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Elizabeth Strout

In conversation with Julie Schumacher

LIVE AND IN PERSON

Friday, October 22, 2021, 7:00pm Central
Stillwater Middle School
523 Marsh St W, Stillwater, MN 55082

co-presented with Valley Bookseller and Literature Lovers' Night Out!

Pulitzer Prize winner and New York Times bestselling author Elizabeth Strout will introduce her new novel Oh William! at our first in-person event after the Twin Cities Book Festival! Oh William! features Strout's iconic heroine, Lucy Barton, recounting her complex, tender relationship with her first husband and longtime, on-again-off-again friend and confidante. At this special event, Elizabeth Strout will be in conversation with Thurber Award winning Minnesota author Julie Schumacher.

“Elizabeth Strout is one of my very favorite writers, so the fact that Oh William! may well be my favorite of her books is a mathematical equation for joy. The depth, complexity, and love contained in these pages is a miraculous achievement.”
—Ann Patchett

At this ticketed, in-person event, face masks and proof of vaccination (or a negative covid test within 48 hours) will be required. Tickets are $35 and include event entry and a signed copy of the book.


About the Authors:

Elizabeth Strout is the Pulitzer-prize-winning author of Olive Kitteridge, which was adapted into an Emmy-award-winning mini-series. Her other books include Amy and Isabelle, Abide with Me, The Burgess Boys, My Name is Lucy Barton, and a sequel to Olive Kitteridge, the 2017 Anything is Possible. She divides her time between New York City and Brunswick, Maine.

Julie Schumacher is a professor of creative writing at the University of Minnesota and the author of multiple novels and collections of short stories, including The Shakespeare Requirement and Dear Committee Members, which was awarded the Thurber Prize for American Humor.

Embodied

Edited by Wendy and Tyler Chin-Tanner
A Wave Blue World ($16.99)

by Linda Stack-Nelson

Poetry is hard, comics are easy. These are the ubiquitous oversimplifications that Embodied: An Intersectional Feminist Comics Poetry Anthology skillfully subverts through its artfully illustrated texts. Featuring the talent of poets and comics artists both well-known and on the rise, this book shows a wide variety of perspectives on the experience of marginalized gender through two mediums that are often, themselves, marginalized.

From abstract to concretely narrative, the interpretations of poems in this book run a visually startling and emotionally affecting gamut. There are pieces about parenthood like “Soft Landing” and “Birth.” There are pieces about history, both personal and
cultural, like “A Love Letter to the Decades I Have Kissed or Notes on Turning 50” and “X.” There are dissections of colonialism, U.S. hegemony, and their effects on the body in “Red Woman” and “Settlement.” And throughout, the entries investigate desire, power, and the relationship of societal standards of gender to those who live through and beyond them.

Some of the most interesting pieces in the book are those that play with the shape of poetry as well as its imagery. In “Tapestry,” artist Morgan Beem and letterer Cardinal Rae combine their talents to interpret Khaty Xiong’s poem with text boxes that reflect the shape of the original poem, creating art that flows with the narrator. In “Voyages,” Rae’s lettering combines with the art of Jen Hickman to bring special attention to Miller Oberman’s line breaks through the deliberate spatial separation of the text boxes. In “Rubble Girl,” Rae’s choice to break up lines among panels helps clarify images alongside Sara Woolley’s art and paces the reader through the emotional tumult of the poem by Jenn Givhan.

The diverse art styles and mediums used to create the works in Embodied are on display as well in process pieces provided in an appendix at the end of the book. If one reads past the creator bios, one can discover thumbnails, pencils, roughs, and inks that showcase the development of the finished products. These shed light on not only the processes the artists used to create their pieces, but also on the variety of relationships the artists had to the text they were working with. The appendix also includes a “Study Guide” with questions and prompts to help readers, particularly those less familiar with either of the genres at play here, interpret and dive into the words and art. All these elements together help slow the reader, encouraging them to take in the full depth of the work before them.

Embodied is a marriage of forms that makes one ask why all poetry can’t be accompanied with artistic interpretation. By bringing together the “pretentious” world of poetry and the “low-brow” medium of comics, editors Wendy and Tyler Chin-Tanner and the good folks at A Wave Blue World have created a beautiful and important meditation on the complexities of image, language, and gender that pushes the boundaries of all three.


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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2021 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2021

Small, Light, Portable Universes:
An Interview with Richard Powers

photo by Dean D. Dixon

by Allan Vorda

Richard Powers was born in 1957 in Evanston, Illinois, and enrolled at the University of Illinois as a physics major before switching to English as his chosen field. Upon receiving his B.A. and M.A., he moved to Boston where he worked as a computer programmer and a night watchman in a museum, which inspired his first novel, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance (William Morrow, 1985). After publishing a second novel he moved to the Netherlands, but eventually returned to the U.S. to teach for many years (first at the University of Illinois, then Stanford University) before moving to the Smoky Mountains, where he now lives in nature as he pursues an ascetic lifestyle of reading and writing. Over the years, he has published thirteen novels, typically taking two to four years to write each one. Among his numerous literary awards, he has won the National Book Award for The Echo Maker (FSG, 2006) and the Pulitzer Prize for The Overstory (W. W. Norton, 2018).

As with each of his novels, his latest book, Bewilderment (Norton, $27.95), explores new territory; in this case, the relationship of a father (Theo) and his troubled nine-year old son (Robin). The son undergoes a metamorphosis after participating in an experimental trial called Decoded Neurofeedback. The father, a university teacher and researcher, works on a project that entails creating imaginary planets to which he gives fictional names. Father and son take approximately a dozen visits to these simulated worlds, yet these Planet Seeker visits, in conjunction with the difficulties Theo encounters as a widower raising a son and the effects of Decoded Neurofeedback on Robin, raise the question of what is real and what is simulated. It is an amazing journey that has in-and-out of this world experiences, but perhaps most importantly, Powers does an incredible job of showing the boundless love that a father has for his son. This interview took place over email in May of 2021.


 

Allan Vorda: The epigraph for Daniel Keyes’s 1959 novel Flowers for Algernon, taken from Plato, incorporates your title: “Anyone who has common sense will remember the bewilderments of the eye are two of the kinds, and arrive from two causes, either from coming out of the light or going into the light, which is true of the mind’s eye, quite as much as of the bodily eye.” Was Algernon an inspiration for Bewilderment?

Richard Powers: It’s the touchstone intertext for my novel. Keyes wrote the short story the year after my birth, and the novel version appeared when I was nine—the same age as Robin through most of Bewilderment. I read the story in the sixth grade, when I was eleven, and it settled into a permanent place in my imagination as one of those bedrock fables that helps to explain life.

The story itself is mentioned several times in the course of my novel, and on at least two occasions, it serves to further the plot. I even explicitly reference Algernon’s epigraph, from Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” and as you point out, those words serve as one of the sources of my title. But Algernon is also the inspiration for the science fiction invention that serves as the central plot of the entire novel. Daniel Keyes’s story tells of a cognitively challenged man who, through a breakthrough in scientific technique, is granted intelligence far beyond ordinary human limits. A couple of years ago, when I read about a remarkable new technique called decoded neurofeedback, I instantly thought of using it to tell a similar fable. Suppose researchers perfected an empathy machine that could greatly magnify our ability to apprehend the world through our feelings? What might we humans learn to become? Bewilderment turns the Algernon fable on its head. In place of intellect, it deals in emotional intelligence. It tells the story of a little child, going into the light.

AV: Bewilderment is an extraordinary story of the heartfelt relationship between a father and his son. As someone who doesn’t have any children, how were you able to capture the essence of the feelings of Theo and Robin?

RP: Well, I had a lot of experience being a child. And when I grew up, I began to suspect how my father had been a child once, too. I was also an older brother, with too much parental instinct for my own good. I have been an uncle several times over, and I’ve been a surrogate dad to more than one of my friends’ children. I spent many years as a teacher, in constant contact with lives looking for guidance and direction. I’ve watched almost everyone I’ve ever loved struggle with the unsolvable mystery of how to raise another life. So my own life has been more than full of vicarious parenting.

Children can possess enormous amounts of innate emotional intelligence, but adult pragmatism and practicality tend to wear it down. While finishing my previous novel, The Overstory, I read numerous accounts of the toll our growing environmental catastrophe is taking on the young. I kept running across a recent neologism: solastalgia, the emotional anguish caused by an apprehension of the dying planet. It occurred to me that we were raising a generation of troubled kids, born homesick for a place that they never knew. What would it be like to raise a child suffering from such an illness? I’d never seen a parenting story that addressed that question. So I wrote one.

AV: Early on we learn that nine-year Robin has issues with anger. Is his anger due to his mother’s death? Is there a medical term for what is afflicting Robbie?

RP: So much of the book is concerned with the crudeness and insufficiency of our diagnoses, etiologies, and understandings of childhood neurodivergence. Robin’s behavioral differences go way beyond anger issues. He’s an uncanny child, intense and otherworldly, whose peculiarities prevent his successful integration into the social world. When I was a child (possessing many of these qualities myself), many of Robin’s behaviors would have been diagnosed as “abnormal.” Our tolerance for difference has grown in the years since then. But our understanding of the clinical underpinnings of such differences remains limited and primitive.

To lay blame for Robin’s “condition” either on his mother’s death or on some genetic disorder is already to fall into that limited thinking. There are medical terms for Robin, to be sure. But they are almost all crude and pathologizing. As Theo puts it: “I never believed the diagnoses the doctors settled on my son. When a condition gets three different names over as many decades, when it requires two subcategories to account for completely contradictory symptoms, when it goes from nonexistent to the country’s most commonly diagnosed childhood disorder in the course of one generation, when two different physicians want to prescribe three different medications, there’s something wrong.”

We in the States still seem less interested in understanding “challenged” kids than in treating and altering them. Just a couple of days ago, Elon Musk announced on national television that he has Asperger’s Syndrome. That announcement may go a ways toward helping parents understand that neurodivergence is much subtler and more wondrous than they may fear, and not always in need of a “treatment.”

AV: There are several references to birds in Bewilderment. Theo’s late wife, Alyssa, used to go birding with her friend Marty Collier. Her son is named after her favorite bird. Robin shows his dad an owl that lives in a nearby tree. Theo and Robin see three sandhill cranes (which recalls your novel The Echo Maker) flying north, to which Robbie says, “How would we ever know aliens? We can’t even know birds.” Do you have an interest in ornithology?

RP: I have been an avid (if still totally amateur) birder since before I published The Echo Maker. I’m a total autodidact, but I’ve been to some of the greatest birding spots on the continent: The Platte River, Southwest Texas, Cape May. I no longer keep life lists or day counts, which tend to commodify the experience too much for me. I can’t always tell what I’m looking at (especially with warblers, in the spring and fall!). But the thrill never gets old, even in seeing “commoners.” I saw a pair of scarlet tanagers the other day (early in May, in the Smokies) that were so bright I thought for a moment that two bits of orange and red emergency reflective tape had blown up into the trees. When I hear the pileated woodpecker and the barred owl who live right near my house, it’s enough to make it a good day. A good bird sighting can match any artistic pleasure.

The Smokies are covered in suchdense forests that birding here is usually more of a matter of hearing than seeing. While writing Bewilderment, I began studying and learning the songs of the hundreds of birds who come through the area. A bit of musical background has helped in this. I’ve also become a devoted supporter of American Bird Conservancy, which does astonishingly good work, on a very limited budget, to preserve habitat and protect birds—highly recommended for anyone who’d like to perpetuate and extend the joy that birds bring!

AV: Theo creates imaginary planets with different characteristics for his Planet Seeker project. How did you come up with names like Mios, Nithar, and Zenia and the planets’ different features? How do these discussions help bind the father-son relationship?

RP: I took great pleasure in shaping and naming these planets in the hope that these voyages to surreal places would intensify the domestic realism of the rest of the novel. The names of the planets are playful trips in etymology, and I tried to cast a wide linguistic net in naming them. All the names grow out of ancient roots and have some bearing on the allegorical nature of each place. As all good religions understand, the mystery of our ability to know ourselves is also the mystery of language. Childhood consists of struggling to come to terms with a bewildering array of names and words. Every word is another planet.

The voyages that Theo and Robin take to these imaginary places are both a form of shared play as well as an exercise in mutual empathy. For the son, the stories are pure escape and emotional adventure. For the father, they are exercises in the recovery of childhood mystery and his own love for speculative fiction. I am lucky to be pen pals with Kim Stanley Robinson, a towering figure in contemporary American speculative fiction, and I sent him a copy of the book in galleys. He remarked on being taken back to his own early pleasures in the genre of 1950s and 1960s “planetary romances,” a tradition that he dates back to Melville and others’ travel romances to remote islands. He cites Le Guin, Pangborn, Vance, Sturgeon, and Brunner as being great practitioners of the form. These are writers whose influence I have felt with real force—writers touched with wanderlust and desire to travel beyond the constraints of an increasingly domesticated Earth.

Other planets are, of course, always other people, and dreams of travel are filled with the fear of otherness and the desire for unachievable empathy. But Robinson also hit on the jackpot point that all these travels to other planets are meditations on the unbelievable luck and incredible beauty of this one. As he put it to me, any alien father and son out there, dreaming up a place like Earth, would be tempted to laugh away the idea as way too rich and fecund and lucky to be anything but the wildest science fiction.

AV: The discussions Theo has with Robbie get into the Fermi Paradox. Robbie asks Theo how many galaxies there are in the universe and Theo says: “A British team just published a paper saying there might be two trillion.” This is mind-boggling. What are your thoughts about sentient life in the universe? Assuming there is sentient life and contact gets made in the future, doesn’t it make you wonder how we Earthlings would respond, especially since there is so much xenophobia in the world today?

RP: The math for calculating the likelihood of intelligent alien life is so full of gaps and unknowns that it truly is anybody’s guess. The denominator of habitable planets is growing rapidly, and it is already so large that it would seem to make the existence of intelligent aliens almost a certainty. But there are so many possible filters and bottlenecks that we can’t entirely calculate, since we are in the untenable position of reasoning from a single case—our own. Nevertheless, the smart money is leaning toward “Yes.” When I was young, it was almost taboo for serious scientists to talk about the possibility in public. Now, Astrobiology is a respected career. My lay-person’s hunch is that they are almost certainly out there, but at distances so great that we may never detect even indirect evidence and could never hope for direct communication.

As for how Earthlings would respond to any detection of life elsewhere: Now there is the classic SF question! And it has been answered in so many ways. Some writers point out that what Freud called “the narcissism of small differences” tends to gets tempered a bit when people are confronted with a much deeper outside difference. Some (I’m thinking of James Tiptree Jr.) seem to suggest that the desire for alien intimacy is the strongest urge we can feel. Others emphasize how resourceful and infinitely pliant a hatred of everything alien can be. Given human psychology, there may be a connection here!

I can’t pretend to understand humans, and I have no great insight into their profound, primal contradiction. We are xenophobic, yes, and our tribal loyalties can make us hate just about anyone and anything that does not look enough like us. But we are also filled, especially as children, with what E. O. Wilson calls biophilia. Children are born scientists. They also tend toward pantheism, and they can see God crawling all over every inch of the backyard. I want to write stories that can help return us to that state of consciousness, books that can reenchant and “bewilder” people in the etymological sense: to make them a part of wildness again. The chief crisis of humanity is that we see this planet not as a finite, living system but as a bottomless commodity to exploit and an endless terrain to subdue. We desperately need stories that can alter that. The most bewildering fiction is a kind of empathy machine, training us to see our seemingly disparate selves as imbricated in an unfolding, experimental network that is trying to travel everywhere.

AV: There are a number of scenes in Bewilderment that refer to the President, which the reader can assume is Trump, making outrageous decisions. One example is the President’s solution to stop forest fires in California by writing an executive order to cut down two hundred thousand acres of national forest. As a former physics student and an environmentalist who believes in science, what has it been like for you to have watched Trump with his anti-science approach to such things as global warming, conservation, and COVID-19?

RP: The President in Bewilderment isn’t Trump per se, but he is a very close fictional double! He, too, has figured out that in the era of digitally-leveraged politics he can sell fear, anger, hearsay, confusion, persecution, and paranoia much better and spread them much faster than humility, empathy, wonder, and science. The xenophobia, tribalism, and superstition whipped up during the four short years of the Trump administration have stunned and demoralized me. His outright rejection of empirical evidence in favor of wishful thinking destroyed not just the public’s belief in scientifically demonstrated fact, but also demolished anything that looked like a shared trust in any kind of accountable process for determining facts in the absence of consensual belief. The trend of those years was terrible and obvious: evidence has given way to wishful thinking, and ideology has replaced all appeal to empirical data and measurement.

The destruction of national set-aside land over the last four years, the removal of protections to air and water, the reversal of all our hard-won progress on climate change, and the redoubled war on everything that isn’t human tore the heart out of me. But the real tragedy of those years, one that will continue to harm humanity and all the rest of creation for a long time to come, was the massive resurgence of human exceptionalism that Trump fostered simply by preaching a sense of aggrieved entitlement. Trump’s white nationalism and his toxic male paternalism are part of a larger, unbridled gospel of human separation from and domination over everything else alive.

Good scientific practice, with its self-restrained and tentative nature, is helpless in the face of swaggering self-assertion and grandiose privilege. Rational argument, statistics, and an appeal to facts do nothing in such a battle. But stories can sometimes sway a reader’s heart, and the questions of children can sometimes shame adults into seeing themselves. That’s why the story of a child coming into the light seemed to me the perfect antidote to Trump’s America.

AV: There are numerous sentences throughout the novel that just sparkle. One example: “Rising from the leaf duff in a bowl-shaped opening off the path was the most elaborate mushroom I’d ever seen. It mounded up in a cream-colored hemisphere bigger than my two hands. A fluted ribbon of fungus rippled through itself to form a surface as convoluted as an Elizabethan ruff.” Is there a method to this creative architecture? Do you think of some exquisite sentence and write it down to be used later, or does your Muse inspire you when you actually sit down to write?

RP: Thanks for the kind words. I’m grateful to hear that. Of all the elements of writing, I have always been mostly drawn to explorations of style. When I was younger, that sometimes meant striving to create lots of sentence-level effects through diction, register, and elaborate syntax. I often tried to create a style that called attention to itself. As I grew older, I became interested in simplicity and constraint, while still searching for a language that was distinctive and unpredictable. Often this has involved a more passive approach to sentence-making than in the past. Nowadays I like to take the sentences I’m working on out on the trail with me. I don’t attack them with conscious attention, but rather, I let them percolate in the back of my mind as I walk, and I focus my attention on all the life around me in the woods. Before I’ve gone far—usually no more than a mile or two—the solution to the sentence or paragraph that I’ve been puzzling over will present itself to me, almost intact. Of course, the tiny bits of tinkering and adjustment continue when I get home, and those never stop, even after publication, I’m afraid.

AV: While discussing the Trappist planet, Robbie asks: “What about God, Dad?” Theo’s response to his son is, “I mean, God isn’t something you can prove or disprove. But from what I can see, we don’t need any bigger miracle than evolution.” Was there a point in your life that you came to a similar conclusion?

RP: I began falling away from traditional religion when I was a teen. The more I learned about the complexity of life and the shared features of biochemistry and genetics across all living things, the more spiritual power I found in the grand biogenetic synthesis. As Darwin suggested in the famous last lines of The Origin of Species, there is more miracle and greater potential for inspiration in the accreting discoveries of empirical science than there is in the Bronze Age story of a personal God, especially the anthropomorphized one we’ve inherited. If you’re talking about the creation of meaning, nothing is more staggering or meaningful than a sense of what a few self-replicating molecules have been able to manage, shaped by natural selection and the other regulators of evolution.

Religions based on a soul-testing God who is intent on the salvation of separate souls (a God who seems remarkably indifferent to the fate of non-humans, by the way) have proved to be a disaster for the planet. Yet religion is likely to be the only thing strong enough to compel people to rejoin and rehabilitate the living planet. We need a different kind of religion now if we mean to stick around here for much longer. I’m looking for that in all kinds of places, from Taoism to Native American belief in Interbeing. We need the pantheism of children and the sense of awe expressed by the best natural scientists. We need to remember that “religion” derives from deep linguistic roots that mean, literally, “tying back together.”

AV: “They share a lot, astronomy and childhood. Both are voyages across huge distances. Both search for facts beyond their grasp.” On one hand, Theo is a scientist who appears to be living in the real world while trying to deal with the reality of being a widower and single parent. On the other hand, he also lives in a simulated world with his imaginary planets. What are the consequences of this duality for the father-son relationship?

RP: My goal in creating Theo Byrne was to make him broadly sympathetic but also wholly ambiguous and questionable. That’s why the book is told in first person. First-person narrators are intrinsically unreliable, to some degree. They perform themselves for the reader, making the equivocal case for themselves even as they explore the limits to their own self-understanding. Theo seems aware of his ample faults, as a scientist, a friend, a husband, and a father, but readers are likely to have deeper insights into him that he himself has not yet been able to reach. That makes him something of a tragic character in the classic sense, I suppose.

And yet, for all his fallibility and the limits of his self-knowledge, I’d like to think that there is something redemptive to him. Philip Roth once said that we really begin to love a person when we see them trying to be game in the face of an impossible situation. As Theo became substantial for me, I couldn’t help but love him. He knows he is thrashing about, that he is ill-equipped for the challenges of his life, especially after the death of his wife, Alyssa. But there is nothing—nothing—that he wouldn’t do to try to protect and care for his son.

AV: To expand on the previous question, when Robbie begins experiments with Decoded Neurofeedback, he becomes so proficient that not only does his anger disappear, but he becomes incredibly intelligent. Do you think the roles of parent and child have been reversed to some extent? If so, to what betterment or detriment for each person?

RP: I suspect that everyone who has ever raised a child has, sooner or later, felt the roles of parent and child reversing. It’s a dirty little secret of myopia known to every child, as well! Mark Twain has a very funny line: “When I was young I thought what a fool my father was. When I became a man I was surprised how much he had caught up in the meantime.” The story of Robin’s accelerated education is an only-slightly-fabulistic exemplar of the uncanny (but not uncommon) moments when parents feel reminded, humbled, or outright schooled by the wisdom of their children.

AV: The Buddhist prayer Aly says to Robbie at bedtime—“May all sentient beings be free from needless suffering”—does not get answered. In fact, each family member experiences “needless suffering,” whether self-inflicted or not. Would you care to comment on the irony of this and the place of praying?

RP: It’s a matter of debate whether Buddhism is theistic. In general, though, prayers in that faith are directed not so much outward as inward, toward a self in need of transformation and interconnection. Aly’s prayer is derived from the Four Immeasurables, and to think on them is less a matter of petition than of practice. “Let me never cause needless suffering to another sentient being.”

The first of Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths is “the truth of suffering.” All creatures will suffer, and much of that suffering will be needless. But suffering can be lessened through a change in consciousness. The bedtime refrain that Aly taught Theo and that Theo teaches Robin is an expression of will that needless suffering should not be compounded. It’s a way of strengthening identification with all things and helping to see ourselves in everything that isn’t us. Just to say the words out loud is to start to change the consciousness of a culture that has not always admitted to how much needless suffering it inflicts. Prayer, like fiction at its best, is an empathy machine, a way towards that state of Interbeing where needless suffering diminishes.

AV: Making the analogy to Algernon, Robbie tells Theo that he is “still the same mouse, Dad. I just have help now.” Robbie also says he has “three really smart, funny, and strong guys” walking with him, “Just: like, they’re helping to row the boat or something. My crew.” What should the reader make of these imaginary friends?

RP: I think they should be just as bewildered by the words as Theo is! What’s happening to Robbie at this point is a locked room mystery. In fact, that’s true for the whole book. Theo never really knows what’s going on inside his son’s head. But when Robin starts training in Martin Currier’s empathy machine, Theo’s own capacity for empathy is really put to the test. How much of the improvement in Robin is being caused by the feedback? How much of the perceived benefit is only a matter of cueing? How much is Robin doing by himself, in the novelty of the experience and through the force of his own imagination?

Nabokov, in his great afterword to Lolita, talks about how he drew inspiration for the book from reading “a newspaper story about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature's cage.” We are each trapped inside our own heads, making art and saying sentences that bewilder other people. We will never know what it’s like to be another person, let alone an ape or a bat. No empathy will ever be strong enough to give us anything else but the View from Here.

But here’s the thing: when I read a book by someone from another time and place, maybe even someone who is long since dead, it’s like I have company, a helper in my head—my “crew.” I carry that feeling of having houseguests around with me, even after the act of silent communion and neurofeedback is over. The mystery is not what is in the other locked room. The great mystery is how the View from Here can sometimes become the view from anywhere.

AV: Robbie sees a young climate activist named Inga Alder on TV and, being inspired, decides to do his own protests at the state’s and nation’s capitols. Greta Thunberg, her seeming real-world counterpart, also has Asperger’s, which she claims is a gift. What do you think about Thunberg, who dropped out of school to bring the world’s attention to climate change, and her connection to Robbie?

RP: I’m never comfortable giving away my keys to open any roman à clef, but this one kind of gives away itself! Inga, like Thunberg, declares that her cognitive “challenge” is really her superpower. Robin himself immediately recognizes the affinity, the moment he first sees her and hears her talk on television. He says, “She’s like me, Dad,” and the words make Theo’s skin pucker.

Thunberg is an astonishing and unique spokesperson for a new human consciousness. The need for humans to come back and live here, inside the webs of the living planet, has rarely been more powerfully articulated or advanced. There is no gainsaying her blunt willingness to confront the truth and to challenge our attempts at denial and self-deception. I believe that Thunberg’s skills, her courage, her moral clarity, her powers of persuasion, and the truth of her vision are in no small part a function of her “superpower.” It may well be the neurodivergent who lead the way in the transformation of human culture that we will need in order to preserve and extend this planet’s experiment in self-awareness.

AV: There is a scene where Theo and Robbie are in the backyard at night which Theo recounts: “He propped his head on the pillow of my arm. For a long time, we just looked up at the stars—all the ones we could see and half the ones we couldn’t.” Then Robbie says: “Dad. I feel like I’m waking up. Like I’m inside everything. Look where we are! That tree. This grass!” This scene, which echoes the book cover, shows the love of father and son as they share this wonderful, magical moment in time. Was this scene from your own childhood or something else entirely?

RP: I remember many such moments of “oceanic consciousness” from my own childhood, and I have continued to experience them, although less frequently and intensely, as an adult. But this scene came about from my trying to inhabit Robin’s consciousness as fully as I could. To show him at his zenith, as his ability to experience “Interbeing” reaches its peak, I read a great deal of spiritual and religious writing, especially in the Eastern tradition. The writer Charles Eisenstein was helpful throughout. I also turned to the best examples of “nature visionary” writing, both classic, like John Muir and Aldo Leopold, and contemporary, like Robert MacFarlane and Robin Wall Kimmerer.

AV: In many of your novels you explore various types of consciousness and how individuals think and express themselves. What are your thoughts about humans having implants in the future?

RP: To some extent, Bewilderment is itself wrestling with the question of technologically-mediated consciousness. It does so through the fable of neurofeedback, of course, but, more fundamentally, it dramatizes Theo’s dilemma of whether to medicate his child. Therapeutic drugs have helped countless people function better on this planet, but Theo is reluctant to experiment with them on such a young and still-forming brain. For him, the ways of going wrong in such an experiment outnumber the ways of going right. But more importantly, he isn’t convinced that his struggling child needs to be cured of anything. How much should he try to “correct” his child, simply to conform to contemporary practice in raising children?

These questions of clinical treatment shade off into the increasingly real question of cognitive or emotional enhancement. (Think of the number of students out there taking ADD medication, not to treat a diagnosed condition, but to improve their academic performance.) I have no doubt that humans will get better and better at controlling and mediating mood, emotion, behavior, perception, and cognition through pharmacology and other kinds of neural intervention. But I also know so many kinds of neural interventions—music, love, hiking, poetry, sitting by the river, breathing in a cascade’s negative ions—that I’d rather experiment with.

AV: It seems evident in the recent stages of your writing career that you are very concerned about our environment and the impact humans are having on it. Since moving to the Smoky Mountains, some readers might consider you as a modern-day Thoreau. What are your thoughts about the future of our environment and are there any organizations that concerned citizens should consider supporting?

RP: There are so many! Those that concentrate on the reversal of habitat destruction are especially important to me, as that will be the key to slowing down the mass extinction that we are inflicting on the planet. The organizations Save the Redwoods, Old Growth Forest Network, the National Forest Foundation, and American Forests do good work in this country. I’ve already mentioned American Bird Conservancy, which is one of the most effective and efficient environmental organizations around. Wangari Maathai’s Green Belt Movement is helping to transform Africa. Look for smaller, targeted, lean and efficient organizations that are doing work close to your own heart.

Perhaps even more useful than sending cash to such outfits is committing yourself to hands-on efforts where you live. Rehabilitation begins at home, and to the extent that we are going to reintegrate in a sane way with the living planet, it will be through local efforts to understand and restore what life wants to do nearby. Why not start in your yard? Get rid of invasives, plant native species, give up your desire to control things with chemical inputs, and love what happens when local life comes rushing back in.

AV: Your books never seem to repeat themselves. This allows your readers to examine and reflect on life in ways they ordinarily would not. To paraphrase one of your sentences from Bewilderment, your novels let the reader “wormhole” into a different world, even if all of your novels are not “small, light, portable parallel universes.” If this question is not too impertinent, can you provide an example or two where you might have read a book and decided “I want to write this type of novel”?

RP: That’s not at all impertinent to ask. I do this all the time! In fact, I have spent much of my life like Borges’s “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.” (I really, really wish I could have written that story.) At one time or another, I have wished that I could re-write, verbatim, works by Melville and Byatt and Proust and Pynchon and Stoppard and Mann and LeGuin and Mitchell and Whitehead. The list is long, and a certain kind of emulation-gone-astray has left genetic markers all over my thirteen novels. For Bewilderment, in addition to Flowers For Algernon, I took lots of inspiration from Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker, and so many others.

AV: On its surface, Bewilderment could be viewed as a straightforward novel about a father and son relationship, a mystery novel, or even touching upon the realms of science fiction. It also seems to have affinity with fabulist writers such as Calvino, Borges, and Barth. Do you welcome such comparisons and would you ever consider writing a science fiction novel?

RP: I have lived my whole literary life, both as a reader and a writer, straddling that gap between psychological realism, on the one hand, and formalist, fabulist, or more “experimental” writing on the other. Ordinarily, people seem to show devotion to one side of this dualism, and abhorrence for the other side. I love them both, and I’ve struggled for a third of a century to find ways of writing books that can triangulate between and combine what Zadie Smith famously called these “two paths for the novel.” So it thrills me that you feel that “a straightforward novel about a father and son relationship” might also owe a debt to Borges, Calvino, and Barth! All three of those writers have had massive influence on me, and I had them all in mind at one time or another as I wrote Bewilderment. I wanted to hybridize modes and aesthetics in a way that showed how porous that species boundary really is.

But in this book, I had other motives for trying to fuse realism with fable, reasons having to do with the subject matter of Bewilderment. The novel, as a form, is one of the most complex and effective empathy machines that humans have yet come up with. It works best when it can excite all kinds of concurrent but sometimes incommensurable parts of the brain. The strange loop of fiction makes it possible for us readers to reflect on our own processes, even while we are immersed in the stream of them. And while reading, we begin to see how much of what we take to be inarguably real is, in fact, the result of fabulous maps and shorthand fables that we ourselves have created. Likewise, the primal fables that the best fiction serves up can come away reflecting the most practical and hard-headed realism.

You ask if I’ve ever considered writing science fiction. As I see it, Bewilderment is itself science fiction, in the purest sense. The entire book takes place on a counterfactual Earth, it invokes a dozen voyages to other planets, and it hinges on a plot involving a level of neural technology that doesn’t yet exist. But the fact that it didn’t feel like science fiction to you pleases me. Not that I’m unhappy with the label of science fiction writer. Galatea 2.2 and Plowing the Dark both used science fiction, and Generosity was a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction. I’m always proud when SF writers like Kim Stanley Robinson and Carter Scholz claim my books as SF. My aim, though, is to absorb the science fiction elements into a texture of plausible realism and to tell a story where facts and fable fuse seamlessly in the reader’s mind.

AV: When I saw you speak at Rice University for a reading of The Overstory, you were gracious enough to let your good friend Tayari Jones speak after you. I thoroughly enjoyed her novel An American Marriage. Are there any other novels by writers that you might suggest?

RP: Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena was one of the most ambitious and achieved debut novels I’ve ever read. I really enjoyed The Alaskan Laundry, by Brendan Jones, who I worked with when I was at Stanford. I was lucky to read Sandro Veronesi’s novel The Hummingbird, which made such a splash in Europe, in an early English galley. It is just now being published here. David Benioff’s City of Thieves was very well done. Anything by the extraordinary writer Colum McCann will provide great rewards.

AV: I cannot put into words how much your writing has brought enjoyment into my life. Since you quoted a Buddhist saying in Bewilderment, I will leave you with another Buddhist saying: “What we think, we become.” Thank you for your sublime novels and for doing this interview.

RP: Thank you for such kind words. Regarding your Buddhist saying, I used a similar quote, by Bernard of Clairvaux, as the refrain in my novel Galatea 2.2: “What we love, we shall come to resemble.” When an idea pops up in two such different cultures and traditions, perhaps there is something to it! I’d also like to hope that what we read and think about, we will come to love.


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Kathmandu

Anuja Ghimire
Unsolicited Press ($20)

by Carlos A. Pittella

If you think Anuja Ghimire’s Kathmandu will transport you to Nepal, it will—but it will do so as an interrogation of home and the languages we use to define it, and the journey will be equal parts amazement and awareness. The opening poem recalls the 1991 assassination of Indian politician Rajiv Gandhi from the perspective of a young Nepali speaker:

As my mother bent to tuck me to bed
the night the woman blew up Rajiv,
I searched the pleats of her sari
for the shrapnel of fairy tales

Addressing tragic events in Indo-Nepalese history, the first four pieces in this book show the awakening of a poet when the meaning of home is shattered. Out of the “shrapnel of fairy tales,” the poet seeks to remake home, leaving the country of her birth; the taxi-ride to the airport is “The first flight” titling the fifth poem: “the taxi skidded and bounced, with it, my heart // my mother’s sank with each turbulence.”

Kathmandu soon arrives in the U.S. In “Saffron,” we find the poet dancing, balancing the lightness of exploring a new country with the weight of carrying an ancient culture that goes unnoticed to Western eyes:

I flutter when I dance
and shiver when I drive
my fingers create lotus, deer and Shiva
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
my fingers create the rain
and reach for the milk
when I am not watched,
I make art in Wal-Mart

This poem unearths inner life where xenophobia hides it: in immigrants. Here, poetry has a whole layer of mudras (the hand gestures that tell stories in several Eastern dance traditions). Literally, there is art inside of Wal-Mart, if only we open our eyes to the tales told by the hands doing the shelving.

Later, the speaker is visiting Nepal when the horrifying 2015 earthquake shakes the land, as recounted in the poem “God, five-years-old, saves my life, 2072 B.S.” (another title that functions as a poetic line). B.S. stands for the lunar calendar Bikram Sambat, reminding us that there are multiple ways to tell time. Age, strength, and the very soil become relative: “my daughter announced she was God / as Earth turned into tides.”

One of the last poems questions who owns the language to define “home,” from the very title:

A young woman says “I want to speak English like you”

she wants to hold my foreign words on the precipice of her tongue
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
to unfurl them as a party trick
Howe aar yuuu?

Suddenly the reader spirals in time, witnessing the learning of two alphabets at once: “the circular egg, police stick, monkey’s tail, and demon’s moustache क / that I learned to write dreaming / the broken triangle with a tummy stitch A, A, A that I wake up mumbling.” These woven alphabets form a powerline, electrocuting with questions any xenophobic violence that touches it: when the foreigner sings in your tongue, what does it teach you about yourself? First, your language is not just yours. Ghimire makes it into her home, and a better home for us too.


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CURB

Divya Victor
Nightboat Books ($17.95)

by Greg Bem

& you put
the pieces back together on the dining table—to make a map for a country made of vein & sinew with hands pulled clean of wedding bands & raw rice, a map for a country of two.

True to its history, the United States today harbors its latest iterations of anti-immigrant violence. Rhetoric abounds on who is allowed and who is not. Experiences and facts are nullified. Waves of violence and persecution against Asian American communities across the country show up in the news on a near-daily basis. Stories flood the commons, stories of endurance, survival, and defense of identity, and stories of presence, inclusion, and citizenship.

These stories are vital, and in her fifth book, the bleak but necessary CURB, Divya Victor proves herself to be worthy of the challenge of telling them. Building a powerful exposition from both personal reflection and its refraction through the external world—homes, curbs, lawns, and pavement—this collection captures the cultural moment while also relaying the past, never letting up, never forgetting, always connecting us and projecting possibility and repair:

When I read the news
of the shooting, these ears rang
the phone-lines of the dead, called
for the knowing trill, the scatter
of sugar, of a spoon circling
a milk tea for one
on the other side
of the world.

CURB’s poetry concerns South Asian immigrants, centering individuals who have been targeted by acts of violence within the United States since the early ’90s: Balbir Singh Sodhi, murdered in Mesa, Arizona; Navroze Mody, murdered in Jersey City, New Jersey; Srinivas Kuchibhotla, murdered in Olathe, Kansas; and Sunando Sen, murdered in Queens, New York. These four, whose lives were brutally stolen in acts of racist violence, may be the subjects, but they stand for more. They illuminate the stories, collectively, and shine the spotlight on those hypocritical U.S. systems that at once provide liberty and push it away through violence and murder:

lawn of alert marigolds you burn the camphor on the stoop
so our names are spelled in flames

lawn of red dirt at dusk you sprinkle sugar on buttered bread
so our names are buried with yours

Victor’s approach is harrowing, yet tactful. In CURB, she creates a tribute while weaving in personal reflections and elevating the memories of self and other equally. These stories twist between American reality and Indian origin, balancing human presence over otherness. In “Lawn (Arid),” the poet writes of the landscape of Trichy, India, visceral and visible. “Blood/Soil” recalls the Nazi slogan while exploring, in graphic detail, the attack on Sureshbhai Patel in Madison, Alabama, by a white police officer. In the context of violence, oppression, and colonial history, Victor poses questions: How do lives get represented? Who crafts their histories? Where do they become realized, and how are they understood? Like its spiritual predecessor, Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, much of CURB concerns securing a space for questions and conversations.

Perhaps most importantly, CURB bridges the collective trauma that Asian Americans face every day with a very real sense of hope and optimism, and Victor invites us in—all of us—to share the commitment and vigor that results. The book, thus, is an invitation to learn, to support, and to transform:

A mark in the body to remember the work of being a paper
person, with or without papers. A living milestone to mark the
work of being nothing to you.

A mark in the body to remember the day when you leaned close
to someone else who reminded you of someone you once held
close. A stranger who is like family. Kith.

CURB is a literary milestone that may initially feel minimal in structure (its table of contents includes only fourteen items), but when read it extends to the farthest reaches of the heart. Victor channels the suffering and persistence of her subjects, and through a posthumous revisiting at once ritualistic and humanely revisionist, she builds a broader story that both honors them and includes us all.


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Sun Ra’s Chicago: Afrofuturism and the City

William Sites
University of Chicago Press ($30)

by Garin Cycholl

Listening to Sun Ra’s “Brainville” throws its listener into a complex time and urban space. Bop laid across swing narrates a mid-century Chicago’s urgent, sudden growth against a backdrop of hard, memoried violence. This is iced-out art that is neither Mies van der Rohe’s glassy towers nor Duke Ellington’s Harlem. As William Sites notes in Sun Ra’s Chicago: Afrofuturism and the City, “Brainville” offers a thoughtful, jagged tomorrow-city. Unsettling the listener, the piece’s disparate sounds swing and jump the tracks, “operat[ing] as musical gestures toward the beyond.” Sun Ra’s Chicago is a utopia recalled, projected, and performed; as the bandleader himself would later describe his ensemble’s vision, “IMAGES AND FORECASTS OF TOMORROW / DISGUISED AS JAZZ.”

Sites’s project in this work is to get back to this future city by understanding Sun Ra’s geographic, intellectual, and galactic journeys. As Sonny Blount, Ra traveled from Birmingham in 1946, plying his keyboard trade in a string of strip clubs in Calumet City, a southern suburb of Chicago. He engaged the full range of Chicago’s bubbling musics, including swing, bop, pop, blues, and gospel. Growing as a bandleader, he developed associations with other musicians and thinkers, significantly through verbal sparring with other soapbox philosophers in the South Side’s Washington Park. In 1952, he petitioned to change his name to Le Sony’r Ra. He gathered musicians into ensembles that would eventually become his Arkestra, honing its sound in a range of itinerant South Side spaces before ultimately ending up in New York. As Sun Ra, he claimed origins on the planet Saturn and sought to clarify a utopian artistic vision—“the thought of a better, untried reality,” as he described it in liner notes for Jazz in Silhouette.

This vision reflects Sun Ra’s imaginative journey, according to Sites. These geographies redraw the map of the Americas and extend African space, “a set of backward-facing, forward-moving journeys through black utopian worlds still in formation.” Offering a new map to the country, they move beyond standard depictions of Chicago’s “Black metropolis,” instead seeking “to perform utopia as everyday practice.” Sun Ra’s ensemble offered its hearers spaces “where new collective identities could become present, there might mingle with here.” Music could both dismantle perceived, racialized boundaries and become a means of sounding fragmented experience. Sonic spaces in that here could become communally integrative, economically viable, and personally reaffirming. Transit within and to that there would require musicians and hearers to re-sound perceived localities. Sites writes that they could relocate origin and destination, setting out “from ‘nowhere here,’ as Arkestra members would chant in later performances . . . a secret, unfulfilled destiny.”

The central focus of Sites’s work is his chronicle of performances in Chicago venues like the Wonder Inn and Budland, a space carved within the Pershing Hotel’s basement. Viably navigating these spaces required artistic innovation and a redrawn map of Black experience in an urban setting. El Saturn, the enterprise that Sun Ra formed with Alton Abraham, was not only a recording label but also a “hybrid community enterprise . . cultural laboratory . . . [and] a vehicle for exploring the city—or, more precisely, the city beyond the city.” Sun Ra created a wider, sonic there, redefined within a confined and cornered here. In this powerfully re-imagined transit, the South Side became one more edge of Africa, with Saturn itself appearing as just one more stop along an expansive journey through space. According to Sites, Sun Ra’s sonic project “endowed his city’s streets and trains with a double existence . . . [offering transit] to somewhere else.”

Most pressing for Sites are cities’ impact on Sun Ra’s imaginative geographies. Juxtaposed against the oft-invoked “city on a hill,” Sun Ra’s vision is of a distinct, urban utopia sounded within a “new cultural infrastructure,” a vision for “how urban spatial mobility, imagined through musical expression, might transport listeners beyond the segregated confines of the known city.” This vision resides in a Chicago that has moved beyond the post-fire sprawl of the 1893 World’s Fair “White City,” a Chicago redefined by decades of Black migration from the South. The city is on the cusp of becoming “the Daleys’ city,” marked and surveilled along (re)financed, gentrified, and racialized boundaries. Chicago was already bleeding population and work to the suburbs. Many articulations of Black experience in Chicago reflected the sense of redefined place and power in the “Black metropolis,” the “city within a city.” Concurrently, appropriations of the disruptions of the “inner city” had already begun to resound in city politics. Sun Ra’s artistic venture becomes a perspective to “recognize from a distance the cruel absurdity” of city life. Offering sonic refuge, it resituates Chicago within a wider Black journey.

Sites’s considerable skills as an urban cartographer help to further remap Chicago. He writes that Sun Ra sought “to question the city as it appeared and to glean the possibility of another one beyond it.” He details the networks, cultural ecologies, and hybrid organizational forms that the bandleader established in opposition to the South Side’s entrenched, racial boundaries. Sites also explores the legacies of the Thmei Research artists of Chicago’s Washington Park, who articulated a vision of urban space that is contrary to others from that historical moment, including those posed by International Style architects, commercial interests selling the “pastoral suburb,” and even Hugh Hefner’s “ultra-urban fantasy” of his Playboy Town House. In Sun Ra’s sonic reappropriation of the lines between here and there, “Space . . . was not merely container or connector but a veil, stage, springboard, crucible, gateway, and vehicle. Generative and dynamic.”

In Sites’s analysis, Sun Ra’s work continues to rethink the U.S. city beyond misappropriations of it as an “increasingly left-behind, ‘post-urban’ [space].” It is a city of recovered neighborhood, a “utopia itself not as a singular, fixed territory or location but as a spatial array of possibly configured places.” As Sites argues, Sun Ra’s utopian vision opens a means of grasping the range and locale of visions for “African American space that [is] heterogeneous, fluid, expansive, and open to visitors.” In our moment, Sun Ra resounds within a renewed, unwalled Black metropolis, echoing “hidden sounds . . . heard as the shadowed reflection of another, future world.”


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The World to Come:
An Interview with David Keplinger

photo by Amy Gussack

by Amy Wright

With the coronavirus vaccine rollout underway, it feels inevitable to read David Keplinger’s seventh collection of poetry, The World to Come (Conduit Books & Ephemera, $18), through the lens of anticipated post-pandemic change. Every world contains one to come, but the urgency of our current context raises the stakes for reading this winner of the 2020 Minds on Fire Prize.

If applications of the imagination design the future, is the role of poetry to suggest different trajectories, help us process the past as we move forward, or invent a new role for poetry altogether? Following a year of daily death counts, economic crisis, and lost loved ones, readers ask these and more age-old questions freshly and demand unexpected answers.

Keplinger’s poems venture from “The Classical Age” to “The Large Hadron Collider” with dozens of contexts between, in the company of a speaker sensitive to “how the water oddly suffers” when entered by a newt. Such a voice, hyper-attuned to the senses and privy to the secret knowledges Rainer Maria Rilke alludes to in the book’s epigraph, has much to offer us as we watch the end of one world and wait desperately for the next.

Keplinger’s previous collection, Another City (Milkweed Books, 2018) won the 2019 UNT Rilke Prize. In 2020 he was awarded the Emily Dickinson Prize from the Poetry Society of America, and his translation of Carsten René Nielsen’s poetry from the Danish, Forty-One Objects (Bitter Oleander Press, 2019) was a finalist for the National Translation Award. Keplinger teaches in the MFA Program at American University in Washington, D.C.


Amy Wright: Can we begin by positioning your goals for The World to Come with regard to the expectations and unknowns?

David Keplinger: There are two references to worlds to come in this collection. One reference occurs in the poem “The Age of Television,” which takes place in August of 1969. That summer, in a matter of three weeks, the moon landing happened and the Manson murders were committed. These two events marked the end and then the beginning of two periods in the American imagination. With the moon landing, a sedan-sized Eagle was guided to a heavenly body by a computer hundreds of times less sophisticated than the phone in my pocket. The world to come from that would be rife with such advancements and miraculous phenomena. With the Manson murders, the hippie movement, for all its beautiful idealism, was effectively brought to an end. It suggested a world to come in which the trance-face of Manson and his disciples felt more remote than the moon. So the world to come can bring either arrival or exile, intimacy or distance. My sense is that it will deliver both extremes.

The title poem suggests a decimated land of environmental collapse and human loneliness. But I found myself willing to embrace more than just a negative view of the future through the immensity of space—by literally thinking myself out of this atmosphere of negativity and decline. The book is divided into three sections: Possible Worlds, Impossible Worlds, and The World to Come. I wanted to leave the reader with an impression of largess and revelation propelled not only by a space module, but by the imagination.

AW: A number of cultural shifts are underway that will impact the future in significant ways, including not only the pandemic but also the Black Lives Matter protests and the #MeToo movement. What role do you see poetry and the poetry community serving to help process and enact social change?

DK: On January 6, while an attempted coup was unfolding here in Washington, D.C., where I live, I found myself in the middle of an essay about Emily Dickinson, whose writing in 1862 began in subtle ways to reflect the violence of the Civil War without directly referencing it. The world out there was on fire; it could not help but affect the world in here. Dickinson’s genius was that she was an ardent listener and observer—her world on fire transformed her language and subject matter in subtle and abiding ways. In August of that year she wrote of bees: “The Bravest – of the Host – / Surrendering – the last – / Nor even of Defeat – aware – / When cancelled by the Frost.” I imagine Dickinson, removed from the fighting, but moved by war; I hear the war in her description of bees, with this language of combat. I hear the language of cold institutions that instigate wars: “Host,” and “cancelled.” Witness can be mapped in the sounds of her words, associations, contradictions, and formal departures.

That’s the contemplative in me talking. I know that language and image and our formal containers are all being shaped by the events of 2016-2021, the same as—and this is a point that Drew Gilpin Faust makes in her book about the Civil War dead, This Republic of Suffering (Knopf, 2008)—the years of 1861-1865 shaped American consciousness from that moment forward. In the midst of all of that growth and progress, a devastating implosion occurred. The teacher and activist in me knows that what is happening now in this country will shape not only what we write and how we write but who will be writing it. And that is the most important, the most necessary shift. If the reckoning had happened in Dickinson’s era, she would not only be writing about the war, she would be celebrated for it in her own lifetime.

AW: What contemporary voices are you turning to for witness and reckoning?

DK: The last two years alone have initiated a new surge of excellence in American poetry. Jericho Brown, Ilya Kaminsky, Monica Sok, Carolyn Forché, Chet’la Sebree, Victoria Chang, Rick Barot, Wayne Miller, Juan Morales, Valzhyna Mort, Yusef Komunyakaa, Jenny Molberg. The list includes those of my generation and the younger, as well as the older. You find in these voices a different chronicle of reckoning not only for each generation, but for each individual life. By 2023 I suspect that the whole landscape will have changed. So much new and important work is on the way.

AW: Along with lives lost to police violence and the pandemic, we will be left with lingering griefs and remorse over what we could have done differently. Is part of poetry’s role to imagine new constructs for social evolution?

DK: We have all heard what Shelley said: “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Often the world-to-come the poet imagines is not legislated for hundreds of years after, if ever. Blake writes about orphans sold into servitude as chimney sweeps, bound for certain death, and the rights of children don’t come to be protected by the law for another century or more. But I don’t suppose that poetry is necessarily a platform for social evolution in the way you’re describing. I suppose that poetry is a mode of talking about experience that is unusually direct in its clarity and design. Following the thread of a poem deep into the psyche, Charles Simic said in an interview, you begin to meet everyone else. By being willing to change our minds—every poem has a volta—we are constantly evolving; we are coming to a reckoning. I sense that no one poet is responsible for change; it may be that these shifts in awareness are already in the air. An important poem marks the best of us; yet to be realized, but on the verge. Poets also complain. They praise. They lament. They imagine. They write fairy tales. They tell mysteries. They hold court. They disrupt the court and disturb the power structure. They can’t help it. “The eye altering altars all,” Blake said.

AW: Part of the world-to-come’s challenge, it seems to me, is comprehending the magnitude of compassion and patience and responsibility that is being asked of us. Can anything written or read truly prepare us to meet the demands of racial justice, ecological equity, or global empathy?

DK: I think it can if we are willing to be small. There’s a book from the ’70s that’s important to me, called Small is Beautiful by E.F. Schumaker (Harper, 1973). Schumaker was an economist and the book is mostly about how to create a compassionate workplace, beginning with the fact that the smaller the community, the better chance it has of holding true to its original values. But the book is quite a masterpiece. He uses examples from spiritual gurus like Ghandi and others to support his claims. While Ghandi moved millions, billions of lives, his own life held true to his original values because he stayed humble, almost invisible. He stayed small. Ghandi was so small he was nearly a walking emptiness. The more weight we carry around us, ideas about what poetry is for and what it should do for the world, in fact might sometimes get in the way of writing a poem that is true to the original values of your work. Writers often begin not with a message but with this raging curiosity. What is this body I find myself in? The writing reveals with deepening clarity what’s really down there, for better or worse. From there it emanates outward. Are we interested in social change? Are we interested in the eternal questions? Contradiction? Liminality? The writing teaches us who we are, and we spend the rest of our lives just following that thread.

AW: Your poem “The Vocative Case” suggests a root issue underlying a number of social ills. The speaker is in a sauna when their name is whispered. Giving voice to name is not the issue. The problem arises when the speaker assumes their name indicates “you’re special, you’re the one.” It is no easy fix to stop constructing ourselves by paradigms of distinction and separation, but do you think to do so is to draw toward the better angels of our nature?

DK: That’s a lovely reading of that piece and I think it applies to the previous question, too. You might have noticed that I use my own name in this book, my first name in “The Vocative Case” and my full name in “Angels and Wounds.” The latter poem is about repeating the drama set forth by my parents and about codependence. “The Vocative Case” is about being charmed into a trance of specialness, which begins with having a name. Names are necessary, of course. How would we get anything done without them? But names, like all words, categorize and create this illusion of dividedness. Everyone falls for that, like I do in the poem. Here, the devil is a belief—a belief that I am special, that it will be different for me than it was for anyone else. My case will be different. The cure is thinking small, being empty even of a name. This isn’t practical 24/7 but it is vital that we “make nothing of ourselves” every once in a while—that is the holiest aspect of one’s calling. Joni Mitchell says, “I love you when I forget about me.” In fact, the book ends in that same puff of smoke—the speaker becomes completely invisible.

AW: Your poem “Chekhov” opens with the line, “The snap of a harp string can signal the end of a society.” I am struck now by how grave the phrase “end of a society” sounds against a global pandemic. Does this book read differently now to you than when you drafted the poems?

DK: I finished the first draft of this book in 2019. I had submitted it before the pandemic occurred. As I go back and read these pieces, I’m a little shocked at the heaviness. The word we have been using is reckoning. The society I reference in “Chekhov” was his society, a decade or so before the Russian Revolution. But I’m always talking about this world in some regard. During the Trump administration I was working through my grief. I was painfully waking up to the U.S. I had always lived in, long before Trump, but which I had only blurrily apprehended—its misogyny and white supremacy, its structural racism, its legacy of enslavement, and the consequences of its imperialist policies. I’m writing about the fall of Rome here or the hippie movement there, but I’m really describing the only world I know, which is my own.

AW: Another line in the same poem says, “Life becomes a succession of instructive monologues performed in dim light.” You’re illustrating Chekhov, but the line conjures the question of whether art has its ultimate application in life, or if life’s primary ends are artistic. How do you usually reckon with that question?

DK: I think art’s primary ends are to disturb and stir dissent, on the one extreme, and to inspire gratitude on the other. I have always trusted that the best work will move others, eventually. Sometimes the movement doesn’t occur until after you’re gone. I tend to focus less (in my own thinking about art and in my teaching) on its ends than I do on its beginnings (curiosity) and its means (craft).

AW: “Danse Macabre” opens with the line: “Someone is holding out a globe of the world as it might look in the far future, and everything is already all right, there are just no people on this globe.” How can poetry as a genre help us better think about the past, future, and present?

DK: I imagine that poem being set in the Globe Theater. The theater is empty in the poem, and so is the globe of the world. And everything is all right. This is an example of my trying to find some largess, not in space this time, but in thinking about what this world might look like in a million years, after our harmful effects on it have been resolved. To answer your question, I am reminded of the mechanical golden bird in Yeats’s poem, “Sailing to Byzantium.” The speaker would come back as this golden bird—I equate it with the poem itself—unalive, mechanically perfect, eternal—which is set in motion to keep a drowsy Emperor awake. The reader is that drowsy monarch. Wake up, wake up, the poems say to us. The poem ends, and I think it’s so lovely for this discussion, “Or set upon a golden bough to sing / To lords and ladies of Byzantium / Of what is past, or passing, or to come.”

AW: The poem “The World to Come” opens by announcing “The warming has started.” Later the speaker says, “In the East, no more flying violinists,” making clear that global warming is not being addressed explicitly, nor is it the only loss to come. How would you hope such poems respond to present and future issues like the environmental crisis?

DK: As I wrote each of these, and there were many more I didn’t include, I knew that if I followed the logical connections, the poems would be less interesting. The flying violinists of Chagall, which to me represent a kind of spiritual revery and freedom, will disappear like an endangered bird and another creature will take their place; in that poem it is the lonely woman at the automat in the famous picture by Edward Hopper. By looking at changes in the environment through the lens of these recognizable figures, I hope the reader will be alerted to imminent dangers. Or perhaps I just want to name a particular kind of grief in ways that journalism may not be able to do.

AW:
Time operates in unexpected ways in these poems, as in “The Color Green,” when a child speaker climbs to his parents’ attic room and finds them “younger than before I was born.” Will you describe how time moves in The World to Come and your goals for its movement?

DK:
Well, there is time and no time in The World to Come like there is time and no time in a dream. By releasing myself from the confines of time, I am making a distinction between poetry and memoir. All of this is me and it is not me. All of this is happening in time and it is happening outside of time. Dante travels through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, the first and third of which are timeless, but he makes it back to Florence on Easter Sunday. He’s traveling over the course of the weekend, but he’s moving also in these timeless realms. I love that. Begin straight off with a disruption of routine, a disorientation, a fully unapologetic embrace of what seems impossible, get it all out of the way the way the old storyteller does: “There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.” “The Color Green,” which has me visiting my parents upon the moment of my conception (and getting in the way, interrupting), comes right at the beginning of the book. It seeks to prepare the reader: such things are possible here.

AW: This collection consists entirely of prose poems, which appear as justified blocks of text on the page that create an illusion of order the content often disrupts. How does this form shape your material and the inquiry embedded in it?

DK: I write differently when I’m making prose poems. I operate according to a different code. The prose poem, without lines or other constructs of form, begs the reader not to take it seriously. The first prose poets in English, I argue in this book, were the gravediggers in Hamlet. They were small by profession. They lived outside of the court, and so they could see things inside more clearly. They had nothing to lose, so they were totally free. They spoke in puns, riddles, and jokes. I love prose poems because they embody this idea of being empty, being small. Through such a vehicle, so much more content, so much more of my smartest self, is given permission to enter the picture.

AW: How did The World to Come prepare you for the writing you’re doing now?

DK: What I’ve learned from writing in prose again, as I say, is that it allows me much freedom. It’s too easy for me to fall in love with a poem when it’s broken into lines. So I’ll often, in my revisions, put the verse back into prose, then back into lines, then back into prose, and so on. In its prose form, I see it without its duds and good shoes. I make it small again. Now that I’ve begun that practice, I can embrace the other benefits of breaking lines and writing in received forms. Joseph Brodsky said that forms carry spiritual magnitudes, essences, and I believe him. I just want to write poems that feel necessary, that feel like they could not have been written any other way, though the secret is, there are a thousand ways.


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Permafrost

Eva Baltasar
translated by Julia Sanches
And Other Stories ($15.95)

by Jenny Apostol

If you, like many people during this pandemic period, have felt too distracted to read anything longer than a post on social media, let Permafrost provide the cure. Eva Baltasar’s well-paced, debut novel opens with a glimmering scene of existential crisis: the narrator is standing on the roof of a building, contemplating suicide. As she peers over the edge, she wonders what holds her here, ideas spilling from her mind in exhilarating detail. She begins to think about how cells are reproducing themselves “independent of me,” trapping her inside her own body. Even the air exerts pressure upon her.

In a voice simultaneously raucous and icy with end-of-life clarity, Permafrost lays bare the narrator’s personal history. Women, many of whom she adores, are parsed and picked at like an aggravated skin affliction. Nothing is held back, neither her two-faced relationships with her mother and sister nor the vivid qualities of various love affairs. This attitude makes sense coming from a character who evinces conflict wherever she trains her bristly awareness, confessing her philosophy early on: “If surviving is what it’s all about, maybe resistance is the only way to live intensely.” Live intensely she does, no doubt one reason why Permafrost quickly became a best-seller in Barcelona, where the story is set, and internationally soon after.

The author, Eva Baltasar, is a highly regarded Catalan writer who has published ten poetry collections. In this new work, she has crafted a filter-free voice that commands language as if it were an arsenal of sensation. Words and images collide in scenes that alternate past and present tense in brisk, dynamic chapters built for breakneck reading. The novel is far from circumspect; the narrator’s amusement with her surroundings comes through in many big and small moments, such as when her sister repeatedly asks for a description of sex with women and the narrator offers the memorable analogy of splatter canvasses by Jackson Pollock: “A sophisticated concern below the surface, an interest in process —life’s immensity concentrated in that process.” This also turns out to be a pretty good description of the profound and urgent thrills of this compact novel.

“Like love, death catches the body,” the narrator declares from the rooftop, highlighting the twin themes that run like blood, oxygenating her story. Both love and death can bring liberation, entrapment, or joy. Yet only one is felt acutely by incarnated beings. Maintaining a protective coating of permafrost may be the only sane response to a world listing toward self-destruction, a way to regulate the internal climate crisis we all sense is beyond our control.


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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2021 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2021

Volume 26, Number 3, 2021 (#103)

Volume 26, Number 3 Fall 2021 (#103)

To purchase issue #102 using Paypal, click here.

INTERVIEWS

Peter Werbe: Summer on Fire | interviewed by Jim Feast
Mervyn Taylor: A Quiet Genius | interviewed by Indran Amirthanayagam

FEATURES

The New Life | a comic by Gary Sullivan
Tessa B. Dick: At The End of Time | by Zack Kopp
Braiding Sweetgrass: A New Testament | by James P. Lenfestey
Pascal D’Angelo: An Immigrant’s Poems | by Dennis Barone

PLUS:

Cover art Paula Cisewski

FICTION / DRAMA REVIEWS

The Death of Vazir-Mukhtar | Yury Tynyanov | by M. Kasper
In Memory of Memory | Maria Stepanova | by Edward Stephens
The Man Who Lived Underground | Richard Wright | by David Wiley
Of Women and Salt | Gabriela Garcia | by Nick Hilbourn
Second Place | Rachel Cusk | by Brian Finney
A Splendid Ruin | Megan Chance | by George Longenecker
Poetics of Work | Noémi Lefebvre | by Joseph Houlihan
Passages | Ann Quinn | by Garin Cycholl
Dog: Cab Driver Stories from the L.A. Streets | Dan Fante | by Zack Kop
Prosopagnosia | Sònia Hernández | by Bethany Catlin
Junk City | Jon Boilard | by Robert Morgan Fisher
The Seagull | Anton Chekhov | by Bryon Eliot Reiger

NONFICTION / ART REVIEWS

The Tyranny of Algorithms: Freedom, Democracy, and the Challenge of AI | Miguel Benasayag | by Chris Via
Joan Mitchell | Sarah Roberts and Katy Siegel, eds. | by Patrick James Dunagan
The Archeology of a Good Ragù | John Domini | by David Capella
SEE/SAW: Looking at Photographs | Geoff Dyer | by Walter Holland
Plunder: A Memoir of Family Property and Nazi Treasure | Menachem Kaiser | by Mike Schneider
A Descending Spiral: Exposing the Death Penalty in 12 Essays | Marc Bookman | by Robert Zaller
A Poetics of the Press: Interviews with Poets, Printers, & Publishers | Kyle Schlesinger, ed. | by Patrick James Dunagan
Invisible Men: The Trailblazing Black Artists of Comic Books | Ken Quattro | by Paul Buhle

POETRY REVIEWS

The Combustion Cycle | Will Alexander | by Jefferson Hansen
The Bold News of Birdcalls | Edward Morin | by Tyrone Williams
Hoarders | Kate Durbin | by Eleanor Stern
To A New Era | Joanna Fuhrman | by Ashley Hendrixv
Is This Scary? | Jacob Scheier | by Greg Bem
A Plumber’s Guide to Light | Jesse Bertron | by George Longenecker
Words As Grain: New and Selected Poems | Duo Duo | by John Bradley
How To Be Better By Being Worse | Justin Jannise | by Melissa Gaiti
The Matrix: Poems 1960–1970 | N. H. Pritchard

Eecchhooeess | N. H. Pritchard | by Richard Kostelanetz

COMICS REVIEWS

Monsters | Barry Windsor-Smith | by Nicholas Burman
Secret to Superhuman Strength | Alison Bechdel | by Annie Harvieux

PUNCH

Radoslav Rochallyi
European Open Culture Network

by Andrea Schmidt

Radoslav Rochallyi, a Slovak poet with a Hungarian surname who lives in Prague and Malta, writes a mathematical poetry that is not easy to understand. His latest collection, PUNCH, builds on his previous experimental collections, including Golden Divine (self-published, 2016) and DNA (European Open Culture Network, 2019). Golden Divine is a prototype of formal fundamentalism in poetry, employing a restriction according to the Greek letter phi, which represents the golden ratio. In DNA, Rochallyi threw himself into another rule, one derived from the title formula.

PUNCH is a free continuation of this form of experimentation, and it is Rochallyi's best work so far, in that he seems better able to find a tolerable relationship between formalism and freedom. The first impression when you open the book is that you are looking at mathematical equations—ones that you cannot read. Then, after a while, you begin to perceive patterns and find that you can read the text in different ways, suggesting that this poetry is a critique of semantics and language as such. Here is a sample:

Skin

As the reader progresses through the volume, they are apt to feel that Rochallyi's project is not only a critique of language, but also a beautiful, direct confession that tears up the metaphysical ambiguity of life. The poems obsessively sing about suffering in time and the potential for radical dissolution in life. Importantly, Rochallyi turns away from cynicism and towards hope. Full of paradoxes in both content and form, PUNCH can be considered one of the most important works of experimental poetry in the last decade.


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Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2021 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2021