Tag Archives: Spring 2013


Gail Scott
Nightboat Books ($15.95)

by erica kaufman

In “The Art of Fiction,” Henry James posits that the novel “must take itself seriously for the public to take it so.” Gail Scott’s most recent work, The Obituary, proves that not only should the novel itself take itself “seriously,” but the novel as a form must also challenge the public to re-imagine what “seriously” looks like. As Scott writes in “The Sutured Subject,” the job of the contemporary novel is to take the shape of “writing that enacts, that is prose, yet poetic in the most material sense.” In The Obituary, this translates to a reading experience that asks us to engage with a voice that holds many voices and languages, a story told through other stories, a text that instead of translating language to language, takes the singular voice we look for in narrators and transforms it into a cacophony of sound and cityscape.

The Obituary demonstrates Scott’s incredible deftness with the prose form, as well as her willingness to go where most prose shies away from—to the silences inside one’s own self, to internalized conflicts of class, family histories, and race. The book begins with a quotation from Abraham and Torok’s psychoanalytic masterpiece, The Shell and the Kernel: “What haunts are not the dead but the gaps left within us by the secrets of others.” As an epigraph, this passage gestures towards an engagement with transgenerational transmissions of memory and silence, but the book’s greatest accomplishment is the way Scott does not turn to literal memory or flashback in order to grapple with a character’s past or lineage. Instead, we get “our novel beginning drenched in the acerbic, therefore subject to countless deviations + only slowly anteriorly, releasing its elixir.”

Likewise, Scott asks, “Are we not all prostheses? Moulded by circumstantial evidence?” A “prosthesis” is an apparatus that replaces something that is missing, something that has been lost. In an interview with Lianne Moyes, published in Open Letter 9, Scott says, “a whole life happens at the level of the city, ‘under’ which are other unspoken presences.” That which goes “unspoken” is the core of the text. In a footnote, we’re provided with the following: “No human lineage is certain. The family, like so many, fading on purpose quietly into background. Only answering when questioned: we know nothing beyond X generation.” The point of this undertaking is to challenge readers to deal with the implications of assimilation, to take on the embedded or haunting, and Scott models this through her narrator. The speaker (Rosine) grapples with her own roots through branching into a multitude of selves, each contributing to a certain portrait of a lineage submerged. The idea that “we know nothing beyond X generation” rings true on so many crucial levels—a city’s archive, an individual’s genealogy, a building’s blueprint.

Scott’s previous novel, My Paris, closes with “Towards boarding gate—I turning. Once. Looking—,” which leaves most readers feeling breathless, and radically included in the speaker’s diary, daybook, travelogue. The Obituary had a similarly intoxicating effect, but instead of “looking,” we’re left with “Laughing + saying—Eeeeeeeengleeesh?” Even the book’s conclusion is an inquiry into the languages we use to interact, and the fact that they do not all take the same shape. And, perhaps most importantly, the text closes in speech, in sound, reminding us of Beckett’s famous adage, “what matter who’s speaking.” Scott reminds us that the speaker is what matters, and that fiction is not speech.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013


Bronwen Hruska
Pegasus ($25)

by T.K. Dalton

Bronwen Hruska's Accelerated combines a social satire with a literary thriller to explore the lengths to which parents will go to give their child a perceived advantage in a hyper-competitive world. The novel’s detailed, dishy taxonomy of New York City’s “1%” is rendered through the lens of newly single father Sean Benning, whose son Toby attends the prestigious Bradley School. Ellie, Toby's estranged mother, has deep enough family ties to Bradley that her parents insist on paying Toby’s tuition. Now, school officials are pressuring Sean to medicate Toby for Attention Deficit Disorder-Inattentive Type—a move Sean is reluctant to make.

Although Sean feels trepidation resisting, he holds his own for a while: ably volunteering in Toby's classroom, repelling the school psychologist pressuring him to test Toby for ADD, even ducking out of a parents’ social for a bathroom liaison with the married mother of his son’s playmate. Hruska’s prowess with both satire and plot are evident in the scene, as their sex is interrupted twice: once when Ellie calls to tell Sean to get Toby evaluated, and again when Sean actually asks the woman if their sons have a playdate: “He wasn’t sure if the yes she gasped had to do with the playdate or the thrusting.” Toby eventually undergoes testing, and the results confirm the doctor’s suspicions. After Sean tests the pills on himself and finds no ill effects, he relents.

Until Sean accepts the diagnosis, the book is full of shadowy depictions, from which much of the satire comes. But Hruska, who runs a small press focused on international crime novels, plays with these shadows as a plot device; her effective and amusing, if cartoonish, caricature is actually a means of withholding information about Toby's diagnosis, the culture of the school, and the hazards of the medication—information that is key to the action of the book’s second half.

When Toby reacts badly to the medication, the first-world maladies become not objects of satire but of danger. Toby’s friend’s peanut allergy becomes more than it first seems, as does Dr. Shineman and her pressure to medicate, as does Toby’s classroom teacher Jess and her resistance to it. The most volatile variable in the equation are the pills themselves.

In a late scene, Shineman is overheard defending the decision to medicate children. She begins by extolling the school to Jess. “The curriculum is accelerated. We have to help these kids feel good about themselves, allow them to focus on the work so they can succeed.” Later in the same scene, she continues:

“Boys are put on ADD medication every day all over the country,” she said. “This is no different. So please, stop making it sound so sordid. I’m just helping to insure that no child falls through the cracks. The health of the school depends on an ultra-high level of achievement. Our kids can do it. It’s inspiring.”
“So why the hell are you drugging them?”

Jess's reply, especially her choice of the word “drugging,” captures both the righteous concern about the abuse of ADD diagnoses and unease with that concern when it comes to the stigma of learning disabilities and ADD more generally. That mixed feeling is no indictment ofAccelerated, but rather reflects the issues. If the populace of Accelerated’s world is extremely powerful, it is also tiny in number. Good thing, too: it's a world in which a doctor testifies to the safety of ADD medication by saying, “I took Ritalin all through med school as a study drug. Everyone I know did.” Failing to read at a sixth-grade level in third grade is a failure only in the most absurd sense of the word.

While the book’s ending leaves Sean vindicated, the nature of his initial resistance is a tad perplexing. Until Sean tries Toby’s medicine for himself, his resistance to testing and diagnosis seemed based either in ignorance and stigma about ADD or in the attitude he deplored in Bradley parents—that their children were exceptional in every way. I wondered why this man couldn’t think back to his middle-class upbringing and realize that most parents would give anything for their child to have the attention and the advantages his has. It seems his resistance reflects distaste for the messenger (the upscale private school) rather than for the message (a possible learning disability). The lack of clarity makes Accelerated a smaller story than it could have been.

In the end, though, Sean’s blind spots helped me better understand Bradley parents, and parents generally. Like their own children, these doctors and financiers and former professional basketball players are not exceptions to anything. They are parents trying to keep pace in a race that keeps changing, to do what they imagine everyone else does: give their child every advantage imaginable. Their blind spot is assuming that those advantages fill the deficit of attention given to their children, as if advantages can somehow equal the love that’s the first and best medicine for human disabilities.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013


Love Stories
Ludmila Petrushevskaya
translated by Anna Summers
Penguin Books ($15)

by Alta Ifland

After having been blacklisted by the Soviet authorities for two decades, Ludmila Petrushevskaya is now considered one of the major contemporary Russian writers. In 2009 Penguin Books published her collectionThere Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby (translated by Keith Gessen and Anna Summers), followed now by the newly-released There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself (translated by Anna Summers).

While the stories in the first collection are packaged by the publisher as “scary fairy tales” (although the stories themselves, uncanny and fairy tale-like, are not exactly “scary”), the stories in the new collection are categorized as “love stories.” These stories are so realist, so stripped of any artifice and naked in their laconic descriptions, that they seem to transgress realism. Though the reality described is very familiar for anyone who lived under communism, the stories may seem surreal for an American, so, once translated, they acquire a new frame: that of the strangely familiar. The common thread in most of them is the quest for private space—something virtually nonexistent in communist Soviet Union where apartments were shared by more than one family, with communal kitchens and the bathroom in the hall where tenants waited in long lines. Under these circumstances, a room where two lovers can privately meet becomes a golden fleece at the center of most conflicts and dramas. This is how the first story, “A Murky Fate,” begins: “This is what happened. An unmarried woman in her thirties implored her mother to leave their studio apartment for a night so she could bring a lover.” The raw simplicity and the oral style—as if a neighbor told the story to another one over a cup of coffee—are Petrushevskaya’s trademark.

In Petrushevskaya’s stories, a romance may start while waiting in line—a daily activity shared, together with drinking, by most citizens under communism. People get married simply because one happens to own an apartment, and children are conceived because a lucky couple chances upon an empty mattress, and how could one not take advantage of such an opportunity? These stories are as literal as it gets, and yet, maybe because they touch in us some universal chord, they are fables. A married woman “moves like an amoeba, without direction, her goal simply to dodge her husband’s blows”; an older woman, who calls her husband Clapper (after he’d given her gonorrhea years ago, and then claimed he’d gotten it from her), inherits unexpectedly an apartment, and leaves her lifelong husband, but still comes back to feed and shave him. This is romance Russian-style, “tough love” in its most literal sense, yet somehow, its bleakness is more satisfying in its humanity and aesthetic simplicity than the sugary appeal of so many popular love stories.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013


Kevin Dowd
Roundabout Press ($9.95)

by Benjamin Woodard

It only takes a minor event—that one extra drink, a nosy neighbor rapping on the front door, an alienated spouse’s unexpected entrance—to spark the collapse of a relaxing summer escape. Such is the existence of Jack Smith, the troubled lead in Kevin Dowd’s comedic debut, The Fourth of July. The year is 1974, and Jack, recently separated from his wife, arrives on a small island off the coast of Connecticut with his two sons. He’s looking to kick back and play the field, but trouble lurks: raccoons have taken over the trash bins, a clingy childhood flame won’t leave him alone, and the local teenage tart seems to think he’s the cat’s pajamas. Before long, a series of misunderstandings and bad decisions transforms Jack into the embarrassment of the community, public enemy number one. What little serenity existed in his home and mind evaporates in a blink. And, come Independence Day, his family’s vacation home is nothing but charred rubble.

The whole affair is as silly as it sounds, and Dowd’s flair for the ridiculous helps The Fourth of July zip along at near-lightning swiftness. The novel is buoyant and breezily digestible, constructed through the eyes of multiple first- and third-person narrators. And though this tactic frequently works in the novel’s favor, certain choices of speaker—in particular that of local sailor Cap’n Bob late in the book—arbitrarily separate the audience from Jack and his gang. Also, the rapid pace of the storytelling leads to characters with modest appreciable history and thwarts personalities from fully forming. Jack’s wife, Martha, may be equal parts harpy, cruel, demanding, and lustful, but each trait finds employment in individual parcels, never overlapping in a complex manner. The same can be said for most of the female cast, who are rarely seen as anything more than a nuisance, habitually resorting to clichéd behavior.

Perhaps, though, Dowd’s swiftness and stereotypical characterization is intentional, for withinThe Fourth of July is material reminiscent of classic, Hollywood black-and-white screwball comedies. In this island world, mix-ups are common, as are double-crosses and characters cracking jokes for little reason. For example, when an undertaker’s mother talks to him about the perfect woman, she asks, “Why can’t you find someone like that nice Polish girl that came to your office last week?” “Mom, she was dead,” he replies. “She wasn’t always dead,” the mother retorts. Throughout, the novel evokes a time when the motion picture industry pumped out stories meant to make the audience laugh, when characters existed as much for a punch line as for a story. And maybe this is Dowd’s ultimate goal, for even as the language of the novel’s younger characters reminds the reader that the setting is the “Me” Decade, what with the sporadic utterances of “far out” and “jiving,” quite often, the eccentric circumstances surrounding these phrases make the earlier era hard to shake. And that’s what makes The Fourth of Julyenjoyable: the constant feeling that we’re experiencing a long lost Saturday afternoon matinee designed to provide a few laughs and a couple hours of zany diversion.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013


Mikita Brottman
Nine-Banded Books ($13)

by John Pistelli

Mikita Brottman’s Thirteen Girls, a superb story cycle fictionalizing the last days of famous serial killers' female victims, opens with an epigraph from a W. H. Auden ballad:

. . . the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.

These lines announce Brottman’s intention to reject the glamorous mythologies that surround serial killing, from pop culture’s absurdly stylish aesthete-murderer Hannibal Lecter archetype to true crime paperbacks’ and TV documentaries’ fetishistic focus on the peculiarities of the killers. Even though the book alludes to the headline-grabbing careers of murderers from Ted Bundy to the Boston and Hillside Stranglers, Thirteen Girls flagrantly ignores them and presents instead a portrait gallery of the victims and those who knew them, whether intimately or fleetingly. The killers are in fact hardly mentioned in the stories themselves; Brottman reserves the details of their crimes and sometimes even their identities for an appendix in which she reveals the factual basis of each case.

The main texts, on the other hand, narrate the lives of ordinary women who fell into the fantasies of deranged men, as if into so many fissures in the earth, while trying to make a life for themselves, often out of the least promising materials. Brottman writes with a complete lack of condescension or pity about the everyday lives of ordinary American women, whether they are aspiring opera singers, nurses who work in casinos, meth-addicted prostitutes, paranoid ex-Scientologists, or unemployed wives in trailer parks. In the spirit of Auden’s poem, Brottman’s stories insist on mundane reality, the workaday world of cracked teacups, as the basis of even the most extraordinarily horrific experiences.

The true radicalism of Thirteen Girls is found less in its implicit protest against the relatively rare extremes of misogynist violence committed by the over-exposed likes of Bundy and Speck than in its portrayal of the desperation of average American reality, whose inhabitants’ vulnerable lives often come down to a choice between various forms of hideous toil or else poverty. Brottman uses the attention-getting lens of serial murder to focus on less immediately arresting—because far more depressingly commonplace—topics like domestic battery, addiction, unemployment, homelessness, divorce, and mental illness. Her stories suggest that serial murder is not some wild aberration, some unfathomable monstrousness, but rather a predictable feature of a desolate cultural landscape that offers most people few choices.

In an afterword, Brottman reveals that Thirteen Girls was rejected by over a dozen publishers before finding a home—an unsurprising, if dispiriting revelation. She quotes a publisher’s rejection letter on the effect of her stories: “You are left only with a sense of ugly contingency and meaninglessness in the Big American Empty, and it is just not enough.” Her withering answer to this plea for significance shows her determination to avoid false comforts: “Ugly contingency and meaninglessness are not enough, but they are what we have.”

But the ugliness of Brottman’s themes is mitigated by her literary energies. Better known as a cultural theorist and psychoanalyst, Brottman is relatively new to fiction writing, which makes the narrative skills on display in Thirteen Girls all the more remarkable. The book certainly exhibits more formal variety than most short story collections. Each story is expertly told from a different point of view and in a different style: Brottman gives us a lawyer’s internal monologue, a therapist’s session notes, a police interview with a homeless man, a homicide report, several traditional first-person remembrances, and even a story in the classic post-Chekhovian mode of third-person narration marked by free indirect discourse. Brottman’s literary inventiveness, like the lives of her heroines, testifies to the importance of creativity in the face of chance and destruction.

In the end, the dominant sensibility of Thirteen Girls is one of mordant compassion. Its intense empathy for those who have suffered saves it from true-crime exploitation, but its unsentimental and sometimes even darkly humorous accounts of routine violence, enacted at all levels of society and invading every life, prevent it from becoming a self-righteous victimology. Brottman’s grimly pragmatic literary stance recalls such earlier artists of the quotidian macabre as Shirley Jackson and Flannery O’Connor: Thirteen Girls is an impressive successor to their stories of American dread.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013


Carter Sickels
Bloomsbury ($16)

by Rebecca Kuensting

Ecological depletion, drug use, rural depopulation, and disillusioned youth in an age of shifting social norms and environmental instability: in his insightful debut novel, The Evening Hour, Portland writer Carter Sickels imposes these timely troubles on the inhabitants of Dove Creek, a mining town in West Virginia. In doing so, he explores questions of morality, manifest destiny, and ecological peril to some harrowing yet ultimately predictable conclusions.

The novel follows Cole Freeman, a twenty-seven year old nursing home aide, petty thief, and drug dealer, as he tangles mutedly with a charmingly varied, but often shallowly developed, cast of characters: Cole’s religious fundamentalist grandparents suffer poor health, his drug-addicted and ex-convict friends stir up trouble between relapse and reform, and his long-absent mother makes a stunning reappearance. Cole himself earns an easy and unethical living stealing valuables and prescription drugs from the elderly folks who rely on him. He resents his small-town life, but seems bound to it by equal parts inertia and fear. All roads to success lead out of Dove Creek.

The town’s stagnant atmosphere ignites with moral conviction when the novel’s primary villain, the industrial corporation Heritage Coal, razes the mountains overshadowing Cole’s hometown, threatening pollution, destruction, and general unrest. Frequent blasting and the resultant rock-showers fissure homes and set nerves on edge. A broadening network of elderly and addicted people in Cole’s conflicted care parallels the looming danger of literally unstable ground. The threat of drilling and dynamite, and of the town’s insidious social ills, eventually forces its inhabitants to stand up for the integrity of their endangered way of life.

Whispers of redemption occasionally temper the novel’s monumental overarching themes—decay, helplessness, and misspent time—but these lighter tones ultimately fade against the harshness of the setting and the strength of Sickels’s realism. An environmental tragedy in the book’s final third sets the stage for sacrifice and heroism. However, Cole’s small actions get overshadowed by an immense imperiled landscape and its physical markers of decline. Because The Evening Hour piles so much of what darkens the evening news on the head of one character, the novel feels heavy, difficult to wade through, and sometimes unfocused. Readers may grow weary of Cole’s mix of quiet nihilism and selfishness, and of the dingy grays with which Sickels paints Dove Creek. The novel offers no quick fixes for the many cracks in Cole’s insular world.

Despite its dreary tone, The Evening Hour is worthwhile for a number of reasons: Cole’s dying town on the brink rings harrowingly true, and Sickels’s prose twists around the darkest corners of rural American experiences, mitigating some of the more unpalatable plot points. Perhaps readers will see through Dove Creek’s murky twilight and find themselves engaged with the real-life threats that Sickels has so convincingly woven into the fabric of Cole’s experience.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013


Marie-Helene Bertino
University of Iowa Press ($16)

by Max Vanderhyden

The eight stories in Marie-Helene Bertino’s debut collection occupy worlds both recognizable and resolutely askew. Drawing deeply on American pop-culture, Bertino takes quotidian dramas—stories of heartbreak and alienation, depression and fraught familial relationships—and amplifies them with playful and fantastical conceits. (College misfits wield superpowers; a totemic celebrity and an alienated alien make cameo appearances.) A clever writer with a consistently disarming voice, Bertino commits wholeheartedly to the peculiarities of the worlds she creates and plays them out with verve and precision. These poignant and darkly funny stories function less as departures from realism than as visions of familiar realities metaphorically enhanced.

The collection’s fourth story, “North Of” (a 2007 Pushcart winner), exemplifies Bertino’s aesthetic. It begins: “There are American flags on school windows, on cars, on porch swings. It is the year I bring Bob Dylan home for Thanksgiving.” Estranged from her older brother who has recently been called up for duty in Iraq, the story’s narrator returns home with the literal Bob Dylan in tow, hoping the protest singer’s appearance will convince her brother not to go to war.

This sort of premise runs the obvious risk of feeling overly contrived or gimmicky, but Dylan’s presence allows Bertino to broach difficult feeling indirectly. On the surface, the famed singer becomes an opportunity for levity. With the exception of the narrator’s brother, no one recognizes him. He does not speak. He mopes, half-heartedly helps with dinner, smokes, tries to fight a convenience store clerk who mistakes him for Vincent Price, and searches unsuccessfully for Tootsie Rolls (“He’s wild over them”). Predictably, the narrator’s plan ends up a failure: “[Bob Dylan] was supposed to create some sort of lather, and he barely summoned enough energy to behead a pile of string beans.” For the story, however, Dylan serves as a catalyst. As the narrator drives him through her hometown, she recalls the twists and turns in her relationship with her brother and confronts her guilt for abandoning him, for living a different, bigger life, while he remains mired in place. At the dinner table, Dylan’s bumbling presence brings these feelings into dramatic relief. He becomes something more than a simple humorous contrivance—an actualized metaphor, an embodiment of the painful tensions that have grown up between the narrator and her older brother.

Bertino deploys a similar strategy in many of the collection’s stories. Again and again, she manifests the inner struggles of her characters as concrete features of the worlds they inhabit. In “This is Your Will to Live,” a traveling salesman attempts to peddle his own “sob story,” his still-beating heart, and a “will to live” potion (packaged as bath salts) to the suicidal narrator. “Sometimes You Break Their Heart, Sometimes They Break Yours” explores alienation by adopting the viewpoint of a narrator who, claiming to come from another world (whose unpronounceable name “sounds like a cricket hopping onto a plate of rice”), works as a receptionist and faxes reports on human behavior to her home planet. In “The Idea of Marcel,” the heartsick narrator goes on a dinner date with the “idea” of her ex-boyfriend, only to come across her actual ex-boyfriend later that evening having dinner with his ideal version of her.

In addition to the enjoyment of watching an author adroitly navigate these imaginative set pieces, much of the reading pleasure in Safe as Houses comes from Bertino’s humor and her deftly vibrant prose. Filled with funny and sharply rendered observations (“His face is AP calculus”; “Her perfume smells like Vanity Fair magazine”), many of the stories’ best moments come when the narrators approach painful feeling through humorous and evocative description. In the opening story, “Free Ham,” the narrator offers this image of a fire engulfing her house: “It is as absurd as a dinosaur, hurling its arms and legs through the eaves and gutters.” The elderly narrator in the collection’s title story, who enacts the grief of losing his wife by ransacking neighborhood houses and stealing mementos, encapsulates his own despondency when he describes his neighbors’ “innocuous beach” portraits as “framed fuck-yous.”

While the voices of Bertino’s narrators begin to blend together across the collection and her fantastical premises become slightly predictable, the energy of her language, the emotional incisiveness of her descriptions, and the inventiveness of her metaphorical conceits provide continual delights. In Safe as Houses, she has crafted a fine and exciting debut.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013


Collected Poems, 1965-2010
Michael Heller
Nightboat Books ($22.95)

by Robert Zaller

Michael Heller is a distinguished American poet in the lineage of George Oppen and Armand Schwerner. The publication of his collected poems, assembling the work of nearly half a century, gives us an opportunity to survey a career very much still in progress, one which may prove among his generation’s finest.

Heller’s poetry is exploratory in the deepest and richest sense: an always lucid and sensitive observer seeking to orient himself in the widest possible world. As the book’s title suggests, astronomical depth and figuration is a pole in this quest, but the ganglia of the stars and that of the nervous system are linked in a continuum, for “Nothing great nor small / The hollow simple is” (“Father Parmenides”), and the mirrors of science, like the human eye, both open and contract upon infinity. The swirls of the nebula are embedded in the thumbprint (“With a Telescope in the Sangre de Cristos”), and human consciousness itself functions as a crossroad of cosmic existence, “Standing in the world, / Functioning as some imperfect / Equal sign” (“Objurgations”). The equation is not static, however, but flickering, unstable, dynamic, and consequently “the horror must be let in”—that of the stellar void, and that of the human heart. This is a Rilkean sentiment, and in Heller’s poem on Rilke (one of many he addresses to illustrious predecessors), he finds the search for the world and the self to be inseparable: “That otherness we fought for / Was but this / Virulence of ourselves” (“Rilke’s Song at the Window”).

There might seem to be an element of preoccupation in this, but Heller’s interest in the daily world is equally robust, and if he sees the poet’s task as invoking the cosmos, it is no less in “Doing justice to a wall” (“The Garden”). The world, too, is history, with all its iniquities; a post-Holocaust poet, highly invested in his Jewish heritage, Heller strives, particularly in the restrained but deeply felt sequence, “Bialystok Stanzas,” to make sense of “Whole peoples . . . gone / To horror beyond remonstrance.” Heller’s politics are of the left, but in no strident or dogmatic sense; poverty—or, more accurately, privation—lacerates him when he encounters it, and he senses the betrayal of our national promise as a hardening of sensibility and spirit (“America, tranquil and monumental under / the hard moon” [“Moon Study”]). The problem of politics is also the problem of poetry: that of situating the self and its obligations in regard to the Other. Self-evidently, it is also the problem of love, and while Heller is in no sense a confessional poet, there are passages, and poems, of great lyric candor and intimacy here as well.

The advantage of a Collected Poems is that it allows us to follow a poet through the full sequence of a career, which is also to say the course of a life. As Heller puts it, with a nod to St. Augustine, “Perhaps the world, / Which does not cohere in the world, / Coheres in one self, one rememberer” (“Miami Waters”). The poet remembers for himself, but also for us, since the common experience he raises to the level of art can clarify our participation in it. “Miami Waters” is one of a series of poems in which Heller deals with the loss of his parents, and the conclusion he comes to in the twelve-part “Through the Binoculars” is, in part: “Beautiful the world the dead have left us to see.” As often in Heller, the deceptively simple statement carries the hard sting of wisdom. The world is beautiful because the dead have left it; it is the gift they bequeathe us, but also the inheritance that is not fully ours until they have quit their claim.

Heller’s later work is focused on history, and the title of his collection comes from a line in “My City,” his elegy for 9/11. New York is, among other things, the city with the world’s largest Jewish population, and the “hole in the downtown / sky” Heller sees puts him in mind of the heritage of a people whose recurrent catastrophes remind the world of evil and its “unbounded cruelty” (“The Language of the Jews”). As always, however, the particular takes Heller toward the universal, and in his recent series of ekphrastic poems, the Beckmann Variations, he finds in the visual mythology of the German Expressionist painter Max Beckmann a meditation on the self-negating aspects of power, absorbed as it is by the very symbols it engenders: “Kings bear the force of statuary. Statuary seals up the force of kings” (“The King”).

Heller writes often in long sequences, typically broken up into couplets or triplets, although this is varied by longer stanzaic forms, and, occasionally, prose poems. Throughout a work that is deeply of its time yet equipped, I think, for a long future, he repeatedly strikes the note of skepticism that is profoundly of our moment. At the end of the day, however, the poet’s response is always the same: “we are called to transfigure what we know” (“Of the Limits”). Not knowledge, but fresh creation, is the only answer we can make to mystery.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013


John Yau
Copper Canyon Press ($15)

by John James

Some readers may find it strange that John Yau’s new book, his thirteenth collection of poetry, is titled Further Adventures in Monochrome. For one, the work is colored by the various objects and voices inhabiting it—nothing feels single-hued here. What’s more, the various transformations throughout the book depict a vibrant and evolving imagination. Yet as colorful as Monochrome is, the poems are infused with a melancholic sensibility indicative of the shifting identities therein. For readers of Yau’s work, this is not an unfamiliar theme; his poetry is split between his backgrounds as Chinese and American, poet and art critic, lamenter and humorist.

Certainly, however, this new volume furthers Yau’s aptitude for formal invention, displayed vividly in 2006’s Paradiso Diaspora (Penguin Books). Here he engages everything from haiku to prose, as well as the increasingly popular “singlet.” The long poem “Genghis Chan: Private Eye” includes a stunning sequence of visual pieces recalling—though not beholden to—the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, while the title sequence is a powerful reverie in the voice of painter Yves Klein. Further Adventures in Monochrome is a new achievement from a long-established poet, yet again challenging the boundaries between language as meaning, sound, symbol, and art.

The collection opens with a pantoum, “Chinese Nightingale.” Natural to this form, the first and third lines of each stanza inherit the second and fourth of the one prior. Unlike some other pantoums, which alter the words in each line to fit the new stanza (logically, grammatically, or otherwise), Yau permits very little change, and the small changes he does allow nuance the text to create new meaning. For example, the first stanza reads as follows:

Hair burned white, teeth leaving one by one
More clouds dance past my crumbling hut
Pirouette and wave farewell. They will reach you
Long after I’ve turned to snow, your secrets still safe

In the next stanza, lines two and four appear almost unchanged (except for a small grammatical amendment), but when lines one and three resurface in the final quatrain, the first reads, “Hair turned white, teeth leaving one by one” (italics mine). The adjustment is slight, but the transformation from “burned” to “turned” is significant. The former feels surreal and suggests trauma; the latter is realistic, merely implying age. The placement also recontextualizes the line. When it appears in stanza one, the line refers to the speaker’s hair. In the last stanza, it refers instead to a woman’s: “Yesterday, she stopped wiping her tears and smiled.” Together, these lines form a loose narrative, and suggest healing as that story unfolds.

Yau’s talent for formal verse peaks in “Ventriloquist,” a poem dedicated to Jasper Johns. Although the poem uses repetition similar to a pantoum or villanelle, the form is Yau’s own. Using collage techniques akin to John Ashbery, Yau recycles and collapses language in each tight tercet:

One night I dreamed that I got up the next morning
I went out, bought materials, and began to paint
The next night I dreamed that I got up and began

The unpatterned repetition discomforts the reader, which parallels the ventriloqual tone, as if the words derive from a voice other than the speaker’s own. That feeling is only alleviated in the final stanza, where Yau writes, “Every period is a period of unsettled language.” That mechanical conventions fail to “settle” language strips significance from poetic structure, justifying the looseness of this poem’s form.

Among the most diverse pieces in the book, “Genghis Chan: Private Eye” demonstrates Yau’s capacity for pun, along with his awareness of duality. This poet is always conscious of the numerous meanings and connotations within a given word. Most intriguing are the “ideogram” sections, where Yau exploits the visual component of written language. The first ideogram reads:




Spoken aloud, readers will likely hear “Beware: free advice for a stranger”—or is it, “flee advice, forest ranger”? Yau revels in the ambiguity, though he is less enigmatic in other segments. The third ideogram reads:






In each of these instances, readers hear “sacrifice,” but by presenting the collection of sounds in a mixture of visual forms, Yau highlights the numerous meanings and connotations embedded in this word. Syntactically, “sacrifice” could be a noun or verb, and its possible meanings are quite numerous. The word may refer to personal sacrifice, as in a time of dearth (“sack of rice”); sacrifice in order to limit temptation or pleasure (“sack her vice”); or sacrifice for the purpose of self-abasement or religious purification. The latter is supported in the fourth ideogram, exhibiting Yau’s attitude toward faith:






Clearly this speaker puts little stock in promises of eternal life.

The innovations in this book, though at times subtle, reaffirm Yau as a master of change—his acrobatic grace with form, paired with his eye for multiplicity, places him in the front rank of American poets. While we are likely to see much more from Yau, Further Adventures in Monochrome urges us to review his career with a sharpened gaze, and consider his true versatility.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013


Michael Collier
W. W. Norton ($25.95)

by Barrett Warner

Some critics call Michael Collier an associative poet, which has always sounded a little redundant to me. Generalities trend when we can’t find an angle. When something is round it’s hard to know where it begins or how it ends and Collier writes very round, four-dimensional poems. Some are planets. Some are rocks thrown at windows. Some are peaches. We don’t really have the answer until that moment—each poem has one—when Collier takes a bite out of his verse and the juice runs downs his chin or his teeth crack or his mouth fills with cold, lunatic grit.

The poems in An Individual History are a combination of chance encounters and portraits. Intimate exchanges between passing characters who might not meet again fall in line with poems about Moms and Dads and sons and the occasional Grandmother. There are some brilliant visual images in this book, but these poems are not dioramas. It’s impossible to perceive the whole picture because the picture is always moving. For example, the first stanza in “Object to be Destroyed” seems to be about infatuation going astray: “I loved the painter’s ponytail / more than I loved her smears / and directed drippings, her grand / meanders of color that spread / in deltas to the floor / and left the ceiling pulsing.” His love tolerates the abstract but wants the specific:

I loved it more than when she crashed
my car on purpose
or hurled a trashcan through
the kitchen window.

By the poem’s end we’re led to understand that the object in need of destruction is an emotion: “I had made, ready as it was / to respond each time I wound up / the unblinking stare / and hypnotized myself / with what I thought I loved.” This fixation arises from a longing to feel connected, as if there is an instinctive bond between the painter and the poet. There’s no language to this connection; the old language of love is a poor substitute, but it’s all the poet has to grasp his own metaphor. The lines, “All those things her genius did / to make her genius bold and strange,” also clarify the speaker’s position: unlike hers, his genius is cowardly and familiar, and he accepts this at the end. What really must be destroyed, then, is our own genius if we want to make a poem.

Contemporary poetry seems to be a shell game between narrative, lyric, and metaphoric threads. Collier’s poems are shaped without being metric; he maintains excellent control of the stanza, but if you’re the sort of reader who’s hungry for a couplet you’ll be starving after reading this volume. As for narrative, these poems aren’t stories, and temporal markers only come up every sixty miles or so. Collier’s poems are long, lonely highways with lots of passing metaphor to recreate the motion. The roads are paved; there are signs and gas stations. But you’ll never find these interstates on a map.

The imitation of life takes several startling turns. Is it a horseshoe crab, we wonder, in “To a Horseshoe Crab,” or is it something darker? Collier’s forty-word opening stanza draws multiple connections:

Strange arachnid, distant cousin
of deer ticks and potato bugs
those armored pellets
who live between bark and wood,
stone and dirt,
though unlike them you wash up
hapless on beaches,
more like a bowl than a shoe.

The horseshoe crab as poet is washed up on the beach after mating too close to shore in the waters of its birth, “still attached, fucked / but not fucking.” Why do I picture this crab with gray hair and some tenure in its hip pocket, a dreamer in spite of everything? Here is Collier, strolling the Delaware Bay, having a great cry over the joy and futility of life. The reader would have to be a Pleistocene turd not to feel it—especially in an era when so many other poets are only writing about the nude beach volleyball played further up the dunes:

And sometimes
in your death throes
you capsize on the sand, which means
you turn up not down
and your legs row at nothing
so for a while you keep the flies away
but not the merciless fleas.

Collier, like the potato bug, is also a distant cousin to Sylvia Plath, and like her is very comfortable shaping his personal experience with myth. “Labyrinth” is a poem about a father and son seeing another father and son in the labyrinth of pressure-treated lumber at a playground. Be very quiet as you read it, for Icarus and Daedalus are sleeping. In “My Mother of Invention,” Collier portrays his mother as a contemporary Ariadne, her sewing machine “shaped like a smokestack turned on its side.” The spool migrates abruptly from his mother’s thread to his thread while fishing to the thread of a bird. This is one of the “associative poems” others have praised, but it may be wiser to treat these associations as riffs, like jazz solos. These are poems you can dance to. The rhythmic beats are familiar—Collier tackles classic subjects like a linebacker—but the song comes from a bird you’ve never seen before.

Also like Plath, Collier loves a good bee sting. Honey is one of the last things on his mind in “Necrophoresis,” a poem about the job of some bees to carry out the dead and keep things tidy. There are several apiary episodes in this collection and each gives a refreshing take on the ancient art of keeping bees. A good honey involves lots of careful editing, or, as Truman Capote once said, “You can make better honey with a pair of scissors than a pen.”

Writing poems is not only an art, or a job, for Collier. True, those things have happened for him, but writing is also his religion, and perhaps he tries to understand it the way he once tried to understand church. The first poem in this collection is called “Piety,” a signal to exactly where Collier tries to fit between silence and blowhards: “Once I had a good church voice / and having been a Knight of the Altar, / I have impeccable church manners . . . it’s a small, inner satisfaction.” There’s a reverence in his tone as he remembers his early schooling as he first learned to be a poet; his faith nevertheless thrives as a very quiet, humbling presence. This contrasts with the superiority the organist “displayed when it came time for him, / the last congregant to take communion.”

There’s nothing lonesome about An Individual History, yet Collier is often alone, and he’s seldom present in these poems; only ten or so are written in the first-person voice. Given his fluency with three-thousand-year-old connections—families, myths, love—Collier evokes a history that is personal but with numerous glances rather than one over-reaching vision. The title poem has twenty-six stanzas, to give an idea of how Collier feels about this, but it’s only two pages long—long enough to cover the history of clinical depression, its treatments, Auschwitz, atomic fallout, the Communists, and his maternal grandmother: “you might make the pilgrimage she did through the wards / of state and private institutions, / and make of your own body a nail for pounding . . . and in this way find a place in history/ among the detained and unparoled, an individual like her.”

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013