Tag Archives: fall 2003

4 X 1: Tristan Tzara, Rainer Maria Rilke, Jean-Pierre Duprey and Habib Tengour

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Translated by Pierre Joris
Inconundrum Press ($11.95)

by Dale Smith

The translations here form a kind of hieroglyph of 20th-century modernism, a signal of dynamic forces drawing from diverse threads of tradition and cultural interrogation. Written by four masters of European tongues and rendered into English by a masterful translator, this unique gathering contributes to what the vast field of contemporary poetics has become: a complex occasion of forces.

"I read to write," says Pierre Joris in his introduction. "The closest reading I have yet discovered is translation. Which is writing. And thus a circle or, hopefully, a spiral is set in motion."

Editor with Jerome Rothenberg of Poems for the Millennium, author of 20 books of poetry, and translator of numerous writers into both French and English, Joris practices the art of writing with unique sensitivity to issues of cross-cultural importance; recent books such as Poesis, h.j.r. and Towards a Nomadic Poetics reveal an engagement with poetry that draws on diverse ethnopoetic roots. Born in Luxembourg, he has lived variously in Britain, North Africa and the United States since he was 19. His intimate understanding of both American and European models of modernism makes the translations here all the more useful. Together, they show new perspectives on four influential writers. Rilke's cold retreat into his blessed solitude is presented against Tzara's inspired Poèmes Nègres and the Algerian poet Habib Tengour's devastating relation of colonial rule in The Old Man of the Mountain.

Tzara's work opens the book with his Dadaist renditions of African and Australian aboriginal songs, chants, spells and poems. Instead of being "a great negative work of destruction" in the Dadaist vein, these ethnopoetic re-visions constitute "a positive work of recovery & a return to the lost basis of human poesis," to use the words of Jerome Rothenberg. Found in notebooks after his death, they were translated into French. Now, as Joris notes, these "English versions are up to four times removed from the originals." The results in English are wonderful, colloquial, and vivid. Here's a "Hacking song" from Tanzania: "When it comes to working I'm lazy but when it comes to eating ah / when it comes to eating I'm fast." And from Botswana we read: "These white birds / flecked with black / what do they eat up above / They eat the fat / the fat of the zebra / of the zebra with / the mottled colors."

Rilke's Testament is translated here for the first time. Resulting from intense anguish over the self-imposed exile from his lover, Baladine Klossowska, these esoteric meditations attempt to justify for Rilke his intense need for solitude. The tension between his desire for a sensual life of the flesh underscored by monastic desires of isolation give these prose fragments a peculiar edge and fevered grasp of a kind of creative violence. Still, many readers' patience for the high tone and spiritual invocations of this piece will be limited; why must Rilke be removed from the world of the spirit to perceive it so intensely? "Occasionally," he writes, "in the incessantly probing misery of these days, I am surprised by something like the prescient shimmer of a new spiritual joy: as if everything had indeed become simpler, and an ineffable fate made itself more graspable in its approximations . . . This is, so to speak, the minimum of my piety: if I gave it up I would have to return behind the first Cross Road of my life—behind its earliest, quietest, freest decision. Behind my self."

The too-short life of poet, painter, and sculptor Jean-Pierre Duprey ended tragically with suicide in 1959. In cahoots with Breton and other Surrealists, he kept a distance too, writing prose and verse poems of extraordinarily vivid relations. In "Rose of Ashes," he writes:

What remains, what remains?
Of the sky only a large cloth creased with ghosts and the eyes fill only the sockets of emptiness.
A spider dislodges night; she is the dream of a dead woman.
She has in herself the open sex of night and her little ones will go forth and blacken the sleep of the living.
A secret step closes the hole of silence.
And the star turns pale.

Perhaps his greatest creative act, quietly pissing on the eternal flame under the Arc de Triomphe, proved to be his undoing. Beaten in jail for the act, he returned home, set his affairs in order then hanged himself. Luckily, his written record survives: "Me, I mysterize myself, I mysterize myself," he wrote. "Explaining myself to the forest, to the intaglioed trees, to the empty birds, howling with the skin of the wolf whose teeth I dream..."

Habib Tengour's The Old Man of the Mountain is one of "a cycle of poetic narratives... that re-imagines through contemporary Maghrebian characters in their Occidental exile in Paris the story of that most famous Arab triumvirate of Omar Khayyam, Hassan as-Sabbah and Nizam al-Mulk." Born in Eastern Algeria in 1947, Tengour's vivid interrogation of post-colonial Arab states achieves a "successful relay between modernist Euro-American experiments and local traditions of sociopolitical and spiritual narrative explorations." Coincidentally, in this short work it is the Mongol invasion of Baghdad that preoccupies the attention of many characters. "The Mongols were the torment of our wanderings," writes Tengour, "a narrow tumult. I knew the vanity of this clamor that came to us held back by the distances. The exaggerations rendered the facts ridiculous. Free and accurate information would have taught us to overcome such childish fears." The tale here relates various measures. There are those of state and individual, East and West, the lover and the beloved. Behind it all, The West rumbles, threatening with its freedom, something denied Arab intellectuals living under their Mullah masters: "We had to be on guard against freedom which was a need foreign to our culture, an imported model. More subtle analyses presented it as a danger, given the priorities."

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003

The Good Kiss

George Bilgere
Akron Series in Poetry
University of Akron Press ($13.95)

by Nicole Trokey

Bitterness. Nostalgia. Anger. Love. Humor. Wonder. Many poets have the ability to move smoothly from one of these emotions to the next within a single volume of poetry. But George Bilgere can do it within a single poem, and he demonstrates this talent repeatedly between the covers of his third collection, The Good Kiss. Covering subject matter that ranges from John Donne to LPs, marijuana to divorce, Bilgere presents the reader with not only a collection of poetry but also a collection of human experience and emotion.

In the collection's first poem, "Like Riding a Bicycle," Bilgere's shifting tones are hard at work. The poem begins "I would like to write a poem / About how my father taught me / To ride a bicycle on soft twilight" and continues through the first stanza to describe the scene. Every nostalgic, tender detail is there: the waning daylight, the proud father's hand on the boy's back, the son's tentative wobbles then steady pedaling as he takes off on his own. The tender moment is interrupted briefly by a reference to the speaker's divorce, but it continues on with the mood far from broken, only slightly interrupted.

However, when the poem moves into its second stanza, Bilgere backhands his reader with the line, "Of course, he was drunk that night," moving the poem into a new set of images that lets the reader know the first scene never happened. The father portrayed in this stanza has a breath "Sick with scotch," "sweat / Soaking his armpits," and a "cigarette flaring" in his mouth. Bilgere yanks the poem from the gentle first stanza and throws it fully clothed into the second, a shockingly cold pool of gritty imagery and harsh reality that transforms the poem from a fond remembrance to a fiercely conflicted one.

Yet Bilgere has one more emotional trick to play on the reader; the third stanza moves the poem into yet another mood, as the speaker revels in his current bike ride and the feelings of freedom it brings: "On my old bike, the gears clicking / Like years, the wind / Touching me for the first time, it seems, / In a very long time, / With a soft urgency all over." In "Like Riding a Bicycle," as in many of the poems in this collection, Bilgere moves the reader through a chain of emotions from beginning to end, emotions that may seem discordant yet somehow fit together perfectly within the poem.

But Bilgere's ability to string together multiple emotions and tones is perhaps best exemplified in "What I Want," which carries the epigraph, "for my marriage, 1996-2000." In this poem, the speaker presents the reader with a motley personal wish list. Items on the list range from such commonplace desires as "a good night's sleep" and "world peace" to more exotic dreams, such as the unearthing of a lost James Wright manuscript. The motivations behind these longings vary from the nostalgic, with dreams of returning to favorite memories, to the erotic, as in the speaker's fantasy visit from a colleague wearing sexy lingerie.

Mixed within these myriad desires are bursts of potent vengeance; every third or fourth item on the list seems to lead the speaker into a new twist of wicked, humorous, angry wishes involving his ex-wife. Some of these wishes are simple and straightforward—"I would like for my ex-wife to get leprosy"—while others develop unexpectedly out of the speaker's pleasant dreaming and blindside the reader with their punches of bitter humor. "An afternoon thunderstorm cooling off / The city as I sit listening to Ella / Sing 'Spring is Here,' so the air goes lyrical / And perhaps some stray bolt of lightning / Strikes my ex-wife as she steps from her car"--twists like these surprise the reader throughout "What I Want" and demonstrate Bilgere's remarkable ability to flawlessly weave together such variant tones.

Bilgere's poems deal with topics of everyday life, and human life is rarely mono-emotional. The poems in this collection demonstrate the shiftings and mixings of emotion that occur throughout all human experience. In The Good Kiss, it is through these emotional blendings that Bilgere creates depth within each poem and presents everyday human experience with a combination of punch and insight.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003

ode ode

Michael Farrell
Salt Publishing ($12.95)

by Aaron McCollough

Among younger poets today, the methods for channeling Frank O'Hara are manifold and often quite beautiful. They are seldom as remarkable, however, as the performance Michael Farrell pulls off in ode ode. The book is crammed—that's the only word for it—with language. Elisions and forced breaks, two of Farrell's favorite tools, make for jarring, sometimes difficult reading, but they also produce much of the book's poetic payoff. As implied by the glossolalic repetition of "ode" in the title, the book's labor is measured in productive juxtapositions; its ambition is to turn cramming into singing.

Narrative dilation and fast-talking whimsy are two O'Hara trademarks so common on the American scene as to seem ubiquitous. Farrell, an Australian poet, handles these qualities with aplomb; his work recalls O'Hara at his more opaque, providing just the corners of a narrative rather than the entire frame. This frees him to glide towards the lyric intensity of "at my maddest id ask / anyone if they wanted my / thoughts catch 22 lead / ing back to death by / bullets sid vicious beat / frank sinatra to it nice"—gorgeous jumpy lines from one of the book's many serial poems.

Other voices (familiar and strange) emerge in Farrell's work, as well: Yoko Ono competes for space with Elizabeth Bishop, Guns 'n' Roses, W.H. Auden, and the Booyaa Tribe; The Pretenders square up with Gertrude Stein and Tammy Wynette. Farrell's ear is as warm as an analog synthesizer, and ultimately he makes every one of these voices his own. Consider the strange narrative integrity and sonic beauty of these lines from "the me to i phrasebook":

the angels that walk only soar or
fall to the extremely self aware
sharing blood with you a harp sound bears
me hoops break the battles have happened
the hold me written in the book by
helps you cry like a seraph
basing this phrase on the fish that live
in the brook on the buns tourists drop
in talking like a mirror to an
artist of knifings paranoia
hurt understanding her breath was art
my breath was at best research or work.

These lines, and many more like them, make ode ode a charming and promising exercise in the oft-forgotten delights of the lyric mode. Moreover, Farrell's palate for experiment and tradition rewards multiple readings. It should feel fresh for a long time to come.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003

Rattlesnake Plantain

Heidi Greco
Anvil Press ($10)

by Nathan G. Thompson

In order to understand Heidi Greco's poetry, start with the title of her new book: Rattlesnake Plantain. The pairing of a poisonous snake and a wild plant used to heal burns and stings, it feels like an entire world. Add to this birds, spiders, clouds, angels, disease, and intimacy, and you end up with a collection that is both otherworldly and very much of this earth.

The poems in the book's first section all have definitions of different wildflowers as epigraphs; these ground the poems and also expand the reader's view of their subject matter. For example, in a poem about children in Zaire, Greco uses the Common Mullein, defined as having "medium to dark green" leaves and a habitat of "roadsides, garden edges, field margins, or otherwise disturbed land." Not only does this image reflect the homes of the children, but it also tells the reader something of their character. In order to survive, they must be tough, resourceful, and able to deal with being constantly exposed.

This is true of many of Greco's poems as well; they have the ability to make do, to take things seemingly unpoetic and make them sing. An overfilled bladder, for example, becomes a "lemon" to be squeezed, to get "rid of you / poison in the bloodstream." In this atmosphere, even insults can be transformed. She takes up the word "redneck," and its link with country music, and then reminds us that we all "yodel / in the shower /. . . warble to the din / of heated waters." Greco concludes from this that "we are all really rednecks / . . . [who] love that country music," the music of our hearts: the raw, pure sound of being alive.

Indeed, there is much rawness in Greco's poems, not in the language, but in terms of suffering, both human and non-human. One woman loses her breasts to cancer, while another has her head bashed against a stair by an abusive boyfriend. In one poem a spider hangs on for dear life, while in another, the spider slowly drowns in a bathtub. While some poets wallow in the misery of these situations, Greco simply touches down upon them for a moment, just long enough for the reader to feel the jolt. The dog in the poem "Brown Dog," for example, is "still shy / when the man comes too near / lifts his hand // for anything."

It is this glancing quality that seems most apt in describing Greco's best poems. They are poems where angels appear, family members disappear, and small birds worry "about cats that can fly." At times, Greco loses this lightness and becomes bogged down in narrative and personal history. In addition, there are more overtly sexual poems towards the end, which fall flat in a literalism not present in any of the other poems. However, these poems are the exceptions, and the journey the book takes us on is worth it. Rattlesnake Plantain is like a "light within the body" we use to "work our way toward morning."

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003

All Around What Empties Out

Linh Dinh
Subpress/Tinfish ($12)

by Chris Pusateri

One of the basic principles of architecture deals with the division of space: A structure modulates the flow of air, light, and elements, and in doing so, defines how interior space can function. Lessons in structure are not lost on Linh Dinh, whose first book-length collection, All Around What Empties Out, addresses such concerns in the opening pages:

A house with no doors. One enters by climbing through a window. Any window. Break glass if necessary. An entry should always be illicit. Unobstructed entrances are not worth passing through.
--(from "Traditional Vietnamese Architecture")

Imagine a structure such as the one that Dinh describes. Access to it requires the use of unorthodox techniques, such as those used by thieves. When entered, it yields, as the poem goes on to relate, an interior more akin to a funhouse than to a living space: furniture and carpet on the ceiling, a naked bulb placed squarely into the middle of an otherwise bare floor. The toilet, also fixed to the ceiling, is made not of porcelain but of papier-mâché. The reader, accustomed to buildings that function, is left asking: who could populate such an impractical domicile? And what sort of life could be led in that space?

Poetry, like architecture, traffics in the creation of forms. Poems subdivide space, delineate function (working with language rather than joists and drywall), and furnish an interior into which readers are invited. Often this requires us to climb through windows, break glass, and act as felons—though who but an inquisitive reader would delight in finding papier-mâché toilets sneering down from the ceiling?

To read Dinh's book, one must be ready to meet obstructions at every turn. Like the house described in "Traditional Vietnamese Architecture," Dinh's work appears, from a distance, to be nothing more than a series of ordinary structures. His poems certainly bear all the usual attributes: titles, lines, white space, few unusual spatial configurations. Yet as one draws closer, the details make apparent what distance has hidden—a content that belies a bawdy brand of humor, a sharp political wit, and a willingness to offend in the service of accessibility. These qualities are the windows through which the reader hoists himself.

In an age where preoccupation with form has become perhaps the primary poetic concern, Linh Dinh presents us with a selection of radical content. From suckling pigs to exposed assholes to problems of ethnic representations, Dinh's work compels us to evaluate content not as an extension of form (making it fit to be dismissed) but as an entity in its own right. If, as Dinh suggests in his poem "Longitudes," "A provincial often thinks himself superior to a cosmopolitan / Because he knows every nook of a stinking alley," then perhaps what we have in Dinh's work is a synthesis of these two binaries: the ability to provide detail without losing sight of the larger picture.

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003

Sand

Dennis Phillips
Green Integer ($10.95)

by Deborah Meadows

Dennis Phillips's ninth collection of poetry, Sand, is a beautifully sedate work in twenty-one parts beginning with "Prelude" and "Altered Landscape" then concluding with "A Chart Room" and "Clarity." Like many works in the avant-garde aesthetic, there is a tracing of recurrence rather than a developmental journey, a deflation of or missing self, an emphasis on placing pressure on syntax to yield an opening away from familiarity and zones of social comfort. Indeed, this is a poetry of skepticism. In the earlier work A World, Phillips turned away from the impossibility of knowing and inward to "A stream of noise skyward indicating a population never graspable"; whereas Sand reviews, in part, problems with generalities, such as in this fascinating critique of art and state power:

These are the quotes, they said.

These symbols are accomplishments.

Troops, someone said.

The effect is too general. These
correspondences, just gilded,
tremendous in emptiness.

Repose is the compliment of which value?
Distance? Relation? Volume?

We were there, we saw them.
These are their responses, as if
witnessing or cavalry
attended these factors.

A slightly revised version, this poem from 1996's Credence carries culturally cluttered terms such as "correspondences," "gilded," and the two-part line with "witness" and "cavalry" opening onto the moral dimension of knowledge. That is, if serious things happen, people murdered by state power, for example, it's not sufficient to say that complete knowledge is never possible under any circumstances, but that quite a lot may hinge on the "witness" account. Can one see the world through a grain of sand?

Oddly, Phillips's moral urgency is expressed within dull, distant observation. Very flat in affect, the poems suggest the observed fragment of narrative cannot rationally justify an unobserved arc of completion nor can it neglect variability:

As emptiness seems to preside. Their faces were upturned, eyes carefully covered, as they must have known. Yes, a herd of bison, this early, the cave record, yes, a frail romance. Having opened the topic a crying or whining or squeaking was heard. Were they aware of the error?

But to return to the problem of generality. Scottish philosopher David Hume is noted for first stating the problem of induction in his A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40): that deriving generalities from instances relied on circular reasoning. For example, predicting future events such as a solar eclipse involves moving from observed matters of fact to unobserved matters of fact, and even those beyond the range of direct observation. Hume pointed out that we are additionally caught out because our inferences are based on an expectation of the uniformity of nature. He concludes skeptically that there can be no rational or logical justification of inferences that move from observed to unobserved, that they are based on custom and habit, and that human inclination to be pattern-forming creatures doesn't constitute a rational justification. Twentieth-century philosophers have dissolved, rather than solved, this by arguing that induction is a false problem based on linguistic confusion—in a sense, absenting it from the world.

In Sand:

Reliant on observation, dependent on promptitude.
Excited by the tardy, enthralled by the oblivious.

The only response unrehearsed
would be the particulars of flora and fauna
or a record kept of habits, depths and phases.

Readers of Phillips may tease out how variation works through his poetic devices. Laying bare Phillips's tool kit shows, but not exhaustively, frequent use of passive voice implying either critique of prevailing moral responsibility or alienation effects:

Thus the strategy was confirmed
just as those around the table felt it had lost its meaning.

Frequent use of conditional tenses reminding the reader of the unreliability of knowledge:

An arrangement could be made to meet others. And yet now a cloud could clearly be seen.

A de-escalation of portentous statement from the idiom of Poundian mastery of sonority and requisite suspension of independent authority to an empowering resistance:

Who were they to question their resources?

As if a simple implantation, fantasy or truth-telling, a feast day, the way a new idea (technology) will always seem threatening, one smiles, the end is sightlessly measured but linearly.

And so they who would like to give it or they who withhold it or they are characters and may do anything.

Subtract something but even that is history, or graft something on, their journeys to distant capitals, for example: they who reign so popular.

Readers of Phillips may make significant connections to other art forms and other philosophical traditions that employ similar hall-of-mirrors approaches. That we may notice Phillips notice that he notices—so like the three-part echo in Credence—provokes original questions on the role of witness. Is the visual information we have here worthier than edifying "imagery"? Other times Phillips's syntax is pressured, if not pressed to the breaking point. Here's the absurd:

It had been late.

or the funny:

Gradually one is surrounded by ghosts.

Social and linguistic critics can be appreciated when their flaws are available and vulnerable, too. Here, the disembodied narrator so alienated by events, social scripting and brainwashing comes to be an overbearing source of control:

But then nothing was
surprising or at least on schedule.

Yet might sex offer a contrast to disconnection found in claims to universal status in many forms of argument or evaluation? Such is the lovely "Island Thinking" segment:

This is island thinking.

The whisper, not an appropriate ending.
The hotel's adrift, placeless, postless
as if a logical argument
or the world of judgment.

Where some may apply the technique of variable foot in sonorous properties of poetry, Phillips may offer a variable observation. To deflect conclusions may be familiar to many students of the experimental tradition; however, to critics of Hume, to avoid error, the skeptic also forfeits a corresponding possibility to grasp a truth. Or, placed within terms of emotional economy: The disengagement when seeking the error-free can turn on the avoidance of happiness. But we must remember the historic moment of Hume's work involved some of his attentions being directed toward disproving miracles. In response to the cultural wars of his time, he argued that miracles are violations of laws of nature whose evidence he thought overwhelming, and that even if the laws of nature were violated, this possibility lacks the force of evidence necessary to justify the arrogance and intolerance that characterize many religions. Not a bad conclusion, and one Phillips might appreciate in a deconstruction of the power structures ("anthems") supported by forms of certitude:

No detail exempts us. But every detail is a trap.

Please don't imagine anything global.

The carp emerge at feeding time
and look through dangerous film
for the keeper.

Hume posited that we need an unreliable third faculty, imagination, which through a series of outright mistakes leads us to believe in our selves and in independently existing objects. Many critics point out that this third faculty saves us from the excesses of philosophy. Sand concludes:

he tried to remember not to forget
any of his important items.

The epic of description followed him.

And yet it was pleasing: He knew
that he was not bitten.

They were often confused by his clarity.

Times come, he thought.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003

The New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry

Edited by Eliot Weinberger
Translated by William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder, and David Hinton
New Directions ($24.95)

by Lucas Klein

The translator is a servant of two masters, one native and one foreign; Eliot Weinberger, in editing The New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry, also puts himself at the service of two masters. Just as a translator must compromise between fidelity to the original text and creating a well-written and moving poem in English, Weinberger's anthology presents both the range of classical Chinese poetry and a catalogue of translations to compare and contrast.

The central dilemma within this anthology is the question of what it truly aims to be: Am I supposed to understand translation, or am I supposed to understand classical Chinese poetry? The tension lasts throughout the volume, feeding a hidden narrative that enables the book to be read beginning to end more easily than most anthologies, whose historical or thematic organizations lead to random browsing instead of cover-to-cover relationships.

Yet the New Directions Anthology is driven by more interior conflict than this one alone: in Weinberger's introduction, where he outlines the trajectory of Chinese poetry's merging into the lane of 20th-century American literature, he hints at a few more spots of stress, as well. Beginning with a narrative of how Ezra Pound came to translate the poems of Cathay, and then delineating how Kenneth Rexroth, William Carlos Williams, Gary Snyder, and David Hinton—the five translators whose work this volume showcases—came to translation of Chinese poetry, Weinberger writes, "in 1909 . . . a poet like Li Po sounded like this (the translator is L. Cranmer-Byng):

And now Spring beckons with verdant hand,
And Nature's wealth of eloquence doth win
Forth to the fragrant-bowered nectarine,
Where my dear friends abide, a careless band.

But by 1915, here was Li Po, as translated by Pound:

Desolate castle, the sky, the wide desert.
There is no wall left to this village.
Bones white with a thousand frosts,
High heaps, covered with trees and grass;
Who brought this to pass?

(The translations are not, fortunately, of the same poem). The tension here is one central to poet-translators everywhere, and that is between naturalization and revolution. That is, will the language of the translation fit naturally into contemporary poetic syntax, or will it seek to revolutionize the language of poetry with the introduction of a new idiom?

Now that Poetic Modernism and its "direct treatment of the thing" are so established, we may need to be reminded that Pound's translation was in fact a radicalization. But the hint is in his selection of the title Cathay as much as it is in T. S. Eliot's praise that "Pound is the inventor of Chinese poetry for our time": these poems are inventions, just as "Cathay" refers to an idealized China, and the language of these translations is a new creation meant for use in all poetry to follow. Weinberger touches upon this very point, explaining, "Cathay was the first great book in English of the new, plain-speaking, laconic, image-driven free verse."

But yesterday's radicals are today's policy makers, and what was revolutionary now is standard. The tension that follows is in the way Kenneth Rexroth, William Carlos Williams, Gary Snyder, David Hinton, and even an older Ezra Pound navigate the dilemma between letting these Chinese poems speak an English that either leads or conforms to how poetry is written at the time.

The book is arranged chronologically, beginning with the Shih Ching, or The Book of Odes, which means that except for one Pound translation from 1915, the entire first section comes from Pound's translations of 1954, when he was interred in a mental institution. Here, his earlier Cathay-era calmness is gone, and instead he sounds like a cross between Gerard Manley Hopkins and Langston Hughes. Listen to how he translates the first stanza of "Song of the Bowmen of Shu" in 1915:

Here we are, picking the first fern-shoots
And saying: When shall we get back to our country?
Here we are because we have the Ken-nin for our foemen,
We have no comfort because of these Mongols.

And the same stanza again, forty years later:

Pick a fern, pick a fern, ferns are high,
"Home," I'll say: home, the year's gone by,
no house, no roof, these huns on the hoof.
Work, work, work, that's how it runs,
We are here because of these huns.

Amazingly enough, Pound's impetus is the same in both eras: to create a new idiom for poetry. In his Odes translations, Pound was writing a companion piece to The Cantos, a poem of some length that would contain the history of the whole world. So his translations refer to clichés about Rome ("What the wind hath blown away, / can men of Cheng rebuild it in a day"), with personae who speak like antebellum slaves ("Thaar's where ole Marse Shao used to sit"), mention Greek gods ("who moves as on winged feet"), cook international cuisine ("it will steam thy rice or other / grain"), and revert to archaic spelling to prove a point ("Only antient wisdom is / solace to man's miseries").

At times, Pound's language in these translations reaches a stylized beauty, such as can be found in passages in The Cantos. Echoing the language of "What thou lovest well remains", Pound has translated:

Scorching breath on the height, grief,
All grass must die, no tree but loseth leaf
Soft is the valley wind, harsh on the crest,
You remember the worst of me
Forgetting the best

But more often his reach to steam 'rice and other grain' exceeds his grasp, as he is left with:

sorrow about the heart like an unwashed shirt, I
clutch here at words,
having no force to fly.

Ezra Pound's translations are attempts to change the music of poetry in his age. Kenneth Rexroth's translations attempt the opposite and try to fit the classical Chinese rhythms to a calm American voice (Rexroth and Pound form a perfect odd couple: one was a fascist atheist Confucian who translated Li Po, the other was an anarcho-socialist Christian Buddhist who translated Tu Fu). Weinberger describes: "Rexroth had reimagined the poems as the work of someone on the other side of the Pacific Rim, speaking in a plain, natural-breathing, neutral American idiom. Ignoring the Chinese line, which is normally a complete syntactical unit, Rexroth enjambed his, often with end-stops in the middle, to give them the illusion of effortless speech."

The effortless speech of his translations, in step with the rhythms of his own poetry, make Rexroth's the most readable and attractive translations in the volume. One of the premier poets of physical love in English, the writer of "When We with Sappho" seems to have honed his ability to merge the soul with the body in his Chinese translations:

We break off a branch of poplar catkins.
A hundred birds sing in the tree.
Lying beneath it in the garden,
We talk to each other,
Our tongues in each other's mouth.
(Anonymous, Six Dynasties)

His deftness is especially audible in his translations of the Sung Dynasty, where a freer and more open style of verse based on the tunes of old songs developed. While the taut structure and denseness of Tang Dynasty lyrics have attracted most poets interested in the Chinese tradition, Rexroth's poetic personalities merge best with the Sung verses, where he can write "At this moment, out of the / River, the material / Soul of the moon is born" (Su Tung-p'o); "There will never come a / Time when I will be able / To resist my emotions" (Chu Shu-chen); "It is no longer possible / For me to contemplate / The blossoming plums" (Li Ch'ing-chao); and "What does it matter to him / If the government is built / On sand?" (Lu Yu).

Rexroth's translations are not mitigated by being so close to his own voice; a voracious translator, he lent his own mouth to the songs of classical Chinese poetry and called translation an "act of sympathy" with the original poem. But where Rexroth's translations pour into the vase of his own tone and line, William Carlos Williams kept the form of his translated lines distinct. Not one poem follows the three-step line, and only two of his poems (Li Po's "Spring Song" and "Summer Song") read with the characteristic prescription-pad line length famous from "The Red Wheelbarrow":

Spring Song

A young lass
Plucks mulberry leaves by the river

Her white hand
Reaches among the green

Her flushed cheeks
Shine under the sun

The hungry silkworms
Are waiting

Oh, young horseman
Why do you tarry. Get going.

Even here, each couplet is obviously a single line in the Chinese, and the break between lines in each stanza reflects the caesura between the second and third characters in five-word Tang Dynasty lines. The majority of his other translations are end-stopped, with language that, at times, jars with the stripped-down essence of Williams's other writing ("The wind blows fiercely over lakes and rivers. / Be watchful lest you fall from your boat!", Tu Fu). Williams was much less a translator than the other poets collected in the anthology, and his daring in poetry seems dampened by his responsibilities to the original. Collaboration with a native speaker, while saving him from errors or misreadings that snagged the others, may also have lessened his experimental streak. Nevertheless, he initiated one fine line-break, at the end of his translation of Meng Hao-jan's "Late Spring":

With cups held high in our hands
We hear the voices of sing-song girls
ringing

Williams's great poetic interest was finding a specifically American poetic, and as such his translations from the Chinese are something of a surprise. Gary Snyder's voice, while no less American, has always been more interested in the foreign or excluded—such as his years in Japan and his eco-activism—and one senses that his translations are attempts to spread the American idiom wide enough to cover Asian literature.

It is no surprise, then, that his poems reject the naturalization impulse. In his translations—and in much of his poetry—he has sharpened his idiom with a sparse Asiatic grammar. Here, for instance, is Kenneth Rexroth's translation of the Liu Tsung-yüan poem "River Snow":

A thousand mountains without a bird.
Ten thousand miles with no trace of man.
A boat. An old man in a straw raincoat,
Alone in the snow, fishing in the freezing river.

And here is Snyder's:

These thousand peaks cut off the flight of birds
On all the trails, human tracks are gone.
A single boat—coat—hat—an old man!
Alone      fishing      chill      river      snow.

The first two lines are more dramatic than Rexroth's, but the final couplet is more emblematic of Snyder's method of translation. Preserving the Chinese syntax while pressuring the English, he has nearly eliminated grammar and made his poem out of a gloss of the original. The result, either fresh and immediate or stilted and pretentious, is dependent on personal inclination; nonetheless, Snyder's pursuit of the foreign has compelled him to reject the more natural rhythms and structure of an English line, pushing towards newness in poetry.

While he has never published a volume of his own poems, David Hinton's translations featured here are capable of simultaneously anchoring the anthology in trustworthy fidelity and creating a new direction for contemporary poetry in English. Hinton's translations in this book come from six book-length translations of a single author each, plus an anthology of Chinese wilderness writing; certainly his scholarship is beyond question.

More than that, his process of translation allows for Rexrothian enjambment while respecting the basic unit of measurement of Chinese poetry, the couplet. Nearly all of Hinton's translations appear as sequences of two-line stanzas, suggesting the importance of the couplet in Chinese writing. From T'ao Ch'ien's "Drinking Wine":

I live in town without all that racket
horses and carts stir up, and you wonder

how that could be. Wherever the mind
dwells apart is itself a distant place.

Picking chrysanthemums at my east fence,
far off, I see South Mountain: mountain

air lovely at dusk, birds in flight
returning home. All this means something,

something absolute. Whenever I start
explaining it, I've forgotten the words.

Here, Hinton's sculpturing of his lines has allowed for stress and meter to seep in according to the English, all the while hinting at the primacy of the couplets in the original. His rhythms and vocabulary also tend to be thicker, or more full, than that of the other translators: compare a couplet from Ezra Pound's translation of Li Po's "The Jewel Stairs' Grievance" ("The jeweled steps are already quite white with dew, / It is so late that the dew soaks my gauze stockings") with Hinton's "Jade-Staircase Grievance" ("Night long on the jade staircase, white / dew appears, soaks through gauze stockings"). As a result, his translations transmit something of the condensed complexity of the Chinese original, where in Pound's, Williams's, Rexroth's, and Snyder's translations the fluidity creates poems misleadingly simple.

Perhaps the greatest strength of Hinton's translations, at least with respect to the current volume, is that their author is a translator rather than a poet. Not only do his lines not come short in comparison with the others—all members of the Pantheon of Modernist Poets—but his knowledge of the language ensures that the details of these poems do not get lost or misunderstood away. While Weinberger has not included the Chinese texts or word-for-word definitions, Hinton's translations, when set against what may be more interpretive versions, approach the original as closely as we can expect.

If The New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry has a flaw, it is that Weinberger only had space for five translators. He mentions many other translators and poets in his introduction, such as James Legge, Burton Watson, Arthur Waley, Wai-lim Yip, David Hawkes, Amy Lowell, and others, but their work—except for Legge and Watson versions in the comprehensive Notes—is unrepresented. Neither does the book have space for more contemporary poet-translators such as Carolyn Kizer and Arthur Sze. Weinberger, remarking on criticism of his earlier anthology, American Poetry Since 1950: Innovators and Outsiders, has said that the anthology is the only genre that can be faulted for what it does not include, as well as for what it does. In the introduction, he hopes to forestall such attacks with "The dream of comprehensiveness among anthologists and reviewers—a dream of a library, not a book—leads only to shelves of the massive and the unread." The point is taken, and hopefully a project such as this can inspire readers on to further readings, further translations, and further poetry, just as many speakers of foreign languages have been inspired by translations they read early on.

And in the end, tension resolved, this is not an anthology of translation: it is an anthology of classical Chinese poetry (for a brilliant discussion of comparative translation, see Weinberger's earlier study, Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei). Just as Chinese landscape painting never developed a one-point perspective, always preferring to see the same mountain from many sides at once, this anthology presents Chinese poetry as viewed from several angles. And ultimately, with such many-sided and multi-faceted viewing, the reader ends up with a richer, more developed sense of the poems and their literary tradition. At the end of this volume, rather than feeling servant to two masters, the reader feels master of two servants: the trajectory of translation of classical Chinese poetry into English, and of the Chinese poetry itself, as close to the original in spirit and in letter as any volume can hope to achieve.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003

Fire In A Canebrake: The Last Mass Lynching in America

Laura Wexler
Scribner ($24)

by Jack Gilden

In the rural Georgia counties of the late 1940s black and white agitation over the red clay produced blizzards of snowy cotton, and black picked it and white paid for it and in the end they dumped it into machines that separated the seeds from the fibers and the fibers became strands and the strands became useful things like sheets for white and ropes for black.

This is the raw material from which Laura Wexler weaves Fire in a Canebrake, a nonfiction novel about the true-but-still-unsolved mystery of "The Last Mass Lynching in America." Georgia is Eden here, a verdant paradise of honeysuckle meadows, trickling streams, plank bridges, dusty roads, corn liquor, and taboo sex. God is very much alive, if only a faint rumble in the distance. And the people—black and white—are weevils in the garden, malevolently grubbing cotton until there is no cushion left between them.

Wexler takes us to this setting, back to 1946 and the infamous Moore's Ford Incident in which four blacks—Roger Malcom, Dorothy Malcom, George Dorsey, and Mae Murray Dorsey—were lynched by an indignant white mob. The victims weren't strung up; they were cut down by a hailstorm of more than 60 close-range shotgun blasts. The resulting sound, caught by the ears of one nearby, was likened to "a fire in a canebrake."

Ostensibly, the catalyst for the killing was Roger Malcom, a black tenant farmer who had stabbed his white landlord, Barnette Hester. The two were former boyhood playmates now separated by their life stations and their involvement with the same black woman, Malcom's wife Dorothy. Sticking a blade in Barnette Hester wasn't enough to kill him, and it probably wasn't enough to fetch 20 men with shotguns either. But the second male lynched in the attack, George Dorsey, was rumored to have slept with white women.

The case quickly became notorious, provoking outrage and horror all over the United States. Nevertheless, the murder investigation was doomed from the start. Local law enforcement officials were likely participants in the crime. President Truman took notice, but the federal government was largely a toothless dragon since its jurisdiction was narrow to the point of impotence. The FBI was dispatched in unprecedented numbers but to no good effect. Whites "protected" each other, or else. "If I had anything to do with the lynching and my brother reported it," one local man stated, "I'd kill him."

Blacks weren't much help either. The entire race had been bludgeoned into silence. There was some hope that the presence of federal agents would coax the truth from them, but the FBI wasn't built to protect or serve these citizens. There were only three black agents in the entire Bureau, and one of them was J. Edgar Hoover's aging chauffeur, who had been elevated to the title only as a means of placating the NAACP.

In fact, intense investigation by local law enforcement, the FBI, and a grand jury all came to nothing. No one was indicted. No one was ever convicted.

That no one would pay for the crime was a scenario predicted just four days after the lynching by the brilliant editor of the Atlanta Constitution, Ralph McGill. He wrote with aching poignancy: "Even though they (the killers) never come to justice, they . . . will wonder to themselves how it was that they, who some mother nursed and cared for to rear them to manhood, dreaming dreams for them, managed to come to do murder. They will begin to realize that they have taken human life and are cursed of God."

Wexler's prose is not nearly as stylistic, but it is certainly no less damning. She doesn't exert herself to tell you that the whites in this story are crude, violent, and ignorant beyond comprehension. They're happy to tell you themselves. "I knew a fellow who knew a nigger who had lived in Africa and he'd boiled up his father's head and made soup out of it and ate it," one apparent anthropologist lectured a visiting newspaper reporter. "That's the kind of people niggers is. . . . "

Her descriptions of the black community, though unvarnished, are tempered by the depressing conditions in which they functioned. Their lives were wasted tilling other people's land for a chump's wage. The political system disenfranchised them. The judicial system ignored their grievances. And the law failed to protect them when their transgressions against white supremacy delivered extemporaneous brutality upon their heads.

Though Wexler never solves the mystery of the crime, she nails its skulking nature, sacrificing this lynching upon the altar of the lynching phenomenon. She lays bare before us the internecine world of Moore's Ford, though if we gnaw at its bones too intently we may miss the flesh and marrow of our own times. Moore's Ford begat Harry S. Truman's civil rights agenda which begat Strom Thurmond's segregationist presidential campaign which begat Trent Lott's statement that America would have been better off had Thurmond won.

In January 2003, Lott resigned his exalted position of leadership in the United States Senate just as Fire in a Canebrake was rolling off the presses. The symmetry is all the more outlandish because there is still no federal law against lynching in the land of the free.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003

The Constructivist Moment: From Material Text to Cultural Poetics

Barrett Watten
Wesleyan University Press ($27.95)

by Brent Cunningham

The Constructivist Moment: From Material Text to Cultural Poetics is a work of academic literary and cultural theory made up of eight chapters, each an essay Barrett Watten has written over the last ten years. While the specifically Russian version of "Constructivism" does show up periodically in this work (largely in the person of El Lissitzky), this is much less a book for Russian scholars than for those interested in literary theory, contemporary poetry, and American cultural studies. At the same time, Watten knows a lot about a lot: his interests run the gamut from poetry and poetics (especially the Language School of which Watten is a prominent member) to American modernity, Fordism, American photography and art, political theory, New Historicism, Detroit techno, Detroit city planning, psychoanalytic theory, continental philosophy, and, yes, Russian art, architecture and art theory.

Watten is aware that it is not particularly earth-shattering in academic circles to point out that all these areas (art, theory, culture) have their social "constructedness" in common. Instead, the book seeks to give both theoretical and cultural specificity to the subtleties of Watten's particular notion of the constructed. He does this, in part, by stressing two other (at times equally general) concepts which he clearly sees as unifying forces for his diverse interests: materiality and negativity.

By materiality, Watten means to indicate both the social context in which writing occurs (in turn conceived as both its "historical referents and utopian prospects") and the stuff of art itself (language, paint, sound). Materiality not only leads to Watten's essay on the history and uses of restricted vocabularies as "material" constraints in the work of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Jackson Mac Low, Louis Zukofsky, and Kit Robinson, but also provides a convenient bridge to analyses of art, film and music. By defining all avant-gardes by this "irreducible" materiality, Watten is free to range over multiple art forms and diverse cultures, while also keeping a "materialist" politics in sight.

Watten's "negativity" (or "refusal") is even more complex than his "materiality." And no wonder, since he is pulling from a daunting range of thinkers: "I have employed six interlocking accounts of negativity in the course of my analyses: following Hegel, Foucault, Kristeva, Zizek, Lacan, and Heidegger." Nor does Watten choose between the "cultural, psychological, and formal aspects" of negativity: "This refusal may take the form of an explicitly oppositional poetics; or it may be self-negating even to the point of withdraw from society or suicide; or it may involve a radical reconfiguration of the formal possibilities of a genre or medium and their cultural significance." Nevertheless, the concept is sharp enough to help structure an impressive summary of Slavoj Zizek's understanding of the Lacanian Real, to provide a useful reading of Stan Douglas's photographs of downtown Detroit, and to highlight a number of insights into the poetry of Robert Grenier. Negativity also seems to be at the heart of Watten's critique of Charles Bernstein's arguably more positivist (or as Watten is willing to put it "universalist") views of difference and identity.

At the same time, Watten's reliance on somewhat borderless concepts such as materiality and negativity has the significant drawback of risking abstraction and opacity. Although The Constructivist Moment is much more lucid than his previous critical book, Total Syntax (Southern Illinois University Press, 1985), Watten's style can still be quite difficult to penetrate. For some readers this density will be intriguing, while for others it will be frustrating.

This objection can be made even more precise by looking at the architecture between disjunctive sections of Watten's essays and between the essays themselves. Transitional phrases and repeating motifs have the effect of implying connections, continuity, and correspondences between sections. While highly suggestive at times, this technique often forces Watten's most provocative tableaus to appear as mere components in larger arguments, a labor they cannot always accomplish. A case in point is Watten's brilliant reading of Gertrude Stein through the automobiles she owned and through her attitude toward her cars and Henry Ford, by itself a section worthy of Roland Barthes. The section makes the point that modernist writers like Stein were not separate from their social matrix despite their being read by scholars for precisely their autonomy and distance from that matrix. Contrary to those scholars, Watten instead finds the "genius" of a Stein in her ability to foreground her writing in the conditions of her age, so that it becomes "an imitation, or form of parallel play, of that [Fordist] mode of production."

Leaving aside the possible objection that an imitation is also a distancing, even autonomy by another name, the real problem comes in the next section. There, Watten delves into the formation of Language Poetry in the 1970s ("an abrupt transition," Watten admits) in order to argue that "a pragmatic sense" of what Stein meant by genius is exactly how the Language School was historically formed: by accretion rather than invention, by immediate responses to material problems, and more specifically by "a sequence of innovations within a form of organization that developed between writers in magazines such as This." This is all consistent, according to Watten, with the accretive manner in which Ford's assembly line came into being.

Unfortunately, here the extension of Watten's "assembly line" comparison actually undercuts Watten's original insights regarding Stein, for now the metaphor must bear not only the work of Gertrude Stein but also the social formation of the Language Poets. While it might be compelling to hear Watten explicitly argue that the products of artistic social formations are equivalent to the art works of individuals, he does not make this argument. The looseness of his point (and the stretching horizon of the trope) ends up implying little more than this modernist writer and this postmodern literary movement have some relation to the invention of the assembly line, or maybe to assembly lines themselves, or maybe to both.

Even inexact conflations of this sort would be interesting were Watten to explain the necessity for the network of implied and overarching arguments and resonances this book features—that is, to talk specifically about why he uses the linked form he uses in these essays, and thus to perhaps expose his own devices, revealing academic argument to be as much a "construction" as any of the cultural products he investigates.

This may very well be one of Watten's points, if not an explicit one. But although such an overt move does not happen, there is still a great quantity of solid information and suggestive theorizing in this book by a writer and scholar deeply and personally obsessed with contemporary poetry, art, and theory. So personally involved, in fact, that Watten regularly uses his own work as examples. Some readers may object to having a core participant in the Language School try to historicize and valorize the very movement he helped create, but I suspect most readers will find it engaging to watch Watten leap from couch to chair, from analyst to analysand, from academic to poet. Whether the entire effort is an idiosyncratic approach to academic discourse or another document in the ongoing history of Language Poetry will be up to individual readers and scholars.

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003

The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don't Think for Themselves

Curtis White
HarperSanFrancisco ($23.95)

by Steve Healey

Destined to inspire numerous café debates and become the pop-intellectual scandal of the season, Curtis White's latest book is an enormously ambitious and wide-ranging polemic. Clamoring for more socially engaged imagination in America, he especially scolds those who consume a kind of cultural mediocrity packaged as liberalism lite (aka the Middle Mind)—and, ironically, those who are most likely to read this book.

The secret skeletal system of White's too-small, 203-page opus is a daringly affirmative proposal to awaken in America a more sublime yet pragmatic creativity that's willing to challenge dominant ideologies. This discussion—beginning, ending, and emerging at crucial moments throughout the book—shows White at his most convincing, both tonally and intellectually. Calling on Stevens's notion of a constant interplay between reality and imagination, Kant's sublime that is evocative but indeterminate, and later, Derrida's metaphysics that keep moving and changing, White fashions a complex vision of an active and relevant imagination that has public consequences while avoiding the stagnation of a more managed, corporate creativity.

Art, of course, is the form this sublime force most often takes, and White even offers various contemporary examples of which he approves, including Radiohead's Kid A and David Lynch's Blue Velvet. Both of these works, he argues, achieve their socially imaginative profundity by eschewing obvious political messages and easy moral conclusions, and letting their formal elements do the talking. "Art is most properly useful," White says, "when it doesn't know exactly what it is about," when it avoids "self-certain didacticism" and tries to "lead us away from communication as domination" through a certain "inarticulateness."

The rest of The Middle Mind addresses the disease for which the social imagination is the remedy, and this is where White spits the venomous vituperations that will no doubt offend many readers and become—another irony—the book's marketing force. The introduction neatly targets "the media, academia, and politics, the three areas of public life that provide the vehicles for the great antagonists of the imagination: entertainment, orthodoxy, and ideology." As promised, the book's core chapters slay these antagonists in short order, and while much of what White says is smart and necessary, he often puffs up his enemies with too much straw, strays into regions of "public life" he knows little about, makes unsupportable statements about broad groups of people and practices, and generally employs a blistering sarcastic tone that's meant to be funny but often comes across as contrived and sloppy.

Chapter 1 focuses on media entertainment, and this is primarily where he defines and attacks the Middle Mind, that diluted and consumer-oriented brand of social awareness and artfulness. Terry Gross's Fresh Air, Joe Queenan's Balsamic Dreams, and Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan are notable Middle Mind icons that White nails to his crosses. These potent cultural brokers certainly deserve criticism, but White's method is often dubious and haphazard. Among his favorite tricks, for example, is to fabricate exaggerated quotations and present them as if spoken by the objects of his ire, then slam these caricatures for having said something so vapid and corrupt.

It's unfortunate that White's critical mode is poorly executed at times, because his ideas have great potential salience and insight. It's vital that the Middle Mind be battled because—as White points out—it exists in denial of itself, and it's quickly becoming the major safety valve that allows liberal market democracy to expand its hypocrisies around the globe. Chapter 2—which rakes the academic left, especially those Cultural Studies-entrenched English departments—does well to point out that the "fundamental lack" of institutional critics is that they don't "look at texts from the perspective of artists," relying instead on a rationalist, abstract, and disembodied jargon. And Chapter 3--which takes on the massive beast of current politics—cogently spotlights "a New Censorship which functions by making everything known and naked to a paralyzing degree."

White doesn't analyze enough how these adversaries of the imagination work together to form the current American cultural machine, or what historical conditions have allowed them to dominate, and he largely disregards consumer and advertising culture (don't Mastercard's "priceless" commercials, for example, exploit contradictions at least as damagingly as Terry Gross does?). Although The Middle Mind begins a much-needed exploration of our deceptively muddled culture, it sometimes reads like a rough draft of what could be a watershed work of criticism. I eagerly await the revised and expanded edition.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003

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