Tag Archives: spring 2008


Alice Notley
Penguin ($18)

by Christopher Luna

Alice Notley’s latest collection, In the Pines, begins and ends with questions. Like her previous work, it challenges preconceived notions about poetry; Notley not only deconstructs language to push against patriarchal presumptions, but her writing deliberately blurs the line between poetry and prose, forcing one to concentrate on the writing rather than one’s ideas about the writing.

The eponymous prose poem concerns many subjects, including the fragility of mental stability and the differences between men and women. At times the narrator appears to be a character named “no one” who wonders whether her mentally ill siblings share “defective” genes. The sister in the story is in the hospital, and we learn about her attitudes toward “the needle,” a word with an obvious double meaning:

You find the needle repellent. He found it dramatically ambivalent. For me it had no qualities.

For me, I myself have hardly any characteristics.

I sometimes have them in my dreams. The story is false. Why is the story generated? For beauty’s sake? For the sake of making a thing of besides fire and light?

Like the best art, Notley’s words are specific enough to create clear imagery, yet opaque enough to encourage various subjective interpretations.

Notley’s poetry employs many popular song lyrics, inviting one to speculate about her own relationship to the songs that recur. Here, the titular reference to Leadbelly could just as easily apply to Nirvana’s chilling cover of the song for their “Unplugged” television special, a performance which took on morbid associations following Kurt Cobain’s death. One of the characters is described as “lying there leaking songs.” The prose poem is a delicious kind of puzzle, and as we are warned, “If you don’t know the song, you don’t know anything.”

Songs are presented as a part of the genetic code, and the key to understanding both one’s own mind and the poem. The song will help one “find your soul,” but “do you want it?” In the pines, “everyone’s composed of their losses, they are purely negative. . .” The sister sings:

Under my dress
under my dress
is a layer of shit

Under that layer of shit
am I
am I.

She is so far gone that “There is a diamond in my wound and I can’t see it. In my defect. In my defect.”

The fifth section of the poem asks questions about the nature of love, identity, and property. The sister’s madness is compared to Leadbelly’s, and the pines become a metaphor for the increasing instability of the narrator; she asks “how far gone / into my defect / am I?” Meanwhile, Leadbelly’s iconic “Irene” becomes the “goddess of compassion,” but her power is questioned. Somewhere along the way, the narrator finds herself “losing the because.”

Notley constructs multiple layers of conversation, sometimes talking to herself, or perhaps to other writers who aspire to innovation: “don’t show your change.” Is she encouraging us to switch narrative voices without warning? Notley may be the sister, or the narrator, or both. In any case, a linear or rational approach to understanding the events in the story may not help.

In the Pines is a psychologically and linguistically complex invocation that tears away the veil of separation between men and women, body and mind, and other dichotomies. At one point, we are told, “You have left the world of the mind-body problem and entered the world of symbols.” These include the tarot. The narrator expresses a fear of love; someone, perhaps a doctor, “is trying to read me.”

The poem also addresses the danger inherent in being idolized and made to symbolize womanhood: “You can be cut up by any man’s ideas.” The goddess laments that she will die without having “seen the fall of male power.” As the poem draws to a close, we are provided with some clues as to the identity of the narrator:

I was born to be your poet. I am the woman, your poet. All that I am.

And I know one thing. No one. Is the poet. I am.

She just did what she had to do.

Who else can do this? No one. Any no one who cares to, and the eyes above, where I have been, approve.

But can she be trusted? The mysterious narrator tells us, “I prefer the live versions. The performance of the search for the soul.” The poem ultimately ends in the “boughs where the shamans come to life,” a place the narrator prefers because “the tree of the shamans” is “the tree of life.”

The second section of the book, “Black Trailor,” is about ghosts, lost love, and the suffering of humanity. The title poem is “a Noir Fiction” murder mystery told from the point of view of the corpse. “Conspiracy” is a great piece about the stories we tell each other about our neighbors, trying to guess who might be a serial killer. As elsewhere, the use of the first person makes it tempting to read certain lines (“I wanted to be famous”) as autobiographical, though this would be a mistake. Notley is also a master of the unexpected turn-of-phrase, as in “Locust:” “Maybe I was too tried.”

The final section, “Hemostatic,” contains the most abrasive material in the book; here the dead converse with and interrogate their live counterparts. In “You Have No Idea,” the poet argues with the dead, who ask her questions she can’t answer. The final lines of the final poem leave the reader with additional questions to ponder:

Change fleeing

over the washed-out places
I fell in love with, singing.

Could I?
Does one?

and if you say yes,          are you someone?

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


Tung-Hui Hu
Ausable Press ($16)

Moikom Zeqo
translated by Wayne Miller
BOA Editions ($21.95)

Nancy Krygowski
University of Pittsburgh Press ($14)

by Lizzie Hutton

Tung-Hui Hu’s second book of poetry, Mine, is a confident, artful collection—sophisticated and persuasive, memorable and tight. Both the lithe phrasing and the sensory detail are striking; in “The Wish Answered,” he writes,

forgive me, I was young,
passions being what they were
were somewhat equivalent, mixed up,
the highest anything,
stars without firmament, colors huddled
in a back shelf of a dark closet.

And in “And About Time”:

There are three notes in this song I can stand
and the rest just scaffolding like the white

moat that surrounds a wound.

Hu strings images together and builds, in poem after poem, to thoughtful, nimble, resonant conclusions that have an enormous amount of authority. Yet, as a whole—and often to his credit—there is something quite slippery about this authority. While each piece works wonderfully alone, and together they show an impressive virtuosity, ranging energetically in topic and form (from California earthquakes to 18th-century vignettes to Odysseus, and from the prose poem to the extended meditation to the spare and airy lyric), as a collection, all the poems have in common is a refusal to be pinned down to a consistent persona or agenda (beyond their vaguely post-colonial skepticism of such consistency). At the same time, Mine also has a syntactical poise and a purity of thought that belie its instability; the poet is seductively quite sure of his unsureness, and it is the strength of these two forces—his certainty and his skepticism, his polish and his constant movement—that keep the poems, at their best, taut and emphatic.

That, in some ways, is the tension, the frisson of the collection’s title—what of these poems could be said to be “mine” when they have no consistent person (they skip from first to second to third), when the speaker feels half persona even at his most confessional? The most successful of these poems are unsettling and alluring in their brevity, in their casualness, in their determined emphasis on image over explication—wherein the reader still senses a narrative glimmering behind the lyric, an emotional backstory that is never fully made clear:

My father once carried me
on his shoulders to the old
whiskey still past the canal
and up the mountains, which
was different from his grasp
on my leg as he swung me
in anger before reaching for
the belt. The smell of aniline
leather, tannin from rainwater. . .

Indeed, the poems here have a strangely self-effacing quality; even the most seemingly biographical have the distanced, crafted tone of allegory. Mine is both personal and not, political and not—and in this way, it feels both quite new and yet very much of its time. The poems all describe the queasy self-world distortions and confusions that are some of the more talked-about marks of our age, and show how this morphing can be experienced with a sinewy speed: “in less than a small / touch I crumple down, and the tea / I am holding is immersed in the / puddles, and my body turns / the waters fragrant.” This is beautiful writing; its enjambed line breaks move it along, and its gorgeous diction and image keep it resonating in the mind. In this way, there is something romantic to Hu’s writing as well—in the elegiac quality, that fading of the self into the lushness of the vision, wherein artfulness takes on a life of its own. Hu, in fact, is almost Keatsian in places, the poetic eye melting into its subject—or perhaps more accurately, performing that melting, for there is a deliberateness here that feels sometimes overly conscious of its flourishes.

Given these traits, it is the longer poems and prose poems, and especially the final eight-page piece “The River,” that are the most absorbing and convincing. “The River” has an emotional intensity and thematic focus that, in some of the shorter, more arch lyrics, can get swallowed up by the writing’s very polish. In the poem, Hu describes a trip down a river with a woman who goes by two names. It is a fantasy of escape, of us-against-the-world, but it is also, Werner Herzog-like, the story of its own unraveling. The fractured self, the fractured other, the moving world that is really one’s own shifting subjectivity—here these themes are sharpened and developed, and work in the service of a beautifully achieved emotional point: hope in the face of dissolution. Declarative but wandering, curious and naïve, clear-sighted yet stubbornly optimistic, this voice has a youthful and experimental energy that feels exciting and fresh. As he says, “I felt what a snake feels after it has shed its skin and turns around to see what it has done” Elsewhere, Hu perhaps claims to understand too well; here, however, the soul relives what it still does not entirely understand. I personally prefer this surreal heat to the knowing, romantic cool in some of his other work.

Nonetheless, taken all together, the combination of such an investigative, open minded approach and Hu’s jewel-like control of imagery and structure make Mine, indeed, a truly innovative and impressive collection. It is not explained easily, and after many readings, its inherent energy has not at all diminished. It is often stunning and always memorable. Hu is clearly a poet of enormous talent.


Perhaps the freedom to play so unrestrainedly with the concepts of self and experience is the privilege and curse of being a young, 21st-century American poet. The Albanian Moikom Zeqo, by comparison, in his first translation to English, comes to us thoroughly and inescapably packaged by his circumstance. I Don’t Believe in Ghosts is made up of what Wayne Miller calls “the most translatable” of the poems from Zeqo’s third book, Meduza, written in the ’70s, and which the author called the “beginning of his mature period,” when he was banished to the countryside and his poetry suppressed.

How much does one need to know of Zeqo’s history to appreciate his work? Miller’s lucid introduction gives us the facts of the Communist leader Hoxha’s capricious and repressive regime and Zeqo’s own biography within it, yet thankfully offers no recommendation as to how, given this context, these poems are to be read. We are left, then, to view the poems themselves as the creation of a single man more than of a country’s trajectory. And the poems themselves feel personal, if in a confident, universal, manly way: they have a toughness, a lively shrewdness, even at their most melancholic. They are surehanded and straightforward with their language, vigorous, brief, learned and unsentimental—as the title I Don’t Believe in Ghosts aptly suggests.

As mentioned, Zeqo called the original collection Meduza—more on that later—but Miller’s new choice for a title feels entirely appropriate. As Zeqo writes in the titular poem, the “legends,” as he calls them—the myths, classical and otherwise, that he makes increasingly deft use of as the collection goes on—are not dead: there is nothing romantic or ephemeral, he argues, about this cultural material. This past is alive, useful, dangerous and necessary, and as unequivocal as fire: “Now that I know all the legends, / I pick them up, strangely focused, / to light (as if with a magnifying glass) / the unfiltered cigarettes of my poems…” Here Zeqo stakes his claim confidently and clearly. There is no magic, no dreaminess, no “ghostliness” to these legends; he is even willing to criticize the way, for many, these legends become calcified, even dreamy: the “strange ghosts” created by boredom, and “the ghosts / weak minded people weave on their looms.” This of course is political, at a certain level—that culture, cultural life, and cultural freedom are as essential to the human spirit as fire is to physical existence. It is also, however, a kind of poetics, positing that to see the past as dead is a kind of degradation. Zeqo is an archeologist as well as a poet, and his work is classical, in many ways—it leans towards the universal rather than the biographical—but it is not archaic or nostalgic. These poems have a real immediacy, communicated nicely by Miller’s finely-tuned translation.

Zeqo’s early vigorous poems grow more spiny and lonely as they go on; still, the work remains idea-driven and questing, inventive and energetic, even as its final conclusions are less certain and more concerned with isolation, muteness, and anonymity. Nor do they ever feel rune-ish or clever, even as they grow shorter, graver, and more imagistic. One of the later poems in the collection is the aforementioned “Medusa”:

Medusa turned people to stone. Should we call this sculpture?

Our immediate reading of the poem might be a political one—that the question is ironic, and that “turning people to stone” has none of the redeeming outcome of art. Another way to read this, however, is aesthetic, more self-analytical, and a development of the ideas in “I Don’t Believe in Ghosts”: is the frozen life—dead life—enough to make for art? The frozen life, too, can possibly represent exile—and the poem’s question, then, is a challenge to the assumptions we make about suffering (especially the writer’s suffering), that it is meaningful in and of itself. Zeqo does not seem to go in for such escapist explanations. Art, he seems elsewhere to say, is meaningful because of its connection to life, not because of its mastery over it.

Similarly, another later poem, “Cactuses and Orchids,” asks how the poet actually works in the face of circumstances—what the poet does, and its effect. I reprint it entire:

Cactuses are grotesque plants,
menacing with their spines.

They’re your absence,
where the wind is wounded.

Orchids—fragments of the sun,
small fires of nostalgia that rise over the sea.

They are my cry
that makes death deaf.

Again, the images—the poet’s material—make real and alive and active these abstractions—even the abstraction of absence, or, as in the third stanza, of “nostalgia,” another kind of absence. In this poet’s hand, absence can “wound,” nostalgia “cry.” As with Donne (to whom this last line seems an oblique reference), imagery can metaphysically give life to the death knell of the abstraction—and that ultimate abstraction of death itself. Yet Zeqo’s final point seems quite different from Donne’s; he believes in the present moment more than the promise of its afterlife. After all, to make “death deaf” is not exactly to render it impotent. Metaphysics, then, does not save Zeqo from reality; it merely affords him a certain power within it, as with “The Free Word,” in which metaphor itself is described, metaphorically, as “astronauts breaking the earth’s gravity / to arrive, finally, at the moon.” I like very much his emphasis here on the lunar rather than the mystic; there are certainly surreal elements to his work, but Zeqo is finally most interested in understanding the more durable virtues of art, the active outcomes of declaration and image-making. For all his metaphorical flights, he seems more a realist than a magician. And unlike Hu, whose dreamscapes are entirely self-contained, Zeqo holds us in tension between the transcendent potential of poetry and the realities of the present and self-limited moment.


Nancy Krygowski, in comparison to Zeqo, does believe in ghosts—or so she claims in her debut book Velocity, a beautiful, unpretentious collection of deeply felt and finely made poems.Velocity was chosen by Gerald Stern as the winner of the 2006 Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize, and one senses in this book some of Stern’s own unaffected confidence, his penchant for the big subject and the unfussed-over style. But back to the ghosts: though Krygowski calls them that (and mainly makes mention of the ghost of her dead sister), I would put her definition of “ghost” closer to Zeqo’s of “legends.” For Krygowski’s ghosts are not cloying or metaphorical. Her belief is in something real—at least to the extent that this something is inspiring, unresolved, and meaningful. Throughout the book, she sees ghosts, speaks with ghosts, and finds herself unable to shake them off, but this ghost motif is not used merely to summon some time-fuzzed vestige of the past. Rather, as with Zeqo, these ghosts help with a genuine emotional exploration of the present—the ways that death and loss can be as real to us as any of the other prosaic facts of life, which her poems take on with equal attentiveness: going to the store, riding one’s bike, taking the bus, walking through a city. This is startlingly unromantic poetry, honest and clear-sighted, and quite convincingly brokenhearted and hopeful at the same lonely time.

Formally, the poems are understated. They are quite varied, but one hardly notices—long lines or short lines, couplets, tercets or long chunky stanzas, they all seem quite casual and organic in shape, though driven by a fine sense of timing and the subtle rhythms of thought. It is not the imagery that gives these poems their particular energy, either, though this imagery is often arresting in its precision and bluntness, as in “Suitcase of My Life”:

People gathered
in our poorly lit kitchen
to eat jellied pig’s feet everyday.
Or so it seemed.
In my young girl’s mind
those days strung together
to make an eternity of strange death
in the center of which
was the table, the beige bowl,
the clear gelatin,
the hooves.

Rather, the poems of Velocity are held together by the poet’s sensibility. They feel less made than felt, and have a spontaneous sincerity and singularity—not of style, but of point-of-view—that is amazingly rare in contemporary poetry, where self-conscious displays of craft and polish are so often privileged over the search for meaning. I finish these poems feeling more affected than impressed—which is to say that, to the credit of the poet, their artfulness is not their purpose. They are artful, of course, and often impressive, but it is the emotion, the poet’s longing, that remains at the center of this work. She ends “Dear Heart,” with the lines,

gray-blue stump
brain of my brain
soul’s tongue
you came first           proved I was

you come last
then come again

I love the description-slash-invocation of that last line, how after all the memorably vivid language of the previous stanza, that final moment manages to linger as both wish and fact. And, indeed, to call her heart “brain of my brain” seems appropriate, since much of this book is not just felt, but quite logical; many of the poems, especially the early ones, focus on the attempt to determine cause—why things happen, what strange forces drive them. “The Bus Comes, The Girl Gets On” wonders about grammatical subordination, for instance, “the trickiness in deciding / who or what // gets control. . .” For Krygowski, this is not merely an intellectual exercise. In her world—a real, recognizable urban world, where people have sex for complicated reasons, break down in supermarket parking lots, and feel the kind of “anger/ that made me want to hit / your three-year-old daughter / for not knowing / how to tie her small pink shoes” (“Dear Annette,”)—control is an issue of very real importance. What she seeks, as she writes in the quiet tour-de-force that gives the book its title, is “a knowledge // dark as speed, hard / as free.” She is willing to tell of herself, and others, veering out of control in order to analyze that control more honestly.

Even so, this is not a book of explanations. The best virtues of confessionalism—the easy-seeming, overheard quality of the voice; the emotion-driven and often surprising associativeness; the vivid narrative details; the willingness to leave a moment poignant and unresolved—are on display here, and blessedly without self-pity or indulgence. While the “velocity” of this book is a personal velocity, not a universal one—it is one that, again, we overhear, not one we necessarily experience (as with Hu’s poetry) for ourselves—there is an admirable and affecting honesty in Krygowski’s project. She seems determined to remain blunt and unashamed, critical and revealing of herself while never dissolving to the maudlin, and she has a penchant for the underbelly of things, which in a lesser poet would register mainly as street-proud vulgarity—the “bad-girl” panties, the sidewalk puddles, the “chicken bones and tinfoil.” But, as with those jellied pigs’ feet in the poem quoted above, this commonplace stuff merely makes up the material of her experience. The natural but surprising use she makes of these images—they are always analyzed, and they always “go somewhere” as the poem gains momentum—pushes them far past their initial and sometimes almost clichéd rough-and-tumble implications.

And so, when occasionally Krygowski’s poems lapse a bit in rigor or taste, I forgive them—I like their no-nonsense voice and their spiky, surprising observations enough that I can take the work exactly as it is. In fact, I like Velocity’s poems even more for not performing, but for being precisely, and quite memorably, what they seem to want to be—careful, honest, quirky meditations on loss and longing in all its weirdly prosaic manifestations.

Click here to purchase Mine at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Click here to purchase I Don't Believe in Ghosts at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Click here to purchase Velocity at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

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


Dan Machlin
Ugly Duckling Presse ($15)

by Nate Pritts

Through missives dotted with lackadaisical phrases as well as more abstract convictions, Dan Machlin has written a book where the overall integrity is nested in the form itself, an epistolary certainty that this “cluster bomb of a man” can deliver a sustained and unified self (“Letter 1”).

The epistolary form itself is an important element to the book; Machlin couches all of his lyric utterances in the context of being addressed. Beyond that, the mixing of distinct registers within these communiqués keeps the reader constantly alert. There is a linguistic fuzziness to some of the work—not that the referents are confused, but that it seems, at times, as if the consciousness of the poem is unsure of what it wants to say, is still finding its sense. Take these lines from “Letter in which it is Explained”:

We were always speaking so small it snowed
I thought or the occult of
having each of us in this place.

There is definitely a procession to the logic here, but it is frustrated by the fact that it doesn’t quite add up. These moments, though, of quiet yet dazzling mystery coupled with an oddly confident progression, are part of what helps the reader construct a unified sense of Machlin’s overall project.

Another key is in the constant questioning that serves as the ostensible base for many of the poems. “Letter 2” begins:

So far in this insignificance I can’t say how I left you. How I felt the last dance
of a pulse—a cloud and—as a cliché mid-sentence—proverbial stuttering.

Here we have the same type of diction already noted; the first sentence offers a kind of bombastic statement that ends in muted defeat and leaves us without any real intellectual grasp of its meaning. But the trajectory of this poem reveals something deeper, as we find on arriving at the last lines:

Lately I have been feeling estranged from you again. Doubtful
you ever existed.

Leaving aside the larger (and here completely unimportant) concern of whether “you” is a real person, the overall dynamic of loss and uncertainty helps further define Machlin’s purpose.

Dear Body: is a rich book. There is real pleasure in reading the poems (see the inclusive virtuosity of “Fifth Letter” and the counter-intuitive beauty of “Waste Stream”), but there is also the greater challenge inherent in ascertaining whether we are more than the sum of the parts we can easily name and tabulate. As Machlin writes in “Fifth Letter”, “No we were not just pleasant beings gazing into the sun.” This book is offered as evidence to our complexity.

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


Tracy K. Smith
Graywolf Press ($14)

by Cindra Halm

Something haunts Tracy K. Smith’s second book of poems—perhaps the invisible yet palpable veil between life and death. YetDuende doesn’t present as mystical, or even morbid, although it’s often melancholy. Ordinary and varied themes of relationships, the weathers that swell and recede inside and outside of bodies, historical and newsworthy episodes, and music and film references all populate the book. As does the duende itself, the Spanish term for a restless daemon. Its Portuguese cousin, saudade, “a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist” also appears, as do poem titles such as “Astral” and “The Nobodies,” entities that hover above and beyond physicality. These force fields, feelings, and diffuse states of being are the tonal characters, like charged electricity, that inhabit the spaces among narration, scene, and line.

So the duende, in all of its in- and dis- carnations, coheres the volume as the strong and intriguing organizational thread. On the page, however, the poems remain grounded in vibrant images, persona voices (a long-dead species of tiny human; kidnapped teens in Uganda; poetry itself), and specific places (Brazil in particular), even as they contemplate ethereal meaning. Here is the beginning of “El Mar,” offered in Lucille Clifton-like snapshot-musings:

There was a sea in my marriage.
And air. I sat in the middle

In a tiny house afloat
On night-colored waves.

One of Smith’s strengths is the quiet slide into surprising metaphor, as in the beginning of the sonnet “Diego,”—

Winter is a boa constrictor
Contemplating a goat. Nothing moves,
Save for the river, making its way
Steadily into ice. A state of consternation.

—or the poignant, long-lined couplets of “Letter to a Photojournalist Going-In”:

You go by bus or truck, days at a time, just taking it
When they throw you in a room or kick at your gut,

Taking it when a strong fist hammers person after person
A little deeper into the ground. Your camera blinks:

In “History” the most daring and stylistically different piece of the collection, the poem’s own voice, in separate and unique sections, weaves a creation story of heritage, language, human suffering and success—of how words make the work of the world manifest, and how restlessness is at the root of that manifestation… ah, duende again. This ambitious poem about naming and the power inherent in that articulation feels both volatile and intricately wrought.

More full of innuendo and intertwined voices than Smith’s debut book, The Body’s QuestionDuendepays homage to and beautifully expands upon Federico Garcia Lorca’s idea that a felt perception of death-in-life underscores all creativity. In fact, reading this volume—which is epic in impulse and dramatic in gesture—is like watching a production of a Lorca play: while you may be the reader/viewer, privy to a world of both sensuality and shadow, there’s the uncanny feeling that someone, something, may be reading/watching you.

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


Martín Espada
W.W. Norton & Company ($23.95)

by Cindy Williams Gutiérrez

Martín Espada’s The Republic of Poetry is a moving collection that cries with outrage at social injustice and with tribute for poets whose lives have been marked by courage and humanism. It is a brave testament to both the bitterness of truth and the tenaciousness of hope:

In the republic of poetry,
poets rent a helicopter
to bombard the national palace
with poems on bookmarks,
and everyone in the courtyard
rushes to grab a poem
fluttering from the sky,
blinded by weeping.

What is most striking about this collection is how Espada presents the best and the worst of humanity through a delicate balance of absence and presence; his poems seem to inhabit the liminal world of Chile’s disappeared. In a poem about Neruda’s mourners, grief emerges in stark relief against a rainless day: “Yet there is rain without rain in the air. / In the horseshoe path of the poet’s tomb / they walk, lips sewn up by the seamstress grief.” Similarly, in “General Pinochet at the Bookstore,” Espada meticulously portrays the dictator through the absence of infamy: “There are no bloody fingerprints left on the pages. / No books turned to ash at his touch. / He did not track the soil of mass graves on his shoes.”

In a collection marked by torture and survival, Espada does not shy away from brutality or humor. Deriving their power from a unique blend of precision and restraint, Espada’s images unfold slowly, accumulating line by line: “They told you about a corpse of a boy or girl / rolled at your feet, hair gray with the powder / of rubble and bombardment, flies a whirlpool blackening both eyes.” The poet applies this same skillful pacing in his humorous ode to a python:

You greet each rat with joy,
the S of your neck whipping the air,
jaws unhinged to gorge on rat head
and shoulders, then the feet
poking up in death’s last embarrassment,
till only the tail is left,
hanging from your mouth
like a fine Cuban cigar.

Amid the dangers of war and Espada’s subversive truths, the collection resounds with a series of poignant elegies. Relentlessly rhythmic, Espada invokes a chorus of poets ranging from Robert Creeley (“You got a song, man, sing it. / You got a bell, man, ring it.”) to imprisoned South African poet Dennis Brutus: “Sirens knuckles boots. Sirens knuckles boots.

As a fitting echo to the conjuring of Chile in 1973 and the eulogizing of valiant poetic voices, Espada closes his collection with a personal meditation on war, mortality, and loss. But just as he begins by imagining a republic of poetry, he ends with the transformative power of art and imagination in “The Caves of Camuy” (written for his wife after her hysterectomy): “Gather good brushes and good paper, / and the creatures in the caves will stir: / … / your sons and daughters pouring from the mouth of the world.” This relentless return to hope reminds the reader that, in Espada’s republic, “There is only one danger for you here: poetry.

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

Form and Content: An Interview with Chip Kidd

by Eric Lorberer

One expects, perhaps, to engage in a bit of schadenfreude when it comes to the fiction of Chip Kidd. After all, he’s already famous for his innovative, almost idiosyncratic approach to the book jackets he has designed—primarily for the esteemed publishing house of Alfred A. Knopf, where he has worked his way up from junior assistant to associate art director, but also for many other lucky publishers—since the mid-80s. The accolades Kidd still regularly receives for his design work are well-deserved, as can be seen in the Chip Kidd: Book One, Work: 1986–2006 (Rizzoli, 2005), a lavish yet surprisingly information-packed exploration and celebration of his unique visual sensibility. And his skills have been put to particular good use in the last decade, when rising interest in graphic novels has given Kidd, a lifelong comics fan, a chance to package a fascinating range of work in this medium to a bookish audience.

So given Kidd’s undeniable talent and justifiable acclaim for his work on the art side of the book world, it just didn’t seem fair when The Cheese Monkeys (Scribner, 2001) turned out to be a terrifically engaging, whip-smart novel that packs a treatise on design inside a coming-of-age tale set in the ’50s (significantly, a generation before Kidd’s own: he was born in 1964). And it seems even less fair that his new novel The Learners (Scribner, $26)—insouciantly subtitled “The Book After The Cheese Monkeys,” and, indeed, a sequel that in retrospect deepens the thematic heft of its forerunner—is even better. Part of its strength is that it follows the protagonist Happy as he grapples with the darkness at the heart of the dawn of the ’60s, figured here in what Kidd convinces is the most insidious design achievement imaginable: the Milgram experiments. Not fair, no; but then again, the fact that Chip Kidd has more than one superpower turns out to be a boon for readers. And isn’t that what matters most?

Eric Lorberer: It was a welcome surprise to return to the world of The Cheese Monkeys. Did you have these two novels planned from the beginning?

Chip Kidd: Yes. I very much did. I initially sent the proposal of what I wanted to do to my agent a long time ago. It was at first a massive sprawling thing that took place in three sections: high school, college, and then work, culminating in the Milgram experiments. But my agent said, this isn’t one book, it’s three—and the college stuff is the strongest and most interesting. Why don’t you make a book out of that and then proceed if you want to.

EL: So will there be a novel about high school?

CK: I don’t know. The whole concept of high school... I don’t see what unique spin I could possibly put on it that hasn’t been done to death at this point. And it would have to have some sort of design angle to it, but I wasn’t even conscious of graphic design until college, and that’s what The Cheese Monkeys is about. I don’t know—it’s on permanent hold at this point.

EL: The novels really work as a diptych anyway: one is focused on form and the other on content. So rather than just a sequel, The Learners is more like an expansion of the theme...

CK: I love that you’re saying that, really. I thought of it as a sequel that’s not supposed to act like a sequel.

EL: Despite the fact that the novels are set before you were born, I’m tempted to ask how much the characters and story are based on your own experiences. The character of Himillsy, especially, is so complicated.

CK: Himillsy is a fusion of two girls that I knew in college; I only seem to keep in touch with them every couple of years, about which I feel horribly guilty. But yeah, she’s pretty complicated.

EL: On one hand she is a burst of energy, and a revelation to Happy… and on the other hand, she is somewhat toxic.

CK: Himillsy is a classic case of wasted potential. Happy is enthralled with her ideas, some of which are flat-out brilliant, and some of which are totally off the wall, and yet really worth considering—things he had not thought about before. But what’s implied is that she doesn’t do anything with them. It’s one thing to come up with ideas all day, however brilliant they are, and that leads back to the epigram of the book: “An idea ahead of its time is not a good idea.” I don’t know if you knew people like this at school, but as a freshman, I would see so many seniors doing amazing work, and you think, they’re just going to light the world on fire. And then you never hear of them again. Or worse, you keep in touch and they end up in the art department of some parochial newspaper, and next thing they know they’re married with two kids, saying I can’t quit this job, I’d be crazy! And that’s kind of who Himillsy is, except she doesn’t even have a job at the newspaper. She’s in this awful place where she knows what greatness is, and she thinks she can probably attain it, but she’s ultimately too scared to take the risk.

EL: I’m guessing you set the books in a previous era to avoid those direct parallels to your own coming of age.

CK: You know, I kept being asked about that when The Cheese Monkeys came out, and the answer is very simple: the Milgram experiments. While these are very much novels, every aspect of the Milgram experiments is historically accurate. Early on even my editor asked, does it have to be the actual Milgram experiments? Can’t you paraphrase it or change it? And I said, No, no, no—all of that has to be completely authentic. So once that was established, The Cheese Monkeys has to take place in 1956. But it wasn’t a bad fit: It’s a little bit more of an innocent time, which suits the story. And it’s before any kind of political correctness, so in The Cheese Monkeys, Winter can be as thuggish and abusive as he wants, and he doesn’t have to be worry about students complaining or ratting him out. It’s also a curious time in American history, a post-war, pre-ironic era. Everything is about to change, completely change. And aspects of graphic design are what help that to happen.

EL: Perhaps especially the aspects exploited by advertising...

CK: That’s right—actually, 1961 is the precise year when the “new advertising” started, so you had Volkswagen ads that said “Lemon” with a picture of a Volkswagen, for example. That’s when all that started to happen. The Learners is set it in that milieu, but it isn’t about advertising. So everything is about to change. Happy comes up with a concept which today would be totally embraced, but back then was kind of laughed at.

EL: What do you think of the direction advertising has taken?

CK: I think that absolutely anything goes. And with YouTube we’re now seeing ads for mainstream products that they can’t show on TV. A lot of them are from Europe; a lot of them are from Japan. There are two of these British ads for a car in which—I forget what car it is, a subcompact car with everything automatic—and this bird lands on the hood of the car, what do they call it—

EL: The bonnet?

CK: Right, and the car automatically opens the hood and smashes the bird against the windshield, killing it instantly, and then pulls it back down. Which is sort of an illustration of how sophisticated this car is. And it’s perfectly executed, totally hilarious. If you did it in a Wyle E. Coyote cartoon, you wouldn’t have a problem, but there it is—on film. Another in that series has a cat that’s curious that sticks its head in an open window that just falls and just guillotines its head right off. Again, it’s perfectly, brilliantly done. But they would have a problem showing that on American TV.

EL: I notice the names of your characters are homages to friends and colleagues, but also just in general, they’re really out there.

CK: It’s one of my indulgences as a writer, these crazy names—they’re either names of friends, as you pointed out, or just part of the fun for me. I know in a way it’s kind of shameless, but so much of writing the books is painful for a variety of reasons, so damn it, I’m going to have fun with the names. And if people don’t like it, then they don’t like it. There are a few that I actually reeled in and toned down.

EL: Well, not Dick Stankey.

CK: Not Dick Stankey. There is a real Dick Stankey. As a writer, and I’m sure most writer’s do this, especially if you’re working on a book for a long amount of time, you’ll collect things like a magpie, and names are definitely one of them. I’ll come across something in a newspaper, or... actually, this somebody told me about—a friend’s father was named Dick Stankey, and they had to fight not to crack up every time they were in his presence.

EL: That reminds me, back when I worked in retail, I once took a credit from a Richard Schmuck, and it was the end of a long day... I mean, “Dick Schmuck”? I had a really hard time holding back my nervous laughter.

CK: Now why wouldn’t he change that? Are you sure he wasn’t a performance artist or something?

EL: I don’t think so... the name seemed apt.

CK: Wow.

EL: So besides ads and innovative graphic design, it seems what motivates your writing is comics.

CK: Well, there’s definitely a comic strip element to The Learners. With Spear, the head art director, a lot of personality traits were based on Chris Ware—but it’s Chris as tragic figure. What if he had that kind of talent but in another era? For whatever reason, whether it was for practical reasons or what have you, he might not have the courage to follow through and become a cartoonist. He would take the safe route and join an ad agency and design ads with it—beautiful ones, I really try to build the case that these things are works of art—but they’re not selling the potato chips anymore, so they’re actually sort of a failure. I love that concept. It’s devastatingly sad.

EL: In a lot of artistic disciplines, that kind of failure can become a strength—like in poetry, where the audience is small but passionate. Do you know this Martin Amis story—

CK: Where the rock star and the poet switch?

EL: Yes!

CK: It’s so funny, and he pulls it off too.

EL: So what is it when our successes are our failures?

CK: You have to define what success or failure means. In this book, these ads technically are failures because this guy comes in and says our potato chips sales have been steadily declining for the last five years now. These cartoon ads aren’t helping. We need to find something else. He can quantify that they are failures. Luckily we can’t do that with book covers.

EL: So the failure to communicate, to make something happen… I think the assignments Winter gives the class also explore that dynamic. What is actually going to happen as a result of graphic design? This takes us to the topic of design, I guess. I notice you design your own book covers... is that different than doing covers for other authors?

CK: It’s totally anxiety-producing, until I come up with something that I think will work. In both the novels, Chris Ware has played a tremendous part. For the first book I told him I need you to draw a piece of cheese and some monkeys and do the lettering and blah, blah, blah, and in The Learners, I wanted some really great, hand-done commercial cursive script... and of course he completely came through each time. It’s kind of absurd—it’s kind of like asking Frank Lloyd Wright to design your outhouse.

EL: It sounds like it’s probably not different from the process of designing someone else’s book…

CK: There’s a lot more pressure that I put on myself, but the goal is the same: I want it to look really good and work in the bookstore.

EL: I like how in Chip Kidd: Book One you said that as a kid you wanted to be like Roger Dean. His album designs really did capture the music...

CK: I know! And that crazy Yes logo—where is that S going?

EL: It’s genius.

CK: It is genius, but it’s evil genius.

EL: I wanted to come back to content and form. You have these almost didactic passages in The Learners—were you trying to tap into the novel as criticism?

CK: It’s not really novel as criticism, but it goes back to what I learned in school. The concept that is hiding in plain sight, you have to consider if you want to be a designer. What does it mean to be big? What does it mean to be small? It sounds like something out of the second grade—and yet, you see things that aren’t prioritized all the time. That’s how it translates to me. What does it mean to go from top to bottom? What does it mean to go from left to right? Very basic stuff. It was a bit easier in The Cheese Monkeys, but it was a lot trickier to talk about content that way inThe Learners. Already some reviews have said that’s the weakest part of the book. I guess it is what it is. But I wanted to explore the idea that content itself could be divided into its own sort of form and content: what somebody says as opposed to what they mean. If they’re not the same thing, then what is it?

EL: I think it’s really successful. And as big a fan as I am of The Cheese Monkeys, I think The Learnersis even better because it grapples with more difficult subject matter.

CK: Good! That’s what I was trying to do.

EL: Somehow your pastiche of this form/content dichotomy reminded me of the Alan Alda character inCrimes and Misdemeanors, when he says—

CK: “If it bends it’s funny, if it breaks it isn’t”!

EL: Exactly! And Happy’s experience, being on that line between bent and broken, I guess that’s a way at getting at the Milgram experiments. What made you fascinated with them, and how do you think they relate to your characters?

CK: What fascinated me about them in large part was that they represent a truly monumental achievement in 20th-century design—and more specifically, mid-20th-century, post-war, American design. Basically, Milgram said we’re going to recreate in a lab why the Holocaust happened. And he did. He did, but purely through deception. It was a ruse. It was a trick. Those people were duped into revealing who they really were. And Happy is among them, and it fucks him up. As much as he is in awe of the achievement of these experiments, he’s undone by them. I’m not trying to make a moral judgment about them, so much as an observation of what all the implications are, and to show that this is what design is too. It’s not just making a cover on a magazine, or a poster, or a logo. It’s purposeful planning. The Milgram experiments were the most clever, diabolical pieces of purposeful planning that I had ever encountered.

EL: Your partner, J.D. McClatchy, is a poet. Does that affect your sensibility as either a novelist or a designer?

CK: That’s interesting! I’d never heard it asked quite that way. But I’d say yes, definitely.

EL: How is it normally asked?

CK: It’s normally asked, So your partner was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and editor at the Yale Review—what does he think about what you do?

EL: Hmm... I guess I don’t care about that.

CK: Sandy reads everything I write and comments on it, and I think it affects me a great deal. Now, we have different sensibilities: I tend to go for the cheap joke, the pie-in-the-face pratfall, the outrageous, while he is more high-minded than that. But he also has a much more lilting, old-world take on how to express something and articulate it. And some of that I sort of take to heart. Plus, there’s the whole Yale connection with this book; I was constantly asking him about factual stuff.

EL: Have you ever had to design a book that you really didn’t like?

CK: If you have been doing this as long as I have, of course I have. Now, would I design a cover for Ann Coulter or Bill O’Reilly? Absolutely not! It’s one thing to design a cover for a novel that’s notUlysses, it’s another to design a cover for a book that basically teaches people to think like an asshole. I feel very privileged at Knopf that we would not publish something like that.

EL: It’s not a place where you’re told, Hey it’s your job.

CK: Exactly. I really feel sorry for people who have to do that shit because they don’t have a choice. It’s very easy to get on your soapbox, but if you have a family to support, and you have to design O.J.’s If I Did It book—it’s sad, really sad. Every now and then I’ll be asked to do something that even just from the description of what it is on the phone, I’ll know that life is not long enough to be involved. I’m really lucky that way. I don’t have to make a lot of those decisions.

EL: You mentioned, again in Chip Kidd: Book One, that you came to read Thomas Bernhard when you had to design his books. Are there any other authors you have discovered in that way?

CK: Oh yeah, a lot! James Merrill—which ended up becoming a huge part of my life because Sandy is his executor and was his great protégé. I would never have tried to read that stuff on my own, it’s so over my head, but when Sandy explains it to me, I understand it. It’s like taking a class in the best way. I’ll never get it on my own, but if someone who understands it can tell me what it’s doing and how it works, then I can get it. Most poetry is over my head—if it’s really good. Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, even Auden, I need a lot of it explained to me. But then when it is, I can appreciate it. But I find it very, very difficult to understand and appreciate it.

EL: That’s the beauty of it.

CK: Yes, it is.

EL: You’ve designed so many amazing book covers, is there anything you wish you could design?

CK: I would love to do Nabokov’s oeuvre... I did five of his titles for a Brazillian publisher in paperback, but I’d love to do all of his work. I have a special love for Lorrie Moore, Alice Munro... I’ve been so lucky. Did I mention the Batman in Japan project? That’s my next big mainstream comics project, basically unearthing and translating over 300 pages of vintage Batman comics that appeared in Japan in 1966, especially for the Japanese market. Totally licensed by DC Comics, not bootlegged.

EL: They’re Manga style?

CK: [Nods yes] Amazing. Really, really cool.

EL: Did you find these comics in Japan?

CK: Well, interestingly my trip to Japan to find them was totally fruitless, so I’ve been working with a collector who is equally as passionate as I am. I found some, and he’s found a lot. We’re basically just photographing old comics, because that’s what there is. I think you’re going to dig it.

EL: That’s what I love about comics—there’s so much subtext. How a culture appropriates and reacts to an icon like Batman is fascinating.

CK: It’s one of the coolest cross-cultural things you’ll ever see. In a strange way it’s very true to Batman and Robin—Robin is twelve years old and looks like a kid—but now they’re fighting a dinosaur that’s risen out of the city. And there are some very Japanese-centric concepts about them. And also it looks great! A lot of the stories are about how mankind mistreats the animal kingdom. There’s also a story about how this one guy is evolving into the next mutant race, and... it’s complicated, but basically it looks at how if you don’t clean up your act, it will destroy you.

EL: I’m glad to hear about this. At Rain Taxi, we’ve always tried to downplay the divide between mainstream comics and indie comics... it’s all the same medium, and there’s going to be interesting things on any side of that artificial line.

CK: I get mad at my indie friends who would never read Astonishing X-Men—it’s so fucking good! Or Grant Morrison’s Superman comic, it’s wonderful. When mainstream stuff gets done well, it’s for me as good as when indie stuff is done well. And there’s a lot of shitty indie stuff. Hello! Just because it’s about squatting in the East Village doesn’t make it interesting.

Check out The Learners video on YouTube!

Click here to purchase The Cheese Monkeys at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Click here to purchase The Learners at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Click here to purchase Chip Kid: Work 1986-2006 at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Click here to purchase Bat-Manga!: The Secret History of Batman in Japan at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

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



Chip Kidd, Harvey Pekar, Martín Espada, and many more...


Form and Content: An Interview with Chip Kidd
Interviewed by Eric Lorberer
The fact that Chip Kidd has more than one superpower turns out to be a boon for readers.


The Republic of Poetry
Martín Espada
Espada’s latest is a moving collection that cries with outrage at social injustice and with tribute for poets whose lives have been marked by courage and humanism. Reviewed by Cindy Williams Gutiérrez

Tracy K. Smith
Something haunts Tracy K. Smith’s second book of poems—perhaps the invisible yet palpable veil between life and death. Reviewed by Cindra Halm

Dear Body:
Dan Machlin
Machlin’s poetry gives real pleasure—and a challenge in ascertaining whether we are more than the sum of the parts we can easily name and tabulate. Reviewed by Nate Pritts

Tung-Hui Hu
I Don't Believe In Ghosts
Moikom Zeqo
& Velocity
Nancy Krygowski
Three new poetry collections explore the slippery, ghostlier demarcations of contemporary life. Reviewed by Lizzie Hutton

In the Pines
Alice Notley
Notley challenges preconceived notions about poetry in this stunning new volume, taking on such subjects as the fragility of mental stability and the differences between men and women. Reviewed by Christopher Luna

Another Kind of Nation: An Anthology of Contemporary Chinese Poetry
Edited by Zhang Er and Chen Dongdong
If poetry is, as Ezra Pound put it, “news that stays news,” then poetry in translation is news from abroad—but the news isn't always easy to digest. Reviewed by Lucas Klein

Garrett Caples
No Real Light
Joe Wenderoth
Two new books of poetry by eclectic voices tackle the polymorphic anxieties of the 21st century. Reviewed by Kevin Carollo


The Apocalypse Reader
Edited by Justin Taylor
As the title suggests, this collection of short stories explores catastrophic scenarios for our shuddering pleasure. Reviewed by Spencer Dew

Tom McCarthy
A man suffers a traumatic injury and adopts an unusual method of recovery: a quest for authenticity. Reviewed by Ken Chen

How Best To Avoid Dying
Owen Egerton
The world is a deceptively menacing place, as any reader of these surprising and original stories will gather. Reviewed by Stephen Clair

The City in Crimson Cloak
Asli Erdogan
& I Have the Right to Destroy Myself
Young-Ha Kim
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. Reviewed by Alan DeNiro

The Quiet Girl
Peter Høeg
Høeg’s purported “fast-paced philosophical thriller” proves to be a rant on the spiritual trends of the day. Reviewed by Poul Houe

Paradise Road
Kirk Nesset
2007 winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, Nesset displays his mastery of the short story form in twelve richly lyrical stories about ordinary people. Reviewed by Karen Walcott


The Changing Face of Evil in Film and Television
Edited by Martin F. Norden
The face of evil fascinates us, yet these essays caution that this oscillation between desire and disgust is always coded in political and psychological terms, even as it dons a moral garb. Reviewed by Brian Bergen-Aurand

Scientists and Scoundrels: A Book of Hoaxes
Robert Silverberg
Originally published in 1965, Scientists and Scoundrels is a compendium of tales about scientific frauds from the early 18th to mid-20th centuries. Reviewed by Kristin Livdahl

Hugo Gernsback and the Century of Science Fiction
Gary Westfahl
Westfahl’s essays and articles honor the work of Hugo Gernsback, the writer who set into motion the modern science fiction phenomenon. Reviewed by Ryder W. Miller

Serpent of Light
Drunvalo Melchizedek
Beyond 2012
James Endredy
2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl
Daniel Pinchbeck
Are you ready for change? Three books on the Mayan end-of-world prophecy. Reviewed by Kelly Everding

Javatrekker: Dispatches from the World of Fair Trade Coffee
Dean Cycon
Cycon’s chronicles traverse ten countries in nine chapters, tracking the consequences of conventional coffee trade from well-organized cartels in the Kenyan Highlands to disjointed family plots in Papua New Guinea. Reviewed by Dakota Ryan

Choice: True Stories of Birth, Contraception, Infertility, Adoption, Single Parenthood, & Abortion
Edited by Karen E. Bender and Nina de Gramont
This volume of personal essays ambitiously tackles the subjects of pregnancy, abortion, childbirth, and motherhood from a variety of perspectives, exploring as many different life choices and their consequences as there are voices in the collection. Reviewed by Jessica Bennett

Sensational Modernism: Experimental Fiction and Photography in Thirties America
Joseph B. Entin
Entin explores the artistic means of Depression-era fiction and photography by which artists distanced themselves from the poverty-stricken people of the time. Reviewed by W. C. Bamberger

Sleeping with Bad Boys: A Juicy Tell-All of Literary New York in the 1950s and 1960s
Alice Denham
Denham’s memoir is a genuinely subversive book that questions how we make flawed celebrities into authorities that determine literary standards. Reviewed by Sharon Olinka


Miller Brittain: When the Stars Threw Down Their Spears
Tom Smart
& Bruno Bobak: The Full Palette
Edited by Bernard Riordon
Two books on relatively unknown 20th-century Canadian artists bring their important contributions to light. Reviewed by Alice Dodge

Rainer Werner Fassbinder: Berlin Alexanderplatz
Edited by Klaus Biesenbach
This photographic exploration of Fassbinder's sixteen-hour epic drama about a paroled murderer encapsulates Fassbinder’s work, telling the story of Germany between the wars as a country closing in on itself, serenading itself in the delusion of its own grandeur. Reviewed by Brian Bergen-Aurand


Harvey Pekar and Heather Roberson
The legendary Pekar helps tell the story of Roberson’s visit to the Balkan nation, a research trip for her peace-studies thesis in which she builds the case that war is not inevitable. Reviewed by David Kennedy-Logan

Blue Pills: A Positive Love Story
Frederik Peeters
Peeters's autobiographical graphic novel is a starkly honest diary of self-revelation that transcends clichés and cultures. Reviewed by Donald Lemke

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