Tag Archives: fall 2000


Break Every Rule by Carole MasoEssays on Language, Longing, & Moments of Desire
Carole Maso
Counterpoint ($25)

by Brian Evenson

For Carole Maso, prose writing is elastic and multiform, and we find in all her books a willingness to slide ecstatically between different generic modes, not only of prose but of other forms as well. "My form is always an odd amalgam—taken from painting, theory, film, music, poetry, dance, mathematics—even fiction sometimes." Maso has never been one to try to restrict form, to argue the shoulds and shouldn'ts of generic straightjackets; indeed, she is much less interested in what prose should be than in what it can be. She is interested in the potential of prose, in the direction it can go next. As she suggests in "Notes of a Lyric Artist Working in Prose," "I love most what the novel might be, and not what it all too often is."

For that reason, the strength of Maso's latest book, Break Every Rule, comes in its desire to enable writers and readers to move forward. In the place of the usual creative writing proscriptions and numbered lists of techniques, Maso poses questions intended to loosen the straps that limit our writing and reading. Asks Maso, in the title essay, originally delivered at Brown University's 1994 Gay and Lesbian Conference,

If the creation of literary texts affords a kind of license, is a kind of freedom, dizzying, giddy—then why do we more often than not fall back on the old orthodoxy, the old ways of seeing and perceiving and recording that perception?

For Maso, avoiding falling back on the "old orthodoxy" is closely tied to an attention to language, a willingness to push language into new channels. Indeed, as with French feminists such as Helene Cixous, she sees cultural definitions and oppressions as being tied up with the structure of language:

If we joyfully violate the language contract, might that not make us braver, stronger, more capable of breaking other oppressive contracts?

Might our pleasure, our delight, our audacity become irresistible

Would celebrating through the invention of new kinds of texts—ones that insisted on our own takes of the world, our own visions, our own realities—would this finally convince both us and others that we are autonomous, we are not them, not exactly, but we are nonetheless joyful and free? In short we too are complex human beings and cannot be so simply reduced or read.

The ten essays collected in this book offer a wide variety of styles and approaches. Some are memorial, eulogizing the musician Gustave Richter or Gertrude Stein. Others speak directly and frankly about books Maso has written, providing insight into her methods and aims. Others are biographical, or walk a line between biography and other modes. Still others are more broadly aesthetic, with Maso willing to declare in vibrant prose against those who set themselves up as tyrants over literature's possibilities: "Wish: that forms other than those you've invented or sanctioned through your thousands of years of privilege might arise and be celebrated."

The most intense moments of these essays, at least for writers, are those that concern themselves with where writing could go, with coming to understand the possibilities of what Maso calls "lyrical fiction." It is a living fiction that fills the gaps between genres, thriving in the cracks of the old orthodoxy's static generic sidewalk. "Lyrical fiction introduces the conventions of poetry (image, metaphor) into a genre dependent on causation and time. Characters, scenes, plots are turned into patterns, designs of imagery. Life and manners are sensually apprehended and then turned into design." Language is not merely a tool but is, as language, "a profoundly sensual experience. Language is emotion, language is feeling, language is body. It is not merely the sign for something, but rather also a thing in itself." Revelatory in their force, many of the essays' declarations approach what it means to write fiction in ways that I find at once dynamic and transformative. What happens, for instance, if instead of fixating on characters' so-called believability we realize that "characters may be perceived as a light or a force or a pressure, or as an aspect of possibility"? How does the novel change if we consider it as "A place for the random, the accidental, the overheard, the incidental. Precious, disappearing things"? Again, Maso is less interested in answering the question than in posing it, hoping we'll each strive for answers of our own as well as uncovering additional questions that will bring the literature into a new space.

Smart, witty, filled with risk and velocity, Break Every Rule is a strong essay collection, one very useful both to those interested in Maso and to those interested in the possibilities of writing. It proves that Maso remains a writer—one of the very few—who continues to write on her own terms, who is genuinely interested in provoking others to do the same.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000


Misgivings: My Mother, My Father, Myself by C. K. WilliamsC. K. Williams
Farrar, Straus & Giroux ($21)

by Elaine Margolin

Whether we admit it or not, we all rehearse our parent's death. We think about what we will do, whom we will call, how we will tell our own children. We believe ourselves to be ready, all grown-up, having had decades to repackage our own pasts into more suitable stories, with most of the harsh edges cut off. Stiff and aching, we rise to face yet another day, our own bodies no longer so reliable.

Poet C.K. Williams was already married with children when his own father became gravely ill with brain cancer. Williams had always had a difficult relationship with his father, full of stops and starts, but lately he believed they had finally worked out something a bit better. He was certain that when his father did die, he would be ready, able to manage. Yet, when his father finds living with cancer intolerable, and takes his own life, Williams is overwrought:

My father dead, I come into the room where he lies and I say aloud, immediately concerned that he might still be able to hear me. What a war we had! To my father's body I say it, still propped up on its pillows, before the men from the funeral home arrive to put him in their horrid zippered green bag to take him away, before his night table is cleared of the empty bottles he wolfed down when he'd finally been allowed to end the indignity of his suffering, and had found the means to do it. Before my mother comes in to lie down beside him.

"What a war we had!" keeps playing over and over again in his head, like an old broken LP record, the needle stuck in his heart. He can't stop thinking it. "What a war we had!" a bittersweet mantra that keeps repeating itself, its emotional force unstoppable.

Seduction is often thought of as a dance between men and women, full of secrets and disguises. A series of chess moves really. But most adults are immune to seduction; they have already learned to be wary, somewhat suspicious, even of their own happiness. Children welcome seduction, however, for it promises the impossible, the improbable, a world they take stock in. They are constantly jumping over boundaries that existed only moments before, like the bike they can suddenly ride, or the roller-blades that transform walking forever. Williams remembers the turbulent roller-coaster ride of growing up with his father, where he often felt unsure if his presence was welcome:

When he was in a benign mood, his pleasure was wonderfully infectious, it was remarkable how he attracted people, how he could make them feel that something uncommon was happening to them when they were in his company. Even his children, even his son; even if you were still scraped raw by whatever abrasion he'd last inflicted on you, you'd feel both relief and an odd sense of fulfillment at being allowed to participate in his good spirits.

When he decided—no one could ever say why he would or wouldn't let his kinder nature be revealed, even his physical presence became welcoming.

Yet, just as quickly, and without warning, he could change and:

there would be a sudden slackening in him that you could sense even in his body: he'd seem to be looking at you from lower in the space than he had been; that gap in his teeth, the stress mark that italicized his good spirits would be concealed again. All at once, when you said something you meant to be amusing, he'd be looking at you with a somber cynicism, as though he didn't understand not only how you could say something so foolish, but how you could think of inflicting your foolishness on him. "Let's go," he would say abruptly to my mother if we were out, or, if we were at their house, he'd say to me, "It's late, you better get going." We'd know then that our audience with that agreeable part of him had come to an end, and so, carefully, warily, hardly daring to look back, we'd leave.

As a young man, his father's erratic fluctuations in temperament upset and irritated him. As a child, perhaps he would just pretend his father had disappeared. What must have puzzled the young Williams was how often others seemed to take to his father, especially in business. Only today are women finding out what men have always known: the giddy pleasures of work outside the home, where goals are specified and camaraderie forms easily, fueled by joint purpose. Williams always sensed his father's thoughts were bound up in business, the family an afterthought. He remembers feeling jealous about his father's alliances with co-workers, noticing how happy he seemed with them, an ease of manner he rarely showed at home. During his father's last days, when he was stricken with aphasia and would mumble incoherently for hours, his speech would suddenly become coherent when one of his business partners visited, and lapse again when his colleague would depart.

Williams was never able to confront his father directly, and when he would look to his mother for solace, she was often distracted, perhaps lost in her own struggle to keep the family together. Instead, he would often argue with his father about politics, taking pleasure in the fact that he was smarter than his dad, and could generally score more points. They would fight for hours about Israel, for example, Williams believing in negotiating with the Palestinians, and his father, like many American Jews of his generation, vehemently opposed to dealing with anyone in the Arab world.

There was always plenty of yelling between them, little resolution, always a nagging sadness. Williams remembers feeling that, even as a young boy, his father seemed to take pleasure in bullying him. William's childhood passion, before girls and sex and writing took over, was for horses. He would spend many a blissful afternoon at the stables riding. One afternoon his father made an unexpected visit to the stables and demanded his son dismount, and hand over the reins. Williams watched in horror as his father mounted the horse, convinced his father's massive frame would smash the vertebrae of the tiny horse. His father said little, rode the horse for a few brief minutes, and left. Decades later, Williams is still uncertain as to why his father visited that day. Was he trying to understand his son's love of horses? Or was he trying to show him that he rules the roost, everywhere?

Williams tries to understand, struggles to forgive his father, but sometimes he wonders why he still cares so much. After all, he reasons, what's the point? His parents are dead now, and have been for quite some time. Anger and self-righteousness no longer seem appropriate. He is no longer certain he has done any better, with his own family, his own children:

I have my mother's tendency to brood on causes, her passion to find reasons, and though I don't like having to say so, her need to lay blame. From my father the urge to despise and dismiss anything that doesn't meet my expectations.

He often fantasizes about what his father's early years were like, before the children came. He knew his father grew up in a different and scary time, where he was sometimes targeted, often unwelcome, usually alone:

I've often wondered about my father's soul, about the cosmos in which he dwelt. What were the ultimate grounds of his beliefs, of his day-to-day confrontations with existence? What meaning did life have for him? Did he believe in a real God? How much had being a Jew in a century of Jewish horror affected him? We never spoke about that, or never seriously: surely it would have had to affect him to realize that it was the purest chance that his and his mother's grandparents had left Poland and Russia when they did, and so it was just as much of a chance that he was still alive at all. If he felt anything like that, though, he kept it to himself, as most Jews of his generation did.

There are still times when Williams, well into his sixties, dreams of his father, and imagines him to be at peace, hovering nearby, a comforting presence. Sometimes, in the dream, his father is trying to tell him something, but his speech is garbled, as it was in his last days. Williams can't quite make it out.

Perhaps he is trying to tell him he loved him.

Williams has written a brilliant memoir about the particular strains of being loved insufficiently, of always wanting more.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000


John Cage: WriterSelected Texts
edited by Richard Kostelanetz
Cooper Square Press ($17.95)

by Ramez Qureshi

One evening I heard some modern music: Scriabin, Stravinsky. I also had seen modern painting in Paris.
My reaction to modern painting and modern music was immediate and enthusiastic, but not humble: I decided that if other people could make such things, I could too.

So reveals John Cage in "A Composer's Confessions." One is grateful or rueful for Cage's youthful immodesty (count me in the former company), for 20th-Century-culture has never been the same, jammed with the provocative monkey wrench of John Cage's art, the way a musical composition of his might be jammed with an unorthodox sound that would be the last thing one would expect in music.

One only need read the copious and succinct "Notes on Composition" here to get an idea of just what Cage has done to music. Here is a description of "Concerto Gross for 4 TV Sets and 12 Radios," from 1979:

First Installation: In 1969 at the University if California, Davis, I arranged an event called 33⅓ which consisted of an auditorium with eight sound systems, the sound sources being recordings played on playbacks. Each playback had a technical assistant who did not himself play the records but who was available in case a member of the "audience" had difficulty in doing so. For the audience was the performers. Without them nothing was heard. This piece is in that "tradition." It is assumed, however, that everyone knows how to "play" a television set and how to "play" a radio.

Cage explains the politics behind his music: "I had become interested in writing difficult music, etudes, because of a world situation which often seems to many of us hopeless. I thought that were a musician to give the examples in public of doing the impossible that it would inspire someone who was struck by that performance to change the world, to improve it." But this book purports to show Cage as a writer, as its title indicates, so we have Cage the poet, presenting his innovative mesostics, such as takes on the word "James Joyce," rearranging texts from Finnegan's Wake:

rubyJuby. phook!
no wonder, pipes As kirles, that he sthings like a rheinbok
one bed night he had the delysiuMs
that thEy
were all queenS mobbing him.

John Cage: Writer is mostly about music, though: criticism, notes, autobiographical testimony. And back to the music. It takes ones breath away to come across a harmlessly nestled discreet description of the legendary 4'33", that piece consisting of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence, from 1952:

tacet, any instrument or combination of instruments: This is a piece in three movements during all three of which no sounds are intentionally produced. The lengths of time were determined by chance operations but could be any others.

The sound in 4'33" is that of the background, silence, being for Cage, "not acoustic . . . a change of mind, a turning around" as he discovered at Harvard during his famed visit to its acoustics lab in the late '40s when he heard, in a sound vacuum chamber, two sounds: the high pitch of his nervous system and the low pitch of his circulatory system.

Cage's sense of humor is on display here as well. Cage was known for his laughter, and he provokes much of it in his "Synopses" to "Europera," pastiches from operas stitched together through chance operations:

Dressed as an Irish princess, he gives birth; they plot to overthrow the French. He arranges to be kidnapped by her; rejuvenated, they desert: to him she has borne two children. He prays for help. Since they have decided she shall marry no one outside, he has himself crowned emperor. She, told he is dead, begs him to look at her. First, before the young couple come to a climax, he agree. Accidentally she drowns them.

Chance operations, many of which Cage conducted through the I-Ching, are pivotal to his aesthetics, and Cage explains why: "...the I Ching is a discipline of the ego. It facilitates self-alteration and weakens self-expression." The aesthetic of self-expression is out for Cage; instead he seeks a self-disciplining that seems to anticipate Foucault. Such is the producer's side; as for the receiver's, the end is one of an integrated personality free of neurosis, in retreat to the tranquility of "that island that we have grown to think no longer exists to which we might we might have retreated to have escaped the impact of the world."

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000


Reflecting on Vestige in Provence and LanguedocUnknown
Gustaf Sobin
University of California Press ($31.95)

by Robert Baker

In Luminous Debris, expatriate American poet and novelist Gustaf Sobin sifts the remnants of the past for the "mirroring images they might provide" to the present. For Sobin the artifacts of lives lived in the midst of the ongoing allow us the possibility to situate "ourselves in regard to our own evolving." Sobin walks Provence and Languedoc in search of the "luminous debris" that might provide the possibility of a "vertical reading" of the landscape and a "deeper, more arcane set of cognitions." The twenty-six archeological/anthropological essays in this collection span a history of over four-hundred-thousand years, and each is a mirror made of language within which we might recognize ourselves in the reflections of our predecessors and perceive our inseparability from all that has come before us.

Sobin's gifts as a poet make each of these essays rewarding in the same way good poetry is rewarding: no amount of reading can exhaust their richness or their possibilities to offer further suggestion. Consider "West-Southwest," a meditation on Neolithic burial chambers. These massive structures of piled stone "seem to draw, to magnetize unto their assembled masses all the chthonic forces of their immediate surroundings." The dead are placed in these collective sepulchers as if lain in the depths of the vegetal cycle itself, and are made to face the direction of the setting sun in order to be "addressed in the direction of their rebirth." Finally, however, the essay leaves us pondering death and burial as a kind of translation from one plane of existence to another, a discourse addressed in the direction of our own eventual reception. Readers of Sobin's poetry will find here a further reflection on themes from such major works as "The Earth as Air." Poetry and the rituals of death are reiterations of what is in the direction of what we hope will be. "[D]on't we ourselves bury our words, our very language, but only for the sake of their eventual resuscitation? That 'grain' might equal 'grain,' but only as a germinated entity: there on the far, the opposite, the facing side, that is, of the intervening night."

In "Undulant Oblique: A Study of Wave Patterns on Ionico-Massalian Pottery," Sobin discusses a decorative wave motif that appears on Ionian pottery in the sixth century B.C. as a reflection of the energies of an "originating vision." The parallel lines of this undulant script come to represent for Sobin the rhythms of a universe as encountered before "number" and "measure" come to intervene between an evolving humanity and a vision of its own origin in a "harmony of opposing forces." The potter incising these free-flowing, often erratic wave patterns was giving expression to "the vibratory flow of yet unregulated energies. He was, we might call it, expressing . . . in an ontological script, the calligraphy of Logos itself." For Sobin this vision of origin is not limited in time to the remote past; in fact it resurfaces and can be glimpsed in the philosophy of Nietzsche and Heidegger and in the poetry of our own period. Sobin discusses the briefly articulated Ionic vision of Being relative to Olson's view of the poem as a "high-energy construct." "Within that vision, the world (and the works by which that world is made manifest) erupts continuously out of an irrepressible point of origin." This eruption of Being into art provides even contemporary humanity with a potential point of orientation relative to the source of its own emerging.

"Votive Mirrors: A Reflection" examines the tiny mirrors discovered in Gaul that were once offered to Aphrodite or Selene either to ask the favor of the goddess or to thank her for a favor granted. It is here that we find a metaphor for the entire collection of essays and indeed for Sobin's use of the mirror image throughout his entire oeuvre. Mirrors, for Sobin, reflect not only the one gazing into the mirror, but "an otherwise invisible world of hidden realities." A mirror's reflection offers us not only our own image but also access to a mysterious otherness at the heart of reflection itself. That otherness is manifested in the votive mirror as a vision of the goddess in the mirror's reflection. "As her eye came to gaze on its own wobbling likeness, it might have encountered, in its hallucinatory fixation, that long-sought response. Out of the unfathomable depth of that depthless reflection, the divinity herself might have appeared, spoken, proffered her assistance."

The book's final essay is a reading of the Roman aqueduct at Nîmes as "kind of fragmented antique text." We watch the aqueduct through the centuries as it is transformed from a Roman "affirmation of existence itself" to a pile of debris to be scavenged and used out of "all established context," and once again we find ourselves reflected in this remnant of the past. "For how can we help but see—as if mirrored within this particular, historic complex—an image of our own collective breakdown?" The essays in this collection succeed not only in informing us about the past, but also in making us see ourselves as a part of it. The reader comes away from this book knowing that she has been changed through gazing intently at her own reflection in what initially seemed a distant otherness. What Sobin says about an Augustan bridge is true as well of our experiencing of this collection: "Here, in the given image, we might recognize the given reflection; in the 'one' acknowledge the 'other.' And, so doing, in this perfect set of reciprocities, undergo a certain sense of passage ourselves."

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000


oclock by Mary Rising HigginsMary Rising Higgins
Potes & Poets Press ($13)

by Patrick F. Durgin

"If the world no longer consists of places, has it become larger because it is no longer a place?" (Andrew Levy, Paper Head Last Lyrics) In our data age, such a question becomes acutely pertinent, particularly in terms of our national ambition to "globalize." Let's think big or, at least, take it another way. Although (or since?) our service providers afford us unlimited access, we can still only count on the proverbial fifteen minutes of fame, at best. So, if a life no longer consists in years, has life become longer because it no longer endures? I'm thinking of hackers, viruses, "Coolio," and other inhuman celebrities. Such myths are always aboriginal in a sense, timeless, out-sourced even. Time, however trite the assertion may be, endures with a bristling elegance; were sundials cropping up out west during the recent millennium scare?

midpoint heliogram

nothing to add     helioabyss

Time and space, the bedrock of physics as well as metaphysics, exacts its revenge on virtual reality. The danger of the latter seems to be that of sleeping (or "surfing") in a burning bed.

This present danger, experienced every day as the lodestar of reactionary media anxiety, provides one lens through which to view the radical modernist poetics, or "material text," as represented in Pound, Stein, all the way to the present, "post-language poetry" moment. Pound sought to "make it new," Marx sought "to change it." Which brings us to the current question: define "it." This is some big, if ephemeral, thinking, but that's nothing new. Aristotle spoke of the necessity of imagining the grand scheme of things—as did Christ and Darwin for that matter. There's not a layperson among us; we each became an expert the second we were able, each in our own ways, to distinguish friends from enemies, compassion from disgrace. Luckily, the best of our poets understand the need for small instances; "times" and "places" catch the eye, if they don't always hold it.

nothing times this when no
first hand accounts go there

Mary Rising Higgins's first full-length collection, really a serial poem organized as a book of hours, plays a straight-faced game with time and space and "her" place in them. Churning with the regal but violent machinations of a bell tower, oclock is a meticulously controlled random-text, a jarring but rewarding read. That is, these poems never invite one to nod in easy compliance, though they attempt to command the attention through formal techniques just this side of "cut-up" and "concrete" writing, respectively. Because of the surface tension of errant commas and neologisms "bright with vocabularies [and syntax] of self invention," the lyric finesse of this book appears at those points in which what we expect of the written word breaks down—the result is that "it feels like to go there becomes what is in front of you."

Though harnessing the powerful, diaristic voice of a day-in-the-life, narrative routines are abandoned in favor of a staccato series of harshly fragmented axioms, provocatively though not unmotivatedly juxtaposed images, and peculiarly enlivening thought-rhymes, light and writing being a typical set of tenors: "prism flare the woman's etude marking." As Higgins's method seems to be written in its midst, though oclock is not necessarily writing about writing, we might expect a challenge in pinning down a "subject" from the outset: "Inscape reforms tools or weapons if we agree to start here phonetic resift she thinks from. . . . What she will ask points to one another." That pronominal "woman's etude marking" widens the subjective scope beyond even the sweeping categories of philosophical discourse, though not thereby spilling over into the ambiguities of current political rhetoric. And that "phonetic resift she thinks" sounds like a rich offer to these ears and an unexpected treat to the eye (Higgins's use of strikethroughs and gently sloping margins late in the book provides a "textimony" to poetic possibilities and possible poetics the same). If the sun illuminates the thing (in space) to which we point, does the "helioabyss"—the dark side of the earth, night?—point to itself from within, unable to differentiate? Or does the "one" point to "another" ad infinitum? The author lets the poem testify to such questions "her" self—"she" appears to be the writing. Meanwhile, Higgins's backbeat veers from startling to lulling, self-important to selfless. And between these poles "her" authority becomes something more rewarding than a simple sequence of anecdotes (be they personal, clinical, or mythical). The subject becomes the sum of the writing itself, not a disgruntled and virtual daybook but a difficult song in which:

so many worlds pivot
killdeer    gillnet     button hook     proem
the hematopoiesis of bone marrow

For a glimpse into the deeply-rooted tradition of US American, radical modernist poetry, oclock is a timely, if you will, "textimony."

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000


By a Thread by Molly TenenbaumMolly Tenenbaum
Van West & Company ($14)

by Tim Scannell

In this first collection of thirty-two poems, Molly Tenenbaum illustrates the mastery of poetic eye and delicate fingertip of imagination. One recalls, a generation ago, the felt awe in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard, or the more aware sensitivity in The Medusa and the Snail by Lewis Thomas. Those traits of the natural world—image and motion, light and color—are fully explored by this poet's skill.

Two poems will easily become exemplars of their kind in the Western Canon: "Every Single Sprout" (we will never again allow our usual abuse of the garden slug); and "The World is the Shape of a Cat" (a hymn to the poet's cat, Nellie-Ivy). A litany of slug-destruction is presented in the first stanza of "Every Single Sprout": the jar of beer, so that "they'll bumble in"; or "diatomaceous earth" to cut their coating "so they leak from themselves," etc. The poet prefers, in dewy morning, to "pick them like fruit":

berries that must
be drawn by the barest of pressures
off the briar that wants
to keep them . . .
. . . one like a plum seed,
but fatter, lines on the sides
like the stripes leading back
from the corner of a kitten's eye;
one with the spotted grace of a leopard,
slender as a salamander, lucent glossy brown.

Even in dry summer, when the slugs do not travel far, the reverent persona will rise "as if theirs is a sweet gift / of silver-trail, of every rescued color—" This crescendo of care for all things great and small emerges, transcendentally, in the passing of the poet's cat, Nellie-Ivy, whose body and spirit are memorialized by "the vault of starry sky, / when every bound leaps you over a tall black hill, / you're high in the hump of her black shoulder . . ."; or, "when you, looking the other way, just glimpse / a cutout on the sill, a stamp / to see through where she used to be, / you're at the sharpened / pupil of her daylight eye."

And so, each plucked string of Tenenbaum's imagination is separately and seen—appreciated; yet the reader may wish for more resonance, a bolder vibration of emotion that is not merely a meditation of things minutely observed, collated, juxtaposed. One is reminded of the anecdote concerning Emily Dickinson, who would only talk—even to her best friends—through the crack of a slightly opened door. Molly Tenenbaum need not be as reticent or cocooned: her poetic voice is mature, finely honed. The structure of her poems, each averaging over two pages in length, build powerfully, wholly aware of development and destination. What would be welcome is a more modulated tone of engagement and speculative encounter, enticingly hinted at in her "Beach Walk and Bad News" (a descriptive meditation on barnacles): "Not tenacious, not clever / to feather supper from the tide, / not foolish or wise to cling or stand— / but at least they're hungry, / curled in salty houses. At least, hard." More salt, please—more bite of tumultuous wave into shore. I am eagerly looking forward to Molly Tenenbaum's next collection.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000


Jersey Rain by Robert PinskyRobert Pinsky
Farrar Straus & Giroux ($21)

by Piotr Gwiazda

Robert Pinsky's sixth poetry collection is not a disappointment to his readers. The book contains a number of apt, solid, and vivid poems, precisely what should be expected from a writer who up to this point has successfully welded tacit autobiography and restrained discursiveness, and with this new volume still continues to do so. Already past the "collected poems" stage (The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems 1966-96 appeared in 1996), Pinsky has hordes of admirers and detractors, a fact which didn't prevent him from serving as the Poet Laureate of the United States for three years; during his tenure, he made himself available not only at poetry festivals and readings, but also in unconventional and essentially unpoetic vistas: what can be more disarmingly incongruous than a poet reciting verses about memories, mothers, and money on the News Hour With Jim Lehrer?

Pinsky's efforts to popularize poetry, his across-the-nation conspicuousness and academic prominence (he has a permanent teaching appointment at Boston University), make him a perfect candidate to become somebody this country hasn't had for a long time: a distinguished man of letters. In his desire to create an audience for poetry in the United States, Pinsky inches toward the position once occupied (only half-heartedly, to be sure) by Robert Frost—a national bard, the conscience of American people, a consistent and trustworthy voice reminding us where we came from and where we are going as individuals and as a nation (recall Pinsky's 1980 book-length poem An Explanation of America). What Pinsky is risking in his tendency to take himself seriously as a public figure is the danger of becoming a poet whose presence in literary and public spheres becomes so ubiquitous that his work may lose its ability to surprise. Frost was able to avoid that fate; likewise, Jersey Rain offers no indication that Pinsky is becoming a national bore.

The collection consists of pieces already familiar from Pinsky's public appearances, and of altogether new work. The major poems in the volume belong to the first group: "Ode to Meaning," "Biography," "To Television" and "The Green Piano." "Ode to Meaning" is a superb poem, one of the best Pinsky has ever written, a sober investigation and celebration of the concept that became the twentieth century's most transformation-prone and abuse-provoking myth. Never in fear of abstractions, Pinsky is able to skillfully combine philosophical, personal, and satirical elements in his brooding apostrophe:

Untrusting I court you. Wavering
I seek your face, I read
That Crusoe's knife
Reeked of you, that to defile you
The soldier makes the rabbi spit on the torah.
"I'll drown my book" says Shakespeare.

Drowned walker, revenant.
After my mother fell on her head, she became
More than ever your sworn enemy. She spoke
Sometimes like a poet or critic of forty years later.

"Biography" addresses the circularity of events in the poet's life while achieving a fascinating circularity of form. "The Green Piano" is very much like Pinsky's older partly retrospective, partly reflective pieces, while "To Television" pays a reserved though honest homage to the medium so often accused of robbing life of its meaning:

Your patron in the pantheon would be Hermes

Raster dance,
Quick one, little thief, escort
Of the dying and comfort of the sick

Hermes is the guiding spirit of this collection; several poems in Jersey Rain invoke or allude to this most busy of all gods in charge of prudence, cunning, fraud, invention, roads, doors, commerce, good luck, sports, games, sacrifice, and (most appropriately in Pinsky's case) eloquence. At times Pinsky's eloquence enables him to see vestiges of life in the inanimate world around him. Years ago poets used to seek life in a mountain or a tree—today they are more likely to find it in a television set or a computer.

Several pieces in this volume deserve to be called Pinsky's worthiest compositions, but there are also few that seem to be mere leftovers, afterthoughts, or distractions, such as his cold depictions of inanimate objects ("Machines") or personal, quasi-poetic reminiscences ("An Alphabet of My Dead"). But this is not to say that the book is uneven. Many readers are familiar with a Pinsky poem: taut, thick, rich, meaningful, resonant, compact, and complete, such a poem has become so unmistakably his own that, regardless of one's individual preferences, one can still grant his work a degree of consistency, plenitude, and sheer logophilia that makes all good poetry possible. When he is at his best, Pinsky offers his audience an intellectual satisfaction that almost verges on a sensual one, like the self-sufficiency of the speaker of "Samurai Song":

When I had no temple I made
My voice my temple. I have
No priest, my tongue is my choir.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000


Alphabets by Paul VangelistiPaul Vangelisti
Littoral Books ($11.95)

by Kim Fortier

An alphabet's letters describe a phonetic system, symbolizing the very process of constructing speech through sound. Vowels denote the voiced components of language, whereas consonants represent the edges of sound—the actions that start and stop the voice in the pronunciation of a given syllable. The 26 symbols of our modern English alphabet, which are so deeply ingrained in our collective consciousness beginning with our recitation of the ABC's in childhood, serve as the backbone for the formal experiments of Paul Vangelisti's Alphabets.

The book is a compilation of five long sequence poems (not surprisingly, each has 26 sub-sections) written over the period from 1986 to 1991—each of which re-invents the alphabet on its own terms. "Los Alephs," the first poem, consists of 26 eight-line stanzas. Each stanza builds-up the phonetic character of a single letter (the poem proceeding in succession from A to Z) through intensive repetition, most notably at the beginning of each line. "Alephs Again" adds definition, á la "A is for apple," to this phonetic play ("G is the most generous letter. . . ", "R seems always reasonable. . . "), while "A Life" creates a sort of screwball biography of alphabetic evolution ("The eye fed in the storm of a circle / smaller than any sign in the writing, / before an emphatic laryngeal not found / in English, etc. . . .") and establishes a correspondence among the Hebrew and English as well as other related alphabets. On the whole, Alphabets explores the ways in which the most fundamental elements of the speech act (i.e., the act of enunciation indicated via each individual letter), when allowed to govern the mode of composition, generate a language field via the energy currents of alliteration, assonance, and rhyme.

The effect of these experiments is a highly textured interplay of sound and sense. Vangelisti's seemingly freewheeling tone is counter-balanced with a strong metrical sensibility and a Steinian ear for word play, allowing the language to come together in ways that correspond strangely to our ordinary sing-song, walking-around-on-the-street talk. As with everyday speech, the writing often veers into the clichéd phrasings and platitudes that riddle our language; yet, while the work-a-day world generally allows the platitudes to slip on through, the collision of these banal yet seemingly magnetic (who can resist?) utterances with Vangelisti's cunning ability to divert meaning re-casts them even further—and more definitively—into the nonsensical realm: "Two spoons are better than one when they don't rhyme or reason"; "Tentative little Indians"; "vowels of celibacy"; "Nine out of ten perfumes lack parental supervision."

What interests Vangelisti most, however, is not nonsense but rather the creation of a non-hermetic sense. With each text, Vangelisti creates an enigmatic yet vaguely familiar soundscape (recitation, "D is for. . .", nursery rhyme, politician's speech, neighbor's soapbox . . .), re-figuring the ground of how the phonetic elements of speaking add up to something called language by garnering our attention to how it is that they move us.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000


The Telling by Ursula K. LeGuinUrsula K. LeGuin
Harcourt Brace ($24)

by Alan DeNiro

Early in her new novel The Telling, Ursula LeGuin writes about a fundamentalist monoculture trying to squash the "old ways" of learning. Upon encountering this I was hesitant. What literary territory regarding the dangers of fundamentalism hadn't been tread and retread by countless authors before her? What could LeGuin have possibly considered terra incognita? Even with her previous track record as one of the finest writers of science fiction—writing, always, with unquestionable moral tenacity and grace—there was the fear that even LeGuin would falter against the temptation of easy accusations and shrillness against cardboard cutout bad guys.

I'm pleased to report that, when the temptation for those very sentiments presents itself in The Telling, LeGuin openly refuses them, and then subtly discusses (primarily through the discursions and heart-pangs of Sully, her protagonist) the refusal itself. It's a delicate balancing act, but what earns the novel's keep are the strengths that are nearly always associated with any of LeGuin's work: the taut, lucid prose, the exploration of cogent archetypes (both in the natural world and those constructed from human society), the assurance of tone and pace. This is a novel with a great deal of imagined history behind it, both ballasted with "back story" and filling in the nooks and crannies—especially rich if you are already familiar with LeGuin's other works in the "Hainish cycle." Deep in the recesses of history, a species called the Hain seeded and populated a myriad of worlds, including Earth. In other words, the Hain were the ancestors for countless species throughout the galaxy, all more (or less) alike genetically, but also carrying profound cultural differences, so that the word "human" between them is barely applicable. At some point in the future, humankind has entered the concourse of galactic society. One of the apparatus of the Ekumen, a kind of diplomatic bureau that observes and exchanges information with burgeoning cultures on planets that haven't yet "broken through" technologically to space travel yet.

Against this centuries-long backdrop, Sutty is one of only four members of the Ekumen on the planet Aka, with a singular, technology-driven culture that has rapidly been accelerating with Hain technology. LeGuin has drawn on the cultural shifts in Maoist China as a taproot source for her extrapolation. Sutty is one of only four representatives of the Ekumen on Aka, and stuck in the sterile capital city, she knows the older culture and writing-system from her training on Earth, but the "superstitions" have mostly been eliminated by the present government, in which people are not necessarily people but "producers-consumers." A surprising chance to visit the rustic, outlying areas comes up, and Sutty finds herself eventually in the town of Okzat-Ozkat, where the older, quasi-Taoist lifestyle still lives, albeit underground. It is a culture in which storytellers and wise-people, known as Maz. To the new, technology-craving government, the Maz are seen as plague carriers; thus, books are burned, and learning of ancient traditions is virulently suppressed. As Sully delves deeper into this culture, first as a dispassionate observer, and later as more of an active participant, she continually returns in her mind to her own haunted past, on Earth, with her family's run-in and hiding from the theocratically fundamentalist Unists. The outcome—involving a dour technocrat of the state who continually pesters Sully in the countryside—is moving because through the course of the book, Sully struggles with her own assumptions.

The cycle of stories and novels LeGuin has written in the "Hainish cycle" has been a constant recurring well LeGuin has drawn on throughout her career. One would call The Telling a coda of sorts to the cycle, except for the fact that I doubt that LeGuin has exhausted this milieu's possibilities. It's a large tapestry that encompasses her early, semi-apprenticeship novels (Rocannon's WorldPlanet of Exile, and City of Illusions), two of the signal SF novels in recent memory, (The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness) and a good deal of novella and short-story work over more than thirty years. In particular, it's worth noting that LeGuin has found river gold with a string of innovative shorter pieces in the 1990s based in the Hainish milieu. "The Shobie's Story" precipitates many of the concerns of The Telling, engaging the reader with a kind of quantum narrative on a spaceship voyage, in which each character experiences separate realities—anchored by the easy, almost "Mom, are we there yet?" banter of a well-rendered family. It is as if "Schrodinger's cat" has become a disturbing Escher-esque chimera and an easy-going house pet at the same time.

In all of these fictions, LeGuin is rarely interested in privileging the "macros" of panoramic space opera: great battles and treaties, larger than life heroes saving the day against all odds. When these events do occur, the backdrop is inverted—relatively ordinary people go through ordeals on a human scale, even when interplanetary history and intrigue swirls around them. In this fashion, The Telling hones in on the commonplace of the alien, as Sutty and the Akans interact through meals, sex, storytelling, and folk medicine.

This, of course, is not to say that LeGuin is somehow a "domestic" writer, content to dwell only on home life (whatever that is). Indeed, her feminism continually informs much of her best work, and LeGuin has provided for us some of the most sustained critiques of hidebound notions of gender in the latter half of the twentieth century. This is intricately tied to the science fictional modes that she writes in; it is nearly inconceivable to think of the tropes taken away from her if the speculative, "unreal" elements were taken away from her. As she writes in her introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness: "Yes, indeed the people in [the novel] are androgynous, but that doesn't mean I'm predicting that in a millennium or so we will all be androgynous, or announcing that I think we damned well ought to be androgynous. I'm merely observing, in the peculiar, devious, and thought-experimental manner proper to science fiction, that if you look at us at certain odd times of the day in certain weathers, we already are." In a similar fashion, it is clear in The Telling that nothing is clear, that the dialectics are always blurring into each other.

Although there are gaps and diffractions in the storyline, loose ends that unravel at times, this is also a novel that teaches the reader how to read it. The novel is filled with elliptical fragments, over and over again told by the characters to each other. "We're not the outside world," one of the teachers tells Sutty. "You know? We are the world. We're its language. So we live and it lives. You see? If we don't say the words, what is there in our world?" The Telling is a permeable novel, loosely bound together in order to let the prose breathe. It is also, in of itself, a snippet of a conversation (and I think LeGuin is consciously positing the novel as such) without end. Ultimately, it is not a novel about radical dogmatism, or the frail chances of healing between wide cultural gulfs. The Telling is about the telling. "Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—/Success in Circuit Lies," Emily Dickinson wrote, and this koan-like sensibility envelops the book. Once again, by LeGuin's hands, the audience is in the story's thrall.

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The Night Listener by Armistead MaupinArmistead Maupin
HarperCollins ($26)

by Brad Jacobson

People exist in your life who once were considered the very best of friends. For one reason or another, perhaps due to a change in geography, career, or love, they drop off your radar, disappearing without so much as a "good-bye" or an explanation. If you're a good person (which I am not), you do not take this abandonment to heart. You simply accept it as the way of the world, secretly hoping the person who left you behind will one day reappear to share their stories and reaffirm your dormant friendship. You will let bygones be bygones and welcome this person with open arms, pooh-pooh any tepid apologies offered, and pick up right where the two of you left off.

Nearly a decade after he abandoned his legion of fans, Armistead Maupin returns to his readers offering a laurel leaf entitled The Night Listener. Maupin endeared himself to the reading public and literary critics with his wildly successful Tales of the City series, originally serialized in the San Francisco Chronicle during the late 1970's. His cast of instantly likeable characters living at 28 Barbary Lane drew people into a powerful, entertaining story arc and kept readers enraptured for the better part of a decade. Although he may have felt he had explored all options with the tenants of Mrs. Madrigal's boarding house, many people (myself included) would welcome a return to the favored address and its infamous residents. Did wide-eyed Mary Ann Singleton patch up her estranged marriage to reformed bachelor Brian? Whatever happened to Dee Dee Day, her lover, D'Or, and their twins fathered by a grocery store delivery boy? And what about Michael "Mouse" Tolliver, perhaps the character most closely identified with Maupin himself? Did Michael finally find true love? The future seemed to offer unmined territory and Maupin deliberately decided to leave it that way.

Maybe the Moon followed the final book of the six part series and proved Maupin was still a consummate storyteller, highly adept at turning a wickedly funny phrase and creating lovable characters. How can a reader not be intrigued by the story of a woman dwarf whose only claim to fame is playing a beloved E.T.-type character? But, the fact of the matter was these were not the characters his reading public had come to regard as living, breathing people. Maybe the Moon was not a bad book, per se. It simply did not meet the standards of Maupin's previous work, and some people no doubt felt cheated by a novel with no link to the epic history of the Tales series.

Sorry to say, such is the case with The Night Listener. As with many of Maupin's novels, the book is a thinly veiled semi-autobiographical account of the birth of one relationship in the shadow of the death of another. Gabriel Noone, standing in for Maupin himself, is a well-loved writer of the radio serial "Noone at Night" who finds his personal life and creative abilities in stasis. Abandoned by his long-time lover, Jess, a man hungering to experience the most life has to offer even as he copes with his HIV status, Gabriel throws himself a pity party on an hourly basis. Much gnashing of teeth and beating of breast ensues, doing little to endear the character to the readers. No wonder Jess left this self-hating queer with the martyr complex. Gabriel finds comfort in a telephone relationship with 13 year-old Pete Lomax, a young boy who is dying from AIDS and has a wrenching story to share. You would think this would jolt Gabriel out of his myopic frame of mind, but it soon becomes clear this author is only interested in listening to his own voice, not the voice of a dying child. Certainly, Maupin tosses in a couple of lines about how awful Gabriel feels for being so self-centered, but it is largely lip service. The legitimacy of Pete's story, and ultimately of Pete's very existence, is called into question. The majority of the novel is devoted to defining the lines between reality and fantasy and to the questionable benefits of too much knowledge.

Maupin may be attempting to reveal how an artist relies upon the power of truth and illusion and how these necessary tools of the trade can often burn their master, but Gabriel never lights anywhere long enough to create a rapport with the readers. We are not given the luxury to see him as anything other than a self-absorbed cry baby who rarely acts, but, rather, allows himself to be acted upon. Gullibility, another of his major traits, might be endearing if he were a more likeable man, but he is not. In fact, no one is particularly likeable or intriguing in this novel, not even Gabriel's sassy accountant (a half-hearted connection to the Tales) or the mysterious Pete. Maupin has always been able to rely upon his strong storytelling skills, his sense of humor and his sensitive handling of character development, but for all its twists and turns, The Night Listener mostly proves that it's time to head back to 28 Barbary Lane.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000