Tag Archives: Fall 2013


The Brian Epstein Story
Vivek J. Tiwary and Andrew C. Robinson, with Kyle Baker
edited by Philip Simon
Dark Horse/M Press ($19.99)

by John Eisler

Amidst the recent plethora of Beatles-related publications comes a graphic novel dramatizing the eponymous “fifth Beatle,” manager Brian Epstein. While the fab four are no strangers to the comics—indeed, they are veritable pop superheroes—here they play background characters in this well-wrought dramatization of Epstein’s too-short life.

The Fifth Beatle doesn’t exactly add anything new to Beatles lore; recounted are all the familiar moments that even casual fans may know, including Epstein’s marketing savvy (he dressed those rough boys in suits), pill addiction, and tortured homosexuality. But the book excels at rendering all of this as a graphic story. Vivek J. Tiwary has clearly thought about the arc and theme of his story, rendering Epstein as a visionary outsider undone by an inhospitable world, and his artist collaborators serve him well, giving the saga the appropriate epic sweep.

Indeed, the art is almost a character in this work. Settings both moody and mod evoke the unique style of a bygone era. Expressionistic color and framing help unveil the story, occasionally reversing the feel of reality and dream sequence. And the book’s European format (larger than American) offers the equivalent of Cinemascope, allowing artists Andrew C. Robinson and Kyle Baker (the latter of whom renders the Beatles’ infamous Philippines concert fiasco) bigger canvases on which to govern time through the magic of panel and page.

As of this writing Epstein has just been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a move presciently called for by Billy J. Kramer in his introduction to this book. It’s an honor a bit belated, perhaps, but certainly well deserved. Here’s hoping that cartoonist Howard Cruse is also foretelling the future in his afterword. In it, he discusses gay people’s struggles and how the Beatles’ music “helped make an unending expansion of human possibilities feel joyous instead of scary,” framing that advance in light of the current fight for marriage equality. What a fitting legacy for Brian Epstein that would be: not just Beatlemania, but love, love, love.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013


Selections from the Internet Text
Alan Sondheim
Center for Literary Computing/West Virginia University Press ($19.99)

by Sandy Florian

In his introduction to Alan Sondheim’s Writing Under, Sandy Baldwin recalls the announcement of Sondheim’s “The Internet Text” that defines itself as a “meditation on the philosophy, psychology, political economy, and psychoanalytics of Internet (computer) communication. “ He notes Sondheim offers up a “meditation,” as opposed to a “critique” or “theory,” and also notes the “parenthetical qualification of the Internet as computer,” which to Baldwin suggests “a focus on the node of the network, that is, on the subject and the body at the terminal, or even on the subject and the body as the terminal node of the network.” Baldwin uses the word “terminal” to mean a machine for entering information into and receiving information from a computer, a keyboard and monitor combination, one used as a vehicle for communication. Sondheim also uses the word terminal to mean the same thing in his piece “My Future is Your Own Aim” where he explores the political economies of electronic writing: “the dispersion of carrier usage, home broadband or dial-up terminals, etc.” In “Writing and Wryting,” he argues that electronic text is always performative because it is framed in a terminal: “electronic writing, within a terminal window is always a performance; it’s never static.” By this, I think he means that electronic text is performative because, unlike the printed page, it continually relies on sources of energy and power and is therefore continually alive. But the word terminal comes from the Latin terminus meaning situated at the end of something. Forming the extremity of something. A closing, a concluding. Growing at the end of a branch. Developing at the end of a bud. It means an end-point on a railroad. A stopping point of a bus route. A finalizing, a dying. The morbid stage of a fatal disease. And the person suffering from a morbid disease.

Writing Under is a collection of meditations on Internet text originally published on “The Internet Text.” An exploitation of the very idea of terminality, the collection is comprised of interminable lists and incomplete catalogues, of ideas, of questions, of modes, of contradictions. In the first piece, Sondheim describes his own work in forty-one different sections. He writes, “My work is simultaneously excess and denudation, artifice and natural deployment, ornament and structure . . .” He writes, “My work is based on the fissure, not the inscription; it’s based on substance, not dyad . . .” He writes, “My work is neither this nor that; my work is not both this or that.”

His obsessive lists do not move toward discovery or transcendence, but instead manifest a sort of involution. They curl up inside themselves, swirling around an absence. He writes, “i cannot write the book i desire; i think constantly, this text is an introduction. He writes, “the introduction inhales universal annihilation. there is no proper way to express this.” He writes, “the books i would write break down upon their enunciation.” Then, “the book, my book, the book.”

Exploring electronic writing, he lists, “Online work is continuous investigation, movement, within diffused sites, applications, networks, inter- and intra- nets, PDAs, cellphones, wireless and bluetooth, satellite and other radios, cable and other televisions . . .” Then it’s an “incandescent investigation, high speed, apparently but not really unlimited, names and movements, critiques, sources and files, coming and going, circulating decaying, disappearing, reappearing, transforming . . .” I find myself fixed on the phrase, “incandescent investigation.” Online work, is an exploration in light, I think to myself, “apparently but not really unlimited.” Then he describes and differentiates different forms of online writing in an admittedly incomplete list (“I don’t keep up”) that includes Hypertext, Flash, Animations, Blogs, Wikis, etc., SMSs and others, MOOs and MUDs, Gaming, Email and email lists, and Interactive or noninteractive websites. Some of the lists get erased, like the list of names of electronic writers. “At this point, I had a list of names; it continued, uselessly, to expand. I couldn’t choose among them.” He recommends we search ourselves and deletes the list. “Now, I’ve taken the names out.”

For the computer savvy, he offers up technical instructions on how to practice electronic literature using commands called “greps” and “seds.” He explains “string variables” that “refer back to the words lists.” There’s a list of questions posed by an imagined or real tenure committee intermixed with a list of answers that conclude, “Conclusion: On the one hand there isn’t any,” for there is no conclusion inside this terminal. In “Tenets of Wryting-Theory,” there are lists embedded within larger lists, as in “fractals, self-similarities, fluxes, flows, peripheral phenomena . . . spaces of echoes, ghosts . . .” (ghosts that glow incandescently in my mind) and that explain (explain?) the word “Imbrication,” a term from a larger list that includes The Real, Limb, Fissure, Mass, Everything, Nothing, and ends in Death, for “Death is the insomniac of terminology.” Is there a conclusion inside this terminal? According to the book, it seems there is a conclusion—for the book, like all books, ends. And that’s the problem. Writing Under ultimately falls short of encapsulating Sondheim’s incandescent investigations simply by delimiting them on the dead page. By doing so, his work loses much of its powerfully performative value. In order to witness the full range of Sondheim’s meditations, therefore, a look at the broader collection of “The Internet Text” is almost required.

I’ve been on one of Sondheim’s email lists through which he disperses what I will call “episodes” of “The Internet Text” for about a year now. Almost daily, there’s something in my email inbox from Sondheim of some media that he also posts on “The Internet Text,” which has, according to Baldwin, a total of around 25,000 pages of text compared to Joyce’s oeuvre of maybe 1,600. On the surface, however, it doesn’t look like 25,000 pages. The website under which “The Internet Text” is catalogued (www.alansondheim.org) looks like a long list of nonsense under the heading “Index of /.” Each one of the links on the list open to a number of .jpg, .mp3, .mov, and .txt files because the project is not limited to text. I engage with a few of these non-textual files when I receive them in my inbox, but most I don’t, because what interests me about Sondheim’s work is how he works with language.

His writing is at times machinic and entirely conceptual. For instance, on December 15 of last year, I received two episodes in my inbox, one of which was titled “my facebook friends friends” and which seemingly was a list of the number of mutual friends he shares with 1,080 people in some organized, ascending, yet cyclical order so that “78 mutual friends” repeated five times is followed by “79 mutual friends” repeated five times followed by “8 mutual friends” repeated twelve times followed by “80” repeated twice. Clearly this is a text not to be read. On the same day, I received another episode titled, “all my facebook friends i hope you are my friends” in which Sondheim lists the first names of all his facebook friends, and here, I do search myself, or I search for myself, and find my first name repeated twice, one presumably for me, and one presumably for Sandy Baldwin, as well as my last name in the latter part of the list. I nose around and find other people who are our mutual facebook friends, like Talan Memmott, Forrest Gander, and Claire Donato, our first and last names disjointed and dispersed. This is a text that is almost readable, but more importantly, it forces a sort of narcissistic engagement on the part of the reader. As we do with so-called “traditional texts,” we search for ourselves reflected in the text.

Some of his pieces are both conceptual and personal, as the one I received on January 31 of this year entitled, “My 70th Unbirthday this Sunday :-(” which begins:

3000 In the year 3000 my birthday falls on monday but I will not birthday, and credit card number as you enter the Topic set out, another birthday an hour away, and all I can think, where are we going. 1993 My fiftieth birthday; my parents sent some money and made a fuss—I in our arms, two days after her 18th birthday. We were closer to her than 94th birthday; Mark and Kathy were there and it was relatively peaceful 2009 My father’s birthday started out with Azure and myself taking a while. My father’s birthday started out with Azure and myself taking a birthday, humor, stars, i love you,:dirty, clean, soiled, sexy, sleazy, parents this weekend as well, my mother’s eightieth birthday, going to be going to a birthday party for her best friend and it’s her birthday too and they’re having a party together and everyone will be worse late than always your wife leaves cause you forgot her birthday searches: sexy, love, happy birthday, humor, stars, i love you,?

But sometimes his work is entirely personal, and then Sondheim’s meditations point more directly to the topic of physical death. This is the terminal as terminus, the end-point on a railroad, a finalizing, a dying. For instance, in his humorous and self-effacing “confessions—more of the same, the end of them,” he writes:

i realize my texts are barking up the wrong tree.
they’re absolutely useless and misshapen.
it’s not zen, it’s just clumsy plagiarism.
i’m lucky if i can write at all.
consider this a wordy piece of silence.
it’s an admission of guilt in the production of bad theory.
it’s an admission of tricks and subterfuge with tropes


my writing isn’t barking up the wrong tree, it’s not
even writing, it’s not even theory, or it’s theory
intended to disguise my ignorance at any cost.
the only delight it brings is the usual shortness of the
pieces but sometimes i err further and produce what
appears on the surface like a meditation but in fact is
just a lengthy and stupid poverty of ideas


i can type myself to death that way and you’d be lucky
if i did

The “you” is almost always present as a witness to this dying, as in “When I need”:

I loathe my body and write of its death immediately beneath me, even
before it or I touch the ground. It’s this that stops me from
being a man; I am arrogant and angry and despairing, but I am not
a man; I flee even from the position of the coward. I am cowed. In
the face of other men I cannot urinate or breathe; in their face I
remain awake until sleep brings its nightmares to bare down on me.
I consider all of this existence, and ordinary existence, mediocre
existence. I have nothing to gain and always everything to lose,
even in the state of exhaustion or penury or just having finished
an improvisation. I attempt to improvise a life out of debris and
scar and sometimes I succeed on a momentary basis. I look around
and create an epistemology and it is the epistemology that lies
just beneath the surface, an abject epistemology within which we
bleed to death. At the moment of dying, if we are old, we are
transformed, and someone said we are no long human, we are things
sliding into the abyss. I am on the lip of the abyss and I write
of the lip. The writing makes me uncomfortable but I am the one
and many doing the writing and you are the one doing the reading
but it is my writing you are reading as control slips from me.

In an untitled piece recalling and contradicting Dylan Thomas’s poem “Do not go gentle into that good night,” Sondheim writes directly about that incandescent source of life:

i was orphaned at sixty-eight.
my father is dead and he is dead.
i’m no longer second-rate.
i don’t. unconscious what he said.

the dead can’t instigate.
the living can.
i can’t communicate.
with him i’m a dead man.

and a dead man i’ll be. and buried.
furious and harvested. i write.
against. my writing’s hurried.
i’m still in flight.

i won’t go into that damned night.
i’ll die in light. i don’t

For, though it is certain that Alan Sondheim will eventually die, his work, pixilated, enervated, dilated, and even obsolesced—will be incandescently ours, indeed, interred in the inter-net, buried alive:

panic attacks and my gift to you

i want to give away my “i”, my first-person pronoun,
nary that of an other, nor a third, but mine with
my troubled history, my abilities such as they are,
my acquaintances, my families, nothing but the “i”,
nothing else will occur, these potentials will take
effect after i have died, the potentials will assume
the gift and presence of the self i was, perhaps
would have been, if i had been better, they would
exist in the world as if i were still among them,
among you and those to follow you in the world, the
“i” of these potentials is their eye, participates
in the richness and fecundity of the world, and so
i will love among you and be with you among you,
and i will not have died or have lived in vain, you
will have assumed the “i”

Note: To find the source to the quoted selections from The Internet Text, go to http://www.alansondheim.org/, scroll down the files until you come to ra.txt, right-click on ra.txt, and save it as ra.txt.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013


Exploring Haikai Intersections
Edited by Eleanor Kerkhan
Palgrave Macmillan ($95)

by Joel Weishaus

Haiku is well known in much of the world as a short poem, usually written in three lines. Traditionally, in Japanese at least, it’s laid out in a 5-7-5 sequence and includes a seasonal reference. The word “haiku” was first popularized by Masoka Shiki (1867-1902), in order to distinguish it from the linked verses, renga, to which it was originally attached. Most of the contributors to Matsuo Basho’s Poetic Spaces use the term haikai, the genre’s original name, an abbreviation of haikai no renga. (I will use the modern term, haiku, except when quoting.)

Matsuo Kinsaku, later Bashō, was born in the village of Ueno, thirty miles southeast of Kyoto, during the rule of Japan’s Tokugawa shogunate (1600-1868), a period when the country was unified and at peace, although at the price of an iron-fisted feudal social order and xenophobic isolation. Jesuit missionaries from Portugal and their Japanese converts were executed, and except for a small colony of Dutch traders confined to the port of Nagasaki, foreign trade had been banned.

Bashō took his pen name from a bashō (banana) tree that grew outside a hut he lived in for two years. What set him apart from other haiku teachers was his freeing of the form from renga, making haiku a genre in its own right. He is also known for his tireless wayfaring to places made famous by former poets (utamakura), and for visiting poets in different provinces, along with patrons with whom he participated in evenings of linked verse composing.

Matsuo Bashō’s Poetic Spaces is divided into three sections: “The Artist as Thinker,” “The Artist as Poet,” and “The Poet as Painter.” In the first section, in an essay titled, “Reinventing the Landscape,” Peipei Qiu tells us: “From the earliest extant travel diary Tosa nikki (Tosa Diary, ca. 935) by Ki no Tsurayuki, the Japanese literary travel journal had followed a tradition of weaving poems and introductory narratives in a sequential order.” Bashō’s genius was to

re-present a classically defined landscape through a popular haikai vision and by using haikai language—the vernacular Japanese that did not have the refined hon’iof classical diction, and Chinese words that were not associated with classical poetic toponyms.

In other words, he took a traditional form and, as Ezra Pound famously advised poets to do three centuries later, made it new.

In both Japan and the West, most people who take up haiku ignore political or socially relevant themes. This is a shallow approach to the art, and to reading Bashō’s haiku. In “Skeletons on the Path: Bashō Looks Forward,” William R. LaFleur points out that in Japan during the 1960s, a “politically radicalized younger group of scholars had begun to dismiss or at least downgrade” Bashō, finding him “insufficiently critical of the political structure and powers of his own time.” At the same time, in America, especially among the San Francisco Renaissance poets, Bashō was being “celebrated as having incomparable authenticity and the courage to break from a suffocating society in order to see a range of optional personal and societal possibilities.”

LaFleur relates an incident recorded in Bashō’s first travel journal, “Journal of Bleached Bones in a Field,” in which he comes upon an abandoned child, a condition unfortunately very common in those days. After bemoaning its fate, instead of helping the child, he tells it to complain “to ‘heaven’.” He agrees with Haiku scholar, Yamamoto Kenkichi (1907-1988), who “insisted that what would be moral responsibility in the twentieth century may not be automatically imposed upon a time, place, and societal situation vastly different from our own.”

Then LaFleur goes through various possible sources that Bashō may have been referring to by his use of the word “heaven” (ten). What I find most relevant to our time is the one that implicates those who administer the regime; e.g., “whatever persons or agencies (that) were responsible for conditions of poverty, infanticide, child abandonment, and the like that the poet came upon while on his travels.” In addition, how can this celebrated poem by Bashō be read other than as a commentary on the futility of war?

Summer grasses—
all that remains
of ancient warriors’ dreams.

Harno Shirane, the author of Traces of Dreams, perhaps the most comprehensive study of Bashō’s aesthetics in English, opens the second section of this book with an essay titled, “Double Voices and Bashō’s Haikai.” He begins with some history.

By the middle of the seventeenth century, almost all samurai, now the bureaucratic elite, were able to read, as were the middle to upper levels of the farmer and chōnin(middle) classes. This newly literate populace transformed haikai, heterodox linked verse, into the first truly popular literature of Japan in the sense of being widely practiced and read by commoners.

This points out how a society’s poetry cannot survive without a literate population; in other words, without an education system that doesn’t measure performance with standardized tests, but by individual comprehension and creative interpretation. By the time Bashō was beginning his career as a haiku poet and teacher, “haikai books (over 650 separate titles) were second in popularity only to Buddhist texts among Kyoto publishers, who published an estimated 300,000 volumes in first editions alone.”

However, Shirane’s main thesis in this essay is not historical but aesthetical. Drawing on the work of Russian semiotician and literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975), he points out how, unlike “the thirty-one syllable quintessential classical form” of waka, and the orthodox linked verse of renga, haiku “drew freely on colloquial Japanese, regional idioms, Chinese phrases, Buddhist vocabulary, and other centrifugal languages . . . [It] was based on the notion of challenging, inverting, and otherwise subverting” the formality of previous genres.

In the same section, Horikiri Minoru focuses on a little discussed aspect of Bashō’s poetry; its soundscape, such as in this haiku:

After the temple bell stops,
its sound continues
from the flowers.

Strangely, if only in passing, Horikiri mentions Tsunoda Tadanobu and Sano Kiyohiko, who theorized that “Japanese, unlike people of other countries, perceive sounds such as the tinkling of streams and the chirping of birds with the right brain, which processes music, but not with the left one, which processes language.” Their theory smacks of racism, and happily Horikiri does not pursue it any further. Instead, he referring to the many commentaries as to the meaning of Bashō’s famous poem: “old pond / a frog jumps in / sound of water” (here translated by Cheryl Crowley), he writes:

Were we to compare Bashō’s ear to the modern-day ear, physiologically or biologically, we would not see any differences in sensory function; but in terms of social structure and environment, we might think, could it be that our ways of listening to that sound are very different?

In the last essay of Section Two, Eleanor Kerkham, the book’s editor, launches into a fascinating discussion of novelist and literary essayist Mori Atsushi’s “And Me Too, Once Again, Into Oku no hosomichi,” a monograph that was commissioned for the 300th anniversary of Bashō’s, “Narrow Road to the Deep North.”

Kerkham tells us that Mori, who died in 1992, “had no special relationship with Bashō or withOku no hosomichi.” However, “(b)oth were creative artists and both brought into being new literary worlds—worlds, as Mori sees them, into which they might lure their readers.”

Linking to one’s creative antecedents is very important, because, even if unconsciously, one’s text will always contain revenants, the ghosts in the text. As Kerkham says of Bashō, he “borrows constantly, and his text is a multilayered tapestry of stylistic and structural threads stretching out to many earlier texts.” Indeed, what is missing from most modern haiku is the expression of a lineage, and the inclusion of multitude of voices, preventing the poems from having the depth and breadth of ancient haiku.

For his presentation, Mori went back to his memories of time spent along the route that Bashō had walked three centuries earlier. (For a similar sojourn, by an Englishwoman, see Lesley Downer’s, On the Narrow Road: A Journey into a Lost Japan.) Most importantly, Mori trusted “that in the act of writing he would discover both his subject and its relationship to himself.” Here is the process of all creative work: letting one’s daemon speak for itself.

The last section of Bashō’s Poetic Spaces addresses the poet as a visual artist. As with all great creative souls, Bashō saw the whole range of arts and crafts as an expression of the Creative Spirit. Perhaps if he lived in this century he would pack a lightweight electronic tablet.

One would think that Bashō’s paintings would be in the traditional haiga format; e.g., as Joan O’Hara defines it in “Bashō and the Haiga,” “a painting (ga) that is accompanied by the inscription of, and is related to the content of, at least one seventeen-syllable verse.” While he did produce several dozen haiga, he also painted images that stand alone. Interestingly, there are also paintings by Bashō that contain a poem that has no direct relationship to the picture.

This section, which is generously illustrated, includes an essay by Eri F. Yasuhara on the poet/painter Yosa Buson. Born twenty-two years after Bashō’s death, “Buson’s debt to Bashō is considered almost a matter of historical fact,” and relationship that “has not often been subjected to critical analysis.”

Here is a lovely poem by Buson honoring Bashō:

Bashō is gone,
and ever afterward,
no year has ended as his did.

Yasuhara comments: “He has not been able to end any year the way Bashō did, on the road in pursuit of art.”

This review just brushes the surface of a valuable book that also contains the work of other scholars equal in insight to those mentioned above. For anyone interested Bashō, haiku, or Japanese literature in general, Matsuo Bashō’s Poetic Spaces is a journey worth taking.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013


Conceptual Art, Affect, and the Antihumanist Turn
Eve Meltzer
University of Chicago Press ($45)

by Pablo Lopez

There’s something immediately off-putting in the title of Eve Meltzer’s book, Systems We Have Loved: Conceptual Art, Affect, and the Antihumanist Turn. Uncomfortably, Meltzer’s title implicates the reader in loving systems—but aren’t systems the problem, something to resist if not oppose outright? After all, systems have long been a familiar mode of oppressive logic, division, and hierarchical order imposed upon human subjectivity. Rarely, if ever, do we willfully embrace, let alone love something so seemingly unworthy of affection. That changed, however, in the late twentieth century, when a number of artists abandoned overt sentimentalism and pathos in favor of the least artistic of palettes—gone was the legible, sensate work and picture plane, gone too was emotive figuration and abstraction, and in its place came the coolly scientific, numeric, and catalogic, the harshly mathematical and the fiercely structured. In short, a rigorously systematized art was brought to bear on the public, and if the public wasn’t thoroughly up to date with Saussurean structuralism, chances are they were left slack-jawed before this new and seemingly lackluster work.

This antihumanist turn, as Meltzer calls it, began in the early 1960s, with the proto-conceptualist work of Robert Morris, and developed into the fully articulated conceptualism of the 1970s, with such notables as Sol LeWitt, Hans Haacke, Mary Kelly, Robert Morris, and theoretician Rosalind Krauss making significant contributions that challenged a variety of aesthetic and theoretical discourses. To fully appreciate Meltzer’s argument, it is key to understand the careful attention she pays to the operative terms of conceptualism and structuralism, and how interwoven these terms are to their cultural context. Meltzer writes, “In the 1960s, by which time structuralist claims and polemics had encouraged the advent of conceptual art, they also raised intractable problems that conceptual artists were forced to process.”

Central to Meltzer’s book is what structuralism maintains: Human endeavor is inescapably governed by the structural order of systems and constitutes the human subject itself: “structuralists argued that all social and cultural phenomena could be mastered through a ‘science’ of the signifier . . . Perhaps most importantly, structuralism produced and made urgent the problem of the belatedness of subjectivity: the notion that the human subject is a mere effectof preexisting systems.” The notion and condition of belatedness is a key feature to any structuralist system; it followed that conceptualism would be forced to confront this issue on a fundamental level.

Meltzer argues that the many interventions made by conceptual artists have often done the necessary work to efface such strident claims made by structuralism. Crucial to the dislodging of belatedness is the administration of affect that conceptual art makes available, due in large part to the delicate but severely tense frisson that exists in the relationship (the in-between-ness) between the fixity of conceptual systems of permutation and external interference. It is an issue of encounter—not the expression of an idea or emotion—that is preeminent to the conceptualism in question. The artists under Meltzer’s examination often push back against the resolutely scientific structuralism they engage—those many systems of internal logic and self-sufficiency—most simply by subjective interplay, transpiring within and across the faintest of intensities and encounters of the unnoticed. While the results are varied and at times ambiguous, the affect that is sustained with its mutual intensities is far more crucial than the prescribed dialectical tension brought on by the proximity of disparate bodies brought into relation as part of a system. Notions of fixity and frailty are engaged and played upon in order for affect to be the encounter, that not only serves to provide for un-prescribed outcomes, but that defies the very systems that brought them to bear. Coded modes of activity lead to uncoded indeterminacies that challenge the normative progressions of a system and, ultimately, muddle the authority of internal logic.

Meltzer is at her most brilliant when discussing Mary Kelly’s evasive and expansive work, which serves to bracket the text. Meltzer initiates the book with a close reading of Antepartum, and returns to Kelly’s work in the final chapter with a thorough investigation of the six-year, multipart work, Post-Partum Document. Beginning in 1973, Antepartum and Post-Partum Documentcomprise the artist’s preoccupation with the “story of subjects.” While Antepartum is a visionary work, comprising of ninety seconds of film, it is Post-Partum Document that mesmerizes under the illuminative reading of Meltzer’s analysis. It is a careful parsing, not only of the information of grief and Lacanian science, but of the forms information assumes, and the complexes of interstitial space made available so that affect may occur—and better connect person to object, object to art, and, ultimately, person to person.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013


John Berger and Anne Michaels
photographs by Tereza Stehlíková
Counterpoint ($18)

by Jesse Freedman

Some books assume an atmospheric quality. Railtracks, which records a series of conversations between the acclaimed art critic John Berger and novelist Anne Michaels, is among them. Accompanied by the haunting photography of Tereza Stehlíková, this beautiful collection is equal parts history, poetry, and philosophy. It is, as Michaels makes clear at the start, a book in search of lost worlds. “A photograph of a ghost,” she writes, “is sound.” Berger, too, is absorbed by the ephemeral. “The Angel of Memory looks down at her feet; everything flows past her.” That atmospheric quality—of regret, of longing, and solitude—permeates Berger’s journey, one which begins with Michaels in London and expands across the lonely tracks of time: to Greenwich, Liverpool, America, and beyond.

Those familiar with Berger’s work—including now canonical texts like About Looking and Ways of Seeing—will recognize in Railtracks his fascination with what lurks in the shadows, at the edge of our vision. “In the minute that’s still left we have to do everything. I hurry ahead faster than the train. This way, for a fraction of a second, I’ll see you approaching again.” This image is one to which Berger returns later in the book, when he and Michaels describe remembrance in a manner reminiscent of the late German author, W. G. Sebald. “Memory,” writes Michaels, “carries lovers in her arms; not the way a mother carries a child, but the way one man carries another man.” At its core, Railtracks is a book about history’s weight, and memory’s often futile attempts to claim its part.

The influence of Sebald permeates the dialogue between Berger and Michaels: everywhere are frozen landscapes made real through photographs. And yet, these photographs reinforce an unavoidable reality: even the most profound moments are fleeting. Trains, like pictures, evoke pain: there is a part of us that “longs to follow and is left behind.”

It is this tension—between moments and movement, between the transient and the eternal—that hangs over Railtracks. Michaels, in particular, offers a number of harrowing meditations on the role of trains, writing of that first lurch, that “great weight waking” in the night. Like Sebald, she is sensitive to the associations in Europe between trains and tragedy: “No one else,” she wails, “could tear open the night like you—or leave behind such chilling space.” Whether Michaels is addressing the transformation of London’s skyline, or the sorrow of European history manifest in Stehlíková’s photographs, she approaches trains both as machines and as cloaks for a darker set of emotions.

Ultimately, Berger and Michaels conclude their journey on a rueful note. Implicit in the migration of animals, they argue, is the idea of return. Indeed, “an animal migrates for the sake of its return.” The same cannot be said of humans: we travel to reach our destination. Sometimes, that destination is of our choosing; other times, it has been selected for us, and the pleasure of return is denied forever. Return, in effect, becomes a distant memory.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013


How 10 Toes, 52 Bones, and 66 Muscles Shaped the Human World
Carol Ann Rinzler
Bellevue Literary Press ($16.95)

by Ryder W. Miller

In Leonardo’s Foot, internationally bestselling health and medicine writer Carol Ann Rinzler gives the subject of our feet—something we take for granted until we are plagued by podiatric woes—a fascinating medical and historical treatment. The full title of the book advertises the humorous irony that imbues these pages: “How 10 Toes, 52 Bones, and 66 Muscles Shaped the Human World.” This historical travelogue is a stylish, informative, entertaining, and pleasantly personal book.

Though the faceless skeleton on the cover looks worried, there is not a lot of medical advice given here. Whereas a similar title may offer platitudes (take care of your feet and they will take care of you; ignore your feet at your own peril; if icing and elevation don’t solve the issue, you may have something to talk with a doctor about), Rinzler’s book may actually help you understand your pain without giving you a textbook-induced migraine in the process.

Leonardo's Foot provides context and history to explain the maladies we have experienced over the ages. Rinzler's treatment is wide-ranging with natural history, human history, and cultural and artistic history. The information is presented in a logical and stylistic way, rather than being a mere collection of related facts.

The story begins in pre-history, with Rinzler writing:

In the beginning, when we were not yet first among primates, our feet were still hands and that toe was still a finger, special opposability, but a finger nonetheless. As it evolved, moving into line with the other four, our third and fourth hominin hands became feet. We gained a platform on which to stand . . .

She continues to unearth literary connections, as well: Lord Byron had clubbed feet. Leo Tolstoy, Omar Khayyam, and Feodor Dostoyevsky were shoe fanciers. In a fascinating passage, the book postulates that we did not invent language or the ability to talk to each other until we learned how to stand up on our feet.

Despite its scope, the book manages to keep your attention. Whether Rinzler is exploring how our feet explain or illuminate such topics as evolution, disability, racism, diet, or desire, she maintains a fascinating perspective on the peculiarities of being human—like how having a chin distinguishes us from all the other animals on the planet. If the book goes astray, it might be when it describes the foot in metaphorical sexual terms (it was Freud who argued that the foot for some represented the penis, the shoe the vagina). Some like looking at shoes and feet, but we certainly sexualize legs and other parts now more than in the past.

Rinzler titled the book Leonardo’s Foot after the fact that Leonardo da Vinci, going against church doctrine, was one of first people to study the foot. He conducted more than 30 dissections of human corpses, and his anatomical drawings have survived through the ages. He helped us understand how our feet are an integral part of the human experience—and a platform for an entertaining book such as this.

Editor’s Note: This review’s original appearance in the Fall 2013 Print Edition of Rain Taxi Review of Books featured a typographical error in the author’s name. The review appears here with the error corrected.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013

Ed Dorn and William Everson

Edward Dorn
Edited by Gavin Selerie and Justin Katko
Shearsman Books ($17)

The Light the Shadow Casts
Selected Everson Poems and Five Interviews
edited and introduced by Clifton Ross
Freedom Voices ($14.95)

by Patrick James Dunagan

Among the dozens of poets represented in Don Allen’s New American Poetry: 1945-1960, Ed Dorn and Wiliam Everson stand out as two self-isolated individualists with large, singularly unique and significant bodies of work. Each developed and sustained the adoption of a dramatic public persona through which they became quite recognizably “The Poet” of the poems. For Dorn, this was the rugged, Clint Eastwood-like appearance that accompanied the writing and publication of his epic poem Gunslinger. This marked a shift in Dorn’s poetic practice and it also came with his separation from his first wife and family and the beginning of his relationship with his second wife. For Everson there was a two-part persona development: as a Dominican monk he published the majority of his early poems under the name Brother Antonius before dramatically tossing aside his monk's habit at a public reading in 1969, leaving the order to marry a young teenager whom he had been counseling. He then donned what he referred to as his “Mountain Man” look, complete with bear claw necklace and freely flowing white hair and beard.

The first interview with Dorn in Two Interviews, originally published in Simon Fraser University’s student newspaper The Peak in 1971, was conducted by students of poet Robin Blaser’s and took place on the front balcony of a commune along a busy street with neighborhood noise (for instance, the “Miltonic bellowing” of nearby neighbor Vancouver poet George Bowering) interrupting on the tape. The presence of British poet J.H. Prynne (along with Ralph Maud and Stan Persky) chiming in during the interview is a plus. Dorn—along with second wife Jennifer Dunbar, toddler Kidd, and baby Maya—had just completed a drive across the United States with Prynne, and the congenial warmth between Prynne and the Dorns is attested to by a photo of the cover for the Vancouver publication Writing 8, consisting of a Prynne-Dorn family totem pole pile up.

Dorn’s dislike of his own work The North Atlantic Turbineis striking: “one of the beasts. Because it’s like, made of the parts of a verse practice that was ending, in that way, so strong, that it couldn’t stop before that book got written. I just look at that book as a curiosity.” And his sharp pushback against interviewer Brian Fawcett’s voiced disgruntlement with Gunslinger as being too “current” as well as “too easy” is adroitly on point. Dorn points out that Fawcett’s cited example, the phrase “Tampico bombers” is in fact “not current. Nobody says that.” And anyway, “what’s wrong with current? I mean I refuse to use a language which is calculated backward in time so as to appear not current. I mean absolutely.” Dorn is sensitively aware of the changes happening within his work and his inclinations are to try to change the direction of conversation, and ask for local information: “Well, is there any interest around here in Poetry? Do people get together and give readings?”

The second interview, conducted in 1981 by Gavin Selerie while the Dorns were visiting London and projected for inclusion in Selerie’s Riverside Interviews series, is by far the more substantial. Dorn speaks of his experience teaching at the University of Essex under the Pound scholar and poet Donald Davie. Dorn discusses the development of his course “The Literature of the Westward Expansion” and how he benefitted from teaching the unusual, “I suppose you could call it interdisciplinary” studies at Essex. The emphasis on bringing in material from outside of students’ own creative work was a relief for him: “It’s much better to let people write and convey other things to them which will enable them to write, rather than trying to tell them what they’ve written after they’ve done it.” Dorn interestingly names British poet A.E. Housman as a recent revelation to him of how it is “entirely possible for a scholar to be a poet” and knowingly remarks how “procedures do get defined by one’s possibilities of living” when discussing poet Charles Olson’s work in comparison.

Selerie’s lengthy introduction to his interview refers to remarks made by Dorn during readings he gave while in England, quotes extensively from transcripts, and provides historical framing for situating transitions occurring in Dorn’s work at the time. In addition to both interviews, short selections of Dorn’s writing are also included. Of most significance is “from The Day & Night Report (1971)” along with further information regarding both the composition and publication of this uncollected work, portions of which appeared in Tom Clark’s anthology All Stars and Clayton Eshleman’s literary journal Caterpillar, which raises the question of why The Day & Night Report was left out of the recent Collected Poems. The other works, “From Juneau in June (1980-81)” and “Three Poems and a Draft (1981),” are better off left to the realm of the archive-junkies.

While Dorn’s work has received a tremendous boost in publishing since his death in 1999, accompanied by the long overdue interest of younger scholars and poets, in stark contrast, Everson’s work has suffered neglect since his death in 1994, nearly vanishing from the radar of today’s readers. This absence of care for Everson’s work mirrors a similar lack for that of Kenneth Rexroth and Robinson Jeffers, his self-termed “mentor” and “master” respectively. Marking Everson’s centennial year of birth, the American republication of The Light the Shadow Casts, Clifton Ross’s slim but nonetheless substantial and informing collection of interviews with an accompanying small selection of poems spanning decades of Everson’s writing, signals a possible change of fortune.

Everson, author of the foundational study of Pacific coast poetry Archetype West, is a fascinating poet of California, viscerally engaged with the landscape of both the coastline and the central valley. His work represents nature poetry immediately one with the spiritual, psychological, and mystical elements of his being in a fashion that is strikingly dissimilar to his peers. Everson calls out for a deep engagement of writing with local physical locale: “I think we’re going to come back to a regionalism with a much higher consciousness than what it was before when it was just a kind of ‘scenery’.” His poetry answers his call, lushly expansive in its reaching after metaphor: “. . . the quenchless wound, / The wound that throbs like wakening milk in the winter dugs of the doe, / Like honey out of the broken comb in the rock of Tamalpais.”

In Ross’s words, “Everson reaches into the darkness, into the Shadow of consciousness, to find the light of God.” Everson himself says, “the poet takes language and articulates it in such way that the madness is there. That’s where his gonads are. He stands in a most direct approximation to the psychoid state in his creative trance. He is utterly possessed in it.” He understands the nature of his role quite clearly: “I take up the progression . . . from the prophet to the shaman.” It is not surprising that today’s readers haven’t felt compelled towards embracing the rich, often overburdened feel of his poetry. The reluctance is especially understandable given the heavy and heady nature of just how substantively rooted Everson is within both Catholic and Jungian disciplines. The vocabulary and concepts with which he is comfortably at home writing and discussing have become far removed from where the audience for poetry now exists in most of our society. While giving poetry readings Everson nonetheless felt called to reach out: “I had to challenge the audience and get them out of this bland expectancy which they have.”

Both Everson and Dorn follow what each in their own manner conceives of as dutiful service upon the path of “The Poet.” Everson pursues an encounter within the unconscious: in his view, “the shaman and the poet enter into the collective unconscious via the personal unconscious” and then he attempts “to correct what he finds there.” This is often a personally messy practice, and he observes how “most poets don’t accept that risk. They make for the ideal, to create a perfect statement out of the ideal.” Dorn doesn’t share interest in the unconscious, his own or anybody else’s, but he is likewise wary of the tendency among poets and readers alike to avoid risking the unfamiliar. He acknowledges the poet’s job as one of study, of keeping one’s self accessible to incoming information and the disturbing openness that entails:

I think the definition of a poet’s life is really a life of study. And as that study progresses, the terms of its transmission change—not because the poetry changes but because the deliberation dictates what can be said . . . I believe that the whole function of poetry is the criticism of one’s lifetime and one’s life in that lifetime, and it’s an endless attempt to encourage the reader to enlighten himself.

Poetry might at best “encourage” personal engagement and change. It’s a take it or leave it proposition and Dorn knows the casual, ordinary reader will likely leave it again and again. “The Poet,” however, will return to struggle without end.

Click here to purchase Two Interviews at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Click here to purchase William Everson
Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013


An Alternative History, 1600–1800
Steven Moore
Bloomsbury ($39.95)

by Scott Bryan Wilson

Steven Moore spent the first volume of his The Novel: An Alternative History obliterating the common notion that Don Quixote was the first novel; it’s thus appropriate that the second volume begins with Cervantes’s opus, so that its far-reaching influence can be seen on so many of the novels that came after it. Moore’s argument is that Don Quixote is the first modern novel, not chronologically, “but in the sense that it marks the transition from the medieval worldview (unscientific, faith-based, Ptolemaic, tradition-bound, authoritarian, certain, static) to the modern.” He notes, “Don Quixote is all about the influence of books on life and the crucial importance, therefore, of choosing wisely among them,” which is also a theme of Moore’s work. The immensity of Moore’s accomplishment with this volume can’t be understated: he packs 200 years of world literature into 1,000 pages. Grouped by language (French and English make up the bulk of the work, though there are sections on German, Chinese, Indian, and others, including novels written in Latin, which is what the most educated wrote in, a decision that would doom them to obscurity), Moore writes capsule reviews of hundreds of novels, some as little as a paragraph or two, while others get many pages. Some of the works he discusses haven’t been translated into English, so he bases his write-ups on available scholarly works, biographies, excerpts in anthologies, and third-party mentions.

His chronological reading of these hundreds of books leads to observations that might otherwise be difficult to see: “I’ve often noted during this history of the novel that the appearance of a massive masterpiece tends to silence the field for a while.” Moore identifies the major examples of all the literary trends and genres for each language or region, then the inevitable sequels and imitators. The reader will have to keep a notebook handy in order to make a list of books to seek out as she moves through the text. And there are so many tantalizing ones discussed:

  • “Anton Ulrich von Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel’s two dinosaurs, Die durchleuchtete Syrerin Aramena (The Illustrious Syrian Aramena, 1669-73) and Die römische Octavia (The Roman Octavia, 1677-1707), weighing in at 4,000 and 7,000 pages respectively”
  • Madeleine de Scudery’s Ibrahim, or the Illustrious Bassa (900 pages), which sought to “repurpose [the heroic romance genre] from artless entertainment to entertaining art,” and Scudery’s “frigidly chaste” and “interminable novel” Artamenes, or Cyrus the Great (3,200 pages).
  • France’s first modern novel, Honore d’Urfe’s Astrea, about which Moore asks “What are we to make, then, of an encyclopedic study of love where the only two couples who express and enjoy true love are a pair of swingers and a transgenerational couple consisting of a child-molester and a tween cutter? Where the novel’s two principal theorists of ideal love are an unmarried druid and a wanderer uninterested in women?”
  • The Devil Upon Crutches by Luis Velez de Guevara (1641), “a damning indictment of human folly that went through three editions in its first year and was so popular that two cavaliers reportedly drew swords and fought over the last copy in a bookshop”
  • “Impossible to translate is Cao Qujing’s Guwangyan (Preposterous Words, 1730), a 3,000-page sex extravaganza”
  • A 41,000-page novel, Dastan-e Amir Hamzah, most likely only ever read in its entirety by one person, critic Shamsur Rahman Faruqi; “This Taj Mahal of fiction leaves me speechless”
    The Postboy Robbed of His Mail (1692-93), an 800-page epistolary novel.” (Novels didn’t tend to be short in their early days.)

One could go on and on. It’s fascinating to read about wildly popular genres of old, such as the French roman heroique, a “moribund” genre with “flat characters and supersized adventures,” mostly read by the idle rich. Moore claims that “these gigantic novels form a mountain range in the middle of 17th-century French fiction that must be scaled before reaching the more interesting novels on the other side.” La Calprenede was a major author in the genre, publishing Cassandra (3,000 pages), Cleopatra (2,500 pages), and Faramond (8,700 pages).

Moore’s work is exhaustive, but never exhausting, and his writing is witty, engaging, and accessible; he never gets bogged down with academic snoozery, and makes welcome use of slang and humor to punctuate his major points. The result is that the reader becomes just as excited about Moore’s project as Moore is, finding out about so many works, from novels you’re already read, to ones you know you should have read, and to the hopelessly obscure. There are great lines on every page, but here’s a small sample:

  • “90 percent of the characters in 18th-century British novels are detestable, and most of the 10 percent who aren’t aren’t all that appealing. I wouldn’t want to spend five minutes with Robinson Crusoe or Lemuel Gulliver or David Simple or Clarissa Harlowe, or even Parson Adams.”
  • “For some of us, there are few terms that induce narcosis quicker than ‘Christian allegory.’”
  • “He [Montesquieu] aims at perennial targets of satire—vanity, greed, religious zealotry, political corruption, pedantry, provincialism—which millennia of mockery have not been able to eradicate and never will.”
  • “Rousseau knew most readers use their hearts, and that a large enough dose of sentiment would cover aesthetic faults like delicious frosting on a mediocre cake. The sales figures and sacks of fan mail proved he was right.”

Although by necessity the serial-review style is the perfect format for most of the novels discussed, Moore’s sections on certain writers or types of writers tend to be quite long. These include Cervantes, Samuel Richardson (whom he doesn’t really like), Fielding and Sterne and Swift (whom he very much likes; Moore includes a four-page list of novels influenced by Tristam Shandy), as well as De Sade, Jean-Paul Richter, French libertine writers, and a very interesting section on women novelists of the early 18th century: Eliza Haywood (“bodice rippers”), Penelope Aubin (“R-rated Sunday-school lessons”), Jane Barker (“a star in the history of alternative fiction”), and Charlotte Lennox (her Henrietta is “a smart novel about a smart woman”).

From The Adventures of Simplicius Simplicissimus (the birth of the modern German novel) to A Dream of Red Mansions (“the greatest novel in Chinese literature”), to The Corrupted Ones (“the ugliest French novel of its time, relentless in its depiction of the miseries caused by an undisciplined sex drive . . . and daringly realistic in its representation of life among the lower classes”) to The Adventures of Eovaai (“the most interesting English novel of the 1730s”), The Novel: An Alternative History, 1600-1800 catalogs and reviews more books than most people will read in a lifetime, works of immense importance not only to the history of the genre, but to human cultural history as well. Moore’s achievement is staggering, and this latest volume of his project only whets the appetite for the next volume to come.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore

Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013


The Life of an Eccentric in an Age of Change
John Glassie
Riverhead ($16)

by Douglas Messerli

By coincidence, just as I completed reading Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès fiction, Where Tigers Are at Home—in which one of the central stories concerns the seventeenth-century priest Athanasius Kircher—my companion brought home from the local bookstore a recent biography of Kircher, John Glassie’s A Man of Misconceptions.

Like the Blas de Roblès work, Glassie recounts Kircher’s very active life, from his birth in Fulda in the then Holy Roman Empire (as Voltaire quipped, “neither Holy, nor Roman, nor a Empire”) to his long tenure as the caretaker of his celebrated museum in the Vatican. And like the fiction, Glassie one by one recounts Kircher’s vast array of interests: geology, optics, microbiology, sculpture, medicine, languages (in particular his attempt to read the Egyptian hieroglyphs), philosophy, mathematics, theology, and all things Chinese. Kircher has often been described as the last man to master all knowledge. But in the age of Tycho Brahe, René Decartes, Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, and Isaac Newton—in short, at the beginning of what we now recognize as modern science—nearly of all Kircher’s theories regarding these numerous topics have since been proven wrong. A determinedly brilliant Jesuit, Kircher misread texts, jiggled facts, and theorized through fantastical conjectures a world in which everything was interrelated, pointing to the hand of God. Although for most of his life the priest was seen as one of the most learned men of the world, and was sought out and corresponded with nearly every major figure of the day, by the end of his life he was perceived by many as a kind of crackpot, famed for his theories based on little experimentation and great imagination.

Glassie engagingly recounts the events of this “adventurer’s” life—a man who at one point had himself lowered into the erupting cone of Mount Vesuvius—and reveals Kircher’s numerous “misconceptions” along the way:

Many of Kircher’s actual ideas today seem wildly off base, if not simply bizarre. Contrary to Kircher’s thinking, for instance, there is nothing occult or divine about magnetism. There is no such thing as universal sperm. And there is no network of fires and oceans leading to the center of the Earth. It’s fair to say that from the viewpoint of modern science Kircher has been something of a joke.

The author, nonetheless, paints a somewhat positive picture of the “lying scientist” simply by giving us a larger context of how science in this dawning modernist world was generally perceived. As Glassie points out, “Of course, modern science didn’t exist in 1602,” the year of Kircher’s birth. Despite his wondrous ideas, Galileo too was wrong about a great many things. And Newton, apart from his influential ideas, continued to practice alchemy throughout his life, while Kircher dismissed alchemy early on.

If nothing else, Kircher’s utter fascination with all forces of the earth might stand as a grand attempt, akin to that of the Renaissance thinkers, to connect all knowledge. He perceived thought in general as “the art of knowing,” which he attempted to delineate in dozens and dozens of Latin tomes. It was Kircher who inspired Bernini to sculpt “The Fountain of Four Rivers” in Rome. And as Glassie reveals, Kircher’s grand misconceptions influenced scores of writers and thinkers throughout the centuries.

Kircher’s theories of magnetism, for example, were highly influential upon the eighteenth-century physician Franz Anton Mesmer; in fact, the priest’s fascination with magnetism seems somewhat prescient today, since, according to Kircher, the significance of magnetism has steadily increased across every scientific and technological field. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz claimed that Kircher influenced much of his early thinking and inspiration. And although the old priest was utterly wrong in his interpretations of Egyptian hieroglyphics, he was right to associate them with Coptic, and had he further studied that relationship he might have cracked the code that was later achieved through the discovery of the Rosetta stone by Napoleon’s forces in Egypt. Poe quotes Kircher in his story “A Descent into the Maelström,” and Jules Verne’s famed A Journey to the Center of the Earth was almost entirely based on ideas by the “German egoist,” a character also in the story itself. Nearly all of the writings and teachings of the nineteenth-century “psychic” Madame Blavatsky, expressed in Theosophy, are cribbed from Kircher’s writings. The list of later influences, misguided or benign, continues through the centuries.

Finally, one simply has to pause in awe and wonderment with regard to Kircher’s voluminous activities. Although one might perceive him as nearly always misguided and often a fraud, science certainly would have been less interesting without him.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore

Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013


Peter Orner
Little, Brown ($24.99)

by Kate Petersen

Trying to describe all that Peter Orner’s Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge contains is a bit like trying to summarize the contents of one of the photo boxes I found while helping my parents clean their garage this summer: sweet but impossible. These are universal boxes, aren’t they? Unshuffled decks of younger everybody, great-greats you never met, lovers your folks mentioned in passing (or never mentioned). Some faces reappear. Others turn up just once, posed under a giant boulder or funny hat. No, no one knows who that is. And yet they all look up at you through various years of fade and crease, almost asking for something.

Last Car seems to take such a memento box as its organizing principle. Even the titles of the collection—street names and places (“Detamble,” “Spokane”), years (“1979”) and detailed scenarios (“Fourteen-Year-Olds, Indiana Dunes, Late Afternoon”)—read like notes jotted on the back of old snapshots. No accident, this: Orner’s stories exult and serve remembering and the heartbreak that so often attends it.

Structured much like his earlier Esther Stories, Orner’s latest collection is organized into four sections of the compressed flights that are his métier: “Survivors,” “The Normal,” “In Moscow Everything Will Be Different,” and “Country of Us.” The Chicago and Fall River sides of the family we met in Esther Stories and Love and Shame and Love are here again, their now-familiar voices forming the book’s backbone, anchored by the presumed “I” of Alex Popper. But Orner casts his net wider, too, inhabiting the mind of Abraham Lincoln’s grieving widow, a Bulgarian émigré in Waukegan, and Isaak Babel inhabiting Babel’s executioner, in a matter of pages. This might be jarring if Orner didn’t pull off such costume changes so well, and if they didn’t feel so true to life.

The other common thread that binds these stories is that they almost all assume the posture of remembering (or reliving). Not that this is a book of still lifes. There is true violence here: a mobster is beaten to death by prison guards during a game of floor hockey; a grisly murder takes place in the bathroom of a roadside restaurant, and a customer can’t stop returning to the scene; a man buries himself alive in his own home, leaving his lover to discover him. Even smaller domestic moments pulse with a desperate bass line, a seething longing to get out from under your own past. “What is hoping,” one woman asks herself, “if it isn’t waiting?”

And what is remembering, but another sort of waiting? It can also be a way of asking what happened—or, as is more often the case for Orner’s characters, what didn’t happen. As a bored teen lifeguard laments, “This job—and how much else?—is one long unrescue.” By the time one arrives at this line, the question of rescue has started to nag the reader: whose rescue is this book attempting; and from what? These voices, taken together, are clearly warning us of something. “Even you people who understand nothing must understand this,” Mrs. Lincoln thinks. “Don’t you see? Motion is where the loss is.” Is that our warning? To stay still?

It’s tempting to look for answers in the bigger-than-life political personalities and histories Orner brings to life. As a native Chicagoan, he has plenty of material to work with: Mayors Daley, Washington, and “Fighting Jane” Byrne all appear here alongside lowly campaign operatives, cold-war foreign aid workers, and a broken Ted Kennedy bellowing the “last gasp of the sixties.” “There were countless other things,” says the narrator, “but doesn’t everything, in one way or another, come down to politics? In my family, politics isn’t blood sport, it’s blood itself.”

This book, however, doesn’t come down to politics—perhaps because politics, the intrigue and disappointment of it, requires a bigger canvas. Instead, the politicians in Last Car seem more like landmarks that confirm, yes, we were here. They stand for a certain way to be loyal; they recall and regret as much as the next guy.

And boy, do they regret, as when Popper recalls gleefully stomping on a kite his father made him, that “small attempt approximating love.” Regret can be a way of reading one’s life back in search of intelligence to act on. But in Last Car, all this remembering and regret rarely triggers any forward action; Orner’s characters wish so badly to be back there and then that they seem, collectively, to have willed the present into remission. Yet some of the most interesting moments in this book occur when remembering collides with the present to create dramatic havoc: An old man on a San Francisco bus speaks and becomes the narrator’s dead Uncle Horace; the kite-stomper steels himself, saying, ”In the meantime, we had to live.”

This overwhelming immersion in past after past carries, for a reader stuck in the present, the bittersweet weight of watching a loved one sleep: it’s an intimate experience, but one you can’t quite share. These stories are intimate, yes, but they also hold the reader at a certain distance, one that seems to come from an authorial watchfulness. Narrative moves like rhetorical questions and armchair first lines—“Call these the meditations of an overweight junior lifeguard watching an empty lake”—often prevent the reader from forgetting that she is witnessing someone else remember. In the world of Peter Orner’s fiction, remembering is a sacred, but finally private, act.

That push-pull drives this book: these stories want us to remember, sometimes desperately, while reminding us that we can’t, not quite. We can imagine, console, listen, but ultimately, this is not our garage. Perhaps that’s the warning: Don’t touch. Just look. A warning that gives Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge its sorrow and power, sending us back to our own sordid and lovely memories, survivors now of other people’s pasts and our own.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore

Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013