Tag Archives: Winter 2017

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

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

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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at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2017-2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018

Winter 2017-2018


Interviewed by Ben Shields
Beneath the Radar: An Interview with Janet Capron
This proud Park Avenue schoolgirl-turned-floozy has chronicled her bourgeois class suicide in an outrageous debut novel-one that never lets the burden of actual facts get in the way of what things were really like in 1970s New York.

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.


The Art of Topiary
Jan Wagner
If topiary is the art of trimming into shape, then much of Wagner's poetry in The Art of Topiary can be described as the art of examining the edges. Reviewed by Allison Campbell

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


The Disconnected
Oğuz Atay
In a first translation into English of this Turkish classic, The Disconnected explores world literature, shifting view points, and a medley of modes throughout its 715 pages. Reviewed by Jeff Bursey

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


Philip Guston & The Poets
Edited by Kosme de Barañano
Published on the occasion of the exhibition in Italy, this gorgeous volume presents Guston's strange and challenging paintings alongside commentaries about his poetic influences. Reviewed by Mark Gustafson

Foolish Questions & Other Odd Observations: Early Comics 1909-1919
Rube Goldberg
In this collection of single panel comics, the iconic Rube Goldberg manages to capture the early 1900s in a vaudevillian shimmer. Reviewed by Jeff Alford


Equipment for Living: On Poetry and Pop Music
Michael Robbins
What for Baudelaire were the frissons of modern art, Robbins finds in pop music, to which he responds with bracing enthusiasm. Reviewed by Henry Gould

We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy
Ta-Nehisi Coates
These essays issue forth a thunderclap reminder that white supremacy in America is a thing of the present, not the past. Reviewed by Chris Barsanti

Silence: In the Age of Noise
Erling Kagge
A Norwegian adventurer writes of his experiences of extreme silence in strange and far-flung parts of the world. Reviewed by Adrian Glass-Moore

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


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


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