do with not knowing how to express myself well when using oral language. For me, literature is necessary for self-expression.

JA: Speaking of expressing yourself through books, what is your next project? What’s keeping you busy these days? What can we expect from you in the future?

EN: I just finished a short story book and I might publish a book that contains chronicles about Madrid, based on my blog, Periphery.

JA: Tell me a little about the blog.

EN: I started it in 2010, and I wanted simply to narrate the city as just another passerby, taking advantage of the fact that I love to walk.

Click here to purchase A Working Woman at your local independent bookstore
indiebound
Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2017 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2017

Chinese Poetic Writing & A Little Primer of Tu Fu

Chinese Poetic Writing
Francois Cheng

Translated by Donald Riggs and Jerome Seaton
New York Review Books ($19.95)

A Little Primer of Tu Fu
David Hawkes

New York Review Books ($16.95)

by Patrick James Dunagan

Chinese poetry first hit home for me with poet Joel Oppenheimer’s recounting of the mythic tale regarding poet Li Po’s (701-762) accidental drowning after a festive night of solitary wine drinking. As Oppenheimer puts it: “one night on the way home from a wine tavern, he decided finally to make it with the moon and he sat down at the edge of the river, left it under a rock with his clothes and dove in to screw the moon, literally, the reflection in the water, and drowned.” I was enthralled by the lush Romantic grandeur of such an act—talk about a dedication to a poetry of the Real! As Oppenheimer says, “you have to love, you know, a guy like that.”

I picked up a Selected Poems of Li Po and avidly read away, paying especially close attention to any mention of the moon and wine—of which, not surprisingly, there were several. At the time, a doomed lunar love affair sounded awfully tempting. However, as my reading broadened in both depth and scope over ensuing decades, I developed a more intensive appreciation for all that Chinese poetry offers. My admiration has been reignited and further enriched by two recent New York Review Books reissues of contemporary classic collections under their Calligrams imprint, François Cheng’s Chinese Poetic Writing, translated by Donald A. Riggs and Jerome P. Seaton (1982), and David Hawkes’s A Little Primer of Tu Fu (1967).

Several poems of Li Po appear in Chinese Poetic Writing, where he’s acknowledged by the non-Romanized version of his name, Li Bai; he’s also a dedicatee of several poems by Du Fu (Tu Fu) which appear as well in A Little Primer of Tu Fu. The two poets were friends, the slightly older Li Po serving as mentor to Tu Fu, who frets over his elder’s well-being in two poems, “Dreaming of Li Po” and “Thoughts of Li Po at World’s End.” This leads Hawkes to remark: “In view of the obsessive preoccupation with water and drowning found in all of these three poems about Li Po, it seems to me very likely that a rumour had reached Tu Fu in Ch’in-chou that Li Po had been drowned while on his way to exile.” As with so many details related to ancient Chinese poetry, this is mere conjecture, however like all of Hawkes’s interjections it is one worth bearing in mind as perhaps the earliest occurrence of the many precursors to the mythic tale of the famous poet’s fate.

Hawkes’ stated intention is “to give some idea of what Chinese poetry is really like and how it works,” no matter whether readers “know no Chinese at all or know only a little.” Indeed, approached together these two titles offer an inviting nuts-and-bolts introduction. Every Anglophone reader interested in the working mechanics behind Chinese poetry will find these texts to be endless resources worth returning to again and again. The books take independent yet complimentary approaches, overlapping at times while never quite duplicating information regarding similar material.

Chinese Poetic Writing offers a richly informative look at the ordering principles implicit in Chinese language and thought. After an opening essay breaking down the component pieces of Chinese poetry under three separate headings—Passive Procedures, Active Procedures, and The Images—Cheng gives us an anthology of T’ang Poetry (600-900, generally acclaimed as the greatest era of Chinese poetry), including nearly three dozen poets with their works separated out into the four classic styles of Chinese poetry forms: Quatrains, Regulated verses, Ancient-style, and Lyric. The poems are presented in Chinese characters accompanied by English verse translations.

A Little Primer of Tu Fu offers thirty-five poems by the poet. In a short introductory note Hawkes explains his reasoning behind key decisions regarding the selection of poems (he relied entirely upon Tu Fu’s representation in Three Hundred T’ang Poems, “the gateway through which generations of Chinese schoolboys were initiated into the pleasures of poetry”) and his use of Modern Chinese (Mandarin) for transliteration of individual lines and Pin-yin for spelling (Mandarin is the form of Chinese recognized by the majority of modern-day native speakers and Pin-yin is both easiest and most ‘official’ standard system in use today). Each poem is first presented in Chinese characters with the Mandarin transliteration interfiled line-by-line. This is followed by four separate explanatory descriptions of the poem’s 1) Title and Subject and 2) Form. Then comes 3) Exegesis, giving word-by-word direct translation from Mandarin into English, as well as additional commentary on occasion. Finally, there is 4) a prose translation of the original poem into English by Hawkes.

Cheng’s opening essay thoroughly demonstrates how a Chinese poem’s images and descriptive phrases mirror or parallel each other in order to achieve a patterned balance between individual lines. On a drastically simplified level, this is a reflection of yin-yang theory: if there is “moon” then there is also “sun” and the presentation of the two achieves a balance which reflects the universe of daily appearance. This provides a broad understanding of the overall patterns governing a poem’s composition. Hawkes also points out such patterning in a more condensed manner, as in his exegesis of the Tu Fu couplet “Fragrant mist cloud-hair wet / Clear light jade-arms cold”: “Notice the parallelism in this couplet: ‘fragrant mist’ parallels ‘clear light’, ‘cloud-hair’ parallels ‘jade-arms’, and ‘wet’ parallels ‘cold’.” This paralleling has obvious effects upon translation. Compare the same couplet as found in Chinese Poetic Writing: “Fragrant mist, moist cloud of your hair. / In that clear light, your arm jade cool.” Moving between the two texts to seek out such comparisons is but one example of how these works unlock a scintillating, rich toolbox for any working poet.

Cheng additionally explores the inherent Chinese “link between poetry and cosmology,” laying out a clear argument “that the Chinese poetic language, in its structure, embodies the very laws which rule cosmology as it was conceived of in Chinese thought.” Zhong Hong’s poetic treatise Shi Pin is enticingly cited: “song is a light which illuminates the Three Spirits (Man-Earth-Heaven) as well as the ten thousand creatures. Thus, it constitutes an offering to the spirits, and makes manifest the hidden mystery. For upsetting Heaven and Earth, for moving the Gods, nothing equals poetry.” This mounts a strong argument for just how inseparably entwined poetry and spirituality are for the Chinese, representing a holism between poet-text-world that is embedded directly into the language: “To suppress the gratuitous and arbitrary at all levels of the system, a semiotic system founded upon an intimate relationship with the real, so that there is no rupture between signs and the world, and hence none between man and the universe: such would be the constant direction of the Chinese.”

Although aimed as being introductory in nature, both A Little Primer of Tu Fu and Chinese Poetic Writing nonetheless forefront the presentation of the poem in Chinese characters, clearly emphasizing the importance of the original language in fully understanding any poetry. Cheng goes so far as presenting a few poems without attempting any translation at all, although individual elements of these poems are utilized in his essay as examples of Chinese poetic devices. This is an exciting challenge to our Anglo-centric culture; the Anglo-prone reader is forced to step beyond the comfort of isolation within their own language. Hawkes also expresses the wish “to have given the reader a gramophone record of the sounds” and encourages that one finds “a Chinese speaker who will make the noises for him.” This is sage advice. Bill Porter, aka Red Pine, recently recited some Chinese poems at a memorial reading for the late Joanne Kyger and the sound was like a mellow creek crisply tinkling its way over and through small rocks—an incredible music full of human emotion.

Click here to purchase A Little Primer of Tu Fu
at your local independent bookstore
indiebound
Click here to purchase Chinese Poetic Writing
at your local independent bookstore
indiebound
Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2017 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2017

Tell Them I Said No

Martin Herbert
Sternberg Press ($24)

by Michael Workman

It's not difficult to conceive of the classist, sexist, and racist machinations of the international art world responsible for "art's transmogrification into a backcloth for the power plays of the prosperous," so readers of Tell Them I Said No might expect to find an indictment of those ills in this slim but forthright volume of essays on artistic withdrawal. Sadly, it doesn't quite deliver that indictment, and at times blurs the thin line critic Martin Herbert gives himself to navigate what qualifies as distinguishing "the needs of the artist and the needs of the art world."

Herbert is an admitted regular at august art-insider publication Art Review, and among the achievements of his essays collected here is how they provide a guidebook, a testament to the aspiration for "tools-down nonparticipation" that he posits as "exasperated reaction to the intolerability of the art world, to the limits of political potential, to gender bias, profiteering, the presence of repellant personalities, and neon egos."

Many of the artists Herbert discusses maintain gallery representation and have accepted museum exhibition of their work, so the measure of these artists’ overall reactions to the art world should be taken as a kind of distancing from its less desirable segments. He traces a variety of ways that artists have attempted this distancing, looking at figures such as Agnes Martin, Laurie Parson, and Trisha Donnelly—the last from whom the title of the book is taken (it was her response to a request by the author for an interview). Much of the idealism portrayed here is of the kind these artists desperately struggled to defend out of a sense of reverence for their own and others’ respect for the revelatory nature of the artistic inspirations that drove them, regardless of medium.

Emblematic of this idealism, for instance, is the chapter on Christopher D'Arcangelo, who died much too young, but while he was alive made an art of intervening on institutional art spaces out of a genuine anarchist impulse, suffering more than a few scuffles with authorities for it. Another is Stanley Brouwn, who died this year, his life almost a primary case study in this collection's analysis of willful anonymity's capacity to conjure artistic apotheosis. His series This Way Brouwn, a collection of hand-drawn maps of directions given him by strangers, echo his artistic trajectory out into silence, save for these little artifacts of his movements in the world.

While perhaps never quite achieving a depiction of the logic that defines the "tools down nonparticipation" set out at its beginning, Tell Them I Said No does provide a welcome glimpse into the impulse to resist the neo-liberalization of art in the interest of maintaining human dignity—and to defend the right of art to exist, despite the world. It may help to separate the political potential of this argument from the rest of these framing mechanisms, given the lineage these artists follow out of the historical avant garde. In our culturally revanchist times, Herbert's book, despite its shortcomings and very much because of its attempt to meet worthwhile aspirations, provides hints that there's hope for a better direction.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
indiebound
Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2017 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2017

Since I Laid My Burden Down

Brontez Purnell
Feminist Press / Amethyst Editions ($17.95)

by Greg Baldino

For as long as there have been small towns and big cities, men and women of a queer inclination have made whatever excuses they could to move from the former to the latter in pursuit of who they knew themselves to be and who they sought to love. In Brontez Purnell’s Since I Laid My Burden Down, DeShawn escapes his hometown to San Francisco to become the self-declared slut he wants to be. The death of his uncle drags him right back to his starting point, however, and he begins to confront the lives and loves that have shaped and scarred him.

The style of the novel is ambitious in its unconventionality. DeShawn’s time back in his hometown after years away is charged, chapter after chapter, by the memories of his origins as an adult. Narration springs back and forth between the immediacy of the past and the subjective ambiguity of the present. Even the most casual encounters with family and neighbors are laced with meaning as he revisits the struggles between his teenage self and sexuality and the environment in which he was forced to acclimate.

Most of those struggles are with men, in any number of roles. Burden is a text ultimately concerned with how one’s masculinity is shaped by the presence and absence of other masculinities. From the prologue, when DeShawn is informed of his uncle’s passing, DeShawn is driven to remember the men who shaped his life, and how they left him. There are deaths and abandonments, from absent fathers to Kurt Cobain. In some way or another, the men in his life are defined by their departure. What they left behind in DeShawn’s life was, ultimately, DeShawn.

In one scene, while babysitting his young nephew outside, DeShawn recalls his adventures in the bathhouses of San Francisco. There are the fears and excitement of his first time, and shades of mortality as he reflects on some of the older patrons. The cry of his nephew, stung by a bee, yanks him back into the immediate, right as he begins to raise the question of just what love is. Attending to the boy’s pain with salve and affection, DeShawn becomes a male figure in another boy’s life who will, in some way or another, leave him in turn.

An artist of many talents, from writing to dance, Purnell shows in his debut novel a strong control of language coupled with a willingness to take risks. It’s a book that can sit comfortably next to Mairead Case’s 2015 debut, See You In The Morning, while resonating with some of the themes and ideas of Samuel R. Delany’s later novels. It is, first and foremost, a work of storytelling; DeShawn comes to life in Purnell’s narrative voice. The worlds of small-town Alabama, where everyone knows everyone, and the callipygian labyrinth of San Francisco coexist as one world within the story. Beginning in death and memory, and ending in revelation and healing, Brontez Purnell’s debut novel is a whirlwind journey for both its protagonist and the reader.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
indiebound
Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2017 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2017

Historians of Redundant Moments

Nandini Dhar
Agape Editions ($16)

by D.M. Aderibigbe

Nandini Dhar’s Historians of Redundant Moments has originality as its primary ingredient. The poems in this novel-in-verse will almost lead you to believe that the author exists in a world several silences away from the rest of the literary blocs. Take this line for example: “In Ghost Uncle’s eyes, shadows of mimeographer’s ink-heavy, dye-wet fingertips.”

Talking of silence, the opening poem of this book introduces the reader to a poet who is here to give voice to the silences before her: “A harmonium abandoned in the middle of an empty factory / cafeteria: a doll hanging by its head from the clothesline.” But why exactly are these silences (redundant moments) necessary to document, or historicize?

The answer to this is not far-fetched. These moments are important not just to the poet, but to her entire race. The unfortunate thing is that these moments have been made redundant by the historians who came before the poet, as one can see from poems like “No History Books Would Give Us these Stories”:

. . . We would have loved

to peek in, breathe through the rustling stories.
Yes, there were trains without passengers. Yes,

there were nipple-tips without women. And,
we are gobbling up their rustling remains.

But that was a long time ago—a termite-eaten
photograph, a trivial anecdote

that refused to be translated into the language
of facts. We never learnt to cook

in our grandmother’s skillets. For there
were none. No famines.

No food riots. No rallies. No clandestine
meetings. No Slogans. No protests.

Similarly, it isn’t only public history that is redundant (silent) here. A whole bunch of private histories have been left long untold:

Mother goes around the house boxing things.
The attic is clustered with old junk that we

children are not allowed to touch—suitcases wrapped
in white sheets, each with a label. 1943.1948.YEH

AZADI JHUTA HAIN. UNDERGROUND
NAXALBARI LAL SELAM. 1977. Mother moves

around the house on tiptoe, brooms and rags in hand . . .

Indeed, as the book progresses, silence takes a different form, and becomes much more than redundant moment; rather, it begins to serve as a lens through which various events in the book come to the reader. “. . . princesses hardly / possess a line, do not swirl their canoes anywhere. / Do not have bows slung across their backs, do not / sharpen arrow-tips, let alone aim them anywhere.”

Dealing with a subject that has more to do with suspended actions than active ones, “with the heaviness of last night’s / rain in between our toes,” the author employs inventive use of sentences to construct strange but superb images, metaphors that bring about such actions or inactions:

Our grandfathers did not whittle this city into being. Nor
our fathers. Or uncles. Neither did the city write itself.

All our men could do was read it: an incomplete
tableau. Afraid their touch would shatter the city

like an old beetle wing. A broken line on a broken wall.

In all, Historians of Redundant Moments is much more than a work of reclamation. It is a book that dwells on love, family, trauma, joy, peace, and unrest, among others. It is thus safe to say that this book is a brilliant conglomeration of most of the things that make us human.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
indiebound
Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2017 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2017

Teacher: Two Years in the Mississippi Delta

Michael Copperman
University Press of Mississippi ($25)

by T. K. Dalton

A reader could come to Michael Copperman’s memoir, Teacher: Two Years in the Mississippi Delta with any number of trepidations: a weariness with narratives about the teacher-who-changed-my-life, maybe, or a preconceived notion about Teach for America (TFA), which takes fresh graduates from elite colleges and places them, after a brief summer of training, in under-resourced schools to teach impoverished students. Or consider that a book published at the end of 2016 is concerned with the lives of children who are now in their mid-twenties—just slightly older than Copperman was when he accepted the job. What kind of distortions set in with the passage of so much time? Adding in the distortions of the genre, and of the organization, how do these distortions limit the story?

It turns out not at all; rather, in the hands of a tireless, deeply reflective, honest, and unflinching writer, the passage of time has enriched the story, eroding away the unnecessary to reveal a truth.

The memoir begins with Copperman’s return to the Delta to address a crowd of new TFA recruits. In this chapter, titled “Uncertainty,” he is back in the town he calls Promise, on streets he once drove to work. Recalling a student, he passes by her house, only to find it burned to the ground. She has survived, but it’s an eerie moment. His Delta—and his students’—has changed.

For young Copperman, part of the struggle in the early part of the book—aptly enough called “The First Year” —is that so many aspects of school and of local life more broadly are ingrained enough that any change he intends to make is nearly impossible. Often Copperman struggles just to understand expectations, like punishment. In the chapter titled “Classroom Management,” Copperman and an assistant principal not much older than him differ in their approaches to discipline. “I do not spare the rod,” says the administrator, holding a wood paddle. In keeping with the TFA philosophy that, as the first-year teacher puts it, “Good teaching is good management,” Copperman attempts to keep regular communication with parents open, calling not just for problems but for positive reports as well. This ends badly. When Copperman attempts to engage the mother of one student, Antiquarian, whose love for kickball becomes a motivator for good behavior, his repeated calls go unanswered. The repeated presence of his number on caller ID leads the mother’s boyfriend, a prison guard, to beat the student with a fan belt. In a conference with the assistant principal and the student, Antiquarian says, “Don’t worry, Mr. Copperman. It don’t matter what you do, right or wrong, good or bad. It don’t matter.” The capture of such heartbreaking moments occur on nearly every page of this book. The students are wise, furious; the teacher naive, full of hubris; Teacher shows each with respect and precision.

The scale of trauma many of these students experienced before even coming to school is extraordinary. Its retelling in Teacher is not the stuff of exploitative melodrama, as it could be with a lesser talent, but is instead in the tradition of literary witness. “What You Can Give” describes how Tevin, a student in foster care, appeared to have experienced extreme malnourishment, fetal alcohol poisoning, and crack while in utero, and had even been the person to discover the corpse of his murdered mother. Copperman is shown Tevin’s case file and reports what the student saw that day: “all down her shoulders and chest and all over the white porcelain was blood from her throat, which had been slit open from clavicle to clavicle.” The student’s behavior continues to be rough, though his capability is there: “He wrote the word fuck a hundred times when asked to write a five-sentence paragraph—complete with five periods to satisfy the assignment.” Copperman literally throws the student into the hallway after Tevin spits in his face. It’s a telling moment in the midst of monumental—if not uncommon—first-year teacher behavior challenges. “I struggled to recognize that not only couldn’t I create new lives for my kids, but on my worst days I couldn’t even make progress in teaching them to read, write, and understand fractions,” writes Copperman. “Many of these children had hard lives and they brought their circumstances to school with them. . . . How can one respond to constant disrespect without anger?”

In the above context, in the chapter “Persistence and Penance,” Copperman is referencing his own anger, the disrespect being the student behavior toward him. Of course, bad behavior is also a form of anger, itself a response to constant disrespect of a different sort: of being a child growing up in a segregated town, being teased for having clothes that are dirty or a body that smells, having developmental delays and issues related to a parent’s addiction, the instability of a one- or even a no-parent household, the difficulty of being raised by grandparents, the consequent problems rooted in the “solution” of corporal punishment, an educational system that thinks testing is the way to improve education for children living under such a matrix of oppressions, the casual racism in a town where confederate flags fly on major streets and where the place most likely to appear integrated is the local Walmart. Copperman writes: “Lynching in adjacent counties was in the memory of her parents and grandparents; who was I to claim that change had come in a place so substantially unaltered by time? Here at this school, even now, we kept black children fenced in with barbed wire, and at the Academy football field I passed on my way home each day, hoops of razor wire kept them out.” He describes another student, Nyson, whose disability went undiagnosed until so late in the year that he’d been resourced to a special education facility. “I’d failed Nyson, had missed the meaning of his first zero on the diagnostic and every subsequent sign, even his own writing on the wall. All those months he begged me to notice, and I let him suffer there alone, the only one who cared enough to look in the right place.” He ends up back at the school, and is properly diagnosed with dyslexia related to both reading and math—the latter of which Copperman says he should have seen when the boy wrote “10 x 10 = 010” on the test Copperman had posted.

First-year teachers make many of the same mistakes, regardless of talent and placement—and here we certainly have a talented teacher in a difficult and unfamiliar placement. Our first year in New York, my wife and her middle-school colleagues attended a great many “mandatory meetings”—happy hours at nearby dive bars. In Copperman’s book, some of my favorite moments from the first year describe life outside the classroom. Though set in 2002, Copperman’s description of the experience of being a young man of Japanese and Jewish descent teaching in a place where such racial multiplicity is buried underneath a tense, historically laden binary is insightful and important in this moment. “Club Sweet,” for instance, shows Copperman invited out to a Delta-style “mandatory meeting.” He’s not quite in his element, but neither is he when he stops to eat at the only Chinese restaurant in the area, only to find the woman at the grill and her teenage son bringing him a home-style, off-menu feast. In both cases, others recognize his dislocation—or, in the case of the China-King Restaurant, their own in his. They meet it with kindness, and the relief is real.

Teacher testifies to the pressure that young, bright idealists can experience when encountering entrenched inequities. It’s not something new, either. In “Harm,” Copperman describes a conversation about burnout with his father, who worked early in his career in ERs serving low-income and sometimes homeless and mentally ill patients. Copperman’s father describes a man who came in four days after he’d almost died of alcohol poisoning; the father settles the patient roughly into a gurney, and after leaving for a minute, he returns. Copperman’s father relates the conversation to his son: “‘Thank God you come, thank God you come, there was a bad doctor here hurting me.’ He didn’t remember I’d treated him that way and left him there, any more than he remembered it was me who saved his life.” In the stories of these students from his first year—of Nyson and Antiquarian and Tevin—there are echoes with the elder Copperman’s experience.

The structure of the book into first year and second makes sense. But it does build in some of the same problems that TFA’s two-year model has: namely, the problem of the lame duck, and one who has just recently come to know how much they do not know. Much of the second year sees Copperman actively engaging the forces he’d come to understand over the course of the first year—among them what he sees as his own ineffectiveness. He doesn’t quite have the time or momentum to fix much of this, in part because he’ll soon be leaving. It’s not a flaw of the book as much as the TFA experience. What holds “The Second Year” together are his efforts to reach a single student, who he calls Felicia. Because she is behaviorally disturbed but preternaturally bright—the kind of student a principal friend of mine calls a “program breaker”—he engages her in a yearlong struggle to tap her potential. At the start of the school year, he arrives at school to find her curled up in front of his classroom door. Copperman doesn’t know this, but all the other teachers in the school had refused her. She starts the year with a tirade when she’s not allowed to use the bathroom: “Stupid ugly little Chinaman gone send me to the office for dancing? Shoot, I gone tell Assistant Principal Winston he need to send that mean little slant-eyed man to go back where he come from . . . . ” It’s not long before she’s refusing to read The Cricket of Times Square on principle. It didn’t have to do with literacy though: “Mostly she was superproficient [on tests], though on one section of a test from third grade she’d literally received no points at all, which could only mean that she’d correctly chosen the wrong answer to each question.” Her reading level was “currently unestablishable due to exceptional speed and frequent digression on all comprehension questions.” He makes her his project:

What emerged was an extraordinary and violent defiance, a nature so ruthlessly oppositional it couldn't be mastered. . . . In the overlap between impossibility and impossibility there had to be some truth that connected with the gentleness I could sometimes exact from her with a smile or compliment. There was something about Felicia that was worthy of effort—and I’d bring it out.

He finds himself trying to reach her to the detriment of other students. Out of frustration, late in the year, a student named Solomon mocks his teacher:

Felicia Jackson, that’s enough out of you! I already asked you to stop being terrible to everybody in the world six other times today! It’s not OK to poke Serenity in the back of the head, kick Solomon in the shins, all the while meddling Serenity and mocking me behind my back all at the same time all day every day! I don’t appreciate being called a Ching-Chong Chinaman ought to go on back to China and fry me some rice! No, don’t even talk! That’s a consequence! That’s another consequence! No, I don't discuss consequences with fourth graders!

She eventually is transferred to a series of facilities for disturbed youth, ”and then sent back within a week: they didn’t know how to handle her combination of acuity and defiance.” She ended up, he learns, finishing school. As of the publication of Teacher, she worked at a Sonic drive-through in Promise.

This book was a consuming read, but reviewing it took me far longer than I thought. At first, I thought this had something to do with my own proximity to a rough year I had working in a school myself—but it wasn’t that, or even the evergreen excuse available to a working parent of two children under age four. No, the hardest thing to explain about the book is this: Rather than having its narrative distorted by memory or ego, its structure captures a distortion in the experience of TFA itself. In that first year, the dramatic details underpinning a narrative of monumental adjustment to the incredible responsibilities assumed by a novice in the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in the United States overwhelm any other possible story. In that second year, the teacher is both better and aware of how much better they need to be—but is also leaving.

Copperman has for many years taught low-income, first-generation students of color at the University of Oregon. That experience, sketched out at the end, offers a grounding through-line, which keeps the exquisitely rendered memories from fishtailing into a defensive nostalgia or a facile self-flagellation. These memories are of children who now may well have fourth-graders of their own. Time has worn off anything extraneous, and the voices of the students ring as clearly on the page as they did in the room where they originated. Teacher offers a glimpse at a lost planet, recognizable from our own, spinning on an axis with its own specific gravity.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
indiebound
Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2017 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2017

Groundspeed

Emilia Phillips
University of Akron Press ($14.95)
by Krystal Languell

In an early episode of Mad Men, Betty Draper jumps a curb with her kids, a boy and a girl, in the car. In the aftermath, she expresses regret thusly: “If it happened to Bobby it would have been okay because a boy with a scar is nothing, but a girl, it's so much worse.” In the opening poem of Groundspeed by Emilia Phillips, “Reading Ovid at the Plastic Surgeon’s,” the idea that we might consider ourselves too intelligent for vanity collapses beneath our collective weight. The speaker waits to be called for a procedure to remove cancerous cells from her face, quite rightly feeling fear, but first distinguishing herself from the other patients: “No one else with a book, the slick / weeklies gossip amongst // themselves on the side / tables” while a television displays a stock market dip and “a profile of the marathon // bombers.” Clearly, she believes her choice of Ovid as her means of distraction sets her apart, and she seems to assume some of the other patients are there by choice rather than medical necessity.

What’s interesting here is that certainly the speaker bears some measure of vanity herself, worried about the “hunk of my // cheek (cancer)” to be removed, dissociating from the experience by imagining the incision “site as an apricot, bitten.” She describes the image as personal “romanticism,” though, like the Ovid volume, it is also a coping mechanism. The photographic negative of this poem is one I recall by Maura Stanton that describes a student with cancer riding the elevator in Ballantine Hall at IU-Bloomington, and the cheerful assumptions her fellow riders make about her based on her engagement ring. We can’t tell when someone else is ill, and, if given the choice, would probably prefer not to know when we are either.

In the final lines of the poem, Phillips’s speaker refuses to look at her own reflection in a window on the way into the exam room. By the time we reach the final poem in the collection, “Supine Body in Full-Length Mirror, Hotel Room, Upper West Side,” the speaker no longer avoids her image, instead looking directly into the mirror and boldly inventorying her body, pausing at “the blot // where your aureola was once / pink.” She reflects on the events chronicled in the flesh, scars, like tattoos sometimes do, summarizing traumatic narratives. At first, she is surprised that it (her body) has come to the hotel with her. (Who invited you?) She goes on to position her body as symbolic, an assemblage constituting a lifetime of freighted modalities of gender. Its meaning constituted through its wounds, it suggests that meaning is a wound. And perhaps this is more true for bodies read as female than for those read as male.

We don’t always have the benefit of knowing our wounds very well, and Phillips compares the animal world to ours: “doves they released // over your brother’s grave wear / symbolism like buckshot // in the breast / unknowingly.” The birds don’t know they’re at a funeral. They don’t know what they symbolize.

What we know, we know because we have been wounded. And we have the memory of that experience as well as the scar to remind us, whereas the symbolism of the doves stays lodged beneath the surface “like buckshot.” Like Phillips’s speaker, we have to choose to face the experiences and ourselves. So much more is at play and at stake in this collection beyond these two bookending poems—death, travel, coming of age, all of which Phillips leads the reader through, not gently exactly, but with such reassuring competence as to make these potential dangers manageable, less threatening than if faced on our own.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
indiebound
Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2017 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2017

I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men & What I Had On

Khadijah Queen
YesYes Books ($18)

by Jeremiah Moriarty

Was it Dorothy Parker who once asked “Where's the man that could ease a heart like a satin gown?” I don’t know if Parker found something comparable in the toothy grin of Alan Parker, her on-again, off-again husband, but her question is a timeless, mostly unanswered one. Given the unreliability of other people and the mutability of desire, who do we dress for? A satin gown, the suggestions of the body beneath, can fetch the gaze of another, but it’s doing so much more work than that, both in the eyes of the beholder and the mind of the wearer. Who has the power in that situation, and how? Poet Khadijah Queen takes up these themes of fashion, attraction, and self-actualization in her new collection of episodic lyric pieces, I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men & What I Had On, exploring the universal contradiction of wanting to be beautiful while remaining skeptical of beauty’s place in the culture at large.

The cover of I’m So Fine characterizes the book as “A Narrative,” an expansive term that perfectly captures Queen’s detailed descriptions of famous men—their appeal and their approach—as well as her clothing. It gestures to the fact that clothes are very much indicators of the story we tell ourselves about the world and our place in it. Of meeting LL Cool J, she writes, “I had on black slacks & black Aerosole sandals & a cheap silky-polyester Rampage button-down with cap sleeves & a graphic blue sunflowers & carried my lipstick & wallet in a tiny pleather backpack I’m sure I looked a poor hot mess but oh well we got to see LL lick them lips.” These anecdotes, presented in clean-looking, elliptical passages, have little to no punctuation, and the restless stream-of-consciousness runs thick with pop culture reference and association. Most of them are Queen’s memories, but some are her mother’s, and many take place in Los Angeles, where celebrities coexist in funny, decidedly unglamorous ways with the rest of the populace. Paths cross, and the glamor of someone famous—as it often does—becomes immediately complicated by the male gaze, by differentials of power, and by morally suspect behavior.

Queen’s speaker rarely plays the groupie, more caught up in the excitement of a moment than anything else: when she and friends encounter Tupac in a Taco Bell drive-through, he invites them to a party “which seemed sketchy to me,” Queen writes, “but it was Tupac & it was Kelly’s car & she wanted to go so we went.” Sometimes the speaker’s motivations are not so simple, like the moment she leaves a club in Virginia with a friend “in time to see Allen Iverson in his cornrows & oversized jersey & jean shorts & clean Nikes get into the driver’s side of a white Bentley overcrowded with half-drunk half-dressed girls.” Though the speaker has no desire to be associated with “the so-called gold digger types,” encounters with larger-than-life figures still grab her eye and invite her curiosity; their fame, and the power inherent to that fame, can connect the non-celebrity to a larger cultural story.

Something of a thesis for I’m So Fine emerges in Queen’s passage on Bill Cosby and Beverly Johnson. Recounting Johnson’s decision to come forth about being drugged by Cosby and his attempted assault, Queen writes:

I immediately believed her & not him I have seen enough of powerful men by now to know she had nothing to gain by going public & the truth of beauty means both spotlights and shadows find you & it takes more than instinct to know where to stand on the stage

Hyper-visibility, in Queen’s experience, invites as many problems as benefits—the solicitations of “both spotlights and shadows.” I’m So Fine explores how the Black female body is made hyper-visible often not by choice or intention, but also how the individual in that body can gain agency by turning the gaze back on itself, how this visibility can be made into a powerful instrument of self-authorship. Its fresh humor and clear-eyed moral vision make it a perfect antidote to a time of oversimplified civil dialogue, of “fake news” and its opposite, and will hopefully invite others to interrogate their own relationship to space and visibility, to domination and erasure.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
indiebound
Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2017 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2017