Tag Archives: FALL 2015

Homage to LeRoi Jones and Other Early Works

homagetoleroijonesKathy Acker
Gabrielle Kappes, editor
Center for the Humanities ($8)

by Spencer Dew

“Immediacy,” for Kathy Acker, was an aesthetic move and a political tactic. She used the term to describe both art that moves its audience and for the insurgent potential within such art—its use value as a tool for revolution. In two of the essays collected in her ever-intriguing Bodies of Work, Acker discusses the power of such “immediacy” and offers a justification for the writing of fiction. When done right, she argues, such artistic work is neither a placation from historical-material realities or the creation of a luxury good for the rich, but, rather, the construction, through words, of “that which will become actual,” the enactment of new ways of being, new communities.

Not all fiction, of course, is revolutionary. Much of what “will become actual” solidifies the power of the oppressive political, economic, and mental (“mythical,”Acker would also say) patterns that define our “unbearable” status quo. Yet Acker links her own revolutionary work, throughout her career, with a broad lineage of artists conscious about the efficacy of their work and united in their recognition of oppression and commitment to certain values (foremost of which is community predicated on respect for otherness). Acker thus places her work within what she terms “the tradition of political writing as opposed to propaganda.”

The difference here is, in part, ideological. Novels written by wealthy, misogynist, racist writers are necessarily propaganda. But there is a difference, too, in terms of method. What critics might categorize as “experimental” Acker celebrates as engagement in action with practical consequences. As she explains it, “verbal sensuousness,” “imagery, dangling clauses,” and direct engagement with dreams and desires are all more than mere aesthetic choices; they are political choices, as well. Artistic choices are thus deployed as an attack on capitalism and patriarchy, to use the two terms Acker most often employs as shorthand for the headless and entangled systems through which people are separated from and continue to separate themselves from others, constructing hierarchies of power and notions of autonomy and ownership, domination and dehumanization.

Further, Acker argues that rationality itself is part and parcel of the economic and political system in which we are embedded. To subvert this “mythology” (i.e., ideology passing as natural, following Roland Barthes’s usage) is, likewise, a revolutionary tactic. A writer must reject false distinctions, illustrate the transitory nature of subjectivity, unsettle signification, and pull back the curtain on the artistic practice, all as a way to gesture toward the really real and, just as importantly, enact a possible alternative. Easier said than done. The cooptation, commodification, and otherwise deadening of art is a constant. In one brilliant moment in Homage to LeRoi Jones, however, young Acker reminds us of the uses of disruption, interrupting a letter and returning us all, as readers, back to the real world with this gleeful parenthetical: “(god Phil just called up the Guernica’s been defaced how wonderful I’ll be back)”.

This chapbook collects some early work from the Acker archive at the David M. Rubenstein Rare Books & Manuscript Library at Duke University, and should stand as the first of many “new,” posthumous collections of Acker’s work from that source. The archive houses, among other texts, some remarkable thoughts by Acker on an Andy Warhol retrospective and an important lecture she delivered on Wuthering Heights, Maurice Blanchot, and that “political tradition” in which she located her work. In Homage to LeRoi Jones we see the artist in search of that tradition, engaging particularly with the early work of Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), particularly 1965’s A System of Dante’s Hell, exploring (and echoing) his critical rage, his engagement with musicality and raw sound, and his commitment to form as an expression of content and intent. Jones’s work serves Acker as something like a pattern and something like a sparring partner, as does the work of Alan Sondheim. Collected here are some of Acker’s letters to Sondheim, initiating a collaboration (a mutual, multi-media exchange of intimacies, “establishing complicated feedback relations”) which would become the 1974 film Blue Tape, wherein reading of passages printed here is coupled with sex acts and on-camera contestations over language and desire, authority and power.

One of the values of Homage to LeRoi Jones is that it serves as a portrait of a young artists in the process of becoming Kathy Acker. Her characteristic play of identy/ies; her articulation of vulnerability, desire, and the “need to scream”; her engagement with the sexual, ranging in mode from academic to erotic; and her driving concern with imagining a more ideal community than the broken society in which she struggles to survive—all these elements are here, voiced in an already recognizable style. Yet Acker is also just getting her sea legs in these pages, working sex shows in order to meet the droning demands of “the constant rent bill gas bill phone bill” and struggling to figure out how to balance what she later describes as the deconstructive versus the constructive. At one point, flailing a little, she offers a rambling but nonetheless insightful analysis of “the whole American marriage romantic monogamy romance” reading this myth as “upholding the general rich man’s economy” with its notion of individual ownership, male privilege, and the insistence on “rigid categories” for emotional experience, when, in reality “feelings . . . are so much more complex.” At another point, she launches forth from a Foucault-flavored examination of society (“I now want to find out who’s controlling me economically and why . . . ”) to a realm beyond rational language, entering the imagery of dreams and fairy tales. “I feel I’m going through a forest a thick forest blue black with low plants around the trees,” she writes, “I want to be more alive and happier, am scared what I’m doing here.” What immediacy, in that move from blue woods to the warped syntax of confusion—desire followed by fear and uncertainty, stitched together by that tenuous, collapsible “I.” Homage to LeRoi Jones gives us a glimpse of Acker figuring out what she’s doing here, developing her unique, immediate, political art.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

Let Me Tell You

letmetellyouShirley Jackson
Random House ($30)

by Rob Kirby

Shirley Jackson has always been an anomaly. Her works range from the dark worlds of her timeless short story "The Lottery" and gothic novels like The Haunting of Hill House (1959), to the warm and funny domestic stories she wrote mostly for women’s magazines like Good Housekeeping and Woman's Home Companion (collected in her celebrated 1953 book Life Among the Savages and its 1957 sequel Raising Demons). Writing popular fiction along with the “serious” likely contributed to her fading reputation in the years following her death in 1965 at age forty-eight. But for her fans, her body of work integrates into a distinct, uniquely personal vision, no matter the subject matter or tone. In recent decades Jackson has been increasingly recognized as an important and influential mid-century American writer, including by noted authors such as Neil Gaiman, A.M. Holmes, Jonathan Lethem, Joyce Carol Oates, Paul Theroux, and (most famously) Stephen King.

Let Me Tell You is the third posthumous collection of Jackson’s previously uncollected or unpublished work compiled by her family members. Come Along With Me (1968), edited by her husband, the noted literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, remains for me the strongest and most unified of the three. Just an Ordinary Day (1997), edited by her eldest son and youngest daughter, Lawrence Jackson Hyman and Sarah Hyman DeWitt, is a bit wobblier, featuring too many stories at which Jackson herself would have probably blanched upon exhuming. This latest, lovingly produced volume sits squarely between the others. As with Ordinary Day there is some work that feels somewhat unfinished or insubstantial, but the curation is clear and the scope expansive; there are some very strong pieces included that deserve their day in the sun.

The book is divided into five sections: the first consists of unpublished and uncollected short fiction; the second is personal essays and reviews; the third features some early, World War II-era short stories; the fourth features a selection of her humorous family stories and anecdotes; and the final section is devoted to lectures about the craft of writing. Throughout there are Jackson’s charming little doodle-y cartoons, and a lovely amateur watercolor graces the endpapers. Writer Ruth Franklin, author of a forthcoming biography of Jackson, provides a smart, concise introduction, titled “I Think I Know Her.”

The two fiction sections and the one devoted to Jackson's writings about writing are the strongest, featuring her work in a variety of styles, genres, and tones. Speaking of The Haunting of Hill House in her lecture "How I Write," Jackson notes that “reality is the key issue” of the novel. This insight underscores the fact that many of Jackson’s stories, such as “It Isn’t the Money I Mind” and “Company for Dinner,” feature characters whose perceptions of reality are off-kilter. In other tales, characters try to alter their realities: the mousy, nondescript collegiate girl in “Family Treasures” engages in petty thievery in an effort to improve her social status, while the rather desperate protagonist of “The Lie” attempts to right a forgotten, past moral infraction in an effort to change her unhappy present situation.

In some of Jackson’s finest tales here and elsewhere, reality is upended by unreality. In the elegantly crafted “Mrs. Spencer and the Oberons,” the unpleasantly rigid, supremely snobbish Mrs. Spencer finds herself helplessly isolated from a happy town celebration—her own family in attendance—in an eerie, perhaps supernatural turn of events; whether the character is subject to the uncanny or simply her irrational prejudices made manifest, it is a fine tale of poetic justice. In the Kafka-esque "Paranoia," an ordinary businessman finds himself pursued at the end of the workday by a malevolent man in a light hat, for unknown reasons. Eventually, it appears that other strangers are in on the pursuit. A master of dark fiction, Jackson stokes an atmosphere of rising dread both in this and the outright mythological world of "The Man in The Woods."

Jackson also pitilessly explores the more unattractive sides of human nature in nuanced stories like “4-F Party” and “The Bridge Game,” in which husbands and wives act out insidious jealousies and hostilities, with others caught in the crossfire. In other tales, such as the title piece and “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” mean girls torment adults for sport. Jackson was acutely aware of the evils people carry within; it was a theme that she returned to again and again.

Other stories are of a type not much seen previously in Jackson’s oeuvre: “Homecoming” is a quiet, contemplative tale of a woman awaiting her husband’s return from war, while “Bulletin” and “Showdown” delve into science fiction territory. While these tales and others display Jackson’s willingness to experiment in a variety of genres and tones, they are best viewed as ephemera, and not as representative of her best work. Similarly, most of the family stories and housewifely musings in section four remain, at best, light reading (Life Among the Savages remains the peak in this mode of her storytelling).

The lectures are illuminating, offering not only a look into her creative process but some genuine food for thought for other writers. “Garlic in Fiction” in particular offers a fascinating glimpse into how Jackson builds a set of “cumulative symbols” to write a tricky transitional passage in The Haunting of Hill House. “This collection of weighted words,” she writes, “can only be used like garlic, where they will do the most good, and they must never be used where they will overwhelm the flavor of another passage.”

Uneven though it may be, Let Me Tell You is a welcome collection, essential for Jackson-philes. More casual or novice readers, however, are advised to start with any number of Jackson’s finest books: The Lottery and Other Stories, Life Among the Savages, The Haunting of Hill House, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, or Come Along with Me. Now that all of Jackson’s previously forgotten or little-seen work has (presumably) been brought to light, perhaps someday a collection featuring only the very best of her short fiction and stories will be curated for posterity. Shirley Jackson’s legacy deserves nothing less.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

The Hole of Hypocrisy: A Conversation with Kent Johnson on the U.S. “Avant-Garde” and Other Fictions


photo by Forrest Gander

by Michael Boughn

For anyone paying even the remotest attention to the U.S. poetry scene over the last twenty years, Kent Johnson needs no introduction. Described variously by certain parties as “thuggish,” “an unchained pit bull tossed in a schoolyard,” “a troublemaker,” and “criminal,” and by others as the “gadfly we deserve,” “refreshingly disturbing,” “preeminent,” and “vital,” his take-no-prisoners assault has continuously gone after the complacencies, stupidities, and hypocrisies of American life. Reinventing satire for the 21st century, his fiercely moral gaze and his imaginative invention of new forms of post-Fluxus agitation have drawn attention to the mass, blind obedience of Americans to the military/security state, as well as to the complicit, moral compromises of artists and writers in their drive for “success” in the contemporary cultural industry.

Johnson’s most recent book, I Once Met: A Partial Memoir of the Poetry Field (Longhouse Books, $20), is something of a departure. On one level, it collects reminiscences about his meetings with various poets around the world over the course of his poetic life. On another it invokes a generous, sometimes tender, sometimes tough, always honest portrait of the intricate, irreparable relations that constitute community. As much a prose poem as a memoir, it lovingly (and humorously) paints a rich tableau of the irreducible complexity of what might be called, following Giorgio Agamben, the coming community—including an unforgettable encounter with Emily Dickinson poolside in a bikini.

Michael Boughn: Kent, in some ways you are unique in the current “post-avant” poetry world: An intelligent, cosmopolitan, multilingual scholar who writes poetry and non-fiction, who is an accomplished translator and anthologist, but who is a loner with no group affiliations, just an ordinary guy who works in a small college and lives in a small mid-western American town. The pieces that make up I Once Met: A Partial Memoir of the Poetry Field reflect that relation to the ordinary, at least in their mode of address—2 am kitchen conversation over bourbon and a little smoke—an intimate familiarity of relation (even in its tender ruthlessness) that is so much part of our condition. What is your sense of the significance of the "ordinary" in our situation, both in terms of art and writing, and the larger realities they are part of?

ioncemetKent Johnson: Thank you for the words “cosmopolitan” and “accomplished,” Michael, even if—knowing myself better than you do—I can quickly think of a dozen much less flattering adjectives to go along with them. Not that I’m the only one who could. Some of the others would be fellow poets, I’m afraid . . . Don’t traffic these days in satire, / poet, unless you desire / to be a small-town loner, / like William Stoner.

Now, I like your notion of “ordinary” in relation to I Once Met. I think, yes, that its various entries all seek, in their different moods, to engage the quotidian and everyday of the poetic field, which is, like all things sociological, poignantly ordinary and human beneath the posturing at its surfaces. And in so doing, the entries try to find some measure of common hilarity or surprise therein, whatever it might be, using perfectly common parlance as the instrument of view. Of course that view is necessarily skewed by my own eccentricities and neuroses, though thankfully I don’t have as many of those as most other poets. No, just kidding.

But seriously, the decided drift of “experimental” poetry in the U.S. has been, for the past forty or so years, toward the smug, esoteric, and quasi-teleological range of affect, I’d say, its adepts sporting their crème de la crème presumptions with an importance of being earnest little seen since the fin de siècle. Albeit without a guiding temper of satire and wit to comparably recommend it. In any event, the tendency at issue is fairly contrary, safely said, to basic senses of the ordinary. A fair number of these writers are terrifically gifted, to be sure, but that’s neither here nor there.

It used to be that heterodox poetry, at least in the U.S., had some serious interface with the ordinary, and was more all-embracing for it. Think of Whitman and Dickinson and Williams and the Objectivists, for example. Or of the New American Poetry period, not so long ago—so informed, across its schools and strains, by everyday life, demotic language, and a decidedly non-professionalized sociality. But that down-to-earth ambience of the field more or less went poof with the ascent of Language poetry and its obsessive conflation of poetic vocation with theory à la mode (much of the latter of pseudo sort, we now know). Not that we don’t want theory. It’s that now, much due to that overdo, “avant-garde” verse has moved on to get conflated, rapidly and willingly, with the Academy, to the point where we haven’t had an institutionalized habitus like it since the New Criticism. Penn is our new Kenyon, and the prominent Presses, Literary Prizes, and State or Corporate Fellowships leash the values of attention.

So the “experimental” has moved, by and large, more and more away from the ordinary, I’d propose, to become increasingly mandarin, highbrow, and recuperated in its forms and dispositions. Recently dead-by-its-own-hand Conceptual Poetry showed us, and with insufferable Warholian hauteur, the clearest, most cynical acquiescence to those ideological conditions, even as the group’s proponents proclaimed their devotions to the banal and prosaic.

I like this word ordinary, now that you’ve raised it, Mike. Yes, it seems to me the next avant-garde, should we get one, will need to be ordinary with a vengeance.

MB: Well, that was certainly the push that came out of Williams’s work. And later Zukofsky and Oppen and that bunch with their Marxist orientation. And, strangely, Stein’s as well. Tender Buttons explicitly addresses itself to the ordinary world of our experience—vases, boxes, roast chicken, the rooms in our home. You could argue that she attempts throughout her writing life to recuperate the ordinary. It is not the banal and prosaic, in the sense that you locate in ConPo. That is the death of the ordinary. Emerson claims that the problem with Americans is that they don’t know what the ordinary is, that they have yet to learn to sit at the feet of the low and the common. Of course it is tied to the problems and promise of democracy, because, I think it is safe to say, democracy is the politics of the ordinary. Exactly how do you think that politics is relevant to poetry? Or vice versa. Is this part of poetry’s work? And, if so, in what sense?

KJ: So that’s a big barbell of a topic. You’ll have to forgive me if my arms come off when I try to lift it. But to mention my own vote for our greatest master of the overlooked ordinary: Lorine Niedecker. I was having dinner years ago at a now-defunct, salt-of-the-earth supper club called Club 26, outside Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, and I looked to my right and there was a framed typescript on the wall with her signature. The poem titled “Club 26.” I was sitting at the very table where she and her husband fancied sitting for Friday night fish fries. I’m not kidding. The near-same thing happened to me about two years back with Pablo Neruda, in an old bar in Valparaíso, Chile. There on the wall, with photo, was a handwritten note by him to the former owner; I was drinking pisco sours in his favorite booth. I seem to be avoiding your question.

Anyway, poets—particularly those of the Left sort—have been pondering and arguing out that vice-versa you evoke for a long time. As have some notable non-democratic types, if with more certainty and antithetical intent. Like Plato, say, whose prescriptions and proscriptions have been enacted by the Culture Industry better than any mass banishment of poets to Liars’ Gulag Resort on Lesbos, or wherever.

A poetry of politics or a politics of poetry? A lyrical politics or a non-lyrical poetics? Form as politics or formalism as apolitical? Poets of the court or a court of poetry? Poets as legislators or poets in exile? Poetry as autonomous or poetry as heteronomous? Alas, the democratic problem for poetry is pretty much as old as the problem of democracy’s nature itself. No one has figured either problem out, yet. Assuming there’s an “either” in the terms of the matter, that is.

We know from the past century the bad consequences of definitive resolutions on the question of what a “democratic” poetry should or must do. Though even there it gets tricky—or maybe scary is the word—since some of the most powerful verse of “ordinary democracy” was written by vanguard folks who’d pledged this or that allegiance to an order that was, quite literally, poetry-killing. Mayakovsky, Vallejo, Aragon, Éluard, Neruda, Hughes, Brecht, Hikmet, Oppen, Césaire, Rukeyser, for example.

Currently, close to home, as it were, we have a campus-tethered coterie of Bay Area poets who like to give the impression they’ve resolved the riddle of the vice-versa, too. They can come off a bit toffee-nosed and uptight in their pronouncements, but they are smart, and on a larger scale contribute, of course, to the ever-unfolding dialectic of the question you pose, even as the distorting effects of an in-group strabismus get sometimes refracted. As with a recent squawk of ultra-gauche infantilism by their leader, who proclaimed that “People think that cops need to be reformed. They need to be killed.” Or as with, in the case of another, a self-congratulatory protest poem (praised in the New York Times, a fact they’ve proudly been announcing) that pins the hopes for much of its emotional gravitas and bona fides on a very distanced, ironic, hipster appropriation of a word that was coined in the African-American community for a substance-induced (usually) ecstatic state. Well, racism in the history of Marxism is complicated. But where am I going with this “answer”? My arms have come off.

In any case, here’s something I wrote a few months back for Lana Turner journal, which proposes, in openly provisional ways, a possible site for the practice of some ordinary poetic democracy. Not in aim of some program that might mend differences in a superficial unanimity, but rather in spirit of a fluid, collective, even conflicted praxis. Of course, the proposal runs up against the hard facts I touched on in my first answer. Facts that make my proposals nigh utopian in the current conjuncture, I realize. But precedents, some of them heroic, are certainly there as inspiration.

MB: You are notoriously associated with a critique of what you, following Michel Foucault, call the Author Function—which, it can be argued, is very much tied up with these political questions arising from the crumbling of a decrepit bourgeois individualism and its ownership and consumption duties. That wouldn’t be a problem if you restricted yourself to domesticated academic analyses to be read at the MLA on a panel with Charles Bernstein and Barrett Watten, but you insist on being involved in elaborate—“hoax” is too larcenous in its implications and “performance” is too containing a word to describe what happens—“events,” I think is appropriate, “wild events,” in the Fluxus or happening tradition, although actually unique, I think. The difference is that instead of a gallery or performance space, these wild events occur in the world and the participants are drawn into acting out, revealing, deeply political forms of being they would rather not be aware of or have others aware of. I have often thought that if people had more of a sense of humour, we could all just have a good laugh together (which I will get back to later) over Yasusada or a misattributed O’Hara poem. But no, they (poet/owners, curators, editors, explainers, and critics) all get their knickers in twist about “forgeries,” “hoaxes,” “cultural appropriation,” and “true authorship,” and you become damned as a “troublemaker” and even accused of “criminal acts.” I Once Met, begins with that troubled word so much of your work is involved with: “I.” Who is this “I” and how does it differ from the focus of your critique?

KJ: The Fluxus-effect connection you make might be the most unexpected comparison my writing has ever received. And I thank you, very humbly, as I pour myself a drink to abate the jolt of it. As for your concluding question, which makes me want to pour a second one: I don’t know. Maybe, as Zhou Enlai once purportedly put it, on a subject of greater import (answering a question about the historical implications of the French Revolution), “It’s too early to tell”?

The idea of, and desire for, a fourth-dimensional poetics that subverts strictures of attribution so as to move beyond the page into fictional “event” (by which I mean no allusion to the Maoist Badiou) or a kind of living theater is something I’ve talked about in places and tried in my own quirky way to carry through. I Once Met isn’t really a part of that, I don’t think. But it’s funny you mention it and Fluxus in the same question: I actually had an extended entry for the book that brings in details of various strange textual finds, most all of which are extant in my little collection of autographed books and ephemera accumulated over the past many years, mainly poetry stuff—I’ve got around five-hundred items, some of them quite special. A couple of wonderful things I’d found, and which I wrote about in that entry, are now tragically lost, and one of them was an original copy—signed and dated 1966 by George Maciunas, to a performance artist of Argentina—of the Fluxus manifesto of 1963. I’d discovered it in a derelict bookshop in Montevideo, Uruguay, about eight years ago. I forgot to include the entry in the final manuscript. That’s sort of a digression, I guess.

One demurral, though: I have never claimed authorship of the Yasusada writing, and I never will. I have stood as the work’s executor, only and simply. We’re doing this for Rain Taxi, and some years ago the magazine and Walker Art Center invited me to give a lecture about the “forgery,” which I presented in midst of a retrospective of the art of Richard Prince, an accomplished forger, if there ever was one. The text of it came out in a book of essays on the controversy, so it’s available. But I’m pretty well retired now from debating the case. And I’ll pass on debating here, despite the Yi-Fen Chou spectacle of the past few days, to which Yasusada is now being compared (from The New Yorker, to Salon, to PBS, to the Christian Science Monitor), in tritely facile ways. It was good to see the admired Chinese-poetry scholar Lucas Klein weigh in with a clear corrective in that regard. Anyway, these controversies seem unavoidable to the work’s nature. There’s an extensive critical bibliography by now, with more coming, I suspect, and people will make up their minds as time goes on. As a side note, and amazingly enough, there’s a full-length film script—a fictionalization of the Yasusada affair—making the rounds in Hollywood as we speak; it was a finalist for the Academy’s main prize for young screenwriters last year, and it’s getting some buzz, I’m told. But producing an independent film is always a longshot wager; we’ll see what happens. If it’s produced, every cent of royalties is destined, by already signed legal agreement, to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum foundation. Same as all royalties from Doubled Flowering were directed to anti-A-Bomb causes.

That said, you’re right that much of my own work, from The Miseries of Poetry, to Dear Lacan, to Works and Days of the fénéon collective, to the Rejection Group project, to Doggerel for the Masses, to A Question Mark above the Sun, is framed around or within figments and uncertainties of authorship. And you’re right to gently suggest, if I’m right that you are, that this new book, I Once Met, seems to be a departure from that speculative tic, inasmuch as it’s located in something like what you might call the conventional claims of non-fictional testimony (poetic-trauma testimony?), even the sections of it that refer openly to dreamt encounters. It’s all true, even the stuff I had to make up to deepen the truth of it.

The conspicuousness of the modal shift is interesting to me, but I’m not sure how to theorize it, vis-à-vis the Author Function, now that you’ve prodded me on it. I guess if someone were to propose that the compulsive “I” of the new book is that very Function coming back in vengeful demand of compensation, igniting the prose into a bonfire of narcissistic self-immolation, I’d have a hard time countering. What do you think? Clearly, I’m copping out on your question.

MB: Well, I think I will argue with you about that, if I’m allowed. Not all “I”s are the same, or, you could say, there is no identity to “I”. And the I in “I once met” seems less an identity or an owner/consumer or self-obsession than a site that opens into an exuberance of relation, an overflowing of world stuff—knowledge, mood, idea, laughter, geography, history, memory, love—in language. Each of the pieces that opens out of that "I" registers for me as a deep generosity rooted in the generosity of language itself. And in that sense, I would argue, opens into a new political possibility, what Jean-Luc Nancy calls “being singular plural” which is one of the thorniest and most difficult political questions we face, after the catastrophic failure of various historical attempts to recover the communal as a social and economic reality, to address that crucial dynamic between each and all. I Once Met is community at its most vibrant and irreducibly heterogeneous and the experience of that is grounded in your poetics.

Poetics and politics go together, don’t they? I mean in terms of the politics of poetry as opposed to the politics of poets. The "poetry war" that followed from Don Allen's New American Poetry, 1945-1960 and its declaration of independence from the stifling complacencies of officially sanctioned verse, was political. And in an expansive sense that often included active opposition to the various U.S. acts of international aggression and active support for the struggles of various peoples fighting for equality and an end to state oppression. Perhaps most importantly, much of the poetry challenged the prevailing imagination of “reality” that justified and normalized those horrific inequities. That poetryknowledge, if I may coin a term, which is tied to poetics, was one of the driving forces of the resistance to the authority of the state.

Now, I am hard pressed to find more than cursory mention of poetry or poetics in the current "poetry wars"; the warring factions seem primarily to be concerned with the distribution of power in the “poetry community,” which is a microcosm of the larger social/political world. The participants especially seem to fight among themselves over social/economic power including access to teaching positions in the Academy, the juries and panels that rig the poetry contests and the distribution of art booty, and the occupation of some low rungs in the celebrity sector of the U.S. culture market. Integration rather than resistance (although sometimes feigning resistance which then becomes part of the commodification process). Would you agree? What do you think that shift within the discourses around poetry means, if anything?

KJ: It’s not that those non-poetic asymmetries you elicit are just pretend, of course. Some of them are certainly real, and they demand attention. But as my barber said to me the other day, with a razor to my neck: A measure of skepticism in the abstract regard can be a friendly companion to finer perspective. And help us see that grievances which attend the perception of those misalignments are never autonomous or innocent in character, nor, moreover, purely ethical in impulse, either—not even when grandstanding, vindictiveness, and opportunism may seem on leave, which in the poetry world, to be sure, will be rare. Aggressive or passive in kind, those claims are always-already (as they used to say back when I was in my twenties) subtended and fueled by position-taking energies that are immanent to the operations of a cultural field. Which is to say that grievances and their advocates are, in bedrock ways, structurally situated and directed in their drives, and that the justice or injustice of a situation is but a role of the dice to the rules of the game. No one gets an exemption, not even Bourdieu. That’ll be $18 for the haircut and $15 for the shave, he said, dabbing the blood from my neck.

And it is a different situation now, isn’t it, Mike? About twelve years ago, in a piece for a forum concerning the “Post-Avant,” I believe I was the first to home in on Language Poetry’s pragmatic pivot toward a modus vivendi with cultural officialdom. The turn had been announced in a long interview of Charles Bernstein by Marjorie Perloff; therein, the former proposed that the urgent vanguard task of the day was to colonize what he called the “PWC” (i.e., Publications of Wide Circulation), and thus move radical poetry from the incompatible margins to the influential center, a process that was already organically underway, of course, but which Bernstein—fresh from an AT&T Super Bowl ad, an Endowed Chair appointment, and recent PWC publications of his own—felt should be programmatically pursued with more communal vigor. Perloff agreed, and so did a whole bunch of other people, apparently. This was circa 2002. The revisionist program’s been wildly successful, as we know, and is, by now, basically complete. The “post-avant” presently sits as the arriviste opposition in the Congress of American Poetry, with titles, offices, a surfeit of young staff, and amenities of junket, domestic and international. And the PWCs and University Presses and venerable Prizes now fall all over themselves to welcome the vanguard to the sanctioned fold. The Pulitzer, the NBA, the NBCCA, UPs right and left, The New Yorker, the Academy of American Poets, the MLA, the AWP, the NYTBR, Endowed Professorships, Essay Anthologies on how to teach “Experimental” poetry, the White House, and on. Here we are.

Thus, the non-poetic symptoms you nicely identify are dialectically embedded in the non-poetic affliction, to the point where distinguishing one from the other can be tough. That affliction is, crucially, the deep institutional capture and infection of what was once, and not so long ago, a robustly autonomous and culturally combative poetics. And so the symptoms that ensue from the self-invited malady are no surprise: They are, to great extent, as my barber had suggested, inwrought enactments of the Rules of the Game, where poison will be taken as cure—not so much out of mistake, but because the former is the approved and prescribed medication on offer.

Sometimes, you know, the matter of the pharmakon is not so metaphorical, as with the Poetry Foundation that Big Pharma built, where nearly all poets, mainstream or not, are scrambling now to be. Or, in one remarkable case, from where a few young protesting bards had to scramble away, when the PF sicced the cops on them for sharing some leaflets and dropping a couple beautiful, idealistic banners (quickly torn down and destroyed by the outsourced PF Security Detail). Of course, hardly a single U.S. poet dared risk an opinion about the matter. Professionally inadvisable to do so, it would appear . . . One had to turn to the great J.H. Prynne, in England, for expressions of outrage directed at the PF’s conduct, or else to the great Raúl Zurita, in Chile, for expressed solidarity with the scruffy Infra commandos. In other words, speaking in semiological terms, the behavioral symptoms are not so much related by way of contiguous indexicality to their institutional referents; they are, more precisely, iconically performative of them, and in the sense of a sociological onomatopoeia.

I should point out that this answer, with all its comical or heartbreaking academese, strongly suggests the degree to which the radiating affliction afflicts me.

MB: Not so comically, but maybe heartbreakingly, for you: In a recent long manifesto by a group of anonymous women poets, you were mentioned as culpable of a misogynist remark, purportedly made on the UK Poetry List. What was that all about, if you don’t mind talking about it?

KJ: You’re referring to the UK Poetry List meltdown of last year and the anonymous “NO Manifesto,” published some months following. I was accused in that manifesto, and by name, of having dismissed a List member’s personal account of rape as probably an inaccurate retelling of what must have been little more than “just drunken fun.” That’s what this group claimed: that I mocked her experience of rape as amounting to a bit of “drunken fun” . . . I’m not going to go into the perfectly relevant questions I raised (the thread was about sexual abuse in literary venues and what to do about it), nor, either, try to explain the stupid lack of tact on my part in raising them in immediate context of the person’s courageous account (even though similar questions have been posed by numerous progressives, including leading feminists). And for which lack of tact I profusely apologized. But the characterization of my words by the anonymous NO group is an outright falsification; I never said, nor even came close to implying, such a heinous thing, and I never would, as would be obvious to anyone who knows me. And that such a grossly fabricated accusation would be advanced in print perhaps illustrates the degree to which a quasi-Show-Trial temper has lately seized the Avant arena, where there seems to be (the imperative nature of issues like misogyny and racism notwithstanding) a strong, sudden nostalgia, among some, for the good old days of 1937-38. It’s ironic, to say the least, that a few days before the thread on rape and sexual abuse began on the UK List, I had posted to ask if it wasn’t clearly time for Left poets in the U.S. and the UK to begin calling, in public, coordinated ways, for the defense of Yazidi women and children in Iraq, who were—and are—in horrific process of suffering widespread rape and abduction. The question received not a single response.

MB: That “NO” manifesto appeared in Chicago Review. Were you angry at the journal for having printed the character assassination?

KJ: No. Chicago Review has a venerable history of welcoming controversy. The editors properly alerted me that something of a personal charge would be appearing, and they told me I would be given the right to a full response in the issue following. But the claim by the nameless authors turned out to be so absurd it was unworthy of a direct riposte. Nor did a direct riposte seem worth exchanging for possible further distortions, frankly, in what would have been their “last-word” reply to me.

MB: One of the many things I love about your work is that it makes me laugh, really laugh out loud. Not in a mean way, not at someone, but with a kind of joy that breaks out in the face of life’s strangeness, a strangeness that manifests in surprising divagations and unexpected extravagances. It’s a quality widely lacking in writing today, perhaps because they can’t teach it in an MFA program. And it’s not like the Henny Youngman stand-up routine of certain older contemporary poets. There is deep political edge to it, much of it self-implicating, like that razor to the throat you shared, perhaps. How do you see the role of laughter in writing and political engagement?

KJ: You’re probably better suited to answering the question than I—really, Mike, I’ve got to say this, even at risk of seeming like I’m repaying praise (also a pervasive operation of the Field of Poetic Production!), but I genuinely feel this and have said it to others, too: Your epic, Cosmographia, is one of the great unleashings of poetic fabliau and humor of the past decades—there hasn’t been anything like it since Dorn’s Gunslinger, and its singularity, I predict, will be more widely seen, whether they come around to it in the MFA programs, or not. But let me poach myself, from the Lana Turner piece I cited before: Satire’s critique must not only be turned “outward” toward the greater political arena; it must simultaneously, organically, be turned toward the ideologies and behaviours of the poetic sphere itself, and, not least, upon the privileges and blithe accommodations of our Academic-avant set. This will mean, no doubt, that any radical, collective poetic endeavour down the road will be engaging in plenty of self-satire, too. How could it not? After all, what right would a breakaway, insurgent-Left poetics have to any global social critique if it couldn’t attend to the actually existing power structures of its own general economy? What credibility and authority would it have, if it didn’t recognize its own poignant limitations and incompleteness? The ways in which we are all implicated? Who would believe it, otherwise? Like the Romans and the Greeks, humour and satire, in all directions. We must laugh, without mercy, at ourselves.

MB: I think we have time for one more. This is a really big question, but hopefully you can come up with a measured answer. You are critical of the way in which much of the poetry today that presents itself as radical is in fact produced as a commodity for a market in which it will be exchanged for authority or a prestigious position or at least remuneration within and by the very system it proposes to attack. The old fashioned name for this is hypocrisy or moral corruption. It seems to me that such a critique, which I think is obviously right on, assumes a sense of some other possible work of poetry that such hypocrisy betrays. What do you think that work is or might be?

KJ: It is a big question, and your succinct, eloquent phrasing of the conditions that make it a pressing one allows me to dispense with any background lead-up to an answer. And my answer is (my speculations just now about self-critical satire aside) that no one much knows, and the unknowing is the way it should be. Unsuspected pathways will be glimpsed within sovereign zones of collective praxis, outside and against the drag and deflection of professional inertias, and those glimpses will likely surprise us—and maybe surprise a new, broader audience, too. But not yet. There’s some digging-out to do, first, from the hole of hypocrisy the “avant-garde” has made for itself. Not that I’d claim to not also be down there in it.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

Burning Down George Orwell’s House

burningdownAndrew Ervin
Soho Press ($25.95)

by Tina Karelson

Andrew Ervin’s Burning Down George Orwell’s House, a novel of creative-class angst, comes to readers ingeniously wrapped in a travelogue. Ray Welter, a marketing savant at a Chicago ad agency, has lost his marriage and his peace of mind to cynicism and alcohol. Obsessed since college with George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Ray flees to Barnhill, the house where Orwell wrote the book, on the remote Scottish island of Jura. There, Ray wallows in self-pity, single-malt whisky, and local color.

Two long chapters in flashback, alternating with chapters set on Jura, outline Ray’s life and career. Inspired by “the Orwellian nature of social media,” Ray creates a pseudo-environmental movement that actually increases the sales of gas-guzzling sport-utility vehicles. Despite, or perhaps because of, his success, Ray becomes disillusioned, reaching a breaking point when his father dies in a factory explosion. He impresses his company by not attending the funeral, but “what the board took for stoic dedication to the craft of strategic branding, Ray knew to be abject fear.”

On Jura, Ray is the subject of gossip and even hostility; someone or something regularly leaves an animal carcass on his doorstep. For the first two weeks, he descends into a nearly animalistic state himself. As he ventures out and begins to explore the island in his inadequate footwear—he ignores the islanders’ advice about buying wellies—he rebuilds connections to physical work and the natural world. His way out of despair will not, however, be as simple as breathing fresh air and helping a neighbor build a fence.

While Ray’s extraordinary self-absorption makes him barely conscious of other people, Ervin’s cast of secondary characters is varied and lively. Helen, Ray’s estranged wife, is “the smartest person who had ever been nice to him.” Ray’s boorish but clever boss, Bud, spins endless variations on his name, from Man Ray to “Ray-son d’être.” Farkas, the genial fellow in charge of Jura’s distillery, sincerely believes himself to be a werewolf. Whisky itself becomes another character, each taste described in loving terms, “like caramel and wood smoke and moonlight glowing on a winning lottery ticket.”

Burning Down George Orwell’s House raises genuine questions about ambition, change, and freedom. The novel never offers Ray or the reader simplistic answers to life’s questions, and it tempers Ray’s misery with comic moments. By the end, although Ray finds it impossible to be truly off the grid, he does find his way back to himself. Readers will enjoy going with him on that journey.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

The Anchoress

anchoressRobyn Cadwallader
Sarah Crichton Books ($26)

by Nicola Koh

Much of The Anchoress takes place in a room—the only door nailed shut, just two windows opening into a church for communication and supplies, the only adornment a crucifix—but the novel’s scope is sweeping; Robyn Cadwallader’s novelistic debut is a captivating and provocative masterpiece.

In 1255, in a small English village, Sarah has vowed herself to a lifetime locked in an anchorite cell, partly out of spiritual fervor, partly out of fear of her burgeoning womanhood, and partly from mourning for the deaths of her mother and sister in childbirth. Cadwallader complicates the emotional turmoil of the young anchoress through her visitors: the two maids assigned to caring for her earthly needs—one of whom becomes pregnant out of wedlock—the village women who come for guidance, the confessors who monitor her development, the lord of the land who lusts after her, and the ghosts of the previous two anchoresses—one faithful to her vows, the other not. Sarah soon finds that her hopes to escape her sorrow and a cruel world are in vain. “I had thought the walls were made of stone, that they would seal me from the world,” she says. “But they fade and crumble.”

This first person narrative is interspersed with the third-person perspective of Father Ranaulf, who is dragged from his beloved scribing to act as confessor to Sarah. These chapters are necessary to advance a plot that Sarah can only intuit from her cell, but the plot is so compelling that there is no want for Sarah’s flowery perspective. The dialogue is rich, peppered with enough Medieval English vocabulary and styling to ground the historicity of the novel while being effortless to read, a historicity that in large part stems from Cadwallader’s Ph.D in Medieval Studies.

There is no anachronistic feminism here, but Cadwallader shows the strength of women living in an overwhelmingly patriarchal world, which seeks at all times to dominate even what little space is allotted to the women, even the sanctity of an anchoress’s cell. “He pushed the curtain open farther. I flinched as if struck, put my hands up to fend it off, that face. My cell was my body; my skin began and ended with these walls. No longer whole.”

Rich and beautiful, The Anchoress offers a bountiful reward to those who spend time within its confines.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

Jeremiah's Ghost

jeremiahsghostIsaac Constantine
MP Publishing ($9.99)

by Jason Bock

There's no reason for a supernatural being to stay in one place for very long. A spirit, a ghost, a disembodied soul—however you want to conceive of it—would most likely hop around and meander through the Universe, perhaps in search of some grand epiphany about existence. In Jeremiah's Ghost, Isaac Constantine's debut novel, the titular character does a fine impression of such a phantasm: he bounces through time and place, unraveling the threads of his young life and searching for a meaningful way to sew them back together. Along the way, he'll contend with grief, fear, pain, love, hate, and sorrow. He'll question his own history, and that of the entire Western World.

The construction of this terse, challenging work is its strongest hallmark. Jeremiah is the only character who finds his way into each of the book's chapters, which would be better described as “episodes.” It begins in his waning days of college, near the turn of the 21st century. From there, Jeremiah moves ahead to his lucky post-graduate internship at a prestigious literary magazine, then back to childhood, and forward again. It's easy to speculate how much of the work is semi-autobiographical for Constantine, who, like Jeremiah, is a writer, grew up in New York, would have finished college around 2001, and briefly worked in publishing.

The distinct voice across three decades of the main character's life is impressive, and only fully appreciated at the novel's conclusion. When Jeremiah is a grade schooler, the prose is plain and straightforward: “Dr. Franny was the school psychologist. She was thirty maybe. She wore grey and blue pantsuits with shoulder pads.” Later, in his drug-addled twenties, the narration gets more grandiose, like it has something to prove: “The gates opened to somewhere impossibly far, past forever, like vast empty spaces where space unfolded and folded again, collapsing impossible distances.”

As quickly as one might resent the self-aggrandizing recent college grad, the frightened young boy who is regularly slapped around by his father (and who might be on the autism spectrum) earns our sympathy. The ghosts that Jeremiah leaves scattered through his past will beg the reader to contemplate and confront his or her own. Each episode on its own might not yield much narrative thrust, but in concert, Jeremiah's Ghost constructs a picture of a young man who, while still incomplete, has grown and changed for the better.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

The Land Has Its Say

landhasitssayHenry Lyman
Open Field Press ($17)

by Rebecca Hart Olander

After a lifetime of editing, translating, and championing the poetry of others, Henry Lyman gets his own moment in the sun with The Land Has Its Say. The cover photograph of a dirt road winding through an open landscape is an eloquent visual map of the book’s wondering, wandering nature—the road widens out to meet us and stretches beyond our view, just as Lyman’s poems do.

The Land Has Its Say possesses an elemental quality; the poems consider the past and our connection to it, those traces of others passing through before us, whose “footprints” we inhabit. Part I opens with “The Cairn,” in which someone else has marked a spot the poet is passing, as in Frost’s poem “The Tuft of Flowers.” Lyman and Frost are kindred spirits, separated by time but sharing a sensibility. If the piled stones in “The Cairn” could speak, they’d ask their witness “to stay awhile and listen” in a spot “where nobody would think of stopping.” Lyman’s book celebrates ordinary places, and the poems’ silences resonate.

The land has messages for us, and Lyman imbues every inch of it with a face. In “Stone Age,” imagined ancestor visages peer through schist, while in “Side Canyons,” a fossilized handprint extends a ghostly gesture; these encounters are like seeing a mirror in a mirror, endlessly repeating, with something else looking back. They indicate that we are not alone, and also that “aloneness” is, paradoxically, a human condition. This reciprocal glancing is seen again in “The Face Beyond the Faces.” Such poems ask questions that spiral in a reader’s mind: How are we reflected? How are we seen? Lyman contemplates the ways we last and also the temporary hold we have on this earth, as evidenced in crumbling dwellings and overgrown paths.

The poet grapples with trying to get the message, with an almost knowing, as expressed in “Cricket’s Way.” There is comfort found in the near knowledge that kinship with other creatures brings. Obscured paths are a recurring motif—including, in “Cricket’s Way,” a path that “nobody would say might once have been a path.” The cover photo reverberates in “Entities,” in which the space the stars inhabit is “forever ever stretching back towards no beginning / and onwards towards no end.”

Part II begins with “The Dinner Bell,” which rings beyond the page as prayer with its usage of “dome,” “temple,” and “hymn.” We are directed back to a particular past, more personal in nature, but no less fundamental than in Part I. This past is sacred, but still earthy, its “choir” peopled with pigs and chickens. In “Caretaker,” a child’s finger traces turtle miles on a shell, recalling the cricket’s slow travels in Part I.

The bell keeps ringing in Part III, as flute song unravels a “slow dark ribboning” and “unshapen things turned briefly to the shape / of music” in “The Merchants.” Fire, another Lyman totem, laps at the edges of Part IV. In previous sections, fire flickered in images of a burning house and a cupped shared flame; here it smolders in cinders and ash, singed sheet music and burned-out stars.

In Part V, “The Moving Road” echoes the fact that we will only ever almost know, that fractional knowledge touched on earlier. The road image is transposed onto the river, and a later poem in this section uses river and mirror together, twin reverberations throughout the collection. “Photo from Space,” like “Cricket’s Way,” considers the varieties of scale, and “Taken” again explores the partial, the temporal, the eternal search we mount, and the allies we look for.

The final poem, “Land’s End,” rests on that idea of “each of us a world,” and that too is an important thread through the book—the microcosm found in each being, whether cricket, deer, or boy, whether cabbage, turtle shell, vagrant’s suitcase, or pieced-together storybook. Yes, the land has its say in Lyman’s book; the poet has his say, too, and his words are welcome and necessary.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

Expect Delays

expectdelaysBill Berkson
Coffee House Press ($16.95)

by Joshua Preston

There are few poets writing today with the range and talent of Bill Berkson. The author of more than thirty books of poetry, collaborations, and criticism, his latest volume—Expect Delays—is typical of Berkson’s work in that there is nothing typical about it. One finds here Dante-inspired cantos, New York School-style prose, and excerpts from his diary—and while this gives his book a sense of scatter, it also keeps things fresh. Where other poets find a formula that works and then promptly poison themselves with it, Expect Delays is anything but formulaic.

As a follow-up to his Portrait and Dream: New and Selected Poems (Coffee House Press, 2009), Expect Delays brings together pieces written within the last ten years, including the chapbook “Not an Exit.” More so than other poets, one noticeable trait in Berkson’s work is that so much of it is engaged in conversation with the work of others, be they classical artists or friends from New York and San Francisco. Thus, many names (familiar and unfamiliar) wander across these pages, such as Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, and Philip Whalen. While this could be dismissed as “name-dropping” in other hands, in Berkson’s it is a gentle reminder of how much is owed to one’s peers. Furthermore, the warmness with which he writes only affirms that the most prolific literary communities are those that in fact are a community.

The most universally appealing of the book’s sections is likely the sequence “Songs for Bands,” which makes up half the book. As the author explains in a long note, “Songs” was culled from a single Microsoft Word document in which he recorded dreams, quotations, diary entries, and short poems. Taking this writer’s notebook of “more or less impulsive jottings,” Berkson collages them, forming a text that shows a creative mind at work. Scenes flash past, for example, as he leaps from a nightmare (“I slip slowly into my mother’s mind, tangle there so much that panic ensues—I’m inside another person’s consciousness! What if I never returned? The strong sense that this is what it is to ‘go’ mad.”) to a New York Times weather forecast (“Dull with possibility of snow in the High Sierras.”). Then, just as quickly, his mind races to something else, maybe a belief about how art must justify itself (“Why should I look at this . . . instead of out the window?”). Many of these pieces are observational and tongue-in-cheek, such as “Seven Agnes Martins around a room do no one any good; art is best seen in specificity, alone in someone else’s bathroom, for example.” Or “August 28. Albert Gonzales resigns as attorney general of USA. John Ashbery becomes poet laureate of MTV. There must be some connection.”

“Songs for Bands” suffers from the problems all published diaries have, which is that some parts feel rough or underdeveloped; some lines read like first drafts, others like notes meant more for the writer than an audience. But even with these minor problems, the author elevates the writer’s notebook to its own art form, showcasing it as a distinct genre of literature. It is poetry and prose, essay and diary, a text whose value is its many forms joined together. That, coincidentally, is also the perfect description of Expect Delays and Berkson’s work more generally. Both refuse classification—and both are better because of it.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

Writers to Read: Nine Names that Belong on Your Bookshelf

writerstoreadDouglas Wilson
Crossway ($16.99)

by Mark Dunbar

A recommended reading list by conservative theologian Douglas Wilson, Writers to Read isn’t very revealing—except, that is, when it doesn’t intend to be. Written as a series of vignettes, the book consists of nine chapters, one for each of the authors that Wilson thinks should be on any bookshelf. The authors are presented in chronological order—Chesterton, Mencken, Wodehouse, Eliot, Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Robert Farrar Capon, Marilynne Robinson, and his son, young adult author N.D. Wilson. Those already familiar with the pastor’s previous works won’t be surprised by most of the names on the list—or at least the first six, anyway. Much of what Wilson writes either directly quotes from Chesterton or subconsciously ventriloquizes him. He’s already written a book about Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and has set up a graduate writing program in theology which bases its curriculum around Lewis’s popular apologetics. And Wilson’s worldview is largely the same as Mencken’s, which is to say an unfavorable mix of Social Darwinism and flamboyant moral posturing. It’s as easy to quote scripture for this worldview as it is for any other, and Wilson is a brilliant hermeneuticist.

The latter three are more surprising, however. Capon was an Episcopalian priest who divided his time between writing theological books and food columns. What Wilson says he finds most appealing about Capon is his ability to present his religious and metaphysical speculations even in the course of a cook book. This makes sense. After all, Owen Barfield's line about Lewis—that what he “thought about everything was secretly present in what he said about anything”—is one of Wilson's favorites to draw on. Nonetheless, the only other time I've come across a mention of Capon by Wilson is in a single blog post, where he quotes an uncomfortable passage Capon had written about how men give during intercourse while women merely receive. (Garnished with the innuendo that the thing being transferred is love, let the reader hope it isn't even that indecent.) One would think a writer worth reading would be worth mentioning more than just once.

Robinson also makes little sense on the list, either politically or stylistically. Wilson tries making a corrective nod at this, saying she’s included solely because of her exceptionable writing ability, but that sentiment seems to go against the rest of the book’s strong emphasis on the relationship between form and content, such as when the author quotes Lewis’s commendation of Chesterton’s viperish wit. One is left unsure what to make of Robinson’s inclusion, other than that it’s perhaps an attempt to forestall charges of sexism, which have been leveled at Wilson before.

It’s not surprising, then, that the chapter on Robinson is the weakest. In fact, it seems set up as less a theatre on the talent of Robinson’s writing and more as a warning to conservative evangelists to be wary of those outside the tribe that seem to lend a sympathetic voice. While Wilson admits that in her novels Robinson “creates absolutely no cartoons,” it is quite the opposite, he says, when it comes to her public pronouncements. Thus she thinks opposition to gay marriage (“gay mirage” as Wilson louchely calls it) is an old issue, and that those who most bemoan the modern practice of abortion are suspiciously quiet when it comes to the suffering and dying of innocent babies already born. Wilson is extremely disappointed in these thrift-shopped political views: “As it turns out, her abilities in cross-cultural empathy are limited.” Still, one’s reminded, “that woman can write.” At this point it goes without saying that Wilson is the sort of conservative who believes that when he’s taking a jab at the Clinton clan he’s simultaneously getting the goat of The Socialist Worker.

The inclusion of his son N.D. Wilson isn’t surprising in the same way the inclusion of Capon and Robinson is, though it seems obviously frivolous to include one’s own son on a recommended reading list. I have to admit to not having read any of N.D. Wilson’s writings up to this point, but from the passages quoted in the book, he hardly seems noteworthy. For instance:

I live on a near perfect sphere hurtling through space at around 67,000 miles per hour. Mach 86 to you pilots. Of course, this sphere of mine is also spinning while it hurtles, so tack on an extra 1,000 miles per hour at the fat parts. And it’s all tucked into this giant hurricane of stars.

Which only goes to show that the younger Wilson is a fan of Douglas Adams, and that Mencken was right when he said that if an individual’s religion is stupid, then his science will be as well.

But back to the first six: As already alluded to, Wilson does a good job emphasizing the crucial dialectic between form and content (since the style of one’s prose not only reveals what one thinks, nor only how one thinks, but also how one thinks about what) and if the content of these six writers isn’t always the same, they’re at least always pointing in the same general direction. Within this moribundity of writers is the bucolic conservatism of Eliot and Chesterton, the race romanticism of Tolkien and Mencken, and the political quietism of Lewis and Wodehouse—each of which lead them to similar vulgarities on race, religion, and nationality.

Chesterton was one of the more outspoken proponents of a belated feudalism, called either medievalism or distributivism depending on the speaker’s affection for the idea, that had a strong programmatic hold on many right-wing English intellectuals in the late part of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth. Eliot similarly romanticized a pastoral idyll of the English countryside that probably never existed, as well as one in the American South that certainly never did. The comfortable illusion of a simple and gallant plantation culture in the South was so warming to the “British poet from St. Louis” that he lamented the Civil War as “the greatest disaster in the whole of American history.” (Which was true enough, at least up to the time in which he said it—just not for the reasons he thought it was.) He also slyly likened urban London to Hell via a literary phrase lifted from Dante.

The two also shared a suspicion of Jews that sometimes expressed itself in outright contempt. Eliot published a collection of lectures in 1934, in one of which he warned that “any large number of free-thinking Jews [is] undesirable.” Chesterton, for his part, mephitically blamed the ideology of Nazism on the Jewish notion of a “Chosen People.” Mencken bought into the notion of a hierarchy of races, wrote to his death essaying that the confederacy was in the right, and for a man who considered himself a tough guy and who couldn’t keep himself shut up about anything, expressed a relaxed silence when it came to fascism. Wodehouse infamously provided his voice for a series of English-speaking Nazi radio broadcasts shortly after they had conquered France in 1941, for which Orwell comically defended him by saying, “It is important to realise that the events of 1941 do not convict Wodehouse of anything worse than stupidity. The really interesting question is how and why he could be so stupid.”

This hopefully isn’t to make the uncharitable as well as boring claim that one’s aesthetic tastes ought to be in some sense related to—or derived from—one’s political ideology, and Wilson’s book on reading shouldn’t be reduced simply to the social and moral failings of the suggested authors. But just as the way one writes about what tells a great deal about the author, how one reads whom will also tell us quite a bit about the reader. It’s one thing to admit to getting pleasure from reading Mencken’s acerbic effusions—although he had a talent for repeating himself and the hack trait of mistaking vicarious nationalism with a free-thinker’s independence from it—and it’s quite another to celebrate his taking bleacher shots at women, blacks, and Jews. The difference being the same as the one between congratulating someone for putting up a good fight and honoring them for putting up a good fight for a just cause.

Of course, many readers value these six writers for reasons other than religious or political affiliation. In his readings of these authors, however, Wilson reveals that like Chesterton he is attractive when he's being flippant and a little more than faintly sinister when he isn't; that like Lewis he calls for empathy always right before he's about to expose just how little he has; and that like Mencken he is so good at fighting off the demons of hyperbole and sentimentalism in others because he is so bad at fighting them off in himself.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

Anne Carson: Ecstatic Lyre

annecarsonEdited by Joshua Marie Wilkinson
University of Michigan Press ($29.95)

by Mark Gustafson

It’s high time that we had a book on Anne Carson, one of our most important and anomalous writers. Rather than collecting already-published pieces, editor Joshua Marie Wilkinson solicited “appreciations, readings, investigations, experiments, and performances” from a variety of writers, knowing that these “myriad approaches” would result in “overlap, digression, and strangeness.” The book opens with his fine introduction, and closes with a heretofore unpublished interview. In between, the order of the thirty-two short essays, when based on single works, is mostly chronological.

To witness the essayists essaying to get a grip is fascinating. But such a devious, multi-plied, multi-faceted, protean writer ultimately confounds. For one thing, as Bruce Beasley writes: “In Carson each eachness, each separable body interpenetrates, won’t stay apart. The academic and the unotherable ‘other’ of essay/novel/poem/translation overlap, their categories in a permanent state of error.” Furthermore, she incorporates the thoughts of many, and often abstruse, writers, thinkers, philosophers, mystics, and artists. There is always some degree of “intellectual intimidation,” as Douglas A. Martin admits, “feeling when reading her I must not be smart enough.” He speaks for all of us.

The book has several standouts. Timothy Liu offers gnomic short takes on various Short Talks. Of “The Anthropology of Water,” Jennifer K. Dick writes: “Carson’s reader simply must let go, flow under, breathe in the aquatic literary shifts, the pain of inhaling the impossible, of reaching across it into whatever connections emerge.” Harmony Holiday’s meditations on Autobiography of Red consist of pleasing, non-scholarly, language play. Discussing Decreation in a relatively straightforward manner, Cole Swensen is illuminating and effective. Julie Carr gets personal, telling how various Carson works help her to understand her own life, her mother, her grandmother, her pregnancies. Bianca Stone, the illustrator for Antigonick, makes many exact observations, including: “there is no pretension in Carson’s work.”

De gustibus and all that, but some of the other essays here are disappointing, if not disastrous. For one thing, while I like academic discourse and po-mo lit crit as much as the next nerd, it can be a screen, a refuge for one unequal to the task, and it results here in a number of pieces light on substance. Also, attempts to emulate Carson’s weirdness tend to fall flat; however absurd and randomizing some of her work may seem, there is always her powerful mind with its formidable learning behind it. Finally, several of these responses seem little more than hubristic—look at me, I’m taking on Anne Carson!

Lily Hoang on Red Doc> pleases with a word cloud (the volume’s only deviation from an otherwise conventional text), a personalized response, and an “appendix” of definitions of myth. She writes: “To talk about Anne Carson is to talk about myth. After all, she’s a classicist. . . . ” This, to my mind, signals the major problem with Ecstatic Lyre; I would amend Hoang’s remark to read, “Before all, she’s a classicist.” Neither coy nor arrogant, her short bio (“Anne Carson . . . teaches Ancient Greek for a living”) in Carsonian fashion cuts to the quick, maintaining that everything she writes consciously arises from the primordial muck of Greek literature. There is that aforementioned interpenetration, but also a definite and discernible point of origin.

Thus, with the essays on Carson’s fundamental translations of Sappho and the Greek tragedies deferred, this book is backwards, or upside-down. (Note that the editor, possibly with some ambivalence, classifies Antigonick as Carson’s work rather than Sophokles’.) Elizabeth Robinson undertakes Carson’s Sappho (whence comes—riding on the back of Modernism—Carson’s love of the fragment), but she lacks the hard-won understanding and immediacy of a translator, and she can’t get a handle. John Melillo, although similarly hobbled by his dependence on English, manages to be more successful with his focus on brackets, meter, sound, silence.

Is there a classical philologist in the house? Only one. In many ways, Erika Weiberg’s “Lessons in Grief and Corruption” is the best essay here. Similar to her subject, Weiberg bears her learning lightly, using it to get to the heart of the matter, and shows the intimate connection between Carson’s literary bedrock (Euripides in this case) and her modern concerns, especially linguistic:

In the process of translation, you realize what is strange about your native language . . . Carson creates this experience on the page, both in her poetry and in her translations; she gives the gift of sudden estrangement from the natural feel of English. . . . Suddenly the innocuous word you thought you knew slices sharp and exits through the other side of awareness.

Weiberg adds: “Carson’s English is part Greek already, part her own invention. . . . ” Exactly.

In the interview with Peter Streckfus, Carson’s English is conspicuously refreshing, and clarifying. She likens her opera Decreation’s libretto, born from a lecture on Simone Weil, Marguerite Porete, and Sappho, to the “intoxicating fumes left in the room by mashing up all the grapes of the academic part.” Again, on the distinction between her analytical writing and her aesthetic writing (that interpenetration once more), she says: “I couldn’t separate the strands of it all. So, I gave up on it.”

Carson’s literary stature is one consequence of her volcanic work—she pushes, she blurs, she stuns with her brilliance, she challenges us to strive to comprehend. Her language, her point of view, is “refracted” through so many mediums. For the reader, flashes of sharp illumination are quickly overshadowed by bewilderment. Despite the inevitable dead ends and misreadings, Wilkinson’s collection is valiant and valuable for us enthusiasts. With Carson our reach always, or almost always, will exceed our grasp, but that has to be—and is—enough.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015