Tag Archives: Fall 2020

The World Has Been Empty
Since the Postcard

Fourteen Polemical Postcards
Simon Cutts
Ugly Duckling Presse ($12)
by Ross Hair

The World Has Been Empty Since the Postcard showcases fourteen “polemical” postcards, with accompanying commentary, by the British poet, artist, editor, and publisher Simon Cutts. A number of these postcards were originally published by Coracle, the press and gallery that Cutts started in South London in 1975 with the artist Kay Roberts. Since relocating to Tipperary, Ireland, in 1996, Cutts has run Coracle with his partner, U.S.-born artist and writer Erica Van Horn. In all this time the postcard has become, as Cutts explains, “an idiom in itself, a form in its own right,” the diversity of which has remained intrinsic to Coracle’s activities. The World Has Been Empty Since the Postcard imparts the possibilities of the format in this context while also reflecting some of the primary concerns of Cutts’s broader poetics.

A number of the postcards in Cutts’s selection display an acerbic wit directed toward the monolithic sensibilities of the art world and its institutions. Described by Cutts as a “thank you card sent to erudite librarians who are not perplexed or overwhelmed by the edifice of the artists book,” Artists Books are a Hurdle (2013) questions the reductive nature of such bibliographical classification by way of a blue printed letter press legend: “Artists Books are Hurdle / you have to Jump to find / More Serious Librarians.” “There are,” Cutts comments, “finally, just good books, interesting books, books indeed without category, that reside in the mind long after any over-convenient classification has seemingly been placed on them.”

As much as it is a thank you to librarians, Cutts’s card also acknowledges that cataloguing itself requires creative nous. It is perhaps not surprising therefore to find the Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry the subject of Cutts’s critique in The Ruth & Marvin Sackner Collection of Tie & Dye (1992). This garish card—comprising purple and blue rubber stamp marks impressed on single-sided pink blotting paper card—lampoons the type of work frequently categorized as “concrete.” Recalling in his commentary the arguments concerning the “narrower” (or “pure”) and “wider” modes and conceptions of concrete poetry in the late 1960s, Cutts implies the need for more discriminate and nuanced ways of understanding and processing such a variegated body of work. Without the critical acumen to comprehend it, “visual poetry” (much like the artists book) is as trite as the psychedelic tie-die patterns that Cutts’s card parodies.

That Cutts’s sympathies are with the narrower remits of concrete poetry is borne out by the recurrence in The World Has Been Empty Since the Postcard of one of its most trenchant advocates, Ian Hamilton Finlay. Indeed, the title of Cutts’s pamphlet (and the 2005 postcard included in it) alludes to Finlay’s re-appropriation of French Revolutionary Louis Antoine de Saint-Just’s statement: “The world has been empty since the Romans.” Saint-Just continues: “But the memory of the Romans fills it. They go on prophesying liberty.” This card, what Cutts calls “a lament for the absence of the postcard in our daily lives,” has its corollary in a later card from 2013 which, like THE WORLD HAS / BEEN EMPTY SINCE / THE POSTCARD was published by David Bellingham’s WAX366 in bold letterpress capitals on thick card stock. THE WORLD / EXISTS / TO BE PUT / ON A POSTCARD adapts Mallarmé’s famous statement in his essay “Le Livre, instrument spiritual”: “que tout, au monde, existe pour aboutir à un livre” (“the world exists to end up in a book”). If, as Cutts suggests, the postcard marks and communicates what occurs in the world, then it is all the more empty without these modest records.

The domestic, an enduring keynote of Coracle’s modus operandi, is the subject of a postcard, published by Coracle 1993, which reproduces Robert Doisneau’s iconic photo of one of the key figures behind the underground press Le Editions de Minuit, Madame Yvonne Desvignes (the pseudonym of Yvonne Paraf). As Doisneau’s photo indicates, Desvigne’s Paris apartment became the hub of the clandestine press that the writers Jean Bruller and Pierre de Lescure founded in 1941 during the German occupation. Sitting in her kitchen next to a book press, Desvigne stitches together pages of the press’s first title, Bruller’s novel, La Silence de la Mer (1942) which—somewhat appositely considering Coracle’s own recourse to commercial letterpress printers—was handset by the printer Claude Oudeville whose main trade was greetings cards.

“The polemics of ‘underground’ and hand-distributed publishing are fully endorsed by this classic photograph,” Cutts explains. Doisneau’s photo was later used for the cover of Cutts’s book, co-published by Coracle and Granary Books in 2000, A Smell of Printing: Poems 1988-1998. Although the stakes have never been as perilously high as they were for the French Resistance publishers, Coracle has, nevertheless, observed much of what is suggested in Doisneau’s photo. Thus, as much as it is a “eulogy” for Desvignes, Cutts’s card is also an assertion of Coracle’s own in-house economies.

Indeed, Kay Roberts has recalled how, when Coracle operated from a former shop in South London, the upstairs kitchen was where the collating, sewing, folding, and numbering of publications took place, invariably against a background of music, conversation, and meals. That spirit of conviviality is extended in many of the postcards featured in The World Has Been Empty Since the Postcard, which acknowledge friends and allies including the poet and publisher Stuart Mills, the art collector and curator David Brown, and Fluxus artist Ben Vautier.

The World Has Been Empty Since the Postcard is perhaps ultimately a compelling polemic for the postcard itself. Cutts’s examples remind us that, in all senses of the word, the postcard is the most apposite of missives. It is a robust and adaptable format whose far-reaching effects belie its minimal means of production. As much as the ease and expediency of its distribution, the postcard’s resistance to simple categorization makes it adept at bypassing official channels and institutions as well as the categorizations they impose. Cutts’s cards confound such reductive pigeonholing by encompassing, often in a single card, poem, aphorism, and graphic art. Above all, however, it is postcard’s ephemerality that Cutts’s examples convey most incisively and affectionately: the record of a specific context, observation, or occasion otherwise all too easily missed.

Click here to purchase this book
at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2020 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2020

Fictions within Fictions:
An Interview with Will Heinrich

by Will Corwin

Will Heinrich spent his early years in Japan, though he was born and grew up in New York City. He attended Columbia University and his first novel, The King’s Evil (Scribner, 2003), received a PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize in 2004, co-winning alongside Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated. Since then he received an MFA from Bard College and has written about art for The New York Observer, The New Yorker, Hyperallergic, and The New York Times. As the son of a sculptor and now the husband of an artist, Heinrich has always been closely connected to the art world, and his latest novel, The Pearls (Elective Affinity, $25), is a whirling, breathless look at New York in the years just after World War I and the lives of artists, art dealers, and small-time gangsters.

Will Corwin: Let’s talk about writing on art. Your first novel, The King’s Evil, begins at a Mondrian retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In your second book, The Pearls, an artist and art dealer are pivotal characters in the plot. And of course, you yourself write critically about art for various publications.

Will Heinrich: When I began to write about art, it seemed like a way to be in a newspaper that didn’t involve having to talk to other human beings and be responsible for ambiguous facts. When I was young I felt “there’s a painting in a room, I go and look at the painting; the most basic facts about that painting and that room are going to be indisputable and I’m not going to fuck them up.” My father is a sculptor and I grew up in his loft in TriBeCa, and he is a fan of Mondrian. The Mondrian retrospective at MoMA in 1995 made a big impression on me as well; I respected Mondrian, but I didn’t have any particular feelings about his work. Then, seeing the narrative evolution of his work from figuration to abstraction when I was seventeen overwhelmed me—it made a very powerful impression and it transformed my reaction to the abstract work. Suddenly it was filled with emotion and spirit and all kinds of things that I hadn’t found there before.

The art in The Pearls is more organic or natural, while I think its appearance in The King’s Evil is more circumstantial. By the time I wrote The Pearls, I had gone to the Bard interdisciplinary MFA program, and I spent a lot of time listening to painters talk, and talking to painters, and I had done a lot more art writing by that point—there was a real relationship to painting more than any other art, and it seeped down into my writing. The idea of painting in literature, it’s a very plastic, capacious symbol that you can do a lot of things with and use in a lot of ways.

WC: In The Pearls, two of the main characters are involved in the art world, Uncle Jacob and Marion (Miriam): are they caricatures or amalgams of historical figures? Jacob comes across as the classic “genius” artist, while Marian is a classic depiction of an American blue-blood art dealer. Marian I saw as a Peggy Guggenheim type. Uncle Jake has bits of Pollock, Guston . . . he’s a lot of people. It’s funny because he’s positioned as a kind of a turn-of-the-century artist, but he’s more of an Abstract Expressionist eccentric drunk.

WH: That gets to a question about the time setting. I really never thought of The Pearls as a historical novel. I said to people when I was writing it, if it came up in conversation, that it was like a comic opera version of the 1920s, or a contemporary novel playing dress-up. Mostly I wanted to set the book in New York’s own fantasy of itself; it’s more about our collective and outdated idea of the glamorous big city than it is about the 1920s, though I was very inspired by Jelly Roll Morton’s “The Murder Ballad,” which comes up in the first scene. All of which is to say: I think Jake is a turn-of-the-century artist because that’s when I ended up setting the book—you’re right he maybe is more of a mid-century figure. I tend to start with fairly abstract ideas and then fill them in, in an intuitive kind of way. He was a crazy uncle before he was a painter; I don’t want to say that he is based on anyone in my family, although his name is actually a slightly altered version of my great-uncle’s name—possibly in sensitivity to my mother’s discomfort, I truncated it. And then he became a painter. I think, “Well, Henry’s crazy uncle can be a stalking horse for me to write about my difficult relationship with my brother,” or something like that, and then work backwards to what his character would have to be.

WC: Is Jacob’s art, which you go out of your way to create and describe, based on anyone in particular?

WH: In imagining his painting I started with Beckmann, I guess, or that type of expressionism. It’s like German Expressionism translated into a knock-knock joke. I wanted it to be funny, if you’re not seeing the painting. I tend to like writing about figurative painting more than anything else, because I can treat it in a narrative way—I don’t know if painters appreciate that or not. To have his painting work in the book, for it to survive as a one-sentence anecdote, the idea has to be a little bit different than a real painting.

WC: There are two main sources for a lot of the names of the characters and figures referred to in the book: on the one hand you use the family of Moses (Aaron and Miriam, Moses’ brother and sister), and on the other hand you frequently mention the Greek gods. What is the strategy behind these two streams of reference? You mention all the Greek gods, I think, except maybe Hephaestus.

WH: I think Hephaestus would be a perfect avatar for Uncle Jake. Maybe I can get it into the next book. I think the book is fundamentally about what it is to be a Jewish American and about the perils and possibilities of assimilation. I think my own personal feelings of alienation don’t necessarily need to have that much to do with being Jewish, but I think it was always convenient and appealing to identify and attach them to being Jewish to a large extent. And I don’t think they’re unrelated—that’s not not an ingredient.

WC: You also have the great line, “the chip on my shoulder recognized the chip on her shoulder.”

WH: That is me and my wife. It all comes from reality, and I see it too in my parents, who have been married for over fifty years now. I think the contest between the Greek mythology and the Jewish mythology gets at a lot of contests; it gets at the contest between worldly life and spiritual reality, but also the contest between being an American and being a Jew, which I think are ultimately mutually exclusive.

WC: So are you positioning the Greek gods as symbols of capitalism?

WH: No, they’re symbols of Goyishness, or of secular culture. When I say opposing the spiritual and the material, I’m not thinking about capitalism specifically, I mean it in an old fashioned, Gnostic kind of way. When I was twelve years old, all the boys in my class got a copy of D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths, and we all memorized it. I remember making a chart on my mother’s early computer of the family tree of the Greek Gods and putting it up by my bed. I didn’t put up a chart of the generations of Adam or anything—although I was interested in that too! In the end it gets to a fundamental question for me of what identity is, where you draw your identity from, because I’m an American, I’m a New Yorker, and I’ve lived here my entire life, more than forty years. My language is American, my references are American, everything is American, but in some fundamental respect I feel this table is not for me. “Fuck your table, anyway”—that’s the line in the book with which I personally most identify, which tapped into myself most deeply, in the chapter “Color of the Sky,” when Henry is being introduced to the Hammer Building. That’s the contest. Whereas the Moses references, for good or ill, that’s the table I’m at.

WC: What is the difference in family relationships between The King’s Evil and The Pearls? Does it have anything to do with personal changes in your life? In The King’s Evil the characters are very distant from each other…

WH: I hadn’t been in therapy yet.

WC: Oh, I meant having a child—I wasn’t trying to pick apart your psyche!

WH: I finished writing The Pearls before I had a child, actually.

WC: Oh, ok. Well, the main character in The King’s Evil can’t really relate to other people, and the one person he relates to, the runaway Abel, in turn becomes a symbol of his inability to relate. The Pearls, on the other hand, is about family: Everybody is related to somebody, and all the characters seem to have families that interfere with everyone else’s families. So what was the transition between the two books?

WH: I wasn’t kidding, I did do a number of years of psychotherapy between the two books. One thing you get out of therapy is you more or less come to an acceptance that you can’t wish your family away. They do exist, however grand a solitary fantasy kingdom you conceal yourself within; those people are still there. And then it’s partially about being older, less turned on by really severe abstract ideas in art and a little more interested in a richer texture of particulars.

WC: You dance around the first-person voice in a variety of ways; you write a lot of letters…

WH: What’s interesting about that is I couldn’t summon Henry’s voice unless it was a letter. I couldn’t even postulate that it would be a letter; I had to physically write, “Dear Aaron,” or “Dear Dot,” at the top of the page to access that voice.

I think as a writer, as an artist, I work intuitively; it’s all kind of playing pretend. You can’t just do it to order, you have to find the trick that convinces your capricious unconscious mind to play the game with you, I guess.

Somewhere in my mind is Henry, and Henry was talking to Dot, he wasn’t talking to me. I found it striking and a little frustrating and confounding.

WC: And what’s next?
WH: I'm at work on what you could very loosely call a sequel, which I’m calling The Boxers—it takes place six or seven years after The Pearls. Henry’s in it but it focuses more on Dot and their friend Anthony, who appears at the very end of The Pearls. I’d say very generally that if The Pearls is kind of about painting, The Boxers is about writing. It has stories within stories in a different mode than The Pearls: fictions within fictions.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2020 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2020

Pain Studies

Lisa Olstein
Bellevue Literary Press ($16.99)

by John Wall Barger

I once sprained my ankle by jumping (inanely) to touch a street sign, landing sideways. My ankle turned purple, swelling up grotesquely. I could hardly sleep for a week. Then I healed and things went back to normal. In my life, fortunately, pain has been rare. I have friends with chronic back pain, arthritis, tension headaches. How could I begin to understand their experience? Qualia, in philosophy, refers to the internal and subjective part of sense perceptions. Chris Eliasmith defines qualia as “The ‘what it is like’ character of mental states. The way it feels to have mental states such as pain, seeing red, smelling a rose, etc.” While some philosophers agree that qualia exist, they can’t agree on which mental states have qualia, or even what qualia are. Pain perception—like all sense perception—is private by nature. The way my ankle felt is my own experience; there’s no way to prove that my experience of pain is the same as yours.

Such were my thoughts while opening poet Lisa Olstein’s non-fiction book, Pain Studies, in which she describes coping with a mind-boggling nine-and-a-half years of migraines. In the spirit of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts and Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, Olstein often detours away from her poetry “lane”: exuberantly shifting from Emily Dickinson to Bruce Springsteen; Antiphon to Donald Judd; The Passion of Joan of Arc to House M.D. I gradually began to think of Pain Studies as a kind of travel literature, a Gulliver’s Travels-like guidebook for those visiting the land of pain (or, more specifically, Olstein’s private pain island)—with the goal, perhaps, of exposing us tourists to the landmarks and key phrases of this land, so we might learn to be more sympathetic to the citizens who live there full time.

In her attempts to comprehend and find relief for her migraines, Olstein has tried everything from modern medicine to alternative remedies like Botox, acupuncture, beta-blockers, homeopathy, and Chinese herbs. She’s puzzled through the labyrinthine data on migraines, resulting in more questions than answers, and a good deal of frustration. Olstein is suspicious of simple categories and binary thinking. She rejects Oliver Sacks’s 1970 book Migraine for its easy answers, but loves its appendixes and case histories, especially the first-hand accounts of migraineurs. Most notably, Olstein finds a kindred spirit in the twelfth-century French nun Hildegard of Bingen, a well-known mystic. Migraine contains drawings of Hildegard’s visions—”a shower of brilliant stars”; “figures radiating from a central point . . . brilliantly luminous and coloured”—and Olstein relishes such qualia-epiphanies: the way Hildegard’s migraines remind her of Donald Judd’s “100 Aluminum Boxes,” which she spent time with in Marfa, Texas.

Throughout Pain Studies, Olstein struggles with the irony of articulating the ineffable: “we’re notoriously bad,” she says, “at talking about [pain], even literally, as in, do you have it, how much, where, what kind?” Pain is pre-verbal, reducing us to muttering primates. So Olstein describes pain figuratively, like we do to describe light (à la Hildegard), art (à la Donald Judd), or God (à la Joan of Arc). She rejects the standard pain scales, which simplistically assign pain a number from one to ten: “they weren’t,” says Olstein, “written by the right people—the people in pain.” She prefers to think of pain in non-linear ways, such as the Beaufort Wind Scale, which describes the ocean on a clear day (“Sea surface smooth and mirror-like”), as a storm drifts in (“Sea heaps up, white foam streaks off breakers”), and when it reaches a full squall (“Air filled with foam, sea completely white with driving spray, visibility greatly reduced”).

As much as Olstein would like her pain to disappear, she’s aware that years of migraines have helped create who she is today. “In any given moment,” she says, “my relationship to language may be actively metabolizing migraine, and when migraine isn’t currently present, that relationship is still shaped, like anyone’s, by my accumulated experience—its form as much as its content.” She cites an episode of House M.D.: House decides to take Vicodin over Methadone because the latter, though it can make his pain manageable, dulls his doctoring skills: “without the irritation of his pain, that toil, without its friction, its urgency, something—it’s hard to say exactly what—he isn’t himself. His genius is linked to his pain, and without it, his genius diminishes.”

Olstein never tells us what pain is, only what it is like to live her life through its lens. The sum total of who she is has been formed by this thoughtless force, which she likens, in its enormity and mindlessness, to a glacier. It’s too easy to call the migraine negative. The migraine is life itself, interwoven with every aspect of her existence. “The difference,” Olstein says, “between recalling the flu and having it . . . is like the difference between hearing a description of waves and drowning.” So Pain Studies, voyaging to the land of pain, allows us tourists to smell the salt spray and see the brilliant stars, from the safe distance of our seats.

Click here to purchase this book
at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2020 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2020

Death in Her Hands

Ottessa Moshfegh
Penguin Press ($27)

by Erin Lewenauer

Once again masterfully setting the innocuous and the poisonous side by side, Ottessa Moshfegh offers a slow burn thriller with her fourth book, Death in Her Hands. Seventy-two-year-old Vesta Gul is walking in the woods near her new home with her beloved dog Charlie when she encounters a note, pinned to the forest floor by black rocks, which states, “Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.” “But there was no body. No bloodstain,” Vesta observes; “No tangle of hair caught on the coarse fallen branches, no red wool scarf damp with morning dew festooned across the bushes. There was just the note on the ground, rustling at my feet in the soft May wind.” When the darkest place is inside your mind, the scariest sound the beating of your own heart, the most threatening vision in the mirror, you know you are in a Moshfegh story.

Initially, Vesta is shocked by this development in her quiet life—then amused, then fixated. Recently widowed, Vesta packed up her stuffed house in Monolith with relief less than one year ago and moved thousands of miles east to a rustic cabin in the town of Levant, which she views as “blue collar and dull.” “I felt I needed to hide a little. My mind needed a smaller world to roam,” she says. Before the note, Vesta’s solitary days followed a similar pattern: “Each day I wrote out what I’d do, and each day I usually abandoned my plan halfway through. Walk. Breakfast. Garden. Lunch. Boat. Hammock. Wine. Puzzle. Bath. Dinner. Read. Bed.” Now, she feels the pull of purpose. She revels in her mysterious nightmares of who Magda and her murderer might be. “It would take a wise mind to do Magda’s story real justice. Death was hard to look at, after all,” Vesta admits.

After musing on the possibilities, Vesta moves on to Google searches at the local library and worries what will happen if she is caught by the police for not reporting the evidence. She argues frequently in her head with her late husband, Walter, who was logical to a fault and could be stifling. “But one needed to consider all possibilities. I felt very smart indeed. You see, Vesta, I told myself. In just two seconds flat you eliminated a suspect: the man who works in the back room at the library. And you didn’t even have to question him. You can solve the mystery with little more than your own mind.”

Readers will fret as Vesta embraces paranoia and wobbles along the edges of sanity. She is aware that her imagination is running with this, but is willing to be submerged, to drown in her obsession: “Suspicion invites danger, doesn’t it? Keep the imagination soft and happy, and only good things will come. If there was somebody lurking out there in the woods, it was only Magda. And she was dead.” In a way it is comforting to Vesta, seeing the scars of her past before her and messages bubbling up from every corner, even The Collected Works of William Blake—and she attempts control by whittling her life down further and further.

Eerie, elaborate, absurd, and profound, Moshfegh’s novel about a dangerously porous woman will plunge you into dark humor and intrigue. Readers will never tire of her portraits of haunted interior lives, detailed with the most fragile brush strokes.

Click here to purchase this book
at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2020 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2020