Author Archives: Kelly


As Rain Taxi forges ahead during our unexpectedly weird 25th year of existence, we’re taking a look back and celebrating some of the memories that stand out and remain inspirations. We hope these brief celebrations are a reminder that literature and community are powerful forces at all times.

march 26, 2020


Rikki Ducornet, 1998, The Soap Factory

Today Rain Taxi celebrates Rikki Ducornet, the very first author interviewed in Rain Taxi (see the table of contents for that landmark issue here). Ducornet is emblematic of the very kind of writer Rain Taxi was founded to champion: those whose “aesthetically adventurous” work can be challenging but that we feel is worthy of a wider readership. Ducornet has published many books by presses small and large (a few of which we reviewed over the past 24 years); she has also appeared three times in the Rain Taxi Reading Series, contributed an illustration to one of our t-shirts (the “Dragon Edition,” natch), and collaborated with Anne Waldman on “Calendar,” perhaps the most unique chapbook Rain Taxi has published (it is actually a sequence of unbound broadsides, one for each month of the year). We are proud of our long association with this incredible writer – and grateful to her for being among our original inspirations.

The World-Ending Fire:
The Essential Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry
Selected with an Introduction by Paul Kingsnorth
Counterpoint ($16.95)

by Robert Zaller

Wendell Berry, at eighty-five, is as close to a prophet as America has produced in the past half century. The scion of a farm family in the hardscrabble country of Henry County, Kentucky, he began a literary career in the 1960s that he envisaged at first in the conventional terms of the period: study, travel, and make your name in New York. It wasn’t a formula for prophecy. America’s preceding prophetic figure, the poet Robinson Jeffers, had only recently died; once famous, he was virtually forgotten at the time of his death. Jeffers, too, had entertained conventional literary ambitions, but he found the ground for a radical social critique in the rugged landscape of the central California coast, where life could be “purged,” as he put it, of the “ephemeral accretions” of modern living.

Berry didn’t find a new place for himself, but rediscovered the ancestral one he’d left and that called him back. On July 4, 1965—a date perhaps consciously chosen—he moved back to his home town, Port Royal, bought land, and went back to farming. He taught, too, at the University of Kentucky, but eventually committed himself to the twin occupations of farming and writing. More than forty books resulted, divided more or less equally among poetry, fiction, and essays. All express a common vision, deepening with the years but developed from an original root: the perception that the good life must be lived in the care and cultivation of the soil, the weathers, and the bounties of a natural place.

This vision had a certain idyllic quality when Jeffers described it half a century earlier in a rapidly urbanizing America. By Berry’s time, it would have appeared to most hopelessly obsolete. Industrialized agriculture had all but destroyed the independent small farmer, today an essentially extinct species. Hired labor working giant farms devoted to monoculture covered the country, linked to great cities in a vast interlocking network of production, distribution, and consumption. The idea, as Jeffers had suggested, of a world in which “Men were riding after cattle, or plowing the headland . . . as they [had] done for thousands of years,” seemed no more plausible than bringing back Homer. And if anything were needed to clinch the point, the ’60s experiment of back-to-nature communes showed how distant a practical engagement with the land had become.

Berry had to ponder his decision when he made it, and he has been pondering it, with the much larger significations it acquired for him, ever since. If the land that had been bred into him called him back, it was land that, as he now saw with adult eyes, had been “diminished” by those who, having killed or driven off its original possessors, had abused and eroded it, despoiling its forests, poisoning its rivers, and depleting its soil. Berry thus found himself returned not to something comfortable and familiar, but to the scene of a crime—a crime his own forebears had participated in. If he was to live worthily in it, he would have to leave his own small patch of it at least modestly better than he found it. Only in so doing would he acquire the moral basis to write for himself and address others.

Thoreau had written about Walden Pond, and then left it. Jeffers wrote about his beloved coast, built a house, and planted trees. Neither man was a farmer, and neither, except in a literary sense, attempted to live off the land. Wendell Berry has been distinctive if not unique in insisting that one must get one’s hands literally dirty in order to write. He makes the point, clearly if indirectly, in an early essay, “Some Thoughts on Citizenship and Conscience in Honor of Don Pratt”: “No matter how sophisticated and complex and powerful our institutions, we are still exactly as dependent on the earth as the earthworms. To cease to know this, and to fail to act upon the knowledge, is to begin to die the death of a broken machine.”

The opposition of the natural and the mechanical would be, for Berry as for other conservationists, a fundamental trope. The mechanical is the abstract; it flattens what it cannot categorize. The land, as a living, organic entity that with its creatures, human and wild, encompass the cycles of growth and decay that define it, can only be damaged and ultimately destroyed—rendered incapable of fertility and nurturance—if subjected to the machine. To be sure, humans need tools to farm, and farms to live if they are to settle meaningfully. Tools that acquire gears are machines, and these are not, in and of themselves, inimical to the land, at least up to a point. Beyond that, however, it is the machine that drives the farmer, and what its functioning imposes makes it the master rather than the servant. When this condition insinuates itself as a mindset, it can swiftly assume control of human society as such. Humans are deceived by this into believing that it is they who are in control of an everything they call “nature,” which through a wizardly effect called technology they may subject to their wishes.

When this process is extended to the most essential requirement of daily living, the production of food, and that in turn to the discipline of an extensive and rationalized market system, agribusiness replaces farming, with its concomitant results of soil depletion, animal confinement and mechanized slaughter, and the toxification of earth, air, and water. On a sufficient scale, the species loss and pollution this produces wreaks havoc, not only on what we call the environment but on the human spirit itself. Berry came early to this conclusion, but also, as he admits, slowly. Wishing to convert a steep hillside on his property to pasturage, he hired a bulldozer to clear its woods and create a pond that would provide a water supply. A wet winter caused a landslide that ruined the pond. Forcing nature from its course had done damage, and yielded no profit. Later, in expanding the farm, Berry had arrived at a point where a tractor seemed inevitable. Thinking the matter through, he decided to invest in a team of horses instead. The idea might have seemed quixotic, but it worked, and proved even more practical in dealing with steep ground and bad weather.

Berry thus arrived at a principle suitable to his purposes: that where traditional methods could do the job, perhaps more slowly but with less disturbance to natural balances, they were preferable to mechanical ones. He extended this principle to his other occupation, writing. In a brief essay that touched a nerve among literary colleagues, “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer,” he declared that he did and would write only with a pen or pencil, using natural light. This was partly a statement: the presumptive labor-saving of the computer did not make for better writing, but it did involve expense, energy and material consumption, difficulty of repair, and planned obsolescence. Moreover, to write as a critic of wasteful technology with an instrument that was itself an example of it was, in the absence of necessity or improvement of result, an act of bad faith in an activity that demanded good faith above all. (Berry did use a manual typewriter for readying final copy.)

Struck by the adverse reaction to his essay by fellow writers, Berry coined the term “technological fundamentalism” to describe the attitude that technological change as such was both inevitable and desirable. Behind this, he decried a sense of helplessness before the profit-driven forces behind such change, whose ideological compensation lay in identifying with them as manifesting human power and grandeur, the subjection of nature to a collective project. But the collectivity was false and the project an illusion because, as Berry says in “The Total Economy,” all responsibility is ultimately individual and the consequence of permitting others to decide for us—whether they be corporations, governments, or those in their pay—is that “the human household or economy is [now] in conflict at almost every point with the household of nature.” The term “household” is deliberately chosen, for what Berry wants us to appreciate is that nature itself is a tapestry of local ecosystems just as society is of individual families and communities. Thus, as he notes,

The “environmental crisis” is no such thing; it is not a crisis of our environs or surroundings; it is a crisis of our lives as individuals, as family members, as community members, and as citizens. We have an “environmental crisis” because we have consented to an economy in which by eating, drinking, working, resting, traveling, and enjoying ourselves we are destroying the natural, the God-given, world.

The adjuration is as much ethical as political, and it is this that makes Berry a prophet in the tradition of Thoreau and Jeffers, rather than merely a critic. There is nothing here of the large political and economic forces that shape our lives and limit our choices, let alone of those in Third World poverty constrained by necessity to add more than their quota to ecological degradation and loss. Nor is there any suggestion of how to resist concrete social evils beyond the civil disobedience prescribed by Thoreau and emulated by Berry.

Berry is well aware of who the villains are and how they operate, but he doesn’t call them out as a muckraker would because he does not wish to let the rest of us off the hook. The closest he comes to specification is in “Two Minds,” written in 2001 in the wake of the destruction of the World Trade Center. The “two minds” Berry stipulates are the Rational and the Sympathetic. The latter is one which, briefly defined, is “to be considerate of whatever is present”; that is, respectful of that which Berry calls “God-given,” the world as what precedes us. The former sees what is present as what may be transformed, regardless of its natural integrity. Its epitome, for Berry, was the World Trade Center, whose purpose was to harvest as much of the world’s wealth as possible for the powerful few. It was, consequently, a “no-place” that existed only to strip-mine actual ones. Its fall, as with that of the Tower of Babel to which Berry likens it, was predicated in its very existence, regardless of the specific event that would bring it about.

To speak thusly of 9/11 in its immediate aftermath was bold indeed, and although Berry has rarely been one to raise his voice, the accents of Jeremiah are clear here. At the same time, he never hectors, and his sense of our general predicament always grows out of personal experience. Unsurprisingly, the theme of homecoming is critical to his vision of rectification. As he points out, it is the perdurable theme of our greatest literature, from Scripture to The Odyssey to Shakespeare; it is our most ancient wisdom. It is also, as he tirelessly reminds us, the wisdom we have increasingly lost or rejected. As he says in “The Work of Local Culture,” “Our society, on the whole, has forgotten or repudiated the theme of return.” Home is no longer the meaning of the story or the conclusion of the adventure, but simply the place to be left. Return is defeat.

What Berry wants to suggest is that such an idea, cast as an imperative, is at odds with who we are as a part of nature. Nature is in essence continuity and return—and on our planet, gifted with life, the processes that sustain the biosphere that houses us. We have come over the past several centuries to doubt its hospitality, and to view it, through the inverted lens of evolutionary theory and the post-Copernican one of cosmic catastrophism, as fearful, inimical, predatory. We do not trust it, and regard as fools those who do. We cannot—yet—flee it, but we dream of controlling it, and technology is our magical instrument. It is magical because we believe it can do anything and make us the master of everything, except itself. We thus alienate ourselves from the world and from each other.

Is there, then, any realistic hope to change the downward spiral we seem to have submitted ourselves to? More than thirty years ago, Berry answered thusly in “The Work of Local Culture”:

I still believe that a change for the better is possible, but I confess that my belief is partly hope and partly faith. No one who hopes for improvement should fail to see and respect the signs that we may be approaching some sort of historical waterfall, past which we will not, by changing our minds, be able to change anything else. We know that at any time an ecological or a technological or a political event that we will have allowed may remove from us the power to make change and leave us with the mere necessity to submit to it.

Sixteen years later, Berry put the case more peremptorily in “Compromise, Hell!”:

We are destroying our country—I mean our country itself, our land. This is a terrible thing to know, but it is not a reason for despair unless we decide to continue the destruction. If we decide to continue the destruction, that will not be because we have no other choice. This destruction is not necessary. It is not inevitable, except that by our submissiveness we make it so.

Prophets should grow louder as the need to be heard increases. They should also point a way, as Berry has done in how he has lived his own life as well as in the words he has written. It isn’t the way all of us need or can walk in; there are different ways of getting home, and there are ways to explore too that enrich us. But we may have had no steadier guide in our time.

Culled from more than a dozen books, The World-Ending Fire has been thoughtfully assembled by Paul Kingsnorth, and serves as an excellent introduction to Berry’s thought. Woven back and forth chronologically over a span of more than four decades, it shows at once the range, evolution, and continuity of his vision, and if, as Berry himself concedes, there is a certain repetition in it, it is because prophets do repeat themselves. Kingsnorth himself is the cofounder of the so-called Dark Mountain Project, a consortium of British writers and artists concerned with finding new pathways in what they describe as an age of “ecocide.” Berry is cited in the group’s manifesto, but its name refers specifically to a passage in Jeffers’s “Rearmament,” a poem that presaged World War II, and he is invoked repeatedly as its master spirit. What Jeffers himself, an arch-skeptic of group enterprises, would have made of this is a question. Thoreau, too, might have smiled. But the conversation they began remains imperative.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2020 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2020

Arvind Krishna Mehrotra

Selected Poems and Translations
of Arvind Krishna Mehrotra

Selected by Vidyan Ravinthiran
New York Review of Books ($18)

by Graziano Krätli

The premature deaths of Eunice De Souza in 2017 and Meena Alexander one year later have significantly thinned the ranks of anglophone Indian poetry, depriving the world of two major women writers whose birth dates straddled 1947, the watershed year of Indian independence. Born that same year, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra stands out as a poet from that generation whose work continues to find new publishing venues and engage new readers, both in India and abroad.

The latest and most prestigious of these is the NYRB Poets series, now thirty titles strong, which features authors from around the world and includes such names as Apollinaire, Dante, Osip Mandelstam, Henri Michaux, Silvina Ocampo, and Walt Whitman. Until Mehrotra joined these ranks, the only other Indian was A.K. Ramanujan (1929-93), whose contribution showcased his achievement as translator of classical Tamil poetry rather than as poet in his own right. Mehrotra has also appeared in the NYRB pantheon as a translator—in his case of the fifteenth-century bhakti poet Kabir, whose irreverent and provocative songs Mehrotra rejuvenated in a version that tops those of many illustrious predecessors (Robert Bly, Pound, and Tagore included). Indeed, for originality and inventiveness, the selection from Songs of Kabir (2011) outshines the other translations featured in the book under review, including versions from the first- and second-century Prākrit of The Absent Traveller (originally published in 1991), and from twentieth-century Hindi (Suryakant Tripathi “Nirala,” Vinod Kumar Shukla, Mangalesh Dabral), Bengali (Shakti Chattopadhyay), and Gujarati (Pavankumar Jain).

As Vidyan Ravinthiran explains in his editorial note, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra: Selected Poems and Translations draws from two previous volumes of Mehrotra’s collected poems, one published by Penguin (India) in 2014 and the other by Giramondo (Australia) in 2016. Compared with either of them, this book includes a substantial amount of new work, namely a translation, an elegy for Eunice De Souza, a poem inspired by the tragic death of the poet’s sister, and the sixty-page long sequence “Daughters of Jacob Bridge.” Overall, Ravinthiran’s scrupulous and discerning selection has produced a book that shows, more clearly than a collected edition, Mehrotra’s development and refinement over the past half-century.

Such a process begins in the late 1960s, with a style that is subtly affected by post-war Surrealism and protest poetry, influences that Ravinthiran’s inclusion of two uncollected poems from 1972-74 makes explicit. The second in particular, “Ballad of the Black Feringhee,” is reminiscent of Ginsberg’s “America” in the litany of blunt statements that the poet directs at his own country (“India I was born in the year of your independence,” “India where’s my horoscope,” etc.). By the time Mehrotra published his first collection, however, these influences had been tamed and woven into a richer tapestry, as the five poems from Nine Enclosures (1976) show clearly. The antiquarian extravaganza of “The Sale” reveals a penchant for enumeration, referencing, and cataloging that also emerges from “Songs of the Good Surrealist,” “Index of First Lines,” “Continuities,” and later poems. If we consider the descriptive and normative functions of lists, inventories, maps, and other instruments of colonial rule, Mehrotra’s use of the Surrealistic technique of incongruous and provocative juxtaposition (famously envisioned by Lautréamont as the “chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissection table”) undermines and subverts the taxonomic order implied in these poems.

A similar subversive tendency, although supported by different means, characterizes Mehrotra’s descriptive and narrative poems (and most of Mehrotra’s poems are descriptive or narrative to a degree), where a punctilious, evocative visualization (“the air, dry and silvery / At the entrance, is moist and sea-green, furry / To the touch,” from “The Roys”) often leads to a destabilizing or unsettling close. In the most condensed example of this manner (“January,” from Mehrotra’s second collection, Distance in Statute Miles, 1982), a deft camerawork takes the reader from the exterior to the interior of a life in just four telegraphic lines:

The gate wide open; chairs on the lawn;
Circular verandas; a narrow kitchen;
High-ceilinged rooms; arches; alcoves; skylights.
My house luminous; my day burnt to ash.

In his best poems, Mehrotra proves to be a master storyteller with a peculiar taste for the uncanny; this is what makes his poetry a constant pleasure for the reader and an endless, delightful challenge for the critic. Images or impressions from the poet’s past or from his readings, kindled by close observation, often interact kaleidoscopically to convey the eerie impression of a life lived in the flesh as well as in the mind, of which the “house” and the “library” are apt and interchangeable representations. “We belong to the houses we live in” is the spectral, closing line of a poem that begins “Who remembers my dentist father / Now that even his patients are dead” (“Hoopoe”). And “Borges,” an invocation to the muse of all literary writers (“Insomnia brings lucidity, / And a borrowed voice sets the true one / Free”) ends not surprisingly with a call to “lead me . . . to the labyrinth of the earthly / Library.”

Similarly, “The House” invokes various literary landscapes (Grimms' fairy tales, Victorian murder mystery, the golden age of Hindi cinema, and modern psychological thrillers) to evoke—or dissimulate—a very personal memory. Employing the same visual technique featured in “January,” the poem progresses from an exterior view, a stone cottage in the middle of a forest, to an interior suggesting abandonment and decay. Here, however, the striking element is not the bats in the rafters, or their “dung on the floor,” but a dentist’s coat hanging from a nail and “smelling pleasantly / Of chloroform.” The reader has no sooner started asking some obvious questions (why would a dentist practice in the wilderness, and what makes the smell of chloroform pleasant?) than a different imagery raises new questions. Do the muddy sandals, the smoky eyes, and the dentist’s coat belong to the same man who, in the final couplet, “passes before me / In the cheval-glass”? An exquisite example of Empsonian ambiguity, the image combines the occurrence of a phenomenon and its phantasmagorical residue by means of the expression “passes before,” whose spatial and temporal meaning suggests, simultaneously, an apparition passing in front of the poet (i.e., between him and the mirror), and a father preceding his son through the looking-glass (and onto the otherworld).

This thorough and exhaustive selection may not gain Mehrotra’s poetry “a worldwide audience,” as its editor understandably hopes, but it has the potential for securing this major Indian poet an enthusiastic and devoted North American readership.

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Reflections on The Book of Tea
by Okakura Kakuzo, 1906

by James P. Lenfestey

While removing books from shelves to repaint our family living room a few weeks ago, I rediscovered what was my mother’s copy of a 1956 edition of The Book of Tea. Mother was a skilled gardener and flower arranger; I saved the book from her collection for its beautiful design and feel, but had never read it. I decided I would mail it to a new friend to give to his friend, a traveling tea master—but first I sat down to glance at its contents. I slid the book from its sleeve wrapped with Japanese paper, a light moss green. My fingertips glanced along the woven silk binding to the wrapped Japanese paperboard covers, the creamy endpapers, the almost stiff pages, the inkbrush illustrations. All these drew me slowly into Kakuzo’s succinct descriptions of a two-tradition/two-continent history of philosophy, poetry, art, botany, religion, architecture, tea ceremony practice and flower arranging art, which ended only with the satisfying sadness of completion after several mornings alone with his thoughts.

The book’s stillness and understanding, useful in 1906 and after two World Wars, seem to me helpful now in coping with the unfolding dimensions of our Age of Climate Crisis and now of COVID-19. The quotations below were especially arresting to me, texts I have set beneath each chapter heading centered in boldface, as in the original. Enjoy—best perhaps with seven cups of tea.


Teaism is a cult founded upon the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence.

. . . when we consider how small after all the cup of human enjoyment is, how soon overflowed with tears, how easily drained to the dregs of our quenchless search for infinity, we shall not blame ourselves for making so much of the tea-cup. Mankind has done worse.

Why not consecrate us to the queen of the Camelias, and revel in the warm steam of sympathy that flows from her altar? In the liquid amber within the ivory-porcelain, the initiated may touch the sweet reticence of Confucius, the piquancy of Laotze, the ethereal aroma of Sakyamuni himself.

Those who cannot feel the littleness of great things in themselves are apt to overlook the greatness of little things in others.

Let us stop the continents from hurling epigrams at each other, and be sadder if not wiser by the mutual gain of half a hemisphere. We have developed along different lines, but there is no reason why one should not supplement the other.

The East and West, like two dragons tossed in a sea of ferment, in vain strive to regain the jewel of life . . . Meanwhile, let us have a sip of tea. The afternoon glow is brightening the bamboos, the fountains are bubbling with delight, the soughing of the pines is heard in our kettle. Let us dream of evanescence, and linger in the beautiful foolishness of things.


Tea is a work of art and needs a master hand to bring out its noblest qualities.

With Luwuh in the middle of the eighth century we have the first apostle of tea. He was born in an age when Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism were seeking mutual synthesis. The pantheistic symbolism of the time was urging one to mirror the Universal in the Particular. Luwuh, a poet, saw in the tea service the same harmony and order which reigned through all things.

Lotung, a T’ang poet, wrote of the 7 cups . . . The first cup moistens my lips and throat, the second cup breaks my loneliness; the third searches my barren entrails but finds therein five thousand volumes of odd ideographs. The fourth cup raises a slight perspiration – all the wrong of life passes away through my pores. At the fifth cup I am purified; the sixth cup calls me to the realm of the immortals. The seventh cup—ah, but I could take no more! I only feel the breath of cool wind that rises in my sleeves.

Among the Buddhists, the southern Zen sect, which incorporated so much of Taoist doctrines, formulated an elaborate ritual of tea. . . . It was this Zen ritual which finally developed into the Tea-ceremony of Japan in the 15th century.

The tea-room was an oasis in the dreary waste of existence where weary travelers could meet to drink from the common spring of art appreciation.


Teaism was Taoism in disguise.

Translation is always a treason, and as a Ming author observed, can at its best be only the reverse side of a brocade — all the threads are there, but not the subtlety of color or design. But after all, what great doctrine is there which is easy to expound? The ancient sages . . . spoke in paradoxes, for they were afraid of uttering half-truths. They began by talking like fools, and ended by making the hearer wise.

The Tao is in the passage rather than the Path. It is the spirit of cosmic change. . . . It recoils upon itself like the dragon, the beloved symbol of the Taoists. It folds and unfolds as do the clouds.

Chinese historians have always spoken of Taoism as “the art of being in the world,” for It deals with the present . . . The art of life lies in a constant readjustment to our surroundings.

Taoism accepts the mundane as it is and, unlike the Confucians and the Buddhists, tries to find beauty in our world of worry and woe.

In art the importance of the same [Taoist] principle is illustrated by the value of suggestion. In leaving something unsaid the beholder is given a chance to complete the idea and thus a great masterpiece irresistibly rivets your attention until you seem to become actually a part of it. A vacuum is there for you to enter and fill up to the full measure of your aesthetic emotion.

One Zen master defined Zen as the art of feeling the polar star in the southern sky.

To the transcendental insight of the Zen, words were but an incumbrance to thought . . . . the whole idea of Teaism is the result of this Zen conception of greatness in the smallest incidents of life. Taoism furnished the basis of aesthetic ideals, Zennism made them practical.


The Abode of Fancy. The Abode of Vacancy. The Abode of the Unsymmetrical.

The simplicity and purity of the tea-room resulted from emulation of the Zen monastery. . . .

. . . the roji, the garden path that leads from the machiai to the tea-room, signified the first stage of illumination – the passage into self-illumination. The roji was intended to break connection with the outside world, and to produce a fresh sensation conducive to the full enjoyment of aestheticism in the tea-room itself.

What Rikiu demanded was not cleanliness alone, but the beautiful and the natural too.

Zennism, with the Buddhist theory of evanescence and its demands of the mastery of spirit over matter, recognized the house only as a temporary refuge for the body. The body itself was but a hut in the wilderness, a flimsy shelter made by tying together the grasses that grew around – when these ceased to be bound together they again became resolved into the original waste.

Art, to be fully appreciated, must be true to contemporaneous life. It is not that we should ignore the claims of posterity, but that we should try to assimilate them into our consciousness.

In the tea-room the fear of repetition is a constant presence.

The simplicity of the tea-room and its freedom from vulgarity make it truly a sanctuary against the vexations of the outer world.

The Red Parrot by Ito Jakuchu


Our mind is the canvas on which the artists lay their colours; the pigments are our emotions; their chiaroscuro the light of joy, the shadow of sadness. The masterpiece is of ourselves, as we are of the masterpiece.

The masters are immortal because their love and fears live in us over and over. It is rather the soul, than the hand, the man than the technique, which appeals to us, – the more human the call the deeper our response.

Nothing is more hallowing that the union of kindred spirits in art. At the moment of meeting the art lover transcends himself. At once he is and is not. He catches a glimpse of Infinity but words cannot voice his delight, for his eye has no tongue. Freed from the fetters of matter, his spirit moves in the rhythm of things. It is thus that art is akin to religion and ennobles mankind. It is this which makes a masterpiece something sacred.

It is much to be regretted that so much of the apparent enthusiasm of art in the present day has no foundation in real feeling.

We are destroying art in destroying the beautiful in life. Would that some great wizard might from the stem of society shape a mighty harp whose strings would resound to the touch of genius.


In joy or in sadness, flowers are our constant friends. . . . We have even attempted to speak in the language of flowers . . . It frightens one to conceive of a world bereft of their presence.

When we are laid low in the dust it is they who linger in sorrow over our graves.

. . . the supreme idol, ourselves! Our god is great, and money is his Prophet! We devastate nature in order to make sacrifice to him. We boast that we have conquered Matter and forget that it is Matter that has enslaved us. What atrocities do we not perpetrate in the name of culture and refinement!

Tell me, gentle flowers, teardrops of the stars standing in the garden, nodding your heads to the bees as they sing of the dew and the sunbeams, are you aware of the fearful doom that awaits you?

Why were the flowers born so beautiful yet so hapless? . . . The only flower known to have wings is the butterfly; all others stand helpless before the destroyer.

The ideal lover of flowers is he who visits them in their native haunts, like Taoyuen-ming who sat before a broken bamboo fence in converse with the wild Chrysanthemum.

Change is the only Eternal – why not as welcome Death as Life?

The tea-master deems his duty ended with the selection of the flowers, and leaves them to tell their own story.


In religion the Future is behind us. In art the Present is eternal.

He only who has lived with beauty can die beautifully.

THE BOOK OF TEA, by Okakura Kakuzo, Charles E. Tuttle Company, Rutland, Vermont–Tokyo, Japan, ©1956. Originally published in 1906. Illustrations at head of each chapter taken from ink drawings of Sesshu (1420-1506), the greatest of Japanese painters in the same Zen tradition that inspired the tea ceremony. Typography and book design by Kaoru Ogimi. Printed in Japan.

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Michael Blumlein
Tor ($15.99)

by Ryder W. Miller

Longer, by the late San Francisco Bay Area writer Michael Blumlein, offers a fantastic journey to both the stars and to places in the heart. An award-winning writer, Blumlein also worked in the medical field, and though there is medical terminology and some SF jargon in Longer, this last work is filled with the wonder many have come to expect from classic science fiction.

Cav and his wife Gunjita work for a large pharmaceutical company and are on assignment in space. They both have “juved,” which gives them the opportunity to grow young again—back to their twenties—but there is a limit to how many times they are allowed to do this. Meanwhile, something very old and alien has been discovered, an extraterrestrial object that just might tell us something about our place in the universe.

The book is a fun read for those who like stories set in space; it is also replete with social themes. Cav and Gunjita’s interracial marriage provides Blumlein an opportunity to explore many subjects, but Longer is not a diatribe about race or class or injustice. Instead it is about love, science, and wonder, which in fact may be a welcome change for some readers. Not being able to journey to the stars is one of the biggest disappointments of modern times, though it is overshadowed by humanity’s continuing propensity for war and misdistribution of wealth and resources—which has kept some contemporary science fiction writers more earthbound than in days past.

Despite its big and classic themes, Longer is relevant and at times even lyrical, as when Blumlein writes, “He stood in the cupola, gazing at the Milky Way, observing in himself the balance between what he saw and what he felt, between the sensation of cold and his perception of the sensation, and in the latter the balance between awe and terror, which shifted as all things shifted, and which he had experienced his whole life when gazing at the stars and the infinity of space.” Sadly there will be no more from this award-winning writer, but there is a lot he has left that will take us to the future.

Click here to purchase this book
at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2020 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2020

Spring 2020


Reflections on The Book of Tea, by Okakura Kakuzo, 1906
by James P. Lenfestey
As the coronavirus crisis unfolds, James P. Lenfestey finds wisdom in a 1906 work dedicated to tea.


Arvind Krishna Mehrotra: Selected Poems and Translations
Arvind Krishna Mehrotra
One of the most celebrated Indian poets gets a coveted NYRB volume which includes not only his own poetry, but essential translations of ancient Indian verse. Reviewed by Graziano Krätli


The World-Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry
Selected with an Introduction by Paul Kingsnorth
Wendell Berry
Culled from more than a dozen books, The World-Ending Fire has been thoughtfully assembled by Paul Kingsnorth, and serves as an excellent introduction to Berry’s thought. Reviewed by Robert Zaller


Michael Blumlein
Longer, by the late San Francisco Bay Area writer Michael Blumlein, offers a fantastic journey to both the stars and to places in the heart. Reviewed by Ryder W. Miller


March 9-April 24
Open Book
1011 S Washington Ave, Minneapolis

Yes, Rain Taxi is celebrating 25 years as a literary advocate and champion of aesthetically adventurous literature. What better way to show our impact than to show off our archives? Located on the second floor of Open Book in Minneapolis now through April 24, the 25 Years of Rain Taxi exhibit is free to view and features publications, pictures, and artifacts we’ve culled from our two and a half decades of existence. Items on display include:

  • A display of covers selected from the past 96 print editions of Rain Taxi Review of Books, many by Minnesota artists;
  • Chapbooks and broadsides of original work by some of our favorite authors;
  • Posters, pictures, and postcards that track the history of our literary events and Twin Cities Book Festival;
  • Author letters and other ephemera of behind-the-scenes action.

Visitors can also obtain a free copy of Rain Taxi's just-released 97th print issue at the exhibit. Stay tuned for more updates as Rain Taxi continues its 25 Years celebration throughout 2020!

What Shirt Color is Left?

Fado, Salazar, Pessoa, and Saramago
A Report from Lisbon’s DIS/QUIET Literary Program

by Mike Schneider

Lisbon, aka Lisboa, lies at the expansive mouth of the Tagus River—one of the best big-ship harbors in the world. It has been home to a sea-faring culture since before the Middle Ages and to ship captains like Vasco da Gama, who in 1498 was the first European to complete the perilous voyage around the Cape of Good Hope. His journey to India opened trade for cinnamon, ginger, and other spices such as prized tellicherry, the King of Peppers, from the Malabar Coast.

From this commercial bonanza, as we learn in school, Portugal became a world power. Its empire grew to include Brazil, from which Afro-Brazilian traditions of music developed that in the 19th century seeped back across the Atlantic to Lisbon. This musical gumbo, a byproduct of the slave trade, became known as fado. At least a couple hundred years old and often thought of as Lisbon’s traditional music, fado — the Portuguese word for “fate” — can be compared, imperfectly, to the blues. Sung by fadistas accompanied by Portuguese guitars (think 12-string mandolin) fado expresses unattained desire, deep longing, and passionate sorrow.

Not well known—according to ethnomusicologist Rui Vieira Nery, who spoke at the 2019 DIS/QUIET Literary Program—is that fado’s deep yearning for something better, something more than reality is also, inseparably, an expression of radical politics. By the late 19th century, this included Marx, anarchism, and the union movement. By that time, says Nery, Portugal’s leading historian of fado, “fado was essentially a working-class song—very politically committed. You had fados talking about Kropotkin, Bakunin, Marx—and even Lenin later on.”

Now a recognized style of world music as well as a Lisbon tourist attraction, fado arose from a subculture of poverty and violence, adds Nery, in sailors’ bars and brothels, in the back streets of Lisbon’s harbor night-life. Students and intellectuals mixed with working-class Lisbonians, men and women, leading to, for instance, a fado from 1900 that begins: "May 1st!/Forward! Forward!/O soldiers of freedom!/Forward and destroy/National borders and property."

It comes as not much of a surprise, then, that fado went into hiding, became an underground culture, when Antonio Salazar came to power. Taking control in the late 1920s—through a military coup that overthrew a shaky republic—his regime lasted until Portugal’s “Carnation Revolution” of the mid-1970s. Less well known than Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco, and more subtle in wielding tools of oppression, Salazar was the 20th century’s most enduring dictator.

A well educated, staunchly Catholic, fiercely anti-communist professor of economics and life-long bachelor, Salazar gets historical credit for sagaciously managing Portugal’s economy, which had been on the brink of ruin before a 1926 coup. Harry Potter fans can unknowingly be reminded of Portugal when they think about “Salazar Slytherin.” Not only the reptilian sound of the words led J. K. Rowling to this name for her ultimate antagonist; Rowling taught English as a foreign language in Portugal in the early ’90s and drew on Portugal’s fascist past in creating her fictional world.

As in Spain, where people are still learning, literally, where the bodies of Franco-ist state terrorism are buried, Portugual is still documenting repression during nearly fifty years of Salazar’s regime. How did it happen that most democratic institutions dissolved? The story unfolds in an effectively curated exhibit of photographs, audio, video and original documents at Lisbon’s Aljube Museum of Resistance and Freedom. A Moorish word meaning “waterless well,” the Aljube is a gray, four-story building behind the main cathedral in central Lisbon—almost unnoticeable except for its imposing iron-barred door. Once a Muslim prison, a jail during the Inquisition, the Aljube re-opened as a political prison in 1928. In cells barely big enough for one person, the PIDE (International and State Defense Police) held Lisbonians for interrogation.

Of the more than 3,000 people brought in over several decades, usually for short stretches of a few days that served as firm warning, some were never seen again. Usually identified by informants as “enemies of the state,” often on the basis of overheard conversation, these detainees underwent electric shocks, sleep deprivation, beatings and isolation.

Pessoa’s Disquiet

Until the last months of his life, none of this registered in the literary work of Fernando Pessoa. Still relatively obscure outside the Portuguese-speaking world, Pessoa has gained wide regard since the 1980s as one of the great writers of the 20th century. Until he died in November 1935, likely from a used-up liver, he lived in Lisbon amid the nascent Salazar regime’s increasing authoritarianism.

Pessoa’s most original work, The Book of Disquiet, is a gathering of disconnected ruminations he wrote over more than two decades and left unpublished in a steamer trunk. “This book is the autobiography of someone who never existed,” said Pessoa, writing as Vicente Guedes, one of his many “heteronyms”—fictitious personalities who spoke through him. At various times, Pessoa used more than seventy of these heteronyms in his writing, providing many of them with a distinct backstory.

You can think of them as adult imaginary friends, said Richard Zenith, a leading Pessoa translator and critic who also spoke at the 2019 DIS/QUIET program. The heteronyms, he said, are a mode of self-expression and self-expansion. “They are beings with a sort-of-life-of-their-own,” wrote Pessoa as himself, “and opinions I do not accept. While their writings are not mine, they do also happen to be mine.”

Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock comes to mind as a parallel, expressing a related sense of self-alienation. Insistently paradoxical, self-abnegating non-affirmation characterizes The Book of Disquiet: “I am the ruins of buildings that were never more than ruins that someone, in the midst of building them, grew tired of even wanting to build.” Even to regard this as an attitude seems overly affirmative. “Anything that involves action, be it war or reasoning is false, and anything that involves abdication is false too. If only I knew how not to act and how not to abdicate from action either!”

Seldom does an exclamation point exclaim with greater indifference. For a writer whose writing abjures personality, seeming almost to flee in fear of it—and in this way, ironically, attains its distinction—it’s marvelously apropos that pessoa is the Portuguese word for person. “My scorn for everything is so great that I despise myself; for since I despise other people’s suffering, I also despise my own, and thus I crush my own suffering beneath the weight of my disdain.”

Despite such grandiloquent misanthropy, something that sounds almost like civic pride, if not happiness, radiates on occasion from The Book of Disquiet—usually in passages observing the sun and sky, rain and clouds. “Nothing in the countryside or in nature can give me anything to equal the ragged majesty of the calm moonlit city seen from Graca or São Pedro de Alcântara. For me no flowers can match the endlessly varied colors of Lisbon in the sunlight.”

Frequently compared to San Francisco as a seaport city of hills, vistas, morning fog, and streetcars, Lisbon is a changeable presence in The Book of Disquiet, often vividly rendered. This becomes more apparent in the book’s second phase, begun in 1929, when Bernardo Soares, a different heteronym, still pungently embittered if more connected to worldly reality, takes over from Guedes:

The trams growl and clang around the edges of the square, like large, yellow, mobile matchboxes, into which a child has stuck a spent match at an angle to act as a mast; as they set off they emit a loud, iron-hard whistle. The pigeons wandering about around the central statue are like dark, ever-shifting crumbs at the mercy of a scattering wind.

While writing a trunk-full of pages that didn’t see print until well after his death, Pessoa made a living translating business documents. His flair with words in this professional capacity led to an interesting run-in with the puritanism of the Salazar administration. In 1927, the owner of the business Pessoa worked for acquired exclusive rights to market Coca-Cola in Portugal and asked Pessoa to come up with an advertising slogan.

The story is dramatized in a French short movie with a fado soundtrack, “How Fernando Pessoa Saved Portugal.” Long before the English-speaking world learned that “Things go better with Coke,” Pessoa arrived at Primeiro estranha-se, depois entranha-se. Literally, “First you’re estranged, then you’re entranced.” More idiomatically, “At first you don’t like it, then it possesses you”—an idea, as Lisbon’s Minister of Health noticed, that sounds like addiction. The result: Coca-Cola was banned from Portugal, which then remained until 1977—after the return of democracy—the only European country where you couldn’t enjoy “the pause that refreshes.”

A more serious intersection between Pessoa and Salazar-ist authorities occurred during the last months of his life. About politics in general, Pessoa the Lisbon citizen maintained a stance largely consistent with his Disquiet heteronyms, Guedes and Soares: indifference to worldly affairs in the manner of Oscar Wilde’s “art for art’s sake” credo. In The Book of Disquiet, politics and current events aren’t merely unmentioned, they’re scorned: “All revolutionaries are as stupid as all reformers.”

Nevertheless, friction developed between Pessoa and Salazar’s New State (Estado Novo). The sticking point was censorship. Strict laws instituted in 1926 required fado lyrics to be approved before being sung in public, reducing the social content of fado to a whimper. Likewise newspaper and magazine articles were subject to pre-screening and several Lisbon publications were shut down.

Pessoa was paying attention, and over his last few years scribbled extensive unpublished notes on Salazar as documented by University of Lisbon historian José Barreto. Though initially accepting, if never enthused, Pessoa arrived in February 1935 at a personal critical mass. Moved as much by anti-Catholicism as curtailments on free speech, the trigger was a bill in the National Assembly, promoted by the Catholic Church and Salazar, to ban Freemasonry in Portugal.

With an inflammatory article in one of Lisbon’s daily papers, Diario de Lisboa, Pessoa left no doubt of his stance not only against state-sanctioned Catholicism but also more broadly—as an unpublished note makes plain—in support of “Man’s dignity and freedom of Mind everywhere in the world.” The Salazar-promoted merger of religion with the state had brought Pessoa to the limits of his aestheticist elitism and forced a deep-seated democratic idealism into the open.

As Barreto observes, the government had been aiming to enlist Pessoa’s intellectual prestige on its side. The state ministry of propaganda (set up in September 1933, six months after Goebbels organized Germany’s Reich ministry of propaganda) had recently given him an award for his poem “Message,” which draws on the faded glory of Portuguese sea-faring and empire to limn a vision of Portugal as a world-leading nation. Probably for that reason, although without explanation, his article wasn’t censored. Titled “Secret Associations,” it ran in a special, sold-out edition of Diario de Lisboa and, at a time of rare open debate about government, had a huge impact.

“I’ve manufactured a bomb for the first time in my life,” wrote Pessoa in another unpublished note, indulging a rare tone of self-satisfaction. After the newspaper special edition appeared, a cultural weekly, O Diablo, one of few remaining public voices of democratic opposition, paid silent tribute by printing Pessoa’s photo on its front page.

In its official newspaper the government ridiculed Pessoa—even though they’d praised him a few days before. “This is what we get when we trust poets.” Articles Pessoa wrote to further explain himself were censored, and he lived the last months of his life feeling he’d been silenced. His writing from that point on became actively hostile to Salazar.

Saramago Looks Back

Forty-nine years later, in the ominous year of Orwell’s title, Pessoa came back to life. With The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, José Saramago created a rich, historical tapestry of Lisbon in the 1930s, embedded in the sweep of European events, lurching toward fascism. His novel inscribes Pessoa himself, along with one of his main heteronyms, Ricardo Reis, as fictional characters.

By the time this novel was published in 1984, Portugal’s “Carnation Revolution” of the 1970s had displaced Salazar’s authoritarian regime. Looking back almost fifty years, the novel tracks European events of 1936, such as the outbreak of Spain’s civil war and Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia). It is a ghost story and a tale of befuddled romance as well as historical fiction.

Fundamentally, the novel is intertextually rooted in the writing and literary status of Pessoa: The central character, a medical doctor, returns to Lisbon from many years in Brazil to visit the grave of Pessoa the fictional character. Pessoa, whose funeral occurred before Reis arrives in Lisbon (so as a presence in the novel is an unexplained lingering spirit), appears at will to converse with and sometimes annoy his friend. As readers we know, though the character Reis does not, that he’s a Pessoa invention, doomed to non-being with the author’s passing. In his visits, which occur unannounced and unpredictably, Pessoa seems to goad Reis to question his existence. As Reis (or is it Pessoa?) puts it during their first conversation, “None of us is truly alive or truly dead.”

Within this unusual narrative framework and with an ironic sensibility fitting with fado and The Book of Disquiet, Saramago builds an epic comic satire. Among his targets: middle-class mannerisms, conservative Catholicism, police-state surveillance and 20th-century European fascism. In day and night, rain and sun, Reis wanders Lisbon’s streets, its harbor and neighborhoods, which Saramago renders evocatively.

In a Kafka-esque sub-plot that drives the narrative, Reis out of nowhere receives a police writ requiring him to report for interrogation. As he arrives at police headquarters, he’s perplexed:

They send him up to the second floor, and up he goes, holding the writ like a lamp before him, without it he would not know where to put his feet. This document is a sentence that cannot be read, and he is an illiterate sent to the executioner bearing the message, Chop off my head. The illiterate may go singing, because the day has dawned in glory. Nature, too, is unable to read. When the ax separates the head from his trunk the stars will fall, too late.

His questioning proceeds with understated foreboding—a scene that extends over pages and echoes Raskolnikov’s encounter with his detective inquisitor in Crime and Punishment. As he leaves the station, Reis gains surveillance by a stooge named Victor whose presence is always signaled by the reek of his onion breath.

Saramago’s tone throughout is as if society’s drift toward fascism is a comic opera that will play out because people are occupied with their love affairs and gossip and poets with convincing themselves of the greatness of their verse. Literary critic James Wood praised the tone of Saramago’s fiction “because he narrates his novels as if he were someone both wise and ignorant.”

Gradually, the story advances toward a stadium rally for Salazar’s New State. Reis, in a fog of disappointed romance, caught in the flow of people and events, finds himself among the stadium throng. A speaker proclaims the urgency of the need for a national militia; the crowd roars approval. All that remains is to decide shirt color. Realization sets in that black (Mussolini’s Italy), brown (Hitler’s Germany), and blue (Franco’s Spain) are taken. What’s left?

Enough. Let me not reveal too much of this fascinating novel, in which one feels connection to Latin America’s “magical realism” and the meta-fictions of Jorge Luis Borges. The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis evokes not only a perilous period of European history that calls out for wariness in 2019 America, but also many moods of an enduringly beautiful city.

Differently from but with parallels to Pessoa in 1935, Saramago eventually pushed the limits of official tolerance. Politically far left, he leaned toward anarchism and was critical of the Catholic Church, the European Union, and the International Monetary Fund. His controversial 1991 novel, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, reinterpreted the New Testament as an indictment of God. Government disapproval of this work led him to voluntary exile in the Canary Islands for his last twenty years.

Saramago—who, like Pessoa, was not well known outside the Portuguese-speaking world—won the 1998 Nobel Prize in Literature, which cited him as a writer “who with parables sustained by imagination, compassion and irony continually enables us once again to apprehend an elusory reality.” Saramago died in 2010, but not before prominent literary critic Harold Bloom in 2003 dubbed him “the most gifted novelist alive in the world today.”

* * * *


Sources include: Simon Broughton, “Secret history,” New StatesmanAmerica (Oct. 11, 2007); José Barreto, “Salazar and the New State in the writings of Fernando Pessoa,” Portuguese Studies 24 (2): 169 (2008); Adam Kirsch, “Fernando Pessoa’s Disappearing Act,” The New Yorker (Aug. 28, 2017); “Fado: Portuguese Soul Music,” The Forum, BBC News, World Service (May 5, 2019).

BBC fado program:

DIS/QUIET Literary Program:

Quotations from The Book of Disquiet are from Margaret Jull Costa’s 2017 translation.

Quotations from The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis are from José Saramago, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, translated by Giovanni Pontiero (New York: Harvest, 1992).

* * * *

Mike Schneider, who won the 2016 Robert Phillips Prize in Poetry from Texas Review Press, attended the DIS/QUIET International Literary Program in Lisbon, June 23 to July 5, 2019.

Click here to purchase The Book of Disquiet
at your local independent bookstore
Click here to purchase The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis
at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2019/2020 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2020

Volume 25, Number 1 Spring 2020 (#97)

To purchase issue #97 using Paypal, click here.


M. J. Nicholls: Fear Anxiety Panic | interviewed by Steven Moore
Toi Derricotte: The Poem Tells Itself | interviewed by Swiss
Hillary Leftwich: Nightmares, Heartbreaks, and Terrible Choices
| interviewed by Zack Kopp
Heidi Czerwiec: Fluid States | interviewed by Molly Sutton Kiefer
Greg Gerke: See What I See | interviewed by Ted Morrissey


The New Life | a comic by Gary Sullivan


Cover art by Harriet Bart


American Science Fiction: Eight Classic Novels of the 1960s | Gary K. Wolfe, ed. | by Chris Barsanti
The Little Blue Kite | Mark Z. Danielewski | by Chris Via
Indelicacy | Amina Cain | by Bethany Catlin
Lanny | Max Porter | by Cindra Halm
Moon Trees and Other Orphans | Leigh Camacho Rourks
| by Linda Stack-Nelson
I Know You Know Who I Am | Peter Kispert | by Mikel Prater
Like Water and Other Stories | Olga Zilberbourg | by Alta Ifland
Chances Are . . . | Richard Russo | by Robert Lane
Serotonin | Michel Houellebecq | by Chris Via
A Storm Blew In From Paradise | Johannes Anyuru | by Poul Houe


They Called Us Enemy | George Takei | by George Longenecker


The Householders: Robert Duncan and Jess | Tara McDowell | by Patrick James Dunagan
The Drama of Celebrity | Sharon Marcus | by Ryder W. Miller
Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative | Jane Alison | by Kirby Gann
The Detroit Printing Co-op: The Politics of the Joy of Printing | Danielle Aubert | by M. Kasper
Little Weirds | Jenny Slate | by Erin Lewenauer
A Literary Biography of Robin Blaser: Mechanic of Splendor | Miriam Nichols | by Patrick James Dunagan
The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet | David Carlin and Nicole Walker | by Dustin Michael
Crusoe and His Consequences | James Dunkerley | by Ryder W. Miller
The Grave On The Wall | Brandon Shimoda | by William Shultz


Nervous System | Rosalie Moffett | by Walter Holland
Lima :: Limón | Natalie Scenters-Zapico | by George Longenecker
Forty-One Objects: Prose Poems | Carsten René Nielsen | by John Bradley
Codex | Joshua Lew McDermott | by Greg Bem
The Problem of the Many | Timothy Donnelly | by Michael Bazzett
Earth | Hannah Brooks-Motl | by Greg Bem
World’d Too Much: The Selected Poetry of Russell Atkins | Kevin Prufer, Robert E. McDounough, eds. | by John Bradley
How To Dress A Fish | Abigail Chabitnoy | by Amanda Kooser
Gulf | Cody Smith | by Stephen Hundley
Shiver | Lynn Martin | by J. Peter Moore

To purchase issue #97 using Paypal, click here.