Tag Archives: summer 2000

BLUES FOR UNEMPLOYED SECRET POLICE

Blues for Unemployed Secret Police by Doug AndersonDoug Anderson
Curbstone ($12.95)

by John Bradley

"Love won't behave," opens the first poem in this book. And that sets the mood for all that is to follow. Here is a book of poems that "won't behave."

At a time when publishers and poets seem to prefer poems that are so well behaved that they lead to terminal boredom, it's a pleasure to read these "ill-behaved" poems. Take the closing of "Blues" for example: "Come on over here and love me. / I used to say that drunk. / Now I'm stark raving sober / and I say, Come on over here and love me." Rather than take the safe route and simply condemn his previous behavior, this poet transforms his own drunken words, finding beauty in this passionate human plea.

For some, passion may imply a lack of craft or a lack of range. Neither is true with Blues for Unemployed Secret Police. Anderson's best poems evince a "craftiness," especially when he employs humor. This can be found in "Town Meeting," my favorite poem in the book. We hear the voices of citizens concerned with the homeless. The citizens show concern, however, not with the deprivations of the homeless, but rather with their lack of social etiquette. Multiple acts of copulation and defecation are cited. As the meeting winds down, the various charges comes to this: "one copulation, one defecation, / and then someone else said, / you don't have to be homeless to do that."

Or take "Crows," a Neruda-like ode that praises this often despised neighbor of ours. Anderson allows the crow his day in court: "Your Honor, I didn't / kill him, / just ate him and I wasn't impressed." Once again, sly humor teases us out of our usual perspective.

It's only when, in the title poem for example, or in "Blues for Unemployed Mercenaries," Anderson's anger can lead to a heavy-handedness. But then writing about a South African sniper who uses a bullet made of ice (it melted in the victim's heart, leaving no forensic evidence), will trigger anger. In these two persona poems, the anger unfortunately reduces the voices at times to caricature. Despite such occasional faltering, Anderson still deserves credit for tackling topics that remain off limits not only for most poetry, but even our news coverage.

Blues for Unemployed Secret Police demonstrates a fearless poet, one who is unafraid of surveying the world around him or his own heart. He speaks with emotion, with honesty, with compassion. Anderson's poetry will leave you, as he states in the closing of "Return, Winter 1994," "one among many." What more could you ask of the blues?

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000

THE CRADLE OF THE REAL LIFE

The Cradle of the Real Life by Jean ValentineJean Valentine
Wesleyan University Press ($12.95)

by Craig Arnold

The Cradle of the Real Life is Jean Valentine's eighth collection of poems, the latest offering in a thirty-five year spread, and a fine overture to Valentine's chemical wedding of old-school feminism and new-school poetics. Although she has received less attention than her more outspoken peer Adrienne Rich, Valentine feels as acutely the bounds of the oppressor's language, and the imperative for women to write their own apprehensions of their own histories. Her method is less immediately engaging—it's edgy, given to leaps and bounds, not as likely to preach to the choir. Rather than try to talk herself out of the given language's constraints, Valentine chooses a shortness, of both reach and tone, as if telling too much would be an affront or a betrayal. Some poems are so pared-down as to make paraphrase laughable. "In the Public Library," for example,

a woman is reading a factory story
several people listening
she gets to the fire
the noise to the locked doors the death room
The librarian says she has to stop
it's time for him to close. He closes.

Against the librarian closing up, against the circumlocutions of husbands and sons, doctors and therapists, even her fellow poets, Valentine raises her own sharp voice, "the women talking / in the split-open room / under the room of what we say." Her clipped lyrics are gnomic, as ingenuous as the best riddles: "No one's a house / for me anymore / or me for them," she writes in "Home." Many are dreamlike, even nightmarish: white wolves scaring the complicit townspeople into "bread and butter sleep"; the Labrador who steps into a trap and "won't chew his foot off"; Margaret, "dressed like a bag lady," with a "miner's lamp" of maggots burrowing in her dead forehead. Valentine's mad marriages of occasion and image recall Emily Dickinson's; her line breaks feel honest rather than mannered, sidestepping syntax with a grim grace that many theory-obsessed Language poets can only fantasize about. What her poems hint at, the answer to their riddles, is unsayable because it is not made of language—a gentle tug at what Valentine names the "poem without words," and prefers to express in as few words as possible.

There are passages in The Cradle of the Real Life, though, where Valentine forgoes the surreal for the simply realistic. Berating an Irish poet for ignoring the women who have suffered to make his poems, she writes:

But I want those women's lives
rage constraints
the poems they burned
in their chimney-throats
The History
of the World Without Words
more than your silver or your gold art.

What makes this so wild are the "chimney-throats," the domestic home fires silencing themselves in a single surreal stroke. Still, I can't help feeling that subject matter is hogging the spotlight here—which is perhaps the point, that the poet wants the raw stuff rather than some artistic prettifying of it. Perhaps, as some historians think, we're always fighting the last war. But the "real life" cradled here—alcoholism, depression, suicide, abuse, broken marriage, abortion—seems to equate the real with the sordid. If this is all that's real, I'm ready at least to consider the silver or the gold art, as I suspect the poet herself does, in her own gorgeously terse and singing.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000

ARCANI

Arcani by Jack HirschmanJack Hirschman
Multimedia Edizioni

by Sarah Fox

Jack Hirschman's Arcani catalogs, like a Book of Shadows, the various significant mysteries and losses collected in a life. Published in Italy, and translated into Italian by Anna Lombardo, Mariella Setzu and Rafaella Marzano, it's a lovely book to hold—as most books produced in Italy tend to be—absent of blurbs or any text whatever on its covers other than the title of the book and the author's name. It's not surprising that Hirschman would have such an edition published originally in Italy. He has translated many Italian poets into English, including Ferruccio Brugnaro—whose Fist of Sun, published in 1998, seems especially well-suited to Hirschman's own political and social leanings. Since 1973, Hirschman has lived in San Francisco's North Beach, where he's created The Union of Left Writers, and founded the revolutionary poetry journal Compages. Noted in the author's bio on the book's back flap is also the fact that Hirschman is a member of the Communist Labor Party. However, Arcani is not merely a platform for Hirschman's political urgencies. Among the books finest poems are rambling and intimate elegies, beginning with "The David Arcane" for the author's son who died of leukemia at the age of 25. Peppered with Greek epigraphs apparently the author's own, and vaguely translated in the text of the poem, Hirschman reckons with the terrible fact of his son's non-existence by imagining a finer "life after death"—"light / of this afterlife; / this riff whose bones are tears / and whose spirit still soars." The poem speaks to both author and son, as well as reader, when it says "Please, don't be afraid / if you are / a blade of grass / or a wave / or a tree. / I will sit beside you. / It is the way it is, / the way we be."

Influenced by jazz (his son was a jazz musician) and the spontaneous prosody of the Beats, a typical poem goes several pages, its foundation the apparent intimacy between author and reader as well as author and subject. Other tribute poems include "The Bob Kaufman Arcane," "The Shupsl Arcane" (an elegy for Hirschman's father, "Shabtai Shupsl Stephen Dannemark Yitzhak Hirschman Katzenelson," who spends his last days at "Dr. Drug Hospital, / Concentration Camp, / Guinea-Pig World / Mengele Himmler Hitler. . . two million men six million men women / and children / is One."); "The Pasolini Arcane" and "The Allen Arcane" for the poet Allen Ginsberg ("I stutter against your going, / a masterpiece of what was / necessary for our time. . . ")

Throughout, the book is haunted by the hound of death which it battles with jazz riffs of language, tough memory, and a liberating vernacular. And if nothing else, it's a novel experience to read an American poet's verse published first as an Italian volume, with the English on the left side—an effect that Hirschman surely couldn't help but appreciate.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000

POEMS: The Weight of Oranges; Miner's Pond; Skin Divers

Poems by Anne MichaelsAnne Michaels
Knopf ($25)

by Fionn Meade

Whether slipping under the sheets as a late lover to the great Italian modernist painter Amadeo Modigliani or donning the seventeenth-century scientific cloak of the revolutionary mathematician Johannes Kepler, Canadian poet Anne Michaels offers a series of persona poems that ruminate and seduce with an erudite yet sexy seriousness. Michaels landed squarely on the literary map with her highly-acclaimed first novel Fugitive Pieces, and it is undoubtedly her success as a novelist that has afforded this troika of companion books, previously published separately by smaller Canadian presses, the unusual opportunity of appearing together in one volume their first time stateside. When read together as the author intended, these poems reveal, much like the work of her compatriot and supporter, Michael Ondaatje, an apprenticeship in the attentions of poetry that serves to both illuminate and extend her more well-known prose.

Offset by ephemeral lyrics about family, lovers, and geography, it is Michaels's repeated visitations to the lives of artists, scientists, and thinkers that most vividly enwrap the reader in her world. Both furtive and essayistic, Michaels deftly re-creates the historic moment of an idea as if it were her own. In her portrait of the embattled Kepler, for instance, Michaels delivers not so much an authentic 'voice from the past' as the impassioned voice of the awe-inspired:

For twenty-two years I looked for ratios—
in sizes of the planets, in solar distances
and lengths of orbits—until God whispered:
measure not from the earth but from the sun.
And the heavens opened.

Just as Fugitive Pieces so successfully undertook the harrowing and cinematic journey of a Holocaust survivor from the abnegation of a childhood hiding alone in the forests of Poland to his ultimate affirmation as a mature artist unafraid to excavate the past and thereby emerge fully into the new world Toronto in which he finds himself, so Michaels here fearlessly inhabits stories of political exile, disappearance and extreme loss. Though not hers, these stories come to life within a stunning array of images and voices sewn together by conciseness, accuracy, and empathy; animating Michaels's love affair with history is a world of close research caught in a web of luminous moments.

In "What the Light Teaches" which eulogizes the great Russian poets Anna Ahkmatova, Marina Tsvaetaeva and Osip Mandelstam, whose hardships under Stalinism extended from decades of censorship in the case of Ahkmatova to Mandelstam's imprisonment, torture and eventual death in a labor camp, Michaels seamlessly drops the reader into a scene from their time, closing in like a moving camera, arresting the reader's attention with that of the observer's and hence the lost poet's:

There are voices we hear
but can't hear, like the silence
of parents rounded up in a town square,
who stopped their tongues in time,
saving children by not calling out to them in the street.

Hearing these voices 'we hear but can't hear' is a gift that imbues all of Michaels's work, whether it be the imagined musings of Antarctic explorer Robert Scott's widow after his tragic journey south to the Pole, or the grief spilled over into the notebooks of French scientist Marie Curie upon her husband's sudden death in a Paris street accident.

Divining her way from the solid ground of research into the emotional experience of history, Michaels allows the reader to breathe from inside the past, to traipse through the streets on the arm of 'Modi' (Modigliani) the man rather than the posthumous genius, when he still traded canvases for cheese and eggs—"royalty in trousers held up with rope." Poems contrives sleight-of-hand imagery within an essay's denouement to form a series of passionate love poems, 'love' being in Michaels's world "always a form of time travel." And so the reader falls repeatedly in love—the poet a sort of procuring hostess—with the infinite firmament, the shoes– of a painter, the bend of Rilke's elbow at his desk, the closeness of a river to the housethe small lessons of beauty to be rescued from history.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000

LOVE AND SCORN: New and Selected Poems

Love and Scorn by Carol FrostCarol Frost
TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press ($16.95)

by Jeffrey Shotts

Carol Frost has long been one of the most interesting poets writing, and her latest book, Love and Scorn: New and Selected Poems, allows for a substantial look at her remarkable development. Over the course of seven books, Frost reaches higher and higher to the forbidden apples, follows closer and closer behind the elusive deer--all in the mythic gardens and orchards she has created and recreated. Yet although the poems often approach such Edenic lushness and lyric heights, Frost's conflicts with the divine, with the body, and with poetic convention interrupt any delusions of attaining untainted joy or complete peace. Rather, Frost's brilliance is in her ability to capture moments that strain toward soaring song or deep despair, but that nevertheless linger at the thresholds of the breaking point.

Love and Scorn opens with twenty new poems that show Frost at her most stylistically developed. With surprising formal and syntactical shifts, Frost examines paradise made imperfect by change, sickness, lust, and death, and asks, as in the lyrically fluid "Flaw," "Can the flawed heart fill?" A sort of probing guilt seeps into Frost's genuine wonder and longing for the natural world as the poems continually question desire in its wish to be something outside of the merely human. These questions are often veiled within an array of symbols: the apple, the garden, the seasons, and the deer. The remarkable poem "Songs for Two Seasons" opens:

The body has two seasons
and doesn't exist to be changed;
it itself changes—as a clearing
fills with moths, then into it steps the hunted deer.
Who knows from the outside
where death grows?

Along with the development of these symbols —for death, knowledge, Edenic impossibility—Frost has broadened her stylistic features into longer lines, a more fragmented syntax, and an intriguing use of punctuation to suggest breath and announce thematic shifts. This is especially notable in Love and Scorn's central section of thirty-five "Abstractions." With eleven-line regularity, these poems reflect on subjects such as joy, envy, self, the past, sexual jealousy, art, and scorn—abstract terms that most workshops instruct poets to avoid. In Frost's hands, however, these "Abstractions" relate a range of emotions and concepts with vivid metaphor and complexity. Frost suggests in every poem that no feeling or thought exists outside other feelings and thoughts—if there is love, there is scorn:

When at last they knew everything without confiding—
fears, stinks,
boiling hearts--they gave up themselves a little so that they might
both love and scorn
each other, and they ate from each other's hands.

The last section of Love and Scorn contains a substantial selection of some of Frost's best work previously published in seven volumes. It is disappointing that this selection has been ordered alphabetically rather than chronologically, because the tracing of Frost's artistic path is obscured and the selection can seem therefore uneven. But these poems together still suggest her progression into a more ambitious lyricist. Frost has always been a poet unafraid to shift her entire framework into new and intriguing directions, though she does not repudiate her previous work but instead builds upon it. In the last poem in Love and Scorn, "Winter without Snow," Frost again creates a world seemingly stagnant but finally brimming toward some possibility:

Nothing could make it snow.
Not the burst water pipes, the leggings,
the sleds, or the white horses.
Not the smoky fountains, the clouds.
They were souvenirs of winter without snow,
as was my wish for a white field
like a fresh beginning.

Love and Scorn is truly an essential New and Selected Poems, and one of the finest collections likely to be published this year. In it, Carol Frost continues to surprise and amaze, and leaves her readers wondering what "fresh beginning" lies ahead.

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000

TOTTERING STATE

Tottering State by Tom RaworthTom Raworth
O Books ($15)

by John Olson

Several days ago I happened to tell a friend something I rarely tell anyone, because it's so hard to justify: if there is a work I really enjoy, I will frequently own more than one copy. I have, for instance, three separate publications of Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons. Furthermore (and I swear this is true) each one reads differently. Each has a different feel. The paper, the print, the binding, the cover design, it all makes a significant difference to my reading experience. Likewise Tom Raworth: I now own two copies of Tottering State. The first was published in 1984 by Geoffrey Young's The Figures. The second, just published, is from Leslie Scalapino's O Books. Both editions present work dating from 1963 and retain 1984 as a cut-off date. Raworth notes that a third, British edition, issued in 1988 by Paladin Books, includes poems written after 1984.

This most recent O Books edition of Tottering State is slightly larger in size than The Figures edition and a few of the poems have been changed. So far as I can tell, the typography of the two books is identical. A few earlier poems have been added to the O Books edition ("The Others," "Morning," "Three," "The Dublin Zurich Express," "Orrery," "Lemures," "Dear Sir, Flying Saucers! Flying Saucers! Flying Saucers!," "Blue Pig," "Taxonomy" and "Piety") but the major change is the omission of Ace and Bolivia, Another End of Ace (which are being republished as a single volume by Rod Smith's Aerial/Edge concurrently with this book), and the inclusion of Writing, long out of print.

It took me a long time to read Writing, not just because of its length (40 pages) but because of the way it is structured. There are two columns of short phrases on each page. One is invited to read each column vertically, beginning with the first, then moving back up to the second, or read horizontally, from column to column. Reading vertically, the phrases cohere more or less logically in a way that builds sense, but only in periodic bundles, or phrases. For instance,

from screen to drawing                            balances a slice
no matter                                                  of clear sky cut
what                                                            by three black cables
is a sudden change                                   by the frame
for in this area                                         our object glimmers back
that cannot be                                           we imagine at
called a landscape                                    page one the title
as anything may happen
i turn to write
instead of read
waking this morning
with a sore head

Meaning squirms, squirts, slips and slides from phrase to phrase. But the real fun, the real fascination, is in reading across, from column to column. Doing so, one can yield a boundless field of association and unintentional meaning: "from screen to drawing balances a slice of clear sky cut no matter what is a sudden change by three black cables for in this area our object glimmers back." I'm taking liberties here; I'm scrambling the lines a little to arrive at something that can only be my own creation, or a collaboration with the author. But I believe that's what Raworth has intended: a process in which reading and writing are simultaneous activities.

Raworth avoids majuscules and this gives his lines a humbler, non-hierarchical, welcoming feel. There is also a simplicity, a quirky charm, to Raworth's lines, a blithe felicitous angle that inclines the mind toward unearthing splendid winds and quantum truffles from the most secret and imaginative domain of our being. Some would call it the unconscious. I call it a fabric, a volume of feeling woven in "clear water and ice." Words and lines are highly compressed: one perception immediately and directly slides to a further perception, and these perceptions accrue, multiply, ricochet and expand into a domain of accelerated cognition protean and variable as cumulonimbus, or gouache. Humor is a prominent element to the mobile architecture of Raworth's poetry, and adds to the cumulative combustion a piquancy of indeterminate pepper, giddy discontinuities and dissociative metonymies. It's a joy to find all this work together again, under a different cover, "hiding jokes in mud bricks" and "listening watching waiting."

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000

REPUBLICS OF REALITY, 1975-1995

Republics of Reality, 1975-1995 by Charles BernsteinCharles Bernstein
Sun & Moon Press ($14.95)

by Patrick Pritchett

Beginning in the late '70s as the co-founder of the seminal magazine L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, Charles Bernstein has exerted an enormous influence on three generations of poets now who have made it their concern to explore the possibilities of language as an instrument of social inquiry, philosophical speculation, comical dysprosody and linguistic liberation. The publication of Republics of Reality, which brings together in their entirety many of the poet's early, out-of-print books, along with newer poems, is a welcome event.

As the title implies, Bernstein's poetics celebrates a radical heterogeneity; the idea that a republic is "a thing of the people" (res publica) is given full, polyvocal play in this collection. Bernstein's conception of poetry as a public form of speech grows out of and contests Olson's longing for a poetry that would speak for the polis. But where Olson's project was founded on a nostalgia for a unified social order, even one organized around the savvy recognition that totality should consist of distinctly separate singularities, Bernstein starts out from the premise that the polity is a mess. In Beckett's phrase, he "admits the chaos and does not try to say that it is something else."

For Bernstein, the field of our daily social practices and its systems of classification, its habitus, is the very stuff poetry is to be made from, rather than out of overarching appeals to the lost visions of Greek or Mayan cultural orders. If it sounds like I'm putting forward an image of Bernstein as anti-theoretical, I'm not; the body of his critical work is as rigorous as any around. What's fascinating about his work, though, is that for all the theoretical sophistication that both writes and underwrites it, the poems themselves behave with an unruly, capricious goofiness that feels unbeholden to any theory. The early work especially, like the poem "Sentences," reveals a gift for satire mixed with joie de vivre that calls to mind the New York School more than Wittgenstein.

It's an automatic thing. It doesn't require any
thought. It's a parade in and out.
It has its ups and downs.
It doesn't affect me one way or another.

* * *

It sort of comes to you. I never look at it. The touch.
My hands fit. It's the feel. I just look at them.

* * *

It'll sound terrible. It's true. It's nothing really.
I like to fuss. I sit and relax and read, take a bath, have my ice cream. I fill the day.

I wasn't fully prepared for the lyrical tone that runs throughout much of this book. Bernstein's name is not one you'd associate with, say, Palmer's or Howe's, as a practitioner of the postmodern lyric, yet many of these poems give off a laughing efflorescence that's both graceful and, of all things, oddly moving. The 1978 volume Shade begins with the painterly sounding lines of "Long Trails of Cars Returning from the Beach":

I saw the power
of the word in
legend. Cast
shadows & I hid
under, lasting,
crevices making
jetty markers
stretching out
to sea.

In a recent interview in Contemporary Literature, Bernstein has said that what he wants to bring into poetry are "things that seem clumsy or awkward . . . the beauty in a lack of grace." The song-like rhythm of the passage above belies this remark, but much else of what appears in Republics fully supports it. Here is the entirety of "Air Shaft," from Resistance (1983):

Quick as a whip
Wide as a gap
Is wide. Somewhere
Someone sears.
Cachet in the hypochondriac
Moonlight, sway in
The censorious
Goon flight.

The Bernstein approach to the poem might be labeled, in imitation of the arcane medical terminology he's so fond of, "rapid protean swarming," or RPS. If you blink, you might miss something. Or better still, "get" something. This is a poetry of the blink, the wink and the blur. Words reflected in it are not their ordinary size. Neither is the poetry itself, for that matter.

Though clearly visible in the literary landscape for at least fifteen years now, Bernstein's continued presence as our most invigorating agent provocateur cannot be overvalued. In a time when apostles of "official verse culture" like Robert Pinsky can extol the virtues of Frost on PBS, Bernstein offers an image of the poet as someone who defies the marginalizing (or as he might put it, margarinizing) tendencies of consumer culture. Bernstein recognized from the outset that the evil genius of capitalism is its ability to take anything resembling dissent and quash it, not through outright suppression, but by sucking it up and spitting it back out at bargain discount prices. His practice has been to resist this rush to the totalizing economies of cultural and aesthetic entrenchment by keeping poetry open to difference, strangeness, and otherness, to the overflowing prolixity of language itself, "the better," as he puts it in My Way, "to make music of our flailing and of our incapacities." The sound of such a music may at first strike the ear as harsh, but with repeated reading and listening it takes on a note of deeper recognition. Or say instead, misrecognition. In a Bernstein poem we see ourselves—our culture and our language—reflected back as in a Lacanian funhouse mirror. All those common everyday phrases—the schtick and locutions of the quotidian—by which we express ourselves at our most basic, come back in odd shapes and sizes.

Bernstein's prescription for language is one that goes beyond the register of the social protest poem's often simplistic challenge of the political status quo. Rather, he's interested in examining the basis of the cultural scripts we operate from, the "natural" sense of reality generated by our seemingly transparent language. The poet assumes the role of arch-parodist/talmudist, endlessly interrogating the structure and possibilities of the words we so blithely take for granted. There is a sense in which Bernstein's poems are not only (for the most part) defiantly non-lyrical, but resolutely anti-memorable. This raises a vexing question. Is it the task of the poem to be memorable? Or should it instead defy the easy commodifications of memory itself? Bernstein's "difficulty," his deliberate awkwardness, is calculated to estrange the reader from her usual strategy of absorbing texts. In this way, his poems aim at inducing an ethics of readership, one in which the reader is compelled to examine his relations to the book in his hand. In a time when poetry is increasingly succumbing to the virus of paraphrase and the cliches of identity, this is radical, indeed. Bernstein's motto might be taken from Wittgenstein: "Do not forget that a poem, although it is composed in the language of information, is not used in the language-game of giving information." Or, as he puts it in "Have Pen, Will Travel," from the new selection of work entitled Residual Rubbernecking:

It's not my
business to describe
anything. The only
report is the
discharge of
words called
to account for
their slurs.
A seance of sorts—
or transport into
that nether that
refuses measure.

To refuse measure is, as Bernstein writes in A Poetics, to struggle "to wake from the hypnosis of absorption." It is to reject the conduit metaphor of language, which insists that meaning exists somehow apart from the words used to express it. It is to recognize that words behave according to their own quirky set of rules and the best we can do in following them is to become attentive listeners, that is, citizens in good standing of the numerous republics of reality.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000

THE AUTHENTICATOR

The Authenticator by William M. ValtosWilliam M. Valtos
Hampton Roads ($22.95)

by Peter Ritter

What happens to us when we die? Elysian fields or earthworm buffet? Since none of us knows and most of us aren't particularly keen to find out, we might do well to turn our musing to a more assailable but no less timeless conundrum: what happens to philosophy majors after graduation? Do they descend into the Stygian netherworld of the service economy, or like novelist William Valtos, do they put their crania-load of arcana to some practical purpose? Valtos's second novel, The Authenticator, assays both questions with morbid rigor. Though his answers on the former matter are not quite convincing, he does prove that there is life after academia for those with a faculty for compelling storytelling.

Valtos has made a career bumping against the Big Existential Question. His first novel, Resurrection, which was made into a movie for HBO, deals with the sweet hereafter and those stubborn souls, who, unwilling to go gently into that good night, return to pester the living. The Authenticator likewise turns on a near-death experience—NDE in the parlance of the transcendental trade—and those who may have passed secrets along from the Other Side. The novel's seeker is Theo Nikonos, an earnest amateur thanatologist who conducts interviews with the formerly deceased for the obscure "Institute for the Investigation of Anabiotic Phenomena." Rather than dashing straight-away into Theo's inquiries, however, Valtos plays a cute metafictional trick in the novel's forward: a disclaimer from the book's protagonist claiming that "My legal counsel has advised me against seeking publication of this account. It is his opinion that any perceived profit motive would prejudice the jury in my upcoming trial."

Aside from piquing the casual reader's interest, the unusual prelude also casts a shadow of doubt over the account that follows; we may assume that a fictional narrator would tell the truth, but how are we to know? Indeed, Theo's methodical reporting of the events that lead him to his precarious legal position consistently tests the limits of credibility. His search begins in an upstate New York hospital where a woman—who has purportedly made the round-trip to eternity—is being held captive by a shadowy HMO. Analytically gifted scientist that he is, Theo is dubious. "I initially approached NDE research with the same skeptical attitude I had towards the existence of God," he tells us. "Like any good empiricist, I believed only that which could be proven, whether by experiment, by observation, or by logic."

Desperate to connect with the beautiful and erstwhile-expired woman, however, Theo soon acknowledges that there may be more in heaven and Earth than is dreamt of in his philosophy. Valtos, meanwhile, spins an increasingly noir-ish murder mystery around his character's headlong stumble toward enlightenment. Yet, even as the bodies pile up, The Authenticator keeps its meditative tone, circling again and again around the possibility of an afterlife and the revelations it might engender. A fairly conventional genre novel may seen a strange place to find such cosmological musing, but Valtos pulls it off by suggesting throughout that the truth—in this mystery as much as in the Big Mystery—is often more complicated than science allows.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000

THE NEW YORK YEARS

The New York Years by Felice PicanoFelice Picano
Alyson Books ($12.95)

by Brad Jacobson

Felice Picano occupies that rare constellation of literary talent populated by such stalwarts of queer literature as Christopher Cox, Andrew Holleran, and Edmund White. He began his career during the bacchanalian heyday of post-Stonewall queer culture, living in and writing about a universe suffused with the unabashed sexuality respective of the parties, clubs, and bathhouses of a time far removed from the comparably tame exploits of today's gay men. Writing about what he knew, Picano gave voice to an experience which may have been lived before but which had rarely been written about without the use of coded language and sly allusion. In The New York Years, a collection of short stories written between 1972 and 1981 and published for the first time as one volume, readers are granted the rare treat of witnessing the birth of a supernova, a literary talent willing to take them on a tour of a long-gone New York City, once a metropolis of desire, now almost thoroughly co-opted and neutered by Walt Disney.

Picano may be a stranger to readers not well acquainted with the 1970's renaissance of gay male literature. Previous to this time, a very real sense of disdain and hostility towards homosexuality existed in straight literary circles. As David Bergman quotes then-leading liberal intellectual Joseph Epstein in The Violet Quill Reader: "Private acceptance of homosexuality, in my experience, is not to be found, even among the most liberal-minded, sophisticated, and liberated people. Homosexuality may be the one subject left in America about which there is no official hypocrisy." Some would argue such a sentiment still exists today, but thankfully, the queer community now has a commanding voice with which to confront these archaic points of view. At the time, of course, books with gay themes existed, such as James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room or Gore Vidal's The City and the Pillar. But such works did not possess a distinctly gay voice, even when penned by gay men, and they most certainly did not offer their gay readers any kinds of heroes or sympathetic characters. Before Stonewall, novels with gay characters either relegated them to the sidelines or made them sensationalistic and/or highly tragic figures. Foreign works by authors such as Jean Genet, Marcel Proust, and Thomas Mann were of an altogether different ilk, so highly literary as to be intellectually unattainable to the lay reader. If an author chose to tackle the issue of homosexuality in an unaffected manner, his work would quickly be labeled pornographic, and, as such, hardly inspiring.

Into this jumble of less-than-affirming styles, the Violet Quill was born, and with it, some of the best authors of gay male literature, not the least of whom is Picano. Men like Cox, Holleran and White came together as fellow artists for advice about style and technique, as well as for the company of fellow gay writers who would not be shocked or put off about the subject matter which made up their work. As Bergman so rightly asserts, "The Violet Quill can be seen as the most important group of gay writers after Stonewall who rejected the accursed lot that critics . . . would have doomed them to, and who tried to articulate the belief that gay people can be free, not of their history of oppression, but of the feeling that they are forever condemned to 'the pain of the earth.'"

The New York Years certainly works to narrate the world of 1970's New York City, both to its benefit and to its disservice. On the whole, most of Picano's short stories are beautifully populated by complex, interesting characters who possess a keen sense of language and an even greater sense of establishing a connection with a reader. True, the characters are archetypes of the gay male culture—the trick, the sugar daddy, the gym bunny, the troll, the closet case—but Picano is so very good at revealing the humanity beneath a character's sexuality one forgives him for relying on what now may seem like stereotypes but at the time were original representations of living, breathing gay men. Standouts in the collection include the languorous narrative "Shy," the ensemble piece "Xmas in the Apple," the biting "Slashed to Ribbons in Defense of Love," and the clever, campy riff on the Ganymede myth, "An Asian Minor." Even the pieces that are a bit sub-par are worthy of their place in this collection, if for nothing else but the fact that they are prime representations of gay life in 1970's Manhattan. Picano himself admits to the datedness of some of his stories, most notably "Spinning" which he concedes "really seems to belong to the disco-drugs era in which it was written." "Expertise," a story devoted to a young man's empty quest to be the greatest fellator in the City, and "And Baby Makes Three," concerned largely with the petty jealousies and bed-hopping of a group of gay men on Fire Island, also seem dated material, given the wholesale promiscuousness present in an pre-AIDS era. These stories may not travel particularly well, but they do exist as fascinating bits of literary anthropology. Picano's tour of lives lived in the midst of cultural revolution is a must for anyone interested in the limits of human desire and sexuality.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000

LEAP

Leap by Terry Tempest WilliamsTerry Tempest Williams
Pantheon Books ($25)

by Juliet Patterson

“To objectify is to destroy," poet Hayden Carruth says, arguing that the best of poetry is always in the deepest sense, subjective. A poet "in the act of love," he continues, "existing purely and in subjectivity, in yearning and anguish, will transmute his private reference into generally accessible knowledge, his private feeling into universal subjective feeling, and he will do it without thought."

In Terry Tempest Williams' Leap, subjectivity is all. The subject in this case is Hieronymous Bosch's fifteenth-century masterpiece, The Garden of Delights, a medieval triptych housed in the Prado Museum, which Williams encountered on a trip to Madrid in 1992. As a child, Williams slept beneath the painting's images of Paradise and Hell—reproductions of the right and left panels hung above her bed tacked to a bulletin board--yet she never knew of the existence of the central painting, "The Garden of Earthly Delights," until she stood, stunned, before the original. "The body. / The body of the triptych, " she writes. "My body. / The bodies of the center panel, this panel of play and discovery, of joyful curiosities cavorting with Eros, is not only a surprise to me, but a great mystery."

So begins a seven-year pilgrimage for Terry Tempest Williams into the landscape of Heironymous Bosch, a hallucinatory and strange world of sensuality, which leads her in and out of the heaven and hell of her (and our) own natural worlds: "Open and close. Open and close. Heironymous Bosch has painted, as wings, Paradise and Hell. The body is a portrait of Earthly Delights. The wings close again. Open now, slowly, with each viewer's breath the butterfly quivers, Heaven and Hell quiver, the wings are wet and fragile, only the body remains stable."

With such poetic intensity, Williams carries us into the world of Bosch, uncovering connections between his vision, the world it mirrors, and contemporary life. Like a naturalist in the field, Williams watches the painting as though it were alive; in one passage she uses binoculars to identify birds in The Garden, as well as all the fruits, flowers and human figures ecstatic and erotic. Williams gives herself over to the experience completely, even writing from within the painting's wildly inventive landscapes.

Those familiar with Williams previous books (most notably, Refuge, 1991) will recognize her now trademark intimacy with the natural world as one that guides a deep moral presence, remarkably balanced in intellect and emotion. Leap accomplishes this in a kind of meditative-exhalation, a concordance of world immensity with an individual and intimate depth of being:

I begin to feel my own roots in El Bosco's soil and find my own arms, one, two, transforming into three and four, as many arms as there are in the world branching out, with splayed hands, our own hands the branches of trees reaching out for a living truth that will vivify our blood, blood knowledge.

In a language that is deeply lyrical and critically intelligent, Williams's narrative moves through the worlds of the triptych. In "Paradise," Williams recounts her childhood raised in the orthodoxy of the Mormon church; the section on "Hell" allows her to address her concerns for the destruction of the environment; in "Earthly Delights," she begins to reconcile dualities and finds faith in a present life on Earth. Finally, in "Restoration," Williams' sees The Garden of Delights in the process of its restoration and learns something not only about the origin of its artistic vision, but the beginnings of her own.

In many ways, Leap is a commentary on art: an examination of the relationship between artist and viewer and a plea for a renewal of the culture's interaction with artistic beauty. But Leap is about many things; art, history, religion, faith and love. It is a search for the place where faith, creativity and passion converge. It is a sensuous celebration of our relationship to world and self. It is also a critical examination of the current state of world; the destruction of the environment, the corporatization of religion and prevalence of fear in our culture. But perhaps, ultimately, Leap is book about risk and self-transformation.

The title of the book takes its inspiration from a W. H. Auden poem entitled "Leap Before You Look." Williams has remarked in an interview, "Some may see this as an act of madness. I see it as the sovereignty of a soul that comes when we bow to our own creative impulses . . . To leap before we look, to follow our instincts, our intuitions, this is the pathway to change. Safety is an illusion like Paradise." In the simplest terms, this signifies a kind of a spiritual politicism, a nonviolent anarchism on Williams' part; at least as a means. In other words, she will share in spirituality far more than she will dispute.

"This is my living faith, an active faith," Williams writes, "a faith of verbs: to question, explore, experiment, experience, walk, run, dance, play, eat, love, learn. dare, taste, touch, smell, listen, argue, speak . . ." With this lucidity and grace, Williams allows us finally "to seek: to embrace the questions, be wary of answers," and pass into the purity of spiritual existence. Leap is a remarkable and wondrous book, written by a writer at the height of her considerable powers. One can't help but feel that for Williams writing this book was not only an act of transformation, but also of love. The act of reading it requires, and is, nothing less.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000

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