Tag Archives: Fall 2014

Arrangements of Language: An Interview with Burt Kimmelman

kimmelman2by Eric Hoffman

Burt Kimmelman teaches literary and cultural studies at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. He is the highly acclaimed author of eight collections of poems. Kimmelman’s poetry has received praise from such notables as Robert Creeley (“a rare evocation”), Jerome Rothenberg (“a strict & powerful accounting”), Alfred Kazin (“artful, fastidious, learned”), and Susan Howe (“a singularly locating force”). In addition to his poetry, Kimmelman has also produced an impressive body of critical work, including numerous penetrative essays as well as two full-length books, The Poetics of Authorship in the Later Middle Ages: The Emergence of the Modern Literary Persona (Peter Lang, 1996) and the ground-breaking study The ‘Winter Mind’: William Bronk and American Letters (Fairleigh Dickinson, 1998). It was this latter effort, first encountered over a decade ago during research on my biography of George Oppen, which led me to contact Kimmelman, initiating a conversation on poetry that continues to this day. A small cross-section of that conversation is here provided, albeit in the less casual format of a formal interview, occasioned by the recent publication of Kimmelman’s Gradually the World: New and Selected Poems, 1982-2013 (BlazeVox, $18). This interview was conducted via e-mail primarily from April-May 2014, with a brief follow up in July.


Eric Hoffman: Burt, a fair amount of your work experiments with formal verse, in most cases with syllabics. What is it about working this way that appeals to you? Do you believe that working with syllabics encourages invention?

Burt Kimmelman: I first set eyes on Donald Allen’s watershed anthology, The New American Poetry, in 1965. A decade before the Allen book, Charles Olson had published his ground-shaking essay "Projective Verse" (1950); that essay was given pride of place in the poetics section of Allen’s book. So, for a fledgling poet like myself, the question of writing free verse was not a no-brainer so much as moot (I had written some sonnets, haikus, a couple of concrete poems etc., and did get great pleasure out of set form, but was not at that time in a position to have any particular form work for me in any kind of creative or generative way). Olson's astonishing essay (to say nothing of his amazing poetry, an exemplar I took to heart) explained, so to speak, how to leave free verse behind for something rigorous but not formal in any sense except the sui generis sense—as Robert Creeley had said, “form is nothing more than an extension of content.”

To speak of how I and other young poets were transformed or at least ignited by the Allen anthology is not amenable to overstatement. We were of course reading Ezra Pound, H.D., William Carlos Williams et al. but not in any college courses because they weren't in them. I discovered Oppen a year or so later, not yet Zukofsky or the other Objectivists who were aesthetically the sponsors of that anthology; and I had met and begun a correspondence with William Bronk, and also with Joel Oppenheimer, another early mentor. Decades later, however, I gravitated toward syllabication both because I was feeling tapped out a bit with the “new American poetics,” and because I found myself wanting to respond in kind to a pond near an ocean in Cape May Point, New Jersey.

My family shared a summerhouse there with Fred Caruso and his family. One summer I started jotting down brief percepts of the life in that pond—the water, weather, and wildlife—brief statements I thought could use the unobvious rigor of syllable counting (in various patterns, sometimes of unequal line lengths—I was to settle into uniform lines, though I was appreciative of John Taggart's later reminding me of other syllabic possibilities, and on another basis of Cid Corman's cautioning to stay away from adjectives, in a letter boasting of having published an entire collection without a single one). This poetics comported perfectly with what Fred was doing. He had brought a watercolors set to the shore and decided he'd do paintings of the pond in just black and white. In conversation we realized that a collection of the paintings and poems, both about the pond, would be nice, since a shared sensibility was emerging, a quality both his water colors and my brief syllabic haiku-like poems exhibited. We worked on the poems and paintings for a little less than three years, during winters from Fred’s photos; The Pond at Cape May Point appeared from Marsh Hawk Press in 2002. From that point in time I've been writing syllabic poetry almost exclusively.

graduallytheworldI've quipped to people (including you) that my syllabic work is Language Poetry on Prozac. Traditional formalism and procedural poetry are each different but maybe my later "verse" inhabits a Venn-diagram middle ground. A syllabic moving-forward towards a poem does generate surprising, for me better work because a constraint, one that evolves, maybe out of a phrase or maybe from an image in words, forces me to dig deeper to write for it and within it. I love the surprises.

So is constraint “invention” or inspiration? Invenire in Latin means to find; that etymology informs the entire western literary tradition since classical Rome, including proceduralism (let’s set Conceptual Poetry aside), as in troubadour or trouvére. There’s something else: while writing syllabic verse can demand that the poet comply with a formal structure, that poet can also decide to abandon that invented structure for another. There is a singular flexibility not available to the sonneteer, and a singular muscularity not available to the free-versifier.

Let's say that a particularly interesting phrase consists of six syllables and I want to preserve the phrase in a single line in which that is all there is, standing alone and thereby privileged, as it were, through such a placement; so I go about writing more six-syllable lines to go with it, perhaps especially in support of it, and I may even go so far as to construct six-line stanzas, each stanza containing a complete sentence in itself. Then, in my searching for the language to make all this happen, I come up with another linguistic construction I like, but I can't fit it into my now-preset form. Do I de-engineer the poem and then find another syllable count and stanza formation with or without, say, a lot of enjambments including ending lines with articles or prepositions rather than nouns or verbs (i.e., what’s the feel I want in the poem)—or do I stick with the originally devised pattern, abandoning my new pithy phrase? I might end up writing a poem that will be different from what I had been thinking the poem would be "about”—indeed this is often what turns out. But of course I'd rather my poems not be about anything and instead just be language events in and of themselves.

EH: In your experience, does this kind of formalism demand a larger or more pervasive sense of the mechanics of language, and if so, does this awareness lend your poetics more “concision” or “muscularity,” for lack of a better word? In other words, does formalism sometimes triumph over spontaneity or do you find that writing syllabically encourages you to attempt language or imagery that might not otherwise present itself in free verse?

BK: Before I try to answer this set of questions directly, we might think about what is meant by “spontaneity.” When is anyone ever free of context? I’m not opposed to Allen Ginsberg’s dictum “first thought, best thought,” yet I just can’t settle for that as a totality of praxis. Apposite to this, possibly, is the chance operations methodology of John Cage or Jackson Mac Low. Yet really, once having consulted the I Ching, why would the poet wish merely to settle for what happenstance dictates? And so the tweaking begins.

To what I think is your real question, now, which I see as having two aspects—the poet’s awareness of mechanics (thus getting to the issue of spontaneity or creativity with the tools of writing either as hindrance or boon to the writer), and the poet’s working with a form to achieve “muscularity”: Working formalistically is an expedient way to become aware of the mechanics of language and is a method for understanding them; however, I also believe that if a poet has not tried to write free verse then the full comprehension of what language is will not be possible. You simply are forced to grapple with words by considering, by experiencing, what they do—in John Searle’s sense in How to Do Things with Words (which especially takes into account speech acts, stressing that dynamic of language—but also in the sense of what is a noun, what is an article, how aware was Williams of prepositions and lineation and what the new writing of his time was about, really, when he put “upon” on a line by itself in “The Red Wheelbarrow,” a formalistic poem, or when he was hanging out with the Oppens and getting published by their To Press? (I gave a reading in Paris recently after which the marvelous scholar Hélène Aji shrewdly pointed out that my poems contain a preponderance of monosyllabic words. This is so. One constructive effect of such word choice is that, serendipitously or not, it allows me to unpack a poem-in-draft more easily when I’m still not especially committed to a lineation or the like. On the other hand, I can also find space in a line more easily when I wish to use a particular multisyllabic word that might work in counterpoint—something Williams knew to do, as in the extra-syllabic “probably” and “delicious” in “This Is Just to Say.”)

So, in the purely mechanical sense of language, why not work in forms, since they are heuristics for arriving at an understanding, and personally they may be the most suitable methodology for writing poetry, whether the poetry is verse or not? Not to get pedantic about this, but let’s remember where poetry has come from historically. It’s only with the invention of writing that the mechanics of historiography, such as developed by the Old English sceop, for instance, came to be appreciated as aesthetical rather than merely as craft, once the poet did not any longer keep the record of the tribe in memory (cf. Pound’s coinage sagetrieb that then became the very important journal by that name, thanks to the late Burton Hatlen).

Now, rather than go down that dark alley where a number of people have made valid distinctions between proceduralism and older formalisms like sonnet-composing, let me just move on to the question of concision. Here too, however, there is a bit of a knot: I think proceduralism can be seen as an outgrowth of American avant-garde beliefs and practices; and my feeling that I derive a concise poetry or verse out of syllabics also has to do with a tradition I’ve always worked out of as a poet (as Zukofsky wrote to Hugh Seidman, in advising him to “cut, cut, cut”). Yes, I end up someplace else than where I began, someplace I did not foresee, because my struggle with constraint has forced me there. I also love and have been trained to love concision (Pound’s condensare, another coinage—does anyone read Briggflatts anymore?). I think the greatest sonnet writer in the English language is Donne. Is he concise? You bet he is. You want to study good writing, look at what he does with that form. Shakespeare as a sonneteer? Please!

EH: Do you ever find yourself composing a poem non-syllabically, and then find it edging toward syllabics, not because it encourages a type of language or thought exploration that non-formal verse might indicate, but because your voice—again for lack of a better word—"works" syllabically?

BK: I either have to qualify or take back what I said (not totally in jest) before about my poetry being Language Poetry on Prozac—or at least as much as my reference goes to LangPo like Ron Silliman's or maybe Lyn Hejinian's (in contrast to Charles Bernstein's or Bruce Andrews', for instance), and while I’m at it most definitely in contrast to Conceptual work by someone like Mathew Timmons or perhaps Vanessa Place, which I can't help feeling is art rather than literature, if such a distinction is still possible within the North American avant garde. For me the constraint comes after some irruption of language has occurred. At this point, does that language constitute what you are calling a “voice”? At such a point syllabification, what I could say is a heuristic device or simply method of composition, takes over for me—sometimes as a new ordering force, other times as something more, for instance as a driving force that can result in a poem I had not a clue of when I began working on “the” poem (the final, purportedly finished, poem maybe not traceable back to a scintilla of its origin—like in Frank O'Hara’s “Why I Am Not a Painter” about a Mike Gold canvas’ evolution). All the same, I make choices—even if merely in the most minor way.

But let's get back to your use of the word “voice.” Firstly, I think you've inadvertently set up a false dichotomy in your question, perhaps even two suspect dichotomies. For one, I'm not sure our premise should be that a procedural constraint must, or will in some instances, lead to insights or percepts of an "exploratory" nature, let’s say, such as free verse might afford (was I questioning whether or not free verse can even do that?). Also, whatever we might actually be thinking of when we use the term “voice,” that thing can possibly emerge either within free verse or syllabic verse. However, a constraint might impede the creation of a “voice,” in some or most cases.

Is not the constraint ultimately about, if not itself (in LangPo), then about language per se—about language as material? Yes, a number of my poems have a narrative of a sort or a voice or at least some kind of throughline, let’s call it, due to focus or subject matter (I try to create explicitly syntactic units)—yet I’m not wedded to the notion that a poem of mine must be "about" anything, and in fact at times I struggle to make a poem, within the constraints I choose, which is about as little as possible.

Was Oppen being a bit histrionic when he declared that language is the enemy (“Possible / To use / Words provided one treat them / Like enemies”)? But really, let's stop glorifying the making of poetry (is this what Place meant when she said that "Conceptual writing wants to put poetry out of its misery"?) and instead recognize something about the creative act, something not obvious but which is essential about the nature of literature (and art). I wonder if in your question you're at all thinking of Robert Grenier's "I hate SPEECH." To loop back to what I said before about orality and literacy, I hope I’m not contradicting myself to ask if poetry can be poetry when it in no way contains even the slightest echo or afterglow of spoken or sung word(s).

EH: Speaking of the creative act, and to shift gears a bit from mechanics to aesthetics, as I look through your New and Selected Poems, it strikes me that a fair percentage of your poems are ekphrastic, using various forms of art as a springboard for poetic rumination. In some cases the poems concentrate almost wholly on the work of art itself, while at other times the artworks more or less trigger a poetic response. What, aside from the physical availability of an abundance of art—you live in New Jersey, just across the river from New York City, and many of these poems relate visits to the Met, the Whitney, and the Guggenheim, among others—attracts you to this specific poetic form? Do you think that being in conversation with the visual arts positions your poetry within a broader continuum of artistic expression?

BK: Well, yes, but let’s press a little harder on what “continuum” might mean. Allow me to fill in some background, which may indirectly help get to what I think you are focusing on.
I grew up in two households filled with art and artists (one the home of my mother in Park Slope, who had the work of many artist friends all over the house—the other a Greenwich Village apartment where my father and his new wife, who was a superb sculptor, were living, and there too artists and their art were everywhere). So regardless of my childhood lack of interest in art, I was absorbing art and getting an education beyond formal schooling. Fast forward through the hippie years to when, as an adult, I saved money to take a trip to France and England, where I'd never been. What else was I to do there, a tourist on my own, but go to museums and galleries and marvel at the Parisian architecture and monuments? I wrote a lot in my notebook every day, excited by the work all around me, seized by it. Returning home, I developed poems from the notes I’d made, soon realizing I had the basis for a coherent collection of poetry about art, artists, places where art is viewed, people who view it. I made it my business to visit galleries and museums in NYC, Boston/Cambridge, and elsewhere. Out of all this came my first collection in 1992, Musaics (muse, museum, music, mosaic, etc.). The ekphrastic habit stuck.

So far I've decidedly not answered your question. Let me, then, begin an answer by drawing a basic distinction between visual art and poetry (as well as music). There is a fundamental difference here. Poetry, like music, exists on the temporal plane; time is really important to it (though the reader or listener might never reflect on that fact). As for visual art—well, it does not exist on the temporal plane, it exists on the spatial plane. (Dance, opera, and theatre are syntheses of the visual and the sonic.)

One conclusion to be drawn from this contrast is that visual art may be poetry’s other. Indeed, many poets write about art, artworks, or, as in my case, the ambience in which art is viewed, more than they write about music or dance. So, is alterity, so to speak, a great priming pump for the creation of poetry? Does otherness possibly allow the poet to escape the confines of even thinking itself?

I maintain art does allow language to be freed from its moorings sometimes, and that can be a very good thing for a poet. When I think of the poets whose work I feel directly affects my own, the work is notably visual (Paul Blackburn’s being the best example of this, or Williams’ before his), and such poets often enough have lived lives engaged with art and artists. The respective poetry of Blackburn and Williams, stylistically, stands in contrast to that of O'Hara or John Ashbery, both art critics. Setting these two pairs side by side and trimming away their differences we would find, in all four poets' work, that it contains various engagements with art and/or the alogicality of the spatial plane, the visual. And I can't help but wonder if that is what might be, when you get right down to it, most compelling about the work.

Take a book like Serious Pink by Sharon Dolin (one of the first books done by Marsh Hawk Press, which is dedicated to doing books in which art and poetry come together in some way). This book continues to sell well beyond any reasonable expectation for the lifespan of a book like this. It's a collection of ekphrastic poems exclusively. It’s also a collection of arrangements of language in which story plays no part, a work that really exists in space—maybe like a Richard Diebenkorn painting (whence her title). Why does Sharon's book continue to sell when there's nothing to "get" in the poems? I don't believe her poems are various readers’ Rorschach images. Contrast her work with poetry by someone like Cat Doty, also well published, read by many, which tells stories, basically. Well, Sharon’s work is compelling, to me and many others—and yet Cat’s is very popular. The two oeuvres could not be further apart.

Is visual art as old as song? Perhaps. Anyway, it’s liberating because it sets the poet, or at least it sets me, free of the constraints of discourse as normally sanctioned by society. When my daughter, who was doing some wonderful drawings and paintings even at a young age, insisted in her senior year of high school that she wanted to go to art school, we began taking her to National Portfolio Day sessions (held for prospective art students around the country, where the kids meet the schools and programs, and vice versa). I realized then that a huge minority of people don’t think like lawyers or English professors or doctors or maybe certain engineers; rather, they seem to know there is another “logic” underlying a painting. I have come to yearn ever more for, and am increasingly comfortable with, access to that world of the sheerly visual, and the more access I'm allowed, the more sharp I feel I can be with formal language.

EH: Philosopher and aesthetician Joseph Margolis has described a work of art as “a physically embodied, culturally emergent entity,” a human “utterance” that shares the same ontology as the human being. Following from this, he views a work of art as complex and difficult to interpret, and says there is finally no authoritative interpretation for a work of art. Do you agree? Is the “meaning” of the poem—insofar as any poem has a meaning beyond its manifestation as a linguistic event—not a single meaning but any number of interpretations, some more valid or defensible than others?

BK: Of course the meaning of a poem is not a single meaning. To speak of a poem’s meaning, however, is to be led astray; its meaning is beside the point. Thinking about what Margolis says, in any case, I guess the question to throw back at him would be: Does a human being have a meaning? What human being is reducible to any formulation? Even to say Hitler was evil or to explain his behavior in terms of an overly authoritarian father or whatever, is reductive.

I don’t know Margolis’ work so I can’t engage in dialogue with it in any substantial way—and I can’t claim the mantle of philosopher here. Nevertheless, I wonder if his comment attempts to push back on an art world that hegemonically insists on a notion of art or artworks as not necessarily having to exist physically—the result of what I’ll call the “Duchamp problem,” beginning with Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (obviously that urinal was a physical object, indeed relentlessly material, and at the time maybe implacable in its perceived refusal to embody or exude anything then widely assumed to have been the quality of high art or fine art). Here his prank was the point—while, however, calling attention to a new aesthetics (something that has not been talked about enough maybe), an aesthetics I can’t help associating in principle or sensibility with “machine aesthetics” such as we find in Williams and the painters he was enamored of, as well as in early Oppen and others. (I don’t claim to be an artist or art expert either—although, as you have observed, I write in response to art often in my poems and will say here, not for the first time, that I don’t and probably never will understand art—while I do understand what poetry is.)

What is Margolis to do about an artist like Sol Lewitt, who may only issue instructions for an artwork (are not the instructions, which need not have been written down, the actual work of art), or Marina Abramovic, whose now famous work of art, so to speak, was to sit silently without moving for long periods of time at New York’s MoMA? The point of my question sets aside what may be a separate issue of art reception, in her case on the part of museum visitors witnessing her silence, and sets aside the fact that this took place within a publicly acknowledged institution of art. With or without these factors, the art world would say that what she did was different from Harry Houdini’s escaping his fetters inside a locked trunk at the bottom of a river (though she now runs a school teaching people how to achieve the self-discipline necessary to accomplish a feat like this). The point is her intention that I’m not ready to say is not in part aesthetic, no matter how conceptual her “art work” may be. (I also dare not make a serious foray into the nature of aesthetics here, just as I won’t into ontology.)

So let’s take a poet like Wallace Stevens. I pick him to talk about, in replying to your question, for two reasons. The first is what Harold Bloom once wrote about Stevens, describing his poetry as “selfhood communings.” I love that phrase because, when you get right down to it, in a Stevens poem there is not necessarily an “utterance” (to echo Margolis) purportedly meant as rhetorical. The persona in the Stevens poem, if I’m reading Bloom accurately, is not compelled to speak to his reader or to anyone. In this sense, then, the poem is not so much an expression as an artifact of Stevens’ “humanity” (again echoing Margolis) in a given instance, insofar as human beings are linguistic beings whether or not their language is socially contextualized or grounded.

Stevens is also useful in our present exchange because his poems can be dialectical or at least ideational in some cerebral way—like “The Idea of Order at Key West” (in contrast to the equally great “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” that, aside from the poem’s exquisite visuality and propositional veneer, is not carrying out an argument). Many years ago I wrote about Stevens’ “discourse,” in itself quite remarkable for questioning reality and delving into the nature of world. Contrasting his poems to those of Bronk’s, I made the case that, from a philosophical perspective, Stevens’ epistemology was inadequate. Given his gorgeous flamboyance, a reader might question his intention to get to the heart of something of an epistemological or even ontological nature. Bronk’s poetics, his aesthetics, were better suited to carrying on a discourse of radical skepticism, to mount an epistemological investigation. Bronk gets further along in this investigation: Stevens seems to want to make the journey but ends up using it as a coat rack upon which to hang his beautiful raiments. Taking the two poets together, moreover, I think I established the value of Bronk’s aesthetics (his concision and quietude, for example)—not only for making his philosophical case but also for making great poetry. Now, neither man was a philosopher. Both were poets. And both were great poets. To me Bronk’s language, his poetry, is equally beautiful regardless of his stunning turns of thought in maintaining a truly probing skepticism about thought and about world. Still, his poetry is of a different sensibility. (There came a time in Bronk’s life when he felt it necessary to throw out every book of Stevens’ he owned.)

Finally, what is the value of poetry (which really is what you are asking, I think)? Is it not a communion (to get back to Bloom’s notion of “communings”)? In that context, let me just note Stevens’ stipulation that poetry must give pleasure. Can there be a communion that is not pleasurable? I wonder if a lot of art made especially in the 1990s, sporting one or another political agenda or making overt social commentary, was not then especially defended by some artists and critics who insisted that art need not be beautiful—once some art lovers expressed disappointment over its didactic quality. I accept this notion.

I think Margolis wishes to circumscribe what he may view as some far-flung adventures in the art world—art’s promiscuity, really. What other discipline is as vital, beyond the realm of aesthetics proper, in the life and health of a society, in a manner not dissimilar to journalism or historiography? (Glenn Ligon’s work is beautiful and didactic at times, without failing to be clever enough.) I might even say that art is more vital. Art often creates or enhances social and political dialogue. Poetry can do this too. Yet it is art—not music, not dance, not poetry, not fiction, not even some great chef’s creation (if you think of gourmet cooking as art)—which can do anything. In addition, the art work, whether completely ephemeral or substantial, is part of what the artist is, who the artist is, is inseparable. “Art” made by algorithm or machine is only art if the viewer or reader engages it, but we’re now beyond Margolis’ definition—even if we grant the status of artist to the programmer (here I’m not talking about digital literature that may incorporate random operations).

Art is utterly useless, finally, or should be, or has to be in the Heideggerian or possibly Benjaminian sense. Poetry is more of a problem for people in understanding what it’s not because it’s made out of language proper (“Dear Professor Quine, Why would someone say something that does not possess intentionality, that may not serve in any utilitarian way?”). I often think of Bronk’s imageless poem “The Mind’s Limitations Are Its Freedom” and feel that he could be just as well talking about the poem. Here’s how it begins:

The mind has a power which is unusable
and this is its real power. What else but the mind
senses the final uselessness of the mind?

How foolish we were, how smaller than what we are,
were we to believe what the mind makes of what
it meets. Whatever the mind makes is not.

The poem ends first by asking “What could it all mean?” The answer: “The mind does this.” The final statement brings us back to the persona who says, simply, “I stand in awe of the mind.”

EH: Your description of Bronk’s poetry—namely his “concision and quietude”—seems equally appropriate in describing your own poetry. Turning now to a discussion of influence—something I am nearly always hesitant to do as influence often seems to me to be somewhat digressive, or perhaps a tendency on the part of the interviewer to obviate discussion of an artist’s works themselves—I wonder a bit about your list of influences. In a recent interview with Thomas Fink in Jacket2, you provide a list of those poets who have most inspired you: Oppen, Bronk, Creeley, and Blackburn. Yet in reading your work and comparing it with the work of those poets named, aside from a general tendency among them to concentrate on the materiality of language, to avoid unnecessary verbiage, and, especially in Blackburn, to focus, as you put it, on the “daily things of life and [. . .] the words we use in our daily lives,” your poetry, especially your more recent work, is often deceptively more straightforward than much of the work of your precursors. I wonder if this is a conscious intention on your part to aim for (if you’ll excuse the description) a kind of accessibility? Or do you find this commitment to “daily things” (relationships, those between people and with the natural world are especially omnipresent) necessarily results in a seemingly more grounded idiom than those who have influenced you? Is this an effort on your part to keep focused on what, for you, a “poem really is,” to “imbue them [your poems] with tangibility”?

BK: One takes from a range of poets but there is a palpable world, and the poets you report my having cited as influences are interested in that, both within their poems and within the world in which they write them. There are other poets I’d add to the list to help me make my point here: Oppenheimer (through whom I discovered all the others), Denise Levertov (especially her line breaks, as I think of them in comparison with Creeley’s and Williams’ and in contrast to most other poets), Olson (whose blurb on the back of Bronk’s early New Directions book—“I may have, for the first time in my life, imagined a further succinct life”—I was riveted by, but also whose poetry held me in its sway), and Williams, whose work is the bole of the tree (Marjorie Perloff sent me a lovely note after the publication of Gradually the World, saying that my work most perpetuates the Williams tradition these days).

Let me add a few more poets now. I have written elsewhere about the two poems I think were both the reasons for and signs of a vivid turn in American poetry and culture generally: One was Howl, the other Creeley’s “I Know a Man” (Ginsberg’s poem first appeared in typescript because Creeley typed it). In my personal literary history, while of course I was deeply affected by these two poems, there were three other works that, when I first read them in what were still my formative years, were immensely influential for me, in a variety of ways (yet all three are, let’s say, “succinct”—“no slither,” to borrow Pound’s phrase). In the order in which I encountered them, they were Diane di Prima’s first chapbook, This Kind of Bird Flies Backward (sleek and brash, possessing astonishing resolution of language, and tangibility, and lyrical without ornament), Bronk’s “The Smile on the Face of a Kouros” (a towering poem, one making a major statement, a great poem in the sense of what we usually take greatness to mean), and Blackburn’s lyric “AUG/22. Berkeley Marina” (its astounding craft and delicacy—how the words, visually, emerge from the blank page, how as words they coalesce into themselves—when reading it I saw how to write poetry, and among all poems it remains most of all my model). Along the way there has also been O’Hara but for other, also important, reasons, such as the permission he grants not to have to make sense all the time (I realize you say I do) and, as in Blackburn, a dailiness (not such a surprise considering that O’Hara, Blackburn, Ginsberg, Oppenheimer, di Prima, and others like LeRoi Jones / Amiri Baraka were all hanging out together in downtown Manhattan way back when, before realizing they were supposed to be representing different schools of poetry).

There’s another way to approach answering your question, however, which takes account of both my attraction to visual art and my personal life. So, let’s think a bit more about what sets visual art apart from poetry, music, as well as drama, etc. I mentioned before that visual art exists on the spatial plane, poetry on the temporal plane. Beyond what I discussed earlier about the difference here, I would add that there are two significant aspects, for me, in thinking about this difference and how it can be brought to life in poetry. One has to do with the salutary force of silence. A favorite passage of mine in Bronk’s correspondence (some of his poems are about visual art) reads: “Silence is the term for the unspeakable which is what we are always talking about but never are able to say. It is what we come from and go back to but, attentively, we never really leave it. No need to wait for the time. I think our lives would be unbearably trivial without it.” Taking cognizance of Bronk’s attitude here provides a terrific entrance into his work; I’d also say into Oppen’s particularly. I hope there are silences in my poems, that at times I’ve been able to achieve the sense that my words have risen out of silence into a reader’s consciousness in order to be available.

The other thing about visual art is that it can isolate something in such a way that if one were in a hurry might seem trivial, and yet that thing can and should be seen as significant, as important; and the very attention one might pay to this thing is what is of the greatest importance. So the poems aspire to become “acts of attention” (to quote a generous comment from David Shapiro).

One thing that is happening with me is what I believe is a growing awareness of, or an attending to, small things in my daily life, which are moments of attention; they can become full-fledged percepts. I’d like to imagine I pay more or better attention to the now in each of my days because I’ve been trained how to do so as a working poet. Yet this mindedness may be also because I’m getting older (I get a kick out of being questioned when purchasing a senior citizen ticket to something, but this is happening ever more infrequently).

Do my more recent poems reflect this change in life? I recall when my daughter was still a baby and we were visiting my mother, I talking with my kid on my lap as she leaned over the table, my mother not even listening to me as she was held in total fascination, mesmerized, by her grandchild’s play. “Look how her hand opens and closes,” she interrupted me, a complete non sequitur. Of course parenting was not new to her, as it still was to me. All the same, what are the essentials in life? I do hope that my poems capture what is essential, like a great painting might—whatever the subject matter, meaning, narrative, or what have you of the painting, for instance a painting by Giorgio Morandi of a simple, plain vase. Morandi would paint it over and over (such as I wrote about in a poem). I do hope that my poems are essential.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2014 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2014

Papers in the Wind

papersinthewindEduardo Sacheri
translated by Mara Faye Lethem
Other Press ($17.95)

by John Toren

Argentine novelist Eduardo Sacheri’s career received a boost when a film based on his first novel, The Secrets in Their Eyes, won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 2010. In Papers in the Wind, some of the same elements appear: the legal profession, the issue of class, grown men sustaining their adolescent world through banter around a café table. The new work, however, lacks its predecessor’s intrigue and strong feminine presence. It’s a small-scale novel focused on the lives of four neighborhood friends: Mono, “the ape”; his cautious, almost saint-like brother, Fernando, who’s a language arts teacher; his best friend, Russo, a happy-go-lucky loser who owns a car wash; and Mauricio, who’s done the best for himself by becoming a lawyer. They’ve known one another since childhood and still get together regularly, though their conversations are often riddled with jibes and insults.

Very early in the novel, Mono dies, and from that point on, the book takes on the character of a well-shuffled deck of cards. Some chapters deal with the early lives of the individuals in the group, and also with their attempts to discuss God, death, and why the local soccer team has fallen on hard times. Others move beyond Mono’s death to focus on a very different problem. Mono had been a promising soccer player as a youth, and though his athletic career fizzled, he never lost his love for the game. After receiving a handsome buy-out from the software company where he works, Mono decides to get back to soccer by buying the rights to a young player named Pittilanga. When Mono dies, his three friends are saddled with the responsibility of finding a way to retrieve his rash investment on behalf of his young daughter, Guadeloupe.

A series of comic episodes follow. Mono seems to have paid far too much for Pittilanga, and in any case, none of his friends has the slightest idea how to sell the rights to a soccer player. They resort to taking videos of their man, who’s gained weight and lost his knack for scoring, and then hiring someone to doctor the footage. They bribe a media star who promises to “talk up” Pittilanga’s talents and potential on the radio. To finance the bribe, they sell Mauricio’s fancy car to a chop-shop and then file for insurance.

The story is further complicated by the fact that Mauricio’s boss, who’s about to make him a partner, has an entirely different idea about what to do with Pittilanga—a plan that Mauricio can’t tell his friends about, because it doesn’t include them.

Women appear only intermittently in the story, though details of Mauricio’s fling with his secretary and subsequent visit to a marriage counselor serve as an amusing subplot. Fernando is separated; Ruso’s wife is forever worried that he’s spending too much time playing video soccer with his employees at the car wash and not enough time drumming up business; Mono’s short-lived marriage was a disaster from the beginning.

Beneath the sometimes-harsh tone of the clique’s conversations, a long-standing affection continues to simmer. These men are driving each other crazy—but they’re also looking out for one another. During the many short chapters of hospital dialogue, Mono’s awkward attempts to deal with his impending death, and his friends’ efforts to be honest with him, are moving.

While the cover of Papers in the Wind might lead us to believe it’s a book about soccer, it’s actually a book about four men who have never really grown up. But Sacheri reminds us from time to time—and it’s an important aspect of the book’s emotional dynamic—that the goal toward which all their efforts are directed is to provide a decent inheritance for Guadeloupe. Although we don’t meet her until the last few pages of the book, she acts as the beating heart of this gruff but carefully detailed and ultimately affecting novel.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2014 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2014

Puppets in the Wind

puppetsinwindSelected Poems of Karl Krolow
Translated by Stuart Friebert
Bitter Oleander Press ($21)

by John Bradley

Some translators seem born to translate a particular writer; that’s the case with translator Stuart Friebert and German poet Karl Krolow. This is the third volume of Krolow’s work that Friebert has translated, with prior books published in 1985 and 1993. In the introduction to this third volume, Friebert relates how he was immediately struck by Krolow the very first time they met, in the early ’60s: “As for me, just starting out as a poet to write poems in German before daring to in English, Krolow’s was the [Friebert’s emphasis] voice I knew I needed to hear, to pay great attention to, indeed to try to emulate some which way.”

It’s easy to see what attracted Friebert to Krolow’s poetry. Take the closing stanza of “Daily”:

Don’t you know: nothing much needs to happen.
It’s just this feeling, of going along daily
the old path to my execution.

There’s a luminous clarity in Krolow’s poetry, a direct expression of complex emotions, and a sense of private disclosure, which creates an intimacy between poet and reader. There’s often an account of life’s small events being profound, if one examines them carefully. The poems frequently reveal a sense of fatality, viewed with calmness, yet with a sting of paradox. In “Daily,” for example, ordinary life, while comfortable, is killing the narrator, as noted in the last line. These ingredients many seem an unlikely recipe for good poetry, but they work to perfection in Krolow’s and Friebert’s able hands.

While tracing the roots of Friebert’s attraction to Krolow’s poetry, the introduction tells us very little about Krolow (1915-1999), however. The back cover offers a brief biography of the poet, which reveals the following: “When Krolow received the Büchner Prize in 1956, West Germany’s highest literary honor, his remarks, unlike [Paul] Celan’s, did not refer to his life during the Nazi years—a near occasion of sin, or worse, some critics complain.” To balance this vague but disturbing revelation, the bio continues with: “The ‘record’ also confirms that Krolow was often generous to a fault regarding the work of others, especially of Jewish writers.” Surely a book of poetry that is published fifteen years after an author’s death can better divulge literary history that enables us to understand his work. What were these “sins?” How did they affect Krolow’s poetry written after 1945?

Hints of the past lurk in many of the poems in Puppets in the Wind. While often subtle, allusions to history and its effect on the speaker can be found in “With Arms Crossed,” “Force,” “Don’t We Want To Give It a Try,” “Nothing New,” “World-Machine,” and “Power.” The poem “History,” in particular, contains strong reflections on the past. Here is the poem in its entirety:

Men carried a flag across the square.
At which centaurs broke from the underwood
And crushed their cloth underfoot
And history could begin.
Melancholy nations
Fell apart on street corners.
Orators kept themselves
At the ready with mastiffs,
And the younger women
Painted their faces for the stronger.
Without end voices quarreled
In the air, although
The mythological creatures
Had long since withdrawn.

Eventually what’s left is the hand
That goes around a throat.

“History,” with its use of mythic centaurs, feels like a parable about unleashing the deadly power of nationalism, both a reflection on the rise of Hitler as well as a warning for contemporary politicians and citizens. If you think you can control the passions released by nationalism, think again. For Krolow, the end result will be “the hand / That goes around a throat,” no doubt an allusion to the Third Reich.

Some may argue that this poem is not typical of Krolow’s work, but given the number of poems that deal with “the power of the state,” to borrow the title of another of Krolow’s poems, the reader needs to be informed about his past, at least to a fuller extent than a capsule biography.

Another small problem with the book is that we don’t know from what years and what books the poems were selected. Krolow’s poetry covers many decades. Judging by the copyright page, the poems come from books published in 1965, 1975, 1985, 1988, and 1997; a discussion of these volumes and what has changed or remained constant in his poetics over the years would have been helpful. Finally, is this volume a representative sampling of Krolow’s poetry, or a supplement to the two previous volumes of Friebert translations?

Quibbles aside, however, this is a quietly captivating book of poetry, beautifully translated. Without ever calling attention to his craft, Friebert brings us Krolow’s voice in a clear and unobtrusive manner, easily leading the reader to think, despite the German text on the opposite page, that Krolow wrote these poems in English. Karl Krolow may confess that “I hide hours / behind sentences,” but due to the transparent language of poet and translator, we can always find him—and recognize ourselves—in these lucid reflections.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2014 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2014

My god is this a man

mygodisthismanLaura Sims
Fence Books ($15.95)

by Molly Sutton Kiefer

What is not written is just as critical as what is on the page in Laura Sims’s My god is this a man. This book is a mash-up, containing the poet’s voice but also intruding voices, some of which we can tell (as when she quotes various murderers, or the more obvious black text boxes that contain language from the surviving Boston Bomber juxtaposed with a relaxation tape) and some of which we can only surmise.

As an object, the book is square and grey with a watercolor of a creature running on the cover—the torso resembles the quick beauty of many four-legged creatures, perhaps a horse or a dog, and the legs are drawn down into curled claws as if the feet of a dead bird. We have not even opened the book yet and already we are presented with an image that is oppositional, life force and death at once.

With one quick spin of the pages, we also see the reading experience will not be typical. In many senses, it invites a dipping-into kind of reading—the more traditional front-to-back reading won’t grant a firm narrative arc. Each page might offer a smattering of words, or words within a box outline, or white words in a black box, or something else entirely. What we do know, as we read, is that expectations are meant to be shifted.

The box frame calls to mind many things: a pane of glass, a television or computer screen, a territorial border. The first two appear side-by-side, with one stating “I am here” and the second “I have always / been here.” The two boxes gaze back at the reader as if a pair of eyes; one cannot help but think of a figure lurking at the window. There is another pane-poem that states, “The hordes / of the curious,” which aligns the concept of the viewer and the viewed, the voyeur and the subject.

Sims employs changing fonts and font sizes in an elegant manner to convey meaning. One page simply states, “I lied her on the floor,” the usage allowing for layered meaning, and the following page, knowing the reader must be stunned, enlarges the message—“I said, ‘I lied her on the floor’”—as if commanding, Did you read me? React!

Line breaks are critical to the dual meaning Sims operates with in her collection. There is the page that reads

and she
became
a woman
being
done to

Without a standard grammatical guide, we are left running our eyes up and down the page, chunking phrases to create and recreate meaning. Another pane-sequence reads “I called him myself” then “TRUST” and one turns the page to “had been / hammered / out of me.” The center of the book exists as a jumbling of quotations from the killers whose diaries and letters the poet consulted, and still another moment contains the line, “I had a head, but I lost it,” which begs the question: what sort of head? And whose?

We are greatly aware of space within the text—of what is used and left empty. Towards the closing, Sims writes, “The State unearthed a tiny // wooden door.” With all of the falling, all of the textual movement, one might think of Alice and the rabbit hole. A few pages later, Sims gives us a visual with a repeating field and “a body” resting neatly in one hole. This reimaging of writing and re-reading allows the reader to interrogate the text with a swath of white space, a silence with purpose.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2014 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2014

Unfixed Elegy and Other Poems

unfixedelegyBrendan Lorber
ButterLamb ($7)

by Davy Knittle

In Brendan Lorber’s chapbook Unfixed Elegy and Other Poems, the title poem is full of tense twins. Here is work that experiments with living and dying as they double on themselves from the first lines: “Take shape OK give it back / sweet world or tempest above.”

But what is an “unfixed elegy?” Is it a poem for the unfixed—whether for the unsolved or unrepaired, or for those unseated from life, or from death? Lorber’s work is propelled by an anxiety to shadowbox death, to figure it out, but it also doesn’t want to, and what propels that anxiety remains unclear.

The lines in “Unfixed Elegy” are characterized by wide internal spacing, leaving room for ghosts, or for extra time to double back on what’s just doubled back on itself. The space becomes an encouragement to hang out in the language:

Each year        takes the next two        to recover
yet this is living      Every sexy line
ave maria’d to a new ring around
the rosy        I like jokes        but most are on me
The nothing        that demands a double

Perhaps an unfixed elegy is one that loops, that loses its grounding in death and circles through states of being and its own language. “Unfixed Elegy” thus becomes a lyric contortion, raising up the figures of “sweetness,” of “desire,” and of “hands”—in the tradition of, for instance, “sweetness and light”—and then twisting them, as in “sweets // we reach at the cost of hell and back.”

Forces of all kinds in “Unfixed Elegy” are so intensified that they’re terrible and lovely at once, and repeat forever. Here, “Problems unsolved forever are another problem” and the question is posed: “How can desire be fickle when / all it wants is endless advance through / more desire?”

The death of others creates both desire and problems, where “I don’t want to remember the dead / I want them alive” and yet “your death / is all we need to bring you back.” Lorber takes a number of different stances on managing death and its environs, shifting his position and identifying places where the ability to take a stand on death is itself unfixed.

Other recurring motifs include a set of fragments from “Ring Around the Rosy,” where the sweetness of the song, how light it is about warding off or surrendering to death, echoes the tension between the grave and the sweet against which the chapbook pulls.

In the final three sections of the poem, its circuits resolve into a focus on the “new year,” and its final section, the poem becomes a prayer carrying the weight of both loss and sweetness:

May the element        of water        not rise up
against us        The element        of space        not
rise up        Earth not rise        May fire not
Nor air        May the sounds        lights and rays not
May the infinite oh yeah?        be met with yeah!

In the chapbook’s litany of prayers, the final one in this stanza speaks most clearly to a central desire to encounter a response that pulls its cycle forward. If “your death / is all we need to bring you back,” then it is finality that makes possible the doubling of a return, where death is a response. In Unfixed Elegy, ending moves things along.

There’s an inescapable speed to Lorber’s poems; the accurate and sweetly chilling sense that life is passing as one reads, that “each year takes the next two to recover / yet this is living.” “Unfixed Elegy” suggests that the fact of living is more than can be made sense of in each moment, that we’ll never catch up to ourselves, or agree with ourselves, that the dead can come back to us, that time will never add up.

Lorber has created an expert network of tensions here: the finite and the infinite, the fixed and the unfixed, the planet and the body, the dead and the living, the surety of death and the question of the return of those who have died, of being called back and being brought back, of problems and desire, of death accepted and death fought, of wondering and knowing, of clear tensions and webbed ones. Unfixed Elegy and Other Poems is a chapbook where “the shortest distance / between two points are other points with / distance between them.” What an unwinnable set of distances this is, and yet what a hand, offered out and “strong enough to lift / our weight.”

Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2014 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2014

The Haunted Life and Other Writings

hauntedlifeJack Kerouac
Da Capo Press ($24.99)

by Steve Matuszak

Legend has it that in 1944, a young Jack Kerouac left his handwritten manuscript The Haunted Life in a taxicab, forever lost to the tides of time and fortune. However, in 2002, the manuscript resurfaced and now, finally, is being published in The Haunted Life and Other Writings. In addition to the title story—which actually appears to be a fragment of a larger work that became The Town and the City, Kerouac’s first novel—The Haunted Life collects a variety of texts including prose sketches, letters from Kerouac’s father, and some of Kerouac’s diary entries.

As with other recently published “lost works” by Kerouac, The Haunted Life is of more interest as a historical document than as literature. The book’s editor, Todd F. Tietchen, tells us that the collection reveals Kerouac’s creative process at an important moment in his career. It allows one to diagnose what Tietchen calls Kerouac’s “impulse to record—to submit memory to print,” a “compulsion,” he claims, that “seems driven by the author’s keen awareness of the transience of existence” and his need to lay what has been lost to rest. “Nevertheless,” Tietchen concludes, “much of Kerouac’s work continues to revolve around its originating sense of loss, as if the act of recalling or commemorating can never fully liberate him from the things being recalled. . . . Kerouac remains haunted and seems unable to resist the impulse to ‘remind others.’”

It is, in fact, Kerouac’s dissatisfaction with his writing that gives The Haunted Life its pulse. Aware that the rapid pace of change brought about by World War II demanded new social forms, Kerouac intuits that it would also require new literary forms, the old forms no longer suitable to the times. In a piece titled “Typing Exercise,” he laments, “I shall combine Symbolism with Naturalism in Galloway—but to take myself at nineteen, and that dreary provincial town, and make a work of art out of it commensurate with the liveliness and intelligence I want to achieve, that indeed seems impossible, and a boresome task without even the fruit of my own satisfaction. Poo!”

It seems that the new form Kerouac came up with after The Town and the City, the more elastic, spontaneous form of On the Road, was meant to exorcise what Tietchen claims haunted him. With that new form, rather than try to recapture what has gone, Kerouac turned his attention to the flame of the present, the very engine of life’s transience, the past as it is manifested in the present through the act of remembering. In The Haunted Life, Kerouac still did what was “boresome,” so it haunted him. But if life is haunted by change, the structures he employs in The Haunted Life too are ghosts, dead but still here, oblivious to the fact that they’re no longer alive.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2014 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2014

Last Words from Montmartre

lastwordsQiu Miaojin
Translated by Ari Larissa Heinrich
New York Review Books ($14.95)

by Jenn Mar

When Taiwan's most revered countercultural icon, lesbian writer Qiu Miaojin, committed suicide in 1995, she left behind what must be the most ambitious literary manuscript in history, a genre-pushing project that breaks down barriers between art and life, suicide and fiction. This year, New York Review Books has released Qiu's long-neglected Last Words from Montmartre, a fragmentary novel that, true to its title, contains the author's final words on desire, displacement, and art.

One of the puzzles of Last Words from Montmartre is how to treat the posthumous manuscript, as the author has taken great pains to blur distinctions between personal confession and lyric aphorism. Not quite a roman à clef, the novel comprises twenty letters that circle around an unnamed narrator bearing conspicuous resemblances to Qiu and her series of failed relationships with women. Translator Ari Larissa Heinrich notes in the afterward that Qiu might have intended to use her own suicide as "a kind of speech act, as the ultimate means of sealing the connection between art and life." Qiu's suicide complicates our reading by opening up the possibility that Last Words from Montmartre, which culminates in themes of displacement and suicide-as-art, makes up only the first half of Qiu's masterpiece; the author's death, the death of a stigmatic, politically charged body (Qiu was a Taiwanese lesbian living between nations, culture, genders), completes the performance in a most excruciating form of poetic expression. Whether or not you read Qiu's suicide as a meta-fictional device, the shadow of her death falls across these letters, which are at times melancholy, passionate, and fatalistic, but always take its ideas seriously.

Qiu's masterpiece offers an ever-mutating sensibility drawn from various genres: psychological fiction, autobiography, lyric aphorism, letters, and journal entries. If you approach Last Words from Montmartre with expectations of plot, any semblance of a plotline will disintegrate in front of you. If you treat the text purely as a personal or cultural artifact, then you will surely miss its poetic resonances. The instinct underlying these letters is to purge a raw form of expression containing the unmediated knowledge of the unconscious, the "purest" form of art. Qiu's narrator records her thoughts with no particular narrative strategy; her aphorisms shape an attitude about various subjects such as love and displacement, but without forming a coherent argument. Instead, these musings accumulate across chapters and heighten the mood and themes, much like a poem.

All twenty letters reveal the details of the narrator's failed relationships and discuss at length the conditions for "eternal, perfect love." At times, these confessions contain elements of fragility and narcissism and call to mind the crushing melodrama of a youth's first heartache, in which practically every sensation is suffered as trauma. In the opening chapter, the narrator declares, "My sorrow, my day upon day and night upon night of relentless grief is not for the mess the world is in, and it's not for my own mortality; it's for my delicate heart and the wounds it has had to endure." This might come across as melodramatic in tone, considering the fact that the narrator is responding to a bad breakup and the death of a pet bunny. But indulgent though they may be, these letters "are themselves a fierce form of desire," a guidebook steering us through the complex emotional registers of adult life. The book pins its confessions on tortured melodrama, poetic riffs, and cool aphorisms, and risks being maudlin, repetitive, messy, difficult to read—all to record a breathtakingly intimate, raw, unfiltered confession. Few writers use the confession and aphorism as purely and effectively as Qiu, whose poetry offers a distinct type of clarity; Last Words from Montmartre achieves a profoundly intimate portrait of an individual whose life unravels before us.

The unfinished quality of Last Words from Montmartre resembles the films of Theo Angelopoulos, whose works clearly inspire the book’s thematic and formal preoccupation with displacement and dislocation. "If I take one more step, I am somewhere else . . . or I die," says a character from Angelopoulos's famous The Suspended Step of the Stork. Qiu's unnamed narrator is similarly a refugee in many ways; living between genders, nations, cultures, and languages, her identity can't be resolved by any single declaration of identity. Quoting a work by Angelopoulos, Qiu's narrator leaves us with her final utterance:

There is always someone who says:
This is mine.
But I did once say proudly,
I have nothing of my own
for now I know that nothing means
nothing.
That one does not even have a name.
And that sometimes one must borrow one.
You can give me a place to look at.
Forget me by the seaside.
I wish you happiness and health.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2014 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2014

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

colorlesstsukuruHaruki Murakami
Translated by Philip Gabriel
Knopf ($25.95)

by Douglas Luman

One year ago, amid secrecy surrounding the Japanese release of Haruki Murakami’s first book since his epic project 1Q84, readers lined up at many late-night booksellers in Tokyo to purchase copies of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. Anticipation was fueled by a campaign of containment that might make intelligence agencies envious—both author and publisher (Bungeishunjū) were cryptic or silent; press galleys and review copies were nonexistent. Only a small coterie knew anything of the content of the book, much less the actual title. On announcement, orders on Amazon Japan outpaced sales of 1Q84, even if beating its twelve-day sales record by only one day; a million copies were printed due to overwhelming demand.

Though the English-language publication of the book is not surrounded by the same level of secrecy, the anticipation leading up to the novel’s release is no less palpable. Because of the critical splashdown made by 1Q84, and the author’s reputation solidified by his previous books, American readers are equally hungry for this latest work by a contemporary master.

Murakami’s career has been a tale of two authors—the one who wrote fantastical narratives such as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore, and the one who wrote Norwegian Wood, the product of a resolution to write a strictly realistic novel. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is a synthesis of both halves. It contains incidents of magic of everyday life, but without the focus on these events defining the lives of the characters.

The novel’s protagonist, Tsukuru Tazaki, lives and works in Tokyo as an engineer remodeling railway stations. He leads an austere lifestyle, in which he has few close friends and has been more of an observer than a participant. Of his relationships, he has had “no one he could call a close friend. A few girlfriends entered his life along the way, but they hadn’t stayed together. Peaceful relationships followed by amicable breakups. Not a single person had really climbed inside his heart.” This is a consequence of what he feels to be his “colorlessness,” an appellation that results from a closely-knit group of five high school friends, all with names including colors, that suddenly sever their ties to Tsukuru after he moves to Tokyo from his hometown of Nagoya to attend university.

Even the one friend that he makes during his studies, a free-spirited physics student named Haida, is associated with a color—his name means “gray field”—which, though a “fairly subdued color” is still, to Tsukuru, more vibrant than the meaning of his own name (reiterated throughout the novel, his name roughly means “to build,” a moniker he considers appropriate to his function, which is to build railway stations). Though the two young men are good friends, eventually their relationship peacefully falls by the wayside. Much as in other periods in his life, it seems like Tazaki is waiting for something just like passengers wait in the train stations to which he has dedicated his life, a pursuit that is not quite passionate. It is simply what he does in his transit between birth and death.

As the novel begins, 36-year-old Tsukuru is looking back on these friendships due to the compelling force of Sara, the woman whom he is currently seeing. Though he exhibits sexual interest in her, his characteristic lack of passion seems to drag on the relationship. Sara perceives that there is a kind of block inhibiting Tsukuru, one that relates to the dissolution of his high school friendships, and implores him to pursue the reasons behind their sudden disconnection, withholding intimacy (both sexual and platonic) and keeping Tsukuru at a distance until he sorts his problems out. The unfamiliar force of his interest and unrecognized passion for Sara compels him forward and he agrees to the arrangement, awakening a new interest in inquiring into the circumstances that compelled his once-close friends to ostracize him.

Through the course of his personal investigation, he reconnects with these friends, finding two of them staying close to home in Nagoya, one in Finland, and a set of murky circumstances surrounding the fourth. Ultimately, his search leads him to reflect on how he has crafted a parallel set of realities, a theme that Murakami has explored in a surrealistic mode in novels such as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and 1Q84. By contrast, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Year of Pilgrimage approaches the protagonist’s exploration of self much more realistically—looking into the value and interpretations that we attach to life-changing events, self-made symbols, and the stories that we tell about ourselves. Tsukuru’s pilgrimage is not unlike our own, often inexplicably twisted on directions that veer uncontrollably no matter how long we grasp onto our one true “roadmap,” our plans and plans within plans. Inevitably, things go awry, but that is the sign of a life lived and not a life spent on the sidelines.

Murakami’s other books have often pursued notions of dimensionality, asking questions about how planes of existence intersect (1Q84), overlay (Kafka on the Shore), or parallel each other (The Wind-up Bird Chronicle). In these stories, there is no alternate universe in which characters’ paths are not taken. With Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, Murakami explores what happens to characters that ignore potential and possibility. Whereas the reader may often ask the existential question of hypothetical reality (the “what if”), the actions of Tsukuru and his four friends create the dimension of what is. The true tale of the novel is how characters choose to handle the situation. Each chooses their own forms of escapism, Tazaki included, and it is up to the protagonist to collect these shards of reality to piece together the dimension of the present. Again, much like many tracks might meet at a train station, the narrative threads all come together in the form of Tsukuru Tazaki, who realizes and assumes the role of the nexus, bringing him out of his “colorlessness” and endowing him with the zeal and passion for living.

Newcomers to Murakami will be welcomed by his typically straightforward style of lean, taut prose that outpaces the action of the story, the hallmark of his ability to write narratives of introspection that question the nature of reality. In the same way, his loyal fans will find a familiar voice that avoids falling into author-centric tropes even though the themes and material of the novel are mainstays for Murakami. In similar fashion, the author’s preference for the kind of “three-act” structure that exists in most of his other novels is extant here, matching his pacing better than it did in 1Q84.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Year of Pilgrimage isn’t necessarily a groundbreaking book, but it heralds a moment that needed to happen in the sequence of Murakami’s impressive oeuvre—a return to relative realism after the last few novels’ intense exploration of the magical. The novel is accessible, and will usher in a new wave of Western readership for the author in addition to satisfying already loyal readers. The book asks the high-level questions characteristic of Murakami’s work while grounding them in a reality that provides a firm foundation for abstract soul-searching. As much as 1Q84 showcased Murakami’s boundless talent, this new release signals an author turning a corner into work that merges the best parts of his career, which will only whet readers’ appetites for what is yet 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 2014 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2014

A Simplified Map of the Real World: The Renata Stories

simplifiedmapStevan Allred
Illustrated by Laurie Paus
Forest Avenue Press ($18)

by Jason Cook

Story cycles are often dedicated to exploring a place, the setting as the dominant character exerting tidal influences on the stories taking place within in it. The town of Renata in Stevan Allred’s A Simplified Map of the Real World, however, is just a place: some forests and farms, roads and where they lead, mountain lakes and submerged cars, houses and the lives lived inside them. It’s the people who bring Renata alive, engaged as they are in age-old amorphous feuds, youthful adventures, and acts of vengeance.

Allred has an eye for those sweet moments, the glimmers of hope and uplift that come by as rarely in fiction as they do in life. In “The Idjit’s Guide to Intuitive Mastery of Newtonian Physics,” two brothers rig a car for a high-flying stunt into a mountain lake. The town’s residents gather to watch, including Sheriff Larrabee, who intends to put a stop to it. Instead, the sheriff watches the victory because “if a man couldn’t raise his middle finger and shake it in the face of gravity every once in a while then there wasn’t much point to being alive.” Allred achieves another feat of strange beauty with “Doubling Down” and its protagonist Brooke, a self-absorbed, crass, reckless stripper who survives a horrific accident in the opening pages. We follow her home after her injury, where her own deficiencies are matched by those of her middle-class respectable family. While she never reveals a single redemptive character trait, there is something triumphant in the senseless, dangerous act of destruction at the end, her own middle finger.

The finest example of this, and A Simplified Map of the Real World’s strongest piece, is “Vortex.” Lenny is a closeted gay man in 1970, the setting for a particular kind of tragedy. At an outdoor rock concert, he meets another man and they venture into the woods. Everything seems to lead to the unfortunate societal revelation and its fallout. However, in the last line, Allred turns the table, letting the story trail off with a note of hope and brightness.

The sensitive and compassionate characterizations in these stories are fueled by prose that is both strong and delicate. Characters stumble into uplifting epiphanies, those soft moments when possibilities unfurl just a little: “The world was vast, and if you only knew how, you could get there from here, and bring back artifacts that proved you knew the way.” Following these moments with a picture of a bleaker tomorrow is an easy trick which Allred usually denies himself. This Simplified Map of the Real World shows the emptiness of lives unloved and existing in the wreckage of abandoned dreams, but also points the way to beauty and celebrates those finer moments about which we sometimes seem to have forgotten how to speak.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2014 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2014

Photobooth: A Biography

PhotoboothMeags Fitzgerald
Conundrum Press ($20)

by Jay Besemer

Imagine yourself here, in a busy train station or perhaps a mall, staring with an odd and anxious longing at a vintage photobooth. Your heart lurches with the thrill of the forbidden, or something like it—as if you’re about to do something your parents wouldn’t approve of. Taking a deep breath, you walk into the booth. You sit down carefully, pull the curtain shut firmly, adjust the backdrop behind you. You insert your money and press the button, slightly euphoric, slightly hopeful, slightly embarrassed. The red light comes on. The reflective glass tells you HOLD STILL in no uncertain terms. Do you? No time to decide on a strategy, a pose. The light flashes, the shutter opens and closes with a cough, and your photobooth adventure begins. Each time is different, unique, special.

But what’s so special about photobooths? Where did they come from, and why are they disappearing? Who cares? These questions and more are addressed in Canadian artist Meags Fitzgerald’s graphic “novel” Photobooth: A Biography. More accurately described as a mixed-genre graphic nonfiction that combines elements of history, autobiography, travelogue, and long-form personal essay, this unique and fascinating volume tells nested stories stemming from the author’s love of and work with classic analog wet-chemistry photobooths. Both deeply personal and fiercely public-minded, Fitzgerald’s book takes readers through the origins and transformations of the photobooth all the way through to its present-day decline. Fitzgerald’s prose interweaves an engaging historical-technical exploration of the booth with an examination of her own—and others’—more subjective creative, emotional and experiential relationships with this technology. Her rich, precise and inviting pen-and-ink illustrations make readers feel they are beside her in the booths, accompanying her on an international quest to investigate and save this endangered species.

Photobooth is organized into three sections with a prologue. The prologue sets the stage, establishing both personal and public context. Here we are reminded that even as recently as 2003, “We didn’t carry hundreds of photos of ourselves everywhere on our phones. Social media didn’t exist as a concept yet.” This is vexingly easy to forget. Our relationships to images have changed dramatically—perhaps traumatically—in the last decade, and that change is both mental and physical. Part of Fitzgerald’s argument is that the physicality of our older image-making technologies, and of the photobooths themselves, deserves to be honored—ideally, to be preserved. If preservation is impossible, the total loss of the analog booth could have a wide-ranging cultural impact.

This could happen sooner than we think, and we’re shown why on page seventeen:

The paper for colour photos stopped being made in 2007. The stockpile is being used up and is projected to be gone by summer 2015. Currently, there is only one supplier in the world still making the B&W paper, if they stop photobooths will disappear from public places entirely within five to ten years.

Wet-chemistry booths in the EU face an additional threat if the chemicals used in their developing tanks become banned, which could happen in 2016. These circumstances account for the sense of urgency that permeates the book, and helps explain why Fitzgerald devoted so much of her recent life to this labor of love.

Part I launches into a serious socio-historical exploration of the photobooth, where we see the evolution of the technology itself alongside the social uses to which it is put. During the Great Depression, the photobooth allowed those hardest hit by economic disaster to make dignified, high-quality portraits and self-portraits at affordable prices. In the Second World War, many of those serving (on both sides) chose to photograph themselves in booths before reporting to duty, or coming home, or in other situations. And as spaces not affected by segregation, photobooths were accessible to African Americans in a way that many photo studios were not. Additionally, the privacy of the booth gave queer couples a safe place to be themselves together, confirming and celebrating their intimacy. The self-serve photobooth “allowed people to document themselves as they wanted to be seen and as they saw themselves.”

Part II of Photobooth: A Biography moves from general booth history to more specific histories—those of the people whose lives are deeply imbricated with the history and fate of the booths. Fitzgerald’s real quest emerges here. This is where the narrative goes on the road, becoming at once deeply personal and passionately social. The deeper shift into more subjective territory is quite riveting, even exciting. We begin to understand why personal stakes in the analog photobooth are so high for Fitzgerald and for many of the people she visits.

The relationship and the tension between digital and analog technologies is never clearer than in these pages. Fitzgerald depends upon email, social media tools and Web communities like photobooth.net to navigate and plan her international journey, and this irony is acknowledged. Yet the face to face connectivity detailed in the book—and even the very premise of traveling all over the world to engage with and touch other booths and boothers—seems directly opposed to the limited range of interactions possible in social media contexts. The act of touching is crucial here. It is one element of the complex social and behavioral context of booth use that can’t be replicated by smartphone cameras or the “fauxtobooth” function (my term, not Fitzgerald’s) on some laptops.

In the end, though, there comes a time when we have to say goodbye. The penultimate page of the story offers a resolution of sorts:

I felt like I chose to love these things that couldn’t really love me back, not because they’re inanimate, but because they’re just too preoccupied with their own extinction. . . . I was overcome with gratitude. I knew that it didn’t really matter what happened next because everything had already been worthwhile.

Whatever does happen next for chemical photobooths, the journey of Photobooth: A Biography is certainly fulfilling. Fitzgerald’s love comes through loud and strong; love of photobooths, certainly, but also love of the people in her life, boothers or not. This is a must-read book for fans of graphic-genre narratives, photographers, pop-culture historians, scholars of human relationships to our technologies, and anyone who loves a good dip-n-dunk.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2014 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2014

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