Tag Archives: spring 2008


Robert Silverberg
University of Nebraska Press ($16.95)

by Kristin Livdahl

Robert Silverberg is probably best known for his science fiction but he has published a large amount of nonfiction—over ninety books—on wide ranging subjects from sex and science to history and biography. Originally published in 1965, Scientists and Scoundrels is a compendium of tales about scientific frauds from the early 18th to mid 20th-centuries. The hoaxes range from the well-known Kensington Runestone and Dr. Cook’s race to reach the North Pole, to less well-known frauds involving rockets, men on the moon, and fossil hunters.

Silverberg provides an intriguing view of the conditions that allowed the frauds to exist by placing the stories in their contemporary contexts and exploring the motivations of the perpetrators. These motives vary; some were in it for profit, some for fame, a few for revenge, and some were led astray by their devotion to a favorite theory. Several of the stories are both entertaining and tragic; while a few of the hoaxers profited from their work, most ended with reputations and careers ruined. Two in particular, Dr. Albert Cox and Dr. Franz Anton Mesmer, made important and legitimate discoveries that were completely overshadowed by their frauds. Perhaps the most intriguing and enigmatic figure in the book is the explorer Dr. Frederick Albert Cook, who started as a hero and ended in disgrace.

While there are fleeting reminders of the book’s pre-moon landing publication date, the message of Scientists and Scoundrels continues to be relevant. Silverberg reminds us that:

The task of science is to distinguish between the real and the unreal, between fact and fantasy. The hoaxers, through their mischief, have done what they could to blur these distinctions. But the very fact that men do enjoy creating hoaxes teaches us all to be on our guard. We cannot accept statements at face value. We must check, and test, and examine, for things are seldom what they seem.

But hoaxes would have no life if people, at least on some level, didn’t want to believe these stories and thus be deceived. We have numerous examples of modern fraud—take recent cases involving cold fusion, cloning, and weapons of mass destruction. As Silverberg put it, “if, reading about such characters as Mesmer and Koch and Keely, you feel a trifle uneasy about some of the things you read in the daily paper, so be it.”

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008


edited by Martin F. Norden
Rodopi ($77)

by Brian Bergen-Aurand

There is no theory of ethics . . . without storytelling and the temporalization (in several senses of the word) which is an intrinsic feature of all narrative.
—J. Hillis Miller, The Ethics of Reading

The story of evil is the story of remorse. That is the overriding lesson of this collection edited by Martin F. Norden, whose previous book, The Cinema of Isolation: A History of Physical Disability in the Movies (Rutgers, 1994), provided disability studies what Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet (HarperCollins, 1987) provided gay and lesbian studies. Evil is remorseless. It is driven, certain, assured, sinister, wicked, vengeful, and, most of all, always tied to a narrative. Remorse is what redeems an evildoer; remorselessness is what assures a villain’s eternal damnation. It is the story of the struggle between these poles that is written on the faces of all the characters discussed in these twelve essays. The essays stand together well, and the conversations within and between them enrich the collection. They show that what complicates any discussion of the face of evil is the representation of evil on particular faces—always other, monstrous, outside the family of man. According to Norden,

There is no doubt that evil has proven a particularly serviceable abstraction for legions of media practitioners. They have changed the face of evil frequently, conflating the concept with just about every conceivable identity variable at one time or another and also associating it with a host of nonhuman subjects: animals, extraterrestrial aliens, even inanimate objects. In so doing, they have turned evil into nothing short of a ubiquitous commodity for our consumption.

The face of evil fascinates us, and yet, these essays caution us that the fascination with these images—this oscillation between desire and disgust—is always coded in political and psychological terms even as it dons a moral garb. All attempts to describe evil fall back on prejudices, and this volume alters the way we might read expressions like “blackened,” “crippled,” or “scarred” by evil.

The writers discuss monism and dualism, Hitchcock, Harry Potter, Roberto Benigni, Jay Rosenblatt, Presidents Bush and Nixon, horror films and cop shows, comedy, tragedy, race, sexuality, and disability. They analyze and historicize the significance of film titles, the intertextuality of cinematic genres, and the rhetoric of television. Most are formal and cultural critiques; all of them speak to questions of suffering and representation, to debates over the “normality of evil” and the “banality of evil.”

Some of the usual suspects of the philosophy of evil are present: Adam and Eve, Plato, Augustine, Freud, Nietszche, Lacan, several gods and devils, and, of course, Hannah Arendt. (Absent are Abraham and Isaac, Spinoza, Leibniz, Machiavelli, Levinas, Derrida, Blanchot, and Agamben.) Perhaps what is highlighted here is a shift from one paradigm to another. Evil is political and psychological. It is dictatorial and dysfunctional. And it is metaphysical and religious; the new face of evil demands theodicy once again. Although the volume still relies heavily on psychoanalysis for its explanatory regime, it does open the conversation to other paradigms for contemplating cinema and television.

If there is one weakness with this collection, it is connected with the promise of discussions of film and television in the title. Although there is some talk of the smaller screen in several of the essays, only three of them provide extended considerations of the face of evil broadcast through this medium. With the manifold depictions of evil on television—brought to us through the evening news, soap operas, police procedurals, courtroom dramas, and daytime talk shows—there is much here that could have been discussed at greater length.

It seems that since September 11, 2001 we have been talking more about evil; certainly, the word has returned to the forefront of many contemporary political and moral debates. What The Changing Face of Evil in Film and Television shows, however, is that images and discussions of evil have been around since the beginnings of the two media. The images have always centered on bodies, and they have always been tied to narratives about remorse. We construct new evil empires or axes of evil when needed. We imagine darker bodies, different religionists, or separate species as evil when effective. We commodify nature or the supernatural as an evil force when economically viable. We are more than willing to alter the face of evil. Yet through all these permutations, the motivation remains the same: to separate ourselves, to elevate ourselves, to show how our difference is meaningful by creating “them” as the evil doppelganger of “us.”

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008


Kirk Nesset
University of Pittsburgh Press ($24.95)

by Karen Walcott

In Paradise Road, the 2007 winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, Kirk Nesset displays his mastery of the short story form in twelve rich and well-developed stories. Nesset, a professor of English and Creative Writing at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania, takes the reader through various locales and communities, evoking the landscape and atmosphere of each setting with his precise yet lush prose. On the surface his stories appear to be simple tales about ordinary people, but the worlds he opens to us have several levels.

In the first story of the collection, “The Prince of Perch Fishing,” we are introduced to a group of middle-aged fishing buddies all enthralled (romantically and otherwise) with a local widow: “Widow Fudge was widowed young. . . she had that sparkle and spark everyone likes and looks for in people.” What seems like a story about a love triangle turns out also to concern a rivalry between two partners in a marijuana growing enterprise. Yet the setting is a character too:

If you watched, around one or one-thirty, you’d see Widow Fudge coming down the hill on her bicycle. Down the steep grade she’d fly past the saltwater taffy and kite shop and the quick-fill and Bodega Gallery which offered tourist-grade art—fishing boats floating shrouded in fog, sea boulders battered by surf, gulls standing on pilings with foggy sunsets beyond.

From the gifted pianist who longs for his estranged identical twin in “Record Shop Girl” to the man in the title story who keeps encountering the same nearly naked woman near his horse ranch, Nesset creates diverse characters in touch with their desires: “Mornings, my hands grazed the plump new swellings of flesh on her chest—there was no question of warrant or license, no sense of shameful impurity. . . We’d lay there entwined, my stiff still-miniature self nestled in the cleft of her buttocks, awakening to beauty, the unfiltered grace of the soul.”

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008


Peter Høeg
translated by Nadia Christensen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux ($26)

by Poul Houe

On its jacket Peter Høeg’s recent novel is called “a fast-paced philosophical thriller that blends social realism with the literary fantastic.” Forget about “fast-paced” and “social realism,” and put “quasi-“ before “philosophical,” and you’ll be better prepared for the many pages of pretentious and holistic spirituality ahead. Even clearer warning signs blink from the acknowledgments page; the first to be thanked is one Jes Berthelsen, an author known by Danish readers for his works on depth psychology and dreams, chakra symbols and meditation, inner tantra and the Christ process. One of Berthelsen’s books is about love as quantum leaps, another deals with heart prayers and iconic mysticism, while yet another explores the so-called heaven of now.

It all reads like a grocery list of the ingredients in The Quiet Girl, in which unscrupulous business types hijack some eerily perceptive children so as to predict, or even instigate, an unlikely Copenhagen earthquake and thus pull off a land speculation scam. Hired by an obscure monastic enterprise, Kasper Krone—a 42-year-old professional clown named after a German circus—maneuvers dizzily between a cast of saintly and shady helpers and adversaries towards the goal of saving the children.

So much for the plot, which is either disrupted by countless academic digressions or so veiled in extra-sensory mystique that its touch of realism fades into science fiction. Høeg’s ambitiously contrived agenda will not surprise readers of his third novel, Borderliners, whose title characters were reform school children at constant physical and emotional risk. As for that text’s immediate precursor, the international bestseller Smilla’s Sense of Snow, both its young and bicultural title figure and her underage counterpart were also in double jeopardy. Readers of The Quiet Girl who have experienced the larger than life spirituality and sensory capacity on display in these early works will be unsurprised to find the nature of time and being, memory and truth, dream and reality at center stage again. The author’s ambition remains unrestricted by borderlines and persists in border-transgression.

If the children in Høeg’s new novel, not least the quiet girl, have extra-sensory powers, so does their monastically enlisted savior, whose hearing is not of this world. Sound, be it of music from Bach to pop or the inaudible sound of human psyches, is his key to otherwise inaccessible truths and knowledge. In figures of synaesthesia, Kasper navigates the world by decoding its encrypted acoustic signatures. “He had always heard a shining green color around her,” it is said of Stina, the love of his life; and he never tires from listening to KlaraMaria, their daughter, “just to the color of her tone.” He can sense a “black sound hole in the world,” as opposed to an “acoustic pornography filled with profound sweetness.”

Such profundities unfortunately approach the kitschy and quackish regularly. Or they attract so much locker-room philosophizing that the actual sensations end up as riddles wrapped in conundrums. No area of expertise is alien to Kasper Krone and his narrator, name-droppers to no end. Musicology, seismology, and maritime navigation; food, wine, and watchmaking; theology, obstetrics, and mechanical engineering—these are but some of the venues from which these inveterate jugglers throw their conceptual balls in the air.

In fact, the whole novel is written with a juggler’s dexterity. At times it’s a highfalutin quest for omniscience—“He flowed into the feeling of being a child. . . he felt like a woman, utterly receptive”—and an admixture of exceptional sensibility and overwrought intellectualism; at others it’s a burlesque and picaresque novel performed with tongue-in-cheek and studied self-irony.

The opposites are glaring. In high-brow fashion the narrator proclaims that the “greatest performances were when fingertips took away a very thin veil between people and uncovered the universe in its entirety.” A whiff of self-deprecation, on the other hand, escapes Kasper when it’s revealed: “He loved science. And it didn’t matter that science did not love him. There can be great depths of love that are not reciprocated.” Stina drives the point home when she tells her lofty partner: “Your feelings have no depth… You live and talk as if you’re performing in the ring all the time.”

Once a performer, always a performer, and Høeg is no exception. For rather than also discrediting his own turgidity, his novelistic duplicities legitimize one another. Displays of the main character’s follies, amidst the man’s self-congratulations, actually serve to justify authorial grandiloquence and thus provide the author’s excuse for comparable bents.

The outcome is quite confusing, though it mirrors the novel’s thematic problematics. In a lucid moment the narrative affords that “You can’t be right up next to something, and at the same time want to understand it. Do you know what I mean?” Kasper probably doesn’t. Optimistically, he believes “Every great improviser can recognize another. By the ability to remember the whole picture in the midst of a fortunate flow of actions.” But as Stina pointed out, only as a performer can he see the forest for trees. Otherwise he knows not how to separate reality from dream, for pinching himself in the arm proves nothing—a bruise could be just part of the dream.

The problem with Høeg’s meta-physical quest is not its blurring of distinctions; juxtapositions of bashful chivalry and blatant humor, of tender bravado and self-serving courtesy, may be platitudinous yet artistically defensible. What undermines the synergy is its betrayal of the cognition it claims to serve. When a clown’s curiosity—like a child’s—is called “an openness, an appetite for the world, where nothing is taken for granted,” grasping what you approach is no longer precluded. An unavoidable cost has been voided by “flexicurity.” The term—flexibility with a safety net—is often used about the way the Danish welfare state enables bold entrepreneurship while protecting society’s social fabric. The artistic equivalent is but an attempt to have your cake and eat it too.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008


Asli Erdogan
translated by Amy Spangler
Soft Skull Press ($14.95)

Young-Ha Kim
Translated by Chi-Young Kim
Harcourt ($12)

by Alan DeNiro

Two novels recently published in America—though originally published in Turkey in 1998 and South Korea in 1996, respectively—cast twin lights onto unsettling storytelling obsessions. In The City in Crimson Cloak, the narrator Özgür writes through her time in Rio de Janeiro, with a cavalcade of jagged images not capturing the city so much as being carried by it in a strong wind; she is almost always broke, and though she is embedded in the city, she is also outside of it. In I Have the Right to Destroy Myself, the narrator is also a writer, but he writes down the stories of his clients—clients who pay him to kill them in highly stylized fashion.

In both of these slender books, writing a book is the final word for the protagonist, even when it's clear their cities will go on without them when their stories are finished. Death is indelibly linked to writing—as evidenced by the obsession the narrator of Kim's novel has with David's painting, Death of Marat ("An artist's passion shouldn't create passion," he notes early on). And yet both narrators also look outward, painstakingly observing the chaos and decay around them—and strangers to themselves no matter where they are. Özgür finds little solace in her homeland, as demonstrated by her curt calls back home and her equally disinterested mother, who confuses the constant gunfire on the line for fireworks. Food, loveless sex, football—these pleasures grip the populaces, but in the soap bubble of these novels-within-novels, the decade of the ’90s itself floats in front of our view and pops.

While both cities are dangerous, Rio happens to wear its menace more on its sleeves. In the Seoul of Kim's novel, the danger comes from blinding snowstorms, bullet taxis, and private, orchestrated suicides. It would be too easy, however, to say that these types of perils are markedly different from each other—that the cities somehow distill violence in way that are part of a nationalistic make-up. Instead, the urban danger addressed in these novels is more of a product of social class than nationality. The narrator in I Have the Right to Destroy Myself tries to lure clients that are able to pay exorbitant fees, preying on people in their moments of weakness. Those whom Özgür encounters in The City in Crimson Cloak also seduce themselves into self-destruction. In both cities, citizens have confused violence as being an exercise of free will, rather than the illusion of its very existence.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008


Owen Egerton
Dalton Publishing ($13.95)

by Stephen Clair

Do you remember writing short stories in third grade where, mid-story, just as you were running out of room on the page, you did the only logical thing? You suddenly ended the story by having the protagonist meet his or her maker by whatever twist popped into your head. Owen Egerton, in his new collection, How Best to Avoid Dying, captures that degree of originality and surprise. No, he doesn’t resort to flower pots falling from windowsills or death by backyard quicksand; mortality seeks out his characters in plausible yet shocking ways. After all, the world is a deceptively menacing place, as any reader of Egerton will gather. His little episodes are of the mundane surreal from which George Saunders has also harvested; add to that a lover with a gun and a plan, or a penis that bosses its host around, and you get a sense of Egerton’s tragicomedy of death.

In nearly every story here, a protagonist is on the verge of a sudden and inescapable end (although, cunningly, that end often doesn’t arrive before the story runs out). In a distinct few of these tales, it seems death is tied up with an urge to compete: First, there’s a spelling bee wherein the contestants who misspell fall into a pit with a splat, followed by sounds of screaming. Next, a radio station calls on a would-be listener in "Waffle," and the waitress who answers the phone falls for what sounds like a prank but wins; meanwhile the protagonist, a retired waffle house inspector about to drive off into the sunset of his life, turns out to be the fool. In "The Martyrs of Mountain Peak," a camp counselor dies trying to beat his own water-slide record, but in the hearts and minds of the remaining camp counselors he has lost his life for the lord, and now they all can’t die fast enough.

This is a serious book, no question, about matters of faith and love and mortality, yet it is also playful, sardonic, silly, chatty, and sometimes curt. And while this work is clearly reminiscent of the best of its kind, in a strange and intoxicating universe that includes writers from Vonnegut to Barry Yourgrau, Egerton’s take is all his own.

But back to spelling bees: in that first story, where the losers face what has all the markings of a gruesome death, we’re never told what becomes of the winners. In this way the story leaves us with a little tension. It seems the best way to avoid dying is no way at all, for we all have to compete, and we’re all going to misspell a word eventually.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008


Tom McCarthy
Vintage ($13.95)

by Ken Chen

In Tom McCarthy’s novel Remainder, a man suffers a traumatic injury and adopts an unusual method of recovery: a quest for authenticity. He builds enormous sets and hires actors to resurrect his life from before the accident, careful that his stagecraft not only mimics but recreates his previous more perfect life. The narrator’s form of therapy, in other words, is nostalgia, a way to reach back to a time when his life still felt whole and authentic. Yet as the narrator grows more and more obsessed with living only in these flawless moments, Remainder suggests that our fixation with authenticity may be itself a trauma. It describes the truth of representations and stars a man who erects his memories as gigantic art pieces and finds himself frustrated by how simulations can only stand-in for reality. Think here of postmodern metafictional novels and their precursor Beckett, whose plays also resemble art installations; like Krapp’s Last TapeRemainder is a non-stop quotation of stark repetitions. But Remainder is also about another more political conception of “truth”—being true to one’s own self. Sharing some territory with the works of David Foster Wallace, Daniel Clowes, and Alexander Payne, Remainder is a story about how modern life corrodes the self’s ability to live a “right” life.

We first encounter our main character, a young man that McCarthy never names, after he has suffered an unspecified industrial accident. Though he now possesses eight and a half million pounds in settlement money, the resulting injuries have left him shaken up and cut off from his body, so that the narrator must explicitly will his hand towards his mouth even to eat. Frustrated, he wonders why he can’t occupy his body as easily as those he sees on the street: a homeless man (who he initially exoticizes for his access to “real life”), beautiful young models, and the projected image of Robert Deniro. All these people become targets of his envy. Deniro, he tells a friend, flows into his movements. “He doesn’t have to think about them because he and they are one. Perfect. Real. My movements are all fake. Second-hand.” Even though Deniro, as an actor, is “fake” by definition, his life as a flickering picture renders him incapable of second-guessing his own motions. Consequently, although the narrator does suffer a small scar, his disease seems less physical than psychological—and the injury is self-consciousness.

One night at a party, the narrator sees a fleshy pink crack on the bathroom wall and remembers that he had one just like it on his kitchen wall. He remembers standing in his kitchen, the whiff of frying liver drifting into his apartment, a pianist practicing upstairs. Snugly ensconced in his déjà vu, the narrator suddenly realizes he can heal his postmodern ailment by literally living inside this memory. “I was going to recreate it: build it up again and live inside it,” he says, of his past. “It’d work outwards from the crack I’d just transcribed.”

The novel tracks the narrator’s quixotic efforts—“re-enactments,” he calls them—to cobble together a world that only recites his memory. He builds a new apartment designed to mimic his old one. He hires actors to play his old neighbors: a team to fry liver downstairs; a music professor instructed to occasionally flub a note for the sake of realism and a landlady who wears a hockey mask when he can’t remember her face. These re-enactments constitute a zoo of his boring old life, joyously ho-hum and safely quarantined from the oppressively mediated world. So although Remainder is an occasionally cold novel, it also describes the way that art—or reading, specifically—can sequester us from life, while also bringing us closer to it. The poet Kenneth Rexroth once wrote that, when reading novelists like Tolstoy and Flaubert, whole worlds would envelop him and he “would emerge into real life with the strange outlandish feeling of someone back from years abroad.” Remainder parodies this sense of secondhand life, since the narrator can only choreograph these quotidian moments with the help of an immense bureaucracy. Yet because the re-enactments so successfully capture the sense of being alive, the narrator experiences a feeling of transcendental purity each time he tours his creations. (By the end of the novel, he compares himself to God, another artist of everyday life.)

Here, Remainder most obviously deals with a type of game-like authenticity—the distance between art and representation. What distinguishes an ordinary apartment from a set, if they’re physically identical? A man acting as a piano player from a piano player? The narrator’s greatest frustration is actually the paradox of realism—an aesthetic that aspires towards the ideal through accurate mistakes. He fires his initial cast of actors, for being performers rather than actual neighbors, and his interior decorator, who’s unwilling to make the building as ugly as the narrator wants. He chides another employee who sweeps the hallway of debris that the narrator had carefully arranged on the floor. These people want beauty, not mimesis. But, because the narrator wants the authenticity offered by perfect representation, the actual content or value of these signifiers—cigarette butts and sickly houseplants—doesn’t matter, as long as they link back to a pure and innocent past.

As the novel progresses, the narrator’s stagings grow more ambitious and less ethical. The narrator models a local shooting, using his own blood when the red dye looks fake. He adores crime scene forensics, calling it a higher art—as abstract as the avant-garde, but empirically real. In the final scene, the narrator trains actors to perform a bank robbery and at the last minute, shifts the performance to an actual bank. Here, McCarthy cites Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, which instructs the reader, “Organize a fake holdup.” The “audience” at the bank will react to the hold-up as real, rather than simulated. The policeman will shoot on sight. A customer will faint, stricken with a heart attack. And so “you will immediately find yourself once again, without wishing it, in the real, one of whose functions is precisely to devour any attempt at simulation, to reduce everything to the real.”

In other words, no life is vicarious. It is impossible to escape from reality—for where would you escape to? But the narrator is originally attracted to his re-enactments because they do allow an escape. They are risk-free rehearsals, a way of recusing himself from life. Because the re-enactments cannot surprise him, they allow him to avoid self-consciousness. “The moment,” the narrator says, describing what a certain re-enactment felt like, “seemed to expand and become a pool—a still, clear pool that swallowed everything up in its calm contentedness.” So, like Deniro playing a role, the narrator becomes merely another fixture in a predetermined world—not a person with intentions, but an actor. Much like the secondhand life offered by TV shows, video games, and DVDs—all of which reduce us to extras, spectators in a life that is never accessible—these re-enactments offer a soothing predictability that is capable of blotting out the self. Accordingly, Remainder resembles a Michel Houellebecq novel in how it never asks us to relate to the narrator’s opaque psychological goals.

Rather, Remainder is a study of atomization—the lonely prerequisite for authenticity. McCarthy shows us what it’s like to live in the mind of the atomized urban man—more aware than empathetic, longing for something (but what?), overstimulated but flaccid, cut off from his family and his own body, exiled from the public sphere to an unfulfilling private life. Remainder’s narrator doesn’t possess a job, family, love life, religion, political affiliation, or even a name. When he first learns about his newfound wealth, his then-girlfriend suggests that he fund housing projects in Kenya, while his best friend advocates cocaine and parties. Here, McCarthy presents us with the old dichotomy between public virtue and private hedonism—a not unpopular proposal in contemporary novels (see You Shall Know Our Velocity andIndecision, for just two examples)—but the narrator doesn’t like either option. Although he can’t connect partying with a life of meaning, a moral life seems too distant from his private interests to seem remotely relevant. He refuses both proposals and burrows back into his solitary life. McCarthy highlights this disconnectedness through his neutral use of the first person (“I held my eyes level with a kink in the glass pane, then moved my head several millimeters down”) and the story’s highly logistical plotting, which resembles a to-do list more than it does a three-act arc (“We hired an interior decorator. We hired a landscape gardener for the courtyard”). Such denotative, goal-oriented writing suggests not just a certain strand of anti-humanist experimental literature, like the noveau roman, but surprisingly resembles American genre fiction. Whereas novelistic empathy has a soaking, bruiselike quality, McCarthy has written a small, glasslike novel that, like many novels of ideas, is not terribly interested in character. Yet the novel is also about how we have become apathetic about other people.

Remainder tells the familiar story of how the urban experience corrodes the self’s ability to live a “true” life. The novel’s more political point seems to be that even when things are “real,” as opposed to simulated, they still may not be authentic—here an ethical rather than ontological quality. These re-enactments, for example, really serve only to cover-up the narrator’s actual emotional life, his trauma. McCarthy has elsewhere quoted Freud as saying that trauma causes “a desire for repetition mixed with a need to disguise the scene being repeated,” and at every re-enactment, the narrator smells cordite, an explosive propellant possibly linked to his accident. Yet the narrator sees his re-enactments as both artwork and self-fulfillment project. This is no accident, since the idea of such a project conceptualizes the self as a type of artwork and the artist as the model self. (This is why Richard Rorty can describe scientists like Darwin and Galileo as “strong” artists.)

Yet, while the narrator begins the novel longing for soft humanist details, like his landlady’s taking out the trash or the fresh smell of cooking, the modern world’s dehumanizing lack of values slowly contaminates him. Remainder’s London isn’t a city in the bustling, lucky, sumptuous sense, but an alienating mathematical grid. The narrator talks about how a “feeling of exclusion coloured the whole city as I watched it darken and glow, closing ranks. The landscape I was looking at seemed lost, dead, a dead landscape.” And he hires a businessman named Naz to manage and build the re-enactments. Described as a “bureaucratic zealot,” Naz helps organize the bank heist, replete with submachine guns. Even though he doesn’t really understand the project, he loves the challenge of facilitating such difficult means. Similarly, the narrator obsesses over a Starbucks coupon that allows him to get a tenth cup free, and as he flees the bank, he buys nine cups of coffee just to get the final freebie. The novel is a fable of Adorno’s instrumental reason—the rampaging buzz of means without any goal in sight.

Like many critics of modernity, McCarthy’s narrator stops seeing the self as the normal product of experience and starts seeing it as yet another consumer item, the prix fixe selection from a lustrous but deadening menu. At the novel’s start, when the narrator spies on the excluding world—Deniro et al.—he sees some beautiful “media types” and reviles the way they’ve plagiarized their lives from some trendy advertisement, their “jubilant awareness that for once, just now at this particular right-angled intersection, they didn’t have to sit in a cinema or living room in front of a TV and watch other beautiful young people laughing and hanging out: they could be the beautiful young people themselves.” (This is the paradox of using taste to represent our true selves—we grow more self-conscious as we create ourselves, but we began creating to escape self-consciousness.) The narrator’s early re-enactments, in contrast, have an innocent, glamourless fakeness: boys playing at a gas station; an old lady taking out the garbage. To the narrator, the latter scenes offer life—a thing that looks increasingly precious as it grows scarcer—rather than the dead quotations of mass media.

A connoisseur of authenticity has another option. Rather than adopting the role of the artist, galloping towards identity, he can search for that unadorned self that existed prior to culture. This idea that real life is out there, capable of being captured in its native form, resembles an ideal of authenticity that tells us to touch the unmediated world, the thing itself. We hear this animal injunction from Buddhist meditators, the banal sensuousness of mainstream poetry, and the Star Wars films, all of which admonish us to feel rather than think. Remainder describes how the narrator first thinks of re-enacting his memories: he notices his shirt brushing against a refrigerator door, and these types of moments, he says, “run through me until there’d been no space between us. They’d been real; I’d been real—been without first understanding how to try to be: cut out the detour.” Like the Buddhist meditators, the narrator slips into his re-enactments to feel undifferentiated from his environment, as though he’s slipped behind culture and found the plaster of truth glinting through the wall crack.

But like many projects towards purity, the desire to be “real”—like the desire for happiness—is frustratingly asymptotic. We slowly learn that the re-enactments don’t duplicate real memories, but a faultless past the narrator has invented—“events that hadn’t happened, but which. . . were on the verge of being repeated.” Consequently, the narrator’s re-enactments always fail to match his imagination, because in his inverted hierarchy, the world is only a sloppy knock-off of his ideal. The crack in the wall isn’t pink and fleshy enough. The liver smells wrong. To McCarthy’s narrator, the world is dross left over from this ideal—the remainder. His world is fallen, but such an outlook would only make sense if one believed in a context that possessed greater validity than society, some more magical setting the world.

Yet this is not the case. We have no other home than culture. In fact, this desire for authenticity arises from our a desire we share as a group—why else are there so many novels about self-consciousness, indecision, authenticity, and irony? And our metrics of authenticity—what it would mean to be cool, kind, or different—are only meaningful through culture, not our body’s sensations or the smothering of self. Even in private life, we still refer back to the conventions we create in public. “Defining myself,” as Charles Taylor writes, “means finding what is significant in my difference from others.” No one predicates their self-worth, he notes, on having 3,732 hair follicles or the same height as a rare tree; such facts are not socially meaningful. Consequently, the narrator’s authenticity fixation looks increasingly like a Fascist insistence on purity. He watches an airport walkway become “a fashion catwalk, with models acting out different roles… all so self-conscious, stylized, false.” No one, he decides, is unpolluted by culture. The narrator seems to want a self untainted by society—and since such a thing does not exist, he insulates himself with his re-enactments, where he can be the sole arbiter of moral and social conventions. And so, during one “authentic” moment, he faints and a sign reading “Fire Escape” blurs until it only reads, appropriately enough, “Escape.” But these sensitive moments never connect to anything beyond the narrator. Like many scenes of private happiness, these re-enactments have no communal, ethical significance. Instead, they constitute an elaborate self-help project—but unlike, say, the typical person’s attempt to “find himself,” the narrator cumulates his search for personal fulfillment by storming a bank with machine guns. McCarthy, a lover of Bataille, writes the bank robbery as an act of transgressive violence, but the scene may tell us something subtler about authenticity and ethics. In the bank lobby, the narrator’s actors die onstage, but he doesn’t care. He just says, “Beautiful!” Authenticity at this extreme becomes art without morality.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008


edited by Justin Taylor
Thunder’s Mouth Press ($15.95)

by Spencer Dew

Apocalyptic thought projects fears, hopes, and grudges onto a cataclysmic fantasy. A human seer, in such scenarios, casts his subjective location onto a cosmic canvas, with results that act as metaphors for earthly loss, political foibles, laments for absent justice, egotistic daydreams, or expressions of transcendent experience.

Sampling all of these subgenres in its broad survey of short fiction,The Apocalypse Reader features Shelley Jackson’s harrowing “The Hook,” about survivors from a pestilence-ravished world living near a supermarket-cum-morgue, and Neil Gaiman’s “When We Went to See the End of the World,” wherein a boy of eleven is taken on a family picnic to the spot where clashing armies pour, slower than molasses, from holes rent in the ground and the sky. Both stories convey, under the trappings of their eerie details, a poignant sense of childhood’s end and a stark vision of the adult world.

In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Earth’s Holocaust,” the world gathers to haul all sources of temptation and vice into a bonfire, an essentially futile act that demonstrates smug stupidity rather than any commitment to virtue. Dennis Cooper’s contribution turns a seeming moral vacuum into an echo chamber as a dialogue between two disaffected teens fumbling around for dope and sex becomes a discussion of Bin Laden and an indictment of the reader for participation in society’s choking obsessions with youth and death.

Taking a page from “the cream of the foil hat crowd,” Steve Aylett’s “Gigantic” imagines alien ships descending over the world’s cities. “Fifteen miles wide, these immense overshadow machines rumbled across the sky like a coffin lid drawing slowly shut,” an image familiar from too many B movies—but instead of disintegration beams from swarms of attack craft, what comes out of these ships is a macabre rain of corpses, thudding down on the homes of the guilty:

Sixty-eight forgotten pensioners buried in a mass grave in 1995 were dumped over the Chicago social services. Hundreds of blacks murdered in police cells hit the roof of Scotland Yard. Thousands of slaughtered East Timorese were dumped over the Assembly building in Jakarta. Thousands killed in test bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki began raining over the Pentagon. Thousands tortured to death showered Abuja.

As satisfying as such narratives of retribution are, so too are those situations in which one imagines oneself playing a starring role in the finale of reality itself. The narrator of Jeff Goldberg’s “These Zombies are Not a Metaphor,” for example, finds that regardless of whatever dull positions he held in life, he has precisely “the proper mental fortification” to deal with the world as it crashes and burns. If life sometimes seems random and meaningless, the apocalyptic event gives it a clear purpose and value, the culmination of—literally—everything.

Amid all the bravado and grotesqueries of these pages, all the bruises and bloody teeth spit into palms, all the golf swings practiced with severed dog paws and meth-addicted superheroes coping with rising floodwaters, there are also stories that detail the most private apocalypse, a personal vision of death. Likewise, in a collection spanning comedy, satire, and horror, there are also examples of the sublime, including a haunting “diptych” by Joyce Carol Oates that masterfully interweaves the sterile prose of forensic pathology textbooks with the meditations of a severed body amid the growing weeds and fluttering butterflies. Here “the language of bones” scrapes and chatters against the human voice of a soundless scream, and terror erupts into ecstasy via “a swarm of iridescent-glinting wings” and the author’s razor-edged, crystalline prose. Such mystical transformation of the banal into the visionary is at the heart of the apocalyptic impulse, to which this volume offers fearful and marvelous testimony.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008


Garrett Caples
Meritage Press ($16)

Joe Wenderoth
Wave Books ($14)

by Kevin Carollo

Both Garrett Caples and Joe Wenderoth have been busy this century, and 2008 finds them on top of their game. It’s been eight years since Caples’s groundbreaking first collection, the archly titled Garrett Caples Reader (1999), and almost as many since Wenderoth’s signature “work of fiction,” the prose-poem daybook “homages” collected in Letters to Wendy’s (2000), but their latest collections delight as much as they disarm.

In Complications, Caples’s dizzy play with recombinant alchemy will be familiar, as will the brash fluctuations between the scrabble-me-hard and wild essay poems. Perhaps the best of the four sections is “The Rogue Hague,” where one can find theoretical and hip-hop cadences rocking together. Check out “Bianca As I Found Her,” which is already “missing tiles from silent scrabble / steps from snap-it-together kits” and running to a snaky soundtrack by the time the poem declares:

this is not music to skate by, some scum skimmed from
creamsicle wheat
the cleateaten clef that stirs you, that traces signs on the
shifting surface
of a beach in an hourglass
that I flail to keep abreast of
that falls like a molten compass
sings in perpetual mulch and breath
my object is never to be at rest
not while the carpet is rolling smoke
and the earthquake snakes past loin
and the heart blows its mind on a spine violin

If you haven’t checked in with Wenderoth in a while, then the opening poem of No Real Light, “The Weight Of What Is Thrown,” might throw you—it is earnest, thoughtful, delicate, and utterly lacking anything regarding fisting. The poem’s end is particularly haunting: “Only the voice of No One / is really moving.” Also successful are the longer, more narrative pieces in No Real Light, including “Narrative Poem” and the collection’s closer, “Where I Stand With Regard To The Game,” which claims:

I played with pure joy, and with a brutality all my own.
I played the game without understanding
that there was a game.
This could not continue.

Many things cannot continue in this world, and Complications and No Real Light make one painfully aware of this brute fact. Wenderoth concludes “Sitcom” with the assertion that “The sun is an explosion. / We survive via proximity to an explosion / that is getting hotter.” In turn, Caples’s “Liquid Diary” ends with “god mopes in his sober robes / he still owes my company money // for snow we made last year,” suggesting the fake powder annually sprayed on the streets of Disney’s fake city Celebration, as depicted in the film The Corporation. Fake snow chills more than real snow, and when people enjoy such fake flake across the snow board, they beckon a real “that’s when I reach for my revolver” moment in contemporary American poetics. But instead of Breton’s infamous surrealist dictum of “guns in both hands, going into the street and firing into the crowd at random”[my translation, omitting the phrase “tant qu’on peut,” “as much as one can”], both books set fire to something else within us, something more. These poets’ hands are full with intricate fireworks, and their word crowds cannot stand by as innocent bystanders. The thrilling conclusion of No Real Light claims:

There would have to be something new,
something defying description.
There would have to be
a complete and hopeless destruction
of every grace, every distance.
And that is where I stand.

Both of these collections also call into question that prickly signifier “growth.” Let’s say, rather, that Caples and Wenderoth have come into their own, recognizable from the last millennium, but tooled and fueled to address the polymorphic anxieties of the 21st century. No wonder Complications and No Real Light both include poems that respond to our dying environment and “Support the Troops” bumper stickers, and no wonder that Caples’s “Orpheus” and Wenderoth’s “Eurydice’s Complaint” speak a mythic rap to each other. Scratch that. Wonder, dear reader, wonder. Now read on.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008

ANOTHER KIND OF NATION: An Anthology of Contemporary Chinese Poetry

edited by Zhang Er and Chen Dongdong
Talisman House ($25.95)

by Lucas Klein

In the series of poems “Translation,” “Revising,” and “Outcry”—three poems exhibited in Another Kind of Nation—Huang Canran narrates the development of a translator in a Hong Kong news agency as he wrestles with international affairs, editorial interference, and local political action, all from the viewpoint of translation. With their orthographic negotiations and culture-bound referents, the poems, as translated by Meredith Quartermain with Huang Canran (who is indeed an international news translator for a Hong Kong newspaper) are among the better translations of the volume, and demonstrate the centrality of translation to any consideration of contemporary Chinese poetry, especially when read in English.

What, after all, is the point of reading an anthology of foreign poetry in translation? If poetry is, as Ezra Pound put it, “news that stays news,” then poetry in translation is news from abroad, and an anthology of Chinese poetry should represent a place where readers can discover the poetic world of China. The best anthology will also be an irrefutable argument for its presentation of the news of that world. Given these tasks for their anthology, editors Zhang Er and Chen Dongdong have made a number of strange choices: what, for instance, do we learn about the Chinese poetic world when the twenty-four poets are arranged alphabetically (particularly considering that Chinese doesn’t have an alphabet)? Is the world of Chinese poetry a singular entity, or is it split into camps defined by geography, friendships, and aesthetic differences? Why these poets, instead of others likewise born in the ’60s and ’70s? The poets are not introduced individually, so the only context the reader can glean must be excavated from their contributor bios in the back pages: nearly half of the poets are academics, and several others are translators, but there is no discussion about whether these details are more than incidental.

The two introductions offer no help here, either: Zhang Er’s preface, stippled with grammatical errors and typos, gives a contradictory account of whether Chinese poetry can be appreciated via translation and if these contemporary poets are like their pre-modern counterparts. Chen Dongdong’s preface, meanwhile, titled “Robinson Crusoe on the Mainland,” is offered in Chinese only, thus making it inaccessible to a huge chunk of its potential readership. While the essay is a fascinating interrogation of the assumptions of Chineseness and modernity and the relationship between Chinese poetry today and the world economy, referring as it does to recent schools and developments in Chinese poetry (not to mention being printed only in Chinese), it is in no way introductory.

In Zhang Er’s introduction, her only answer to the question of whether the poets’ experience with translation and international travel matters to their poetry is to say that “the poets here should not be looked upon as exotic others living in remote corners or from isolated cults,” and that by “looking at them, we look at our own world and ourselves.” While this is undoubtedly true, many of the translations in the volume undermine both her assertions. With few exceptions, the poetry is exoticized and full of misrepresentations, and we end up looking at ourselves only, without looking at the translated poems.

Certainly every translation is an interpretation, and translators have to make decisions and sacrifices when trying to represent the imagery, diction, musicality, and history of their source texts. Every actor is an interpreter, too, and different styles of acting—foregrounding actor or character, method or presentation—abound, but this does not mean that all actors are good actors. If the translators of Another Kind of Nation are actors, then, their overall shortcomings are the equivalent of not knowing their lines.

Every poem in the anthology is produced by a poet working with a “native informant”—in this case, not always a native speaker—who provided rough drafts that would then be “poeticized” by the poet. Does this division of translation labor witness poets wrestling with the demands of translation, a service to the world of Anglophone poetry and a potential benefit to their original writing, or else is this the poet’s equivalent of slumming? Translation does not adhere to strict ideological forecasts, but rather fails or succeeds—in the case of dual translators—on the working relationship between the partners. If the English language poet is a manager who disrespects and undermines the expertise of the native informant, then the translation can hardly be successful; if the poet and informant trust each other and cooperate, however, then the product can be fruitful, compelling, and exact.

Unfortunately, too many of the translations in Another Kind of Nation were produced under the former work conditions. Errors abound; a few poems even contain editorial marks, suggesting that unfinished drafts were tossed into the final version. In the Cao Shuying poem translated by Zhang Er and Caroline Crumpacker as “The Magic Cube,” the first stanza reads, in English:

“I’m playing the magic cube!”
She separates its red feet
from its blue hands.
Its chilly black skeleton
rising into a square black face.

How differently would this poem’s gothic surrealism occur to the reader if Zhang and Crumpacker had made clear that the symbolist “magic cube” is what Americans know as the Rubik’s Cube? Would the poem end differently if their line in the final stanza, “The magic cube corporation dissolves,” reflected more accurately what the Chinese poem says: “The Rubik’s factory goes bankrupt”?

Poets not knowing—and worse, not caring about—the linguistic detail of the Chinese mars many of the translations, but poems are not built on words alone. Tone and its indicators (enjambment, diction, etc.) likewise need to be transferred from one language to another. But here again the gap between poet and informant often leaves the translation performing something its source does not. In Zhang Er’s and Donald Revell’s version of the Han Dong poem “About Da Yan Pagoda,” for instance, they give a stylized clip:

About Da Yan Pagoda
What more to know?
The people come far
To climb it, to be
Heroes for once, or even a second time
Some of them, or perhaps more.

While translation-ese can at times be a stimulant to English writing, here the translation sounds less like Han Dong than Han Shan (who since Gary Snyder is a larger part of the American mythos than Chinese poesis), and does nothing to convey the colloquial naturalism of the original poem. The editors’ decision not to contextualize the poems likewise means that “About Da Yan Pagoda” cannot be read against its intertextual forebear, Yang Lian’s “Wild Goose Pagoda” (da yan = “big wild goose”).

Stimulating English writing is often a worthy goal, and translation can offer many inroads to that end: Louis Zukofsky’s homophonic translation of Catullus, for instance, opened up new possibilities for engaging with foreign texts in English. Yet no one goes to Zukofsky’s translations to read Catullus; they go there to read Zukofsky. To include, in an anthology of Chinese poetry, versions such as Bob Holman’s re-writings with Xiangyang Chen of Zhang Zhen’s poems is a disservice to anyone who wants to read Zhang Zhen. Evidently Holman thinks he’s a better poet than Zhang Zhen—and he may be, but by making a stanza that could read, more literally, “On purpose I behave disappointingly / I’ll wither here for a long time and feel the weak earthquake / maybe negative wishes can produce miracles / when the sky is at its blackest it will crack open” read, instead,

I’m going to be a bad girl.
I’m – a sit here and earthquake orgasm.
Heave ho! Split the sky!

his cut-up method of translation doesn’t prove it.

While most often the translations in this anthology suffer from ignorance of Chinese, at other times heavy-handed literalism deadens the English. Hu Xudong is not served well by the unnecessary detail of his translators when Ying Qin and Maged Zaher write, “the temperature was as high as 41 degree C.” In another instance, the translators Christopher Mattison and Gao Xiaoqin with Jody Beenk and Zhang Er append an annotation that the Dugongbu is a “book about Tang poet Du Fu” to Qing Ping’s line “The Dugongbu cannot continue to be read”; this exemplifies the stiltedness of academic versions where translators fail to imagine poetic solutions to incorporate the contents of the note into the line itself. So too with the following poem, “Answering a Friend,” which in Chinese succeeds via wordplay and toying with tropes of classical poetry, but in English fails from over-obscurity: who can be moved by the English of “a thousand-year-old line is waiting for you / To come up with its antithetical couplet”?

The best translations in Another Kind of Nation have found solutions to problems such as these. Writing “She fell for a foul-mouthed employee-of-the-month,” Jason Pym and Mark Wallace avoid the stilted, Chinese-only “laborer model” in their translation of a Han Bo poem. Yang Xiaobin’s “Nude,” as translated by Karla Kelsey and John Gery with the author, reads, “‘Let me recite for you,’ / she purred, but in her disembodied voice her words // faded into nothing” Here the English elides a reference to theShijing, or Book of Odes, the first canonized anthology of Chinese poetry from nearly three thousand years ago, but in the force of the verb “recite” the cultural weight of the recited remains implicit. Lü De-an’s translators, Ying Qin and Bill Ransom, succeed in the breadth of their poetic vocabulary—more varied than the Chinese—which nonetheless maintains an equivalence to Lü’s discourse of speakable restraint. In “Mankato,” they reach an eloquence that even surpasses the Chinese: “The very flawlessness of the rain reminds us of the flaws of the rain / Now this rain falls into its own flaws.” So too do John High and Kokho in their version of Yang Jian’s “Only the lost ones, yes, choose to damage / only the confused choose to hate.” Likewise, Martin Corless-Smith and John Balcom achieve Zang Di’s plainspoken lyricism in lines such as “they slowly float together / In a politics of landscape.”

To translate well means to engage well with the voice—or voices, or voicelessness—of the original. Interesting, then, to compare the translations of Tang Danhong, by Eleni Sikelianos and Jennifer Feeley, with those of Zhou Zan, by Susan Schultz and Jennifer Feeley. In both cases Feeley is the “native informant,” and with Sikelianos she produced versions of Tang Danhong that speak with a defined and consistent voice of their own. But when they open “Suddenly the Drawbridge Raises” with “Suddenly the drawbridge raises a pedestrian stops catches sight / of river water slipping by as if after a musical ensemble / left leg lifts high, brushes a rainbow,” removing conjunctions and articles, they give their poem a hurriedness not reflected in the Chinese. On the other hand, Feeley’s collaboration with Schultz produced the best translations in the volume, bringing the diction, line-breaks, pauses, and turns of Zhou Zan into active, demanding, and loyal English. At the end of a volume such as this, to come across the Latinate linguistics and philosophy of “But always the body first summons wisdom, / prolegomenon of phenomena’s ultimate proposition, / inferior to imagination’s pleasures as it arrives at the other shore” is to reach an epiphany about the possibilities of translation. Hopefully Feeley and Schultz will be able to extend their collaboration into a larger collection of Zhou Zan’s poetry, to be published as its own full volume.

If the poems themselves never touched upon issues of language, Chinese tradition and westernized modernity, or the vulnerability of communication, this review would be little more than an extended gripe. But lines such as Leonard Schwartz’s and Gao Xin’s version of Shu Cai’s

Learning from larks, Shelley shouted when he flew…
Mallarmé flew to unprecedented heights

Ever more delicate, ever more hard…
Villon flew down the lane, to avoid policemen

or Ma Lan’s evocation, as translated by her husband Charles Laughlin with Martine Bellen,

Did Eve eat mango or an apple?
Fruit does not transfer, Fruit makes women’s lips ripen.

reveal in their referents the translation of Chinese poetry into English to be in many ways a tradition’s return to one of its sources following an extended trip abroad. This trip necessarily involves a focus on language and writing, from Lan Lan’s “But here I am, wordless, / Enmeshed in your clothes / And body” (translated by Judith Roche and Huang Canran) through “These words / Are for the wind to listen to” by Sang Ke (translated by XiaoRong Liu and Maged Zaher with Zhang Er) to Mo Fei’s

Let a poet wake up hurriedly
And write down passages left from the middle of morning’s thought, write down
The words and sentences of April, more radiant and enchanting than starlight,
Write down everything that can be written down when there’s still time.
(translated by Charles Borkhuis, Cheng Wei, Ying Qin, and Zhang Er)

and “Once I wrote a line of poetry on the counter / in a candy store, but / I was not writing about the candy store,” by Ye Hui, as translated by Joshua Beckman, Zhang Er, and Zhao Xia.

At times this focus on writing is theoretically significant, as in Zhang Zao’s assertion, in Sam Hamill and Lihua Ying’s translation, that “A dream of the person on the journey to death, / A dream of the person excluded from others, / Is, like pure poetry, not pure”; other times the written takes on a certain physicality, as in Jiang Tao’s “When sleepless at night, I always ponder privately / Where my works have gone, flying away like birds of printed script” (translated by Chris Dusterhoff and Li Chun with Zhang Er), or Zhang Er’s sexualized “older soils know nothing of this pinkish poetic” (translations by Bob Holman, Susan M. Schultz, and Leonard Schwartz with the author). Often this physicality manifests itself in the specialty of the Chinese written language; either positively—as in Zhao Xia’s, “that single line / presumably in Chinese character / would make me tremble with cold,” where translators Rachel Levitsky, Zhang Er, and the author decided to stray from the more literal “single line of presumed Chinese characters”—or negatively, as in Chen Dongdong’s proof of the force of translation within contemporary Chinese poetry: “The Europeanized grammar / wrecks the expression” (translated by Joseph Donahue, Chen Dongbiao, and Zhang Er).

In her fascinating “Postface: On the Translation,” Zhang Er makes a compelling argument for the necessity of poetic translations as opposed to “sinologists’ correctness.” “In an ideal world,” she writes, “American poets, equally accomplished as their counterparts in China, would be equipped with sufficient knowledge of the Chinese language to render the translation single-handedly.” But in ossifying—instead of dismantling, as good poetic translations would do—the dichotomy between “‘raw’ or ‘draft’ translation” and “poetry,” her volume fails to reach its potential. Are there really so few translators of Chinese poetry who can be trusted to work unsupervised? Has Chinese capitalism developed to the extent that even translators must be alienated from their labor? In trying to find a way around the Frosty dictum that “poetry is what gets lost in translation,” Zhang Er has edited a volume in which the Chinese poetry has been supplanted by an American poetry that does not demonstrate our culture’s best features.

Among her own poems in the volume, Zhang Er includes a poem called “Anglers and Writers, Hudson Street” that begins, in the Holman / Schultz / Schwartz / Zhang translation,

Always get the way wrong: exiting the subway to the west
end up in Chinatown to the east: to black coffee,
hot and sour soup, iced fish, ice-filled flower vase
on the table. Blurry liquid, fresh flowers, fish.

The stanza depicts, in many ways, a microcosm for the anthology as a whole: getting lost and ending up in Chinatown. A confusion of east and west, exotica mixing with the mundane, the collection’s gems are outnumbered by the trinkets, and in the end we have an overpopulated misconstruction of what is Chinese. Is this Another Kind of Nation, or is the poetry world of China still struggling to find a way to send its news abroad?

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008