Tag Archives: summer 2001

THE BEFORELIFE

The Beforelife by Franz WrightFranz Wright
Knopf ($22)

by Dobby Gibson

If you haven't made the connection, the very first phrase in Franz Wright's dust jacket biography makes it for you, introducing him as the son of Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet James Wright. This is not trivial background. As "The Dead Dads" puts it:

It's easier to get a rope
through the eye of a needle than
the drunk son of a drunk
into stopping

A cynic would presume there's nothing like being the drunk son of a Pulitzer Prize-winning drunk with a manuscript of short lyric poems about being the drunk son of a Pulitzer Prize-winning drunk to make the A-list at Knopf. The problem with attempting to dismiss Franz Wright in this way is that it took 13 small-press collections and 28 years for his work to find a major New York publisher. Surprisingly, in an era of show business poetry ruled by the Q ratings of Jewels and Sapphires and those self-described "tantalizing" Birthday Letters, Wright hasn't benefited much from his famous pedigree.

Of course, this may be because his poetry is sincere rather than sensational. When Franz Wright is at his best (which is not infrequently) his poems will burn themselves onto the backs of your eyeballs. In The Beforelife he offers us a singular volume of woeful prayers written in his spare style, prayers that, echoing Shakespeare's maxim "the sins of the father are to be laid upon the children," seemingly chase his father's ghost on a binge of heroin, pot, codeine, booze, and more. Wright's work is confessional in the best sense: intimate, beseeching, and even occasionally maudlin. It is also, despite recent appearances in The New Yorker, vastly under-appreciated, relegated to a somewhat cult following.

Denis Johnson has written for the back of Wright's newest book, "At any one time only a handful of genuine poets reside on the planet. I consider Franz Wright to be one of these . . ." This, not incidentally, is almost word-for-word the same blurb Johnson recently gave to Michael Burkard; indeed, Wright, Burkard, and Johnson share a boozy, end-of-their-rope prayerfulness inherited at least in part from John Berryman. Here, for example, is Johnson from "Now":

Darkness, my name is Denis Johnson,
and I am almost ready to
confess it is not some awful
misunderstanding that has carried
me here, my arms full of the ghosts
of flowers, to kneel at your feet.

Compare Johnson's sleepwalking soliloquy to these similarly plangent lines from Wright's "Thanks Prayer at the Cove":

in this dear and absurdly allegorical place
by your grace
I am here
and not in that graveyard, its skyline
visible now from the November leaflessness
and I am here to say
it's 5 o'clock, too late to write more

The movement in this poem—one of the collection's strongest—is stunning. What other contemporary American poet would dare resist temptation and follow the line "and I am here to say" with the admission that "it's . . . too late to write more"? This moment encapsulates what's so unique about Wright's vision: he's more interested in articulating what's sufficient than he is in articulating all that he is able.

The two subjects central to Wright's body of work—the torture of chemical addiction and the haunting of an abusive father—are, to put it mildly, not uncommon in contemporary American poetry. Such subjects are mishandled almost as often as they are used, the poet too frequently depending on an outdated measure of shock and mistaking frankness for edge. (As John Ashbery says in a poem, "You can't say it that way anymore.") Poems about chemical addiction and abusive fathers are the kinds of poems that can give poems a bad name. But not only does Wright's work not succumb to the traps of the confessional model, it flat-out capitalizes on them, subverting expectations rhetorically, sometimes with broken-off lines, other times with the indeterminacy of metapoetics. He writes in a style unlike any other living American poet, one that can acquit him on all counts of solipsism. Wright's poems are confessional, yes, but hardly the transparent bad-bad-daddy poems of the American creative writing workshop.

Witness the transformation Wright's self-loathing undergoes in "The Ascent of Midnight":

Sometimes I'd like to give up—
I want to blindfold this head
put a gun to it . . .

On the one hand, if you've watched even two minutes of Sally Jesse Rafael ("Tonight at 11, Suicidal Addicts of Successful Dads") you're schooled enough in this particularly American brand of woeful threat—dramatically overly-accessorized (why the blindfold?) and violent—to react with little, if no, shock. On the other hand, examine where this poem travels from its theatrical starting point.

Sometimes I'd like to give up—
I want to blindfold this head
put a gun to it and say
shitface
this is the way
you caused me to feel
nearly all the time.
But what is the use of that type
of behavior. I'm getting so tired, and I'm nowhere
nowhere near
my illustrious friends (yet
I'm still fairly high
in the mountains
beneath the sea . . . )

For the speaker (though to retreat behind the shield of "speaker" when discussing Wright seems a silly formality) to refer to himself as "shitface" in this context is, obviously, darkly humorous, if humorous at all. Or is this a note addressed to "shitface"? And then there's the [almost] unnecessary qualifier "nearly," which reveals this consciousness to be thinking with little clarity. The repetition of "nowhere / nowhere near" signals exhaustion, setting us up to be mystified by the eerie inconclusiveness and lovely illogic of the poem's final image.

To be sure, like most addicts—especially addicts who write poems about being addicts—Wright can be a self-mythologizer. He writes about himself in the third-person with frequency and, worse, only occasionally winks at us when he does. He tries to get away with lines like "you will find me . . . at the motherlesssky. / com," forgetting that URL bon mots haven't had an ounce of freshness in them since the night Jay Leno told his 345th dot.com joke, or "I'm Franz, and I'm a recovering asshole," which is similarly TV lame. There are also the obligatory poems alluding to the petty jealousies and inferiority complexes of those cocooned in the American Poetry Business ("Accepting an Award," and "Bathtub Improv," which begins, "Book composed of poems no one will ever read.") But to be fair, the restless movement of Wright's poems allow them to transcend even these conventions. Their intense, lateral movements defy any attempt to stuff them into some other package.

The poems of The Beforelife differ from those in Wright's earlier books in the more extreme degree of their compression, concision and brief, twisted syntax, which constantly calls attention to the surface of the page. There's plenty of intricate brushwork to admire, yet rarely are the poems in this book more than a few lines, let alone a page. The Beforelife abides by the central tenet of slo-core music, summed up by The Kings of Convenience album title Quiet is the New Loud: we're so bombarded by the 4/4, that balancing on the precipice of silence is the only place to find an edge. In an era of MFA chattiness, in which the only thing that separates prose from poetry is a hard return and in which poets stack figurative language upon figurative language as if playing a kind of Jenga of poetics for tenure, Wright dares to, as Charles Simic once said of him, "write an epic on the inside of a matchbook cover." Most of these poems would set fire to anything you struck them with.

As Wright himself has said of his own poetry, its mission lies in "giving a voice to conditions or states of mind normally associated with speechlessness." Like their ancestors the haiku, these poems barely stave off the onslaught of the infinite, the white of the page all but swallowing these fortune-cookie misfortunes. And so one reads Wright in a fevered state, as if handling Sapphic fragments, devouring the language while simultaneously praying it doesn't disintegrate any further. Of course, if I were half the reviewer that Wright is a poet, I could have said all of this in three paragraphs.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001

THE BOOK OF LEVIATHAN

Leviathan stripPeter Blegvad
The Overlook Press ($23.95)

by Gary Sullivan

I'm going to pick up on an argument many have made before, that there is such a thing as the "new comic" and that it occurs more or less on the outskirts of contemporary comics production. It's an admittedly loose term; for some the "new comic" includes Watchmen, for others it might begin and end with Raw. My own "new comic" time-line begins with Joe Brainard's C Comics, and includes elements of Carol Lay's Good Girls series, Joe Chiappetta's A Death in the Family, Aleksandar Zograf, Julie Doucet, Jesse Reklaw and Rick Veitch's various dream-inspired comics, Megan Kelso's Queen of the Black Black, and Doug Allen and Gary Loeb's Idiotland. But Peter Blegvad's Leviathan, which has been serialized in The Independent on Sunday since 1991, is without question the most inventive, fully-realized example to date.

Held together—and I don't use those two words lightly—by the mere but constant appearance of the bald, faceless baby Levi (who strikingly resembles Harold of purple-crayon-fame), Levi's stuffed, Chester Brown-reminiscent pink rabbit, and a Cheshire-like cat-ghost, Leviathan lacks extended plot, overarching theme, clear political agenda, obvious jokes, consistent style, topicality—anything, really, that would seem prerequisite for a strip's acceptance in any of the various normalizing institutions of the contemporary American comics market. Unless this selection of these strips from the 90s brings Blegvad's work to mainstream-"alternative" media attention, you won't be seeing it any time soon in, for instance, the Village Voice. The strip is too bizarre, too ingenious. That Blegvad employs inventive and sometimes impossibly spare use of color won't help.

Despite a now-touring retrospective of Joe Brainard's work, his C Comics collaborations with Ted Berrigan, Robert Creeley, Barbara Guest, Kenward Elmslie, Frank O'Hara, et al. are, while semi-famous in the poetry world, virtually unknown to most working American cartoonists. Likewise, Blegvad's Leviathan series seems to have been created and to have existed outside of contemporary American comics culture. Comics have, since their origin, been shoved or have willingly crouched into the corner of "representation," and while the U.S. hardly lacks comics artists who push that particular envelope (isn't Chris Ware the Samuel Beckett of comics--and Clowes its Bunuel?), there aren't many I can think of who have so completely abandoned for other purpose the "sequential" aspect of the form. Neither Scott McCloud nor any of the various comics artists who've parodied his influential Understanding Comics have brought up "fully torqued" as a value even potentially germane to the art. If writing, as Ernest Hemingway lamented half a century ago, is 50 years behind all of the other arts, comics are another half-century behind that. (Witness Matt Madden's recent web-published Exercises in Style, which, loved by younger comics artists as "inventive," takes as its cue (and never surpasses) OuLiPo-ean experimentalist Raymond Queneau's book of the same name from 1947).

If it sounds like I'm being cranky, it's because Blegvad's work as a whole is so inventive, so fully-torqued, it makes everything else, in retrospect, look mannered and tame. Take, for instance, the strip titled "Two Views of Leviathan Taking His First Step . . ." We get two views, "Below" and "Above." "Below," we see Levi's parents, rendered in black, white and gray, gesturing to an open hole above them, the mother holding what appears to be a rubber ball: "Atta boy! Come to papa!" "You hoo, Levi! Look what I've got for you . . ." The parents stand knee-high in a pool of waste. To the left, a sewage pipe oozes sludge over an abandoned tire. We also see steaming heaps of what look like excrement, an abandoned baby buggy, a bottle, a snake, a shoe, and one or two unidentifiable items. In the next panel, we see, in full-blown color, the baby Levi taking the first step over the manhole, two faucets, labled "milk" and "honey" behind him, the ghost-cat twisted and cajoling a few paces beyond the manhole. A purple butterfly, which looks collaged into the scene, seems to egg the young Levi on. This is one of the more "obvious" strips: clearly, Blegvad is commenting on the transition from child to adult.

Even more enigmatic & envelope-pushing is the strip appearing on the page opposite this one. Another two-panel (Blegvad usually uses five or six), in the first, we see his mother (or guardian) lamenting, in an open doorway leading to Levi's room, "Jumpin' Jehossaphats! What a MESS!" "PLEASE," Levi begs, "Stay there! Don't TOUCH anything!" On the floor we see some two dozen items, including a hand-puppet, half an apple, an overturned vase of flowers, a jump rope, a single sock, a crucifix, a spilled bottle of milk, a pair of scissors, a bag of spilled ball and jacks, etc. In the next panel, Levi thinks "It may look like a MESS to you, but ACTUALLY, it's . . .*" The asterisk leads to a footnote, below, which says ". . . the atomic formula for the transmutation of base matter into milk. A hybrid between a lattice calculation and one appropriate to a system with continuous variables, which means it may even be read when the beach season is over." The quote below is ascribed to a magazine, Nature. The items on the floor are now involved in a series of complicated mathematical formulae—Blegved has drawn, in red, about each item, plus signs, multiplication symbols, square root signs, and so on. While I can think of no comics image equivalent to this second panel, I immediately conjure up the poet Clark Coolidge's semi-famous lecture on "arrangement" (given at Naropa and published in Talking Poetics), which includes the reiteration of a sci-fi story Coolidge read as a young boy, very similar to the mapped out floor of Blegvad's second panel. Coolidge:

. . . that story now comes back to me with all the feelings of great discovery and mystery and desire to do something with this . . . and this . . . and this. Where do I put it? What happens when I put it there? What does it do to this? How close is it? Does it repel me? Does it repel you? How much does it weigh down the table? Can I look through it? What do I see when I look through it, and another whole vector of stuff coming in visually? . . . it took years to begin to articulate that in a form of art.

"Arrangement" is absolutely a value Blegvad understands, and torques for a variety of effects, in his work.

Leviathan runs on poetic or "dream" logic, and a number of the strips are held together by certain forms of linguistic and visual play, including frequent use of puns, palindromes and other devices, though not everything can be parsed immediately. What to make of the last panel of one strip, where the hand of God lights the fire beneath a skewered torso: "So, Levi," the hand asks, "how do you like your fellow man?" "Well done," Levi says, sitting by the torso in a green hot-suit. The gag here is obvious, sure. But what does the reader do with the words "long pig," with an arrow pointing to the torso and "salamander," pointing to Levi? Opposite this page is reproduced one of Blegvad's full-color strips, in which Mandrax the Magician attempts to hypnotize the faceless Levi. Its stiffness and colorfulness are more reminiscent of Trevor Winkfield than any of Blegvad's previous strips, and it occurs to me that if it was billed as "high art" we might not attempt to second-guess it. But, as a "comic strip," it pulls us in a way that Winkfield (or his predecessor Lichtenstein) will never manage. I love that about comics, and I especially love that Blegvad knows and plays with that situation. What's our investment in this? What does it mean? How does it inform the strips prior to and following this one?

We can't help but ask, nor—thumbing through Blegvad's variously-executed strips of the last decade of the 20th century—are we likely to be satisfied with easy answers.

On the last page of the book, Levi points to his now-human-sized pink rabbit and says "Dep . . ." Two panels later, the bunny rejoins, ". . . Art?" It's the silliest, most self-aware, heavy-handed moment of the book: obviously, The Book of Leviathan signals a departure, something Blegvad need hardly have underscored. But him saying that, there, suggests he's not unaware of what his work finally proposes.

The "new comic," if it's to thrive, will take off from this point.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001

MALLET EYES

Mallet Eyes by Jeremy SiglerJeremy Sigler
Left Hand Books ($20)

by Daniel Sumrall

Tone is the second most engaging debate in the poetry world today—it unfortunately must take a back seat to the current preoccupation with "form"—and the reason for this is that as a device of voice, tone is what allows for genuine or unique imaging to be seen and heard. The tone of Jeremy Sigler's second book of poems is mumbled in a sort of bemusing whisper by the first poem "Morning Kitchen":

A city of cinema leaf
comes to light
a director's cut of
green now playing
at the end
of every
stem
Just green,
no trailers
to be
seen

The memorable opening line itself would lead one to think that this book will be yet another testament to a new NYC poet. Many of the poems of Sigler's book do owe a great deal to Frank O'Hara, as they seek to redress occasional verse. All the poems of Mallet Eyes are minimalist, yet hardly simple. As "Morning Kitchen" announces, there will be "no trailers," meaning no teasers of image or style in the upcoming poems—no eye candy, "just green" as though one is lost in a Rothko painting. These poems acquire no formal style and (probably to their detriment) flirt shamelessly with rhyme. This is rather unexpected given that Sigler is also a sculptor, however poetry has often thought itself more plastic than what the other fine arts have thought it to be. Rhyme is a dangerous thing; it annoys far too easily but when done well it may provide a genuine momentum—a "stand in" for rhythm, in a sense—as can be seen in "Other Than You,"

Do you detect it
in me
as you flee? If so
I understand, I know
how the blur
wants the drop
to blur. I prefer
your dyed indifference
to an intensely centered
thing of thought, so
understand, while
I expand
with the sun
over day, that I may too
engage a few

"Other Than You" also marks a theme that becomes a silent undercurrent throughout Mallet Eyes, a sort of disdain for the subjective self and its games, its play both linguistic and physical. That is not to say that "the self" is dissolved, ignored, or berated in Sigler's conception, but rather, as "Now I Know" demonstrates,

there is wind
so still
breeze so flat
turbulence
so dead
now I know
there is a point
between here and
near the still, flat
dead of you
beside the night sea
off the shore of me

There's plenty of "self" here. The disdain we see in these poems is that of conscious distance, where the "point / between here and" there is deafening in its silence. This borders on coldness, however what Sigler accomplishes through this disdain is the unavoidable attraction of the indifferent stance. Take the commanding lucidity of "Nocturne":

wrap every star
in your paper
thin eyes
urge even night
away
for so luminous
is your skin

To "engage a few" is the casual gesture of one dyed indifferent, a gesture Sigler defines even more clearly in the poem "Things" when he writes "near the outermost reach of / the ambience of emptiness." A poem that would appear to rival the best lyrics of William Carlos Williams, "Carpenter's Risk" instills a beauty that could only be given through this casual eye:

A
bench
sits
with a
cane
and a
house
leans
on old
tall grass
and all
the squares
in toolbox
basements
count their
metrical
blessings

Sigler's tone, his sense through language, is minimalist, even objectivist, but more than anything it is a poetry that strives toward the disinterestedness of "letting-be." This phenomenological stance seeks to apprehend the world through a bracketing or a "letting-be" that allows each other (thing, person) to reveal/revel within its being-in-the-world. Granted, not all of Sigler's poems elevate a reader to such a level; many are so brief as to be non-consequential. But those poems that do tap this disinterestedness shine, and for this reason, Sigler's collection is worth the read.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001

THE PENULTIMATE SUITOR

The Penultimate Suitor by Mary LeaderMary Leader
University of Iowa Press ($13)

by Arielle Greenberg

Mary Leader's first collection, The Red Signature, was a breath of fresh air; adhering to no particular style, the poems were witty and warm, and as often abstract as forthright. This 1996 National Poetry Series Award-winner felt wonderfully free of the workshop influence, and indeed, Mary Leader did not come through the usual poetry channels: for many years, she practiced law in Oklahoma, serving as an assistant attorney general before receiving an MFA and making poetry her full-time vocation.

In many ways, The Penultimate Suitor, which received the Iowa Poetry Prize this year, follows through on its predecessor's promise—it soars whimsically around the relationship between love and fine art, dabbles in traditional form, and generally gives the impression that the poet is having a really good time, as is charmingly evident on the first page of the book:

How the tenor warbles in April!
He thrushes, he nightingales, O he's a lark.
He cuts the cinquefoil air into snippets
With his love's scissors in the shape of a stork.

Clearly, this is a poet acquainted with the ecstatic, and at the book's best, it is this musicality and emotional vulnerability that make the poems work, as in the closing lines of "White Sands," reminiscent of Molly Bloom in its self-scrutiny and affirmation:

Will we be together again after all,
somehow? Do you believe in me? Don't you find
this dusk-mounded world a beautiful, a strange, place?
I answer yes, I answer yes, wholly feminine,
I answer yes.
Why am I not a deity, in my marigold shawl?

But too frequently, as this last excerpt also reveals, Leader crosses from sincerity into sentimentality. This is most noticeable in the poem "Letters," which feels too concerned with the story of a real-life crush to pay much attention to language. Elsewhere, in the poem entitled "Heavy Roses," Leader uses the "@" sign to visually indicate blossoms (a move which calls attention to the Internet/love connection, though Leader doesn't go there) and even shapes one poem into a concrete long-stem. Much of the work tries to translate other pieces of art—a photograph by Irving Penn, a piece of music—into poems, and although some of the results are finely crafted, others rely too heavily on novelty. I can think of no reason for including, in such a slim collection, a poem in which an entire stanza is written in dingbats; experiments like these seem self-consciously postmodern, just playing on the page.

Leader is certainly capable of more, and her inquiry into the ekphrastic has genuine passion behind it. I hope that, in future books, she can retain her vision, resisting gimmicks that dull her openhearted and wise sensitivity to the human condition.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001

PEN CHANTS OR NTH OR 12 SPIRIT-LIKE IMPERMANENCES

Lissa Wolsak
Roof Books ($9.95)

by Jen Hofer

. . . fuck puny fiction, pornocracy,
and pandit classes,
I emptied my purse
and inserted a gnat
o godmother
I am mostly silence . . . distaff
but it is not so
as I have heard from
that blindfolding eliminates stress . . .

In Pen Chants, Lissa Wolsak's practice is not to "eliminate stress," but rather to place stress accurately—to highlight, illuminate, suggest, declare, question, celebrate, disparage, chant—not through "blindfolding," but rather through its opposite: an unfolding and enfolding of language that is in Wolsak's poetic world the sharpest form of expression, though such sharpness—being slick, beautiful, edgy, pointed—entails, appropriately, more difficulty than ease.

eustasy, erosis, predicta, illusionism . . . ,
lustral, tribulated, august . . .
misnomers all

Wolsak's outrageously wide vocabulary and wide-ranging vocabularic play on diction defamiliarize even everyday language, making it foreign or curious, as a thing or occurrence translated into language should be. The perceptive self is a foreign self, "at the same time subject and not subject," and writing serves not to make it new but to make it strange: an illumination.

However impermanent, there is something—both formally and conceptually—in these poems that is chant-like, spirit-like, prayerful, perhaps as prayer would be ideally: not rote, not mindless, not automated, but intoned word by meaningful word as language made manifest in the body, desire or gratitude or need or belief made manifest in language. We might say there is a gap between the world of the world, the

seige-engines, empathy industry,
buy-backs for
our holy instant:
black with civilizade
or tethered in poses
of execution
and the world of the poems, which "practice ear extension":
it is we
allow the cello to wander
open among
aestheocratic
gift economies

If there is such a breach, between this—this intimate, infinite, fantastical and yet material world Wolsak perceives, and perceiving, intones—and that—that world of tired narratives, competition for victim status, belittled sweat capital and food for truces, then:

were all the limbs of my body
be turned to tongues
with living voice I ventriloquise
let this. . . . govern that.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001

COMEDY AFTER POSTMODERNISM

Comedy after Postmodernism by Kirby OlsonKirby Olson
Texas Tech University Press ($29.95)

by Brian Evenson

In Comedy After Postmodernism Kirby Olson chooses to rethink comedy in terms of an aspect of the work of Gilles Deleuze and Jean-Francois Lyotard. Literary criticism, argues Olson, has traditionally asked, in its definition of its canons, the question "What is great?," judging works on aesthetic terms. Recently, that question has been revised—because of a growing sense of what ends up being excluded when those judging greatness are white, stodgy, and male—to be "What is just?" In the light of postmodernism, Olson believes, the question might be rephrased as "What is odd?"

Olson's project, then, is one of recuperating the odd while allowing them to remain odd. He's interested in particular in the comic, in those writers who are considered not sufficiently weighty, not sufficiently serious, the writers that seem to be "dismissible at one end of the spectrum as light or silly and at the other end as deranged or perverse."

In an introduction and five chapters, Olson brings poststructuralist theory to bear on five comic writers, and sometimes (perhaps appropriately) he does so quite eccentrically. Edward Lear is discussed as a Deleuzian landscape painter who escapes definition, Beat poet Gregory Corso in terms of a theory of the food chain. French ex-surrealist Philippe Soupault, Olson suggests, offers theories of friendship in the place of Andre Breton's heavier drive toward eros and traditional sacrificial notions. P.G. Wodehouse is described as a social scientist who critiques Alexandre Kojeve's master/slave extrapolation of Hegel. Punk writer Stewart Home "makes possible the radical terminus of the attempt to contrast identity politics and humor," while mystery novelist Charles Willeford offers an intense critique of the nature of judgment.

Olson is at his best at one of two extremes: either when he dives into the language of the writer at hand to examine it adroitly or when he becomes conversational, taking a comic turn himself. His chapter on Willeford is perhaps the most carefully theoretical, but throughout the book Olson manages to provide odd insights into odd writers, making cases for their significance. Are they cases likely to be listened to by those asking "What is great?" and "What is just?" Probably not, but Olson is ultimately not trying to make comic writing less minor. Rather, he wants us to be aware of the possible value of this minor literature, to accept it in its own terms, and finally to see those terms in their real potential.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001

FABRICATION: Essays on Making Things and Making Meaning

Fabrication by Susan NevilleSusan Neville
MacMurray & Beck ($22)

by Nicole Hamer

Susan Neville's latest offering would like to be a serious meditation on manufacturing and meaning. However, somewhere in her journeys through the flat plains of Indiana, between the Veneer factories of Edinburgh, the Burley Tobacco auctions of Madison and the Industrial Goth night at the Melody Inn in Indianapolis, Neville allows nostalgia and grief to act as our tour guides in Fabrication. Deceptively heavy with mythic titles, such as "Byzantium," "S(t)imulation," and "How the Universe Is Made," Fabrication searches through the places where things are made in order to understand not the "meaning" suggested in the book's ambitious title, but the vanishing places and people inhabiting Neville's own nostalgic Indiana.

In this Indiana we find Dante, Chekhov, and Chopin mingling with muscular dogs, jovial factory workers, and grieving tobacco auctioneers—good local color, but only two chapters really live up to the promise of the book's title. These chapters provide the author's unique vision on manufacturing and meaning and work wonderfully: as in "Smoke," part exposition and part narrative fiction on the complex world of small tobacco farming, or the moving final paragraphs of "Carboys," a dedication to the youth who helped create modern technology. However, when the thoughtful work of these two chapters is complete, Neville slides back into the nostalgia that guides the remaining chapters of Fabrication, such as in "Perfect Circle," which seems symbolic of Neville's preoccupation with the past:

We'd walk into town and buy homemade donuts on Saturday morning at the donut shop and homemade caramels at the candy shop, and the children we'd someday have would ride their glittering bicycles through the golden angel dust that lined the street and we would know the names of the women who worked at the hardware store and the pharmacist with his bottles filled with blue-and yellow-tinctured water and we would always every minute of our lives be happy.

Neville can be an engaging writer, and Fabrication is most successful when she injects the intimate and nimble style that won her a Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction. In the end, however, this almost meandering collection of essays remains regrettably underdeveloped and disappointing. What could have been a fascinating meditation on the grand meaning of man-made things is instead merely a travel book on found objects and the author's own nostalgic grief.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001

Loss Within Loss: Artists in the Age of AIDS

Loss Within Loss edited by Edmund Whiteedited by Edmund White
University of Wisconsin Press ($29.95)

by Thomas Fagan

Much has been written about the toll taken by AIDS on the artistic community. Especially in the early years of the epidemic, when the time between diagnosis and death was much shorter than it is today, it seemed that every day brought news of another poet, playwright or painter, many only in their 20s or 30s, struck down by the virus.

Most of us only heard about the deaths deemed newsworthy, but what about all the others? For every Keith Haring, there were countless as-yet unknown painters who became too ill to wrestle their visions onto canvas; for every Rock Hudson, thousands of aspiring actors were robbed of the chance to perfect their craft and share their gifts.

It's said that when an artist dies, the world suffers two great losses: the person and the work they did not live to do. Loss Within Loss seeks to shed some light on both. Published in cooperation with the Estate Project for Artists with AIDS, this is a unique and ground-breaking collection of essays by artists, written about their artist friends, mentors, colleagues, and in some cases, lovers.

While some of the subjects in Loss Within Loss—Derek Jarman, Paul Monette, James Merrill—were relatively well-known when they died and have had their lives and works written about, most were not. The great service provided by these essays is to rescue from obscurity and celebrate the lives and creations of a diverse group of artists, most of them unknown and all dead too soon.

Combining elements of biography, memoir, art history and cultural studies, the contributors to the anthology approach their subjects from a variety of angles. John Berendt's tribute to his friend, landscape architect Bruce Kelly, is a straight-forward assessment of his considerable body of work, culminating in a detailed appreciation of Kelly's last project, more famous than its creator: Strawberry Fields, the John Lennon memorial in New York's Central Park.

Others, like Sarah Schulman on the writer and publisher Stan Leventhal and Felice Picano on the novelist Robert Ferro, take a more sociological approach, illuminating their subjects' lives and artistic accomplishments as parts of the new gay bohemianism of the 1970s, which was both a social and artistic phenomenon, and placing them firmly at the center of its emerging queer literary scene.

Most of the essays in Loss Within Loss are more personal and anecdotal. Allan Gurganus's piece on James Merrill, chronicling the stages of their friendship, consists of the two times the novelist spoke publicly of the poet: the first in 1993 when he introduced Merrill reading his work at New York's 92nd Street YMHA; the second was Gurganus's eulogy at his friend and mentor's funeral a mere fourteen months later.

The writer Benjamin Taylor was friends from childhood with scenic designer and avant-garde puppeteer Robert Frank Anton, and movingly recalls their life-long relationship. Of Anton's death in 1984 at age 35 he writes, "Watching my adored friend as the darkness enveloped him, I did not imagine how many more I'd watch as they vanished in their turn. This subtraction of wit, grace, brains and beauty from our midst has now become unbearable to contemplate. How is it we haven't, in compassionate horror, pulled the earth up over us?"

There are, of course, many more names that could be mentioned here: choreographer Joah Lowe, architect Frank Isreal, composer Chris DeBlasio, filmmakers Howard Brookner and Warren Sonbert. This list, fragmentary as it is, only hints at the depth and breadth of what we have lost.

As the "Age of AIDS" enters its third decade and the disease itself has gone from "crisis" to "epidemic" to "pandemic," Loss Within Loss is a powerful warning against complacency. It stands as both a fitting tribute to the dead of the past and a challenge to the survivors in the future: to continue the tasks of bearing witness and remembrance, the heart-breaking and necessary work of the living.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001

My Day: The Best of Eleanor Roosevelt's Acclaimed Newspaper Columns, 1936-1962

My Day, The Best of Eleanor Roosevelt's Acclaimed Newspaper Columns, 1936-1962edited by David Emblidge
Da Capo ($16)

by Charisse Gendron

Monday through Friday from 1936 to 1962, in a widely syndicated newspaper column called My Day, Eleanor Roosevelt told four-million readers her thoughts about public affairs and domestic life. The title of the column refers to its spontaneous, diaristic tone—"After greeting my children, we went down in a body to welcome all the movie talent which had come to help out in the President's Birthday Balls"—a tone that allowed readers comfortable access to Roosevelt's imposing mind and bionic schedule. She wrote, no doubt, in the same spirit in which she and FDR served hotdogs to the visiting King and Queen of England.

Although naturally not confessional—those seeking the private Roosevelt are directed to Blanche Weisen Cook's acclaimed multi-volume biography—the columns are indeed intimate in that they reveal the evolving convictions of a person centrally involved in the political and social life of the country for three decades. Dedicated throughout her career to the sometimes contradictory ideals of justice and peace, Roosevelt occasionally changes her mind or takes unexpected positions. In 1939, still opposed to the war against Hitler, she writes: "Why can't we get around a table and face the fact that Germany and Italy have started this whole performance because it was the only way in which their people could exist? . . . It is wearisome to read of the balance of power. I would like to see somebody write about a balance of trade and of food for the world . . ."

When Germany invades Brussels, however, Roosevelt throws her support behind the war effort, broadcasting (with Dorothy Thompson, Clare Booth Luce, Pearl Buck, and Marianne Moore) a message of sympathy to the women in detention camps in Poland, encouraging housewives to save cooking fat for the production of glycerine, and, though a champion of workers, advising against coal strikes that would slow the production of weapons.

Accused by misogynists of didacticism—"As she ages, the feminine part of the Roosevelt presidency becomes wilder in her attempts to force American youths to follow the pattern of life she wants to dictate to them"—Roosevelt was a flexible and discriminating thinker. Nowhere is this more evident than during the communist scare in the post-war years, when she served under Truman as a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly and chaired the Human Rights Commission.

"I think the thing that needs to be settled today," she writes in 1948, "is whether a statement that you believe in certain economic and political theories known as Communism implies that you also believe in the overthrow of your government by force." Roosevelt is one of the few who gets it: If you bully dissenters into waving the American flag, then you don't believe in democracy any more than they do. Considering the actor and activist Paul Robeson's views too radical to endorse, she nonetheless wonders wryly why people go to hear him if they find his words so intolerable. She also reminds readers that racial prejudice drove Robeson to the USSR, where "he was recognized as an educated man, as an artist and as an equal."

Roosevelt was revered by those who really counted, such as Humphrey Bogart, who asked her during a lunch at Romanoffs to autograph his copy of her book, This I Remember. But well-wishers could not protect her projects from the national reaction against liberalism led by a new Republican president and, more stridently, by the red-baiting senator Joseph McCarthy. Roosevelt held McCarthy partly responsible when in 1953 the Eisenhower administration refused to subscribe to the Declaration of Human Rights, a document she and her United Nations colleagues had worked for seven years to produce.

In retrospect, the title My Day suggests not only the diurnalism of Roosevelt's columns, but also their encapsulation of the history of a generation. "I have come to the conclusion that the nation as a whole has a very short memory," she writes resignedly in 1951, going on to explain the roots of the current Korean crisis in the Allies' liberation of Korea from Japan and subsequent division of the country between the US and the USSR. In the same year she finds it necessary to reprise the purpose of New Deal legislation, which was not to turn Americans soft but to save farms when "the businessmen who had striven to find answers to the economic problems up to 1932 had not succeeded in keeping down a wave of foreclosures." Farmers and others whom the New Deal kept working "were not made dependent," she continues; "They were simply kept from revolution against our government."

For those of us who failed to learn about 20th-century American history in school, these columns, with invaluable headnotes by editor David Emblidge, offer an inspiring way to make up for lost time.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001

The Sexual Criminal: A Psychoanalytical Study

The Sexual Criminal by J. Paul de River, M.D.J. Paul de River, M.D.
Edited with an introduction by Brian King
Bloat ($18.50)

by Jon Carlson

Sexual murder still can prove interesting these days (depending on the creativity of the perpetrator), but for the America that had recently emerged from World War II, the crime was considered shocking as well. So one might consider unusual the 1949 publication of The Sexual Criminal, which catalogued Dr. Paul de River's interviews with a wide assortment of sexual deviants from Los Angeles, who had resorted to the most frenzied sort of killing in order to satisfy their bloodlust. Now, a half century later, Brian King has edited a revised and expanded edition, which includes newspaper accounts pertaining to four of the murderers, and a revelatory introduction about the peculiar circumstances that surrounded the professional and personal life of de River.

As one reviews the material of de River and other contributors to the book, it becomes apparent that virtually every sexual act falls under the rubric of perversion, which the glossary defines as "the deviation of the sex impulse from its normal goal." Their introductory and supplementary materials alert us to the evil of "the sex degenerate," and it is the shrillness and certainty of these "experts" that bring present-day evangelists to mind. Even holy wedlock cannot escape the far reach of the law: "Criminals have no monopoly on sexual divergences. It is now accepted by most authorities that many happily married couples engage in mouth-genital, or ano-genital contacts: actions which are considered sex felonies by the laws of most states." However, for all the immoral or illegal sexual practices, nowhere do any of the writers deign to define which behaviors might fit the "normal goal" and thus be appropriate for discharging the sexual appetite of Los Angelenos.

Perversion is most compelling when accompanied by murder, and here de River gives us both aplenty in words and photos. His categories include the juvenile sadist, genteel sadist, lust murderer and others. With each of the accused, de River provides family and personal histories, along with the results of physical and psychiatric examinations. Most interesting are the final segments of the case history, which contain the questions de River poses to the subjects and their responses, followed by the doctor's analysis and conclusion.

By also including photos of disarticulated limbs, multiple stab wounds, etc., de River provides the reader with a smorgasbord of visual aids to flesh out the text and demonstrate vividly to what extent his subjects lost any sense of moderation in pursuit of their sexual needs. This is close-range, hands-on killing with knives, clubs, rope, arsenic—there is not one instance of a firearm used to cause death.

Not every so-called sexual perversion investigated by de River culminates in murder. For example, with regard to sadistic bestiality, de River relates the story of a male preteen who indulged in sexual intercourse with chickens and his pet collie. More absorbing by dint of greater elaboration is the account of a teenage farm girl and Sandy, the family dog (a male, part shepherd). Although the girl longed for stallions or colts, she found Sandy much to her liking, as evidenced by her response to one of Dr. de River's "clinical" questions: "How would you get the most satisfaction from the animal?" Answer: "By his licking my privates until I couldn't stand it."

The Sexual Criminal contains a strong undercurrent of irony thanks to Brian King's introduction, "The Strange Case of Doctor de River." King's extensive research uncovers many concerns about de River's vocation, including questions about his medical training, his conduct dealing with suspects during the Black Dahlia homicide investigation, and his conviction for illegally prescribing narcotics for his wife, who was suffering from spinal surgery. And despite the ostensibly medicolegal justification that underlies the doctor's case histories, the nature of questions he advances in conjunction with the photographs points to a more personal interest. As with anti-pornography crusaders, who must carefully vet all the hardcore material within reach before dispensing their outrage, de River's moral patina is deliciously undermined by his own insatiable voyeurism. As such, it gives this engaging volume an enhanced kick.

In this land where ultraviolence often remains the last resort of those utterly jaded by more normative and stagnated forms of cultural diversion, The Sexual Criminal graphically reminds us that the "simple act of murder," fueled by a rabid sexual urge and carried out well and thoroughly, has always been the ne plus ultra of the true crime connoisseur.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001

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