Tag Archives: summer 2002


Iceland by Jim KrusoeJim Krusoe
Dalkey Archive Press ($14.95)

by Carrie Mercer

Consider the poetry of internal organs: "the bloated, spongy butterflies of lungs, the shy parenthesis of kidneys, the lurid exclamation marks of livers, the cheerful blimps of stomachs, the loopy daydreams of intestines, the schools of tiny pancreas, and dark, brooding spleens." Aren't they really quite endearing? This unexpected tenderness toward body parts is typical of the strange, funny surprises in Iceland, Jim Krusoe's surreal first novel.

The narrative line of Iceland is deceptively simple. After protagonist Paul visits an organ bank to pick out a new organ and instead ends up making love to Emily, the organ tender, he spends the rest of his life trying to sort out and relive the details of that afternoon. As the years pass, he makes elaborate attempts to link events and people in his current life to memories of those few hours spent with Emily.

At times, Paul's experiences seem ridiculously improbable, as when he falls into a volcano—and survives—but then even Paul acknowledges their unbelievable quality: bouncing down the side of the volcano, he describes his body as a "horribly deformed ball [falling] down a funnel-shaped roulette wheel of the sort that only appears in dream sequences of bad motion pictures." At other times, Paul seems oblivious to the virtually impossible level of detail in his observations, as when he describes an ice mural that depicts some greeting cards: "It was clear, even through the imperfect medium of ice-carving, that they were poorly printed, and on cheap paper."

The stories Paul remembers Emily telling him gradually grow longer and more elaborate, full of philosophical musings on the nature of memory and desire. Attached as he is to these memories, Paul recognizes early on how inaccurate his recollections are, "reconstructed out of a combination of memory, hope, and a little water in my left ear at the time, which made it hard for me to understand exactly what she was saying."

Luckily, Paul's longing for the elusive Emily doesn't prevent him from having other interesting relationships along the way. He befriends Leo, a carpet cleaner whose number he dialed by mistake while trying to phone Emily. The comical sensitivity evident in Paul's description of organs shows up again when he considers Leo: "As he wheezed, he rocked slightly from side to side, not like a tall tree exactly, but more like a bush about to topple. And like many a bush, there was something oddly likable about him." When Paul accompanies a despondent Leo to Iceland for a vacation, he looks for ways to cheer up his friend. "'A volcano. Lava. Fire. Ice. Who can be sad?'" a tour rep insists.

Ensuing years find Paul married with children, then alone again, searching for Emily. The astute reader will delight in assembling connections that Paul somehow misses in his obsessive search for Emily, making Iceland a sort of philosophical mystery. Looking hard for clues, one might wonder why Paul keeps encountering pairs of men whose names all start with "D" and "S," and why they wear winter clothing inappropriate to the climate. Then again, one might get infected with the same "philosophy virus" Paul caught from Emily.

On any level, Iceland is an intimate engagement, experimental fiction free of the malevolence that marks much of the genre. Instead of violence, Krusoe relies on an appealing, melancholic humor to surprise the reader, making plausible such unlikely possibilities as experiencing "The Banana Boat Song" as a maudlin dirge.

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

Click here to buy this book at Amazon.com

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002

When Eve Was Naked: Stories of a Life's Journey

When Eve Was Naked by Josef SkvoreckyJosef Skvorecky
Various translators
Farrar, Straus and Giroux ($25)

by Tricia Cornell

A memoir would seem almost superfluous for a writer like Josef Skvorecky. Approaching 70, with nearly 20 books behind him, the Czech dissident and émigré publisher has been telling the story of his life through his characters for more than four decades. Intriguingly, however, he has collected two dozen of these stories—all of them previously published, though many of them appearing for the first time in English—into When Eve Was Naked: Stories of a Life's Journey. Even with a handful of different narrators, the stories interlock to tell of a remarkable life.

These are the stories of Danny Smiricky (Skvorecky's long-time alter ego and the hero of his novels The Miracle Game and The Engineer of Human Souls) and Josef and Prema from the town of K. or Kostelec or Nachod (Skvorecky's real home town). But together they tell the story of Czechoslovakia, of all of Eastern Europe, and of a generation that grew up in that scary, hopeful, uncertain period between the two world wars.

The stories begin, as they should, in innocence. A little boy refuses to learn how to read because he loves the sound of his mother's voice telling him bedtime stories. And he believes his mother when she tells him that all liars are betrayed by their tell-tale soft noses. But even eight-year-old Danny is not entirely shielded from politics. In the title story, he shares an Italian seaside resort with a cohort of priggish Hitler Youth. At that age, however, he isn't paying attention to them: he's distracted by the pigtails and tiny ankles of a girl named Eve.

As Danny grows up, political concerns deepen. His German teacher is Jewish. His doctor, his neighbors and a sympathetic girl at school are Jewish. While Skvorecky and his main characters are Catholics, it's clear that they, like all of Prague, Eastern Europe, and the rest of the world, struggle with a "Jewish question" of their own. How could they fail to notice the yellow stars, the disappearing neighbors, the packed trains headed north and west, and eventually the individual stragglers back from Terezin? But then again, how could teenagers not be distracted, like Danny and Skvorecky, by jazz music, American zoot-suiters and the flip of a girl's skirt?

Skvorecky escaped Czechoslovakia in 1969, after the Soviet tanks rolled in to put an end to the Prague Spring and to show definitively that "Communism with a human face" was not to be. But the story of escape he chooses to publish here takes place during the first Soviet invasion, in 1948, when Skvorecky would have been 24. In "Spectator on a February Night," young Josef and his Hollywood-worshipping gablik buddies (fans and imitators of Clark Gable) pack stylish suits into valises and drive across the border in a two-seater Packard. Perhaps that's the way Skvorecky wishes he had emigrated, rather than waiting out two decades of oppression.

Eventually Skvorecky makes it to Canada, teaching at a small college in Toronto, and he brings his alter egos along with him. A little boy talks with his mom in "our language" and an émigré professor tries to fathom his students' North American sexual mores.

Skvorecky's pace is so measured, his details so meticulous, that he is almost a tease (not surprisingly, he has also written a handful of murder mysteries). But together those details—remembered or invented—make When Eve Was Naked the most honest kind of memoir: one that is not ashamed to be as much fiction as fact.

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

Click here to buy this book at Amazon.com

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002

And Things Happen for the First Time

UnknownIztok Osojnik
translated by Sonja Kravanja
Modry Peter Publishers ($11.95)

by Susan Smith Nash

IIztok Osojnik, who lives and writes in Ljubljana, Slovenia, has published more than 16 collections of poetry, many of which have been translated from Slovenian into English. Perhaps the most widely read of those is Postcards for Darjia, which received the Slovenian National Poetry Book Award.

Reading the poems collected in And Things Happen for the First Time, it is easy to see why Osojnik has received such acclaim. Imagistic, with subtle humor, the poems develop a direct vision of life's ironies, paradoxes, and contradictions.

Osojnik juxtaposes myth and the modesty of everyday life to create an effect that is akin to bathos, but only in the positive sense of the term. The sudden deflation of expectation, the puncturing of a myth, are all necessary in order to see reality, suggests Osojnik, and he is no fan of art used in the service of lies, cant, and moral suasion. In "The Hysterical Woman," Osojnik renders a snapshot of a woman existentially caught in a moment of horror. We are not allowed to see what is causing the horror—simply that she has witnessed too much and has become trapped in an emotional dynamic equivalent to Edvard Munch's The Scream. If one hopes for rescue from angels or entities on high, there is no such hope held out: "There are no giants here. Just a village commons. / Cash and carry. And silence." The silence of the village is evocative of villages purged by Serbs. The silence makes the scream all the more heart-rending.

Osojnik deals with genocide in blunt, uncompromising terms as in "Damnation to the Murderous Serbs," where evil becomes its own organism, with a heart, aorta, and circulatory system. This metaphor is frightening in its brilliance; it perfectly communicates the exigencies of evil, and why extirpating evil often means plucking the very heart from the body, resulting in certain death to the entire organism.

Other poems address the poet's quest for vision and spiritual unity, but in a way that acknowledges that an overblown sense of self is the quickest route to blindness. In "Dead Poet's Society," the narrator climbs Parnassus "wearing only Adidas / and shorts" and, thus garbed, is able to find the paths carved by the ancients. Humility leads to enlightenment here, and following his solitary sojourn, the narrator "return[s] to the valley. Pensive. Wind-blown. Emotional. / Daydreamed about you. Just like a classical / Greek hero. I watched the mountaintop. Sang softly."

The other poems in the collection are characterized by the same level of simplicity of spirit, honesty of intent. It is a lovely collection, accompanied by sketches that reinforce the simple, direct lines, the purity of feelings.

Click here to buy this book at Amazon.com

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002


HDays by Hank Lazerank Lazer
Lavender Ink Press ($14.95)

by Cynthia Hogue

Known for his acute criticism as well as exploratory poetry, Hank Lazer is a poet who might be described as a stylistic risk-taker as well as forager in the treasure house of words. But how does an avant-garde poet, by definition one who pushes the genre to extremes, take poetic risks and experiment? Lazer has answered this question in his latest collection, Days, a series of ten-line poems written almost daily over the course of a year, in which he forays into the territory of the lyric. He writes in his brief afterword that Days is "an homage to workers in the short line," allowing a "return to musicality and lyricism that felt very joyous—a way away from some of the implicit do's and don't's of avant garde praxis; a means back into modes of beauty." Such an approach has produced an often genuinely beautiful and linguistically fascinating poetry.

Lyric, as a generically denotative term, is famously hard to define. What Lazer seems to mean by lyricism is not that the poems are conventionally lyrical (as in, for example, John Stuart Mills's notion of a solitary voice overheard in a garden), but rather that they have a timely immediacy (in Sharon Cameron's sense of "lyric time"). Lazer works closely with the music of words, but not with representational imagery; with the signifying swerves of short lines, but not with a particular lineality of thinking. In a recent essay on the poetry of Rae Armantrout, in fact, Lazer has theorized what he terms a "poetics of the swerve," that capacity of the poem to open (or swerve) to the sudden association—sometimes a visual, sometimes an aural or verbal link. As the following passage suggests, Lazer himself is exploring that poetics:

slow to slogan

voracious to

veracity amen

to mendacity

The power of these lines lies in the way a word that is meaningfully unrelated or even contrastive to another word can cause us to think of that other word through aural association. Such swerves allow Lazer deftly to play with the multiple meanings—"radiating infinite spokes"—that the coincidence of short lines and forced line breaks creates (for example, "veracity amen"; emphasis added).

Given that Days is a "daybook," the collection sustains a sense of being provisional, the "ecstatic witness" to a life in progress and in process. Some words are crossed out, others written in. There are handwritten dates for every poem and sometimes handwritten notes in the margins. The mind tracking its musings in these poems thinks about daily events through a language that leaps up and back and sideways rather than proceeds forward in an orderly fashion. Like all poetry, there is in these poems an intensified attention to language—for Lazer, a Poundian "dance of the intellect // paideuma of moving word icon"—that is interrupted by the very sense of lyric immediacy being contemplated. The poems quite literally "scatter" verbal effects, both enacting and interfering with, as one poem puts it,

a metaphysic of

this the still

lyrical interference

How exactly do they do this?

Take the middle line in the passage I just quoted as an example. This the still: the deictic points but does not actually refer to anything concrete. As an abstract noun, "the still" might be usefully associated with the captured-in-time, iconic quality of ekphrasis in painting. If we read the words in an enjambed sequence of three lines, however, "still" becomes an adverb or adjective rather than a noun: the still lyrical interference; or still, lyrical interference. But which word does "still" modify, "lyrical" or "interference"? Lazer exploits these meaningful shifts without determining them technically (as the addition of a comma and/or dash or a different line break would do).

This aspect of his work allows him to open the poems to more than the play of signification, as the following passage suggests:

. . . & means

of enumerating

sudden content

ment heart in

sists its history is now

& thus not history proper

Meaning unfolds into emotion's intensity ("heart in / sists its history is now") and then flits away, into another discursive tone ("& thus not history proper") as we read the lines as enjambed, rather than as discrete units.

Like the jazz improvisations that have in part inspired them, the form of these poems is the same (all the poems are ten lines), but the variations are endless. When taken together, the series comprises an epistemology of the quotidian that reveals it as rich with the large and the small. Lazer calls such a technique of inquiry, punningly, "hip gnosis" ("gnosis" in the sense of knowing). Wit like this delights and surprises throughout the volume.

Although the lyricism of this volume is surely the barest of bones, "stone soup" version, that spareness is oddly compelling. Lazer's sceneless poetry is as abstract and aware of the materiality of language as Dickinson, Stein, or Creeley (all of whom Lazer lists, among others, in his homage in the afterword). I take its honed pleasures, then, in the spirit of their poetics. I appreciate not only the play of, but also the politics that Lazer is able to uncover in the word—its malleable intonations and connotations, the music and meaning arising unexpectedly from aural echoes and associations, as in this brief sketch of the "adamic // american":

beginning over &

over      adamic

american impulse

insidious erasure

nationally tragic

habit counter

measure make audible

the rhyme

of mall and auction

block and so on

How many white poets, North or South, would allow so tangential an association as the assonance of "mall" and "auction" to move into significant historical consciousness?

Thus, for all the play of these poems, what draws me the most to Days is the near-spiritual urgency and ethical integrity of Lazer's poetic inquiry. They run like seams through the book, disrupting any stray "breathy epiphanies" (as Lazer wickedly and hilariously describes an "insipid" poetry reading). Like a tightrope walker, Lazer manages with aplomb to balance on the line between two aesthetics (in shorthand, Language and lyric), joyously con/fusing them, and refusing to decide whether "i'm as // far away from the // sacred as i've // ever been or it's // popping up here all // the time."

Click here to buy this book at Amazon.com

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002

The Fiddler's Trance

FThe Fiddler's Trance by Floyd Sklootloyd Skloot
Bucknell University Press ($19.95)

by Lynnell Edwards

Floyd Skloot's third full-length collection of poetry reveals him again as a poet of strong narrative and formal command, best when imaging the myth and history of the almost modern artists and aristocracy of the 19th and early 20th century. The Fiddler's Trance opens with a commanding vision of Rasputin, appearing in the darkness of night dreams to the author, who after long illness finds himself "staring out the window at moonlit oaks" and sees Rasputin's beard "ruffle in a swirl of wind." It is a breathless beginning, a first sentence that runs nineteen lines long, punctuated with internal and occasional end rhyme, and perfectly managed stanza breaks. Ostensibly a muse, Rasputin is the first of a pageant of characters that make up the collection's strongest poems, including Odilon Redon, Sigmund Freud, Tsar Nikolas of Russia who "has been haunting the woods / all week," Juan Gris, and Robert Frost—who appears, like Rasputin, in the dark hours before dawn.

In these portraits, Skloot is at his best: wielding a tight control over the narrative line, masterfully capturing the cadence and the idiom of human speech, using the occasional stunning image to draw the scene, but always and most importantly telling a story. "Frost," arguably the strongest of the narrative poems, relies on humor as the poet converses with his poetic mentor in this surreal yet daylight clear exchange: "He leads me straight uphill. Baroque. / Folk. Roanoke. 'Awoke,' I say and he / stops dead to let me know who makes the rules." Here is a Frost we haven't quite imagined before. Still stronger in its story is the amazing "Behind Gershwin's Eyes," with short lines that run as breathless and sure as "Rhapsody in Blue" and detail the debilitating effects of a tumor on the composer's right temporal lobe. The final stunning stanza brings together the confusion of senses and the loss of reality in the artist's mind:

A blade of light
where the drawn shades
meet. Roses without odor,
icewater leaping from its cut
glass goblet, eyes leached
of luster in the shadowy
mirror of his brother's eyes.
He spread chocolates melted
in the oven of his palm
up his arms like an ointment,
and soon he was gone.

Skloot is generous with his exposition and epigraphs in each of these narratives, and readers will feel neither excluded nor snubbed for not being intimately familiar with the lives of these individuals.

The book does not consist entirely of portraits, however, and Skloot's method is not exclusively narrative. Still-lifes from the Pacific Northwest punctuate each section, but are less effective as a whole. Perhaps it is the burden of the nature poet striving to reach beyond regionalism to shake off the idealism, even the nostalgia for his own place that still trouble these pieces, which less surely investigate the natural world. If Robert Frost has immortalized New England for us, and James Still, Applachia, then Skloot's attempts to similarly offer the vistas of the Pacific Northwest fall short in this transcendent quality. Generally lacking conflict, they depend too heavily on "Lean dusky Alaskan geese nibbling grass / seed in his field, early daffodils, three / fawns moving across his lawn in the last / of afternoon light" (from "Gift") and "a white horse wearing half / its winter coat shivers / in the sundown wind," (from "Beyond Grande Ronde") or "a swollen / sun pinned on the tip of Mount Hood / and bleeding alpenglow" (from "Cipole Road in Early Spring").

But the narratives themselves are fearless, and carry the book. They often blur the line between the real and the imagined interior life of the artist, particularly the artist who battles against a disease that is slowly stealing his vision. The metaphor is perhaps easy to read, and the translation from Skloot's own long struggle with illness perhaps obvious, but the unexpected combinations of action, dialogue and image show the idea anew, and with hope that radiates above the chaos and fray like the "tangerines / filling a crystal compote / on the marble-topped bar / of the Folies-Bergère / in the last large work / by Edouard Manet" who looked for and found "a sign of life / that grief would not distort" (from "The Tangerines"). So too, the Fiddler has found that sign of life in this latest work, singing best through the voice of others.

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

Click here to buy this book at Amazon.com

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002

Airs, Waters, Places

Airs, Waters, Places by Bin RamkeBin Ramke
Iowa University Press ($16)

by Dan Beachy-Quick

Anaxagoras—a philosopher to whom poet Bin Ramke repeatedly returns—differed from his predecessors in one extremely important way. Rather than searching for the origin of the world in an earthly element (water, air, fire, dirt), Anaxagoras claimed that the universe was kept in order by the power of Mind (nous). The source of all is no longer at hand in the clod of soil, not in the tip of flame heating air, but rather can be found in all these, and elsewhere too. The genuine world—the ontological world—is nowhere and in all things, hidden and ubiquitous at once.

Such is this poet's world, our world, in which we strike for wisdom where we can, and hope for illuminating resonance in return. If Mind lurks in the universe turning considerations into constellations, then surely the language that bears our thinking shares in the order(ing) of the world. And it is in that sense of order—order extending from the stellar dust that collapsed into this planet to string theory and ultraviolet wavelengths, from childhood to parenthood, from public to private life—that Ramke so sincerely and beautifully attends.

The first motion of that attention rises to a height that can almost encompass the world:

and from the air, from the airplane I saw
I saw beneath me during that time (I think it was time)
of year I saw the fall of the leaves around each tree separate

To the poet at Apolline heights, each tree in death speaks its death, and each is clear, discrete, distinct. But this speaking is different than we might suppose: "the tree speaking not to me only to itself like God." No privilege of vision, no gift of the land unfolding from a plane window, offers an entrance into the thinking of the world we live in (we do not live above it). Ramke descends as far as he's risen; to speak always risks corrupting what we speak of, always threatens "a further fall." On the other hand, to speak, to poem the world, Ramke says, is to stand inside the "calling" of all things that surround themselves "with vibrating molecules / known as noise." The poet can risk his own disharmony.

Ramke ends his first poem with Lear's response to Cordelia's honest silence: "You recall, Nothing / will come of nothing." The allusion serves as more than threat; it echoes forward through the book as a Pre-Socratic fragment. This "nothing" is tangible, and if nothing births nothing, then the vacuum that nature abhors is a vacuum that is possible. The poem speaks against such a nothing, ultimately asking: what is?

The question is as personal as it is universal in Ramke's book. Indeed, as Airs, Waters, Places progresses, the tangle of the stellar, the private, the mathematical and the matrimonial, is allowed to become more tangled, "A little like love, Dear." In "Zoo" that tangling begins:

a formula        flies thrown through the
air arced                     adhesion of

things attach to           fact     there is real
and there is not not     is a

difference                   the imagined is a kind
of real                         memory too

there was
a day I                        was a small child

The child who dreamed of math for comfort becomes the adult whose comfort is in remembering being a child. This comfort is not solace. It's the recognition that what was lived and what was imagined attach themselves to the world in a manner that is real. The arcing formula adheres to life, carries life along with it.

The strange complexity of such attachment is that life feels anything but individual. The fact outlives the thing; the child outlives the day. And yet—half-miracle, half-torment—all is at hand. From "Zoo": "I should have remembered the war it happened / two years before my birth." The self is not the boundary of experience. The self is permeable, a dashed-line, a definition to keep in question:

I whistle and the poem unfolds
a kind

of pose, a kindness exposed,
. . . is a story a sequence a word
and a word and yet still the pool

the face of posed Narcissus
he is knowledge he is Adam
he is home alone . . .

Ramke keeps himself in his gaze—in actual reflection more often than self-reflection. This gazing into the water, this Adamic naming and knowledge, infiltrates the form of some poems; they bifurcate, calling into question the other half:

Someone tell the neighbors someone
drink to her life in the light. My
life hath been one love—no blot it out
My life hath been one chain
of contradictions . . .

I watch through the
on such a day my face
against, the breath as I speak
to myself the words freeze

Here, the two lines of the poem run parallel, intersecting only by the will of the reader. Elsewhere, as in "Surface Tension" (a poem in concert with the cover's painting) the two halves reflecting each other relate:

in a lake-a litter of leaves
the pages a book in her one hand
legs might be cold she wears
above the water the girl reads
Here: think of a girl standing
surrounds her, she is reading
she is doubled—wavery—radiating—her
a dress the hemline
what she believes—

Words frozen on a pane obscure the face of who spoke them. The girl reading in the river wavers; her book is filled with tears. Tears are "me down my cheek" falling. The book is as much a surface of reflection as Narcissus's pond, but Ramke points out there is no simple staring at anything—least of all, our own beauty. The universe intervenes—its thinking ripples and fractures the surface. Ramke records those fractures not as breaks, but as connections.

Ramke continually turns toward collage—of his own voice and of others interrupting the speaking voice. He writes:

Those are not tears on the page those are tears on the page. Water Marks. Shadows. Those are tears on the page. That is a splash

But the page is not torn. Ramke collects other thoughts, other words. He sees a poem, any poem, joins in the equation of every poem. We speak, Anaxogoras speaks. The whole world lives in one mouth. All speaking becomes Nous: the Mind that orders the world. It cannot help but be so. Talking to ourselves we say each other's words. What we hear, Ramke says, when we listen, if we listen, is not one voice in aria, no—we hear the harmony amassing.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002

Book of My Nights

Book of My Nights by Li-Young LeeLi-Young Lee
Boa Editions ($12.95)

by M. L. Schuldt

“Our bodies look solid, but they aren't. We're like a fountain. A fountain of water looks solid, but you can put your fingers right through it. Our bodies look like things, but there's no thingness to them.” Such is the metaphysical preoccupation of Li-Young Lee's long-awaited third volume of poetry, Book of My Nights—a collection of 35 lyrical nocturnes which mark a shift in the poet's work towards a more hermetic mode. Where Rose and The City in Which I Love You confront childhood memories and the generational anxieties attendant to them, Lee surrenders much of his familial obsessing for a transfiguring kind of introspection.

As the title portends, Lee endures sleeplessness to contemplate the self's urge for total presence. And as with the two volumes that precede it, Lee arrives at his revelations through a pliant, twining syntax and an archetypal diction. Nights, those "black intervals," become a kind of threshold, a fugitive and elusive place where Lee interrogates himself as in the poem "From Another Room": "Who lay down at evening / and woke at night / a stranger to himself?" In "Degrees of Blue" the poem yawns open into a dream-like setting: "At the place in the story // where a knock at the hull wakes the dreamer / and he opens his eyes to find the rowers gone, / the boat tied to an empty dock, // the boy looks up from his book…" Indeed, the stillness and quiet and repetition of "night" fill Book of My Nights with provocative instants of self-transcendence.

In terms of its metaphorical strength, "Praise Them," (perhaps the finest piece of writing in the collection overall), expands through terse phrasings:

The birds don't alter space.
They reveal it. The sky
never fills with any
leftover flying. They leave
nothing to trace. It is our own
astonishment collects
in chill air. Be glad.

Here, the birds become auguries of a new, visionary perspective at work in Lee's poetry. He continues his Romantic projections:

how three birds in a winter tree
make the tree barer.
Two fly away, and new rooms
open in December.
Give up what you guessed
about a whirring heart, the little
beaks and claws, their constant hunger.
We're the nervous ones.

Like Charles Wright and Wallace Stevens, Lee internalizes his landscape, conjoins imagination's immanence with the external world of God's eminence:

If even one of our violent number
could be gentle
long enough that one of them
found it safe inside
our finally untroubled and untroubling gaze,
who wouldn't hear
what singing completes us?

The Chinese painter and writer of the 6th century, Hsieh Ho, observed that a painting should enact a spiritual movement of its own—the painter's meditation becoming the viewer's meditation. In the aforementioned poems, as well as "One Heart," "The Sleepless," and "Little Father" Lee's spiritual flights are wholly felt by the reader.

Unfortunately for the majority of poems in Book of My Nights, Lee's strength seems also to be his weakness. So smooth and polished are the surfaces, so ephemeral and fleeting the impressions, so reliant, poem to poem, on abstractions that, taken as a whole, the collection suffers. Indeed, a good portion of this third volume seems overwrought and monotonous, and as such slides from any sort of memorable grasping. For example in the poem "Buried Heart," Lee writes:

The hyacinth emerges headlong dying,
one of the colors of ongoing
and good-bye,

its odor my very body's smokeless burning,

its voice
night's own dark lap.

Above ground, the crown of flowers tells the wish
brooding earth stitched inside the bulb.

In another kingdom, it was the wick
the lamp cradled, strands
assembled in rapt slumber.

Here, while the sounds are certainly wonderful, the metaphorical language seems graceful to the point of forgetfulness, airy, and overly elaborate; in short, unconvincing, without the linguistic or syntactical kinks that would jolt us from what otherwise too often reads as pure artifice.

In contrast, take for instance the poem "Eating Together" from Lee's first and best book, Rose:

In the steamer is the trout
seasoned with slivers of ginger,
two sprigs of green onion, and sesame oil.
We shall eat it with rice for lunch,
brothers, sister, my mother who will
taste the sweetest meat of the head,
holding it between her fingers
deftly, the way my father did
weeks ago. Then he lay down
to sleep like a snow-covered road
winding through pines older than him,
without any travelers, and lonely for no one.

Gerald Stern has praised this first collection's simplicity, how it "consists in finding the language that releases—even awakens—feelings, and that the poem as art object is best served by addressing those very feelings, that is, the language of those feelings." Stern has never been more right. Lee's great contribution to contemporary poetry has been his gift for revivifying the senses, his infusion of simple pleasures and simple speech into a poetic climate where the vogue seems to be to commodify language. Indeed, no poet in only two books would be as commended by peers and embraced by anthologists if he wasn't a master of balancing the grace of his artifice with the holiness of his experiences. And even if Book of My Nights reads less successfully than its predecessors, such shortcomings, nevertheless, remind us of the poetry past and the poetry still to be written.

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

Click here to buy this book at Amazon.com

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002

The Guns and Flags Project

GThe Guns and Flags Project by Geoffrey G. O'Brieneoffrey G. O'Brien
University of California Press ($16.95)

by Steve Healey

A cloud of anonymity shrouds The Guns and Flags Project, the first book of poems by Geoffrey G. O'Brien. Granted, there's a pretty slick author photo on the inside flap, but even here he tucks sheepishly into his own shadows, letting the cloud looming on his shoulder take the focal point. Below that photo you'll find a bio that offers nothing but a few journal acknowledgements. On the back cover you'll find, shockingly, not a single blurb from the literary elite (although the editors of the impressive New California Poetry series—Cal Bedient, Robert Hass, and Brenda Hillman—may constitute a less obvious Holy Trinity of official sanctioning). Finally, the entire cover design conveys an austere remove with its understated arrangement of line and muted color (think: Ralph Lauren meets Mark Rothko).

More importantly, of course, is what you'll find in the poems, and here too, a stark, impersonal tone prevails, as in titles from "The Premiere of Reappearance" to "Winter Rose." In fact, the typical O'Brien poem sort of avoids point of view altogether, almost never clinging to the easy intimacies of you or I, usually flowing seamlessly through a series of indefinite vantages. Point of view becomes movement itself, allowing all things macro and micro their democratic right to be seen and heard, at least for a moment. There is a speaker here—indeed, this book's magic is how it turns so much variety and blur into a singular, convincing voice—it's just that he seems to have no qualities, or just not the specific, personal-ad litany of faux-individualism we expect from the modern consumer self (e.g. "I like Pepsi and Britney's bellybutton").

You might guess that The Guns and Flags Project favors a distilled, elemental language—the lexical primary colors (including frequent references to primary colors themselves), like this sampling of key words from a poem called "Thoughts of a Judge": clouds, days, fell, leaves, space, ideas, teeth, glass, dying, calmly, country, be. O'Brien gives himself a limited palette: simple nouns, few extravagant qualifiers, and the most transparent verbs, the favorite being be. Add to this lack a lack of peppy rhetorical devices, and it's a wonder these poems can move at all. But move they do, hugely and thickly as slow tornadoes emerging from the unconscious. The only way to survive is to surrender to the spiraling swirl, to be it, and O'Brien encourages this with absurdly long sentences brimming with comma splices and other run-on fun. This pace builds momentum in mostly longish poems that spill over two or more pages, and even a one pager like "Constantly So Near" gives a smaller-scale taste of that paradoxically simple and complex flavor. Notice how quickly the I is abandoned for the not-I:

I thought the thinking of going to sleep
thrown on like a coverlet of flame

which urges the body beneath it
to a sultry kind of ownerlessness

in which the famous obedience of limbs
submits like the non-public aspect of flame

to being only the yellow ash
of some almost glimpsed but yielded thing

in a space not quite lashed by experience
but still lent to the losing of it

or a just-missed train whose passage hangs
about the station in a great veil of dust

refusing to speak of any children
only looming now fast now slow as windows

or the holes in the lace of the new mourners
while the tracks are not rising up to meet it.

The dust an ash the passage a form of flame
or just being alone over the hours

descending so blithely where they appoint you
governor of irregular black buildings.

By line three the speaker becomes a generic body who surrenders to "ownerlessness," a loss of personal control guiding him on a strange tour of himself as "yellow ash," then as "a just-missed train," and finally, morphed into the second person, as "governor of irregular black buildings." Like most poems in The Guns and Flags Project, this one can be read as a song of despair about a self suffocating in a world that worships the material and entices us to purchase so many false selves. So that final line resonates with our political impotence, the futility of so-called individual freedom.

But there's a redemptive and joyful strain running through O'Brien's poems, this perhaps even more foregrounded than that encroaching darkness. The speaker in "Constantly So Near" is also travelling a mystical path, learning how to be humble, grateful, awestruck, receptive to what is real in the face of buzzing desire. Life happens not in personal satisfaction, this poem suggests, but in transformation through metaphor—not in attachment, but in the mysterious fluidity between the I and not-I. Mostly what I hear in "governor of irregular black buildings" is the playful possibility of an alternative politics whereby choice is an imaginative act with reverence for the unknown and the strange.

If O'Brien's poems have a sameness of diction and rhythm that verges on monotonous and impersonal, it's the same sameness of heartbeat and breath, prayer and meditation. It's a poetry that asks for patient attention, and gives back all the void's abundance.

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

Click here to buy this book at Amazon.com

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002

Publish Lifeboat

by Ryder W. Miller

[Note: a version of this paper was presented at the John Steinbeck's Americas Centennial Conference at Hofstra University in March 2002.]

Mexico City
February 19, 1944
To Annie Laurie Williams, by Telegram


Though receiving an Academy Award nomination in 1944 for best original story for Lifeboat, Steinbeck was never madder at any of his screen adaptations. Alfred Hitchcock and John Steinbeck were a strange choice for collaboration. Hitchcock, the auteur and master of suspense. Steinbeck, the proletarian and realist. Whereas Steinbeck's characters worried if they had food enough to eat, Hitchcock's characters debated about which restaurant to eat at, with one of the considerations being how to avoid being poisoned.

Steinbeck's unpublished manuscript for Lifeboat, which you need to make an appointment to read at one of the few Steinbeck research centers in the country, at first glance isn't extremely different than what Hitchcock created on the screen, but it is different enough. Donald Spoto, in The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock, recounts what Hitchcock and company did to Steinbeck's work:

The difficulties of realizing a script for Lifeboat were considerable. John Steinbeck, who thought that Hitchcock's obsession with a single set inhibited the drama, left the project after sketching a few scenes and a prose summary. MacKinlay Kantor was then brought in, but Hitchcock was disappointed with him and asked Macgowan to let him go. Finally Jo Swerling, who had crafted several scripts for other directors, worked on the screenplay until mid-July; but just before shooting began that month, Hitchcock, working alone at home, rewrote all the dialogue himself. He then asked Ben Hecht to read the script and to make some suggestions about the final scenes, as Hecht had done for Foreign Correspondents.

Robert E. Morseberger wrote in Film Quarterly that the result was "an uneven conglomeration of Hitchcock suspense, Steinbeck philosophy, and Swerling situation and dialogue." Among other things like racism and snobbery, Steinbeck "objected to the way in which Swerling had removed his gritty realism and replaced it with slick and implausible details."

Lifeboat tells the grim tale of survivors from a bombed Allied freighter trying to survive at sea while World War II rages. On board the lifeboat in the movie are a reporter, a union worker from Chicago, a millionaire, a seaman, a British radio operator, a nurse, a Negro steward, and an English woman with her dead baby. In many ways they are a microcosm of humanity, and when they pick up an enemy from the German submarine that bombed them, the group has to decide what to do with him. Lifeboat is about survival, but it is also a study of how society reacts when the enemy has become vulnerable. For some unnamed reason, union worker Albert Shienkowitz wants to throw the German overboard immediately. Others are mistakenly more trustworthy. In the movie the German becomes the pilot, and even helps by performing an operation to save one of the passengers. But he has secret plans, and when he is found out the others in the lifeboat get rid of him. Though factitious, humanity has bonded to protect themselves on the unpredictable ocean.

Steinbeck could write a story about survival at sea. Hitchcock could direct a film with an enemy aboard the lifeboat. Both men show their mastery in revealing the nuances of society despite the harsh conditions—there are rivalries, romances, and relationships—but they are each the victim of their own situation. Hitchcock, who had seen his native England heavily air bombed by Germans, directed a film without a cry for the end of the war, as in Steinbeck's story; instead it was a stronger justification for the war effort. Steinbeck may have been more sympathetic because he was farther away from the war in America, he was German-Irish, and he generally had a better opinion of people than Hitchcock. Lifeboat was written before Steinbeck went on to cover the war as a reporter in Europe.

So Steinbeck wrote a different Lifeboat. He used a narrator to tell his anti-war story; the action is also less restricted to what was occurring on the boat, something which Hitchcock was particularly interested in exploring. In Steinbeck's novella the outer world is as important as the human drama on the boat:

The dawn comes sneaking up in a fog at sea. First everything is black and then it's like a little white colored been mixed in like pouring cream in coffee. First you can't see anything and then before you know it you can pick out a few little outlines and then gradually the darkness thins out against the light so you can see things.

Porpoises swim by in Steinbeck's work. The survivors are impressed by the night sky. And like always, Steinbeck shows his concern for working people (who in this case were shuffled out into the war). Steinbeck wrote about how people could be pushed to violence, but in the unpublished novella the reporter is a possessive Congresswoman and also a victim of the anger of the crew. Ironically, the perpetrator is the man chosen to captain the ship, an industrialist who forgot to tie down the food which is lost overboard.

Steinbeck's Lifeboat, though mainly about the war, also falls into the popular tradition of stories about survival at sea, and could find a welcome spot on the book shelf next to Steinbeck's other ocean-related works: Cup of Gold, The Log of the Sea of Cortez, Cannery Row, Sweet Thursday, The Pearl, and The Winter of Our Discontent. Steinbeck wrote social commentary, comedies and philosophical treatise about the sea and its neighbors, and with Lifeboat he adds an adventure story. In fact, if Steinbeck's novella were to appear in book form it might remind people of Steinbeck's ocean writing, which is generally either overlooked or considered mostly humorous by editors of ocean-writing anthologies.

A.C. Spectorsky in The Book of the Sea (1954), for example, points out that "Those familiar with his marine descriptions in such books as The Sea of Cortez may, in their delight with the ribald humor of Cannery Row, have slipped by its brief opening section on the character of a tidal pool, the finest piece of writing on a marine subject which Steinbeck has ever done." In American Sea Writing: A Literary Anthology (2000), editor Peter Neill also focuses on Steinbeck's "keen-eyed, funny, and casually philosophical narrative, from which the excerpt below is taken." And most collections of ocean writing do not even represent him. Nature Writing anthologizer John A. Murray does not include Steinbeck in either The Seacoast Reader or A Thousand Leagues of Blue: The Sierra Club Book of the Pacific: A Literary Voyage. Nor is Steinbeck anthologized in either The Oxford Book of the Sea, edited by Jonathan Raban or The Oxford Book of Sea Stories, edited by Tony Tanner. Ditto The Norton Book of The Sea, edited by John O. Coote. Sections of Lifeboat, though not Steinbeck's other ocean writing, could be but is not included in Rough Water: Stories of Survival from the Sea, edited by Clint Willis.

In any event, Lifeboat is certainly not "funny," "casual" or "ribald." Steinbeck in many ways took a different stand on the ocean. It should not be forgotten that he wrote at a time when science was becoming more prominent, and he was part of the forces that help shape the beginnings of modern environmentalism. Unlike Ernest Hemingway, who was a fisherman and hunter, Steinbeck the fisherman was also a budding marine conservationist. Joel W. Hedgepeth, in "John Steinbeck: Late Blooming Environmentalist" concludes that Steinbeck's most sophisticated thinking about the environment was in his later works, especially America and Americans. Warren French, in "How Green Was John Steinbeck?" wrote that "Steinbeck was wise to avoid commitments; his problems began when he made them. If in this context one asks, 'How "green" was John Steinbeck?' the answer is 'not very, and a good thing, too.'" But as French also points out, "Steinbeck's writings demonstrate that one's head is not always where one's heart is." His heart was with the sea. It was a lifelong interest. Steinbeck wrote in an article for Popular Science that "The Sea... offered us immense opportunities, not only to feed the hungry and to provide scarce minerals, but also to learn about our as-yet-unexplored planet and ourselves." Thus it is also worthwhile to ask: How "blue," in the sense of caring about the ocean, was John Steinbeck?

In nonfiction, Steinbeck complained directly about the harm that was occurring to the environment in such books as The Log of the Sea of Cortez, Travels with Charley and America and Americans. But the warning is also in his fiction; those who harm or exploit the sea pay the price in Steinbeck's work, a pattern which can be gleaned from the storylines and settings. For the buccaneer Henry Morgan in Cup of Gold, the ocean was a waste of time. As John Ditsky writes in "Cannery Row: Passageway in the Heart": "Steinbeck was showing the futility of Henry Morgan's piracies, a life-course that followed leaving behind a true ideal in a pursuit of an illusive and false one."

Doc, like the sea creatures he studies, is also under the microscope in Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday. Much of the community in the latter is destitute because the ocean, after the demise of the fishery stocks, has failed to provide. Strangely, Doc, the worldly humanitarian and marine scientist, isn't trying to find a solution—he is too busy drinking, fornicating, and performing other civic duties. Mack and the Boys, the members of society that the Cannery Row community can no longer support, represent the community's anger towards him. Doc may be the non-teleological hero (as Susan Shillinglaw has observed), but he is hardly what French and others are looking for in Steinbeck's fiction—a "model and inspiration for an ecologically oriented political agenda"—and he pays the price in a number of ways.

The family in The Pearl lose their child because robbers try to steal the valuable "Pearl of the World" from them. "For centuries men had dived down and torn the oysters from the beds and ripped them open…But the pearls were accidents, and the finding of one was luck, a little pat on the back by God or the gods or both." Maybe Kino should have settled for the lower price, which was more money than he had ever seen, as his brother and wife suggest, for something that was "ripped" and "torn" from the sea.

The residents of Bay Town, similar to the residents of Cannery Row, never really recover from the loss of the whaling industry in The Winter of Our Discontent. The Hawleys are left to flounder in the aftermath when whaling oil ceases to be a commodity: "There was a time when a few towns like New Baytown furnished the whale oil that lighted the Western World. Student lamps of Oxford and Cambridge drew fuel from this American outpost. And then petroleum, rock oil gushed out in Pennsylvania and cheap kerosene, called coal oil, took the place of whale oil and retired most of the sea hunters. Sickness or the despair fell on New Baytown-perhaps an attitude from which it did not recover." The ocean in Steinbeck's fiction, like the real ocean, can be hurt or superseded. It can stop providing, and whole communities which exploited it in the past can suffer as the result.

Steinbeck is probably not very known for his ocean writing because it appears in his less-famous and less-critically acclaimed books. The Log of the Sea of Cortez was sneered at on the East Coast. Cannery Row was written to entertain the troops and Sweet Thursday was a follow up in a similar vein. The latter two are considered by Millichap to be part of Steinbeck's literary decline, which produced works that were palatable for the uncritical masses, designed for adaptation to the big screen. These works fall low on the list of the Steinbeck books that should be read, behind the photographic and realistic early works of the 1930's (The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men), East of Eden, and in this light, the exception: The Pearl. For those who were not appreciative of Steinbeck, or for those who think we need only be responsible for only the most famous books of even the great writers, Steinbeck's ocean writing fell among, in a word, his "Steinblechhh." But in a different light, rather than being considered failures, one can view his later works as satisfying the desires of other markets, even if the critics didn't approve. Californians and marine scientists are fond of his ocean writing to this day.

But did Steinbeck ever satisfy those who wanted an exciting adventure or a riveting tale about survival at sea? In "Flight" he did. The Grapes of Wrath is sort of an adventure. Cup of Gold is fun if not exciting, and Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday are light entertainment about those funny people who live by the ocean. The Pearl and The Winter of Our Discontent, though they explore our relationship with the ocean and remind that it may cease to provide, are really moral tales. The Log of the Sea of Cortez offers humor, science, and food for thought for the philosophers. Thus Steinbeck's published ocean writing has given us wonder, humor, moral responsibility, exploration, enlightenment, and a warning. The novella Lifeboat rounds out Steinbeck's ocean works with an argument against the stupidity of war set amidst an exciting tale about the sea—which, as Steinbeck had to learn personally, doesn't always provide.


Beegel, Susan F., Susan Shillinglaw, and Wesley N. Tiffney, Jr., eds. Steinbeck and the Environment: Interdisciplinary Approaches. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997.

Benson, Jackson. The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer. New York: Viking, 1984.

Coote, John O. The Norton Book of the Sea. New York: Norton, 1989.

Day, A. Grove, and Carl Stroven. Best South Sea Stories. Honolulu: Mutual Publishing of Honolulu, 1964.

Ditsky, John. "Cannery Row: Passageway in the Heart." The Steinbeck Newsletter, Spring 1999, p. 5-8.

French, Warren. "How Green Was John Steinbeck?" In Steinbeck and the Environment: Interdisciplinary Approaches, edited by Susan F. Beegel, Susan Shillinglaw, and Wesley N. Tiffney, Jr., [Missing page numbers]. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997.

Hedgpeth, Joel W. "John Steinbeck: Late-Blooming Environmentalist." In Steinbeck and the Environment: Interdisciplinary Approaches, edited by Susan F. Beegel, Susan Shillinglaw, and Wesley N. Tiffney, Jr., [Missing page numbers]. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997.

Hemingway, Ernest. Hemingway on Fishing, Edited by Nick Lyons. New York: Lyons Press, 2000.

Millichap, Joseph R. Steinbeck and Film. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1983.

Morseberger, Robert E. "Adrift in Steinbeck's Lifeboat," Film Quarterly 4 (1976): [missing page numbers].

Morseberger, Robert E., ed. John Steinbeck: Zapata. New York: Penguin, 1991.

Murray, John A. (editor). A Thousand Leagues of Blues: The Sierra Club Book Of The Pacific: A Literary Voyage. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1993.

Murray, John A., ed. A Thousand Leagues of Blues: The Sierra Club Book Of The Pacific: A Literary Voyage. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1993.

Neill, Peter, ed. American Sea Writing: A Literary Anthology. New York: The Library of America, 2000.

Raban, the Sea. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. Jonathan, ed. The Oxford Book of

Shillinglaw, Susan. Introduction to Cannery Row, by John Steinbeck. New York: Penguin, 1994.

Spectorsky, A.C. The Book of the Sea. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1954.

Spoto, Donald. The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock. New York: Ballantine, 1983.

Steinbeck, John. A Life in Letters, eds. Elaine Steinbeck and Robert Wallsten. New York: Viking, 1975.

---. Once There Was a War. New York: Viking, 1958.

---. Cup of Gold. New York: Penguin, 1929.

---. Of Mice and Men / Cannery Row. New York: Penguin, 1978.

---. The Log from the Sea of Cortez. New York: Penguin, 1977.

---. The Pearl. New York: Viking, 1947.

---. Sweet Thursday. New York: Viking, 1954.

---. The Winter of Our Discontent. New York: Viking, 1961.

Tanner, Tony, ed. The Oxford Book of Sea Stories. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Willis, Clint, ed. Rough Water: Stories of Survival from the Sea. New York: Adrenaline, 1999.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002

The Gathering Spirit of Jane Bowles

by Jon Carlson

Jane Bowles was an American author of surpassing qualities, although her modest oeuvre remains well outside the consciousness of the general reading public, particularly in the United States. Best known for her novel Two Serious Ladies, published in 1943, she also wrote a number of notable short stories, including "Guatemalan Idyll," "A Stick of Green Candy," and "Tea on the Mountain," as well as the play In the Summer House. These were reissued in the collection entitled My Sister's Hand in Mine, which included a laudatory introduction by Truman Capote, who cited her "... subtlest comprehension of eccentricity and human apartness." Other luminaries have praised her writings: Tennessee Williams called her "the most important writer of prose fiction in modern American letters," and John Ashbery found her to be "one of the finest modern writers of fiction in any language."

Her work was, in Williams's words, "the heart of her life." And Jane's life—animated and exotic, even quixotic—reached and resonated well beyond perceived limits imposed by borders and conventions. Not incidentally, it presaged by a generation the struggle of Western women towards a less-fettered psychology.

With her humor, linguistic abilities (she was fluent in several languages), skill at mimicry and genuine bonhomie, she and husband Paul Bowles were indispensable invitees on the guest lists of the New York art cognoscenti during the 1940s. After the Bowleses moved to Tangier, they found themselves the cynosure of the city's international community throughout the 1950s and 1960s. As Gore Vidal wrote: "Although unknown to the general public, the Bowleses were famous among those who were famous; and in some mysterious way the art-grandees wanted, if not the admiration of the Bowleses (seldom bestowed), their tolerance."

Despite Jane Bowles's relative obscurity, the unique aesthetic sensibility she brought to her life and work has continued to attract a small but steadfast following.

Jane Bowles moved from New York to Tangier in 1948, where she lived with Paul. After a prolonged illness that began with her first stroke in 1957, she was admitted to a hospital in central Málaga in 1967 and was sent the following year to the city's Clínica de Reposa de Los Angeles. She made a brief return to Tangier, then came back to the clinic in 1969, where she remained until her death on 4 May, 1973.

The day after she died she was buried in San Miguel Cemetery in an earthen plot identified only by a wooden shingle.

During the 1980s and 1990s, concern arose in Málaga that the graveyard where Jane Bowles and others were buried was going to be converted to a freeway. Families in Spain must prepay fees in order to obtain a long-term lease for the burial plot or niche of the deceased; otherwise, the remains eventually are removed, and reinterred in a new, common grave. Paul Bowles, living in Tangier, had paid for a lease on Jane's burial plot only for a period of ten years. He was not enamored with the elaborate rituals and memorials associated with religious institutions. Neither his background nor temperament disposed him to believe in a supreme being or a hereafter. And he did not favor a marker for her grave. From Millicent Dillon's You Are Not I: A Portrait of Paul Bowles:

"But, Paul, a lot of people will want to come to her grave," Virginia [Sorensen Waugh] protested gently.

"That's nonsense," he insisted coldly. "The marker would be a symbol that someone is there. But she was never there. Only the body is there. We have not progressed from savagery," he added. Then, in a strange transition he told an amusing and terrifying story of a man who drank a cocktail into which had been mixed the ashes of a corpse.

So it was not surprising he failed to maintain her gravesite beyond the initial ten-year period. Perhaps another reason for Paul's indifference was the issue of Jane's conversion from Judaism to Catholicism (which permitted her burial in a Catholic cemetery). Whether Jane was compos mentis at the time is subject to dispute. Though Paul had consented to the conversion, he remained convinced that it was done under the nuns' duress.

Unless someone was willing to fund a grave for Jane, her remains eventually would be consigned to a common burial site, thereafter untraceable.

It happened that a year ago I was traveling to Málaga during the city's August feria in order to attend the bullfights. The trip presented an opportunity to see if the uncertainty surrounding the disposition of her remains had been resolved and in what manner.

Before I left for Spain, I knew Jane Bowles was buried in San Miguel Cemetery. Previous visitors, however, didn't perhaps share this advantage. In his book, The Tangier Diaries, 1962-1979, John Hopkins described the difficulty ascertaining which cemetery Bowles was interred in when he and Joe McPhillips, both good friends of Jane's, went to pay homage a year after her death. In Málaga they had called the Clínica de Reposa, and a sister directed them to San Rafael Cemetery. They searched there in vain before deciding to make their way over to San Miguel. Others over the years have experienced the same problem, but nevertheless took the trouble to find the gravesite of this writer, whose spirit has maintained a strange hold on her admirers' subconscious. I thought of the beginning of Millicent Dillon's biography of Jane Bowles, A Little Original Sin: The Life and Work of Jane Bowles, wherein she related how she dreamed of Jane's grave ("The stone that marked it was white under an intense sun in an unclouded sky.") prior to her first trip to Tangier. And in Yesterday's Perfume: An Intimate Memoir of Paul Bowles, Cherie Nutting recounted how she "... didn't want to meet Paul without first paying tribute to Jane." When she finally managed to find Jane's grave, "A wind blew out of nowhere—the earth trembled—my head began to swim, and in 'another kind of silence' Jane talked to me and I felt her power."

Locating San Miguel is not terribly complicated, but it required about twenty-five minutes when I made the trek on foot. From the Alcazaba, a Moorish fortress situated in the older part of the city, I headed up Alcazabilla, a street that runs alongside the grounds surrounding the Alcazaba until it joins Victoria, then continued north to the Plaza de la Victoria. At the Plaza, I veered left over to Calle Cristo de la Epidemia and went north up to the Plaza de Olletas, which is next to a busy gasoline station. I then turned left onto Alameda de Capuchinos and continued walking for four blocks until the Alameda Patronimo. I proceeded to the Plaza del Patronimo, which leads directly into San Miguel Cemetery.

Adjacent to the cemetery entrance was a small office with an assistant. When I asked him for directions to Bowles's gravesite, he asked me for her date of death, which I provided. He pulled one of the ledgers from the wall and flipped through a few pages before arriving at the one that confirmed her name (misspelled as "Bonles") and grave number, 453-F. To find its exact whereabouts, he suggested I speak with one of the matrons tending the cemetery chapel.

Past the front gate the chapel lay about 200 meters directly ahead, a pleasant walk amidst the cypress, juniper and orange trees flanked by simple graves marked with headstones, impressive stone tombs and mausoleums. Above-ground sepulchres, known as nichos, appeared as a wall of concrete squares, each a burial niche containing someone's remains.

Looking for help, I spotted a priest and asked if I might speak with him. When I inquired about the location of Jane Bowles's grave he appeared incredulous. "¡Jane Bowles! ¡Soy gran admirador de Jane Bowles!" His name was Padre José. Equally surprised, I introduced myself, and after a brief exchange of pleasantries he led me along the front side of the chapel to a padlocked door, which he unlocked and entered.

We were in a large rectangular room that served as his living quarters. At one end there was a simple writing desk; at the other, a variety of relics was clustered. A prayer stand and chair were located in the middle of the room. A bed hugged the wall on the side directly across from the entrance, and next to the bed was a long cloth-covered table that served as Padre José's personal shrine to Jane Bowles. A votive candle had been placed in front of two photos and a piece of paper taped to the wall directly above the table. The sheet to the left contained the birth and death dates of the Bowleses, printed by hand. In the middle was a xeroxed photo of Jane's face along with strands of her hair encased in plastic. To the right was another xeroxed photo of the Bowleses together.

"How beautiful was Jane!" exclaimed Padre José, gazing at the photos. "¡Mira!" he said, and brought forth the Spanish translation of Millicent Dillon's biography. He went to the rear of the book, smiled and nodded his head as he pointed to the partial inclusion of Paul Bowles's poem "Next to Nothing." And he told me how much he enjoyed Jane's Two Serious Ladies and Plain Pleasures, a collection of her stories.

I spent a few more minutes examining the shrine and snapping photos when Padre José suggested we visit Jane Bowles's grave. Unaware of whether she had been reburied, I didn't know what to expect. We walked out past the front of the chapel, which he entered briefly to glance at those kneeling in prayer, then turned onto a cobblestone path and headed towards the front of the cemetery. Near the end of the path he stopped and pointed to an edifice about four-feet high, constructed from small stones and cement, atop of which a smooth stone slab was mounted. It read:

Malaga A

Jane Bowles 1917-1973

At the base of the tomb stood two candles astride an empty vase filled with wilted flowers. On the tomb's front was a small, greenish tile with a phrase etched in a scrawling hand:

A Serious Lady

In the lower right hand corner were the letter and number identifying the tomb.

I took a few photos of Padre José praying next to the tomb.

Padre José said that Jane's new grave, established through the efforts of the municipality of Málaga and the Association of Friends of San Miguel Cemetery, had been unveiled mid-October, 1999. Afterwards, he added secretively, "But in the evening she moves all over the cemetery, and I am here to watch over her."

I bid good-bye to Padre José, as I needed to return to my hotel prior to the evening's bullfight. Before I left he said, "Come back during your stay in Málaga and I will take you to Jane's old grave."

I returned to San Miguel two days later. Padre José spotted me walking towards Bowles's tomb, waved and disappeared. A few minutes later, he struggled towards me in his brown sackcloth, breathing heavily in the heat, carrying fresh flowers and a watering can. After arranging the flowers and lighting the candles, he stepped aside so that I could take photos. But I motioned him back over to the tomb, and he stood next to it, solemnly, as I took a picture. I suggested another, and this time he dropped to his knees and immediately began to pray.

Soon thereafter, the padre led me to the edge of the main cemetery where we came upon a small portal covered by rusted wire fencing. He pushed it aside and we lowered ourselves onto a cement path and wended our way around and down the sinuous route until we approached a spot shaded by cypresses. When we came up to it, the padre spread his arms wide to indicate where Bowles's plot had lain.

"Only a small wooden cross and a piece of wood with a number marked her grave," the padre said.

And that scant designation had made it difficult for visitors to locate. For Hopkins and McPhillips in 1974 there wasn't even a cross, and they finally needed one of the gardeners to lead them to the site. Hopkins's description: "...Jane Bowles's unmarked grave ... had become the refuse dump of broken flower pots and dead stalks cast aside by the assiduous ladies in black." What Dillion found in 1977 was far different than the white stone she had dreamed of: " ... an unmarked space ... was covered with rubble, old flowers from other graves, broken glass, pieces of plastic and paper."

Returning uphill, Padre José smiled and pointed to where he would be buried when he died. He revealed that he was the one who carried Bowles's remains to their permanent resting place. "Cráneo muy grande," he uttered softly, and showed me how he had cradled her skull in his arms. The rest of her bones were in fragments and carried in a box, which the padre said were entombed with a white shirt or chemise, black dress and black shoes.

I realized then how the padre had acquired the snippets of Jane's hair for his shrine.

Much later I reread an entry in a Paul Bowles journal from the late '80s: "[Alice B.] Toklas openly embraced the Roman Catholic faith in her late years. Is this regression?"

The journey of Jane Bowles's remains within San Miguel Cemetery was marked by improbability. Yet given the unorthodox lives of the Bowleses, this should not be entirely unexpected in death. Perhaps it was not surprising to learn that when Paul Bowles died, scarcely a month after Jane's grave was unveiled, his body remained on a grounded Royal Air Maroc plane for a day while a strike was being resolved. A full account of the byzantine events leading to Jane's final interment shall be reserved for another time. For now, it is enough that, owing to the good offices of Málaga and the Association of Friends of San Miguel Cemetery, Jane Bowles's remains are forever secure-even if her spirit occasionally is squired around the grounds by the estimable Padre José.

Select Bibliography

Bowles, Paul. Days: Tangier Journal: 1987-1989. New Jersey: Ecco Press, 1991.

Capote, Truman. Introduction to My Sister's Hand in Mine, by Jane Bowles. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995.

Dillon, Millicent. You Are Not I: A Portrait of Paul Bowles. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Hopkins, John. The Tangier Diaries, 1962-1979. San Francisco: Cadmus Editions, 1998.

---. A Little Original Sin: The Life and Work of Jane Bowles. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

---. "Keeper of the Flame." The New Yorker January 27, 1997 27-28.

Nutting, Cherie, and Paul Bowles. Yesterday's Perfume: An Intimate Memoir of Paul Bowles. New York: Clarkson Potter, 2000.

Skerl, Jennie. "Sallies into the Outside World: A Literary History of Jane Bowles." A Tawdry Place of Salvation, edited by Jennie Skerl, [Missing page numbers]. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1997.

Vidal, Gore. Introduction to Collected Stories 1939-1976, by Paul Bowles. Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1979.

Williams, Tennessee. Introduction to Feminine Wiles by Jane Bowles. Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1976.

photographs © 2001 Jon Carlson

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002