Tag Archives: spring 2005


Buy Mister O at Amazon.comLewis Trondheim
NBM ($13.95)

by Karen Donovan

Quotidian aimlessness.
Sociopathic resolve.

Albert Camus meets Wile E. Coyote.
Paul Tillich inhales a little helium.
Job wakes up in the movie Groundhog Day.

Mister O takes it on the chin and keeps coming back.
Ludicrous escapes.
Karmic ruins.
Multiple orgasmic eurekas.
Resourceful but ultimately doomed use of sticks.

He doesn't want much, but what he wants, he wants endocrinologically.
He doesn't read much allegory.

He's into skeptical noodling.
Transcendent whoopsies.
Learning from his mistakes.
He's got hope.
You've got to give him that.

Not that there's any reason for hope.
There is Beckettian slapstick, abominable cruelty, and just deserts.
Here comes the sockdolager and—look out!
It's your doppelganger with a big red, boxing glove.

Tragic? Comic? Tragicomic?
You feel for him, Mister O, even though he's a psycho.
You can identify.
Because you're not asking for all that much either.
When your day feels like a seed heat at the Xtreme Games,
and you wish you could get across the street without being creamed.

The promised land.
It's such a small leap.
But he's never going to make it.
Despite his desire.
Mayhem blooms from his desire.
Bloody splats.
And impossible physics.
Flatulence-propelled flight.
Bullshit-greased launch pads.
Shoe spring-sprongs.
Magic carpets.
Poorly timed rocks.

Man, is he sore.
He's got issues with the cosmic oyster.
Injudicious enthusiasm.
An everlasting reason for singing the blues.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005


Buy Gemma Bovery at Amazon.comPosy Simmonds
Pantheon ($19.95)

by Eric Lorberer

In Gemma Bovery, British author Posy Simmonds offers not only a contemporary send-up of an age-old theme, but a fresh take on the graphic novel as well. Her title character's name obviously recalls Flaubert's Emma Bovary, a coincidence not lost on our narrator Joubert, a small-town baker in Normandy. Gemma, you see, is a Londoner who has emigrated to the French countryside with her husband Charlie, fleeing a romantically unresolved past and dreaming of a place where she could "recreate the atmosphere of a hundred years ago, as if peasants still lived there." Of course, as with the original Madame Bovary, the country isn't all it's cracked up to be, and when she falls into an affair with a younger man, the narrative hurtles toward the closure promised in the book's opening line: "Gemma Bovery has been in the ground three weeks."

One of the most delightful things about Gemma Bovery is that one needn't be a Flaubert scholar to enjoy it: Joubert, fascinated with the parallels between Gemma and the heroine of his countryman's novel ("Everytheeng in thees book, eet 'appened to Gemma!") provides a perfect stand-in for the reader, filling in the blanks as he obsessively follows Gemma through her affair. On the other hand, this is definitely a graphic novel for the literati, filled with rich characters, a complicated plot, multiple narrative voices (Joubert tells the story not only from his point of view but also by accessing Gemma's diaries, while Simmonds deftly weaves in omniscience through letters, maps, translations, etc.), and other devices besides literary allusion.

The excellence of Simmond's construction of this book is particularly noticeable in how she's handled the graphic novel form, which she pushes into an exciting hybrid of cartooning and prose. Each page of this oversized book is an exquisitely designed broadside of sorts, balancing Joubert's eloquent narrative (set in regular type) with traditional comics panels and dialogue suddenly popping in or taking over; charmingly, Joubert speaks with a French accent when he appears as a character in the comic (this is the tale of a lost English woman, after all), or thinks in French while Simmonds translates. Gemma's own script (from her diaries) also commandeers the story at points. And Simmonds's artwork, a blend of European realism and Feifferesque fancy, keeps pace with her text beautifully.

Despite this interplay of voices (and cultures), the formal innovation of the book and its metatextual premise are never ostentatious, but rather always in the service of the emotional core of the narrative. Like the best work in any medium, Gemma Bovery engages both the heart and mind due to the relaxed mastery Simmonds shows in telling her story. This is one graphic novel which can lay claim to having both words in that epithet equally emphasized.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005


Buy Puerta del Sol at Amazon.comFrancisco Aragón
Bilingual Press ($12)

by Alexandra van de Kamp

Puerta del Sol, Francisco Aragón's first full-length book, is an intimate look at life in contemporary Spain as well as a convincing depiction of one person's attempts to navigate the overwhelming effects of loss and violence. Named after one of the main plazas in Madrid, the book opens its first section with the poem "Plaza," which begins by stating, "My first day the weather // was something I wore--August / a sweat-lined shirt / like a second skin." With these lines, the speaker introduces place not as an abstract entity but as something intimate and visceral; Spain and Spanish become a second skin in this book, a fact reflected in its bilingual format. Aragón comments on this when he asserts that his Spanish versions of the English poems are not "translations" as much as "elaborations," which he feels at liberty to play with. As a native of California, Aragón grew up with his Nicaraguan mother and was able to speak Spanish but was unable to read or write in it until after college. Then he spent ten years in Spain adding yet another linguistic layer to his Spanish. Hence, it is no surprise that his book is a geographical hybrid, spanning the diverse locations of California and Spain.

The book begins with a prelude, which is an "elaboration" in English of the Rubén Dario poem "Lo Fatal." At one point Dario's poem (offered in the original at the back of the book) states: "pues no hay dolor màs grande que el dolor de ser vivo." Literally translated this reads: "There is no pain larger than the pain of being alive," but Aragón's version reads "Tell me / of an affliction / more acute / than breathing." Here we have one of the main premises of the book: that pain and life are inextricable, but that life is a sensual, intimate experience, and some of the pain we encounter may be offset by being a vivid witness to this experience.

Such vividness is abundant in the first section of the book, in which several well-paced narrative poems celebrate the fact of place. "City Moon" captures the sultry hungers of the city of Madrid with images like: "perfect disc of moon, huge / and simmering / low on the capital's filthy horizon." while not forgetting "the firm-thighed"

boys from Lisbon
a block away, who work
Kilometer Zero's sidewalk, the neon
shoestore they lean against
cupping the flames
of passing strangers.

Meanwhile, "First Time Out" steps away from Madrid to describe the speaker's first time sailing in Barcelona and ends by depicting the rise and fall of the Mediterranean: "this rise // this fall a heaving, / sighing, or merely the Mediterranean / releasing / the breath / that sustains, fulfills // the sail." This image of a breathing sea, reinforced by the short, breath-like lines (a device Aragón uses frequently), once again reminds the reader of the prelude's visceral declaration of breathing as witness and of how we have no choice but to filter this world's beauty and tragedy through our own selves, via the small successive increments of our breath.

The poems in this book are strongest when they expand this idea of witness to encompass the political and personal. In "All Saints' Day," Aragón deftly brings together, in a tautly written lyrical narrative, the lives of three men and the grim facts of terrorism. The poem begins with a West Coast image of the warm Santa Ana winds that, like the human breath weaving in and out of the book as a whole, carry the poem's backdrop from California to "the other // side of the globe" where "Giulietta / Masina feels a warmth / on her cheek," as she nurses her dying husband, Federico Fellini, during the final days of his life. From here, the poem moves seamlessly into the life of a second couple as "another wife's wish // is fleshed out" and her kidnapped husband, finally freed, "pulls // open a tavern door / and walks in and calls / a cab, / his limbs and organs // intact." The poem then deftly states: "But if // her husband had been / another--the army doctor / down the block / a year short // of retiring" and goes on to recount how the doctor is gunned down by terrorists one morning while trying to cross the street to his bulletproof car. Aragón's skillful overlapping of the private and political shows most vividly in images such as the notes of a street musician's flute mingling with "the notes // spitting out of the Parabellum / pistols," and in the poem's closing image, when the speaker, referring to himself in the second person, states that the day before he had accepted from a teenage boy and girl a flyer for Telepizza and while heading home had tossed the flyer

into a green
plastic wastebin
fastened to a lamppost at the edge
of the curb: same

as the one the doctor will grasp
the next morning, wrap
his arms around, wrenching
it free

as he falls, trash
to the ground
meters from the car.

This quotidian detail of a trash can as the nexus where private lives and political events collide demonstrates powerfully the haunting everyday details of violence and of how, unwittingly, we can brush against other people's tragedies.

The next two sections of Puerta del Sol focus primarily on personal relationships. Cataloguing facts and sensations, Aragón depicts the death of his mother as well as the deaths of friends by AIDS. In "Light, Yogurt, Strawberry Milk," the speaker, unable to sleep, goes to his Madrid kitchen to snack on yogurt, which triggers a memory "of Father Dan, who, back home, / had buried her" and of how, for months after, the speaker, now a grieving son, had watched the priest "raise a chalice / every morning / to his lips" as he was now raising the yogurt to his own. Once again, small, mundane details become weigh stations for pain--physical symbols embodying more overwhelming emotional realities. While car bombs and assassinations interrupt the domestic harmony of Madrid, AIDS punctures the everyday reality of San Francisco in poems such as "The Calendar," in which Aragón subtly brings to the surface the ravaging effects of the disease:

I want to tell you how, in the fraction
of an hour, waiting for the J
at Market and Church, I saw four

fragile men managing
through an afternoon: two with
canes, though not of the age when canes

are used.

Yet there is also much joy in this book; Aragón often spends a poem simply reveling in a particular moment. In "Madrid in July" the speaker recalls one summer afternoon "stacking well into the afternoon / tablecloths and napkins" while working in a restaurant laundry, and his physical attraction for a co-worker: "the blood that thrives // whenever I glimpse / the hair on his wrist." Such sensual delights continue through poems like "Winter Socks" and "Lunch Break" and seem to culminate in the short rhyming poem "Mi Corazón is a Bilingual Mirror," which playfully depicts the narrator drawing a heart and placing it in his lover's pocket. Of course, there is some ambiguity as to what exactly the speaker's heart is--the poem itself being written or something more ephemeral that slips past any language's ability to name it. The poem is so short that the Spanish version of it (written with similar end rhymes) is offered on the same page and provides for the reader a literal bilingual reflection of the narrator's emotions. In a sense, this more whimsical piece sums up the emotional topography of the book, which is a bilingual heart--an intimate look at the author's emotional attachments to two languages and to the two locations these languages represent for him.

The final poem of the book, "What Else Will I Recall?" ends with Aragón openly wondering at what he will most remember from his years in Spain. He ponders several possibilities but then ends with a beginning: the first moment he stepped off the plane in Madrid in the height of August heat and overheard a Madrileño commenting on the unbearable weather: "and how / something in me fluttered // hearing those vowels, as if I started / to understand, as if those rhythms / carried, even then, the message // I'd take years to unravel." What message that is the reader is left to discern, but one can only imagine it is connected to the more inscrutable messages of loss, of the mysterious power places can have over us, and of the author's attempts to come to terms with the political and personal events he has witnessed in the diverse geographies of two languages.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005


Buy Oxo at Amazon.comPierre Alferi
Translated by Cole Swensen with seven photographs by Suzanne Doppelt
Burning Deck ($10)

by Jefferson Hansen

The book is divided into seven sections. Each section is divided into seven poems. And each poem describes some aspect of modern Paris in seven short lines (plus an italicized coda which announces the noun or phrase that is described in the poem proper). What's more, each line is seven syllables long.

Pierre Alferi describes his rigid form as a “grunge idea… almost as good as compacting the trash.” Should we take him seriously? Yes and no. The rigid boundaries he sets for himself prove surprisingly malleable. He moves easily from topic to topic in no particular order: the border between poems is quite permeable. But the formal rigidity contains wild comparisons and abrupt shifts of focus.

Cole Swensen's translation of this book is amazing: she adheres strictly to Alferi's demanding originality and formal constraints while at the same time making the English sing. At no time does this translation feel literal, even though it is literal on the formal level. Swensen always manages to write fluidly, in part because she uses no punctuation.

One poem reads as follows:

no what'll get you are the
smoke machines just kill you kill
the thrill let's skip over the
swaying fan and go on to
the best part the way he tunes
the strings then adopts the pose
of ulysses with ear plugs


This poem offers an appreciative perspective on the kitsch and melodrama of rock music. There is no condemnation; the poem almost sounds as if mouthed by an excited fan anticipating the concert. We leave the poem with the ridiculous comparison of a mythological epic hero to a mere rock star. The psychology and philosophy explored by the Homeric tales outsizes the rock star to an absurd degree. But of course, the rock star is drawing on Homeric mythology, even perhaps without awareness of the historical context. He takes himself very seriously, which is what makes him so fun.

Another poem reads:

it's the bubbles that come in
advance like the whiff that sweeps
the whole cup to your lips the
spirit of the coffee that
bursts in your face and it's the
fore-kiss of pepsi that's the
best part says the customer


It seems that every few lines Alferi changes the expertise of the connoisseur, from “bubbles” (champagne) to coffee to Pepsi . . . but what is the relationship between the customer and the connoisseur? Is there snobbery here? Or is there no reference to champagne—could the entire poem be about Pepsi, which has its own “bubbles” and “spirit of coffee”? All we can be certain of is the pleasure exuded by this poem.

There are two reasons to read this book. One is Alferi's off-beat sensibility: rarely have I encountered a poet more delighted by the minutiae of life. Unlike William Carlos Williams, who presents the overlooked aspects of life in as natural a form as possible, for Alferi the formal specifics of the poems emphasize how stylized the detritus of life can be. The second reason to read the book: to revel in the triumph that is Cole Swensen's translation.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005


Buy The Lichtenberg Figures at Amazon.comBen Lerner
Copper Canyon Press ($14)

by Cindra Halm

Let's say the poetic mind is a storm chamber. Because of erratic winds, stuff blows in from beyond the usual waking sensibility; as in disturbed sleep, neighbors and friends end up next to famous historical figures; parts of speech collide with images of herbs and snow, literary theory with personal and collective wars. There's an electrical charge in the air--nerves replicate and repetitions frame, fray. When lightning surges, so does perception, singeing insight into matter. Hold on to your hat but not to your tongue: language here is at once astir and attached, both turbulent and still.

This is the conceit and the method of Ben Lerner's first book of poems, aptly named The Lichtenberg Figures after the branching patterns that sometimes form after lightning strikes. Indeed, each of the 52 (one for each week of the year?) poems "flash," most consistently in the way that they crack open time to express an astonishing inclusivity, and for the ways in which they crackle with paradoxically intelligent and illogical connotations. The book as a whole serves as both a critique and a catalogue of one mind's study of disjunctions as well as cohesions; of contemporary culture's inflammatory obsessions; and of the academic canon's absurdly serious or seriously absurd theories and constructs. As such, the shifting tones of humor, irony, meta-poetic schmaltz, poignancy, neurosis, wonder, bombast, irreverence, and hope, create infinite shades of tempest.

If surprise is the necessary, if unpredictable, twin of storm, then delight is the darling child of surprise. There is no lack of startling, multivalent, or pointed offspring on which the engaged reader will dote:

Now to defend a bit of structure: beeline, skyline, dateline, saline—
now to torch your effluent shanty
so the small rain down can rain. I'm so Eastern that my Ph.D.
has edible tubers, my heart a hibachi oiled with rapeseed. I'm so Western
that my Ph.D.

can bang and bank all ball game, bringing the crowd to its feet
and the critics to their knees. Politically speaking, I'm kind of an animal.

Simultaneously dissecting and advancing the histories of artistic forms, political and social constructs, and human emotions, Lerner employs aphorism, repetition, progression, digression, reversals, and even outright nonsense to confuse or eradicate boundaries between polarities (imagistic, thematic, etc.). The resultant no man's land is not neutrality but rather a charged minefield. Some lines, sections, and/or whole poems read as practical proverbs or troubled surreal confessions, others as mysterious zen koans, still others as self-aware deaths commenting from beyond the page, the grave, and even the world of duality. The need to shatter belief systems balances, or cancels, the propensity to sermonize—or vice-versa. Hyperawareness of life's contradictions exhibits as keen sensitivity and also as flat affect, a juxtaposition exacerbated by a dominant style of declarative sentences, end-stopped lines, and present tense awareness. Who can really tell where one belongs in the shifting landscapes of any weather, fad, class, or zeitgeist? It's the prevalent consumer culture's aesthetic which infiltrates all others: anxiety.

I attend a class for mouth-to-mouth, a class for hand-to-hand.
I can no longer distinguish between combat and resuscitation.
I could revive my victims. I could kill a man
with a maneuver designed to clear the throat of food. Tonight, the moon

sulks at apogee. A bitch complains to the polestar. An enemy
fills a Ping-Pong ball with Drano and drops it in the gas tank of my car.

It should be noted that each of the poems of The Lichtenberg Figures contains 14 lines, with the exception of one which has 15 lines (a loose thread? Rebel energy? A scar-charm against standardization's inflexibility?). Even though formal meter and rhyme don't play out here, the sameness of line count and the tradition behind the sonnet contribute to a consistency of felt weight throughout. Comfort? Complacency? Gravity? Rendering the structure automatic and therefore invisible so as to highlight other aspects? Nodding to the world of forms by participation even when dismantling that world? The reader alert to nuances will feel them all. Likewise, unencumbered by individual titles and section divisions, the poems either shine with individual charisma and with the collective sparkle of their accrued light, or they give rise to restlessness from a monotonous week. Somehow, the drama of The Lichtenberg Figures figures out how to play them, and play with them, both.

Images and themes are the stars that shine most obviously in the sky or on the stage, but they need a surrounding cosmos, a unifying energy, to hold them as a pattern. The “about” of this book (as in, “what's the book about?”) is something like the necessary and also futile use of references. It is only by comparing that we know things, and that we can never know things, really. Every poem dramatizes language's attempt to be more than itself; each poem's associations, lists, questions, and echoes demonstrate that there is always another word, another answer, another fleeting seared and branching possibility. Like the human mind's ability to imagine. Like the human need for limits like 14 lines or 52 weeks, lest we go crazy from expansion or from boredom.

How then to structure a premise like a promise?
How then to justify our margins?

One of poetry's achievements, if it's lucky, is to forge connections among neurons by creating new pathways, memorable patterns, and compelling figures. The Lichtenberg Figures is lucky. And skillfull. And, especially for a first volume, brilliant in its flashes.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005

ALMOST PARADISE: New and Selected Poems and Translations

Buy Almost Paradise at Amazon.comSam Hamill
Shambhala Publications ($15.95)

by Christopher Luna

Sam Hamill's Almost Paradise: New and Selected Poems and Translations is an inspiring collection that boldly insists poetry matters. Hamill possesses the tender voice of a compassionate soul, and the vivid imagery that he presents reveals a refreshing generosity of spirit. Here is a poet who believes that “a few words can change a life,” and who endeavors to prove this belief by tracking the enormous effect that it has had on both his understanding of human nature and his development as a poet.

The book begins with a selection of Hamill's translations, most notably of poets of Chinese and Japanese antiquity. Hamill renders these ancient texts in a contemporary American English that allows them to be accessible without sacrificing the wisdom of their sentiments. Many of the poems address the life of a writer; Lu Chi's “The Masterpiece,” for example, describes the constant struggle of the poet who seeks to create a lasting impression of this life:

Wanting every word to sing,
every writer worries:
nothing is ever perfected;
no poet can afford to become complacent.

We hear a jade bell's laughter
and think it laughs at us.

For a poet, there is terror in the dust.

A selection from Issa's The Spring of My Life captures a parent's love as well as the profound loss that is felt when a child dies.

It is often said that the greatest pleasures result in the greatest misery. But why is it that my little child, who's had no chance to savor even half the world's pleasures—who should be green as new needles on the eternal pine—why should she be found on her deathbed, puffy with blisters raised by the despicable god of smallpox? How can I, her father, stand by and watch her fade away each day like a perfect flower suddenly ravaged by rain and mud?

Two or three days later, her blisters dried to scabs and fell off like dirt softened by melting snow. Encouraged, we made a tiny boat of straw and poured hot saké over it with a prayer and sent it floating downriver in hopes of placating the god of the pox. But our hope and efforts were useless and she grew weaker day by day. Finally, at midsummer, as the morning glory flowers were closing, her eyes closed forever.

Her mother clutched her cold body and wailed. I knew her heartbreak but also knew that tears were useless, that water under the bridge never returns, that scattered flowers are gone forever. And yet nothing I could do would cut the bonds of human love.

“A Lover's Quarrel,” the second of Hamill's own poems included in the collection, establishes two themes that recur throughout his work: a deep reverence for nature coupled with an acute awareness of human suffering. For example, “New Math” examines the etymology of “husband” and “wife,” then compares the union of two people to the cycle of growth and harvest:

We become the sum
of all we can give away.
The garden and the
gardeners, the soil and sun,
love and labor: all make one.

In “The Orchid Flower” Hamill ruminates upon the eponymous blossom, which remains “purely erotic” even “to a white- / haired craggy poet”; the poem ends with a moving scene in which the poet teases his wife, “who grows, yes, more beautiful / because one of us will die.” Hamill also demonstrates an ability to engage the poetry and mythology of the past, as in “Hellenic Triptych”:

it would be good to give one's life for the beautiful
if the beautiful would last. But the world
casts us out and it is impossible to touch anything
except one another. So we reach out when we can

for the outstretched hand of another,
knowing that when it is withdrawn . . .

Recently, Hamill has received attention for founding Poets Against the War and editing the volume of poems that resulted from his call for writers to post their anti-war poetry online. His own work addresses such issues quite effectively, exemplifying his belief that poetry has a role to play in stemming the tide of political violence. The lengthy poem “Blue Monody” is an epic meditation on warfare and the struggle for justice in which he successfully utilizes images of loneliness, his sense of poetic lineage, and his life in Port Townsend, Washington to declare that "we are not alone," despite the overwhelming endlessness of global conflict:

It is one thing to stand against murder,
and another to do without supper.
We stammer and cuss and blame one another.
The heavens continue to burn.

“The New York Poem” ponders how a poet might respond to a tragedy like 9/11, and asks whether our words have any effect at all. Not surprisingly, Hamill turned “to poetry, not prose” in an effort to understand the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center:

The last trace of blind rage fades

and a mute sadness settles in,
like dust, for the long, long haul. But if
I do not get up and sing,
if I do not get up and dance again,
the savages will win.

I'll kiss the sword that kills me if I must.

Many of the best poems in Almost Paradise celebrate the people in Hamill's life, including poets such as Gary Snyder, W. S. Merwin, Kenneth Rexroth, Olga Broumas, Adrienne Rich, and Denise Levertov. It soon becomes evident that one important aspect of Hamill's practice is expressing his gratitude for friends and teachers. In “To Adrienne Rich,” he thanks the poet for showing him “the deep sickness of men / of my grim generation.” Another poem dedicated to Hayden Carruth thanks Carruth for “doing / the real work of poetry” that showed Hamill how to open his heart. Here as elsewhere he rails against the commodification of art and implores his fellow writers to give their work away:

Fuck money. Fuck fame.
There are three worlds. In this one,
gratitude flows like honey.

The suffering world
brings about its own demise.
This world is neither
fair nor wise, but paradise
reveals itself in every line.

What finally, is love?
Willingness to face the end
without blinking? The
gift made—and given freely.
I bow to the poem, my friend.

Hamill returns again to the usefulness of poetry and reiterates how essential it is that it is not financially lucrative in the long poem that serves as the book's summation and crescendo, “Pisan Canto.” Part manifesto and part conversation with Ezra Pound, the poem chronicles Hamill's trip to Italy in search of some insight into Pound's genius and his madness. But there is also a journey of the mind, as Hamill invokes poets living and dead, and leaps from Spokane to Dante's Hell to New York to China to Iraq in his search for answers. Ultimately Hamill comes to accept a truth that we all must come to terms with, the realization that "The journey itself is home" and

the poem is a mystery, no matter
how well crafted:
is a made thing
that embodies nature.
And like Zen,
the more we discuss it,
the further away...

Of course, acknowledging this paradox does not discourage the poet's desire to know. Almost Paradise is a book that will hold meaning for those who have made poetry their life, and who persist in their stubborn faith in its transformative powers.

To believe in poetry
is to believe the heart can be opened,
and in the commerce of the heart,
thrift is ruin.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005


Buy this book at Amazon.comKathleen Fraser
Apogee Press ($12.95)

by Laynie Browne

If (woman) is a whole, it's a whole composed of parts that are wholes, not simple partial objects but a moving, limitlessly changing ensemble…an immense astral space not organized around any one sun that's anymore of a star than others.
—Helene Cixous, The Laugh of Medusa

Kathleen Fraser's recent collection, Discrete Categories Forced into Coupling, is divided into six sections and includes verse, prose, and a brief play. Throughout this carefully structured book is a unifying project in which all of the forms employed are versions of the same intelligence attempting to cross discrete categories. Or, as implied by the title, to couple. Diaristic details convey sense of place, relationship, and artistic endeavor with an emphasis upon visual art and images. Yet the intimate tone suggested as speakers proceed at various speeds through modern life (to brood, to rush) is fused with what lies behind or between utterances, what remains implicit within speech. Each act, whether mundane or transcendent, is infused with (rather than determined by) the racing and stalling of the mind, the chatter or clutter in a room. In other words, the moment is entered without a sense of limitation. In this way, Fraser creates an expansiveness at times seemingly without moving at all, and often in the midst of mental or physical flight.

In the opening poem, “Champs (fields) & between,” one is immediately launched into movement with various relations to time, and yet awake to these doings in a manner which elevates scurrying. “The air came down like rice. It scattered through unevenness and uneventfulness,” writes Fraser; as if time were matter which could fall and surround us tangibly, this work is “attainable in the private ear.” Fraser depicts a world which is bigger than, but does not exclude the personal. This text has a musing quality, at times philosophic, but there is no narrowing of the lens in order to achieve this effect. Details which are, in Cixous's words, “parts that are wholes” scatter meaningfully through Fraser's text as easily and plausibly as air becomes rice. The machinery of life is not neglected, nor is it glorified, nor does it take over to become the work. Instead there is a unity in the way daily life is woven into circumstances such as “One felt a lift of hope beyond the opposite building's surface attached to a resin of deep amber…” No hierarchy of being is suggested.

The longest and perhaps most impressive accomplishment in this book is a prose piece titled “Soft Pages,” which begins with a photograph of a foot, and moves cinematically through one interior the poet inhabits to include writing implements, the “receptivity of cheap paper to soft lead,” and intimate attire, tossed upon a radiator to dry. Fraser does not separate the thinking mind from material surrounding. Fraser is cognizant of, and adept at rendering, the foot which appears again and again as motion in a blur. Is one walking towards or away from the listener? Mind mimics this confusion which cannot be concealed by the body's longing to place itself in one place while existing in many locations simultaneously. “What shoes was she wearing, walking up and down hills…Her feet inside and outside of her grandmother's feet, the unbreathing ligaments of even earlier feet in courtly brocade bindings.” The foot is: the foot in poetry, the foot to the visual artist who renders an image, the foot in a yoga class where the poet learns to interlace fingers and toes. The foot here is a means of locomotion and also a foundation.

The sense of trying to retrieve something in motion reaches an unexpected crescendo when a place for a sentence which Fraser describes as missing or unlocatable is marked upon the page in the form of an empty rectangular box. In hope, or in memoriam, this blankness gleams upon the page, or as Fraser writes, “a geometric memory bank, not so much to contain or trap the sentence, but to give it a place to rest.” This space for what is perhaps temporarily irretrievable is also a form of meditation which Fraser practices throughout her work within visual constructions on the page. In this instance, strikingly placed within prose, the box creates a location where the event of the sentence, or its lack, is remembered and therefore safely abandoned. In other words, a place has been accorded for what we cannot at once recall, reveal, or restate. A silence may mark the song one once sang. The transparent sleep of the unsaid is afforded a discernible space.

In the short play titled “Celeste & Sirius,” which falls next in the collection, Celeste says to Sirius, “Whenever I paint a picture, it's called at least six things before it's finished.” The finished piece represents the culmination of the many layers of process, the complexity of thought, of being or endeavor. Nothing here is one-dimensional. There is no scanned experience which lies flat and dictatorially along a surface (an admirable and consistent quality in Fraser's work). Within this brief play, two characters consider: “If you're talking about the purpose of a life, then probably we should put on our hats before continuing.” They discuss the necessity of the creative act without hesitation: “I need to stand in a room with a brush or pencil in my hand and feel the paint or the line coming out of me.” And also without pretension: “I think you're going down the wrong road—more like a few wrong roads.” Though the dialogue is abstract, the movement between humor and seriousness is fluid.

In “From Fiamma's Sketchbook” we find various settings where the everyday meets “the interior stress of a leaf.” Here “the dirty bathroom” or “eating your sandwich” become photographic frames within “a private pink human in a cosmic field.” “Sketchbook” is an apt title in that the brief pieces are renderings of contained scenes—somewhat visual but not at the expense of interior delving. The moment moves and is constricted by thought which pins something, at times uncomfortably, to the eye of the reader. A small detail which makes a distant scene easy suddenly enters, “Not wayward nor bottled, containing foam from any excess.”

The section titled “You can hear her breathing in the photograph” is a suite of five prose poems which at times illustrate how “a gesture intended as an opening can turn everything in another direction.” In “The cars” we find the reappearance of the image of the foot, carefully threading through “the four-lane parallel rush of metal” of a freeway, and in the section's title poem we are presented with the question: “What causes a person—say, in a family—to feel he or she is different from the other members…?” Elasticity is brought to light, regarding intimate relations. What compiles the person? “Is arrival focused by admirable intention or by an off-camera genetic predictor…?” Again we are brought back to the foot with the image of Daphne and Apollo, and we learn that this image is the one discussed earlier in “Soft pages.” The poet asks, “Why must the photograph of the two of them come out of its envelope every year and be pinned to the wallpaper?” It is Daphne's breathing we can hear in the photograph. Thus, the gesture that turns everything may be Bernini's chisel lodged in Apollo's foot, or it may be “laying two fingers across the inside skin of the wrist at various points.”

The collection concludes with the moving “AD Notebooks” written for “Willem de Kooning and Marjorie Fraser, stricken by Alzheimer's Disease [AD] in parallel time.” Here falling is a new mode of perception. A history of drawing is explored, the life of the image, the line. “I could draw a line with my crayon,” Fraser writes, “but the other lines are swallowing it.” An image is clearly delineated while simultaneously being effaced, “red passages in crystalline absence and array.” The poem creates absence as it proceeds. Dropping hesitantly, confidently, that which is given over to loss, cessation, as if by succumbing to the passage of time and illness, one were to create a portrait by various unconventional means including erasure, “oozing fresh pigment,” “plaques and tangles,” and “silence.” Fraser enters the phrase, the line, sitting with possibility, unafraid to linger within “Grains of going away,” leaning into each image or stroke, and “Frequently dragging dust into white.”

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005

The Phryne Fisher Mysteries

Kerry Greenwood
Poisoned Pen Press ($24.95 each)

by Kris Lawson

What do you do when you're a gorgeous flapper with tons of money and heaps of taste, set loose in 1920s Australia with a band of loyal comrades, cute wards who require little in the way of real parenting, adorable pets, and a handsome married lover whose wife approves of you? The answer is obvious: you become the heroine in a long-lived series of novels.

Phryne Fisher, the above-mentioned flapper, appears in the ongoing mystery series by Aussie writer Kerry Greenwood. Introduced in Cocaine Blues and still going strong 14 books later, Miss Fisher is firmly established in the mystery genre, not relegated to the romance novel ghetto where many of us would never have met her. Poisoned Pen Press in the U.S. and Allen & Unwin in Australia are bringing Phryne's earliest appearances to light via reprints, so only the most impatient reader must resort to scrounging in used bookshops in Australia so as to own every Phryne appearance.

Phryne and her cast of merry companions live an improbably happy life in Melbourne, despite the Second World War approaching rapidly. This happy life, bothered by very little other than the occasional conundrum of a murder or a nasty remark on the characters' lifestyle choices, makes the Fisher books more adventure than mystery, and romantic adventure at that. Like most adventure/mystery series, they suffer from repetition and a certain glibness in mystery-solving, due to the author's need to adhere to character arc and formula. But Greenwood, a barrister who has also written fantasy and young adult fiction, does her research and keeps her books moving along quickly and entertainingly. Her plot twists are creative and she neatly resolves all hanging threads.

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Phryne, a British expatriate, has a noble yet dysfunctional family back home in England, a storied history of decadence in Paris, and seemingly unlimited wealth. This, combined with her fashion sense and green-eyed, gamine beauty, would be enough to make all other women hate her, if not for her other attributes: a thoughtful, open-minded curiosity about everyone she encounters, tempered by realistic expectations, a snappy attitude, and a very agile brain.

Here's an example, from the Phryne novel Ruddy Gore, of how Greenwood's heroine deals with violence in her own way, taking on three muggers attacking an old woman:

Phryne stepped lightly to a corner, yelled ‘The cops!’ and watched as two blue-clad toughs scrambled up and ran away. The other one stopped to kick the recumbent old woman again, and Phryne could not allow that. He had had his chance. She walked quickly up behind him, waited until his head was in the right position, and clipped him neatly with the hatchet, considerately using the back. She was clad in an outrageously expensive dress and did not want to get blood on it.

Ruddy Gore plunges the reader straight into the middle of the series. Phryne, firmly established with supporting characters in devoted attendance, investigates two murders and a haunting which plague a local revival of Gilbert and Sullivan's "Ruddigore." Aging actors find themselves pitted against hungry up-and-comers, the scandals are keeping the audiences away, and violence and bitchery ensue; in her element, Phryne solves the mystery and even manages to find a new lover, her previous flame having sunk into respectability. It is typical that Phryne, having learned by sad experience to keep an open mind, investigates the reports of hauntings just as seriously as the murders. It is also typical of the Fisher attitude that the adventure of the lover is just as important as solving the mystery.

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The title of another Phryne novel, Away with the Fairies, refers to a phrase which, when used to refer to someone, means that they're daffy. In this novel, that daffy person is the murder victim, a magazine illustrator whose over-decorated villa reflects her obsession with fairies and pretty pink everything. Phryne, a la Lord Peter in Dorothy Sayers's Murder Must Advertise, goes undercover as a fashion writer to investigate the victim's coworkers. She uses the investigation as a distraction for her very real worry about her lover Lin Chung, who has gone missing, perhaps kidnapped by pirates, on a trip to China.

In The Castlemaine Murders, a dual adventure of sorts, Phryne investigates the sudden and strange appearance of a body at a local amusement park, while Lin Chung, newly assuming his head-of-family duties, searches for the resolution to a decades-old family feud. In this book Greenwood indulges to great effect her interest in Australian pioneer and gold-rush history—not just the European frontiersmen and explorers, but the Chinese immigrants as well. A bit of old-fashioned donnybrooking at the end is redeemed by Phryne's resilience and creativity in solving problems.

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There's a whole slew of books that have this happy concatenation of fantasy, romance, adventure, and soap opera. They usually occur in series because it takes time to build up the characters' quirky habits, accumulate the useful and/or equally quirky companions, and, not to put too fine a point on it, gather a fan base. Perhaps this series phenomenon derives from the days when Sherlock Holmes appeared in installments in The Strand, or when The Shadow and Perry Mason were serialized on radio programs. But romantic mystery adventure has just as much to do with the invention of the Cozy, that fascinating, frustrating sub-genre of mysteries.

Cozies occur in a charming locale, packed to the gills with funny characters who say and do odd and quaint things. The main character is usually the lone voice of reason in a sea of eccentricity (or, occasionally, the eccentric in a sea of mediocrity). Murder may be momentarily unpleasant while the description lasts, but it quickly becomes a puzzle, remote and interesting, with perhaps a tinge of real danger to add some edge to it.

On the surface, cozies don't seem to have a lot in common with the old-fashioned adventure stories and their motifs like charismatic, often superhuman leaders, loyal-to-the-death companions, lots of fistfights and abductions, and fiendishly complicated plans spoiled at the last minute by plucky heroes. But they both have a certain slap-happy optimism, the same twists and turns, and a happy ending with all dangling plots neatly resolved.

In Phryne's case, she embodies many of the adventurer's superhuman qualities; her friends and servants are fiercely loyal but also eccentric; she is their lodestar and voice of reason. Any real danger and unpleasantness quickly resolves into a mostly-happy ending, and one always knows love will triumph over all. In the midst of all that action, Greenwood neatly inserts a nice little murder to solve. So for Greenwood and Phryne, mysteries and adventures fit together hand in glove. That glove may be ever-changing in order to keep up with fashion, but the hand is always the same: delicate, determined, and devilishly clever.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005


Robert Mayer
St. Martin's Griffin ($12.95)

by Rudi Dornemann

The concept of the revisionist superhero carried a significant amount of shock value when Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's Watchmen and Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns appeared in the mid-'80s. These days, however, the idea of puncturing the superhero mystique by placing a flawed, multidimensional person behind the hero's mask, or by dropping a square-jawed hero into the midst of a complex, non-primary-color world, has become so commonplace that it's even made it to the big screen in Brad Bird's Pixar film, The Incredibles.

Robert Mayer's 1977 novel Superfolks arguably anticipated the whole revisionist superhero trend—the first chapter will make this clear, even if you miss the back cover blurbs or Grant Morrison's introduction to this reissue—but it's more than just an interesting historical artifact. Mayer may be using comic book source material, but his book succeeds by being a novel; the space and detail that a novel affords allows him to construct a narrative that's both a real-person-in-a-comic-book story and a superhero-in-the-real-world story.

The main character, David Brinkley, is a Superman-type hero who hung up his cape eight years ago and settled down in the suburbs to have a family. Although the book begins with Brinkley in his unheroic suburban life—taking the superhero-in-the-real-world approach—events (and various villains, super and otherwise) soon conspire to bring him back to his old vocation. By the time the more comic-book elements come to the fore, however, the polarity has shifted; in making Brinkley into a well-rounded character, Mayer encourages us to read Superfolks as a real-person-thrown-into-a-superhero-world story.

Even though Watchmen aspired to be as complex as a novel, and Dark Knight appropriated film and television techniques, Moore and Miller had to write comics that worked as comics. Similarly, Superfolks needs to work as a novel no matter how much Mayer plays with and against superhero conventions. It succeeds admirably, mostly because Mayer keeps the plot moving forward and periodically grounds the character (both literally and figuratively). Not that there isn't a strong element of satire throughout Superfolks—Mayer is as interested in mocking superhero conventions as he is in discovering the consequences of taking those same conventions seriously. And comic books aren't Mayer's only target—the book is laced with '70s references (such as Brinkley's next-door neighbor Kojak, or cab driver Bella Abzug) that add another layer of unreality to the proceedings. No matter how serious the novel may get, it's hard to forget that Brinkley hails from the planet Cronk, and therefore must avoid the debilitating effects of the element Cronkite.

In the end, it's the way Superfolks mixes humor and poignancy, and punctuates its tongue-in-cheek cynicism with moments of genuine emotion, that makes the novel distinctive—even now, when its once radical central conceit has become familiar.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005


Buy Gilead at Amazon.comMarilynne Robinson
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux ($23)

by Ted Pelton

Marilynne Robinson's Gilead is very much a Midwestern book, a wonderful evocation of a regional temperament that Easterners, urbanites, and agnostics might see in others but never feel first-hand. True Midwesterners are capable of scheduling day-long outings to walk around in what seem to those used to oceans or mountains as flat, fairly nondescript fields. Iowa's John Ames, the narrator of Gilead, is full of such small observations: “Trees sound different at night, and they smell different, too.” And a true Midwesterner always seems to describe such things as ultimate. They admit that there are greater sensual delights to be found elsewhere, but they seem slightly frightened by the prospect of them, as if one escargot or ascent of Pike's Peak would ruin everyday life forever more. We like it here just as it is and just as we are, thank you very much.

I'm being facetious, but these two symbolically different views of life—one that seeks unusual experience and new sensations, and thus has an affinity with experiences of impermanence, and its opposite, what I am caricaturing as “Midwestern”—these are the two conditions, respectively, of Robinson's two novels, published nearly a quarter-century apart. Perhaps this was the author's intention. Having written in 1981's Housekeeping so remarkable an evocation of the Pacific Northwest, ephemera, uncertainty, natural disaster, and broken family life—all catalyzed by crazy aunt Sylvie, one of the most memorable characters in late 20th-century American fiction—Robinson may have pushed Gilead to investigate the opposite: a quiet life in a quiet place lived by a man who is to all appearances quiet, though certainly not without inner turmoil.

Gilead's conceit so unassumingly issues from within the Midwest—Ames, the elderly minister of a “plain old church” that “could use a coat of paint” and the grandson of an abolitionist firebrand, is writing his last remembrances for the son of his late years, 70 years his junior—that one hardly notices the appearance of a Sylvie figure in the form of his tortured namesake-godson, John Ames Boughton, the now-grown son of his best friend. This tension develops throughout the latter half of the novel: Ames fears the influence “Jack” will have on his son and his young wife, Lila, and with good reason; in a moment when the old man feigns sleep, Jack and Lila discover they both share experience of St. Louis, the big city, that the narrator has never seen. Though Ames is careful not to make his judgments of Jack's character public, they are in no way secret: he disapproves of Jack, and has from the time he was a boy. Robinson registers with dead-on accuracy the peculiar power of Midwestern judgment, where lack of overt condemnation leads to hugely oppressive conditions of unanswerable judgment, because the judge can simply fall back on the doctrine that it's not within his power to judge, though in practice everyone knows differently.

Ames, however, is also self-conscious and self-scrutinizing, and much of the novel is devoted to his fighting through to a place where his faith and position can mean something real; likewise Jack, who plainly suspects he is himself damned, has returned home in adulthood in the hopes of finding if the grace he has heard about his whole life actually exists. This is a novel that is ultimately as affirming of Christianity and the power of Christ's ministers on earth as Housekeeping was doubtful that anyone in authority would ever be any help at all, anything but a threat to be fled or hoodwinked. The conservatism of this cultural vision will no doubt disappoint many of Robinson's readers; Gilead is a Midwestern novel through and through, right through to its narrative requirements and stakes, and its denouement backs off from the terrible forces unleashed in Housekeeping (or even, to choose a Midwestern novel where the center does not hold, Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres). In short, it is a novel by an author who allowed herself an out at the end. It might bring us to the verge of collapse and tragedy, but then it dissolves into blessing and the feeling that life goes on, institutions intact, roll credits. It stops short of truly confronting mystery, contenting itself with a simulated confrontation with mystery through a character whose world is already so well established that it will remain in place despite whatever forces the novel allows to challenge it. Its drama is thus at one remove, and so a done deal, a settled question, like watching a thriller re run.

Despite all that, for sheer execution, Gilead will still earn any reader's respect. Robinson is a fine writer and doesn't sentimentalize, which requires something of a tightrope walk here, given the storyline. But if anyone should claim that this novel lives up to Housekeeping, don't believe the hype: this is not a novel that will require twenty-plus years for its author to overcome. Very few novels are, it's true, but Housekeeping was one of the rare ones—perhaps only Toni Morrison's Beloved is as perfect, clean, and organic a novel by an American author in the last quarter-century—and led one to hope that lightning would strike twice. But that's not the way things are in a certain Midwest, where you wouldn't want anything too disturbing. In the end they all like it there well enough, thank you very much.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005