Tag Archives: fall 2008

YOUR COUNTRY IS GREAT: Afghanistan-Guyana

Ara Shirinyan
Futurepoem ($15)

by Katie Fowley

Ara Shirinyan’s Your Country is Great: Afghanistan—Guyana is an exercise in how to say nothing about a place—a testament to the self-defeating potential of descriptive language. Take, for example, these lines about Germany: “The atmosphere in Germany is great / and it’s just like Africa here—” or these lines about Greece:

Greece is great,
the people are great,
the antiquities are great,
the scenery is great,
the ferries are great
the food is great
and yes,
the shopping is great

Shirinyan created these poems using a list of the world’s countries and typing “[country] is great” into Google. He crafts the poems by tweaking, ordering and lineating the results, but preserves idiosyncrasies such as sentence fragments, misspellings, and chatroom shorthand. For countries that landed no Google results—Burkina Faso or Central African Republic—he leaves the page blank.

Typing “[country] is great” into Google brings up predictable results from (mostly American) tourists, but it also brings up results that concern the immense problems a nation faces. Shirinyan exposes this contrast by placing real problems such as hunger, poverty and lack of resources next to the self-absorbed reflections of tourists:

The number of children needing homes
and the level of poverty in Guatemala
is great

Guatemala is great—
not quite as cheap as Thailand,
but laid back.

Some poets use repetition to tease a word and pull out its multiple functions, but Shirinyan uses repetition to deaden meaning. He reveals the bankruptcy of the word “great” and other words, such as “cool,” “friendly,” and “different” that get repeated frequently in vapid accounts of living abroad and encountering other cultures.

Shirinyan keeps a cynical distance from the voices he culls, which range from the blind enthusiast (“CROATIA IS GREAT!!!!!!”) to the tentative bore (“El Salvador is great, but / I think I’m ready to go / back to the states”) to the special interest writer (“‘living’ in Belgium is great, / although the deathmetal scene is/ not that big over here”). He attacks lifeless tourists, self-aggrandizing adventurers, bourgeois patrons of water sports and prostitution, and the banal conversationalists of the blogosphere. What saves the book from being overly scathing is its sense of humor. Yes, the Internet has leveled all things, allowed us to flaunt our lazy attempts at communication, and encouraged the overuse of exclamation points and emoticons, but the results are often hilarious:

Robbie Williams is so hot.
So is Johnny Depp
and Orlando Bloom.
Disneyland is so much fun.
Having partys with my friends is so cool.

There are also instances of surprising language that emerge from the sea of predictable sludge: “I remember ‘the lion feeling’ years ago,” or “Gibralter is great for main street / and the monkeys,” lines that sound like—dare-I-say-it?—poetry.

This is found language, but the poet’s hand should not be underemphasized. Shirinyan molds these poems just enough, preserving their arbitrariness and non-sequiturs but also arranging them in ways that make them feel rounded and complete with particular attention to finishes: “A swimming pool with / no bodies Is a problem that we can fix.” He also uses repetition and line to create refrains and percussive rhythms:

France is Great
and the rest of the World Stinks

France is Great
and the rest of the World Sucks

Often the lines are short and choppy, reflecting the overly simple and bumbling ideas they express. Some of the poems, restricted as they are to Google search results, are a bit too fragmentary. The strongest ones are the ones that hold together, like this one:


Falkland Islands is great,

but since it’s progressing so fast,

maybe not yet.

This poem is particularly humorous against the backdrop of overdone enthusiasm found elsewhere in the book. Lack of conviction is the constant, and the most “enthusiastic” parts (marked by caps and exclamation points) sound as empty as the doubts.

One does not finish Your Country is Great having learned anything useful about the nations of the world, but one might come away from it thinking about the relationship of tourists to foreign lands, the exhausted state of travel writing, or the equalizing (and negative?) effect of the Internet on discourse. Shirinyan’s book invokes a response that is a mixture of highbrow scorn and embarrassing self-recognition, for who hasn’t reveled in getting a bargain (“Breakfast was usually $2 a person, / with bacon”), bragged about having an authentic experience (“i should know / i grew up there”), or used, and probably overused, that ever-so-innocuous word “great.”

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008


David Shumate
University of Pittsburgh Press ($14)

by Kristina Marie Darling

In his recent collection of prose poems, The Floating Bridge, David Shumate explores such diverse subjects as translation, amateur Zen masters, and Franz Kafka’s first date. While his book treats a variety of ideas, the works within it continually return to the idea of “another world” just beyond our own, where one’s most basic assumptions about the social order no longer hold true. Filled with finely crafted narratives and wild flights of the imagination, Shumate’s collection offers readers a range of variations on the prose poem while remaining impressively consistent as a book-length project.

The use of extraordinary settings to structure The Floating Bridge is particularly noteworthy. Beginning with a set of poems entitled “Far Villages,” the works in Shumate’s collection travel from “Babylon” to “Paris” and the “Bible Belt,” at the same time conveying the mythology that surrounds each of these locales. Frequently using the prose poem as a vehicle for contemporary allegories and parables, Shumate explores the sense of otherness that arises as a result of place. In “The Next Village,” for example, he writes:

In the next village the bells ring at all hours. In the middle of the
night when everyone is asleep. At midday when the children huddle
over their studies. In the evening when families bow their heads.
They leave the door to the tower unlocked so anyone can pull
those ropes. When loneliness descends. When love overtakes all.
They feel it is good to let others know.

In this poem, the customs of “the next village” are narrated by an outsider who depicts them as being at once strange and disconcertingly systematic. By creating a speaker who merely observes another civilization’s way of life without partaking in it, Shumate communicates many of the modern dilemmas inherent in globalization, the lack of understanding of other cultures being only one example. “The Next Village,” like other poems in The Floating Bridge, speaks to the contemporary while conveying universal themes, a project that remains thought-provoking throughout.

As the book progresses, Shumate’s use of familiar imagery in constructing the fantastic grows impressive. Frequently using this device to suggest that “The Far Village” and “The Orange Flags of Babylon” may reside merely a few footsteps away, Shumate creates a world in which the everyday is rendered nearly unrecognizable. This trend is particularly apparent in a poem entitled “Lucifer,” in which Shumate conflates the bar scene with biblical stories:

He asks the red-haired woman sitting across from
him if she’s ever thought of being in the movies. The other night
she watched him seduce a Polish girl on the Left Bank with the
same ploy and no one’s seen her since. She leans across the table
and gives him an ironic kiss on the forehead. His skin sizzles at
the touch of her lips. The room falls silent. Even the fly buzzing
above the pasta pauses in midair.

Throughout this passage, the author pairs the sacred with the profane, using this juxtaposition to imbue gravely serious subjects with unanticipated humor. In doing so, Shumate’s prose poem reads almost as a contemporized parable in which present-day pasta and movie stars become part of a spiritual riddle. A wonderful match-up of form and content, “Lucifer,” like other poems in The Floating Bridge, suggests something of the extraordinary in the everyday.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008


Lola Ridge
Factory School ($14)

by Michael Aiken

In 1907, at age 34, the poet Lola Ridge emigrated from Australia to the U.S. Finding employment in various industrial sweatshop environments, she quickly became involved in both socialist/anarchist/feminist activism and the modernist literary movement, contributing to and editing a number of “little” magazines. The Ghetto and Other Poems, her first book, appeared in 1918 to critical acclaim; as Nancy Berke has noted, her work was admired by major poets including William Carlos Williams and Kenneth Rexroth, and when she died in 1941 she was eulogized by the New York Times as a “leading contemporary poet,” yet for decades her work has been overlooked or forgotten entirely. Thus it is welcome news that Ridge’s first and most important book is once again in print.

Ridge writes of cityscapes and workhouses, the life of the street and indeed the titular ghetto, with a combination of Williams’ “things” and her own particular taste for the necessary human existence—suffering, love, lust, aspiration—that goes with them. That taste lies uneasily behind the most measured of these poems, while in other moments it breaks out rampant, as in “To the American People,” a Lautreamontian exhortation at once inciting the reader and warning of what lies within:

Will you feast with me, American People?
But what have I that shall seem good to you!
On my board are bitter apples
And honey served on thorns,
And in my flagons fluid iron,
Hot from the crucibles.
How should such fare entice you!

Indeed, the spirit of Maldoror roams these pages, surveying the results of the mass industrialization that prophetic Mephistopheles had anticipated with such horror:

All day the power machines
Drone in her ears. . .
All day the fine dust flies
Till throats are parched and itch
And the heat—like a kept corpse—
Fouls to the last corner.

The book swerves from typically modernist free-verse to balladic songs evocative of an apocalyptic Wordsworth, as in “The Song of Iron”:

Charge the blast furnace, workman. . .

How golden-hot the ore is
From the cupola spurting,
Tossing the flaming petals
Over the silt and furnace ashz—
Blown leaves, devastating,
Falling about the world. . .

Out of the furnace mouth—
Out of the giant mouth—
The raging, turgid, mouth—
Fall fiery blossoms
Gold with the gold of buttercups
In a field at sunset,
Or huskier gold of dandelions,
Warmed in sun-leavings,
Or changing to the paler hue
At the creamy hearts of primroses.

Amidst such infernal settings, the working poor of the city go about their lives. Ridge peppers the longer poems with a suite of thumbnail portraits, like the piece worker who at night reads “those books that have most unset thought / New-poured and malleable” (clearly either poetry or manifestos, or both). Ridge is at her best when revealing people’s interrelationships to their surroundings, like the woman in “Spring” with “eyes like vacant lots” or the awful “fountain slobbering its stone basin,” drowning out huddled figures in a dim lit square in “Flotsam.”

Rooted in early 20th-century New York City, The Ghetto and other Poems anticipates much of what was to emerge amongst the “objectivists,” apparent in Ridge’s focus on the working poor and their intrinsic role in the composition and machinations of the city. Everywhere the city, its people, and their conditions are conjoined, as in “Faces” where “A late snow beats/ with cold white fists upon the tenements.” The conditions and exploitation of the working poor engaged with in this book carry an intense consciousness of the ongoing Great War and its implications, a tone that tempers every atmosphere in the collection. “The Everlasting Return” captures it best: set in Ancient Greece on a slave ship, when the ship and its owners come under attack the slaves are made half-free, their right hands loosened from their shackles, liberated just enough to defend their masters.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008


C.P. Cavafy
translated by Evangelos Sachperoglou
Oxford University Press ($12.95)

Federico García Lorca
translated by Martin Sorrell
Oxford University Press ($11.95)

by John Cunningham

The Oxford World’s Classics series has been issuing some of the finest in world literature for over 100 years; these two books are no exception. Both are bilingual editions that provide a feel for the structure of the original, even for readers who cannot understand Greek or Spanish.

Born of Greek parents, C.P. Cavafy was born and spent most of his life in Egypt—Alexandria to be precise. Peter Mackridge provides a superb introduction to Cavafy’s Collected Poems, listing as influences the Parnassian, the Symbolist, and the Decadent and Aesthetic movements. The Parnassian, represented by such French poets as Leconte de Lisle and José-Maria de Hérédia, “consists of antique scenes. . . often aspir[ing] to resemble sculptures.” The Symbolist movement, represented by such French poets as Baudelaire and Paul Verlaine, “aspired to the state of music rather than sculpture, help[ing] Cavafy to make use of suggestive symbols, to express vague, fleeting impressions and feelings, and to exploit the evocative musical resources of language.” The Decadent and Aesthetic movements—represented by both English and French poets—with the former represented by Swinburne, Rosetti and Verlaine, and the latter primarily by Walter Pater, led Cavafy to develop “the view that experience is primarily an aesthetic matter, that art is the antithesis of nature, and that the senses need to be refined and new sensations pursued. . . in other words, the doctrine that art serves no social, spiritual, or moral purpose.”

Much of the subject matter of the poems relates to ancient Greek history. For example, “The Displeasure of the Seleucid” describes how when Ptolemy arrived in Syria in an impoverished condition, King Demetrius sought to restore dignity to this ruler and not have him the laughing-stock of the Romans:

This is why the Seleucid King Demetrius
was upset. And offered Ptolemy at once
robes of royal purple, a splendid diadem,
precious diamonds, numerous
servants and attendants, his most expensive horses,
that he present himself properly in Rome,
as befits an Alexandrian Greek monarch.

Another of Cavafy’s major themes was the erotic, which can be found in numerous poems, including “At The Entrance Of The Café”:

My attention was directed, by something said beside me,
toward the entrance of the café.
And I saw the lovely body that appeared
as if created by Eros in his consummate experience—

Eroticism is a theme Cavafy shares with Lorca. Another, which Lorca exhibited to a much lesser extent than Cavafy, is a Parnassian influence. Lorca’s “Elegy” captures both:

Like Ceres, you’d offer golden corn
to have sleeping love touch your body,
to have another Milky Way
flow from your virgin breasts.

You’ll wither like the magnolia.
No kisses burnt on your thighs,
no fingers in your hair,
playing it like a harp.

While both poets were influenced by music, Lorca’s was a spare, minimalist style reflecting the rhythms of Andalusia. From his volume Poemas del Cante Jondo, the poem “And After” evokes the sound of the castanets of gypsy flamenco:

The illusion of dawn
and kisses

Only desert

Similarly, in “Dawn”:

Córdoba bells
at daybreak.
Dawn bells
in Granada.
All the girls weeping
to the tender, grieving soleá
recognize you.

In The Tamarit Divan, Lorca explores the ghazal and the qasida. The former has become a common form for contemporary poets to explore, but while many U.S. and Canadian poets have used the name while ignoring the strictures of the form, Lorca held to the original requirements. In “Ghazal IX—Of Marvellous Love,” he writes:

With all the gypsum
of the badlands,
you were reed of love, moist jasmine

With south and fire
of the bad skies,
you were murmur of snow in my breast.

Lorca’s qasidas, on the other hand, do not follow the strictness of this Persian form, which generally runs for more than fifty lines. “Qasida V—Of The Open-Air Dream” shows the influence of the Surrealists:

Jasmine bloom and butchered bull
Endless paving. Map. Room. Harp. Dawn.
The girl feigns a jasmine bull
and the bull’s a bleeding sunset, bellowing.

Lament for Ignacio Sánchez Mejias is Lorca’s most ambitious poem (and perhaps his most famous as a result of the movie The Disappearance of García Lorca). It is an elegy to a friend and aging bullfighter who attempted, at an advanced age, to fight one last bull; he was killed in the ring as a result of being gored. The first part, “Goring and Death,” contains one of Lorca’s most famous refrains, a device he was quite fond of:

At five in the afternoon
Fine on the dot after noon
A boy fetched the white sheet
at five in the afternoon
A basket of lime waiting
at five in the afternoon
After that death and only death
at five in the afternoon.

Both Cavafy and Lorca have proven to be quite influential to North American poets. These new translations offer further testimony as to the many reasons why—and for a fairly reasonable price.

Click here to purchase Collected Poems of C.P. Cavafy at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Click here to purchase Selected Poems of Federico García Lorca at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008

ROCK ON: An Office Power Ballad

Dan Kennedy
Algonquin ($14.95)

by Ellen Frazel

Imagine landing your dream job, only to realize that this job completely destroys and invalidates the dreams you once had. This job takes everything you thought to be true, everything you held with deep respect in the world, and dashes it against the hard, shiny rocks of corporate industry. For Dan Kennedy, a failed musician who grew up in awe of Led Zeppelin, Kiss, and Iggy Pop, a job in the music industry seemed like the best way to pursue his passion for music. With high hopes of discovering America’s next great rock band, Kennedy instead finds himself tangled in the sticky web of the corporate pecking order, full of power plays and hard decisions about what kind of expensive picture frame to buy for your office.

Luckily for us, Kennedy survives his time at the major record label, emerging to tell a hilarious tale of many painfully awkward encounters and mishaps in his memoir Rock On. From fighting with a coworker over a chocolate chip muffin to organizing a gangster rap music video, Kennedy will have you laughing out loud at the sheer ridiculousness of the music industry. Kennedy also brings us closer to this world by interspersing humorous lists and self-composed lyrics between his anecdotes. He outlines the power structure of the office, telling us about “The Heavy Hitter” (“You’re making seven figures”), “Upper Management” (“You lurk in the same places; same corner offices, same executive washrooms”), “Glorified Middle Manager” (“you’re not making small talk with influential cohorts while urinating”), “Glorified Foot Soldier” (“you can’t manage anyone”), and “Real Foot Soldier” (“Who was there when, say, slow-jam diva Brandy needed some clothes brought to her hotel room in the snowstorm? . . . You! You’re the real deal, because you actually do something”).

Despite Kennedy’s ability to find the extraordinary humor in his workplace, his seeming aptitude to laugh it all off, there are many times in his story when he simply expresses wanting to fit in. For anyone who has felt the baffling desire to do well at a job you dislike, to impress coworkers in spite of your feelings for them, Kennedy’s contradictory feelings are understandable. Throughout the book, his passion and respect for music still prevail; he admits,

Sometimes I walk around the floors peeking in offices, like a tourist lost in a museum. You can’t help but feel how this is your last chance to see this. That none of the old-school mogul stuff is going to last much longer—a little slice of American pop culture that might’ve peaked and is now almost gone without a trace.

There is a bitter feeling of regret and loss beneath the humor of Rock On, because it is apparent to Kennedy that the days of Rush and Led Zeppelin are over. The industry now churns out identical pop stars, hip hop princesses, and angry rockers with manufactured lyrics and iconic wardrobes. This is not what Dan Kennedy signed up for.

Unfortunately, the everyday routine of work and the powerful draw of money can numb the mind to certain core values and beliefs. Kennedy finds himself sucked into this world, no longer finding it all that odd that well-paid executives sit around in meetings discussing a pop star’s hairstyle or listening to the new hit song being used in a women’s razor commercial. Throughout Rock On, you can really feel Kennedy’s internal battle between not wanting to sacrifice his ideals and wanting to succeed in the music industry.

At times, you may want to yell at him for throwing his values to the dust, but Kennedy is only human. “I know this stuff is all a big dumb lie,” he writes, “But I want to try for once in my life. . . I want everyone to think I’m a normal and successful man like the others.” Kennedy gives it to us the way it really happened—he admits feeling that compelling force asking him to sell his soul to the industry. In this way, Kennedy succeeds in crafting a multi-faceted book: his humor, often bitter and cynical, exposes the dangers of working in the corporate music industry. For a short time, Kennedy lives teetering on the edge of a bottomless pit of forsaken morals; he experiences the vapid void within which people sit around getting paid to create pop culture.

All of Kennedy’s feelings towards music and his job culminate in a fervent retelling of seeing Iggy Pop in concert. The energy of Iggy, “this fifty-six-year-old life force” bounding and jumping around the stage, and the audience holding middle fingers up to MTV ads, show Kennedy that there are still people out there who really love rock music. Jumping up onto his amps, Iggy shows just as much contempt for the music industry, “face to face with the industry suits up in the balcony” yelling “Jump down here you fat fucks! I dare you to jump! You won’t jump because you’re scared!” Later, Iggy goes so far as to scale the V.I.P. mezzanine, scattering the record executives’ tables and “complimentary Skyy vodka and cranberry” drinks everywhere. In this same spirit of rebellion, Rock On is Dan Kennedy’s way of redeeming himself, his big middle finger to the industry, his own destruction of the V.I.P. section.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008


Marybeth Hamilton
Basic Books ($24.95)

by Tim W. Brown

Since the colonial era, white Americans have shown interest in the music produced by African-Americans. For example, in Notes on the State of Virginia Thomas Jefferson praised his slaves’ talent for playing the “banjar.” During Reconstruction, Northerners and Southerners alike struggled to describe this music, which sounded foreign to their Western-trained ears. African-Americans themselves promoted their unique musical style to white audiences, most famously the Fisk Jubilee Singers, who introduced Negro spirituals to listeners internationally. By the 20th-century, however, appreciation of this music had faded as African-Americans became more interested in ragtime, jazz, and other popular musical forms.

In Search of the Blues provides a solid overview of the efforts of several individuals who dedicated their lives to recovering the lost folk music of African-Americans. Some, like John and Alan Lomax, are widely celebrated. Others like Howard Odum, Dorothy Scarborough and James McKune are less well known. But according to author Marybeth Hamilton, all were instrumental in recording and transcribing traditional African-American music and shaping present-day conceptions about the style known as the blues.

These collectors’ stories are practically epic in scope. They ventured into African-American communities, inside notorious prisons, and down obscure back roads, capturing on primitive recording equipment what remained of this music in the memories of sharecroppers, prisoners, and itinerant musicians. In addition to encountering a basic distrust of whites and a disinterest in old tunes, they learned that live performances were rapidly being supplanted by DJ’s spinning “race records” in African-American bars and juke joints across the South. Indeed, the records were often the same ones heard on Chicago’s South Side and in Harlem.

Most important to Hamilton is the process by which a founding myth of the blues was advanced. She writes, “the Delta blues was not born in the bars and dance halls of Mississippi. . . It was discovered— or, if you like, invented—by white men and women, as the culmination of a long-standing fascination with uncorrupted black singers, untainted by the city, by commerce, by the sights and sounds of modernity.” This myth has dominated music history and criticism into the present and is prevalent in the writings of noted authors Robert Palmer and Greil Marcus. Its greatest proponent was Alan Lomax, who commemorated his Delta sojourns in The Land Where the Blues Began. An ever-narrower definition of “authenticity” resulted, which defined genuine blues as sung for personal reasons by aimless drifters who had no intentions of performing, recording, or publishing their music.

All of which begs the question: what did African-Americans think about these white people invading their towns, asking questions about obsolete music, and pushing microphones in their faces? An answer is suggested in Lost Delta Found, edited by Bruce Nemerov and Robert Gordon (Vanderbilt University Press, 2005). The source materials for Lost Delta Found were recently unearthed after disappearing for decades inside the Library of Congress. The book consists of sociological studies, jointly authored by Fisk University scholars and the Library, that documented the everyday lives of African-Americans in Coahoma County, Mississippi, circa 1941-42; John Work, a music professor at Fisk, researched the same musical genres as Hamilton’s subjects. Hamilton alludes to this important corrective to the blues founding myth in her endnotes, but she ignores its implications within the body of her book.

The portrait of Alan Lomax that emerges in Lost Delta Found is decidedly unflattering. Ostensibly a co-sponsor of the Coahoma Study as an archivist at the Library, he co-opted (less generous observers might say “plagiarized” or “stole”) Work’s contributions to the project, even confiscating field recordings Work had made and depositing them in the Library in defiance of an agreement to share credit for the Study’s findings. That Hamilton gives short shrift to this unsavory story relays the false impression that only whites showed interest in African-American folk music. In addition, her book’s citation methods could stand to be more robust; although phrase notes and an excellent index appear at the end, a more formal list of works cited and numbered endnotes would be useful.

In spite of these flaws, Hamilton has produced an important work of music history that sheds light on obscure appreciators of an even more obscure art form. American culture is all the richer because of what these individuals turned up—material that, as the author amply demonstrates, could easily have been lost to history forever.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008

GEORGE OPPEN: Selected Prose, Daybooks, and Papers

edited by Stephen Cope
University of California Press ($19.95)

by Joseph Bradshaw

Over a decade in the making, Stephen Cope’s edition of George Oppen: Selected Prose, Daybooks, and Papers is an in-depth presentation of Oppen processing the poetics behind his highly acclaimed poetry. Book-ended by a section called Prose (which includes the essay “The Mind’s Own Place”) and a section called Papers (made up entirely of “Twenty-Six Fragments,” his reputed last writings), the main attraction for most will be the section called Daybooks, which makes up the core of the volume.

As Oppen worked on his books, rather than keeping a notebook to process his thoughts he would use single leaves of paper, variously typing or writing on them by hand. He then idiosyncratically bound them using materials such as pipe-stem cleaners or paste, and in one case a single nail hammered into a block of wood. Michael Davidson, editor of Oppen’s New Collected Poems, named these handmade books “daybooks” in 1985, when he published a transcription of one of them in an Oppen feature of the journal Ironwood.

In an illuminating discussion about the daybooks, Cope writes, “Akin to. . . notebooks, journals, diaries, and the like, these papers are finally none of these; nor are they fully letters, essays, or aphoristic statements.” Oppen never intended these books to be published; they were meant entirely for his own use in processing his poetic work. It is for this reason that they are so disorganized, or, to use Oppen’s words, “a nightmare of bric-a-brac.” Cobbled together—often even on the same page—are notes on Cold War-era politics; annotations to the philosophers, poets, and writers Oppen was reading; reflections on poetic process and the public and private lives of the poet; and, among many other things, thoughts on what Oppen often refers to as “the women poets” (which points to a complex, problematic issue within Oppen scholarship: his attitude toward feminine subjectivity).

Leafing through the bric-a-brac, what makes the daybooks so engaging is that we are able to see Oppen’s process at work. Cope has been conscientious to present the pages of the daybooks, as well as those of "Twenty-Six Fragments"—with all of their cross-outs and overwrites—in a manner that gracefully displays a "textual vitality," as Cope puts it, without falling into incomprehensibility. To do this, he developed a comprehensive textual apparatus that uses roman text to indicate typed passages; italicizedtext to indicate handwritten passages; [brackets] to indicate indecipherable text; ^arrows^ to indicate insertions; strikethroughs; and so on.

In page after page, Oppen’s exacting mind is active, such as in this passage about a poem by Oppen’s admirer, Armand Schwerner:

Fucking and even bucking— Alright ^Ok by me^.

While there is obviously a difference between the statements “alright” and “ok by me,” the difference is on a micro-semantic level, and we see Oppen—famous for the attention he so strenuously pays to the “little words”—weighing these micro-differences throughout the daybooks. It is no surprise, then, that in a later daybook entry we find the following passage:

I mean my work to be a process of thought. Which means I am the literary equivalent of the scientist. not of the [ ]—not, that is to say, the entertainer.

But not to be overlooked is the section of Oppen’s published prose. In addition to “The Mind’s Own Place,” Oppen’s single comprehensive statement of poetics, there are several short reviews and a few scant notes on individual poets. These make up the entire corpus of prose published in Oppen’s lifetime. One piece, titled “Statement on Poetics,” which was written late in Oppen’s life and published posthumously, focuses on the relation of prosody to poetic process, and illuminates Oppen’s habits of revision:

I try one word and another word and another word, reverse the sequence, alter line-endings, a hundred two hundred rewritings, revisions—This is called prosody: how to write a poem. Or rather, how to write that poem.

Also not to be overlooked is the volume’s index, compiled by the poet Andrew Joron. In service to Oppen’s exactingness, Joron has suitably gathered an enormous span of subjects touched upon throughoutSelected Prose, which is quite a feat given the brambled nature of the daybooks. These subjects range from those already often associated with Oppen, such as ethics, sincerity, and truth, to those that have not yet been the focal point of Oppen scholarship, such as dreams, religion, and sexuality. It is a meaningful tool in a book that will undoubtedly deepen readers’ experience and understanding of Oppen, and broaden the scope of Oppen scholarship in the years to come.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008


edited Zong-qi Cai
Columbia University Press ($32.50)

by Lucas Klein

Implicit in the question How to Read Chinese Poetry is whether reading Chinese poetry is any different from reading non-Chinese poetry. If not, then what is the justification for a “guided anthology” such as this? And, for that matter, what is Chinese poetry? According to editor Zong-qi Cai, “This anthology features 143 famous poems composed over a period of almost three millennia stretching from the early Zhou [ca. 1027–256 BCE] all the way to the Qing, the last of China’s dynasties, which ended in 1911.” While this is a colossal span of history, it leaves out vernacular poetry written in modern Chinese in the last hundred years, often under the influence of Western poetry and forms. It is also a very small number of poems to represent three thousand years. The contributors make up for this lack by embedding these poems in essays discussing the poems and their historical, generic, linguistic, and cultural background and contexts. In this way the volume serves less as an anthology than as a primer, a starting point on a path leading the student to understand Chinese poetry better.

The student is the expected mindset—if not identity—for the reader of this volume: while the chapter-essays can of course be read in any order, they beg to be read as part of a course in pre-modern Chinese poetry, arranged chronologically, with a teacher who can provide further information and reading material. To complete the book the syllabus would likely need to double-up some readings, as rare is the college with a semester long enough to accommodate a chapter a week for eighteen weeks. Nevertheless, for the student who reads the full volume, the breadth of the Chinese poetic tradition and its habits of reading are the reward.

For the reader unaccustomed to assigned readings and classroom discourse, the volume presents certain challenges. The odd speech customs of American Sinology may require patience: “poetic text” for “poem,” “heptasyllabic” to describe a seven-character poetic line, “traditional” as a synonym for “pre-modern” or “classical” (as in, “many traditional commentators and modern scholars have expressed the belief. . .” [Xinda Lian]), and the overuse of Romanized Chinese in place of English translations, not only for sub-genres (e.g. shicisanqu, etc.), but also for titles and terminology (e.g. Shijing and Chuci, along with bi-xingqing jingfugu, etc.). While some of these professorial quirks do not inhibit understanding, others hide obstructive ideology: with “traditional” as closed and foregone, literary scholarship adheres to and reiterates a sharp break between China’s past and present, as if the two had nothing to do with each other. Other word choices, though, may in fact deserve thinking through: if “poetic text” requires that we differentiate our understanding of Chinese literature from more familiar, Western poetry, is that something we want to do?

How to Read Chinese Poetry seems designed for a classroom open to both East Asian Studies majors and wanderers from English departments interested in poetry “for its own sake.” While the attempt to unite these separate constituencies despite their separate agendas and interests is noble, its fallout goes beyond the perennial debate over the utility of poetry. The Chinese language, for instance, is also implicated, as the book seems conflicted over how to treat the range of Chinese knowledge amongst its readership: all poems are transcribed not only in Chinese characters but with Romanized pronunciation and tone-marks as well, whereas for names of authors and terms, no tone-marks are given, and anyone interested in the Chinese word must flip through the index. While the editor and publisher must have wanted to avoid intimidating students who do not know Chinese, the result is an emphasis on the sound of poetry unmatched by equal care about allowing students to discuss poetry in Chinese with Chinese speakers. And for all that, the structure of sounds in poetry is incomplete; the book gives no pronunciation guide to help students previously unexposed to the conventions of Chinese Romanization, and while non-speakers of Chinese can hear how the poems sound in Mandarin online (at www.cup.columbia.edu/static/cai-sound-files), what about the instances of Middle Chinese or older whose transcriptions find their way into the book? When we read Fusheng Wu say that “rhyming words. . . yōng and jiàng” were “pronounced in archaic Chinese as λiwoŋ and γeuŋ, respectively,” where do we go to find out what that means?

If these are problems for the East Asian Studies major, the problem for the English major or otherwise reader of poetry may be the caliber of translation. While Cai acknowledges—in what sounds like a critique of a style pioneered by Wai-lim Yip and Gary Snyder—that “In translation, many Chinese poems, especially those written in a highly condensed style, can easily appear hackneyed,” the translations written by these academics just as easily appear stilted, even lame. And while fine lines exist, such as the alliterative elegance of “Green, green grows the cypress on the hilltop, / Heap upon heap stand stones in mountain streams” (trans. Zong-qi Cai), or the understatement of “Tear-laden ink is gray and dull with dust” (trans. Shuen-fu Lin), more often there are lines of such clunking dullness as “The Seven Beginnings and the Beginning of Quintessence of Myriad Things, / Are sung solemnly in harmony. / The gods will come enjoying the banquet, / We sincerely hope they will listen to the music” (trans. Jui-lung Su).

But while some of the scholars have attempted art in their translations—such as Charles Egan’s use of punctuation in his chapter on Quatrains, or Xinda Lian’s bawdy rhyme in his chapter on songs under the Mongols—the inattention to translation manifests the absence of discussion of how translation affects our understanding and appreciation of poetry. The book includes no discussion, for instance, of the meaning behind Xiaofei Tian’s translation of jiŭ as “ale” while everyone else makes it “wine.” The ways that different scholars approach the dueling demands of philological accuracy and English affect—along with the intemperate states of both—presents a missed opportunity to discuss the different points of entry into reading Chinese poetry. Likewise, the volume gives no discussion of the differences between different translations of the same poem, such as “Sui Palace,” by Late Tang poet Li Shangyin, as translated by Robert Ashmore—

Purple Spring palace halls lay locked in mist and haze;
he wanted to take the “ruined city” as a home of emperors.
The jade seal: if not because it returned to the sun’s corner,
brocade sails: they would have arrived at heaven’s bounds.
To this day, the rotting grass is without fireflies’ flash;
through all time, the drooping willows have sundown crows.
Beneath the earth, if he should meet the Latter Lord of Chen,
would it be fitting to ask again to hear “Flowers in the Rear Courtyard”?

—or as translated by Zong-qi Cai—

Purple Spring’s palace halls lay locked in the twilight mist;
He wished to make the Overgrown City a home of emperors.
The jade seal: if it had not somehow become the Sun-horn’s,
Brocade sails, then, would have reached heaven’s end.
To this day the rotten grass is without fireflies’ flash,
From antiquity lie the drooping willows, with the sunset crows.
Beneath the earth, if he would run into the Latter Lord of Chen,
How could it be fitting to ask about “Rear Courtyard Flowers”?

The pervasive ignorance of translation also means that Chinese poetry’s cross-cultural relationships get little attention: some writers, particularly Cai and William Nienhauser, cite other poetic traditions, but Ezra Pound and Ernest Fenollosa only get one mention, and Chinese influence on Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese poetry is not discussed at all. Conversely, foreign influence on Chinese poetry is downplayed: Wendy Swartz’s section on Xie Lingyun does not mention his Buddhism, and while Xiaofei Tian analyzes the Buddhist elements of Chinese palace-style poetry, by not mentioning the ways in which Sanskrit poetics may have influenced Chinese prosody, she leaves foreign influence a matter of content only, and never form. Conversely, when Maija Bell Samei introduces the song lyric genre as stemming from a time when “new music from Central Asia began entering China and soon became all the rage at the cosmopolitan Tang court and in Tang urban culture,” the topic is never mentioned again, suggesting that foreign influence is only a matter of form, and not of content.

But while these slips represent significant deficiencies in the study of Chinese poetry, they are quibbles against the overall success of How to Read Chinese Poetry, and any good teacher would be able to incorporate these points into the lesson plan. The strengths of the book, undiminished by its imperfections, appear in the elegance and facility with which the contributors engage with and explain the language beneath (not beyond) translation. In their discussions of Du Fu and Li Shangyin, two of Chinese history’s most persistently hermetic poets, Robert Ashmore and Zong-qi Cai demonstrate the vagaries and ambiguities of Chinese poetic language at its highest. Similarly, David Knechtges’s examination of the rhymeprose of Sima Xiangru displays an erudite mastery of Sima’s poetic erudition. The possibility the volume provides for the reader to see many layers of the poems at the same time defines the book’s value; what Paula Varsano says about one poem by Li Bai holds true for the book’s manifold perspective on its poems: “The convergence of these multiple readings is precisely what yields the intoxicating sense of the impossibility of discerning, with our eyes, the causes of the events that unfurl before us, or of grasping the true, quixotic nature of the relationships among things.”

If the East Asian Studies major can learn how to appreciate the depths of poetic heritage within an otherwise business- or politics-focused pursuit, what can the non-student reader of poetry learn from How to Read Chinese Poetry? While the question of the title is never answered directly, by oblique example we understand the interrelationship between poetry and history, and to read Ronald Egan’s chapter on how the Song dynastic history shaped its poetics, or Grace Fong on the influx of women poets in the late imperial era, is to begin to understand both how and why. As Xiaofei Tian explains, “in appreciating the poetry of a different age, we should take its historical and cultural contexts into account,” but are historical and cultural contexts any less important for appreciating the poetry of our own age? Against a still prevalent idea that Western poetry can be read simply as rhetoric, the contemporary American poetry-reader can learn from a Chinese scholarly tradition that has never had much patience for such ahistoricism. Poetry everywhere is infused with its own history, and rather than the Joycean “History is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake,” history is for classical Chinese poets more often a dream they are trying to comprehend and control. In its scholarly awareness of the relationship between poetic lines and historical context, readers of poetry in any language can learn from the critical traditions, as much as the poems, of Chinese poetry, and glean from How to Read Chinese Poetry the answer to the question of how to read poetry.

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008


edited by David Goodway
Cecil Woolf

by Jeff Bursey

Emma Goldman (1869-1940), born in Lithuania but most often a resident of the United States, became both infamous and an inspiration for her anarchist activities and writings. Her most enduring work may be found in the causes she championed (described in, among other places, Living My Life, a two-volume autobiography first published in 1931). In his introduction to The Letters of John Cowper Powys and Emma Goldman, David Goodway provides a good overview of her eventful life, judging that “1906 to 1919 mark the apogee of her revolutionary career.” After spending two years in a U.S. jail for campaigning against conscription in the First World War, in 1917 she was “immediately deported” to Russia. My Disillusionment in Russia, published in two volumes (1923-1925), charts her disenchantment with Bolshevism. It and she were enemies forever after. Goldman became an English citizen through a marriage arranged for that purpose. Her activist nature never diminished, but she was in “limbo” from the mid-1920s until, with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, she found a new purpose.

In England, Goldman organized, harried, lectured, wrote, and attempted to stir society to show sympathy towards and give money to the Spanish cause—to little avail, “considering the rigidity of the British Public,” as she wrote to Powys in February 1937. She did better in Spain. “Here I am again in England after three months in Spain. I may say, without exaggeration, the three most exultant months of my entire career.” The hysteria, bloodshed, carnage, and devotion to a true anarchist cause (no government, but governance by the people as equals) found among Spaniards, Catalonians in particular, rejuvenated her as she neared seventy. The civil war within the civil war—political infighting between those on the side of Stalin and those who were not—ended her time there. Back in London, she resumed trying to enlist sympathies and provoke political pressure about the treatment accorded those who had fled to France from besieged Spain. “Let no one talk to me about the liberality of France,” she wrote Powys during the winter of 1939. “In point of fact France has been living on her past, like some unfortunate women whose age is devoid of everything worthwhile and who therefore can have nothing to give to the world except their boastful youth.” By the summer she was in Ontario, Canada, where she died in May 1940.

John Cowper Powys (1872-1963) is the best-known member of a prodigious literary family that contained Theodore Francis (T.F.) Powys (1875-1953) and Llewelyn Powys (1884-1939), among other writers and artists. In 1930 alone, ten books appeared written by five family members. The brothers were prolific, perhaps overwhelmingly so: their works were densely woven, mystical and/or animistic; they stayed away from literary cliques; and they weren’t interested in long silences between works. Despite his own output, JCP (as he is often referred to) fell off many literary maps soon after his writing life stopped. He began as a poet in the 19th century, but shifted to lecturing, first in England, and then, profitably, in the United States from the early 20th century to roughly 1930, addressing countless audiences in major cities and small towns. He met Emma Goldman on such a circuit, and in 1936 referred to her as “an old colleague of mine in the States in the cause of free Culture and enlightenment for the masses.” Lecturing was how Powys maintained himself and his family (his wife Margaret Lyon and their child, Littleton) until the success of Wolf Solent (1929) encouraged him to give that up. Living in the States for long stretches also helped him stay away from a marriage that never suited; Powys met the ideal sylph of his dreams, Phyllis Playter, in Joplin, Missouri in 1921 when he was nearly fifty and she was twenty-six. They lived together until his death.

In 1915, Powys’ first novel, Wood and Stone, sold very well, and he quickly wrote a second, Rodmoor (1916). These were followed by many books that might be regarded as literary self-help works, alternating with dithyrambic appreciations of other writers. Those two titles, as well as After My Fashion(1920; not published in his lifetime), and Ducdame (1925), are now available through Faber’s print-on-demand service. In 2007, the Overlook Press published two significant works: the complete version of what many consider his finest novel, Porius (1951), which had previously only appeared in abridged versions; and the first biography devoted to JCP alone, Morine Krissdóttir’s Descents of Memory, that hopefully will increase interest in his work and life. Overlook has in print most of the masterworks: A Glastonbury Romance (1932); Weymouth Sands (1934; Jobber Skald in England); Autobiography (1934);Maiden Castle (1936; the unabridged version); and Owen Glendower (1940). Wolf Solent has remained in print through a variety of publishers. While this is not a renaissance, or a return to his popularity in 1915 or the early 1930s, it does indicate serious interest. Once more, people have the chance to see why such diverse writers as Annie Dillard, Henry Miller, Theodore Dreiser, Robertson Davies, and Margaret Drabble have been advocates.

The Letters of John Cowper Powys and Emma Goldman, recently released by the small English publisher Cecil Woolf, is another addition to the fine collection of Powys letters his firm has already published. The letters cover the period 1936-1940, and with such figures—Powys full of admiration for Goldman, Goldman consumed by the dire state of Spain—we might expect either a cautious correspondence or one that takes full flight and seizes the reader. “How important was this correspondence to the participants?” Goodway asks in his Afterword. He offers an only partially satisfying answer, that Powys was an “invaluable morale booster” for Goldman, and that she tutored him in anarchist thought, correcting his early errors. Thanks to her, Powys could balance his idiosyncratic outlook on the world with political thought. Her re-education of him was necessary, and beneficial, and it gave him the words and concepts to refine and better articulate his own libertarian (i.e., anarchist) views.

This seems a particularly narrow ledge from which to view the workings of both writers. Like many of his siblings, from the very beginning Powys never fit into a wider society easily, and he learned to be (or persisted in being) singular and unclassifiable. Here, I believe, Goodway has the tail wagging the dog. In the introduction he writes, “Why, it has to be asked, is Powys not at his best in his correspondence with Goldman?” After knocking down a few possible reasons, he provides an answer: Goldman was “not a close friend. . . at the outset—rather, a celebrated acquaintance.” In short, some hero worship had to be gotten over, and only after four years, so Goodway’s reasoning goes, does Powys relax and sound like he did when writing others.

That seems like another partial answer. There are other reasons why Powys sounds restrained (by his standards) in what is a revealing correspondence of great worth to Powys and Goldman scholars. The first letter is from Goldman to Powys on the first of January 1936, and in it she asks his advice on how to “go about to gain a hearing,” that is, find a venue to attract audiences in England. She also sends him material that might help him figure out a way she could promote herself. A year later she asks if Powys would let her list his name, as well as Llewelyn’s, for a “theatre affair” she is arranging. In January 1938 Goldman asks Powys to be a sponsor for a different matter. He provided a written tribute to her that “brought a lump to [her] throat.” However, it can’t be used for her purposes, being “too personal,” and she asks for something a general audience can hear. Powys obliges. Later in 1938 he provides an article on Spain for a publication, at her request; it contains errors that Goldman corrects some months after its publication. At the end of this year she returns to his re-education. “I have no desire to impose such works in you, but I will be very happy indeed to send you a collection of some of the things by the foremost exponents of Anarchism.” When she writes inquiring about his latest book, Owen Glendower, in June 1939 it almost comes as a shock due to the rarity on her part of such questions. She then asks if he’d consider writing a preface to someone else’s book, offsetting her momentary interest in his vocation. For his part, Powys always inquires after her work, thanks her for whatever she sends him, and responds to what she’s doing, in England, Spain, and Canada. Throughout the correspondence Goldman alternates between two main salutations: “Dear John Powys” and “Dear Friend.” Powys generally writes “My dear Emma Goldman” or “Dear Emma.”

I mention these things because this important correspondence—charting Goldman’s English activities on behalf of Spain, and Powys’ deepening understanding of anarchist thought—is remarkably free of fun. Powys relished the joyous liberty of going off on flights of fancy. A sign of his high spirits, and his interest in what he’s saying and responding to, is found in multiple clauses in one sentence (often fragmented, filled with dashes and underlining) that loops around or leaps away from the main subject, eventually getting back to the main topic that has, in the course of the lines, been subtly or grandly transformed. These are frequent in the letters Powys and English novelist Dorothy Richardson exchange (also newly published by Woolf this year). Goldman’s epistles don’t allow room for Powys’ usual humour to present itself, since he is often both tutored and used as an instrument, with his own literary work not nearly so important as a political cause. He rarely opens up for an exchange of a literary sort, or delving into the mystical that is a hallmark of so much of his writing. Anyone familiar with Powys would know his habit for placating or worshipping others, and those things are definitely present in these letters. I also believe that Goldman is sincere every time she praises his warmth towards her, for he did support her. That is why the publication of their letters is so welcome. It shows a restrained Powys and a Goldman more interested in large movements than an individual she was “always so glad to hear from.” Hear from, but perhaps not listen to as openly as an equitable friendship would require.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008


Aleksandar Hemon
Riverhead Books ($24.95)

by Salvatore Ruggiero

“Why does the Jewish day begin at sunset?” This is the quiet refrain posed by Lazarus Averbuch, the evasive subject of Aleksandar Hemon’s new novel The Lazarus Project. The novel interlaces the narrative of Vladimir Brik, a displaced Bosnian refugee in Chicago who receives a grant to write about the untimely and violent death of Lazarus, with that of Olga Averbuch, Lazarus’s sister who is forced not only to come to terms with her brother’s death, but also with the humiliation and condemnation of being an unwanted immigrant at the turn of the century in America.

Brik is a writer for a Chicago paper—his column entitled “In the Land of the Free,” where he discusses being a stranger in a strange land, has given him a bit of local celebrity, enough so that when he applies for a grant to take on this Lazarus project, he is easily awarded the money to head back to Europe to see what remains of Averbuch’s beginnings. With him he takes along an adventurous old friend from home, a photographer named Rora, so that he can have snapshots of the landscapes of the Ukraine, Moldova, and Bosnia. As they follow the path taken by Averbuch to escape the anti-Semitic 1903 Russian pogroms, this road trip through Europe, encapsulated with male angst and a cast of local characters that charm and inform, becomes a more delightful, mature, and textually innovative version of Everything Is Illuminated.

Meanwhile, in what the reader can only assume is Brik’s story about Lazarus—one hundred years before Brik’s own pilgrimage—Olga Averbuch is trying to get a proper Jewish burial for her brother, who was gruesomely shot by a Chicago policeman when he attempted to give the officer an important piece of paper. (This murder evokes memories of the Amadou Diallo killing in New York, when policemen unloaded forty-one rounds into Diallo’s body, another immigrant story that begs to be told.) Olga’s pleas fail to impress the police, and she gets taken in by Lazarus’s associates, who further confuse and inform her about immigrants’ rights.

Hemon weaves these two striking narratives together, aesthetically and physically joining them with the glue of several black and white photographs between each chapter—evidently meant to be Rora’s, although credited to Velbor Bozovic and the Chicago Historical Society. What at first seems gimmicky proves its very worth as the novel does: neither the photographs, Brik’s travels, nor Brik’s writing about Olga and her brother ever get to the core of Lazarus, his past, and his death. Everything is just a suggestion, a hint at what could be the truth. This is a narrative of the void, the unknown. The narrator himself states it in his first line: “The time and place are the only things I am certain of: March 2, 1908, Chicago. Beyond that is the haze of history and pain, and now I plunge.” Never do we receive a lucid vision of Lazarus or his former life. Never do we understand why Brik himself can’t paint this portrait of this émigré, even as we uncover cities and items left behind. Never are the photographs direct representations of the chapter. We can peel back layers of narrative, but Hemon never lets us get through to the heart of the matter, as if there is still another gossamer filtering the light source.

The novel opens and closes with a brutal and almost random murder, one from each narrative. “Why does the Jewish day begin at sunset?” No answer is given, but The Lazarus Project almost grants this as a response: So that what is unclear is only in the beginning; so that life can grow out of death; so that life is what is remembered at the end; so that we are free of death in life. This is a collection of voices and stories of the other, of the sunset waiting for a sunrise that may or may not ever emerge.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008