Tag Archives: fall 2002

Sitting Up With the Dead: A Storied Journey through the American South

PSitting Up With the Dead by Pamela Petroamela Petro
Arcade Publishing ($25.95)

by Lynnell Edwards

In Sitting Up With the Dead Pamela Petro has undertaken a Chaucer-esque pilgrimage through the American South to report on the culture and the people who preserve it through traditions of storytelling. Hoping to understanding how the South has become that great national "Other," she explains in the "Prologue" how stories are a key to understanding ourselves as well as the South: "Stories provide the connective tissue of a community, a region, or even a big, overgrown household like the South. They link the skin of the present to the unseen organs of the past, binding them into a continually shape-shifting body, by turns beautiful and terrible and occasionally—disturbingly—reminiscent of looking into a mirror." Petro has outlined an ambitious project, and like The Canterbury Tales, the collection allows the voices and the tales of the tellers to sing. It falls short, however, in resolving the disparate themes of Southern identity that Petro finds mirrored in herself and in American culture at large.

The book is composed of four separate "journeys" and Petro's research and references suggest that she has done her homework. The result is a comprehensive survey of tellers and tales that ranges from as far north as central Kentucky to as far south as Florida and the Louisiana Bayou, from the Carolina coast, through the Appalachians and down into the desolate Georgia and Alabama interiors.

She begins in Atlanta, the "New South," where Akbar Imhotep, a professional storyteller, tells the story of Brer Rabbit and the tar baby. With this tale the format and mood of the book is established: Petro picks up the trail of a new teller, navigates her way through a landscape of strange food, bad weather, and suspicious lodging, and muses along the way in alternately academic, personal, and humorous ways. She finally finds the pilgrim she has been seeking, and discovers he or she is not quite what she had imagined, often startled at the teller's level and professional demeanor or advanced education or both.

There is no single strong narrative thread, however two individuals and Petro's relationship with them do provide some urgency and impetus. Early in the first journey Petro meets Vicki Vedder, a professional storyteller who adopts the persona of "Granny Griffin"—the Depression-era matriarch of an extended and poor central Georgia family, each with individual quirks and stories that "Granny" preserves. Curiously, Petro does not get a story from Vedder during the first meeting, but their communication continues through the summer via an e-mail conversation wherein Vedder contributes a philosophical perspective on the distinctiveness and tragedy of Southern culture.

Typically, Vedder's responses are offered as the philosophical meat of the book, and while certainly her perspective has a certain authority, it lacks sufficient emotion or intellect to be satisfying. In speaking to the persistent pain caused by generations of racism, for instance, she writes: "There is a common element that connects us (Southerners, black and white)—and I hope it is what disconnects us from innocent Northerners or Westerners. In the South, the blacks and whites are intertwined in wrongdoing—a vicious cycle of hurt...When one person (a family or society) commits a violent act on some other person, both people end up hurt. It may take some time for the offender to recognize this, or he may never, but what happens is that the air becomes filled with tension and pain, a spiritual hurt...In my opinion the South is full of misunderstanding about itself." While this observation is not untrue, and is perhaps even a generous way to avoid specific or political blame, it certainly seems simplified.

The other individual at the center of the various threads is Ray Hicks, a singular figure who tells "Jack Tales" (a version of the "trickster" tale) from his home in the hills of North Carolina. Petro dedicates the entire "Third Journey" to "Ray's Tale" and the afternoon she spends with him. Hicks, a National Heritage Fellow who has been the subject of other academic study, represents a mystical embodiment of the past and the present, the living and the dead, for Petro. She remarks, awed, "In his speech—I found I could understand most of what he said—I could actually hear the past. It was a miracle. Ray's tongue and teeth used the same ordinary air I was breathing to produce sounds otherwise unheard for three hundred years."

The rest of the pilgrims that Petro encounters along the way are as varied and as quirky as the landscape of the South she travels. There are ghost stories and trickster tales, tragic love stories and West African mythology. There are creatures as fantastical as singing turtles, flying Africans, and talking corpses. The landscape is alternately urban and rural, lush and barren. And there are persistent themes that emerge, particularly the idea that the storyteller tells a story specifically for an audience and that each story somehow chooses its listener. Petro also uses her experiences and the stories she hears to suggest that the dead are with us, at least in the South, and that the horizon between the here and the hereafter is permeable.

There are dimensions to this book that are fascinating. In an emergent way, Petro's collection considers how local culture bends and shapes archetypal narratives. She showcases, for instance two versions of a similar tale: "Ta'een Po" and "Taily Po." In the multiple versions of this tale there are common elements: a devil creature raids a poor resident's garden or home, loses his tail in the process, which the resident later eats in a stew, and then the devil returns for his tail and eats the farmer as revenge. The story varies according to the local culture and geography and the differences are telling.

There are also hints here at how stories can provide a subaltern map of culture and ethnic identity. The American South provides a particularly rich mix in this case; buried in stories are the dark history of the slave trade, the religion of West Africa, the Creole culture of South Louisiana, and the remnants of Anglo-Saxon history that persist in the speech and rituals of Appalachia. Even an emerging thesis about how the weather shapes the culture is a fascinating subtext to which Petro occasionally points. The South, on every coast and plain, is plagued by storms and temperatures of Old Testament proportions, and it is not difficult to argue that the supernatural must be at work, both aiding and assaulting those in its way.

But the work as a whole falls short of satisfying any of these theses. There is not enough of Petro to be truly sympathetic or engaging, and only enough of the stories themselves to hint at what otherwise might be concluded about culture, race, history, or politics. There is certainly precedent for this subjective approach to ethnography—the sort undertaken by other pilgrims to the South like Tony Horowitz in Confederates in the Attic or John Berendt in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil—but to hear of Petro's every irritation with the heat, chiggers, a pulled back, inedible high-fat food, or poor directions is to flirt with the irrelevant, particularly in a book that has already proposed more theses than it can comfortably resolve.

And so the book itself is a cautionary tale for those who would chronicle the wildly divergent sweeps of history and culture manifested in folk stories: mirrors not only reflect; they also distort and even blind those who use them as guideposts. In Petro's "overgrown household" of the South, there are closets and skeletons and corners and cobwebs that must still be cleaned before anyone can see or hear clearly what is there.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002

Lives of Mothers & Daughters: Growing Up with Alice Munro

SLives of Mothers & Daughters by Sheila Munroheila Munro
McClelland & Stewart Ltd. ($27.95)

by Meleah Maynard

When Sheila Munro was growing up, she and her younger sister Jenny would sit on the living-room floor and watch television while their mother, Canadian author Alice Munro, sat in a chair behind them reading a book. She was with them, but she wasn't with them. It was a feeling the girls would have throughout their childhood. While their father was detached in his own way, he did embrace his role in the family. He expressed great pride and interest in things like choosing and decorating the house they lived in and playing with his children when he got home from work. Their mother never seemed to care about such things. Sure, she did the laundry, waited on her kids when they were sick, and cooked dinner just like other moms did. But it was always clear that what she really wanted to be doing was writing at the little desk in the corner of her bedroom.

"She was like the young mother in [the well-known Alice Munro story] Miles City Montana, who sees herself as a detached observer," Sheila Munro writes, before quoting the passage in that story where she thinks her mother could just as well have been describing herself.

In my house, I seemed to be often looking for a place to hide…so that I could get busy at my real work, which was a sort of wooing of distant parts of myself. I lived in a state of siege, always losing just what I wanted to hold on to. But on trips there was no difficulty. I could be talking to Andrew, talking to the children and looking at whatever they wanted me to look at…and all the time these bits and pieces would be flying together inside me. The essential composition would be achieved. This made me hopeful and lighthearted. It was being a watcher that did it. A watcher, not a keeper.

A self-described weird little kid, Alice Munro never went in for ordinary things. She didn't ride bikes or roller skate. She didn't have friends to speak of. She was writing and planning a lengthy historical novel by the time she was eleven. Her parents were poor and she often argued violently with her mother, who died of a form of Parkinson's disease when Munro was a teenager.

Alice Munro had not especially desired a husband or children. But there were certain things young women did in the 1950s and in this respect, Munro followed the norm. Fighting to keep her writing under wraps in order to appear as normal as possible, she always left her typewriter to answer the door when the neighbor ladies came by unannounced to drink tea and gossip. Her husband expected that much; a demanding man with a volatile temper, Jim Munro liked the fact that his wife was an artist, but only to a point.

In 1997 Alice Munro asked her eldest daughter Sheila to write her biography. Sheila, 42 years old with two children and a sizeable complex about the fact that she wasn't a writer in her own right, didn't immediately jump at the idea. Six months later she decided she would do it, but not as a biography. She proposed writing a book about what it was like growing up as Alice Munro's daughter, noting, "For years I had been writing vignettes about my own life, but I could never find any framework into which they would fit; they seemed to be going nowhere, and I was growing more and more frustrated. It occurred to me that perhaps I could use a memoir as a framework."

The idea seemed perfect. All of her life, Sheila had read her mother's stories and seen her family's history played out on paper, as characters reenacted things like the tumultuous relationship her parents navigated for years before finally divorcing, or the time 4-year-old Jenny nearly drowned in a hotel swimming pool on a family vacation. Maybe Sheila believed that telling her mother's story from her perspective as a daughter would help the child whose existence has always been eclipsed by her mother's ethereal presence come into her own.

In the book, however, it soon becomes obvious that the author is still struggling with some complex feelings about her relationship to her mother. At times, it's hard not to feel like we're coldly climbing atop an eager and open-armed Sheila to get a better look at her more interesting mother. But thankfully, this is no get-revenge-on-mom book. Sheila Munro clearly loves and respects her mother. She's as interested in what makes Alice Munro tick as we are, and that's why we aren't really interested in her. Sheila saves the rush of feelings of jealousy and inadequacy until the last few pages of the book: "She is the gold standard by which everything else is measured, to whom everyone else is compared," she writes, "And I can understand why. I do not disagree. It's just that it makes her into an icon and I don't suppose anyone wants their mother, or their father for that matter, to become an icon. What is there to do with an icon besides worshipping it, or ignoring it, or smashing it to pieces?"

By writing this book, Sheila Munro has answered that question for herself: she's trying to live with an icon the best way she can. Alice Munro fans will have a hard time putting this memoir down. Yet there is so much more we'd like to know about this woman who made headlines in the Canadian papers in the 1960s—"Housewife Finds Time to Write Short Stories."

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002

Embargoed Voice

Embargoed Voice by Milli GraffiMilli Graffi
Translated by Michael Gizzi and Giuliana Chamedes
Burning Deck Press ($5)

by Chris Glomski

Embargoed Voice, a sampling of poems by Milanese poet Milli Graffi, constitutes a one-off departure from Burning Deck's regular offerings of recent German and French poetry, though not from its commitment to bringing out works that are engaged in rigorous experimentation. In the 1970s Milli Graffi was part of the Italian avant-garde "poesia totale" movement, and the selections offered here certainly evince a poet of an experimental, out-on-a-limb sensibility.

The opener, "Take One: Jazz Backdrop," launches itself sequentially across roughly half the booklet. As the title leads one to expect, there is a certain jazziness to Graffi's lines—the poems sprawl as if scored on the pages, with fluxing signatures, syncopations, and motifs—but the most palpable scrim in this sequence appears to come out of Graffi's background as a translator of Darwin. "Take One" is set on a sort of Galápagos which, in turn, situates "the landscape of meaning" encircled by the "bitter landowning sea" (i.e. the pages, spaces within which meaning is demarcated and defined). Words are likened to "toads offer[ing] themselves at the junction," yet despite this gesture the poet recognizes something predatory in their nature: they "gargle, grab you." As if leapfrogging upon their backs, an "I" enters the poem and seeks to locate in humankind's capacity for language, and specifically poetic language, something akin to a Heideggerean rift—design, although here it takes on a decidedly less mystical aura, cast as a mere vagary of evolution: "art is memory burned // sediment / of the whim / that descends the branches / and divides us together." These last lines figure as the poem's chorus, and the paradox they express is at the core of its investigations.

Graffi's speaker in this poem wears many hats, sometimes all at once: naturalist, phenomenologist, feminist, linguist, and archeologist. "Take One" finds her out doing fieldwork, sifting through the aforementioned "sediment"—it's as if the words of the poem are shards that have turned up in her sieve. "I search for the GORILLA-WORD" she writes, and her search puts her poem through the motions of confession ("I hear it understand / but not always"); pleading ("lay an embargo on my voice it's costing me"), and humorous reflection ("who knows if by grunting the pig interrogates himself / upon his true nature // certainly I / ask my overladen / grunt / to proffer some surprises"). But even her humor is pressed into the service of a serious business, one which needs to go deep into the objects under the poet's lens, whether they be "mountain pink," an "unthinkable absolute," the "first vowel" or the "I" itself: "Darwin knew it," Graffi writes, "poetry opens only when pressure is applied."

"Take One: Jazz Backdrop" is a polyvalent piece of writing that asks for, and rewards, successive readings. Reading Gaffi one is reminded of the dialogue the Italians have been carrying on with German and French theorists; her concern with gender and the figure of the "arch that enfolds and sustains" in "Take One" appears to engage some of Cixous's writings, and the poem's use of "sediment" puts one in mind of Derrida's "cinders." But as the "whim / that descends the branches / and divides us together" suggests, the work in Embargoed Voice is mainly preoccupied with what Gaston Bachelard has called "definitive intuitions," those distinctions drawn from gender, race, or any other dialectics of inside/outside, you and I, as is apparent in Gaffi's poem "Seven Rooms": "correspondence / between what you / HAVE / within and what there / IS / without." Gaffi writes a poetry that wants to pry open these divisional spaces and to ferret out "hidden misogynies / …hidden racism / … hidden ballots."

In rare moments the poet's obvious intelligence lapses into something like cleverness, as in the poem "Larval Shots," whose elbow-nudging refrain wants to make sure we understand that "when it comes to larvae / you don't want to fool around." At her best, however, Gaffi goes about her experiments with a sense of awe that can get Whitmanic in scale: "here's the job / a word we can name // grass burning in the electric inferno of midday […] // oh the / lyrical nameable watermelon word."

Embargoed Voice is, unfortunately, a monolingual edition. But the original Italian texts I managed to track down indicate that translators Michael Gizzi and Giuliana Chamedes have made every effort to render high-fidelity translations; they've taken pains to mirror Gaffi's line-breaks and to replicate the spatial appearance of the originals. If some sense of the interplay between "The String and the Beads" is lost in the English gerund's inability to designate number, it is more than made up for in the many shimmering passages within the longer poems. The challenges these must have posed are evident; the agility of their English speaks for itself-and is a credit to the translators. For those with an interest in Italian poetry, the European avant-garde, or experimental poetry in general, Embargoed Voice is well worth its five-spot cover price.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002

Our Thang

TOur Thanged Joans
Drawings by Laura Corsiglia
Ekstasis Editions ($15.95)

by John Olson

As Buckminster Fuller once noted, one ball cannot zoom around alone in the Universe. Without otherness, there is no consciousness and no direction. If there were only one entity-say it is a sphere called "me"—there would be no Universe: no otherness: no awareness: no consciousness: no direction. When one otherness complements another we have synergy: dollops of morning light bedazzling us all with hope and coral. Poet Ted Joans and artist Laura Corsiglia have pooled their respective resources to create a synergistic garden of words and illustrations, a magnetic field of surrealist energies mingling lines of visual fascination with lines of exuberant be-bop quincaillerie.

Quincaillerie is French for hardware. I find it not only richly onomatopoetic but redolent of Joans's work in general: quirky and jubilantly oral, keyed to the jingle-jangle jambalaya of speech. It is also the title of one of the poems in this collection. Joans's influences are as multifarious and multicultural as he is; his work is a conflation of jazz and surrealism. Laura Corsiglia, Joans's partner and sometime collaborator, is Canadian. She says she was "raised in northern British Columbia's Nass Valley surrounded by grizzly bears." Her drawings are a curious blend of the surrealist exquisite corpse and the totemic figures of west coast Native American design. Surprise and the quest for the marvelous are hallmarks of the surrealist enterprise, and Corsiglia's drawings are full of that: a woman whose shoulder and hair merge into birds, a totemic bear with human legs and pubis, her feet booted in upside down curtains, a man with the head of an eagle, solid legs delineated with heavily inked lines, one foot human, the other a bear claw, the long beak of a bird in the groin with its beak pointing up like an erection. The bizarre metamorphism resulting from the surrealist exquisite corpse is synergized by the inherent metamorphism of Northwest Indian art, then given an added boost with Joans's quincaillerie.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002

bk of (h)rs

bk of (h)rs by Pattie McCarthyPattie McCarthy
Apogee Press ($12.95)

by Catherine Daly

A number of texts which relate to books of hours, heretic testimony, cabinet plays, and other early vernacular writing have recently come to press. Pattie McCarthy's new book, bk of (h)rs, joins Cole Swensen's Such Rich Hour and a new translation of Rilke's The Book of Hours. Because books of hours automatically problematize time, text, and prayer, all of which have a relationship to the internet, there are poetry books of hours online: Charles Alexander's A Book of Hours, Wendy Battin's Lucid Dreaming, and the collaborative The Book of Hours of Madame de Lafayette edited by Christy Sheffield Stanford. McCarthy and her publisher have generously made samples of this book available online: look up the poems to see how wonderfully they occur. Buy the book because it is a beautiful book which has been devised as a book.

The first section of McCarthy's book is focused on beauty, and is divided into matins, lauds, prime, terce, sext, nones, vespers, and compline, as the monastery day is marked by bell-ringing and prayer. The section is entitled "bell (h)rs." The "(p)salter" of the second section refers to the psalms in the Bible. The psalter is relevant to new poetry because it has a peculiar genre or genres. The third section is entitled "bk of (h)rs." It is poetry in prose. The poems in the three sections are visibly different, and each has its own texture. Each weaves medieval words, timeless scenes, and contemporary ideas together. In the first section poems, displayed in two columns, odd words like "pirn" and "pluvious" complement more ordinary survivals like "groan." Etymology appears again and again as an idea and as a strategy. A heretic is mentioned in passing by date, "burned one june thirteen-ten" (Marguerite Porete, in "lauds" ). The second section is the most disjunctive, because detail with a particular modernity is used: a factual comment, such as "the great vowel shift c. twelfth," is followed by an image which can only be from the twentieth century, "cigarette dinnertime. in the year of nostalgic cellar / wartime American swing." In the third section, each poem begins with an observation which blurs into a statement about poetics and language: "gun moll complex (or loose adaptation thereof). chance-medley of signs, chorus lines." or "alphabet of houses along a canal. and the alphabet of tools that made and unmade them."

McCarthy joins a post-confessional focus on information of various sorts as content in poetry with the still-increasing awareness that non-canonical texts from the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and "early modern" Baroque period were written, spoken, or used by women. She calls attention to survivals in the language which indicate survivals in the way we perceive our days and read old texts. She first immerses us in language, and a particular language of time and special case, creating a sense of intimacy and identification rather than identity. "[T]he clerestory as choice & not-choice" in "matins" is also a window in a cloister. A woman becomes "anyone who grew up behind / the wreckage of a pastoral screen door" in the following poem, "lauds." The word "door" changes the screen of a harem window, a Japanese Imperial Court, or a monastery into a contemporary screen for keeping the outside out and the inside in, the screen on the doorway of the sublime. Then she matches and mismatches her present situations, what she knows from experience, with images from the past, what she knows from reading and studying language. She is both writer and reader: her subject matter is both public and private. Finally, McCarthy establishes what she thinks about the women she reads and writes about, "glances and hair down, their bodies produce no sound." Their images, languages, and writings speak through McCarthy's prophecy of survival.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002

Borrowed Love Poems

JBorrowed Love Poems by John Yaoohn Yau
Penguin Books ($17)

by Tom Devaney

John Yau's recent Borrowed Love Poems is a dazzling exploration of deft and unforgiving openness. The poems engage the reader with a wide and wild array of characters, disembodied and otherwise, with an imaginative and capacious use of the lyric "I." It is a collection fed on a steady diet of movies, modernism, and all manner of mercurial identity, swift perception, and modes and inventive odes of riddling otherhood.

In this impressive 130-page collection, Yau offers new poems and continues series such as his "Genghis Chan: Private Eye" in addition to his long "Vowel Sonatas," and various poems to and about painters, poets, musicians, and movie stars, to name a very few.

As in Dante's Divine Comedy, we meet all manner of unrepentant madmen and women here, all manner of peacemakers and other folks just blown to pieces. In the poem "After My Chronology by Peter Lorre," Yau writes: "What is chronology, but detachable hands / sifting for condensation collectivized in an earlier era?"

Many poems, such as the morphed self-portraiture of "I Was a Poet in the House of Frankenstein," are a collection of disembodied characters, which absorb everything in their theater of uninterrupted and rollicking sway. The tone of the poem is set from the first line and continues on:

I order the wholesale massacre of the white settlers.
I live in Old Baghdad and make tents.
I become a maharajah and, once again,
I am a French Canadian trapper.
A Mexican halfbreed, a mate
on a rum smuggling ship,
an evil governor:
I am each of them and more.

The capacious poem continues on with its hard-boiled, surreal and biting inventiveness for eight more pages.

One of the things that makes this book so enjoyable is that Yau has at his disposal an abundance of stylistic devices, which he uses to show poetry's roomy nature and ability to absorb all other media. From movies, music, painting, and "storied fibs piled high," Yau's animated vernacular translates the familiar all around us from "that cold / hard glue some zealots / still call the world."

At their best, Yau's terrific, hilarious and often damning poems have an impressive range—both emotional, impersonal and otherwise. Spilling over with formal mastery, Borrowed Love Poems is an utterly pleasurable collection.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002

The Captain Lands in Paradise

The Captain Lands in Paradise by Sarah MangusoSarah Manguso
Alice James Books ($12.95)

by Susie Meserve

In Sarah Manguso's debut collection of poems, The Captain Lands in Paradise, the captain never lands anywhere for long. Sometimes the book plods, often it soars, but there is a constant rhythm of touching down and lifting off again. If this is Paradise, I might just take it: on Neptune it rains diamonds, deer are everywhere, and while there are occasional (and welcome) moments of grief, mostly the book is a quiet, whimsical ride.

This is not to suggest that there is anything ditzy or shallow about Manguso's work; on the contrary, she balances intellect and emotion in a way many poets strive for and few achieve. Childhood is at once colorful and dark, and God is both a philosophical concept and a feeling. Take, for example, "It's a Fine Thing To Walk Through the Allegory":

the real meaning moves from the specific
to the general, as in the famous essay
about symbols and allegories where, in the end,
everything's about God-earth, air, water,
fire, dancing on the upper deck in a green dress.

Manguso makes these leaps (from the general to the specific, from God to the green dress) seem so deft that we come to believe that anything, really, is possible, perhaps even likely, and when she goes on in the poem to wonder whether a deer would "eat an orange if it were properly salted" we find ourselves mentally salting the orange and feeding it to the deer, fully ready to find out.

The true joy is in the way she takes us there. Manguso's poetry is so easy as to seem almost effortless, but when we stop to take stock, we realize we're in a world we can't quite identify. There are unmistakable, thinly veiled references to a certain kind of childhood-summer camp, books, family dinners—but Manguso's world is anything but small.

In "Love Is A Narrative Impulse," perhaps the most explicitly autobiographical poem in The Captain Lands in Paradise, she tell us:

In the beginning I am tottering around Boston
in the mid '70s, pasting things together.
In the beginning self-knowledge is not crucial.
E. steals my heartmobile,
M. cries when someone takes away his pretty leaf.
Construction paper is everywhere
and when it is replaced by panic I do not notice.

The subtle darkness of this, the replacement of paper with panic, makes possible the line that brings us up short mid-poem: "Jean Cocteau, asked what he would save / if his house were on fire, replied the fire."

Manguso is full of moments like these, where what is being constructed is simultaneously being broken down. She razes her creations with levity and humor, suggesting a voice that's both unselfconscious and extremely brave.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002

Sleeping with the Dictionary

mullen.jpgHarryette Mullen
University of California Press ($14.95)

by Christopher Fischbach

The centerpiece poem of Harryette Mullen's latest collection is "Jinglejangle," ten pages of the most fun I have read in, well, possibly ever:

Ab flab abracadabra Achy Breaky Action Jackson airy-fairy airfare
Asian contagion analysis paralysis Anna banana ants in your pants
Annie's cranny Annie Fanny A-okay ape drape argle-bargle
artsy-fartsy awesome blossom

backpack backtrack Bahama Mama balls to the wall bam-a-lam bandstand
Battle in Seattle beat the meat bedspread bee's knees behani ghani best dressed
best in the West BestRest Best Western Betsy Wetsy Better Cheddar Big Dig bigwig
bird turd black don't crack blackjack blame game boho boiling oil
Bone Phone Bonton Bony Maroni boob tube boogie-woogie boohoo book nook
boon coon Bot's dots Boozy Suzy bowl of soul bow-wow boy toy brace face
brain drain bric-a-brac bug jug bump on the rump Busty Rusty

Forgive me for quoting at such length, but it's necessary to quote entire stanzas, the above being the A and B stanzas, followed by C, D, E, and so on, all the way to "zero to hero zigzag zip your lip Zoo Doo zoot suit Zulu."

I can't determine what Mullen's exact compositional method was, but suffice it to say that she collected the pieces of this poem from wherever, using a certain rhythmical constraint, and then arranged these pieces not only alphabetically, but more or less within each stanza according to the standard vowel arrangement of A,E,I,O,U (and sometimes Y). I'm not exactly sure I'd call these constraints in the Oulipian sense of the word; they are more like loose guidelines for arrangement.

But does mere arrangement a poem make? Master word-arranger Kenneth Goldsmith might argue yes, having made a literary career out of collecting and arranging. Take for example his No. 111 2.7.93-10.20.96, in which phrases which end in sounds related to the sound "r" are organized alphabetically by syllable count. But the pleasures of reading Goldsmith are created almost entirely by random combinations; the "poetry" of the text is largely incidental. While Mullen's method shares many characteristics with Goldsmith's, a crucial difference is her further rhythmical arrangement of the collected pieces into poetic-musical phrases.

Many of the other poems in Sleeping with the Dictionary employ similar collection and arrangement techniques. Others use the Oulipian "n + 7" technique or are the result of a heavily employed thesaurus on an already existing text. Prose poems coexist with list poems, restricted form with out-of-control funk.

To even the most-accepting reader of experimental or expansive poetries, such poems can seem like mere exercises in the face of dominant poetry ideologies that value inspiration, virtuosity, a semblance of narrative, or a coherent sense of the poetic self. We like to imagine a poet sweating over draft upon draft of muse-given verse. Can one overcome the desire to shortchange these poems as mere exercises and reconcile them with some kind of valuable artistic project?

I think so. One way to do this lies in placing these poems in the same realm as contemporary improvisational dance or music. It is easy enough to imagine and appreciate a dance or musical performance in which a performer acts/reacts not in accordance to a set score or choreography, but rather in reaction to the space and materials surrounding her, as well as to other performers on the stage. In such a case the artist could be said to be in collaboration with her environment.

Why not then imagine Harryette Mullen as an artist working in collaboration with her chosen environment? Why not imagine the poet's desk as a stage where she dances in reaction to and in collaboration with her dictionary?

This might seem obvious, since all writers work with an inherited palette of words. The difference is that for many of the poems in this book, Mullen takes the denotation of the words completely out of the picture, stripping them almost entirely of their meanings. What's left is the almost pure artistic gesture of rhythmical arrangement, an arrangement so strong that the words beg to be read aloud, to be sung, and to be danced along with. And somehow behind all this play lurk serious themes, perhaps best summed up by the poem title "Resistance is Fertile." This especially makes Sleeping with the Dictionary no mere book of exercises, but a singular achievement.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002

Cyber Reader | Hard_Code

Cyber ReaderCyber Reader
Edited by Neil Spiller
Phaidon Press ($39.95)

Edited by Eugene Thacker
Alt X Press ($18)

by Rod Smith

The book is dead—or at least one book: Bill Gates's The Road Ahead. Dead on the market, that is. A cursory perusal of that vast online booksellers' clearinghouse, Abe.com, reveals that more than a thousand copies of the 1995 slab of spurious prophecy are up for grabs, with hardcover first editions going for right around the price of a Big Mac Value Meal. In fine condition, even, with dust jacket in archival mylar sleeve and accompanying CD ROM. A smart player can get more for a dog-eared Danielle Steele paperback on ebay.

Given the fact that a whole new generation has embraced book culture (thanks to Harry Potter, et al.), not to mention the fact that one of the most widely embraced uses of computers to date has been the online buying and selling of books, it seems pretty likely that Mr. Microsofty's ejaculations about the demise of the codex were just a tad premature, to say the least. If anything, books and computers have a complementary relationship. Computers (via the internet) offer a wealth of information about books. They've also provided a treasure trove of fodder for same.

Two prize specimens of the current crop, Cyber Reader and Hard_Code, deliver very different glimpses into the world of computers and their effects on contemporary (and future) culture. Cyber Reader, a lavishly produced compendium edited by design mage Neil Spiller, delivers a vertiginously sweeping overview of cyberspace dating back to the birth of computers as a notion and moving forward through the fairly distant future. In many ways the excerpted essay that opens the book, "Of the Analytical Engine," by English mathematician Charles Babbage, sets the tone for much of the anthology.

Babbage's piece, written in 1864, displays a faith in technology as an instrument for the betterment of society so powerful that at one point in his life, he referred to God as "the programmer of divine algorithms." This tendency to deify the digital, or at least to cast it in an uncritical light, is resoundingly echoed to a great degree by Babbage's intellectual progeny, a pantheon of computer visionaries that includes artificial intelligence pioneer Alan Turing, cybernetics pioneer Norbert Weiner, and a host of others represented in Cyber Reader.

The anthology covers the practical end of the spectrum as well, with contributions from the likes of human/machine interface trailblazers JCR Licklider and Douglas Engelbart, as well as CAD pathfinders Gordon Pask and Cedric Price. This nuts and bolts aspect is counterbalanced nicely with excerpts from the work of cultural theory gurus Marshall McLuhan, Paul Virilio, and Donna Haraway, whose "A Cyborg Manifesto," sparked a revolution in socialist feminism when it was published in 1985.

Cyber Reader displays no dearth of speculative fiction, either, with contributions from William Gibson, Greg Bear, Bruce Sterling, and Neal Stephenson, to name but a few. If the anthology comes up short anywhere, it's in the lack of what Wilhelm Reich once referred to as "the adversary position." Granted, there are exceptions—E. M. Forster's 1909 cautionary tale, "The Machine Stops," for example, and a revealing excerpt from Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari's monumental "A Thousand Plateaux." But overall, the anthology leans in favor of rationalism and rationalization; even its dystopias pack a certain glamour.

This doesn't prevent Cyber Reader from being highly readable, extremely informative, and often inspiring. Spiller has chosen wisely and well, and the brevity of the excerpts—most of which run around four pages in length—pretty much guarantees smooth sailing for the layperson in even the most arcane waters. The book's design owes a massive debt to Bruce Mau (Zone Books/S,M,L,XL), but it is a beautiful book to peruse. As what Spiller calls "a springboard to all manner of interesting, exciting, and even mind blowing concepts," the anthology is an unqualified success.

Hard Code

Besides, there are other books out there for the rebel kind, practicing and armchair alike. Take Hard_Code, for example. Editor Eugene Thacker opens his introduction (and the book) with a quote from William Burroughs's prophetic Nova Express regarding the similarity of binary code and viruses. Invoking Burroughs right off the bat makes for a nice lurid start. It also provides an immediate frame of reference, alerting the reader to the possibility that this "mis-users manual for the network society" just might be taking a somewhat more engaged stance than one normally encounters in literary anthologies.

And it does. From "Mad Cow," Harold Jaffe's beguiling meditation on agro-terrorism and the vulnerability of cell phone networks, to a primer for net insurgents by "//meta" titled "search?q=code," Hard_Code abounds with the sort of up-to-the-nanosecond "Us versus Them" invention that Burroughs would applaud without reservation. That's really not such a big surprise, as a number of the anthology's contributors, Thacker included, sport solid reputations in the realm of transgressive fiction, on and offline.

What is surprising, given the anthology's rather dry stated mission of asking the question, "what kind of stories are told by data?," is the fact that so much of the writing in Hard_Code radiates rampant sensuality-and sexuality. While she is by no means alone, the identity—shifting Francesca Rimini, who appears in Hard_Code as GashGirl, Doll Yoko, Liquid Nation, and one third of ID Runners, shines brightly in this department. But even she seems a bit laid back compared to Shelley Jackson, whose "love-life of the story," an inspired take on George Bataille's Story of the Eye, oozes a strain of polymorphous (and polysemous) perversity potent enough to send old Mr. Naughtypants himself back to the drawing board.

Sex and sensuality aside, for an anthology that draws so heavily on the talents of those who work primarily in the virtual world, Hard_ Code spends a surprising amount of time in the world of flesh and blood. While Burroughs provides the anthology's ideological underpinnings, its patron saint is Paul Jernigan, the convicted murderer whose body provided the raw material for the male half of the Visible Human Project. Jernigan pops up again and again in various guises throughout the book, finally appearing as himself in Steve Tomasula's baroque tour de force "Bodies in Flatland."

All this physicality does a fine job of grounding Hard_Code, no matter how abstract it gets (as it does, from time to time). It also keeps the focus on the writing, which, above all else, tends to be damn fine. It's almost as though all the contributors decided in advance to agree with hyperfiction superstars The Unknown, who, in the elegant (and very funny) "Hard_Code Theater: In Remembrance of Things Unknown," suggest that maybe "writing is the best code of all."

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002

The Island Itself: an interview with novelist Katherine Towler


by Felicia C. Sullivan

A dazzling debut, Snow Island (Macadam/Cage, $25) follows the dual stories of Alice Daggett and George Tibbits in a small isolated island populated by quahoggers and eccentrics during the Second World War. Towler weaves the two plot lines intricately, at the same time subtly relaying the nuances of the island's inhabitants through gossip and tales.

Sixteen-year old Alice Daggett, haunted by the tragic death of her father six years prior and the overbearing presence of her mother Evelyn, never quite fits into the strict societal rules of the small gossiping town. Her awkwardness as she becomes aware of her own sexuality-her fear of not understanding her role as a woman and her fear of her inability to fulfill it-is beautifully told. Snow Island also unravels the unique story of George Tibbits, a recluse in his forties, who returns to the island each year in order to gain some closure regarding the death of the two women who raised him.

Snow Island is an evocative work with characters carefully chosen and crafted. Moving and luminous, it breaks the clichés of war novels. The characters and their stories resonate and linger long after the last page.

Katherine Towler grew up in New York City and completed her BA at the University of Michigan. She also received an MA in writing from Johns Hopkins and an MA in English literature from the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College. She has been awarded numerous fellowships, teaches creative writing in a regional fine arts program for high school students, and lives in Portsmouth, NH with her husband and their cat, Zane Grey.

Felicia Sullivan: You depict the effects of World War II on two inhabitants of a small, fictitious New England town, both of whom have experienced grave losses. What made you want to develop two central characters and parallel their stories?

Katherine Towler: My fictional Snow Island is based on a real island in Narragansett Bay (Rhode Island), where I lived one spring a number of years ago. The real island has just 125 year-round residents and is a place wonderfully untouched by modern life in many ways. I used the real setting, which was so vivid to me, and invented the characters and their stories. This may sound strange, but I believe the characters came from the place itself, which has such a powerful mood of isolation and solitude and changelessness. I began with the story of Alice. What I wrote first was actually a short story with Alice as the main character. This short story evolved into the novel, and somewhere along the way I wrote the opening scene of the book from George Tibbits's point of view. As I took the book through repeated drafts, I kept trying to get rid of George. I couldn't figure out what he was doing in the book, and the opening scene remained mysterious even to me. Yet every time I tried to cut the scene, I couldn't. I continued to be fascinated by it, even as I wasn't sure what it was doing there, at the start of the book. I took the book through three complete drafts, and in the final draft I added many of the chapters from George's point of view. It wasn't until this point that I made the novel about two characters with parallel stories. I suppose in doing this final revision, and adding a lot more about George, I answered my question, as best I could, as to what he was doing in the book. Once I arrived at this form, I liked the balance the two characters seemed to give the book, and the way their stories amplified each other. But I can't say that this is what I planned to do from the start. It was more like a series of lucky accidents in the writing process.

FS: How much research was required for the novel? Who and what were your resources?

KT: I did not intend to write a book set in the 1940s, and frankly, I was fairly alarmed when I realized this is what I was doing. I should have at least chosen a time period farther back, so there would be no one left alive to tell me I had gotten it wrong! But Alice's story evolved as one set during World War II. I did quite a bit of research, though I undertook research at the same time as the writing, and in some cases, not until I had finished the final draft. I didn't want the research to overwhelm the book or "lead" the story. I wanted to write a story about two characters that happened to be set in the 1940s, rather than writing a story about the 1940s. I read numerous books about the home front during World War II and the war itself, and lots of New England history—accounts by lighthouse keepers, accounts of the 1938 hurricane, that sort of thing. I read old newspapers and magazines and looked at old Sears, Roebuck catalogs. I also interviewed my parents and parents-in-law and others about their experiences of the war years.

FS: The two mother figures of the book, Bertie and Evelyn, are depicted as eccentric and sometimes overbearing characters...was this intentionally done?

KT: I never really thought of Bertie and Evelyn being similar, though others have pointed out a connection between their stories. I see Evelyn as fairly weak, and Bertie as more overbearing, but that's just my view of them. In early drafts, Evelyn was a more one-dimensional character, the typical abusive mother. I wasn't satisfied with this depiction and both softened her character and made it, I hope, more complex as I went through the various drafts. Beyond this, I can't quite account for either of these mother figures, except to say that relationships between parents and children is an obsession that keeps showing up in my writing. I am currently working on the second volume of the Snow Island trilogy, and the mother/daughter (and father/daughter, and mother/son) relationships are significant again.

FS: Alice's strength at such a young age is astonishing. Was she inspired by anyone you knew?

KT: Alice was not inspired by any one person. Like the other characters in the book, she grew out of the time I spent on the real island and my observations of the lives of the islanders, which appeared quiet and uneventful, but of course contain as much drama as the lives of people anywhere. Alice was also a less complex character in the early drafts, as her mother was at first. I think the main thing I struggled with in revision was making Alice a stronger character and her story one in which she played a full part. In the first drafts, Alice did not rise above being a victim. I was not happy with this portrayal. It was too easy and simple, not true to life as I have experienced it. In both Alice and George, I chose main characters who are quiet and not always the first to take action. I was interested in showing the inner strength of such characters, which may not be readily apparent to outside eyes. I suppose both characters are like the island itself in this respect. Like most writers, I had a great deal of affection for my characters after spending so much time with them, especially Alice. It's a joy to discover that readers share this affection.

FS: This novel had a long journey to publication. Any words of advice to would-be novelists?

KT: Basically I spent twenty years writing with very little to show in the way of publication. I completed an MA in writing at Johns Hopkins and received a couple of fellowships. These moments of recognition were heartening, but there were long periods when I was getting nothing but rejections. At some point I realized that I wasn't spending all the time at my desk because I wanted to be a published writer (though I DID want to get published), but because I loved the writing itself. I loved being engaged in work that was challenging and difficult but completely absorbing and, in the end, rewarding. I knew that I couldn't give up this work, so I resolved to keep writing and to make what I wrote the best I possibly could, and to hope that someday I would see publication. I suppose if I have any advice to would-be novelists it is to trust your own process, however crazy it may seem; to work in some sort of consistent or disciplined way; to be willing to revise and revise and revise; and to read great authors and make them your models. Most of all I would say write the book that is yours, the book that you want to write, not the book that you think will sell or will make you look smart. One of my favorite pieces of writing advice appears in J. D. Salinger's Seymour: An Introduction, in a letter Seymour writes to his brother, Buddy, an aspiring writer: "If only you'd remember before ever you sit down to write that you've been a reader long before you were ever a writer. You simply fix that fact in your mind, then sit very still and ask yourself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world Buddy Glass would most want to read if he had his heart's choice. The next step is terrible, but so simple I can hardly believe it as I write it. You sit down shamelessly and write the thing yourself."

FS: You were an editor at Mars Hill Review—how has being an editor influenced your writing?

KT: I worked for Mars Hill for three years as the interviews editor, which gave me the opportunity to interview a number of wonderful writers, including Anne Lamott and Robert Pinsky. I was also involved in consulting on submissions of essays, poetry, and short stories. Doing this work gave me more sympathy for editors and the work they do of going through many submissions. In the past, I was mostly inclined to curse editors for their short-sightedness in not publishing me (and the length of time it took them to respond). Being on the other side, I realized that often a piece of writing, while admired by editors, simply isn't right for a given publication for one reason or another. This doesn't mean that it's not a good piece of writing or that it might not see publication elsewhere. So I came to understand better that getting published is a matter of getting your work into the hands of the right editor, the one who is a good reader of your work, and doing this requires that you be tireless in sending your work out. In terms of its effect on my own writing, being an editor of other people's work helped me to read my own with greater distance, to view it as I would a submission from another writer. As a result, I think I got better at cutting things that didn't work and sharpening things that did, and paying attention to the movement and tone of my writing, to the overall effect it created. The conversations with my fellow editors about what made a piece of writing work or not, about what we responded to, were fruitful conversations from which I learned a lot.

FS: What books can be found on your bookshelf? Nightstand?

KT: I am currently reading Alistair McLeod's Island, which is absolutely wonderful. His short stories rank among the best I have ever read. Next I plan to read his novel, No Great Mischief. On the bookshelf across from my desk where I work are my favorite authors, the ones from whom I have learned the most: Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, Henry James, George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Knut Hamsun, Carson McCullers, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Edna O'Brien, Marguerite Duras, Leslie Marmon Silko. I also read (and write) poetry. Recently I've been reading Li-Young Lee, whose work I love. Among reference books, a recent find is Novel Ideas by Margaret Love Denman and Barbara Shoup. It's a collection of interviews with novelists about the writing process. It's a very encouraging and helpful book because you realize, reading these interviews, that the process of writing a novel is unique and individual, that even celebrated writers throw away many pages and tear their hair out, and that those who succeed are the ones who stay at the desk and keep doing the work.

FS: Any closing comments?

KT: I do see writing as close to a spiritual discipline. You have to do it as a practice to achieve your best work, and keep faith through the times when it is not going well. You have to learn to tolerate isolation and silence, and develop the patience of staying with something that doesn't offer immediate rewards. Like any spiritual discipline, writing has a lot of lessons to teach if we let ourselves learn them. I am grateful to have work that I find so fulfilling. I couldn't live without writing. It's the way I respond to a world that is full of horror and often makes no sense, and is full of beauty at the same time.

Click here to purchase Snow Island at your local independent bookstore
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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002