We Are All Witnesses For Each Other:
An Interview with
Sean Thomas Dougherty

photo by John Henry Doucette

Interviewed by William Stobb

Born and raised in New York, Sean Thomas Dougherty lives with his wife and daughters in Erie, Pennsylvania. After many years as the house man at Gold Crown Billiards, Dougherty now works as a caregiver and medical technician for various disabled populations, while still writing poetry; his latest book is The Second O of Sorrow (BOA Editions, $16), which was just awarded the 2019 Paterson Prize from the Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College. Though he is published widely and has won many awards, including state arts fellowships, an appearance in Best American Poetry, and a Fulbright, the soulfulness of Dougherty’s work—a disdain for cleverness and stylization—along with his chosen subjects—people in pool halls and coal mines and karaoke bars, neighborhood kids, immigrants, anyone struggling in some way to have a voice in America—mark his work as outside the mainstream. Publisher’s Weekly describes him as “a blue-collar rust belt Romantic to his generous, enthusiastic core,” and Dorianne Laux finds Dougherty at “the gypsy punk heart of American poetry.” Widely known as an energized performer, Dougherty has been featured at The Dodge Poetry Festival, the Detroit Arts Festival, and the Old Dominion Literary Festival.

William Stobb: You’ve published more than a dozen poetry collections, and in 2014, you put out a retrospective volume, All You Ask for Is Longing: Poems 1994-2014. When we first met, you were touring in support of that book, and you felt at that time that Longing might be your last collection. But now The Second O of Sorrow has arrived, and it’s a gem—powerful, poignant, beautifully crafted. How does the book feel to you, arriving at a point in your career arc that you might not have even imagined?

Sean Thomas Dougherty: I don’t really think anymore of poetry in terms of career. I think it is because I work so far from anything literary and live far from any literary center. But in a lot of ways this book, after so many and writing for so many decades, and coming right after my Selected poems, feels like my first book—like the first 30 years of writing was practice getting down these poems. I think that was somewhat conscious, too. I was going for a leaner sort of poem, even in the longer pieces, a cutting down, getting closer to the bones of the poem, and the life.

I’m just trying to write closer to the marrow. Of course, perhaps living with so much uncertainty due to economics and disease and struggle in my family pushes one away from what is ephemeral. And so much in the literary is ephemeral. The conversations and accusations and correctness of literary folk masked as import is too often done far from the lived life and the people and places where I live. In the end, I think it was to embrace a poetics where the lived life matters:

He was so much more than flipping burgers & fries,
more than 12-hour shifts at the steel plant in Cleveland.
More than the shut-down mill in Youngstown.
More than that kid selling meth in Ashtabula.
He was every kid, every street, every silo, he was white
& black & brown & migrant kids working farms.
He was the prince of stutter-step & pause. He was the new
(from “Biography of LeBron as Ohio”)

WS: I don't want to approach the situation naively, as if the poems are all directly and precisely autobiographical, but I get the sense you see your poems as a way of honoring the people you've known and things that you and they have gone through.

SD: Yes, that is perceptive. I guess it’s about getting back and closer to the lived life. Even if the poems are imagined they come out of my experience in actual places. Place figures as much as people. These cities I live or work along the lake, working class bars where I’ve play pool, diners and institutions near Erie and Cleveland. The Youngstown monologue, the Pittsburgh poems such as the Y Not Bar, which is a real joint. My dead friends Joe Rash and Frenchy who I played pool with. M who is a friend who basically went crazy after a long battle with drug addiction. Monologues that engage the opiate crisis along the lake. Lyrics of my girlfriend’s struggles with disease and addiction. Maybe it isn’t as much about honoring these people and places but about just writing to get the work down, to say they exist, they existed, they fought hard in this difficult life, continue fighting hard to survive, and that they matter. Most of this has little to do with Poetry as a business or even an art. It has more to do with poetry as something closer to breathing, something needed to keep us alive and fighting, despite the hard evidence not to.

WS: The book is full of show-stoppers; you bring intensity of emotional engagement to every poem. To me, it feels like the collection is a kind of argument for connection, for real feeling, for living in a way that’s raw and observant and vulnerable to joy and pain. I want to ask some questions about that, like isn’t that hard? And do you think it’s something that poetry has created in you? Or do you think it’s the other way around: that art comes out of you because you see clearly and feel intensely? Or am I barking up the wrong tree, here? Maybe you see this dynamic in very different terms.

SD: I think poetry for me has always been about ways to create some space in language that shows how in the places I live and travel and work, in places many in the culture deem difficult to live, in the smallest moments every day, people are just so damn kind and good to one another. Is it hard? I think kindness is hard. It is much easier not to be kind. It took me decades to learn how to approach anger with alternatives. Much of this I think comes out of my work as a caregiver with people who are damaged and prone to anger. When you live with this, you see how anger is so often an arbitration to what is fully human. This doesn’t mean you go through life like a little bitch and let people roll over you.

It messed me up when my friend Cody Todd, who I have inserted in quite a few poems over the years, died unexpectedly. He was the one writer I’d most want behind my back in a bar fight, and he was more than once. He was tough, and his poems were full of brilliant shards. He and I would have long debates about poetry at night online or on the phone. He and I also talked a lot about poetry as a kind of healing—the bandages of language—because most often, anger is the wrong answer. I am more interested in the small social moments where someone offers a hand. That’s probably the influence of Charles Simic; he argued to us when I was his student in the 1980s that poetry is most often about moments. I think at the core I agree with that, though I am most interested in the continuity of giving, the work unfolding as a series of moments or gestures. I am less interested in stillness or silence and more in a sort of musical notation. I am aware of the moments in real time that something emotional happens—a tone, a gesture—I try to get us there, and then when the poem unfolds that moment is hopefully recreated inside or around the reader. When poetry does this, perhaps it is narrating, or is it holding, or maybe recreating anew that moment, in language, so it does not disappear from us forever.

WS: From talking with you, and from following you on Facebook (note to reader: Sean’s an active and thoughtful social media artist, so if you enjoy his published work, I’d encourage you to connect with him online), I know that you feel at odds with a kind of poetry establishment represented by mainstream journals and academia. But I feel like your work is deeply rooted in important traditions. How do you see your work in the landscape of contemporary poetry?

SD: I used to believe in certain avant-garde tendencies in my writing, but I guess over the years I have gotten less interested in aesthetics and more concerned with questions, like Whitman: what is the grass? What words does the wind speak? What memories sweep in with the rain? Terrance Hayes’ investigative poetry fulfilled any avant-garde leanings I had, so I felt like I didn’t have to write those poems or even try to imagine them. Perhaps he did this for everyone! Because most of us can’t write poems that strong and ambitious anyways. He is also responsible for helping to bring my work to many readers. And he has done this for many writers. He reads everything. He singlehandedly brought back to readers the genius of Christopher Gilbert, whose work touched me so deeply when I was young.

Peter Conners and Sean Dougherty at Grumpy's Bar in Minneapolis

I got lucky having a publisher, BOA Editions, and an editor, Peter Conners, who continue to believe in my work. I’m not being facetious. Very few of the so called “top” journals have ever published my work and most writing programs do not even acknowledge my work exists. In this way, I am like most writers—slugging it out for decades in the trenches, sharing rejection notes and reading in small smoky places and bookstore basements over coffee.

A lot of my writing exists between genres—something not quite a poem, not quite an essay, such as the longer pieces in Second O of Sorrow. For the smaller pieces I can say for sure Sarah Freligh’s Sad Math and Julie Babcock’s Autoplay helped me to write those poems. Both authors write small tight narratives that verge on the lyric. For years I was influenced by a range of lyric writers like Lucille Clifton and Franz Wright, the performative and formal edges of Patricia Smith and the streetwise bitterness of Denis Johnson, the lyrical prose of Michael Ondaatje. Maybe in the end I am just another maudlin lyric poet? A 21st-century confessionalist? Then I think too of a poet like Malena Morling—I feel like my poems are often in conversation with hers. She should be much better known. She writes a spare often spiritual kind of poem that pulled me back to see the world behind the veil but never at the expense of this world.

And maybe that is what I am not admitting. The idea of community and shared content is very important to me despite not feeling part of the mainstream of literature. I recently completed an anthology on autism and poetry titled Alongside We Travel: Contemporary Poets on Autism, coming from New York Quarterly Books this spring. The book arose when my wife, Lisa M. Dougherty, started writing poems about our autistic daughter. I began to look around to see how others were approaching the topic. Editing this book and dealing with writers who are engaged with a topic very personal to them, I rediscovered my love for writing’s collectivist voice. Raymond Hammond is publishing the book as a fundraiser. All contributor royalties earned on sales will be donated to Sharing the Weight, a small nonprofit out of Iowa doing a simple amazing thing: gathering people together to hand sew and make weighted blankets for autistic children. Projects like this remind me that collectively poetry can do something quite important and material.

WS: I’ve been really interested in a new series of poems or prose poems that you’ve been composing, which are beginning to be published in journals, now, and which you’re posting on Facebook sometimes. You’re writing letters back to editors, responding to rejection letters, basically. Where are these new pieces coming from? Where are they headed?

SD: I experienced an amazing run of rejection with journals in the last two years. I mean the big journals almost never publish me, but this was a crazy run of like two acceptances and hundreds of rejections from journals big and small, so one day this fall I simply started to write back to my rejection letters. I think it really began by speaking back to the journal Field, which is where I first sent some of my poems over 30 years ago, who of course rejected me and have continued to religiously reject me since then. Now Field is closing shop. I outlived them, but they never published me, despite publishing the kinds of poems by people like Franz Wright that really influenced me. Too often in American culture we are taught to accept rejection without retort. Like it’s rude or presumptuous to speak back. But poetry as an art and business is steeped in endless levels of gate-keeping. I got tired of it and I became intellectually interested in the language of the rejection letter itself. As I started to write these, I also became investigative of the idea of rejection itself, across disciplines.

I think too this gets back to the earlier question about connection. After all those rejections that year, when I wrote that first response back, it was kind of funny and empathetic toward the editor. I wrote the piece on Facebook for my friends on Facebook and posted it. Writing each essay/letter on Facebook and posting it makes the project a kind of spontaneous publishing performance—maybe only 10 or 50 or whatever people see the pieces that day. I take them down afterwards. But the feedback I get has been good because one thing we all experience as artists is rejection. The pieces hope to connect across our shared failures. Social media has a kind of hatefulness to it and a kind of false pomposity, but it also has a profound possibility to help us lean against each other and help one another through hard times. This is particularly important for writers like me who do not live near the literary limelights. As the rejection project has grown, though, it is now about many kinds of rejection and acceptance. And has grown to include pieces on my wife’s long fight with illness, disability, and addiction, and explorations of my own work as a caregiver and counselor for the brain injured and disabled. The pieces are sometimes antagonistic to literary culture, but they are often empathetic, too. Editing is a tough job. We are all in some ways both submitters and gatekeepers as artists, even if only inside ourselves. Perhaps what I am writing is something not quite poetry, but a kind of “collectivist autobiography.” Here is the piece that began it all:

Dear Editors of Esteemed and tiny journals,

I know how hard you work for nothing but the love of the art, and how underappreciated you often are, so I have attached no poems for submission, thereby saving you the time of reading them, time that could be better spent reading the better poems of others, or spending time with your lover or your children, or simply sitting in the sun and maybe even writing a poem of your own, one I hope will not receive the sadness of the consequent form rejection that you would have sent if I had included my poems, poems that would have kept you from that party you were going to blow off in order to catch up on the hundreds of submissions clogging your In-Box. Now you can take that subway ride, where you can nod your head with your eyes closed and your ear plugs on, listening to that obscure composer you love of sonatas for cello and sousaphone. For the world is rather like the bell of a Sousaphone, or is it love that is the bell? The one ringing now in the high cathedral on the far side of town, where there had only been funerals for the last decade. Where the coffins are cloaked with sunflowers. The old Bulgarian women are donning their black netting. Oh Editor, where are the weddings? Who is writing, as Lorca asks, the Baptism of the new? No, my poems are not, they are old as dust, or dirt, or a broom. Too many of us are bothering you. Turn off your computer, dear editor. There is honey waiting to be spooned in your tea. There is poppyseed cake. Look out the window. There is wild thyme and fennel.


WS: Do you see a book of these happening, maybe? I feel like it could be a really liberating read for a lot of writers.

SD: There is a manuscript of these. I save them. I’ve written fast in the last months between working my night shift job and living, and I probably have about 120 double spaced pages so far. It’s not really a book of poems though. I think of them closer to essays. Or simply a book of letters. I’ve always been interested in work that is not quite—not quite a poem, not quite an essay. Can a letter be a poem and a poem be something as intimate as a letter? Remember what O’Hara and Hugo said to us decades ago? That intimate detail of reading a poem as a letter. A lot of new media has this kind of tone. Instagram poems as memes, whether you love them or hate them, are in fact sorts of letters, electronic posters; they harken back to the surrealist and dadaist use of media. They exist as something that crosses into different types of textuality that are more than literary. They borrow from these populist forms. I do not engage in Instagram and Twitter simply because I work long hours. But I applaud these new forms of writing. Perhaps we never grow far, despite the decades, from our formative teachers, and this rejection project feels like a book another of my old professors, Michael Martone, might have written. I can feel the influence of his “Contributor’s Note” essays and stories as I examine and appropriate the language of acceptance and rejection notes. But to be honest, maybe the book should never be published—maybe it should just continue to be written, sent out, and rejected. For the real acceptance of the work and of each other (and maybe this is just the Jewish mystic in my blood) is the breathing and the saying, the making and sharing of them. It is a book that only exists by someone saying No. I wonder, William, if that is what all literature, all poetry is? To write back against this world that says shut up, you are less than, you do not matter, you are poor, you are different. You are damaged. In the end we all die. We are all failures. We are all witnesses for each other.

NOTE: Since the recording of this interview, Sean’s “Dear Editor” series has been contracted for publication by New York Quarterly Books, and is forthcoming in October 2019 under the title All My People Are Elegies.

Click here to purchase this book
at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2019 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2019

Fruit Geode

Alicia Jo Rabins
Augury Books ($16)

by Anat Hinkis

The experiences of childbirth and early motherhood are simultaneously physical and metaphorical in Alicia Jo Rabins’ new collection, Fruit Geode, which was selected as finalist for the National Jewish Book Award in 2018. In resonance with Rabins’ first collection, Divinity School, there is a strong sense of the physicality in the human experience, though the spiritual constantly hovers within reach. The collection opens with the poem “Beautiful Virus,” where the irrepressible power of nature, entwining life and death, culminates in the sweet yet terrifying magic of early parenthood:

Like arsenic in chocolate
Like a pea shoot in mud
You broke me open
Into death-in-life
A beautiful virus
Uncontrollably growing
As the morning glories
Climb the raspberries
That choke the grapes that
Overrun the spinach
What I mean to say is
Knocked off the pedestal
Of wholeness
Now I watch you breathe
In your miniature
Flamingo pajamas

This loss of “wholeness,” a breaking open, is the main trope around which most of the poems revolve. As the feminine body opens like a ripe fruit to give life, then lends itself to nourish and nurture the baby’s needs, the sense of self is altered, sometimes beyond recognition. The fruit geode of the book’s title (a splitting in half of a fruit rather than a crystal stone) is essentially a female phallus, a symbol of fertility with the shape of a uterus or a vulva. The split reveals the soft, vulnerable innards, an organ holding blood and placenta.

In the physical sense, a birth is a separation of mother and baby, one person made two, as in “Materia Medica”: “the wound of birth tore us in two/we regarded each other//across unfamiliar air.” In the metaphorical sense, birthing is also a spiritual split, as in the poem “Memoir,” in which Rabins overlays a Kabbalah concept on the experience of a C-section birth:

And once, no, twice I lay on the birthing-table and a stranger
cut me open, my body falling into two halves,

Compassion and Judgment.

Compassion and judgment, according to Kabbalah, are two opposing impulses in the world which we are challenged to balance in our lives. In many of the poems we can see these undulating powers in the small daily mistakes of parenting; for example, take “The Monastery of Motherhood”:

it’s hard to face
my ugly old self again
whether by the pig farm
or metropolitan crossroads
but the hardest is alone
with children
I’d cut my lungs out for her
but then I spray her
in the face with the hose
when she claws for the baby
and so in the monastery
of motherhood I find the devil
in my own heart

Yet, despite all these failures—the worst of all being our mortal failure to pass on immortality to our children—the new self is woven into the continuum of humanity through the act of motherhood. Ancient female deities appear in a few of the poems almost as ancestors, and it seems at times that the speaker tries to hold on to something that flows through her, like a wave, a contraction, old self and new self, time and wisdom. Rabins is able to place the reader in the tiniest moment while at the same time opening an expansive vista on humanity—which in itself makes Fruit Geode a collection worth exploring.

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

Lessons from a Dark Time

Adam Hochschild
University of California Press ($27.95)

by M. Lock Swingen

With the skillset of a resourceful journalist, the far-ranging scope of a historian, and the passionate fervor of an activist, bestselling author Adam Hochschild shares the stories of gutsy and bold individuals from across the world who have taken a stand against authoritative governments, spoken out against social injustices and inequalities, and dared to demand change. In Lessons From a Dark Time, Hochschild collects and updates over two dozen essays and pieces of reporting from his long career; the subjects of the articles range from a Congolese center for rape victims, a Finnish prison, a California gun show, a stroll through a construction site with an ecologically pioneering architect in India, a visit to the snowy ruins of a gulag camp in the frozen tundra of the Soviet Arctic, and a day on the campaign trail with Nelson Mandela.

Additionally, Hochschild examines the writers he loves and how they informed his own work, from Mark Twain to Joseph Conrad, George Orwell, and John McPhee. Oedipus-like, Hochschild seems to struggle with the triumphs and shortcomings of his own literary elders and masters. Working more as a historian than a journalist in these essays, Hochschild examines the personal lives of his forebears and judges whether they are unforgivably tainted with the evils of history. If our elders do not live up to the ever-changing standards of our own time, must we commit patricide in the name of the present-day greater good? It is an anxiety that seems to haunt Hochschild’s investigations into his own literary heritage.

In his essay on Joseph Conrad, for example, Hochschild investigates the biographical fingerprints smudged on the pages of Heart of Darkness, that infamous novel depicting colonial rule in the Congo in the nineteenth-century and the phantasmagoria of an entire economy founded on the whip, the gun, and forced labor. “No doubt Conrad drew part of Kurtz from deep within himself; that is what gives the reader a tinge of uneasy empathy with Kurtz’s boundless ambition and his vision of himself as the apostle of ‘the cause of progress’ among awestruck savages,” writes Hochschild. “But Conrad clearly also took aspects of Kurtz from various men whom he encountered or heard about in the Congo.” The essay ends with a troubling tug-of-war between virtue and malevolence as Hochschild tallies Conrad’s own conflicting impulses. Damningly, as Hochschild notes, Conrad was a conservative in politics: He loathed labor unions and had no use for the socialist idealism in which many of his more intellectually inclined friends had great faith. And yet at the same time Conrad proved to be one of the very few writers of his era that managed to depict the horrific underbelly of the colonial project. Whether you agree or not, Hochschild ultimately finds Conrad redeemable in his essay.

Archeologically-minded, Hochschild demonstrates an instinct to burrow to the origins of things, such as the genesis of the modern surveillance state in the United States. Indeed, Hochschild dedicates an entire section of his collection to this single pursuit. In “The Father of American Surveillance,” for example, Hochschild traces the life and career of Ralph H. Van Deman, a United States Army officer, who found himself immersed in the Philippine-American War at the turn of the twentieth century. Now largely forgotten, the conflict in the Philippines was a counter-insurgency war, and for that type of combat the military did not need cannons or fortresses but intelligence information. Hochschild explains how the military placed Van Deman in charge of what was then called the “Bureau of Insurgent Records,” a post that would transform Van Deman into the founding father of American surveillance. Hochschild goes on to write that Van Deman’s “assiduous spying in war and peace would span half a century and three continents and presage a vengeful nastiness eerily familiar to us today: racial stereotyping, the smearing of political enemies with fact-free rumor, and charges that those who opposed U.S. government policy were unpatriotic or treasonous.” Another more personal essay about government surveillance documents Hochschild’s look into the revelation that the CIA in the 1960s and early ’70s had been secretly controlling supposedly independent organizations like the National Student Association, and offers a warning on what can happen when a country loses control of its intelligence services.

Hochschild also traces the origins of modern-day political activism, which brings him to the historical figure of William Wilberforce, an eloquent, widely respected leader of the British abolitionist movement during the 1780s. In “Sunday School History,” Hochschild examines how “the early British abolitionists invented virtually every organizing tool I had seen used in the movements against segregation, the Vietnam War, and apartheid: the political poster, a campaign logo, the consumer boycott, the very idea of an organization headquartered in a national capital with branches around the country.” Although Hochschild praises the men and women who spearheaded the consumer boycott of slave-cultivated West Indian sugar, he is swift to scrutinize the personal character of Wilberforce, who Hochschild deems to be too idealized in popular literature and film. Writing about the historical inaccuracies and embellishment of the 2006 British-American biographical film Amazing Grace, for example, Hochschild argues that the film misleadingly portrays Wilberforce as a modern liberal. “In yet another misleading episode,” Hochschild complains, “Wilberforce, talking to his future wife, appreciatively mentions the sugar boycott and the way she is taking part in it. In real life, however, deeply uneasy with any uncontrolled expression of popular will, he opposed the boycott. He also believed women should obey their husbands and should have nothing to do with politics or the movement.” As with the investigations of his literary forebears, Hochschild seems unwilling to let stand any patina of myth, legend, or hagiography surround a historical figure.

The author seems at his best when he is walking shoulder-to-shoulder with living, breathing people as he tries to understand what motivates them, what makes them demand the change that they do, what lies at their heart’s core. In his essay “The Brick Master,” for example, Hochschild profiles the eccentric British architect Laurie Baker, who spent most of his career in India and made his reputation by shirking the Indian desire to imitate Western standards of architecture and building material. Relaying a quip of Baker’s from a lively conversation between the two, Hochschild writes that “the trouble with Indian policy-makers is that ‘they haven’t the faith in their own materials’ . . . Everyone who can afford it wants to use only concrete, steel, and glass.” For Baker, the hierarchy of building materials is reversed:

He is profoundly hostile, for example, to glass and steel: Making each requires large amounts of fossil fuel, and in Kerala [where Baker lives] the steel has to come from other parts of India. He also hates plaster, which he regards as a costly prestige item that does nothing except cover up a handsome wall of bricks made from local clay.
Bricks he loves. Standard red bricks do require energy to make, but in the brick-maker’s kilns of south India, he points out, much of the fuel would not be used for much else: brush, tree branches, and scraps of palm wood too small for lumber.

Baker has not turned his back on the modern world, however, as Hochschild makes clear later in the essay. The homes and offices that Baker has built have running water, electricity, telephone lines, and sometimes even garages. And yet in Baker’s embrace and love of brick, mud, and bamboo, in his insight that letting hot air escape is wiser and even more beautiful than air conditioning, Baker has accomplished what desperately few people in the global South have managed to do: He has been selective and economical about what he has appropriated from the West.

Like George Orwell, another literary forefather written about in Lessons From a Dark Time, Hochschild does not shy away from making bold political interjections in his narratives and storytelling. Sometimes, it is as if the narratives and storytelling are mere scaffolding for these brief sunbursts of polemic: “After spending much of my life writing either about forms of tyranny that we’ve seen vanish, like apartheid in South Africa or communism in the Soviet Union, or that belonged to earlier centuries, like colonialism or slavery, it is a shock to feel the ruthless mood of such times suddenly no longer so far away.” Indeed, everywhere in the pages of Lessons From a Dark Time there are premonitions and warnings about the current political unrest of our own time. For the reader of this collection, there is no guessing whether she should read the content and subjects of these essays as an allegory for the current political landscape and its dark discontents.

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

Islamophobia, Race,
and Global Politics

Nazia Kazi
Rowman & Littlefield ($32)

by Spencer Dew

The central focus of Nazia Kazi’s new book is white supremacy and the state-sanctioned violence that both emerges from and supports it. She opens with the murder of Philando Castile, and, explaining how her rage over such slaughter fueled her writing, begins to unravel the links between white supremacy and the “more than a million Iraqis dead at the hands of US-imposed violence, just as it was white supremacy that allowed Mexican Americans to be lynched in the American Southwest for such ‘crimes’ as speaking Spanish.” Islamophobia—the name itself a misnomer, as, in Steven Salaita’s words, it “doesn’t actually arise from the subject but squarely implicates the purveyor”—is examined here as one manifestation of America’s white supremacist power structure. Close reading of anti-Muslim racism allows Kazi to “better understand American race politics at large.”

Not surprisingly, Kazi’s desire to understand such race politics is rooted in a desire to respond to them, to change them. Kazi is committed to a stance of “principled antiracism,” to “seeking to abolish the very roots of imperialism and racism.” As she says in her final line, citing an anti-racist and anti-capitalist Martin Luther King Jr. in his call for America to “be born again,” “America cannot be reborn if we keep the faintest skeleton of white supremacy intact.”

Her analysis of Islamophobia is in service of that aim. Kazi details the placations and distractions that seek to integrate the right sort of Muslim, or to celebrate American Muslim fidelity to imperialism through military intervention and capitalism. “The goal of principled antiracism,” she writes, “is never to incorporate ‘minorities’ into an existing power structure. Asking to be integrated into the top of a racial hierarchy doesn’t dismantle the racial hierarchy”; rather, it allows for those persons thus integrated (and their allies) to “be satisfied when arms dealers like Lockheed Martin set up Friday prayer spaces for their employees rather than thinking about the troubling role of the arms industry in the American economy.” Again and again, Kazi cautions about the ways that integration serves as placation. “If we’re not careful,” she writes—in reference to Muslims in the military but equally applicable to immigrants, transgendered citizens, blacks, women, homosexuals, Sikhs, or indigenous peoples—“US empire will have us celebrating the inclusion of all races, gender identities, and religions in its sinister project of global power.”

Kazi’s examinations of “Islamophilia,” of how “the ‘good Muslim’ trope . . . leaves intact the very foundation of anti-Muslim sentiment” is useful, and her analysis of “terrorism” as a racist dog-whistle is a concise and accessible articulation of a reality many who think about Islam and Muslims in America know all too well. Kazi notes the invisibility, in public discourse, of white supremacist terrorism, regardless of how frequent such acts might be, and leaves readers to ponder the dubious nature of how U.S. military violence against civilians for a political end is always categorized, in official and popular discourse, as something other than “terrorism.”

But Kazi is at her most tonic when she indicts the moderate and left-leaning sentiment, so popular these days, that sees in the Trump administration “something un-American,” in the sense of “an interruption in the steady march of progress with regard to immigrants, black people, the queer community, and religious minorities.” Kazi insists that Trump’s election, rather “was the culmination of America. It was the perfect, most logical next step for anyone who’s been paying close attention to American politics.” As part of this argument, and as a way of shaking her readers awake from the stupor of self-satisfaction and the easy Manicheism of anti-Trumpism, Kazi devotes a great deal of attention to the wall between the U.S. and Mexico, both the imagined wall invoked in Trump’s explicitly racist rhetoric and the very real wall that already exists at the border. As Kazi writes,

It was under President Bill Clinton that construction of the physical barrier began. In 2006, Hillary Clinton, as a senator, voted in support of the Secure Fence Act. Where were the liberal protest signs reading ‘Walls Must Fall’ when these initial steps toward securing the border were taken? Why did it take a politician boldly campaigning on the explicit promise to build a wall to generate such widespread opposition?

It is passages like this that make Kazi’s book necessary reading for any American invested in real transformation of this country. “If we don’t recognize the continuities, the overlaps, and the similarities between the Trump administration and what came before,” she writes, “we risk keeping intact the very conditions that gave rise to it in the first place. If we topple the white nationalists’ racist ‘megaphone’ only to restore the older dog whistle, we haven’t actually toppled anything. We’ve just restored to racism the camouflage that allowed it to blare its message all along.”

This is a book to read, to study, to share, and to take to heart in our current moment and the months to come—months sure to be dominated by a flurry of placating and distracting rhetoric, from all points of the political spectrum, promising to topple certain megaphones and change certain tones of public discourse. Kazi reminds us to think historically, situating the current moment within a deeper trajectory and always keeping in mind how today’s taken for granted categories and inequalities came to be produced. She also urges us to “ask the most ‘impractical’ of questions” regarding the society we want to create and in which we want to live:

What if prisons and policing weren’t solutions to the things we call ‘crime’? What would the world look like if the US military budget didn’t tower over those of the several largest world militaries combined? What are ways to prevent terrorism that don’t involve surveillance, racial profiling, detention, or torture? What if wealth weren’t concentrated in increasingly fewer hands? What if debt weren’t part of the American way of life?

Questions like these, Kazi suggests, can help us shape a society built on “principled antiracism” and extending that principle of equality to its logical—and just—conclusions.

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The Alley of Fireflies
and Other Stories

Raymond Roussel
translated by Mark Ford
The Song Cave ($17.95)

by W. C. Bamberger

Translator Mark Ford’s introduction to The Alley of Fireflies once again sets out for readers what is known about the mechanisms Raymond Roussel used to create his writings. Roussel (born 1877, died by suicide in 1933) was a proponent of the idea that restrictions, rules, and strict forms were devices that facilitated creativity. Ford has been over some of this ground before: he is the author of a biography, Raymond Roussel and the Republic of Dreams (Cornell University Press, 2000), and has translated Roussel’s astonishing New Impressions of Africa (Princeton University Press, 2012).

In the introduction, Ford describes how the “application of problem-solving logic to the deliriously illogical narrative obligations generated” by procedures based on puns, homonyms, or on the substitutions of one of two letters in single word produce Roussel’s unique tone and fascinating mechanical contrivances—railway tracks made from the lungs of calves, for example—and chemical fantasies such as “resurrectine,” a liquid that reanimates the dead. But for all the originality of Roussel’s techniques, his works are peopled with the stock characters and interest in fairy tales found in much of the literature of the late 1800s, and play out in scenes among the most familiar to his time. There is a play within a tale that features enchanted cloth, sword play, a fairy godmother with a magic mirror, a potion and more. Gatherings at rich men’s homes feature in several works.

Adventures upon being shipwrecked also figure in several of Roussel’s works, including one story included here, “Among the Blacks” (this was previously translated, by poet Ron Padgett, in 1988; the others texts included here appear in English for the first time). This story is something of a plagiarism-by-anticipation (a term originated by the French writing group the Oulipo; a number of its members, including the late Harry Mathews, were Roussel enthusiasts) of the approach and tone we now think of as Borgesian. Here the narrator reads a new epistolary work by a friend, titled Among the Blacks. The book is a tale of shipwreck and imprisonment by an African tribe told in the form of letters carried by birds the prisoner manages to trap. A parlor game the narrator attends at the author’s home leads to the narrator assembling letter strings such as “LEEBCLASIPA” on the cushions of a pool table, a letter puzzle which, when solved, refers back to the title novel—a word game within the larger word game of the story, which shares a title with a larger work contained only within the story. These are the kinds of structures Roussel offers his readers.

Also included here are two episodes from an earlier, longer draft of Roussel’s most famous novel, Locus Solus. One is a hybrid mad scientist and fairytale story of a child who is a hybrid of man and flower. The other tells of the discovery of a previously unknown draft work by Shakespeare as well as one of his rib bones, and the magical effects this rib might be coaxed into producing.

The writing of The Alley of Fireflies, a planned novel, was interrupted by Roussel’s service during World War I. He tucked the fragmentary manuscript inside a copy of the newspaper La Liberté from May 1914 and did not take it up again after the war. What survives fills fifty of the one hundred pages of this book. Again the title of the novel fragment is also the title of book within the tale, a volume which took its name from an avenue on the grounds of the estate of Fredrick the Great where fireflies gathered. We read about a bored Voltaire, about his plan to add a chapter to Candide which concerned a vulgar poem about Joan of Arc, a poem plagiarized from an earlier play. . . . At this point readers find themselves down several mirroring levels, within a number of sets of (invisible) parentheses like the actual ones Roussel so vigorously and whimsically employed in New Impressions of Africa. Engagement by digression is a technique Roussel very much favored.

Within this tale, a level or two in, there is yet another framing device for fantastical presentations, one that is itself an idea-generator: a rich man sets up a competition, a sort of idea-factory competition that seems almost gladiatorial, to be conducted after his death:

The various prescriptions and prohibitions contained in the will eliminated all thoughts of gain, and there remained as incentive only the prospect of the great intellectual pleasures, the power of feeding the mind, inherent in possession of the matchless library of the château, which—just as the park contained few rare species or varieties—had otherwise little to offer.

Roussel’s works are filled with just these kinds of inescapable delights. Where some of the events he relates—shipwrecks, death by poisoned word, and more—would be tragic in the hands of other, more emotionally-manipulative writers, in Roussel’s stricture-directed hands they create intellectual delight and endless wonder. No matter how strict his generating techniques, no matter how Rube Goldberg his inventions, we always read them with pleasure (even a scene of someone engaging in philosophical thought at the bottom of a nearly-filled outhouse pit). For modern readers this is reinforced by the late 19th and early 20th century elements and tone and settings: they have, for us, an antique patina that his first readers—and very few they were—would not have felt, and this adds to their fantastical-yet-homey tone. As short and in places fragmented as this book is, it is a very worthy addition to Roussel’s shelf of works.

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The Annotated Big Sleep

Raymond Chandler
Vintage Crime/Black Lizard ($25)

by Ryder W. Miller

In his Forward to The Annotated Big Sleep, a hefty tome that contains almost equal amounts of commentary as story text, Jonathan Lethem writes, “The replacement of our intuitions of these things with firm knowledge creates a breathtaking effect.” Indeed, this classic book, as annotators and editors Owen Hill, Pamela Jackson, and Anthony Dean Rizzuto demonstrate, did not come out of thin air. As Lethem says, “these notes entrench the novel in an intricate social and urban-developmental history of Los Angeles that hides from us, increasingly, in time’s back pages.”

Page by page, the editors (a crime novelist, a scholar, and a poet) help the reader understand and contextualize Raymond Chandler’s 1939 noir classic. Chandler was born in Chicago, lived and studied in England, and moved back to the U.S. to wind up in a seamy Los Angeles. Sacked from his job as an oil company executive, he turned to writing, and The Big Sleep was his first novel. Its star—detective Philip Marlowe, a modern knight errant of sorts—has become a crime fiction icon. Chandler was not a detective himself like Dashiell Hammett from up north, but he elevated the genre for those who appreciated his stylistic and literary accomplishments. Two movies have been made of The Big Sleep, and most of the books featuring the hardboiled Marlowe have also made it to the big screen.

From The Annotated Big Sleep one gets a profound sense of where Marlowe’s adventures took place and the meaning of the language that is used; a great deal of crime world and police detective slang is defined here. There is also a lot of information about the locale Chandler wrote about and lived in during the last chapters of his life. One might prefer to enjoy the novel without the commentary, of course, but for those who want to “read” the book in the academic sense, these annotations make it easy. With eighty years having passed, much has changed, including the language, the scenery, and the moral landscape.

In short, this is a great book for those who want to study the text. There is much here that will fascinate those who are interested in the author and the genre, with asides about many things, including Chandler’s influences (and influence), literary self-cannibalism, publishing landscape, and perspective. It’s fascinating noir fun for those who want to explore the field, which some will now find much less baffling because of the efforts here.

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The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland

Nicolai Houm
translated by Anna Paterson
Tin House Books ($15.95)

by Rick Henry

There are no spoiler alerts needed here: The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland opens with the title character, a writer and teacher at the University of Wisconsin, alone and slowly freezing to death in the northern wilderness of Norway. ”Now, while she is still conscious, she must lock her fingers in a dramatic pose. “Oh my God, it looks as if she tried to grab at something at the moment of death!” she imagines the responders saying when they’ve found her. Her final thought offers two questions inextricably linked: “What should she reach for, how should she make it look?” For us, there is a third: Who is Jane Ashland? What has disappeared is her very self, a loss so profound that there is literally nothing for her to hold onto.

Norwegian novelist Nicolai Houm posits Jane’s loss as the inevitable result of two traumatic events. The first, the ”what should she reach for,” is the death of her husband and her daughter in a car accident. The second, the “how should she make it look,” might best be given over to her own words: “when you begin to think that your writing is no more than a construction you use to say something about another lot of constructions, and that, meanwhile, the most profound truths of the human condition are forever beyond your reach—then you stop writing.”

Jane spends much of the novel trying to recover her courtship and marriage, the birth of her daughter, and the inevitable phases of their mother/daughter relationship. Her initial attempt to cope with these losses is to insert herself into another family. She finds distant relatives in Norway; on the plane ride there, she encounters a forty-something zoologist who invites her to accompany him into the wild. He has spent the previous two years studying the herding behaviors of musk oxen, and by the novel’s end, these behaviors become something of a metaphor for Jane’s situation—perhaps, even, a metaphor for the most profound truths of the human condition.

Her attraction to her Norwegian relatives is, in part, the fact that their family unit of father/mother/daughter reprises her own. She inserts herself into this family’s dynamic, stepping in to “rescue” this daughter from the pressures of playing sports, but her attempt is doomed to failure—Jane’s construction of her previous life does not match her current situation, and moreover, the “mother” slot in this family is already taken. She is left with the stranger, and a kind of courtship that doesn’t (and can’t) match the courtship story she’s framed for her husband. Her rejection of the zoologist is hardly a rejection—she no longer has the energy or interest in engaging the “real” world, even as it has its way with her. And so we are left with her contemplating the world of appearances.

However much Houm exploits Jane’s inability to maintain contact with both the real world and the world of appearances, the novel shouldn’t be read as an exercise in deconstruction; the author’s major success is in the dramatic presentation of a character struggling for her own existence. The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland is the first of Houm’s novels to be translated into English. Based on its strengths, one expects the hasty translation and release of his two previous works.

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The Milk Bowl of Feathers:
Essential Surrealist Writings

Edited by Mary Ann Caws
New Directions ($13.95)
by John Bradley

Surrealism: “the domain of thought and experience beyond the daily and the convergence of dream and reality—inside and out, day and night, as with a swinging door,” writes Mary Ann Caws, a well-known Surrealism scholar, particularly of French Surrealism. In Surrealism “Everything is new, and happens, over and over, always for the first time,” she continues, quoting the French poet André Breton, who issued his Surrealist Manifesto in 1924.

That New Directions has published an anthology of Surrealist writing now indeed shows how much everything happens over and over. Caws draws largely on the New Directions in Prose & Poetry 1940 anthology, which contained “A Surrealist Anthology.” She does much more, though, than merely reissue previously published writings, which were all by men. Instead, Caws adds many Surrealist female writers, including Leonora Carrington, Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Mina Loy, Dora Maar, Joyce Mansour, Meret Oppenheim, and Kay Sage. Without even mentioning in her introduction the explosion of the myth that Surrealism was largely male, Caws quietly enlarges the scope of this historic movement. Her slim anthology (only ninety pages), gives the reader thirty-two writers, and forty-four works (both poetry and prose), translated by a wide variety of writers: Paul Auster, Kay Boyle, Rikki Ducornet, James Laughlin, and many others, including Caws herself.

At its best, Surrealism’s odd juxtapositions can spark excitement and surprise in the reader, as this excerpt from “White Gloves,” a prose poem by André Breton and Philippe Soupault, demonstrates:

Famous men lose their lives in the carelessness of those beautiful houses that make the heart flutter. How small they seem, these rescued tides! Earthly happiness runs in floods. Each object is Paradise. A great bronze boulevard is the shortest road. Magical squares do not make good stopping places, [sic] Walk slowly and carefully; after a few hours you can see the pretty nose-bleed bush. The panorama of consumptives lights up. You can hear every footfall of the underground travelers.

This excerpt not only demonstrates the “convergence of dream and reality,” but exposes why short Surrealist poems and prose pieces work best. The associative leaps require an intense focus, as can be seen here.

While Surrealist writings cannot be pinned down to any one topic, one subject constantly arises—love. Two writers handle this subject with particular grace: Joyce Mansour and Robert Desnos. Mansour combines surprise and sensuality, which can be seen in these opening lines from her poem “I Want to Sleep with You”:

I want to sleep with you side by side
Our hair intertwined
Our sexes joined
With your mouth for a pillow
I want to sleep with you back to back
With no breath to part us

Robert Desnos’ love poems, while written in prose, contain a delicate lyricism. Here is the closing to his “I Have Dreamed of You So Much” in Paul Auster’s musical translation, which brings out the obsessiveness of Desnos’s love:

I have dreamed of you so much, have walked so much, talked so much, slept so much with your phantom, that perhaps the only thing left for me is to become a phantom among phantoms, a shadow a hundred times more shadow than the shadow that moves and goes on moving, brightly, over the sundial of your life.

Both Mansour and Desnos are essential to any collection of Surrealist writing, however that term “essential” in Caws’ subtitle invites controversy. Many readers will start naming works that are missing. Surely André Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto is essential, as well as his poem “Free Union.” Guillaume Apollinaire’s poem “Zone” is also key; after all, Apollinaire invented the term “surrealism.” And where are Hans Arp, Antonin Artaud, Max Ernst, Max Jacob, Dorothea Tanning, and Remedios Varo? It would be helpful to have dates of publication for the texts, too. Thankfully, there are short biographies for the writers who are included. The one for Léona Delacourt reads like a prose poem itself, although a tragic one:

Léona Delacourt (Nadja) (1902-1940) was born near Lille, met André Breton in 1926, and is the dedicatee of his novel Nadja of 1928. Naming herself Nadja (“the beginning of the Russian word for hope and only the beginning”), she wrote and drew in many illustrated letters to Breton, her sometime lover. She was arrested in 1927, was institutionalized in the Vaucluse and then in northern France, and was never released.

This short biography will send curious readers to Breton’s Nadja, as it should.

While The Milk Bowl of Feathers gives us only a glimpse of the international movement that revolutionized nearly every art form, and is limited to a small sampling of poetry and prose (and mainly French texts at that), this is a welcome volume. Caws deserves praise for including Surrealist women writers who have been ignored by too many for too long. Here’s hoping this collection will lead to anthologies that include more Eastern European poets, as well as Spanish and Japanese surrealists. To paraphrase Man Ray, the Surrealist painter and photographer, “Is Surrealismdead? Is Surrealismalive? Surrealism is. Surrealism.”

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Carolyn Forché Broadside

This broadside, an excerpt from Carolyn Forché's memoir, What You Have Heard Is True, was printed by supersessionpress on the occasion of Forche's appearance in the Rain Taxi Reading Series on April 26, 2019.

Limited edition letterpress broadside, Printed in black ink on Rives BFK paper, measures 10" x 11". Limited to 50 copies. Each copy is SIGNED by the author.

Available with a donation of $100 to Rain Taxi, a nonprofit literary organization. Donations are deductible to the extant allowable by law.


Mort Cinder

Héctor Germán Oesterheld
and Alberto Breccia

translated by Erica Mena
Fantagraphics ($29.99)
by John Pistelli

Mort Cinder is the first volume in The Alberto Breccia Library, a projected series that will present the legendary Argentine comics artist’s work to English-speaking audiences. The back cover of the book advertises Breccia as a forerunner of American creators celebrated for their dark and expressionistic styles: “Before Mike Mignola . . . Before Frank Miller . . . There was Breccia.” Originally serialized between 1962 and 1964 in the Argentine magazine Misterix, Mort Cinder combines horror, adventure, science fiction, and history to offer the perfect showcase for Breccia’s visual versatility.

The imposing title character, whose name evokes mortality and destruction, is paradoxically an immortal: he has died and returned again and again through history. The serial begins when this mysterious revenant teams up with English antiquarian Ezra Winston to evade Professor Angus, an evil genius who surgically turns ordinary people into “leaden-eyed men” that carry out his will.

This theme of thralldom carries over into the main action of the book. After they defeat Angus, Winston employs Cinder to help him catalogue antiquities, since the immortal has conveniently experienced all of history firsthand. Over eight episodes, Cinder recounts to Winston the hard times he’s spent on earth: He has been enslaved, imprisoned, or otherwise exploited by everyone from the king who tried to build the Tower of Babel to the twentieth-century American penal system. The serial’s diverse settings—the graveyard where the leaden-eyed men hunt Cinder, the trenches of the Great War, an Atlantic slave-ship, the battle of Thermopylae, and more—display the panoply of drawing styles Breccia commands.

Breccia’s multi-media black-and-white illustrations more than justify their preservation in a quality edition like this one, as opposed to the cheap newsprint on which they first appeared. On a single page, he can go from meticulously rendering Ezra Winston’s artifact-crammed room to violently slashing abstract bursts of light and fear.

In an afterword to this edition, Janis Breckenridge commends Breccia’s use of chiaroscuro to emphasize the story’s oneiric atmosphere and stark morality. She also discloses his inventive procedures—he employed “unorthodox tools (razor blades, toothbrushes, and more), materials (mixing ink with glues and solvents)”—before relaying his daughter’s testimony that the artist “would sometimes draw in a completely dark studio space lit only by candles in order the realistically capture the intense play of light and shadows.”

Despite this volume’s emphasis on Breccia’s Gothic artwork, the writer of Mort Cinder should not go unrecognized. The series was scripted by Héctor Germán Oesterheld, better known for his science-fiction masterpiece The Eternaut, which was published in English by Fantagraphics in 2015. Oesterheld was a life-long man of the political left who was “disappeared” by Argentina’s military dictatorship in 1977.

In the stories he tells to Winston, Cinder weaves his perennial experience of oppression into a global history seen from the viewpoint of the oppressed—a subtext that intimates Oesterheld’s hard-headed but humanistic and universalist political commitments. Oesterheld also bedecks his imaginative narrative with vivid, moving descriptions, well-captured in Erica Mena’s translation, that stress the pathos of humanity’s suffering. Here, for instance, Cinder narrates to Winston his poignant journey to a ruined African village with Wango, whom he helped escape from slavery:

Three days later, we went into the jungle. A jungle full of immense trees, a cathedral. We saw gorillas and made use of the path forged by a herd of elephants. We followed a great river. Days and days on the savannah until we finally arrived. The kraal razed by slave traders and vultures. The hunched sobbing of Wango.

Then Winston takes over the narration for a bittersweet, ironic conclusion to the story of “The Slave Ship”:

Mort fell silent, his gaze lost in another time, another place. From outside, on the street, came voices talking about soccer.

Mort Cinder is, among other things, a tale about how artifacts—the products of human ingenuity and labor—embody the individual and collective human experience we abstract as “history.” Our works testify to the future that we were here, that we suffered, and that we managed to create useful and beautiful things in spite of it all. This sturdy, well-made edition of a comic half a century old by creators who died decades ago takes its place among the enigmatic and enchanting antiquities that have the power to bring the past into the present and make it live again.

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