Tag Archives: spring 2001


Demonology by Rick MoodyRick Moody
Little, Brown ($24.95)

by Eric Lorberer

Zigzag, whirlpool, connect-the-dots: if you were to chart the progression of stories in Rick Moody's Demonology, you'd draw anything but a straight line. This restless energy seems fitting; as opposed to the steely precision of The Ice Storm or the epic thrust of Purple America, Moody's stories try out strategy after strategy, searching for a new way to say it while no doubt also keeping all his writing muscles limber. In any case, Demonology is a collection remarkable for the ground it covers both formally and emotionally, a winning display of why Moody is increasingly recognized as one of the great prose stylists of his generation.

Moody's penchant for pushing the boundaries of form accounts for a great deal of Demonology's wandering teleology. The delightful "Surplus Value Books: Catalog Number 13," takes the shape of a rare book dealer's listing of prized acquisitions while simultaneously telling the tale of the narrator's undying love for one Anna Feldman; the result is a work in which Nabokov meets Woody Allen, its pleasures bound to produce both belly-laughs and sophisticated inward chuckles. "Wilkie Fahnstock: The Boxed Set" goes even further, providing the liner notes and track listings to a ten-volume collection of mix-tapes that beautifully sketch the life of "a confused, contemporary young person, a young man overlooked by the public, a person of meager accomplishment, a person of bad temperament, but a guy who nonetheless has a very large collection of compact discs!"

If that phrase doesn't make it perfectly evident, Moody excels not only at rendering the minutiae of real people but at pegging the universal archetypes behind them. "Boys," for example, spins the domestic saga of twin brothers from the moment of birth, all while riffing on the phrase "Boys enter the house." This vertiginous repetition, like some brilliantly and perversely edited film, catches the boys at points of entry (figurative as well as literal, of course) throughout their lives—up to the moment their father dies, the moment when "Boys, no longer boys, exit." But what is truly remarkable about the story is how it manages to detail the lives of these particular characters while simultaneously telling a much broader story—in this case, one of masculinity and culture.

Another formalist trick up Moody's sleeve is the story rendered in a single unstoppable sentence, reminding me of the question poet Robert Francis asks in "Apple Peeler": "Why the unbroken spiral, Virtuoso / Like a trick sonnet in one long, versatile sentence?" The answer, of course, becomes evident in the telling; Moody peels his love poem to perfection in "Drawer," a two-page ditty whose protagonist has junked his beloved's armoire on the beach ("She called it an armoire, which was the problem") and contemplates the word and their breakup with tidal fervor:

He'd walked upon the beach whistling lullabies, but he'd never learned how to say the word armoire with any conviction at all, and he would have included demitasse and taffeta and sconce and minuet, actually, he'd gone gray trying to learn all these words, he'd become an old unteachable dog trying to learn how to say these things, how to say I love you he supposed.

Lovely as it is though, "Drawer" is just the primer for "Ineluctable Modality of the Vaginal," a later story in the volume that brings Moody's comma-spliced craftsmanship to a startling fruition. Boldly announcing its intention to update Joyce, the story is one long "unbroken spiral" of a couple in trouble, a couple so firmly entrenched in feminist literary theory that their interactions are completely subsumed by it:

Arguing about Lacan's late seminars, about the petit objet a, or about the theory of the two lips, about the expulsion of Irigary, I think that's what it was, though I'm willing to bet most couples don't argue about such things, at least not after two or three margaritas, probably not under any circumstances at all, but then again we weren't really arguing about that, not about French psychoanalysis, not about the petit object a, not about Irigary and that sex which is not one, but about something else altogether, it's always something else, that's what was making me so sad.

Moody's academic send-up is completely on target (indeed, the story should be required reading in all graduate literature courses), but far more impressively, it plumbs the very subject of the theory it sends up—the cultural relation between the sexes—and does so in the context of its jargon-spouting characters. Toward the end of the story, Moody's female narrator questions the "ineluctable modality of the vaginal" with a dramatic home exam:

I pulled the metal folding chair from under the kitchen table, situated it at the end of the table, situated it for spectatorship, I have a vagina, I said, I have a uterus, I have a cervix, he nodded wearily, and I said, Man's feminine is not woman's feminine, and he nodded wearily, and I told him to quit nodding, and I asked him if he happened to know where his shoehorn was.

It should go without saying that Moody doesn't rely on these flourishes of form to craft his fiction, a point easily proven by glancing at some of the more traditionally rendered tales here. The unforgettable "Forecast from the Retail Desk" shows how the ability to see the future is "like having really bad acne," but argues with heartbreaking persuasion that "there was a time when everybody knew the future, but a few wise types elected to forget what was to come, as we all elect, eventually, to forget the past." In the book's pitch-perfect opener, "The Mansion on the Hill," the narrator speaks to his dead sister about his job at a wedding/reception emporium, and the woeful turn it takes when the "Rip Van Winkle Room" is schedule for the services of her still-living fiancé and his new bride. Then there's the book's exquisite finale, the title story. Bringing us full circle, "Demonology" is also the story of a dead sister, offered as a series of snapshots; it builds into a moving elegy that culminates with the writer, who we've seen can extemporize endlessly, questioning his own resources:

I should fictionalize it more, I should conceal myself. I should consider the responsibilities of characterization, I should conflate her two children into one, or reverse their genders, or otherwise alter them, I should make her boyfriend a husband, I should let artifice create an elegant surface, I should make the events more orderly, I should wait and write about it later, I should wait until I'm not angry, I shouldn't clutter a narrative with fragments, with mere recollections of good times, or with regrets, I should make Meredith's death shapely and persuasive, not blunt and disjunctive, I shouldn't have to think the unthinkable.

It is in thinking the unthinkable, of course, that both "Demonology" and Demonology lay bare the truth in fiction, the lodestone for which we readers yearn and return. Like his fellow wunderkind David Foster Wallace, Rick Moody is one of a rare breed who manages to be both smart-alecky and just plain smart at once, and who never lets his prodigious talent for playing with language outstrip the depth such language has to offer.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001

Walker Evans Revisited

Arena Editions ($65)

Scalo ($39.95)

by Kelly Everding

Famous for his Farm Security Administration photographs of Depression-struck Southern folk, Walker Evans is the latest artist to be "retrospected," hailed as a pioneer and visionary of his time. Every scrap Evans ever touched now assumes a halo of genius, and the thousands of photographs dispersed in the last year of his life are surfacing to the joy of photography aficionados everywhere. The March 26, 2001 New Yorker printed a throw-away image by Evans, "killed" with a dismissive hole punch, now collected and preserved by the Library of Congress and available to the general public through their "American Memory" web site. Walker Evans is hot—but for good reason, as two new books can attest. Walker Evans: The Lost Work and Unclassified: A Walker Evans Anthology couldn't be more different, but together they flesh out the long career of Walker Evans, fifty years of creative output of one kind or another. Their portrayal of this prolific and observant man dashes any easy categorization one might project on his photographic mission. His eagerness to document America and its people in all walks of life pushes beyond the boundaries of his own era, and instead serves to enlighten our understanding of Evans as the fiercely intelligent and uncompromising eye behind the lens.

Clark Worswick purchased the photographs collected in Walker Evans: The Lost Work, and his introductory essay traces the labyrinthine dealings that occurred during the last years of Evans's life. Evans sold the bulk of his negatives and prints to George Rinhart and Tom Bergen in two separate purchases. In turn, Rinhart and Bergen sold the collection to Harry Lunn, who proceeded to authenticate the collection with an estate stamp in lieu of Evans's signature, as he was too weak in the hospital to sign. Lunn appears to be much reviled in the photography world, his name eliciting epithets and derisive howls; being the owner of the bulk of Evans's output, he made it his life-long goal to make Evans work among the best-sold of all time. He succeeded, of course, however the prints he sold were much the same, collected from Evans's Depression-era work. Lunn couldn't sell the lesser-known work until he found the eager Worswick, who recognized the mastery of this "marginalia."

Fortunately, the prints exquisitely reproduced in this book resist the seedy art business dealings that surround them. Collected here is the work that follows the long arc of Evans's output: photos of friends and their homes; photos from Cuba, England, Nova Scotia, and all over the United States; architectural photos; subway photos; photos of signage; and of course photos from the South of the 1930s. Writers will enjoy seeing portraits of Tennessee Williams, Robert Lowell, Lady Caroline Blackwood, and Hart Crane. Together with the intimate interiors of his friends' houses—clothes draped here and there, the cigarette butts and empty bottles of last night's party in full view—the sense of character in mundane, inanimate objects becomes heightened to a large degree. Evans's infamous detachment from his subjects ("Detachment is my professional equipment," he maintained) allows the subjects of his pictures to create their own aura of story and soul. Unposed, the houses, people, tables and lamps "let be be finale of seem," as Wallace Stevens put it. Worswick shows off his good taste by selecting these fantastic plates, and Belinda Rathbone's delightful closing essay adds more history and perspective to the collection for those unfamiliar with Evans and his life. "Evans did not draw a strict line between the private and public subject matter for his art," says Rathbone, which further enhances the detachment he imposed on himself when photographing his subjects—everything was fair game, everything treated with a fierce equality.

Unclassified: A Walker Evans Anthology is somewhat of an antipode to the above book. While Worswick's collection respects the detachment of the artist in its staid, "art book" presentation, Unclassified, graced with a self-portrait of a young Evans's blurred visage on the cover in mid-yawp, is something altogether different. Replete with facsimiles of letters, type-written stories, newspaper photos, lists, postcards, magazine articles, and family photos, every page is infused with Evans's singular personality. Published as a companion to the Metropolitan Museum of Art's retrospective of Walker Evans's work, and terrifically edited by Jeff L. Rosenheim and Douglas Eklund, Unclassified collects, as did the obsessive Evans, the ephemera that informed Evans's life.

As a young man, Evans was a great lover of literature and wanted to become a writer. He wrote short stories and poems throughout his life, but here are collected some early stories that reveal his aesthetic leanings. In 1926 he moved to France and enrolled at the Sorbonne and at the Collège de la Guild where he studied language and civilization. There, he tried his hand at translating his favorite French writers, including Baudelaire and Blaise Cendrars. From Baudelaire, Evans learned to observe minutely the ephemera of urban life. In his translation of Baudelaire's "The Double Room" one can see how his attention to detail and his allowance for the object to live its own life began to form: "The furnishings are lengthened forms, dejected, weakened. They seem to dream; one would say they were gifted with a somnambulistic life, as is vegetable or mineral matter." Evans's love for collecting all sorts of mundane objects finds sympathy in the translation he made of Cendrars's short story "Mad": "I surrounded myself with the most uncouth things. A biscuit tin, an ostrich egg, a sewing machine, a piece of quartz, a bar of lead, a stovepipe. I spent my days handling and fingering and smelling these things." Both of these examples show his interest drawn toward the interior life, the interior monologue that informs the vision of his photography. His own writings were primarily interior monologues driven by intense observation borne of detachment. In his short story "Brooms" a list—how he loved to make lists—appears:


collar pin
bath slippers
Crime and Punishment
rubber cement

The accumulative aspect of this list tells a story in itself, as do his photos of detritus, signs, homes, people—themes he serialized throughout his life.

One of the assignments Evans had when he worked at Fortune magazine after World War II was to photograph unknowing passersby on a street corner in Detroit, Michigan. The project was called "Labor Anonymous," and those pages from Fortune are reproduced here along with hand-written lists, sleeves for the negatives, and a newspaper clipping from the help-wanted classifieds. These photographs captured the dignity, variety, and unselfconsciousness of the mid-century work force, but they also documented people caught in the middle of their quotidian day. Repetition of subject matter did not necessarily mean seeing the same thing over and over again—every object or subject carries its own integrity and uniqueness. Evans also took serial photos of subway riders, popular signage and advertisements from all over the country, and architectural studies of Victorian homes. His articles, "Beauties of the Common Tool" and "Vintage Office Furniture," also photographed and written for Fortune, are tour de forces of such documentation. Of the office furniture, Evans writes, "Contemporary designers are perhaps the most triumphant group of professionals operating in the land today. They may alter the entire face of business in a matter of years now. When this happens, a photographic record like the collection on these pages will be wanted by historians." Indeed, they are wanted by historians, not to mention artists, antique collectors, and even cartoonists (Chris Ware and Seth come to mind).

I have touched but the surface of this anthology. Also included in this remarkable book are selections from Evans's own collection of penny postcards (in all their gorgeous, saturated color) and newspaper clippings. Particularly arresting are the grotesque and humorous clippings of times past—multitudes in gas masks, captured outlaws, Ruth Snyder in the electric chair, and aboriginal tribesmen to name a few—all in their original glued positions on four-ring binder paper (the holes reinforced by those self-adhesive rings!). Letters to and from Evans's good friend Hanns Skolle, as well as the lists entitled "Contempt for:" he produced with writer James Agee, capture the spontaneity and wit of these young artists; the essays on younger photographers he championed, including Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander, and the photographs by Evans and others interspersed throughout the pages, also help to create a vivid portrait of this hard-working visionary. Evans writes that "art ought not to be propaganda, which is useless; it ought to have purpose and a function." Although he was referring to the exquisite eye of Arbus, he could be speaking of his own work. Unflinching and unclassifiable, Walker Evans created a powerful oeuvre that speaks for itself and serves the worthiest of functions: it reminds us of who we were and are amid the accumulating flotsam and jetsam of this world we made. We are responsible for it, and we deserve the glory and shame such responsibility entails.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001


Death and Taxes by Tony KushnerHydriotaphia & Other Plays
Tony Kushner
Theater Communications Group ($16.95)

by Justin Maxwell

Tony Kushner is a playwright who knows how to capitalize on his strengths: character, voice and theme. He knows how to make good theater with plays that are intelligent and entertaining. The pair of plays that constitute Angels in America (Millennium Approaches, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize, and Perestroika, probably his most popular work) are strong, ingenious, and delightful in their theatricality. The plays in Death & Taxes: Hydriotaphia & Other Plays are and are not the plays of Angels In America. This is a collection of diverse plays loosely gathered under the two ideas of the title, but for which, according to Kushner, "there is no overarching thematic justification."

Kushner's characters are, for all their theatricality, vibrantly human. They surprise in both their originality and how well they seem to belong to the play once they're on stage. "Hydriotaphia," the book's centerpiece, is a wonderful farce, the language of which defines and reveals the nature of its characters. It is an excellent example of how Kushner can build, explore, and reveal a variety of plot and character elements with great efficiency—in this case a stuttering, corporate-minded minister and a nun-assassin, a pair who were once lovers many years ago. Their exchange does much to reveal more than they intend to of who they are.


And to what name does she cuh-currently answer?


Mother Magdalena Vindicta, of the Abbey of X.


Aix-en-Provence? Puh-pretty town, I vuh-visited it once in my travels.


No, not Aix. X. The Abbey of X.


I Suh-said Aix.


Not A-I-X. Just X




Just … X.

Whereas "Hydriotaphia" is a comedy with supernatural elements, a work where Kushner has great freedom in the genesis of his characters, the based-on-life teleplay "East Coast Ode to Howard Jarvis" is a work structurally and stylistically antithetical to "Hydriotaphia." In it, fairly average people become extraordinary as they are slowly connected in a greedy game of telephone when one person tells another about a strange tax scheme. This connection, unseen by the characters involved, binds together people who wouldn't intentionally affiliate with one another. The characters become extraordinary because of the subtext that they don't know and the human relationships it reveals. By the time a reader encounters the character The Supremely Scary Girl Who Knows Practically Everything, Kushner has cast his net so wide his characters surprise by their aggregate. Some other characters worthy of mention, to illustrate the range of what Kushner is doing, are a damned Edgar (J. Edgar Hoover) in "G. David Schine in Hell" who appears "wearing a black Chanel dress, hose, and stiletto pumps" from out of a "Glinda" iridescent soap-bubble, and the characters Michael (played by Tony Kushner) and Tony (played by Michael Mayer, to whom the play is dedicated) in "Notes on Akiba."

Kushner's style, while changing to fit the needs of an individual work, stays consistent from text to text. A unifying consistency also manifests itself thematically, though Kushner, from his introduction, seems ready to deny it. A look at Angels and Death and Taxes would indicate otherwise. There are definite themes that Kushner explores again and again; he attacks the same human redoubts with a variety of theatrical tactics. His grand theme is the paradox of the human condition, living an existentially valid life in the ever-present face of death. Like a masterful orator he holds his audience spellbound while re-illustrating this essential question. Kushner's prose interjections imply this broader theme of paradox is not conscious on his part, but it continually reemerges refreshed and seemingly original in each play.

Though Kushner may be exploring a narrow range, his approach is so wonderfully theatrical that going into the same territory from so many different directions becomes exciting in and of itself. The entertainment level is so high readers gladly engage the notions and emotions set before them. Kushner is a playwright who always remembers to keep actors acting. His plays are alive with both motion and language, the actors always coming on stage with something to do and to say. His characters are dramatic because they are living the human paradox, not simply the vehicles for commentary on it. Though Angels in America may hold the spotlight and win the awards, the plays in Death & Taxes are equally stage worthy.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001

Two Russian Poets

31yP6b7wApL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_THE PILLAR OF FIRE
Selected Poems
Nikolay Gumilyov
translated by Richard McKane
introduced by Michael Basker
Anvil Press / Dufour Editions ($22)

Nikolay Zabolotsky
translated by Daniel Weissbort
Introduction and Essays by Robin Milner-Gulland and Nikita Zabolotsky
Carcanet Press ($25)

by Christopher Mattison

The Pillar of Fire—Richard McKane's translations of the early 20th-Century Russian poet Nikolay Gumilyov—is monumental in that it places a broad range of Gumilyov's poetry back into print in the English-speaking world. The collection contains selections from nine books spanning 1908 to 1923, including later uncollected poems, a generous introduction and notes by Michael Basker, and poems by Anna Akhmatova written for Gumilyov. As is detailed in Basker's introduction, Gumilyov spent much of his life nearing the point of internal combustion while traveling widely through Africa and other exotic ports of call. To some extent Gumilyov's poetic work has been overlooked due to the sheer brilliance of his contemporaries—most notably, his once wife Akhmatova; while the same fierce energy that led him through numerous tumultuous relationships and continents also helped to scar him, in the mind of some critics, as a figure ultimately more important as a source of inspiration than as a poet of primary importance.

Such a book should be the force necessary to reintroduce the world to a Russian poet of more than passing significance, but the book's broad range is ultimately one of its downfalls. Lauded for his previous translations of Akhmatova and Osip Mandelshtam, McKane does not truly hit his stride until the last full book of the collection, Gumilyov's The Pillar of Fire. Up to this point, the more elegantly translated stanzas are riddled with drafts that fail to resonate as anything more than solidly literal trots. McKane is precise, but he often fails to meet the ideal that he sets for himself in the translator's introduction, "to communicate the words of one poet of one country to the readers of the other country. The translator is like a pane of glass through which one can glimpse the heart of the matter . . ." McKane certainly does communicate from one language to the other, but this communication seems limited to the reproduction of words for words that only just begin to skirt the heart or its matter. His treatise is innocuous enough, but as translators slowly become more visible to the general reader, and readers subsequently become more familiar with translation issues, innocuous runs the risk of graduating to insidious. A myriad of issues could have been dealt with concerning the technical aspects of the formalist catches of rhyme and meter, an extended discussion of Gumilyov's place within Russian poetics, or even McKane's place within the small number of active and well known translators of Russian literature, but all these are swept aside for the same trite notions of translation and the heart.

In short, the majority of these translations could have benefited from some extended reflection and fewer lines of prose in verse form. Exceptions to this criticism are scattered throughout the book, such as in Chinese Poems: "In the deep cup there is still wine / and swallows' nests are on the dish"; or in Alien Sky, "I will go along the thudding sleepers"; but these individual lines lack the company to make the entire poem brilliant for an English reading audience. When I refer to the Russian originals, it is obvious that McKane is firmly entrenched in the basic meaning of the lines (in transmitting information), but it is impossible to read them without instantly wanting to substitute and invert.

To some extent it is necessary to refocus past the translations to the originals of Gumilyov, in that many of his earlier poems are considerably less mature, and thus not as interesting as the Gumilyov of the 1920s. McKane should also be given full marks for avoiding the abyss of mimicking Gumilyov's rhyme schemes. Even at those moments when the translations err on the side of literal attentiveness, they never degenerate into doggerel, which will inevitably make them a staple in the classroom, even if the collection does not win Gumilyov a broad new audience outside academia. At its core, this collection is scattered with graceful lines that occasionally reach the same level of intensity and personal longing that infested the mind of Gumilyov. What the collection lacks is the ability to consummate victory when the queen cries out in "Barbarians", "Nowhere will you find a wife more homeless / whose pitiful groans will be sweeter or more desired!" or else to rein in the "foaming steed" of translation and return home to the north. There was no place in Gumilyov's poetics for academic indecision or literal renderings. There was passion and travel and their offspring.

In contrast is Daniel Weissbort's translations of another Russian Nikolay—Nikolay Alekseyevich Zabolotsky (1903-1958). Divided into seven sections that cover the entirety of the author's poetic oeuvre, Weissbort assures the reader in his preface "that these are translations and not imitations, or my own poems." This is only partially true, in that Weissbort has transformed this Russian poet into his own, due in large part to the fact that he has been enmeshed in translating Zabolotsky for more than thirty years. Weissbort's understanding of the poet and the general worth of this collection are further expanded by the participation of Robin Milner-Gulland (a premier Zabolotsky scholar) and Zabolotsky's son, Nikita. On the surface, Milner-Gulland provides an introduction, notes, and a translation of Nikolay Zabolotsky's own account of his imprisonment in the Soviet camps, and Nikita adds an essay about his father that details more personal notes along with a timeline of the poet's literary history. Beneath this surface, their participation provides an image of the poet beyond the stanza—a point of particular importance due to the poet's relative obscurity up to the present day.

Nikolay Zabolotsky was a Russian Modernist and a founder of the OBERIU (Association of Real Art)—a group that bound together to defend "the various tendencies of leftist progressive or revolutionary art against those who sought to tame intellectual life and bring it under a single banner." Within the group's manifesto, Zabolotsky describes himself as "a poet of naked concrete figures, brought right up to the eye of the spectator. One should listen to him and read him more with the eyes and fingers than with the ears." This physicality and materialism is expressed before the poems even begin with Weissbort's discussion of approaching the poem "Agriculture Triumphant" alongside Joseph Brodsky. This elucidation of his own translation process simultaneously draws a map of Zabolotsky's devotion to "thingness," Brodsky's poetic mindscape, and Weissbort's synthesis of these various worlds. The translator's preface aside, each translation in this collection maintains an economy and intensity of language that swaggers between the absurd reality of 1920s Russia and the poetic gift of Zabolotsky—the ability to synthesize his chaotic revolutionary fervor with the natural world, as in "The School of Beetles": "We, carpenters, scholars of the forest, / mathematicians of the lives of trees . . . Rosewood teaches stone-breaking and house-building. / Ebony is metal's double, / a light for smiths, / for general and enlisted men an education." First time readers of Zabolotsky will notice a profound shift in his voice and themes after his release from prison, as he moves to more "harmonious" and classical Russian forms. Despite the considerably more subdued and melancholy tone throughout his post-imprisonment poems—"Long ago / A man bitter and wasted from hunger / Walked through a graveyard"—one is still able to make out the "consciousness still flickering" within Zabolotsky, in lines such as, "O, trees, recite Hesiodic hexameters, / be amazed by Ossian, mountain ash; / nature, it is not your long sword that sounds".

In general, I am more struck by his pre-imprisonment verse, but as this is meant to be a representative selection, the more melancholy post-imprisonment material also must be included. Unlike Mayakovksy and other poets who perished either by their own hands or at the hands of the state, Zabolotsky was able to defuse his politics and retain the revolutionary force that informed his earlier poems right up to the series of heart attacks that took his life.

This is an essential book not only for purveyors of Russian literature, or for those interested in the poetry of "survivors"—specifically of the Stalinist purges—but for anyone with fingers enough to reach into the "Monkish man who quits the stove / to climb into a bath or basin." The poetry of both Gumilyov and Zabolotsky should be grasped with these same fingers, as not only Russian, but world literature in general has been greatly transformed through their influence. The overarching difference between McKane's Gumilyov and Weissbort's Zabolotsky is that it's doubtful if McKane ever climbs into the bath. His reminiscences in the preface tell a romanticized tale of dabbling with the lines of Gumilyov on trains while translating Akhmatova and Mandelshtam. As McKane writes in the preface, "Gumilyov himself once said that he was a traveler, soldier and a poet in that order." With this collection, Gumilyov may be doomed to maintain that hierarchy. Nikita Zabolotsky, on the other hand, should feel safe in knowing that his father's English voice has received the attention it truly deserves. And that the blank space he found among the notes of his father's final written words:

1. Shepherds, animals, angels

has now been filled, in part, by Weissbort's English translations.

Click here to purchase The Pillar of Fire at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001

POETRY SLAM: The Competitive Art of Performance Poetry

Poetry Slam The Competitive Art of Performance Poetry edited by Gary Mex Glazneredited by Gary Mex Glazner
Manic D Press ($15)

by Sean Thomas Dougherty

In the late '80s, construction worker Marc Smith—now affectionately known as Slam Papi—began holding competitive poetry events at the Green Mill nightclub in Chicago. The poets would read and judges drawn randomly from the audience would give Olympic-style scoring on index cards. The less the judges knew about poetry the better. Marc's goal was to reorient American poetry back to the general populace, to take it out of the critic's hands and give the right to judge back to the average citizen. Who would have thought that 14 years later poetry slams would become a common cultural currency, crossing international borders, creating a vibrant grassroots reading circuit, and turning relatively unknown writers into fifteen-minute literary stars?

Poetry Slam is the first semi-"official" anthology of the scene, edited by the "National Slam's first producer" (though there is some question about this claim); as such, one would hope they would offer the reader an accurate look at the shape of slam and an historical narrative of its development, and that the poems included would represent slam's diversity of aesthetic and content. Sadly, this isn't the case. From the opening prose pieces about "Slam Strategy," "Group Pieces," and being "On the Road," the texture and tone speak to a juvenile reader, promising a world where they too can smoke dope and read poems in Europe. Glazner may argue that fits in with slam's message—to popularize the discourse and bring poetry back to the people, whether the people be shopping in the neon glitterati of the nearest suburban mega-mall, or blithely penning self-indulgent love notes on napkins in the latest off-street coffee-house or pizza joint—but too many poems here are so badly self-indulgent as to seem like parodies of themselves. Take for example these lines from former National Slam organizer and Poetry Alive! guru Allen Wolf's specious poem "The Secret Explanation of Where Poems Come From":

If ever you are in the room with those
Lost in a reverie of poetry,
And struggling to guide their thoughts, they close
Their seeking eyes to help them better see...

There is a difference between popularizing for the sake of public awareness—as Brooks, Neruda, Sandburg and Ginsberg did—and creating such pedagogical drivel. It is not a question of publishing bad writers either—Wolff, Staceyann Chin, Maria McCray, Roger Agair Bonard are good poets represented by forgettable pieces. Likewise, Genevieve Van Cleve and San Francisco's Beth Lisick—the latter one of the most impressive performers in North America—are represented not by their poems but by regrettable prose about being on tour, the type of writing one might expect from a beginner. What was Glazner thinking? It is almost as if, in order to affirm the populism of slam, he has gone for the lowest aesthetic denominator possible.

Despite this overall tendency, there are some tremendously successful and important poems here, the type of work that has kept slam going all these years. DJ Renegade's remarkable "Big Andre," whose short staccato lines fire: "He holds up two white rocks / they shiver in his hand / He shakes them like dice / they rattle like the bones / of a very skinny man." Boston's Michael Brown offers his discursive ode to "Ali," an insightful political poem. Elegies and odes are strong slam currency. Cleveland's Ray MacNeice lets loose a blue-collar-ode to his "Grandfather's Breath": "haggard cheeks puffing / out like work clothes hung between tenements." Marc Smith adds his movingly understated meditation on "My Father's Coat." Da Boogie Man whispers a tender ode to his estranged son, as Faith Vincinanza and Georgia Popoff offer poignant narratives of family loss and renewal. Gayle Danley's remarkable "Funeral Like Nixon's," Jeff McDaniel’s "Disasterology," Justin Chin's hilarious play on stereotypes "Chinese Restaurant," Jerry Quickley's mythos-laced words of resistance "Calcium Rings," Patricia Smith's "My Million Fathers, Still Here Past," and the phenomenal "Eulogy of Jimi Christ" by Individual Slam Champion Reggie Gibson are the standouts. Gibson mixes linguistic wordplay, conjoined assonance, and political subtext to emerge in a miraculous ode:

how the musebruise
of yo sadomasochistic bluesoozed
through floors and l.s.d doors

leavin psychedelic relics wrecked
on phosphorescent shores

Perhaps this aesthetic disparity between poems that "move the room" and poems that barely merit a "2.4" is the final clue to understanding this book; it is very much like the slam itself, a kind of opulent open mike that produces some of the best public poetry currently being written in the United States, and sadly some of the worst.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001


The Oomph of Quicksilver by Michael DavittMichael Davitt
edited by Louis de Paor
Cork University Press (14.95)

by Thomas Rain Crowe

In recent years, in many of the Celtic countries and/or colonies, there has been an indigenous language resurgence, none more evident than the "Innti" resurgence in Ireland which began in the '60s. Founder of the magazine INNTI, Michael Davitt and his now well-known cohorts (such as Nuala Ni Dhomnhaill and Gabriel Rosenstock) created it to defy the seeming inevitability of the decline of the Irish language, especially whereas their two-thousand-year-old literary history was concerned. By staging public readings in Dublin and across the rest of the country, Innti quite literally brought poetry back into the streets. The scene during the '70s and '80s in Ireland resembled that of the San Francisco Renaissance during the '50s and '60s—a comparison not lost on Davitt, as much of his work from that time forward has been, by his own admission, highly derivative of the outlaw American scene; his influences include ee cummings, the Beats and Bob Dylan.

"Michael Davitt is one of the most compelling and innovative poetic voices in Ireland in the last thirty years," says Louis de Paor in his introduction to The Oomph of Quicksilver, a selected poems with work from his seven major collections. Because of his stature in Ireland and the Celtic world and since this is the first time his work has been made available in any quantity for English language readers, it is something of a cause celebre. Some American readers will quickly be drawn in by Davitt's connections with this country and its recent literary past, while others will be more taken by the Irish/Celtic traditional influences or the universality of his "cross-bordered" oeuvre. In any case, all will come away from reading Michael Davitt for the first time with a clear sense that they have experienced a true original.

In poems like "Dissenter" we see clearly Davitt's passion and activism ("I don't agree that to champion / my people's language / I've turned my back / on bitter truth. / The only cause I espouse / is man's right to find / his own centre, stand firm, speak out, / then be kind"), while the soft lyricism of "To You" shows his love for Ireland and the female sex ("don't hold out too long / if I don't come in sweet summer / sometimes the sea has her way with me / on the long road to you / she is swollen with my tears / salvage your heart / never say I left you / say I drowned"). Rarely have we, here in the United States in recent years, been privy to such well-crafted passion. I think of Patchen, or of Dylan's "the sky cracking its poems in naked wonder," a line that aptly describes the work found in The Oomph of Quicksilver.

"What is important is to continue believing in the Irish language as vibrant creative power while it continues to be marginalized in the process of cultural MacDonaldisation which is sweeping through our ‘island of saints and scholars'," Davitt writes, voicing not only the sentiments of Ireland's canonical past, but also those dark maps of our own past and present. In the world of poetic literature, Michael Davitt and those like him keep us looking, hopefully, to the future.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001


Guru Punk by Louise Landes LeviLouise Landes Levi
Cool Grove Press ($10.95)

by Michael Perkins

Poetry is first a matter of breath. The words ride on the blessings of inspiration and suspiration. Then it is a matter of dance: the words strike our ears in rhythmic patterns that move us. But breath and rhythm are not alone sufficient to make poetry: since verse is, after all, emotionalized experience, the final ingredient in a good poem is passion.

There's plenty of passion in the pages of Guru Punk by Louise Landes Levi. A tiny (4 1/2" by 5 1/2") but mighty book, Guru Punk offers a generous 150-page-selection of Levi's work from the previous two decades—expatriate years she spent wandering in Italy, Germany, India, Holland, and France before returning to New York. The poems are mystical, exultant, erotic, devotional, defiant glimpses, haiku-like, into the mind and heart of a Jewish yogini poet who experiences the world in a state of exaltation, like the great 16th-Century Poet Mirabai (whom Levis has translated).

Poets build on the efforts of other poets. Levi pays homage in Guru Punk not only to Mirabai but to the French poet Henri Michaux, the American surrealist Phillip Lamantia, Allen Ginsberg, Lynne Tillman, the female warriors of the Warsaw Ghetto, and most importantly, her Indian and Tibetan spiritual masters.

Who is Levi? She was born in New York City, lived in North India for three years, studied Indian music in Bombay, and taught at Bard College, Naropa, and the American College in Paris. But in an excerpt from a poem entitled "Autobiography (1984)" she gives us the real low down:

Pop artist, Jew, religious fanatic,
Dzog-chen pa, surrealist,
war victim,

street musician/cloud musician/attic musician

poorly dressed/well dressed/elegant
nude, model behavior,
bad behavior

telephone freak who lives without one.

In these poems Levi describes her quest for a lover, spiritual or physical, and her travels, in search of that illusory being. In "Illusion" she can lament simply "Of / all the illusions, / in this world of illusion, / the / most / beautiful / was / that / you / loved / me."

It's a rarefied level of being she aspires to, but Levi sees the real world in poems like "Letter": "I / miss Holland . . . America / ages one, makes demands / where's your / house, where's your car, They don't / ask about your heart. / The word ‘Guru' is a 4 letter word . . ."

Like poets throughout history, Louise Landes Levi has tasted the fruits of another world that touches on our "concrete reality" at many points—a world accessible in poetry and in passion. If you're not aware of that other world, try carrying Guru Punk next to your heart.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001


The Contagion of Matter by Valerio MagrelliValerio Magrelli
Translated by Anthony Molino
Holmes & Meier Publishers ($14.95)

by Robert Zaller

"I've seen things by a young poet that I like very much," the late Joseph Brodsky remarked some years ago. "His name is Magrelli."

Valerio Magrelli, now in his mid-forties, is no longer a promising poet but an established one. His debut performance was the most assured and exciting one in Italian letters since Montale's Cuttlefish Bones, and expectation levels for him remain high. The present volume, splendidly translated by Anthony Molino, reproduces Magrelli's Esercizi di tipologia (1992) and two subsequent poems. It reflects Magrelli's wayward presence in the world, a man traveling with no passport but the Italian language, sifting through the debris of cultures, climes, and histories with the exquisite antennae of one who finds in the most desecrated landscape an inexhaustible abundance of image and association.

This is another way, perhaps, of saying that Magrelli is postmodern, though postmodernism itself is just another stage on Romanticism's way. In Montale, the clutter of the world is a moral event, a sign of morbidity, but also, complexly, a symbol of resistance, an unveiling of fascism's underside. Magrelli's post-Andreotti Italy offers no such scope for engagement and prophecy. It offers, rather, a perpetual exit ramp to nowhere from which escape is finally inconceivable, as in the prose poem "Black Earth":

The areas that surround the city lie in ambush, waiting. Out pop billboards, on and off-ramps, beltways, the dismal drumming of names, like Littlehell, aggrieved and sad, crooked. Meanwhile, the straightaway rushes through pine trees until, suddenly, on the far side of a slope, the sea emerges, out of nowhere, cutting in front of you like a roadblock.

Everything is contiguous in Magrelli but nothing connects, and this absence of connection becomes his theme, his condition, his heraldic device. In "To the Frost Revealed," another prose poem, he describes floating with others in a pool at night: "Then we'd stagnate in that immense puddle, and float in the dark, trying to escape and touch each other. To see if by now we were alone. Except that we wouldn't touch. We'd never touch." This condition becomes a kind of existential affirmation of "Xochimilco":

Bandages, beards of plants, flutter
tenderly downward
connecting with the marsh,
the unseeing, the shoal's essence,
connecting with me.
Rushes that are earth, rafts,
tongues trembling in the rippling water.
My founding was ritual, devoid
of sense, born of a landslide
I rose from a lack
a stilt in silt,
rooted in the void.

I think the translation can't be bettered, but to quote the last five lines in the original should suggest even to a non-reader of Italian the verbal resource of this poet:

La mia fondazione fu rituale
e insensata, e sorsi sul franare
e nacqui dal mancare
palafitta del nulla
palo nel nulla fitto.

To go poking through the detritus of the world, though, is not without risk, for "matter can provoke contagion / if touched in its inmost fibers" and generate "the same wildfire energy that spreads / when society is torn, holy veil of the temple, / and the king's head falls . . ." ("Fingerings"). Even a fallen world is sacred and when the poet fuses his images he may ignite more than he knows.

Of course, our postmodern landscape is the post-atomic one as well. If the fallen world can be conceived in Christian or Neoplatonic terms (as in another prose sequence, "White Moores," in which hidden beauty "calls out from within matter"), it is also the product of human defacement. In "Helgoland," Magrelli describes the destruction of an island used first by the Germans as a U-boat base and then by the British as a firing range. Reduced to an "open-air anatomy lesson, a body / open to the four winds," it ends as a duty-free port where tourists can contemplate the insanity of what Magrelli calls in a related poem, "Apercu," "the earth, this hapless aircraft / held hostage by an armed passenger." Such poems are sharp rebuke to any merely lyric or aestheticizing attitude. Distinction must be made between a world that is ontologically fallen and one that has simply been trashed.

Like all major poets, Magrelli has a strong kinship with his great predecessors, whom he invokes through epigraph, dedication, and translation. The latter shows both the range of his interests, from ancient Egypt to Artaud, and his ability to speak his own truth in other voices. As in other sections of the collection, his stance is that of an archaeologist whose vision is extended both across space and time. "Translating the past into a present / that stays sealed in transit" ("The Mover"), he preserves mystery even as he reveals it. In an era with few dominant poetic voices, he reminds us of the reach, the command, the surprise of the real thing.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001


Musca Domestica by Christine HumeChristine Hume
Beacon Press ($15)

by Laura Solomon

Christine Hume's first book, Musca Domestica, introduces a fresh voice of ironic reason and billowing verse. The book's Latin title evokes a multiplicity of interpretations, mimicking the myriad of styles and flies that one will find inside. Entomologists will immediately identify "musca domestica" as the genus species for house fly, while the less scientifically inclined may focus first on the title's homonymic hint of domesticity. Furthermore, "musca," being one letter short of "musica," suggests a certain lyricism, an intrinsic musicality that Hume rarely neglects. Indeed, her poetry teems with lush language, provocative word-play and an essential music, creating lyrical landscapes of the imaginative world.

Hume's choice of the fly as her thematic porter proves an adroit move. The word "fly" may be defined in so many ways, used in so many connotations, that its constant repetition never equates to redundancy. To illustrate this, the first poem entitled, "True and Obscure Definitions of Fly, Domestic and Otherwise," presents a baffling abundance of fly imagery, all pulled from the Oxford English Dictionary and assembled with finesse. The poem, "Mimicry," appearing at the end of the first section, reprises the fly theme as an ode to versatility and the multi-faceted poetic eye. In the final notes ("Fly Paper Palimpsest"), Hume addresses this theme, pointing out the fly's utilization of the mundane; they "filter opportunity out of offal, carrion, and rot." She then proceeds to credit borrowed "ge(r)ms" appearing in the book, ending with this quotation from Steve McCaffery: "If the aim of philosophy is, as Wittgenstein claims, to show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle, then the aim of poetry is to convince the bottle that there is no fly."

Hume opens her book with scientific terminology and ends with an implied aesthetic philosophy. Indeed the start and finish lines indicate what may be found between. She employs technical language in new ways that are both reader friendly and thought provoking. Her use of this linguistic mode saturates her poetry with revelation, rather than desiccating it with the flat drone of science. At the same time, she never backs away from slang when she needs it. Clearly a bibliophile, Hume indiscriminately pulls from her various pools of knowledge and language, synthesizing clever observations in an engaging style. Such convivial marriages take place in "Interview" and "Ladder," where she achieves a balance of intellectualism and colloquialism, tempered with a self-reflexive humor. Both pedestal the irony of posing questions and finding answers—the first in the format of an interview gone awry, the second through an instance of bizarre multiple choice:

What could be done with enough grant money:
a. The flesh of victims buried in Siberian permafrost
could be tested for viral life
b. Dues to wonderment shooed.
c. A painter paints your sketch of DNA
with phosphorous.
d. All the things would become people.

By posing answers, Hume exposes questions. Her poetry does not attempt to instruct in a pedantic fashion, but instead asks us to use our imagination, to find meaning wherever it may lie.

Besides offering intellectual verve, the poems in Musca Domestica sensually please. Hume's images, while often unrealistic, still court the eyes. While we may have never seen a "baton girl . . . twirling her first rib," it is doubtful that the mind will resist such a powerful image. (This phrase from "Helicopter Wrecked on a Hill" concludes a vigorous amalgam of horizontally spinning images which leaves us both dizzy and delighted.) In "Thin Pissing Sound," Hume again asserts her sense-oriented style. The words are literally all over the page, strewn with purpose and intent. We zigzag through the poem, becoming acutely aware of the "pissing" (recurring "s") sounds. One of the finest in the book, this poem flounces poetic rules regarding line and structure and instead finds its own scaffolding for sense and sound.

Indeed, the inherent musicality of Hume's work seems its defining element. She firmly grasps the implicit power of cadence and line, exploiting a keen ear to her poems' best advantage. Her poetry speaks to an innate musical self: the breath, the pulse, the heartbeat. Such intrinsic rhythm pulls the reader down the page and on to the next. One can feel the language as much as one can taste the vowels and consonants. In "Articulate Initials," after four anaphoric lines, the poem begins to move in mimesis to the train it describes:

Because I know his name well enough to forget it.
Because he will author the action.
Because he has something of the wink and flirt in him.
Because he is pretending to be reduced or rushed.
He signs the letter CH as in chew, as in chant, champ, chump—
the sound of a train's effortful start . . .

While clearly brimming with alliteration, this passage, like so many others, also rides on more subtle rhymes, assonance, and consonance. Particularly, "er" and "shwa" vowels reoccur, resonating at the ends of the first three lines, only to reappear and provide closure in the last. It is within these more elusive effects that Hume demonstrates considerable talent and sophistication.

However seldom, Hume is capable of overextending, the result a rather clanky discordance. In "Town Legend: Keeping Well," the overt alliteration, rhymes and excessive wordplay may distract, rather than produce the comic effect the poem seeks. Along the same line, some poems rely too heavily on gimmick. "Articulate Initials," while internally successful, may draw a smirk at the title's expense, as the initials engaged in articulation appear predictably in the poem. Similarly, the middle section consists entirely of footnoted poems with alternate readings. While one is delightful—an impressive feat for any poet—six seem too many. Read individually, these clever poems earn acquittal; in concurrence they lose their pizzazz.

That said, Hume's Musca Domestica proves extremely smart, zesty, whimsical, fluid, symphonic and resonant. Hume seldom disappoints and consistently dazzles. Like witty, perplexing riddles, her poems ignite the mind. She challenges us, and then ups the ante. We must rise to the occasion or miss out on the "happy fecundity." This phrase (from "Licked: A Domestic Tale") serves, perhaps, as apt description of the book itself. Like the versatile fly, Hume's poems create prolific abundance stemming from an organic logic, and do so in a style sure to captivate.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001