Tag Archives: fall 2005

PLANETARY: LEAVING THE 20TH CENTURY

Buy this book at Amazon.comWarren Ellis and John Cassaday
Wildstorm/DC Comics ($14.99)

by Woody Evans

A story of great complexity and grace, Planetary is about a group of extraordinary people with peculiar skills whose job it is to uncover and tidy up the sometimes ugly secrets of the last century. Elijah Snow, Jakita Wagner, and The Drummer—the three “mystery archeologists” of the Planetary Organization—are an odd set of heroes, though they’re well-defined by their conflict with “The Four,” a group of bad-willed science-conquerors who have engineered a series of secrets meant to keep humanity out of touch with the greatest wonders of the world (e.g. alien ships that run on quantum computers or lost civilizations built on high technology and advanced spiritual abilities).

The third volume of this ongoing story, Leaving the 20th Century, increases the dramatic tension and more fully realizes the internal consistency of the Planetary world and mythos. As the Planetary team hits The Four harder and scores some success against them, their past trials are further revealed, which makes their current struggle to share the wonders hoarded by The Four with all humankind more meaningful. John Cassaday’s art, which spans styles from retro-realism to twisted special effects, has grown more sober in these issues, and to good effect: much more is done with much less, and the artist’s intense palette of emotional expressions for his characters is especially noteworthy. As in the best graphic narratives, Ellis and Cassaday each complement the talents of the other.

Leaving the 20th Century also reflects writer Warren Ellis’ abiding interest in pulp fiction and pop culture, beginning with a flashback to Elijah Snow’s encounter with two fictional creations of the 19th and 20th centuries: Sherlock Holmes and Count Dracula. Holmes alludes to the “open conspiracy” of H.G. Wells, and tries to convince Snow of the goodness of its vision. Such glances back to fictions of the past pepper these stories: we see Snow learning “the art of detection” from Holmes, and later leading his team to awaken a Dreamtime ancestor. “In the Lost City of Opak-Re,” the one issue that probably best nods to such fading fictional worlds, goes further than paying tribute to older fantasies: in a single, expertly-realized stroke, Ellis and Cassaday turn the Tarzan mythos on its side, appropriating territory from the imagination of Burroughs in order to make the world of Planetary more substantial in the minds of its readers.

The true strength of the series is that all its strange fantasy—from sci-fi hardware and aboriginal creation tales to kung-fu villains and antebellum American astronauts—somehow makes the relationships between the characters we care about even more real. The “mystery archaeology” that forms the core of Planetary’s plot may certainly draw readers to the books, but the sustained and complex varieties of love and hate between the characters gives them a reason to stay. Leaving the 20th Century is a capstone in the expanding world of Planetary, but it will be marvelous to see what will yet be built above it.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005

COSMOS & DAMIAN

Cosmos and Damian by David MichalskiDavid Michalski
Bootstrap Press ($15)

by David Madgalene

What happened to the Word Trade Center on September 11, 2001 changed the world and much has been written and discussed about these events. However, to find out what the World Trade Center truly had been, in its totality, not just word of its demise, is the kind of news that William Carlos Williams admonished readers to seek out in poetry. One such place to find this deep news, a revelation of the subjective truth, of the World Trade Center as it stood, is David Michalski’s Cosmos & Damian.

Structurally, Cosmos & Damian is a collage of poetry, prose, interviews, confessions, and scholarly thesis. It is experimental writing that nurtures the soul as well as challenges the intellect, maybe because we know the outcome, and/or because the “story,” as such, is a tragic one. While Cosmos & Damian is certainly open to interpretation, the literal as well as the figurative heart of the text (the sections “Phrenia” through “Soft Manhattan”) is the chronicle of a young man who moves to New York City and takes a job at the World Trade Center. After the break-up of an unhappy love affair, the unnamed protagonist has a breakdown and returns to his work at the World Trade Center after hospitalization. One story of the thousands and thousands of stories that could be told of the lives, hopes, and dreams of the people who worked at the World Trade Center—but one that arguably indicates the dysfunction as well as the function of the World Trade Center and the global economics it represented.

David Michalski began work on Cosmos & Damian in 1994, and we can only sympathize with the shock and pain he particularly felt as he watched the towers burn and collapse from Williamsburg, Brooklyn. His decision to end Cosmos & Damian with the attack, as borne out by the success of his text, appears to be the right one. Michalski had meant to write a book about the life of the World Trade Center, not a memorial, and so he did. However, perhaps no epitaph out of the many we have heard is more poignant that Michalski’s in its stark simplicity:

It is the men and women, boys and girls so poured in and out all
day that give
the building a soul of dreams
& thoughts
& memories.

What exactly was the World Trade Center, or what exactly did it symbolize, that caused terrorists in an unprecedented historic action to destroy it? There are no ready answers but surely a clue or two may be found in Cosmos & Damian.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005

CLOUDLIFE

Buy cloudlife at Amazon.comStefanie Marlis
Apogee Press ($12.95)

by Eric Elshtain

Few poets today twist with language like Stefanie Marlis; almost to a one, each poem in her latest book cloudlife adds yeast to the thinking mind with syntactic, semantic, or semiotic puzzles.

“[T]hat ghost has climbed into my bed again / with its seely smile,” Marlis says in the poem “twine.” That pun on the Sealy mattress company and a used-one-time-by-Spenser spelling of “silly” is typical of the linguistic heat that leads to other such gems as “a woman turning in her bed / like fire catching on” (from “green flame”) and “come gleaming metamere / meta-night-crawlers for sale” (from “darkness surrounds”). What is so dynamic here is the dimensionality of the language: “like fire catching on” is the transposition of “catching on fire” (lent weight with the fact of the phrase “on fire” in the word “bonfire” a line below); it is also a play on the phrase “to catch on,” as in to puzzle out; but then we also have to deal with the original simile—how exactly a “woman turning in her bed” is similar to “fire catching on.”

Perhaps the answer(s) lie in the ethical investigations and propositions that also fill and fulfill this slim volume. Amidst the variety of poetic forms—from splashed-across-the-page phrase-oriented poems, to aphoristic prose, to narrative and lyric, and on to what I'll call “prose sonnets”—Marlis tries to trace the Miltonic conundrum that so plagued Melville: “Fixed fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute.” “[W]hat doesn't rhyme?” Marlis asks in “cycle,” wondering whether or not everything is doomed to dry, unedifying repetition. All this, though, while the language itself is kinetic and unpredictable, bringing free will to the fore in the above trinitarian equation.

And Marlis comfortably and effectively dwells in paradox. The book ends with a series of prose-pieces-in-form called “choices.” The prose poem, long touted as freedom from form, in Marlis' hands shows that we write poetry perhaps with freedom to, not freedom from. This “poethic,” as Joan Retallack might name it, informs the queries here into the very nature of personal and world history—how much choice do we actually have to shape our lives and our world? The dynamic between form and content deepens this dilemma.

The centerpiece of the book is a long series titled “Peter's crystals” which tracks the movements and thoughts of an old man, a Holocaust survivor (an appellation he refuses, since he spent “only three months” in Dachau), in a small American town.

rummaging—
he asks for a synonym for sabbatical
he says meatus, not meatus
that's an opening
says trifling
in light of Afghanistan
forget it

 

nearing ninety
inquiring
in his second language
war-torn from his first
meaning
worn
a soft bristle         Peter

The poem wickedly mimics the tear from meaning at its end, which leaves itself open, gives us a space but no hiatus from wondering on the “art” within “worn” that makes “war-torn” and if the Latin pilus is the word meaning “a soft bristle,” while also meaning “trifle.” And we wonder about the man himself, what meaning he has lost, whether or not he's petering out while still having a say about our political world. Like the figure of Peter, Marlis' poems are restless. Chaos skids across each carefully planned page in the pursuit of the right words to describe what “distance and dharma conspire” to do with “what we feel we know.”

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005

ESCAPE VELOCITY

Buy Escape Velocity from Amazon.comDavid Breskin
Soft Skull Press ($13.95)

by Ross O'Hara

The “Prelude” to David Breskin’s Escape Velocity includes a sprawling sestina that envelopes the page with music, art, politics, and sex, setting the tone for a compelling collection. The repetition of end words reminds us that no matter how we rearrange this world, we are left with echoes of the exact same place. The collection’s title calls for an escape, forceful and explosive, from imprisonment by complacency and the status quo. Over the course of 127 pages, Breskin describes a world in which people are slipping further into poverty, society is becoming more indifferent to its woes, and love is a passive virtue.

The title poem establishes Breskin’s desire not only to reveal society’s flaws but to inspire the reader to speak out in his or her own way:

                                                   Life’s
not cheap at this burn rate. Out here there’s

no air save your own breath. You’ve gone so long
not talking, words feel like food in your mouth.

These final lines open the collection’s first section, “Evidence,” where Breskin examines sociopolitical issues ranging from the follies of the current administration to the dangers of our legal system. In “Welfare Reform,” Breskin introduces images of the downtrodden and innocent being devoured by the powerful, writing of the upper echelon’s dependence on the poor:

Mr. Full, I’m Mr. Empty. Rub my bones
together to spark a wispy fire. Swallow

your pride, keep yourself warm on the oil
of my intestine.

He gradually moves into societal issues that exist beyond the political realm, of families struggling to be traditional and children existing without being cared for. In “Waffles” Breskin writes:

such miseries—including divorces mixed
into infants’ formula, blank-disk kids

jacked on joystick killing games, undone rents
pushing Ritalin or smacking kids or
smacked-out themselves.

In the next two sections, “Well, You Needn’t” and “Rhythm-A-Ning,” Breskin explores the personal side of these societal problems but always maintains a stolid distance. He is critical without being sympathetic, depicting lives while not attempting to touch them. In “Woman Trapped by Screaming Children,” Breskin illustrates the overworked working mother with estranged objectivity:

…this supper-class woman so full
of tuition, therapy and chocolate
is being driven stork raving mad
by her kinder but won’t admit it
to the higher authorities.

Here we also experience Breskin’s intelligent and enjoyable mastery of language. His poetry is highlighted by a quick pace, jazz and funk inspired rhythms, and skillful plays on words.

Breskin achieves his finest poetic moments, however, when he looks inside and places himself into this world he depicts. The rarity of this act may add to its force but dearly leaves the reader wanting more personal reflection. Through most of the collection Breskin seems like a visitor, observing but unaffected by his environment. He shines when he allows his lyricism to engulf himself, such as in “Belief Systems”:

The way falling planes at night believe
in their lit runways, the way basketball
players shooting the turnaround believe
in the swishing sound of nets, the way
even the steepest inland cataracts
believe in oceans, I believed in you.

The collection’s “Coda” ends with a poem posing as transcript, an airport taxi driver ranting about the world in 33 lines much as Breskin has done for the entire book. The driver covers the political, the social, and the familial, ending with a poignant “what next?” Those two words resonate through the pages of white space that follow, urging the reader to take a stand and emphasizing that the past may have been a perpetual cycle but the future is undetermined and open to change.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005

WISE FISH: Tales in 6/8 Time

Buy Wise Fish from Amazon.comAdrian Castro
Coffee House Press ($14)

by Shannon Gibney

In order to tell a story, you must have a language in which to tell it. But what if the very subject you are writing about is the multiplicity of language—the fact that, in our postcolonial, postmodern moment, the poet, the shaper of language, the meaning-maker finds his arms stretched wide across many histories and many languages? What does language become then, and how does the poet approach his craft?

These are just some of the questions Afro-Caribbean poet Adrian Castro grapples with in his new book Wise Fish: Tales in 6/8 Time.

And this here is an oríkí
in praise of the possibility of
ká-ká-ki-ták tún of tongue
in praise of those
claiming their language
tonal y todo
with a hoodoo whisper
like Miles Dewey Davis III
like the sho-nuff shaman man you am

writes Castro in “Hoodoo Whisper,” a taste of the vast linguistic and cultural expanses the poet travels in service of translating his experience on to the page.

It’s an ambitious project—one that Castro tackles with more and more power as Wise Fish goes on. The concluding “Misa Caribena” section of the book is far more vivid and linguistically interesting than the lengthier “Sound of Leaving” section that precedes it. Many of the poems in the first section feel languid and familiar, without much movement or exploration of form or content. In “Brincando el Charco (This is Called Courage),” for example, the lines “If this can be birth of courage / If leaving the known for the unknown / If jumping the big puddle / If they said you would not return for some time…” make the immigration experience almost sound pedestrian—as common as the words “courage” and “unknown.”

The full and indescribable complexity of the Caribbean is better expressed in the book’s second section. In the paradoxically ephemeral and visceral “Loisaida Haikus,” for example, Castro manages to pack the raw, dirty energy of New York into each bursting stanza:

The sidewalk takes a
cold shower another day
bereft of tropics
*
Jackhammers sirens
other city music rrrat-
tat-tat fast & shit.

And the epic “Misa Caribeña” (the section’s title poem) features many rich meditations, such as, “This is good-bye—/ la grande despedida / circled by candles infinite / it can be a signature of sorts / una caja de muerto / the difference is we live / & we continue an odd embrace / rhythmic.”

In this way, Castro’s Wise Fish expands the lexicon (and the function) of what Édouard Glissant has termed “Caribbean Discourse.” This discourse, Glissant writes, is “a kind of revenge by oral languages over written ones, in the context of a global civilization…In such a context will perhaps appear global systems using imaginative strategies, not conceptual structures, languages that dazzle or shimmer instead of simply ‘reflecting.’” Though not without its flaws, Wise Fish employs such a language, expanding on what is possible for us to say—and therefore hear, understand, and feel.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005

SPINOZA DOESN’T COME HERE ANYMORE

Buy this book at Amazon.comColette Inez
Melville House Publishing ($12.95)

by Daniela Gioseffi

Colette Inez has been an independent voice on the New York City poetry scene for many years; this latest and very fine collection, her ninth, displays Inez at the top of her craft. Offering the wit and wisdom of a broadly cultured and highly intelligent woman, her charming cosmopolitan sensibility is welcoming, never condescending or pretentious. She manages to redeem shabbiness and loss with wonder and awe, as in such poems as “After I Ride Through the Country of Graveyards”:

Without sleep, I carried a bag of sadness,
my eyes screwed in above my cheeks.
Now in a dream I call out to the girl
I was when I sailed.

……………………………………………………..
Baku eater of dreams hasn’t found my address.

Importantly, Inez’s poems are not merely about the perturbations, anxieties, or joys of her own life, but about all she meets and greets with a singular eye for observation, compassion, and irony. The title poem, for example, is a charming narrative about the search for a neighborhood philosopher named Baruch, an optometrist who disappeared from all the local haunts, stores, and coffee shops where he was usually found holding forth with profound rhetoric. The poem ends its search with a letter from “Spinoza,” touching us lightly with its conclusion:

Dear Friends:
I’ve lost my lease on the store but have found
new space in Hoboken.
The divine spirit of the universe must be seen
from the backdrop of eternity.

Her poems are peopled with a variety of others: workers, young lovers, an Irish grandmother, an elderly suicide victim, a Pakistani who inherits the victim’s furniture. And her locales are international: one minute we are in Brussels (the poet’s childhood home), and the next, in South Carolina or New York City, lost in a shabby ghetto or alive somewhere in a gorgeous landscape imbued with natural beauty. The range of form and subject matter is equally impressive: there is a pantoum for Perry Como; a celebration of Agha Shahid Ali; courtyard noises from the 24th precinct; D. H. Lawrence carrying Bavarian gentians up a four-flight walk-up; a ghazal for the poet’s mother; bird song and the syllables for train whistles; movie star lies and love stories.

Through all its variety, Colette Inez’s poetry is about transcendence, redemption, and affirmation. Hers is an ebullient spirit full of benevolent resignation; she makes everyday life vibrant using a delicately controlled craft imbued with an intimate sort of chamber music. As a result, she can critically eye “our longings for the palpable world,” yet also “love it intensely as we fumble / with keys to lock out the wind / upending umbrellas on Broadway.”

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005

DECREATION: Poetry, Essays, Opera

Buy Decreation at Amazon.comAnne Carson
Alfred A. Knopf ($24.95)

by Courtney Queeney

Anne Carson’s genius and weakness reside in her work’s incredible range of form and conception. Decreation contains (among others) lyrics, essays, a screenplay, and an opera. The proliferation of forms is central to the project, and the risks she takes make her poems startle and delight. Even the least realized piece in Decreation is more original—and necessary—than the best poems put out by many of her contemporaries.

The volume is propelled by Carson’s flood subjects, knowledge and desire, and reaches after the elusive. “Sleepchains” begins by enacting a rupture:

Who can sleep when she—
hundreds of miles away I feel that vast breath
fan her restless decks.

This syntax of loss erases the speaking subject completely in “Beckett’s Theory of Comedy,” which ends,

No verticals, all scattered and lying.
Tomorrow noon?
Going up the path, no sign of you.

“Gnosticisms” contains more of the short and gorgeous, including an efficient and comical summary of an affair:

I said! you said! oh the body,
no listen, unpinning itself, slam of car door,
snow. Far, far, far, far.

But the lyric is just one kind of Carson poem. “Seated Figure with Red Angle (1988) by Betty Goodwin” lists clauses of (unfinished) conditional sentences such as “If Miroslav warned us that experimental animals should not be too intelligent.” In “Lots of Guns: An Oratorio for Five Voices,” the best parts read right out of Godot, with the voices avoiding the twin pitfalls of didacticism and sentimentality by virtue of their hilaritas.

My gun gives me the right.
I veto your gun.
Your veto is unreasonable.
Your reason is a mystery.
Your mystery is way of lying.
This concept is no longer in use.

Carson’s at her best when she pits knowledge against emotion within form that intensifies content, but occasionally, the poems bog down in concept. Consider Scene 1 of “H&A: A Screenplay”:

Abelard:                     I made Heloise stand up.
Heloise sits down.
                                      I made Heloise sit down.
Heloise stands up.

And so on. The dialogue, too, is one-dimensional: “Why do you fight? / To fight. / If it’s a reward you want— / No.” A screenplay, a stark verbal scaffolding, that can be made compelling in the third dimension, here falls flat on the page.

More suited to Carson’s intellect and interests are essays, which form discursive counterpoints to the terse, fractured lyrics. “Decreation: How Women Like Sappho, Marguerite Porete and Simone Weil Tell God” is the collection’s centerpiece, plumbing issues of gender, history and the self. “Decreation” is Weil’s term for her desire to “undo the creature in us.” Carson realizes this desire as a paradox, in that, “I cannot go towards God…without bringing myself along.” She sees the paradox as further complicated by each woman’s role as a writer, because “To be a writer is to construct a big, loud, shiny centre of self from which the writing is given voice and any claim to be intent on annihilating this self while still continuing to write and give voice to writing must involve the writer in some important acts of subterfuge or contradiction.”

The risks these women took threatened the established political, religious and patriarchal orders of their respective times; Anne Carson’s attraction to poetic risks—though occasionally not completely successful—makes her similarly dangerous to the comfortable contemporary poetry scene.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005

TWO CRUSADES

The First Crusade: A New History, The Roots of Conflict Between Christianity and Islam
Thomas Asbridge
Oxford University Press ($35)

The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople
Jonathan Phillips
Viking Press ($25.95)

by Summer Block

Buy The First Crusade at Amazon.com

By any standard, the First Crusade was an almost miraculous military success. Hounded by disease and starvation, debilitated by thirst and weakness, without adequate horses or weapons, and woefully outnumbered and on foreign soil, the crusaders managed one astounding victory after another, finally conquering Jerusalem with fewer than 15,000 men. In stark contrast, the Fourth Crusade was a shameful failure: burdened with debt and rife with internal divisions, the crusaders never even made it to Jerusalem, instead laying waste to the city of Constantinople and ruthlessly slaughtering its Christian inhabitants. Yet the very ideals that led the crusaders to victory in the eleventh century would lead to astonishing acts of brutality and cowardice in the thirteenth.

The First Crusade devotes much of its more than 300 pages to the idea of holy warfare as developed in the period leading up to the official beginning of the Crusade in 1095. By the time Pope Urban II embarked on his preaching tour of France, stirring up enthusiasm for the liberation of Jerusalem from its Muslim rulers, Western Europe was eager to answer the call. The military leader Bohemond responded to news of the crusade with typical fervor—“calling for his most lavishly wrought cloak to be brought forth, he had this treasured garment cut to pieces in front of an astonished assembly” and made into a series of small fabric crosses, one of which he displayed on his sleeve, prompting his rapt audience to take up the rest and imitate him. All over Europe, peasants and knights alike were inflamed by the rhetoric of clerics and popular preachers like Peter the Hermit and leapt to take up arms and head east. An unruly group of peasants and some knights dubbed “The People’s Crusade” were so enthused, they set out ahead of schedule and nearly threw the crusade off course with their lawless rampaging.

Several modern historians have tried to explain away the First Crusade as a greedy move to seize booty and property, a calculating political move on the part of Pope Urban II to consolidate the power of the papacy, or even as a way to rid war-plagued Europe of a class of roving and dissolute knights. There is more than a little truth to all these things—but as Thomas Asbridge makes plain, deeply held religious belief cannot be discarded as a genuine motivation for many. As he explains, “Medieval minds were plagued by one overwhelming anxiety: the danger of sin.” Sin was not an abstract concept or a cleric’s scold but a real and terrifying affliction. Priests and monks could hope to escape this stifling burden by lives of asceticism, but what hope did a knight have? His very profession was violence, whether on the battlefield or in tournaments—his only choice was to abandon his family, his livelihood, and his duties to his lord to become cloistered, or else wallow daily in pollution and worry desperately over the punishments that awaited him in the next life—demons, tortures, and eternal exile from grace. In The Fourth Crusade, Jonathan Phillips will emphasize that “Religion saturated the medieval period in a way that is hard for us to comprehend.”

The crusades offered an exhilarating possibility—violence done in the name of the Lord would allow a knight to offer his services in pursuit of salvation, achieving both worldly prominence and spiritual assurance. No wonder thousands upon thousands looked at the crusade as a truly God-sent opportunity.

Furthermore, a wise knight would certainly think twice before joining up in order to make a fortune or secure new lands in the east. Asbridge estimates that the average knight would spend about five times his annual income on the trip, and much of what he found in the Holy City would be spent on the return journey, if he were lucky enough to have one. For most, the prospect was truly terrifying—leaving family and friends behind to risk life and property in a dangerous and unpredictable foreign land. Phillips dwells on the emotional cost of the journey, parting from beloved children and spouses, leaving unprotected women and children to defend their homes in a lawless time. Only heartfelt belief in the promise of spiritual redemption would motivate many to make the trek. To those fears, the Fourth Crusade added the dangers of a naval approach; for most crusaders, the prospect of a sea voyage was nearly as foreign and as startling as space travel today.

One question a contemporary might have offered to Pope Urban II was, why now? Muslims had held Jerusalem since 638, almost four hundred years earlier. But following the Investiture Controversy of 1075 (in which Pope Gregory VII, Urban’s predecessor, began a program to reform the weak and corrupt Church), the papacy entered a period of expansion, everywhere testing the limits of its worldly authority. Following in Gregory’s footsteps, Urban envisioned the Roman pope as the most powerful figure in the Christian world, the mouthpiece of God, with armies and kings at his command. Retaking Jerusalem (in the medieval mind, the “navel of the world,” the spiritual and geographic center of the universe) would forever cement the Latin Church as the ultimate arbiter of temporal and religious justice.

Rightly horrified by the callousness the crusaders showed toward their Muslim enemies, many modern commentators have focused on the racist and anti-Islamic sentiments of the Franks (as the crusaders are collectively called). Urban and others stirred up public sentiment with graphic—and oftentimes, wholly false—stories of the atrocities committed by Muslims in Jerusalem, including supposedly slitting open the heels of the poor to search for secreted gold as payment for the exorbitant taxes Christians paid to enter their holy city as pilgrims. But as Asbridge points out, “there is little or no evidence to suggest that either side harbored any innate, empowering religious or racial hatred of the other.” Certainly conflicts did sometimes occur, namely under the rule of the “Mad Caliph Hakim” (who was disavowed by his own people for his destructive and blasphemous behavior) and in response to the Islamic conquest of Iberia (parts of modern-day Spain and Portugal). But regular truce and trade continued, and Christians and Muslims lived in détente for most of the history of the Islamic faith.

Cynics often point to the unchecked greed and violence of the Crusades as proof of the fundamentally hypocritical nature of the Roman Church, its advocacy of war and conquest in direct contradiction of Jesus’ many pacifist teachings. In fact, even in the chaotic medieval period, many of the faithful were well aware of the shaky foundations of a holy war. Urban (and Gregory before him) labored hard to provide a theological framework that could support the idea of crusade, marshalling biblical and historical evidence and citing the precedents set by church fathers like St. Augustine. “Between the age of St. Augustine and the council of Clermont,” Asbridge explains, “western Christendom gradually became acculturated to the concept of sanctified violence.” Gregory VII employed subtle rhetorical shifts to ease the faithful into the idea of religious warfare. “Centuries earlier, patristic theologians had described the internal, spiritual battle waged against sin by devoted Christians as the ‘warfare of Christ’,” rhetoric Gregory manipulated: “he proclaimed that all lay society had one overriding obligation: to defend the Latin Church as ‘soldiers of Christ’ through actual, physical warfare.”

Over time, this language found its way into sermons, coupled with tales of supposed Muslim atrocities and the suffering of Christians in faraway lands. It was for Urban to go the final step, offering crusaders remission of all sins and a guarantee of eternal life. “For the first time,” Asbridge concludes, “fighting in the name of God and the pope brought with it a spiritual reward that was at once readily conceivable and deeply compelling: a real chance to walk through the fires of battle and emerge unsullied by sin.”

Even Urban was likely surprised by the sheer number and diversity of respondents, including large numbers of women, children, the poor and elderly, as well as the aristocratic knights to whom Urban originally pitched his message. Crusaders came from all over western Christendom, speaking a garbled mix of German, Italian, English, and French (then separated into two distinct dialects). In the end, around 7,000 knights set off for the Holy Land, along with 35,000 infantry and as perhaps as many as 60,000 civilians.

Over the course of the next four years, this group would lay siege first to Antioch and then to Jerusalem itself, against tremendous odds and despite truly staggering rates of attrition. By the time the crusaders crossed modern-day Turkey, “perhaps half of those who had left Europe had been lost to battle, disease, and starvation.” Starvation during the siege of Antioch would drive the poor to eat animal hides, shoe leather, and “the seeds of grain found in manure,” according to chronicler Fulcher of Chartres. Cannibalism was not unheard of—an expediency that put terror in the hearts of the Muslims who heard of it. Yet as the crusade progressed, “the crusaders had been reduced to a battle-hardened core—their army was dominated by an increasingly elite infantry force of well-armed, ferocious knights” who fought on foot after their horses were lost. Each narrow victory encouraged those who remained to view themselves as protected by God.

But what of the Islamic response to this rhetoric? Like many western historians, Asbridge focuses primarily on the Christian mindset. Yet one might well ask, what caused the Muslims, far greater in number and on their home turf, to yield so readily to the crusading forces? The answer seems to be twofold: warring internal factions within Islam prevented the Muslims from acting as a unified force, while the poor military leadership of the general Kerbogha left his soldiers open to attack after attack. Paralyzed with indecision, Kerbogha and other leaders choose to simply delay any action at all, while the fervently inspired crusaders continued unabated. Decades later, it would be factionalism and poor leadership that let Constantinople fall prey to a small number of western invaders.

Despite its subtitle, The First Crusade offers little explicit comment on the state of Christian/Islamic affairs today. To say that the First Crusade laid the foundation for East/West relations in the years to come is too simplistic, especially considering that further trade and cooperation with Muslim nations would follow the attack on Jerusalem in short order—the cycles of cooperation, violence, and then cooperation again continued roughly from the birth of Islam through the modern era. But parallels are easy to draw, and Asbridge is wise to use a light touch rather than hammer home an obvious agenda. The reader will find plenty to stimulate discussion on the subjects of religious extremism, Islamic factionalism, or terrorism (the medieval military model in the both the East and West relied heavily on committing atrocious acts to strike fear into the heart of the adversary—it was common, for instance, to catapult the heads of captives into or out of besieged cities). Asbridge, who walked the path of the crusaders himself, has a dramatic sense of place and a quick, rhythmic approach to storytelling—he lets the facts speak for themselves rather than drawing too many conclusions.

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By the time of the Fourth Crusade, more than a century had passed. Jerusalem was again in Muslim hands, recaptured by the renowned general Saladin. Two intervening crusades met with disaster—the Second Crusade culminated in the failed siege of Damascus, abandoned after only four days; the Third ended in a truce that still left Jerusalem squarely in Muslim hands. Perhaps the novelty that helped galvanize the leaders of the First Crusade had simply worn off, but crusades were now a costly fact of medieval life. Pope Innocent III called for the Fourth Crusade in 1198 to retake Jerusalem, but it would be another four years before the ill-fated trip commenced.

Having decided to journey to the Holy Land by sea, the crusaders approached the wealthy merchants in Venice for assistance, for the Venetians enjoyed both an unrivaled expertise in maritime matters and apparently limitless resources. A contract was drawn up whereby the crusaders agreed to pay a set sum (85,000 marks, or twice the annual income of the kings of France or England) with the intention of summoning 33,500 participants who would each pay a portion to cover their expenses. When only 12,000 crusaders showed up in Venice in the summer of 1202, the Franks feared disaster.

Unable to cover their costs, the crusaders made their first fateful error—they agreed to conquer the Christian city of Zara, a longtime rival of Venice, in exchange for a temporary remission of their debts. Appalled at the idea of turning on fellow Christians, Innocent III absolutely forbade the attack on Zara and threatened those responsible for the pillage with excommunication. But to turn back meant foregoing the trip to Jerusalem, breaking their sacred vow as crusaders and pilgrims, and therefore also endangering their salvation. In a dreadful predicament, the bulk of the crusaders agreed to hand over Zara, while some fled or conveniently absented themselves from the scene.

From this point on, the Fourth Crusade became increasingly mired in politics and dirty dealing, pulled further and further from its original course to Jerusalem. When the deposed prince of Constantinople approached the crusaders with an offer of money, resources, and the religious fealty of the Greek Orthodox Church to the Latin pontiff in exchange for laying siege to the great city and reinstating him as the rightful ruler, the Franks decided it was their only chance to continue the mission. Since the Great Schism that separated eastern and western Christians in 1054, Constantinople had been the jewel of the Byzantine empire, a seat of piety and learning, filled with countless priceless works of devotional art. In July of 1203, the Franks camped outside the “the greatest metropolis in the Christian world,” a stunning urban wonderland with a population nearly seven times that of medieval Paris or Venice.

In the face of the opposition, the Byzantine emperor Alexius III appeared to be what we might today term “in denial,” almost pathologically unable to face the threat that approached. While the crusaders set up siege engines and camps, Alexius busied himself attending dinner parties and landscaping. He even left the corn harvest stacked up outside the city walls, a gift to the invading army. Trapped at last between the crusaders on one side and an angry mob of his own citizens on the other, he fled the city. A series of coups followed, each intrigue involving the Franks in further wickedness, culminating in the conquest of Constantinople in the spring of 1204.

The mayhem that was unleashed is almost too terrible to contemplate: infants, the elderly, and priests savagely murdered; young women and nuns raped and tortured. Almost more horrible to the deeply religious (some would say superstitious) Greek people, the Franks melted down venerated church objects for the precious metals and jewels, even stealing treasure from the graves of revered patriarchs. The stately church of Hagia Sophia was soon filled with animal dung, prostitutes, and drunken thieves using altars as tables and benches. Not even the fabled Muslim “savages” were accused of such acts as the Christians performed. All the while, the pope was powerless to act, his letters often arriving months after the fact and virtually ignored. Later Pope John Paul II would issue a formal apology in 2001, but many in the Eastern Orthodox churches still remember the sack of Constantinople with rancor. One can easily trace the path that leads from Urban II’s rallying cries—demonizing the infidel “other,” exhorting crusaders to press on against all odds—to the slaughter of Christian brethren in one of the most prominent seats of the Christian faith.

Both Asbridge and Phillips go into more fascinating depth than can be summarized here, including details of medieval siege warfare (though additional pictures would have proved helpful for some of the more arcane methods). Maps are helpful additions to Asbridge’s text; Phillips would have done well to include more diagrams to illustrate his careful narrative reconstruction of Constantinople in the thirteenth century. Both authors enliven the sometimes dry enumeration of battles and sieges with amusing glimpses into medieval life (a visit by the king of Nubia affords the awed crusaders their first view of a black man; Godfrey of Bouillon suffers injuries when “attacked by a savage bear”), though Asbridge maintains the livelier tone.

In the admirable attempt to be even-handed, both authors are so accommodating of multiple critical viewpoints that it’s hard at times to find their theses. Phillips and Asbridge do an excellent job of summarizing extremely complex motives and missions in clear, accessible language, but there is little new material presented. Asbridge in particular is a valuable guide to medieval history, psychology, and politics, but better suited to those with little background in the subject.

Click here to purchase The First Crusade at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Click here to purchase The Fourth Crusade at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005

BEYOND THE BLEEP: The Definitive Unauthorized Guide to What the Bleep Do We Know!?

Buy Beyond the Bleep! at Amazon.comAlexandra Bruce
The Disinformation Company ($9.95)

by Jaye Beldo

Packaging quantum physics for the masses inevitably draws forth many a paradox. In the independent film What the Bleep Do We Know these paradoxes become difficult to dismiss and beg scrutiny by anyone who wants to gain a deeper, unbiased understanding of the science it attempts to explain. Having viewed the film, I found it nearly impossible not to regard it other than as a clever bit of New Age propaganda aimed at aging boomers looking for another optimism fix to carry them through what remains of Bush's second term. The intermittent cameos of noted physicists such as Gomit Aswami, anesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff, and philosopher David Albert, amongst others, spliced in with computer animations reminiscent of toe fungus medication commercials, and a pathetic sub-plot involving a deaf woman who carries a cell phone around with her during her photo assignments left me hardly inspired to delve further into the wondrous realm of cutting-edge physics, a physics that could very well assist us in the full realization of free energy and perhaps even world peace.

Yet, one must admire the wild success the film has enjoyed. The producers obviously had enough promotional savvy to deliver a product that continues to sell well in spite of the utter ire it has evoked from such heavy science hitters as Richard Dawkins. Much of the controversy the film has generated seems to have been deliberately intended as well. Many of the physics luminaries that appeared in Bleep complain of how they were edited into the final product to make it look like they were promoters of the Ramtha cult, which has made millions of dollars in the process. Apparently F.A. Wolf, the esteemed quantum physicist who has written such books as The Spiritual Universe and Taking the Quantum Leap actually endorses the Ramtha's School of Enlightenment and often appears there to lecture along with many of the other physicists who appeared in Bleep.

Fortunately, in Alexandra Bruce's much welcome book Beyond the Bleep, the hit film is addressed from a middle-ground standpoint, enabling the reader to get a much better grasp on the science the film ultimately fails to adequately describe. Quantum physics is given greater elaboration in Beyond the Bleep, enabling the reader to grasp some of the more arcane and difficult aspects of quantum phenomena. Bruce's depiction of John Hagelin, presidential hopeful and member of Transcendental Meditation founder Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's Natural Law party is not quite as neutral however. Hagelin has actually lobbied the U.S. Government in the past to funnel money into his patently whacked project of creating a “Vedic defense shield” in which eight thousand meditators, “one square root of one percent of the planetary population” would be deployed to create “world peace.” Apparently, each “shield meditator” would have to invest in over $100,000 worth of TM products in order to qualify. The TM cult, the author informs, is apparently bent on world domination.

Beyond the Bleep is recommended for anyone left perplexed, dismayed, or downright disgusted by the film. It will assist you in gaining a much clearer understanding of everything from Dr. Emoto's water molecules, to Candice Pert's discoveries of the molecular origin of our emotions, as well as the tribulations of scientists like her who have dared to challenge the orthodoxy and the materialist repercussions they have suffered. The book will assist anyone who desires to delve into the convoluted worlds of quantum physics, the Create Your Own Reality paradigm so beloved by New Agers and neurology alike, allowing them to emerge from such a wondrous trip enlightened and, more importantly, unscathed by the underhanded indoctrination the film tends to induce in many of its followers.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005

THE MIDDLE OF EVERYTHING: Memoirs of Motherhood

Buy The Middle of Everything at Amazon.comMichelle Herman
University of Nebraska Press ($25)

by Clifford Garstang

Mistakes were made: that’s the gist of The Middle of Everything, Michelle Herman’s “memoirs of motherhood.” Herman, a novelist and writing teacher, has come late to marriage and parenting but is so love-struck upon the arrival of her daughter, Grace, that she bursts with child-raising confidence. Having grown up with a distant, depressed mother, she determines to create a healthier environment for Grace. Rare among first-time mothers, she thinks she knows exactly what to do.

Before the reader understands that anything is seriously wrong with Grace, which happens only three-quarters of the way through the book, Herman fills the pages—as if hesitant to reveal her daughter’s problems—with recollections of young loves, then the joys of best-friendship, and the perils of aging—not only her own, but also Grace’s. At the age of eight Grace doesn’t mind so much anymore, but there was a time when a birthday was traumatic. She was perfectly happy being two, she insisted. Why should she go along with turning three?

Although Herman relates Grace’s experience to her own, it isn’t always clear what the stories have to do with motherhood. Finally, though, she gets to the point. In middle age (Herman imagines herself younger than she is), in the middle of nowhere (she can’t seem to get over the feeling that New York is home and generally superior to the Midwest), Herman feels that she has been thrust into the middle of a crisis, what she calls Grace’s “breakdown.” The title of the book comes from her grandmother’s Yiddish expression, in mitn derinnen. However, it isn’t as though Grace’s problems come “out of the blue” (another translation of the phrase) or are even terribly surprising, given Herman’s approach to parenting.

She smothers Grace with attention. Her “mantra” is “Meet every need,” which she expands into her commandments of motherhood: “Be available. Be attentive. Watch and listen. Keep your child from hunger, want, grief, loneliness, frustration.” Mother and daughter are together constantly and Grace’s every wish is granted. Is it any surprise that the result is an over-indulged little girl? Grace exhibits severe separation anxiety, never having developed a sense of herself as a being independent of her mother. And the cure, arrived at after countless consultations with psychiatrists, turns out to be no surprise either: say no, and let go.

Even if the reader is occasionally exasperated with Herman’s cluelessness, The Middle of Everything is nonetheless an entertaining glimpse into the shared lives of a modern mother and daughter.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005

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