Tag Archives: Spring 2019

“A Certain Amount of Insanity”:
Tessa Hadley in conversation
with Curtis Sittenfeld

EDITOR’S NOTE: The evening of January 24, 2019 came with sub-zero temps in the Twin Cities, but that didn’t deter a dynamic crowd from attending Rain Taxi’s first literary event of the year: acclaimed British author Tessa Hadley in conversation with Minnesota’s own Curtis Sittenfeld, author of several works of fiction (most recently You Think It, I’ll Say It) and an avowed Hadley fan. The pair had a captivating chemistry, and offered attendees a lively discussion focused on Hadley's new novel, Late in the Day (Harper, $26.99)—though it also covers composition habits, novels vs. short stories, feminism in literature, and the teaching of writing, among other topics. The transcript below has been lightly edited for clarity.


Curtis Sittenfeld: I’m sure that there are some people in the room here who have read the book, or read the reviews—but in your own words, what do you feel this book is about?

Tessa Hadley: It’s about two marriages, I suppose. And about long marriages. Because it’s been dawning on me more and more—as my own marriage has lasted longer and longer— that if people stay together, marriages last for an extraordinarily time. My parents have been together for nearly sixty years. So we think that we’re hopeless now, with so many marriages ending in divorce, but the truth is that in the old days most marriages ended with a death, quite simply. So these decades of hanging on to one person, as they change, are something new. I use this metaphor in the book somewhere—it’s drawn from a folktale—where you grab your lover and you hold him and he holds you, while he metamorphizes. I think in the folktale the lover becomes a dragon and a lion, a strange beast: we recognize all of that in our husbands and partners, I’m sure. And they recognize it in us! So, that’s sort of where it began. Two couples though, not only one—because that’s so much more fun—and then I was thinking about doing wicked things with them, so that it isn’t always so A & B and C & D, but sometimes A & C, and B & D, and so on. And then I asked myself: what’s the biggest, most monstrous change I can inflict on these four, and it was to have one of them die. My original idea had been to run the novel chronologically. Always, first of all, my idea is to run an incredibly simple, narrative line—and then that often proves to be impossible. I felt that somehow it would be cheating the reader if my character died three-quarters of the way through. It would have been mean, it would’ve been a blow, and I’m not sure that the fabric of the novel would have taken it. So as soon as I thought that actually the nicest one of the four of them drops dead, I knew the book had to begin with that. And so it does.

CS: How many pages had you written before you realized that you had to start the story that way?

TH: None. This is all thinking in advance. I don’t know what you do, Curtis, but when I’m writing one novel I would always be kind of panicky if I didn’t have another one that I’m getting ready. Some of those getting-ready ones never come to anything. But I have to be getting ready.

CS: And is the getting-ready all just thinking, or are you taking notes?

TH: A few notes, but not very many.

CS: When you thought, I’m going to start another novel, did you have multiple getting-ready ideas to choose from?

TH: No, this was the one. I probably had ten pages of notes, and bits of the people. And I’d been thinking, Well, that could happen, and then that… That’s the really thrilling creative time with a story, isn’t it? Before you’ve committed yourself to any words, or made anything that you’re then going to have to deal with as part of the fabric. Because you are just dreaming freely: and actually, you have lots of your best thoughts during that time. Do you recognize what I’m describing?

CS: Oh yeah, I think that a lot of times you can sort of cure yourself of wanting to write a story or novel by starting it. And discovering the huge discrepancy between what you imagine the quality to be, and what it is. If you were thinking about marriage as being longer, did you do any research, in terms of talking to friends or reading about marriage?

TH: No. I mean, because we just live it. What would you find out, by researching? Other stuff, I feel more guilty about not doing any research on. As for that thing that I said about marriages lasting such a short time on average in the past, I do know that’s a fact, but I didn’t find that through research; I read a history book about it twenty years ago, which just fascinated me for its own sake

CS: Because you’ve written several story collections and novels: How do you know if an idea is for a story or a novel?

TH: Well, it seems to me a short story ought to just come to you all at once—you may of course have to work it out a bit, just push it a little. Sometimes you might walk around thinking rather deliberately: I really need to write another short story. But your mind has a way of drying up when you give it that instruction. The right story usually comes sweetly, without trying too hard. On the plane from Seattle today, I got the whole of two characters—two sisters. They just delivered themselves as I looked down out of the window. Now I just need a little something to happen to them. But my two sisters can’t make a novel, I just know it. I think that the ideas for novels are more like sweated labor, I have to work harder at those. Like deciding I could make one out of those two couples. Almost I’m thinking, when I’m preparing a novel: how can I make something people will want to read? What’s fun? Which sounds like an awful thing to say about a book that begins with a death, and has got a lot of sadness in it. But in the end it’s got to be for fun, because reading novels is for pleasure. And pleasure, of course, comes in strange ways, and it comes from sad things: but in the end your role is to entertain and charm and beguile.

CS: As a reader, I can say it’s very charming and very entertaining. Regarding short stories vs. novels, do you enjoy writing one more than the other? Or do you feel any pressure from your publisher? Certainly in the U.S., any commercial publisher, or mainstream publisher—as opposed to independent publisher—would dramatically prefer that their writers pick novels, because they are much more widely purchased.

TH: And that’s true even more so in the U.K., because at least here in the U.S. you have some wonderful outlets for short stories—we have none. Well, next to none. We have Granta, which is now full of Americans anyway.

CS: Sorry!

TH: You’re just too damn good at them! It’s really not fair. But otherwise . . . almost nothing.

CS: Is writing stories something that you do for your own pleasure and writing novels something you do because your publisher wants them?

TH: I like both. Probably if I were more commercially-minded, then I would be writing more novels.

CS: Back to this particular novel . . . is there a section that you want to read that either would intrigue us or that captures the essence of it?

TH: This book actually hasn’t come out in the U.K. yet, so reading from it is really new for me. I’ve just done three readings so far; I haven’t even got to know how it sounds yet. Already, though, I can see that it’s very tempting to read the beginning over and over, but I’d like a change from that. I’ve already hinted that Zachary drops dead in the book’s opening pages. I’m going to read you from the second day. Friends and family are in absolute meltdown and shock, and they’ve all gathered at Christine and Alex’s home. They’ve invited Zachary’s wife Lydia to stay with them, his brother is staying with them, his daughter is staying with their daughter. The family and a few intimate friends have eaten together—they’ve managed to eat something for the first time in 48 hours. They’ve said words, but it’s still catastrophe-time. Christine and Alex, are Lydia and Zachary’s best friends, and as the book goes on we drop back to see the four of them together in their twenties, and then in their thirties, and then in their forties—so that we see lots of Zachary alive in the rest of the book. I’m going to read from a section where Christine and Alex—Lydia is asleep, or lying awake downstairs—are going to bed together on the first real night they’ve had since their friend’s sudden death.

(reads passage)

Hmm, I read you a very dark part of the book.

CS: Well, I feel like we can be your test run. There are shifting viewpoints in the book; do you feel like you have a favorite character?

TH: I don’t know that I have a favorite character, but maybe there’s one that I found most congenial to write, and it’s probably Christine. In some way she was natural and easy for me. I think I’ve done more with her than I have with the other three. Which one did I like best? I don’t even know. When you know people as intensely as I knew them from writing them and watching and studying them, then those judgements of liking and not liking fall away, don’t they?

CS: I do think that the question of whether a character is likeable comes up much more often among reviewers and readers who are not writers themselves. Do you agree with that?

TH: Yes, definitely.

CS: With the forthcoming paperback of my short story collection, there are discussion questions for reading groups, and I ghost-wrote some of them. And I wrote one that said something like: Do you think that Curtis Sittenfeld’s aim is for her characters to be likeable? I couldn’t believe that the publisher let me get away with it, but they did.

So the character of Christine, she’s a painter. I try not to do this, but I find it irresistible—whenever there’s a character who has some sort of artistic pursuit, it seems like so often, the description of that artistic pursuit could describe writing or the act of writing. Does her painting feel like a stand-in for writing for you personally or generally?

TH: Yes, to some extent. I wanted her to have that thing, that creative work, at the centre of her life. There’s a passage just before what I read, where she first hears the news of the death and she goes downstairs and locks up her studio and thinks that this has been the place that’s most important to her. Nobody else necessarily knows that about her; it’s private. I kind of have some of those same feelings about my desk. But at the same time, when you’re writing a book about a visual artist, you feel a responsibility to make that art work quite different from the work a writer does—as realistic-feeling as you can. So she isn’t a writer and she’s not me. But I was interested in a woman who was more and more drawn into doing her work and loving it. I was imagining this lovely, happy, fulfilled work and then this personal catastrophe just sort of smashing across that, seeming to spoil it.

CS: But the painting did feel very persuasive as itself, and also in terms of what it gave her emotionally—that resonated so much for me, that it comes from her but it’s so surprising and so consuming. I’m interested in the way you write about women. I think that all of your characters are three dimensional and have these rich inner lives. Somehow that can get conflated with feminism. Do you feel that your work is making a comment on women’s shifting roles? Obviously some of your characters have lived—maybe they were born in the ’50s or a lot has changed during their lifetime. Is there a way of summarizing what you are trying to say or do you feel that they are their own story and it’s not an essay or bumper sticker?

TH: It’s not an essay or a bumper sticker, but feminism is so interesting. How could one not have it filling out the world of the characters that I describe? My fascination is with men and women and their relationships, and women’s relationships together—for that matter, men’s relationships together, which I don’t feel nearly as expert in, though I’m just as interested in it. It’s true, I think that women struggle with writing men alone together, without women, actually.

CS: That’s interesting to think about. Are you familiar with the Bechdel test?

TH: Yes, I often think of it. It’s where you must have a scene with women alone together, without men present, and where the women aren’t talking about men.

CS: And the women have to be named, right? It’s a movie test, which a shockingly high proportion of movies fail.

TH: I think that I was consciously aware of that. My women do quite a lot of talking about men, I’m afraid. Partly because I notice that that’s what women do actually do, especially when they’re younger. Perhaps they get less interested as time goes on. We come to have other things to talk about.

CS: Before we turn over to the audience, I want to ask a few questions about the arc of your career. If I’m not mistaken, you were forty-six when your first book was published; I was reading some interviews with you and something you said was: “I wouldn’t change having had that twenty years of no one listening to me.” And then during those years when you were writing but maybe had not yet been published, you said this about writing: “I couldn’t do it and I couldn’t not do it.” When did you start trying to be published and how do you think it affected your perspective or the work itself?

TH: I always wanted to be a writer. And I think one has to have—and I don’t know if you agree with this, Curtis—a certain amount of insanity, to do it. An insane perseverance, against all of the thwarting and the failure and the flatness and deadness on the page that you talked about, when you‘re striving with a false idea. Only in my case, there were several whole books that I wrote for two years each: writing sort of secretly, slightly ashamedly and furtively. To my lovely family and friends, how embarrassing to say: I’m writing a novel. And then the novels were really no good, and in my heart of hearts somewhere all the time I was working on them, I knew that. And I knew nothing about publishing. I usually just sent the finished book to one publisher —and when they sent back a form letter that says something like: we do not think you are suitable for our list, I would just think: “No, I know. The book was awful, you’re right, and I won’t try and do it again.” And then I would give up for awhile, until I was seized again by the insanity of feeling I had to have another try, start over. If I wanted to diagnose myself, I would say that I’m very impressionable and I’m easily in love with other writers’ work. I was trying to write other writers’ books. Some novelists begin so young with their own strong stamp, which is brilliant. That wasn’t how I was. So I tried to write other people’s books: and therefore there are some terrible wrong novels of mine rotting in landfill somewhere.

CS: How recently have you looked at any of those books?

TH: Oh they’re gone. They are really in landfill.

CS: Really?

TH: Yes.

CS: Because I feel like the fact that one publisher turned them down, doesn’t—

TH: No, but I knew. The books were awful.

CS: Did you have some breakthrough? Was it Accidents in the Home, the first one that was published, or . . . ?

TH: I went on a writing course. Like an MFA. I was very skeptical and scornful of courses. I thought, no writer I respect has ever been on a writing course. But I also thought, I must have a watershed, I must test this thing, because if I just carry on failing I’m going to have a very miserable life. So, I applied to study for a Creative Writing MA. And it’s true that nobody can teach you to write, nobody taught me to write. But something about having a real audience at last—instead of thinking vaguely I want to be Tolstoy, or J. M. Coetzee, or Nadine Gordimer, and writing for no one—that was crucial. Suddenly, I was writing for five people on Thursday, and—it sounds so banal, but I was asking myself: What would they like? What would be fun to read to them? It was as if I took control of my material, on my own terms, in some way. Also, there’s a degree of competitiveness. I would think, oh she was good last week. . . . I can do that better. Anyway it was a wonderful year, and I loved it.

CS: It was just one year?

TH: It was an MA, just one year. And the book I wrote that year was a hybrid, so it was actually all over the place, not a success in itself. But at last I was writing little passages which I knew were much better. And I was writing some short stories too—actually I still had no clear idea of how to write a novel, but I seemed to be able to get somewhere with the short stories. So I thought: what if I wrote a succession of short stories, about the same people, in chronological order? I had learned how to achieve that sprung tension that holds a short story together, makes something happen. Also, I learned how to be in control. I could think: make this better. Make something happen, twist things around at the end. Until then I had almost written as if I was reading the books I was writing, wondering what was going to happen next. That’s no good, is it? It’s your book, you’ve got to decide, you’ve got to make something happen. It’s up to you to take charge.

CS: If I’m not mistaken, you were pretty quickly teaching in the program where you had been a student. Are you still teaching there?

TH: I am, but I am going to retire. I’ve done it for about twenty one years now.

CS: And have you enjoyed the experience? None of us will tell, we’re far away from—

TH: I have loved it. When I first worked there, I was teaching literature rather than creative writing. I loved that. One of my thoughts, at the end of the MA - because I still hadn’t written anything that was right yet, although I was more hopeful—I thought: this is going to make me miserable if I go on failing, so let’s try doing the other thing that’s so much easier. Let’s teach literature. And I had a joyous time teaching undergraduates about all the books I loved.

CS: And then how long did you do that until you started teaching creative writing?

TH: For years I did both, and then I began cutting back the literature teaching, simply to have more time for my own writing.


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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2019 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2019

Empty Words

Mario Levrero
translated by Annie McDermott
Coffee House Press ($16.95)

by Adrian Glass-Moore

I’m writing this review by hand, something I rarely do. No matter how hard I try, I find it impossible to write legibly, let alone beautifully, and my handwriting has been this bad since at least high school. But if I’m to follow the example set by Mario Levrero, I should try my best not to get distracted from the task of handwriting.

Empty Words is the first novel to be translated into English by the Uruguayan author Levrero (1940-2004). Originally published in 1996, the book follows the attempts of the narrator (a stand-in for the author who, for the purposes of this review, I’ll call Levrero) to improve his handwriting through daily writing exercises. He hopes this “self-therapy” will help him improve in other areas of his scattered life, but when he sits down to his exercises, he can’t help but be distracted. Noise, heat, life responsibilities, family members, pets, and his own mind all conspire against him. He records these distractions, incorporating them into the exercises, although this results in a contradiction: without the distractions, Levrero would supposedly be happier, but the book would be less interesting. He writes: “If I want my handwriting to be good, I can only write about my handwriting, which becomes very monotonous. But writing only about my handwriting keeps my mind on what I’m doing and means I form the letters properly.”

Empty Words contains two threads: the handwriting exercises (complete with distractions) and what Levrero calls “The Discourse,” which has the stated aim of being about nothing. These two threads are interspersed throughout and every entry is dated. In the “Discourse,” Levrero believes writing about nothing will eventually reveal something authentic. “There’s a flow, a rhythm, a seemingly empty form; the discourse could end up addressing any topic or idea.” As with the writing exercises, the rules here are strictly limiting. Seen another way, they are freeing. By throwing off the burden of an idea, Levrero can follow his “Discourse” wherever it takes him. He quickly turns to his dog, Pongo, as subject matter. “It’s false content,” Levrero writes, “or perhaps semi-false, since, like all things, it could easily be seen as symbolic of other, deeper things.”

Levrero writes about gradually pushing open a gap in the fence so that Pongo could escape. When the dog returns from its disappearance with a bad eye injury, the author is overwhelmed with guilt. But what did he expect? Throughout the book, Levrero demonstrates a habit of falling into his own traps. It might be that Levrero focuses so much of the “Discourse” on the needy and neglected Pongo because he sees so much of himself in the dog. If he notices this parallel, he doesn’t say. The author admits to being afraid that the reader “who isn’t me would have already have found something of the true content of the discourse in these lines. . . . How humiliating to give myself away to the reader before I’ve given anything away to myself, blissfully unaware that anything’s been given away at all!”

When Levrero turns his attention to an impending move, his anxiety ratchets up, and when he moves into the new house and notices a nearby electric substation that won’t stop buzzing, he feels even worse. In response to this and other frustrations—including the demands of his nagging child Ignacio and his partner Alicia, who he thinks doesn’t understand his decision-making process—he retreats into his exercises: “Concentration. Relaxation. Focus on forming the letters and focus on your muscles.”

Given how unhappy he is with his surroundings, why doesn’t Levrero pack up and leave? Is he afraid of returning, like Pongo, with some injury inflicted by the outside world? “When you reach a certain age, you’re no longer the protagonist of your own actions: all you have left are the consequences of things you’ve already done,” he writes. “I can’t get free of the tangle of consequences, and there’s no point trying to be the protagonist of my own actions again, but what I can do is find my lost self among these new patterns and learn to live again, only differently.”

What I’ve written down is barely legible, especially the letters g and r. I wasn’t able to concentrate on forming the words because I was too distracted by the difference between Mario Levrero and the character Mario Levrero created of himself. On the bright side, there were no interruptions.


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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2019 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2019

The Popol Vuh

translated by Michael Bazzett
Milkweed Editions ($16)

by Maximilian Heinegg

The Popol Vuh, literally the “book of the woven mat,” is equal parts creation tale, hero’s journey, and genealogy of the K’iche’, the indigenous people of Guatemala. Named for where the K’iche’ would sit to hear the story recited by a tribal elder, the work informed the Mayan worldview before their confederacy of city-states fell to a combination of drought, disease, war, and exhausted natural resources. While original Maya script was logographic (the oldest kind of writing) and written in folded codices of fig bark, The Popol Vuh text was written down by K’iche’ elites around 1554-1558; it was probably transcribed from an oral performance in an effort to preserve their history from the destruction authorized by Spanish missionaries. In 1701-1703, Francisco Ximenez, a Dominican friar, copied the work and translated it into Spanish to help priests refute the K’iche’ religion, which he thought Satanic. Hundreds of years passed until the book began to receive attention in 1941, when Adrian Recinos discovered it in the Newberry Library in Chicago. Since then, The Popul Vuh has been translated into multiple languages, and is now considered a classic of world literature. Counter to his intent, Ximenez’s work ultimately gave Guatemala its national book, and preserved the mythological mind of the Maya that he worked to convert.

Michael Bazzett, a contemporary poet, improves upon previous translations of The Popul Vuh in regards to accessibility, fluidity, and lyricism. To illustrate, we can compare translations of the scene in which the Maya Hero Twins Hunahpú and Xbalanqué dance before tricking the Lords of Death into sacrificing themselves. First is Dennis Tedlock’s 1996 prose translation: “And then the hearts of the lords were filled with longing, with yearning for the dance of Hunahpu and Xbalanque.” Then, here is Allen Christensen’s 2007 “literal verse translation”:

Rejoice their hearts

One Death,
Seven Death.

Like these they dance
They sense it.

Finally, here is Bazzett’s rendering:

One Death and Seven Death
rejoiced in their hearts,
as if they’d done it themselves

as if they’d entered and felt
the pulse of the dance.

Using enjambment, modernizing the syntax, and taking liberties with the text, Bazzett gives us a more vividly imagined poem. Tedlock reads easily, Christensen is the most accurate, but Bazzett makes the Mesoamerican epic come alive, adding clever bits like starting the story’s ritual ballgame with the classic American phrase, “play ball.” Dividing the book’s columns of unlineated prose into four parts, he creates sensible divisions so the creation story bookends the monomyth. Adding chapters where Ximenez placed gaps in his translation, Bazzett gives the reader breaks. Using lines of tetrameter and trimeter, the narrative flows easily, a la “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Bazzett’s decision not to translate the second half of the epic, a tribal history of the K’iche,’ leaves us the most relatable parts of the epic, making it about the length of Beowulf (and one-fifth of the Odyssey).

Although the influence of Christianity is present, the book is not merely a hybrid. The gods speak the world into existence, but only to be worshipped. When the first versions of humanity are deemed a failure, a flood is sent that makes God’s judgment seem like a slap on the wrist. There is a forbidden tree in Xibalba (the underworld), but it has a severed head in it; there is forbidden fruit, but Lady Blood wants to taste it without being tricked; her godlike sons are conceived sexlessly from spittle, and they die so humanity can be (re)born, but they ritually sacrifice and reincarnate themselves to do it! Lady Blood (female sacrificial blood was used to conjure spirits) is like Mary and Eve, but she’s her own phenomenal woman. She’s from the underworld (her father is one of the Lords of Death), so when she becomes pregnant, she has to fake her own sacrificial death to leave, and her actions pave the way for the creation of humanity. So while the Christian elements are visible, the original can be detected readily in the Hero Twins: From their grandmother’s chili broth to their bird-killing blowguns, from Hunahpu’s beheading (by a bat!) to their apotheosis as the sun and moon, the pulse of the tale is Mayan.

With Bazzett’s translation, The Popul Vuh has been reincarnated—not in its original logographic form, nor in transliterated K’iche’, nor in the Spanish of Ximenez, but in a clear, elegant English that allows the reader to visualize the epic adventures of the Hero Twins and the universal story of human creation. It’s a boon for readers everywhere.


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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2019 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2019

Two Takes: Aviaries

Review by Jeff Alford     |       Review by Seth Rogoff

Aviaries
Zuzana Brabcová
translated by Tereza Novická
Twisted Spoon Press ($16)

reviewed by Jeff Alford

Composed like a twenty-first century flashback to Nikolai Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman,” Zuzana Brabcová’s excellent, final novel Aviaries is a surrealist collage of memories, anxieties, and fantasies. Loosely episodic, Aviaries follows the daily journals of a mother fading into obscurity: although full of unconditional love for both her daughter and aged mother, she feels too far removed from both generational poles to be an effective feminine force. She drifts through her past and through cut-up histories (both contemporary and long forgotten) in search of some kind of resonance amidst all the meaninglessness around her.

Brabcová’s prose rests comfortably, strangely, in between, caught somewhere in the middle of past and present, fantasy and reality, literature and poetry. Lines from psalms by Czech poet Ivan Diviš are scattered throughout the book, seamlessly integrated between blurry dream sequences. Aviaries repeatedly spirals out in madcap surreality, all while humming with a real-life relatable humility. In one scene, the narrator visits her psychiatrist, Dr. Gnuj (“Jung” in reverse), and while it’s easy to get unglued amidst the novel’s trippy waiting-room antics featuring talking masks and a lounge piano, the fantasies melt away as the narrator learns she could collect disability benefits on account of her being unfit to work.

Seemingly non-sequitur vignettes are riddled throughout Aviaries; as jarring as they are memorable, they expand the book’s themes of interstitiality. In one, Brabcová recounts a “fatal printing error” in which “Gennady Musatov’s illustrations to Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov went astray and ended up in the Czech edition of In Search of Lost Time.” In a later diary entry, the narrator explains “while the contours of some memories were preserved and stayed intact, others collapsed and blended together.” In a digression about Rorschach tests, “even memory is just a play of colors and shapes behind eyelids shut in a desire for non-existence.” These moments transform the novel into something larger than simply an experimental work about memory and surrealism; Brabcová circles around a metaphysical, inescapable transition, when a person’s presence and influence dissipates into another’s remembrance.

The relationship between the narrator and her daughter, a dumpster-diving punk named Alice, provides some clues. In another drifting memory, “this was an image of you, Alice,” she recalls. “You’re already dissolving, receding, changing, thinning, waning into the distance, and yet it’s as if someone has burned the image into the back of my brain.” By the end of the novel, she finds a way to untangle Jung: Brabcová includes a passage directly from the psychoanalyst, which details his understanding of the female archetype and her spirit (which he calls the “Kore”):

The psyche pre-existent to consciousness (e.g., in a child) participates in the maternal pysche on the one hand, while on the other it reaches across to the daughter psyche. We could therefore say that every mother contains her daughter in herself and every daughter her mother, and that every woman extends backwards into her mother and forwards into her daughter.

The fractured, psychologically prismatic Aviaries could be considered a diagram of a mother’s brain. Despite its nightmarish hallucinations, talking animals, hidden traumas, and journal entries with dates like “the Fifty-first of Marchember, 2851,” Aviaries, above all, is about motherhood in flux. Brabcová hides a devastating layer at the novel’s core about mothers continuing to live through the lives of their daughters, and shows the struggle of one mother coming to realize the increasing importance of her memories and the woman she was, and how these past moments may overshadow any further potential left in her life.


Aviaries
Zuzana Brabcová
translated by Tereza Novická
Twisted Spoon Press ($16)

reviewed by Seth Rogoff

Aviaries begins in the days after the death in 2011 of the political dissident, playwright, and first post-communist Czech President Václav Havel. Soon after Havel’s passing, the novel’s narrator Běta, opens up a comments stream under an online article about him and finds the post, “Hope he’s rotting in hell.” She reflects, “In the murk of scum, in the silent and holy night, revulsion stirred.”

Havel’s loss sets the stage for this bewildering book. If Havel represents the triumph of good over evil, hope for a better future, and humanism winning out against totalitarianism, his death symbolizes the vanishing belief in the promise of a euphoric post-totalitarian era. More than that, Havel’s death seems to have awoken powerful social forces made up of people who never believed in the causes he represented. In Aviaries, the crashing down of this grandest of national myths splinters into a fragmentary narrative amid a surreal and bleak urban landscape—one that feels horrifying true. Post-Havel Prague, in Brabcová’s vivid imagination, is a world of fetishistic materialism, neoliberal social disaster, sickness, and death. An uneasy refrain echoes through the book’s pages, setting the novel’s mood: “Something is happening. Something’s in the air. Something isn’t right.”

Aviaries is structured as a collection of textual fragments written or curated by Běta, a woman in her mid-fifties. Běta has been out of work for over a year when the novel opens. Her daughter Alice has left Prague for the south of Spain, where she has embraced an anti-materialist lifestyle and the practice of dumpster diving. In addition to being poor, Běta also suffers from mental illness, and parts of the narrative flow through her visits to the psychiatrist Doctor Gnuj. Together, the breakdowns of her family structure and health push Běta to the social margins, isolating her socially and economically. This alienation sharpens her ability to observe the details of everyday life among other specters of the metropolitan periphery—the poor, the homeless, the addicts, the chronically insane. The process of untethering from the “normal” opens up Běta to a kind of truer vision of the world, despite the vision’s temporally chaotic, fantastical quality. This irony—the imaginative and surreal as truer than the real—is reflected in an interaction between Běta and Doctor Gnuj, when the psychiatrist tells her: “Your inner world is like that basement lair of yours. Kick down the doors, file through the bars! Do you even notice the world around you?” Běta responds, “I do. Don’t you worry. I know well enough what the world around me lives for: the season of wine tastings and exhibitions of corpses.”

Two relationship triads provide a modicum of structure to the book. The first and most significant triad is that between Běta, her aged mother, and her errant daughter Alice. More than any other element, this generational dynamic creates a temporal rhythm in Aviaries, blending past and present, gesturing toward the future: “One minute Alice is bouncing around in the blueberries, she’s two years old, the next she’s barely hobbling along, an old woman she is yet to become.” Or this startling line, after Běta witnesses a girl wearing a Microsoft T-shirt, a junkie, “writhing and undulating” against the “piss-soaked wall” of a bus stop, “long past due for the morgue.” Běta tells her daughter, “In another time and place this was an image of you, Alice. You’re already dissolving, receding, changing, thinning, waning into the distance.” Brabcová deploys the figure of the snake, with its Jungian overtones of both creativity/fertility and destruction/death/danger, to hold this triad in a quivering relational field:

I’m coming back home, down the hallway by the basement stalls. . . . Above my head, the lights turn on automatically, one by one. I suddenly spot a snake edging toward me across the concrete floor. It goes still. I go still. It raises its head, flat and speckled. We watch each other warily, a barely audible hiss from the light bulbs.

The second relational triad connects Běta with the homeless lunatic Melda and to the girl in the Microsoft T-shirt, who eventually comes to squat in the “ruin” across the street from her apartment. Melda seems to be Běta’s playful double. With Melda, Běta slips into a parallel mode of existence in which mundane scenes of poverty and degradation transform into a realm unbound by the straightjacket of realism. A trip to the supermarket, for example, ends with the following: “But the Harpies at the checkout counters, half-women and half-bird, those goddesses of storm winds, let us pass through without a fuss, as though we were two transparent fly wings passing them, the crackling wing-cases of nothingness.” If the symbol of the generational triad is the snake, that of the lunatic triad is the caged bird; after Melda’s disappearance from the basement, Běta runs into him while in IKEA with her sister, and finds him “completely plastered with black feathers like a raven puppet.” She asks where he lives now:

He stayed silent for an unusually long time. . . .
“It’s a secret, but I’ll tell you . . . Every day I wait here till nine when IKEA closes. Then I hide in one of the storage spaces in the bedroom department, and I come out when the coast is clear and it’s all empty and quiet. At night I wander around a quiet IKEA that belongs to me alone.”

The bleaker version of Melda’s absurd capitalistic aviary is the cage of the girl with the Microsoft T-shirt. She has come to occupy the dilapidated building across the street, and appears in the space just as Melda vanishes—Melda’s creative lunacy morphing into a dismal, hopeless, self-destructive madness. Běta describes the scene when she offers the girl a bread roll: “She snatched it out of my hand and bit into it greedily. I looked around: no guts, no lungs, no liver—just a layer of plaster on a cement floor, just boarded-up windows, just a layer of plaster on the girl’s sores, just her eyes boarded up.”

Aviaries is an unsettling, provocative novel that gets richer with each successive reading—and it demands and inspires multiple readings. Tereza Novická’s translation sparkles, moving fluidly across Brabcová’s intricate assemblage, and the novel’s haunting refrain seems perfect, a mantra for our age: “Something is happening. Something’s in the air. Something isn’t right.”

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Wild Milk

Sabrina Orah Mark
Dorothy, a publishing project ($16)

by Rachel Hill

It is difficult to know how to define what scuttles, mutters, and lactates across the pages of poet Sabrina Orah Mark’s newest collection Wild Milk. Are these bewildering fables? Mumbling poems? Truncated shorts? Whatever they are, one thing is clear: They are excellent.

Surreal and experimental, it is no surprise that Wild Milk is released by Dorothy, a publishing project, a small press established by Danielle Dutton specializing in literary fiction by women. Among Dorothy’s other titles is The Collected Stories (2017) of surrealist artist Leonora Carrington, a writer of bizarre fairy-horrors which has clearly influenced Mark’s work.

The collection’s title story, “Wild Milk,” handily encompasses many of the book’s consistent themes of motherhood, anxiety, and the limits of language, as expressed through a glitchy dialogue and veers into the unexpected. The protagonist, a nameless mother, leaves her child in the daycare of Miss Birdy. Later, discussions about this child’s behaviour quickly devolve into musings on ephemerality: “‘It was a sound that sounded like a sound,’ says Miss Birdy. ‘Like a sound a sound would make.’” Mark’s chanting words use absurd tautologies to breed half-glimpsed new meaning and musicality, imbuing the concept of sound with an almost creaturely agency.

“Tweet” also mobilizes repetition and the absurd, to illustrate how perception is put through the daily meat-mincer of social media. In a frenzy, we are told, “The towel is tagged. We take turns touching the tag. God, it is lovely. It is a lovely, lovely tag. That we should all one day be tagged by a tag as lovely as this tag.” With the relentlessness of an out-of-control conga line, “Tweet” excellently captures a culture of constant distraction, where the glitter of temporary stimulation runs concurrently with the news cycle’s breakneck speed. Rather than mothers, here we are all rendered children, breathing only through the oxygen of attention. To extract oneself from this digital twittering milieu is to become exposed, left leaderless and asking, “Who will keep us warm? How am I supposed to know where to go?”

Lack of substantial leadership is elegantly addressed in the post-apocalyptic “For the Safety of Our Country.” It begins with a list: “Today is a new batch. The Presidents come from all over. Perishable Presidents in thinning sweaters. Presidents bent like moons.” So the Presidents arrive at the White House, disembarking from a school bus like a band of unruly children. Set against a background of environmental collapse, where “it might have rained had rain not ended,” the world the Presidents should save and protect instead becomes a source of extreme discombobulation for them. With its sense of metaphysical grief and inured disappointment, this story demonstrates how necessary Samuel Beckett and the theatre of the absurd are for Mark’s work.

On the whole, these stories have the saturnine gorgeousness of a lepidopterist’s collection—each story a different breed, each sentence a different wing-facet, each word another enticement. Mark’s work crystallizes how the absurd is not only a reasonable response to our untenable now, but displays how the silliest-seeming of responses can harbor the most succinct of critiques. Alongside its lavish sparseness and knife-fight speed, these stories are also surprisingly funny. We may have heard of writing as protest, but here is writing as riot.

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Light Reading

Stephan Delbos
BlazeVOX ($16)

by Kenneth J. Pruitt

“Light reading” is an odd little phrase that stands in for myriad literary desires, typically ones that involves easy digestion. When the world is too much, we occasionally want our free time spent with books that do not require too much of us. In an era of collusion investigations, climate change denial, and rising nationalism, it is hard to deny ourselves such escapism.

Stephan Delbos, a poet based in Prague, manages a clever feat with his new collection, Light Reading—he crafts an easily accessible opening with self-aware poems that lure the reader in and gain their trust for the more challenging poems that follow. The collection is set up in three parts: The first title section mostly contains extremely short poems that hinge on final information discovered via the title, which is printed after the body text, springing the reader back to the top again upon completion. A majority of the time, these please with satisfying humor or astute observation. For example, the entirety of the poem “Fight/Flight” is: “they came for me I was gone.” This style impresses best when the micro-form directly augments the content at hand. “Fifty-Year Flood” reads:

water bridges

bridges

Here, form equals content equals form in a tightly wound poetic machine.

The second section, “Bagatelles for Typewriter,” is the longest and most ambitious section, and like most attempts at innovation, it yields mixed results. According to the poet’s notes, a bagatelle is “a French term meaning a trifle. It is most often associated with short classical music compositions.” With the reader’s only clue that the poems are trifles, one is made to wade through a vast collage of literary references and sharply specific images that are all sussed out in the poet’s notes at the end. Without the notes; they can be difficult to navigate; nonetheless, there are jewels to be found. The last four zigzagged gorgeous lines for “Bagatelle for Györgi Ligeti, Eternal Light & Honeycomb” are:

when we call for silence
we only want
the single sound
foghorn or boatman’s call

The third and final section, “Arrangements,” contains poems that are all catalogs or lists of ten, but lists of poems themselves. After a few predictably executed poems within this template, things start to get pleasantly weird. Instead of lines like “1. A poem in terza rima / 2. A poem of 18 lines,” the external world creeps in with lines like “7. A parquet jigsaw / 8. Childhood sleepovers and Micro Machines.” These imagistic cracks in the expected flow of the list format become narratives that readers can hang their own experiences on, connective tissues around which the speaker builds the poetics posited therein. In other words, the most successful poems in this third section become more than just the sum of their parts.

The same could be said for most of what works in this challenging collection. Delbos approaches his craft without any semblance of fear, and seems to expect that same thing of his readers. How refreshing.


Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2019 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2019

Cathedrals & Parking Lots:
Collected Poems

Clemens Starck
Empty Bowl ($20)

by John Bradley

Given that so many poets support themselves by teaching, there’s a surprising disclosure in the biographical note included in Clemens Starck’s Cathedrals & Parking Lots: Collected Poems: “A Princeton dropout and former merchant seaman, he has supported his literary and intellectual interests for more than fifty years by working with his hands, mainly as a carpenter and construction foreman.” Most of these collected poems, drawn from six previously published books, spring directly from Starck’s working life, testifying to years of physical labor. They also display a seemingly effortless craftsmanship.

Work as a subject in American poetry has been and still is unusual. Philip Levine comes to mind, but after that it’s hard to think of a poet who devoted books of poetry to this topic. Starck has much to say about labor, such as in “Slab on Grade,” about pouring concrete:

What could be flatter or more nondescript
than a concrete slab?
For years people will walk on it,
hardly considering that it was put there
on purpose,
on a Thursday in August
by men on their knees.

The fact that physical labor and laborers are unappreciated in our nation perhaps offers one reason why we don’t see more poets writing about work. “Me and Maloney” offers another reason. At first the poem seems as if it’s about the camaraderie of workers: “And I’m left with Maloney, / who likes to drink beer after work / and tell stories. / Construction stories. Ex-wife stories.” Then the stories start to feel unsettling, “like how he clubs possums to death with a two-by-four.” The very last stanza reveals why the speaker must drink with Maloney and listen to his creepy tales:

I work
for Maloney Construction.
When it rains we work in the rain. When it snows
we work in the snow.
I am Maloney’s right-hand man:
When he laughs, I laugh too.

Not all of Starck’s work poems are grim, however. There’s often playfulness. In “Keats and Shelley,” for example, we learn about a worker much taken with the poetry of the Romantics and their ilk. Well, perhaps there’s an element of envy too: “Tenured now / in the English Department of every university, / they’re resting on their laurels.” The speaker asks a friend, Ernie, what he thinks of the two “immortal poets”:

“Keats and Shelley?
You mean Sheets & Kelly. Used to be
a plumbing contractor
in Springfield.”

One of the main influences on Starck’s writing style can be seen in many of his poem titles: “Two Chinese Poets,” “In the Middle of the Night, Waking from a Dream of My Children, I Go Downstairs and Read Du Fu,” “The Chinese Way.” His reading of classic Chinese poetry helps explain his directness, his ability to make poems into an intimate construct of thought and emotion, always located in a time and place. In “On My Way to Work I Pass Bud’s Auto Wrecking and Think about Su Dongpo,” for example, he admits that Bud’s Auto Wrecking “is not something you’d expect to find / in a Song dynasy / landscape painting.” (179) And yet he soon sees a figure there who resembles Su Dongpo. This perception collapses in the last stanza:

Wait a minute! That’s not Su Dongpo,
it’s me—stumbling along
with my toolbox and an instruction manual,
a funny-looking, bald-headed old geezer who doesn’t
really need
parts for a Volvo, although
you never know . . .

As for so many American poets, such as Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder, Carolyn Kizer, and many others, classical Chinese poetry offers a class in poetics for Starck.

Cathedrals & Parking Lots shows the author writing ably on subjects other than labor—Barbara Stanwyck, the Red Sox, his cat Misha, and yes, love. But it’s the poems about the working life that reverberate long after you leave this book. A poem like “Dismantling,” about workers making a house “disappear,” (66) haunts us with its detail, simplicity, and sly humor. Here’s how it ends:

And when we have finished,
what will there be at Ninth and Van Buren?
A square of bare earth
where a house was.
Sidewalk. Foundation. Concrete stoop.
Two steps up
and you’re there.

Like that foundation and concrete stoop, the poems of Clemens Stark appear to be simple, but they’re built to endure.


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The Dream of Reason

Jenny George
Copper Canyon Press ($16)

by Warren Woessner

The introduction to this debut collection of poetry by Jenny George notes that the title of a famed etching by Goya can be translated as “The dream of reason produces monsters.” Many of the poems, while not describing the monsters that we know from horror movies, bear burdens that are every bit as scary, or at least disrupt what we have come to accept as our ordered world. The opening poem, “Origins of Violence,” warns the reader of the dark sides that George explores with relentless vision and imagery:

There is a hole.
In the hole is everything
people will do
to each other.

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

People will do anything.
They will cut the hands off children.
Children will do anything—

In the hole is everything.

But children are not merely brutalized victims in these poems. Occasionally, they die; more often, asleep or awake, children are messengers that deliver elemental mysteries George attempts to decipher: “I say: the soul enters [us]/through childhood.”

In George’s eye, the central victims are domestic animals—cows, horses, lambs, and pigs. Pigs get an entire section of this collection and appear in other poems as well. Epigraphs to three of the poems are taken from “manuals on industrial livestock management” and the cruelty inherent in this “management” of pigs drives these poems. “The Farrowing Crate,” for example, describes how a pregnant sow is contained in a narrow “cage-like gestation unit”:

For months she points in one direction
A zeppelin bumbling toward the rising sun.
She drinks from her spigot.
She is big as a doorstep.
They say she doesn’t know she cannot turn around.

Most of the pigs in these poems are being driven into the slaughter house, but even after death, George finds images that are both stark and graceful, as in “Ears”:

The pig is already dead.
It hangs from the ankle,
slumped as light
through a heavy curtain.

While the industrial management of pigs exemplifies the commonplace violence most readers would rather not confront, George skillfully delves into our mortality as well. In “Death of a Child” she writes:

It made a boy-shaped hole
and filled—

the way a crushed hand fills
suddenly up
with new pain,

or a well put down
taps the liquid silt.

Finally, George seems to say, for both the living and the dead: “The mouth draws up / clay / and drinks.”

Not all the imagery in this collection is so dark. Birds suffuse the poems with motion and freedom; there are jays, crows, and swallows in the barn, and in the “Harvest” section of the title poem,

A quick net of starlings
drops to the furrows
and sunshine pouts like polished grain
onto the feeding earth,
this country.

In “New World,” George goes so far as to envision a sort of peaceful kingdom in which

There are no slaughterhouses.
The glittering river has seeped
back into the healed earth.
The fields are wrung dry,
and laid out like a flag.

Nonetheless, George has the ability to cross easily from day to night, from sleep to wakefulness, and from death to life—and she knows how to use it, as in “Sword Swallower”:

Sleep: that ancient union
Of death with its body.

The child sleeps.
as in—the child returns
to the time before her body.

It is hard to imagine the journeys that George’s poetry will take as her horizons expand, but one thing is certain: The Dream of Reason reveals a young poet who is unafraid to explore difficult territory.


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We Are All Witnesses For Each Other:
An Interview with
Sean Thomas Dougherty

photo by John Henry Doucette

Interviewed by William Stobb

Born and raised in New York, Sean Thomas Dougherty lives with his wife and daughters in Erie, Pennsylvania. After many years as the house man at Gold Crown Billiards, Dougherty now works as a caregiver and medical technician for various disabled populations, while still writing poetry; his latest book is The Second O of Sorrow (BOA Editions, $16), which was just awarded the 2019 Paterson Prize from the Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College. Though he is published widely and has won many awards, including state arts fellowships, an appearance in Best American Poetry, and a Fulbright, the soulfulness of Dougherty’s work—a disdain for cleverness and stylization—along with his chosen subjects—people in pool halls and coal mines and karaoke bars, neighborhood kids, immigrants, anyone struggling in some way to have a voice in America—mark his work as outside the mainstream. Publisher’s Weekly describes him as “a blue-collar rust belt Romantic to his generous, enthusiastic core,” and Dorianne Laux finds Dougherty at “the gypsy punk heart of American poetry.” Widely known as an energized performer, Dougherty has been featured at The Dodge Poetry Festival, the Detroit Arts Festival, and the Old Dominion Literary Festival.


William Stobb: You’ve published more than a dozen poetry collections, and in 2014, you put out a retrospective volume, All You Ask for Is Longing: Poems 1994-2014. When we first met, you were touring in support of that book, and you felt at that time that Longing might be your last collection. But now The Second O of Sorrow has arrived, and it’s a gem—powerful, poignant, beautifully crafted. How does the book feel to you, arriving at a point in your career arc that you might not have even imagined?

Sean Thomas Dougherty: I don’t really think anymore of poetry in terms of career. I think it is because I work so far from anything literary and live far from any literary center. But in a lot of ways this book, after so many and writing for so many decades, and coming right after my Selected poems, feels like my first book—like the first 30 years of writing was practice getting down these poems. I think that was somewhat conscious, too. I was going for a leaner sort of poem, even in the longer pieces, a cutting down, getting closer to the bones of the poem, and the life.

I’m just trying to write closer to the marrow. Of course, perhaps living with so much uncertainty due to economics and disease and struggle in my family pushes one away from what is ephemeral. And so much in the literary is ephemeral. The conversations and accusations and correctness of literary folk masked as import is too often done far from the lived life and the people and places where I live. In the end, I think it was to embrace a poetics where the lived life matters:

He was so much more than flipping burgers & fries,
more than 12-hour shifts at the steel plant in Cleveland.
More than the shut-down mill in Youngstown.
More than that kid selling meth in Ashtabula.
He was every kid, every street, every silo, he was white
& black & brown & migrant kids working farms.
He was the prince of stutter-step & pause. He was the new
King.
(from “Biography of LeBron as Ohio”)

WS: I don't want to approach the situation naively, as if the poems are all directly and precisely autobiographical, but I get the sense you see your poems as a way of honoring the people you've known and things that you and they have gone through.

SD: Yes, that is perceptive. I guess it’s about getting back and closer to the lived life. Even if the poems are imagined they come out of my experience in actual places. Place figures as much as people. These cities I live or work along the lake, working class bars where I’ve play pool, diners and institutions near Erie and Cleveland. The Youngstown monologue, the Pittsburgh poems such as the Y Not Bar, which is a real joint. My dead friends Joe Rash and Frenchy who I played pool with. M who is a friend who basically went crazy after a long battle with drug addiction. Monologues that engage the opiate crisis along the lake. Lyrics of my girlfriend’s struggles with disease and addiction. Maybe it isn’t as much about honoring these people and places but about just writing to get the work down, to say they exist, they existed, they fought hard in this difficult life, continue fighting hard to survive, and that they matter. Most of this has little to do with Poetry as a business or even an art. It has more to do with poetry as something closer to breathing, something needed to keep us alive and fighting, despite the hard evidence not to.

WS: The book is full of show-stoppers; you bring intensity of emotional engagement to every poem. To me, it feels like the collection is a kind of argument for connection, for real feeling, for living in a way that’s raw and observant and vulnerable to joy and pain. I want to ask some questions about that, like isn’t that hard? And do you think it’s something that poetry has created in you? Or do you think it’s the other way around: that art comes out of you because you see clearly and feel intensely? Or am I barking up the wrong tree, here? Maybe you see this dynamic in very different terms.

SD: I think poetry for me has always been about ways to create some space in language that shows how in the places I live and travel and work, in places many in the culture deem difficult to live, in the smallest moments every day, people are just so damn kind and good to one another. Is it hard? I think kindness is hard. It is much easier not to be kind. It took me decades to learn how to approach anger with alternatives. Much of this I think comes out of my work as a caregiver with people who are damaged and prone to anger. When you live with this, you see how anger is so often an arbitration to what is fully human. This doesn’t mean you go through life like a little bitch and let people roll over you.

It messed me up when my friend Cody Todd, who I have inserted in quite a few poems over the years, died unexpectedly. He was the one writer I’d most want behind my back in a bar fight, and he was more than once. He was tough, and his poems were full of brilliant shards. He and I would have long debates about poetry at night online or on the phone. He and I also talked a lot about poetry as a kind of healing—the bandages of language—because most often, anger is the wrong answer. I am more interested in the small social moments where someone offers a hand. That’s probably the influence of Charles Simic; he argued to us when I was his student in the 1980s that poetry is most often about moments. I think at the core I agree with that, though I am most interested in the continuity of giving, the work unfolding as a series of moments or gestures. I am less interested in stillness or silence and more in a sort of musical notation. I am aware of the moments in real time that something emotional happens—a tone, a gesture—I try to get us there, and then when the poem unfolds that moment is hopefully recreated inside or around the reader. When poetry does this, perhaps it is narrating, or is it holding, or maybe recreating anew that moment, in language, so it does not disappear from us forever.

WS: From talking with you, and from following you on Facebook (note to reader: Sean’s an active and thoughtful social media artist, so if you enjoy his published work, I’d encourage you to connect with him online), I know that you feel at odds with a kind of poetry establishment represented by mainstream journals and academia. But I feel like your work is deeply rooted in important traditions. How do you see your work in the landscape of contemporary poetry?

SD: I used to believe in certain avant-garde tendencies in my writing, but I guess over the years I have gotten less interested in aesthetics and more concerned with questions, like Whitman: what is the grass? What words does the wind speak? What memories sweep in with the rain? Terrance Hayes’ investigative poetry fulfilled any avant-garde leanings I had, so I felt like I didn’t have to write those poems or even try to imagine them. Perhaps he did this for everyone! Because most of us can’t write poems that strong and ambitious anyways. He is also responsible for helping to bring my work to many readers. And he has done this for many writers. He reads everything. He singlehandedly brought back to readers the genius of Christopher Gilbert, whose work touched me so deeply when I was young.

Peter Conners and Sean Dougherty at Grumpy's Bar in Minneapolis

I got lucky having a publisher, BOA Editions, and an editor, Peter Conners, who continue to believe in my work. I’m not being facetious. Very few of the so called “top” journals have ever published my work and most writing programs do not even acknowledge my work exists. In this way, I am like most writers—slugging it out for decades in the trenches, sharing rejection notes and reading in small smoky places and bookstore basements over coffee.

A lot of my writing exists between genres—something not quite a poem, not quite an essay, such as the longer pieces in Second O of Sorrow. For the smaller pieces I can say for sure Sarah Freligh’s Sad Math and Julie Babcock’s Autoplay helped me to write those poems. Both authors write small tight narratives that verge on the lyric. For years I was influenced by a range of lyric writers like Lucille Clifton and Franz Wright, the performative and formal edges of Patricia Smith and the streetwise bitterness of Denis Johnson, the lyrical prose of Michael Ondaatje. Maybe in the end I am just another maudlin lyric poet? A 21st-century confessionalist? Then I think too of a poet like Malena Morling—I feel like my poems are often in conversation with hers. She should be much better known. She writes a spare often spiritual kind of poem that pulled me back to see the world behind the veil but never at the expense of this world.

And maybe that is what I am not admitting. The idea of community and shared content is very important to me despite not feeling part of the mainstream of literature. I recently completed an anthology on autism and poetry titled Alongside We Travel: Contemporary Poets on Autism, coming from New York Quarterly Books this spring. The book arose when my wife, Lisa M. Dougherty, started writing poems about our autistic daughter. I began to look around to see how others were approaching the topic. Editing this book and dealing with writers who are engaged with a topic very personal to them, I rediscovered my love for writing’s collectivist voice. Raymond Hammond is publishing the book as a fundraiser. All contributor royalties earned on sales will be donated to Sharing the Weight, a small nonprofit out of Iowa doing a simple amazing thing: gathering people together to hand sew and make weighted blankets for autistic children. Projects like this remind me that collectively poetry can do something quite important and material.

WS: I’ve been really interested in a new series of poems or prose poems that you’ve been composing, which are beginning to be published in journals, now, and which you’re posting on Facebook sometimes. You’re writing letters back to editors, responding to rejection letters, basically. Where are these new pieces coming from? Where are they headed?

SD: I experienced an amazing run of rejection with journals in the last two years. I mean the big journals almost never publish me, but this was a crazy run of like two acceptances and hundreds of rejections from journals big and small, so one day this fall I simply started to write back to my rejection letters. I think it really began by speaking back to the journal Field, which is where I first sent some of my poems over 30 years ago, who of course rejected me and have continued to religiously reject me since then. Now Field is closing shop. I outlived them, but they never published me, despite publishing the kinds of poems by people like Franz Wright that really influenced me. Too often in American culture we are taught to accept rejection without retort. Like it’s rude or presumptuous to speak back. But poetry as an art and business is steeped in endless levels of gate-keeping. I got tired of it and I became intellectually interested in the language of the rejection letter itself. As I started to write these, I also became investigative of the idea of rejection itself, across disciplines.

I think too this gets back to the earlier question about connection. After all those rejections that year, when I wrote that first response back, it was kind of funny and empathetic toward the editor. I wrote the piece on Facebook for my friends on Facebook and posted it. Writing each essay/letter on Facebook and posting it makes the project a kind of spontaneous publishing performance—maybe only 10 or 50 or whatever people see the pieces that day. I take them down afterwards. But the feedback I get has been good because one thing we all experience as artists is rejection. The pieces hope to connect across our shared failures. Social media has a kind of hatefulness to it and a kind of false pomposity, but it also has a profound possibility to help us lean against each other and help one another through hard times. This is particularly important for writers like me who do not live near the literary limelights. As the rejection project has grown, though, it is now about many kinds of rejection and acceptance. And has grown to include pieces on my wife’s long fight with illness, disability, and addiction, and explorations of my own work as a caregiver and counselor for the brain injured and disabled. The pieces are sometimes antagonistic to literary culture, but they are often empathetic, too. Editing is a tough job. We are all in some ways both submitters and gatekeepers as artists, even if only inside ourselves. Perhaps what I am writing is something not quite poetry, but a kind of “collectivist autobiography.” Here is the piece that began it all:

Dear Editors of Esteemed and tiny journals,

I know how hard you work for nothing but the love of the art, and how underappreciated you often are, so I have attached no poems for submission, thereby saving you the time of reading them, time that could be better spent reading the better poems of others, or spending time with your lover or your children, or simply sitting in the sun and maybe even writing a poem of your own, one I hope will not receive the sadness of the consequent form rejection that you would have sent if I had included my poems, poems that would have kept you from that party you were going to blow off in order to catch up on the hundreds of submissions clogging your In-Box. Now you can take that subway ride, where you can nod your head with your eyes closed and your ear plugs on, listening to that obscure composer you love of sonatas for cello and sousaphone. For the world is rather like the bell of a Sousaphone, or is it love that is the bell? The one ringing now in the high cathedral on the far side of town, where there had only been funerals for the last decade. Where the coffins are cloaked with sunflowers. The old Bulgarian women are donning their black netting. Oh Editor, where are the weddings? Who is writing, as Lorca asks, the Baptism of the new? No, my poems are not, they are old as dust, or dirt, or a broom. Too many of us are bothering you. Turn off your computer, dear editor. There is honey waiting to be spooned in your tea. There is poppyseed cake. Look out the window. There is wild thyme and fennel.

Sincerely,

WS: Do you see a book of these happening, maybe? I feel like it could be a really liberating read for a lot of writers.

SD: There is a manuscript of these. I save them. I’ve written fast in the last months between working my night shift job and living, and I probably have about 120 double spaced pages so far. It’s not really a book of poems though. I think of them closer to essays. Or simply a book of letters. I’ve always been interested in work that is not quite—not quite a poem, not quite an essay. Can a letter be a poem and a poem be something as intimate as a letter? Remember what O’Hara and Hugo said to us decades ago? That intimate detail of reading a poem as a letter. A lot of new media has this kind of tone. Instagram poems as memes, whether you love them or hate them, are in fact sorts of letters, electronic posters; they harken back to the surrealist and dadaist use of media. They exist as something that crosses into different types of textuality that are more than literary. They borrow from these populist forms. I do not engage in Instagram and Twitter simply because I work long hours. But I applaud these new forms of writing. Perhaps we never grow far, despite the decades, from our formative teachers, and this rejection project feels like a book another of my old professors, Michael Martone, might have written. I can feel the influence of his “Contributor’s Note” essays and stories as I examine and appropriate the language of acceptance and rejection notes. But to be honest, maybe the book should never be published—maybe it should just continue to be written, sent out, and rejected. For the real acceptance of the work and of each other (and maybe this is just the Jewish mystic in my blood) is the breathing and the saying, the making and sharing of them. It is a book that only exists by someone saying No. I wonder, William, if that is what all literature, all poetry is? To write back against this world that says shut up, you are less than, you do not matter, you are poor, you are different. You are damaged. In the end we all die. We are all failures. We are all witnesses for each other.

NOTE: Since the recording of this interview, Sean’s “Dear Editor” series has been contracted for publication by New York Quarterly Books, and is forthcoming in October 2019 under the title All My People Are Elegies.


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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2019 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2019

Fruit Geode

Alicia Jo Rabins
Augury Books ($16)

by Anat Hinkis

The experiences of childbirth and early motherhood are simultaneously physical and metaphorical in Alicia Jo Rabins’ new collection, Fruit Geode, which was selected as finalist for the National Jewish Book Award in 2018. In resonance with Rabins’ first collection, Divinity School, there is a strong sense of the physicality in the human experience, though the spiritual constantly hovers within reach. The collection opens with the poem “Beautiful Virus,” where the irrepressible power of nature, entwining life and death, culminates in the sweet yet terrifying magic of early parenthood:

Like arsenic in chocolate
Like a pea shoot in mud
You broke me open
Into death-in-life
A beautiful virus
Uncontrollably growing
As the morning glories
Climb the raspberries
That choke the grapes that
Overrun the spinach
What I mean to say is
Knocked off the pedestal
Of wholeness
Now I watch you breathe
In your miniature
Flamingo pajamas

This loss of “wholeness,” a breaking open, is the main trope around which most of the poems revolve. As the feminine body opens like a ripe fruit to give life, then lends itself to nourish and nurture the baby’s needs, the sense of self is altered, sometimes beyond recognition. The fruit geode of the book’s title (a splitting in half of a fruit rather than a crystal stone) is essentially a female phallus, a symbol of fertility with the shape of a uterus or a vulva. The split reveals the soft, vulnerable innards, an organ holding blood and placenta.

In the physical sense, a birth is a separation of mother and baby, one person made two, as in “Materia Medica”: “the wound of birth tore us in two/we regarded each other//across unfamiliar air.” In the metaphorical sense, birthing is also a spiritual split, as in the poem “Memoir,” in which Rabins overlays a Kabbalah concept on the experience of a C-section birth:

And once, no, twice I lay on the birthing-table and a stranger
cut me open, my body falling into two halves,

Compassion and Judgment.

Compassion and judgment, according to Kabbalah, are two opposing impulses in the world which we are challenged to balance in our lives. In many of the poems we can see these undulating powers in the small daily mistakes of parenting; for example, take “The Monastery of Motherhood”:

it’s hard to face
my ugly old self again
whether by the pig farm
or metropolitan crossroads
but the hardest is alone
with children
I’d cut my lungs out for her
but then I spray her
in the face with the hose
when she claws for the baby
and so in the monastery
of motherhood I find the devil
in my own heart

Yet, despite all these failures—the worst of all being our mortal failure to pass on immortality to our children—the new self is woven into the continuum of humanity through the act of motherhood. Ancient female deities appear in a few of the poems almost as ancestors, and it seems at times that the speaker tries to hold on to something that flows through her, like a wave, a contraction, old self and new self, time and wisdom. Rabins is able to place the reader in the tiniest moment while at the same time opening an expansive vista on humanity—which in itself makes Fruit Geode a collection worth exploring.


Click here to purchase this book
at your local independent bookstore
indiebound
Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2019 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2019

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