Tag Archives: Fall 1997

S. Semaines de Suzanne

Florence Delay, Patrick Deville, Jean Echenoz, Sonja Greenlee, Harry Mathews, Mark Polizzotti, Olivier Rolin
Lumen Editions & Alyscamps Press ($12.95)

by Kelly Everding

With only a few points of plot to go by, seven authors piece together a story that races through the minds of its various narrators--people who know and/or love S., a.k.a. Sue, Susie, Suze, Suzanne, Suzy, and Susan. S. is as elusive as her name; she drives men wild with desire yet expertly shakes loose any ties, be they marriage or murder, and drops away only to reappear in another life, another country. As introduced in the first chapter, "Hocus Pocus," S. is a Lolita-like nymphet, stringing along a sub-par magician and expert pickpocket. Throughout the course of the novel, S. falls into the roles of an adolescent accomplice to murder, a smuggler, the muse of a revolutionary poet, a religious fanatic, and finally a recluse from her own identity. Absorbing the desires and fears of each person she meets, S. becomes a projection of the mind, an object of seduction as fate buffets her from one man to the next. In the most stirring chapter, "A Flash, Then Night," a certain defrocked priest inveigles her with pages of poetry cut from books in order to hide contraband cigars:

I evolved the desperate plan to dominate her through books. I chose the works that I would read to her with the maniacal care of a magician preparing a potion, adding in and mixing the desired effects of fear, desire, suspense, happiness, surprise, and lascivious or terrible imaginings, following the progress I could discern in her soul, taking into account as well the times of day when she would call me to her side.

In "Anthropoetics," a literary professor captivated by her silvery brunette hair and blue eyes realizes, "there was so little I knew about her that after all my gnawing meditation I still wasn't sure where Suzanne ended and my fantasies took up." However manipulative she is, however amoral or aimless, S. intelligently applies her mercurial gifts to each situation, driving the narrative forward through hilarity and the unexpected.

The mix of American and French writers collaborating on S. concoct a humorous and beautiful exquisite corpse, or rather exquisite S., who embraces absurdity, black humor, and beauty--the perfect surrealist woman who fears neither sex nor the bohemian lifestyle and whose identity is not mired in her ego but rather in fate, coincidence, and love. Excepting the legendary Harry Mathews, whose "Quevedo Cipher" stays faithful to his Oulipoetic principles while concluding the desperate search for S. in a playful way, this book serves as a wonderful introduction to unfamiliar writers, as well as a delightful romp all its own.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Print Edition, Vol. 2 No. 3, Fall (#7) | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1997

Two by James Kelman

Seven Stories by James KelmanBusted Scotch
W. W. Norton ($23)

Seven Stories
AK Press Audio ($13.98)

by Carolyn Kuebler

James Kelman's stories brilliantly render the amorphous, often wordless world of the mind as it putters about, not even thinking so much as just tending to its daily business. On the spoken word CD Seven Stories, he reads:

I have to clear my head. I need peace. Peace. Peace. No thoughts. Nothing. Nothing at all. Here I am as expected. The shoulders drooping. They have been strained recently. Arms hanging and the fingers, here, and rubbing my eyes to open them on the same again, here, the same is here again. What else.

This character, homeless or simply penniless, also describes his attire,his face in the shop windows, his hunger. Kelman's speaking voice—his Scottish accent, his slow, deliberate enunciations—lends the words even greater precision. In a brief note to his editor in Busted Scotch, Kelman writes:

I reached the age of twenty-two in the knowledge that certain rights were mine. It was up to me what I did. I had the right to create. I didn't have to write as if I was somebody not myself (e.g. an imagined member of the British upper middle classes). Nor did I have to write about characters striving to become other persons (e.g. imagined members of the British upper middle classes). I could sit down with my pen and paper and start making stories of my own.

His characters are frequenters of pubs and bookmakers, they are nightboilermen and warehousemen and the unemployed; they are waiting for the "giro," fretting over debts, grinning at the sun. There is an intense hopefulness in Kelman's work, a tenacious idealism that comes as a surprise amidst so much poverty and day-to-day oppression. And the gritty vernacular is more than a refusal to run a proper spell-check. It is a necessary component of his writing. Tired of the English Literature typecast of Glaswegians (or any working-class regional Brits) as thoughtless, brutal, wife-beaters who speak in fragments and don't know how to spell, Kelman has staked out this territory and given it full range and dimension.

Seven Stories by James Kelman

Both Seven Stories and Busted Scotch fill in the gaps for American audiences who know Kelman only for the Booker Prize-winningnovel that took the publishing industry by surprise in 1994. How Late It Was, How Late had not been published in the U.S. before winning the Booker, though Kelman had in fact published several earlier books, including some provocative essays on politics and culture. He has made it his mission to legitimize literature in his own language and to stand behind the idea of writing as art, as an essential social practice. The Booker Prize, an appendage of the literary establishment he so freely criticizes, nevertheless has allowed him to work toward this end: being honored by this establishment has made it necessary for those who had previously ignored him to prick up their ears.

Busted Scotch gathers stories from twenty years of non-stop writing. Some are one-page sketches, just a single episode or conversation in a pub. Others are dense and complex, offering complete immersion into a mind or situation, presenting the course of a thought from its inception to its doubling back, its negation, its sudden leaps in logic. While a Kelman character may, on first sight, just be another guy on the street, he soon draws you in; his mind rattles off in a perfect intimate rhythm, making you want the best for him. Kelman's compassion, while not naive or unquestioned, has that kind of effect. Though there's an overall sense of futility when it comes to living a decent life and fighting the powers-that-be, there are also occasional moments of wonder, when suddenly a character amuses himself with his joy at the tiniest things—saying good morning to people, taking a walk, smoking a cigarette.

Kelman's work moves with a very particular rhythm, language, and dialect, and only occasionally is it difficult for American ears to decipher it off the page, as in "Nice to be Nice": "Strange thing wis it stertit oan Wedinsday, A mean nothin ever sterts oan a Wedinsday kis it's the day afore
pey day an A'm ey skint." This is why Seven Stories is more than simply another rendition of the same thing. His voice adds an important dimension to his work; it trains the ear for the written word and fleshes out the pronunciations. While the stories are in no way pretty, it's certainly a pleasure to hear the sounds and rhythms aloud. Obviously this author has spent a good amount of time listening to stories and knows how to read them as if he were telling them for the first time.

In the best of his work, Kelman reveals the way thoughts move from one to another; his characters are not espousing a particular philosophy or relating intricate memories, but deciphering the world around them from the only clues available. Whether spoken or written, Kelman's stories introduce a new language that speaks not only for working class Glaswegians, but for anyone whose mind might be addled by the dreck of living, but soars, now and then, within it.

Click here to purchase Busted Scotch at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Click here to purchase Seven Stories at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Print Edition, Vol. 2 No. 3, Fall (#7) | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1997

Tropic of Orange

Karen Tei Yamashita
Coffee House Press ($14.95)

by David Kissinger

Every night, Rafaela closed tight the doors and windows to the house in Mexico that she was caring for, and every morning she swept crabs from under the bed, though the house was hours from the ocean. Meanwhile, a single orange grew out of season on the single orange tree brought from L.A.
and planted to mark the location of the Tropic of Cancer, dividing the tropical from the temperate zone. A thin, threadlike line, like a shadow, extended from the orange in both directions over the horizon, as if the Tropic of Cancer were a feature of nature and not a line drawn by humans.

Tropic of Orange, Karen Tei Yamashita's third novel, begins with such small anomalies, just discomforting enough, but they grow to epic and violent proportions. The orange falls to the ground and is picked up by a mysterious old man who carries it north to the U.S. border, literally
dragging the thin line, the entire Tropic of Cancer, and the house with it. Odd things happen: bullets curve, the streets stretch and shrink (inciting new turf wars among the L.A. gangs), and U.S. oranges are quarantined for being poisonous as frenzied millions hoard them like gold bricks.

In the midst of these strange happenings is Gabriel, a Mexican-American reporter for a major Los Angeles newspaper who built the house in Mexico that Rafaela is caring for. He has been chasing after the coveted Pulitzer Prize while his girlfriend, Emi, a young television reporter, ridicules his old newspaper ways while she basks in the digital immediacy of broadcast news. They follow the news voraciously although others react with the pragmatic, sidelong glance of a public honed from overexposure to O.J. Simpson-style events.

And the newsworthy stories begin quickly. A homeless man stands on an overpass of the downtown Harbor Freeway and "conducts" the traffic with a baton as if it were an orchestra, while a Porsche collides with a tanker truck carrying thousands of gallons of fuel, creating a massive fireball that burns for days. People stuck in traffic have no choice but to abandon their cars, whichare quickly taken over by the homeless. Cars become homes and engines become vegetable gardens until the squatter city is surrounded by a faceless and grim L.A. Police Department. In an obvious reference to the 1989 massacre at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, the results in this city are similarly disastrous.

With Tropic of Orange, Yamashita experiments with magical realism, the Latin American writing style that depicts bizarre happenings as normal and that propelled Gabriel Garcia Marquez to the 1982 Nobel Prize for Literature. While some newer Latin American writers are rejecting that writing style as too stereotypical, Yamashita keeps it alive, literally dragging it north to the U.S. and using it to clash and mix the two cultures in disturbing and clever ways. Even as the tropics come to Los Angeles, Gabriel goes to Mexico and meets Leftist rebels who give him a computer disk containing the names of massacred villagers. He downloads their memory, now a computer
file, onto the Internet and saves online what no longer exists in the real world. In spite of, or perhaps because of this innovative storytelling and fantastic imagery, the novel cannot shake a sense of cartoonish animation, becoming a Super Heroes-like parody of itself.

At the same time, Yamashita's tone turns fast, urban, and breathless when she's writing about characters from L.A.'s poorer, more dangerous neighborhoods. Trying to give them a voice, she paradoxically flirts with ethnic stereotypes and distracts with one and two word sentences and choppy construction. Rather than reflect an "ethnic", "alternative" narrator, it just makes for dizzy reading.

This quick narration also causes cultural references to speed through the landscape, from the highbrow National Public Radio and L.A.-based books such as Mike Davis's brilliant City of Quartz to Spanish radio stations, loncherias, Prozac, and Books-on-Tape. Perhaps due to the cultural mix a few errors stand out, the most inexcusable of which mentions the original Spanish name of Los Angeles, "The Village of Our Lady the Queen of Angels of Porciuncula." Unfortunately, in the novel the "Queen of Angels" (in Spanish, la reina) is translated as "Reign of Angels" (el reino). This blatant editorial mistake casts light yet again on the fact that there are virtually no Hispanic editors in American publishing houses.

Still, as it dips into bizarre and unreal events, Tropic of Orange shows a U.S.-Mexico border that hits quite close to home. With the Tropic of Cancer leading the way, the South comes North to reclaim what it never really lost even as the North succumbs to a literal, physical twisting, curving, and relaxing of the landscape. The reader who is able to hold on to the roller coaster long enough and suspend disbelief will find in Tropic of Orange a wicked look at Los Angeles and at our world, where not even technological perfection can escape from the chaos of humanity.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Print Edition, Vol. 2 No. 3, Fall (#7) | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1997

Richard Grossman

An Interview with Richard Grossman

Richard Grossman is a poet masquerading as a novelist. In both his first novel, The Alphabet Man, and his newest effort, The Book of Lazarus, Grossman concocts a dizzying amalgam of genres and voices, typographical daring and visual sophistication. But it is the spirit of poetry that haunts his pages, whether echoing through the mind of an unraveling serial killer or creeping forth from a deranged and wandering man. It's a bumpy ride, but by the end the reader emerges shaken and haunted, if not wiser.

interviewed by Randall Heath

Rain Taxi: You've embarked upon a project entitled the "American Letters Trilogy," a trinity of novels beginning with The Alphabet Man and continued with your new book, The Book of Lazarus. How did you first conceive of this project?

Richard Grossman: When I wrote The Alphabet Man I had no idea that it was going to be the start of a trilogy until after I had finished the book, which is the way that things normally work for me, I accrete; and eventually, of it's own weight or gravitational force, a new idea emerged and I headed in a new direction. I did try to develop a fairly large and challenging concept when I developed the concept of the trilogy. I wanted it to be difficult, but within my capacity as a writer to achieve. The logic of the trilogy is quite intricate and demands that I jump through hoops that get smaller and smaller as the project moves further and further along.

RT: You began your writing career as a poet and then turned to writing fiction about poets—primarily murderous and insane ones. Why the connection between poetry and madness?

RG: Well, I think it's a direct connect. Every poet is somehow mad, and if there isn't a component of insanity in a work of literature, it cannot be called a poem. On the other hand, poetry demands incredible civility and precision and an overall ability to rationalize existence in sophisticated terms. And that tension is the constituent force of poetry in its highest forms. What I'm doing in terms of the "American Letters Trilogy" is dealing with these forces on the street level, where the madness is associated with the madness of the nation. There's a parallel with both the underground political situation in America and a spiritual dimension similar to what one finds in The Divine Comedy, which is what my trilogy is modeled after. And this madness allows the poet to ascend, in Baudelarian terms—to take wing like the albatross and at the same time to sink down. So you have that critical movement through society, that the mad poet can reach up and pluck the fruit, and at the same time dig out the truffles.

RT: So there's a sense of divine wisdom associated with the poet.

RG: Yes, the poet is the embodiment of divine wisdom.

RT: Your writing also favors the explicit and the extreme. Why is such an approach necessary?

RG: First of all, I think that life is incredibly violent and that individual people are incredibly violent on one level or another. I'm just picking up on the isotope with my Geiger counter, it's just there, it's everywhere. I don't try to change life to suit my writing; in a certain way I'm a naturalist of the nineteenth century school. I write about life as it exists within houses and on the streets. And there's nothing, hopefully, in any of my characterizations or in any of my plottings or in any of my valuations that doesn't ring true to life. I'm a novelist. I'm not a theoretician.

RT: Yet there are some incredibly daring things going on here, one of which is the way that you've blended genres. You have lines of poetry contrasted with a stream-of-consciousness fiction juxtaposed against the devices of the conventional murder mystery.

RG: If there is anything unique about my writing it is the way that I combine poetry and prose, not just on the level of having a poem here, prose there, but that it really is a true amalgam. For example, in The Book of Lazarus there is the Emma section, which is pretty much a straight murder-in-the-family genre novella, first person narrative telling the tale, and on the opposite side of the spectrum, there are the fortune cookie poems, isolated by a black surround on both pages, to indicate in a visceral way that this is pure poetry. Those little lines that you see on the fortune cookie slips, that's the love of a dead woman for a man gone insane. You can judge it any way you want, but it's a pure expression of love. And then there's everything in between, including iconography.

RT: I'm glad you mentioned that. In The Alphabet Man you use typography as a visual expression of a character's psychological state, and in The Book of Lazarus you have expanded the use of iconography to include photographs, handwriting, and drawings. Why do we see so few writers embracing these possibilities?

RG: As far as iconography is concerned and how that works, you need to have a visual sense. If you're going to start dealing in icons then you're basically dealing in the visual dimensions of art. An icon is something that is not just visually demanding and visually pleasing. It's something that's freighted with historical and religious significance. That's why half of Russia wanted to destroy them. And if you're dealing with something that's iconic, you have to start out with a template of artistic sophistication. And that's an excruciating, long and difficult process. I'm not a particularly quick study; I've been in the art world for twenty-five years. But the sad fact is that most writers are visually prepubescent. Generally speaking, the literary world is provincial when it comes to matters of art. And it always has been. You go back to Pound liking Gaudier-Brzeska—give me a fucking break, hack work—or Rodin being admired by Rilke. No way. A miserable fourth-rate artist. So the requirements for starting out are difficult. I'm thinking that my third book will be about music. Well, I've got a lot of studying to do. Because I'm not just going to play chopsticks in my novel. People expect that there's going to be some sophistication, so if I'm notating music, it had better be good music. I'm a great lover of the German concept of Gesamtkunstwerk, although I think that Wagner was an idiot. But I love grand scale. One of the things that everybody mentions is that my novels are beautiful objects in the sense that the elements of the actual book are being extruded and re-contextualized. And that same thing applies to the innards of the book: the language is recontextualized outside the frame of the traditional novel. Of course, that's something that a lot of people have tried to do, but I'm trying to do it in a way that's uniquely my own.

RT: How does this recontextualization allow you to express your ideas?

RG: I express my ideas spatially. One of my heroes is Barnett Newman. He moves me in a way that very few people move me in terms of vision. And sometimes I think of my work as being similar to a Barnett Newman zip painting. I wonder whether the third book should be two pages in length, or like Raymond Federman's twenty-page novel, just that; there's all this expansiveness and then this little thing of heaven that's a pamphlet, and that's my trilogy. I don't know. But the point I'm trying to make is that I think not in two or three dimensional terms but in five dimensional terms when I consider a novel. There's height, width, and depth, there's the time factor, and then there's the factor which I call the cerebral factor of the reader, the way the reader adjusts to all the other dimensions, which is the fifth dimension. So that when you're reading my book, you're not in a four dimensional continuum, you're in my continuum, the Grossman continuum. It's not about different components that fit together like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, it's about creating the space around the components, which is almost as important as the components themselves. And that space changes and blends depending upon what the components are.

RT: Let me back up; you began your writing career as a poet but then turned to fiction. Why the switch in genre?

RG: That's a long story. But I will say this: I started writing poetry in 1962, studying under the New Critic Yvor Winters, who was considered to be an extremely intelligent, capable teacher, but a real curmudgeon and an extremely conservative literary analyst who felt that poetic practice began to dissolve in the middle of the seventeenth century. And I was more conservative than he was, and still am, and feel that English poetry, generally speaking, isn't of much value after 1620. So I'm truly an outsider in the poetry world. When I started writing, I was trying to move my poems away from modernist lines. The people that were respected when I went to school at Stanford were the likes of Yeats, Pound, Eliot, Williams, and Stevens; and with the exception of the last, all were abominable writers. I wrote a book in my thirties which in many ways was a parody of confessional poetry, Tycoon Boy. It's about my experience as a businessman, written in the voice of a child—a light exercise, but with a tremendous amount of pain in it. And that book was totally misunderstood because the notion of the businessman poet in the 1970s . . . I mean, it's like, who cared? And then right after that I wrote The Animals. I spent three years writing a five-hundred poem book. I published a lot of those poems in literary magazines, but basically the work was only picked up by a few people. And I felt, quite frankly, that there was no point in my continuing to write poems. Fifteen years later, as a result of changes in my life, I decided that I wanted to take up the enterprise again, of trying to show new ways that poetry can be developed. I went baroque in my middle years—maybe it was the result of a minor embolism—but I decided to write in a more intricate and demanding style, which required more maturity on my part and a broader, deeper palette. Instead of the austere, ceramic approach of The Animals, I decided to perform through the broader forms of fiction; that if I were going to write about poetry, I had to get outside poetry, to redefine poetic practice and demonstrate the value, the necessity of poetry in America, and in the world. In one sense my work is an argument that the globe cannot survive unless there are superior poets.

RT: In an interview with Dennis Cooper, you described yourself as an idealist and yet your books are filled with brutality, madness, and destruction. How would you account for this seeming paradox?

RG: I don't think that brutality and idealism are mutually exclusive: the Alphabet Man is a tragic figure, but he is a quintessentially optimistic serial killer. He's on a crusade to save a woman, a modern Galahad. And it's quite obvious that Robert Lazarus, the central figure of The Book of Lazarus, is a revolutionary idealist who made unbelievable sacrifices to change American life. It's a common denominator in my work—rabid idealism.

RT: Robert Lazarus is just one example of a main character you've cast in a fairly conflicted light. The book is filled with social revolutionaries who are junkies, murderers, misogynists, and pedophiles, who nevertheless manage to provide some rather lucid commentary on the flaws of the political system as it exists. Are these the true agents of political change as you see it?

RG: I'm trying to draw a careful bead on revolutionary activity, which becomes etherealized, dogmatized, stereotyped, as soon as you get half a step away from it. In my opinion, revolutionary activity tends to be flagrantly irrational and very personal. And like any other frenetic activity one has to step back from it and synthesize various aspects of it in order to come up with some kind of truth. For example, reading through the aphorisms in the novel, there are some sayings that are obviously misguided and some that are right on the money, but you get a definite feel for an insurrectionist at work, for a committed mind in the process of creation. What I'm really doing is portraying revolutionary activity at the cellular level. And in the '60s and '70s, the kind of people who were engaged in that practice were junkies and pedophiles and smelly hippies who screwed nine-year-old little girls like Emma. And I'm sure if you paged through the secret annals of Russia, Cambodia, China, and so forth, that's what you'd find in the cells and student movements—viscous bands of perverts, mouthing out their slogans.

RT: So who's carried the torch, so to speak, in the '90s?

RG: In terms of revolution? I'm not interested in revolution, I'm a centrist. There is a lot going on socially that I don't like, but I feel that in a democracy you work from the center, not because I like the center—I'm a marginalized person politically—but because the center is where things get done. And the center is where democracy is preserved. I'm a staunch civil libertarian; I really believe that the individual is more important than any societal value. And that's enshrined, actually, very well in American democracy. The problem with American democracy is the American corporation, which is a slave holder construct, pure and simple. It's totally invasive, and people are as tightly controlled within the walls of a corporation as they are in a totalitarian society. More so, actually, because corporations are more sophisticated in their procedures. People don't understand that. They overlook it because they get paid to overlook it.

RT: One of the threads running through the trilogy so far is the need for salvation in a world that has spun out of control. What is the meaning of salvation as your characters experience it or search for it?

RG: Salvation is an individual relationship with God. I've always considered myself to be a devotional poet, and I consider myself to be a devotional novelist. I have a strong spiritual commitment, and I try to express that in my work. Salvation cannot be worked out in human terms. The point of my writing is to touch upon the systematics of prayer and on how we arrive at a method of achieving spiritual coherence in our lives. Stated differently, salvation is the primary consequence of faith. In the third novel I'm going to deal with these issues more explicitly because I shall be dealing with redemption. So I'll probably be dealing with somebody who is incredibly wise. The novel will be about the vault of heaven.

Click here to buy The Book of Lazarus from Amazon.com

Rain Taxi Print Edition, Vol. 2 No. 3, Fall (#7) | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1997

Last Call: Poems on Alcholism, Addiction, and Deliverance

Last CallEdited by Jeffrey Skinner and Sarah Gorham
Sarabande Books ($14.95)

by Brett Ralph

In the introduction to Last Call: Poems on Alcoholism, Addiction, & Deliverance, Jeffrey Skinner recounts the familiar list of writers whose lives were wrecked by alcoholism, earning it that dubious title, "the writer's disease." But alcoholism and addiction, he suggests, are problems "somewhat like the weather: everyone talks about it, but no one, it seems, does anything." Although Skinner understands the impulse to "reduce a complex issue, which has caused so much heartache, to manageable dimensions," he reminds us that "(t)he world of the addict . . . is one of contradiction and paradox, in recovery as well as in the practicing phase." This sounds very much like the world of the poet, suggesting that we've had it backwards all along—it's not the

Skinner reminds us, though, lest we carry this thinking too far, that "the inclusion of any author in this collection says nothing about his or her status vis-à-vis addiction or alcoholism," only that "the poet has something essential to say on the subject." Skinner and co-editor Sarah Gorham spent years assembling a file of poems confronting this topic, both obliquely and with harrowing straightforwardness. Familiar objects by Raymond Carver and Etheridge Knight glitter differently when placed on the table with lesser-known pieces by Joan Larkin and W. Loran Smith. The playful humor of Thomas Lux is especially welcome, given the somber subject matter, as is Jeffrey McDaniel's reckless verve ("Where is the constellation we gazed at each night / through a bill rolled so tight / the first President lost his breath, as our eyeballs / literally unraveled?"); rare are the moments when the reader gets bogged down by a particular poem's insistently confessional tone. For me, the poems work best, as poems often do, when the material is metaphorically transformed, as in these lines by Cindy Day Roberts:

To make a long story short
the leopard tore us to pieces,
ate us up. But you know that

and about all the regret.
The real story comes after,
the one about the soul.
Anyone can have a leopard.

Last Call is a slim volume which, given its brevity, achieves a remarkable range. Its concision has other advantages: it allows the book to be read in a setting, absorbed, if the reader wishes, at once—giving "manageable dimensions" to that heartbreaking world. By uniting such disparate writers through a common concern, the editors remind us that, different as our lives may be, alcoholism, addiction, and recovery are issues which touch us all. In "The Honor," Denis Johnson's speaker admits, "Soon after this I became / another person, somebody / I would have brushed off if I'd met him that night, / somebody I never imagined." Whether the result of penitence, humility, or sheer creative willpower, these poems should make us grateful that Johnson and his fellow poets found a way to imagine such a person now.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Print Edition, Vol. 2 No. 3, Fall (#7) | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1997

The Silhouette of the Bridge

The Silhouette of the Bridge (Memory Stand-Ins) by Keith Waldrop
(Memory Stand-Ins)
Keith Waldrop
Avec ($8.95)

by David Clippinger

Keith Waldrop's The Silhouette of the Bridge is a sustained meditation upon the relationship of knowledge, experience, memory, and spirituality, and especially how that relationship is sometimes reconciled and sometimes troubled by the act of writing. As Waldrop writes,

We capture what we can by rendering it in words, but then, whether we speak or write or think, it remains words, never restored, never un- or re-translated except into other words. A one-way code unbroken.

In essence Waldrop reformulates Susan Howe's question posed in "Thorow," "And what is left when spirits have fled from holy places?" For Waldrop, though, the issue is "what is left when memory has fled from familiar places?" Memory is the anchor in an otherwise fluid universe, and when it slips or is shown to be faulty, the tenuous webbing of one's world is slowly unravelled. Waldrop brings into relief the "memory palace in / decay but // before the final / darkening" through juxtaposing verse and prose; the result is a texture of contingent parts that unfold through the shifting of text and context, while the book as a whole achieves momentum through the constant reconsideration of the nature of memory.

The Silhouette of the Bridge echoes aspects of Waldrop's 1993 novel, Light While There is Light, where he explores the relationship between familial history, memory, and identity. But whereas Light proposes a multi-layered image of Waldrop's subjectivity, Silhouette yields a more introspective and metaphysical exploration of the self. The mode of investigation and writing of Silhouette is more fluid and philosophical than that of Light, resembling the writings of Simone Weil and Saint Augustine (both of whom Waldrop mentions); subsequently, the book is rigorous, intelligent, and relentless in its ruminations upon spirituality, experience, and meaning. Most of all, it captures the urgency that drives most spiritual writing—the desire to come to terms with consciousness and time, the finite and infinite. The task Waldrop has established for himself in this book is immense, but, as The Silhouette of the Bridge demonstrates, it is one that he is more than capable of tackling.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Print Edition, Vol. 2 No. 3, Fall (#7) | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1997

The Errancy

The Errancy by Jorie Graham
Jorie Graham
Ecco Press ($22)

by Eric Lorberer

Perhaps a summing up is in order: Jorie Graham's first two books, with their deftly spun yet tightly reined poems, introduced her as a poet of immense lyric capabilities. Her third book, The End of Beauty, exploded the very idea of lyric wide open, scattering it into myriad fragments that Graham meticulously tracked down over long-lined, cubistic poems that relentlessly questioned their own existence. Graham pursued this strategy further in her two subsequent volumes, which added to her explorations of mythological detritus a sustained examination of historical consciousness. Boldly facing down the ur-texts of western civilization, the latter of these books, Materialism, nearly collapsed under the weight of large remnants of philosophical and other writings that had been stitched to her own concerns. At this point, perhaps, a summing up was in order, and Graham's selected poems, The Dream of the Unified Field, gave the poetic establishment its least controversial shot at awarding her the Pulitzer Prize. As a whittled down history of her career to date, the book indeed deserves the accolade; it shows the development of a poet not content to write elegant verses, but one who would rather smash atoms together and attempt to describe the results.

Graham's new book, The Errancy, comes full circle, or perhaps full spiral—it returns her to her lyrical roots while still navigating the dense thickets of philosophy and language. There are even love poems here, loudly announced by a series of aubades. Yet there is no mistaking this work for the sentimentality which so often intrudes upon the genre; here is what love poetry sounds like when it comes from the mind of Jorie Graham:

I watch the lovers a long time—
they kiss as if trying to massacre difference—
the alcove around them swarms its complex mechanism made to
resemble emptiness—

("Against Eloquence")

One of Graham's characteristic strengths is her unwavering gaze, which often combines with her breath-based music to hurtle images past mere description, even the sacred image of the beloved's body:

we look again into your violent mouth,
into the edifice of your whisper, into the dwindling oxygen
we eat,

inhaling, exhaling—
we look into the glassy eyes we have between us—
we try not to shift, we stare,
there seems to be an enclosure in there, maybe a struck
note, an hypothesis,

we look in each other's hair
("Studies in Secrecy")

In addition to these mutated love poems, Graham offers a series of poems spoken by guardian angels, but again, these angels bear little resemblance to the millennium conjured angels that litter the new age section of the bookstore. Charged with watching over such ideas as "the Little Utopia," "Self-Knowledge," and "Point-of View," they sadly articulate their worries and limits:

As where a wind blows.
I can teach you that.
The form of despair we call "the world."
("The Guardian Angel of Not Feeling")

There is also a group of "Manteau" (coat) poems toward the end of the book, which use Magritte's painting (reproduced on the cover), Pascal's famous wager concerning the existence of God, and Gilles Deleuze's theoretical concept of the "fold" as the basis for Graham's metaphysical meditations. But none of these series holds the book together so much as the trope of errancy, which Graham instructs us to think of as a lingering knight-errancy, the opposite of which is playfully demolished through false nostalgia in the title poem:

Utopia: remember the sensation of direction we loved,
how it tunneled forwardly for us,
and us so feudal in its wake—

Graham conveys this post-feudal, pervasive errancy as both the physical journeys of all these lovers rushing back and forth reciting their aubades:

The winglike silences of just-before-dawn slur on.
Tiredness blossoms like a path, vectoring me.
("Red Umbrella Aubade")

and as the wanderings of the eye and mind "fraying off into all the directions, / variegated amnesias" for which the poet finds a language, however broken.

For all this missed direction The Errancy is a beautifully constructed book, each poem seeking out the next by means of an intricate verbal sonar; Graham wanders into larger and larger realms of imagination until the entire topography of spirit has been mapped. She gets us out of this dizzying landscape just as masterfully, following up "The Turning"—a brief but terrifyingly huge poem in which the direction change of a flock of birds is disassembled to study "a war between singular and plural"—with two poems of resolution, "Recovered from the Storm" and "Of the Ever-Changing Agitation in the Air," the latter of which ends with "the cat in the doorway who does not mistake the world / eyeing the spots where the birds must eventually land—." If this is not exactly hopeful it at least is stable, finished.

Since The End of Beauty, Graham's work has demanded parenthetical rhythms and unexpected silences; it is a difficult music and it thunders gorgeously in this new book. Also still in evidence is her postmodernist textuality; she effortlessly and seamlessly incorporates whatever she wants into her poems, borrowing lines from contemporaries such as Charles Wright and James Galvin, from modernist mentors such as Stevens and Moore, and from the various pre-Romantic lyricists who have clearly captured her attention. (It's important to note that Graham doesn't merely include this material, but reenvisions it; even the book's epigraph from Wyatt sounds utterly contemporary through the prism of The Errancy.) With each book, Jorie Graham continues to further and refine her poetic project; to read her work is to bear witness to new possibilities for poetry, and thus to watch literary history inscribe itself. All other rewards aside, that is a distinct pleasure.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Print Edition, Vol. 2 No. 3, Fall (#7) | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1997

Women Pirates and the Politics of the Jolly Roger

Women Pirates
Ulrike Klausmann, Marion Meinzerin, and Gabriel Kuhn
translated by Tyler Austin and Nicholas Levis
Black Rose Books ($19.99)

by Charisse Gendron

Women Pirates and the Politics of the Jolly Roger compiles two German-language books on piracy published in the 1990s: Women Pirates, by Ulrike Klausmann and Marion Meinzerin, and Life under the Death's Head, by Gabriel Kuhn. The translators state that these books share "a hope that the history of piracy and sea robbery might still show to us a liberatory moment."

Women Pirates—divided into sections on the China Sea, the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, and the Caribbean—reconstructs the piratical activities of women around the globe from the earliest civilizations to the present. It also ponders the mythical associations between women and the sea, concluding that men's fear of anything "cold and wet," from a woman's body to the storm-tossed Atlantic, has given women a rare advantage when striking terror on the bounding main. Tacking back and forth between mythology and history, between ancient sources such as Herodotus's Histories and feminist scholarship such as Marina Werner's The Empress in the Dragon Tower, Klausmann and Meinzerin—a media journalist and an independent scholar—rarely drop anchor to footnote a passage. Their language is blunt, sly, poetic, and innocent of academic jargon. Meinzerin's introduction, for example, a whirlpool of associations between the feminine principle, the sea, fate, truth, and death, informs us that the "Indian Goddess of Truth is occasionally described as 'the virgin called fish-smell.'" The book also includes regional recipes; readers will want to try the Piquant Shark Schnitzel from the Caribbean.

The text itself swarms with the stories of women who have plundered other people's ships. The spirit of these pirates is most robustly embodied in the pirates of the Caribbean during the "Golden Age" from about 1690-1720. Some had commissions from European heads of state to plunder rivals in trade, but even these turned up their noses at patriotic causes and the accumulation of property. They lazed about in the tropics, feasting, drinking, and whoring. Actually, some of the women captains forbade whoring, an advance on the male pirates who, as the authors point out, for all their anti-capitalist energy, kept slaves and doled out female hostages as part of the booty.
Female captains escaped the feminine position "through extraordinary toughness and cleverness." Two such women were the Irish Anne Bonny and the English Mary Read, who met as pirates in the Bahamas in the 1720s, fell in love, and subsequently worked as a team. Both are pictured in old illustrations as wearing long hair, bare breasts, and bell-bottom pants designed by Anne's gay male hairdresser, Pierre Vane. I kid you not.

Perhaps this is the moment, however, to note that Klausmann and Meinzerin may be a bit too trusting of some of their sources, including Daniel Defoe, the main authority on Bonny and Read. Defoe, both a journalist and a novelist, blurred the boundaries of these genres. Still, Women Pirates is piquant shnitzel for those who like their history marinated in oral tradition and spiced with socialist-feminist analysis.

Gabriel Kuhn wraps up Life under the Death's Head with the declaration, "I will be accused of glorification, and I don't care . . . Enemies of pirates are friends of the State, and only rarely is their any help for them." Building on Deleuze and Guattari's comparison of pirates to nomads, lords of "smooth space" unregulated by capitalist imperatives, Kuhn pays
homage to piratical anarchy: "For pirates, the point is to live life to the full, guided by molecular production of desire and not by any rigid social institutions." Yet is this really the raison d'etre of nomads and other tribal peoples to whom Kuhn compares the Caribbean pirates of the Golden Age? Pirates—"free enemies of the world"—seem to me to resemble a subculture more than a tribe, and Kuhn admits as much in his comment that pirates embody a "motif of outsiderness without compromises" found also in "modern youth gangs and heroes of Italian Westerns."

Lest his argument appear shallow, Kuhn insists that pirates, though possessing "active dreadfulness," behaved better than the colonizers of the Caribbean, who maintained "'reactively dreadful' attitudes—contempt for women, hatred of Aboriginal peoples, slavery." This assertion contradicts Women Pirates, one of Kuhn's main sources, which states that pirates often held these reactively dreadful attitudes as well. And while Kuhn lauds pirates' democratic method of dividing loot (compare the distribution of capital on a British naval ship of the Period), Klausmann and Meinzerin note that with some exceptions pirates paid themselves according to their performance, rather than their need. This distinguishes them, theoretically at least, from Che Guevera's guerrillas, to whom Kuhn also compares them.

Since Kuhn believes that it is "as good as impossible" to create alternative structures outside capitalism, he places his bets on the "parasites" who "have always created relatively free spaces within capitalism." The image he projects of a social group that values leisure and despises the accumulation of wealth will appeal to many readers. But this projection, with its emphasis on the expression of bellicosity and (male) desire, leaves little room for women. Granted, even in Klausmann's and Meinzerin's representation, pirate society was a male world into which only exceptional women ventured. Still, their representation is gender-porous, whereas Kuhn's is slickly male. The Anne Bonny and Mary Read of Women Pirates would have more wit than to describe themselves messianically as free enemies of the world.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Print Edition, Vol. 2 No. 3, Fall (#7)
| © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1997

Space is the Place

Space Is The Place by John F. SzwedThe Lives and Times of Sun Ra
John F. Szwed
Pantheon Books ($29.95)

by Brad Zellar

The list of jazz figures long overdue for decent biographical treatment is a lengthy one, but there is perhaps no one whose life and career seemed a more promising project for biographer and reader alike than the preternaturally singular Sun Ra. John Szwed's Sun Ra biography, in fact, has been a rumor for many years now, and it has always seemed virtually certain that whatever it turned out to be, it would nonetheless prove worth the wait.

For those unfamiliar with the remarkable and often confounding extravaganza that was Sun Ra and his Arkestra, Space Is the Place is a terrific introduction to a man who pioneered over-the-top and was for more than forty years one of the most fascinating and prodigiously eccentric characters in all of American popular culture. Ra was truly the rarest of birds: an instinctive avant-gardist who harbored impossibly popular aspirations. Even considered apart from the music he created for and with his fiercely loyal and vertiginously wide-ranging Arkestra, Sun Ra remains an urban character every bit the equal of Joseph Mitchell's Joe Gould or the iconic weirdos of Diane Arbus.

Sun Ra was born Herman Poole Blount on May 22, 1914, in Birmingham, Alabama, and was over fifty years old before the project that was his life's work—a very strange melding of (among other things) jazz, Egyptology, primitive electronics, numerology, color theory, intergalactic fascination, and anagrammatic obsession—began to attract any sort of attention outside the neighborhoods in which he and his core group of bandmates lived together and worked, first in Chicago, then in New York, and finally in Philadelphia. Despite appearances on Saturday Night Live and the cover of Rolling Stone, an ambitious reissue campaign by Impulse records in the 1970s and recordings with A& M in the '80s, Ra was always by his very nature obscure; even his frequent and aberrant blips of acclaim in the last twenty-five
years of his life ultimately amounted to little more than exaltations of his essential obscurity.

". . . At the heart of everything that Sun Ra did or said was the claim that he was not born, that he was not from earth, that he was not a man, that he had no family, that his name was not what others said it was," Szwed writes, recounting the early stages of the nearly-archeological project he was undertaking. "For almost fifty years he evaded questions, forgot details, left false trails, and talked in allegories and parables. . . . Sun Ra destroyed his past, and recast himself in a series of roles in a drama he spent his life creating. And in the end he almost succeeded. Files and certificates had been destroyed or disappeared or never existed, photos vanished, and early recordings and compositions were lost in fires or deceased musicians' attics. Gone were most of the family members, school friends, teachers, and musicians who could testify to his past, and the memories of those who were left were reshaped and clouded by his shifting biography. He had succeeded in erasing a third of his earthly life." Given such daunting obstacles, Szwed does a remarkable job of sifting through the many layers of Sun Ra's deliberate obfuscation and piecing together a chronology that takes him from the early lost Birmingham years to the first flower of the Arkestra in Chicago in 1956. Even in Birmingham Ra had assembled and rehearsed bands and "dreamed of owning a house big enough for all of his musicians to live in together, monastically, devoting themselves to the unified study of music, clean living, and spiritual matters." It was in Chicago where Sun Ra began the process of reinventing himself and realizing that dream in earnest. He changed his name officially to Le Sony'r Ra and put together a regular rehearsal band that would soon evolve into the Arkestra, a continually evolving big band that he would manage to keep together in one form or another for more than thirty years. Right up until his death in 1993 Sun Ra remained a tireless proponent of the big band as a laboratory for the demonstration of larger notions of harmony, cooperation, and community.

One of the great mysteries surrounding him has always been how he managed to inspire the lifelong loyalty and devotion of such brilliant sidemen as John Gilmore and Pat Patrick. What did his core group of unflagging loyalists see in him that would keep them with him through the interminable rehearsals and lectures, through the financial droughts and critical neglect and frequent oddball tangents? Who was Sun Ra to the members of the Arkestra, the people with whom he lived and traveled and played for the last three decades of his life? If there is a single obvious flaw in Szwed's book it is the paucity of insight on this question. The voices of many of the more prominent Arkestra members—including Gilmore, Patrick, Marshall Allen, and June Tyson—are oddly absent from the book, and too often in the place of human voices or anecdote we get pages of Sun Ra's baffling poetry or Szwed's often tiresome explication of Ra's numerous arcane obsessions.

Now that Space Is the Place has finally been added to the posthumous embarrassment of riches (virtually all of them worth the wait) with which Sun Ra fans have been blessed in the years since his death, it can also be admitted in hindsight that Szwed's obvious labor of love was almost inevitably doomed from the beginning to be something of a disappointment. How could anyone possibly expect to do complete justice to the sprawling carnival epic of flesh and spirit that was Sun Ra, let alone in a mere 476 pages? Yet despite this, there is finally no denying that Space Is the Place—particularly with its inclusion of an extensive bibliography and Robert L. Campbell's monumental discography—is an essential complement and companion to the beautifully packaged and painstakingly documented Evidence reissues of the Arkestra's Saturn recordings, to Robert Mugge's documentary film Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise, and to the literally dozens and dozens of other recordings scattered across labels all over the world.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Print Edition, Vol. 2 No. 3, Fall (#7) | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1997

Blood and Volts

Blood and Volts by Th. Metzger
Edison, Tesla, and the Electric Chair
Th. Metzger
Autonomedia ($12)

by Paul D. Dickinson

Blood and Volts is an overpowering tale that illuminates the American fascination with progress, technology, wealth, justice, and death. Metzger shows us, with an easy flowing style, an unflinching view of the development of the electric chair and the absurd scene that surrounded it. The creation of the chair was embroiled in a rather complicated techno war between Edison Electric and Westinghouse. Edison believed in direct current (DC) and Westinghouse supported alternating current (AC), and the competition regarding who would bring electricity to various towns and cities during this era was fierce and ugly. This same fury applied to the chair; Westinghouse didn't want AC, developed by Tesla, to be used in the electric chair, because it would make it appear unsafe. These debates pitted two great minds against each other: Edison vs. Tesla. Thomas Alva Edison was the sentimental American, the anti-intellectual self made man of experience, while Nikola Tesla was the educated European, a quiet outsider. Their stories alone make this a fascinating drama. Yet along with the scientific side there were also legal, legislative, medical, and media players in this drama, and Metzger covers them all. Cultural conservatives who think that America's obsession with violence, sex, and death began with Gangsta Rap and Beavis and Butthead could learn a few things from this book.

Many diverging forces came together to produce the very first execution by electrocution in August of 1890. The lucky sap who was the first to fry was a drunk from Buffalo, New York, named William Kemmler, who chopped his wife to death with a hatchet. Kemmler had a famous lawyer of the day—named Cockran, no less, and supposedly secretly hired by Westinghouse—who claimed that death by electrocution was "cruel and unusual," so the chair, along with the murderer, went on the byzantine route of appeal after appeal.

The media circus that made Kemmler and his lawyer bizarre celebrities would fit right in with the sensationalist crime obsessions we have today. The scientists and doctors, for their part, went about electrocuting larger and larger animals to prove that a human could be peacefully zapped out
of existence. But when the execution actually occurs, there is nothing humane about it, with many witnesses running from the room gagging. None of the dark and macabre details are lost on Metzger, who from time to time slips into speculation and anthropological analysis. Here he examines the aftermath of the execution: "Newspapers commented on Kemmler's 'oxlike submission.' The doctors bottled his blood like a holy relic. And at the bizarre group autopsy, six learned men gathered around the table with scalpels and saws and forceps, vying for the best parts like children squabbling for the drumsticks on a Thanksgiving turkey."

In the end, Blood and Volts reveals the true value of smart historical investigation. It tells us more than we ever wanted to know about who we are, how we got there, and where we might go next. God save us all.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Print Edition, Vol. 2 No. 3, Fall (#7)
| © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1997