Tag Archives: Fall 2020

Mercy: A Memoir of Medical Trauma
and True Crime Obsession

Marcia Trahan
Barrelhouse Books ($18)

by Mary Mullen

Marcia Trahan’s debut memoir, Mercy: A Memoir of Medical Trauma and True Crime Obsession, opens with the familiar narrative of a woman battling depression and a host of health problems escaping into true crime television drama. She is not simply watching, however—she is quick to let the reader know that what started as an interest quickly became an obsession. Her fascination with the subject is explored in the same analytical and neurotic ways many may have used to explore their own concerning behaviors—with investigative digging and a generous helping of self-loathing. Thankfully, Trahan also has a self-deprecating sense of humor. As she so genuinely confesses, “I thought I was a freak.” But her revelations about her own behavior quickly raised new inquiries into not only her own habits, but those of so many other women—the primary consumers of these true crime love-and-murder horror shows. She isn’t a freak; she’s following a popular pattern—but why? Trahan isn’t just exploring our television viewing habits, but the sensational ways women are depicted, and how the audience, women especially, consume those stories.

In this short memoir, Trahan has captured the slow and steady reveal well. She lets us in on a difficult childhood early in the narrative—not one, but two alcoholic parents, neither of whom ever seemed to apologize for how they lived their lives. The last baby of a big family, home alone with her parents, she brings to light her scars slowly, weaving them in and out of the health issues she navigates as an adult. Trahan also integrates the stories of serial killers and true crime dramas that she watches and the research holes she dives down to learn more. She doesn’t just study the true crimes themselves, but why it is we choose to consume them so compulsively. While her medical drama unfolds in a linear narrative, the rest of the book abandons chronology. The movement of the stories from her childhood, her relationship with her mother, and the love story of her and her partner all come out organically, in pieces, the narrative more concerned with how she is viewing her past in light of her traumas than with what happened next.

What Trahan does in this woven narrative is not what we expect from a patient, retrospective narrator. The conventional wisdom that we need our memoir’s protagonist to be likeable—especially if she is a woman—is abandoned. Trahan, instead, freaks out, and in doing so accomplishes what a memoirist really needs to: She is hopelessly honest on the page. She does it first when judging the poor choices of true crime victims on TV: “Part of the wicked fun of watching true crime is that women’s lives are laid bare, allowing female viewers to pick apart the intimate details, and to predict the trouble that’s coming.” We all know these stories are based on real life—but Trahan shows how we often consume them with a little too much pleasure and judgment.

Trahan is hard on herself, but she writes a flowing story of a woman who, unlike those she sees on TV, is unpredictable. She brings insight and vulnerability to hard moments as she realizes how her obsession with true crime manifested. In one passage, after she overreacts to her husband trying to help her cut her hair, she admits, “I felt small and ridiculous and damaged.” These tough assessments become a signature of our ruthless narrator. She doesn’t have a lot of sympathy for herself, even when she is drowning in her sorrows, and she doesn’t seem to be looking for sympathy from the reader either. Instead she is trying to figure out why she’s doing what she’s been doing, and how she can get to the other side of it.

The careful pacing of Mercy allows the reader to watch Trahan find the connections between where she came from, what she went through, and where she ended up—marooned on an island where other people’s horrors are her main escape. Her relentless self-exploration and doses of gallows humor make the pages of the book turn. Reading about this larger-than-life cultural obsession and Trahan’s experience will have readers pondering the reasons we consume true crime stories with such intense fascination.

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

Sky-Quake: Tremor of Heaven

Vicente Huidobro
Translated by Ignacio Infante and Michael Leong
Co-im-press ($19.95)

by John Bradley

The translators have given this long prose poem a double title: Sky-Quake: Tremor of Heaven. This duality befits a book that Vicente Huidobro (1893-1948) published in both Spanish, Temblor de Cielo (1931), and French, Tremblement de Ciel (1932). Huidobro’s poetic of “Behead the monster that roars at the doorsteps of dreams. And then let no one forbid anything” applies to his doctrine of creacionismo, where “the poet is a god” and also to this particular work, which evokes the tragic love story of Tristan and Isolde.

Sky-Quake is broken into seven sections, yet even with these welcome breaks, the dense, wildly surreal prose makes for slow reading. Surrealist texts tend to work best in shorter forms, because once traditional narrative devices are discarded, longer surreal prose becomes hard to sustain—for writer and reader. One narrative device that Huidobro does employ in this volume is a constant address to Isolde: “Isolde, Isolde, how many miles separate us, how many sexes between you and me.” Despite the length (35 pages), Huidobro’s linguistic ingenuity never flags. The pyrotechnical language remains explosive throughout, no small feat. His inventiveness flares with passages like “The street of dreams has an immense navel from which the neck of a bottle peeps. Inside, there’s a dead bishop who changes color every time you shake the bottle.”

Huidobro’s Tristan is a cosmic entity, more mythic than mortal, who discloses such feats as “my throat once swallowed all the thunder in the sky.” He is obsessed with Isolde, whose characterization is problematic, as she’s completely passive. She’s a muse for the speaker, one that possesses no agency. In a passage that might allude to Lautreamont’s Maldoror image of a chance meeting of an umbrella and a sewing machine on a dissecting table, Huidobro writes: “Then I bent over you as if over a dissecting table, and, sinking my lips into you, looked at you; your womb resembled an open wound and your eyes the end of the world.” No doubt Huidobro wants to shock the reader, but this does not change the fact that his Isolde exists only as a sexual fantasy: “Share your breasts to kiss.”

If the reader can set this sexism aside, the book offers ample linguistic feats of imagination, on a par with the best work of Andre Breton and Federico Garcia Lorca. Huidobro’s imagery can astound, in lines like this: “Hypnotized zebras go galloping by and there are windows that open in the darkness like parasites glued to the night.” Much like Pablo de Rokha, a fellow Chilean surrealist poet, Huidobro infuses his poetry with his massive ego: “My heart is too large for all of you. You have measured your mountains: you know that Mount Gaurishankar is 8,800 meters high, but you don’t know nor will you ever know the height of my heart.”

Much neglected by English readers due to a lack of translation for decades, Huidobro seems to be enjoying something of a renaissance. Another version of this book was published last year by Shearsman Books, translated by Tony Frazer and this year Shearsman released Paris 1925: Ordinary Autumn & All of a Sudden, two works composed by Huidobro in Paris in 1925. Sky-Quake: Tremor of Heaven, with its trilingual format of English, Spanish, and French, and this wonderfully lucid translation by Infante and Leong, further establishes Vicente Huidobro as one of the most exciting voices of the early twentieth century. What other poet would dare to try to follow advice like this, given by an Aymara poet to Huidobro: “The poet is a god. Don’t sing about rain, poet. Make it rain.”

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

Son of Paper Son:
an interview with Koon Woon

Interviewed by David Fewster

Born in China in 1949, Koon Woon emigrated to the U.S. in 1960 to join his family, who owned or managed a series of restaurants in the coastal towns of Washington and San Francisco. In his twenties, Woon was diagnosed with severe bipolar disorder/paranoid schizophrenia and spent time in hospitals and institutions; in that same decade, he started writing under the tutelage of legendary professor Nelson Bentley at the University of Washington. In 1998, his book The Truth in Rented Rooms (Kaya Press), primarily set in the milieu of welfare hotels and subsidized housing in Seattle’s International District, garnered praise from Lawrence Ferlinghetti (“These poems set a thousand horses galloping in the Asian diaspora in which so many are caught.”), Sam Hamill (“natural, timeless, yet inevitable as a moonrise over the mountains”), and Bob Holman (“Li Po in modern drag, the voice of New America . . . Koon Woon has written THE TRUTH!”). And further accolades followed: Koon Woon won the American Book Award in 2014 for Water Chasing Water (Kaya Press), a collection spanning four decades of his poetry, and in 2017 he was featured on PBS NewsHour reading his poem “The High Walls I Cannot Scale (with apologies to Tu Fu)”; the segment has received over 1200 views on YouTube.

Generous in his support of other writers, Woon founded Goldfish Press in 2006; he also hosts the online journal Five Willows Literary Review and Chrysanthemum, his long-running, sporadically-produced journal, released the Chrysanthemum 2020 Literary Anthology last spring, featuring new work from writers in the Pacific Northwest and around the globe. His latest book is Rice Bowls: Previously Uncollected Words of Koon Woon.

David Fewster: Often in poems and conversation, you refer to yourself as a “paper-son poet.” What does that mean?

Koon Woon: My village was named Nan On, or South peace. Everyone in my village is named Lock. There are two other villages of the Lock clan adjacent to us. We are in the district of Sui Po in Toishan County, Kwangtung Province, on the Southern coast of China. Back in the latter part of the 1800s, there was a great famine in Toishan. Most of the men immigrated to America as “indentured servants.” My great-grandfather came to Hoquiam, Washington, where he operated a laundry and had shares in a restaurant. He was called Lock Lick, meaning he was a Lock and he had great strength. His English ability was quite good and so the mayor of Hoquiam went with him to the Lock villages to conscript 500 men to come over to build rails to logging areas. Old rail tracks can still be found in the woods in places like Humptulips, Washington. One of these men that my great-grandfather brought over was none other than the grandfather of our former governor Gary Locke (his family had anglicized their name.) Well, then, why is my name Woon?

Because of US immigration policy for much of Chinese American history, Chinese women were not allowed to come with their men. So Chinese immigrants went back to China for conjugal visits. Every time they’d go back to China, they’d report that they sired a son. And there would be a paper “documenting” that claim. My grandfather, however, never reported he had a son in China, his son being my father. And so when my father immigrated to the US, he purchased a “paper son” immigration paper from the Woon family and came over to the US as a Woon. My father thus assumed a false identity, and thus I am known as Koon Woon, when most Chinese people know I am a Lock.

When my father immigrated to America he joined his sister, my aunt Lock Gim Gee, in San Francisco. He worked in the Oakland Shipyards as a torch cutter on naval ships. He also went to night school to learn English. He was making good money, like many people in World War II. But wastrels enticed him to gamble. He would have a lunch all made up in his lunch box on the way to work and these gamblers would ask him to go gambling. He would lose all his money. He later told me that he had even slept on the streets. Finally, an older Chinese man asked him to go to Hollywood with him and work as a waiter. “I made enough money in wages and tips in one year that I was able to go back to China and see your mother,” he later told me. Apparently for several years he had sent no money to my mother. He must have gone back in 1948 for I was conceived and born February 2, 1949. My mother came to America when I was two, leaving me to the care of my maternal grandmother and an adopted sister who is nine years older than I am.

DF: So, you were obviously in China long enough to have memories of growing up there.

KW: I “killed” my grandmother in my mind almost two decades before she died. I caught the jet alone to leave China for America at age eleven. I had to leave her in China. I was her “little man” and I caught fish for her, watered her gardens, and got up at 3AM to help her make pastries for the holidays. She was the source of news about my father. I don’t remember her talking about my mother then. I could have suppressed all those memories. And what I remember is selective and that is not the work of solely the conscious mind either.

I would be watching the older boys fishing off the pier into the village pond. I don’t know how I was so clumsy, but three times I fell in and drank a belly full of water before an older boy lifted me out. It was all the more mysterious because the water was not over my head. Someone would send for my grandmother. That’s when she would trot the fastest she could in her bound feet. Later she would burn incense to invoke the gods to protect me, but the gods must be hard of hearing, because it happened three times. I asked my psychiatrist if I was trying to commit suicide. Now, with my life nearing the end, I surmise it was some kind of attempt to seek help. I was grieving!

DF: What were the early years like in America?

KW: One day in the early afternoon in Mr. Fare’s 7th grade English class at Hopkin’s Junior High in Aberdeen, I got called on the intercom to go to the Principal’s office. I was a little nervous walking down the hallway. I was only fourteen at this time and I had been in the U.S. less than three years from China. But when I got to the office, the only thing waiting for me was the phone. The Principal said that my father was on the phone.

My father said, “Here’s what I want you to do. Right after school, you go home and take bus to Montesano to help me at the restaurant.”

At that time in 1962, we were sardined in the housing project in the West End of Aberdeen, WA. There were ten of us living in a three-bedroom duplex, Our only source of income was my father’s employment as a cook. He had been working at the Smoke Shop restaurant owned by the mayor of Aberdeen as a breakfast cook when all of a sudden Sally offered him a job at the China Doll in Montesano, some ten miles east of Aberdeen.

At the backroom of the China Doll, as soon as I dished myself a plate of rice, my father criticized me for not eating enough. “It is going to be a long night,” he said, “you are going to need to work hard.” I was never robust as a child though. Malnutrition in China in my boyhood made me thin and weak and a bit bowlegged, with spine curvature from the lack of calcium. As soon as I finished eating, my father asked me to peel a big pot of boiled potatoes and make a huge mound of hash browns. The menu had steaks and chops beside chop suey and egg foo young.

The side work in a restaurant is endless. This was in the late afternoon, about four o’clock. My father had tons of things to do. He had to make sweet and sour spare ribs, fried rice, egg foo young, while I had to make batter for the deep-frying. He fortified himself with coffee and cigarettes. Those days there were no egg roll wrappers and you actually had to make your own wrappers out of eggs and flour in the wok and it was very delicate work. My father was able to do it since he had worked in large, fancy restaurants in San Francisco before he moved to Aberdeen. He moved to Aberdeen because he was planning a family, after my mother immigrated to America in 1951.


We multitask—chop, grill, wok, and pickle.
They are fickle, can come at all hours, drunk,
after sex, before meetings; hucksters, gangsters,
no telling who wants what stir-fried,
steam rock cod with its head and bulbous eyes

My father at the meat block hacks spareribs, carves bone from chicken,
minces onions. Six sons chow the mein, French-fry the sausage,
whip the gravy, beat the eggs until you can fool
the young into thinking it’s sperm yanked from a calf.
Smoke signals say the pork chops are burnt, the white sauce
turning yellow, while waitresses ladle
soup. Sounds like feeding time at the zoo.
Chopsticks tingle from a corner booth,

On and on motors start and stop, doors open and shut,
Ice water is set down as menus are tossed. You need a minute?
Mom is helping the girls wash glasses and tea pots.
It would be sinful to run out of hot mustard during the rush.
My father drinks my coffee and I smoke his Marlboro,
two cowboys in a cattle drive fending off rustlers, and
damn! The waitress says that the women’s toilet has overflowed!

We’re going to go fishing as soon as our mental breakdowns are over with.
We’re going to take a smoke break from the nuclear command.
Just then, a party of 12 comes in—well, put two tables together,
like a man joining a woman, the yin and the yang, or kids with yo-yo’s.
We are a family doing family business, money for school books,
Mom’s dentures.

DF: What were some of your early literary enthusiasms?

KW: The first book that made me cry, I remember, was Charles Dickens’s “Oliver Twist.” But I did not feel I had any sensitivity to literature. I was more interested in reading philosophy. I read Nietzsche, Locke, Marx, Schopenhauer, Wittgenstein, John Wisdom (who was my philosophy teacher at the University of Oregon) and a host of analytic philosophers.

Although I was appointed literary chairman in my senior year at Aberdeen high school, my father did not allow me to stay after school to participate. All my teenage years were just school, work, and reading whenever I could get it in. I would also read books of a practical nature. I read books on buying and selling stocks, economic history, and even Mao Tse Tung’s books on literature and contradictions. My mind was bombarded with both Eastern and Western ideas; I read the Tao Te Ching and Freud in one breath.

When I arrived in Seattle, when I was 19, I hung around The Last Exit on Brooklyn, a coffeehouse in the University District made famous (or infamous) by these misfits of society as well as some of its geniuses. Neighbors from Aberdeen showed me the place and I fancied myself an intellectual-to-be. We were introduced to hashish and Hermann Hesse. Ya, the Bead Game! The chess champs of Washington State played chess there, including John Braille, who never wore socks or shoes, not even in winter, but he had a car and so it was not like he was imitating Jesus or anything. I wanted to be a chess bum and a street musician and wanted to get out!

DF: Around what time did you begin to study poetry seriously?

KW: About 1982, when I lived at the Republic Hotel in Seattle’s Chinatown. I lived in #317. I was being ridiculed and bullied in the U-District and I could ill-afford to eat when my room on 16th NE was $170 a month while my SSI was only $300 a month. I called my mother when I would have paranoia and she would yank the phone from its jack. She finally told her younger brother Chay to find a room for me where he lived, and that was it. The room was a tenement but it had one redeeming value—it had a small table that I can place a typewriter on. The rent was $60 a month.

Allen Hikada, my former teacher at Seattle Central Community College, told me that maybe I should take a workshop from Nelson Bentley at the UW. Hikada had done a Master’s Thesis under Bentley’s supervision. I went to Padelford Hall on the UW campus where the English Department was but N. B. was never in his office. I got impatient and I called his home.

“Have you done much of this poetry stuff?” he asked.

“Yes, even including some that you rejected,” I fibbed. And so he let me come to the evening workshop, which unofficially was open to anyone who was a current or a former student of the UW. I was not even in English. That tells you his generosity and kindness. I felt so grateful I would come a half an hour early and help him arrange the chairs in two concentric circles for his class.

Nelson Bentley was aware and encouraged people with mental or emotional problems to work them out through poetry. It was a workshop and not a class and therefore we came with poems already written. He defended the poet against criticism by the class and that made him a friend of everyone! He was affectionately known as “Nelson” by his students but I always called him Professor Bentley, which is a Chinese reverence for teachers.

Robert R. Ward, a student in Bentley’s class, and some others began a tabloid called the Bellowing Ark and that was where “Goldfish” was published, which led to a small literary prize at Bumbershoot and got me on the literary stage.


The goldfish in my bowl
turns into a carp each night.
Swimming in circles in the day,
regal, admired by emperors,
but each night, while I sleep,
it turns into silver, a dagger
cold and sharp, couched at one spot,
enough to frighten cats.

The rest of the furniture
squats in the cold and dark,
complains of being a lone man’s
furnishings, and plots a revolt.
I can hear myself snore, but not
their infidelity. Sometimes I wake
with a start, silently they move back
into their places.

I have been unpopular with myself,
pacing in my small, square room,
but my uncle said, “Even in a palace,
you can but sleep in one room.”
With this, I become humble as a simple
preacher, saying “I have no powers;
they emanate from God.”
With this I sleep soundly,

Fish or no fish, dagger or no dagger.
When I wake, my fish is gold,
it pleases me with a trail of bubbles.
My furniture has been loyal all night,
waiting to provide me comfort.
There was no conspiracy against a poor man.
With this I consider myself king.

DF: So, you named your press after your poem?

KW: Goldfish Press began in 2006 after I inherited money from my mother and I thought I would try my hand as editor/publisher. We published Jack and Adele Foley, Joe Musso, and Joel Kabakov, whose book Available Light was favorably reviewed by Harvard.

DF: There’s been a flurry of Goldfish Press activity lately. Last year you published HOIL: An Unfinished Elegy by the Bay Area Surrealist Ivan Arguelles (who is the 2013 American Book Award Lifetime Achievement recipient.) It was inspired by the poet’s son, who died in 2018 after suffering four decades from encephalitis. How did the book come your way?

KW: I believe Ivan just submitted to Goldfish Press on the recommendation of Jack Foley. HOIL is a heartbreaking story and a story of devotion.

DF: And just out is the 220-page Chrysanthemum 2020 Literary Anthology. You had mentioned Chrysanthemum a while back—exactly when did you start doing it?

KW: I started Chrysanthemum as a tabloid in 1990; then it morphed into a chapbook and we published two anthologies in 2006 and 2020.

DF: Wow, that’s 30 years. But let’s go back to the publication of your first book—how did that come about?

KW: One day in August 1996, yes, it was the fifth of August, I received a long distance call from Wisconsin and the inquirer asked me, “Are you the editor of Chrysanthemum?”

I said yes, and though I was not publishing my small zine at the time, I said I was willing to look at her work. And so she sent me a short story. Upon receiving it in a hypomanic mood, I wrote back, “This story is so horrible, please don’t send me any more work for five years.”

Instead of getting angry, Betty thought it was honest and hilarious. And so she called me frequently, even as I tried to block her calls. Finally I acquiesced and talked with her and found out she was a retired librarian. She then asked me whether I wrote poetry. I told her I did. She asked me to send a batch of them to her to look at. I sent twenty poems.

This started the avalanche. She immediately acted as my “agent” in sending my work to publishers. The first place we sent the poems to was the University of Hawaii and they wrote back immediately that they do not publish original poems but only translations from Asia. Betty then sent the poems to Kaya Press, which was in New York at the time. Julie Koo and Sunyoung Lee were the managing editor and literary editor at the time. They wrote back that they would seriously consider it. Two months later, they accepted my book.

Perhaps the human element of this book’s reach is worth more than any of the craft of the poems themselves.

The long and short of it is that the birth of The Truth in Rented Rooms, which received unexpected acceptance, led to my second book with Kaya, Water Chasing Water. This gave me the confidence I needed to return to school to finish my BA degree at Antioch University Seattle and my master’s in literary arts from Fort Hays State University.

Click here to purchase The Truth in Rented Rooms
at your local independent bookstore
Click here to purchase Water Chasing Water
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Click here to purchase Payment in Memories
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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2020 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2020

Entering the Blobosphere:
A Musing on Blobs

Laura Hyunjhee Kim
Civil Coping Mechanisms ($15.95)

by Joseph Houlihan

The tradition of constraint in literature hinges on the proposition that a clever idea makes all the difference in the world. The Blobosphere is the defining concept for Laura Hyunjhee Kim’s phenomenal meditation Entering the Blobosphere: A Musing on Blobs. If the Blob still evokes for you images of a forty-year-old Steve McQueen in a varsity jacket romancing a girl in the technicolor 1950s, that’s okay. Kim gets you up to speed quickly:

A blob is a translucent black box
A blob is a contextual shapeshifter
A blob is neither this nor that but points as is
A blob is a cross-stitch of meaningful answers and questions
A blob is a chaotic collection of curiosities
A blob is phenomenological display
A blob is a strategic compass
A blob is a transitional state of being

What makes this writing feel so important and audacious is that it describes a metaphor around epistemology today, and it enacts that metaphor within the text. Usefully, Kim describes the origins of the project: “From mining the word ‘blob’ in online forums to compiling a list of digital artworks that focus on hyper-visceral ‘blob’-like gestural forms of expression, I started categorizing my findings based on the resemblance of what I thought a ‘blob’ is and should be.” And the results are funny, as well as very smart. There is the Blobosphere:

Catalyzed by a collective desire for materialization, a seedling blob rhizomatically blossoms into a complicated blobject of discussion and its deep roots penetrate back into the (non) human life cycle.

And the Blobogenesis:

It took billions more years for inanimate blobized atoms and molecules to form living micro-blobs on earth and still more millions for pre-biotic-blobs to evolve and self-replicate into beautifully diverse and sophisticated blobs.

And eventually an argument about affect, through this mashup:

Skin has become inadequate in interfacing with reality.
A blob has become the body’s new membrane of existence.

—N.J. Paik

So if you’re concerned with the way historicity flattens disparate epochs into a parade of ostensible diachrony, the blobosphere is here for you; or if you identify multiple projections of self, floating across the internet morass, there are blobby answers for that as well. The blob, as a metaphor, is connected to Deleuze’s writing about “The Fold” and to the floating philosophical “I” that Wittgenstein identified as a kind of limit, the place of exchange for social affect.

And Kim ultimately argues for an ethic within the form. In her introduction, Janice Lee draws an emphasis on the blob as a metaphor for the site of encounter, “we are interested in how bodies and worlds articulate each other, how a human body allows an animal’s world to affect her and in turn, how a human’s world affects an animals body. Or, more generally, how we learn to be affected.”

Part of the brilliance of this formal investigation is that it gets at some of the messiness of concepts that don’t adhere, especially the breakdown and entropy of systems of description. In language, art, and philosophy, there is often a bias towards neatness, but the blobosphere delights in the junk drawer aspect of the human mind. This is exciting work; it captures an elegant and generous snapshot of our unruly and self-making bodies in an unruly and self-making world.

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

The Intangibles

Elaine Equi
Coffee House Press ($16.95)

by Fran Webber

Written in her usual accessible style, Elaine Equi’s newest collection, The Intangibles, manages to be short and sweet as well as lingering, offering up pithy observations—whether of herself or strangers, t-shirts or wormholes—that can still prompt deeper contemplation.

Equi’s poems are chewy, each bite releasing new bursts of flavor. One is wit. In “Lazy Bones,” Equi writes of her desire to tell an attending radiology technician: “My bones are shy. // I don’t exercise. / I love coffee. // They know they’re weak / and don’t like being photographed.” Another flavor served up by Equi is exuberant irreverence, as in “Moon and Taxi”: “Look, it’s not so far tonight. // He can drive us all the way there. / I bet he even knows a shortcut.”

But a vein of gentle discontent with modern life runs through the work, too. Equi writes “I think I saw Robert Frank / having dinner in a restaurant, // . . . // I thought of asking how / Americans look to him today.” Certainly, Equi sees Americans today as isolated, alienated, technologically-fixated: “Flitting from screen to screen, /we polli-nated the mostly mediocre content/with an innocuous brand of wit.” Or:

I remember when people
used their hands to gesture

and would meet each other’s eyes
with curiosity or annoyance,
but now everyone looks down,
studying their palms intently.

Our present predicament is folded into reflections on time, our past and future, and what we make of it. Equi knows, too, we can easily make a romance of history: “An unadorned war / may not be enough. / Without a hero, // a colorful coup / does not a blockbuster / movie make.” Difficult though modern life may be, the supposed idylls of our past are flimsy constructs within which we cannot shelter.

It sounds bleak but it doesn’t feel it—if only, perhaps, because it’s now so normalized a view of ourselves. Or perhaps because Equi takes care to balance this vision of contem-porary life’s erosion of human character with humor and solace:

Our view is one of constant deferral.

Obstruction is built upon
obstruction with a flair—

garlands and gargoyles,
roadblocks and renovations.

But all anyone ever needs
to take is the next step.

The sky is torn in half.

Feet see below
to another world.

But if our past is a confection, and our present a mess, is redemption in our future? For Equi the secret of time seems to be that it’s a loop:

In Newton’s day, time was seen as an arrow.

The arrow turned into a river.

The river stopped at a diner.

I’m there now, drinking a cup of coffee, writing a poem
called “The Secret of Time Meets a Stranger.”

Somehow, I always knew you would come.

Equi writes to “embellish facts”—in other words, to make meaning. But the intangibles of meaning are found “past the dazzling confounds” at “the high percolations /at the edge of”— the end of the poem. A poem’s power, its ability to speak to those intangi-bles of meaning, is just beyond the cliff of what’s said.

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

Going in Kind of Sideways:
an interview with Brian Laidlaw

by Owen Schauss

In November 2019, I sat down with Brian Laidlaw, a poet and songwriter, at a coffee shop in Red Wing, Minnesota. Joining our conversation was Molly Sutton Kiefer, who like Brian received an MFA in Poetry from the University of Minnesota. Though he has since moved on from the state, Brian was in town for a songwriting workshop he was asked to lead later that day; within a dusty corner of a beautiful old barn, Brian talked about his personal experiences, gave songwriting tips, and performed a beautiful rendition of “Dark Sides,” which has a companion poem by the same name. In discussing the difference between song lyrics and poetry, he told us poetry is generally being more “compressed” while songs are usually more “generous.” Later that night at the famed Anderson Center, Brian, accompanied by his partner Ashley, performed poetry from his two collections published by Milkweed Editions, The Stuntman (2015) and The Mirrormaker (2019), along with songs from their companion albums.

Owen Schauss: How did your creative life begin?

Brian Laidlaw: I went into this one kind of sideways. I started out being much more committed to music, and learned guitar from my mom in middle school. Then several of my friends started playing guitar at about the same time. We were teaching each other how to play these chords. I continued being a lead electric guitar player up through middle school, high school, and into college, and it wasn't until midway through college that I started playing the guitar in a blues band, where the main songwriter was more of an acoustic/fingerstyle/open tuning/really elaborate guitar-playing songwriter. That was the point where I started playing acoustic guitar more and began doing some tentative songwriting.

I was also taking poetry classes and treating them as something very separate from the songwriting, and that was the point where I started adapting poems I had written for the page into song lyrics by making them rhyme and finding lines to repeat as a chorus. I first started playing shows with my own music in college.

OS: So it started as your poems turning into lyrics. Do you still write like that?

BL: I did for a while and I don't anymore. At first I really struggled to know the difference between poems and songs, so I would have an impulse. A lot of what I was writing poetry-wise was metrical and rhyming and was in regular forms, so it translated more readily into song lyrics because they were following the same rules. As time went on the two practices diverged. I still have a soft spot for tweaky meter and intricate rhyme schemes, but now that's all in the songwriting. When I write poems, I write pretty weird poems; they don’t rhyme, they have very little regularity whatsoever. They wouldn't be well-suited to try to sing, but the way that I’m doing it now, with the last couple of projects I released with Milkweed, is writing books of weird poems that come with a companion album. The music is like a soundtrack to the book.

OS: So your poetry shifted into songwriting, leaving you with a new style of poetry?

BL: That’s a really good way to put it. I think it was just because of what I was reading. During my time at the U of M, in particular, I was reading much stranger poets and getting into more fragmentary, experimental forms of writing, and I felt like that's what I wanted my poetry to do. Fortunately I had this more user-friendly way of writing that continued to happen in the songwriting. I think I have always been aware of how fragmentary, elliptical, weird, experimental poetry can be pretty alienating to most readers. So that's the trade-off, but music can still fill that space.

Molly Sutton Kiefer: I remember you came into the program with very narrative lyrical poems, and then at the end the white space became another big tool for you.

BL: For sure, I think it was a big coming-of-age process. Those earlier poems feel so different to me. I think all of that stuff has found its way back into songwriting.

OS: Since your songwriting is different from your poetry, are there different inspirations for them?

BL: Very much so. I think the most broad way to put it is that the poems are coming from my brain and the songs are coming from my heart. When I feel the big tug on the heartstrings—whether it’s because of a place I'm in or a person that I'm with or a situation that I'm facing—I often turn to the guitar; it feels more immediate. Conversely, I'm writing poems to work through things, and I’m currently in conversation with a lot of environmental literature, talking about the intricacies of the way that ecosystems are in balance and falling out of balance. It’s so dense that it doesn't translate nicely into a song; it has to be something that’s more finely wrought. But within that, I go through long periods where I'll only be writing songs; it's not uncommon for me to go a year or two without writing a poem at all. Conversely, there are stretches where I'm writing tons of poems. Right now I'm writing almost entirely essays and not writing songs very much unless there's commissioned work or stuff that's happening in more focused, project-oriented way.

OS: So you don't feel pressured to produce more books or music for your audience?

BL: I feel pressured to be producing something, but I don't think that I feel the pressure any more for it to be in a particular shape.

OS: And your essays take the place of your poems and music?

BL: Right. I know how to write a good song and what the songwriting process will be like; every time is different but the process I go through to write is similar. I've been teaching it forever, I’ve been practicing it forever. Even for poems, to a certain extent, I know the kind of magic that happens while you're writing. So it's been really fun writing these essays because it's actually a form that I don't know, so every time I'm writing, it’s this radical process of discovery again. It's been rewarding to be doing something new and having the form itself be revelatory.

OS: These processes are very detailed. Is there a specific writing time that suits you?

BL: When I'm in poem-writing mode, I can always bang out a poem in twenty minutes either late at night right before bed or even in between things. It's a really rapid flash with poems. With songs, I find that the best songs require at least an hour or two of uninterrupted time so that I can start putting all the pieces together. My favorite song writing processes are the ones where I have all night—having six or eight hours to do the whole thing top to bottom. The challenge is my life at this point is really fun but I’m on the road and doing all different kinds of things, so it’s rare that I have those really long stretches of uninterrupted time. That's something I'm still trying to navigate: How can I get a start on a song with twenty minutes and then return to it? I rarely do.

OS: With songwriting, were you always interested in the lyricism?

BL: It was really not until college that I started listening to music where the lyrics were an important part of what was happening. I’d say the key record for that was In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel; I realized, “Oh, wow, this record wouldn't be what it is if it weren't for what the text is doing.” It was such a basic revelation, but a really important one. After that I started seeking out more music that was more lyrics forward. In terms of contemporary stuff, The Decemberists were a big influence, Joanna Newsom, some Iron & Wine, Regina Spektor—all the stuff that's contemporary using story-based song lyrics. Working backwards from there, I got very deep into Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave and Shane MacGowan.

OS: When you write music, do you usually come up with the lyrics first and then the chords, or is it the other way around?

BL: Much to my detriment, I write the lyrics first. In the time of my teaching at McNally Smith I realized I’m the only person who does that—all of my students write the melody simultaneously with their text, or they write the guitar parts and then fit text to it after—but in my case, I almost always write without my guitar. I’ll write a set of lyrics, but then because I am such a tweaker about meter and rhyme, I already know that they're going to be perfectly regular. I know that as soon as I pick up an instrument, I'll be able to sing it because all of the words will land where they're supposed to. The trade-off is that I don't write particularly adventurous melodies because the texts are already in place and I'm just delivering the text instead of having the melody inform the text as I'm writing it.

OS: I've heard people say that song writing and writing poetry are very hard professions to make a living in. What has been your experience in this field?

BL: I’m so glad you asked that question. Honestly, I feel very prosperous right now. I'm in a really good place and I think that a lot of the folks in my age bracket and place in their careers are too. I don't think that it's impossible or even necessarily that difficult. The challenge is that there's not a prescribed template for how to do it. In many professions if you want to make money doing X, you do these seven steps, but there's not that same kind of path for writers. The flip side is that when we're approaching our own creative work, we are drawing on the full capacity of our minds to think around problems and to come up with unexpected solutions to the challenges that we’re facing in the context of a tune or a poem. Very often when artists try to make a living, they stop being creative. All the creativity goes away and they're just like, “Well, I'm supposed to do a Master’s and then I'm supposed to do this and this and then I'm supposed to submit to this thing and then this is supposed to happen.” My response to that is, “Wow, that's so uncreative!” For me, what’s really uncreative is being in a band and putting out a record, just as a basic approach. That's kind of boring, it's an outdated thing to do, but people still do it. And then they’re thinking, “Well, now we're supposed to tour and we're going to do it this exact way.” It's really difficult to make a living doing all the regular things that you're supposed to do. But if you access your creativity about how you actually approach your career, in addition to being creative about the work that you're producing, I think it becomes both really doable and really fun to invent a career for yourself.

In my case, I think a large part of why I've had success getting books published has been because of combining it with the music. There’s not that many other people doing it. It also means that I get to go to literary festivals, and it allows me to do things like what I’m doing here, be the one person who is talking about poetry and songwriting at what’s otherwise just a poetry series. Finding this weird career that is not being done by many other people, I think of it as a meta-creativity—being creative about your career in addition to being creative about the material produces an artist.

There’s a company I work with that does poetry and songwriting mentorship for people with autism, which is another thing that nobody else is doing. It's such powerful work and totally unexpected. That's some of the work that I'm most proud of, and it’s also something that there was no prescribed path to have arrived at. Instead, it came about by cultivating an openness to those opportunities and recognizing what your strengths are and understanding how to use them in a way that serves people. As long as you're flexible about that, I think that there's always a way to make a living as an artist, especially if you're disciplined about it.

OS: What advice would you give to someone who's interested in pursuing the songwriting and poetry field?

BL: Being willing to treat it like a job, and recognizing that for most people, they probably love (if they're lucky) only 50% of their job. I might venture a guess that certain teachers among us might really love being up in front of the class and find it really rewarding to do lesson planning. You probably don't love grading, for example, seven stacks of essays every day. The point is there's always a percentage of work that’s a drag, even in a dream job. I find that to be the case for being a writer. I love revisions. I love the creative part. I love doing public engagements. I don't love submissions. I don't love getting handed down edits from an editor, but that's something that does happen. Book promotion is something that I've had to wrap my mind around. This is just to say if you approach your artistic career thinking, “I'm going to love every second of this,” it’s not going to work. You have to go into it knowing that there's going to be parts of it that are a drag, but also to remember, “I bet 20% of what I do is a drag,” as opposed to a higher percentage. And the other part is what I said before: Being creative in the way that you approach it. Trying to think around the challenges. I'm thinking about a band that's having a hard time booking a show at the club in town. Instead of saying “Okay, I guess we can't do it,” say, “No, we can do a house concert or a free show in the park." Being creative is how you end up in exactly the right place. It has always been my dream to be doing exactly what I'm doing today—poetry slash songwriter events in a literary context—and now I'm getting to do it. Having clarity about what it is that you want is extremely important. I think a lot of people are thinking “I want to succeed as a writer,” but there's no way to work backwards; you need to establish credentials and it can be a grind. The artists I know who work really hard, they make it work. The core of it is a dream. You’re doing the exact thing that you want every day. That's good. That's rare.

OS: That's really inspiring. Knowing that if you have your dream in mind, you can work your hardest and achieve it.

BL: Oh, definitely. The most important lesson is that to decide on an artistic career is not to take a vow of poverty; if you are disciplined about it, it'll work, you'll figure out a way. It’s not eating rice and beans and living in the basement forever. You can have a good life and be comfortable and also immensely happy.

Click here to purchase The Mirrormaker
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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2020 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 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.

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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.

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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.

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