Tag Archives: Fall 2019

The Quixotic Search for Melancholy: An Interview with Mark Haber


Interviewed by Allan Vorda

Mark Haber was born in Washington D.C., grew up in Florida, and moved to Houston with his wife in 2012. He has taught middle school as well as high school, and currently is a bookseller and operations manager at Brazos Bookstore. He has previously published a collection of short stories titled Deathbed Conversions (Summerfolk Press, 2008), but his star is sure to rise with the recent publication of his first novel, Reinhardt’s Garden (Coffee House Press). Written in the form of a single, blistering paragraph, and detailing the travails of a Croatian named Jacov Reinhardt, who is in the midst of writing a treatise about melancholy, Reinhardt’s Garden offers a unique and playful take into the heart of darkness. It was recently longlisted for the PEN/Hemingway award for a debut novel. This interview was conducted on July 26, 2019, in Houston.


Allan Vorda: Melancholy has a long cultural history dating back to medieval medicine; it is also linked to creativity and writers such as Robert Burton, Milton, Keats, Goethe, and Tolstoy have written about it. Was Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy a major source? What motivated you to write about melancholy in the first place?

Mark Haber: I didn’t set out to write about melancholy. Writing fiction is a sort of nebulous act, even magical, and I’ve always wanted to keep it that way. I think setting out with an agenda, or a subject or a ‘big idea’ if you will, is the territory of nonfiction. If you want to tackle your life, write a memoir. If you want to write about the Cuban Missile Crisis, do research and write about the Cuban Missile Crisis. If I went into a story or a novel knowing exactly what I was aiming for I think I’d be in trouble. Fiction writers don’t write what they know, but what they want to know. Fiction is storytelling, but it’s also asking questions and looking into yourself. I believe in improvisation; I need to sit down each morning unsure of where the story is going to take me. No storyboard. No organizing chapters. In a word, intuition. I knew certain things I wanted to do, of course, but only aesthetically: I wanted the book to take place in a jungle; I wanted the text to be dense yet accessible; I wanted it to be digressive. I let my imagination take over from there.

The Anatomy of Melancholy wasn’t so much a source of inspirations, but I’m certainly a fan and love to dip into it once or twice a year. It’s endlessly digressive and very, very funny.

AV: Reinhardt’s Garden consists of 150 pages of a single paragraph provided by an omniscient narrator who is the factotum for Reinhardt. How did you decide to write your novel in this style?

MH: I wish I could take credit, but the book is heavily influenced by Thomas Bernhard, an Austrian writer and in my opinion, as well as many others, a master. The relentless cadence, the musicality, the repetition—that’s all influenced by Bernhard. He would riff for four or five pages on a single, obsessive thing and then move on to something else, only to return to it five pages later after riffing or complaining about something else. Bernhard’s novels are basically literary rants, angry and poetic monologues. To me there’s such joy and pleasure in the darkness, but his novels never struck me as particularly depressing, which is a common complaint. There’s also a command of language that’s incredible.

So the idea of a single paragraph novel is nothing new. I did, however, want my book to be filled with incident and action. Whereas Bernhard’s books are almost solely ‘interior’ so to speak, Reinhardt’s Garden vacillates between the internal and the external world. Another influence was Bolaño’s By Night in Chile, a slender novel but also an unbroken paragraph, and it’s a magic trick to me. I’ve read that book probably three times cover to cover, and it’s only 130 pages, but it goes everywhere. I should also mention Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s The Last Wolf, a small novella that’s actually a single sentence; Zama by Antonio Di Benedetto, a Latin American classic; and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness—all were influential.

The single paragraph is an aesthetic choice. I think a page of unbroken narrative, if it’s really good, is beautiful to just look at. It wasn’t to make the book difficult or literary, but to capture the stream-of-consciousness of the narrator, and, of course, to have pages and pages of beautiful unbroken text. I can read a page by Mathias Enard or Bolaño or Clarice Lispector, who are incredibly dense writers, but for me their unbroken text is simply beautiful.

AV: Early on you describe Jacov’s adoration of dust: “dust, in a window, for example, creates a film that distorts the natural world. Just as melancholy darkens one’s worldview, he continued, not to alter reality but to transpose reality, to elevate reality, to improve reality, dust does the same.” What inspired this unusual analogy?

MH: I’m not sure. Probably the idea that we spend our lives trying to get rid of this thing that never really goes away. The battle against things like dust or old age or decrepitude are futile, no? There was no deeper meaning. I just attempt to get inside my character’s heads and this is what Jacov would’ve likely thought of dust. Plus, he’s certainly a person who seeks to be contradictory, so setting himself apart is important: “People hate dust? Fine! I worship dust!”

AV: The narrator tells Jacov that “the absence of melancholy was a thing to aspire to . . . a life in search of happiness seemed the acme of a life well lived.” Jacov laughs at this comment and responds that melancholy “is transcendental, divine, and nothing a wise person should run from, but instead something to meet head on.” Can you briefly explain what is behind Jacov’s obsessive search to describe melancholy?

MH: I’m not wholly convinced Jacov cares about melancholy—I think he wants to be thought of, looked upon, and regarded as a celebrated intellectual. That’s why he resents Klein and his followers so much, because Klein is respected and talked about. Despite his so-called abhorrence to fame, I think Jacov is frightened of obscurity.

AV: The narration of Reinhardt’s Garden meanders across time and geography, with no paragraphs to indicate shifts. Was it difficult to write these non-chronological scenes?

MH: It was hard and it wasn’t hard, if that makes sense. I did it, but if I had to go back and tell you how I did it, I would be at a bit of a loss. I wrote the book chronologically, the way the reader reads it. I would go back, of course, and edit or change things as I went along, but I wrote the book in order. So the challenge was in knowing when it was time to leave the jungle or return to the jungle; in other words, when to have a flashback or when to be in real-time. If I found myself floundering I’d tell myself, “Okay, let’s go back to Germany or Croatia.” It was very organic. I was concerned with making sure the narrative was easy to follow. Sometimes it was a challenge and I would get lost in my own text; sometimes it felt like I was in the jungle myself. But it was also a very easy book to write, in that I saw what I wanted and just sprinted after it. I was extremely focused and just chased the story so it wouldn’t get away. That’s part of the reason the book feels like a sprint—because I was chasing the story.

AV: Reinhardt in old German means “brave counsel.” Why did you choose this name—and any correlation to Robert Stone’s character of the same name in A Hall of Mirrors?

MH: I did a little research and saw that Jacov was a common name in Croatia. It’s really that simple. He had a different name for about the first third of my writing the book.; it didn’t feel right so I changed it to Jacov, which seemed to fit. I’ve never read A Hall of Mirrors, although I’ve heard of it. I don’t try and put too much emphasis on character’s names; there’s no symbolism or deeper meaning, I just want the name to feel natural and not draw attention to itself. I don’t want the names of characters to be distractions.

AV: When Jacov moves to Stuttgart, he decides to build a second castle. Its hallways “gradually narrowed into dead ends, stairways assembled to climb straight into walls . . . giving even the most well-balanced visitor an impending sense of vertigo; every ceiling vaulted to convey emptiness and desolation.” If Jacov’s building of a castle is his attempt to recreate his garden memory of his sister Vita, who died when he was nine, then why does Jacov build a second castle that is like a labyrinth?

MH: I’m not sure. I mean, the entire book is really about not communicating—the inability or refusal to communicate and understand. We have a man who created a language around his dead sister Vita. Reinhardt then spends his adult life switching the meaning of his so-called favorite philosopher/writer to fit his understanding. They’re in a jungle with an interpreter who can’t speak or understand any of the languages. The entire novel is filled with people not being able to communicate, or hearing only what they want to hear. The castle is really for comic effect, and to illustrate the absurdity of Jacov’s vision or obsession.

AV: “As Jacov spoke, a ringlet of light would descend above his head, and though I never mentioned it, I saw it countless times, no matter if the day was bleak and beclouded, those obstinate days of gray so copious in Stuttgart, and though there appeared no scientific reason for the halo to exist, throbbing and trembling like a star, it was perhaps a reminder of why I fell in love with the immensity of this great man . . .” Is this a narrator the reader can trust?

MH: The narrator is genuine; he believes what he says. But can the reader? I don’t know. That’s for you to decide.

AV: “Success and praise in one’s lifetime, Jacov said, is repulsive; it’s merely strutting in front of the mirror like a rooster—fun perhaps, but an utter waste of time.” What are your thoughts about success and praise for a writer?

MH: I think success is fine. Of course, everyone’s definition of success is different. The fact that Coffee House is publishing my book, a press I greatly admire, is success for me. It’s a dream. Being able to continue writing and (hopefully) getting published—that’s success for me. Anything more would be great, but I don’t expect it. There are so many writers who struggle to get their work recognized. It’s nice to see my book as a finished ‘thing’ that can be discussed, and to show people something they haven’t seen before. The fact is, I sat in my apartment in Houston and created this weird story. Now it will be read by others who are willing to escape and go to that place I created—so in my mind I’ve already succeeded.

Spending my twenties and thirties writing and mostly failing was a great lesson. It’s very humbling. I take nothing for granted. I wrote two so-so books in my twenties and, thank God, they were never published; yet it taught me to just do the work. You have to love the work and feel compelled to do it. I stopped writing almost completely when I was teaching high school and the part of me I love the best went to sleep. I was literally hibernating.

AV: Ulrich is hired by Tolstoy’s wife to get rid of the mongrel dogs that ravage Tolstoy’s estate. Should the reader look upon these wild dogs as a foreshadowing of the Bolshevik revolution, or perhaps read these “hellhounds” as akin to those from Milton’s Paradise Lost?

MH: I have no idea. I wanted Tolstoy’s estate overtaken by dogs because it’s funny! Does that mean there’s a deeper meaning? I don’t know. It’s up to the reader to take what they want from a novel. It makes perfect sense to me now that you say it, but it never occurred to me.

AV: Jacov was extremely close to his younger sister, Vita, who dies at a young age. Vita is not wholly visible in the novel, but she permeates the book through Jacov’s thoughts and is the catalyst in his search to understand melancholy. What prompted you to create the character of Vita, who is almost like a ghost in the novel?

MH: Jacov needed a catalyst to support his extreme view and obsession, and the death of his sister is that catalyst. The strange tongue they spoke in, the memories he has of their brief time together—these are all infused with an importance that only has meaning for Jacov. It’s like our youth: what matters to most of us is of very little or no importance to a stranger. Vita hovers over the story but, in most ways, the novel is really Jacov’s story.

AV: A major influence on Jacov was reading Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Iylich. What made you choose this as a lodestar for Jacov?

MH: I’m a huge fan of 19th century Russian literature—all the big names, and the more obscure names, too. I wanted to use The Death of Ivan Iylich because it’s so small that Jacov, who detests literature, would probably give it a go. It’s one of my favorite stories since it deals with many of the same themes as Reinhardt’s Garden, as far as mortality and the meaning of life. You know, the big stuff. It was also sort of a tip of the hat to small books. I love War and Peace and Anna Karenina, but they get all the press.

AV: Reinhardt’s Garden takes place in various locations, such as Stuttgart, Prague, Budapest, Berlin, San Rafael, and Montevideo. Have you been to any of these places? If so, how helpful was it for your writing to be there?

MH: The biggest influence has been literature and books. I’ve been to Europe only once, which was to Sweden, and as far as Latin America, only to Mexico. It’s a mixture of research, invention, and the mystery of a place. Sometimes it’s better not to go because you can invent it for yourself and, hopefully, for the reader. You end up inventing not a real place or the memory of a place, but a third place that only exists in the mind.

AV: You work as a manager at Brazos Bookstore, so you must come across a lot of hidden gems. Can you name a few you admire?

MH: My choices for reading are definitely not methodical. I tend to choose books based on publisher. If you find books by a good publisher then you can trust they always have something interesting. Some of those publishers would be: Two Lines Press, New Directions, Transit Books, Coffee House, Dorothy, Open Letter, Seagull Books, Coach House, Graywolf, and New York Review Books, to name a few. I’m also passionate about books in translation, which most of these publishers specialize in. You can look at my influences and see almost all of them are translated from another language.

AV: I was alerted to your novel by chance, but I want to state Reinhardt’s Garden is a fascinating, even tremendous, work of literature. Thank you for doing this interview.

MH: This was a pleasure, Allan. Thank you.


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Night School:
A Reader for Grownups

Zsόfia Bán
translated by Jim Tucker
Open Letter Books ($15.95)

by John Toren

In the age of smartphones and Wikipedia, where a smidgen of semi-reliable information about any and every subject lies at our fingertips, the time has come to entertain a different kind of reference book. That seems to be the reasoning behind the collection of writings the Hungarian novelist Zsόfia Bán's gives us in Night School. The entries are seemingly chosen at random; some are historical, others scientific, while a few explore the meaning of meta-historical concepts concocted by the author herself: a painting by Frida Kahlo, Beethoven's opera Fidelio, an obscure Hungarian geographer named Jenö Cholnocky. Bán makes use of these and other "occasions" to fashion an assortment of imaginative bagatelles, divertimenti, and riffs. They purport to be night school lectures, which may explain both their caustic and insistent tone—"Take your own notes. Observe some things!"—and also their consistently rapid-fire and irreverent narrative thrust.

Such an approach may sound like fun, but the results are mediocre, because the tone soon grows wearisome and the entries are often less interesting than the subjects on which they're obliquely based. Take, for example, the piece titled "The Temptation of Henri Mouhot," a name many readers will be encountering for the first time. Bán paints a portrait of an overweight buffoon concerned about his wife's infidelities back home yet driven by deep-rooted Lutheran pieties to become the first explorer to capture the Great Stinkbug in the jungles of Thailand.

It's caricature, obviously. Yet nowhere in Ban's portrait can she find room to mention that Mouhot's published journals were highly popular in their day, or that a monument was erected in Thailand upon his death bearing the inscription: "We found everywhere the memory of our compatriot who, by the uprightness of his character and his natural benevolence, had acquired the regard and the affection of the natives." No doubt such "facts" reflect the patronizing exaggerations of a colonial age, but the distortions they harbor are far less serious than the trivial fictionalization Bán offers us.

By the same token, "What is This Thing Called the Exchange Reaction" tells us nothing about that basic chemical reaction, in which ions are freely exchanged between molecules without affecting anything much. Instead, she offers us a description of a ping-pong match in which members of opposing sides are attracted to one another during a match:

Our chemistry is good, thought the Captain, but is that enough for happiness? . . . Sometimes friends and old acquaintances meet, and unite in no time at all without altering anything in one another, like wine mixing with water. Yet aren’t wine and water—separately—nobler than a spritzer? . . . Oti and I came together swiftly, without a hitch, like wine and water, and all that came of it was a watered-down spritzer. Net!

The exploration of the parallels between chemistry and emotional life may sound clever, but Bán, dedicated here and elsewhere to a slang-filled first-person monologue, can find nothing of interest to say about her ping-pong players by means of the metaphor. Metaphysical ruminations notwithstanding, the characters involved remain as generic as hydrogen, helium, and carbon.

Among the more interesting entries is one devoted to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and his second wife, Fanny. The rendering is as full of sarcasm, hyperbole, and caricature as any other, but it also has the merit of introducing us to quite a few little-known details about Longfellow's personality and career. These details aren't reliable—nothing in the book is—but they pique our desire to find out more about the personal life of that nineteenth-century bard.

Ever better is an imagined monologue delivered by the painter Eduard Manet regarding the intense and pitiless stare of his model Victorine, and how it has both inspired his work and ruined his career. The piece reads almost like a Bob Newhart comedy routine from the 1960s, yet here, for once, Bán doesn't dumb down the subject matter in the interests of cheap irony.

The richest entry of all is "Expulsion to Paradise." It takes us deep into the sights, and even more, the smells of Brazil, during an insistent tour of the region's mystical and mythic geography:

You look around, check that the boardwalk is still there on the shore, that Christ is still around, and the bay, the sunset—check, check, every¬thing is still there. Oh come on, don’t be a dodo. You have to sniff things first, smell the odor of rotting time, the typical scabby stench of the past rising from the trash cans, spreading over the city, the smell of the sewers overmatched by tropical storms, the hillsides that ring the town, the smell of poverty drifting from the favelas toward the sea and, while we’re on the subject, the sea’s own smell, all used up, sniffed to death.

The author, who was partly raised in Brazil, seems to be tapping into a more personal and authentic strata of her experience here, and the result, dark and distinctly poetic, stands in marked contrast to the bulk of the book, which is full of flippant narrative and chattering erudition but largely devoid of warmth or genuine interest.

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Motion Studies

Jena Osman
Ugly Duckling Presse ($20)

by Joseph Houlihan

Motion Studies is the most recent installment in Jena Osman’s ongoing interrogation of the intersections between human bodies and our technology-obsessed culture. Osman has engaged themes exploring the edges of individual and social organisms for years, both in the experimental poetry magazine Chain she co-edited between 1994 and 2005, and in her poetry collections such as The Network (Fence Books, 2010) and Public Figures (Wesleyan University Press, 2012).

Motion Studies hones in again on these edges between our embodied selves and the technologies that inform and amplify our understandings of those selves and others. In this collection, Osman focuses on mechanical devices that have been used in science and medicine: “The noise of her pulse. Of his. // 'The hellish tattoo of the heart' recorded in a line. // They draw a breath and it’s made visible, / They have a thought and that’s visible as well. // Shallow breath and stealth. Holding breath—” Osman pairs such strange histories with a dreamlike narrative of a woman resisting the surveillance state:

The road continues to convey forward, with its deadly drop-off tail at the back. They begin to understand that the bottleneck is not so much due to congestion, as it is to hesitation and then a small group of resisters. They decide to join the scanner resistance, while most don’t recognize the choice and plod forward toward the inexorable. The resistance strategy is simple: slow down. There’s a thin red thread unraveling from hand to hand—if they hold onto it, they can hold themselves back. They do this, knowing that eventually the end of the road will catch up with them.

The line between a body in the world and our logocentric, technocratic society blurs. Osman’s collection Corporate Relations (Burning Deck, 2014) was a response to the 2010 Citizens United decision which infamously gave corporations the first amendment rights of free speech, deluging our politics with unlimited corporate spending. Like that collection, Motion Studies describes a series of relations between machines and bodies, and the circumstances under which bodies become machines. Surveillance especially seeks to incorporate bodies into explicitly legible, disciplined, and consumerist schemes; the poetry in this collection reacts against this tendency. It has the sense of many voices commenting on technological artifacts, alongside an almost caper-like description of a body seeking to disassociate from the ubiquity of surveillance.

As Osman skirts the fuzzy edge between the human body and the technical object, her gorgeous and fascinating examinations of diagrams and schemata recall an archaeology of language. Just as poets like Douglas Kearney excavate the sinister history of American discourse, Osman uncovers the history of scientism in language, and the relationship between this history and biopolitics today. While some of the work is heady, there are humorous and fascinating anecdotes too, including Walt Whitman submitting himself to a phrenological exam. A compelling collection, Motion Studies is a machine worth loving and sharing.


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1919

Eve L. Ewing
Haymarket Books ($16)

by Deborah Bacharach

The 1919 Chicago race riots have marked the city for a century, but few know about them. Eve L. Ewing, a poet and sociologist at the University of Chicago, sets out to change this with her new book. Nearly every poem in 1919 begins with an excerpt from The Negro in Chicago: A Study on Race Relations and a Race Riot, a 1922 city report which attempted to explain the riot. Don’t let the study title make you assume the work dry or inaccessibly academic, however; Ewing has pulled powerful, often terrifying observations from the report and elucidated them with poems full of vibrant voices.

In one excerpt the study refers to the great migration as an exodus. From this thread, Ewing recasts the exodus story as the sharecroppers leaving the South:

And the midwives made an ark of leaves and tar, and put the children therein,
and lay them in the waters. And the people gathered at the bank
and bade them farewell.
and the river carried them far from the cotton, and the kings and their
storehouses of browning blood.

Taking on the tone and rhythms of the Bible gives this historical moment gravitas. Ewing also sometimes writes as characters in the story—a maid, a stockyard worker, a protester, a street car. And sometimes, as in “Sightseers,” she speaks directly to the reader:

and just this once I hope you’ll forgive me
for asking you directly
to forget the lovely water
to forget the charming pillars
because there are children in the tower
there are children in the tower
there are children in the tower
and they are dead already.

In addition to voice, Ewing uses form in the service of meaning. She writes an abecedarian for a teacher from the South who loses his status and must become a stockyard worker in the North; poems about the split between Blacks and Whites are physically split; a poem about barricades is in the form of barricades. She uses found forms like jokes and jump rope rhymes in powerful juxtaposition to the subject matter, too; in “or does it explode,” the epigram tells us it was so hot the city exploded in a riot, and the poem is then in the form of a series of “it was so hot” jokes. There’s nothing funny about the riot or a dream deferred, however (the poem’s title comes from the Langston Hughes poem “What Happens to a Dream Deferred?”) and the contrast creates a powerful tension.

As Ewing contextualizes the poems with photographs and brief history lessons, she combines historical research with a poet’s eye to help us understand the 1919 race riots, an endeavor we should take to heart.


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The Problem with Everything:
My Journey Through the
New Culture Wars

Meghan Daum
Gallery Books ($27)

by Erin Lewenauer

In her late forties, Meghan Daum moved from Los Angeles to New York, the land of her youth, and began writing The Problem with Everything: My Journey Through New Culture Wars. “I’d left California in 2015 in the wake of irremediable, if mercifully amicable, marital separation,” she explains, and her fifth book was to be about feminism in its various forms. Then Donald Trump was elected, and the book drastically changed shape into “a personal story of feeling existentially unmoored against the backdrop of a country falling apart.” While Daum’s essays are about subjects close to her, she writes in her usual clear, beautiful, nuanced way, having taken time to reflect. In eight chapters, she refreshingly pushes against “the weaponization of ‘social justice culture,’” herd mentalities, and nostalgia, giving readers a look at the state of America and themselves.

The book’s opening essay, “Sign the Petition: From the Meat Grinder To #MeToo,” investigates Generation X’s relationship with feminism. Daum reflects on the #MeToo movement beginning with her memories of flirty, uncomfortable dinners with an older, married man that she thought would further her career in the summer of 1995; “I behaved this way because I must have known on some unconscious level that, at twenty-five, I had more of a certain kind of power than I was ever going to have in my life and that I might as well use it, even if the accompanying rush was laced with shame.” She blames herself as much as him for these interactions. Daum notices today “the requisite smattering of middle-aged women offering stories of long-ago icky dates they’d suddenly been given permission to reinterpret as injurious” and sees those women as “tiny pixels coalescing into a giant portrait of rage in all its definitions.” She is highly critical of those who broadcast their unformed thoughts on social media, reacting without thinking. Following the Aziz Ansari dustup, Daum says, “I felt that my membership on Team Older Feminist was so official that I might as well take out a charge card at Eileen Fisher and call it a day (though has anyone under forty ever used a ‘charge card’?).”

In “Growing Up Zooming: A 1970s Childhood,” Daum examines her first encounters with feminism, both through her mother and the movies of the time. She writes, “I couldn’t wait to grow up and wear a power suit with Nikes and carry my high-heeled shoes in my briefcase.” Then, in the 1980s, there were “two high-profile child abductions . . . These images wallpapered the public consciousness and suddenly turned childhood itself into a form of personal endangerment”; women were held responsible for keeping children safe. Observing the current prevalence of constant outrage, knee-jerk reactions, and helicopter parenting, Daum states, “I’m troubled by the ways in which contemporary feminism has turned womanhood into another kind of childhood, one inculcated with the same kind of fear and paranoia that haunted the children of the 1980s.” And she goes on to reckon with the cost: “What I’m faced with now is a failure to be the right kind of feminist during a time when we’re told we can’t afford the wrong kind. Where I have failed is that I’m not an emergency-response feminist. I am not wearing the ovary sweater and the pussy hat like flashing siren lights.”

In “You Are Lucky She’s Cool: Toughness, Toxicity, and the Fall of the Fall of Man,” Daum writes most powerfully, as she has in years past, about Generation X; it “featured a lot of smirks, defiantly crossed arms, and expressions that fall somewhere between blank and fuck you. The idea was that the divorced parents and latchkeys around our necks and constant threat of nuclear annihilation had left us emotionally dampened. Before the age of ‘don’t give a fuck,’ we were kicking it old school by not giving a shit.” Her acute analysis leads her to view where she is today unflinchingly: “the low spark of smugness you see in a certain kind of aging person (this would be me) who clings to their toughness because they’ve lost hold of their youth.”

Woven throughout the book are Daum’s familiar love letters to NYC, which she presents as “a wild kingdom, a stone-and-steel fortress with rage burning inside.” But far more importantly, she consistently eschews labels and champions original thought. Each essay is a complex web for readers to navigate and the problems presented, Daum suggests, are really a privilege to solve because the process involves finding one’s footing in a storm. “Trumpism has made us feel that the world is out of control. In turn, we’ve forgotten how to control ourselves,” she observes. Daum continues to dazzle with her quick mind and sharp humor, embodying toughness and independence as she takes “a bittersweet walk down memory’s plank.”


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The Pull of Politics: Steinbeck, Wright, Hemingway and the Left
in the Late 1930s


Milton A. Cohen
University of Missouri Press ($50)

by Ryder W. Miller

The Pull of Politics tells the fascinating stories of John Steinbeck, Richard Wright, and Ernest Hemingway, who all wrote successful novels with leftist politics at the end of the 1930s: The Grapes of Wrath, Native Son, and For Whom the Bell Tolls, respectively. Milton A. Cohen, a literature professor at the University of Texas, seeks to put their political ideology in perspective, showing how it reflected their times and lives. These novels were published during the Great Depression and before America’s full entry into World War II. The Grapes of Wrath showed Steinbeck’s concerns for the migrant workers who fled the Dust Bowl to California. Native Son imagines a Chicago man who accidentally kills a woman who is the daughter of a capitalist and the girlfriend of a Communist. Hemingway’s hero in For Whom the Bell Tolls joins the Loyalist forces during the Spanish Civil War. While all their politics are rooted in the time, the world was about to change for these authors dramatically when the United States became involved in the fray overseas.

Cohen seems somewhat annoyed by Hemingway's posturing with the literati, but he clearly appreciates Steinbeck and he successfully brings Wright's revolutionary struggles to life. More importantly, he discusses each author’s involvement with leftist and Communist causes. Steinbeck clearly wanted to share the wealth at the end of the Great Depression; Wright was a member of the Communist Party during the 1930s, but chose to break with them when they would not agree to fight racism; Hemingway was an ambulance driver during the war in Spain and a self-described “anti-fascist.” They all became disenchanted when Russia signed an anti-aggression pact with Germany, which led to more European countries being overrun. The war changed everything for Western society and culture; it was not until a generation later that the left had enough power to challenge the war machine in Vietnam.

While The Pull of Politics is a scholarly book, it will also help the general reader get a greater biographical sense of these writers’ politics. These writers were humanitarians, and sometimes warriors for their causes. Primarily they are remembered as iconic literary artists who challenged their times—which, as this book shows, is how it should be.


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Beat: The Latter Days of the Beat Generation: A First-Hand Account

Andy Clausen
Autonomedia ($17.95)

by Christopher Luna

First-hand accounts of legendary cultural figures such as Neal Cassady are rare. Andy Clausen’s memoir of his relationships with Beat writers is notable for its unpretentious working-class perspective. Clausen spent much of his life with people who saw poetry as a calling. He related to street poets such as Gregory Corso, Jack Micheline, Bob Kaufman, and Ray Bremser. While admitting that “beat” is hard to define, he sees the cultural movement as “a rebirth of freethinking.” Unorthodox in its structure, the narrative leaps quickly from one time period to the next, as one memory triggers another.

This deceptively slim volume is stuffed with personal anecdotes featuring some of the great outrider literary giants of the late twentieth century, among them Amiri Baraka, Charles Bukowski, Ed Dorn, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Diane di Prima. The book likewise includes insightful reminiscences of unique personalities such as Ray Bremser, Jack Micheline, and Bob Kaufman. Clausen tells hilarious stories, including his friends’ verbal harassment of Richard Brautigan after the famous author “looked at [Clausen’s] extended hand like a buffalo looks at a billboard, then down his nose like my hand was a piece of unclean, unworthy matter.” Clausen recounts his first conversation with Allen Ginsberg, which took place as they looked for a place to pee outside after the elder poet arrived at a party in San Francisco to find Clausen and several others dancing naked.

Seeing Ginsberg on TV helped Clausen decide to quit the Marines; getting to know him helped Clausen love and accept gay people. Ginsberg was generous with his time and his money. He introduced Clausen to famous people and helped him get teaching gigs and poetry readings. When Clausen was “young brazen unstable, doing the rambling man thing,” Ginsberg “taught me knee to knee, went over my fifteen-page poems scrutinizing every word, questioning every ambiguity, flushing out the language of my intentions.” Over time his mentor persuaded him to gain control of “the spaghetti” shape of his poetry by paying closer attention to the line, helping Clausen to rid himself of the habit of spreading “margin to margin with some kind of economic and ecological justification.”

Clausen confesses that “being Allen Ginsberg’s protégé didn’t open doors and minds as much as one might expect.” Certain poets rejected the Tibetan Buddhism of Ginsberg’s guru Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Others merely resented Clausen or dismissed his work because of their jealousy over his closeness to Ginsberg:

Some of his old friends were bitter toward him because they felt he hadn’t done enough to further their careers. Well, he read with me at least thirty times, showed my work to publishers many times. He introduced me to the prevailing scene, got money from Bill Gates to put out my book 40th Century Man, and still I had to mix cement and carry heavy objects in order to put gas in my hooptee. . . . My book sales were in the low hundreds, my infrequent paid readings were infrequent. Come on, everybody, this is what you’re jealous of?

Clausen doesn’t shy away from telling the truth about his legendary friends. He is honest about William S. Burroughs’s and Ginsberg’s sexism. He provides a fascinating insider’s account of Peter Orlovksy’s mental illness and Ginsberg’s enabling of his life partner’s “extreme behavior.” He shares amazing stories of Gregory Corso meeting an abandoned son, inviting a Hell’s Angel to join him onstage during a reading at the Naropa Institute, and shooting up inside the Museum of Modern Art. Nevertheless, Clausen makes it clear that what he learned about life from these icons of literature was more significant than any assistance they may have given his career.

The memoir includes moving recollections of Corso’s final years. Clausen praises Corso as a “fantastic poet, a philosopher shaman who . . . enlivened every room” while also admitting that he was the “master Beat con man.” Corso was a “much disliked, even despised, but well-loved roguish classic genius, renegade archaic and revolutionary syntax virtuoso, elegant master painter of the action that inspired the word.” Although the poet had many personal flaws, hanging out with Corso showed Clausen “that love might have power . . . I’ve witnessed friendship that neither samsara, money, pride, nor time could break, friendship whose depth is fathomless.”

Refreshingly self-aware and conversational, Beat tosses off insights without appearing self-aggrandizing. Clausen’s honest take on machismo, masculinity, and “toughness” is much appreciated. The book ends with a litany of memorials for Corso, Herbert Huncke, Orlovsky, and the California literary scene. While he regrets not completing a college degree, Clausen received a lifelong education from a variety of pursuits: “boxing, drugstore kicks, Marine Corps, acid, the Love Generation, back to the country, on the road, construction, factory, taxi, sawmill, loading dock, pearl diving, hod carrying, poetry in the schools and prisons, and all the other shit.”

Clausen sings the praises of lesser known or unknown poets such as Kirby Doyle, a mentally ill West Coast poet who earned some money from a prose “history of and instruction manual” about cunnilingus. Although Doyle was eventually institutionalized, Clausen doesn’t believe he “went crazy . . . I think he went sad. If I could change anything about life and death it would be to celebrate people like Kirby Doyle and Lew Welch when they are living and, if we do grow old, be blessed with the facility to view our lives without all-encompassing regret.”


Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2019 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2019

Save Your Eyes

Vicente Huidobro and Hans Arp
translated by Tom Raworth
Face Press

by Patrick James Dunagan

Circa 1971, poet Tom Raworth (1938-2017) turned in Save Your Eyes—his translation of the prose collaborations of Vicente Huidobro (1893-1948) and Hans Arp (1886-1966) published as Tres Novelas Ejemplares in 1931—as his Master’s thesis at University of Essex. As Raworth remarks in a December 13, 2016 email to Face Press publisher Ian Heames, “the cross fertilization between what was left of the Dadaist/Surrealist European avant-garde and a few South American minds interested me.” This previously ‘lost’ manuscript was discovered in a cupboard by Philip Terry, whose father Arthur served as Raworth’s examiner. Raworth gave Heames his blessing to publish it shortly before his death.

As the manuscript was found without a title page, and Raworth never had chance to offer up a suggestion, the title Save Your Eyes is taken from the opening story. And although the Spanish title references “three novels,” in reality the work is composed of three collaborative short stories followed by a letter to Arp, along with two additional stories by Huidobro. As Huidobro explains in the letter, “I took our Three Exemplary Novels to a publisher. He found them a little too short for a book, so I have been obliged to write two more by myself.” This is very much in keeping with the Dada-Surrealist humor which runs throughout the collaborative texts.

Profoundly hilarious irony arrives in waves throughout these pages. Take “The Chained Crane (a patriotic, and Alsatian, novel),” in which the absurdity of nationalism and the accompanying hopelessness of war are celebrated in high-mock fashion:

Olives of peace sprouted in men’s hats and women’s stockings. The whole world was happy, and blessed the names of the great chiefs who had led them to war. The golden spur was ground under the heals [sic] of carpetslippers, bedslippers, and houseshoes. Under the light of the moon thousands of unemployed workmen sang happily to the sound of their well-fed guitars. In different countries the newspapers spoke of the delights of the next war, insulting the future enemy who was proclaimed assassin, bandit, vampire, licker of graves, violator of virgin jungles and foetuses, barbarous cave-dweller, Atilla, necrophile, mutilator of Gulf Streams, stealer of volcanoes and pendulums, cowardly sower of drunken fleas, and many other things impossible to note down in passing.

The imagery throughout is consistently vivid. Immersive passages transport the reader into fantastical settings, evocative of paintings by such Surrealists as Leonora Carrington or Remedios Varo, as in “The Gardener of Midnight Castle (a detective story)”:

. . . the mysterious eyes saw the grand piano open and an anchor fall out, burying itself in the depths of the carpet. A siren whistled inside the piano, and immediately afterwards doors were heard banging, and the sound of feet climbing stairs and running along corridors. The mysterious eyes saw the door open and a hundred kangaroos, dressed in the sky-blue uniforms of French soldiers, disappeared into the piano. Was this the glorious army that had fought under the orders of King Dagobert at Poitiers sur Seine? The glorious army descended the piano stairs leading to two mechanical feet which formed the foundations of the Midnight Castle. When the kangaroos reached the toes of these feet—which were as long as Broadway, and filled with bars and luminous cabarets—they began to move.

War and looming post-disaster scenarios are omnipresent in this darkly joyous book; in fact, it perfectly suits the ominous times of our current day, offering up a bit of levity against impending gloom. Raworth’s attraction to these tales is as easy to perceive as his delivery of them into English is clear and concise. On the book’s cover, the woodcut of a Megatherium, an extinct species of giant sloth, cast in yellow against a collaged background of a forest landscape, bears eerie resemblance to the skeleton of polar bear—a nod to climate change? Meanwhile the morphing seashell with spikes growing from it on the back cover has an unsettling, alien-like quality. These images, chosen and designed by the publisher, are well suited to accompany this text into the present moment, when so much in the world feels as precarious as ever.


Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2019 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2019

“How Multiple and How
Simultaneous”: An Interview
with Éireann Lorsung

Interviewed by Elizabeth Fontaine, Evelyn May, and Sarah Degner Riveros

Poet Éireann Lorsung is the author of Music for Landing Planes By (Milkweed Editions, 2007), which was followed by Her Book (Milkweed Editions, 2013) and the chapbook Sweetbriar (Dancing Girl Press, 2013). The recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, Lorsung has taught at De Montfort University in the U.K., Ghent University in Belgium, and in the Iowa Summer Writing Workshop. Originally from Minneapolis, Lorsung earned an MFA in Poetry at the University of Minnesota and a PhD in Critical Theory at the University of Nottingham. She currently teaches at the University of Maine–Farmington. In addition to poetry, she is currently working on a novel and a collection of essays.

In the spring of 2019, Lorsung participated in an online interview with Elizabeth Fontaine, Evelyn May, and Sarah Degner Riveros of Augsburg University’s MFA Program. The conversation originated with a discussion of Music for Landing Planes By, but Lorsung’s answers go far beyond that single book.


Question: The title Music for Landing Planes By refers to the 9/11 tragedy, and the book examines human connections and responsibilities. Does community play a role in how you write? For instance, in the endnotes you say you composed the poem “In the Wide World” while traveling by bus, with references to the tangible world (“babies waking up their sleepy parents”) alongside surreal images (“seven fish swim in the air”) and the unexpected (“a homeless man’s teeth”). How does the place of writing affect your craft? Do you have examples of places that inspire you to write, and the types of poems that come to you in those places?

Answer: Here you refer to the method of being-with-others in writing as craft; I think of it as ethics. Writing in public places has been important to me in many ways: as someone who lived as an immigrant for many years, for example, writing in public was a way of making a space in which I belonged within larger spaces where I was often reminded I didn’t, and it was a way of asserting my identity, refusing to assimilate, being myself, reifying my own ways of seeing and knowing and perceiving.

Writing in public also means that I don’t have as much responsibility for “genius.” (I don't really believe in individual genius anyway.) Other people and the places I find myself generally suggest much more interesting things than I would be able to come up with if I were alone.

In practice I don’t always write in public or shared spaces, although these spaces (especially public transit) are really fruitful for me. All of my writing at this point comes from shared spaces—the classroom, the church, the archive—that I enter the same way I enter shared architecture: with questions about what it means for me to be there, reflection on the way power moves, a critical eye to history, and an ongoing effort to be humble, playful, open, and attentive to the spaces, the people who’ve been there (or not) before me, and the meanings I might not have access to or receptors for which are nevertheless in play.

Q: We were drawn to the poem “Gnosis” because of the analogy of a woman being treated like a mannequin. Is this inspired by an actual story? How did the poem change during the process of rewriting and editing?

A: I wrote “Gnosis” in the spring of 2006. At that point I was sewing a lot of clothing, both for myself and to sell. I had a very old dress-form that someone had repaired with duct tape, and I had been slowly taking the tape off and repairing the form.

That spring I spent a little time with a woman my age whom I didn’t know well but who seemed to need a friend. She lived relatively near me in an apartment she shared with her husband. It was always dark and cluttered and a little smelly. I didn’t like to be there. Her husband made me uncomfortable. But I did have the sense she was very lonely and didn’t have anyone to talk to, so I would frequently stop by for a short visit on the way somewhere else or on the way home.

At one point I got a call very late from a number I didn’t know, and it was this woman, very upset. She revealed to me that her husband had been hitting her, she had called the cops, and they’d taken him away. She was distraught. I was twenty-five years old. I had never encountered domestic abuse before and I didn’t know what to do. I don’t remember what I did—probably talked to her for a while.

After a few months, she and her husband moved away and I never heard from her again. Poems have always been one way I theorize what is happening in my life and that is definitely what happened here—I didn’t know how to understand or make sense of this woman’s trauma or my reaction to it, or of her orthodox Catholicism and my own very unorthodox Catholicism.

But it’s not exactly a true story; it’s a poem, the synaptic alchemy of all that was happening at that time, but not a photograph of it. As for the process of editing/rewriting, I honestly can’t recall—it was too long ago, my cells have all changed, and I’m not that person anymore! I know it would have received good and generous feedback from my MFA peers and my professor at that time.

Q: “The Way to Really Love It” and “Exclusion Pregnancy” are remarkable for their balance of sheer beauty and social critique: “Listen to the empty / fields where slate blows / into dust and everything built / glows at night” is such a beautiful image and has a lovely rhythm, and it displays a dark reality of our climate crisis. We see this as well with “you had better / be quick, keep it trimmed, burning—” How do you hold an intentional space for beauty as you write about tough subjects?

A: This is an interesting question. I suppose the simplest answer is that I just don’t see or imagine a world where the beautiful and horrific are not always totally entwined. I have only ever lived in such a world.

The Chernobyl disaster happened when I was five and formed my imagination in an indelible way (the poem “Exclusion Pregnancy” is thinking about the exclusion zone/ nuclear disaster). I remember being excused from reading class in elementary school and allowed to read in the library on my own. I found the area where books about the atomic bomb and the Holocaust were kept and I read everything in the library about those two things.

What is beauty? I guess it’s one kind of thing that makes it hard to look away. Horror is another of those things. The sensation of beauty and the sensation of horror can sometimes share a wall. In the moments you identify in these poems I doubt I was thinking about beauty per se. In “Exclusion Pregnancy” you note the image and rhythm and I suppose the irradiated, glowing landscape is beautiful. Knowing what it is makes it horrific. But this isn’t the landscape; it’s a poem, and poems are aesthetic objects (concerned with what beauty is rather than keeping themselves busy replicating an extant idea of the beautiful). So (this was not conscious; I don’t remember writing this poem; I am reconstructing via analysis rather than depicting something that actually happened), I must have been drawn to something that could encircle and contain the Chernobyl disaster and the long-reaching effects on human health, large-scale and individual.

Form contains and communicates. Those short lines—what I notice about them is how tight they seem and how each of them annotates the syntax, making the line work against the sentence as its own kind of mutation or growth.

The other line you mention is biblical—and I find what I would call resonance with things like that, old things, things that just float in public language. I think some of the beauty comes from that resonance, a feeling of recognition not necessarily to do with belonging to one particular tradition. I am not trying to make my poems “beautiful” although I might have been back when I wrote this book. I just want to reflect how multiple the world is and how simultaneous. People are, are, right now, being tortured, and people are dying ordinary deaths alone or with others, and people are being born, and flowers are starting to bloom, and the stars are out there, and someone has gotten a paper cut, someone is listening to music . . . beauty is just the co-presence of all this. Thought is beauty, and difficult thought is, especially. Thinking about horror is difficult work and we have to do it. If we do it well maybe it makes that wall resonate and what is horrific resembles what is beautiful. I don't know. I feel like this is a question that could be answered by a book that begins by thinking about what beauty is, what intention is, and what poetry can do. What beauty can do? What pain is. A bookshelf.


Click here to purchase Music for Landing Planes By
at your local independent bookstore
indiebound
Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2019 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2019

Solar Perplexus

Dean Young
Copper Canyon Press ($22)

by Thomas Moody

I don’t know what people mean
by reality.
Is it the ocean
which I’ve always loved
no matter its chitinous claws
or the sky everything falls through
or those scary-ass mites
that live on our eyelids
or the rain of diamonds on Saturn?

These are the opening lines of Solar Perplexus, Dean Young’s latest collection of poetry, his sixteenth. They are from a poem ironically titled “Reality,” a state of things that anyone familiar with Young’s poetry over the past three decades knows is rarely described (the ocean’s “chitinous claws”), but somehow, through a web of absurdist avenues, is always encountered, represented, and uncannily felt. No matter how surreal the images Young conjures are, or how unexpected their associations, they are always rooted to an emotional truth, so that in his poetry we recognize both the scattered external world around us, and our equally discordant internal lives. Reality, as the poem suggests, is not fixed and objective; it shifts, disassembles and reassembles, always elusive but ever present (something we have sadly become all too aware of in the past three or so years). “Whatever it is,” Young continues, as if to confirm the trajectory of the collection, “I’m sure I’ve tried to avoid it.”

But there are, of course, agents of reality that cannot be avoided, and although all the hallmarks of Young’s singular style are on display in Solar Perplexus—his hyper-paced collage of disparate images laced with pop-culture and literary references, not to mention his wit, irony, and pathos—the tone of these poems is, on the whole, less wry than previous collections, and more candid, both somber and ecstatic. In his third book following a heart-transplant in 2011, after suffering for years from congenital heart failure, Young muses on the body, its temporality, vulnerability, and the estrangement we can feel from our very own organs. In “My Collage Life,” Young acknowledges that his body itself has become, through the process of his heart transplant, mimetic of his poetic style: “So after being chopped apart, / sewn back together from mostly / the same stuff, some 70s prog rock / still sticking out, some Kafka fluff, / how’s it feel to still be alive where you are?” In “Flight Path,” the body is “a shoe box, precious tanglement / of kelp, china doll-head fit perfectly / in the palm crushing it or not.” In “Corpse Pose,” which details the fraction of time during the transplant the poet was a body without a heart, Young comically speaks to a Cartesian dualism: “My body hates my soul, how / it stays so skinny thriving on air, / never hungover, never hit with fist / or restraining order, defying / that old dualism, flirting at the party / like it's never been spurned.”

Solar Perplexus also confronts death, both Young’s own precarious adjacency to it, and the death of his contemporary and friend, the acclaimed Slovenian poet Tomaž Šalamun: “I don’t know if Tomaž / was scattered into the Hippocrene / or baked into a heavy, seedy peasant bread / to break among his young acolytes / like wedding cake but everyone says / his death mask smiles.” Young’s poetry contends, however, that while there may be no physical means to avoid existence’s coarse realities, be they illness, death, or even turgid English departments (“My studies in human potential / collapsed when I joined an English department” he writes in “The Institutionalization of American Poetry”), they can at the least be palliated, if not entirely eradicated, by a genuine engagement with one’s imagination. For Young, the imagination is a means to salvation, not puerile but sacred. It is through the imagination, via poetry (“All poetry is a form of hope” opens one poem), that we reach a place of empathy, excitement, and equanimity of a kind: “The skull / permanently smiles so what / is there to worry about.”

Young is Whitmanic in his appreciation of the imagination (there is a sly reference to Whitman in the lines “and there’s no such thing as death, / just darkness / and darkness never hurt anyone”), often challenging the reader to embrace their own: “Friend, lift yourself from / your webby substrate. / Inoculate the daffodils! / Inculcate daffodils! / Do fucking something with daffodils!” He also seemingly asks for approval of his poetry in real time: “Knock-knock joke in ICU. / No one knows who’s there / so keep guessing. How about / a burning scarecrow taking blood donations?”

These last lines are from “Pep Talk in a Crater,” which includes all of the finest elements of a Dean Young poem. Here are a few lines:

Often I too have been chased barefoot
by I know not what. Often a meadow
struggles to mention itself. Thus
someone can start out a column of flames
and be moth-dust by afternoon.
Thus another can collapse in on herself
like a neuron star. All we know for sure
is Mozart took a lot of hammering
and all those trees had to be screwed in.
Once the little green wings are smashed
from the wedding vessels, it’s okay
to feel like you’re watching your own murder
with a butterscotch in your mouth,
like how laughing makes the coffin
easier to carry, the usual rueful decorums
masking the want-my-mommy,
this-ain’t-my-planet wail.

There is a rush of excitement here, in part because the poem is alive, as if it has managed to retain the raw materials of language itself (as is Young’s wish for his poetry, stated in his brilliant essay-length book The Art of Recklessness, required reading for any poet looking for validation of their vocation). Whole universes of thought are packed into it through a propulsion of words, and while the manic shifts in imagery permit little time to reflect on any one in particular—despite whether they demand our reflection (“it’s okay / to feel like you’re watching your own murder”)—they build upon one another without erasure, so that a swarm of shadow lines and ghost images trail throughout the poem, sometimes to return, sometimes merely to hover in our subconscious. This deft construct of images allows for Young’s poems to be greater than the sum of their parts—the various and conflicting sensations that both the process of collage and its aggregate arouse in the reader are far more powerful than the sensations caused by any individual image itself. It is this achievement that often separates Young’s poetry from those that it influences.

In “Dance Event”, the most affecting poem in Solar Perplexus, however, Young strips the words of their propulsion, breaking them down into a series of fragmentary utterances; the language devolves so as to arrive at the essential message. The poem ends:

Simple test:
Approach a strawberry.
A pulse is kid stuff.
Dance in live ash with feathers
through your earlobes.
Converse with a sapling.
Walk cloud.
Macerate in Cointreau.
Estivate and call home.
Feed a fever fever.
Cradle dawn.
Love everyone.

The last instruction is also a directive to the imagination, for love relies on empathy, and empathy can only be achieved through imagining the condition of the other. “The heart has nothing / to do with it. The heart has everything / to do with it,” Young writes in “My Process.” Are we to take these lines, due to Young’s medical history, to be referring to the literal heart? Sure. But they are also concerned with the metaphorical heart, just as fragile but equally vital to our survival. In an era marked by a near bankruptcy in empathy, where realities are fractured and decidedly antagonistic, a rich imagination can provide a needed corrective—and there is no greater arena for the imagination to be celebrated than poetry, Solar Perplexus affirms, where “The blood may be fake / but the bleeding’s not.”


Click here to purchase this book
at your local independent bookstore
indiebound
Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2019 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2019

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