Tag Archives: summer 2011

ADDRESS

Elizabeth Willis
Wesleyan ($22.95)

by Michael D. Snediker

Let’s be frank: the nonce-genre of political poetry often deserves the suspicion and flinch it sometimes solicits. To paraphrase Freud, what does political poetry want? Sometimes, the political event that a given poem seeks to articulate hamstrings a preference toward obliquity on which so much of our most honest poetry depends. More generally, political poetry risks simplifying how we imagine the discursively thorny hedging of politics as both ideological inurement and sublime crisis. And even the worst political poetry is exonerated by certain readers on account of its good intent. Or from a different register: even bad political poetry, some straw-figure apologist might say, is to be commended for at least trying, in the hypothetical landscape of so many other poets playing games with their consumptive, distracted heads in ostrich sand.

The above ruminations can serve as context for the success of Elizabeth Willis’s Address, a book of gimlet-eyed stabs at the slippery conundrum of political frustration as the subject of lyric poetry. Lyric poetry’s particular capacities ought not merely resolve, rail against, or bear witness to conundrum. Willis’s new poems exemplarily reenact the awful and necessary confusions of political discourse as neither extrinsic nor intrinsic to the shards of subjectivity these poems feverishly gather.

A case in point, from Address’s second poem, “Take This Poem.” The title alone gestures broadly to both Corinthians (“do this, whenever you take it, in memory of me”) and Henny Youngman (“take my wife—please”). The Youngman reference—a joke elegantly pivoted between pedantic fidelity and exasperation—arises explicitly at the outset of the poem’s slender third stanza:

Take my wife
even if I meant
to keep her
Take my share
I don’t need it
Take as long
as you need to
Take this line
between breathing
and voting
Take this city
Take that expensive
ship across this
cellophane model
of the sea

Such lines, like the litany of “takes” from which it is excerpted, never resolve into taken-for-grantedness, in part because each take spins idiom to the point where knowing what is being offered (earlier in the poem, the only slightly less ominous viaticum of “Take this spoon / from me, this / cudgel, this axe / Take this bowl . . . ”) leaves us, as imminent recipient, only slightly less unprepared for the terms by which something is taken, left, or given. The poem’s incessant anaphora produces a ghostly, white-noised potlatch—which, perhaps, would be the unsurprising consequence of such unmediated, fugitive leave-takings. We and the poem are uncertain if “Take my wife” is the miscarrying of a joke, especially as the line risks the over-determined pathos of “even if I meant / to keep her”mdash;somewhere between the innocuousness of nursery-rhyme pumpkin shell, marital breakdown despite intention otherwise, and marriage as failed (if not criminal) gambit. Uncertainty, here, has as much to do with Willis’s ruthless alacrity, as it does with the differently impeccable timing of the Youngman joke. The joke depends on pause, for which this poem, in unexplained exigencies verging in and out of panic, has no time.

The stakes of takes keep shifting, and the political crisis doesn’t surface from some conventional political tableau so much as absorbs it as one in a series—“Take this line / between breathing / and voting / Take this city / Take that expensive / ship . . . ” Taking a city may or may not imply some new Operation Ozymandias—the aggression of taking Bahrain, say; or in the speculative spirit of the first half of Youngman’s joke, take this city as example, as though it were Winthrop’s City on a Hill. That there is a line between breathing and voting doesn’t make any clearer on what we’re voting, let alone how we’d vote. The problematic of voting attaches to the poem as a whole, rather than the particulars of voting for any given candidate or proposition. Voting—a matter of vowing, wishing, interceding—speaks to our own wish to know how to take the poem.

Again, a lyric voice that simultaneously channels sodality, solidarity, aggression, salaciousness, and then some, suggests that more legible political moments depend on a reduction of the ethical ground this poem spins beneath our feet. Here are the poem’s final two stanzas:

Take off your coat
Stay a little longer
Take the low road
out into the sunset
Take it out back
And take it
to the people
Take Florida
Take Ohio
Take Wisconsin
Take Missouri

Take this chamber
like a bullet
Take this house
and paint it black
or take it down.

Like a bricolage of old-time samplers and breaking news barrage, we are being told too many things, even as “telling” mis-describes the variegated forms of utterance the poem deploys. The “I” on the other side of these hanging chad rejoinders would freak Whitman out: “what I assume you shall assume” seems at best an irrecoverable nostalgia, of which the catalogues of Address are wary to the extent that we still despite knowing otherwise, wish to believe in such ostensible transparency. Willis’s Whitman is a perversion of an Emersonian poet. Address’s eponymous first poem calls the bluff of the deceptive magnanimity of “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” and ends up sounding more like Whitman than Whitman himself: “I is to they / as river is to barge.”

But to return to aforementioned takes: “Take Florida / Take Ohio / Take Wisconsin / Take Missouri” are both the most intelligibly political turns of the poem and the most vitiated, not least because we don’t know who is to take them, and because these bullet-points take the form of political flotsam upon which the “river” of previous poem floats. Political rhetoric, as we think we know it, washes up in the poem’s gutter, and the despair of passionate insistence unmoored from passion sluices into the poem’s severely careening and equivocal end. “Take this house / and paint it black / or take it down.” This parting “or,” as disruptive as the earlier move from take this take this to take that (expensive/ship), might be accommodating (an expansion of options following a poem that proliferates one single directive after another), or utterly demanding, an ultimatum. This sort of demonstrative waver resonates more sincerely with the politics of Address far more than “Take Florida / Take Ohio” (for example, please), which seem like politics-in-drag.

Willis’s exquisite ear for the perviousness of CNN palaver and older political argots yields a poetry that clears space for new forms of response and responsibility. Her synthesis of vernacular bolus and flinty archive itself reconfigures how we understand polis and poetry beyond the polestars of Plato or Maya Angelou. The hilarity of these poems is keen and affectively volatile; for instance, in “This is Not a Poem About Katherine Harris (R-13th District Florida),” we find the grammatically impeccable insistence that “When I came out against terrorism / I was not ‘coming out.’” This performance of impeccability recalls the sympatico between Willis and Youngman, a Balanchine-like revision of Jack Spicer’s imagined sympatico with Sophie Tucker. And just following the crisp equivocations of Willis’s Magritte/Katherine Harris dust-up, we find the opposite of idiomatic insistence—the opposite of performed (rather than ingenuous) grace. The second stanza of “Year-End Review” begins “Here lies the horse you rode in on.” The elegy is for the idiom as much as it is for the horse, an elegy for itself.

Address stupendously makes relevant and new the old-fashioned sense that we are bound in language. We don’t know in advance if the language is lace or turbine—or we too quickly presume that one sort of meticulousness precludes kinship with the other. There are poems in this collection that are as distilled and fastidiously idiosyncratic as Willis’s very best. In the context, however, of Address’s various ventriloquized discourses—sleazy, resentful, defensive, sly, amorous—the distillation suggests the great stakes (political and otherwise) of delicacy, the deceptively wonderful reprieve of silence in the midst of so much address. As Stein asks in “A Long Dress, “what is the current that makes machinery, that makes it crackle, what is the current that presents a long line and a necessary wait.” Willis’s response speaks for itself, but obliquely, as though a catechism for how we likewise might speak to each other and ourselves.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011

THE NEEDLE

Jennifer Grotz
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt ($23)

by Sumita Chakraborty

In Walt Whitman’s poem “A Noiseless Patient Spider,” the speaker talks about the titular arachnid who, “to explore the vacant, vast surrounding,” “launch’d forth filament, filament, filament out of itself; / Ever unreeling them—ever tirelessly speeding them.”

This is what Jennifer Grotz does in her second collection of poems,The Needle. She sends a filament toward the town square of Krakow, where she finds that “the city has its currency: every tessera is a coin // you must struggle to spend by looking.” She sends filaments toward other people, where she notes that “So stubbornly do we congregate that even in lightning and thunder / We sit strangely unalarmed, eating our chilling omelets” and that “In each of us a mad rabbit thrashes and a wolf pack howls.” She looks to her body, where she finds her family “in the blurring of feature and expression,” and peers inside her mind, where she finds the fear “that to be a Jennifer meant to chase endlessly after desire / or else try to live without it.” She sends filaments toward the literary canon, incorporating Hamlet’s infamous “nunn’ry” seamlessly into a cityscape where nuns ride on trams, and toward her own private grief, eulogizing her brother in the volume’s second section.

Many of the things Grotz’s filaments touch either disappear abruptly or rapidly transform. In “Alchemy,” “a pebble becomes a bright coin on the sidewalk” and “I become a bird squeezed in a boy’s dirty palms”; in “The Umbrella,” a rainstorm “poured until it wasn’t rain anymore”; in “Not Body,” the “you” becomes “a stubbornness.” “I imagine nothing I have ever encountered,” writes Grotz of the divine in “Medusa,” “but some slippery thing that flashes in the instant it is gone.”

Whitman’s spider spends his time “seeking the spheres, to connect them.” In The Needle, “memory meticulously stitches” together the various “slippery” things Grotz’s filaments reach. (Fittingly, that phrase “meticulously stitches” comes from the volume’s first and title poem.) As a result, a world is contained within the pages of The Needle: a world “not to be counted, but, like the bellies of stones, revealed.”

These central impulses of The Needle take on particular poignancy in its elegies. Grotz alludes to Blake’sSongs of Innocence and of Experience with great effect in the poems “He Who Made the Lamb Made Thee” (“you turned into something no one could tame”) and “The Fly” (“what’s neglected // interposes itself, like this portly buzzer . . . who makes a faith / from not knowing where to land”). In “The Eldest,” Grotz’s “spheres” join in a study of transience:

my mother would also die.
And so would my father. Which is why I wept:
I would be the last one.

With equal parts imagination and precision, all conveyed with syntactic simplicity and calm diction, The Needle rings profoundly true; one trusts and follows its poetic voice completely. Further, Grotz’s use of her own name combined with second person pronouns that feel personal rather than royal affords the reader a deep sense of intimacy. When Grotz uses the phrase “gentle reader” (as she does one single time), it does not come as a surprise or a contrivance; rather, it feels like a reminder of something we already knew that doesn’t require repeating.

In the final poem in The Needle, “Sunrise in Cassis,” the poet welcomes dawn and asks for the ability “not to elide this hour”: “the hour when the moon is a fishhook / steadily pulled up out of the liquid sky / into some drier realm,” the “beautiful hour / when the last few fishing boats / sneak out of harbor / to retrieve the nets that wait at the bottom of the sea.” Elide, which means both to omit and to merge, is a dazzling choice for The Needle’s final moments: reeling its last filaments in and still sopping from its journey, “Sunrise in Cassis” embodies the hour of which it speaks, both blending with and standing apart from the rest of the volume. It pulls The Needle to different ground, leaving us nostalgic and yearning to enter the volume’s world again.

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011

HELSINKI

Peter Richards
Action Books ($16)

by Kevin Carollo

We were never to discuss it or perceive it
why even to mention it in a dream meant
death by expulsion but now I must speak
it I have too much inventory as they say
      —Peter Richards, Helsinki

Half of what I say is meaningless.
—The Beatles, “Julia”

A decade has passed since Tomaž Šalamun declared “it is better to be a new young god in American poetry than to be President of the United States” in his introduction to Peter Richards’s first full-length collection, Oubliette—and indeed the past ten years of the presidency have rendered this statement understandable at a visceral level. That the internationally renowned Slovenian poet connected so intensely with the “religious magma” of a young American poet was also rather prescient, for Richards’s poetry resonates so strikingly with his European contemporaries, many of them unavailable in English at the time.

The interlocking poems that make up Helsinki, for example, would be right at home in the 2008 anthology New European Poets. The sequential and surreal aspects of the collection call to mind the work of Vénus Khoury-Ghata, each poem adding nebulous yet elemental detail to the world imagined by the whole. In 2011, Šalamun’s compatriot Aleš Šteger reads Richards’s third full-length collection as a “sinking into Hell,” which nicely underscores the incantatory power of the book’s title. Helsinki is indeed a dark prayer located inside the artificial paradise of language and the hell of words. This verse universe beckons close reading on the tactile, syntactical level.

Whereas Baudelaire used hair and perfume to escape the putrefying and splenetic urban landscape, Richards works his way through an intricate metaphysical snarl, where “combs are just normal people in the atmosphere / raking the air for air cannot say it gentle enough”. Poems often begin with the observatory tone of a Dante on drugs:

Inside I saw what looked to be hair floating
about three prisms put forward I was a white
strand open at both ends one cell to the next
food overhead in a locker there the observers
they resemble Christ’s two punctured heads
sipping a fugue in place of their sun the words

Synesthesia and metamorphosis abound, as they should, for everything—including the most basic sensory data, and all words—contains the means for its own unmaking. With the poet, the reader intones: “yes I accept it I have no former state.”

Overall, Helsinki presents the reader with a labyrinthine otherworld of dazzling ciphers that is as Dantesque as it is Borgesian. Eschewing titles and punctuation (aside from apostrophes), the book ritually offers up encrypted phonemes and keywords for the reader to unlock: white dot, hair, Julia, herrick, banner. Parts of words are dropped in favor of “lindrical” and “travagant” utterances, and parts of speech have a concerted Mad Libs-like quality to them. Combined with reckless enjambment, the world of the poem is persistently unstable and rich with shadowy epiphany:

In the round without escort I kneel inside the plume
it seems like that elk I feed in the dream my head
not yet mangled with switches or the dream where I sleep
in the lap of a choir or Julia’s first nakedness recorded
as smell what seems grows vexed spiny and with the first

The antiquated or stilted language poets “shouldn’t use,” as well as subjects like virgins and breasts, seems entirely appropriate here. Pop culture references become elevated, lines suddenly imbued with liturgical potential: “I’m in the shallows with a sunlit can of Fanta tall”, and “we drank Makers and one night they really did weave”. The discourses of religion and science intermingle at a gothic molecular level, while military and erotic registers fight to the death over a few lines—and for what? The cumulative effect of such alchemy is the precise antithesis of hallucination. Helsinki is, instead, an awful and deep-threaded vision of the cosmos.

There is much to be said for nurturing and churning over “too much inventory” for too long. Coming nine years after Nude Siren, Richards’s second full-length collection, Helsinki is well worth the wait and the time. The past decade has taught us that being a new young god in American poetry is an utterly frivolous enterprise. Better to sink into hell and remake the world.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011

MORE RADIANT SIGNAL

Juliana Leslie
Letter Machine Editions ($14)

by Amy Wright

A red verb to prehend and absorb
the management and flowering of flowers
that place in boxes what they see
of themselves regarding tomorrow

We live, according to Juliana Leslie, “in temperature.” Her first book, More Radiant Signal, is a fingertip record of the current barometric pressure and “lucky we are to have fingertips.” This collection reads like an apparatus, opening and closing in an electric current of taps. What it signals is want—recurrence of hunger for more, an All-American text, pressing greedily at the edges of key notes, fainting starved into the inexpressible. If Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner cries out for a drink in a sea of water, Leslie’s speaker sends out an S.O.S. to someone, anyone in the wilderness of civilization “who is lifelike.” “I want . . . I want . . . I want” she repeats in “3:54 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time,” a shadowy figure of privation “in the middle of nowhere.” Pathos may be dead, but self-pity is immortal.

More Radiant Signal is a human telegraph, or to subvert the title of one of Jenny Boully’s works, a book of endings and endings. More stops than starts, as if the signal is determined by timed silences, it generates “a radical ambiance” instead of communication. Image becomes reference, as in “Encyclopedia,” and we are left stranded with “Tarkovsky’s ghost in water,” not to explain Tarkovsky or the conditions of haunting but to conjure the digestion of information. We play at eating, our appetites not being fed so much as indexed. Even the information we’re consuming is empty. The poem depicts “a solar eclipse” above “a Greek who brings philosophy to Athens,” then complicates their informative aspect with “the famous paradox that motion is illusory”—like meaning, slippery as a definition, boundless as the elusive.

The danger of inviting a creative reader is that one who listens hard enough to hear the foreshadow of a whistle bending around the Japanese maples gets an earful of blare at overt givens. For example, the title “Clouds are Temporary” asks too little in relation to “Illumination of the Earth for a Photo,” which suggests both the hubris of the human camera and the many lenses that mistake our reality. It may be too much to ask of this speaker, who is busy enough trying to access the “real” and trying to distinguish it from “bioluminescence or whatever.”

Leslie uses personal pronouns for impersonal referents. The arc of a flower has her arc. The hibiscus is “who” rather than what or that, like the rose of Sharon and “the one pine cone . . . who knows.” Apostrophe is abandoned for the initiation of conversation between polka dot and color. If Aphrodite failed to answer Sappho and the sun at Fire Island commended O’Hara, this speaker imagines her own reasons in the inanimate objects why the “whole operation mumbles.” The I will never die as long as consciousness is possessive.

Sound here is the concept of sound; Leslie’s lyric reads the shoreline salt rather than sweeping the current. In “The Little Sound in the Middle of Simone,” we find ourselves contemplating the physical distance of the l in “Gala apple.” Bouncing off subjective eardrums, the sound effect is not the sound itself, as Rene Magritte’s C’est ne pa un pipe paints an image that is not the pipe.

Some of the lines in these poems are as slick as identity and as vacuous. Pond water slides into a housing development. A light bulb might equal a shipwreck, but not really. “Sloppy trees” in a landscape grease “movement at the level of writing.” At a certain point, however, the signal hums and cracks back: “A piece breaks off and gets found again.” The interruptions are part of the hanging imperfect present and the caught pluperfect past. Yet ultimately we are convinced that “Human beings are never as big /as the water they carry.”

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011

WORDS WE MIGHT ONE DAY SAY

Holly Karapetkova
Washington Writers’ Publishing House ($15)

by Alyse Bensel

Holly Karapetkova’s haunting debut collection tells of her experiences as lover, mother, and as a child growing up in war-torn Bulgaria. With a narrative sewn together by the poet into sections thematically centered on lovers, family, suicide, and home, Words We Might One Day Say hinges on the unsaid, as the speaker tries to clarify her own complex history.

Lost loves never completely disappear, even after they leave. In “Lessons in Kindness,” each stanza builds to a larger presence the speaker brings into her life then pushes away. The poem begins with ladybugs she allows in her house, until she sees “one piss on my toothbrush, I lost my cool, / began to slaughter them by the handful”. The speaker also “sleep[s] with men / for meals” in “That Kind” but never takes “eggs or avocados. / Never things that can be counted”. Seeing broad loaves filling a grocery store, she marvels at American excess in “For My American Lover, Upon My Leaving,” claiming that he “wouldn’t understand the phrase too much, / but I had learned to live with hunger”.

Karapetkova always returns to her native Bulgaria, documenting the changes brought by Westernization. She describes topless beaches in “Democracy Comes to the Black Sea”: “Now we sit / and burn, naked to the world, finding nothing: / not freedom, not release, only the sun’s heat”. She reflects on family, when, after her grandmother’s death, her grandfather takes a dog as his companion in “Grandfather and Dog.” As the dog dies, the speaker knows that “he could not go on alone— / the hole I stood by six months later was his own”. Loss always remains a central to the speaker, becoming a familiar presence.

The dead permeate the collection. Karapetkova begins the book’s second section with “Letter in Response to a Friend’s Suicide Note.” The speaker begs of her friend:

I want to say keep the pen pressed to the page
until the hotel walls fade and you find yourself
out amid the warm night air. Come closer,
tell us more, tell us why we love.

The speaker contemplates the fate of suicides and speculates on when she, too, thought of suicide. In doing so, she turns toward natural imagery, as in “The One That Got Away,” which imagines one lost as a wild deer “running straight into the sunlight of the interstate, / refusing to stop / for the pavement”.

The final section ends with the speaker’s contemplation on motherhood. She worries for her child in “How the Earth Lost Its Moon,” lamenting “This is before he knows anything / of sonatas or poetry / of seduction or pain”. Holding nothing back, Karapetkova’s poems resonate with a bare honesty and continuing need for love.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011

DICK OF THE DEAD

Rachel Loden
Ahsahta Press ($17.50)

by Janet McCann

Rachel Loden’s major preoccupation, Richard Nixon, dominates again in her electric collections of poems, Dick of the Dead. In this book, Nixon is the door through which pours all the tattered and tacky debris of the twentieth century—politics, art, sex, lies, videotape. He functions, however, as a negative icon. Rather than gathering he splinters; he introduces chaos rather than coherence. As sharers in his society we mirror him, too—we are accomplices, and cannot help recognizing our face in his.

Nixon and his era figured largely in Loden’s own history. She was a “red-diaper baby” reared in the protest movement, which gave her both a difficult childhood and an insider’s knowledge of current events. In an interview with Kent Johnson in Jacket 21, she explains, “My Richard Nixon is not simply Dr. Evil. He’s not (just) a literary contrivance or a way to score small political points. He’s more of a muse. Or a death’s head. Sometimes I think of him as a dancing-master, and we’re doing a kind of aberrant minuet.” Richard Milhous Nixon does indeed dance around in these bizarre, quirky poems; events from his life are threaded amidst current events, memories, bits of history. And this book introduces some new steps.

While Loden has penned previous Nixon-themed works, cleverly combining oddments of strange information in a kind of mad reportage, Dick of the Dead produces a new invasion of twentieth-century ghosts—ghosts from politics and art, ghosts of style, ghosts of belief. These spooks are more literary than previous ones. Wallace Stevens is the fattest ghost; others include Rainer Marie Rilke, Robert Desnos, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Sylvia Plath. The poets slip in and out among other elements of the century, from Seinfeld to the Microsoft Corporation.

The book is divided into three sections, “In the Graveyard of the Fallen Monuments,” “The Winter Palace,” and “Another Blue Stretch in the Black Eye Galaxy.” The poem entitled “In the Graveyard of the Fallen Monuments” neatly sets the scene with its quiet beginning:

Sometimes I like to think about Leonid Brezhnev
whose white torso stands here dreaming

in the Graveyard of Fallen Monuments. Leonid,
I say, it’s Dick. Where are your goddam legs?

Seems like yesterday you broke out the Stoli
at your dacha, and we laughed about détente.

Many of the poems start with a bang, yanking the reader in by the hair. Who would stop reading a poem that began, “The disposal of the dead is exempt from VAT”? Or another that begins with a news quotation, “There is a huge backlog of animal patent applications,” followed by the poem’s first line, “Which explains all the barking and thrashing around in the gene pool”? Then there are the riffs. A Rilke fan will be both attracted and horrified by the beginning of “Autumn Daze”: “George, it’s about time. The summer was really gross.” Ditto for the Plath reader as she launches into “The Sylvia Plath Story”: “First, are you our sort of a villain? / Do you wear / Jodhpurs, a codpiece or a crown?”

Notes provide some background for popular-culture references that those born after Nixon’s day might not recognize. Fortunately the notes don’t over-explain the poems, and older readers may find that they are useful for confirming guesses.

How can someone write multiple books centering around a figure like Nixon and still continually be original and fresh? Nixon’s circles seem to be widening in these books; single elements in his life—like the death of Checkers—touch and reflect more and more areas. This book is especially unusual for the range of its styles. Some of the poems are burlesques; some use tight metrical forms; some explore the furthest reaches of free verse. There are poems that deliberately jangle, poems that sprawl crazily across the page, an occasional friendly one that curls up and scratches the back of your neck. They differ too in what they demand of the reader—a few are immediately clear, but most require rereading and yield new meanings with each approach.

Many readers are waiting to see where Rachel Loden’s poetry will take her next, but wherever it is, Richard Nixon will likely go with her.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011

THE CLOUD CORPORATION

Timothy Donnelly
Wave Books ($16)

by Stephen Ross

Cloud seeding is a form of weather modification used to alter the type or amount of precipitation that falls from clouds. The procedure works by dispersing substances like silver iodide and dry ice in the sky, either by launching them in a rocket or dropping them from an airplane. Once deployed, these substances cause vapor to condense or solidify around them, possibly creating new weather. Numerous countries currently use seeding techniques to relieve droughts, to clean smoggy air, to prevent rain or snowfall (the Chinese government, for instance, took extensive measures to keep Beijing dry for the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics), and even to dampen countercultural activities (the U.S. government allegedly seeded the skies over Woodstock, NY, in mid-August 1969).

Timothy Donnelly’s best poetry operates on a similar principle to that of cloud seeding. He will introduce a phrase, a song, a word, a government report—any metaphysical seed you like—where the mist of thought begins to coalesce around it, occluding it here, polishing it there. In time, the seed and the surrounding thought-cloud will undergo a state change and merge into something new, a “cross-fertilization of intelligence and cloud”. The poem that grows out of this encounter, like a seeded cloud, will carry inside it, at least figuratively, the taint of industrial, commercial, and cultural forces that went into its making, but it will also be a unique environmental phenomenon. The process feels something like

fluctuating on like a soft shifting mass, yielding
instantly to pressure and engulfing any object senseless

enough to have trusted in its surface, incorporating
whatever it can into the grand amalgam of itself
discovering itself and finding everything perfectly
indispensable and pointless . . .

Whereas governments send chemicals into the sky to increase crop fertility or to keep public events dry, Donnelly deploys a range of cultural matter—from Springsteen and Shelley to The 9/11 Commission Report and The Beverly Hillbillies—to spur the release of something rather more nebulous: “A silver line, a souvenir, a sieve of relation”.

While this cloud seeding analogy may seem a bit heavy-handed, something about reading and writing on Donnelly makes one want to overdo it, to partake of the head-clearing license he gives himself to run wild with analogy, metaphor, and the appropriated language of “non-poetic” disciplines (meteorology, in this case). While the debate around “organic” form in poetry long ago grew stale, the broad concept does speak to Donnelly’s methods of recycling or riffing on a set palette of subjects (elements) within a given form (system)—usually the vicissitudes of knowledge and selfhood within the three-line unrhymed stanza. Much like a weather pattern or a financial market, The Cloud Corporation, conceived as a book-length whole, operates on a cyclical logic of accumulation, solvency, and dissolution. But it also stands outside and reflects on these and the other systems on which it is conceptually modeled. It is a “grand amalgam” of biographical fact, emotional fancy, literary convention, and gently ironic reflection on the whole:

its foundation
made of clouds, an anchorage

in sinking down where to know
is to feel knowledge dissolving
into particles of pause, the many

stoppages and starts that shape
by sounding each possible maze

through a landscape of otherwise
perfectly nothing.

Donnelly’s great achievement is to generate, across dozens of poems, an insistent pathos relating to the systems (physiological, financial, natural) that govern our lives. He does this in part by literalizing the figurative language of everyday life—“the metaphors we live by,” especially that the mind is a landscape—and, alternately, by recasting the natural objects of the world in the figurative language of commerce, history, architecture, philosophy, religion, and poetry. This literal-figurative dialectic begins with the titular “Cloud Corporation,” a curious, incongruous coinage that, meditated on, gradually opens into a thousand possible meanings—“The clouds part revealing,” as Donnelly has it. With its focus on questions of collectivity, knowledge, and self, the book might easily have been titled The Intelligence Community(just the sort of horrifically banal phrase that Donnelly would take pleasure in recuperating). Another contender, had it not already been taken and had the book’s organizing conceit been earthy rather than cloudy, might have been Leaves of Grass.

At its best, Donnelly’s patois of the body, the heavens, and the marketplace wipes instrumentalized language clean of accumulated meaning, restoring flattened-out words and concepts to a state of prismatic three-dimensionality. In Donnelly’s usage, “corporation,” yoked to “cloud,” is allowed at least momentarily to stand free of the unpretty connotations it has acquired. In fact, the word must acquire new meaning, because the prospect of the weather itself becoming a corporate resource is simply too painful to consider. But then we realize that it already has:

The clouds part revealing an anatomy of clouds
viewed from the midst of human speculation, a business
project undertaken in a bid to acquire and retain

control of the formation and movement of clouds.

A “mature environmental aesthetic” (Buell, The Environmental Imagination), to borrow Lawrence Buell’s formulation, is at work in this book. If this aesthetic could speak, it would say: “Our selves, like our thoughts and our ethics, are nothing more than emergent properties of the things of this world. As a result, the degradation of the latter directly erodes the integrity of the former. Reflect on yourself reflecting on this.” On the subject of weather modification, Donnelly has some thoughts of his own:

It is no more impossible to grasp the baboon’s
full significance in Egyptian religious symbolism

than it is to determine why clouds we manufacture
provoke in an audience more positive, lasting
response than do comparable clouds occurring in nature.

Donnelly’s writing often wanders into the realm of what Terry Gifford has called “post-pastoral”: “literature [that] has gone beyond the closed circuit of pastoral and anti-pastoral to achieve a vision of an integrated natural world that includes the human” (Gifford, Pastoral). Donnelly certainly aspires to chart, or at least imagine, an integration (incorporation) of this sort, even as he is also prepared to admit that in most cases it is direly lacking. Regardless of real world conditions, he has invented for himself, in serial poems like “The Cloud Corporation” and “Globus Hystericus,” a formally robust line generous enough to swallow the whole world. In this sense, his poetry stands among other contemporary work that sports with, revises, and upturns the conventions of nature writing in the broad daylight of post-industrial modernity. Such work uses the experimental strategies of modernism—collage, intertextuality, self-reflexive meditativeness in the Stevensian grain—to recover the ethical viability and aesthetic potency of otherwise worn out modes of nature writing like the pastoral. For recent works of a comparable post-pastoral richness and maturity to that of The Cloud Corporation, one thinks of Lisa Robertson’sXEclogue and The Weather, Peter Gizzi’s Some Values of Landscape and Weather, Jennifer Moxley’sThe Sense Record, and Joshua Corey’s Severance Songs. “My green retreat,” Donnelly writes, “has folded, drawn into itself without me / in it”. Later he sketches a harrowing anatomy of modern nostalgia:

Already the present starts plotting its recurrence
somewhere in the future, weaving what happens
in among our fabrics, launching its aroma, its music
imbuing itself into floorboards, plaster, nothing can
stop it, it can’t stop itself. You will never have access
to its entirety, and you have asked how to calculate

what resists calculation, how to control what refuses
to cooperate, but know full well a propensity to resist
and to refuse is the source of its power.

The Cloud Corporation is not eco-poetry (it might not even be nature poetry), but it nonetheless occasions and responds to the sorts of questions that most concern eco-poets. It does so with a political edge, but without limiting itself to a strict political instrumentality. It points one of the more promising ways into the future of environmental writing.

Much more could, and hopefully will, be said about this subject, but for now I would like to conclude by quoting the most beautiful passage in the book, from “Dream of a Poetry of Defense,” in a shameless bid to convince as many people as possible to buy stock in The Cloud Corporation:

As infrastructure to the most invisible
indestructible flower. And infinite. As infinite as pleasure
apprehended through excess. As cross-fertilization

of intelligence and cloud. And as light, and as energy.
As all related instruments indispensable to choruses.
As being differently indispensable. As being harmonious.

As far as “being harmonious” is concerned, Donnelly has done nothing less than “yoke evanescent wonder”.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011

DREAMHOUSE KINGS SERIES

House of Dark Shadows | Watcher in the Woods | Gatekeepers | Timescape | Whirlwind | Frenzy

Robert Liparulo
Thomas Nelson ($9.99-14.99 each)

by Kelly Everding

      
 

Adding up to almost 2000 pages, the six books in Robert Liparulo’s Dreamhouse Kings series follow roughly a week’s worth of jam-packed danger and adventure for the King family, Mom (Gertrude or “G”), Dad (Edward), Alexander (Xander, 15), David (Dae, 12), and Victoria (Toria, 9). While their given names are after kings and queens, everyone’s names get shortened for that added sense of urgency and intimacy. Dad uproots his family from Pasadena, California, to a small town six hundred miles north called Pinedale to take a job as principal in the local high school. Needless to say the kids are not happy about this, but they don’t have a choice, and so throw themselves into house hunting for a new home. The house they choose (or that chooses them?) is a fixer-upper to say the least, and from the very start it plays odd tricks on their eyes and ears. The weirdness mounts when David discovers that the linen closet is a portal that transports its occupant to locker #119 at their new high school. And if that weren’t strange enough, Xander and David discover a corridor of twenty rooms in the house’s attic, hidden behind a secret door. Each room contains a bench and a few strange items that give a hint of what lies beyond the interior door. Xander learns their purpose the hard way as he finds himself transported to the distant past right in the middle of a gladiator fight in the Roman Colosseum.

       
 

Despite the reading group guide questions provided at the back of each book, these time-traveling excursions are not harmless educational jaunts, but rather gritty, life-threatening lessons in the war- and murder-prone activities of human history. Liparulo puts the pressure on the Kings with the kidnapping of Mom (who becomes lost in time) and the evil machinations of a sociopathic assassin named Taksidian, who wants to use the house to usher along the apocalypse. The family dynamic comes into play as we learn of betrayals and lies that got the Kings to this desperate situation, and conflicts arise. Dad’s desire to step back, do research, and hold up some appearance of normalcy directly clashes with Xander’s impulsive desire to run head-long into each room and search throughout time for Mom. David at first follows Xander’s lead as the stalwart little brother. But as the days pass, David’s character begins to shine through, not so much as a negotiator, but as an evolving person of steady strength and resolve who dives into danger even though he is scared, and who allows himself to feel compassion for the suffering victims of each violent moment of the past he witnesses, be it the harsh conditions of the Civil War, the relentless Nazi tanks of World War II, or the indiscriminate brutality of crazed Norse berserkers. With every wound and broken bone, David carries on to the bitter end, even with an almost certain prediction of his death at the nefarious hands of Taksidian hanging over his head. Xander and David push the boundaries of their roles as sons and saviors, rising to their destiny as gatekeepers for the house’s time portals. With Dad’s determination, Toria’s spunky nurturing, and the arrival of unexpected help from an aged relative and his caretaker, you can bet the Kings manage to come out on top.

Click here to purchase House of Dark Shadows at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Click here to purchase Watcher in the Woods at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Click here to purchase Gatekeepers at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Click here to purchase Timescape at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Click here to purchase Whirlwind at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Click here to purchase Frenzy at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011

HUMAN.4

Mike Lancaster
EgmontUSA ($16.99)

by Shawn Patrick Doyle

Human.4 is a clever book by a clever writer, but Mike Lancaster’s greatest asset is that he understands when cleverness goes too far. In his first YA book, Lancaster relies on familiar conceits, but even readers familiar with those conceits will find pleasure in his creative attempts to avoid cliché.

The novel begins as a typical fantasy story. Kyle Straker is a normal fifteen-year-old until he volunteers to be hypnotized at a local talent show. When he wakes, the entire town save for Kyle and his three fellow volunteers sits frozen in state of suspended animation. The four “survivors” split up to investigate: Kyle and his ex-girlfriend Lilly set off to explore the town while Mrs. O’Donnell, a local grocery clerk, tends to Mr. Peterson, the town mailman, who wakes muttering, “They are to us as we are to apes.”

Lancaster builds on this setup with a narrative frame that is more than window dressing. In a preface, he presents himself as a humble editor tasked with providing a transcription of three cassette tapes on which Kyle recorded his story. The editor intersperses footnotes into the transcription to Kyle’s cultural references, which initially provide comic relief: one explains “Teletubbies” as “a word of deep religious significance, referring to a collection of gods or goddesses almost exclusively worshipped by children.” However, when Mr. Peterson suggests that Kyle and his friends are being studied by higher beings, the scholarly footnotes appear more sinister.

While he’s not the first to present a novel as a transcription, Lancaster finds ways to make that structure serve his own purpose, and he never presses a conceit without cause. Perhaps the author’s craft is best revealed in the novel’s double ending. Kyle finds the hypnotist and appears close to finding answers, but the hypnotist suggests that he might simply snap his fingers and Kyle will wake up. The reader fears a hackneyed “‘it was all a dream” ending, and Lancaster teases readers by letting them see what that ending might look like: Kyle begins a new chapter where he tells how he woke from hypnosis, closing with a clichéd “we all lived happily ever after.” Yet that is followed with a chapter that opens: “Except that wasn’t what happened.” The false ending provides insight into Kyle’s motivations, and complicates his emotional state. Kyle’s processing of the event necessarily defines the arc of the novel.

For that reason, readers cannot get too frustrated with the fact that the actual ending feels like it could do more. Kyle comes to accept his new reality, but he glosses over the facts of his life in the new world he inhabits. The full reality of that new world contains complex emotional depths that Lancaster never sounds. Still, if not quite full-fledged invention, Human.4 is an enjoyable proof of an arresting concept.

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011

LOVE LIKE HATE

Linh Dinh
Seven Stories ($16.95)

by Shane Joaquin Jimenez

Linh Dinh’s Love Like Hate is listed by the Library of Congress under the subject headings Vietnamese-AmericansVietnam, and Losers. These terms offer an insightful micro-synopsis of Linh Dinh’s novel, the first by the Vietnamese-American writer known for his paranoiac stories and poems. In Love Like Hate, Dinh presents us with a brutal, unsentimental portrait of modern Vietnam, with all its disillusionment and degradation.

David Mamet has said that there is no such thing as character in drama—only action. Who wants what and how will they get it? In Love Like Hate, Mamet’s thesis becomes the unavoidable question of post-colonial Vietnam, as filtered through the tragicomic ambitions of café owner Kim Lan, her two husbands Sen and Hoang Long, her son Cun, and her designer-branded daughter Hoa. Kim Lan wants Hoa to marry a well-to-do Viêt Kiếu (a Vietnamese living abroad), and decides that Hoa will do this by learning the imperial tongue: English. Through the intrusion of an opinionated narrator, we are led to believe that Kim Lan’s situation is a kind of synecdoche of the Vietnamese obsession with occupying foreign cultures—first France (Kim Lan’s café, after all, is called Paris by Night), then the mega-culture itself, America. “Vietnam is a disaster, agreed,” Dinh writes, “but it is a socialized disaster, whereas America is—for many people, natives or not—a solitary nightmare.”

When the promise of American wealth creeps into his characters’ motivations, Dinh quickly points to the system’s moral bankruptcy and corrosive touch. After all: “America was a country of straight lines and geometric exactness where everything must be quantified: your breasts, your income, your batting average. Life must be constantly measured to show that profits and progress were being made.” And when Kim Lan and Cun (who “resembled a naked mole rat at birth and would go on to resemble a naked mole rat for the rest of his life”) visit a three-star hotel for the first time, they both think, “We’re inching up to international standards.” The modern Vietnam of Love Like Hate assumes that if their country had butter, cheese, and brand names, everything would be all right. Culture becomes a warp and woof of power relationships, in which no one can measure up to globalized ideas of success. “The humiliation of a minor country,” Dinh writes, “is that it is always at the mercy of a major one.”

This observation trickles down to the very relationships between parents and offspring. Kim Lan has grand hopes for her daughter: “She’ll buy and sell and make lots of money . . . she’ll take good care of me in my old age.” Hoa’s subsequent refusal of her mother’s Americanized life, however, leads to a tragic culmination of hate and revenge, whose only solution seems to be escape. But escape where? There is, in the end, “a deep yearning in the Vietnamese psyche to leave Vietnam at the first opportunity. Birds, bees, and salmon do it, but the average Vietnamese can only dream of crossing a border.”

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011