Tag Archives: Spring 2023

A Wild Vitality: An Interview with Jerome Sala

by Jim Feast

I met Jerome Sala in a college class in Chicago in 1970. We became fast friends and, always being hipper than me, he introduced me to many strange byways in poetry, art, and music. I moved to New York City while he continued writing poetry and creating new ways of presenting it in Chicago; in 1981, he was crowned the first “heavyweight champion” of competitive literary bouts in that city, in a format that pre-dated (and inspired) the poetry slam. A few years later, Sala moved to New York City, where he and his spouse, the poet Elaine Equi, have been a vital part of the city’s poetry scene.

Sala, who holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from New York University and works as a copywriter, is the author of eight books of poems, the latest of which is How Much: New and Selected Poems (NYQ Books, $20). Other titles include Corporations Are People, Too! (NYQ Books, 2017), The Cheapskates (Lunar Chandelier, 2014), and Look Slimmer Instantly (Soft Skull Press, 2005). His poems and essays have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Conjunctions, Pleiades, Boundary 2, Rolling Stone, among other places, and he keeps a blog on poetry and pop culture called espresso bongo.

Jim Feast: It used to be noted how advertising and political platitudes were woefully diluting terms such as “democracy” or “freedom”; now, as you point out in poems such as “To Content,” it seems all language has lost significance. In response, your poems often take words from corporate jargon that never had any meaning in the first place and infuse them with a wild vitality. Is this one of your goals?

Jerome Sala: Definitely. Having worked as a copywriter for many years, I witnessed how sometime in the ‘90s, all types of creativity—music, video, writing, etc.—got dumped into a single category, “content.” Just as industrial capitalism gave birth to new abstractions such as “labor power” and “value,” the information economy now gave birth to this abstraction, and “To Content” is about this change. It begins:

you are like a word-picture-video flow
whose every element is special, but as part of a feed
(feeding whom?)
             also generic

a textual form of meat product:
like the old Aristotelian notion of “substance”
nothing in itself
but the something out of which all is made

Since, as you mention, language is losing its specificity, I try to bring attention to this through satire; I treat the insignificant, the debased, as a source of great truth. Philip K. Dick, one of my idols, once theorized that the Logos could be found in cheap ads on the back of matchbook covers—I play with this idea in my poetry.

JF: In “Corporate Sonnets,” a sequence of Browning-like monologues, you present a gallery of sham entrepreneurs, cutthroats, business nobodies, and flimflammers, revealing the souls of speakers who, by definition, have no souls. I wonder whether these portraits are taken from life or are invented to represent the corporate typology.

JS: When I first started writing “Corporate Sonnets,” I collected business clichés from email solicitations, work conversations, business magazines, online ads, and motivational books. The idea was to satirize the language by collaging these expressions—none of the poems were portraits of actual people. But I discovered something surprising as I wrote: though the sonnets were made of nothing but jargon, they started to seem, almost by accident, as if they were characters speaking—Browning-esque, as you mention, or perhaps even like the voices in Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology. Here is the first “Corporate Sonnet” I composed:

I don’t know if I still have the bandwidth
to think outside of the box. I’m good at
identifying the low-hanging fruit
but innovation? Disruptive technologies?
That stuff may be for the millennials
to decide. Good luck to them. As for me,
well, there comes a time in all our lives
when you’ve got to just drink the Kool-Aid
and get with the program. Ok, sure,
you’ve no longer got the mojo
to break down any silos, but at least your
morale is no longer in the toilet.
I’m still entrepreneurial and proactive,
I’m collaborative, competitively priced and non-reactive.

The fact that this collection of expressions sounded like a someone baring their “soul” made me wonder if our souls were in fact made of clichés. In any case, when I performed the “Corporate Sonnets” at readings, it wasn’t just people who worked in offices that appreciated them; social workers, academics, and factory workers related to them too. It seems all walks of life are now defined by their jargon—and people are delighted when you make fun of it.

Today, cliché has invaded all realms of language. Sometimes I think that a dramatic play in which the actors communicate only in cliches might be both hilarious and poignant—it would “speak” to our moment in a particularly engaging way. As Umberto Eco quipped: “Two clichés make us laugh. A hundred clichés move us.”

JF: In a dialogue with Jack Skelley on the Best American Poetry blog, you say that in your poetry you often take “the most fleeting instances of culture and write about them as if they were holy monuments.” In conversation, you’ve told me this nuanced approach to pop culture was something you witnessed in the Chicago art and writing scene, and I wonder if you can say more about that here.

JS: One of the Chicago artists I was thinking about was Kevin Riordan, who created the cover for How Much? and many of my other books. With a connoisseur’s eye for trashy culture, he takes pop influence into a whole new dimension, collaging imagery not just from icons, but more esoteric sources. My wife, the poet Elaine Equi, guest-edited an issue of LAICA Journal (Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art) with Riordan on the theme of “discarded icons.” The contents of the issue, derived from ads, comic books, film, etc., wasn’t merely pop, it was obsolete pop—in a way, what was being celebrated was the fact that our culture is impermanent. Such an approach to pop culture is also influenced by punk, another strong force when I was growing up in Chicago. As an example of how Riordan’s pop collage approach has affected my writing of poetry, here are a few lines from “Hollywood Alphabet”:

I am an amateur alien living in Amityville
in a Batman costume, on leave from Babylon 5.
I can’t tell a cat from a canary from a Wes Craven movie from a
   William Castle movie
yet I get déjà vu when I think of Philip K. Dick dancing with Judge
   Dredd after dancing with a wolf.
T.S. Eliot once said that ethnographic study offered a form
   of empowerment for Everyman – that and exploitative cinema.
Well maybe he didn’t. . . .

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

                                                            Hollywood, you see, is more
   about image appropriation than individuation—
as such it’s a Janus-faced town, a kind of Jurassic Park
where dinosaurs like Steven King, Freddy Krueger and Stanley
   Kubrick have gone extinct
quicker than you can say Herschel Gordon Lewis, or the Legend of Hell House.

JF: The approach of treating mass culture as if its icons “were holy monuments” is a perspective not unknown in universities—an environment you are familiar with, since you have a doctorate in American Studies. However, something not typically found in campus productions is the slashing humor you use in such works as “Let’s Hear It for Frederick’s of Hollywood.” Indeed, you often have a triple-barreled comedy, poking fun at the absurd solemnity of pop culture, the pretensions of academic studies of pop culture, and the sacrosanct classics of poetry, which also come in for some good-natured swipes. How did your use of humor develop?

JS: There are three influences I’d like to mention when it comes to satiric/comedic touches. First, I’ve always loved comedians such as Rodney Dangerfield, Jerry Lewis, and Sarah Silverman. Second is a very traditional literary mode, the mock-heroic—I’m thinking here of Swift and Pope, who, to achieve their satiric effects, would write about commodities such as makeup and earrings as if they were mystic, alchemical objects.

Third is having worked as a copywriter. Marx, a great satirist himself, admired capitalism’s tendency to profane whatever it readied for sale, and an ad writer experiences this process in a very intimate way. You work with the arbitrariness of words—anything can be made to mean anything else. From this perspective, not just pop culture but academic study of it can seem a bit pompous. Nevertheless, I value “theory” and academic criticism highly; such writing helped me get through my job as a copywriter by exposing the ideological clichés that fuel business writing (something satirized in “Corporate Sonnets” and many of my other poems).

Speaking of ideology, it’s funny how even a classic cartoon series like The Flintstones reflects it. Historical research suggests that Stone Age societies were communistic; in the cartoon series, though, the society we see is a thriving, industrial capitalist one. The beginning of my poem on this series alludes to this goofy transformation:

stone age

owning property
working for the man
and loving it

as a brontosaurus crane
or a purple
pet dinosaur dog
named Dino

JF: I see your work as addressed to a specific audience. In your early Chicago performance poetry, there was a raucous give and take between you and the audience, with listeners often taking lines as individual insults or jokes. Now, in less raucous days, the audience is incorporated in each poem; not only is a sketch provided of the persona speaking the piece but there is an implicit profile of the audience this speaker is addressing.

JS: Thinking about audiences reflects, I guess, a vain wish that what I write could extend beyond a strictly poetry audience. In the old days, Elaine and I performed to crowds that were literary, arty, and punk. This mix is called out in a playful way in an early poem, “In the Company of the Now People”:

I wasn’t going to talk about all you over-the-hill go-go dancers
but here you all are in your little white go-go boots
and there’s Joe Tiger and Lenny Leopard
along with the lady wrestler with a bone in her hair
and mamma mia what next?
a Dalmatian in a tutu?
it just makes me stop and think—
I must be in the company of the now people

I guess you could say this early work addresses the nightlife of the crowd. Later, I started addressing daytime life—office work, for example. The approach turned to satirizing business talk, or even business fashion, and the funny ways the drama of nightlife gets funneled into the banality of daily work.

I’m not sure whether such writing appeals to a specific audience or not, but, judging from response at readings, people seem to get a kick out of poems written with this goal in mind.

JF: Both you and Elaine are fascinated with everyday products and how they change over time, but there is an interesting variation in the way you write about them. In her poem “Monogrammed Aspirin,” for example, she examines with a phenomenological lucidity how she reacted to the change in pill shape of Excedrin. By contrast, in your Coke sequence, you reflect on the philosophical implications of product change. What do you make of your mutual love of these objects—and the difference in the way you approach them?

JS: I think what both of us find appealing in these common objects and products is their very commonness. We both believe, in keeping with that Philip K. Dick quip I mentioned earlier, that if you’re looking for secrets about the way a culture works, you need to look at what you are numb to—the banal items you encounter daily. As you say, Elaine’s approach is more phenomenological, literally—phenomenology is her favorite branch of philosophy. In her poem “The Thing Is,” for example, she writes about how objects lack “the inner life” once bequeathed them; they have become cold, reified things. Her writing, influenced by Francis Ponge, rediscovers the aura of objects in witty, often humorous ways. An unusual feature of her style is that her writing can be mystical, even visionary, and humorous at the same time. If Elaine’s work is more concerned with the “object” part of the commercial object, I’m more fascinated by the marks of commerce it bears. What caught my interest about the marketing of New Coke, Classic Coke, and Cherry Coke back in the ‘80s was how the flavor of each carried an ideological message: New Coke’s sweetness preached the optimism of youth (it was closer to Pepsi, a brand marketed as “young”), Classic Coke the seriousness of tradition, and Cherry Coke predicted our current moment, in which brands turn profits by marketing diversity.

JF: When we were in college, you introduced me to an older painter, Lady Bunny, and her Bohemian friends. The Bohos, I learned, had preceded the Beats and considered themselves the real outlaws. Your verse sometimes portrays this division between outsider groups. In poems such as “Beatnik Stanzas,” where you intone, “no madness / no angels /  . . .  / no gone daddios / no haunted lightning,” you look askance at the Beat zeitgeist; in other pieces, such as “The Stoners,” you speak of a more authentic underclass group that contains “rogue impulses.” I see this as you suggesting that even if some countercultural groups may end up seeming “square,” there will always be a group resisting the corporate program.

JS: What I was satirizing in “Beatnik Stanzas” was not the actual Beats themselves, who produced some of my favorite writing, but the commodification of their image (think of the classic sitcom The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis or Roger Corman’s wonderful film A Bucket of Blood). That’s why the poem is filled with goofy lines like “my visioned darkened / and I threw away my turtleneck / in a dream.” But the phenomenon you mention, one generation casting doubt on another, helped me see how what’s cool can become cliché within the space of a few years. In comparison, a poem like “The Stoners” displays a hint of optimism. As you suggest, it states that no matter how the image of “the rebel” is commodified, a new generation appears with a workaround; punk, for example, appropriated the appropriators—repurposing trashy culture for its own uses—and that appropriation has already been reappropriated, as might be expected. Nevertheless, when something becomes a cliché, there is usually a segment of the culture that abandons it. Lightning cannot be housed in a bottle. As Bakhtin wrote, “There always remains an unrealized surplus of humanness . . . All existing clothes are always too tight, and thus comical.” Or as “The Stoners” puts it,

How is it then that these flaneurs continually rise from extinction

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

Are they something more than themselves—
rogue impulses without words or images of their own
but which nevertheless, like a flood
pick up people, houses and trees along the way
to a destination they never reach?

Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2023 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2023


Anna Moschovakis
Coffee House Press

by Joseph Houlihan

Poet, novelist, and translator Anna Moschovakis won the International Booker Prize in 2021 for her translation, from the French, of At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop. Her latest novel, Participation, also has a lot of “French” in it; possibly written as an echo of her previous novel, Eleanor, or the Rejection of Progress of Love (Coffee House Press, 2018), this new work offers a probing meditation on love. Fortunately, the book’s framing device cuts through any risk of it being overly sentimental.

Participation follows a narrator, E, as she vacillates between the gravity of two reading groups, Love and Anti-Love. E explains: “Anti-Love is not, to be fair, billed as Anti-Love. It’s billed variously as resistance, revolt, revolution. Sometimes it’s billed (tentatively or defiantly) as Self-Love.Love bills itself as itself, eponymous and proud.”

Following the Oulipo tradition of expanding through constraint, Moschovakis employs various experiments, letting the novel unspool through thoughts, fantasies, anecdotes, dialogues, and more. Moschovakis gives her characters from the reading groups letter-names without genders, as well: “This missive earned a single black heart from S, one of the members of Love I’d never met. I jolted when I saw their heart, then I liked it back.” The desire that expressed without gendered language ripples in interesting ways, energizing the description of a prelude to a kiss and dispatches from a live blog in the wake of a disaster. As the book accelerates towards its finish, there is increasing entropy and beautiful irresolution.

Throughout, Participation remains smart, frank, and sexy about its subject: “There is an abundance of emotion—enough years, enough fucks and near-fucks and pseudo-fucks, enough expectations unanswered because unheard or unsaid—and it is that abundance that is known: a partial knowing, as excess is always, paradoxically, partial.” This arch sexiness has the appeal of Marguerite Duras in The Lover or The Ravishing of Lol Stein.

As a poet, Moschovakis has effectively employed and interrogated axioms. She does the same in her fiction, animating the ideas in Participation with language. There is the notion of bodies constituted through exchange—“We absorb such unverifiable facts from conversation, and they become a part of us, they become us”—and she

describes mathematical intuitionism as a metaphor for communication: “Intuitionism is based on the idea that mathematics is a creation of the mind. The truth of a mathematical statement can only be conceived via a mental construction that proves it to be true, and the communication between mathematicians only serves as a means to create the same mental process in different minds.

Of course, everybody does not occupy the same reality, and even as we describe the world, we can never describe the whole world. This tension, and the tension between love and anti-love, participation or non-participation, or how to live whenthere is no good way to live, is the central theme of the novel. This tension as it relates to love and desire is enunciated in ways that lead the reader to ponder what might be a “good enough” love.

Participation does not have quotes in the title, but one might well imagine them there. E is a material girl in a material world; she burns, she desires, and she dreams. Her fragmented transmissions ring a warning bell, and the result is affecting.

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I Need to Tell You

Cathryn Vogeley
WiDo Publishing ($17.95)

Cathryn Vogeley uses three hallmarks of effective storytelling in her memoir, I Need to Tell You: vulnerability, uncertainty, and vivid scenes. Consider the opening paragraphs:

My eyes squeezed shut while the ting of metal instruments broke the silence. As if my chest had lost its elastic, I breathed in short, tight spurts. The ceiling tiles with their tiny holes looked down on me as my chin tilted upward.
Exam gloves snapped; metal wheels moaned across the cold floor.
Dr. Franklin stood from behind the sheet.
“No doubt about it. You’re pregnant.”

Vogeley, unmarried in 1968, discovers she is pregnant after her first year of nursing school. Her boyfriend, Gavin, says he can’t get married—this pregnancy must be kept secret.  Vogeley’s Catholic mother arranges for her to see her priest cousin Edward, to talk about "the problem,” and the pair arrange for her to be admitted to Roselia, a home for unwed mothers.

When Vogeley goes two weeks past her due date, she suggests to another Roselia resident that they jog in the winter courtyard to induce labor. Her description of the gunmetal sky and the thin layer of snow on the ground pull the reader into the frigid scene. We can see her “gripping both edges of my navy wool coat . . . schlumping along the sidewalk, hands under my belly, a bushel basket with a floating watermelon.”

The girls of Roselia are warned not to look at or hold their infants for fear they will want to keep them. But when Vogeley is handed her baby in the taxi back to Roselia, she can’t help but look at her daughter. “Those moments in the cab, less than the time it takes to brew a pot of coffee, were our entire lifetime together.”

As time passes and Vogeley begins to tell her story, she discovers the people in her life are accepting. Her sister shows compassion and love, and her next boyfriend, Jimmy, doesn’t seem to care. The couple are mismatched, but Vogeley’s urge to be married overwhelms her doubts. “Just the designation of ‘Mrs.’ before my name would give me status, announce that someone wanted me, and allow me the right to have a legitimate child,” she states.

Vogeley has two more girls, and she throws herself into being a wife, mother, and homemaker while working as a nurse. But she knows there is something missing in her life. She tells herself she cannot think of her first baby ever again, but the haunting guilt remains. As her children get older and begin separating from her, she feels increasingly alienated from her life, and after hitting a low point, she starts college classes and convinces Jimmy to go to counseling with her. He doesn’t engage, and they divorce.

Vogeley begins to build a new life, first achieving certification as an ostomy nurse, then a master’s degree in nursing. She meets her future husband, Charlie, through a dating service. With him, she finds real love and acceptance of her past, and when she realizes she exhibits symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, she begins counseling anew. The therapist suggests she look for her baby, a search that proves long and frustrating. As she moves from the solitude of shame to the loving acceptance of family, Vogeley’s account of the process and her examination of the changing laws on secret adoptions are enlightening.

Throughout I Need to Tell You, questions build: Will she have the baby, will she keep her? Will she look for her daughter, and will she find her? How will she leave the past behind and finally accept herself? While a happy ending isn’t guaranteed, this moving memoir makes all these questions resonate.

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Blaine for the Win

Robbie Couch
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers ($12.99)

by Nick Havey

For children of the 1990s, the 2001 movie Legally Blonde is a runaway favorite. It’s also a great model for a rom com, which YA author Robbie Couch knows—though, in his eyes, the plot could use a little reinvention for young LGBTQ readers. Following the success of his debut, 2021’s The Sky Blues, Couch’s second novel, Blaine for the Win, transports Elle Woods to Chicago, but in this world, she’s a gay teen boy named Blaine Bowers; while Elle followed her ex-boyfriend to Harvard Law, Blaine follows his into their high school election.

On the surface, Blaine seems to be thriving. He’s got a great boyfriend, he lives with his favorite aunt, his friends are stellar, and he’s got the best side hustle he could hope for: painting murals. That is, until his boyfriend—a golden child archetype who would be a nightmare to date in real life—dumps him on their anniversary; according to Joey, Blaine is not serious enough for him. Joey is going to be their future president, after all, and he needs a Jackie O on his arm, not a whimsical muralist who showed up to the fanciest restaurant in Chicago covered in paint specks from his latest project.

In a bid to win Joey back, Blaine decides to run for class president. He’s never participated in student government before, but that’s not going to stop him, and his friends are more than happy to help. His best friend Trish launches the campaign with an insightful listening tour, realizing that past student governments have been too focused on themselves and their positions to accomplish much. Blaine (meaning Trish) is going to change that with a brilliant plan to address mental health at their school, a topic in desperate need of attention.

Between Blaine, Trish, and the rest of their friend group, the underdog story becomes the heart of the novel. Blaine flames out after the debate—public speaking isn’t for everyone—but his campaign still has a shot, though when cunning fellow teens throw a wrench in his plans, it looks like the election might be lost after all. Just when Blaine is ready to throw in the towel, Couch does what he does best: writes lovable companion characters who turn everything around for the better.

Teenagers, including the protagonist of this novel, are selfish, fickle creatures. Blaine makes mistakes and does things that should imperil, if not completely cost him, his relationships—but he’s real. And real teenagers aren’t perfect, but when they’re written by Robbie Couch, they are compelling and relatable. As depictions of queer characters become increasingly nuanced in YA fiction, Blaine for the Win will garner readers’ votes.

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George Mackay Brown: An Appreciation

by Mike Dillon

A virtuoso with words, the prolific Scottish poet, novelist, short story writer, playwright, and essayist George Mackay Brown remains too little known in literary circles. “I have never seen his poetry sufficiently praised,” no less than Seamus Heaney opined. Heaney repeatedly extolled Brown’s work, claiming “since the beginning of his career he has added uniquely and steadfastly to the riches of poetry in English.”

Shadowed by tuberculosis most of his life and in his later years by cancer, Brown died in 1996 at age seventy-four. In 2021, to mark the centenary of his birth, Scottish publisher Polygon issued Carve the Runes: Selected Poems and Simple Fire: Collected Short Stories. The same year, Polygon also published a new edition of Brown’s classic 1969 treatise, An Orkney Tapestry.

A Roman Catholic convert, the intensely private, granite-jawed author with an impish smile was given to spells of depression. Especially in the early stages of his career, he took refuge in drink; ill health placed the lifelong bachelor on the government dole. Biographical speculation on Brown’s relationships with women is wrapped in a cloud of unknowing.

“I think the only perfect poem or piece of music is pure silence,” Brown said in a 1987 interview in Ron Ferguson’s George Mackay Brown: The Wound and the Gift, one of the few book-length critical works on the author. “The silence which follows a beautiful piece of music or poem is richer and more perfect—something towards which the music or poem aspires, but never quite achieves.”

Numerous honorary degrees and awards came his way, including the Order of the British Empire. When his 1994 novel, Beside the Ocean of Time, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, Brown fretted over the attendant publicity and gave no public readings. The final poem in the last book Brown published in his lifetime, Following a Lark, captures his stance:

A Work for Poets

To have carved on the days of our vanity
A sun
A star
A cornstalk

Also a few marks
From an ancient forgotten time
A child may read

That not far from the stone
A well
Might open for wayfarers

Here is a work for poets —
Carve the runes
Then be content with silence

The Orkney archipelago, with its roots in fishing and farming and Viking inheritance, lies off the north coast of Scotland. Brown grew up in the seaside town of Stromness on the biggest island, Orkney, otherwise named Mainland. Most of his life was spent there, except for stints in Edinburgh, where he studied under fellow Orcadian poet Edwin Muir at Newbattle Abbey College. Once in the big city, Brown became part of the circle of hard-drinking poets who frequented the Rose Street pubs—Hugh MacDiarmid, Norman MacCaig, and Iain Crichton Smith among them.

Brown did for the Orkneys what William Faulkner did for his fictional Yoknapatawpha County: he conjured a literary universe, often set in the past, from the daily life of ordinary people. The Orkneys bear a hard, elemental beauty from which this bard shaped a sacramental dimension, as in “The Death of Peter Esson: Tailor, Town Librarian, Free Kirk Elder,” an exquisite sonnet that begins:

Peter at some immortal cloth, it seemed,
Fashioned and stitched, for long had he sat
Heraldic on his bench. We never dreamed
It was his shroud he was busy at.

A Calendar of Love, Brown’s first book of short stories published in 1967, prompted a review in The Observer to note the author “really does possess the magician’s touch. . . . to lighten up the most humdrum detail of an ordinary life and transform it into something unforgettable.”

Brown’s first novel Greenvoe appeared in 1972 and won the Scottish Arts Council Prize. In this bittersweet comedy, an Orcadian island finds itself in the shadow of a sinister, mysterious military-industrial project called Operation Black Star, which leaves the precious patterns of island life suddenly vulnerable: “Afternoon was always the quietest time in the village. The fishermen were still at sea. The crofters had not yet unyoked. There was little sound in Greenvoe on a summer afternoon but the murmur of multiplication tables through the tall school window, and the drone of bluebottles among Mr. Joseph Evie’s confectionary, and the lapping of water against the pier.”

A year later came Brown’s most ambitious novel, Magnus, the story of a saint and martyr that stands at the center of the author’s entire output. As told in the Orkneyinga Saga, Magnus Erlendson vied with his cousin for the Earldom of Orkney. After years of civil war, the two met on the island of Egilsay for a peace conference, and to end the conflict, Magnus went willingly to his execution, a blood sacrifice echoing Christ’s. Brown’s telling adds a dash of magic realism when the 12th-century story of Magnus fast-forwards to the modern era and the martyrdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer at the hands of the Nazis. The time-shift reminds us that the old patterns come around again and again wearing new clothes (or uniforms).

Magnus features a striking meditation on Christ’s martyrdom: “That was the one and only central sacrifice of history. I am the bread of life. All previous rituals had been a foreshadowing of this; all subsequent rituals a re-enactment. The fires at the centre of the earth, the sun above, all divine essences and ecstasies, come to this silence at last — a circle of bread and a cup of wine on an altar.”

Brown’s posthumous Collected Poems appeared in 2005. A year later came Maggie Fergusson’s essential biography, George Mackay Brown: The Life. Along with Polygon’s centenary titles, these books offer readers access to a singular literary figure, one who railed from his remote outpost against Western culture’s post-World War II torrent towards standardization. There are critics who consider him a Luddite, but better to say Brown staked out his ground as bold counterpoint to the white noise that would snatch us away from the numinous. Brown set out to re-enchant the world, and at his best, he did. Let’s give him the final word:

Death, critics say, is a theme that nags through my work: the end, the darkness, the silence. So it must be with every serious artist, but still I think art strikes out in the end for life, quickening, joy. The good things that we enjoy under the sun have no meaning unless they are surrounded by the mysterious fecund sleep.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2023 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2023

Archival Woman: An Interview with Sarah Heady

by Greg Bem

Sarah Heady’s newest poetry book, Comfort (Spuyten Duyvil, $16), is a marvelous amalgamation of found material and poetic investigations of history and place. Heady’s work, as demonstrated in her previous collection Niagara Transnational (Fourteen Hills, 2013), often finds embodiment beyond the self, using poetry as a conduit for collective voice, cohesive culture, and critical inquiries of the world around us. In Comfort, the poet turns her gaze toward an important resource for women a century ago, a late-19th to mid-20th-century magazine of the same title. But the book is far greater than an archival gathering of texts; Comfort strives towards a deeper love for archives and a deeper commitment to cultivating and maintaining beauty through timeless expression. In this new book, Heady steps forward with a new and refreshing history of American women and the world surrounding them, and the result illuminates not only the past, but our own tremulous moment.

Greg Bem: Let’s start with the title, Comfort. As you’ve outlined in an afterword, the magazine of this title catered to “rural housewives” and served multiple purposes, from marketing snake oil to responding to the isolation of women throughout the U.S. How did you discover the magazine, and what was its role in crafting this collection?

Sarah Heady: Thanks, Greg—I’d love to tell the story of how Comfort came to be. During the summer of 2013, I spent a month at a residency in Nebraska called Art Farm. Ed Dadey, the residency director, was born in the farmhouse on the property, and he mentioned to me that the attic was full of decades-old newspapers and stuff, and that I was welcome to paw through it if I wanted. So one day I crawled up into that sweltering attic, and there I found a pile of musty, crumbling periodicals called Comfort. It seemed to be akin to Ladies’ Home Journal—a very gendered and “fluffy” kind of publication, but one that nonetheless gripped me because of its age. The issues that were salvageable I brought downstairs and started reading and photographing, so that I could continue to study them without further damaging them. I didn’t do this in an exhaustive or systematic way, just tried to capture the pages and pieces that were most evocative to me. 

A few months later, I began examining those photographs and working with the found language I had captured. The source material took many forms: advertisements, advice columns, serialized fiction, sentimental poetry, recipes, and tips on housekeeping, farming, gardening, etc. I would let my eye wander over the text and pull out fragments of bright or evocative language, and with them I would weave these dense, imagistic prose poems. Eventually I sought out other primary and secondary sources, mostly about the settlement of the American prairie, and bits of found language from those also ended up getting woven in.

I should say that about half of Comfort is composed of non-found-language poems—some of which I had written even before going to Art Farm but which came to feel like they belonged in the project because of their rural setting and their circling around questions of partnership, domesticity, and solitude.

GB: Can you talk a little bit about moving from the exploratory phase to intentionally creating a book? When did you know this work was going to become a book-length project—or was it certain from the beginning?

SH: Not at all! It took several years. The oldest material in the book is from 2010 and the newest from 2015, and it was not clear for much of that time that I was writing a single book. 

I definitely want to mention that I created Comfort within the bounds of my MFA program at San Francisco State University. Every stage of the project’s generation and discovery and refinement was supported by the courses I was taking, my teachers and classmates, and what I was reading. The first set of poems that became the kernel of Comfort was a project for an amazing course taught by Donna de la Perrière called “Mad Girls, Bad Girls: Writing Transgressive Female Subjectivity.” That was in my very first semester of grad school, and they eventually turned into a chapbook called Corduroy Road. A few of the pieces in that chapbook were written prior to starting the program, but grouping those poems for Donna’s class was the first time I had a sense of a project I wanted to keep writing into.

The summer following my second semester was when I went to Art Farm. So then I had all the Comfort magazine material in addition to this first set of poems, which started to feel related to the found text experiments I was doing not only with the magazine stuff but with other primary and secondary sources about the Midwest prairie. I continued to scope the project, as it were, figuring out what belonged inside the frame and what didn’t. In Barbara Tomash’s transformative workshop “Imagining the Book,” I gave myself the prompt to create a kind of abecedary in which I listed, for each letter of the alphabet, all the nouns that came to mind for the world of Comfort. This compendium of both sensory elements and abstract concepts became almost like a film or TV show “bible,” a guiding outline for the book—if such a thing could exist for fragmentary, nonlinear, non-narrative poetry.

After a time, when I had a sense of this world, I used every grad school assignment to write into Comfort as I was conceiving it—whether doing experiments with the found language I’d brought home from Art Farm or refining the non-found pieces. Truong Tran’s class on the prose poem was especially important for refining the form of the found text poems. I’d like to think my work itself is concise and concentrated, but I’m a maximalist in my process—I overgenerate and then go through many, many rounds of culling to end up with the final product. At its longest and muddiest point, Comfort was a 400-page compendium of fragments that I sliced and diced and reordered and shaped with the help of many readers, until it ended up as a normal 86-page book. I consider it a book-length poem rather than a collection. And it turned out to be my MFA thesis. 

I don’t say all this to imply, by any means, that an MFA is necessary to write a book, but I always appreciate when artists are clear and forthcoming about the material and social and intellectual conditions surrounding their process.

GB: Visually, Comfort has a rhythm to it; there is a wide range of the poems’ shapes and sizes. Formally, the text rotates between hefty blocks of prose and chiseled, scattered verse. The prose often centers on long lists—not exclusively lists of images or objects, but also states of being, relationships, observations, and consequences. The lineated verse, in juxtaposition, feels more personal, more human, composed of specific voices. Whose voices can be heard in Comfort? Should we be listening to, or for, someone in particular?

SH: It’s true that there are a few different registers of voice in the book, which tend to correspond to shifts in form. The prose blocks are where most of the found language lives, and because of the multiplicity of sources I used, they have a listing quality that is meant to imply a sea of individual voices/experiences/perspectives/moments that have been collapsed or coagulated or sedimented so that they become anonymous and collective. Most of the prose blocks are also literally missing a subject (e.g., “is running a small piece of sand soap through the grinder. is dipping brooms in hot suds. is tying a cord around a glass stopper.” I borrowed this specific form from Pattie McCarthy’s Marybones, although in her book the word “Mary” precedes each prose block and therefore attaches to the following barrage of predicates. “Mary” contains multitudes of characters held by that name and explored in the book: the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, Mary Tudor, Mary Shelley, Mary, Queen of Scots, and millions of regular, non-famous women named Mary who have lived throughout time. In Comfort, the missing subject is meant to suggest even further the anonymity of women in the historical record. C.D. Wright’s technique of collaging documentary fragments, as exemplified by her books One Big Self and One With Others, was another big influence on Comfort as well as on Halcyon, the libretto I wrote about the history of a defunct women’s college.

The lineated verse in Comfort, as you note, has a more personal or singular tone and usually is written in the first person, though I can’t say there is a particular individual I had in mind—perhaps one voice rising out of the sea of collapsed prose voices, and yet still just another farm wife we don’t know a whole lot about. The only “character” per se in the book is someone I call the Seer, a sort of mystical figure based on a historical woman named Susan Gavan, known as the “Aurora Witch” to ghost-hunter-types. She was not a witch, just a woman who died young and inspired rumors much after the fact because her grave is isolated from the rest of the dead in the cemetery in Aurora, Nebraska. But in Comfort, the Seer is indeed a wild and powerful woman who sort of pulls the farm wives away from domesticity, into a more feral state of self-knowledge. And her voice comes through—mysteriously—at various points throughout the book. 

GB: The balance of the Seer reminds me of the role of the poet more largely in our world. As poet, as writer, where has the book of Comfort ultimately taken you, and what can your readers look forward to?

SH: Comfort contains a lot of the existential concerns and questions I had in my late twenties: should I “settle” into marriage and child-rearing, could I do those things without losing myself in the process, how might I manage all the piles of tasks associated with adulthood and not harm myself in the process? I didn’t consciously connect these themes to my real life at the time, but now I certainly do. I can see how, in delving into the found language of Comfort magazine, I was processing questions of domesticity and partnership as well as my own emotional relationship to labor, which is that I am a workaholic/overdoer by nature. 

Well, now I’m (happily!) married and the mom of a toddler, in spite of which I’m much healthier than I was a decade ago with regard to chronic busyness. My work now is to slow down and do less and be fundamentally okay with that. So I really feel like writing Comfort was part of a spiritual movement toward repairing some personal wounds, even though it’s a pretty impersonal book in a lot of ways.

As for what’s next—over the past several years I’ve turned my creative attention homeward, to the place I am from: the Hudson River Valley of New York State. I have a poetry manuscript in progress called “The Hudson Lines,” which documents many years of writing and riding alongside the Hudson River on the Metro-North Railroad. I’m also writing a book of linked essays about landscape and class in the Hudson Valley, which includes topics such as property, wealth, New York City, the river, poverty, accumulation, ruin, scarcity, archives, addiction, apples, beavers, September 11th, Dirty Dancing, whiteness, hoarding, mansions, bungalow colonies, young love, climate crisis, and, actually, the Pacific Ocean.

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Water Has Many Colors

Kiriti Sengupta
Illustrated by Rochishnu Sanyal

Hawakal Publishers

by Malashri Lal

Water, that formless, colorless, life-sustaining essence that pervades our being—how does one inscribe it in poetry? In his new collection, Kiriti Sengupta answers in a series of meditations that flow with an enchanting fluidity. The poems dwell on eternal themes such as home, belonging, relationships, and community, but these appear in ephemeral light as though transcending the ordinary and enticing the reader to follow paths of self-discovery.  

Reading Water Has Many Colors, I was reminded of these evocative lines in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick: “Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure.” Here too, the surface calm of controlled structures rests over a subliminal, surging angst, enlivening a crisp duality in which emotions and experiences are transformative, yet the speaker yearns for more change.

This tenuous hold of troubling dualities appears in various ways under Sengupta’s scrutiny. Understandably, the notion of home is questioned: “Dwelling is a slingshot: more it / draws me in, further I fling it way.” While this suggests a perennial odyssey of sorts, Sengupta offers domestic details with roots in cultural practice: “Ma’s healing touch” and a “tiepin from a fiancée” defy the resolution to unhouse oneself from tethers. Who will pay the cost of losing a sense of belonging? Embedded in these poems are complex discourses on location and dislocation, diaspora and homeland, partitions and fragmentations.  These mega-events are condensed into haunting lines on memory and forgetting. The brief poem “Ma” is stark—“In the kitchen / her bangles / play a carillon”—yet the sound of that music will echo in the parallel memories of readers.

Sometimes memory travels to a collective space, such as the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919—a space marked by bullet holes on a brick wall and the darkness of a well that engulfed hapless women. Revisiting this traumatic event, Sengupta pins his sight on the incongruous item left by a tourist in “The Bottle,” a pensive commentary on a tragic past now pigeonholed into history. The poems “Hibiscus” and “Nostalgia invoke, respectively, the Marxist writer Sukanta Bhattacharya and the educationist Samantak Das, but here, too, disjunctions creep in that elevate historical observation into a poetry of elegiac force. 

Mythology also gets examined in the pages of Water Has Many Colors, as in the poem “When a Woman Conquers God,” a riff on the Bengali Manasamangal Kavya. In the original story, Manasa, the snake goddess, is both challenged and propitiated by Behula, who wants her dead husband revived after the goddess has destroyed him. Behula succeeds and is upheld as the epitome of wifely devotion, whereas Manasa remains a deity to be feared and propitiated with “the left hand.” Sengupta places this story in the realm of alternative power structures, contrasting ideas of divinity and hierarchies, thereby couching the legend in modern political discourse. Sengupta’s poem “Urvashi” similarly recasts the image of a siren (apsara) figure; Tagore also wrote a lyrical poem about Urvashi, yet in presenting female desire, the famed Nobel Laureate looked towards the domestic ideal, whereas Sengupta’s Behula and Urvashi challenge this, bringing his poems closer to the contemporary idiom of feminist choice. 

From myth to the cinema is not such a long journey, especially when one reads about the film diva Rekha and her makeover from the simple “Bhanurekha”; the poet seems quite spellbound in describing her “mystique” and “luminescence.” The actor, director, and talk show host Simi Grewal, clad in white, is another aspect of Bollywood glamour Sengupta engages; it’s a tale of light, image, sound, and “cut” that poetry can mimic in words.  

From epics and movies to succinct one-liners, Sengupta suits his poetic form to the subject, just as the folk idiom reminds us that water takes shape from the container in which it is held. The series “Bucolic Bengal” picks out contrasts in nature while hinting that the pastoral idyll is merely spectral; lines such as “kites are born of chimeras” and “mien limns the reality” deliberately pitch elusive, expandable images, stretching the reader’s imagination. On the other hand, the series “Monostich” uses the terse one-line stanza to invoke an inwardness. For example: “What if I am mute or loud?” This poem, “Prayer,” gestures towards multiple meanings; the line may suggest the silent intimacy of grace, but could also allude to mass religiosity.

Water Has Many Colors leaves the reader dazzled by the variety of styles and subjects, an effect reinforced by the captivating art of Rochishnu Sanyal. No line is out of place in the poems or the drawings, and an amazing synergy joins each pairing. The book captures the frenzied pace of modernity yet urges a philosophic acceptance through the enduring image of water. Chronology rolls into timelessness, fragments blend into periodic wholeness, and images float like waves washing up on the shores. This is a celebration of life’s plenitude.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2023 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2023

How to Communicate

John Lee Clark
W. W. Norton & Company ($29.95)

by Stephanie Burt                          

If you’re a poet—and if you work hard and make attentive, patient discoveries—you can expand the range of what a poem can do by finding new forms, new sets of moves that your language can make. If you’ve had unusual experience—lived an unusual, lucky, or difficult life, say—you can expand the range of what a poem can show and say by building that experience into your poems. If there’s a group of people like you whose experience isn’t represented in poems—or if it’s not represented often, or particularly well—you can do important political work by representing it. And if you’ve got access to an unusual conjunction of languages, ways to use words and to make yourself understood—say, Thai and Croatian, or Spanish, Catalan, and Cantonese, or the special talk of the Parisian underworld—you might be able to expand the range of what poems can do by translating, adapting, or making truly new work in a target language using what you learned from your source.

John Lee Clark is all four kinds of poet at once. This first book of Clark’s own poems (he edited the anthology Deaf American Poetry, published by Gallaudet University Press in 2009) does not just reflect (whatever that means) his experience as a DeafBlind creator, moving in Deaf and DeafBlind cultures as well as in other literary circles. It also shows new forms, new ways to use English, as in Clark’s slateku, dependent on puns generated by the two-sided slate used in pre-electronic Braille. Clark’s work imports into English new kinds of intimacy, sarcasm, and communal defense, from American Sign Language and from the less common language Protactile, used (as the name implies) by DeafBlind people who communicate via touch.

These kinds of translation reflect Clark’s life in between languages. He considers how to frame his tactile, translated, uncommonly embodied and uncommonly mediated day-to-day so that people like me (nondisabled, non-Deaf) can dive in.  And I want to dive in. He’s writing at once for people like me and to bolster like-minded figures, and he’s funny, angry, inviting, tender, genuine: “I have been filmed and photographed for free,” he writes in a prose poem with pointers to John Clare. “It costs so much to smile…. I would that I were a dragonfly curled up between your finger and your thumb.”

That’s a Clark original. Here’s a sample translation, from the Protactile of Oscar Chacon: “At the base of your forearm, the lumberjack is surprised. Still standing! What’s going on? Rubbing chin.” And here are lines sliced from an elegy in monostichs for the DeafBlind creator Nicholas Saunderson (1682-1739): “He made a calculating machine with strings and pins and called it Palpable Arithmetic…. Go on feel what it says.” This caustically titled volume also covers the near-dissolution of a marriage, Clark’s life as a son and a father, and his early education—it’s got range. It’s got centuries of history. It’s got portraits, too: the teacher “Mrs. Schultz,” for example, who tried and failed to understand “the Clark boy,” and “The Politician,” whose signed faux pas puts John F. Kennedy’s famous jelly-doughnut remark in the shade (I won’t spoil the joke: read the book).

Is it okay to say, of a DeafBlind writer, that his work sounds like nothing else? Because, to this hearing reader, it’s true. Clark hasn’t just put his life into verse and prose poems; he’s felt and manipulated and explored and expanded what poetry in English—in print, to the ear, on the fingertip—can do. He’s got puns, euphonies, wordplays, cleverly arranged syllabics, as in those slateku: “Hollywood / Smoothly wraps / Hollywood / Soothingly warps.” And he’s also funny, sometimes exhausted, and more often exasperated in a way that you might recognize if anyone has ever called you “brave” for attempting to live your daily life: “Let go of my arm. I will not wait / until I’m the last person on the plane.” Or: “Can’t I pick my nose / without it being a miracle?”

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Because I Loved You

Donnaldson Brown
She Writes Press ($18.95)

by Eleanor J. Bader               

Conventional romantic plots constantly tell us that love is the only thing we need to be happy and secure, but reality rarely measures up to that promise. This painful truth is central to Donnaldson Brown’s emotionally resonant first novel, Because I Loved You.

The story opens in Tyler, Texas at the beginning of the 1970s. Leni O’Hare is sixteen when she rescues seventeen-year-old Caleb McGrath’s injured horse, and in short order, the two become inseparable. Both have big dreams: Leni hopes to pursue an art career, and Caleb hopes to study physics at an Ivy League college. But almost from the start, there are conflicts and obstacles, with ever-present reminders of death and war hovering over their union.

For Caleb, there’s a palpable fear of being drafted to fight in Vietnam, something that is hammered home whenever he interacts with his volatile, just-returned older brother. For Leni, raised by a French mom who lost most of her relatives during World War II, the family mantra has always been: “Life is loss. . . . And you go on.” This once-abstract concept becomes real for Leni when her older brother dies while playing football, a sudden tragedy that threatens to upend the O’Hare family’s already-tenuous bonds.    

It also mars Leni and Caleb’s romance. In fact, as they cling to one another, lies, secrets, and silences cast a menacing shadow over their relationship. Several months later, when Leni leaves Tyler without telling anyone where she is going or why, Caleb is left to unravel the mystery of her disappearance. 

Caleb ends up attending Princeton University, but rather than study physics, he is seduced by the world of finance and eventually joins a successful real estate firm in New York City. Fast forward to 1984: Caleb and his fiancée have been invited to a Manhattan art opening where, unbeknownst to Caleb, Leni is exhibiting. Suffice it to say that theirs is a bittersweet reunion. 

The unfolding interpersonal drama takes unpredictable turns, and Brown offers no easy resolutions. Instead, Because I Loved You presents an adult assessment of the limits of love alongside a potent acknowledgment of the power of shared history. The result is an unusual mix of a sweeping, decades-spanning saga and an intimate glimpse into the ways two people sustain platonic love when romantic love becomes untenable.

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The Last Days of Terranova

Manuel Rivas
Translated by Jacob Rogers
Archipelago Books ($20)

by John Kazanjian                 

Manuel Rivas’s The Last Days of Terranova opens with Vicenzo Fontana watching a couple collect barnacles from a wall by the sea. Fontana considers the three of them to be bonded by this shared moment. However, he is a voyeur, removed from them; he admits that he is “witnessing something he shouldn’t, from a place he shouldn’t be.” With this, he states the novel’s thematic foundation: that the yearning to connect with other people can result in unforeseen consequences. In this scene, the man scraping barnacles disappears; Fontana calls for help and later learns the man is wanted by authorities. By inserting himself in the lives of the couple, Fontana has only provided them with trouble. Yet, despite the high stakes involved in becoming intertwined with other people, Fontana continually finds meaning by enriching his own tale with those of others.

Fontana has possessed a life-long curiosity about other people—he sees them as containers of stories. As Fontana narrates, he shares an anthology of experiences he has collected from each person that moves him. The novel shifts between Fontana’s life as he comes of age in and out of his family’s bookstore, and the rich cast of characters that have connected with the shop throughout the decades. The recently doomed bookstore, called Terranova, was founded by his father Amato four years before the beginning of Franco’s regime, and has served as a stage for diverse tales of the human condition. Some of these tales were set on paper, smuggled into the country, and delivered to Terranova. Other stories are less accessible, their full truths hidden in the minds of people who enter the shop.

The most compelling storylines feature Amato, an archaeologist, writer, and celebrated thinker whose mysterious background grows more poignant as the relationship between father and son breaks down, and Fontana’s uncle, Eliseo, who tells fantastic tales that form the backbone of the family’s mythos and cause dissonance in the novel as the line between fiction and reality becomes clearer. Fontana’s own experiences—from his time in an Iron Lung, through his stint in a metal band, to his meeting Garúa, an Argentinian fugitive whose story combines hope, loneliness, and tragedy—provide context for the other characters. Garúa finds sanctuary in Terranova as she is pursued by Argentine Anti-Communist Alliance agents, and Fontana’s evolving relationship with her is a rich aspect of the book, allowing Rivas to explore emotional complexity and resilience:

Garúa looks at the photo. It’s almost impossible not to smile when you look at this picture. It’s that spark. You’d have to put up a somber resistance not to fall under its spell. And she falls, she’s with them. Smiling on the inside.

The Last Days of Terranova is like a bookstore: One is pleasantly overwhelmed by the many rich stories that sit near one another. Each chapter begins in a different era of Fontana’s life, blurring the lines between his ordinary world and the realms in which he gains self-knowledge through his interactions with others. Jacob Rogers’s translation presents a strong narrative voice that serves as the uniting element between sections, moving us through Fontana’s earlier life with the same gravitas as more recent storylines. The text contains nuances of language and tone that communicate Fontana’s vulnerability to nostalgia and his tendency to frame events in ways that both torture and soothe him.

Although this narrative voice moves smoothly throughout the book, eventually employing a dramatic tone shift to propel readers into the novel’s plot-driven conclusion, it is frustrating that we are allowed very few moments of deeper access into the lives of Fontana’s loved ones; there are times when it feels the book would benefit from taking the focus off Fontana and delving further into the stories of the other characters more significantly. Ultimately, however, the author’s restraint is strategic: Rivas leaves it up to readers to fill in the full emotional scope of the novel through the lens of Fontana’s nostalgia. The process of doing so reminds us that though we bear witness to many characters’ stories, the narrative mosaic that Rivas has crafted belongs to one person alone. It’s a poignant achievement that Fontana’s story feels connected to our own after our time with him is finished.

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