Tag Archives: summer 2007

WAY MORE WEST: New & Selected Poems


Edward Dorn
Penguin Poets ($20)

by Mark Terrill

With the publication of Edward Dorn’s Way More West, it’s now possible within the context of a single volume to gauge the wide range and scope of the career of one of the most significant and controversial poets included under the rubric of the New American Poetry. Constantly ahead of his time, much of Dorn’s work in Way More Westseems more timely and appropriate now than when it was originally written. And although closely affiliated with the postmodernism partially ushered in by his teacher at Black Mountain College, Charles Olson, Dorn’s connection and allegiance to the American West, along with his blue collar roots, made him something of a throwback, a consummate American poet with the sort of self-made, autodidactic pedigree most MFA students could only dream of. But Dorn was also an iconoclast and a rattler of cages, unafraid to mix politics with poetry, which made him suspect to many of his peers, and the subject of much criticism, including a recent harsh blog-lashing from Ron Silliman.

Edited by Michael Rothenberg and with an introduction by Dale Smith, Way More West contains generous selections from Dorn’s entire career—published and unpublished—including the completeRecollections of Gran Apachería, as well as the first book of Gunslinger, the comic-epic masterpiece first published by Black Sparrow Press in 1968 that established Dorn’s reputation as a serious contender. From the early Frost-like elegiac poems such as “The Rick of Green Wood,” originally included in Don Allen’sThe New American Poetry, all the way up to the thoroughly postmodern Languedoc Variorum: A Defense of Heresy and Heretics, and the final, harrowing Chemo Sábe, written literally on Dorn’s deathbed in the haze of chemotherapy, we see the constant unfolding of a poetry of total engagement—be it with the places and persona of the American West, his ongoing criticism of “The Age of Affluence” and its corrupt politics, or simply the enlightening and tempering solace experienced in observing a rose from the window of his hospital room just prior to his death from pancreatic cancer in 1999 at the age of 70.

The jagged trajectory of Dorn’s peripatetic life (first as an itinerant worker in the American West, later as a teacher across America and Europe) is mirrored in the continuous stylistic metamorphoses of his writing, which become all the more apparent when followed chronologically in this collection. Dorn has been taken to task by some critics for allegedly abandoning the lyrical/poetical for the satirical/political, which became the focal point of much of his post-Gunslinger work, culminating in collections of terse epigrammatic pieces such as Hello, La JollaYellow Lola and Abhorrences, and addressed again inLanguedoc Variorum, where he took on the Cathars, the Reformation, Columbus, Stalin, the Balkan war, AIDS, McDonald’s, and digital communication. But seen in the context of his entire oeuvre, Dorn’s concerns here merely confirm the workings of his acutely intelligent and critical mind, as well as his disregard for convention, or what would eventually become known as “political correctness.” He was also obviously still cleaving to what he learned at Black Mountain by way of Robert Creeley and Charles Olson—that “Form is never more than an extension of content.” Despite the many variances in approach to his subject matter, Dorn was ultimately a poet of consistence and integrity; he wrote about what moved him, not about what he thought might move others. And therein lays Dorn’s legacy, which could well serve as an aesthetic template for all future poets.

Contrary to what Ron Silliman or August Kleinzahler have said in their reviews of Way More West—that Dorn’s politics undermined or undercut his later poetry—seen as a part of the greater whole, these later poems further expand the Dorn oeuvre into something much larger than other poets of his generation were ever able to achieve. As Smith says in his introduction, “no poet of the postwar era addressed the conflicting public interests of American democracy with the same rhetorical force as Edward Dorn. Whether he wrote with passionate lyricism or scathing satire, he always argued for the principles of locality against the self-interests often embedded in social and political abstractions.” Despite the obvious alliances and associations, Dorn was a no-school, coterie-eschewing lone wolf whose wily grace and critical intelligence still shine today, continuing to polarize and galvanize from beyond the grave.

Dorn engaged in some substance abuse in later years, along with some questionable and alienating behavior, but he remained a true poet to the very end. That he was both fully engaged and coherent up until the end is made painfully evident in “The Garden of the White Rose,” the final poem in Way More West and apparently one of the last poems he wrote:

Lord, your mercy is stretched so thin
to accommodate the trembling earth—
How can I solicit even
a particle of it
for the relief of my singularity
the single White Rose
across the garden will
return next year
identical to your faith—
the White Rose, whose
house is light against the
threatening darkness.

Way More West is the latest in the Penguin Poets series of one-volume collections of postwar American poets from the western part of the country (previous volumes, all edited by Michael Rothenberg, include books by Philip Whalen, Joanne Kyger and David Meltzer). Considering how much of Dorn’s work is out of print and unavailable, the book is a terrific boon to all those interested in becoming familiar—or reconnecting—with a unique, contentious, and very American poet.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007

THE WIFE OF THE LEFT HAND

Click here to buy this book from Amazon.comNancy Kuhl
Shearsman Books ($15)

by James Berger

Nancy Kuhl’s first full length book of poems tells, or suggests, stories of women’s lives wildly disparate in action, but connected in feeling: of the adolescent Salome; of Amelia Earhart; of St. Catherine; and of the primary character, a composite, unnamed woman whose title is that of the book. This Wife is privileged, but constricted. Her life, like those of the other characters, is the stage of a continual struggle between desire and boundaries.

The central question that animates these beautifully crafted poems, however, is form. The most overt theme of the poems is the constriction of social forms and conventions, how desire is repressed and re-channeled into forms that are detached yet expressive. The Wife, Salome, Amelia Earhart, and St. Catherine all participate in these ritual entrapments and unleashings. Form constricts, but is all that separates one from a terrifying chaos of violence and sexuality. So there is a need for form and a need to escape it. Apparently, the woman is caught between the equally unappealing alternatives of chaos or slavery. Male desire and power are dangerous, but also a kind of relief in that they supply the existing forms. It’s really one’s own desire, as a woman, that is more dangerous. But then, once the dangerous desire inhabits the form, the form is redrawn. Creation means to extract, through the chaos of violence and desire and through repression, the form within the form.

Social form in the poems can be a figure for poetic form. The same repressive and creative possibilities are at stake. This sense of the book as allegory is strengthened by the book’s “decor,” that is, the choice to locate the principal social repressions in an imagined 1950s suburban world (which then is replicated and varied in the other sites of repression and rebellion). Kuhl has retrieved this housewife from parody and nostalgia and restored her to an archaic terror and dignity. The ‘50s, of course, is a moment just prior to contemporary; this is not H.D. with her Greeks or Pound’s China. But, still, it is past and has already taken on a mythological aura. Such a life(style) still exists, I suppose, in Greenwich Connecticut and elsewhere, but one can’t write of girls around the pool in tennis dresses with tall drinks, etc., or such rigid dinner parties and think to invoke something contemporary. The poems inhabit another place, and so their dramas of desire and repression, chaos and form can be displayed without the distractions of contemporary reference or subjective, personal imperatives.

Thus, this collection can be purely about the violence of desire and the attractions, beauties, and horrors of form: about the way, for instance, that “relentless charm leaves the housewives translucent” or that “a bride can fit her whole breath inside a crystal vase.” Kuhl has constructed a world that’s utterly recognizable, whose conventions are understood—a world that is not one of myth, yet carries mythical implications. The result is a perfectly balanced unity of what we know and what we think we remember.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007

BROKEN WORLD

Click here to buy this book from Amazon.comJoseph Lease
Coffee House Press ($15)

by Noah Eli Gordon

There is in the Jewish tradition a daily prayer called the Sh’ma, which begins: Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Ehad. Although the translation can vary, it is roughly equivalent to: Hear, O Israel! The Lord, our God. The Lord is One. The prayer is a testament to the belief in a single God, but it is also a testament to the importance of an acoustical engagement with the world, to the power of the speech act. It is the duty of the Jew to cry out to the lord. The existential angst of Rilke’s famous opening to the Duino Elegies—“If I cried out, who among the angelic orders would hear me?”—seems to be at odds with much of what is central to the Jewish faith. What if these two positions, which is to say that of the duty of speech and of the doubt of its reception, were to be put into proximity? What would a prayer of uncertainty accomplish? Joseph Lease enacts such a question in Broken World, his long-awaited third collections of poems. Here, one finds the sometimes discordant clanging of Judaism, community, love, AIDS, and late capitalism transformed into an incantatory fugue-like poetry, an extended elegy for wholeness, and yet one that understands the necessity of our having abandoned grand narratives.

Halfway into the book, Lease ends the poem “I’ll Fly Away” with the following: “my friend is saying prayers / and saying prayers, there’s nothing else—.” This nothing is that of Stevens, as earlier in the poem, and indeed in an earlier poem in the book, one is given echoes and samplings from “The Snow Man” (“one must have a mind of / summer, of water, of warm rain—his mind is winter, / copper, elegy, green silk, brown bread, dust—”). Lease’s book is built on this sort of system of allusion and recontextualization: even the title of this poem references a famous hymn. In the first section of the poem immediately following “I’ll Fly Away,” one is given the actual prayer, both in its title, “Prayer, Broken Off,” and in the body of the poem:

1

a stain of faded
storm light in my hand—

If I cried out,
Who among the angelic orders would
Slap my face, who would steal my
Lunch money, knock me
Down—sailboats moored
In harbor, trees on the long
Breakwater, orange shimmer
Of late July evening—I can’t stop
Wanting the voice that will come—

Here, Rilke’s elegy is beaten up on the playground, interrupted by a sudden apprehension of worldly images, and further removed from the meditative space of prayer by an admission of personal need. The medieval ethicist and Kabbalist, Eleazer of Worms, discussing the importance of mental concentration during prayer, writes, “Before you utter a single word of prayer, think of its meaning…If a worldly thought occurs to you while at prayer, fall silent and wait until you’ve brought your mind back into a state of awe toward the Creator.” Thus, Lease’s prayer, broken by its very worldly concerns, while still containing both duty and doubt, is a mark of the desire for answers and of the uncertainty of where to aim such a desire. With the phrase, “I can’t stop / Wanting the voice that will come,” Lease echoes a self-reflexive moment in Theodore Roethke’s sequence The Lost Son, where Roethke attempts to manifest a modicum of reassurance, while also highlighting the presence of his own doubt: “A lively understandable spirit / Once entertained you. / It will come again. / Be still. / Wait.”

Broken World, in fact, has something in common with The Lost Son. Just as Roethke’s sequence developed a system of recurring symbols, so Lease’s book develops a set of recurring images, which appear and reappear in altered forms, giving to the book a sense of progression. Although this is also true of works such as Lyn Hejinian's My Life or Martha Ronk’s In a landscape of having to repeat, Lease’s superb attention to musical pacing and rhythmic syntax from poem to poem brings to these recurrences something slightly askew from the above-mentioned books. Like a dream suddenly remembered midday and momentarily mistaken for a memory from one’s waking life, one feels, upon encountering these reworked images, a ghostly, tentative familiarity, one that is as uncanny as it is comforting.

The images that Lease creates are always uncluttered by adjectives and direct. His particular use of Shklovskian defamiliarization is one where the context itself allows for the shock of a more fully engaged perception; this pushes one to ask why particular images appear where they do, and to wonder not how they’re changed by their context, but how their presence alters the concern of the poem in which they’re housed. When Lease writes, “there are no symbols, no open roses hanging / down to the grass,” all that one sees are these very Mallarmean missing roses, yet when given a litany of such direct images in quick succession, a technique common here, each one takes on a heightened significance (“Outside the syllables, outside the grant proposal, I’m a / cracking song, a blighted meadow— // A city street, a baseball bat, a fashion spread, a vodka rocks—”).

The “I” of Lease’s work, insistent on locating and dislocating itself within a cultural and political milieu of “the Odyssey, warehouses, snow, / power lines,” is Whitmanesque in its inclusiveness and messianic in its desire for what Benjamin, in writing on the Surrealists, termed the “radical concept of freedom.” In fact, the majority of the book is given over to a serial poem consisting of 26 sections, each of which carries the title “Free Again.” Obviously corresponding to the amount of letters present in the English alphabet, this specific number is important as well in Kabbalist terms, as it represents the numerical value of the Tetragrammaton, the four Hebrew letters that form the name of God. Lease’s “I” is also attuned to the critiques of dialectical materialism, as is evident in the following section of “Free Again”:

The I feels grateful for its bagel, grateful for its espresso—
now try it this way: the I lives in an empire—community
of headlines, community of video loops—all its friends
feel terrible—“guilt is the new terrorism—”

the Dostoevsky Network: all writhing,
all the time—

Lease shares with Benjamin the ability to employ both the tenants of Marxism and those of the Jewish Messianic tradition. These two seemingly incommensurate positions famously came together in Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” where the notion of religious redemption serves as a model for that of revolutionary change. There is in Broken World a consistent tension between the poet’s role as creator and as critic: “I’m just trying to make a night or a cathedral or a pine—why don’t / people talk more about corporations and power—I’m just trying to / make a midsummer night—” That this tension is evoked and sustained via a musical poetry makes for a book as enjoyable for the speed with which one might move through it as it is for the deep, underlying intelligence that rewards multiple readings and the mulling over of its many pleasures.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007

SIGHTINGS: SELECTED WORKS

Click here to buy this book from Amazon.comShin Yu Pai
1913 Press ($16)

by Lucas Klein

Shin Yu Pai writes a poetry of sensory overload. Beneath a surface tension of typography and ekphrasis, Sightings: Selected Works presents poems about commoditization, communication, sexism, and sex. At times her language skims with channel-surfing quickness, but somehow her postmodernism conveys depth, too, where meanings might battle against each other in any three-word phrase: what does “wage wars over” mean in the poem “It’s All White Meat"?

usda approved
standards
of living
wage wars over

nutritional feed

The grammar is reminiscent of how some Americans have described classical Chinese poetry, with parts of speech in an unsteady juggle. Pai is also an Asian-American poet who has chosen to investigate what Asian means on a cultural, not only racial, level: her first book was a translation of Chinese poetry; she recently edited a selection of Taiwanese poetry for the online journal Fascicle; and the first section ofSightings looks at Japanese Love Hotels. “Hello Kitty” shows both how intimate and fierce her poetry can be, writing about the not so specifically Japanese intersection of sex and capital, an ethos of prostitution no one can escape:

brand identification
begins at an early age

with hairpins
& rubbers

then cell phones &
vibrators

[…]

in the altered graphic

a cherry leaf & stem replaces

pussy’s red bow

as she nurses a digit

round-faced cat

without a mouth

The structure of Sightings moves from sex to sexism—particularly heterosexism—in the transition to “Unnecessary Roughness,” the second section of the book. Her play of cultural referents continues, moving from Belle & Sebastian (a poem titled “Stars of Track and Field”) to Nirvana (“Smells Like Teen Spirit”), but the real clash is the confrontation between different kinds of physicality in high school sports. “Wrestlemania,” a poem about Greco-Roman scoring, attests:

you’ve got him
off his feet

flat on
his face but

you want him
flat on

his back

If “Unnecessary Roughness” focuses on the kinds of contact between bodies, the following section, “Concave is the Opposite of Convex (or lines from a Chinese-English phrase book),” looks again at the meaning of Asian-America from a sociolinguistic perspective, with Pai writing the ways in which language keeps people apart instead of bringing us together. Written in play format, no one achieves communication: Scene 1 begins with a short soliloquy from Sam Wong, reciting variations on English phrases, when Wells Fargo and Sam’s assistant enter “to conduct business transaction”:

Wells Fargo: The house was set on fire by an incendiary.
Sam Wong: I will rent the house if you include the water.
Sam’s Assistant: I will attach his furniture if you indemnify me.
Sam Wong: Please tell me what is the name of my landlord?

Problems of commerce may be the unifying factor of all the poems Pai has collected in Sightings; the final section, “Nutritional Feed,” continues in this vein, ingesting the ways in which the foods we consume are inextricable from a larger, consumptive, consumerism. The typography defies quotation, but in poems such as “It Does a Body Good” she reminds readers of lactose intolerance and how the food pyramid was constructed by the agriculture industry, not the nutrition experts. Likewise, “Sonagram” takes the form of standard Nutrition Information labels, rearranging “Packaged Nutritional Facts”: “To Avoid / Obstruction // The Taste / of Rawness · Weighed // Against Feathers.”

For a poet barely over thirty, publishing a Selected Works so early in her career may seem like an overly audacious move. Then again, Sightings is Shin Yu Pai’s fifth publication, and she has two more on the way. Already she seems nearly omnipresent, and this volume serves both to increase her stature and stabilize her course. When a poet’s reach already includes translation, commerce, communication, sex, and visual anthropology, such a publication seems a gracious necessity: Sightings assures us that Shin Yu Pai has been seen.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007

RADISH KING

The Radish King by Rebecca LoudonRebecca Loudon
Ravenna Press ($13.95)

by Rebecca Weaver

“Maculate stony / spalls mapping her thrash,” in the poem “Vacuuming the House of God,” portends other dark and rhythmic passages in Rebecca Loudon’s new poetry collection, Radish King. Loudon’s language works with a sense of mystical urgency; in places, these poems are deeply personal at the same time that they are archetypically relevant, offering an interior (but not exclusively private) sense of how the world looks through the eyes of this poet. But vision is not the only and primary sense here—this poet also wants to blindfold you, turn you, and walk you onto a boat to leave you sitting there, rocking and smelling the ocean. Faceless men will interfere or help in your doings, and you will have sharp metal, fur, and animals placed in your hands. Jesus appears a few times as raconteur and whiny bother.

“It” and “this” are characters that constantly empty out, deflecting any permanent meaning the reader may want to attach to them, becoming ciphers for the language they bracket. In “Refusing water,” the speaker begins with what seems a calm and narrative voice, giving what reads like a case history. Then (and this “then” recurs throughout the collection) it gets weird: two more husbands appear, children do or do not exist, houses suffer and stand crookedly. Loudon takes the traditional mode of storytelling common in poetry and turns and twists and doubles it back on itself, then wrings it out.

Formally, these move from traditionally shaped stanzas to prose poems to small, sparse verses that don’t shy away from large content. But Radish King doesn’t have to crow about its formal innovation or tight structure. As Loudon is a musician, it makes sense that she is disinclined to prioritize anything higher than sound and language in poetry.  The poems here simultaneously frustrate and compel with the internal and sometimes isolated singularity of Loudon’s vision, but it’s a frustration that can pay off when readers realize that poetry like this is an antidote to frequent flare-ups of irritable reaching after fact and reason.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007

DÉRIVE

Click here to buy this book from Amazon.comBruna Mori
paintings by Matthew Kinney
Meritage Press ($14.95)

by Craig Perez

In the essay “Theory of the Dérive,” Situationist International founder Guy Debord defines a basic situationist practice: “the dérive (literally: ‘drifting’) [is] a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances. Dérives involve playful-constructive behavior and awareness of psychogeographical effects, and are quite different from the classic notions of journey or stroll.” In Dérive, Bruna Mori drifts through the varied ambiances of New York City and lyrically maps the city’s “psychogeographical” contours.

The first section of Dérive presents “an assemblage of interwoven images of Manhattan’s Chinatown, maintaining the lines as they were collected, alluding to one’s experience as imposed upon a neighborhood, as well as the city’s imposition upon an individual.” Mori’s poems embody the “rapid passage” of collecting and assembling her sensory experience of the city.

The poem “Rushing” exemplifies the sense of passage:

Under a temple, I seek refuge from neon lights flashing, good luck braided into door frames, inverted wet paint signs, stairs I can’t descend. Lampposts feed skies at twilight. You are the unexpected angle that intersects me and the camera. Shadows no longer fall on fingers but that of my body across. Yellow nightness. Again the skittish cat with yellow eyes, and Chinatown in yellow and red screams even at night. Girls raise arms for a cab, raise T-shirts encircling bellies, raise bellies.

Mori’s encircling, subjective impressions encircle us with the currents, fixed points, and vortexes of this particular dérive. Drifting through Chinatown’s “unexpected angles”, Mori braids concrete detail (“inverted wet paint signs,” “raise bellies”) to the abstract (“yellow nightness,” “red screams”) to inaccessible mystery (“stairs I can’t descend”).

Returning to Debord’s essay, we read: “the spatial field of a dérive may be precisely delimited or vague, depending on whether the goal is to study a terrain or to emotionally disorient oneself. It should not be forgotten that these two aspects of dérives overlap.” Throughout Dérive, we witness the spatial field shift from delimited to vague as the motive of the poet shifts from orientation to disorientation. In an untitled series of poems, Mori crafts character studies of people she meets on her dérive:

hsien ju does not pray because he finds
enough luck at the local mah-jongg hall.
[…]
hsien lights incense and a
few bills for the ghosts of his ancestors,
so they too may gamble in heaven.

These tenderly constructed portraits create an ethnographic intimacy that deepens objective observation. Mori suggests that a city isn’t only a swirling carnival, but also a collection of individuals and individual stories.

The last section of Dérive involves Mori’s “outward engagement in the boroughs.” These poems are “based on riding subway trains to the end of each line and disembarking to lose [her] way among new immigrant communities, ‘70s-era public housing, halfway houses, and cemeteries.” Mori’s willingness to disorient herself transforms what could be banal “city poems” into “psychogeographical articulations,” as in this one about the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bay Ridge:

Colon, rectal, and gastroenterology clinics intermingle with air force recruitment centers. I am ineffectually looking for evidence of Italy or Greece in remnants of Easter bunnies, folds of American flags. Tulips of sameness, columns of similarities each possessing their own fractures sprout from oil of calzones and gold chain links. A waitress sucks the tips of her glasses to “Hungry Like the Wolf”.

Debord posits that the architecture of urbanism consists of  “different unities of atmospheres and of dwellings […] surrounded by more or less extended and indistinct bordering regions.” As Mori “ineffectually [looked] for evidence,” she discovered a city haunted by its bordering regions. Debord explains this transformation: “The most general change that dérive experience leads to proposing is the constant diminution of these border regions, up to the point of their complete suppression.” Like the last sentence in “Bay Ridge (Brooklyn),” Mori shows us how the dérive blurs the border between “poethnographer” and the “poethnographic subject.”

Amidst the dérive poems, there are a few poems in this collection that drift from the subject of the city. The most powerful example is “After Affect”:

There is fire in the sun.
There is not much sun.

The reality boat of sediment
Dances on my infirm sleep.

There is fire in the sun,
I will visit its citizens.

Mori created these poems through homophonic translations of the Argentinean poet Alejandra Pizarnik’sTextos Selectos. At first, the different tone of the translations seem to interrupt the overall project of the book. However, Mori maybe is suggesting that homophonic translation represents a kind of textualdérive. Unlike other homophonic translations, which translate line by line, Mori translates at unexpected angles. For example, the quoted section from “After Affect” above comes from Pizarnik’s “La Jaula.” Mori translates the first two lines, “Afuera hay sol,” then skips several lines ahead to “barcos sedientos de realidad bailan conmigo […] a mis sueños enfermos” ("The reality boat of sediment / Dances on my infirm sleep”). Mori drifts through Pizarnik’s “psychogeographical contours” to carve out a situation for poetry. In the spirit of the dérive, Mori then incorporates lines from a different Pizarnik poem—the next two stanzas of “After Affect” translate the 7th section of “Arbol De Diana.”

Mori treats Pizarnik’s Textos Selectos as an opportunity for a dérive, following variable sensorial paths to “the end of each line.” Although I’m not thoroughly convinced that these poems necessarily heighten our reading of the city, they definitely add another “bordering region” from which to represent the violent re-shaping of post 9/11 New York (we can read Mori’s other homophonic translation in Tergiversation, a free e-book from Ahadada Books).

Reading Dérive teaches us what Debord articulates as the lessons of drifting: “The lessons drawn from dérives enable us to draw up the first surveys of the psychogeographical articulations of a modern city. Beyond the discovery of unities of ambiance, of their main components and their spatial localization, one comes to perceive their principal axes of passage, their exits and their defenses. One arrives at the central hypothesis of the existence of psychogeographical pivot points.” Throughout Dérive, Mori presents what she perceives as the city’s “principal axes of passage, their exits and their defenses.” She’s attentive to the city in regard “to its own [dis]orientation, a certain proprioception.” Complementing Mori’s poems, Matthew Kinney’s ink paintings of the city create striking visual “pivot points” on which the book turns. In the end, Dérive doesn’t attempt to precisely delineate a stable map of the city; instead, Mori and Kinney manage to lyrically translate the changing architecture and vibrant humanity of urbanism through “poethnographic” techniques.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007

THE ECSTASY OF CAPITULATION

Click here to buy this book from Amazon.comDaniel Borzutzky
BlazeVOX ($14)

by Vincent Czyz

At first, Daniel Borzutzky’s The Ecstasy of Capitulation seemed like another small book from another small press, and initially the collection doesn’t defy expectations of boredom: “Noun Clause” was a snooze. “Present Progressive” didn’t progress. “Simple Present” was simply forgettable:

I only think of you when I do not
think of you. Conversely, when I
think of you, I do not think of you.
Of course, when I think of you, I
think of you, but the you I think of when I  …

And so on. But then there are poems like “The Hippo-Lexicographer Affair,” which lampoons the Iran-Contra affair and satirizes the rhetoric of politicians.

I did not trade our soybeans for hair pieces, nor
did I trade our confessional poets for Persian
ornithologists.  I have issued a directive
prohibiting the undertaking of covert
ornithology.

Or the equally satirical excerpt from “Henry Kissinger's Acceptance Speech for the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize”:

And thoughts of
Peace, my friends, flow much more smoothly when men of broad vision accessorize
Their suits with silk handkerchiefs manufactured in
Civilized nations …
[I]f lasting peace is to come, it
Will be the accomplishment—not of a well-dressed man or a well-dressed
Family, or even a well-dressed nation—it will be the accomplishment
Of a well-dressed mankind.

The pace continues to pick up with Kafkaesque pieces such as “Exile,” the reading of which is something like walking a downtown street, catching a glimpse of yourself in a plate-glass window and suddenly realizing you are naked and all the clothes shops are closed for some unannounced holiday.

Borzutzky has a gift for juxtaposing incongruous elements and for taking unexpected turns, an ability to transubstantiate the mundane into the weird. His words are apt to invade your language, use it as a springboard to get into your cognitive processes, and make you rethink what you thought utterly unobjectionable—perhaps best exemplified by these lines from “Urban Affairs”:

We approve of intersections but are opposed to streets in general.
Alleyways and dead ends should be paved over with mountains.
Potholes should be filled with violets, or ideas.

Intensely aware that writing is not holy, authors are not divine, and literature has much in common with the newspaper lining the litter box, Borzutzky is enamored of the Barbaric Writers—the brainchild of Chilean author Roberto Bolaños—who interact with the works of literary masters by defacing them in the crudest ways imaginable. Borzutzky pays homage to the group with his own deadpan fantasy:

When I watched the Barbaric Writers defecate on my
manuscript, I felt a great sense of relief, a great sense of
fraternity with these men who loved literature enough to
destroy it, and I recalled a poem I had once written, but
never had the confidence to publish, about a so-called
poet who shat himself into a toilet, only to float on his
back as torrential downpours of poetry filled the bowl and drowned
him.

Whether Borzutzky is satirizing politicians or social conventions, the language of sex or of popular magazines, or our innumerable failed relationships (intimate, familial, or otherwise), there is a manic energy that is cannily channeled into his verse and a quirky sense of humor that often leaves the reader chortling to himself like a patient in a psych ward. The word choices are deft, the language precise and, perhaps taking their cue from the Barbaric Writers, these poems never take themselves too seriously:

For who is to say that the air we breathe
is anything more than a secret code both
capricious in structure and marketable in
the substance of its sad and tender humility?

I leave you to puzzle out the answer to that one for yourself.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007

STOP FORGETTING TO REMEMBER: The Autobiography of Walter Kurtz

Click here to buy this book from Amazon.comPeter Kuper
Crown ($19.95)

by David A. Beronä

Peter Kuper’s latest work is an extensive self-parody of a cartoonist’s life and an impressive example of autobiographical fiction in a graphic narrative. Kuper portrays his alter ego as Walter Kurtz, a middle-aged cartoonist who invites the reader into his studio to hop-scotch between self-absorbed tales of his discovery of sex and drugs in his youth, political parody of the dysfunctional Bush administration based on the 1960s comic Richie Rich, and the problematic experiences of his life as a husband and parent in New York against the backdrop of 9-11.

Kurtz’s initial face-to-face dialogue with the reader—à la Scott McCloud—is set against the backdrop of a posh studio replete with fireplace. When the cartoonist’s wife, Sandra, walks in, the glamorous interior disappears in one big “poof” to expose reality—a few bookcases, a file cabinet, and a drawing board crammed into a small room with papers strewn about the floor. The book juxtaposes the reality of Kurtz’s life with Sandra—her pregnancy, the birth of their daughter, and their subsequent life together—with the imaginary, quizzing the reader about events as he jumps from past to present.

Kuper’s storytelling skill allows these layers of his narrative to flow seamlessly. Cultural icons are scattered throughout the panels, including a memorable sequence in which Kurtz wears Hugh Hefner props—a pipe and a bathrobe—when he flies back through his teenage years to the moment he lost his virginity. Kuper includes tributes to comic strips like Spy vs. SpyPopeye, and Krazy KatMad Magazineand his own longstanding publication World War 3 Illustrated; and fellow cartoonists such as his peer Seth Tobocman and his elder R. Crumb, the latter of whom is surely among his most important influences.

The book’s crisp black and white artwork changes from black to brown during dream sequences and memories of events; this simple printing device makes the transition from reality and the integration of his inner and outer worlds more startling. While Kuper’s extensive list of works includes award-winning graphic novels like Sticks and Stones and The System as well as his recent adaptation of Franz Kafka’sThe Metamorphosis.

Stop Forgetting to Remember may be his best work to date. In it, Kuper has not only catalogued our culture, but he’s created a memorable character in Kurtz—one who ultimately rises above his personal fears and the doomsday cacophony that threatens him, leading to a hopeful conclusion that encourages us to examine our own lives.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007

ALIAS THE CAT

Click here to buy this book from Amazon.comKim Deitch
Pantheon ($23)

by Todd Robert Petersen

The term “graphic novel” has become ubiquitous over the last few years, but in many cases it’s a misnomer. The major graphic narratives of the last few years have been autobiographical. Even though graphic memoirs from Maus to Persepolis challenge both the traditional comics and narrative memoir forms, Kim Deitch injects postmodernism and cultural history into a relatively standard narrative to give us a Crumb and Pekar-esque cavalcade of post-psychedelic tall tales.

Deitch’s central character in Alias the Cat is a fabricated version of himself, one so self-consciously over the top that it makes James Frey’s somewhat fictionalized memoir seem like C-SPAN coverage of a congressional policy debate. The book consists of three elaborate yarns spun by Deitch and a Citizen Kane-like menagerie of narrators, in which Deitch returns us to the more fanciful era of comix, where titles such as American SplendorFritz the Cat, and Mr. Natural filled the head shops.

In this, he isn’t breaking any ground—the likes of Montaigne, David Sedaris, and Hunter S. Thompson have all fabricated versions of themselves for the literary marketplace. Nevertheless, Deitch turns the memoir on its head, not simply by making up stories or relying on disingenuous forms with nebulous titles like “fictional autobiography.” Deitch positively revels in his own sheer preposterousness and his peccadilloes as both a cartoonist and collector.

In the first section, we are introduced to Deitch and his wife Pam while they’re exploring a flea market. They discover a man selling a plush black cat that has caught Pam’s fancy. The price is steep: a cool thousand dollars. The reason for this high price is the man’s history with the cat, a history that reads like the love child of a sea shanty and Joe Versus the Volcano. The stuffed cat becomes a central figure in the book—a case study in the id run amok.

In the second section, the cat manifests himself in Deitch’s discovery of a fascinating series of found texts (silent film serials, old newspaper comic strips, and reel-to-reel amateur oral history). Here we have more of the fifth-degree black belt bullshitting, but there is a Spiegelman-esque level of self-referentiality concerning the medium of comics as well, one that offers subtle commentary on the ways in which the newspaper and movie business have not really changed in a hundred years.

Section three delivers a tour de force wrap up, climax, and denouement that is every bit as miraculous in its ability to draw the far-flung edges of this book together as the best episodes of the Simpsons andSeinfeld. The absurdity doesn’t ease up; like a Frank Zappa guitar solo, it manages to attain new heights just as it seems to reach exhaustion.

Despite the beauty of much of the recent wave of graphic memoirs, there has been a seriousness that can be a little overwhelming. Alias the Cat is a welcome break—it won't make you think too hard, and it’s laugh out loud funny, a sheer joy from end sheet to end sheet.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007

CASANOVA: Volume One: Luxuria

Click here to buy this book from Amazon.comMatt Fraction and Gabriel Bá
Image Comics ($24.99)

by Rudi Dornemann

As part of the new “slimline” format from Image Comics that’s meant to be more accessible than the bulk of comics produced by the major publishers, Matt Fraction and Gabriel Bá’s Casanova is relatively inexpensive and generally self-contained. These constraints shape the comic, increasing the density of the story to give the reader what still feels like a full issue. In Casanova’s case, that means a visually and verbally intense comic delighting in its own rapid-fire complexity. Ironically, the reader who first encounters Casanova in collected form may have an advantage—it’s easier to keep the comic’s many moving parts in view when reading the seven issues as a single volume.

With its psychedelic flair, mix and match mash-up of genres, and baroque pop aesthetic, Casanova might be Fraction and Bá’s attempt to create something like a comics equivalent of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper. Certainly, there’s a ’60s-style hipness to the comic, with its references to James Bond movies and the 1968 French film Diabolik (itself an adaptation of an earlier Italian comic). Title character Casanova Quinn is the cat-burglar wayward son of a family that runs a world-wide undercover organization. Pulled into a parallel dimension where he’s the well-behaved son and the top operative for the family agency, Casanova finds himself on a series of spy missions replete with mad scientists, mummy-wrapped megalomaniacs, metaphysically-superpowered mystics, armies of female robots, giant floating entities with triple-decker skulls and floating hands who look like Mayan hieroglyphs brought to life, and a wide assortment of double-crosses and elaborate plots gone wrong. Besides the over-the-top plotting, Fraction gives Casanova wall-to-wall snappy dialogue and plenty of witty scripting moves—a page on which all the word balloons are blank, or the recurring “talking heads” who offer fourth-wall-breaking character thoughts and editorial comments in the space between panels. Artist Bá keeps pace with Fraction’s manic storyline, creating image-packed pages that often mix a number of small, bounded panels with larger panels that bleed off the page and contribute to the comic’s sense of busy fullness.

Fraction and Bá’s synergy is evident all through Casanova, from the Diabolik-homage of the first page to the final issue, which includes, among much else, a fight scene inside a giant Japanese robot captioned with several crossed-out attempts at hyperbole (e.g., “The seven-fold smackdown six issues in the making!”) and a final declaration that isn’t struck out: “I love comic books!” The phrase could easily serve as the slogan for the whole of the collection; Casanova has the feel of a joyride, with Fraction and Bá opening up the throttle and seeing where the road will take them.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007