Tag Archives: Summer 2015

What About This: Collected Poems of Frank Stanford

whataboutthisFrank Stanford
Copper Canyon Press ($40)

by John Bradley

To the gentlemen from the south
to the tourists from the north
who write poems about the south
to the dumb-ass students
I'd like to ask one lousy question
have you ever seen a regatta of flies
sail around a pile of shit
and then come back and picnic on the shit
just once in your life have you heard
flies on shit
because I cut my eye teeth on flies
floating in shit

This unpublished poem by Frank Stanford, "Flies on Shit,” shows a writer whose stance is both defiant and proud of his rural roots and outsider status. Yet even as he mocks those who he believes look down on him, he slyly laughs at his home turf. It comes as no surprise that Stanford once wrote: “I don’t believe in tame poetry.”

Stanford was born in 1948, in Mississippi, and died, by three self-inflicted gunshots to the heart, in 1978, at twenty-nine, in Arkansas. Seven books of his poetry were published in his lifetime, though most of those are difficult to find or out of print. Now, thirty-seven years after his death, we have the long-awaited Collected, which gathers not only all of his published work, but unpublished poems, prose, and part of an interview with Stanford.

Even before his death, Stanford had a dedicated following. His poetry provokes strong responses, and part of that is due to the originality of Stanford’s voice, at once innocent and worldly at the same time. The opening of "The Angel of Death" demonstrates this:

A man came down the road.

I told him he better watch his step.
He asked me what I was doing,
Sleeping in the middle of the road.

I said I was an orphan.
See these suspenders?
They hold up my pants.
I sleep where I please, says I.

Mark Twain's unforgettable Huck Finn surely was an influence on Stanford, but his voice was his own creation, shaped by growing up along the Ozark levees, absorbing the local speech, in particular the rural black Southern dialect. His language draws heavily on rural imagery, but is presented with an intensity that leads some to call his work surreal. This image, from "The Angel of Death," captures that hyperreal/surreal mix: "The moon went back into its night / Like a blue channel cat in a log."

Not only voice commands attention in a Stanford poem, but the locale does as well. His poems create a world where we meet characters named Baby Gauge, O.Z., Ray Baby, and Six Toes. It's a world where a hired hand nails "the head of a varmint" to a joist in the barn, where the blue yodel of Jimmie Rodgers echoes in the back rooms of his poems, and in some of his titles too—"Blue Yodel of the Wayfaring Stranger,” “Blue Yodel Silence You Are," "Blue Yodel of the Quick and the Dead."

Like the speaker in "The Angel of Death," Stanford was an orphan. He attended a Benedictine academy, and later the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, where he intended to study civil engineering. His love of poetry, though, led him in another direction. In the spring semester of 1969, while he was a sophomore, he was invited to attend the graduate poetry workshop. He soon dropped out of college and worked for many years as a surveyor in Arkansas. He certainly knew his home terrain, but make no mistake—flies to the contrary, Stanford was no rube.

In an unpublished manuscript of "versions and improvisation" in the Collected, readers can see the depth of his poetic knowledge. He dedicated poems to Comte de Lautréamont, Jean Follain, René Char, René Daumal, Yukio Mishima, Federico García Lorca, Antonin Artaud, Robert Desnos, Yvan Goll, Pablo Neruda, César Vallejo, and Sergei Yesenin, among others. His backwoods persona seems to deny this depth of reading, but for those who linger over Stanford's poetry, it's apparent.

Most of his poems are narrative, but a Stanford narrative is unlike any other. Take "Wind Blowing on a Sick Man," here in its entirety:

Men with no headlights drive up in front of a whorehouse.

They get out of their car,
Wipe the dust off their shoes
On the back of their pants.

Then they go upstairs and hang a woman.

Summer is almost over, the river is down,
The sun comes loose
Like the bright orange thread
I used to bite off a new pair of dungarees.

The further they drive down the road
The closer their voices get.

At first the title seems to provide an entry into the poem, but as is typical with a Stanford, the title creates even more mystery. The violence, in the third stanza, comes suddenly, and is told in a flat, emotionless manner. More lines are given to how the men clean their shoes than about the murder. The emotion in the poem comes with the imagery: "The sun comes loose / Like the bright orange thread / I used to bite off a new pair of dungarees." That's all we know about our narrator. The closing koan-like couplet leaves us to ponder not only the events, but the dark implications. Are the men drawing near to the narrator? Or is the narrator speaking about their psychic presence, how their act of violence has been internalized?

Death is an ever-present element in Stanford's poetry, a part of the landscape, a natural force like gravity. The opening of “Island Funeral” illustrates this well:

Mama Julinda is let down into a hole
Her sons have to dig minutes ahead
Of time or the water will rise up
And make a channel around her,
And then it would be like having
Bad dreams, standing in a circle on the bank,
Throwing shovels of dirt at a boat.

The “bad dreams” would make Mama’s death even worse, as the bobbing coffin would refuse to sink into the ground, offering a nightmarish resurrection of sorts. Death, however, can take on even more frightening dimensions in Stanford’s poetry, a presence too awful to deny and, eventually, to resist: “you haven’t heard a thing / until you’ve heard / an infant gurgle like a shoal / in its own blood,” he writes in “the molested child goes to the dark tower again 140 years to the day.”

One of the more disturbing poems in the Collected is “The Purpose of Sin,” where the speaker makes a terrible disclosure:

if I were to take a knife
if you could see me mean at the glass grave
and dig it back into my thigh
searching for its curved point
the papers on the desk would flutter
and the ferns hanging from the ceiling
would sway like they were stowed up in a storm
simple air would pour out of my wound
like the soft and the hard bugs on a summer night.

Though sin is never mentioned anywhere in the poem, only the title, it appears to drive the speaker to consider self-mutilation. As with Sylvia Plath, death for Stanford ultimately became seductive. But for a time, poetry seemed to be a way for him to charm the grim reaper. As he says in The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, “all of this / is magic against death.” That magic finally failed him, but the “all of this” he left us was vast. The Collected contains over four hundred poems (with more on the way in the forthcoming Hidden Water: From the Frank Stanford Archives). Given this literary output, any editor would struggle with what to publish, and what to leave in the archive. That said, editor Michael Wiegers has made some odd choices. In his introduction, he tells us that “I did not try to make a complete gathering,” disappointing for a 747-page book called Collected Poems. It’s certainly understandable that this volume cannot include the entire book-length The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You (a part of the even larger manuscript Saint Francis and the Wolf). But the decision to offer snippets from The Battlefield, and to place them throughout the Collected, gives no sense of the size and power of that massive poem. The Battlefield would be better evoked if all the excerpts were placed in a separate section, if they should be included here at all.

Wiegers also tells us he has left out variations of poems “so as to avoid repetition that might make the book less propulsive,” yet he includes a variant of “Desire for a Killing Frost” and two versions of “Death and the Arkansas River.” He also has included forty-three pages of Stanford’s “Uncollected Prose,” which are unpublished short stories, but why not use this space for more of the archival poetry? Or for a fuller biography of Stanford? The one-page biography of this poet, at the back of the book, does little to suggest the richness and complexity of Stanford’s life. Dean Young’s introduction offers imaginative praise of Stanford (“Imagine Vallejo growing up in a tent on the Mississippi”), but Leon Stokesbury’s introduction to The Light the Dead See: Selected Poems of Frank Stanford (University of Arkansas Press, 1991), provides a fuller biography and stronger context for the poems.

A more accurate title for this book would have been The Collected Shorter Poetry, as New Directions did with Kenneth Rexroth and as Copper Canyon themselves did with Hayden Carruth. Or it could have been the first volume in a series, to be followed by The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You (only 542 pages in the last edition!) in its own volume, and a third one collecting all of Stanford’s fiction.

Despite these minor problems, Copper Canyon should be lauded for publishing this much-needed collection—a must read for those who already know his work, and a chance for a new generation of poets to discover it. The publisher should also be commended for the well-chosen illustrations: photographs of Stanford, reproductions of handwritten and typed manuscript pages, a copy of the certificate Stanford received for fourth place in a 1958 poetry contest. These illustrations make the poet less a legend and more the complex young man he was. But what a singular individual, one of those startlingly original poets America always acknowledges far too late (as with Lorine Niedecker and Alfred Starr Hamilton, to name only two).

One last reminder of Stanford’s character can be found on the inside back cover of the book, in a note dated 11/16/74. “Dear Mr. Stanford,” the typed note from the Academy of American Poets begins, regarding his submission of The Battlefield Where The Moon Says I Love You. “We just cannot accept a manuscript for the W. Whitman Award competition that is significantly longer than 100 pages. If you are not able to cut down your entry to that length, then you should not send it in to this particular competition.” No, he could not and would not “cut down” his manuscript. As he says in “With the Approach of the Oak the Axeman Quakes,” “You know there is no other poet on earth like me.” He may have been bragging, but he was speaking an undeniable truth.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015


ardorRoberto Calasso
Translated by Richard Dixon
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux ($35)

by John Toren

Reading Roberto Calasso's Ardor is a little like reading The Lord of the Rings, but from the inside out. Rather than introducing us to a cast of characters whom we accompany through fantastical landscapes full of adventure, mystery, conflict, and occult lore, Calasso draws us directly into a bizarre network of complicated rituals, mythological characters, and metaphysical enigmas—all of which, according to the body of literature he's dealing with, are merely different means of describing how the mind and the cosmos interrelate.

Calasso’s source material is The Vedas, a collection of pre-Hindu teachings that were brought to Northern India from central Asia during the Late Bronze Age. "It was the golden age of ritualists," Calasso tells us and a little further along in the narrative he elaborates. The Vedic world, he writes,

involved a cult, closely bound up with texts of extreme complexity, and an intoxicating plant. A state of awareness became the pivot around which turned thousands and thousands of meticulously codified ritual acts. A mythology, as well as the boldest speculation, arose out of the fateful and dramatic encounter between a liturgy and rapture.

This is a daunting assortment of material to try to wend into a single prose narrative. It's made more difficult still by the fact that the mythological component of Vedic lore, unlike that of the Greeks, remained subservient to its more esoteric and metaphysical sides.

Calasso wisely reserves extended comment on those headier elements until he's familiarized us with a more concrete aspect of the Vedic world—the sacrifice. The Vedic sacrifice was "an attempt to redress a balance that had been upset and violated forever," when humans developed the technology to kill and eat other animals. Calasso suggests, however, that the sacrifice was not a means of expiating guilt; rather, it was designed to exalt the act of killing and eating. The sacrificial ritual underscored the "fact" that the sacrificial creature willingly submitted to the event. No one actually believed this, in Calasso's view, yet the fiction was essential, for "to carry out a gesture in that direction . . . is the supreme effort granted to thought, granted to action, where we come face to face with the irreconcilable."

And the sacrifice can take several forms: sometimes it seems to be an intellectual dispute, at other times merely the pouring of a few tablespoons of fresh milk on a carefully laid household fire to the accompaniment of ritual verses, some of them intentionally mumbled, others spoken aloud.

Reader may find it difficult to keep their bearings when thrown into such a hodgepodge of arcane assertions, digressions, elaborations, and asides. But to those who have read and enjoyed Calasso's previous books, this method of criss-crossing the landscape of a foreign time and culture will be familiar.

For example, at one point Calasso gives us an extended critique of the Vedic solution to the question: Why is it true that man should not be naked in the presence of the cow? He informs us how, in Vedic lore, the four phases of a household fire—first lit, burning, blazing, and reduced to embers—correspond to the divine forms Rudra, Varuna, Indra, and Mitra. He spends a few pages examining Vedic instructions for selecting a tree from which to fashion a post to which the sacrificial victim will be tied. It wouldn't do to select a tree from the near edge of the forest—too obvious—and it would also be uncouth to choose one from the nether side. No, the tree must be the nearest among the far, the farthest among the near.

After a review of the elaborate Vedic instructions on how long the sacrificial post must be, Calasso offers a typically grandiose gloss: "Here we see two fundamental impulses of brahminic thought brought together: the exasperating mania for exhaustive classification on the one hand; and the underlying willingness to recognize an immensity that overwhelms everything and can be felt everywhere."

As we proceed further into the mire of Vedic ritual and wisdom, sustained at times only by Calasso's sterling prose, the immensities multiply. In part, this is because in India, as opposed to the West, "mind" was elevated to a position above speech. That being the case, the words we use to describe the great mysteries of our own existence are likely to be inadequate to the task. Soon we're struggling, with Calasso as our guide, to make sense of a notion such as asat—the unmanifest. It's a sort of non-being that nevertheless corresponds in some way with praha (the vital breaths) and acts through the practice of tapas, a striving that overheats consciousness. Such tapas is the "ardor" of the book's title. As Calasso puts it bluntly, "too many palpable elements are attributed to this nonbeing."

In a later chapter, Calasso goes further, exploring the interrelationships described in various Vedic hymns between such closely related notions as the Self (ātman), the "I" (aham), awareness (citta), intention (saṃkalpa), knowledge (veda), meditation (dhyana), and discernment (vijñāna). This is only a sampling of the many conditions, mental states, and ontological categories involved, though Calasso keeps the narrative thread alive by introducing them one after another within the context of a ritual dialogue between Sanatkumāra and his pupil, Nārada. Along the way he offers brief references to Parmenides, Schopenhauer, Kafka, and Ignatius of Loyola, among other thinkers, to clarify similarities and (more often) differences between Vedic and Western concepts. A good deal is at stake here, because, at least according to Calasso, "the primacy of awareness over everything is the cornerstone of Vedic thought."

Calasso is occasionally forced to admit his own perplexity, as in the case of the emptiness (ābhu) in which the One that was born out of nothing was clad. In his efforts to gather material to illuminate such concepts (or articles of dress), he often refers to the views of Vedic scholars that few readers are likely to have heard of—men like Renou, Eggeling, and Geldner. On other occasions Calasso will single out a scholar only to emphasize how wrong-headed the man's theories are. Frits Staal, for example, comes in for extended criticism for advancing the notion that in order to appraise the Vedas accurately, we need to rid ourselves of the notion that they actually mean anything.

It's clear from Ardor that the Vedas mean many things, which perhaps come together in the "awareness" required to successfully perform the "sacrifice." But as usual, things aren't really that simple. At one point Calasso describes the underlying presumption of the sacrifice as follows: "Truth is an unnatural state for man. Man enters such a state only through the artificiality of the vow and the long sequence of actions (rites) connected to it. But he cannot remain there."

The idea that a ritual sacrifice could be truth is largely alien to post-Christian Western thought, and it seems unlikely that Calasso himself believes life's challenges can be reduced to the task of properly sprinkling clarified butter onto a campfire. All the same, it's a pleasure to follow the peculiar and refreshing lines of reasoning that follow from that notion. There are enough tidbits of both esoteric wisdom and anthropological insight on any given page of Ardor to keep us moving ahead. If the cumulative weight of such nuggets becomes onerous, it might be useful to know that the various chapters of Ardor, with titles such as "The Flight of the Black Antelope," "Vedic Erotica," and "Hermits in the Forest," aren't elaborations of a single unfolding theme, but largely independent essays on a variety of related subjects.

In the end, Ardor possesses all the qualities that readers have come to admire in Calasso's work. At one point he writes, "The Vedic seers regarded the passage of the mind from one thought to the next, and its ever deeper immersion into the same thought, as the model for every journey." Ardor describes a journey deep into the heart of Indo-European civilization, and with Calasso as our guide, it's a journey well worth taking.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015


driftCaroline Bergvall
Nightboat Books ($19.95)

by Greg Bem

What is the nature of inquiry? What does it mean to “ask the question”? How does the poetic process have an impact on cultural excavation? Caroline Bergvall’s compelling Drift explores these questions and more. A larger project made up of linked components, this book is overwhelmed with the thoughts of an immense ethnographic space, a vast cultural chamber—one that exists above and around the poet, but also through which Bergvall approaches herself. She is the ongoing researcher, the protagonist bent upon seeking a truth through attentiveness:

The room was busy
the living were noisy
crowding out the place
the dead were marching through
noone was paying attention
thats when I started to

Opening this book is therefore akin to starting a quest, a quest for structure and truth amidst bending language and capsizing vessels of thought. We begin with a sequence of sixteen illustrations that may be tornados, monsoons, erased texts, sound waves, seismographic recordings, or even a contemplative scribble. Ultimately the mind wanders toward an interpretation of wind: scratches as broad in breadth as a blast of air. These pages open us to a windy sea.

“Seafarer” is the first text proper the reader encounters, and it’s posited behind a weave of narratives, navigations, and histories. Starting Drift, we become adrift in Bergvall’s own waves of material, to be awoken upon raging seas, cruel coastlines, and a bountiful “beyond” drawing us closer:

. . . gewacked by
seachops gave up all parts of me on gebattered
ship Yet a hungor innan mind stole me to more
weird comas let me let me let me let me freeze
Blow wind blow, anon am I

As the book’s source notes confirm, such text “uses and spins off from” medieval Anglo-Saxon quest poetry, making Drift at least partially a crisp but dauntingly abstracted series of translations. Mercy is not spared for the reader, who must read cryptically along the wash and noise of a dense set of song cycles. We are given the gift of anonymity by being readers: in the case of Drift, there is the anonymity of truth, of authorship, and of Bergvall’s conceptual conditionings and constraints.

In the moments we see translation, we witness erasure. We feel the currents of energy Bergvall passes from what she has read to that which she writes. A well-lit process hides behind the text itself, steaming out from beneath the printed characters in patterns. Patterns and cycles imbue the text with an aloofness, a quality of shuddering, a touch of transition: the flotsam and jetsam of language. Take the poet’s powerful and mysterious mash-up below, for instance:

Beat bells blow foghorns! Gebangbang for rumbly lowe!
When will the wind come? Where will the wind from come?
Will it come from the naught, bringing phobias and rationing?

Drift brings us statements and questions and deciphering and none of it is neat, as it need not be. Its joy is one of endurance, of fatigue, and of engaging an environment of poetry larger than ego, fathomable and intense. That which is represented is then tweaked, morphed, sculpted. But why?

The reader must hold off answering until the book’s finale. Truth is a moment of climax and authority, but the journey must be undertaken for the lessons to be learned. No clearer has the poet provided truth in journey than through “Report,” arguably the most powerful and the most anonymous space of the book. In it we follow, through ghostly reports and pixelated images, the deadly journey of Libyan migrants toward Italy. Their failed quest poses the ultimate question: why were they allowed to die? But more importantly, Bergvall’s own audacity to print this spectrum of her path of inquiry provokes, pokes, and prods the reader to dread in ways medieval poetry cannot. “This compass and the stars were their only means of orientation at this point,” she writes. And yet the language maintains a distance, a coldness, an anonymity. The poet is alive amidst the forceful, displacing currents of the tide.

Bergvall’s cunning poetry is born out of ideas. At the end of Drift, she provides the reader with a day journal, called “Log,” filled with hopes and imaginations. “To remind myself that this project is not an exercise in translation, however closely I work with the original text. It is a template for writing. And for excavating language. For finding the teeth of my own text, for locating its workable memory trails” Her insight is precious; it sorts out value for us, and becomes the warm heart of anthropology within an array of messy movements, of poetic image and sonic buzz scattered throughout the 185 pages of Drift. Reading them, we enter what feels maddening, and incorrigibly raw: the captain’s chambers in a gargantuan craft floating across an abyss of vision.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

Sleep is More Than Mystery: An Interview with Ralph Adamo

Ralph Adamo picby Paul Dean

Born and raised in New Orleans, Ralph Adamo is among the many artists who have left that city only to return. For most of his life he has stayed firmly rooted in its presence, raising a family, teaching at the college level, editing, and all the while producing several volumes of poetry, the first two published by Frank Stanford’s and C.D. Wright’s Lost Roads Publishers. He has won several awards for his poetry, including a fellowship from the NEA; he has also worked in various other jobs, including as a television writer and a journalist.

Adamo’s newest book, Ever, (Lavender Ink, $16) came out in 2014, and I saw him read from its pages in the courtyard of the famed Maple Leaf Bar in New Orleans. Adamo’s poems are dreamlike, earthy, raw, and tender at times—especially the ones involving his kids, Jack and Lily. In other instances, Ralph can mesmerize with his language and then surprise you with his ferocity—like the time he told me, “Don't ever be afraid to read a poem; don't ever apologize. You hold that audience like you've got a gun to their heads. You read them a damn poem.” What can you say to that?

In the following interview, we discuss Ever, Stanford, and the mysteries of place and time, among other worthy topics.

Paul Dean: What was it like to grow up in New Orleans and what made you first decide to write? Who were your earliest influences in this regard?

Ralph Adamo: My parents were both readers, and both read to us. I remember my mother reading stories and my father reading us one comic in particular from the Friday funny pages, “The Teeny Weenies,” about little folk who lived in matchboxes and such. There was also always talk in our house, words were part of my upbringing. I read early too, beginning with comic books, which I loved, not just liked. And I loved the library (and later in the suburbs, the bookmobile). The Dr. Doolittle series was a particular favorite, one I have not been able to get my own kids interested in.

Somewhere in about the sixth grade I wrote a poem, and I liked it so much I was hooked, so I kept trying—though not systematically or with anybody reading them. I was by then in the new suburbs of Jefferson parish, but those suburbs were still pretty wild, lots of wooded areas, canals, smoking logs, and snakes. We kids spent a lot of our time in the ’50s and early ’60s walking around in fairly dense wooded areas carrying our BB guns; historical figures like the Green Mountain Boys had some real resonance for us.

I didn’t have any more compelling influences until high school, and even then was not given much of a glimpse of poetry beyond a few predictable American poems. I started writing poems then that now appear to me to be a sort of naturally occurring surrealism (a term I didn’t hear until college). In high school, I found a few people to show my poems to, one slightly older student who also wrote and one teacher who was into literature. I edited our school literary magazine, and gradually I started thinking of myself as “a poet.” By late in high school (the mid-’60s) I began listening to Bob Dylan albums.

These are all elements of what was happening, but I still don’t know what really made me write. I was also very interested in politics and thought of myself as straddling some line between literature and politics, which was as good a way as any to slide into the later ’60s. The images on television from those days—of the civil rights struggle being played out across the South, of the destruction of bodies in the Vietnam War—had a profound effect on me. And of course, in college—Loyola, right here in New Orleans—I met and became close to both Miller Williams (who would move on to the University of Arkansas, with me following) and John William Corrington, who would indulge my taste for erudite talk (his, with me as listener, mostly), sometimes for hours on end.

Ralph Adamo and dog picPD: You mentioned Dylan, and I'm glad you did. I first started to write seriously when I discovered his albums. What resonated with you in Dylan's work? Was it the politics or the poetry itself?

RA: Well, both, of course. It pleases me to hear that a young writer like you was also influenced by Dylan. I think he is one of those unavoidable and gigantic influences that we all have to absorb and then resist in our individual assimilations (like Berryman, whom one cannot help but imitate and whom one must not imitate). Dylan’s language is irresistible both as sound and as simple, profound statement. I have no problem identifying his work as some of the great poetry of our time. In fact, the thing that blew my first attempt to get out of grad school with a degree was saying much the same thing in my final exam; my teachers, all of whom were raised on the New Criticism, could not dig it. Anyway, Dylan's work, especially that early stuff, is thoroughly imbued with the politics of the time, and also the residual politics represented in his assimilation of Guthrie, Rodgers, etc.—that is, 1930s radicalism of the sort we lost, so regrettably.

PD: Where do you think the surrealist influence came from in your early writing, especially in how you treat film, landscape, and the city itself?

RA: It may seem odd to say, but I am not really aware of the surrealist influence. It's certainly truer now than it was when I began writing that we are surrounded by surrealist images and ideations; it is pretty much the soup we swim in. Even when I started writing it was pervasive, though we were far less aware of it, and may have not even heard the term. I'm talking about cartoons, songs, some film and television (the sitcom Green Acres, for instance). So a lot of that influence came by way of cultural transmission: The Three Stooges, the Marx Brothers movies, Bullwinkle . . . Where it became conscious and more serious was when I (we) discovered the Latin American poets, and out of sequence, the French poets who'd started it all. Finally, I read Breton's first surrealist manifesto, and all innocence was lost. I began to understand it as a broader philosophical position, not simply a weird way of looking at experience or a set of artistic tools.

Your question includes "the city itself," and that is an interesting thought. I can't claim what Garcia Marquez does—that his surrealism (or magic realism) came from simply observing his milieu—but it's true that New Orleans for a kid growing up offered some wonderful strangeness, like the old Mardi Gras parades and those more innocent crowds who flocked to them; the great diversity that we didn't have a name for then; our peculiar vegetation and the swampscapes around the city. Yeah, that had to have been in my head somewhere.

PD: What made you decide to stay in town to go to college and then eventually pursue creative writing in Arkansas?

RA: Going to college wasn’t the same sort of anxiety-ridden experience it seems to be today. Even so, my experience was probably more random than most. I had not applied to college during high school; only as summer came on did I start looking around, and applied to Loyola without a lot of thought. I signed on as a Poly Sci major, but quickly got bored by the way it was taught. I switched to English, studied under Corrington, and became the first student assistant to the new magazine Williams created, New Orleans Review.

Corrington declined to read my poems, telling me he’d do so once I got them published. Williams was generous, almost eager to mentor me in poetry. For several years this continued as a regular thing—I’d give him a handful of poems, he’d give them back all marked up with suggestions. I’d take some, and move on, more interested in writing new poems than in revising old ones. Eventually, the process became onerous, and I suppose part of my development, as I rebelled against the imposition of his vision, was that my aesthetic became more my own. Memories of that process have influenced the way I approach teaching creative writing; I am less inclined to be a heavy-handed critic, more likely to try to influence students covertly.

There were lots of other things that happened at Loyola—the politics of the late ’60s intruded in a big way. But for me, too, the chance to hear and meet all the writers that Miller and Bill brought to campus (memorably, James Dickey, Shane Stevens, and J. Michael Yates, among others) was world changing, as was the semester when I was selected along with maybe seven other students to be in the first class Walker Percy ever taught. He called the course “The Novel of Alienation,” and the reading list was wonderful, sobering.

The other watershed experience for me involved being first reader for the New Orleans Review—it’s hard to put into words the scope of things I learned in that odd, privileged position. In the late ’60s, too, I began sending poems out and had some success publishing in pretty good places—Shenandoah, The American Scholar, and others. In 1969 I was selected to go to the Breadloaf Writer’s Conference, where I suppose the big thing that happened was the confirmation of my sense of “belonging” in this world of writing, at the same time I was scared of it and put off by it. That’s pretty much continued to be my feeling as a writer.

I met R. S. “Sam” Gwynn there too, a friendship resumed once I got to Arkansas and one that continues. Sam, of course, was a friend of Frank Stanford’s before me, and even hired Frank his first summer there to assist him in some land surveying job, an experience Leon has incorporated in his elegy for Frank, from the story Sam told.

PD: I have to know, if you can remember, what were some of the books from the Percy course that affected you the most?

RA: I remember the whole list! Ellison's Invisible Man had a big impact on me. The theme and characters and writing, of course, but almost more than that, the fact that his protagonist acted, took action, even in his despair. The simplicity and deep cutting quality of The Sun Also Rises comes to mind, and the claustrophobic feeling of Notes from Underground. The breadth of The Sound and the Fury, especially the part where Benji is the narrator. The humor and intensity of Wise Blood. Thinking about it now, I guess what strikes me most about the reading, and our relatively limited discussion of it all, is how much I learned about the act of writing from Percy's almost Zen-like refusal to say much. He was new to teaching, wasn't trying to teach exactly, but whatever he did, it had a lasting effect on me.

Let me mention also the two French books, The Stranger and Nausea. The Stranger is probably the book Percy felt the most about, and that fact communicated itself to us clearly. I remember when I read Percy's Lancelot, I could tell that his book was haunted by The Stranger. Sartre’s Nausea was harder to read and harder to like, and I'm not sure I ever got more than the superficial idea of it, that sense of overwhelming exhaustion.

PD: What was it was like to study with/be around so many interesting people in Arkansas during the ’70's?

RA: Pretty great mostly, with lots of highs and lows. The Vietnam War was dragging on, Nixon was re-elected, and Watergate began to unravel almost right away. There were dark and oppressive clouds everywhere, but my “escape” to the countryside was somehow doubly disorienting. Maybe it was therefore good for my poetry, which flourished in the four years I was there.

Adamo, Mike Presti (center), and Everette Maddox(right) pic from mid 70's

Adamo, Mike Presti (center), and Everette Maddox (right), mid ’70s

There’s no doubt that the real learning for me came not from school, nor from teachers, but from the writers who were there with me as students. Sam was there, very clever and funny and well-read, but because he was married, a little less available than some. My first friends were John Stoss and Leon Stokesbury, with whom I shared a house in my second year there. Stoss was a big farm kid (older by about eight years), insanely prolific, and wildly open to every great influence that came along—someone who early on got surrealism and magic realism and the ancient Chinese poets. Leon was more focused on the immediate poetry scene and world, which he studied hard and knew intimately. He and I spent what seems like a couple of years’ worth of afternoons listening to music stoned, talking and reading poetry, drinking and eating too much. He was obsessive about his own work, constantly making tiny revisions and reading it over and over. I learned most of my early notions of the wider world of poetry from Leon, though there were places he didn’t go—Pound, Olsen, that whole direction of poetry.

Leon had a car; I did not. I probably walked ten miles a day up and down hills. Fayetteville in those days was not the pleasant affluent town it has become. It was still pretty countrified, an old school university town. That whole foreign landscape was a big jolt to my system and probably good for my poetry and development in general. There were others in those first couple of years, like Gary Ligi from New York, who did read Pound and was much more a stranger in the small town South than me. Later Steve Stern, the extraordinary novelist and comic genius, still a close friend. C. D. Wright, so brilliant and gifted and kind and funny. Others I never knew as well like Jack Butler, John Wood, most of the fiction writers. Julia Alvarez came through for a year (or maybe just a semester), quite an exotic presence and very sweet. Like many females who started there (Nancy Harris was one too), she felt less than welcome and moved on. The ethos was a little over-macho; I was one of the few people who hadn’t played football and didn’t give a rat’s ass about it. But Jim Whitehead did, and he was the real heart of the poetry program. Some evenings we’d all be at his house (and he had six or eight kids too); there’d be arm wrestling contests, scrambled eggs smothered in ketchup.

Yeah, I am dancing around Frank.

I met Frank for the first time within my first few days in town, so August 1970. Leon drove us up Mount Sequoyah, one of the low, hilly mountains on either end of town, where Frank lived with his first wife in a little cabin. I have a few impressions left of that meeting—Frank grinning and pulling at his pants waist, saying of Linda “She likes her boy thin”; Frank talking about what he’d been working on; a couple of dogs loping about.

That first semester was about the only time I saw Frank with any regularity until after I had left town after graduating in 1974 and returned for regular visits, after 1975. He was in and out, had either left town after that semester or made himself scarce, or both. I know he did some traveling, spent some time on the road doing interviews with older poets, some time in New York, some time on the west coast with his Mill Mountain publisher. He made the short film It Wasn’t a Dream It Was a Flood in that time. Also during this time he and Linda parted, and he met up with Ginny somewhere on the road, eventually marrying her and moving into her family’s old farmhouse outside of Liberal, Missouri, just over the Arkansas border. But all that happened outside my range of vision, and by the time I reconnected with him, he and C. D. Wright had gotten together and he was living his double life, spending time in Fayetteville with Carolyn and time on the farm with Ginny.

So, backing up: Frank and the rest of the poets (by my arrival, Frank had stepped away from workshop) owned the university’s film series and brought in all the great old surrealist films, films noir, and European classics, and I’d see him at those screenings sometimes. Once I remember six of us, Leon driving and Frank and Linda in the backseat, went to a drive-in movie. I made the mistake of tripping and the proximity to my friends was, well, too much. There was another occasion when the two of them came to a little dinner Stoss cooked at the house we shared.

What I’m saying is all my early contacts were pretty ordinary, and between us it was like between any two shy people—friendly, reserved. The most electric time was at a party they threw for Alan Dugan’s visit, after Dugan’s reading. Frank had been really embraced by Dugan, and he (Frank) went kind of wild at the party, telling people off that he didn’t like, firing a shotgun into the ceiling. After that, which would’ve been in the spring of 1971, he pretty much disappeared from our lives. The Singing Knives came out around that time.

PD: It seems as if Stanford is an enigma in every interview or second-hand anecdote about him. Was he trying to cultivate for himself some kind of mythic status? Obviously his work makes it sound that way, but did he really think of himself as a poet that would last? Was he even able to separate himself from the work?

RA: That’s a tough set a questions, and goes to the heart of a lot of the fascination Frank seems to arouse. I can’t say whether there was deliberate self-mythologizing in Frank’s behavior. Was he thinking about how he would be regarded posthumously is what it comes down to, and I don’t know, though some of the evidence suggests as much. It’s a pretty weird thing, isn’t it—to try to prepare and control your own afterlife? We think when we read certain poets of the past that they did this, that there is a precedent that might have influenced Frank. And of course, as he was a person with astonishing gifts as well as the hidden mental health issues that often accompany such gifts, who knows what odd thoughts he might have entertained? But he was aware of how good a poet he was. I think he knew it innately, but even if not, the reactions of other poets would have tipped him off. He told C. D. that he had “perfect pitch” for language, and I think that’s an accurate bit of self-awareness. Did he believe in the longevity of his own work? Probably, yes. But was that any comfort to him? That’s the question I can’t answer.

PD: I'm sure that most people know the backstory of Stanford—quasi-orphan turned moon-drunk levee poet. Did he ever talk about his past in the way that his poetry seems to address it?

RA: For these questions, I am the wrong person. I gather from other people—both what some have said and others written—that he did, and that it was a real watershed when he found out that he was an adopted orphan. C. D., among others, has written about the profound effect this had on him, which she must know from his talking about it. I understand that he changed, that his outlook became darker. But whatever I know about this is secondhand. When he and I talked, it was all pretty much in the present.

PD: What drew you back to New Orleans? What was the poetry scene like here?

RA: Well, it was time to leave. I stayed an extra year, fighting with Miller about my degree. He had not liked my exit exam at all; it was a rebellious document and deliberately provocative as by then I was completely turned off to the “academy.” I survived on Poetry in the Schools gigs, and continued living with my girlfriend and working on my MFA manuscript. The best ten or twelve poems from that are in Sadness at the Private University, my first full collection, which Frank published through Lost Roads in 1977.

I probably never would have gotten out of there except for C. D. Wright going to Miller one day and saying, “Let him go” in her incredibly authoritative Arkansas drawl. I might’ve stayed just out of inertia except that my father was diagnosed with cancer, and I wanted to be home during his operation and treatment. But honestly, except for being glad to return to a handful of old friends, I was not really happy coming back here. I just didn’t have the ambition to seek any job anywhere, so I stayed, working at whatever I could find—a year in the Tulane Jazz Archive first, some renovation carpentry work (as a helper, not very skilled), a year working with old people under Jimmy Carter’s CETA program, a sort of junior WPA. In other words, a period of drift, of drinking too much, hanging out, becoming friends with Everette Maddox who was newly in town. So, the basic answer to your question is family, I guess, and this was home, so this is where I came back to.

There was not much of a poetry scene then, just slightly more than there had been when I left. Tulane had not yet hired a writer in residence; NOCCA hadn’t opened; UNO had some young writers but was years away from its MFA; there were almost no readings, certainly no series, though there was a sort of old-line poetry society that put on some. Louis Gallo had started Barataria Review, and he was responsible for some of the readings I did. Now there are more poets, and lots of good ones, more than we could have imagined in the mid-’70s. There is excitement and publishing at a very high level.

PD: Did Everette and Frank ever encounter one another?

It seems odd now, but I think Frank and Rette only met one time, though each knew about the other, certainly from me, as I am always promoting one friend to another. I know Frank and I went around to a few clubs, at least once to Tyler's (for several years the most exciting jazz club in town) when Astral Project was on—same band as now, but in their infancy. He was absolutely blown away. For all his love of modern jazz, I don’t think he had had the chance to hear that much live and these guys were (as they are now) incredible. We stayed to the end and he talked to them a bit afterwards. This comes back to me now as I recall the week of mourning in Fayetteville, when Ginny, Carolyn, several others and I sat in a little room talking about the funeral, reading from the script Frank had left (written in the final couple of days at Ellen Gilchrist’s house), where he specified that he wanted Astral Project to play at his funeral. Well, I called them—Ellen had offered to put up money to pay their travel and pay them to play—and we talked enough for them to understand the impact they’d had on him in his final days, to appreciate who he was, but they just couldn’t see their way to come up to Fayetteville and play. I can’t remember why now—other commitments maybe, maybe it was just too weird. But they didn’t come after what seemed like an exhaustive pitch by me.

But what I was getting at a moment ago was that in all that bar-going, I don’t think Frank and I were ever in the same place at the same time as Rette, except for one time: Frank and I had gotten off the streetcar at a bar on St. Charles with outdoor tables and we were sitting sipping a beer. Rette was either walking by or saw us from another streetcar and got off to join us, but either way, he showed up. It was definitely unplanned. At the time, early summer of 1978, Rette was in a bad way, having just been kicked out by his wife not too long before. He wouldn’t mind my characterizing his behavior as “pissing and moaning,” which is what it was, however justified, and that was all he could muster for conversation. Frank and I listened, commiserated, had a few more beers. When Rette finally got up and left, Frank looked at me and said—words I remember vividly as they became so portentous—“I could never live that way.”

PD: How did you reunite with Frank in the mid to late ’70s, especially enough for him to publish your first collection? I love the title of Sadness at the Private University. It seems to hint at what you've been speaking about—the conflict of home.

RA: We had lost touch after my first year or so in town. He was either away, which he was part of the time, or living outside the university axis. We had not been close then anyway, just together mostly with other people. I left Fayetteville in late summer of 1974, but started returning every few months, at first mainly to visit the girlfriend I had left behind. But she moved on to grad school in another state by late 1975, and then my visits were just to see friends—Steve Stern, Carolyn, a few others who were still around. When Carolyn began her relationship with Frank, that’s when he came back into my life as well. I stayed with them a few times; they came to New Orleans at least a couple of times. At least once, Frank came on his own, before that last time. Some of the memories are vivid: Once after I’d just gotten there and was standing chatting with Carolyn, Frank came through the room waving a top hat and cane and dancing; Carolyn said he was always doing things like that. One time they were staying in the apartment Ellen kept in Fayetteville (she’d stay for a spell working on her MFA, but spent more time at home in New Orleans, where she was still raising two teenagers); I remember this one more vividly because I was in such an extreme state myself, broke, with maybe one change of clothes, and, as always, they took care of me. They were about to start Lost Roads, which Frank envisioned as “a bookpress in magazine issue.” The plan, carried through the first 18 volumes, was to produce books that looked alike (except for the cover art), very plain otherwise, modeled after European books, I think.

I don’t quite remember when or how he asked for my book, which became Lost Roads #3. I gave him two manuscripts and he selected the twenty poems that are in Sadness. (There was one he selected that I didn’t want in, so I substituted another; I couldn’t tell you now which or why.) The title was the title of one of the poems; the cover art—a man being fed into an oven while evil spirits were flushed out—was something Frank found.

When copies were being shipped to me I talked to him on the phone and he said I “should have a weenie roast or something” to celebrate. I didn’t, though I did walk around in a cloud for a while when they arrived.

PD: Did Frank change at all from when you first met him?

RA: Well, everyone does in small ways, don’t they? But basically no, I don’t think so. What changed was that our friendship developed, though never what seemed like a really close one. I say it that way because I don’t really know what I was to Frank, or how he felt about our friendship. He was not very talkative, but he could be very funny. He was always observing, and he grinned a lot. When he was trying to make a point, he spoke very deliberately, frowning, carefully choosing words. But did he change from when I met him in 1970 to when I saw him last on June 2, 1978? I think maybe he had lost something from the first time to the last—that is, that he felt something was lost and could not be regained. Maybe it was just everything catching up with him, a kind of exhaustion—which makes sense when you read the first book (The Singing Knives) and the epic (The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You) and grasp how much he had already experienced, in life and in imagination, while still in his childhood.

PD: How was Lost Roads operating as a press in those days?

RA: Lost Roads was a labor-intensive operation. Frank, Carolyn, and a hired helper with printing experience produced those first eighteen books (the 540-page epic is counted as Lost Roads #7-12) on a letterpress they had acquired. Some funding came from the NEA, some came from Ellen Gilchrist. I can’t tell you much about the press except that. They put out an initial six books, then Battlefield, then a second six before Carolyn changed things up after Frank’s death. Really the last six were put out by Carolyn afterwards, though she and Frank had chosen the books—except for my second book, The End of the World, which became Lost Roads #17. The poet whose book was to be #17 withdrew when Frank died, and Carolyn asked if I had another one ready, which I did. Of course she kept it going through a large number of books with her poet-husband Forrest Gander as her partner, before giving it over to younger editors. Like most small presses, they were not very effective at getting books seen, bought, and reviewed, though they tried.

PD: Tell me about the last days. I've heard that he came down to New Orleans before flying back to Arkansas. Did you encounter him while he was here, and did he seem different?

RA: Yeah, his visit began around the middle of May, not too long after the May 3rd flood of 1978, which covered much of uptown New Orleans. He showed up seeming cheerful, unannounced. He sought me out the first day, but stayed much of the time in a basement room in Ellen’s big house on Webster Street. (I lived in a little half-shotgun also on Webster, about ten blocks closer to the river.) The ostensible reason for his visit was to work with Ellen on her poems, which became a Lost Roads book, The Land Surveyor’s Daughter. The more pressing reason seems to have had to do with his sense that things were not going well back home, where he was juggling his relationship with Carolyn with his marriage to Ginny. She was painting, significantly under Frank’s creative influence, and Carolyn was writing, also much under his influence. Carolyn knew about Ginny, of course, but Ginny did not know about the relationship with Carolyn. For some reason, the two of them got together while he was away, and both threatened to leave him. This is all pretty well documented in other places, so I won’t go into detail.

Frank spent some time writing a will, writing long letters to each of them. I even saw him doing some of that writing, sitting in one of Ellen’s living rooms. He seemed pensive, but not that distressed. He did change his return plane ticket several times, extending his stay rather than go back. We assumed he was putting off the confrontation and that may have been it initially, though in retrospect it seems as though he was putting off his suicide. But exactly when he decided to do that is not clear. We know he borrowed a small pistol when he got to town on the morning of June 3rd, and that the confrontation with Carolyn and Ginny was hard on all of them. And that he was dead by early evening, of the famous three shots to the heart.

Given what happened, it seems trivial to have mostly trivial memories of his two plus weeks here, but I remember walking, eating, talking, even a trip down to Bourbon Street. Frank also met and worked on poetry with a friend of Ellen’s, the late Kay Duvernay, who stayed with him overnight in my house his last night in town. She drove him to the airport the next morning before I woke up.

There are people who heard him declare that he would not live past thirty, that he would kill himself before. So the causes and circumstances of his death remain in a gray area. Would he have done it if he were returning to the status quo or even to happiness? This is unknowable, like so much to do with Frank, or with suicide.

PD: How have the years changed your opinion of Frank as a person and a poet? Has distance changed anything for you? I know that you've mentioned Frank in several of your poems or dedicated them to him.

RA: The night of June 3rd, when my friend Cheri came to my house to tell me (I had no phone, and someone had gotten word to her), I felt like the bottom had dropped out of the world. The night passed in a more drunken haze than usual, and I wound up sleeping on the floor of a commune house where Alabama friends of Everette’s were living. I bought a plane ticket in the morning and went to be with Carolyn and Ginny and everyone else there in a state of shock and mourning. My father drove me to the airport, obviously worried about me, and I remember telling him, “I never showed him any warmth,” which even now baffles me although it is true. Things were different enough in those days that when the stewardess came over to caution me about drinking any more of the bottle I’d brought, she wound up sitting next to me and having a drink in commiseration.

The week I spent there is etched in memory in about fifty discreet moments. Several days a number of us essentially camped out in Jim Whitehead’s house. Eventually we caravanned to Subiaco, where Frank had gone to school, and buried him there in the monastery grounds. There are stories to tell about that time, but not now, as I have already talked too much. Anyway, one day I’ll write that story myself.

It is not difficult to go back to that time and it feels as raw and powerful as it did then. I thought Frank was a great poet then, and do now. I think I have more reason to think it now, more understanding of how it is true, but it hasn’t really changed in kind. I am convinced that he lived a very intentional life, certainly more so than me, but also more than it seemed then.

The few poems I’ve written about Frank are not as revealing or interesting as the ones I’ve mentioned by my friends, his friends. Mine were felt, but they don’t do very much, I think. I am happier with the essay I was asked to write for The Asheville Review, for their issue in 2000 titled “Ten Great Neglected Poets of the Twentieth Century.” It still isn’t much, but it felt good to write it.

PD: Is there one thing that you could tell me about Frank that no one else knows or has previously told in an interview?

RA: Oh, there are a couple of things. (Realizing that makes me feel a little like a dog rationing his pee as he moves from tree to fence to car tire.) There was one small thing in that last visit: he told me about being really fond of a waitress in one of the little Fayetteville cafes; I can’t remember her name now but he made sure I heard it. I believe he was asking me to pass that message along to her, and I did, during that long week of mourning when we buried him. She was young and pretty, of course, and was grateful to hear what he had said about her.

One funny moment was when Frank came by my house, where I was sitting on the steps with a girlfriend. She asked him some pretty personal questions, including whether he had any kids and his answer was, “No,” and when she asked why, he said, “Just lucky I guess.” Of course, then, no one I knew had kids, or no one trying to write, even though we were hitting thirty.

Another time, Frank, Ellen, and I went to a place called Rosie’s on Tchoupitoulas St., a jazz club subsidized by its wealthy owner that brought in acts that could never be paid for by the cover, as the room was relatively small. Anyway, we’d parked across the street and were smoking a joint. When it got really small, I turned it around to “shotgun” smoke into their mouths, and it cracked Frank up when I did this; he looked up and said, “Look, Ellen, me and Ralph are kissing!”

During that last couple of weeks in New Orleans, I frequently had the feeling he was saying things deliberately, to be recalled. And there were some self-conscious gestures. The walls of my tiny bathroom in my little apartment were decorated with prints of figures from a book on the Sistine Chapel. On one of them was of a troubled looking man; I saw, after I got back from the funeral, that Frank had written on the side of the image, as though identifying it as himself, “What is Frank looking for?”

But I am not really the person to ask. Ginny or Carolyn would have thousands of small moments to tell. Some of the friends that he maybe fell out with a bit—Sam or Leon or John Wood—would probably have more robust stories. All three of those guys have written poems about Frank. And of course his old friends like Billy Willet. My memories are smaller and maybe less substantial; that they come from the end of his life is their only real distinction.

everPD: Let’s shift to talking about your new book Ever. The poems here seem to be specifically about time, so much so that the sections are even divided into various aspects of time (Central Time, Sampling Time, Time Out). What role did time have in these poems for you? It seems especially important when you are talking about being a father at an older stage in life.

RA: I don’t mean to be pedantic, but time did have a way of asserting itself in the poems: they were written over a fourteen-year period, and I suppose that’s because it was on my mind. Not that it has driven me to do the practical things one ought to do, but certainly, the element of time in relation to my new duties as a father has been a kind of driving consciousness. But then time is a big deal in my 1979 book The End of the World, too—there in a more cosmic sense, a sort of wonder at the scope of it, the incomprehensible nature of it. My original title for the collection was Sampling Time, by which I intended the meaning of “sampling” as in the musical sense, as well as the idea that in living that is what we are doing, sampling portions of time.

PD: Many of the poems seem to be about understanding the self versus what the self has created, namely, children. I'm thinking about the poem “Lily Twice” where the last line ends with “I see only later.” What impact does seeing or reflecting on something have for you after the fact?

RA: The phenomenon is a familiar one to me: to see only sometime later what I might have and maybe should have seen in the moment. There’s also that definition of poetry—“experience recollected in tranquility”—at work here. It’s not the only way of looking at poetry, but it’s probably a pretty common experience for people writing poems.

PD: In “The Forgetting” you say that “the forgetting is ferocious and takes / all my time.” I think I have an idea of what you mean by this line, but I'd like to hear you elaborate on it, as well as on the poem overall. Also, the poem goes on to name those you've known that have passed (Frank and Everette among them). What does it mean for you to name the dead?

RA: This may be another function of aging, to have accumulated a lifetime of embarrassments, failures, moments or people disappointed, and I think that’s part of what I meant in that line. Then there are the things that are more painful than simple embarrassment or even failure, things that seemed at the time as though they would kill you and the mere fact that they didn’t does not diminish their painfulness or the suffering, leaving the act of “forgetting” as the only way forward. That poem, like a lot of the ones in Ever, is pieced together, written in different times and moods, and I suppose that part naming the dead is going in the other direction, trying not to forget, to keep the dead alive. I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, but I would say that part of the poem probably comes from some lines in Archibald MacLeish’s poem, “Epistle to Be Left in the Earth,” where he says: “you, if any read this writing, / make in your mouths the words that were our names.”

PD: In the second section of the book, you have a poem titled “Being Moved While Moving (or Longing for Landscape)” which reads as an almost anti-love poem. Would you consider this a love poem or not? What does it mean to you to be “grateful and sad and burning with joy?”

RA: Yes, that’s my version of a love poem—that aspect of love that involves appreciation and respect. Like most of the poems, it is full of private references that I am hoping will have some more universal resonance. Certainly the conclusion is addressed to Kay and the fact of our having these children to love and take care of. As for the line you quote, I suppose I was trying to capture the contradictory nature of the way we experience things, especially when we experience them intensely.

Also, I need to add, that is one of the few poems in the book that arose from an exercise—in this case, one that I have given my students in the summer program where I have taught the past seven Junes. There is a poem by the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet (which I found in Carolyn Forche’s wonderful anthology, Against Forgetting: The Poetry of Witness) called “Things I Didn’t Know I Loved” that was the inspiration for mine, which I wrote while the students were writing theirs.

PD: I love the “Dark Poem” in Part Three of the book—it’s both funny and poignant. How did you come about writing this poem, and what do you mean by the epigraph “On Belief and In Faith”?

RA: Thanks, yes, I meant for it to be at least a little funny, but it’s hard to get a laugh when I use it at a reading. That one was written all at once and fairly quickly. It’s kind of a riff poem. I wrote it one night when the power went out and we were left in the dark with none of our usual machines to keep us company. As for the epigraph, I’m not sure; once I’d written the poem it struck me as being something like a religious tract, and the epigraph just seemed to belong there.

PD: The poem “Glacial Volant” is unlike some of your other poems in that it deals with an abstract state. And yet, there are lines that seem conversational: “How do you keep your friends when / you have no faith / and can't remember your dreams.” What made you decide to blend these two modes together?

RA: That’s a poem that maybe looks like it was written all at once but in fact was written over a several-year period. There are allusions to Eliot and Nabokov in it, for what that’s worth. But I don’t really have an answer for why I blend the conversational with the kind of tortured abstract. You probably noticed that there is a tendency in a lot of these poems to mix modes, most obviously the poems that have free verse sections butted up against almost doggerel sections of rhyming verse. So it just seems normal to me that things that may not seem to belong together are juxtaposed.

PD: Part Four, “After All, a last gasp,” is like a jazz song. You experiment with form, language, rhyme, and content by moving in and out of time and voice until the speaker of the poem ends on the comparison of a tap dance, to where he is slowly “tap taptappity taptapped out.” I was wondering if you could elaborate on these ideas—what made you decide to place this as the last poem in the collection?

RA: I love that comparison to a jazz song, thank you. The last poem picks up a lot of themes and styles from the rest of the book—it works for me, anyway, as a proper kind of epilogue, although I did not want to call it that. Parts of it are some of my favorite things in Ever, though. The title does sum up the way I felt then, that the whole book had been a sort of prolonged wheeze and this now was the “last gasp” of that wheeze. Not a very pretty image for poetry, I guess. As for the taptapitty bit, it is partly, as you identified, a kind of tap-dance exit, and also a reference to the gambler being “tapped out.” And also phonically, an allusion to the sound of the keyboard (which we rarely or never hear anymore, or hear only faintly on our computer keyboard) as distinct from the old typewriter, which is more what I am alluding to there.

I also knew, somehow, that that was the end of the book, and it was—no more poems came peeking or poking their way out. In fact, the few times that I’ve been tempted to write since, I have either squelched the impulse or produced something I didn’t like. I want to write some essays before I return to poetry. And I am hoping for a different direction when I do return, different themes or formal directions, certainly. Not that those things can be controlled, quite. Willed a little, maybe.

PD: Where do you think your writing will go in the future? How do you want to be remembered as a poet?

RA: Tough questions. I have made a conscious effort since concluding Ever in late summer this year to not write any poems. I have instead begun a number of essays, all still unfinished, and of course, continued with my new vice of commenting in the Times Picayune’s online news site, speaking up politically and engaging in what are certainly useless fights with people who are almost all hiding behind pseudonyms—I post under my name. Not that I think this is the future of my writing, but it keeps me typing words, anyway.

Time is my big problem; I am low on my allotted time as I age, and working, teaching, editing, and raising kids doesn’t leave much time—time that is mine for stretches, without obligations or interruptions, to do with what I will. Though this sounds like a complaint, it is also true that I love the things that take up my time, my kids most especially, and so I wouldn’t really want to not have this problem.

As for being remembered as a poet, that would be up to a few specific poems, wouldn’t it? Isn’t that the way we mostly remember even the great poets with deep bodies of work? Or at least that’s the way I tend to. I hope I have written some things that people want to read, now, later, whenever. I hope I have done at least some little good with my life and not only as a writer.

A sabbatical would be nice, but as an untenured teacher, I can never have one. I also don’t seem to have any luck with granting agencies, which might provide support for some time anyway. Ever is the product of fourteen years, and it only comes to 80 pages. So the future is hard to imagine, much less predict. I think when I do begin writing poems again, they will be very different from what I’ve done. I think Ever was the end of my long beginning in poetry, and that now, maybe, finally, I will write poems that sing a richer song.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015


outlineRachel Cusk
Farrar, Straus, & Giroux ($26)

by Sally Franson

It may come as no surprise, given the title, that Rachel Cusk’s latest novel appears as neatly structured as a term paper. The eponymous word appears exactly twice in the book—once at the beginning, once at the end—and between these slender bookends stand ten tidy chapters, each one devoted to a nearly anonymous female narrator’s conversations with a series of loquacious interlocutors, mostly male strangers during a trip to Athens, Greece.

Cusk, who along with such contemporaries as Ben Lerner and Karl Ove Knausgaard has trumpeted the primacy of autobiography over fiction, shares a number of similarities with the novel’s narrator. Both are British writers and writing teachers; both are mothers and divorcees. Yet Faye, who is called by name only once, is not so much a character but an embodiment of a distinctly feminine wound. Like an amphora in ancient Greek pottery, Faye’s throat opens not to speak but to accommodate the enormous volume of her companions’ personal histories. In response to this narrative imposition, Faye cannot or will not define herself, and instead allows these other selves to flow into her like water. “You might feel,” she tells a female dinner companion in the wake of several such encounters, “as though there were some separate, autonomous self within you, but perhaps that self didn’t actually exist.”

In Cusk’s universe, womanhood is negative space, the blurry leftovers after men stake their territory. This manifests in chapter-long dialogues that function as monologues, and the imbalance vacillates between humorous and obscene. When Faye’s neighbor on the flight to Athens bothers to ask a question, she feels the “conscious effort” of the inquiry; a fellow writer, after unburdening himself for hours at a cafe, asks: “What about yourself . . .working on something?” only as she is packing her bag to leave. These moments are relayed pitch-perfectly, without an ounce of shrillness, as if Cusk anticipated and thereby disarmed accusations of same-old feminist rage. The writer, married, does not ogle or sexually harass their waitress, but rather “watch[es] the waitress moving in and out of the shadows” after declaring, “Oh, run away with me.” To inhabit a female body is to be exposed and negated simultaneously.

Indeed, while Faye’s male companions act (at one point her neighbor lumberingly attempts seduction), the women react, bewildered, recursively masticating on male misdeeds without the ability to digest them. In the book’s final chapter we meet Anna, a British playwright who has lost her facility with language following a brutal mugging, and through her halting narrative the book’s title finally clicks into focus. By listening to her male neighbor speak voluminously during her flight to Athens (note the parallel design), Anna “found in her own nature a corresponding negative . . .began to see herself as a shape, an outline, with all detail filled in around it while the shape itself remained blank.” Since the mugging, Anna has been able only to language experience via summary. Why write a play about jealousy, she wonders, if it can be encapsulated in the word itself? When she finally describes the attack, she puts her hands to her throat and chokes a one-sentence “squawk” almost inhuman in its release.

This traumatic moment stands in unsettling contrast to the pages and pages of voluble monologues by men whose access to narrative offers proof of triumph over the intensity of their experiences. What’s a woman to do, the novel seems to ask, if she—for reasons internal and external—cannot language her experience? Or if, when she does, it is summarily dismissed?

The answer, Cusk suggests, is for women to scrape themselves empty—of language, of feeling, of desire. Faye cannot bridge the dark chasm that exists between what she wants and what she is offered, so she decides “to want nothing at all.” In the face of male excess, power lies in asceticism; in the face of male chatter, silence. Silence may prevent knowability, but knowability is exposure. And exposure, for women, leads only to abandonment. The “need to possess” Faye wholly proves, over and over, to be the desire to “use her temporarily.” On the one hand, silence isolates; on the other hand, it at least “put people out of one another’s reach.”

It’s a troubling conclusion, ill-fitting in a culture armed with a marriage industrial complex, but Cusk makes a strong enough case that even the most optimistic romantics will be left uneasy. Life does not favor the living, Cusk reminds us. Better to dry out as ancient pottery, petrify oneself as old wood. Only then can one avoid the ravages of experience. “Yet if people were silent about the things that happened to them,” Anna wonders, “was something not being betrayed?” The novel itself acts as the object lesson to this question. With Outline, Cusk has shorn fragments against ruin and created something whole, devastating, and imminently worth reading.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

My Documents

mydocumentsAlejandro Zambra
Translated by Megan McDowell
McSweeney’s ($15)

by Jeff Alford

Named after the catch-all computer folder, Alejandro Zambra’s My Documents collects an array of meditations on writing and wayward memories of growing up in Chile. To Zambra, an exciting story isn’t as important as the confidence with which it’s told. The short stories in My Documents lean toward the universal: football matches, girlfriends, and hazy sketches of one’s extended family make up most of the action in this collection. The tension here is how to let the elements of a story transcend their sources and evolve into something bigger.

Zambra explicitly toys with this idea in a handful of self-reflective moments. “I was a blank page, and now I am a book” closes “My Documents,” the first story in the collection. Zambra tries to widen the distance from the narrative emptiness of a “blank page” in later stories: “The teachers called us by our number on the list,” opens “National Institute,” but “I say that in apology: I don’t even know my character’s name.” In “I Smoked Very Well,” the narrator is unsure if he is “opening or closing parentheses.” These characters each search for some way to be larger than the story they’re given.

“I Smoked Very Well” is particularly notable; a seemingly autobiographical journal about writing, quitting smoking, and attempting to leave some kind of lasting impression in the world of books. The piece possesses a mundane simplicity but is told with zealous overconfidence that carries Zambra’s prose into something exclamatory, even in its concessions:

I am a person who now doesn’t even know if he’s going to go on writing, because he wrote in order to smoke and now he doesn’t smoke; he read in order to smoke and now he doesn’t smoke. I am a person who no longer creates anything. Who just writes down what happens, as if it would interest someone to know that I’m sleepy, that I’m drunk . . .

The exceptionally bright narrator of “I Smoked Very Well” repeatedly quotes other authors in his digressions, and the narrator (and Zambra, by extension) tries to follow suit and come up with aphorisms of his own: “Cigarettes are the punctuation marks of life,” he proclaims; “What for a smoker is nonfiction, for a non-smoker is fiction.” The act of making these generalizations is more revealing than the actual quips: this is a self-assured author striving to be memorable, knowing that in a world in which all is documented, simply being read is not enough.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

Holy Heathen Rhapsody

holyheathenPattiann Rogers
Penguin ($20)

by Kimberly Burwick

Two days ago, the word of the day on Dictionary.com was Atticism, meaning concise or elegant diction. Yesterday, it was mirepoix: a flavoring made from diced vegetables, seasonings, herbs, and sometimes meat. Perhaps it is no accident that both words recall the environmentally voltaic poetry of Pattiann Rogers. In Holy Heathen Rhapsody, her latest in over a dozen collections of poetry, the speaker is at once enchantingly sophisticated while maintaining a tenderfoot, almost toddler-like, lens.

Read almost any interview with Rogers and you’ll find she usually mentions childhood. Not always her childhood, but the rich, infantile sensory observations that often encompass one’s early interaction with nature. She says, “Watch young children outdoors. It’s very rare to find a young child who is not enthusiastically curious about the life around him, whatever form that life takes . . . And dandelions, even to my five-year-old grandsons, are amazing and beautiful. And they are right to be so amazed. The life forms on our earth are amazing to children, and they remain amazing for many adults” (Poets & Writers, 2008). In Holy Heathen Rhapsody, Rogers centers this raw excitement within a larger voice of sang-froid. The result: a coolness of observation with an animated, sparkling nucleus.

Constructivist learning theory holds that we construct our knowledge of the world through experience. A child who touches milkweed marks it as soft, fluffy. One watches a seagull steal old chips from a beach and comes to know the bird as the scent of potato and oil, garbage and salt water. Rogers not only recognizes this in theory, she uses it as substratum in her poems. In “Summer’s Company” she writes, “The sun is a total green of light / inside a single mimosa seed riding / inside the sky-green and river- / green of its buoyant pod canoe [see how the green fronds / of the rain unfurl, spooling away / in the ocean’s current.” In syntax and image, such active watching is indicative of both the governable world of childhood, malleable in its raw essence, and the calmer more scientific world of adulthood.

Though Holy Heathen Rhapsody rests upon the idea of a child’s “image-mapping” on the natural world, it also shares the pivotal view of Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods (2008). He argues that allowing children to be fully immersed in nature “has to do with knowing that the earth below us and the sky above us has meaning and we have a place within that meaning.” Rogers is so keenly in sync with this paradigm that diction itself becomes a rich re-immersion in the environment. In her poem “Co-Evolution: Seduction,” we are quickly mesmerized by “Summer, everyday, the flurry-hover / of feeding hermit hummingbirds / and clear-wing moths, bee-pause / and butterfly-flutter on shaking petals.” Spellbound by alliteration and word choice, one not only visualizes but feels the toddler-like sensations of thrilling “flutter-hover” and theatrical “bee-pause.” The tension builds. Later in the poem, “bumblebees with magic keys are everywhere / opening snapdragons with magic locks.” Here, what Rogers engineers with diction plunges into internal rhyme. The effect is pure, unadulterated merriment—nature without retrograde or political rhetoric, but rather with bloom and glare.

Beyond diction and sound, there is yet another way that Rogers uses the child-like voice to assuage responsibility with coy animation. In “Courting With Finesse, My Double Orange Poppy,” she begins, “I know I said I loved you / but I was drunk at the time /on citrus ice and marmalade.” A classic child’s rebuttal, the phrase nearly functions as litotes, as it is an affirmation of the love of one’s flora by way of the negative connotation of drunkenness. Formally speaking, Rogers further fuses informal ode with dramatic monologue. In the fourth stanza of the poem she admits, “And perhaps I did sing to you / of unfolding fringed petals / delicately crumpled first in the bud / but it was really the unwinding / orange nub of the early moon / that I described with some rapture.” Thus, the resulting voice is embossed with playful glorification while also bearing the stamp of a seasoned observer.

Rogers clearly knows a child’s marking of the natural world may not be veridical. Still, she’s not only interested in the facts of the bucolic, not only “the moon” but the associated leaps of the “paralyzed swallow of its toothless / mouth.” Such jumps are not only important for their connotative mastery, but for their halting ability to bring us back to the astonishment of childhood, “and into the deeps, / goosegrass, witchgrass, panic / grass crowfoot grass and nutgrass.”

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

Records Ruin the Landscape: John Cage, the Sixties, and Sound Recording

recordsruinDavid Grubbs
Duke University Press ($23.95)

by Will Wlizlo

In case you missed the headline, yet another music streaming service was launched this spring. Called Tidal, it differentiates itself from similar platforms like Spotify and Pandora Internet Radio by the quality of the recordings and exclusive access to new work from musicians. Rap mogul Jay Z, French discobots Daft Punk, and Madonna are just a few of Tidal’s many high profile backers. In an unspoken way, Tidal bridges two times: the heady nights of the hi-fi analog era and the everything-on-demand fire sale of the digital morning. It underscores how the way we listen to music has changed in a half-century—and that now, both ways are the only way we want it.

The tension between the ever-righteous vinyl shop and the ever-changing online marketplace makes David Grubbs’s recent Records Ruin the Landscape such a timely and interesting work of cultural history and analysis. Specifically examining the disruptive legacy of 1960s experimental musicians and classical composers like John Cage, Grubbs takes a long look at changes in how music has been conceived, written, performed, and recorded in light of the passage of time and development of new technologies related to the listening experience. “Given emerging media and related shifts in listening practices and access to documentation,” writes Grubbs,

the ongoing conversation about experimental music will continue to focus on the mediation of recorded sound and its distribution, whether in material or digital culture. These histories will remain, like landscape, successions of perspectives—and, in all likelihood, perspectives mediated through forms unfamiliar to contemporary practice.

Echoing Marshall McLuhan’s dictum that the medium is the message, Grubbs makes a compelling case that the ways we listen to our favorite Jay Z album, a Cagean prepared piano sonata, or some other genre that hasn’t been dreamed up yet has an incredible impact on how we evaluate, remember, and present those sounds to future generations of musicheads.

Lucky for living musicheads, access to recorded sound has been thoroughly democratized, and we now live with the opportunity for near-infinite media consumption. The progression from LP to cheaply reproducible compact disc opened the music listening public to a wide array of until-then inaccessible archival recordings. The advent of the MP3 and eventually online streaming services has widened that access further. Anyone with a library card and a basic understanding of Google has near-instant access to 6,000 years of the most esoteric human cultural production. As of this writing, more than thirty million songs are available to listen to for free on Spotify, with 20,000 more tracks added every single day.

Contrast this brave new world with the glory days of avant-garde music. Most of that scene’s participants—whether as artist or audience—lived in certain neighborhoods of New York City, Berlin, or London. It was an exclusive clique with an even more exclusive vocabulary. Performances were frequent but held in underground venues. Recordings of this music were scarce and comparably expensive. And listeners’ ears hadn’t yet adjusted to the wild improvisation of free jazz, rampant genre coupling, or the palette of sounds that were forcing their way into the traditional understanding of “music.”

Enter the ringleader of the movement, John Cage. He was one of modern music’s most divisive innovators, an eccentric mushroom forager, and outspoken hater of records. In fact, the title of Grubbs’ book is taken from a conversation in which he likened a recording of music to a postcard: pretty and sentimental, but a terribly inaccurate experience of the landscape pictured. “Repetition has always been experimental musicians’ most fundamental objection to recordings:” writes Grubbs of this Cagean tension; “they are not true to the nature of performance because you can listen again and again.” If a postcard is a frame to look at a landscape repeatedly, think of the idyllic sunset behind the Italian mountain as the light that obscures the old silver mine where local police stamped out a bloody labor strike. You only see the perfect, untrue sunset.

Cage’s anxiety hinges on two competing ideas about the experience of music (especially the experimental variety). First, that a composition or improvisational arrangement will by nature never be played the same way twice. Thus, it should be recorded as often as possible to tease out the various manifestations that loose instructions can generate. The second and competing notion is that because the composition encourages no fixed representation, there shouldn’t be a fixed representation. No recording, no “postcard.” Ever. Instead, the compositions are meant only to be experienced live—and maybe not for the benefit of the listener.

A perfect example of this tension might be found in the work of La Monte Young, an admirer of Cage. Composition 1960 #10 (To Bob Morris), for instance, eschews the regular notation one expects from a composition and instead instructs the player of the piece to “Draw a straight line / and follow it.” Or consider another, Piano Piece for David Tudor #1:

Bring a bale of hay and a bucket of water onto the stage for the piano to eat and drink. The performer may then feed the piano or leave it to eat by itself. If the former, the piece is over after the piano has been fed. If the latter, it is over after the piano eats or decides not to. (An Anthology of Chance Operations, La Monte Young, published by L. Young & J. MacLow, 1963, Bronx, NY, p. 117)

How exactly does one draw a straight line with a viola? And what is the sound of a hungry piano? With such loose guidelines, an archive of various interpretations would be both fascinating and amusing to sift through. Their inherent elements of improvisation and performance art encourage endless possibility and creativity. Yet the intensity, novelty, and sheer thrill of audience immersion and passive participation in such improvisation are lost in a stray MP3 or grainy YouTube clip.

Additionally, by recording music, more than just the experiential thrill of its original performance deteriorates over time. Context gets fuzzy too. An easy mistake with increasing access to historic music is to forget how obscure those recordings and information about them were in the past. Grubbs provides a perfect example in a little-known punk album by Henry Flynt and the Insurrectionists’ called I Don’t Wanna. (Flynt is best remembered, if remembered at all, for genre-bending experiments such as fusing Indian classical music with Deep South hillbilly fiddle.) The album has the napalm-hot vitriol of punk with lyrics deriding foreign policy, the Draft, and a national shift toward conservative groupthink. It seems like a perfect cultural artifact of the Vietnam era, and it is. But the only problem is that it wasn’t made public until 2004. “A listener can easily forget that this music went unheard for decades in spite of its status as a bracing artifact of the year 1966,” writes Grubbs. “This disorienting listening experience—what do you mean that people weren’t talking about this album in 1966?—points to anachronisms that often accompany the reception of archival releases.”

Anachronisms like the one described above are increasingly unavoidable, as new and old fans now find these works most readily via online archives and streaming platforms. Repositories like UbuWeb and the Database of Recorded American Music fill in the gaps more popular services miss. The boons and challenges of the information age apply to listeners too, especially its effortless ability to overwhelm. After sorting through hundreds of hours of archival music, for pleasure and research on this book, Grubbs writes (with a more than a hint of nostalgia), “There’s something quaintly reassuring and reorienting and of a human scale about touching bottom, about experiencing an archive—be it that of an individual composer or musician or of an electronic-music studio or radio show—in the fullness of its contours. . . . don’t expect this moment to come again.” While access to music widens, it becomes more challenging to connect individual recordings to a narrative chronology or individual tones from sonic innovation. Archives, despite advances that enable the storage of more information, are losing some of their usefulness.

Grubbs draws on Kenneth Goldsmith, founder of the online archive UbuWeb, for a number of insights, including these choice words about radical access to digital media: “Democracy is fine for YouTube, but it’s generally a recipe for disaster when it comes to art.” Grubbs also quotes visual artist Jasper Johns, who said, “The best criticism of a painting is to put another painting next to it.” These two quips presented side by side show the challenges and opportunity of reconsidering the work of fifty years ago with the tools of the present.

Records Ruin the Landscape is level throughout. Grubbs’ concerns of oversaturation are balanced against optimism for the omnivorous ears of new listeners. But his careful consideration of and deep research into the subject matter is full of implications, not just for experimental music geeks, but also for the genre’s practitioners, academics, and the art intelligentsia. The current music listening environment is increasingly like a tourist shop beneath an Italian mountain. Inside, there are thousands of postcards to consider, and outside, the sun is beautifully setting. Where do we look?

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015


BaalJoseph Harms
CreateSpace ($13.99)

by Jane Franklin

There is much to admire in this self-published Midwestern horror gothic—it contains amazing landscapes; the writing moves beautifully between the realistic, the satiric, and the lyric; and the whole thing operates as a denunciation of patriarchal religion and patriarchal sexuality. It also has a beautiful and well-designed cover (still too rare in self-published works). But Baal is both strangely sexist in its treatment of female characters and gleeful about its use of disabled and non-standard bodies as symbols of depravity and evil. It is a fascinating and accomplished book, but a flawed one.

Baal reworks the familiar story of two youths on the cusp of adolescence who discover that while Satanic evil is real, human evil is even worse. Cassius and Max live in an anonymous Michigan town, a place that brings together all the banal American evils: industrial decline and poverty, covert and overt racism and homophobia, religious hypocrisy and domestic violence. In the forests and rye fields beyond the town, they encounter monstrous beings; in the town itself they commit greater and greater acts of violence to fight back against the religious and patriarchal order that crushes them. In the end, the two worlds are shown to be the same.

Patriarchal violence and patriarchal sexuality are the substrate of the book. All fathers are violent and those fathers who are not sexually abusive seem, like Cassius’s drunken stepfather, continually to hint at this possibility. The bad father who hits you is part of the great chain of fathers, linked to the spiritual leader who conceals and justifies social violence and to God the Father who is also Satan. In Baal, there is no outside to this father system, only war against it from within, and all fathers are the Father of Lies.

To create this atmosphere Harms gives Baal its own language, rapid, dense and baroque—a language of darkness briefly and brightly lit, of the edges between nature and the city. Front-heavy and full of run-together words, the sentences have odd rhythms. They are difficult at first reading, then sharp and vivid, as when Cassius reflects on God:

Us untouchables born from the yawning mouth of a tree dead a thousand years in the center of a wilderness yet imagined who crawl from the dirt to return to the dirt and in our allotted time, make of telephonepoles corpseornamented alters to the real God who blesses every war waged by one alone and blesses none made by many. But Cassius could not pretend more than an instant that such a God existed.

Harms well describes the particularity of the waste places of the world, spaces we know intimately when we’re children—the territory where the suburb fades away into woods, a certain rotted tree marking a boundary unvisited by adults, the way it feels to walk through the semi-abandoned empty farmland on the edge of town. His landscapes are beautiful and nostalgic even when menacing, full of the gold of the rye fields and the drift of leaves. “Beyond the dark alleys between homes,” writes Harms, “the sussurant corn by lapidary moon cut and metalized looked like the foamy wake of a wave about to break.” But in these waste landscapes anything can happen. Nature isn’t a refuge.

This is the world as Bad Place, ruled by a Bad God. Cassius encounters a variety of believers, each attempting to put an acceptable face on the world. All make their cases; none convince. There are the trivially self-serving and ugly homilies at the church his mother forces him to attend, of course, but also powerful consolatory discourses like this from the African American security guard working a grotesque church youth event:

"Let me tell you something, kid . . . There is no white god. White people can’t believe in God ‘cause they think he’s white. But there is a black God. Giant and mighty. And he snuff you out you so much as bad mouth him in an empty room . . .
. . . 'Cause he know about pain and torture, son. He know about murder and rape. He know about stealing for food and killing for food. He know about being an outcast. 'Cause he was born an outcast . . . Black God sees us trespassing with blood and knives and guns and he weeps and begs us, son, begs us to come to him for forgiveness because he knows he’d have done the same thing in our shoes."

But all these discourses are inadequate to the sheer material evil of the world that Cassius encounters. Evil returns, generation after generation, seemingly unstoppable, steadily worsening: “Since the great fires what had happened here and there and mostly during wartimes happened everywhere in the city at all times.” Cassius and Max go to war against the Bad God, to fight what can’t be fought, to kill what can’t be killed.

For most of the book, Cassius is a compellingly written character. Sometimes he appears as a realistically portrayed bright, angry, frightened teenager, sometimes a prophetic voice, sometimes an outlet for the author’s own discomfiting comedy. He would be a stronger character if he weren’t right all the time, though, or if he were purely an allegorical figure and Baal an inverse Pilgrim’s Progress. Again and again, other characters are self-deluding and hypocritical, and Cassius calls them out. He is always right, always better, always heroic even when weak and in despair—and it starts to make the deck seem stacked in his favor.

We’re meant to see Cassius as the book’s moral center, but his actions are driven by the same logic as the actions of the fathers he fights—his morality is based around homosocial love for the males with whom he commits violence; his own violence is justified by threats of violence to women; he identifies himself with a fantasy of female experience while finding real women only unloveable hypocrites and naives.

Female characters in Baal are good (and ultimately dead) or else they’re bad examples who are schooled by Cassius. Almost all of them want to sleep with him except the ones he actually wants—but nothing good, plot-wise, comes of being a girl who friendzones Cassius. Most implausible is the sequence where the church secretary, old enough to be his mother, flirts aggressively with him in front of his entire religion class. Cassius attempts to seduce her and then helpfully tells her, “If you weren’t confused, you’d kiss me tonight.”

Cassius’s savage war against the Chief of Police is motivated by the Chief’s abuse of his daughter and the complicity of the Chief’s neighbors, something Cassius hears about second-hand. He gives a great deal of thought to the feel of the sexual abuse the daughter must endure, and to his “duty” of violence. Unfortunately the daughter herself is virtually absent from the novel. This is doubly frustrating because some of the most subtly written scenes in the book depict Cassius’s conversations with his mother and with a sexual partner, Tina—at least until they veer off into Cassius’s sage corrections of petty female misapprehensions.

Readers should also be aware that Harms’s characters use racial and homophobic slurs freely. Cassius is white and straight; his best friend Max is black and coming to terms with being gay. At one point the boys pretend to be a gay couple, mockingly and with grotesque exaggeration, in order to anger and disgust their enemies. The book’s handling of queerness and race seems sometimes almost to tip over into a kind of masculinity-sentimentality, but the book also manages to treat race, racism, queerness and homophobia all as aspects of the world rather than as special problem topics or as things which must not be named. Many horror novels are haunted by racism and homophobia; relatively few center gay characters or characters of color.

Perhaps the most difficult to accept aspect of Baal is its treatment of bodily difference. From the very first scene, when evil is introduced via a hermaphroditic man with Downs syndrome, Harms uses grotesque, rubbernecking descriptions of age, disability, and body size to signal the presence of evil. In the final, apocalyptic sequence, disabled bodies are torn apart and victimized, while Harms refers to each one as “a Downs.” Much is made of the fatness of these disabled men, and of what Harms perceives as their sexual childishness and ambiguity.

Fatness, indeed, justifies almost anything here. Fat Rosemary in “religionclass” is, naturally, a hypocrite and a bully, and we’re meant to sympathize with Cassius, Max, and their friend Henry as they target her. Tina’s mother is called “the Cow”; per the narrative, she has chosen to become too fat to get out of bed, just as she chooses to lie in her own shit. Fatness justifies the book’s rape joke—not only do we hear Henry repeat the old canard about how a fat woman is too ugly to be a rape victim, but Cassius reflects that “Henry is right, nothing is sacred beyond laughter.” No one laughs at Cassius, but the reader is invited to laugh at this trio of fat women.

Baal, in short, risks reinscribing for the reader the very hierarchical, hateful, violent father-system it denounces at a rhetorical level. That is by no means all this intelligent, creepy book does—but it is impossible to ignore.

Baal is a beautiful, fascinating and thoughtful horror novel—a Midwestern regional novel in a genre that tends to be either placeless or coastal, and a novel which names and foregrounds race and sexuality. But it still reiterates some of the more conservative horror tropes: abused and dead girls as fascination and motivation for the boys and as titillation and motivation for the reader, boys as heroes and moral actors, the physically different as a marker of evil. Perhaps future work from Harms will be as innovative about gender and embodiment as Baal is about language and region.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

justmercyBryan Stevenson
Spiegel & Grau ($16)

by George Longenecker

Bryan Stevenson has been on the front lines of social justice, as an attorney representing some of the neediest prisoners in the nation and as executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. Just Mercy is a compelling narrative on the themes of economic and racial bias. Using stories of his clients, he paints pictures of human beings on the margins of the U.S. legal system.

Henry was the first death row prisoner Stevenson met: “He was a young, neatly-groomed African American man with short hair . . . wearing bright, clean prison whites. He looked immediately familiar to me, like everyone I grew up with.” Stevenson began his visits to Georgia’s death row afraid of what he’d find; he left calmed by Henry’s appreciation and determined to do more to help him. “I finished my internship committed to helping the death row prisoners I had met that month . . . I went back to law school with an intense desire to understand the laws and doctrines that sanctioned the death penalty and extreme punishments.”

Stevenson says that he could identify with his clients because of his upbringing “in a poor, rural, racially segregated settlement on the eastern shore of . . . Delaware where the racial history of this country casts a long shadow.” Like the prisoners he represents, the people he grew up with were “marginalized and excluded.”

It is the marginalized and excluded that Stevenson focuses on in this book, and their stories are compelling. Some are on death row; others were sentenced to adult prisons as children and have served decades for crimes that would have warranted juvenile adjudication and probation in some states. Trina Garnett, for example, was sentenced to life without parole in Pennsylvania after she unintentionally started a fire that killed two boys. She turned fifty-two last year and has been in prison for thirty-eight years. Ian Manuel was a thirteen-year-old neglected child when he shot and wounded Debbie Baigre during a bungled robbery in Florida. He too received life without parole; when he arrived at the Apalachee Correctional Institution, the guards could not find a uniform small enough to fit him. Despite his victim’s plea for a reduced sentence after he spent eighteen years in solitary confinement, Ian received no mercy from the courts. Florida has sentenced more than 100 children to life without parole for non-homicide offenses, most of them black or Latino.

Stevenson tells these stories with skill and compassion. He goes on to remind the reader that when an innocent person is wrongly convicted, the real perpetrator goes free. Through his legal successes and failures, Stevenson has maintained his faith and determination. He speaks eloquently of the ineffectiveness and injustice of executions and child incarceration and gives faces to the castaways of American jurisprudence in a narrative interspersed with legal history and calls for reform.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015