Tag Archives: fall 2010

TRICKSTER: Native American Tales

A Graphic Collection
edited by Matt Dembicki
Fulcrum Books ($22.95)

by Britt Aamodt

Storytelling is as old as humanity. We tell stories to share a laugh, to communicate knowledge and experience, to persuade and to entertain. And though professional storytelling has become relegated, for the most part, to elementary schools and children's events at the library, it lives on in certain folk traditions.

Native American folklorists have preserved the habit of oral storytelling, of gathering listeners around the metaphorical campfire to recite tales of wolf and raven, and of transporting their audiences to worlds of the imagination. Trickster: Native American Tales is the next best thing to a live storytelling event. It's a graphic anthology of Native American trickster tales rendered by a talented crew of illustrators.

In these short graphic tales, readers will encounter one of world mythology's greatest archetypes, the trickster—a wily and mischievous character that, in these stories, can be a human or an anthropomorphized animal. Coyote is a favorite trickster. He trips and scatters a pawful of pebbles that spread across the night sky, creating the stars. He swallows Horned Toad Lady and gets quite a bellyache. He saves the wind, the Chinook, from a greedy bear.

These tricksters come in all shapes and temperaments. There's a raven that clomps along the seashore giving each sea anemone he encounters a good swift kick—because he can, and because he delights in disruption. And then there's the serial killer beaver who lures four brothers to their deaths; apparently dam building and gnawing wood have deranged his small mammalian brain. I guarantee you will never look at a beaver in the same way.

Editor Matt Dembicki gets kudos for casting his net wide and reeling in storytellers from a number of Native traditions. The tales play out on coasts, in the sun-parched Southwest, and on piney northern slopes. Dembicki has also showcased a number of artistic talents, who've used their skills to translate the stories into graphic panels that span a range of styles. It's a suitable match up, an almost inevitable marriage between oral tradition and a literary art form that seeks to replicate speech in word balloons.

While not every graphic story here is equally successful—some styles look a little wooden or naïve—Trickster offers what you’re supposed to get in a collection: variety. Thus, what appeals to any given reader will be a matter of personal taste. But the stories themselves, about wildcats, buzzards, rabbits and raccoons, shine like the pebbles a bumbling trickster coyote once flung across the night sky.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010

THE ODDLY COMPELLING ART OF DENIS KITCHEN

introduction by Neil Gaiman
essay by Charles Brownstein
design by John Lind
Dark Horse Books ($34.99)

by Seth D. Lowry

Although at first this book seems oddly titled, in the end one can rightly conclude that Denis Kitchen’s art is indeed “oddly compelling.” Perhaps that’s because Kitchen is better known as the publisher of the legendary Kitchen Sink Press, now defunct but one of the key players in the underground comics (or “comix”) movement of the 1960s and ’70s that inarguably contributed to the growth of the graphic storytelling medium. Perhaps it’s also because Kitchen’s style, like those of his great forbears such as R. Crumb, Will Eisner, Harvey Kurtzman and Gahan Wilson (to name a few), blends distinctive draughtsmanship with a surrealist mayhem that draws the reader’s gaze. At any rate, this celebration of an unsung artist tells more than one story, and they are all told superbly. Best of all, it does so largely without the hagiography that mars most books of this kind, preferring to offer hard evidence and let readers draw their own conclusions.

Charles Brownstein, Executive Director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (an organization Kitchen founded), alludes to most facets of this prismatic story in the book’s overview essay, “Who Is Denis Kitchen? Snapshots from an Oddly Compelling Life.” Brownstein focuses on Kitchen’s biography, but does so with an easy grace and an expansive purview: the man can write. So in addition to the details of a cartoonist-turned-publisher’s life, we learn about the trajectories of an aesthetic, the pressures of an industry, and how the elusive vagaries of time and chance and personal challenges affect them all. Kitchen’s story (and Kitchen Sink’s story, complete with rise, fall, and a brief alliance with Marvel Comics) is thus also the story of a medium bursting at the seams with artistic territory to stake and something urgent to say.

Kitchen himself adds to this subtle multiple portrait with well-written captions to nearly 150 pages of art and photographs, filling in the backstory (personally, historically, aesthetically) behind his artistic output—comics, posters, album covers, ads, illustrations, and more. And the ubiquitous Neil Gaiman offers an affectionate introduction that not only sets the tone smartly (the job of any introduction) and acknowledges a truth that must be said somewhere in such a book (“The world of comics would have been infinitely poorer without Denis Kitchen . . .”), but also muses on “an alternate world” in which Kitchen remained (primarily) an artist rather than became (primarily) a publisher.

That musing, indeed, is the elephant in the room, and will permeate any reading of the book. Read against basic truths we don’t need Brownstein’s essay to tell us—it’s hard, painstaking work to edit, publish, and promote the work of others, and rarely does it leave time to pursue one’s own muse—the evident quality and breadth of Kitchen’s art suggests that he might have become as important an artist as the many great cartoonists whose work he shepherded into print and championed. Still, this isn’t to belittle the fact that Kitchen made a veritable art form out of comics publishing in a time and culture which needed people of vision to step up to the plate. As Brownstein puts it, “there was an inherent artistic impulse in the publishing he excelled at . . . All the care that he would have dedicated to projecting his own voice now conducted a choir comprised of much of the medium’s finest talent.”

It wouldn’t be right to let a review of The Oddly Compelling Art of Denis Kitchen out into the world without commenting on the exquisite design of the book, credited on the title page to one John Lind. Faced with the challenge of presenting reams of art and photography of varying source size, layout, level of completion, condition, age, color, and probably more, Lind has turned what could have been a soggy mess into a highly readable compendium, one worth prime placement on any coffee table or shelf; major accomplishments and interesting minutia are all given a fair chance to be “compelling,” and the well-balanced structure keeps the reader turning pages to see how the plot, so to speak, thickens. Even the bibliography and index are laid out nicely! Lind’s care reflects well on the book’s subject, both celebrating Kitchen’s artistry and making the case that the art form he pursued, publishing, is a complex one indeed.

Kitchen, it’s worth remarking, is still active in the world of comics—as a literary agent, a book packager, an historian, and probably in other behind-the-scenes ways this book isn’t coughing up. But one hopes he will live up to his closing comments in Brownstein’s overview: “Seeing this book come together makes me wish I had drawn more in the past. But there are no regrets. I’ll simply draw more in the future.”

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010

FLARE

Cole Swensen
Illustrations by Thomas Nozkowski
Yale University Press ($25)

by Kristen Evans

From the moment the reader takes flare off the shelf, she is asked to think about space and form—two elements Cole Swensen's poetry and Thomas Nozkowski's paintings challenge on both visual and linguistic registers. Published on textured, heavy stock, flare is an oversized book (nearly thirteen inches long) that allows Swensen and Nozkowski ample room to maneuver with long, sweeping lines of poetry and full-color illustrations. In part because of the form the book takes, Swensen's poems are all the more extraordinary for attempting to navigate these registers simultaneously, questioning what it means to write with and about art.

Swensen has always been interested in ekphrastic poetry, and in her recent works—notably Ours(University of California Press, 2008) and The Glass Age (Alice James Books, 2007)—it is easy to see her searching for the most precise way to represent the visual in linguistic terms. In Ours, she explores the carefully cultivated gardens of eighteenth-century French royalty; in The Glass Age, the visual elements examined are those framed by glass, including the windows painted obsessively by post-Impressionist Pierre Bonnard. As Swensen strikes out into the territory of contemporary abstract painting in flare, her writing becomes, accordingly, less representational, moving forward by sound rather than image.

Purposefully disorienting, the poems in flare receive their traction from the lengthy lines that pepper these otherwise sparse, language-centered pieces, lines that run the length of the considerably long page. The book opens with two lines that read like facts lifted from an encyclopedia: "The magnetic field of the human heart has actually been measured. It has only a millionth / the strength of that of the earth, but is a hundred times stronger than that of the brain." Lines similar to these will crop up in later poems, creating brief moments of respite from the influx of a language system that has no true center, no solid jumping-off points where we can touch down before being catapulted into a world of dismembered body parts and a fractured sense of time:

salt stole of wind
a slightning sting
if laughing felt
in spine for thrall
all known to the hour
heard alternate wing
or ship that slipped
on sound that whips
a stone from awe
to time.

And then, finally, we land: "true vertigo is not the fear of falling so much as the irrepressible urge to leap." Language, in the act of falling, in the act of failing to make narrative sense or to hide itself from us in its purest form—sound—projects us into the vertigo created by Swensen's poetry.

Perhaps for these reasons, the poems in flare take real work to read, asking the reader to question their expectations about poetry, but also making it challenging for them to share in the delight Swensen takes in seeing the world. Swensen's lines are at their strongest when she rouses the ringing clarity and impressionistic qualities that mark her older poems. At times, she is even poignant, musing on the feeling of how time passes, how "an afterhood shattered / in a long swoon," or how

a hat in the sand
marks a moment he thought
and then thought again
what walks
at this hour
is the hour itself

Even at its most difficult, flare accomplishes a real kind of work, and Swensen's "irrepressible urge to leap" into new language systems propels us along as she strives to create poetry that corresponds with Nozkowski's illustrations. From each of Swensen's long lines, a phrase is lifted and, in the seamless design of the book, placed on a blank verso page no higher or lower than the corresponding placement of the original line. From "in the bare tree were placed exactly where its eyes would have been if it could have seen everything," the phrase "its eyes would" accompanies a labyrinthine black and white illustration of hundreds of hand-drawn squares marching across the page, the orderliness disrupted in the center of the image by a series of diagonal lines and oblong rectangles. In another pairing, the line "of the many who've gone blind who've learned to see with their hands" transforms into the phrase "the many who've gone." This phrase faces a beautiful full-color illustration with a textured blue background, as though a screen had been pressed into the paint to create a fabric-like effect. Two yellow rectangles, one a pale echo of the other, occupy the foreground, their facing edges rounding out into circles. The geometrical play between the rectangle and the circle is accented by bright, whimsical color blocks, reminiscent of construction paper cut-outs.

Strikingly, many of the phrases drawn from Swensen's poems to accompany Nozkowski's illustrations describe a way of seeing, whether with eyes, hands, or heart. Yet the poems in flare move beyond the urge to respond to or simply describe artwork in the traditional ekphrastic mode. They are new visual and formal systems that attempt to capture what it means to see using the only available tools: a faulty language and its correspondence with another artist's masterful efforts to evoke an image on the page.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010

LOOK BACK, LOOK AHEAD: The Selected Poems of Srečko Kosovel

Srečko Kosovel
translated by Ana Jelnikar and Barbara Siegel Carlson
Ugly Duckling Presse ($17)

by Amy Groshek

Teens, critics, and undergraduate professors seem preternaturally drawn to the work of those who die young. But brilliance is not the de facto inheritance of the unlucky and the self-destructive. One need not consult a psychologist to conjecture that suicidal youths produce tomes of narcissistic, imitative poetry every month, and that the histrionic mewling of “alienated” suburban youth is far more common than the talented writer who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And while some shine and die before age twenty-two, others take fifty years to carve out the quiet required by genius. Most importantly, this fetishization of untimely death, whatever the motive, can lead a reader to miss the very best parts of a poet.

Hopefully this will not be the case with Look Back, Look Ahead: The Selected Poems of Srečko Kosovel,though the introduction makes far too much of Kosovel’s early death. Beyond this misplaced encomia, however, one finds an engaging young poet well beyond puerile experimentation. Kosovel undertakes a variety of modes and tones, but his forays are profitable. Further, his topics are not trivial: Kosovel has a startlingly mature political sense. His gravity stems in a large part—as illustrated by Ana Jelnikar’s detailed afterword—from the complexity of his region and times. The poet who, at the age of twenty-one, can describe children of his city, as “old people, unspared / from terrible truths” has seen something of terrible truths himself. This is what makes Kosovel intriguing: not his unfortunate death, but his milieu. Kosovel should be read for the cosmopolitan poetic he crafted between the demands of his studies and those of gnawing hunger, in the midst of Italian annexation and the increasing pressures of Fascism.

While Kosovel has been compared to his contemporary Rilke, he is too marked by his world, too much at the behest of his era, for the naïveté of bourgeois lyric. Over the course of his short life, he carried an Austro-Hungarian, then Slovenian, then Italian passport, officially altering his given name from Felix to Srečko to Felice in kind. “Nationalism is a lie,” he writes, “the League of Nations a lie.” He knew what happened to minority populations caught in the gears of political upheaval.

In Kosovel’s case, the upheaval included his home village of Karst. Is it any surprise that his rural scenes are not benign pastorals, but localized, emotive landscapes?

Behind the church wall
someone is buried.
On the grave a briar blooms.
From the white village, white roads—and all of them lead to my heart.

These landscapes are populated not with caricatures but with family—a family whose language informs his humanism as much as his sense of self:

I love them, the simple words
of our Karst people.
I love them, I love them more
than you, bourgeoise poets.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

like a rough hand
that beckons once more
this lost child . . .

This passage is an open rejection of the traditional pastoral and the class politics behind it. When Kosovel writes with melancholy about Karst village, it is not because he is aesthetically moved by the quaint locale, but because he misses it—or fears for it.

Kosovel spent his later youth as a student in Trieste. Once again, in these urban settings, his humanism is apparent on every page. He gives us worldly juxtapositions:

At 8 there’s a talk
on human ideals.
The newspapers print photos
of Bulgarian hangings.

He depicts his petty politic with perfect aplomb:

A barrel of herrings
arrived in Ljubljana.
They were asked
about their political conviction.
They said
they were from Iceland.

He feels hunger: “one thought, one dissonance: Bread.” And he faces the political dangers of literary avocation: “Outside the bright sun is shining. / The detective doesn’t understand / my poem.” This is what—across nearly a century, for half of which his poems remained unknown to most Slovenians—Kosovel brings us.

That he stayed late after a reading, to discuss his work, then missed the last train home, that he spent the winter night on the platform, catching cold and later developing meningitis, is unfortunate, but it isn’t what made Srečko Kosovel. In fact, in Trieste in 1926, there were far worse ways for a Slovene to die. What made Kosovel was his life, the life of a poet engaged and at work, reading, writing, discussing, and hiding away his greatest experiments. Don’t read him for what he lost; read him for the clear-eyed self he offered again and again, in that exhausting art of seeing which is the poet’s one form of love: “Come, you night-wounded man, / so I can kiss your heart.”

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010

THE APPLE TREES AT OLEMA: New And Selected Poems

Robert Hass
Ecco ($34.99)

by James Naiden

Born in San Francisco in 1941, Robert Hass has written some of the most memorable poetry by an American in the last half century. Through his prose about poetry, his translations (which he has done from Polish, German, Japanese, and Korean), and his stewardship as United States Poet Laureate as well, he has been a champion of the art form. Virtually all of his work is a surprise in one way or another, which a reading of The Apple Trees at Olema confirms.

First are more recent poems, as mellifluous as they are melancholy. Consider “August Notebook: A Death,” a sad poem about his brother’s demise from indigence and too much alcohol—the same affliction their mother had, according to yet another poem—as well as a longer effort reflecting a male narrator’s pain at the end of a long marriage and the beginning of a new relationship. The title is mysterious, but explication is needless: “The Red Chinese Dragon and the Shadows on Her Body in the Moonlight.” Is the poet talking about his own history? Maybe; what matters more is the language in this five-page sequence, as in these haunting middle lines:

Later he found there wasn’t a way to describe
to his lover or to his friends the moment
when he turned to his wife to say, again,
how sorry he was, and how she had seen it
coming and raised a palm and said, “Please, don’t,”
and how his son had walked him to the door

The rest is full of regret and serenely eloquent. Reading a Hass poem is always a reminder that one may have successes but also failures, inequities, deep losses, and searing memories of untoward behavior.

Hass’s first full collection, Field Guide, appeared in 1976. It is replete with the then thirty-five-year-old poet’s unforgettable early work, but in this context a number of poems ring out, such as “Palo Alto: The Marshes”—an eleven-part sequence about Mariana Richardson, a nineteenth-century figure in California history. Here is the final part, in the poet’s voice:

The otters are gone from the bay
and I have seen five horses
easy in the grassy marsh
beside three snowy egrets.

Bird cries and the unembittered sun,
wings and the white bodies of the birds,
it is morning. Citizens are rising,
to murder in their moral dreams.

Much of Hass’s poetry is concerned with the mortal penchant for outrageous duplicity. He sees it, remembers it, but does not lecture or become rancorous. It is important for an artist to record such things, as well as love, beauty, ugliness, dying, and transient nobility. Hass also writes of his own fragility, as in the last part of “Meditation at Lagunitas” from Praise, his second collection:

There was a woman
I made love to and I remembered how, holding
her small shoulders in my hands sometimes,
I felt a violent wonder at her presence
like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river
with its island windows, silly music from the pleasure boat,
muddy places where we caught the little orange-silver fish
called pumpkinseed. It hardly had to do with her.
Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances. I must have been the same to her.
But I remember so much, the way her hands dismantled bread,
the thing her father said that hurt her, what
she dreamed. There are moments when the body is as numinous
as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.
Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,
saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.

Hass’s poems can also be somberly humorous, as in this short poem, “Forty Something,” from 1996’s Sun Under Wood:

She says to him, musing, “If you ever leave me,
and marry a younger woman and have another baby,
I’ll put a knife in your heart.” They are in bed,
so she climbs onto his chest, and looks directly
down into his eyes. “You understand? Your heart.”

His more recent poems, such as “The Yellow Bicycle,” “The Pure Ones,” and “Regalia For A Black Hat Dancer,” are no less insightful, with considerable inscape: “I don’t think I could have told the pain of loss / from the pain of possibility, / though I knew they weren’t the same thing.”

There is no doubt that Hass’s political sympathies do not lie with those who promote needless military conflict and the cruelty that always results—the strong images and observations in “Bush’s War” attest to this. He is a master of the long poem, such as “I Am Your Waiter Tonight And My Name Is Dmitri,” which illustrates how many divergent strains Hass can include in a single poem: Vietnam, Iraq, Dostoyevsky’s characters, dishes of raspberry and chocolate, a gardener who once worked for Emily Dickinson, and many more images are here developed in Hass’s richly allusive mind and rush of associations.

The title poem of this book appeared in Hass’s third collection, Human Wishes, in 1989. Describing the apple trees, he writes:

Moss thickened
every bough and the wood of the limbs looked rotten
but the trees were wild with blossoms and a green fire
of small new leaves flickered even on the deadest branches.

The Apple Trees at Olema offers ample evidence of Robert Hass’s best and new work. It is a significant collection by one of our finest poets.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010

MEAN FREE PATH

Ben Lerner
Copper Canyon Press ($16)

by Kristen Evans

Ben Lerner’s newest book isn’t really interested in giving straight answers—or for that matter, asking straight questions. Thoughts and conversations are disrupted, ideas and syntax scrambled. Meaning struggles to the surface through the disappearing memory of a dream. Formally, Mean Free Path is shaped by the speaker’s hesitation and fixation on particular words or images, while the book’s concerns with absence and grief, writing and language-cum-politics emerge out of the white noise.

The initial concept for these poems also draws heavily from the physical sciences, an idea Lerner discussed recently during a BOMB magazine interview, saying the title “describes the average distance a particle travels before it collides with another particle, becomes a kind of metaphor for the way the lines break off or fragment or recombine or collide with one another.” For Lerner, translating physical phenomena into the formal act of poetry becomes a way to investigate how “science got detached from the human concerns,” specifically through institutionalized divisions in the academy that affect how we see the world.

Because Mean Free Path is propelled by this endless process of recursion and retraction, Lerner’s diction departs radically from the speech-like rhythms of his earlier Angle of Yaw (Copper Canyon Press, 2007). With each addition and interruption, his poems develop a complex polyvalence that gives the book emotional and political traction, charging even the most direct moments with additional implications:

There are three hundred sixty-two thousand
And that’s love. There are flecks of hope
Eight hundred eighty ways to read each stanza
Deep in traditional forms like flaws
Visible when held against the light
I did not walk here all the way from prose
To make corrections in red pencil
I came here tonight to open you up
To interference heard as music

Playfully alluding to the structure of the stanza as it comes to life, the speaker offers us multiple pathways through the poem, each combination offering a new reading, a new idea to privilege. Recycled phrases in this stanza (“And that’s love,” “red pen,” etc.) trigger associations with the loved ones (Ari, Barbara, Robert) who populate the book’s “Doppler Elegies” and “Mean Free Path” sequences. Most striking in this particular moment, however, is how the speaker weaves together ideas about writing as hope, the failure of articulation as love, and “interference . . . as music.”

As it is with most cases of haunting, the absences in Mean Free Path are often much more striking and material than what is present in the poems. We get names but very few people: “Across the water, you can see / the new construction going up / is glass. The electric cars / unmanned,” the speaker observes, de-populating a landscape resonate with signs of activity. Similarly, we are presented with signifiers of war, even though the poems refuse representations of conflict: “My numb / Rebarbative people, put down your Glocks / And your Big Gulps. We have birthmarks to earn.”

Lerner thus fights to represent a hollowed-out contemporary America without capitulating to the fascist language of representation, one of the primary struggles the speaker chronicles throughout the book. Accordingly, even the act of writing is haunted by the absence of a free language: “As brand names drift toward the generic / We drift toward fascism, a life in common / Replaced with its image.” Although Lerner risks didacticism with lines like this, the powerful results of his experimentation provide us with new means of expression, possible routes away from a degraded language and perspective, and toward reconnecting a dehumanizing “science” with “human concerns.”

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010

SQUEEZED LIGHT: Collected Poems 1994 – 2005

Lissa Wolsak
Station Hill Press ($21.95)

by Hank Lazer

In Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence, Emmanuel Levinas writes that “the birthplace of ontology is in the said,” and he prods us to think about what might lie before “language contracts into thought.” In Lissa Wolsak’s poetry, we live and breathe and achieve awareness in that state. Call it liminal or chora, call it the cloud of unknowing, it is a domain that is ethical, mystical, pedagogical, spiritual, and profoundly etymological.

Lissa Wolsak is an importantly unoriginal original poet, and Squeezed Light, her collected poems, is a major event. It begins:

Girl            with vase of odors

cradle            one’s own head ..

squinches,     pendentives,     oculi,     groin

cri imaginaire     pity

the river myth

 

was   there   ever

a   father   field

As Wolsak writes a few pages later, it is writing built on the “swerve word     with / silence at its core.” It is rare to find a poetry where the open space is so essentially and carefully deployed; on that note, in their thoughtful introduction, George Quasha and Charles Stein suggest

The text converses with itself to make space for reading. In fact, reading is what it’s already doing, by way of textual self-dialogue and inquiry into the roots of its own conception. In the very density of the text is an always unknown kind of spaciousness. Perhaps something like this is carried by the Japanese word ma which can be rendered as space, time, gap, emptiness, negative space, or the space (time) between structural parts.

The text converses with itself to make space for reading. In fact, reading is what it’s already doing, by way of textual self-dialogue and inquiry into the roots of its own conception. In the very density of the text is an always unknown kind of spaciousness. Perhaps something like this is carried by the Japanese word ma which can be rendered as space, time, gap, emptiness, negative space, or the space (time) between structural parts.

The interval of the unwritten, the space between words, the space that we cross over to arrive at the moment when language contracts into thought, are crucial to the making of Wolsak’s poetry. In the poems, we arrive at a kind of temple of reading, a place where we reflect upon how and what we are reading. Again, Quasha and Stein describe the phenomenology of reading Wolsak’s poetry quite well:

So there is actual time, reading time. This is a singular act. While such unique timing may in some degree always be the case in reading, the difference here, in Lissa Wolsak, is that the verse directly attends this unstable time as the real one, the real real time, as it were—a concrete actual forward-moving open time. A created time that is actual, actually the case, inside reading. The emphasis is not on the created object that may come to hang constant in the gallery of hierarchizing attention, but on things hanging in the air in listening space—blowing with the breeze, following the breath.

In an October 2000 interview with Pete Smith, included in this volume, the interviewer suggests that there was “no Lissa Wolsak until 1994,” the publication date for The Garcia Family Co-Mercy, her first book. It turns out that Wolsak began some magazine publications in 1990, and that her writing perhaps began with notebooks first seen by Olson scholar Ralph Maud, who read them in 1988 and urged Wolsak to do something with them. Wolsak says that she has “a romantic notion of deepening a work, oaking it.” As she discusses in a November 2002 interview with Tom Beckett, her first book came from notebook materials accrued over ten years. Her own descriptions of her working process tend to be as jumpy and energized as the work itself: “The works are stochastic meltdowns, entelechies in provision of a frontier for my sake, to accelerate my looking, divvied in imaginal, partial pre-verbal milieu, necessarily outside agreed-upon-motif-value. In contradiction, syncope, they are sometime scherzi, jumpy surrealisms, bricoleurity et al, directed toward synesthesia.”

Wolsak came to poetry by means of many other activities. As she says in the interview with Smith, she had already been a “mother, adventuress, beekeeper, volunteer friend to imprisoned people, volunteer friend and bridge for severely challenged persons, surgical nurse, hotelier, impresario, and recently free-lance artisan of ikebana, and a goldsmith.” I note Wolsak’s background—born in 1947, she grew up in southern California, never went to college, and moved to Canada in 1969—because I think that an under-recognized quality of the current American innovative poetry is its self-taught quality. (Think, for example, of Susan Howe, Charles Bernstein, Jack Foley, and Ron Silliman, to name just a few. There are considerable affinities with “outsider art,” art forms not dependent upon learning a particular credentialed craft, though the artists tend to be quite knowledgeable and well-schooled, autodidactically.) In an interview with Kent Johnson, Wolsak describes herself as “ignorant of any but a few literary techniques because what I am after is unguided, ungovernable, autocatalytic.” Her originality does not come from the void, however; in fact, Wolsak’s first purchased book of poetry was Zukofsky’s “A”, and she acknowledges Stein, Olson, Susan Howe, Beckett, and Celan as important to her, as well as the work of Douglas Oliver, Alice Notley, and Allen Fisher, among others.

But there is a quirky, fresh nature to Wolsak’s work, and perhaps it stems as much from her precise work as a metalsmith. In conversation with Johnson, when asked about the link between her metal work and her poetry, she explains,

I have no formal education in either of these fields and learn through experimenting, looking and reading, doing. Both teach me to remove mystique, and to really look at what I am looking at. Both are architectonic, autonomous. I’m intoxicated by fire, light, traveling through color, integrity of materials and making something where there was nothing. In both, I dead-reckon, and proceed by listening to mercurial materials. I love the overpowering silence involved.

In An Heuristic Prolusion, Wolsak writes, “To be absorbed, and to wake. These are my methods.” Her writing, then, becomes a kind of phenomenology of spiritual experience, at times

Awing us in

the open place

which inflects

being     as in union or rapture

In an important sense, Wolsak’s mysticism is in keeping with Heidegger’s insistence on a reinvestigation of the nature of being. Wolsak writes, “next...some of them took / away the word / Is,” and her writing, which might be described as “standing up to our / necks in intuitive / torrents in / here-ness,” acts as a kind of refresher course, a writing that schools us in developing a feeling for being and time. It places us where “things bind in their marveling / fire is swung as / ipseity and light” and asks, “whose bis- / muthous chain of / globes are we ten- / anting?”

Wolsak describes her work as “a vulnerable defence of being”; the poems exist “pre-positionally through, of, with, the space between atoms, space less tyrannized,” and the careful spacing of the poems constitutes a “visual hearing,” a cultivated (and transmitted) synaesthesia. Wolsak reports, “I choose, rather, to activate consciousness, and to keep a loose hold . . . but not to exclude the genuinely intended or navigable. I am more a receiver of shape and form than an architect of same.”

Levinas—who, due to his insistence on an ethical dimension to being by means of our relationship to the other, ultimately proves to be a more congenial partner for Wolsak than Heidegger—writes of “the spontaneity of understanding” and suggests that “the said is not added on to a preexisting knowing, but is the most profound activity of knowing, its very symbolism.” That is precisely where Wolsak’s writing exists: as a symbolic enactment of a threshold kind of knowing. Her poetry gets to the crux (or the empty, enabling hub) by a complex mixture of will, research, placement, and release of control. It constitutes a primer for living on the threshold, for being in a tenuous currency; the poems become richly textured halting experiences that often evade memory, and thus ask of a reader an instructive release of control. Wolsak’s poetry is a pure expenditure (it is not and does not think of itself as an investment)—an urgent, argent writing that earns and accrues interest. In A Defence of Being, Second Ana, Wolsak asks,

then...ought each of

the said things intrude upon us now?

being scient is of

minute moment

loom-shuttles still

Wolsak speaks of writing “toward the equivocation of ethical spaces which well between intent and interpretation.” I would suggest that she also writes toward a “pure,” fresh, refreshing instance and instant of being, finding an interstice, an open space, apart from and resistant to the bombardment of verbal over-determination that characterizes our hyper-saturated and polluted “information” age.

At the end of An Heuristic Prolusion, Wolsak asserts, “For me, the urgent question is .. ‘do we have a prayer?’” Her writing is a finding and making of that prayer, a petitioning, a song, an architecture, and a warning; it is a contagious and instructive dwelling and playing with the resources of our languages and their spatial projections.

Wolsak’s work, though it feels like it came suddenly out of nowhere—her first book did not arrive until she was in her late forties (and we should remember that there are other important instances of great poets late arriving into the book-publishing world, including Wallace Stevens and Robert Frost—a model very much at odds with today’s quest for rapid, repeated book publications by young writers)—has many important kinships. Reading Wolsak today, in retrospect, her connections to the work of Susan Howe, Jake Berry, Zukofsky, Arakawa and Gins, and many others are evident (even though Wolsak’s in-depth reading of most of these writers took place after nearly all of the Collected Poems had been completed). Let me pursue one of these kinships. Like Arakawa and Gins, Wolsak in her poetry asks, what are we, and can we learn to feel ourselves assembling our perceived world? And, might we learn ways to assemble it differently, with greater mercy and justice? Thus, we find Wolsak writing about “when precisian pinkie-men distend / in perfecting directives, / point me in the dust, / stream back / from it upon us.” Perhaps her own quest, linked to the openness and frequent openings of the poems, is to

assume visual totality

to lie before us

space-embracing

defines the matter roughly,

by utile, I mean

capacious foreheads

as yet cathect

far from brevity of hemi—

spheric bias

user-illusion

Wolsak’s poetry, like the work of Arakawa and Gins (especially in Architectural Body), amounts to an “autopoesis / of thingly beams.” Thus, like the best of philosophy and science fiction, Wolsak’s poetry thinks not at the level of personal psychology and the (merely) self-expressive, but at the level of the species, asking fundamental questions of what constitutes and will become of the human.

As for Wolsak’s asking whether we have a prayer, her writing takes us in that direction, as she writes to “the genius Peace, to/ whom the olive is dear” and as she seeks “some / depth of mercy.” Whether staring afar or a-near, Wolsak’s poetry moves us and touches us: “Beyond...on a convex... / attingent squeezed light, / what-is touches what-is.” Though, as I have suggested, there will always be an infinite number of ways to read and talk about Wolsak’s writing, now, is a good time for many more readers to begin.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010

THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS: On Method

Giorgio Agamben
translated by Luca di Santo and Kevin Atell
Zone Books ($24.95)

by Adrian Doerr

Since the publication of the English translation of The Coming Community in 1993, Giorgio Agamben’s philosophical work has held a prominent place in Anglo-American academic thought. Characterized by his immense subject range—spanning a field that moves from the political to the poetic—Agamben’s writings are above all dense affairs with complex conceptual turns condensed into tight sentences, often requiring several readings to penetrate their meaning. So it is no surprise that these qualities are on display in Agamben’s The Signature of All Things, a book devoted to working through some of Michel Foucault’s key methodological breakthroughs en route to laying out Agamben’s own conceptions of method. That such a text exposes some profound limitations of his own thought should probably not surprise us either.

The Signature of All Things is subdivided into three chapters, each inaugurated by the isolation and analysis of a specific concept, which serves a prelude to Agamben carrying out a broader analysis of this idea within the framework of Western philosophy. Chapter one, with its focus on the concept of “paradigm,” and chapter three, devoted to Foucault’s important theory of “archaeology,” both start explicitly with Foucault, while chapter two, begun with a reflection on Paracelsus, centers on a theory of “signatures.”

Notably, all three of these Foucauldian ideas are located primarily in The Archaeology of Knowledge andThe Order of Things, and these texts are the ones Agamben turns to the most to elaborate his arguments. This focus at first glance seems surprising, given both the greater scholarly interest in the past fifteen years in the “later” Foucault—the Foucault of governmentality, the dispersion of power across the social field, and the History of Sexuality series—and the weight Agamben places on this period of Foucault in his most influential book, Homo Sacer. Indeed, such an approach feels almost anachronistic at this point, a step back to the 1970s when these earlier works served to prompt a sea change within segments of almost every social science and humanities discipline. But there is a method to this selectiveness of Agamben, one that emerges explicitly in the final chapter, and serves to provide this text with the exigency for its methodological exploration.

Agamben isn’t overly concerned with arguing for the importance of Foucault’s methodology, or directly deconstructing rival methods, but rather with showing how it connects with some of his own theories. For example, the first chapter begins with a comparison between Foucault and Thomas Kuhn’s theory of paradigm. Quickly, though, both thinkers are mostly left behind, allowing Agamben to connect this theory to the thoughts of, among others, Aristotle, Kant, Plato, Heidegger, and Goethe, and in this process illustrate how the notion of a paradigm exhibits a close relationship to his ideas about analogy and singularity.

In this case, a paradigm defies accommodation with any dualist or binary manner of thinking—which Agamben feels lingers behind many problems in Western thought, like the rigid separation between subject and object or human and animal—and instead “replaces a dichotomous logic with a bipolar analogical model.” This alternate method of paradigmatic knowing has the further quality of being ultimately rooted in its ontological status, with the consequence that the “historicity of the paradigm lies neither in diachrony nor in synchrony but in a crossing of the two.” This final idea becomes a running motif in Agamben’s text, as he evinces considerable concern in each chapter toward a rethinking of the temporal investigation of concepts and objects—a concern that makes its most serious claims in the book’s final chapter.

Before proceeding, though, a quick note on the style of the text, which is unfortunately littered with distracting rhetorical gestures that give off an air of elitism. This happens on the very first page of the preface: Agamben begins by stating, “Anyone familiar with research in the human sciences knows that, contrary to common opinion . . .” and repeats that final phrase, “contrary to common opinion,” only a few lines later, after having just pointed out how the “astute reader” of his text will have the clarity of mind to “determine what in the three essays can be attributed to Foucault, to the author, or to both.” While these phrases attempt to serve alternately as ideological critique (“common opinion”) and a performance of the author’s knowledge (“anyone familiar with”), they have the effect of foreclosing other interpretations while simultaneously allowing Agamben to evade providing proof for these opinions.

And it is proof, notoriously such a difficult and elusive aspect of conceptual arguments, which is allowed to go begging in the style of the text. As is typical for Agamben, slender page or page and a half sections within a chapter dwell on a quotation or two from a thinker, only to be linked in subsequent sections to selections from other philosophers by Agamben’s considerable conceptual dexterity and poetically evocative writing. It is these last two qualities that end up carrying so much of the argumentative weight of the text, since Agamben will often produce tremendous claims out of a few citations, claims that often seem quite a stretch given his limited source material.

Another problematic aspect of this text, which brings us back to its philosophical claims, is its overall approach. By ranging from philosopher to philosopher, finding nuggets and traces in so many thinkers for his project, Agamben reconstructs an unending narrative of Western philosophy, a continuity of ideas that stretches back from ancient Greece to the present. This reconstructs a profoundly idealist version of the world and thought, one that severely limits historical change and the influence of material reality upon the shaping of thought itself. And this is why Agamben has to assert the ontological primacy of the paradigm in chapter one—because for him, in the last instance, there is a continuous being of thought that retains its shape throughout time.

Such an interpretation appears premature at best, or erroneous at worse, given the importance Agamben places in the final chapter on history, where he suggests the human sciences need to rethink “the very idea of an ontological anchoring, and thereby envisag[e] being as a field of essentially historical tensions.” This comes at the very end of an argument circling around two key positions—one, a critique of a historical method based on “origins” and, two, a passionate call for a return to a linguistic method centered on a structural (and culturally based) model as opposed to the currently hegemonic Chomskian generative grammar (and its basis in biology)—and both are seriously flawed.

On this latter score, while a more culturally based approach is ultimately more correct—and the suggestion of a return to structuralism also sheds light on why Agamben would mostly stick to some of Foucault’s earlier work, which worked in a creative tension with that intellectual movement—it points out a serious limitation in the type of historical ontology Agamben is arguing for. Such a return paints movements in academic methods in an overly voluntary fashion, as if method is a simple choice for scholars, and not influenced by broader economic, political, and social forces. This is not to discount the responsibility of individuals in their research, but the rise of more biologically driven theories in the human sciences probably has more to do with the rise of conservatism in the last thirty to forty years in North American and Western Europe than with the mere preference of academics.

This blindness to broader social forces is also related to a misplaced critique of history as a search for origins. Basing his argument on Nietzsche, and Foucault’s important essay “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” Agamben proceeds to attack this concept without offering any contemporary examples of this historical method in action. Indeed, to characterize the practice of history as a “search for origins,” especially in light of the significant changes in the discipline in past forty years (some directly inspired by Foucault), feels a bit hollow.

The result of displacing the study of history from origins to “effects,” as Agamben envisions, is a historicized ontology, which only raises more questions than it answers. For example, despite their cultural, economic, and geographic differences, is the historical ontology the same for a Sudanese peasant and a London stockbroker if they inhabit the same time frame? And is there a better paradigm of the use of historical ontology as a method than Martin Heidegger’s famous dramatization of the German people as fulfilling their destiny via the Third Reich?

In the end, Agamben’s approach leads to history becoming mystified into an endless circuit of ideas, where concepts always supersede actions and materiality, and the latter fail to alter and redefine the former. That such an approach continues to strike a chord with readers also seems symptomatic of the political and economic changes alluded to earlier—it is a perspective that suggests that “thinking more correctly” replaces all the dirty work of materiality.

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010

ABOUT A MOUNTAIN

John D’Agata
W. W. Norton & Co. ($23.95)

by Cindra Halm

For readers who know the genre-bending lyric essays that John D’Agata writes about in and selects (as an editor) for Seneca Review, and for those who have read his own high-concept, high-construct poetic essays in Halls of Fame (Graywolf Press, 2001), About a Mountain may be a surprise. Reading at first like investigative journalism and morphing into a compendium of facts and quantifications, morphing again into personal and collective takes on forays, fears, habits, and failures, the book looks and acts like conventional prose rather than a rebel child of poetry.

For example, there are sentences that cohere into paragraphs instead of remaining a sequence of resonant lines surrounded by white space. There are interviews with experts and laypeople, snippets of personal experience, descriptions of Americana, examples from history, relentless numbers, possibilities, and associations—okay, D’Agata fans will recognize the list-making urge. Here, though, an objective framework of minimalistically linked sections reflects the methodology of both journalist and crisis counselor—who/what/when/where/why/how/why/why/why—and transforms, through layering and a rising pitch, into a subjective howling for all that is and could be lost. Most different from Halls of Fame, a consistent, forward-striving propulsion drives the prose, supported also by both the rapid-fire monosyllabic headings and the black and yellow crime-scene ticker-tape of a book jacket.

This is not so surprising for readers of D’Agata’s running commentaries about the history, form, and function of the essay as editor of two (out of a proposed trilogy) recent anthologies, and in special “lyric essay issues” of Seneca in which he expands and even recants some of his earlier and more stringent definitions of the form. The overall project seems to have wandered from the “how” of things into the “why,” and in reading About a Mountain, we come to know that “why” is dangerous territory. Risk still informs, resides, and rattles here, in unexpected ways different from more obvious structural manifestations.

Explicit topics: a summer in which the author helped to move his mother to Las Vegas and stayed; the politics of nuclear waste and Yucca mountain; a teenager’s suicidal jump from the Stratosphere Hotel; signs, sales, semiotics; human nature’s persistence for meaning-making; Edvard Munch’s The Scream. Implicit topics: the half-life of vernacular; the pull toward decay and decline; aggregates; how we need containment; countlessness; the leaps between experience and language; the reach of each primal voice.

You’ve got to read this book the whole way through. Its verve and profundity live in accretion, in connections made from the juxtapositions, sheer plethora of cataloging, and the exposé of language’s uses and methods. Part encyclopedia, part travelogue of the human animal’s posturings and vulnerabilities, part “Yes, there will be singing, /About the dark times” (Bertolt Brecht, from the poem, “Motto”), About a Mountain houses unabashed poignancy in addition to serious social and moral critique.

It’s very difficult to excerpt from this book because it’s an ecology, an archeological site of a civilization’s linked artifacts in which context is everything. Ultimately, the main character here is THE SIGN, in its literal, glitzy bulk (we are, after all, in Las Vegas), its undercurrents and blatancies of persuasion and propaganda, its attempts at representing experience. “Attempts,” from the French essai, conflates all the themes and scenes of the book, demonstrating the “meta” self-referential aspect, the ars poetica (ars essayica?) strand of discourse present to some extent in most of D’Agata’s work, by which the topic of essay writing itself ebbs and flows throughout the whole.

Late in the book, a kind of thesis statement to this effect emerges. Here is the author, reiterating the assessments of the Department of Energy’s panel of experts, assembled for the purpose of formulating a sign to mark Yucca Mountain’s nuclear waste storage facility: “We must find ourselves, the panel says, having an experience: an essaying into the purpose of what’s apparently purposeless, an essaying that tries desperately to cull significance from the place, but an essaying, says the panel, that must ultimately fail.” It’s not a plot spoiler to say that, as it turns out, a marker for a nuclear waste site and a metaphorical association with a teenager’s suicide may ultimately reflect a sense of meaninglessness.

About a Mountain, then, in addition to being a record of these experiences, is, in itself, an experience. It’s a rogue sign, an addition to and an accretion of the officially sanctioned one at the site, and the headstone marker of a troubled kid. Wildly informational, textural, guttural, this is what this extended essay does: though it cannot and does not exactly replicate the world, it makes a world, about the world, singing.

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010

A NOVEL MARKETPLACE: Mass Culture, the Book Trade, and Postwar American Fiction

Evan Brier
University of Pennsylvania Press ($49.95)

by Matthew Thrasher

The intellectual anxiety of our age is that no one reads anymore. Television and the Internet have murdered the book, skinned it, and now wear its mask throughout outer and cyber space—sleeping in its bed, living its life, and laying claim to its nexus of imagined benefits. Better than murder, this is identity theft; we haven’t left Crusoe in the library, we’ve put him on Broadway. But are we convinced that the imaginative sprawl of Starcraft II can match that of The Odyssey? How does watching Ray Winstone slay the Grendel in IMAX 3D compare to reading Beowulf? Don’t our pedagogues still believe they know a cross-dresser when they see one?

New media has a knack for mimicry. Because of this, the death of the book is not the end of meaningful mass culture; instead, it is a problem of postures. No one reads, but the more terrifying development may be that no one curls up. The cozy, cognitive relation between book and reader has mutated into the unflinching, passive gaze of the surfing couch potato and the Internet troll—Dante’s Inferno for X-Box notwithstanding. We’ve created a monster, and it’s turned against us. The doomsday scenario is not hard to imagine: a Dawn of the Living UnRead in which the final bastions of knowledge hold out against a swarm of increasing delinquency rates, spiking drop-out rates, and a widening achievement gap.

Now that the magnitude of the current dilemma has sunk in, rewind this conversation sixty years. Ask yourself, when have cultural commentators ever believed that people other than themselves read? Better yet, what consequences have such commentators attributed to a world without reading? In A Novel Marketplace: Mass Culture, the Book Trade, and Postwar American Fiction, Evan Brier shows how these questions can arise in the most unlikely of times. The post-war United States witnessed the proliferation of the paperback, the development of the up-scale trade paperback, and the purchase of publishing houses by large media conglomerates. Books and novels were widely read and publishing was a lucrative business venture. Still, no one believed that the general public read.

Brier resists the tantalizing, yet timeless, question: why don’t people read? Rather, he proffers a richer alternative: why, in a particular historical moment, do we perceive the state of reading to be in crisis? And what does this say about the practitioners of reading—publishers, literary agents, and authors? One way to address this question in the 1950s was to turn to the Cold War. Vicious fear mongering among American elites engendered a culture of intellectual scarcity (not enough math, not enough reading). As long as there was Communism, there would be a perceived dearth of reading amongst the American public.

However, Brier demurs, eviscerating this powerful rhetoric of fear by revealing a series of multi-leveled contradictions that permeated the post-war book market. People may have had the USSR in mind when they claimed that no one read, but they also had in mind a series of novels that discredited mass culture while participating in it. Readers didn’t read themselves out of communism; they read themselves into believing that no one else read.

For Brier, the culprit was the publishing industry, not the reds. On one hand selling, on the other claiming that no one was buying, literary scions were publishing works of art that were both beyond the market and very much a part of it. Writers, too, played the game, spurning the rise of advertising while relying on famous friends to obsequiously review their works—a clandestine form of marketing. In Brier’s portrait of the post-war era, a repression of the popular was necessary to become popular in unpopularity.

And the rapidly evolving populace was ready to absorb the message. The rise of the English department and the surplus of GI Bill college grads allowed publishing hucksters to market the novel to a new middle-class that was not only more educated, but more discriminating in its cultural preferences as well. For the first time, publishers could market books to people who hated marketing—highbrow readers who believed that their intellect and their literature were singular.

In this scheme, analysis becomes a romantic psychoanalytic. Brier sits down with works such as The Sheltering Sky and Fahrenheit 451 and reveals their deep-seated anxieties regarding mass media and middle-brow culture. For instance, Bradbury’s classic work is not just about the horrors of state censorship; to Brier, it is about an author trying to come to terms with his medium. How can Bradbury’s work be so indebted to the rise of the paperback while at the same spinning a dystopian vision of a society in which mass-culture has triumphed over the free-thinking individual? At the same time, he sits down with the books’ readers. How could numerous individuals buy (and later come to adore) books that were explicitly opposed to being read by large quantities of people? Hence the unrequited romance of the post-war American novel: consumers came to love books that did not love them back.

A Novel Marketplace is a pulverizing work that operates on multiple levels to reconfigure the commonly held oppositions between blockbusters and art, television and literature, art pour l’art and the market. Brier does not content himself with an economic analysis of the novel. Instead, he reads what he perceives to be the post-war situation in the history of publishing, the biography of authors, and the very texts themselves. If the novel is losing its cultural prominence today, it is not because people have come to embrace mass media outlets such as television and the Internet. Nor is it because people have stopped reading. Instead, it is because there has been a fundamental shift in the institutional connections that allowed novels to flourish in the post-war era.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010

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