Tag Archives: Winter 2015

The Drug and Other Stories

thedrugAleister Crowley
Wordsworth Editions ($7.99)

by Spencer Dew

In this posthumous collection of stories by Aleister Crowley (1875-1947), we see evidence of the Great Beast’s comparative religious and occult knowledge, though too often this is hauled into service for the churning out of tepid pulp pieces. Dust off some Vedanta, plug in the cult of Apollo or a ouija board or the ceremonial conjuration of an angel, add a drop of “the Primal Water of Chaos” alongside a chunky paragraph rehashing appropriately watered-down Kabbalah, insert a murderous dwarf or hunchback or a team featuring one of each, and abracadabra: “Now therefore his disciples came unto the Vault of that Mystic Mountain, and with the Keys they opened the Portal and came to him and woke him.” So let it be written, so let the writer get paid.

Crowley claimed, as prophet of the new religion of Thelema, that his Book of the Law was channeled via automatic writing, the real author being a nonhuman entity. This book, regrettably, reads as if the spirit of Hack took possession of Crowley’s hands and spun off assorted tales of mystery, ornate allegories, and gassy philosophical dialogues.

Not that there aren’t interesting relics hidden in the muck. In “A Death Bed Repentance” Crowley revisits the Plymouth Brethren sect, his oppressive childhood religion, stripping bare their fallacies and using their central, stubborn theological insistence in an omnipotent and just deity to reveal how little that movement cared about the narrative contents of their holy scriptures. This is most interesting as a think-piece, as a revealing glimpse into Crowley’s biography and mind. The same is true of “Felo de Se,” which walks through Thelemic thoughts on suicide (and allows Crowley some punching practice with his nemesis, Christianity, like the jab about that faith being predicated on “the most deliberate suicide possible, since he had planned it from all eternity, even taking the trouble to create a universe of infinite agony in order to redeem it by this suicide.”

Indeed, the best parts of The Drug offer traces of the bombast and wit so evident in Crowley’s other works, though these seem, at best, rough versions of what one would expect from the author of such inspired works of fiction as Moonchild and Diary of a Drug Fiend. There are pleasant one-liners (Sufi poetry may engage the erotic for spiritual reasons “but also, I believe . . . because [the Sufi writer] is just as dirty-minded a beast as you and I” and some clever ideas (those willing “to become the saviours of their country shall be called the Synagogue of Satan, so as to keep themselves from the friendship of the fools—who mistake names for things”), but for the most part these pages are given over to cheap melodrama, to nymphs, and divine gardens, narrators that introduce themselves as “the Key of Delights,” plots exploring “the death-struggle against Nature, to which there is only one end,” and the rumbling of ancient things into abysses as the gods stride by or howl or are suspiciously unresponsive to human entreaties. When Crowley writes that “Of course, no more than one seventh of the wisdom is ever confided to any one of the Seven, and the Seven meet in council but once in every thirty-three years,” the only math that makes sense is the author calculating his payment by the word.

This dialed-in quality can, at times, allow Crowley to play to his strengths. He knows a great deal about classical pantheons east and west, and he can effortlessly bring those deities to life, squabbling and prancing across his pages. In one successful light moment the Buddha is given “Well, so long, old chap” as a line of dialogue. Such moments bring to mind Crowley’s smugly tongue-in-cheek Simon Iff Stories, all exponentially superior to the offerings on hand here. Indeed, the light, snide, characteristically arrogant tone Crowley does so well is here too often discarded for prose that oscillates between “deep-throated mockery of the gods” and a shrieking, crucifix-shattering pitch of horror.

Horror is a real problem here. “The Testament of Magdalen Blair” is famously scary, though it would be a sight more frightening if it didn’t belabor “the essence of horror” in such leaden language—just give us a creepy hint of the scene, please, and spare us lines like “And then there came the cold-drawn horror of stark blasphemy against this God—who would not answer.” Horror hurts this collection, too, by making comparison inevitable: Crowley is no Lovecraft in these pages, nor is he Poe. If, as a reader, you’re interested in a gripping story, told via the text of a personal journal abandoned in the wake of a mysterious catastrophe and purporting to plot the causes of madness, there’s probably a better text out there for you than the one included in The Drug. But for aficionados of Crowley or those interested in the history through which he lived (useful notes in the back contextualize and offer dates for the pieces in this thick volume), this book is worth the investment of a few dark evenings.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2015/2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015/2016

Troy, Michigan

troymichigan
Wendy S. Walters
Futurepoem Books ($16)

by Ashleigh Lambert

How does racism make a space? In Troy, Michigan, Wendy S. Walters turns sonnets into maps that document the terrain of oppression. If a collection of sonnets seems like an archaic approach to confronting the structures that enable racism, consider: sonnets and suburbs both concern themselves with imposing order on what is deemed unruly. Aren’t the suburbs—isn’t America—primarily concerned with “triumph over topography,” and can the desire to control the land ever be separated from the desire to control who inhabits it? Isn’t a sonnet an efficient tool for drawing new boundaries—the line taking the place of the surveyor’s rod, the octave and sestet sketching out the shape of a plot?

Walters’s vision roams freely over the landscape. She peels back layers of history to show the connections between the Troy of antiquity, the settling of Michigan by whites, the rise of the automobile and the suburbs. “Founding,” a crown of sonnets, traces the history of Troy, beginning and ending with the exhortation, “Start with some common interests in escape.” A fall is pre-ordained, inscribed in the name: “A Troy made again / invites myths of walled cities and idols / of speed into the woods to undo us.” Paranoia becomes inextricable from a sense of place: “A fear of mixed-use / space reflected mistrust, a solitude / philosophy.”

In “Prologue, 1970s,” our attention is directed to “snow in right neighborhoods outside one / gray city.” A resonant word, “right,” with its echoes of both angles—as in construction, development—and morality. The nuances of that word are useful to keep in mind, as studies show that even when people of color do everything “right”—graduate high school, get married before having children, find full time-work—they are less likely to be granted the trappings of middle-class life than their white peers.

Walters sketches out the contours of this world with its brutal logic and inviolate rules, then zooms in on one particular resident of this landscape: the speaker herself. Speaking alternately from the positions of I, she, the writer, and our girl, Walters seizes the power of multiplicity. Sonnets and suburbs have historically valued a stable self and Walters’s shifting voice is a welcome departure from this tradition. Midway through the book, a girl appears, hiding in the desolate woods “from those who don’t seek her out.” Is this girl the poet? She is more than that:

The writer illustrates our girl’s worries
as a wall of windows. Look out. See how
she waves as she walks up the road? She wants
you to join her, but you can’t catch up.

Angry and sad that the white world won’t acknowledge her value, this girl still affirms: “I remain.” The Troy of Walters’s poems may not be the stuff of epic, but as the poet tartly reminds us, “This saga / matters as much to me as epics do / to everyone else.”

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2015/2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015/2016

Writerly Friendship: an interview with Jill Alexander Essbaum and Jessica Piazza

alexander-piazza

interviewed by Sarah Suzor

E.B. White once wrote, “It is not often someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.” The line is about his immortal character Charlotte, but it could easily apply to Jessica Piazza and Jill Alexander Essbaum; their story of writerly friendship supersedes the possible ego of competition, and instead grows the relationship they share into one of appreciation, adoration, and respect. This is all the more remarkable as both are highly decorated writers: Piazza is the author of a prize-winning debut collection of poems, Interrobang (Red Hen Press) and a subsequent chapbook, This is not a sky (Black Lawrence Press, $8.95), and she has boldly taken up the Poetry Has Value initiative, which contemplates and perhaps re-defines the worth (literary and figuratively) of contemporary poetry. Essbaum is the author of several acclaimed poetry collections and her work has appeared in The Best American Poetry, but has recently seen her debut novel Hausfrau (Random House, $16) noted as a New York Times Best Seller, mentioned in People magazine, and frequently described as a modern-day Madame Bovary.

In the interview below, Essbaum and Piazza explain more of their shared story, each from their own perspective.


Sarah Suzor: How did you two meet?

Jill Alexander Essbaum: We met at Curra’s in Austin. Craig Arnold called and asked me to come to meet his girlfriend Rebecca Lindenberg (who I also love beyond all reason and compare), but because it was Craig, it was a last-minute invite (I sure do miss that guy) and I almost didn’t go. And then we hit it off. Our first girl date was on the back patio at Austin Java.

We met because we had to. It was foreordained.

alexander-piazza-filmstripJessica Piazza: Serendipitously, of course. Mostly because we met through a dear mutual friend, the poet Craig Arnold (who died several years ago in an accident in Japan), although we almost didn’t come to the fateful lunch that ultimately set the scene for our origin story—Jill wasn’t that into coming down to South Austin, and I was in a problematic relationship that had me cancelling plans often, so it could have been otherwise. But Craig and his partner, the indomitable Rebecca Lindenberg, were in town for a few days and insisted Jill and I meet. Or maybe they just wanted to see both of us and it was convenient. Either way, it was kismet. Over margaritas and chips at Curra’s Grill, Jill and I realized we had a lot in common, not the least of which is a really offbeat sense of humor and a love of joyous trickery and game-playing in poetry. I’m not sure how this Brooklyn bruiser immediately clicked with a small-town Texas girl, but we did. And over the decade plus since then we’ve become closer than I would have imagined—we’ve become family. Even after Jill moved to Switzerland and I left Texas, we were still family, even more so maybe—talking all the time, helping each other through everything. Jill spent every Thanksgiving here for years; I would come see her at UC Riverside Palm Desert every residency she did there. Family.

SS: How would your writing careers have been different without knowing each other?

JAE: It would be sad and boring and I wouldn’t be publishing this novel. Really. She facilitated the meeting of my first agent, and preceding even that, she was my first and best reader. We were each other’s dates to the Westchester Poetry Conference whenever we went which made it less awkward for us (and more awkward for everyone else). She gave me license to be looser with my tempo and meter, and I’d like to think I taught her the freedom to rhyme weird shit.

JP: I know I wouldn’t be as brave—I wouldn’t have the courage to forget what the rest of the world thinks and just write what makes me happy. In practical terms, I certainly write more because of Jill’s example. Our processes are pretty much the opposite—she writes all the time and is incredibly painstaking, while I write in fits and starts and produce a truckload when I’m in the zone—but we always encourage each other and keep tabs on our output. Jill is my very best reader. We sometimes collaborate on poetry exercises and we’ve given each other lines; there are poems I’ve published that I’m pretty sure contain lines she originally wrote, and vice versa, but we don’t really keep track anymore.

It was also Jill who made me love rhyme even more than I already did. I was a meter geek when we met, but I was into a Marilyn Hacker style of subtle rhyme, the kind where in certain poems you might not even notice it. Jill on the other hand was bold—she couldn't care less when she was too much on the page—and I was dazzled by that, so I took her example and ran with it. We both rhyme like bulls in china shops now, and I love it.

Although, I just read back and saw you asked how our careers would be different, not our writing. And it’s hard to say, except for the fact that Jill has been my biggest fan and supporter. Just ask anyone in the industry she knows if she’s talked me up to them at one point or another; chances are yes. I do the same for her, of course, but she’s been doing this longer than I have and is further in her career, so I’m especially grateful. And the truth is, it’s just really good (for my heart and career) to have someone so damn talented rooting for me.

hausfrauSS: Jill, your new novel Hausfrau is getting a lot of attention. How do you feel about the hype?

JAE: It terrifies me. It delights me. It makes me miss my dead parents—I want to slap it under a magnet on their refrigerator under my last report card. I want the world to love it. I want to succeed. But if I don’t, I want to be ok with that. And the truth is, I kind of am. The endgame is the art, right? I’ve come farther than most. I’m entirely humbled. I’m gratified. I’m grateful.

SS: Jessica, what was your reaction when you found out Jill’s book was picked up by Random House?

JP: I started jumping up and down and screaming. It’s funny, I introduced Jill to the agent that picked up the book, and I had a really good feeling that he’d want to take it—though neither of us could have imagined that the first editor who read it would buy it, and that the editor would be David Ebershoff, one of the best in the business. But I wasn’t really surprised; the book is that good. I was just happy. It’s a total blessing, and no one deserves it more than Jill does.

SS: You both participate in jobs outside of creative writing. What are your most exciting endeavors right now?

JAE: I was married about a year ago and I adore this husband more than I adore cake. More than icing, even. (And you can ask Jessie: I fucking love icing.) Our life together is one of those aforementioned exciting endeavors. Every day he makes me laugh like an audience member in a Redd Foxx concert: heartily, inappropriately, with wild, nostalgic, abandon.

JP: I’m teaching a lot and running book clubs throughout Southern California, so I’m busy. I’m also promoting Interrobang and This is not a sky, so that takes time. I’m trying to conceptualize my next book, but I'm not sure where I’m going with it yet. Jill says I should write a novel. We’ll see.

I'm really pleased that my second full-length collection is coming out this April with Red Hen Press. It's called Obliterations, and it's a sequence of erasure poems that use articles from the New York Times as their source texts. I co-wrote it with a dear friend, Heather Aimee O'Neill, who is another example of the amazing fortune I've had in the strong, talented, female friend department.

Besides that, the thing I'm most excited about right now is this blog I’ve started called “Poetry Has Value.” I took a pledge that in 2015 I’d only submit poetry to paying markets and that I’d blog about the experience. It was just a crazy experiment to see what would happen if I insisted that poetry—a genre that gets a lot of respect but not much compensation—could make money just like journalism or fiction or art can. (And yes, I know it’s hard to make money at any art. I’m just questioning the rote idea that success in other genres might eventually lead to payment but poetry hardly ever does.) Anyway, the site became much bigger than just me; amazing guest bloggers like Terry Wolverton and Sandra Beasley have weighed in on the subject, and I started interviewing the editors and publishers of paying literary magazines specifically about how they make it work. I’m hoping that it serves as a resource for people interested in switching to a paying model, and illustrates that in some (though definitely not all) cases it can be done. I’ve also created a public, editable spreadsheet of poetry journals that pay writers so poets can consult it (and add to it!) at will. It’s really become a community where people can discuss poetry, money, and worth, and I'm proud to help lift what I see as a taboo against talking about poetry in terms of money. The site is at www.poetryhasvalue.com, for those interested.

thisisnotaskySS: Jessica, for you, what is the most intriguing aspect of your new chapbook of ekphrastic poems, This is Not a Sky?

JP: It was exciting to let the art inform my style. This work, unlike Interrobang, isn’t formal at all, but somehow it still . . . sounds formal? I mean that it sounds a lot like me. But I was able to play all sorts of games in the poems that I never would have because the artists’ styles called for it. So the poem based on the Escher drawing is circular and repetitive; the poem based on the Twombley painting is full of scrawl. And all of them have a QR code, so the reader can scan it with a smart phone and go directly to the art, which I love. Most readers won’t, I know, but it’s a fun option to have.

SS: Jill, in your opinion, what’s Jessica’s signature writing style?

JAE: Formal but not formulaic; classic in her consideration of themes, explosively innovative in her treatment of them; marked by a loping, subtle iamb; zig-zag-ey, which is to say unexpected—it’s like you read it the way one runs away from an alligator; fun but never entirely frivolous; with a sadness that underscores even the lightest, brightest moments. Original. Of unknown origin. Imported. Important.

SS: Jessica, in your opinion, what’s Jill’s signature writing style?

JP: Finely-tuned, perfectly-crafted, over the top word lust. She’s a novelist that poets can truly get behind and a poet that really appeals to the everyday reader, too. She’s high-falutin’ and yet somehow really down to earth. And punny. She’s all sorts of punny.

SS: Jill, for you, what is the most intriguing aspect of your new book, Hausfrau?

JAE: Intriguing to me? I’m listening to the audio book as I type this, and it’s a surreal experience, as if this is someone else’s book. I’ll think: Holy crap—did I write that??? And then: Huh. I guess I did write that. Damn, girl. Good on you. And then: Wow, this is a lot dirtier than I thought it was.

For others, I can only hope what intrigues them is the way I’ve told the story. It’s really a quite simple story, but I’ve paced it with deliberation and forethought. My wish is that I’ve told it well.

SS: Jessica, can you explain a bit more about “Poetry Has Value”?

JP: I can say that it wasn’t about creating a manifesto. I don’t insist that every journal should pay poets—at least not now, because it isn’t possible. I just wanted to do this experiment because I thought it would be evocative for others, and that it might start a conversation that’s sorely needed. But the most important thing I can get across is this: people say there aren’t any readers of poetry, and that’s not true. There aren’t enough, sure, but there are readers. And if poetry lovers subscribed to even three or four journals a year, the whole industry would be different. We need to support what we love and what we enjoy.

This experiment, far from being about me making a living (which I won’t, I promise), is really about asking all of us to consider why we don’t expect to get paid for the hard work we do creating our art, and in what ways we’re complicit in these industry-wide issues.

SS: Jill, what’s the most drastically different part about writing fiction, as opposed to poetry?

JAE: I had to sit still longer, but that’s it. This is a very organized novel; it’s structured in the way that something like a traditional poem might be structured. There’s a “turn” two-thirds of the way into the book. The timeline lasts exactly three months, and each section lasts precisely one. Each month features a birthday party. I wrote this book exactly the same way I write my poems: ain’t no word here that ain’t been vetted. None. All decisions have been entirely considered. All. Were all choices correct? That’s up for anyone’s interpretation. But I relied on the economy of language that poetry demands, and the necessity of choice and decision-making that poetry calls for.

SS: Jill, what would be Jessica’s go-to karaoke song?

JAE: Woof. We listen to such different music I’m not sure I could answer that. But what if I suggest one? How about the Cameo classic “Word Up”?

SS: Jessica, what would be your go-to karaoke song?

JP: “When You’re Good to Mama” from Chicago, or “Beautiful Girls” by Sean Kingston. (Don’t knock the latter until you’ve heard my version!)

SS: Why do you feel it’s important to share a bond as writers as well as friends? Is there something particularly special about admiring each other as people as well as admiring each others’ creations?

JAE: Because I love her and trust her and know her. And we don’t always agree; the tension between our work—not the sameness—calls it into question, and makes for the best writing. After a point I think writing groups are a good way to avoid putting your work out into the world; they are by turns congratulatory and disheartening, and you often wind up writing something that pleases everyone, rather that something that pushes you to go beyond yourself. Too, Jessie and I have similar but not perfectly matched aesthetics. She’s introduced me to poets I didn’t know. For example, she turned me on to Eric McHenry (who in turn pointed me to Richard Kenney), and Albert Goldbarth, and she convinced me to second-chance Ben Lerner, which I’m glad I did. For my part—and Jess, forgive me if I’m wrong here, you know I have the forgetfuls—I think I was the one who brought her to Harvey Hix and Evie Shockley and Atsuro Riley. And then there are those beautiful moments where we come to love poets separately but at the same time—notably, Kate Greenstreet vis-à-vis her masterpiece, The Last 4 Things. The day we discovered that we have the same favorite all-time poem was the day I knew I’d love her forever. (I won’t say what it is.)

I’m a better person and a better writer and I hope a better friend because of her.

JP: Yes. There’s something special. I have a few close friends who are also amazing poets and wonderful readers for me (Rebecca Lindenberg, Elizabeth Cantwell, Cody Todd and Joshua Rivkin come to mind immediately), and the respect I have for them as people is entirely more important than my admiration of their craft (which is substantial, trust me.) With Jill, we realized we liked each other as people before we even read each other’s poems, and though we both really loved each other’s work from the beginning, I think our styles have developed together—almost the way poets of the past who were part of a given school might influence each other. That kind of deep influence, the kind that isn’t accompanied by anxiety, requires an even deeper friendship. So I feel lucky to have my sister Jill. The fact that she’s insanely talented is just gravy.

Click here to purchase Hausfrau at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Click here to purchase This is not a sky at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2015/2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015/2016

The Sellout

theselloutPaul Beatty
Farrar, Straus and Giroux ($26)

by Calista McRae

The Sellout opens in the hallways of the Supreme Court, where the narrator—the defendant in an impending trial, and the sellout of the book’s title—is fortifying himself with an especially potent joint. His explanation of his crimes forms the core of this bristling, exhausting, constantly funny novel: he has been keeping a slave and has been trying to reinstitute segregation in his home town.

Paul Beatty’s satirical novel is not easily summed up. Simultaneously gleeful, irritated, and resigned, its targets are all over the place, though a sophisticated humor smooths out the book’s cumulative anger, as well as its gruesome melancholy. The old man who becomes the narrator’s slave, for example, was one of the original comedians of The Little Rascals; he is equally ridiculous and mournful.

This satire is also ambivalent about comedy itself. While the goal of laughter is to puncture and expose, when Beatty’s characters laugh, the act is inane and fake as often as it is tonic. The most vivid emblem of complacent laughter occurs a few pages from the book’s end, at an otherwise black open-mic standup night: one white couple arrives late, and laughs too loudly and too knowingly.

And yet, comedy and delight vibrate in every corner of this book, from single phrase to plot. The narrator grew up in a ten-block neighborhood zoned for agriculture despite its position in the inner city of Los Angeles; named “Dickens,” it is also known as the “Murder Capital of the World.” When Dickens is taken off the map by richer areas that want “to keep their property values up and blood pressures down,” the Sellout discovers one of his first projects: to reinstate its boundaries. (Borders are a recurring theme in Beatty’s novels; in 2008’s Slumberland, the narrator tried to restore the just-toppled Berlin Wall.) There follows a barrage of jokes about Los Angeles, and about places and politics more broadly. Take, for instance, an extended passage on sister cities: “Some cities marry up for money and prestige; others marry down to piss off their mother countries. Guess who’s coming to dinner? Kabul!” The narrator finally tries a city matchmaking system, which offers Dickens three potential companions: Juárez, Chernobyl, and Kinshasa. Each rejects Dickens.

Within such set-pieces, all kinds of verbal humor contend for attention, from the miraculously apt to the miraculously absurd. An officer of the court is “a proud Budweiser of a woman with a brightly colored sash of citations rainbowed across her chest.” The celebrity intellectual who replaces “slave” with “dark-skinned volunteer” in Huckleberry Finn, and who rewrites The Adventures of Tom Soarer, uses an African-American presentation software known as “EmpowerPoint.” Driveby shootings have become harder to anticipate: “with these new hybrid, silent-running, energy-saving automobiles, you don’t hear shit,” and the gunman can clear out “while getting fifty-five miles to the gallon.”

Such passages suggest that language is a centrifugal force in this novel, but language also holds all these disparate performances together. Even the longest of Beatty’s sentences can be read out loud, with ease. As with the comedy of Dickens himself—or that of American satirists such as Flannery O’Connor and Junot Diaz—it’s hard to refrain from doing so.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2015/2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015/2016

Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age

changingthesubjectSven Birkerts
Graywolf Press ($16)

by Scott F. Parker

If you wanted to reduce Sven Birkerts’s Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age to a nice, digestible nugget of information, the subtitle gets you pretty much there. You can assume, rightly, that the book argues for art in the face of the Internet’s onslaught on our attention. Somehow, you intuit, Birkerts will make a distinction between art and the Internet that establishes a meaningful difference between, say, reading a single bound codex line by line and navigating infinite hypertext at your whim. If you’re not in a hurry, you could glance back at the title and notice a possible pun on the word subject. You might wonder if Birkerts is hinting that the way our digital culture is constantly changing the subject on us actually has the effect of changing the subject (i.e., you, me, him, or the self in general).

Now that you’ve decoded the book’s title, part of you might be thinking: do you really have to bother reading the whole thing? There are so many other books, articles, who-knows-whats out there, so much information coming at you in your various feeds and streams and clouds, why get bogged down? You can move from idea to idea. You can be free—infinite. This is pretty much how I read the Internet. I can’t bear to click on an article because I’m more interested in what other articles might be out there.

Here’s the thing about taking the time to sit down and actually read the words in this book instead of just assuming you get the point (even if you do): Changing the Subject not only argues but also embodies and performs its central claim that art is a necessary antidote to information. The proof is in the experience. To turn oneself over to an essayist is to see the world through someone else’s eyes. In the case of reading someone like Birkerts who sees clearly into his subject, it is to become (for a time) smarter than oneself.

And now subject points in at least three directions. Birkerts’s subject is the intersection of art and information; it is also his experiencing self; it refers as well to the reader’s self as she tries on his point of view. In a way, perhaps, the question has already been begged. If reading is old-fashioned, the notion of an individuated self may be too. Birkerts thinks so in the book’s first essay: “The realization of autonomous selfhood is no longer our primary beckoning ideal—if it ever was.” As connection continues to replace reflection, the self gets distributed across the various networks in which we enmesh ourselves

So who’s going to want to read this book? In class this morning, I caught my best student tapping away at a screen in the back row. This isn’t one of these students who is merely fulfilling a requirement, who communicate with all their being that truth or morality or whatever is not really worth getting worked up. No, my best student—the one whose comments are most insightful, whose readings are most penetrating, the one who asks engaged questions of her classmates and her teacher as well as of herself. There she was tapping away in her private bubble. Maybe it’s true that if she weren’t bored she wouldn’t have taken her phone out, but how can a classroom compete with literally anything she can imagine? That may be the core of the question of attention. In the old model of self it is a virtue to put one’s attention outside oneself, to concentrate on something that may not be immediately gratifying but that may pay off greater rewards later; under the new model there is no such thing as “outside oneself.” What’s the difference, from an eighteen-year-old’s point of view, between the information coming out of her teacher’s and her classmates’ mouths and the information available on her device?

For Birkerts a difference exists: “For, you see, contemplation is not a subset category, not just one kind of thinking among many. It is the point of thinking, its alpha and omega. Contemplation directs itself at the existential, which is to say, at that which pertains to the possible why of our being.” This is the central question of our existence, and the Internet can only ever respond to it by changing the subject. What if being human just doesn’t mean what I think it means anymore? What if the medium is the message? What if technology is never neutral? Merely to raise such questions puts one in a defiant camp out of step with the times. How much easier to go with the flow, the forward march of what Max Frisch (via Birkerts) calls technology: “the knack of so arranging the world that we don’t have to experience it.”

The counterargument that usually gets made is that Plato was against writing for the same kinds of reasons, and just look how naive he was. There are always those who are afraid of technological development and they always look foolish in retrospect. Never mind the tenuousness of taking one of Socrates’ arguments as Plato’s final position on the subject. What’s really misleading about the Plato-Luddite argument is that it depends on a false analogy between the writing revolution and the digital one. While writing externalizes—and thereby overrides—thoughts and memories, it simultaneously preserves (or even establishes) the self, whereas the digital revolution, in diffusing it, spreads the self out into nothingness.

If the latter prevails, it seems likely that the self we generally take as a locus of singular identity will come to be seen as a historical accident or a stage in development. But this is not a given. Development, progress—these are not givens, they just appear so when we think we seem them in the rearview mirror. The future is not the past extended. The forces of history are forces of history, and the future is up for grabs. If we decide that the self is something worth preserving, we can choose to curb the reaches of the digital revolution. And if not we, at least some of us.

Changing the Subject is a rallying cry. “To achieve deep focus nowadays is to strike a blow against the dissipation of self.” It is to preserve the self, to draw out the historical moment. Those of us who care about reading and reflection will be drawn in, empowered, reassured; we will find ourselves in the best company. Those who are inclined not to read Birkerts in the first place may well miss everything he’s saying.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2015/2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015/2016

Killing and Dying

killinganddyingAdrian Tomine
Drawn & Quarterly ($22.95)

by Steve Matuszak

Killing and Dying could almost be the title of a long-lost noir featuring Richard Widmark as a streetwise tough struggling to survive in a chiaroscuro urban landscape of moral ambiguity, all while torn between his love for a woman and his .45. With his penetrating new collection of short stories, though, cartoonist Adrian Tomine has in mind something more ordinary, albeit no less agitated by conflict. Taking his title from words used to denote those extremes of stand-up comedy—roaring success and abject failure—Tomine signals his interest in exploring the ebb and flow that makes up the daily surge of human endeavor, in turn creating a book brimming with well-observed detail and aching humor.

The first story of Killing and Dying, “A Brief History of the Art Form Known as ‘Hortisculpture,’” focuses on Harold, a horticulturist who decides to become a “hortisculpturist.” Typical of the protagonists in the six stories that are collected in the book, Harold is unhappy with his life and, gripped with restlessness, strives to make it more fulfilling. Relaxing in a bath after a hard day that included being condescended to by a woman for whom he works, Harold is inspired by designer and landscape architect Isamu Noguchi to dedicate his life to the development of a new art form, a combination of horticulture and sculpture that involves plants growing out of a clay sculptural base. Harold’s heated description of hortisculpture at a party provokes the acquaintance with whom he’s speaking to equate it, rudely though perhaps aptly, with a chia pet.

The retort is the first sign of the resistance to hortisculpture, which will include openly hostile criticism, that Harold will face over the years. His defensive response—“Well, I suppose that’s how one might describe it . . . if they were talking to a child,” a slur that quickly devolves into Harold offhandedly referring to the man as “someone who is essentially a glorified bank teller”—signals Harold’s future struggles, as over-confidence comes up hard against self-doubt, fueling the anger with which he lashes out at the world, including his family. The results are pretty funny.

The ache of the heart that produces the kind of dissatisfaction experienced by Harold—driving one to do something, anything, to quell it, but missing the mark as often as hitting it—lies at the heart of most of these stories. In the title story, for example, fourteen-year-old Jesse sets in motion a bruising family drama when she tentatively suggests to her parents that she might be interested in pursuing stand-up comedy. While her mother fervidly encourages Jesse, registering her for a class in stand-up with the unpromising name “Junior Yuks,” her father is much warier, seeing indecision in Jesse’s decision, telling his wife, “I just think we could be a little more selective about which of her . . . whims we choose to encourage. I mean, whatever happened to that two hundred dollar ukulele? Or those trapeze lessons? That really paid off!” And in the story “Go Owls,” one of the best in the collection, that unease leads to the pell-mell establishment of an unstable, quickly abusive romantic relationship.

The impressive variety of stories in Killing and Dying signals Tomine’s further growth as a storyteller. In the early 1990s, when he was just sixteen years old, Tomine revealed himself in the handful of mini-comics he self-published to be a comics prodigy with an eye for telling detail and an adventurous willingness to experiment. By the middle of the first decade of the 2000s, with the publications of Summer Blonde, an engaging collection of stories about romantically challenged twenty-somethings in California, and Shortcomings, Tomine’s abrasively funny novella about race, romance, and rants, his talent had matured; the books’ themes of loneliness, alienation, and the desire to connect were told with admirable restraint and humor. Still, Tomine’s imagination, rich as it could be, was limited to protagonists who were roughly his same age and social class. The stories weren’t autobiographical—he had, as he claims in the introduction of his collected mini-comics, “learned the useful trick of taking a personal experience and veiling it with a sex change or two”—but one was left with the nagging suspicion that they were only one step away.

However, with the stories in Killing and Dying, Tomine shows a greater ability to “veil” his experience, allowing him more leeway to explore his characters and their actions with openness and honesty. The stories feature a range of characters and situations: a middle-aged small-time drug dealer with more secrets than he cares to share with his new girlfriend; a Japanese mother returning to America to salvage her marriage; a lonely veteran haunting an apartment where he used to live; and a young woman trying to escape her life after she is continually mistaken for an internet porn star.

Tomine’s reach is also reflected in his art, which is as varied as the stories. “A Brief History of the Art Form Known as ‘Hortisculpture,’” for example, is drawn in a cartoony, “big foot” style common to daily newspaper strips, an association emphasized by the story’s structure, comprising recurring sections of six black and white, four-panel sequences—which almost always end in a gag—followed by a full page strip in color. It’s a formula familiar to anyone who reads the classic daily comic strip reprints that have proliferated in the past decade. Telling his story like a comic strip renders Harold’s pain comic—making it easier to bear—and familiar, something common that comes into and leaves our lives every day.

In “Intruders,” on the other hand, the book’s final story, Tomine employs a thick line, images menaced with shadow, appropriate for a story in which a soldier, “between [his] second and third tours,” runs away from his unwelcoming family to spend his nights in a motel and his days sneaking into an old apartment, daydreaming there, even eating lunches he had packed and brought along, until a surprise encounter leads him to reconsider his secret visits. “I walked up the block, into the stream of oblivious, happy people with their families, their shopping, their chatter,” he tells us in the final panels of the book, “And starting right there, I tried my best to become one of them.” And we believe him, the ending almost optimistic. But it is undercut by our knowledge that he doesn’t succeed. We know he goes back to the war, to his third tour, borne by the ebb and flow of life back to that place of killing and dying.

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A Gothic Soul

agothicsoulJiří Karásek ze Lvovic
Translated by Kirsten Lodge
Artwork by Sascha Schneider

Twisted Spoon Press ($21.50)

by Jeff Alford

First published in 1900 and hailed as a fundamental work of Czech Decadence, Jiří Karásek ze Lvovic’s A Gothic Soul is an essential volume of anxiety-riddled philosophy—one to shelve prominently alongside comparable masterworks like Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground and Camus’s The Stranger. Steeped in suffering, the narrator of A Gothic Soul calls himself the “last scion of a venerable chivalric family” and drifts between melancholic feelings of nihilism, faithlessness (in both God and society), and anti-nationalism. Devastatingly, the narrator makes continuous attempts to fill these newly discovered voids within him: he discounts God but hopes to discover a creed with which he can connect; he disconnects himself from society only to project the potential of friendship and love upon strangers he sees. Throughout A Gothic Soul, “life clamors around him but brings him neither joy nor torment:” the narrator seeks a way to connect his soul to the world, unaware that his mantle of gloom may be exactly what’s keeping him from enlightenment. As Karásek explains in his forward, “fear of himself . . . is what pushes the hero to escape from himself, to flee from himself, that is what spurs him on and shatters his piece of mind, and the impossibility of escaping himself is what destroys him.”

“This psychological problem,” continues Karásek, “replaces the plot and storyline found in other novels.” This is a surprisingly succinct explanation for such complicated prose. A Gothic Soul expands in a fever dream of abstract ideas: in one moment, the narrator bemoans his incongruence with God, and pages later he’s erected an empty church, in his mind, and lurks among the gilded icons. But inevitably, he denounces the place: “you have preached mortification and asceticism,” he tells the church. “You have terrified the world with the gaunt faces of martyrs, instead of delighting it with a smile.” He tries to find solace in these new hypothetical environs, but, like all the narrator’s flights of whimsy, his dreams of “a distant metropolis” crumble in as inquisitive and delirious a haze as they were built.

A Gothic Soul wrestles with emotion and hopelessness in a way that maintains a remarkable relevance more than a hundred years after its original publication. Early-twentieth-century malaise is a well-worn theme in European literature of that era, but Karásek transcends his contemporaries by creating a mind in desperate need of waking up from that sorrow; in so doing he finds a harrowing emotional resonance in his narrator’s depression, one that powerfully reflects today’s darkly mantled society. “In addition to this life,” Karásek’s narrator “led another, which he carefully concealed from everyone. It was a life of doubts and fantastic phantoms.” Of course, this “second life” is problematic, but Karásek writes of it in a way that understands the need to withdraw, and by doing so shows like-minded readers that they’re not alone:

Sometimes he would be overwhelmed by such melancholy that he would weep in secret without even knowing why. Then he would give himself over again to extraordinary hopes. It was as though everything in the world had an alluring magic for him. He knew that at some point a life of beautiful dreams and beautiful reality would begin, a golden, exquisite life like a work of art, a proud jewel, covered with precious stones.

Despite the narrator’s restlessness and the “impossibility of escaping himself,” there’s hope among those fantastic phantoms. If withdrawing into that second life reveals the “alluring magic” of what the world could become, perhaps that recession is a necessary step towards personal clarity.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2015/2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015/2016

Two Seagull Books: Brambach's Collected Poems and Kruger's Seasonal Time Change

Collected Poems
Rainer Brambach
Translated by Esther Kinsky
Seagull Books ($21)

Seasonal Time Change
Michael Kruger
Translated by Joseph Given
Seagull Books ($21)

by Peter McDonald

Founded in 1982 in Kolkata (Calcutta), India, Seagull Books publishes work in English by authors from around the world, specializing in African, French, German, Swiss, and Italian writers in particular. They also offer a rich selection of writings from Middle Eastern authors in diaspora who have emigrated to Europe, usually under threat of imprisonment or worse. While senior editorial credits go to the Seagull staff in India, the books themselves are translated by exceptional scholars from around the world, then are printed and bound in the United States. The enchanting artwork of the dust jackets, often created by students at the Seagull School of Publishing in India, makes their books even more distinctive. While the dust jackets of the two books covered in this review are perhaps less riveting than most, their muted and quiet design lend themselves perfectly to the direct and unadorned poems of the respective poets within.

Michael Kruger and Rainer Brambach are both German-speaking poets, and though born a generation apart, and in temperament and upbringing utterly dissimilar, they still share a sensibility toward their craft that is remarkably concise, unadorned, and bitingly candid. Several of their poems are so similar in tone and brevity, were they to quietly get legs and take a seat in the other’s book, most English-speaking readers would never notice the sleight.

seasonaltimechangeKruger, born in Wittgendorf, Saxony during World War II of middle-class parents, grew up in Berlin—first under allied bombing, then during partition as post-war Germany split in two. Kruger has been a regular on the German literary and publishing scene in Munich since the 1960s. Now retired, his distinguished career as chief literary scion at Carl Hanser Verlag and as editor of the literary magazine Akzente place him at the heart of modern German letters. He has written extensively, and been interviewed often, on a topic dear to him: the prospects of publishing in the digital age. He is vociferous in championing German publishing in all formats.

Seasonal Time Change: Selected Poems, Kruger’s latest book to be translated and published in English, presents almost exclusively short poems in which the beauty and iniquities of nature often mirror the unvarnished ironies of human endeavor, and is an accessible, excellent introduction to Kruger’s poetry for an American readership. Most poems in Seasonal Time Change are well under a page, precise in image, deft, witty, and wryly jaundiced in their view of the poet’s world caught between a desultory urban idyll and nature’s unsentimental image. Take these lines from the opening poem “My Desk in Allmanshausen”:

In the house beside mine, just up the hill,
lived Mussolini’s foreign minister
before he was captured and taken to Italy and
hanged.
And further on was Hilter’s favourite poet,
Hanns Johst, whose words were obviously
inspired here.
I look at cows, squirrels and horses;
at the open window I hear the distant Autobahn.
No one’s forcing anyone
To accuse humanity of doing good.

We can only marvel at Kruger’s sly inversion of the trope of humanity’s goodness with the shadow of Hitler and Mussolini up the road as mnemonics to humanity’s horror. As if in response to his own quiet reflections of such a past, Kruger echoes the theme in his poem “Twilight:” “Farewell lurks in every footprint. / You have to get in line, / into the queue of pebbles at the lakeside, / for the sake of a higher justice.”

collectedbrambachBy contrast, Brambach, born of a poor piano tuner and a mother who took in washing, lived most of his life as a recluse, working as a gardener and day laborer. He had little to no formal schooling and though he actively shunned literary recognition throughout his career, he was still well read and invariably curious about the literary trends of the day. Born in 1917 in greater Basel on the German side of the Upper Rhine, he was horrified as a teenager in the 1930s by the rise of Nazism. Barely a month after his conscription into the Wehrmacht in 1939, he fled Germany, crossing the Rhine by footbridge to surrender himself as a prisoner of conscience. He spent the war in internment and when released at war’s end, Brambach made Switzerland his adopted home, living outside Basel until his death in 1983.

Brambach’s published output is modest; only two bound volumes of poetry in his native tongue are in the library catalog. Timely then that this Collected Poems comes to us as the first volume in translation to fully present this worthy poet to an English-speaking audience. While largely forgotten on the international scene today, in Switzerland Brambach remains an important literary figure much admired for his often melancholic, always insightful little poems that present the bucolic landscapes of his adopted country in disquieting light. Concise they may be, but they leave room on the page for the mind to linger in contemplation. Here is “Dog Days” in its entirety:

Slowly the wells are running dry
The stray dogs are looking for water
The spice seller is nodding off in his shop vault
Nobody is buying pepper
Outside the knife grinder’s leisurely turning his wheel
He chases the dogs away without a sound
He observes the seller
He waits
This is the time of sharpened blades.

Brambach’s keen eye for the simple image, as here, often betrays an unease with the world that can seem at times to perch motionless like a bird of prey on the still point of his poems, only to fall with talons upon the unwary reader. Here it is, a lazy late summer day, a knife grinder at leisure, stone wheel turning . . . still he waits in this disturbing “time of sharpened blades.” We might ask the obvious: Waits for what? In “Caution Should Be Called For” Brambach posits another profound question: “What pushes you to write poetry? . . . the ravens will come back—black preachers / without oil in their voices.” One gets immediately the uneasy melancholia of his life’s work.

Both poets, it could be argued, share a recognition that each in his separate birth year came into a world at war; a realization, too, that their homeland putatively and literally started both conflagrations. Throughout, it is as if each in his inimitable way deals with this dark heritage by coming to his poetry with guilt by association, attempting to make amends in their small poems for a world gone astray. “Unfaithful letters,” says Kruger in the poem “Nights on the Terrace:” “cannot distinguish / between Heaven and Earth. / You can still hear the world / above the closed books.” These tomes may well be those of Germany’s own garrulous history weighing heavily, such that he, like Brambach, seems determined to write a new world into existence above the closed sheaves of the past. Perhaps in agreement, Brambach’s last untitled poem of the collection states: “Never put to paper and yet unforgotten . . . our childhood years, they won’t come back.”

Much of the praise for these fine books in English must go to Brambach’s translator Esther Kinsky and Kruger’s translator Joseph Givens; they have captured in a foreign tongue the native German with poise and precision. Seagull Books, too, is to be commended for its fine command of book-making, design, and for its perspicacity in publishing worthy world authors to a largely new English-speaking audience.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2015/2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015/2016

Weird Girl and What’s His Name

weirdgirlMeagan Brothers
Three Rooms Press ($15.95)

by Jay Besemer

What makes us love who and what we love? What makes us who we are? Do our loves make us who we are?

In Weird Girl and What’s His Name, Meagan Brothers’s crisp, compassionate novel for young adults, all of these questions are explored from various character perspectives, not least those of the two protagonists. Lula and Rory are high school juniors in a midsize town in the southern U.S. They are passionate fans of the X-Files, among other sci-fi mythspaces, and so inseparable that they are frequently mistaken as a romantic couple, even by their families. But their relationship doesn’t exactly fit into that sort of box; Rory is gay, and although he is out to Lula, she secretly nurses the notion that eventually he will take their obvious love into a more physical and socially legible realm.

Things become unstable when Lula discovers some things Rory has been keeping from her. These are vital plot points, which I won’t expose here, but the discovery of these communicative omissions on Rory’s part tips Lula into panic, as they emerge in the context of some struggles of her own. Lula and Rory’s failure to communicate catalyzes the young woman’s cross-country flight, at the end of which she hopes to find her mother. She succeeds, eventually, but the experience is not what she wanted it to be. No one waves a magic wand, validates her existence and lovability, and fixes her. Like the rest of us, she must learn how to do that for herself.

Communication failures and blocks figure heavily in the overall story, manifesting in plausible and varied ways within several character relationships. Yet there’s a great validating force at work in this book. One amazingly well handled area is the portrayal of Lula’s mom, an actor who chose not to raise her daughter herself. Lula’s experience of this choice is honored; she feels it as a rejection, and thinks of her mother as selfish in that regard. But it does not feel as though the author herself agrees with her character, which is refreshing. Brothers’ treatment of all her characters seems similarly fair-minded, giving them depth and complexity—even Rory’s mother, an alcoholic whose homophobic rage results in Rory’s expulsion from his home. Her behavior is not excusable, but will certainly be recognizable to many readers, and her own suffering is obvious.

Through her journey Lula comes to understand that her own desire is fluid (or at least is not entirely dependent on physical attributes or gender), but she can’t quite believe she’s good enough for anyone else:

“Deep down, I want . . . I want somebody who sees me. I mean, really sees me. Sees everything I am, even all the horrible things I am. My dirty mouth and my stupid X-Files action figures and my total failure at graduating from high school and my messed-up mom and my crazy grandparents. I just want somebody who sees all that but . . . loves me anyway.”

This desire and this insecurity are so strong, so basic to everyday human self-doubt, that their direct portrayal is vital here. Similar compassion and accuracy is present in the way sexual identity is folded into the overall calibration of selfhood that is so very important to young people. Rory and Lula aren’t who they are because they are gay, questioning, queer or whatever. The things that happen to them, and the choices they make, are not reduced to some artificial causal relationship that casts sexual identity as a personality determinant rather than one element of self. These kids are complex people: vulnerable and brave, stubborn and giving. Indeed, the complexity of personality, identity and desire is a very present theme here, and the characters themselves often engage it. Here’s a great example, as Lula and a friend, Seth, discuss the mysterious allure of various fandoms:

Seth paused, kneeling on his carpet. He shook his head. ‘Why do we love this stuff?”
“What, music?”
“Anything! Why do we love anything?”

Lula’s rich answer is a bit later in the conversation:

“Like, why do any of us become obsessed with the stuff we become obsessed with? The stuff that kind of defines who we are. Is it some kind of destiny, or more like a flash of inspiration?”

We need to love as much as we need to be loved. No matter who we are, we seek the experience of joy, and the inexplicable resonance or validation of whatever gives us joy, whether it’s Star Trek, Indian food, stock car racing, or water ballet. That’s why mockery or dismissal of these touchstones can feel so threatening.

This is not a “gay book for teens.” It’s a book inclusive of teen readers—yes, queer teens and geeky teens—many of whom will recognize themselves and their challenges in its pages. Adult readers will certainly recognize themselves in this book as well, from many different angles and in many different phases of life. We can all gain some insight from Sam Lidell, English teacher extraordinaire:

“ . . . if you haven’t figured it out by now, then let me assure you, Lula—nobody’s normal. And pretty much everybody you meet in life is trying to figure out how to be a so-called ‘normal person.’ As if it’s some fixed point that you reach, like zero degrees Celsius. But everybody’s just who they are. Weird, flawed, good at some things, bad at others. There’s no one single person who’s doing everything right all the time. Trust me on that. There is no such thing as normal.”

This is part of the compassionate work of Weird Girl and What’s His Name. It’s a story in which nobody really “gets it right”—except, paradoxically, by blundering along and living anyway, in spite of all that so-called failure.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2015/2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015/2016

Directory of the Vulnerable

directoryFabiano Alborghetti
Translated by Marco Sonzogni
Guernica Editions ($20)

by Graziano Krätli

Current events and crime news keep feeding fiction and creative nonfiction alike, but remain difficult to digest in poetry. This is not because of any real or presumed affinities between “news style” and other forms of “ordinary writing,” but simply because some “currencies” are easier to circulate and circumvent in prose than in verse. This is why Fabiano Alborghetti’s two fine collections to date, L’opposta riva (The Opposite Shore, 2006 and 2013) and Registro dei fragili. 43 canti (2009; Directory of the Vulnerable) represent almost an anomaly, if not a challenge, in the world of contemporary Italian poetry. The anomaly consists largely in the poet’s adoption of a voice (or voices) other than his own, in the process divesting himself of his poetic persona to invest in the cultural and linguistic expropriations (and reappropriations) that such borrowed voices represent, whether they belong to the tattered margins or the dead center of society. Making such adoptive voices redemptive is a high-risk investment, and it is more so for a poet than for a prose writer.

In L’opposta riva, the voiceless are sixty-three illegal immigrants from the Balkans, North and West Africa, whose names, ages, and origins are listed at the end of the book (unless they appear simply as “unknown,” which makes their voicelessness even more crying). The many forms of displacement, dispossession, and violation they embody were recorded by Alborghetti during the three years he lived at various immigrant camps around Milan (while working, of all places, at a luxury hotel). Immigration, its causes, hopes, and consequences, have been explored before, in poetry and prose, by a number of contemporary Italian writers, notably Eraldo Affinati and Erri De Luca. What makes Alborghetti’s book unique is the way in which its borrowed voices (and their own second-language idiosyncrasies) shape a distinct poetic idiom, creating an elevated style in which classical resonances and literary erudition are shined through the prism of broken linguistic and human material.

A somewhat similar kind of ethnographic field work informs Directory of the Vulnerable, Alborghetti’s next collection and his first to appear in English. (The publisher is planning to bring out a translation of L’opposta riva sometime between the end of 2016 and mid-2017). Prompted by a murder case occurred in 2006, the poet turned his attention from the Other—the dispossessed, displaced, undocumented alien—to his own fellow citizens, the affluent and alienated suburban middle class to whom aliens (legal or illegal) are but another docu-soap they watch on television. Instead of visiting immigrant camps, talking to their residents, and listening to their stories and pleas, Alborghetti took a stealthier approach, infiltrating “different family groups, noting their behaviours, the dialogues, the different relations that govern the physical, oral and moral behaviour of a family.” He followed them “in the shopping centres, the boutiques, the restaurants . . . spied on them among the stalls of a market or [from] behind the hedges of private gardens, listening and taking notes.” These field notes allowed him to insinuate himself imaginatively in the private lives and minds of his two protagonists, and to ventriloquize their growing estrangement from each other.

The facts are faceless enough that they could have happened in any industrial society. A woman trapped in a dead-end marriage kills her young and only son, whose birth had ended her dream of becoming a fashion model. The murder is never mentioned in the book, or only indirectly through the smoke screen of media interviews, expert debates, and the comments “of those who are right because they were there.” What interests Alborghetti is neither the reality of the facts nor the probability of their causes, but the complex universe represented by the inner and outer lives of his protagonists, the husband and wife whose ambitions, expectations, frustrations, and obsessions are typical of a late capitalist society driven by hyper-consumerism, self-gratification, and celebrity worship. In sum, all the rich, contradictory, and hard-to-define dark matter that feeds a writer’s imagination but is normally off limits to the journalist and the scientist.

The book is divided in three parts and forty-three cantos, each one consisting of a variable number of unrhymed tercets and ending with a single line. The first thirty-seven cantos (“Pictures at an Exhibition”) trace the downward path of the couple through various stages of separation, each picture duly framed by a specific location or situation: the restaurant, the gym, the backyard barbecue, the beach, the dining room, the living room, and of course the bedroom, both marital and extramarital. The second and third sections consist of three cantos each and deal with the aftermath of the tragedy, the sordid and short-lived media attention (“Judicial Theses”), and the return of the quiet after the dust is settled (“Directory of the Vulnerable”). The progression is contrapuntal, the rhythm unrelenting, the pace fast and feverish. The dynamic potential of the three-line construction is enhanced by the frequent use of repetition, assonance and alliteration.

The resulting lines, in Italian, convey most effectively the peculiar attitudes of the protagonists, often with the fastidious pointedness of a tongue-twister (“Poi la spesa si contava controllando lo scontrino” and, a few lines later, “Lo scontrino controllava fermo fisso a lato cassa.” They also represent a translator’s nightmare, as no amount of lexical or semantic competence will produce a satisfactory equivalent, either in English or any other language. The best a translator can hope and strive for, instead, is a satisfactory compromise—a version that is competent and compelling at the same time, combining a thorough understanding of the original and a sharp rendition of it in the target language. Unfortunately, this is achieved only partially and sporadically by the version under review. Translator Marco Sonzogni, although clearly aware of the challenge presented by the original and its “almost hypnotic rhythm,” tends to follow it too closely and trustfully, thus giving us lines that rarely retain the mordant conciseness and the vibrant energy of the original, but that are consistently longer and heavier, often sluggish and occasionally dull. This is also due to the awkward choice of certain words and expressions, which depart from the original for no apparent reason. Consider, for example, the first of the two lines quoted above, which is rendered

Next the bill for the shopping gets checked,
checked that nothing’s being charged in error;
the check-out operator is up to it, ringing up items you haven’t bought

While possibly justified by the fact that the translator is based in New Zealand, the use of “bill” instead of “receipt” for the Italian scontrino, and of “check-out operator” instead of “cashier” for cassiera, does not help retain the rhythm of the original; on the contrary, the repetition of “checked,” “checked” and “check-out” sounds rather toneless if compared to “si contava controllando lo scontrino.” Similar examples may be found in virtually any canto of the book.

It was Pound who said that “a translation must be more concise than the original,” and who tried to live up to his pronouncement with his versions of classical Chinese, Anglo-Saxon, Provençal, and medieval Italian poetry. In reality, the practice of turning a text, especially a poetic text, from one language into another tends to add rather than subtract, regardless of what the source and target languages are; and what is added is often redundant and occasionally irrelevant, if not detrimental to the overall understanding of the text. This is to a great extent inevitable and frequently attributed to the lure of the original, its power to mesmerize and captivate (in the original sense of “take captive”) with its lexical and syntactic peculiarities, its rhythmic aspects, its layers of meaning. Each text is a labyrinth and a riddle, and the spell it casts upon the reader is considerably more dangerous if he or she doubles as translator. In order to resist the power of seduction of the text and break its spell, such a translator must take control of its authority and—hard as it sounds—practice systematic, or at least selective authoricide. (Isn’t the translator’s an Oedipal condition anyway?) Facing this dilemma, Alborghetti’s translator took a more accommodating approach, producing a version that is deferential rather than distinctive, and often prosaic without being necessarily faithful, as an attentive bilingual reader will be able to see.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2015/2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015/2016