Tag Archives: spring 2011

BIRTH AND AFTER BIRTH – and other plays

Tina Howe
Theatre Communications Group ($16.95)

by Alison Barker

In a 2007 interview with Mike Wood, playwright Tina Howe revealed that her influences were just as visual as literary. “I particularly liked the empty ones,” Howe said of Joseph Cornell’s shadowboxes. Her four-play marriage cycle, Birth and After Birth, could be characterized as a series of shadowboxes, with heavy emphasis on the “box.” The four plays—Birth and After Birth,Approaching ZanzibarOne Shoe Off, and Rembrandt’s Gift—are arranged chronologically, each serving as an installment of a married couple’s identity crises. And just like Cornell’s shadowboxes, Howe dresses each setting with a few carefully chosen artifacts torn from the reality of married life—sand from a seashore vacation, a scenic rest area, vegetables from a garden, or a bodice from a Little Bo Peep costume.

While two of her plays have been named Pulitzer finalists (Painting Churches (1984) and Pride’s Crossing (1997)), and Coastal Disturbances (1987) received a Tony Award nomination, those are her more mainstream works, in which she channels nostalgia for her native New England. In her introduction to Birth and After Birth and Other Plays she distinguishes these plays as “the ones where I rip off my white gloves.” These are the plays that seem to be the closest to her heart, and the ones that have won the least critical acclaim. She likens these works to those treasures squirreled away in one’s drawer of precious mementos, including tickets to a 1960 production of Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano.

After its New York debut in 2006, Ben Brantley of the New York Times criticized Birth and After Birthfor its heavy reliance of Albee’s and Ionesco’s absurdist strategies, and quipped, “You always sense the diagram beneath the drama, and the performers often seem hobbled by schematic straitjackets.” Yet hobbling characters, both with word play and with visual clues, seems to be Howe’s purpose—from curtain’s rise, the couple’s house is slowly being swallowed up by the surrounding forest. Unlike Ionesco’s couples—the Martins and the Smiths in The Bald Soprano, for example, whose dialogue highlights the ineffectiveness of polite society—Howe’s couples use word play to interrogate each other emotionally as they negotiate the senselessness of their language. Where Ionesco tends to hold his characters emotionally at arm’s length with rhetorical conventions, Howe always ends the beat of a scene on an emotionally weighty zinger:

SANDY: I guess some women just can’t have children.
BILL: You can’t pass a camel through the eye of a needle.
NICKY: One man’s meat is another man’s poison.
SANDY: A rolling stone gathers no moss.
BILL: All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.
NICKY: No pain, no gain.
JEFFRREY: WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?
SANDY: Your pathetic wife!

Howe maintains that the real problem critics have about her more audacious plays is the way she applies absurdist tactics to sexual and gender politics, and she may be right. Each play asks, how can one be an artist, spouse and parent simultaneously? What are the definitions and restrictions of womanhood according to our society? What is the role of the mysterious in domestic intimacy? Howe makes no apology for her early (and easy) self-identification as an artist, which alienated her from the community of feminist writers in the 1970s, whose solidarity thrived on a sense of embattled artistic self-actualization. In her introduction, she only briefly discusses her exclusion from women’s consciousness-raising groups in the 1970s, and focuses more on the effect her mother’s large, dominating hats had on her psyche.

Birth and After Birth addresses the question of the female professional, and whether or not she can be a woman if she doesn’t have a child. Sandy is the mother of a four-year old (played by a 200-pound grown man). Inexplicably, natural elements of the seaside encroach upon her, overpowering her rational identity: sand falls out of her hair, her teeth loosen, and increasingly, she detects sea air in the atmosphere. Approaching Zanzibar, the most ambitious play in the series, features a family of four on a road trip to visit their ailing, ancient aunt, “an eminent site-specific artist.” The father is a frustrated composer, the mother has recurring visions of an abandoned baby, the son is a prodigy and the daughter is near-sighted. One Shoe Off is where Howe performs her most beautifully poignant boxing matches between a young couple (Clio and Tate), an older couple (Dinah and Leonard), and a dashing, single, successful movie director (Parker). Howe collides the professional and sexual insecurities of the two couples over and over again, until Parker arrives on the scene just in time to reap the benefits of everyone’s yearnings.

In all of the plays, the power of the mysterious, sometimes in the form of the muse, is the last resort to keep a partnership—and hope—intact. However, the mysterious is also an agent of chaos. Like those of fellow fabulist Sarah Ruhl, Howe’s plays have moments of hilarity and hysteria that are not rooted in the logic of language, but in physicality and emotion. Howe casts emotional truths in material form onstage so that the audience must participate in the elements of a character’s reality. In Birth and After Birth, the toddler becomes at times a dead president, a doctor, and his own father in a re-enactment of adultery. InOne Shoe Off, Dinah lays bare her desire for her lost youth and strokes Clio’s cheek, encouraging her husband to delight in the smooth skin.

These are not stories of emancipation, but they may be stories of redemption, as long as you accept that one finds it in variable, changeable states between one’s self and one’s emotional obligations. When Leonard in One Shoe Off reacts to the news that a mobile home has wrecked on the freeway, Dinah draws her own parallels:

LEONARD: I mean, people aren’t mowed down by houses.
DINAH: They’re only buried by them.

What good is women’s liberation, if it can’t claim the full rights of being an artist who is self-aware, self-absorbed, and critical of the marital binds that nourish her? Perhaps it’s sort of emancipation, after all, to be confined in marriage. Howe provides an objective correlative for this idea when Parker tells both couples about the woman he saw washing dishes inside the mobile home as it careened out of control:

PARKER: . . . But how could that be? People don’t live in those giant mobile homes when they’re being transported, and they certainly don’t do the dishes while they’re moving. . . . It’s a miracle more people weren’t killed when you stop to think about it. A fifty-ton split-level ranch ricocheting across a four-lane highway. . . It’s a wonder any of us escaped.
DINAH: (Returning with an assortment of kingly robes and doublets): Here, I brought you some things from my collection.
PARKER: Eeny, meeny, miney, moe.
LEONARD: Dinah, this isn’t a play.

(Silence.)

And there’s the rub: this self-proclaimed “well-mannered anarchist” showcases ambiguity. Tina Howe may have used her bare hands to build these plays, but hers is a curator’s touch that aims to comfort and disturb.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011

DOWNLOAD HELVETICA FOR FREE.COM

Steve Roggenbuck

by Morgan Myers

To paraphrase Jay-Z, Steve Roggenbuck isn’t a businessman, he’s a business, man. Or maybe it would be better to say he’s a business model—one of the first to attempt to fully reimagine the promotion and distribution of poetry for the web. One of poetry’s first generation of digital natives, he seems to have little interest in the approval of institutional gate-keepers, and few illusions about poetry’s mainstream cultural profile. Instead, his work is proudly self-published, stylishly self-designed, marketed exclusively through personal blogs and social media, and sold strictly over the Internet.

But business is probably the wrong word, too. The first poem in DOWNLOAD HELVETICA FOR FREE.COM reads, “I MAY GO INTO / ADVERTISING / BUT I DON’T / LIKE THE / COMMERCIAL / ASPECT,” and that might be more than just a joke. Roggenbuck seems to thrive on promotion—via reader contests (the source of his book’s cover image), SEO-based stunts (the motivation behind its title), and relentless social networking—but ultimately he has nothing to sell. You can buy DOWNLOAD HELVETICA FOR FREE.COM for $12 if you want a hard copy, but you can also read it for free online, with fifty extra poems thrown in (the book’s title is also its url). Or you can highjack its contents and do whatever you want with them: like all Roggenbuck’s work, it’s been released into the public domain.

The same tension between selling and sharing runs through the poems themselves. Each is composed of one or two sentences boldly set in large-print Helvetica, a pervasive marketing font that may be most associated with ads for the clothing brand American Apparel. In isolation, the individual poems look very much like minimalist billboards, but read together they feel more like what they actually are: excerpts from a conversation, mostly from old IM exchanges between Roggenbuck and his girlfriend. The subject matter is decidedly naïve, humble, even kitschy: love notes, pop music, homework, spelling questions (“IS THIS HOW YOU / SPELL THIS? / ‘ATREYU’”)— the authentic stuff of a banal, if literate and sincere, high-school love affair.

The book is slight by design, but it’s also clever, sweet, and oddly thoughtful. It’s the language of our everyday electronic lives—not held up to critique from without, as in much Flarf and conceptual poetry, but returned to us at a scale that demands attention, placed at the intersection of two uniquely auratic discourses, poetry and advertising. The book isn’t without ironic bite (“THE SKY IS / BEAUTIFUL . . . / NICE WORK / CAPTURING IT / IN YOUR / PHOTOGRAPH”), but mostly it feels like a gesture of generosity and inclusiveness. Whatever the future of poetry as an online enterprise might be, those are qualities that always seem revolutionary.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011

THE ESAI POEMS – Book 1: Breaking Bread with the Darkness

Jimmy Santiago Baca
Sherman Asher Publishing ($12.95)

by Warren Woessner

Here’s a sentence I never thought I would write in a review: Jimmy Santiago Baca writes adorable poems about cute babies. But indeed he does, and often, in The Esai Poems, a collection about his youngest son's first years. In the preface, "25 In/25 Out," Baca reviews his tough-guy ex-con past, "twenty-five years in the system, brutal, corrupt, hate-filled, and frenzied with violence . . . beatings, shock-therapy, abandonment, terror, death threats, stabbings." But, somehow, after he learned to read and write, Baca got out: "To all of the above horrors I say: I have outlasted you. This September 2010 marks the time that I have been more free than imprisoned."

So Baca can be forgiven if he just wants to "celebrate another day of living." The Esai Poems is the first in a proposed four-volume series that Baca plans to publish about life with his five children. The poems are titled with dates, and cover a period from late fall through winter of 2003 – 2004. As Esai approaches one year of age, Baca captures the pure joy of a child for whom everything is new:

I remember when you found your nose,
a small soft ornament
that itched and sneezed scaring you to tears;
and how happy you were to find
your hands,
two wonderful appendages with five
lovely fingers attached to them.

Charmingly, Baca is a willing co-explorer in these voyages of early childhood development. He joins Esai completely without pretense, letting us into their world:

We invent our language of love,
hilarious names for each other,
you humming my names,
me shouting like a huge
friendly bird in the foliage
your new name,
                                      Boogadoo! Boogadoo!

Esai is enveloped in love, both from his father and his mother, but he also begins life in unsettled post-9/11 days, early in the wars in Iraq and Afganistan. He will grow up a Chicano, like his father, and have to deal with issues of discrimination, exploitation and abusive immigration policy. Baca knows he cannot keep Esai playing with sunbeams for very long:

the time will come,
when Esai cannot tolerate the injustices
anymore,
and the newspapers, TVs,
Police and the FBI will label him insurgent,
sunlight accompanying his every step. . . .

Some of the poems are meant to be read by Esai when he grows older, even if they have infant Esai interludes. Baca wants Esai, and us, to know his father as politically engaged, anti-war, and ready to fight for his rights and his dignity:

much of what I write,
the poems that is, are stones
I litter the dusty roads with
so kids can pick them up readily
to throw at tanks

Baca has the courage not simply to invoke a rosy, peaceful future for his son, but to warn him of the struggles he and his Latino brothers and sisters will face. Some of the poems feel almost reckless in their honesty. Baca calls out the perversity of many "high-profile writers" in the face of the institutional racism that followed 9/11, "anxious about / being blacklisted, / their words / cooled to lukewarm." And he savages what he considers

tame Black, Latino and Indian writers
on talk shows and radios,
repeating the President's liturgy
that war is necessary.

While some of these poems have the feel of letters that had to be written but should not have been sent, Baca never breaks faith with the power of communication. He recalls getting messages to fellow prison inmates using sign language or even by blinking his eyes through a peephole during solitary confinement. He is steadfast in his belief in poetry:

Poetry thrives in times of war,
survives the bombs,
rough-paw poems that dog-pant
in the rubble, jowl shaking next to bullet-ridden walls,

Many of these poems are direct calls to battle oppression and racism, and their content often feels familiar, despite Baca's passion and his real-life desperado perspective. No doubt this book will teach Esai and his classmates lessons, as soon as they can read it and understand the context of the world events Baca invokes. But the adult Esai will also likely treasure the personal stories his father saved for him—like the year the family ignored Christmas as a personal protest against the wars. As spring nears, Baca, his "girlfriend," and Esai visit the family burial plot. A white owl shows them the site, and Baca buries one of his books there:

told my father if he never read a book,
now was the time
to do it, it was our story—
the story told, now the family's destruction could end,

As much as there is to admire in The Esai Poems, Baca’s earlier books, including the riveting Black Mesa Poems (New Directions, 1989) and the recent novel A Glass of Water (Grove Press, 2010) are worth unearthing too. They tell some of the story behind how Baca found himself "25 In," and more importantly, how the "25 Out" made him so free.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011

HORSE AND RIDER

Melissa Range
Texas Tech University Press ($21.95)

by Russ Brickey

Recently, at a poetry panel somewhere in the Midwest, a traveler from New York stood up. “Where is the terror?” he shouted at the five poets sitting in front of the room. “We in New York live with terror. We have planes coming at us every day and it’s only a matter of time before one of them takes something else down. Why isn’t that in your poetry?”

The traveler’s quarrel is not particularly unique; a common complaint against poetry these days is that it has little to do with the “real world.” Poets, the critics contend, are self-indulgent and disassociated, and lyrical excess has overcome any sort of social obligation; conversely they sometimes argue that social obligation in poetry is simply the rehashing of clichéd ideals. What readers such as the traveler from New York seem to want is an overt expression of our age’s unpredictable violence and the fear that we may all become victims of it. But contemporary poetry often shies away from the overt metaphor, and many argue that this is its power—poetry is for the mind, an arabesque of image and language, inner voice talking to inner voice so that we can overhear and make meaning from the conversation.

Melissa Range, a Walt McDonald First Book award winner, actually bridges the gap between the necessity of interiority and the necessity of speaking to the world. She writes about violence and its sublimated terror, yet Range has managed to attack the subject without losing the quiet edge that sets poetry apart from the loud mainstream of postmodern culture.

Each poem in Horse and Rider is dedicated to one aspect of warfare, be it a portrait of Achilles walking the beach after battle, a self-portrait of Samson, or the devices of war themselves: each poem in part two of the collection, “The Warhorse,” gives voice to an accouterment of the battlefield. “The Battle-Axe,” for instance, speaks directly to the reader:

Because not every yeoman can afford
a sword, I make myself available
for more than farm or forest chores.

The reserve, what is left unspoken, is what is spookiest about these lines. “I make myself available” the Battle Axe says to us, its gristly psychopathology glaring between the lines. But then, like a true assassin, the Axe is proud of its ability to hew and rend:

I’ve bisected the breastplate, hewn
the helm, and beheaded the berserker
while the knight’s still reaching for his scabbard.

Nevertheless, none of us, not even the formidable Axe, is free from class warfare: “But still, they want to battle and to die / by a princely, pricey sword” the Axe laments a line later. The hand grenade, the javelin, even the marginalized tent peg get their turn at the dramatic monologue. “They’ve sown your field with dragon’s teeth,” the Landmine says, “That’s me: a sheathed spark, a seething seed.” The Arrow taunts ravenously: “Bonnie boy, I’ll get beneath your bodice: / I’m the bodkin that flies broad and lodges deep.” The Trebuchet (a medieval catapult used in siege warfare) is actually rather introspective: “Like you, I’m an ingenious engine,” it says to the reader, “the union of force and intellect.” We, like the missile launchers of yore, are force and intellect; we too, Range seems to be telling us, are ye olde engines of death.

Other poems in the book explore less usual suspects. “The Canary” is victim to the mine blast. “Dragging Canoe” paraphrases Chief Tsiyu Gansini of the Cherokee nation and leader of the Chickamauga resistance on the American Frontier: “I’m a child of this dark and bloody ground,” the character says, revitalizing one of the Chief’s most famous statements. A “Prayer” is “An axe-blow like a pallet through the roof, // a mallet that can flurry monoliths / to sand.”

Horse and Rider takes us to the realization that there is nothing particularly unique about fearing the suicide bomber or the hijacker; violence, war, and the sociopathic willingness to kill and maim is as old as humanity. The battle-axe and the hand grenade have exactly the same purpose, even the same register. In a singular and smart voice, Range speaks directly to the Western reader during a time of warfare; at the same time, she speaks to the long and bloody memory of our species and to any reader of any time or place.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011

BEYOND THE FIRE

Mary Leader
Shearsman Books ($15)

by Kate Angus

Mary Leader’s third collection of poetry, Beyond the Fire, is the work of a restless and inquisitive mind. Rather than adhering to any set narrative or thematic arc, the overarching structure here is that of formal inquiry—the poet seems to be investigating what will happen if she eschews traditional line breaks and instead indicates a pause by alternating bold and regular typeset, as she does in “Mnemosyne,” or how she can hew a shape out of the white space in “Queen of Heaven” so that the visual shape of the poem echoes its mentions of roses and becomes both blossom and root. This is not to say that the book lacks emotion or an animating presence—the voice in these poems is assured, tender, and wry—so much as that the poems assert a fierce intelligence, forcing what is said to grapple with a series of constraints imposed on how it is said.

These formal concerns are important, and provide the book with, paradoxically, both its greatest strengths and its weakest moments. The danger of relying on explorations of form is twofold: the poem may become interesting primarily as a formal exercise, and the form itself may lack interest. Leader, on occasion, is subject to both these dangers. “They Vibrate,” for example, consists of long lines of repeated word pairs in alternating superscript and subscript. This technique creates a space between the words that does indeed seem to blur and vibrate, but the paired words (red/blue, whore/virgin, mars/venus, crest/trough, she/he, etc.) already exist in such obvious relationship that the variants Leader introduces are not always strong enough to derail the reader’s forward momentum. For those inclined to luxuriate in details and incremental movement, there is a pleasure to be found in exploring the liminality Leader plays with here, but readers whose aesthetic interests do not lean toward typographical acrobatics may feel shut out.

Leader’s most effective poems—and there are many in this collection—tend to be ones where the form is neatly balanced by content and where both contain surprises. “Rosh Hashanah Sutra,” for instance, declares its allegiance to openness in the dual religious traditions of its title, and consists entirely of a catalogue of various Shofars, including the lovely sequence

Urgent-unnamed-bird Shofar;
Manhole-cover-struck-by-tire-quickly-lifted-set-down Shofar;
Man-and-woman-passionately-but-not-violently-arguing Shofars;
Footfalls-upstairs Shofar;
She-who-pronounces-the-words-honey-cake Shofar;
Kettle Shofar;
Doorbell Shofar;
Stack-of-plates Shofar;
So-called silence Shofar;

Extending this list upwards to fifty lines, the poet’s careful culling of worldly details turns the catalogue into a prayer in which the mundane is sanctified through observation.

Perhaps Leader’s multifaceted intelligence is best showcased in the book’s opening poem, “Tallit with Stripes from the Book of Judges,” which weaves together a history of suicide, destruction, and creation as it tells the story of a place famous for its prized blue dye. The poem upends both our narrative expectations (a girl’s body is anointed with “a clear liquid,” and “Then / A little repentance entered the woman’s heart, / But too late: the girl had already come back to life”), as well as our sense of place as Leader describes and revises the landscape (“Storms and berries were the exact colors of each other” later becomes “Storms and berries were the exact opposite of white”). The plain text of the poem is punctuated by italicized bold type lines culled from the Tanakh (the stripes promised in the title); this by extension implies the poem is the tallit, and thus transmogrifies script into the sacred.

Although there are moments when Leader’s reliance on formal exploration undermines the overall strength of her poems, Beyond the Fire is also replete with the type of moments A.R. Ammons called “splendid occasions”—the perfect meeting of external and internal forms.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011

APPROACHING ICE

Elizabeth Bradfield
Persea Books ($15)

by Lucy Bryan Green

In this mesmerizing voyage to a land “more ice than earth,” Elizabeth Bradfield probes the lives of polar explorers, the people they left behind, and the desires that propelled them. She embarks on this journey “Because this life, this alarm clock time card / percolator direct deposit income tax stop light // seems vast and blank and numbing.” To the vacuousness of modern existence she responds by guiding her readers to “the plenty at the poles”—a frigid wilderness populated not only by caribou, seals, emperor penguins, and polar bears, but also by adventurers, scientists, athletes, and tourists.

The rich detail in these imagistic, highly readable histories originates in the decade’s worth of research undergirding Approaching Ice. In one portrait, early Antarctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott, “romantic past all sense,” starves “in his tent eleven miles from cached supplies.” In another, the photographer aboard Shackleton’s ill-fated Endurance “plunge[s] shirtless into the slushy hold” to save glass negatives. The poet expresses this hope to the adventurers she resurrects:

that despite my distance
and the tendency of light
over ice toward mirage,
some shape comes through
that both of us
can recognize.

Bradfield’s burning devotion to her subjects gleams brightly against the glacial landscapes they occupy.

The voice of the poet also comes close to autobiography in a series of prose poems entitled “Notes on Ice in Bowditch.” Using definitions from a navigation handbook, she reflects on the intricacies of love. Under the entry for “ice breccia,” Bradfield writes: “Patchwork sewn tight with freeze into one big blanket. The old, old blue with the new white. Different strengths and ways of being brittle. This is my answer to the years between us. There can be fusing. There is a name for it.” With a speaker who frequently submerges herself in the third person, these interludes provide welcome moments of intimacy. Their emotional potency only intensifies as Bradfield reveals more about the partner they address—a woman lover who travels to Antarctica without her, carrying her poems.

Bradfield skillfully maneuvers between romantic desire and the passions that impel people to the poles. She portrays early explorers yearning for untouched places, fleeing a world besmirched by human hands. In an ironic turn, she writes of men contriving trials for the sake of recognition, “Their passage loud with anticipated medals, applause.” She even delves into political obsessions with ownership, detailing the Third Reich’s attempt to claim Antarctica by dropping “aluminum darts / tattooed with a crooked cross / every twenty miles into what they saw.” Her insights into the insatiable nature of longing—whether for adventure, accolades, or “the chance to again make human an eden”—lend poignancy to an already exquisite collection.

“And what myths would the land write / for itself?” Bradfield muses. With a naturalist’s eye for observation and a poet’s ear for lyricism, she gives an inspired answer in sixty-one penetrating poems that will enthrall lovers of natural history, narrative poetry, and historical fiction.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011

OUR CHROME ARMS OF GYMNASIUM

Crystal Curry
Slope Editions ($14.95)

by Greg Bem

“What telling there is is always good . . . But, my heart holds out for a mobilization frenzy,” Seattle-based Crystal Curry carefully projects in the preface of her latest, most complete, and most completely disruptive book of verse, Our Chrome Arms of Gymnasium. Pulling the cover open is like entering an enthralling, mysterious cave and finding a microcosmic reality waiting within. Every element of the world appears familiar, but the lighting is quite selective. Truths come in hyper-conductive shrieks.

The book is a powerful reaffirmation that American poetry can be as bright as it is startling, shocking, and haunting. Our Chrome Arms of Gymnasium revitalizes exciting literary themes in form and tone that have been deadened and softened since the ’80s, encouraging the fantastic with complex pizazz. In “Executive Branch,” Curry weaves verse that confronts issues of gender while retaining an isolated and unique aesthetic:

Grain bearers: frisk & fallow. Marizpan
Cloud: my bushels
closed
to this. Daddy This: which
shall
expire
. Women
at desks, bound with
licorice: yes.

There is something in the air that makes these speakers imminent soothsayers. An established right of way is clearly dominant, and yet, in Curry’s realm, the end is nigh for comfort.

The personas in Curry’s poems latch on to their dynamic and unstable environments, giving those nearby stability through maddening, distinctive promises. In the tricky “Brigadier Rory Gentle,” the acidic tone leads the speaker into rules of reassurance for the audience: “We’re a fit fit fit & what you’ll think you see in my centurion slide out, is my shoe. / Grapple with the order, hoary morality, shoot up the ballroom, shake down the latrine. / I’ll cinch my shorts, Fort Trocadero, bar the door, tuck in safe, the rusting heirlooms.” In a world of decay, Curry’s words are able to invoke Pound, Duncan, and Olson, as well as more present influences like Ashbery and Iijema.

The poems form to make a language of sense but Curry does not offer it up easily; a cryptic barrier has been propped up like the defense of a sprite. In “Sky-Lit Hi,” frazzled verse reseats itself with a remarkably powerful use of repetition:

Digitally re-mastered from the pluribus tongue,
As clack through the dance hall as all-fall-down better,
Hip bones horde language, barometric or better,
The charge for admission: lip, Tom Collins or tongue.

Molding into the base of the text is metrical skill rubbed over an appreciation for form that is flicked around to spread a snarling mode of speech, one fit for a heroine or fallen angel. This voice rises and falls from poem to poem and can be found everywhere in the text, binding it together.

The subtly invasive lay-feminist voice is even stronger when it sounds most personal. In “How I Explain Myself to Former, Current & Potential Husbands,” Curry fleshes out an Aunt Maggie with anger, sorrow, and a horrifying seriousness:

I am bullet shells. I’m a frigging anachronist.
I aligned myself with the inner ear.
I pried your damned prick from my liminal ear.
I am prying your damned prick from my liminal ear.
I will pry your damned prick from my liminal ear.

This decrepit endurance is one of many examples of how Curry manages thematic weight in this book. As flashy as each speck of language is in each poem, the meaning circles all that “hapless demise / on the hovel door,” which lets us know we should be paying attention to the awkward, to the creepy, and to the familiar—and that we must concentrate on the process of liberation that leads us through each.

There is energy to be found here, and the energy is in capturing something ecstatic, something human, “as it is the cure / for the tender maladies.” Allow yourself to find the maladies in this book and relate how they are stilled and defused. Stepping into this cave is an enticing opportunity, but sitting inside and exploring the crevices provides a more intense and rewarding experience.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011

STEFAN AND LOTTE ZWEIG’S SOUTH AMERICAN LETTERS: New York, Argentina and Brazil, 1940–1942

Edited by Darién J. Davis and Oliver Marshall
Continuum ($24.95)

by Jesse Freedman

When news of Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union reached Stefan Zweig, his response was one of unyielding sorrow. Born in 1881, the celebrated novelist and biographer had already endured a series of profound upheavals: at thirty-two, his Jewish ancestry had forced him to emigrate from Vienna, while the atrocities of the First World War had significantly diminished his belief in the superiority of European culture. Now, as he confronted the brutality of the Nazi regime and the failures of the Weimar experiment, Zweig concluded that he had slipped into the third—and final—of his lives. “My generation has become superfluous,” he wrote from New York City. “We have been a failure.” The hopelessness with which Zweig associated Nazi aggression was soon to overcome him: together with his wife, Lotte, he committed suicide in the isolated Brazilian village of Petrópolis in 1942. Zweig was sixty-one, Lotte but thirty-four.

Edited by Darién J. Davis and Oliver Marshall, Stefan and Lotte Zweig’s South American Letters provides a detailed epistolary account of the life and times of one of Europe’s preeminent intellectuals. The collection—which casts Zweig not only as a writer but as a refugee displaced by war—begins with the arrival of Stefan and Lotte in Brazil, where the two, despite mounting anxieties regarding family left in Europe, revel in the allure of Rio de Janeiro. As Davis and Marshall make clear in their thoughtful introduction, at least part of the Zweigs’ fondness for Brazil stemmed from their growing status as celebrities: daily, remembered Lotte, photographs of the couple appeared in South American newspapers. Regarding his own popularity, Stefan referred to a “difference of fate,” as if, by a force greater than himself, he had been selected to escape the “heals of the beast.”

In their letters to Lotte’s brother and sister-in-law, Manfred and Hannah Altmann, the Zweigs struggled, at times, to strike an appropriate tone, referring on several occasions to their “shame” at having discovered in Brazil such a “perfect life.” Still, they expressed as best they could their horror at the “great misery of mankind.” From South America (and, for a short, unhappy period in 1941, the United States), Stefan and Lotte monitored the trajectory of the war, recording their shock at starvation in Occupied France and the sinking of the British passenger liner City of Benares in 1940. As Davis and Marshall rightly suggest, the Zweigs experienced increasing despair as the conflict entered its middle years: Stefan, in particular, conveyed considerable regret at having to think—and write—in the same language as Hitler, while Lotte struggled to keep her asthma (and husband) from spiraling out of control. These were, as Zweig wrote to the Altmanns following the Battle of Britain, “very obscure times.”

While Stefan’s reputation in South America assured the Zweigs safety and financial security, it did not guarantee them a sense of belonging: indeed, in the days preceding his suicide, Stefan referred to himself rather pitifully as a “squatter.” The man whose youth had been spent traversing Europe, and whose biographies had charted its greatest minds, now found himself half a world away, a stranger to the continent that had inspired so much of his work. “I shall never [again] in my life,” he lamented in 1941, “have a real home.” The war, he continued, in a letter published for the first time in this collection, had “destroyed so much.”

Ultimately, Stefan and Lotte Zweig’s South American Letters reads as a cruel story of dislocation and despair: from their arrival in Rio de Janeiro to their dual-suicide in Petrópolis two years later, the Zweigs were unable to relinquish themselves of the knowledge that the people of Europe—once “pleasant and cultured”—were engaged in an endless conflict for racial and territorial supremacy. Through it all, however, the Zweigs continued to write, approaching their correspondence as a form of therapy—one which allowed them, rather like the tortured characters of W. G. Sebald or Joseph Roth, to come to terms with what Stefan referred to in 1942 as the “incertainty and isolation” of war. Their pact complete, the Zweigs succumbed to their desolation—and to the desolation of a generation robbed of its homeland.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011

THE CANALS OF MARS

Gary Fincke
Michigan State University Press ($29.95)

by Scott F. Parker

The Canals of Mars, Gary Fincke’s memoir in parts, comprises five self-defining categories of memories (Beginnings, God, Work, Weakness, Endings). These categories, as you can just about tell from their titles, feature overlapping content and theme, but the organization allows Fincke to emphasize aspects of his life in a roughly chronological sequence. The perfectionism his parents encourage in him in the Beginnings section becomes the devotion he gently rebels against in the God section, which becomes his only relatively hard-working approach to a string of low-skill jobs, and finally becomes, in Weakness, the reluctant acceptance of his asthma, poor eye sight, and appreciation of beer. It’s only in Endings, with Fincke as an adult, his parents dead or dying, that he seems freed from the guilt of imperfection. But this is also when, thanks to his writing, he’s become the kind of hard worker his parents or God might respect.

The emergence of the subject’s self (shaped as it still is by childhood circumstances) plays out in the book’s narration as well. In early chapters Fincke blends into his background, highlighting the geographical, historical, and familial contexts that played such large roles in shaping him. It’s as if in his childhood the author’s identity is overwhelmed by the larger forces of the world, the larger personalities of his father and grandfather, and the moral authority of his parents and church. It’s not until halfway through the book that a clear picture of the narrator presents itself. While, by the reasoning given above, this grants narrative legitimacy, it also makes the first half of the book less interesting to read. Early chapters run almost completely away from the common memoirist’s tactic of putting an idiosyncratic narrator front and center, and give us almost no narrator. When one does coalesce, it’s as a sort of “normal guy” who works as a stand-in for the reader and keeps much attention directed toward the world outside his head—on the passing of the industrial era in Pittsburgh and the ascendency of mass-produced junk (and the accompanying death of places like his father’s bakery).

In the book’s most engaging sections—Work and Weakness—the “normal guy” approach allows readers to get a sense of Fincke as a good person struggling to create his own life as he begins leaving his childhood behind while that childhood world itself begins to fade away. Building a clay tennis court as an adolescent, he confirms that he’s not as hard a worker as his father and gets his first taste of class-consciousness. Summer jobs as a janitor and a factory worker show him worlds he where doesn’t, and doesn’t want to, fit in. Witnessing enough irreversible alcohol-related mistakes in college, he’s able to curb his own binge drinking. In these and other struggles for an authentic self, Fincke demonstrates how such a project—impossible, though, to ever complete—might be steadily pursued.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011

WHERE GOOD IDEAS COME FROM: THE NATURAL HISTORY OF INNOVATION

Steven Johnson
Riverhead Books ($26.95)

by Kevin Smokler

A great “book of ideas” can change the way an entire culture views itself. A lousy one catches fire, burns out, then hangs around forever like an ill-conceived piece of public art circa 1974. Either way, such books are required to run the gauntlet of doubters who insist they are little more than Trivial Pursuit cards in hardcover, deep research in service of the easy summary and spitback which somehow still require lengthy explanations at expensive conferences and corporate retreats.

In Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation, Steven Johnson has skated along a careful middle, skewing a commonly held assertion with reams of evidence but giving the reader room to kick the baseboard. His arguments let in air on purpose, which keeps them from seeming too yoked to a particular cultural or political moment. And although Johnson says this book turns more towards “his most argumentative book” (the 2005 study of pop culture, Everything Bad is Good For You) than his previous two (historical biographies of an inventor and a public health scare), he is not asking you to see it his way, but another way.

Johnson’s premise is that innovation is rarely the product of a genius with an epiphany but rather of ecological factors that help an idea take root and flower. The body of his effort explores these seven factors: “The Adjacent Possible”, “Liquid Networks,” “The Slow Hunch,” “Serendipity” “Error” “Exaptation” and “Platforms.” Ideas, like evolutionary movement or balls of rubber cement, grow thanks to random, messy collisions with other half-formed notes and circumstances and arenas that allow for these traffic accidents to happen. They do not fall from the apple tree or into the bathtub, but you must have a bathtub for the inventor to think in, time to guess what the rising bathwater means and be wrong, and the foreknowledge and space to see a falling apple as more than just a falling apple.

The author lines up these seven principles between the lenses of a concept he calls “The Long Zoom,” which asserts that patterns dilate, that behavior or modes of change at the level of a species or an idea can be mirrored at the level of a tropical rain forest or an information network. Whether or not this concept holds up to current information theory research, it nicely buttresses Johnson’s umbrella argument that creative change for the better is both as natural a phenomenon as acquiring energy or disposing of waste and that similarities across disciplines are too repeated to dismiss as coincidence. “We have no shortage of theories on how to make our organizations more creative or explain why tropical rainforests engineer so much molecular diversity,” he asserts in his introduction. “What we lack is a unified theory that describes the common attributes shared by all these innovation systems.”

Johnson’s concept is not doubt catnip to a certain kind of reader (ye of the coastal, shake-my-foundations variety). But Where Good Ideas Come From would little more than a fashion show for a fashionable premise (albeit one backed up by deep digs into biology, history, and social research) without the essential opening and closing chapters. “The Long Zoom” idea lives in the opening and emphasizes the “Natural” in Johnson’s subtitle. Innovation, he’s saying, isn’t my pet project, but the next best version of itself to which everything gravitates.

The book ends with an odd hybrid of statistical research and academic confession, a concluding chapter that feels a bit too much like an appendix. Here, Johnson graphs the milestone inventions of the last 600 years to determine how many came about via an individual or a group and how many were driven by commercial interests or not. Predictably, he concludes that as we approach the modern networked era, innovation seems to be increasingly diffuse and non-self-interested in nature, a conclusion that supports his premise without adding much to it, an effort than seems both redundant and a little defensive.

But just then, Johnson tells us why and makes it stick. In a few short pages, he interrogates his own methods (loosely chaining evidence across several disciplines instead of “diving deeply into a single story,” as he did in his previous books) and outlines why his choices make sense for the topic. “The anecdotal approach sacrifices detail for breadth. Yet it, too, runs the risk of being accused of cherry-picking.” “Your audience has to take it on faith that the case study you’ve chosen is indeed representative of a wider truth.”

The placement is crucial. Johnson doesn’t begin Good Ideas with how he approached the topic (which always seems a bit like apologizing to the reader for a sin not yet committed) but by ending it that way, he invites the reader both to reread and poke at his premise. Thus, he positions the author not as an appointed genius but as an actor in an environment of innovation.

One may argue whether Johnson’s sort of achievements match the immovable permanence of a generation-defining novelist or an unmatched presidential biography. But books, like ideas, are meant to be participants in a multi-sided conversation—they are meant to be circulated, tossed about, hated, loved, and learned from, not simply judged and medaled like Olympic athletes. They should knock around the liquid network not stand silently like oracles within it. Where Good Ideas Come From does just this.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011

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