Tag Archives: Spring 2020

The Riches of Kazakh Literature
Part Two: Poetry

by Timothy Walsh

If asked about Central Asian poets, most Americans would draw a blank. Even poets and professors might struggle to name one—which is odd, since over the last two centuries Central Asian poets have been hugely influential in the English-speaking world, particularly in America. It’s just that we don’t think of these poets as Central Asian, even though they are.

Omar Khayyam was born in Khorasan in 1048 and spent many of his most productive years in major Central Asian cities—Samarkand, Bukhara, Merv, and Balkh—all of which were thriving cultural and intellectual centers. Khayyam was a celebrated mathematician, philosopher, and astronomer. He was also a poet. When Edward FitzGerald published his Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam in 1859, it set loose a flood of enraptured admiration that reverberated through all levels of society for the next century. FitzGerald’s rather freely translated quatrains about “a Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou” captured the imagination of the English-speaking world, from 19th-century London aesthetes to Depression-era schoolboys in Brooklyn—not to mention writers as diverse as Mark Twain, Ezra Pound, Woody Guthrie and Jack Kerouac.

Then there’s Jallaludin Rumi. As with Omar Khayyam, people in the West tend to think of Rumi as vaguely “Eastern” or as a Sufi mystic from Persia or even from Anatolia, where his later years were spent. But Rumi was Central Asian through and through. Born either in Vakhsh (in what is now Tajikistan) or Balkh—(this is the subject of heated arguments)—Rumi spent his formative years in Samarkand. His peripatetic journeys westward were due to his fleeing the invading armies of Genghis Khan.

In recent years, Rumi’s poetry in translation has permeated the West, a touchstone to New Age philosophy and spirituality. His timeless wisdom has leavened our modern sensibility and influenced writers and artists from Robert Bly to Coldplay, from Madonna to Mary Oliver.

Many other things we cherish in the West also have unsuspected Central Asian origins: the pants you wear (invented by Central Asian steppe nomads for horse riding), the apples you eat (all genetically descended from the wild apple forests in southeastern Kazakhstan). Garlic and marijuana both originally hail from Central Asia. How about Appalachian fiddle music or Mozart string quartets? Yes, the invention of stringed instruments played with a bow likewise hails from the horse-riding nomadic cultures of the Central Asian steppe (which also explains why a violinist’s or cellist’s bow is strung with horsehair).

When thinking of Central Asia today, we inevitably think in terms of the national boundaries of five countries (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan), but these borders are only a hundred years old, imposed by the Soviet Union with many jagged, inscrutable contours purposely designed to isolate certain ethnic groups from their ancestral homelands. Culturally and geographically, however, Central Asia really is a distinct region, despite the arbitrary modern national borders. Culturally, it encompasses the Turkic nomadic groups of the north, where conditions are such that only nomadic or transhumant societies could survive, and Persianate groups to the South.

Geographically, the region is defined by the northern taiga forest, the vast central steppe, and immense deserts to the south and west. Mountain ranges define the effective, often impenetrable natural barriers—the Pamirs and Hindu Kush to the south, the Tien Shan and Altai to the east, the Caucasus (and the Caspian Sea) to the west.

For thousands of years, the unique culture of Central Asia was formed by the symbiosis and sporadic bloody conflicts between the horse-riding nomadic cultures of the immense Central Asian steppe and the settled urban cultures of the great cities to the south. Over the centuries, this synergy and conflict came together to produce one of the most dynamic and creative epochs in world history (brilliantly recounted in S. Frederick Starr’s Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane). This Central Asian Golden Age gave us algebra, the foundations of modern medicine (in the writings of Avicenna), and an unprecedented literary and poetic flowering.

All this I mention as a prelude to considering contemporary Kazakh poetry in English translation. Kazakh poetry is not something new on the world stage. Even though it has not gotten the recognition it deserves in the West, it is a poetry and culture with deep roots that predates the founding of the United States by a millennium or so.

Kazakh poetry and its literary traditions are still indelibly permeated with a nomadic mindset and worldview. While Omar Khayyam and Rumi were also Central Asian poets, they were poets of the city, brought up and educated in the rich urban culture of the great Silk Road metropolises, with their revered madrassas and libraries. Kazakh poetry, on the other hand, was almost entirely oral poetry—either improvised on the spot or memorized historical epics and folktales (the great Kyrgyz epic, Manas, at 500,000 lines, is twenty times longer than The Iliad and The Odyssey combined, but is still memorized by legions of Manaschi).

Due to the many upheavals of the twentieth century and the Soviet regime, contemporary Kazakh poetry is now much more complex and varied. While celebrating and retaining the traditions of its nomadic past, it has also incorporated elements of modern urban realities as well as techniques and perspectives colored by interactions with other cultures.

Ten years ago, there was virtually no contemporary Kazakh poetry in English translation available in book form, but a flurry of new publications has thankfully remedied that situation. The recently released Contemporary Kazakh Literature: Poetry contains a veritable treasure trove of modern Kazakh poetry—thirty-one of Kazakhstan’s preeminent poets translated by a team of five translators. (The anthology is published by Cambridge University Press in partnership with the National Bureau of Translations and is available as a free download.)

What is probably most appealing about Kazakh poetry is its close relationship to the natural world—not so much as observation, but as lived experience. You feel as if you are in the saddle as you are reading, the aromatic wormwood and feathergrass of the steppe brushing against your boots. As Fariza Ongarsynova writes in “Patterns of Grass and Flowers Ran Down onto the Carpets,” “We were born in the saddle and live on the road.”

In these poems, totemic animals like the wolf and the eagle recur constantly as fellow creatures, not as lesser beings, with the horse remaining central to all human endeavors, including the arts. Shomishbay Sariyev speaks for many Kazakh poets when he writes, “Embarking on this poem, / it’s like I’m saddling a horse.”

A living sense of Kazakh history and traditions imbues many of these poems, whether Bakhytzhan Kanapyanov’s evocative “Along the Mountain River on Horseback,” or Yessengali Raushanov’s starkly tragic “1932. Kazakhstan Famine Year,” or Olzhas Suleimenov’s incendiary “Asian Bonfires.”

A wealth of strong women’s voices runs through the anthology, from the heartfelt pastoral lyrics of Marfuga Aitkhozha and Fariza Ongarsynova, both born in the 1930s, to the startlingly fresh and modern musings of Gulnar Salykbay in poems like “The Sky Can Capsize Out of the Blue” or “Waiting for You Is Like Adding Pepper to Honey.”

With all these poets—consistent with their Kazakh nomadic heritage—the interrelationship with the natural world is key. As Akushtap Bakhtygereyeva writes in “Tell the Zajyk River”:

Tell the Zajyk River, there is a girl,
who is willful and free like him,
writing her poems on his
white sails like a wave’s foam.

A strong environmental consciousness characterizes many Kazakh poets, reaching its pinnacle in the work of Kulash Akhmetova, whose distinctive voice manages to fuse a lyrical sensibility with an apocalyptic awareness. This is perhaps most perfectly conveyed in “Prosperity,” where Akhmetova pleads, “Forgive us our stupid epochs, /drunk with war and apocalypse.” The poem begins with an evocation of the natural world as paradise, but quickly pivots to an indictment of humanity’s transgressions:

No one is innocent among the
passing multitudes—as, age upon
age, we reduce the world to ashes.

Akhmetova sums up the heightening global dilemma with lines as succinct as a knife’s edge:

No, it is us who are defenseless,
as much as these poor animals.
Human and animal now one—
the bullet is heading our way too.

In Akhmetova’s “Prayer,” a Whitmanesque long line is fused with an apocalyptic vision reminiscent of Blake. Again, she begins with an evocation of unsullied paradise:

I saw mountains—granite peaks in a diamond crown.
I saw the sky—radiant spheres in the endless cosmos.

I saw a cornfield—glowing rays of a paradise morning.
I saw groves—pouring forth their rich aromatic leaves.

This quickly shifts to a dark vision of the present:
I saw the air—filled to the brim with poisonous winds,
flowers and trees, and the birds of the east have died forever.

In another poem, Akhmetova questions the madness of humanity’s endless and damaging building spree on our “multi-storied planet Earth,” observing that “a person’s anxiety leads him to build cities” (echoing the nomad’s perennial distrust of “permanent” structures).

Like Akhmetova, Svetqali Nurjan is painfully aware of our dire global predicament, often turning to Kazakh history and tradition for wisdom. Nurjan’s arresting metaphors and startling verbal dexterity spill from the page, as in “Steppe. Night. Magic. World View”:

Having painted every sound with the thickest paint,
night and magic fell into each other’s arms,
The sky-cat licked cloud-cream
from the milky surface with its moon-tongue.
Shooting stars sound like a broken string,
or like salt being sprinkled over liver.

Nurjan, who is from the Mangystau region in western Kazakhstan, worked as a machine operator and as a horseman before turning to poetry, and he makes use of his experiences in poems like “Azure World. Longing for Spring,” which describes an idyllic journey on horseback into the hills, or the fascinating “Sergei Yesenin in the State of Drunkards,” which manages to encapsulate centuries of Russian and Central Asian literary relations in compelling, streetwise homage.

There are many other riches in this anthology, from Kadyr Myrza Ali’s cogent lament “The Earth” to Nazira Berdaly’s “The Red Dress,” which begins flirtatiously but ends with a metaphysical twist. Most of these poems and poets have been translated into English for the first time, making this an indispensable resource.

However, not all the poets are likely to resonate with American readers. Some are given to overt didacticism or nationalistic messages; others are marked by plain statement that does not translate well, producing such flat proclamations as, “There’s only one flag for us and one flag only, / Why were we born as men if not to defend it?” or “Looking up at the sky, / I am hoisting a blue flag/ to demonstrate my Turkic origin.”

Prosaic statements like these pale in comparison to the originality of poems like Svetqali Nurjan’s “In Search of Five Weapons,” where Nurjan manages to celebrate and lament all of Kazakh history in a few breathtaking pages.

For this reason, I would not recommend traversing this lengthy anthology from start to finish. Instead, here is my recommendation of twelve remarkable Kazakh poets to start with in this groundbreaking anthology (page numbers refer to the downloadable anthology):

1. Fariza Ongarsynova, page 75
2. Bakhytzhan Kanapyanov, Page 313
3. Kulash Akhmetova, Page 193
4. Svetqali Nurjan, page 425
5. Akushtap Bakhtygereyeva, Page 131
6. Gulnar Salykbay, Page 453
7. Yessengali Raushanov, page 403
8. Ulugbek Yesdaulet, page 385
9. Nazira Berdaly, Page 547
10. Marfuga Aitkhozha, page 55
11. Maraltai Raiymbekuly, page 471
12. Olzhas Suleimenov, page 35


The Cambridge anthology contains a reasonably good selection from the work of Olzhas Suleimenov, the most famous and celebrated poet and statesman in Kazakhstan today. A much more comprehensive selection is contained, however, in Green Desert: The Life and Poetry of Olzhas Suleimenov (Cognella Academic Publishing, $73.95), which includes a generous sampling of Suleimenov’s early poetry, including “Earth, Hail Man!” which made Suleimenov a household word throughout the Soviet sphere. It also includes selections from the later poetry and an abridged version of the enigmatic and fascinating The Book of Clay.

Coming of age in the 1960s, Suleimenov was very much in tune with the spirit of rebellion fermenting around the globe, whether in the guise of the Beatles, Martin Luther King Jr., or the May ’68 Paris uprising. His pioneering ethnolinguistic work, Az-i-Ya (1972), branded him as a dissident in the eyes of the Soviet authorities. Suleimenov was also the founder of the Nevada-Semipalatinsk antinuclear movement, which eventually shut down the Soviet nuclear testing program in Kazakhstan.

Through it all, Suleimenov wrote poetry that celebrated the Kazakh nomadic past while also incorporating an inclusive, global perspective. In both his poetry and politics, Suleimenov was never one to mince words, often leading him into hot water with the Soviet authorities while simultaneously making him into something of a folk hero for the Kazakh people, particularly as the Soviet Union crumbled.

Though Suleimenov is well traveled and cosmopolitan, his poetry is thoroughly infused with the steppe, Kazakh traditions, and genuine nomadic ethos—this probably accounts for his broad appeal, both within Kazakhstan and around the world. In poems like “The Lone Mustang” or “The Warrior Makhembet Prays Before Execution” or “Argamak” or the thrilling “Red Rider, Black Rider,” Suleimenov revivifies Kazakh history and tradition, radically departing from the received Soviet/Russophile perspective.

“Our history is a handful of flashes in the night of the steppe,” Suleimenov writes, but he constantly connects the currents and happenings of Central Asia to larger global concerns, as in one of Suleimenov’s best-known poems, “The Bonfires of Asia.” Here, Suleimenov evokes ancient shamans who gave humanity the gift of fire, of song and dance, of agriculture and horsemanship, suggesting how this Asian source radiated through the Western world:

The shamans
pressed light from blindness,
Beethovens from your deafness,
smelted Homer from your darkness,
and did not know their fate.
They crushed the ore,
extracted Talmuds and Qurans
by the carat.

Suleimenov is a wide-ranging poet of many moods, registers, and styles. His poems include evocative autobiographical scenes and remembrances, like the poignant “Childhood, Orchards, Ardor,” or the haunting “Native Soil.” There are also gentle love lyrics like “These Words Are Born of the Night,” where he addresses his lover beside him on the pillow:

By day the beating heart is dull.
Peace.
Quiet.
Snowdrifts weave their rich tapestries
upon the branches’ loom.
Snowdust drops softly
upon our destinies
like roaring time.

Green Desert is capably edited by Rafis Abazov, who provides a useful introduction (though it hardly merits the subtitle, The Life and Poetry of Olzhas Suleimenov, which erroneously suggests far more in the way of biography). The translations by Sergey Levchin and Ilya Bernstein are adroitly done, conveying nuances of meaning while preserving Suleimenov’s sometimes staccato, sometimes lyrical style. This is currently the only book-length translation of Suleimenov’s poetry readily available in English, so it fills what would otherwise be a gaping void. (Teas Press in Baku, Azerbaijan, has published several of Suleimenov’s works in English translation, but these are not easily obtainable.)


The poems of Aigerim Tazhi are as different as can be from Suleimenov; indeed, in terms of style and poetics Tazhi is unlike any of the Kazakh poets in the Cambridge anthology. Tazhi’s poems have been widely praised as a fresh new voice and for blazing a new direction among the youngest generation of Kazakh poets (and so it is something of a puzzle why she is not included in the Cambridge anthology).

Thankfully, Zephyr Press has just published Tazhi’s Paper-Thin Skin (Zephyr Press, $15) in a vividly faithful translation by J. Kates. This is a bilingual edition, with the Russian original on the facing page, and includes a perceptive introduction by Kates. Tazhi’s distinctive voice and approach are immediately apparent:

Rain ran over a keyboard of leaves.
A freshwater sea overflowed galoshes.
Clumps of earth grew into hooves.
Heads crowned with rainbow-haloes.
We groan tenderly with watersoaked songs.
We fish in puddles with question-hooks.

Though some of Tazhi’s images are recognizably Central Asian, her style and sensibility are radically different. Her poems live in the actual moment of perception, plumbing the depths of immediate sensation, rather than attempting to make things narratively cohere or resonate with historical significance:

A runner with a flashlight on his head
grabs frames from the darkness.
The sinking land, a wide-eyed beast.
A glade trampled, a glint of water.
Shrubbery, lumps of bovine bodies.
A graveyard, an oak at the edge of a village.
Acorn caps clinging to branches—
little empty bells.

Tazhi’s poems are strikingly imagistic, her syntax shorn of unnecessary appendages. By steering clear of any narrative thread or conceptual utterance, they seem like pure instants of perception. Gone are all references to “Kazakhness,” to Kazakh history or tradition, or to the role of the poet in society (which are ubiquitous in other modern Kazakh poetry).

Tazhi seems closer to H.D. or William Carlos Williams than any of her Kazakh contemporaries in the Cambridge anthology. As Tazhi herself explains in an interview, “In general, poems are ciphers an attentive reader picks up keys to, codes penetrating deeper and deeper into what is essential, gradually revealing each new layer of meanings.” This vision of poetry would also be true of an ecstatic poet like Rumi or a Symbollist poet like Mallarmé—but it is not true of most twentieth-century Kazakh poetry, where discursive and narrative elements prevail.

In Tazhi’s seeringly lucid poems, the reader is made to look at the world around them afresh—a world where artificial borders and nation-states have little relevance. In the poem that gives the collection its title, Tazhi seemingly addresses the reader (and/or herself):

Your name? Say the word out loud.
A furrowed face. The angle of the sun shifts.
Paper-thin skin translucent,
letters shine through the forehead.

Like the lightning-flash of Emily Dickinson’s brief, gnomic utterances, Tazhi’s poems are exhilarating in themselves, but are also a necessary corrective to any monolithic view of contemporary Kazakh poetics.


If this review motivates you to look into the riches of Kazakh poetry (as I hope it does), you might also be curious about early modern Kazakh poetry. In Kazakhstan, if you were to ask a stranger on a bus if they could recite a poem by Abai, they almost surely could. If you asked teenagers or grade schoolers, they’d also most likely happily comply with a song or a poem by Abai.

Abai Kunanbayev is universally revered as the founder of modern Kazakh literature, while other early modern poets like Zhambyl or Saken Seyfullin remain close to the hearts of the people. Currently, the only available anthology that includes a generous sampling of these early modern Kazakh poets is Summer Evening, Prairie Night, Land of Golden Wheat (Cognella Academic Publishing, $72.95), published by Cognella in 2016. Here, you will also find a wealth of lesser-known poets like the wonderful Miriam Khakimzhanova or the magisterial Magzhan Zhumabayev.

The beauty and freshness of their verses hits you like a breath of rare mountain air.


So why read modern Kazakh poetry when you no doubt have a backlog of other writers and poets calling for your attention? In closing, I’ll let Olzhas Suleimenov have the last word. As he writes in his Foreword to Green Desert:

I would like for American readers, by going through the lines of the poems by a Kazakh author, to learn a little more about the unknown before them and facets of their own spiritual life. Because we always

. . . roam toward ourselves
by recognizing ourselves in the other.


Click here to purchase Paper-Thin Skin
at your local independent bookstore
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Click here to purchase Green Desert: The Life and Poetry of Olzhas Suleimenov
at your local independent bookstore
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Click here to purchase Summer Evening, Prairie Night, Land of Golden Wheat: The Outside World in Kazakh Literature
at your local independent bookstore
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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2020 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2020

In Her Feminine Sign

Dunya Mikhail
New Directions ($14.95)

by Julia Stein

An Iraqi woman poet whose first two languages are Aramaic and Arabic, Dunya Mikhail graduated with a BA from the University of Baghdad, and then worked as the literary section editor and translator for the Baghdad Observer. After suffering harassment from Saddam Hussein’s government for her writing, she left Iraq in 1996, eventually moving to the U.S. where she studied Near Eastern Studies, receiving an M.A. from Wayne State University. She has published five books of her poetry in Arabic. In the U.S., New Directions has published translations of three of them—The War Works Hard (2005), Diary of a Wave Outside (2009), and The Iraqi Nights (2014)—as well as her first non-fiction book, The Beekeeper: Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq.

Though Mikhail has never returned to Iraq, her poetry focuses on her homeland. In an interview on NPR in 2013, she said she recalls Iraq constantly in fragments. She describes the first Gulf War vividly: “I remember the windows of our classrooms shaking from explosions. You know, the war was like the norm.” She adds that “poetry is not medicine—it's an X-ray. It helps you see the wound and understand it. We all feel alienated because of this continuous violence in the world. We feel alone, but we feel also together. So we resort to poetry as a possibility for survival. However, to say I survived is not so final as to say, for example, I'm alive. We wake up to find that the war survived with us.”

Mikhail’s fourth book of poetry to appear in English, In Her Feminine Sign, differs from her previous collections in that she wrote this book in both Arabic and English, “from right to left and from left to right.” She didn’t translate her poems, nor did she have a translator; she actually wrote the poems twice. She claims writing this new way “is to mirror my exile,” and also hopes that the “dialogue between the two texts is democratic, and even hopeful that East and West may meet in that crossing line between two languages.”

In the first section, called “The Tied Circle,” the first poem (“The Stranger in Her Feminine Sign”) introduces the English-language reader to the gendered language of Arabic: “Feminine words are followed / by a circle with two dots over it,” which in the poem is transformed into the woman who is bringing to the town “wishes / which come true only when forgotten.” The whole book can be seen as Mikhail bringing us the feminine words of her vision of exile. In “Nisaba,” named for the goddess of writing, the poet praises the little things (“I mean the big things”) and describes a girl who uses chalk and “who draws for the world / a circle with everyone inside,” including “the comma between / death and life.” And her vision in “Baghdad in Detroit” jumps backs and forth between July 4th in her university town and the explosions that rocked the capital city of Iraq.

“Tablets,” the second section, is named after Sumerian repositories of the world’s first writing. In this section, Mikhail says she is writing Iraqi haiku; these short poems aren’t strict haiku in terms of syllables, but they do have the intensity and sensory imagery of haiku. These tablets/haiku record exile, loss, and gorgeous memories such as in “tablet III/5”: “All of us are autumn leaves /ready to fall at any time.” Another poem, “tablet III/10” describes love: “Of course you can’t see the word love. / I wrote it on water.”

The third section, “T/here,” has longer poems of exile, most saturated with that quiet, longing Mikhail so often puts in her lines. One of the most haunting is “N,” the name of the letter that Daesh, the Arabic term for ISIS, left on the doors of minorities to warn them to flee their homes or be murdered:

How heavy the carriage is!
It carries the skies
on their shoulders,
along with their sorrows,
the phantoms of those
taken aside
and the last looks.

These poems are beautifully heartbreaking and intense memories of the violence of war and of the poet’s longing in exile. Mikhail has written brilliantly, bringing the lives of Iraqis to U.S. bookshelves.


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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2020 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2020

Figuring

Maria Popova
Vintage ($18)

by Cindra Halm

Astonishing in heft (almost 600 pages), in scope (lives, works, and milieu of selected European and American scientists, artists, and public intellectuals), and in articulation (attending as much to language and imaginative association as biographical fact), Maria Popova's Figuring is an ode to the quality of astonishment itself. Readers familiar with her online newsletter Brain Pickings will recognize her methodology; primarily associational, contextual, inquisitive, and compassionate, she imbues her subjects with more than chronology and lists of achievements, burrowing into significant fortunes and misfortunes of individuals, family, communities, and world events—and their shapings on creative life. Deeply personal underlying questions from Popova provide a means of connecting a singular person's talents and drives with the forces of the time in which they lived. Who did they love, and how? Within the constraints of society, where were the niches of freedom? What opportunities and intersections pulsated and solidified to form the crucibles in which discovery happens and by which future generations can still marvel and make use of their ideas, achievements, writings, images, and breakthroughs?

The remnants of people's lives—scientific eureka moments, poetry, sculpture, social reform, refinements on what came before—provide the impetus for travelling into personalities and circumstances, a process of discovery for author and reader alike. Using letters, diaries, notes, and her own imaginative suppositions, Popova profiles Johannes Kepler, Maria Mitchell, Margaret Fuller, Harriet Hosmer, Emily Dickinson, and Rachel Carson, primarily, with many more attendant figures constellated. Lives fraught with historical significance are mined for more personal motives, frameworks, relationships, disappointments, emotional tenors, and chance accesses. Beyond labels of "good" and "bad" and no matter what else they bring, our human temperaments coalesce in the acts and artifacts others remember. What would Emily Dickinson's brilliant, morose, out-of-step poems be, for example, without her propensity to high romance, her circumstance as tortuously unpartnered, her turn to reclusiveness?

In a forword that should be read by everyone for its aria of praise and gratitude to symbiotic life on Earth, Popova approaches a kind of mission statement:

Some truths, like beauty, are best illuminated by the sidewise gleam of figuring, of meaning-making. In the course of our figuring, orbits intersect, often unbeknownst to the bodies they carry—intersections mappable only from the distance of decades or centuries. Facts crosshatch with other facts to shade in the nuances of a larger truth—not relativism, no, but the mightiest realism we have.

She starts, like an archaeologist, with the known artifacts of work left behind, combines them with biographies and the facts of cosmic and societal events, and then map-makes by feeling into the associations and connections, psychologies and possibilities. The lives she re-animates are mostly women, often queer, primarily unconventional sorts, and part of the energy here lies in the tension of obstacle and prejudice in creative expression.

The book's genre may be "essayistic poetic investigative journalistic sociological individualism," if such a category existed. Unlike Joan Didion and Tom Wolfe's "new journalism" of the mid-twentieth century, Popova's point of view asserts mainly as her own mind's wondering and wandering framework for highlighting objective characters and events. While we do learn some personal details—that she came from her native Bulgaria to Brooklyn for love, for example—her "I " remains in meaning-making service to the lives she encounters while demonstrating that these encounters have affected her to the extent that we hold the artifact of such in our hands. While the book could also fit into the "lyric essay" genre, perhaps the jacket bio captures the essence best: "Maria Popova is a reader and a writer, and writes about what she reads." {back jacket flap}. Bringing an often scholarly endeavor (and one can see another version of this as a graduate school thesis) into the public cultural discourse for a literary populace is part of its gift.

How a person’s genius (Latin for "guardian spirit") meets genius loci, "the distinctive atmosphere or particular character of a place,” {American Heritage Dictionary} is the true study in Figuring. People who have made memorable marks in the world have somehow accessed their own exceptionalism within the distinctive atmosphere of their time: nature meeting nurture. The "somehow" is Popova's resonant portal for investigation, and we keep reading on because of the amazing arrangements of talent, chance, people loved, people lost, fortitudes, illnesses, first glimpses, Utopian visions, social exclusions, and other acts taken and not taken. She engages her subjects-characters-figures with dramatic tension, mystery, their own words of contradiction, and a dynamic interplay of forces.

And awe. Like Andrea Barrett's fiction, like Annie Dillard's non-fiction, Maria Popova's writing latches a chronicle of people, science, art, and history to the heart through a reverence for life's unfolding into particulars. Beginning with the words "All of it" and ending with "stardust," she shows that she is a worthy guide, a cosmic citizen aware of the awesome ephemeral presences of us all. Clearly, beautifully, and thankfully, genius and genius loci have coalesced in Figuring.


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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2020 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2020

His Father’s Disease: Stories

Aruni Kashyap
Context ($15.69)

by Michael MacBride

The ten stories in Aruni Kashyap’s His Father’s Disease share a discussion about the struggles of finding community and acceptance, whether as a result of sexuality, relocation, or misunderstandings based on perceived cultural awareness. The stories are almost evenly divided between those set in Assam, India, and those set in Minnesota, USA. The opening story, “Skylark Girl,” bridges this divide by taking place at an international academic conference.

“Skylark Girl” sets the tone for the stories that follow by carefully staging cultural misunderstandings and expectations in a setting where minds should, perhaps, be the most open and willing to learn, rather than shut down by pre-drawn conclusions. Sanjib’s telling of the Assamese folktale “Tejimola” disturbs his audience, but for the wrong reasons. Rather than reacting to the story on its merits, Sanjib’s academic peers ask why he is rewriting an old myth instead of writing about the current conflict and trauma in Assam. In fixating on the author failing to meet their expectations, Sanjib’s audience fails to address the conflict, drama, and trauma within the story Sanjib has just read.

These misunderstandings and failures of characters to see beyond stereotypes continue in each story—Characters living in Minnesota fail to recognize cultural differences between people living in “south Asia,” let alone the unique differences between the regions of India; characters from urban settings underestimate those in the rural communities; straight characters fail to recognize the possibility of same sex love.

The story that resonates across cultures and yet still speaks to the divisions present in the other stories is “Umricans.” The second-person point of view makes this very personal story—about leaving home, establishing oneself, and dealing with loss—universal. Though the story is about breaking out into the world, it is also about the struggles of immigrants to establish a new sense of community and home away from their place of birth. Further, it is about the longing to return home and the obstacles that prevent it from happening.

Additionally, the collection deals with cultural divides within India and the simplified western perception of a unified “south Asia,” a region consisting of eight countries and over 1.8 billion people. Stories like “For the Greater Common Good,” “Skylark Girl,” and, to a lesser extent, “Before the Bullet” contain elements of magical realism; suicide is also a reoccurring theme, and food plays a major role in several stories.

Much like Sanjib’s story in the collection’s opening, even when Kashyap’s characters aren’t talking about it and are far from home, they are coping with living under the shadow of perpetual war. The fingers of war creep into their folktales, love lives, and certainly their anxieties for family back home. And yet, despite the dark themes, most of Kashyap’s stories have a dry sense of humor and occasionally make the reader laugh out loud.


Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2020 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2020

Money is a Country:
an interview with Emily St. John Mandel

photo by Sarah Shatz

by Allan Vorda

Emily St. John Mandel was born in 1979 and raised on Denman Island, off the coast of British Columbia, Canada. At eighteen she left school to study ballet and contemporary dance at The School of Toronto Dance Theatre, but one day she picked up a free newspaper and read a book review, and her entire life changed: she began corresponding with the review’s author and the pair struck up a romance and moved to New York City, where Mandel subsequently met the man who became her husband. “If I hadn’t bent down that day and picked up that weekly newspaper, this entire life I’ve built might not have happened,” she told Publishers Weekly in 2012.

Before Mandel left Canada she had already started writing her first novel, Last Night in Montreal, which in turn was followed by The Singer’s Gun and The Lola Quartet—each of which might be termed detective-noir novels. From there was a sudden departure with Station Eleven, a dystopian work that became a runaway bestseller, one with the unusual distinction of being nominated for both the National Book Award and the Hugo Award. Mandel’s latest novel, The Glass Hotel (Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95), involves a Ponzi scheme inspired by the Bernie Madoff debacle, and so much more. A total departure from Station Eleven, The Glass Hotel shows Mandel cannot be confined to one genre and is willing to take chances to evolve as a writer—a quality bound to bring her even more accolades as readers discover this book.


Allan Vorda: When I interviewed Jennifer Egan about her novel Manhattan Beach, I asked if she felt any pressure to follow up her Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad. I’ll ask you the same question: Did you feel any pressure writing The Glass Hotel after the enormous success you had with Station Eleven?

Emily St. John Mandel: Yes, absolutely. If you have the unbelievable good fortune to have written an immensely successful book, then with the book that follows, there’s a sense of an invisible audience peering over your shoulder. I’m not complaining—we’re talking about the least sympathetic problem in the world here—but it probably made the writing of The Glass Hotel a little slower than it might have been. I never had any kind of pressure from my agents or publishers, though, which I very much appreciated.

AV: It seems that anyone who interviews you now must ask the obligatory question about how Station Eleven deals with a pandemic flu. I almost prefer not to go there, but it seems inescapable. Do you have any thoughts you want to add about the pandemic coincidence of Station Eleven with COVID-19? And more importantly, how are you dealing with the virus in New York City?

ESJM: What quickly becomes clear, if you read about the history of pandemics, is that epidemiologists talk about pandemics in the same way seismologists talk about earthquakes, which is to say that no one’s talking in terms of if there will ever again be another earthquake. There will always be another earthquake, and there will always be another pandemic. This isn’t to minimize the horror of the present moment in any way. Pandemics are a part of human history, and this current moment is only shocking to us because we haven’t had a major one in a hundred years.

I’m doing okay in New York City. A few of my friends have had the virus at this point, but none of those cases have been severe. We hear ambulances day and night and the daily death tolls are staggering. A nuance that sometimes gets lost in talk of “flattening the curve” is that the flat top of the curve is a devastatingly high plateau. My four-year-old daughter expresses a lot of sadness about not being able to see her cousins and her friends, and creating a stable, calm environment for her while trying to get my own work done is a daily juggling act. But I feel profoundly grateful for my life here. We have groceries delivered once a week. Our house has a terrace on the roof, with a large-scale container garden that I’ve been building up for years now, so I’ve been gardening and working as much as I can and reading in the evenings after my daughter goes to bed.

AV: Jeevan says to Arthur Leander in Station Eleven: “You do give a lot of interviews” whereupon Arthur replies: “Too many. Don’t write I said that.” What are your thoughts about doing interviews, especially since book tours to promote your new novel have been cancelled?

ESJM: I’m aware of all times of how fortunate my situation is that people want to interview me. I have extremely talented publicists and I know I get an extraordinary amount of press, for which I’m very grateful. But I can’t help but see interviewing as an extremely fraught and high-risk activity at this point. I’ve had a few awful experiences where I was either badly misquoted or a few quotes were plucked out of context from a very long interview and in the resulting piece I felt that I came across as an idiot. I’m grateful but wary, I guess that’s how I’d summarize it at this point.

AV: Your characters and the worlds they live in are often on the dark side. What attracts you to write about this aspect of humanity?

ESJM: I think it makes for more interesting fiction.

AV: In the last several decades, Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, William Gibson, Carol Shields, Rohinton Mistry, and yourself are among the Canadian writers who have found wide readerships and critical acclaim. Besides obvious talent, can you point to any reason why a country that doesn’t have an overly large population has produced so many fine writers?

ESJM: I don’t really have a theory on this one. It’s a thing, but I don’t know why it’s a thing. I did come across an interesting idea twenty years ago that I’ve been thinking about ever since—I was sitting in a cafe, and the guy at the next table said “Canada’s such an Apollonian society, so they produce these incredibly intense artists.” Maybe there’s something to that.

AV: After the dystopian approach of Station Eleven, what stimulated you to write a novel partly based on Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme?

ESJM: I was fascinated by the scale of the crime. The thing with that Ponzi scheme is that the returns could be graphed on a perfect 45° angle, like a child’s drawing of a mountainside. Which is to say that it should have been apparent to any sophisticated investor that something was awry, and yet a great many very financially sophisticated people fell for the scam. Which means there was a fascinating kind of mass delusion at play—it was as if all of these people who should have known better decided en masse to believe in a fairy tale.

But more than that, I was fascinated by the staff. About six or seven of Madoff’s staffers went to prison, because it’s not like he was formatting all those fake account statements by himself. When Madoff was arrested, I was an administrative assistant at The Rockefeller University in New York City. I really liked my coworkers, and what I found myself thinking about was the camaraderie that you have with any group of committed people who work together, and then I couldn’t help but think about how much more intense and wild that camaraderie would be if we were all showing up at work on Monday morning to perpetuate a massive crime.

AV: You were born on Vancouver Island, off the west coast of British Columbia, and you grew up mostly on Denman Island, a much smaller island nearby. The setting for some of the scenes in The Glass Hotel is the far northern end of Vancouver Island. What characteristics of where you grew up were helpful in writing about this setting?

ESJM: Just the knowledge of it, I’d say. Writing about places you don’t know very well is an invitation to receive several hundred emails telling you about all the details you got wrong.

AV: There is a passage where Vincent’s mother, who wanted to write poetry, “somehow found herself sunk in the mundane difficulties of raising a child and running a household.” I think so many writers who are parents will identify with this—how do you manage to write with all of the demands of motherhood and daily chores?

ESJM: I think this is an area where acknowledging privilege is important. There’s a reason why my daughter’s former nanny is the final name in the acknowledgments of The Glass Hotel: no one was more important than her in my ability to write that book. Writing while parenting is a problem that can be solved by spending an enormous amount of money on childcare, and that’s how I did it. I try to be transparent about this, because I don’t want parents who are struggling to get any writing done to feel like they’re just not working hard enough. The success of Station Eleven allowed my husband and I to employ an almost-full-time nanny for three years, after which I helped her find a new job and my daughter started going to a preschool full-time. Which was also expensive, but only about half as expensive as employing someone.

But now, in quarantine with no access to childcare, it’s a whole different thing, and a different kind of privilege comes into play: I have a spouse who’s able to work from home. My husband and I trade off on childcare throughout the day. It’s difficult and exhausting and neither of us has enough time, but we’re making it work and I believe we can keep going this way indefinitely. I’ve been thinking a lot about how much more difficult this time must be for single parents.

AV: The Glass Hotel starts with Vincent’s apparent suicide plunge into the ocean, followed by the words “Sweep me up.” The words not only allude to the last words spoken by Soren Kierkegaard and to the reader who is about to get swept up with your prose, but to Vincent as well, as we learn later: “She’d never had a clear vision of what she wanted her life to look like, she had always been directionless, but she did know that she wanted to be swept up, to be plucked from the crowd . . .” Tell us how the character of Vincent came into existence. From a rebellious teenager to a photographer, trophy wife, and eventual recluse, she definitely experiences a lot of changes in her life.

ESJM: She began as a trophy wife. If you’re going to write about a white-collar crime, you’re writing about money, and the phenomenon of trophy wives is a tiny niche of the economy that I find interesting. The rest of her biography came about from imagining her character arc before and after her time with Alkaitis. I liked the idea of a character who was able to reinvent herself at will, which is a quality that I admire in real life.

AV: Mirella, who is married to the Saudi prince Faisal and seems like a sort of doppelganger for Vincent, tells Vincent that cities, while different, are really the same because “money is its own country,” and that while the scenery might be different, “my life felt more or less the same in Singapore as it did in London.” Jonathan Alkaitis’s extension of this is that “money is a country and he had the keys to the kingdom.” It’s ironic that at the end, Alkaitis is in prison and the only key is the one that locks him in his cell. Global economics seems like a challenging topic to tackle in a novel—does this subject come naturally to you, or did you have to learn a bit about finance to go where you needed to in the book?

ESJM: I did have to learn a bit about finance. But what’s perhaps more relevant to those quotes of Mirella’s is that I’ve lived in more than one socioeconomic class, and having money vs. not having money are such profoundly different states that moving from one to the other really is as profound as moving between countries.

AV: When Alkaitis’s financial world collapses and he is sent to prison, his mind collapses into a non-consensual reality. The internal conversation Alkaitis has with himself is where he “likes to indulge in daydreams of a parallel version of events—a counterlife, if you will.” And you subtly explore how he constructs this counterlife: “Vincent isn’t in the counterlife. He feels it’s important to keep the two separate, memory vs. counterlife, but he’s been finding the separation increasingly difficult. It’s a permeable border.” Alkaitis fantasizes he has escaped and is living in Dubai, but “it’s more like a creeping sense of unreality, a sense of collapsing borders, reality seeping into the counterlife and the counterlife seeping into memory.”

I think these “counterlife” segments, how you get into Alkaitis’s mind, are brilliant pieces of writing, bordering on the Dostoyevskian. Can you reveal how you decided to write these parts of the novel, and how you were able to get in Alkaitis’s head so effectively?

ESJM: Thank you. They were among my favourite parts of the book to write. Pretty early on, I realized that this book was going to be a ghost story, but what is a ghost story, actually? We tend to use that phrase in kind of a classical sense, as in the spectre wafting down the corridor in the dilapidated old house or whatever, but it can be interesting to think about different ways of being haunted. Your counterlife is your counterfactual life: that’s the life wherein you married a different person, or went to a different school, or emigrated instead of staying or vice versa. What if your life is being haunted by the ghosts of the lives you didn’t live? I liked that idea. I appreciate what you said about getting into Alkaitis’s head effectively. The answer to how I did it is the same as the answer to how I did anything in this book—I just revised it dozens of times over a period of years.

AV: Your description of Alkaitis’s physical life in prison is very convincing as well. Did you visit any prisons, or do any other research to make these scenes so realistic?

ESJM: I’m glad that rang true. Prison life has been pretty well explicated in popular culture at this point—consider Orange is the New Black, The Wire, etc.—so I had some visual sense of what the inside of a prison looks like, and I’d also read a lot of essays and books that went into the rhythms of prison life in more detail. Not long before the deadline for my second pass proofs—which is to say, pretty much the absolute end of the editing process, when the book’s already been typeset and your publisher really doesn’t want you to make major changes—I had the opportunity to visit a men’s medium security facility in the Midwest as part of a prison literature program. It was sad—I’d describe the atmosphere as heavy—and also interesting. The details of the yard in the book came from that visit. You walk through a prison yard and there’s just a kind of aesthetic poverty about it, like there aren’t enough colours in the landscape: blue sky, green grass, cement, beige and blue buildings, tan and grey uniforms, and that’s it. When a bird lands, it’s somehow shocking, because that’s the only unregulated movement in the landscape.

AV: Earlier this year, Bernie Madoff asked to be let out of prison due to failing health. What are your overall thoughts of Madoff—and wouldn’t it be interesting to see what he thinks of The Glass Hotel if he gets a copy to read?

ESJM: If you read Madoff’s prison interviews, he just comes across as such a garden-variety sociopath and narcissist. The scale of his crime was extraordinary, but the man himself is so uninteresting. I have no respect for him, so I don’t care what he thinks of my work.

AV: Neal Stephenson’s character Enoch Root appears in different novels that span centuries. In a similar way, some of your characters from earlier novels reappear: Jonathan Alkaitis and the band Baltica (The Lola Quartet; The Glass Hotel), or Leon Prevant and Miranda (Station Eleven; The Glass Hotel). Ruth Franklin in The Atlantic argues that you are constructing a sort of multiverse that demonstrates the power to imagine simultaneous realities. Can you address this concept as it applies not only to your characters, but also to the various ghosts that permeate your novels? And tell us, when writing, are you consciously thinking about using certain characters in your future work?

ESJM: It depends on the character and the work. When I wrote The Lola Quartet, it wasn’t clear to me that I would return to either Jonathan Alkaitis or Baltica. But with Station Eleven, I knew I wanted to use Miranda and Leon again in future works, which presented an obvious problem, because I had no interest in writing a sequel and that book’s a bit of a dead end—a flu wipes out most of the world’s population. But to Ruth Franklin’s point, of course in fiction anything is possible, so I began laying the groundwork for the multiverse idea in that book. Toward the end of Station Eleven, two characters are playing a game they sometimes play, where they just riff on ideas about what alternate universes might look like. (“Imagine a universe where the flu never happened and the world didn’t end.”) This mirrors a passage in The Glass Hotel where Vincent is thinking about alternate realities, which is a kind of game she plays with herself sometimes, and she imagines a world where that terrifying new flu wasn’t quite so swiftly contained. In both passages, I was trying to lay the groundwork so that I could reuse some of Station Eleven’s characters without necessarily placing them in the same universe as Station Eleven.

As it pertains to ghosts, the multiverse idea is probably expressed most strongly in the sections having to do with what Jonathan Alkaitis—the Ponzi schemer sentenced to life in prison—thinks of as his counterlife, the life where he fled to Dubai instead of waiting to be arrested. I wanted to create increasing ambiguity about the reality of that alternate life: at first it just seems like a daydream, but my hope was that as the book progressed, and as his grasp of reality weakened, the counterlife would begin to seem more and more real.

AV: Leon’s accountant tells Leon about Alkaitis’s Ponzi scheme: “‘Leon, it wasn’t real. None of it was real. Those returns . . .’ She didn’t add that I told you seemed almost too good to be true, because she didn’t have to.” This seems to be the essence of a Ponzi scheme: that it is too good to be true and only a few, like Ella Kaspersky, see it for what it is. Any thoughts?

ESJM: There’s a herd mentality that comes into play with con artists. Suppose your savings are invested in a Ponzi scheme. You might have an uneasy thought one day, as you peruse your account statements, like “Wow, these returns are really surprisingly high, I wonder if something’s maybe amiss here.” But then you look around, you see all of these other investors who seem untroubled, and it’s easy to tell yourself that if anything were seriously wrong, someone else would have noticed and said something by now. People like Ella Kaspersky have the courage required to question things that a crowd of others are going along with.

AV: Oskar Novak states at his trial that “It’s possible to both know and not know something.” This appears to echo the Heisenberg Principle of Uncertainty, but I wondered if this oxymoronic statement by Oskar actually means something else.

ESJM: What I meant is that you can know intellectually that the returns on your investment are too good to be true, and yet choose not to know it, because those returns are so good and everyone else is going along with it. Or in Oskar’s case, you can know that you’re committing a crime that will ruin lives, and yet also choose not to know it, by means of self-justifications and denial.

AV: As I mentioned earlier, ghosts (and people who are invisible) crop up in all of your novels. In an interview with Hannah Beckerman in The Guardian, you stated: “The truth is that I’d always wanted to write a ghost story. It’s a form that I feel I love.” Can you extrapolate on this?

ESJM: I’m not sure that there’s much more to say about it. I’ve always been drawn to ghost stories. I think I just like the idea of there being some mystery in the universe.

AV: You also seem to have a substantial degree of knowledge about shipping in your novels. How did this come about?

ESJM: Through the most boring way possible! I regret to say that I don’t have a colourful past aboard a merchant vessel or anything like that. I just researched the subject. I read a book and a lot of articles and found YouTube channels belonging to merchant seamen.

AV: You have said you liked the structure of David Mitchell’s brilliant novel Cloud Atlas, but couldn’t make it work for The Glass Hotel. Can you say more about the process of restructuring and revision for The Glass Hotel?

ESJM: Sure, absolutely. For anyone who’s unfamiliar with Cloud Atlas, it’s got this wonderful symmetrical structure that moves forward and then backward in time. My copy’s in a box somewhere, so I can’t reference the exact time periods here, but if section A is set in, say, 1650, and section B is set in the 1800s, section C in 1950, etc., then the structure of the book could be mapped as A, B, C, D, E, D, C, B, A. I wanted to use that structure in The Glass Hotel, but the challenge with that structure is that in the second half you’re committed to returning to those points of view and points in time that you laid out in the first part of the book, which makes it really hard to maintain narrative tension.

So I wrote a draft that used that structure, and it was apparent with the first round of editorial notes that it absolutely did not work. The book wasn’t suspenseful enough. So I broke the book apart and submitted it again with a completely different structure, something less formal and less linear. But then there were issues around the dramatic peak of the book falling at the wrong point in the narrative—you want the dramatic peak of the book to be pretty close to the end, generally speaking, and mine was near the beginning—so I restructured it again for the third round of edits.

AV: You said after writing Last Night in Montreal, which has a wonderful ornate prose style, that you read Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, which made you pare down your style for your subsequent novel, The Singer’s Gun. What can you discern about the evolution of your prose style? I imagine your prose will undergo further changes the more you read and the older you get.

ESJM: I think my prose has gotten looser with time. I’m a little less concerned with grammatical perfection than I used to be.

AV: The Glass Hotel has a mystical and inscrutable ending, vaguely reminiscent of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. I thought it was a sublime way to wrap up the novel. Did you have this end in mind from the beginning?

ESJM: No, I came up with the ending pretty close to the end.

AV: Emily, thank you for this interview. It has been a sheer pleasure to immerse myself in your fiction.

ESJM: It was a pleasure speaking with you! Thanks for interviewing me.


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Frayed Light

Yonatan Berg
Translated by Joanna Chen
Wesleyan University Press ($14.95)

by Gwen Ackerman

Yonatan Berg’s book of poetry Frayed Light frames a slice of Israeli life rarely encountered by outsiders. The collection presents a personal story beyond and behind the news: the experiences of a young man who grew up in a West Bank settlement and served as a combat soldier before becoming a poet and bibliotherapist.

The snapshots of life offered in the poems are as clear as if shown on an LED screen: They are sharp, warm, compassionate and often breath-stoppingly awful. Don’t believe everything you see and hear, this book screams out; reality is the light that is frayed, and when looked at from different perspectives, may turn out to be the opposite of what was initially believed.

The book is divided into five sections; the first: “Hands that Once Held Manna” starts with a poem titled “Letter to the Reader,” in which Berg acknowledges the contradictions and horrors the book offers, and adds:

I apologize to each and every one of you
that I cannot touch, cannot reach out
to ease your pain, cannot hold you to me,
knowing I will ruin it all by saying something about the self—
something too flowery, too sophisticated.

The poems, originally written in Hebrew, come across beautifully in Joanna Chen’s exquisite translations. Read aloud, the melodies of the very different languages meld into one that is both multi-national and personal.

In “Ramallah Through the Window of a Bus,” Berg puts the reader next to him on a ride home through the Palestinian city of Ramallah, sharing the tension and ambiguity he feels as he stares at his Arab neighbors:

Perhaps they are remembering the old house,
the lost garden. We do not fall asleep on the bus.
Our fingers drum of their own accord
to that other rhythm—loose and wild.
Years later, I would be lying if I said
there was no contempt back then, no
creeping fear, but it came from outside,
never from within . . .

In “After a Night in the Alley of Worshippers,” Berg paints the monstrosity of war in what might seem like a mundane act: volunteering to collect the bodies of three Palestinian gunmen killed by his unit as they defended the Jewish worshippers under attack. While the reader recoils in visceral reaction to the scene described, what they don’t know is that four Israeli soldiers (among them Berg’s close friends), five Israeli policeman, three Israeli civilians, and three Palestinians were killed in that clash. Berg relives the trauma in affecting verse:

But when we got there I could not,
I simply could not. To this day I see Vish and a soldier,
shoving them into the armoured truck. They are dropped,
are dragged, I don’t have a better image for all this:
the bodies dragged, dropped,
over and over.

This is poetry that denies a label, written with such specificity that it resonates for us all. Nowhere is this clearer than in “To My Mother,” in which Berg speaks for every grown child who has left behind his family home and traditions:

You hand me a clean handkerchief,
ripe figs. I have been moving away

for years, finding you before bedtime
tucking the blanket around me, singing

of angels who watch over children.

Frayed Light offers a slideshow of conflict, family, and growing up, all seen through the lens of one man’s musings and illuminated by thoughts willingly offered up for inspection.


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Diane di Prima:
Visionary Poetics and
the Hidden Religions

David Stephen Calonne
Bloomsbury Academic
(Hardcover $130) (Paperback $39.95)

by Patrick James Dunagan

Although an academic study to be sure, David Stephen Calonne’s Diane di Prima: Visionary Poetics and the Hidden Religions serves to highlight an important literary figure whose poetry has been largely sidelined by critical and popular commentary in favor of her sometimes more salacious prose memoirs. It is high time di Prima’s poetic work be afforded greater attention. As a woman who came of age during the American male-privileging hegemony of the 1950s yet found her own path, living on the cultural fringes until the explosive countercultural force of the late 1960s brought a large number of like-minded companions her way, di Prima serves as an admirable model for all artists.

When di Prima found she didn’t belong at Swarthmore College she left for the streets of Manhattan. While she was in part escaping from the strictures of her traditional Italian-American family’s Catholicism, she did so forthrightly, never abandoning core values of compassion for her fellow beings and the earth. She also continued to study the background of the church’s teachings, the heretical and occult texts that Christian scribes had long attempted to discredit and bury away. She found solace and rejoiced in building her own rich community of artists in the city, from fellow poets to artists, dancers, and those involved in avant-garde theatre. Identifying with a burgeoning underground poetry scene, she founded one of the great mimeograph zines of the era, The Floating Bear, with LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), and started Poets Press, publishing her own work along with friends and associates, such as Timothy Leary. She and Jones also became lovers, sparking some of her strongest early poems of love and loss (Jones was married at the time to Hettie Jones). From New York she came West to California in the 1960s, taking part in the various countercultural scenes of the day. Along the way she heavily engaged in meditation, moving from Zen to Tibetan Buddhism, as well as exploring tantric, tarot, shamanic, and various so-called pagan spiritual practices.

As Calonne’s study makes quite evident, throughout her life di Prima has always been writing poetry and gathering an esoteric library which she studied prodigiously. Drawing not only upon di Prima’s larger publications, such as the essential gathering Selected Poems, 1956-1975 (North Atlantic Books, 1975) as well as her epic of woman-identified poetics Loba (Penguin Books, 1978), Calonne also covers the many smaller press editions of her work, such as her self-published Calculus of Variation, and frequently cites unpublished material from archival holdings of her papers and personal notebooks. There doesn’t appear to be any of di Prima’s writings that Calonne doesn’t at least touch upon within his commentary. That said, there is a dizzying sort of madness to the speed at which Calonne swoops from reference to reference. For much of the book it feels as if he is so busy assembling his original sources that he glosses over his arguments. The abundance of his citations are quite fruitful for further reading but his own work feels less than fully rewarding.

What is made definitively clear by Calonne’s study is that there are many more publications by and about di Prima yet to come. Calonne has done a fine job delimiting areas of her work where arcane and occult source materials play a vital role. He also emphasizes her teaching and lectures, primarily at the now defunct New College of California’s Poetics Program in San Francisco and the annual summer Buddhist/Beat gatherings at Naropa University in Boulder. A collection of di Prima’s lectures and lecture notes is clearly a project needing an editor. Her lecture “Light/ and Keats” has long been readily available in Talking Poetics from Naropa Institute (Shambhala, 1979), but aside from her also excellent pieces on Charles Olson and “R. D’s H.D.” available in the Lost & Found chapbook series, little else from her archival teaching materials has been brought into publication. In addition, a full biography would flesh out the scholarly digging performed by Calonne, since he only draws upon written source material; he conducted no in-person interviews with the poet or any of her family, friends, and associates.

There are also the many small press publications of di Prima’s work to be gathered together and published anew. The 1990 City Lights collection Pieces of a Song: Selected Poems is far too thin a collection, especially when compared to North Atlantic’s expansive earlier Selected—which itself would be well worth republishing. Any such projects would, of course, require di Prima’s cooperation, but there should be no doubt that future di Prima publications are necessary. Her work is fundamental to recovering poetry’s essential interplay with every aspect of our lives.


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Utopia Pipe Dream Memory

Anna Gurton-Wachter
Ugly Duckling Presse ($18)

by Isabel Sobral Campos

Utopia springs from our mammal form, from the conversation happening across distances, but also in proximity with whom we share a mode of being, a mood. Anna Gurton-Wachter’s debut poetry collection, Utopia Pipe Dream Memory, is a feminist affirmation of the multivocality of writing, the force of artistic communities, and the visionary as aesthetic principle. The poet converses intimately with artists past and present, whose bubbling impulses arrive in workshops and books, and the art beckoning in embodied spells, such as La Monte Young and Marian Zazaeela’s permanent sound installation Dream House. These poems suggest that communities are laboratories of the mind, where reveries seize bodies busy clearing space for different kinds of living. How can one resist the metrics of capitalist appropriation and control? Intensely aware of what subdues people into robotic routines of survival, Gurton-Wachter offers defiance: “I was worried about the authority one needs in order to smash an image and see if it holds another image inside,” she writes.

Bernadette Mayer’s writing crucially informs this work. Mayer often examines the strain of inequality and lack as it pertains to creative quests, showing how the desiring space of a writer’s psyche rubs against communal life. In a similar way, Gurton-Wachter intimates the importance of dreams, writing prompts, and networks of people. Tapping into the heart of a struggle to think freely and live differently, the legacy of women artists nourishes this writer. “Every word is a nipple to me,” she affirms. The collection opens with a hypnotic spell—a short poem dedicated to filmmaker Peggy Ahwesh—followed by four long prose poems separated by interludes. This structure underlines suspension; as the interlude presupposes an intermission (a break), so does the book function as an appendage to a larger public context. The second poem of the collection, for instance, draws its title (“Mother of All”) from the Trump administration’s dropping of the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast Bomb in Afghanistan, and the executive of “A Development Proposal for the Center of the Earth” grimly announces how a state of perpetual war renders war invisible.

These poems release caged ideas from temporal bondage into the slack lucidity of the imaginary, where “a dream is a dilation in conversation.” Human and nonhuman worlds come near enough to feel each other’s breaths, as the poet describes sinking “into the ground and thrust like a diver into the form of a worm.” Yet, this transformation emerges from women’s work:

I am ready to receive the news through Hannah Wiener’s nipple.
I listen for the thread.

Hannah Wiener’s tit is in my mouth

Gurton-Wachter’s stunning lines ring as elastic rhythms, building compressed prose paragraphs that serve well the conceptual core of this book: a message urging each of us to heed collective dreaming and collaborative thinking. This unforgettable collection achieves a recursive complexity that invites multiple, ever more layered readings.


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Subduction

Kristen Millares Young
Red Hen Press ($16.95)

by Douglas Cole

“She was merely passing through this world,” Kristen Millares Young’s character, Claudia, reveals about herself in the opening pages of Subduction, Young’s debut novel. Newly dislocated from her marriage and all the familiar routines, of course Claudia feels this way. But what does it really mean to travel through the world feeling so disconnected? This is not just an existential question, but a moral one, and it gets explored through the layers of community Claudia encounters and her psychological stance as cipher, persona, and curious eye on the world.

Claudia meets and becomes involved with Peter, a man who has returned to the Makah reservation where Claudia has come to escape her failing marriage and to do her work as an anthropologist, which requires nearly surgical skills of cultural extraction. Peter has returned to connect with his mother before dementia sets in and erases what he needs to learn before she’s gone. In fact, with Peter, who can “measure a day’s progress without searching his soul,” and Claudia, who like her father fills her life with “work” in order to avoid connection, we have quite a set of star-crossed lovers. Peter’s thought might be “I don’t belong here,” but it’s clear that both characters feel the same way about being in the world.

With Claudia, we are presented with what might seem like the worst kind of cultural anthropologist, a person “awed by the relics of true belief” but who herself has none. But rough and brusque as she may be, Young’s writing shows us that such a character, unable to hide her emotional wreckage and social awkwardness—a woman with “her mask no mask”—is perhaps in the right place at the right time without knowing it. Whatever “work” she thinks she is there to do, her journey is much more internal and personal than that of the typical, highbrow anthropologist. In this way, cultural differences and boundaries fall away to a human story of need and loss and recovery. The things Claudia learns have less do with the stories and music she has come to research than with the vicissitudes of her own heart.

Much of Claudia’s journey is a deconstructing of her own “greedy nature,” the anthropologist’s drive to study and take; she must learn to face the very things that have served her but keep her as oblivious as the moths pelting her window, attracted to the light of her computer screen. In this way, Subduction is a marvelous collision of people and their emotional landscapes, and much like the geologic action the title refers to, this activity is messy, violent, and natural—as natural as all humans are beneath their wants and needs, their masks and their cultures. And that is the beauty of Young’s novel: while it presents us with the ongoing problematics of cultural sensitivity and awareness and agency, it also reminds us that within these zones are ordinary people, as complicated as the weather and as simple as spirit animals bearing clear messages.

Subduction is most of all a story of displacement and dislocation: for Claudia, whose Latina heritage lies over a border and whose sense of family lies beyond the betrayal that broke it; and for Peter, whose tragic fractures from family and community instill an “inner nihilist.” But Subduction is also a story of healing, through both traditional cultural practices and the kind that transcend politics and place—namely the love two people feel for each other. At heart, Subduction is an optimistic novel, for out of the mess of politics and power imbalances and cultural confusion, love indeed creates the way for a new kind of life—even if the people involved stay “coiled inside this illusion” and “glad of the mask.”


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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2020 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2020

The Beautiful Ones

Prince
Spiegel & Grau ($30)

by Tatiana Ryckman

What The Beautiful Ones does most successfully is remind us that Prince is dead.
Each page of the book is culled from the musician’s vast archive by Dan Piepenbring, who’d been selected to co-write the book with Prince before his death in April of 2016. Prince had told Piepenbring, “When it comes to your life story, don’t let anyone else hold the pen.” Unfortunately, the absence of Prince’s hand is felt acutely.

This is not to say the book isn’t illuminating. There are moments at once comical and brilliant, where Prince becomes, extraordinarily, just another person who has to “brush [his] own teeth.” This happens when we see him fall for a girl with acne, a trait he says “made her just vulnerable enough that she was approachable & not out of a brotha’s reach.” His humanness is visible in the scrapbook he kept while making his first album—that he kept a scrapbook to begin with, the preciousness of that act—where he plays pranks both on the subjects of his photos and the eventual viewers. Even in the behind-the-scenes notes, where Piepenbring recounts the story of Prince trying to convince his then-girlfriend, Denise Matthews, to go by the stage name “Vagina” (pronounced like the name “Gina”), we have to confront the reality that although he was incredibly talented, and perhaps a true genius (whatever that is), Prince was also once a childish teenager. As he told Piepenbring at their first meeting, “I want my first book to be better than my first album. I like my first album, but . . . I’m a lot smarter than I was then.”

Rather than captions under photos, there is a robust notes section in the back of the book which informs the reader when and where a photo came from, and gives some context for that moment. As one flips through this archive of Prince’s life, they must also flip to the back for these notes, so that in the end, when one reaches the final photo (“Prince, resplendent in the spotlight during the Purple Rain tour in 1984”), one has the impression that there is more to the story—that Prince will continue on after this moment. When you turn the page, however, you have only managed to return to the beginning. It feels like a metaphor for Prince’s absence and persistence—for how his early music continues to punctuate our lives, and for the way so many of us are still waiting to see what happens next.


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at your local independent bookstore
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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2020 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2020