Tag Archives: spring 2002

Phone Calls from the Dead

Phone Calls from the Dead by Wendy BrennerWendy Brenner
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill ($21.95)

by Ann Veronica Simon

"Critics taught me something I didn't know," Wendy Brenner recently told an interviewer; "They taught me that I wrote about eccentrics." It does seem obvious that a father who believed his drowned son still breathes into a tape recorder counts as eccentric. Not to mention an upbeat shoplifter who lives illegally in a mini-storage, or a graduate student whose dissertation takes on "the spiritual and social significance of restaurant mascots." But it does not surprise me that Brenner believes she's writing about people like the rest of us in her second collection of short stories, Phone Calls from the Dead. Her characters are moving as well as hilarious precisely because she depicts them with compassion, not condescension.

In ten tales of private passion and public embarrassment, Brenner's grand parade of small-town oddballs gain our allegiance and recognition by mixing strong emotion with witty dialogue. In one story, six squirrels (yes, squirrels) entangled in a plastic shopping bag worry and argue until a melancholy veterinarian cuts them free. In another, a laid-off temp worker and a physically abused magician engage in an "ongoing debate" about whether success is still possible after 35. (They disagree, but both have miserable lives.) In all cases, the unlikely identification we start to feel prevents us from differentiating ourselves or making defensive critical judgments. Amused sympathy strips us of the illusion that we can stand at a comfortable distance from these apparent losers or lunatics.

Nearly all Brenner's characters gain our grudging interest and partial respect, even as we laugh at their absurd predicaments. Even those we might at first want to dismiss as shallow or childish have idiosyncratic habits of diction as complex and unmatchable as fingerprints. There's a homeless crack addict who talks "like Ripley's Believe It Or Not, " spouting non-sequiturs such as "You know you can die from eating glitter?" There's also a group of Valley Girls who combine stock phrases such as "are you, like, mental?" with more unique outbursts like "Woo, delighted, delighted." These characters don't speak like each other, so manage not to be interchangeable mouthpieces of Brenner's overarching linguistic virtuosity. We can't dismiss them as a series of identically instructive failures, comfortingly different from us in some genetic sense.

This book also expertly captures the private languages typical of every couple, family, or circle of quarreling officemates. In most stories, readers get to eavesdrop on the sorts of nicknames we all have for our pals and enemies—PA Girl, Shed boy, Post-It, Sonny von Cher—in a way that makes the characters who invent them more familiar than crazy. Nor can we stop absurd newspaper headlines from ringing true, along with TV shows with names like "The Cantankerous Judge," and community education classes titled "Understanding Your Gerbil." It's actually the culture we already live in that Phone Calls from the Dead reveals as eccentric. The scenes Brenner depicts are surreal, twisted, over the top—but not too far off. And a vivid, entertaining read besides.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002

Hotel World

Hotel World by Ali SmithAli Smith
Anchor Books ($12)

by Jessica Hoffmann

Try this: judge a book by the times its words wind you with excitement, astonishment, joy, wonder.

It happens every couple of pages with Hotel World, Scottish writer Ali Smith's Booker Prize-shortlisted second novel. For instance: There's the moment when Smith's effervescent ghost (whose "breath, you might say, has been taken" and whose swooping-and-soaring first-person account of lamented life after sudden death opens the novel) begins to lose language, and the author cues the very live reader to fill in the blanks in her/his own silent, invisible parentheses. It's a thrill; it's a call to attention; it's an invitation to action—reading Hotel World, like living, like loving (the doing deeply of both are central themes of the novel) is no passive affair.

Composed of internal monologues by four women and a genderless ghost (plus a more distantly narrated epilogue), Hotel World is given in six voices. Each voice has its own distinct rhythm and vocabulary, and speaks from a different tense. Smith establishes these voices by their distinctness, and then fills the entire work with internal allusions that draw connections between the disparate-seeming sections, thus threading the novel's concern with difference and sameness, separateness and connectedness, into the book's formal fabric. The soil turned for a fresh grave echoes in a later passage in which a bedridden woman senses her own thoughts as "turf being turned up by someone she could make out only on the distant horizon." A teenager collects dust from behind her dead sister's bed, liking to think dead-skin bits of her sister are saved there, a-hundred-and-some pages after a ghost on its way out of this world longs for dust in particular, for how you could "watch it stencil into your fingerprint, yours, unique, nobody else's." Singularity. Relationship.

Smith's fictional hotel chain, Global Hotels—one branch of which houses most of the novel's action—promises sameness no matter the shift in town, nation, continent: "It doesn't matter where you are in the world if you're anywhere near a Global Hotel." Hotel World the novel exposes Hotel World the way of life, for what it is—a desiccation, a reduction, a self-deceiving mode of existence in which fabricated sameness secures isolation/insulation. But: the staff spits in the food and there's been a freak-accident death in the dumb-waiter; the seeming-sealed rooms are rummaged through by ghosts and chambermaids and that board on the wall covers nothing but a black hole.

There are hearts everywhere in this book. Racing, fluttering like birds flapping against the walls of their cages. Hearts slammed into mouths. Hearts pumping, stopped. Also ubiquitous are relationships with language. One character is losing words; another's doing away with vowels and other excess, speaking in a compressed mumble ("spr sm chn?"). Still another types lists of empty superlatives for a living (she writes for the style pages of the World: "That's my job, filling up the grey space every week for people like you and me.") And from their respective beds, one character runs her words together with a string of ampersands while another inadvertently invents a vocabulary of her own from inchoate thoughts floating through her feverish mind.

Hotel World works because its author is deeply engaged with both these elements—heart, language. Form and content, thought and feeling, here, are inextricable. Read Hotel World for its linguistic and structural inventiveness. Read it for its distilled and powerful expression of difficult emotions. Read it both ways, at once, more than one time. Hotel World is a delight, and a heartbreak, and a jolt into looking at language and literature and love and life afresh and with appropriate (requisite) wonder.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002

Tarzan's Tonsillitis

Tarzan's Tonsillitis by Alfredo Bryce EcheniqueAlfredo Bryce Echenique
Pantheon Books ($23)

by Jay Miskowiec

Like many other Latin American writers, Alfredo Bryce Echenique has divided his life between his homeland and Paris, sometimes referred to as the second capital of the Americas. In his latest novel, Tarzan's Tonsillitis, he passes between the old and the new world through the letters of two lovers caught between the continents.

Set against the political strife of the 1960s and '70s in Latin America and the exile of artists and intellectuals, the story centers on the relationship between Juan Manuel Carpio, a vagabond composer and singer from Peru, and Fernanda María de la Trinidad del Monte, a bourgeois Salvadoran married to an exiled alcoholic Chilean (yes, it sounds like a soap opera, but so do half the plots in contemporary Latin American novels). While every once in a while they make a furtive rendezvous somewhere in the world, from the California beaches to the streets of Paris, they mostly experience each other through their letters, which often delay in catching up with their wandering recipients.

Bryce Echenique shows a bit too much faith in the efficacy of written language here; the straightforward recounting of feelings and experiences of the lovers in their letters (which alternates with first-person ruminations) is supposed to convey their lives more directly to the reader. The author, though, often comes up on the wrong side of that dichotomy described by Henry James: that is, he tells as often as he shows, starting from the very first pages, when Fernanda writes to Juan Manuel apologizing for her apparent silence: "First, your letters were stolen. Stolen because I keep the entire collection in a huge bag, and some horrible gorillas attacked me on the street, grabbing the bag"

In a story where these letters will be prized possessions, messengers of the muses and the soul, this robbery should carry tremendous symbolic value, especially so early in the novel: this is the very theft of memory and being for these characters. But here the event comes off without the weight it needs, and the weakness of the epistolary description is telling. It's hard to speak with tonsillitis, but this depiction of writing as a way of knowing oneself and the other—of sharing something even while far apart—still doesn't show how it ever approaches lived experience.

The best passages seem precisely those when the main characters actually manage to be physically together. Juan Manuel meets up with Fernanda and her family in California. With no qualms of decorum, they spend all their time together, with her even sleeping at his hotel. Walking on the beach, they run into "that huge man with pitch-black hair walking in the opposite direction tightly holding the hand of a little girl and a little boy in each of his savage paws." That man, Fernanda's husband Enrique, forcefully emerges here as that figure which has always hovered over them, isolated and lost while still maintaining a grip on their lives.

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L.C. by Susan DaitchSusan Daitch
Dalkey Archive ($14.95)

by Jason Picone

First published in 1986, Susan Daitch's debut novel is a challenging and complex work that defies easy categorization or simple description. L.C.'s intricate structure shows the author's considerable innovation, as well as her desire to upset a reader's expectations of historical fiction. The book contains a fictional diary translated from the French, the translator's introduction, an epilogue by yet another translator, and a history of the diary and the two translators. Though this might be disastrous in the hands of most first-time novelists, Daitch displays an assured, meticulous control over her novel; the disparate elements of the book cohere in a logical, circular manner that rewards attentive readers.

The novel is primarily composed of diary entries by a 19th-century French woman, Lucienne Crozier, the L.C. of the book's title. Despite the fact that she is newly married, Lucienne's initial entries are hardly the excited thoughts of a young bride; rather, she is critical of the circumstances surrounding her marriage, regretful that she had to marry for money. Her initial misgivings lead her to turn from her husband (who is abroad most of the novel) to the Paris social scene, where she participates in liaisons with the painter Eugene Delacroix and a prominent leftist, Jean de la Tour.

Lucienne's increased involvement in Jean's political activities provides her with some respite from her loveless marriage, but she is prevented from making a substantial contribution, or even voicing her opinion, due to her sex. Her situation becomes more frustrating and untenable, as she is forced to flee Paris with Jean, eventually arriving in Algiers, where she is not even allowed to walk outside by herself.

Sickly, waited on, passivity both enforced and desired, hidden away—none of this was the fate I would have chosen when I left my mother's house. Immobility is the worst of it. How did I get into this room? We had big ideas and slapped titles on them but I haven't done much of anything. My life looks like an inversion of what I set out to do on a large scale.

One of Daitch's many successes is the high degree of verisimilitude exhibited in Lucienne's diary entries. Fictional diaries face the difficult task of familiarizing a reader with the novel's world, while, at the same time, trying to resemble a personal piece of writing that is ostensibly intended to be read by one reader, the writer. Pronouns present just the right degree of uncertainty, as no one would qualify "she" in a diary; the author would know whom the word referred to. This realistic touch has the additional benefit of enlarging possible meanings; in the quote above, "We" ostensibly refers to Lucienne and Jean, but it also could be extended to all the women in the novel, whose ambitions are largely arrested due to their gender.

What is most remarkable about Lucienne is not her unromantic relation of her activities and affairs, but the painstaking gaze which she turns upon increasingly complex subjects. Literally caught in the violence of the 1848 revolution in Paris, Lucienne observes that:

Even if one was initially motivated by principles and politics worked out months or years before, one's actions become only reactions, and one is reduced to animal instincts. The lives of the survivors are changed, a corner is turned and even the memory of the street you left behind is altered. The statue on the corner, the fountain which never ran, all become precious or ravaged, depending on your recovery.

The idea that the meaning of an object changes over time, or that meaning is inherently subjective, is of great significance in L.C. The novel's primary object is the diary, which has been translated from the French over a century after Lucienne's death by Willa Rehnfield, an American professor whose introduction and notes accompany the text of the diary. Oddly enough, the diary entries conclude with an epilogue by yet another translator, Jane Amme, who offers a history of Willa and how she came to be in possession of the diary.

The introduction of Amme (whose name suggests a sort of anti-heroine, since it's Emma spelled backwards) is Daitch's masterstroke. Jane's period as a leftist revolutionary during the late 1960s in Berkley is paralleled with Lucienne's struggle for agency in 1848 Paris in a thoroughly compelling manner. Whereas Lucienne was unable to speak at political meetings and had to flee Paris, Jane was consigned to typing for her student group's male leader and was forced to flee Berkeley. Jane's view of Lucienne leads her to render her own partial translation of the diary, a powerful gesture that seriously questions the faithfulness of Willa's version.

The last twenty pages of the novel present Jane's vision of Lucienne, a depiction that is both strange and familiar when compared with the original translation. The possibility that Lucienne Crozier was an outspoken radical and a forerunner to modern day feminism is raised by Jane, perhaps because it is an authentic portrait, perhaps due to Jane's own political leanings. L.C. is a masterful examination of subjectivity, the politics of translation, and the numbness of unfulfilled desire.

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Wild Turkey

Wild Turkey by Michael HemmingsonMichael Hemmingson
Forge ($21.95)

by Tim Brown

If Michael Hemmingson is not yet the high priest of transgressive fiction, then he certainly is among the church's leading members. The author of several novels and story collections and editor of the recent What the Fuck: The Avant Porn Anthology (Soft Skull Press), he has spent the past decade pushing the envelope in literary fiction. At first glance his latest effort, the novel Wild Turkey, departs from the transgressive mode. It takes the form of a contemporary noir thriller with a murder to solve, a conflicted hero, and a beautiful woman who leads the hero along a path of self-destruction.

Philip Lansdale is a disbarred attorney now living as a stay-at-home dad. He becomes infatuated with a gorgeous woman, Cassandra Payne, who lives across the street. His neighbor Bryan, a retired cop, shares his interest, and they spend their time boozing and observing her comings and goings, fantasizing about sex with her, and wondering why mysterious strangers visit her at all hours of the day and night.

Not long after she captures their attention, Cassandra's husband is ambushed and killed. Convinced that Cassandra is responsible for the murder, Bryan and Philip join forces to investigate. The watchful neighbor soon turns into a voyeur as he peers into her bedroom window and spies on her activities. Infatuation grows into obsession, which begets midnight trysts after she discovers him peeping. Ignoring the obvious dangers of tangling with a possible murderess, Philip yields to her seductions, and the couple embarks on a twisted relationship:

"Friday night, Mr. Lansdale," she said, "come back Friday night at the same time, and let's see how we shall transgress our little affair."
Affair. I guess this was what it was—I was being unfaithful to my wife, in certain ways. In many ways. I was committing adultery and I wanted to keep doing it and I wanted to "transgress."

As the plot further unfolds, it becomes clear that Hemmingson has somehow hybridized Mickey Spillane with Kathy Acker. Additional death and mayhem ensue, involving Las Vegas gamblers, counterfeiters, transsexuals, hit men, pyromaniacs, treasury agents, armed showgirls, paraplegics and desert rats. The bloody resolution to the story would make Spillane proud. Acker, the late queen of transgressive fiction, would have loved the bizarre characters that burst from the shadows.

Despite the potential for lapsing into utter nihilism, Wild Turkey is fundamentally a story of transgression, punishment and redemption. With sentences firing straight as bullets into the reader's brain, Hemmingson fashions scenes full of steamy sex, exhilarating violence and unbearable pain. Transformed into voyeurs themselves, readers share Philip's most intimate experiences—the pleasure, the pain, and the guilt for enjoying both.

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Cover Story

Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper by Harriet Scott ChessmanLydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper
Harriet Scott Chessman
Seven Stories Press ($24)

La Tour Dreams of the Wolf Girl
David Huddle
Houghton Mifflin ($24)

by Carrie Mercer

You can't judge a book by its cover, the old adage goes. But what if the cover is not just something the art department at the publishing house cooked up to lure the ever-roving consumer's eye? What if it's real art? And by real art, I mean art that had a long and prosperous life of its own before some publisher plastered a title and author's name on top of it (not to mention one of those controversial Oprah stickers).

For most authors, pretty much the last thing on their minds when they write a novel is the artwork on the cover of their future book. However, for a few, that artwork would seem to be an essential element of the story. Hence, we have two recent novels, Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper, by Harriet Scott Chessman, and La Tour Dreams of the Wolf Girl, by David Huddle.

The first book's cover sports a painting of exactly what the title describes, though the painting's title is actually Woman Reading, by the famous impressionist painter Mary Cassatt. We learn from the novel that Mary's older sister Lydia was the model for the painting, and Mary posed her with a newspaper, instead of the (at that time) traditional novel, so that she might look more modern. This detail, like many others in the book, is culled from the author's extensive research on the Cassatt family. Where Chessman departs from research and dreams "my way into her world," is in her point of view: Mary's sister Lydia tells the story through internal monologue. She relates observations and feelings about relationships with her family, the color and bustle of Paris in the late 1870s early 1880s (where the family was living at the time), and perhaps most interestingly, how she sees herself in a different light through her sister's paintbrush.

The novel is structured around five portraits Mary did of her sister, and the main conflict, sadly, is not fictional. Much as Lydia loves to pose for her sister, she struggles to find the energy to do so as she gets sicker and sicker from a degenerative kidney disease. But she finds another self in Mary's paintings, where "sickness holds no place," and she takes comfort there. At times Lydia struggles with wanting to live "in that creamy world of no difficulty." Chessman creates a symbiotic intimacy between the sisters that deepens as a result of the paintings. Lydia needs to pose so that she can see herself through her sister's eyes, and Mary needs Lydia as a model, so that she can see her sister more clearly. After Mary paints Lydia Crocheting in the Garden, Lydia notices her features are "dissolving" and thinks, "It's illness she's discovered." Mary doesn't want to accept Lydia's illness, but in the painting, Lydia sees "not what [Mary] acknowledges, perhaps, but what she knows."

One of the delights of this novel is that we are provided with color plates of all five portraits and can study along with Lydia and so make our own discoveries. The meditative quality of Chessman's writing feels like an appropriate companion to the paintings; each has its dabs of color and momentary, passionate impressions. Chessman bestows Lydia with a painterly eye, turning her thoughts and feelings into composition and landscape: Lydia remarks how "the [orange] peelings make a sphere on her plate" and later how a look from Mary's friend Edgar Degas felt "like a storm on a coast, stirring the trees to wildness, shifting the dunes."

The cover of Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper, then, is a straightforward invitation to enter into a deeper contemplation of some well-known artwork. Chessman crafts a compelling examination of mortality through the musings of the dying Lydia. Lydia's acceptance of the life she's had—and its impending close—is complicated by her sister's paintings. In the end, she is somewhat contented by the idea that each of Mary's portraits "creates a kind of memory. Whether or not anyone ever knew me, she will offer a memory of me, for the world to claim."

La Tour Dreams of the Wolf Girl by David Huddle

The cover of La Tour Dreams of the Wolf Girl is, alas, not so straightforward an invitation. The only intimacy we experience with this painting is in its magnification: spidery cracks spread over a face so magnified that it has crowded out everything else, to the point that its circumference can only be imagined beyond the edges of the book's cover. And the face does not belong to the Wolf Girl of the title, but to the thieving accomplice of an old gypsy in Georges de la Tour's The Fortune-Teller.

So who is the Wolf Girl? She is the invention, not of La Tour, but of Suzanne Nelson, the fictional head of the Art Department at the University of Vermont, who is the invention of David Hubble, the author of this odd novel. Suzanne retreats from her failing marriage into the solitude of her daydreams, which she believes "help her create the narrative-based criticism no one else is writing." We never see this criticism, but instead are privy to her strange daydreams about Georges de la Tour, a 17th-century French painter whose work was credited until relatively recently to Caravaggio, among others. La Tour's paintings depicted the daily miseries of peasants with great accuracy, but what little is known of him personally indicates he was as unpleasant and violent as his equally talented contemporary, Caravaggio: court records note one incident in which he beat a peasant almost to death. Huddle's Suzanne is interested in La Tour precisely because of this disconnect between "the deeply humane vision of his paintings and the nastiness of his character."

In Suzanne's daydreams, the Wolf Girl is Vivienne, a shoemaker's teenage daughter who poses as a model for La Tour. What makes her the Wolf Girl is a "coarse thatch" of hair on her back. Vivienne's parents have kept from her any knowledge of this anomalous feature of her body, and on seeing it, so does La Tour. Whereas Vivienne's parents hide the hairy patch to downplay its significance, La Tour keeps it a secret because he is infatuated with it. He poses Vivienne just so that he can stare at her defect. This ongoing fantasy seems to parallel somewhat an experience Suzanne had in college posing nude as a life model for a drawing class. Suzanne was simultaneously aroused and repulsed by the slovenly instructor who posed her. In turn, this experience recalls an earlier encounter with Elijah, a handicapped boy who sketched as he sat next to her on the school bus. But where does this elaborate trail lead?

One thing it leads to is a lot of overwritten extramarital sex. "I came like a freight train. I came like the Fourth of July. I came like a sea elephant," Suzanne thinks after she sleeps with a man she hardly knows simply because she is turned on by his art. Likewise, Suzanne's husband Jack has an equally fulfilling morning with his lover, who "moved him beyond what he thought were the limits of his sexual capacity." Stagey dialogue makes Huddle's characters even more ridiculous, with lines like "Drive fast. Take some chances, Jack. I'll make it worth your while."

Where Huddle is most successful is in his examination of art as a tool we use to form our identities, often unwittingly. Thinking back to her schooldays, Suzanne "begins to see certain parts of her daily life in terms of Elijah's pictures. Or she remembers pieces of her experience as if Elijah had drawn them." Similarly, Suzanne's Vivienne keys into the power of deception as a kind of self-affirming art when she makes up stories about herself to satisfy La Tour's curiosity. "Until you began to ask me about my life, I never saw it," she tells La Tour.

Unlike Chessman's Lydia, who saw a thought-provoking but distinctly foreign self in her sister's paintings, Huddle's Suzanne believes completely in the representations her schoolmate Elijah draws of her and her classmates: "once Elijah had set it into a picture and allowed her to see it, she could grasp what she already knew." It's ironic that of the two novels, the one whose protagonist is most obsessed with art has the least to contribute to our understanding of the artwork on its cover.

Is it fair to require illumination from these novels? Fair or not, their covers create expectations that can be difficult to fulfill. There is potential for the novel to inform the artwork and vice versa, and when it works, as it does in Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper, we are left with something larger than the sum of the two works of art. When it doesn't, the cover feels like a cheap enticement. Perhaps Huddle's novel would have felt more complete had it not been paired with such a suggestive cover. Like Suzanne remembering drawings of events Elijah was never present at, some readers may experience the unfortunate side effect of imagining an added detail in La Tour's painting—the unseen hairy back of the Fortune Teller's young assistant.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002

Useless Virtues

Useless Virtues by T. R. HummerT. R. Hummer
Louisiana State University Press ($16.95)

by Justin B. Lacour

In his previous collection, Walt Whitman in Hell, T. R. Hummer contrasted Whitman's idealistic lyrics of America with visions of a blighted nation, culminating in the titular poem, where the ghost of the great poet wanders through the infernos of present-day Manhattan. Useless Virtues, his seventh book of poems, continues in the same vein, closely examining the tools for transcendence and redemption that we trust with our faith.

In the opening poem, three friends in a hot tub discuss The Book of Job, arguing, resolving only that:

It is about nothing
Except the incommensurability of everything,
the shitty drama of pain that stretches
From Behemoth down to the structure of the atom.
Nobody agrees. Even God refuses to be God
But breaks down in a windy turbulence.

If the desire for a traditional God-figure can be reduced to: "a passion / For form that would murder its own son, / Then invent the word sacred to explain what it had done," then we are left with only our seemingly endless capacity for language. However, Hummer finds this process equally fraught with its own limitations, and chronicles this struggle with characters that alternately declare: "I will not give in / To the fragmentary / I will make my language whole," or "Darker darkness: / No judgment in those words, just pure description, / inadequate as the phrases Whom I loved or In the beginning."

This theme receives its primary focus in the long poem, "Axis," which draws on Heidegger's theories of "the meaning of Being" as its primary source. Though dealing with obviously complex issues, the poem gains its true power from the juxtaposition of the philosopher and Hummer's father, treating them with a delicate mixture of intellectual and emotional observation, never resorting to the easy answers of sentimentality or outright condemnation. In "Axis," the ordeal of World War II is the crucial event that provides both men with a sense of definition, and since the philosopher's complicity with the Third Reich is also examined, it raises the issue of how useful Heidegger's genius and powers of articulation were in the face of overwhelming evil.

Hummer crafts intelligent, elegant poems directed by a penetrating gaze into contemporary anxieties and struggles, treating them with a scientist's eye for minutiae and a philosopher's tone. A great deal of the power of Useless Virtues comes from the sheer scope of these poems. Hummer can envision a world where the lives of three men in a hot tub are connected to the flight of a Cambodian refugee, and since the transitions are made so gracefully, these leaps make sense within the context of the poems. Hummer also has great skill in crafting an intricate network of details that drive the poems' narrative: "a red-eye flight to Dallas interweaves / Baseball, temple bells, roadkill, cemeteries, bread, / sexual ambiguity, and a poster of Pol Pot nailed / To the wall of a compound, monsoon-faded, laced/by bullet holes." While reading Useless Virtues as a whole may have the feeling of a journey, since the settings shift swiftly, the most interesting part of the trip is through the characters' psyches, which Hummer renders with precision. Hummer treats the reader to merciless portraits, but in return he reveals striking, painfully honest visions.

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Overtime by Joseph MillarJoseph Millar
Eastern Washington University Press ($14.95)

by Julie Drake

As the title suggests, Overtime contains many work poems. Joseph Millar now earns a living in academia, but before that he spent time working blue-collar jobs such as telephone repairman and commercial fisherman. It is these workers that Millar writes about—the deck boss on a salmon fishing boat, the mechanic at the brake-shop, the drywall crews, and men pulling fiber optic cables in new construction in Silicon Valley. Millar gives these workers a voice that is neither stupid nor terribly street-smart. Instead it is a quotidian voice, an authentic—sometimes putzy—voice that accepts what you gotta do to make a living. It is often contemplative, sometimes tired, but rarely sad. Millar punctuates his work with soft humor—not slapstick, nor cynical, but wry and world-weary: ". . . until I get off work / and collapse on the fake velvet sofa, a double order / of fast food bleeding grease through a bag in my fist. / He hasn't eaten anything green in a week" (from "Sole Custody").

Although several poems address paying bills, rent, and taxes, class issues run only as an undercurrent through these poems; Millar's working men do not call for sweeping social change. "Impossible anyone here would strike, / though we're comrades of sorts, / and hungry for something, / listening to rain pound the glass doors / of this palace paid for / by venture capitalists, whose appetite nobody questions" (from "Fiber Optics"). Millar worked blue-collar jobs for over 25 years after receiving an MA, a fact that reflects an all too common American employment plight—that the most educated do not automatically earn the most money and that learning a trade may be the best way to earn a good living. Millar treads much of the same ground as his contemporary Jim Daniels, but Millar's poetry reads as even more authentically average American, since Millar spent so long actually working these jobs and Daniels often writes the stories of his friends and family.

Other poems not about work reflect a wide range of everyday life, as Millar takes the reader on travels from the North Slope oilfields of Alaska to the California coast to the Pennsylvania of his childhood to the East Cleveland projects. This book is an American road trip with rest-stops at single fatherhood, alcoholism, gambling, father-son relationships, love affairs, take-out food, and heart attacks. Millar writes in simple language, in a tell-it-like-is tone. Any of his working buddies could easily understand these poems, and it's a shame that many of them will not read this book, having been raised to think of poetry as indecipherable or fancy.

Each of these narrative poems tell a story, but as the Billy Collins blurb on the back of the book states, "Millar never forgets, as a poet, to tell it line by line." Millar's best poems transcend everyday existence, not by tidily wrapping up the story with a moral message, but by doing the opposite—leaving the reader with glimpses into unfinished stories, as lives truly are. The reader has a feeling of kinship with the characters of these poems. It's as if we were looking in the windows of our neighbors' houses. Millar writes what he knows, and what we know—that life is often a pain in the ass and usually messy, but in spite of that, somehow, we continue to get up in the morning and go to work. As he puts it in "The Wayward Carpenter's Apprentice": "The bottoms of his workshoes want to wander off / by themselves, and the sweatstains growing cold / under the arms of the orange T-shirt / begin to dream they can fly."

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002

My Sister Life

My Sister Life by Joseph LeaseJoseph Lease
Jensen / Daniels Publishers ($4)

by Thomas Fink

A poet of lyric grace and specific, evocative images, Joseph Lease engages in trenchant, often startling associative jumps while also offering narrative's edifying vitality. My Sister Life, Lease's third collection, consists of three long sequences, two short poems, and one short prose-poem. If "Life's" "Sister" is "Death," then the title announces the book's main thematic preoccupation. As in his previous book, Human Rights (1998), Lease explores the Holocaust in relation to the situation of contemporary American Jews. "'the Jew with the hole in his voice'" exemplifies the strengths and challenges of Lease's associative method:

First we killed them, then they killed us. The wind is steel wool. Then, first they killed us then we killed green. Sunlight lathers blonde, oiled wood. Light from the hole that keeps unfolding under his stomach. She'll hear or not hear snow walking on the rooftop. She'll go for long walks late at night when the town is sleeping. She'll hear or not hear history walking on the rooftop. Families drowning, dancing in loops, singing words they loved.

Can the prose-poem's first sentence be glossed by a later assertion, "Those to whom evil was done did evil again as ghosts"? Perhaps the Jews annihilated in the Holocaust "slay" the Nazis with moral judgment, but Lease may refer to the tendency for oppressed people to go on to oppress others (and perhaps to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.) As in "The History of Our Death," a long sequence in the book, the murder of "green" probably alludes to ways in which historical nightmares overwhelm individuals' capacity to enjoy nature's bounty. "Sunlight"—no spiritual illumination—is like cheap soap, and the capacity "to hear" the natural substance of "snow," as well as exigencies of "history" (including "families drowning") is very much in doubt. The prose-poem itself is "dancing in loops" of images and diverse assertions that refuse facile closure.

In the long "Broken World," Lease's examination of death/life focuses on pressures of contemporary U.S. society rather than specifically Jewish experience. The opening stanzas of the first section represent a dying—whether accidental, natural, or suicidal—in images so spare and elegantly tuned that they haunt while withholding determinate narration of a specific man's fall:

faith and rain
brightness falls

blank as glass
brightness falls

until he

can't bend
light anymore.

"Blankness" cancels light and the ability to "bend" it to human purposes, and it may even cancel a sustaining "faith." A lamentation cataloguing negations measures the absoluteness of loss: "Won't be stronger. Won't be water. / Won't be dancing or floating berries. / Won't be a year. Won't be a song. / Won't be taller." In an ambiguity produced by a felicitous placement of lines, the living poet registers the destructive effect of death on his psyche and his determination to combat those who would dishonor the deceased's memory: "You are with me / and I shatter // everyone who / hates you."

In contrast, the single prose paragraph of Section 2 presents a free-wheeling social critique: "To be a man, to be, to try. I hate the word man. I'm not crazy about the word husband or the word father either. To try. To heal the night or day. I'm busy selling fighters and bombers. The NASDAQ moves in my face." Queasiness about particular language involves despair about a masculinist culture in which the hawking of destruction and obsession with material acquisition displace efforts "to heal" and in which the denigration of women is ubiquitous: "Two blocks from campus, a boy, maybe ten or eleven, yelled at a Junior High School girl: 'Ho-bag, incest baby, spread your legs.'" Similarly, the record of economic colonization and postcolonial exploitation in U.S. foreign policy has proved more than embarrassing: "America equals ghost. The wrong side of history." To re-establish faith in a camaraderie that death cannot undo and to honor the intensity of death's mark—to move past paralyzing disillusionment with U.S. society's violent banalities—Lease returns in the third and last section to reconfigurations of the potent lyric motifs of the first: "Arrows on water; // you are with me— / rain on snow—"

In My Sister Life, "histories of death" that haunt Joseph Lease spur him into haunting, innovative song.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002


Zirconia by Chelsey MinnisChelsey Minnis
Fence Books ($12)

by John Erhardt

Part of the allure of a prose poem is that there is one continuous "line"; every word is on a level playing field, so the content of the poem takes center stage. In her first book, Chelsey Minnis has discovered a way to write prose poetry while uniquely stressing individual words and phrases, thus creating a brand of prose poetry that draws attention to itself internally without sacrificing the very thing that makes it operate. Her technique: to populate the prose poems with lengthy ellipses, sometimes ranging hundreds of periods in length, creating varying distances yet maintaining connections. Actually, it is inaccurate to call these true "ellipses," since nothing at all is omitted from her poems; rather, they function as ligaments:

............when my mother.......................................
....................was raped.........................................
...a harpsichord began to play........................................
....................................red candles melted....and.........
.......spilled down the mantle........................................
................................there was blood in the courtyard......
.............and blood on the birdbath................................
...and blood drizzled....on brown flagstones..........................
........................as a red fox bared its teeth..................

Let's get one thing straight: the abundant periods in Zirconia are no more a distraction than the absence of all punctuation is in Merwin's work. In fact, if we take a poem from the book and lineate it, we produce a very Merwin-esque poem:

and it is torture for my mother
that I am now luscious
and she is dead
and that I have
bare shoulders
and a flower behind my ear
as I beat gentleman rapists
with bronze statuettes
so that the blood
oozes down their handsome sideburns
or give them
a poisoned mushroom
or corsages and corsages of gunshot

We've spent decades praising Merwin for his innovations, and Minnis deserves to be extended a similar courtesy; her poems, like his, offer a meandering single line with no definitive beginning, middle, or end. Thus, she manages a relaxed and readable tone, yet retains the enjambed quality of a well-crafted line break. Minnis proves that you can have it both ways.

She is no one-trick pony, though. While much of the book's mystique arises from her playful formal constructions, there is real charm at work here ("When I was a young girl, my parents hated me and wouldn't give me the right kind of food. I used to steal Barbies and hide them in unique places all over the house, but I took no joy in it.") The voice of the book teases us into following wherever it wanders. Likewise, the characters that inhabit Minnis's poems are somewhat cartoonish, yet we never question their reality. They have exaggerated allegorical professions (such as "head torturer" and "terrible ballet teacher") and they inexplicably prevent Minnis from living out her fantasies:

...uh..........I want to wear hot pants............................................
..................................................and rest my boot on the back
of a man's neck...............................................................

Much of the book concentrates on what Minnis desires, or what she feels she's ready to experience ("I'm ready to plunge into furs.....and reject the standards of my past"). In this sense, she offers direct mental transcriptions of her craving to be released from the now. Her poems are moments of decadent sexuality and unattainable fantasy, and they demonstrate what happens when the world consistently gets between us and what we want. Minnis's world is a world of conspiracy. And she's gotten it right: In the end, we suspect everyone's in on it but her.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002