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Utopian Trace: An Oral Presentation

Peter Lamborn Wilson
Logosophia Books ($16)

by Richard Kostelanetz

Peter Lamborn Wilson first entered my mind a quarter-century ago when he broadcast two-hour monologues on various subjects weekly over the local Pacifica radio station. What caught my attention was not only his verbal facility and impressive learning, but the depth and originality of his anarchism. As he synthesized the classical curriculum of Manhattan’s Columbia College (before he dropped out) with certain exotic interests and experience, he thought like no other American intellectual. Thanks to a modest inheritance from maiden aunts, PLW, as he is known, became one of those rare congenital independents who could spend all day in a library reading, remembering, and rethinking.

The publisher of Logosophia Books, a small press in Asheville, North Carolina, decided that one of these broadcasts, an appreciation of Manhattan’s Central Park, should become the subject of a thin book that regards its architect Frederick Law Olmstead (1822-1903) as “a hero of the people.” In PLW’s printed interpretation, this American practiced the thought of the French philosopher Charles Fourier (1772-1837) and influenced a New Jersey commune called the North American Phalanx.

For the epithet “utopian trace,” PLW draws upon two posthumously published (and assembled) texts by the German philosopher Walter Benjamin—not only the famed The Arcades Project, but a shorter fugitive text literally titled “Central Park” (though it’s really about something else and its author never actually visited New York). This resonance informs the text in ways that readers of Benjamin will appreciate.

While PLW finds a mellow anarchy (and libertarian heaven) in his subject matter, in focusing upon New York City’s magnificent parks, he fails to appreciate that NYC is also a great beach city, on the same rank as Rio de Janiero, Berlin, or Tel-Aviv—all of which have several public beaches that are easily accessible by cheap public transport. I’m speaking not only of Coney Island, which has been a proletarian playground since the 19th century, and Orchard Beach in the Bronx, both situated on protected bays, but the Rockaways, which offers several miles of sand along an Atlantic Ocean that can often be unruly.

While Utopian Trace is well and good, it scarcely represents the breadth of PLW’s interests, which have included Sufi traditions, Islamic art, pirates, peaceful secession, angels, American anarchism, and much else. Under the pseudonym Hakim Bey he published T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone (Autonomedia, 1991), his single most influential text; the work is a paean to chaos that has had surprising influences, as the strongest books do as they make their way in the world. Influence notwithstanding, nearly all PLW books have come not from profit-minded commercial publishers but from smaller presses whose governing editorial principle is not profit but love.


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“A very full, large,
and luminous space”:
the poetry of Amanda Berenguer

an interview with Kristin Dykstra and Kent Johnson


Interviewed by Peter Boyle

Born in Montevideo, Uruguay in 1921, Amanda Berenguer is among the many outstanding 20th-century poets from Uruguay and Argentina. Alongside such writers as Olga Orozco, Alejandra Pizarnik, Marosa di Giorgio, and Silvia Guerra, Berenguer is part of a constellation of poets surely deserving of more attention. Editor-translators Kristin Dykstra and Kent Johnson have opened the door for U.S. readers with the publication of Materia Prima (Ugly Duckling Presse, $22).

Berenguer published her first book of poetry at age nineteen, but came to prominence in 1966 with the collection Materia prima. Striking for its imaginative engagement with science, Materia prima features long, inventive, cosmic poems that speak of Moebius strips, the Magellanic Clouds, and UFOs. While other poets who have found a successful voice and subject matter in their mid-forties often settle comfortably into that mode, Berenguer reinvented herself many times over throughout her long life. In preparing this first edition of Berenguer's poetry in English translation, Dykstra and Johnson have chosen a selection from six later books to sit beside samples from her 1966 collection—so the reader will find, as well as the “scientific” poems of 1966, visual poems from Composición de lugar / Composition of Place (1976); more personal, often humorous, poems from Identidad de ciertas frutas / Identity of Certain Fruit (1983); a range of experimental and ekphrastic poems from La dama de Elche / The Lady of Elche (1987); a mix of mock aphorisms and iconoclastic anti-poems in Con el tigre entre las cosas / With the Tiger Among My Things (1986-1994); a study of real and imagined inner spaces in La botella verde / The Green Bottle (1995); and the brief, intimate poems of her posthumous collection La cuidadora del fuego / The Keeper of the Flame (2010).

Kristin Dykstra is the distinguished translator of nine books by the contemporary Cuban poets Reina María Rodríguez, Omar Pérez, Ángel Escobar, and Juan Carlos Flores. She is principal translator of The Winter Garden Photograph by Reina María Rodríguez (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2019). She guest-edited “Out of Alamar,” a dossier about poet Juan Carlos Flores (1962-2016) for Chicago Review in 2018, and her translation of Cubanology, a book of days by Omar Pérez, appeared the same year.

Kent Johnson grew up in Uruguay and has a prolific track record as a translator, poet, and provocateur of poetic theory and practice. In collaboration with Forrest Gander, he is the translator of two volumes by Bolivian poet Jaime Saenz: Immanent Visitor (University of California Press, 2002) and The Night (Princeton University Press, 2007). He is also co-editor, with Uruguayan poet and critic Roberto Echavarren, of Hotel Lautréamont: Contemporary Poetry from Uruguay (Shearsman, 2011).


Peter Boyle: What especially drew you to the work of Amanda Berenguer? What was the source of your initial enthusiasm? Did you find that changing focus as you went along?

Kent Johnson: Years back, I edited an anthology of poetry from Uruguay, the country where I spent most of my childhood and adolescence. The book was published in the UK, in 2011, by Tony Frazer's singular press, Shearsman Books, and is titled Hotel Lautréamont: Contemporary Poetry from Uruguay. On a trip to Montevideo, in 2008, to gather materials for the book, I met with the leading poet and critic Roberto Echavarren and the literary scholar Amir Hamed. Echavarren would become my co-editor of the anthology and Hamed would come to write a note of introduction for it. Echavarren had been a close friend and publisher of Berenguer, while Hamed had featured her, some years before, in his key anthology of the country’s innovative poets, Orientales: Uruguay a través de su poesía. Both of them spoke of her as one of the greatest writers not just of Uruguay, but of twentieth century Latin American letters. So they were the ones to place the work in front of me, though the poet Silvia Guerra (whose wonderful, moving interview with Berenguer concludes Materia Prima) had spoken to me of the poet at a conference in Chile, in 2005. The name didn’t register, then. Like virtually all U.S. poets at the time, I was ignorant of her work. But as soon as I read it (I remember the night, at one of Montevideo’s historic boliches [old taverns] in the Ciudad Vieja), I knew I’d encountered one of the greats.

Kristin Dykstra: To build on Kent’s remarks, this anthology took more than a decade to compile, and I wasn't initially an editor. I was the translator working with selections from La dama de Elche. That first exposure showed me that Amanda Berenguer is a spectacular example of someone whose work should have been more widely translated during her lifetime. She really deserved a significant anthology. After Kent asked me to become a co-editor, I wanted to combine a commitment to Berenguer—the insistence on the anthology as a statement against her near-absence from the English-language zone—with an acknowledgment of those few translators who had given attention to individual poems in the late twentieth century (publishing them in magazines and anthologies). With Berenguer’s quality and the particular group of translators interested in joining us for this next round, I never doubted that our eventual twenty-first-century anthology would be strong.

PB: How did you decide on the selection of poems to be translated from Berenguer's various books? What was the process? It's an enormous responsibility as the selection offered shapes the way readers outside Latin America will view her work. For example, with La cuidadora del fuego, on the basis of the selection provided in Materia Prima, I thought La cuidadora would be a book largely of ekphrastic poems, or at least poems concerned with high culture figures, as well as poems influenced by Emily Dickinson, but in fact there are also a lot of very intimate, confessional almost, poems in it. Often quite funny poems that do a lot of shifting in tone. What kind of criteria did you use in making the selection? Was it purely personal taste, were you aiming at diversity, or were you conscious of selecting poems that are radically unlike what you might find in a poet from the United States? Did you perhaps feel you were selecting the poems you would most like to have written yourself?

KD: Kent had the initial contact with most translators, and perhaps he could say something about how he thought about selection at that time.

Later, after I agreed to co-edit the anthology, we decided to take a risk on the visual poems. I say “risk” because we didn’t have a publisher lined up in advance. We didn’t know how many publishers would be open to including this section, not just because of the formatting challenges, but also Berenguer’s use of color. If we had just left these poems out without pitching them to a press, though, we would have felt we failed Berenguer. So eventually I went to Urayoán Noel with the translation request. He created a sample, rather than a fully finished set, due to the time, difficulty, and uncertainty involved. Once it became clear that Ugly Duckling Presse would include these poems, we had to go back and fill in a memorable item from the set. In “Trazo (Derivado 1),” Berenguer’s handwriting is hard to read. After Ura created a draft, we realized we were interpreting her words in the original differently. I asked her son Álvaro to review a transcribed version in the Spanish, before we settled on a final version.

As Ura has remarked, Berenguer was probably treating handwriting as an unstable “trace” upon the page. From the editorial side, I’d say that an attempt at clarification remains an important procedural step. In this case, I asked her son to serve as our “authority,” which is not an inevitable choice, but we took his guidance. It’s only through the process of wrestling with traces that you fully experience the ambiguities at stake, when dealing with tracings literal and metaphorical. With this idea in mind, I encourage readers to look closely at the original. Grapple with her writing for yourself. Try writing out your own transcript in Spanish, as Ura and I each did, because the print anthology doesn’t reveal that intermediary step between “original” and “translation.”

Another editorial issue that arises around poetry is that word or page count so often fails to capture the density of the work. Since Berenguer created such diverse pieces across her career, striking a balance required discussion. How many pages of short, dense poems are comparable to one visual poem? To prose poems? To prolonged cosmological effusions? Anna Deeny Morales and I both prepared more poems than we needed for Materia Prima, having taken an interest in translating our whole books in the future. We trimmed our selections down to achieve more balance across the various books represented in the anthology. My poems were longer, so as I was talking with Anna about how many of her poems to include, I decided to stop at four from The Lady of Elche to her final ten from Identity of Certain Fruits. It was tempting to include more from Anna, since her beautiful project unfolds as a series. But we can look forward to seeing the entire collection someday.

In each of these examples—Ura, me, Anna—one factor in choosing individual poems was the leaning of the translator, while another was editorial response after initial work by the translator arrived. As for Cuidadora, if memory serves, Kent had already done some poems from that book but hoped for more, so I later went in to see what else would round out that selection. The book can be read as a sort of retrospective. With that vision in mind, I thought we should include the Ducasse poem, and "Practically Supernatural" echoed off other poems spanning her career. At the same time, I thought about the fact that Berenguer had numerous very short poems interspersed with the longer ones in Cuidadora. These help to create the variety that characterized her final collection; I think of them as perversely slight. I mean: deliberately slight, in contrast to her baroque moments, yet still echoing against them in knowing retrospective. Amanda Berenguer is funny in more than one way.

On the question of differences/resemblances to U.S. writers, I try not to be influenced by expectations about nation or culture too heavily, especially at the start of a selection process. I like to think about the writer’s range in a prolonged way as I translate. It’s a way to avoid traps of exoticism and excessive dependence on interpretive nationalism, and perhaps more important: I like to be surprised by affinities that leap into view. Especially when working on a writer with so much material that was not previously translated into English, it’s a joy to see how a pile of different translators can process the poems.

KJ: Peter, you ask, “or were you conscious of selecting poems that are radically unlike what you might find in a poet from the United States?” The marvelous thing about Berenguer, and there are very few poets like her in this regard, is how “radically unlike” herself she is from book to book. Each book from which we selected for the Materia Prima gathering is as if written by a wholly different author. It seems bizarre that the same person who did the wild (and sharply political) visual material that Kristin mentions, the Neruda-echoing odes of Identidad de ciertas frutas, or the non-Euclidean-geometry meditations of La botella verde, for example, is the same poet who wrote La dama de Elche or Cuidadora del fuego. In fact (and Cuidadora is a fine example), Berenguer often dramatically shifts voice and register within single books. So we didn’t have to think about Berenguer sounding or not like someone else from the US; she doesn’t even sound like Amanda Berenguer, as it were, from work to work! I think of her, in this regard, as a kind of Fernando Pessoa who chooses to sign her own name to everything she writes. It’s like she just accepts her multiple heteronyms as natural realities of “Amanda Berenguer.” You apparently intend to translate the complete Cuidadora del fuego, and given your serious engagement with the channeling of various voices in your own work, Peter, I can’t imagine a better person to take on that singular book.

PB: Of the poems you translated yourself, is there one you could comment on, maybe one that presented special difficulties and how you resolved those? Or perhaps one that surprised you as it opened up for you during the process of translating?

KD: I began those translations from The Lady of Elche years ago. Given the passage of time, what I remember most vividly from my section is the surfacing of more global issues.

Berenguer creates self-portraits and images of family. She references her home and garden in Montevideo. But she fuses personal anchors with other places and times. In the poems we included from this book, you can see landscapes of classical mythology; sites from her ancestral history; the museum housing the “Lady of Elche” sculpture (which is associated with Iberian identity, but she explicitly bridges it to Machu Picchu); and a more subtle terrain of twentieth-century violence, which I find in smaller fragments throughout the book instead of concentrated within any single poem—in the section from Lady of Elche, for example, you can see her reference to Hiroshima.

I remember wondering, as I moved through those poems, how their displacements would add up in my mind. I had read the poems in the original, of course, but constructing poems in translation activates a different perspective. I wondered, Where is Amanda Berenguer? She includes an explicit conceptualization of her local river as “mestizo” in “Day of rain,” for example, a word that’s often a cue to look for cultural fusion. That move somewhat unsettles the prominent classical and European references—they become a little more relative, a little less absolute.

In the end, as Kent suggested, I see the query about location becoming central to her poetics. Part of the satisfaction for me materializes in the glittering array of replies.

In her interview with Silvia Guerra in the back of this anthology, Berenguer responds to a question about image and metaphor with language of location and self. This entire section of the interview jumps into relief for me now. She says, “What’s extraordinary about metaphors is their ability to connect distances, to relate images instantly like a ray of light without any space in between.” I have a distant memory of pausing over her prepositions and conjunctions, words structuring the incremental motion of any given phrase. What is this space in between? How does that ray fall through the distances between solid objects?

During the editing stage, I went through Mónica de la Torre’s translations for the anthology, which she revised substantially last fall. I remember noticing that she was often addressing these questions of connectivity too. Mónica had some of the long, cosmic poems channeling the neobaroque, and she was often forced to rearrange the order of words within them. One example appears in a poem dealing with unidentified flying objects. This meant transitioning a four-letter acronym, OVNI, to a three-letter acronym in English, UFO. And the words in the acronyms appear in a different order in Spanish than in English. She had to rearrange entire segments of the poem from the get-go. We got a lot of questions about that obvious element of this poem from readers along the way, but actually, I think the more interesting choices came when Mónica considered ways to handle more ambiguous terms all throughout the complex grammar activating these poems, opening or especially compressing spaces between components.

KJ: My own translations are out of Cuidadora del fuego, her last, posthumous book. Most of the poems in it are very lyrical, reminiscent of the Russian Silver Age, which Berenguer loved (in fact, I have discovered that one of the poems I translated, her “Leonardo da Vinci y yo,” is very possibly influenced, in its gentle pronominal play, by Marina Tsvetaeva’s famous “The Desk,” though it might just be coincidence). But these serene, Acmeist-resonant classical poems in the book—with the partial exception of a few outliers among them, like the ones directly channeling Dickinson’s elliptical cuts and swerves, dashes and all—did not present the kinds of conceptual conundrums for the translator that other sections of the book do. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t challenges of a subtle, quite tricky nature that present themselves in these syntactically straightforward poems. Of course there are. Speaking of those outlier pieces, certain passages of her near-pornographic “Los culos de Bosco” drove me nuts, for example. But nothing like what Mónica de la Torre had to deal with in the OVNI/UFO poem Kristin mentioned. That translation should really win some kind of award. As should Urayoan Noel’s renderings of the visual/concrete poems. And as should all of our translators. I just want to note it, and I know Kristin agrees: We couldn’t have been luckier with our translation team, every brilliant compa in it.

PB: You have both emphasized the immense variety of styles and poetries within Berenguer's work—and it's a massive work, more than sixty years of continuously writing poetry, her first book in 1940, her last in 2009. Kent, you've mentioned how the differences between her books are consistently so extreme other poets might have invented heteronyms for them. Yet, reading the interview with Silvia Guerra at the end of Materia Prima, Amanda Berenguer seems to be convincingly one person. How would each of you see the commonalities, the recurrences in her work, perhaps a particular vision of the possibilities for what poetry can be, or certain recurrent obsessions or themes? I'm thinking of things that she mentions in the interview, like her experience of seeing a dead dog by the side of the road and feeling something opening up in her, "a fall into nothingness."

KD: At our New York launch event, Mónica observed that some of Berenguer’s poems are modular—you could move components around, and the poems would still work well. This makes sense to me. For my part, I’ve come to imagine a scenario while working with her poems. I envision her acts of attunement to the energies operating in and between her words. Then, an attunement to building those energies into the larger energy fields of a complete poem and eventually the collection. (Essentially, I’m imagining her poetic process retroactively as a tool for enabling my own attunements. Maybe that’s an unconscious facet of the reading of poetry. Anyway, it’s helpful for the making of translations.) Berenguer has a characteristic ability to concentrate the energy level in her lines, or to restate that idea in some of your language above, an obsession with creating vibrant lines of sight and sound.

Differentiating amongst her books remains essential, for the reasons we’ve been giving—each collection centers on its own separate concept, and she activates different dimensions of intelligence. So she channels more humor in one place, and she dials up the sensuality in the environment of a different poem. She tunnels into an intense curiosity about the nature of the universe, adopting scientific or mathematical language; then she pursues the workings of the same universe through mythology. Serial obsessions, let’s say, that she’s able to maintain and convert into their own structures: the length of her lines and other visual qualities also vary amongst books, and some pieces will be more accurately described as “modular” than others. But to return to your emphasis on recurrence, I’ve come to think of her as using a particular tuning fork to calibrate her poems, always with the purpose of calling “a very full, large, and luminous space” into being, something she explicitly references in that interview.

KJ: Yes, Peter, it seems a paradox at first glance, I suppose: The multiple styles and voices coming from a single, perfectly sane, down-to-earth person, as Silvia Guerra helps us see her in the book’s interview. Wouldn’t you have loved to spend a few hours over a gourd of mate amargo with Amanda Berenguer? Both Roberto Echavarren and Silvia described her presence to me as that of a calm, deeply kind, singularly wise friend. But, then too, Pessoa, whose writing corpus might lead one to think he had dissociative-identity disorder, was, despite his alcoholism, apparently quite normal in daily life, too, even outwardly unremarkable, in person. Kierkegaard, who produced so much of his philosophy under a cast of different-sounding heteronyms, was a perfectly bourgeois and respectable figure in Copenhagen, in most ways. Or Cervantes, whose Don Quixote was first presented as if a translation from a work written by an Arab author—what would stand as a transgressive forgery for us, today—was supposedly a very esteemed person in social circles. So to me that tonal multiplicity in Berenguer’s work, which includes the open borrowing of voices (as with her channelings of Dickinson, or the Russian poets of the Silver Age), stands as a perfectly natural and mature quality of deep poiesis.

PB: Reviewing Materia Prima in the Kenyon Review Paul Cunningham speaks of Berenguer's poems as “expanding structures” and “alchemically forged.” Scientific and alchemical preoccupations seem to run through all of Berenguer's work, yet her poems are also politically and personally charged. Would you like to comment on how you see these two often opposed tendencies, the abstract, and the personal, working together in her poems?

KD: For me the best way to comment on the slide between the abstract and the personal, their organic interconnection, is to highlight how palpable Amanda Berenguer’s curiosity feels in her various explorations. One senses that she is drawn to complex geometries because she wants to know what it feels like to bend your mind around them.

The example I’ll use doesn’t appear within the anthology. These are lines I’m thinking about now, in continuation of the anthology’s mission: one of my post-anthology projects is the completion of The Lady of Elche. Rather than adopting scientific vocabulary in this collection, she adapts mythology to the lifequests she depicts. The poems serve as entries in her personal logbook. Another frame for these poems: they are navigations. Here’s an excerpt from the opening poem, forthcoming in full in the next issue of Stanford’s literary magazine, Mantis (thanks to Melih Levi). You can see Berenguer’s speaker thinking through a landscape using a lens both personal and obviously crafted, abstracted with mythologies in mind. Note her emphasis on wonder. This poem is actually set where land and sea meet, in beaches that Berenguer locates around the Uruguayan city of Montevideo:

I could only think
through smoky or yellowed haze
garlanded with violets
which looked like ill-proportioned medusas
sailing on the deceitful breeze
the breeze?
waters from the flat fold the sky
pale with wonders
in the place of birth
of false birth
the more I walked the more I aged

Berenguer has placed this activity in threshold sites, traditionally powerful in mythology. In the original Spanish, the word I’ve rendered above as “wonders” is “prodigios.” The entire original phrase is “pálido de prodigios,” describing not a person but the space energized around her. This is the liminal space she’s actively navigating when she thinks and walks and ages. I may end up trying to capture the pattern of consonants differently at some point (the duplicated “p” sound), but in this rendition, I was thinking about the importance of asserting wonder, a quality that Berenguer is attributing to the world. Wonder is outside her, wonder is within her. She survives on this wonder, and she makes me want to survive by channeling wonder too.

KJ: Let me work off from Kristin’s superb comments and mention another work, which we’ve touched on previously: Berenguer writes and sculpts the remarkable abstract and personal/political works of Composición de lugar in 1976, three years after the military coup in Uruguay, when many of her friends have been imprisoned or worse. These poems are both abstract/experimental and also deeply personal, no less than many “abstract” works of Mallarmé and Apollinaire fuse those supposed contraries. Berenguer’s visual works (along with much of her other writing) are at once poems of private mourning and encrypted social hope—a brave and surprisingly successful attempt to sneak past the very earnest labor of the military censors, who were maybe the toughest of all the southern-cone regimes, insofar as press and literary control were concerned, given their direct inspiration from the contemporaneous fascist Greek junta of the ’60s and ’70s. I’d propose that Berenguer, who chose to hunker down in Uruguay during the years of the dictatorship (Composición de lugar / Composition of Place is surely not a randomly chosen title), deserves every bit as much admiration as any of the many fine writers who expressed their more publicized opposition in exile.

That continuity of the abstract and conceptual with the personal and political emerges again, in the 1980s—though this time in a more classically feminist, hilariously satirical vein—immediately after the fall of the dictatorship, with A Study of Wrinkles: A Contribution to the Field of Cosmetology, part of a work (With the Tiger among My Things) that nearly gets lost in the immediate aftermath of the dictatorship years. It’s included in Materia Prima.

No, Amanda Berenguer has no problem shuttling back and forth across thematic or tonal “poles.” She does it freely, contradicting herself in multitudes, and in the most joyous and inspiring ways. We eagerly encourage American poets to check her out.


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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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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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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

NONFICTION REVIEWS:

Utopian Trace: An Oral Presentation
Peter Lamborn Wilson
Originally broadcast as a "radio sermonette", Utopian Trace explores the inception and creation of New York City's Central Park.
Reviewed by Richard Kostelanetz


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