Tag Archives: fall 2004


Click here to buy this book from Amazon.comThe Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined Women
Susan J. Douglas and Meredith W. Michaels
Free Press ($26)
by Sarah Buttenwieser

What do welfare mothers and celebrity moms have in common? According to Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels, these iconic stereotypes contribute to motherhood's current state, the new "momism." Welfare mothers border upon evil: lazy, fat women who scam the system for government subsidies and raise drug-addicted truants. The fantastical virtues of celebrity moms, in turn, evoke Madonna (not the singer). Their children want for nothing with designer clothes, gourmet snacks, and luxurious vacations. Round-the-clock nannies enable these women to meet celebrity's demands. When they aren't working, they are perfectly and serenely present for their children who uniformly fill their lives with joy and meaning.

The authors' analysis of television, magazines, and advertising from 1970 to the present is thorough and detailed, but their humorous tone is far from academic. For example, when asserting that the new momism is promoted even through toys, they write, "Coonskin hats and silly putty were just not going to cut it anymore. The good mother had to get her kids toys that were educational, that advanced gross and fine motor skills, that gave them the spatial sensibilities and design aptitude of Frank Lloyd Wright, and that taught Johnny to read James Joyce at age three." Their central point is that the media, in staging a backlash to feminism, has upped the ante on motherhood. Even how mothers refer to themselves at issue. "Today, thanks in part to Dr. Laura ('I am my kids' mom') and Republican pollsters (who coined the term 'soccer mom' in 1996), we hear about 'the moms' getting together and we have become so-and-so's mom…at the same time, 'mom' means you're good and nurturing while 'mother' means you're not (note the media uses of 'celebrity mom' versus 'welfare mother' and 'stay-at-home mom' versus 'working mother')." The authors discover that "crack babies" are such a grossly distorted interpretation of Dr. Ira Chasnoff's research about cocaine use during pregnancy that he denounced the term, asserting "Poverty is the worst thing that can happen to a child."

A thought provoking, swift read, The Mommy Myth provides a powerful antidote to every glossy magazine at the supermarket checkout featuring a reed-thin six-days' postpartum celebrity mom and every "mom" who professes to want do to nothing more in life than tend to her brood. Some will see this book as too polemic or strident (a term all too often applied to feminists). Even with a grain of salt, however, the message is clear and compelling. "Women have been deluged by an ever-thickening mudslide of maternal media advice, programming and marketing that powerfully shapes how we mothers feel about our relationships with our own kids and, indeed, how we feel about ourselves."

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004


Buy this book from Amazon.comMichael Magee
University of Alabama Press ($27.50)

by Jefferson Hanson

Emancipating Pragmatism focuses most specifically on Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ralph W. Ellison, Frank O'Hara, and Amiri Baraka, none of whom explicitly define themselves as pragmatists. Nonetheless, Magee sees a definite link between their work and that of the avowed classic pragmatists John Dewey and William James.

Viewing the work of Emerson and Ellison as the foundation of a multi-cultural pragmatist strain in American literature, thinking, and music, this book is important reading for those interested in the relationship of African-American music and literature to pragmatism and experimental poetry. Each chapter of this book provides valuable and provocative insights into its specific subject matter.

Magee's key phrase throughout the book is "democratic symbolic action." He believes that it is a rhetorical tactic developed by Emerson for a "specifically American version of pragmatism." It entails manipulating cultural symbols—myths, documents, words—so as to expose and create the maximum difference between cultural symbols and the social structure which organizes actual behavior. The most important cultural tactic seems to be developing alternate vocabularies. In doing so, the inequities of the social structure become apparent and the society can move toward more liberty.

Magee traces the beginnings of pragmatism to the work of a reconsidered Ralph Waldo Emerson, one whose gradually heightening and more dedicated abolitionism in the course of the 1840s and 1850s caused him to develop trenchant critiques of the way writing, reading and politics are usually understood. The second chapter of the book, entitled "Emerson and the Collaborating Reader," shows convincingly how Emerson anticipated some post-structuralist ideas in his attempt to write essays that unseated him, the author, from a place of authority and into a discursive space with his readers. Emerson distinguished this type of "democratic reading and writing" from the South's "immemorial usage" of language, which was decidedly aristocratic. In support of this argument, Magee quotes Emerson as writing, "Books belong to the eyes that see them."

As he became more involved in abolitionism, Emerson came to see "that reading was taking place on an incredibly large scale." Magee argues that Emerson began to see much of the world, and especially political documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as open to "reading"—that is, to continuous reinterpretations. As history alters the context of our lives, we must discuss among ourselves how we will view history. Great texts become not the authority; rather, the authority, if the word can even be used, is in the very discursive process itself.

Emerson was not patronizing about African-Americans when it came to his abolitionist views, unlike most of his fellow white people in the movement. Emerson argued that the most articulate statement about abolition yet made was the determination of fugitive slaves to become free. He recognized "the agency of those slaves in the battle for their own emancipation." Emerson also argued that the true American type was a Negro soldier in the trench with a rifle and a book he was reading. He would be a symbol of determination and ingenuity that flies in the face of racist dogma. In addition, he would be the first "American" reader because he would be coming fresh and new to the printed word on American soil, unlike those of European descent.

While I find Magee's take on Emerson convincing and refreshing, one claim I cannot accept is that Emerson's emphasis on "the contingency of language" is coterminous with the early Derrida's notion of the ad infinitum interplay of signification. Emerson's notion seems to be grounded specifically in contexts that include language, action, and social engagement and always begin in medius res. Derrida's differance is an abstract tool used to expose the slips, rough edges, and omissions necessary for a strictly philosophical argument to come into being. If Magee is accurate in claiming that Emerson is a pragmatist—and I think he is—then Emerson would be paying attention to life, not teasing out the seemingly marginalized but actually needed complexities of esoteric philosophical arguments.

The writer who further develops Emerson's pragmatism and his brand of symbolic democratic action is his namesake, Ralph W. Ellison. Magee first shows, again convincingly, Ellison's debt to Emersonian thinking. Ellison's largest debt, ironically, is to replace his middle name with an initial. By doing so he erases Emerson and initializes his own writerly trajectory, and this is precisely what Emerson wanted younger writers to do: not to set him up as a monument for posterity, but someone who provided a group of fluid cultural moves, some of which will be useful to younger writers.

Magee then goes through a "genealogy of those characters in Invisible Man who signify on Emerson." Early in the novel, the white trustee, Norton, plus the black leaders at the college—the Founder, Bledsoe, Homer Barbee—all try to control language, an act that is as tyrannical as it is impossible. Sadly, their rhetorical abilities are strong enough to prevent Invisible Man from seeing through them until well into the book. Magee argues that the vets that Norton and Invisible Man encounter at the Golden Day saloon signify on "both Emerson and African-American aesthetic traditions," seeing them "as a dialogic continuum functioning to expand democracy." Rinehart's multiple identities and Clifton's playing with the sambo doll initially confuse Invisible Man, but by the end of the book he comes to see their masks—Rinehart's multiple identities on the one hand and Clifton as the puppeteer on the other—as ways of responding to and challenging symbolic economy.

In the final chapter, "Tribes of New York: O'Hara, Baraka, and the Poetics of the 5-Spot," Magee discusses the poetry that was written in the milieu of the jazz being played at the 5-Spot in Greenwich Village in the late '50s and early '60s. John Dewey's book Art as Experience was a key work for most of the writers involved in the context. Dewey emphasizes that a poem not left in an opaque sphere but "grounded in events and doing is endlessly significant; it is set in unanticipated motion as a process that is doing something for the poet and his readers." Magee focuses on O'Hara's "Personism" non-manifesto and his poem "The Day Lady Died." The pragmatic elements in "Personism" are obvious. In the famous sentences that read, "You just go on nerve. If someone's chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don't turn around and shout, 'Give it up! I was a track star at Mineola Prep.'" His point is, of course, that poetry emerges from the tensions and contingencies of the moment, usually one involving a sense of both readers and the writers.

One of the contingencies on a national scale at the time was civil rights. By choosing to work with African-American jazz structures in their poetry, O'Hara, Creeley, and Baraka were simultaneously making a long overdue argument for the importance of African-Americans and African-American culture to American life. Magee makes some nuanced distinctions about O'Hara's relationship to jazz. He feels that he was leery of the jazz-poetry events so popular in the late '50s and early '60s, finding them "embarrassing." Magee argues that this notion of "embarrassment" stems from the way the beats were romanticizing "The Negro" and "Jazz" rather than responding to people and music. If jazz was treated as an object "fixed in its regal aloofness," it would be objectified and never addressed as art. In "The Day Lady Died," Magee believes O'Hara has achieved the necessary balance by treating Billie Holiday's death as one of a number of occurrences during the course of the day.

One of O'Hara's closest associates during this period was Amiri Baraka. Magee discusses how Baraka shows that Ornette Coleman's so-called free jazz "is democracy in action." This quotation is intriguingly close to how Ralph Ellison, generally considered a foe of Baraka, defines jazz: the jazz band puts democracy into action. Magee argues that for "democracy" we could substitute "pragmatism." And, each in his own way—Ellison, the avowed integrationist, and Baraka, the budding black nationalist—were pragmatists.

This is a fine book that has a lot to teach us about Emerson, Ellison, O'Hara, and Baraka, and their relationship to pragmatism and jazz music. The individual chapters, when taken alone, are superb. But the overarching argument left me unconvinced. Early on Magee quotes Emerson as writing "Slavery['s proponents] alone [are] inventive and aggressive. Slavery reads the constitution with a very shrewd and daring and innovating eye." Later in the book Magee quotes William James as arguing that "Truth happens to an idea." When put in the context of his famous essay "The Will to Believe" it becomes apparent that James is discussing the way will, determination, and confidence can create a true fact: if you don't like the way things are, work to change them, thereby creating new facts and new truths.

If we compare this Jamesian quotation to the way proponents of slavery read the constitution more forcefully than the abolitionists, we must ask, on Magee's own principles, if the conservatives are using pragmatic tools. I see no reason to believe otherwise. In his book Magee often assumes that pragmatists are progressive, and at one point he claims that he is discussing a "version of pragamatism," but he never distinguishes his version from the others. Why can't there be a conservative pragmatism? Magee provides no logical step between the rhetoric of "democratic symbolic action" and specifically progressive concerns.

Pragmatism is neither a good philosophical method nor a bad one. As William James points out, it is like the hallway in a hotel that links other ideologies: it is a tool. What is good or bad is the end toward which the tool is directed and the process of realizing this end. The belief that truth can be constructed is deep and abiding in America. We all buy into it to some degree or other. It has, in part, produced for us the wonderful intellectual and artistic tradition that Magee points out so well. It has also given us such innovators as Henry Ford. And many pragmatists do not believe in income equality at all; they see life as a pragmatic competition in which those winning out get the best prizes.

While all the figures that Magee discusses are worthy of sustained study, perhaps we could also emphasize other aspects of culture in America. Could a better appreciation for the pessimistic, the tragic, a better feel for what overweening pride, ambition, and heedlessness can do, create important "symbolic action"? Developing new vocabularies is not good enough. Vocabularies in the cultural realm can only impact a small portion of the social structure, namely, the linguistic. In addition to vocabulary we need a new drama, in all senses of the word, with new characterization and plot techniques, that will shake our beliefs in ourselves, and keep us and others from more harm.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004

THE BELLS IN THEIR SILENCE: Travels Through Germany

Buy this book from Amazon.comMichael Gorra
Princeton University Press ($24.95)

by Leland de la Durantaye

Early on in Michael Gorra's The Bells in Their Silence: Travels through Germany, the author says of his wife that, "she is skeptical enough about my own slipping and sliding between the personal and semi-scholarly that she might prefer not to appear in this book at all." If it had been given a voice in the matter, the country Gorra is traveling through might well have preferred the same. This is not because the travel narrative that Gorra knits together is a particularly damning one. Though the author clearly feels no elective affinity between himself and Germany, the book is not an indictment of the banality or evil inhabiting the people or the place. The problem is simply that so little that is singular about the place, its people, their nature and their culture is presented.

To give an idea of its aims, it is worth noting that Gorra chose a model for his book—and a mighty one at that—Goethe's Italian Travels. As is well known, Goethe's travels were passionate ones. Though he first made his Italian pilgrimage relatively late in life, the idea was with him from earliest youth. His father came back from a trip through Italy in 1740 and through nightly telling and retelling of stories fired the young boy's imagination. A motherly friend from Weimar said of the poet as he was at last underway in Italy in 1786, "from earliest youth was the idea of visiting Rome was impressed upon his very soul, and I can so vividly imagine the pleasures he is now experiencing in the presence of antiquity's masterpieces. His friends will doubtless much profit by these travels as he has the gift of vividly and livingly representing that which he has seen." Once he reached Italy, Goethe's energy and curiosity indeed seemed to know no bounds and his reports back to Germany consistently registered his impressions on morals and manners, antique art and architecture, culinary specialties, soil composition, botany—and much more.

Gorra's enthusiasm for the land he is traveling through is markedly less intense, and his curiosity less wide-ranging. His travel book charts a sabbatical year spent with his wife in Hamburg (the author is an American Professor of English Literature, one of whose areas of academic specialty is the genre of travel writing), and which culminates in the birth of their daughter. An excellent example of Gorra's manner of proceeding is provided in the book's first chapter, "Cultural Capital." Therein, the author does what most travelers to Germany normally do—he visits Weimar. This is an excellent place for him to start the story of his travels as it was home to, among others, the Goethe under whose aegis he is writing (though he is careful to note—in glib terms—his limited familiarity with his model—"I haven't sorrowed with young Werther and remain innocent of Faust"). He arrives by train from Hamburg. His trip is without incident. He eats a Bratwurst near the train station, which he carefully describes for us. He then makes the traditional tourist rounds. Everything is idyllic. And it is at this point that a telling turn takes place in his narrative—an academic as well as programmatic turn. The author begins to ask himself what he is doing. "What possibilities, and what problems, does Germany hold for the traveler, and the travel writer?" he asks. The author asks himself if, from an ethical point of view, he should even allow himself such an idyllic visit to Weimar given the fact that just outside the city's idyllic limits lies the former site of the Nazi concentration camp Buchenwald. The frightening proximity of the two iconic places—Weimar as monument of German high culture, and Buchenwald as monument of the most brutal and senseless barbarity—is something which would and should occupy anyone visiting Weimar, or interested in Germany, and in exemplary fashion the author avows that from his point onwards he can no longer "maintain the light ironic tone" employed thus far.

What takes the sting out of this observation is the same thing that robs the book's preface of its pathos. In that preface, the author describes himself standing before Caspar David Friedrich's "Wanderer above the Sea of Fog," and in which painting he sees his own befuddlement mirrored back at him. There, the author tells us: "So I began to wonder about what it meant to have fun in a place where so much wrong had happened." This daring and intelligent thread is, however, lost in the following pages, and is lost because of the author's reliance on tried and tired clichés like seeing modern man aloft and alone in Friedrich's painting, or the paradoxes of history reflected in the proximity of Weimar and Buchenwald. The novelty of the question is hidden by the terms in which it is couched. The book's weakness lies not in the author evoking these common places and inviting the reader to reflect upon them, but rather in presenting them with an earnestness and a naïveté which is unlikely to spur the reader on to new reflection. The author claims that, "this wounded land has not been allowed to heal." One can hardly, however, imagine that a catalogue of commonplaces will facilitate this process.

Of Rome, Goethe wrote that, "one sees and feels there . . . that that which has been destroyed is monstrous and through no strength of imagination to be visualized." And yet, he continues, "that too which has been restored is just as monstrous." The word Goethe employs, ungeheuer (literally 'unheard of'), he uses not with its habitual negative valence, but to denote that which defies imagination. The place where he finds himself standing has seen wave after wave of history sweep over it and the wages of time and war are beyond what he finds himself able to imagine. For him, Rome possesses such a power of fascination in its consolidation of the beauty and brutality of the past. For Gorra, Germany fascinates in similar fashion—as the place where that which has been destroyed defies imagination. What has been built in the place of the destroyed is no less shocking and, often, no less difficult to grasp. It is then to be expected that Gorra will so often evoke what he calls, "the blinding darkness of the Nazi period, that neutron star into whose bitter gravity all German history seems to fall."

Steven Ozment begins an equally recent book on Germany, his exemplary A Mighty Fortress: A New History of the German People, by employing, like Gorra, a gravitational metaphor: "even today a tour of German history can be a circular journey around a magnetic Nazi pole." Ozment endeavors to look at German history in a more broad and balanced fashion—ceasing to see it as the "anteroom of Nazism," but as something far more rich and complex. As becomes especially clear in a section from the book's final chapter entitled "Fear of Germans and German Fears," he has written his "new history" in part to promote a more informed understanding of such fears and to suggest ways that they could be, with time, overcome. His evaluation of today's Germany is optimistic and there are aspects of its democracy which he finds of greater exemplary value than American of French versions. He ends with a warning: "Today the canary sings in the German mine, assuring everyone that the mine is currently safe. One development that might stop that song is criticism intent on making National Socialism and the Holocaust, with their attendant war guilt and reparations, the book-ends of German history."

The Roman historian Tacitus had a famously low opinion of the Germans his people were fighting (to chose a single of his cultivated barbs: "The Germans display a reluctance to accumulate slowly by sweat that which could be gotten quickly by the loss of a little blood"). Ozment aptly coins the phrase "the Tacitus challenge" to denote the difficulty of seeing Germany in its historical complexity without falling prey to the barbarity hypothesis proffered by Tacitus. As to today's Tacitus challenge, Gorra doubtless travels under the pall cast by the more recent barbarity in Germany's history and this is by no means to be held against him. It is only to be regretted that his travels did not lead him to paint a more varied portrait of the ways in which what he calls "that neutron star" has affected the form today's Germany has taken. The author remains respectful and balanced, but never arrives at something one would be tempted to call a position.

The title The Bells in Their Silence is a reference to a monument in Lübeck's Marienkirche (Lübeck is the home town of Thomas Mann—a fact of great importance to the author). It consists of the crushed church bells which fell during the Allied bombing of the city: "Two bells, with their clappers rusted...One bell had lost its top, pulverized in the fall, so that a metal knob the size and shape of a human head poked out. The other seemed more intact, if only because one whole face had survived while the rest of it was in fragments . . . The bells lay over crushed memorial tablets that had once been set like paving stones in the church floor." In the final chapter of the work, Gorra writes, "I myself want—sometimes I want—to see the bells as a silent scream, a German recognition of German culpability, of the curse that the Nazis laid upon their own house"—but later adds, "I distrust the way in which I am brought to sorrow by their [the bells'] mute sublimity, and then in turn I distrust that distrust and want simply to mourn with this city, with Germany, not because of it."

Goethe was a great writer of maxims; one of these was "each glimpse in a book should be balanced by two glimpses at life." Though Gorra adopts much from his model, he does not adopt the spirit behind this maxim, and it is in this that his book's weakness lies. During this time abroad, Gorra glances often and intelligently into books; where his narrative disappoints are in its glances into life. The epigraph which Gorra chose for his work is: "We ramble about in open country so as to learn how to ramble about in the singularly dusty world of books." While Goethe aspired to ramble through the shadowy glades of books so as to better explore through the sunny countryside of life, Gorra's book—beginning with this epigraph—seems to see things the other way around, and what results is, in many respects, a predictable product. The author calls forth the departed spirits of Bruce Chatwin, Walter Benjamin and W. G. Sebald, and experiments with idiosyncratic associations, personal revelations and the art of the fragmentary. The result, however, remains superficial and for no reason more than that the author is so little inclined to complement his glimpses into books with glimpses into the life around him. He indeed recounts meetings with friends and strangers met during his year abroad, but the conversations which ensue shed little light on the land. His conversation partners are, as a rule, the usual suspects—other academics he encounters at this or that institutional crossroad. The image which ensues is not a diversified one. One need only to read Anne Funder's recent Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall (2003) to see how much can be learnt about the Germany of not only today but of the last 70 years by simply traveling and talking—and how insightfully and elegantly such traveling and talking can be presented. The conversations which Gorra recounts, however, be they ever so intelligent still have something perfunctory about them and are generally confirmation of the rule that one finds what one seeks. These meetings with people are rarely more than an occasion for new meetings with books.

If one might find fault with Gorra's book, it should not prevent the reader from losing sight of the ways in which it is innovative and enlightening. A reflective travel book on Germany in this day and age is a singular undertaking—and not an easy one. Just as Adorno asked if poetry was still possible after Auschwitz, Gorra asks whether the travel narrative is still possible after Buchenwald. For the posing of this question, as well as for his novel endeavor of blending a travel narrative with reflections on the limits of such narratives in those places most torn by modern history, his book merits attention.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004


Buy this book from Amazon.comThe Selected Andy Warhol Interviews
Thirty-Seven Conversations with the Pop Master
Edited by Kenneth Goldsmith
Carroll & Graf ($17)

by Christopher Luna

Could Andy Warhol have been as superficial as he appeared? Both admirers and detractors of the controversial Pop artist will find material to support their positions in this hefty collection of interviews, as I'll Be Your Mirror outlines several possible reactions to the barrage of witless questions posed to public figures. Both entertaining and enigmatic, Warhol emerges as a 20th-century trickster who is unwilling to succumb to the pretension of the art world elite—a tradition that also includes Marcel Duchamp, Bob Dylan, and Andy Kaufman.

Reva Wolf's informative introduction claims that Warhol's behavior may have been influenced by the notion of the "pseudo-event," described by Daniel J. Boorstin in his 1961 book The Image. Boorstin used the term to refer to media such as photography, advertising, or published interviews:

Concerning the pseudo-event the question, "What does it mean?" has a new dimension. While the news interest in a train wreck is in what happened and in the real consequences, the interest in an interview is always, in a sense, in whether it really happened and what might have been the motives. Did the statement really mean what it said?

Wolf cites Warhol's "masterful use of evasion" when faced with questions of fundamental importance. This tactic allowed Warhol to challenge the usefulness of all interviews, and to expose the "predictability" of the questions asked. Warhol's boredom facilitated some extremely interesting articles; by the mid-1960s, the artist actively encouraged interviewers to invent the answers to their own questions.

Perhaps Warhol's evasions were a reasonable attempt to allow the work to speak for itself. "It's true that I don't have anything to say," he tells one interviewer, "and that I'm not smart enough to reconstruct the same things every day, so I just don't say anything." Warhol's efforts to sabotage interviews included one-word answers, repeating the question, or answering with a "yes" or "no." But he could also be downright effusive; Frederick Ted Castle's transcription of an exchange that took place when Warhol was a passenger in his cab demonstrates that, when so inclined, the typically vague artist could carry on a conversation at length. And even in the midst of his reticence, Warhol was eminently quotable; "I think everybody should be a machine," he once said, a statement relevant to his use of tracing, reproduction, and appropriation of found materials. Elsewhere Warhol admits that his methods made it impossible for him to identify a fake of one of his paintings.

Warhol described his painting technique as "a kind of mental Braille, I just pass my hand over the surface of things." He projected an image of himself as an egoless worker bee who made art because it interested him, and was uninterested in schools of thought or unnecessary labor:

I feel I represent the U.S. in my art but I'm not a social critic: I just paint those objects in my paintings because those are the things I know best. I'm not trying to criticize the U.S. in any way, not trying to show up any ugliness at all: I'm just a pure artist, I guess. But I can't say if I take myself very seriously as an artist: I just hadn't thought about it.

His definition of Pop Art picked up on these themes:

It's just taking the outside and putting it on the inside or taking the inside and putting it on the outside, bringing the ordinary objects into the home. Pop Art is for everyone. I don't think art should be only for the select few, I think it should be for the mass of American people and they usually accept art anyway. I think Pop Art is a legitimate form of art like any other, Impressionism, etc. It's not just a put-on. I'm not the High Priest of Pop Art, that is, Popular art, I'm just one of the workers in it. I'm neither bothered by what is written about me or what people may think of me reading it. . . . I feel I'm very much a part of my times, of my culture, as much a part of it as rockets and television.

Many of the interviews are hilarious, such as Victor Bockris's account of a dinner party with William S. Burroughs at which the two icons of gay culture engage in graphic discussion of sex, the proper method for roach extermination, and the sexual deviance of the British. Elsewhere Warhol refers to Walt Disney as America's greatest living artist and jokes that his "first big break was when John Giorno pushed me down the stairs."

Warhol accurately assessed his own unbearably lengthy films like Empire and Sleep, works that focused upon virtually stationary objects, to be "better talked about than seen." He compared his "passive" style to watching the street from his window. Film critic Joseph Gelmis refers to Warhol as a "listener and observer who absorbs and absorbs and absorbs." Warhol possessed a genuine fascination with people, and a love for the artificial. "Everything is sort of artificial, I don't know where the artificial stops and the real starts." Warhol's enthusiasm for life was so expansive that it is positively childlike; one of his most frequently repeated exclamations was, "Oh, wow."

Goldsmith's book is ultimately about the nature of interviews, and it would be difficult to imagine a celebrity more suited to a thorough examination of the subject. In his afterword, Andy Warhol author Wayne Kostenbaum claims that "Andy's aim, in the interviews, was ambient destabilization. He unhinges everyone in the vicinity—especially those who think they know the difference between good and bad art, between worthwhile and useless behavior, and between elation and depression."

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004


Buy this book from Amazon.comEdited by Leslie Scalapino
O Books ($14)

by Michael Cross

This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. —Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin's conception of progress still cogently applies to the wreckage piling high on our sullied political doorstep. War and Peace, the second in a series of anti-war anthologies published by Leslie Scalapino's O Books, attempts to turn toward the wreckage, taking as its impetus the living in war of Tolstoy's novel: "everything can go on—everything goes on—in war and peace. To see being a form of action" (from the anthology's back cover). Featuring a wide range of established writers and visual artists, Jackson Mac Low, Norma Cole, and Kiki Smith among the more recognizable, along with relatively fresh names such as Taylor Brady and Judith Goldman, the anthology seeks to offer modes of being in times of war—methods of articulating the wide range of affections that work upon the thinking subject in devastating political climes. As opposed to the vast majority of wartime prose and poetry, the writers here avoid trite sloganeering and off-hand rebuttals. Instead, they articulate frustration, anger, guilt, humor, and impotence in the face of all-too-real human tragedy. The result is an engaging document that incorporates the disaster of war into the mundanity of the every day. Juliana Spahr writes in her epistolary "March 27 and 30, 2003,"

During the bombing, beloveds, our life goes on as usual.

Oh the gentle pressing of our bodies together upon waking.

Oh the parrots and their squawking.

Oh the soft breeze at five to ten miles per hour.

Oh the harsh sun and the cool shade.

Oh the papaya and yogurt with just a little salt for breakfast.

Oh the cool shower that we take together.

This makes us feel more guilty and more unsure of what to do than ever.

And further,

Today, as this war begins, every word we say is indicted, ironic or not,
articulate or not and we feel it all in the room all day long.

When we speak of Lisa Marie Presley having sex with Michael Jackson we speak of JDAM and JSOW air-to-surface precision bombs.

Spahr's long poem is a perfect metonymy for the work of the anthology in general: here, the necessarily tautological investigation attempts to make sense of our diurnal lives, our superficial desires, in the face of international tragedy. The poems in War and Peace serve as a fine memento mori of the Other, as the absence of constant warfare on our soil is absolutely present in the anxiety of the speakers.

Etal Adnan's contribution animates the cathexis of the diurnal in her daybook "To Keep a Diary in a Time of War":

. . . read WAR again, to look at the word as if it were a spider, to feel paralyzed, to look for help within oneself, to know helplessness, to pick up the phone, to give up, to get dressed, to look through the windows, to suffer from the day's beauty, to hate to death the authors of such crimes, to realize that it's useless to think, to pick up the purse, to go down the stairs, to see people smashed to a pulp, to say yes indeed the day is beautiful, not to know anything, to go on walking, to take notice of people's indifference towards each other.

The anthology makes seamless transitions through a multiplicity of representations of being with grief, from Fanny Howe's elegant prose lines in "Vigilance" to the absurd alliteration, malapropistic "mishearings," and relentless puns of Alan Davies "Bad Dad:"

Sheer seersucker sadists
stand wiltingly
over all grave matter.
(I wake at night a hardon
in my hand.)
Terror dactyles mute
where nothing mates

What is perhaps most interesting about this anthology is Scalapino's editorial privilege of serial work and long poems. Judith Goldman's "case senSitive," a poem literally breaking through the static of war, is represented by nineteen pages, while Davies series clocks in just over 30 independent stanzas, easily a chapbook length project in another forum.

Overall, there are very few drawbacks to this fabulous anthology. Rob Holloway and Taylor Brady, both of whom contribute two of the most important meditations in War and Peace, are also represented by two of the shortest pieces in the volume. Holloway's "Capa Trapped sur la plage" generally left me gasping for more: "Eyeing him, America's broadcast excites that image of soldiers into pig / skulls endlessly bucking. And ducking, his coat for cover, / he done scramble to a barge. Counting its closed exit doors." And while I applaud Scalapino for taking a stab at printing Robert Grenier's "scrawl" poems (a work that has long posed problems to printers, as to include these four-color prints as the author intended would cost a small fortune), I'm not sure her solution translates. Printing the poems in black and white with "translation and color key" does little justice to the work itself. For that matter, I would have liked to see all of the artwork in the anthology printed in color, although printing in black and white has kept the cost of the anthology to a reasonable $14.

Theodor Adorno writes, in his stunning collection of wartime aphorisms, Minima Moralia, "The violence that expelled me thereby denied me full knowledge of it. I did not yet admit to myself that complicity that enfolds those who, in face of unspeakable collective events, speak of individual matters at all." War and Peace directly engages Adorno's dialectic, at once problematizing the relationship between Western thinkers and Middle Eastern warfare, while sublimating our ethical and intellectual responsibilities from the television screen, from multiple fronts of remote and desultory feedback, to our littered porch of piling rubble. In effect, the anthology cathects our solipsistic American lifestyles with the question of responsibility itself.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004


Buy this book from Amazon.comKim Addonizio
W. W. Norton & Company ($21.95)

by Mike Chasar

Despite all of the drugs, booze, and sex in Kim Addonizio's fourth book of poems, What Is This Thing Called Love?, the collection becomes a fascinating sort of love poem for the speaker's daughter. The book's narrator tries hard to convince us otherwise, however, drawing a picture of herself as a "bad girl" whose liberated sexual and chemical appetites leave men at her mercy and crumpled in her wake. "She's the one sleeping all day," Addonizio writes, the one who "wakes up / at the sound of a cork twisted free," who "wants / to stand on the rim of the glass, naked," and who sneaks out at night in her silk dress while the good girl is "crouched in a corner, coming undone."

Half of the poems in the book (and sixteen of the final nineteen) mention the drugs or alcohol she's done, and she goes to great lengths to convince us of her sex drive—she takes a younger lover and gets tied up, among other things, within the first ten poems, and concludes the book on a virtual orgy. In the end, though, the book's speaker talks the bad-girl talk more than she walks the bad-girl walk. Most of her exploits (like getting tied up) are fantasies, and while she does a lot of relatively chaste kissing—the book begins with "First Kiss" and ends with "Kisses"—the poems fall fairly silent when it comes to the issue of sex, as if making love were a self-evident act needing little elaboration. For a bad girl who insists at one point that "fucking" is "holy, / a psalm, a hymn," sex might have as many variations as Eskimos see in snow, but more often than not Addonizio's subordinated good-girl discretion gets the better of her.

We come to realize, then, that the book's "bad girl" is not a whole lot more than a blustery superhero persona protecting the inner good girl from real life insecurities, regrets, worries, emotions, and fears. The bad girl and good girl come together, however, in the figure of the speaker's daughter, for while rarely mentioned, she is present in the speaker's erotic experiences that open and close the book. In the book's first poem, kissing a new boyfriend makes the speaker remember breastfeeding her daughter. Similarly, as she imagines getting kissed simultaneously by everyone she's ever kissed in the book's final poem, she explains: "My breasts tingle the way they did when my milk came in after the birth, / when I was swollen, and sleepless, and my daughter fed and fed until I pried / her from me and laid her in her crib."

Framed in such a way, What Is This Thing Called Love? becomes a stimulating and erotic address from mother to daughter. While the bad girl and her lovers probably get too many pages overall, it's the description of love from mother to daughter that makes for the most interesting reading in the book.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004


Buy this book at Amazon.comLaurence Donovan
Pineapple Press ($12.95)

by Robert Zaller

For most people, the connection between Florida and poetry begins and ends with Wallace Stevens's "The Idea of Order at Key West." Yet several impressive Cuban-American poets have emerged from Florida in the past generation, and an older generation, dating back to the 1940s, laid the foundation of a distinctively regional literature. One member of this generation, Donald Justice, went on to make an international reputation, but several of his contemporaries deserve acknowledgment, chief among them Laurence Donovan.

Donovan, who died three years ago at the age of seventy-four, published no book of verse during his lifetime; the present volume, with an introduction by Justice, is his first. Partly this was due to Donovan's own modesty, for though he knew his own value, he was not one to trumpet it. Partly it was due to the fact that he pursued a parallel and ultimately primary career as a printmaker. When he died, he left some 2,500 works of art; the poems were far fewer. Yet they evoke the unique natural environment of Florida as no others I know.

"Dog Island" was Donovan's most sustained meditation. He twice visited and sketched the island, which lies off the Florida Panhandle, and the poem—which partly describes the printmaker at work—is illustrated by the suite of superb etchings. The discipline of line, evident in both the poetry and the art, is itself taken up as a metaphor of place; thus, the feeding of grackles is described in terms of "fluttery incisive / Stabs from the air, / Scratching swift glyphs," while elsewhere, Donovan speaks of "the waves' erasures. / Dimmer white against white, / Their pale negative's / An old sketch of creation." The waves' recurring, "redundant" creation, which exists in an eternal leisure, contrasts with the poet/artist's patient accretions, the pressure of time behind each stroke and line. Many things can spoil the latter, the haste of ambition among them. "Dog Island" is in this sense a manual of piety. Like prayer, artistic observation takes attention, concentration, and humility. Like prayer, its conclusions are provisional. And although landscape is apparent whereas divinity is not, it is no less jealous of its secrets, and no less parsimonious in revealing them.

As Justice suggests, "Dog Island" may be viewed as an earthly paradise, anchored by the poet and his unnamed companion (the painter Dee Clark), the dune pine that emerges as a central symbol (the tree of life?), and the water moccasin that makes its startling appearance in a crab trap. If so, however, it is a decidedly postlapsarian paradise, in which the serpent is far more at home than the human visitors, and, indeed, "Where the human presence / Looms like a ghost."

In the companion poems of the volume—each with its accompanying print—Donovan focuses closely on the rich life of the tidal margin, pine and mangrove, "Palmetto thickets [and] snake- / Whispering brush." In "Etching the Sea Grape Tree" he again describes one kind of artistic creation by means of another, at the end of which the "ghost-tree" emerges from its acid bath, at once a simulacrum and an "original" creation in its own right. In "The Mangroves," the human presence enters the picture directly as the "stormy walker" who "brings to swamp disorder, / Yet order too, for possibilities / Cannot be had among the mangrove selves, / However they twist by sea in thickest beauty." One hears in this passage, as elsewhere in Donovan, the pressure of Stevens's "Blessed rage for order," the act of reciprocal completion between the human and the natural that human need simultaneously satisfies and creates. Here, too, however, the kind of humility we call innocence is required (a bow not in Stevens's quiver), and in "The Pine" and "The Sandflats" Donovan revisits childhood to capture a sense of the world's emergence in human consciousness. But we are already on the other side of Eden; his children stage a mock-death and crush a scorpion under a rock.

Donovan's Florida is still, but for the human footprint, primeval; it takes no account of the urban sprawl and tourist blight that has defaced so much of the peninsula. What he refuses to observe, or at least to record, is the macadamization of a landscape he has so deeply loved and inhabited. His gaze is turned resolutely outward, and what it wins is not subject to time:

Standing at this last portal,
Turned from where I'll return to—
The long channel, the drumming
Roads south—I watch the sea
Spread to its own horizon,
Lending grey washes of color
To hollow, white arches of sky
And in its empty vastness,
Through attenuations of light,
Draw me into that vastness.
Perhaps all I'll ever know
Remains at last in this light
Borne on the incoming waves
Into the beach's deep silence.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004


Buy this book from Amazon.comChristine Hume
New Issues Poetry & Prose ($14)

by Sun Yung Shin

The thesis of Alaskaphrenia, Christine Hume's second volume of poetry, is cleverly captured in its title, phrenia being a suffix from the Greek meaning mind that also connotes phrenology, the skull's peculiar tectonics and hidden topographies. Hume never lets her readers forget their mortality, the retractable scale of the human consciousness in a land that speaks an entirely different, indifferent language. Hers is an Alaska of the mind, an internalized landscape that invites a kind of submission to the contradictions of a state formed by irreconcilable psychological and psychic extremes: "If you sew yourself in, point toward a negative sublime. / . . . If you fear possession, try it on." This is the kind of dare that adventurous poetry readers admire.

Hume's poems have cerebral and ironic titles such as "Insert Your Eyes Here. Contemplate the Enchantment of Your View and Pleasurably Serve Your Mind." Like a good post-post modernist, she seems to know that "the subject wakes to discover that you cannot die in a portrait; you have to die in your body"; there is no one perspective attempting to approach something as vast as Alaska, with its multiple histories, languages, and geographies. And although this book has plenty of surface glitter and language play, most of Hume's lines are not mere showpieces for her virtuosity. The book as a whole is almost relentlessly severe, lonesome, and flavored throughout with pitiless admonitions such as, "Bears in spy skins approach. Never let what you think fool you."

The language of Alaskaphrenia is highly controlled and often pleasingly estranged from its own bodily sources—the throat, the tongue, the mouth. Hume relentlessly brings the body, especially the mouth, into the harsh, alien, almost apocalyptic outer world:

—then we mayde use
from corpse-smell
strong as if it were insyde
my own mouthe
thus deprivation coaxed
the God lying unclaymed
to spake like a lunge on a Coast

Her Alaska is a place of telepathic isolation and shifting scales where the body and its breath, its own rhythms of sense, are always at risk, as in the imagistic poem "Night Sentence," in which "a candle eats air from my mouth." In the fragmented question that is the title of "What'd You Come to Alaska for If You Don't Want?" Hume draws the mouth—like a lung—as a chamber, a channel:

When your rivermutter comes through
Pushing what's went out
Where is its source its mouth
The metal flavor of mouth

The plural and the singular collide in "Gargle Anthem for Get-of Sire and the Like":

Took so many mouths to discover
That song buried its notes in an owl jar
Said it was agony to speak
By not recognizing itself, escaped death
Switching places made it plural

These are poems obsessed with how the body's own vocalizations may violently consume a person:

Rhymed with whatever
Painted his esophagus white
Woke up his blood and sent it loinwards
He cast it off
That song was contraband
His chin was a plastic bag of sermon inhaling him

Ultimately, Alaskaphrenia is a book of abandonment, of lucid deprivations. Unnamed persons are often stricken and doomed, as in "The Sickness & the Magnet": "Birds went in & out of his mouth /…Then everything wanted to be / Killed at the rural spot." This morbid "living dead" theme is carried further in "Sampler City," which deftly paints a female site of slow-motion disaster, where "Girls resembled the state hospital, / and a plague slept between them." But take heart: though its "winter hunger weirds your mind-wires" and it's filled with fog, ice, hibernation, and suffocating terrors, Hume's Alaskaphrenia is a place of the hardiest imagination, where "Shut inside a cranium dark / Everything goes to prospect."

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004


Buy this book from Amazon.comBill Knott
Farrar, Straus and Giroux ($20)

by Cindra Halm

The surprise is that Bill Knott's poetry still surprises. After ten previous "official" volumes and a slew of self-published, proletariat-style chapbooks, The Unsubscriber elicits illumination by shaking up our complacency. Some would say by shtick or by trick, and certainly we recognize Knott's methods: the sonnet's development into a complicated or contradictory unity; the short fragments of lyric flush, biting sarcasm, or wildly unlikely images; the exaltations or excoriations of love, war, and death. But also Knott operates by lick, as in a capriciously placed lover's tongue; a guitar virtuoso's digressive and mischievously gorgeous phrasing; even an adversary's deliberate bruising. Since 1968, when his first volume appeared, Knott has had, and still has, the uncanny ability to simultaneously comfort and upend.

The Unsubscriber is organized in four sections, two of which are titled only by numbers and allow the variety and nuances of the poems to make connections among themselves within the reader's own organizing principles. Here are the familiar pointed observations, sexual innuendoes, tender love renderings, brash identity denunciations, and ubiquitous autumnal elegies. Another section adds the descriptor "An Interlude of Short Poems," and showcases the author's trademark stark punches, gloriously highlighted in his debut volume, The Naomi Poems: Corpse and Beans, and generously peppered in subsequent books. Here, contained in one section, they have a tamer feel about them, especially in their all-titled, neatly arranged format; fans of the more scattershot, fragmentary work may miss happening upon solitary blips of intensity, especially for the way they show a mind's lightning glimmers and pick-pocketed exhalations.

The final section, "Poems After," presents primarily translations of, responses to, and meditations on the work of other poets, philosophers, and artists (Douglas Messerli's 1998 collection After memorably mined a similar vein). Though some of the poems in this section (and, indeed, in the whole volume) previously appeared in Knott's chapbooks, where an author's note claimed that "The order of the poems is random, neither thematic nor chronological," their intentional organization here is interesting; in addition to the "after" premise, the themes in this grouping are home, change, peace, words themselves, endings, beginnings. A contemporary reader can't help but resonate with the cultural echoes of "after" in the wake of Sept 11, 2001. In this section, the gestalt of the composition, along with contextualizing notes about people, ideas, and language, renders a musical, thought-provoking, deeply felt suite, one made stronger by the choice of proximity.

With the declaration in his chapbooks about the ordering of poems, along with their occasional listings of book contests his manuscripts failed to win and their engagement in the perceived illegitimacy of vanity printing to begin with, the state of contemporary publishing has long been one of Knott's main themes. What gets published and what doesn't, and why? What does the zeitgeist allow, control, and censor, in content and style? Whose book is it, anyway? (For more on this topic, see the Bill Knott interview in the Summer 2000 print issue of Rain Taxi.) These are important issues that further Knott's roles as literary participant, commentator, gadfly, and outsider. This rebel energy has always been part of his aesthetic and oeuvre; his ideas and language in poems are just as likely to offend as to delight. Strong and surprising assertions and images play among human relations, the Vietnam War, suicide, God, and more recently, the literary canon. In fact, the new book's title poem, though it speaks in generalities, could be implicitly critiquing the canon as insider's clique with these concluding lines: "No one loves that vain solipsistic sect / You'd never join, whose dues you've always paid." Notice too that the definitions of "subscribe," in addition to contracting to receive a periodical or service for payment, include signing one's name on a document and expressing concurrence or approval. Add the fact that the word comes from the Latin "under" and "to write," and The Unsubscriber becomes very resonant.

Bill Knott is our contemporary e.e. cummings, and just as kaleidoscopically prolific. His work continually makes us wonder: Is he ecstatic or caustic? Experimental or formal? Witty or crass? Which of his selves is real or contrived? Like cummings, he is brilliant at both micro and macro, slaying us with word choice and punctuation as well as with a cosmos of imagination in ideas. Here's an opening premise you might not have seen in a poem before (though it wouldn't be out of place in an O. Henry story):

We stole the rich couple's baby
and left our own infant with
a note demanding they raise our
child as if it were theirs and we

would do the same. Signed,
A Poor Couple.

His frequent use of "Poem" as a title (ten such entries in this volume alone)—a conscious choice different from "Untitled" or simply leaving a blank space—speaks to poetry itself as a theme consistent throughout his books. The Unsubscriber ultimately comes across as an old friend one hasn't seen in awhile: more experienced in years and scope, but punk as ever, still able to compel attention, and filled with the yearning for connection. As Knott writes in "Wrong," "I wish to be misunderstood; / that is, / to be understood from your perspective."

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004

HAZE: Essays, Poems, Prose

Buy this book from Amazon.comMark Wallace
Edge Books ($12)
by Karl Kraus

Haze, a collection of variations on poetics by Mark Wallace, takes its title from a semi-deconstructionist conceit of "how words go on where discourse breaks down, splits apart, no longer recognizes itself as discourse." To cover his bases, Wallace writes though various topics and forms to present an inquisitive view of organizational and individual elements of poetry and expression. Haze, Elegy, Genre, Marketing, Lyric, and Rimbaud are all treated to Wallace's tuned investigation in this terrifically mindful composition of poetry and essays.

Wallace's widespread speculations on the organizational dynamics (institutional, economic, even conversational) of the avant-garde cover an impressive range, extending from the poet laureate to the most basic concerns of the smallest publishers. Extensively questioning the motivations, limitations, and dangers of institutional art, Wallace does not sink teeth into these ideas so much as he pulls teeth from them, leaving as clear a view of the "meat" as possible. "Does the unestablished writer remain free of complicity? To what extent are you trying (or not) to sell your poetry? To whom and for what reasons?" To ignore these questions, Wallace contends, is a youthful effort to defy reality.

As subject to his questions and declarations as anyone's, Wallace's art, suitably, offers its own argument—or may be the argument itself. When Haze deploys a disagreeable or controversial statement on the dangers of poetry's organization, it returns with humor, respect for the past, and even wonder: "How can it be that, writing this in a reflective moment, I am still immersed in those experiences I am trying to write about? How can it be that having experienced what I have and knowing what I know of it, that I am still unprepared for experiences that may be readying themselves even at this instant?" Wallace's honest humility, whether in pieces such as the whimsically allegorical "Avant-Garde Deodorant" ("I'm proud to wear Avant Garde, and I hope you are too") or in the book's more sober discussions, leave liberty to shape a whole perspective, rather than simply weighing this perspective down.

The fruit of Wallace's confrontation with the problems of the avant-garde are poems that provide imagining room for his ideas. These are firm, extensive poems, often with sharp stylistic changes across clearly defined sections. Essays in tow, the poems are firmly linked to Wallace's arguments: "My Xmas Poem," for example, follows the essay "On Genre as a Conversion Experience," which links the institutional mechanisms of poetry to the religious practice of the rejection of non-believers. With such concrete anchors, the poems will not fly away.

While celebrating the reality of magic, that "undeniable mystery that the world exists," Wallace veers to arguing "not how to destroy superstition in the name of material reform but how to expose false magicians in hope of making magic live." Magic and argument arrive arm in arm in Haze, and Wallace's top hat stays firmly attached to his head during the performance.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004