Tag Archives: winter 2010

NEW EUROPE: Plays from the Continent

Edited by Bonnie Marranca and Małgorzata Semil
PAJ Publications (22.95)

by Justin Maxwell

Strong plays built around socio-cultural uncertainty make up the anthology New Europe, wherein distance and isolation recur as trans-cultural leitmotifs. These works both stand alone and hang together, making for a very readable collection. Editor Bonnie Marranca frames the plays in a contextual light by ending her clear and prescient introduction with the question: “Who knows what the Oracle [at Delphi] is thinking these days while the hot winds blow this way and that?” These plays stand as one answer to that that question, revealing the emotional life of Europe over the last decade. The specters of post-war Europe are ever present; these are works adrift after Existentialism and the Theater of the Absurd. The spirit of cultural resistance may haunt European theater, but it is now a mere poltergeist instead of a revenant. It has little to resist, although tyranny is only a riot away.

Uncertainty governs the dramatic tension of each play in the collection. In Małgorzata Sikorska-Miszczuk’s The Death of the Squirrel Man, the terrorists of the Baader-Meinhof group are fundamentally unsure of what they’re resisting; negligent people reduced to shallow archetypes, they fight a kindly policeman with the literal and metaphorical heart of a pigeon. In contrast to political uncertainty, the intrinsic doubt of relationships drives Petr Zelenka’s Tales of Ordinary Madness, as generations of interpersonal insecurities are revealed: a neurotic onanist has a mannequin come to life; a woman meets new lovers by calling a nearby payphone; another man is harassed by a blanket while sleeping on a mountain of newspaper clippings about tragedies that long ago replaced his bed. The uncertainty of connectedness stands against the unarticulated, isolated angst that drives the characters in Igor Bauersima’s norway.today. Socially adrift, and without purpose, they serve as a compelling manifestations of Camus’s arguments about suicide in “The Myth of Sisyphus”—only now, they have the Internet and the ability to criss-cross a demilitarized Europe almost as easily as Americans travel domestically. Push 1-3, by Roland Schimmelpfennig, reveals uncertainty by exposing the illusions of corporate success, as Europe encounters the alienation within the white-collar idiom that Americans have been experiencing since the Reagan era. In this play, highly professional people are just as adrift and isolated as the rest of the population—maybe more so. The show furthers its uncertainty by having a strong sense of mise-en-scene, even though it is performed on a bare stage.

In contrast to the rest of the collection, Hotel Europa conveys its ambiguity directly to the audience; as the author Goran Stefanovski puts it, different audiences “saw the production in a different order of scenes, and consequently with a different narrative flow.” Here the usually collective experience of watching is denied, as the show makes its viewers a conglomeration of separate sub-groups without access to each other’s experience. In Juan Mayorga’s Hamlyn, the most traditionally narrative of all the plays, shame, power, machismo, and poverty all complicate a singular doubt about the guilt of an accused pedophile. Its open denouement serves to show a human connection trumping the broader problems of cultural uncertainty. The language-driven Sa ka la, by Jon Fosse, takes the most certain of events, death, and reveals its unknowable nature via a family matron’s unexpected stroke. Her language is reduced to phonemes, while the rest of the characters are consistently left with only the word “yah” to convey a variety of emotional states—too much work for one lonely word.

These plays are able to use a scope of setting and production painfully absent from American work because, while Europe’s future may be uncertain, its present supports the arts. These are excellent pieces of art that, indeed, feel a little blown about by the hot winds of our time, but while they may lack the stalwart cultural agendas of the previous generation, these diversely theatrical works show the precarious situation of Europe in the new century: a continent of great promise and tumbleweed uncertainty. Marranca hopes this collection will be the first of an ongoing series. It should be. Hopefully, the next installment will include works from European theater companies like Societas Raffaello Sanzio from Italy, Hoipolloi from England, and Hotel Modern from Holland. American theater practitioners, scholars, and ticket buyers would do well to be informed by this work.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2010/2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010/2011


Arthur Schnitzler
translated by Nicholas Rudall
Ivan R. Dee ($9.95)

by Douglas Messerli

Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde, originally titled Der Reigen (a round-dance or roundelay) and published as Hands Around in English, was first "handed around" in a private edition in 1900, Vienna. The play, which follows the sexual affairs of ten couples, was recognized as too outspoken even by its author. Schnitzler was, nonetheless, shocked that when La Ronde was produced in 1903, it caused a major scandal, anti-Semitic riots, and the banning of the play. It was not revived again in that city until 1920.

Translator Nicholas Rudall, disliking the notion of being “handed around” since it implies the idea of venereal disease—an interpretation that has limited discussion of the work's themes—takes his title from Max Ophul’s great film rendition of 1950, La Ronde, which retains the concept of the dance while including other “circles," such as the group of friends that make up the sexual partners of the play. (Ophuls' film, however, arguably overdoes it, with its constant repetition of waltz music, a carousel motif, and even images of the frames of film as they weave through the spool of the projector.)

None of the play's characters, despite intense denials to the contrary, are innocents. The young prostitute of the first scene readily seeks out sexual contact with a sailor, offering her body up to him for free. The young maid of Scene 2 knows very well how to flirt with the soldier while drawing him into the bushes; she is equally willing to bed with the inexperienced young son the house. Although the wife of Scene 4 may need a more careful seduction than the maid, the young gentleman has prepared for almost everything, and even though he fails the first time around, he soon comes alive in her caresses.

It is in Scenes 4 and 5 that the play truly comes alive as well, and begins to intimate Schnitzler's true concerns. Part of the method that the young wife uses to arouse her would-be lover is to question him—not only about his past, and his affairs with other women, but about his own position in relationship to sex. We feel that she is seeking some sort of understanding, if not about sexuality in general, then at least about her feelings and her own break with cultural taboos.

This becomes more apparent in the next scene, where we come to understand the cause of her frustrations—her businessman husband is much older than she and his sexual attractions are a purposeful on-and-off again activity, what he describes as a attempt to keep the honeymoon alive. He cannot even imagine that she might be unfaithful, and insists that she should dessert any female acquaintance who might possibly do such a thing. Yet she insistently questions him, it is clear, just to comprehend why these situations occur. Has he ever had sex with a married woman? He grumpily admits that he has—before meeting her. But we see in the very next scene that he is still not averse to having extra-marital affairs.

All of these sexual couplings are heterosexual, in part because Schnitzler presents relationships in which men and women are equal—at least in terms of their hypocrisy. The last two scenes, however, portray a man who has his mind, at least, occupied by something else. In Scene 9, the handsome Count visits an actress midday with the permission of her mother. He is startled by her suggestion that they immediately have sex; he's not ready for it, he argues, it's like having a drink in the morning. No, they must wait until after the theater, after dinner, at the appropriate time and place. Meanwhile, he talks not of love (he claims "there is no such thing as love"), but of his good friend Louis and other men in his regiment. The actress finally must ask him to remove his sword, and when the seduction scene arrives, it is she who conquers.

In the final scene, the Count awakens in the room of the prostitute, not knowing who she is or where he is, and certain, given his drunken condition, that they have never had sex. The only thing he remembers is that he was in his carriage with his friend Louis. In a final series of questions he recalls a stock gay figure, the straight man who gets drunk to have sex with men, conveniently forgetting everything come morning:

COUNT: (stops) Listen, tell me something. Doesn't it mean anything to you anymore?

WHORE: What?

COUNT: I mean, don't you have any pleasure doing it anymore?

WHORE: (yawning) I need some sleep.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

COUNT: Last night . . . tell me. Didn't I just collapse on the sofa right away?

WHORE: Of course you did. . . . with me.

COUNT: With you . . . well, I . . .

WHORE: But you passed right out.

Love, even pleasure is missing from most of these encounters—the interchange accomplished through the revolutions of the dance and the attendant dizziness is what matters. Schnitzler's consistent "Blackouts" at the moment of sexual contact are the perfect device in that they indicate the unimportance of the act itself.

Early in the play the maid with her soldier cries out just before the sexual act, "I can't see your face." In a 1982 translation by Sue Barton, the Soldier retorts, "What's my face got to do with it," while Rudall simplifies the Soldier's words into a question: "My face?!" I am not interested in judging which translation is better—Rudall's certainly seems to be a fine, performable version—but the former does remind me of the famed Tina Turner song, "What’s Love Got to Do with It," which I couldn't get out my head while reading this work.

The characters of Schnitzler's play talk endlessly of love, but it's sex they are after, and in the end, it is their search for it that spins them off a life-long dance. The moment he finishes with the young maid, the soldier returns to the dance hall. The young wife returns to her husband after her dalliance with the young man. The Count surely is reunited with his friend Louis, uncertain whether or not anything happened with the sleepy prostitute, who reminds him of someone he has met long ago. Was he once the young soldier of the first scene, completing the circle? In the end, Schnitzler's world is not so much an immoral one as it is a society of dissatisfied beings.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2010/2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010/2011


Griselda Garcia
translated by Hugh Hazelton
Wolsak & Wynn ($19)

by John Herbert Cunningham

English-speaking readers may not have yet heard of Griselda Garcia, but as the introduction to this bilingual edition informs us, she is “one of the principal figures of a young generation of Argentine poets.” Born in 1979, “around the time of the military dictatorship,” she exemplifies a style that is “ironic, sensual and instinctively surrealistic, yet undercut with an anguished, tenacious courage.” To date she has published seven collections of poetry, four of which—Hallucinations in the Alfalfa (2000), The Art of Falling (2001), The Route of the Spiders (2005) and All I Want is Your Blood (2004)—are represented in this collection. As translator Hugh Hazelton points out, each of the included selections “uses a different form and structure to develop a distinct set of themes,” making Garcia worthy of serious consideration despite her young age.

Hallucinations in the Alfalfa opens with an epigraph by Fernando Pessoa, the experimental Portuguese poet, though Garcia opens this poem with the softer Spanish form of Surrealism popularized by Lorca:

Breastbones broken by the glow
given off by skins
travels in the desert by bus
ghostly constructions
old tangerines

The reader may wonder whether they are being prepared for a trip into the magic realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, though in the next section, Garcia’s use of backslashes creates a harder tone:

Something is drilling into my head/ my jaw’s grown heavy
I can’t feel my clenched/ teeth

Do these backslashes reflect an indecision on where to break the line? By the next section they are gone, leaving us without answer—but then a new type of violence enters: “we make a deal that once we’re sick of each other / we’ll make necklaces out of our teeth // and bedspreads from our skins.” The poem ends, over twenty pages later, with the bold assertion that “intuition will guide our souls / on vast extensions of salt water.” It’s an ending that bespeaks its South American origins; the idea of “souls” has little place these days in the North American poetic lexicon.

The Art of Falling is also prefaced by a Pessoa epigraph. This series of poems begins with “Ode to Self-Destruction” which brings to mind, through the insistence of the word “tonight” that begins each stanza, one of the most famous poems of the 20th century, Lorca’s “Lament for Ingnacio Sánchez Mejias,” with its famous refrain “at five in the afternoon”—although, in Lorca’s poem, the refrain haunts the piece in the way the snare haunts Ravel’s “Bolero,” while here “tonight” is more like the boom of the tympani. Garcia’s ode to the boredom of being alone ends:

And tonight the dogs don’t bark,
and I break the sluices of sanity
and suffer an orgasm
and enjoy the pain
and sink down deeper and deeper
while praying for someone to come in time
to rescue me from myself.

All I Want is Your Blood, a multi-part poem, marks a return to Surrealism, but this time to the darker French tones. In Part IV we read:

a finger digs fiercely
and with two motions
the second eye
leaves its socket
watery cave gone blind
from giving birth

Do we see the slicing of the eyeball from Un Chien Andalou reflected in these words? Even though it was Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali, two Spaniards, who created that iconic moment, they did so while living in France under the influence of André Breton.

Finally, The Route of the Spiders shows Garcia exploring a new direction of language. In “Death in Summer,” we find “Delights of the glans / like a pale strawberry / at the tongue’s party.” “Windstorm” ends equally enigmatically: “After the sowing there will be no rest: / I will bleed / and a whole harvest will be ruined.”

Griselda Garcia is a voice from the South well worth reading, and this meaty offering presents her work with the respect due a powerful poet.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2010/2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010/2011


Jean Valentine
Copper Canyon Press ($22)

by Mark Gustafson

Jean Valentine is a quietly astonishing poet whose reputation precedes her. Her poetry has undergone changes since its debut in 1965, of course, but is equally marked by the continuity of its concerns and a distinct, clipped, semi-opacity. As Wallace Stevens famously said: “The poem must resist the intelligence / Almost successfully.” Valentine’s do just that, and the rewards for assiduous engagement are many.

Arranged in four sections, these new poems are as delicate as lace, and as strong, despite their often irregular patterns and open spaces. Their materiality, their language, has been compressed, pared down, reduced to the absolute essence. Stitched together (Valentine uses the image of “needle and thread” more than once), they are the means by which she goes about translating, as she puts it, the unconscious, the unseen, the immaterial. Dreams often give rise to or inhabit her poems, which accounts in part for their shifting, rational/irrational quality (and for the occasional “blue man”).

Some of this is clear in “Even all night long”:

Even all night long while
the night train

pulls me on in my dream
like a needle

Even then, down in my bed
my hand across the sheet

anyone’s hand
my face anyone’s face

are held
and kissed

the water
the child

the friend

“Dreams are the messengers of God,” Valentine has said. This dream is both particular and universal, “my hand” and “my face” being joined with “anyone’s hand” and “anyone’s face” as the compound subject of “are held and kissed.” Loss (due to death, abandonment, disappearance, separation), a perennial subject of hers, is here undone, at least temporarily.

Many of these lean poems also gain strength via referentiality, as Valentine deftly alters received stories. In “Then Abraham,” when Isaac and his father return from the former’s near-sacrifice, they are accompanied by an “other like a Vermeer girl.” Similarly, “Eurydice who guides” has Orpheus’ beloved on the same level as him. (That myth is a great tale of loss.) These ancient stories are not only living, but mutable; that makes them extra useful.

“As with rosy steps the morn,” one of several elegies, takes on tremendous power through familiarity with the aria from the Handel oratorio (“Theodora”). The poet says it’s not the words, but the notes, “the whole air, / no edge, no center, // And the light so thin, so fast—.” Valentine often invokes music for its ineffability, conveying deep meaning without words. “Break the glass . . . Open / the music behind the glass.” Her stripped-down poems, with their gaps and leaps, are another attempt to remedy words’ inadequacies.

Visual art is likewise summoned. “He Disappeared into Complete Silence” will successfully resist the intelligence unless one knows the specific engraving in Louise Bourgeois’ book of that name. Similarly, acquaintance with Martín Ramirez’s work dispels the puzzlement of “Outsider Art,” expanding and deepening that poem. “My Work of Art” describes the poet’s own collage, “a piece of brown wrapping paper / taped to the wall,” consisting of words, a stamp, and a catalpa leaf.

“Lucy,” a sequence on the 3.2-million-year-old hominid skeleton previously published as a chapbook, comprises the book’s final section. Valentine manages, almost miraculously, to cross the vast reaches of space and time so as to speak directly with our ancient ancestor, and to claim a meaningful and rich relationship. Lucy is addressed in numerous ways: “my saxifrage that splits the rocks,” (W. C. Williams) “wildgood / mother,” “the ferryman,” “bodhisattva here- / with-us,” “Skeleton Woman,” “Guardian, Death Woman.” She is the feminine, maternal avatar, an omniscient, salvific, wisdom figure through whom the “I” of the poems finds comfort, reassurance, blessing, and, ultimately, union with all that has been lost.

“Any poet now has to try to talk about the unseen,” said Mahmoud Darwish. Valentine has acknowledged: “I am going towards the spiritual rather than away from it.” She hears intimations of the divine. There is another world, a world inside (or beyond) this world, and Valentine means to gain access. In “Canoe” the poet speaks of “A map / to the end of this world or cycle.” From “Red cloth”:

I put my hand on the ground
the membrane is gone
and nothing does hold

your place in the ground
is all of it
and it is breathing

What is most striking of all the remarkable qualities in these poems is Valentine’s attention to mystery, to the metaphysical. Yes, there is division and dislocation, but one can strive for and achieve connection. The membrane between worlds, between life and death, is permeable. There is a ferry or a ferryman to bring us across to a new life. Or this, from “Ghost Elephants”:

At first the goodbye had a lilt to it—
maybe just a couple of months—
but it was a beheading.

Ghost elephant,
reach down,
cross me over—

In “I am fain a page in the court of space,” Valentine says:

It will harden when I take it off,
my skin, when I
leave you on the ground and walk away.

The third person unexpectedly shifts to second, as the “I” speaks of her sloughed-off skin, an old life left behind.

However battered and broken we may be, these poems tell us in their various, almost inscrutable, ways, that meaning is attainable. This line, “from the West down to the East,” appears out of its original context. When we, almost reflexively, embed it in Bob Dylan’s “I see my light come shining . . . Any day now, any day now / I shall be released,” we realize its potency. “Diana” ends: “Do we get another life? Oh yes. / Maybe not in this place. Maybe in different forms.” Thus the tone of the book as a whole, without pretending to have resolved the complexity or the mystery, is hopeful. This is Valentine’s gift to us.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2010/2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010/2011


Julie Doxsee
Black Ocean ($12.95)

by Paula Koneazny

In Julie Doxsee’s Objects for a Fog Death, states of matter figure prominently: solids (ice/snow), liquids (water/rain/river/ocean), and gases (vapor). Fog perhaps represents an in-between state, the atmospheric conditions under which shapes become distorted and transmute. Of the four elements, water is primordial, but the poems also incorporate birds, wings, ghosts, and angels from the airy realm, and from earth, shadows and magnets. Fire manifests itself as lightning. Doxsee's poems might well do without their kitsch of angels, but that said, her angels have more in common with her shadow-puppets and origami birds than with clichéd supernatural beings, and her ghosts appear as a mist of hydrogen and oxygen, rather than as disembodied spirits.

Doxsee is at her best when brief, and many of her poems assume the manner of love poems. Folding, a recurring image in the book, expresses a sense of pleasure in the presence of the beloved. Take the six-line poem "Hotel":

I think of your hands
carefully folding paper

maps into strange swans
you leave S-necked in

the elevator. Please. Folding
me into an S on the bed.

Such snug poems as "Hotel" are juxtaposed with others that have sharper edges and more bite, like "X," in which "With a fingertip you cross / my chest beginning to end & // we graduate gradually / to knives." But the poems never quite veer in the direction of dangerous; the lovers fit together too well for us to ever become truly alarmed.

Many of Doxsee's poems are charming, some seductive, and others, unsettling. At her best, she knows how to engage in tasty word play while constructing surprising images, as evidenced in "Standing Up with No One":

Of the
sorts of vine, I prefer

divine. Divide
me the long way

so I'm no longer
double using a special

shatter-tool that
vivisects, perfectly. (81)

She is less successful when she abandons that border territory where real and surreal meet and falls prey to preciosity. Overly affected tropes, such as "a song about you / like a pillow to // eat" and "a song about you / made of igloos // ears can't swallow" (from "At First a Kind of Steering"), weaken the overall impact of the book. Still, Doxee and her poems know what they're about, which is best summarized by the poet herself when she says, "At least we climb around on / what poems do."

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2010/2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010/2011


Geoffrey Nutter
Wave Books ($14)

by Nate Pritts

Poetry that replicates the harried everyday consciousness of our deflated and depleted modern selves has been burning like an anthem in the heart of literature for decades. Recently this fire has taken on the added coloration of not just “plain speech” but what one might more rightly call “lazy talk,” unpunctuated babble where the occasional awkward juxtaposition fools the reader (and even the writer!) into thinking the shapeless and lackadaisical linguistic trajectory has reached a level of insight or revelation.

Thank goodness for Geoffrey Nutter, whose poetry seems to be powered equally by sunlight, virtue, wonder, and humility. Christopher Sunset immediately signals to the reader that its core values reside in the art and practice of being human. Time and again, Nutter’s finely crafted lines and sentences unerringly execute a clean delineation of subject or object. With deft breaks and descriptions, and with a steady commitment to the possibilities of the human psyche (rather than its limitations), Nutter is able to create an enlivening sense of hope as he embodies poetic principles that begin in quiet understanding and lead to praise:

It’s evening. I’m walking down
to the river to watch the sun set.
The clouds are like millions of bright blue leaves
scattered across the sky.

As this poem, “Thanksgiving,” continues, Nutter’s speaker expertly weaves together a seamless display of the objects surrounding him. Without pyrotechnics, Nutter allows the reader to embrace each thing (“shards of bottles” and a “broken-down boathouse,” among many others) on its own terms, for what it is. His sure-handed sentence construction manages this in what feels to be one breathless gasp, one contemplative whisper, so that when the declarative “It’s all coming together now” comes late in the poem, it comes with the shock of clarity.

In “The Big Thought,” Nutter’s speaker proclaims “Walking along the shore / and looking at the sea / the waves and the sky / made me want to think / some big thoughts.” Despite the straightforward nature of this poetic sentence, it’s dangerous to think of Nutter’s writing as merely simple. Here, his purpose is to put this lonely ambitious man in his place, leaving him without a created insight, no big thought thunk through on his own, though he is able to recognize one “on the fresh, loud sounds of the sea.” This kind of devotion to the real and natural world is enacted again and again in this collection as it quietly urges us into a position of responsive receptivity.

Through this prayerful attentiveness can come real enlightenment. Nutter’s capability for careful and pure vision is matched by the elegant and exquisite ways in which he can demonstrate the intricacies of thought on the page:

All night it was sleeting
on the slate-gray cylinders,
clear plastic sacking was torn from branches,
but we keep the peace, strong as Sherpas.
We keep the faith, sure as incendiary.
We become children, that we might become
children of lions.

These lines, from “Prometheans,” start in objective observation, move into subjective perception, and come to rest in dramatic resolution, bold proclamation.

In “Grasshoppers,” Nutter’s speaker effuses “I had this vague ambition— / that I would, somehow, be / just human. Human / as raindrops.” With an insightful and vivid imaginative range, Geoffrey Nutter has handed us a book that records the motions of being human, enacting it in language that leads to a passionate feeling of overflow.

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2010/2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010/2011

THEORY OF MIND: New & Selected Poems

Bin Ramke
Omnidawn Publishing ($16.95)

by MC Hyland

In a cosmopolitan society, “home” can be a difficult concept. For many of us, our day-to-day lives take place far from our communities of origin. We move for educational opportunities, for jobs, for more conducive political or economic climates. We move from the country to the city, or from one country to another. We carry our homes in U-Haul trucks, in suitcases; we carry them in our memories and in our speech. In her recent chapbook, Bibliography, New Orleans native Tonya Foster exemplifies this last tendency: she creates a linguistic New Orleans through a concentration of vernacular phrases, place names, and people’s names. In the book’s alphabetical litany, Foster moves the reader from “alcohol, Algiers, / alligator, Amazing Grace, / Amelia, Angola, Atchafalaya,” through “Zataran’s, Zulu, zydeco.” The litany is accompanied by the statement, “Only after taking in her mother / landscape— // —only after, is speech / possible.” For Foster, we speak out of a place; informed by geography, we find a vocabulary that ties us not only to our homes (real or imagined as they may be), but also to the function of speech: our interface with the world “outside.”

In the new poems that open Bin Ramke’s Theory of Mind: New & Selected Poems, we see Ramke writing toward the same altered and distant home; elsewhere in the book, he revisits his career with the idea of “home” in mind. Ramke has long been a poet concerned with origins: etymology, the classical, and personal mythology are all continuing tropes in his poems, which have charted, throughout his career, the active engagement of a curious mind. Like Foster, Ramke is a native of the Gulf Coast; like her, his displacement preceded the damage done by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Still, these hurricanes, and the fundamental changes they have made to his native region, seem to function in Theory of Mind as a lens through which to view Ramke’s thirty-plus year poetic career. Of course, the business of a Selected Poems is always a looking-back; in Theory of Mind, however, Ramke accompanies his career retrospective with a fresh set of poems that allow the changed state of a former home to stand-in for the shiftiness of consciousness required by the act of looking back—or simply the act of looking. Nostalgia here calls up a set of emotions that revise themselves as soon as they are felt: “not nostalgia, / just home; not home but humility, / the humiliation of symmetry plain and / periodic agony not agony but a ghostly monotony.”

Structurally, Theory of Mind is framed by two sections that repeatedly return, in their imagery and concerns, to the hurricanes and their aftermath. The book begins with “Anomalies of Water,” a nearly book-length collection of new poems which investigate, among other subjects, what Ramke calls “the cloudy nuance of home.” In “Custody of the Eyes,” he demarcates both the place and the time of the “home” that functions as an inspiration to so many of these recent poems:

Where they paint porch ceilings a shade
of blue you see on good days as if
through to sky two years after the storms
a land is streaked with blue, plastic under
which roof and rafter remain erased.

Similarly, Ramke ends Theory of Mind with sections from the long poem “Tendril,” the title poem of his most recent book (Omnidawn, 2007), and the only poem from that book to mention the effect of the storms on his childhood home:

(no, see—I saw this, the house standing
but the walls by the storm away        taken
a kind of neatness to it, unkindness)

Ramke’s engagement with the idea and geography of his damaged home leads to some of the most compelling poems in Theory of Mind, as, in his recent work, the idea of home arises, submerges, and recurs. Elegy is an energizing and illuminating source in Ramke’s poetry, which is at its strongest when able to provide an emotional resonance to the accumulations of textual fragments, equations, marginalia, and digressions that make up his signature style. Because he is not content to mine pathos or nostalgia for their own sake, they occur in his poems as startling kernels of interiority. In “Lustrous Demonstration,” for example, a discussion of the Latin and Japanese plant names yields a reference to the sweet potato, “commonly called yam in some united states,” followed by the surprising parenthetical “(I lived there and do no longer it was / called Home; called home is a name for death).” This gentle pun, in which the Southern vernacular phrase emerges, ghost-like, from beneath the merely nostalgic surface, asserts the linguistic dimensions of geographical transience. Erupting with a submerged personal past, the regional vernacular interrupts the distant speaker, brings him back to himself.

Ramke’s particular gift, as shown by both the new and older poems in Theory of Mind, is a poetics spacious enough to accommodate a range of vernaculars (scientific, mathematical, regional, therapeutic, etc.) with an often-uncanny ear for connotation and slippage between discourses. “I was able / to make sounds and to live among sounds,” writes Ramke, and his work suggests that it is actually among those sounds that our lives take shape and meaning. The making of sounds may be a game we play with ourselves:

now I lay me down to sleep now I play the clown
too deep now my day will drown in sleep allow
the play to ground to creep

Or it might be a way to create meaning, as in the phrase “Ignis gnosis, to ignore is to ignite,” where the sonic relation of the words suggests a para-etymology. Ramke returns often to etymology as both an explanatory device (“how odd that anguish has nothing to do with angle—to bend, as a / fishhook...the words I mean”) and a means of insisting on the materiality of language, which carries a history, and may also be functional, a tool:

. . . a metallic scent which was a hint
a word related to hunt but not exactly a search an opportunity
Do you know the invention of tools, how to?
You, Human, you made them yourself. It is how
you became immortal, making things.

Because, for Ramke, words function like light, as both particles and waves (things-in-themselves and things that carry meaning), his poems enact a tension between language as opaque and as transparent. This tension is sometimes expressed in puns, like: “let us observe a moment of silence. What color is it?” But more often it is expressed through disparate texts or textual modes set side-by-side, allowed to resist or shade into one another, as when Ramke interrupts a narrative moment to deliver a brief treatise on the chemical composition of tears:

they became shepherds they met without knowing
each the other but he played a flute              she remembered

playing a flute to rescue him so she wept
and they wept water with and various salts
besides lysozyme,

the antimicrobial properties of tears have been explained
by their high concentration of lactoferrin, betalysin, and

secretory immunoglobulin

The disjunction between the language of narrative and that of science is here the point: both folk-tale and chemistry are language-centered enterprises that aim to explain ourselves to ourselves. Neither system is more “explanatory” than the other—nor, Ramke might suggest, is either one more fitting than the other for poetry. In fact, both systems offer, at best, only a partial system for understanding ourselves, and we choose to neglect one of them at our own peril.

It is this radical inclusiveness, coupled with a fundamentally lyric impulse, which makes Ramke’s writing so important. Unlike many poets whose work shares a postmodern impulse toward collage, Ramke is ultimately interested not in de-investing language of narrative content, but in making the self intelligible to itself—and to the reader. Looking over his career to date, as Theory of Mind allows us to do, we see a poet whose work has grown not only in scope and range, but one that has also, over the course of three decades, become more personal, accumulating a biographical narrative at the same time that his writing accumulated density and complexity.

One recurring trope this book highlights is the relationship of father and son. In his earlier poems, this relationship appears obliquely, as in “The Magician”: “From up my own sleeve I came / and chose my father, / a volunteer from the audience.” This father-figure is lovingly rendered, but mythic:

In the hat we slept together
dreaming each our games
of solitaire.
We awoke old;
forgetting everything
we bowed goodbye.
I last saw him walking away
trying to wipe his eyes
with a white handkerchief
that kept becoming a pigeon.

Contrast this father with depictions later in Ramke’s career, which add (and often repeat) narratives from Ramke’s childhood experiences which paint his father as a specific individual:

He took me to his work inspecting the boilers
at the hospital, caves he guided me through he knew

water and knew the corrosives which hid in heat
and would eat metals back into the soil (“Anomalies of Water”)

This image, of the father as teacher—specifically, of Ramke’s father taking him to work and teaching him about the chemistry of water—recurs with an almost rhythmic regularity starting in his 1989 volumeThe Erotic Light of Gardens (Wesleyan University Press). In a poem selected from that book, “The Private Tour: Circle 7, Round 3,” we find almost the same image: “I entered behind him / the great electrical caverns . . . He taught me to titrate, and to pronounce / fine-grained words.”

The personal nature of this image—and many others in Theory of Mind—allows us a sense of Ramke as a poet of surprising wholeness, for whom the life of the mind and the personal life (its places and relationships) are interdependent and of equal importance. This wholeness is Ramke’s gift and challenge to his reader, who must read the work as it is written: with a whole intelligence born of curious engagement with embodied experience. “I used to live in a body. I now am that body, / not inhabitant,” Ramke writes. Written from the body and the intelligence, this is poetry that asks the reader to rise to its level.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2010/2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010/2011

PITCH: Drafts 77-95

Rachel Blau DuPlessis
Salt Publishing ($15.95)

by John Herbert Cunningham

Perhaps best known for her feminist critical works The Pink Guitar: Writing as Feminist Practice and Blue Studios: Poetry and Its Cultural Work, Rachel Blau DuPlessis has also created, as Patrick Pritchett put it in a review of Drafts 1-38, “one of the most sustained and magnificent meditations written by a contemporary poet on loss, presence, and the haunting persistence of language to redeem what has vanished.” She began this process in 1985 with the publication of the first two Drafts in the journal Temblor. Nearly twenty-five years later, we are presented with the latest installment of this life poem, a work that could be put into the same category as Ezra Pound’s Cantos, Louis Zukofsky’s A, and bp Nichol’s Martyrology.

In an essay in Blue Studios, “On Drafts,” DuPlessis stated:

“Craft” and kinds of craftiness follow the intensities of the writer’s need, for the poem or the writing. At this moment, making poetry, I like best the tactile quality of moving language around, sculpting it into shape, making bodies of syntactic manifolds that suggest . . . meaning flickering in and out of focus, within and against the enormousness, and the enormity, of silence.

In addition to her feminist perspective, the lyric arouses her passions: “the desire to criticize and undermine the lyric, to wring its ideology out, and to envelop it in the largeness of another practice, has been consistent as a motivation for twenty-five years.” Then there is the concept of commentary attached to the Jewish bible, the Talmud:

This commitment to analysis within the poetic act and text create a powerful force for me. This impulse to critique has long been joined with a tonal and structural interest in what I was calling (from about 1981 on) a “Talmud” poem, by which I innocently meant something like midrash—doubles and redoubled commentary, poetry with its own gloss built in. My idea was sidebars, visuals, anything to create “otherness inside otherness.”

This perhaps formidable preamble is needed prior to encountering Pitch, as it is only the latest part of the much longer Drafts. Having said that, Pitch has been issued as a free-standing entity and, as such, must be evaluated on its own. DuPlessis is aware of this limitation and entices the reader with the plenitude of “Draft 77: Pitch Content,” reminding us in this title that there is presence in absence. There is also a deft music here from the beginning, reminding us that rhythm is not merely isolated in meter:

would show itself as wall,
writing scribbled on off-cuts,
marks smuggled into cracks,
opening, penetration, fold, hinge;
leave something, leave anything.
A dot, a smudge, a scrap.

Note the play of sound as this segment opens with a flow of “w”s, of “o”s, of “on-” and “off-cuts” leading to the “cracks” which are attacked by the thesaurus. Note in particular how that last word “scrap” creates a “crack” in language as it redeploys the letters into a splay of sound with that “k” refused entry by the “p” which is prepared for by that indented “opening” which penetrates our psyches. This is a lesson in how sound reappraises rhythm, but there is more in this opening salvo, such as the play of rhyme in:

A dirtied ragged
Unbearable hum
Beyond beyond
Understudies from.

This and more creates a desire within us to explore further into this tome, this tomb of language. Reading further reveals flaws as well as new delights—occasionally an overwrought line not only falls flat but descends into oblivion, as in “And in this space a birth of enigmas / to which one owes one’s own enigma”—but these minor flaws do not detract from the magnitude and magnificence of what has been created. There are astonishing moments such as part 17 of “Draft 85: Hard Copy,” with its parallel series “Who registers deep lakes of darkness; / Who receives the streak of light upon water? / Who is aroused by the saturated ripples at dusk?” This is a voice of celebration, of beauty.

There is much in Pitch to be appreciated, much that will leave you searching back to the beginning to determine how it is we have arrived here. And much that will have you eagerly awaiting the next part of the saga. With her ongoing Drafts, DuPlessis continues to solidify her position as one of the great contemporary epic poets.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2010/2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010/2011

EXTRA LIVES: Why Video Games Matter

Tom Bissell
Pantheon ($22.95)

by Scott Newton

Tom Bissell is sure that his yet “entirely hypothetical” children Kermit and Hussein will one day ask him where he was and what he was doing when the United States elected its first black president; at least for now, he promises to confess he was “wandering an ICBM-denuded wasteland, nervously monitoring his radiation level, armed only with a baseball bat, a 10mm pistol, and six rounds of ammunition.” If pressed, Bissell might quip about the game-changing necessity of his seven-hour hunt for “a vicious gang of mohawked marauders who were 100 percent bad news and totally had to be dealt with”; he may also direct them to his fourth book, Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, which opens with a (recurring) meditation on how to deal with the unspoken politics of Kermit and Hussein’s significantly hypothetical question. If from videogames grow “actual experiences, many of which are as important to me as any real memories,” how do you cope with the demands they place on the “real-life line of intellectual or moral obligation,” or the reality that in virtual worlds, the narrative equivalents of historic elections are always around the next curve of the bombed-out road?

That Bissell begins his revealing exploration of videogame content, design, and appeal by way of this playfully shameful admission stresses the great ambivalence with which he addresses the medium—and the personal connection he feels toward it; he sees video games re-writing the ways we consume popular narrative with formal and interactive intelligence beset by storytelling best washed down with “a gallon of aesthetic Pepto.” A serious and productive writer turned serious and counter-productive gamer, Bissell finds himself, though appalled by much of videogames’ retrograde writing, compelled to sink hundreds of hours per year into playing the latest “commercially ascendant” action/rpg console titles. “The pleasures of literary connection [now] seem leftover and familiar,” he confesses, at least in comparison to the “surreally intense feelings of attachment and projection” that some games command.

Extra Lives is bookended by chapters in which we discover that play—from the solitary wastelands ofFallout 3 to the sandbox anonymity afforded by the streets of GTA4’s Liberty City—has indeed broken fresh ground with which to challenge his restless curiosity. At the same time, Bissell is conflicted about whether he has best spent his award-winning talents earning Extra Lives, spinning a blend of “digital travelogue” and gaming memoir from the demands of balancing an addict’s yen for the visceral, imaginative potential of immersive videogame play with a critic’s disappointment with the virtual worlds that draw our attention from real, passing life. For example, while describing how Fallout’s “profound stylishness, sophistication, and intelligence” fails to cover for its “tofu drama” storytelling redundancies, Bissell begrudgingly admits to passing up chances to rendezvous with other artists while reclusively playing his way through literary fellowships and assignments in Rome and Estonia.

Yet his missed connections seem to have paid off: Extra Lives is a special book. Built of the same reflexive honesty Bissell used to great effect in his previous hybrid-memoir, The Father of All Things, and rendered with intelligent, charming prose, it creates in the vast no-man’s land of literary-critical game studies a lonesome refuge for sharp, mainstream analysis that, combined with an un-ironic love of gaming, has made something of a buoying splash amid a cultural criticism of videogames whose commentators often-as-not feel like they’re writing their “legac[ies] in water.”

Extra Lives is raising eyebrows in part thanks to Bissell’s preference for writing with critical—but rarely ironic—distance about the medium with which he is consumed. This isn’t David Foster Wallace’s narrator sent all athwart personal interest to state fairs and adult video award ceremonies, or N. Katherine Hayles highlighting the progressive aesthetics of electronic lit. It’s not games journalism bound to review scores and corporate interests, or Espen Aarseth divining structural forms of ergodic narrative progession. Extra Lives is “one man’s opinions and thoughts on what playing games feels like, why he plays them, and the questions they make him think about.”

Thankfully, Bissell takes care to bring the rest of us along for the ride, aware that wandering too far, too alone, into the “electrifying solitude of [his] mind at play in an anarchic digital world,” will leave non-gaming readers confused at best, bored at worst. Through loosely-cohered chapter-pieces of travelogue and reportage, Bissell provides instructive remediations of the games he has played, converting the experience of their sights and sounds, narrative structures, and design principles into highly-readable accounts of playing Resident Evil in his folks’ basement, attending interactive conferences, and interviewing some of the industry’s most respected developers. That Bissell ends the project without answering exactly how much videogames matter—they are not, more and less hypothetically speaking, worth missing landmark acceptance speeches for—is less important than his guidance through why they matter, how they make us live with persistent, “fictional consequences” that complicate real-life commitments, and what the inescapable influence of their ascendant medium will mean to storytelling for generations to come.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2010/2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010/2011

LONELYHEARTS: The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney

Marion Meade
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt ($28)

by Douglas Messerli

He was carried through the exit to the back street and lifted into a police car. The siren began to scream and at first he thought he was making the noise himself. He felt his lips with his hands. They were clamped tight. He knew then it was the siren. For some reason this made him laugh and he began to imitate the siren as loud as he could.
—Nathanael West, The Day of the Locusts

As biographer Marion Meade makes clear in this study of two individuals destined to die in each other's arms, there was perhaps no more unlikely couple on the earth. Eileen McKenney—the sister to Ruth McKenney, whose series of New Yorker sketches titled “My Sister Eileen” had made her a household figure, and who after her death would become even more known through a long-running Broadway play, two movies, Leonard Bernstein's musical adaptation Wonderful Town, and a television series—was, at least superficially, an innocent from Ohio, brought up in Midwestern normality. The two sisters' plucky determination to "make it" in New York would become almost a template for hundreds of other stories, films, and plays about Midwesterners and others trying to adapt to the big city.

Nathan Weinstein, who transformed himself into the writer Nathanael West, was, on the other hand, born to some wealth in that city, the son of a builder of numerous Harlem and West Side high-rise apartments still standing today. As a child, Nathanael was a shy boy, found most often hiding away to devour Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and other major novelists. But despite his bookish ways, he skipped years of school, dropping out before graduation. Although he hid out in the New York Public Library in order to read, he later harbored terrible grudges against the place and imagined how he might set that great institution on fire. Although it's clear from Meade's commentary that the boy was far from popular with his peers, and in later years, evidenced by several of his central characters (including the notorious Miss Lonelyhearts), was likely a highly conflicted gay man,1 the young Nathanael frequented whore houses, developing an ongoing battle with gonorrhea.

Indeed, it would be hard to find an individual of more contradictions than West. With ill-fitted body parts betrayed by "congenital hand tremors" which manifested itself in other physical problems—clumsiness, poor coordination, difficulties in using a knife and fork and dressing himself, and an abnormally slow gait—he loved the out-of-doors, taking up, later in his life, bird hunting (particularly doves). Despite his inability to graduate from high school, he illegally entered Tufts University, and when he was dismissed from there, took over another student's identity to attend Brown University, from which he managed to graduate. A dreamer and ne'er-do-well at heart, he nonetheless managed for many years two of the most prestigious of New York's residence hotels. Although his "spidery penmanship . . . lurched between script and print, the 'gaunt caps and lank descenders' wobbling downhill across the page," West was determined to take up writing, and produced four brilliantly bitter satires before his death in 1940. The shy boy later became close friends with a host of notables, including S. J. Perelman (who married his sister Laura), F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, Bennett Cerf, William Faulkner, John Sanford, and Josephine Herbst. Although he made hardly any money from his books, he lived a pleasant life from screenwriting, seriously devoting himself to Republic Studio's grade-B movies, including It Could Happen to YouBorn to Be WildFive Came Back, and Let's Make Music.

On the distaff side, the two sisters, at least in their fictions, were well-adapted innocents trying to make a go in the city; but in real life Ruth attempted suicide several times and found living with her stepmother so impossible that she was sent away from home. Although Eileen was portrayed as a slightly empty-headed beauty who had her choice of hundreds of men, she was a good conversationalist with strong political viewpoints, and sexually, she later discovered, was actually frigid.

In short, both of these remarkable figures were not at all what they seemed, each having an inner force that, despite their complex problems, attracted people to them. As one of West's characters in his early fiction The Dream Life of Balso Snell notes: "I'm fed up with poetry and art. Yet what can I do? I need women and because I can't buy or force them, I have to make poems for them." No one could really imagine that the two might get on, but for a few months before their tragic deaths, they seemed to live a delirious fantasy that contradicted everything in West's art and life. In some senses both of them were "imitating sirens," Eileen pretending much of her life to be a great attraction for the male sex, and Nathanael shrieking about the injustices of American life through his writing.

Rereading all of West's fictions in light of Meade's amiable yet revealing biography, one might see him as kin to another great American satirist, Flannery O'Connor. Despite West's secular personality, there is something in his surreal-like works that shares with O'Connor's apocryphal visions of life. Both grew up apart from the worlds in which they lived, both were "strange birds” and obsessed with birds—West to kill them, O’Connor to raise them—despite their ability to make renowned friends. Both died at the height of their powers, after writing just four works. The characters in their oeuvres include a wide range of fanatics, preachers, unhappy and dangerous homosexuals, and just plain desperate people, none of whom are loveable, but who represent an impossible desire to discover love and meaning. That such things are unattainable for social outsiders is inevitable given these authors’ powerfully bleak visions.

Well known as an outrageously poor driver, West took Eileen on a short hunting trip just before Christmas in 1940 and on December 22 crashed into a car near El Centro, California, killing them both—along with Eileen's two-year-old daughter, sitting in the backseat. Four nights later, the play My Sister Eileen opened at New York City's Biltmore Theater, with Shirley Booth, Jo Ann Sayers, Richard Quine, and Morris Carnovsky; it would run for 864 performances. Although ignored in his lifetime, West's books, particularly Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locusts, eventually became American classics.

1 One of West's favorite childhood pastimes was to watch gay couples having sex in Central Park's "Brambles," then leap down with shrieks at the moment of orgasm.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2010/2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010/2011