Time Zone J

Julie Doucet
Drawn & Quarterly ($29.95)

by Steve Matuszak                         

“I had vowed never to draw myself again,” Julie Doucet tells readers at the beginning of Time Zone J, her first graphic novel since her comics diary 365 Days was published in 2006.  Time Zone J seems to be an emphatic repudiation of that vow, since Doucet’s face appears on practically every page, the self-portraits piling up like images from a stuttering video.  But the Julie Doucet who appears in these pages is like none we’ve seen in her work before.  Gone is the cartoony persona from her earlier comics, a character who represented the young cartoonist and her dreams, desires, hopes, and fears.  In Time Zone J, she is replaced by a figure who, while still exaggerated, is rendered with a more realistic drawing technique and is largely limited to narrating the story rather than participating in it.  The immediate effect is that this new “Julie Doucet” is at once more and less real than her earlier incarnation, playing out Doucet’s antipathy toward autobiography and her ongoing interrogation of visual and verbal representation—especially as they relate to memory, which sets the novel in motion, and to desire, its beating heart.

That Time Zone J should be seen as an intentional break from the comics that established Doucet as one of the most important cartoonists of her generation is established before the book begins.  In an introductory note, Doucet instructs readers to read each page “from bottom to top,” essentially upending the traditional Euro-American comics page.  Even the notion of the page itself is undermined.  Images bleed over the edges of the book’s uncut pages, suggesting that the entire novel is one long page that could be unfurled if one undid the book’s binding.  Gone too is the notion of comics panels, either explicit or implied.  Instead, the reader encounters reiterations of Doucet’s face, sometimes with shoulders visible, at other times revealing a bit more of her body, within a collage of text, word balloons, and random people, animals, objects, doodles, and abstract geometrical patterns that have little to do with the text.  A character might crystallize from a dream, as when a woman smoking a cigar appears alongside Doucet, or when Johnny Rotten makes a memorable appearance as Doucet describes the dream in which he has a key role.  But those characters are rare and seem to have no more importance than the figures surrounding them.

Admittedly, it is disorienting.  Adding to the disorientation, the book refuses at first to coalesce around a discernible structure—narrative or otherwise.  The overlapping images do not repeat, except for the ones of Doucet.  And the words articulate disconnected statements and ideas, like those passing through the mind of someone just waking up, phrases rising to the surface in word balloons and popping like soda bubbles.  Eventually, after a few pages, short recitations of dreams cohere from out of the chaos, vanishing as suddenly as they appear.  These shards of story plant the seeds for a more extended autobiographical narrative of Doucet’s youthful friendship with two men that collapsed after she’d initiated an unsuccessful affair with one of them.  That narrative is the prelude—or, as Doucet utters in the book, a “prolegomena,” which she defines as “a critical or discursive introduction to a book or: goiter of the Alps”—to the story that takes up the remainder of Time Zone J: a romance, or more accurately an amour fou, with a Frenchman that began in 1989 over correspondence about Doucet’s zine Dirty Plotte (which transformed within a couple years into the bestselling comic book of the same name).

The story is both heady and frightening.  The Frenchman, a young conscript in the 3rd Regiment of Hussars in the French army, writes frequent letters to Doucet, sometimes several a day, that become increasingly romantic and erotic; Doucet does not quite keep pace, but definitely stays in the game.  In time, an opportunity arises for them to meet in France where, after a few awkward phone calls and encounters, they consummate their relationship, Gothically, in a cemetery.  At times throughout their days together, Doucet fears for her safety—what does she really know about this guy?  Unfortunately, though she is able to quell her fears in the moment, they never quite abate over time.

In a way, the representational strategy of Time Zone J enacts its themes.  By ridding the graphic novel of panels, pages, and identifiable characters, Doucet strips Time Zone J of time, much as those who are madly in love occupy a place that feels outside of time.   In fact, the novel gets its title from one of the young man’s letters during a period when he is learning morse code: “julie [sic] everything reminds me of you: Earth is divided into 25 time zones, each being presented by a letter.  only j is not used.” But if, in this metaphor, Julie, the object of his love, is timeless, so too are the dead, an insidious connection reminiscent of German Romanticism’s Liebestod, an association wholly in line with this young man’s dark intensity.  Moreover, for those who fear impending violence, as Doucet does at moments throughout her relationship with the hussar, by trying to anticipate its unexpected blossoming in the placidity of one’s daily routines, each second can seem an eternity—minutes, hours, and days dragging out interminably. 

Doucet’s approach in Time Zone J also points to a discomfort with autobiography that she expressed in a 2010 interview for Ladygunn magazine: “For me autobiography is a disease.”  As she contemplated the possibility of returning to comics in a 2017 interview with cultural critic Anne Elizabeth Moore, Doucet pronounced, “I wouldn’t do autobiography.  Never again.  Impossible.”  One senses that aversion in the book’s form, sapping the material of some of its strength.  Granted, by not depicting the events from the past that the book recounts, by not giving the young man and the young Julie Doucet pictorial form, by not animating them through the sequential storytelling of comics, Doucet doesn’t misrepresent them.  They do not become subsumed, however subtly, to her current desires and thoughts, which remain clearly delegated, however parsimoniously, to the older Julie Doucet who is narrating the novel, somebody who remembers the events she’s telling us and comments on them from a distance.  In avoiding this question of representational truth, however, Doucet misses out on the aliveness of representation itself, a quality that pulsed in her earlier comics.  Then, her imagination played over the objects of her attention, transforming them by rendering them in pictures and narrative, creating meaning and pleasure by how they were presented, how they were brought to life for readers.  For all the pleasures that Time Zone J offers, it leaves us with a lingering impression more of Doucet’s memory and less of her beating heart.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2022 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2022

Fresh Takes on Keats

John Keats, portrait by Joseph Severn, c1821-1823. 

by Mike Dillon        

 Modern readers do not need to be told to admire John Keats: whether they know it or not, he has already entered their dreams, he is a portion of their hopes, he lives in their desires.

—Stanley Kunitz, “The Modernity of Keats”

Orphaned at fourteen and dead of consumption in 1821 at twenty-five, John Keats was the son of a London stablemaster who lived his life as an existential errand. Had Shakespeare died at the same age, the Bard might be remembered for a few light comedies, and the works of Chaucer would not exist at all. But Keats is not only still with us; in some ways his work is more modern than ever. In one of his many matchless letters, his modernity shines through in a mere seven words: “That which is creative must create itself.”

And so, the books about John Keats keep coming, delivering fresh angles of approach. Lucasta Miller’s Keats: A Brief Life in Nine Poems and One Epitaph (Knopf, $32), is an intimate, informed journey of discovery — “a book by a reader for readers,” she writes. Miller, author of The Bronte Myth and L.E.L., examines nine poems and the famous epitaph inscribed on Keats’s tombstone in Rome—“Here lies one whose name was writ in water”—as entry points for exploring the circumstances of Keats’s life.

Miller writes with incisive, poetic succinctness. She finds Keats’s last, great poem, “To Autumn,” is marked by its “loamy Anglo-Saxon vocabulary,” and notes critic Helen Vendler’s treatment of Keats’s development of the sonnet form as “brilliantly exploring its workings like some sibylline car mechanic.”

“On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” Keats’s “breakthrough poem,” as Miller calls it, starts things off. What was it about George Chapman’s 1611 translation of Homer that triggered one of the great tone poems in the English language? According to Keats’s friend Charles Cowden Clark, who read the Chapman translation one evening alongside Keats, a passage from Book Five of the Odyssey stood out:

His cheeks and nostrils flowing, voice and breath
Spent to all use, and down he sank to death.
The sea had soak’d his heart through . . .

Miller compares that last line, with its Shakespearean grit, to the period’s popular yet  enervating translation of Homer by Alexander Pope: “And lost in lassitude lay all the man.”

It’s difficult, from our postmodern perspective, to see through Keats’s sometimes archaic diction and grasp the young poet’s quest to “make it new,” as Ezra Pound would urge poets to do a century later. But, as Miller points out, Pope-admirer Lord Byron, after reading “Ode to a Nightingale,” famously complained to Leigh Hunt that he did not understand what “a beaker full of the warm south” meant. This, from the most famous poet in Europe.

When Miller contrasts the richness of “The Eve of St. Agnes” with the spareness of “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” written a few months later, we enter speculative terrain: “Its protagonist is a medieval ‘knight-at-arms’ who has loved and lost a supernatural femme fatale; she feeds him, tells him she loves him, and lulls him maternally to sleep, only to abandon him to an eternity of anemic loneliness on a cold hillside.”

It’s risky to apply biographical underpinnings to a work of art, but this feels right. As does Miller’s insight on Keats’s letters: “Their very fluidity reflects the society in flux to which he belonged, in which issues of taste, authority and literary register were up for grabs.” She goes on to show how the Enlightenment, which put humans rather than God at the center of consciousness, incubated “the development of the private realm as a site of emotional and aesthetic value.” Miller’s book is shot through with terrific moments like these.

In another new tome, Bright Star, Green Light: The Beautiful Works and Damned Lives of John Keats and F. Scott Fitzgerald (Yale University Press, $30), Jonathan Bate delivers a masterful exploration of affinities. Bate is the author of more than a dozen highly regarded books, including biographies of Shakespeare, Wordsworth, John Clare, and Ted Hughes; here he weaves two literary lives modeled on Plutarch’s Lives of notable Greek and Roman personages.

Bate acknowledges Fitzgerald’s affinity for Keats is well known, but that “the full extent of the influence, its pervasiveness across Fitzgerald’s career, the sense that he saw himself as the prose Keats, remains underappreciated.” With a sympathetic and sharp eye, he clearly aims to correct that, excavating the subterranean veins of gold flowing from Keats to Fitzgerald. Both were filled with unattainable longing. Both died thinking they’d fallen short of the mark. For Fitzgerald, Keats’s “Bright Star” became Jay Gatsby’s light at the end of Daisy’s dock.

Three novels—This Side of Paradise, The Beautiful and Damned, and The Great Gatsby—were published between 1920 and 1925, before Fitzgerald’s twenty-eighth birthday. Tender is the Night, published in 1934, with its title taken from a line inOde to a Nightingale,” represented a brave act of resistance during the author’s downward slope. While H.L. Mencken saluted The Great Gatsby for the “charm and beauty of the writing,” Bate observes, “That beauty would not have been possible without Keats,” and backs up his statement with a dive into “The Eve of St. Agnes,” which Fitzgerald believed exhibited “the richest, most sensuous imagery in English, not excepting Shakespeare.”

Near the book’s end, Bate recounts a story about Fitzgerald walking along Hollywood Boulevard with his paramour, Sheila Graham, in 1940, the last year of his life. With years of alcohol abuse in his past, along with tuberculosis and a legendarily tempestuous marriage to Zelda Sayer, the literary boy wonder of the Jazz Age had found refuge in Hollywood as a scriptwriter. The pair came across a shop sign: “Make your own records—hear yourself speak.” They stepped inside and paid their money.

We can hear Fitzgerald’s recitation of Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” online; there are a few miscues in diction, and Fitzgerald trails off before the poem is finished. But to hear Fitzgerald recite Keats’s haunting masterpiece is to hear a great American writer, steeped in his own mortality, do deep justice to a young English poet dead for almost 120 years. Bate writes: “Go, now, listen.”

Shakespeare’s influence on Keats is well chronicled. Bate has done the same for Keats and Fitzgerald. Thanks to Lucasta Miller and Jonathan Bate, we glimpse how a community of writers and readers carries on through the ages.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2022 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2022

The Many Deaths of Inocencio Rodriguez

Iliana Rocha
Tupelo Press ($18.95)

by George Longenecker                      

In this startling collection, Iliana Rocha writes about the unsolved homicide of her grandfather in Detroit in 1971; each of the twenty-six poems that have the same name as the book’s title offers a different interpretation of Inocencio Rodriguez’s death, based on the memories of family members in Texas and elsewhere. The details of the murder were unclear, thus the many versions of the story. Photocopies of Rodriguez’s autopsy report are printed several times, providing a terse contrast to the imagery of the poetry.

The title poems are interspersed with poems of other crimes; Rocha also writes about missing and murdered women, famous killers, death row prisoners, and last meals. These contents may dissuade some readers, but Rocha suggests that to have empathy, we must know the darker side of humanity. She has decided to face the fact of a family homicide head-on and put it in context of other crimes and tragedies. These are not easy poems to read, but they’re well worth reading.

In the first title poem, Rocha says of her grandfather, “His donations to the sun, /the backbreaking work of immigrants / . . . // Lavender & homicidal, dusk.” Her language is lovely, but don’t expect a literal police report. These poems are impressionistic paintings in which the author expects us to step away from comfort and literality. But the very next poem, “Bird Atlas,” uses a more surreal imagery as Our Lady of Guadalupe returns: “. . . she was heartbroken. At her feet, a pigeon crushed under the weight of a Ford 4x4, preserved in its own feathers & blood. . . . // . . . // She crouched closer to the ground to examine the bird atlas, wept in tangled rivers & tributaries.”

Other people from the annals of crime history, some famous and infamous, others little-known, appear in these poems. Scott Peterson, who killed his pregnant wife Laci in 2004, has been the subject of many crime articles but few, if any, poems. In “Love Letter to Scott Peterson,” Rocha writes of the woman who proposed to the convicted murderer soon after he arrived in prison: “Would you ever consider getting married again? Wouldn’t it be funny for our wedding cake to be a chocolate bar, the vending machine our priest?”

The author is aware that readers may want to know more, so she provides notes at the end of the book. This is especially useful for the poem “Texas Killing Fields,” which Rocha explains in the endnotes as “an area between Houston & Galveston that is a notorious dumping ground. For over four decades, women have gone missing or have been found dead there.” In the poem, Rocha renders the fields artistically: “At the spot where the girl lay, I see the refineries. Their stencils are blurred on the horizon . . . Her screams like steady streams of dark smoke.”

As the granddaughter of a murder victim, Rocha feels we must understand violence in order to stop it. Violence is central to her poetry. In “True Crime Addicts,” she writes of Charles Manson acolytes Susan Atkins, who killed Sharon Tate in 1969, and Squeaky Fromme, who tried to assassinate President Ford in 1975. Rocha writes: “I’ve been elsewhere, researching serial killers & unsolved murders because at least I don’t have to convince myself that this is horror.” She finds empathy for the needlessly murdered as well as those who languish for decades in prison or face execution.

In “Collective Memory,” Rocha writes of the thousands of Mexicans murdered in the U.S. between 1848 and 1948, some “left to suffocate in a trailer,” others lynched. In her philosophy, “what violence gives back to us is more of itself.” Violence is not easy to comprehend, especially when one knows it as intimately as Rocha; there are no perfect answers to the tragedy that lives on in a family’s memory and in the collective memory of a people. These are not easy poems to read, but they are necessary to read if we want to come closer to understanding violence and tragedy.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2022 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2022


Christian Hawkey
Action Books ($18)

by Michael Overstreet

Midway through translator-poet Christian Hawkey’s intimate literary rapprochement with Georg Trakl’s life and poems, Ventrakl (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010), he asks the late Austrian writer the question, “What do you mean by ‘read’?” Trakl answers him, “I mean widen your nostrils when approaching any text.” Understanding the act of reading—and, more particularly to Hawkey, of translation—through the context of the body is an aspect of his art that Sift, his latest book, carries forward.

In Hawkey’s poetry, translation acts as a point of departure. Ventrakl brings us into what feels like a posthumous familiarity with Trakl himself; woven among Hawkey’s experimental and sensitive translations of Trakl’s verse is a gradual introduction to the dead poet’s childhood and psychology via a portraiture of him and his family. Hawkey’s immersion in Trakl’s biography and writing becomes so far-reaching that he begins to address him directly, conducting dialogues with him and imagining his responses. Hawkey succeeds in rendering appreciable the most intimate, interior, processes of translation; namely, he allows us to become privy to the productive communion between author/translator. And yet despite the tremendous intimacy between Hawkey and Trakl, Ventrakl leaves us feeling oddly bereft. But of what exactly?

The 150-page book is home to many of Hawkey’s translations, as well as many homages to Trakl’s life. In the pages that do not contain actual translated verse, Hawkey attempts to express those aspects of Trakl’s corpus that were not expressly written: he translates the silence of photographs and the languor of a restless mind prematurely brought to rest at the age of twenty-seven. The question Hawkey’s work poses is intriguing: why does the addition of these other pages, which render Trakl’s person rather than his poetry, make Ventrakl such an effective work of translation?

As its playful title lets on, Ventrakl explores the liminal space of translation—the interaction of two discrete, corporeal existences; the productive play of that which lies outside, but which is also certainly involved in, the text: “We are two sternums, facing each other. Two rib cages. I do not know, at this hour, where the space my chest inhabits ends and his begins, where one language ends and another begins.” To translate, to read, to write, is to first and foremost filter language through our own proprietary sieve of bodily experience. Whether it be an ill-timed bit of sneezing, a headline of news in the corner of our screens, a loved one in need of attention, or the steady tapping of a leaky faucet, our individual ecologies of miscellany influence how we interpret it as language sifts through us. This brings us back to the question of Hawkey’s work: if a translator’s extra-textual experience during their act of interpretation is necessarily different from their writer’s experience, how can a translator ever achieve true fidelity?

Hawkey’s newest book-length poem, Sift, explores the messy, hermeneutic space of translation, albeit in a radically different form than Ventrakl. Hawkey wrote Sift while co-translating, with Marouane Zakhir, an essay by Moroccan philosopher Abdessalam Benabdelali, “In the Mirror of the Other.” Sift addresses the intertwining of as many subjects as one would find in their favorite internet feed—politics, personhood, parenthood, capitalism, mundanity, tangential rabbit holes—through the framework of his own etymology-tracing, language-dissecting task as translator. It is well worth showing how Sift starts us off:

               amir         emir        
  ammiratus  amiral   
أمير البحر

                              & later weavers        & later a place                
      en face       the eyes toggle       
 back and forth     a gutter             
gulf self    third text            
the mirrors
of translation      a factory

The text begins by fragmenting us, shattering our reading confidence, subverting our expectation of finding ourselves in another monolingual—English—book of poetry. Our initial lack of understanding of the first words disconcerts. It requires us to learn that, here, we must also read right to left. The slow trickling of our reading down the stilted stairs Hawkey sets before us reveals how vulnerable this lingual space has made us. He calls attention to our toggling eyes, tying them back to the text that they read, and he bids us to notice how they scan the page, how they hesitate each time we cross the divide, the “gulf self”; we wonder if there’s another way to read all this, or if there’s something we’re not catching. To call attention to our own act of reading is to break the mirror, to challenge the normative paradigm, or hierarchy, of author/reader in the interest of establishing a space where there can be productive hermeneusis, or one's own interpretation of text. Hawkey quotes from his and Zakhir’s translation of Benabdelali in his epigraph: “For translation is not a sign of dependence at all. Rather, it is transformation, renewal, migration, openness, reproduction, proliferation, and life.” Just as Hawkey calls attention to his own creative uncertainty while at work at his computer,

                my cursor  
over this phrase     hovers
            how much time 
                   in a given day
                   spent deciding
               whether to click

we, in turn, receive his incertitude as if by transference, perhaps beginning to feel that there is no other text besides the interpreted, which is naturally accompanied by hesitation, frustration, and loss. Because the meaning of each line is dependent on how we interpret it, we are bereft of a certain comfort—that of an authorial presence, or guidance. Hawkey plays on this discomfort:   

covered in thin gauze      
   segap eht
the margins      further       er
                             re      htruf

What exactly is being subverted here? What exactly becomes exposed? Perhaps the only answer is that we, the reader, here share in the translator’s struggle to yield a static, monolingual interpretation of a text wherein every word can be shattered into a migrant etymological past as well as a fragmented, culturally subjective present.

i was born    
my spine       
left justified     what
dominates       who
within a previously agreed order
                          gets to        marginem         
          “edge, brink, border 
what returns blood 
to lungs      sdrow
as if language ever  
was one         

skin     eyelashes                  
along my spine        
                                 reading     the longest vein               
 “the slow time between languages         
  as triangle        no one side sings
              equally        uoy &
              a reverse     
        self    not un     

It is hard to say whether Hawkey’s intent with Sift is to render the frustratingly inchoate space of translation-at-work—utterly unbounded, yet necessarily riddled with our own person—or if his aim is to encourage us to question how we process language into meaning, and if this meaning is actually dependent on the exact language we just consumed. Just as Hawkey had allowed his own subjectivity to shine through the quiet, posthumous interstices of Trakl’s life in Ventrakl, in Sift, we are given a riddled and pocked tranche de vie of Hawkey’s own life.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2022 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2022

This Monk Wears Heels

Be Who You Are

Kodo Nishimura
Watkins Publishing ($21.95)

by Aditi Yadav                                

How does one process one’s life and identity? In pursuit of the answer to this question, humans have taken refuge in religion, philosophy, science, and art. As individuals, we desire to live a fulfilling life, and self-acceptance is the first, yet often toughest, step of that journey. This Monk Wears Heels charts one person’s courageous and inspiring journey towards finding fulfillment in identity, or as author Kodo Nishimura puts it, “from a timid life in colorless alleyways to walking true and proud in an ever-expanding Technicolor world!”

Nishimura is a Japanese monk, a make-up artist, and a proud member of a worldwide LGBTQ+ family. He shot into the limelight with the Netflix series “Queer Eye: We’re In Japan!” As a make-up artist he has worked for Miss Universe pageants and has earned worldwide appreciation for his charm, talent, and spiritual grace. TIME magazine featured him in its 2021 list of Next Generation Leaders. However, he admits that he hadn’t always been as confident as the world knows him today (although the Chinese characters in his name, ‘Ko’ and ‘do,’ stand for broadmindedness and confidence, respectively).

Born in Japan to a Buddhist priest, Nishimura was expected by most people to become a monk. As a child he loved dressing up like girls; seeing that his actions were different from other boys his age, he “felt as lonely as Cinderella, laughed at by her stepmother and stepsisters.” He spent his formative years in fear and shame, but found refuge in English language classes and gay chat rooms on the internet. Wishing to escape the close-minded parts of Japanese society, he went to the U.S. for language studies. However, there he felt inferior on account of his ethnicity.

Later, Nishimura enrolled at Parsons School of Design in New York City and attended a Pride parade, which were both life changing events for him. He realized that ‘normal’ is “only the measure of your experience.” Once self-conscious about his Asian features, Nishimura began to see himself in a different light when others complimented him, and he observed that “there is really no one type of ‘normal’ nor ‘conventional’ if you have traveled around the world and met many people.”

With his newfound confidence and professional success, Nishimura wanted to grow further, so at the age of twenty-four, he returned to Japan to undergo training to become a Buddhist monk. The training routine seemed “dreadful” to him, and he grappled with self-doubt on account of his sexuality and profession—was he “giving a bad name to Buddhist monks and damaging the image of Buddhism”? These fears were allayed by the guidance of one of his respected masters. He felt liberated by the discovery that a “monk is somebody who seeks to live in a balanced manner and who tries to make the world harmonious.”

The toughest phase of Nishimura’s life was coming out to his parents. He feared rejection and abandonment, but once he had confided in them, he “went warp speed from the Paleolithic to the 30th century. It was like in The Wizard of Oz when the world goes from gray to rainbow-colored.” His parents were supportive of him, and they reassured him that his happiness was all that mattered to them.

Nishimura considers himself “gender gifted” and feels that his soul does not have a gender. Putting on make-up, wearing heels, being a monk, and talking about equality—all these roles are not mutually exclusive, but rather a manifestation of the same spirit that shines inside.

This Monk Wears Heels is an especially delightful read because Nishimura does not preach here; rather, he converses like a friend, giving us insight into his evolution. While he is honest in sharing how discrimination damaged his self-respect, he has neither bitterness nor a ‘holier-than-thou’ attitude toward those who inflicted this damage. His sagacious interpretation of human nature and the art of dealing with toxicity is worth learning and emulating.

As Nishimura switches gears between make-up advice and Buddhist philosophy, he writes not to profess or propagate his religion but to share his personal experience, and he interprets fashion as an art of self-examination, self-expression, and self-care. Training as a Buddhist monk disciplined him to reconcile the material and spiritual while being true to the essence of his unique identity. He has resolved “to help people realize that we are all equal no matter what.”

Today, Nishimura is actively involved in the LGBTQ+ rights movement in Japan. “Even if other people deny your light, don’t let the fire go out,” he advises. This Monk Wears Heels carries out this message, offering the reader healing, enlightenment, and friendship. It stays true to the spirit of its dedication note, which reads: “For anyone who has ever struggled to be honest with their heart.”

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2022 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2022


In conversation with Kate DiCamillo and Louise Erdrich

Wednesday, December 7, 5:30 pm Central
Free Virtual Event: Register Here

Join us for a bound-to-be-legendary conversation between three prose masters! 

To celebrate her new book A Left-Handed Woman (FSG), Rain Taxi welcomes Judith Thurman, a prolific staff writer at The New Yorker  and a winner of the National Book Award in Biography. At this special event, Thurman will be in conversation with award-winning authors Kate DiCamillo and Louise Erdrich, who count themselves among Thurman’s devoted readers. Needless to say, do not miss this event!  

Thurman is one of the preeminent essayists of our time—“a master of vivisection,” as Kathryn Harrison wrote in The New York Times. “When she’s done with a subject, it’s still living, mystery intact.” In the various essays and profiles of A Left-Handed Woman, she considers culture in all its guises—literature, history, politics, gender, fashion, art, and more—though their paramount subject is the human condition. 

Book Purchasing Information:  A Left-Handed Woman, other books by Judith Thurman, and a selection of titles by Kate DiCamillo and Louise Erdrich are available at the link below. Don't forget, when you buy books at an event, you support not only the authors and their publishers, but a great independent bookstore and the event host. 


Judith Thurman is the author of Cleopatra’s Nose: 39 Varieties of DesireIsak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller, winner of the National Book Award for Autobiography/Biography; and Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette. A staff writer at The New Yorker, she lives in New York City.

Kate DiCamillo considers herself “an enormously lucky person: I get to tell stories for a living.” One of the most beloved authors of children’s fiction, she has published over 25 books, has won the Newbery Medal, the National Book Award, the Mark Twain Award, and the E. B. White Award, among many others; she has also served as the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. She lives in Minneapolis, where she faithfully writes two pages a day, five days a week.

Louise Erdrich, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, is the author of many novels as well as volumes of poetry, children’s books, and a memoir. Her fiction has won the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Pulitzer Prize; as well she has received the Library of Congress Prize in American Fiction, the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. She lives in Minneapolis and is the owner of Birchbark Books, a small independent bookstore.

The Fight to Save the Town

Reimagining Discarded America

Michelle Wilde Anderson
Avid Reader Press ($30)

by Jonathan Shipley 

Thomas Jefferson wrote, “The care of human life and happiness . . . is the first and only object of good government.” His contemporary, Thomas Paine, wrote, “Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one.” There’s no telling what either might have thought about today’s political climate. The headlines of the day focus mainly on federal government, and the debates about it rage. The events of January 6 at the Capitol make the news. The Supreme Court’s rulings make the news. The nation is soaked in these conflicts large and small.

And yet, it’s at the local level that things seem to matter most. It’s the governments of towns and counties that can affect people for the better, or the worse. What’s the race like for the county commissioner position? What political leanings do the town council have? What is the city’s mayor going to do about the recent spate of crime? If county residents don’t want to be taxed for the library, will the library shut down? Michelle Wilde Anderson, a professor of property, local government, and environmental justice at Stanford Law School, showcases four distinct communities in America in her new book The Fight to Save the Town, a hard-hitting yet hopeful look at places lost in the wilds of income inequality, crime, lack of education, and poor infrastructure.

“In some of the poorest postindustrial places,” she writes in the prologue, “people are fighting to make something beautiful from something broken. May these stories restore our will to help them.” In Oregon, Josephine County’s fortunes are tied to the volatile timber industry, and an anti-government stance permeates the place. “Between 2004 and 2016, county voters went to the polls nine times to consider revenue measures that would help revive law enforcement, reopen the library, and improve other services,” Anderson writes. “Every time, a majority voted the taxes down.” Anderson follows and quietly celebrates community leaders who defiantly enact new taxes to support basic services in this area populated by a great many don’t-tread-on-me types.

Meanwhile, in Stockton, California, violence reigns. With people in poverty because of a loss of local manufacturing jobs, redlining, and segregation, violence is a threat around most every corner. Yet, some of those street corners are being proverbially lit by community activists who are leading a redirection and refocus of policing. How can a community reduce gun violence and treat trauma beyond local law enforcement? It’s a question being answered.

In Lawrence, Massachusetts, the textile factories have all gone away, and people struggle doing service-economy work. “The scarce, insecure jobs of the postindustrial economy leave much of the city’s workforce unemployed more hours each week and more months each year,” Anderson writes, “living in households with more members who cannot find any work at all.” For more than a century, the town has been nicknamed the “Immigrant City.” Today, in poverty, the city’s residents are doing their best despite hardships by building tight social networks and looking out for one another.

Finally, Anderson casts a keen eye on Detroit, focusing on the devastating decline of African American homeownership. “Where do you start to stop a housing crisis of that scale?” Anderson asks. “Detroit teaches that you get to work.” She highlights some activists and organizations who are working to “expose, defend, pressure, reform, restore.”

The work is hard for all these communities, and Anderson, though hopeful, doesn’t sugarcoat. Whenever they think they’ve hit rock bottom, the ground beneath them crumbles, and they fall further down. Yet, throughout the tumult, there are individuals and organizations lending a hand. Small governments are enacting measures and laws to assist. Americans are bettering themselves, regardless of if they believe Jefferson’s words or Paine’s. It’s always a work in progress. Our home, our country, is never finished, for there can always be a way to improve it.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2022 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2022

The Secret of Geraniums

Jessy Reine
New Urge Editions ($12.95)

by Havilah Barnett                            

Jessy Reine’s novella The Secret of Geraniums reconsiders the confines of acceptable boundaries within romantic relationships, pushing past traditional stories of perverse encounters with dominant men and offering instead a feminine account of love. The story follows thirty-three-year-old Rebecca, who has a ten-year-old son, Sam, from a past rape. Rebecca forms an “unspeakable bond” with Alluvia, who helped with the difficult birth, and after being introduced to Alluvia’s husband, Francis, the two “sensed without speaking the tenderness they could provide each other.” Despite her traumatic past, Rebecca takes back power as she explores her sexuality through various intimate encounters. This exploration is raw and wanting, and it often reaches veers into the erotic poetics of the earth, making The Secret of Geraniums a space for women to break free of social conditioning so as to reimagine and reclaim feminine sexuality.

Rebecca and Sam live on the “dim bottom floor” of a tenement in Queens, New York, a setting that showcases how being aroused isn’t only for pleasure—it also serves to connect Rebecca to the world around her. For instance, Rebecca toils “every afternoon in a little garden” behind their tenement, and during one of these visits, she sees a moth “penetrate the mouth of [a] flower and invisibly take what it needed” before blood drips “down her thigh” as she starts menstruation. She and the garden share an intimate experience through universal sexual energy. Everything is alive, consistently engaging, and full of desire.

Societal conventions continue to break as Rebecca refuses to possess romantic partners. For her, sex seems to transcend the physical plane, moving into a more spiritual realm. In one example, Rebecca’s romantic partners “combine in her mind; they became all the same being entering her, and her emotional need for each was like beads hung on a string.” She enjoys everyone for who they are, allowing their individuality to grow as she connects with their souls. This is furthered by Rebecca’s belief that “her center is not in her chest but in her sex”; she refuses to be limited by gender and expresses a polyamorous love toward the estranged couple, Francis and Alluvia.

This novella is deep and emotionally complex, with powerful imagery, raw characters, and profound poetic language. Reine roots for self-love, feminine sexual expression, and the breaking down of the hollow structures society has built around love and relationships. Most of all, and most importantly, this book is a celebration of women living in power.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2022 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2022

Anything Is Possible

An Interview with Kathleen Rooney

by Rachel Robbins

Some people are like clockwork, and Kathleen Rooney is one of them. She arrives at the street festival with typewriter in tow, and once set up, types quietly with her curls up in twists, composing designer poetry on topics that range from cats to corndogs. The pings of her keys, her thoughts incarnated into music, mingle with the noises of the crowd. It might stink of hot dogs and beer, but up close, I can smell her perfume. No doubt, she’ll soon unpack her homemade walnut crunch cookies in designated goody bags for her fellow poets.

I have collaborated with Rooney for a decade now, composing typewriter poetry on demand at museums, galleries, and festivals as an active member of a collective she cofounded, Poems While You Wait. Our aim is to provide city dwellers with poetry encounters in unexpected places. We write on surprising and silly topics, and the venture reminds us not to take writing so seriously. It’s also strategic; as an eternally shifting prompt with a built-in audience, it staves off loneliness and keeps us from writing into the void.

For Rooney, dedication to craft and to her writing community are serious commitments. Her newest poetry collection, Where Are The Snows (Texas Review Press, $21.95), originated in response to prompts completed as part of National Poetry Writing Month (NaPoWriMo). I have always admired Rooney’s writing for being carefully researched, conscientious of form, and for so eloquently taking on hard topics. As an individual, she is brazen about the value of women who disagree (on Twitter, she often declares an “unpopular opinion alert”). This book, as exemplified by its “Highway to Hell” cover art, is a trip through the valid, uncomfortable, hilarious, and essential side streets of our private thoughts. If Kathleen Rooney were a scent, Where Are the Snows would be her essence bottled in a perfume.

In addition to her other achievements, Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press (a nonprofit publisher of literary work in hybrid genres), the author of several novels (most recently Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk and Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey), a prolific reviewer, and a teacher at DePaul University in Chicago.

Rachel Robbins: Let’s begin with the beginning. Your new book opens with costumes; what interests you about disguise, or rather, the failure of disguise? Why do you think we continue the charade if the intended meaning and received meaning don’t align?

Kathleen Rooney: Whatever else it is—and it can be a lot of things—I like for poetry to be entertaining. Above all else, I want this book to be fun. I want people to get their money’s worth. The opening is me dressing up and taking the stage, like Welcome to the show! Even if you don’t like or understand everything you’re about to see, I hope you’re glad you came.

RR: The collection is definitely humorous and playful, even as it takes on severe issues from politics to climate change. Elsewhere, it feels hopeless—you even write about giving up hope for Lent. Where does writing figure into hopelessness for you? Specifically, why poems as opposed to essays?

KR: Some problems are so bad they cannot be fixed. If you say that, some people will think that you’re hopeless. But sometimes, admitting the scope of the problem can be a way to stop sitting in denial and create new paths to hope. For example, me sorting and quote-unquote recycling all my single-use plastic and dutifully placing it in the proper Dumpster? That’s not going to save the Earth. But saying so is not hopeless, nor is it necessarily giving up. It’s ideally opening the door to reading a book like Andreas Malm’s How to Blow Up a Pipeline and then blowing up a pipeline. New hope!

I didn’t want to write nonfiction or a manifesto, but just to spend time in a mindset where, because these are poems, I could let myself think in new ways without worrying about having all the answers; rather, I could make space for greater honesty and new answers.

RR: A line that stays with me is, “You won’t believe how saintly I’ve become. Big halo energy.” This is one of those moments that makes us laugh, but it’s also uncomfortable because it calls out the showmanship involved in performative morality—Ukraine filters on Facebook or the infamous black square on Instagram. Can writing be politically correct while continuing to make meaningful change? Is the publishing world afraid of hot-button topics?

KR: In spite of the hypocritical and pernicious influences of such religious extremists as evangelical Christians or far-right-wing Catholics like Amy Coney Barrett, America is a largely secular society. But humankind needs to believe in something bigger than itself and to connect to other people through that thing—a mystical thing, a metaphysical thing. To be clear, the abandonment of the historically oppressive structures of religion as a means to abuse and control is for the best. Misguidedly, though, a lot of people seem to have sublimated this impulse to organize ourselves in a church-like fashion into an obsession with purity and correctness, resulting in some quarters—quarters that include academia, the arts, and publishing—having a Spanish Inquisition-style bloodlust for hunting down the impure and making them suffer and pay. I find this gross. I want a life with a real spiritual dimension (whether it comes from art, from service, from community, wherever), but I want that dimension to aim at ecstasy, not agony. Why are so many people choosing agony? Even if you think you’re only inflicting agony on people whose politics do not meet your immaculate standards, the reality is that you are not really changing hearts and minds (all you are doing is adding to the already inexhaustible supply of resentment and grievance that characterizes much of the so-called discourse), and you are corrupting your own soul or whatever you want to call it as well. Why not try to unite around solidarity, joy, and fun?

RR: There is so much humor in the taboos. You pinpoint the way we constantly lie by asking: “What might happen if I signed my emails ‘derangedly’ sometimes?” You don’t mince words. You write, “Sometimes a friend posts a photo of their newborn and it’s all I can do to not type, / Welcome to Hell!” Do you ever hesitate to publish work that voices uncomfortable or unpopular opinions? Why do you think it is important to say them? And why do you choose to say them in a joke?

KR: Lately I’ve been asking myself the question: does the Left hate fun, and if so, why? The best charismatic leaders—Malcolm X, Florynce Kennedy, Gloria Steinem—know how to be funny. They quip. They tell jokes. So do the worst, including the odious 45.

The Left—as well as anybody who wants life to be beautiful and just for the majority of living beings on this planet—needs some more funny charismatic leaders, and that is hard to achieve in the current circular firing squad arrangement, where paranoia is ubiquitous, everything is suspect, and the instinct is to distrust even—or especially—the people who are on your own side. Through humor, you can point out unpleasant and disquieting things, and if you can point them out, then maybe you can address them.

RR: Time and again, the poems shift from gut-punch humor to existential loneliness, and in that pivot, the reader is caught unprepared. This makes the impact of the profound and painful more pronounced. By making us laugh, you catch us off guard. One that particularly stuns me reads, “Once in a while, the pigeons undulate across the blue void in such a way that I wish I/ could join them.” How do you hope we will feel after reading your poetry?

KR: I hope you will feel like that. Unburdened and free, like beauty exists and anything is possible.

RR: There is a beautiful confusion between our “civilized” human world and the forces of nature in statements like, “Lake Michigan churns like a washing machine,” and “the distant thunder of the toilet flushing.” Do you aim to remind people that they are animals? Why?

KR: I do! Human supremacy is a mistake and a death-trap. We are creatures. There’s no separate capital-N Nature. There’s no outside, there’s no away. (When you throw your trash “away” it sticks around somewhere.) Thinking we’re separate and superior has gotten us into the worst imaginable catastrophe, and we’ll need to stop thinking that if we hope to get out.

RR: This collection spends a lot of time exploring etymology and word relationships, questioning how/why things are named. It lingers over bluejays that have nothing to do with jaywalking and features dust bunnies who hop. After all its permutations and evolution, does language start to lose meaning? Why do we say things without meaning them?

KR: We say things without meaning them sometimes because we want to believe them even if we don’t, because they’re easier or more comforting than the truth. Or we say them because we want to signify a certain attitude that will help us fit in and belong. I hope the book makes people think of that, but also that it helps them just think about the magic of words. The depths and layers and histories each individual word arrives to us carrying. Every word is a time capsule, an artifact, a magic spell. Words are such a great medium because unlike paint or musical notes or clay or whatever, everybody uses them, so the challenge as a poet is how to make a poem out of something so common and familiar. I love that challenge.

RR: It’s a bit like if a tree falls in the woods, but you ask, “Can you have a moral / code without other people around?” Can you speak to the role of audience in your work? What impact does audience have on your sense of self? 

KR: During the pandemic, I—like many people—disintegrated. I lost almost all relational sense of self. I have rarely been so lonely and excruciatingly miserable in my entire life.

I am weary of discourse that reduces people into fixed entities saying what they are rather than what they do. So when suddenly, there was almost nothing to do and no way to see other people, I had a rough time. I respect when people say, “I just write for myself,” but I write for myself and other people; it’s always both simultaneously. I love the literary community and the support and solidarity that can come from a group of people who love a shared activity. So I always write in the hope of finding an audience. I want to connect and communicate and laugh and cry with other people. Those things make me who I am, and make everybody who we are.

RR: Let’s talk about motherhood and shame. In “A Human Female Who Has Given Birth to a Baby,” you admit: “This is a poem that will make a lot of people hate me.” That you felt it necessary to include the preamble speaks to the rampant sexism women face whether they bear children or not. What do you want women to know about motherhood? Is the expectation something you brace against?

KR: One of my male colleagues at DePaul told me at a cocktail reception that I would “never know real love” because I have opted not to become a mother. That notion is bananas to me. And it’s bananas in a way that illustrates one of my points about motherhood, which is that it’s a raw deal, and if were not such a raw deal, then people would not constantly be trying to sell it as a great one. Being a mom can be rewarding, but dude, it’s also incredibly hard. This country despises women in general and mothers in particular (see what’s happening with Roe and also the fact that our government and employers give virtually no parental leave or other material support whatsoever to new parents). Any time people go around saying these kinds of platitudes—that the family is sacred, that motherhood is the means to actualization and purpose, that the only true love is mother to child—and saying them so aggressively and repetitiously, that should be a clue that these platitudes simply cannot be true. They are lies. Expedient lies designed to coerce women into following the social imperative to sacrifice themselves. Anything self-evidently true does not need to be so rudely and desperately repeated. I wish I’d said to my colleague in that moment that the nuclear family is a death cult. Wit of the staircase, I suppose, but maybe he will read this and see it now.

RR: Throughout the book, there’s a lingering certainty of the impending collapse of society. Is America really “a hellbound train even Superman can’t stop?” Is this a collection about the apocalypse, or is it something else?

KR: The apocalypse is a luxury that only people who think it will somehow spare them can believe in. The apocalypse suggests something cataclysmic and finite—something with an end. In reality, all of our collective suffering—from economic inequality to a lack of free public healthcare, climate change, you name it—will be much more of an endless slough of despond, just a totalizing slog through unimaginable but interminable misery. No one will be spared.

That being said, my point about Superman is less that this is a hopeless apocalypse and more that we’d better put on our own capes (ideally, per your great question about disguises above, really cool-looking capes) and start saving ourselves and each other.

RR: It fascinates me that many of these poems are derived from facts. What exactly is your passion for research? Does it feel different researching for poetry than for prose?

KR: As the alliterative expression “fun facts” expresses, facts are fun. In both fiction and poetry, I enjoy finding the most fun (as in surprising, beautifully phrased, emotionally evocative and so on) facts that I can and seeing where they take the piece. In both genres, too, facts help me explore how even phenomena that are demonstrably true can be—and maybe even have to be—processed subjectively. I read an interview with Werner Herzog (whose use of research in his films I admire a lot) in which he said, “I do believe that to a certain degree we all live a certain fiction that we have accepted and articulated and formulated for ourselves. We are permanently in some kind of performance.” Research helps me construct the performance that is my poetry and novels. And probably the performance that is my existence itself.

RR: You write, “In a way, we all live on Lonesome Lake now.” Do we? What do you mean by this?

KR: I don’t know if we all do, but I know that the forces of rootless global capitalism and coercive technology are pushing us to live there—conditioning us to perceive other people as competitors and threats, incentivizing us to conduct our lives through screens. But we can say no. We can see other people as allies and friends, and we can conduct our lives face to face in real places. To a large extent, we got ourselves into this mess, but we can absolutely get ourselves out.

Click here to purchase Where Are the Snows at your local independent bookstore:

Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2022 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2022

The Scent of Light

Kristjana Gunnars
Coach House Books ($25.95)

by Dashiel Carrera                            

Kristjana Gunnars’s The Scent of Light is a work unyielding in its sensuality, uniquely attuned to the slippery nature of reading in the Information Age. In five autofictive novellas, Gunnars waxes on everything from her homelands of Iceland and Canada to train track romance, weaving together images of ice fishing, silk clouds, and half-eaten tomatoes into a portrait of Icelandic-Canadian diaspora.

In its totality, the omnibus is an unmistakable member of a lineage of experimental feminist literature that extends from Marguerite Duras’s The Lover to Carole Maso’s AVA. For these works, in which no overt central plot governs the order of scenes and images, fragments are given room to breathe, forming a tangle of memory and thought free from the tyranny of a cumulative, climactic, Aristotelian whole. An extractive reading of The Scent of Light—one which assumes the purpose of literature is to be a conduit for ideas—is doomed to return with nothing in hand. Gunnars seems less concerned with ideas themselves than with the interstitial spaces between them, alternatingly suffusing her stories with descriptions of diaphanous landscapes and thoughtful interrogations of the readerly experience, only to cut away when our interest is piqued most. With these cutaways, Gunnars also prompts us to consider our own thinking rather than merely digest her own.

We have to take breaks when we read novels. But when we put down a book for a moment to check email, or take a walk, or feed the cat, the lingering experience of what we’ve just read colors our perception of the world around us. I often found myself so lost in Gunnars’s luscious descriptions of flora, the ponderosas that “stand spread with upward-bending limbs as if conducting the dreams I dream in the mist,” that I could not go on a walk without my eyes wandering to the branches that wind my Toronto neighborhood, wondering what dream they may be reaching for—all of which could be dismissed as tangent to the text itself, but which, when I return to The Scent of Light, have changed my understanding of the book and the world around me.  

Despite the seeming ubiquity of experiences like this, few works of fiction appear to be written with them in mind. The Scent of Light, however, is different. Gunnars draws us in with provocative images, koans, and questions (I imagine a text which refuses to play its own game,” “Nothing existed but the tiny rippling waves on the lake and the bulky mountains,” “I am a stranger in my own memory”), only to send us spiraling back into our own thoughts with another dinkus or block of white space. In doing so, the book creates space for life to leak between its pages, illuminating the world around us with a lingering consciousness of the readerly experience.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2022 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2022