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The Enchanted Ring:
A Romance of Chivalry

Philothée O’Neddy
Translated by Brian Stableford
Snuggly Books ($12)

by Olchar E. Lindsann

Rare would be the reader who recognizes the absurd name Philothée O’Neddy, exclaiming, “O’Neddy in translation? At last!” Ever since his own day he has been not only a footnote in literary history, but a footnote to other footnotes such as Petrus Borel or Gérard de Nerval—his tiny output valued by a miniscule readership rarely touching the anglophone world. For those who know him, and even more for those ready to discover him, this charming tale is a long overdue treat. Though not the ideal introduction to O’Neddy’s work, it is a clever piece of literary subterfuge that yields much when read in light of the author’s context and constraints; sifting through its soil, we find the seeds of avant-gardes to come: Lautréamont, Decadence, Symbolism, and Surrealism.

The Enchanted Ring was originally published serially in 1841, in the popular newspaper La Patrie, under conditions of considerable official and unofficial censorship. It was a kind of trojan horse in which O’Neddy adapted the conventions of the most outwardly conservative of genres to infiltrate the emerging mass market with aesthetically and politically progressive undertones.

Brian Stableford has translated and edited many underground texts over the years, and is one of the few anglophones with an intimate understanding of O’Neddy’s community and its literature. He gives pertinent and insightful observations in the Introduction and notes, although more expansion on the author and the radical nature of his work would better prepare the uninitiated. O’Neddy’s poetry was unpublishably experimental in its day, and he was among the first to call for the merging of art, life, and political action that has characterized the avant-garde since his time; the leaders of the Dada and Surrealist movements cited the Jeunes-France collective that he co-founded as one of their key models. He ceased publishing under the pseudonym O’Neddy after 1833 in the wake of political disenchantment, financial hardship, and unrequited love, and adopted publishable formats in which to smuggle in the themes that his unpublishable verse dealt with more directly. With this context, even the apparently conventional aspects of this novel begin to shake upon their seemingly firm foundations.

O’Neddy rides into this battle against convention protected by the armor of a deep-seated irony that at times merges into pathos. As with many in his generation, cheap Chivalric Romance were the pulp fiction of his youth and guilty pleasure of his adulthood, and he referred to himself on at least one occasion as Don Quixote, a hero of the French Romantics. We must therefore read The Enchanted Ring, and the nostalgia that it invokes so insistently, through the lens of this complex irony, which permeates his lifelong engagement with the chivalric genre. O’Neddy often hides his closest intentions in sarcastic asides, and in parts of the novel (especially in conjunction with his other work, mostly unavailable in English) one can perceive a sketch of a re-invented egalitarian notion of chivalry, in which aristocracy designates allegiance to the sociocultural Ideal, adventure rather than profit motivates and organizes life, and trials and combats are those of amorous relationships or intellectual and creative exploits.

The novel intensifies the chivalric delight in the fantastical and absurd, its deification of love (aptly left untranslated by Stableford as Amour), its utopian aspirations, its sense of adventure and infinite possibility, its values of courage balanced by moderation, its blurring of lines between history and legend, and the hints of nightmare where the seeds of gothic fiction had been planted. It diminishes to a minimum the genre’s inescapable hyper-nationalism, its aristocratic and religious overtones, and its emphasis on combat and machismo.

Anachronisms are tossed about like grenades. The bizarre first chapter features an affable sentient bronze statue throwing sarcastic jabs at the French Academy, and his protagonist is a brazenly fictitious wife of Charlemagne. The marriage is narratively built into the lacunae of history, its secrecy explained away with a vaudevillian grin typical of the Romantic parlor game of “paradoxes” which would evolve into Jarry’s ‘Pataphysics. Such anti-logic intervenes sporadically; after “spoiling” the end of a chapter in its title, he argues that his presumably angry readers “have judged, in accordance with the primordial and chivalric mores of my tale that, in order to be logical, it ought to persevere in its series of consoling and cheerful implausibilities.” The narrator becomes a main character of the book by means of frequent, ironic, and rhetorically elaborate asides, apostrophes, and tangents—sometimes addressing the reader, sometimes directed at representatives of the status quo, and occasionally at the characters themselves, merging and diverging continually with the incidents being spoken, and disclosing O’Neddy as a link between Sterne and Lautréamont.

As a poet ten years earlier, O’Neddy had been a leading representative of “Frenetic” Romanticism, an extremist tendency incorporating gothic fiction, Byronic Romanticism, and leftist politics; it was the subgenre appropriated so radically by Lautréamont twenty years later. In the later chapters, gothic tropes percolate through the medieval tapestry, foreshadowing the Decadent literature of the later 19th century: Pausing in the adventurous clip of questing adventure, the narrator’s gaze catches and lingers rhapsodically on the lineaments of the corpses ringing the dragon’s cave, then on the horse being strangled and devoured by a horde of poisonous serpents.

O’Neddy was a student of medieval hermeticism and Masonic and Egyptian iconography, and combines their logics here with those of popular legend, Voltairian satire, gothic tropes, and onieric imagery (he claimed to sleep in his glasses in order to see his dreams more clearly). The major magical scenes—many of which occur in weird caves, caverns and vaults—evoke more than a touch of what the Surrealists call “convulsive beauty.” All of this is embodied in a prose that is engaging yet unpredictable, and defiantly self-referential. The translation conveys the novel’s charm and eccentricity well, though the heterogeneous aspect of the style could have been pushed more vibrantly: From clause to clause, smooth readability is rejected by means of an eccentric mixture of archaic medieval, poetically proto-Symbolist, jocularly informal, and sarcastically acidic tones, vocabularies, and rhetorical modes generously spiced with neologisms and resurrections of Old and Middle French. Even on the level of syntax, O’Neddy swims in irony, hiding poetry within his prose.

Other continuities with his poetic project also lie underneath the surface. Along with his close collaborator Théophile Gautier, whose career and legacy went on to much better fortune than his own, the atheist O’Neddy had developed a theory and practice of the deification of Art, broadly defined: the societal sublimation of the search for the sacred away from organised religion and dogma, and into cultural activity. By the very fact of its conventional appearance, The Enchanted Ring can be seen as part of O’Neddy’s crafty response to this sense of personal failure and social despair, reminding us again that its irony is more bitter than mocking.

O’Neddy was directly or indirectly engaged with most of the major leftist currents of the early 19th century, and his political stances were influenced by Liberalism, neo-Jacobinism, revolutionary occultism, the predecessors of militant anarchism, and Fourierist and Saint-Simonist socialisms; both of the latter, moreover, were inseperable from Feminism. None of these discourses could be allowed in the mainstream context for which The Enchanted Ring was produced, though they almost break the surface on occasion, such as an acerbic tirade in which O’Neddy compares the institution of marriage to the militarization of the state—then sarcastically apologizes to his readers and loudly disclaims any satirical intentions for the novel.

Nonetheless the book fails in some ways to escape the blind prejudices of its time, most spectacularly in the wholesale adoption of Orientalism that dominates the first chapter and never entirely disappears; in some sense it is the spacial counterpart of the self-conscious nostalgia that is projected onto Europe’s past in the bulk of the novel. The “East” is portrayed in the first chapter, and partly personified for the remainder via the central character of Libania, in the mode of the Thousand-and-One Nights by way of Voltaire (one of O’Neddy’s greatest heroes since childhood). In the idyllic dream-land of “the Orient” we find the typical Romantic fetishization of exotic opulence and pleasurable indolence. We do not, however, find the prevalent associations with “barbarism” or sexual promiscuity, much less any self-conscious racism.

Gender, too, is largely locked into a problematic status by the conventions of the Chivalric Romance genre, and the female protagonist Libania is no exception insofar as she is beautiful, rich, and lacks a male protector. But she also subverts many conventions and is quite explicitly the novel’s strongest character, in every sense of that word. She is an acute scholar, a wise and ethical woman who refuses to reclaim her aristocratic inheritance yet navigates the world with confidence and reliance. While she never picks up a sword to fight, at no point does she desire or need a male protector, and when she accompanies Charlemagne on a perilous quest, she is motivated by her desire to protect him by means of her magic ring; the conventional gender roles have been reversed, and a good deal of ironic humor arises from the King’s self-satisfied assumptions to the contrary.

In many ways Libania manifests the merger that O’Neddy sought of the political principles of the Enlightenment progressive with the utopian fire of the Romantic imagination, and it may not be insignificant that he chooses to embody this ideal in a non-European woman of color. While technically Muslim for most of the novel and technically Christian at the end, her ethos comes off as humanist-pantheist, or atheist; the narrator notes that “the pagan—or, rather, the unbeliever—is a consummate thinker.”

These subtle subversions emerge with more force in the final chapters, in a kind of slow twist of the genre. The serial’s weekly unfolding for readers bears comparison with televised serial dramas today, and once the novel’s reader have been hooked by the earlier idyllic episodes, the subtexts begin to boil up. This twist brings the conflict between O’Neddy’s anti-clericalism and the genre’s Christian roots onto center stage. Religion is not directly attacked—neither the genre nor the newspaper would allow it. Rather, Christianity is treated as simply one genre convention among others, as part of the “local color” of the Middle Ages and not a living ideology. Libania does technically convert to Christianity in the end as a matter of conjugal convenience, satisfying convention, though without any ecstatic experience or fundamental change of perspective implied. But the narrator now becomes more intrusive and opinionated than ever, launching into several bitter invectives and arguments against “the theologians” and clergy over the course of the final two chapters, particularly over matters concerning marriage and love.

The magical ring acts as a test, offering its wearer supreme power, albeit power exerted through the force of love. Only Libania, long before her exposure to Christianity, has the character to wear and wield the ring calmly. On the other hand, the admirable Bishop Turpin—a heroic figure of Chivalric Romance and Charlemagne’s closest advisor until Libania’s advent—is assailed by this temptation in a scene which provides pretext for a long tirade against religious institutions. In this parody of Saint Anthony, the Bishop becomes a symbol of religion as a worldly power, as the devil’s voice tempts him to use the ring’s influence to claim the throne and create an all-powerful theocratic dictatorship. In fact, Bishop Turpin is the only flawed character in the novel, the only one whose actions are explicitly criticized by the voluble narrator, who blames him for his actions and condemns the xenophobic bigotry that motivates them, yet excuses him as deluded by his own ideology and committed to delivering Charlemagne from the world of dream, returning him to the world of action and practicality—the world of prose.

At the remove of more than a century and a half, it is possible that O’Neddy’s disguise may work too well on us, appearing merely as a droll, eccentric tale too trite or idyllic for our age of bigotry, doubt, and impending disaster. Yet it too is the product of a political and personal context in the grip of the forces of reaction, permeated with anxiety and flailing hope, and it proceeds from the pen of one of the most formally and socially progressive poets of his generation, diligently hiding that very fact. If we can read the novel from that shared historical space of cultural crisis and malaise while contemplating the conditions of censorship under which it was written and which are never immune from a return, we can be rewarded with a threefold blessing: an instructive demonstration of literary camouflage, a masterful example of stylistic experimentation and genre-play, and a damned fun fantasy tale.


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JEFF ALESSANDRELLI and PAULA CISEWSKI

Thursday, February 20, 7 pm
The Museum of Russian Art
5500 Stevens Ave., Minneapolis, MN

Join Rain Taxi and The Museum of Russian Art for an evening of absurdism and poetry guaranteed to stave off the winter blues. At this special event, The Museum of Russian Art will have its exhibits open for exploration during the event — a special treat for lovers of literature and art. Reception to follow!

This is a free event, but registration is requested: sign up here.
Thank you!

Jeff Alessandrelli is the author of the full-length poetry collections This Last Time Will Be the First (2014) and Fur Not Light (2019), both from Burnside Review Press. He’s additionally the author of a short poetic biography of the French avant-garde composer Erik Satie, a short essay collection focusing on skateboarding, poetry, and The Notorious B.I.G., and five chapbooks. Recent work by him appears in Poetry Northwest, The American Poetry Review, and The Hong Kong Review of Books. In addition to his own writing, Jeff also runs the literary record label/press Fonograf Editions. He lives in Portland, OR.

Taking its inspiration from the work of Russian Absurdist authors such as Alexander Vvedensky and Daniil Kharms (the title of the collection itself comes from a Kharms work), Fur Not Light interrogates how deep senselessness runs in a post-truth and truthiness world. Incorporating serial poems such as “Nothing of the Month Club” and “December 32nd,” as well as the long ideogram-based work “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living,” Fur Not Light makes manifest the way that, as one of the poems in the volume puts it, “there’s a difference between turning around and turning back.” Or as acclaimed poet Rae Armantrout extols: "Hope and resignation tussle endlessly here like a Buddhist version of Laurel and Hardy. In Fur Not Light wisdom has rhythm.”

Paula Cisewski is the author of four full-length poetry collections most recently The Threatened Everything (from Burnside Review Press) and Quitter, which won the Diode Editions Book Prize. She is also the author of several chapbooks, including the lyric prose Misplaced Sinister. Her poems have appeared in numerous journals, have been featured on Verse Daily, and have been or will be included in the anthologies Privacy Policy: The Anthology of Surveillance Poetics, 78: A Tarot Anthology, Rocked by the Waters: Poems of Motherhood, Rewilding: Poems for the Environment, and New Poetry from the Midwest. She lives in Minneapolis where she teaches, makes up one half of the creative team JoyFace, and serves on the editorial staff of the literary magazine Conduit.

The Threatened Everything takes a heart-stoppingly honest look at the lies we tell ourselves in order to be functioning grown-ups. Writing poems both timely and marked by a deep, ancient wisdom born from the marriage of absurdity and grief, Paula Cisewski emerges as an American inheritor of the great Polish poets Zbigniew Herbert and Czeslaw Milosz. With a studious music and a sharp eye for laughter’s dual power to demand both complicity and joy in our separated, secular lives, her poems mark out space for us to gather our strength and see more clearly the things of the world that center and unhinge us, despite the distracting flotsam and jetsam of late capitalism, the war machine, the political circus. Cisewski is the comforting friend making art from the awful . . . the only possible reaction to the absurd life.” —Mary Austin Speaker

The Winter Garden Photograph

Reina María Rodríguez
translated by Kristin Dykstra and Nancy Gates Madsen
Ugly Duckling Presse ($18)

by John Bradley

In the title poem of this intriguing book, Cuban poet Reina María Rodríguez writes, “that’s where I’d like to live . . . / in the inexact place of a missing photo / missing so it can’t replace or essay the person that I am.” Rodríguez goes on to call this place she wishes to inhabit “the landscape of desire” Though this poem comes late in the book (the third poem from the end), it confirms the dynamic that plays throughout—the author uses photographs from the UNESCO magazine Courier to spark a meditation on desire.

The importance of photography can be found in the very title of this book, a phrase used by Roland Barthes in his Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. In that landmark book, Barthes, after concluding that photography fails to convey truths about the world around him, encounters a picture of his mother as a girl in a winter garden. He suddenly sees the evocative power of a photograph. Like Barthes, Rodríguez also finds photos as spaces laden with desire.

In the forty-four poems (five of them prose poems) that make up this bilingual (Spanish and English) book, desire emerges as a constant theme. In “a Thracian rider,” for example, Rodríguez writes:

and the bronzed and leaden smile
leaves an ochre taste on my lips. I kissed you
on your modern photo paper
and we blurred in that instant
where I remain in you . . .

The reader witnesses not only an intimacy with the Thracian rider, but with the “modern photo paper” as well. In another poem, titled “what confusion,” the author tells a mysterious “you” that “I can’t hold you tightly enough / to merge, sweaty, into the chaos of all things”—and yet that’s what Rodriquez is able to do, over and over, in these photo-induced poems: to “merge” with the images as if stepping into them.

As well, Rodríguez’s poems show her readers that “photography / has something to do with resurrection”—at least of memory and imagination. Her poem “sinking,” for example, appears to be focused on a photo of “a small Roman boat / in the Lazaretto cove.” Soon, however, the poem resurrects the memory of another time and place:

and if I don’t remember where
that faraway land was,
the lantern by the window,
the book he never finished reading
on the side table (Cavafy 1918),
the photo, a mild pain, the blue
contemporary screens
through which you were going and coming
if I don’t remember where,
my forgetting signifies nothing.

Her use of pronouns, “he” apparently transforming into “you,” adds to the intensity and mystery of this poem. Note also that we have an unidentified photo in a poem about a photo!

The translations by Kristin Dykstra and Nancy Gates Madsen deserve credit for maintaining the complexity of Rodriquez’s work, with its shifting pronouns and long, winding lines. Their expertise can also be seen in the title of the book—rather than giving us a literal translation, “The Photograph of the Greenhouse,” they noted the author’s allusion to Barthes, and instead offer The Winter Garden Photograph.

Given the importance of photographs to this book, it’s too bad that Rodríguez, as well as the translators, didn’t provide a list of those UNESCO Courier pictures that helped inspire these poems. Such a list, enabling the interested reader to track the photos down online, would enhance the reading of these meditative poems and illustrate how the author transformed the original prompt.

Also, given the importance of photography in this book, it’s disappointing that there’s no mention of this topic in “Intense Circularities,” an interview with the author by Rosa Alcalá contained in the book; in over thirteen pages of an otherwise engaging conversation, photography never surfaces. This comment on landscape by Rodríguez might be related: “I convert all landscapes into text . . . . It is not a contemplative life, it is simply a life to steal from one place and take to another.” Perhaps Rodríguez feels she likewise “steals” from the images in the UNESCO publication for her poems?

These are minor problems, however, in a rich and complex book that shows how one art form (in this case poetry) can provide entry into another (photography). These closing lines from “the chose one,” a poem based on a photo of the Taj Mahal, sums up the way Rodríguez subsumes the light-and-shadow world of the photograph with her poetic gaze: “there’s a shadow, a falsification, / that looks like the truth.”


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The Book of Baruch
by the Gnostic Justin

Geoffrey Hill
edited by Kenneth Haynes
Oxford University Press ($27.95)

by Patrick James Dunagan

An engaging curiosity, The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin was meant to be Geoffrey Hill’s final book of poems, and at the time of his death in 2016 it was left unfinished as he intended. Editor Kenneth Hayes tells how Hill planned “a posthumous work, to consist of as many poems as he would live to complete.” With its extravagant title, a somewhat obvious foil of biblical-sounding esotericism that makes the cover art by William Blake a perfect fit, it’s a robust burst of late work capping off an already extraordinary late-in-life run: Of the near thousand pages of Hill’s Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952–2012, only roughly 150 pages contain poems written before the 1990s. While Hill is broadly recognized as a great formalist, The Book of Baruch presents 271 short sections composed of densely compact long lines of free verse. Arguably resembling a prose poem, these not-quite-paragraphs deliver a thunderous, line-by-line, biblical cadence while internal and off-rhymes proliferate at a near (but not quite—Hill does not abide lightweight mess) sing-song rate.

The writing is self-reflective, as if casually caught up with its own concerns. Hill often comments upon how it’s going: “This, it is becoming clear, is more a daybook than ever The Daybooks were.” The Daybooks were a multi-volume set of poems by Hill, written chronologically yet not with the same loose tone and style as found here; Hill might even be said to be relaxing with The Book of Baruch, as his statements are often simply put and to the point: “Je est un autre: the little rotter was quite right, of course.” Such moments make for fun reading, but shouldn’t be taken as the main thrust of the book. Hill’s poetry remains archly literary (you must be able to recognize “the little rotter” as Rimbaud, for example) and heavily indulgent with exalted vocabulary that zips right along. Images are unfurled at an astounding pace as Hill’s thoughts link up his personal experience with historical events and highbrow balderdash. For instance, there’s a lengthy run of pages where he riffs on various manifestations of the “Poem as,” a series of sui generis statements regarding his own alchemical poetics:

Poem as scimitar-curve, shear along sheer, a ‘Tribal’ class destroyer, veteran of
the North Cape run, bearing down on a submarine that has struck and
already gone from the scene, leaving sea-rubble wretchedly a-swim,
thickslicked in oil.

Rapid hapless signal flags, the merchantmen's red rags, warp and snatch on the
Arctic wind. Frantic asdic, its wiped mind becoming, with old memory
and new writing, something forlornly grand.

Poem as wall map or table chart of a desperate, remote, protracted bid to
escape. Poem in due time a diminished aide-mémoire to vanished
strategic priorities of fire.

Poem as equity release—whatever that is.

Poem as no less an authority on history than whom?

As always, it helps to look up words not recognized in order to get the full effect of Hill’s work. For example, “asdic” refers to an early form of sonar used to detect submarines. Figuring that out and re-reading the lines brings the full force with which Hill’s referencing of his post-World-War-II-era adolescence are echoing through to a finer point of apprehension. While the repetitive listing technique used here brings to mind Clark Coolidge’s recent book Poet, containing his jazz-fueled rhythmic blast on “the poet” as manifested across his lifetime, the books are otherwise dissimilar, though both deal with perennial questions plaguing those who spend their lives engaged in poetic activity.

Among the most illuminating passages in The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin are those where Hill drills down on readings that have mattered to him, sharing his passions even as he admits the insubstantial nature of the material at the heart of his confession: “in re-reading Desnos on the alchemical, I sense something slender but continuous and intense that I can render of use to my own verse: this I am eager to confess, though the issue, the residue, is so meagre.” Despite Hill’s concern, this is not at all a paltry divulgence. At times the most rewarding of artistic fare is generated from the barest of threads, minute connections triggering the imagination. It’s worthwhile to go read “Desnos on the alchemical” ourselves to see if we might find any bit of the same “residue,” no matter how “meagre” it may turn out to be. That is, of course, if we’re able to ascertain what passages by Desnos Hill had in mind. (There’s a good chance it may be his article “Le Mystère d’Abraham Juif,” published in the journal Documents in 1929, which discusses walking tours the Surrealists undertook to historical alchemical sites around Paris).

Again and again, lines that offer flashes of Hill’s ars poetica remain the most compelling to return to: “Words attract words as trouble attracts trouble and yet, to succeed, we must ditch all safeguards; and see and think and speak double.” The lessons for writing accrue, as does Hill’s emphatic insistence upon his most cherished views: “The great, let me repeat, are the dead of whom I approve, whom indeed I love.” His passions become our own. The expanse of his grasp engages the imagination, inspiring further explorations into the meaty haunts generously presented in this last work.


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The Fertile, The Fecund, The Leaky,
The Bizarre, THE END

A Discussion of Forms, Labor, the Feminine, and Public Space

by MC Hyland and Rebecca Lehmann

Rebecca Lehmann is the author of the poetry collections Ringer (University of Pittsburgh Press, $17) which won the 2018 Donald Hall Prize for Poetry, and Between the Crackups (Salt, 2011). Her poetry and creative nonfiction have appeared in Tin House, Ploughshares, Boston Review, Copper Nickel, and other venues. She is an Assistant Professor of English at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana.

MC Hyland is the author of the poetry collections THE END (Sidebrow Books, $18) and Neveragainland (Lowbrow, 2010). She has also published a dozen poetry chapbooks/artist books, most recently Plane Fly At Night from above/ground press and the self-published Five Essays on the Lyric/The Laundry Poem with Anna Gurton-Wachter. She is the founding editor of DoubleCross Press, a poetry micropress, and recently finished a PhD in English at NYU. From her research, she produces scholarly and poetic texts, artists’ books, and public art projects.

MC and Rebecca met at a writing residency in 2010, and conducted this conversation over Google Docs in the last week of August, 2019.


MC Hyland: Let’s start by talking about the astonishing first poem in your new book, Ringer. Most of the poems in Ringer are really close to the ground: they speak to this historical moment as it’s experienced by a particular kind of subject. But in order to get to that specificity, you start with the poem “Natural History,” which begins at the creation of the earth: “Light hooks a claw on the horizon, pulls itself / into view”; land “climbs hydrothermal vents like stairs . . . hand-springing out of water.” This poem is a little bit Genesis and a little bit a parent obliging a child who demands to be entertained by stories. Did you always know this was where Ringer needed to begin?

Rebecca Lehmann: Thanks, MC. Your reading of “Natural History” is right on. I was envisioning a stacking of creation/origin stories—Genesis, the Big Bang, Evolution, human civilization—to sort of telescope in on the time and place of this book, which is the present, or near present, and mostly rural landscapes of the Midwest and Northeast. The final image in the poem, of the children sleeping in a tent and “Tina” hand-springing across the backyard, is from my own childhood in Wisconsin in the 1980s and ’90s. I grew up in a small town on a peninsula, and backyard sleepovers were a summer treat. My friend, Tina, who lived up the alley from me, was an excellent gymnast, and sleepovers would often feature cartwheeling, hand-springing, walking on hands, and other displays of female agility and strength. Originally, I began “Natural History” with Tina handspringing across the backyard, but I ended up flipping the poem in revision, re-writing it backwards.

Ringer went through a few different drafts, and the ordering of the poems changed quite a bit from version to version, but “Natural History” was always the first or one of the first poems, I think because it catches the play between despair and hope that runs throughout the book. Many of these poems are sad, or angry, or heartbroken, because I was writing about a time in my life when tragedies seemed to stack one atop another: I was depressed and isolated by living in a remote rural area in Upstate New York, I suffered postpartum depression after the birth of my son, I lost a pregnancy at THE END of the first trimester, I was sexually harassed by a student, I was trying to reconcile proto-fascist political changes. At the same time, wonderful things were also happening, like the birth of my son, and the glory of nature, which was all around me, literally consuming the abandoned houses, factories, and farms of New York’s North Country, an area with negative population growth and high rates of rural poverty. I liked “Natural History” as the first poem for Ringer because it catches some of that hope; it’s in many ways a sunny poem.

Speaking of beginnings, I was so struck by the first sentence of THE END: “I got my period in the specialist’s office.” This book is amazing in its scope and the depth of its project, and I love how experiential it is, as its speaker moves through her life, and the city, and as specific tropes (the train, snow, texting, protests, the female body, common spaces, the Internet, poetic production) became richly developed themes. The first sentence of the book thrusts the female body front and center, and periods recur throughout the book, with repeated references to the experience of getting one’s period unexpectedly, in a bad time or place, calling up notions of the female body as unruly, misbehaving, inconvenient, or leaky. How integral is this theme to THE END, and how do you see it relating to larger social issues that run throughout the book, like protests, the idea of the commons, or the generation of poetry?

MCH: That first sentence puns on a few of the book’s central concerns! THE END, like most of my writing, came out of a constraint I gave myself: to write one hundred poems composed of single-clause sentences. This meant that these sentences would contain only one kind of punctuation mark: the period. For me, poems are places where form is a tool that helps me think. In this case, syntax and that commitment to the number 100 (which, with the help of my editors, I ultimately condensed down a bit) helped me get at things I don’t think I would have known, otherwise, how to articulate.

As to where this form came from, and why the pun on (grammatical mark) “period” and (menstrual) “period”: I wrote THE END while doing a PhD in English literature. So I was trying, for the first time in years, to write critically—and like all unskilled critical writers, I was producing a lot of verbose prose. At the same time, I was thinking about the centrality of the sentence to Language writing: Ron Silliman’s essay, “The New Sentence,” Bob Perelman’s poem of half-sentences, “Chronic Meanings,” and Lyn Hejinian’s writing, with its massive, intuitive leaps between sentences. The single-clause sentence assignment was both a corrective and an experiment in applying the techniques of the ’80s to the present day. The period/period pun was irresistible, because I was consistently annoyed by both the masculinist critical tradition I found myself plunged into and the structural masculinism of universities as institutions. In general, THE END became a place to put all the thinking that didn’t fit in the classroom or in the seminar papers (and eventually, the dissertation) I was writing. The porous boundaries, leakages, and refusals of my own increasingly middle-aged body became a sort of metonym for all these undercurrents. A big part of these poems’ fascination with menstruation, incontinence, cosmetics, etc. has to do with thinking through the ways I experience my own body brushing up against larger systems of thought, of opportunity, and of control.

This brings me to two questions about Ringer. The first is about syntax: so many of these poems rely on declarative sentences, both metaphoric (“x is y”) and fact-stating (“it’s like this”). For example, from the poem “Today”: “Today’s real mother lives in California.” And in the poem “Elegy for Almost”: “It was as simple as this: I really wanted you/ and then you were gone.” Where does your sense of the sentence come from? Are there writers you think of as shaping your syntax? I have a feeling (and this is the second question) that there’s a link between the forms your sentences take and this book’s concerns with mothering, gendered rhetorical and non-rhetorical violences, and feminized and/or classed labor.

RL: Ringer definitely has an addiction to anaphora, which is one of my favorite rhetorical devices. When I was pregnant with my son, five years ago, I had terrible brain fog, and anaphora became a way for me to push a poem forward without having to give a lot of consideration to linearity of thought or narrative. This is how I wrote the poem “Epithalamion,” which uses the anaphoric refrain “when I was X, I dreamed I married Y,” and ends up becoming a consideration of place (this poem is strongly located in the upper Midwest) and heteronormativity. More to the point, anaphora is a formal technique that reflected my own experiences of the work of mothering small children as extremely repetitive (cleaning, bathing, walking a baby in a stroller, reading children’s stories, nap times, preparing food), and I think that’s why it’s so prominent in Ringer. I teach anaphora often, and two of the poems I use as models are “She Had Some Horses” by Joy Harjo and “Ballad of the Poverties” by Adrienne Rich. Both of these poets have been influential to me. In particular, I love Harjo’s use of direct address, how she will occasionally step out of her poems and start talking to the reader, commenting on the story she’s telling. That’s a move I enjoy making in my own poetry.

“Elegy for Almost” is by contrast a poem with very direct language. I wrote the poem in a moment of intense grief, after losing a pregnancy. I was diagnosed with a suspected molar pregnancy (a dangerous condition in which the pregnancy is no longer viable but can quickly threaten the health of the mother), and had to have an immediate abortion. My grief over this experience was so overwhelming that I found it almost impossible to write about it metaphorically, and so a lot of language in the poem is head-on (“I really wanted you / and then you were gone” or “Bad things happened”).

The opening stanza of “Elegy for Almost” refers to the 2016 presidential election, because I miscarried a week before the election of Donald Trump. I wrote “Elegy for Almost,” and then didn’t write for a couple of months, because I was grieving. When I did write again, around the time of Trump’s inauguration, I wrote the poems in Ringer that respond directly to Trump’s election and Trump as a figure. For me, these experiences, the miscarriage and the election, will always be connected, because they happened at the same time, but also because my experience with my miscarriage was an example of the personal being political. I was so grateful to be able to access a speedy and medically safe abortion when I needed one, performed in a hospital, by my obstetrician. Trump’s severe anti-abortion stance (that women should be punished for having abortions), coupled with his admitted sexual assault of women (grabbing them by their pussies), are both features of his paternalistic misogyny. At the same time, our nation has terrible maternal mortality rates, which are even worse for women of color. Furthermore, Trump’s attempts to disenfranchise women are intersectional with his racism, his weaponization of the southern border, his dog-whistle alignment with White Nationalists, and his position as an oligarch. The Trump poems in Ringer are my attempt to take up and respond to those issues.

This brings me back to THE END. The idea of the commons is so present in this book, be it a literal commons like a subway train, street, or protest, or a virtual commons like the Internet. Protests in particular are such a large facet of this book, and the protest becomes a commons that is both inclusive and exclusive, both a locus for public will and a product commodified and marketed by social media. Can you comment about the role of protests in THE END, and whether you were writing about specific protests or protest movements?

MCH: Your question reminds me of a conversation I recently had with some undergrads. I asked my students what changed with Donald Trump’s election, and one of them said: “there started to be widespread political protest.” But the Obama years were, in fact, filled with protest! Occupy, Black Lives Matter, and Standing Rock all brought protest into public spaces and shifted national conversations. (The same group of students also credited Bernie Sanders with the idea of “the 1%”: a fascinating example of the ways that the gains of protest—here, Occupy’s terminology—get folded into representative democratic systems.)

Most, if not all, of the protests that appear in THE END are Black Lives Matter vigils and marches in New York City. BLM profoundly changed my relationship to street-based protest. I came out of the Clinton-era media silence on protests—I remember participating, in college, in an action with the Kensington Welfare Rights Union (a homelessness advocacy group in Philadelphia), and there was all this media outreach, but no one from the media showed up. And then, in the early 2000s, there was a similar lack of coverage of the anti-Iraq War marches. I felt like those protests were really for the marchers’ benefit, because it was so clear that they couldn’t change the direction things were going. Of course, the thing that changed street-level protest was social media, which now usually leads the established media to the story.

Black Lives Matter demonstrations felt important for me to attend because they gave me a way to leverage my racial privilege to help make other marchers safer. They helped me understand the political and discursive power of being a body in a crowd. As a white person in America, I am often told that my particularities—my ideas, my feelings, my contributions, etc.—are what matter about me. But that’s not what matters about any person in either representative democracy or late-stage capitalism. In the contemporary world, we’re numbers far more often than we’re individuals. The distinction that Black Lives Matter makes—that law enforcement (along with other forces) tends not to allow Black people in America that same fantasy about the power of the individual—is an important theoretical intervention into our current moment. (Though, that said, even just the phrase “Black Lives Matter” feels like the teacher speaking slowly so the kids in the back—those of us whose lives have been shaped by racial privilege—can catch up to what everyone else already knows.)

Part of why the commons is so central to these poems is because they developed alongside my dissertation, which is about the way the history of the commons and of literary writing are, in the Anglophone world, entangled. Copyright, which originated in Britain and spread from there, was modeled on enclosure—the privatization of formerly common (or communally-worked open-field) land. I studied the ways poets, either intuitively or consciously, link questions of public and private space to questions of what it means to be an author. I looked especially at writing from the English Romantic period (also the peak years of enclosure) and the post-Cold War neoliberal era. In fact, you can sort of track the process of my research through THE END, based on when each of the four authors who I took as case studies show up. For example, early in THE END, I quote from William Wordsworth’s 1805 draft of the poem known, after his death, as The Prelude. There are also scattered references in THE END to Little Sparta, Ian Hamilton Finlay’s home garden. I also directly quote from Lisa Robertson, and, when I write about ornament, that’s often drawn from her thinking. And there’s a whole section of THE END which I wrote while on a three-month fellowship in London to work on a chapter on John Clare; in those poems I’m often turning over both Clare’s idiosyncratic writing and what critics have said about him. I had this routine, for a while, of going to the British Library, requesting my book-of-the-day in the reading room, and then working on the next THE END poem for half an hour before I started reading and taking notes. It felt deliciously illicit to be working on this secret book of poems while I was ostensibly there to Do Research.

Remembering those little stolen pockets of time in which I wrote THE END makes me want to ask you about the relationship between your writing and your paid work as a professor of creative writing. The poem “Academia” (with its statement: “you are not worth / the paper your teaching contract / was printed on”) indexes a number of problems of the contemporary university, as does “Exit Interview.” You’ve already talked about teaching—but I also keep thinking about how one of the things that Ringer is both leaning into and pushing against is the pressure to produce that the tenure system puts on poets. I feel like one of the controlled furies of your book is the need, in order to keep a job, to keep writing and publishing, constantly and quickly, through personal and communal tragedy.

RL: For the most part, I am deeply grateful to academia, because it has given me time to write. I grew up in a working class family, got my first job at fourteen, and worked as a waitress through high school and college. When I got into the MFA program at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at twenty-two, it was the first time in my teenage or adult life that I didn’t have a job, and could focus singularly on writing. My PhD program, at Florida State University, functioned in much the same way. I’m lucky enough to have gotten a tenure track job, which affords me the time to focus on my own writing. None of that would be possible without the institutional support of academia, and I am so thankful to have had it. I’ve never felt like I’m under undue pressure to publish more than I want to or am capable of, in part because I’ve worked at teaching colleges, which have lower publication requirements for tenure, and in part because I write a lot, and send out my work frequently—that’s just who I am as a writer.

The poems in Ringer which you mentioned, “Academia” and “Exit Interview,” allude to some very specific experiences I had at my first tenure track job, about which I can only go into so much detail here. In short, a white student with White Nationalist tendencies accused me of being racist against white people, and then wrote a sexually explicit poem about me and turned it in for a homework assignment. I was scared of this student, and the way my institution handled the situation left me feeling abandoned. What became clear to me was that my institution was more concerned with presenting the sheen of inclusivity, diversity, and tolerance than with actually taking action when a problem arose. And, I knew that a colleague in my department who was black and LGBTQ+ was experiencing even worse pushback and isolation from the administration relating to explicitly racist death threats he had received from a student, so the problem seemed systemic. Ultimately, I ended up leaving that job, and I think that was a healthy choice.

To come back to THE END, I really want to ask about the overarching structure of the book. I thought so much as I was reading this about whether these were individual poems, or whether this was one long poem. Clearly, each poem is on its own page, and has a discrete beginning and ending, yet the poems all bear the same title “THE END,” and there is so much carryover of thought, theme, and style between poems, that this at times felt like a long poem masquerading as a poem in parts. Can you write a little about how you balanced the pull between the poem on the page and the longer piece? Was there a lot of movement in the ordering of THE END as you were revising and writing?

MCH: I never quite know whether this is, in fact, one long poem! When I was writing THE END, I often thought of what I was doing as writing individual sentences. Once I had a page of sentences (which sometimes took one sitting, and sometimes a month), I would make some tweaks and cuts and arrange them into a page-sized unit. And once it felt like that set of sentences was working together, I’d start gathering new sentences for the next page.

As to order, the poems in this manuscript have always been arranged in order of when they were written. The changes I did make had to do less with order than with editing adjacent poems together. The poems at the beginning of THE END often combine two or three earlier draft-poems. Jason Snyder, my editor, helped me see the ways in which the book, at 100 poems, took a while to find its rhythm, and I re-wrote (or re-edited) accordingly. The first 25 poems that I wrote for this project have their own life as a 2017 chapbook published by Magic Helicopter Press. I love that the whole 100 “THE END” poems are out there, but divided between these two publications. The poetry chapbook is my favorite print genre, and I like that THE END, as a full-length book, doesn’t totally subsume the poems that were first gathered in that format.


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Click here to purchase THE END
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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2019/2020 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2020

Winter 2019/2020

INTERVIEWS

The Fertile, The Fecund, The Leaky, The Bizarre, THE END: A Discussion of Forms, Labor, the Feminine, and Public Space
A conversation between MC Hyland and Rebecca Lehmann
Two poets discuss the inception and creation of their recent poetry collections.

FICTION REVIEWS

The Enchanted Ring: A Romance of Chivalry
Philothée O’Neddy
Originally published serially in 1841 under considerable censorship, The Enchanted Ring was a literary trojan horse, infiltrating conservative conventions of genre with progressive ideas. Reviewed by Olchar E. Lindsann

POETRY REVIEWS

The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin
Geoffrey Hill
An engaging curiosity, The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin was meant to be Geoffrey Hill’s final book of poems, and at the time of his death in 2016 it was left unfinished as he intended. Reviewed by Patrick James Dunagan

The Winter Garden Photograph
Reina María Rodríguez
Cuban poet Rodríguez uses photographs from the UNESCO magazine Courier to spark a meditation on desire. Reviewed by John Bradley


Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2019/2020 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2020

The Quixotic Search for Melancholy: An Interview with Mark Haber


Interviewed by Allan Vorda

Mark Haber was born in Washington D.C., grew up in Florida, and moved to Houston with his wife in 2012. He has taught middle school as well as high school, and currently is a bookseller and operations manager at Brazos Bookstore. He has previously published a collection of short stories titled Deathbed Conversions (Summerfolk Press, 2008), but his star is sure to rise with the recent publication of his first novel, Reinhardt’s Garden (Coffee House Press). Written in the form of a single, blistering paragraph, and detailing the travails of a Croatian named Jacov Reinhardt, who is in the midst of writing a treatise about melancholy, Reinhardt’s Garden offers a unique and playful take into the heart of darkness. It was recently longlisted for the PEN/Hemingway award for a debut novel. This interview was conducted on July 26, 2019, in Houston.


Allan Vorda: Melancholy has a long cultural history dating back to medieval medicine; it is also linked to creativity and writers such as Robert Burton, Milton, Keats, Goethe, and Tolstoy have written about it. Was Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy a major source? What motivated you to write about melancholy in the first place?

Mark Haber: I didn’t set out to write about melancholy. Writing fiction is a sort of nebulous act, even magical, and I’ve always wanted to keep it that way. I think setting out with an agenda, or a subject or a ‘big idea’ if you will, is the territory of nonfiction. If you want to tackle your life, write a memoir. If you want to write about the Cuban Missile Crisis, do research and write about the Cuban Missile Crisis. If I went into a story or a novel knowing exactly what I was aiming for I think I’d be in trouble. Fiction writers don’t write what they know, but what they want to know. Fiction is storytelling, but it’s also asking questions and looking into yourself. I believe in improvisation; I need to sit down each morning unsure of where the story is going to take me. No storyboard. No organizing chapters. In a word, intuition. I knew certain things I wanted to do, of course, but only aesthetically: I wanted the book to take place in a jungle; I wanted the text to be dense yet accessible; I wanted it to be digressive. I let my imagination take over from there.

The Anatomy of Melancholy wasn’t so much a source of inspirations, but I’m certainly a fan and love to dip into it once or twice a year. It’s endlessly digressive and very, very funny.

AV: Reinhardt’s Garden consists of 150 pages of a single paragraph provided by an omniscient narrator who is the factotum for Reinhardt. How did you decide to write your novel in this style?

MH: I wish I could take credit, but the book is heavily influenced by Thomas Bernhard, an Austrian writer and in my opinion, as well as many others, a master. The relentless cadence, the musicality, the repetition—that’s all influenced by Bernhard. He would riff for four or five pages on a single, obsessive thing and then move on to something else, only to return to it five pages later after riffing or complaining about something else. Bernhard’s novels are basically literary rants, angry and poetic monologues. To me there’s such joy and pleasure in the darkness, but his novels never struck me as particularly depressing, which is a common complaint. There’s also a command of language that’s incredible.

So the idea of a single paragraph novel is nothing new. I did, however, want my book to be filled with incident and action. Whereas Bernhard’s books are almost solely ‘interior’ so to speak, Reinhardt’s Garden vacillates between the internal and the external world. Another influence was Bolaño’s By Night in Chile, a slender novel but also an unbroken paragraph, and it’s a magic trick to me. I’ve read that book probably three times cover to cover, and it’s only 130 pages, but it goes everywhere. I should also mention Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s The Last Wolf, a small novella that’s actually a single sentence; Zama by Antonio Di Benedetto, a Latin American classic; and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness—all were influential.

The single paragraph is an aesthetic choice. I think a page of unbroken narrative, if it’s really good, is beautiful to just look at. It wasn’t to make the book difficult or literary, but to capture the stream-of-consciousness of the narrator, and, of course, to have pages and pages of beautiful unbroken text. I can read a page by Mathias Enard or Bolaño or Clarice Lispector, who are incredibly dense writers, but for me their unbroken text is simply beautiful.

AV: Early on you describe Jacov’s adoration of dust: “dust, in a window, for example, creates a film that distorts the natural world. Just as melancholy darkens one’s worldview, he continued, not to alter reality but to transpose reality, to elevate reality, to improve reality, dust does the same.” What inspired this unusual analogy?

MH: I’m not sure. Probably the idea that we spend our lives trying to get rid of this thing that never really goes away. The battle against things like dust or old age or decrepitude are futile, no? There was no deeper meaning. I just attempt to get inside my character’s heads and this is what Jacov would’ve likely thought of dust. Plus, he’s certainly a person who seeks to be contradictory, so setting himself apart is important: “People hate dust? Fine! I worship dust!”

AV: The narrator tells Jacov that “the absence of melancholy was a thing to aspire to . . . a life in search of happiness seemed the acme of a life well lived.” Jacov laughs at this comment and responds that melancholy “is transcendental, divine, and nothing a wise person should run from, but instead something to meet head on.” Can you briefly explain what is behind Jacov’s obsessive search to describe melancholy?

MH: I’m not wholly convinced Jacov cares about melancholy—I think he wants to be thought of, looked upon, and regarded as a celebrated intellectual. That’s why he resents Klein and his followers so much, because Klein is respected and talked about. Despite his so-called abhorrence to fame, I think Jacov is frightened of obscurity.

AV: The narration of Reinhardt’s Garden meanders across time and geography, with no paragraphs to indicate shifts. Was it difficult to write these non-chronological scenes?

MH: It was hard and it wasn’t hard, if that makes sense. I did it, but if I had to go back and tell you how I did it, I would be at a bit of a loss. I wrote the book chronologically, the way the reader reads it. I would go back, of course, and edit or change things as I went along, but I wrote the book in order. So the challenge was in knowing when it was time to leave the jungle or return to the jungle; in other words, when to have a flashback or when to be in real-time. If I found myself floundering I’d tell myself, “Okay, let’s go back to Germany or Croatia.” It was very organic. I was concerned with making sure the narrative was easy to follow. Sometimes it was a challenge and I would get lost in my own text; sometimes it felt like I was in the jungle myself. But it was also a very easy book to write, in that I saw what I wanted and just sprinted after it. I was extremely focused and just chased the story so it wouldn’t get away. That’s part of the reason the book feels like a sprint—because I was chasing the story.

AV: Reinhardt in old German means “brave counsel.” Why did you choose this name—and any correlation to Robert Stone’s character of the same name in A Hall of Mirrors?

MH: I did a little research and saw that Jacov was a common name in Croatia. It’s really that simple. He had a different name for about the first third of my writing the book.; it didn’t feel right so I changed it to Jacov, which seemed to fit. I’ve never read A Hall of Mirrors, although I’ve heard of it. I don’t try and put too much emphasis on character’s names; there’s no symbolism or deeper meaning, I just want the name to feel natural and not draw attention to itself. I don’t want the names of characters to be distractions.

AV: When Jacov moves to Stuttgart, he decides to build a second castle. Its hallways “gradually narrowed into dead ends, stairways assembled to climb straight into walls . . . giving even the most well-balanced visitor an impending sense of vertigo; every ceiling vaulted to convey emptiness and desolation.” If Jacov’s building of a castle is his attempt to recreate his garden memory of his sister Vita, who died when he was nine, then why does Jacov build a second castle that is like a labyrinth?

MH: I’m not sure. I mean, the entire book is really about not communicating—the inability or refusal to communicate and understand. We have a man who created a language around his dead sister Vita. Reinhardt then spends his adult life switching the meaning of his so-called favorite philosopher/writer to fit his understanding. They’re in a jungle with an interpreter who can’t speak or understand any of the languages. The entire novel is filled with people not being able to communicate, or hearing only what they want to hear. The castle is really for comic effect, and to illustrate the absurdity of Jacov’s vision or obsession.

AV: “As Jacov spoke, a ringlet of light would descend above his head, and though I never mentioned it, I saw it countless times, no matter if the day was bleak and beclouded, those obstinate days of gray so copious in Stuttgart, and though there appeared no scientific reason for the halo to exist, throbbing and trembling like a star, it was perhaps a reminder of why I fell in love with the immensity of this great man . . .” Is this a narrator the reader can trust?

MH: The narrator is genuine; he believes what he says. But can the reader? I don’t know. That’s for you to decide.

AV: “Success and praise in one’s lifetime, Jacov said, is repulsive; it’s merely strutting in front of the mirror like a rooster—fun perhaps, but an utter waste of time.” What are your thoughts about success and praise for a writer?

MH: I think success is fine. Of course, everyone’s definition of success is different. The fact that Coffee House is publishing my book, a press I greatly admire, is success for me. It’s a dream. Being able to continue writing and (hopefully) getting published—that’s success for me. Anything more would be great, but I don’t expect it. There are so many writers who struggle to get their work recognized. It’s nice to see my book as a finished ‘thing’ that can be discussed, and to show people something they haven’t seen before. The fact is, I sat in my apartment in Houston and created this weird story. Now it will be read by others who are willing to escape and go to that place I created—so in my mind I’ve already succeeded.

Spending my twenties and thirties writing and mostly failing was a great lesson. It’s very humbling. I take nothing for granted. I wrote two so-so books in my twenties and, thank God, they were never published; yet it taught me to just do the work. You have to love the work and feel compelled to do it. I stopped writing almost completely when I was teaching high school and the part of me I love the best went to sleep. I was literally hibernating.

AV: Ulrich is hired by Tolstoy’s wife to get rid of the mongrel dogs that ravage Tolstoy’s estate. Should the reader look upon these wild dogs as a foreshadowing of the Bolshevik revolution, or perhaps read these “hellhounds” as akin to those from Milton’s Paradise Lost?

MH: I have no idea. I wanted Tolstoy’s estate overtaken by dogs because it’s funny! Does that mean there’s a deeper meaning? I don’t know. It’s up to the reader to take what they want from a novel. It makes perfect sense to me now that you say it, but it never occurred to me.

AV: Jacov was extremely close to his younger sister, Vita, who dies at a young age. Vita is not wholly visible in the novel, but she permeates the book through Jacov’s thoughts and is the catalyst in his search to understand melancholy. What prompted you to create the character of Vita, who is almost like a ghost in the novel?

MH: Jacov needed a catalyst to support his extreme view and obsession, and the death of his sister is that catalyst. The strange tongue they spoke in, the memories he has of their brief time together—these are all infused with an importance that only has meaning for Jacov. It’s like our youth: what matters to most of us is of very little or no importance to a stranger. Vita hovers over the story but, in most ways, the novel is really Jacov’s story.

AV: A major influence on Jacov was reading Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Iylich. What made you choose this as a lodestar for Jacov?

MH: I’m a huge fan of 19th century Russian literature—all the big names, and the more obscure names, too. I wanted to use The Death of Ivan Iylich because it’s so small that Jacov, who detests literature, would probably give it a go. It’s one of my favorite stories since it deals with many of the same themes as Reinhardt’s Garden, as far as mortality and the meaning of life. You know, the big stuff. It was also sort of a tip of the hat to small books. I love War and Peace and Anna Karenina, but they get all the press.

AV: Reinhardt’s Garden takes place in various locations, such as Stuttgart, Prague, Budapest, Berlin, San Rafael, and Montevideo. Have you been to any of these places? If so, how helpful was it for your writing to be there?

MH: The biggest influence has been literature and books. I’ve been to Europe only once, which was to Sweden, and as far as Latin America, only to Mexico. It’s a mixture of research, invention, and the mystery of a place. Sometimes it’s better not to go because you can invent it for yourself and, hopefully, for the reader. You end up inventing not a real place or the memory of a place, but a third place that only exists in the mind.

AV: You work as a manager at Brazos Bookstore, so you must come across a lot of hidden gems. Can you name a few you admire?

MH: My choices for reading are definitely not methodical. I tend to choose books based on publisher. If you find books by a good publisher then you can trust they always have something interesting. Some of those publishers would be: Two Lines Press, New Directions, Transit Books, Coffee House, Dorothy, Open Letter, Seagull Books, Coach House, Graywolf, and New York Review Books, to name a few. I’m also passionate about books in translation, which most of these publishers specialize in. You can look at my influences and see almost all of them are translated from another language.

AV: I was alerted to your novel by chance, but I want to state Reinhardt’s Garden is a fascinating, even tremendous, work of literature. Thank you for doing this interview.

MH: This was a pleasure, Allan. Thank you.


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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2019 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2019

Night School:
A Reader for Grownups

Zsόfia Bán
translated by Jim Tucker
Open Letter Books ($15.95)

by John Toren

In the age of smartphones and Wikipedia, where a smidgen of semi-reliable information about any and every subject lies at our fingertips, the time has come to entertain a different kind of reference book. That seems to be the reasoning behind the collection of writings the Hungarian novelist Zsόfia Bán's gives us in Night School. The entries are seemingly chosen at random; some are historical, others scientific, while a few explore the meaning of meta-historical concepts concocted by the author herself: a painting by Frida Kahlo, Beethoven's opera Fidelio, an obscure Hungarian geographer named Jenö Cholnocky. Bán makes use of these and other "occasions" to fashion an assortment of imaginative bagatelles, divertimenti, and riffs. They purport to be night school lectures, which may explain both their caustic and insistent tone—"Take your own notes. Observe some things!"—and also their consistently rapid-fire and irreverent narrative thrust.

Such an approach may sound like fun, but the results are mediocre, because the tone soon grows wearisome and the entries are often less interesting than the subjects on which they're obliquely based. Take, for example, the piece titled "The Temptation of Henri Mouhot," a name many readers will be encountering for the first time. Bán paints a portrait of an overweight buffoon concerned about his wife's infidelities back home yet driven by deep-rooted Lutheran pieties to become the first explorer to capture the Great Stinkbug in the jungles of Thailand.

It's caricature, obviously. Yet nowhere in Ban's portrait can she find room to mention that Mouhot's published journals were highly popular in their day, or that a monument was erected in Thailand upon his death bearing the inscription: "We found everywhere the memory of our compatriot who, by the uprightness of his character and his natural benevolence, had acquired the regard and the affection of the natives." No doubt such "facts" reflect the patronizing exaggerations of a colonial age, but the distortions they harbor are far less serious than the trivial fictionalization Bán offers us.

By the same token, "What is This Thing Called the Exchange Reaction" tells us nothing about that basic chemical reaction, in which ions are freely exchanged between molecules without affecting anything much. Instead, she offers us a description of a ping-pong match in which members of opposing sides are attracted to one another during a match:

Our chemistry is good, thought the Captain, but is that enough for happiness? . . . Sometimes friends and old acquaintances meet, and unite in no time at all without altering anything in one another, like wine mixing with water. Yet aren’t wine and water—separately—nobler than a spritzer? . . . Oti and I came together swiftly, without a hitch, like wine and water, and all that came of it was a watered-down spritzer. Net!

The exploration of the parallels between chemistry and emotional life may sound clever, but Bán, dedicated here and elsewhere to a slang-filled first-person monologue, can find nothing of interest to say about her ping-pong players by means of the metaphor. Metaphysical ruminations notwithstanding, the characters involved remain as generic as hydrogen, helium, and carbon.

Among the more interesting entries is one devoted to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and his second wife, Fanny. The rendering is as full of sarcasm, hyperbole, and caricature as any other, but it also has the merit of introducing us to quite a few little-known details about Longfellow's personality and career. These details aren't reliable—nothing in the book is—but they pique our desire to find out more about the personal life of that nineteenth-century bard.

Ever better is an imagined monologue delivered by the painter Eduard Manet regarding the intense and pitiless stare of his model Victorine, and how it has both inspired his work and ruined his career. The piece reads almost like a Bob Newhart comedy routine from the 1960s, yet here, for once, Bán doesn't dumb down the subject matter in the interests of cheap irony.

The richest entry of all is "Expulsion to Paradise." It takes us deep into the sights, and even more, the smells of Brazil, during an insistent tour of the region's mystical and mythic geography:

You look around, check that the boardwalk is still there on the shore, that Christ is still around, and the bay, the sunset—check, check, every¬thing is still there. Oh come on, don’t be a dodo. You have to sniff things first, smell the odor of rotting time, the typical scabby stench of the past rising from the trash cans, spreading over the city, the smell of the sewers overmatched by tropical storms, the hillsides that ring the town, the smell of poverty drifting from the favelas toward the sea and, while we’re on the subject, the sea’s own smell, all used up, sniffed to death.

The author, who was partly raised in Brazil, seems to be tapping into a more personal and authentic strata of her experience here, and the result, dark and distinctly poetic, stands in marked contrast to the bulk of the book, which is full of flippant narrative and chattering erudition but largely devoid of warmth or genuine interest.

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Motion Studies

Jena Osman
Ugly Duckling Presse ($20)

by Joseph Houlihan

Motion Studies is the most recent installment in Jena Osman’s ongoing interrogation of the intersections between human bodies and our technology-obsessed culture. Osman has engaged themes exploring the edges of individual and social organisms for years, both in the experimental poetry magazine Chain she co-edited between 1994 and 2005, and in her poetry collections such as The Network (Fence Books, 2010) and Public Figures (Wesleyan University Press, 2012).

Motion Studies hones in again on these edges between our embodied selves and the technologies that inform and amplify our understandings of those selves and others. In this collection, Osman focuses on mechanical devices that have been used in science and medicine: “The noise of her pulse. Of his. // 'The hellish tattoo of the heart' recorded in a line. // They draw a breath and it’s made visible, / They have a thought and that’s visible as well. // Shallow breath and stealth. Holding breath—” Osman pairs such strange histories with a dreamlike narrative of a woman resisting the surveillance state:

The road continues to convey forward, with its deadly drop-off tail at the back. They begin to understand that the bottleneck is not so much due to congestion, as it is to hesitation and then a small group of resisters. They decide to join the scanner resistance, while most don’t recognize the choice and plod forward toward the inexorable. The resistance strategy is simple: slow down. There’s a thin red thread unraveling from hand to hand—if they hold onto it, they can hold themselves back. They do this, knowing that eventually the end of the road will catch up with them.

The line between a body in the world and our logocentric, technocratic society blurs. Osman’s collection Corporate Relations (Burning Deck, 2014) was a response to the 2010 Citizens United decision which infamously gave corporations the first amendment rights of free speech, deluging our politics with unlimited corporate spending. Like that collection, Motion Studies describes a series of relations between machines and bodies, and the circumstances under which bodies become machines. Surveillance especially seeks to incorporate bodies into explicitly legible, disciplined, and consumerist schemes; the poetry in this collection reacts against this tendency. It has the sense of many voices commenting on technological artifacts, alongside an almost caper-like description of a body seeking to disassociate from the ubiquity of surveillance.

As Osman skirts the fuzzy edge between the human body and the technical object, her gorgeous and fascinating examinations of diagrams and schemata recall an archaeology of language. Just as poets like Douglas Kearney excavate the sinister history of American discourse, Osman uncovers the history of scientism in language, and the relationship between this history and biopolitics today. While some of the work is heady, there are humorous and fascinating anecdotes too, including Walt Whitman submitting himself to a phrenological exam. A compelling collection, Motion Studies is a machine worth loving and sharing.


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1919

Eve L. Ewing
Haymarket Books ($16)

by Deborah Bacharach

The 1919 Chicago race riots have marked the city for a century, but few know about them. Eve L. Ewing, a poet and sociologist at the University of Chicago, sets out to change this with her new book. Nearly every poem in 1919 begins with an excerpt from The Negro in Chicago: A Study on Race Relations and a Race Riot, a 1922 city report which attempted to explain the riot. Don’t let the study title make you assume the work dry or inaccessibly academic, however; Ewing has pulled powerful, often terrifying observations from the report and elucidated them with poems full of vibrant voices.

In one excerpt the study refers to the great migration as an exodus. From this thread, Ewing recasts the exodus story as the sharecroppers leaving the South:

And the midwives made an ark of leaves and tar, and put the children therein,
and lay them in the waters. And the people gathered at the bank
and bade them farewell.
and the river carried them far from the cotton, and the kings and their
storehouses of browning blood.

Taking on the tone and rhythms of the Bible gives this historical moment gravitas. Ewing also sometimes writes as characters in the story—a maid, a stockyard worker, a protester, a street car. And sometimes, as in “Sightseers,” she speaks directly to the reader:

and just this once I hope you’ll forgive me
for asking you directly
to forget the lovely water
to forget the charming pillars
because there are children in the tower
there are children in the tower
there are children in the tower
and they are dead already.

In addition to voice, Ewing uses form in the service of meaning. She writes an abecedarian for a teacher from the South who loses his status and must become a stockyard worker in the North; poems about the split between Blacks and Whites are physically split; a poem about barricades is in the form of barricades. She uses found forms like jokes and jump rope rhymes in powerful juxtaposition to the subject matter, too; in “or does it explode,” the epigram tells us it was so hot the city exploded in a riot, and the poem is then in the form of a series of “it was so hot” jokes. There’s nothing funny about the riot or a dream deferred, however (the poem’s title comes from the Langston Hughes poem “What Happens to a Dream Deferred?”) and the contrast creates a powerful tension.

As Ewing contextualizes the poems with photographs and brief history lessons, she combines historical research with a poet’s eye to help us understand the 1919 race riots, an endeavor we should take to heart.


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