Tag Archives: spring 2003

World Light

World Light by Halldór Laxness

Halldór Laxness
Translated from the Icelandic by Magnus Magnusson
Vintage ($16)

by Laura Sims

Over 100 pages into this novel, a character describes our protagonist, Olafur Karason, as "delicate and radiant, like a tender plant; every line of his body suggested a personal life, every movement an expression, every proportion a grace." This may come as a shock—we have seen Olafur primarily as a forlorn and sickly orphan struggling to be a great poet while living off the grudging charity of others, and we have felt a mixture of pity, loathing, and respect for him. More importantly, he has seemed, up to this point, wholly incapable of carrying the epic weight a 600-page saga demands. But when Olafur finds himself being woken up from his hitherto wretched existence as a bedridden invalid by a woman renowned for her healing powers, the reader too finds herself coming alive to the possibilities inherent in this lead character, as well as to the generous delights of this Icelandic novel, written in 1937 by Nobel Prize-winner Halldór Laxness. While this optimistic turning point in the narrative heralds the start of a new relationship between reader and protagonist, the remaining 400 plus pages contain so much misery for Olafur that one begins to pine along with him for those early days, dreary as they were, when he lay in a squalid corner waiting to die, neglected and/or abused by every member of the "charitable" household on which he depended, watching a single sunbeam penetrate the ceiling of his hovel.

Although it may seem that Laxness is leading us straight into Hardy territory, Olafur's highly amusing interactions with others prevent the novel from being categorized as a straight tragedy, just as his various insufficiencies as a potential "hero" prevent it from being pigeonholed as an epic. Neither can it be named comedy, political satire, nor romance, although the elements of each category abound. They abound likewise in the alluring, frustrating, despicable, loveable, and ridiculous character of Olafur Karason himself. Laxness certainly indicts society vehemently for its abuse of the poetically gifted Olafur, but Olafur does not escape indictment himself. In the following exchange between the poet and Peder Pavelsen, the manager who owns and runs the town of Svidinsvik where Olafur spends much of his adult life, we witness the poet's vacillation between ridiculous docility and passive resistance. The manager, in a drunken stupor, offers his benefaction in exchange for Olafur swearing to support the manager's pet cause, the "Regeneration of the Nation"—an ambiguous movement which sounds grand but amounts to further exploitation of the poor laborers by the few rich rulers of the town. The manager begins:

"If you'll swear to be my poet, you shall have a roof."

"I don't know how to swear," said the poet.

"Well, in that case you can go to the devil," said Peder Pavelsen; he let go of the poet's hand and pushed him away.

The poet's upper lip began to tremble at once, and he said bitterly, "It's easy enough to push me away."

"Yes," said Peder Pavelsen. "You're a rat. Anyone who won't raise three fingers in the air for the Regeneration of the Nation is a rat."

At that the poet changed his mind and declared that he was ready to raise three fingers for the Regeneration of the Nation.

Then the manager loved the poet again, embraced him, and wept a little.

The manager, after securing Olafur's loyalty, presents him with a house worthy of such an oath: a vacant, broken-down, rat-infested old palace. When the poet goes to claim his "home," he finds that both front and back door are nailed shut, and a feral cat passes by, stopping "to hiss in the poet's direction" as an added insult. At another time he is tempted, by a passionate woman who becomes his lover, to join the coalition of "freedom fighters" who plan to rebel against the town's leadership to improve working conditions and pay for laborers. For a moment, the door to another world swings open to Olafur; in the next moment, he chooses wife and child, the stability of home, not because he has found true happiness there, but because he pities his dependents too much to abandon them. His lover responds to his explanation that "'pity is man's nobility'" with the accusation: "'You don't believe in life! You think that the Creator cannot keep the world going without your idiotic pity!'" Olafur sticks to his chosen path, but also "looked back as he softened, and saw himself splitting in two: the freedom- fighter, the madman, the villain and the poet were left behind in the distance, and forward stepped the meek adherent of conventional orthodox behavior." This move requires courage on his part, but the reader may feel something akin to his lover's frustration when he makes this bleak choice. Rarely has any writer offered up such a vexing character as Olafur Karason. It may be that we love his very humanness —he is momentarily rebellious, then mundanely heroic; often absurd, then suddenly saintly; and he rarely travels the path of his life with ease, like most of us. Olafur Karason's humanity is what comes across so vividly in Laxness's masterpiece, and our own humanity urges us to follow him along his life journey.

In the moments scattered throughout this tale when Olafur engages in transcendent communication with what we may call "world light"—that otherworldly inspiration common to poets, martyrs, and sainted outcasts of every kind—the reader can wholeheartedly admire him. It becomes clear that he is a being who can escape the tired earth, and the tedious ways of humanity, when he lies in a field looking up at the sky, or looks out toward the great glacier dominating Svidinsvik's horizon, and realizes "that Nature was all one loving Mother, and he himself and everything that lives were of the one spirit, and there was nothing ugly any more, nothing evil." These moments are few and far between, but they always return, and they lead him to the place where "beauty shall reign alone," where his meager, largely unhappy existence is transformed into poetry, beauty, and ultimate redemption. Before Olafur reaches that state of perfection, however, he stumbles along, allowing his fellow humans (and readers) to peg him as parish pauper, worthless scoundrel, ridiculous poet, sainted hero, or whatever they wish—while he solemnly goes about his existence, a quiet soul surrounded, and roughly touched by, the noise and ugly commerce of life.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003

Any Human Heart

Any Human Heart by William BoydWilliam Boyd
Alfred A. Knopf ($24.95)

by Emily Johnston

Novelist William Boyd has a fondness for framing devices: The Blue Afternoon told the story of a man's love affair while describing his daughter's new and enigmatic acquaintance with him decades later, and Brazzaville Beach opens with a woman at a seaside African cabin reflecting upon the tumult of the previous years. In Any Human Heart Boyd continues this framing in minimalist fashion, presenting a story told almost entirely in journal form, but with occasional passages and footnotes supplied by a supposed literary executor. At its finer moments, the novel reads like something you might find in the musty attic of a family home, open with mild curiosity, and then read straight through, fascinated by the engaging, detailed evocation of one individual's thoughts throughout a long life.

From childlike self-proclamation—"Yo, Logan Mountstuart, vivo en la Villa Flores, Avenida de Brasil, Montevideo, Uruguay, America del Sur, El Mundo, El Sistema Solar, El Universo," the book begins, in its only Spanish entry, when our protagonist is first given a journal—Any Human Heart moves on to adolescent delights and traumas; to youthful hope as the author, a writer, begins publishing; to middle-aged compromises and the shattering effect of World War II; and finally to a penurious but more serene old age. The moods of the character's aging are for the most part wholly believable, however the intimacy of a journal does come with dangers; inevitably episodic in nature, the novel loses its drive as Mountstuart loses his exuberance, and sags dangerously about halfway through its nearly 500 pages.

One problem is Boyd's decision to make Mountstuart a successful and peripatetic author and gallery manager that he meets most of the great writers and artists of the early and mid-1900s. The London-Paris-New York axis of these worlds was indubitably a small place, and a moderately well-connected writer really might have gone drinking with Picasso, Waugh, Hemingway, Joyce, Woolf, Frank O'Hara, Pollock, and innumerable others. But combined with the decision to have Mountstuart become friendly with, and possibly be the victim of a conspiracy by, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor—in a cloak-and-dagger assignment originated, of course, by Ian Fleming—it results in a corny, you-were-there, Forrest Gump feel to the middle of the novel. Boyd seems to find it interesting to imagine characters on the edge of great historic moments—one of the minor characters in The Blue Afternoon is a near-winner in the race for a flying machine. There's something beguiling about this exploration of what it might have been like to be centrally involved in such lost moments, but Mountstuart's closeness to fame proves far too distracting.

Because the first third of the novel is so engaging, it's a great disappointment when the appealing exuberance of both Mountstuart and one of his two closest friends disintegrates. In Mountstuart's case we are given something that could be a reason—returning from the war after a surreal imprisonment in Switzerland, he finds that his passionately loved second wife has 1) remarried, as he had been declared dead two years before, and 2) died, killed by a bomb along with their little girl, as they walked to her nursery school. In the course of a little over a hundred pages, the reader goes from entries such as this:

Freya Deverell. Freya Deverell. I have that feeling of heartrace, that bloodheat and breathgasp, just writing her name.... It terrifies me, the fragility of these moments in our lives.

to ones such as this:

Is this worth recording? I experienced what can only be described as a spasm of happiness—the first since I heard the news—when I managed to work out (with a toothpick) a shred of mutton that had been stuck in a crevice between two back teeth.

The problem is this movement away from honest emotion had begun years before his harrowing return, rendering him both less self-aware and less appealing. Shortly after being rebuffed by a much-loved friend in his still-hopeful early twenties, he marries Lottie, a woman he doesn't love, and is a terrible cad to her and to their child. This might happen, of course—it happens every day—but we never find out why; like other critical junctures in the book, this major shift is simply elided in a note by the executor. (Mountstuart also makes painful intellectual errors regarding World War II, but given the kind of shallow man he has become, these are less surprising than his profound unkindness.)

In the case of his friend Peter Scabius, there is nothing to explain his degeneration; he enters Mountstuart's journals as a beloved boarding-school friend—shy, honorable, and very much entranced by the farm girl he is dared to kiss. Though she seems simple at first, Tess is his equal, and they marry a few years later. Before long, though, Scabius is a compulsive womanizer as well as a trivial, pompous writer who lives as an exile to avoid paying taxes on his fortune. (Mountstuart stays in touch with him, somewhat inexplicably, though he doesn't bother to read his novels.) There is no real exploration of this change.

On the second page of the novel, an older Mountstuart says that in the missing pages of his earliest journal he probably made a commitment to be "wholly and unshakeably truthful" and asserted "refusal to feel shame over any revelations which that candor would have encouraged." Presumably Boyd offers these shifts as the compromises of aging in a man such as our unreliable narrator, to point up his folly and self-deceit. People can lose their idealism and compromise themselves, self-justifying all the way. But because the reader doesn't really see Mountstuart and Scabius losing their finer qualities, their later selves seem less real than their earlier ones.

Late in the novel, as an elderly and humbled Mountstuart sits people-watching at a rented beach shack, he says:

I feel...a strange sense of pride: pride in all I've done and lived through...Play on, boys and girls, I say, smoke and flirt, work on your tans, figure out your evening's entertainment. I wonder if any of you will live as well as I have done.

This last line is a shock: Mountstuart hasn't been that self-deceiving, and old age has made him moderately less so; there is a poignancy to these later entries that has not been present since the earliest ones. He certainly has nothing to feel triumphant about—a very few people loved, not particularly generously; many people hurt; a few books published—and these no braver, evidently, than their author is in the rest of his life.

Boyd can be the subtlest of writers: there's a moment in The Blue Afternoon, in the midst of a love story presented for the most part as though its narrator were reliable, when the reader has a laser-sharp awareness of the man's self-deception as he unfavorably compares his no-longer-beloved wife and his new love in order to believe more fully in his new love story. This weakness is like one Boyd explores more explicitly in Brazzaville Beach, when his protagonist realizes with chagrin her own narrative manipulation: "She was behaving like a Soviet historian, cooly airbrushing assassinated generals or purged ministers out of official photographs, reshaping, tidying events to suit her own way of thinking." Now that culture, language, and even trickery have been discovered to have analogues in the animal kingdom, self-deception may be all that truly sets us apart, and it has always been rich territory for a novelist. In Any Human Heart, though, we have neither romantic self-deceit nor warm-blooded and intelligent self-assessment—in a journal, of all places, we lack a view of the interior journey of the narrator.

Despite the authentic feel of the journals, Boyd seems too willing to let cleverness trump subtlety here; there's even a winking footnote that refers to a supposed biography of a minor character—in fact, this "biography" is a novel that Boyd himself published in 1998. The bulk of Any Human Heart is dominated by a not very likable man who brushes up against a lot of famous people, and offers, even to himself, little in the way of honesty or deep emotion. Such a character could still command our attention—and Boyd's skill as a writer does, for the most part—but the contrived center of the novel allows our narrator too little room to be human, and the exploration of his heart is too insubstantial to be satisfying.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003

Pattern Recognition

Pattern Recognition by William GibsonWilliam Gibson
Putnam ($25.95)

by S. Clayton Moore

With his eighth book, Pattern Recognition, futurist William Gibson opens new doors while resolutely keeping a finger on the pulse of the electronic underground. His female protagonist lends a cohesive sensitivity to a novel that fairly throbs with pulses of electronic intensity that shoot through a world where identification as well as information has become the currency of choice.

By setting the story in a version of present reality—one year after the September 11th attacks—he has also produced a novel that is vastly more accessible to the general reader than the cybernetic cowboys and net runners of his recent books Idoru and All Tomorrow's Parties. These observations don't mean, however, that technophobes are welcome. If you've never been Googled, fear computer viruses as if they were Ebola, or your workstation bellows, "You've got mail," then this may not be the place for you.

Gibson writes, instead, for those of who revel in Bondian gadgets, German engineering, and the indescribable underground brotherhood of 'cool.' The author has never talked down to his reading audience, from the very beginnings of the award-winner Neuromancer to the globe-trotting adventures of Pattern Recognition's Caye Pollard—her name a none-too-subtle nod to his first novel's data thief, Case, as well as to the cult surrounding the prophet Edgar Cayce.

Gibson also reprises some of the same themes here as Max Barry's blistering satire Jennifer Government, in which marketing has so corrupted the world that individuals take the last names of the corporations for which they work. Cayce's fears are much subtler, however, and operate something on the level of the virus-model marketing at the heart of the story. A design consultant for the new century, she uses her intuitive feeling for invading the public consciousness to advise massive ad campaigns. With the eerie drawback of a psychic allergy to aggressive marketing, she's both enraptured and trapped by the global aura of fashion, wearing design-free and timeless clothing while falling sick from everything from Tommy Hilfiger to a simple Nike slash across her field of vision.

Pattern Recognition holds the same dramatic tension as Gibson's previous novels. Cayce has a missing father, a notoriously wealthy and enigmatic client, and a growing obsession with "the footage," a series of seemingly interconnected fragments distributed through the Internet. Events launch our heroine on a search for the mysterious filmmaker and the meaning of the footage.

Within that idea lies much of the appeal of Gibson's books as well: the search for meaning. Unlike the standard throwaway techno-thriller, Gibson creates the sense of the world underneath, something akin to what Cayce calls the "mirror-world," she finds in foreign travel. Another great pleasure in reading these stories is in the minutiae of their exotic locales. Gibsonian heroes jump between cities with as little thought as they give to crossing a street; black cabs in retrogressive London and the shining chrome and brilliant neon of Tokyo can coexist in the same chapter. Between the lines are the details and over the details pour the story.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003


Gilgamesh by Joan LondonJoan London
Grove Press ($23)

by Bonnie Blader

When I taught English to high-school students, I used to ask of each male protagonist we encountered, "Could this character have been female? Could this have been a woman's story?" Of Holden Caulfield, of Conrad's narrator in The Shadow Line, of Camus's stranger, of Knowles's Gene Forester in A Separate Peace, students repeatedly said no, no, never—these were not women's stories.

Edith, Joan London's protagonist in her novel Gilgamesh, has internalized the same prohibition, despite growing up outside local conventions in Nunderup, Australia. Her father is dead, and her mother, unable to "take the life," is useful only in calling in the "chooks" at night; she and her sister scrape out a thin life on an unforgiving spit of land overwhelmed by the sound of the sea. Although unschooled, Edith is aware of a yearning to find "her story in the great swirling darkness of the world." It is when the visitors come—her cousin Leopold and his Armenian friend and driver, Aram, smelling of spices as exotic to her as the ancient cities they describe—that Edith has words for what the world seems to insist upon: "She had no part in the adventure. Women had no freedom to go adventuring."

Gilgamesh, however, sends Edith on a journey as improbable, and as full of youthful willfulness and naivete, as any archetypal journey in epic literature. Her baby son Jim, who is held up at birth and "spanked for being her child," is the vehicle of her final break with Nunderup: he is "a weapon in her arms, a source of power." She will go to Armenia—a place no more real than the color green on a map Leopold showed her—to reunite with Jim's father, Aram. It is 1937; she'll need the luck of the gods and the resources of her own "childhood solitude" to survive.

Underscoring the mythic quality of the story are chance encounters that feel like both providence and dream. Bickford, a "local carrier" in Nunderup, shows up in his jeep at the maternity hospital to smoke a cigarette just as Edith realizes she must take Jim and flee if she is to keep him. London marks this "the first of her and Jim's escapes"; in England, Leopold's mother sees that her niece won't be stopped, and hands her an envelope of money on which is scrawled, "The gods love those who are brave." The final section of the novel begins with the question, "Why did you come?" and the answer, "Because I was needed."

London can be usefully compared to Marilynne Robinson, who in Housekeeping also created female characters profoundly outside the conventions of the lives lived around them. Both writers, too, share a style marked by restraint. London keeps her sentences short; visual imagery is intensely rendered, yet compressed; Edith travels in closely noticed hermetic worlds. Because she is so unreflective, the reader isn't sure what she will do. She is authentically vulnerable; she moves in the direction of freedom and agency without a sense of consequence. All she has is her core. She is, in this, like Enkidu form the original Gilgamesh—a child of the wild. Of all of the doubles offered in both works—Gilgamesh and Enkidu, Leopold and Aram, Edith and Aram, Edith and Jim—it is the double of Edith the untaught and at risk and Edith in possession, at last, of herself that matters most in this beautifully realized work.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003

Stomping the Goyim

Stomping the Goyim by Michael DisendMichael Disend
Green Integer ($12.95)

by Michael Price

Paraphrasing Frank O'Hara, the poet Ted Berrigan said "works of art that are not very amusing are usually not very amusing because they are not any good." He goes on to say that "amusing" does not mean funny, but rather something that "turns your muses on. That it makes you respond to it. Your muses respond to its muses—it is amusing to read a poem like 'Kaddish,' for example, which is about a rather gruesome subject matter. It's amusing in that it's beautiful, it's wonderful, it's gorgeous, it's touching. It's also horrifying, it's scary, it's vulgar. It's shocking."

My reasoning for this extensive quotation is to call attention to Michael Disend's primordial sutra-novel of 1969, Stomping the Goyim, recently reissued by Green Integer. Disend's prose works so very deftly at amusing, touching, and horrifying, all the while managing to be beautiful, wonderful, and totally original. This is possible because it is a book of truth—not in the sense of "not false" but rather as a force of purity, a work capable of returning the nonexistent to existence, so that what is gone comes back. To try and approach it with the standard academic crash test goggles is to miss the subtlety of wisdom beneath its unrelenting record of the post-psychedelic fallout, replete with draft dodge, poly-sexual revolt, and poetic beauty. Disend acknowledges and embraces the dichotomies: "Bad self can be assuaged. There is a path. Bad self is what this book is about.... But changes keep us dancing. Love has so many possibilities."

Like Kerouac's novels, Stomping the Goyim is a work of poetic fiction. Disend's prose, with its sure handling of wit and ironic dialogue, moves muscularly across the battlefields of a country ravaged by spiritual war on all fronts. No one is spared: Jew, Goy, Wop, Homo, Bimbo, Nigger, Honkey—all make their appearance in the book's depiction of a dark and trembling time.

Liz the localized troll did well: hooded her face and wept until, led by an irate, ring-tailed Arthur Ogle, my congregation reeled in from the living room. And they stood there, staring, captivated by Liz's dyke haircut, the tears. More—they gazed quivering, they leered blasphemously. A character delineation occurred. A paralysis in cotton panties. As the Bihders knew the menace of the Spoddy circle, we saw their teeth melt in the thrashing energy of dope . . .

Organized Bihder religion: a horde of women thrusting themselves upon the universal cock.


Although some readers may be tempted to write off such original and seemingly difficult prose as a mere cut-up of the stream of consciousness, what is actually at work here is a flexible, open receptivity, a direct feed from the absolute CREATIVE. There is a non-conscious sensitivity here that must not be missed: for it fails not to amuse in every sense of the word.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003

Frontera Dreams

Frontera Dreams by Paco Ignacio Taibo IIPaco Ignacio Taibo II
Translated by Bill Verner
Cinco Puntos Press ($13.95)

by Kevin Carollo

Detective Héctor Belascoarán Shayne is not all there: in Frontera Dreams, he often looks in the "mirror without recognizing himself". By the time we reach this novel, the seventh featuring Taibo's beleaguered sleuth, he has endured myriad wounds, slashes, and lacerations. Although the action of a Taibo mystery stays close to the body, Héctor's injuries also document a larger history of what makes society unrecognizable to itself.

Frontera Dreams involves the search for a missing woman in the borderlands of Mexico. Héctor knows movie star Natalia Smith-Corona from childhood, when her last name was Ramirez. Natalia has named herself after a typewriter, becoming "The one she always was. The one she never was"—just like Héctor, just like Mexico. Through such depictions, Taibo stresses the impossibility of resolving the contradictions of life. This particular tome explores the televisual qualities of Mexico's frontier. Because the act of real life is most dramatically performed where languages, memories, and stories compete for center stage, where "You belonged and yet you did not", the novel keeps us—and Héctor—guessing about the nature and power of the "strange mix of territories" that make up the borderland.

Because of such concerns, the plot of a Taibo mystery may seem rather loose and incidental. The narrator cannot resist the allure of multiple metaphors and meta-commentary, and he revels in the spectral intangibility of everything--"A phantom detective on a phantom hunt for a phantom woman." Finding the phantom woman is only the beginning, however, for history is what we lose, forget, rediscover, retell, and lose again: the ultimate mystery novel.

In general, Héctor represents Mexico in its soap-operatic splendor precisely because a Mexican detective is "by definition a laughable solitary accident." The anomaly is the rule, and the incidental leads to the palace of wisdom. For Taibo, that palace is a strange borderland where stories can be retold until they sound reminiscent, but not the same. Frontera Dreams shows Taibo at his borderline best, in the heart of the heart of the country.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003

Translating Mo'um

Translating Mo'um by Cathy Park HongCathy Park Hong
Hanging Loose Press ($13)

by Gabriella Ekman

These days it is common to speak of the "borderland" tongues of second- and third-generation immigrant Americans—the hybrid linguistic pyrotechnics and "doubled consciousness" that result from growing up in two cultures at once. Cathy Park Hong is Korean-American, and Translating Mo'um, her fierce debut book of poems, certainly exhibits the split identity and alienation from Anglo-American culture that one also finds in the work of Virgil Suárez, Li-Young Lee, and many others. Yet Hong's meticulously honed, visceral poetic is wholly her own; she takes us far beyond the "borderlands" of the usual and expected. "Zoo," for instance, introduces us to "Korean" in the following manner:

Ga    The fishy consonant,
Na    The monkey vowel.

Da    The immigrant's tongue
as shrill or guttural.

Overture of my voice like the flash of bats.
The hyena babble and apish libretto.

Piscine skin, unblinking eyes.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Words with an atavistic tail. History's thorax considerably cracked.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

La    the word
Ma    speaks
Ba    without you

This is language that takes no prisoners, that startles and threatens rather than entices. Here, sand is "wolf-hued"; "antidepressants" line up "like clever pilgrims"; a word is "undressed" and becomes "blueprint, revolver."

In a language simultaneously beautiful and furiously anti-beautiful—using blanks in sentences, long parentheses, and sets of Korean and English that gradually transmogrify into nonsense (see "Wing 2" and "Wing 3")—Hong manages to create a space for the irreducibility of meaning, its androgyny and monstrous "not-belongingness." Her world, consequently, is not so much the immigrant's split and doubled landscape as it is the "many-limbed", many-countried realm of an array of Siamese twins, hermaphrodites, homunculi, "freaks in taxidermic clinics," and a "man who was only / a torso and head," recalling Ovid's Metamorphoses—after, rather than before, transformation.

And as in Ovid, breakdowns of communication haunt the peripheries of Hong's world. Her narrators speak invariably without being heard or reciprocally recognized: "a stutter inflated and reddened the face: / eyes bulged and lips gaped to form, / a fortune cookie cracked and a tongue rolled out. / Wagged the Morse code but no one knew it." Like the roster of historical "freaks" Hong conjures throughout the book--Saartje Baartman ("the Hottentot Venus"), Chang and Eng, Tono Maria--the translating "I" in Translating Mo'um seems doomed to mistranslation, to not being translated at all. "Still mute," we are told in "The Shameful Show of Tono Maria," "I was sent to Special Ed / with autistics, paraplegics, and a boy / who only ate dirt." The devastating "Ontology of Chang and Eng, the Original Siamese Twins," briefly, effortlessly, and often humorously sketching the outlines of two individual lives lived in-between a single body, culminates in the sound of a single voice, speaking and meeting no answer:

"My lips are turning blue, Eng" / Eng did not answer.

"They want our bodies, Eng." / Eng did not answer.

"Eng, Eng! My lips are turning blue." / Eng turned to his body and did not answer.

In the book's title poem, Hong confesses: "I took the gold, the ventriloquist's voice, the locks of hair, took / the code, the breasts, the lush vowel, and the infinitive / that could suit anyone (to eat, to suckle, to lust, to drink, to come, / to wash, to speak, to touch, to fuck, to speak. I have spoken, I have / spoken earnestly, I have lied.) I took the body." Reading Translating Mo'um, one can only hope that Hong continues to lie and speak earnestly, that she continues to grab, threaten and throttle "the wolf-hued sand" of "the body" of the word—so that it keeps burning, not only on her tongue, but also on ours.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003

Flow Blue

Flow Blue by Sarah KennedySarah Kennedy
Elixir Press ($13)

by Mark Pietrzykowski

I'm sure there was a moment in the history of letters when the word "confessional" seemed a helpful sort of marker to pair with "poetry," when an author could claim to have written poems that mimicked the private hollows of their individual existence. It means little now, however, never mind if the poet claims autobiography, or has it thrust upon her, or avoids it with the gravity of one pursued; none of these will make "confessional" an adequate term because what occurs in a poem is always both more and less than the poet intended, and what is most interesting to the reader is not the poem's fealty to the author's lived experience but the experience of the poem as part of its own existence. A book such as Flow Blue, for instance, seems to confess a great many things, but identifying Sarah Kennedy as the 'I' of the poems is not particularly helpful; the characters in the sequence accumulate definition until whatever events might have inspired their actions fall away like plaster, revealing several distinct veins of characterization braided together into a book.

So sharply portrayed are the characters in Flow Blue that the poems lose individuality over the course of a chronological reading, and perhaps that is the point. The narrative bears us along through a violent and tepid rural existence with such ease that strangeness quickly vanishes and we are at home with the idiosyncrasies of the narrator's life, so that when a poem begins as "Talking Cure" does—"Old enough to bleed, my husband chuckles, / whenever my age is mentioned"—we feel no shock, but rather a tawdry familiarity. Indeed, this is the success of the book; the misogyny, brutality, and despair portrayed therein quickly become commonplace, and so the reader, too, becomes worn down by the experience. Events that might otherwise seem momentous are simply parts of the grind that manage to provide a brief sense of relief:

You wake me with a proposal the morning after
we decide to divorce: wouldn't it be sweet
to take a short vacation, a road trip south
to watch the maples tapped? Just a day's
ride, you say, a way to end our marriage

on a friendly note. It's February, after all,
the sap is down, we can come back feeling
like late winter turning to early spring.
(from "Sugar")

That the cohesion of the narrative depends, to some degree, on the lack of especially distinctive poems in Flow Blue could be seen as a terminal flaw, but in fact it may simply be a case of determinism overwhelming imagination: Kennedy has determined that she should tell this particular story this particular way, therefore chance must be excluded—even if that means she repeats herself rather frequently. And yet, as Heidegger said in Language: "Merely to say the same thing twice ... is that supposed to get us anywhere? But we do not want to get anywhere. We would like only, for once, to get just where we are already." These poems are not interchangeable, certainly, but neither are they individual. The fact that they are presented as a set of individual poems, each to its own page, is irrelevant; Flow Blue needs to exist as a single poem, and this is the confession it makes to the reader.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003

Raising Eyebrows

Raising Eyebrows by Gary BarwinGary Barwin
Coach House Books ($16.95)

by M. David Dunn

The trend toward new realism may have swept the strange from North American literature, but spontaneous transformations can occur at any time. Think of poor old Gregor Samsa. A metamorphosis like that can really mess with a person's sense of self. In his most recent collection, poet Gary Barwin contemplates the unexpected weirdness of the mundane. Although he doesn't wake up as an insect, Barwin does follow the slip and tangle of thought to non-logical resolution when he observes in the title poem:

your right eyebrow
becomes you as a child
won't stop hitting
your left eyebrow as you drive yourself
to the hatbox where
you will be born before dinner
thanks! you say to no one in particular
and they don't reply.

There are five sections in Raising Eyebrows, each in their turn warping somatic and thematic assumptions. In Barwin's world, the body is a trickster, capable of anything, driven by a consciousness other than will. Basho is re/uninvented:

old pond leaping
into mind of frog

old frog leaping—
the mind of frog


old fr spl po ash og nd

(from "Ukiah Pond: frogments from the frag pool")

Bashed by language, holding on by the width of his pen, Barwin seems to subscribe to André Breton's assertion that language exists to be put to "surrealist use," and does so without faltering. As he writes in "Red Cave", one of the collection's longer poems, "your ear has now taken my mouth's place"—all in all a fair trade.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003

Beauty is Convulsive: The Passion of Frida Kahlo

Beauty is Convulsive by Carole MasoCarole Maso
Counterpoint Press ($24)

by Laura Winton

Composed in Carole Maso's unique poetic and fragmentary style, Beauty is Convulsive: The Passion of Frida Kahlo is many different things at once: a highly condensed biography of Kahlo's life, a voice for her words, and Maso's artistic "conversation" with Kahlo.

Beauty is Convulsive samples freely from biographies of Kahlo, weaving these texts with Maso's own writing and impressions. We've become used to this style from filmmakers and rap artists, but it is still unusual in books, where we're accustomed to singularity of voice, clear quotations, and citations with footnotes and page numbers. Maso's rendering of Frida Kahlo requires a certain suspension of disbelief, a willingness to experience the artist's life as we abandon our usual literary constraints.

The book focuses on three defining elements of the Kahlo mythos, the first being the serious bus accident which had repercussions throughout Kahlo's entire life, including chronic pain in her back, legs and feet, and an inability to have children. Her subsequent miscarriages make up another recurring theme, and the third is her marriage to fellow painter Diego Rivera.

Maso's halting, disjointed writing style suggests a life lived in fits and starts, as in the section "Votive: Child":

Its birth certificate filled out in elegant scroll His mother was
Frida Kahlo

take this sorrow: child

I would give you fistfuls of color
if only

I would have given you.

Because I wanted you      come to me

the cupped butterfly, painted black.

One of the hallmarks of Maso's writing is repetition, and the word votive features in the title and text of many of the pieces in this book. "Votive: Vision," "Votive: Courage," and "Votive: Sorrow" are among the pieces that lead the reader on a meditation, a wish, a prayer, almost as if walking the stations of the cross. In between the votives and other pieces are short epigrammatic statements from Kahlo herself, each entitled "Accident," which serve as interludes:

I am not sick. I am broken.
But I am happy as long as I can paint.


Nevertheless I have the will to do many things
and I have never felt "disappointed by life"
as in Russian novels.

Maso's sampling of Kahlo's journals not only gives voice to Kahlo the artist, but also highlights Kahlo the poet, particularly when writing about Diego:

From you to my hands I go all over your body, and I am with you a minute and I am with you a moment, and my blood is the miracle that travels in the veins of the air from my heart to yours . . . Diego, nothing is comparable to your hands and nothing is equal to the gold-green of your eyes.

Lest one think that Maso is merely a collage artist, arranging the words that Kahlo has written and what others have written about her, Maso intertwines her own meditations on the artist's life and her work:

She remembers when her mouth—pressed to the ear—to the
hum of the paint the blood:
don't kiss anyone else
magenta, dark green, yellow
And she watches him.

Gradually, contemplatively, Beauty is Convulsive gives us a picture of the woman and the artist, and the effect she still has on those who wish to enter her world.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003