Tag Archives: Spring 2017

The Old Boys

William Trevor
Penguin UK

by Jesse Freedman

The death of William Trevor in the fall of 2016 marked a significant moment in the history of contemporary literature. Best known for his short stories, Trevor developed a style that would bridge two generations of Commonwealth authors: those writing in the aftermath of World War II and those confronting the collapse of the British empire. In Trevor’s early work are hints of his predecessors: the playfulness of Evelyn Waugh, for instance, mixes with the subtlety of Graham Greene. Later, the dynamic was inverted: Trevor’s influence emerged in the work of a younger generation, including in the novels of Graham Swift, who has reinterpreted Trevor’s themes with considerable effect. But then, that was Trevor all along: a quiet master, content to strengthen the bridge between past and present.

The arc of Trevor’s career spanned more than fifty years: his first novel, The Old Boys, appeared in 1964. Intended as a meditation on memory and aging, the book is remarkable if for no other reason than Trevor wrote it before himself reaching middle age (he was thirty-eight at the time). Everywhere in The Old Boys are traces of what Trevor would become: a master stylist, an astute observer. His characters, even at this early phase of his career, are defined as much by what they say as by what they leave unsaid. Intimation is the name of the game. “Communication is now an effort,” confides Mrs. Jaraby to her husband, the cantankerous alum at the center of Trevor’s story. “It’s not the easy thing that younger people know.” Despite hurried objections, Mr. Jaraby agrees: “We age together, my cat and I. Are we not two of a kind?”

Pregnant questions like this, failed attempts at communication, became hallmarks of Trevor’s style. Mr. and Mrs. Jaraby quarrel more than they concur; they rile each other for lack of a shared language. But they are not alone: Trevor populates The Old Boys with a range of characters struggling to express themselves. Sometimes, the struggle is cast as an attempt to settle an aging mind; more often, it’s presented as a bid to navigate the sentimental, to overcome the tendency toward nostalgia. Jaraby and his classmates long for their school days: less, though, to relive their youth and more to identify a language appropriate to describe it. As they exercise the gears of memory, as they summon the energy to reminisce, these aging men, these old boys, recapture a sliver of the emotion that “accompanied” their youth.

No doubt, there’s a sadness here: a sense in which yearning cannot be overcome. But there’s another point Trevor makes in parallel: that the elderly, including Jaraby and his classmates, have moved beyond spoken language. Their mode of communication hinges instead on the assumption of shared memories. That Mr. Jaraby relates more with a cat or his classmates than with his wife is not surprising: there’s a comfort in the unspoken, an ease unique to overlapping experience.

Aging, though, is not entirely associated with isolation. A number of Trevor’s characters take comfort—a strange zeal, almost—in what they see as a return to youth. “The middle-aged,” remarks one of Jaraby’s classmates, General Sanctuary, “are most susceptible, are easily hurt and more in need of reassurance . . . They have lost what they have always been taught to value: youth and a vigor for living.” The old, according to Sanctuary, have recaptured that vigor; they have shed the weight of expectation. In effect, they are no longer “father to children and parents both.” This sentiment—of being torn across generations—is central to Trevor’s world: Jaraby, especially, must confront the pressures of a wayward son and a maddening wife. In old age, he’d expected liberation; instead, he negotiates a reality in which both old and young require his attention.

The tension at the heart of Jaraby’s interactions, both with his family and fellow alumni, is made real through Trevor’s dialogue. Like so many of Trevor’s novels, The Old Boys is propelled by an exacting quality, by Trevor’s ability to make his characters speak as they would (not as he needs them to). There’s a musical quality to all the chirping, a sense in which the notes, however discordant, fit together as a melody. “You are talking a lot of foolish poppycock,” says Mr. Jaraby to his wife. Mrs. Jaraby retorts: “Poppycock is foolish as it is. There is no need to embellish the word. I am saying what runs through my mind, as you do.” Here is the magic of Trevor’s narrative: characters interact using the languages they’ve shaped over time. Trevor presents another of Jaraby’s classmates, Mr. Turtle, as the embodiment of this condition, of this inclination to a speak through divergent dialects: “Mr. Turtle over his brandy felt nostalgic in his own way, and tipsy as well. They were right, he didn’t know his own mind.”

The trouble Trevor’s characters face in articulating themselves, in successfully rendering their memories, results in awkwardness, but also in lightheartedness. Despite the sorrow, there’s a playful quality to The Old Boys, a tenderness conceived by Trevor in sympathy. Jaraby’s actions are funny because they’re mischievous, childish. It’s as if he can’t escape the version of himself that first emerged as a student. Trevor pokes fun at Jaraby for comic effect, but also to highlight the extent to which words become baggage, carried with characters over time. It’s Jaraby’s chief adversary, Mr. Nox, who remarks that “Jaraby today was much as Jaraby had been been sixty years ago: a thoughtless fellow, crude in his ways.” Trevor casts the posturing between Nox and Jaraby as an attempt to bring closure to linguistic conflict as children. The point is well taken.

Reading The Old Boys now, in the aftermath of Trevor’s passing, is a rare opportunity to see where it all began, to identify early elements of the style Trevor worked so diligently to develop. The Old Boys really is a book about time: about how it marches forward, and about how we seek to describe it. The novel stands as a testament not only to Trevor’s skill as a linguistic, but equally to his role as a humanist. In the end, Jaraby and his wife are as they started: seated together in a room, forced to confront the empty vacuum of time. It’s at this moment that Trevor issues his most Shakespearean of cries, an urgent call to action: “Cast gloom aside,” says Mrs. Jaraby to her husband, “and let us see how best to make the gesture. Come now, how shall we prove we are not dead?”

Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2017 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2017

IRL

Tommy Pico
Birds, LLC ($18)

by Benjamin Voigt

What do you do when the Muse doesn’t text back? This is the question of Tommy Pico’s IRL, one of the most compulsively readable poetry debuts of the past year. An ultra-contemporary epic, IRL keeps it real in a few different ways: it represents life as it’s lived in the language of now, but it’s also honest about the challenges of doing so when you are, to put it bluntly, a survivor of genocide. For Pico, a member of the Kumeyaay nation, real life includes selfies, Beyoncé, and brunch, but also “black mold in shitty mobile / homes” and “forced Indian / boarding schools.”

Written like one long text message (complete with “still-typing” ellipses as section breaks), the book makes myth of the modern, cramming as much contemporary life into its short, slangy lines as it can. It begins as many epics do: with an invocation of the muse. We open with Teebs, the poet’s amped-up alter-ego, “Crushing / on Muse—whose / even slight squint bursts / me into high July— / while dialing, / essentially, a trick.” This is the Iliad imagined as a weekend trip to the Hamptons, the Odyssey where the boats are subways and all those islands parties. It insists that the walk home as a queer person in Brooklyn is a hero’s journey, that a list of hook up kiss-offs can be a Homeric litany. And why not? Read a certain way, Pico reminds us, the old stories were pretty queer on their own. “Srsly, / who didn’t love this Greek / shit as a kid? / So witchy and swishy,” Pico writes. What are the classics if not Olympian trysts and love between brawny heroes?

Pico’s updates to the tradition are often genuinely fun. He’s funny, a sharp observer of social mores who speeds between modes and tones. “As the universe expands,” he writes, “it all / moves slowly away Today / I post a pic of Pangaea / on Insta for #tbt Even geography / is about moving on.” But this rollicking “moving on” has a bleak shadow. “The rush is what I covet—” Pico begins one section, “the / noise of constant motion, / curled in bed on the rez / A sense of options.” The book imitates this rush, but also identifies the pace as a survival strategy, and a means for Pico (and us) to approach intractable subjects—namely, the centuries-long erasure of native peoples, and its lingering effects on Pico and his tribe. What else can you do if your Facebook feed fills with suicides (as it does for Teebs in the book’s first section) but constantly refresh?

“I want America / to know who is still dying / for its sins,” Pico writes, and indeed the book’s most powerful moments come when it confronts us with this, with “metabolic dis- / ease” and “team sports names” and his Uncle Chop who “drank himself to death.” He’s particularly acute about how his background impacts his writing, and how exclusive literary culture can be. “I can’t write poems / the way they must come / to others,” Pico writes, “Can’t use words / like tamp or tincture, n that / makes me feel like a chump.” Indeed, if there is one central narrative to this digressive story, it’s Teebs’s inability to connect with his muse, with the source of artistic voice or inspiration. He’s “crushing” on Muse, but Muse “isn’t crushing” on him, “doesn’t love me, / doesn’t have his shit / together.”

Still, this does not stop Pico from singing, and singing to the gods; despite its topicality, IRL is deeply interested in spirituality, in seeking the sacred that history denied him. “My God,” he laments, “I never got to / know her.” Ultimately, the act of writing itself is his substitute, his way of finding meaning. By singing, karaoke-style, despite self-consciousness, despite marginalization, Pico discovers a space for all his identities—queer artist, city dweller, Internet whiz, rez kid—to coexist. The epic’s capaciousness, its peregrinations, allows him what his people were so often denied. As he writes at the book’s close:

. . . My dad grows
his hair long Black waves
cascade down his back b/c knives
crop the ceremony of his
mother’s hair at the NDN boarding
school I cut mine in mourning
for the old life but I grow
my poems long. A dark
reminder on white pages.
A new ceremony.

At once powerful and playful, old and new, IRL offers its readers something special: it expands our reality, and offers a way forward.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2017 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2017

Patricide

D. Foy
Stalking Horse Press ($18.95)

by Benjamin Woodard

D. Foy’s second novel, Patricide, rumbles with violence, even when there’s none to be seen on the page. A dark, brave, complicated tale, it speaks to the rages that linger in men through generations, confronting the lashes provoked by cowardice, power, and addiction, and the crippled bonds that string fathers and sons together.

Foy’s protagonist is Pat Rice—the book’s title is a triple whammy, playing on Pat’s name, his id, and the idea of murdering a parent—and his story stretches across a lifetime tattooed with drugs, alcohol, and abuse, both physical and sexual. Pat grows up as the eldest of three boys, and Foy writes with extraordinary, experimental flourishes of language that open Pat’s experiences up to the reader. Shifting from first- to second- to third-person, and bouncing around in time, we see Pat struggle with his mother, who strikes and molests him, and his father, who oscillates from offering support to teaching lessons with closed fists. The man is referred to in titles: he is The Father, who speaks with The Voice of Paternal Law, and who doles out punishment with Fatherly Justice. When he punches Pat early in the novel, the point-of-view changes as knuckle meets flesh:

. . . without a word he struck my jaw with his full might, his giant fist, a blow, just one, that slammed me to the floor.
And then the swirling haze . . . And then his Face, all black, my father’s, my father’s giant Voice . . .

It had been real, you were there, the boy on the floor, yours was the jaw that met the fist. You’d seen his face, your father’s, you’d watched it swim above you through your haze.

Foy’s choice to thrust the reader into the shoes of Pat here, as well as in other sequences throughout Patricide, works wonders. The pain felt by the character transfers to the reader through each use of “you,” and an immediate agency is set in place. The reader moves from spectator to participant in each long stretch of second-person text. Structured as single paragraphs, these bursts surge like a wild river, increasing the very pace in which each syllable is consumed. As tensions ratchet—and as white space vanishes from the page, replaced with a solid block of type, of “jiffy-lark-zing”s and “quick, quick, quick!”s—it is impossible to read these passages slowly.

On the flipside, Foy often slows things down to equal narrative success, in particular when he uses nearly sixty pages to detail Pat’s first time smoking weed, stolen from his father’s stash at the tender age of ten. As he and his classmate, aptly named Burney McCarthy, trade joint hits, the world screeches to a halt. Time breaks from its normal rhythm, and a third-person narration explains how “everything swirled, everything spun, nothing made any sense.” Colors merge and vanish as the boys get stoned, and the language on display enhances their highs.

Even when he’s not writing in this direct method, speeding up or slowing down time, Foy uses sharp, playful language and shrewd pop culture references to tell Pat’s travails. As he gets older, Pat not only snorts cocaine, he coins a new term for his insatiable consumption: “snuffleupagussing.” Then later, when he takes a stand for himself, he explains, “the monster had emerged like the monster from Kane in Alien, I was that monster, now, and I was damned.” These narrative choices are frequently brilliant, and they prove that, if Foy were a preacher, he’d have his congregation sitting on the edges of their pews every Sunday, hanging on the charm of his words.

At its heart, Patricide is a novel about family, and how abuse and turmoil is often passed from parent to child. Despite his parents’ cruelty, Pat tries time and again to maintain a relationship, even while he plunges deeper into the world of drugs. Yet that hope is finally shattered when, at the age of seventeen, his parents ignore his Christmas wish for a guitar and instead give him a camera. As Pat looks at his gift, he comes to the conclusion that his parents want nothing more than to crush his ambitions. “My dream got in the way of the dream of my mother and father,” Pat says. “My dream took them from themselves.” It’s a provocative statement, and it leads Pat to a hard adulthood, but it also cements the character’s personality. If we’re to believe all humans are born with the instinctive drives that comprise their ids, then here is where Pat finally comes to understand his makeup, and the horror of it all is enough to drive any man to desperation.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2017 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2017

this is the fugitive

Misha Pam Dick
Essay Press ($15.95)

by Jay Besemer

Reading means taking into the body. That’s a description deriving from practice, not a dictionary definition. Everything we’ve ever read goes inside us, but it doesn’t necessarily stay. When it does, it becomes part of the self—or selves.

This process is at the heart of Misha Pam Dick’s this is the fugitive, which overtly engages the experience of identity as fluid, as intimately linked to and even driven by the texts and authors one reads. Here, the presence of the author as reader is more than overt; the book centers the physicality of its own composition through reading.

Unexpected developments emerge when a reviewer accidentally meets an author while working on a piece about their book. I recently met Pam Dick at an event, and our conversation freed me to take my reading-through of her book into a longer, overtly subjective and self-inclusive, formally-resonant engagement with it.

Thus, in the following excerpt from the ongoing textual call-and-response between this is the fugitive and this fugitive reader, I do not describe the book or its actions; rather, I imitate its form (including its mechanics) and the process of its composition, reproducing Dick’s vulnerable process of shared becoming.

on/with this is the fugitive

we are the fugitive.

the body transformed into pages, words on pages, the self shuffled and dealt into characters, personages.

it’s how we become who we are—formed by relationships with people, places, texts, characters and their creators, ideas and their articulators.

they change us. we change them.

language functions like an organ, something akin to blood.

making love through words. when to do so with bodies is impossible.

when i met mischa/mina/minna we talked about this.

about finding/claiming others as part of ourselves even down to calling ourselves by their names.

(how close i came to naming myself after tristan tzara legally, repeating his own action in naming himself).

how overlooked the physicality of reading actually is, how it was always seen as “passive” in both my separate families, contrasted with physical work like chores or exercise, or physical play. weird, because intellectual labor was highly valued by both parents.

complicated and contradictory physicality/intimacy of reading, speaking, language itself. this book foregrounds the difficulty of processing all of the language one encounters, through reading or beyond it, and reminds me of my problems with the physical speech process (too slow for my thoughts; the logjam of integration of old/new info).

a language as a body to inhabit as well as a separate organ. “living in french” as pam dick says. more direct and somehow truer than saying “living in a french-speaking environment.” the languages one engages have a way of permeating bodies, forming thought processes, even movement. think about the variations in “obscene” gestures across cultures and languages. think about differences in meaning for a nod or a shaking head, ways of indicating direction using or avoiding use of fingers. none of that is independent of the word-language that supports it.

(this reminds me of the term “fiction suit” used to describe the body in grant morrison’s graphic narrative series the invisibles. language as culture, genetic information as language, bodies made of language creating narratives of being and doing.)

but i don’t know georg büchner. i don’t know him except through this book. i’m not sure whether or not to research him, his work, to buttress my understanding.

it could be the opposite of what i want, which is to limit the intercourse to just between me and this book, the fugitive, a pseudo-monogamy of readership and authorship. it’s pam’s georg i’m most interested in. to find a georg of my own would distract me from this.

this is the fugitive makes a link between büchner in the past and resistance movements in the present. it connects occupy, pussy riot, etc. to büchner’s life experiences with resistance. is there a useful and non-exploitative connection to make between an artist’s personal experience with trauma, exile, regime change, refugee movements, and creative engagement with those things? various experiences and uses of abjection is a key concept evolving here.

pam is asking partly about abjection as resistance, and partly about abjection against resistance. how can we usefully think about this? this enters me in several ways: deliberate choices against privilege, against consumer-driven life, against an unsustainable “day job.” being open about disability, about poverty, about outsider existence. transforming what others try to shame a person for into sources of personal strength or pride. semiotic transformation of words like “queer,” “crip,” “mad” into empowering terms. yet none of that is done without consequences, often dire ones. chosen abjection is still often a better option when constant striving for unsustainable (unattainable!) capitalist-determined achievement becomes a clear lifepath to a bad and extended death.

abjection as an externally-created condition touches on recognition of absurdity in that mechanism. but “some absurdities can kill you.” this happens in reaction to social change, that snapback punishing those who made or even wanted/benefited from positive change. (an absurdity that can and will kill people—already has, as hate crimes rise since nov. 9—and this is not just pages in a book anymore.)

further on: “therefore no triumphant homecoming. rather you return broken, speechless and in shreds.” i am so connected to this sentence it’s hard to make it unravel. i have experienced the breakdown of language in the gap between what a place meant before and what it means now. sometimes the place is a body, sometimes the place is a relationship, sometimes it’s a literal place. sometimes it’s all three, in interaction. it is an unnameable pain, a type of abjection that is difficult to repurpose to power in the moment. is there a communion of pain that doesn’t rely on communication through language?

is that empathy? “next time, his empath metaphysics. or misha’s star trek philosophy.” there are many instances of “star trek” connection in this book—references to james t. kirk, the borg, the quality of (excessive?) empathy as a sort of superpower enabling healing or a “friendlier” type of interrogation. maybe the deep excavation of another’s text is like this, a deanna troi-style soft penetration into someone’s words and thoughts. but misha (pam) is referring to büchner’s empathy and its treatment in his own texts. is there a “next time” for büchner that misha/pam witnesses, or is the reference to her own re-reading of the same text?

i am not my rhetoric but i can’t pretend distance or detachment from what i experience on and in my body.

i can’t go back—no triumphant homecoming for me either.

as pam grapples with the texts on the page and the texts of the world, so do i:

bodies living in terror and poison hiding behind names that never quite fit and words that can’t hold what they’re meant or hoped to—in any language.

“see the text slide into me, i let it slide in to me, i flow toward it and i rub on it.” these are ways of reading that don’t get written or talked about, specifically in terms of the intimacy and eroticism of reading as a physical act. some forms of readerly appropriation may be closer to the processes of mating, of eating, of interpenetrating symbiosis. we physically sustain and create each other, biologically speaking—so why disguise it when this happens with a text? this is a question driving the book as a whole:

as to attribute this writing to büchner, not to misha

but how do you distinguish it?

and like the shadow-discourse surrounding abjection, this exposure of supposedly-shameful (still-shamed) intercourse/embodiment/selfhood is itself an act of positive resistance. “so abjection hides a glimmer which is its burning secret” (76). this is the secret of every life: to embrace what was previously hidden, unknown, effaced or denied; to embrace what was or is used against us, what we have chosen, and how they all churn and tumble within us in our multitude.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2017 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2017

The Catch

Fiona Sampson
Chatto & Windus / Random House UK ($18.95)

by Kevin Holton

In The Catch, Fiona Simpson displays the minutiae of suburbia with frenetic energy, so even the calmest acts, from standing on a ferry and watching the shore to listening to animals scurry about as the sun sets, become chaotic. The poems in this collection, almost uniformly written with a consistent stanzaic structure, are fluid, filling an impression of form rather than being entirely free or traditionally written. This amplifies the book’s theme of the natural world not needing to be confined by human rules, a theme given life through her descriptions of people walking barefoot through roses even when in downtown apartments or subway trains.

“Clothesline” exemplifies this by blurring the border between daily chores and a profound experience with the environment. The narrator is hanging wet sheets out to dry when there is a “rise in clouds from the clean sheets,” adding significance to the otherwise unremarkable image of sheets blowing in the wind. The poem ends with “I will swim down to the river/ arm over arm among slips/ and sheets and pearled river lights,” showing how the speaker perceives few defining boundaries surrounding domestic life, using the river image to show beauty in those banal tasks.

Some of the poems lend themselves more easily to the nature theme. “Arcades,” for example, may trick younger readers into thinking it will be about a video game arcade, if they don’t know that the primary meaning of the word is “a long passageway that is covered on both sides.” These are often created by tree branches bending toward each other, or vines curling around a trellis. The definition makes the meaning of lines like “one continual linked pouring/ the way arcades go” clearer, in this case referring to the way each vine blurs into the other. “They do not/ know the morning or the evening” is made clearer here too, as the arcade provides shade throughout the whole day, especially since it is “in the shade under/ the cypress tree” creating an additional layer of darkness upon the already darkened pathway underneath, which might trick the unaware into thinking day and night are one.

It isn’t easy to make the mundanity of daily life interesting, but Sampson accomplishes this with ease. Her lyric style and poetic form blend seamlessly, as do nature and the cruel concrete of modern cities within her work. Fluidity reigns throughout these pages, and readers can swim through her vibrant imagery much like her narrators do through streams or down cracked sidewalks. Contemporary mankind and the aged earth, so often opposed, fit neatly together here, a yin and yang as familiar as black ink on white paper. This is a fitting collection for any reader’s shelf, whether that reader is looking to celebrate the balance of two separate worlds, or looking to reclaim one they have lost.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2017 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2017

Dwelling in Illegibility

Editor's Note: Elisabeth Workman gave this presentation at the Asemic Translations event, sponsored by Rain Taxi and held at Minnesota Center for Book Arts on March 25, 2017.


by Elisabeth Workman

When Eric Lorberer said tonight’s theme was right up my alley I took him quite literally & want to begin tonight, as a way of speaking of the asemic, in an alley in Powderhorn—the 36th Street end of the alley between 13th and 14th avenues south, where I live with the graphic designer Erik Brandt, our creatures, and a mutant, sometimes asemic surface on the side of our garage, visible to pedestrians & eastbound traffic on 36th Street.

Visible but not always legible. Fictional but not false.

Erik’s project, Ficciones Typografika (the name ½ nod to Borges, ½ extension of his visual communication practice inspired by conglomerate identities, and also the name of a Czech typographic union), began in 2013, with an invitation to artists/designers around the world to submit their own typographical fiction (which has become a very open category for experimental work that’s non-commercial-based).

Visible but not always legible. Fictional but not false.

Statecraft insists upon legibility. Tools of legibility include the design of cities, the standardization of language, and the creation of permanent last names.1

Weirdly signatures are frequently illegible stamps on our ostensible legibility. Though not asemic they are interesting to look at as visual forms. Just as in one signature you might see a spaceship or opera house or flight pattern of a dragonfly in another you might see the rigidity of reductive binary thought or a heart attack or as the poet Nada Gordon has observed: a klan meeting.


Ficciones Typografika has its origins in a design problem Erik assigns to his typography students, in which they deconstruct Letraset forms to create new assemblages that often look like letters but are language-less, speculative typography, if you will.

In design pedagogy the prompts are referred to as problems and the outputs solutions. (Imagine creative writing classrooms if we referred to poems as solutions. A simultaneously utopian/dystopian prospect.) What fascinates me about these typographical fictions are the questions and really possibilities that are opened when designers stray and turn their back on capitalism and the state—the solutions are ambiguous, often illegible, even mysterious—they court our capacities for uncertainty, doubt, and difference.

In “The Delusions of Certainty,” Siri Hustvedt writes: “Doubt is fertile because it opens a thinker to foreign thoughts.” 2 Given writings about the asemic that so often include “the reader” in its definition and inspired by the way Hustvedt begins her essay by exploring the mysteries of the placenta (as a temporary mind), I am prompted to think of the asemic encounter as a kind of third mind experience, a transient, nutritive organ between the perceiver and the perceived and just as contingent, in its semantic potential, upon the “written” as the “reader”—the encounter through which we behold an illegibility ripe with possibility.

Visible but not always legible. Fictional but not false.

What is the threat of illegibility? That it can’t be controlled? Or marketed? Or branded? Or identified for dehumanizing purposes? While so much of the feedback we have received about this billboard for mystery in our alley has been positive and curious, there is one neighbor critic who we can sometimes hear talking, or rather yelling, back to the posters. Because they are often not in English? Because they are indecipherable? Because implicitly they communicate complexity, difference?

Beatrix Brandt, Ficciones Typografika 907-909 (24" x 36"). Installed on June 28, 2015.

Tobias Textor, Ficciones Typografika 373-375 (24" x 36"). Installed on April 13, 2014.

In Seeing Like a State (which, incidentally I was reminded I wanted to read when I saw it in a neighbor’s free library box a couple blocks from our house) James C Scott observes that “state simplifications [or processes of legibility], the basic givens of modern statecraft, were . . . rather like abridged maps. They did not successfully represent the actual activity of the society they depicted, nor were they intended to; they represented only that slice of it that interested the official observer.” And they weren’t just maps. “Rather,” writes Scott, “they were maps that, when allied with state power, would enable much of the reality they depicted to be remade.” 3 Fast forward to this moment in which we face the implications of an artificial reductive reality of such mapping—red state vs. blue state, “legal” vs. “illegal,” real vs. fake, “normal” vs “other”—in the hands of fascists and how does this sentence end?

Giandomenico Carpentieri, Ficciones Typografika 1135-1137 (72" x 36"). Installed on March 13, 2016.

Ines Mena Silva, Ficciones Typografika 1258-1260 (72" x 36"). Installed on July 31, 2016.

What if asemic surfaces were more a part of our dailiness? That we might open the New York Times and behold a full-page spread of asemic print, or drive down the highway and see a billboard emblazoned as such? What if the asemic was more visible. Visible but not legible. In fact in its illegibility, asemic writing is paradoxically radically inclusive, and in its imaginative engagement, fictional but not fake. May this difference—increasingly important—be spreading.



1 Scott, James C. Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998, p. 2.

Hustvedt, Siri. A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays in Art, Sex, and the Mind. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016. p 149.

Scott, p.3.


Elisabeth Workman is a poet and writer with a background in dance. Her newest publication from Dusie Press is ENDLESSNESS IS NO DESOLATION. Other works include ULTRAMEGAPRAIRIELAND, OPOLIS, ANY RIP A THRESHOLD, and IN THE EVENT OF NOT HAVING AN ANSWER, among others. She teaches at Minneapolis College of Art & Design, where she co-curates the Next Poetix reading series.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2017 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2017

Save Twilight: Selected Poems

Julio Cortázar
translated by Stephen Kessler
City Lights Books ($17)

by John M. Bennett

Julio Cortázar (1914-1984), the great Argentine novelist whose highly innovative and experimental fictions have had a lasting and influential impact on literature world-wide, was also an excellent and innovative poet, and his work in that genre deserves to be better known. Fortunately, the author of Rayuela (Hopscotch) is well represented as a poet in a new and greatly expanded edition of Save Twilight, Number 53 in City Lights' Pocket Poets series. Originally published in 1997, this new, plump little volume (which would only fit in the largest pocket of your cargo pants) is an excellent introduction to the author's poetry, which is as fascinating and compelling as anything he wrote.

Cortázar's poetry varies in style and tone. His most frequent voice is a personal one in which he is not writing “poetry” but rather talking to himself or to a listener. This is a style found also in some of Roberto Bolaño's poetry; Bolaño was from a younger generation, but both writers are best known as novelists, and both professed poetry as their first love. What is striking about both poets' language is the emotional intensity they achieve while using an extremely conversational diction. This is a very difficult effect to create, and can only be done when the poet is speaking of things he or she feels very strongly and immediately. Some of the poems are set up as “prose,” and use the same sort of diction.

But this is not the only voice in Cortázar's repertoire. There is also a kind of surrealism in the vein of early Pablo Neruda, although it has a stronger socio-political aim (“where shrieking rats on their hind legs / fight over scraps of flags”), and there are a number of more formal poems—a series of sonnets, for example, reminiscent of the sonnets of Mallarmé. The poems in this somewhat Parnassian mode are so mysterious, so ensconced in their language, that they resist being translated, except perhaps in a strictly literal way, but there are others, too, often written in rhyming quatrains, that are truly excellent poems, though probably not to the tastes of many current English-language readers of poetry. Save Twilight focuses on the more conversational and explicitly personal poems, such as “Profit and Loss,” which suggests that Cortázar's interest in world affairs, in contrast to intense and intimate issues, is something tranquilizing and calming:

Sometimes you return in the evening, when I'm reading
things that put me to sleep: the news,
the dollar and the pound, United Nations
debates. It feels like
your hand stroking my hair.

What is poetry for Julio Cortázar? In a number of places, he addresses this question. In an untitled prose text in this book (indexed as “A friend tells me . . .”) he deplores “that seriousness that tries to place poetry on a privileged pedestal, which is why most contemporary readers can't get far enough away from poetry in verse.” He continues by saying “Putting this book together . . . continues to be for me that chance operation which moves my hand like the hazelwood wand of the water witch; or more precisely, my hands, because I write on a typewriter the same way he holds out his little stick.” In another prose poem, “Most of what follows. . . ,” he quotes Dr. Johnson from Boswell's Diary: “‘Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.’”

Cortázar was a poet who can be seen as taking a big step beyond the styles of Latin American Modernismo, which was itself a reaction against late romanticism and is considered by many to be the first uniquely Latin American style in poetry. Cortázar's roots are in Modernismo, however, and some of the sense of loss and exile that runs through his work can be traced to leaving behind the elegant poetic modes of the early twentieth century. A poem not included in this selection, “Éventail pour Stéphane,” is a poem in a rather Modernista style and form addressed to Mallarmé, one of the poets admired by the Modernistas because he conjoined Symbolism and Parnassian aesthetics in his work. Using the principal symbol of Modernista aesthetics, the swan, it is a poem which suggests that poetry formed the foundation of Cortázar's literary activities:

Pues sin cesar me persigue
la destrucción de los cisnes.

But ceaselessly I am pursued
by the destruction of the swans.
(my translation)

I have already mentioned Roberto Bolaño, but it might be useful to compare Cortázar's poetry to that of other major Latin American poets. The Chilean Nicanor Parra, Cortázar's contemporary and the creator of “Anti-poetry,” brings up the question of how much the Argentine can be considered an anti-poet. In the sense that his poetry takes several steps beyond the poetics of Modernismo, he can be called that. The same would hold true for Pablo Neruda, and for the at times desperate and expressionistic surrealism of Vicente Huidobro, who preceded Cortázar by a generation. Or Huidobro's contemporary, César Vallejo, whose early poems contain traces of Modernismo which evolved into some of the most intense Futuristic poetry ever written, much of it constructed on a base of conversational language. The Nobel-winner Octavio Paz's highly literary and elegant poetry is quite different from Cortázar's but also has its roots in that early twentieth-century revolution in poetry. All of these poets reacted against Modernismo in unique ways, and each subsumed Modernismo in their work; it is the matrix from which they grew.

Stephen Kessler's expanded edition of Save Twilight is a real gift; his translations are eminently readable and repay repeated readings: the poems will seem different each time. Cortázar is a poet of many styles and voices, and this selection has spurred me to revisit his poetry, and re-read some of his great novels, an experience that is greatly enriching. What more could one ask of poetry, pocket or otherwise?

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Before the Wind

Jim Lynch
Alfred A. Knopf ($26.95)

by Daniel Picker

Both the waters of Puget Sound and family figure prominently in Jim Lynch’s novel Before the Wind, as grown and nearly-grown children grapple with their parents to set their own independent courses. Lynch’s fictional family, the Johannssens, are a boat-building and sailboat-racing family. The family business revolves around a company that has faltered as its racing vessels have been surpassed by even more expensive high tech designs sought by the noveau riche.

Two of the Johannssen sons were named for famous sailors: Josh for Joshua Slocum, author of Sailing Alone Around the World, and Bernard for Bernard Moitessier, the legendary sailor who all but won the first single-handed, round-the-world yacht race in 1969 but inexplicably sailed on, embarking on circumnavigating the globe once again, thus foregoing not only the glory, but also the monetary award. The strength of Lynch’s novel lies in this same sort of indomitable spirit.

Josh, a boatyard mechanic and sailboat repairman and the narrator of the novel, has remained closest to his father and grandfather, the patriarchs of the family business, while Josh’s mother, a physics teacher, remains obsessed with the Navier-Stokes equations she hopes to solve. Her youngest, the preternatural and incandescent Ruby, holds the hope for family resurrection as she sails at an Olympic level, but she has her own ideas and will meet even greater challenges. Ruby is the most interesting and perplexing character in the novel, and Lynch evokes her so fully that she inspires pathos in the reader.

Josh is aware that the owners of boats in the boatyard where he works cannot always afford to maintain their vessels, and that these sailboats have become as close and as important as family members. In effect, some of the down–at–the-heels boat owners remain driven by the same irrational spirit which drives Josh’s father, Bobo Jr., and his grandfather, Grumps: a love of sailing. Before the Wind captures this love; this is not merely a book with a sailing backdrop, and the Johannssens are as far from haughty prep schoolers as a reader might find.

The father’s hope is to reunite the family, including the wayward and errant Bernard who sails through Steinbeck’s beloved Sea of Cortez far south of Olympia, Washington. While Bernard seems to have drawn the attention of government investigators, Bobo dreams of bringing the family together to compete in their own Joho 39 in the Swiftsure Race on Puget Sound.

Before the Wind is at its best when Lynch captures the excitement of sailing. The novel sails toward the climatic race where the family reunites:

“Eight knots!” Grumps cried, scanning the instruments. “Eight-point-three-knots upwind!”
. . . Prone on the bow, Ruby watched the slot between the sails and said absolutely nothing, which meant everything was perfect, the foils curved like raptor wings for maximum velocity. Even Mother looked excited, silver bangs blowing across her inquisitive eyes.

The camaraderie of this sailing family is analogous to that of Mack and the boys in Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and the paisonos in Tortilla Flat; those memorable characters, as do the Johannssens, live both on the page and on the fringe of society, seeking contentment, meaning, and livelihood. Steinbeck, in fact, gets alluded to more than once in this entertaining fiction, so the influence is evident—and earned.

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The Home Place: Essays on Robert Kroetsch’s Poetry

Dennis Cooley
University of Alberta Press ($49.95)

by Garin Cycholl

In the post-factual Americas, we play roles in a lunatic’s epic, a demented history of spaces beyond or outside recall. Narrative’s plasticity disfigures personal and public boundaries. Distant and scrolled, the “news” strains credulity. Who owns the story? Who owns the portals, anchor, and cables? Recovery of story is essential to knowing who we are and were.

The Home Place, Dennis Cooley’s recollective exploration of the long poems of western Canadian poet Robert Kroetsch is a solid point of departure in this act of recovery. Riding the impulse of “local epic,” Kroetsch’s work chronicles not only his native prairie, but also the distinct shifts that propelled poetries in the Americas in the late twentieth century. What emerges is a new and redeeming sense of “place” in its mythic, social, ecological, and linguistic energies. As Kroetsch writes, “in the prairies the small town and the farm are no longer real places, they are dreamed places . . . a remembered condition, an explanation of where we come from, a myth.” How does the poet speak from these margins?

Kroetsch argues that “too many Canadian writers . . .” treat language “like a heap of fresh bear shit.” The prairie’s central reality for him was “dislodging”—neighbors whom Kroetsch had seen turned out of their homes in the 1930s. His work searches for the voices gone in “lost or usurped home surfaces.” Recovered as local, “our genealogies are the narratives of a discontent with a history that lied to us, violated us, erased us even.” In Cooley’s analysis, Kroetsch in his long poems is engaged with both recovering that past as well as finding how to retell it. Cooley writes, “Is he inventing, or is he recording here? . . . He was a fierce regionalist but he also was immersed in formal innovation . . . As a regionalist he understood that language gestures to the world, that it can tie us to the world, and that it is profoundly social. As a postmodernist he realized that those connections are profoundly unstable. . .” The “local” rediscovered through a deeper engagement with the stories that turn around it.

Seed Catalogue, which Kroetsch published in 1977, is found poetry, a catalogue unearthed by the poet a few years earlier. Among its entries from the marketed and promised “summer garden” is a list of absences, what’s disappeared from the prairie—most notably for Cooley, “the mysterious hand that hovers over the market place.” Relentlessly local, the poet recollects himself among tales told in bars, at work, and across kitchen tables. The poem works from “the outward, the vernacular, the low and local.” As Cooley notes, “Gone are the troubadours; the jokesters have come to take over. . . . The bullshitters speak the language, the poet listens.” Here, Kroetsch gathers the voices on the margins to reclaim that place. For Cooley, the poet “writes his way home.”

Kroetsch speaks from the provinces; “The margin speaks its one small change against the design of the center, and on that speaking everything turns.” His “catalogue” is a sweeping account, one that forces us within and beyond ourselves. Reminding us that no real boundaries exist or remain between Canadian prairie, American West, and Mexican North, the poems’ conversations with that cold distance reacquaint us with maps, both defining and strange. Cooley’s reflections on Kroetsch are warm, complete, and vital.

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On Borrowed Wings

Chandra Prasad
Washington Square Press ($20.99)

by Dennis Barone

Some say a novel begins with the question “what if?” Chandra Prasad has a simple proposition for the creation of her 2007 novel On Borrowed Wings: What if the first woman to attend Yale University did so in the mid-1930s instead of decades later?

Prasad’s novel has four sections: summer, autumn, winter, and spring. The main character, Adele, has a brother, Charles, who has been accepted at Yale and will enter the freshman class that fall. He dies that summer, however, and Adele—who is just as smart as her brother (if not smarter)—decides to go in his place disguised as Charles.

That’s the what if; what follows is ingenious and speaks clearly to issues current on today’s campuses as well as those of mid-30s university life. On Borrowed Wings is not a farce, but a serious look at issues of race, gender, and class by way of the cross-dressing Adele.

Adele, after all, lives on campus in a dorm. She has to take gym class. She obtains a work-study position with a bigoted professor. How she negotiates these challenges makes for entertaining and thought-provoking reading. Near the beginning of her matriculation as she looks at Old Campus, Adele’s “eyes wandered to single elements: an ancient iron gate, ivy vines twisted about its rusty crooks and spokes; a resplendent panel of stained glass, its colors wistful in the waning light. As dusk descended, the buildings of the university were almost too wondrous to take in.” During the course of her first year, however, her idealized view of Yale will change.

Her relationship with Professor Spang in the Department of Social Demography and Intelligence (a fancy name for eugenics) especially disheartens, then enrages, and finally inspires Adele to action. Spang studies immigrants, or as he puts it when he first meets Adele/Charles to explain his project: “What this study will address—the meek and diseased, the criminal class . . . They’re immigrants mostly, though not all. They’ve come here because they know they won’t have to do anything for themselves. They’re leeches.”

Spang is not a sympathetic character. Little does he know that Charles is actually Adele and that Charles/Adele comes from a working-class family—for Spang, one of those families of “leeches.” Adele triumphs over Spang, however: She gets the last word and the best word, and in doing so she aids a New Haven immigrant family.

Adele/Charles has other difficulties during this first year, this imagined what if year, but overall she triumphs. President Angell of Yale—the name of Yale’s actual president in the ’30s—calls “Charles” into his office near the end of the book to say, “’In only your first year . . . you’ve shown purposefulness, creative vision, and civic responsibility.’” She/he will return the next fall.

Prasad herself graduated from Yale, but the novel goes far beyond Connecticut local color. The poetry of its prose and the relevance of its 1930s issues to our present moment make this decade old narrative meaningful for our present moment. Even the title, I think, is splendid: On Borrowed Wings could refer to Adele attending as Charles, or a working-class student at a bastion of privilege and power, or more. As Adele put it: “I felt just as I had during the Activities Rally, like the great hand of fate had uprooted me from my humble station and flung me into a wonderland. Yale had to be the only place on earth where people swam in pools, ate with sterling cutlery, clashed swords for sport, and did it all with an air of breezy nonchalance.”

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