Tag Archives: Fall 2014

Masterful Marks: Cartoonists Who Changed the World

masterfulmarks16 Graphic Biographies
Edited by Monte Beauchamp
Simon & Schuster ($24.99)

by Paul Buhle

The idea that comic artists have worthwhile biographies has become an object of the upscale sector of the book trade, with gorgeous volumes reminding collectors of the greatness of creative giants along with healthy selections of their work. Masterful Marks, in its lush four-color pages, offers something different. The artists who have rendered these sixteen stories of their heroes are not constrained by precise biographical accuracy. Their intention, rather, is to get into the brains and hands of these remarkable figures, and each artist has his own method of madness to do so.

Not all the adventures here are, strictly speaking, about the objects of study and artistic experiment. Drew Friedman’s “R. Crumb and Me” is heavy on the latter subject: how he grew up as a pre-teen, hoarding the forbidden Crumb comics of the later 1960s while still under ten years old himself; how he inveigled himself into the company of Crumb’s mentor, Harvey Kurtzman; and as the years go on, how he sees Crumb in old age. So much had been detailed about Robert Crumb in the ’90s film Crumb, not to mention the artist’s own self-revelatory drawings, that perhaps there was no need for a more intense biographical treatment.

Kurtzman as an object of wonder is subjected, by contrast, to intense factual scrutiny. Artist Peter Kuper wants to get as intimately close to the subject as nearly fifty close-drawn panels in six pages can manage. The conceit of the piece, that Kurtzman is himself a survivor of his times if not the actual “corpse on the Imjin” (the subject of his most intense story on the tragedy of the Korean War) becomes wonderfully suggestive. Kuper makes one feel that Harvey, with his personal triumphs and tragedies, is the story of comic art at its highest level of achievement.

It is well known that comic artists (or “cartoonists” as the subtitle of this book has it) have been a solitary, often bitterly unhappy, lot. Most of them, like Charles Schultz of “Peanuts,” were plain lonely. Like their fellow newspapermen and pulp writers, quite a few had a drinking problem and ragged careers. No one offers a better example than the inventors behind Superman, Jewish teenagers Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. A collaborative effort between the book’s editor Monte Beauchamp and artist Ryan Heshka, their story is packed with lurid details of the creators falling into the hands of ruthlessly exploitative pulp publishers who cheat them out of millions while Superman “leaps tall buildings with a single bound” in sales. A depressed Shuster turned to S&M pornography as the legal case dragged on. The two had created an industry and received, in the end, $20,000 per year for what remained of their lives.

Marc Rosenthal delivers on Charles Addams, an eager beaver with commercial success in mind from early on, but afraid of tight spaces and in love with medieval weapons. By 1938, he made it at the New Yorker—with the macabre touch that never left him. His success went on, even to a 1952 exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum, and his personal life was a match for his art, including a wife who took all the rights to his work and a girlfriend whose previous lover, Nelson Rockefeller, had died in her arms. Addams drank heavily, but it was the cocktail age, after all, and he was buried in a pet cemetery, which seems just right. Rosenthal notes in passing that for Addams, the captionless cartoon was the ultimate art form, and he has a point.

Beauchamp also supplied the script for artist Owen Smith to depict Lynd Ward, the master of comics’ silent film, i.e., the woodcut novel. A recent, excellent documentary, following a Library of America set of Ward’s best work (annotated by Art Spiegelman) has brought the remarkable artist back, and the sepia drawings of Smith are more than equal to the task. Ward’s father was a socialist preacher of wide organizational influence and young Lynd studied under the graphic greats in 1920s Germany. He had ample personal tragedies along the way, but Lynd’s half-dozen “wordless” novels are classics of the field, his later career (the novels made no money) as children’s artist a fabulous success. Hardly anyone knew of his earlier work when Will Eisner praised his accomplishment in 1978, the same year Alzheimer’s took Ward.

Eisner, as it happened, was himself returned from obscurity, with a couple of good decades ahead of him, by comics publisher and sometime artist Denis Kitchen, who here contributes a fine piece on Theodore Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss. Geisel, a German-American lad growing up in Springfield, Massachusetts, was obsessed early on with rhyming. Prominent Boy Scout, he was to be awarded a medal personally by President Theodore Roosevelt who, however, ran out of medals at a crucial moment and cursed the boy, introducing Geisel to permanent stage fright. He was a suspended artist for the sin of drinking in Prohibition-era college, drew for the humor magazine under pseudonyms, later invented the rumor that he created comics with his feet, and made it into the comic strip dailies before being personally fired by William Randolph Hearst (Geisel was a militant anti-fascist and Hearst an admirer of Hitler, for a while anyway). Like several others in this book, Geisel found a calling in kids’ books, through one bigger than anyone else: The Cat in the Hat alone sold eleven million copies, with much, much more to come. Geisel chain-smoked himself to death but never lost his antic, quietly egalitarian and ecological sense of humor.

There are other items here, like Gary Dumm’s delightful treatment from Beauchamp’s script of the life of Hugh Hefner (who fancied himself a cartoonist and tortured Harvey Kurtzman by blue-penciling “Little Annie Fanny” for decades); Dan Zettwoch’s study of Osamu Tezuka (one of three non-Americans in this book, and the only non-white); Arnold Roth’s suitably strange take on Al Hirschfield; and above all, underground comix maven Frank Stack on nineteenth century Swiss artist Rodolphe Töpffer (another non-American).

The pages on Walt Disney by Beauchamp and Larry Day I find unsettling, perhaps because the political complications, everything from Uncle Walt’s personal anti-Semitism and anti-unionism to his major role in the Hollywood Blacklist, feel a little too pressing to me—but there are also plenty of good things to say, and they are said here. For similarly political reasons, I do not take so much to Nora Krug’s tale of French artist (the final non-American) Hergé and his creation Tintin, nor to Mark Alan Stamaty’s Jack Kirby, who suffered war trauma but spent a lifetime glorifying war and inventing, then re-inventing, our current superhero banality.

Never mind. This is a magnificent volume, its individual contents far from needing the reader’s fondness in every case. Reader, look for it, drink it in. Feel lonely with these fellows, and admire them for their accomplishments.

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

Hold the Dark

holdoffthedarkWilliam Giraldi
Liveright Publishing ($24.95)

by John Pistelli

To date, the novelist William Giraldi is less renowned for his fiction than for his criticism. With his notorious 2012 review of Alix Ohlin’s work in The New York Times, Giraldi entered the literary scene as a fiery, uncompromising defender of canonical standards on the model of one of his avowed heroes, Harold Bloom:

There are two species of novelist: one writes as if the world is a known locale that requires dutiful reporting, the other as if the world has yet to be made. The former enjoys the complacency of the au courant and the lassitude of at-hand language, while the latter believes with Thoreau that “this world is but canvas to our imaginations,” that the only worthy assertion of imagination occurs by way of linguistic originality wed to intellect and emotional verity. [The New York Times, August 17, 2012]

Giraldi’s approach proved largely unwelcome, with various literary websites and magazines calling him everything from “horrifyingly aggressive” to simply “dickish.” But despite its violation of the literary world’s sometimes cringing Internet-era commitment to empathy and relativism, the aestheticist position defended by Giraldi has much to recommend it. For critics like Giraldi—and for the likes of Bloom and Wilde before him—works of art and literature are emphatic ideals standing above and against death-tending nature: a poem or a novel is “a lie against time,” in Bloom’s phrase, a willed assertion of sensibility in the face of our inevitable finitude and vulnerability. On this view, the library of great books is less a temple than a gauntlet: past masterpieces provide examples of the imagination’s power even as they set a chastening measure for future works. To deny this, according to the aesthete, is to acquiesce to death-in-life.

Contemporary writers therefore need to know their tradition if they are to go beyond it; otherwise, they may merely emit banal effusions in an attempt at unmediated self-expression, unaware that they are creating little more than lifeless travesties of bygone aesthetic vanguards, like the emotive free verse of the proverbial adolescent poet. If this were not so—if tradition and standards were unimportant—then writers from previously-excluded social groups would not have expended so much energy throughout the last century in charting those groups’ own distinct literary traditions, with critical landmarks from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own to Edward W. Said’s Culture and Imperialism.

Do Giraldi’s own novels succeed on these forbiddingly canonical terms? His 2011 debut, Busy Monsters, does not quite. An absurdist picaresque about the too-aptly-named Charles Homar’s search for a fiancée who has left him to hunt a giant squid, Busy Monsters too often comes off as a series of farcical linguistic effects, a barrage of big comedy. Two things rescue it from excessive zaniness. First is Giraldi’s sophisticated ability to create in Homar—if not in his other figures—a nuanced character who wins our sympathy not in spite but because of the vulnerability implied by his otherwise ridiculous naïveté and dangerous attraction to violence. An authentically Cervantine pathos arises from Homar’s self-defeating attempts to do good in a world determined, at least until the end, to thwart him.

Busy Monsters’s second virtue is precisely its conscious relation to the long history of the novel and not only to its proximate influences in the huge-voiced and hugely flawed narrators of Saul Bellow or Barry Hannah. Homar narrates his escapades as ongoing installments in a monthly magazine column; this means that, within the novel’s fictional world, the characters have read and commented on the previous installments, which affects the writing of future ones. With this trope of narrative as an unreliable and perpetually processual text, Giraldi returns us to the origins of the European novel in such metafictional romps as Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy, forcing us to confront the often absurd mediation of language in the construction of narrative and identity as Giraldi’s characters comment on the novel in progress: “He admitted that my memoirs ‘Witchy Woman’ and ‘Them Prison Blues’ were cheap on details, not nearly as thorough as they could have been were I blessed with quote Jamesian interiority and the plotting proficiency of Wilkie Collins unquote.” But criticizing one’s own book in one’s own book, however amusingly or with whatever learned appeal to literary history, seems like a bit of a cheat; a writer as ambitious as Giraldi can’t play forever without a net.

Giraldi’s new novel, Hold the Dark, is fortunately a major advance on Busy Monsters. The first novel’s essential elements—the fleeing woman, the voyaging man, the beast as quest-object, the human capacity for violence—are recombined in the second to produce not comedy but tragedy, not absurdism but a visionary gnosticism that pictures humanity as absolutely alienated within nature.

Set in an isolated Alaskan town, Hold the Dark opens with a sentence suggestive of folklore: “The wolves came down from the hills and took the children of Keelut.” When Medora Slone’s boy is taken, she calls in the aging wolf expert Russell Core to help her track down the boy’s bones and slaughter the wolf that killed him. Core, with little in his life since a stroke incapacitated his wife, decides to go to Keelut and help Medora. Core is thus the reader’s surrogate in the icebound north, an emissary from the disenchanted world of reason: “They’re just hungry wolves, Mrs. Slone,’” he explains, “‘It’s no myth. It’s just hunger. No one’s cursed. Wolves will take kids if they need to. This is simple biology here. Simple nature.”

Core learns quickly enough that events more extreme than reason can explain have transpired in Keelut, and that the mysteries of human motivation are more frightening than the hunger of wolves. It turns out that Medora has herself killed her son. When her husband, Vernon, who has just returned from fighting overseas, sets off in pursuit of her, Core decides to follow. Vernon, accompanied by his childhood friend, Cheeon, begins a killing spree across the Alaskan wilderness as he searches for his wife, whom a wise old villager claims is “possessed by a wolf demon.”

At times, Hold the Dark seems like a polemical response to trends in contemporary literature, implicitly judging social realism to be an evasion of the reality that “man belongs neither in civilization nor nature—because we are aberrations between two states of being,” even as the novel’s refusal to explain fully its supernal elements (is Medora really cursed or possessed?) underscores the crude literalism in the fantastical genres with their eminently reasonable “world-building.”

The novel alternates between the perspectives of multiple characters, but its third-person narration attempts to create a consistent and singular idiom. Like such precursors as William Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy, and Daniel Woodrell, Giraldi seeks a higher verbal register than the vernacular clarity of realist prose. Though set in the present day, Hold the Dark’s language is jeweled with archaisms—unbidden, ebon, sere, weal—along with phrases from Gerard Manley Hopkins and Wallace Stevens.

But as in Busy Monsters, Giraldi boldly places his work in an even longer and more demanding lineage. Its promotional copy describes Hold the Dark as “an Alaskan Oresteia,” and while this sounds like nothing more than bombastic overkill from the marketing department, it is not entirely wrong. Giraldi has brought the ethos of Greek tragedy into a contemporary setting; the drama evoked by Hold the Dark is not Aeschylus’s trilogy, however, but Euripides’s Bacchae. Like that play, the novel shows a community wracked by a visitation of ecstatic violence, and a self-styled man of reason and moderation trying to hold his world together, only to be drawn into the chaos. Giraldi, like Euripides, suggests that it is vain to resist these periodic outbreaks of frenzy, because they come from beyond the rational world humans have built and are thus beyond that world’s control. Hold the Dark’s terse and aphoristic dialogue at its best has the compressed intensity of Euripides’s drama, especially as conveyed by Anne Carson’s recent translations: “Why is this happening to me, Mr. Core? What myth has come true in my house?”

In an essay on The Bacchae written in 2011 for the Tin House blog, Giraldi concludes: “Dionysus will not be beaten back, cannot be buried in our dullness. He is our nature, our blood. So get up and dance.” Hence the ambiguity in the novel’s title: at first we think Giraldi is counseling us to hold off the dark. But what if we ought to embrace it instead? This question brings us back to where we started: with Giraldi’s defense of literary tradition as a necessary curriculum for the ambitious writer. Literature is the gathered testimony of men and women driven by the daemon, wolf or wine-god, to set down their ecstatic visions before the dark claims them absolutely. With Hold the Dark, Giraldi has added his voice to the tragic chorus.

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

Crossing the Yellow River

crossingyellowriverThree Hundred Poems from the Chinese
Translated and introduced by Sam Hamill
Tiger Bark Press ($24.95)

by John Bradley

“Every translation is a provisional conclusion,” Sam Hamill tells us in his informative introduction to this collection of Chinese poetry, which includes poems from 330 BCE to the 16th century. Later, he states again that a translation is “not a conclusion, but a provisional entryway.” It should come as no surprise, then, that Hamill is still revising his translations in this new and revised edition of Crossing the Yellow River, originally published by BOA Editions in 2000. Hamill wisely focuses mainly on the poets he most admires: Li Po, Wang Wei, and Tu Fu.

What is about Chinese poetry, especially the poetry of the T’ang Dynasty (618-907 CE), that has drawn so many translators over the years, such as Ezra Pound, Arthur Waley, Kenneth Rexroth, and Bill Porter, to name only a few? Here is W.S. Merwin’s explanation, from his “Preface”: “The great treasure of classic Chinese poetry is not composed of its variety of subjects nor even of a wide range of feeling, but of the depth and clarity and delicacy with which subjects—often familiar ones—and feelings are evoked.” Li Po’s “Questions Answered” offers a good example of that “depth and clarity and delicacy”:

You ask why I live
alone in the mountain forest,

and I smile and am silent
until even my soul grows quiet.

The peach trees blossom.
The water continues to flow.

I live in the other world,
one that lies beyond the human.

Simplicity and clarity shine in this resonant translation of Hamill’s. As Li Po (701-762) attempts to answer questions about why he would shun human company for a solitary life in a mountain forest, his response points to the beauty of the wild, yet that “other world” also speaks of an inner realm, a world of deep solitude that he can’t begin to explain.

As a translator, Hamill avoids rhyme but achieves lyricism. He strives for resonance and conciseness, avoiding exposition. To fully appreciate his craft, compare the above translation with this one by David Hinton. It’s the same poem, though Hinton entitles it “Mountain Dialogue”:

You ask why I’ve settled in these emerald mountains,
And so I smile, mind at ease of itself, and say nothing.

Peach blossoms drift streamwater away deep in mystery:
It’s another heaven and earth, nowhere among people.

Both poets break the poem into couplets, but the similarities end there. “Emerald mountains” feels exotic, and the phrase “mind at ease of itself” explanatory. Hamill’s translation embodies the mystery, rather than states it.

Some of Hamill’s translations stumble at times, such as this line from Wang Wei’s “Deer Park”: “Refracted light enters the forest, / shining through green moss above.” How can the moss be located above the speaker? Is this a figure of speech, comparing the green canopy to moss? Or is this odd phrasing supposed to reveal an altered state of mind brought on by deep meditation? Or is it a mistranslation—does the sunlight graze the top of the moss rather than shine through? The questions triggered by the translation distract the reader from the poem. A minor glitch such as this, however, hardly mars this fine anthology.

Anyone who wishes to learn the craft of poetry or simply find nourishment in well-wrought language will be rewarded reading these poems. Whether it’s lament (“fish traps catch nothing but the stars”) or desire (“if my skirt should open, blame the warm spring wind”) or sly humor (“But when we make love beneath our quilt, / we make three summer months of heat”), these poems show how to capture human emotion with subtlety and depth.

As Hamill reminds us, modern poetry owes its birth to classic Asian poetry. Ezra Pound’s translations of Japanese and Chinese poems are problematic, to say the least, but they introduced a new kind of poetic, a “shorter lyrical verse rooted in imagism.” The poetry of H. D. or James Wright or Jack Gilbert could not exist without the profound influence of ancient Chinese poetry. Sam Hamill has done a great service in keeping these poems alive. May they live on, blossoming in new translations yet to come.

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

Two by Red Pine

The Mountain Poems of Stonehouse
Translated by Red Pine
Copper Canyon Press ($17)

Yellow River Odyssey
Bill Porter
Chin Music Press ($17.50)

by Justin Wadland

The translator known as Red Pine thinks of translating in terms of dancing. “I see the poet dancing, but dancing to music I can’t hear. Still, I’m sufficiently enthralled by the beauty of the dance that I want to join the poet. And as I do,” he writes. “I try to get close enough to feel the poet’s rhythm, not only the rhythm of the words but also the rhythm of the poet’s heart.” Over a career spanning three decades, Red Pine has danced with many classical Chinese poets and important works of Taoist and Buddhist literature, including the poet Han-Shan (or Cold Mountain), the Tao Te Ching, and the Heart Sutra. Informed by his own Buddhist practice and travels in Asia, Red Pine’s work is consistently characterized by a generosity of spirit that opens up these challenging texts to the English-speaking world.

All this dancing with T’ang poets and Taoist sages has certainly had an effect on the heart of the translator himself too, and it most clearly comes across when he writes under his given name, Bill Porter. Porter has authored three travel books, all set in China, that have taken him in search of Taoist hermits, Zen temples, and most recently, the source of the Yellow River. Yellow River Odyssey chronicles a 1991 journey Porter made through the cradle of Chinese civilization. Few Westerners can match Porter’s knowledge and sensibility as a guide through this watershed, and he describes his experiences with such grace that it’s easy to forget that he’s fluent in Chinese and completely immersed in the history and literature of China.

Beginning in Shanghai, where he crashes an expat party and then heads north, Porter follows a meandering course, stopping at historically significant sites like the birthplace of Confucius, and also offbeat, largely forgotten places. When he stops at Hankukuan Pass, where according to legend Lao Tzu composed the Tao Te Ching, he finds the local authorities developing it into a tourist spot. Other than construction workers, he’s the only one there. The pass itself is less impressive than expected: “I was surprised how such a simple place had been glorified by historians and artists, who often depicted it as a rocky, snow-covered mountain pass, instead of just a cart trail through a loess plateau.”

yellowriverodysseyWith publisher Chin Music Press, Yellow River Odyssey has found a match made in Taoist heaven. A Seattle-based small press, Chin Music draws inspiration from a Japanese aesthetic toward printing books; as stated on its website, the press wants to create “literary objects—books that are a pleasure to touch as well as read.” Yellow River Odyssey achieves this effect, with over fifty black and white photos taken by Porter showing cities, bridges, rapids, mountains, temples, and people in the region. Many images, such as the one of the beach where one of China’s first emperors sent out ships in search of the mythic Penglai, or Island of Immortals, are striking beyond their documentary quality.

Coinciding with the publication of the travel book, Copper Canyon press has released a new edition of the Red Pine’s translation of Stonehouse, a Zen monk who retreated to a mountain hut in the thirteenth century. “If you’ve never heard of Stonehouse, you’re not alone. Not many people have, even in China, even among Buddhists, much less poets,” says Red Pine by way of introduction. He first happened upon Stonehouse in the 1980s while translating the better-known Cold Mountain. Red Pine originally published his translations of Stonehouse in 1986, but over the years, he’s kept returning to the poems, and the older work felt a little out of step. Thus, he’s been itching to “hit the dance floor one more time” with his favorite poet.

The poems begin with an introduction from Stonehouse. When not sleeping, the poet says he enjoys composing poems, but with no paper and ink around, he hasn’t yet written any down:

. . . some Zen monks have asked me to record what I find of interest on this mountain. I have sat here quietly and let my brush fly. Suddenly this volume is full. I close it and send it back down with the admonition not to try singing these poems. Only if you sit on them will they do you any good.

mountainpoemsHe doesn’t literally mean that you should use his poems as a booster seat, like the telephone books of yore, but instead sit in meditation with them, perhaps grappling with them much like Zen students work on koans.

Fortunately, one need not be an adept at meditation, nor particularly versed in Zen Buddhism, to appreciate and enjoy Stonehouse. A small number of his poems do seem didactic, almost like dharma talks put to verse, but most of them capture the austere day-to-day life of a hermit with lightness and humor. The poems tend to be brief, four to eight lines long, and impart an abiding awareness of the natural world:

Where did that gust come from
whistling across the sky
shaking the trees in the forest
blowing open my bamboo door
without any arms or legs
how does it come and go
my attempt to track it down have failed
from the cliffs a tiger roars

Red Pine’s notes accompany most of the poems, along with the original Chinese, and the translator has a real knack for elucidating obscure references or imagery without explaining away the poem with arcana. “The tiger is considered the source of wind in China,” he says in the comment to the poem above.

The notes, at times, can be as enthralling as the poems. A single note might include a reference to Chinese history or culture, an explication of Buddhist doctrine or practice, an account of Red Pine’s own travels to the sites of Stonehouse’s huts, and speculation on the life and daily affairs of the poet himself. In one poem, for example, Stonehouse describes his hermitage in the mountains: “my gableless hut is surrounded by vines / gibbons howl at night when the moon goes down.” Red Pine says:

Stonehouse’s hut had no gables because his roof was round . . . I imagine something like a thatched yurt with bamboo walls and a layer or two of mud on the exterior. Gibbons and their eerie howls were once common throughout the Yangtze watershed but are now found in the wild only in a few nature reserves in the extreme south.

In recent years, Red Pine/Bill Porter has become a best-selling author in China; his travel books in particular have tapped into the curiosity of a burgeoning Chinese middle class eager to learn more about their country’s history and culture. Remarkably, the Chinese editions of his books have sold in the tens of thousands, with his book about Chinese hermits selling over 100,000 copies. Yet what is even more remarkable is how little known the translator and author is within his own country. One thing is certain, however: he has quietly and steadily built a body of work that celebrates a contemplative approach to life, which is sorely needed in our fast-paced, media-saturated culture.

Click here to purchase The Mountain Poems of Stonehouse at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Click here to purchase Yellow River Odyssey at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2014 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2014

Two by Kurt Tucholsky

Berlin! Berlin! Dispatches from the Weimar Republic
Kurt Tucholsky
translated by Cindy Opitz
foreword by Anne Nelson
introduction by Ian King
Berlinica ($14.95)

Rheinsberg: A Storybook for Lovers
Kurt Tucholsky
translated by Cindy Opitz
Berlinica ($14.95)

by M. Kasper

berlinberlinIn his 1931 essay “Left-Wing Melancholy,” Walter Benjamin criticized three Berlin journalists and cabaret writers by name. “Radical publicists of the stamp of [Erich] Kästner, [Walter] Mehring, and Tucholsky,” he wrote, “are the decayed bourgeoisie’s mimicry of the proletariat.” Their own precious analyses and convictions, according to Benjamin, meant more to these left-wing melancholics than confronting challenges in the real world. It’s a charge that could be leveled at lots of political writers, its author among them. In Tucholsky’s case, at least, it was wrong, or beside the point. He’d been entertaining, informing, and inspiring revolutionaries and progressive artists for years. In 1929 for instance, he and his friend the designer John Heartfield had published one of the 20th century’s most potent and politically-engaged verbo-visual books, Deutschland, Deutschland über Alles, pairing dozens of photos selected from the popular press plus some of Heartfield’s own photomontages with Tucholsky’s sardonic, woefully prescient, anti-military, anti-capitalist, anti-Nazi newspaper sketches.

Weimar Germany, with its active, abundant press, has been called the most self-aware culture in world history, and Tucholsky (1890-1935) is widely acknowledged as one of its shrewdest commentators. His form wasn’t new (feuilletons go back to the early 19th century, or earlier), but his plain, urgently ethical yet elegant voice, his concision, his special mix of fact, fun, and opinion were innovative and influential when they first appeared. He was a pioneer of the New Sobriety style of writing, which emerged in response to fevered Expressionism and still reverberates in German and other literatures. His continued relevance is of course also due to the similarity between his society and ours. The greedy capitalists, reactionary judges, and thuggish militarists who populate Tucholsky’s pieces are, alas, as much a part of life now as then.

Over all, over a period of twenty-five years or so, he wrote thousands of sketches and poems. Berlin! Berlin! Dispatches from the Weimar Republic is a welcome addition to the relatively modest number available in English (Deutschland, Deutschland über Alles came out in a beautiful facsimile from the University of Massachusetts Press in 1972, its texts translated by the poet Anne Halley; Harry Zohn edited three successively-enlarged collections of journalism and cabaret pieces, the first in 1957, the second, its cover by Eric Carle, in 1967, and the third, from Carcanet in the UK, in 1990).

Most of the more than fifty pieces in the new selection haven’t appeared in English before. They’re arranged chronologically, approximately, and all have some connection to the city of Berlin (the publisher’s focus). Among the newly available pieces, there are several real gems, including the sad, succinct study of “The Homeless,” the hilarious “The Family” (“The family . . . runs rampant in Middle Europe and usually stays that way”); and “Brief Outline of the National Economy,” a parody beginning “A national economy is when people wonder why they don’t have any money.” Regarding the translation, Cindy Opitz is slightly more fluent than either Halley or Zohn, though occasionally her colloquialisms grate (“dude”; “you’re effin’ crazy”). She does less well with the poetry than the prose, but it’s notoriously hard to present rhyming verse in English; thankfully there are fewer poems here than sketches.

rheinsbergRheinsberg: A Storybook for Lovers was Tucholsky’s first book, published in 1913, a novella about young love on vacation. It was enormously popular and it has plenty of charm but nowhere near the heft of the mature work. Its breezy style owes something to the writers he then admired, Kafka and Walser, and in fact in that same year a sketch of his appeared alongside the former’s “The Judgment” and a batch of the latter’s creations in Max Brod’s Arkadia Jahrbuch. What’s more, that was the year in which Tucholsky began his long association with the weekly Die Weltbühne, where his style evolved and so many of his most brilliant pieces were published.

The first edition of Rheinsberg, actually subtitled A Picture Book for Lovers, is a pretty volume, with line drawings by another Tucholsky friend, Kurt Szafranski. It’s unfortunate the current publisher couldn’t reproduce them. Worse, this new edition and Berlin! Berlin! are both badly designed—bad conceptually, in that the books have been made into cult objects (with random fuzzy photos of everything from Tucholsky at age one to a kitschy pillow in a store selling Tucholsky tchotchkes), and bad visually, in defaulting to the worst habits of low-end printing nowadays: skimpy margins, unattractive fonts, cheap paper, and low-resolution images. As the original Rheinsberg shows, Tucholsky cared about his books’ look from the start of his career. Later in life he said (referring to Heartfield’s designs for his [Heartfield’s] brother’s famous literary press), “If I weren’t Tucholsky, I’d like to be a book jacket for Malik-Verlag.”

Despite this missed opportunity, Berlinica deserves thanks for publishing more Tucholsky in English. Wider recognition among English readers has been slow coming, though it’s clear that we still have stuff to learn from modernist masters of political prose—pace Benjamin—like Tucholsky.

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


mutterbabelChristine Wertheim
Counterpath ($30)

by Maria Damon

There is a way that language shudders into the very flesh, not because our flesh is made sense of through language, but because language emerges from and returns to the body.
—Jefferson Hansen (thealteredscale.blogspot.com, September 21, 2104)

What could be more fun than a tract of feminist psychoanalytic philosophy wearing the cloak of visual and sound poetry? I suppose one might think of several hundred candidates for such a status. And yet, feminist philosophy has been far more playful than one might initially assume. In fact, play has been one of its constituent elements, if only to offset the seriousness with which a patriarchal discourse top-heavy with “phallogocentrism” (the term itself is a feminist spin on “logocentrism”) takes itself. For every Socrates or Apollo, there is a Baubo. For every Descartes, there is a Cixous, whose “Laugh of the Medusa” certainly both thematizes and enacts its affirmation of a terrifyingly comical “écriture feminine.” For every Freud, there is a Bracha L. Ettinger, in fact for every Freud there is a . . . Freud. You get my drift. Not that male philosophers and writers don’t also play with language. Derrida, Lacan, Thoreau, and so on have been positively drunk on puns and the thoughtscapes they catalyze. The gender war of words and laughs is not really a war on the linguistic front but an exploration into the enabling possibilities of language itself.

Christine Wertheim’s mUtter-bAbel partakes of this serious-as-your-life whimsy in its evocation of the emergence of a human child first into the world and then into language, mediated by the osmotically omnipresent M / Other / Utter / Outh / Yth. In dazzling graphics that blend sound and visual poetry, the text unfolds as a series of cries, howls, murmurs and whispers that are themselves illustrations: digital and manually produced manipulations of handwriting, typeface, and other alphabetic technologies, spelling, in wavy and endlessly radiating replication, “thIsOng’s of the-M-any-Others’ flOw-er-ing vOIdSe,” or fat white snakes of undulating “sssssssssssssssssshhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!!!!”’ s swarming across a black page. (The “I”s in all of the cited materials are actually vertical slashes, cuts that undermine the assertive declaration of the capitalized ego implicit in the first-person pronoun conventionally associated with the singular vowel or its upper-case incarnation anywhere in an English-language inscription.) The primordiality of emergence and the persistent mother-child bond as bodied forth in flowing/fragmented language has been written about by Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, and certainly others, but never so primordially, never so bondedly, never so embodied.


And the picture immediately becomes more complex, as the satisfactions of entering language with a triumphant “I’m meeeeeeee”-ness inevitably give way to certain inadequacies and conflicts when “mOther’s voIce turn[s] from an invitation to an imposition.” Handscrawled, messy, border-ignoring holes drawn in red and black join the elegant fonts and waves of digital graphics, as the gleeful meeeee-ness turns to a howl/hole of dissent and despair, a resistance to a kind of trap that, paradoxically, denies difference rather than aiding individuation. The primal is complicated by discomfort and rage. However, what in some psychoanalytic circles would be called the intrusion of the “law of the Father”—i.e. language, structure, hierarchy, etc.—is nowhere yet identified in Wertheim’s masterpiece as gendered or explicitly named. Nor does the father appear at all in the same way the mother does, except obliquely as the “babel” of the title. (mUtter-bAbel=mOther-fAther as the tower of babel defeats univocality, dissonantly echoing the fluid “money money money / water water water” of Theodore Roethke’s “The Lost Son,” where this phrase is a visceral response to the “lamentation being summed up,” the thirst for “the old rage, the lash of primordial milk!”) The drama, though internally marked by smears, bloody/fecal/salivary leakage and verbal/psychic violence, is a drama between mother and child, struggling for otherness/sameness in larval battle. A strange metamorphosis in the form of a power shift takes place. Paradoxically, “the-m-Others” emerge not as the powerful shapers of a child’s experience, but the victims of the child’s unrealistic expectations of life without inconsistencies or frictions. That is, as will become clear, the privileged of this world come to expect to be permanently infantilized, while projecting their rage onto the-m-Others—the poor, the have-nots—for having incompletely served their (the permanent children’s) needs.

This becomes explicit in “Interlude,” or

speculations on the effects of the shIt-hOwle in adult society
the politics of dung-prattle[,]

which adopts an essayistic, discursive tone even as the now extremely dense aggregate of hand-scrawled holes and typed letters take the form of mouth-holes, continents (Africa), bodies, parasitic speaking shapes. Expository prose, the language of the father (or, as they said in the old days, “phallogocentrism”), enters like a foreign tOngue, spreading order even as ordure spreads and chaos raises the stakes of what has been a private, dyadic conversation.


The final two chapters, “ShIt People” and “Pamela Aber,” focus this dysfunction in two case studies in which the larger socio-political violence of this seemingly private difficulty are spelled out. In these sections, the father trope appears horrifically in two case studies of the consequences of difficult individuation. The murders of young women at the Mexican/US border as the ultimate detritus of “shit people” (people unwanted, extruded from the MotherNation’s body back and forth between MotherNations, povertymisery compounded) indicate a surplus of rage, bloody self-laceration of a socius that cannot meaningfully expand to accommodate all its constituent beings. And then there’s the also-horrific testimony of Pamela Aber, a teenager who escaped from the Lord’s Resistance Army, Joseph Kony’s coerced aggregate that terrorizes Uganda by forcing its own youth to participate in killing and maiming the populace. Aber describes an incident in which orality is used to grisly and fatal ends: Kony ordered a group of children, on pain of death, to bite a girl to death, despite their pleas that they/she be spared this atrocity. When she did not die, despite profuse bleeding and wounding, they were then forced to club her until she finally died. This perversion of primal orality to kill rather than to nurture or be nurtured is an extreme exemplar of an adult’s need that children satisfy his insatiable desires for power through a deformed nursing ritual that destroys the psyches of the children; all are “blinded by blOOd.” And worse, this horror, beyond its spectacular humanitarian transgressions, is not an affront to the aims of imperial powers (i.e. us/US) who support the Ugandan government, whose deliberate destabilization of an ethnic group (Acholi) led to this political debacle. Thus, what at one level appears to be a deformity of normal human relations is simply a routine side effect of business as usual at the political level.

The way in which the book progresses tonally, discursively, graphically, and sonically from a terrain of chaotic but exciting possibility and discovery through an inevitable complication to the horrific effects of its irresolvability is masterful (with all the caveats that word enfreights) even as it plays with and roots itself in syllables and entities as primal as “me, “mommy,” and (the somewhat ghostly throughout) “babel.” The level of this achievement takes my breath away, that breath that is the ground of language, leaving me disembodied until I remember the art and care with which it was birthed.

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

Ten Thousand Waves

tenthousandwavesWang Ping
Wings Press ($16)

by Andreas Weiland

Wang Ping’s new collection Ten Thousand Waves looks at a wide swathe of Chinese history and literature, and examines various issues stemming from immigration to America. Possessing a unique gift for telling small stories with powerful emotional effects, she conveys the voices of farmers and factory laborers, revolutionaries, writers, artists and craftsmen.

The title poem, “Ten Thousand Waves,“ was inspired by a tragedy that occurred on February 5, 2004: more than twenty Chinese laborers were drowned in Morecambe Bay, England, when they were caught by an incoming tide. The title itself is quintessentially Chinese: Classical poets in China would invoke “ten thousand” when they meant to say “many,” “a vast number” or, in combination with miles (“li”), that someone or something is “very far away.” To use the hyperbole now is not without risk; but strangely, used in combination with waves, it escapes the danger of becoming a worn metaphor. It calls up the image of endlessly onrushing waves. It ceases to be a metaphor. It becomes photographic.

Wang Ping, a native of Shanghai who lives and works in Minnesota, does not succumb to the lyrical and romantic histories of the phrase. She invokes no vast and peaceful plains, no multitude of mountains crowned by the cabins of Taoist hermits or by Zen Buddhist monasteries. In other words, she rejects the seductive option of being both easily digestible and anachronistic. The book’s title is an allusion to a tragic event in recent history with a very contemporary social context—that of the globalized economy. It was the cruel sea that took the lives of twenty undocumented Chinese workers when they miscalculated the return of the tide in Morecambe Bay, somewhere East of the Isle of Man, in Northern England. The book, and the title poem in particular, confronts real life conditions of so-called illegal laborers arriving in Europe, or in the States, in the twenty-first century.

Ten Thousand Waves is an active text, linking literature to the extra-literary world. The words on these pages have a relationship with social reality, historical reality, and nature (an aspect of reality soaked in social significance, exposed to social forces—more often than not of a careless, exploitative, often destructive force). Waves both wash people ashore in lands far from China, in the so-called “West,” while another storm of history crashes with great force on China’s shores, importing the turmoil of the world market, quick growth of riches and expansion of poverty, of sickly pollution and the slick machines that create it, a pendulum of devastation and shiny façades. The author’s words point to a dialectical relationship that both unites and opposes the different parts of the world, the rich one and the poor one, unleashing new dynamics that “make waves.”

And yet, using the term “ten thousand” is also an indication that the book itself, not just the title, employs many elements originating in Chinese literature. Wang Ping lived long enough in her native country to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree, and her poems reveal not only aspects of today’s China, they also reveal something about America. They show us the shadow behind the voice that speaks and is heard in these poems: a woman at the crossroads, a woman anchored now in America, who remembers the past and confronts the present in the “old country.” These poems engage in a dual critique of an American way of life and the West’s betrayed values, and of China today—the country, or rather society, that abandoned hopes for the sake of money and fast development. It is a country that produces, in the hearts and minds of its citizens, different reactions to it contradictions. They are reactions that reach from the wish to flee to the American dreamland to the desire to return to the simple, honest, and just ideal ensconced in Classical Chinese texts.

Saturated with echoes of two different cultures, this volume reveals the richness and vibrancy of contemporary American poetry. Clearly, the woman’s voice in the poems (an alter-ego of sorts) sets herself apart from her “American partner,” as they encounter Chinese men and women, also members of ethnic sub-groups (like the Hakka or kejia ren) or of minorities like the Yi or Nuosu. She is seeking to establish a closeness with the locals, no matter how much she is the Other out there—someone from America. In the poem “Bargain,” when the speaker and a hawker address each other, we witness the collision of traditional and modern ways of conveying deference or respect. “Big Sister,” as the local uses it, translates the word jiejie (elder sister), as opposed to meimei (younger sister) into English; it connotes both closeness and politeness, in addition to the old deferential way of acknowledging a hierarchy between younger and older persons. And here in the modern, alienated context, it is also a type of calculated sweet talk of the local girl addressing the imagined wealthy Chinese living abroad (who is expected to buy something from among the offered wares), while indicating simultaneously the lower position of the hawker—the “poor person” in this situation. Refraining from using the correlating term “meimei” (little sister) and saying “xiaojie” or “miss,” instead, the Chinese-American speaker of the poem painstakingly tries to make clear, I’m determined to be polite; I want to treat you as an equal, even if you get on my nerves with your stubborn refusal to lower the price. “Xiaojie” is a middle class and almost an upper class term; it is modern; it is formal; it establishes a formal distance. The inability to reestablish the jiejie—meimei correlation reflects the distance between the two.

The last lines of the poem tell us that she realizes the consequences of her formality when she is back in the States, looking at the “trophy” acquired for nine yuan during her visit to the motherland. She understands suddenly how she has internalized way too much of the new culture she has immersed herself in, after leaving China many years ago.

I put away my victory in a trunk,
never give it a second thought
until I’m pulled out of the line
at Minneapolis custom, maggot fingers
prodding socks, underwear, wrapped gifts,
and there it is—my bargain
red and loud like thunderclaps:
“You saved a dime, fool,
but lost your soul.” 

The presence of the voices of the Others—Chinese persons who have not left China, but some of whom dream of going to America—complicates the poems, turning what might be mere narrative into a dialogue, an exchange of standpoints, worldviews, sometimes a collision. In modern poetry, particularly in China between 1919 and 1949, this was a preferred poetic device that would render a social contrast more visible to readers. Wang Ping has used this device sensitively while transposing the modernist literary heritage of China’s great epic poets into a contemporary American English diction.

The poet’s alter ego often enunciates her thoughts, summing up or drawing conclusions that appear in combination with the descriptive elements of Wang Ping’s poetry. These elements reveal the alienated and alienating quest for a good life sought by careerists, the attempt of an ordinary man like the garbage collector to remain authentic (“The Collector”), but also the despair of people—as in “Paradise,” where a migrant laborer, devoid of all hope, jumps to his death from the towering “top of a billboard that says Welcome to Hangzhou—Paradise on Earth”—falling, the poet says, “into the pit of Paradise.”

These poems often speak with the re-born voice of Ai Qing, but also with the voice of Carl Sandburg when he recalls the cries of the factory girls jumping from the windows in the fourth floor of a sweatshop in Lower Manhattan that is ablaze. The same compassion is in Wang Ping’s poems, and the same brave attempt not to be overly emotional, not to become sentimental, but to remain the chronicler of small joys and great suffering, of mistakes made and uprightness. She is a committed yet detached observer, filled by a deep reverence and love for humanity, but also aware of this “busy monster manunkind” that we are. And she cares, no doubt, for both China and the country that has become her new home; it is a sad, bitter love that seeks to stir and awaken the reader, for she knows that all of us are thrown into an age of turmoil, wars, and fierce competition, where the necessary answer seems to be a clear-minded analysis of the impasses we face.

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

The Uncertainty Principle

uncertaintyprinciplerob mclennan
Chaudiere Books ($15)

by Brian Mihok

Sometimes it's painful to a writer to label his work, as if putting a name to it reduces its parameters. In saying what it is, you are also saying what it is not, and in doing so you might deny the ultimate strength of literature—to be layered with possibility.

At the risk of doing the potentially just-as-sinful inverse, I could instead try to write what rob mclennan's The Uncertainty Principle is not. For example, it is not a collection of stories the way Dubliners is a collection of stories. On the spectrum that delineates characteristics of fiction from poetry, the pieces in The Uncertainty Principle fall somewhere nearer to fiction; however, this spectrum is intersected by other spectra delineating fact from error, objective from subjective, author from narrator/speaker, etc. The book is mostly made of fragments, alternating between a story, a diary entry, a joke. Sprinkled throughout are strange and humorous un-facts, e.g., “Radium tastes like buttermilk. #IDon'tHaveFactsToBackThisUp.”

What makes the collection work is the sense of uncertainty each piece creates. Most of them can stand on their own, and each one chimes a tone of unknowing, either through an event in a story or through an observation. Take page 61, on which mclennan directly investigates the idea of unknowing:

If love has gone from noun to a verb, I no longer want part. Lately, the moon has edged slow through the sky dragging Jupiter, the closest its been to the earth in some decades. It winks back like Sputnik, like Skylab. One of a club of dwindling planets. We are known for our exclusivity. Jupiter, tell me: what do you know, and why won't you impart? It knows something we don't. It knows something we haven't quite figured.

Throughout The Uncertainty Principle, the mystery of unknowing is a kind of knowledge in itself—knowledge that any truth can be taken away from us, that no truth has permanence. It's an unnerving and beautiful notion.

The Uncertainty Principle is also not a book with an answer. Some of its playfulness comes from the one-liners like the “radium” one cited above; they end with the same hashtag, a remnant of these particular pieces' first home on mclennan's Twitter feed. The joke of the hashtag, unfortunately, loses its effect as it’s repeated. The claims made by these pieces are indeed funny and unbelievable, though there's something in their oddness that makes you think, well, maybe . . . That hesitation works within the confines of uncertainty the book presents, but the hashtag corrupts that feeling, asking the reader to chuckle rather than wonder.

This is a small quibble, however. The most important part of this book is that it isn't anything. It calls to the idea that uncertainty is always with us. And it shines a light in that darkness, but as the length of most of the pieces attest, the light must not linger on any one thing too long, lest we start believing what we see is true.

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

Starlight in Two Million: A Neo-Scientific Novella

starlightin2millionAmy Catanzano
Noemi Press ($15)

by Cindra Halm

Let’s take a journey involving both quantum and cosmic universes, a point of view from “fourth person narration,” characters named for Greek concepts, and metafictional investigations of the human capacity to express in words. And, of course, a time machine.

Amy Catanzano’s Starlight in Two Million: A Neo-Scientific Novella is a mind-full, mine-filled, field of literary, aesthetic, scientific, and imaginative constructs that take forms as collage, cultural allegory, anti-war expression, epistolary conversation, and song-of-joy-in-risk-taking, to list merely a few. Exceedingly specific to its referents, exceedingly rigorous in its intellect, the book might be as intimidating as it is elegant. And yet, plenty of random openings yield trackable, if also mystifying, koan-type passages which may tantalize one’s curious poet of the mind as well as one’s sensual poet of the skin:

The Enduring Karmanaut
When I was born, I was a letter delivered by the sea in a ship crafted with no limit for travel. My fingerprint unlocked a supercivilization behind my throat. My cells write without sight. The ship sailed between the horizon and the sea to the land where I was born. I was born into a letter. My fingerprint was found by a supercivilization. When I was born, the sea unlocked a horizon behind my throat. My paradox will be wider than my cell.

In this full “chapter” of the self-described novella, one may note the iterations that organically mutate meanings by rearranging phrases and ideas as well as by playing with multivalent particular words (“letter,” “cell,” etc.). While each chapter expresses variations of length, look, line, and language, the theme and the strategy of mutability arcs throughout the entire book, highlighting the role that change plays in the novella’s (while commenting on our own) multiverse—a resonant word here if ever there was one, and a form of the title of Catanzano’s previous collection of poems, Multiversal (Fordham University Press, 2009).

So this book is a trip, in all senses of the word. Guides can be found in the four quotations which open the narrative, as well as in the highly recommended “Author’s Statement: An Artificial Intelligence” which closes it. Yes, even if you read theoretical physics for fun, whiz through Sunday crossword puzzles, devour utopian/dystopian literature, and think in highly connotative, simultaneous logics, beginning with the “Author’s Statement” will provide a grounding influence for “my investigation into quantum poetics, a hybrid critical-speculative framework that I am extending upon and developing in this project and others.”

The “Statement,” a manifesto that has delicious potential to spin into a series of essays, brings to mind Alice Fulton’s ideas and illuminations on “fractal poetics” in the book Feeling as a Foreign Language: The Good Strangeness of Poetry (Graywolf, 1999), which definitely seems an influence. One of Catanzano’s explicitly stated ancestors, Alfred Jarry, lends his “science of imaginary solutions” to the text’s exceedingly dense stew of postulates, constructions, references, paradoxes, and shifting cosmologies.

Starlight is a neo-hippie, alternative-future creation myth in which space-time limitations disappear and characters forge ever-developing notions of freedom, responsibility, and relationship, in settings of nowhere and everywhere. Catanzano comes across as a superstring theoretical linguist sensualist geek collagist, with instincts to parse, to layer, and to linger, in dynamic context or in contextual dynamism. A poetic attempt at the elusive Theory of Everything? Her work feels important, and full of wonder for what is and what could be. Scientists and artists share this.

Now, back to the crossword puzzle: word before “dust” and “light”: four letters. “Star,” right? Cue Joni Mitchell. Amy Catanzano also reminds us that we’re comprised of star-stuff, the matter, the energy—but in her version, even outer space is local. We don’t have to get ourselves back to the garden; we never left it.

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

Compass Rose

compassroseArthur Sze
Copper Canyon Press ($16)

by Ted Mathys

In Arthur Sze’s stunning tenth collection, he departs from previous books by adopting new formal techniques to illuminate one of his enduring themes: how to account for the simultaneity of lived events in a poetic language that is damned to unfold over time. The book opens with an untitled page consisting of a single line of verse: “Black kites with outstretched wings circle overhead—.” After each titled poem in the collection another page like this appears, with a few unrelated image-lines, each ending with an em-dash. Their content slowly accumulates into travel journal, with images suggesting South Asia. The em-dashes leap out manically from the ends of the lines as if to suggest that something is about to happen or just happened to the traveler, but the transcription process couldn’t keep pace: “A naked woman applies kohl to her right eyelid— / The limp tassels of new ashoka leaves in a tomb courtyard—.”

Buried in the acknowledgments at the end of the book is the explanation that these lines belong to a single poem, “Sarangi Music,” which was first published as a whole but here appears in segments, dispersed, and stripped of its title. “Sarangi Music” thus exists for the reader in two places at once; it is posited as an ideal construct residing somewhere else but is experienced here in flickering, periodic fragments. This is the magic of Sze’s poetry. He creates artifacts in which the profusion of each present moment can be felt viscerally if not fully understood, in which “each fragment is a whole” precisely because “Consciousness is an infinite net / in which each hanging jewel absorbs and reflects / every other.”

Like much of Sze’s work, Compass Rose is anchored by numbered, serial poems driven by paratactic images and overheard snippets of language laid down in rapid succession. Sze privileges active present tense verbs (“an owl lifts,” “kiwis hang,” “he swerves,” “surf slams,” “two planets bob”) and temporal ligatures like “while” and “as” that make the actions in his poems feel coincident rather than causal. Though Sze sometimes adopts a deeply emotional lyric “I,” more often the work is peopled with characters who are typecast by occupation—“At the lab a technician prepares a response / to a hypothetical anthrax attack”; “A healer aligns / her east and west”; “A veteran’s wince coincides / with the pang a girl feels when / she masters hooked bows in a minuet”—all of which deepens the feeling that each of us is not an inviolably unique person, but rather an actor embedded in a larger web of physical life.

This goes for the poet, too. Even as he mines his surroundings for sensuous lines of verse, Sze’s speaker seems consistently aware of the limits of human perception and our insignificance, to borrow a brutal phrase from Mao, “as far as the universe as a whole is concerned.” In many ways the book is governed by a desire to contend with this in language, to make palpable the elusive natural forces that structure the present: “If I sprinkle iron filings onto a sheet / of paper, I make visible / the magnetic lines of the moment.” Magnetic lines, state lines, nanoseconds, meteorological isobars, ultraviolet radiation—Sze’s wide aperture, observational precision, and sustained intellectual pressure transform what seems beyond the grasp of the human senses into events in language.

In the compass rose, Sze finds an elegant metaphor for this poetics. A compass rose is the figure on a compass or nautical map that depicts the cardinal directions: North, East, South, and West. In its crudest form it resembles a four-pointed star, but many designs bisect the cardinal directions into smaller units such as Northeast, East-Northeast, and so on. The more precise the observational units on a compass get, the more its lines proliferate, and the more the pointed star begins to resemble an ornate rose in bloom.

Like a compass rose, Sze’s meticulous examinations of scientific phenomena ultimately yield aesthetic rewards, and what appears at first to be plainly aesthetic, such as “the heart-shaped leaves of spring,” is often revealed to be an illusory aspect of a more complicated system in which “dark energy and dark / matter enlace this world.” Indeed, in the title poem Sze draws a parallel between this scientific-aesthetic tension and the poetic tension between literal and figurative uses of language. “What closes and is literal, / what opens and is figurative?” he writes, only to reverse the aphoristic question a few lines later: “what closes / and is figurative, what opens and is literal?” These poems vibrate in the hidden, interstitial spaces between open and closed, literal and figurative, science and art, the land and its maps, the compass and the rose.

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