Tag Archives: spring 2005

The World Of William T. Vollmann

William T. Vollmann
Viking ($39.95)

A William T. Vollmann Reader
Larry McCaffery and Michael Hemmingson, eds.
Thunder's Mouth Press ($17.95)

a consideration by Justin Taylor

I. Where The Sublime is Invoked

“Of course I was also practical. As Heidegger writes: The upward glance passes aloft toward the sky, and yet it remains below on the earth.”
—Vollmann, "Maiden Voyage" (Europe Central)

In the middle of Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son—a slender whirlwind which does not know if it is a novel or a book of stories—there is a single sentence (repeated once later, so it appears twice in the text) which has stuck to the hard, fast insides of my skull and will likely always be with me. Johnson's drug-addled narrator surveys a landscape and asks: What can be said of those fields? It is a question for which there is every and no answer, which is why the sentence, once encountered in context, situates itself in the mind's great room like a piece of statuary added to a permanent collection. I think of it whenever I am overwhelmed or adrift in the beauty and confusion of the world.

If I had to pick a sentence of equal caliber from the unwieldy and multitudinous canon of William T. Vollmann, it would be a mere fragment, ten simple words that conclude a sentence almost two pages long: And I want to send history to the bright fires. That idea, anchored in the holy simplicity of brightness, is a sublime moment, a feat of literary transubstantiation which, once achieved, makes The Writer worthy of the time it takes to hold down the shift-key and capitalize that job description. Here, if nowhere else, Vollmann has his Moment.

Which is not to say that this is a singular brightness, shining in one fragment but otherwise missing from the millions of words comprising Vollmann's exquisite corpus, which even now expands and dazzles as surely as the universe at night: a heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.

II. Where We Confront Certain Truths

“The capacity to intend is like a flame, and the capacity to discern like the light that comes from it.”
—Swedenborg, Heaven & Hell

Buy Europe Central from Amazon.com

Let me dispense with all pretense and tell you as simply as I can the nature and peculiar difficulty of the task that sits before me. (My friend Megan, who is very pretty, sits on the edge of my futon, but this is an entirely different story.) Let us imagine the paradox as a figure model, naked and prone. Then we'll see what it takes to sketch the pale swells of the buttocks of our problem, the impossible folds of skin where the breast and the armpit conspire against me, forcing me to say, finally, that these are two important works by a man whose importance can hardly be overestimated, and yet I didn't particularly like either of them.

III. Where I Pose the Impertinent Question: Is Europe Central Another Argall?

“For the convenience of my countrymen who lose their way in Russian novels.”
—Vollmann, on including a list of patronymics in Europe Central

If it hasn't become clear to you yet, then you probably aren't paying attention; but, all the same, let me say that when it comes to William T. Vollmann I am an advocate, a fan, and perhaps a bit of a hero-worshipper. Think of Nicholson Baker writing U and I about John Updike, and what it means to truly be affected by a still-living author (whose complete works you may well not have read).

Of course, there are only so many reading hours in a lifetime, and so the right honorable reader (to borrow a phrase of Vollmann's) must be excused for making some difficult decisions. If, for example, I decide that The Rainbow Stories is so good I shall read it two or three times, then during such re-readings I read nothing else—not by Vollmann, not by anybody. And if every week I read The Nation from cover to cover, then whatever time I give to Arthur Danto's take on the new MoMA is lost to Danilo Kis (whose A Tomb for Boris Davidovich Vollmann cites as a work of signal importance to him), to the poet Anna Akhmatova (who plays a key role in Europe Central), etc.

One Vollmann title I've steered away from is the third installment in his Seven Dreams series, Argall, which explores the story of a pirate captain, the romance of John Smith and Pocahontas, and the further “settling” of the American continent—and all composed in Elizabethan English. Assuming readership of such an arduous work is exhausting even to consider.

Some may feel this way about Europe Central, a mammoth tome in which Vollmann captures the very essence of the Eastern Front and the broad and specific horrors of war. (At least it feels like he has. Vollmann, after all, has sought out battlefields. All I've ever sought from my Portland, Oregon, apartment is the writings of Vollmann—and, perhaps, in a moment of indiscretion, Megan). Vollmann conjures the socio-spiritual properties of the societies in question. The Russian stories shriek silently like skulls from beneath a sheet of dirty Moscow ice, from the blue-white core of their Russianness. The uncanny optimism of Nazi Germany (cut like cocaine into crack by the steady creep of its fate) blares from the page like the grand march from Tannhauser. This is a work that roils and teaches—a seemingly endless sprawl of historicism and empathy, secret police and love affairs. (Human, all too human, Nietzsche would have said, and he would have been right).

Yet, as with Jesus' Son, I don't think Europe Central knows whether it is a novel or a collection of stories. Both books feature recurring characters, a consistent narrative voice, and incidents in later stories that build on incidents in prior stories, making a linear reading (that is, treating the stories as chapters) more rewarding than a hunt-and-peck approach (like the one Vollmann encourages his readers to adopt in the foreword to The Atlas). But where Johnson's book is told by a common dope fiend, a fucked-up guy rightly named Fuckhead by his friends, Vollmann's narrator is not so much a person as a force, something like Philip K. Dick's V.A.L.I.S. crossed with Vollmann's own Big George, the undying and all-seeing thing that lurked in the digital backstreets of You Bright and Risen Angels. If I had to name this emanation, which (unlike in Johnson's book) is ostensibly many different narrators, I would call it The Bureaucrat.

As in the Seven Dreams works, which like this one are all painstakingly researched historical fictions (and all offered up as novels, I feel inclined to point out), Europe Central is governed by metaphysical and symbolic reagents which Vollmann uses to amplify the implications and significance of his war stories. He invokes Jewish mysticism first and to greatest effect in “The Saviors: A Kabbalistic Tale,” as well as elsewhere throughout the text as it suits his purpose. Music is also a fundament of both the book and the cultures it treats. Many of the stories concern the life of the Soviet composer Shostakovich, and Wagner's legacy alternately haunts or informs pretty much anything the Germans do in this book. But above and beyond the above-named items (and others I have not mentioned), there is The Telephone—the magic wand of our unlikely magician-bard The Bureaucrat. Sometimes an anonymous German functionary or a member of the Russian secret police, occasionally a metatextual and bodiless creature (as in some of the most underrated scenes from You Bright and Risen Angels, when Big George tormented The Author), the “I” in Europe Central just says what it came to say and then goes again. Sometimes it tells you who it is supposed to be, other times it simply speaks. And like Big George who controlled the computers and the network, the “I” is the voice on the other end of every telephone, and when “The Telephone Rings” something serious is about to happen (either to Shostakovich, as in the story so-titled, or to someone else).

Many will feel these “I”s are ugly intrusions into the otherwise intricate and seamless diegesis of Vollmann's dreamworld (a word I choose advisedly, thinking secretly to myself that perhaps this text is the unacknowledged Eighth Dream in his series). Personally, I found them refreshing and always welcome, as I was relieved—however briefly—of the burdens of meticulous historicism, of Russian patronymics and countenances, of the endless miseries and narcissisms suffered by Shostakovich. When Vollmann (again recalling You Bright and Risen Angels—this time the Clara Bee sequence) suddenly stepped in as himself in the middle of “Breakout” to lament being left by a woman who stopped loving him, I said: Ah, here is a voice I recognize, and telling of a hurt so familiar it is almost comfortable. (Perhaps my readers will think now of Megan, who has left the apartment to return a skirt to a store on Hawthorne Street—but no, she has never broken my heart and as far as I know we have never even been in love with each other.)

IV. Where the Problem of Excerpts and the Problem of Genius Are Both Considered

“If…Nabokov knew he was a genius back when he was writing Glory at the age of thirty, he knew it only intermittently: it was a fleeting suspicion, not certain knowledge, something incredibly exciting and jinxing and unthinkable that kept peeking at him over the rise of his best paragraphs, distinct from arrogance, mixed in with probably-nots and bright, leaping maybes.”
—Nicholson Baker, U and I

“The genius meets with a group of students. The students tell the genius that the concept 'genius' is not, currently, a popular one.”
—Donald Barthelme, “The Genius”

Buy Expelled from Eden at Amazon.com

Also released recently, and certainly more accessible on the face, is Expelled from Eden: A William T. Vollmann Reader. Larry McCaffery and Michael Hemmingson compiled and edited this material, which spans the breadth of Vollmann's career. Selections from his major works abound (even two stories from Europe Central are included, and an excerpt from his forthcoming nonfiction work Imperial), as well as juvenilia (“A Bizarre Proposition,” for example, is a real letter Vollmann sent to the Saudi Embassy volunteering to be shot into space and mine asteroids), forewords and afterwords, journalism, appreciations, lists, and other miscellany.

This book might serve as a good introduction to Vollmann's style and concerns, but I don't think the selections from the larger works do justice to the wholes from which they are extracted. To experience Vollmann fully you need to confront him—or better yet, let him confront you. This problem isn't so grave with the short stories, which are self-contained, and I'll grant that McCaffery and Hemmingson are remarkably good at selecting portions of the novels that can stand on their own. But still. A scene like “The Agony of Parker” is first-class writing, but I can only guess whether a reader who does not know it in context will be able to comprehend what Vollmann is getting at.

Another handicap is that McCaffery's "chronology" of Vollmann's life goes on for over fifty pages—most of it not about Vollmann. McCaffery tries to explain this away by writing that he has “also included references to historical and political events that Vollmann has written about in his fiction and journals.” That “also” is an understatement so bold it borders a lie: the "chronology" starts in the primordial era with the sentencing of Atlas to hold up the world, then notes the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden, and proceeds in this fashion for almost thirty pages until finally, in 1959, William Vollmann is born. Sure, a lot of this information is interesting, but it's all obtainable elsewhere. McCaffery has taken up a significant fraction of the total page-count of this book and has offered little we couldn't have gleaned from reading the novels and stories themselves. Vollmann is not the kind of writer who attempts to mask his influences or interests; the blessed majority of his books have appendices rife with citations, source notes, even suggestions for further reading.

In the final appraisal, Expelled from Eden is more a book for fans and scholars of Vollmann's work than a way to discover him. Some of the most interesting inclusions here are letters from Vollmann to his editors or prospective publishers outlining his literary goals, arguing against manuscript cuts, comparing Whores for Gloria to The Grapes of Wrath, and so on. In these forthright, telling selections, we see exactly what William T. Vollmann thinks of himself and his “life's work.” His suspicions are not fleeting, as Baker imagined Nabokov's must have been. Vollmann knows exactly what he is. His struggles derive not from trying to achieve genius, but from trying to get it all out, to keep it intact, and to do something good with it. Such honesty is unfashionable, and it's certainly a bit disconcerting on the first read, but Vollmann's statements, which could be construed as incredibly pretentious, are devoid of bravura or self-congratulation—“distinct from arrogance,” as Baker put it.

For an audience to read of such high self-regard and not come away disgusted, however, it takes more than a lack of braggadocio. Agreement with the author's conclusion is practically a precondition. That is: if you think, as I do, that Vollmann is a genius (in precisely that Barthelmeic sense which persists despite being unpopular) then these selections offer a rare chance to get inside the head and heart of such genius. Surely Baker, who agonized over questions like these apropos Updike, would have given his non-writing hand for an Updikean volume analogous to Expelled from Eden. On the other hand (the one which was not severed), if you didn't think Vollmann was a genius already then hearing him say he is one is not likely to convince you.

Genius aside, Europe Central and Expelled from Eden help us understand, more than ever before, that William T. Vollmann is an utterly unique beast in the fields of literature. What can be said of those fields? Let Vollmann take you with him, if you can. There is something there that cannot be discovered anywhere else.

Click here to purchase Europe Central at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Click here to purchase Expelled from Eden at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

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

EINSTEIN DEFIANT: Genius versus Genius in the Quantum Revolution

Buy Einstein Defiant at Amazon.comEdmund Blair Bolles
Joseph Henry Press ($27.95)

by James Ervin

Though he continued to work on theoretical physics for decades after completing his general theory of relativity in 1915, Einstein's refusal to accept the implications of quantum mechanics, the great physical theory he himself helped create, caused many physicists to label his later years “a great tragedy.” In this accessible scientific biography, Edmund Bolles explores the philosophical sources of Einstein's defiance, challenging the notion of his decline.

Quantum mechanics describes the behavior of subatomic particles with incredible precision, yet has a non-intuitive quality which led Richard Feynman, a prominent later theorist, to quip that “nobody understands quantum mechanics.” Niels Bohr clashed with Einstein over the proper interpretation of quantum theory for years, culminating in the famous Bohr-Einstein debates at the 1930 Solvay Conference, widely viewed as Bohr's victory. This long-running feud occupies the majority of Bolles's narrative, beginning with the struggle over Einstein's theory of “light quanta,” the packets of light known today as photons.

Einstein's 1921 Nobel Prize was awarded not for relativity, but for his work on the photoelectric effect, which occurs when light strikes metal, producing an electric charge. His original 1905 paper proposed that, in this instance, light worked “like soccer balls,” knocking electrons out of the metal. By 1925, Bohr's rival hypothesis, a statistical treatment of light as waves, was discredited by several experimental results, and the photon was accepted as fact.

However, light still exhibited characteristics of both waves and particles, and Einstein “could not reduce the paradox to one experiment that brought the contradictory measurements together”—no vivid mental image akin to the soccer balls presented itself. Bohr and his colleagues soon formulated the “Copenhagen interpretation” of quantum mechanics, which embraced the wave-particle paradox. Only the probability of the outcome of an atomic collision can be calculated, and measurement can only capture one aspect—wave or particle, but not both—of this interaction.

In the Copenhagen interpretation, reality is indeterministic, and the laws of physics no longer purport to describe physical reality in terms of mechanical causes and effects, but are merely useful mathematical abstractions. “Something new was afoot when scientists no longer believed that physical events lay behind physical laws.” Einstein resisted the new orthodoxy. Believing that “quantum mechanics was both right and a dead-end,” he never ceased searching for the reality underlying the mathematics.

Though the literature on Einstein is immense, Bolles's book stands out among the popular expositions. Lucid yet substantive explanations of Einstein's earlier work on molecular motion and relativity admirably demonstrate the constancy of Einstein's belief in physical processes explicable by natural laws. Bolles also depicts the intellectual climate in Europe between the wars convincingly, with informative and humorous anecdotes about the Dadaists, Thomas Mann, Marcel Proust, and other cultural figures.

The 1930 Solvay Conference in Brussels was to be the last of significance, as the German scientific community soon dissolved under pressure from the Nazi regime. Many of the founders of quantum mechanics abandoned the field, perhaps finding its strangeness unsettling. Bolles ends on a note of elegy, not for Einstein but for physics itself: “Bohr had won, scientific realism had fallen, and with it the belief that the world is objectively comprehensible… [yet] Einstein never saw himself as tragic, nor his defiance as futile.”

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

INVISIBLE CITIES: A Metaphorical Complex Adaptive System

Chloé E. Atreya
Festina Lente Press ($25)

by Jaye Beldo

Complex Adaptive Systems (cas) describe the myriad non-linear connections and interdependencies of everything from ecosystems, economies, and genetic codes to species evolution and galactic superclusters. While cas are usually coldly spelled out in calculations, flow charts, and bar graphs that only the scientific elite can fully understand, they seem to aspire on their own toward embodiment in ways that the more artful of aspirants can grasp.

Thanks to Chloé E. Atreya and her work Invisible Cities: A Metaphorical Complex Adaptive System, the possibilities of holistically and intuitively understanding cas are made quite apparent. The author describes the many bridges between cas and Italo Calvino's intriguing, imaginal travelogue in ways that are more accessible to the analytically challenged among us. Parallels between Calvino's wondrous cities and such unlikely things as the periodic table of elements and protein molecules in DNA are deftly described throughout. These illuminating analogues encourage us to see just how integral cas are in our lives, and how critical a non-scientific understanding of them might be in regards to the survival of our species and planet.

Atreya also clarifies just how much structural forethought Calvino put into his book, demonstrating that the cities he created are not just the consequences of some ambulatory fantasy. She then provides effective illustrations which describe how not only cas themselves work but how Invisible Cities functions holistically. Her enlivening approach to Calvino's work is something very rare in the world of literary criticism. She also provides her own artwork which diligently charts out the complexly meshed coding system that Calvino used during the composition of his highly unique novel.

After reading Invisible Cities: A Metaphorical Complex Adaptive System one will begin to appreciate how Calvino himself valued imagination as a means to understanding the various cas which permeate our lives, metaphorical and otherwise. Atreya's book initiates a crucial dialogue between the disciplines of science, art, and literature, and will surely spark some cross-disciplinary revelations that will further bring cas to light.

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


Buy Under Albay from Amazon.comRon Silliman
Salt Publishing ($14.99)

by Mark Tursi

Early in Under Albany, Ron Silliman suggests that he has “spent 17 of the last 24 years actively undercutting expectations within form.” This statement seems hardly debatable considering the evolution of his work, spanning from Ketjak (1978) to The Age of Huts (1986) to his newly finished 26 books of The Alphabet, and including the immense output of commentary produced on his internet blog (http://ronsilliman.blogspot.com/). Silliman quips further about his process regarding form: “This thought makes me wonder if I shouldn't think now of proceeding in yet another way.” It seems he's done just that in Under Albany, which resists genre labeling and the easy jargon-laden qualifiers (non-referential, constructivist, language-centered) so often associated with Silliman. The text even resists Jackson Mac Low's description “perceiver-centered,” as it seems to create and reinforce a way of reading that is based squarely on the experience and personal history of the writer, yet somehow avoids the conventional memoir. This isn't to say it shuts down a perceiver-oriented reading: it deepens the ways of seeing each sentence, each phrase, and each shift in language; and it invites the reader to explore them more cavernously, but through Silliman's own autobiographical lens. His multi-layered, expansive approach serves to debunk numerous myths about what Language Poetry is or is not, and it demonstrates the complexity and the mindfulness implicit in all of Silliman's work.

The book is a deeply personal account of how and why one of Silliman's earlier poems is constructed; the author elaborates on, expands upon, and at times even explicates “Albany,” first published in Ironwood 20 in 1982. He takes each line—each “new sentence”—and describes a number of possibilities, all relating to its construction, some of which include the following modalities: (1) the catalyst/impetus for the sentence, (2) when and where it was written, (3) how and/or why it was written, (4) the events and people involved in its writing (i.e. the historical, social, cultural, and personal context surrounding it), (5) reflections about the time it was written compared to his current state of mind and ideas, and (6) opinions/responses/diatribes about particular events or situations. He doesn't explore all of these possibilities for every line, but, often, incorporates several, as in this passage, which expands on the phrase “Off the books”:

The idea of poetry as a “career” in a society that doesn't value literacy is an inherent contradiction. I have worked as an encyclopedia salesman…a shipping clerk, an accounting clerk, a mail sorter, an amanuensis for blind graduate students, a janitor for Giant Hamburgers…

Some of these explorations deal with the specific details of day-to-day life, relationships, and familial interactions while others explore the political milieu of the time. This includes student anti-war protests in the 1960s and '70s on or near the Berkeley campus, the ins-and-outs of the prison reform movement for which Silliman was an integral part, the socialist and labor oriented movements from the last several decades, and the massacre at Jonestown. Other sections include Silliman's encounter with other poets and his development as a writer. Each section—like a personally and creatively charged annotated bibliography of quotidian reality—seems to evoke an earlier line from Silliman's Tjanting: “Build an Onion.” If he has a modus operandi here, this seems to be it. Albany is the building of the onion and Under Albany is the peeling away to see the various possible layers.

This re-presentation of the personal is interesting in light of Silliman's adamant opposition to “the poem as confession of lived personal experience, the (mostly) free verse presentation of sincerity and authenticity.” But, what exactly is happening here in terms of the lyric, the personal, and the autobiographical? To borrow a term from Rae Armantrout, this text is largely “ambi-centered,” centered in reality and experience as well as in language; they are not mutually exclusive, and language must be representational in some way, even if resisting and challenging these references. Silliman's method is ambi-centered because he foregrounds his own process, enabling the personal to bubble to the surface of the language, but not to overtake it. He enacts what Charles Bernstein calls a “constructivist memoir,” enriching the text with explorations of its “context to reference, subtext to meaning, back story to presented experience, and composition to poetics.” This description calls to mind Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari's idea of the text as a rhizome that splits and attaches to various other possible chunks of language and realms of meaning. Always though, Silliman makes us aware that the original lines from “Albany” are not simply a mimesis of the experience in which they were constructed, but rather a part of, an additional object within, the already existing flood of language, memory, and experience. The final line of the book, “It is not possible to ‘describe a life,’” is an acknowledgment of the impossibility of imitation and description to accurately portray human experience, yet his attempt demonstrates that the effort is, in fact, necessary and worthwhile.

At moments, the book is very meditative and philosophical, as when Silliman writes: “I crossed a line in my life from which I have never stepped back. This, in a sense, is the exact opposite of telos, but rather a recognition that choice is central to freedom. With both its intended and unintended consequences.” At other times, it is a touching narrative about his own life, as in the elaboration of the line “Here, for a moment, we are joined,” a narrative description of he and his wife Krishna falling in love. The very personal tone of the book is increased by certain sections which seem direct addresses to his two sons, for whom the book is dedicated.

Overall, Under Albany shows us that “Albany,” a representative of Silliman's characteristically language-centered work, is not a product of random language, chance operation, or chaos, a charge often directed at writing like this. Rather, it is a profoundly complex exploration of the mind and emotion that is directly connected to the world and experience from which it emerges. If for Silliman “The relation between agency and identity must be understood as interactive, fluid, negotiable,” this text demonstrates that one level of this negotiation involves a strong personal impulse where language is seen as grounded in the day-to-day. Thus, Under Albany does not explain “Albany,” but rather it complicates it on another level. The dislocation and fragmentation of the poem is still there, but now it is imbedded in more layers and more possibilities that reveal Silliman's unique life and signature.

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 from Amazon.comW.G. Sebald
Random House ($24.95)

by Eric J. Iannelli

“…one never knows how to classify his books. All that is obvious is that their structure and intentions place them in no known genre. Inspired by a kind of avidity for the undiscovered, they move along a line where the points of demarcation are those strange manifestations and objects of which one cannot say whether they are real, or whether they are among the phantasms generated in our minds from time immemorial.”

So writes W. G. Sebald of travel writer Bruce Chatwin in “The Mystery of the Red-Brown Skin,” one of the essays in this posthumous bricolage—though as readers familiar with Sebald may note, this passage could just as well apply to the work of the author himself. Indeed, much of the second part of Campo Santo, devoted to essays previously published in German-language periodicals, finds Sebald concentrating on the qualities of other writers' work that came to define his own, stylistically and thematically. Writing long before the publication of his first hybrid novel, Vertigo, he admires the “collection and organization of textual and pictorial material, both historical and fictional” of Alex Kluge's Neue Geschichten in “Between History and Natural History: On the literary description of total destruction” (1982), an essay which echoes his controversial opinions on the reluctance of German postwar literature to acknowledge the suffering of the Germans themselves during the intense morale-defeating Allied bombing raids. (His more detailed Zurich lectures on the subject have been collected in On the Natural History of Destruction.) The following piece, “Constructs of Mourning,” opens with a quotation by Sir Thomas Browne (whose skull sent the narrator on a physical and mental excursion in The Rings of Saturn), and goes on to argue that “literature today, left solely to its own devices, is no longer able to discover the truth,” holding up Günter Grass' Diary as an example.

Truth was an overarching issue for Sebald, though his attempts to arrive at it were never what one might call conclusive, and deliberately so. His erudite narrators are beset by unreliable memories and inexplicable compulsions. His stories have no beginning, middle, or end; they are one of infinite possible courses plucked out of the chain of history. This act of groping towards truth, however, was necessary for the sake of history's victims—whether animal, vegetable or man, murdered Jew or exiled writer—and for making some gesture of amends, not to absolve the guilty and ease their collective conscience, but to understand and thereby assuage the suffering of the victims. Sebald perhaps summarizes it best himself in the penultimate piece, “An Attempt at Restitution”: “There are many forms of writing; only in literature, however, can there be an attempt at restitution over and above the mere recital of facts, and over and above scholarship.”

Out of this small but uncannily representative selection emerges a peculiar continuity through which one is able to identify a writer preoccupied with ghosts and doppelgängers, the swift mutability of time versus eternal recurrence, the power of images combined with the power of literature, weightlessness and vertigo, and “the invisible connections that determine our lives”; a writer dubious of technological and industrial progress as panacea, one who viewed the horror “civilized” man continually visits upon himself with the melancholic combination of resignation and despair.

But Campo Santo illustrates change in addition to this continuity. Through these same chronological essays one is able to trace the subtle arc of Sebald's development. The earliest essay included here, “Strangeness, Integration, and Crisis: On Peter Handke's Play Kaspar,” published in 1975, discusses familiar Sebaldian themes such as identity, memory and civilization, but it is notably drier and more academic than the reflective, meandering, semi-autobiographical analytical pieces that appear toward the end of this collection. These later essays are close cousins of the fiction that established Sebald's reputation. His distinctive style is first evident in the 1995 bagatelle “To the Brothel by Way of Switzerland: On Kafka's Travel Diaries,” and by the time one reaches “An Attempt at Restitution,” which dates from shortly before his death in 2001, Sebald is shifting from the Quelle mail order catalogue to the architecture of the Stuttgart train station and from Hölderlin to the question of literature, tracing, as he does so fluidly, the circuitous paths of reminiscence and philosophical thought. Small wonder, then, that he should uncover so much that appeals to him in Nabokov, particularly his memoir Speak, Memory, as is laid out here in “Dream Textures.” “Nabokov also knew,” writes Sebald, “better than most of his fellow writers, that the desire to suspend time can prove its worth only in the most precise revocation of things long overtaken by oblivion.”

The first fifty pages of Campo Santo are relatively short Vertigo-like sections from an unfinished novel—shelved to begin work on the award-winning Austerlitz—occasioned by a 1996 trip to Corsica. Sebald covers as much mental ground as usual: Napoleon, art, deforestation and “unwelcome memories of my distant childhood.” In “The Alps in the Sea,” the plastic trees in English butchers' shop windows reminds him “how strongly we desire absolution and how cheaply we have always bought it,” and he notes the ironies surrounding the persistence of the annual French hunt in the face of dwindling game.

The section from which the book takes its title is about a cemetery in Piana, and it is more than a little eerie that in this posthumous book Sebald should be found brooding on death. “They are still around us, the dead, but there are times when I think that perhaps they will soon be gone… Their significance is visibly decreasing. In the urban societies of the late twentieth century… where everyone is instantly replaceable and is really superfluous from birth, we have to keep throwing ballast overboard, forgetting everything that we might otherwise remember.” This is likely the last book that will ever appear under this author's name. If, as a result of his untimely death and our keenness to unburden ourselves of the dead, his significance should ever decrease, it would be a profound loss to literature and history.

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

Postcard from Viterbo: Pasolini's Tower

by Linda Lappin

Along a busy stretch of highway north of Rome, near the town of Viterbo, a solitary tower thrusts up among the trees overlooking a deep gorge. This 13th-century tower, known as the tower of Chia, was once the writing studio of Pier Paolo Pasolini, novelist, poet, and filmmaker. Purchased by Pasolini in 1970, the tower served as a refuge for the writer and his entourage until his death in 1975. He would come here to recharge, interrupting his intense work schedule in Rome, and spend a few days relaxing in one of the wilder areas of Italy, known as the Tuscia, once the heart of Etruscan territory.

Pasolini discovered the ruined tower in 1964, while filming The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, several scenes of which were shot in the surrounding area. Six years passed in bureaucratic red tape before he was allowed to buy this historical building and have it restored. The tower was not remodeled to make a modern living space—he merely reinforced its structure, and had a small two-room studio built at the base, with huge windows facing out on the gorge. To Pasolini, who had traveled widely, the landscape was breathtaking. It was here he sought inspiration while working on his last, unfinished novel, Petrolio. It was here, friends say, that he desired to be buried.

Although the tower is inaccessible to visitors, with a huge iron gate blocking the entrance and no plaque of any kind commemorating the writer, it is still a place of pilgrimage for Pasolini's many admirers. After parking outside an improvised garbage dump for building materials, I follow a well-beaten track leading through the woods to the tower. Boars must frequent the trail at night—the soft mud is covered with hoof tracks. Crows squawk in the naked branches overhead, while cars zip by on the autostrada. Although visitors cannot enter the gate, I walk around the walls but decide not to hike down the steep trail through the gorge to the stream below, immortalized in Pasolini's film as the River Jordan.

There is a peculiarly Pasolinian flavor to it all: the stern, archaic tower, sheep grazing nearby, and the autostrada with its gas station in view as the only signs of the encroaching urbanization Pasolini deplored. Pasolini's work explores the social problems created by the industrialization of a society rooted in a rural, agrarian culture, and his views have even greater relevancy today in this era of globalization. Pasolini had deep respect for Italy's peasant origins and for the medieval traditions springing from those origins. Here in the people and the landscape of the Tuscia he found that rough peasant vitality still intact.

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


by Steven Lee Beeber

Buy Sedition and Alchemy from Amazon.com

Those who've long suspected Lou Reed might be overstating his importance to the Velvet Underground have two new pieces of evidence to consider: Exhibit A comes in the form of words, a biography of John Cale by Tim Mitchell titled Sedition and Alchemy (Peter Owen Publishers, $34.95); Exhibit B, meanwhile, comes in the form of words and music, a new CD of original material by Cale titled HoboSapiens (Or Music, $15.95). In looking at these two together, we can see not only how various genres and perspectives work to give us a picture of a life. We can explore the connections between music and words, words and music, not only obviously as in song, but subtly as in the sound of language, the music that sentences and syllables create.

To explore this relationship, let's begin with the more obviously word-based art. Written with the approval and general cooperation of Cale, Mitchell's biography attempts to address a life in full. It begins at the beginning of the beginning: the birth of the surrealist movement to which Mitchell believes Cale is a spiritual heir. And though it occasionally shuffles Cale's chronology, for the most part it moves forward through time in the same way sitcoms tell us we do—this leads to that leads to another temporary chapter-like end.

Not that this is a bad thing. Bringing Cale's story up to the present, Sedition and Alchemy covers all the bases that we need to see the surface of a life. Mitchell shows us not only the artistic continuum to which he believes Cale belongs, but the cultural context in which the musician came of age. From the Welsh coal-mining village of Garnant, where Cale lived until he was 19, to the class-based jibes of London's Goldsmith College where Cale first pursued music seriously, to his immigration to America as a Leonard Bernstein Scholar studying with Aaron Copeland at Tanglewood, onto the better known story of his fateful meeting with Lou Reed (as a recruit into the pre-fab band The Primitives, put-together to perform Reed's Brill-Buildingesque song "The Ostrich") and the pair's co-creation of the Velvet Underground, we get the details and events that made up the man, right through to Cale's continuing solo career, troubled love life, and reaction to September 11th.

Appearing soon after Cale's 1999 autobiography, What's Welsh for Zen (co-written with Victor Bockris, best known for his biographies of Lou Reed, Keith Richards and Patti Smith among others), Mitchell's Sedition and Alchemy runs the risk of covering familiar ground but, for the most part, avoids this danger in two ways. First, it approaches Cale's story from a more objective, analytical stance, giving us a much clearer frame in which to see the life Cale shared with us in his autobiography through vivid yet impressionistic anecdotes. Second, it shows us how Cale's experience of the attacks on the World Trade Center (he watched from his lower Manhattan apartment window) not only confirmed many of his worst fears about global politics, but revealed what had long been a driving force behind much of his music.

It is a fascinating journey back and forth across the Atlantic, combining artistic surrealism and surreal politics in a way that few would have thought compatible. When we flashback to Cale sawing away at his viola on "Black Angel's Death Song" before a convention of psychiatrists while Andy Warhol associates confront the audience with dildos and questions like do you think your penis/breast/ass is big/firm/small enough, then fast-forward to Cale on stage 15 years later screaming about mercenaries and saboteurs from behind a hockey mask, or Cale 19 years beyond that, staring at the twin towers aflame and writing his friend e-mail messages reading, "I was getting the paper…there was a stream of floating debris coming down…one guy saw a wheel drop out of the sky and bounce on the street next to him," we realize that we've come through one end to the other, far less changed than we might have believed.

Cale's life is one of fear and loathing, fear and trembling, fear as a man's best friend. Throughout he seems to have dealt with this in distinct yet related ways: as a child retreating into a world of music, long-distance running, and breakdown (upon returning to school he explained his absence as the result of meningitis, only to have his teacher remark, "To have that you must first have a brain"); as a young man expressing anger through confrontational personal and musical styles (pulling an ax during his student recital at Tanglewood, employing a droning rhythm in the VU so as to create "an assault on the senses"); as a lover-father-solo performer wavering between moments of extreme lyrical beauty (his keyboards-in-counterpoint work with Terry Riley on "Church of Anthrax") and troubling sordidness (his beheading of a chicken on stage to taunt his drummer, a vegetarian); and as a mature composer, retreating once more, yet this time from drugs (a decade-long cocaine habit) and self-sabotage (dozens of projects—including a Pynchon-commissioned opera of Gravity's Rainbow—abandoned before completion). Even while doing so, Cale never shied away from describing a darkness that feels more genuine than anything Lou Reed has "chronicled" from the streets. Cale's fears are more innate and yet reflected in the actual world. Songs like "Gun" and "Fear is a Man's Best Friend" lie at the intersection between the psychosexual and the sociological, depicting a world in which the beheadings, drive-by shootings, and bombings on the nightly news encourage us to accept "collateral damage."

If Sedition and Alchemy lacks some of the colorful humor of the anecdotes in the autobiography, and if it sometimes feels as if it's drowning under an abundance of details concerning tour schedules and studio production methods, that's because Mitchell has set himself a different task. This is a study of surrealism in the body politic and the politics of the body. As ironic as it might seem that this would demand a more rigorous, conventional style, such is the case when a biographer attempts to assemble enough evidence to make a point. Whether or not we actually agree with Mitchell's final analysis—that Cale is a political savant channeling an increasingly surreal world—we have to give him credit; he's done his work. Given the importance of Cale as a musician crossing classical and rock boundaries, this is to be welcomed. And it should encourage you to read this book.

Purchase Hobo Sapiens from Amazon.com

But what of the music? Considering the now 60-year-old Cale has just released his first full-length album of new material in nearly seven years, turning in that direction seems all but mandatory. After all, with HoboSapiens, Cale has added yet another layer to his palimpsest of sounds and song lyrics. At the risk of giving short shrift to a career that is just screaming out for the boxed-set treatment (2001's Sun Blindness Music, a collection of previously unreleased instrumental pieces inspired by La Monte Young, is a step in the right direction), one can see in Cale's trajectory a mellowing that is anything but limiting—one that in fact becomes fuller and richer for the attentive listener, even if said listener isn't necessarily inclined to swirl ecstatically in the spirit of Sister Ray.

Another way to put this is that Cale's career has moved from the classical to the fringes of the popular to the classical and then back again and again. Indeed, one could almost use the albums as dance steps between the two worlds, the VU albums leading to the pop-folk sounds of Cale's first solo album and that leading to Cale's avant-garde classical experiment with Terry Riley even as he was helping birth from behind the mixing board some of the greatest rock albums ever released (The Stooges' debut album The Stooges, Jonathan Richman's The Modern Lovers, Patti Smith's Horses, the eponymous debut by Squeeze). If the early '80s saw both renewed contacts with La Monte Young and, in the album Sabotage/Live, a return to the feedback and assault of the VU years (the other godfather of punk deserved his belated recognition after all), later works descended briefly into the disappointing L.A. slough of cocaine and swimming pools before returning in ever fuller and richer form in the '90s with the VU reunion MCMXCII, the Lou Reed collaboration Songs for Drella and the world-music-inspired rock album Walking on Locusts.

Now we have HoboSapiens, an unfortunately titled work with sometimes uneven lyrics, but one that definitely captivates on a purely sonic level. Cale has often said that he prefers the instrumental to the vocal (even if his words can be trenchant and his delivery hair-raising), and that comes through here clearly. In almost every song on HoboSapiens, Cale uses the bridge, that all important link between the rise and fall of the song, to show his truest talents, sounds of various sorts colliding and rearranging in a kind of eye-of-the-whirlpool smoothness. It's as if The Beatles' symphonic moments in "A Day in the Life" were conducted by a floating baton drawing figure-eight- and diamond-patterns in the air. These gentle yet fully realized moments work surprisingly well with the more traditional song structures surrounding them, though even those are not as traditional as one might at first believe, colored as they are by surprising aural locutions and filigrees—a rapidly rising and descending series of notes on a piano, a backwards-sounding bass-line, strings that merge into a bee-siren ululation.

In the simplest sense, these are washes of electronic color, a kind of watercolor-electronica vaguely reminiscent of Beck and the Beta Band at their most introspective. Yet, they achieve a unique quality not only through their subtle, yet rapid rhythmic changes, but through their interplay of various instruments and sampled sounds, a not so much sinister or eerie quality as one that is simply other. As with the otherness of rain-slick lights on the highway as your windshield wipers move back and forth, there is a trance-like sense induced by these songs, a repetition of simple drum loops overlaying surprisingly sophisticated rhythmic shifts so that the listener gets lost in and then pulled away by these sounds—much as one might have been listening to the best early Velvet Underground, though the delivery in that case would have been much louder and more aggressive.

Cale seems to have adopted these stylings and the joys of sampling as his own, much as Charlie Parker is rumored to have captured the random honkings of traffic to craft his solos on stage. At times surrounded by backing vocals that wouldn't sound out of place on a mid '80s XTC album (Reading My Mind), at others by the woosh and glide of electronically altered voices that could just as well be electronics themselves ("Caravan"), Cale frames these songs in a low-key delivery that signals less resignation or acceptance than it does an endurance in the face of adversity, a now calmer approach to dealing with the realities he must face.

And the realities are not simple. Again, images of war and terrorism dominate ("Afghanistan, Afghanistan whatever happened to you.…they're cutting their heads off in the soccer field"), though it's also true that Cale seems to allow himself more time to enjoy the fruits of his labors here (the wonderful instrumental "Bicycle," for instance). Songs apparently aimed at his wife/lover ("Reading My Mind") and inspiration ("Magritte") further help to explain the almost transcendent tone running through. As Cale says in "Caravan," "Climbing the Fens and the Norfolk Broads / Waiting for Godot in Niagara Falls / Mustn't be late for the Caravan / Mustn't be early for the Garbageman."

In other words, this latest release by Cale shows that he has come to accept yet not forget, to direct his anger into effort toward transcendence rather than revenge. If the words don't do that so obviously, the instrumental sound of the voices delivering them and ethereal sound of the instruments surrounding them definitely do.

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

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

A BIT OF NEW YORK IN AUSTRALIA: An interview with John Tranter

John Tranter, Berlin, 2002

by Leonard Schwartz

Australian poet John Tranter is the author of many books of poetry including ParallaxThe Alphabet MurdersLate Night Radio, Borrowed Voices, and most recently Studio Moon (Salt Publishing, $13.95). He's also the author of a work of fiction, Different Hands, co-editor of The Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry, and the editor of Jacket, one of the world's leading web literary journals. In our conversation below—originally broadcast on Cross-Cultural Poetics, the radio show I host, and transcribed by Nick Perrin—we talk about his poetry, Australian poetry, and his connection to the New York School, forged over a distance of 6,000 miles.

Leonard Schwartz: Can you tell us a little bit about Studio Moon?

John Tranter: It's a collection of poems which I wrote over the last fifteen years. It was designed mainly for an audience outside of Australia. I had a couple of books published in Australia before that, and when I got the chance to bring this book out in England, I thought I should include some work from those two earlier books I had out in Australia because the English and American readers would not have read them. So it's around 114 pages long, and it has a lot of poetry in it.

LS: It certainly does, and a lot of a very rich kind of work, opening with a poem that intrigued me entitled "Five Modern Myths"—a poem that's not only a lot of fun, but that plays with our expectations of the exotic and of what myth ought to say or ought to do. Could you say a little bit about the poem?

JT: Sure. It's a poem I wrote about four or five years ago in five distinct stanzas; the word 'myth' in the title is used in a loosely anthropological sense. I had a six month residency at Jesus College at Cambridge a year or so back. I had a lot of time to write there, which was the idea of the residency. And I was casting around for things to write about. I guess I had in mind a book of anthropological observations by Levi-Strauss, which came out in English in the sixties, I think.

LS: Tristes Tropiques?

JT: That's right. Tristes Tropiques was one; I think there was another one as well, The Raw and the Cooked. Then there was a book by Roland Barthes, Mythologies, which talked about different cultural representations like soap powder and wrestling, looking at them from an anthropological and linguistic perspective. I thought maybe I could write a poem on that theme, but make up the things I am talking about, as it were.

LS: Barthes's Mythologies depicted mythology as something close to ideology but implying an image. In terms of your work, you invent the myth in order to debunk the notion of the exotic, in a way.

JT: Yeah, that's right. I figured the Guarani Indians of Paraguay would have dishwashers by now. How would they regard them? Well, most likely differently from the way I view my dishwasher.

LS: No doubt "the stockbrokers of Lakeville, Connecticut" have some myths by now as well.

JT: I guess they'd have their own little myths, when you think about it. In fact I met a fellow who knew the town of Lakeville in Connecticut and he said, "You got that exactly right, you must have been there." I said no, I'd made it up. Little-known fact: the poet and critic John Crowe Ransom (1888-1974) taught Latin in Lakeville, Connecticut, for a year in 1913, though I didn't know that when I wrote the poem.

LS: Sometimes you make it up and it turns out it's true. Could you tell us a little bit about Australian poetry? You are a co-editor of The Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry (with Philip Mead), and you've been involved in many ways with an Australian literary scene, which we don't necessarily see or hear too much about here in the States. How would you characterize that poetry world?

JT: It's one I know well because I belong to it, I guess. I was born in 1943 in Australia and I started to write poetry when I was about 18 or 19, in my last year of high school. Fairly quickly I became interested in poetry from the rest of the world. We have our own poetry in Australia, but I grew up in a little country town and I wanted to look outside Australia. I'd go to the movies and see films from England and America and they presented a world very different from the little country town I grew up in. And when I came to read poetry, the first poets I read were D. H. Lawrence and Gerard Manley Hopkins—both poets from Britain—and some old Chinese poetry. I guess right from the start I was interested in poets from outside Australia: America, Germany, France. After a decade or so I found myself involved in editing poetry magazines in Australia and compiling anthologies. Looking at the difference between the United States and Australia, I guess it's a little like the difference between the United States and Canada, perhaps; except that ninety percent of Canadians live within 100 miles of the United States, whereas all Australians live over 6,000 miles away from the U.S. It's a long way away, down at the bottom of the Pacific. And the kind of poetry I read as a schoolboy and a young man was much more British than American—because Australia never had a revolutionary war, because we never actually became independent of Britain, we always tended to look towards Britain as the place we'd come from. Like most Australians, when I left Australia to explore the world in 1966, I went to London: because it was easy to do, they spoke English, I felt as though I knew the place from all the books I'd read and all the movies I'd seen, and it was easy to get a visa to get into Britain at that point. So the poetry scene was a bit like that too. Most of the poets we were taught in school were British poets like Tennyson or Browning.

When I discovered the poetry that was emerging from the United States, it was with a sense of discovering this wonderful exuberant land that had been concealed from me for all my life. Two anthologies impressed me very strongly. One was a Penguin book edited by Donald Hall, which was very similar to an anthology you had in America of contemporary American poems by Hall, Pack, and Simpson, I think. The Hall book was mainly a selection of very academic poetry from the forties and fifties; it was very craftsman-like and well done. And at the same time an anthology appeared called The New American Poetry edited by Donald Allen, which was exactly the opposite; it was a collection of poetry that had been more or less ignored by the establishment for the decade of the 1950s and it emerged into the light in this anthology with more experimental writers like Ginsberg, Kerouac, Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and so on. It seemed very interesting to look at these two anthologies. When I met the poet Mark Strand about ten years afterwards he mentioned—he's about my own age—that when he started to write poetry there were two anthologies in the air at the time, the Donald Allen for experimental verse and the Hall, Pack, and Simpson for the more traditional. He said he took a boat to Europe and one day while he was walking around the deck reading an anthology of poetry he bumped into a man who was doing exactly the same thing. They said hello and looked at each other's anthologies—one was reading the conservative anthology, and one was reading the experimental anthology—they nodded and went on their ways. They never spoke again for the duration of the voyage.

LS: And that's the story of American poetry.

JT: That's how it was in those days. That interested me because in my perspective in Australia the two anthologies were equally valuable, I enjoyed them both and I got a lot out of each one. So I think that extra distance gave me a perspective that an American might not have had, being inside the cauldron as it were.

Buy Studio Moon from Amazon.com

LS: Certainly looking at Studio Moon I feel the influence of the Donald Allen anthology. That was the book that brought together for the first time the Beat poets, the Black Mountain poets, the New York School poets, and other poets like Gary Snyder and Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones) that are hard to categorize. Throughout Studio Moon there is a kind of homage, a kind of dialogue or conversation with certain poets from the New York School; there is a wonderful poem called "Elegy, After James Schuyler."

JT: He's a writer I never met. Of course I never met O'Hara either, but I met Ashbery. In fact, we get on pretty well. I must say that I tended to enjoy the work of the New York School a lot when I read it because it seemed so much a remedy for the poor verse I was taught in Australia as a young boy. It seemed very exuberant and lively. But my James Schuyler poem actually is an elegy for O'Hara, which is based upon his (Schuyler's) own elegy for O'Hara called "Buried at Springs." That is the name of the little town on Long Island where O'Hara is in fact buried. What I did with that poem, as I did with a lot of other poems during a phase of experimentation, was that I found a poem that I liked and took the end words of every line and wrote them down; and I put the poem away and wrote my own poem, which used the end words I'd borrowed from the original poem. So the last word of each of the lines in this poem is the same as the last word in each of the lines in Schuyler's poem about O'Hara. So it is also about Frank O'Hara too, or my imagining of what I would have written had I been James Schuyler forty or fifty years ago. It's an experiment to imagine what I would have done had I been another writer altogether. Every now and again I like to get out of my own skin, as it were, and think like another writer for a while, to see if it can do my own writing any good.

I've re-titled the poem since its appeared in that book. It was called "Elegy After James Schuyler"; I have since re-named it "Radium" because the word appears in the poem, and the glow that radium has seems to me to be like the glow that the writing of Frank O'Hara has. The last time I had heard it read aloud was by John Ashbery for a book party I had to launch this book in New York. I asked him to help launch my book and I thought he'd just get up and say a few words, but instead he said "I want to read a poem out of this book and it's an elegy for Frank O'Hara." And here was John Ashbery reading my words, which also included the words of his friend James Schuyler, a poem about the death of his friend Frank O'Hara. It was very spooky hearing that, because two of those men were dead and the survivor was there in the room reading this poem. The other weird thing was that he read the poem in his own accent, of course, which is an American accent. But when I think of the poem, I think of it in my accent, which is Australian. It was a very weird experience.

LS: Do you consider Sydney now a borough of New York City, or is New York City a borough of Sydney?

JT: I think Sydney is still fairly individual. I remember when I was a young man I was talking to the Australian poet and novelist David Malouf—he's now better known as a novelist, in Australia. He's a little older than I am, in fact, he taught me at the university. I was saying that I thought Australians had to become more international. You know, we had to read more American, German, and French poets because the work we had here was a little parochial. This was about thirty years ago, and I remember David said, "Well, yes, John that's true, we do have to do all that, but you'll find that whatever you write and wherever you go you'll still think like an Australian. You'll still talk like an Australian." I guess that's true really, when you think about it.

LS: What would you suggest is the quality of Australian thought that would distinguish a writer writing in English in America from writing in English in Canada, or there in Australia?

JT: I have thought about that a lot because I have been to the States many times—seventeen visits to New York included—and I have done a lot of poetry readings in the United States. My wife also organized reading tours of groups of Australian writers through the States in the 1980s. So I am used to thinking about the distinction there; and one of the things that struck me once appears in a small Australian poem by a friend of mine that I would occasionally read in the United States. It seems to me to exemplify a characteristic of irony, or what I call the "laconic mode," that we have in Australia. It's a little three-line poem, a haiku. It is by a friend of mine called Laurie Duggan. It talks about the urge that young people had in the seventies, the counter-cultural urge to drop out of society and go and live close to nature, get in tune with nature, on the coast of New South Wales in Australia. It goes like this:

drips through the tin roof
missing the stereo.

And I read that to various audiences in the United States and some of them would burst out laughing (it's meant to be funny). Other audiences would sort of sit there and look at each other and you could see they were thinking, "Well, naturally you'd move the stereo, right?" So some of the audiences didn't get the laconic tone that underlay the poem. And I think that is generally true of the way Australians think, they have a laconic way of viewing the world; partly I guess because of the fact that Australia was a fairly tough environment. I often by comparison like to think about the Lewis and Clark expedition, which in 1804 in the United States set out to explore the interior of America. There was a big expedition of thirty or so men, very well funded and took a year or two and went right out into the middle of nowhere and came back and said it's all out there: there's gold in the ground, there are fish in the streams, there are prairies you can grow wheat in, there's timber for cutting down and building housing, go and get it. An attitude of immense justified optimism.

We did exactly the same in Australia. In 1860 we had an expedition called the Burke and Wills expedition, which set out to explore the middle of Australia, and they hoped to find exactly the same thing, this great unexplored land: they hoped to find gold in the ground, fish in the streams. What they found was this immense desert that stretched for the entire width, and breadth, and height of Australia. And they got right across it, and they got halfway back, and they died of starvation. So what kind of attitude can you have in the face of that? All that's left is a laconic "well, too bad."

But when I think of Americans I think of them as being very optimistic. Even Ginsberg and his poem about America where he says "go fuck yourself with your atom bomb," at the end he says "I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel," in other words: I'm with you, I'm optimistic, I'm part of America. Whereas Australians don't have that enthusiastic communal optimism you find occasionally in Americans. I think that is the difference.

LS: John, you also edit a very acclaimed and successful web journal called Jacket—one of the best places anywhere, and certainly the best place on the web, for finding out about what's going on in American poetry. It's certainly quite unusual that it's coming out of Australia. So the relation of Australian and American poetry is an ongoing meditation for you.

JT: Thank you, Leonard, it is. Actually I had applied for funding for the magazine in its first year of operation—it began in 1997—after an issue came out I felt I should apply for funding to pay the contributors. I applied for this grant from the Literature Board of Australia Council, which is an organization rather like the NEA in America, and they declined to give the grant. And I thought well, maybe that's not a bad thing, because had I accepted a grant from them I would have to, according to their rules, make the majority of the magazine Australian work. And while there is a lot of good work in Australia, I didn't want it to be an Australian magazine, I wanted it to be a more international thing. I think in it you'll find a lot of American work, you'll also find a lot of work from Britain, and from Europe, and South America, Australia too. So in a way when I think of Jacket I think it doesn't really emerge from Australia. Of course I'm the editor and it does, but it seems to me to emerge from cyberspace, an area out there outside the planet somewhere. And it's free too.

LS: I wanted to ask you about another poem, just to follow through on your connection to the New York School. There is a poem in Studio Moon entitled "Three Poems about Kenneth Koch," who is one of the major New York School poets, recently passed away. I wonder if you could discuss that poem for us.

JT: Again, that's another one of those poems I write where I use the end words of another poem by another writer. And again there is a link with Frank O'Hara here because I use the ends words of a poem by Frank O'Hara called "3 Poems about Kenneth Koch." I've known Kenneth for quite a while, we met in New York from time to time while he was alive, and actually there is an issue of Jacket—#15—which was a tribute to him. Quite a large collection of contributors sent in work to him or relating to their relationship with Kenneth Koch when he died last year. I'm glad I was able to show him the issue before he died; he was really delighted with it. It is also the most visited issue of Jacket; I think it's had something like 16,000 visits.

LS: You do wonders with Koch's poetics and your own ability to transform O'Hara and the New York School into your work and this poem. John, this has been really wonderful. There are so many things I would still like to talk with you about, we'll have to do it again sometime very soon.

JT: I'd like to. Anytime you'd like to call me out here in Sydney, just pick up the phone.

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

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


William Corbett, John Tranter, John Cale, Pier Paolo Pasolini and more...


The Romance of Life and Art: An Interview with William Corbett
Interviewed by Thomas Devaney
The multi-talented poet, art critic, and publisher talks about the challenges of editing James Schuyler's letters, looking at art, and his own poetry.

A Bit of New York in Australia: An Interview with John Tranter
Interviewed by Leonard Schwartz
Australian poet John Tranter discusses his connection with the New York School of poets, forged over a distance of 6,000 miles.


John Cale in Words and Music
Essay by Steven Lee Beeber
A new biography and album face off to tell the true story of The Velvet Underground's avant-garde genius.

Postcard from Viterbo: Pasolini's Tower
Essay by Linda Lappin
A ruined tower served as a refuge for the writer Pier Paolo Pasolini in the years before his death.


Campo Santo
W. G. Sebald
Truth was an overarching issue for the late Sebald, though his attempts to arrive at it were never what one might call conclusive. Reviewed by Eric J. Iannelli

Under Albany
Ron Silliman
In a multi-layered text that resists genre labeling, Silliman excavates the personal circumstances that underlie an early poetic work. Reviewed by Mark Tursi

Invisible Cities: A Metaphorical Complex Adaptive System
Chloé E. Atreya
The bridges between Complex Adaptive Systems and Italo Calvino's intriguing, imaginal travelogue are described here in ways the analytically challenged among us can understand. Reviewed by Jay Beldo

Einstein Defiant: Genius versus Genius in the Quantum Revolution
Edmund Blair Bolles
This accessible scientific biography explores the great physicist's refusal to accept the implications of quantum mechanics, a theory he himself helped create. Reviewed by James Ervin


Europe Central
Expelled from Eden
William T. Vollmann
Two new works by the prolific Vollmann are considered and confronted by an advocate in a Vollmannesque frame of mind. Considered by Justin Taylor

Marilynne Robinson
Gilead is very much a Midwestern book, evoking a regional temperament that Easterners, urbanites, and agnostics might see in others but never feel first-hand. Reviewed by Ted Pelton

Robert Mayer
This thirty-year old novel arguably anticipated the whole revisionist superhero trend, but more importantly succeeds as a work of fiction. Reviewed by Rudi Dornemann

The Phryne Fisher Mysteries
Kerry Greenwood
Australian author Kerry Greenwood's delicate, determined, and devilishly clever flapper sleuth is finding new fans across the globe. Reviewed by Kris Lawson


Discrete Categories Forced Into Coupling
Kathleen Fraser
Throughout this carefully structured volume, Fraser brings disparate modes of form and emotion into a unified intelligence wherein opposites collide. Reviewed by Laynie Browne

Almost Paradise: New and Selected Poems and Translations
Sam Hamill
Hamill possesses the tender voice of a compassionate soul, and the vivid imagery that he presents reveals a refreshing generosity of spirit. Reviewed by Christopher Luna

The Lichtenberg Figures
Ben Lerner
Aptly named after the branching patterns that sometimes form after lightning strikes, Lerner's first book of poems crackles with paradoxically intelligent and illogical connotations. Reviewed by Cindra Halm

Pierre Alferi
French poet Alferi deftly explores a rigid form, "a grunge idea...almost as good as compacting the trash," that allows for wild comparisons and abrupt shifts of focus. Reviewed by Jefferson Hansen

Puerta del Sol
Francisco Aragón
This collection gives an intimate look at life in contemporary Spain, as well as a convincing depiction of one person's attempts to navigate loss and violence. Reviewed by Alexandra van de Kamp


Gemma Bovery
Posy Simmonds
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. Reviewed by Eric Lorberer

Mister O
Lewis Trondheim
Tragic? Comic? Tragicomic? You feel for him, Mister O, even though he's a psycho. Reviewed by Karen Donovan

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