Tag Archives: Summer 2017

A Woman of Property

Robyn Schiff
Penguin Books ($20)

by Shayna Nenni

Robyn Schiff’s third poetry collection, A Woman of Property, lyrically mixes together Greek historical figures with the qualms of motherhood. Implementing unusual forms allows Schiff to bring together “the ancient tragic scallop-shell- / shaped theatre at Ephesus” with her son’s “dreams of the wolf snail”. Her first-person narration paints a picture of historical figures in their prime even as it connects their past struggles to her own today.

Schiff’s Greek references, placed sporadically throughout the collection, are fortunately never overwhelming, and are often enlightening when it comes to her concerns as a woman. She begins by alluding to confinement, writing, “Greek tragedy / staged around a doorway / the imagination strains to enter”, and continues this allusion when she brings in mythological stories that focus on women. From Antigone, who committed suicide because of her entombment after mourning her brother, to Iphigenia, who was killed by her father as a sacrifice, Schiff declares her own place among these women, stating, “I am a woman / of property. The milk of the footlights”. Juxtaposing Greek mythology with life’s mundane task of laundry, Schiff challenges the idea of what it means to be a woman—“Get back / in the house, I / said to myself, and made myself useful”—highlighting the different, but still pressured, expectations of women throughout the ages.

Experimenting with form, Schiff utilizes the full width of the page to establish one of her most important themes--the hardships of motherhood. She also uses italicization to create an embodiment of dialogue:

There was no deed? Exactly.
There was no deed on record?
I didn’t do anything.                          Exactly. Plaintiff
claims neglect of property.                     But
I didn’t do anything exactly. That’s my way.

Schiff’s first-person narration deepens our understanding of her anxieties towards being a good mother. The parallel between this story—her failure to cultivate her land—and her confession that she “didn’t do anything exactly” foreshadows a later poem when she asks, “How will I know / what to do, I wondered”. Schiff uses two poems that are almost (but not quite) the same to suggest that there are aspects of a mother’s life that she can or cannot control. “A Doe Does Not Replace Iphigenia on the Sacrificial Altar” and “A Doe Does Replace Iphigenia on the Sacrificial Altar” can be read as Schiff’s attempt to relieve some of her own motherly anxieties.

In the midst of the collection are explicit remarks about the swine flu virus, global warming, and the attacks of September 11; these contemporary tragedies add yet another component to Schiff’s poems regarding cultivation, mythology, motherhood, science, and the supernatural. In the end, A Woman of Property has the ability to elevate us into the lives of infamous Greek figures while taming us to the ground, where a gardening task is “like being delivered / into my own body”.

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

Basic Vocabulary

Amy Uyematsu
Red Hen Press ($15.95)

by Julia Stein

A contributor to the pioneering 1971 anthology Roots: An Asian-American Reader, Amy Uyematsu published four books of poetry before her latest, Basic Vocabulary. In her first two books of poetry she breaks through silence to write powerful personal story poems about her parents and grandparents interned at Gila and Manzanar during World War II, and about the U.S. wars in Asia in the 1960s. She constructs her own bilingual language and reality when she writes about striving for Japanese-American cool as a teenager and the elegance of geishas in an Utagawa print, or when she brilliantly describes burning and hope during the Los Angeles 1992 riots in “The Ten Million Flames of Los Angeles.” A longtime math teacher, she’s also one of our few math poets.

For the opening title sequence of Basic Vocabulary, Uyematsu uses thirty-five simple words to examine our decades of war with hard-edged, philosophical reflections in a tour-de-force. The poem starts with “blood”: “we don’t even pretend our hands are unstained / one century bleeding into the next / as we try to assure ourselves / there is nothing one little life can do . . . ” In the first ten sections the facts of war seem overwhelming, but the eleventh section, “give,” advises us to listen “to the counsel of mystics— / give it all up, give it all up—” as a way out of war. Detailing the ravages of war in the simplest of words leads at the end of the final section, “year,” to the words “this year, this second / let thy enemy / be forgiven // no beginning, no end / just a prayer / to awaken.”

In the book’s second section, “When the Numbers Don’t Add Up,” the war outside the nation bleeds into the war within when Uyematsu hauntingly describes how a student of hers was killed over a Sony Walkman. Other poems such as “Graduation” give numbers that sadly describe many students, as two boys sign up for the Marines while most “memorize the prices / of the latest Nikes.” “Found Poem: Echoes from Zuccotti Park” offers a brief moment of hope in the global occupations, but the next few poems relentlessly provide more dispiriting numbers of drones used, citizens homeless, and black men killed.

As the poet turns to her growing old and surviving cancer, she finds solace in the natural world and mysticism. In “Learning from Stone,” Uyematsu hears the stones telling each other how “inside this deep ocean bed / we grow smooth and bow,” and in “The Fit” she relates how she has abandoned the protests of her youth “blaring with slogans” to now walk with Thich Nhat Hanh, where she and others “make a roar so loud / as this wordless silence.”

In the last section of Basic Vocabulary, “Mysteries, Medical and Celestial,” the poet faces head-on a second bout with cancer. Uyematsu especially shows great courage in a series of meditations on her radiation treatments; in “Zap #30” she gratefully acknowledges how “blessings arrive / in orchids and cards / the lighting of candles / a homecooked meal.” Other poems delve into more cosmic matters; “Three Quick Studies of Math Art” explores a photo of electrons in her body, a Persian mathematician’s seven-pointed stars, and a labyrinth. The final poem leaves us with hope as Uyematsu identifies infinity as feminine and glories in being a woman who embraces love and wonder.

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Dear Cyborgs

Eugene Lim
Farrar, Straus and Giroux ($14)

by Robert Martin

Despite the suggestively sci-fi title, Eugene Lim’s Dear Cyborgs is not a futuristic picaresque about sentimental robots. Rather, it’s about artists and poets and painters, and the glimmers of compassion found between these individuals and their pursuits; it’s also about superheroes, holograms, detectives, and sentient search engines. Which is to say: this book sets out to defy categorization, and it thoroughly succeeds. A wild and wildly intelligent work, Dear Cyborgs skillfully employs elements of essay, noir, fantasy, and pop in order to question the limitations of identity in the Internet age.

While that description might conjure bombast, for the most part this is a quiet novel concerned with a group of talkative young artists in Chicago. The scenes in the book describe idle hours at karaoke bars and diners in which the characters take turns musing at length about geekdom, fine arts, literary theory, diaspora, and most crucially, political activism. The fact that they happen to be a crime-fighting supergroup called “Team Chaos” comes as a surprise, toward the end of the third chapter:

Even though she works as a social worker and even though she’d rather be a poet and a painter, Muriel is actually a foundling extraterrestrial sent from a far superior civilization. She can fly, walk through walls, and shoot powerful beams from the palms of her hands. . . . I’m a mere Earthling and therefore far less inherently powerful, but I’ve mastered various physical disciplines and martial arts as well as having proven myself in battle with a certain technical wiliness, which seems to impress. Despite these accomplishments, as you no doubt will notice, I tend to be depressed and anxious much of the time.

This is the first unrealistic detail in Dear Cyborgs, and it plays no role in the arc of the chapter. Other details of this sort pepper the novel throughout, in hints dropped mid-sentence or buried in asides. Lim occasionally indulges his nods to the fantastical later in the book, devoting a short chapter to the pursuit of Team Chaos’ arch nemesis, Ms. Mistletoe—but when Ms. Mistletoe is cornered, instead of a battle scene we get to listen to her recount the events that let up to the dissolution of her marriage, a tame and thoughtful soliloquy on her dissatisfaction with the daily grind.

These subdued blockbuster-esque details effectively defamiliarize the otherwise mundane conversations and armchair philosophies of the characters. It’s an off-kilter slant that pervades the book, and it fissures the narrative in a calculated way. Dear Cyborgs, like many experimental novels, is not a story about what it’s about as much as it is about how it’s told. Nearly every chapter utilizes a narrative frame. We rarely see direct action on the page; instead, characters tell stories or recall memories as they sit in a booth or walk home from the bar. They do not act—they think, or they speak.

Frame narratives are nothing new, but Lim’s persistence with the device colors his topic of choice: namely, multiplicity of identity. This can be seen with Muriel, who is both an artist and a super-powered alien (though we never do see her powers in action), and with how our narrator’s day-job as a martial-arts expert government operative coincides with his true passion of drawing comics. These overt dual identities are reinforced by each narrative frame: whenever a character tells a story about himself or herself, that character exists simultaneously as the narrator and as the protagonist.

Multiplicity of identity is positioned as a strength in Dear Cyborgs, but a dangerous one. The strongest character is the evil Ms. Mistletoe (is she evil? Readers will sympathize with her thoughtful explications on protest movements, support of workers’ rights, and desire to inspire others to improve their living conditions; it is curious that she is the target of our protagonists’ ire). Yet we never meet Ms. Mistletoe directly—in fact, we often encounter her through multiple frames. Her first appearance, for instance, is via a memory of the narrator’s. In the memory, the narrator watches a hologram of Ms. Mistletoe (that’s two degrees of separation), and the speech had been prerecorded (three degrees). The content of Ms. Mistletoe’s speech, which is presented in full, is a recollection (four degrees) of a conversation between her and her friends after the initial protests in Zucotti Park—a conversation included as dialogue in a scene (five degrees).

Examining the details of Ms. Mistletoe’s speech through the lens of Lin’s framing technique provides the clearest sense of his motivations. Musing on the purpose of Occupy Wall Street, Ms. Mistletoe says,

"It’s asking people to wake up to the fact that their desires have been manufactured, that the lives they are leading are modeled after flawed received ideas. . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
"As well, hidden in this remorse is another guilt, a knowledge that the entire social contract is contaminated, tainted, since it requires the hard labor of the unfortunate, as well as a violence to the earth and, importantly and even more subtly, an embedded faith in the eventual good of selfishness and greed."

The theory at work here suggests commercial oppression is a by-product of multiple simultaneous identities. How else would we explain people repeatedly voting against their self-interests? Lim’s book suggests that those who control technology use it in order to manipulate us into complacency, but not through propaganda or marketing—rather, through the psychological refraction that technology represents. “Divide and conquer” does not only apply to groups of people: it applies also to individuals.

If Dear Cyborgs makes a claim as to what’s at stake when we give our memories, knowledge, and problem solving skills, over to the Internet, it is this: the splintering of identity has led to our complacency. Our arch nemesis is our own conscience, losing its foothold due to click bait and constantly updated feeds. Lim’s narrator warns,

(Some seem unaccepting of this transformation, and it indeed has been gradual. In a sense it began when the first simple machines were invented. But now, to deny the change requires a willful ignorance since, if you observe bodies clothed in steel flowing over highways, or how we’ve outsourced half our memory to these devices, these exobrains we carry around, and if you note how even our most intimate relationships occur remotely, at great distances from one another, if you see all this, well, it isn’t such an original observation, dear cyborgs, to say that human and machine long ago merged inextricably.)

The cyborg state is upon us, we are inured to it, and our identities will never be the same. Only time will tell how well we will navigate our many lives in the Internet age.

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Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art

Virginia Heffernan
Simon & Schuster ($17)

by Michael Workman

The basic premise of this offbeat volume, which mixes a dishy personal voice with one of wonderment and relish, is that the Internet, which has made so many things—corded phones, ticket counters, socializing—disappear, has also left in its wake a deep sense of the loss of the world those things once defined. Moreover, these seismic cultural shifts have happened with such breakneck spontaneity that, given such an accelerated, technologized hunger for converting the “brick and mortar” world into prosthetics for the distant user, such a sense of loss is not only palpable but transformative. Questions adhere: what have we gained from it? Is it sustainable? Why do we love it all so much?

Heffernan, a New York Times Magazine regular, spends much of the book weighing the gains and losses of our information age in all its digital-versus-analog splendor. She's deft at plying forth the essence of these questions and presenting the outcomes on a moving, human scale—for instance, when she discusses how much she used to think about “people who rhythmically and mysteriously inhaled and exhaled cigarette smoke while they talked or left long silences or didn't hang up immediately after saying goodbye.” Doubtless, soon it will be hard to remember why people smoked tobacco, with all its aromatic, jittery pleasures. Not only has that emotional indulgence faded from public view; fading too is our general register of the human body, with all its breathy, smelly, analog presence. Digital communication has scooped out all the subtlety of “over- and undertones” of mediated experience and reduced the magic of a living presence down to the transactional expectation of information exchange.

In much the same way, YouTube for Heffernan is a home for the “vernacular avant-garde,” and her descriptions of the early 'net in all its BBS glories are salutary for those who used to poke around in virtual hangouts like The WELL. This basic joy translates, by extension, into the immediacy of the availability of information, as in her depiction of a required Formal Logics course in philosophy, which fortuitously came with computer lab access. There, she could drop a "tablet of ecstasy" and explore “without emotion the inconsistencies in my twenty-two-year-old applications of ancient principles of modus ponens and modus tollens to Ps and Qs, to see the formality of it,” and thus how these systems allow the patterns of life to reveal themselves. Those minds compelled to grasp such mysteries find their own way to them, of course, but Heffernan's detailing of her course is part of the logic here, of the longing for connection that feels engrained into the fiber of becoming a person. That alone is enough to recommend this book for those curious about what life was like before we had machines to remember human history for us.

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Alexander’s Bridge

Willa Cather

by Dennis Barone

Perhaps the best short novels rely more on character than plot. Because of their brevity they will have a limited number of characters and settings, and time may be condensed or leaped. There is, too, a theatrical quality, with everyone appearing once more at the end for a final curtain call of sorts. Willa Cather’s Alexander’s Bridge, a short novel of ten brief chapters and an epilogue, fits this pattern snug as a glove.

Alexander’s Bridge has four main characters (Bartley Alexander, Winifred Alexander, Hilda Burgoyne, and Lucius Wilson), four minor characters (Mainhall, MacConnell, Horton, and Marie), and four locations (Boston, London, New York, and Morlock, Canada). The story has a tight time frame, but for the epilogue which occurs six years later in London, and even though the protagonist, Bartley, has been dead those half-dozen years, he is present as Professor Wilson describes to the actress Hilda Burgoyne his last visit to Boston and to Winifred Alexander’s house. Wilson says, “I found that I still loved to go to the house. It always seemed as if Bartley were there, somehow, and that at any moment one might hear his heavy tramp on the stairs. Do you know, I kept feeling he must be up in his study.”

Bartley makes his first appearance midway in the first chapter, and his entrance has the air of the stage about it. Cather writes: “When Alexander reached the library door, he switched on the lights and stood six feet and more in the archway, glowing with strength and cordiality and rugged, blond good looks.” Each of the ten chapters has the feel of a theatrical scene, and chapter six seems positively operatic: Bartley, in London now, has determined to end his affair with Hilda, but, alas, though he can build the finest bridges in the world, he cannot sever his mid-life crisis dalliance.

At forty-three, this famous engineer doubts his accomplishments; Morlock Bridge would be “the longest cantilever in existence. Yet it was to him the least satisfactory thing he had ever done.” On a work-related trip to London, he by chance comes across Hilda, his first flame as a young man and the woman he loved before having met Winifred. Craftily, Cather notes that when Bartley walks with Hilda, he actually strolls with “someone vastly dearer to him than she had ever been—his own young self.”

In her depiction of an identity crisis in the life of an affluent capitalist, Cather displaces any criticism of the world she knew. Throughout the tale, social problems or inequalities hover as if behind a scrim. Hilda employs “a very pretty and competent French servant who answered the door and brought in the tea.” On the last page Hilda confesses, as if to attest to or support Bartley’s appeal, “I can’t help being glad that there was something for him even in stupid and vulgar people. My little Marie worshipped him.” Some of these “vulgar and stupid people” cause problems for the brilliant engineer by going on strike, “delaying Alexander’s New Jersey bridge.” Of course, Bartley’s individual problems draw the reader’s attention away from the social ones that hover off to the sides. This is a work of human psychology rather than social realism—more Henry James than Stephen Crane.

Most of all, Cather’s sentences in this, her first work of fiction longer than a short story, startle and delight. Consider this description of a London cityscape: “There was a blurred rhythm in all the dull city noises—in the clatter of the cab horses and the rumbling of the busses, in the street calls, and in the undulating tramp, tramp of the crowd. It was like the deep vibration of some vast underground machinery, and like the muffled pulsations of millions of human hearts.” Cather next turned to writing about pioneer Nebraska, work that made her famous, but Alexander’s Bridge—a very succinct and urban novel—will always command a special place on my shelf of favorite works.

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American Purgatory

Rebecca Gayle Howell
Eyewear Publishing ($14.49)

by Kent Weigle

In American Purgatory, Rebecca Gayle Howell drops the reader into a dystopian world torn apart by industry and environmental cataclysm. In a work camp set in the American south, “Persons held to service / and labor” maintain huge fields of cotton and survive purely through biological impulse. It’s a world of dust storms, rampant crop dusting, disfigurement, and death.

Knowledge and access to knowledge plays a simple yet powerful role in this book. Everything we learn comes through the protagonist’s perspective; what’s known for sure is that no one escapes. The desert outside the town turns anyone into a desiccated corpse at the side of a highway:

. . . People
talk about leaving as if they could walk out
a door. They want to hear what it sounds like.
Few animals make it. The scorpions do okay,
but the big hides need water, and no one shares.
Bodies lie open on routes that lead out,
and the stink carries on the winds.

To the inhabitants, the outside world is nothing more than geese flying overhead or the traffic of cars and cargo trucks that rush through. It’s a corrupted commune with all of the inhabitants sharing duties. Some count those left alive at the end of the day, some thin voracious herds of jackrabbits, some find new sites to dig wells, some “landscape. Fire watch. Pave the lots. Cut / hair. Bartend. Plumb.”

The world given to the reader is hazed over by heat shine. More questions are raised than answered and the answers shift and shimmer in the distance. The lack of information is a constant murmur that uneases. There’s very little in the way of a past or future; the protagonist once had a mother and the mother died during her childhood. Perhaps she was sent to the camp in the same way paupers in Victorian England were made to work until their short lives ended. There are also the store rooms filled with “bloated, pickled heads, conjoined / tongues, limbless stumps.” Why are the dead brutes kept? There are no answers. The mix of uncertainty and the grotesque creates a forbidding atmosphere through suggestion: it stands to reason that there is an outside force actively condoning these atrocities. As well, the natives themselves seem more like robots than humans in that they care little for the ungodly strings that control and feed off of their lives. All that exists is the deranged present in an equally deranged town.

It’s also a world of corrupted American values. Religion becomes openly destructive, atavistic in its actions behind a crusade of environmental subjugation:

It’s prophecy, Slade says. We’ll be delivered
but we must utterly destroy all the places.

I think to what I’ve read. The heave offering.
Indulgence tax. We’re laying street today;
tar can’t get hotter.

Here, the faithful quietly lose their faith:

The last will be first, Slade says. The pitch
of his voice river-low, as if he’s getting shed
of a remorse, and I can almost not hear him,
but I do. I say, Could you repeat that? He says,
The last will be sad. Now that I believe.

Capitalism has become cancerous and insatiable. “The economics will satisfy. One plus one equals / legion. Fight them for a share.” Hard work ripped straight out of the American Dream doesn’t pay off and might just strengthen the chains. If one wishes to glean a message from this collection, it’s that unbridled industry, capitalism, and environmental decay leads to a hostile world full of human chattel.

American Purgatory is a tantalizing prophecy that predicts one of the many possible futures at the logical end of capitalism. It’s tantalizing because at the end of the collection, the reader is left with a match and a wet fuse. The atmosphere that Howell creates is as charged and anxious as a southern evening, but the thunderstorm never comes.

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Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life

Yiyun Li
Random House ($27)

by Donna Miele

You need not be a Yiyun Li fan to appreciate this meditation on the literary life, but you should be willing to immerse yourself in the concept of being a devoted reader of literature. As she relates in this collection of autobiographical essays, the writers that formed her became her lifeline as she endured crushing feelings of isolation and suicidal depression.

“Between two hospital stays,” Li writes in the chapter “Amongst Characters,” “I was in London for a few days by myself. The hotel, a narrow house on a quiet street, had a strip of garden guarded by high walls, and I spent much of the time there reading Katherine Mansfield’s notebooks.” Here as throughout the book, Li resists discussing her struggles as central; rather, she uses acute episodes of depression as milestones along her life’s journey with her most admired literary figures. Li goes on, for instance, to delve deeply enough in Mansfield’s notes to find and pore over minutiae like grocery lists. She devotes pages to Philip Larkin’s obsession with Thomas Hardy, while only using a page and a half on personal musings such as, “Is the wish to escape suffering selfish?”

While writing from a deeply wounded perspective, Li’s commentary on literature’s importance should resonate with many readers:

Isolation, I was reminded again and again, is a danger. But what if one’s real context is in books? Some days, going from one book to another, preoccupied with thoughts that were of no importance, I would feel a rare moment of serenity: all that could not be solved in my life was merely a trifle as long as I kept it at a distance. Between that suspended life and myself were these dead people and imagined characters. One could spend one’s days among them as a child arranges a circle of stuffed animals when the darkness of night closes in.

Li’s unique and devastating meditations on language also play into this self-portrait. The chapter “To Speak Is to Blunder but I Venture” covers her abandonment of the Chinese language for English; she characterizes the shift not only as a transition from one form of communication to another, but as a choice she makes to immerse herself in a private, highly literary world. She becomes unreachable in many ways to the China she left behind, but also acknowledges the difficulties she encounters as a result. “People often ask about my decision to write in English,” she writes;

The switch from one language to another feels natural to me, I reply, though that does not say much, just as one can hardly give a convincing explanation why someone’s hair turns gray on this day but not on the other, or why some birds fly south when the temperature drops. But these are inane analogies, used as excuses because I do not want to touch the heart of the matter. Yes, there is something unnatural, which I have refused to accept. Not that I write in a second language—there are always Nabokov and Conrad as references, and many of my contemporaries as well; nor that I impulsively gave up a reliable career for writing. It’s the absoluteness of the abandonment—with such determination that it is a kind of suicide.

Yiyun Li’s autobiographical discussions of literature and isolation are not to be approached lightly. This book is for the reader willing to acknowledge that language and literature have the power to influence, form, and even save us.

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I Was Trying to Describe What It Feels Like: New and Selected Stories

Noy Holland
Counterpoint Press ($28)

by Kate Berson

Describing what it feels like to read Noy Holland’s new and selected stories, I Was Trying to Describe What It Feels Like, is nearly impossible. The language tilts and loops. The tangible diffuses, dissolves, reconstitutes itself into something other. Any message a reader might seek evades. But we can be thankful for that, because in this difficulty there drums the pleasure of reader and writer in conversation—in mutual recognition of their shared endeavor.

Writers and readers, creatures whose favored habitat is the printed page, are indeed ever trying to match word to feeling. We are taught—as young and not-so-young writers—to use our five senses as our tools for observation and description. But in Holland’s stories, we are granted no definite, nameable sense from even these basic impulses; physical feeling refuses to be pinned down by expression any more than feeling felt by mind or heart. “It was as if you were watching music”; “A place that was like a painting of a place”; “Might it be not the sea we hear, but some lurching yellow dream we wake to keep from dreaming?”.

Holland not only crosses our sensory wires, she also blurs the boundaries between individual people, delicately blending one character with another or with multiple others. In this way, she questions the absoluteness of our (humans’) separate identities. It is frightening, and it is lovely—frightening because there might be nothing we cling to more than our uniqueness, our ability to single ourselves out; lovely because this compulsion to join, even fuse, with someone else can be a sort of caring or love—and, as in “Orbit,” the novella that portals us into the collection, a means to heal: “I lay with her and in the nights thereafter and after a time to lie there, curved into the wound in her, I think to grow in under her, bone by bone, my toothy spine her long wound’s tongue and groove to seal her.”

Holland takes this notion in various directions, among them displacement, replacement, and interchangeability—as when the narrator tells her addressee in the collection’s title story, “Every boy I ever loved peeled his face off and gave it to you. They’re all you.” We also witness the literal, but heightened, attachments of motherhood; the mother of “What Begins with Bird” insists, for example, “I would have carried him in me for years,” and after her son is born, she notes as she breastfeeds him: “He is rooting, and then uprooting me -- that’s what it feels like.” And we see how the urge to shoulder another person’s burdens, as illustrated in "Chupete," can intensify into a darker appropriation of another’s tragedy, as per the narrator’s confession in “Tally”: “It had not been my grief but I had claimed it.”

In “Matrimonial,” a sleepless couple melds by way of their projected shadows: “I stood behind you. Together we made a shadow of one body, four arms, thrown against the cliff from the moon.” A more elaborate melding is accomplished later between a pair of Sioux girls in “Milk River,” though this time it is through voice, as well as their shared experience and rituals, that the girls become sweetly and hauntingly singular: “It was a trick: you couldn’t tell between them . . . They might be one voice, or four.” They can even “dream the same dream,” they swear. They have become wardens of the land and mothers to their fathers, supplanting their mothers who also “had been girls together,” who “died days away from one another.”

This profound synthesis becomes one pulsing artery in the book’s complex vascular system. I focus on this one of so many—inheritance; quiet violence; interruption and disruption; the relentless temptation of the hypothetical; disaster and the occasionally, oddly beautiful ruins thereof—because I find it particularly reflective of the nature of fiction. Isn’t this why a child begs his parent for a tale at bedtime? Why a commuter buries her foggy, early-morning head in a novel? Why writers choose their maddening craft over a steady nine-to-five? It is a sort of affirmation, then, to behold Holland’s characters as they themselves enact this most sought-after feat of fiction, the traveling together—writer, reader, characters—from sight to sound to smell to touch to dream, from mind to mind to mind to mind, all in the name of that exquisitely impossible undertaking: to know what it feels like.

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Men Without Women

Haruki Murakami
Translated by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen
Alfred A. Knopf ($25.95)

by Allan Vorda

Sometimes you come upon a writer who helps you discern some unknown world; for many readers, Haruki Murakami is such a writer. His latest creation, a collection of bizarre short stories titled Men Without Women, primarily focuses on male-female relationships, with most stories dealing with varying degrees of physical and psychological infidelity. The first two stories continue Murakami’s fondness for 1960s pop music, notably the Beatles. As he used their song “Norwegian Wood” as a novel title, Murakami here utilizes “Drive My Car” and “Yesterday” as story titles.

“Drive My Car” certainly is an apt starting point for the rest of the book. It involves a forty-seven-year-old actor named Kafuku who needs someone to drive him to work. The driver is a homely, big-breasted, chain-smoking twenty-four-year-old woman with ears “like satellite dishes” named Misaki. Initially, very little is spoken between these two insular characters, but gradually they begin to reveal themselves to each other. Kafuku tells Misaki about the affairs of his deceased wife, and how he developed a “friendship” with the fourth and last of his wife’s lovers, though he confesses that he “was acting” the whole time during their so-called friendship. However, it is the ex-lover who tells Kafuku the answer to his question about the “blind spot” Kafuku had with his wife: “If we hope to truly see another person, we have to start by looking within ourselves.”

The reader is left wondering about, and possibly hoping for, a connection between the driver and the passenger, since they both seem disconnected from reality. As in Murakami’s acclaimed 2014 novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, there is no final resolution. Perhaps the Beatles song offers some promise: “I got no car and it’s breaking my heart, / but I found a driver and that’s a start.”

Many of the stories explore the vagaries of connection. “Yesterday” is about a young man named Kitaru who asks his best friend to date his girlfriend, a test of both love and friendship. “An Independent Organ” focuses on a fifty-one-year-old plastic surgeon who has countless affairs until he finally falls in love—except the women he loves is in love with someone else, so he slowly starves himself to death. “Scheherazade,” a weird variation on A Thousand and One Nights, features a housekeeper who tells sexually inflected stories after making love to the homeowner, and “Samsa in Love,” a take-off on Kafka’s Metamorphosis, is simply too strange to describe.

“Kino” might be the best of the seven stories here; it features a jazz bar owner who has recently discovered his wife was having an affair. (Murakami, it should be noted, owned a jazz bar called Peter Cat before becoming a full-time writer.) The story opens with Kino (which translates in Japanese to “yesterday”) talking to a visitor named Kamita (translates to “god’s field”). Strange characters enter—a mysterious visitor, a femme fatale, a gray cat, and a bluish snake, about which Kino learns: “If you want to kill that snake, you need to go to its hideout when it’s not there, locate the beating heart, and cut it in two.” As the surreal noir hurtles toward the ending, the reader is left trying to figure out the connection between all of the characters, and what it all means.

The last tale is the title story, which begins with a phone call at 1:00 AM when a man calls to say his wife has committed suicide; the caller hangs up without identifying himself, leaving the narrator to wonder who the woman is. He believes she is a woman, M, he broke up with years ago; it so happens M is the third woman he has dated that has killed herself, and as he reminisces about her, fact and fantasy blur. “Truthfully, I like to think of M as a girl I met when she was fourteen. That didn’t actually happen, but here, at least, I’d like to imagine it did.” At the end of his imagistic wanderings, the narrator declares how everything has vanished for him: “All that remains is an old broken piece of eraser, and the far-off sound of the sailors’ dirge. And the unicorn beside the fountain, his lonely horn aimed at the sky.” As with the other stories in Men Without Women, much is left for the reader to decipher.

And perhaps that’s the point. Murakami makes readers wonder thanks to his unique ability to include “movement in and out of the protagonist’s inner mind” (as Matthew Carl Strecher wrote in his 2014 book The Forbidden Worlds of Haruki Murakami); he has infused these seven hypnotically bizarre stories of broken and twisted relationships into something both magical and Kafkaesque. I wonder if the late Junichiro Tanizaki, one of Japan’s greatest novelists, ever thought another Japanese writer could write anything stranger than as The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi. Read Men Without Women and decide.

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

Iep Jāltok: Poems from a Marshallese Daughter

Kathy Jetn̄il-Kijiner
University of Arizona Press ($14.95)

by John Bradley

Two concrete poems entitled “Basket” open and close this engaging book. The arrangement of the words of each poem form the curved outline of a basket, which connects the reader to the book’s title. “Iep Jāltok,” we learn from the Marshallese English Dictionary, means “A basket whose opening is facing the speaker.” It also refers to a female Marshallese and to their matrilineal society.

Some may remember images of the Marshall Islanders from the era of nuclear “testing,” the euphemism employed by the U.S. for the explosions of nuclear bombs in the Pacific from 1946 to 1962. Jetn̄il-Kijiner evokes this period in “History Project,” a poem that narrates her attempt at age fifteen to confront the past:

I flip through snapshots
of american marines and nurses branded
white with bloated grins sucking
beers and tossing beach balls along
our shores
and my islander ancestors, cross-legged
before a general listening
to his fairy tale
about how it’s
for the good of mankind

Her use of lowercase for “American” indicates both a fifteen-year-old’s writing style and also the anger of those whose home was made into a nuclear bomb testing site.

“History Project” includes statistics on the death of the Marshallese from cancer due to radioactivity from the bombs. Ancient history, some may say. Surely we all know the consequences of nuclear testing in the Pacific and how those who were its victims feel about it. And yet when “three balding white judges” evaluate her history project, they somehow believe her project embraces the “fairy tale” told by the Americans. One judge says: “Yea . . . / but it wasn’t really / for the good of mankind, though / was it?” She abruptly concludes her poem: “and I lost.”

Jetn̄il-Kijiner’s losses include the death of her niece Bianca from cancer, as she relates in “Fishbone Hair.” The poem moves, in eight parts, from the discovery of two “ziplocks” of Bianca’s “rootless hair / that hair without a home” to a mythic conclusion in which Bianca’s “fishbone hair” becomes a net, echoing a Chamorro legend. In this legend, women used their hair to weave a net and preserve their islands from a “monster fish.” Over and over in the book, Jetn̄il-Kijiner weaves a net of language to heal and protect. Yes, there is an occasional cliché—“red as tomatoes”—but they are rare, and the language pulses with emotive depth.

Loss once again threatens the Marshall Islands with a terrifying future which Jetn̄il-Kijiner bravely faces: global warming. This means rising seas and the flooding of the Marshall Islands. She promises her daughter, in “Dear Matafele Peinam,” that “no one’s drowning, baby // no one’s moving / no one’s losing / their homeland.” We see this promise tested in “There’s a Journalist Here,” which describes the damage done to an island home by the rising ocean. Still, the author does not surrender. In “Two Degrees,” she tells us she knows that “if humans warm the world / more than 2 degrees” it will flood her home. She’s told at a conference on climate change how two degrees is “just a benchmark for negotiations.” Once again, we see how quickly the world forgets the Pacific Islanders, even those knowledgeable about climate change. The closing of “Two Degrees” suggests how to move the discussion beyond the comfortable abstraction of numbers:

that beyond
the discussions
and statistics
there are faces
all the way out here
there is
a toddler
stomping squeaky
yellow light up shoes
across the edge of a reef

not yet
under water

Iep Jāltok reveals a poet who—in her first book—has already found her voice, who draws her poetic power from her islands, her culture, and her people’s history. Sometimes utilizing folklore or mythology and other times stream-of-consciousness, her poems change shape and strategy. However, they consistently demonstrate a clear focus. Whether sharing the folk beliefs of the islanders, or witnessing the terrible cost of cancer from nuclear testing, or recalling her own experiences as a mother, her poems educate and advocate on behalf of the Marshallese. At the same time, they speak for everyone, as climate chaos is not limited to islands in the Pacific. We are fortunate to have a poet confront a global issue with both craft and courage: “Maybe I’m / writing the tide towards / an equilibrium / willing the world / to find its balance.”

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