Tag Archives: Spring 2014

Sleeping with Gypsies

sleepingwithgypsiesGinny MacKenzie
Sunstone Press ($18.95)

by Benjamin Woodard

In fiction, queries that plague memoirists—What makes a life significant enough to share with the public? Are certain achievements worthy of permanent recording?—rarely arise, for the imagination of the author typically eschews any chance of narrative dryness. But sometimes, an author packs too much of a good thing into a tale, resulting in a sort of overstuffed hollowness: here, a character vaults from adventure to adventure with such speed that the reverberations of each event fail to have an impact on the reader. The effect, like that of a dull memoir, is similar: something happens, but the impression left behind—the literary blast shadow—is soft and easily dismissed.

Ginny MacKenzie’s Sleeping with Gypsies hews very close to creative overkill, yet has aspects to recommend it. A wisp of a novel at 164 pages, the narrative is framed as a quasi-memoir penned by Amanda—noctambulist, daughter, sister, niece, civil rights activist, artist, muse, mother, roommate, landlord—as she twinkles through memories. Opening with her unusual childhood in Pennsylvania, where bouts with sleepwalking escort young Amanda to nighttime encounters with local gypsies and a neighborhood prowler known as “the stalker,” the narrative quickly shifts to Amanda’s adult life, her first husband, frustrated painter Munk, and a stint in Florida. Working in hospital administration, Amanda—still only about eighteen years old—tirelessly fights to integrate African-American personnel to the staff before jumping ship to relocate to New York, where she and Munk purchase a loft, have a son, and Amanda checks into Mountaindale, a psychiatric treatment center, for post-partum depression. From here, the novel barrels with breakneck pace through twenty years of marriage, divorce, soul-searching, road trips, and battles, regularly breaching a linear timeline with sparks recalling earlier events, moments that try to tie past and present together.

While the Forrest Gump-ian nature of Amanda’s life is admirable—she does seem to be in the right place at the right time for memorable happenstance—the events constructing her existence rarely require the momentum in which they’re committed to paper. Late in the novel, when speaking to Dove, a young lodger considering body transformation, Amanda pleads, “But why do you want the fat suctioned out of your face? You’ll be sorry when you age and your cheeks sink in.” This sliver of concern falls on deaf ears, yet it oddly rings true for Sleeping with Gypsies, which feels like an epic novel whittled down to the barest of bones. Trials that demand breathing space are instead suffocated and snuffed out within a handful of pages, and though Amanda’s voice remains interesting throughout, it’s difficult to find attachment to her plights due to MacKenzie’s knack for marooning certain facets of her personality for long stretches—or, in the case of sleepwalking, abandoning them completely—leaving the reader with a protagonist that never quite appears genuine.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2014 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2014


artspeakA Guide To Contemporary Ideas, Movements, and Buzzwords, 1945 To The Present
Robert Atkins
Abbeville Press ($24.95)

by Mason Riddle

Many of us prefer trains to planes. And, maybe for the same reasons, many of us prefer flesh and blood reference books to cyber Wikipedia and Google. Arriving at one’s destination may take a bit longer, but the journey is more satisfying, the experience more human, and the results, frequently, more reliable. Consequently, ArtSpeak: A Guide To Contemporary Ideas, Movements, And Buzzwords, 1945 To The Present should find a berth on every home reference shelf, even if the art world is not one’s purview.

Robert Atkins’s third edition, the first of which appeared in 1987, is organized with a fact-based but cursive introduction that pinpoints “now” vs. “then” issues in the art world; a multi-layered cultural and political timeline that begins in 1945 and ends in 2012; and 146 alphabetized entries defining the “ideas, movements and buzzwords” of the period.

Atkins immediately points out that when ArtSpeak was first written “twenty-five years ago, the world was a different place.” He notes the Berlin Wall was still standing, China was advancing economically but not democratically and Tiananmen Square had not yet happened. Email was in limited use, and mobile phones were scarce. He notes differences in the art world as well, in particular its globalization. New York City had “only recently relinquished its mantle of the center of postwar art production, exhibition and sales. . . . This multi-centered—but indisputably Western—art world was the foundation of today’s international art system.”

Atkins also emphasizes that the new edition of ArtSpeak reflects this globalization by covering art production in China, Japan, and Brazil, and recognizes that art is now distributed via art fairs, biennials, and museums. He also posits that the language of art has changed with a “shift away from the division of art into short-lived styles or movements” such as Pop Art, Minimalism and Conceptualism. “The twenty-first century has seen the disappearance of art movements as the basis of a descriptive language of art." He also makes the critical point that 21st-century artists work in a variety of media and styles that “makes them primarily artists, rather than photographers or painters or video artists. . . . the artist’s signature style has in many cases been replaced by a signature thinking, invisible to the eye but apparent to the mind.”

According to Atkins, ArtSpeak’s goal is to decipher the complex meanings embedded in contemporary art and stimulate a knowledgeable appreciation of its production. He touches on how artmaking is a rigorous and demanding process involving “decision making and self-criticism.” And he wisely points out that artists do not make art only to make money but more importantly to “express them selves and to catalyze communication.” He also writes about how we now intersect with art. Moving beyond “modern industrial production to postmodern digital production,” the distribution of art is dominated by the international art fair circuit.

Following Atkins’s introduction and the timeline of significant world and art-world events from 1945 to 2012, the main body of the book “identifies and defines the terminology essential for understanding art made since World War II.” These entries are listed in alphabetical order and include art movements, art forms, critical terms and cultural phenomena. Most are divided into the hallmark journalistic categories of Who, When, Where, and What. In Who names in boldface type connote the leaders or “virtuosos” of that particular process, style, or event. When signifies the period of greatest activity; Where the cities, countries and continents of impact; and What explores the nature and implications of that style, movement or event. Abstract Expressionism and AIDS Art, Biennial and Black Arts Movement, Gutai and Mülheimer Freiheit, Neo-Concretism and Primitivism, and Semiotics and Transavantgarde are all there.

In the end, ArtSpeak is informative and readable, a friendly invitation to better understand the language of contemporary art. Over its history, the book has transmuted from more or less a dictionary of terms into a relatively comprehensive survey of twenty-five years of art. Now, don’t you want clearer understanding of the movement Mono-ha?

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2014 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2014

Small Batch: an Anthology of Bourbon Poetry

smallbatchEdited by Leigh Anne Hornfeldt and Teneice Durrant
Two of Cups Press ($12)

by Lauren Gordon

The poems in the anthology Small Batch approach an interesting motif: bourbon. The concept sounds simple, but the variety of poetry contained within gleans quality through craftsmanship. In the introduction, Carla Carlton explains how making bourbon in small batches is not unlike the creation of poetry: “The success or failure . . . depends on the artistry of the maker.” The makers, in this case, are varied; ranging from Affrilachian Poets, to Cave Canem Fellows, Laureates and even freelance food writers. Under the careful editing of Leigh Anne Hornfeldt and Teneice Durrant, Small Batch goes down smoothly.

Many of the poems in this collection use bourbon as the subject, while other poems offer only a brief nod. Dan Nowak’s poem “A Slight Retelling of Greek Mythology With Bourbon” pays homage to the myth of Echo and Narcissus in prosody: “but still whenever you show me the picture of your lips / on the mirror I think of drowning myself in quicksilver.” The poem has a liquidity that is unironic. Nowak’s pacing becomes frenetic near the end of the poem as the speaker’s desperation mounts:

I’ve one more night
in this city or at least that’s what I’ll say because it
makes you hold my hand tighter and we’ll drink bourbons
with our free hands and throw compliments across
the table that sticks to our skins and I’ll wish your
lips stuck on my body and I would echo every move

The very nature of a small batch of bourbon is that it is hand-crafted, hard to emulate and repeat. It is, in essence, ephemeral, much like the relationship Nowak captures.

Hornfeldt and Durrant have also selected a number of poems that are more formal in structure, and one of the stronger poems is the darkly humorous “The Housesitter’s Note” by Juliana Gray. Gray imagines a note that begins benignly with details of a wilting basil plant and ends with the house sitter’s hijacking of the home owner’s life, even up to their death: “I softly passed away in your bed. / It’s all right. It was my time to go. / And now, you’d never know that I was there / in your tidy house, your green and purring space, / except for a ghost of bourbon in the air / and, on your pillow, a single foreign strand.” Bourbon is not the engine that propels the poem forward, but it is a “ghost” that resonates.

The poems in Small Batch vary in form and function, but together they are a complex brew. There are dizzying poems, devotional poems, narrative poems—and they all seem to linger with a satisfying finish.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2014 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2014

Four Swans

fourswansGreg Pape
Lynx House Press ($15.95)

by Warren Woessner

Four Swans, Pape’s tenth collection of poetry, should come with a map. Apart from an excursion east to bury his mother’s ashes, his poems are firmly rooted in the landscape of western Montana. While the poems in Four Swans are arranged in four sections, and the thread of his mother’s life and last illness is a theme, it is the imagery of rivers and streams—moving, unstoppable water—that connects these poems. In “The Spell Of The Bitteroot,” despite being “ditched and diked, / riprapped and rerouted, / dredged and diverted,” the river remains:

a mouth that won’t stay closed,
a network of living vessels, veins
in a watery leaf of earth,
channels, braids, a continuous flow
of wild water.

While parts of Four Swans recall Jared Diamond’s ecological accounting of the same beautiful, fragile and threatened landscape in Guns, Germs and Steel, Pape seldom slips into political polemic—there is just too much going on. In “What You Should Know To Be A Poet,” Gary Snyder suggests: “All you can about animals as persons. / the names of trees and flowers and weeds. / names of stars, and the movements of planets / and the moon.” In these poems, Pape proves that he has all these bases covered, and his knowledge often spills out in over-exuberant lists, as in “Tracks & Traces:”

I go on walking, glancing down to see the path,
then up into the trees to see the trees, owls
maybe, great-horned, long-eared, sawhet,
woodpeckers, hairy, downy, pileated,
the brown creeper, the snipe, or porcupines, . . .

But Pape is not just a “lister;” he knows how to observe nature; how to look closely. In “Bitteroot Suite,” he sees:

. . . three duck feathers
light and downy, curved upward and held
against stones like boats run aground
in green algae shallows.

No one will ever have to ask Pape about the forebears that influence his poetry; he wears them on this sleeve and inserts stanzas and entire poems from the great Japanese and Chinese masters into his poems. While poets like Shinkichi Takahashi, Tu Fu and Bashō are famed for their evocative simplicity; Pape uses their poems as starting points for both explication and to inspire internal exploration. The longest poem in Four Swans is an homage to the T’ang master, Su Tung-P’o. Pape feels that he is “a friend across time:”

His dream of the Taoist immortal disguised as a black-and-white crane flying
above the river is my dream. His pleasure in words—finding them, arranging
them in clear sentences, satisfying lines—is my pleasure.

Pape knows that he is fortunate to live in a country of “Mountains and Rivers Without End,” a country “shot through with clear light, / a clear light that makes men joyful” as Hsieh Ling-Yun wrote. “Ice Fishing in a Snowstorm” begins with a poem by Liu Tsung-yuan about an “old man . . . fishing alone in the cold river snow” which leads Pape to consider the poetic process:

Ice in an old hole
will dull or break the blades of the auger.
You have to cut a new hole.
You have to sit in the snow and wait.

In the same poem, Pape acknowledges Richard Hugo as one of his influences, and when the poet goes into town, Hugo’s rough affection for the bars, truck stops, and cafés of the West is well preserved, as in “Lunch in Lima:”

All along the bar
the citizens bow before their beers or coffees
and give thanks to Social Security, while the poker
machine in the corner goes ping and pays out
another hand with a one-eyed Jack and a pair
of fives.

In the long prose poem, “Driving Through,” Pape passes a weather-worn hitchhiker while musing on a Basho haiku, stops at “the only light in thirty miles” and realizes that he is in his own Zen riddle:

I started to feel like a sewer rat on my way to another meeting with my colleagues to vote on someone’s fate. I turned around right there and went back for Basho, for Chief Looking Glass, for the one walking through Lolo.

In the title poem, Pape names the four wild swans “Grace. Peace. Dignity. X.” He leaves it up to the reader to decide what X equals.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2014 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2014

An Invisible Interview with Cris Mazza


by Andrew Farkas

The traditional interview begins with a description of the surroundings where the interview took place, though in the present tense as if it were taking place right now and somehow being beamed onto the page. For instance, “I meet Cris Mazza at Insomnia, a coffee shop in Columbus, Ohio, that is situated mostly below street level. It is jam packed, as always, full of twenty- and thirty-somethings chugging French Roast and Guatemalan, everyone trying to be more authentic than everyone else, while playing chess and checkers, arguing about the greatness of various bands, informing each other how wrong all of their ideas are . . . but luckily we’re able to find a table. Though Cris doesn’t look like she quite fits in with the tattooed and rather punk rock clientele, some are even holding on with both emaciated and bleached fists to the Goth style, the very purpose of Insomnia seems to be that no one fits in here, the only club suitable for this mob being Groucho Marx’s. I felt this would be the perfect location to discuss Mazza’s memoir, Something Wrong With Her (Jaded Ibis Press, 2013, $18), a book about ‘sexual dysfunction’ and the social difficulties (especially the difficulty of fitting in) that have ensued in her life from this ‘problem.’”

Andrew Farkas: It is customary to comment on the physical surroundings of the location of the interview. How do you feel about this tradition?

Cris Mazza: It’s something I’ve always hated: It’s always done in present tense, as though there’s a tape recorder running and the interviewer is giving a voice-over as he or she conducts the interview. It’s so fake. I’m not likely to read any interview that starts with that pretentious present-tense “We meet at a chic vegan Thai ice cream bistro in the Amazon rainforest . . .”

[The interviewer has decided that, through whatever diabolical means necessary, he will trick Cris Mazza into one day meeting him for an interview at a chic vegan Thai ice cream bistro in the Amazon rainforest.]

Next, the introduction lists the accomplishments of the person being interviewed. For instance, Cris Mazza has published seventeen books (eleven novels, five story collections, and a collection of essays), won the PEN/Nelson Algren Award for her novel How to Leave a Country (Coffee House Press, 1992), and directs the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In this way, interviewing has always been a form that needs an excuse. “This is not just me talking to some friend of mine for no good reason and publishing it,” the beginning of every interview ever says.

AF: It is also customary to list the accomplishments of the person being interviewed. But how likely are you, no matter how many accomplishments the person may have, to read an interview with someone you’ve never heard of?

SOMETHING-COVER-FRONTCM: Sometimes I wonder why novelists are being interviewed, and am not inclined to read an interview with a novelist that’s about a novel because the novel should be self-contained. I suppose the same could be true of a memoir, although with a meta-memoir like Something Wrong With Her, I think having interviews going on after publication are part of the whole project—a story largely about writing the book—because the writer didn’t stop learning what she was writing about, having insights and revelations, after the manuscript went into production. It had to be forced off my computer and I had to will myself to stop going into it and adding updates. So for this kind of project, interviews are a way for the story to be continued toward . . . well, there’ll never be a resolution, but continued bumps and layers. But I’m circling your question instead of answering it. I would have to put myself in a study and have them hand me thirty interviews and see which ones I read over the course of a month. Since, in interviews, I would want to read to see how a writer personally handled issues like isolation, envy, disappointment, not being understood by critics/editors/agents . . . so maybe the answer is that I wouldn’t be as inclined to read an interview with a first-book writer, unless it was a first book published later in life. Just saying that challenges me to find one and read it. I could get back to you after I do.

AF: You mentioned meta-memoir. When you first told me about Something Wrong With Her, you called it “meta-creative nonfiction.” Could you explain what that is?

CM: In the first place, I think all memoir has to be “meta” based on the simplest definition of metafiction, that it “does not let the reader forget he or she is reading a fictional work.” I don’t believe any memoir allows the reader to forget he or she is reading a work of memoir. The first giveaway is the first-person narrative: that narrative didn’t spontaneously appear in a thought-bubble above the reader’s head, it’s a consciously created manipulation of language to tell the writer’s personal story. So just the words “a memoir” on the cover of a book make it, in my mind, “meta” in the sense that no one is pretending the author didn’t write it, that the author isn’t that first-person narrator, that writing didn’t take place on a keyboard (for contemporary memoirs), that the author wasn’t fully aware that a memoir was being produced when he or she sat tapping on that keyboard.

But even knowing that a traditional memoir is consciously aware of itself as a memoir doesn’t make critics call it a meta-memoir. I used that term from a very early point in constructing this book because I knew it was a book that needed to be read while it was being written. That what was happening and what I was learning / feeling / deciding while I wrote—and how I realized & decided—were part of the story being told. It was circular: how the writing influenced my mood, preoccupations, decisions, etc., and then how those things in turn influenced the form and direction of the manuscript. I wanted both sides of that process to show as much as possible in the “finished” book (if it can be said to be finished . . . I simply had to stop).

I’m not sure I can effectively give a succinct statement of what metafiction did to or for fiction—it has to do with the nature of reality and reality’s “place” in art, and art’s relationship and place in reality—but I believe the parallel in meta-nonfiction is more user-friendly. If the work—and everything involved in the work—of writing the story is part of the story, it may lay bare the reason for producing a memoir at all. Why do people watch or read “true” crime dramas: not because the crime happened to them or to someone they know, not because it was committed by anyone they know, but because the intuitive, investigative, psychological, and forensic work of “putting things together” is inherently interesting, maybe because it’s how most people live their own lives, whether they know it or not. So even if every memoirist doesn’t want to see a memoir that way, wants it to be a story told with the retrospect of time, with wisdom gained from distance, and wants the events of the story to be what’s important to the reader, a different kind of memoir like this one can also be significant to a reader: just seeing how someone put pieces of life-evidence together and was somehow altered (I do not want to say “healed”) by the process.

After the introduction has been laid down, it is then the job of the interviewer to slowly fade away into the questions being asked. This makes perfect sense because it is the interviewee who is important, interesting, the reason people are reading. But because the surroundings have been described, and because the interview is set up to seem like two people hanging out, drinking coffee or beer in a public setting, this interviewer, anyway, has always imagined other interviewers slowly turning invisible, while the interviewee turns to the crowd gathered and speaks.

. . .: Along with being a different take on creative nonfiction, this is also a book about so-called sexual dysfunction. You even use the chauvinist word “frigid” to describe yourself. How do you see Something Wrong With Her in comparison to other books about sexual dysfunction?

CM: This is something I’m not going to be able to answer (as asked) because I am unfamiliar with any other books about sexual dysfunction, unless by “dysfunction” one means “addict” or “fetishist” or if it’s a book about sexual withdrawal after some sort of sex crime. (Not that I’ve read books about those conditions either, but I’m aware they exist.) I didn’t seek to read anything in “the tradition” of books about sexual dysfunction because I wasn’t going to model or form this book based on emulation of or rivalry with or transgression of what already existed. But I did look (I don’t think I can call it intense searching) for information or accounts of similar sexual experience, and only found it either in (a) anecdotal material about menopausal consequences (usually insinuating it was sexual deterioration from a better, more “normal” sex-life), and (b) in Nancy Friday’s research from the 1970s and ’80s when hundreds of women answered her research questionnaires for books on women’s sexual fantasies (incidentally, soliciting contributions rendered her books “unscientific”), and books by Shere Hite (a sexologist whose books were considered scientific). This showed me that there are many anorgasmic women (the percentages vary, with the alternate percentage being “normal” women). My cursory extension of research into contemporary times included mostly my own observations and mental data-keeping on how women speak (and write: blogs, Facebook postings, as well as memoirs, interview answers, etc.) with rhetoric—infrequently direct, usually implied—that says they do respond wildly to sex provided the partner is good enough. Sex talk is open, free, common, routine. But no one is openly, freely insinuating they never respond much. No one tacitly bragging about that. An update to the old Masters-and-Johnson sex studies was recently made into a TV documentary, using videos of some of the “typical” (we were supposed to assume) respondents who had been interviewed in the study. But for the statistics/percentages of “those who never orgasmed,” there were no representatives among the live example interviewees shown sitting on a bed, either alone or with a partner, seemingly answering the study interview questions. None of them had been offered (or else declined their invitation) the chance to sit perkily on a bed in front of a camera and voice the answers they’d given on the survey. I thought: they should’ve asked me. I guess I see Something Wrong With Her as one of that other percentage, sitting on a bed in a TV studio looking into the camera, the one who volunteered. Whether they wanted me to or not.

[The interviewer sees this scene as taking place on a sound stage reminiscent of The Dating Game, pastel asterisks everywhere, even Chuck Barris surprised by the response.]

. . .: Throughout you use jazz terms to describe situations and actions in your life. But jazz, as I’ve come to understand it, is all about improvisation (you even discuss this when you point out that jazz musicians don’t really use sheet music, instead they use the rough notes found in a fake book). And yet, since you show us that you have dramatized parts of your life in your novels, and then re-dramatized them, and now you’ve written a memoir about those same moments, Something Wrong With Her has a classical music connection: the idea of getting it right (or, if you will, of penning the definitive sheet music), instead of improvising. How do you see this friction between jazz and classical music playing in your memoir?

CM: Stan Getz said, “It’s like a language. You learn the alphabet, which are the scales. You learn sentences, which are the chords. And then you talk extemporaneously with the horn. It’s a wonderful thing to speak extemporaneously, which is something I’ve never gotten the hang of. But musically I love to talk just off the top of my head. And that’s what jazz music is all about.”

I guess I would say that those events or moments that I transcribed into a journal, then dramatized, sometimes re-dramatized, finally cut-and-pasted into a memoir . . . those would be the chords, the key signature. Chords, even in the fake book, are the same whether they come under the title “Make Someone Happy” or “Bessie’s Blues.” (Not that all tunes have the same chords, just that when a particular chord appears under two different titles, the same notes build that chord in each. Then the soloists improvise with the notes in whatever chord is given.) Something Wrong With Her was, I think, a sort of improvisation with the chords of my life. The way a book has to differ from a jazz solo is that it had to be made “final” at some point. But so did the recorded solos of Getz, Miles or Coltrane. (And someone came along and wrote out the sheet music for those solos for less inspired players to play, note-for-note). Still, it’s obvious there was a weak link in my attempt to make this book more like jazz while a novel is more like classical music.

There was a freedom while I wrote, though. But when I say freedom, agents say “this isn’t a memoir that will sell.” Because I didn’t follow a familiar shape. I don’t think there was a familiar shape in what I felt I needed to say and why. That’s why it’s more like jazz. I was exploring the chords for the tune while I was playing it. Still, there’s long been a rift within jazz as to how free improvisation is. Thelonious Monk said, “They speak of freedom. But one has no right, under pretext of freeing yourself, to be illogical and incoherent by getting rid of structure and simply piling a lot of notes one on top of the other. There’s no beat anymore. You can’t keep time with your foot . . . There’s a new idea that consists in destroying everything and find what’s shocking and unexpected; whereas jazz must first of all tell a story that anyone can understand.” That’s the “literary” jazz I hoped this book was emulating. Monk also said, “play your own way. Don’t play what the public wants. You play what you want and let the public pick up on what you’re doing, even if it does take them fifteen, twenty years.” Put that together with his plea for a beat, for a “story anyone can understand,” and you have the quandary of non-traditional writers. “All you can do is play melody,” Getz said, “No matter how complicated it gets, it’s still a melody.”

. . .: The experience of reading this memoir is a combination of looking through a scrapbook (a writer’s scrapbook, or even a jazz musician’s fake book), but also looking through a detective’s notes (a detective who has been on the case for a long time, like Leonard Shelby in the movie Memento). How did you come up with this form, or why did you decide to use this form?

CM: In some ways, the form grew out of necessity. I knew I had a box full of journals kept in college. I knew there had been a “black hole” in the first collection of personal essays I had published—the period 1974 through 1980. I knew I had experienced events and situations during that time that had “marked” me. I felt there must have been a reason I skipped that time in the first nonfiction book. Right there was one of the first questions that got me started: Why did I skip the most difficult material? The initial answer to that question, which helped me start the book, was a hypothesis that could not be sustained . . . or at least that was overwhelmed by other material. I thought it would be a book about how incidents of sexual harassment, before there were sexual harassment laws, had been influential or affecting in an interesting and/or significant way. Perhaps were part of the bedrock for a lasting dysfunctional sex-life. (I cannot say for certain when I realized the book would be a search for that answer, about my sexual dysfunction, and not just some answer pertaining to my over-influential male mentors and incidents of sexual harassment.) At any rate, this made it necessary to read all of those journals. It was the proverbial can of worms. Recalling for me easily a dozen specific incidents—how hotly important they were at the time, then somehow nearly completely faded from memory.

At the same time, coincidentally (not part of the book’s research), I was getting back in email contact with someone I had known all during that period of time. It was natural to tell him some of what I was working on, because he knew the other significant “characters,” but his responses and memory-contributions and—mostly—his questions, one particular question, brought to the fore just how significant he had been in all of my braided (and unraveling) situations all along. This was one of the first major things that happened during the writing that became part of the writing, ultimately the major portion of the story that writing-the-book would tell. Re-connection with Mark brought out the letters I’d written to him, our yearbook inscriptions, the cartoons he’d drawn, eventually the songs he’d written. Each item—examining it, thinking about it, sharing responses with him over email—shaped how I would be using it, what it would say to me, what it said about me (or him), etc. Then using selections from my published fiction became another memory-exercise. I had to remind myself how I’d fictionalized certain events in order to better remember them, and also so that if I dramatized the scene again it wouldn’t be a deadened copy compared to the fictional use (I eventually elected to only use the fictional scene whenever possible, instead of the pretense of re-dramatizing the same scene again for the sake of this book). I was curious why I’d changed certain things, why I’d used certain images or metaphors. It became not an author providing critical insight to her own work but forensic self-analysis.

. . .: You point out that it’s perfectly fine for a woman to write about sexual transgression (rampant sex, illicit sex, etc.), but that it’s actually taboo for a woman to write about having trouble with sex. Why do you think that is? At this stage, shouldn’t all people be “allowed” to talk about any sort of sexual viewpoint?

CM: Oh, certainly allowed! It seems, from my observation, to be a personal taboo. In the face of an openly sexualized culture, who wouldn’t keep their failing in society’s biggest contest a secret? And no one’s saying culture shouldn’t be openly sexualized. I guess. I’m not sure a male pop singer dry ass-humping a virtually naked female pop star with her tongue hanging out is the epitome of high art. But look at that recent controversy. (Add in Beyonce at last year’s Super Bowl, and a few other recent public debates along this line.) Sex is depicted or acted out or represented in such a way that shows the female in the throes of fervor. No staged portrayal of sexual activity shows the female hesitant, lacking hunger, less than fully responsive . . . or in pain. (The latter would be a depiction of rape and wouldn’t make the song or whatever is being sold very appealing. I hope.) A fully sexualized woman is, frankly, considered more complete. (And maybe she is.) So while women writers are willing to display their incompleteness in so many other ways, from eating disorders to their bodies being mutilated by cancer treatments, from mental illnesses to obesity, whether or not they write with the inclusion of any complicity in their kinks, flaws or deficits, if sexuality is involved as well, it’s usually to ensure the world that despite these things, they are still complete that way. Unless their story is that they experienced abusive sex and/or incest . . . or were sex addicts (revealing damage done to their egos when sex becomes identity), none of which indicates anorgasmia. Memoirs from sex workers—surrogates to call girls, dominatrix to fetish satisfiers—are usually not exposing character flaws or deficits, but illustrating other layers of our sexualized culture, and by the way, it’s not all that new: look back to Xaviera Hollander’s The Happy Hooker, 1971, and Anias Nin’s unexpurgated diary in 1986.

. . .: What surprises me about your view of your condition is that, throughout your life, you’ve thought that you did something wrong, or that if something would’ve happened (for instance, if “Harlan” would’ve allowed your relationship with your “master teacher” to take its course), then your sexual development would’ve followed a more “normal” path. And yet, from the very beginning, I wondered if there might be a concrete physical problem outside of your control (and anyone’s control outside of a medical doctor) that caused you to have difficulty engaging in sex. Why do you
think it took so long for you to decide that it wasn’t any fault of yours, but that it might be an actual, physical problem?

CM: I’m not sure I have decided it wasn’t any fault of mine. Note my subtitle. “I shaped it: the snowball that swelled into sexual dysfunction frigidity.” Despite my discovery of certain physical links between certain types of sexual dysfunction (i.e. the link between weak or damaged pelvic floor muscles and vaginismus), it simply seems too big a coincidence for there to have been a physical reason for vaginismus (and maybe anorgasmia) in the same person who, for whatever unknown reason, was petrified of sexual contact as a pre-adolescent through her early twenties. (If I’d had more therapy with more therapists, I suspect many of them would have been digging for those mythical un-accessed memories of early childhood sexual abuse.) It seems obvious the fear helped feed the pelvic floor dysfunction, so why couldn’t it have helped beat down other expected “normal” developments? There have been sexual studies of anorgasmic women, and their experiences usually include most of these: (a) strict and/or religious backgrounds where sex was depicted as sinful or immoral, (b) other forms of sexual repression often relating to negative body image, (c) lack of childhood and adolescent masturbation (often related to the first two items), (d) ill-informed (or otherwise repressed) male partners. (Interestingly, many of the individuals in these case studies had children, and none that I found reported pain, although I also don’t remember any sex researchers asking about pain. In my mind, pain has to be related, a snowball effect that would gather up and crush sexual-response as it rolls.) From the list above, I can claim a full one and two other partials (as can most women my age, although we might all have different ones and partials). Was my childhood steeped in religion? No. Was I ever told not to touch myself? No. Were my parents overly sexually repressive? Maybe, but no more so than most, and only by saying very little. So far I seem just part of that huge segment of my generation (or of adult women) called “most.” So one of my motivating questions in writing was why? And I don’t think I was able to answer it. Only circle and poke at it. Luckily there were other motivating questions, always developing as I wrote further.

. . .: There are authors who, over time, show us that all their novels take place in the same universe, and that their characters all exist in that universe (Thomas Pynchon and Bret Easton Ellis come to mind). But with your work it seems the events are the ones that exist all together, that up to this point you have been wandering through alternate realities, and now you’ve reached the real reality. In other words, you’ve made a palimpsest of your life which you display by including your memories of a particular moment, then the journal entry about a particular moment, and then the fictionalizations you’ve created from that very same moment. What effect do you think this process has had on you (as you say in Something Wrong With Her, you see yourself as an anthropologist here), and what effect do you believe it will create in the reader?

CM: At first, I was looking at my fiction just to try to help my memory dredge up details from a lived experience. But I found that turning experience into fiction—the act of doing so—was part of my relationship with an experience, so turning my attention to the techniques offered as much insight as the content. In addition I was also experiencing—and narrating it while it happened, because I hadn’t known it was going to happen—how a writer’s relationship with her work alters, even develops further, when the two (writer and work) are brought back together with the added complication of distance and maturation. Simply, when I looked back at the fictional accounts of events in this new context, I discovered that what I’d thought I known (or was in control of) about using experience to develop fiction was incomplete. Seen another way (using the anthropologist metaphor), I was examining any artifact I could turn to—anything more tangible than memory—for answers to various (and some not articulated) questions. A writer’s work is obvious artifact (in that it is still there to be poured over), but also, if a writer’s relationship to his/her work can be gleaned from that artifact, it can provide more implications—not about the work, which has to stand on its own without the writer’s relationship to it or any personal issues to supply “meaning”—but about the life being examined. It’s the “writer’s relationship to the work” part of this formula that isn’t usually available to anyone except the writer (and maybe his/her therapist). Memory is also not a good way to access my relationship to a past work; but I had those journals and letters where the raw in-the-moment me transcribed experience into language. So the raw material started as reaction to an experience . . . and in how that reaction was then utilized in fiction I was able to discern subtle aspects about myself I hadn’t been aware of. I didn’t have any expectations for an effect this would create in the reader. I didn’t see it as satisfying any “need” any reader has to see my particular relationship with my own work, but that readers (and people) in general seem to be interested in forensic exploration: How an archeologist or historian or detective can put together pieces of a “story” from physical artifact or evidence. And that any of us can do it, if willing to find (or keep for decades) and gather together the pieces.

. . .: You point out at one point in Something Wrong With Her that novels aren’t realistic because people’s lives don’t braid together in neat ways, which in turn lead to plot arcs and, ultimately, resolution. And yet, people often find novels that follow those conventions to be the most realistic, the most like life. How does your memoir attempt to expose these novelistic conventions, then, as being unrealistic?

CM: I don’t know how people find those novels to be “realistic.” I do find many of them satisfying and pleasurable, but I think that’s one of the kinds of satisfaction one gets from art, having nothing to do with “reality.” I think the “like life” people see in traditional novels has to do with psychology more than how life works. The pathos of human response is recognizable, therefore seems real. It’s so simplistic to say this, but the literary tradition of “realism” is not the same thing as “realistic.” Any “ism” denotes a doctrine, theory, system or practice (could add the word formula), so realism is a way of writing novels. I’m not sure the most realistic writing possible—durational time describing every minute of time in a slice-of-life story—would satisfy literary realism.

OK, sorry for the rudimentary definitions, but sometimes I need them to straighten myself out before starting to circle again. I think this memoir can expose those kinds of conventions of realism (or novelistic conventions) to be un-lifelike because, (a) even where there is “braiding” (several different older male mentors, some thinly related in the professional world; or one event bouncing me to another involving seemingly unrelated people, etc.) . . . the braids unravel and/or some of them “go nowhere” (the Jehovah’s Witness who would touch me when he’d had a drink then tell me I was “too worldly,” the master-teacher whose sexual advances suddenly ended); and (b) there is so little resolution, especially to the whole sexual issue, and regarding Mark (at least there’s little actual resolution in the book). Certainly no resolving outcome in the form of triumph or overcoming. And cathartic crises? Well, as my mentor said of me in the 1970s: she goes from crisis to crisis without learning anything.

. . . : In addition to novels in the realist mode being unrealistic, you also point out the expectations readers often bring with them to creative nonfiction: it must be “the hyperbole of experience” (as you say). How do you work against this expectation and what effect do you hope to convey by working against this expectation?

CM: Let me give the beginning of that quote of mine. (Now I know what it feels like to be taken out of context!) I was talking about how an excerpt from Something Wrong With Her had been rejected by a graduate-student run literary magazine, and their comment was that “it wasn’t special enough.” My next comment was: “I can read their disappointment this way: nonfiction simply must be beyond the grind of life, it has to be the hyperbole of experience.” Perhaps unfairly translating their comment, I was typecasting a mainstream notion of what nonfiction “has to be.” Trauma and recovery. That’s a pretty good pigeonhole for how many agents/editors view commercial memoir. And the trauma: incest, war, body-devastating drug addiction, violent sex crime, violent cancer and violent cancer treatment, gender reassignment, bad parents, good parents lost, inexhaustible sexual dark side. And any number of other startling, downright ghastly situations that do merit publication (if written well) if only for the sake of expanding the awareness of those things in comfortable, safe lives. Are there too many trauma memoirs or have they become the definition of memoir, thereby pushing out others whose experience doesn’t “measure up”? When I showed my first nonfiction manuscript to my then-agent (Indigenous: Growing Up Californian, eventually published by City Lights Books), she said, “Cris, this isn’t a memoir, it’s a John McPhee book.” OK, I can see now that John McPhee doesn’t really write memoirs, so the comment wasn’t a complete slam at either me or McPhee. (Maybe more at him than at me.) Remember, I thought Something would be a book about experiencing sexual harassment before there were sexual harassment laws, and whether or not it might have something to do with how my sex-life developed (or didn’t). Most of my experiences would not meet the “hyperbolic life” criterion. Instinctively aware of that (since the “this isn’t a memoir” comment was vivid), my earliest conscious plan was that I was going to contextualize my experiences against the almost-simultaneous development of the law, and I even had a dim idea that I might gather some other stories from friends or acquaintances. But I could see, almost immediately, that this would be a task for a true literary journalist (like Laura Hillenbrand), and maybe one who was also a psychologist and/or law expert who already knew a lot of stuff about the law itself (with corresponding examples) as well as how women’s sexuality has been affected by these kinds of experiences.

Luckily, some of the other incidents that changed the path this book took were starting to occur, and this ostentatious plan was abandoned almost immediately. But, I do think any plan like that—based on an instinct that my experiences didn’t measure up to the standard for memoir—is related to how the hyperbolic-life characteristic, and the quantity of acclaim and attention heaped upon authors of trauma-memoirs, is teaching too many of us that we’re not as worthy—as writers—because we didn’t have a life savaged by abuse, victimization, disease, poverty, etc. (This is also the commercial book industry looking at writers as salable commodities—are they exotic, beautiful, and damaged enough?) I kept working against that expectation because there was nothing else I could do. The situation of my life at the time, and what writing the book was contributing to it, made writing it one of the necessities of life, along with eating, sleeping and breathing. But still, while working on the book, there were a few people I did talk to about it, and I probably became a tape-loop of insecurity, “Who will want to read this,” “who will care?” I received encouragement in return: that the countless numbers of others living with quiet chronic angst will relate. And then it happened when the book went into production: A publicity intern I’d never met, who lived 1000 miles away and was 30 years younger than me, read the manuscript and emailed me to say, “I keep asking myself, ‘Did I write this book?’”

It is true that in many interviews the dialogue itself takes us to the conclusion. Yet this convention persists, much like the description of the surroundings, the list of accomplishments, the disappearing (and sometimes reappearing) interviewer, to make it seem like the interview itself has occurred in a particular place over a relatively brief span, a brilliant conversation we all wish we had, we all wish we were having all of the time, though our own conversations may never measure up, and since that is the case we desperately wish we could’ve been present at this discussion, but luckily someone was present to write it all down . . .

AF: These days, interviews are often conducted over email, or even if they do take place at, say, a coffee shop or bar, they are heavily edited afterwards. Tell us about your experiences being interviewed in the past.

CM: Not always over email. Of course, I was publishing before we all had email. I remember being very nervous when interviewed by traditional newspaper journalists who asked questions then only jotted notes while I was speaking. I spoke slowly, tried to pause often, to give them time to write everything. It helped me think, but still, saying what you want to say, getting it to be what you really mean, and making it complete in that context was . . . well, impossible. I was, however, frequently surprised in a good way at some of the one-liners they attributed to me. A professional feature journalist knows how to synthesize what you’ve said into a pithy quote.

[Oh, well there is that. It seems, then, that the Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass scandals were more of scope, rather than tradition. They made up too much, while actual journalists take quotes from actual people and make them sound better.]

CM: There used to be a journalistic practice for these kinds of interviews where after the interview article was written up, the journalist would call and read just the quotes over the phone for the interviewee to verify that’s what he or she said. But they would not tell you how that quote appeared in the interview, and none of these pre-email interviews were in the Q&A format, so the journalist or interviewer was using narrative scene, dramatizing a dialogue we supposedly had, using both direct and indirect quotes. Since I couldn’t really remember the dialogue either, I don’t know if they rearranged the order of topics when turning it into a narrative article. I was interviewed for Poets & Writers in 1996. I think it was partially done over the phone, and then I may have been able to go over how my answers transcribed in writing. I think it was not the former journalistic tradition where I was only allowed to verify what I’d said, but also not formatted in Q&A. I think the interviewer read me large portions of the galley they provided to him. We do have it much easier now with email interviews. I’m less at the mercy of someone else’s memory, someone else’s ability to take notes and to understand his/her own notes, and how I looked or sounded while answering.

AF: What do you see as being the purpose of an interview?

CM: I’ll answer for this book: the purpose of interviews is that it’s a continuation of the process of “writing the book.” The process of writing the book is partially what the book is about. Having an interview afterwards isn’t necessarily part of the process of writing every book, but in Something Wrong With Her, I was so frequently shifting course (or being sidetracked) based on what writing the manuscript (or Mark) was showing me. So having me look at it again afterwards and talk about it in an interview is another of those shifts. While writing, I was talking to Mark (and myself) and responding to new perceptions (sometimes his). In an interview, an interviewer has the new perceptions, so I have to look again with that context. I see things that are still incomplete, I react to certain parts differently, thus “the book” is still developing, and I’m still both extending and experiencing it.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2014 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2014

Das Gedichtete (un thème et variations poétique)

dasgedichtetePatrick James Dunagan
Ugly Duckling Presse ($10)

by James Yeary

Nothing appears further from fashionable at this moment in poetry, and perhaps in the larger art world as well, than alignment with the Modernist project. Somewhere between Pisa and 1968, signal and summit of the Fall, the idea of a singular vision is switched out for plurality. Mutations or evolutions of old ideas crop up in new generations. Color-fields broken free of painterly affects make textures, impasto, out of their own concrete situation. Surrealism forgoes revolutionary politics as it enters into Young Adult territory.

And what happened to that old chestnut the Long Poem, the one that tells the tale of the tribe, putting history, and the history of ideas, to music? Zukofsky’s “A” is perhaps the last major work in this line. “A” starts off as a historical poem, but, to our benefit, becomes something else, doing for the Long Poem what Stein did for prose and Dickinson did for the short poem a half a century and more earlier. After “A” comes Ronald Johnson’s Ark and Ron Silliman’s Ketjak, Long Poems casting language against itself, wherein appear event and idea treated as musical note or node, shining, however distantly, in the constellations made by these later works. This is a mutation (a term I use with a neutral if not positive tone) of Pound or the younger Zukofsky.

It is a relief to come across something so apparently out of fashion as Patrick Dunagan’s new chapbook, preposterously titled Das Gedichtete or un thème et variations poétique. The bathic nature of the title, in three languages, is a pivot that might catch a potential reader scanning the shelves with the apparent faux-Romanticism one would expect to laugh at ironically before plunging into a contemporary work more hip, twee, and introspective.

What we have instead is decidedly old school; much of the book is culled from the poet’s readings of Theodor Adorno’s music writings. It is hard to make concrete images with Das Gedichtete. The language seems to blend the poet’s thought of and with Adorno, great underminer of Enlightenment ideas. So a forest quickly turns toward the stars, measuring atoms, in the second stanza:

Not the Bohemian Forest
full of marching cradles
ordered symbol
of cosmic mass
gathered in parable
eternally static
realm of enchantment

Dunagan’s primary musical vehicle can probably be most closely compared with Creeley, in that he uses loosely defined, variegated patterns to shape and pace his thoughts, in series of lines and stanzas of comparable lengths. This is where one strain of the Modernist canon has brought us, extant today in the funny Brooklynese punk and blues renga of Ted Greenwald, or the meditative rosaries of Kyle Schlesinger.

It is nuance where the magic happens in this poetry, and probably in all poetry. In an epigraph that precedes and dwarfs one of the shortest sections of Das Gedichtete, Dunagan appropriates a statement by free jazz anomalist Sun Ra. Beginning “honesty is not what I’m talking about,” Ra, self-described Martian bandleader, expounds on the credibility of deception, the necessity of being “evil and wicked like me” when taking on the white race. This openness to duplicity in tactic and also the necessity of belligerence calls to mind the late Amiri Baraka, but what in God’s name does it mean in the context of this poem? The epigraph treads directly into

Hours stretching
days to weeks
no surprise

in every step
learning again
to watch
matched colors
change to mist

born into this
eternal delight
how suddenly
it lasts

It only takes a turn of the page from the epigraph to move from Ra's militant jazz to the existential and ironic ontology of "born into this /eternal delight / how suddenly it lasts" —not exactly a refutation, but perhaps an existential crisis rendered sublime. The poem continues:

Breaking clods of earth
lingering over flowers
hillside aglow
evening and morning
to walk out
among the city’s habits
another regular
with nothing special
going on

In “Breaking clods of earth,” we have the first and only possible echo of the violence suggested in the epigraph, unless the dissolution of the “matched colors” changing “to mist” is some kind of eschatology. Which it might be. This poem doesn’t have the implied political programs that led to discontinuity in the Cantos or in “A,” unless it is one of postmodernity. It is an apt time in history, musical and political, to invoke Adorno while scrutinizing his ideas, and the musical form is an appropriate setting for them. The anomalies of voice that appear in Sun Ra (and a couple pages later in sexual proclamation) add an indeterminacy more worldly and human than the meditations from an ivory tower. Once removed from its midst, the appearance of Sun Ra can be seen as a perfect ideological counter to Adorno, who—as a Marxist at a time when it appeared to everyone else to be Communism’s most valiant hour—found that theory needed its own internal revolution before a praxis could be developed to support any revolutionary goal.

So Sun Ra appears as everything Adorno isn’t, an improvisational musician and thinker who expounds that theory must bend to meet necessary action. In the collage of fragmented voices that is the Cantos, Pound never offers a dialogue so equally weighted as this, only parody and mockery of his opponents. Dunagan’s poem, then, has an ironic coherence in the disparity of its thoughts set to music. Its philosophical paradises, if they exist, are not clearly defined, but the images contained in its rhythms invite repeated investigations, as the best modern poetry always has.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2014 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2014

Jim’s Book

jimsbookNew Poems
James Reidel
Black Lawrence Press ($8.95)

by James Naiden

This chapbook, briefer than a will o’ the wisp at only twenty pages, contains poems not at all what one might expect from a more conventional practitioner. James Reidel obtained his MFA at Columbia University over three decades ago, wrote a highly respected biography of poet Weldon Kees (Vanished Act, Bison Books, 2007) and has gone his own way ever since. In this sense, the tradition of John Ashbery and to some extent Peter Klappert finds renewal in Jim’s Book. The value here is in letting the poem work its way into one’s consciousness via extended, sometimes jarring metaphors. While all may not be revealed, the suggestions are there—and that’s enough.

What may seem droll and ordinary to some is a matter of speculation to Reidel, as he plumbs the motivations and aspirations of those he sees but does not know well. Here are the opening and closing lines of “Amish Children at Baseball:”

To find such a sideshow antiquing that day, between Game
5 and 6–
The taller girls and a boy in the outfield turned to stare with that
guarded look
For English, strangers, the cold,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Everyone a blackleg, broadcloth, the only colors
Skirts of cornflower blue, a mauve of no allegiance.
Pick me.

In such a poetry, the nuances are many times the inverse (or at least the opposite) of what you might normally think. For example, to leave out mention of the unpleasant or the aggravating is—in Reidel’s lexicon—missing the point. Bring it all in! The beginning lines of “Corn Pie, Ephrata, Penna” attest to the poet’s inclusiveness as a style:

A bed-and-breakfast serving no breakfast,
Just the bed, the shower, its jigger glass head
Forcing me to take a sip of the oil and salt face
Projected all night atop the others in my dirty pillowcase.
The plastic curtain billows before my hand.

What is worthwhile here is the sum of the world’s disconcertions; omit them and you’re living in a dream world that doesn’t exist. James Reidel’s verse is an honest, refreshing refutation of the notion that certain parts of reality don’t matter. This poet might surprise as you dip into his world.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2014 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2014

Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter

nilssonAlyn Shipton
Oxford University Press ($27.95)

by Britt Aamodt

There are a million books about Bob Dylan. There are a million and five about The Beatles. Everything from the supergods' musical influences to their women and their philosophical underpinnings has been covered in loving and sometimes excruciating detail. Greil Marcus has made a cottage industry out of Dylan. Ditto for Mark Lewisohn with The Beatles.

So why is there only one full-length biography on Harry Nilsson, and why has it taken nearly twenty years since his death for it to come out? Fortunately, Alyn Shipton's Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter is well worth the wait. What Shipton figured out that other biographers apparently overlooked is that Nilsson was one of popular music's great singer-songwriters and that his life was as sublime and tragic as a Shakespearean drama, readymade for the biographer's art.

As the back cover reminds readers, Nilsson won Grammys, wrote and recorded hit songs like 1969's "Everybody's Talkin'" and 1971's "Without You," and composed music for acts as diverse as The Yardbirds and The Monkees. A reminder is in order because, as the back copy also mentions, Nilsson is one of music's most underrated performers; you've heard his songs, you just don't know it. He's remembered today more for being John Lennon's sidekick during the former Beatle’s booze- and drug-fueled Lost Weekend of the mid ’70s—a low point of that escapade involved Lennon and Nilsson getting booted from a club for heckling the Smothers Brothers—than for his own impressive craftsmanship.

Shipton resurrects his subject from the black hole of Beatles marginalia with a deft and riveting history. He begins with Nilsson's childhood, which was marred by a dead father and an alcoholic mother. The irony was that his father wasn't even dead; he'd abandoned the family and the mother had simply covered it up. Nilsson's father, like Lennon's own, resurfaced later when the son became famous.

Artists are often driven by the deficiencies of their youth, and Nilsson was no exception. He used his pain to compose the bittersweet lyrics of lost innocence and yearning in "Daddy's Song," "So Long, Dad," and "1941":

Well, in 1941 a happy father had a son,
And by 1944 the father walked right out the door,
And in '45 the mom and son were still alive.
But who could tell in '46 if the two were to survive.

It was "1941" that sparked Beatles' press officer Derek Taylor to send Nilsson's album to the fab four in London, which led Lennon and McCartney to proclaim Nilsson their favorite artist in 1968. Nilsson's career hit a sweet spot with the 1971 release of his album Nilsson Schmilsson and the singles "Without You," "Jump Into The Fire," and "Coconut." The last had the singer deploying his three-octave range to play the roles of narrator, doctor, and female patient.

Nilsson never saw that kind of success again. He soon parted ways with producer Richard Perry, a casualty of the artist's relentless need to find a new sound. His eclecticism paid off with a collection of American standards (long before it was fashionable) and an album of Randy Newman songs. But tragically, it also put off listeners. Shipton documents Nilsson's downward spiral into addiction and the career-damaging loss of both record company and voice. The singer would spend the '80s trying to recapture his audience and his voice, and succeeding at neither.

In midlife, Nilsson finally found a measure of happiness with his third wife and their family, but a bankruptcy and years of addiction caught up to him. He died in 1994 at age fifty-two. Like the 2010 documentary Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him?), Shipton leaves the audience wanting to know more about this singer-songwriter, bon vivant and friend to everyone from The Beatles and Monty Python to Keith Moon and Jimmy Webb. But more importantly, the biographer reminds readers why Nilsson mattered. It was his music, which like the artist himself is long overdue for a reassessment.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2014 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2014

Death of the Black-Haired Girl

deathofblackhairedgirlRobert Stone
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt ($25)

by Stephen Hartwell

Since his debut novel A Hall of Mirrors in 1967, Robert Stone has exhibited a penchant for presenting characters living under various state of duress. Dog Soldiers, which won the National Book Award in 1975, dealt with Californians whose lives had been turned upside down by the Vietnam War and the roiling sense of vertigo that was the hallmark of the ’60s American home front. Amidst settings as different as Central America in A Flag for Sunrise (1981), the open ocean in Outerbridge Reach (1992), or modern Jerusalem in Damascus Gate (1998), Stone has made a marked study of what it is to live under pressure.

His latest novel, Death of the Black-Haired Girl, would, at the outset, seem relatively bucolic, being centered around a New England college town. Likewise, the main plot device involving a student-faculty love affair might seem rather hemmed in for Stone. But even here, amidst leafy academe, Stone creates a distinctly American setting that is teetering on a precipice of madness and violence.

In Stone’s work the influences of the past are never far from present. Perhaps recalling West Rock in New Haven, a landmark clearly visible from the Yale University campus where Stone was once a writer in residence, he writes of a “high ridge that showed seasons to the grimy town. . . . God had raised the ridge centuries before to protect the colony and the college from the pagan and papist savages on the other side. The college had always required and received protection.” This notion of a protecting God infuses Stone’s novel with a sense of faith, however battered, as the action unfolds.

Stone’s fictional town is still reeling, in many ways, from the turmoil of the 1960s. In the spirit of the times, the college had once opened its doors to the community, only to pull a hasty retreat. “What ensued, drug-wise, crime-wise and in terms of bitterness between the college and the town, was brief but ugly. The opening forth was followed by a locking up, down and sideways that had locksmiths laboring day and night, and now there were three or four doors for everything . . .”

Professor Steven Brookman enjoys the comforts of the Persian carpet, ancient desk, and leaded Tudor windows of his office. But glancing outside his office window he often sees evidence, in the familiar figure of a troubled local resident burdened with plastic bags, that all is not entirely well within or without the stone gates of the campus. A certain uneasiness grips Brookman as he watches the familiar sight:

Sometimes he walked silently, eyes fixed on the pavement. At other times he carried on a dialogue with the unseen, an exchange that sounded so nuanced and literate that new students and faculty thought he was addressing them or talking into a cell phone. Occasionally he grew angry and shouted a bit, but like many of the delusional, he had learned not to confront real people who—downtown—could prove all too substantial.

The local coffee shop, located in a former office building near the campus that has become a halfway house for mental patients, bears the scars of civic decay and an air of edginess hovers as students and faculty sip their espresso. The “housies,” as the students refer to them, have made the shop their headquarters, and “their behavior and queer psychic emanations gave the coffee shop an unsettling spin.”

It is within this charged atmosphere that Brookman has conducted an affair with a beautiful and rash student, Maud Stack, the daughter of a former New York City police officer. Brookman has decided to end his affair with Maud upon learning his wife is pregnant, but it is clear that he has always been of two minds concerning his young lover. “Even on days when he was not particularly in the mood for Maud, he would take up one of her essays with a stirring of anticipation not untouched by dread. Dread of her winning her way inside him again, of threatening to crowd out the contoured life he had made himself, the devotions and sacred loyalties within it.” Brookman has even mulled over the thought of changing his lock to his office.

Brookman is intrigued that Maud, a spoiled college girl in his eyes, has noted a particularly dour sentiment while studying Christopher Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus” in one of Brookman’s classes. “The passage that had caught her attention was the one in which the Doctor asks Mephistopheles how he manages to wander about tempting obsessed intellectuals while doing time in hell. ‘Why this is hell,’ says the Diabolus, ‘nor am I out of it.’” And indeed, it is clear that Brookman and the others populate a certain kind of hell of their own that soon threatens to overwhelm them.

As the title of the novel portends, all does not end well for Maud. An editor of the college newspaper, Maud has taken offense to anti-abortion protestors outside the campus gates and has written a scathing attack piece on them which has garnered her some notoriety and scorn. At the same time Brookman breaks off their affair and soon after is confronted by a drunken Maud in front of his campus house; as a crowd leaves a nearby hockey game, a number of pedestrians mill around to witness Maud loudly berating Brookman, his wife looking on from their doorstep. When Maud is suddenly killed by a speeding car, however, it is unclear how she came to be in its path. What transpires from then on is pure Stone country, as the seemingly predestined fates of his characters play out before them amidst an atmosphere of impending violence and retribution, where any remnants of a fading faith are sorely tested.

Eddie Stack, Maud’s father, is sent reeling from the news of his daughter’s death. As a police officer he had been a responder at the World Trade Center disaster and had been privy to dread crimes that had been committed at the site. He now sees himself as “a burnout and a drunk, not even a mediocre policeman, a lousy one in fact, and not a particularly honest one. A coward, morally and sometimes physically. . . . An accessory to sometimes vicious things and to crimes he lacked the stones to perpetrate or prevent.” Stack blames Brookman for his daughter’s death and plans revenge, but even before this tragedy Stack knew he was a man “poisoned by anger long before he had any right to it. It must be in his blood, he thought, the anger.”

Jo Carr, a campus counselor who had seen Maud the night she died, is an ex-nun who had previously worked in South America. She attempts to console Maud’s father, but also tries to steer him away from confronting Brookman. But Carr, who recalls another ex-nun in Stone’s A Flag for Sunrise, has weathered her own wars and bears her own scars. “In South America, at close quarters, she had seen a struggle toward mutual extermination so savage, fueled by such violent hatred between races and classes, that the very phrase ‘civil war’ seemed an ironic euphemism.”

Brookman proves quite resourceful and is ready for whatever Stack may have in mind for him. He sees in his predicament that “there was some kind of blood debt, something to be endured as a result of what had happened.” And quite like Stack, Brookman is also consumed by “an ancient anger he had been born with, an insatiable rage against himself, his cast of mind—a sense that he had been born out of line, raised wrong, lived deserving of some unknowable retribution that it was his duty to honor and face down, prevent, overcome.”

In the novels of Robert Stone nothing is free and there are always consequences down the line, debts demanding payment. Both Brookman and Stack realize this—indeed, Maud seems, in the end, to have been attracted to a man in Brookman not at all unlike her father. Stack, in words that could have easily come from Brookman’s character, reflects: “No one and nothing was free, everything rigorously bound and priced, locked down and chained, from your last drink to your last orgasm to what you thought were the highest flights of your soul.”

Hovering over this book is a lingering religious faith, particularly of Catholic dogma that is either stridently defended or abruptly shunted aside. God’s presence, or lack thereof, is pondered over incessantly—although, as the title of an earlier short story by Stone puts it, “An Absence of Mercy” is perhaps the true worry here. In Death of the Black-Haired Girl, Stone has once again painted a picture of an extremely unforgiving world, where a bad end is as likely as any other.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2014 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2014

The Skin

theskinCurzio Malaparte
translated by David Moore
New York Review Books ($16.95)

by Andrew Marzoni

July, 1941. Yampol, a village in Ukraine. An Italian journalist bears witness to a corpse, flattened by a tank, “a dead man—something more, or something less, than a dead dog or cat.” As he recalls, “It was a carpet of human skin, and the fabric consisted of a fine network of bones, a spider’s web of crushed bones. It was like a starched suit, a starched human skin. It was an appalling and at the same time a delicate, exquisite, unreal scene.” The journalist watches as a young Jew impales the head of the corpse on a spade, lifts it into the air: “He walked with his head high, and on the end of his spade, like a flag, he carried that human skin, which flapped and fluttered in the wind exactly as a flag does.” Not just any flag, either. “That’s the flag of Europe,” the journalist says to his companion, “It’s our flag.”

This journalist, both author and narrator of this “delicate, exquisite, unreal” scene, is Curzio Malaparte, born Kurt Eric Suckert in Tuscany to a German father and an Italian mother, later adopting the surname “Malaparte” as a nom de plume: “on the side of bad,” an anti-Napoleon. Malaparte wrote an entire novel, Kaputt, about his experiences as a correspondent for Milan’s Corriere della Sera, covering the Eastern Front of the Second World War. Kaputt was published in 1944, but the passage above was published five years later, in Malaparte’s next novel, The Skin, in which flattened human remains become the flag of Europe—the only symbol able to unify a civilization whose last remaining pretenses to modernity are its ruins.

The Skin presents its reader with the same world which Roberto Rossellini offered to film viewers in his neorealist classic, Paisà (1946): Naples, just after the Allied invasion in 1943—a city of poverty and prostitution, black marketeers and American GIs (many of them black, as well). While André Bazin, writing in the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma, praises Paisà and neorealism in general for “its stripping away of all expressionism” and its tendency “to give back to the cinema a sense of the ambiguity of reality,” citing Rossellini and Vittorio de Sica’s attempts “to transfer to the screen the continuum of reality” and Cesare Zavattini’s “dream . . . to make a ninety-minute film of the life of a man to whom nothing ever happens,” the mixture of journalism and fiction Malaparte achieves in The Skin—nearly two decades before Norman Mailer perfects the genre in The Armies of the Night (1968)—insists that if anything can be said to be certain after Hitler, Mussolini, and Auschwitz, it is that reality itself is inescapably mediated. Reporting his adventures as Italian liaison to the American 5th Army, Malaparte alternately challenges his reader to accept and reject the veracity of his account, stretching his real experience to what would appear to be grotesque caricature, were it not for the desolate chaos of its historical context. Like Mailer, Malaparte is interested in exploring the fine line between fact and fiction in order to expose it as nonexistent–a thesis he advocates with irony, winking at the reader: “I would not wish to be discourteous to Malaparte, for he is my guest,” says General Guillaume to the hero, over a “humble camp meal” which the Frenchman fears will be “transformed into a real banquet” in the Italian’s next novel. The false tale of cannibalism Malaparte then employs to convince his companions—and us—of his narrative reliability is but one of many examples of the scope of his irony, the blackness of his humor.

David Moore’s new translation of The Skin renders the original text in strikingly fresh, often noirish English prose while retaining the high expectations held by Malaparte for his reader. The Skin is a truly multilingual novel: in addition to the narrator’s Italian, German appears, as does much dialogue in French (especially between Malaparte and his best friend, Colonel Jack Hamilton, a fictional stand-in for University of Virginia grad Colonel Henry H. Hamilton, “who died in vain in the cause of European freedom,” Malaparte writes in the book’s dedication), and as Rachel Kushner notes in her introduction to the edition, “In the Italian text words like ‘punching-ball’ and ‘booby trap’ are left untranslated, and Malaparte’s American friends love to say things like ‘Gee!’ and ‘Nuts!’ and ‘Good gosh!’” The co-presence of these languages fragments the text in a way that mirrors the fragmented world Malaparte attempts to represent: chaotic, made broken and baffling by the nascent spread of global capitalism through military means, the entirety of the West conquered by Americans who, in one grimly memorable scene, “go and stick a finger between the legs of a virgin,” supposedly the last virgin of Naples, “a poor conquered girl” forced to sell the only thing that she, her city, Italy, or even the whole of Europe has left: her skin.

Read from the perspective of the last half-century, Malaparte’s playful commentary on the United States’ role in global affairs seems incredibly prescient: the sort of catch-22 illustrated in an exchange between Malaparte and a partisan could serve as a description America’s relationship with the Middle East (substituting any one of many proper nouns for the name of Il Duce): “I’m killing them for shouting ‘Long live Mussolini!’” says the partisan, to which Malaparte replies, “They shout ‘Long live Mussolini!’ because you’re killing them.” But more than it is a political novel, The Skin is an existential novel, and like the best work of Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Alberto Moravia, it is driven by a feeling–in this case, sadness–which pervades even in the book’s wittiest moments. The tragedy of life, Malaparte tells us, citing his beloved Naples as an example, is that we can never escape the confines of our own bodies, our own skins. “The human skin is ugly,” he tells us. “It’s loathsome. And to think that the world is full of heroes who are ready to sacrifice their lives for such a thing as this!” Without our skins, we are nothing. The Skin offers its reader only one alternative to nothingness: ugliness. Thankfully it is an ugliness that has great verve in Malaparte’s hands.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2014 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2014