Tag Archives: fall 2009

YOU’LL NEVER KNOW: A Graphic Memoir

Book One: A Good and Decent Man

C. Tyler
Fantagraphics ($24.99)

by Ken Chen

Refuting Paradise Lost, Virginia Woolf wrote: “The substance of Milton is all made of wonderful, beautiful and masterly descriptions . . . He deals in horror and immensity and squalor and sublimity but never in the passions of the human heart. Has any great poem ever let in so little light upon one’s own joys and sorrows?” One could easily pose a similar question about American comics, which thus far has been mostly a male project dedicated to monumental portraiture. Think of auteurs like Jack Kirby, Rory Hayes, and Fletcher Hanks—all less interested in regular life than in the sublime Other of atavistic godheads and hallucinogenic totems. Similarly, if a non-comics reader were to read P.R. Garriock’sMasters of Comic Book Art, a late 1970s anthology that purports to contain “the work of the ten most influential illustrators of comic book art, from its inception to the present day,” he could be forgiven for assuming the medium to be baroquely architectural in its aesthetics but pre-pubescent in its social content, given Barry Windsor-Smith’s Conan clobbering rain-slick goblin armies, Philippe Druillet’s galactic civilizations jutting in exaggerated three-point perspective, and Richard Corben’s jocose and pudgy cavemen on planets colored a psychedelic magenta.

Almost as a correction, the last few years have seen the rise of graphic narratives made by women who explore the joys and sorrows of daily life, such as Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, and Posy Simmond’s Gemma Bovery. Though less famous than these three artists, Carol Tyler seems more alive in the American comics idiom and more knowing about the interaction between feminism and art creation. Largely focused on the trials of being a single mother in the Midwest—a hectic, sunny world suffused with the tropes of white suburban Americana, such as high school proms, home improvement, yard sales, and World War II medals—her autobiographical comics display a shocking, unruly wholesomeness: they are visually and morally beautiful, suffused with a scrap-doodle amateurism and palpable maternal love, which comes across as livelier than romantic love.

As one might guess from even this cursory description, Tyler’s work could be described as “sentimental” and “decorative.” Feminist critique has foregrounded the sexism of such labels, and Tyler’s work can be read as a model for so-called “minor art,” an aesthetic practice that walks alongside daily life rather than soaring away from it towards a dubious artistic glory. To be a minor artist means to flirt with what a high artist would view as failure—and so Tyler’s work seems dedicated to an earnest and pesky amateurism. Just as minor art ignores the distinction between art and craft, You’ll Never Know, Tyler’s newest book, is modeled on a scrapbook and is a tribute to craftsmanship, much like the home repair and plumbing we see her father, the “good and decent man” of the title, often undertaking.

Tyler’s sincerity sometimes flattens her characters, who feel as “under-characterized” as people in diaries. Tyler mitigates this directness of heart with a dynamically pesky drawing style, splattering each panel with the democratic debris of life. The characters vibrate from their outlines, and the panel corners feel embroidered with homey backtalk (“Holy Toledo!”) and perky footnoting (“My Top 10 Broken Record Phrases”)—all of which crowd the page with a quivering density that recalls Milt Gross, Mad’s Harvey Kurtzman, and a high school student’s energetic scribbles. This tension between the sentimental and the spastic aptly characterizes the state of motherhood, in which a consummately attentive caretaker can become hollowed out into a multi-tasking crisis-solver. Yet her comics also lament their status as minor art and actually offer a stunning critique of motherhood—which she depicts as a cherished, lost state, but also as a rut that makes it impossible to be anything other than a “late bloomer,” the title of Tyler’s previous book.

While Late Bloomer focused on motherhood, You’ll Never Know’s ostensible subject is Tyler’s father and his World War II tour of duty; this gives it a statelier look, each panel accruing a static, wood-grained, WPA-style dignity more akin to an illustrated book than a comic. The book’s deeper subtext is the subtle cruelty of men, whom Tyler depicts as loving but self-absorbed and repressed. Tyler’s husband, who has left her for another woman, is key in this regard, but her father is also depicted as a self-described “ornery bastard” who has been unable to talk forthrightly about the war. And this silence has weighed heavily on Tyler, who imagines Adolf Hitler telling her father, “That your children suffer because I’ve damaged you fills me with pride!”

In this astonishing scene, which takes place in a vivid, multi-page dreamscape, Tyler hints at the monumentality typical of the male artists I mentioned earlier. Yet she instantly lightens the weightiness by having her father call Hitler an “ass” and transform into a raven, the book’s sole non-realist moment. The snowy sky shrinks into Tyler’s window, where she realizes how badly the war and its “rivers of blood” traumatized her father. She tries to tell him this, but he rebuffs her and heads out the door, decked in camouflage and gripping a pistol, his uniform having magically appeared on his body, his face always cropped or turned away in their tortured conversation. Unlike her father, Tyler’s character believes there is always room for conversation to deflate the grandiose scale of war into something human.

Tyler’s choice to push the scene beyond the sublime suggests that so-called “minor” art is actually far more complicated and alive than modernist grandness, which is often a way of avoiding the threatening complexity of psychology. It also reminds us that there is no special zone of meaning or aesthetics that is separate from the cruelty and kindness we inflict upon each other.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009

UNKNOWN SOLDIER: Haunted House

Joshua Dysart
and Alberto Ponticelli
Vertigo/DC Comics ($9.99)

by Spencer Dew

In the final pages of this disquieting and enthralling book, journalist Momolu Sengendo confronts a man whose face is wrapped in blood-stained bandages, insisting that “violence answered with violence” offers no hope and no end. The journalist, whose task is to report on the sensational and still-unfolding story of this mysterious man willing to wage a personal war against the forces of the Lord’s Resistance Army, finds himself acting as a kind of conscience. His comments echo words he heard earlier, as part of an interview with a pacifist physician, Dr. Lwanga Moses; Uganda-born but raised and educated in America, Lwanga has returned to offer medical aid to the people of war-torn Acholiland. Yet this spokesperson for peace, carrying with him a photograph of Somali activist Abdulkadir Yahya Ali and preaching about the responsibility to “change Africa . . . without violence,” encounters one too many child victims of mutilation and snaps.

Sengendo’s service as conscience is a necessary counterpoint to the voice that wakes inside Lwanga’s head when he runs into the jungle after child soldiers who took a machete to a toddler’s face. This voice is anything but a voice of conscience. Forced to kneel, the barrel of an assault rifle pressed against his forehead, tears streaming down his cheeks, Lwanga hears someone inside his head, whispering advice: “He’s too close to use the rifle effectively.” The concerns of this voice are practical—tactical and strategic—not moral. It rattles off technical details about land mines, talks Lwanga through the most effective means to remain unseen, to seek to cover, to kill. “Brutalize the enemy,” it says. “Stay aggressive. Instill fear. . . . go kill every last one of these little fucking monsters.”

Writer Joshua Dysart and artist Alberto Ponticelli, the creative team behind Unknown Soldier, aim to keep this paradox of a pacifist turned death-dealer gaping open. In response to his first killing—of a soldier who was also just a child—Lwanga, cradling the corpse and wracked with remorse, first contemplates suicide to escape this irreversible reality, then settles for self mutilation, taking a sharp-edged stone and carving off his own face. At one point, the dead child appears to Lwanga in a vision, speaking to him: “They took me from my school when I was eight. I tried to escape, but they beat me with canes. Took me to Sudan, to the death camps. They broke me. Turned me inside out. And you killed me for it.”

Such gestures say much about Haunted House, which collects the first six issues of this ongoing monthly series. While the volume, full of dynamic action scenes, offers a masked avenger who swears to bring justice to “rebels, corrupt leaders, arms dealers, corporate CEOs . . . anyone who profits from misery,” and who at the end declares his intention to track down and slaughter Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony “by any means necessary,” the rush of catharsis is short lived. “But that means declaring war against an army of demoralized children,” Sengendo points out. To see a villain beheaded brings a certain satisfaction, but when Lwanga peppers a camp with mines in order to hasten his escape, we see children (albeit gun-wielding children, serving as rebel soldiers) suffer the same sorts of maiming to which Lwanga’s moral outrage responds. An eye for an eye doesn’t just beget blindness; in this case, it depends upon it.

Set in 2002 (three years before the assassination of Abdulkadir Yahya), Haunted House serves to respond to the underreported recent history of Uganda, which Dysart visited; the author conducted interviews with former child soldiers and collected photographs to serve as background for this work. The book, by seeking to detail the realities of life in the midst of a civil war between government forces and an army of Christian guerrillas—that, for instance, some 20,000 children walked nightly to Gulu Town, as “night commuters” simply to find a safe place to sleep—is already serving a larger, humanizing purpose. It is the encounter with such children—and with assorted other minor characters, victims, survivors, endurers, always fully characterized by human idiosyncrasies, histories, and desires—that makes this graphic novel a success.

Ponticelli’s angular figures and jagged lines lend a kinetic but also threadbare aesthetic, perfect for empathetic treatment of the faces of children caught in the gears of war. Moreover, Lwanga, scarified and ceaselessly bleeding, is no flat action hero, even if the voice inside his head would like him to be. As is revealed in vague flashes from his past, Lwanga was subjected to some sort of secret training, to experimentation. He is not merely who he thought himself to be, but neither is he, perhaps, synonymous with the voice of the killer inside him. While, at times, this military instinct serves as a fitting match for the presence of “gun-drunk egomaniacs,” as he calls the LRA fighters, “useless to the whole goddamn human race,” it seems clear that his use as a super-soldier is limited as well.

The true heroism in Haunted House takes quieter, more vulnerable forms, involving not masks but faces—faces encountering other faces. A nun walks into an armed camp, “demanding some kind of sanity”; a child looks into another child’s eyes and drops his rifle, abandoning his murderous role. Such scenes offer a glimpse of what Lwanga identifies as “how peace will win in the end.”

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009

ASTERIOS POLYP

David Mazzucchelli
Pantheon Books ($29.95)

by Britt Aamodt

Asterios Polyp is David Mazzucchelli's first graphic novel—a surprising fact considering the artist’s many years in the field. He has been drawing comics since the early 1980s, and has collaborated on such high-profile projects as Daredevil and Batman: Year One (both written by Frank Miller) and an adaptation of Paul Auster’s City of Glass. But the 344-pageAsterios Polyp is indeed a high-water mark for Mazzucchelli—it shows him reveling in his chosen art form at every step, and exercising his considerable talent to produce a harmonious and revelatory arrangement of image and word.

The book's eponymous main character is the farthest thing from a superhero one might imagine: a professor of architecture. Though he is considered brilliant, his ingenious architectural plans never make it past the blueprint stage. So, if Polyp is a genius, he is a thwarted genius—or worse, an arid ideologue whose architecture dismisses the basic fact of human occupancy. This tension lies at the heart of Mazzucchelli's rich character study, and makes the journey Polyp takes riveting.

The story opens on a vision of storm clouds. A lightning bolt sizzles through the rain, darts through a mass of buildings, and slips into Polyp’s apartment's electrical circuitry, causing a fire. The once refined apartment is a mess—clothes litter the floor, overdue notices crowd the tables—and the professor is also a sloppy version of his former self, slumming it on an unmade bed and wallowing in nostalgia. The lightning bolt is just the shock he needs to escape the inertia that has trapped his ambition; it sends Polyp racing out of his burning building and into an adventure that will transform his life into a habitable, three-dimensional space.

Mazzucchelli, too, is on an adventure—one designed to exploits every advantage the comics medium has to tell a story both in pictures and words. Word balloons and lettering alter to suit the characters' personalities, for example: Polyp's word balloons are square, his lettering precise, while Ursula Major (a buxom Mae West type) speaks in cloud-shaped balloons, her lettering darker and earthier than the professor's. Likewise, Mazzucchelli's color schemes and adaptable lines change as easily as the story’s time frames. The narrative jumps back and forth in Polyp's chronology—looking at Polyp as the womanizing academic, exploring his budding relationship with the beautiful artist Hana, leaping ahead to the relationship's decline and the escape from the burning building.

Like Daredevil or Batman, Asterios Polyp is two men, separated not by ego and alter-ego, but by time. He is the esteemed architect and the deadbeat has-been, and the mystery uniting the out-of-sequence episodes is: How did this man who had everything end up with nothing? That question provides a steady drumbeat to the journey Polyp undertakes after fleeing his apartment. He boards a Greyhound bus headed for nowhere and ends up in Apogee, a backwater town that breeds eccentrics. Polyp takes a job as an auto mechanic, and finds a room in the home of his boss, Stiffly Major. In alternating chapters, Polyp deals with his past and gropes about in the dark for the threads of a grounded and more meaningful future.

Asterios Polyp is personal and nuanced, and the action in Polyp's life is cerebral and spiritual. Our hero doesn't need a super-villain to overturn his day; Polyp is his own worst enemy, which is so often the case in real life. Mazzucchelli, a renowned formalist, isn't the first graphic novelist to tackle a human story using the language of comics, but his achievement here is to push the borders of style and content while still providing a compelling, multi-layered read.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009

RAPID EYE MOVEMENT

Peter Jaeger
Reality Street Editions (£9.50)

by Chris Pusateri

To mention dreams in the age of postmodernism seems curiously anachronistic. As a means for creating poetry, dreams have more in common with older forms of creative practice than with anything contemporary. The word evokes modernist and early postwar experiments—everything from Freud’s psychoanalysis to Breton’s mining of the subconscious to Ginsberg’s neo-romantic daydreams of William Blake.

As its title indicates, Peter Jaeger’s Rapid Eye Movement concerns itself primarily with the act of dreaming. The text of the book is divided into two horizontal bands: one in the upper half of the page and another in the lower half. Each section of text is taken from different sources: the upper half derives, as the flap copy explains, from “dream narratives recorded by historical and contemporary dreamers.” The bottom half integrates found material, spanning a wide range of social discourses—everything from poetry to opinion pages to philosophical texts, composed by such disparate figures as Slavoj Zizek, John Wieners, and Sting—the only stipulation being that each appropriated sentence must incorporate the word “dream.” Taken as a whole, this book serves as “a record of our culture dreaming.”

If Rapid Eye Movement is a cultural document, then we should first consider the function of written records. In its simplest sense, a record is an aid to memory (whether personal, institutional, or societal) but it also discriminates: that is, it includes certain details at the expense of others, and as such, forwards a particular version of events. Like history itself, it acts not only as a record, but also as a filter.

Human physiology also serves this dual function of tableaux and siphon. Freud, Huxley, and others have written that human consciousness functions as a sieve that filters out the vast majority of physical stimuli. In a stimulus-rich environment, where one is bombarded by more information that one can possibly process, such filtering is vital.

At first glance, the two bands of text in Rapid Eye Movement perform an exegesis, with the upper, more ethereal band being captioned by the lower band. Given its origins, the reader might hope that the lower section of text could provide statements about how our culture conceptualizes this most irrational of subjects. But Jaeger’s parataxis—the placing one found piece of text next to another—renders impossible any overarching explanation.

On the one hand, we have first-hand accounts of the dreamers themselves. These statements retain the ethereal qualities of dreams, in which one fantastic episode dissolves into another.

Babies juggled limes inside me. There was a crayon drawing (on brown paper) of a figure on a seesaw—I think it was me? Gandhi and I ran barefoot across a burning racetrack, miles wide. My house, four columns and eight beams, was cracked like the ears of an old donkey. I fell from the roundabout into a pool of strawberries.

It is from this pool of strawberries that we descend to the lower strata: secondary materials whose uses explain, or in some way illustrate, how we conceptualize dreams and dreaming. There we might find a passage like this one:

What is dreamt in a dream after waking from the “dream within a dream” is what the dream-wish seeks to put in the place of an obliterated reality. In the following dream the older man is a ship’s captain who threatens the dreamer but as in a former dream the punishment is deflected onto his girl. Dreams, books, are each a world, and books we know.

What we know of the book, however, is called into question by Jaeger’s compositional procedures. His use of parataxis interrupts the unitary narrative voice, and in doing so, allows dreams to cannibalize the very discourses that seek to explain them. As a result of this narrative strategy, the texture of the entire book becomes dreamlike. After a while, the reader might be excused for occasionally confusing the upper band of text with the lower.

But beneath the dreamlike texture and shifting surfaces sounds a more sinister note. It relies upon that other definition of dream, the one in which a dream is an aspiration, a desire, a highly idealized notion of the future. Those who perform the strange and rare alchemy that turns the stuff of nighttime into a condition to be experienced are said to be living the dream. Defined thus, a dream is transformed from a subconscious event into a condition to be possessed, like “[c]ut off pictures without the dream.”

William Blake famously wrote that gratified desire is the death of passion. The object of desire loses its allure as soon as it is attained, and once possessed, can be idealized no longer. It takes its place among other items of the world and what remains is no longer dream: it is life itself, in all of its splendor and mundanity.

The myriad authors whose texts form Rapid Eye Movement each contribute a small particle to the narrative. The intonations blend together and are subsumed into a kind of lower-limit speech, a white noise which is everywhere and nowhere. Multitasking, media, and speed comprise the world we know. It’s been said that ours is a society estranged from the act of dreaming, but one whose waking hours curiously resemble that nether region between sleep and dream: subways, workadays, clockwatching, TV watching, readymade meals, bedtime: rinse and repeat. Most people, however, are quite familiar with aspirations (most of them tethered, in some way, to material security)—which, as the economy folds and takes with it hopes of capitalist plenty, seem, for most, an ever more remote possibility. In other words, an impossible dream.

For all our talk of dreams, psychologists tell us that we dream less now than ever, and they attribute this, in large part, to troubled sleep, itself the product of saturated days. If Jaeger’s book is a cautionary tale, it may well represent a nascent kind of superrealism: one that warns us to be careful of what we wish for.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009

I WROTE STONE: The Selected Poetry of Ryszard Kapuściński

Ryszard Kapuściński
translated by Kiana Kuprel and Marek Kusiba
Biblioasis ($16.95)

by Amy Groshek

Here in the U.S. we are a guilty nation, and as such, we like our Eastern European poets with a hearty helping of angst. More exactly, we fetishize the suffering of those who weathered Nazi and Soviet occupations. The more horrible the poet’s biography, the more easily we acquit ourselves as complicit citizens of a hegemonic state. Paul Celán: brilliant. The wry Wisława Szymborska: even better. The new works of Tadeusz Różewicz: too Brechtian, perhaps, to win the Nobel, but perfect for self-flagellation. The Poles have been over there suffering for generations, their history and literature a petri-dish culture for the vicarious suffering of the Polish-American middle class.

Unfortunately, I Wrote Stone: The Selected Poetry of Ryszard Kapuściński may not prove the best target for our fetish, because Kapuściński was not a victim. In the introduction, translators Kiana Kuprel and Marek Kusiba note, “he was the hero of his own books”—a useful strategy when one is reporting first-person on rebellions, revolutions, and coups. It is a less useful strategy when one is engaged in the writing of poems. Poetry is many things, but it is by and large not for grandstanding, and the best poetry evokes or depicts an undaunted, humanistic vulnerability.

The significance, then, of these poems in translation—poems of an internationally-known journalist who was fired by hard-line Stalinists for reporting on labor conditions, is rumored to have investigated his colleagues for the Communist Polish secret service, and stands accused, posthumously, of fabricating facts, witnesses, and entire witness statements in his reportage, his only defenses being “poetic license” and an obscure Polish genre of political allegory—is without question. Regardless of whether Americans find the poems sufficiently “Polish,” they are important on scholastic grounds, as an addition to his translated œuvre.

With contemporaries like Czeslaw Miłosz and Wisława Szymborska, Kapuściński has big shoes to fill. He seems to have used verse as a space to play, to try on various forms; the 56 poems gathered here are remarkable for their lack of unifying pathos. There is Różewicz’s whimsical tone in some passages:

Yesterday a weary Christ came to me
in a dream and said,
“It’s gotten so hard to get
a glass of clean water.”

And Różewicz’s short, inelastic line in others:

I wrote stone
I wrote house
I wrote town

But Kapuściński’s instinct is nothing like Różewicz’s. Rather than attempting to reassemble truth after years of torture and war, his poetry is more lyric, and turns inward: “I shattered the stone.” Kapuściński is thematically closer to Czeslaw Miłosz, whose poems also establish Romantic allusions and lyric naiveté—

To exist in purgatory,
circulating between those who’ve passed away
and the keepers of their memory

—but he lacks Miłosz’s guilt at having gotten away from Soviet Poland, and Miłosz’s confused indignation at the world at large.

Kapuściński should be read, in fact, as an artist who managed to “make it” in Soviet Poland, a highly public figure who took calculated risks and survived. His talent (and his heroism) is in his navigation of that world as much as anything else. And if the poems fail to close down upon us with the satisfying weight of Eastern European history, if they fail to assuage our burgeoning guilt, that is perhaps because Kapuściński was taking his great risks, and making his grand gestures, elsewhere. Or because his relationship with his nation, with its politics, was as nuanced as yours and mine.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009

WORLD’S END

Pablo Neruda
translated by William O’Daly
Copper Canyon Press ($15)

by John Bradley

Oh, the lie that we lived
became our daily bread.
What we, lords of the twenty-first
century, did not know
must be known,
must be seen, the dissent and the why,
because we did not see,
so that no one else consumes
the food of lies
that in our time sustained us.

Looking back at the twentieth century, “the age of ashes,” Pablo Neruda wrote a reflective book-length poem, World’s End. Though he actually composed this book in 1968 and ’69, and went on to write fourteen more books of poetry, World’s End feels as if it were his last.

No doubt the tone of weariness and disappointment comes from the tallying of both personal mistakes and the bloody events of the “ceaseless” century. His personal failings remain for the most part oblique, but he names the horrors of the epoch—the Spanish Civil War, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Vietnam War. He also reflects on the false prophets of hope—Hitler, Mao, and Stalin—trying again and again to exorcize these historical demons in the 113 poems that compose this book.

The demon that gives him the most trouble is Josef Stalin. While Neruda never fell under the spell of Hitler or Mao, he was a longtime supporter of Stalin, and won the Stalin Peace Prize. As late as 1953, when Stalin died, Neruda composed an ode for him. No doubt this was partly due to Neruda’s belief that Communism provided hope for those capitalism often exploits—the working people who often appear in Neruda’s poetry. While many broke with Stalin in the 1930s, it wasn’t until “The Worship (II),” inWorld’s End, that Neruda did so:

It was the proliferation
of that steely portrait
that incubated the excesses.

We celebrate the hard brow,
not seeing it was sizing us up—
beneath those Georgian eyebrows,
the testing eyes of the monarch,
the geology of terror.

Neruda reminds us, through his use of the first person plural, how many millions were likewise entranced by the strong man from Georgia, perhaps in an attempt to excuse his own misplaced trust. Much more controversial is a phrase that comes earlier in this poem, one that contradicts the very nature of this book: “it is better to forget /so as to sustain hope.” This from the writer who recalls, in poem after poem, the worst events of the twentieth century? Or is Neruda simply implying he wishes we (as well as himself) would forget his support of Stalin?

Those who admire Neruda will no doubt place emphasis on the last words in this ambiguous phrase: “to sustain hope.” In fact, World’s End can be read as a struggle between facing the truth of what humans have wrought and sustaining hope that we can do much better. As Stalin fell in both categories for Neruda, he stumbled. Octavio Paz, the acclaimed Mexican poet, clearly admired Neruda and yet wrote scathingly of him and others who supported Stalin: “No doubt they began in good faith . . . But insensibly, commitment by commitment, they saw themselves in a mesh of lies, falsehoods, deceits and perjuries, until they lost their souls.” A harsh statement, one that reflects how divisive Neruda’s Stalinist sympathies were.

A four-line poem entitled “Song” encapsulates Neruda’s personal struggle with history and hope:

I died with every death;
so I was able to live again
bound by my testimony
and by my unyielding hope.

In these lines that sound as if they could be his epitaph, Neruda reveals his awareness of history, his empathy for those who suffered due to it, his use of poetry to document history, and his refusal to give up hope.

If Neruda finally acknowledges Stalin as a false prophet in this book, then Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, as well as Cuba, provide cause for celebration. Neruda unabashedly praises all three as beacons of hope. In “Sadness at the Death of a Hero,” Neruda recounts the inglorious death of Guevara in the jungles of Bolivia:

The commander ended up
assassinated in a ravine.
No one said this mouth is mine.
No one wept in the indian villages.
No one climbed the bell towers.
No one raised their rifles,
and the reward was claimed
by those whose rescue was the aim
of the assassinated comandante.

As Guevara continues to be lionized today, Neruda’s sympathies here will not be a surprise, nor trouble many. Not so with Neruda’s treatment of Castro: “Fidel roared / with indisputable grandeur . . .” To say that Neruda, along with many in Latin America, admire Castro for bravely defying the United States for over five decades, as well as for creating a better standard of living than under capitalism, will not sway all. Such are the dangers of the political poet.

While Neruda’s politics may at times alienate some readers, his compassion—the root of his politics and poetry—reveals why he was able to fill a stadium with 100,000 fans, and why so many continue to read and regard him with affection. Whether it’s his sense of connection to the natural world, or his enduring belief in the people, Neruda, like Whitman, is a poet who can embody multitudes, and contradictions. Here, in “Ars Poetica (I),” he describes his poetics:

As a poet-baker
I prepare the fire, the flour,
the leavening, the heart,
and I, involved up to the elbows,
kneading the light of the oven,
the green water of language,
so the bread that happens to me
sells itself in the bakery.

Some might wish to ask Neruda, What if you can’t afford to buy this bread? Doesn’t this contradict your political beliefs? Yet how many contemporary American poets could we claim are likewise “involved up to the elbows” in preparing poetry that feeds readers? How many would want to be?

World’s End, the ninth and final book of Neruda’s “late and posthumous” poetry translated by William O’Daly, does not pulse with the imaginative energy of Neruda’s best work: Twenty Love Poems and a Song of DespairResidence on EarthThe Heights of Macchu Picchu, and many of his “elemental odes.” Those who have yet to explore Neruda’s poetry would want to begin with these books; those already familiar with Neruda might want to read this book as a complement to his much more exuberant Memoirs. While World’s End is not Neruda at his best, O’Daly deserves praise for his dedication and care in translating Neruda.

To illustrate O’Daly’s skill, it’s worth examining New Poems (1968-1970), published by Grove Press in 1972, in which Ben Belitt offered his translations of selections from World’s End (which O’Daly has completely translated). Here is Belitt’s version of a stanza from “Foundations”:

First I kept to the roots,
then I learned from the foliage
how to fly higher, little by little,
looking for apples and birds.
To this day I should live in a cage
and dress up in feathers,
having spent all my childhood
strolling from one branch to the next.

And here is O’Daly’s translation of the same stanza:

I first lived in the root,
then among leaves I learned
little by little to fly higher
in search of birds and apples.
I don’t know why I don’t live in a cage,
or why I go about dressed in a feather duster
when I spent my whole childhood
hopping from branch to branch.

O’Daly makes the shrewder decisions: with the imagery (“lived” vs. “kept to”), the musicality (“leaves I learned / little by little”), the playfulness (“dressed in a feather duster”), and the verb choice (“hopping” vs. “strolling”). O’Daly further instills confidence by providing the Spanish in this bilingual edition.

Though World’s End provides only glimpses of Neruda’s greatness as a poet, it’s a fitting end to the Neruda / O’Daly series. What better way to close the project than with the one-line poem, entitled “Goodbye,” that ends this book: “Earth, I kiss you, and say goodbye.”

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009

VERSED

Rae Armantrout
Wesleyan University Press ($22.95)

by Todd Pederson

This is the age of hyperbole: fragments of pop culture quarrel for our attentions as conflicting messages land like rain. Amid the contradictions and noisy exaggerations, our suspicions become necessary agencies of preservation. In this commercial world with so little one can trust, reservation is more than a safeguard against pretense and deceit; it can be an approach which both channels and renews our hope.

Rae Armantrout’s recent collection of poems, Versed, suspects much. Preoccupied with modes of communication and intentions, Versed is the poetry of this and that; its poems do not waver in their determination to sort out what goes with what. The work searches out and underlines duplicity wherever it is encountered, and challenges insincerity with a clinical precision. Armantrout’s spare, almost skeletal poems render illustrations that are immediately recognizable, yet shocking nevertheless. Icons once considered innocent and meaningless are exposed. In “Outer,” Armantrout challenges childhood playthings: “Dolls as celebrities (Barbie); / celebrities as dolls,” and the influence of these symbols regarding self-identity: “To see yourself as if from the outside—though not as / others see you.”

Armantrout’s poems paraphrase every unsaid thought regarding the addictions of free enterprise—those scrawling, freeway billboards and piercing tabloid headlines which apportion worth, or the countless reality television programs which appear more genuine than our everyday lives. These processes of messaging, Versed argues, repeat themselves and imprint their reflections in our dead stares until we record the world as slogans and campaigns, rather than as things truly are. Poems like “Dilation” distrust motive and intent, and suggest we do the same:

Pupils fixed

on the “It Girl’s”
production

of fame’s emptiness.

A surface
composed of flicker
and twinge

Those who obediently swallow the images and incentives which popular culture so readily presents, Armantrout cautions, become commodities; they are the social capital our industries chain to the floor in order to sustain positions of power and authority. Filtered through Armantrout’s intense skepticism, one grasps that there is little, if anything, in which to trust. Each message and its surface “flicker” deserve our scrutiny. She reiterates this position in the opening section to “Results”:

Click here to vote
on who’s ripe
for a makeover

or takeover

in this series pilot.

Votes are registered
at the server
and sent back

as results.

Are we participants, Armantrout wonders, or just the expression of an intrusive relationship imposed by consumerism and enterprise? Are we contestants, or results?

Armantrout’s poetry implies many answers, and yet it intentionally sidesteps declaring any absolutes. For this poet, the issues at stake are those viewpoints each reader carries with them, and not so much the questions any single poem or sequence may pose. With no clear solutions to the difficulties of misinformation, Armantrout leaves the interpretation of a poem’s possible connotations with her audience. Her work believes any situation cradles a distinct reading in either fist—its “this and that” attributes. What her poetry argues for, above all else, is that awareness should inform any decision regarding culture and its persuasive messages. “Pleasure,” discloses the importance of recognizing these distinctions:

This sense of
my senses

being mine
is what passes

life to life?

How to distinguish one
light from the next?

Only distinctions can
matter.

(Canned matter).

Doubt the honesty of one’s own senses and don’t relax your guard for a moment, unless you can discriminate between each possibility. The light—any situation’s meaning—is indeterminate until differences are established and defined. Recognition, the understanding of multiple outcomes, is what matters most.

There is pleasure in the moment of sifting “this” from “that.” With “Name Calling,” Armantrout suggests that commodities are impractical and lonesome—“Objects are silly”—but “the resilience / of open-ended / questions,” through which we interrogate slogans and propaganda, is buoyant and durable. Such questions challenge inferences, and are particularly useful when exercised in deconstructive ways. Use your suspicion, Armantrout reasons, to “pinch off” phallocentric assumptions and the yield is “What comes to / be called pleasure.”

Language is the razor Rae Armantrout twists throughout Versed. Each poem stands alone as an observation, or an opportunity to investigate paradox. Language used dishonestly disguises, but whenever Armantrout speaks, readers recognize what language, wielded advantageously, can achieve. Her poetry’s outcomes suggest there are second possibilities to choose from, as the concluding lines to “Scumble” imply:

What if “of” were such a hot button?

“Scumble of bushes.”

What if there were a hidden pleasure
in calling one thing
by another’s name?

Armantrout takes satisfaction from dividing popular culture’s misinformation and half-truths, and revealing their more baleful intent. Give one thing another name, she asks, and make what is concealed clear. An awareness of the art of messaging and the possibility of multiple readings redirects the pendulum of authority in our favor.

Armantrout’s poems may seem bleak, but they are not without hope. Her work petitions for awareness. Whenever we are mindful, or “versed,” we no longer accept the first interpretation presented, but choose instead from whichever options best fit, as she clearly states with “Fact”:

Each material
fact
is a pose,

an answer
waiting to be chosen.

“Just so,” it says.

“Ask again!”

In poem after poem, what astounds most are the ways Armantrout’s spare lines tease up an understanding of the ways we overlook the deceptions our system and its values promote. Worth is assigned in fame and price tags. We are told what to believe. Rae Armantrout, with concision, simplicity, black humor, and unexpected gentleness, points these things out and nudges us to consider carefully the messages we receive.

While Armantrout’s poetry is minimal, and its diction isn’t difficult, her arrangements may, at times, seem ambiguous and discouraging. This said, the topics Versed confronts are tricky and uncertain themselves. If a lack of resolution frustrates some readers, those who pay careful attention will find profound lessons delivered with a wry and deadpan wit. Her work contains universal warnings regarding the influence of popular culture, and exhorts us to think deeply and strive for something more fulfilling than the images we receive. As she implies in “Birth Order,” the favorable prospects that watchfulness and a careful attention can tender aren’t so difficult to achieve:

Anyone
could write this.

That word—
“this”—

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009

THANKSGIVING DAWN

John Graber
Blue Begonia Press ($15)

by Emilio DeGrazia

John Graber has traveled a long road to his first collection,Thanksgiving Dawn. After taking his undergraduate degree from St. Olaf’s College in 1968, he entered the Iowa Writers Workshop and studied with many of the bright lights there, including famed mentor Marvin Bell. He subsequently frequented both blue collar and teaching turfs, eventually grounding himself in Stockholm, Wisconsin, near the Mississippi River. He is up-front about his struggles along the way, notably with depression and bi-polar mood disorder. Like younger poets he has scattered many poems in literary magazines, gathering some of these leaves into Thanksgiving Dawn. No doubt he spent years aware of the successes of his Iowa kin, doubting he would ever achieve a book of his own.

The poems in Thanksgiving Dawn are grouped chronologically by decade, from the 1970s to the recent present. The arrangement shows how a poet casts about widely on the way to achieving a vision that is clear, coherent, personal, and intensely felt. His ’70s poems—reflections on nature, love, faith, and war—are best summed up by one title, “The Inverted Physics of the Heart.” In these poems both heart and head are deeply troubled by the darkness inherent in things, by the bewildering beauty of nature, and by the mind’s failure to heal itself or to untrouble love, depicted in “The Gift” as an awkward blue heron.

The poems in the sections that follow allow us to see through the darkness a faith grounded in realism. In lines that are accessible and clear, and in stanzas that sometimes unabashedly build to crescendos, the poems establish the complex metaphorical connections that link self with landscapes at once lovely and cruel, with a mind confounded by its own mazes, and with love, never easy, for real people. In the face of a nameless African boy appearing on a magazine cover, he sees William Blake, “This lamb. This exhausted tiger.” In the middle of the coldest Novembers of the soul Graber still finds thanksgiving and dawn, despite the fact that he remains “standing on the outside, turned upside down / and righted.”

Graber’s poems are unpretentious yet complex, the realizations of an eye alive for the precise detail and hungry for the hints that meaningfully connect the self to others and the world. Faithful to the gnarled issues he dares to confront, he does not shrink from expressing his moral passion and honest impressions. His poems are not exercises or performances; they are crucibles he stirs into meaning. For good reason Marvin Bell calls Thanksgiving Dawn an italicized “necessary.” If over the decades Graber has watched a crowd of poets race to catch up with their careers, he need not try to catch up with the many he’s already passed.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009

THE ALPS

Brandon Shimoda
Flim Forum Press ($14)

by Craig Santos Perez

Brandon Shimoda’s The Alps begins with a single line on an otherwise blank page: “HOW will I ever find the scenery.” This question reverberates throughout the book for both the poet and the reader as the physical and emotional landscape of the Alps moves in and out of focus. Its first mention is emblematic of this flux:

Into a mouth, eye-in-the-broom, wet with spirit, we call the mass
The Alps, I have placed the record of your death on my arms
To my shoulders in reaching through the cross of roots
Upended sky, profane and bled, youth’s
Unbodied land as the land is destroyed
With white ears, yet perfect, at home

Whose death, we wonder. What is the cross of roots? How will we ever find the context? Shimoda’s work encourages these questions as we venture into his strange landscapes:

in a landscape bred
upon transhuman
soil growing tongues towards the ice

none belong
to us, the lines
in the landscape hanging
our hunger, the flowers
growing toward the tongues

There’s a meditative feel to Shimoda’s work, a wandering in the lines, yet a certain precision unfolds in his descriptions. When we reach a poem titled “Eismeer,” we seem at last to have found the Alps in Switzerland: “One fracture of the glacier rends // A crown so easily won // Cliffs // Cheat, small edelweiss.” But it’s more accurate to say Shimoda suspends us at the intersection of language and landscape. A series of poems, all titled “The Alps,” captures Shimoda’s unique way of writing experience, memory, and the environment:

ulterior to the tonal mountain

without movement                 blows empty in the lake

dispersing over the knee and not                simply

the sapphire thread                the lilac field
defective flowers           in rage along their inner part

While the Swiss Alps are natural monuments, Shimoda’s poems attempt to capture their majesty in miniature. His language moves across great distances (both semantic and linguistic) to see—and show us—one possible way to “find the scenery.”

In the middle section of The Alps, Shimoda presents a series of poems that interact with a blank box in the middle of the page. A clue to these empty boxes might be the picture of two kids, dressed in costume, which opens the first section of The Alps. The kids are perhaps the poet and a sibling; maybe the poet spent some of his childhood in Switzerland. The blank boxes, then, might be representative of old photos, and indeed, many of the poems beneath the empty boxes read like meditations on pictures. The first quite simply and beautifully reads: “A circle of birds on a pond / of stone. Fence of water // Broken.” It seems that Shimoda is playing with the form of the caption, upending our expectations:

The sun
pouring

in negative salt
the entrance to a cave

long

drowning

While some of the poems in this section describe an image, many force us to imagine how to translate words into an image. Shimoda even uses blank space beautifully, letting it fill a painterly function in his drama of description.

The final section of The Alps returns to the forms and contents of the first section with a large selection from the serial poem “The Alps.” Shimoda opens this final section with a passage from John Tyndall, who wrote about his 19th-century expeditions to the Alps:

an appearance of utter confusion, but we soon reached a position
where the mechanical conditions of the glacier revealed themselves,
and where we might learn, had we not known it before, that
confusion is merely the unknown intermixture of laws, and
becomes order and beauty when we rise to their comprehension

This is an excellent way to describe Shimoda’s work and its “mechanical conditions,” though those conditions are often left mysterious and compelling. For example, there’s a poem about the atomic bomb test and the speaker’s grandfather, who bit off his tongue and spit it out a window on a train carrying him to the “high flaying desert”—perhaps an internment camp. These two details are surrounded by other details that construct and deconstruct the narrative simultaneously.

This occurs most radically in a thirteen-page poem titled “The Place Thereof Shall Know It No More,” which feels like an expedition into the mind of Wallace Stevens’ “Snow Man.” Stevens’s poem end with “the listener, who listens in the snow, / And, nothing himself, beholds / Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” Likewise, Shimoda seems to listen in the snow-peaked Alps and behold the blank nothingness that underlies all things. At the same time, he is able to capture, if fleetingly and fragmentarily, the everything that is there. And he renders this everything in his own fire-woven language: “The song that comes / at great expense The song / that does not 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 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009

WARHORSES

Yusef Komunyakaa
Farrar, Straus & Giroux ($14)

by Miguel Murphy

In Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, war is depicted as the fundamental drive of the human species, no less a part of the natural order than the sunset. “Before man was,” McCarthy writes, “war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner.”Warhorses, Yusef Komunyakaa’s most recent collection of poetry, is a lyrical contemplation of this wardrive, as well as a much needed consideration of our country’s militaristic role in recent history. Not so much a book against war, Komunyakaa’s volume is a weighing of its impulse, a meditation on flesh as the site where brutal carnage is matched by sensual delight.

Readers familiar with Komunyakaa’s work will recognize his muscular practice of poetic form, though he doesn’t so much experiment as create a kaleidoscopic view of the origins and machineries of violence.Warhorses is organized in three sections: a sequence of (mostly) Petrarchan sonnets, a series of more “standard” free verse lyrics, and a single 40-page dramatic monologue of tiered couplets, “The Autobiography of My Alter Ego,” written in the voice of an American veteran.

Many of the sonnets take as their subject historical and mythical figures: Cain and Abel, Penelope and Odysseus, the Mameluke (warrior slaves of ancient Baghdad who rose to power in the 13th century), Achilles and Patroclus, Gilgamesh and Enkido, and even a dolphin trained by the U.S. military to carry out an underwater suicide bombing. In much the same way horror and beauty are indistinguishable in Goya’s charcoals, Komunyakaa’s sonnets challenge the boundary between love and murder. The octets often describe an act of violence that the sestet mirrors with a kind of lovemaking (“I want to stitch up all your wounds / with kisses, but I also know that sometimes the seed is hurting / for red in the soil”), in which the warrior’s battle becomes a lover’s embrace: “he fell against his sweetheart again / & again, as if holding that warrior in his arms.” If human love is battle, Komunyakaa suggests it is not only metaphorically, but historically, so. The ambiguity of desire in these poems (“I touch the crescent-shaped war wound”) reflects a struggle to understand whether “the oldest prayer” of the flesh is Eros or Thanatos.

Komunyakaa organizes his book to consider this conundrum, beginning with an image of an ancient artifact as an implement for war—“the jawbone of an ass. A shank / braided with shark teeth”—and closes with the confession of a 20th-century veteran who admits, “I did what I did. / I called the Vietnamese / gooks & dinks / so I could kill them. . . . I used the butt / of my M16, / & stars bled on the grass.” Komunyakaa’s long poem of tiered couplets is a kind of answer to the mirrored octets and sestets of the first sections’ sonnets, and to the journey of the book as a whole. “Forgive my heart & penis,” he writes, “but don’t forgive my hands.”

Indeed, the technology for war seems to be at the center of the book’s meditation on society. The middle section focuses primarily on the various tools (“The Helmet,” “The Catapult,” “Warhorses”), art (“The Clay Army,” “Guernica,” “The Panorama”), and locations (“The Towers,” “The Warlord’s Garden,” “The Hague”) associated with mass violence. “How many battles were fought before / bronze meant shield & breastplate,” he asks in “The Helmet,” and in the title poem he considers the use of the historical battle horse (“When Cortés & his men rode / . . . they came as gods / out of a dream”) as well as contemporary machinery (“Horsepower harnessed beneath a metal hood / whinnied & grunted in the brain”). In one of the more poignant poems of this section, “Heavy Metal Soliloquy,” Komunyakaa gives voice to the elation of young troops headed into battle “inside our titanium tanks”: “finger on the trigger, getting ready to die, / getting ready to be born.” Perhaps this section is the most relentless of the three, as it doesn’t ruminate so much on love as its does on the hard bewilderments of wartime violence. “There’s always a fallen warrior whispering” he writes in “Guernica,” “a stone’s promise, waiting for a star, / his mouth agape.”

Readers after a more harshly Dionysian vision—like that of the Judge in McCarthy’s novel who seeks “a hero anointed with the blood of the enemies of the republic”—might be disappointed that Komunyakaa doesn’t seek out that nihilistic hero driven by a Macbeth-like bloodlust, but instead complicates war with the eros of a personal—some might say self-indulgent—desire. Though there are moments in the text of poignant witness, as in the prose poem “Grenade,” in which he recounts the self-sacrifice of a fellow soldier (“For those who can walk away, what is their burden? Shreds of flesh & bloody rags gathered up & stuffed into a bag”), most of Komunyakaa’s depictions are not as brutally forthcoming as, say, Wilfred Owen’s in “Dulce et Decorum Est,” softened as they are by Komunyakaa’s syntactical precocity, imagistic fervor, and musical enjambment:

I don’t know
if I should say
what I never said before—gut wounds
& head wounds, blood
ran into the last rays
of sunlight, mixing with night
a sky heavy as the darkness
inside the first human grave.

The understandable hesitation of this passage helps us to approach what we might rightfully fear—a violence both archetypal and innate. Komunyakaa insists throughout Warhorses that the struggle between love and brutality is part of the natural order for a species that constantly finds itself at war. Ultimately, his contemplation of the militaristic results in a profound interrogation of human responsibility. If we can empathize with the lovers of his poems, we must also acknowledge ourselves as murderers too.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009

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