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All the Lives I Want

Essays About My Best Friends
Who Happen To Be Famous Strangers

Alana Massey
Grand Central Publishing ($26)

by Lizzie Klaesges

At first glance, Alana Massey’s debut collection All the Lives I Want might appear to contain wistful affections for the many famous women included in her work. However, the book actually offers something much more pertinent to our culture’s portrayal of women. Massey’s attention is not for those females considered perfect by today’s social standards; instead she focuses on troubled, flawed, forgotten, and at times outwardly ridiculed women. This includes celebrities from Amber Rose to the Olsen twins to Nicki Minaj, Princess Diana, Anna Nicole Smith, Britney Spears, and more. In addition to female celebrities, she also includes a writer, Sylvia Plath, and fictional women such as the Lisbon sisters from The Virgin Suicides.

Massey challenges the false narratives that have been insistently placed upon these women—narratives such as Lil’ Kim and Nicki Minaj’s supposed “feud,” that Amber Rose is nothing but a stripper, that Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen can be viewed as a singular character, and so on—and she revitalizes these women by sharing her own stories of heartbreak, sex work, mental illness, and other subjects alongside their stories. Massey politely exposes the inherent inconsistencies of a culture in which these misjudgments are allowed to occur so casually. Her writing is shrewd, analytical, sad at times, and ruthless at others. Her essays are littered with web links in the end notes, reminding readers that she is a prolific internet writer, but unlike the typical internet column, her collection of prose is as elegant and literary as it is heartbreaking and entertaining.

Massey is often first to admit her own shortcomings and particular misuses of famous women, as she does in the first essay, “Being Winona; Freeing Gwyneth,” in which she separates Winona Ryder and Gwyneth Paltrow as “two distinct categories of women who are conventionally attractive but whose public images exemplify dramatically different lifestyles and worldviews.” Massey identifies with Winona’s awkward and authentic lifestyle rather than the more perfect but dull “Gwyneths,” whom Massey imagines “wearing overpriced clothing in colors like ‘camel’ and scowling at her staff.” Massey clings to her “Winona-ness” for comfort after a romantic interest leaves her for a Gwyneth. Realizing the unfairness of using a unique individual as a metaphor for her own suffering, Massey finds ways in which Winona and Gwyneth are both flawed, beautiful, and authentic women, and struggles to reconcile the two.

Often female narratives are distorted for personal enjoyment, likely that of men. In the essay, “Our Sisters Shall Inherit the Sky,” Massey diverts the focal point of The Virgin Suicides away from the five suicides and places it on the male observers, who are now narrating the story as grown men. The men became obsessed by fantasies of the Lisbon sisters, most clearly revealed when the boys watch fourteen-year-old Lux take lovers on her roof. The boys proceed to track down the male lovers for further details of the sexual encounters. Even long after the suicides, the men are enthralled by this perfect fantasy of mysterious young girls who never “aged into the fullness of living real human lives.” Yet, The Virgin Suicides is often received with the same misplaced excitement both by men who want the fantasy and by women who want to be admired in the same way.

The title of the collection is taken from the most popular Sylvia Plath quotation on Goodreads: “I can never read all the books I want; I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want.” Although Massey admits she did not initially feel inspired by this quotation, she later hears it in its proper context where it continues to say, “Perhaps that’s why I want to be everyone—so no one can blame me for being I.” Massey does not necessarily wish to inhabit all the lives she mentions in the collection, as much as she, like Plath, is fearful of exposing her true self to a world that makes harsh judgments. The famous women in this book all have been mocked or disregarded in some way. Massey does not wish to save these women, but she does believe they deserve to be understood.

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Trump: The Complete Collection and The Realist Cartoons

Trump: The Complete Collection

Harvey Kurtzman, et. al.
Dark Horse Books ($29.99)

The Realist Cartoons

Edited by Paul Krassner and Ethan Persoff
Fantagraphics Books ($44.99)

by Steve Matuszak

It’s either fitting or ironic that, when America was on the verge of swearing in a president who throughout his campaign had waged a scorched-earth war on truth—his unrepentant lying corrupting the concept of truth more thoroughly than the much-maligned postmodernists had ever done with their opaque, gnomic theory—this past December saw reprints of comics associated with two important twentieth-century American satirists who used humor to shine a sometimes harsh light on reality to get at the truth: the felicitously titled Trump: The Complete Collection, edited and co-written by Harvey Kurtzman, and The Realist Cartoons, which collects cartoons from The Realist, the freethought magazine founded and edited by Paul Krassner.

While Kurtzman and Trump are less well-known to a general audience, both are highly regarded by comics cognoscenti. Kurtzman, who has a prestigious comics industry award named after him, was a trailblazer in the work he did for legendary comics company EC, first with his ironic, anti-war war comics Frontline Combat and Two-Fisted Tales, and then, more famously, for creating Mad in 1952. But his success with Mad was his undoing. Shortly after pressuring publisher William Gaines in 1955 to turn Mad from a comic book into a magazine, he demanded that Gaines give him majority ownership of the magazine. Instead, as is described, surprisingly, in Paul Krassner’s introduction to The Realist Cartoons, Kurtzman was fired, his obscurity cemented as he went on to create a series of relatively unsuccessful satirical magazines until landing in the back pages of Playboy with his comic strip—unfortunately, heavy on the strip—Little Annie Fanny.

The most spectacular of those failed magazines, and the shortest lived, was Trump. Bankrolled by hotshot young publisher Hugh Hefner, Trump was Kurtzman’s dream come true: not another cut-rate comic book, but a “slick,” a lush, full-color magazine aimed at adults. So Kurtzman brought to Trump some of Mad’s most inspired talent—Al Jaffee, Wally Wood, Arnold Roth, Jack Davis, and his life-long partner-in-crime Will Elder, who worked with Kurtzman on everything from Mad to Little Annie Fanny. As Al Jaffee once reminisced, “Harvey said to the people at Mad, ‘I’m leaving Mad. Who wants to come with me?’ and nearly everybody went with him. He was like the Pied Piper.”

So Trump abounds with dazzling cartooning. But the debut issue’s crowning achievement is “Our Own Epic of Man,” two over-sized, captioned illustrations brimming with detail that depict mid-twentieth century America distorted through the funhouse mirror of how artists a million years in the future might imagine our culture. It is a delightfully inverted parody of Life magazine’s then-popular The Epic of Man series, which purported to put into vividly painted illustrations scientific theories about how humankind lived tens, even hundreds, of thousands of years ago. The Trump illustrations are so epic they spill over the page break, requiring a fold-out that recalls Playboy’s centerfolds, a resemblance Kurtzman could not leave unmentioned, so he includes a quarter-page fragment of an image of an apparently nude woman playing chess, text at the top of the photo proclaiming, “Hey! Wrong foldout! This foldout goes in a different magazine!” Such playful use of form is pure Kurtzman.

It also suggests the almost unruly lengths to which the magazine would go for a joke. Ideas are literally all over the place, filling every nook and cranny, which for some is as exhausting as it might be funny. As Playboy art director Art Paul reported to Hefner in a memo after the first issue of Trump had been released, “I’ve gained new respect for the initial humor of the magazine, but the pacing, layout and typography continue to jar my over eager sensibilities. The magazine has the pacing, type and layout of an explosion . . . All in all it’s a hell of an interesting beginning, but I am out of breath.”

So, in January 1957, after only the second issue, Hefner pulled the plug on Trump. In his introduction, Denis Kitchen reports on plenty of reasons given as to why Hefner had squelched the fledgling magazine: Hefner didn’t think the material in Trump foretold a cultural phenomenon the likes of Playboy or Mad; Bob Preuss, Playboy’s chief financial officer, told Al Jaffee years later that Kurtzman had difficulties meeting deadlines, a problem with serious financial implications for a magazine; and going into its second issue, Trump had already cost Hefner almost $100,000, which it hadn’t been able to make up in sales—as Hefner eventually put it, “I gave Harvey Kurtzman an unlimited budget and he exceeded it.” Worse, this was at a time when Hefner’s credit was over-stretched, causing him to cut costs on all of his enterprises, the upshot of which was, Kurtzman quipped: “Everybody took pay cuts, and I got my throat cut.”

In addition to beautifully reprinting the first two issues of the magazine, Trump: The Complete Collection also includes art and concepts for material that was going to appear in issue three, which promised to be no less dazzling and innovative than its predecessors, including something that appeared to be a cross between a fold-out and a puzzle called a “hexahexaflexagon” (a name that Kurtzman thankfully shortened to the “Flexagon”), “a complex visual puzzle . . . formed by folding strips of paper into nineteen connected equilateral triangles to create a hexagon shape, which when ‘flexed’ can change its surface in an amazing eighteen combinations.” It’s unclear how this puzzle is an example of truth-telling, but it sure looks fun.

One year after the demise of Trump, in the spring of 1958, upstart comedian, journalist, and erstwhile violin prodigy Paul Krassner launched his long-running magazine of “social-political-religious criticism and satire” The Realist. It is telling of Kurtzman’s influence on American satire that the first issue of The Realist was produced in the offices of Mad magazine and was, in fact, born of Mad. Krassner had begun contributing to Mad magazine as early as 1955, shortly after Kurtzman left, but wanted to write more adult material, so he eventually abandoned Mad to create The Realist. His magazine’s first subscriber was comedian and TV personality Steve Allen, who sent gift subscriptions to others, including Lenny Bruce, who himself sent out more gift subscriptions. “From this momentum,” Krassner wrote in his memoir Confessions of a Raving, Unconfined Nut, “the satirical wing of my readership would grow,” as would the influence of both Krassner and The Realist.

A significant aspect of the magazine’s humor was its cartoons, now collected in The Realist Cartoons, a handsome, over-sized book that is like a doppelgänger of The Complete Cartoons of the New Yorker. If, as a memorable episode of Seinfeld would have it, the New Yorker prints cartoons that fancy themselves “commentary on contemporary mores,” the cartoons in The Realist trample those mores underfoot, as in the 1964 cartoon in which a gas station attendant asks the Buddhist monk handing him a gas can, “Regular?”

Over the course of 291 pages, The Realist’s cartoons touch on dark, difficult, sometimes taboo subjects—nuclear war, religion, sex, racism, death, abortion, the Vietnam War, and Watergate—with blithe indifference toward what can be said about those subjects other than to be provocative. “Irreverence,” The Realist announced on one of its covers, “is our only sacred cow.” It’s no wonder that, in spite of his immediate call for a paternity test, People magazine (of all things), declared Krassner the “father of the underground press.” Indeed, by the early 1970s, some of the most prominent underground cartoonists even contributed to The Realist, including Jay Lynch, Art Spiegelman, Skip Williamson, Dan O’Neill, R. Crumb, and S. Clay Wilson (probably the most outré of the lot, whose comics collected here are quite an eyeful).

While some of the cartoons are dated, requiring footnotes, that’s to be expected with topical satire. Many remain funny. It’s a pleasure to see New Yorker cartoonist Ed Fisher, whose work is featured prominently in this collection, letting his pants down, so to speak. And Sam Gross’s work, like the cartoon of a Seeing Eye dog watching his master step onto a busy street as he takes hold of a baby carriage whose handle resembles the dog harness’s handle, prefigures the gleefully tasteless material he did for National Lampoon. Probably the biggest surprise is the work of Richard Guindon, whose work in The Realist was earthier, more biting, and took more structural risks than his self-named syndicated comic strip from the 1970s and ’80s. His 1964, five-page feature “Guindon Goes to a Reservation,” in which the cartoonist visits a Seneca tribe who were losing their homes to a dam conceived by the Army Corps of Engineers that would “[dispossess] some 482 Seneca Indians, turning their homesites into river bottom and their treaty into nothing more than a fine example of old government stationery,” hints at the kind of comics journalism that would only fully flower in the 1990s.

The Realist and Trump, then, represent two strands of irreverent pop satire that are best exemplified by two of their more famous contributors—Mel Brooks in Trump and Lenny Bruce in The Realist. Trump, designed to be hugely popular by subverting what was popular, could be biting but was equally zany, leveling most of its criticism at the phony narratives and procrustean ideals disseminated through popular culture. On the other hand, The Realist was designed to subvert yet found popularity. At least three strips became best-selling posters, including the infamous Disneyland Memorial Orgy, a cartoon featuring some of Disney’s most well-known characters represented in flagrante delicto, freed from circumspect behavior by the death of God, better known as Walt Disney. Also, The Realist focused more often on social and political concerns, calling into question conventional assumptions about those concerns not only with its jokes but in its very willingness to offend.

In the ensuing years, both strands eventually came together, most notably in National Lampoon, the second-most popular magazine in the U.S. during the 1970s; like Trump, it offered pitch-perfect satires of pop culture but with an almost breathtaking disregard for taste that rivaled The Realist. National Lampoon eventually lost its most talented artists to Saturday Night Live, the late-night warhorse that, for better and worse, has overshadowed popular comedy for nearly half a century. At its best, what SNL shares with its 1950s forebears is a desire to get at the truth through laughter, however limited those truths might be, by shining a light on the lies foisted upon us. Rather than putting everything under quotations marks as they are accused of doing, these satirists use irony to reveal the quotation marks already around all claims to truth. Truth is truth. Claims to truth are just that, however well-intentioned, however accurate they seem to be. We need to be reminded of that to help us see the lies, to laugh at them, and to steal their fire, an ignobly noble project that Kurtzman and Krassner embarked on at nearly the same time when nobody knew they needed them.

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In Which I Play the Runaway

Rochelle Hurt
Barrow Street Press ($16.95)

by Rachel Slotnick

As Rochelle Hurt read in a small off-site café during February’s AWP conference, she seemed haloed in an angelic yellow light as the snow spiraled blue behind her through the window. It seemed fitting that she was awash in such memorable lighting, as her poetry is similarly color-infused. In a crowded loft of a packed bar, I was mesmerized as Hurt beckoned me into an all too familiar tornado. She spoke softly, and the whole room stirred as she proclaimed, “My poems are named after towns with sad names.”

Hurt’s writing addresses questions of semiotics and Ferdinand de Saussure haunts her poetry, but she doesn’t ever have to refer to him directly. Rather, Hurt explores the infinity encapsulated in labels by composing studies of colors until they resemble still lives of places blowing in the wind. In fact, the entire narrative design of In Which I Play the Runaway mimics the spiraling intensity of Dorothy’s journey through Oz, an appropriate choice considering the film’s landmark exploration into color on the infamous silver screen. Like Dorothy, the narrator abandons black and white, chasing after new worlds that are lit by colors like stage lights—but the poetry is haunted by the black and white it left behind. It stirs back into the narrative like static; it’s as though the protagonist realizes that her yellow brick road is only a lucid dream.

As promised, Hurt pauses momentarily along her wayward path in towns with lonely, existential names like “Hurt, Virginia,” “Needmore, Indiana,” “Accident, Maryland,” and “Honesty, Ohio.” The book hovers in each lonely city as the poetry takes on the vocabulary of the place, then hitchhikes onward to the next lonely town. The colors compose a rolodex of characters. Yet, hints of an adult deviation from the prototypical Dorothy infiltrate Hurt’s knapsack.

In the opening poems, Hurt laments her own predisposition to flee, and ruminates over divorce and homelessness as recurring motifs. As she wanders, her body begins to ache, but she insists she is destined for paradise, “one brick, one brick. // By now your feet are swollen / to the size of pomegranates / pulsing fuchsia inside.” This is the first of many poems warmed by whole colors, but rather than slippers made of rubies, instead the metaphor evokes blood, boils, and bruises.

From there, the tornado consumes the language, spilling colors that bleed from one page to the next. Whole paragraphs glow green and blue. “My father was obsessed with green—grass, yes, but also emeralds, limes, snakes, peas, parakeets.” The green overtakes the house, and the exorcised family lies packed in a row, “straight as green beans. The parakeets circled all night. Once the house had split its seams, spilling rotten apples and dead geckos on the sidewalk, my mother packed us up and left him. She said the quest for something greener had eaten his mind.” Since green evokes both wealth and nature, Darwinian theory is on the tip of Hurt’s tongue.

Consequently, the dejected family floats up into the blue, blue sky. Pages turn sky blue in a post-divorce attempt at rehabilitation. “My mother painted every wall and ceiling and floor a different shade of blue, and the empty rooms were so enormous that their edges looked to me like horizon lines.” As the reader swims through washes of color, he or she is beckoned to unpack the cult of metaphor. When we need them, metaphors can be a saving banister. Sometimes it is easier to invest in metaphor than in the world.

This collection is essentially a cross-country travel guide for the curelessly nomadic. Hurt seeks resolution and solace as she reflects on the reciprocal nature of family histories; she blurs into the superego of her daughter, and there is a subtle shift as things move from a child protagonist misinterpreting the words of her parents to an adult protagonist being misunderstood by her daughter. Her daughter develops a familiar affinity for theft, mirroring the impulses of her mother; rubies, purse straps, dolls, and even baby teeth go missing, gleaming in seclusion like precious pearls. “There we stood, stuck in a shame loop: lady see, lady do—the two of us blushing in tandem like siren lights.” The blood rushes to their faces as they interlock guilty secrets, and in the final moments, the reader is immersed in a flash of red.

Red evokes violence and death, yet far more haunting are the furrows of life refusing to succumb to stasis. Body parts live on long after death. Dead parakeets wriggle in shoeboxes lost to the garage, filled with nervous worms, and eye balls wink in the casket. There is a sense of disembodiment, as characters struggle to align their limbs with their sentiments. Perhaps, Hurt seems to suggest, motherhood is a masquerade. Yet somehow, writing offers a semblance of control, reflecting the Wizard himself: “A lesson / in Western confession: Story / is the curtain I work behind.” Ultimately, Hurt ascribes to the affliction of lonely authors. Sometimes, in our solitary moments, poetry can quench our thirst for intimacy, making use of magic tricks and props to evoke sorcery. Enveloped in the craft, the poet unravels memory, “punching out windows” of childhood homes. She stands naked on the page, baring all for a series of gleaming and nuanced words awaiting misinterpretation. “Anything to save the Poem, She says.” Like many heartbroken authors, Hurt mourns that sometimes poems can feel more intimate than people.

Finally, the collection culminates in apology. The narrator laments her struggle to translate her daughter’s estranged language: “There are sixty-seven terms for red, forty-two for leaving, but none for sorry.” Her daughter’s words disintegrate into the guttural inclinations of language divorced from meaning, the “tk tk of fingernails on drywall, / sh sh of lace on tile,” until, finally, the metaphors unfurl: “Some crumble in my hands— / that’s how sorry I am.” And so, we awaken in the calm after the storm, like Dorothy— back in black and white, back in Kansas, and wondering how we got here.

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Aperture

Anna Leahy
Shearsman Books ($17)

by Eileen Murphy

Mrs. Tinman of Oz observes of her son: “He was always the sort of child who played / in the rain.” In Aperture, Anna Leahy’s new collection, the poet takes us into the minds of fascinating but overlooked women, real and imaginary. The book becomes a chorus of women’s voices, described by Mrs. Witch as “sometimes sibilant, often labial, unvoiced / occasionally, wonderfully guttural—.” Aperture is a bouquet of women’s interiors, from Romantic poet Felicia Hermans to Marie Curie to the wife of a whaler and more. Each woman Leahy examines is unique, but also contributes to the group’s chorus of wisdom, sorrow, and beauty.

In a series of poems, Leahy takes on the viewpoints of mothers of characters from The Wizard of Oz. The effect of the mothers’ individual voices, each carefully rendered using every means of communication—from graffiti to television interview—combine into a group portrait that’s funny, sad, and altogether charming. Extending the interior landscape, Leahy also takes on the persona of Mary Todd Lincoln in the haunting poem “After Assassination.” Mrs. Lincoln’s grief and agitation leap off the page: “I smooth my hands over my dress . . . before the theater, before the shot to the head, before the doctor rushed in, before the body was carried across the street . . .” Looking through Leahy’s aperture into Mrs. Lincoln’s pain is harrowing, but mesmerizing.

Aperture takes an interest in other women who hover on the outskirts of our attention, a woman who served as a painter’s model, for example, who shares how it feels to stay still for a long time and how she survives her laudanum-assisted lifestyle. In the famous painting Ophelia by Sir John Everett Millais, Ophelia has long red hair and lies on her back, half submerged in water, surrounded by flowers. Leahy’s poem “Remembering Ophelia” imagines the model posing in a bathtub, teeth chattering “when the fire went out / under the tub.”

Leahy’s skills in lyric poetry and imagery are further showcased in poems about women saints: “When death is a whispered chorus, / why not send showers of roses falling / with thorns spinning swiftly towards the earth?” Each saint has a different temperament and different story; through the magic aperture, we are given the privilege of looking into these women’s complex interiors. Leahy asks, “Are saints really artists of God / whose hands are the can- / vas reaching for plans / with brushes that strike them as odd?” The poems about saints’ inner lives lend the chorus of women’s voices in Aperture an exultant strain.

All the women in Aperture lead captivating inner lives. Leahy’s poems are varied, thoughtful, and often ironic or humorous. Savoring Aperture, the reader looks through the mind-opening with the poet as guide, listens to unique women’s voices, revels in them, learns from them, is haunted by them

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The Birth of the Imagination: William Carlos Williams on Form

Bruce Holsapple
University of New Mexico Press ($59.95)

by Michael Boughn

William Carlos Williams was arguably the most important poet of his generation, especially for those of us who came of poetic age in the 1960s. Taking his lead from H.D.’s radical rethinking of the line, Williams ran with it, opening the field with Spring and All to an unprecedented range and focus of thinking, attention, language, and imagination. Lacking Wallace Stevens’s mellifluous iambic pentameter and philosophical obscurantism, Ezra Pound’s pyrotechnic compositional razzle dazzle and grand Euro-pretense, and Pastor Eliot’s Ironic Doom Program and late sweet harmonies, Williams was largely unrecognizable to contemporary critics, even when they praised him for his observational accuracy. Yvor Winters, Allen Tate, R.P. Blackmur, Babette Deutsch, and others either dismissed Williams’s work outright or damned it with faint, highly qualified praise.

Williams’s line became the pale beyond which poetry dared not pass if it wanted the recognition and approval of the Poetic Authorities. It confused them because they had no ear for it; their America was still beholden to lingering rhythms from Europe. Eliot, their spokesman, abandoned Missouri for London’s hoity-toity lit scene—which he conquered and ruled from a pew in the High Anglican Church. Williams, meanwhile, delivered babies to Polish immigrant women on the farms around Paterson, N.J. He faced the profound fact of America as it played out all around him in the unfolding of an unprecedented world. He witnessed extraordinary, unmapped extravagances, grotesqueries, and brilliance in the forms of a new ordinary. Call it plums or a red wheelbarrow or shards of a broken green bottle in a pile of ashes, its beauty and occult complexities were beyond the rhythms of the old world. It was a chance not so much to make it new, as Pound urged, as to open it up to what was beneath the interest of the authorities: the riff raff tawdriness of something called, loosely, democracy.

Two terms provide the master tones of Williams’s thinkingwriting through this knowing: imagination and measure/form, which become identical in the way a chiasma both creates and undoes identity. In that sense, there is no more realist modern poet than Williams. The issue is the nature of the real that he knew and courageously presented in his work, in which entangled form/line/meaning further entangled itself with the projective powers of the imagination to liberate the word—to “bare handed contend with the sky . . . freed from the handcuffs of ‘art’.” Deeply Emersonian in his commitments, Williams freed attention from the established line, with imagination as both its liberator and its accomplice in the jailbreak.

Bruce Holsapple’s recent book puts the issue front and center in its title and boldly enters into an ongoing conversation concerning Williams’s thinking about form in general, prosody in particular, and imagination’s cosmological implications in relation to them. Holsapple, a poet whose own work is deeply indebted to its long conversation with Williams’s work, brings an important new address to the issue. His insights are most valuable where he is closest to the work, hence the fundamental understanding that informs imagination as an organ of vision (he quotes Blake) that is also a kind of knowing. Holsapple slowly and surely builds an argument, which is to say a vision, a seen in this light, of the fundamental importance of Williams’s work to a deeper understanding of where we now stand, groundless and dis-oriented, and how to find a way to stand there.

Poetry, then, as a mode of knowing (rather than knowledge or, god help us, expression) is the issue. As a mode, it is always actively entangled with a larger world of thinking and other modes of measure equally addressed to the emergent world. Holsapple usefully explicates, for example, Williams’s reading of Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World in relation to The Embodiment of Knowledge. Whitehead’s sense of our condition in terms of embeddeness and process resonates strongly with Williams’s understanding of “a new order of knowing” commensurate to a world of a new order(ing). While Holsapple argues that “influence” may be too strong a word to apply to Williams’s relation to Whitehead, there is no question that Williams read him with intense interest, especially as he weighed in on the significance of developments in relativity and quantum theory, two other new modes of measure that revealed previously unrecognized depths and complexities to the world. Einstein, Apollinaire, Kenneth Burke, John Dewey, Marsden Hartley, and Wassily Kandinsky, among many others, are also part of the community of minds Williams draws together.

While other approaches to Williams have emphasized a chronological development of his work, Holsapple’s contribution is particularly valuable in the way he organizes our attention around a specific chronology of Williams’s thinking and writing regarding form and imagination. Holsapple meticulously tracks through Williams’s reading as well as his correspondence with numerous contemporaries ranging from artists like Charles Demuth to philosophical critics like Kenneth Burke. As a record of a particular poetmind at work on a fundamental question over the course of a life, The Birth of the Imagination paints a fascinating portrait of Williams doggedly pursuing various implications, contradictions, and prospective possibilities.

Many readers will find the closing chapter on Williams and Dada particularly interesting. Discussion of Williams’s relation to Dada often present the European anti-art movement as determining significant aspects of his thinking after the Dada migration to New York before and during the First Great Slaughter of the twentieth century. The sense of the integrity of Williams’s commitment to his spiritualpoetic ordeal, to his particular quest to find/create/reveal a measure adequate to the turmoil of emergent America is sometimes lost or diminished in proposals that allege his indebtedness to Dada, especially in the early years of Spring and All and Kora in Hell. Holsapple very carefully and meticulously dismantles those claims, citing both biographical and textual evidence (lots of good literary gossip here) to argue that Williams’s “improvisations” are other than Dada’s nihilistic disruptions. Williams’s practice is aimed at opening the poem’s form into experiences of unprecedented meaning rather than negating or diminishing the possibility of meaning. That impulse went on to influence much of the most important and interesting poetry to come out of the movement that began in the 1960s.

Williams’s reputation can only increase in significance as the full import of his accomplishment becomes clearer, and Bruce Holsapple’s book is an important contribution to that ongoing process. Anyone interested in Williams’s work, and especially in witnessing the fascinating growth of his thinking about form and imagination over the many decades of his fierce engagement with poetry, will find The Birth of the Imagination an essential addition to their reading.

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4 3 2 1

Paul Auster
Henry Holt ($32)

by Steven Felicelli

A book about a book, a book that one could read and also write in. A book that one could enter as if it were a three dimensional space. . . .
—Paul Auster, 4 3 2 1

To an untrained ear, Paul Auster is the Aerosmith of experimental fiction, never altering the M.O. which carved out what Michael Dirda called “one of the most distinctive niches in contemporary literature.” All that’s followed his game-changing New York Trilogy has amounted to variation on a theme: The same spectral identities, Platonic halves, and coincidental realities can be found on any given page of any Auster novel.

Until now? Is this 866-page novel a departure from or career-culminating apotheosis of the offhand existentialism he’s been practicing for decades?

It is and it isn’t—and therein lies the both/and genius of Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1. Though it carries the literal weight of a Tolstoy tome, for instance, it’s really more like three-and-a-quarter Auster-length novels (spoiler alert: one of the book’s four narratives ends abruptly early on). And the divergent paths of his fourfold protagonist Ferguson (spurred by quantum physics) are all linear, socio-culturally conditioned, and earthbound. A departure from and simultaneous reliance on his meta-magical approach, the milieu is more David Copperfield than The Garden of Forking Paths, and yet each of the four bildungsroman (and künstlerroman) is infused with the arch one-liners, heady cognates, and many-worlds magic with which Auster has come to be identified.
Reviews thus far have been mixed (in the protagonist’s terms, the book has received more “punches” than “kisses”). The most prominent complaints have been:

1) convolution – One reviewer needed a “crib sheet,” another a “spread sheet” to keep track of all the characters and their trajectories.

2) overdetermination – Do we need an exhaustive account of every leftist uprising of the ’60s and a laundry list of every author, entertainer, baseball player, love interest, and casual acquaintance the Fergusons encounter in his/their encyclopedic youth?

3) on-the-nose-ism – These are the critics who share James Wood’s impatience with anything “spelled out in billboard-size type.”

4) egomania – e.g. Laura Miller’s “whoever is telling the story . . . . always sounds too much like Paul Auster.”

But perhaps:

1) You are supposed to confuse the identities, not “keep track” of them.

2) The ‘60s was indeed “a decade so dense with tumult that it had given the country both Malcolm X and George Wallace, The Sound of Music and Jimi Hendrix, the Berrigan brothers and Ronald Reagan,” and the minute details (personal, socio-cultural, etc.) accrue to a gravitas and scope reminiscent of Roth’s American Pastoral.

3) Regarding what Auster himself recognizes as “the seriocomic tone that was necessary to pull off such outlandish narratives, the plausible implausibility of what he called nonsense in motion” . . . well, it either registers or it doesn’t. It’s neither the author’s success nor the reader’s failure when it hits or misses, though erudition assists in apprehending the “droll doubleness” of “The Scarlet Notebook” (Hawthorne/Auster-Quinn/workerism?), “Mulligan’s Travels” (Sorrentino/Swift/Sturges?), and all the “pungent puns” the author unabashedly offers up.

4) It doesn’t sound like Auster, it is (and isn’t) Auster. It has always been Auster aka Quinn aka Fanshawe aka Fogg aka Zimmer aka Ferguson “filling up white rectangles with row after row of descending black marks” and to pretend otherwise would be bad faith (so he never has.) As Auster said in his Fall 2003 interview with The Paris Review, “once you accept the ‘unreality’ of the enterprise, it paradoxically enhances the truth of the story. The words aren’t written in stone by an invisible author-god. They represent the efforts of a flesh and blood human being.”

Auster has always insisted that very little of his fiction is autobiographical, but whether the events and individuals who animate them can be fact-checked is irrelevant. They are nonetheless real, engendered by the emotional, physical, and imaginative (/mnemonic) life of Paul Auster. His books do not provide an escape from, but rather a plunging into the peripheral reality we miss when we are blindered by the brute facts of life.

It is exactly the fact that the voice sounds too much like Paul Auster’s that lends the weight of what is more or less made explicit in the final pages of 4 3 2 1 and has been given short shrift as a stock framing device. His recent autobiographical turn (Report from the Interior, Winter Journal) seems to be culminating here in an auto-fiction finale, as so many of the historical and personal “facts” check out. Edison’s anti-Semitic termination of his father, the boy struck by lightning, (step-)sister who snaps, remarried mother, basketball game turned race riot, Maplewood, Columbia, etc., etc. Never has so much been based on the lived reality of Paul Auster. Something he said in a Telegraph interview (just after the first volume of Winter Journal had been published) may be instructive here: “I used to have a backlog of stories, but a few years ago I found the drawers were empty. I guess I’m getting to the point where I tell myself if I can’t write another book it’s not a tragedy.”

The four Fergusons seem to have originated in that void. Their host, who unveils himself in the denouement, is a familiar and unfamiliar figure, one who is and isn’t the being whose birth certificate bears the name Paul Auster (assuming that’s his real name), the 1 who will not endure the endless loops his alter egos retrace with each new reader rendezvous. Though to be clear, it is pure speculation, not spoiler, to imagine that 4-3-2 are other fictional selves and 1 = Auster, “the last man standing.” And yet the closing gambit at least intimates a vocational endgame. It is and/or isn’t Prospero drowning his book. The author is saying goodbye to all that; his autobiographical (re)turn has and hasn’t come full circle to that (re)invented Solitude, because when had he ever left the well-lit room (pen or book in hand) to begin with?

If you do not have a pre-existing relationship with Auster and his avatars, you may not feel bereft at the conclusion of 4 3 2 1. If, on the other hand, you have been his dear reader, you will live the lives and die the deaths of Ferguson cheek by jowl until there’s just you and 1, sitting alone in the vacated premise, closing the book on not just hours, but decades of intimacy at a distance.

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The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir

Thi Bui
Harry N. Abrams ($24.95)

by Jeff Alford

The best memoirists reveal familiarity in the foreign. Challenged with the task of presenting their lives as something another person would read, they must find a way to break apart the uniqueness of their history into something more broadly connective, pushing readers towards an abstract sort of reflection and empathy. A story of a mother and a daughter, for instance, should transcend the specificity of motherhood and daughterhood and present to all readers something with which they can connect. In the memoirist’s ether, the personal needs to transfer from writer to reader.

Thi Bui’s comics memoir The Best We Can Do is about her family’s emigration from Vietnam in the ’70s and their naturalization into the United States. A tremendous achievement, the book brilliantly renders its feelings of alienation with inclusivity and empathy, focusing simultaneously on one specific family and corresponding universal themes of love, kinship, and growing up. Bui’s art is immediately accessible, cartoonishly sweet but disarmingly weighty.

When the story opens, Bui is about to give birth. She's shaken with both physical and emotional uncertainty but can recognize that this experience will, for once, definitively give her something she has in common with her mother. “Family is now something I have created—and not just something I was born into,” she writes. Upon the birth of her child, she, like her mother, will have shifted from individual to caregiver, and they will share a parallel responsibility to do the best they can for the life they made.

But did her parents do the best they could? This is a painful question to ask, as Bui’s relationship with them was one more of efficiency than joy. Growing up, they were hardworking and critical, tired and often irritable. Although now divorced, her parents see each other often, seemingly too indifferent to care about moving on. As a new mother, Bui vows to be for her child what her mother wasn't. “Proximity and closeness are not the same,” she astutely notes.

The memoir unfolds backwards into the story of her parents, known simply as Ma and Bo (although careful readers can discover their real names with a little digging). Bui, as an adult, can be seen throughout the book as a considerate listener with a newfound courage, finally asking her parents the questions they never spoke of growing up. “Me and Bố,” she writes, “we’re okay now. To stop being scared of him, I grew up and went away. And now that I’ve come back, we can sit in my mother’s studio, both of us visitors, neither one owing the other.”Alternatively, she confesses “writing about my mother is harder for me—maybe because my image of her is too tied up with my opinion of myself.” Details emerge and color vaguely-remembered outlines about their family of six: stories of miscarriages, illnesses, political pressure, and suicide attempts reframe her parents’ tribulations with all the subtle difficulties that Bui could never have noticed as a child in Vietnam.

Brutal chapters are devoted to her family’s escape from Vietnam by boat, sharing the hull in starving silence with other refugees. Bui provides readers with an important reminder that the war in Vietnam was so much more than a Walter Cronkite narrative or an Eddie Adams photograph: “I think a lot of Americans forget that for the Vietnamese, the war continued, whether America was involved or not.” They land in a camp in Terengganu, Malaysia, and from there journey, briefly, to distant family in Indiana before settling in California.

There, they tried their best. With no outside pressure, the family was left to nurture and cultivate new identities as American immigrants:

Little by little, our parents built their bubble around us—our home in America. They taught us to be respectful, to take care of one another, and to do well in school. Those were the intended lessons. The unintentional ones came from their unexorcised demons . . . and from the habits they formed over so many years of trying to survive.

Now, as a new mother, Bui can see those unexorcised demons for what they truly were: a struggle between identity and selflessness, adrift in homeless disconnection.

In her preface, Bui explains that she was drawn to the graphic novel in an effort to solve “the storytelling problem of how to present history in a way that is human and relatable and not oversimplified.” She writes that she had to learn how to “do comics” in order to tell her story the way she wanted. The results are remarkably polished. Bui approaches her portraiture with a kind of facial minimalism, finding perfectly emotive subtlety in the slightest of marks, like an upturned smile or a slightly furrowed brow. She masterfully synchronizes the themes of her memoir with the style in which it is drawn: she finds the best she can do, embracing its limitations while exemplifying its care.

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A Woman of Property

Robyn Schiff
Penguin Books ($20)

by Shayna Nenni

Robyn Schiff’s third poetry collection, A Woman of Property, lyrically mixes together Greek historical figures with the qualms of motherhood. Implementing unusual forms allows Schiff to bring together “the ancient tragic scallop-shell- / shaped theatre at Ephesus” with her son’s “dreams of the wolf snail”. Her first-person narration paints a picture of historical figures in their prime even as it connects their past struggles to her own today.

Schiff’s Greek references, placed sporadically throughout the collection, are fortunately never overwhelming, and are often enlightening when it comes to her concerns as a woman. She begins by alluding to confinement, writing, “Greek tragedy / staged around a doorway / the imagination strains to enter”, and continues this allusion when she brings in mythological stories that focus on women. From Antigone, who committed suicide because of her entombment after mourning her brother, to Iphigenia, who was killed by her father as a sacrifice, Schiff declares her own place among these women, stating, “I am a woman / of property. The milk of the footlights”. Juxtaposing Greek mythology with life’s mundane task of laundry, Schiff challenges the idea of what it means to be a woman—“Get back / in the house, I / said to myself, and made myself useful”—highlighting the different, but still pressured, expectations of women throughout the ages.

Experimenting with form, Schiff utilizes the full width of the page to establish one of her most important themes--the hardships of motherhood. She also uses italicization to create an embodiment of dialogue:

There was no deed? Exactly.
There was no deed on record?
I didn’t do anything.                          Exactly. Plaintiff
claims neglect of property.                     But
I didn’t do anything exactly. That’s my way.

Schiff’s first-person narration deepens our understanding of her anxieties towards being a good mother. The parallel between this story—her failure to cultivate her land—and her confession that she “didn’t do anything exactly” foreshadows a later poem when she asks, “How will I know / what to do, I wondered”. Schiff uses two poems that are almost (but not quite) the same to suggest that there are aspects of a mother’s life that she can or cannot control. “A Doe Does Not Replace Iphigenia on the Sacrificial Altar” and “A Doe Does Replace Iphigenia on the Sacrificial Altar” can be read as Schiff’s attempt to relieve some of her own motherly anxieties.

In the midst of the collection are explicit remarks about the swine flu virus, global warming, and the attacks of September 11; these contemporary tragedies add yet another component to Schiff’s poems regarding cultivation, mythology, motherhood, science, and the supernatural. In the end, A Woman of Property has the ability to elevate us into the lives of infamous Greek figures while taming us to the ground, where a gardening task is “like being delivered / into my own body”.

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Basic Vocabulary

Amy Uyematsu
Red Hen Press ($15.95)

by Julia Stein

A contributor to the pioneering 1971 anthology Roots: An Asian-American Reader, Amy Uyematsu published four books of poetry before her latest, Basic Vocabulary. In her first two books of poetry she breaks through silence to write powerful personal story poems about her parents and grandparents interned at Gila and Manzanar during World War II, and about the U.S. wars in Asia in the 1960s. She constructs her own bilingual language and reality when she writes about striving for Japanese-American cool as a teenager and the elegance of geishas in an Utagawa print, or when she brilliantly describes burning and hope during the Los Angeles 1992 riots in “The Ten Million Flames of Los Angeles.” A longtime math teacher, she’s also one of our few math poets.

For the opening title sequence of Basic Vocabulary, Uyematsu uses thirty-five simple words to examine our decades of war with hard-edged, philosophical reflections in a tour-de-force. The poem starts with “blood”: “we don’t even pretend our hands are unstained / one century bleeding into the next / as we try to assure ourselves / there is nothing one little life can do . . . ” In the first ten sections the facts of war seem overwhelming, but the eleventh section, “give,” advises us to listen “to the counsel of mystics— / give it all up, give it all up—” as a way out of war. Detailing the ravages of war in the simplest of words leads at the end of the final section, “year,” to the words “this year, this second / let thy enemy / be forgiven // no beginning, no end / just a prayer / to awaken.”

In the book’s second section, “When the Numbers Don’t Add Up,” the war outside the nation bleeds into the war within when Uyematsu hauntingly describes how a student of hers was killed over a Sony Walkman. Other poems such as “Graduation” give numbers that sadly describe many students, as two boys sign up for the Marines while most “memorize the prices / of the latest Nikes.” “Found Poem: Echoes from Zuccotti Park” offers a brief moment of hope in the global occupations, but the next few poems relentlessly provide more dispiriting numbers of drones used, citizens homeless, and black men killed.

As the poet turns to her growing old and surviving cancer, she finds solace in the natural world and mysticism. In “Learning from Stone,” Uyematsu hears the stones telling each other how “inside this deep ocean bed / we grow smooth and bow,” and in “The Fit” she relates how she has abandoned the protests of her youth “blaring with slogans” to now walk with Thich Nhat Hanh, where she and others “make a roar so loud / as this wordless silence.”

In the last section of Basic Vocabulary, “Mysteries, Medical and Celestial,” the poet faces head-on a second bout with cancer. Uyematsu especially shows great courage in a series of meditations on her radiation treatments; in “Zap #30” she gratefully acknowledges how “blessings arrive / in orchids and cards / the lighting of candles / a homecooked meal.” Other poems delve into more cosmic matters; “Three Quick Studies of Math Art” explores a photo of electrons in her body, a Persian mathematician’s seven-pointed stars, and a labyrinth. The final poem leaves us with hope as Uyematsu identifies infinity as feminine and glories in being a woman who embraces love and wonder.

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Dear Cyborgs

Eugene Lim
Farrar, Straus and Giroux ($14)


by Robert Martin

Despite the suggestively sci-fi title, Eugene Lim’s Dear Cyborgs is not a futuristic picaresque about sentimental robots. Rather, it’s about artists and poets and painters, and the glimmers of compassion found between these individuals and their pursuits; it’s also about superheroes, holograms, detectives, and sentient search engines. Which is to say: this book sets out to defy categorization, and it thoroughly succeeds. A wild and wildly intelligent work, Dear Cyborgs skillfully employs elements of essay, noir, fantasy, and pop in order to question the limitations of identity in the Internet age.

While that description might conjure bombast, for the most part this is a quiet novel concerned with a group of talkative young artists in Chicago. The scenes in the book describe idle hours at karaoke bars and diners in which the characters take turns musing at length about geekdom, fine arts, literary theory, diaspora, and most crucially, political activism. The fact that they happen to be a crime-fighting supergroup called “Team Chaos” comes as a surprise, toward the end of the third chapter:

Even though she works as a social worker and even though she’d rather be a poet and a painter, Muriel is actually a foundling extraterrestrial sent from a far superior civilization. She can fly, walk through walls, and shoot powerful beams from the palms of her hands. . . . I’m a mere Earthling and therefore far less inherently powerful, but I’ve mastered various physical disciplines and martial arts as well as having proven myself in battle with a certain technical wiliness, which seems to impress. Despite these accomplishments, as you no doubt will notice, I tend to be depressed and anxious much of the time.

This is the first unrealistic detail in Dear Cyborgs, and it plays no role in the arc of the chapter. Other details of this sort pepper the novel throughout, in hints dropped mid-sentence or buried in asides. Lim occasionally indulges his nods to the fantastical later in the book, devoting a short chapter to the pursuit of Team Chaos’ arch nemesis, Ms. Mistletoe—but when Ms. Mistletoe is cornered, instead of a battle scene we get to listen to her recount the events that let up to the dissolution of her marriage, a tame and thoughtful soliloquy on her dissatisfaction with the daily grind.

These subdued blockbuster-esque details effectively defamiliarize the otherwise mundane conversations and armchair philosophies of the characters. It’s an off-kilter slant that pervades the book, and it fissures the narrative in a calculated way. Dear Cyborgs, like many experimental novels, is not a story about what it’s about as much as it is about how it’s told. Nearly every chapter utilizes a narrative frame. We rarely see direct action on the page; instead, characters tell stories or recall memories as they sit in a booth or walk home from the bar. They do not act—they think, or they speak.

Frame narratives are nothing new, but Lim’s persistence with the device colors his topic of choice: namely, multiplicity of identity. This can be seen with Muriel, who is both an artist and a super-powered alien (though we never do see her powers in action), and with how our narrator’s day-job as a martial-arts expert government operative coincides with his true passion of drawing comics. These overt dual identities are reinforced by each narrative frame: whenever a character tells a story about himself or herself, that character exists simultaneously as the narrator and as the protagonist.

Multiplicity of identity is positioned as a strength in Dear Cyborgs, but a dangerous one. The strongest character is the evil Ms. Mistletoe (is she evil? Readers will sympathize with her thoughtful explications on protest movements, support of workers’ rights, and desire to inspire others to improve their living conditions; it is curious that she is the target of our protagonists’ ire). Yet we never meet Ms. Mistletoe directly—in fact, we often encounter her through multiple frames. Her first appearance, for instance, is via a memory of the narrator’s. In the memory, the narrator watches a hologram of Ms. Mistletoe (that’s two degrees of separation), and the speech had been prerecorded (three degrees). The content of Ms. Mistletoe’s speech, which is presented in full, is a recollection (four degrees) of a conversation between her and her friends after the initial protests in Zucotti Park—a conversation included as dialogue in a scene (five degrees).

Examining the details of Ms. Mistletoe’s speech through the lens of Lin’s framing technique provides the clearest sense of his motivations. Musing on the purpose of Occupy Wall Street, Ms. Mistletoe says,

"It’s asking people to wake up to the fact that their desires have been manufactured, that the lives they are leading are modeled after flawed received ideas. . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
"As well, hidden in this remorse is another guilt, a knowledge that the entire social contract is contaminated, tainted, since it requires the hard labor of the unfortunate, as well as a violence to the earth and, importantly and even more subtly, an embedded faith in the eventual good of selfishness and greed."

The theory at work here suggests commercial oppression is a by-product of multiple simultaneous identities. How else would we explain people repeatedly voting against their self-interests? Lim’s book suggests that those who control technology use it in order to manipulate us into complacency, but not through propaganda or marketing—rather, through the psychological refraction that technology represents. “Divide and conquer” does not only apply to groups of people: it applies also to individuals.

If Dear Cyborgs makes a claim as to what’s at stake when we give our memories, knowledge, and problem solving skills, over to the Internet, it is this: the splintering of identity has led to our complacency. Our arch nemesis is our own conscience, losing its foothold due to click bait and constantly updated feeds. Lim’s narrator warns,

(Some seem unaccepting of this transformation, and it indeed has been gradual. In a sense it began when the first simple machines were invented. But now, to deny the change requires a willful ignorance since, if you observe bodies clothed in steel flowing over highways, or how we’ve outsourced half our memory to these devices, these exobrains we carry around, and if you note how even our most intimate relationships occur remotely, at great distances from one another, if you see all this, well, it isn’t such an original observation, dear cyborgs, to say that human and machine long ago merged inextricably.)

The cyborg state is upon us, we are inured to it, and our identities will never be the same. Only time will tell how well we will navigate our many lives in the Internet age.

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