Tag Archives: Spring 2017

Ghostspeaking

Peter Boyle
Vagabond Press ($29.95)

by John Bradley

“The mask maker had died / but the room kept weaving masks, / a galaxy of approaching worlds,” writes Ricardo Xavier Bousoño, in “I Do Not Trust That Word ‘Oxygen,’” one of the poems “translated” by Peter Boyle in Ghostspeaking. In this bold and ambitious book, Boyle creates eleven fictive poets (from Latin America, France, and Quebec) and their work, which he has “translated” for the reader.

The practice of “weaving masks” is an old one. One of the most accomplished at this literary practice was Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935), the Portuguese poet who created scores of personas. The persona poem shows no sign of disappearing. In The Imaginary Poets, edited by Alan Michael Parker (Tupelo Press, 2005), twenty-two writers create a poet and that persona’s poetry. A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry, edited by Stacey Lynn Brown and Oliver de la Paz (University of Akron Press, 2012), a volume of 437 pages, shows the continued appeal of the practice. More recently, Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Shards: Fragments of Verses (New Directions, 2016), called a translation of the fourteenth century Latin poet Lorenzo Chiera, turns out to be a persona project. Ferlinghetti admitted in an interview (in The New York Times) that the poems are not translations, but his creations. And now we have Ghostspeaking, 368 pages of persona poetry.

That phrase of Ricardo Xavier Bousoño’s—“a galaxy of approaching worlds”—best describes Boyle’s undertaking. For each of the poets we encounter in Ghostspeaking, Boyle provides not only the poetry, but a biography (and sometimes an “interview”). For example with Bousoño, we learn of his fleeing Argentina in 1976 to avoid the right-wing death squads. With this biographical material, Boyle quickly creates a tension between the life of the poet and his or her work, much in the way a novelist establishes a character. Though the details of the poet’s biography may be only subtly detected in the poems, it shapes the voice, tone, and vision of the poet. Here is Bousoño, who calls himself in the interview here “an apolitical poet” while in hiding in Argentina: “They have instructed me to climb into my coffin / and not get out: / an everyday request.” For an “apolitical poet,” his poetry vividly demonstrates the effect of living under a regime of political terror.

The eleven poets here vary greatly in voice and style. Elena Navronskaya, for example, offers prose poems with a fantastical bent: “There were people under the floorboards who were growing wolves’ teeth and learning to fly in the dark caverns that stretch beneath our country.” Lazlo Thalassa writes in numbered sections, each section opening with enigmatic italicized lines set off in parentheses: “(Cloud of unknowing hovers over a frog-pond. A pelican with a stethoscope probes the pulse of the water.)” Antonieta Villanueva writes in short autobiographical prose pieces from her memoir called I Am Not Going to Write My Memoirs. The Montaigne Poet, an anonymous writer whose work comes from a book called The New Essays of Montaigne, seems influenced by Franz Kafka: “He has just fallen off a horse as I have just fallen from a height when a balustrade gave way.” Ernesto Ray creates “spells”: “A star-shaped object rising up / out of the water—five / wavering arms, five / spokes of a chariot wheel . . . ” Maria Zafarelli Strega, whose works were found on notecards, gives us aphoristic prose: “It will not be easy to be born under the earth. I have heard plants tell me that.” Many of the poets write both verse and prose, but the voices of the personas are always consistent.

Identity in Ghostpeaking is both fixed and fluid, a paradox worthy of Jorge Luis Borges. Some of the biographies mix the fictive with the factual; Gaston Bousquin, for example, visits Olga Orozco and writes a poem about the encounter. Some of the fictive poets know one another; Federico Silva, we learn in a bio note, lived with Antioneta Villanueva. Some of the poets have hidden identities; Lazlo Thalassa, we learn, is really Miguel Todorov. At times a fictive poet will don another mask; Maria Zafarelli Strega takes on the name Isabel Avellaneda Moncloa. And identities are so fluid that a poet might transform into other personas within a poem. In “Halloween at Friday Harbor,” Gaston Bosquin writes: “I am the canoe bundled with my bones / out of which trees bloom. / I am dizziness at the centre of light / and a cold breeze that has caressed / all early darkness.

Boyle clearly enjoys this confabulation of personas. In a “Brief Footnote” on Lazlo Thalassa, Boyle discusses “the need to write under another name”:

I remember, several years back, a friend sent me a link to a blog where a young woman had just published one of my poems and one of her friends had posted: “I’ve always loved Peter Boyle. Everybody Loves Raymond is my favorite programme. I never knew he wrote poetry.” I wanted to write and say I am not Peter Boyle the American actor, but was I sure? . . . Perhaps in some way I was him, lingering on under his name, slowly acquiring his face now he was gone.

Boyle’s sense of humor and his love of layered identity serve him well.

To further the intensity of reading this book as a kind of novel, Boyle often brings back poets we have met earlier, updating their biographies and offering further work. At the end of the book, for example, we read the latest poems by Ricardo Xavier Bousoño, entitled “Threads” due to their long, narrow structure. In these poems, quite different from his earlier “translations,” we see a man still struggling with his past. He cannot forget what the military junta did to his fellow citizens, as can be seen in this excerpt:

(for
each of us
burned into
memory
faces of those
we loved
prisoners
loaded on
planes tossed
into the white
and frozen
ocean)

Ghostspeaking succeeds in creating memorable poetry that has the added dimension of memorable characters. This is no small accomplishment. It will leave many readers wondering how Boyle was able to create such a diverse cast of personas, such a “galaxy of approaching worlds.” Much more than literary technique makes the poems in this book so effective. In a footnote, we hear one of the fictive poets argue that experimentation for the sake of experimentation fails to provide “the stuff that really matters—the horror, the beauty, the delicacy, the silence.” That’s exactly what Boyle brings us in these “translations”—the stuff that really matters.

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This Poem Is a House

Ken Sparling
Coach House Books ($15.95)

by Marissa McHugh

There are elements of magical realism throughout Ken Sparling’s This Poem Is a House, a novel in verse by a highly regarded Canadian writer. The two main characters, a boy and a girl who do not have first names, see things that are not seen in everyday life, such as the spots of a ladybug turning into a bird. The girl is a loving girlfriend, and eventually wife, to the boy; the boy is an eccentric poet whose style of writing Sparling captures perfectly:

Because every speck of wind
coming down the hill that morning
was a different speck of wind,

yet they all came down the hill together
like they were going to a party
and not each to its own destiny.

The wind is here personified as individuals each going in a fixed direction. There are hardly any harsh sounding words in this part of the poem. Wind is so ordinary, and yet it is made to sound gorgeous and aimless in these lines.

As the boy and girl continue to fall in love, conflict follows when the boy’s father passes away. The boy seems to work through his pain by rearranging furniture in the house in odd places, such as putting the dresser in the living room. The girl tries to help him through his pain by being there for him.

In magical realism, there are often shifts in time, as is in the following excerpt:

The boy’s dad died in October.
Christmas dinner that year was baloney
and honey.

Notice how the poem goes from October to Christmas without so much as a pause, and from the sad to the mundane with equal abandon. To the boy and the girl, baloney and honey might seem special since they eat mostly toast the rest of time.

Besides distortions of time, some of the passages take on dreamlike qualities. One part speaks of Jell-O seahorses riding “the waves of the bed,” taking readers to a whimsical place. Yet the book also has parts that relate to everyday life. The boy talks about leaving notes around the house to help him navigate through life: “It was like the boy set his life down / one day and then forgotten where / he put it.”

Overall, magical realism is handled well in This Poem Is a House. There are distortions of time amid a modern-day setting, and readers are taken on a magical ride with surreal elements placed in a somewhat realistic world. This Poem Is a House is the perfect read for those who enjoy the quirky and whimsical.

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The Moravian Night

Peter Handke
Translated by Krishna Wilson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux ($27)

by John Toren

Reading a new novel by Peter Handke is like taking a month-long walk in the woods. You know it's going to be hard, you know long stretches are going to be dull, but you also know there will be some surprises along the way, and you have faith (based on prior experience) that when it's all over, you'll be able to put your feet up on the ottoman, pop open a beer, and say, "There's no other trail quite like that. I'm glad I took it."

The themes of The Moravian Night resemble those of Handke's earlier novels, though they're less emphatically addressed—uneasiness about Austria, questionable but essential Balkan roots, the need for solitude tussling with the need to be seen and recognized, and the desire for peace, both personal and global. As usual, a vaguely identified "woman" figures in the narrative, passionately desired at one moment and vilified the next, yet never clearly seen.

In the novel's opening pages, friends are gathering on a houseboat tethered in the reeds on the bank of the meandering Morava River in Serbia to listen to the nameless protagonist (identified in the text as "the former writer”) tell his tale. The thread of the narrative is a "tour" undertaken by the narrator to various places in Europe, a seemingly random itinerary that might or might not have a hidden logic. It includes a long journey by bus to a graveyard presumably desecrated during the Balkan wars, an anti-noise conference in Spain, and a cross-country hike along some abandoned rail lines on the outskirts of an unnamed Austrian city. One of the most absurdly amusing sections consists of a lengthy description of an international Jew’s harp convention that “the former writer” happened upon, seemingly by chance.

Yet in comparison to earlier works such as Repetition (1986) and Across (1983), not to mention the crisp, early novella Short Letter, Long Farewell (1972), Handke's prose has become more expansive and his narrative frame more complex, as if the act of writing had actually been supplanted by the less exacting (but perhaps more truthful?) act of story-telling. The narrator sometimes chooses a word, then thinks of a different one. He hesitates, qualifies, discards his previous remark, and the result is an equivocal impression. But at other times he lets loose with a long string of concrete descriptions, and readers who can appreciate these florid litanies of sensation are in for a treat.

Among the strangest and almost hallucinogenic of these passages occurs near the end of the book, when "the former writer" reaches the town where he was born . . . and doesn't recognize it:

Day had long since arrived, and a bat zigzagged across his field of vision, teasing him. Or had it been a swallow, announcing a thunderstorm by swooping close to the ground in the sudden burst of mugginess? No, the swallows were flying around as if nothing were wrong, very high in the air, while already it was thundering and lightning: the swallows were teasing him, too. A camel ambled past, belonging to a traveling circus? No. But probably the lion did, which he heard growl just once? Or had that been a person, behind one of the closed window shutters? A cat jumped up on him, and, believe it or not, the cat crowed. A viper whipped across the road, actually a dead branch. A brake squealed, and he leaped to one side, but it was his shoes squealing. Likewise the hail of stones that made him duck came from the stones he had collected during his journey, jostling one another in his coat pocket.

Handke recognizes how old-fashioned his attachment to the immediacy of experience is. Among the small group of friends listening on the boat, one is identified as "the interrogator" who frequently challenges the more fanciful details of his narrative, asking for clarification. But a less amiable challenge is presented by a character the narrator meets on the road, a journalist who, in the most obsequious way possible, represents everything that Handke hates. The two reconnect later and the journalist says:

Let it go, my friend. I know who you are. I write, too, not only newspaper articles but also books, even novels from time to time, à mes heures, as the French so beautifully put it. I’ve been following you and your literature for a long time. Your aesthetic literature, your aesthetic books have had their day. Poetic language is dead, it no longer exists, or only as imitation, as posturing. Didn’t you yourself proclaim that you weren’t worthy of your noble profession? So why would you reproach the rest of us for our lack of dignity? We've had enough of you writers and your dignity.

Peter Handke asks a lot of the reader in The Moravian Night. It's hard to imagine that anyone not already familiar with the author's themes—with his personal history—would get deeply engrossed in this latest offering. On the other hand, its poetic prose and its romantic (no other word suffices) approach to experience calls such vaunted figures as Cervantes and Sir Phillip Sidney to mind.

Near the end of the book, having returned to his home town and grappled with the issues presented by his stay-at-home brother and deceased mother, the narrator delivers a panegyric to the "karst country" of Central Europe, part political, part geological. It's reminiscent of Ford Madox Ford's Great Trade Route—a colossal fantasy rooted in values far deeper and more attractive than anything the politicians of our own day could comprehend. A troublesome misogyny can occasionally be felt beneath the imagery, but by the time we reach the houseboat to hear the former writer's strange, dreamlike tales, he and his female companion seem to have worked things out.

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Linthead Stomp

Tim Earley
Horse Less Press ($15)

by Kent Weigle

Tim Earley’s Linthead Stomp is a book that writhes and seethes like a briar of barbed wire. The title evokes the idea of the old south, impoverished and limping along, proud of the hard life. But the book is no friend of the past. It rails against the pigheaded ways of small town Appalachia, its shortsighted religion and ignorance, yet it elegizes dead friends and family while capturing the beauty of a dying realm. It is a record of events found on the blank pages of a family Bible. The reader must prepare themselves for an arduous and unforgiving journey.

Earley’s use of mountain speech mixed with pop-culture language creates a long poem of many modes. The melange of language is apparent from the beginning: “AC ON/WINDOWS UP that’s the way we like to,” is a reference to a controversial song by the ’90s rap group, 2 Live Crew. This injection of pop culture is backed by the use of abbreviated Internet lingo—amirite, yr—contrasted with strikingly beautiful and distraught lines:

Lady deer lady meadow lady spring. Domestic sphere SPRUCED like no one has lived here like no one lives. Pappy more machine than tool. Tag. Game. Fill river with corpse light. I crossed out the fishes with rapture wishes.

The identity crisis within this book rushes the reader along in its tsunami with a strung-out and seemingly clairvoyant speaker who will tell lucid stories from his world then vomit volumes of mystical prose. While the book lacks a traditional overall narrative, small tales and longer accounts repeatedly break through to the surface. Here’s what reads like an obscene rhyme you’d find kids singing at recess:

Let me tell you about Awnie Zucker.

She named her son Motherfucker.

He started dropping goddamns by the age of six

And told his teacher to suck his dick.

Awnie toted him to Lake Patsy and chained his leg

To a concrete block and threw him in.

He was too mean to drown.

But the turtles ended up eating him after awhile.

Sections like this are what pass for breaks in Linthead Stomp; their sardonic tone gives the reader a small respite from the large blocks of prose found elsewhere. Half of the fun is surviving the onslaught and the other is experiencing Earley’s ability to break language down into its most primitive state. Some portions bypass the conscious mind and head straight for the atavistic reptile brain: “I insist on vassalage for I am an idea of whiteness ratified by spiritus animus-cherry bombs vitamixi battery-powered probal violences orgasm a scoch of feeling in the throat.” Strings of charged words allow the speaker to channel a rawness that would be hampered and civilized by syntax. Earley doesn’t just use words for their literal meaning, but also for the psychological impact. The effect is visceral, as the reader feels beaten and bloodied along with the language:

Radical thee paternost. strange vertical. stomach a lit match. gentry straight up metaphor for portcullis. gingival opium cavity oracular. The suture of migration occur in three stages language deflowered into kitty snack generator start missing its dread beat every other time guttural straggled amyth the deceased leech into wells and you only retain DECEASE instead of rotgutpuceberm . . .

These sections feel like indoctrination programs that are there to re-educate the reader, with or without their consent. In other passages, Earley weaves the telling of a story with ritualistic callbacks. One section has the speaker recounting the death of a mentally ill cousin after admission to a hospital:

I will part thy brain with a pious word I will do an exceptional job of dilating the bucolic of nothingness. She drove the three hours down, picked him up, and took him to the mental hospital in Morganton. I will parlay rumors of depravity into the shadow of my advantage. He resisted admission. Pissant poems reliquary of blood. He was held down and beaten by orderlies and placed into an isolation room.

The story ends with the death of the cousin and the lack of willingness on part of the authorities to investigate; when Earley injects the speaker’s commentary, the violence and neglect it interacts with transcends the basic revolt the reader experiences. The speaker is only telling a story and interpreting it, much like a pastor interprets and comments on scripture—the story becomes a myth.

Unabashedly blending contemporary and experimental poetry, Linthead Stomp doesn’t care one lick for the reader’s well-being. It’s wonderfully full of life, like a road-side carcass that’s belligerent enough to forget that it died. This book purposefully holds itself aloof until the end:

I do not speak for my people.

I do not speak for people.

While the language is caustic, it’s heartfelt. Earley doesn’t hold back and is completely comfortable in his craft. In this world, the reader suffers along with the speaker because there are no walls or windows to shield them.

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The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016

edited by Karen Joy Fowler
series edited by John Joseph Adams
Mariner ($14.95)

by Ryder W. Miller

Relatively new to the “Best American” anthologies, The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016 fills a gap of sorts in this distinguished series. This year’s guest editor is Karen Joy Fowler, who has written both genre fiction and work that has escaped the designation of “genre,” such as The Jane Austen Book Club. Her wonderful introduction to this anthology shows that she is living in the science fictional present, where all sorts of fantastical and inspiring stories wind up in the news. The book’s foreword, by series editor John Joseph Adams, is also fascinating, as he ventures definitions of science fiction and fantasy—genres where debates about definitions abound. In short, he suggests that Science Fiction asks “what if” and Fantasy is where the “impossible happens.” Fantasy can have magic wielders, for example; science, though, might make the impossible a reality someday.

For this series, the guest editor picks twenty stories, ten fantasy and ten science fiction, from a group of eighty (half and half also) selected by Adams and colleagues. The sixty stories not selected for inclusion are listed in a Notable Stories section at the end of the book. The sources of these stories are wide ranging, with work from some major non-genre magazines selected.

This anthology showcases some of the best writing in the field from 2015. Readers of speculative fiction will recognize some of the authors included in this volume—such as Kelly Link, Sofia Samatar, and Ted Chiang—but the anthology is diverse and includes some uncommon names as well. There are not many entries which require a great deal of world building, for space reasons no doubt; likewise, there are few technical stories for which the reader would need to understand jargon. Overall, the stories are highly accessible, with interesting ideas privileged over adventure.

Perhaps most notably, there is not a great deal of escapism here. Some say that people read genre fiction to escape reality, but this volume suggests that one might be escaping from reality by not reading. Some of these futures might be upon us someday soon. Some seem like they are already here. The stories are topical, dealing with modern warfare, technological innovation, and contemporary social issues. Not everything is for everybody, as can be expected with any anthology, but those who don’t want to venture too far into fantastical places might enjoy the wide-ranging exposure to genre writing this volume offers. One wants more when it is over—and fortunately, places to look for it are recommended.

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Rival Gardens: New and Selected Poems

Connie Wanek
University of Nebraska Press ($19.95)


by Edward A. Dougherty

Rival Gardens is the second in University of Nebraska Press’s Ted Kooser Contemporary Poetry series. In his introduction, the former Poet Laureate observes that Wanek’s poems “offer an indelible language to use while admiring our world.” This succinctly captures three hallmarks of Wanek’s work: deft use of language that sometimes feels inevitable, an attitude of admiration and wonder, and a generous inclusive embrace that breaks down the artificial borders between self and other, domestic and social, and natural and human. It’s all one world.

Rival Gardens includes hearty selections from Wanek’s three previous collections as well as an ample gathering of new work. Many “best of” collections highlight a writer’s variety; this one shows just how fine her work has been from the outset. Wanek’s imagery is consistently outstanding; it does the heavy lifting in her art. It accomplishes what Jane Kenyon once advised when she wrote that poets “need to find, among the many things of this world, a way to body forth our feeling.” Consider Wanek’s comparison that opens “Summer Night”:

The street lamp looks down;
it has dropped something
and spends the whole night
searching around its feet.

Not only is the personification descriptive of the lamp’s shape, but suggests how it (and by extension, the summer night) has an Edward Hopper sadness to it. Another example of Wanek’s deft imagery reflects a very different tone but uses the same method: “Blue Flags” describes a mountain setting where she saw the flowers, then states: “This iris is the wild blue / I’ve been lost in all my life.” Clearly, this is not about color, but rather a person’s life-search, her longing, and the not-finding. The single word “lost” suggests conflicting experiences. And that is the expansive gift of well-wrought images: they say so much that can’t be said.

The title Rival Gardens, Wanek says in an interview, comes from her own long-standing practice of gardening, but also from close proximity to the nation’s oldest community garden, where she can observe other gardeners. All this evokes the myth of Eden, but as with her earlier work, Wanek gives the Bible a wry turn. What starts in domesticity ends in philosophy, and what starts in humdrum routines ends in humor. In “Mrs. God,” she says, “Someone had to do the dirty work” like “keeping the darkness out of the light.” Wanek characterizes God as “Mr. Big Ideas” whose charm comes, in part, from his “frank amazement at consequences.” At the poem’s end, God creates free will in such an off-hand way that it’s funny, but Wanek’s last line is a zinger: “‘Let’s give them / free will and see what happens,’ / he said, ever the optimist.”

This poem, in its four quatrains, demonstrates many of the qualities that make Wanek’s poems so rewarding. From her first selection to these new poems, her language is tight with spare, essential word choice and phrasing. In “Duluth, Minnesota,” she describes a moose wandering the downtown as “a big male who left / his antlers somewhere in the woods. / He keeps checking his empty holster . . . ” These three lines evoke feeling for the lost animal, but also ideas about America’s gun culture, ideas which rather than being developed in the poem occur in the reader instead. They occur as suggestions, in part because of Wanek’s gentle humor, which is often accompanied by commentary, as in “Lipstick.” A woman is doing her morning makeup routine, then she “tested a convictionless smile / as the lipstick retracted / like a red eel.” The tone acknowledges how we all know that facing ourselves in the mirror is only occasionally a meeting between friends. Wanek’s ironies are never the sly judgment of bystanders; there’s often some element of complicity.

This inclusive quality makes the themes of Rival Gardens deeply humane. A number of elegies thread through the book, marking personal loss as one theme, but there is a fierce weft of other difficulties tugging it tight as well. This is most clearly demonstrated in poems like “Polygamy” where the opening couplet is stated in her off-hand manner, which is both disarming and stinging: “Some men don’t hate marriage, / or slavery for that matter.” The last line explores the irony more firmly: “Nor can they ever own enough land.” To body forth these ideas, the middle stanzas establish a disturbing metaphor:

When I was girl back on the farm
I surprised a wild tomcat in the hayloft.
He was eating a kitten,

its eyes still shut tight
like apple buds. The shutter clicked
as he looked at me, his expression fixed.

The visual detail of “apple buds” suits the descriptive image, but the lightness and brevity of those blossoms embody darker emotions after the line stating the tomcat’s action. Then the photographic dynamic between the child observing and the tomcat not only suspends the moment, as a snapshot does, but it reinforces the cat’s agency—in a sense it is the cat who presses the shutter button, not the girl. These images inform the ideas of the first stanza in rich and complex ways, all with emotional power and moral implications. From this, Wanek observes that “I still think he knew what he was doing, / though not why, / which makes him almost human, // or makes us almost feline.” She neatly blurs the borders, first between species, and then by suggestion between those with power and those without, between hunters and hunted. After describing that she could hear other kittens in the hayloft, she wonders, “How many did he take,” implying that this violation is a process, not an event. Revulsion at the individual ugliness converts into outrage at the deliberateness, the intimation that it could be just the beginning. If this event is prelude, the threat is enlarged. The final line extends the speaker’s consideration as she wonders, “how can I punish him?” The poem embodies a human need for justice but does so by suggesting how vengeance, a natural inclination, reverses the power dynamic: the victimized who take revenge can become victimizers when they desire to see others suffer. Wanek manages to evoke this whole story, suggest all these ideas, and arouse powerful emotions, but her spare language and tone make it seem like she’s barely broken a sweat.

It takes remarkable restraint to refine language so it is this transparent. But it is just this kind of transparency that Stanley Kunitz said he seeks in poetry: “I want to write poems that are natural, luminous, deep, spare. I dream of an art so transparent that you can look through and see the world.” Connie Wanek is achieving just such a luminous vision.

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The Frugal Poets’ Guide to Life: How to Live a Poetic Life, Even if You Aren’t a Poet

Cynthia Gallaher
Book Baby ($12.98)

by Laura Winton

Whether you are a starving poet or for some reason just want to live like one, The Frugal Poets’ Guide to Life will help you to see the beauty in the simpler things of life. The book offers an eclectic mix of poetry, memoir, cooking tips, and of course, advice for writers.

The book is divided into “sojourns” rather than chapters, implying that we are on a journey. While they mostly deal with using our inherent creativity to live simply, Gallaher also weaves a good deal of memoir into the sojourns, making this book feel reminiscent of the work of Natalie Goldberg. Gallaher tells about her path to her first job, her experiences at writer’s retreats, and a host of other experiences in the Chicago literary and artistic scenes. She occasionally addresses very practical things, like controlling the smell of your room when you travel.

There is a section on the principle of wabi-sabi, a Japanese term for seeing the beauty in imperfections. The author describes an apartment lifestyle that many of us can relate to in our twenties and thirties (and maybe beyond): a lifestyle of simplicity, where you have used furniture but rows of bookcases and notebooks full of ideas.

Sojourns seven through ten are explicitly about being a poet and specifically about being a poet in Chicago, although Gallaher also talks about taking your poetry on the road: There is information about setting up readings, and listings of several long-running poetry readings in Chicago (presumably chosen so that the book doesn’t become “dated” too quickly). She recommends you “plant your book around the world” and by “book” she means chapbook, which she also explains in detail how to create. (Despite the internet, writers still like to have an object in their hands, to give away and sell at readings and wherever they meet new people.)

The Frugal Poets’ Guide to Life is also about redefining success, about a way of looking at the world creatively. This is not an “unplug from the world” book. Gallaher describes how she and her husband will write on their own computers separately, but how they will also cuddle up together around their computers at the end of the day with each other. Still, this book is primarily for people who are or want to be poets but maybe aren’t sure about calling themselves that (yet), for the young and old alike who might dabble in poetry or art or just want to live an “artistic” lifestyle—the authentic life in which you are not concerned with what other people think, but instead with what you want.

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Driving without a License

Janine Joseph
Alice James Books ($16)

by Steve Fellner

Janine Joseph’s debut collection of poetry Driving without a License couldn’t feel more urgent. Propelled by the topic of immigration and filled with heartbreaking relevance, the book still manages to treat the subject with a unique sense of humor that feels wholly appropriate. Courage and a side-glancing wit unite, making Joseph’s collection a necessity.

First person, childhood narratives make up a good amount of the poems here, and, in the wrong hands, this could yield a mawkish tone and one-dimensional characterizations. Joseph manages to transcend any of those dangers, inspiring a jitteriness in the reader. This unnerving comedy doesn’t ward off the drama; rather, it adds another layer of intensity to the book’s depiction of very real terrors.

For example, in a poem called “Extended Stay in America,” Joseph writes about a Filipina mother who instills in her daughter the fear of being deported. Hiding in a hotel room after barreling through a Pick N’ Save to gather food and a cordless telephone, the daughter discloses the following:

I cracked

the window, left shoe marks
on the motel sheets.

High on Astro Pops
and candy cigarettes,

she said, Now
your classmates will know.

Comedy shows itself in a variety of ways. In the poem “Comeuppance,” Joseph begins with a conceit ripe with slapstick: “Maybe if when I dove into the pool my head came up / swollen and lobotomized and cuckoo in its nest.” Through the anaphora of the word “Maybe,” almost without us even noticing, she lands with an expression of unfortunate disappointment: “Maybe if my parents had signed here and signed here and signed here.

Attracted largely to couplets, Joseph does rebel at times, allowing her poems to zigzag across the page. This could be seen as a distinctly political act: her words refuse to be rounded up and immobilized.

One of the highlights of the book is a crown of seven sonnets focusing on marriage, family, and immigration. There’s a real inventiveness in the choice of rhyming words, such as “apelike”/ “turnpike.” In this crown, she surprises us with a number of different rhetorical strategies. For example, in the fourth sonnet, “Advice for Newlyweds,” she uses a strict list of commands:

Never guess down the wrong road, naturally.
Do not gesture or stumble saying Sweet-
heart
. You can be prepared to fail if you fail
to prepare. It is just an inspection.
There is nothing you need to know by heart.

The issue of time is another important theme here. For the undocumented immigrant, it is a challenge to move quickly enough not to be captured by an unjust political system. Conversely, the danger of not moving slowly enough is losing the opportunity to enjoy the freedoms and pleasures to which everyone should be entitled.

The only poem in the crown that employs an ampersand is the last, “Establishing Residence,” which makes complete sense: this punctuation mark always creates speed. Against many obstacles, our newlyweds manage to find peace in the most mundane domestic chores together, and Joseph shows us the wide-eyed joy in their peaceful (at least for the moment) routines:

Ten a.m. & he’s up & she’s up &
they are rotating the couch cushions so
the suede won’t wear. They stroll, they lunch at noon,
they touch. They wring the sheets, they giddyup.
This is us, she says . . .

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2017 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2017

Cabo de Gata

Eugen Ruge
translated by Anthea Bell
Graywolf Press ($14)

by Erin Lewenauer

Failing to connect with others, traveling aimlessly, giving oneself over to change, being lost in translation, even to oneself—these themes sway together like dust in a ray of sunlight in German novelist Eugen Ruge’s second book. His story brings to mind the poem “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg” by Richard Hugo:

You might come here Sunday on a whim.
Say your life broke down. The last good kiss
you had was years ago. You walk these streets
laid out by the insane, past hotels
that didn’t last, bars that did, the tortured try
of local drivers to accelerate their lives.

While Hugo’s writing is set in desolate towns of Montana and Ruge’s in Berlin and the small island of Cabo de Gata, an Andalusian fishing village in the south-eastern corner of Spain, they emit the same emotional echo: An anti-romantic yet magnetic insistence that this could happen to anyone, anywhere, and it probably will.

Ruge’s unnamed narrator is a writer with little holding him to his home in Berlin: his distant relationship with his father, an ex-girlfriend and her daughter, occasional work doing radio features since quitting his serious work at the Institute for Chemical Engineering one year before. He describes his life in sickening detail: “I would have a cold shower, I would go back into the kitchen, still brushing my teeth, to turn down the gas when the coffee foamed up for the first time; I would stir my muesli—four kinds of cereal flakes with apple and banana—would make my way to my desk balancing the coffeepot in my left hand.” As autumn wears down to winter he decides to leave Berlin and write his novel. With the wry humor (evident throughout) he states, “I don’t recollect in detail to whom I gave notice about what; I just gave notice to everyone and everything.”

He heads south, seeking the warmest part of Spain, hoping it will soothe his self-identified “pedantic and compulsive, reserved and secretive” personality. As he walks the beach and the promenades and writes at cafes, letting his greedy mind wander and cling to the passing lives of others, his experience is meditative and rhythmic, as is Ruge’s writing. The story appears, cast in blues and grays, images smeary, then cut. Not knowing Spanish, he’s isolated and those he meets are opaque characters, “the Englishman,” “the American.” His most involved relationship is his last, with a stray cat.

One third of the way into the book we learn that our narrator is typing this story fifteen years later on a flight from Minneapolis to Tokyo. We wonder what happened, what causes him to reflect on this period of time. We are given no easy answers. He says simply that Cabo de Gata is what “I would call the place where I spent one hundred and twenty-three days trying to write a novel.” It’s his story, with its highs and lows, loose as the sea, that he refuses to conclude, and that continues on somewhere in the distance, “like something washed up by the sea. And like something that sooner or later would be washed away again.”

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2017 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2017

A Pure Solar World: Sun Ra and the Birth of Afrofuturism

Paul Youngquist
University of Texas Press ($27.95)

by Will Wlizlo

Sun Ra believed that the best way to improve the lives of others was to help them imagine an alternate universe. He did so by playing the piano at smoky nightclubs. Over a career that spanned fifty years and 200 albums, he innovated musical techniques and created sounds that seemed to originate in a different dimension. Certainly influential to other musicians, Sun Ra would revolutionize jazz and lay the groundwork for genres as disparate as electronic dance music, classical minimalism, and noise metal. His experimental vision, hope for social change, and enduring fascination with outer space would drive his efforts to lift his fellow black Americans out of dehumanizing poverty and racial injustice.

“Brilliantly and with abandon,” writes Paul Youngquist, author of a fantastic exploration of the music of Sun Ra called A Pure Solar World: Sun Ra and the Birth of Afrofuturism, “Sun Ra crossed the inner city with outer space to create music as progressive socially as it was aesthetically.” He would ultimately land among the stars.

The story of Herman Blount, who would later change his name to Sun Ra, starts on Earth. While Blount maintained for his whole life that he was sent here from the planet Saturn, he officially grew up near Birmingham, Alabama. From an early age, Sun Ra loved music that brought folks together: the brassy swagger of big band, the kinetic crackle of swing, and the racy mystery of bebop. As an adult, he found his terrestrial headquarters in the South Side of Chicago. In the meantime, he would develop his disciplined hand, serve jail time as a conscientious objector to World War II, and admire the beautiful complexities of the night sky. While this book is not a comprehensive biography—for that, Youngquist recommends Space Is The Place: The Lives And Times Of Sun Ra (Da Capo Press, 1998) by John F. Szwed—it offers a focused discussion of the musician’s art as it intersects with the events, social currents, cultural obsessions, and political struggles of twentieth-century America.

If his imprisonment marks the birth of his political life, then moving to Chicago commenced his subversive education. Sun Ra was a voracious reader and exacting intellectual. Teetering columns of arcane books filled his apartment, with stacks rising among his spare furniture. Independent study granted him an impressive understanding of forces that have shaped world history. Youngquist expertly charts the musician’s intellectual journey, which brought Sun Ra to found Thmei Research, a secret society that doubled as a publishing house for “black counter-knowledge incommensurable with conventional academic learning.”

Creating a new mythology for disenfranchised black Americans was Sun Ra’s motive for Thmei. His gospel deprioritized Judeo-Christian thought and history in favor of something more ancient. Source material came from the world’s first civilization, Egypt, as well as a number of obscure traditions. Thmei aimed to create “an alternative tradition of greater force and promise gleaned from the combined mystical traditions of Egyptology, theosophy, numerology, and others among the occult,” writes Youngquist. If successful, Thmei could provide the intellectual building blocks to imagine an alternate reality that stands on hope, beauty, and curiosity—and rejects segregation and oppression. “They would forge political resistance,” writes Youngquist of Thmei, “from a slagheap of beliefs deemed irrational, obsolete, or just plain crackpot by Western religion, philosophy, and science.”

With the visionary foundation in place, Sun Ra rolled up his sleeves and started building a house of worship. He “labored tirelessly to improve life on planet Earth, challenging listeners everywhere to heed a simple call to joy.” Sun Ra’s work was playing and conducting music; black lives were at stake in his art. He believed that cultural excellence could be harnessed for social progress, or even social upheaval. “Instead of pursuing a solution through traditional political means,” writes Youngquist, “he turned to culture . . . to imagine and advance an alternative to an oppressive reality.”

Despite exploring Sun Ra’s unique position in civil rights discourse and practice, a sustained engagement with the movement’s other approaches—political, theological, etc.—is missing from A Pure Solar World. Did the Islamic undercurrent of the Black Power movement clash with the pantheistic utopian vision of Sun Ra’s neo-Egypt? Could the Black Church accept ecstasy that rejected Jesus Christ? Questions like these are teased but not explored deeply.

Youngquist does, however, spend plenty of time with Sun Ra in deep space. In the prime of the artist’s career, the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, into orbit. With the celestial spheres demonstrably reachable, imaginations required a new sonic vocabulary. People started to wonder not only what space was like, but what it sounded like.

“Sonically speaking, outer space was a blank slate,” writes Youngquist. “It could sound like anything, from an angelic chorus to a jet engine.” On account of space’s dark intrigue and popular appetite for lounge music, a vapidly smooth genre called “exotica” quickly became the de facto pop cultural sound of space. “Space-age pop,” Youngquist continues, “created its sonic language and then taught listeners how to hear it.” The more artistic alternative to all of this was, of course, Sun Ra, who had been hammering out joyous galactic tunes for nearly two decades.

While the invention of a cultural sonic lexicon for space is not directly related to Sun Ra’s legacy, it’s one of Youngquist’s many pleasant tangents that weaves avant-garde art into a broader cultural tapestry. Another such digression involves iridescent clothing. Sun Ra asked his band to wear outfits that looked entirely out of place on Earth—a potent mix of the pulp science fiction aesthetic, metallic silk, Egyptian iconography, and hot pants. “What place (those clothes force the question) would blacks have in the Space Age as America imagined it?” Youngquist impishly asks. In the book, the effect of these detours is reminiscent of the unexpected discussions of a college seminar.

Many of the artist’s albums feature his esoteric poetry, and Youngquist devotes many pages to the verse. He argues that Sun Ra’s writing is different than any canonical or non-canonical poetry in the Western world; that, on account of its individuality, it deserves more careful attention than it has received; and, finally, that he is probably not the ideal person to take a good stab. Nevertheless, he gives it a go.

One surprising antecedent is British romanticism, notably William Blake. “Like Blake,” Youngquist writes, “Sun Ra constructed an ideological architecture for his poems that enhances their claims. A myth sustains their meanings. And like Blake, he worked as an artist outside the industry that would claim his labor.” That said, there’s a chasm between the lyric verse that would engrave Blake in history and the “equations” found scribbled in Sun Ra’s notebooks. “Whereas conventional Western poetry celebrates particulars and eschews generalizations,” contends Youngquist, “his does just the opposite, dissolving differences into abstract equivalence.”

Fortunately, there’s an uncharacteristically straightforward poem that sums up the Sun Ra aesthetic, whether considering his music, fashion, or poetry. Here’s a snippet:

There is no place for you to go
But the in or the out.
Try the out.

This excerpt conveys Sun Ra’s broader mission to help black Americans see their situation, imagine a fairer world, and then get there. Youngquist, an English professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, does his best to break down the more ethereal aspirations of the writing. On occasions, though, the tone of the book becomes dense with jargon, disconnected, and freely associative—as if the author is hotboxing the Ivory Tower.

In addition to increasing interest in academic circles, Sun Ra boasts his share of musical adherents. As the book’s subtitle suggests, Sun Ra ushered in a worldwide aesthetic called afrofuturism; the style continues to influence mainstream and underground artists. The second black man who came from outer space, George Clinton, brought groove to the third rock with Parliament/Funkadelic, who’ve since passed the baton to genre-fluid rappers like Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino. On the cover of a recent album, the hip avant-garde saxophonist Kamasi Washington looks like an Egyptian deity, his zero-gravity afro silhouetted by an enormous moon. One of Sun Ra’s female collaborators, singer June Tyson, paved the way for R&B’s first lady of outer space, Erykah Badu. Prominent players from the band have kept the group together for more than twenty years after Sun Ra departed for his home planet of Saturn. Luckily, Youngquist devotes a whole chapter and an appended discography to help curious readers chart the sonic legacy of afrofuturism.

Sun Ra left Earth a better place than he found it. Youngquist’s deep dive into this art is creative, discursive, and probing. “While the best possible result of reading these pages would be voraciously listening to the vast array of his available recordings,” he writes in the book’s introduction, “they sound better—more purposeful and canny—to ears tuned to social frequencies.” A strictly formal critique of the musician would have generated its own insights, but by pulling the music of Sun Ra into its broader context, Youngquist engages readers in something grander. They—both Sun Ra and Youngquist—give the contentious politics of resistance, the starlit frontiers of imagination, and the contours of hope a fresh look. As Sun Ra would agree, it is only a fresh look at our world that will rocket people to a new and more splendid universe. With A Pure Solar World, we, too, are invited to try the out.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2017 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2017

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