Tag Archives: spring 1999

ARTIFICIAL HEART

Peter Gizzi
Burning Deck ($10)

by Ruth AndrewsArtificial Heart

Something must be moving at incredible speed.
With pure speed I address you, reality.
—Peter Gizzi, "Tous les matins du monde"

Peter Gizzi was much lauded—deservedly—for the publication, last year, of the collected lectures of Jack Spicer, which he edited. Unfortunately, his own work as a poet tended to get eclipsed in the melee. Now that the dust has settled let it be loudly proclaimed: Gizzi's Artificial Heart is a carefully chiseled book of poetic wonders.

The oxymoron of the title is certainly one dichotomy that fuels these poems. Much as the Tina Modotti photograph on the book's cover arrests the hands of the puppeteer in mid-motion, converting movement into monument, so does Gizzi offer a many-chambered book whose artifice belies its heart. Nowhere in the book is this point driven home more forcefully than in the long poem "Pierced," in which "the heart of poetry" is explicated amidst an incredibly visceral gasp and rush, memory colliding with techne as they move through the thanatopsic throat:

The heart of poetry is a hollow man
a heteronym, a forensic test, & casino chip
a long distance call

"Pierced" is a masterpiece, a panoramic tracking shot of "that swell vista between the century and now." It is as likely to quote Beach Boys as Eliot; it allows itself "to err, to wander/wonder, to drift"; it peals with music both metrical and tourettic; and its apocalyptic vision flowers before us in full fright.

If "Pierced" gets to the core of this artificial heart, it is surrounded by viaducts that carry life-sustaining information to and fro. Gizzi's work is often concerned with "The Question of Scale," as one of the poems puts it, and it attacks the enormity of this task with fervor. For example: when "The Truth and Life of Pronouns" is examined, their referents seem further away than ever:

You were indifferent to dusk and its originality,
a hard copy, plain in commonality, a single person
xeroxed to the distant field.

Using such relentless yet grounded abstraction, Gizzi fully inhabits our strange era—"New Picnic Time"—and finds a way to address our reality with a "pure speed" that goes far beyond mere description. Yet, conscious of "the useless treasure of an ending," Gizzi never abandons his work to head games. When he does play—and it's no accident that "toy" is an important word in this book—he invokes the spirit of honest conversation rather than pastiche, and of emotion rather than exegesis.

One telltale aspect of Gizzi's heart is his love of music. This shines, surely, in the content of the poems: "New Picnic Time" is named for a Pere Ubu album, and "Fear of Music" after one by Talking Heads; both poems "sample" the lyrics of these band's songwriters in seamless and engaging ways, turning their punk postmodernism to his more archly crafted ends. But more importantly, Gizzi's impeccable sense of line and of stanza create a fine and delicate music throughout. It can be heard in the mirrory metrics of "Lonely Tylenol" ("You are not alone in your palindrome"), in the casual Ashberyisms of "Another Day on the Pilgrimage" ("Will you quit that banging? / Like a sullen barber the blade of the season / mows down the last buds and you find yourself / without pajamas") and in the arpeggios of the canzone "Decoration Day":

each one here
a photograph here
the man fell here
roses stand here
the field where
it was right here
a child exclaims "here"

In other words, "It is a song that carries this day." Gizzi's gorgeous musicality marries his abstractly conjured imagery in a wedding of non-linear bliss, once again demonstrating that the heart of poetry, artificial though it may be, veers away from sense and always toward beauty.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 1999 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999

ANIARA: An Epic Science Fiction Poem

Harry Martinson
Story Line Press
Translated by Stephen Klass and Leif Sjoberg

by Alan DeNiro

Poetry in the science fiction genre is almost uniformly putrid—as if Ogden Nash became an engineer but still wanted to keep up with the muse. And, truth be told, much of the poetry dealing with speculative science from the "literary" side of the tracks (though with notable exceptions such as A. R. Ammons and Albert Goldbarth) comes across as crib notes in the Physics for Liberal Arts classes the non-scientists took as undergrads. Henry Martinson accomplished what many would think impossible—a literate yet accessible epic science fiction poem that warrants close attention by those interested in either the outer reaches of SF writing or the inner reaches of poetry.

What makes Aniara astounding is that the visionary aspects are fully formed in both camps. In no sense is Martinson merely interested in dressing up the "sense of wonder" that has been a perennial hallmark of traditional SF. On the other hand, this is without a doubt a poem with a capital P, not a short story with line breaks. The cadences (rendered in a very able translation from the Swedish by Klass and Sjoberg) in themselves are intriguing. Though the poems usually fall into an a-b-a-b rhyme scheme, the translators are savvy enough not to use formalism as an ironclad rule and are content enough to move to a looser rhythm when the poem calls for it.

Aniara is a spaceship (or "gondoler" as it is called in the poem) gone awry. Originally bound for Mars, the craft is instead launched out of the Solar System, and into an existential struggle that lends itself more to Teilhard de Chardin or Taoism than pulp science fiction. The cast of characters is large, and in the 102 cantos the reader is presented with a bewildering array of sensory detail:

We listen daily to the sonic coins
provided every one of us and played
through the Finger-singer worn on the left hand.
We trade coins of diverse denominations:
and all of them play all that they contain
and though a dyma scarcely weighs one grain
it plays out like a cricket on each hand
blanching here in this distraction-land.

The danger in this kind of project is that word choices like "dyma" and "sonic coins" will pass right by many readers, yet it's the pure audaciousness of such language that satisfies the most. As one follows the path of the Aniara through uncharted space, all familiar symbolic referents begin to fall away, until the reader is left with the rarest of endings in poetry—the Earned Abstraction. Few can get away with using the word Nirvana in the last line of a poem, yet by the end of Martinson's effort one becomes more and more certain of the journey that was just undertaken—that it wasn't quite as bewildering as it looked on first glance.

Aniara was written in 1953, and though the Cold War has since passed, and the Space Age has a bit of wear and tear to it, one can sense that Martinson is both enthralled and frightened by the age of machines. He is not afraid, however, to package those emotions in black humor:

The strangest omens would be seen in space
but, since they were unsuited to the program
of our day, they were promptly forgotten.

Vast, iconic, and highly stylized, Aniara is space opera in the truest, most literal sense of the phrase.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 1999
| © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999

DEEPSTEP COME SHINING

Deepstep Come Shining

C. D. Wright
Copper Canyon Press ($14)

by Mark Nowak

“If I were not here; and I am alien; a bodyless eye; this would never have existence in human perception." So writes James Agee ("a spy, traveling as a journalist") about midway through Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a book (and a comment) central to any reading of C. D. Wright's compelling new volume, Deepstep Come Shining. For like Wright, Agee—a displaced Southerner working in the North—returns in this book to an "other" South (not his, or her, home state) and observes, spies, writes, imagines.

Spy. Eye. Wright. Sight. A literary surveyor/surveiller following "just a hypothetical blind woman brought out of complete darkness" on a Southern road trip in search of healing and sight, C. D. Wright becomes her characters' eyes. Like Agee, Wright's observing narrator can be apologetic: "I am sorry. I mean for no one to come to such harm. But vulnerability in a man. I find it very appealing. Forgive me. I do not mean to intrude . . ." Wright's narrator can also be brash: "Let's blow. I dare you to go in the bathroom in the student union with this neon magic marker and write: Bite me you big-balled boogie man." She can even riff on Agee's own lyricism: "What are you going to do when our lamps are out. / What are you going to do."

Readers of Deepstep Come Shining will see (through Wright's eyes) rural Southern culture, snippets of local conversations, trips to "the boneman" and "the snakeman," but always through a narrator never quite there; a narrator almost inevitably speaking in fragments; a narrator who will rarely pass a page or two without some covert or overt reference to her own subjectivity as a reader of Agee, Bakhtin, and Wittgenstein, a viewer knowledgeable of the early filmic experiments of the Lumière Brothers and contemporary innovative "visual" art from the likes of Akira Kurosawa, Deborah Luster, and Howard Finster.

And it's this that I most respect and appreciate about Deepstep Come Shining: to me, it signals one of the rare publications where a writer simultaneously "goes native" and "stays home" (Zora Neale Hurston's work is a seminal early example in this style). Denying her ties to neither the eccentricities of the rural South (which I'm afraid too many reviewers will focus almost exclusively on) nor academic/institutional life (the author is, after all, a professor at Brown University, a Guggenheim and NEA fellow, and former State Poet of Rhode Island), Wright melds these disparate voices, these fragments of her own polysubjectivity, into one of the most unique volumes of investigative, observational poetics to have been published in a very long time.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 1999 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999

SCIENCE & STEEPLEFLOWER

Science &  Steepleflower

Forrest Gander
New Directions Press ($12.95)

by Peter Gurnis

Take a look at Sally's Mann's haunting photograph on the cover: the surface of water full of light, dark tree-lined banks, branches etched in somber clarity. If we look intently, we lose ourselves, as if staring at something forbidden. The surface has a kind of luminous depth—not just tilting back the light from the sky, but welling up out of the dark. The surface of the water as if a body—ravishing and intense. Sally Mann's photograph gives us a glimpse into what Gander's poems do.

At the dog-end of the century, when the lyric and the poet's persona seem whittled down impossibly thin, along comes Forrest Gander. His poems are heroic, working on a big canvas with the drive and intensity that I associate with Rothko or Pollock. He has an alert eye that sees more than most of us do, capturing in precise detail the splendor of the world, knowing that only with clarity comes beauty. Each element is momentarily at rest. The intensity, "the rawness of the looking," is not some false stasis, but the vertigo of being in the world. Gander has about him the intensity of the hunter, the savage combination of patience and readiness: alert before the unexpected.

The best poems in the collection have rigor, economy, passion, and a fierce eroticism. Look at the end of his "Landscape with a Man Being Killed by a Snake":

Vaguely, wetting the dildo in her mouth
A quel remir contral lums de la lampa
They went on sleeping in the same bed
And in the luminous runnels of her dream
He hunted for orange and fly agaric
Her arm bending from the pillow toward the west
A shaft of bituminous despair
So nine books of Herodotus' dire History
Begin with a lover commending
Recklessly the beloved's body

Allen Grossman and Mark Halliday, in their book of conversations Against Our Vanishing, discuss the striking absence of the heroic in contemporary poetry; they claim we never see an elevated, grandly figurative language that is not undercut by irony. But in Gander's "Landscape with a Man" we hear an unmistakably heroic tone. What I admire most is his unrelenting desire stripped bare of the extraneous. Many poems seem grounded in the inexorable failure of everyday life, or possess a generous sympathy for the suffering of others, but here he sounds like a New Romantic. Gander understands Pound's warning that "nothing counts save the quality of the affection."

Gander has an infectious curiosity about science and history, and I think that he has a sincere desire to integrate human experience. With the willful opacity of the Language Poets on one side, and on the other, tired practitioners of the Suburban Elegy, few poets try for such a sweep, and even fewer succeed. Donald Revell cites Olson on the book's cover. Yes, Gander is a geographer, having the clarity that a mapmaker requires to get us to where we need to go, out of necessity, to travel light in a new world. Compare him to whom you please; like the best, he doesn't sleep in anyone's shadow.

The lyric intensity is almost prophetic, by turns elliptical or a dizzy headlong rush of syllables falling, but all of a sudden he stops dead and talks straight, saying, "I / Wouldn't piss in your ear if your brain were on fire." And it is on fire, reading this collection. With Science & Steepleflower, Forrest Gander comes into his own as a poet "whose signature and measure [are] unmistakable." My only criticism is that the book would better work without the sequence "Eggplant and Lotus Root"; first published as a chapbook in 1991, the sequence predates the clarity of the recent work. But usually Gander knows just how far to go, "for the sheer ass of it." Here's the second half of the opening poem, "Time and the Hour":

So the light came   to contain numbers
and the first   was intoxication
and Giotto was intoxicated painting Scrovegni
1306.         Out of the fields—wheat
cockleburs, jimson—a farmer stood up his hoe
and when that hoe was standing on its own shadow
he knew, and he was certain that he knew.

The trick is to make a poem that stands up straight "on its shadow." But it isn't a trick, not with such clarity. Gander's onto something big, having discovered a language that unites intelligence and compassion to move us deeply.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.


Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 1999
| © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999

A GOOD CUNTBOY IS HARD TO FIND

A Good Cuntboy Is Hard to Find

Doug Rice
Cyber-Psychos AOD ($5)

by Emily Streight

With his last book, a delicious obscenity called Blood of Mugwump: A Tiresian Tale of Incest, Doug Rice inadvertently became the poster-boy for writers who use dirty words; the book's publisher had received NEA funding, which prompted certain U.S. senators to decry arts funding as loudly as possible. This latest work, a collection of texts that reprise and extend the themes and techniques of Mugwump, would no doubt further enrage the pundits of morality had government money gotten anywhere near it. Instead, published by a small press on the fringes of the commercial world, it's more likely to languish in obscurity.

Which would be a shame. What has been truly obscured by the NEA controversy is the quality of Rice's writing. A Good Cuntboy Is Hard to Find is not easy reading. But neither is it shock for shock's sake. Here, as in his previous book, Rice undertakes the formidable project of re-situating literary history within a transgressive landscape, of quoting our esteemed forebears with an addled tongue. As such, his work circumscribes the boundary of postmodernism, even as it circumcises words to do it. In Mugwump Rice split the difference between Burroughs, Faulkner, and Greek tragedy, demonstrating the endless permutability of the trope of incest in their work. Here, in these scattered yet remarkably cohesive short narratives, Faulkner is again a primary presence, yet Whitman, Cervantes, and Proust are also dis(re)membered and reinvented—and though it's indeed hard to do, Rice finds them good cuntboys all.

Yet the virus Rice injects into the set of writings we call "literature" is only half the story here. In the vein of hard-hitting French theorists (Deleuze, Bataille, etc.) and American transgressive precursors (especially Burroughs and Kathy Acker, but also Raymond Federman, Clint Eastwood, and Courtney Love), Rice manipulates language to an extreme degree, as he says he will in "Teethmarks: Memory Skin": "I'm going to write. Write words everywhere, not say them but actually put them here and there. For the seeing. You see this writing? Not my tongue in your cunt speaking, but the real words—uncontrolled and raining." The signifiers of sex and autobiography are the most at risk in Rice's prose, constantly shifting, exploring the metaphysics of self through hallucinatory logic: "I believed in my mommie's cunt . . . I, an impossible virgin, her son, touched my mother's lips. Thinking thoughts of being I, her daughter, my sister to my cock" (from "The Making of Dougie's Cunt"). Such metaphysics are perhaps expressed most simply in the closing line of the book's first text, "Broken Tongue"—"I want God to see me"; the willful and sustained transformation, through writing, of "Doug Rice" into "cunt" is an attempt to satisfy this anguished desire.

The biography page at the back of the book tells us that Rice has a wife and three kids, and offers a snapshot of a bespectacled, mild-mannered English professor; it is perhaps the most transgressive moment in the whole book. While his writing may sometimes seem lost in its own, complex, incestuously sexed labyrinth, Rice always challenges the reader to keep up—to reimagine the parameters of fictive discourse. And this, after all, is one of the great tasks of literature.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 1999 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999

THE SENSUALIST

The Sensualist

Barbara Hodgson
Chronicle Books ($22.95)

by Rachel Pollack

The Sensualist fulfills its title first and foremost in the physical book itself—beautiful to look at and to hold, with the cover, dust jacket, and even endpapers a field of enigmatic illustrations. On a small card pasted onto the cover is a skeleton and the book's subtitle: "A Mysterious Illustrated Tale for All the Senses." With 41 spectacular full-page illustrations it certainly fulfills the pleasures of sight. The pictures are mostly archaic anatomical drawings, some of them layered; that is, you lift a flap to find another drawing underneath, either a detail or an internal level, as if the flaps follow a dissection. In addition to the anatomical images, the pictures include such things as torn maps, a collage of dictionary fragments scrawled with notes, what may be a cloudy x-ray, a magnificent engraving of a crowded Renaissance theater of medicine presided over by a skeleton holding a staff, and faint grainy portraits of a man's face in anguish, overlaid by Braille.

The novel also engages what we might call an inner sense of wonder. It opens with the stunning sentence "Helen woke up in the middle of the night wearing someone else's breasts." There are other such images and moments, some frightening, others humorous. Helen meets a blind man who lives in a house filled with art and books; he used to be a photographer whose pictures were so perfect their subjects no longer had any need to exist and simply died. She meets a famed biographer who bases all his work on the phone book. She meets a man with a perfect pearl in place of one of his teeth.

With so many delights, I wanted very much to like this book; unfortunately, I often found it slow and tedious. As the above sentences indicate, the action of the book consists largely of Helen meeting people. Few of the descriptions and characters really excite the senses. Helen travels to Vienna, Budapest, and Munich, yet we get very little feeling for the sensual reality of these places.

Helen Martin is searching for her husband Martin (we never find out if she has taken his last name in marriage, which would make him Martin Martin), though she does not seem seriously concerned about finding him. She fantasizes her mother telling her never to lie and in her mind she answers "My whole life is a lie!" But she never follows up this epiphany. The line actually resonates with the plot, for the story concerns possible forgeries of anatomical engravings by a 16th-century artist. When Helen discovers that the pictures are modern work done on old paper, it opens doors to questions about authenticity and lies. But neither Helen nor the text go very far through those doors.

The "sensualist" of the title may be a play on "surrealist." In the surrealist tradition the novel follows the associative logic of dreams—everything is connected, dead characters make calls on disconnected telephones, people's identities shift (or lurch) between bodies and times. Unfortunately, surrealism in fiction can become merely a series of wondrous surfaces. From dreams we wake with a sense of some powerful truth under that iceberg tip of mystery; to convey a similar sense of emotional truth, a book needs a strong central character. Helen too often seems little more than a focus for the bizarre people and events that surround her.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 1999 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999

THIRST

Thirst

Ken Kalfus
Washington Square Press ($16)

by Christopher M. Worth

Ken Kalfus brings together in this collection a stunning variety of places, times and characters, weaving a rich and complex picture of the human soul in its most vulnerable predicament—being out of place. Kalfus's protagonists find themselves far from home, returning home, and divided between two homes in nearly equal measure, and the reader is deftly wrenched along with the characters' displacement.

An immensely broad range of settings for the stories gives the collection a sense of sweeping grandeur; they strike a fine balance between ecumenicism and internationalism, achieving a profound unity that most novels could only hope for. Kalfus leads us on tours of the present and past, to places near and far, and, most importantly, within.

Kalfus's language is striking without relying on cheap affectation or clever artifice. "The Republic of St. Mark, 1849" takes place in a Venice besieged by the invading Austrians and Croats and by deadly epidemic. Alessandro, the protagonist, recounts the last days of war and plague in the once-grand city even as he himself dies from cholera. So real is Alessandro's hopelessness that the reader, too, feels the weight of a doomed man in a once-glorious (but now dying) city.

Throughout the collection, the dialogue, too, is entirely convincing, and indeed one of Kalfus's most notable gifts. Though few of the stories rely heavily on dialogue, the voices of his characters are always crystalline, revealing nearly everything about themselves in a way that is just overt enough to be satisfying, but still fraught with enough common human insecurities to seem unerringly authentic.

Kalfus deftly creates characters that are real in the sense that they are more than archetypes—more than simply the manifestation of a particular emotion. They are likable, fairly ordinary people in most cases who find themselves in extraordinary situations. In "Day and Night You are the One," the protagonist is the victim of an odd "sleep disorder" which causes him to fall asleep in his apartment on one side of town and almost immediately awaken in his other apartment on the opposite side. His two lives progress quite nicely until elements of one life begin to bleed into the other.

The narrator of "No Grace on the Road" is an economist returned to the Thailand of his birth who, with his American wife, spends a harrowing night in the height of the monsoon in the humble home of a young couple with a very sick infant. They are unable to convince the couple that they are not doctors, that they have no medicine, and that they in all likelihood cannot help the child. Fighting for survival in the raging storm, Palin finds himself railing against the impossible backwardness of the country he has proudly identified with for his entire life.

Kalfus's style and execution are flawless. He takes the most disparate elements of the human psyche and the world around us and knits together a stunning tapestry of humanity out of place. The only drawback to this collection is, simply, that it eventually comes to an end.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 1999 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999

LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD IN THE RED LIGHT DISTRICT

Manlio Argueta
Translated by Edward Waters Hood
Curbstone Press ($14.95)

by Susan Swartwout

The logistics of conducting a wartime love affair are seldom more orchestratable or romantic than "Your place, or mine?" Yet in this innovative, political novel, Manlio Argueta creates the poignancy and desperation of two lovers caught in El Salvador's deadly civil strife. In this world, much of their relationship must resign itself to the destructive hell of memory, like "the fly's egg in the fruit so that the larvae will be able to eat it up from the inside out."

Argueta was a member of El Salvador's most acclaimed group of writers, La Generacion Comprometida, from 1950 to 1956. His novels (including the widely-praised One Day of Life, which addresses social conditions in El Salvador through one day in the life of a middle-aged peasant woman) have enjoyed international success. Not surprisingly, however, Argueta is known in his own country primarily as a poet: this novel uses figurative language as beautifully as a poem would, despite the novel's darkest events that brand themselves on our collective memory—events as unforgettable as Salvador's desaparecidos, those who have disappeared.

The dialogue between dreams and desires, and parallels to the Red Riding Hood fairy tale, intertwine throughout the novel, accenting effect over chronology. As with any recursive writing, a chronology-junkie will flounder through this dense and intense book. Yet, throughout the novel's flow the reader is enveloped in the thoughts, lifetime, and losses of two war-crossed lovers. The experience is haunting.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 1999 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999

SPLIT-LEVEL DYKES TO WATCH OUT FOR

Split-Level Dykes to Watch Out For

Alison Bechdel
Firebrand Books ($10.95)

by Pat Carlin

Everybody's favorite dykes are back, and better than ever. For years now the savvy cartoonist Alison Bechdel has been chronicling the lives of this lesbian community as they make their way through a world of stress, work, death, and taxes—in short, the world everybody has to deal with. And she somehow manages this complex cast of characters in strip-sized segments that appear weekly in alternative newspapers across the country. But as carefully crafted as each "episode" is, they read even better in the collections, of which Split-Level Dykes to Watch Out For is the most recent.

The main story in this book is centered around the bugbear of home-ownership. Eternal housemates Lois, Sparrow, and Ginger have decided to buy the house they live in when their landlord puts it up for sale, and invite Sparrow's new boyfriend (I told you these lesbians were complex) to live with them. Meanwhile, Clarice, Toni, and their legally adopted son Raffi are also buying their first home. Jezanna, the owner of Madwimmen Bookstore, is bringing her widowed father to live with her, and the always politically outraged Mo is about to shack up with her new fling, women's studies professor Sydney. As the characters debate and fret over their various moves, Bechdel manages to integrate a real sense of the stress and politics of home-buying and moving. The final story in the book is a thirty-five-page short story called "Demographic Rift," which follows all the characters on moving day, which they manage to get through without killing each other (but barely).

As if all this weren't enough, there are plenty of subplots to keep things interesting. The fiercely independent Madwimmen Books has to fight for survival when the corporate Bounder's Book-N-Muzak moves in down the block, a situation certainly derived from real life. Marital stress versus new love provides plenty of contrast. And the presence of Stuart really throws a wrench in everybody's sexual politics. Bechdel is a gifted writer, able to poke fun at PC lesbian liberalism even as she stays true to these same values on a personal level. And she is surely a gifted artist, employing a simple, clean style that tells the story plainly while constantly invoking humor (one newspaper headline reads "Steinem says groping by boss okay if he's a democrat"). If you're already a fan of Bechdel's work, Split-Level Dykes to Watch Out For shows her at her best; if you're not, this book should convince you to become one.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 1999 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999

GROWN UP ALL WRONG

Grown Up All Wrong

Robert Christgau
Harvard University Press ($29.95)

by Brian Beatty

These days, everybody fancies himself a critic. The dangerous among the legion subscribe to the "rock & roll nigger" aesthetic—perhaps best personified by the late, oft-sainted Lester Bangs. Writing as if hunkered in the trenches alongside their subjects, fighting a culture war vs. a brutal, apathetic society, these would-be-if-they-could-be's want to believe their work means something. Others, who realize there's no converting the unwilling masses, usually turn into culpable academics—sometimes within classroom confines, sometimes just pretending (i.e., Greil Marcus). Their strategy is to thrust intellectualism upon pop music, perhaps to justify the adolescent endeavor of taking the subject seriously at all. These writers are often found attending university conferences, swapping Dylan and Zappa bootlegs in the public toilets.

Could tenacious fanzine ranters really democratize an imploding billion-dollar retail market in the name of art? Is Greil Marcus slumming among today's riot grrls in hopes of copping a feel, or is he a true fan? Eternal questions.

No doubt Village Voice music editor Robert Christgau's a fan—not to mention a tempered leftist and a joker. But besides these things, he's a consummate music critic: "I'm driven by a continuing quest for music that will serve some function or other in my life and yours—inspire, amuse, enlighten, calm, excite...know beauty and feel truth." While it may seem blasphemous to approach your art with such candor, it's an aesthetic question in the end.

In the voice of blackface minstrel Emmett Miller, the gender-fuck lust of alterna-diva P J Harvey, or the corporate sell-out of indie stalwarts Sonic Youth, Christgau searches out beauty and truth. What he discovers is up for argument. "What's easiest to describe about Miller's singing is what's weirdest about it—his signature yodel," Christgau writes. "No Swiss or African model suggests its sound, and his imitators Rodgers and Williams don't come close to duplicating it." Few critics would be so quick to dismiss country music legends Jimmie Rodgers or Hank Williams. But Christgau is a contrarian whose evaluations aren't rooted in absolutes, but in the music he's heard and thinks we should hear (or not) for ourselves.

Occaionally Christgau even changes his mind (which is the fun of flipping through his album guides for the '70s and '80s). The longer pieces collected here afford Christgau a better articulated perspective than his short-graded reviews: "I haven't heard [Sonic Youth] live since before Bad Moon Rising—early on I thought (correctly) that they sucked, after which they discouraged my attendance by calling for my assassination at gigs . . . All I know is that the CD version of Goo peals and clangs with the clearest recorded version to date of a guitar sound that has always been their reason for living and their excuse for telling the world about it."

Grown Up All Wrong is Robert Christgau's high-fidelity reason for living inside the pop music aesthetic. This compendium of his profiles and features should be required reading for anyone attempting a career, or even a sideline hobby, in putting words to paper on the subject of popular music.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 1999 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999

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Query Monitor


Fatal error: Uncaught Error: Call to undefined function twentytwelve_content_nav() in /home/raintaxi_vps/raintaxi.com/New/wp-content/themes/twentytwelve/tag.php:47 Stack trace: #0 /home/raintaxi_vps/raintaxi.com/New/wp-includes/template-loader.php(106): include() #1 /home/raintaxi_vps/raintaxi.com/New/wp-blog-header.php(19): require_once('/home/raintaxi_...') #2 /home/raintaxi_vps/raintaxi.com/index.php(17): require('/home/raintaxi_...') #3 {main} thrown in /home/raintaxi_vps/raintaxi.com/New/wp-content/themes/twentytwelve/tag.php on line 47