Tag Archives: Fall 2018

Tough Enough: Arbus, Arendt,
Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, Weil

Deborah Nelson
The University of Chicago Press ($25)

by Esther Fishman

What makes up our public discourse? We seem to want to know everything that is going on around us, and we love to form opinions on a myriad of topics: baseball statistics; where to get the best pizza; strategies for the next election. But it doesn’t stop there; we also actively seek out the opinion of others. In fact, it could be said that our world is divided into two camps: those who agree with us, and those who don’t. Said another way, we receive information from the world around us—what we read, who we talk to, and what is projected by the ubiquitous media—and then choose what to believe, what to let in, what warrants a reaction.

In Tough Enough, Deborah Nelson examines the work of six women who were known for their strong opinions: Diane Arbus; Hannah Arendt; Joan Didion; Mary McCarthy; and Simone Weil. Nelson maintains that these women can be studied as a group, although their ideas are in no way similar, or even compatible. Their importance derives not only from the contents of their books, magazine articles, or art exhibits, but also from the tone in which they were presented. Collectively, these artists did not depend on any kind of sentimentality to explicate their opinions, even when their subjects were earthshakingly tragic. They all believed that as soon as emotions were introduced in public discourse, even in art, they obscure the clear light of understanding.

According to Nelson, this clear-sightedness kept these six very public figures grounded in reality. Indeed, the first sentence of her introduction proclaims: “This is a book on women writers, intellectuals, and artists who argued passionately for the aesthetic, political, and moral obligation to face panful reality unsentimentally.” But what is this reality? Even when writing about the twentieth century, it should be impossible to use this term without definition. After all, the philosophical ramifications behind quantum mechanics were already being explored in the post-World War II era. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, introduced in 1927, underlies today’s understanding that reality is in the eye of the beholder, that no one person or group possesses an ultimate, unchanging certainty. Therefore, an event such as the Holocaust should not be seen as monolithic and has as many stories as it had participants—and all of these stories are real, even if we do not want to hear some of them (Eichmann’s, for instance, as told by Hannah Arendt). Joan Didion didn’t make her husband come back from the dead, or cure her sick daughter, but writing The Year of Magical Thinking did make it possible for her to imagine a world in which these things were happening. Diane Arbus, by her choice of subject and atmosphere, made visible new realities. Susan Sontag writing about her illness and Mary McCarthy writing about her upbringing introduced new ways of thinking about experiences common to most people.

The true contribution of these six women was not a lack of emotion, but rather their reticence to rely on sentiment in their work. They were cognizant of their very public roles and could have given in to the easy play on gut reaction that usually prevails in public argument. There is a strong moral component to much of their collective work—a morality that suggests we ought to see that is deeper than any conclusions based on surface emotions, quick reactions that overwhelm critical thought.

“It seems almost unsporting to revisit the misogynist reactions to a woman intellectual in the 1950s, so obvious are they and so unsurprising,” Nelson points out, yet we would do a disservice to ourselves to discount the role that gender plays in this debate. Nelson writes without academic jargon, yet she uses the critical sources focused on a point of view that is primarily feminist, and sensitive to the plight of underrepresented minority populations. She does not present her subjects in any historical context, and therefore their roles as female artists, and their successes in a time when the majority male voice was codified as a unified worldview, are obscured. By concentrating on analyzing the work of these six women, however, she highlights their importance—not as popular tastemakers, embroiled in issues of their time, but as public philosophers, eager to point a way to a deeper understanding of our shared world. In this way, she helps to bring her subjects forward in time.

The women profiled in this book developed the ability to engage in theorical discourse in the wake of such horrors as the Holocaust, not to mention personal illness and death, and that is why their work continues to resonate; a Sontag or a McCarthy defines a subject long after their first introduction. These women are passionate, and able to express their particular passions without cant. Some of the very way we think is due to the concepts they developed. It is a wonderful thing to read such a cogent and thought-provoking analysis of their work.

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University Presses
in a Turbulent World

by Brian Halley

Books offer some time away from the din of constant news coverage. There is no news ticker running across the bottom of the page, no big announcement of breaking news. But chosen wisely, these books can inform how we understand that constant news buzz, online or off. Those books published by our university presses are particularly well suited to fill in the backgrounds on the most pressing issues we face. This year, University Press Week runs from November 12-17, and the Association of University Presses chose a very appropriate theme: #TurnItUP, which emphasizes the role UPs can play in amplifying underrepresented work and ideas.

University press books run the gamut, to be sure, from lighter fare to more scholarly tomes. But in an age of rapid news, delivered in a multitude of ways so it seems inescapable, these thoughtful books deserve extra attention. Beyond the credit some of us editors may want for our skills as list curators, it also means something that university press books have been peer reviewed and approved by a faculty board at a university. They are key resources as facts blur in the swiftness of this current moment.

Right now, the U. S. President and his Administration have made threats and promises on a number of fronts, possibly to draw out voters who support their more extreme positions ahead of the mid-term elections. When the New York Times uncovered a memo from the Department of Health and Human Services that would limit how the government recognizes those individuals who identify as transgender, as just one recent example, the backlash was swift. The University of California Press was able to publish a blog post from Tey Meadow, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Columbia University and author of Trans Kids: Being Gendered in the Twenty-First Century, which the Press published in August 2018. Of course, many university presses have published key texts in the area of transgender studies, such as the new Histories of the Transgender Child by Julian Gill-Peterson from the University of Minnesota Press, the forthcoming Trans People in Higher Education edited by Genny Beemyn from SUNY Press, and Duke University Press’s Transgender Studies Quarterly journal..

Searching the word “migration” will now lead to hits focusing on people rather than animals, especially those women, men, and children desperately trying to reach the Unites States for a chance at asylum. This is an issue where the significant—and significantly—false information poses true dangers to the travelers in question. (As often ill-informed debates have played out, the Department of Health and Human Services reported that 1,500 children, ages 13 – 17, were being held in “temporary shelters” in West Texas, as of October 2018, for example.) The facts of today are essential for us all to know, but ongoing migration into the US, from Mexico and elsewhere, has a long and complicated history that provides necessary context. Books published by a number of university presses, particularly those like the University of Arizona Press and the University of Texas Press from border states, illuminate key questions on these issues. Indeed, in 2019, UT Press will publish Accountability Across Borders: Migrant Rights in North America, edited by Xóchitl Bada and Shannon Gleeson.

Even with wave after wave of extreme natural disasters hitting the US, most recently Hurricane Florence in the Carolinas, those following the news may still believe that the science of global warming is up for debate amongst scientists. Certain university presses have long published work making the science very clear. MIT Press has published widely on this issue, from in-depth research aimed at specialists to more general interest titles, such as the recent Global Warming and the Sweetness of Life: A Tar Sands Tale, by Matt Hearn and Am Johal. Princeton University Press comes at the issue from its various disciplinary strengths as well, from policy to science, including approachable titles such as Brave New Arctic: The Untold Story of the Melting North, by geographer Mark C. Serreze (2018). Trinity University Press, combining humanities and science in their approach, published Coming of Age at the End of Nature: A Generation Faces Living on a Changed Planet, edited by Susan A. Cohen and Julie Dunlap. Many presses confront these challenges in their own regions explicitly, such as a book published earlier this year by Louisiana State University Press, Environmental Disaster in the Gulf South: Two Centuries of Catastrophe, Risk, and Resilience, edited by Cindy Ermus.

In fact, university presses often serve their regions with a range of books, from regional ecology studies to local nature guides to biographies of political figures to local fiction, relevant to you and your neighbors, for pressing issues of the day or as a local resource. In addition to books in a number of scholarly fields, I have developed a Boston activist history list at UMass Press, with the latest entry being People Before Highways: Boston Activists, Urban Planners, and a New Movement for City Making by Karilyn Crockett, chronicling the intersectional protests against highway construction that brought together environmentalists, neighborhood groups, and more.

The news will keep moving at a breakneck pace, that seems clear. But as we as readers approach the news, or the polls, or protests, we need to be informed with knowledge that has been curated, vetted, and peer reviewed. Fortunately, our evolving, adapting, and forward-looking university presses provide the very tools that can make for better news consumers, voters, and activists.

Brian Halley is senior editor at the University of Massachusetts Press, based at UMass Boston. University Press Week runs November 12-17; you can learn more at www.universitypressweek.org

Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018

Lost Empress

Sergio De La Pava
Pantheon ($29.95)

by Chris Via

Sergio De La Pava’s first book, A Naked Singularity, cast a long shadow that continues to loom over him like Gödel, Escher, Bach over Douglas R. Hofstadter. Even the synopsis on the back cover of Personae, De La Pava’s second novel, is more preoccupied with escaping its towering predecessor than in its own précis, and it seems inevitable that the debut novel itself makes a self-deprecating cameo in this latest production. But for those who crossed over the event horizon and perhaps were befuddled with the slim offering during the interregnum, Lost Empress proves that the author is no one-hit-wonder.

The fateful butterfly wings of an automobile accident and a woman’s bilked inheritance set into motion the intertwining of a motley cast of characters. We open with the magnetic Nina Gill and the conflict with her brother over ownership of the Dallas Cowboys. In the midst of NFL lockouts, Nina—the author’s reimagining of Ayn Rand’s Dagny Taggart—takes over the Indoor Football League’s Paterson Pork and proposes a pons asinorum that will make (and perhaps end) history. Meanwhile a fatal car wreck brings together the lives of an outcast, a priest, an EMT, a CO, and a 911 operator. And in yet another plot stratum, we follow the virtuosic Nuno DeAngeles, an imprisoned autodidact who performs his own grand jury defense in an unlikely turn of events. One of the novel’s greatest narrative strengths is the intersecting of these disparate lives, the sharp contrast of which brings the ideas of fate and justice into bas-relief.

De La Pava revels in playfulness and punctiliousness—for starters, the book is divided into prologue, logue, and epilogue—while maintaining a perspicacity reminiscent of David Foster Wallace. There is an overwrought narration of the trivial akin to books like Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine, but adorned with comedic gilding that ranges from Three Stooges slapstick (think: the banter in Personae’s Waiting for Godot-like brain-in-a-vat play) to National Lampoon gags (think: A Naked Singularity’s Señor Smoke burritos incident) to sardonic social commentary. Add in the interpolated ruminations on coincidence, seasons, silence, islands, music, time, space, sports, and religion; a heavy sprinkling of literary allusions (Keats, Dostoyevsky, Musil, et al.); a keen sense of parallax (“There’s no down or up for the sun”); deft aphorisms (“Memory may be more powerful than pure imagination but both are muffled rumor when compared to our experience of the urgent present”); and you have all the trappings of what makes reading De La Pava a treat.

Like the corpulent Scarpetti, who, ironically, becomes an office celebrity for transcribing 911 calls, De La Pava is an “expert in human truth and impervious to cliché or shallow thought.” Lost Empress is the product of a restless mind that has gorged on the best of recorded thought but is too sensitive to the human condition and the ambiguity of language to succumb to chaotic postmodern regurgitation. The novel is a tightly-crafted, cerebral synthesis that bandies anti-anthropocentrism and human-all-too-human sympathy, while, as The Theorist declaims, “Time is literally running out.”

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The House of Nordquist

Book 3 of the Eroica Trilogy
Eugene Garber
Transformations Press ($9.99)

by Martin Nakell

In The House of Nordquist, Eugene K. Garber writes not about the war or the truce or the potential for harmony between reason and vision, logos and dream, order and chaos, good and evil, primitive passions and civilized societies—he writes from the consciousness of that field. Therein, all the difference. Therefrom, this extraordinary novel, a marker from time of our time.

There is no simple story here. Rather than a novel of storytelling, this is a fiction of consciousness not easy to construct, organize, or keep track of. There is an exploration of the human experience from the primitive mind to our own, our destructive and our creative powers, our restlessness. The main characters are all in search of redemption in a 21st-Century world in which we have lost our connection to the spiritual / consciousness / dream / art. They all seek to reconnect in different ways. Then there is a Kafkaesque bureaucratic governmental agency, “National Division A,” whose agent-detectives interrogate some of the characters.

To ground this Fiction-of-Consciousness in the material, lest it “slip into the fantastical,” there is an actual “House of Nordquist,” a “huge house with much glass, the north wall sharp-edged like the cutwater of a ship.” Eric Nordquist’s “insane father,” Gunner Nordquist, once sailed the ship-house off to the Arctic in search of IT. “Maybe they sailed all the way north until they got to the edge and looked over, and there was the IT. The old man couldn’t stand the voltage and cracked up, but Eric brought IT back.”

Eric, who hates the inadequacy of words, sets out to compose a symphony “to change the world,” because “only music can speak the truth. And only his music. . . . a searing music, an absolute fire out of which would rise the Phoenix of a new creation.” Half-mad, Eric draws several characters—his mother Dierdre; Holocaust survivor, Helene; Eric’s college buddy (from Justin and James College for Men) Paul Albright, and Paul’s wife Alice—into his form of the quest, creating his symphony.

To ground it yet a bit more, there is a crime—someone has set fire to the House of Nordquist. Someone is known to have escaped the fire, and National Division A goes in search of that person to try to find the arsonist. But is the crime the setting fire to the House of Nordquist, or is it the destruction of the human spirit? And who is the criminal?

The book opens with a dialogue between Alice and Peter Albright about Eric Nordquist and the fire. Alice asks, “Where did Eric come from? I don’t mean by birth from Deirdre and his crazy father. I mean after being born, or maybe before being born.” Eric’s powers, his vision-quest made manifest in his symphony is so compelling that Paul “had to speak for Eric. He had to say whatever Eric put in his mind.”

Eric must draw his Phoenix-symphony out of the body of some living person, and he will do it with a Gothic machine, “With the right equipment you could suck music from a body and change the world.” Eric’s mother, Dierdre, provides the body for Eric’s project—she procures Helene, an emaciated Holocaust survivor, the decayed body of history. Helene’s suffering is compounded by Eric’s use and abuse of her. Finally, during the fire, Helene “was in the house drinking flames like wine and singing songs of death with a nail in her throat.” In an orgiastic, madly triumphant feast of her destruction Helene drinks the “flames like wine” as she sings “songs of death.” Would it change the world? No. Paul and Alice in dialogue:

Because to change, things have to be broken up.
Or burnt up.
That’ll work.
But the symphony didn’t change the world. It just changed your life.
What about your life?
Sure. If it changed your life, it changed my life.

Thomas Meachem, another college classmate, is as much of a seeker as are Eric and Paul. While Eric re-names Paul “No-Name” (“What did it feel like getting into the role of No-Name?” / “Like being a tabula rasa.”), Meachem unnames himself, sheds all identities, all sense of self, in order to rename himself. At college, Meachem “was . . . the one of clearest purpose.” He used his clarity to become rich, a “star capitalist.” But Professor Tyree “secretly . . . loathed clarity. What he loved was the shadowy aura that hovers around the edges of clarity. It was there, he believed, that the verities were to be found.”

Realizing that the clarity of his wealth (achieved through the system of Econometrics, a first cousin to Eugenics, was just a “scam that pretends you can assign numbers to the behavior of billions of people,” Meachem pays heed to “the arrival of a voice that said you must renounce your identity,” and joins the pursuits of his old classmates and professors: “I wanted to be broken into pieces that I could put back together any way I chose.”

To disentangle himself from the clarity of identity, driven purpose, and money, from the America that “was to have given birth to the new order four centuries ago,” but has only “drowned in blood.” Meachem, traveling to the Amazon, abandons his possessions, his identity, even the clothes he wears, subjecting himself to hunger, humiliations, and degradations, all to look over the edge of his own void. He explains to a detective in one of the interrogations:

I broke down. I babbled in unknown tongues, howled like an animal, crawled along the bank like a furtive saurian. I crammed reeds and mud into my mouth. Success at last. I was broken.
You suffered terribly.
I visited it all upon myself.
How did you manage to come back?
I never came back. That was the whole point.

Those are the two worlds Garber sets against each other: those who, like Gunnar and Eric Nordquist, pursue art in lives redeemed by that art, and those who prize hyper-civilized, money-driven, self-destructive greed—signified by the detectives in their objectivity, their numbers, their econometrics.

Professor of Religion Karl Aptheker plays a different part in these quests. In Meachem’s letters/reports to the detective bureau, he writes: “I said that nothing we know is the center. . . . our Professor of Religion, Aptheker, would say that there is a center, only we cannot experience it.” Aptheker sees the quandary, yet is capable of just living within it, not running to find frantic ways out. Professor Aptheker “believes that no human can change the world utterly.” Where Eric is the anti-Logos, Aptheker believes that “in the end it will be the Word made flesh that transforms the world.”

A book of this complexity is no ordinary tale to be told in any ordinary way. Absent of plot, it unravels not through exposition or logic or linear time, scene or action, but through dialogue, interrogation, and letters. And then, with its target in mind of this contradictory braided miasma of forces, it undercuts its own reality. It is a book whose aspirations go far beyond mere realism:

It’s an old story, sailing off to get some great prize.
Like what?
Helen of Troy, the Golden Fleece, the New World.

But “Nothing in this story fits in.” The characters come to play parts they cannot help becoming aware of:

Where are we in the story?
It’s not a story. It’s a geometry. It’s what happens when you wrap the earth in lines. You go to the bottom of the sea, like my father. But if you want a story, tell it.

And so, it is not a story like Helen of Troy, et alia. “I may have embellished it, but I was inside of it. How does one get inside a story he has never heard before?”

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Pure Hollywood

Christine Schutt
Grove Press ($23)

by Erin Lewenauer

Author of three novels and two short story collections, Christine Schutt, with the exacting grace of a water-skier, takes us prickly places we don’t want to go in her latest story collection. What is this place saying? she asks insistently through numerous characters and their highly individual circumstances. Schutt’s universe is a thin, brittle one, where even the young are old.

In the opening novella, “Pure Hollywood,” Schutt writes, “Since they had moved to the desert Mother thought most about what happened before with people they didn’t remember or hadn’t known.” We are dropped into worlds like this often, voids, a moment choked by another moment of loss. The details of characters’ predicaments are explosions within the strict confines of time before they float away, becoming more feeling than fact:

Let’s say it was May in the first decade of the hardly promising twenty-first century, and a white stucco wall, corsaged in bougainvillea and lit up by the moon, enticed them downhill a long way past gated properties to a wider road, then down that road and across it on the other side to the lookout onto the sparkle that was the city and what lay before them at the liftoff of another beginning, which feeling they would experience again, until decades shrank to pieces of colored stone, mosaics unexpected and unfitted yet shellacked together and made to glow alike in recollection so that all she had known of love and the end of love could be summoned and summed up in a ceiling pinked in sulfurous light.

Schutt’s remaining ten stories vary greatly in length, but they share an atmosphere, always carrying the sensation of the West, where fine, gritty sand is sprinkled everywhere, never fairy dust: “the just-right night of Los Angeles” Their plots often pebble like water over skin and dissipate. And the pace is a sprint, always toward the horizon. The story “Family Man,” for example, delves in and out of conversation with itself: “He hears his name, but has no desire to know how he might be described in the future: a glass of water, a flavorless man, at best, at best, on a white tablecloth a goblet of melted ice with the slightest curl of lemon in it. Through the blinds a blade of sunlight cuts the glass in half and shows up dust.”

While Schutt sucks the romance right out of any situation, and even in her flash fiction holds us somewhere longer than is comfortable, she makes us wonder if there is exactly where we should be. Unnerved while taking pleasure in her language, lost among her characters in the never-ending desert, we wince from pain and sometimes from beauty also.

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The New Nudity

Hadara Bar-Nadav
Saturnalia Books ($16)

by Denise Low

Hadara Bar-Nadav’s The New Nudity is a book of riddles, one of the oldest literary forms. The poems examine objects like “Wineglass,” “Spoon,” and “Piano.” Most titles in the book have this one-word, concrete noun format, with only a few variations. The chosen topics may seem, at first, quotidian, but they valorize and illuminate the process of language. Titles of the poems give away the answers to the riddles, so the word play is about the inventiveness of definitions, those approximations of size and shape, as in “Thumb”:

Who means what it is to be human
and is scarred by childhood.

Thick and neckless. Your head shaped
like a gravestone.

A smile opens across the knuckle and disappears
every time you lift a tumbler of scotch.

Who holds a pen and lies.

The distinctive human digit must work in tandem; isolated, a thumb is bizarre, even grotesque. The nail is the shape of a “gravestone,” and so inutile. Wrinkles in the thumb’s skin, from a foreshortened point of view, resembles a smile. The true and literal view of a “thumb” gets lost in layers of description. The thumb of the poet herself distorts as she grips the pen, so altering with “lies” the idea of a thumb.

Metaphors accumulate throughout the volume in a new syntax, so they become singular, as when the speaker in “Bridge” finds “Wire spokes / through speech” and notes “I don’t want / to play the harp.” The distorted scale, reducing bridge’s cables to the size of a harp, creates a startling comparison. And not using the article “the” in the title makes this more indefinite—and dynamic. None of the titles has an article, which adds to their suspension in a mythic-like time.

Like Daniel in the Old Testament, Bar-Nadav is an interpreter of the realm of dream and imagination. The poem “Gypsy” demonstrates this, with a submerged narrative about a birch tree with gypsy moth eggs. The poet gives the tree gender—“Sever her arms one / by one. Cut the moths // from the white clot / of heaven.” This could be a Hansel and Gretel forest scene. The poem folds inside-out several times; the images recur in sequences similar to the jumbled narrations of dreams. In the poem, however, a closure occurs, even if incomplete, with the connections among white images: “You found her pearl-pale, / lying on the sidewalk // her head opened, / opening, // like the unborn / gypsy moths, torched // in their white beds.” The emphasis on the verb “open” and its shift from past participle to present participle moves the poem into present time, while it continues to exist in the past.

The New Nudity has surprises on every page. It interrogates many strategies of writers, and so it reads like a master lesson in poetics. The poems are about questions more than answers. Metaphors surprise but are not contorted as they expound upon physical reality and expand it into myth. Bar-Nadav teases out basic elements of physical entities— “Balcony” or “Jar”—until she reinvents alternate realities.

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Electric Snakes

Adrian C. Louis
Backwaters Press ($16)

by Warren Woessner

The title of this poetry collection is an elaboration of its epigraph by D. H. Lawrence: “The world of men is dreaming. / It has gone mad in its sleep, / and a snake is strangling it / but it can’t wake up.” Adrian C. Louis’s “Electric Snakes” are manifested as fourteen prose poems with numbered sections that illustrate the main themes of the book. More “conventional” poems are spacers between the “Snakes.”

This collection is also geographically circumscribed. Most of the present-day action takes place between Marshall, Minnesota, where Louis was an English professor at Minnesota State University, and Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Much of this region is Trump country, and not a few of the poems in Electric Snakes lament his election and fear for the future. “Electric Snakes #12” starts out as a celebration of a good night’s sleep, but then veers into inauguration day:

I live alone so I slept with the television on & awoke
to an odious shit-goblin being sworn into our highest office.
Friends, it’s morning but the sun is setting. The sun is setting
& incomprehensible evil is rising.

Louis is in his sixties and is fearlessly adopting the persona of a grouchy old man. He is in the years of life between retirement and infirmity, and there are a lot of questions, regret, and sorrows in these poems, but they aren’t self-pitying. The poet’s body may be falling into disrepair but he still can pull a laugh out of situations that would otherwise just be a whiny reflection on mortality. Take “Electric Snakes #14”:

An ancient man crawls out of bed & enters the world
the wrong way & twists his trick knee. His goddamned
knee hurts like a son of a bitch, so he is full-on
cantankerous . . . his faith dissolved. Today he will not do the
pony like Bony Maronie even if he could remember how.

Louis, a self-described “half-breed Indian” who grew up in Nevada, in the “blood-drying wind,” tells us that the “ghosts in the Great Basin are insistently calling me home.” This move is unlikely, however, as Louis has learned to love hating Minnesota:

I think I am still alive, but alive in
Minnesota is a slow death. This is the frozen land of the dull
& the dead. Dull & dead earth, dull & dead humanity, dull
& dead weather. I type out “Minnesota sucks the scrotum
of Satan” and post it.

Still, Native-American themes and story-telling are threads that run through many of these poems. Some of the stories only take a few lines, as in a section of the sequence “Skinology”:

I have known
Some badass Skins.
Clichéd bad-to-the-bone
Indians who were maybe
not bad but just broke,
& broken for sure.

Some of the most moving poems contain the poet’s longings for a lost lover, one he would literally die to join. In “Got Those Lonesome Blues In Small-town Minnesota,” Louis moves from thoughts about the sounds of trains at midnight to speak to her:

Darling, I was dreaming of you
when trains pulled me awake
& our wet lips parted ways.
The last time I kissed you
was ten years ago. I shivered
while you slept in your coffin.

Even as he describes himself as a ghost, a hermit, or a zombie, Louis is brought to life by the pleasures of the flesh that he can still sensually access, such as college girls sunning in the park:

Firm bottoms & bellies & heads filled with helium. The good ole USA. The euphoric scent of Coppertone simmering on the skin of young women. I inhale the intoxicant as I slowly drive by.

Although Electric Snakes is suffused with mortality and the ghosts that surround him, Louis is not quite ready to stop telling us his stories. As he puts it in “Electric Snakes #2”: “So when I say poets should write poems & otherwise shut the fuck up, I pretend I am not talking to myself.”

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Negative Space

Luljeta Lleshanaku
Translated by Ani Gjika
New Directions ($16.95)

by John Bradley

“I was a child when my first teacher / mispronounced my last name twice. That pricked me / like a needle. / A small needle in the earlobe. And suddenly, / my vision cleared— / I saw poetry, / the perfect disguise,” writes Luljeta Lleshanaku at the closing of her poem “Acupuncture.” Poetry as “disguise” no doubt offers a survival mechanism for anyone growing up in Albania during the tyrannical rule of Enver Hoxha, as did the author. But note the other gift that needle prick bestows: clarity. It’s this trait that makes Negative Space, Lleshanaku’s third collection of poetry in English published by New Directions, noteworthy. Negative Space draws from two unpublished (in English) collections: Almost Yesterday and Homo Antarcticus, offering the reader forty-seven poems.

Clarity can take many forms. One of them, at least in the poetry of Lleshanaku, results in aphoristic lines, evidence of hard-earned wisdom. Here are a few examples: “Nothing exists until its moment of absence.” “People speak of what they have, not what they are.” “You can’t conquer evil. Evil ends on its own.” Another form of clarity in these poems are the plethora of similes, always unique and memorable. Even taken out of context, they illuminate, like this one from “Tobacco” describing cigarette butts “as though they were spent shells / from a civil war devoid of glory.” Here’s one more of her astounding similes from “Live Music,” describing two pub-goers: “They’re here precisely for the emptiness / the vast emptiness in a divey pub / like the white, fluffy inside of artisan bread / and its smooth crust on the outside.” The similes clarify and at the same time provide depth.

This might give the impression of abstract poems. Actually, these poems are almost always grounded in a particular event or object—a used book filled with written comments, a history class, neighbors building a house, or even something as mundane as stairs. In her poem titled “The Stairs,” we can see a pattern Lleshanaku often employs in this book. The poem opens with a direct observation: “My father was obsessed with stairs.” Then it shifts perspective: “the railroad track with its yellow-and-black lines / isn’t the rattlesnake that makes your skin crawl.” Then the poem moves to another form of stairs—escalators—and makes a metaphorical leap: “Poetry, too, is a way of moving up.” That movement from the ordinary to the profound, that assured intuitive leap, is handled without effort, without pretension, recalling the work of poets such as the Nobel-winning Polish author Wislawa Szymborska.

The translations here, by Ani Gjika, create that rarest of illusions—that these poems were originally composed in English. Such is the ease of the lines, as can be seen in this excerpt from “A Perfect Day”: “Then what? What happens next? I don’t even know / and God damn it, the days are so long in May.”

There’s only one problem with Negative Space: it lacks an introduction offering some biographical information on the author, which could help in building her a readership here in the U.S. But this is a minor flaw in a book that’s like “a low cloud of gunpowder / in a temporary ceasefire zone.”

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The President’s Gardens

Muhsin Al-Ramli
Translated by Luke Leafgren
MacLehose Press ($26.99)

by Mark Gozonsky

In One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez invented Macondo, a remote Latin American village, where he set the multi-generational saga of the Buendía family, who experience extraordinary events narrated with immensely charismatic composure. Check-check-check on these same elements for Muhsin Al-Ramli’s The President’s Garden, with one important difference: Al-Ramli’s remote village is in Iraq.

While many readers might expect a politically charged book, this book will also show a side of life that American readers don’t often see—that many Iraqi villagers like to drink cardamom tea, for example, or that to really enjoy a watermelon, they beat it open with their fists. Such details matter because they expand our idea of what it would be like to live in a nation so often vilified in the U.S. In such ways, The President’s Garden reaches across the propaganda divide.

Al-Ramli, an Iraqi emigre journalist and professor in Madrid, juxtaposes the traditional comforts of village life with the horrors of war and tyranny. The simple pleasures like cardamom and watermelon intensify the torture suffered by Iraqi prisoners in Iran, and the terror experienced by Iraqi soldiers attempting to retreat from Kuwait. “The skies rained down hell, the earth vomited it back up,” Al-Ramli writes relatively early in the book, prefiguring a character’s urge to puke that figures crucially in the novel’s finale—a climactic scene that signals a refusal of business-as-usual after the fall of the notorious Iraqi tyrant, whom Al-Ramli declines to name.

In the end, The President’s Gardens presents apocalypse after apocalypse, yet leaves open the possibility for redemption. While its ending is a bit abrupt, leaving readers literally at the side of the road, it also comes as a reprieve, the very thing explicitly denied in the whirlwind end of One Hundred Years of Solitude: an opportunity for change.

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C. L. Polk
Tor Books ($15.99)

by Catherine Rockwood

In her debut novel, C. L. Polk sets out to show “good people striving to do good things for good reasons” (as she puts it in her Twitter feed). She’s also written one of the most enjoyable romance-plots I’ve read in years, set in a fully realized secondary world involving lots of bicycles, a supernatural, mass-murder mystery, and (wait for it) magical cotillions. This suspenseful, immersive book successfully defends the proposition that a ridiculously high entertainment-quotient need not be at odds with serious moral purposes—and more so, that the two complement each other.

Witchmark wears its romance and fantasy allegiances lovingly and openly, but from the beginning Polk stakes an unapologetic claim on subject–matter associated with serious fiction. Her protagonist, Miles Singer, is a doctor whose hidden magical powers allow him to perform unusual cures, while also placing him at risk of being publicly exposed as a witch. He works in an under-funded veteran’s hospital and is, himself, a veteran of the long, devastating war between his country, Aeland, and distant Laneer. Miles’s experience of armed conflict, and his role as a caregiver for traumatized military personnel within a resource-depleted hospital system, gives the book broad access to topical echoes from both the World War I era it specifically references and the present day. Witchmark’s action begins where the book’s politics live—with an assertion that modernity’s institutions are often run by the powerful to the detriment of the vulnerable, and a simultaneous, hopeful claim that the best of us will give everything they have to correct that imbalance.

Here, for instance, is the second sentence of the book, as spoken by Miles: “[The hospital memo] began with the usual hurrahs, our boys victorious and finally coming home, but it ordered me to banish sixteen patients from my care by week’s end.” Miles will contest this order, but his superiors are implacable — and, it turns out, implicated. To be a healer under such circumstances is to be stressed to the very core. Miles’s readers quickly learn that he has been asked to bear far more than his share of the conflict between individual need and poorly–structured (or actively malign) organizational directives. His punishing role as an intermediary between established powers and marginalized communities comes into harrowing focus as Witchmark draws to its conclusion. All the way through the book, however, Miles is buoyed and chivvied along by a gorgeous stranger known first as “Mr. Hunter” and later as “Tristan.” Here’s Tristan, again narrated by Miles:

He removed his gloves and hat, and in other circumstances I would count the sight of him as a moment of joy. . . . his face belonged on the cinema screen—golden-skinned symmetry, with graceful bones and keen blue eyes. Lines around his mouth indicated a mirthful nature, and the light in his eyes suggested that he found something amusing without seeming cruel. It added up to the handsomest man I’d seen in years.

Believe me, you want to be there for the course of their courtship. Polk knows every romance-novel hook, complication, vexation, and productive delay, and can execute them with the best in the field. The attraction between the two men grows along with the dangers they face, as they try to solve a string of murders committed by Aelander veterans infected with a strange disease that only Miles has been able to diagnose as a widespread, latent threat to the nation at large. At the same time, Miles and Tristan must contend with the punitive interference of Miles’s wealthy, influential relatives who want him—and his magic—back, for their own uses. And then there’s the small matter of Tristan’s rather dramatic secret identity to deal with. How will it all work out? I’m not going to tell you. But C. L. Polk will, in splendid style.

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