Tuesday, March 23,
5:30 pm Central — FREE!
Join us for a special event about the many sides of Edward Said, the famed Palestinian literary critic, public intellectual, postcolonial studies trailblazer, political activist, and gifted pianist. Acclaimed American composer Nico Muhly, who was taught by Said at Columbia, will interview University of Minnesota professor and friend of Said's, Timothy Brennan, about his new comprehensive biography, Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said.
Books can be purchased during the event, or in advance here, from Magers & Quinn Booksellers in Minneapolis; click the button below.
About the Presenters
Timothy Brennan is the author of several books, including At Home in the World: Cosmopolitanism Now; Borrowed Light: Vico, Hegel, and the Colonies; and Salman Rushdie and the Third World: Myths of the Nation. His writing has appeared in The Nation, The Times Literary Supplement, and many other publications. He teaches at the University of Minnesota and has received fellowships from the Fulbright Program, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Nico Muhly is an American composer whose influences range from American minimalism to the Anglican choral tradition. The recipient of commissions from The Metropolitan Opera, Carnegie Hall, and others, he has written more than 100 works for the concert stage, including Marnie (2017), which premiered at the English National Opera. Muhly is a frequent collaborator with choreographer Benjamin Millepied and, as an arranger, has paired with Sufjan Stevens, Antony and the Johnsons, and others. He studied at Juilliard and Columbia, and lives in New York City.
Tuesday, March 16, 2021
5:30 pm Central
Join us as we present a conversation with the publisher of Enchanted Lion Books, Claudia Zoe Bendrick, and the illustrator of their new release The Snail with the Right Heart, Ping Zhu. These two creative visionaries will discuss the joys and challenges of indie publishing for the children's market, as well as their individual paths to creating their art. The conversation will be moderated by author, essayist, and editor Bruce Handy. Free to attend, registration required. We hope to “see” you there!
Books can be purchased during the event, or in advance here, from Magers & Quinn Booksellers in Minneapolis; click the button below.
About the Presenters
Claudia Zoe Bedrick is the publisher, editor, and art director of Enchanted Lion Books, an award-winning, independent publisher based in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Her sense of hope is nourished every single day by the unfettered minds and creativity of children everywhere, and by looking out and up into the sky each morning.
Ping Zhu is a small sentient speck in the Universe. Most days you will find her illustrating and running around in Brooklyn, NY. The Snail With the Right Heart is her second illustrated book with Enchanted Lion, following last year’s The Strange Birds of Flannery O'Connor. She believes in a full 8 hour sleep cycle for optimum recharge.
Bruce Handy is an author, journalist, essayist, critic, humorist, and editor. He is the author of Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult (Simon & Schuster, 2017), and has worked as a writer-editor at Vanity Fair, Time, Esquire, and Spy. He has contributed to the New York Times Magazine, the New York Times Book Review, and the New Yorker, as well as other publications that don’t have New York in their titles, including The Atlantic and the Wall Street Journal. His first book for young readers, The Happiness of a Dog With a Ball in Its Mouth, will be released by Enchanted Lion later this spring.
Expanded and Newly Translated
translated by David Hinton
New Directions ($18.95)
by John Bradley
“The original is unfaithful to the translation,” Jorge Luis Borges once wrote, making light of the eternal debate about the reliability of translations. Certainly this thorny topic arises once again with The Selected Poems of Tu Fu, as David Hinton also published a previous Selected Poems of Tu Fu thirty-one years ago (New Directions, 1989). Hinton, a well-known translator of classical Chinese texts, has revised the poems in the earlier collection and included more; this is exciting news for poetry readers, though the new volume is not without some problems.
Tu Fu (712-770 CE) is considered one of the greatest poets of China. He lived during a period of cultural richness in the T’ang Dynasty, but he also witnessed a devastating civil war, and was often ill during this time of turbulence, suffering from asthma, malaria, and rheumatism. Despite social unrest, poor health, and dire poverty, however, the last decade of his life was when he wrote most of his poems. While many translators have tried their hand at rendering Tu Fu into English, a new attempt is always welcome given the challenges of translating Chinese (no articles or pronouns, for example). Hinton certainly brings years of expertise to the task, having also translated the I Ching and Tao Te Ching, as well as works by Chuang Tzu, Confucious, Mencius, Li Po, and so many others. He recently added to his voluminous oeuvre Awakened Cosmos: The Mind of Classical Chinese Poetry (Shambhala, 2019), where he studies in depth nineteen poems of Tu Fu.
One of the most striking aspects of the new Selected is Hinton’s belief that Tu Fu was deeply influenced by Taoist/Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism. These teachings gave Tu Fu the perspective, in Hinton’s words, of “the empirical Cosmos as a single living tissue that is inexplicably generative.” He even refers to Tu Fu as a Taoist/Ch’an “adept,” which contrasts with his previous notion of Tu Fu as a poet steeped in a Confucian worldview that valued service and ethics. While Hinton may be correct about the influence of Taoist/Ch’an Buddhism on Tu Fu, unfortunately his use of philosophical terminology often feels imposed upon the poems. Take the opening line of “Yin-Dark Again”: “Dark-enigma winter bleeds through dark-enigma’s yin-dark / frontiers.” In Hinton’s notes, he explains that “dark-enigma is functionally equivalent to Absence—the generative, ontological tissue from which the ten thousand things spring—but Absence before it is named.” While it’s helpful to have this mysterious term defined, it would be even better if the translator had found a way to make the unwieldy term function in the poem itself, rather than as a philosophical concept that sends the reader to the back of the book for a rather dense explication.
Other problems in this translation also arise. As mentioned, there are no articles in the Chinese, so it must be tempting for a translator to avoid them altogether. But this solution isn’t ideal, as can be seen in this four-line “Cut-Short Poem”:
River sweeps moonlight across stone.
Stream empties mist-fringed blossoms.
Perched birds understand ancient Way.
Sails pass, spend night in whose home?
The missing articles, for some readers, will have the whiff of an Orientalist impulse to use broken English in an attempt to sound like a non-native speaker. To say “The river sweeps moonlight” may sound more prosaic, but it avoids inadvertent stereotyping.
Some readers will also feel confused by Hinton’s literal translations of place names. For example, the city of Ch’ang-an, now called Xian, in Hinton’s new translation becomes “Peace-Perpetua,” and Chengdu becomes “Altar-Whole City.” While these literal translations perhaps sound more poetic, they make the poems feel unlocated. In his 1989 Selected, Hinton used the transliterated names of towns in the poems, as when he opens “Moonlit Night” with the line “Tonight at Fu-chou.” Contrast this with his revised translation of the same line: “Tonight at Deer-Altar.” The new version sounds like the location of a religious rite, rather than a city.
As Tu Fu has been much translated, some readers may want to compare Hinton’s new translations with versions by others as well. Here is Hinton’s “Thoughts Brimful: Cut-Short Poems,” number 9, in its entirety:
Delicate willows swaying outside my door—slender,
graceful as a girl’s waist at fifteen: who was it saying
Just another morning, same as ever? That wild wind
broke them down: the longest, most elegant branches.
And here is Kenneth Rexroth’s translation of the same poem, which he entitles “The Willow,” in One Hundred Poems from the Chinese (New Directions, 1971):
My neighbor’s willow sways its frail
Branches, graceful as a girl of
Fifteen. I am sad because this
Morning the violent
Wind broke its longest bough.
Rexroth’s version offers a clearer poem, though he takes the liberty of adding “I am sad” and does not include the “Who was it” question Hinton does. Still, Rexroth created a poem in English that has focus and grace, which—however difficult—should be the translator’s aim.
Hinton is at his best when he avoids philosophical terminology and provides Tu Fu’s voice and sensory detail, as seen in “Returning Late”:
Past midnight, eluding tigers on the road, I return
home in mountain darkness. Family asleep inside,
I watch the Northern Dipper drift low to the river,
and Venus lofting huge into empty space, radiant.
Holding a candle in the courtyard, I call for more
light. A gibbon in the gorge, startled, shrieks once.
Old and tired, my hair white, I dance and sing out:
goosefoot cane, no sleep . . . Catch me if you can!
Though some might argue that the phrase “goosefoot cane, no sleep” should come before “I dance and sing out,” the poem stays grounded in the incident and the emotion. Tu Fu’s sense of playful foolishness shines through.
Perhaps it was poverty and bad health that made Tu Fu feel so vulnerable and so empathetic in his poems. He speaks not as a scholar, but as one who has witnessed the consequences of war on his fellow citizens. The poem “Asking Again” shows his awareness of the cost of war even on those far from battle:
Couldn’t we just let her filch dates from the garden?
She’s a neighbor, childless and without food, alone:
only desperation would bring her to this. We should
treat her like family. It will ease her fear and shame.
She knows us now, but strangers from far away still
frighten her. A fence would only make things worse.
Tax collectors hound her, she says, keeping her bone
poor. How suddenly war rifles thought, leaving tears.
The resonance of the line “A fence would only makes things worse” shows readers how a poem written over a thousand years ago still speaks to us today. Tu Fu’s vulnerability is even more touching in the poems about his family, as seen in the closing lines of “Hundred Worries Gathering Chant”:
and when I return home, everything’s the same as ever:
cupboards empty, old wife sharing the look on my face.
Silly kids, still ignorant of the ritual esteem due a father:
angry, screaming at the kitchen door, they demand food.
Over and over, it’s Tu Fu’s humanity and humility that make him worthy of the attention he continues to attract from generations of translators and readers. The new Selected only confirms this. Even with its problems, Hinton’s book deserves wide readership, as Tu Fu’s poetry offers so much: insight into a historical period, into a prominent nation and culture, and, most of all, into the human psyche. One may wonder, though, if the poet’s “Catch me if you can!” doesn’t stand as a call to future translators of his work. While Hinton’s new Selected is a cause for celebration, let’s hope that following translators bring their craft to give us yet new versions of the poetry of Tu Fu.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2020-2021 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2020-2021
by Don Messerschmidt
Keith McCafferty’s latest novel, The Bangtail Ghost, begins with a strange and violent death at the end of a forest road in the mountains of Montana. Blood in the snow, a puma whisker, paw prints, and drag marks lead to the remains of a woman’s mutilated body. If these first few clues were all there were, Sheriff Martha Ettinger might have declared it an unfortunate misadventure, but when the mystery deepens with screams in the night, a flickering light, and a growing list of missing persons, she hires the private detective Sean Stranahan to help sort it out.
After the dead woman’s profession and some of her clients are exposed, what looked at first to be a straightforward case of mountain-lion-kills-innocent-woman turns into a conundrum. Then, with evidence of more than one mountain lion and human interference, a professional tracker with hounds is engaged to help Stranahan hunt them down, only to wonder if they, too, are being stalked.
Once you’ve read a Keith McCafferty mystery you’ll recognize the style, a rapidly rising drama that turns into a whopping good whodunit—or in The Bangtail Ghost, a what-dunit. The author is a master at writing tense, gripping page-turners. His Montana-set Westerns, however, are unlike the classics of Louis L’Amour or Zane Grey. Rather, starting with his first novel, The Royal Wulff, McCafferty has written compelling, contemporary, and adventurous mysteries. Each plot reflects the author’s combined expertise as a Field & Stream magazine editor, an angler, a hunter, and an expert on camping, hiking, backpacking, and fishing. Adept at weaving passion into his stories, it is no surprise that he has become known as the founder of a unique sub-genre known as “fly-fishing noir.”
McCafferty’s characters are modern, earthy Montanans whose lives reflect openness and good humor—and, at times, darkness. They have come from all walks of life to settle in the changing American West. They live, talk, walk, hunt, fish, drink, and shoot pool together, and occasionally get caught up in strange doings. Sean Stranahan, the series’ protagonist, is also a talented painter and a popular fishing guide who demonstrates while working his cases both where to cast the best hand-tied flies and how to entertain readers.
Each of McCafferty’s novels reflects his own experiences in the wild, combined with in-depth research to sustain realistic plots. For example, Cold Hearted River (sixth in the series) involves the (fictitious) discovery of a trunk full of fishing gear and some early writings that once (in real life) belonged to Ernest Hemingway. A Death in Eden (the seventh) derives from actual public outcries over a proposed copper mine in the head-wa¬ters of the Smith River and the likelihood of it spewing environmental destruction. In The Bangtail Ghost (the eighth novel), McCafferty reveals his immense knowledge of mountain lions that sometimes become man-eaters, intermixed with some nefarious activities attributed to one or another of the novel’s shady characters.
It’s been said that all books are mysteries, and Keith McCafferty’s award-winning Westerns prove it. His books are worth reading because what lures us all is something the tracker points out to the private eye while stalking and being stalked in the mountains. “We like a yarn,” he says. Indeed!
Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2020-2021 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2020-2021
Interviewed by Ashley Inguanta
Chris Wiewiora knows how to begin and begin again. He was born in Buckhannon, West Virginia, and then as a child he started a new life in Warsaw, Poland, with his parents, who were undercover Evangelical missionaries there. Wiewiora grew into an adult in Orlando, Florida, beginning his life again in the United States with his parents.
In 2010, Wiewiora graduated from the University of Central Florida with an Honors in the Major degree in English. He dedicated himself to The Florida Review as an assistant editor while completing his thesis, attending a close-knit writing group and crafting espresso drinks at a corporate coffeeshop. Wiewiora’s time at UCF prepared him to earn a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing and Environment from Iowa State University, where he also joined the masthead of Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment as the managing editor.
Wiewiora’s travelogue memoir, The Distance Is More Than an Ocean (Finishing Line Press, $14.99), encompasses so much of his life in such a small space—like a poem, but not quite. Here, readers get the chance to open this book like a gate to a duplex with halves in two countries, observing one human being, both as a boy and as a man, discover his voice. In this memoir, an adult Wiewiora wisely and patiently questions his memory, but at all ages, he courageously seeks something inside of himself, something like belonging, but deeper. As a former Florida Review intern and UCF alum myself, I was pleased to interview Chris Wiewora about this work.
Ashley Inguanta: The Distance Is More Than an Ocean is a beautiful book. I can feel the water leading me through young Chris’s story, from his mother soaping up her hand injury, to the swimming pool at the Polish school he attended, to the rain pouring on his older self and his aged father. Young Chris wishes to return to West Virginia and this wish somehow leads him down a path that unites his Polish and American pieces.
There are so many moments of joining in this travelogue memoir. The first moment of joining I noticed is the poem that opens the book, “Patching up the Past with Water” by James Seay. Tell me about how this connection to Young Chris’s journey originated. When did you read this poem, and when did it strike you how deeply it connects with your memoir?
Chris Wiewiora: My undergrad poetry thesis adviser at UCF, the poet Judith Hemschemeyer, gave me books. Every week I came to her office and she would read a poem or two of mine, mark the pages with blue pen (apparently less harsh than red), and then send me off with a book off the shelves lining an entire wall. Hemschemeyer (I could never call a woman nearly as old as my grandmother by her first name) was in her final years of teaching and she was passing along the treasures she had collected; she didn’t hold onto her hoard. She gave me Seamus Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist, Yusef Komunyaka’s Neon Vernacular, and a signed copy of Czeslaw Milosz’s Bells in Winter. What gems! These were books of language meant for me to hear the world, voice, and the past.
Hemschemeyer gave me the gift of reading, which lasts much longer than the gift of writing—we learn more as writers from reading than from writing. Isn’t that the point of the workshop, to learn about our writing by reading others’ writing? Somewhere in all of those books, Hemschemeyer gave me Water Tables by James Seay. It wasn’t until I was in grad school at Iowa State that I connected deeply with the poem “Patching up the Past with Water.” From 2009 to 2013 or so that poem just sat between the book’s covers between so many other books on one of my shelves.
I had wanted to use an epigraph for my graduate thesis that was as true as what my friend Andrew Payton had in a Donovan lyric that encapsulated his novel, Blasting at Big Ugly, about resisting mountain top removal. I wanted something that considered the fluidity of memory; how it can be contained, but also acknowledging that it spills. I sat in front of my bookshelf and pulled out poetry collection after poetry collection, many from Hemschemeyer, until I opened up Seay’s book and the lines of that poem shone like quicksilver. I knew that that stanza would be the epigraph and through several changes of containers and spills of my manuscript that epigraph remained as the place for readers to begin.
AI: The Distance Is More Than an Ocean is structured in a way that feels like the ocean. We have multiple sections here that begin, pause and roll back, and then begin again. We move forward into modern-day Chris’s life in Orlando, writing essays among the palm trees and egrets; and then we move back to young Chris, wishing he could dive deep into reading and writing in English, all the while being strongly encouraged to learn Polish. The structure of this memoir feels anchored by beginnings. When did you start writing about your time spent living in Poland? What pushed you to continue?
CW: Death started and ended this exploration. In 1996, my maternal grandmother Almond died just before my parents moved our family from Warsaw, Poland, to Orlando, Florida. As a child, I poured the two moments—her death and our move—into the same container of memory. I didn’t open that memory for years.
In her poetry workshop, after some awful poems about losing my faith as well as some about Ted Hughes and Silvia Plath (I had gone through a breakup with a Christian girl), Hemschemeyer suggested I write about something particular, something about my family. I wrote a poem called “Hometown” set in Buckhannon, West Virginia, where my mother was born and where I was born—both beginnings. But the poem was about the small town and my grandparents and them both dead and buried where I was birthed. That poem felt like the first poem that only I could write.
But none of that poem was about my time spent in Poland, it was only about my maternal side. My paternal side was from Poland, where I also grew up and where we ended up returning for a father-and-son trip when I was in college. Hemschemeyer must have known that I had more to write and she kept encouraging me as my poems began to explore my father’s Polish neighborhood in Chicago and our Orlando suburb. Around this time I found out via my friend Tina Kopic about the Honors in the Major thesis that an undergrad could do at UCF. And so I started what would become a poetry collection titled Side by Side.
I began writing poetry as an undergrad, but by graduation I had begun to feel that I didn’t possess the craftsmanship with meter. I understood and could conjure imagery. I became more interested in truth—or at least, perceived truth—and actually, I began writing what would become The Distance Is More Than an Ocean with an essay that I thought was just a one and done requirement for the Honors College. In the essay, I wrote, “We moved back to the States, because my grandmother died.” My father, a copy editor, read my essay and gave it back to me with the word “because” circled with a question mark in the margin and then offered the replacement, “around the time.” I had poured the death of my maternal grandmother and our returning to the States from Poland—those two moments—into the same container of memory.
In graduate school I wanted to explore that dynamic: between the moment and the memory. I didn’t return to poetry. I began again in nonfiction—a genre defined by what it isn’t, instead of what it is. I wouldn’t yet figure out what my manuscript wasn’t until I wrote what it was. So, I overfilled the container of my graduate thesis, including essays about going back to Poland with my father as well as essays about West Virginia and Florida and my family’s Evangelical faith. During my defense, my graduate thesis chair and then later a university press editor told me that I needed to find a through line—a major narrative thrust—for my manuscript. I was told it was about my Polish grandmother who survived the Nazi slave camps; I was told it was about my parents’ Evangelical faith.
It wasn’t until after grad school, after my paternal Polish grandmother’s death, that I began what would become the final version of The Distance Is More Than an Ocean. I began writing my poems about family in 2008; I began again with my nonfiction about growing up and going back to Poland with my father in 2018. I wrote and re-wrote through a decade because I was captivated by my past—shaped by my grandmothers—and I wanted to distill it into a container, a way to hold onto something as slippery as memory.
AI: One of my favorite things about this book is how you explore your relationship with language. Young Chris’s connection to the English language feels sacred. I know you spent a great amount of time studying at the University of Central Florida with Judith Hemschemeyer (who is also a translator), Jocelyn Bartkevicius, and the late Jeanne Leiby. How have your Orlando teachers shaped you?
CW: My teachers—more like godmothers who gave me gifts of their practices—revealed the timeline of language.
Hemchemeyer gave me books. She gave me the gift of reading the past. She literally gave me her books from poets who cornerstoned modern cultures of poetry, for instance, Milosz and Polish poetry.
Jocelyn gave me insight. She gave me the gift of writing in the present, while considering the past. She understood how memory takes shape in the way we remember it.
Jeanne gave me literary magazines. She gave me the gift of publishing in the future. She valued the word that was read and the word that was written and knew the writing that would be read.
My first publication was an essay in South Loop Review—a now-defunct Chicago lit mag—that I had first read in the office of The Florida Review and that I submitted to during a break from my poetry, after taking all of Jocelyn’s classes, and after apprenticing with Jeanne.
AI: When returning to any memory, even your memories of studying writing at UCF, there are layers: The memory itself and the moment it originated. You remember a lot of details: The red tie your principal wore, the “puke-green” tiles around the pool at the Polish school. What techniques do you use to bring back these memories? Tell me more about your relationship with memory and nonfiction writing, especially as you moved from studying and writing poetry to dedicating yourself to prose.
CW: As a beginner writer, I had to discover the techniques that worked for me. I explored the senses in poetry. I don’t remember where I acquired this technique, but I call it a 5x5. On lined notebook paper, I would write the words taste, touch, sound, smell, sight with five lines between them. Then, I would imagine a moment—later, a scene—and I would write down the senses that came to my mind. I would list 25 sensory words and phrases, but I wouldn’t plan to use them all. I would circle the best—be it unique or expected or just my favorite that I wanted to return to—line from each sense. But I wouldn’t use those five different senses. Then, I would consider those five and cross out all but one.
Who knows if that one sense was the best? But the process of considering all of the senses in that moment was more important than what I might use. I’m a writer when I’m writing, but I had to get myself to start writing and sometimes that took 25 words or just one.
AI: Let’s roll back into the memoir itself, focusing on the scene where young Chris is turning nine. He is in Poland, and he is about to move back to the States with his family. Your parents were Christian missionaries in Warsaw. An ocean separates Poland and the U.S., but, as you write this memoir, the distance is more. Like the moon shapes the ocean waves and the ocean shapes the land, religion shapes many things about who we are. Can you tell us more about how your family’s faith has affected your relationship to these two places?
CW: In Warsaw, during the late ’70s until the early ’90s my parents served as Evangelical missionaries, meaning they told Polish people about Jesus. They served in Poland during Soviet Communism when being a missionary was illegal. My father had a “furniture business” as a cover for them being overseas. My mother said she was a student and took Polish classes, but only learned to speak in the present tense. After I was born in the States, they brought me to Warsaw where the capital was home, but church was family.
Both of my parents helped found the Warsaw International Church where I got to know Poles and Canadians and Koreans. I remember walking through the rebuilt old town. I remember the cement-gray days and the dots of dandelions like promises of spring sun. I remember checking our coats in the lobby. I remember the hymns sung by the Polish choir. I remember the pastor’s show-and-tell children’s sermon. I remember doodling on the bulletins. I remember eating kimbop and playing with kids when my mom did Bible studies. I remember drinking tea in pewter mugs that held glass cups. I remember a guy who showed us his prototype for a board game he called Flip-Flash, which was kinda like Bananagrams and Scrabble.
Flip-Flash felt like our move back to the States, to Orlando. My parents took us to University Carillon United Methodist Church, a nearly-mega church near the soon-to-be mega-university UCF. We drove along Lake Underhill when there were still cattle in the fields instead of storage units for overstuffed suburbs. We drove past the new Waterford Lakes and the still being built 408 expressway and an open lot where dirt bikes jumped from pile to pile. We parked under a lone tree in the goopy asphalt parking lot and then chilled under the air conditioner. We worshipped to a rock-n-roll band hailing Jesus and listened to a pastor preach into a handless mic. We held hands in the benediction with mostly white—non-specific European heritage people—and also Caribbean, Latin, and Hispanic families. Only I drank coffee, but we all ate donuts under the awning. The humidity sucked up into the rolling clouds that would crack open on our drive home back to Deerwood where there are no deer and not much wood.
AI: We learn in The Distance that the memory of West Virginia is important to young Chris, especially as he is longing for the English language in Poland. With desperation to return to the States—to return home—he remembers strawberry patches at his grandparents’ house, hills, their dog. When you wrote this memoir, or really when you write anything, you could say you are re-sparking that voice you couldn’t wait to use as a kid. Your Grandma Almond eventually paid for you to attend an English-speaking school in Poland. What would you like to say to her, now that you’ve published your first book?
CW: “Thank you; I love you.” I would say that over and over again.
But really more than me saying something I would want to hear her. I don’t remember Grandma Almond’s voice or her laugh or her songs. I only remember her face from photos. I can’t recall her smell, even though my mom says that she always wore Chanel No. 5. I can’t even remember her lap where I know she read to me. Again, I would want to hear her and I know that it would be as lovely as the trill of her favorite bird (also the mascot of Iowa State) the cardinal saying, “What-cheer, what-cheer!”
Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2020-2021 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2020-2021
translated by Kristina Andersson Bicher
The Bitter Oleander Press ($21)
by Greg Bem
The speaker in I walk around gathering up my garden for the night, Swedish poet Marie Lundquist’s debut poetry collection from 1992 now translated into English by Kristina Andersson Bicher, is concerned with constraint and liberation, the effort “to survive in a bounded space.” It is a book of small but mighty blasts of verse: The poems often have no more than ten lines, and they present startling and dense combinations of image and reflection.
Lundquist’s careful tweaking of tense and perspective provide the book its critical charge. Take the following poem, composed of just two lines, which opens the book: “Two women watch over your grave. / Me and the person I could have been.” Here Lundquist combines reality and an alternative to create, at once, a schism and a spectrum of experience. Each succeeding poem similarly slices open expectation to reveal additional layers and depths, which the poet then leans over, peers into, and conveys to the reader.
Throughout the book, Lundquist opens her poems by merging the abstract with the cinematographic, and the result is both terrifying and exhilarating, as in “The night porter reaches out his hand”: “His nails are shiny like windows. / I fall from the seventh floor.” Playful to the point of risk and danger, Lundquist constructs brief moments that are difficult to interpret. The form of relatively linear poetry serves as a marvelous and disruptive arena for this iterative, jagged movement, and reflects a mature and dominant mind behind the individual lines, akin to Sylvia Plath or Adrienne Rich.
With a sometimes cynical sense of humor, Lundquist uses the objective world to support, like scaffolding, her cinematics. Each ordinary object feels exquisite and otherly, even Lynchian at moments:
We sit at the kitchen table and eat our
meatballs. You don’t understand why I
am drawn to your body. I just want to stick
my hands in.
Humor meets horror meets feminist incising, strikingly similar in tone to the visceral works of South Korea’s Kim Hyesoon. Occasionally Lundquist’s images stretch themselves into the realm of the absurd, offering moments of respite in their ability to stun: “One time her handbag opens like a / revelation. Its contents consist of burning / meat.” The images strike and pummel their way into otherwise drab and forlorn circumstances, experiences of cruelty and vague disdain.
The Kafkaesque reality that plagues the speaker is one that reflects a variety of nightmarish paradigms, just as the book’s title suggests a certain fatigue but continuation through it all. In “A grown man gently lays a woman down,” Lundquist briefly sketches the disturbing similarities between objectification of women and a child’s play with insects. In “She was more afraid than her child was,” the speaker’s clearest understanding of domestic conflict is through the most violent image in the poem: the thunder.
As translator Kristina Andersson Bicher remarks in her useful introduction, “There’s authenticity in league with surrealism. Earnestness holding hands with irony. While the emotional terrain explored is intense, devasting even, Lundquist’s tone remains arms-length. The voice is calm but never seeks to comfort.” That calmness and comfort is especially entrancing as Lundquist brings together an array of experiences that define entire lives.
Perhaps the work of I walk around gathering up my garden for the night is best summed up as both world building and deconstruction at once. It often involves a movement through the anthropomorphic and absorptive, the speakers and characters merging with each environment. Whirling and blending, as destructive as it sounds, reflects harmony and universality. Ultimately this process allows for the speaker to “Become grief,” as one poem directs; Lundquist indicates over and over, from blurry scene to blurry scene, that this process if one of both pain and healing, affording clarity, catharsis, and reconciliation to a world built upon harm and conflict.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2020-2021 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2020-2021
Edited by Chuck Palahniuk, Richard Thomas, and Dennis Widmyer
with illustrations by Rachel Jablonski
Turner Publishing Company ($17.99)
by Ben Arzate
Burnt Tongues is a collection of twenty stories from authors who frequented Chuck Palahniuk's The Cult website. Originally published in 2014, it went out of print when the publisher Medallion Press went out of business; it's now being brought back with new artwork by Turner Publishing. As one would expect with understudies of Palahniuk, the stories are often gross, transgressive, full of dark humor, and written with direct, minimalist prose. While the least of them just read like rote copies of Palahniuk, the best take these elements and use them to make unique stories.
The anthology doesn't put its best foot forward with “Live this Down” by Neil Krolicki, in which three high school girls recount their bullying and humiliations as they plan their suicides. It contains exactly the kind of gross-out and trivia obsession typical of Palahniuk's work, and doesn't feel much like its own story. There is a similar problem with “Heavier Petting” by Brien Piechos, in which a stripper tells a story about a friend of a friend engaging in bestiality. I'm fairly certain there’s a Palahniuk story about almost exactly the same thing.
However, the majority of the stories do find their own voice. One that stands out is “Bike” by Bryan Howie; a simple, almost Raymond Carver-esque story about a father repainting his son's bicycle, it builds to a single sentence at the end which is ambiguous but gut-punchingly effective. It's probably the best example in the book of the power of simple sentences.
Tony Liebhard’s “Mating Calls” takes the trope of a narrator dropping trivia, often used by Palahniuk, and repurposes it to great effect. The narrator is a lonely college student who finds a phone that belongs to a popular, pretty girl. He finds himself resenting his need to hold onto it until he can get it back to its owner and annoyed by the constant calls she receives from friends that emphasize how socially isolated he is. He tries throwing himself into his schoolwork and fantasizing about becoming romantically involved with the phone's owner, but none of it eases his mind.
“Invisible Graffiti” by Adam Skorupskas is like a Tom Waits song made into a short story. A mute, alcoholic home inspector meets a homeless junkie in an abandoned building; the two go out drinking, having fun, and end up falling in love, though the story ends on an ambiguously tragic note. One would think that all these elements stacked on top of each other would result in a grotesque self-parody, but the excellent prose, sincerity, and humor make it come together very well.
Almost all of the stories are realist, however one clear horror/speculative fiction piece ends the book, Daniel W. Broallt’s “Zombie Whorehouse.” A journalist goes undercover to expose a brothel where all the women are zombies. Zombies have become a bit of a dead trope, so to speak, due to overexposure in the past decade, yet this story puts a unique spin on the idea. While it includes images common to zombie tales, such as being overwhelmed by the mindless hoard, it also includes a feminist subtext and one of the darkest endings in the book.
Despite a couple weak stories, Burnt Tongues is a solid collection of new voices in transgressive fiction. It goes without saying that it’s not for those with weak stomachs, but those who like their fiction edgy and dark will love this book.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2020-2021 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2020-2021
Wednesday, March 10, 2021
5:30 pm Central
Join us for a special event featuring one of LitHub’s Most Anticipated Books of 2021! Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction (W.W. Norton) is a vibrant history of the modern conservation movement by acclaimed science writer Michelle Nijhuis. As the effects of climate change escalate the dangers to our planet, Beloved Beasts charts the ways conservation can protect all species—including our own.
At this special event, Nijhuis will appear in conversation with acclaimed writer, artist, and historian Jenny Price. Free to attend, registration required. We hope to “see” you there!
Books can be purchased during the event, or in advance here, from Magers & Quinn Booksellers in Minneapolis; click the designated links below. The first 15 people to buy a copy of Beloved Beasts will receive a signed bookplate and a specially designed Field Notebook with cover art from the book!
About the Authors
Michelle Nijhuis is a project editor at The Atlantic, a contributing editor at High Country News, and an award-winning reporter whose work has been published in National Geographic and the New York Times Magazine. She is coeditor of The Science Writers’ Handbook and lives in White Salmon, Washington.
Jenny Price is a writer, artist, historian, and author of Flight Maps: Adventures with Nature in Modern America. Her new book Stop Saving the Planet! An Environmentalist Manifesto, is due out later this year. She lives in St. Louis, Missouri.
W.W. Norton & Company ($26.95)
by Walter Holland
Stanley Plumly, who died in April of 2019, was often regarded as “the most English of American poets,” or even “the American Keats.” This high praise was borne out by his lyric melancholy, attentiveness to nature, and personal introspection characteristic of Romantic poetry.
Middle Distance, Plumly’s final book, is a coda of sorts to the poet’s vast and creative career. Completed two months before his death, the manuscript was shepherded posthumously to print by David Baker, Michael Collier, and Margaret Forian Plumly. The opening poem, “White Rhino,” is representative; in it, Plumly presents himself as facing mortality and by extension extinction—much like the last known northern white rhinoceros that died in Kenya in 2018. As is so common in Plumly, animals and birds haunt his world and are used symbolically as vehicles to convey complex reflections on human behavior, emotions, and loneliness. “Old age is a disguise, the hard outside, the soft inside,” Plumly writes. Then he poignantly observes:
. . . I hardly recognize myself except in
memory, except when the mind overwhelms the lonely
body. So I lumber on, part of me empty, part of me
filled with longing—I’m half-blind but see what I see,
the half sun on the hill. How long a life is too long,
as I take my time from here to there, the one world
dried-out distances, nose, horn, my great head lifted down,
the tonnage of my heart almost more than I can carry.
This is classic Plumly, one that carries fraught human emotions on passing time and death. Frequently he deals with the ephemeral yet eternal sense of nature along with the burden of existential emptiness. These ideas are seamlessly juxtaposed with the revivifying force of memory along with memory’s power to create myth and haunting sublimity out of everyday gestures. Like Keats and the other British Romantics, Plumly’s poems revolve around the intimation of immortality, and the powerful longing in the face of mortality. Memory is the only salve for the harsh destructive present, especially the assault on nature by mankind. Memory as well is an evolutionary function of biological survival, especially if we are doubters of the afterlife. It serves as both curse and adaptation, our only link with the concept of the eternal.
In a wonderful interview with Plumly by Peter Davison in the January 8, 2003 Atlantic Unbound, Plumly makes several statements that get to the core of his views on writing poetry and Keats:
When Keats speaks of "the holiness of the heart's affections" and links such absolutes as the imagination, beauty, and truth, when he questions life in the terms of art, it lifts the activity of poetry to some ultimate purpose. Simply put, poetry is the thing in my life that has made the most sense and remained the one constant.
Another part of the influence is the nature of Keats's text itself . . . the richness, the density of his poems, the way in which language is always in multiple places at once—generous, physical, and most of all quick. I think it's the speed of his connections that makes him the most modern of the Romantics; that, and his sense that the poem is its own world or—as he puts it—"that which is creative must create itself."
As does Keats, Plumly looks at nature as our originary teacher. All the imponderable mysteries and intractable questions of beauty, art, and human existence can be found there. It is our truest “objective correlative” and yet through evolution we have left nature behind and suffer as a result alienation. Plumly goes on to say:
My sympathy, obviously, is with nature, while at the same time feeling separate. Our separateness is one of our basic themes in poetry. I sometimes think that the closer you feel with the natural world the closer you can be with other people. This may be Wordsworthian, but it's true. Nature is a teacher. The more we, as a culture, alienate ourselves from it the more alien we become.
A Plumly poem is visually intense and evocative, cinematic in its attention to detail and gesture, and sensual in its play of sight and sound. A single, vividly described scene or image usually pulls us into a ruminative meditation on loss, love, or longing; this leads to an end line that presents a strange epiphany. More commonly than not Plumly ends his poems with a volta, or “turn,” usually placed at the end of the first octave in the classic sonnet. The volta functions as a dramatic change in thought, emotion, and rhetoric, leading to the resolution of the question posed at the poem’s beginning. It affirms closure. Plumly, however, attenuates or interrupts this epiphany by frequently shifting the poem into a liminal state of suspension, leaving us with an image which suggests transcendence but also doubt. This technique achieves a haunting quality as discordant as an off-rhyme. Plumly comments:
I prefer an attenuated narrative, an interrupted, delayed narrative. Narrative, I believe, is indispensable to the lyric; it's what makes it move instead of spinning its wheels. It's what motivates the poem to turn, to go on, continue, rather than simply returning, over and over. Narrative provides the major formal tension to the lyric stability in a poem. It's what causes the line to turn the corner. What is a "story" anyway but someone speaking, drawing a line that assumes a shape, a shape that becomes a figure. But a line too straight is uninteresting; that's why the "narrative" must break, bend, meander; that's why indirection and juxtaposition are so important to maintaining the intensity, the surprise all art needs to keep the music going, the line moving. It's the strength Keats at his best that he depends, even in the odes, on a narrative base-line; it's what brings his lyric drama to life.
This “break,” “bend,” and “meander,” this “indirection and juxtaposition,” are clearly important to Plumly. It’s what leads to his frequent erratic rhetorical turns at the end of his poems. A wonderful example of this is found in Middle Distance with “Planet.” The poem meanders through a narrative of Plumly’s youth, arriving later at its central image: a polio-stricken “true angel” from his school who has been placed in an iron lung as a last resort to save her. This girl, “whose beauty was enough” for the young Plumly, is described as a romantic focus of Plumly’s for many years: “For too many years I dreamed of her or someone like her / at the far end of a platform or at a window on a train/ slowly coming in, her face half profiled in the late evening sunlight / the way, in the way of recurring dreams, we fall in love.” This unrequited love, this dream romance, becomes an image of ephemeral beauty, death, and time—and holds as well a sense of the “separateness” in human life, where spiritual and idealistic absolutes are suspicious and insupportable in the physical world. The poem’s closing offers a series of rhetorical questions and juxtapositions of contrary thoughts:
. . . and then a day it happens,
and you can see in the light blue marbling of her eyes how this
was meant to be, except it wasn’t, it was dreaming of another kind,
once the closing dark has subtracted everything—
was she beautiful, lying there, nineteen fifty-one,
dying in ways that were invisible?—
and what is this loneliness we long for in that someone
no one else can be, who lives or dies, depending,
but who was there, whatever the moment was?
The attenuated phrasings that bring us to a surprisingly inconclusive and anticlimactic question at the poem’s end only underscore Plumly’s doubt and the illusory effects of memory. The girl never became his love and yet her memory has stayed with him all those years, resurrected by transcendent feeling.
Plumly often embraces Keats’s idea of “negative capability.” At the start of “Planet,” he paradoxically muses over death and dying:
There is the thought that when you go you take it all with you,
whatever all is: dying as either an ontological condition
of past-caring or a heartsick feeling that none of it mattered,
not the friend forgotten nor the friend denied,
not the child that didn’t happen
nor the years lost nor the day you walked away,
not the century since nor the days-on-end of starting out the day,
not the thinking and rethinking what you thought—
now that your body is no longer yours nor even a body
in death’s fantasy but a look-alike of makeup and sweet fluids, . . .
Using antithesis in these contrasting and opposing statements, along with anaphora with the repeated inverted, negative adverbials, Plumly embodies Keats’s rhetorical sense of uncertainty and doubt. Notable are the second and third stanzas where Plumly presents his vision of artistic beauty, namely Mary Neal’s angelic presence, her marble blue eyes and luminous face suffused by evening sunlight. Plumly begins to doubt, however, her true beauty as opposed to how his mind makes her a symbol of beauty’s ephemeral nature. He speaks of “the closing dark” of death which he knows has “subtracted everything” of her presence in the material world. In the end, Plumly wonders if his intellectual confusion and uncertainty are more a function of his mythologizing mind and memory. Plumly offers no certainty here, but seems to accept this “half-knowledge.”
Plumly drew his complex sensibility from many of the great Romantic painters. He exhibits this in his attention to the visual drama of sunlight and dark, color and light, day and night, clear weather or storminess. His descriptions offer a range of silhouettes and tonalities. Constable, Turner, Whistler: these men gazed longingly on nature or the human figure, dwelling in the realms of perspective, distance, and light to express varied emotions. Vanitas motifs of dead trees or brief intimate images of youth or old age unaware along with sunny skies or seascapes caught on the edge of stormy shadows were common features in Romantic painting. Romantic artists were adept at depicting the liminal suspension of momentary actions; time, distance, and contemplation attended their visions of nature, which they often used symbolically to represent the transient and finite nature of life. Plumly applied these themes to his own American life experience: family memories, the landscape of Ohio, the forests he explores and the cities he visits. Light lends his recollected past, his fond archetypal images, an immortality which defies earthly temporality. These moments in time are recalled with photographic verisimilitude and take on iconic transcendence.
Middle Distance displays all the powers of Plumly’s gift for lyric description; a reader new to Plumly’s work will find in this final book a glimpse at his luminous, visionary skill. “Winter Evening” is a perfect primer for his technical mastery:
Give it another month from now, though why wait
on ceremony, the winter light this early late November
evening the soft blue bruise of where the heart has
thinned the blood—and cold, so cold, the kind of clarity
a star will clarify before the sky is full of them, the blue
gone for good. . . .
The musicality of Plumly, his total command of the poem’s flow and figuration, is self-evident. As Plumly writes at the close of his Atlantic Unbound interview, he believes in “meter at the service of speech, self-dialogue, if you will.” Further, he admits that his “prosodic mantra” has always been one of “assonance, consonance, and surprise” as well as “hearing and seeing in a poem, naming and bringing the thing—the image, the object—to life . . . Shut your eyes and your ears will be your eyes, cover your ears and your eyes will hear. Language makes the senses one.”
Middle Distance is heartfelt and tragic, dealing with the poet’s experiences in the hospital toward the end of his life, and with the sad scenes of illness and boredom. He suffers an episode of cardiac arrest and sudden unconsciousness. After his being revived this becomes a deliberation on the oblivion of death, its failure in providing vivid dreams or transcendent revelations. While receiving chemo in “The Ward,” Plumly ponders his fellow patients and gives a glimpse of the banality of modern medicine and the tedium of dying. Again his parents return as potent figureheads and symbols of a vanished America. Memories of fellow poets, travels abroad, are joined with longer pieces that are akin to diary notes, most of which cover the subject of earlier books. In a beautiful meditation on the painter Constable along with two or three ekphrastic poems, Plumly revisits the British Romantic master painters he so richly cherished and studied.
Some poems here are paler replicas of already plumbed depths and covered territory. Plumly revisits many of the primary touchstones that have long acted as imaginative templates, archetypical motifs throughout his career. But Middle Distance is well worth the journey. A first-time reader should investigate Plumly’s two late masterworks, both also published by W. W. Norton & Company: Orphan Hours (2013) and Against Sunset (2017). To the end he persists in detailing and recapturing the Keatsian pathos with which he so identified, recording the sensations and landscapes of life—including its mysteries and transcendent qualities of place and time.