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The More Extravagant Feast

Leah Naomi Green
Graywolf Press ($15.99)

by Todd Davis

How to speak of the self when the self, as Whitman proclaimed, contains multitudes? How to conceive of a self as part of another being, literally co-dependent, not able to exist without the other?

The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh explains that “interbeing” is the idea that we can never “be” by ourselves; rather we are always in a state of “braidedness,” woven together in symbiosis. Science similarly tells us that we are composed, biologically, of other living things that make our lives possible. As Robin Wall Kimmerer, a botanist and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, expounds in her book Braiding Sweetgrass, “Recent research has shown that the smell of humus exerts a physiological effect on humans. Breathing in the scent of Mother Earth stimulates the release of the hormone oxytocin, the same chemical that promotes bonding between mother and child, between lovers.”

Held in the arms of the greater-than-human world, Leah Naomi Green is such a lover of the earth, a writer who seeks to care for creation and to raise her family in mindful connection with it. These most basic foundational tenets are at the center of her stunning and sumptuous debut collection, The More Extravagant Feast, selected by Li-Young Lee as the winner of the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets. The book is a deep and reverent meditation on the fact that we are never solely our own, that our lives are always cohabitating with the lives of others—both human and more than human.

Told in a language that celebrates compassion, empathy, and a path of loving kindness, the poems here offer our precarious and dire present moment possible paths forward via an ancient way of seeing that can still inform 21st-century living. As Green writes in “Week Ten: Plum,” an origin story about the child that grows inside of her:

My body, which has never died,
has two hearts again today,
and how many
inside the second?

Green demonstrates a remarkable gratitude for all life, reminding us that our existence begins within the body of another, floating on an amniotic sea, our mothers’ hearts beating for us. From our first moments, we rely on the help of others to live, to survive.

Throughout the collection, Green addresses the world around her, even the carrots she grows, urging the tubers to “take all summer, / your ember // from the sun, / its walking meditation” (“Carrot”). She is one of those rare seers, perceiving the hidden and translating it so it becomes illuminated and luminous. To this end, she uses juxtaposition as a primary poetic device, showing us the vital and intimate relationship between what might be perceived as unlike or unassociated:

The fire beetle only mates
when the chaparral is burning

and the water beetle
will only mate in the rain.

In the monastery kitchen, the nuns
don’t believe me

when I tell them how old I am,
that you were married before.

The woman you find attractive
does not believe me when I look at her kindly.

(“Field Guide to the Chaparral”)

Even her line and couplet breaks emphasize how each revelation, each statement, blends into the next in unexpected ways that turn to realization, even epiphany, about the correlation between one living being and another.

Green, along with her husband and two children, live in an intentional community in rural Virginia. They raise and hunt most of the food they use throughout the year, living close with the daily rhythms of the greater-than-human world. In this setting the poet strips away the superfluous structures erected to divert our attention from the essential relationships humans have fostered with the earth and each other for millennia. And her book recounts myriad moments of union: some quiet, others startling in the violence nature possesses.

The work can be visceral and unflinching. In “Venison,” she and her husband collect a deer hit by a passing car:

The deer is still alive
in the roadside grass.
In an hour, we’ll cut her open,
her left hip broken . . .

Later, as she watches her husband “undress” the deer with a knife, she describes the sound:

I can hear
his blade unmoor muscle, sail
through her fascia

Green takes care to name this aspect of the world, to report in detail, to make the smallest moment live again inside the borders of her poem, in order that the recognition she offers not become a simple gloss. And so the poem closes with a lived authority, acknowledging the suffering of the boy whose Camaro struck the deer, the difficulty of witnessing the end of a life, the hard work that must be endured as her husband butchers the animal so a life is not wasted:

We put her leg and buttock
on the wooden table, where we
will gather her between us
to eat all year. It is all I see:
a thing, alive, slowly becoming my own body.

In “The More Extravagant Feast,” which serves as the collection’s final poem, Green speaks of the miracle of her daughter’s lungs “that grew inside me”; “the miracle // of her dad on the hill”; “the miracle / of bodies, formed whole like fruits, // skins unruptured and / containing the world.” Her explorations provide daring correlations and important reminders of the miraculous nature of existence. What marks her work as not only a refreshing balm but as a way forward is her ability to praise and offer graceful thanks, to highlight how all living things are allied and related.

Not all poetry is as deeply connected to lived experience as Green’s. But her commitment to a way of life beyond the page informs the wisdom written on the page, demonstrating how care for one another, the human and greater than human, is a path toward a much needed wholeness and preservation.


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Pandemic Reflections on
Houseboat on the Ganges
& A Room in Kathmandu

Letters from India & Nepal, 1966-1972
Marilyn Stablein
Chin Music Press ($16.95)

by Gregory Stephenson

Many readers in quarantine mode may be yearning for books that offer armchair traveling. One such title is Marilyn Stablien’s 2019 Houseboat on the Ganges & A Room in Kathmandu: Letters from India & Nepal, 1966-1972.

Hand-painted paper fans and paper lanterns, exotic knick-knacks and tabi footwear, Parcheesi, Bonsai plants, and statues of Buddha: already from girlhood, Marilyn Stablein was enchanted by the cultures of Asia. During her teenage years, this fascination broadened and deepened to become a serious engagement with Asian and Southeast Asian poetry, art, philosophy and religion. In 1966, at the age of 19, Stablein hitchhiked from Istanbul to India with her boyfriend before remaining in India and Nepal for the next six and a half years. Houseboat on the Ganges & A Room in Kathmandu is a collection of letters sent home to her American parents in California, aerograms carefully preserved through the years by her mother. Written between 1966 and 1972, the letters (originally set down without any thought of publication) constitute an epistolary travelogue, a loose but highly readable assemblage of descriptions of incidents, landscapes, and people, as well as detailed observations on arts and crafts, architecture, food, and customs. A less obvious underlying theme of the letters is that of self-exploration and subtle, spiritual transformation.

Eager, observant, and plucky, Stablein makes an exemplary traveller, appreciative of local music, dance, art, culinary feats, and spiritual practices. “My enthusiasm never wanes,” she remarks to her parents. From teeming cities to remote villages, she travels over large areas of India, attending festivals, getting caught up in a riot, visiting temples, monasteries, and hallowed caves; she lives frugally, studying sacred texts, learning to speak and write Tibetan, and ever refining her talents as an artist and calligraphist. She encounters swamis, llamas, and a Maharajah, as well as scholars, wanderers, and pilgrims. Once, in an outlying village, she is surrounded by excited, curious women and girls who have never before seen blue eyes and have never heard of America. Stablein even has an audience with the Dalai Lama and meets both Maharishi Mahesh, of Transcendental Meditation fame, and A.C. Bhaktivedanta, founder of the Hari Krishna movement, though she is rather dubious concerning the teachings of both men. She also encounters Dr. Richard Alpert (later to become internationally famous as Ram Dass, author of Be Here Now) and Tenzing Norgay (the sherpa who climbed Mount Everest with Edmund Hillary).

In the course of her long sojourn in India and Nepal, Stablein drifts apart from her English boyfriend, then in Katmandu falls in love with an American scholar, marries, and gives birth to a child. In her last letter home to her parents, she writes: “I’m not the single woman, teenage traveller I was when I left.” And, indeed, she is not. From her long, heroic journey, she returns as a wife and mother, an accomplished student of Tibetan language, art and spiritual traditions, and a skilled artist. A dedicated, disciplined interest in Buddhism has imparted to her an inward poise and clarity of mind. An “Epilogue” appended to the letters recounts something of her life following her return to the United States in 1972.

From the Transcendentalists to the Theosophists to the Beats and beyond, undertaking a “passage to India”—whether in spirit only or as an actual geographical destination—has formed a significant strand of American thought and spirituality. Marilyn Stablein’s book makes a modest but worthy contribution to that tradition but may, perhaps, most profitably be read simply as the unselfconscious record of a sincere, serious, and very independent young woman pursuing a personal fascination with Asian art and philosophy.

Houseboat on the Ganges & A Room in Kathmandu is a well-designed, handsomely produced book bound in colourful covers with illustrated endpapers, the text enriched by drawings, vignettes, photographs and a map; it ultimately presents a charming and engaging, a slender but substantial, volume.


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All The Useless Things Are Mine:
A Book of Seventeens

Thomas Walton
Sagging Meniscus Press ($17)

by Eric Vasquéz

All the Useless Things are Mine is an odd little book by poet/prose writer Thomas Walton. It is a book of seventeen-word sentences that lean at times toward aphorism, and at others toward stand-up comedy. The book is sometimes strictly aphoristic: “The whole world, really, is a pearl, and we like hordes of spoiled swine move through it.” At other times it reads like haiku (or “Landscape Paintings,” which is one of the section headings): “Along the neighbor’s stairs, the morning light has married the clematis vine twining its black iron rail.”

Separated into sections that seem to range the span of a lifetime, the books starts “At the Crack of Up” and ends in the “The Afterlife.” The sections are sometimes literally titled—“Politics,” “Love and Sex,” “Art Criticism”—and sometimes figuratively titled: “The Surest Way to Die” is about parenthood, “All Poets Are Lunatics” is about poetics, “This, They Say, Will Happen” is about death and dying.

Walton doesn’t seem afraid to go “too far.” There is an odd, and oddly sexual thread, that weaves its way through the book. The name Jordan appears in numerous “seventeens” and seems to be a kind of fantastic lover of the author. It wouldn’t be accurate to say that Jordan is a character any more than robins and garbage trucks, two oft-repeated themes in the book, are. Jordan is more like a phantom that floats through the book. They are never specifically gendered, and have, at differing times, differing genitalia by turns.

Some of the “seventeens” are dark and macabre: “The one who so desperately tries to blend in may as well be desolated in a blender.” Others flirt dangerously with platitude and cliché: “Since you left every cloud resembles you, so I just lie in the field all day, staring.” All the Useless Things Are Mine does indeed seem, at times anyway, to be a catalogue of “useless things.” Joggers get an entire section, with twenty-one “seventeens” devoted to them. But then there is also a section headed “Dear God” that leans toward the spiritual and contemplative: “What is it really, that is so difficult? To wander here awhile, to die just once forever.”

The book is illustrated by artist Douglas Miller, whose etchings are, like the text, deceptively simple. The elegant black and white images may also be seen as “useless things”: a house fly, a crow’s shadow, part of a cat’s head. In addition, the images are often unfinished, or parts of a whole (as the image of an owl that seems almost to unravel); this mimics the constrained or fragmented nature of the series of seventeen-word sentences.

An Afterword by Elizabeth Cooperman seeks to situate the book within the aphoristic tradition, or beside it. The reader, ultimately, will have to make up their own mind as to whether this book belongs with aphorisms, haiku, comedy, social commentary, koans, or something else entirely.


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Tree Story: The History of the World Written in Rings

Valerie Trouet
Johns Hopkins University Press ($27)

by John Toren

Many of us were introduced to the science of dendrochronology at a young age, during a family camping trip or a field trip to a park. "If you count the rings on this log, Junior, you can tell how old the tree was. One ring per year." While a hundred-year-old tree can be a source of passing awe, that's about as far as things usually went.

In Tree Story, Valerie Trouet introduces us to the much wider range of information that tree rings often contain, and especially their relevance to the study of climate change. Belgian by birth, Trouet began her career as an environmental engineer, and was drawn to the study of tree-rings almost fortuitously. She took a research position at the Forest, Snow, and Landscape Lab in Zurich, and later accepted a professorship at the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research at the University of Arizona, where dendrochronology was invented. During a sabbatical in 2017 she decided to set aside the seemingly endless battles she was fighting in defense of environmental awareness and, as she puts it, "write stories of the excitement of scien¬tific discovery, about our long and complex human history, and how it has been intertwined with our natural environment and ingrained in the stories of trees."

Although the subtitle, "the history of the world written in rings," is an exaggeration, most of Tree Story is devoted not to trees themselves, but to what the study of their rings can tell us about other things. In the opening chapters we learn how tree rings can validate the authenticity of a Stradivarius violin or establish which Hans Memling painting is authentic and which is a later copy. A tree ring not only marks the passing of a year, it also offers reliable clues as to what kind of a year it was: warm, cold, wet, dry? When you accumulate data from a variety of trees, years, and locations, a sophisticated chronology begins to take shape, and the picture it presents is more detailed, in many ways, than anything to be found in written records.

Consider the case of the tsunami that ravaged Japan in late January of 1700. There are numerous records in Japan, both bureaucratic and commercial, of the cataclysmic event and the shipwrecks and floods it caused, but not a single reference anywhere to the earthquake that might have caused the tsunami. Recent tree-ring studies of several "ghost forests" in the Pacific Northwest—trees buried by layers of silt and sand—have revealed that in 1700 that region was shaken by an earthquake. Presuming that it was the cause of the tsunami, it would have to have been a category nine quake—much larger and more destructive than anything in the written record. Trouet writes: "Thanks to ghost-forest dendrochronology and the discovery of the 1700 earthquake, public-safety efforts, including tsunami warnings and seismic hazard maps, are now in place that will aid in making the impact of the next event less destructive."

But such discoveries are mere window dressing compared to the broader array of climate data derived from trees that can pin-point events and also establish more extensive timelines of stability and change extending back far into prehistory. Notwithstanding the imaginative names these timelines have been given— The Hockey Stick, The Spaghetti Plate, and The Noodle—they have bolstered the claims of those who suggest that since the Industrial Revolution human activity has been raising the earth's temperature to dangerous levels.

Trouet refers to such issues more than a few times, but large sections of the book are also reserved for examining more localized, though usually long-term and often hemispheric, phenomena such as the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO), the Maunder Minimum, and the Terminal Classic Mayan Decline. The NAO is a well-known climatological concept that was established without the help of dendrochronology. But our understanding of it was expanded immensely when Trouet and some of her colleagues did a study combining data from tree-ring analysis of thousand-year-old cedar trees growing in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco with data from a study covering the same period of time of the rings that have developed on a stalmite growing in a cave in Northern Scotland. An inverse correlation held steady between the two databases throughout the span of time involved, though for long periods one force predominated over the other.

"What we had found,” Trouet writes,

was the driving mechanism behind medieval warmth in Europe: a predominantly positive NAO phase that kept the North Atlantic wind wheel working at full speed and sent warm Atlantic air to central Europe, resulting in the mild winters that allowed Europe’s agriculture, culture, and population to flourish. The wheel slowed down and became more erratic after 1450, at which point the cool climate and related hardships of the Little Ice Age started kicking in.

A few sections of the book are wonkish, but they're easy to recognize—and skip. It's clear that Trouet loves her field of research and wants to keep the narrative interesting so her readers can share the pleasure. To this end, she includes anecdotes about her tribulations doing field work in Tanzania as a novice dendrochronologist and, much later in her career, accompanying nine colleagues—all of them men—to study tree-rings in the wilds of Yakutsk, a region she had previous been familiar with only as a place-name in the board game Risk. Her narrative also offers us a few glimpses into the world of academic publishing, as she and colleagues repeatedly submit papers to prestigious journals such as Science and Nature, then cross their fingers.

In the course of this overview we take a look at the world's oldest trees, in the White Mountains of California, and learn about the man who cut down the oldest of them all—to count the rings. We ponder the end of Roman Climate Optimum (after which Rome itself fell), and reflect on what effect twenty years of excellent rainfall—a rare stretch, according to the dendrochronological record—likely had on the extraordinary success of Genghis Khan.

Readers of a certain age might even enjoy Trouet's scattered references to the pop music she sometimes listened to on field trips and in the lab, which include "It's the End of the World as We Know It" by R.E.M., "Wind of Change" by the Scorpions, and "Fake Plastic Trees" by Radiohead. In any case, such breezy stuff helps to maintain that geeky enthusiasm that makes the entire book such a pleasure to read.


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Artforum

César Aira
translated by Katherine Silver
New Directions ($13.95)

by Ethan Spangler

Artforum, the newest work by César Aira to be published in the U.S., is one of the most fascinating experiences in modern literature. A novel that synthesizes surrealism, pseudo-memoir, philosophy, and theater into the compact space of eighty-two pages, it somehow still retains the fluttery and playful tone that makes this book so enjoyable to read.

The events of Artforum take place over the course of thirty years and chronicle the experiences of an unnamed narrator who spends an unconscionable amount of time searching for copies of various art magazines—his favorite being Artforum. Structurally, the narrative is written in small, self-contained episodes, reminiscent of Borges and Sarraute. These episodes usually begin with an eccentric story, are interspersed with increasingly long philosophical asides, and culminate in a Joycean epiphany, after which follows a monologue reflecting upon the events and their deepest aesthetic meanings. The philosophical content in these stories cannot be understated, and very often Aira arrives at beautifully articulated conclusions. For instance, in one of the later episodes, he sums up: “And there was a marginal benefit that immediately attained a towering centrality: time. The time I had lost waiting would be transmuted into time gained: the time of creation.”

Artforum engages with important problems of consciousness through the lens of obsession; in so doing, Aira legitimizes the work of the artist in the modern world. This is not to say that the novel is in any way autobiographical. The narrator is supremely fictional, but assumes the role of an alter-ego to justify his voice as a beacon towards all creatives in the world today. The novel attempts to justify art as necessity, and succeeds remarkably.

Despite the common representation of Aira—perpetuated by himself, most of all—as a hyper-prolific writer, his prose is, at least in translation, extremely clear and vivacious. Where Borges gives us cold, stark, and unsympathetic voices of the infinite, Aira brings the ecstatic clarity of humanity. In this approach, there is a certain semblance to Walt Whitman, and in many ways, Aira is very comparable to the master poet, especially in their shared espousal of the self.

Artforum is an absolutely unique novel, one chracterized by the sheer beauty of its poetic voice, which needs no justification other than its own existence. Although Aira may never be fully appreciated as a literary writer due to his prolific output and his penchant for short texts, this slim novel is just as necessary as many of the other longer and more acclaimed novels by his international contemporaries.


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Norma Jeane Baker of Troy

Anne Carson
New Directions ($11.95)

by S. T. Brant

Norma Jeane Baker of Troy, the new poem-play by Anne Carson, is a formidable, defiant work. Those familiar with Carson’s work are accustomed to her accessible impenetrability—that sense that despite detecting some perfectly intelligible emotion, complete in itself, there’s always something lingering at the periphery. This is what makes Carson one of the most unique voices in contemporary poetry, with works such as Autobiography of Red, The Beauty of the Husband, her translations of Greek tragedies, and her seminal nonfiction study of love in ancient philosophy and literature, Eros the Bittersweet. There’s no other writer that can present such demands on a feather pillow for the reader, fuse erudition with insights so fluidly, and naturalize unorthodoxy in a manner preserving stylistic originality with timeless thought.

Reading Anne Carson is harvesting an abundance. Before you lies an immense field, rich with crops beyond measure, and you’re tasked with readying them; or you’re a horticulturist in Eden, cataloging creation, listing all the wilderness: this field work, this gardening, is reward past tally, but a Herculean labor nonetheless. She fulfills Shelley’s sublime standard: forsake the easy pleasures for the difficult; delay gratification for contemplation. In Norma Jeane Baker of Troy Carson gives us not an absurd theater but a negative one, and it requires that its readers rid themselves of certainty and ideology.

This is not a work with a plot that can be nailed down. The sole character is Norma Jeane, who is herself, Helen of Troy, and Truman Capote. The scenes fluctuate between Los Angeles and Troy as Norma Jeane’s identity fluctuates. In Carson’s negative theater, as one self empties itself out another fills that cask: the physical presence remains but the essence transmogrifies. As in all metamorphic works, we have a juggling of personas. Identity, to Carson, is always in a state of mixing up, combining, becoming something else through psychic osmosis or spiritual diffusion.

The dramatic design of this poem-play makes clear that Carson sees our figuring-out of our identities as an exhibition, no matter how private our conversations or internal self-algebra, staged in a frequented museum. We must wonder, Am I the only artwork in this place for the world’s flocking and observing, or is each of us a piece observed by another piece, exhibitions watching exhibitions? Desire, inner and outer, is a voice and a flashlight—we think the light is vital, but it is the voice we follow. Voice can lead in darkness. Light un-darks the dark. To Carson, the voice in the dark is preferable, because light can lead to illusion.

As the new world of Norma Jeane (AD) meets the classical world of Helen (BC), she takes on the self of Truman Capote desiring some mediation between herself and herself. Her image (her legend) is a wound; taken from her is a certainty about herself as she overhears who she is, enslaving her to the masses; Marilyn Monroe is a deception, othering Norma Jeane; when the opportunity to be someone, anyone, presents itself, her mind takes it and becomes that other, Truman Capote. The italicized words are central to the text, as many scenes are broken up by sections introducing a Greek word that gives a “lesson” about how the “History of War” has used this word as a concept. The Greek words (transliterated here; appearing in Greek script in the text) are: eidolon (“image, idol”), trauma (“wound”), Harpazein (“to take”), douleia, pallake (“slavery” and “concubine” respectively), apate (“deception, illusion, artifice”), barbarous (“other”), Kairos (“opportunity”), and tis (“someone, anyone”; this word changes grammatically based on the iota’s accent, an appropriately metamorphic word).

This newest publication by Carson, while not in the echelon of Autobiography of Red or the inspired puzzle Float, is nonetheless a worthwhile addition to her canon. The stage in your mind is the best place to let this poetic drama enact itself. The psyche and the text are so entwined in Carson’s cosmology that whatever joys her work gives in performance, her riches are best reaped from the page. You open your soul when you open an Anne Carson book, and you can feel, as you turn the page, something in you turn in conjunction.


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God’s Wife

Amanda Michalopoulou
Translated by Patricia Felisa Barbeito
Dalkey Archive Press ($16.95)

by Maria Hadjipolycarpou

Amanda Michalopoulou’s God’s Wife, originally published in Greek in 2014 and translated by Patricia Felisa Barbeito in 2019, masterfully weaves together overlapping narratives about divinity and humanity. The main character is on a journey of individuation and self-actualization, sharing her story of transformation from housewife to writer through the power of storytelling: “We are not the same person at the beginning and the end of a story.” The character awakens to the fact that she is unsatisfied with her life, gaining her sense of self from living with God, who loves her but neglects her deepest desires and existential inquiries. Her curiosity and boredom lead her into fascinating explorations of her body, human consciousness and sexuality, and connection to nature.

The religious fervor the narrator was raised in transformed, in adulthood, into devotion to her husband and desire for salvation through him. “We believe that salvation lies in directives sent to us from above, because that’s the way we are constituted: we need directives for everything,” writes Michalopoulou. Looking for answers about the nature of this bequeathed religious devotion, she reads ferociously. Reading philosophy, theology, and literature helps her shape a sense of self, escape God’s oppressive didacticism, and develop her own independent voice. The more God tries to prevent her from evolving into a new level of consciousness, to the point of hiding all pencils to prevent her from writing, the more she feels a sense of urgency to tell her story. “My biggest fear is ... that perhaps, defeated by doubt, I’ll leave these pages half-written and my story—my terrible story—untold.”

Hiding from God, she starts fulfilling her desire for adventure. As she sets out to write, the reader witnesses the transformation of the love story into a story of Creation, but there is a sense of infidelity, of undoing the conventional interpretation of the Biblical story. A steward of her own destiny instead of a sinner for eating forbidden fruit, God’s wife smoothly guides the reader through the depths of her intimate relationship with herself and the process of artistic creation—a form of soulful self-expression and truth telling in fiction. “It is on the doorstep of fiction that I lay all that went wrong between us.”


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Mercy: A Memoir of Medical Trauma
and True Crime Obsession

Marcia Trahan
Barrelhouse Books ($18)

by Mary Mullen

Marcia Trahan’s debut memoir, Mercy: A Memoir of Medical Trauma and True Crime Obsession, opens with the familiar narrative of a woman battling depression and a host of health problems escaping into true crime television drama. She is not simply watching, however—she is quick to let the reader know that what started as an interest quickly became an obsession. Her fascination with the subject is explored in the same analytical and neurotic ways many may have used to explore their own concerning behaviors—with investigative digging and a generous helping of self-loathing. Thankfully, Trahan also has a self-deprecating sense of humor. As she so genuinely confesses, “I thought I was a freak.” But her revelations about her own behavior quickly raised new inquiries into not only her own habits, but those of so many other women—the primary consumers of these true crime love-and-murder horror shows. She isn’t a freak; she’s following a popular pattern—but why? Trahan isn’t just exploring our television viewing habits, but the sensational ways women are depicted, and how the audience, women especially, consume those stories.

In this short memoir, Trahan has captured the slow and steady reveal well. She lets us in on a difficult childhood early in the narrative—not one, but two alcoholic parents, neither of whom ever seemed to apologize for how they lived their lives. The last baby of a big family, home alone with her parents, she brings to light her scars slowly, weaving them in and out of the health issues she navigates as an adult. Trahan also integrates the stories of serial killers and true crime dramas that she watches and the research holes she dives down to learn more. She doesn’t just study the true crimes themselves, but why it is we choose to consume them so compulsively. While her medical drama unfolds in a linear narrative, the rest of the book abandons chronology. The movement of the stories from her childhood, her relationship with her mother, and the love story of her and her partner all come out organically, in pieces, the narrative more concerned with how she is viewing her past in light of her traumas than with what happened next.

What Trahan does in this woven narrative is not what we expect from a patient, retrospective narrator. The conventional wisdom that we need our memoir’s protagonist to be likeable—especially if she is a woman—is abandoned. Trahan, instead, freaks out, and in doing so accomplishes what a memoirist really needs to: She is hopelessly honest on the page. She does it first when judging the poor choices of true crime victims on TV: “Part of the wicked fun of watching true crime is that women’s lives are laid bare, allowing female viewers to pick apart the intimate details, and to predict the trouble that’s coming.” We all know these stories are based on real life—but Trahan shows how we often consume them with a little too much pleasure and judgment.

Trahan is hard on herself, but she writes a flowing story of a woman who, unlike those she sees on TV, is unpredictable. She brings insight and vulnerability to hard moments as she realizes how her obsession with true crime manifested. In one passage, after she overreacts to her husband trying to help her cut her hair, she admits, “I felt small and ridiculous and damaged.” These tough assessments become a signature of our ruthless narrator. She doesn’t have a lot of sympathy for herself, even when she is drowning in her sorrows, and she doesn’t seem to be looking for sympathy from the reader either. Instead she is trying to figure out why she’s doing what she’s been doing, and how she can get to the other side of it.

The careful pacing of Mercy allows the reader to watch Trahan find the connections between where she came from, what she went through, and where she ended up—marooned on an island where other people’s horrors are her main escape. Her relentless self-exploration and doses of gallows humor make the pages of the book turn. Reading about this larger-than-life cultural obsession and Trahan’s experience will have readers pondering the reasons we consume true crime stories with such intense fascination.


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Sky-Quake: Tremor of Heaven

Vicente Huidobro
Translated by Ignacio Infante and Michael Leong
Co-im-press ($19.95)

by John Bradley

The translators have given this long prose poem a double title: Sky-Quake: Tremor of Heaven. This duality befits a book that Vicente Huidobro (1893-1948) published in both Spanish, Temblor de Cielo (1931), and French, Tremblement de Ciel (1932). Huidobro’s poetic of “Behead the monster that roars at the doorsteps of dreams. And then let no one forbid anything” applies to his doctrine of creacionismo, where “the poet is a god” and also to this particular work, which evokes the tragic love story of Tristan and Isolde.

Sky-Quake is broken into seven sections, yet even with these welcome breaks, the dense, wildly surreal prose makes for slow reading. Surrealist texts tend to work best in shorter forms, because once traditional narrative devices are discarded, longer surreal prose becomes hard to sustain—for writer and reader. One narrative device that Huidobro does employ in this volume is a constant address to Isolde: “Isolde, Isolde, how many miles separate us, how many sexes between you and me.” Despite the length (35 pages), Huidobro’s linguistic ingenuity never flags. The pyrotechnical language remains explosive throughout, no small feat. His inventiveness flares with passages like “The street of dreams has an immense navel from which the neck of a bottle peeps. Inside, there’s a dead bishop who changes color every time you shake the bottle.”

Huidobro’s Tristan is a cosmic entity, more mythic than mortal, who discloses such feats as “my throat once swallowed all the thunder in the sky.” He is obsessed with Isolde, whose characterization is problematic, as she’s completely passive. She’s a muse for the speaker, one that possesses no agency. In a passage that might allude to Lautreamont’s Maldoror image of a chance meeting of an umbrella and a sewing machine on a dissecting table, Huidobro writes: “Then I bent over you as if over a dissecting table, and, sinking my lips into you, looked at you; your womb resembled an open wound and your eyes the end of the world.” No doubt Huidobro wants to shock the reader, but this does not change the fact that his Isolde exists only as a sexual fantasy: “Share your breasts to kiss.”

If the reader can set this sexism aside, the book offers ample linguistic feats of imagination, on a par with the best work of Andre Breton and Federico Garcia Lorca. Huidobro’s imagery can astound, in lines like this: “Hypnotized zebras go galloping by and there are windows that open in the darkness like parasites glued to the night.” Much like Pablo de Rokha, a fellow Chilean surrealist poet, Huidobro infuses his poetry with his massive ego: “My heart is too large for all of you. You have measured your mountains: you know that Mount Gaurishankar is 8,800 meters high, but you don’t know nor will you ever know the height of my heart.”

Much neglected by English readers due to a lack of translation for decades, Huidobro seems to be enjoying something of a renaissance. Another version of this book was published last year by Shearsman Books, translated by Tony Frazer and this year Shearsman released Paris 1925: Ordinary Autumn & All of a Sudden, two works composed by Huidobro in Paris in 1925. Sky-Quake: Tremor of Heaven, with its trilingual format of English, Spanish, and French, and this wonderfully lucid translation by Infante and Leong, further establishes Vicente Huidobro as one of the most exciting voices of the early twentieth century. What other poet would dare to try to follow advice like this, given by an Aymara poet to Huidobro: “The poet is a god. Don’t sing about rain, poet. Make it rain.”


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

Son of Paper Son:
an interview with Koon Woon

Interviewed by David Fewster

Born in China in 1949, Koon Woon emigrated to the U.S. in 1960 to join his family, who owned or managed a series of restaurants in the coastal towns of Washington and San Francisco. In his twenties, Woon was diagnosed with severe bipolar disorder/paranoid schizophrenia and spent time in hospitals and institutions; in that same decade, he started writing under the tutelage of legendary professor Nelson Bentley at the University of Washington. In 1998, his book The Truth in Rented Rooms (Kaya Press), primarily set in the milieu of welfare hotels and subsidized housing in Seattle’s International District, garnered praise from Lawrence Ferlinghetti (“These poems set a thousand horses galloping in the Asian diaspora in which so many are caught.”), Sam Hamill (“natural, timeless, yet inevitable as a moonrise over the mountains”), and Bob Holman (“Li Po in modern drag, the voice of New America . . . Koon Woon has written THE TRUTH!”). And further accolades followed: Koon Woon won the American Book Award in 2014 for Water Chasing Water (Kaya Press), a collection spanning four decades of his poetry, and in 2017 he was featured on PBS NewsHour reading his poem “The High Walls I Cannot Scale (with apologies to Tu Fu)”; the segment has received over 1200 views on YouTube.

Generous in his support of other writers, Woon founded Goldfish Press in 2006; he also hosts the online journal Five Willows Literary Review and Chrysanthemum, his long-running, sporadically-produced journal, released the Chrysanthemum 2020 Literary Anthology last spring, featuring new work from writers in the Pacific Northwest and around the globe. His latest book is Rice Bowls: Previously Uncollected Words of Koon Woon.


David Fewster: Often in poems and conversation, you refer to yourself as a “paper-son poet.” What does that mean?

Koon Woon: My village was named Nan On, or South peace. Everyone in my village is named Lock. There are two other villages of the Lock clan adjacent to us. We are in the district of Sui Po in Toishan County, Kwangtung Province, on the Southern coast of China. Back in the latter part of the 1800s, there was a great famine in Toishan. Most of the men immigrated to America as “indentured servants.” My great-grandfather came to Hoquiam, Washington, where he operated a laundry and had shares in a restaurant. He was called Lock Lick, meaning he was a Lock and he had great strength. His English ability was quite good and so the mayor of Hoquiam went with him to the Lock villages to conscript 500 men to come over to build rails to logging areas. Old rail tracks can still be found in the woods in places like Humptulips, Washington. One of these men that my great-grandfather brought over was none other than the grandfather of our former governor Gary Locke (his family had anglicized their name.) Well, then, why is my name Woon?

Because of US immigration policy for much of Chinese American history, Chinese women were not allowed to come with their men. So Chinese immigrants went back to China for conjugal visits. Every time they’d go back to China, they’d report that they sired a son. And there would be a paper “documenting” that claim. My grandfather, however, never reported he had a son in China, his son being my father. And so when my father immigrated to the US, he purchased a “paper son” immigration paper from the Woon family and came over to the US as a Woon. My father thus assumed a false identity, and thus I am known as Koon Woon, when most Chinese people know I am a Lock.

When my father immigrated to America he joined his sister, my aunt Lock Gim Gee, in San Francisco. He worked in the Oakland Shipyards as a torch cutter on naval ships. He also went to night school to learn English. He was making good money, like many people in World War II. But wastrels enticed him to gamble. He would have a lunch all made up in his lunch box on the way to work and these gamblers would ask him to go gambling. He would lose all his money. He later told me that he had even slept on the streets. Finally, an older Chinese man asked him to go to Hollywood with him and work as a waiter. “I made enough money in wages and tips in one year that I was able to go back to China and see your mother,” he later told me. Apparently for several years he had sent no money to my mother. He must have gone back in 1948 for I was conceived and born February 2, 1949. My mother came to America when I was two, leaving me to the care of my maternal grandmother and an adopted sister who is nine years older than I am.

DF: So, you were obviously in China long enough to have memories of growing up there.

KW: I “killed” my grandmother in my mind almost two decades before she died. I caught the jet alone to leave China for America at age eleven. I had to leave her in China. I was her “little man” and I caught fish for her, watered her gardens, and got up at 3AM to help her make pastries for the holidays. She was the source of news about my father. I don’t remember her talking about my mother then. I could have suppressed all those memories. And what I remember is selective and that is not the work of solely the conscious mind either.

I would be watching the older boys fishing off the pier into the village pond. I don’t know how I was so clumsy, but three times I fell in and drank a belly full of water before an older boy lifted me out. It was all the more mysterious because the water was not over my head. Someone would send for my grandmother. That’s when she would trot the fastest she could in her bound feet. Later she would burn incense to invoke the gods to protect me, but the gods must be hard of hearing, because it happened three times. I asked my psychiatrist if I was trying to commit suicide. Now, with my life nearing the end, I surmise it was some kind of attempt to seek help. I was grieving!

DF: What were the early years like in America?

KW: One day in the early afternoon in Mr. Fare’s 7th grade English class at Hopkin’s Junior High in Aberdeen, I got called on the intercom to go to the Principal’s office. I was a little nervous walking down the hallway. I was only fourteen at this time and I had been in the U.S. less than three years from China. But when I got to the office, the only thing waiting for me was the phone. The Principal said that my father was on the phone.

My father said, “Here’s what I want you to do. Right after school, you go home and take bus to Montesano to help me at the restaurant.”

At that time in 1962, we were sardined in the housing project in the West End of Aberdeen, WA. There were ten of us living in a three-bedroom duplex, Our only source of income was my father’s employment as a cook. He had been working at the Smoke Shop restaurant owned by the mayor of Aberdeen as a breakfast cook when all of a sudden Sally offered him a job at the China Doll in Montesano, some ten miles east of Aberdeen.

At the backroom of the China Doll, as soon as I dished myself a plate of rice, my father criticized me for not eating enough. “It is going to be a long night,” he said, “you are going to need to work hard.” I was never robust as a child though. Malnutrition in China in my boyhood made me thin and weak and a bit bowlegged, with spine curvature from the lack of calcium. As soon as I finished eating, my father asked me to peel a big pot of boiled potatoes and make a huge mound of hash browns. The menu had steaks and chops beside chop suey and egg foo young.

The side work in a restaurant is endless. This was in the late afternoon, about four o’clock. My father had tons of things to do. He had to make sweet and sour spare ribs, fried rice, egg foo young, while I had to make batter for the deep-frying. He fortified himself with coffee and cigarettes. Those days there were no egg roll wrappers and you actually had to make your own wrappers out of eggs and flour in the wok and it was very delicate work. My father was able to do it since he had worked in large, fancy restaurants in San Francisco before he moved to Aberdeen. He moved to Aberdeen because he was planning a family, after my mother immigrated to America in 1951.

A SMOKE BREAK AT THE NUCLEAR COMMAND

We multitask—chop, grill, wok, and pickle.
They are fickle, can come at all hours, drunk,
after sex, before meetings; hucksters, gangsters,
no telling who wants what stir-fried,
steam rock cod with its head and bulbous eyes

My father at the meat block hacks spareribs, carves bone from chicken,
minces onions. Six sons chow the mein, French-fry the sausage,
whip the gravy, beat the eggs until you can fool
the young into thinking it’s sperm yanked from a calf.
Smoke signals say the pork chops are burnt, the white sauce
turning yellow, while waitresses ladle
soup. Sounds like feeding time at the zoo.
Chopsticks tingle from a corner booth,

On and on motors start and stop, doors open and shut,
Ice water is set down as menus are tossed. You need a minute?
Mom is helping the girls wash glasses and tea pots.
It would be sinful to run out of hot mustard during the rush.
My father drinks my coffee and I smoke his Marlboro,
two cowboys in a cattle drive fending off rustlers, and
damn! The waitress says that the women’s toilet has overflowed!

We’re going to go fishing as soon as our mental breakdowns are over with.
We’re going to take a smoke break from the nuclear command.
Just then, a party of 12 comes in—well, put two tables together,
like a man joining a woman, the yin and the yang, or kids with yo-yo’s.
We are a family doing family business, money for school books,
Mom’s dentures.

DF: What were some of your early literary enthusiasms?

KW: The first book that made me cry, I remember, was Charles Dickens’s “Oliver Twist.” But I did not feel I had any sensitivity to literature. I was more interested in reading philosophy. I read Nietzsche, Locke, Marx, Schopenhauer, Wittgenstein, John Wisdom (who was my philosophy teacher at the University of Oregon) and a host of analytic philosophers.

Although I was appointed literary chairman in my senior year at Aberdeen high school, my father did not allow me to stay after school to participate. All my teenage years were just school, work, and reading whenever I could get it in. I would also read books of a practical nature. I read books on buying and selling stocks, economic history, and even Mao Tse Tung’s books on literature and contradictions. My mind was bombarded with both Eastern and Western ideas; I read the Tao Te Ching and Freud in one breath.

When I arrived in Seattle, when I was 19, I hung around The Last Exit on Brooklyn, a coffeehouse in the University District made famous (or infamous) by these misfits of society as well as some of its geniuses. Neighbors from Aberdeen showed me the place and I fancied myself an intellectual-to-be. We were introduced to hashish and Hermann Hesse. Ya, the Bead Game! The chess champs of Washington State played chess there, including John Braille, who never wore socks or shoes, not even in winter, but he had a car and so it was not like he was imitating Jesus or anything. I wanted to be a chess bum and a street musician and wanted to get out!

DF: Around what time did you begin to study poetry seriously?

KW: About 1982, when I lived at the Republic Hotel in Seattle’s Chinatown. I lived in #317. I was being ridiculed and bullied in the U-District and I could ill-afford to eat when my room on 16th NE was $170 a month while my SSI was only $300 a month. I called my mother when I would have paranoia and she would yank the phone from its jack. She finally told her younger brother Chay to find a room for me where he lived, and that was it. The room was a tenement but it had one redeeming value—it had a small table that I can place a typewriter on. The rent was $60 a month.

Allen Hikada, my former teacher at Seattle Central Community College, told me that maybe I should take a workshop from Nelson Bentley at the UW. Hikada had done a Master’s Thesis under Bentley’s supervision. I went to Padelford Hall on the UW campus where the English Department was but N. B. was never in his office. I got impatient and I called his home.

“Have you done much of this poetry stuff?” he asked.

“Yes, even including some that you rejected,” I fibbed. And so he let me come to the evening workshop, which unofficially was open to anyone who was a current or a former student of the UW. I was not even in English. That tells you his generosity and kindness. I felt so grateful I would come a half an hour early and help him arrange the chairs in two concentric circles for his class.

Nelson Bentley was aware and encouraged people with mental or emotional problems to work them out through poetry. It was a workshop and not a class and therefore we came with poems already written. He defended the poet against criticism by the class and that made him a friend of everyone! He was affectionately known as “Nelson” by his students but I always called him Professor Bentley, which is a Chinese reverence for teachers.

Robert R. Ward, a student in Bentley’s class, and some others began a tabloid called the Bellowing Ark and that was where “Goldfish” was published, which led to a small literary prize at Bumbershoot and got me on the literary stage.

GOLDFISH

The goldfish in my bowl
turns into a carp each night.
Swimming in circles in the day,
regal, admired by emperors,
but each night, while I sleep,
it turns into silver, a dagger
cold and sharp, couched at one spot,
enough to frighten cats.

The rest of the furniture
squats in the cold and dark,
complains of being a lone man’s
furnishings, and plots a revolt.
I can hear myself snore, but not
their infidelity. Sometimes I wake
with a start, silently they move back
into their places.

I have been unpopular with myself,
pacing in my small, square room,
but my uncle said, “Even in a palace,
you can but sleep in one room.”
With this, I become humble as a simple
preacher, saying “I have no powers;
they emanate from God.”
With this I sleep soundly,

Fish or no fish, dagger or no dagger.
When I wake, my fish is gold,
it pleases me with a trail of bubbles.
My furniture has been loyal all night,
waiting to provide me comfort.
There was no conspiracy against a poor man.
With this I consider myself king.

DF: So, you named your press after your poem?

KW: Goldfish Press began in 2006 after I inherited money from my mother and I thought I would try my hand as editor/publisher. We published Jack and Adele Foley, Joe Musso, and Joel Kabakov, whose book Available Light was favorably reviewed by Harvard.

DF: There’s been a flurry of Goldfish Press activity lately. Last year you published HOIL: An Unfinished Elegy by the Bay Area Surrealist Ivan Arguelles (who is the 2013 American Book Award Lifetime Achievement recipient.) It was inspired by the poet’s son, who died in 2018 after suffering four decades from encephalitis. How did the book come your way?

KW: I believe Ivan just submitted to Goldfish Press on the recommendation of Jack Foley. HOIL is a heartbreaking story and a story of devotion.

DF: And just out is the 220-page Chrysanthemum 2020 Literary Anthology. You had mentioned Chrysanthemum a while back—exactly when did you start doing it?

KW: I started Chrysanthemum as a tabloid in 1990; then it morphed into a chapbook and we published two anthologies in 2006 and 2020.

DF: Wow, that’s 30 years. But let’s go back to the publication of your first book—how did that come about?

KW: One day in August 1996, yes, it was the fifth of August, I received a long distance call from Wisconsin and the inquirer asked me, “Are you the editor of Chrysanthemum?”

I said yes, and though I was not publishing my small zine at the time, I said I was willing to look at her work. And so she sent me a short story. Upon receiving it in a hypomanic mood, I wrote back, “This story is so horrible, please don’t send me any more work for five years.”

Instead of getting angry, Betty thought it was honest and hilarious. And so she called me frequently, even as I tried to block her calls. Finally I acquiesced and talked with her and found out she was a retired librarian. She then asked me whether I wrote poetry. I told her I did. She asked me to send a batch of them to her to look at. I sent twenty poems.

This started the avalanche. She immediately acted as my “agent” in sending my work to publishers. The first place we sent the poems to was the University of Hawaii and they wrote back immediately that they do not publish original poems but only translations from Asia. Betty then sent the poems to Kaya Press, which was in New York at the time. Julie Koo and Sunyoung Lee were the managing editor and literary editor at the time. They wrote back that they would seriously consider it. Two months later, they accepted my book.

Perhaps the human element of this book’s reach is worth more than any of the craft of the poems themselves.

The long and short of it is that the birth of The Truth in Rented Rooms, which received unexpected acceptance, led to my second book with Kaya, Water Chasing Water. This gave me the confidence I needed to return to school to finish my BA degree at Antioch University Seattle and my master’s in literary arts from Fort Hays State University.


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