Tag Archives: fall 2011

SNOTTY SAVES THE DAY


Tod Davies
Exterminating Angel Press ($13)

by Marjorie Hakala

While it is not explicitly aimed at any age group, Snotty Saves the Day is mostly a middle grade adventure fantasy wrapped in a faux academic study. In the foreword, Tod Davies claims to have found the manuscript in the woods with a note from a professor in a country called Arcadia. It is a fairy tale about a rather repulsive little boy named Snotty, with a prologue by one Professor Devindra Vale. The professor’s footnotes accompany the story throughout and give hints of a second story about the cause of Arcadia’s civil war.

Snotty is a twelve-year-old drug dealer and thief who, at the beginning of his story, falls through a hole in the ground into another world. Here, Snotty trades his little finger for a heap of treasure from a man calling himself Aladdin, and subsequently becomes the ruler and Sun God of a society of Giant Garden Gnomes. Snotty goes off with the Gnomes to their stronghold but stays there only a short time before a troop of Teddy Bears break in and spirit him away to join them in fighting the Gnomes.

Things continue on like this. It’s an eclectic universe with no apparent organizing principle, and Snotty himself is a cipher whose character frequently changes. Characters wander in and out of the story, and the prose is often vague. The furniture in the Gnome fort, for example, is all described as “Gnome-sized,” but the book never makes clear how large the Gnomes are. There is also some unfortunate poetry, a ballad one of the Gnomes sings about the book’s climactic battle:

He snarled at us and ran into the fray
A flamethrower just blew him all away
Big Teddy then was left without a shield
We broke her pony’s knees until he yield’d

Meanwhile, in the footnotes, Professor Vale points out each “important motif in Arcadian fairy tales” and frequently alludes to an ongoing war in Arcadia. This conflict is driven by an academic rivalry between two groups, called the Neofundamentalists and New Subjectivists, who have differing ideas about the nature of reality. The New Subjectivists believe in the world’s essential unity, while the Neofundamentalists don’t. Professor Vale further asserts that “stories, especially those told to children, hold the greatest secrets of our universe.” This is the book’s most interesting premise, but it’s poorly explained and oddly executed. By the end, Professor Vale argues that Snotty’s story is literally true, and that it fills in a gap in Arcadia’s history. The moral is not that fairy tales carry universal truths, so much as that one fairy tale, in a fictional country, is actually a true story. That’s a rather less important idea than the book claims it has to offer.

The scholarly trappings won’t be interesting for very young readers, and the book may well have too many talking teddy bears for older ones. It’s an interesting concept and a courageous format, but Snotty’s story fails to carry the day.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011

I’LL GET THERE. IT BETTER BE WORTH THE TRIP. — 40th Anniversary Edition


John Donovan
Flux ($9.95)

by Shawn Patrick Doyle

Since few books are ever released in a 40th Anniversary Edition, John Donovan’s I’ll get there. It better be worth the trip. must be considered foundational and timeless. This new edition is packaged with two reflective essays by Bret Hartinger and Martin Wilson, who touchingly relay their own experiences with the book and locate its place in literary history as the first young adult book to deal openly with a homosexual relationship. Even after gay teen literature has gone through a period of increased sales and acceptance, both still claim it as one of the best works in the field. Indeed, the book feels as fresh today as it must have years ago due to Donovan’s skill as a writer.

The novel tells the story of David Ross, a thirteen-year-old whose life is thrown into turmoil when his grandmother, with whom he has lived since he was five, dies of a heart attack. Following the death, the scattered members of David’s family return for the funeral and to decide with whom David should live; lacking any better plan, David moves to New York City to live with his mother, an alcoholic writer who feels her talents are going to waste in advertising. David finds adjustment to city and apartment life overwhelming both for himself and his closest confidant, his pet dachshund Fred. After time, David befriends a popular, athletic schoolmate named Altschuler. The two eventually discover and explore their mutual attraction to each other and share a confused kiss that forces both to confront their identities as a homosexuals at a time when the gay rights movement did not yet exist.

The book’s continued freshness is largely a product of the depth and roundness of its characters. Donovan does a great job of nailing the loneliness and dislocation that thirteen-year-old David feels in a new city; he is someone we immediately identify with and root for. Yet Donovan extends the opportunity to identify with and feel sympathy for every character, including David’s alcoholic, mercurial mother. Even smaller roles (such as the class clown Malcolm and the younger student Frankie Menlo, who idolizes David) feel genuine because Donovan is honest and insightful about their desires and their flaws. Reading through all of these character’s stories, one gets the sense of a real, complex world.

The final quarter of the book is heart-rending due to both a series of tragic events and the weight of the challenges that lie before David and Altschuler. Still, Donovan wisely never drifts towards melodrama or saccharine moralizing. The author offers no easy answers to the obstacles David faces, yet he leaves the reader with the sense that there are answers to be found.

In the records of young adult literary history, I’ll get there. It better be worth the trip. will be remembered for dealing with a controversial topic long before it was acceptable or even fashionable to do so. Yet in grand balance, the fact that makes the novel such a powerful read is David’s relatability as a lost and confused teen. While the 40th-anniversary essays aptly focus on the sense of kinship that gay teens have found after reading about David, I wonder if future anniversary editions of the book might focus on the book’s relevance to all teen readers.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011

LAST SEEN ENTERING THE BILTMORE: Plays, Short Fiction, Poems 1975–2010


Gary Indiana
Semiotext(e) ($17.95)

by Justin Maxwell

It’s easy to like Gary Indiana. Any successful novelist who steps up and says “plot is the sleaziest form of ingenuity” has thought through the writer’s craft far enough to be worth reading. And this collection’s thirty-five-year coverage is a strong starting point for anyone unfamiliar with the author’s work. Plus, this collection features just the right kind of sleaze. Indiana is obsessed with the impure side of the human condition: vanity, narcissism, and neglect. These conditions are seen throughout this hefty book; in its many plays, assorted poems, brief fictions, and two interviews, we see Gary Indiana simultaneously angry at and obsessed with cultural station.

Indiana offers a brief primer to his work called “The Theater of the Obvious: An Informal History.” This is a straightforward account of the late ’70s and early ’80s when Indiana was a prolific theater maker. It offers no real definition of a movement or aesthetic, replacing that with a who’s who of scenesters. Given the thickness of the anthology and the publisher’s reputation for critically smart prose, this missing component feels like a shortcoming—the history is more of the era than of a theoretical methodology. But the era is an important one, when the downtown scene’s experimentalism was radiant in contrast to the evils of Reagan’s economic and cultural policy.

We are left with Indiana’s interesting plays to guess at an aesthetic in retrospect, and the collection is best in its drama. The clearest manifestation of what Indiana is up to is in his play Alligator Girls Go to College, wherein a trio of half-women/half-alligators lose their jobs as side-show freaks and attend a community college. One unfortunate reptile makes the ominous mistake of getting involved with the theater, and ends up with the full, starlet wish-fulfillment: discovered by Hollywood elite, plastic surgery in Europe (making her into the classic blond beauty), and huge fame on the big screen. She also ends up with a secretive life in a mansion where she is deeply unhappy. She starts out as a circus freak and becomes another kind of freak: the movie star. Themes of personal corruption and the sleaze of the film industry drive the show. It has a smart sense of the theatrical with the alligator girls; while they might flounce into abstraction in the hands of a lesser writer, Indiana treats them with a simple dignity.

Thematically similar, Phantoms of Louisiana is much the opposite of Alligator Girls. This work is a smart parody of Southern Gothic and the paradoxical culture that engendered it. The soft-spoken language, familial realpolitik, and absurdism are delightfully sleazy. By contrast, in The Roman Polanski Story the sleaze seems obvious, but the work keeps the reader guessing about their assumptions of the obvious, as is often the case in Indiana’s theater. There is much about sex in this play, and delightfully it both is and isn’t what one might expect.

These three plays are quite different, on the surface, from A Coupla White Faggots Sitting Around Talking, the only teleplay in the collection. While one could argue it is the work truest to the name Theater of the Obvious, it is the least compelling read, being too true to its title. However, if the previously discussed texts take the theatricality inherent in sleaze and put it up on the stage, the intimacy of this video work shows real people at the bottom, people on the other side of the cultural coin that we’ve seen flipped in the previous plays.

The short monologue “Roy Cohen” takes Indian’s pitch-perfect sense of sleaze to a wonderfully disturbing climax. Here we get the public persona of the hyper-conservative and homophobic title character; the tension comes because we know the real Cohen is deeply closeted. In the staging, we watch an actor play a gay man who is playing a conservative who is passionately delivering a homophobic monologue in the guise of a speech. The layers of cognitive dissonance are deeply compelling. This is a theater obsessed with the oily film that floats to the top of the culture; it is powerful to read and to watch.

The poems and prose of Last Seen Entering the Biltmore address the same themes as the plays, but often in a more direct and visceral way. In them, Indiana’s frustrations with the vacuous failings of American culture are there on the surface. His frustrations are reminiscent of the Beat movement; in some ways, Indiana is a Beat born after the fatalism of Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, or at least the culture that epitomized it. This supposition comes through best in the collection’s epilogue, a powerful interview titled “The Five Percent Paradox” wherein Indiana says: “The bureaucracies that operate the consciousness industry now only allow 5 percent of originality into its menu items, . . . if you want access to mainstream markets, the bureaucracies tell you what to write, how to write it, and what ideas are acceptable and which ideas aren’t allowed.”

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011

TALKING INTO THE EAR OF A DONKEY


Robert Bly
W. W. Norton ($24.95)

by Mark Gustafson

“Oh, on an early morning I think I shall live forever!”
—Robert Bly, “Poem in Three Parts”

In the morning of his career, Robert Bly’s first book, Silence in the Snowy Fields (Wesleyan University Press, 1962), became the touchstone of a new generation. Forging a poetic link between inward and outward, Bly brought the unconscious into play in surrealistic, image-laden lines while shedding many of the day’s literary conventions. His broad and deep influence on American poetry of mid-century and later came through not only poems but also through ferocious, subjective criticism, provocative theorizing, and a new emphasis on translation (Trakl, Neruda, Lorca, Rilke, Tranströmer, Machado, Kabir, and others), not to mention political activities and incorporation of fairy tales and myth. The recent reprinting of Leaping Poetry: An Idea with Poems and Translations (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008), first published in 1972, is one measure of Bly’s continuing ripple effect.

“Ravens Hiding in a Shoe,” which opens his new book, Talking into the Ear of a Donkey, ends with an intriguing appraisal:

Robert, you’ve wasted so much of your life
Sitting indoors to write poems. Would you
Do that again? I would, a thousand times.

Bly is now eighty-four years old; with more than half a century’s accumulation of experience, insight, and wisdom, he has reached the culminating stage. “Ripeness is all,” as this book brilliantly makes plain. He is still ecstatic, “wrapped in . . . joyful flesh,” filled with spiritual longing, making long, floating leaps, and celebrating his love of and gratitude for the world. His skill with image and metaphor is undiminished:

I have daughters and I have sons.
When one of them lays a hand
On my shoulder, shining fish
Turn suddenly in the deep sea.

There are poems here that—in form, content, technique, mood, tone—generate echoes of nearly every period of his career, though with some notable exceptions: gone are the furious, expressly political poems that identify our public grief and begin to process it (as in The Light Around the Body [Harper & Row, 1967]), the long, knotty spirals of surrealism (Sleepers Joining Hands [Harper & Row, 1973]), and prose poems (The Morning Glory [HarperCollins, 1975] and other books). The last, of course, are still part of Bly’s repertoire overall; witness Reaching Out to the World: New & Selected Prose Poems (White Pine Press, 2009). Think, if you will, of a palimpsest.

Bly reassures himself (again with self-deprecation):

It’s all right if we keep forgetting the way home.
It’s all right if we don’t remember when we were born.
It’s all right if we write the same poem over and over.

Actually, the sameness lies not in the poems themselves, but rather in the very force of character that has produced them. As evident in his most recent books, Bly has been developing a “late style” of which he is now, indisputably, the possessor. Edward Said (leaning on Adorno) suggests that, while the bodily condition of senescence does not directly translate into an aesthetic style, the awareness of the proximity of death, in combination with scrupulous self-reflection, alters the quality of time. To put it another way, just as the quality of light changes, so that in the evening, before sunset, free of the haze of morning and the glare of mid-day, it becomes warmer, richer, and clearer, so also, late in an artistic career, something similar often happens, as death gets into the work. Lateness, Adorno says, both “elucidates and dramatizes,” and often brings with it an increased “power of subjectivity.” In Said’s words, the poet’s “mature subjectivity, stripped of hubris and pomposity, [is] unashamed either of its fallibility or of the modest assurance it has gained. . . .” These traits fit Bly to a T.

The very structure of Talking into the Ear of a Donkey suggests the poems’ “lateness.” Sections one and six neatly frame this collection, as they consist of ghazals (of which Bly’s last two books, The Night Abraham Called to the Stars [HarperCollins, 2001], and My Sentence Was a Thousand Years of Joy[HarperCollins, 2005], were exclusively comprised). His drastic adaptation of this ancient form, also used by Rumi, Hafez, and Ghalib (all of whom Bly has translated), is, invariably, six self-contained, three-line stanzas. Within those confines, however, he has many options: sometimes the move between stanzas involves a leap, sometimes each stanza ends with, or includes, the same word or phrase; sometimes the poet addresses himself in the final stanza; usually, there he corrals the abundant, sometimes wild array of images and stanzas, bringing closure. Thus form and content happily commingle. Bly’s almost intuitive dexterity with these ghazals is such that they function as a series of meditations, managing to incorporate various themes, styles, and philosophical features of his lifetime of work.

Consider “Longing for the Acrobat”:

There is so much sweetness in children’s voices,
And so much discontent at the end of day,
And so much satisfaction when a train goes by.

I don’t know why the rooster keeps on crying,
Nor why the elephant lifts his knobby trunk,
Nor why Hawthorne kept hearing trains at night.

A handsome child is a gift from God,
And a friend is a vein in the back of the hand,
And a wound is an inheritance from the wind.

Some say we are living at the end of time,
But I believe a thousand pagan ministers
Will arrive tomorrow to baptize the wind.

There’s nothing we need to do about Saint John.
Whenever he laid his hands on earth
The well water was sweet for a hundred miles.

Everywhere people are longing for a deeper life.
Let’s hope some acrobat will come by
And give us a hint how to get into heaven.

The result showcases Bly’s expert handling of various poetic devices, combined with the ever-present images and an allusivity unmatched in his earlier work, imbued with both uncertainty and reassurance, and marked by spiritual depth.

Decades ago, from the bully pulpit of his little magazine The Fifties (later The Sixties and The Seventies), Bly railed against the hobbling effects of formalism, to the benefit of American poetry. But by the early 1980s he was occasionally submitting to form (to the dismay or delight of those who recalled his earlier intransigence), though strictly on his own terms, inventing an eight-line poem he calls a “ramage.” Section four comprises nineteen of these. Most have their origin in sound, which then helps to determine the content. Here is “Wanting Sumptuous Heavens”:

No one grumbles among the oyster clans,
And lobsters play their bone guitars all summer.
Only we, with our opposable thumbs, want
Heaven to be, and God to come, again.
There is no end to our grumbling; we want
Comfortable earth and sumptuous heaven.
But the heron standing on one leg in the bog
Drinks his dark rum all day, and is content.

Bly has said: “Every poem, of course, has to have images and ideas and some sort of troubled speaker. But I began more and more to shift attention to the little mouths that cry out their own name.” The little mouth here is –um, and it is beautiful to hear how Bly—who acknowledges his early neglect of sound—attends to it and the accompanying subject matter.

The remaining sections consist of a variety of free verse, from a three-line haiku (reminiscent of Issa, another of Bly’s translated poets) to a twenty-eight-line poem in seven numbered sections. Here is “The Water Tank”:

It’s late fall, and the box-elder leaves are gone.
Snow falls on the horses among their hay bales
And on the water tank overturned for winter.
The horses bend their necks toward the white ground to eat.

This limpidly conveys a sense of solitude and inwardness. The setting is rural, the language simple, and the technique subtle—almost Chinese. It could be from Silence, except the approach of winter seems to have more heft.

The organization at this point is a bit perplexing; e.g., inexplicably, a couple of ramages have been included among this miscellany, including the one quoted above. In any case, the book as a whole does not move chronologically through Bly’s formal development, but shifts back and forth, with a slightly skewed symmetry, and feels simultaneously structured and loose—which, come to think of it, often describes Bly’s poems themselves. We may take pleasure in the arrangement, set in its gorgeous frame.

If the book or the reader needs more coherence and continuity, it finally does come—as do the contours of his late style—in the familiar themes and customary traits, now clarified in the differently refracted light of late in the day. First, Bly still decries the fear of the body and the prudishness introduced by some strains of early Christianity. As one alternative, “Morning Pajamas” begins with his earthy relish:

When you’ve slept all night in a warm bed, sometimes
You’ll find a punky fragrance in your pajamas.
It’s a bit lowlife, but satisfying.
It’s some sort of companionable warmth
That your balls created during the night.

(We may remember another poet of the body as well as the soul, Whitman, who wrote: “The scent of these arm-pits is aroma finer than prayer.”)

His obvious delight in music—also present in the rhythms, internal rhymes, and repetitions (and in his preference for musical accompaniment when reading)—shows in its increased use as subject matter or referent. So begins “Paying Attention to the Melody”:

All right. I know that each of us will die alone.
It doesn’t matter how loud or soft the sitar plays.
Sooner or later the melody will say it all.

The prologue is so long! At last the theme comes.
It says the soul will rise above all these notes.
It says the dust will be swept up from the floor.

Both soothing and powerful, music, even as it tends toward silence, is “always reminding us whom we love.”

Several poems are late-in-the-day reflections about poetry and his life-long relationship with it. “Starting a Poem” humorously describes the process as it unfolds. You let a word in, then its relatives arrive, “Now the den is a mess, and the / Remote is gone.” Finally:

Now see what’s happened?
Where is your car? You won’t
Be able to find
The keys for a week.

In the title poem, a donkey delights in the spoken word, despite lamentation about the spring that has flown:

“Oh, never mind
About all that,” the donkey
Says. “Just take hold of my mane, so you
Can lift your lips closer to my hairy ears.”

This humble beast of burden—neither Pegasus nor Sleipnir, not even Rocinante—is the creative vehicle that has carried Bly all this time.

With The Man in the Black Coat Turns (Dial Press, 1981), Bly began writing more personal, confessional poems. Talking also takes up this thread, as he remembers his family of origin. “We were bumblers—nothing / Was ever clear.” His father’s alcoholism was the dominant system in their farm house (“It’s all right / To end up bringing your own / Father home. Just be quiet”). Yet Bly came to terms with his father, and, reconciling past and present, continues to find reasons to respect him: “The way I found / Of opening a poem I took / From the way he walked into a field.” These autobiographical poems have suffering, sorrow, and grief aplenty, but Bly refuses to be depressed or pessimistic under the weight. (It is this fracture between father and son that gave rise to Iron John [Addison-Wesley, 1990], which vaulted Bly into celebrity, vastly extending the reach of his and others’ poetry—while it also brought inevitable, persistent, and mostly unfair caricature.) At the same time, his happy appreciation of family and friends continues apace. Since Loving a Woman in Two Worlds (Doubleday, 1985), Bly has been writing love poems for his wife, Ruth, and he continues to do so here. This is “The Teapot”:

That morning I heard water being poured into a teapot.
The sound was an ordinary, daily, cluffy sound.
But all at once, I knew you loved me.
An unheard-of thing, love audible in water falling.

Certainly Bly, who has admitted his early grandiosity, has a relatively newfound humility, an unabashed awareness of his shortcomings (something the ghazal, by allowing self-address, has enabled). For example: “You’ve put yourself / Ahead of others for years, a hundred years. / It will take a long time for you to hear the melody.” He frequently highlights his (feigned) cluelessness, as in “What Did We See Today?”:

Robert, I don’t know why you talk so confidently
About yourself in this way. There are a lot of shady
Characters in this town, and you are one of them.

While Bly’s verse has occasionally been abstruse, resistant to rational interpretation, such is less often the case now. But his eccentricity, with its regular quirks, is still in evidence. One is the growing fondness for repetition. The phrases “I don’t know why” and “it’s all right” pile up. While many readers will undoubtedly find this tiresome, irritating, cloying even, others will find his unashamed, self-assured, humble admissions and gentle reminders to be a great comfort. His seemingly incessant use of “hundreds” and “thousands,” delighting in abundance and uncertainty, belongs in the same boat. Bly’s more frequent expressions of whimsy are also means of saying “it’s all right” and “I don’t know why.” They too serve to remind us of the danger of arrogance and presumption.

Interspersed with these and other customary features, Bly writes about his own lateness. “Eighty years old, and still placing my feet / So hopefully each night on the ground.” Yes, there are limitations, increased forgetfulness among them. In “The Sense of Getting Older” he writes: “There’s no doubt winter is coming. /… / But my pen still moves freely / On this paper.” Bly has never shied away from the subject of death. In his essay “Wild Association,” he highlighted Lorca’s thoughts on duende, that sense of the presence of death: “when a poet has duende inside him, he brushes past death with each step, and in that presence associates fast. . . .” But now, in these later poems, the “merge,” the great mystery, truly is near. While Bly is a visionary, he has negative capability, is quite willing and able to live in the cloud of unknowing without fear, regret, or resignation. In “The Lost Trapper,” the ultimate concern arises from attention to minute particulars:

I don’t know why the grasshopper
Doesn’t try to wiggle
Out from the bird’s claw,
But he doesn’t move.

Just forget the idea that
Someone will come and save
You . . .

Furthermore, like D. H. Lawrence and Whitman, Bly is religious but undogmatic. He has always faithfully hewn to spiritual themes, secularized or not: the spirit of nature, religious energy wherever it manifests, his longing for union with the divine. One poem in The Kabir Book (Beacon Press, 1977) ends:

Kabir says this: When the Guest is being searched for,
It is the intensity of the longing for the Guest that does all the work.
Look at me, and you will see a slave of that intensity.

If anything, Bly’s longing seems only to have increased.

In this context of old age and spirituality, then, “heaven” seems to be the key image in this book. Bly has written about it many times, such as in “Tasting Heaven” (from Morning Poems [HarperCollins, 1997]): “…our gusty emotions say to me that we have / Tasted heaven many times: these delicacies / Are left over from some larger party.” Far from being a reward—a place in the promised land—limited to the righteous, heaven, in a Blakean or Buddhist way, is always a present possibility. But old age changes things, even if that change is almost imperceptible. “The old man lying in bed writing poems / Feels his brain light up, and he knows / That in some odd way he is approaching heaven.” (This is clearly the “new brain,” the neo-cortex, à la Bly’s essay “The Three Brains.”) And here is “The Roof Nail”:

A hundred boats are still looking for shore.
There is more in my hopes than I imagined.
The tiny roof nail lies on the ground, aching for the roof.
Some little bone in our foot is longing for heaven.

In four end-stopped lines, Bly sums up his longing for return. The acute awareness that this life is near its end—is there a “larger party” in store?—informs almost all of the poems in this book; thus they have an unprecedented poignancy and power.

As an artist, cultural figure, and personality, Bly achieved larger-than-life status a long time ago. His approach—both timely and untimely, worldly and otherworldly—is utterly distinctive, and resistant to most other contemporary strains of poetry. His style has not been static, exactly, but most of its persistent characteristics and patterns were established early. Even as he recapitulates old themes, his growth, his self-renewal, is clear in both form and content, as well as in his attention to sound. With a lately acquired tone of serenity, he is now almost an ascetic figure with, as Yeats put it, “an old man’s eagle mind” that “can pierce the clouds.”

The book closes, fittingly, with “What the Old Poets Failed to Say.” “Even though we know God lays our head / On the block, we thank him for it all . . .” It ends:

Night after night goes by in the old man’s head.
We try to ask new questions. But whatever
The old poets failed to say will never be said.

True enough. But in this book, Bly—fully conscious, alive to past, present, and the immeasurable future—has given us a testament, a portrait of the artist as an old man. Though entering his “winter world,” his “sweet fire” of inspiration is still burning brightly in this, a crowning achievement. From the vantage point of late evening, this poet may not live forever, but, inshallah, he has a thousand things more to say.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011

DEEPENING GROOVE


Ravi Shankar
National Poetry Review Press ($17.95)

by Ralph Pennel

Editor's Note: The book under review contains some poems originally published in Seamless Matter: Thirty Stills, a chapbook published by Rain Taxi's OHM Editions.

Ravi Shankar’s Deepening Groove reminds us that, “the more things change, the more they stay the same” . . . and that, of this notion, we are propagators of and victims both. Shankar’s poems are richly imbued with the simultaneous sensations of stasis and timelessness. We are reminded at once of our daily lives, of the history of those lives, and of the history of those whose lives we have followed. Deepening Groove is both map and legend, both fortune and ledger.

The title of the book is itself a reminder of the past and of the way forward. Deepening Groove, like a well-worn groove in a dirt path, elicits images of harder times, personally and evolutionarily, as well as our desire to put these times behind us. However, each moment we look back, the way to where we are is always the same and the grooves just that much deeper. We, much like the buzzards, wild turkeys, gators, and armadillos that inhabit Shankar’s collection, are indebted to ritual, inheritance, and instinct: our lives are as indebted to prehistory as are those of the creatures around us. This idea of inheritance and ritual is captured well in the poem “Primitives”:

Recall
that clusters of bird bones found buried with relics
are those of Gallus gallus—the domestic chicken.
Trace a chain of Y-chromosomes from the Upper
Paleolithic imagination to the rock walls scarred
with petroglyphs & handprints. To poems.

Though Shankar insists there is danger in reliving the historical trajectory of our lives, he simultaneously suggests that in reliving our lives we can best know ourselves. It is in this trajectory where honesty and perspective, necessary components of our humanity, are earned. The poems in Deepening Groove work ably to suspend the reader at this threshold of time, all at once looking back and gazing forward intently: “Suspended in this ephemeral moment / after leaving a forest, before entering / a field, the nature of reality is revealed.”

Shankar’s poems are subtle, often leaning on the Latin, and sometimes obsolete, roots of words to give rise to images and ideas that demand we honor their appropriated anachronistic use. Protandric, carunclesmephitisachondroplastic, all pull us through the grooves, all ask us to consider both their origins and the origins of that which they modify: oyster, wild turkey, skunk, armadillo.

Even the repeating form of most of the poems in this collection, four tercets of unchanging, uncompromising language, is a reminder of the deepening grooves, where each new poem inherits the form of the one before. But, like every evolutionary twist, every so often a new piece breaks form to give us hope of survival from “the human need to reenact / primal dramas / even when the act perpetuates a cycle of abuse,” and reminds us “that new forms can emerge to contradict the / suggestion / that survival is impossible without repetition.” (These lines, perhaps tellingly, are from “Plumbing the Deepening Groove,” the poem from which the book gleans its title.)

Ravi Shankar’s poems are, without question, powerful works of art, demanding our immediate attention.Deepening Groove is a book that serves well both to mark our time and light the way ahead.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011

THE LAST USABLE HOUR


Deborah Landau
Copper Canyon Press ($15)

by Nick DePascal

Deborah Landau’s second collection of poetry, The Last Usable Hour, is a sometimes beautiful, sometimes harrowing, sometimes disturbing love letter to a mysterious paramour who may be a person, or New York City, or both. The book’s four sections (each consisting of linked lyrical sequences under a single heading) track the emotional arc of the speaker’s seemingly doomed relationship with both the mysterious “someone” of the poems and the city in which she resides, from first blush to last goodbye. The intensity of the poems, found both in the potent imagery and language as well as the frank, emotional honesty of the content, makes the collection a compelling read.

Part of what impels the reader forward is Landau’s choice, to eschew punctuation for most of the collection. This lends the poems a rushed and breathless feel, and imbues them with a sometimes incantatory power, such as in the third section of the second sequence, entitled “Blue Dark”:

the night has no cracks
nothing haunts the highways
the president speaks
from the big lit screens
but he speaks to no one
all night the hudson river
runs blank and gray
beneath the window
for someone else to see
no one left in the city
no one left in the fields
no one coming no one going
I’m alone

This lack of punctuation, plus a preponderance of short lines throughout the collection, allows the poems to accrue energy, images building upon images, while keeping the poems mostly short so that this accrual doesn’t get bogged down in long, winding lines or overly complicated syntax and word choice. In fact, the structure of the poems, along with their simpler vocabulary, makes it clear that Landau’s aim was to evoke emotion rather than try to analyze or explain. In the poem above, the look of the poem on the page, the physical space it occupies, reinforces the loneliness of its haunting last image: that of the president prattling on to an absent audience. Furthermore, with the entire poem being a single stanza, the piling of images, and the short lines, the voice of the poem rises in a hypnotic way, as if the speaker of the poem is reciting a spell that brings forth this eerie cityscape.

This same strategy is put to different emotional use in many of the poems. In the fourth section of the third sequence, “Someone,” we see a deliberate use of stanzas to slow the poem down and infuse it with the anticipation that its content speaks to:

I wish you would

the view is river
the view is black
and a little beyond

and you
you is heavy
you is a slow tune

rough penciled
wool and silk sack
and the face of snow

how you come
and undo my clasp

Here, the short lines and stanzas beg the reader to savor the sensuality and tangibility of the images. And the word choices, the “heavy” and the “slow tune,” force the poem to a near halt before exploding into the release of that last stanza, that unhooking that promises abandon. The ability to construct a poem that accurately matches form to content, and that leads the reader down a particular path through style as much as the meaning of the actual words on the page, is a hard-won talent; here, Landau shows she is firmly in control of this ability.

Throughout, Landau’s language is spare to the point of seeming clipped and cut off, as if the speaker can’t be bothered to complete thoughts or sentences. Instead of seeming odd or distracting, this sparseness invites the reader to be enveloped by the poems, to experience them as sensuous and tangible worlds, as expressions of a deep and dark and troubled love, both for the teeming, ever-present metropolis and the absent lover who’s the cause of the collection’s feel of smashed oblivion. Ultimately, it’s this sense of being consumed or enveloped by the collection, by its beauty and depravity, that makes it such an engaging and memorable read.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011

LE SPLEEN DE POUGHKEEPSIE


Joshua Harmon
The University of Akron Press ($14.95)

by Donna Stonecipher

In his essay “Religion as a Cultural System,” the anthropologist Clifford Geertz differentiates between the four major perspectives human beings bring to the world: the religious, the scientific, the common-sense, and the aesthetic. When one views the world via the aesthetic perspective, he writes, “instead of questioning the credentials of everyday experience, one merely ignores that experience in favor of an eager dwelling upon appearances, an engrossment in surfaces, an absorption in things, as we say, ‘in themselves.’”

In Joshua Harmon’s second book of poems, Le Spleen de Poughkeepsie, there is an eager dwelling upon appearances, an engrossment in surfaces: the book is an enactment of Geertz’s aesthetic perspective on life as applied to the ugly—degraded, impure, deeply compromised—surfaces of Poughkeepsie, New York. Beauty, every aesthete’s object of desire, is an exhausted property in Poughkeepsie, a small American city that is home to Vassar and an IBM plant, compromised by the assaults of 20th-century material culture’s relentless pursuit of profit in all its forms. But whereas in the 1840s Charles Baudelaire wrote Le Spleen de Paris in stripped-down prose poems that served, in Walter Benjamin’s estimation, as a tacit acknowledgment of the end of the lyric, Harmon’s spleen goes in the opposite direction; in both free-verse and prose poem forms, he uses lyric’s heightened capacity for beauty to detail Poughkeepsie’s ugliness in defiantly beautiful formulations (e.g., “a diminishment / of light scrolls upward / like a screen flickering from overload or vast / swirls of starlings, errant e-mails caught in / a bramble of downed wires”).

As such, Le Spleen de Poughkeepsie is both marvelously dissonant and unapologetically a reclamation project, in which the possibility for beauty offered by poetry turns it into the only written mode that can both detail Poughkeepsie’s ugliness and triumph over it—however symbolic that triumph may be. The speaker of the poems is a kind of latter-day William Morris, who wrote, in “How I Became a Socialist” in 1894, “Apart from the desire to produce beautiful things, the leading passion of my life has been and is hatred of modern civilization.” Morris, founder of England’s Arts and Crafts movement, which was a direct response to the Industrial Revolution’s encroachments of dehumanizing ugliness, looked at life through the aesthetic perspective if anyone did, and his counterattack was gorgeousness, as is Harmon’s. Both diminish the subject: unlike in Baudelaire, where a speaking subject cries out from among the prose poems (most famously in the exhortation Enivrez-vous! [Get drunk]), the anger of the speaker in Harmon’s book seethes below the surface, its intensity felt far more in the warp and woof of the elegant textures of the poems than in any half-articulate cries. And fittingly so: capitalism has advanced 150+ years since Baudelaire’s encounter with it. Harmon is too smart to believe in the efficaciousness of any subjective self’s outcry.

In fact, there is a deep weariness at the heart of Le Spleen de Poughkeepsie, giving different valence to the title: whereas in Baudelaire the surprise of the not-beautiful English word “spleen” in the French title produced a kind of Benjaminian “shock” that acted as an analogue to the shocks offered by Paris’s new crowds and the Hausmannian restructuring of the city, in Harmon’s title the “shock” is shifted away from “spleen” and onto “Poughkeepsie,” and rests in the ungainliness of the word both as signifier (just ask a non-native speaker to try to pronounce it) and as signified—by what perverse species of bait-and-switch can the “capital of the nineteenth century” be replaced by this insignificant American city? And the wordspleen itself creaks under the tired weight of the recycled—it is linguistic material way past its shelf date, aged through a century and a half of weight in which the processes indicated by Baudelaire have only grown more oppressive.

Morris answered critics who called beauty morally suspect and mere decoration by making a case for beauty as in fact deeply moral, a means by which workers and craftspeople since the dawn of time have brought pleasure to their labor. While the speaker of Le Spleen de Poughkeepsie catalogues the ugliness in Poughkeepsie with a righteousness that has something of this moral fire about it, the book is rendered more problematic—and more interesting—by moments in which he acknowledges that aesthetics might, finally, reveal itself to possess no moral component at all, and that beauty can be as adaptable (and as opportunistic) as the starlings that nest in a neon O at the strip mall. In a pixelated world, new alloys might just have their own nightmarish beauty, and nature can’t help but be complicit in its own stymied eroticism: “meager sun gilds asphalt / briefly and slides out of sight as the furnace / kicks on again.” This stymied eroticism at the heart of the book is also linked to its weirdly depopulated landscape: there aren’t even any hookers on Hooker Avenue, and nowhere does the human offer any kind of solace or stimulation, for the total triumph of commodity fetishism has shifted all emphasis to things rather than people. The few people who do make appearances in the book can lay no claim to independent existence; they feel like the people in Hopper paintings, bystanders to their own lives, flattened out by processes mightier than themselves. Le Spleen de Poughkeepsie’s people are either vaguely threatening (boys who “bang bicycles against rocks / down power line washouts”) or more interested in the poems’ stuff than in the poet: “where an hour past checkout // the landlord collects / the television tipped into / weeds by the back door.”

Harmon is a master at inventing new species of degradation: what could be more degraded than “condominium oaks”? The bus shelter is not even made of glass, but of plexiglass. The goldenrod is browned, rust abounds, the balcony is concrete, “pink tufts of insulation [blow] across trampled grass.” The fantasy of a pure, non-degraded, originary nature isn’t likely to go away anytime soon, and perhaps will only intensify the more we degrade nature (if, of course, we agree there is any such thing). The pink tufts sure are pretty, but can they do the work of roses or peonies (or the native plants the roses and peonies replaced) in the semiotics of landscape? The starling watching from the neon O is doubly degraded, since, as is well known, starlings are non-native to the United States and were brought over by a Shakespeare enthusiast who knew not what he did, causing widespread ecosystem balance. Harmon, however, knows what he did and what we are all doing, despite ourselves. That all said, perhaps only an aesthete living in Poughkeepsie would find it so objectionable. But that is the poet’s argument for the aesthetic perspective, after all: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”

Each of Geertz’s weltanschauungen offers itself as the best possible response to the world. Le Spleen de Poughkeepsie, perhaps despite itself, makes a strong case for the aesthetic response as the most representative, as it reacts to the most immediate indication—the visibility—of the world’s flaws. When Harmon writes, in a prose poem, “What future’s not frightening?” one senses the fear is not personal, but is intended to serve as a reminder that, according to the aesthetic perspective, things are headed unstoppably in the wrong direction. That Harmon doesn’t offer us any road out of Poughkeepsie and the early 21st century’s advanced degradation, except for glimpses of “occasional disheveled beauty,” only cements the strength of his use of Poughkeepsie as a metaphor for processes that are unfolding globally, and that are indeed cause for alarm. At the very least, however, those who love beauty can be grateful that its beleaguered state has resulted in Harmon’s beautiful book.

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011

EITHER WAY I’M CELEBRATING: Poems and Comics


Sommer Browning
Birds, LLC ($16)

by Marcus Slease

Like Philip Whalen, whose poems all flow along on the same pitch, Sommer Browning displays a lightness of touch amidst multiple forms and approaches in her debut full-length book, Either Way I’m Celebrating. The heights are in the ephemeral, the world as it passes by moment to moment. For example, in “An Officer and a Gentleman,” Browning uses charades to create a meandering, funny, hypnotic, mind-bending poem. In another poem, “When Christopher died I didn’t believe it,” the suffering surrounding death is made even more poignant by the use of seemingly off-handed details:

the government told us we all had to get digital convertors for our
televisions, and then Dimitri died, and I was in my sister’s wedding,
then Jeff died, and I, I don’t know, then

Although the poem is full of people who died—perhaps Browning’s shout-out to another of her precursors, Ted Berrigan—it doesn’t lapse into sentimentality or banality, but rather shows how death happens in the middle of our daily lives.

Browning’s light touch comes through in her use of vernacular and her emphasis on surface, in the tradition of the New York School poets and artists. But it is more than a style, it is a whole approach, and it is everywhere in Either Way I’m Celebrating. Even the title suggests this. No matter what sorrows, pain, suffering may bring, Browning choses the direction of celebrating life in all its strangeness and suffering.

Surprise is also everywhere in Browning’s work, at almost every line break, in the images and juxtapositions, and in the multiple approaches to form. The serial poem “Vale Tudo” hits on this idea of multiple approaches to life/art/poetry. Vale Tudo is Portuguese for “anything goes,” and refers to an approach to fighting using any style of martial arts, an impure, non-style style. In much the same way, Browning’s approaches are impure and varied throughout the collection. “Vale Tudo” takes place in a hotel in Long Island. There is a strangeness in the ordinary here: toothpaste, pay-per-view, plants, continental breakfast, making love, documentaries, ultimate fighting, and shopping malls all feel eerie. The forms are various, from list poems to chatty conversational tidbits to minimalist masterpieces. There both is and isn’t a single “I” in the poem:

I am Alanis Morissette reading her diary. I am the inevitable
rupture in the Cuisenaire rods. I am a biography of doll
makers. I am quoting Cat Stevens. I am double breasting a
suit. I am renowned and sitting in the rain; my mother forgot
to pick me up. I am putting my hands on measurement and it
feels cold. But I’m cold.

Surprise and lightness are also abundant in Browning’s poetry comics. In the tradition of Kenneth Koch’sThe Art of the Possible: Comics Mainly Without Pictures, Glen Baxter’s quirky Trundling Grunts, and Joe Brainard’s infamous Nancy Book, Browning’s poetry comics delight again and again. Some of these poetry comics are political and quite a few are sexual— and sometimes they’re both. For example, in the fantastic “Barbie vs. Ken,” the two doll icons are reduced to the symbols and shapes of their genders. Or take these two untitled comics on opposite sides of the same page: one shows a pair of breasts descending to pick up a telephone receiver with its nipples; the other shows a male scrotum (complete with balls, penis, and pubic hair) descending to rest on a traffic cone. Both the traffic cone and telephone are technologies of communication, here sexualized with human body parts.

In another register, there’s a poetry comic with six panels of a foot kicking an object (from everyday objects like a table to famous structures like the Eiffel Tower or even abstractions such as Kant’s categorical imperative) while apologizing (e.g., “Sorry, Eiffel Tower”). Like all good humor, this has multiple layers. It seems a playful response to the old tale of Samuel Johnson kicking a stone in response to Bishop Berkeley’s idealism (the non-existence of matter/objects). Nothing is sacred here. Browning’s objects are re-contextualized, re-framed and re-energized in her poetry comics, and they re-matter.

Either Way I'm Celebrating is quirky, but it is not forced. There is a deep-seated intelligence here: awake, open, honest. Browning’s generosity of tone makes the collection, in Frank O’ Hara’s phrase, as exciting as the movies. Without grandiosity, but with deep wisdom, this collection brings us closer to 21st-century life, in the raw, and in the real.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011

WITTGENSTEIN’S ANTIPHILOSOPHY


Alain Badiou
translated by Bruno Bosteels
Verso ($24.95)

by Jeremy Butman

After a century of what some might call abuse—beginning with Nietzsche’s anti-Platonism and ending with Derrida’s deconstruction—in the figure of Alain Badiou philosophy has found a beneficent, avuncular spokesperson. His advocacy ranges from the polemical to the invocative, and his celebrated, grounding text, Being and Event(1988), is itself a testament to the powers still left to philosophy.

In his latest monograph, Wittgenstein’s Antiphilosophy, we are reminded, however, that Badiou’s definition of philosophy is limited. Indeed, for Badiou, much of what is called “philosophy” would be better called “antiphilosophy.” Antiphilosophy, Badiou says, aims to “situate the philosophical desire in its entirety in the register of the erroneous and the harmful,” and he refers us to Derrida, to Wittgenstein, to Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Pascal, St. Paul, and even Heraclitus, as examples of antiphilosophers.

What makes the thought of these figures anti-philosophical is their rejection of what Badiou considers the dominant thesis of philosophy: that Ideas, and truth, exist outside of “sense”; that is, that truth is not circumstantial or contingent.

To be sure, Plato’s life’s work was dedicated to the argument that the sensible realm is founded on the realm of Ideas, and not visa-versa—and Kant and Hegel largely affirm this. Antiphilosophers, according to Badiou, hold the opposite opinion: truth, to what extent it exists, arises from “sense.” As he says, “philosophy . . . holds that truths have no sense whatsoever, that they make a ‘hole’ in sense. It is the antiphilosopher who requires, for all truth, the previous condition of sense.” Most pernicious in the antiphilosophical position, Badiou maintains, is the “ability to despise mathematics, reducing it, in regard to what is morally serious and existentially intense, to a mere child’s game.” Given that the thesis ofBeing and Event is “ontology is mathematics,” Badiou has much at stake in this argument.

In the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein argues that metaphysical propositions are inherently “nonsensical.” For Wittgenstein, linguistic statements express truths only when they represent objects, or facts, in the world. A statement has meaning only if the names it employs refer to actual facts in the world. Thus, the statement, “the chair is on the floor,” is sensical because its names—“floor,” “chair”—refer to real objects, and the relation expressed (the one being-on the other) is testable against real “states of affairs.” On the other hand, a “philosophical” statement such as, “The Good is insensible,” is, for Wittgenstein, nonsensical—because “the Good” has no referent in the world. Mathematics is a similar play of names without referents (numbers have no real object they represent).

Badiou’s objection to the Tractatus rests on Wittgenstein’s assertion that the act of naming is not an act ofthinking. (Wittgenstein avers that mathematics and logic are not forms of thinking either.) In a characteristically interdisciplinary move, Badiou argues that Wittgenstein’s theory fails because it cannot account for the truth of, not mathematics, but poetry. If naming is not thinking, then poetry is not thinking, for poetry “is the creation of a name-of-being.” For Badiou, this certainly counts as thinking. And, if naming is included in thought, then so should mathematics be.

At least two things leap out at the reader of Wittgenstein’s Antiphilosophy. The first: that Badiou’s definition of the antiphilosopher is incomplete, and at times feels arbitrary or agenda-driven. The second: that Badiou fails to give a thorough defense of mathematics on the philosophical grounds that Wittgenstein’s attacks upon it demand.

On the first point, we might quibble that the entire philosophical tradition consists of the debate concerning the relation between the sensible and intelligible realms—between Parmenidean Being and Heraclitean Flux, Plato’s Transcendence and Aristotle’s Immanence, Rationalism versus Empiricism, Continental versus Analytic philosophy—and that to nominate one set of interlocutors in this debate “philosophers” and another “antiphilosophers” seems unnecessarily polemical.

To the second point, Badiou’s argumentation is sometimes frustrating. Occasionally he gives what amounts to a say-so argument concerning the ontological truths of mathematics and sometimes he gives compellingly descriptive ones. When he names, for example, the four types of mathematical theorems—of existence, of power, of decomposition, and of presentation—we are reminded of the elegance of his theory that mathematics is the language of Being, which determines the entirety of our experience as humans. Yet, while such descriptions are alluring, Badiou eschews here the metaphysical heavy lifting that is required to dismantle Wittgenstein’s argument convincingly.

At times, the tone of the work is regrettable—populated as often with moments of muted aggression as it is with thoughtful refutation—but one can understand the avuncular spokesman’s position: philosophy must not dissolve into anthropology, literary criticism, or cognitive science, and if this is to be prevented, Badiou is right that ontology must be better reconciled with the sciences. But it is equally important that philosophy not distance itself from its destructive habits, from its ability to question, and occasionally bring to ruin, our most basic assumptions about mathematics, metaphysics, or theology. This, more than any other, is the legacy of Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Pascal. It is the legacy not of Plato, but of Socrates. Badiou has worked to nurture philosophy, to bring it under his wing; in this new text, one sees that his shelter may be too small.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011

AFTER CANAAN: Essays on Race, Writing and Region


Wayde Compton
Arsenal Pulp Press ($18.95)

by Paula Koneazny

Canadian poet and spoken-word/turntable artist Wayde Compton's first collection of essays explores complicated issues of race, identity and language. Indeed, the conjunction of literary innovation and language of and about race is something Compton knows a great deal about. In fact, Wikipedia and Urban Dictionary credit Compton as having coined the terms Halfrican and Halfrican American in "Declaration of the Halfrican Nation," a poem included in his bookPerformance Bond (2004). Curiously, Rush Limbaugh, as well as other radio and TV personalities, embedded Halfrican in the American vernacular when they used it to describe Barack Obama during the 2008 U.S. presidential race.

In the book’s most trenchant essay, "Pheneticizing Versus Passing," Compton presents several case studies of racial misassignment (Black to Native, Native to Asian, Asian to White and White to Black) and uses these to investigate the meaning of and differences between passing ("deliberately misrepresenting oneself racially") and pheneticizing ("racially perceiving someone based on a subjective examination of his or her outward appearance"). Perhaps the most startling story is that of Anthony Ekundayo Lennon, a man of Irish heritage who, even as a child, was mistaken to be of "mixed-race," despite the fact that he has blue eyes and has never claimed to be anything but Irish. (With a twist of irony, one that Compton doesn't mention, Lennon's experience puts spin on the already ambiguous epithet "black Irish.") Among a group of actors, gathered to talk about "being black" in Britain, there is unanimous disbelief of Anthony's disclaimer that he is not black. Reactions range from anger to bemusement, and finally, an uneasy acceptance, based, it seems, upon the incontrovertible fact that Anthony "can't get white parts." All of Compton's case studies show race to be "a folk taxonomy; a pseudo-scientific demographic categorization system. Like a national border or literary genre, race is only as real as our current social consensus." When assigned through pheneticization, it's a trope; it always fails as science.

Shifting back-and-forth between poetry and prose, spoken-word, written-word, and acoustic performance, Compton treats the boundaries of artistic medium and literary genre as similarly porous. In "Turntable Poetry, Mixed-Race, and Schizophonophilia," he describes his goals for "The Reinventing Wheel" (a CD included as part of Performance Bond):

1. To make the voiced poem an art-object, outside of my body.
2. To change the trajectory of standard spoken word performance: rather than performing from the body, to let the body perform upon the work. (When I handle one of the dub plates, my fingers touch a physical impression of my voice.)
3. To view my own poem as an external or found sample, and even as an object of détournement.

When this subversive process is successful, it generates new meanings as well as fresh understandings of old ones. Art and literature relinquish essence for something richer and more complicated. Race and class must undergo the same demystification and reconfiguration. As the author explains in "Pheneticizing Versus Passing," "If there is no metaphysical definition of race, as Anthony's Derridian blackness seems to prove, then there is no means to measure or stabilize it. Depending upon your depth of investment in race as a notion, this is either frightening or freeing."

"Seven Routes to Hogan's Alley and Vancouver's Black Community," one of Compton’s more Vancouver-centric essays, is sited in, can be sighted in (there are visual elements), and cites a particular neighborhood, a three or four block area in the East End/Strathcona section of Vancouver. Despite this more parochial point of view, many of the author's observations about his project of "cultural recovery" can arguably be applied to other locations and instances of artistic production, historical documentation and cultural memorialization. Photos of the Hogan's Alley Memorial Project's installation, in conjunction with the Vancouver Flower Brigade, of a sign "Hogan's Alley Welcomes You" spelled out as "floral graffiti" on a strip of green space below a highway viaduct, follow and complete the essay. This record of what may be a transgressive act of neighborhood beautification recalls an earlier series of photos Compton staged of make-believe historical sites, "Lost-Found Landmarks of Black Vancouver" (Performance Bond). Referring to that earlier work, he says that the "photographic section is, as far as I am concerned, a poetic device." History and metaphor cross over one other as the Hogan’s Alley photos now record a real, albeit transitory or seasonal, landmark.

The overriding themes in Wayde Compton’s poetry, performance art, and academic and theoretical writing are hybridity and border crossing. In the Introduction to After Canaan, he says that "looking to the margins rather than the centres has a unique value" because on the periphery "where there are fewer local expectations of what 'the black experience' ought to be, radical experiments of identity can be tried" and "new systems of thought against racism might be expected to emerge." These essays are, first and foremost, essays of ideas rather than style, and Compton’s ideas are always fresh and often downright exhilarating.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011

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