Tag Archives: summer 2006

FUN HOME: A Family Tragicomic

Fun Home by Alison BechdelAlison Bechdel
Houghton Mifflin ($19.95)

by Stephen Burt

Don’t expect Yet More Dykes to Watch Out For from this smart, moving, attractively drawn, and decidedly serious memoir in comics form. Alison Bechdel's long-running Dykes strip is witty enough for anyone—the lesbian Doonesbury, if you like—but this first full-length work from the award-winning cartoonist does, and reveals, more than any strip can.

Fun Home follows, simultaneously, Bechdel's youth and the adult life of her father, who returned from Europe to run the family funeral home in rural Pennsylvania (hence the title); became a high school English teacher obsessed with remodeling his Victorian home (hence the pun in the title); carried on covert romances with his male students; and got hit and killed by a truck, perhaps a suicide, weeks after the college-aged Bechdel told him she was gay. The matter suggests Howard Cruse's Stuck Rubber Baby (Bechdel acknowledge Cruse's inspiration): the clean lines, blue halftones, and sympathy for children bring the book close to Craig Thompson's Blankets. (If you like any of the three, run, do not walk, toward the other two.)

Bechdel's story stays clear, but visual bravura abounds: a rectangular panel doubles as a meticulously mowed lawn; other panels become the rooms in the all-too-well-kept house, where "my father treated his furniture like children, and his children like furniture." Bechdel knows when to splash and when to compress, how to incorporate visual jokes, and when to leave clean lines well enough alone. Just as impressive is her emotional range: from funny-ha-ha to funny-peculiar, from the weightless hilarity that can accompany sudden, severe grief, to the shock of belated recognition. ("Not only were we inverts, we were inversions of one another," the butch Bechdel realizes about her fey father.) Each of six chapters weaves in repeated comparisons between events in the life of the Bechdel family and moments from canonical modernist texts: Joyce, Proust, Fitzgerald, Wilde. The father's literary sensibilities make these tie-ins not only appropriate but necessary, a way to convey regrets and wishes at which the reserved (or closeted) characters cannot otherwise do more than hint.

If this wonderful book has a flaw, it is perhaps Bechdel's over-reliance on words—both on her own writing, and on the many panels which give close-ups or odd views of handwriting, typed pages, print. Even these panels, though, contribute something to what's not just a first-rate queer memoir, but a fine achievement in the formal repertoire of the graphic novel—solemn, at times, but also a can't-put-it-down read.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006

THE MANY SIDES OF RICK VEITCH: as seen through the prism of:

Can’t Get No (Vertigo/DC Comics, $19.99)

Crypto-Zoo (King Hell Press, $17.95)

The Maximortal (King Hell Press, $17.95)

by Eric Lorberer

As the medium of comics earns a greater place in the American reading imagination, it’s worth recognizing the plethora of remarkable creators who have shaped its contemporary contours. Superstar writers like Neil Gaiman, Harvey Pekar, and Warren Ellis have pushed the boundaries of storytelling, as have artists such as Neal Adams, Frank Quitely, and Alex Ross, to name just a few. And then, god bless ‘em, there are the auteurs who manage to excel at both words and pictures: in the underground a golden road stretches from R. Crumb to Chris Ware; groundbreaking work has been done overseas by people as disparate as Osama Tezuka and Marjane Satrapi; and the mainstream has made a place for mavericks such as Frank Miller and Rick Veitch. Although that last name may not be as familiar to many readers as some of the previous ones, it signals an accomplished and diverse body of work well worth investigating.

Can't Get No

Veitch’s latest graphic novel, in fact, is one of his most challenging, because unlike most comics—indeed, contradicting what many hold to be the very essence of comics—the words and the pictures of Can’t Get No have only the most tenuous of relationships. The image sequence, a tour de force of graphic storytelling recalling the wordless, socially engaged woodcut novels of Lynd Ward and Frans Masereel, presents a dark portrait of man’s fate. Veitch’s hapless hero, Chad Roe (a name rife with connotations), is an executive at “Eter-No-Mark,” a permanent marker company that goes belly up when a graffiti-stricken New York City retaliates with a lawsuit. Chad’s luck goes from bad to worse when two underground cartoonists—they’re working on a comic called “The Adventures of Mi$ter Moneybag$”—draw all over his body with his own indelible product after he’s drowned his sorrows in booze. And from there, things really get weird, not the least because at this point two planes hit the World Trade Center, a sight our tattooed protagonist witnesses from the Jersey side of the Hudson River.

As strange as it gets, however, the narrative remains clear. Veitch excels at presenting information without dialogue or exposition; we learn necessary background from ads, billboards, signs, posters, newspaper clippings, etc., and his palette of facial expressions and gestures is large and varied, communicating worlds. But here’s the kicker: Veitch has placed captions over the picture narrative that offer a measured essay on contemporary life—a poetic, occasionally abstruse, and above all relentless dissection of the world Chad Roe inhabits. “Professional mourners line the shores. Snake charmers plant kisses on the crowning heads of cobras. And dowsers divine hot springs just beneath our feet,” is as emblematic a passage as any. The only time the diatribe is interrupted is when the towers fall on September 11; for this sequence, a similarly toned passage from Renaissance artist Albrecht Durer (whose dark, symbolic engravings feel like a precursor to this work) takes over.

Veitch’s layering of an existential treatise over a rather zany visual narrative is a calculated risk, and is likely to earn the book as many detractors as fans. The text and imagery are parallel more than complimentary discourses, and the reader’s inevitable struggle to make them fit together isn’t always pleasurable or rewarding; on top of that, Veitch’s monologue can wear dangerously thin, and the post-9/11 action of Chad Roe’s journey feels purposely bizarre at times (a scene set in a presidential theme park, in which Chad romps with a Jackie O. impersonator inside John F. Kennedy’s head, comes to mind). But the large ambition of Can’t Get No outweighs its small failures, as the book pushes the boundaries of the word-image art form, and while doing so takes up some profound questions: “What does it mean to be alive?… Why are we suspended in this vacuum / Of empty comfort and false contentment /Denied authentic grace / Or any real experience / of satisfaction?” The whole book has the feel of a fevered hallucination, drawn by a tortured soul who can’t get the classic Rolling Stones song which gives the book its title—itself a stellar evisceration of America’s consumer culture—out of his head.


The chorus from “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” actually appears in a panel from Veitch’s Crypto-Zoo, his third volume of “The Collected Rare Bit Fiends”—comics that relate his own rather developed and intense dreamscape (the series title pays homage to pioneering cartoonist Winsor McCay’s “Dreams of the Rare Bit Fiend”). Here, generally using a simple, six-panel grid, Veitch marries the clarity of graphic storytelling to the nonlinear, heavily iconic narratives of the oneiric mindset—a winning combination, since the grammar of comics is uniquely suited to the recounting of dreams. It’s a better medium than just words, just images, or even the word-image art form of film, because comics allows for the simultaneous presentation of dialogue, thought, and exposition.


For example, in dreams we often know who someone “really is” despite appearances; here the cast of crazy characters can be efficiently labeled with a pointer arrow (Veitch often seems to interact with “Playmate of the Year”). Likewise, we often inexplicably realize what another person in our dream is thinking or intending, and comics similarly convey such third-person information unobtrusively yet energetically. And of course the controlled flattening of visual imagery in comics lets the “special effects” the unconscious can conjure feel as real as the more realistic elements they counterpoint—which as any dreamer knows is essential to the coherence of the dream and the subsequent memory or telling of it. Finally, the fact that certain people and places (e.g. “Childhood Home”), as well as events and themes, recur in one’s ongoing oneiric record lends a dream diary an eerie narrative stability amidst the symbolism-strewn strangeness, one that a consistently drawn set of comics can enhance.

Crypto Zoo

Veitch deploys all these strengths in Crypto Zoo, and the result is an unusual and intriguing graphic novel. This partly, of course, derives from his particular skills and inclinations as an artist—without question the surrealistic impulses and penchant for nonlinear narrative we’ve found in Can’t Get No find a natural home in dream telling—but the comics here are also well informed by Veitch’s reading in archetypal psychology, which seems to have offered an enabling theoretical background for his thinking about the framework of relating dreams; in the book’s introduction he talks, for example, about deciding how to render the “sacred landscape” in which his dreaming self seems to exist. Whatever the cause, the effect is an art full of sharp and interesting edges—perhaps more fascinating for its formal delight than for the personal mythology it excavates, but fascinating nonetheless. More comics practitioners would do well to experiment with converting their dream diaries into full-blown comics.




If the above examples make it sound like Veitch is strictly a psychedelic wanderer or constraint-based formalist, it’s worth pointing out that he works quite often in mainstream comics, whether directly (he’s provided art and/or scripts for existing corporate-owned characters from Aquaman to Swamp Thing) or in spirit, as is the case with a substantial portion of his independent output. Veitch has penned three full-length graphic novels—The OneBratpack, and The Maximortal—that attempt to deconstruct the superhero archetype. This output, though perhaps not as well known as key books by Frank Miller, Grant Morrison, and Alan Moore, is nevertheless contoured with penetrating ideas about the superhero, and deserves to be regarded in the same study.

Take The Maximortal, which like Crypto Zoo is published by Veitch’s own King Hell Press. A Nietzschean fable about the dark societal impetus of the Superman (here named “True-Man”), the book deftly weaves together the splitting of the atom, the early history of superhero comics, and a vision of what would have happened if a super-powered being actually appeared on this earth. In the second of those threads, it plumbs territory similar to Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (though it was published, in serial form, first), exploring the creation of a fantastic hero by Jewish teenagers and how the corporation that made millions off the property took them to the cleaners. Yet it’s the final narrative thread that is most vicious: rather than beginning life as a human with the kindly old Kents, this super baby from a strange land unleashes a violence that becomes harnessed by the military; whether or not that’s the best choice in an impossible situation is part of Veitch’s probing, glaring look at our country’s most innate values.

Unlike Can’t Get No and Crypto Zoo, The Maximortal showcases Veitch’s ability to pastiche recognizable tropes, just as his Greyshirt: Indigo Sunset engages pulp literature or Swamp Thing transforms horror conventions (which are not entirely absent from The Maximortal: at one point the super baby goes on a spree decapitating the townspeople and throws their heads in a silo, saying “I’m workin’. Doin’ my farmin’.”). Veitch’s writing and art may not have the formal elegance and postmodern savvy of his sometime collaborator Alan Moore’s, but his rougher, edgier style generally serves his story—this is an urgent warning communicated in thick yet kinetic strokes, as if by the love child of R. Crumb and Jack Kirby. Veitch’s pacing of the complex story is masterful (with one caveat: I would have liked the occasional pause of chapter breaks, conventionally offered through blank pages or the issues’ original covers, rather than having the story rush headlong from one scene to the next), and his panel composition is nicely conceived, engaging and variable without being flashy or overwrought. There are plenty of grace notes in the language, too: one interlude imagines Sherlock Holmes playing a role in the proceedings, and is pitch-perfectly narrated by Watson; another, about the actor who played True-Man on the silver screen, is told from the point of view of fellow actor David Niven.

Whether one reads The MaximortalCrypto ZooCan’t Get No, or any of Rick Veitch’s other noteworthy works, one hears and sees the hallmarks of his style on every page, the personal stake he has placed in setting pen to paper. If some of his books seem extreme, cynical, or difficult, well, they are. But they are also shaded by a fervent belief that the medium of comics can and should grapple with such states. In the end, this creator seems to have eschewed a single voice in favor of chasing down as many ideas as possible through his comics—and in this, his comics smartly reflect more about the absurd complexities of life than most.

Click here to purchase Can't Get No at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Click here to purchase Crypto Zoo at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Click here to purchase Maximortal at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006


PP/FFedited by Peter Conners
Starcherone Books ($20)

by Nava Renek

In our age of test marketing and referential storylines, it’s sometimes hard to remember that writing is a creative act that can produce material as original and multifaceted as any other art form. PP/FF, an anthology edited by Peter Conners, serves up an exciting collection of unusual writings, not to be classified by structure or content, except that most pieces are short (one or two pages) and achieve the immediacy of storytelling.

In his introduction, Conners explains that PP/FF refers to the genres of “prose poetry” and “flash fiction”— classifications he doesn’t want us to use. “PP/FF is meant as a label that locates the territory of prose poetry and flash fiction by symbol rather than by language prejudiced by old genre baggage,” writes Conners—although such a defense actually makes the reader overly conscious of genre, when in reality, great writing supersedes genre. Fortunately, great writing is what this anthology contains.

Most of the pieces in this collection, whose contributors include Kenneth Bernard, Lydia Davis, Brian Evenson, and Eleni Sikelianos, among many others, force the reader to make connections, intuit what another believes, and let stories lie undissected. To achieve poignancy in so short a space, even words become characters that leave impressions both recognizable and undefined, like a breeze or a whisper.

What immediately becomes apparent is that so many of life’s experiences can be expressed in so few words and in so many innovative ways. “Prairie Shapes (A Flash Novel)” by Daryl Scroggins is a delicate tale spanning three generations told in 20 short segments. In “The Lightbulb,” Martha Ronk weaves language and storytelling together to create a tableau that reveals her characters, many years later, still processing the painful breakup of two marriages. Kim Addonizio’s characters in “But” and “Testimony” are injected with human frailty and enormous disappointment and wallow in the raunchy inconsistencies of life that are rarely portrayed in mainstream literature.

Humanity and humor are not sacrificed for brevity. Some of the stories are incredibly funny, ironic, and timely, as in Kent Johnson’s “Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz or: ‘Get the Hood Back On’”—comprised entirely of a series of pen pal letters from twisted American soldiers to their Arab prisoners. The letters begin casually—“What’s up, Ramal,” “Hi there, Hazaj”—but after revealing the banality of each letter writer’s background and the extreme measures of torture he/she wishes to inflict on the captive, the missives sign off with closings like, “By the time you get to MI, you’ll be softened up, and you’ll tell us where the terrorists are.” Disturbing in the utmost, Johnson’s piece deftly speculates on how events such as the Abu Ghraib prison scandal could have arisen.

Nearly every selection in this anthology seeks to respond to a timely question, reveal a painful truth, or depict a collective memory. Hopefully its cryptic title will not detract readers from seeking out its many wonders.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006


Whole Milk by Jim GoarJim Goar
Effing Press ($6)

by Scott Glassman

Jim Goar’s Whole Milk proves that Grade A, vitamin-rich poetry doesn’t need to come in a fancy package to be enjoyable—and honestly, who doesn’t prefer the simplicity of a half-pint carton over those plastic, color-splashed, non-biodegradable Chug bottles? This plainspoken surrealist fairy tale could be a lesson in matter-of-fact nightmares, replacing Mother Goose with a bird flushed from spending too much time at the bar. Part dark Western, part Lemony Snicket, it’s the kind of story Russell Edson would tell his children before bed and has plenty of stark, black-and-white drawings by Josh Rios to make the experience authentically disturbing.

Goar echoes Edson’s vintage id-twisting logic as he populates his Texas-Iowa-Disneyland with a menagerie of trespassers, including a genitalia-nesting bird, an elephant who lives under his house, a pianist with an itchy trigger finger, and a horse that is more Che Guevera than Mr. Ed. His clause-free declarative sentences are a perfect match for the edgy grade-school surrealism which guides us into emotional revelation:

I’ve forgotten how to serve a cloud and ask the bird. It flies away. Worthless drunk. The cloud begins to burn. I begin to panic. I try to remove it. It falls through my spatula and into the fire. I feel I’ve committed a great sin.

The motion is distinctly downward. As we float like tumbleweed across sections titled for their anthropomorphic characters, one gets that sinking kind of feeling. We descend further into the fear-fraught, lust-ridden, fight-or-flight impulses of Goar’s psyche—or possibly ours. The recurrence of falling autumn leaves and animals unable to fit within human spaces and situations adds to the work’s Freudian resonance. The outcome is one of wreckage, legal trouble, and personal upheaval, and lacks any satisfying answers. Or at least, it wisely sacrifices them for uncomfortable, funny moments:

When I learn that Dumbo is showing again I know there will be problems. I warn the elephant. It pays no heed and sees the flick. Two days later it builds a nest. The neighbors complain. I bake them cookies.

His factual style allows Goar a nervous distance between himself and his subject matter, as though he were an observer to his own dream. In a way, the book is like a controlled case of delirium tremens, or a slightly longer version of the boss-poisoning sequence in the film Nine to Five, where Lily Tomlin becomes Snow White and is surrounded by her “helpful” little animated friends. We wonder, just how close is Goar’s speaker to the red-faced bird, the squatter elephant, and martyr of a horse? Are they his saviors, or the self-imposed banes of his existence?

Symbolic ambiguity and metaphors for transition abound, but they crop up in an absurdly entertaining fashion. Goar’s world (thankfully) has broken its agreement with reality, but still, we want things to turn out all right. We want Cinderella to get to the ball. He keeps us outside looking in the whole way, and the last act of Whole Milk is certainly a less-than-neat, smoke-filled denouement. This could have easily been a longer dance through a house of mirrors—but then again, we wouldn’t be able to slip it into our shirt pockets and secede from ourselves on the long train ride home.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006


Saint Ghetto of the Loans, Grimoire by Gabriel PomerandGabriel Pomerand
translated by Michael Kasper and Bhamati Viswanathan
Ugly Duckling Presse ($14)

by Geoffrey Cruickshank-Hagenbuckle

I’d like to be able to reflect on each and every word.

I’d like not only to give each one a subterranean meaning, but also to break its jaw and thus transform the face it intends to possess forever.
—Gabriel Pomerand

Lettrism, perhaps the single most obscure avant-garde art movement in all history, was acclaimed by contemporaries as illustrious as Boris Vian and Guy Debord, and since its inception in Paris in 1945 has proved a dark precursor to Concrete and Language poetries, embracing also phonetic performance, symphony, and film. Published in only a grievously limited edition in Paris in 1950, Saint Ghetto des Prets, Grimoire is a book of text and parallel “metagraphics” rigorously elaborated by Gabriel Pomerand, whose extremist Art—until now, utterly neglected—Lettrism’s founder Isidore Isou claimed would immortalize the neighborhood of Saint Germain des Prés in a manner unmatched even by its habitués, the existentialists.

A chronicle, in argot, of an alley cat or night owl out on the prowl, Saint Ghetto of the Loans is as street-legal and ready to roar as Francois Villon’s Grand Testament. Pomerand himself was sued for defamation, jailed for brawling, and arrested for public indecency. Among its in-crowd of outsiders, illuminati like Sartre, Camus, and Cocteau also scintillate briefly then disappear.

While Pomerand refers to the Lettrists as “the new Egyptians,” calling his rebus-like picture-scripts “hieroglyphics,” they revivify too James Joyce’s then more recent neologism “verbicovisual” from Finnegans Wake. For example, laid out like hex signs or Chinese Checkers: musical scales with the note “la” flanking a death’s head and scythe, footprints, then one die, plus exact, yet incomprehensibly idiosyncratic incunabula, enact what Pomerand calls in his manifesto-like introduction “Geometric priestliness, or the dream of a clear and obscure style.” Once decrypted, these figures afford us, in French, “la mort par des années.”

Fortunately for the uninitiated, Pomerand’s often otherwise unyielding esoteric ciphers are interpreted here in both French and English. Still, despite his having conducted extensive iconographic research at the Bibliotheque Nationale, these endearingly whacked pictograms resemble nothing so much as Hugh Downs’ trick box TV puzzle game Concentration, if it had been radicalized by the naïf expressionist stick-figures of postmodernist painter A. R. Penck.

Gabriel Pomerand was born in Paris in 1926. Indispensable to the excesses of its notorious nightclub Tabou, he passed from gnawing poverty beneath the Pont Neuf to the retinue of King Farouk, finally committing suicide in Corsica in 1972. With Vian’s Manual of Saint Germain des Prés and Debord’s filmscript On the Passage of a Few Person’s Through a Rather Brief Unity of Time, both held under the Letterist spell, Saint Ghetto of the Loans completes the portrait of a wildly extravagant underground Parisian scene equal to Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. Readers today owe its dauntless translators, Michael Kasper and Bhamati Viswanathan, an unredeemable debt of thanks for this rarest of book’s republication.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006

nothing fictional but the accuracy or arrangement (she

nothing fictional but the accuracy or arrangement
Sawako Nakayasu

Quale Press ($12)

by Dennis Barone

Sawako Nakayasu’s highly structured yet exploratory volume intrigues its reader from title to final page. Consider the title: how does fiction move through webs of truth and artificiality? We often call our narratives “true stories” and yet that expression rarely seems oxymoronic. How does a person, more particularly a woman, discover location in such a web?

The “she” at the lengthy title’s end is the self omitted or assumed in the text. Lines and/or stanzas begin with a verb followed by a description or an action as if to relocate this self or to recall her from absence to presence again.

The first section of the poem has four stanzas per page for 13 pages. There is much white space in which “she” can wander, the reader can wonder, and both may meet. There is a progression of four one-line stanzas, four two-line, four three-line, four four-line stanzas per page and then the pages work in reverse order, ending on the section’s last with four one-line stanzas.

These conjectures and placements seek the form, the formula that allows an identity to form and be self-reflective within any particular context: [she] “delivers words according to geography.” But the sought for situated-ness seems to be in a state of continual postponement: “witnessing the slightest sagging in what would otherwise be an / ephemeral self, sets her belief right up on it, alongside the usual / books, matches, huddles of dust.”

The second section contains weighty prose blocks interspersed with blank pages as these paragraphs break down into stanzas and reform into blocks again. This 25-page section, the longest, is rich in repetition and variation. Revealed to the reader here is a “she” in relation to her self, to others, and to objects in a shifting landscape, “somewhat off of / her normal expectations.” For example, one page begins: [she] “enters the outside, stumbles across a cello, knees to cello, small / bruises in exchange for time, what she takes home along with this / and that paul.” These passages speak also of the ritualistic aspects of daily life—talking, bathing, and eating—and the contrary desire for sensation in a limitless and random set of possibilities.

The third section of two parts in 19 pages serves as a recapitulation. It has the inverse progression of part one, though now with only three stanzas per page except for the first part’s final page which only has two one-line stanzas. As if incomplete, then, the poem of necessity continues and returns at its end to the prose block and stanza form of the middle section. Throughout this third section, speculations are of broader scope than those previous. Here Nakayasu speaks of change and of last things and leave-taking: [she] “says goodbye to another man, a grandfather, time and again as / if it were the last—a reasonable knowledge, and how many / variations of this—how many parallels.”

In the brief second part of the third section, Nakayasu merges the one into the many and into an expansive whole instead of a determined particular, asking whether this spreads the self too thin. This self, this she continues amidst contradiction because of both desire and need.

The three sections of Sawako Nakayasu’s ingenious and moving poem-as-book form a whole that is sculptural, musical, and profound.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006

I LOVE ARTISTS: New and Selected Poems

Mei-mei Berssenbrugge
University of California Press ($19.95)

by Ben Lerner

If one outlines the shape of an apple with a continuous line one makes an object of the shape, whereas the contour is rather the ideal limit toward which the sides of the apple recede in depth. Not to indicate any shape would be to deprive the objects of their identity.
—Merleau-Ponty, “Cezanne’s Doubt”1

I Love Artists by Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge

Cezanne refused to dissolve the object into atmospheric effects (Impressionism) or to assimilate the phenomenal world to ideal forms (Renaissance naturalism) because neither technique could depict the emergence of form in the process of perception. Instead of giving his apples a single black outline, therefore, Cezanne’s paintings present ‘several outlines in blue. Rebounding among these, one’s glance captures a shape that emerges from them all.’2 By making outline a felt effect of coloration, Cezanne depicts the apple taking form.

For four decadesMei-mei Berssenbrugge has been writing poems that seek to make the process of perception perceptible. “She is neither objectivist nor subjectivist but a poet of the whole consciousness.”3 The horizon, the dusk and dawn, freezes, thaws, fog—these are the tropes of a poetry concerned with how form arises out of (and threatens to return to) indeterminate states, how the complex interplay of subject and object engenders meaning. But what is the linguistic equivalent of forgoing fixed painted outlines for shapes produced by modulating color? How does Berssenbrugge’s poetry dramatize perception itself?

Consider these lines from the early sequence “The Field for Blue Corn”:

As restless matrices in blue sage dissolved

a horntoad ran under a bush. I insisted it was

a baby bird. Then a baby bird and a horntoad

ran out. Now, on a hill I never noticed

between two close ones we’ve climbed, I see

at an altered angle. Some small shift in refraction

has set the whole plain trembling and hostile

Note the juxtaposition of an abstract vocabulary (matrices, refraction) with direct, descriptive speech. ‘Sage’ aside, the first line sounds like an art critic describing an encounter with a Rothko as much as it sounds like a hiker describing the movement of a bush. Because the poem begins with the rhetoric of abstraction, the particulars that follow seem both descriptions of specific objects and descriptions of abstract forms. This combination of abstract and concrete rhetorical registers invites the reader to think beyond local percepts (baby birds and horntoads) to the process of perception. The slippage here is scary (elsewhere it will be a source of pleasure). The speaker misperceives a small thing—horntoad—and fails to perceive a large thing—a hill—and a landscape that deceives her at both the micro and macro level is experienced as hostile. She had insisted; she had been sure. The appearance of an actual baby bird only increases the disorientation; has her misperception materialized? Finally, ‘plain’ suggests ‘plane’—as if the world were dissolving into abstraction as a result of her inability to ground it with reliable observations. Subtle, sudden movements between the concrete and the abstract, between simple descriptive and formal vocabularies, define much of Berssenbrugge’s work. Think of how Cezanne’s landscapes are at once views of a particular countryside and arrangements of interchangeable cylinders, spheres, and cones.

Anyone familiar with Berssenbrugge’s writing can date the poem quoted above, because, beginning with Empathy (1989), her line changes dramatically, lengthening into one of the strangest, most powerful units of composition in contemporary American poetry. The radical extension of Berssenbrugge’s line heightens the reader’s awareness of time and space by making the reader aware that time and space are running out: the far right margin is a precipice. Perhaps this is why Barbara Guest has described Berssenbrugge’s line as “perilous.” Additionally, because Berssenbrugge often works with a kind of propositional syntax (‘be’ is probably the most common verb in the book), her long lines provide the action—a sense of movement, growth, fluctuation—that ‘state of being verbs’ lack:

You would know everything you see in the first place, but the terms of your recognition grow

increasingly intimate and ecological, like the light of the gold of jewelry on you, which

while it is still light, is still becoming abstract.

Here and elsewhere, Berssenbrugge plays with the supposed stillness of ‘is.’ The copula’s assertion of timeless identity is in productive tension with the temporal and spatial distension of the lines. Instead of just presenting conclusions, they measure the unfolding, the manifolding, of thought in time.

I want to clarify a specific peril of Berssenbrugge’s line. Because of its unusual reach, Berssenbrugge’s line breaks and the enforced break of the margin compete. I think this struggle can be read as yet another way the subjective (the willed) and the objective (the world) interact in her poems, a reading a recent development in Berssenbrugge’s writing supports. With the exception of “Fog,” poems published before Nest follow the standard procedure of indenting that part of Berssenbrugge’s line ‘widowed’ by the right margin, as in this example (presented as an image to preserve lineation) from “The Doll” :

Indents indicate that the break is a function of the dimensions of the published page, not an authorial decision. Interestingly, Nest and the new poems in I Love Artists have no indented carryovers. Is the following one line of verse or two?

I’m interested in why Berssenbrugge stops indenting what at first appear to be widows. Indented overruns ask the reader to correct for the margin in her mind—to mentally reconnect the indented language with the preceding line and pretend the unintended break never occurred. I wonder if Berssenbrugge has abandoned this technique because, as a poet deeply attuned to the experience of reading, she cannot countenance replacing the temporal and visual experience of a line break with a notation that asks us to correct it retroactively. If you’re serious about the poem as a visual object, the indented overrun is the equivalent of cropping a Kline and noting its intended dimensions on a nearby placard. And how are we to read the line quoted above? Is the break deliberate, how it makes ‘bird’ hover for an instant before we arrive at ‘hovering?’ Or is it a widow without the false consolation of indention? To refuse to indent is to insist on the integrity of the poem as a spatiotemporal event while formally staging the inextricability of subject and object, one of Berssenbrugge’s chief concerns. When are breaks the work of a subject? When are they necessitated by the objective limitations of the page? The undecidability is the point. Neither a decasyllabic line, nor a line of prose, could register this tension.

I have tried to indicate briefly a few of the ways Berssenbrugge allows us to perceive the process of perception: by subtly interleaving abstract and concrete language and observation, by foregrounding the line as a temporal and spatial phenomenon and, in the latter poetry, by complicating the distinction between subjective and objective line breaks. Perhaps no other writer so ably captures, often by showing the impossibility of capturing, the experience of an embodied subject encountering the ‘perceptual solicitations’ of the object world.4 It’s an insistently philosophical project, but at no point is it cold. Its ultimate concern is the possibility of human connection, of identifying with or as an other, of momentarily overcoming the self, of testing the limits of our limits. She explores mothering, belonging, mourning, loving, etc., but instead of reducing these conditions to mere descriptions, her poems take us on journeys of perception that enable us to experience their common underlying structure.

1 Sense and Non-Sense. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964.

2 Ibid, pp.14-15

3 Jackson Maclow, endorsing Empathy.

4 Hubert Dreyfus and Patricia Dreyfus on Merleau-Ponty. Sense and Non-sense, p. xii

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006


Splay Anthem by Nathaniel MackeyNathaniel Mackey
New Directions (15.95)

by Grant Jenkins

In Nathaniel Mackey’s latest book of poems, Splay Anthem, we see a poet at the height of his powers. Gathering work published over the past decade in journals as various as Calalloo and Conjunctions, Splay Anthem is Mackey’s first book of poems since 1998’s Whatsaid Serif and consists exclusively of poems from two continuing series, “Mu” and “The Song of the Andoumboulou.” The book contains “Mu” parts 15-40 and “Andoumbolou” 40-60, with each poem counting as one in the other series though not named as such. For instance, “Andoumboulou: 40” is also the nineteenth part of “Mu” though the former is not explicitly titled as a “Mu” poem. Begun back in the 1970s, these two open-ended series are Mackey’s greatest achievement to date and make this book essential to anyone interested in the African, American, and African-American future of the avant-garde.

Perhaps one of the most interesting elements of the book is the preface, a “paratext” in Susan Vanderbourg’s sense of the word, that refines and redefines the parameters and purposes of the two twin and incestuously intertwined series. Invoking jazz legend Don Cherry and the funeral rites of Africa’s Dogon tribes, Mackey claims that the most apparent commonality between the poems is music. On the one side, you have the Dogon song, “a long, laconic voice—gravelly, raspy, reluctant—recounting the creation of the world and the advent of human life. Other voices likewise reticent, dry, join in, eventually build into song, a scratchy, low-key chorus.” On the other hand, “Mu” echoes Cherry’s trumpet and Trane’s sax, which in the words of Amiri Baraka, Mackey tells us, sounds like “a grown man learning to speak.” Both descriptions fit one series as well as the other.

Besides music, the poems, according to Mackey, share an interest in myth, migration, and the failure and process of human life. The Andoumboulou, “a failed, earlier form of human life” in Dogon cosmology, emblematize for Mackey humanity as a “work-in-progress.” But in these series Mackey is not content merely to reflect, in some sort of vulgar realism, that failure. “It is also a way of challenging reality,” he writes, “a sense in which to dream is not to dream but to replace waking with realization, an ongoing process of testing or contesting reality, subjecting it to change or a demand for change.” In addition to the musicians, Mackey claims in the preface Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Edward Dahlberg, and Robert Creeley as the poetry’s literate forbearers, and the Kaluli of Papua New Guinea in addition to the Dogon and American avant-jazz as their cultural ones.

The interpretive nature of this preface challenges us as readers to test its claims for ourselves in our reading of the poems. Like broken shards of a mirror, each piece almost equally reflects each of the above elements. This synechdochic logic can be seen particularly well in the first lines of “Spectral Escort”:

Not exactly a boat or

not only a boat…

Weathervane, boat,

flag rolled into

one, furled spur


fell to us to

unravel… What

we’d risen above

tiptoed up in

back of us. Lipped

hollow, big


gust we roughed


heads with, we

of the andoumboulouous

brush… Bank of


mouth of shadow,

fraught mouth. Deep

song’s bucketmouth,

Rubichi’s caught mouth


dreaming’s ever after

intransigent, ultimacy’s

ruse make more obdurate,


Along with Olson’s idea of myth as muthos, Greek for “myth” and “mouth,” which Mackey mentions, this poem also implies Olson’s poetic imperative to “find out for oneself,” since the boat is also a boat and not just a mythic symbol. We also see Creeley’s short line and Duncan’s use of tabs and spaces to denote both song and gaps in visual page space. But beyond these influences, we hear the echoes of African shores painted by drum brushes and the stutter of jazz lead rhythms. This cross-cultural mélange is what Mackey is best known for.

But like the spectral Andoumboulou themselves, this poetry does not always “work,” and praise be. Within the music and the naming of the poems and their paratext is a current of “more than could be said of it said,” in which the poetry overflows its banks and floods chaotically the plane of the book. Such paradoxical phrases, along with the consistently tortured syntax of both series, unsay anything the poem might say or more-say. Understanding the deconstructive limit of any pronouncement or self-description, Mackey understands that his account of the poem in the preface will too fail, as will any critical account. But the preface, in its paratactic and poetic form, embodies not a singular form of argument but a dual movement, like the sides of a crab, that favors the breakdowns and gaps in language as well as its ordered aspect. We see in the poetry not fear for this phenomenon but an enactment of it, in a splayed anthem. Hence the book is divided into three parts, “Braid,” “Fray,” and “Nub,” the last part providing, perhaps, an alternative to the double-bind of opposition:

Nub, no longer standing,

filled the air, an exact powder, fell


we ran thru it, earth-sway swaddling



If you are reading Mackey for the first time, the humility embodied in this book provides the perfect entry into his work. Start here and work back, crab-like, through the rest of the poems in these influential series and Mackey’s entire corpus.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006


The Cement War by Mark SteenersonMark Steenerson
Steidl ($65)

by Glenn Gordon

“Life’s a bitch, and then you die.” So says the bumper sticker, and there are days in Minneapolis in February that bear it out, the streets in rags of dirty snow, the sun seeming to have lost all interest in ever shining on the Earth again. Spirits cast down, people get sad, and some, for insurance purposes, get SAD. A Nordic form of the blues wipes the slush off its boots on the doormat of your soul and settles in, forcing you to smell its socks. In his book The Cement War, the Minneapolis blues musician, poet, artist, and photographer Mark Steenerson evokes the sloughs of northern despond so convincingly that it takes an effort to haul yourself out of them after closing the book.

The Cement War, handsomely published by Steidl (an adventurous German publisher of photography books, including those by two other Twin Cities photographers of note, Greta Pratt and Alec Soth), is not a book of photographs produced on the template of a conventional monograph, but rather the diary and cri de coeur of an oppressed spirit. Steenerson’s grainy black and white photos are parts of a skein composed also of fragments of his handwritten poetry and visionary drawings. His photographs owe something to the work of his friend and mentor, Robert Frank, his poetry something to Hank Williams and Jack Kerouac, and his drawings something to William Blake, the Reverend Howard Finster, and anyone who’s ever doodled with ballpoints on the canvas covers of school notebooks.

The excruciated premise of The Cement War is that life is a wound. The artist wanders a landscape of spiritual desolation, searching for grace, a glimpse of love, release from an unremitting loneliness that seems to feed on itself the more he fixates on it. The book is the plaint of a man of constant sorrows, the sorrows so compulsively reiterated that the recitation of them through visual and poetic clichés becomes an aesthetic engine of its own, a self-fulfilling mechanism practically guaranteeing that the wound of existence will continue to suppurate. The artist has made a pet of fruitless suffering, and occluded his own vision with a strangely unembarrassed self-pity—but despite the stranglehold of solipsism on his aching heart, some of his photographs take a true, if melancholy, joy in the existence of others. There is one shot in particular, of a woman in a dress running barefoot across a street, that quotes Henri Cartier-Bresson’s great photograph of a man jumping a puddle. She is caught mid-stride in mid-air, and with that is the suggestion that people have it in them to be angels.

Steenerson makes use of an interesting editorial device in the layout of his photographs, which aren’t presented contiguously but interspersed with pages of writing, drawing, and enlarged detail. In the photograph just mentioned above, for instance, he shows the photograph full-frame on the left-hand side of the spread, and then enlarges its salient feature, the woman, on the right-hand side. He asks you first to look, then to look more closely at what grabbed his heart. He employs the device repeatedly throughout the book, sometimes returning to the same image several pages later, and the effect can be quite beautiful. He often does this with photos shot from inside a car; it’s as though he knows he shot initially from too far away and must get closer (and bring us with him) to feel what was there. This means grain the size of gravel, but the graininess itself is expressive of an anguished reach across a gulf that might not otherwise be bridged by a man so alienated from the hope of closeness.

The Cement War is a dark book. Its bleak meditations lie heavily on the spirit. Poring over its pages, I kept thinking of Oscar Wilde’s epigram: “Life is a comedy for those who think; a tragedy for those who feel.” For Wilde, of course, life was both. The Cement War leaves no doubt that it is our fate to pass through a vale of tears. Given that, the risk this artist should take now is to laugh.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006


The Weekend Book by Francis Meynelledited by Francis Meynell
Duckworth/Overlook ($23.50)

by Amanda Nadelberg

There is something both comforting and strange about old things coming back into fashion—comforting because it’s usually nice to see it again, strange because Someone Has Decided It Should Be So. And it happens with everything: fashion and appliances, and it’s always happening with books—and thank the gods because there are so many books worth bringing back into print. One such lovely example is The Week-End Book, a miscellany of anything you might ever like to know.

The publication history of The Week-End Book is more of a narrative than anything revealed within the book itself. An instant success when it first appeared in England in 1924 (it sold out in a mere few days), the book was reprinted and revised continuously up until 1955, at which point it began a fifty-one year nap. As recounted by John Julius Norwich in this edition’s introduction, Francis and Vera Meynell, the founders of the Nonesuch Press, imagined “How wonderful [it would be] if they could pack just one book that would cater for all their needs” while vacationing—and this is how they thought to make the book. During those years, there were 34 printings, and when necessary the editors allowed the book to grow with new information, such that in 1955 it was, and still is today, a good 363 pages of things to know and say in decent conversation.

The loveliest part, and the part that makes this book infectious, is the juxtaposition of all this information. In case you go for a picnic, please remember, “For sandwiches themselves, bread is easier to cut and digest if it is a day old—much nicer if it is new. If rolls are preferred they must be fresh, or they can be crisped by sprinkling them with water and heating them for a few minutes on a baking sheet in a very hot oven.” How nice, then, also to be informed, that “When temperatures above five thousand million degrees arise, stars explode with unprecedented violence—the explosion of one star being equivalent to the simultaneous explosion of some 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 hydrogen bombs. . . . They are called supernovae.” In the chapter on games there are such suggestions as, “Kneel down putting elbows to knees and palms flat on floor. Place pencil at finger-tips. Then clasp hands behind back and pick up pencil with teeth.” In the section on first aid, one will find lessons on how to stop a nose bleed—“When the Nose bleeds do not bow the head over a basin, or you will very soon need another”—and the recommended course of action for when there are Foreign Bodies In the Nose—“To eject a foreign body from the nose stimulate sneezing with pepper or a paper spill.” For emergencies in drinking, there are directions on how to improvise a cup: “A cup of convenient size may be made of a piece of paper 7 to 9 inches square (or smaller with less convenience).” If you find yourself in the country there is good information on animals: “A female pig is called a gilt or hilt or yilt until she has had her first litter (i.e. farrowed); thereafter she is a sow. . . .  A sow suckling her piglets (which arrange themselves neatly in two layers) is a pleasing sight. . . . Sows are in general gentle creatures. They like to be talked to.” Too, there are tips for cooking: “DON’T eat boiled rhubarb leaves. This practice caused a large number of deaths during the war.” And that these editors found an expert to write the musical scores of more than fifteen birds’ songs and calls, including those of the chiff-chaff, the spotted flycatcher and the willow warbler, is not to be overlooked. What, you wonder, might you call birds in their communities? Perhaps “A murmuration of starlings,” “A covert of coots” or “A dopping of sheldrakes.” So glad you asked.

This plethora of factoids distances itself from other books, such as the recent and ever popular Schott’s Original Miscellany, because of the gorgeous prose that disguises the lists and potential frivolity of The Week-End Book. In this way, the book demands to be read, not merely quoted at uncomfortable social gatherings. Its little entries allow for quick bursts of learning, similar to the practice of reading poems as opposed to stories. And all the more fitting because this book is freckled with poetry: at the beginning of each section, and with several sections of its own—Great Poems, Late Poems, Hate Poems, State Poems, and The Zoo. In adhering to the book’s perfect spirit, the poems included are not the most popular poems of Sir Walter Scott, John Donne, and Robert Browning, but that only makes the reader more appreciative. I could go on and on—there is much here to be enamored of, like the checkerboard tucked into the front cover. Did I mention there’s a checkerboard? If you are a dullard enough not to enjoy anything in this necessary tome, then at the very least get it for that. (Checkers not included.)

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006