Tag Archives: Winter 2017

A Path Through the Wilderness: An Interview with Charles Potts

Charles Potts on his farm. photo by Paul E Nelson


by Paul E Nelson

Based in Walla Walla, Washington for decades, Charles Potts says he has "blazed a clear path thru the wilderness of the times I was fated to live in." An author of numerous volumes of poetry whose work first appeared in Wild Dog magazine in 1963, he's also been a publisher (of Litmus Magazine and a press of the same name, which published the likes of Philip Whalen, Amiri Baraka, Ed Dorn, Charles Bukowski, and others); an editor (of the anthology Pacific Northwestern Spiritual Poetry and the magazine The Temple, A postnational journal of spiritual elevation to create and maintain a state where the state has no jurisdiction); a curator/producer (of at least seven versions of the Walla Walla Poetry Party); and an author of creative non-fiction (most notably How The South Finally Won the Civil War, published by Tsunami, Inc. in 1995). In extra-literary pursuits, in the last decade he's become a breeder of Appaloosa horses. We spoke at length this past summer about his poetry, which I asked him to read several times during our session, so the reader of this interview can get a taste of this fine writer.


Paul E Nelson: How'd you sleep last night?

Charles Potts: I slept really well last night, if briefly. But my sleep pattern got interrupted early in March by waiting for a mare to give birth who was a full sister to a mare who had given birth two weeks early a year ago. Because horses tend to be similar to one another, I started watching her two weeks early. She didn't give birth till a week later so there was three weeks of sleep deprivation that was unnecessary to begin with, and then I had to go through the other foals that were being born and so forth. I had that chair over here by the window so I could look out at the barn and I have foal cameras and so forth.

PeN: Foal cameras? Cameras in the stable?

CP: Yeah, there are cameras in the barn so I can tell what's going on in there.

PeN: This is quite an investment that you have.

CP: Yeah, if you're a breeder of horses, getting a live baby horse is really important. I lost one once, and it's very difficult. An old friend of mine said he had seven this year and lost three. That must be really difficult. Losing one was bad enough, but I don't want to lose another one.

PeN: How long have you been doing this?

CP: Well I've been doing it this time around, I'm going on nine years at this point. But I went forty-eight years without having any horses. I had horses when I was in high school, and then we lost our ranch and had to sell everything at auction, and that included all my horses.

PeN: Was it just the economy that forced that?

CP: Well, it was the economy and the social deprivation/amalgamation of industrial farming, putting people off the land.

PeN: Tell us how your most recent book, Coyote Highway, came into being.

CP: Well I asked my publisher Bree if she would do it, and she said yes. Bree is a poet and an artist from Cleveland who was an admirer of my memoir Valga Krusa. I met her maybe fifteen, eighteen, years ago in Cleveland; she worked at a bookstore and she's a writer, a very good one, very peripatetic, energetic, she's kind of like a . . . I don't want to mischaracterize either one, but a female version of DA Levy in Cleveland. And she has lots of friends, lots of supporters. Anyway, she did both of my previous books, Pilgrim and Martel and The Source.

PeN: I would love it if you could read the title poem.

CP: I'll give it a go. I don't know that I've ever actually read it out loud to anybody.

Coyote Highway
(For Amalio Madueno)

The baby coyote scampering across the road
In front of me and into the wheat fields
Eternal coyote grin of the hanging tongue
I imagined on his face
On her face
A coyote has two faces
(So too the road going both directions
And nowhere simultaneously)
Janus and dramatic
The happy and the sad
Bisexual and two sexual
Scampering sin embargo
Nevertheless there should have always been
An embargo on sin
We have coyotes to thank
For making it stick.

Nevertheless time has found my tongue
Hanging on a key signature
Making it stick on frozen steel.

A few days before the Blue Creek Fire
The coyote pup got ran over
Almost exactly where I'd seen it cross
A few days earlier
In the Janus-in-July crunch signifying both
The beginning and the end.

For the rest of the summer I've watched
The coyote's tiny fur bearing body
Get impressed flatter and flattest
Into the pavement
Making it stick
Flatter than your father and mine
Both of them and all others
Becoming a coyote grease spot with hair
Over time by the over bearing weight of the wheels
Of a hundred fire trucks
Coming and going after
The Blue Creek fire
Driven relentlessly by over-dressed fire-proof
Department of Natural Resource men mostly
Pretending to be fighting fire snared
In a stronger force by orders of magnitude:
They were really fighting (and losing to) inertia.

2
The fire bifurcated my life into
Before and after the fire.

Before the fire the coyote's body
Sang in its sleep
The howling vocal chords of my signature
Yearning to merge with the magnificent
Tempo of geologic time.

After the fire
Which was a month ago
And feels like many years
The coyote is wearing out
His welcome to the pavement
Beyond the crushed paw of Lorca's
Kitten in New York.

The intermittent grease stain
Of the coyote surrendering and rendering its fat
To the artificial rubber of its meeting with the road.

I too disappear in stains
One revolution after another
Imprinted on the road
Every tire takes
An image of me around and around
The Mill Creek Road to Walla Walla
Blue Creek a burned out memory
Tributary to what now?

Houses, trees, buildings, grass, several thousand acres,
That used to belong to me, my friends and the animals
A thousand acres of my own pine and fir
Destroyed by a careless wheat farmer
Exporting topsoil.

This coyote is not starving
No Nezahualcoyotl in Nahuatl
This coyote is extinct
Extinguished temporarily by
Industrial strength transportation.

Nevertheless sin embargo
The coyote is stronger than death
And despite its disappearing act
Will outlive the road.

3
I did not expect to be impressed this way
Molecule by molecule into the asphalt
Spread out in the summer heat.
I have no idea what happened.
I don't know what hit me.
Suddenly everything was a blur of blood and pain.
I am now the watchman of this road.
I couldn't get up if I wanted to.
I don't have a leg to stand on.
I can't tell you how much this means to me.
I don't believe anything anymore.
With my mouth mashed down into the asphalt
It's hard enough to spit clichés out sideways
You would find it difficult too
If you no longer had any teeth.

But I've been thinking about it.
Dead as a coyote nailed
I have something to tell you
That has waited seventy years of summers.

You can't get off this road
The semi royal road to ruin
Non-parallel to the King's Highway
The Road to Cibola
El Camino unReal
Coyote Highway.

4
If you follow the Blue Creek Road
Far enough
You come to a black forest resembling
Pages ripped off Cormac McCarthy's
The Road.

Every tank of gas
Every bag of groceries
Every text is taken
Up with futility.
It's all going to burn.

I at least have become a permanent resident.
Not a citizen exactly.
I never felt like I belonged here
So I took up residence both
Above and below the law.
Alien by birth in my own time and country.

While I was gone the rains came
And for a while seemed to loosen
My grease into the aggregate
Nourishing the nearby weeds.

Since I can't get over it
I have to rise above it
To reassert my claim on the philosophic kingdom
My great uncle Neza set the standard.

A search for correlatives
Objective and otherwise
If a weed is a plant out of place
What then is an animal out of place?
But an orphan of philosophy
I am too short to trespass
My corpus delicti
Completely committed to a body
Still missing but still counting up the crimes
A formerly fur bearing weed
Speaks right into the mike
You can't let me any farther down.

PeN: Holy shit Charles, we have to find out about a devastating fire by reading your fucking poems, I mean it's crazy! I'm not one to share my tragedies, either. But I mean, you have a heart attack, you have a fire that destroys your whole ranch, and when I find out is when I start reading your book.

CP: Well, I'm naturally fairly discreet about that stuff. I used to write a lot of personal things—

PeN: Valga Krusa is an example of that.

CP: Yeah, if that book taught me anything it was to keep my mouth shut.

PeN: Oh, you got that out of your system fifty years ago, is what you're saying?

CP: I did. For many years I would hand copies of that to youngsters and say, "This is a cautionary tale. If you can't find at least ten things in here that you should never do, then you haven't read it correctly." And then there's the other part of that which is, as they're advising some of the miscreants in public office these days, you should really stop talking if you're about to go to court, and the first attorneys I had representing me and some of the other plaintiffs in this fire said don't talk about it. I wasn't planning on doing it anyway, although there are some things that I would like to bring up.

PeN: You dedicated the poem to Amalio Madueño; tell us about why you did that and about your friendship with him.

CP: Well, Amalio is probably the best under-appreciated poet in this country. I can say that without fear of contradiction, Amalio Madueño is a great poet and he should have many, many books distributed in all kinds of manners; instead he has to crank them out more or less by himself there at Ranchos Press [his own imprint], although that's not a bad idea in many ways because if you're publishing your own books, you're in control of the process. Amalio, he is just a super, super, intelligent, musical, sensitive individual. I had no idea how important he was when I went to the Taos Poetry Circus, which was a year after my first heart attack—I thought, I'm going to go down there, I better go down there before it's too late. I don't know how the Taos Poetry Circus was put together, but I get the impression that he was pretty much the engine room.

PeN: For about ten years. And it was a production, it was a show.

CP: Yeah, it was kind of like entertainment of a sort. I don't mind that poetry turns into entertainment at one level, because they had big crowds. It was probably one of the most important series of readings that ever took place on this continent. And the guy who started it, Al Simmons, he is a great writer himself. And he started that stuff in Chicago.

PeN: Right, Mark Smith sort of took his method and turned it into the slam, which has its own story.

CP: Anyway, I enjoyed Amalio's presence and his poetry and I've reprinted a lot of it, published it in The Temple magazine when I was doing it again.

PeN: "Coyote White Tail War" is the next poem I'd like you to read. I think that reading the poems gives us the background for understanding the deeper picture which will emerge after I ask a question about that.

CP:

Coyote Whitetail War

Let's imagine one side
Never completely wins

Taking sides rends my being

How anyone could have ever
Described this nature as a balance

Juggling from a great height
The appealing solo participants

Both sides lose way more than enough
To vulcanized artificial rubber

The fast chew of the fawn jaws
Adumbrates the rest of their speed

The cruel chew of the coyote's teeth
Making peace is never going to happen

PeN: I look at your facial expression when you read that first couplet, and the look on your face is like, come on people, this is what's happening. There's a nihilistic undertone to all of this.

CP: I don't think nihilistic is . . . I think there's a realistic tone to it. I am a realist.

PeN: You're a glass half empty kind of guy?

CP: Well, it's not half empty—the glass is empty, it's full, it's broken, it's not even there, you can't get a drink, you're going to die of thirst, it's whatever.

PeN: Says the man who's had three heart attacks and watched a thousand acres burn.

CP: There's a lot going on there, the little successes that individual actors, a fawn, a coyote, you, me, our children, the little successes we have are all on a pathway to personal oblivion. I admire natural history in a big way and I think that cultural history, that is to say the people part of it, is pretty much irrelevant to what the earth is doing. But the book never got as much attention as I wish it had.

PeN: This book?

CP: No, a book I wrote called Nature Lovers—it's a satire on nature lovers in a sense, and there's an afterward in which it's a paean to Wordsworth's "Ode on the Intimations of Immortality." What I think Wordsworth was getting at is there was a time when birds, beasts, and flowers seemed apparelled in celestial delight. Nothing can bring back that hour "of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower." The way we used to feel about things as children, when it was all very delightful and beautiful and our parents were lying to us about how great it all is. That's really not about personal development. Now I think there's no way to bring back that once upon a time, before we became chimpanzees with a gene for speech. We're no longer part of natural history. Language has separated us from natural history, we're cultural history now. I think that insight, and I attribute it to Wordsworth, really matters.

PeN: Next up is "Coyote Stretcher" or as you'd say, kiot stretcher.

CP:

Coyote Stretcher

Dad had three or four
Coyote hide stretchers of various sizes,
A cross between a surf board
With the shape of an ironing board,
Fur side in for drying hide turned
Fur side out for later sale and display,
Pointy nose at the tip
Face minus the philosophical eyes,
A Coyote tube with empty throat
From which no call further comes.

Spreaders at the hind end,
Some Coyotes are thicker than others.

PeN: (Laughter.) And the purpose of stretching the hides is to sell them . . .

CP: Well, it's to dry it evenly to make it as big as it gets. If you just skinned the Coyote and had the hide laying around on the floor, it would wrinkle itself out. While it's still moist within probably 24 hours from the time it's removed from the animal itself, it's placed on the stretcher.

PeN: And the reason for retaining these hides, is—

CP: Selling them, for fur. My dad was a trapper. He was paid by the federal government to trap beavers and he trapped other stuff, freelance. There's a little poem called, "Hide" an old poem of mine, do you know it?

PeN: I may have seen it, yeah.

CP: It's germane to this discussion here and I think I know where I can find it.

PeN: If it's in The Portable Potts, I've read it yes.

CP: Yeah, I'm sure you've read it and it's . . . if I could put my hands on it and . . . in a large book like this, it does matter to have pages, this has 258 . . .

Hide

I am a boy again,
Riding shotgun in a black and red
1948 Dodge pickup with my dad,
Crossing the Arco desert
With our cargo of cured hides.

My father was a government trapper
And I'm a government trapper's son.
Halfway to the hidehouse on
Yellowstone Avenue in Idaho Falls,
We plow through an Atomic Energy Commission plot.

The mink, the muskrat and the coyotes,
To say nothing of the beaver,
Have turned themselves inside out
Into Levi's I might get to wear,
Clean new clothes to school
With the animals under my skin.

PeN: Wow. Let's do "Shakespeare Was in Real Estate, and I'm Buying a Farm."

CP: This was supposed to be a song. If I had more talent . . .

Shakespeare Was in Real Estate and I'm Buying the Farm

Shakespeare was in real estate and I'm buying the farm.
Every day I die a little; every day I live a lot.
The Enlightenment presents a challenge to learn how to think for yourself.
I go deeper into debt and by inversion think I can turn my money into dirt.

Blue Creek sings as it slides over rocks it hasn't quite yet washed
Out from under itself, particles adhering to one another like
Molecules of H2O have to to avoid puddling up:
If there's enough of us and a slope it's all downhill from here.

Then the ocean waves us back toward the beach we thought we'd left
Intact as the land's edge, land's end, land's creepy disappearance
Under water so big it's hoarding salt
Never mind the minerals in suspension that make up the earth.

The earth is not a made up thing.
It was put together by force.
The force that brings the human mind to attention.
No suspense in that.

The dirt by water becomes boot sucking mud
That drags the feet into itself at great depth.
The drought is everywhere and still we're all surrounded by
Wastrels at the village water trough and well.

How steadily the decline of the west slants
From Shakespeare into mud.

PeN: (Laughter.) These pithy endings . . . I remember your book How the South Finally Won the Civil War and Controls the Political Future of the United States which has only proven to be more true as we see the people running this country. . . First of all, "every day I die a little, every day I live a lot." This is evident, you could tell just by the beauty of this place and your love of animals and to see that month-old colt bound around near the end of the party last night.

CP: Wasn't that amazing? It's why I do it. You see a little horse at full tilt, you know it's okay.

PeN: A month old, not even a month.

CP: Oh, she could do that when she was three days old. Her balance wasn't as good at three days as it is at thirty. But the speed was there, and the desire. And then when they lay down to dream with their head flat on the ground to have REM sleep, if you can get close enough to them without waking them up you can see their eyes fluttering. And they're dreaming about running, I know they are.

PeN: And then there's a line in this poem, "The force that brings the human mind to attention." What are other phrases or names for that force in your mind?

CP: Well, it's kind of like gravity and centripetal force. One of the consequences of aging and losing my hearing, I'm also losing my sense of balance. There's a poem in the book Slash and Burn called, "Gravity." I talk about how gravity holds me up and keeps me pinned to the earth because you have only seven degrees that you can walk around it. My favorite line in that poem is "the earth is not a made up thing"; I felt like I was channeling Robert Duncan when I said that. I like Duncan a lot.

PeN: You live in Walla Walla, and there is a very palpable, traditional, religious, sentiment and community here. "The force that brings the human mind to attention" might be described by locals as God, or divinity, or some kind of . . . Charles Olsen in the essay, "Projective Verse" used the phrase, "the single intelligence."

CP: There's a lot too what goes on here and on the planet earth that is not available in this galaxy, move along. There's a poem in this book called "Auden in Egypt" which is more like how I really feel about it. What I dislike about theology is that people . . . I can forgive them very easily because I know how weak people are . . . but they give up. Now I'm really excited for this year because it's the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther. Martin Luther's premise was Catholics are wrong about one thing. My premise is Catholics are wrong about everything, and these are the papal states of America. Five of those assholes on the Supreme Court of the United States are Catholics, three of them were personally recruited by a Catholic named Leo who finds these judges and passes them along to the Republicans because they're . . . what Luther did was released information to the general public, that's what the Reformation was about. The Catholic church was wrong about Copernicus and Galileo, they're also wrong about Freud and Marx and Darwin and Einstein and everybody else . . .

PeN: So your issue is with religion.

CP: Theology. Blocking the path to information.

PeN: Yet the force that brings the human mind to attention, if we throw all the religion out, there's still some kind of divinity, there's still some kind of good, there's still some kind of intelligence there that obviously is informing you in some way.

CP: Well, I think it's dazzling in many ways. We're a tiny little relatively insignificant part of, if we could just figure it out from our end instead of mumbling about our inadequacies to some divinity, I'd be a lot happier with my fellow creature.

PeN: "Midnight Equestrian."

CP:

Midnight Equestrian

He was a promising intellect
A Passionate advocate for
Good public policy
A poet with world class
Ambition;
He turned it all in
For a handful of horses.

(This was composed the evening of the day
He caused his second heart attack, May 30,
Which didn't manifest itself until June 11th.)

PeN: We could see that on a tombstone. I guess that's a devastating fire and your third heart attack might make you think about death a little bit.

CP: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I read this little poem the night before when I was doing my little epigrammatic stuff; everything we are and everything we hope to be, we owe to horses.

PeN: Which leads to the next poem I'd like you to read, "The Naming of Horses."

CP:

The Naming of the Horses

Each horse deserves a name as exquisite as his or her soul
Since you will be saying them over and over again
Make them beautiful as only horse souls are.

Shandalupa out of Patchy by Foz
Is a Chinese mountain merged into an Arabian desert
On the Celtic peninsula of Iberia.
Shan-andalu-pa
We sing the praises of the distances you've come.

Pahsimeroi is a river
And a valley
With a single grove of trees
Where my great grandparents
Robert Latreille Jones and
Cora Florence Lewis Jones
Homesteaded in the 1880s near Goldberg.

Fudasan is a filly with the feminine mispronunciation of
The Japanese word for real estate
Fu-doh-san for products that don't move.
Born not much bigger than a rabbit
Fuda moves her hooves across the real estate
In English her name is Flying Spider.

PeN: And the little colt's name here?

CP: The colt's name is Waatnuwas.

PeN: How do you spell that?

CP: W-A-A-T-N-U-W-A-S. I dropped the S, but it means spirit seeking place. It's Sahaptain Indian.

PeN: Amazing. I was recently asked to read for a whole two minutes at a party, and I thought I've got time for two short poems, one by McClure from his new book, which I have in my bag and I can read to you later, but then I also read this next poem, and I tried to channel my inner Charles Potts when I read it. The party was in Seattle on Capitol Hill, so imagine an audience that's not particularly religious or theological or however you want to say it, but it's this poem here, "The Hermiston Horse Sale."

CP:

The Hermiston Horse Sale

Standing in front of steel stud pens
A man and his son from Elkland, Missouri
Inquire about the bloodlines of my horses.

Preliminary to flashing me
His holier than thou card
The father says with grey beard earnestness,
"May I ask where you worship?"

Up to my knees
In horseshit and Christians I reply,
"Right here where I'm standing."

CP: It is true. It's not made up.

PeN: And this is the way you worship.

CP: Yeah.

PeN: And anyone who's heart is working half way can see that, don't you think.

CP: Yeah, they should be able to.

PeN: So what you're saying here, in pure imagery, is that your religion doesn't seem to be working if you can't recognize this.

CP: Right, yeah. That's a good way to put it.

PeN: It's what I get from it! Because you can see if you have basic human perception. I almost thought this should be the first thing to read, so people can get a sense of your wit and your ability to nail down a poem. I think the next one is, "The Well Fed Horses of Du Fu." Now before we get into this, you lived in Japan for a year with your wife and daughter and you're very interested in Chinese poetry; you brought Chinese poets here to Walla Walla and to Seattle. Can you tell us when you first developed an interest in Chinese poetry?

CP: I did some Li Bai translations with a really fine poet named David Wang, who passed away very young. He was from New Mexico. He used to do poetry readings with people performing martial arts behind him. But actually my interest in Chinese poetry came from a guy I don't often give enough thanks to, Ezra Pound. With David I also rendered a poem called "Changsha" that Mao Zedong wrote; it's the title poem of Mao's most important book of poems. He was a great poet, and the right person for the revolution, just the wrong executive to try to keep running it, not that he got any help from the assholes who ran our system. They might just as well have moved into China with the Marshall Plan in 1950.

PeN: My dad said, "The Chinese will take us over without firing a shot."

CP: Or everybody's favorite line: we'll surrender to the Chinese in Spanish. Here's the poem:

The Well-fed Horses of Du Fu

in Wuling their robes are light and their horses well-fed
—Du Fu, translated by Red Pine, from Poems of the Masters

Turns out on closer examination that the horses
In Du Fu's "Autumn Inspiration II" are not
Du Fu's at all but those of successful old friends from his youth.

I should give up a million dollar title
For the granular truth?

I hear my horses dancing on the land.

When I was sixteen in 1959
Bankruptcy was circling in on my family
Forced to sell at auction
Our ranch and everything on it
To satisfy Republican creditors driving
New cars and wearing new clothes
(Such as "light," ie silk, robes as in Du Fu above).

Everything on it included
My horses.

48 years without any horses.
Eight years ago I bought four and
Spring of 2016 I will have five foals.

I am still deep in debt
Successful enough, in a banker's opinion,
To feed my horses well.

PeN: Living well is the best revenge huh? I've written two more poems to potentially read but I'm thinking one more; I'll give you the choice whether "Windy One Week Out," or "Palo Duro Sunrise."

CP: Let's do "Palo Duro"—it's not as successful as a poem, but it's very important material.

Palo Duro Sunrise
8:00 AM March 10, 2015

The red edge of the disk surfaces over
The thinly fogged horizon.
Rising to sphericality the still red sun
Accelerates over Texas.

At the end of the road an equestrian trail
Leads downstream on the Prairie Dog Fork of the Red River
Towards the battle site
Where afterward Ranald Slidell Mackenzie,
First in his class at West Point, 1862,
Youngest brigadier general in the Civil War,
Killed nearly all the horses captured
From Quanah Parker and the Comanches.

Next day I feel I am walking directly into the sun,
Over the fence, out of the park,
Keeping my eyes down on the trail looking for the horses.
The sun is too beautiful to look at.

Peeling from the dead branches of cottonwood,
Bark soft enough to make a babies bed.

Bad Hand Mackenzie
Before he committed suicide
Was out here doing scut work against the Indians for
Ulysses S Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman.

Beyond scorched earth to toasted horses.
The horse of my enemy is my enemy.

I toast the horses one more time:
When you run out of Confederates
Indians and horses to kill
You have to kill yourself.

PeN: I was going to ask you how does it all end, but you already said that. It's us surrendering to the Chinese in Spanish. But it is the fate of all empires to go down—

CP: Oh yeah.

PeN: And Morris Berman figured that we were in the final stage of empire twenty years ago, and now we've got El Caudillo Analfabético as our illiterate strong man leader. So what happens? You've studied the history enough to know what happens. What is the fate of all empires and how does it manifest?

CP: Well, there's an algorithm for how empires disappear and it's based on the size of the asset base, how intelligently the asset base is managed, and the quality of intelligence of the leadership. Unfortunately for people like me who would like to see this empire end yesterday, I don't think it's anywhere near the end. Because we're at a point where we assimilate a little bit. Like the Roman Empire . . . I have two competing ideas about how this takes place. Toynbee, who was right about almost everything except Chinese history, thought that the Chinese had gone away. The Chinese operate a system like a pulsar. They put together a dynasty, the first half of a Han, lasts for a couple hundred years, and they fall apart, and then there's a second half of the Han, lasts for another couple hundred years, they go in for a warring state period and that preoccupies them for sixty or seventy years, and then the Tang dynasty shows up, and it lasts for almost three hundred. And then it falls apart, and then there was a period of chaos and bullshit, and then the Sung dynasty comes on, it's for two or three hundred years. And this one that's going on now, the Mao dynasty as I refer to it, it's still got two hundred years to run. The Chinese are going to be . . . I wrote a poem the other day that said, "Mars belongs to the Chinese." So the Chinese operate on a pulse. Our system is more or less linear.

PeN: You mean the U.S.?

CP: Yeah, the U.S. system. The Roman Empire put together in its ultimate form by Augustus and the Augustinian age lasted for about a hundred years, and it came to a halt with a Trajan who was born in what we now think of as Spain who spent his entire eighteen years as emperor out in basically Romania, hassling people. He conquered the Tigris-Euphrates valley. He was only emperor to go to where the emirate of Kuwait is, he tried to operate clear out there. He couldn't do it, spent his whole time out there just fighting one battle after another . . . because just like anybody else that you run over, you know there's a few guys left standing saying, "Fuck this." And they'll just resist you, they'll sabotage you, they'll hassle you, they'll steal your food—

PeN: They'll put bombs on their back and . . .

CP: Or as Mao would say, "The enemy is the source of supply." Let's just takes these horses from these Romans while they're asleep or whatever. And Trajan was succeeded in office by Hadrian, who understood that empires have limits. He said over here, anything that goes beyond the Danube River is out of our fucking control, skip it, let it pass. And that's the line there. They abandoned the Tigris-Euphrates, said in the north, the limit of the Empire is the Rhine. We're not going to go beyond that, we can't manage it from here. The supply line gets too big and so forth. He built a wall in Scotland to keep the Scots out of England. He knew where the limits were. And so the Roman Empire stumbled along for a couple hundred years under Hadrian's principles. Then it fell to a guy named Diocletian, who divided it into quadrants. He had a sub-emperor for the Iberian Peninsula, Gaul, and England, he had a sub-emperor for the Italian Peninsula, he had one for the Balkans, and he was in charge of the shit in the East—he was from Constantinople, we would call him a Turk. I see a touch of Diocletian-ism with the Western United States Empire being Washington, Oregon, California, and Mexico, just kind of operating independently of Washington DC.

PeN: That's amazing. I think a better way to end the interview is with that other poem that I wanted you to read.

CP: OK.

Windy One Week Out

It's been a week since Windy died
Her chin whiskers protruding beyond her lips
That will never nurse
Nose that never breathed
Fresh air

Her eyes were closed
An air of peace surrounded her
Before the sand and gravel of her grave
Pinned her down in thrust position
Hind legs extended to the max
Front drawn up as if leaping

Into the hard space of tomorrow
We bring the dead with us
Until they become
Too heavy to handle.

Inside every living person,
Especially the elderly
But some youngsters have it too,
Is a walking mausoleum
Of the dead:
Parents, siblings, friends, relatives, and
The famous dead like Kennedy and King.

Joining this parade of past tense witness
I have a baby horse inside me.

PeN: Thank you, Charles.

CP: Thank you!

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Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change


Ashley Dawson
Verso ($29.95)

by Chris Barsanti

To an SUV-driving climate change skeptic living in some sidewalk-less exurb, most solutions proffered by environmentalists for saving the planet must seem like a kick in the teeth. Those plans' underlying assumptions are usually that energy-guzzling cars and big suburban houses are selfish and wasteful. They also assume that the cramped quarters and public transit networks of the city—where, let's be honest, a good many people who believe in environmental action already live—are virtuously efficient, by comparison. Ashley Dawson, in his scorching jeremiad Extreme Cities, wouldn't disagree with the root of that equation, but he rails with jackhammer force against the self-congratulation delivered by one set of city-dwellers to all the rest. Don't get too comfortable, Dawson says here, because cities "are at the forefront of the coming climate chaos." After all, most great cities were built around ports, and sea levels are rising.

In Extreme Cities, Dawson sets out not just to prove how cities from New York to Jakarta are gravely threatened by climate change, but also to illuminate the ways that capitalism and class feed into and even exacerbate that threat. For Dawson, a Marxist-inclined professor of English at CUNY and author of Extinction: A Radical History, cities are hardly a solution to climate change. In his anti-capitalist critique, they are emblematic of the mentality that drove humanity to this current state of affairs. He describes modern cities as money "sinks" where "real-estate speculation provides a way for economies to grow as production." So, even though logic would dictate transforming low-lying shorelines into storm surge-absorbing wetlands, planners in cities like New York and Miami continue building right up to the water line. Meanwhile, even conservative modeling has seas rising over six feet by 2100. Set against that inexorable future, Dawson's description of a "feckless capitalist culture of ruinous growth" has the ring of truth.

Extreme Cities is an angry book—as it should be. Dawson spreads his contempt around, though not always evenly; he spends little time bothering with those who doubt the reality of climate change. Rather, he conserves most of his ammunition for the impressive-sounding but ultimately futile and even harmful plans to make cities more resistant to destructive flooding. For one, those plans usually focus on protecting high-net-worth areas like lower Manhattan and pushing floodwaters into lower-income areas deemed less worth of protection. For another, Dawson argues, resiliency strategies "inadvertently build up risk by creating a false sense of security and hope."

To buttress this rationale, Dawson analyzes several urban resiliency plans. He finds nearly all of them lacking in both foresight and economic justice. A typical blueprint hatched to protect New York is the so-called BIG U, which proposed a ten-mile-long series of landscaped berms around the financial and business core of lower Manhattan. Dawson's acerbic note is a lesson in common sense: "storm surges of the future will certainly not stop in their tracks at 42nd Street, where the berm will end." He contextualizes such plans amidst a future of truly catastrophic urban environmental challenges, which he says are "likely to unfold as a slow cascade of rising mortality rates punctuated by spectacular disasters." Set against that backdrop, high-end environmentally-focused urban planning will at "at best . . . produce gated green enclaves." He excoriates the inattention to protecting working-class urban people and neighborhoods, in examples ranging from the deprioritizing of areas like Red Hook, Brooklyn after Hurricane Sandy to the lack of resilient and sustainable building in low-income areas. (Cities aren't exactly asking for LEED certifications in public housing.) At worst, according to Dawson, high-minded and highly-paid urbanists are fiddling while Rome drowns.

Heavily informed by Marx, Mike Davis, and Naomi Klein, Dawson's view of the environmental threats facing modern cities is useful for its emphasis on the interlaced nature of economics and political power structures when discussing the allocation of resources in precarious times. But there are times when this normally tight and fiery book could have used some reining in. His analysis of the decentralized, ground-up manner in which Occupy Sandy provided effective post-storm relief in underserved parts of New York is on the nose, but repetitive after a point. Dawson gives lip service to looking at the issue globally but he only truly drills down when it comes to New York. (Dawson hopefully will be able to address the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey in future editions; he doesn't include Houston as one of his "extreme cities," but Houston's toxic brew of unplanned sprawl, unprotected petrochemical and fossil-fuel facilities, and extreme racial and economic disparities—all mashed together in a flood-prone plain whose vulnerability to climate change—exacerbated super storms was heightened by the loss of wetlands to unchecked development-works as an excellent case study for all the problems Dawson highlights.)

Like many writers before him, Dawson also falls prey to the temptation of the ever-expanding holistic viewpoint. It's one thing to point out that capitalist impulses are trapping more and more capital in doomed coastal cities. It's quite another to lambast a hero like environmentalist Bill McKibben for comparing the climate change fight to World War II. Dawson pedantically carps about this analogy because the Allied powers "were both capitalist and imperialist." Certainly that's true. But it doesn't mean the Nazis didn't need defeating.

Where it matters, though, Dawson outlines the existential dilemma facing coastal cities, and the refusal of various powerbrokers to acknowledge that reality, in bold and frequently horrifying terms. One of the book's most vivid moments comes when he's talking with Hal Wanless, a geological science professor at the University of Miami, about the status of that slowly drowning city. "I get Wall Street people calling me all the time," Wanless says, "asking if they can get eight or nine years out of a condo on Miami Beach." How many other urban districts, one wonders, have already been written off, with their residents none the wiser?

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To Each Unfolding Leaf: Selected Poems (1976-2015)

Pierre Voélin
Translated by John Taylor
Bitter Oleander Press ($25)

by Greg Bem

Nothing more born on your lips
neither words nor the tress of screams
no breath
save the astonished shadows
the unstitched thread of the violets

("In a Hay Meadow" Words and Famine, 1995)

This first major collection of English translations of Pierre Voélin's poetry is monumental. Translator John Taylor shows himself capable of taking these works in their original French and, through impressive translation, reinvigorating their mental and lyrical capabilities. Here, the voices of the poet observantly command a landscape of promise and distillation, of past and present. These are works of statement and presence and trust. Despite countless contexts and a sprawling range of subject matter, To Each Unfolding Leaf is primarily about existence as fully lived and fully received, exquisitely open yet vulnerable and bruised. These poems hold many faces, and carry the weight of lineages followed and embraced by the poet.

How do these lineages become represented, though? As a poem describing and commenting on the tragic final moments of Paul Celan demonstrates, there is a timeless full stop in Voélin and his determinations:

Off goes the star to the grass
and the poet on the bank stands speechless

No more shortcuts are left
The curious earth is cooling
at his ankles

Once again he opens the black pages of the nettle
before a river suddenly sweeps him away

("Night of November First," from The Calmed Woods, 1987)

Heightened by a slow, simple language juxtaposed with symbolic frames and images, the subtext of this poem, like the bulk of Voélin's poems, holds a deep capacity, bridging the qualms and quirks of in-between and often-unheard. All of this before the swoop and the sweep moves the reader to the next iteration.

Along with exasperation and release, there is a deep, unmistakable, and profound empathy traceable from book to book, sequence to sequence, breath to breath, line to line. Voélin follows in the footsteps and carries forward the energy of those writers whom he praises, acknowledges, mourns: from Celan to Char, Chappuis to Dickinson, Mandelstam to Bishop, and many others, including some of his contemporaries, there is a networked resolve of compassion vibrating out of these concise tides of conjoined bravado and humility. Poems are charged with the brilliant light and decay of universal awareness as it plays out in the days and travels of our poet. Balancing an aesthetic of philosophy and a range of scaffolded imagism and surrealist play, these works approach the end-death and the lack of existence-just as they approach the rebeginning, the retaining of memories of activity and action. The concept of nothingness feels futile here; there is burst upon burst of rejuvenation and recitation:

and then the dead-enveloped in bark
those who die in the peat
or stick to the sap

I seek the language of memory
we listen to it-it is feverish-it straightens itself up

("A Squawking Sky," from Voices in the Other Language, 2015)

Life and its boundaries, capable of a personalized yet open crystallization, are described in full here, from the minute to the macrocosmic. The individual moment, experienced through feelings of urgency, simultaneity, and awe, is a moment precisely spoken for and through with a language of angled mirrors. This writing is deeply personal and spirited, but it is infestation too, at once a blessing and burden to the outsider.

As with many of his French-language translations, Taylor offers readers an extraordinary opportunity here. As he describes in his significant introduction, this project has been one of friendship, exploration, and a commitment to the emotional and intentional core of the original works, paying respect to the ideas and the original language in unison. Channeling these many fine lines covering the themes of loss and intimate memory as described above, Taylor's translated realms of Voélin find an appropriate binding in their book-length presentation. The voice of Voélin, its varied tones appreciated, finds a home and homeliness in the English portal of Taylor's craft. An excessive but valuable body of research, both in the book's introduction and in footnotes, provides explanation and authority to the poems and their own intimate histories, many the result of Taylor's own meetings with the poet.

It is fortunate that such collaborations have successfully allowed the transcription into English of so much of this extraordinary poet. The book feels full, rich, overflowing, and yet the collection brings together just eight of the author's published and unpublished books, most but not all in full display. The door remains open for what will hopefully be continued gifts of Voélin's poetry to audiences of the English language.

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Many Lives Passed Through Place: An Interview with Roz Morris

by Garry Craig Powell

Roz Morris is a novelist, book doctor, and writing teacher, and has sold 4 million books as a ghost-writer. In her first collection of essays, Not Quite Lost: Travels Without a Sense of Direction (Spark Furnace), travel writing intersects with memoir. Morris visits off-the-beaten-track spots, mostly dwellings in rural England such as architectural follies, medieval gatehouses, and a leaky stone fort built to thwart foreign invasion. She has a weakness for houses that are unfinished or have a mystery about them. She is funny, perceptive about what these eccentric places say about her country, and like all great travellers, she manages to meet unforgettable characters who would not be amiss in fiction. Anyone who writes travel books must wrestle with the narrator's persona: does the writer try to erase it, or highlight it? Morris is in the latter camp. Although she and her husband often poke fun at her Tigger-like enthusiasm, that's precisely what makes her such a delightful traveling companion. Not Quite Lost is an entertaining, insightful book that invites comparisons to Bill Bryson's British odysseys.

Garry Craig Powell: First, I found the book delightful: amusing, entertaining, and often thought-provoking. It's not exactly a travel book—perhaps we can talk about that—but it certainly does something that most good travel books do: it makes us want to visit some of the places you describe. And I'm guessing that was intentional, since you give more information about some of the places where you stayed at the end of the book. Did you set out to write a book of essays about visits to unusual places, or did you discover that you were writing such a book as the essays piled up over the years?

Roz Morris: Definitely the latter. I've always scribbled in notebooks, and I have a particular notebook I keep in my suitcase for when I'm off my home turf. It's a bit special—bound in leather, with the word 'visitors' stamped on it in gold. I like the Alice in Wonderland logic—a visitor's book is the book I write in when I am a visitor.

I'd been keeping it for more than twenty years and discovered I had quite a collection. My husband Dave, also an author, suggested I organise them into a book. At first I misunderstood him, thinking he meant use them as material in novels, but he thought they'd make a standalone book of essays. I'm primarily a fiction writer, so I didn't take him seriously. But I came to like the idea. It set a challenge. The pieces were personal and random, a diary of place and curiosity, but maybe I could work them to invite others in.

As I reread the book I had a surprise—these travels were prequels for my fiction, long forgotten. Some of the locations had worked their way into my novels as settings—a seaside town out of season, honest and dowdy; a group of cottages built within the ruins of a crumbled mansion, full of romantic relics. Also, my themes were there, colouring the questions I wanted to ask—ideas of what lies beneath the surface and the unusual ways we can be haunted. Rereading this book was like following a string backwards through time and discovering where I came from.

GCP: The first essay, "Eve of destruction: a childhood home," is about Edge Croft, the large Arts and Crafts house you grew up in, which has an elegiac quality about it. It's sad—and perhaps revealing—that your parents' renovations made it "look like a bus garage." You leave a great deal unsaid about your family life, but it's very suggestive that after your parents' divorce you became estranged from your brother, and I believe didn't see your mother for a long time afterwards either.

RM: That's correct. When you describe it like that, I realise it looks unusual. But every family creates its own norm. That was simply how we operated.

GCP: In a way, it's typically English to avoid an emotional examination of what went on, isn't it? I can't imagine an American writer doing that. And yet, perhaps precisely because you say so little, the effect is very moving. I was left wanting more.

RM: Thank you—that's what I'd hoped it might do. That piece, "Eve of destruction," wasn't even planned. It was a late entry, happening in real time as I was editing the other pieces. Here's the story—a school friend messaged me to say my childhood home had been demolished. Immediately I felt the need to collect as much of it as I could. I looked on Google Earth and it was still standing. Streetview had more recent pictures; the demolition had begun. The house had always been a source of wonder to me—it had features from a more elegant age. Old fireplaces were hidden behind the plasterboard in the bedrooms. When I heard that the house had gone, I felt the need to write everything I remembered about it, to write its obituary.

There certainly is a lot under the surface of the piece; there are many longer stories that deserve more time and attention. But this wasn't the place to tell them. Is that restraint typically English? Perhaps it is. When you're on the inside looking out, you never know how typical you are. I'm certainly very fond of writers like Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh for the way they use surfaces with devastating power. And I also love a more detailed and open style—I'm currently rereading Ann Patchett's Bel Canto, which savours each emotional shift in detail. But for "Eve of destruction," I was thinking in short form, with a clear container, like a songwriter.

GCP: In "Staircases to nowhere: Torrington, Devon" you quite explicitly state your fascination for houses with hidden parts, and this house, Stevenstone, was also demolished, like the family home, which made way for a professional footballer's four-storey pad, which "will look like Lidl" (a supermarket). In other essays, you and your husband Dave stay in medieval gatehouses, eighteenth-century follies, a Martello tower, a Palladian villa . . . It strikes me that there's a theme here. A taste for the emblematically romantic. Would you agree? It seems to me a kind of Elysian yearning, a longing for a mythical world one feels must exist, which also feels quintessentially English.

RM: I think the English have a tradition of stories centred around beautiful houses—Daphne du Maurier with Manderley (from Rebecca); Charlotte Brontë with Thornfield Hall (Jane Eyre); Evelyn Waugh with Brideshead; and of course, the TV series of Downton Abbey. These houses are more than settings; they are invested with memories, representation of their times, qualities of the psyche.

I certainly find places fascinating, especially if they have been extensively altered. I love to see the patterns of former use—if a house was divided, say, or walls have been reconfigured. And, of course, if it has gone altogether. There's something ruthless about the way we colonise and remake for our own purposes.

What draws me to them? An interesting question. I'm not thinking life was better in those older times. That would seem sentimental. Taking those houses as an example, although they had glory days, life was generally harder—there were few educational opportunities, no legal rights, no healthcare, few of the scientific advantages that mean we're not beaten by infections or bad eyesight. What fascinates me is this sense of a continuum, of how many lives have passed through a place, doing what they needed to, leaving footprints. Not lives that I think might have been better, or simpler, or innocent—or, conversely, harder. Just lives. Life.

I love the sense that we're fitting in with places that have already seen so much—and not just places. I'm drawn to furniture and books that are second-hand because they come with a patina of experience. My writing desk is an old dining table that a neighbour put out for the dustmen to collect. I painted it and it has sat under my computer for my entire writing career, and I love the idea that it was once the centre of a completely different home. My house in London has leaded windows, and some of them are bent from a bomb blast during the Second World War. I think it would be a shame to replace them as they are a postcard from the past.

I'm also drawn to objects that can be framing narratives, which brings us back to the house in "Eve of destruction." A bit like a fable, where something can be apparently simple but surprisingly rich.

GCP: I'm a fan of framing narratives and old objects too; when you're in a place that's redolent of history, you feel how illusory time is. That's very poignant. Of course, many of the essays are quite simply straightforward comedy: "Pardon our French," for example, or "You are not Morgana and I am not Merlin," which portrays the Yoda-like ex-solicitor Michael, who has premonitions, believes in a goddess figure, and is in love with a far younger woman. In these, in classic travel writer fashion, you often use the practical, down-to-earth Dave as a foil for your own giddy excitement. Here's a laconic example from "Travels without a sense of direction" in which you persuade him to stay at a Martello tower. Dave says "It's a stone pillbox." Roz: "It's got a moat and a drawbridge." Dave: "It looks . . . like one of those public conveniences on Clapham Common." These are hilarious contrasts.

RM: I think I'm lucky that he still agrees to travel with me! That is genuinely how our temperaments work. You've seen Spinal Tap, right? If I were an amplifier I would be on 11 all the time. In real life, Dave tames some of my excesses and lets me laugh at them. Happily for this book, he worked very well on a narrative level. I guess that's one of the bonuses of marrying a writer.

GCP: I should think so. But even in an essentially comic episode like this one, in which you are kept awake all night by "The drips [which] formed a chorus of sounds as extensive as an orchestra," there's a touching and thought-provoking ending. You visit a bookshop, in a decommissioned chapel, in which there's a notice on the front table saying "Please bash can with stick to get attention"—again, so delightfully, eccentrically English—and you end with this: "If the Sea Devils ever triumph and we have to hide in Martello towers, or the ocean churns our towns into rubble, or the murmuring voices drive us out of our power stations, we will build our civilisation again from places like this." That's characteristic of your style, I think, which might be described as "restrained lyricism." You have a pitch-perfect ear for the language, but you pick out only a few details, the telling ones.

RM: I try to! I admire writing that the reader can surrender to. Part of that is the use of detail—show the reader what they need, linger only for as long as necessary, then move on. George Orwell, Ray Bradbury, Hilary Mantel, Stella Gibbons (to mention just a few I've read recently)—they're like fine musicians with their sense of pacing, expression, and colour. I'm a slow reader because I become trapped by a well written sentence. Really, I have so many books I want to read but I need several brains so that I can get round them all.

GCP: You have a background in journalism, don't you? Do you think that helped? There are two schools of thought on that.

RM: I think I understand what you mean about the two schools of thought. For many years I've worked as a magazine subeditor, which means ruthlessly wielding the scalpel. It's taught me to edit for accuracy and flow—to strive for precision and to grip the reader's attention.

Journalism is a terrific start for creative writing in some ways. It banishes the stage fright of producing copy that will get a lot of eyeballs. But it's not so good for style—
especially narrative styles where you give characters room to speak. I've met a lot of novelists who've crossed over from journalism and they have to unlearn some of the reporting habits, particularly when they write novelistic scenes.

Here's an example. The journalist's instinct is to present a conclusion to the reader, then the evidence to stand it up. E.g. "Jane was not very confident before her driving test. 'I'm really worried,' she said." But if you were writing a novel you might not present it in that order. Instead of telling the reader that Jane was unconfident, you might want the reader to experience it. So you'd write a couple of lines that showed Jane wiping her sweaty palms on her jacket and revising her Highway Code even though she knew it by heart. This lets the reader add the conclusion about how Jane feels and it has much more impact—the classic "show not tell" principle.

GCP: Right. That brings me to the fact that you also tutor people who want to learn to write for The Guardian. I suppose that means that you think formal instruction can be useful?

RM: Yes I do, but there are two elements here: aptitude and development. Every profession on the planet involves using an aptitude. For instance, I would be useless in any job that involves maths because I have no natural ability with numbers. But I'm lucky to have a flair for words; I notice them; I enjoy using them carefully. So I'll gravitate to professions where that sensitivity will be an advantage. And it also happens that I have a creative urge—I find it easy to invent.

Neither of these qualities can be taught. You're either wired for them or you're not.

But each one of us, no matter how naturally gifted we are, has blind spots, so we need development and work. There are a number of ways to get this; it's not all formal instruction. We learn by feedback from other writers. Also by reading—any books, not just craft manuals. But at some stage we'll need the input of somebody who can see what's missing, and that's where a tutor might help.

I never took a formal writing craft course, but I had a lot of people I learned from. I hung around with good writers who enjoyed talking about technique and critiquing each other's work. But my broadest education was a critiquing group run by a literary agent, Juri Gabriel. There was a wide range of writing styles and genres in the group, and Juri was able to nurture and guide them all with insight and firmness. Listening to him each week added up to a wide-ranging education in how fiction works.

After that I did a lot of ghostwriting, and had hands-on individual feedback from editors to fit their readers' needs.

So I think we have many, many teachers in our writing lives. Formal instruction is a part, but the biggest factor of all is the writer's own persistence. A tutor can guide and steer, but the writer has to put in the hours. All arts are, in the end, learned by self-directed study and dedication.

GCP: And what do you think of graduate creative writing courses?

RM: I think they're a mixed blessing. If taken at the wrong time in a writer's development, they can stultify. We've all seen the "MFA novels" that follow predictable patterns and lack originality or spirit. But I have a number of writer friends who've already published novels and are taking MFAs to guide their next long work. I think that's valuable mentorship because you already have some solidity in your own style and identity. The guidance will enrich your work, rather than bury you alive. If I had the time—and the money—I'd love to develop a novel that way.

GCP: Let's get back to the book. In "A bad cold and a village of lost voices: Purton Green, Suffolk," you again find yourself in a remarkable historic house. Here's just a bit of the highly evocative portrayal of it:

The house looked stranded, as if it had been dropped straight onto the grass by a giant on the top of a beanstalk. A thatched roof that looked too big for it, like an outsize helmet. White walls striped with silvered oak beams, which gave it the cosy look of favourite pyjamas that had faded through many years in the wash.

That's such good writing: it's not only vivid, but manages to evoke fairy tales, a comic image, and the nostalgia of childhood. You're not only revealing the place to the reader but how you feel about it. And you're a very personable guide. I suppose most good travel writing makes a character of the narrator, although some famous travel writers, like Jan Morris, try to keep themselves out of the writing. I wonder if you've been influenced by anyone we might know?

RM: When I was growing up, my favourite writers were the ones with great warmth and personality: Gavin Maxwell, James Herriot, Gerald Durrell, Eric Newby. And of course, Charles Dickens, the ultimate big-hearted intrusive narrator. I loved their empathy and affection, their own particular flavour of humanity. I was captivated by that as much as by the facts of an experience.

I've always liked the personal essay, too. When a writer can take a thing and turn it inside out, and turn themselves inside out too, you feel stitched into their soul. An example I liked recently was Stephanie Gangi. She lives alone and she wrote about how many times she was touched in a week—it's bold, simple and so poignant. I won't try to say what it communicates, because her piece does that better than any explanation.

I like poets that do this too. I'll pick out one of my favourites: "Before You Cut Loose" by Simon Armitage. He describes how difficult it is to abandon a dog because it always comes back to you, but these simple statements carry much more.

So in my book I'm describing places and events that aren't, in themselves, notable or dramatic. I didn't go to a dangerous or notable place, like the Antarctic. I didn't go on a whacky quest like dragging a four-poster bed around the M25 motorway. But still I had rich experiences. So I wanted to invite people in, make them see what I saw.

GCP: Although I enjoyed all the essays, my favourite is "Strictly faking it," in which you, a writer who takes occasional dance classes for fun, audition for a part as a dancer in a commercial. It's funny and fascinating, partly because we learn so much about what it takes to become a dancer and work in an ad, and partly because you interweave your reflection on the experience with your thoughts on writing. Here's an extract: "From the first moment I was offered the job, I looked for people who would reassure me I could do it, give me permission to be there . . . But all I needed to do was give myself permission." And that's as true of writing—or anything else—as of dancing, isn't it?

RM: So true. And as I wrote that sentence, I realised I always think that way. When you write you sometimes end up as your own analyst. I was talking to another writer about this piece because she also felt it struck a strong chord. When I start a project, I think I won't be able to do it, that I've been too audacious in my hopes. And then I have to trust the process and inch along with it—"bird by bird," as Anne Lamott would say. But my writer friend added this: if we didn't feel that frisson of possible failure, we might not care enough to do it justice. And she's dead right; the fear keeps us on our toes.

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The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington

Joanna Moorhead
Virago Press ($25)

by Laura Winton

What would you do if you found out that a member of your family was one of the most famous expatriate artists in Mexico? If you are Joanna Moorhead, you hop on a plane across the ocean to meet your long-lost cousin, Leonora Carrington-and in the process, write her biography and curate some exhibitions back home.

Carrington lived through a century of the best and worst that the world had to offer, and from the perspective of many roles and nations-from a debutante in England to an artist in France to a refugee briefly in Spain, finally ending up as an artist in the U.S. and Mexico. She lived through several wars, an earthquake, and great social change, including feminism which affected her and her legacy. Her first lover, Max Ernst, was detained in France for being German. She suffered and recovered from a nervous breakdown. She participated in Surrealism, both in Europe and in Mexico. She counted some of the greatest artists and writers of the 20th century among her lovers and friends. One thing remained consistent: Carrington was an artist and writer throughout her whole life. Through all of this, Moorhead not only makes chronological sense of Carrington's life, but she also manages to weave personal and artistic details into the story.

Carrington's relationship with Max Ernst is possibly the most poignant and heartbreaking in this biography. She was not Ernst's first wife nor would she be his last; she was, however, one of the great loves of his life. If she was his "muse," he, in turn, being so much older than Leonora, served the very important function of helping her escape her parents and their expectations of her, getting her out of her house and away from her family, to whom she would never permanently return. She was already interested in painting when she met Ernst, and was in the process of developing her own unique style, one that would be deeply influenced by her involvement with Ernst and the Surrealists.

Through a series of wartime and family intrigues, that Moorhead describes as worthy of the movie Casablanca, Carrington ended up going to France and then to Spain after Ernst's arrest and her own nervous breakdown. She then prepared to travel to America. As she waited in Barcelona to get word on her travel, she encountered Ernst, who had been released from jail and had returned to their home only to find that she had sold it, having no word about Ernst or his whereabouts. She traveled to America with Ernst, who had become involved with Peggy Guggenheim. They spent time together in New York, but when Guggenheim and Ernst traveled to California, Carrington left New York for Mexico with the man who agreed to get her out of Spain in the first place, Renato Leduc, Carrington's "romantic" second husband, a diplomat who had fought in the Mexican Civil War with Pancho Villa. Shortly after they moved to Mexico, the couple went their separate ways.

In her description of Carrington's short story, "The Bird Superior," Moorhead offers this interpretation of her relationship to Ernst and the way that it ended: "In a spiritual sense, the story suggests, Leonora and Max will be united forever. What they have given one another, what they have done for one another, is woven into the very fabric of their beings. . . . But their moment in time is over. The dancing, coupling horses have separated."

In Mexico, Carrington made some of the great friendships of her lifetime. While she met and occasionally kept company with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, they travelled in largely separate circles than she did. However, it was with Hungarian artist Kati Horna and Remedios Varo of Spain, fellow ex-pats from Europe, with whom Carrington would maintain lifelong relationships. In 2010, there was an exhibition of all three women in England, organized with help from Moorhead, entitled Surreal Friends.

Also in Mexico, Carrington met her third and final husband, Imre Emerico Weisz Schwartz, known as Chiki, a Hungarian-born photographer who worked closely with Robert Capa. She and Chiki had two sons, Gabriel and Pablo, who were the real loves of Carrington's life. She once said "I paint . . . with the baby in one hand, and the paintbrush in the other." She had many affairs-including one with author Octavio Paz, with whom she collaborated on a play-but remained married to Chiki until his death in 2007, "a blow probably greater than Leonora had anticipated." She lived apart from Chiki during long stretches of their marriage, including during the 1980s, when she lived in Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago. She had told a friend of hers that "she did not miss Chiki and was not planning to return to Mexico." However, by 1985, she did return to Mexico in large part because Chiki's health was deteriorating. Like many men in her life, she loved Chiki, but did not always feel a need to have him around.

There was a great stir recently when feminist art historian Whitney Chadwick claimed that Leonora was not a Surrealist. In contrast, throughout this book, Moorhead never hesitates to call her cousin a Surrealist. The well-known Chicago Surrealist Penelope Rosemount has an interview with Carrington in the book Surrealist Subversions. Removing women from the movements with which they were affiliated, whether one is trying to "liberate" them or obliterate them, has exactly the same effect: It makes women in those movements seem even more peripheral and more invisible than ever. And yet, there was an exchange between Carrington and Moorhead about The Manifestos of Surrealism, by Andre Breton, about which Carrington later sent a note back to Moorhead (written backwards, so that it had to be read in a mirror, a practice that was apparently common with her): "I never read the Surrealist manifesto."

Carrington sought to distance herself from the idea that she was "muse" to male Surrealist artists and writers; she was an artist in her own right and wanted to be recognized as such. In describing the painting "The Inn of the Dark Horse," Moorhead states that "this is not the painting of a muse, and nor is it the work of a handmaiden. This is the work of a rebel . . . who hints there are more rebellions in store." That her work was Surrealist never is in question, except in Chadwick's mind. In fact, after meeting her cousin, Moorhead wrote that "seven decades on, [Leonora was] still producing art and still championing Surrealism."

Moorhead does mention Chadwick a few times in the book, but only in passing. The only critic mentioned by name, Chadwick is a kind of representative for all feminist art critics, with whom Leonora would not have had much patience nor interest. Not that Carrington was not feminist. Moorhead talks about her wrestling with questions about women's place in society and in art, and she clearly championed women artists, even taking part in Peggy Guggenheim's Thirty Women exhibit in 1942. Moreover, Moorhead cites an interview between Carrington and Chadwick in which Chadwick talks about how difficult it must be "when art historians came along to critique her work," to which the artist replied "it's not hard, because I ignore what they are saying."

In fact, her refusal to explain her paintings gave Carrington the reputation of being an iconoclast. There is a very charming YouTube video, released by the Tate Modern in conjunction with a solo exhibit of Carrington's works curated by Moorhead, in which the two sit together in Carrington's kitchen; the artist vigorously objects to academics who try to assign interpretations to the work, which she insists must be engaged with on a visual and artistic level, not at the level of academic discourse.

Another reason for Carrington's reputation as an iconoclast-and which may also, Moorhead says, explain her relative obscurity outside of Mexico-was that she seemed always to thwart moments of potential success and fame. "As usual," explains Moorhead, "Leonora managed through [the] years to sabotage the possibility of becoming more widely known." Moorhead tells the story of a "glitzy lunch in . . . Mexico City" that she and Carrington were set to attend; "All the big names in the arts scene would be there." But Carrington was not interested in hobnobbing nor in fame or celebrity, and had a hard time believing that she even had admirers of her work. She must have realized that she did, because Moorhead also talks about all the visitors who tried to see her and who she turned away.

One of the things that makes this book charming, as well as essential, is the relationship between Moorhead and Carrington; because of that relationship, Carrington no doubt opened up to Moorhead much more than she would have, or did, to any other biographer. These are the kinds of connections you look for in a biography-the sense that you are getting to know the artist intimately, that you are being let into the artist's secret life. While at times this is a very straightforward telling, there are also little asides and insights that no one but a family member could have uncovered. In the end, Carrington's "only stipulation," as Moorhead writes, "was that no book should be published until after her death." In a world obsessed with celebrity, this seems an odd request for an artist; contrast that with Salvador Dali, for example, a Surrealist painter who was nothing if not self-promoting.

Another delightful detail is that most of the chapters are named after paintings or stories by Carrington, which Moorhead weaves into the biography, showing how the works reflect the things going on in Leonora's life. The problem with artist biographies, of course, is the expense of reproducing color plates; one is frequently left with descriptions of paintings without the actual visual in front of you. Fortunately, there are several stunning paintings in this book, including the back cover and several insets, but there are always those you wish you could see. As Carrington insisted, it is not enough to explain the painting, you have to experience it. Moorhead does a better job when it comes to the stories, explaining the plot and significance, but that too, is not a substitute for reading the actual text. Thankfully, with the recent release of The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington (Dorothy) and the memoir Down Below (NYRB), her prose is available so that everyone can experience it as well.

And while it is Carrington's biography through and through, it is also the story of Joanna and Leonora, and it begins and ends with them, meeting and saying goodbye, in life and in death. The final chapter, "Kron Flower," describes their final meeting and Moorhead learning of Carrington's death in May, 2011. In the epilogue, she reflects on knowing the artist and visiting her grave sometime later, since she had not gone to Mexico for the funeral. One has to wonder the reason for that, because Moorhead, like her cousin, doesn't explain herself in this moment. Iconoclasm seems to run in the family.

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The Tragedy of Brady Sims

Ernest J. Gaines
Vintage ($15)

by Micah Winters

Ernest J. Gaines's newest novella, The Tragedy of Brady Sims, opens with a gunshot, and spends the majority of its remainder working back to that very gunshot through the life of the man who fired it. Gaines sets this tale, as is his custom, in the southern town of Bayonne, Louisiana. As part of a community mired in racism peripherally (although pointedly) referenced throughout the tale, the black experience portrayed is one that acknowledges but is not confined by the Jim Crow culture in which it exists. The book's black community is seen to thrive in its own way, despite the restrictions placed upon it.

Much of the book's "action" (read: conversation) takes place in a barber shop, a wonderfully rendered image of the cultural status the haircutting institution occupies in southern black society. Men-and only men, we are told by Louis Guerin, the young newspaper reporter who narrates the majority of the book-wander in to Lucas Felix's barbershop, but do not wander out. The lotus blossoms of community and story hold the listeners captive, and the reader feels this. Gaines tells Brady Sims's tale through multiple voices in the barber shop, which blend together to weave a narrative Faulknerian in its complexity and yet delivered in a bare-bones prose that belies the layers of relationships and histories embedded in the stories. The reader can often relate to the out-of-town man who constantly voices his confusion to Louis; he is totally lost among the names and places intended for a familiar audience, and yet feels a deep need to know, to comprehend. It becomes almost a prayer: "Lord, have mercy . . . I want to understand. I really want to understand. I want You to help me understand."

The reader, too, is thrown headlong into a long and complex history of one man, and the picture painted of Brady Sims is one that manages to be wholly sympathetic without looking over the ugly parts of his past or his present. Sims' character emerges as one that is admirable, and yet not comfortable, a typecast the reader is forced to reckon with as more details emerge. Questions of guilt, loyalty, and love wind themselves throughout the narrative, seen through the lens of one complicated life.

For its brevity, The Tragedy of Brady Sims packs a tremendous amount into its page count, and wrestles with ideas of race, history, and the value of a person in fresh and unexpected ways. Even for a writer as established as Gaines, these concepts are crucial and important to deal with in our modern cultural climate, and he gracefully grapples with them in all their complexity here.

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Resistance, Rebellion, Life: 50 Poems Now

Edited by Amit Majmudar
Alfred A. Knopf ($12.95)

by John Bradley

"I must confess to having disliked political poetry and 'protest' poetry for much of my reading life," confesses editor Amit Majmudar in his candid introduction to this collection. It was not until 9/11, Majmudar explains, that he woke from his apolitical "stupor." His anthology joins others inspired by President Trump, including Resist Much / Obey Little: Inaugural Poems to the Resistance (Spuyten Duyvil) and Poems for Political Disaster (Boston Review).

Suffice it to say that the poets in the book dislike Donald Trump. "Charlatan, huckster, grifter, / fraud," is how David Breskin opens his poem "Mountebank." In "They Call Them Blue My Mind," Erica Dawson counters candidate Trump's infamous "grab them by the pussy" comment: "to sew my labia closed, using a butterfly // loop and Pantone's Black 7 thread." Supporters of the president will probably not be reading this book.

Readers may wonder at times, though, just what is being resisted and rebelled against. There are poems on Emmitt Till, the security state, immigration, 9/11, Captain America, and one on beavers. This variation in topic is both the great strength and weakness of the anthology-it offers variety, but it also makes the book feel unfocused. That said, there are some gems here. Maggie Smith's "Good Bones," which went viral after the Orlando shooting, shares her anxiety on what to keep from her children: "Life is short and the world / is at least half terrible, and for every kind / stranger, there is one who would break you." Bob Hicok's "We've come a long way toward getting nowhere" mocks anti-Semitism by focusing on Eve, a Jewish woman:

after repeated inspection, I can attest
that underneath it all, she, like many
of the people you know or are,
is ticklish, wrinkly, sexy, scarred-
since Jews really are relentless
when it comes to being human.

Jane Hirshfield's "Let Them Not Say," deals powerfully with personal responsibility. Kevin Young's "Money Road" a meditation on Money, Mississippi, where Emmett Till was brutally slain shows us how our nation's history haunts us: "this cursed earth. / Or is it cussed? I don't / yet know. Let the cold keep // still your bones."

The closing poem, a cento by Amit Majmudar with a line or phrase from each poem, reveals the real focus of this engaging anthology: "America      America      America."

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Winter 2017-2018

INTERVIEWS:

Habit of Mind: An Interview with Jennifer Egan
Interviewed by Allan Vorda
The Pulitzer Prize winner discusses her latest novel, which is set during the World War II era—a time when women were newly permitted to take on industrial jobs that once belonged only to men.

A Path Through the Wilderness: An Interview with Charles Potts
Interviewed by Paul E Nelson
Poet, editor, publisher, curator, and horse breeder Charles Potts pauses to discuss it all.

Many Lives Passed Through Place: An Interview with Roz Morris
Interviewed by Garry Craig Powell
Novelist, book doctor, writing teacher, and ghost writer Roz Morris discusses her first collection of essays intersecting travel writing and memoir with explorations of off-the-beaten-track rural England.

POETRY REVIEWS:

Attributed to the Harrow Painter
Nick Twemlow
Nick Twemlow's disarming new book reflects on privilege, parenthood, past, and the worth of poetry. Reviewed by Stephanie Burt

from unincorporated territory [lukao]
Craig Santos Perez
Perez's ongoing epic explores the tensions between colonization/decolonization, militarization/demilitarization, and even birth/death. Reviewed by Robyn Maree Pickens

To Each Unfolding Leaf: Selected Poems (1976-2015)
Pierre Voélin
Translated by John Taylor
The voices of Voélin’s poems, via the impressive translation of John Taylor, observantly command a landscape of promise and distillation, of past and present. Reviewed by Greg Bem

Resistance, Rebellion, Life: 50 Poems Now
Edited by Amit Majmudar
Despite Majmudar's claims to dislike protest poetry, his latest anthology joins others inspired by the Trump presidency. Reviewed by John Bradley

FICTION REVIEWS

The Clouds
Juan José Saer
For the English-speaking adventurous reader, a new translation of this 1997 novel about madness in a millennial wasteland may float your boat. Reviewed by Erik Noonan

The World to Come
Jim Shepard
All manner of transport is explored in this new story collection by prize-winning author Jim Shepard. Reviewed by Ray Barker

The Tragedy of Brady Sims
Ernest J. Gaines
Gaines's new novella opens with a gunshot, and wends the tale back to that very gunshot through the life of the man who fired it. Reviewed by Micah Winters

NONFICTION REVIEWS

Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change
Ashley Dawson
This book sets out not just to prove how cities from New York to Jakarta are gravely threatened by climate change, but also to illuminate the ways that capitalism and class feed into and even exacerbate that threat. Reviewed by Chris Barsanti

The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington
Joanna Moorhead
After discovering she is cousin to the great surrealist, Moorhead researched and wrote this biography, inflected with personal and artistic details. Reviewed by Laura Winton

MIXED GENRE REVIEWS

Irradiated Cities
Mariko Nagai
In a work that feels all too timely, prize-winning author Mariko Nagai reflects on the 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima through haunting prose and photographs. Reviewed by John Bradley

The Science of Things Familiar
Johnny Damm
The startling juxtapositions of this hybrid book will shock readers into awareness of the various subtexts-emotional, sexual, racial, environmental-of twentieth-century American popular culture. Reviewed by John Pistelli

MULTI-BOOK REVIEWS

Of Mongrelitude by Julian Talamantez Brolaski
The Absolute Letter by Andrew Joron
In Memory of an Angel by David Shapiro

Three recent poetry publications offer fine examples of small press experimental-leaning poetry, though each poet dazzles with an approach to language uniquely their own. Reviewed by Patrick James Dunagan

Twelve Flags, Books 1 3
Klaus Kolb
In this 800-page memoir spanning four volumes, Kolb recounts his life growing up under the Nazi and East Germany regimes. Reviewed by Jim Kozubek

Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2017-2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018