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Preserving Fire: Selected Prose

Philip Lamantia
Edited by Garrett Caples
Wave Books ($25)

by Patrick James Dunagan

“Not to have this fact seem too important, in relation to my poetry, I state nevertheless that I am fifteen years old.” So begins Preserving Fire: Selected Prose by poet Philip Lamantia (1927-2005). With entries dated from 1943 to 2001—the span of his entire writing life—it is a gathering of material as eclectic and slim as it is essential. In addition to Lamantia’s work, editor Garrett Caples lays out an extensive introductory overview and collector extraordinaire Steven Fama provides a fascinating bibliography documenting the provenance of each piece, several of which are previously unpublished.

Many poets suffer from lack of recognition; in the case of native-born San Franciscan Lamantia it arguably speaks to a rather arbitrary antipathy: Surrealism is broadly panned as a literary sub-genre, especially in the MFA classroom, and Lamantia’s work is decidedly Surrealist. As Caples ventures, Lamantia “was a major American poet, if not the preeminent American surrealist of the twentieth century.” At sixteen his poetry appeared in both VVV and View, the two key New York, based Surrealist publications of the day. This led Lamantia to drop out of high school in San Francisco and head to New York, where he worked in the View editorial office and became the only American-born poet to receive official sanction from Surrealism’s head honcho Andre Breton.

Responding positively to poems submitted to VVV, Breton requested that Lamantia “state [his] position on various matters of importance, mainly on Surrealism.” In responding to Breton, Lamantia holds nothing back voicing a fully formed Surrealist mini-manifesto celebrating a Rimbaud-inflected refusal of conforming to society’s whimsical orders:

To rebel! That is the immediate objective of poets! We cannot wait and will not be held back by those individuals, who are the prisoners of the bourgeoisie, and who have not the courage to go on fighting in the name of the “idea!” The “poetic marvelous” and the “unconscious” are the true inspirers of rebels and poets!

“To rebel!” may seem a stereotypical stance of many an American teenager, yet this is anything but run-of-the-mill teenage angst for a fifteen-year-old in 1943. For all the riotous energy of its content, Lamantia’s communiqué is also assertive, precise, and methodical. In an enthusiastic show of support Breton published the letter in full along with poems, and “a photograph of Lamantia, in the style of a yearbook portrait, appears at the top right of the page on which his statement/letter is printed.” The photograph will be recognized by readers of Lamantia as it appears on the cover of Touch of the Marvelous (Oyez, 1966); it is reproduced here with several others, and these images along with the wide-ranging contents make for, as Caples promises, “a thumbnail intellectual biography.”

Lamantia’s belief in poetry’s alchemical powers to transform the individual through resistance to the most deadening effects of society shines through Preserving Fire. This is a matter of passion and emotion over study and bookish pursuit: “It is not through the intellect that an individual becomes free, but through a spiritual understanding of the purpose of life, which arises from a physical, non-intellectual communion with the world.” Nonetheless, it is difficult not to come away struck by Lamantia’s erudition, perhaps nowhere on fuller display than in “Radio Voices: A Child’s Bed of Sirens,” his testament to the poetic induction radio adventure serials of his childhood offered. Here Lamantia discusses how “rich thematic matter was ritually repeated and latent messages were received and often recreations of exceedingly subversive and mytho-poeic information were heard as if for the first time.”

Another possible count against larger recognition of Lamantia has been his association with the Beat Generation. At times he lived the quintessential “Beat life” replete with drugs, jazz, and international travel—exemplified in “RevelatNewsPort,” a piece spun from his stay in a Moroccan jail:

Passing time in joint two middle class/type spades & I chat ecstatically about Black Muslims pro & con . . . . . and . . . . . is Cecil Taylor our greatest jazzman or not? & how Jazz Music can someday get to CONSTANT SWING LEVELS not unlike—in their way—Indian Raga Music is on ReCrod doing NOW! i.e. after 5,000 yr traditional evolution Feeling & Teckne having achieved point of universal musical superiority Paul Bowles & I recently agreed “Raga Music definitely Greatest music in existence” I say: mebe 300 years from now by consciously-controlled non/commercial Evolution & Dremevolutions Jazz MIGHT COULD make it to SUPER/PERFECT CELESTIAL LEVELS OF CONSTANT SWING . . . .

Lamantia’s “Beatness” represents what is in actuality a minor affair in the broader context of his life’s work. After all, though he participated in the infamous Six Gallery reading where Ginsberg debuted “Howl,” Lamantia presented poems of his recently deceased young friend John Hoffman rather than his own work. Where the Beats were consistently courting fame (even if rather despising of it at heart), Lamantia soared instead towards an inward exploration of the imagination with a religious fervor and not a thought of popular recognition.

A tactful downplaying of one’s own importance to poetry is perhaps Lamantia’s essential teaching. You, the poet, are but an ephemeral momentary instance of language use in the history of the art. Don’t overestimate your importance. Reach beyond it.
“What is proposed ultimately and permanently: the Promethean gesture, the gesture that supersedes the cultural commodity, “the author,” “the artist,” “the poet,” and dialectically subsumes these vain and masochistic inventions of our elders, the obnoxious enemies of desire and human freedom, who are parasitically ranged around and within us.”

There are larger stories worth unfolding here as well: the competing influences upon Lamantia between the Surrealists and Kenneth Rexroth, accompanied by his likewise ducking in and out from under the spell of Catholicism (he ended up, finally, with his own unique mixture as a sort of Surrealist Catholic). Lamantia also offers a systematic critique of Ezra Pound and the poets of Black Mountain College (Olson and Creeley), and considers his place among North Beach poets, the “post-Beat babies” who are still there writing, continuing on. Finally, there is at times his expressing the simple love of beauty, as in his piece on Clark Ashton Smith: “Smith gives us a timeless land, a feeling for the form of the earth, the Pacific, the oak-covered knolls of the Coast Range, the fog-shrouded tip of the San Francisco peninsula, the huge skies and sunsets, the Sierra Nevada’s rustling foothills.”

In the end, Lamantia’s is a voice of rebellious freedom. He always returns to what remains central, the unknowable fullness which inspires his work: “mystery illuminates the marvelous in all things and surreality inhabits the marvelous mystery at the core of all and any reality.”


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Dreamverse

Jindrich Štyrský
translated Jed Slast
Twisted Spoon Press ($28.50)

by Paul McRandle

“Where should I flee? . . . My childhood is my country. My dreams are my country.” So wrote Jindrich Štyrský following the invasion and destruction of his native Czechoslovakia by the Nazis. In encapsulating his situation, he also encapsulated his art. Dreamverse isn’t so much the atlas of Štyrský’s inner world as a set of picture postcards—often scandalous, just as often intoxicating—sent from this land of imagination. The most complete collection of Štyrský’s writing in English, gathering dream accounts, poetry, and essays, it follows on Štyrský’s essential work Emilie Comes To Me in a Dream, an artists’ book comprising prose poetry and photomontage that was published as part of Štyrský’s series of erotic works, Edition 69.

In 1925, Štyrský and the painter Toyen arrived in Paris. There they created art, devised Artificialism (manifestoes of which are included in Dreamverse), and Štyrský began recording his dreams. They didn’t associate with the Parisian Surrealists, and on their return to Prague three years later they rejoined Karel Teige’s association of avant-garde artists, Devetsil. There Štyrský crafted a series of prints for the 1929 Czech translation of Lautréamont’s Chants de Maldoror, and the following year he launched the Erotic Revue. It wasn’t until 1934 that they joined in the formation of the Surrealist Group of Czechoslovakia, with the poet Viteszlav Nezval taking the helm—an event solidified by a visit from André Breton, Jacqueline Lamba, and Paul Éluard in 1935. Four years later Nezval bowed to pressure from Moscow and attempted to dissolve the group, yet Štyrský, Toyen, Teige, and others kept on, perpetuating a Surrealist movement in Prague that has continued to the present day.

Of the three sections that make up this collection, Dreams is the longest and most remarkable, though this is not to slight the poetry or the many important essays gathered here. When Štyrský died of a congenital heart condition in 1942, the manuscript and layout he’d prepared for Dreams sat unpublished; it wouldn’t appear in Czechoslovakia until 1970. Wisely, Twisted Spoon has retained Štyrský’s layout, presenting Jed Slast’s sharp translations interspersed among drawings, collages, and paintings that develop and resituate the objects of his dreams. The prologue opens up the heart of his work:

As a young child I saw in the color supplement of a magazine the image of a woman’s head, exquisite with golden hair, whose pale hue will always suggest azure to me. Her lips, red with lipstick, looked like a moist chasm, though silent, slightly parted, and mute. Eyes of violet—in them pride, sin, and weakness—blazed in a pallid face. The head was perverse, yet full of compassion, damned, yet full of kindness. It was the head of Medusa, the whole of it in a pool of blood. . . . The head was a perfect fit on my sister. . . . Thus I instinctively created my CHIMERA, my PHANTOM OBJECT, on which I am fixated and to which I dedicate this work.

On the facing page is Portrait of My Sister Marie (1941), a charcoal drawing in which a bust of a young woman emerges faintly from the background, only her dark eyes vivid within the outline of a face, the whole image cracked and split like an old poster peeling off a city wall. Here is the older step-sister that Štyrský lost at the age of six to the heart condition from which he would later suffer.

Dreams borrows its epigraph from the opening sentence of Gérard de Nerval’s Aurelia (“Our dreams are a second life”) and “chimera” also derives from Nerval, for whom love offered itself in the chimeric figures of women compounded of dreams and memory. As for the “phantom object,” it is drawn from André Breton’s Communicating Vessels, and signifies a dream object with no waking world counterpart, like the “envelope-silence” sprouting eyelashes and a handle that Breton analyzes. The power of poetic suggestion in such objects derives from their imaginary uses—how they might be employed, on what occasions, and by whom.

Eyes obsessed Štyrský. Throughout Dreams they float against backgrounds suggesting stucco, greenery, pubic hair, fog, mica sheet, scales, and more. In Emilie Comes To Me in a Dream, Štyrský writes, “I am tormented by the sighs of women, by eyes contorted in convulsions of orgasm.” Here such eyes find their complement in the “Dream of Books” in which Štyrský relates searching for a book for Toyen among the bouquinistes on the Seine; he buys several 18th-century works with engravings of tropical plants, then at Notre Dame he finds an old, leather-bound volume at another bookseller:

When I look at it, I see a crumpled ear on the front cover, and when I take the book from its row, the ear straightens out. I steal a glance at the bookseller sitting behind me. In front of him is a stool with a laver of water. He removes one eared book after another from the shelves, dusting off the ears and then giving them a good washing, after which he dries them with a clean towel.— — — — The ears flower — — —

In most of these dream accounts there’s no need to hunt for sexual subtexts; it’s what Štyrský does with his strongly sexualized images that matters. Emilie Comes to Me in a Dream is a playhouse of pornographic imagery and as he says here of one of his Emilie dreams: “I make love like a child.” Like a child in that sex is mysterious, powerful, and full of secrets that undermine the reign of adult control. But more than that, dreams allow us to see and to speak with the dead, so we cannot be surprised that Štyrský follows this intercourse to erotic ends. The imaginative world of childhood is also the birthplace of sexuality, and it is this world which Štyrský so deftly explores in Dreamverse.


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When I Think, I Listen the Hardest:
An Interview with John T. Lysaker


Interviewed by Scott F. Parker

John T. Lysaker is a professor of philosophy at Emory University and the author of several books, including the recently published Philosophy, Writing, and the Character of Thought (University of Chicago Press, $35) and Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports (Oxford University Press, $14.95). I met John when I was a student and he was teaching 19th-Century Philosophy at the University of Oregon. As an unruly junior, I had blown off the first week of the term to take a long spring break visiting friends in the Midwest, but I regretted my brazenness severely as I came to appreciate what a committed and caring and good teacher John was. Eventually I got enough credits to graduate and left Eugene, but I kept reading John’s books, which run counter to much of what most people find frustrating about academic writing. John’s writing is scholarly, to be sure, but never merely so; he takes philosophy as we all should—personally. His prose is full of personality, wit, self-awareness, even self-doubt, and always good will. When I learned that philosophy writing was to be the subject of his new book, I sent him an email. The following interview should make clear why I’m glad I did.


Scott F. Parker: Let’s start right at the beginning. Tell me about your use of “character” in the title. A reader might expect “nature” there. But character has important implications for you, right?

John Lysaker: Let me start by thanking you for the opportunity to discuss the book, and for your thoughtful questions. Nature is apropos, but it lacks some of the resonances that character provides. Like nature (or essence), character names something like a general way of becoming or living, as in someone’s character as opposed to a passing reaction. I am interested in the character of philosophical thought, how it comes to pass, how it relates to others, and how it engages various historical situations. And a central claim is that different genres and logical-rhetorical operations influence that character, which is why we ought to be concerned with them. But a second sense also operates, that of dramatic character. I think the character of one’s writing stages or enacts philosophy, and in fairly definite scenes: voice, those cited and ignored, how those cited are engaged—carefully? generously? polemically? I think many are comfortable with reading Socrates as a character of philosophy. But the genre of the dialogue is also a way of characterizing philosophy, of exemplifying it. It suggests: philosophy comes to be in discussion. And if that flies, I think we should read other philosophical texts as staging something similar. Aristotle suggests that a tragedy is an image of an action (or two). The whole play presents an action in its dynamic unfolding. I now approach philosophical texts as images of acts of philosophy, and I wanted to write a book that imaged the character of philosophy in a very definite way even as it made that issue its principal, thematic concern.

SP: You offer The Republic as “a philosophical and literary masterpiece . . . with such a degree of integration that [it] resists the opposition.” Is that opposition typically methodological? How do you distinguish between philosophy and literature? Or how do you understand the relationship between them?

JL: This is a thorny question, and I can imagine a long road and shorter one, though neither would end satisfactorily. The longer one would return to the last essay in After Emerson, where I imagine different ways of receiving a thought, organizing it, and addressing it to another. Using that schema now, I would say that at each pivot, philosophy, poetry, the novel, the short story, and so on have a different character, and some could be better described as literary, others philosophical. Critique is a quintessentially philosophical way to receive concepts. One tries to locate their origin and determine the rules that govern their use. The lyric poet does not interrogate the muse. Emerson’s address favors provocation at the expense of demonstration, and that renders him more a poet in prose (his words) than a philosopher, at least at various points. And so on, working from paradigmatic examples. But that is a long road, and there will be exceptions at every turn.

The shorter road lies with thinking about how a text organizes whatever it offers readers. In the remark you quote, I have in mind how The Republic is a rhetorical whole whose parts relate to one another in modes other than the elenchus Socrates directs toward Cephalus and Polemarchus in Book One. But those other modes, and not just the allegory of the cave, but also the ways in which the dialogue discusses and enacts the making of a city in speech, or how the account of acceptable narratives in Book Three frames the Myth of Er in Book Ten, seem integral to the overall goals of The Republic. And so, at the outset, I am willing to call the elenchus or the theory of the soul in Book Four philosophical because of their explicit theoretical and inferential character and the other modes “literary” for their lyric trust and indirection. But I also want to take back that distinction at a later point because, at least in the context I’ve assembled, “literature” is such a loose and unhelpful term. It smashes together too many different genres and logical-rhetorical operations. Moreover, many hear “literature” and think it gives them a kind of license, and that is precisely not what I have in mind. The book is thus working through the philosophy-literature distinction from a standpoint of dissatisfaction, both for the distinction it seems to make and for all that it fails to distinguish. But, it—the distinction—is a way to get the ball rolling, so I provisionally employed it at the outset and chose to employ it in order to remind us that The Republic, a text at the heart of the philosophical cannon, relies on inferential demonstration and evidences extraordinary literary ambition, meaning it expects readers to pay attention to more than its thematic content and scenes of linear argumentation.

SP: More and more I’ve found myself thinking of philosophy as a branch of literature. I read its concerns as common with poetry, fiction, essay: what does it and what could it mean to be human? What varies are the conventions one follows, and who are the authors one responds to and is influenced by. But, then, as your book reminds us, philosophy is not a form of writing but perhaps a cluster of concerns that can inhabit all sorts of forms (the journal and the treatise, but also the poem, the story, the essay). Even so, I want to see philosophy as an aspect of that larger project of interrogating humanness.

JL: But art too, no? Isn’t that project shared across the humanities? To interrogate and disclose humanness, one moment curling back into the other? Philosophy remains the most radical form of interrogation I’ve found, but we are, fundamentally, beings of response, only one of which is interrogation, which leaves philosophy haunted by moments for which it cannot fully account. Moreover, philosophy is neither the only nor the most powerful mode of disclosure; that falls to . . . I’m not really sure. Different art forms run down different paths. (And this is why I am so inclined to run after them.) But when the interrogative mode (or mood, or manner) is let loose, I think we run into philosophy. And when we abandon ourselves to disclosure beyond what interrogation can secure, I think we run into art. Now various forms have settled near the end of both paths; critique in one pole, the lyric poem another. But Parmenides wrote a poem and meta-fiction has been around for long enough to leave us with a hybrid typography. Moreover, one text can do both. In fact, since the onset of the 19th century if not well before, both moments have been operative in high water marks of philosophy and art. I suppose that is why I now think of myself as a humanist before any other designation. I’m committed to the conversation, to interrogation and disclosure, and no one discipline or practice can carry that burden on its lonesome.

SP: Can you talk about your interest in literature as we usually understand the term. Your books are full of literary references. Your first book takes its title from Rilke and explores how poetry creates meaning. When you were at the University of Oregon you sometimes taught in the comparative literature department as well as in philosophy.

JL: I insist that we can learn from artworks, not just learn about them, and I have tried, at least since 1996, to write in such a way that I staged dialogues between philosophical and literary texts, particularly poems, and lyric poems at that. I keep turning to poems (occasionally paintings as well, and more recently Brian Eno’s ambient music) because they take me to thoughts that I would not have found otherwise, and I want to acknowledge the discoveries and the kind of discoveries that have propelled my thought. More generally, I have always resisted a complete embrace of Kant’s critical project and opted instead to allow myself to be claimed by what seems to be an insight and to follow its lead, testing it as I go, even essaying it, rather than, ahead of time, trying to secure safe passage for its operations and commitments. And this involves embracing a kind of lyric event at the deepest level of one’s thought, which leads to an unusual experience. One finds oneself less the author of one’s thoughts than claimed by them. This can be taken in a general way, of course, but in my case, poems have often been quite generative. For example, a somewhat recent piece, “In the Interest of Art,” travels a good distance with Adrienne Rich’s poem “Tattered Kaddish” after a shorter trip with Auden. And something I’m working on just now, an extended meditation on hope, is moved at various points by particular poems from Lucille Clifton, Anne Sexton, and Terrance Hayes, and Hayes helps me think through the multifaceted whiteness of Wallace Stevens’s poetic imagination. And my next project, which concerns friendship, will throw in with several poems. Maybe I could say something general at this point: poems are not ornamental in my work—they co-constitute the kind of conversation my work aims to exemplify.

SP: How uncommon are attitudes and approaches like yours in philosophy today? And in addition to Hayes, who are some of the contemporary poets you’re into? I remember Simic was an important reference for you.

JL: Not too common but not unique, except in a narrow way, meaning, the book’s weave of the aphorism and essay, the aphor-essay perhaps, is mine. At the level of the sentence, Stanley Cavell opened a path for those who want to make words count above and beyond their grammatical position and definable intension (and intensity). John Stuhr’s recent Pragmatic Fashions (Indiana, 2016) offers essays in expressivist pragmatism that exemplify personal visions from various standpoints or what he terms “vistas,” stressing their situatedness (as opposed to simple subjectiveness). And John Kaag has experimented with philosophy through/as memoir, e.g., the recent Hiking with Nietzsche (FSG, 2018). (Maybe the banality of the name “John” drives one to act out?) Megan Craig has been writing essays that move in their own way, touching notes that are similar to mine, but her voice is so much her own that her pieces don’t remind me of anybody or anything else. I think too of Vincent Colapietro in this context, who is drawn to improvisation as a thematic focus and performative slant, though his solos are long form, punctuated by quotation.

Outside of academic philosophy “proper,” Fred Moten, poet and theorist, is on his own path, running down and against shorter lines of thought and expression. Black and Blur (Duke, 2017) is incredibly stimulating. But a generation ago, several French women were setting the bar, particularly Irigaray and Cixous. There have always been countercurrents, therefore, at least for those willing to swim. Regarding poets, I still swim in Wallace Stevens and some of his lines and thoughts have been integral to various essays, both by way of embrace and contestation. Simic was the subject of my first book, You Must Change Your Life, and he remains someone I read, both his new and old material, and there are traces of him in Philosophy, Writing, and the Character of Thought. Finally, Alice Notley’s Certain Magical Acts is also helping me think more about voice, and I just love the short lines in All We Saw, by Anne Michaels. Lyric concentration—it just draws me, in and thus out.

SP: You wrote somewhere that no one gets into philosophy because they want to write journal articles; they get into philosophy because they want to write like Nietzsche. While your writing has always demonstrated a literary sensibility, your books have moved increasingly in the direction of the personal and, by my reading, the ambitious (to draw a contrast with your characterization of most philosophy writing). You’re really going for it as a writer in this book, aren’t you? Do you feel freer writing in this style? Was this a fun book to write?

JL: It was a tricky book to write. I kept losing the life of it. At one point I thought, and this ended up in the book: what a mistake to write the book on the aphorism. But once it settled into its chapterless collusion of short essays, concentrated arguments, and the occasional aphorism (and all of the titles), it became fun to write, to worry about things that usually don’t come into play in professional articles such as rhythm, punch, just the right amount of learning on display. I often would prepare material for long discussions and keep condensing it until I had the roux just right. Or thought I did. I thus don’t know if it was or is freeing way to write. In a way, I find it an even more disciplined way to write. But I get what you mean and can answer affirmatively—writing this way has let me say things I couldn’t otherwise say. And those things do involve “really going for it,” the “it” being something Thoreau imagines for himself—a kind of writing that leaves rather than simply records an impression. Though this has always been a goal—to reach the thought of others where that thought lives, where they live. And to provide them with meaningful company in the selfsame place.

I suppose I also wanted to really write in English, not write in an English always looking over its shoulder toward German or Greek. Not in order to be “American” in some way, but to exemplify the labor of inhabiting a language with deep care, which is something Cavell’s writing impressed upon me. Also, a reading of Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse helped me to see how an approach from many angles, and varied angles, might keep the complex objectivity of my subject matter front and center. I could go on. So many lines of influence, and so many possibilities other than Nietzsche, though his texts, particularly Beyond Good and Evil, remain near the heart of the project and of me. But I don’t want to hold Nietzsche up as the best alternative. I thus like your language of “go for it.” If you really went for it, how would you write? That is the question I’d like to press, and I suspect the character of each reply will unfold somewhat differently.

SP: Do you have any ambition to move farther in this direction? To write something that a reader might pick up and not immediately recognize as philosophy (with all the baggage that carries with it)?

JL: The current piece on hope may be like that, I don’t know. I sometimes think that a chunk of philosophers don’t consider what I do as philosophy whereas most non-philosophers do. I like to argue, to clarify and pass judgment in a considered and considerate manner, to employ “therefore” and, importantly, to have earned it. And I think it vital to stage examination in conversation, to show that one has learned and that one is still learning, and accounting for oneself along the way. If all that continues to characterize my writing, I think it inevitably tips my hand, particularly given that my learning, even in the company of poems, is still coursing through texts by Hegel, Beauvoir, and Aristotle, and with regard to very philosophical topics: the good life, justice, the nature of the self, etc. But I’m quite happy with that. I have never wanted to leave philosophy, only to find my own way into it and so better exemplify it.

SP: In thinking deliberately about how philosophy is written aren’t we led to bigger questions about what philosophy is and is for?

JL: Absolutely. In the book, I argue that once one begins to deliberate about one’s writing, the why clarifies the how. In fact, one can’t have a cogent how without a why. So again, absolutely, which is why I insist that writing is a praxis. Not that it should be; it is, even Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. But there are many whys orienting the bearing of philosophical texts: truth, maybe just insight, personal transformation, social change, the refutation of another view, etc. I am thus less interested in settling the why of philosophy than in allowing one’s why, whatever it is, to organize the way in which one writes. (This is why the book’s beginning drones a bit with regard to “praxis”; a good deal hinges on making that turn.)

But hearing myself now, I sound coy, too neutral. A certain sense of ethics seems integral to philosophy, one that valorizes examination in the company of others, in conversation, as well as a politics that refuses to recognize authorities as genuine authorities if they do submit their rule to examination in conversation with those they govern. This is one thing (and only one thing) that is so troubling about the Trump Administration. Whether through silence, refusals to respond, or lies, the current president announces, with his conduct, “I am not answerable to the American people.” And this manner is only intensified by his tweets, which eschew all justification. From an ethical and political point of view—and I am always in that register—it is an outright shit show. No one remotely committed to the examined life can be heartened by it. But they might be called to intensify their own commitment to and enactment of it.

SP: I think it was during the W. years that you said in an interview that the U.S. is a “stupid country.” In this book you say that many Americans would consider philosophy anti-American. And you write, “Our moment is thoughtless, even in those corners where genuine discoveries occur. How does one converse in a public where an anti-science stance is political capital and sound bites seem to satisfy the desire to know? Where everyone has their button words?” (138) Yes, how do we?

JL: I wish I hadn’t said that back then. (Or maybe I wish you hadn’t remembered it.) In many ways, the United States is inhabited by millions of incredibly talented, smart people. But that intelligence seems to diminish when it comes to the kind of questions that compel me, and when it comes time to deliberate about political matters. We love slogans and are driven by anecdotes, and that doesn’t even include people who believe utterly fantastic things, such as with Pizzagate, which alleged that Hilary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi helped run a child sex ring out of a D.C. pizza parlor. That’s just bat shit crazy, and if one lets it drift into allegory, despair ensues. But that’s not the whole or even the largest part of the nation, so I now regret my earlier generalization. I should have been less arrogant and more nuanced.

Concerning the line from my book, the weight of the thought falls on “converse,” with the threat marked as “button words,” calling to mind having one’s buttons pushed as well as sloganeering as a mode of faux interaction. As a teacher, I have ways of slowing down and so empowering the conversation, which is key, I think, as is stressing the larger task at hand: finding the most compelling position as opposed to winning or losing arguments. So we ask: what are we actually saying? What reasons can we offer on its behalf? What reasons are offered on behalf of contrary and contradictory positions. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the more common positions? Are there other, less common positions we might consider or imagine?

But of course, I can’t and shouldn’t turn public discussion into a teacher-student relation. That’s a philosopher-king pose (or character), and that runs counter to the kind of positioning I champion in Du Bois’s Souls of Black Folk and Benjamin’s One-Way Street. So the question becomes—how can we slow down the exchanges that seem to push so many buttons, and can we cultivate the ability to view conversation as a practice of joint discovery and transformation? I think hosting exponentially more public conversations in K – 12 schools, libraries, bars, and coffee shops would open one route. And to do that, we would need to pry academics from the genre of the editorial and opinion piece, which is too close to the pulpit for my taste. I also believe that introducing philosophy into the K ¬– 12 curriculum would be wildly transformative and help establish certain habits of and capacities for reflection and dialogue. (Philosophy for Children is a movement with just these ends in mind.)

Of course, neither of those proposals valorize writing, and for broad scale change I think writing comes too late. Not that one can therefore quit the game when one writes, that is, the game of impacting the deliberative capacities and habits of one’s readers. But one should write with a sense of the weakness of one’s efforts. (I take the term from the philosopher and artist Megan Craig, who inherits it from Gianni Vattimo, I believe.) In this context, acknowledging weakness means acknowledging much of what underwrites author-reader relations, including learning, energy, and time. It also means recognizing that writing, philosophy, these are two-way streets. They offer possibilities to as well as operate on readers, and so they leave a great deal up to readers.

That said, weak thought is not powerless; one always has one’s example and the non-coercive force (or moral charisma) it wields, which brings us back to the character of thought. Each bit of writing, by way of tone, citation, quotation, example, etc., signals to readers a path of interaction. I find the polemic so troubling because it engages in order to wage war, and often in a total way. Similarly, I am troubled by texts that do not quote or quote poorly. They exemplify a kind of narcissism that undermines transformative conversations. And then there is disagreement; is it even imagined, staged in generative ways, or encouraged? What does writing do before push comes to shove? Such moments are telling and possible scenes of provocation, even instruction through exemplification. But thinkers of all sorts should spend more time in the community, and not in the role of the “expert.”

Universities, which present themselves as producers of knowledge, are inclined to favor public scholarship that better distributes the knowledge it produces. That model, a technical one (in a technical sense), serves philosophy poorly. Also, there are just too many talking heads. Rather than pour more “content” into the quickening circulation of purported facts, opinions, and histrionic performances, let’s find ways to slow cognition down, and to cultivate a capacity to face cognitive dissonance, endure it, and respond creatively.

SP: Early in the book, you write, “What is in doubt, however, is what I choose when I commit to a manner of writing.” Let’s talk about the form you use: short chapters comprising short (sometimes only a sentence) essays and occasional aphorisms, each with its own bolded title—I thought of Nietzsche first. You were greatly influenced by Benjamin’s One-Way Street. What considerations were you taking into account as you committed to this form?

JL: I committed to the form over time, so I more found my way into it then established it whole cloth. The form emerged because I wanted to preserve for the reader the intensity that the thoughts had in their occurrence and to acknowledge that my topic, writing philosophy (or just philosophy, and then, as we just saw, the examined life more generally) will not be found in a single form, manner, or bearing. Irony required a longer discussion, but some thoughts resonated best as aphorisms. And I needed to find a non-polemical way to take the polemic to task, and that required a more careful reading of a particular case. But not only subject matter determined the length. I often thought—who would still be reading after this many pages? And I mean genuinely reading, not skimming for the basic point. (In my first book, I spent about fifteen pages on a very short poem. Cool, I thought. Not so cool, I later heard.) I thus wanted to write in a way that not only held but also stimulated attention and might be worthy of rumination. But I wasn’t sure I had even managed the half of it (and I’m still not).

So, for the first time, I sent the book to two friends before submitting it for review: Michael Sullivan, my colleague at Emory, and Rick Lee, who teaches at De Paul. At a few points, Rick said: I could really use a few punctuated, incisive remarks here. And so I added them. As you can see, then, I followed my own deliberative model while writing the book. That is, the form reflects concern for how my thought might unfold, the kind of relations it establishes with readers, and how it might resound in the present. Concerning the latter, I wanted some discussions to employ sophisticated scholarship and to evidence careful reading because I find contemporary American life hostile to theory and reflection more generally. (Hence footnotes as well. Insight can flow from learning and should flow back into it.)

All that said, I also had examples, and Benjamin’s One-Way Street was certainly one, and a central one. It combines so many ways of objectifying thought, and it was while writing an article on One-Way Street that the idea for the book came to me, although I elected to omit dreams, which Benjamin records. Not because I object to his use of them, however. Rather, dreams simply have not been a generative part of my thought process (even after reading Michel Leiris, whose dream-record was more than worth my time).

SP: I don’t know of many philosophy books that situate themselves quite like your does. You’re not writing for a popular audience in a way that this book will likely end up in a lot of bookstores. But neither are you writing only for other professional philosophers. Some of your chapter titles—“Message in a Bottle,” “The Secret Addressee,” “Unknown Friends”—give a sense of who your audience might be. I read the book as an opening gesture in a mutual exchange between friends. There’s this heartfelt concern for your readers on the page and this trust that they are up to the task of doing philosophy with you. It’s frankly unusual for philosophy. I take it you’re following Emerson in this, that you’d rather provoke or entice than simply explain.

JL: I love this: “There’s this heartfelt concern for your readers on the page and this trust that they are up to the task of doing philosophy with you.” Thank you. I have always sought a kind of intimacy in my voice, in part because I hope to intimately address the reader, as I suggested above. And this requires a certain kind of vulnerability and trust on both sides. And as you note, this operates in Emerson, and Nietzsche too, which may be his biggest debt to Emerson, the intimacy of his address. I suppose this is also my way of saying: I’m not fucking around here and I expect the same from you. And that is very much a mode of provocation. But I stop short of Emerson’s de facto insistence on provocation over demonstration. I still embrace the latter, but not in a manner that tries to exhaustively address an issue, as if one were writing for the last word. I’m not, which is why I am so drawn to the image of the friend in your remark, and to Emerson’s sense that he writes for unknown friends. But I am offering them views and defenses for them.

I recently had the luxury of a scholarly session devoted to After Emerson, whose last chapter, “Emerson and the Case of Philosophy” I wrote as a passageway into Philosophy, Writing, and the Character of Thought (which was already underway). Because After Emerson is a book of essays, I had that form in mind, but the overall sensibility, which I inherited from Cavell, carried over into this book, and I hope to maintain it in future books. I have committed to a philosophy that aims at a certain kind of representativeness without assuming that it is representative, and without taking itself, once and for all, to have proven its representativeness, even after it says its piece. Such a philosophy thus commits in a manner that awaits a reply. It thus strives to render itself legible and plausible, even compelling. But it does not purport to speak for any and all rational agents, or even for some “those in the know.” It is provisional, but not just in a fallibilistic sense; it also provides food for thought, language to be taken up into further experiments.

In short, and somewhat unlike Cavell, I’m happy to offer theories, make particular claims, and to keep elaborating and/or defending them if questions or objections arise, and I hope they will. I want academics to engage the book. But not just them. I also wrote it for anyone who has found themselves in the grip of a philosophical question or text, to offer them some company and to cajole them into joining the fray.

SP: How does the interview as a genre relate to your concerns in the book?

JL: As I’ve said, one of my goals was to articulate a determinate space for considering experiments in genre. How will thought unfold in this genre (which is a way of asking, how will this genre enable me to address the issue that has claimed me)? What relations will this establish with addressees? And how will this resound in the contexts in which texts and addressees meet? One might be drawn to interviews in the interest of accessibility, that is, broadening the range of one’s addressees. But depending on the interviewer (and the venue), one might not be invited to work into the heart of various issues. And that may reinforce worrisome cultural trends, such as an over fondness for the authoritative voice, sound bites, “the big picture”—as if it weren’t full of several smaller pictures, each a bit smudged. To be clear, I am thinking as a philosopher here, by which I mean, someone pursuing questions and claims about the good, justice, truth, the nature of art, knowledge and error, and the basic character of existence, human and otherwise.

But all that said, I am drawn to the fact that an interview involves two, and if the questions are thoughtful, as yours have been, they can prompt new formulations, even thoughts. And there have been interviews that I regard as primary texts. One of Foucault’s discussions with Deleuze, “Intellectuals and Power,” comes to mind. In English it appeared in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice (Cornell, 1980). Their discussion concerns the intellectual as a social category, and to my mind, it is essential reading, particularly in the context of Lenin, Luxemburg, Gramsci, and Mao, though I would also include “Theory, Pragmatisms, and Politics,” by Cornel West, which was collected in his Keeping Faith (Routledge, 1993). Regardless, the interview with Foucault and Deleuze, which is also a dialogue, is both rich and engaging and it has stayed with me far longer than many other more polished bits of prose. And it offers some interesting exemplifications as well—both are acting there as public intellectuals. Thinking about that interview now, I wonder whether interviews aren’t always enroute, at least to some degree, toward the dialogue, meaning, I could pose you questions and you could take issue with how I reply to what you’ve asked. Would that realize more fully the capabilities of the interview? (Christopher Long explored this through his podcast, Digital Dialogues.) If not, I want to think more about what interviews enable along the three lines I indicated. I very much like how your questions have brought me back into my project from various angles and reanimated various thoughts. But I can’t help feeling like I need to shut up and return the favor. I thus wonder how you see the interview, whether at the points I’ve marked, or in other terms?

SP: Now that you’ve turned this question around on me, I’m appreciating what a big category “interview” is. Let’s take the case at hand. Most of my questions would have to be scrapped or drastically revamped if we were here primarily to promote you and move product. So, venue matters greatly. As the interviewer, I’m trying to balance several interests: mine as a curious reader; yours as someone whose time I’ve asked for and would like not to waste; Rain Taxi’s so they will want to publish this without trimming excessively (surely we’re pushing Mr. Lorberer’s word limit pretty far here); and, ultimately, the readers’, whom I very much would like to hang onto until the end of the interview. More practically, I orient myself by asking what are my curiosities about you and your work that Rain Taxi readers are likely to share. So the genre is lined with constraints.

But you asked a general question: What opportunities does interview afford? One answer is personality. You might read a poetry collection and ask yourself what it would be like to talk to the author. Interview gives the impression of more direct access to the consciousness behind the text and that that access is more immediate and less artificial than what comes across in the written text. I’m suspicious of the idea that a real self emerges more in an interview than in, say, a novel, but I’m susceptible to the impression even as I consider one of my favorite interview subjects, Bob Dylan, who excels at frustrating the search for the self behind the text. We can easily imagine (or possibly name) writers for whom the interview is their best genre. But good interviews bypass the trap of personality and stand as a form of public conversation. There’s something exciting about watching someone think out loud. An interview is like an essay in its ability to dramatize that process. But unlike the essay there’s someone else provoking (hopefully) the subject’s thinking. And I think that kind of intersubjective space tends to be more alive for the audience than subjective space, and very often for the principals too.

JL: Interviews as public conversation, very much so. And I agree that interviews can offer a kind of spontaneity and personality that goes missing in a lot of writing, and then in an intersubjective space, which, while always operative, is often buried. Foucault gave many interviews, and many were incredibly illuminating. They show him thinking, which is why I am draw to them, as opposed to getting at the consciousness behind what one reads elsewhere. They are their own thing, like Emerson’s journals and letters, and I want to read them as such rather than as keys to other texts. With the interview, I think we find thinking in response, and that is my attraction to them, thought venturing replies that are willing to be more vulnerable than any book can be given how many times it has been revised, edited, etc. (Of course, this has been revised; it is a matter of degree.)

Having said that, I realize that some interviews occasion evasions rather than responses, particularly with artists. It thus dawns on me that philosophy slides into the interview rather easily whereas most artists are jumping ship when they agree to be interviewed. And I can appreciate their frustration if questions drift into: what did you mean here? That question misses how artworks mean, I think, as does the common reply: it means whatever my readers think it means. But I think questions about the social value of art, meaning in music, or the nature of creativity, etc. are fair game and worth considering. One might reply, “Those sound like philosophical questions.” They do because they are. But philosophy percolates wherever any practice begins to interrogate its ends and basic character, and most folk are led to those corners at some time or other. And that’s what I would want to hear from Dylan, or the painter Anselm Kiefer, or comedians like Maria Bamford and Amy Schumer. I think Schumer’s television show, by including interviews, exemplified comedy confronting its own reliance on types. And Bamford inhabits language and the lingua franca with such an exquisite sense that it seems akin to philosophy and poetry. I would want to know: what does your work ask of people? How do you take up other modes of expression? Are there other modes you admire? Why? Is the commodity a threat to what you do? But maybe that’s not the most productive tack. Can one interview an artist and let them remain an artist in their reply? I’m not sure. As you can see, I’m hopeless; philosophy has me.

SP: There’s this horrible phrase that’s used all the time now that says we “consume content.” People who use it are usually taken with computer metaphors. They think of hardware, software, and downloading information. As long as you have the information and/or argument, the means of acquisition are irrelevant. But even “acquisition” makes a lot of assumptions. You consider writing (and I think reading) praxis. What do we lose by treating writing and reading as information exchange?

JL: In some ways, I addressed this above, and my impatience with “it means whatever you think it means” begins to reply, but further specifications are necessary. First, casting texts into an economy of information exchange reduces everything to content, and in a way that treats it as separable from form (or form from content). And that just flat misses the performative dimensions of texts, which is a loss for readers and writers. No Plato. No Montaigne. No Hegel. No Emerson. No Du Bois. No Beauvoir. No Luce Irigiray. No thanks. The medium isn’t the only message or even separable from some message, stated or not; the medium or mode of presentation is very much integral to whatever a philosophical text has to offer. Even texts that aspire to limit themselves to inferential forms offer more than information: That Y follows from Z is not just another bit of information, it is principally a way of justifying Z. Patterns of justification are obscured when we treat everything as “information,” so a particular form seems to sneak in—the opinion—which from an inferential standpoint is just an assertion. And when only assertions abound, a more general social pattern operates: consumption. Here is some content. Use it or not, however you like. You have your opinions, I have mine. It’s a coward’s détente. But what if an author and reader meet in a place where we’re not sure how things should be used or to what end, or if they should be used, or what “use” even means? More generally, what if the question at hand concerns the origin and limits of the idea that we are first and foremost consumers? How is that conversation going to get off the ground if the scene of reading and writing is already bought and sold? In the book, I wave at this with an aphorism: “The marketplace of ideas—the metaphor’s success proves its bankruptcy.” Validity is not a popularity contest.

SP: I’m thinking of realists like Steven Pinker and Sam Harris. They seem to have such a hard time reading someone like Nietzsche who isn’t simply making claims about the way things are.

JL: Nietzsche is a particular conundrum because he interrogates the will to truth, finds untruth as a condition of life, and expects that finding to transform the will to truth from the inside. Telling the truth about truth transforms what we take “truth” to entail and what value we place upon it. I’m not sure authors like Pinker and Harris can digest that kind of thought, one that ventures claims about the way things are with regard to claims about the ways things are. But that is the way in which Nietzsche is an experimental writer, meaning, he sets in motion inherited operations whose result cannot be completely foreseen. These experiments neither verify nor falsify, however, but generate new thoughts, e.g. that the self might be a multiplicity of souls. Moreover, they do so within a new way of receiving and measuring the validity of such thoughts, namely in terms of their ranked value. Does that mean I don’t want to read Pinker or Harris? No. But I approach their texts from a different position than the one from which they were written.

SP: How do you read? I don’t think you’re someone who reads straight through. I see you as keeping up a conversation, flipping around in a book, seeing how one part reads against another, and so on. I’m inclined to think you make texts meet you when/where you’re ready for them.

JL: I remain a slow reader because, as you surmise, I track part-whole and part-part interactions, and so read cumulatively rather than straight through. From the vantage point of a current word, sentence, paragraph, chapter, even book I am always circling back and marking congruence, tensions, repetition, omissions, etc., treating the whole as a vibrating, expanding web. (A good deal of re-reading thus transpires before I reach the end.) But webs are designed to catch flies, and so I also read for an author’s why. What prompted this inquiry? Is something being negated, defended, both? Wittgenstein is trying to liberate himself from a certain kind of philosophy, perhaps through the labor of another. Beauvoir is offering a version of humanity that could come into its own without a god and without dissolving the ambiguity that underwrites a term like “humanity.” And so on. If I have a sense of what orients the labors of a text I find it much more rewarding to read. And I want the orientation of this text not simply another version of my own. I thus don’t want a pragmatist Heidegger or deconstructive Adorno or the Butler who is more Foucault than less. Emerson says of the friend: I love him because he is not me. I thus want a chorus of texts that resist euphony. That is why there are so many voices in Philosophy, Writing, and the Character of Thought. I come into my own through the interaction of others and the friction thereby generated, which is a way of saying that a question about my reading will lead to my thinking even as a question of my thinking will lead to my reading.

SP: One of the writers I kept thinking about while reading your book was David Shields. His Reality Hunger shares some of your formal concerns, and his I Think You’re Totally Wrong (with Caleb Powell) is one response to your question, “But why don’t we write (or cowrite) actual dialogues?” Are there contemporary non-philosophers whose work has shaped your thinking about writing?

JL: There aren’t, but that’s on me. To the degree I have an excuse it lies with my own effort to keep expanding my philosophical education (and to renew my education in poetry). And of late I’ve been reading so-called Afro-pessimism, particularly Fred Moten and Christina Sharpe, and doing so in the context of the kind of Black Democratic Perfectionism being articulated by Eddie Glaude, Melvin Rogers, Chris Lebron, and Paul Taylor. But no doubt there are smart, smart books I’ve overlooked. For the recent piece on hope I read Rebecca Solnit, who is brilliant, concise, and engaging. And I have also read Lisa Robertson’s Nilling, although it eluded me. But that just led me to order some more of her work so I can try again. At this point, I want more to think about, not less. Since receiving your questions, I also began reading David Shields, and I see the point in your question (and not just because Emerson is all over Reality Hunger). So thank you for the introduction. I’m only halfway through Reality Hunger, reading in the manner we discussed above, tracking recurrent issues such as montage and Shields’s fact/truth distinction, which reminds me of Tim O’Brien’s “How to Tell a True War Story” from The Things They Carried, where he suggests that truths, maybe all truths, are only articulable through selection and omission, and thus contra fact.

Moving from thematics to performance, I found his voice casual, and in a way I often admired. That way of just saying it, a way that Solnit also has, leaves me feeling that my own prose is rhetorically overheated. But maybe those temperatures lead to something that would otherwise go missing; I don’t know. And I’m not above admiration and envy. Strangely, while reading Reality Hunger in the context of this discussion, I keep thinking of Kierkegaard, thereby situating Shields in an aesthetic mode and my text in the ethical. In the parts I’ve read, it seems like a kind of aesthetic truth is orienting him, which includes an honesty about how elusive it is, and a concerted effort to sort through what must be done (and avoided) if one works toward truth in this way. (Lukács’s long, early essay on Kierkegaard, “On Poverty of Spirit” seems apropos, particularly its exploration of the effort to bring life under the dominion of meaning-giving form). I on the other hand, keep returning to what one could regard as pedagogical matters—what will facilitate learning, for a writer as well as for readers, particularly under social conditions that frustrate such efforts, or insist that they conform to definite modes of being in the world. And that is why Philosophy, Writing, and the Character of Thought concludes with discussions of historical bearing, which returns us again to character and exemplification. That sense of representatives (rather than representation) doesn’t seem to concern Reality Hunger. But I’ve another half to go. I’m curious to see where it takes me. I know I’ll take it with me (O’Brien as well) into two papers I have going, one on error, the other on truth.

SP: You are the co-founder with Rick Lee of a journal, Circles. I take it the name comes from Emerson. What are your hopes for it?

JL: Still hopes at this point. I’ve been so busy writing my editing has floundered, though Rick has kept it afloat on-line. The journal aspires to be a home for philosophy written from any tradition and in any form, although Rick and I expect excellence in all cases. I think one should venture different genres and logical rhetorical operations because what called for one’s thinking needed something different than a journal article. But I suspect that we mostly will publish journal articles, although we hope to have an interview in every or every other issue. Regarding the Emerson connotation, it is in full force. Philosophers work in circles, conversing and progressing within those confines. That is not only inevitable but generative, and so we want work that situates itself in and advances some kind of conversation. But each circle is also bounded in ways that genuine thought will eventually rub up against and, if it’s strong enough (to paraphrase), thought will transgress that limit and think anew. The journal’s name thus conveys a commitment to established lines of questioning, the belief that there are a legitimate plurality of such lines, and an invitation to experiment in ways that contest what has, until now, seemed sufficient. I hope we can bring this about.


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Transit Comet Eclipse

Muharem Bazdulj
translated by Nataša Milas
Dalkey Archive Press ($15)

by Seth Rogoff

In Transit Comet Eclipse, we are asked to consider the movement of celestial bodies—Venus as it transits the sun, the dance between sun and moon as they block and shadow each other’s light, the flare of a comet. These astronomical wonders are not probed in depth in the novel, but they create a thematic atmosphere to follow the more mundane movement of characters as they cross borders and travel through frontier lands—as they flame with life and fade into oblivion. The book is short but powerful: It challenges its reader to understand territorial divisions as complex historical phenomena with economic, political and cultural dimensions, and it shows that these divisions matter—a lot. In fact, these divisions and the identities they help create and reinforce could be understood as something like fate, a fate as predictable as the next transit of Venus or total eclipse of the sun.

Transit Comet Eclipse is made up of three parts. The first section, “Transit,” tells the story of a priest from Dubrovnik who is traveling with an English diplomat’s family from Istanbul to St. Petersburg in the middle of the 18th century. The priest is Ruđer Bošković, a real historical figure who straddled the line between Jesuit Catholicism and the culture of the European Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution. As a good Enlightenment empiricist, Bošković seeks out information in order to understand the world around him; the novel opens, for example, with the priest grilling a man at the marketplace about how many Turks, Christians, and Jews live in town.

The central action in this part of the novel has to do with the travelers crossing the territory of Moldova. Bošković is shocked by Moldova's otherness, by how close to “known” Europe it is and at the same time how incredibly foreign it appears to him. “From Moldova,” Bošković reflects in his journal, “I carry images of beauty, wasteland, fear, and dream.” With this, Bazdulj gives the reader a taste of the rich tradition of Balkan and European historical fabulists, circling back to the writer of the section’s epigraph, Ivo Andrić.

The “Comet” section abruptly shifts gears to tell the story of Maria Alexandra, a girl from Moldova. Maria is smart, sweet, and incredibly attached to her father. The characterization of her beauty and precocity trigger a nervous anticipation; things will only get worse, one assumes, for this poor girl. She is poor, of course, as is nearly everyone in Moldova. Her father dies. She moves in with her grandmother to finish high school. She starts to smoke, to drink. At a local bar, she meets a man who says his name is Boško (as in Bošković) and that he is in Moldova from Croatia to work as an assistant on a sociological research project. She falls in love with him, and he convinces her to run away with him to Croatia, where she immediately falls into the clutches of the sex trade. To prevent the violence and degradation that await her, she brutally takes her own life.

“Comet” is a gut punch, a window into the absolute worst of humanity. The horror goes well beyond the violence of the sex trade, beyond even Boško’s villainous deceit; it strikes at the micro and macro structures that create the conditions of poverty and desperation and the mechanisms that exploit these conditions. Life on the exploited periphery, the novel implies, is partly a reflection of the “civilized” core.

“Eclipse,” the novel’s third and final section, presents a short bildungsroman of the presumed writer of the novel’s first two parts. It is the story of a would-be author finding his voice and perspective: The Writer searches for a subject to write about, and after a lengthy period of ennui, he finds two topics that captivate him—the life of Ruđer Bošković and the story of a woman caught in the Bosnian sex trade, which he encounters as he accompanies a fellow journalist to a nightclub called the Queen in Bosnia’s Lašva Valley. The relationship between the stories seems at times forced, as when the writer reflects on a sex slave named Olga that he and his colleague encounter at the Queen: “She said she was from St. Petersburg, the Writer remembered, the same Petersburg to which Bošković was headed from Istanbul, the same Petersburg that Bošković never reached, the same Petersburg to which Olga wanted to return, but he was afraid she wouldn’t.” At other moments, however, Bazdulj and translator Nataša Milas achieve a striking beauty, such as their rendering of the Writer’s feverish thoughts while laid up in a French hotel:

During the fever his thoughts were confused as if in a recollection of dreams. The features of Sandi Thom and Kate Melua synced into one—the face of Maria Alexandra. The darkness of the Queen nightclub turned into the darkness of the eclipse. The light of a cigarette thrown from the window was a comet. Everything merged: the Charles and Mystic Rivers with the waters of the Lašva, the mysterious river of his childhood; the transit of trafficked women and the transit of Venus over the Sun; Dubrovnik’s view of the sea of his birth and the image of the sea he sees out his window.

Such moments of creative, disordered epiphany inspire the Writer to begin his story, and he begins precisely as Transit Comet Eclipse comes to an end.

For all of its playfulness, there is a haunting core at the heart of this novel, expressed most poignantly in one entry of the Writer’s journal: “Maria’s problem, however, was not that she was born too late, but too far to the East. Her problem was not that the world was indifferent, but that it was evil.” The novel might be able to merge landscapes and move across frontiers, but divisions and their accompanying hierarchies and exploitations remain firmly fixed on the world’s map as well as in its collective consciousness—with tragic consequences.


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Catafalque

Adam Tavel
University of Evansville Press ($15)

by Dana Wilde

I doubt if the judges who awarded the 2017 Richard Wilbur Book Award to Adam Tavel’s Catafalque were thinking about Edgar Allan Poe at the time, but they might have been. For a couple of reasons.

One is the subject matter: Tavel’s poems cover a large range of personal pain. The collection wends in and out of anecdotes of awkward instants—including a boy’s ambivalent recollections of his grandmother (“My Grandmother’s Chores”), childhood illnesses (“Eazy-E’s Abandoned Letter to His Seven Children from Cedars Sinai Medical Center”), ruminations on literary history (“Cora Taylor’s Letter to Joseph Conrad Following the Death of Her Lover Stephen Crane”), the weird sudden collapse of a classmate (“Faint Assembly”) and other adolescent humiliations—and explicit elegies, many of them marked by religious allusions and the continual presence of death. (A catafalque is a platform for a coffin.) Poe’s subject matter was not autobiographical in the sense we understand it now, but he was preoccupied by weird manifestations of physical and psychic pain, and Tavel makes that preoccupation personal.

Another connection to Poe is that practically every line in this collection is anchored to a fairly heavy rhythmic beat, usually iambic. For example, “At the County Morgue,” in its entirety, reads: “Before they fold the cover back you know.” This is Poe-like subject matter in unmistakable iambic pentameter.

Tavel uses rhythmic choices such as this to effect a declamatory voice, sometimes almost stentorian and often forged from postmodernly peculiar turns of phrase. Take the opening lines of “Jogging Weather”: “Your sonnets heaped atop the dead must end / the turkey buzzards squawk, or so I hear / them say.” These lines are straight-up iambic until “or so I hear”—Tavel has a good ear for when to vary the metronome while maintaining the declamatory tone, in part because he also runs heavy on alliterations and assonances, a sign of what Poe called (in The Rationale of Verse) the music of poetry as distinct from “versification.”

Tavel’s poetry would make a good vehicle to demonstrate Poe’s observation that the rules of prosody are artificial overlays which have little to do with poetry and its effects. Terms such as “iambic” are scansion descriptors first used to analyze ancient Greek and Latin, and by Poe’s time were applied in Procrustean ways to English even though they often inaccurately describe what they’re describing. Tavel’s poems lean so hard on iambic rhythms that they could provide a critic with clear material to show how the American version of high poetic diction does exactly what Poe reveals prosodic analysis doesn’t.

Not that this is a particularly pressing issue any more, because prosodic analysis is by and large a vanished activity in English departments. A thorough, readable study of postwar American prosody has been lacking for decades, but Adam Tavel’s clear insistence on the music of meters forces us to give some thought to the idea that poetry, even amid strong tendencies to speech rhythms, is still an analyzable form of music. It’s a welcome change.


Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2018-2019 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2019

Poetry Is Thought As Feeling:
An Interview with Karen Garthe

Photo by Christopher Ludgate

by bart plantenga

While much poetry is soft drink, and some of it wine, very little of it qualifies as cognac. Karen Garthe’s poetry is that ruminating bouquet, a cognitive dissonance of richness in the realm of austerity. Neither minimal nor concrete begin to describe it. Beguiling and with ligaments concealed, the words provoke:

The Striptease of poverty sly peels
her
jacket                           a side to show         HER GUN WINs

sashays           all the choke
debt

Leaping broad, Nordic chasms, her gift is alchemical, transforming a frugal sparseness into a feast of speculative white space, necessary erasures and pregnant silences between words requiring those leaps of faith that one experiences in the silence between the notes of Miles Davis or Erik Satie.

Garthe’s latest book is The hauntRoad (Spuyten Duyvil, $15). Her other books include The Banjo Clock (University of California Press, 2012) and Frayed escort (Center for Literary Publishing, 2006), winner of the Colorado Prize for Poetry. Her poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in Chicago Review, New American Writing, Caliban, Denver Quarterly, Lana Turner, and more.

Although Garthe has devoted much of her meditative solitude to poetry, she has also lived a rambunctious Greenwich Village life. Escaping to New York from a beautiful but constrained Baltimore in the late ’60s to study ballet, she cavorted with the outrageous, the inspired, the sloppy, and the illuminated; a friend to many in the Village folk, jazz, rock, and art scenes, she was baptized in glorious decadence. We start there:


Karen Garthe: I worked in the music business for a number of years managing clubs—the upstairs at Max’s Kansas City, the Other End during Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Review—and Patti Smith, who I’d met when we were both book clerks at Scribner’s. And, no, life in Baltimore wasn’t minimal or ascetic . . . Jeez!

bart plantenga: That’s not what I meant. It was about withdrawing from a life of fake frivolity of annoying decorum to the respite-sanctuary of your bedroom—DO NOT ENTER sign on the door—where you can read your defiant books: Dorothy Parker, Thomas Wolfe, Carson McCullers . . .

KG: My parents went to cocktail parties every weekend, or gave a party, or went to dinner dances. They were socialites. They got their names in the Blue Book—even my name was in there for a while. My parents went to so many Christmas parties that my mother had a chart of the outfits she wore where and when, so as not to duplicate the same outfit with the same people. In retrospect, I did have a privileged life, but the Baltimore world was a place that from a very young age I couldn’t wait to get out of. I left when I was 18, right out of high school. I came to New York to study ballet. It was a scandal.

BP: Your own “Piss Factory” [Patti Smith]: “I’m gonna get out of here, I’m gonna get on that train, / I’m gonna go on that train and go to New York City / I’m gonna be somebody . . .”

KG: Yes, but unlike Patti, for me it had not much to do with wanting to “be somebody” in the sense of being famous. I just wanted to live in a world that made sense to me, that would accept me. It’s a very long, complicated and sad story and in many respects, probably not that unusual for a middle-class kid in the suburbs, but Life in Baltimore was hell for me. I was a terribly unhappy person who lived in her room and didn’t come out unless she had to. And I have thought a thousand times about how much my current life—solitude after numerous failed marriages . . .

BP: Or successful divorces!

KG: . . . mirrors how I lived as a child—the end just like the beginning. This past year I was alone so intensely and relentlessly, recovering from chemo treatments for breast cancer. I couldn’t much write or create anything, but I did study, read, listen, watch, think. If it weren’t for feeling so sick most of the time, it was as though I had a residence in a palace or an art colony, I indulged myself so completely.

I can hardly qualify all the things I’ve done here in New York for more than 50 years. When I arrived, New York was a wildly creative artistic place and I’m grateful for that, just like I’m glad I grew up at a time when you could walk out the door in the morning and come back at dinnertime unbeeped, uncalled, unsummoned, unsurveilled, and unobserved.

I had all kinds of jobs working with all kinds of people. I was plenty miserable at them much of the time—and would feel especially sorry for myself when I’d see my musician friends waltzing back from a baseball game when I was coming home from work. Though I worked in the music business for a number of years managing clubs, I did not at all get to live as an artist in the freewheeling way of many friends. I couldn’t live off gigs or the sale of paintings. I had no endowment either, and I had to have a job to pay the rent. But there was a wonderful upside to this—my world was expansive, inclusive. I got to know people from completely different backgrounds than my own, with different goals and purposes, different enjoyments and pleasures in their lives than those of the comparatively cloistered downtown artist keeping company with those in agreement, keeping “to type.”

By comparison, my life was fantastically more diverse and experimental. It was adventurous and I was able to participate in and observe things as various as the mechanism of a waste disposal plant, a smoky room full of blustery Tammany Hall-type commissioners, an iconic diva (a real one, not a brand) in tears in situ, the vulnerability and tenderness of an otherwise brutal master of the universe—able, too, to listen closely to the mother of a homeless family about how many different shelters they’d called home, how they struggled for food. I worked with the powerful, the so-called glamorous, the wretched, the sweet, a few real geniuses, a multitude of regular Jane and John Does and a few outright lunatics . . . . For me, coming to New York was like being a Merchant Marine off to see the world. Back in those days, New York City was every place at once. In order to be a writer (the only thing I really wanted), I believed it was necessary to have broad experience and I did. As subject, the Self was not adequate, could never be enough. At least not my self.

There’s a big difference between working in New York in the ’70s and ’80s, even the ‘90s, and now. Then, individuals, companies, or institutions that had nothing (business-wise) to do with each other nevertheless shared a kind of conscience. There was commonality, a collective spirit. Now, really any kind of quotidian collective/civic spirit is gone. Now, we only cohere (if we cohere) on social media, in crisis and catastrophe. I pretty much attribute this to the demise of the newspaper. Once upon a time everybody—and I mean everybody—picked up a paper on their way to work, whether the Post, the Daily News, the Times . . . something. People on buses and subways read a paper. People read the paper in their offices, they read the paper at breakfast, lunch, or dinner. And they talked about what they read. They argued. They agreed. They fought. They engaged. This endowed even strangers with a kind of intimacy. It meant, too, that they had a sense of The Other, that Otherness was a part of civic life and consciousness. They did not live as much in silos, in “gated communities” of awareness. They knew that they were but one of numerous ingredients in the stew of life. In retrospect, they knew about more than mere conquering (though that happened, too).

BP: The demise of radio did not help. Listening to baseball pouring out of storefronts, or Howard Stern or WFMU or DJ Kool Red Alert . . . Now everyone has their own sound, their own cocoon, and so shared moments like standing in front of a window full of TVs together . . . But what set you to writing? Was it an English teacher who sent you on your merry way?

KG: I started writing poems as soon as I could hold a pencil and knew some words. I was encouraged to write by a teacher, probably. But I think I wanted to write because I loved to read. My first poems were about nature, then they were about love. I worked on the school literary magazine and finally was editor-in-chief. Appointing me editor-in-chief was a ploy by my English teacher to keep me in school because I wanted to drop out, I wanted to run away to New York. I’d confided that to her. She was a young, very hip English teacher and I remember her truly going for broke trying to convince me not to drop out of school but to stay and get my diploma . . . That I may not understand it now (then) but someday I would. She was right. But I was very hard to handle—not in any disciplinary way, but in a soul way. As editor-in chief of the literary magazine I was one of the Top 10 Seniors—the only one on the brink of academic collapse. I was so unhappy. Of course it had to do with my parents, who in their fierce arc up the social ladder seemed to need to thwart me at every turn. When I was older I would just sit in the coffee shop and study people who looked happy to try and figure out how they did it. I tried to learn what they knew. And eventually, I must have gotten it by osmosis because life did get better, it really did.

BP: Your poems deal with the interaction between words, phonemes, and our trust in them to engage in meaningful intercourse. There’s the moment that spark is sent across the silent synapses, the segue of where words with all their meaning and baggage, when left to their own devices, will create meaningful, fascinating new molecules. Your poems have a deceptive austerity. Is there such a thing as austere lavishness? Warm concrete? Like concrete poetry, a slab of concrete that sprouts moss that feeds off the concrete.

KG: There’s a significant amount of “picture making” in my poetry—in the text and in the scored materiality of how the poem appears on the page. That may turn the poem into an object, as well as a language declaration. Poetry is to the conscience, the soul. It’s an art, not a polemic, and keeps company in inspiration, fear, vanity, outrage, anger, arrogance, love—in mystery, beauty, the numinous, the sublime, the preposterous, the hideous, et al. It’s made of words—not guns or roses for that matter—just words. And to me, words assembled in language are everything.

BP: But it’s precisely this presumption of certain words flowing together to become the standard sentence that you seem to question. I think of Dada, and how the way sentences form themselves can be misleading [fake news], catastrophic [declarations of war], personally damaging [bullying]. So many of what we call acceptable sentences (by CEOs, politicians, etc.) display the abuse of that sacred author-word-reader bond.

KG: They’re how we know each other and ourselves in the course of an ordinary day and in extraordinary living. They are what prayers are made of and, along with music, they’re paeans of joy and hope. Notice that hopeless and despair are too abject and muster few words . . . if any at all. Yes, some poems are used as political invective, some rage or sentimentalize, and some limerick ribald and snickering, yes, yes, yes . . .

BP: I think of Brecht, able to bridge the political and personal, the sinister and the heroic. Or Whitman negotiating the personal through the larger out there. But political poems are often strident, a hammer to the head, a statement of the obvious: “war is bad.” While your poetry is like a poisoned dart to the heart.

KG: Bart, I hope it’s not always poisoned . . .

BP: Poisoned in the sense of providing an antidote to the poison of slack language or propaganda.

KG: Poetry is thought as feeling—given that thought, itself, is a kind of feeling. Real feeling and emotion don’t necessarily gesticulate wildly, throw the dishes, or cry themselves into recognition. Poetry is thought in the service of attention rendered in language.

BP: That describes much of the work in this book very well in just a few words, where I’ve been fumbling hundreds of them together to describe it. I picture you in a biology lab, gazing fixedly into a microscope at a glass slide on which words squiggle into position like amoebas . . . words like “terse” and “sparse” come to mind . . . pointing to some sentimentally edifying high ground.

KG: I hope the poetry offers an expanse for fascination, rumination, recognition, and sometimes sheer beauty. All for (probably not too many) readers who enjoy reading as a kind of work, who don’t want or need spoon feeding and who crave more than data . . . who are wearied of hackneyed poetic structures and the great glittering heft of personality or look-how-smart-I-am cleverness. But “terse” implies withholding and restraint with attitude. Terse is pejorative. I prefer that bare winter tree, the bones of exposure.

BP: Very good. Distillation is spirit separated from chaff. Your words are like Calvados, a drink you inhale as much as imbibe—while most are fine with Miller Lite. But do your poems have a declamatory purpose other than their being? Do you somehow not gain identity, recognition—esteem’s not the right word, but some kind of link that connects you to your words that makes them yours?

KG: I gain satisfaction. I make the poem and there it is! And I can inhabit the poem when I read it. And for some people, my poems are more graspable when read and embodied in the voice. Rarely do I declare myself “a poet,” which is just pretentious and a conversation stopper. I’ll say I write poetry. And to the inevitable “what are your poems about?” I might say, well, they’re about themselves. (But that’s not quite right, is it?) My job as I see it, my true purpose is to pay attention. If my poems are “about themselves” they are also made of keen attention in the world. No cause and effect, no determinism to offer. My writing is my own subjectivity that doesn’t so much deny Self as evince a kind of Self, indeed.

BP: L’art pour l’art, poems divorced from any moral, or utilitarian function?

KG: Some poems have ecstatic elements, and a great many of them flow with loss and love. Some—think of “Presentation Bouquet,” “Striding the Depot,” “Elegy in HR”—are tableaus of our time: the human and the humane subsumed by commerce, a quantitative world of surface in thrall to technology, to spectacle. As well as the object-ness of children, a cultural rejection of the elderly and everything old. They serve a vision that’s mostly grounded and material. They’re not about self (at least about me) in the usual way. Even when I use the first person singular, that first person often isn’t me but an imagined, projected persona. The hauntRoad in particular walks down lots of pain and loss, anger and dismay and doubt. But in the end, it arrives at intimations of faith. The final poem “Uphold. Protect.” implores the beloved to uphold and protect, to wade out and fetch the body. It’s preceded by a line from Shelley’s “Adonais,” his elegy for Keats. Shelley drowned just a few months after Keats died, and, indeed, someone fetched the body. My sick joke!

BP: I was looking at the table of contents; the typography reminds me of walking through Pigalle or Times Square, all the flashing different fonts on signs . . . like you’re taking on the OCD default of a uniform, standard, readable font. Mixing fonts, size, bold and italic makes your words wave, shimmer, tremble—a wild typographical dance.

KG: Wrought fonts and lettering are not protest or demonstrations of being against. They are feeling. Emotion. Typography can indicate different inflections—or even different voices. Within one poem there may be many voices, as in “middled in the Sender,” which has about five different voices. That poem is essentially a performance piece and unless you are a very acute and attentive reader, it would only come alive out loud, performed. When I write a poem, I may at the start have some specific idea or notion in mind. If the poem works, it begins to take on a life of its own and I get to a place where I’m working with it but not on it willfully. I’m not commanding the poem. Writing poems is the best thing I do and I’ve done it my whole life. It sounds dramatic, but I am one of those people who writes to stay alive.

BP: You say that the typography is not AGAINST something but a feeling . . .

KG: Feeling. Not “a” feeling. The italics, too, inject feeling, emphasis. And if you sometimes detect what you’ve called “Nordic emptiness” well, that’s really interesting because the Artic landscape (Glenn Gould’s Idea of North) are an Ur part of my aesthetic; whiteness of ground (the page), the great character of sky (the page). Vastness, endlessness, infinity. As a child, the polar bear (not the cuddly bear) was my psychic companion, my most marvelous imaginary toy.

BP: Yes, I feel the glacial, Nordic, white distances between words in search of each other . . .

KG: I “get” what I read very quickly, so I’m compelled by what slows me down. Most prose puts one foot in front of the other, a step-by-step yawn. These days, a lot of “poetry” is like that, too. It is prose set vertically down the page—taking the shape of a poem with none of the content. I walked here and I walked there, I thought this and I thought that. You can skim this stuff like a tax form or a Walmart receipt. Often you can listen like a therapist. On the other hand, some prose writers’ work is more poetic than the so-called poets. It’s all very hybridized now. I need data, information—but that is not what I want from poetry or any art form. Yes, poetry has its crafty elements. But you shouldn’t see the machinations of craft right off. As for syntax? Syntax is a kind of music, is it not? And some music comes from a far country . . .

BP: Nordic . . . I sometimes grab [my partner] Nina’s copy of a hyped literary novel and am struck by the mere explication, journalistic grooves, a page-turner hitting the right demographic-identity buttons. To presumptuously quote myself from an article on the poetry of Jose Padua: “a world of writing-workshop-tweaked, edited-by-committee, consumer-tested poetry bubbling from the heady realms of over-priced universities that pursue the glib parameters of the meme-framed minds and the contemporary, impatient, flash-fiction-attention-span zeitgeist.”

KG: In the media, there are few writers anymore, though everybody’s “writing.” I recently subscribed for a few weeks to The New Yorker, which I haven’t read in years—just thought I’d check it out because it now has good political journalism. And I remember it once-upon-a-time as a signal publication for quality writing.

BP: Our writing group, the Unbearables, protested twice, mid-90s, at the old New Yorker HQ on 42nd St. We demanded that they “free verse” from the suburban swimming pool doldrums. We thought by invading their offices we could convince them to just once in a while reward the wild ones, publish something out there. But alas . . .

KG: I flip through at the speed of light—like most online stuff. The words are dressed in clothes from The Gap, shorts, T shirt, baseball cap. Sneakers. Generally there’s little presence in the writing, no Voice. The dumb-down is noteworthy. I mean, if language is only as good as the thought behind it, well, then, hmm . . .

I see this everywhere. I see other stuff too, though, because it’s there, and I ferret it out! I just discovered an 80-year-old novelist named Joseph McElroy. His book of short stories called Night Soul fell out of my bookcase when I was looking for something else (how it got there in the first place, I don’t remember). I turned to the last story, “Night Soul,” and stood stock-still in the middle of the room reading until it finished. I was stunned. I was stunned by his richness of spirit and the deep quality of his listening . . . he’s a kind of animist, endowing everything with being. McElroy is in conversation with it all . . . totally inspired.

BP: Maybe it’s a confluence of impressionable youth and absorbing fiction, but I had that with Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion, Conrad, Heller, Dostoyevsky, Celine, Günter Grass . . .

KG: Bart, I hope you enjoyed reading The hauntRoad, that it wasn’t a forced march. I know it’s quite different from what you are used to reading, but I don’t think it’s so different from some of the music you listen to.

BP: I did. Challenging, yes. I had the image of two magnets: on one end a magnet attracts opposite poles and on the other, the equal poles push off each other—each head-on pairing of words confronts the very notion +/- of language, phrases, sentences, and the presumptions we have in assembling them. While writing, I listen to SLOW music, music that soothes without sedating—currently gloom jazz such as Bohren & Der Club of Gore, Loscil, Deepchord presents Echospace, Yagya, et al . . . or Miles Davis, the Kind of Blue period, with those pregnant, soaring silences . . . also I never tire of Elevator to the Gallows, the Louis Malle film, but especially Davis’s soundtrack.

KG:. Feeling too much in a gallows already—personally and politically. Sick and sickened by Tiberius and his cabinet of deadly fools.

BP: Tiberius is right. Like him, Trump is a grumpy, reluctant president—I’m not the only one who feels he became president to spite his critics and his presidency is the ultimate revenge porn encouraged in 2015-16 by BFF golf buddy Bill Clinton.

KG: Even more, I feel sickened by what I don’t see, the sneaky, sly and covert destruction of many things—from small shoestring agency to whole forests, the whole fabric. The entire planet should be sleeping with one eye open.

BP: If people had had “one eye open” back in the Reagan era when this Reich cheerleader of trickle-down Propaganda was impressing Americans, Trump might not have been born[e]. Meanwhile, Davis’s Elevator remains cathartic, inspirational—probably the best soundtrack of all time.

KG: I watched Elevator to the Gallows last night. I liked it, of course, though the premise was so grisly. The three main characters, one dead, two alive, all equally selfish and cold. Moreau was very young, 30 I think, just lovely in her mournful way. Such a face. Only Simone Signoret had as much character in her visage. I thought it was curious that Florence (that was the character’s name, right?) walked and walked all over Paris looking for Julien. . . . And Moreau has a funny walk, chin up high and proud, she leads with her stomach, sometimes curiously swaybacked. Her confidence is almost dangerous. She’s dangerous in everything, even love.

BP: Speaking of dangerous, how do friends and family react to your work? I imagine it’s like someone with a very difficult-to-explain profession: Feng Shui consultant, network engineer, biomechanic, Pet Rock consultant . . .

KG: Hahaha!!! Someone once asked me (it was an accusation) who do you write for, who’s your audience? I said I write for the person who enjoys reading my writing—for whoever is interested, whoever wants to keep company. And I get—even from people who care about me (especially from people who care about me!)—reactions that run from dead silence to rage. An anger that may come from people who thought they knew me, but when they read the poems it’s like “who is this . . . who are you?” I mean, I have rather perfected a reasonable attractiveness and do move graciously, even easily, through the world. I enjoy people. Socially, I’m not even slightly difficult, confrontational or contentious . . . though maybe a little edgy at times. So, people who know me in this are thrown off, pissed off. BUT, if you’re interested and my poems resonate, then thank you, dear reader.

BP: “Rage”! I guess they want guidance, which is mostly clichés, presumptions, formulas, famous names. No canoe without a paddle here! They want life preservers, an outboard, GPS, an EMS app, lots of food . . . They don’t understand that poetry can be a GPS for the soul. It’s all distraction for them . . . I am peeved by how popular culture persists in distracting us forever from issues while pretending to inform.

KG: People just want to understand. They don’t want to be made to feel stupid. But yes, we’ve downgraded to a selfie culture with no more sense of the sacred. We’re most miserably cocooned and strait-jacketed in hollow branding. I think even younger people who’ve known no other kind of world but big box stores and the media flatland are in crisis, in a place of nearly excruciating yearning for substance and nutrition. And of fear for the planet they stand on and fear of the powers that be who demonstrate criminal greed and negligence over and over without end . . .

BP: People DO want real-visceral. That’s why concerts are still big. But then some of them can’t let go of their need to Detach, filming endlessly on their phones, when their souls crave this sweaty real Attachment. Caught between visceral need and media addiction . . .

[Karen guides me through Bergdorf Goodman, on a 100%-humidity September day, a walk you might take through the Alcázar of Seville.]

KG: Since EVERYTHING IS GONE in New York City, the only real oases left, the only islands of peacefulness are the department stores . . . Bergdorf’s, Bloomindale’s!!!

BP: Even these bastions are threatened—Lord & Taylor closed—by the ravages of insensible venture capital . . . Read Kevin Bakers “The Death of a Once Great City” published earlier this year in Harper’s.

KG: They smell good. Sometimes they’re even fun. People are helpful and nice. The bookstores, record stores, stationery stores—every other low-key browsy meditative place is gone. Now, I gravitate to the department stores when I need to get off the crazy streets and breathe.

BP: The perfume department was magical. Like a secret bower . . . like a wing of a museum not much visited . . .

KG: For as long as they survive, department stores are a final bastion. And that twinkling jewel of a Guerlain counter at Bergdorf’s is balm in Gilead.

BP: A little island in the storm. I felt like I was in an unpublished J.D. Salinger story.

KG: I think about writers like Tennessee Williams, whose characters were so idiosyncratic, eccentric, fragile, brutal or difficult . . . think about the whole ethic of tolerance for distinct, unique individuals, for respecting, for cherishing their “otherness.” I don’t know what to make of this “shifting paradigm” that to me seems like a whole culture die-off, another extinction. And I write this as I read this headline in The Washington Post: “U.S, militia groups head to border, stirred by Trump’s call to arms.”

BP: In “Elegy in ‘HR’” you write: “the glass bowl sails for help and other gusts of mercy”...

KG: But, Bart, you know the world doesn’t entirely suck! It can’t. It’s dangerous and imperiled and we’ve defaulted our God-given custody. Yet to pull The Dark across it entire is false. If you’re in a difficult spot with yourself, very depressed, angry, in some kind of trouble and empty of any sense of the sacred, indeed you can step into easily available quagmires of rage—whichever rage most suits you—and like quicksand get pulled into the darkest place, into the whirlpool. You can devolve in total fear of Other, you can succumb and lose every iteration of love.

BP: Alan Watts said: “On the one hand there is the real world and on the other . . . a whole system of symbols about that world which we have in our minds. These are very useful symbols, all civilization depends on them, but . . . they have their disadvantages, and the principle disadvantage of symbols is that we confuse them with reality, just as we confuse money with actual wealth, and our names about ourselves—our ideas of ourselves, our images of ourselves—with ourselves.”

KG: It seems to me that there is a prison-self that can be made by the marriage of your own personal misery to the miserable world . . . these days one can become quite righteously eclipsed by depression and rage. But you must remember there’s still plenty of wholesome life out there. People live lives of real love here and now. And young people are so often astonishing . . . like your daughter, Paloma. Most of the young people I meet are extraordinary. They fill me with hope like those kids from that high school in Parkland, Florida. Kids like that might save us all.

Yet also, like Mandelstam said: “The centuries surround me with fire.”


bart plantenga is the author of the novels Beer Mystic, Ocean GroOve, Radio Activity Kills and the wander memoirs Paris Scratch and NY Sin Phoney in Face Flat Minor, among other works. His books Yodel-Ay-Ee-Oooo: The Secret History of Yodeling Around the World & Yodel in HiFi plus the CD Rough Guide to Yodel have created the misunderstanding that he is one of the world’s foremost yodel experts. As a DJ he has produced Wreck This Mess, in NYC, Paris, and Amsterdam since 1986. He lives in Amsterdam.


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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2018-2019 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2019

ED BOK LEE

Saturday, March 16, 7 pm
Plymouth Congregational Church
1900 Nicollet Ave, Minneapolis

Join us for the book launch of Ed Bok Lee’s latest, Mitochondrial Night, a collection that traces paths through time, genealogy, and geography. Taking mitochondrial DNA as his guide, Lee explores familial and national legacies—the trait of an ancestor appears in the face of a newborn, and in her cry generations of women’s voices echo. Using lush, exact imagery, whether about the corner bar or an invasion in medieval Korea, Lee is a careful observer, tracking and documenting the way that seemingly small moments can lead to larger insights.

This event, free and open to the public, is co-sponsored by Literary Witnesses, Rain Taxi Review of Books and Korean Quarterly. Reception to follow, with music by DJ NAK. We hope to see you there!


“In Mitochondrial Night, Ed Bok Lee takes us on an intimate journey through space and time, introduces us to people and places we have and have not met, to center us in our humblest humanity . . . He looks to raise from the dead the spirits of wars lost, wars long forgotten, the wars being waged now, and he does so with a light, lonely hand. This collection is explosive; it shatters the boundaries of self in the service of art.”
—Kao Kalia Yang

“Ed Bok Lee’s Mitochondrial Night is a thrilling book by a gifted poet at the height of his powers.”
—Khaled Mattawa


Ed Bok Lee, the son of North and South Korean emigrants, grew up in South Korea, North Dakota, and Minnesota, and was educated on both U.S. coasts as well as Russia, South Korea, and Kazakhstan. He teaches at Metropolitan State University in Saint Paul, and for two decades has taught in numerous programs for youth and the incarcerated. Lee is the author of Whorled (Coffee House Press), a recipient of a 2012 American Book Award and the Minnesota Book Award in Poetry; other honors include the Asian American Literary Award (Members’ Choice Award) and a PEN/Open Book Award. Author photo by Ted Hall.

CLAUDIA KEELAN

Thursday, March 7, 2019, 7:00pm
Common Good Books
38 Snelling Ave S, St Paul
Free and open to the public

Join us as we welcome visiting poet Claudia Keelan, with special guest Chris Santiago!

Keelan will read from her new book We Step into the Sea: New and Selected Poems (Barrow Street, 2018). A literary scholar and translator as well, Keelan’s other recent work includes Ecstatic Émigré, a book of essays in the Poets on Poetry Series from University of Michigan Press (2018), and Truth of My Songs: Poems of the Trobairitz (Omnidawn, 2015), which collects her translations of works by women troubadours.

Appearing with Keelan will be Minnesota poet Chris Santiago, the author of Tula, which was selected by A. Van Jordan as the winner of the 2016 Lindquist & Vennum Prize for Poetry, and was a finalist for the 2017 Minnesota Book Award. A 2018 McKnight Writing Fellow, his poems, fiction, and criticism have appeared in FIELD, Copper Nickel, Pleiades, and the Asian American Literary Review.


"We Step into the Sea collects over three decades of work by one of the most singular voices in contemporary American poetry. It tells the story of a lyric poet who both probes and sheds the self in search of a "we," not to belong to, but rather, to care for, to serve: "I will hold us safely together, / we will consider the falling whole." In these poems of passive resistance and active celebration, we are given a panoramic view of a poet who insists that experimentation is an ethical imperative, one that will help us forge a kingdom of compassion that runs counter to empire."
—Sasha Steensen

Other praise for Claudia Keelan:

“These are beautiful, anguished political poems . . . Keelan writers both for herself and the many. Her language, as language, is intended to create change through a deliberate evenhanded musicality, but the poems are also desert-air-clear as to meaning.”
 —Alice Notley

“Keelan’s work, always politically engaged, here takes a tender and personal turn . . . A deep feeling collection not afraid to look loss in the face.”
 —Cole Swensen


Claudia Keelan was born in Southern California when it was still covered with orange groves. She’s taught in many writing programs, including the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the University of Alabama, and the University of Nevada, where she is a Barrick Distinguished Scholar and editor of the journal Interim. Her honors include the Beatrice Hawley Award from Alice James Books, the Cleveland State University Poetry Prize, the University of Georgia Contemporary Poetry Series Award, and the Jerome Shestack prize from the American Poetry Review. Keelan lives in the Mojave Desert with the poet Donald Revell, son Ben, daughter Lucie, standard poodle Miss Margaret Jarvis, and a worried schnauzer named Dugan

Poet and The Circus

POET
Clark Coolidge
Pressed Wafer ($15)

THE CIRCUS
Clark Coolidge
Flow Press ($15)

by Patrick James Dunagan

Clark Coolidge is a powerhouse among poets; over the years his sheer output has been nothing less than monumental, and at seventy-nine years of age shows no signs of stopping. The latest little brick-of-a-book added to the Coolidge canon is Poet, a rip-roaring whale of a poem-series (over 300 pages) riffing off the late David Meltzer’s “When I Was A Poet,” the joyously reflective title poem that takes up a mere eleven pages of Meltzer’s 2011 collection. While Coolidge’s dedicatory note to Poet gives Meltzer the briefest of acknowledgements (“thanks to David”), there’s nothing more really needs be said. Meltzer would love Coolidge’s book and definitely dig the props given to his own poem:

when I was a poet       when I was a portrait
a potentate       a Peterbilt       a porcelain stevedore
a peek at that shack at the end of the peneplain
poet the finisher of everybody’s questions
poet takes a phone break
poet broods getting the point
poet catlike perplexed by doorsills
how many people do you think there are in the world?
add ten poets
poet turn mistakes into alternate takes

Coolidge and Meltzer’s friendship first began back in the 1960s, when Coolidge played drums in Meltzer’s psychedelic would-be pop band The Serpent Power. In more recent years the two poets had on occasion hit the circuit again as a poetry duo, exchanging choruses; at their best, these readings possessed a fascinating improvised structure as nothing appeared planned ahead of time, each poet reaching for their next material according to the nature of what they heard coming from the other as they read. Coolidge is still drumming, now with the free improvisation group Ouroboros, and his poems in part reflect the nature of his playing—a jangly set of lines that leap then abruptly halt before leaping again as assorted references get called forth into the fray.

Much of Poet is Coolidge at his most casual, allowing an abundance of name-dropping (e.g. “Gregory Corso I can hear you laughing”) while also tossing in plenty of references to popular culture, especially when it comes to film: “The apes had all left for another planet / . . . / planet of whatever the hell your talking about.” In all cases, the humor runs rampant, at times with hilarious shades of snarky cynicism, “poems of people who all hate each other.” The poetry world may (hopefully!) never be the same again.

Coolidge’s references, asides, and quick dodges are never too obvious. One page contains a robustly diverse range of figures from the poetry and art world. Few will recognize all these names, though googling will clue the curious in a bit. Still, be aware that to approach an approximate understanding of what associations may have popped into Coolidge’s mind will take more than just cursory screen scrolling:

Max Finstein a corn hen to be dipped
Piet Mondrian the organist
Joe Early’s duet with Don Shirley
David Rattray a weapon against the rain
A salt shaker in the hand of Carol Bergé
Roxie Powell the bug in a duck
Jamie MacInnis funny you should ask
Piero Heliczer compact as the sun
The Punishment of John Wheelwright an Ode
W. D. Snodgrass a dream of pickled horseflesh
Billy Collins a tissue of gummy bears
John Fles the magazine youth
David Salle tear sheet of the mouth
John Koethe a sally

It’s worth noting how among the mostly comic take-downs of more well-known figures there are dashes of what would seem the propping up of a few lesser known, true outsiders who were as yet very much a part of the scene way back when.

As opposed to the untitled entries on each page of Poet, the poems in Coolidge’s other recent volume, The Circus, retain the convention of individual titles. This volume, too, however, is a series composed in sequence from “5VIII02-27XI02” [Aug 5, 2002-Nov 27, 2002] as noted after the final poem. It’s likely not a good idea to read too far into the title. After all, it may just have come from the fact that it’s the title of the first poem:

Cyrus plays a tune to his pipes to the gods
perhaps there will now be ghosts opening the circus
tabletop pies assorted sauces awaiting the animals
their curses their courses the paleness of smaller moons
a binocular version of the circus with no animals
too many persons they may yet leave to butter their teeth
the whole room becomes a drone but less elastic

There’s also a manner in which this book of poems, as might be said of many a book of poems, is a kind of circus itself, full of characters, stunts, animals, and barkers all gathered together between book covers for the enjoyment of the audience (i.e. readers). Or it could just be a commentary on how aptly the circus serves as metaphor for life and poetry, a representation of the world in which language is unleashed sounding out unexpected and bizarre scenes:

Kind of thinking you’ll have to scratch to survive
god knows what I really said to that eggplant
a whirling mass of air or mind
or drive this stake through your everyday scribe
it’s filled with foofy food! a hullabaloo
that’s normal for a poet like Red Rodney
billows with roses stamped out of stink fish
a patrolling problem down among the trollers for stuff
so what do we make? a shelf-life tryst?
bubbles up in the doubleyou column nobody wins
coughs lots though you weigh yourself in water
but what can you expect these days
a loaf split into three pinballs?

Both these books are admittedly much longer than the average collection of poetry. Coolidge’s Selected Poems 1962-1985 (Barrytown/Station Hill Press, 2017) was a revelation. Clocking in at nearly 500 pages, it offers possibly only a quarter of Coolidge’s total output during those years. Yet his massive oeuvre from that period has been magisterially shaved down by editor Larry Fagin (most likely with Coolidge’s assistance); the seemingly heretofore unapproachable behemoth pile of individual works is made utterly accessible. Although some collections are represented by mere snippets, each serves up prime example of Coolidgean perfection—which, it must be said, is by nature decidedly imperfect.

In Now It's Jazz: Kerouac and the Sounds (Living Batch, 1999) Coolidge declares he’s hungering to read ALL that Kerouac wrote, every as-yet unpublished page from the family’s archives. He’s desirous to experience every line Kerouac ever set down upon the page. Writing, much like reading, is an all or nothing endeavor for Coolidge; he’d have you read his books in total. So don’t wait for The Circus and Poet to appear excerpted in his next selected poems—get at them now when they’re fresh and, yes, quite popping.


Click here to purchase The Circus
at your local independent bookstore
indiebound
Click here to purchase Poet
Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2018-2019 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2019