Tag Archives: Spring 2020

All and Always Balance:
Kyle Harvey and Jeff Alessandrelli
in Conversation

Harvey on Alessandrelli:

I first ran across Jeff Alessandrelli’s work in American Room Weather, a small, collaborative chapbook. I immediately did a Google search, reading everything he’d written that I could find online. Hooked, I tracked down his email address and asked him to send some poems along to Fruita Pulp, an online journal I was publishing at the time. Something that continuously strikes me about Jeff’s work is the playfulness with which he approaches his serious work, reminding me of the German artist Kurt Schwitters’s declaration that art is “A game played with serious problems.” The publication of Jeff’s newest poetry collection, Fur Not Light (Burnside Review Press, $14), was a perfect occasion to hang out in conversation with a poet I greatly admire.

Alessandrelli on Harvey:

I’ll never be a Renaissance person or even semi-sufficient jack of all trades; my focus ebbs and flows and, even if I’m enthusiastic, the skill set is simply not there. Ask me to draw a house and I’ll draw a one-dimensional box; ask me to sing a song and I’ll hum off-key until even the air shudders. For this reason, I admire Kyle Harvey’s multiple vocations to the nth degree: He’s a father, poet, musician, filmmaker, editor, and City Council member, and he does each of those things at a formidably high level. Whatever the opposite of a dilettante is defines Kyle’s mode of being, both artistically and personally. His full-length poetry collection Cosmographies is forthcoming from Cuneiform Press. I was honored to have this conversation with him.


Jeff Alessandrelli: I just finished watching your documentary on the recently-deceased Beat poet Jack Mueller and found it fascinating. Lawrence Ferlinghetti called Mueller “the biggest-hearted poet I have ever known,” and yet he was someone who seemed to shun the spotlight, focusing instead on reading and listening to the work of others (particularly women) rather than attempting to self-mythologize. In 2020, I find that humility supremely endearing—and necessary. What was your own relationship with Mueller, and do you personally identify with his way of accessing the world?

Kyle Harvey: Jack was, and continues to be, one of the most important mentors in my creative life. I was fortunate to meet him in 2012, shortly after moving to Colorado. Danny Rosen of Lithic Press invited me over to hang out with a handful of Western Slope poets as well as “the old man from up on the mountain,” Jack Mueller. We quickly hit it off, talking about poetics and so on, but also about being a father. We became good friends during the last four or five years of his life and I’m grateful for the many things he taught me. Even as he was passing on, deeper into the mystery, he left me with a map leading to further lessons.

I’d never made a film before, but felt compelled to make a film about Jack. He agreed and gave me a list of a few poets in San Francisco to get in touch with, so I lined up interviews with Neeli Cherkovski, Jack Hirschman, and George Scrivani, and flew to SF with only some vague idea of what I was doing. I honored one of Jack’s directives, “Obey emerging form,” in the making of the film, Portolano. So in that respect—obeying the emerging form—yes, I absolutely identify with his way of accessing the world.

Jack’s work as a poet really exemplifies this, too. He’d write a book-length poem which sprawls across the open field of page, followed by a book of prose poems, and then spend years writing 600 pages of couplets. This shifting of gears is one of the things I really like about your new book, Fur Not Light, which seemingly does something similar, though within a single work. For example, “Be Yer Own Hitman (Deathsounds/Lovesongs),” is comprised of 67 quatrains, while the following section, “Nothing of the Month Club,” gives us three prose poems of the same title. Can you talk about the way these varying forms emerge within your work?

JA: Well, as someone who has struggled with life/personal responsibilities vis-a-vis artistic desires as I’ve grown older, watching the Mueller documentary was legitimately moving. The “obey emerging form” dictum seems to be Taoist in nature, and what draws me to it is the way that those three simple words refuse busybodiness and all manners of rumination. It seems like in both his life and writing, Mueller was able to harness all his aspects into one contented whole. That self-unification inspires me and I’ve thought about it a lot: How can I connect what I do on the page to who I am as a person—not in a “confessional” or “autofiction” type of way, but in a way that both acknowledges and considers my faults while also allowing me to move beyond them? It’s an impossible task but it seems like Mueller accomplished it—to be present in the world and on the page fully and completely, inhabiting who he was and no one else.

As for my own adherence to emerging form—you work on something for so long and then can’t see really see it. With the exception of “Resignation Modes,” the long middle poem in the collection, much of Fur Not Light was written between 2014-2016, and that period was one of profound change for me. I worked as a copywriter, adjunct professor, and “community resource coordinator” before moving across the country to start a tenure-track academic job, one that I eventually quit. The writer of both “Be Yer Own Hitman (Deathsounds/Lovesongs)” and “Nothing of the Month Club” seems to be profoundly different than the one I am today, especially with regards to form. Somewhere between 2014 and the book’s publication late last year, I became more interested in prose, while also questioning my inclination to write at all—meaning that while working on Fur Not Light I began to consider my writerly attributes and limitations in a more clearly defined way, and as a result the collection reads to me now like more of a questioning than a statement. A line in one of the “Nothing of the Month Club” poems reads: “Studying the bones in a blade of grass, squirms in a cube of ice, Alan’s finally begun the major work necessary to finish his novella I’m a Man of Few Words, None of Them About Myself”—and although it’s tongue-in-cheek, Alan’s predicament is one I can identify with. As a result, writing has simultaneously expanded and constricted for me as I’ve moved from my late twenties to mid-thirties. I don’t think I can do it at all anymore, nor do I want to. What I do want to do, though, is hone and refine what I have at my disposal.

But I’d like to throw the emerging form question back on you: you’re a poet and musician and editor and filmmaker, and also a father and husband. I know you’re now working on a documentary about the canonical Bay area poet Neeli Cherkovski. How does your constantly changing sense of self impact your own personal and artistic desires?

KH: The paradox you’ve mapped, both as your own simultaneous expansion and constriction, as well as Alan’s predicament in “Nothing of the Month Club,” absolutely resonates as I find myself stumbling into my forties. I really appreciate the way that you further describe this in the final lines of the poem:

He’s resigned himself to the cold storage world of America, everdim. He’s committed himself to a constant erection of the heart, evertaut.

Living in the moment before dying into the past, living in the moment before dying into the past, living in the moments.

The juxtaposition of resignation and commitment really rings true for me at this stage of my life. My younger years as a creative were spent unwilling to compromise, holding fast to ideologies. Now, I find that the acceptance of one’s self, as well as the difficulties of the world, offers an opportunity to recommit those energies directly to the act of making. I find myself busier than ever, juggling the responsibilities of family, work, my creative/inner life, and time spent serving my community as a City Council member. Whether shifting gears from working on the Neeli film to parenthood, or from penning my own poems to editing Coolidge & Cherkovski: In Conversation, emerging form isn’t always easy to navigate, nor are the transitions always smooth. Perhaps Jack never meant for the dictum to serve as a blueprint, but instead as provocation toward recommitment.

In your poem, “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind,” it seems as though you continue to explore resignation and commitment. A couple of my favorite lines appear in the poem’s fourth section:

Their solace rests not in selfhood
But in the pack’s continual propulsion
Onward,

Within the context of the poem, “their” refers to sharks, though I feel like these lines are a beautiful metaphor, optimistically embodying a sense of commitment to something greater than one’s self. Despite the struggle you describe, you also seem to be looking forward. Can you talk a little bit more about your commitment to your work? Do you find that it’s a commitment to something greater than selfhood? And is making a hopeful act—or have you discovered hope while immersing yourself in the work itself?

JA: It’s funny—I did a reading with the writer/musician Dao Strom this past week in Portland and we talked about these questions a bit, especially in terms of commitment. Dao’s someone that I look up to because her integrity of self is aspirational for me. Meaning, as detailed in the Preface of her recently reissued collection of novellas The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys, she started out as a fairly straightforward, narrative-driven fiction writer and then as her life progressed she moved away from that, to more hybrid and multi-modal text-and-image based ways of writing. She signed a two-book deal with a major NY publisher and, after publishing her first book, they rejected her second, causing her to release the book with a smaller publisher. And after The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys was released in 2006 and subsequently reviewed by, among other outlets, The New Yorker, Dao didn’t release another book until 2015. She kept writing, creating work very different than what she previously had done, but nevertheless fully true to her own constantly evolving creative self, a self that cared more about the work than commerciality.

As you can tell, I’ve been thinking about Dao’s situation quite a bit lately. As I edge further into my thirties I’m working on being more cognizant of my commitment to myself as a person of value rather than as a writer. Writers are needy: From both their peers and their readers, they want validation, which is sometimes a hard thing to come by, especially if, like me, you write weird poems and essays inspired by even weirder poems and essays—and although I’ve published a decent amount, I frankly haven’t had the best experience with publishers.

With that all being said, I find that the older I get the more I do find making to be a hopeful act. But I also find as much value, maybe even more, in making things that others create. After putting out LPs by some “bigger” poets, my literary press/record-label Fonograf Editions is moving into releasing books and other texts by younger/newer writers, and I’m really excited about that. I also co-host and produce a radio show/podcast here in Portland called The Steer that’s focused on talking to writers about music and musicians about writing, and I’m excited about that too; Season 2 is set to air later this year and we have some cool guests. At this point in life my commitment is to make things constantly, but not necessarily things of my own design. I’m not as interested in myself as I was when I was twenty-five.

With your own move into film and community/City Council work, not to mention the biggest role you have (as a father), I assume you’re thinking and existing on somewhat the same lines? Tangentially, I’ve been reading through your manuscript Cosmographies (congratulations on the forthcoming publication!) and the opening lines to the fourth section of the title poem struck me deeply:

Can
self-exile heal

that which
language will

be, as
language is?

Never to be-
come a com-

plete nation,
never further

than a woman
can walk

in a day,

unless
governed as such

love will
always come

how do we love
to order all—

You quote from Jack Mueller in that section of the poem, and the manuscript itself is dedicated to Neeli Cherkovski; a collaborative gratitude seems to emanate from each poem. Am I anywhere near the mark? And was the writing of the volume a slog or did it come together, to quote old school Wu-Tang, like Voltron?

KH: Dao’s situation and this idea of commitment to the ongoing and evolving work itself, rather than compromising the work’s integrity in exchange for validation and praise, really resonates. I can’t wait to read her work!

I spent most of my twenties playing music, both solo and in a number of bands. All the while I was writing poems and short stories, painting, and interested in building community. A small group of us living in the Benson neighborhood of Omaha started a zine called Found—we “published” anything and everything submitted via coffee cans we strategically placed in bars and coffee shops. I participated in a handful of art shows. I went to poetry open mics, almost always just to listen, too nervous to read my work. But really, I identified as a musician. Then, during the last year or so of recording and touring with a band called It’s True, I started spending more and more time reading, writing, and thinking about poetry. That was the emerging form in my life at the time. Shortly thereafter, I really took a step back from music and haven’t spent a whole lot of time looking back. I’ve continued to write songs and record a little bit, but I rarely perform. And I think in some ways, that has alienated many of the people who were interested in my work as a musician.

A similar alienation seems to have occurred in my work as a poet. Many of my earlier poems were more narratively accessible, while my work has continued toward a more process-oriented exploration. I don’t think it’s any secret that work broadly labeled as “avant-garde” enjoys limited readership in an already niche medium. Along those same lines, you hit the nail on the head regarding publishers of this kind of work; most are grinding it out at day jobs and publishing as a labor of love. I’m certainly grateful for the work they do. My experience and understanding has been that a poetry collection’s success directly correlates to the poet’s promotion of the book, which is not the way most poets I know want to spend their time. Which is why I love that you’ve mentioned how active you are in promoting the work of others. I can’t emphasize enough how important this is! I recently visited a local high school to talk to its poetry club; I emphasized that one of the best things they could do is to become engaged literary citizens—to read one another’s work attentively, to start a small poetry journal, to be each other’s champions, and to build a community. Not only is this the good work, but you also learn so much about your own work by reading and editing the work of others.

Similarly, I feel like civically engaging with my community has really broadened my perspective and informed my creative life. Whether sitting on City Council or coaching soccer, each engagement offers insight. And certainly as a father I’ve learned to put the needs of my children first. There is a steep learning curve to letting go of preconceptions and ideologies, but if you don’t, they can really work against raising a child to be strong, assertive, courageous, and free thinking. I’ve made mistakes, and I’ll probably make more before it’s said and done, but I learn a little bit every day, and I think I’m becoming a better person because of my kids. They are my greatest teachers.

Thank you for the kind words about Cosmographies. I’ve always admired Mallarmé’s idea that the ultimate “Work” would be of such great measure that it would take more than a single lifetime. I’m interested in larger structures, intertextuality, and paying homage to the work of my friends and literary influences. I really approach my reading, writing, and ongoing conversations as part of the same practice. My conversations with Jack have always found their way into my work, as do my conversations with Neeli, as do my conversations with Danny Rosen, who I work for at Lithic Press. This is the same as my reading of their work, and that of others. It is absolutely a collaborative gratitude. And I suppose it was like Voltron, but only after a long slog!

I wonder if you could talk about your poetic process. How does your engagement in promoting the work of others inform your own? How does your sense of community interact with your inner and creative life? And tying back into the difficulties of not only publishing but finding readership, how much time do you spend worrying about these things? Fur Not Light is your second title published by Burnside Review Press; I imagine that it’s nice to have the opportunity to continue working with a press you are already familiar with. Can you talk about what that is like? (I really dig the size and design of both Fur Not Light and THIS LAST TIME WILL BE THE FIRST.)

JA: It’s lovely to remember that we share having spent time in Nebraska. Something else that I think we share is a certain awareness that, for all the ways that we’re helplessly invested in our personal selves, the good work of others is just as important as our own, if not more so. Through The Steer and Fonograf Editions, as well as via interviewing and reviewing works by other authors, in my own way I too try to further the notion that, although it’s an overused word, community really can and does mean something, especially on a literary level. But this feels a bit self-congratulatory, so to your questions: My poetic process has greatly changed over the years. When I started trying to write seriously (which was around 2006) I was intent on writing just one type of poem, a vaguely surreal bubblegum type of thing that largely derived from my love of the poetry of James Tate. For years, then, I steered that ship both determinedly and repetitively. I wrote the same poem over and over again, knowing I was doing it and unable to stop. It’s only in the last six or so years that I realized that writing obsessively isn’t the same thing as writing well; there’s a profound difference between the two modes and any reader (and, if they’re being honest with themselves, writer) can intuitively suss out that difference.

Part of that realization came with putting other writers’ work into the world, definitely. Before Fonograf I co-edited a chapbook press, Dikembe, and running it was a largely satisfying endeavor. Putting out the actual books was important, of course, but doing so also forced me to move away from myself, my own whims and predilections. This process has continued over the years, with Fonograf and my other projects, and by virtue of that fact I write less. With so much writing constantly being published, not to mention shouted out and promoted on social media, it’s easy to think that if you don’t publish something every few months you’re falling behind, but I think that such a viewpoint is false. In the past three years I’ve written in spurts and then spent months not writing at all, or at least not writing creatively. There’s a Chinese Buddhist poet I like a lot, Stonehouse, who essentially made silence his “brand” and lived the life of a hermit. Although on a social level I’m decidedly unhermit-like, I am a digital hermit to a certain degree, and not being on those platforms has allowed me a certain freedom. So far as I know, most of my readers are people I meet face to face, at actual readings or events, and that’s a different type of engagement than what might occur digitally. Although it asks more of me on a living and breathing human level, I like it better.

This personal engagement also ties in with both Fur Not Light and THIS LAST TIME WILL BE THE FIRST coming out from Burnside Review Press. In 2005, Burnside Review was a big deal: They published well-known poets and fiction writers, many of them new to me, and would host events semi-regularly, sometimes flying in authors from out of state. When they held their first book contest in 2012, I submitted THIS LAST TIME WILL BE THE FIRST with hope but certainly not any sense of confidence. I was living in Lincoln at the time, actually getting ready to move back to Portland, and getting the call that it was going to be published by the press gave me a jubilation as I prepared to make the cross-country trek. Since then I’ve worked with publisher Sid Miller on a couple of different projects and it’s been a blessing. There’s a transparency there vis-à-vis duty and obligation, one understood by both parties. If Fur Not Light is going to make its way in the world, it’s largely going to be on me to do it; all of the BR editors have day jobs, children, etc. So although that responsibility can easily be viewed as a fault of the press’s “business plan” (and the small press publishing model as a whole), I see it as more of an attribute. There’s a power in knowing that my destiny and narrative is mine alone. To help spread the word about my work I can do a lot or a little, and hopefully I’m able to find a balance. It’s all and always about balance, right?


Click here to purchase Fur Not Light
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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2020 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2020

Collected Poems of Bob Kaufman

Bob Kaufman
Edited by Neeli Cherkovski, Raymond Foye, and Tate Swindell
City Lights Books ($19.95)

by Christopher Luna

Bob Kaufman will be forever associated with the Beat writers of San Francisco, despite being criminally less lauded than his white contemporaries. As with the best writers, however, there is a great diversity to his thematic and aesthetic concerns, as amply demonstrated in The Collected Poems of Bob Kaufman. The book contains brilliant prose poems such as the epic “Second April,” and sound poems like “Crootey Songo.” “Countess Erika Blaise” mocks the art world’s exploitation of artists by the moneyed class. Kaufman exhibits great wit in “Who Can See the Wind?” and invites the reader to contemplate critical existential questions in “Waiting.”

A great artist is like a mirror: We see ourselves in their work, find places of identification in even the most personal imagery and stories. Kaufman’s work is lush, romantic, and surreal. It is informed by jazz and by love and by the gritty milieu of a post-World War II San Francisco, where he was targeted, harassed, and beaten by police. These poems pay tribute to Ray Charles and Allen Ginsberg and Charlie Parker while also painting a melodic and kaleidoscopic portrait of the American nightmare. They contain a nostalgic melancholy, a hallucinogenic fervor, and a tortured indignation that reflect the chaos and beauty of our country in all its contradictions.

In the tradition of his fellow Beat poets, there is a compassionate spirituality underpinning Kaufman’s criticism of our nation’s failure to live up to its promises. “Night Sailor’s Prayer” ends with a sublime stanza that contrasts sharply with the media’s depiction of the Beat Generation as filthy, hedonistic fools: “Sing love and life and life and love/ All that lives is Holy/ The unholiest, most holy of all.” “Heavy Water Blues” reads as an extended Zen koan which begins and ends with a “radio teaching my goldfish jujitsu” and ends with a series of clever aphorisms:

I never understand other peoples’ desires or hopes,
Until they coincide with my own, then we clash.

I have definite proof that the culture of the caveman,
disappeared due to his inability to produce one magazine,
that could be delivered by a kid on a bicycle.

When reading all those thick books on the life of god,
It should be noted that they were all written by men.

It is perfectly all right to cast the first stone,
If you have some more in your pocket.

Television, america’s ultimate relief, from the indian disturbance.

Kaufman’s work embodies the tone and spirit of his patron saints Charlie Parker and Federico Garcia Lorca. In “A Remembered Beat,” Kaufman laments the loss of the legendary saxophonist, “a poet in jazz” who “wore lonely death/ Leaving his breath in a beat.” Lorca’s influence is felt strongly in “The Ancient Rain,” a timeless, powerful poem written by a visionary artist in the tradition of Walt Whitman’s anguished critiques of the nation he loved. While the privileged may have convinced themselves that they had vanquished ignorance and could now rest easy on “post-racial” laurels, the eventual rise of the fascist right-wing racists emboldened by Donald Trump were anticipated by Kaufman in this terrifying poem:

I see the death some cannot see, because I am a poet spread-eagled on this bone of the world. A war is coming, in many forms. It shall take place. The South must hear Lincoln at Gettysburg, the South shall be forced to admit that we have endured. The black son of the American Revolution is not the son of the South. Crispus Attucks’ death does not make him the Black son of the South. Let the voice out of the whirlwind speak:

Federico García Lorca wrote:
Black Man, Black Man, Black Man,
For the mole and the water jet
Stay out of the cleft.
Seek out the great sun
Of the center.
The great sun gliding
over dryads.
The sun that undoes
all the numbers,
Yet never
crossed over a
dream.

As his hero Lorca had done, Kaufman describes walking around Manhattan. He visits Grant’s tomb, and thinks of Lorca’s assassination by “[General Francisco] Franco’s civil guard” in 1936. He is inspired by “Hearing the Lorca music in the endless solitude of crackling blueness. I could feel myself a little boy again in crackling blueness, wanting to do what Lorca says in crackling blueness to kiss out my frenzy on bicycle wheels and smash little squares in the flush of a soiled exultation.”

As with all great poetry, one cannot appreciate the full effect of its musical magic without hearing it in the air. Reading the endless sentence of “Does the Secret Mind Whisper” aloud to myself was a mind-blowing, transformative experience.

This book will be invaluable to students and scholars of post-WWII American poetry. In her foreword, devorah major deems the new collection “a needed compendium” and outlines what is and isn’t “Beat” about Kaufman. This lovingly prepared volume also features photographs, a biographical timeline, remembrances by editors Neeli Cherkovski and Raymond Foye, and uncollected works, several of which appeared in Beatitude, the literary magazine Kaufman started with William J. Margolis in 1959. According to major, Kaufman’s “life is laid out” in his poems, although not always in obviously autobiographical ways. Take some time to immerse yourself in the gorgeous beatitude of this underappreciated American poet-philosopher. This long overdue collection ought to have a lasting impact on all those who believe in the ability of poetry to transform our lives.


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

Love, Icebox: Letters from John Cage to Merce Cunningham

Edited by Laura Kuhn
John Cage Trust ($24.95)

by Richard Kostelanetz

More than a quarter century after his death, the American composer John Cage (1912-1992) is still remembered as fresh editions of his work continue to appear. A handsomely produced book, Love, Icebox consists of unashamedly personal letters that Cage posted to his future life partner, the choreographer Merce Cunningham (1919-2009), in the early 1940s; these were discovered among the latter’s papers after his death.

Though the letters are slight—rarely more than a few hundred words—they richly portray a man “happily married” to a woman in the process of discovering his greater love for another man. Additionally, they reveal how gay young men approached each other several decades ago. Remarkably few mention aesthetic matters or experiences, though we later came to treasure both of these artists for the work they made together and through each other. Some are shamelessly erotic, to a degree that would have probably made them unpublishable only a few decades ago. What’s missing are Cunningham’s replies, though Cage saved things; one suspects that Cunningham insisted they be destroyed.

Because the texts are so slight, the book benefits from the addition of reproductions of the original letters, often handwritten, and color photographs of the Cage-Cunningham loft soon after the latter’s passing. As Cage’s principal executor, Laura Kuhn adds extended footnotes that are informative though sometimes wrong. (E.E. Cummings’ signature shows that he spelled his name with initial capital letters; John Lennon and Yoko Ono resided in the early 1970s not in the same building on Bank Street as Cunningham and Cage, but in an adjacent building.)

Other themes of this book include Cage’s loneliness and insecurity in cultivating a lover who was always traveling elsewhere, not only performing but teaching, teaching, and more teaching. This distance prompts Cage to question sometimes whether his distant lover is equally loving. If only through mentioning his recent reading, Cage reveals how much he was influenced by books that weren’t necessarily about music. By mentioning prominent New Yorkers that he met during his first two years there, Cage also demonstrates his skill at meeting and impressing his elders, even if they often deprecated his radical artistic ideas.

The appearance of this volume prompts mention of a fuller volume of Cage letters that appeared in 2016 from Wesleyan University Press, which had been his principal book publisher since 1961. Most of these are also remarkably slight, even when addressed to people with whom he worked, as Cage functioned at a high level of trust. Still, what is here is illuminating; hopefully we can expect the John Cage Trust to produce more fresh books, each as surprising and valuable as this.

Click here to purchase this book
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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2020 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2020

About Repulsion


Annelyse Gelman and Jason Grier
Fonograf Editions ($9.95)

by Ellen Boyette

About Repulsion, an EP by Annelyse Gelman and Jason Grier, is a diaphanous six-track exploration of power dynamics, the intersection of the quotidian and the profound, and the way in which technology creates a fragmented existence with edges of clarity and isolation. While each track is gorgeous, haunting, and rife with gems, I want to focus on the two tracks that come on the vinyl edition of the EP, “Maxes” and “Does It Make You Feel Alive to Sing” (the rest of the songs are offered via a digital download card). Both of these tracks encapsulate the fundamental elements of the album, which blends algorithmic lyric structuring and sound samples that range from the highly engineered to live field recordings. Ornamented and grounded by Gelman’s hypnotic vocals and poetry by Max Ritvo, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, and Carl Phillips, the result is a layered soundscape that repels hierarchy; rather than privileging any kind of sound over another, we enter an ecosystem that is as delicate as it is confident in its message.

“Maxes” begins with the improvisational hum of instruments warming up before a symphony, a kind of chaos that precedes organization—what pre-cognitive speech would be equivalent to in the language of instrumentation. Here, there is a kind of binaural quality, an inability to distinguish whether one is hearing brass or strings, music made by mouth or by hand. Two separate kinds of action here mold into one, not unlike the quality of a poem itself, taking on the action of both oration and dexterous work. Then we’re abruptly curtailed into a recurrent plucked-string motif in waltz time that immediately grounds the song; the waltz time is an important choice because it is a signature that, in dance, relies heavily on the power dynamics of both the passive and leading partners. In the song, there is a tension between the flow of Gelman’s voice—its ambient, feminine tonality and lyrics that are impressionistic and associative—and the curt, minimalistic plucks of an instrument that we all know is capable of more evocative sound. This tension reflects a larger quality of this work as a whole: the constant battle between the emotionally intense, intuitive qualities of womanhood and the restraints society places on women.

The first lyrics we hear echo this sense of dependence and confinement: “Like a mouse in a cage, I move toward you, I expect a hand around my neck to put poison in my head.” There is something erotically charged at play here. First, we begin in a simile: the very first word of the entire EP is “like,” which sets the precedent that factual, essentialist forms of communication are not the kind of agency our speaker needs or will employ. We might expect the ‘you’ of this poem to be a lover (as it is in most songs), and this is compounded by the velvety coo of Gelman’s “I move toward you,” a magnetic kind of attraction, though certainly a wary one, given the “mouse in a cage” power dynamic. There’s a deftly set up subversion of expectation in the lyrics that follow—“I expect a hand around my neck”—which is both erotic and potentially violent, operating in the ambiguity of the grip a powerful person can yield: delicate and tender, acknowledging the beauty and frailty of its subject, or a painful chokehold used to manipulate and wield. The line that follows solidifies the toxicity of the relationship: “to put poison in my head.” To follow the analogy, this kind of animal testing will certainly do physical harm to the mouse, and worse yet, the mouse is used to this and expects it, yet still moves toward the scientist. This image is devastating because women are too often subject to this kind of “testing,” to poison put in our heads by those who would control us politically, romantically, and professionally. And, like many who are victims of abuse, we still move towards the “you,” are drawn back to the violence that is familiar.


“Maxes” takes its title from Max Ritvo’s “Poem to My Litter,” a poem about the use of laboratory mice in treating the author’s cancer that deftly explores the convergence of power dynamics. The scientist, the abuser—anyone in power—is only powerful if they have a subject to perform that power on. In the song, this convergence is revealed in the overlay of vocal tracks, which both dissect and blur the lines: lines like “some good in you is of me, even my suffering” create a kind of film over subject pronouns, the “you” and the “me” beginning to feel interchangeable, neutralizing the idea that one party contains good or suffers. Later in the song, a stringed instrument (cello) emerges in its traditional form, played by bow. Minimal though it may be, its entrance is sad, ominous, and lush, and gives the listener a cathartic sense of release into the embodiment and utilization of the myriad qualities of life.

In “Does It Make You Feel Alive to Sing?” understanding emerges backwards and through cyclical listening, as what grounds and contextualizes the emotional and evocative language of the beginning of the song is presented to the listener as an audio recording at the end. What initially feels like a simple, uplifting question (“does it make you feel alive to sing the same song every day?”) is predicated on the understanding that “to feel alive” means more than how alive one inherently is. This distinction, between being alive and feeling alive, is crucial.

The simplicity of this notion is reinforced by the reverberating electric guitar notes that minimally decorate the intro to the song. We’re rotated through a variety of banal greetings and activities, perhaps the components of that same song we sing every day. Lyrics like “take the kids to school” and “hello, how are you, I’m okay” repeat and reinforce the quotidian; they simulate the mechanized sound bath of daily life in which we submerge ourselves. The distance between individuals, of truly being able to know another person, is wide in this song: “She said she knew me / she only knows my name.” This distance can only be merged in extremes, in eroticism, in violence, in art. As the chorus of haunting voices begins to envelop the song itself, additional voices emerge—voices that puncture that sound bath of life, binding it to an alternative sense.

The poem that emerges in the last minute of the song, by Bridget Pegeen Kelley, is notably titled “Song,” which tangles the listener’s conception of what song is, indeed, being sung. In the recording of Kelley’s voice, we hear a disturbing narrative of the murder of a young girl’s pet goat, its “head hanging by ropes in a tree.” Surreally, the goat head sings at night, its voice mistaken for the coos of a songbird. Kelley recounts how some boys hacked up the goat; the tale itself is a parable, but the clip offers no overt moral, as Kelley’s voice is overtaken by static. No doubt, we as listeners are witness to the cruelty of the young boys, the senseless violence of their act. There is an inherent sexism to this violence, an unnecessary and possessive sacrifice of pure blood either out of fear or for entertainment, or both. Even before Kelley’s voice begins, a male voice is heard detailing the girl’s desperate search for her missing pet; this voice competes with Kelley’s as well as the mixed audio of the track, and the comprehensible fragments of his narrative cast a daunting and subjugating lens over the parable. Power dynamics that were evident in the intimacy and codependency of “Maxes” are here more overt.

Both of these tracks evoke the granular particulars of sadness, loneliness, and lack of power, as well as their counterparts: transcendence, wonder, community, and empowerment. Song for Gelman and Grier is not a weapon, but a tool to dig into the vast expanse of what makes human impulses so rich and complicated; in using this tool, they create a lasting, gorgeous art object of their own.

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

Twilight of the Selves:
A Walk with David Shields

By Scott F. Parker

Note: This article is part of a multi-part series called Stories of Self, which is collaborative by design—each installment is a mutual product written “with” its subject, and in each case the subject was invited to clarify, object, suggest, excise, edit, and ultimately approve the final version. Originally composed in 2015, this installment is published here for the first time. Previous installments of Stories of Self can be found here.

 

Here . . . is how I give you me.
Here, also, is how I give you you.
Here, finally is how you give me me.

—David Shields, Enough About You

It’s about other people’s memoirs.
Why they write them, what they mean.
It’s very complicated. I don’t entirely understand it.

—David Shields, Heroes

I find myself inclined at the outset to consider the locution with which I begin here: I find myself. I find myself, as I always find myself, anew. Yet my consciousness resists this finding, preferring instead to play catchup with the moment just passed—or, when things are going well, narrowing in on the moment just arrived—and organizing this into the narrative not of a new self or self in new circumstances but of the same old compadre I’ve been living with as long as I can remember: the rote company I keep as I go about my days.

This is an experiential report, not a philosophical one. The deepest plot is uncovering the process by which the self comes into being. Seen from any meaningful remove, the self is inextricably original at all times. But such a remove is just the missing ingredient as I look up from the same computer screen to look out the same window through the same eyes as I think the same old thoughts I’ve thought a hundred times before. If I don’t get bored with this story it’s because I’ve got so much invested in the drama of it.

Rarely, when I engage with plot-driven books, can I bother to keep the characters straight or follow the storyline. Sometimes I start looking around for the good bits, the inner monologue, the narration, the consciousness tucked away in the work. But usually I turn my attention to books that can hold it. I almost never care what happened, but I almost always care what it means to whomever it meant something.

Experience filtered through consciousness to produce meaning—I gather these meanings and shake them around in my own consciousness, letting them fall where they may. I have always been a synthetic thinker by disposition, trusting that when I shake things just right they will settle to reveal unified reality. This method inclines me toward agreement. My ears are attuned to the songs I can harmonize with. I don’t nitpick the details, I borrow support for the structure and move on looking for other supports.

This makes me a bit of a cypher, adopting the ideas and characteristics of those around me, trusting that all is fuel for the fire. But I haven’t set myself up here merely to knock myself down. I want to land on my feet, albeit on new ground. As a philosopher becomes an artist, the fuel still burns, but it is enough now to keep the fire going through the night and trust that the embers will burst into flames again when someone comes along to blow a little life into them.

I read now ever on the lookout for what will be useful to me. I pause briefly in admiration when I find it, then set about figuring the best way to smuggle it off for my own ends. Everything I read becomes mine. To say that these essays are, because born of conversations and mutually created, collaborations, isn’t quite fair. Shaped by me, my interlocutors can’t but become who I want them to be. The “I”s of my collaborators are foils, negatives, constructs of my vision.

The following David Shields, for example, is as much mine as his own. Thus spake subjectivity.

Shields is one writer who gave me permission to read this way. Enough About You was one of the first books I’d ever read in which I recognized the self in which I lived. Of course, as soon as I had the permission I no longer needed it, and never had. So I asked him if he would like to join me in the ancient practice of two white guys bullshitting and consciously inspire a character based on himself in my imagination.

He was teaching at a writing conference at Reed College. We met on campus and set about for a walk and talk through Southeast Portland one summer twilight, the day’s heat dissipating, shadows beginning to elongate, outlines beginning to blur. Though the dialogue survives, the identities of the speakers have not been preserved. The point wasn’t authorship, the point was the conversation. And the conversation—all of it—was in the air.


I suddenly flashed on this unbelievable course that I took as a graduate student that to me was the absolute parting of the Red Sea. It changed my whole writing life. The course paired a novel and a work of autobiography that did the same work. So, Great Expectations and Rousseau's Confessions; Nabokov’s Speak, Memory and The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. The point of the course wasn’t to prove how superior the essayistic gesture was to fiction, but that’s what I got out of it. I felt like in the essayistic work the writer was actually doing some intellectual lifting. I was bored, as I still am, with the notion that a writer is supposed to be this carnival barker storyteller, filling in tiny bits of intellectual glitter here and there. In the works of essayistic meditation that’s the whole thing. It’s a much more exciting readerly and writerly experience.

You have to acknowledge the ways in which the culture pushes one. The essay has been experiencing an ascendency the past two decades or so. A writer has to find his way to his real interests. That journey is always an interesting one. Whatever you do only as homework, as it were, learning the craft of how to be a writer, eventually you have to say goodbye to all that.

Exchanges like these are part of being loyal to the work and continuing the conversation. I’m also interested in friction, in traction. And one never knows where things can lead. Basically, I like thinking. And if someone can help me think about work and art and form, I’m all for it. We’re taking a pleasant walk and talking. Dialogue leads us on to new insights, new understandings.

The limits of self are pretty obvious in the sense that if the work is only saying here is my life, I was abused by my step-father, I’m an alcoholic or addict or pedophile or whatever, it’s just simply trapped in the carapace of the self. Every art form has its inherent strengths and limits. For instance, film at its best is this incredibly visceral medium, but at its worst is this kind of insane sensation of clown-show pyrotechnics. There’s nothing there. The novel at its worst is a storytelling machine that doesn’t have any purpose other than to keep the reader turning pages. The memoir or book-length essay at its worst is just the religion of the self. It has to come down to Montaigne’s line, “Every man has within himself the entire human condition.”

The key is to find in yourself glimmers of some—I don’t know if you’re supposed to say this anymore—universal predicament. I use myself as a lightning rod to get at deeper subjects. The key is to rotate the self toward metaphor and meaning. If the work stays duty-bound toward the hard-wired self it’s likely to be a truly boring work. If the work uses the self as a launching pad to get into interesting aspects of human nature, that shows its value.

What personal essayists do: keep looking at their own lives from different angles, keep trying to find new metaphors for the self and the self’s soul mate. The only serious journey, to me, is deeper into self until you reach the place where the self is writ large as another self.

One of the things we can do when we’re fed up with the culture is look around to see how others are trying to respond—and memoir, at its best, can help with that.

What distinguishes our lives are not what happens in them. That might be a slightly privileged perspective of someone in a middle-class, capitalist, Western democracy, but for the majority of readers we’re talking about, the incidents are relatively the same. We’re born, we live, we love, and we die. And the endless rehashing of those different experiences is not truly distinctive. What is distinctive is the quality of your intelligence and the way you relate to that story.

Thinking of Wallace and the book at its best as the bridge across the abyss of human loneliness, what happens in a lot of novels and memoirs is the writer tells himself he’s constructing that bridge, but all he’s doing is relating anecdote after anecdote, scene after scene. “The ax that breaks the frozen sea within us” is actually exquisitely rendered and pitiless consciousness. It’s not twenty pages about something that happened. The work that actually brings human loneliness to some kind of temporary halt is work that delves down very deeply into consciousness and doesn’t beat around the bush with scene and incident the way the novel and memoir tend to.

To essay is both to render consciousness and to create it.

Somebody who is writing metaphors of self or stories of self is simultaneously writing the self. Everything that you write, including criticism and fiction, writes you as you write it.

This guy walking by, his T-shirt says, “Hustle, hit, never quit.” There’s a kind of narrative he’s telling himself about football or being tough. In those four words he’s telling himself a really important story. What distinguishes human animals from muskrats or whatever is we do have written, spoken language. It is the defining aspect of human beings and the preeminent artistic medium. We are aware of our own mortality, and we’re specifically aware because we have language.

Another line of Montaigne’s: “I have no more made my book than my book has made me.” There is something that happens when you complete an act of communication from writer to reader. There’s a weird way in which the author becomes the narrator the reader perceives. If I take a stance in the text that is not one I ever really felt outside the text, to some degree I adopt that attitude in real life. Having pretended to be this exaggerated version of myself, I discover through the reader’s eyes that I am him.

The self is perpetually being constructed and deconstructed.

I repeat myself because I only have a limited number of rhetorical moves.

The whole idea is that you use nonfiction as a framing device for questions like “What is the self? What’s real? What’s true? What’s knowledge? What’s memory? How much can one self know about another self?” It’s a funhouse mirror for really difficult and quite serious ontological questions having to do with knowledge and primacy and truth and memory.

What is the self?

“Okay, hi, I’m Joe Blow and I’m going to write a six-hundred-page memoir.” I’m not interested in any continuous and stable self. I’m interested in the self as a malleable form. The best work splinters the self instead of treating it like some eighteenth-century cathedral.

This question remains: can Humpty Dumpty be put back together again, in some slightly new way?

What is the self?

The first thing that comes to mind is “a fiction.” Let’s explode that fiction.

Here’s a metaphor. It’s not a metaphor of the self but a metaphor of how the self seems to operate. The best work of this kind, there’s this quality in the work of just barely (at the beginning of the work) you see this ship edging out from beneath some vague clouds. And you kind of feel like “I’m not really seeing that, it’s just a bunch of jottings.” You know Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, it’s just about the color blue. Then you see the ship keeps moving into view. You keep on getting this glimmer of this ship that’s breaking into view, but you think no it’s just the clouds or just the rocks or just the shimmer. Then slowly but surely that ship goes from being a ghost ship that you thought maybe was there to, Christ!, the author really knew what she was doing. It is there! So at the end of Bluets you realize this book is not about the color blue; it’s not about her friend who got paralyzed; it’s not about her ex-boyfriend. It’s very much a book about, How we do we live with mortal knowledge of all kinds? The death of a relationship the death of a limb. How do we reconcile ourselves to loss of all kinds, especially the ultimate loss of our own selves?

What is the self?

There are more ways than one to write about the self. The relationship between the self and its environment—its context—works both ways. The “subject” of an essay is relational to its subjectivity. The magnet gets magnetized.

If you went right to the core of it—the great thing is when the world pops open so that you can see that that kid walking down the street wearing the “never quit” T-shirt is part of one metaphorical constellation with this essay.

Ross McElwee’s Bright Leaves looks like it’s about a guy’s tobacco farm, but really it’s a kind of metaphysical contemplation on how we’ll do anything—light up a cigarette, build a birdhouse, marry the wrong woman, sing in a church choir when we don’t believe in god—to get a brief feeling of transcendence. What is so great about it is that by going into all these different pockets, he connects very disparate parts of the world for you. It makes for more generous art, and it makes for a deeper penetration into existence, and it makes for a much more deeply layered work than if you just . . . There’s this line of Duchamp’s, “Consequently, in the chain of reactions accompanying the creative act, a link is missing. This gap, representing the inability of the artist to express fully his intention, this difference between what he intended to realize and did realize, is the personal 'art coefficient' contained in the work.”

A lot of this is back formed. Something happens, then you back form all these explanations. It’s a kind of retrospective fallacy, that you knew what you were doing. But the narrative is often imposed after the fact.

I guess I have philosophical and strategic reasons for collaboration. Part of it is it’s fun talking with someone, it’s interesting, it gets you out of your own head. At some point you do start to run out of ideas, and it’s good to have new people challenge you. I’m fed by new writers, new material, new collaborators, just on a very humble level of being intrigued by new stuff.

Like many writers, I’m sort of building one big argument. All of my work is one long book. And this structure gains strength by bringing other people, other ideas into its orbit. I argue with myself all the time, that’s what the essay does. Sometimes it’s more rhetorically effective if your interlocutor is outside yourself. It gives me more points of contact with the culture, more opportunity to push my art and nonfiction forward in a particular direction. I’m trying to amass an argument that’s unassailable in my own vainglory. In my imagination.

What is the self?

You can see the purpose of life this way: to be the material for art. There are some experiences, if they aren’t going to be a book, a film, what are they good for? There’s something about recording. Spalding Gray says, “the camera eroticizes space.” The prospect of publication galvanizes my attention. Without it, would I bother with these thoughts, or would I simply enjoy our walk together? Some of this is just a relatively standard poststructuralist gesture to the ways in which language doesn’t just register meaning but also creates it. But the art makes the life come alive. It can.

The legend goes that to counter Berkeley’s idealism, Samuel Johnson kicked a rock and said, “I refute it thus.” I don’t want to say that if a tree falls in a forest and no one’s there to write a book about it the tree didn’t really fall. What about something softer, like the author’s presence affects the tree? I think to pretend otherwise and maintain some nineteenth-century version of objectivity is the realm of fake scholarship, fake memoir, and fake journalism. For better or worse, I’m very interested in foregrounding that pretty damn high.

So as not to exaggerate the position: real people die real deaths and real people give real births and real people fall in love. My language covering or not covering it has zero to do with the quiddity of what that.

When Wittgenstein says, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent,” and when Lao Tzu says, “The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao,” they’re saying so in language. The things that cannot be said can only not be said in language.

One wants to go anywhere but deeper into solipsism. The world is real. But as an artist I’m very suspicious of any verbal art that tries to be or pretends to be transparent. It’s so naive in trying to seduce the reader into believing things are simpler than they are that it becomes fascistic. It’s escapism. It doesn’t bear even the remotest relationship to how people actually talk and write and think and behave. I want work that through its language and syntax and structure and metaphors captures what it feels like to be alive as a human being.


It feels like this: a clear dark night beneath the fir trees of Reed’s campus. I can’t see anyone else, and barely myself. I connect through conversation as through writing and reading as through self-inquiry. But the thing about connections is they’re only connections because eventually they break. I am anonymous in the end even to myself.


Click here to purchase Enough About You
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Click here to purchase How Literature Saved My Life
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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2020 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2020

Skepticism and Charitability:
A Coffee with Dessa

By Scott F. Parker

Note: This article is part of a multi-part series called Stories of Self, which is collaborative by design—each installment is a mutual product written “with” its subject, and in each case the subject was invited to clarify, object, suggest, excise, edit, and ultimately approve the final version. Originally composed in 2015, this installment is published here for the first time. Previous installments of Stories of Self can be found here.

 

You can’t spend much time in Uptown Minneapolis without hearing the name Dessa. It is sometimes spoken with admiration or reverence, sometimes with fascination or curiosity, but never with jealousy or resentment. Minneapolitans’ pride in Dessa treats her less as a musician than as something otherwordly, celestial. We know her as a star that by some fluke had until recently only been fully observed, by Dessa’s own estimation, “between Franklin and Lake Street.” Even better nationally known Minnesota rappers such as Atmosphere and Brother Ali don’t engender the same genuflection. But Minneapolis positively revels in Dessa—her music, her words, her very existence.

If you’re unfamiliar with Uptown, there’s a decent chance you’re unfamiliar with Dessa too. I was before I moved to Minneapolis. Who is she? I could start with rapper, singer, essayist, poet, businesswoman, but it would be more to the point to put it this way: Dessa is the best kind of artist—the kind people pay attention to.

Prior to the “Literature and Hip Hop” featured event that Rain Taxi hosted at the 2015 AWP conference, I spent time with Dessa’s music and was drawn deeply into it: the dense, imagistic writing, the figurative language, the themes embedded but not explicated in the narratives, the purposeful maturity of the speaker. She might have been overstating the case when she called herself “an underrated writer, overrated rapper,” but she is a writer’s rapper in any case. No throwaway lines, nothing that wouldn’t benefit from textual analysis. But rapping isn’t writing. It’s a performance. After the event, my interest centered on how she creates her rap persona and how that persona relates to the music and to her, and I asked to meet her.

As I geared up for our conversation, I learned more about Dessa and was intrigued by our proximity and common background. We were the same age and had some mutual friends. We both studied philosophy in college and followed that interest to literature, creative nonfiction in particular. She was sending essays to the New Yorker before turning her attention to hip hop; I would have been a rapper before a writer if I had even half a sense of rhythm. She names Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace among her favorite contemporary writers. In 2009, she published her first book, Spiral Bound (which was not), and I finished a graduate thesis called Stapled Together (which was not, but which was inspired by Eggers and Wallace). But for all we had in common, there was the huge disparity of celebrity between us; it filtered our emails back and forth.

I offered to buy Dessa a coffee or a whiskey, depending where she’d prefer to meet. She suggested a neighborhood restaurant with booths, where we might find a bit of privacy. So on a rainy spring day, with water running down my face, feeling like a Tom Waits song, when the hostess asked me the name of the party I was meeting so she could direct him or her to the booth, what could I say but “Dessa” in the most casual manner available to me?

Not much later, not a drop of water on her, Dessa slid covertly into the booth across from me. Coffee was served (for both of us), cream and sugar were added (for her), and soon we were chatting easily.

The most relevant question to me was who Dessa was and how the woman across from me had created her. The origin story, it turns out, is set in a karaoke bar that held spoken-word competitions. Not wanting to get busted, the underage poet took to writing “Dessa” when she signed up to perform. “It was a habit. A stage name. I had never been a fan of my own name. I always thought about what I’d like to be named instead.”

One needn’t strain very hard here to hear the voice of another Minnesota native who changed his name before taking the stage, saying later, “You're born, you know, the wrong names, wrong parents. I mean, that happens. You call yourself what you want to call yourself. This is the land of the free.”

It took Dessa about a year to start identifying with her adopted name. But the significance of the shift was something short of a full personal reinvention.

“Part of it was aesthetic. I liked the idea that I could pick a name that was aesthetically pleasing to me, that was sonorous. I’d heard the name first in a book by Wally Lamb, and I later found out that it was my last name in Greek, which was sort of convenient when I was talking to reporters. I liked liking the word of my name. There was a lot of agency in that. Some Native traditions do that, you get to name yourself. I think that’s great. Of all the things to give someone else the power to do, naming yourself seems like such a great opportunity to exercise your own preferences.”

While many rappers take self-naming to the extreme of full-blown alter-ego creation, for Dessa, it’s something else: “I wanted as little daylight between the person and the persona as possible.”

The best way to characterize Dessa’s rap persona is that she embodies not a story so much as a storyteller. What’s common to her raps is not necessarily that the songs cohere into a larger narrative but that they partake of a singular, and distinctly literary, way of being that is less concerned with what it’s about than it is with how it’s about it. Like all rappers, Dessa’s flow is her essence. But more than most, within her flow, style takes precedence over content. Is it any wonder that she thinks of herself as an essayist?

Dessa discovered the personal essay as an undergrad at the University of Minnesota. “I didn’t really know what creative nonfiction was, but I read about it in the course guide and thought it sounded like a good creative writing class. The instructor was Thomas Haley, and I was just head over heels for the course content, for the dude himself. I was just all fucking in. I didn’t know you could do any of that, I didn’t know it counted, I thought if you wanted to be a writer that meant you had to write something that was 300 pages and it was one story and it had a plot. So to find these guys—Sedaris particularly was just an easy entry point. Like, he has a business card that says writer on it? That’s amazing to me.”

And as for writers not named David: “Annie Dillard was big for me. Phillip Lopate—I didn’t like his essays wholesale, but I liked some of his turns of phrase. Generally I like shorter stuff. Who wrote The Kiss? Kathryn Harrison. I decided that’s not what I liked. I felt like drawing a line between what I understood to be confessionalism or exhibitionism and stark, frank, risky honesty. Those were important distinctions to me as I moved forward. Intimacy for intimacy’s sake wasn’t something that interested me.”

You see this in Dessa’s raps. Even when they appear to be autobiographical, they’re never confessional and sometimes they’re not even personal. The subject of the stories could be anyone. The “I” could be you. It’s less true of her essays themselves. Spiral Bound brings the reader much closer to knowing the author than her raps do the rapper. But even so, the narrator leads the reader to consciousness, mortality, fleeting moments, and the existential “thud of a feather,” not back to the narrator herself.

“There’s almost no part of my life that isn’t fair game to include in my public life, but the value in doing so isn’t just for sharing’s sake, which I think sometimes gets a little blurred. People get excited by words like brave and intimate and confessional and conflate the artistic merit that can sometimes accompany sharing a secret with the act of sharing the secret itself.”

A my-story-in-rap kind of memoir would therefore seem to go against Dessa’s artistic instincts.

“I’ve been asked to do that. I tried on our last tour. I don’t know why I can’t put those two worlds together. Part of the reason, maybe, I end up doing a lot of my creative writing either about my dad or about travel is because I’ve got the green light to be totally frank there in a way that to make the true stories interesting I’d really have to have license from all the guys in my rap crew to tell—I mean it’s not fun if you just write the good parts. And I feel I don’t have that license to air out other people’s lives. But when I’m travelling with strangers, that’s okay. And my dad’s tough.”

Privacy is huge for Dessa, and as an artist she respects it for others as much as she protects it for herself.

“I can’t talk about the details of my mother’s life or my father’s life or my little brother’s life or my romantic partners on stage without feeling like I’m trespassing their privacy.”

Many rappers, musicians, and artists dodge this concern by invoking persona or a fictional veil. But the thin divide in Dessa’s work between the author and the speaker prevents her this conceit.

“It’s one thing to say I built a mask for myself and that’s what I wear when I go onstage. It’s another thing to say that I built a mask for you that’s completely, obviously identifiable as you. I don’t think there’s any meaningful claim of anonymity or protection there. If Eminem adopts a persona and a character, I don’t think there is an argument of ‘I made a character and a persona that protects you.’ He’s using their real names, he’s trampling on their privacy. I don’t think there is even a strawman argument of protection there.”

Eminem came up in our conversation here because I had once invited Dessa to contribute the foreword to an academic book on Eminem I edited. She declined, and it seemed to me now that this might have been because his approach to rap is almost entirely foreign to hers. He, as much as anyone, employs persona to dramatize some of the ironies of the genre. His escape hatch from responsibility for his most vile lyrics has always been the inherent gaps between real life and art, writer and rapper, performer and performance. You can always defend Eminem by pointing out that text, image, performance are always mediations of so-called “reality.”

“That’s a very inside-the-craft way of thinking about it. If I’m dating a writer and he gives me a caricature of me, and everybody knows we’re dating, and he says this character had an abortion, my question isn’t ‘What about that characterization?’ It’s ‘Dude, everybody knows I had an abortion. You’re a total jerk, Derrick!’ For the person who’s not in the art, it’s not an artistic question, it’s ‘Did you tell my secrets?’ It’s only an artistic question for the dude at the center of the storm who calls himself an artist.”

Unlike Eminem’s friends and family, Dessa’s needn’t fear Czeslaw Milosz’s warning that “When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.”

For a long time one of the pressing concerns in rap had to do with authenticity and the rappers claims to their material. Did the life lived sufficiently match the life rapped? That concern has dissipated as hip hop has become a global culture and increased its diversity of styles and subject matter. By not presenting a character that is any smaller than her essayistic concerns, Dessa skirts the issue altogether. Her songs can come from almost anywhere.

“With some small exceptions. I’d written something that sounded kind of country-western, and I was just like, ‘That would be a tough sell.’ But it’s not because I’m poking a hole in a carefully constructed persona, it was more, ‘Would an audience follow me?’ I did think, ‘How would that look?’ So there’s some of that consideration. But I hope to build something that’s big enough that all my ideas can fit inside it.”

I wonder what that thing is she’s building. Emerson said, “Great geniuses have the shortest biographies. Their cousins can tell you nothing about them. They lived in their writings, and so their home and street life was trivial and commonplace.” Perhaps Dessa is so private because she knows that her legacy is the work she leaves behind. And that work needn’t be a vehicle for conveying the identifiable biography of the author. And yet:

“Because I do have such a strong attachment to creative nonfiction, artistically I’m really, really compelled by truth. So by whatever alchemy you use to turn real truth, real lived life, into art on the other side—I think most of the lyrics in my songs are literally true. If there’s a talking crow, that didn’t happen. But a song like ‘Call Off Your Ghost.’ I went to a wedding. There’s my ex-boyfriend. He’s got a suit on. I didn’t even know he owned a suit. That’s a literally lived experience, and then trying to figure out, in this bloom of feelings—Where is the artistic turn of phrase? What’s the best person I can be for this scenario? How do I capture that impulse in a way that bears being sung four, five times in a row?”

This question of becoming the best person for the sake of reaching certain ends is the kind of thing I’m trying to home in on.

“In my offstage life there are some moments when I feel more me and less me. Sometimes I’ll finish a conversation on the phone or whatever and think, ‘Why do I use such a bullshit phone voice? Why can’t I just talk normally to the person at American Express? Why do I talk like I’m trying to impress her, like, “Well, hello, ma’am.”?’ And I’ll think, ‘Where did you learn that particular behavioral convention and why are you conforming to it?’ And then there’s some conversations where I was totally comfortable and I said what I thought even though I wasn’t sure I’d be agreed with. Way to go, true self. And some stage shows I feel very much me, and some stage shows I feel disappointed in me because I didn’t find a way to be the most genuine authentic person I could.”

I have found it impossible to make a meaningful distinction between authentic and inauthentic selves when all selves are performed. But experientially, there are some performances that feel effortless. The self-consciousness of the performance drops away, and we assume—rightly or wrongly—that what remains is true. However, a performer doesn’t reveal her true self. Rather, she gives the impression of revealing it. The self-consciousness is built into the act.

“Onstage and offstage I am keenly aware of what I believe people think of me.” Gesturing with head and eyes over her shoulder, Dessa indicated a man passing our table. “This guy, I think I know what he’s made of. I know what the waiter thinks, the first one and the second one. The first waiter hates my new haircut and said as much. The second one doesn’t know who I am. The table across has been kind of listening to us. I think I know what you think. You maybe think you know what I think.”

It was true about the table across from us. I had a better angle on them than Dessa did, and I could see that they were trying to eavesdrop. Later they would try to capture Dessa in the background of their selfies. But was she right about me? Did I think I knew what she thought? She was basically forcing me to try. Here goes: I think she thought I thought I could somehow see through her in a way that most of her listeners could not. That I thought at the heart of all performance is a kind of inherent fraudulence. That I knew how vulnerable she was. What I really thought was, where does she get such strength from, such composure? If we do have so much in common, how are we still so different? If she is faking it to try to make a certain impression on me, how can I learn to fake it like that?

At the restaurant I didn’t have much time to process her challenge. She was still explaining: “And I’m aware of that onstage. I’m monitoring how many people are texting, how many people are flirting and buying drinks, how many people are yawning, how many people have their hands in their pockets, how many have their hands in the air. I’m very aware of that. And so sometimes I think being your real self onstage or off asks you to suppress the natural inclination to be liked. Because if it’s not suppressed I find myself catering to what I understand as the preferences of a conversational partner or room full of people.”

I asked if being liked felt uncommonly important to her.

“Yeah, much more than I wish it were. I don’t think it’s like eight times as much as most people, but I think it’s more.”

This isn’t what you would ever think being around Dessa. She comes across, more than anything else, as cool. She’s charismatic, and when her attention shines on you you feel charmed. When it doesn’t, you feel like you don’t deserve it. It doesn’t occur to you that such a person stands to benefit from or be hurt by your opinion. Dessa was reminding me of the simple fact that the way a person comes across is not necessarily the way that person experiences herself.

“I think it comes from dads. I read that once and it resonated. If you were involved in a scenario at home where it feels like you are pining for or competing for attention or affection, then you get pretty good at reading the adult world to figure out what earns a gold star or a pat on the head. My dad is one of my heroes, but it was sort of tricky navigating childhood with that dad. And I think I did end up vying for attention and affection, and so you end up being very well tuned-in to small cues about what people like and what they don’t or when your voice is too loud or when you’re playing and you’re annoying someone, the volume of your voice or the bouncing ball. And when you do the little dance the living room likes and I ask you to do it again the next time company comes over. You become very tuned in to how your behavior is received by the larger adult community. And you carry that into adulthood.”

It sounds exhausting to constantly be making such assessments, but then my tendency is to ignore people to prove that I don’t need their approval. How does any person compare the experience of being who she is with one of being who she’s not?

“I don’t know. I’ve never done it any other way. Maybe I’m sapping a lot of energy. But if you’re lucky enough to be in one of those rooms where everybody is really with you, then it can feel all the more powerful. The most successful moments feel like those in which I’m not working hard to perform a feeling but those in which I’m in the throes of a feeling and I just trust it to express itself. If I’m singing a sad song and I feel sad, perfect, people can read that on me, and I don’t have to worry about how to best express it. And if I feel aggressive in a song that’s talking shit, great!”

I’m tempted here—and possibly invited—to think of Dessa as the kind of artist who is only truly herself when she’s performing. That possibility supports the Emersonian sense of a person being the sum of her work, and it makes for good performance. But for the subject herself, does the work ever add up to a portrait of the artist? Does it feel like it to her?

“I think I would be not the last but maybe the second to last to know because in this case I’m so familiar with the subject. I have to maneuver her body around the world. It’s the one I live in. It’s sometimes difficult to compare what you know of yourself to the clues that you have given other people about yourself and to be reminded of the space between those two things. I think I’m probably distracted by my lifelong knowledge of me.”

Art is often the vehicle of empathy. It can give you access to the world from someone else’s point of view. But the view is always incomplete. The song, the essay, the conversation comes to an end. We return, ultimately, to our own selves, piecemeal as they are.

Talking with Dessa I hear what I hear in her work: a philosopher ruminating on the tension between the inner and outer worlds. This concern is itself indicative of a particular kind of inner life that is not common to all.

“I think that the methodology of philosophy informs my thinking, and of course my thinking informs my writing. Skepticism and charitability both are part of my worldview. They’re the lens through which I do everything, including my art. Skepticism: hearing somebody say something and thinking to myself, Where’d you learn that? Who told you that? Why do you think that? Really pushing at precepts to see if they hold water. And then charitability. As an undergrad, I loved feeling like I could find the logical errors in an argument. That was such a thrill, and I looked for them very hard in old white guys’ stuff. One day my advisor, Valerie Tiberius, called me into her office and said she thought I had some skill but to be charitable in the way I understood the arguments I was trying to deconstruct, particularly because the people who made them were dead. So it was my job to defend their arguments against mine.”

My own philosophy advisor, John Lysaker, used to say “engage your interlocutors” in your writing. Give them the best response to your response and so on. How would they counter your position?

“Not only that, but is there something good here? Yes, there is a potential logical problem on page five, but is there something philosophically valid here too? Are you so high on the thrill of winning that you’re not looking for the best outcome?”

I like that, “the best outcome.” We’re not looking for something that is without flaws but for something that might be useful. A synthesis of widely drawn material that coheres for us for the project at hand. What is philosophy, what is art, but each of us attempting to figure out how to live?


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Ongoing Arguments
with Sarah Manguso

Photo by Joel Brouwer, 2018

By Scott F. Parker

Note: This article is part of a multi-part series called Stories of Self, which is collaborative by design—each installment is a mutual product written “with” its subject, and in each case the subject was invited to clarify, object, suggest, excise, edit, and ultimately approve the final version. Originally composed in 2016, this installment is published here for the first time. Previous installments of Stories of Self can be found here.


Consider the amazing capacity of the humble pronoun.
—Sarah Manguso, 300 Arguments

Opening scene: College student. Male, white. Backwards hat, hoodie, cargo shorts, flip-flops. Could pass as a frat bro except it’s 6 a.m. and he’s in a cafe reading philosophy, looking up only to stare dreamily out the window. On the table next to his book is a journal, in which, if you asked him, he’d tell you he’s attempting to compose a viable self from the experiences of his life. The book he’s reading is probably Emerson or Nietzsche—someone who sees selfhood primarily as a creative enterprise. It sometimes seems to him that his life as well as his reading is grist for the mill of composition. Nothing is real (of value) until he has created it. He worries sometimes about solipsism but dismisses it when he considers that everyone’s situation is as his: we are all responsible for the project of creating ourselves. And so he returns to his journal.

There truly are two kinds of people: you and everyone else.
—SM, 300 Arguments

Meanwhile, across the country in New York, a woman is writing a diary of her own. She types her entries into her computer, revising them as she goes, each unable to register its status as not only a culmination of the past but also as an expression of the ongoing present. The value of the diary is not what any single entry records but that the diary itself goes on recording, each word briefly the last before giving way to the next. The river of narrative time isn’t the water but the movement.

Every case is orthogonal to all the others. That’s the entire problem.
—SM, 300 Arguments

Looking back years later, the diarist will write on the opening page of her book Ongoingness: The End of a Diary:

I started keeping a diary twenty-five years ago. It’s eight hundred thousand words long.

I didn’t want to lose anything. That was my main problem. I couldn’t face the end of a day without a record of everything that had ever happened.

I wrote about myself so I wouldn’t become paralyzed by rumination—so I could stop thinking about what had happened and be done with it.

More than that, I wrote so I could say I was truly paying attention. Experience in itself wasn’t enough. The diary was my defense against waking up at the end of my life and realizing I’d missed it.

Imagining life without the diary, even one week without it, spurred a panic that I might as well be dead.

Many years have passed for the college student, too, by the time he reads these words. He is married and has a cat and quiet life in Montana. Nevertheless, the first page of Ongoingness leaves him disoriented in time and personhood.

He has long since stopped journaling, yet he finds himself suddenly returned to his college years as he thinks to himself, Surely, I’ve read this book before. Surely, I wrote it myself.

The author has relocated from New York to the Bay Area by now, but Montana and San Francisco bear on this story only in that they are remote places and the two subjects communicated via an online video program, the connection between them analogous to the continuity of each over time: discrete quanta sequenced such that one only becomes aware of the amalgamation at the glitches.

I love having a problem I believe I might someday write
my way out of.

—SM, 300 Arguments


SM: I had a relapse of chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy in 2010. And I had another relapse in 2014. And I will have another relapse at some point. Two Kinds of Decay didn’t make the disease go away, but it did sort of solve—at the risk of being a little precious—this metaphysical problem of being a person with a chronic illness. It was something I had to think my way out of. The remaining problems are just the problems of having a body, getting sick. And those are hard but they’re concrete, and you can’t think your way out of them. All the thinking problems have been solved. And so all that remains is to be the sick person. It’s disappointing when I relapse, but it’s not a completely self-encompassing experience anymore when I relapse. It’s just this extra thing that I have to do sometimes.

SFP: You’ve mitigated the suffering by learning how to relate to it differently.

SM: Yes and no. It is different now that I’m a mother. I’ve just had one relapse since becoming a mother. It’s changed my entire concept of selfhood in that the primacy of my subjectivity is no longer. I’m just this thing that is in service to this other thing, my offspring. It used to be that when I got sick it was a me problem. But now it’s very much my kid’s problem. I had a relapse when he was two, and he noticed mom wasn’t home. Then when I was out of the hospital—I have some mobility disability when I relapse and it lasts for months, or in this case a couple of years—I couldn’t hold him, I couldn’t carry him, and he noticed, and I’m sure that was very confusing to him in his preverbal but very observant stage of early toddlerhood. I hope I can put off having the next relapse until my son is old enough to understand that mom is just doing this thing temporarily and she’ll get better. I could talk forever about this. But I’m going to restrain myself.

SFP: For someone with graphomania you sure write short books.

SM: I know. I also have a case of perfectionism, so I tend to overwork things.

SFP: In The Guardians you write that you’d trade poetry for a longer life. Why poetry and not essay or memoir?

SM: I don’t know. But when I started taking this medicine, I no longer wanted to write poetry. I would hesitate a hundred times before saying, “There it is, that correlation between being a poet and increased rates of suicide that Kay Redfield Jamison so thoroughly researched and analyzed in her great book Touched with Fire. I wouldn’t say it was that simple, but it certainly felt clear to me that I no longer had a strong desire to write poems.

SFP: My understanding is that poetry doesn’t work for narrative therapy. And your diary sounds like it’s mostly narrative based.

SM: We’re getting into the tricky part. Of course, there are many ways to write poetry and many ways to write essays, and I’m not really comfortable discriminating between my own poems and essays. But what I can say for sure is the way that I was before I was medicated gave me a strong desire to write poems. I felt my feelings were more organized afterward, in a way, that I had a strong desire to write sentences rather than verse. There’s this wider associative gap between the components of my poems than between the components of the essays I’m writing now. There were just measurable concrete differences in the kind of work that I wanted to make before and after. And I think it was a kind of shorthand I used when I said I was giving up poetry. But I think what I’ve been doing all along is more like essay than poetry, and the pieces were just more associative before, and their logic is more legible now than it was in the beginning.

SFP: Having recorded so much, is it difficult to distinguish between memory and what you wrote down? Has the diary displaced the past?

SM: How could I know, right? I’m sure. I’ve done cursory reading in the field of memory science, and my understanding is such that, yes, when you write something down there is a kind of overwriting of the so-called original memory. But when memory gets recorded in the brain it doesn’t all go to one place. It’s separated into component parts. The emotional part goes to one place, and the linguistic part goes to another place, and each time you then remember it you have to reconstruct it from this different physical area and it’s never the same. I think it was in Pieces of Light, Charles Fernyhough puts forth this theory that the only way you could have a memory that hasn’t degraded would be in a person who has amnesia and could not remember the memory, because remembering it messes it up because you’re reconstructing and then reconstructing a reconstruction and so on. So the idea of a perfect memory has to be imagined in this totally theoretical, far-fetched way. The idea is when a memory gets encoded it’s perfect, but the second you remember it it gets messed up. It’s very comforting because you no longer have to worry about writing it down wrong. It’s all wrong, so you might as well do your best.

SFP: When you write the diary, is there a sense of looking ahead to the looking back and trying to correct it or improve it?

SM: No, I just want the material to be in the best prose. And for me that necessarily means clear and accurate in all the ways that autobiography can be accurate. I don’t have the feeling that I’m writing for posterity. I just have the feeling that a month from now I’ll be scanning the diary to look for talking points for my shrink or looking over the history of when I worked on a certain project and for how long and in what terms I was describing it to myself. That kind of accuracy. Also it’s very pleasurable to distill and contain a large emotional experience into a couple of sentences. I just find that deeply comforting. There’s a kind of psychic unrest that I feel before that gets done. But once I get it into a sentence or two, I feel great. I can go. I’m sure some Freudian can tell me exactly what that means, but it’s just something that I have a strong desire to do and get a strong pleasure from, so that’s the reason I do it.

SFP: Does it seem at all like when you’re doing it that the diary life is more real than the lived life? Is there a sense that an experience doesn’t become real until it’s recorded?

SM: It’s not unreal, it’s just not fully over. I’m not done with it yet until I write it down. For me, putting sentences down, translating experience into prose is the way that I process everything. The way that I process every experience that I have. That’s just my thing. And this is just how it feels. It’s not an intellectual decision, it’s just an emotional truth.

SFP: When I look back at when I used to journal a lot I see that without realizing it what I was doing was figuring out a way I could start writing. And once I started writing I sort of lost interest in journaling.

SM: It sounds like your journal was more of an artist’s sketchbook, right. Because you’re suggesting that the kind of writing you did there became the writing you did as a vocation or profession.

SFP: I think that’s a lot of it, but there was something about what I was doing that was very much not just about documenting and processing. There was also this sense of using it to create something else. And I think a lot of that had to do with self-identity. So how the self was created was a creative process.

SM: How do I have these two parallel tracks, the diary and the professional writing, when it seems continuous . . .

SFP: I think I’m trying to force you to say what I want you to say.

SM: That always works great. What is it you want me to say?

SFP: I think I have this relationship that I’m trying to project onto you and it’s not very accurate to what you’re saying. So answer your question and I’ll answer mine.

SM: I will say that I do still kind of use the diary as a workbook/sketchbook, but as soon as I find myself working on a bit of prose in the diary that seems to be a stand-alone essay I remove it and make it an essay. And I have this “work in progress” folder, and if it becomes an essay, great, and if not I put it in the “under the house” folder, which gives it its proper burial. The things that stay in the diary that aren’t liable to become their own pieces are the pieces I log. I log what I work on and how much. My son is four. I log a lot of the things he says because they’re amazing. I can open it up and see what I’ve written over the last few days and that might be representational. I write about how I’m feeling, if it’s extremely good or bad, what I’m reading, what I’m working on. It also doubles as a commonplace book, so quotations from everything I read and hear. My internet reading is pretty broad. I love to read comments under Gawker articles. I think some of the great humor writing on the internet is hidden down there. There are a couple of Facebook pages where I lurk. I have this friend from sixth grade who collects all of the video memes, so every couple months I go there and can see all the stuff people weep about and rave about. That’s what I’ve been writing about.

SFP: I was trying to get you to say the diary was more real, but it sounds like the reason you’re saying no has everything to do with audience because if you’re really not writing for posterity or, as I was trying to read into it, some abstract thing like an omniscient POV.

SM: I don’t think a piece of writing becomes more real because more people read it.

SFP: Not more people but like I’ve taken this thing and put it into a perfected version by writing about it well.

SM: So translating the actual experience into writing perfects it.

SFP: It gets rid of the messy part, it streamlines it, it brings the meaning forward.

SM: It’s a translation. I don’t think you can fully translate experience into prose. I certainly can’t. There are the limitations of the form. And I would say that fully neurological experience of the world can only partly be represented in language. I think it’s the word real that’s tripping me up. I don’t think there are greater and lesser degrees of reality. I think being real is like a toggle switch, it’s a black and white thing. Maybe that’s the difficulty I’m having thinking along these lines. What I can say for sure is that once I finish writing about some experience and it becomes autobiography I am satisfied and no longer need to ruminate on it. We started this conversation talking about what happened after I published Decay. Two things happened. One is a couple of years after it came out I had forgotten a lot of what was in the book. And I wrote that from memory, so at the time (2006) it was in my working memory. By 2010 I didn’t know it anymore. The second thing is the metaphysical suffering of having this disease had been solved by writing the book. Now I’m just a person with the disease, not a self-obliterating condition. It’s not as satisfying as having your subject say “It’s not real until I write it.” That’s just not accurate to my experience, unfortunately.

SFP: It’s a romantic idea that writing has this magical or metaphysical way of creating reality, rather than just creating writing. . . . Where does the urge to write the diary come from?

SM: It’s a good question. I don’t know. That’s not autobiographical material. That’s biographical material. I think somebody would have to connect the dots. And that’s unlikely to happen. And that’s okay. Why do you like the things you like? I’m going to talk about my kid again. He is four, and he likes the things that he likes, and I don’t know why, because you have a kid and you expose him to things, sports, drawing. I had this idea that all kids really like to draw. You give them a bunch of paper and crayons and it’s paradise. My kid has no interest in drawing. We go out on the sidewalk with chalk and he doesn’t want to do it. He likes what he likes. He likes going to the beach. He can pick up three little stones on the way home from school and that would be amazing. He has a rock collection. Why does he like what he likes? I don’t know. I’m sure there are some physical, neurological reasons, I’m sure there’s a genetic component. But I don’t know. There is this unknowable but certain set of reasons for why people are the way they are. He just is. It’s deeply comforting as a reminder. There’s a way he’s been since infancy. He was incapable of autobiography, no self-consciousness, but he likes what he likes.

SFP: I like in the book where you say, “I’ll write until I stop.” I love that. I thought that was exactly right.

SM: I have no more anxiety about it. It was the anxiety, the feeling of worry, of brooding on what the diary meant and why I was doing it and when I would stop. I don’t care about any of that anymore. Problem solved.

SFP: This makes me a little uncomfortable asking, but if you’re busy or in some other way swept up in life such that you don’t have the remove from which to write about and document life, does that suggest an increased happiness? Or to get to the point: to what extent is consciousness a curse?

SM: I don’t really observe a binary or dialectic between living and writing. It’s all pretty continuous. They seem like somewhat continuous activities to me, and I don’t think of consciousness as a burden, just as a component of being alive. I’m way less tortured than I was when I started writing Ongoingness, and I will absolutely state that for the record. And I feel silly saying this because I’m between one and fifteen years older than you (judging from your Skype appearance, you have very nice skin) and this is going to sound hugely condescending from an older person talking to a younger person, but I can say once I crossed forty some of these terrible burdens of consciousness and the terrible anxiety that I wasn’t remembering responsibly or sufficiently or that I wasn’t feeling, all these worries about thoughts and feelings and metaphysical entities kind of faded away. It’s a combination of just not giving a fuck anymore and perhaps having solved some of the problems, and just being too tired all the time. Burden is a word I would have used not that long ago to describe things that I thought and felt but are no longer really part of my lexicon.

SFP: In the book you attribute a lot of that to your son. Can you try to tease out aging apart from that?

SM: I have this life. Certain things have happened. I can’t subtract out part of it. But it’s comforting. Twenty years ago I thought how could you possibly be a writer and a parent? I had been so brainwashed by the culture. I thought if you were a woman and wanted to be a writer you had to be this young wild or this old oracular bodiless Sappho. Now I think that worry is utterly beside the point. Things happen and you keep doing it. I worried I would stop writing if I took on a family, but, no, you just keep going. I’m completely hijacking the question, but there’s something I saw online that was deeply clarifying. I don’t know if it was from some soap corporation, one of these horrible promo videos that look like art films but are designed to sell you shampoo, but it was a series of brief interviews with women with mobility disabilities and diseases, amputees. One woman had been a dancer and she had this traumatic spinal cord injury, really high so she could use her arms but not her legs, and she said, “I thought I wouldn’t be a dancer anymore, but I am the same dancer and I have a strong desire to keep dancing,” so she dances in her chair. It’s so fucking beautiful. She figured out a way to make her chair go and it looks like she’s doing donuts, but they’re big and they describe these long curves and she lifts her arm and it’s totally dancing. Matisse is always used as an example of what happens when an artist can’t make his or her art anymore. Something on a much smaller scale happened when I had my kid.

SFP: That reminds me of something you wrote. You’re talking about your students about how you have seemingly infinite possibility, but as you age the possible lives available to you drop away until eventually you’re left with the life you have.

SM: I think that’s why a greater majority of old people have a sense of calmness. Young people see them as complacent, But it’s what you said, it’s done, it’s not perfect but this is pretty much it.

SFP: I find it to be a relief. And I’m not that much younger than you, by the way.

SM: I feel exhausted in a good way.


You aren’t the same person after a good night’s sleep as you are after a sleepless night. But which person is you?
—SM, 300 Arguments

Closing scene: After closing his laptop, the man in Montana goes looking for his last surviving journal, the one that when he burned the rest of them he decided to save as representative of its era. He makes a pot of coffee and reads the journal beginning to end. With a pencil he marks a handful of sentences that interest him.

“My project is my life. . . . My thoughts settle where pen meets paper. All the inclinations and potential become ideas, and ideas become facts, and facts become myths. Then after a minute goes by the myths become facts. . . . I’m not the same person I was when I came here, but am I the person I was on my way to becoming when I came?”

Here is where Manguso might say, “I’d like to meet someone whose passage through life has been continuous, whose life has happened to an essential self, and not been just a series of lives happening to a series of selves.”

And if their conversation were to continue, it might continue like this:

Him: “Who can one model a life on? No one. Not even oneself. It must be an original.”
Her: “Biographies should also contain the events that failed to foreshadow.”
Him: “I see a younger me trying to encourage himself on to become, who, me?”
Her: “I’ve more or less become the person I had a chance to become.”

He puts down his coffee and goes to the fireplace with his journal in hand, ready to break away from the past again.

But the fireplace where he lives now is the gas-burning kind, covered by glass.

Look at me, dancing my little dance for a few moments
against the background of eternity.

—SM, Ongoingness


Click here to purchase 300 Arguments
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at your local independent bookstore
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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2020 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2020

The Riches of Kazakh Literature
Part One: Fiction


by Timothy Walsh

Kazakhstan is an ancient land with a fascinating culture little known in the West. Even though it is the ninth-largest country in the world, few Americans can place it on a map. It is where humans first domesticated the horse and the genetic homeland of all our cultivated varieties of apples. It is also a place with a rich literary heritage largely unknown outside its borders.

Along with the rest of Soviet Central Asia, Kazakhstan was kept closed off from the Western world during the long night of the Russian occupation. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, a few writers were “discovered” by the West—Chingiz Aitmatov from Kyrgystan, Hamid Ismailov from Uzbekistan—but this only scratched the surface of the deep literary ore running through this storied crossroads of the world, where once the fabled Silk Road had been the main cultural and commercial link between East and West.

Now comes Talasbek Asemkulov’s A Life at Noon (Three String Books, $29.95), translated by Shelley Fairweather-Vega. Astoundingly, this is the first post-Soviet novel from Kazakhstan to be translated into English, but it is an inspired choice. Originally written in 2003 in Kazakh, it was translated into Russian last year by the author’s wife, Zira Naurzbayeva, and now at last into English. Asemkulov died in 2014, but his novel stands as a lasting monument to his art, both literary and musical.

A Life at Noon tells the story of Azhigerei as he grows up in a rural aul in the 1960s, a time when the traditional Kazakh culture of steppe nomads was in danger of completely dying out due to the often brutal and disastrous policies of the Soviet regime. Even if you know nothing about Central Asia or Kazakhstan, Asemkulov will quickly pull you into this spellbinding tale, whether riding out with Azhigerei on horseback into the mysterious and life-giving steppe or sitting in the felt-carpeted comfort of a yurt on a summer night, sipping hot tea while listening to beguiling music.

This is also the coming-of-age story of an artist, as young Azhigerei is tutored by his father, Sabyt, to become a master player of the dombra, the ancient national instrument of Kazakhstan. In lucid, haunting scenes we see Azhigerei listening to old men’s stories by firelight, suffering through the first bittersweet pangs of young love, and losing himself as he plays an intricate kuy, the dombra in his hands turned into an instrument of revelation as he feels some higher power playing through him.

This is not a sugar-coated novel—there are chilling stories of Soviet atrocities and scenes of mindless brutality—but there are also moments of almost mystical beauty and poetry. And Fairweather-Vega’s translation preserves Asemkulov’s vigorous and lucid prose. Unlike some Kazakh writers who can tend to prolixity, Asemkulov’s writing is spare and tight, painting vivid pictures of the Kazakh countryside or characters in a few deft strokes. Fairweather-Vega renders all this in a natural idiomatic English free of footnotes or glossary, preserving occasional Kazakh words that are best left untranslated (kamcha, jigit, barymtash, shanyrak) since the reader can figure out their meanings in context.

A Life at Noon is mainly Azhigerei’s and Sabyt’s story, but it is also the story of dozens of other vivid characters, both living and dead—and in this way it becomes the story of Kazakhstan itself. Integral to this novel is the act of storytelling, of tales told by wise old aqsaqals in yurts over endless cups of tea (or vodka). There are vivid stories of the Russian occupation, Bolshevik death squads, Stalin’s forced collectivization of this proud nomadic people, the confiscation of livestock and the resulting starvation of millions. These stories are tragic, but there are also stories of earlier times—of thriving auls, years of plenty, and legendary dombra competitions at festivals.

As we follow Azhigerei through his early teens, the novel’s other interwoven stories gradually and masterfully construct a vivid portrait of the Kazakh people and culture over the last two hundred years. Through it all, it is music, the unique, lyrically percussive voice of the dombra, that knits things together. The dombra speaks through sound and melody, but it is also a storytelling instrument—its repertoire of kuys (virtuoso instrumental compositions) as consciously programmatic as Vivaldi’s Four Seasons or Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique.

In this way, Azhigerei’s story and the stories the dombra tells through his dexterous fingers culminate in increasingly profound meditations on what it means to be human in a world where love must give way to grief, bliss to tragedy and death. The tradition of virtuoso instrumentalists playing the dombra was almost extinguished by Stalin and the Soviet regime, but it survived in people like Sabyt and Azhigerei—and in Asemkulov himself. Besides being an accomplished novelist and screenwriter, Asemkulov was a master dombra player, a true kuyishi, one of the few able to pass on the authentic secrets of the old masters (and therefore perhaps the only person who could have written such a book).

As Sabyt explains at one point, after laboriously reconstructing a lost kuy, playing the dombra for days on end until he succeeds, “That kuy vanished long ago. When I caught that small piece of it, I spent a few days drawing it out of the other world.” This novel feels exactly like that—drawn out of the other world by an artist uniquely qualified for the task.


Serendipitously, coinciding with the publication of the Asemkulov novel comes the groundbreaking anthology Contemporary Kazakh Literature: Prose, which contains a short story by Asemkulov that functions as a fitting sequel to the novel. (The anthology, published by Cambridge University Press in partnership with the National Bureau of Translations, is available as a free pdf download.)

“The Old Kuyishi” picks up with Azhigerei a few years later when he’s beginning his obligatory military service. On leave, he’s returning home when he runs into Zuman, a fellow dombra player, now an alcoholic and down on his luck. Azigherei is disappointed, but Zuman unexpectedly informs Azigherei of an even greater kuyishi who has dropped out of sight and who, if still alive, has many secrets to impart. And so Azigherei goes off on a new quest.

There are many other riches in this anthology, including ten or twelve absolute gems translated into English for the first time, from Sherkhan Murtaza’s traditional story, almost a folktale, to Didar Amantay’s disaffected postmodern sketch that reads something like a Jean Cocteau script.

The alphabet came late to the Kazakh language. Although an Arabic script had been used for centuries to write Kazakh, among the people the ancient traditions of oral storytelling and the singing of historical epics were the main forms of cultural transmission well into the twentieth century. Even today, the zhirau (singers of epic poetry), akyn (improvising oral poets), and sal-seri (shaman-like trickster poet-singers) are still revered. In 1929, a Latin alphabet was introduced, which was changed to Cyrillic in 1940 to better unify the far-flung corners of the Soviet Union. (Kazakh will change back to the Latin alphabet by 2025.)

With the growth of cities in Kazakhstan (not a prominent feature of its nomadic past) came printing presses, newspapers, magazines, and books. The storytelling instinct so strong in Kazakh culture soon burst forth in these new written forms, opening the floodgates on a steady stream of literary efforts, including a surprising number of thick historical epics and weighty trilogies spanning centuries.

Sadly, many of the most talented Kazakh writers from this early period were executed in the Stalinist purges of the late 1930s—Beimbet Maylin and Saken Seyfullin among them. This anthology picks up with the next generation of writers, born in the 1930s and later. Many of their stories are, for obvious reasons, heavily influenced by Russian literature, particularly Chekhov—but this is not a bad thing, considering that most of twentieth-century short story writing around the world has been influenced by Chekhov, the master of the modern short story.

Consider Kalikhan Yskak’s “A Quiet Autumn,” one of the real treasures in this anthology. Here, Yskak deftly fuses elements from the ancient Kazakh storytelling tradition with lessons learned from Chekhov and other Russian writers like Turgenev. The result is something both unusual and original. Yskak’s sympathies are plainly for the pre-Soviet times when the Kazakh people lived in harmony with nature, but the beginning of the story—when the protagonist, Kasym, encounters a former love by chance on a forest road—is Yskak’s subtle homage to Chekhov, whose short story “The Huntsman” begins in precisely the same way.

There are many other gems in this collection—such as Dulat Isabekov’s “Growing Pains,” which begins in tragedy, then surprisingly morphs into a slow-burn comedy; or Marhabat Baigut’s fascinating “The Kazakhs of Hamburg,” focusing on the sizeable German population forcibly resettled in Kazakhstan by Stalin; or Sayin Muratbekov’s unforgettably poignant “The Scent of Wormwood.”

While it is true that twentieth-century Kazakh literature is heavily dominated by men, it is still surprising that of the thirty authors in this anthology, only two are women. Why the anthology doesn’t include other notable women writers like Sharbanu Kumarova or Altynash Dzhaganova is a puzzle and a disappointment.

The anthology does include Rosa Mukanova’s celebrated story “The Image of the Eternal Child” (translated elsewhere as “Leyla’s Prayer”), which deals with the horrifying legacy of the Russian nuclear testing program in the dreaded “Polygon” area of eastern Kazakhstan. Here, over 450 nuclear tests were carried out between 1949 and 1989, and hundreds of thousands of Kazakh villagers were purposely exposed to dangerously high levels of radiation and fallout.

In this haunting story, which reads something like a cross between a parable and a dark fairy tale, the disfigured girl, Leila, finds that her only friend is the moon—and the compassionate moon consciously watches over her while lamenting the degradation and destruction let loose on the land.

A few of the stories in the Cambridge anthology are real clunkers, weighed down by heavy doses of Soviet social realism and heavy-handed moralism. One might also quibble with editorial decisions, including the use of the “ISO 9 Standard” for Romanizing Cyrillic characters, which results in words burdened with inscrutable diacritical marks, unpronounceable to most English speakers who are not phonologists.

More questionable is the organizational principle of the anthology, where the authors are simply presented chronologically by date of birth. This is a missed opportunity—it would have been far better to present the stories so that the readers’ familiarity with Kazakh culture and history gradually builds, since some stories are much more dependent on this than others (and as it is, some of the weakest stories come in the first ten.)

With this in mind, here are the stories I would most recommend, ordered so that they build on and complement each other more organically:

1. “A Quiet Autumn,” Kalikhan Yskak
2. “Grandmother’s Samovar,” Didakhmet Ashimkhanuly
3. “The Kazakhs of Hamburg” Marhabat Baigut
4. “The Old Kujsi,” Talasbek Asemkulov
5. “Kerbugy” Oralkhan Bokey
6. “The Smell of Wormwood,” Sayin Muratbekov
7. “The Song,” Sofy Smatayev
8. “Growing Pains,” Dulat Isabekov
9. “Bojtumar,” Sherkhan Murtaza
10. “The Nest of the White Cranes,” Nurgali Oraz
11. “The Image of the Eternal Child,” Roza Mukanova
12. “Pygmalion of the Backwoods,” Dauren Quat

From there, you can wander through the rest of this essential and wide-ranging anthology, from Tolen Abdik’s “The Battlefield of Sanity,” with its hints of Kafka, Bulgakov, and Dostoevsky, to Kabdesh Zhumadilov’s quietly tragic “A Beggar Man.”



Prior to this Cambridge anthology of contemporary Kazakh prose (there is also a companion volume of poetry), Cognella Academic Publishing released two anthologies of Kazakh literature—the only others available in English translation. First came The Stories of the Great Steppe (edited by Rafis Abazov, translated by Sergey Levchin and Ilya Bernshtein, $69.95) in 2013 followed by Summer Evening, Prairie Night, Land of Golden Wheat (edited by Rafis Abazov, translated by Sergey Levchin, $72.95) in 2016. Both are ably edited by Rafis Abazov and include valuable introductions. The main drawback of these otherwise recommendable anthologies is their steep price (and reasonably priced used copies are difficult to find).

Stories of the Great Steppe focuses on Kazakh literature since World War II and includes a number of notable writers not included in the Cambridge anthology. Summer Evening, on the other hand, spans all of modern Kazakh literature, beginning with the great poet Abai. It includes many short stories and prose excerpts from the earlier generations of writers, including Mukhtar Auezov, as well as more recent stories like Altynash Dzhagonova’s memorable “Anima, Wolves, and the End of the World.”

All of these anthologies are gifts to the English-speaking reader. But really, if you want to fall in love with Kazakh literature, start with Asemkulov’s A Life at Noon, then use it as a bridge to the wider pool of contemporary Kazakh voices.


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The World-Ending Fire:
The Essential Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry
Selected with an Introduction by Paul Kingsnorth
Counterpoint ($16.95)

by Robert Zaller

Wendell Berry, at eighty-five, is as close to a prophet as America has produced in the past half century. The scion of a farm family in the hardscrabble country of Henry County, Kentucky, he began a literary career in the 1960s that he envisaged at first in the conventional terms of the period: study, travel, and make your name in New York. It wasn’t a formula for prophecy. America’s preceding prophetic figure, the poet Robinson Jeffers, had only recently died; once famous, he was virtually forgotten at the time of his death. Jeffers, too, had entertained conventional literary ambitions, but he found the ground for a radical social critique in the rugged landscape of the central California coast, where life could be “purged,” as he put it, of the “ephemeral accretions” of modern living.

Berry didn’t find a new place for himself, but rediscovered the ancestral one he’d left and that called him back. On July 4, 1965—a date perhaps consciously chosen—he moved back to his home town, Port Royal, bought land, and went back to farming. He taught, too, at the University of Kentucky, but eventually committed himself to the twin occupations of farming and writing. More than forty books resulted, divided more or less equally among poetry, fiction, and essays. All express a common vision, deepening with the years but developed from an original root: the perception that the good life must be lived in the care and cultivation of the soil, the weathers, and the bounties of a natural place.

This vision had a certain idyllic quality when Jeffers described it half a century earlier in a rapidly urbanizing America. By Berry’s time, it would have appeared to most hopelessly obsolete. Industrialized agriculture had all but destroyed the independent small farmer, today an essentially extinct species. Hired labor working giant farms devoted to monoculture covered the country, linked to great cities in a vast interlocking network of production, distribution, and consumption. The idea, as Jeffers had suggested, of a world in which “Men were riding after cattle, or plowing the headland . . . as they [had] done for thousands of years,” seemed no more plausible than bringing back Homer. And if anything were needed to clinch the point, the ’60s experiment of back-to-nature communes showed how distant a practical engagement with the land had become.

Berry had to ponder his decision when he made it, and he has been pondering it, with the much larger significations it acquired for him, ever since. If the land that had been bred into him called him back, it was land that, as he now saw with adult eyes, had been “diminished” by those who, having killed or driven off its original possessors, had abused and eroded it, despoiling its forests, poisoning its rivers, and depleting its soil. Berry thus found himself returned not to something comfortable and familiar, but to the scene of a crime—a crime his own forebears had participated in. If he was to live worthily in it, he would have to leave his own small patch of it at least modestly better than he found it. Only in so doing would he acquire the moral basis to write for himself and address others.

Thoreau had written about Walden Pond, and then left it. Jeffers wrote about his beloved coast, built a house, and planted trees. Neither man was a farmer, and neither, except in a literary sense, attempted to live off the land. Wendell Berry has been distinctive if not unique in insisting that one must get one’s hands literally dirty in order to write. He makes the point, clearly if indirectly, in an early essay, “Some Thoughts on Citizenship and Conscience in Honor of Don Pratt”: “No matter how sophisticated and complex and powerful our institutions, we are still exactly as dependent on the earth as the earthworms. To cease to know this, and to fail to act upon the knowledge, is to begin to die the death of a broken machine.”

The opposition of the natural and the mechanical would be, for Berry as for other conservationists, a fundamental trope. The mechanical is the abstract; it flattens what it cannot categorize. The land, as a living, organic entity that with its creatures, human and wild, encompass the cycles of growth and decay that define it, can only be damaged and ultimately destroyed—rendered incapable of fertility and nurturance—if subjected to the machine. To be sure, humans need tools to farm, and farms to live if they are to settle meaningfully. Tools that acquire gears are machines, and these are not, in and of themselves, inimical to the land, at least up to a point. Beyond that, however, it is the machine that drives the farmer, and what its functioning imposes makes it the master rather than the servant. When this condition insinuates itself as a mindset, it can swiftly assume control of human society as such. Humans are deceived by this into believing that it is they who are in control of an everything they call “nature,” which through a wizardly effect called technology they may subject to their wishes.

When this process is extended to the most essential requirement of daily living, the production of food, and that in turn to the discipline of an extensive and rationalized market system, agribusiness replaces farming, with its concomitant results of soil depletion, animal confinement and mechanized slaughter, and the toxification of earth, air, and water. On a sufficient scale, the species loss and pollution this produces wreaks havoc, not only on what we call the environment but on the human spirit itself. Berry came early to this conclusion, but also, as he admits, slowly. Wishing to convert a steep hillside on his property to pasturage, he hired a bulldozer to clear its woods and create a pond that would provide a water supply. A wet winter caused a landslide that ruined the pond. Forcing nature from its course had done damage, and yielded no profit. Later, in expanding the farm, Berry had arrived at a point where a tractor seemed inevitable. Thinking the matter through, he decided to invest in a team of horses instead. The idea might have seemed quixotic, but it worked, and proved even more practical in dealing with steep ground and bad weather.

Berry thus arrived at a principle suitable to his purposes: that where traditional methods could do the job, perhaps more slowly but with less disturbance to natural balances, they were preferable to mechanical ones. He extended this principle to his other occupation, writing. In a brief essay that touched a nerve among literary colleagues, “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer,” he declared that he did and would write only with a pen or pencil, using natural light. This was partly a statement: the presumptive labor-saving of the computer did not make for better writing, but it did involve expense, energy and material consumption, difficulty of repair, and planned obsolescence. Moreover, to write as a critic of wasteful technology with an instrument that was itself an example of it was, in the absence of necessity or improvement of result, an act of bad faith in an activity that demanded good faith above all. (Berry did use a manual typewriter for readying final copy.)

Struck by the adverse reaction to his essay by fellow writers, Berry coined the term “technological fundamentalism” to describe the attitude that technological change as such was both inevitable and desirable. Behind this, he decried a sense of helplessness before the profit-driven forces behind such change, whose ideological compensation lay in identifying with them as manifesting human power and grandeur, the subjection of nature to a collective project. But the collectivity was false and the project an illusion because, as Berry says in “The Total Economy,” all responsibility is ultimately individual and the consequence of permitting others to decide for us—whether they be corporations, governments, or those in their pay—is that “the human household or economy is [now] in conflict at almost every point with the household of nature.” The term “household” is deliberately chosen, for what Berry wants us to appreciate is that nature itself is a tapestry of local ecosystems just as society is of individual families and communities. Thus, as he notes,

The “environmental crisis” is no such thing; it is not a crisis of our environs or surroundings; it is a crisis of our lives as individuals, as family members, as community members, and as citizens. We have an “environmental crisis” because we have consented to an economy in which by eating, drinking, working, resting, traveling, and enjoying ourselves we are destroying the natural, the God-given, world.

The adjuration is as much ethical as political, and it is this that makes Berry a prophet in the tradition of Thoreau and Jeffers, rather than merely a critic. There is nothing here of the large political and economic forces that shape our lives and limit our choices, let alone of those in Third World poverty constrained by necessity to add more than their quota to ecological degradation and loss. Nor is there any suggestion of how to resist concrete social evils beyond the civil disobedience prescribed by Thoreau and emulated by Berry.

Berry is well aware of who the villains are and how they operate, but he doesn’t call them out as a muckraker would because he does not wish to let the rest of us off the hook. The closest he comes to specification is in “Two Minds,” written in 2001 in the wake of the destruction of the World Trade Center. The “two minds” Berry stipulates are the Rational and the Sympathetic. The latter is one which, briefly defined, is “to be considerate of whatever is present”; that is, respectful of that which Berry calls “God-given,” the world as what precedes us. The former sees what is present as what may be transformed, regardless of its natural integrity. Its epitome, for Berry, was the World Trade Center, whose purpose was to harvest as much of the world’s wealth as possible for the powerful few. It was, consequently, a “no-place” that existed only to strip-mine actual ones. Its fall, as with that of the Tower of Babel to which Berry likens it, was predicated in its very existence, regardless of the specific event that would bring it about.

To speak thusly of 9/11 in its immediate aftermath was bold indeed, and although Berry has rarely been one to raise his voice, the accents of Jeremiah are clear here. At the same time, he never hectors, and his sense of our general predicament always grows out of personal experience. Unsurprisingly, the theme of homecoming is critical to his vision of rectification. As he points out, it is the perdurable theme of our greatest literature, from Scripture to The Odyssey to Shakespeare; it is our most ancient wisdom. It is also, as he tirelessly reminds us, the wisdom we have increasingly lost or rejected. As he says in “The Work of Local Culture,” “Our society, on the whole, has forgotten or repudiated the theme of return.” Home is no longer the meaning of the story or the conclusion of the adventure, but simply the place to be left. Return is defeat.

What Berry wants to suggest is that such an idea, cast as an imperative, is at odds with who we are as a part of nature. Nature is in essence continuity and return—and on our planet, gifted with life, the processes that sustain the biosphere that houses us. We have come over the past several centuries to doubt its hospitality, and to view it, through the inverted lens of evolutionary theory and the post-Copernican one of cosmic catastrophism, as fearful, inimical, predatory. We do not trust it, and regard as fools those who do. We cannot—yet—flee it, but we dream of controlling it, and technology is our magical instrument. It is magical because we believe it can do anything and make us the master of everything, except itself. We thus alienate ourselves from the world and from each other.

Is there, then, any realistic hope to change the downward spiral we seem to have submitted ourselves to? More than thirty years ago, Berry answered thusly in “The Work of Local Culture”:

I still believe that a change for the better is possible, but I confess that my belief is partly hope and partly faith. No one who hopes for improvement should fail to see and respect the signs that we may be approaching some sort of historical waterfall, past which we will not, by changing our minds, be able to change anything else. We know that at any time an ecological or a technological or a political event that we will have allowed may remove from us the power to make change and leave us with the mere necessity to submit to it.

Sixteen years later, Berry put the case more peremptorily in “Compromise, Hell!”:

We are destroying our country—I mean our country itself, our land. This is a terrible thing to know, but it is not a reason for despair unless we decide to continue the destruction. If we decide to continue the destruction, that will not be because we have no other choice. This destruction is not necessary. It is not inevitable, except that by our submissiveness we make it so.

Prophets should grow louder as the need to be heard increases. They should also point a way, as Berry has done in how he has lived his own life as well as in the words he has written. It isn’t the way all of us need or can walk in; there are different ways of getting home, and there are ways to explore too that enrich us. But we may have had no steadier guide in our time.

Culled from more than a dozen books, The World-Ending Fire has been thoughtfully assembled by Paul Kingsnorth, and serves as an excellent introduction to Berry’s thought. Woven back and forth chronologically over a span of more than four decades, it shows at once the range, evolution, and continuity of his vision, and if, as Berry himself concedes, there is a certain repetition in it, it is because prophets do repeat themselves. Kingsnorth himself is the cofounder of the so-called Dark Mountain Project, a consortium of British writers and artists concerned with finding new pathways in what they describe as an age of “ecocide.” Berry is cited in the group’s manifesto, but its name refers specifically to a passage in Jeffers’s “Rearmament,” a poem that presaged World War II, and he is invoked repeatedly as its master spirit. What Jeffers himself, an arch-skeptic of group enterprises, would have made of this is a question. Thoreau, too, might have smiled. But the conversation they began remains imperative.


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Arvind Krishna Mehrotra

Selected Poems and Translations
of Arvind Krishna Mehrotra

Selected by Vidyan Ravinthiran
New York Review of Books ($18)

by Graziano Krätli

The premature deaths of Eunice De Souza in 2017 and Meena Alexander one year later have significantly thinned the ranks of anglophone Indian poetry, depriving the world of two major women writers whose birth dates straddled 1947, the watershed year of Indian independence. Born that same year, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra stands out as a poet from that generation whose work continues to find new publishing venues and engage new readers, both in India and abroad.

The latest and most prestigious of these is the NYRB Poets series, now thirty titles strong, which features authors from around the world and includes such names as Apollinaire, Dante, Osip Mandelstam, Henri Michaux, Silvina Ocampo, and Walt Whitman. Until Mehrotra joined these ranks, the only other Indian was A.K. Ramanujan (1929-93), whose contribution showcased his achievement as translator of classical Tamil poetry rather than as poet in his own right. Mehrotra has also appeared in the NYRB pantheon as a translator—in his case of the fifteenth-century bhakti poet Kabir, whose irreverent and provocative songs Mehrotra rejuvenated in a version that tops those of many illustrious predecessors (Robert Bly, Pound, and Tagore included). Indeed, for originality and inventiveness, the selection from Songs of Kabir (2011) outshines the other translations featured in the book under review, including versions from the first- and second-century Prākrit of The Absent Traveller (originally published in 1991), and from twentieth-century Hindi (Suryakant Tripathi “Nirala,” Vinod Kumar Shukla, Mangalesh Dabral), Bengali (Shakti Chattopadhyay), and Gujarati (Pavankumar Jain).

As Vidyan Ravinthiran explains in his editorial note, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra: Selected Poems and Translations draws from two previous volumes of Mehrotra’s collected poems, one published by Penguin (India) in 2014 and the other by Giramondo (Australia) in 2016. Compared with either of them, this book includes a substantial amount of new work, namely a translation, an elegy for Eunice De Souza, a poem inspired by the tragic death of the poet’s sister, and the sixty-page long sequence “Daughters of Jacob Bridge.” Overall, Ravinthiran’s scrupulous and discerning selection has produced a book that shows, more clearly than a collected edition, Mehrotra’s development and refinement over the past half-century.

Such a process begins in the late 1960s, with a style that is subtly affected by post-war Surrealism and protest poetry, influences that Ravinthiran’s inclusion of two uncollected poems from 1972-74 makes explicit. The second in particular, “Ballad of the Black Feringhee,” is reminiscent of Ginsberg’s “America” in the litany of blunt statements that the poet directs at his own country (“India I was born in the year of your independence,” “India where’s my horoscope,” etc.). By the time Mehrotra published his first collection, however, these influences had been tamed and woven into a richer tapestry, as the five poems from Nine Enclosures (1976) show clearly. The antiquarian extravaganza of “The Sale” reveals a penchant for enumeration, referencing, and cataloging that also emerges from “Songs of the Good Surrealist,” “Index of First Lines,” “Continuities,” and later poems. If we consider the descriptive and normative functions of lists, inventories, maps, and other instruments of colonial rule, Mehrotra’s use of the Surrealistic technique of incongruous and provocative juxtaposition (famously envisioned by Lautréamont as the “chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissection table”) undermines and subverts the taxonomic order implied in these poems.

A similar subversive tendency, although supported by different means, characterizes Mehrotra’s descriptive and narrative poems (and most of Mehrotra’s poems are descriptive or narrative to a degree), where a punctilious, evocative visualization (“the air, dry and silvery / At the entrance, is moist and sea-green, furry / To the touch,” from “The Roys”) often leads to a destabilizing or unsettling close. In the most condensed example of this manner (“January,” from Mehrotra’s second collection, Distance in Statute Miles, 1982), a deft camerawork takes the reader from the exterior to the interior of a life in just four telegraphic lines:

The gate wide open; chairs on the lawn;
Circular verandas; a narrow kitchen;
High-ceilinged rooms; arches; alcoves; skylights.
My house luminous; my day burnt to ash.

In his best poems, Mehrotra proves to be a master storyteller with a peculiar taste for the uncanny; this is what makes his poetry a constant pleasure for the reader and an endless, delightful challenge for the critic. Images or impressions from the poet’s past or from his readings, kindled by close observation, often interact kaleidoscopically to convey the eerie impression of a life lived in the flesh as well as in the mind, of which the “house” and the “library” are apt and interchangeable representations. “We belong to the houses we live in” is the spectral, closing line of a poem that begins “Who remembers my dentist father / Now that even his patients are dead” (“Hoopoe”). And “Borges,” an invocation to the muse of all literary writers (“Insomnia brings lucidity, / And a borrowed voice sets the true one / Free”) ends not surprisingly with a call to “lead me . . . to the labyrinth of the earthly / Library.”

Similarly, “The House” invokes various literary landscapes (Grimms' fairy tales, Victorian murder mystery, the golden age of Hindi cinema, and modern psychological thrillers) to evoke—or dissimulate—a very personal memory. Employing the same visual technique featured in “January,” the poem progresses from an exterior view, a stone cottage in the middle of a forest, to an interior suggesting abandonment and decay. Here, however, the striking element is not the bats in the rafters, or their “dung on the floor,” but a dentist’s coat hanging from a nail and “smelling pleasantly / Of chloroform.” The reader has no sooner started asking some obvious questions (why would a dentist practice in the wilderness, and what makes the smell of chloroform pleasant?) than a different imagery raises new questions. Do the muddy sandals, the smoky eyes, and the dentist’s coat belong to the same man who, in the final couplet, “passes before me / In the cheval-glass”? An exquisite example of Empsonian ambiguity, the image combines the occurrence of a phenomenon and its phantasmagorical residue by means of the expression “passes before,” whose spatial and temporal meaning suggests, simultaneously, an apparition passing in front of the poet (i.e., between him and the mirror), and a father preceding his son through the looking-glass (and onto the otherworld).

This thorough and exhaustive selection may not gain Mehrotra’s poetry “a worldwide audience,” as its editor understandably hopes, but it has the potential for securing this major Indian poet an enthusiastic and devoted North American readership.


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