Tag Archives: fall 2012


Varley O’Connor
Scribner ($25)

by Erin Lewenauer

Varley O’Connor’s dynamic and remarkable portrait of Tanaquil “Tanny” Le Clercq investigates the cost of being a muse. The novel, O’Connor’s fourth, follows the interior life of Tanny, a student at the School of American Ballet who quickly ascends to principal dancer for the New York City Ballet by age twenty-three and marries its artistic director, George Balanchine, becoming his fifth wife. Tanny reflects, “I think I responded to George so profoundly because he taught me how dancing took us beyond our own little selves . . . Ballet linked us to other cultures and other times, through its history. And as living dancers, we carried the past into the future.”

Tanny’s narration follows her relationship with dance and Balanchine, echoing the autobiographies of other dancers, and her voice vacillates between irritatingly prim and wildly confessional. Any whimsical moments are quickly balanced by a cruel or unflinching thought. In 1956, while touring with the company, Tanny contracts polio and finds she will never walk again. The disease moves her from a life of fame to a life of privacy, and her understanding of her loss is vivid: “One day I was able to sit up enough for a full view of my legs—my legs, which had been able to squeeze men to death, turn a floor into a Stradivarius, conquer Balanchine’s wickedly fast pas de cheval, the horse step straight up onto pointe. My legs: my weapons, my wings.”

To add insult and isolation to serious injury, Balanchine has numerous affairs, yet Tanny’s love and even lust for him is persistent. Her husband’s dalliances and the disease, however, divide and organize Tanny’s life into something new. On a trip to the theater she notices “the work of getting there—the time to dress, the station wagon with room for the chair, how my muscleman hoisted me, like a sack of potatoes, for the transfer to the car, how we’d do it again at the theater, discreetly from a back entrance, and go up with the chair in the freight elevator . . . Now there was time for everything: the fascination of the ballet itself, flowers, love, how the days opened out long and bright like a scarf.” She constructs her identity around her new circumstances, but her core—her beauty, vanity, and spirit—remains.

Balanchine’s obsession with Suzanne Ferrell marks the end of his marriage to Tanny. Of Suzanne, Tanny says, “I dreamed her before I saw her. I dreamed of being inside a house burning down.” Of Balanchine, “He had always been interested in the lives of young girls, in their problems, hair, clothes, the aches and pains of their young bodies from what he asked them to do. They were his material.” And yet, Tanny’s spirit continues to transform and expand. She writes several books, including a book for children and a cookbook, and begins a new career of teaching which presents her with new challenges.

The Master’s Muse is intensely lyrical; Tanny’s bottomless voice travels like the mind, skimming and diving into her tormented psychology. Furthermore, the book is populated with familiar characters of the dance world of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. In dialogue with Tanny, these characters all tell their own stories through episodes of their lives. Tanny too, often speaks in insightful vignettes, revealing much in a single paragraph. The collection of small details and large stories build an evocative and memorable atmosphere of the dance world.

A novelization of real-life figures is always risky business, even when its subjects have passed away; O’Connor’s biggest success is that she seems to channel Tanny, writing into her life rather than over it. Of course, while O’Connor follows the basic structure and known facts of Tanny and surrounding characters’ lives, the rest is a skillful fabrication. And in this imagining, we can learn from Tanny’s life despite the fact that she never wrote an autobiography.

Perhaps most importantly, O’Connor’s graceful and dense prose, which often mirrors the intricacies of dance itself, traps a reader in Tanny’s mind as she herself was trapped when her body failed her. In a sense, Tanny embodies and redefines power, glamour, grace, and romance as she tells her story; she was a dancer inside and out. Tanny concludes, “I wrote down what dancing had taught me and what I still believed: that chaos could be mastered, life and ourselves made capable of order, and that order and beauty could be one.” O’Connor has opened a portal into the elusive world of dance and the mind of an artist.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012


Kim Stanley Robinson
Orbit ($15.99)

by William Alexander

Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 is a love story and a solar-system-spanning travelogue. It performs magnificently in both roles.

The book is also a synthesis of “hard” and “soft” science fiction, one that engages with the most haunting and important questions poised by both genres. “Hard SF” is based solidly on “hard” sciences; works based on social and anthropological sciences are usually labeled “soft.” But Robinson’s novel refuses to choose sides. Its concerns include quantum physics, speciation, artificial intelligence, terraforming techniques, and the logistics of massive engineering projects; it is equally concerned with utopian visions, their practical applications, the social consequences of artificial intelligence, and the lived experience of people who enjoy fluid gender identities—the latter furthering the science fictional conversation begun by two classics of the genre, Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness and Delany’s Trouble on Triton.

2312 is a thriller, too, but this aspect stays mostly in the background. While vast conspiracies are investigated and entire planets are threatened, the story doesn’t concern itself with cheap thrills, manipulative suspense, or short-term dangers; it plays a much longer game, and a far more rewarding one. When characters we care about find themselves in life-threatening circumstances the action slows down rather than speeds up, and the results are viscerally effective.

But among all the enduring questions, conversations, and plotlines in 2312, the bits of this book that will haunt readers the most are the love story and the travelogue.

In Robinson’s world, humanity has spread throughout our solar system, making homes in environments as diverse as the nightside of Mercury and the moons of Saturn. Swan, one of the two protagonists, is an artist and an architect from Mercury. Her home planet suggests an important character trait: she begins the novel as a messenger, carrying letters which cannot be entrusted to any electronic data stream and must therefore be delivered in person. She takes on the role of Mercury by bearing messages between planets—and therefore between Greco-Roman gods. Swan is also mercurial: protean, impulsive, and changeable.

Wahram, our other protagonist, is a diplomat from Saturn. True to his planet, he is saturnine, and, to a certain extent, Saturn himself. He is obsessed with time, repetition, and iteration, which manifests in his musical tastes and his problem-solving strategies. Wahram is orderly in contrast to Swan’s mercurial wildness, and the two of them together are able to accomplish far more than either could separately.

This mythological game is more than clever symbolism. It might be a complex response to facile, gendered stereotyping (men from Mars, women from Venus) in Robinson’s post-gender solar system. It is certainly a pleasurable trail of breadcrumbs for navigating through the thoughts and perceptions of two perfectly realized characters. Either Swan or Wahram’s point of view would have been rich enough to fill an ambitious novel; taken together, the emotional and intellectual achievement of their combined perspectives is almost overwhelming.

Through Swan and Wahram’s travels the reader explores and experiences the settled solar system. If you stayed up late to watch NASA’s Curiosity Rover land on Mars, then take a moment now to remember the glowing, awe-struck faces of everyone in the control room when the first images came through. Reading descriptions of settings in 2312 feels pretty much like that—descriptions such as the opening pages’ portrayal of sunrise on Mercury: “The sun is always just about to rise. Mercury rotates so slowly that you can walk fast enough over its rocky surface to stay ahead of the dawn; and so many people do.”

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012


Carole Maso
Counterpoint ($26)

by Laura Winton

Carole Maso’s work to date has been characterized by a lush, almost otherworldy writing, a style in which the reader experiences everything more deeply—the beauty of the world as well as heartbreak and longing. On top of this, her writing constantly folds back on itself. Maso’s work often goes off into what seem to be tangents, yet as soon as you go with her down a path, she will lead you (sometimes gently, sometimes forcefully) back to the previous idea, braiding stories together.

While still stylistically a triumph, Maso’s latest book is grounded in our political and historical moment; rarely has the author used as many current references as in Mother and Child. This book deals with a number of entangled themes, including issues surrounding rites of passage, as well as the process of letting go of your children and of your own childhood. But tied up with those themes are also references to September 11th, the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, the devastating tsunami in Indonesia, and more. How does one hang on to own hope and innocence?

The mother did not know why everything had to change—she just knew that it did. Things were changing even though they seemed not to be, and they would continue to change now at a faster and faster rate.

This is a world familiar to us, a world in which men and boys are spoken of as “disappearing.” We know what is happening to them and yet, somehow, we do not. One day they are here and the next day, they are gone. In the natural world, the bees are also disappearing and the frogs are losing their songs; the polar ice caps are melting and the ever-present threat of extinction looms large. It is the Time of the Funnels, when the Vortex Man rules. The world feels downright apocalyptic:

Inert objects were quietly being transformed into talismans of obtuse meaning and beauty . . . Liquid glass and steel beams from the fallen towers were being fused into safety walls and fallout shelters . . . A pocket watch, a tattoo, a love letter, a birth certificate, a passport were all playing their parts. The everyday dreamers were reviving and reanimating the scene. Meanwhile, as they sat cataloguing the inhabitants, an ominous announcement was made over the loudspeakers. A quarantine had been placed on the Valley. No one was to leave the attic.
The influenza had arrived.
Outside, birds dropped from the sky.

With these things setting the backdrop for a seeming end-of-days tale, which corresponds with the girl’s coming of age, Maso suggests that magic and mythology provide a counterpoint. She brings together biblical language and archetypal imagery, knowing how the power of myth can both frighten and sustain us. Even the most ordinary things are spoken of as if they are transformed:

Paraded before them was all of life. Enigmatic emblems streamed past as the mother and child walked, but they were not afraid. In the place called the Night Archive, Inventory of some kind was being taken, and things were being summed up, accounted for, tallied. Piled to the ceilings were logbooks and ledgers and bibles: the Hair Bible, the Bird Atlas, the Red Book of Existence.

Likewise, many of the characters become archetypes, includig the eponymous mother and child, the child’s North Pole Grandmother, her friend, the Girl with the Matted Hair, and the ever-present Virgin in her blue wrap, gently calling to the mother and child and patiently waiting for them to come to her. This is a story told from a mother’s point of view, and replete with classic mother figures:

The more mindful mother got the less mindful mother to thinking of Other Mothers and Mother Substitutes and As-If Mothers, ones who might guide the child through fraught terrain. An As-If Mother would come in handy too, in the event something ever happened to this one.

The mother, like all archetypal mothers, takes in everything around her, including war and church scandals and all the things that threaten childhood and innocence, whipping us back into our present reality:

The Pope appears again on the tarmac of Andrews Air Force Base and is met by the War Crimes President. They are accompanied by the millions of children they have put in harm’s way, both grown and ungrown, both alive and dead, and also the many who are somewhere between the two.

In this back-and-forth, the mother finds herself struggling to balance her own pessimism and fear toward the world with the need to protect the child and the child’s sense of wonder and possibility:

She walked to the child’s room and smoothed her hair and pushed a few tendrils away from her face. That night, sitting there on the child’s bed, she vowed that come spring, she would do whatever it took to keep the child safe.

With that innocence and optimism, there manages to be a measure of hope in everything, but it is a hope tempered with the knowledge that things could turn at any moment, that things can still go horribly wrong. This is the ambivalence of our time, and Maso captures it perfectly, in a way that reminds us of our fragility as a species, and also of our imaginative power to put things right. In the end, there is no answer, but there is still hope. As the author puts it, “It was enough to be adorned in the charms of twilight. It was enough to be alive.”

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012


edited by Bhisham Bherwani
Atlanta Review ($8)

by Graziano Krätli

In 1963, the prominent Bengali writer and critic Buddhadeva Bose voiced some speculation as to why Indians, “who have always had a firm poetic tradition in their own languages," attempt to write verse in English. Like others at the time (but more derogatorily than most), Bose used the term “Indo-Anglian” to distinguish Indians writing in English from Anglo-Indian (i.e., British) writers like Kipling, concluding that “Indo-Anglian poetry is a blind alley, lined with curio shops, leading nowhere.” Printed in The Concise Encyclopaedia of English and American Poets and Poetry, edited by Stephen Spender and Donald Hall, Bose’s statement caused a heated controversy in India, where a younger generation of poets was forging a new poetic language and canon from the idiom of their former rulers, at the same time distancing themselves from both the Anglophiliac ambitions of the Bengali Renaissance and the Anglophobic attitudes of the nationalist movement.

Four decades later, another prominent Bengali writer and critic, Amit Chaudhuri (born the year before Bose’s rant), acknowledged, “Some of the best writing in English in India is being done by poets.” Between these two antipodes unfolds the rich and variegated landscape of contemporary Indian poetry in English. Not a “blind alley” for sure, and certainly not “lined with curio shops, leading nowhere,” but rather a large—and largely urban—avenue, marked by manifold voices, significant milestones, and a canonical sense of tradition.

Such a landscape has been explored thoroughly over the past fifty years by several anthologies, from P. Lal’s Modern Indian Poetry in English: An Anthology & Credo (1969), an emphatic yet overinclusive reaction to Bose’s statement, to Jeet Thayil’s 60 Indian Poets (2008), published simultaneously in the United Kingdom as The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets(with twelve more poets), and distributed in the United States. Part of Thayil’s anthology had appeared in the 2005 issue of Fulcrum: an annual of poetry and aesthetics published in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as “Give the Sea Change and It Shall Change: Fifty-Six Indian Poets,” the reading of which prompted Chaudhuri’s statement quoted above. While other U.S. literary magazines had published “Indian poetry” issues over the years, Thayil’s selection was too comprehensive and ambitious not to anticipate an anthology in book form. It was also too inclusively, if not trendily, focused on younger and diaspora poets.

This cannot be said of The Poetry of India, Bhisham Bherwani’s terse and incisive anthology of fifty-four poems by “twenty-one modern and contemporary resident Indian poets,” which forms the better part of the Spring/Summer 2012 issue of the Atlanta Review. A talented poet himself, Bherwani is also a fine connoisseur of poetry with a sound academic background and good literary connections in India and the United States.

In applying clear and rigorous criteria to his selection, he follows in the tracks of previous poets-editors, whose anthologies contributed to the definition of a canon for contemporary Indian poetry in English. Unlike most of his predecessors, however, Bherwani limits his selection to poets who live or lived in India, thus excluding such established names as Meena Alexander (b. 1951), Aga Shahid Ali (1949-2001), Sujata Bhatt (b. 1956), G.S. Sharat Chandra (1935-2000), R. Parthasarathy (b. 1934), and Saleem Peeradina (b. 1944), as well as many, if not most, representatives of the younger generation, who, like Bherwani himself, live and work in the United States or Western Europe. (The only exception is A.K. Ramanujan, who spent his entire adult life as an academic in the United States, but whose absence would automatically demote any collection of Indian poetry, in English or otherwise.)

Even so, The Poetry of India manages to cover three generations of poets without screaming omissions or questionable inclusions. The first—and most exhaustive—group consists of poets born in the last two decades of British rule: Nissim Ezekiel (1924-2008), Jayanta Mahapatra (b. 1928), A.K. Ramanujan (1929-93), Kamala Das (1934-2009), Arun Kolatkar (1932-2004), Dilip Chitre (1938-2009), Keki Daruwalla (b. 1937), Dom Moraes (1938-2004), Adil Jussawalla (b. 1940), Eunice de Souza (b. 1940), and Gieve Patel (b. 1940).

The second group includes poets born in the first decade of Independence: Arvind Krishna Mehrotra (b. 1947), Bibhu Padhi (b. 1951), E.V. Ramakrishnan (b. 1951), Rukmini Bhaya Nair (b. 1952), Manohar Shetty (b. 1953), and C.P. Surendran (b. 1959); while the younger generation is represented by just four names: Menka Shivdasani (b. 1961), Jerry Pinto (b. 1966), Arundhathi Subramaniam (b. 1967), and the Indian-born, Tibetan activist Tenzin Tsundue (b. ca. 1975), whom Pankaj Mishra has called “the new and most visible face, after the Dalai Lama, of the Tibetan exile community.” His inclusion (to my knowledge, the first in an anthology of this kind) adds a militant edge to the landscape of contemporary Indian poetry, something that it seems to have progressively lost since the 1970s.

This multi-generational span naturally lends itself to a chronological arrangement, which is the approach a less original editor would have taken. Instead, Bherwani avoids common criteria (chronological as well as geographical) and juxtaposes original poems and translations to reveal subtle affinities and intimate relationships, all otherwise difficult, if not impossible, to perceive and appreciate. This is the case, for example, of Tenzin Tsundue’s “Betrayal” and Nissim Ezekiel’s “Commitment,” confronting each other on the issue of commitment (or loyalty) and betrayal often being two sides of the same coin. Or Ezekiel’s autobiographical account of growing up a Jew among Roman Catholics, Muslims, and Hindus (from “Background, Casually”), facing “The Ambiguous Fate of Gieve Patel, He Being neither Muslim nor Hindu in India,” a bitter, satirical poem on religious hate and violence on the Subcontinent. More intriguing, perhaps, is how translation as poetry (or vice versa) is first introduced as a diptych represented by Jayanta Mahapatra’s version of a poem by his Oriya contemporary, Bhanuji Rao (b. 1926-2001), coupled with his own “At the Summer Palace of Tipu Sultan, Seringapatam.” This is followed by three poems from Ramanujan’s posthumous collection The Black Hen(1995), the last of them (“Love 4: what he said to his daughter”) virtually introducing a selection from The Interior Landscape (1967), Ramanujan’s groundbreaking translation of classical Tamil poetry. Juxtaposition invites comparison and contrast, and here as elsewhere in The Poetry of India the reader is constantly confronted with thematic correspondences and relationships in poems that otherwise show very different interpretive and stylistic approaches.

The inclusion of contemporary English versions of poems originally composed in classical and modern Indian languages, and the significant amount of space allotted to them, constitutes perhaps the most original and defining editorial criterion of this anthology. So much for another of Buddhadeva Bose’s peculiar claims: that “poetry translated into English from the modern Indian languages does not constitute English poetry written by Indians.” On the contrary, any reader familiar with Ramanujan’s translations from classical Kannada and Tamil poetry, Mehrotra’s versions from the second century Prakrit of the Gāthāsaptaśatī, or Dilip Chitre’s and Arun Kolatkar’s renditions of Marathi religious poets (all finely sampled here), would certainly recognize and appreciate this poetry’s striking, innovative style, its fresh and modernizing interpretive approach, and its achievement as Poetry per se. In fact, there is no doubt that translation has played a fundamental and unique role in the creation of a distinctly Indian poetic language—and canon—in English during the second half of the twentieth century. Yet this role has never been seriously acknowledged, or even addressed, by any of the anthologies published so far (perhaps as a consequence of a lingering, Bose-like prejudice against translation, and poetry translation in particular), and Bherwani should be given credit for changing the attitude in this regard.

Over the past two decades, a number of anthologies of contemporary Indian poetry have been distributed in the United States (Thayil’s being the most recent one), yet only a couple actually originated with an American house. One, Contemporary Indian Poetry, edited by the Bangladeshi poet and critic Kaiser Haq (Ohio State University Press in 1990), is twenty years old. The other, Indivisible: An Anthology of Contemporary South Asian American Poetry (The University of Arkansas Press, 2010), is described by its editors—Neelanjana Banerjee, Summi Kaipa, and Pireeni Sundaralingam—as “the first anthology to showcase American poets whose ancestral roots lie in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka”—though this begs the question, what constitutes an “American” poet? A natural-born or naturalized citizen, a permanent resident, or someone who is simply living in the United States? For different reasons, neither of these two U.S.-born anthologies fills the gap that an expanded, book-length version ofThe Poetry of India would naturally fill, thanks to its sensible selection criteria and Indian focus. While the appetite of the literary markets for Indian authors keeps growing, this little anthology obviously deserves wider exposure, deeper attention, and a longer life than any literary magazine can guarantee.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012


Lew Welch
City Lights ($17.95)

by Maria Damon

Making things with words—that is what Lew Welch did. Early in his career, recently graduated from Reed College (where his friends were the poets Philip Whalen and Gary Snyder), he worked in advertising. The famously laconic and extremely effective four-word slogan “Raid Kills Bugs Dead” is attributed to him, though it is possible that, had he lived long enough to experience the global ecological awakening, he would have regretted lending his brilliance to a pesticide that has deleterious side effects for human and other species’ health.

On either side of that apocryphal bit of notoriety, Welch wrote poetry, struggling to get the sound—“American speech” in the tradition of William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg, the Black Mountain and Beat poets, and so forth—to sync up just right with “Mind,” which, according to the poetics statement that comprises the last entry in this new edition of Ring of Bone, must always be “One.” Indebted to the Buddhism that entered the popular culture of the U.S. West Coast in the 1950s (the practice had long been extant there because of large numbers of Asian immigrants but really emerged into mainstream culture after World War II), this concept nods to a universalism, a kind of “ultimate reality” that then expresses itself in the particulars of immanent conditions—historical realities of time, place, individual sensibility, and other contingent circumstances. As Welch succinctly puts it in his explication of “Mind is shapely. Art is shapely,” an unattributed Kerouac aphorism, “Mind is always One, but it is always easier to see how that is if you look at a particular place and time. You see how shapely it is.”

The aphorisms “Raid Kills Bugs Dead” and “Mind is always One” bracket Welch’s life in dynamic and ultimately tragic tension. Though clearly not impervious to the beauties of the world and its spiritual riches, Welch struggled with mental illness and alcoholism for most of his life. In May 1971, he left the rustic shack he’d been living in and walked off into the woods with his dog and his revolver, leaving a suicide note. His body was never found. The mystique that has accrued around him has not necessarily been matched by attention to his work, though Ring of Bone has been in print, albeit sporadically, since the legendary Donald Allen edited and published it through his Four Seasons Foundation in 1973. This fortieth-anniversary expanded edition features a new foreword by Gary Snyder, Welch’s former college roommate and longtime poetic and philosophical kindred spirit; the final poetics essay quoted above, which Welch had intended as part of a textbook for a University of California extension course he regularly taught for several years; and a biographical timeline that includes key poetic, professional, and personal phases in the poet’s life.

Welch’s poetry bristles with earnest desire to live a fully unalienated life; in his preface, Welch refers to the book as a “spiritual autobiography.” The continuing passage is worth quoting at length, as it exemplifies the desire for integration, the seriousness that characterized Welch’s commitment to poetry as a linguistic vehicle for urgent insight:

The mind grows in a flickering kind of way. Sometimes an insight comes too early to be fully understood. At other times, we are shocked that it came, being so obvious, so late. . . .
The shape of Ring of Bone is circular, or back and forth. Naturally such a form never ends. The principal characters are The Mountain, The City, and The Man who attempts to understand and live with them. The Man changes more than The Mountain and The City, and it appears he will always need both.

Clearly Welch considered writing an integral element in personal development, which task he approached, like Whalen and Snyder, with a heavy Buddhist influence (Snyder’s studies of Zen in Japan are well-known, and Whalen became a Zen monk in 1973 and went on to head several important monasteries). At the same time, the influences of American imagism (via Ezra Pound) and a commitment to the everyday both linguistically and thematically (from William Carlos Williams) meant that process was balanced with sharpness of aperçu and acute necessity of utterance–nothing superfluous, nothing casual. The everyday is a portal to the “One.”

The poem usually referred to as “Ring of Bone” (actually untitled and listed as “[I Saw Myself]”) showcases a metaphysics that turns the body itself into a sacred space that is also a process, a noun that is also a verb:

I saw myself
a ring of bone
in the clear stream
of all of it

and vowed,
always to be open to it
that all of it
might flow through

and then heard
“ring of bone” where
ring is what a

bell does

The poem has the power of a synesthetic vision in which the self is continuous with, or a vessel for, “the clear stream / of all of it” and simultaneously an expression thereof, a sonic representation that responds to impulse and flow like Coleridge’s Aeolian harp, fully immersed in a being / doing that is inseparable from every other being / doing. At the same time, the poem presages a death in which a body’s tissue has disappeared, leaving only the bones at the bottom of a shallow stream. The configuration of the bones affects the stream’s flow, but in ways completely beyond the control or volition of the subject.

One traditional Buddhist meditation, the purpose of which is to overcome attachment and understand impermanence, is to visualize one’s dead body decomposing, rotting away to bone, the bone dissolving into dust, etc. Welch takes this as far as he can, yet reserves a special role for the poet so that the bone can be a bell—a functioning, music-making part of the social and natural world. Like that bell, Welch’s work posthumously sounds its contradictions, its urgent seeking with moments of insight, its great attachments to romantic love, drink, camaraderie, language, and intellect, and its unachieved apotheosis as the expression of an untroubled, unified subject.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012


Stephen Motika
Alice James Books ($15.95)

by Gillian Conoley

Stephen Motika’s first full-length collection, Western Practice, sets itself firmly at the edge of a tradition of Western American innovation: the book’s two sections begin with epigrams by Lyn Hejinian and Leslie Scalapino, the poem “Night, in the Oaks” is dedicated to David Bromige, and early on appears a long majestic poem about the great innovator / composer Harry Partch, who created the microtonal scale and lived a peripatetic, cosmopolitan hobo / bohemian life (including an encounter with Yeats), which Motika maps beautifully in “Delusion’s Enclosure: On Harry Partch (1901-1974).”

One of the many pleasures of Western Practice is the honor Motika, who was born in Santa Monica but now lives in New York, pays to his claimed antecedents and lineage, creating nothing short of a history of the “outside” artist in the American West and western hemisphere: Raymond Chandler, Art Pepper, Ginsberg / Kerouac / Cassady, Yves Klein, Ed Keinholz, David Hammons, Allan Kaprow, John Cassavetes, Sophie Rummel and “Duchamp in gracious-ladied Pasedena” are just a few who find mention in “City Set: Los Angeles Years.” In this long poem spanning the history of art activity in LA from 1955-1977, Motika displays a humility before the practice of his forebears:

Jazz days, we saw Mingus, day before last in tan trench, coasts and cats, Art Pepper walking hills, hilling in, tel-, phone polls, long boots, to take . . . mystery . . . all low rides. fuller life, all this, full, instant, theater, a “now” gallery working, knowing now.

The title “Western Practice” comes to mean not only an artist working on the fringes, but also quite literally outside: outdoors. The Harry Partch poem ends: “I went outside. I’m still going outside.” Throughout the book the natural world is as strong and wily a presence as anything happening indoors, a given of life in California:

the scene was in the center of the road; I left it & sat on the curb.

the currying of fruit picked from trees, passion fruit vines spilling through the window.

the words of our mouths.

Part of the thrill of the read is watching Motika, out of this formidable treasure trove of antecedents, set off on his own course, which he does starting on page one, shifting registers of tone and intent and locale as he dives into several layers of consciousness:

early hour, resistant to time, an arrival. people out of rooms and gathered, four now, to eat. with florist at table, a dining out & bowl of dahlias.

expect to be nervous in the beginning.

underground, underwater.

I meant to burrow under it and sleep.
(from “Night, in the Oaks”)

The book opens to a series of poems that feel mapped, scattering across the page like newly discovered tide pools made with an athleticism and grace and sometimes hard-edged juxtaposition in which one experiences a kind of sifting for gold / sensuality / thought in a work that clearly grounds itself in a love of body (both physical and aesthetic) and texture. In “Near Los Osos,” we read:

thistle, sanicle,
rewards, post office, bed in church,
travel Crespi’s footsteps, dry creeks,
salt water, spilled petals chewed, a gnashing sensation, beauty marks and hair clips,
vertical sensations
blue crisp
night cast
into still

In Motika’s practice, the page is the measure, or canvas, or scored-up sheet music he teaches us to scan or read or trust as if we are going on a difficult hike with an experienced hiker. An excavator, archeologist, paleontologist, cartographer, poet interested in linguistics and representation—in how things might look and say—Motika stays true to his interest in practice, in the processural, both in art and in life, making a poetry where we can “crawl inside & lie down against the future” in a world where we still roam and look, “aching for something mythical.”

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012


Natalie Diaz
Copper Canyon Press ($16)

by James Naiden

For 102 pages, Natalie Diaz stretches poems into visual shapes, working with the left and right margins as well as the center of the page. This writhing ramps up with anger directed at the culture Diaz was born into, which her parents and brother barely survived. Armed with a new perspective she gained while attending college, playing professional basketball, and earning a graduate degree, she returned to her roots with a new purpose: to rescue the Mojave language. In Surprise, Arizona, Diaz worked with her tribal elders to see past the dire circumstances defining the region—such as alcohol and drug abuse that affected her brother, whence the book’s title—as well as trying to convince her peers that education and entrepreneurship are a road out of poverty. It’s a big project, and so this is an ambitious first collection of poems.

At her best, Diaz uses the poetic line much as an expert fencer to strike the mark precisely, with disciplined use of metaphor and occasional “language dropping”—using non-English quotations as referents from poem to poem. Her gifts are on display in the first strophe of “Reservation Grass”:

We smoke more grass than we ever promise to plant.
Our front yards are green and brown, triangles of glass—What is the
—emeralds and garnets sewed like seeds in the dirt.
The shards of glass grow men bunched together—multitudes—men larger
than weeds and Whitmans, leaning against the sides of houses—
dance with the dancers and drink with the drinkers—upon dirt not

In reading any good writer, one learns new words and concepts. About halfway through the book is “Formication” or the sensation of insects or snakes running over or into the skin. This is one of her brother’s after-effects from drug addiction:

We are too weak to say the word intervention.
When my brother nods off, I write it on his arms and face in cursive
with invisible ink—No one wants to embarrass him.
You shouldn’t embarrass him, my mom says,
Understand he’s a grown man. He won’t stand there
while you embarrass him. But I’m embarrassed.
I can’t understand. Why are we all just standing here
while he tears the temple to pieces?

There are fiercely allusive poems here, with erudite references and caustic insights alternating with lyricism, akin to a dancer’s grace in parallel with a timeless musical score. Diaz sometimes includes too much, and does not always discipline her focus: Christianity, Spanish heritage, Anglo culture and its arbitrary laws, drug abuse and self-indulgence—the milieu she depicts with both authority and sudden delicacy. To say this is a strong book is a truism. That it’s Natalie Diaz’s first collection augurs well for her literary future, at least, and for the rest of us as readers , appreciators of this terrifying art—making poems when the immediate surroundings may be discouraging. One is eager to read more.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012


Samuel Amadon
Cleveland State University Poetry Center ($15.95)

by Chris Vola

Unbeknownst to many, Hartford enjoys one of the richest and longest literary traditions of any American city. Connecticut’s capital was the longtime home and workplace of Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe, and served as a major formative influence for later poets and writers like Wallace Stevens and Dominick and John Gregory Dunne. Its pastoral grace caused Twain to remark, “Of all the beautiful towns it has been my fortune to see [Hartford] is the chief . . . You do not know what beauty is if you have not been here.” Now far removed from its zenith as the country’s wealthiest town in the nineteenth century and later as “The Insurance Capital of the World,” however, today’s Hartford conjures images of gang violence and drug-addled squalor, the soiled concrete skeletons of a long-forgotten hopefulness rather than the Gilded Age pillar of commerce. Samuel Amadon shows us in his powerful collection The Hartford Book this city of destitution and darkness.

In a most general sense, the book’s twenty poems perform an act of reconstruction—a bridging of the memories and psychological accumulation of a post-collegiate poet (ostensibly the author) who’s come back to the streets where he grew up. But this is not the triumphant hero’s return à la Joseph Campbell; this poet immerses himself in a crumbling modern labyrinth containing crackhead neighbors, indifferently promiscuous women, dead and dying relatives, a pervasive shuttered-factory gloom, a pathologically lying roommate who may or may not have cancer, and an acutely debilitating urge toward self-destruction that leaves him “drunk & doubting my own mind.”

Fortunately, in the midst of every whiskey-and-vomit-soaked collapse, there is an intensely curious and sharply self-aware intellect that tries to sift among the layers of self-imposed drear for solace. A fascinating series of incisions cut through centuries of New England minutiae and a more immediate childhood, the intertwined failings of a community and a man that have both seen better days. From all of the detritus arises a curious, grudging solidarity:

we never own up to much more than
being from Hartford
which is something no one from

Hartford would ever deny because
though we’re all fucked
we’ve all been fucked before & for

so long that unlike the rest of you
we’d have to be crazy not
to know by now what to expect next.

More than anything—and perhaps ironically—the unassuming, Beat-meets-email style contributes to The Hartford Book’s profundity. Eschewing straight-up lyrical narrative, the poet effortlessly weaves his own murky sensory experiences with those of his Puritan ancestors and ill-remembered Hartford historical figures, creating a multi-layered psychological portrait, novel-heavy in its depth. Nowhere is this more evident than in “Wells,” in which Amadon contemplates a now-derelict plaque on a statue of Horace Wells, the forgotten inventor of anesthesia, juxtaposing Hartford’s current plight with Wells’ tragic, insane life (he committed suicide in jail after throwing sulfuric acid at prostitutes) to elicit personal truths that are as dour as they are prescient: “the only people now who think / he discovered anything are some people / in Hartford who can’t read / the sign & probably don’t care what it is.”

This simple vernacular honesty allows the poet to tread along a path of dark confession; the poet spares no shard of unsavory recollection in chronicling the abject years spent living in and with the city of his youth. The result is a book that scratches, in a silky voice, at the scars that can’t heal—a testimony to the past that is as deadly as pushing a syringe, and nearly as addicting.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012

WOLF’S MILK: The Lost Notebooks of Juan Sweeney

Juan Sweeney
translated by Chad Sweeney
Forklift Books ($14.95)

by Jeff Alessandrelli

If ever a man could “think in English” but “speak in Spanish,” “dream in Gaelic but . . . curse in Russian,” it is Juan Sweeney. He was “born in an orphanage of fire” and thus considers himself “what the night coughed up on its shore.” His “lies are honest”—he once “spent a decade in prison, / or maybe just a long night”—and, same as every upright citizen, he enjoys the presence of flowers and dogs: “A flower is beautiful, yes? / And the genitals of a dog / are its flower / and therefore, beautiful, / yes?” Juan Sweeney is a “simple man,” one that likes to “watch wolves eat the grass” and plans to one day “sleep through [his own] death.” In all likelihood Juan Sweeney does not love you. He may, however, feel the need to woo you until, helpless, you cannot resist.

Who is Juan Sweeney, aka Juan Sweeney de las Minas de Cobre? He is a man that, according to translator (and familial descendant) Chad Sweeney’s introductory note “preferred riding on the backs of trains to being seated inside . . . loved cheese and whiskey and has often been compared to the troubadour poet, Cavalcanti, for his lifestyle of travel and intrigues with women of the court. He inspired the characterization of Cervantes’ journeyman, Don Quixote, and paradoxically of Byron archetypical hero.” As translated by Chad Sweeney, an accomplished poet in his own right, Juan’s work is ethereal, hypnotic, often surreal. “The cosmos is a baby / blinking at its reflection. // It’s never seen rain, / this first rain / arriving in cataracts of white light,” the opening stanzas of poem #21 assert. (Juan Sweeney was as unconcerned with titling his work as he was with a beautiful woman’s relationship status.) Elsewhere, “elevators [bear] straight down / into the wells of mountains” and “the moon / dangles bracelets of thin light / in the mangroves” while the “calls / of extinct birds” fill so many bountiful “canyons,” canyons that same moon brightly shines into.

Nearly all the poems in Wolf’s Milk are short, contained on a single page or page and a half, and many of them incorporate what has (since Juan Sweeney’s heyday) become somewhat “standard” poetic language and imagery—there are a lot of different variants on the figurations light makes, and we hear often of the sun and moon, the stars, the sky, the sea, dusk, divinity, dawn. Coming from a man born “centuries ago” (and one that conversely “has yet to be born”), these universal themes are understandable; there is a good reason why they endure to this day. And decades before they were adopted by the masses, Juan Sweeney de las Minas de Cobre roundly made them his own. In poem #47 he writes:

I’m looking for a language that can see God

away from his jailors,
God on all fours digging

in her potatoes, without even shoes
and without that terrible hat

from the cold distance of prayer

looks like a white city.

Whether Juan Sweeney ever actually existed or whether Chad Sweeney invented him—made him up in the same way one might, as a child, make up an imaginary friend, one with fantastically otherworldly powers or senses—makes little difference. As Juan Sweeney’s Arabian Grandmother relates in the volume, we are all “stories” to some degree, both of our own creation and of the others around us. In asserting his failures as a translator—“I was rarely able to preserve Sweeney’s Andalusian double entendre, musicality or sporadic rhyme”—Chad Sweeney admits that, on an aesthetic level, he “does not like [Juan Sweeney’s] poetry much.” For reasons known only to him, moreover, there is one sentence in the book that he “simply refused to translate.”

This lack of poetic identification seems fitting. We don’t get to pick the members of our family, nor what their personalities and temperaments are like. What we’re born into is what we’re stuck with, for better or worse. Chad Sweeney’s personal opinion of him notwithstanding, one would be hard pressed to think of—to imagine—a more notable, enigmatic relative than the esteemed Spanish / Irish poet Juan Sweeney de las Minas de Cobre, owner of seventeen grandmothers and direct descendant of both the pagan king Sweeney the Mad and the mystical lobo pastor of Mt. Ararat. He is truly a man and way of believing unlike any other. Who is Juan Sweeney? He is that which provides light where there once was darkness, provides sweetness to complement the sour, humor and merriment to assuage pain. He is the beauty of myth itself—as Chad Sweeney makes abundantly clear.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012


Pamela Uschuk
Wings Press ($16)

by Sean Thomas Dougherty

In her new collection’s opening poem, “Ode to Federico Garcia Lorca,” Pamela Uschuk evokes the ghost of the great Andalusian poet in sinuous imagistic lines, calling him to assuage the presence of death that is visiting her:

Federico, when you come to me, the unbearable
longing of trees roots deeper in the sky, flies
among stars like a comet in search
of its dead twin.

Like Lorca, Uschuk is a poet of the duende, that mystical Spanish conception; she views the poem as a vehicle for fierce engagement with the body and its social realities, often with a metaphysical awareness that transcends and extends the corporeal into the natural world. Working a poetics rare for a North American writer, Uschuk has crafted a poetry equally steeped in nature and political resistance. This is an ecological poetics of engagement, a mythic poetry—part Lorca, part Rachel Carson. Her aesthetic shares some landscapes and concerns with other western poets, particularly indigenous poets such as Joy Harjo.

Such poetry is often described as “poetry of witness,” though this can be reductive, because for Uschuk witness can take many forms, even nonhuman ones—such as the elephant she rode who she finds out is named Rose:

What sings between the folds of Rose’s hide
and my thin skin strikes
the cold New York air. Synched from pelvis
to knee to brow to heart, we are
a single chained animal. When she lifts her trunk

trumpeting, a plea stark as a shackle
snapped on a wild ankle, a blaze
consuming our vertebra,
scalds my blood.
(“Elephant Ride, New York”)

Even more praiseworthy, Uschuck’s poems push for a lush language of metaphor; for her, reclaiming and cherishing the beautiful is an antidote against despair:

the way the rain’s soft tongues write
a score of green notes for a world too long
held hostage by the iron-thorned arms
of teen suicide bombers and dictators
who’ve outlived their paralyzed smiles,
love the Afghan farmer plowing under
a warlord’s poppies to plant winter wheat,
love green tomatoes fattening on the porch
(“Green Rain, A Birthday Poem”)

Uschuk’s range in this book is expansive: she tackles issues of immigration along the border, narrates the lives and struggles of old Latino Vietnam veterans, evokes her sister as a Mayan jaguar, laments the war in Afghanistan, and travels to the Himalayas, where she sings the beauty of the natural landscape and praises the struggle of the Tibetan people against the oppression of the Chinese. As with the best political poets, this is all accomplished through relating personal interactions with people she actually knows. Although her fifth book, Wild in the Plaza of Memory will offer readers a stirring introduction to Uschuk’s growing body of work.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012