Tag Archives: spring 2009

THE LEMOINE AFFAIR

Marcel Proust
translated by Charlotte Mandell
Melville House ($10)

by Alyssa Pelish

In 1908, Parisian society was amused by the court trial of self-proclaimed alchemist Henri Lemoine, whose purported fabrication of ring-sized diamonds duped the De Beers Diamond Syndicate out of nearly 2 million francs. L’affaire Lemoine, as the spectacle came to be known, saw the unveiling of the sought-after trade secret (which amounted to a recipe for heating sugar carbon at high temperatures), a calamitous drop in diamond shares, and Lemoine’s flight to Constantinople. The farcical affair sounds a bit like a case that Poe’s detective, Dupin, might have investigated just after “The Purloined Letter,”or an allegorical detail that Balzac would have worked into the vast plan of his Human Comedy. But it was an aspiring novelist named Marcel Proust who took up the matter, publishing a few short pieces on it in the Figaro that year. Proust being Proust, the novella that emerged— now making its English language debut— is something quite different from the potboiler or romance that the sensationalist facts of the case suggest.

In his In Search of Lost Time, that 3,000-page novel that would quite overshadow The Lemoine Affair, Proust’s narrator remarks that “what people said escaped me, because what interested me was not what they wanted to say but the manner in which they said it, such that it revealed their character or their absurdities.” This proclivity is on full display in The Lemoine Affair, where Proust fashions a series of pastiches that take the fiasco as their ostensible subject but are ultimately most concerned with their own manner of telling. Assuming the literary style of nine different French authors, Proust refers to the scandal in flashes: as society gossip “From a Novel by Balzac,” as a dramatic performance panned for its implausibility “In the Weekly Theatre Review by M. Emile Faguet,” or as aristocratic intrigue divulged “In the Memoirs of Saint-Simon.” Each pastiche reframes the Lemoine Affair in another genre by another author, whose literary style and characteristic preoccupations are absurdly foregrounded at the expense of any narrative progression. But this is the real fun of The Lemoine Affair— not the story itself, but its style. Proust, in a sense, plays Lemoine, counterfeiting other writers in a prismatic refraction of the scandal.

The very French tradition of literary pastiche hovers somewhere between satire and homage, but Proust elevates the form, identifying and replicating each syntactic tic and rhetorical trait of his precursors so adroitly that it can be difficult to distinguish keen observation from playful exaggeration. When Proust as Flaubert fastens his attention upon a lawyer’s oratory that is “like the gush of a waterfall, like a ribbon unfurling” and then briefly alights on the very fabric of a young girl’s corsage that “flutters like a blade of grass by the edge of a fountain ready to well up, like the plumage of a pigeon about to fly away,” it is difficult to know whether we should sigh appreciatively or smirk. To be sure, even the writers whom Proust most admired appear at least slightly ridiculous in these condensed and decontextualized forms, but his mimicry is so comprehensive that we can’t dismiss any one of them out of hand.

Proust himself found these authors difficult to dismiss, in one way or another. Some of them were pervasive academic voices he had first encountered as a lycéen, others were fashionable in literary circles of the time, and the works of some— Balzac, Flaubert, and the Duc de Saint-Simon— he had read and loved in adolescence. Yet as a writer concerned with forging his own style, Proust found it necessary to hold his influences at arm’s length. Pastiche, as a kind of performative criticism, allowed him a means of defining himself against other voices. By magnifying the Goncourt brothers’ twee aestheticism or the convoluted sentences of his contemporary, Henri de Régnier, he might reconsider similar impulses in his own writing. This is the “purgative, exorcising virtue of pastiche” he recommended to young writers so as to avoid falling into the habit of “involuntary pastiche.” He could also use the genre effectively to censure techniques and principles that were antithetical to his own increasingly distinct artistic vision. Thus Proust’s real hostility toward Sainte-Beuve’s biographical school of literary criticism emerges as an absurdly pedantic digression on Flaubert’s Norman ancestry. And in a single sentence we can perfectly observe his distaste for Balzac’s “vulgar” details: “Mme Firmiani,” writes Proust as the grandfather of French realism, “sweated in her slippers, masterpieces of Polish industry.”

The Lemoine Affair reminds us how funny Proust can be. Although In Search of Lost Time is punctuated with droll observations, they are often overlooked in favor of the novel’s weightier preoccupations. The much lighter format of these pastiches showcases the comic side of Proust’s perspicacity, which makes the novella inviting to a reader who doesn’t happen to be on a first-name basis with the members of Proust’s canon. Although the humor does stem from literary winks and nudges that were aimed at a particular milieu (such that Proust has puckishly insinuated himself and his friends into these scenarios), the distinctive style of each pastiche makes the particular folly of a given author legible even to the uninitiated. When, for instance, Proust preys upon de Régnier’s elaborate symbolist imagery by offering the exquisite likening of a strand of Lemoine’s mucus to a diamond, it’s just funny: “One could make out just the one single succulent, quivering mass, transparent and hardening; and in the ephemeral brilliance with which it decorated Lemoine’s attire, it seemed to have fixed the prestige of a momentary diamond there.”

The precise irreverence that Proust brings to both the obscure and illustrious names of French literature is a sharp little lesson in both style and relativism. Few of us read Faguet or de Régnier anymore, yet here they receive the same scrutiny as Flaubert and Balzac. And although The Lemoine Affair itself was never intended to be any sort of cultural touchstone, 100 years after the fact, it proves to be something more than a momentary diamond.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009

TOKYO FIANCÉE

Amélie Nothomb
Translated from the French by Alison Anderson
Europa Editions ($15)

by Ryan Michael Williams

The protagonist of Amélie Nothomb’s Tokyo Fiancée does not believe in love. Twenty-three-year-old Amélie—who shares a first name and many other traits with the novel’s author—was born in Japan to Belgian parents, and has recently taken up residence there for the first time since childhood. She teaches French for a living, and tumbles unexpectedly into a fling with a student named Rinri, the Mercedes-driving scion of a wealthy Tokyo family. For Amélie, their affair is great fun, but nothing more than a lark; for Rinri, an unreconstituted romantic, it is very serious business indeed. Someone is bound to get hurt.

Nothomb wisely does not portray Rinri as a deluded, mooning type; he acts like an adult, and treats Amélie with respect. But because the object of his desire isn’t especially interested in love, his attempts to please her routinely misfire. When he serenades her under a cherry tree, she laughs at him outright. “I believe what I am singing,” he protests, but his earnestness gets him nowhere. “These budding blossoms were dangerous,” Amélie narrates with wry, affectionate disapproval, “exalting the young man’s sentimentalism in this way.”

Readers may wince at the way Amélie treats Rinri—who is kind, sensitive, and the more sympathetic character by far. Fortunately, Nothomb imbues Amélie’s first-person narration with an abundance of prickly charm; she’s quick-witted and funny even as she condescends toward Rinri, and it is difficult not to like her for her sharpness and humor. Nothomb also has the sense to give Amélie a driving, motivating passion: she loves her personal independence dearly, and throughout Tokyo Fiancée she defends it with a fierce, unrelenting, and appealing energy.

Poor Rinri just has the misfortune to be caught in the crossfire. Amélie has a restless spirit, a hunger for experience, and a desire to see as much of the world as she can, and thus needs to remain unfettered by any kind of emotional commitment. “I am twenty-three years old and I have yet to find any of the things I am looking for,” she explains. “That is why I like life. It is a good thing, at the age of twenty-three, not yet to have found your way.” It’s hard to argue with that.

Aside from conflicts between romance and personal freedom, Nothomb’s other major concern in Tokyo Fiancée is intercultural communication. Amélie, a language teacher and writer, often muses at length about what might be lost in translation when she and Rinri attempt to communicate with each other in both French and Japanese. But Amélie is often a surprisingly poor cultural observer; few readers will be surprised to discover that the Japanese have a particular fondness for high-tech gizmos, or that Japanese tourists often travel in groups and take lots of pictures. It’s possible that Nothomb intends for Amélie’s observations to come off as a bit shallow, because Amélie is in some ways shallow herself. But in a novel in which the protagonist is rather conspicuously named after its author, sorting out the difference between narrative and authorial perspective becomes a very complicated business.

It is relatively clear, however, that Nothomb is writing about a younger version of herself—and she leaves no doubt whatsoever that the book intends to offer a firm defense of Amélie’s efforts to maintain her independence. It is much to Nothomb’s credit, then, that she does not flinch at honestly portraying the pain Amélie inflicts upon the thoroughly likeable Rinri when she asserts her independence at his expense. Nothomb offers no false resolution of the novel’s conflict between personal freedom and emotional intimacy, and this unresolved tension makes Tokyo Fiancée convincing and compelling.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009

VILNIUS POKER

Ričardas Gavelis
translated by Elizabeth Novickas
Open Letter Books ($17.95)

by Alex Starace

As Vilnius Poker begins, the main character, Vytautus Vargalys, has to go to work just like any other citizen in 1970s Lithuania—no matter that he is plagued by sustained paranoia, psychotic visions and flashbacks from nine years spent in a Soviet labor camp. Vargalys gets in a trolley car and rides through the hellish husk of a city that is Soviet-occupied Vilnius. He arrives at the library (where he directs a project that the Moscow higher-ups have told him he must not complete) and sits at his desk with his phone unplugged and his head in his hands. At ten o’clock, one of his assistants pops her head into his office: it’s time for a coffee break. If this seems like a bland beginning to a novel, it’s not. Vargalys’s visions infuse these mundane events with the following: he is almost murdered by a limousine; he becomes terrified because of some supposedly disappearing-and-reappearing pigeons; he shrinks from the seductive glare of a real-life Circe; and he discusses the existence of Them, the evil entities against whom he is fighting. And this is just in the first eight pages.

The author of Vilnius Poker, Ričardas Gavelis, was considered Lithuania’s greatest novelist before his death in 2002. This novel, written from 1979 to 1987, captures the psychology of a protagonist tortured by his history and unable to explain his present-day life. The character, Vargalys, grew up in a small Lithuanian village fighting the Poles only to be caught by the Russians at age nineteen and sent to a gulag, where he endured unspeakable torture. After nine years he was released and sent to Vilnius. He forthwith became a drunk on skid row. After several years, a woman took a liking to him and pulled him from the gutter. He married her, became happy and sober for a brief time, only to realize that his wife was slowly becoming one of Them—so he divorced her. The Vargalys of the novel is a long-time bachelor trying to reconcile his current life as penurious, ineffectual bureaucrat with the struggle and pain he’d endured in his previous life; he’d fought for a sovereign Lithuania, for a more compassionate humanity. What he got was a hopeless job, a ruined country and the indignity of seeing his torturers walking around the streets of Vilnius, happier and more prosperous than he. So it’s no wonder that the intelligent and once-vital Vargalys obsesses over ideas like these:

A hundred times I tried to logically refute Their existence. But I reached the opposite goal—I unarguably proved that They really exist. The simplest proof—an argument ad absurdum. Let’s sayThey don’t exist. There is no such subspecies of live creatures whose sole purpose is to kanuk people, to take away their intellectual and spiritual powers; that kingdom of sullen flat faces doesn’t exist. Let’s say none of that exists.
Then how can you explain humanity’s structure, all the world’s societies, all human communities, their aspirations and modes of existence? How can you explain that always and everywhere, as far as you can see, one idiot rules a thousand intelligent people, and they quietly obey? Whence comes the silent gray majority in every society? Would a person who wasn’t kanuked think of vegetating in a soulless condition and say that’s the way everything should be? Why is it always enough to arrest a thousand for the just cause of a million to be doomed? Who raises and sets all governments on the throne, who hands the scepter to Satan’s servants—to all sorts of Stalins, Hitlers or Pol Pots? How do thousands, even millions of people disappear in the presence of all, and the others supposedly don’t even notice?

While the reader never finds out exactly who They are, nor exactly what They want (which only serves to further prove Their existence), Gavelis does an excellent job of providing glimpses of the very real, very quotidian horrors of Communist rule. So much so that when the narrator changes to the fallen educational theorist, Martynas Poska, we bitterly laugh along with him when he explains: “Colon cancer was on the verge of consuming [Vargalys’s grandfather]; they kicked him out of the hospital the last few weeks. The usual thing: so he wouldn’t up and die on them and ruin the hospital’s mortality statistics. It just so happened that the clinics were fighting to lower their mortality rating at the time.”

Despite the Gavelis’s impressive dry humor and psychological insight, Vilnius Poker suffers from being overwrought; when Gavelis strays from concrete descriptions or specific philosophical theories, his characters expound hopelessly recursive, self-involved national solipsism for pages upon pages. Perhaps most indicative of this is the characters’ tendency to anthropomorphize Vilnius itself, saying things like, “I don’t know what Vilnius is. Maybe Vilnius knows what I am?” and “In my human life I had a purpose: to run as far as possible from here, as far as possible from the soullessness of Vilnius, from that moribund city’s despair.” The end result is that Gavelis’s argument loses some force—he protests too much, too simplistically, and too repetitively. A novel 200 pages slimmer might better bring home the point that Vilnius, Lithuania, was the “Ass of the Universe” in the 1970s. Regardless, readers who are fascinated by Eastern Bloc literature, by the psychology of occupation and by the absurd Catch-22s of bureaucracy will enjoy Vilnius Poker. There’s a lot here: passion, madmen, crushed hope, a stinking city and the stench of human rubble. All of which makes it worth the extra pages.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009

BELLADONNA ELDERS SERIES #4: Tribute to Emma Bee Bernstein


Emma Bee Bernstein, Susan Bee, Marjorie Perloff, and Nona Willis Aronowitz
Belladonna Books ($15)

by Ellen Kennedy Michel

Rarely has a book been published with as immediate and tragic a backstory as the fourth in the Elder Series published by Belladonna Books, now titled a “Tribute to Emma Bee Bernstein.” Daughter of poet Charles Bernstein and artist Susan Bee, Emma Bee Bernstein took her own life, at the age of 23, on December 20, 2008, inside the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, the day after sending her mother her contribution to the book.

Conceived nine months earlier, the concept for this Belladonna selection grew out of a panel presentation at the Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, “Beyond the Waves: Feminist Artists Talk Across the Generations.” There, Emma held her own among artists and critics Carolee Schneemann, Mira Schor, Brynna Tucker, and Susan Bee. Having grown up at the epicenter of the contemporary American avant-garde, with parents who disrupted fixed boundaries between visual arts and language, it’s no wonder that Emma became a collaborator with elders. She also became a defender of her own generation, wondering what is left for it to do and what forms its feminism will take.

Emma’s closest collaborator was journalist Nona Willis Aronowitz, who is also the daughter of intellectual, critical-minded parents, the late Ellen Willis and Stanley Aronowitz. After the death of Ellen Willis from cancer in November 2006, Emma and Nona began to imagine a project that would let them take “responsibility for the legacy we inherited: to keep the memory of our mothers, and feminism, alive.” Motivated, too, by the desire for “change, discovery, travel, and adventure,” they set out from Chicago in a ’98 Chevy Cavalier shortly after graduating from college, with laptops, lists of names, and money saved from waitress and hostess jobs. (“We worked all summer at crappy jobs to do this,” Nona explains in the book. At the GIRLdrive FAQ she puts it more bluntly: “we worked our butts off at shitty jobs for almost a year in order to hit the road. No book deal, trust fund, or doting parent picked up the tab. Just sayin'.”)

For two intense months Emma and Nona interviewed and photographed over 200 women—most of them young and urban, some of them mentors—and recorded their journey at girldrive.blogspot.com. Their aim was to write a book containing answers to four (“appropriately Jewish”) questions: “Do you consider yourself a feminist? Do you see your life through the eyes of being a woman, or does gender figure into your daily experience? What issues are the most burning or pressing for you, whether in your life or in the world at large? What would you like to see for the future of women?”

Belladonna Elders Series #4 has a swiftness and immediacy, and not only because it was hastened into print in Emma’s memory. It stands out boldly from others in the Belladonna Elders Series, white text artifacts also designed by HR Hegnauer, marked with cover photos of the “deadly nightshade, a cardiac and respiratory stimulant.” As an object, it demands attention—its cover, a brightly colored painting by Susan Bee titled “Lost in Space,” depicts a black leather-clad superwoman resisting the grip of a one-eyed octopus. The back cover, Susan Bee’s “Future,” features an altered vintage image of three girls in short black skirts, sweaters, ties, and butterfly wings. They stand under a banner proclaiming Emma’s dictum: “Let feminism be an amorphous cloud that floats over women’s ideation and visual experience—and that brings us together instead of partitions us off from one another.”

This tribute volume also invariably serves as an interim introduction to the GIRLdrive book, due in the fall of 2009 from Seal Press. In her own contribution to Belladonna #4, “Emma’s Poetry,” Nona Willis Aronowitz writes: “Emma was always disappointed that ‘GIRLdrive the book’ could not possibly embody the headiness of ‘GIRLdrive the experience’. . . She wanted us to be more conspicuous characters in the story of GIRLdrive, more than just the talking heads of the odyssey that forged connections between hundreds of women across thirty-five cities.” Nona’s prose, both here and elsewhere, conveys the energy and intelligence of GIRLdrive. The two women knew how to seize the moment, identifying the gaps and the overlaps between their forebears and feminists (or “not”) of their own generation.

Especially in its aftermath, it’s possible to wish GIRLdrive had also been a film project or even a reality show, capturing its on-the-road headiness. Its ambition was vast, leaving Emma wanting more. In an essay on her loss, Susan Bee reveals that a serious car crash after the GIRLdrive trip left Emma with injuries that may have contributed to a sense of desperation in her final moments. She was also in an artistic space charged with notoriety and intergenerational drama: the Guggenheim houses some of the works of artist Pegeen Vail, daughter of Peggy Guggenheim and painter Laurence Vail, who killed herself in 1967 after more than a dozen attempts—a fact that couldn’t have escaped Emma’s attention.

There is something undeniably heartbreaking about this book. Poets, artists, feminists, friends and relatives of Emma, her brother Felix, and of course her parents, have been sharing memories and collective grief, trying to come to terms with the implications of her death. Charles Bernstein’s blog has a prominent “In Memorium” link that includes words from her funeral service. Mourners note that Emma held a place of unusual privilege and promise in the art world, having been recognized as precocious while still young. Her remarkable elders encouraged her, finding value in her observations and images. And yet she sensed acutely the double bind of her own generation, arguing that they have been robbed of the time to reflect: “These are not the good ol’ days and we know it . . . That reality check followed our whole road trip . . . ‘They had it so easy’ is a popular refrain of Gen. Y. We are bitter and jaded. The idea of carving out time in your youth for self-discovery and exploration is as outdated as rainbow ponchos and love-ins.” Later, she writes: “ Many of us no longer are given a chance to make moves in life that aren’t documented, that don’t only function as a stepping stone to something else. We couldn’t even think of taking this road trip unless it took the form of an ambitious project!”

Like Mary Shelley before her (crossing the Alps on a donkey with Percy Bysshe Shelley and half-sister Claire, the three of them reading aloud from the works of Mary’s parents, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin), Emma’s work spins from a fascination with the social pioneers of her parents’ generation, as well as her sense of aesthetic entitlement, urgency, and legacy. She wanted to be meaningful too, and knew she had it in her. In a piece Emma contributed to Feminist Art: A Reassessment (edited by Susan Bee and Mira Schor) she argued for

Griselda Pollock’s plea for sustained creativity rather than novelty for novelty’s sake, non-Oedipal models that cause respect rather than rebellion in genealogies, for a feminist future that we live beside not below, ‘the right to say WHO I am, not WHAT I am,’ to have feminism conflated with the feminine, for the feminine and masculine to be understood as metaphors, symbols, tools, that create positive dimensional action in all sexes, that the symbolic gesture of maternity be an art world ethos where artists can rear the next generation without having to claim anything in return.

That breathless, theoretically compressed sentence actually goes on: the plea above begins and ends with semi-colons. It demonstrates how cognizant Emma was at an early age of the issues and specifics of American feminism, within broader social, philosophical, and artistic efforts. In Belladonna #4 you can imagine her frustration during a conversation with poetry critic Marjorie Perloff, whom she and Nona interviewed on October 27, 2007, in her Palisades, California, home. “Chatting with Marjorie in her huge living room, surrounded by books, there was a voluminous weight to her contribution before she even began,” Emma explains. The young women bristle when Perloff claims that middle-class women are plagued by “endless side issues, boutique issues.” “Are body image and self-image issues boutique?” they ask, fresh from conversations that unsettled that perspective.

The Perloff interview—which has the immediacy and familiarity of an argument among affectionate, exasperated relatives—dramatizes the paralysis and discomfort a young person might feel while trying to chart her future on the basis of advice from elders. At one point Perloff, who is now in her seventies, says:

When I got my PhD you could get jobs just like that because there weren’t all these people competing . . . it’s probably not a good idea to encourage young people to become artists. Why does everybody need to be an artist, and what shall we do with all these artists? There are too many artists, too many poets. Sometimes I think that if I hear about yet another new poet, I’ll shoot myself, even though I’m the one who writes on poetry. What does this glut of so-called poets and artists do for society?

This is from someone who, in theory, is rooting for these girls. (Perloff offers a written-in-hindsight postscript in the book.)

“Nothing tires a vision more than sundry attacks,” it says on one of Susan Bee’s collages illustrating the text, where recontextualized phrases mark the ambivalence roused by its subjects. Nona and Emma also interviewed Susan Bee, who speaks openly about her own struggles with artistic identity; as the daughter of artists Miriam Laufer and Sigmund Laufer, Bee also inherited the challenge of artistic differentiation and succession. She reflects on her new role as bereft mother: “Rather than having Emma to carry on my legacy and to help me care for my parent’s artworks—as I expected—I am now responsible for her artistic legacy.”

In her own prose contribution, Emma notes how difficult it is to settle comfortably into “one ideological zone.” When recounting her interview with Perloff, she writes: “Her answers threw us for a loop, and my eyes widened with delight at her frankness and willingness to go against the grain. ‘I am a feminist practically speaking, but I have no interest in feminist art or literature,’ she told us.” This is one of many moments I wish I could see on film, the better to decode the irony, ambiguity, and inflection of the younger women’s discomfort and “delight.” It’s the delight—and now the despair—in Emma that may have thrown her elders for a loop.

Untitled, color photograph, 2004. Photo by Emma Bee Bernstein.

It is clear from Belladonna #4 that feminism, photography, and artistic expression have lost a fierce, articulate, forthright, inquiring practitioner, the voice and vision of a young adult who was romantic, idealistic, impetuous, talented, and knowledgeable beyond her years. Her pace was fast, eager, and self-reflective. Emma’s photography (for which she earned a degree with Honors, with images such as the one here, of a friend) played with the notion of masquerade: “In all of the photographs, a set of elusive and unknowable eyes peers out from the layers of artifice, trying to see and be seen. There is a tragic element, as despite all the attempts at engendering an image that matches a mental picture, the woman underneath the clothes and behind the skin remains a mystery to us and to herself.” That Emma suffered so much at the end of her life confers a harder look at the issues that consumed her.

The final essay is by editors Emily Beall, HR Hegnauer, Erica Kaufman, and Rachel Levitsky. They note that Emma raised “critical and urgent questions through her vivid, pointed expression of the dire effects the speeding up of time and the narrowing of space (despite the expanding virtual field) have had on her own generation.” Their hope is that the work will “provide a way to pick up the challenging matters Emma testifies to—of continuity and disruption, speed and anxiety, and the communal limits of virtual life.”

Meanwhile, Nona Willis Aronowitz continues to push GIRLdrive forward, inhabiting the virtual world, twittering, visiting cities, giving talks, and calling for more time to expand and diversify the project: “As soon as I finish the manuscript, I plan to start plotting a GIRLdrive.org,” she writes. “I would love for GIRLdrive to have mentoring programs, funding for women doing similar projects, or anything else that seems right.”

And then there are these words—Emma’s—belying her now posthumous fame: “Retrace your route in reflection, but look only as far as the blur of the passing yellow lines to see the present. Race your future to the finish line.”

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009

Noteworthy Reprint – WAIT FOR ME AT THE BOTTOM OF THE POOL

The Writings of Jack Smith
edited by J. Hoberman and Edward Leffingwell
High Risk Books ($16.99)

by Spencer Dew

“Corniness is the other side of marvelousness,” argues Jack Smith in his breakthrough essay “The Perfect Filmic Appositeness of Maria Montez.” Published in Film Culture months before the release of his film Flaming Creatures, the piece champions a trash aesthetic of “personal masterpieces,” rhapsodizing over a “whole gaudy array of secret-flix” remembered from Smith’s childhood. “Dorothy Lamour sarong flix,” “all Spanish Galleon flix,” “all Busby Berkeley flix,” and “all musicals that had production numbers,” are included, but as the title indicates, a special reverence is reserved for the Marvelous One, B-movie queen Maria Montez—Smith’s lifelong muse and star of such “secret-flix” as Arabian NightsAli Baba and the Forty Thieves, and Cobra Woman, from which he lifted his taste for over-the-top Orientalist exotica, convulsive sensualism, and pulpy plot elements. Invoking and attempting to channel the spirit of Montez in his own work, Smith paid homage to “whatever in her that turned plaster cornball sets to beauty.” The wonder and gorgeousness of art, as Smith saw it, was in making glory out of junk—exotic pyramids of Baghdad built from mounds of plaster in a ruined loft apartment, for instance, or fearsome creatures like the White Bat and Green Mummy costumed entirely in secondhand clothes and rags. Movies, as a medium, were magical, related to dreams, offering escapist hallucinations and, via the flickering of visual images, ecstasy.

Yet for Smith, art was not merely “entertaining, escapist, stunning, glamorous,” etc. It was also conceived as a “dream weapon” against the oppressions of capitalism, landlordism, and the rental society. In Smith’s personal argot, the scum of Baghdad was the term for the most receptive of audiences, and the Lobster was synonymous with individual landlords and the crushing regime of property ownership more broadly. Pasty normal straights and sugar zombies alike were held under the grip of these red claws, but worse, for the underground artists, was the fact that “critics are the hand maidens (sic) of the Lobster.”Flaming Creatures met first with infamy (raids, arrests, legal battles) and then with entombment in the crypts of critics. Jonas Mekas, who purchased, toured with, and was arrested for screening the film, became a villain in Smith’s mythology: Uncle Roachcrust, Uncle Fishhook, Uncle Oldie, Uncle Artie, etc. “Still, it’s nice to be let out of the safe every ten years whenever there’s some retrospective program,” Smith would snarl in his performance piece “What’s Underground About Marshmallows?” This collection voices such rage while also offering a broader context for understanding the pageantry and passion of Smith’s films and his understanding of his own political agenda.

Along with his revelries devoted to Maria Montez (both nonfiction and fiction), his rants against landlordism and narcotics laws (“Marijuana,” he argues, is “not more a drug than consumerism and much less hypnotic than landlordism”), and his theories on the use value of sexual fantasizing in general (“the pitiful means whereby the truly unpleasant difficult sex function is swathed in glamour, perversity, and ultimately, simply, interest”) and pornography in specific (“of course when the quester after ecstasy finds realistic love the sex fantasies are put aside and forgotten”), there is also included here a probing interview with Sylvére Lotringer, who examines Smith’s anarchism and his idealistic notion of a socialist society based entirely on “social ways of sharing.” Journal notes on the filming of Normal Love (featuring poet Diane di Prima, who, after a scene revolving around a giant Claes Oldenburg birthday cake, promptly gave birth to a son) and hilarious scatological routines like “The White Pig of the Medina” (which reads as imitative of William S. Burroughs) round out the volume, but it is impossible not to feel the glaring lack of photographic images.

Smith—who in the wake of the brouhaha over Flaming Creatures turned against the notion of autonomous artwork and kept all of his subsequent films unfinished, performance pieces that required his presence at the projection—produced a vast oeuvre of posed still images, some used as slides, that represent his strongest and most formally influential work. Both editors of Wait for Me at the Bottom of the Pool have produced their own books on Smith’s work, books that include pictures. One can only hope that the reissue of this volume (originally published in 1997) heralds, along with Mary Jordan’s excellent 2006 documentary Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis, a resurgence of interest in Smith and his work, which will, in turn, lead to restoration and redistribution of his films and further collections of his photographs.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009

Burning Behind the Unnamable: an interview with David F. Hoenigman

by David Moscovich

David F. Hoenigman is the author of Burn Your Belongings, dubbed by reviewer Gary J. Shipley “an ultra-minimalist work: each page is a paragraph and each paragraph is devoid of proper names, commas, colons, semi-colons, question marks, dialogue and standard capitalization—apart of course from the all important first-person pronoun.” Indeed, the book eschews a standard format, but the form which remains begs the reader to blur the eyes, step back, and view the work visually, skipping lines as the eye would cast over an atomic mosaic. Everyone has the chance to create their own reading of this anti-novel, as each sentence seems to collapse one over the other, smearing time in favor of fluidity. When I told the author of my tendency to read his book the way one might appreciate a cottonwood grove, allowing the vision to secede naturally from one leaf to another, he said, “Burn Your Belongings is nonprescriptive and meant to be used/read however you see fit, like a roll of duct tape, or anything else you’d buy.”

Hoenigman was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, but has lived in Tokyo, Japan since 1998. He is the organizer of the bimonthly PAINT YOUR TEETH event held in Tokyo, a celebration of experimental music, literature and dance, and is currently working on his second novel, Squeal For Joy.

 

David Moscovich: Sections of Burn Your Belongings could be viewed as a comment on the roboticism or conformity of Japanese, or life in Japan as a second-class citizen or foreigner. For example “ I’m walking through the train station wondering if I’m the only one that’s real. if the rest aren’t made of clay. or merely visions.” Or is this interpretation just superimposing a cultural template on this work?

David F. Hoenigman: I knew that by its nature, Burn Your Belongings could be interpreted in many ways—that’s what I wanted—but the idea of it being critical of the Japanese is something that makes me very uncomfortable. I think most Americans are conformist, so I don’t really feel I’m in a position to get on my high horse about it. What you picked up on is a feeling of distance from the rest of society: I’m trying to show self-discovery. The comments are always from an individual’s point of view.

Although it’s never directly mentioned, Tokyo plays a role in the atmosphere of the book: the hectic lifestyle, on and off trains, always surrounded by people, hearing your neighbor blow his nose through the wall—but I wasn’t trying to criticize Japanese society. I love Tokyo and the surrounding area. The dirty river I mention in the book is a place I still often go to sit and talk with friends. I was happy to see a scene in Shozin Fukui’s 964 Pinocchio that has two of the characters sitting in front of the owl statue in Ikebukuro station—that statue is in my book. Japan’s been my home for ten years. I’m just a negative person at times. I think some of the negativity and distance still would have been there if I’d written the book in Cleveland. When I’m in a certain mood, humanity looks ugly to me, wherever I happen to be living.

DM: How has living as a foreigner in this country affected the language in Burn Your Belongings?

DH: I had made up my mind beforehand that the language would be stripped down. I wanted sparseness, space. In my daily life, people spoke to me in simple English and I spoke to them in simple Japanese—so I suppose my appreciation of a few well-placed basic words would have been at an all-time high. Yes, I think being emerged in choppy, broken speech affected the language I used. I think it added to the sparseness.

DM: Considering the Japanese lexicon, in which the subject is often emitted as superfluous, are you playing off this—highlighting the subject by downplaying it?

DH: Yes, perhaps studying Japanese had an effect. I was thinking about sentence structure a lot, and trying to maintain a certain rhythm throughout the book. Studying a foreign language makes words jump around in your head in new ways. Hopefully I capitalized on that a bit. I wanted to highlight things by leaving them absent. I also had a few Jandek albums I was listening to; I loved how the space in his songs lyrically and musically gave everything a special glow. Not knowing his identity and the album photos added to the creepiness. . . I wanted some of that.

DM: Do you see Beckett’s How It Is as a predecessor and/or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road as a kindred work?

DH: I’ll have to read How It Is and The Road. It’s been interesting for me. People always bring up stuff I haven’t read yet: Robert Grenier’s “I HATE SPEECH,” Ron Silliman’s Sunset Debris, Pierre Guyotat’sEden, Eden, Eden. I’m happy to be turned on to things. I plan to read them all.

Samuel Beckett was a definite influence, but I had only read Waiting for Godot, Watt and some essays on him before I began to work on Burn Your Belongings. Something about Godot seemed to stay intact in my head. I studied it at school, and watched a TV version with Burgess Meredith. Even though a lot of time had elapsed since then; it was something I thought about a lot. I was intrigued that I didn’t know anything about these characters or the place where this dialogue was unfolding, yet I was spellbound by their interactions. There’s something about the unknown that gives the characters an almost holiness. Recently I’ve been reading the MolloyMalone Dies, and The Unnamable trilogy and I read the biography by Deirdre Bair, but it was Godot that really set me off. I love that something you can read in a single afternoon can change your whole conception of art.

Another influence was Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers. I like how the characters would swirl together and you’d have a hard time figuring out who was who, or suddenly a character’s sex would change, or you don’t know if something is actually happening or if it’s in someone’s head. . . Again, it’s the whole idea of not understanding that I find invigorating. It’s almost like Genet is saying you must stop worrying about all the identifiable surface stuff if you hope to grasp what he’s getting at. It’s a question of renouncing the material to understand the spiritual. Burn your belongings.

Another book that I found really inspirational was Randie Lipkin’s Untitled (A Skier). I don’t often see this book mentioned elsewhere and I think it’s a crime. I had reached a point where I had the Burn Your Belongings material ready to go more or less, and I had an idea of how I wanted to put it all together, but I was really beginning to lose faith in the concept of the book. I don’t know. . . something about going through it all with a magnifying glass had my confidence really rattled. I knew that rhythm had to be, must be, a key element to this writing or else the whole thing would fall apart. So I became worried that I was relying too heavily on rhythm to pull me through and may have wasted years on material that was unsalvageable. It was a horrible feeling. Then I read Lipkin’s book. I’d never seen a novel use rhythm and repetition so beautifully—it’s just a soft snow flurry of phrases being repeated in a different order. Maybe a bit more information each time, but turning over the same things again and again, and throwing in something new and then repeating that again a bit later as if it had passed an initiation and been accepted so now could be repeated, and things that are said almost every page, and things that only seem to be repeated two or three times in all. . . Once I finished reading this book, I knew I could finish writing mine.

A bit different from that, but still along those lines for me would be the music of Daniel Johnston. For over 25 years, he’s written dozens and dozens of songs about the same girl who sat next to him in art school. Again and again the same story, the same girl. It’s not even a good story from our perspective—he didn’t get the girl in real life and he never gets her in the songs. Granted, he’s a genius at melody and has tools at his disposal that I don’t, but I think it was an important lesson for me that art can transcend the subject matter. I struggled with writing for a while because I felt I was always writing about the same things; I wanted to write about everyday life but it didn’t seem to change much from day to day. Daniel Johnston taught me not to be afraid to turn the same seashell over and over again in my hand. If the inspiration keeps coming, let it take its course.

DM: You mentioned Beckett as a major influence. With The Unnamable trilogy, the “ I” disappears in a way that Beckett sets up starting with the first two novels. In Burn Your Belongings, it’s more of a consistent play on syntax that lets the eye jump around the book. My reading impulse was not to approach the book from front to back. Was that intentional?

DH: Yes. I’ve always thought it was a cool idea that a book doesn’t need to be read from front to back. I think Henry Miller mentioned that in one of his books, but I’m sure he wasn’t the first or the last. Kenji Siratori told me the same thing about Blood ElectricBurn Your Belongings is nonprescriptive and meant to be used/read however you see fit, like a roll of duct tape, or anything else you’d buy. One guy told me he keeps it on his nightstand and when he’s in a very specific mood he reads exactly one page and puts it down. Another guy told me he only reads it aloud. I got an email from a woman saying

. . . the first 8 pages I read about 4 times to see if my eyes were having games with me. I concluded one night that every third sentence was the main character, and that was the code. And so I read 8 pages only reading every third sentence. . . . so you may be angry as I don’t read in the order I am supposed to.

All this makes me very happy. Start at the front, start at the back, from the middle, hang from your feet like a bat—but I say THANK YOU to whoever takes the time to read it.

Speaking of The Unnamable—I always read that book aloud.

DM: You also mentioned Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers, how the characters swirl together and you have a hard time discerning who is who. Genet’s story is being told from a prison cell, and the characters are arguably just a fabrication for the narrator’s entertainment; amongst the characters is a transvestite who changes from He to She. Similarly, the He and the I seem to be not strictly delineated in your novel.

DH: No, they swirl all over the place. Whoever happens to be on my mind. Sometimes it’s memories from childhood. Sometimes it’s a conversation or incident from that day. Though I think you’ll notice She is typically feminine and He is typically masculine in the way they interact with each other—not that I feel people need to adhere to expected roles, I was just writing about my life and it came out that way. Perhaps elements of the relationships I was writing about were somewhat gender typical. Given the challenging layout, I didn’t want the subject matter to be something people wouldn’t recognize. It’s about love, frustration, loneliness, happiness, alienation, redemption. . . Everything that makes us tick.

About Genet, I realize I just glossed over what Our Lady of the Flowers is actually about when I brought it up earlier. I guess I’m just way more into the atmosphere of something than I am its content; the atmosphere is what stays with me.

Burn Your Belongings is an experimental work in the sense that I had no idea what the outcome would be. I had some theories and some things I wanted to try, and I just let it fly from there. I had this idea that if I wrote uninhibitedly about whatever crossed my mind, and if I kept it up for months and years, that some theme or some great truth about myself or about the universe would just emerge out of the writing. Maybe I was trying to psychoanalyze myself; I remember thinking it’d be nice to have some insight into why I’d made the decisions I did, why exactly I was on the other side of the world for one thing. I had a lot of faith in the subconscious and I still do, but as an experiment that might have given me a glimpse into myself I’d have to call the book a failure. No great truth or meaning emerged—what I got was pages and pages of chaos—but I felt it was human, I felt it was something people could relate to. So what failed psychologically had succeeded artistically—the stringent layout was my attempt to present this chaos in a manageable form, like a piece of music.

 

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009

FORT RED BORDER

Kiki Petrosino
Sarabande Books ($14.95)

by Haines Eason and Jay Thompson

Jay Thompson: While the prevailing fashions in poetry are disjunction, ambiguity, text-interpolation, formal experiments, and the interrogation of language-signs, Kiki Petrosino’s debut book is too hungry and exacting for these conversations. This is not to say her poems—about Robert Redford, goat cheese, Orientalism, quibbling lovers, ramen, secret ninjahood—are unintellectual or daydreamy. Instead, she breathes in her language’s smells and textures (raptor, cheese rind, flitch), fractures narrative in favor of sense-appetites, and ends her book wide-open to the world. She is not unintellectual: she is instead a sharp outsider, a genius of the exactingly sensual.

Haines Eason: It seems to me that to understand Fort Red Border, one first has to grapple with Robert Redford. Quite literally, in fact—the first half of the collection recounts an amorous association with the fabled actor, and yet it becomes quickly apparent that Petrosino is speaking through the situations she arranges to something larger. I have my own ideas, but what does Redford in this context represent to you?

JT: Doesn’t Redford seem like Mr. Dream America? What with his cufflinks and curious taste in food, his sexy ribs moving under his shirt and apparently bottomless well of wealth? Or is our speaker just as rich—a fellow jetsetter? Take the opening of “This Will Darken the Cabin”:

Halfway through my plate of tiger prawns
Redford returns from the cockpit tour.
Such a face, he says. Were you this soulful as a child?
He tips my chin & slides my headset back.

Redford enters these poems picture-perfectly, even when he doesn’t notice the speaker’s inner life at all. Redford loves her, it seems, and otherizes her, his African-American companion—washing her afro in a clay jar, asking what keeping it “natural” means, touching her in her sleep, asking her where she goes whenever she’s gone. But the speaker doesn’t live apart: she’s just as at home in this world of privilege as Redford is.

. . . From his leather satchel, Redford lifts
two heavy slices of baguette spread liberally
with chèvre & wrapped in wax paper. Just a second, don’t
eat that yet.
 He tilts the bread in my hand. Adds a crinkle
of fresh rucola. There. We watch the broken polo fields fill up
with fog.

The poems in Redford’s section are a linked set, but they don’t tell a single story. Instead, they’re traditionally organized domestic lyrics: they set a scene, then culminate in an image or epiphanic insight (“Above our heads the reading lights go out” or “Still, still, still—I am burning”). The epiphanic lyric is a lonely formal choice for a set of poems about a relationship. Without a plot thread, there’s no overarching sense of cause and effect, and we never leave our speaker’s head; her intimate negotiations with Redford never seem to alter their relationship.

Also: what is Redford doing here? Why address a celebrity as a lover—or as a foil, or as a muse?

HE: Redford is, for Petrosino’s speaker, Mr. Dream America indeed—given what we know of his looks and general aesthetic and then given what Petrosino offers of her speaker’s and Redford’s love life, we have quite the complete gentleman, a rugged rambler slash richly appointed rake. But for all the bases the debonair Redford covers, I sense—as I gather you do—that something’s amiss. A Westerner otherizing his African-American companion is where I initially landed, too.

Let’s discuss the title for a second—Fort Red Border. It’s an anagram for Robert Redford. So, by extension, Redford’s been turned into a defensive-but-aware, militaristic, colonial structure. Now this might chafe at first, but let me rattle off some films that distill what I think of when I conjure his image:Jeremiah JohnsonThe StingButch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and, for fun, let’s say The Natural.

What seems to unite these movies is the lead character’s rebellious nature—in them we meet individuals who are going to do what they want or need to do, and they are going to do it their way. In these movies we don’t see Redford in the role of colonial oppressor; rather, he’s anti-man, anti-establishment. Yet I also see him as an American Dream chaser—he’s not so much interested in knocking the guts out of the system as punching out a place in it for himself. The Natural’s Roy Hobbs plays our nation’s “classic” game with his own unschooled style, and Jeremiah Johnson is just looking for his version of 40 acres and a mule when he’s beset by “roaming” “savages” and must defend himself.

Positing this, let’s return to the anagram—specifically to “red” and “border.” The associations there for me are: red-blooded, red state, (difficulty in) crossing borders, and border protection, to start. Jay, you brought up Redford’s romancing of Petrosino’s speaker, and his many attempts to come to terms with her otherness—washing her afro in a clay jar, asking what keeping it natural means—could it be that keeping it natural for the speaker of Fort Red Border keeps this person, in the end, at a remove from Redford and all he represents (i.e., America)? I wonder this most acutely when reading lines like

So I lean back & Redford asks, “Water warm enough?”
& I don’t answer because I’m holding my breath.
I don’t know why he asks.

and

The sun is not a customizable thing.
I try to say this.

and

His shadows are grey & brown as grass.
There’s no sun here.

all from the first poem, “Wash.” Perhaps this section represents an honest attempt and failure to accept our country’s hegemonic status quo. If you can work with this, where then do the other sections—“Otolaryngology” and “Valentine”—take you?

JT: Petrosino’s poems (as passages quoted suggest) are packed with sense-life, but they never tumble or explode. The sensuality of her poetry is, instead, unfashionably slow and meticulous. Thank goodness for this restraint! Petrosino’s poems set their table before indulging: in food, skin, and even her language’s materiality. The color white is “loose as dirted screens of salt on salt.” One poem’s addressee is “the small, dark frill of lichen at the water’s brink.” Later, a river is “dead with glim.” Redford’s torso through a sleeve is a “smooth triangle,” the speaker’s face a “blooming cactus of tears.” A quick sniff of the pages also led me to double brandy, crostata, bergamot, cake frosting, green beans amandine, rigatoni all’arrabbiata. Yum!

This meticulous sense-care is foregrounded as the book goes on, and our speaker becomes less and less Redford’s Other-companion. “Otolaryngology” means ear, nose and throat medicine. That section of the book, the second of three, is less thematic than the first (grouped around Redford), or the last (grouped around love letters), but what its poems do share is Petrosino’s tasteful interest in music and appetite—in the pleasures of hearing, smelling, tasting, reaching.

Without Redford, the speaker—a secret ninja, a child, royalty—is her own boss. “From here, I inseal you in the wild sound of cedars,” she says in “Letter”; “For always, I inseal you at the brink of my concern. Come here to me.”

We saw the speaker of “Fort Red Border” often lost in thought. Contrastingly, in “Otolaryngology,” we see into the speaker’s thoughts. One prose poem, “You Have Made a Career of Not Listening,” begins with cooking ramen. The speaker then reifies its two metaphors: the loosening noodles as both a “washed-up boxer” and as “a stranger’s face disappearing into morphine.” The poem, in this space of tangible metaphor, takes its ramen noodles someplace hard:

Some boys wipe fifty bucks’ worth of sweat from the ring, then head to the all-night diner smelling like stacks of thumbs. Meanwhile, dollar bills are blooming in the stranger’s lonely raincoat pocket. It is 5:00 a.m. There are places you will never go with me, no matter how many times you ask, or how hard you eat.

This severity feels a long way from our speaker shrugging Redford off with, “I had some soulful ways, I guess.

So: we have poems here of taste as well as of appetite, a speaker who treats intense sensuality with intense care. In this, the poems remind me of Brigit Pegeen Kelly (who’s the source of the book’s epigraph), butFort is less gruesome and less spiritual than Kelly’s work. It’s also less crazed about its sensual pleasure than, say, the poems of contemporaries like Chelsey Minnis or Zachary Schomburg.

Which brings us to “Valentine,” the book’s final section. These are mostly love poems, but what has changed since the book’s opening affair with Redford?

HE: Perhaps Petrosino’s speaker is less other, or she’s more other and secure in that. In saying this I’m thinking of the “Valentine” on page 77, the one in which the speaker finds herself rejected from the Bible. Here she’s addressing a nun-like person, Agnes, the one responsible for the rejection:

But riddle me this—Agnes:

Why. Does this always. Happen.

Just tell me—since you’re so smart.
OK?

You probably don’t need that Bible gig—
What with your solid gold Camaro & your hunting dogs.

But me, Agnes? I’m not like you.
I can’t afford to lick ambergris off my servants’ bellies all day.

This poem goes on to close in darkness. Insistently typing away at her computer, despite being excluded, the narrator continues her work:

Not to write poems, you understand.
Just—touching the keys.

It’s not how anyone should
get healthy, especially not me.

But there’s a darkness in that
clicking sound, a bridge so black

I can’t get over—

But I don’t read the darkness as having anything to do with despair. I read “I can’t get over,” given its privileged position in a line to itself, as both a fragment and part of the syntax leading to it. Going with the former, this means there’s something (generally) that the speaker can’t get over, the obvious conclusion being the rejection from the Bible. Now, given the sardonic tone of the earlier lines and the overall stronger tone of the speaker’s voice in this final section of the book, I am led to believe that Petrosino’s speaker is not all that wounded by the rejection (she may have been at first, in some real-time moment we’re not privy to) and is, rather, now in acceptance of her distinctness from Redford’s and the culture-at-large’s biases. Agnes’s culture is Redford’s culture—Bible, whiteness, ways of being and ways of loving that the speaker sees have no room, in the end, for her.

Taking all this, let’s return to “get healthy,” above. Given the aforementioned sardonic tone, do we now really believe this speaker wants to get healthy? The implication is that “getting healthy” is to fit in, and that fitting in would be defined on Redford’s and Agnes’s and other hegemonic players’ terms. No—this speaker is alone in the space outside the light of the Bible, but that space is only dark to those who’ve chosen to stand in the Bible’s supposed light. Who knows what room, illumination, economy exists in that supposedly outside space. I am led to believe that Petrosino’s speaker does, and she’s keeping it for herself—she can’t get over the exclusion, nor does she plan to try. She’ll continue “touching” the keys of her computer, making work that defines her, not her-as-Agnes-would-have-her.

Returning to “fugue,” and your question, Jay—I read the Valentines as the counter subject to “Fort Red Border” and “Otolaryngology” as the past, meaning I see the book's trajectory as this: speaker is nearly seduced by the status quo; speaker retreats to her past to regroup and find her self and passion; speaker strikes out and announces (via the motif of valentines) her position in the world.

In saying this though, I feel I need to investigate the middle a little more. Turning to “Otolaryngology”—which is indeed the study of the ear, nose, and throat—I believe we must widen our definition of that science to “the study of the head.” Recalling the first section: we had a speaker there nearly engulfed by Redford’s ruddy advances, a speaker who nearly lost her sensual self in his foreign desires. But in this middle section she shakes him, she goes home—her aim is to get her head straight, is to get down to bare dirt. I’m thinking of poems like “Gristle”:

Scratch. Chickens toss skinny
brown I hold

my plate sogged
with grease & dirty chicken

bones I ate
the yellow meat all from.

Go ahead says Uncle.
Sure don’t like to waste that sure

don’t like to waste that
sure not

me. Now my plate goes.

And poems like “The Human Tongue Slows Down to Speak”:

Mother was a sieve
Father wept.

How will I speak, when all my bones
are hewn from nets I ate

the little birds all from?

After all my rambling, though, part of me is still on the fence because my position depends on Redford occupying a supposed high ground, on him operating from the clueless position of some square majority. And as you note, as the book goes on, the sensuality does seem to heighten—Petrosino’s language becomes more lush as we read. Freed of Redford, when she’s sultry, she’s more sultry. Is this because the speaker becomes unencumbered, or is Petrosino interested in sense for the sake of sense?

JT: By the end of the book, Petrosino’s speaker is her own central agent. She’s also no longer lost in thought. The book begins with Redford, tangled in an intimate, politicized give-and-take, but it ends wide-open: “I’ll tell you what I wish.” By “Valentine” she’s building her companion:

I build you from the twelve
stoneflies I captured in a foil drinking cone.

From the Gunpowder River I build you.
From willow trees, from canoes filled with snow.

The meticulous tangibility of her poems—joining lovers, her bright tone, a world-building impulse, and her across-the-board sense of restrained pleasure—keeps their wit from seeming mechanical. Is it simplistic to say that the book is about relief in the senses?

HE: No, it’s not too simplistic—but I do think Fort Red Border has much larger aims than taking relief there. You say it yourself: world building. Petrosino’s speaker seeks to untangle sense, to make sense, to perceive and revel in sense—and seeks to do so free of the trappings of an at-large, hegemonic culture intent on bending her impulses to its will. This said, there is a backdrop. The speaker builds from Gunpowder River a lover—from willow and snow and stoneflies. This person builds a love, at the end ofFort Red Border, from the raw world persisting at the edges of our culture’s developing, pillaging impulses. This is the backdrop without which Fort Red Border cannot exist. I believe that this book seeks and finds a world before sense. The book’s final section is an imparting—from the wild to the newly cleansed voice, and from the cleansed voice to the world, awaiting.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2009/2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009/2010

THE NEW NORTH | POETS FOR PALESTINE

THE NEW NORTH
Contemporary Poetry
from Northern Ireland
edited by Chris Agee
Wake Forest University Press ($19.95)

POETS FOR PALESTINE
edited by Remi Kanazi
Al Jisser Group ($16)

by Tim Keane

At first glance, the label “the New North” seems an appropriate title for this anthology of contemporary poetry. Since 1998, aside from infrequent killings by marginalized factions, Northern Ireland has put its era of violence behind it and settled into a post-Good Friday Agreement peace. But how “new” is this New North? The question hovers over the anthology so insistently that it’s disappointing that an otherwise current compendium of poets “born between 1956 and 1975” nevertheless includes six established older poets as punctuation, so that “Classic Poems” loom in the text like roadblocks: there’s Seamus Heaney on the bogland, Derek Mahon in the churchyard, Paul Muldoon contemplating the hay. These famous figures are seminal Northern Irish poets––still active, influential, innovative—yet they are so familiar that their presence undermines the book’s cutting-edge aspirations.

American-born editor Chris Agee, who has lived in Northern Ireland for decades, provides a meticulous introduction with judicious context to explain the convoluted motives and historical betrayals that forged contemporary Northern Ireland, suggesting as he does that the “creative interaction” of poets working in a “damaged, and damaging, society” has freed a previously “hidden” and therefore distinctive contemporary “Ulster” poetics set in a “post-imperial” climate. Agee’s own poems are here, too—elegant meditations on a Europe of Sebald, Sarajevo, Srebrenica, hinting that the recuperations of any “new” Northern Ireland must have something to gain from the similarly shattered legacies of a not-so “old” Europe.

Though the boys outnumber the girls, women’s voices are better represented in The New North than in any previous collections spotlighting Northern Irish poets published on either side of the Atlantic. Jean Bleakney’s poems veer from dry feminist aphorism to an account of a languorous train ride in Hungary. Moyra Donaldson’s elliptical poems scrutinize the technical marvels of everyday life in order to grant a necessary precision to the personal, even if it means facing how, “the cell can mutate, / brakes fail.” Another poem celebrates the ritual of tying fishing flies, where “the body is hare’s ear, spun on orange silk / and ribbed with gold wire. ” Leontia Flynn’s formal experimentations attend to the process of poetry writing itself, with its “quick jab of the X key” and the “clerical temp capitalising on his caesura / in his working day.” In her “Perl Poem,” a speaker studies that computer programming language and finds corollaries between its code and the aesthetics of a poet “turning the lines most perfectly to their function.”

Throughout the volume, the poems project a mainly urban, ruminative, and present-oriented ordinariness. Despite startling poems by Damian Smyth and Andy White that speak to paramilitary terrors, life in the North resembles life in other parts: poems record people watching TV, studying chess moves, grading papers, attending football matches, getting laid, and getting screwed—and in the flux and mess of their relatively peaceful dividends, the poems deliver more meaningful mythologies from the mundane, as Matt Kirkham does in his “museum” series, in which a city’s ephemera are transmuted into linguistic relics, poems in which “You may be able to reconstruct / lost communities from clay-pipes, hog-gut / condoms,” even if it means—as it does in the “Museum of Censorship”—the collapse of belief after religious conflict, “in a cathedral after the civil war, / counting our places, in the absence of saints.”

The gunfire and bombings are fading in these poems, but cultural troubles linger. These resonate with the most acute psychological complexity in the bilingual poets, from Cathal Ó Searcaigh’s “Caoineadh” (“Lament”) which (in its facing-page English rendition) tells us, “To-day it’s my language that’s in its throes, / The poets’ passion, my mothers’ fathers’ / mothers’ language, abandoned and trapped,” to Gearóid Mac Lochlainn’s “Aistriúcháin” (“Translations”) which (with its built-in devastating contradiction) refuses to convert its Irish original text into “hub-bubbly English / that turns the ferment of my poems / to lemonade” to be condescended to by Anglophone readers who would “love to have the Irish” but prefer the laziness of “‘café culture’ and ‘Seamus.’”

Taken as a cultural gesture, The New North breaks with the habit of categorizing Northern Irish poetry under the rubric of either “British” or “Irish” verse. But it is only a hesitant start toward the “third generation” beginnings which certain individual poems more aggressively initiate, summoning discourses more carnal than historical, like Sinéad Morrissey’s wonderfully existential poem “Genetics,” where the verse yields to a newer now and to a tomorrow that can’t arrive too soon, as her speaker calls to her own body to, “take me with you / take up the skin’s demands / for mirroring in bodies of the future.”

Today, the turmoil of Catholic-Protestant Ulster seems simpler than the unresolved and ever-worsening Palestinian-Isreali conflict in the gloomy post-Oslo period. Poets for Palestine, Remi Kanazi’s compact and unashamedly political anthology is not a poetry collection in the service of canon-formation. Here politics is personal and unrelenting—and more blunt and more recent than The Troubles that mostly just echo into the poems of The New North. This eclectic “coalescence” of mostly free verse poets, occasionally translated from Arabic and French, includes “poets, spoken word artists, and hip hop artists,” and seeks to shift the conversation from “pro-Palestinian” to “anti-oppression” even as it refuses to be confined within those borders that aggressively expand and continuously displace the Palestinians.

The volume includes poets ranging from the ten-year-old Palestinian student Hamida Begum (“My home isn’t my own you say”) to the late Palestinian master Mahmoud Darwish (“Another day will come, a womanly day / diaphanous in metaphor”) as well as a dizzying parade of American poets with figurative and literal sympathies for the cause, including, among others, Amiri Baraka, Pierre Joris, Marilyn Hacker, and Melissa Hotchkiss. Interspersed among the poets are black-and-white reproductions featuring expressionistic portraits, surrealist collages, and other graphics by leading Palestinian visual artists.

Reading Poets for Palestine sways the reader’s attention from east to west, and from word to image and back to word, amounting to an unsettled cacophony, alive with bittersweet memories and exhausted restlessness that reflect the titular homeland. Against long odds, exiled identity is trying to become, through the poets’ words, the distinct and inhabited nation it once was.

The Lebanese poet Laila Halaby weaves together the Middle East and the Midwest with an Edward Hopper-like sadness in her poem “a moonlit visit,” suggesting the nomadic essence of all identity, an essence that eludes the anchor of names like “Pakistani” and “Jewish.” Fady Joudah, a physician who works for Doctors Without Borders, is represented by a poem in which a groom blames soldiers for his missing shoe and settles into the feminine embrace of “Tea and Sage,” his inside warmly at odds with a dangerous Palestinian outside. This often ironic contrast between a comfortable intimacy and cold-blooded political oppression enlivens the whole collection.

There is news here, too. Some of it might even stay news. Suheir Hammad chooses the least subtle but telling metaphor for Israel when he writes, in his poem “break (bas),” of “occupier vampire / tell like is.” And, in case anyone in the West takes the time these days to wonder what happened to the so-called “peace process,” these poets remind us. The Iranian-born poet Sholeh Wolpé studies Americans from a Starbucks near Disneyland on the morning of the U.S.’s illegal invasion of Iraq. Activist J. A. Miller finds a useful conceit from the Fox network’s The Simpsons in her poem “Saudi Israelia,” while Ibtisam Barakat describes her childhood in Ramallah, hunkered in “War Layers” as she lies in bed trying to read away “the sounds of gunshots” that “scatter as hail.”

Voicing the Diaspora of the greater Palestinian region is the collection’s only consolatory note, as families cultivate peace in homes near and far. Marian Haddad recalls learning to speak Arabic while making coffee with her mother, Naomi Shibab Nye’s father chants Arabic songs as he tends to his orchard in Dallas, and Nathalie Handal tenderly recalls the persistence of a besieged olive tree farmer.

Immersed in or driven from homelands made famous by barbed wire and bulldozers, bombs and burning flags, the poems in both anthologies allow us to cross into these territories freed from media-manufactured lies and sensationalism so that we can tune into ambitions and experiences more multifarious and nuanced than the cable news report from Gaza or the quickly faded headline about Belfast. At times, these collections trace a new poetics more inherently polyglot and expressive than the blunt instrument of a global English language can properly accommodate. More painful still, they will remind American readers that poets far from our shores know well how a given territory remains elusive to occupier and to inhabitant alike.

Click here to purchase The New North at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Click here to purchase Poets for Palestine at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2009/2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009/2010

Homage to the Last Avant-Garde

Kent Johnson
Shearsman Books ($16)

by Murat Nemet-Nejat

just as we come falling into this dreaming: a sky
reflected where we are sailing, and where we reach out
without reaching the beloved who faces us, and who
also is reaching, while we watch the thoughts come,
and watch the thoughts go.

—Poem for an Anthology of ‘Poems of the Mind’"

homageThe striking cover of Kent Johnson’s remarkable new book Homage to the Last Avant-Garde nicely conveys its peculiar nature: Lenin aggressively and confidently points his hand to a spot in the future; below him three rows of soldiers point their weapons or industrial tools in the same direction; below them a photographer in a proletarian cap records that yet invisible future event, while to the right a red Soviet flag waves in the style of socialist-realist art. Here is one aspect of the “Last Avant-Garde,” its present correspondent (in Jack Spicer’s sense) being the Iraq War, seen from the Utopian moral angle of a revolutionary ideology. Homage is saturated with horrifying, sublime poems of destruction, such as “The Impropriety of the Hours,” “Baghdad,” and “Lyric Poetry after Auschwitz, or: ‘Get the Hood Back On.’”

The military origin of the expression “avant-garde” as it relates to poetry has been amply discussed; what have not been explored are its implications. Homage to the Last Avant-Garde is a meditation, in counterpoints among voices and styles, on the nature of poetic community. Is a poetic community a sentimental utopia, with poets praising and invariably supporting each other, or is it more war-like, involving jealousies, rivalries, the creation of a new text always disturbing, misreading, savagely destroying and enhancing, the surrounding texts? As his reputation as a pit-bull implies, Johnson believes in the dialectic fertility of the latter. “Homage” parallels “After” in Jack Spicer’s After Lorca, Spicer being the “Lenin” in Johnson’s pantheon of American poets. Is “After Lorca” an homage to Lorca or a predatory pursuit? Lorca in the poem resists, resents Spicer’s advances, while Spicer evokes Lorca’s petulant voice (from the echo chamber of the grave), his dissolving body, retrieving fragments or “imagined” translations (which Spicer calls “centaurs”) and a few “fraudulent” letters. The parable which is After Lorca says that what a poet can receive from another poet is a few torn, “ingested”/imagined fragments. Homages are therefore necessarily predatory (militant), doing violence to the passage of time and the alternating subjectivities of two languages or poetic styles.

At the center of Homage are twenty translations, which Johnson calls “traductions,” ranging from the pseudo-literal to the totally imagined, of ancient Greek fragments (or “recently discovered” poems) from his book The Miseries of Poetry. A deep melancholy infuses these magnificent texts—as good as any “traductions” in the English language—pierced as they are with elisions, ruptures caused by the passage of time. They constitute a meditation that says: so few of these ancient poems, still redolent of the dung hill of life, survive; but the surviving fragments are more intense because of their incompleteness. This linguistic magma pulled up from the grave—corresponding to Spicer’s communications with Lorca or from Mars—full of suffering, violence, fury, and a delicate beauty, constitutes the heart, the very essence of Johnson’s poetry. It permeates the war poems—the bombs falling both on Hiroshima and Baghdad—as well as Johnson’s confrontational relationship with the poetic community and his “editorial” relationship with the “translator” of the Greek fragments, Alexandra Papaditsas. In a resonant passage in The Miseries of Poetry, unfortunately omitted from Homage, Johnson describes the life of a poet and its relation to language through the parable of the Cameroonian stink ant, which gets infected by spores of a parasitic fungus during its climb to the tops of the trees in the rain forests. There it dies while the fungus in its body lives on, consuming the nervous system and the remaining soft tissues. Ultimately, “a spikelike protrusion erupts from out of what has been the ant’s head.” The protrusion bursts, the spores fall to the jungle floor and the cycle restarts. In Johnson’s poetics, “the translator” has a similar protrusion in her head, “a large keratinous horn. . .”

The poet is thus host to the parasite of language. The translations are the fruits, the spores, of its life cycle, necessitating the violence of his/her total consumption/consummation. The same passage says, “This large ant [is] one of the very few capable of emitting a cry audible to the human ear.” It is this barely audible cry, of suffering, of burning violence, which makes all the miseries of poetry worth living through.

The debates around Johnson’s poetry have been framed by the Yasusada controversy of Doubled Flowering—which is unfortunate, because it diverts attention away from the utterly serious exploration of the nature of poetry and the poet’s relation to society that Johnson’s work constitutes. While Homage to the Last Avant-Garde is a “selected,” more truly it represents a framing of his total work, where his political poems, translations, and satirical sorties on the American poetic community can be seen within a coherent conceptual framework. I cannot recommend it highly enough to anyone who wants to confront Johnson’s work seriously.

I will end this review by quoting two of Johnson’s “traductions.” The first, “Mission,” embodies the exquisite synthesis between violence and beauty Johnson’s poetry can achieve within the frame of a political poem:

Mission

We decamped from Pylos, barbarian town smack in a boulder field,
and set oar to lovely Asia, making fair Kolophon our base. We gathered
our strength for a fortnight, writing poems and sharpening our swords
by the sea. On the morning the oracle spoke in tongues, the main column
followed the rushing river through the forest, while our unit of ten went upward
and west, along a tributary stream. At a small waterfall we stopped to rest
on some moss, and gazed at our golden helmets and shields in the reflecting pool.
We spoke in low voices of the beauty around us, of the dark, darting trout
and of the strange, haunting songs in the towering trees. We spoke of time,
and friendship, and truth. Then each of us drank deeply from the pool.

Aided by the gods, we stormed Smyrna, and burned its profane temples to the ground.

The second, “A God,” can be regarded as a terse summary of this review, or perhaps even as Kent Johnson’s poetic manifesto:

A God

Fear and joy,
love and rage,
sorrow and lust,
all of it molten
and pulsing from
within, forging
the body’s chambered
form, like some incubated
god, writhing himself into being.

[If you need the complete text of the “stink ant” passage, which I am quoting from The Miseries of Poetry it is on page one of Miseries, in a chapter entitled, “Vestibulum [spora tradere]”. Kent Johnson is quoting a passage from a text by Slavoj Zizek.]

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009

The Illustrated Thoreau: an interview with John Porcellino

thoreau-panelby Nate Pritts

Henry David Thoreau may not be a name recognizable to everyone—painfully, not everyone has read Walden or Civil Disobedience—but his ideas are ingrained in American culture and have defined so much about how we think of ourselves. They set a benchmark still valid today in terms of what we can aspire to as a society and as individuals within that society.

John Porcellino has created a body of work that mirrors Thoreau’s in many ways. I’m not talking about the surface connection of simple and ascetic lifestyles, which Thoreau champions in Walden and which Porcellino documents through his long-running zine King-Cat Comics and Stories. The link between Thoreau and Porcellino is found in the creative work they produce—work that is decidedly American while endeavoring to reshape what the term “American” means.

Porcellino’s latest full-length work, Thoreau at Walden (Hyperion, $16.99), represents two philosophies that mirror each other, joining two artists with a similar message presented for different times. Porcellino’s text derives from Thoreau’s landmark book, but his impressionistic vision of the text adds a rich element to it—not because we are able to see the sunsets and wooded areas that Thoreau describes, but because Porcellino is able to enact those contemplative and revelatory moments that punctuate Thoreau’s prose. The result is not merely Thoreau’s message conveyed through another medium, but something wholly new.

In addition to Thoreau at Walden, Porcellino is the author of the acclaimed volumes Diary of a Mosquito Abatement Man (La Mano, 2005) and Perfect Example (Highwater Books, 2000), as well as the compendium King-Cat Classix (Drawn and Quarterly, 2007).


Nate Pritts: Your work is so very personal, which seems largely a function of the simple line style you use. Was it difficult using this style on someone else’s words? Did you find yourself changing your style—or is Thoreau’s voice like an old friend to you?

John Porcellino: Well, I should say that with this whole project I felt a very close kinship to Thoreau’s work. It felt very natural to be working with his words. Also, although I was obviously working with the writings of another person, the book was deeply personal to me. I used my own experiences and thoughts to try to get inside Thoreau’s words. So no, I didn’t really change anything style-wise. . . though, as a cartoonist who mainly works in an autobiographical manner, I think having the main character be “Thoreau”—that is, someone outside myself—helped me loosen up a little bit. It was a lot of fun to draw that beard, for instance!

NP: “Loosen up” in that you didn’t have to worry that people would be judging both the artistic product as well as the life/source material?

thoreau

JP: I don’t think I thought of it in terms like that, but just. . . As I’ve gotten older I’ve developed a tendency to worry too much, and really tweak every line in my comics, so I can get hung up on that. On this book I felt a little freer to lay the line down and move on. When I started drawing Thoreau, I had just finished up work on the King-Cat Classix book, and maybe looking at the looseness of all that old art rubbed off on me. I think it also had to do with being immersed in Thoreau’s writings at the time—his emphasis on embracing the natural course of things probably influenced me to a degree.

NP: Some of my favorite panels of yours, throughout your work, are the ones where nothing happens—such as the linked establishing shots at the beginning of Thoreau at Walden where we see trees and leaves and big flakes of snow. It’s a really great, contemplative moment, and totally in keeping with Thoreau’s work. Can you talk a little about the importance of these moments from your standpoint as an artist?

JP: In my own life I’ve happened to spend a lot of time out in the woods alone, so in the book I tried to bring that flavor to it. When Thoreau writes about a certain experience, I tried to convey that flavor through looking back on my own life, and bringing out that personal experience. Also, in terms of those moments where “nothing happens,” those are moments that I’ve always tried to convey in my art. Certainly Thoreau had those moments too, like any contemplative person. Walden is a great book of words, but those words came from a certain way of life, an experience of life, a curiosity and wonder. So I tried to show, in simple terms, what that kind of life is like—and in part, that means being open to those moments where "nothing" happens.

NP: My favorite quotation from Thoreau is one you illustrate in exactly this style—“Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me.” You do a beautiful job of letting that hit the reader by following that line with two panels of stillness and natural activity. Reading in context, it’s obvious that Thoreau isn’t talking about just the early AM hours—he’s talking about a kind of mental and spiritual awakening. In your own daily life, when is “morning”—when do the moments of heightened engagement occur?

king-cat

JP: Like you said, “Morning” in Thoreau’s world is a state of mind, a state of being, and a way of relating to the world. For most of us, that state comes in snippets: little moments of illumination or clarity. You don’t know when it’s going to arrive, or where. But through the practice of opening up, you can prepare yourself to receive those moments.

In my own life I suppose it’s those moments where I lose myself, and a greater awareness unfolds. It can be doing the dishes, walking, in the morning when the mind is fresh, or in the evening when the mind is tired. In fact, this awareness is always present; it’s just a matter of becoming attuned to it, filtering out the distractions so you can see what’s really going on. In some ways Walden is simply a book about how to see what’s really going on.

NP: Place—location and grounding—is very important in some of your early works. But here’s Thoreau again: “Wherever I sat, there I might live, and the landscape radiated from me accordingly. . . there I might live, I said; and there I did live, for an hour, a summer and a winter life. . .” What’s your own relation to where you live—either now or at any time in the past? How has it informed or shaped your work and your creative and intellectual life?

diaryofmosquitoJP: I’d like to think I could be of those people who is “at home” anywhere, like Thoreau describes in that passage you quoted. In reality, that’s hard practice. Thoreau is expressing an ideal, a way of being that improves one’s relation to themselves and the world. In truth we all could say, “wherever I sat, there I might live.” And we all could see that at all times the landscape is radiating from us accordingly. When you are fully present in the moment, as Thoreau is suggesting here, the boundaries between subject and object melt. In those moments there was no separation between Thoreau and “summer life,” or “winter life.” The same is true for all of us; it’s just a matter of recognizing it.

In my own life, that’s something I strive for, but as I mentioned, it’s not that easy sometimes. It takes practice. The circumstances of my life have led me around this country willy-nilly. Sometimes it drives me crazy, and I feel uprooted, scattered. Sometimes it’s not so bad. When you settle into a place, search out its rhythms and hidden worlds, you start to appreciate the specialness of it. I suppose that search is a big part of my creative life—finding that layer underneath that unites and supports.

Click here to purchase Thoreau at Walden at your local independent bookstore
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Click here to purchase King-Cat Classix at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Click here to purchase Diary of A Mosquito Abatement Man at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009