Tag Archives: Spring 2016

War Against All Puerto Ricans: Revolution and Terror in America’s Colony

Nelson A. Denis
Nation Books ($17.99)

by Spencer Dew

The first so-called democratically elected governor of Puerto Rico, Nelson A. Denis tells us in this necessary book, smoked opium and was doubly controlled by the drug. The pipe dulled his spirit and the U.S. government blackmailed him with evidence of his addiction. Denis could make more of this valence: the oppressed wallowing in the transitory pleasures of oppression, compliant under the boot of the colonizer, complicit in helping to crush those of his fellows who attempt to resist. Yet Denis’s book is a work of history—essential history, to be sure—and he refrains from speculation about possible paths forward, even though this is the question demanded by each page of this chronicle of horror: How can Puerto Rico be free?

Puerto Ricans are called American citizens, but the term is inaccurate. Puerto Ricans are denied the full legal protections of Constitutional subjects. They can vote in American presidential elections only if they abandon the island and move to the U.S., yet they can be (and have been, in massive numbers) drafted into the U.S. armed services. It is difficult not to see the production of troops as one of the chief rationales behind the American colony of Puerto Rico, along with its strategic location and, perhaps most importantly today, its role as a captive consumer base.

The island is not patrolled by occupation forces; rather, colonial control here is primarily economic. The island has more Wal-Mart outlets per mile than any other place on earth. Any product that enters or leaves Puerto Rico is required by U.S. law to be carried on U.S. ships. Major marine freight companies thus unload and reload shipments to Puerto Rico in Jacksonville, Florida (a boon for America, in terms of jobs; an extra expense for our colonial subjects on the island). The price of certain commodities (automobiles, sure, but also produce) are higher than in the U.S., as is the cost of living, though the per-capita income on the island is less than half that of the poorest U.S. state. The island’s government, barred by law from filing for Chapter 9 bankruptcy, faces a debt crisis totaling $72 billion.

It is to this situation that Denis’s book speaks, and it is because of this situation that the book proves so difficult to review. The response inspired by War Against All Puerto Ricans is visceral: rage, guilt, despair, fear. It is hard to believe in the ideals of American democracy, the transformative promise of American law, when learning the details of a history of American conquest and oppression. American governments, American officials, and American laws, after all, banned the use of Spanish in Puerto Rican public schools, made it a felony even to own a Puerto Rican flag, and responded with violence to peaceful protests—not only machine-gunning “American citizens” in Ponce but using Air Force planes to bomb “American citizens” in two towns. Denis’s title is not a hyperbole; it is a quotation, a description of policy. He tells a story of American political and business leaders intent on owning the island, setting the Federal Bureau of Investigation to subjugate the Puerto Rican people through blackmail and terror (over 100,000 Puerto Ricans were subjects of carpetas, or secret files), and using the legal system to smash organized dissent with the arrest of thousands of nationalists. This history is largely unknown within the States, and in those cases when its contours are familiar, the dominant gloss of the perpetrators, that this was all just an “incident between Puerto Ricans” prevails.

In truth, the Puerto Rican Revolution of 1950, the main focus of Denis’s book, was a cry for international attention, a plea for recognition and justice. Wildly asymmetrical, including an assassination attempt on President Truman and a three-hour gunfight between a lone barber and dozens of police and U.S. National Guardsmen, the attempt failed and continues to fail. As a case in point, the Kirkus Review coverage of this book calls it a “relentless chronicle of a despicable part of past American foreign policy,” as if the oppression of the Puerto Rican people were behind us and Denis’s book were not an indictment of ongoing American policy. Indeed, this book is particularly urgent now. If this electoral season (for president, in the US; for governor, on the island) is to offer anything more than a contest of popular appeal and private funding, this book must play a role—this is a history of which all candidates should be informed and a present question to which they all must respond.

Which returns us, again, to the problem of a path forward, and the difficulty of writing this review. Is Puerto Rico’s situation not, like that of an opium addict, intractable? Visiting the island, I was shocked by the predominance of American retailers and fast food franchises. As PR-1 cuts south through the island and rises into the mountains, the billboards rise higher. The project of U.S. colonialism cannot be divorced from the project of U.S. corporate capitalism, and it is this drug—for it surely is a drug—that Puerto Ricans are happily consuming even as their island falls apart. American politicians, with American legislation, could take steps to relieve the island’s immediate financial crisis and should, indeed, pave the way for a free nation of Puerto Rico. But it will be an audacious task for Puerto Ricans to gain for themselves something resembling true freedom, addicted as they are to an American economic model sufficiently crippling on its own, even liberated from the draconian restrictions and penalties of the Jones Act. While there is ample reason to be deeply pessimistic about the island’s future, I also have to feel that the revolution Puerto Rico needs would offer a model for the world and that history has put Puerto Rico in the unenviable but privileged situation of confronting, years before the United States will have to, the utterly destructive force of late stage capitalism. The island may simply stumble forward, into infrastructure collapse, increasing segregation by class, walled foreign enclaves, and the eventual transformation into a narco-state. Or Puerto Rico could offer a model for the world, drawing on the same values and models of community the nationalists in this book celebrated and embodied.

I am too wary to end on an optimistic note, but Denis, whether due to editorial pressures or simply out of a sense that some catharsis was needed after so much recounting of insurmountable oppression, highlights the heroic side of the lost revolution. He gives us a Pedro Albizu Campos ready for canonization, insisting that the island is not for sale and later saying that “According to the Yankees owning one person makes you a scoundrel, but owning a nation makes you a colonial benefactor.” He reminds us of General Smedley Butler, author of War is a Racket and “I Was a Gangster for Capitalism”—works well worthy of reprinting and rereading. And he gives us page after page of play-by-play with that aforementioned barber, Vidal Santiago Diaz, who engages the government in an operatic one-man shootout, with Albizu Campos speeches blaring from a radio and Santiago Diaz himself singing politically tweaked versions of “traditional Christmas aguinaldo,” each verse punctuated with a pistol shot.

If the reader can close this book placated by some imagined solidarity with a futile last stand against an enslaving political and economic hegemony, then Denis will have failed. Canonizing these nationalists, like canonizing anyone, is a trap. In my hometown, Chicago—the distance of which from the island, as Puerto Rican nationalists in that city are quick to note, allows for a certain freedom of political imagination—there is a mural of Albizu Campos crucified. He is about to be pierced through the side by that first “democratically elected” governor of the island, the opium addict. This image—liberty beaten and bound, the deathblow to be delivered by complicity and stoned indifference—seems a far more apt image to carry away from this book. This book, after all, is not entertainment; it is an indictment and a call to action.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2016

Camp Olvido: A Novella

.Lawrence Coates
Miami University Press ($15)

by Richard Henry

A “child stalked by death” and an incidental act of kindness in a world without it drives the tragedy in Lawrence Coates's Camp Olvido. The time is the early 1930s, the place California's Central Valley work camps. Migrant workers and their families, mid-level bullies, and bosses upon bosses all populate the novella, but the wild card is Estaban, the liquor-man, who travels the camps with a barrel full of illegal brandy and unlabeled bottles of wine.

Estaban commits the initial transgression as he shuts down his camp visit for the night. Against all of his instincts, he steps away from his car, from his brandy and wine, to the stable where a sick boy is being cared for. He sees the seated mother cradling the child, with the child's father standing just behind. The tableau might be a migrant Madonna and Child, documented in black and white by Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, or any of the hundreds of WPA photographers working in the latter half of the 1930s. One can imagine Coates being employed by the WPA's Federal Writer's Project to record, without judgment, the series of tragedies.

Estaban's laying of a five-dollar bill at their feet leads to an escalating series of transgressions. The act is small, and the gift is "calculated . . . an offering to buy the camp's good will on his next visit." Nor is there much compassion when Estaban later agrees to take the child's father to one of the bosses so he may seek permission to leave with his family and find medical help for his son. He does so because, having just been emasculated by the novella's truly malevolent bully, "he would gladly see someone else's life embittered." The lack of redemption undermines any Christian allegory; any change in status in Camp Olvido is achieved only by violence. Still, Coates manages to offer us a touch of sympathy.

From one perspective, the strength of this novella is also its biggest weakness: it is excellently constructed. Every small encounter pays off; everything moves along as though pre-ordained. With its well-informed and deep explication of the economic system through the actions of the main character, invocations of John Steinbeck and John Dos Passos are inevitable. But lost is the humanity. For this aspect, it would be profitable (sic) to read the novella against, for example, José Antonio Villarreal's Pocho, Tomàs Rivera's And the Earth Did Devour Him, or Elva Treviño Hart's Barefoot Heart: Stories of a Migrant Child.

Camp Olvido won Miami University Press’s 2015 novella prize, and joins four other novels by Lawrence Coates that are set in California: The Goodbye House, The Garden of the World, The Master of Monterey, and The Blossom Festival.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2016

Futures: Poems of the Greek Crisis

futuresEdited and translated by Theodoros Chiotis
Penned in the Margins ($15.99)

by John Bradley

“The [Greek economic] crisis was not simply financial,” writes editor and translator Theodoris Chiotis in his introduction to Futures: Poems of the Greek Crisis; “it was the dissolution of a fantasy of a world that perhaps never was.” The destruction of this “fantasy”—of a democratic society fully integrated with the European Union—understandably leaves anger and bitterness in its wake, as the poems in this anthology demonstrate. In work that varies greatly in style and structure, from prose poems to villanelles, forty-one poets offer seventy-eight poems on the psychological and emotional effects of the Greek economic turmoil.

Dissolution is an apt rubric for Chiotis to use, and it can be seen in many of the titles of poems in this anthology: “Incomplete Syntax,” “Poem to Be Recited at Protest Rallies When Riot Police is Twenty Metres Away,” “Small Poem in Memory of Suicide Victim Dimitris Christoulas,” “Homeless (Roof-less),” “The Chaos,” and “The Invisible Man or Plan for a Revolution.” Dissolution can be found as well in the imagery, as in “The Table,” by Vassilis Amanatidis. Once a symbol of coming together, the table now “gradually dwindled into a furniture, / that was imperceptibly torn to pieces.” And it can be found in fractured language, as in Steve Willey’s “Blood Poem”: “That half of my Greece is called blood is my poem.” Dissolution even threatens to unravel poems. In Yiannis Stiggas’s “The Road to the Newspaper Kiosk,” we learn: “—this is where a line with hammers is missing—.”

The dissolution of a nation leads to despair and violence. George Ttouli, in “Mutilated Images,” uses a litany to show social upheaval:

In Lefkosia they open fire
on politician’s motorcades.

In Lefkosia I threw my passport
on the burning placards

What? What am I trying to say?

In Lefkosia I watched a cockroach
crawl beneath the barricades.

Often a dark humor emerges, as in A. E. Stallings’s “Austerity Measures,” one of two villanelles (both by Stallings) in the anthology: “Weep, Pericles, or maybe just get drunk. / We’ll hawk the Parthenon to buy our bread.” Absurdist humor also appears in three striking prose poems by Thomas Tsalapatis: “Transparent,” “The Nail,” and “The Box.” In “The Nail,” our narrator tells us how a nail grows from his forehead. Doctors eventually solve the problem: “They hung a painting on my forehead.” This absurdist solution has a drawback and an advantage—the narrator can no longer see anything other than the back of the picture, but the consolation he finds is “it’s not like that there is anything special to see.”

Social breakdown can also lead to defiance. “And if only death and nothingness are the only things left for us / Then in death and nothingness we shall find hope,” writes Nikos Erinakis, in “The New Symmetry.” In “Days To,” a poet who goes by the name of Universal Jenny offers advice, such as “Push over the cliff whatever’s moving your way,” “Neutralise the verb ‘to shock’,” and “Draw courage from zero.” Katerina Iliopoulou, in “In Heaven Everything Is Fine,” sums up why we turn to poetry at a time of crisis: “Words are a means of survival.”

Much thought has gone into the creation of this book. Chiotis wrestled with the issue of “Greekness” and decided to include “not only Greek poets but also poets of Greek descent . . . and poets who have a personal connection or affinity with Greece.” The titles of each of the five sections of the book employ “financial jargon”: “Assessment,” “Adjustment,” “Implementation,” “Singularity,” and “Acceleration.” Chiotis also features, at the start of each section, a photograph of Greek street art; one shows us an image of Cupid, with the message: “fuck February 14th” and “Make Love & Class War.” The cover art is also arresting, displaying a marble sculpture of Atlas bearing on his back not the world, but a large Euro coin with the value of “0.”

There is one problem, however: Most of the poems in Futures are translated by the Greek poets themselves. And many of these self-translated poems contain badly worded lines. For example, in Emily Critchley’s “Protest Song, 11th December 2010,” she states: “Police are people too— / have so much feelings to give—” In Constantintinos Hadzinikolaou’s “The Adelaides,” he writes, “She goes and find him . . . .” In Yiannis Stiggas’s “In the Style of Y. S.,” Stiggas offers: “it is poetry to that kicks at the stool.” It’s unfortunate that these problems weren’t caught because when writers experiment with breaking grammar and syntax for effect, as many of the poets here appear to do, errors leave the reader wondering what fractures are deliberate.

This minor issue, however, does not dim the power of these poems. “I want to gatecrash history,” reads the graffiti in one photo. This impressive anthology does just that.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2016


splendorEmily Bludworth de Barrios
H_NGM_N Books ($15.95)

by Ashleigh Lambert

The glorious trouble with being human is that “the self is in fact / just loose. / / One works to define a context / for one’s life.” The alternative to pursuing this difficult work? “To be bigger and older and draped / in knowledge and skin. / / Having yet to have undergone / the great transformation.” Figuring out what this work entails, and why some of us have an easier time of it than others, is at the heart of Splendor, the first full-length poetry collection by Emily Bludworth de Barrios.

The speaker’s self-building work requires her to engage with feelings and questions that will be familiar to many of her readers: envy, ambition, whether to reproduce, how to love, the proper place of work in one’s life. These all turn out to be facets of one overriding concern: how to grapple with privilege. If that induces eye-rolls, consider the skill with which the poet presents the problem. Early in the book, the speaker longs for “the sense / of unearned accomplishment. / / That is something at which / one cannot fail.” Although it is “beguiling,” she rejects this cheap facsimile of achievement. But her familiarity with it leaves a lingering smudge of guilt.

Another possible definition of privilege is put forth later: “Empathy which one stands there holding / no place to put it.” Or maybe privilege is “my general expectation of being / pleased all the time.” Or perhaps it is simply moving through one’s life with the sense of oneself as “I who have been given so much it was not clear / where the world ended and I began.”

Eventually, a claustrophobic affect is achieved, as the speaker circles around and around her good fortune, taking its measure, testing its strength, but unable to either immerse herself in it or to flee. Her evident desire to acknowledge her unwarranted luck leaves her curiously unable to look beyond it, to consider what comes after acknowledgment. At times she lapses into a peculiar and self-congratulatory kind of nostalgia, one which assumes that generic “people” in some unspecified past didn’t have as active an interior life as the conspicuously confused modern generation. She misses “the old people / who are real grown ups,” for whom “regular work” smoothed “Shards of inadequacy and disappointment / No space for a full evening of self-doubt.”

Perhaps this nostalgia is born of an anxiety about how to act in the present. The speaker in these poems does crave clarity about how to respond to the world’s claims on her:

I know with my whole mind
I don’t think about these things just right.

Why bring it up then.

Because I inherited a life
for which I am grateful.

But such luck, no matter how reverently examined, cannot hold. As the speaker catalogs her good fortune, there is the growing sense that a disaster is brewing in the wings. And when finally “the bad thing really happens,” the speaker’s fragility is replaced with humility and wisdom as she is forced to draw upon her inner reserves.

Bludworth de Barrios is at her best when explicating desires we cannot be proud of or accommodate. In Splendor, she infuses with radiance that which we tend to keep opaque.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2016

Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese Internment in World War II

infamyRichard Reeves
Picador ($18)

by Douglas Messerli

In the very first chapter of this study of the Japanese American Internment camps of World War II, Richard Reeves quickly takes us from Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 to the sudden outcry against Issei (first generation immigrants), Kibei (children of immigrants born in the U.S. but educated in Japan), and even Nisei (second generation Japanese American citizens) by numerous governmental figures and state leaders, particularly in the West. Among the worst of the rabble-rousers were General John L. DeWitt, Colonel Karl Bendetsen, Governor of Idaho Chase Clark (who hatefully stated, “the Japs live like rats, breed like rats and act like rats”), Attorney General Earl Warren, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Secretary of War Henry Stimson, Supreme Court Justices Tom C. Clark and William O. Douglas, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, and journalists Walter Lippmann and Edward R. Murrow. Even cartoonist (and later writer of beloved children’s books) Theodor Seuss Geisel—who drew ugly caricatures of Japanese Americans—and the founder of the American Civil Liberties Union, Roger Baldwin, joined in the national hate-mongering. Los Angeles mayor Fletcher Bowron dismissed all city employees of Japanese lineage, arguing “There isn’t a shadow of a doubt that Lincoln, the mild-mannered man whose memory we regard with almost saint-like reverence, would make short work of rounding up the Japanese and putting them where they could do no harm.”

Before long, California organizations such as the Lions and Elks, the Supreme Pyramid of the Sciots, and the Townsend Clubs joined in the discrimination and disparagement, and almost daily, DeWitt and military officers reported spotting fleets of Japanese ships, threats of raids and landings, and imminent attacks on Los Angeles, none of which was true. But then, as Reeves reports, “something did happen. On December 23, a Japanese submarine torpedoed and sank a Union Oil tanker, the company’s largest, the USS Montebello, in sight of Cambria, halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco . . . By Christmas of 1941, soldiers, FBI agents, police, and local authorities were conducting raids on homes across California, Oregon, and Washington, arresting people whose names had never appeared on the sloppiest government lists.”

People would arrive home to discover FBI agents or other authorities had entered their homes, and were soon after taken away for supposed questioning. Fathers would be pulled from the house in the middle of the night and sent to camps no one had yet heard about. Even in Nebraska and Colorado, Japanese Americans were arrested with absolutely no evidence of wrongdoing. Indeed, Reeves describes that in some cases, when fathers were taken away, sons volunteered to serve in the army.

Despite very little evidence that Japanese Americans might be disloyal to the United States, on March 2, 1942, President Roosevelt signed the proclamation that would lead to the arrests and transfer of thousands of Americans of Japanese heritage to various camps (Manazar and Tule Lake in California, Minidoka in Idaho, Heart Mountain in Wyoming, Poston and Gilla River in Arizona, Amache in Colorado, and Rower and Jerome in Arkansas).

Japanese American citizens and immigrants were forced to sell their land, houses, and furniture, and sent off—often with family members being sent in different directions—to older barracks and long unused governmental camps located in cold mountain locations, deserts, and steamy swamps. Through letters and historical records, Reeves spends numerous pages of his book describing the nearly unbearable conditions of these camps, whose inhabitants were plagued by freezing temperatures, wild sand storms, and drenching rainfalls. The evacuees were told that they were being taken to the camps in order to protect them, but as they noted, the guns on the other side of the barbed wire borders were pointing in toward them, not out toward any possible intruders.

Although some artists such as Ansel Adams, who attempted to document camp life, and Isamu Noguchi, the noted sculptor who volunteered to teach art to the evacuees, attempted to bring community activities to the boredom of camp life, Reeves describes that such activities aroused little interest from these basically farm folk. In fact, as other books such as Violet Kazue de Cristoforo’s anthology May Sky: There Is Always Tomorrow (Sun & Moon Press, 1997) have revealed, there were haiku clubs in many of the camps, as well as numerous painting groups. Some camps held weekly dances and created scout troops for the younger internees. And both young and old had educational opportunities. Regardless of the shock of becoming subjects of such hate from their fellow citizens, and the harsh conditions the Japanese Americans faced in the camps, some semblance of meaningful activity gradually arose in the infamous internment installations.

As the war progressed, some Nisei were encouraged to volunteer for the military—many of whom did join up later in the remarkable One Hundredth Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Teams fighting in Europe, by war’s end liberating some of those imprisoned in the Jewish concentration camps, while in the U.S. their own parents remained locked away in somewhat similar conditions. Other second generation men and women were released to work in the Midwest and East, with the provision that they could not work or live near railroad tracks or military centers.

Eventually fractures between the locked away Japanese Americans began to grow, particularly between the first generation immigrants, together with those educated in Japan, and the often younger and more assimilated Nisei—particularly when all were asked to sign a loyalty oath after their rights as American citizens had already been taken away. Gangs of disbelievers, the so-called “no-no” boys (who had refused to sign) began attacking those who had more moderate views or even their other family members, particularly at Tule Lake. Many feared that all would be sent to Japan after the war and found little reason to remain loyal to a nation that had been so disloyal to them.

The government made it worse by rounding up most of the disloyals and sending them to Tule Lake, while refusing to keep order within. Major protests occurred, which brought about further feelings of injustice and hatred. As Reeves makes clear, conditions in the camps were often worse than the prisons to which the most violent were shipped.

Even when officials began to release the prisoners, others were afraid to leave for fear of how they might be treated by their fellow American citizens. Several feared leaving their older family members behind, and worried about the breakup of family which had been so central to their upbringing. Some, strangely enough, had become dependent on camp life, where meals and activities were served up to them freely. Many, who had lost everything they had owned, had nowhere else to go.

Reeves ends his detailed account of these camps by turning his attention to the young Japanese American soldiers who bravely fought for the U.S., demonstrating clearly that the post-Pearl Harbor hysteria had utterly no basis in reality. His descriptions of several Japanese American young soldiers are some of the most touching passages of his generally moving book.

After the war, some of those who had strongly supported the camps, like Earl Warren, came to regret their racism and injustice. Reeves argues Warren’s 1954 decision on public school integration in the case of Brown v. Board of Education, where he joined the court’s unanimous decision, “was related to [his] disgraceful actions in 1942.”

The author ends his fascinating account of this American infamy with a comment from Connie Nice, the director of The History Museum in Hood River, Oregon, where even after the war, a local group posted ads in the papers which read “So Sorry Please, Japs Are Not Wanted in Hood River”: “I’m hoping that people will just stop and think: Could we do that again? Are we doing that again, with Latinos or Mexicans or Muslims? . . . I’m not saying this little exhibit [A Circle of Freedom: Lost and Restored] will change the world. But I want people to walk away and say, ‘Maybe we didn’t do that right’ and I hope then that they’re not going to repeat history.”

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2016

Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements

octaviasbroodEdited by Walidah Imarisha and adrienne maree brown
AK Press ($18)

by Jane Franklin and Folake Shoga

Walida Imarisha and adrienne maree brown’s AK Press anthology Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements feels like a distillation of the times—an anthology of dystopias and apocalypses, protest, resistance and revolution. Inspired by the work of the brilliant and innovative Black science fiction writer Octavia Butler, this book seeks to center writers and worlds of color in its visionary fictions.

Octavia’s Brood assembles twenty stories, four short essays and a handful of illustrations, bound in a striking cover. Imarisha and brown bring together both well-known and upcoming writers, including a foreword by advisor and collaborator Sherry Renee Thomas (editor of the pathbreaking Dark Matter: 100 Years of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora), essays by Tananarive Due and political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, a story from Minneapolis poet and activist Bao Phi, and many others.

Mainstream science fiction has often written out people of color, ordinary people, and the work of liberation struggle, creating futures that are a faster, shiner version of an unequal present. Theorist Mark Fisher uses the concept of “science fiction capital” to convey how predictions of the future work to consolidate power, to exclude, and to coerce—science fiction capital is the power to set the future’s agenda. “We believe it is our right and responsibility to write ourselves into the future,” say Imarisha and brown. Octavia’s Brood strives to put science fiction capital in the hands of the people.

Jane Franklin: These stories are all very immediate—some in the first person, one a television script (the quietly hilarious “Sanford and Sun” in which everyone’s favorite interstellar jazz composer visits a sitcom), and with much emphasis on bodily experience. Some expository passages are a bit longer and rougher than would be ideal, but I found myself intrigued enough by the worlds being built to continue. I was especially excited about these stories as continuations of Octavia Butler’s work—she is such an important figure, but her work is undertheorized and its importance to contemporary SF is often overlooked.

Folake Shoga: I remember one of the first things we discussed is how the stories in the anthology relate to Butler herself. Butler is accurate and scary about power relations to do with race and gender in a way that’s not really mitigated by optimism (unlike for example, Margaret Atwood at the end of The Handmaids Tale), or by sentimentality, or by a conviction that moral right will guide you through a rational universe. Instead she looks at the human condition in a way which, for a change, recognizes the unnumbered lives of the majority, freighted with loss, waste, and pain, ending with no meaning and no progress and no lessons learned. To have achieved what Octavia Butler did, with the difficulties she faced—systemic racism, mental health issues, crippling shyness, and inability to conform to gendered and to genre expectations—and to have been an absolutely original writer and thinker, is truly inspirational. I think a community of sympathetic minds has formed around her writing, found her and each other, and do see her as a role model. It's not about the pessimism. It's about permission to be in your own imaginative space. Letting your imagination go where it naturally would, not where dominant Western literary culture would usually send it. This is the very real way those writers see themselves as “Octavia's Brood,” engendered by her.

JF: And yet both Butler and Octavia’s Brood have this funny kind of optimism—stories like Bao Phi’s “Revolution Shuffle” and Autumn Brown’s “In Spite of Darkness” are set against backgrounds of racism and genocide, but the focus is on the characters’ relationships to each other and to liberation struggle. Lately I’ve been thinking about how this contrasts with dystopian and apocalyptic work by writers like John Brunner and Margaret Atwood which is very despairing and emphasizes total social collapse. I find myself wondering if this is because writers of color and writers who are engaged in liberation struggle see that the apocalypse is already here, already happening to marginalized people, and so they’re able to recognize how people survive and transform under these conditions of extreme stress.

FS: I can't say that I find Butler's work optimistic; in fact I find it grueling to read because the horrible things that happen are so personally wounding to the characters and also so very likely given the established context. Exquisitely expressive and filled with poetic logic, yes—these things are characteristic of Butler and make the stories bearable. But she is bleak. I did find the stories in Octavia’s Brood much more generally hopeful even though many of them take place in blighted apocalyptic landscapes. That's apocalyptic, not post-apocalyptic: any reader of color with the least bit of political consciousness will recognize some of the more over the top details are referring to real things in the contemporary world (okay, maybe not Black people being kidnapped to supply skin grafts to White skin cancer patients). The Black child penalized for cheating after scoring highly on a test, the prisoners fined to pay for their own upkeep: instances of oppression that are not purely fictional. Speaking in April 2015 to the Portland Mercury, Imarisha said, "When we talk about horror stories, living as black folks is a horror story. Michael Brown is a horror story . . . It's a horror story that happens almost every day in the United States, in the black community. So for us, we don't have to imagine horror. We live it every day."

The editors state the purpose of the anthology is “social change and societal transformation” and adrienne maree brown also writes that creatives “can either reflect the society we are part of or transform it.” This has been a guideline to develop the set of practices and workshop methodology from which the anthology grew. It has worked to provide a different common ground in which the stories could root themselves, countering the deafening conventions of Western literary culture in which minorities are hardly even legitimate protagonists. It has given the writers space to breathe and imagine fresh worlds, running on a different logic. The effect has to be cumulative: as more voices are nurtured, they join a larger chorus. The hope has to be that these writers develop and find peers, publishers, and audience, adding to a growing literary culture whose roots lie in the 19th Century, greatly enhanced later by the notion of Afrofuturism. With the growing security of that culture comes the confidence to inhabit the imagination fully, undistracted by disempowering influences.

JF: The book is more than a collection of stories—it’s a matrix for growing a social community, and it’s a place where social justice activists can see themselves and their experiences reflected. As such, it is difficult for me to choose favorite stories from Octavia’s Brood. I like adrienne maree brown’s Detroit fable “the river” for its lyricism, strong sense of place, and ambiguity. An excerpt from Terry Bisson’s 1980s novella of an alternate, radical Civil War, Fire On The Mountain, links these contemporary SF stories to earlier work. Kalamu Ya Salaam’s “Manhunters” made me long for an entire novel and seemed extremely Butler-like in structure.

Alixa Garcia’s “In Spite of Darkness” has really stayed with me, partly because of its illustrations and in spite of its occasional awkwardness. In it, the survivors of a series of genocidal attacks try to preserve the last of their young, hoping against hope for the return of the Sol-gatherers who bring light to their remote and dark planet. On first reading, it seemed slightly heavy-handed, but I found myself thinking again and again of the story’s firelit and dying world and the struggle which blossoms there, and of what it might be to live through the genocide of a people.

FS: The stories reflecting Black diasporic cultural trends resonated with me the most, because I find that little spark of recognition heartwarming. (I find it heartwarming when I get it from Butler too.) The Swahili names in “Manhunters”: Family, Faith, Art, Spirit (Ujamaa, Imani, Kuumba, Nia) recall for me not just an ideal African past of ancient trade routes and cattle droves across the high savannah, but also consciousness-raising groups and Saturday schools and painstaking work around recovery and self- image by dedicated lay people.

I really liked “The River.” It's constructed with craft and precision, using non-hierarchical language to reference a long tradition of vernacular speech. The writing honors the orality of Black diasporic culture in an extraordinarily literary way, producing a clash of sensibilities and a great deal of tension. Formality and abandon are in play, with reticence set against one devastating statement. The abiding emotion is caution but another thing I like about this story is the rage it also expresses, which, like the rage in Walidah Imarisha's “Black Angel,” is entirely appropriate.

JF: “In Spite of Darkness” is characteristic of how this book works, almost requiring a new kind of reading. If you go into this book expecting conventionally plotted stories written in a consistent, conventional science fiction voice that will reward a quick, plot-driven read, you won't find what's best in it. If you go to the book with the desire to engage with the worlds they depict, you’ll find them very rewarding.

FS: The anthology has a second function as a marvelous introduction to contemporary activism around issues of violence, disability, literacy, and participation. I challenge anyone to go through the bios listed in the book and not be overwhelmed by the sheer hard work, creativity, and ethical seriousness of these writers. As a non-USAian, I find it important to overtly and explicitly include Mumia Abu Jamal in that assessment.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2016

The 6:41 to Paris

641toparisJean-Phillippe Blondel
Translated by Alison Anderson
New Vessel Press ($14.95)

by Justin Goodman

The difference between suspense and surprise, to paraphrase Alfred Hitchcock, is the difference between the audience seeing the bomb before it detonates and no one seeing it. But unlike a multi-temporal medium such as film, where a bomb can march on a timeline parallel to a dinner party, literature's comparative limitations lead to surprise superseding suspense. Jean-Philippe Blondel's The 6:41 To Paris makes such a case, anyway. Translated in staccato format by Alison Anderson, this so-called “psychological thriller” grinds like a bullet train on 19th-century tracks, but despite the historical dynamism that propels the novel, it remains inescapably static and small in its design.

This is perhaps inevitable since the novel consists of the alternating asides of two exes unexpectedly forced to sit beside each other in a train compartment; they need to work their way through presque vu, then recognition, then embarrassment. When they first met at lyceé, twenty-seven years ago, Cécile was “just plain. Nothing striking. A bug,” and Philippe “was someone who at the age of twenty had never had any reason to complain.” After four months and a forebodingly oft-mentioned event in London (apparently twice warranting a melodramatic “Oh. My. God”) they broke-up, leading to a She's All That role reversal. She's now a handsome and successful entrepreneur, while he's an overweight salesman underselling his house after a divorce. While the tortoise syntax can be blamed on Anderson’s obsession with tight sentences, it’s more likely an attempt to mirror Blondel’s concern with how we construct the past.

Unfortunately, the attempt doesn’t quite come off. Unlike Henry James’s famously claustrophobic contemplation of Isabel Archer’s failed marriage in The Portrait of a Lady, Blondel demands an intimacy in tight spaces that doesn’t functionally exist. As one character meditates on a moment, so does the other on the exact same moment—but for two people closer to the last station of their life than the first, is this climactic, unfolding way of seeing the past reasonable? Forget that the supposedly surprising London event is not simply anti-climactic, but aggressively dull. This is a far cry from fiction that offers real psychology through piecemeal moments, from Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad to Junot Diaz's Drown; an even farther cry from the first writer to escape from the gloom of Isabel Archer’s morgue-like memory, Virginia Woolf, who wrote in her now famous essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” that “we must reconcile ourselves to a season of failures and fragments. We must reflect that where so much strength is spent on finding a way of telling the truth, the truth itself is bound to reach us in rather an exhausted and chaotic condition.”

The spaciousness and variety that matches the “chaotic condition” of truth is brilliantly displayed in Woolf, Egan, and Diaz, whereas in Blondel's The 6:41 to Paris, the world is as constrained and awkwardly focused as being forced to sit next to your ex on a train, grateful for the rare interruption of that independent moment—though when it comes, it looks out the window and sees its reflection instead of the world blurring by. It doesn’t, in the end, try to capture the world. Again, this is perfectly reflected in Anderson's tersely ungrammatical translation—too perfectly. At best, for both translator and author, it’s a pyrrhic victory.

What really makes Blondel’s book less interesting than those by the aforementioned writers, other than preferences of style, is the way the joints interlock. In using the flak of consciousness from outsiders to develop the arcs and byways of their characters’ thoughts, great authors of fragment depict those thoughts expanding like water slowly creeping across a rag. What is surprising is not necessarily what happened but why, and who's involved in the telling. The 6:41 to Paris is an interesting experiment in the ostensibly casual substance of isolation, but the result is best described by Cécile when the train doors closed: “the beginning of an egocentric and self-indulgent interlude.”

Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2016

Feast: Poetry & Recipes for a Full Seating at Dinner

Feast-CoverEdited by Diane Goettel and Anneli Matheson
Black Lawrence Press ($16.95)

by Rahel Jaskow

An ancient Greek philosopher recommended that a host giving a dinner party should avoid reading his poetry to his guests. If he were still around to read the anthology Feast: Poetry & Recipes for a Full Seating at Dinner, he might reconsider. Brimming with delicious recipes and poetry to match, Feast is magnificently nourishing. Like a meal (or a menu), the anthology is laid out in proper order: Starters, Sides and Sauces; Cocktails; Mains; and Dessert. Each of the poets—all of them contemporary, and many of them award-winning—contributed a recipe and a poem; two of the recipes are poems themselves. And just as the recipes come from, or are inspired by, various countries or regions of the world, the poems give us a glimpse into the various regions of the world of the human spirit.

Some of the poems, like “Here’s to My Mother Making Herring Under a Fur Coat” by Yelizaveta P. Renfro pair food with memory—though at times the memory evoked is one of scarcity rather than the abundance the book celebrates. This is true of both Renfro’s poem and “Eat Stone and Go On” by Joe Wilkins, which is paired with his recipe for soda bread:

Isn’t it a shame, my grandmother said,
silver fork in her shivering fist,

How we have to go on eating?

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Even if it was only
soda bread and fried steaks, I see now

it was something. I shoveled
another forkful of buttered potato

into my mouth, bits of the stone
we call salt between my teeth.

Karen Greenbaum-Maya instructs us in a Zen-like calm and acceptance in “Eggs Satori”:

If curds break into pieces, you are working too hard.
You have been dragged off-center.
Stop. Get over yourself.
Let the eggs cook alone for a moment.
Honor how little they require from you.

Hers is a dish to be enjoyed mindfully: “Eat your egg in small voluptuous bites. Do not speak.” Contrast this with Matthew Gavin Frank’s recipe, Tajarin with Savoy Cabbage, Mushroom, Hazelnut and Sage butter, which ends with the liberating instruction: “Eat noisily.”
Other poems pair the preparation of sustenance with love in its endless forms. In Kevin Pilkington’s “Eating a Herd of Reindeer,” the poet watches his wife engaged in a labor of love: baking holiday cookies that “she will place in tins / and send to family and friends.” As he observes her at her work, he reflects upon the blessings of his life as reflected in the cookies she is preparing, “a world / that is as warm as a favorite old sweater / with holes in its elbows.”

The final page of Feast invites readers to host a party of their own with a recipe or two from the anthology, and share the event with “fellow readers and eaters” on its Facebook page. One can envision a sequel to Feast with recipes and poems contributed by devoted readers of the anthology—and that might be another delicious gathering.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2016

THE PLEASURE PRINCIPLE: An Interview with Alfie Bown


by Catherine Wong

Alfie Bown is a new Assistant Professor of Literature at HSMC in Hong Kong, where I have been a professor for five years. His recent book Enjoying It: Candy Crush and Capitalism (Zero Books, $11.95) seems to have caused a bit of a stir. Just as the title promises, Enjoying It offers readers an experience of pleasure. Viewing enjoyment in the context of modern capitalism, Bown makes the profound question of pleasure accessible and the trend of video game apps intellectually stimulating. The book argues its topic in a light-hearted, witty way without being unnecessarily pedantic, though it doesn’t shy away from applying various critical theories, Slavoj Žižek’s especially, to the exploration and classification of enjoyment.

Reading Bown’s intriguing case studies on productive, unproductive, and irrational enjoyment, I found myself at times unsettled, albeit always absorbed in introspection on my own experience of happiness. For me, the question remains—what actually is enjoyment, and how are we to enjoy cultural production without feeling that our subjectivity is threatened and commodified? What follows is the discussion we had about this and the book’s other resonant themes.

Catherine Wong: A simple question to get things started. In your book you use six cases to study types of enjoyment, ranging from listening to “Gangnam Style” and playing Candy Crush to reading critical theorists and philosophers like Deleuze. Do you enjoy all these things? Why did you choose those as examples in the book?

Alfie Bown: Absolutely, I enjoy all of those things, probably too much in fact. I play Candy Crush, read Deleuze, and have played so much Football Manager that I even dream that game is my reality. It was important to me to study things that I did really enjoy myself. I see quite a lot of criticism of other people’s enjoyment, both in the university and in “left-wing” journalism, and I think there is a problem here: there is a tendency to place value-judgements on the enjoyment of others, whether consciously or unconsciously, and that was something I wanted to avoid in this book. Instead, I wanted to analyze how various kinds of enjoyment operate on us as subjects, how these different kinds of enjoyment affect us in different ways. I guess it’s fair to say that I was the main subject of analysis and that these things are all primarily my own enjoyments, though I did try to think about the general ways in which these things are enjoyed and the effects they have on the “enjoying population.” I also carried out some interviews to see how others enjoyed these things. Ultimately though, this was an analysis of how I found myself constructed as a subject by various forms of enjoyment that I encounter in my own experience of contemporary society. The thing I am most pleased about is that people seem to be applying the models set out in the book to their own enjoyments, which is more than I could have asked for.

CW: In the book, you compare enjoyment in the Victorian era with enjoyment today, which is perhaps rather unusual because we often tend to emphasize the differences, rather than the similarities, between ourselves and the Victorians. Could you say a bit more about why you make this comparison?

AB: In some ways modern entertainment is so radically different from Victorian entertainment, but I am more interested in the similarities. During her history degree, my wife studied a fascinating course on Victorian leisure time. Before that I had known about the 1832 Reform Act, which had attempted to control the potentially revolutionary working classes; at that time England was as close as it would ever come to revolution, as E.P. Thompson has discussed in his famous book The Making of the English Working Class. The Reform Act was designed to stop this happening. What I hadn’t known was that after this, those in power had taken great pains to regulate and control the leisure and recreation of the people in a project called “rational recreation.” The idea was that by controlling people’s leisure, revolution could be prevented. I heard about this all from my wife and it occurred to me that we are in a bizarre second wave of this today: we are a capitalist workforce who are controlled and regulated, made into ideal workers, through the things we enjoy, things which prevent us from asking for change.

CW: To focus on one of the case studies, let me ask you about Candy Crush—the one game you put in the title. You write that Candy Crush somehow makes you work harder and become a more perfect capitalist subject, but if this mobile entertainment promulgates the unproductive, do you think we should all stop playing the game?

enjoyingitAB: Right, great question. I can follow on from my last answer here. Actually, its kind of the opposite: I am not saying that mobile phone games promulgate the unproductive but that, in a certain way, these distracting games serve the perfect capitalist agenda. A distracting game of Candy Crush, Angry Birds, Temple Run, or Smashy Road might seem like the opposite of productive work and a total waste of time, but I argue that it stimulates a guilt-function that ultimately turns you into the perfect capitalist worker. From the point of view of capitalism, these games are bloody useful (rather than useless, which is how they appear) because they unconsciously make us feel guilty for wasting time and then we go back to work with a renewed passion for capitalist productivity.

In another way I think what you say is totally right. These games are usually played in and around the workplace and I think they are designed to stop people from reflecting on their working conditions and perhaps even to stop people from discussing their dissatisfactions with their colleagues. Instead of thinking about work and what is wrong with it, our frustrations are channeled into distractions such as these. So should we stop playing them? Maybe. Or maybe we should just try to be attentive to what they are doing to us when we do play them, so that we know what we are getting into and what effects they have!

CW: One of your arguments seems to be a bit of an attack on the university. You claim that the university and things like popular culture studies have tended to approach the question of enjoyment in the wrong way. Why is this so? Where is the university going wrong?

AB: That is right. I am very much in the university, and I am a product of it. However, I wanted to work against the way that the university uses popular culture to prove its own points. Popular culture is quite common these days as a subject in the university. Video games, pop music, and sports are all in the titles of new university modules. But the university often just uses examples of pop culture to prove something that it already knew to be correct. For example, a quick look at Lady Gaga proves yet again that Foucault’s theory of sexuality was right. This isn’t interesting, and it reiterates the idea that the university is very clever and can explain everything, especially the everyday things that “the masses” enjoy. I’m completely opposed to this and I wanted to search in the everyday for things that the university does not know how to understand and explain. In particular I wanted to find kinds of enjoyment that don’t make sense in terms of the knowledge we already have, hoping that these would force us to develop new ways of theorizing enjoyment and new knowledge about it, rather than just applying theories and ideas we already have to everything. I do believe that in our enjoyment of things like “Gangnam Style,” Candy Crush, and Game of Thrones, there are unsettling moments that force us to reconsider what we know.

CW: In the conclusion of the book you briefly talk about “illegal” enjoyment. Do you think the kinds of enjoyment that are prohibited in a capitalist society could sometimes be radical anti-capitalist things and that we should transgress and enjoy them? What about enjoyment that might be pleasurable to one individual but might be dangerous or even fatal to others, like some crimes?

AB: This is a great question to finish on and I must say that I don’t have a confident answer here. It was a problem I ran into towards the end of the book, as you say. On the one hand, it seems reasonable to want to break out of some of the regulations placed on enjoyment and to try to disrupt the way that we are organized by and through our enjoyment. I think this is necessary and I think that my main point is that we need to realize how powerful enjoyment is. By analyzing enjoyments, even those which seem totally mindless and uninteresting, we can reveal the fact that enjoyment constructs us and affects us powerfully: it turns us into the people we are. Realizing this, I hope, can unsettle it and stop our enjoyment from working so much in the service of capitalism. On the other hand, I am not saying that we should just enjoy whatever we want. That could lead to the following of all sorts of impulses and passions which, as you say, could be destructive. In fact, isn’t it the case that capitalism wants us to follow every impulse to enjoy that we have?

Grappling with these problems can perhaps help us see the difficult positions we are placed in. I certainly don’t think there is such a thing as radical enjoyment per se, and one of the things I wanted to attack was the idea that it makes you a good radical if you enjoy reading Deleuze and listening to Burial but a poor one if you read Lacan and listen to Taylor Swift. These again are value-judgements that are placed on enjoyment by people who proclaim that one enjoyment is preferable to another. What I think is perhaps genuinely anti-capitalist is seeing what enjoyment can do and how it often affects us unconsciously in the service of capitalism. I’m not saying we should change what we enjoy, but rather, that we should realize how what we enjoy changes us.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2016

Rabbit Ears: TV Poems

rabbitearsEdited by Joel Allegretti
New York Quarterly Books ($21.95)

by M. Lock Swingen

Rabbit Ears: TV Poems represents the first poetry anthology about TV, ever. All 129 poems in the anthology, written by an impressive diversity of poetic voices, address the medium of television from every angle. There are, for example, poems about a first encounter with a television set: a father dragging home a furniture-sized mahogany console and installing it in the living room. (Do you remember your first TV?) Another poem recalls watching the reports of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. And if you recall a TV show from your childhood, there is likely a poem written about it in this collection.

The poets here, in other words, address how TV has affected them, their relationships, and even the society we live in. Ellen Bass recounts the formative experience of watching the Miss America Pageant as a little girl. In “How I Became Miss America,” she writes:

There she is, Burt Parks is singing
and I am weeping as her gleaming teeth shine
through the wide open window of her mouth.
When I grow up, I could be her.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
and tonight my tears are hers
as they fall like sequins down those lovely cheekbones.

Rabbit Ears, named after the iconic TV antennae, deploys a multitude of poetic forms ranging from free verse, prose poems, sestinas and sonnets, haiku and senryu, and even poems structured like interviews and screenplays. With its diversity of content and poetic form, Rabbit Ears feels more rich and eclectic than any other poetry anthology on the market.

Admittedly, this claim is bold. After all, there are countless anthologies of poetry that address a vast array of subject matter and material. A quick survey in the Poet’s Corner of my local bookshop, for example, reveals a shelf full of anthologies whose themes range from love poems, war poems, the best poems of the English language, the best poems of a given year, French Symbolists, Asian American poets, seven Texan women, joke poems . . . the list goes on. In short, poetry anthologies are legion. So why is Rabbit Ears the first poetry anthology about TV, ever?

Perhaps it’s because poetry suffers from a burden of nobility. Make no mistake about it, poetry does address the higher pursuits of humanity: our desires, our foibles, the meaning of life, the inevitability of death. Does the utter quotidian banality of watching television, then, stand in direct opposition to poetry’s apparent higher calling? Certainly, there are poems in Rabbit Ears that address the morbidity of television watching—the little deaths we succumb to while tuning in, day in and day out, over our entire lives. Tantra-zawadi, for example, in her poem “Radiator Grooves,” recalls:

Watching Daddy drive up
In his sky blue Belvedere
Lifting a shiny, color television set high in the air
Wonders of Tinkerbell, Mr. Greenjeans, and Captain Kangaroo
The box
Oftentimes entertaining
Mainly gave me the blues.

Of course, demonizing television has always been part of the strange logic of the medium. Since television’s inception, actually, people seemed not to trust it. As Toby Miller recounts in his 2010 book Television Studies: The Basics: “The Director-General of the BBC at the time the new medium was becoming popular . . . refused to have a set in his own home, and instructed TV executives to ensure viewers did not watch it much.” Nothing brings out primal fear like new technology. And yet there is simply no denying that the lion’s share of 20th-century American culture has been expressed and transmitted through the medium of TV.

Indeed, we have imbibed television like a fish takes in water for breath. In his 1993 essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” David Foster Wallace explains the pervasive effect television has had on American culture at large: “The US generation born after 1950 is the first for whom television was something to be lived with instead of just looked at,” Wallace writes. “For younger writers, TV’s as much a part of reality as Toyotas and gridlock. We literally cannot imagine life without it.” In other words, television is what binds us together, what we have in common. Dana Gioia’s blurb on the back of Rabbit Ears explains the significance of television in our epoch: “What Nature was to the Romantics, the TV screen has become to contemporary Americans—the everyday sensory world that shapes the imagination.” Rabbit Ears represents, then, one of the oldest mediums of art and communication (poetry) engaging with one of the newest.

One of the misconceptions people have about new communication technologies is that they render past communication technologies extinct. Radio killed theater. Television killed radio. The Internet is killing television. E-books are killing the printed page. It’s a classic narrative, but is it really accurate to say TV snuffed out past communication mediums and technologies? In his aforementioned study, Miller argues rather that “TV blended all of them, becoming a warehouse of contemporary culture that converged what had gone before.” Moreover, despite what could be called the television singularity, past communication technologies rarely died out; instead, they shrank to fit particular niches, or even outlived their original functions as their utility evolved. (No one saw the pager and payphone, for example, becoming integral tools in the illegal drug market.) Some think poetry has followed this trajectory—that it has receded permanently into fringe culture, read only by pasty academics, smug dandies, or hipsters looking for an edge. Rabbit Ears suggests the contrary, however—that poetry has reemerged onto the public square, uncompromised by newer communication paradigms.

If television is a warehouse of culture, what happens when we repackage that culture in sonnets? Or when we reinterpret Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the twelfth-century French poetic form of the sestina? Jason Schneiderman’s “The Buffy Sestina” does just that:

Buffy is upstairs sharpening her large collection of stakes
when her mother comes upstairs and says, “Would it be bad,
just this once, not to go out staking vampires again tonight?”
After all—she had just defeated an apocalyptic force! Time
for a break? Buffy never has time for a break. Angle gone,
her stakes sharp, she kisses her mom and hops out the window

Every stanza in a sestina rounds off with the same six end-words, rearranged according to an intricate pattern; as the poem progresses, the end-words build up like surf and clatter against each other in a rich game of wordplay and hyper-nuanced meaning. Critically, the end-words also build a platform for a central theme and a circular narrative to which each stanza consistently returns. In Schneiderman’s sestina, the end-words—“tonight,” “time,” and “window” for example—and those words’ cyclical repetitions seem to echo how the standard TV show also relies on repetition of storyline, plot, and characters from episode to episode. In fact, one could say that the structure of an episodically-formatted TV show platform has its very roots in such poetic form. When a sestina repackages a TV show, then, we see how what is said and how one says it become almost indistinguishable. In “The Buffy Sestina,” the medium becomes the message, and the reader comes away from the poem with a richer understanding of both the sestina as a form and how TV draws more from older artistic mediums than we realize.

And yet, while still lingering in the Poet’s Corner of my local bookstore, I cannot shake the feeling that the vocation of poetry is somehow not up to the formidable task of addressing our culture of television, and as a result the nobility of poetry has been drawn into some kind of uneasy détente with the poems in Rabbit Ears. Compare Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night,” for example, with Aaron Anstett’s poem in the collection, “Self-Portrait as Jackass on Dash Cam.” But then we might recall that in one of his letters, Rilke writes: “Don’t write love poems; avoid those forms that are too facile and ordinary . . . Rescue yourself from these general themes and write about what your everyday life offers you.” Here Rilke unshackles poetry from its gilded throne and claims that poetry can address the more quotidian circumstances of living. In Rabbit Ears poetry engages with these ordinary circumstances, the daily grit, where a considerable portion of our lives is devoted to the watching of television. In his poem “Television,” Bill Zavatsky writes:

There must be something
I want from this television
that leads me to watch it
for hours on end, hovering
at the rim of its well
where the swirl of colored images
almost slakes my thirst
by expanding into a body
of water stirred by an angel
so immense its coast-to-coast
transmission could stop time.
And so it does.

In this sense, Rabbit Ears strikes at the heart of something deeper in our culture than just the current predicament of poetry; the poems here grapple with the unglamorous underbelly of day-to-day living that we all experience, but the poems also are representative of how contemporary culture deals with memory and forgetting. After all, we are a peculiar species of animal that constructs cultural artifacts so as to counteract the natural flow toward forgetfulness and oblivion. Today, however, it seems that we refuse to forget anything—our cultural past is almost uncannily accessible. The culture we experience is not dictated by syndication, relevancy, or even fame. Instead, what we have the luxury of choosing to experience depends upon the desire to dredge it up from collective memory, where it has been outsourced in vast digital warehouses. Recalling his 1950s childhood in America, novelist William Gibson writes in an essay that “the dead were less of a constant presence, then. Because there was once no Rewind button . . . Because there were old men in the mountain valleys of my Virginia childhood who remembered a time before recorded music.” Today, we are left instead with what seems to be an ever-present Now. Our cultural past crowds the margins of collective memory and merely waits to be rummaged through according to even the most desultory whim. We seem not to be able to forget even if we wanted to.

Does the inability to forget explain, for example, Internet memes that replicate themselves ad infinitum? Does our ever-present Now spell out the existence of TV shows like “30 Rock,” which are effectively TV shows about TV shows? If we can access the cultural past so easily, in other words, does that explain the current impulse to produce so much culture about our own culture, poetry about TV? Perhaps Rabbit Ears represents, finally, poetry’s engagement with this ever-present Now. In the anthology’s pitch-perfect Addendum, “There’s Nothing on TV,” Roy Lucianna writes:

I sit vacantly,
In front of the screen.
It’s been hours
And I’ve seen many things
Of interest.
Much music heard,
Words spoken,

Knowledge, even.
For neuroses.
TV lacks nothing.

There’s nothing on TV.

Maybe I should turn it on now,
Just to be sure.

Lucianna describes the rapture of Miller’s television singularity, where all art forms merge. Our culture, literally unforgettable, describes a kind of end point for Lucianna: “TV lacks nothing.” Yet at the same time Lucianna questions this singularity: “There’s nothing on TV.” If TV possesses everything—“Much music heard, / Words spoken . . . Knowledge, even”—what is it about TV that nevertheless leaves us wanting, unsure? Another way of putting the question is: why am I still stooped over this footstool in the Poet’s Corner reading poems about TV, when I could be watching TV?

When the flow of forgetting was relatively unimpeded, a long time ago, we remembered in tiny little capsules of meter, rhyme, and memorable turns of phrase. In other words, we etched language into melody in order not to forget. Before we began storing ourselves in radio, television, and the Internet, we stored ourselves in song.

Despite everything, Rabbit Ears shows us that we still do.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2016