Tag Archives: Fall 2021

“Instants of Elation”: Recent Philosophy for the Masses

by John Toren

Philosophy has long been held as the sovereign intellectual discipline for a simple reason: it can tell us what science (for example) is, while science can't tell us what philosophy is. Yet philosophy's commanding point of view and long history of asking elemental questions have never produced much widespread relevance to daily living, in comparison to, say, civil engineering, pop psychology, or law. It has become common, at least since Wittgenstein's day, for philosophers themselves to deny the loftiness of their discipline, often questioning not only the value, but also the very existence, of truth.

Of course, the denial of truth is also a form of truth, though its self-contradictory nature makes it a shallow one. The Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset has characterized the pursuit of truth (quoting Plato) as a noble sport, and I number myself among those who continue to engage in that pursuit, deriving nourishment from the classical philosophical tradition as well as attempting to digest new literature in the field.  Several recent books are rife with potential stimulation; they range from an idiosyncratic survey to a powerful collection of essays, from semi-poetic personal musings to traditional biography and even something resembling self-help.

The most accessible of the bunch might be How to Be an Epicurean (Basic Books, 2019). Here Catherine Wilson, who has held several academic posts in the course of her career, offers a well-organized and thorough, yet lively, account of the views of Epicurus, a Greek philosopher most often associated with a sybaritic approach to living that he himself rejected. Wilson makes it clear that Epicurus has some good advice to share based on a small number of common-sense principles, among the most important of which is that the single guiding principle of our behavior should be to avoid pain and pursue pleasure.

Baldly expressed, such views sound shallow and egotistical. But Epicurus went on to reason that opulent dining and relentless sex, for example, were less pleasurable in the end than eating simple meals and spending time with friends. His was the only ancient school that admitted women, and he worked hard to tease out the distinction between what's natural and what's conventional on a wide range of social issues without slighting the significance of either.

Although most of Epicurus's writings have been lost, he was fortunate to have a Roman disciple, Lucretius, who wrote "The Nature of Things," a book-length poem that's widely considered the finest philosophical poem ever written. Wilson draws on it heavily in her analysis, though she also notes discrepancies between its views and those contained in the fragments of Epicurus's writings that have survived. Such quibbles don't undermine the orderly progress of her exposition, which moves from chapters on basic principles to a section on "living well and justly" with subheads such as "Why Be Moral" and "Don't Count on an Afterlife." Subsequent sections deal with Epicurean views on war, social justice, scientific explanation, and the problem of affluence, among many others.

Wilson's style is a model of clarity, and her personality shines though in patches of wry humor directed against nonsensical points of view. The one drawback is that her efforts to spell out the probable consequences of a particular type of behavior can occasionally be so thorough as to seem slightly labored, her tone coming to resemble that of a wise but gently hectoring schoolmarm.

In fact, readers may appreciate the coherence and good sense of Epicurus's views, described here in lavish detail, while harboring doubts about whether they offer a satisfactory explanation of life's charm, mystery, and aspirational energy. In the book's final chapters Wilson takes up that question, analyzing the four sources of religion identified by the Epicureans: wonder; personal experience; fear and gratitude; and tradition and authority:

Where wonder is concerned, what Epicurus calls “piety”—which can take the form of a feeling of gratitude for the world’s existence and for my existence in it—is not irrational, even if there is no one to be grateful to. It is worthy of wonder that the universe, with its order, regularity and beauty, could just appear. It feels miraculous, in some moments, that life, with its complex­ities of metabolism, regulation and reproduction, consciousness and intelligence, could emerge from combinations of chemical elements like carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. The beauty of shells, feathers and foliage makes them seem, as the philosopher Kant commented, as if they had been made for our pleasure in looking at them. Yet Epicureanism insists that, as miraculous as it might seem, nature alone has brought all this about without any purpose or intention.

In the end, Wilson leaves us with the impression that the world Epicurus describes is very much like our own. The science has been improved upon, there are broad political and metaphysical dimensions he left unexplored, but within the realm of personal conduct, we could do a lot worse than to follow his lead.

In Philosopher of the Heart: The Restless Life of Søren Kierkegaard (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020), Clare Carlisle, philosophy professor at King's College, London, walks us through the stages of Kierkegaard's life. Her book brings perhaps too much clarity to a mind that was feverishly consumed with irony and paradox, and to a man who was intent less on establishing philosophical principles of general validity than in chronicling his own unsteady path toward salvation.

Kierkegaard is considered easy reading among philosophers, in comparison to predecessors such as Hegel and Kant. One historian of the period, Terry Pinkard, notes that even to call Kierkegaard a philosopher would be misleading, in so far a Kierkegaard didn't think of himself that way. But while we must grant that Kierkegaard made an effort to express himself in ordinary language, rather than working to construct a grand “system,” the fact remains that he was seldom content to flesh out his positions simply or directly. No sooner does he make a point than he brings up qualifications and counter-examples, generally muddying the waters to the point where the reader might give up in despair. Kierkegaard often published his works under pseudonyms and concocted imaginary conversations, and sometimes described his works as “thought experiments,” not to be taken entirely seriously. Such literary strategies may seem evasive, but they have been described by scholars as attempts by Kierkegaard to move the minds of his reader into a new place beyond concepts and theories, in the same way that Socrates engaged his interlocutors in seemingly simple chains of reasoning in order to help them see, and admit to themselves, that the values and attitudes they took for granted were in need of revision.

All the same, Carlisle's biography is much clearer and easier to read than anything by Kierkegaard himself. One of the pleasures of Philosopher of the Heart is that it moves forward calmly and pleasantly, with none of the dithering, counter-thoughts, or clever but irrelevant asides that make Kierkegaard’s own work so difficult to stick with. Carlisle is confident that she knows what Kierkegaard was thinking at every point in his career, even to the point of asserting things for which there is no evidence whatsoever. For example: “Yet in all his writings, published and unpublished, Kierkegaard has never mentioned his mother. This is not because he had forgotten her; it is the silence owed to something sacred, which held him long before he knew how to speak.”

Philosopher of the Heart is not a critical biography. Carlisle makes little effort to identify concepts that Kierkegaard might have added to the repertoire of modern thought, confident that her subject’s anguished and mercurial personality, his vanity, his piety and delusions of grandeur, his spats with the bishop and the local press, and all the other dimensions of his personal life constitute a story worth telling. And they do. Not least among the book's merits is the fact that Carlisle does an excellent job of extracting short passages from Kierkegaard’s voluminous journals and publications, material that average readers are unlikely to investigate themselves. Of equal interest are the criticisms of Kierkegaard delivered by his friends, relatives, neighbors, professors, and rivals. For example, she notes that the thesis on irony Kierkegaard wrote as part of his advanced degree program “made a generally unpleasant impression” on one of the examiners because of its “verbosity and affectation.” Similarly, in the course of describing the trauma that accompanied Kierkegaard’s decision to break off his long-standing engagement to Regine Olsen, Carlisle mentions the philosopher Frederik Sibbern, who knew both parties well. She writes: “After the break-up, when [Regine] confided her ‘deep indignation’ at how Kierkegaard had ‘mistreated her soul!’ Sibbern told her that it would be worse if they were married, ‘for [Kierkegaard’s] spirit was continually preoccupied with itself.’”

Kierkegaard’s introspection was facilitated by the fact that his father had made a fortune in the wool trade and bequeathed his son a legacy sufficient both to sustain him throughout his life and also to finance the publication of his numerous books and pamphlets. Kierkegaard spent his days walking the streets of Copenhagen like a later-day Socrates, engaging passers-by in conversation and then returning home to write and read, untroubled by the need to earn a living. Though he was tormented throughout his adult life by anguish, anxiety, dread, and other “existential” feelings avant la lettre, it appears that they arose in response not only to a Christian God that seemed remote and evasive, but also to a Danish society that didn’t understand his work and increasing considered him a laughingstock.

It's easy to read Carlisle's biography without suffering much. Though she admits to disliking many of her subject's literary mannerisms and petty concerns, she made a decision early on to resist dwelling on such shortcomings, preferring to focus on Kierkegaard's moments of struggle and illumination rather than entering into a book-length quarrel with him. As she states in her preface, "this biography does not consider Kierkegaard's life from a remote, knowing perspective, but joins him on his journey and confronts its uncertainties with him." It's a good strategy, and the result is a well-researched and sympathetic portrait of a tormented and often unsympathetic man who may, nevertheless, have some important things to teach us about being human in the world.

If you're looking for something a bit lighter than a tome about one of the giants of philosophy, a recently released collection of essays by the Hungarian scholar László F. Földényi as translated by Ottilie Mulzet might be just the ticket. It's compact—only 5 x 8 inches—but it carries the weighty, yet somehow playful, title Dostoyevsky Reads Hegel in Siberia and Bursts into Tears (Yale University Press, 2020), and the thirteen essays it contains offer a wide range of themes to explore and ponder.

Földényi has a knack for sustaining readers’ interest through the musicality of his prose and the variety of his references, even when the point he's driving at remains obscure. He is also shrewd enough to cut away from his erudite ruminations from time to time, introducing instead a personal observation that becomes the focus of analysis for a time. As an extreme example, consider the essay "'For All but Fools Know Fear Sometimes': Fear and Freedom." Here Földényi begins by acknowledging the source of the title, a poem by Heine, but immediately abandons that allusion to begin exploring his personal familiarity with fear. He offers a litany of unhappy events that newspapers expose us to, day after day—environmental catastrophe, terrorism, the radical right, the radical left—but then questions whether it's actually fear we're experiencing:

Does anyone really experience fear of something not affecting him or her directly, with no influence on his or her momentary existence? It is possible to be apprehen­sive but not, I think, afraid. And that explains why I feel resistant to treating fear as a political category. For is not fear an infinitely private, individual phenomenon? And when a person is over­come by fear, does that person have regard for others—have that laudatory quality of the zoon politikon? Isn’t it exactly fear that makes an individual feel excluded from the universal? There are examples of individuals who sacrifice themselves for the sake of others in the midst of terrifying situations. I have never been in such a situation myself.

Földényi finally gets to the heart of the experience when he reflects on seeing his young son experience abject fear for the first time. It's a bodily thing, he realizes at that moment, or, more fully, a reaction of both body and soul that strips us entirely of what he considers the third basic element of our make-up: spirit.

Some of the essays cross almost-too-familiar ground—the blind spots and limitations of the Enlightenment, for example. Some are rooted in etymology, as when, in the essay "Mass and Spirit," he struggles to draw significance from the fact that the word "mass" can refer either to dead matter or to a multitude of living people, though its origins lie in the Greek term for kneading bread. In an essay with the lengthy title "'Only That Which Never Ceases to Hurt Stays in the Memory': Variations on the Human Body, Subjugated by Fantasies of Power," Földényi dwells at considerable length on the letters Lord Chesterfield sent to his adopted son. They were later published and became a model of decorum for two centuries. Földényi construes them as a testament to repression and domination that might have pleased the Marquis de Sade.

Földényi's great virtue is that he seldom labors his point, preferring to bubble on from one speculative thrust or associative leap to the next like an eighteenth-century philosophe. It's possible, and even likely, that readers will reach the end of a given piece without having been convinced of anything in particular, but they will have been given lots of interesting things to think about.

Witcraft: The Invention of Philosophy in English (Yale University Press, 2019) is similarly riddled with engaging bits, and considering that the book weighs in at almost three pounds, it obviously has more of them. In both the whimsical title and the first few pages of text, author Jonathan Rée tries to emphasize how dreadfully dull (and conceptually dubious) he considers most philosophical "surveys" to be, but there is no disguising the fact that with Witcraft he has written yet another one. The great strength of Rée's survey lies not in his judgments, which are sometimes confused or simply absent, but in the incidentals of the narrative. For example, his treatment of the concept of moral sense as it developed in Scotland and England in the mid-eighteenth century paints a fascinating picture of the interactions and rivalries, both social and conceptual, between Adam Smith, Francis Hutcheson, and the Third Earl of Shaftesbury. Their notions of right behavior based on an innate moral sense offered an attractive common-sense alternative to the divinely sanctioned program endorsed by the church:

The evangelicals were appalled. Hutcheson made pious allusions to “the wonderful footsteps of Divine Wisdom in the constitution of our species”, but his Moral Philosophy course focused on the “principles of our nature”, and “affections and feelings of our hearts”, without appealing to God or the Bible. He compounded the offence with open lectures on Sundays in which he defended the “truth and excellency of Christianity” but made no reference to revelation; and during the week he gave three other supplementary classes, expounding “the finest writers of antiquity, both Greek and Latin, on the subject of morals.”

The running battle between dogma and conscience is an old story, but it still makes for good copy. Yet Rée never gets around to considering the philosophical issue involved: Is the concept of "moral sense" a necessary element in ethical deliberations, or can such deliberations be built, if not on scripture, then on "reason" or some other foundation? Kant, for one, felt not only that they could be so devised, but that they absolutely had to be. And speaking of Kant, Witcraft has a wonderful section on the men who introduced Kant's "transcendental philosophy" to England. He notes that the Scottish philosopher Dugald Stewart wrote an essay in 1821 suggesting that there was nothing new in Kant except his vocabulary, which, according to Stewart, gave rise to "extraordinary pretensions"' followed by "total oblivion."

Was there anything new in Kant's work? If so, Rée’s book will not be much help in discovering it, since two hundred pages later, in discussing Kant's efforts to transform mathematics, an analytic discipline, into some sort of model for truth, he writes: "The fact that [arithmetical judgments] can be informative or even surprising shows, according to Kant, that they are not merely analytic; but the fact that they are universal shows that they are not mere generalizations from empirical experience." Is this reasoning sound? No. It ignores the differentiation between formal logic (e.g. mathematics) and genuine logic (dialectic), thus perpetuating a long-standing error. And in the later chapters of his narrative, Rée devotes vast stretches of prose to the logical and grammatical analysis of Frege and Wittgenstein, while ignoring the far more significant work of Ortega y Gasset, Benedetto Croce, and other historicist thinkers almost entirely.

Still, if the philosophy is sometimes bad, the anecdotes are often very good. Rée has spent a lifetime combing the literature for lively details about philosophers both renowned and obscure, and the ample index makes it easy for readers to benefit from his fresh perspective on any specific problem or thinker they happen to be interested in.

In the introduction to Witcraft, Rée quotes approvingly the remark of Wittgenstein that "philosophy should be written like poetry." Yet Wittgenstein never wrote poetically, and neither does Rée. Why not? Because the two disciplines use different tools, and they're directed toward different ends. It remains far more likely that a poet might contribute to our understanding of philosophy than that a philosopher would add a few immortal stanzas to the poetic canon.

These thoughts crossed my mind as I read Slight Exaggeration (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017), a candid and brilliant book-length essay by the late poet Adam Zagejewski as masterfully translated by Clare Cavanagh. It consists of self-contained passages on a variety of subjects—some long, some short—arranged musically rather than conforming to a strict pattern or progression. Prominent among the themes are his father's life of displacement in Poland; his own career as a student of philosophy turned poet; his views on a wide assortment of poets, painters, and photographers; visits to galleries and art openings; and readings both given and attended. Zagejewski's style is relaxed and meditative, rolling from one thought or impression to the next, almost thinking out loud. And he has a gift for sharing anecdotes about eminent personal friends—Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky, for one—without sounding like he's simply name-dropping.

Among my favorite passages is the one in which Zagejewski describes the delight he often feels on a German subway in the moment of complete silence following the loudspeaker announcement that the subway doors are about to close. In another notable passage, Zagejewski describes attending a small art gallery and being mesmerized, not by the paintings, but by the scenes taking place in apartments across the street as seen through a gallery window. In another episode he shares his views on the poets he read avidly during the lonely years he spent as a young man in Paris, wandering the streets, always with a book in his pocket, pausing on a bench from time to time to read. He analyses the poets involved, but brings added interest to this segment by identifying which edition of a given author he was reading, as if we need to be convinced that yes, that volume would have fit into his pocket.

Only occasionally does Zagejewski directly address the reality that underlies quite a few of his musings. He is content to call it "spirit," though he considers spirit to be a state we can arrive at only intermittently and briefly. At one point, examining the ups and downs of his own career, he observes that the darkness, the emptiness, the evident impotence of a poet who can't write a single line and fears that his gift has vanished once and for all is an essential moment in the creative process. At another point, massaging the same theme, he draws our attention to a woman described by Rilke in his letters as "living totally in the spirit," though she produced nothing of artistic interest and would have vanished from history were in not for Rilke's references. For his part, Rilke (whom Zagajewski greatly admires) confesses that he could "live in spirit" only occasionally.

Zagejewski describes a dialectical process between emptiness and creativity that might have pleased Hegel, but without Hegel's metahistorical baggage attached. Though he articulates it formally only in brief passages, similar thoughts occur to him again and again, as in this passage describing the emotional impact of late-Romantic classical music:

Sometimes in Bruckner we feel the bows vibrating, the cellos’ heavy hair swimming alongside the bass cry of the trumpets and trom­bones ... or more recently, in the first move­ment of Henryk Gorecki’s Third Symphony, when slow as the dawn, the orchestras cocoon unfolds—or, a different metaphor, we can imagine the hull of a massive ship emerging, slowly, from the mist. This incredibly sensual, palpable wall of sound stirs our entire body, but remains unseen. And perhaps it’s precisely this contrast—between overwhelming presence and invisibility— that moves us, leads us, momentarily, to another world, another way of being that we can only visit.

A few pages later, Zagajewski takes us even further out on that limb of unverifiable experience when he writes:

Great moments, instants of elation, of short-lived certainty, light, faith: they seem—since such things are fleeting by definition—to dissipate somewhere on the fringes of memory, after a certain point we cease to take them as seriously as they deserve (and as we do when they suddenly appear before us). Moreover, the ubiquitous mist of irony, the modern world's innate skepticism, mean that we scrutinize these moments critically after they’ve gone, as if we didn’t trust ourselves, we want to discard them, cast them aside, we refuse to let them complicate our lives, which are tangled enough as it is. But these moments form the base, the foundation of everything.

Is this philosophy? Mysticism? Poetry? Zagejewski gave up philosophy early in his career, though that was his chosen field at university, but it’s clear it stays with him here. If he can be said to have a philosophy, it's a simple one, and it can be found in the book's title: Slight Exaggeration. Genuine poetry—and perhaps living itself?—invariably contains an element of exaggeration. That's the spiritual oomph, the celebratory cry, the zany and unjustifiable assertion, the promise of meaning for which there is no proof—or the cry into the darkness, something essential that's been lost, displaced, an insatiable yearning to find our way home.

Click here to purchase How to Be An Epicurean
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Click here to purchase Philosopher of the Heart
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Click here to purchase Dostoyevsky Reads Hegel In Siberia And Bursts Into Tears
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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2021 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2021

Click here to purchase Witcraft
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Click here to purchase Slight Exaggeration
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Somebody Else Sold the World

Adrian Matejka
Penguin Books ($20)

by Tryn Brown

The title of Adrian Matejka’s latest collection of poetry, Somebody Else Sold the World, echoes David Bowie’s smash single “The Man Who Sold the World”; amazingly, the 1970 chart-topper was based, in part, on a scarcely known poem called “Antigonish” that was written for a play in 1899 by the educator and poet Hughes Mearns. Bowie used the mellifluous, catchy, eerie limerick as inspiration for his song, and Matejka has now used that song to inform his new, robustly lyrical collection of poetry. In other words, we’ve come full circle.

At the outset of this fifth collection in his poetic ascendency, Matejka introduces a concept that spreads across the five sections of the work: “the antagonists.” In the first of several poems titled “Somebody Else Sold the World,” he touches on the uniquely American polarization that has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic: “So the antagonists cornered / the curfews, manufacturing arguments / with guns at the ready like henchmen.” Matejka never addresses the antagonists by a more specific name, but with their “vanity tans,” “flag colors,” and “whistled jingles / about liberties & wars,” it’s not difficult to narrow it down. The antagonists do and say whatever they can to push racism, wealth inequality, empty alliances, and corrupt systems. We have all recently lived through a year marked by sickness and suffering, but rather than cast it off as a fluke, Matejka suggests that the majority of us have just finally begun to witness our world’s antagonism without its thin, obscuring veil of prosperity. The question now is whether we will allow that antagonism to retain its grip on our society, or if we will resort to revolution with “the air around us . . . so ripe.”

What do we do when we live in a world that someone in power operates against our interests? How do we confront the uncontrollable? That brand of hopelessness can be completely untethering, but Matejka’s greatest strength in Somebody Else Sold the World is his ability to cut tragedies and instances of violence with simple, momentary pleasures—the bright flecks of life. He does so via structure, content, and form, strategically varying the poems to include love notes, odes to his young daughter, meditations on various fetishes, and references to pop culture icons like Frank Ocean, Blood Orange, and Travis Scott. It seems that even through the most confusing losses and challenging heartbreaks, Matejlka wants us to believe that we’ll “be absolutely fine / . . . / like a big breath exhaled / through the smart part of a question mark.”

The five-part poem “Bullet Points” is a testament to Somebody Else Sold the World’s mission to deconstruct violence with understanding and care. Matejka writes a poem for each of the physical components that make up a bullet and lists alternate uses (and thus alternate futures) for their materials, steeping an otherwise destructive object in brief moments of nostalgia and possibility. Language, after all, can be a precursor to violence or a tool for its de-escalation: “Poetry, like gunpowder / was first used to light up // the sky with every color,” he writes. Today, the gun is a symbol of total and often unchecked power. It’s a technology that is “always more / important than the people / in front of it.” As we carefully take apart the gun in “Bullet Parts,” we’re challenged to leave it like that—permanently disassembled—to prioritize the communities that suffer because of it.

One of the attributes that most sets Somebody Else Sold the World apart from Matejka’s previous collections is its substitution of music for narrative. The work plays like a ballad written in the wake of insurmountable loss—both harrowing and dizzying—and yet it remains utterly grateful. Music in its purest, unrecorded configuration is fleeting, and this sense of ephemera underscores the collection’s focus on presence over plot. Sometimes, all we can do is savor pleasures in the exact moments we experience them, and savor them Matejka does. He injects his poems with octaves, instruments, and mezzanines while incorporating quotes from modern musicians, often using pop songs, to set his course. Even the “Notes” section in the back of the collection serves as a double entendre, since the inspirations listed in it are derived from various songs and albums. The result is a stunning reimagination of musical capacity that Matejka uses to navigate love, heartache, and uncertainty: “I had a trumpet shaped / like a downward heart / & I played it recklessly.”

Even more undeniable than the collection’s timely subject matter is Matejka’s formal talent, which has only grown over the years. The imagery he cultivates and nourishes alone should serve as reason enough to read the book, with its “lipstick all over the place / like the afterthought a comet leaves,” its “boathouse / of quotations,” its “Copper profiles lost // in the cushions . . . / & worth almost  // me.” Each is a further demonstration of Matejka’s re-envisioning of futures and his ability to turn what we think we know—especially about language—on its head. He examines all the moments, exceptional and minute, that occur during times of unrest and in the shadow of antagonism. With this collection, he proves that it’s possible to nurture the bristly love that pushes through cracks in the pavement when we least expect it.

The last poem in the collection is titled, “Where to Begin.” That question (and statement) has reverberated through many minds in recent months as we continue building a collective vacuum of internal and external noise that threatens to burst at any moment. Somebody Else Sold the World is an excellent resource for figuring out how to exist during times that are “as hard-pressed / & tremulous as us.” It coaxes us to notice those tectonic melodies that infiltrate everything around, behind, and in front of us, but especially the rhythm of silence—the place where you might hear yourself the most.

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Two Adjunct Novels

Lynn Steger Strong
Picador ($17)

The Life of the Mind
Christine Smallwood
Hogarth ($27)

by Julia Stein

Lynn Steger Strong’s Want and Christine Smallwood’s The Life of the Mind are two new novels about working as an adjunct professor in what many call adjunct hell. Despite no security and low wages, by 2013 over a million people were non-full-time academics, comprising 75% of higher education faculty. Many former and current adjunct professors have written novels about their teaching jobs, most relating how their heroes struggle to survive in fields they thought they loved. Want and The Life of the Mind are worthy additions to this growing micro-genre.

In Want, Elizabeth lives an exceeding precarious life, teaching long hours to support her family. Her alarm goes off weekdays at 4:30 a.m. so she can get to her first job, teaching English in a charter high school. One evening every week, our heroine also teaches a night class at the Ivy League university where she went to graduate school. Elizabeth owes $30,000 for her C-section from her first birth; her husband used to work at Lehman Brothers before the crash, but he now takes care of their two children during the week and does custom woodwork on weekends. The couple’s finances are so bad the husband just filed for bankruptcy for over $140,000, but his $100,000 of college loans aren’t covered. Elizabeth can’t even afford to buy a novel.

Despite this, both these adults are idealists rather than realists. Elizabeth never realizes she and her family have sunk to the lower level of the working class; when she and her family go to visit one of her husband’s wealthy clients in Long Island, the wealthy wives look at her “mussed-up, too-big clothes,” muttering to each other she’s “alleged” to be a professor. They must confront their crisis, however, when they have to leave their NYC apartment and choose between moving to rural Maine to stay with her husband’s family or asking for money from Elizabeth’s wealthy parents.

I was an adjunct professor for 24 years in Los Angeles community colleges, and for the first four years I taught ESL in the heart of South Central Los Angeles. In my poetry at the time I often wrote about working as an adjunct, describing how a Latina woman entered my classroom with a little wooden box asking my students for money to help bury her dead baby, or how after the 1992 uprising my students came to class explaining that all the supermarkets in their neighborhood burned down but they still wanted to learn English that day, or how when the administration wanted to cut most of the ESL classes, the students and faculty stood up to fight until all the classes were restored. The need to fight for workers’ rights became stronger over time: My last 14 years as an adjunct I taught at Santa Monica Community College because it had the only faculty union in the state of California that allowed adjuncts to get health insurance along with the full-timers, and our union once had both adjunct and full time faculty on the picket line to keep up our wages and benefits.

In both Want and The Life of the Mind, however, the protagonists never take part in any political or union action on the job, focusing on their other pressing problems. In The Life of the Mind, Dorothy is an adjunct professor “in the English department and first-year writing program of a private university whose list-price tuition was twice her annual earnings.” She is teaching the class “Writing Apocalypse” and three other English classes, but her attention is on her miscarriage, which has gone on for six days. Throughout the novel, Dorothy imagines the apocalypse as a time when the children of the future are on rafts, roped together in an endless winter. In Dorothy’s fantasies she explains she was taught “that to increase my standard of living, all I had to do was follow my dreams,” but that fantasy is leading nowhere, and she is running out of dreams while colliding into reality.

Dorothy lives with and is financially supported by her devoted boyfriend; her problem is her comical self-delusion. She possesses what she calls the “cruel optimism” that she one day might get hired full-time, though her co-workers treat her with disdain. The novel is often funny and sad at the same time, satirizing most of the full-time faculty as “career automatons” or slapstick fools. While trying and failing to xerox material for her class in the university’s library, Dorothy has a moment of realization that “the university really did despise her” and for the first time thinks she was naïve to “believe there was anything glamorous about the life of the mind.”

These two novels are both fine examples of the internal worlds of women stuck in adjunct hell. But neither Dorothy nor Elizabeth in any way think about how, in recent years, graduate students and adjunct teachers have been going on strike for better wages and fairer treatment. Perhaps novels to come in this growing micro-genre will offer an update to the 1930s novels about organizing unions that helped bring the need for this movement into the public eye.

Click here to purchase Want
at your local independent bookstore
Click here to purchase The Life of the Mind
at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2021 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2021


Ulises Carrión
with essays by Felipe Becerra, Mónica de la Torre, Verónica Gerber Bicecci, Annette Gilbert, India Johnson, Michalis Pichler, Heriberto Yépez
with translations by Christina MacSweeney aand Shane Anderson

Ugly Duckling Presse ($20)

by Michael Workman

Widely recognized as a source of what is now discussed loosely as the “artist book” movement, the Mexico-born, gay conceptual artist, thinker, and theorist Ulises Carrión first published the pieces contained in Sonnet(s) just prior to the twelve-issue run of his now-famous Ephemera magazine. Counter-intuitively, it’s actually not useful to discuss here the sonnets themselves, which begin with “BORROWED SONNET” and range from “EXPLICIT SONNET” to “PROSE SONNET” and so on. Part of the aspiration of Carrión’s artistic practice was a kind of “appropriation art,” which emerged out of collage and its practice of drawing directly from the lived, visual culture. It came to find greater notoriety in New York in the early 1980’s among artists such as Sherrie Levine, who appropriated many male artist’s works to powerful and important feminist effect.

In one work included here, Carrión appropriated the 1871 sonnet “Heart’s Compass,” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and broke down the love poem into forty-four reimagined versions. In fact, it’s a bit of a misnomer to call it “appropriation”—Carrión intentionally left out any citation of Rossetti in the original chapbook, with the aim of committing outright plagiarism. Of course, as pointed out in Annette Gilbert’s essay in this collection, this is also an attempt to liberate himself and his artistic practice “from the excess of what is already existing.” Still, as a former philosophy student, it is likely the poet-artist was reading the same texts as those who eventually came to influence appropriation in the 1980s.

The sonnets here emerge from Carrión’s foundational move away from traditionalist narrative structure as insufficiently capable of providing space for his experiments, representing, in fact, a “rejection of linear language.” This accounts for a sense of the novel and other similar approaches to publication as contexts defined by a too-narrow use of books for “’utilitarian purposes’ and ‘commercial value,’” the rejection of which allowed Carrión to push forward into the polysemies of language “as a means to forge a community.”

These sonnets-as-vessels serve as “bookwork,” a portmanteau Carrión used to describe his effort to step outside of linearity into the materiality of the things language is used to describe. Semioticians might have described this as signifier and signified, but this would be an insufficient descriptor of the context in which these language acts take place. In that sense, the concept of “Materialzärtlichkeit,” referred to frequently in the back matter essays, and which the essayists in general seem to agree on, is also usefully traced to French Symbolist Mallarmé as “the ultimate point of reference and key figure for the ‘bibliographic version of site-specific art.’”

In this important republication, we are reminded that part of Carrión’s posthumous reception rests on this lineage and his rejection of originality in a way that was critical to activating artistic “networks outside institutional frameworks.” Through it, his efforts to engage community building around the expansive notions of what a bookwork could become have cemented his place in the history of a now continuously-emergent publishing avant-garde.

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The High-Rise Diver

Julia von Lucadou
Translated by Sharmila Cohen
World Editions ($16.99)

by Joseph Houlihan

The High-Rise Diver by Julia von Lucadou describes the world of today from an inevitable future, evoking a city deeply entrenched in surveillance, social media, and influencer culture. In this future, children are selected through trials to participate in different career and life paths. There is a periphery of the city, cut off from resources, and a center where the privileged live according to a hyper-monetized logic of surveillance and performance. Against this backdrop we meet two young women, Hitomi and Riva.

Hitomi is a psychologist who specializes in emergency interventions. She is contracted by the sport agency to bring Riva, a high-rise diver, back to her fans. Hitomi prides herself on a methodical and unflinching commitment to leaving her emotions outside her work. But her job becomes personal as she watches Riva all day through high-definition camera feeds, planning strategies for counsel and intervention.

Riva, a professional athlete, has lost the will to compete and thereby participate in the soap opera of her life as an athlete and influencer. Her sport is one of the most popular entertainments in this fictional universe: “When you open your eyes, the woman is diving headfirst from the skyscraper roof. At first you’re scared. Your body tenses up as if it were falling beside her. But then you see the diver as a bird in flight. You feel her absolute certainty that she will be able to withstand the fall.” Riva was raised within the sport and found her place there, a dream scenario, as an artist: “She’s creative. She’s not one of those divers who only perfects the standard forms. . . . Perfectionism is not a compliment. No one wants to admit it, but it’s true. What counts is creation.”

But Riva has decided to leave that world behind. She spends her time alone in her luxury loft with her partner, Aston, unspeaking. “The most popular internet conspiracy about Riva’s resignation is that it has to do with relationship drama, that Riva left Aston for someone else and that he’s now forcing her to stay with him against her will,” the author tells us. Of course, this drama is simply another symptom of why Riva has lost the will to participate.

A recent New Yorker article noted that three out of four workers identify as experiencing burnout, characterized by “exhaustion, cynicism, and loss of efficacy.” In the future of The High-Rise Diver, however, “Burnout is not a valid diagnosis. Ms. Karnovsky has completed various happiness and resilience trainings as part of her training program, far more than those recommended by the health authorities. The academy implements a rigorous mindfulness program. . . . Your diagnosis is obsolete and plain illogical.”

Julia von Lucadou captures the fragmentation of culture towards consumer choice and magnifies it, illustrating the sadness of this fragmentation. Nostalgia becomes irresistible as social media influencers adopt the lenses of archaic media to capture stories that they never experienced. This feels all the more prescient in 2021, as the collective desire for an Endless Summer takes hold. This tendency, like the manufactured memories in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, persists across the techno-consumerist morass of a life lived through fragmented media streams, social media personae, and flickering DMs.

Not a cranky luddite manifesto, The High-Rise Diver is a clear and clamoring warning bell, a classic Zen koan kick in the head. Beautiful and strange and scary, the book is a call to stick our heads above the water and breathe fresh air.

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Katie Kitamura
Riverhead Books ($26)

by Mike Alberti

Early on in Katie Kitamura’s new novel Intimacies, the narrator encounters three municipal workers walking down a pedestrian street, directing a machine with a long, hose-like protuberance. They look as though they are “leading an elephant by the trunk,” and it takes her a moment to discern what they are actually doing: painstakingly vacuuming cigarette butts from between the cobblestones. “I looked down and realized that the road was strewn with cigarette butts, this despite the fact that there were several well-placed public ashtrays on that stretch of street alone.” The men’s work, she realizes, is necessitated by the “heritage aesthetic of the city, not to mention the carelessness of a wealthy population that dropped its cigarette butts onto the pavement without a thought.”

This scene dramatizes a dynamic that will recur again and again in the novel: the narrator—an unnamed woman living in The Hague—notices a dark reality carefully concealed by a polished façade. The men and their cigarette vacuum are “one example of how the city’s veneer of civility was constantly giving way.” This short, unnerving novel is full of other examples, including when, at a dinner party, a rare book dealer tells the story of selling “forty meters” of books to an interior decorator who, caring nothing for their literary value, wants only “leather and gilt.” The bookseller upcharges him for “junk, subscription editions, encyclopedias, remaindered monographs,” and later encounters those same books in a wealthy friend’s library, a symbol of his obscene wealth that is worthless when looked at up close.

The book takes place in 2016, just before the Brexit referendum and Trump’s election, at a moment when rising fascism and xenophobia were just becoming visible to many upper-class white people in the U.S. and Europe. “I’m worried about the Dutch election next year,” one character says, “this country has a reputation for tolerance but peel back the skin of it—.” That the rest—what’s under the skin—is left unsaid is fitting. Kitamura’s characters are often unable, or unwilling, to look directly at the violence swirling in the sewers beneath them. More broadly, Kitamura is interested in whether language is capable of representing the barbarism that underlies our society, and this novel raises the possibility that it might even serve mostly to conceal that barbarism.

The most dramatic context in which this question is explored is the narrator’s work as an interpreter at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, where she has a one-year appointment. She is assigned to interpret for the high-profile trial of a West African dictator, probably modeled on Laurent Gbagbo. This job requires her to translate witness testimony describing the particularities of the accused’s crimes against humanity: to speak the unspeakable as calmly, clearly, and accurately as possible.

Unsettled by these duties, she begins to see the other interpreters differently: “They no longer seemed like the well-adjusted individuals I had met upon my arrival, instead they were marked by alarming fissures, levels of disassociation that I did not think could be sustainable.” As the trial drags on and seems to flounder, she wonders if the entire project of the International Court of Justice might be yet another veneer, thus complicit in the horror it’s meant to prevent.

When the narrator meets the dictator in person, she is struck by his ability to dismiss the charges against him, as if mass murder and ethnic cleansing were trifles and the entire trial a mere inconvenience. His power and charisma, she thinks, come from his understanding of “the depths of human behavior. The places where ordinary people do not go.” At one point, the dictator raises the question of her complicity directly, accusing the court of Imperialism and asking her why she, an American, whose country has also “committed terrible crimes and atrocities,” is in any position to judge him. These are profound, disquieting questions, and Kitamura dramatizes them with subtlety and skill.

The novel contains two other, more prosaic subplots. The first concerns the off-screen mugging of a bookseller, with which the narrator becomes slightly obsessed. The other concerns her lover, Adriaan, who vanishes early on in an apparent attempt to save his marriage. After he leaves, the narrator continues to live for several weeks in his apartment, pining, hoping to hear from him, reluctant to accept the truth. Though the stakes here are much lower, they add to the mood of menace that pervades this book, and illustrate that, even in our domestic lives, we are more than capable of averting our eyes. True intimacy, Kitamura suggests, might require a reckoning that most people are unwilling to risk.

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Friederike Mayröcker
Translated by Donna Stonecipher
Seagull Books ($24.50)

by Walter Holland

On June 4, 2021, the Austrian poet Friederike Mayröcker died in Vienna. Born in 1924, Mayröcker wrote a multitude of literary works, including prose poems, audio plays, memoirs, novels, children’s books, dramas, and a libretto, many of which garnered major Austrian and German literary awards. In 1946, she met Otto Basil, who published her early work in his avant-garde journal Plan. Later, her poems were published by the literary critic Hans Weigel, and soon after Mayröcker became a member of the Vienna Group, a loose coalition comprising mostly surrealist and expressionist Austrian writers such as the poets Ingeborg Bachman and Ernst Jandl (the latter of whom was her long-time romantic and collaborative partner from 1954 until his death in 2000). Études, a collection of prose poems and part of a three-part series, was originally published in 2013, but is now available in a magnificent English translation by poet Donna Stonecipher.

Long celebrated in the German-language world as a daring and inventive writer of the postwar period, Mayröcker was a passionate participant in the European avant-garde tradition, with all its highly mystical and experimental esotericism. Though not widely translated, her work has long been known in Europe as intense and freely associative, lyrical and wildly expressionistic. With an eclectic taste in reading and a strong rooting in modernist assemblage techniques, her poems have been described as linguistic collages, surrealist montages of language and experience. These collages frequently included fragments of correspondence, newspaper articles, journal entries, observations of the everyday, allusions to European cultural history, and quotations from private conversations.

Mayröcker had a pictorial interest in the visual that is borne out by her frequently quoted statement, “Writing poetry is like painting in watercolors. Writing prose is a hard art, like making a sculpture.” This view of the parallels between her poetry and impressionistic water color sketches can be seen in Mayröcker’s swift, though delicate, brushstrokes of text, which often blur or bleed into each other. Moods, emotions, memories, and regrets all coalesce into a stream of consciousness:

fly or flee (1) 3 wild roses in deep
grotto I plunge into purple lilacs and shimmering tears
fly or flee (I) Fauré’s études in deep
grotto green shimmering crepe paper namely portrait

The visual confluence of images such as “purple lilacs,” “shimmering,” and “deep/grotto green,” with verbs of movement such as “fly” and “flee,” and the textured medium of “crepe paper,” all provide a colorful and tactile visual fluidity. This is emphasized by the mention of the French impressionistic composer Fauré, who employed coloristic effects in his music. And indeed, Mayröcker not only draws from the pictorial, but also from musical form and composition, as can be seen in her poem of April 14, 2011:

on 1 voice : on 1 mignonette green this branchlet this blossom this
instant of a teardrop in your eye this raining in your voice swept
forth by spring this scent of white tears this scent of whiteness this
white of spring of voice this little white bell of April (= Fratres)
this whiteness of little bells = Fratres this whisper of voice this
whisper from the vineyard (“April”) these twigs little bells of April
swept away trembling delphinium cress lungwort Bach’s Virgin
chorales &c. disheveled little bird April violin handbooklet April
naked this soul weighted with sleep (= ”Fratres”) ach your voice
+ + + + + + + + + + white from spring white from April spring’s twigs
opened and blossom-amble where the plumed

This rush of romantic images, tremulous with emotion, captures through repetition and accumulative serialism the compositional techniques of Arvo Pärt, the Estonian composer of the 1977 mystical and minimalist string quintet Fratres I. Even more so, there is a tone of jubilance in this poem that speaks to the voice of spring and the “naked . . . soul weighted with sleep,” symbolizing resurrection, the soul’s awakening, and new birth. Mayröcker also alludes to Bach’s ecstatic lyrics in his famous religious motets and chorales, drawn from scripture and Germanic verse, and further to the purity of the Virgin as associated with white blossoms of springtime and tears of joy and reverence. Mayröcker clearly grasps Bach’s mastery of counterpoint and harmonic and motivic organization in this piece as well.

Mayröcker’s dense, allusive poetry, with all its alternatively beatific and disconsolate language, can be seen as a culmination of the European cultural tradition. Her diaristic poems are reminiscent of the ideogrammatic Cantos of Ezra Pound, and though a poetic heir of Gertrude Stein and Francis Ponge, she breaks free into a 21st-century post-modern sensibility, one of polystylism and eclecticism. She also seems to have drawn from her Austrian heritage the continued experimentation of the Second Viennese School, which developed the dodecaphonic system and the use of serialism in music.

Throughout études, Mayröcker shows herself to be the descendent of many European schools of thought, artistic movements, concepts, styles, and praxes: German Romanticism, Rilkean Modernism, German Expressionism, Postwar Surrealism, Postmodernism, Deconstruction, and on and on. Take, for instance, her poem of April 8, 2011:

the aroma of spring little gullet inmost sensation while the heart
cherries days : little forest bird in DADA airs and imploringly with
folded hands (namely 1 PUNK boyphriend in the “Dreschsler”
staring into the OPEN : Andreas O.)

Here, she simultaneously alludes to Dadaism; the Punk movement of the late 1970s with its fast-moving and aggressive music and subculture (as well as possibly the highly academic “Austro-Punkism” debate between young and older Austrian economists in the early 2000s); and Ulrich Dreschsler, an Austrian saxophonist and composer of improvisational jazz who was inspired by Scandinavian folk as well as Sufi music.

In many ways Mayröcker’s études acts as a Rosetta Stone, a “key” to cross-reference and thereby understand her vastly imaginative and often divergent thoughts and emotions. The collage effect of Mayröcker’s textual poems, while fragmentary and elliptical, does convey a highly Romantic tone—one committed to nature, individualism, memory, and self-contemplation.

Technically compact, the poems are in paragraph form and often superseded by short epigraphs. Utilizing Stein’s repetition and Ponge’s fascination with the simple contemplation of objects in everyday life, Mayröcker pulls us into an intimate engagement with her doubts, concerns, obsessions, and memories. Typographical and syntactical play, with frequent capitalization “errors” or misspelling of words and use of underlining, italics, and ellipses, blend together the conventions of 19th-century novels, plays, and Romantic poetry with the clipped, abbreviated slang of modern texting or conversation.

But Mayröcker is not all about obscure references and experimentation. While these poems do, of course, embody an elevated hermetic style and European aestheticism that may prove at odds with poetry of the present day, these works are also richly passionate, elegiac, and mystically personal. Her effusive and mannered textual bricolage can sound obsessive and self-dramatic, but ultimately Mayröcker prevails in her constant search for personal truth, no holds barred.

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The City of Belgium

Brecht Evens
Drawn & Quarterly ($29.95)

by Jeff Alford

Like a metropolis of vampires, this city comes alive at night, and we join Brecht Evens’s cast of miscreant wanderers in its bars and streets as they stagger towards oblivion, clarity, or a blur between the two.

An intoxicating, meticulously painted graphic novel, The City of Belgium is a technicolor carnival, a visual and formal masterwork that confidently upends conventions with its dazzling artistry. The story takes shape on pages soaked in watercolor and riddled with the clamor of roiling nightlife. Multicolored figures are drawn in what looks like a runny, felt-tip pen layered over the wet base. Packed bars and overbooked restaurants come alive in painstaking detail: checkered floors, floral wallpaper, and sartorial patterns are all lavishly illustrated. Shadows speckle the streets like reanimated ghosts, semi-transparent but bursting with vivacity. The story unfolds without panels or any traditional framing, Evens instead allowing loose scenes to recalibrate repetitively over a white background until their action gets swallowed by densely-rendered, full-page spreads, brimming with woozy marvel.

A web of protagonists emerges, many costumed as if en route to a gala. They each feel like archetypes in some theatrical pastiche: Victoria, dressed in a beaded wig like a Hollywood Cleopatra, grows restless and anxious during a night out with her sister and friends and unravels in the club bathroom; Buzz, a hulking ex-con, attempts to find a stable path forward but struggles with vices and memories from his past; Rodolphe, dressed in a Cordovan hat and a wildly patterned smoking jacket, seeks to shed his shell and find a new beginning; and Jona, the faded party boy, looks for one last memorable night before he leaves town for good. Brilliantly, all the characters are color-coded: each is drawn in a particular palette and their words are written in a unique, complementary hue.

Visually and textually, The City of Belgium is a work of decadence. Page after page of stunning artwork land like endless courses of a Michelin-starred tasting menu, any sense of stylistic temperance lost in the moment. The book’s sumptuous visuals parallel its characters’ tendency to over-indulge, and these intersecting themes create a work that is self-aware and intentional about being too rich and too potent, simultaneously about excess and an excess in its own right.

Evens continues to over-serve and over-stimulate his readers as his characters fall apart. An unshakable loneliness creeps into each of their threads: Jona has no one to party with on his last night in town, Rodolphe leaves a dear friend to wander the night in solitude, Victoria shuts herself away as her anxiety wrestles with (and loses to) her drunkenness. And while this may appear to be a story about desolation and destruction, Evens is careful to pull back from that brink and position The City of Belgium as a hopeful tale instead.

Ultimately, this is a book about gaining perspective and finding a way to see the togetherness that’s inherent to even the most solitary evenings. Evens wants us to expand our sights and notice everything around us at all times. Late in the novel, two characters philosophize about their place in a “city of millions! . . . on a planet of billions! . . . in a universe with billions of planets!” “That’s right kid,” one explains, “We contain multitudes. The voices of a thousand generations. Everything is recorded in us, all the time and for all time.” “Did you know,” he continues, “our molecules are connected to molecules all the way on the other side of the universe? All are but parts of one stupendous whole.”

The Where’s Waldo-esque over-saturation of the visuals in this book isn’t simply there for wow factor; it’s a reminder that there is so much going on in a single moment, so many lives buzzing along in tandem. In one scene, a dollhouse cutaway shows three floors of the club Disco Harem: a bustling open-kitchen restaurant on one floor, a piano bar on another, and, between them, an orgy taking place in a packed, red-lit room, its occupants literally drawn over each other in various states of sordid overlay. To Evens, this decadent beauty is the neon pulse of capital-L Life, for better or worse. Lonely, grimy stories unfold alongside beautiful, glittering ones, colliding at times like drunken, spinning atoms.

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The Office of Historical Corrections:
A Novella and Stories

Danielle Evans
Riverhead Books ($27)

by Serenity Schoonover

Danielle Evans’s The Office of Historical Corrections is an unflinching perspective on the most polarizing issues facing the U.S. today. Through six short stories and a novella, Evans’s protagonists—savvy, hell-bent, unapologetic women survivors—wrestle with the disparaging realities of socioeconomics, race, and gender.

The stand-out story is “Alcatraz,” where we meet Cecilia and learn about her bi-racial mother’s fight for financial reparations regarding Cecilia’s white great-grandfather’s wrongful imprisonment at Alcatraz during World War I. When the last hope for justice snuffs out, Cecilia attempts to provide closure through a reunion with estranged family members at the prison, now a tourist destination. Cecilia’s tattoo, referencing a Faulkner quotation, resonates with the pivotal role history plays in not only this piece, but every story in the book: “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.

As a whole, The Office of Historical Corrections speaks to the importance of race in U.S. society—past, present, and future. But equally powerful, and potentially overlooked, is Evans’s candid examination on the consumptive power of grief. In “Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain,” photojournalist Rena does her level-best to negotiate a tenuous bridal party weekend. Evans examines the roots behind Rena’s risk-taking lifestyle:

People have asked Rena why she goes to such dangerous places, and she always wanted to ask them where the safe place is. The danger is in chemicals and airports and refugee camps and war zones and regions known for sex tourism. The danger also sometimes took their trash out for them. The danger came over for movie night and bought them a popcorn maker for Christmas.

The prose is somewhat discursive in “Anything Could Disappear,” but it’s a gutsy piece of writing that is hard to put down, as we watch twenty-something Vera’s search for reality within a borrowed fantasy. When a toddler is abandoned on the bus seat next to her, rather than seek the authorities, Vera says nothing. What follows is a psychological minefield as she (and the reader) try to reconcile whether Vera is this child’s ally or abductor.

A departure in style from the other pieces, “Why Won’t Women Just Say What They Want” is an entertaining, absurd parody about a nameless artist’s self-serving attempt to make amends to all the women who ever orbited his sadistic planet (and there are quite a few). While this story is dark comedy at its best, it is also a chilling reminder about the shocking exploits brought to light by the #MeToo Movement.

The novella, “The Office of Historical Corrections,” introduces us to Cassandra, a pedantic field agent with The Institute for Public History, a fictional government agency charged with setting the historical record straight in “the contemporary crisis of truth.” Like Cassandra’s Greek namesake, truth-telling proves something of a curse, a situation that only escalates when asked to rein in former agent and childhood frenemy, Genevieve. In her role as mediator, Cassandra gets thrown into a decades-old murder investigation in small-town Wisconsin. An intriguing whodunit, this piece affirms the tactical role the historical record can play regarding reparations and raises incisive questions that resonate long after the last page. Chief among them: Can the truth make a difference?

Evans’s imaginative narratives possess an uncanny ability to unpack controversial issues like gentrification, misogyny, and white privilege. The collection is nothing short of a masterful accomplishment, a negotiation between art and activism that dares to foster belief in the existence of a “last best hope.”

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Spring and a Thousand Years (Unabridged)

Judy Halebsky
University of Arkansas Press ($17.95)

by Lee Rossi

Poet Judy Halebsky spent five years in Japan studying the theatrical and dance forms Noh and Butoh, an experience that informs her third book, Spring and a Thousand Years (Unabridged). Charming, self-effacing, and deeply reverent of Tang and Heian poetry, she offers a contemporary take on a world and world-view that flourished more than a thousand years ago.

Li Bai, aka Li Bo, aka Li Po, born in 701, is perhaps the most important presence haunting this book. We meet him in “Between Jenner and a Pay Phone” through the narrator’s direct address when she observes, “Li Bai, the shadows tonight are from street lights,” not the moon. Like him she is preparing for a life of austere simplicity as an artistic hermit: “I cut my hair flat against my forehead . . . / from now on: / only practical clothing / only blank pages.” Sometimes the writing is austere as well, borrowing images and tone from the Tang and Heian poets Halebsky so admires. But the overall effect of Halebsky’s work is warm and inviting, laced with humor and intelligence.

Li Bai is often a spokesman for Halebsky’s reservations about American life and culture. In “The Sky of Wu,” we encounter Li Bai, Du Fu, and the narrator hanging out together during a poetry workshop:

Du Fu is smoking an e-cigarette. Li Bai is laughing at him. They want to meet Charles Wright but I don’t have his number.

We don’t write the poems together, I explain, we just talk about them

Li Bai rolls his eyes

America, he says, it’s worse than I thought

This is the same character, who, in “Li Bai Considers Online Dating,” composes a “note to self: before writing profile, eat cookies / then resolve to lose weight, then drink beer.” Halebsky’s Li Bai might be an early incarnation of Walt Whitman: contradicting himself, containing multitudes.

One blurb calls this volume “a translator’s notebook,” but while it’s true that Halebsky has done frequent translations—from 2009 to 2011 she co-edited the bilingual poetry journal Eki Mae (In Front of the Station)—the “translator” in this volume is just one of several masks worn by the poet, a ploy we might expect from someone versed in Noh drama. “Poet,” “girlfriend,” and “naive American” are other masks, equally revelatory, equally reticent. A translator is charged with faithfulness to the spirit of a text, to the spirit of the author. Halebsky is less interested in reproducing texts than in reproducing their spirit in her own work. What better way to be faithful than to adopt the sly indirectness of her favorite authors, their focus on insight and truth, on the essential?

Not surprisingly, Halebsky, a poet with a postmodern sensibility, finds echoes of that sensibility in much earlier poets. In their company she is able to indulge her love of disjunction, seeming contradiction, and the incommensurate. Her own anything-but-elegant life is a declaration on behalf of hermit poets everywhere and a gentle rebuke to court ladies. The Pillow Book, perhaps the most famous book from Japan’s Heian period, was a private affair, a series of miscellaneous lists drawn from daily life at court, intended only for its author, Sei Shonagon. Like its inspiration, Spring and a Thousand Years (Unabridged) attempts to capture the ephemera and the ephemerality of life, even the most comfortable of lives.

This approach can be seen in “Glossary”—the title alluding, of course, to the mechanisms of translation—which offers a series of short, haiku-like poems, disguised as a guide to understanding:

Geographic Distribution—Range, wingspan, shade cast by tree branches, how to count whales, bird habitat, air temperature, ice floe, polar, panda, grizzly.

How do we read this list? What is its arc? Are we to feel a certain unease, as we scan the melting polar ice and visit those vanishing species? Perhaps because we in the U.S. may be reluctant to look beneath the surface, the poet helps us with a note: “This is a record of what is living now. In the future, it will serve as a historical record.” The almost offhand tone of that last sentence cannot obscure its anguish and regret.

Yet while Halebsky visits the past, she is not trapped in it; as a poet she is alive to ways that language renews itself. In “Addendum: Fifth Moon,” she notes: “these words are thousands of years old,” and yet they keep finding new ways to combine: “concrete streets with tires, a hydro river dam, legions of kung fu seven-year-olds with analog synthesizers, a ukulele revival, and a phone that can name constellations of stars.” The poet is also at times wryly personal, as in another entry in “Glossary” (“Height”) where she tells her lover, “I wish you were one foot shorter so we could talk easier standing up. And so I wouldn’t feel like a tiny person from a different tribe, one of grandmothers and twelve-year-olds, the undernourished, gymnasts, girl twins, snow men.”

Spring and a Thousand Years (Unabridged) is an invigorating book, offering readers not just the pleasures of the imagination but also a way to avoid the spiritual poverty which afflicts so many modern lives. Halebesky approaches contemporary disasters (climate change, post-industrial surfeit) with insight and unflinching strength; she confronts her own time with a stoicism learned from an earlier time, when self-abnegation, simplicity, and discipline provided a path to freedom.

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