Tag Archives: summer 2004

Trouble in Mind

Buy this book at Amazon.com

Lucie Brock-Broido
Alfred A Knopf ($23)
by A. A. Farman

There are at least two things to be thankful for in Lucie Brock-Broido's burnished book of new poems, Trouble in Mind. First, that it has finally appeared. Second, that it has taken so long to appear. Brock-Broido takes her time, publishing a volume every seven to nine years, as though to reprove the careless promiscuity of poets who issue progeny every nine months or so. Her words, her lines, even her line breaks, appear so masterfully wrought they call on you to pause and bend close to them, the way you would in an antique store, hovering over the glass case or turning the carved amber under the light to see it refract at different angles. Yet that is also the book's weakness—the cumulative effect of all that awe makes Trouble in Mind feel somewhat like the tsar's Amber Room, overly opulent, almost courtly, striking more for its craft and color and breeding than for its wit or wisdom or vitality.

Brock-Broido secured a reputation with her surprising first book, A Hunger, which was quickly declared by Helen Vendler as the new miracle in American poetry. Brock-Broido was thus anointed in 1988. Fifteen years later, Trouble in Mind, only her third book, echoes with concerns she brought into the world with A Hunger. The child, always "astray," punished, hungering, haunting adulthood through history; the language, luxuriant but not timorous, confronting and enfolding the harsh, unforgiving parts of life—"a young girl slides a needle / In the turnip-purple soft fold of her inner arm" ("Death as a German Expert") or "alive // And lithe as tiny scissors used / To cut out tissue in a human which had gone wrong" ("Some Details of Hell"). In this book—and the title reflects this—there is a more personal and consistent nervousness about death, not as a poetic idea, but as an event come into the poet's world, entered into an actual relationship with her life. In one poem, "A hearse moves through the city like a herd of / One... / and someone is telling you: / She is not here, she is not anywhere, you see." In another, she wants to keep company with the dead person: "The hours between washing and the well / Of burial are the soul's most troubled time.... / I would have made of my body / A body to protect her, anything to keep // Her well & here—in the soul's suite / Before five tons of earth will bear // On her . . . "

Though Brock-Broido's poems are thankfully far from the confessional, such personal intervals are welcome. When she writes, "I do not want to be a chrysalis again. / How long will I have to live here quickened in // My finespun case", the query contains a genuine moment, the lyrical impulse of a poem, which in most other places is lost under the medieval masonry of her writing. "the clenched astronomer // Hunched at table, considering his vexed / Celestial map, illegible as the flinch // Of needles falling on the blanched / Rye fields in pentagrams." Each element here is interesting, well wrought, original even, on its own—the clenched astronomer, the flinch of needles, the blanched rye—but all together they are too much; vitality is sacrificed for dexterity. In a few places, this is taken so far as to make the image or metaphor senseless. In the opening poem, for example, the poet writes of a "scarab-colored hollow," but scarabs come in all different colors, so the line doesn't evoke anything more than its own musicality. The concreteness of the words deceive, obscuring the fact that they are deployed as total abstractions, connecting the reader to nothing in the sensual world.

The poems in Trouble in Mind can possess you with calculated magic, but once you look into the "magician's hollow hat," to use Brock-Broido's own words, the sentiments fail to live up to the appearance of delicacy and complexity. "I will go on loving as I love the backs / Of things and the invisible, // As I love the hideous or an attention / So attentive it is next to worshipping." This is fine, but morally predictable—the expected posture of a poet.

Of course, there is much to value in this book. Brock-Broido's search for the original image, the surprising word, or the odd juxtaposition, as well as her considerable knowledge of poetry, are invested in every poem, and so in every poem there is some pay off. She has worked vigilantly, like the fairy Morgan in one of her poems, with "a taxidermist's patience." The trouble, in my mind, is that the task of the taxidermist is to make something appear alive, while that of the poet is to make it come alive.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004

Living in the Past

Buy this book from Amazon.com

Philip Schultz
Harcourt ($23)

by Maureen Picard Robins

In 1980, I encountered Philip Schultz's Like Wings, and spent the day walking around New York City in a daze. Here were 55 pages of urban poetry, featuring wide, far-reaching stanzas packed with sweat, desire, and the stink of the past. Schultz's poems shuddered with passion, despair, and dark comedy in a way I hadn't seen before. His lines so packed with conflict and ambition that the only way he seemed to shoehorn everything in was to save two letter spaces by replacing the word "and" with an ampersand. Yet there was something else: the poems had the particular dill flavor of American Jewishness. Schultz wrote about his bar mitzvah and his relatives, and he invented a guardian angel named Stein. This wildly comic, celebratory, mournful, exuberant, and often charming Jewish voice would be heard again in Deep within the Ravine, winner of the Lamont poetry prize in 1984, and yet again in 2002's The Holy Worm of Praise.

Now comes Living in the Past, a book-length memoir in verse. Sans ampersands, the urgent lines still tug and travel, propelled by multiple voices, guttural expressions, Hebrew incantations, all of which becomes the musical embellishment. The opening poem sets the scene in Rochester, New York, in the 1950s; the major story line follows the 12-year-old boy during the year of his bar mitzvah, with later poems having the narrator reflect on his past. Yet like all complex fiction, there are subplots and richly depicted characters. There's Schultz's Grandma, his mother and father, and the uncles. There is Mr. Schwartzman, the boy's music teacher. There is the ghost of the German poet Gertrud Kolmar who didn't survive the Holocaust. There is the poet's wife and sons. And there is God.

The poems come off as tribute, as biography, as wonderings—but with plenty of caustic wit and humor to keep it real, as when the Rabbi comes to tutor the young boy:

Every time Grandma opens a door
he breaks wind to show her what a piece of dreck she is.
When he leaves she screams, "God sends him to spit on
my dishes and still he's not happy, he has to leave a stink
that chokes even the dead…."

Schultz's depiction of Grandma is glorious; she appears eccentric, brave, and superstitious, at once comic and philosophical. One begins to wonder if this is a modern retelling of the tales of Chelm, a fictional place in Poland where the lovable townspeople, all fools, are wise despite themselves. Grandma would climb "a chair to yell at God for killing / her only husband whose only crime was forgetting / where he put things," but when an anti-Semitic neighbor "steps on something Grandma drops in a dream and comes home / from the hospital with two empty pant legs … Grandma / won't even look at the ceiling because what God gives with / the right hand he takes with the left."

So many of these poems are powerful because they achieve meaning through upturned expectations: Rabbis seem ignorant; humble folk have enough wisdom to be holy; and the story of Schultz's bar mitzvah, which normally would be a frightening but celebratory occasion, becomes fraught with loss when the narrator discovers the body of his music teacher after he commits suicide. Yet even though Mr. Schwartzman, a Holocaust survivor, dies in body, he lives on through the book's long memory: "A boy has one bar mitzvah but becomes a man / many times, Mr. Schwartzman said when I wondered / if I'd be any good at being one."

Fierce and gentle, wry and wise, Living in the Past offers a poetry of intensity that is sustained to the very end. Schultz's intertwining of the historical and the personal, joy and sorrow, and dreams and reality gives readers much to ponder, and places his work on a par with the commentary about the human condition that has largely been the arena of European poets.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004

The Columbia Anthology of Modern Korean Poetry

Buy this book from Amazon.com

Edited by David R. McCann
Columbia University Press ($22.50)

by Sun Yung Shin

Koreans have been writing poetry since the rise of their civilization; the earliest extant poem, composed by King Yuri in Chinese characters, dates from ca. 19 B.C. This new book, The Columbia Anthology of Modern Korean Poetry, does English speakers a great service by bringing us up to date into the 20th century with a generous sampling of 228 poems by 34 Korean poets, as rendered by a variety of translators (including prominent Korean American poet Walter K. Lew). Korean, like its linguistically un-related neighbor Chinese, is a rich language for poetry; it's also considered by linguists to be one of the most difficult to learn by non-native speakers. Therefore as with any set of translations, one might approach the English-language versions of these poems as wild, possibly difficult, animals tamed just enough for transport to a foreign zoo. To aid in our advance, each gallery of poems is prefaced by a succinct introduction to the poet's life, work, and the specific political and literary context in which she or he wrote.

In his general introduction, editor David R. McCann—Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Literature at Harvard University—reminds us of what Korean poets were facing:

From the annexation in 1910 until the Japanese defeat at the end of the World War II, Korean literature was produced under increasingly conflicted circumstances.… Japan was both a place where the new could be encountered and explored…while at the same time the agent of Korea's national demise, the source of an array of disturbing controls, prohibitions, and affronts to the Korean people.

The anthology is also striking for the increasing number of women poets included from the latter half of the 20th century. These writers struggled with the absence of a female literary lineage and peer group:

one of the more recently prominent women poets, Kim Hyesun, has observed… that when she was beginning to explore ways to develop a narrative style in her poetry, there were literally no contemporary models for her to work with or against.

In "The Titanic, Reincarnate," Kim Hyesun (born in 1955) takes a grand, ruined thing of the Western world and deconstructs it into the domestic measures of her life:

The Titanic, reincarnate, now a cauldron.
Built, 1911, in Southampton.
Twenty-two knot, a passenger liner, over
two thousand aboard on her voyage,
Dismantled the year I married, and now
turned into a toaster, a teakettle, a Chinese wok, and
a Korean pressure cooker.

Yet it is not only contemporary poets who found a new idiom. The prose poem "Fireworks" by Chu Yohan (1900-1980), published in 1919, contains an interior monologue the tone of which would not be out of place in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

a dusky crowd of people sways, with each burst of wind the flame-dyed waves burn with mad laughter, spooked fish take cover in the sand, waves slap the ships broadside, figures pace to and fro with a drowsy rhythm—flickering shadows, rising peals of laughter beneath lanterns hanging overhead… fireworks igniting sudden lust now are tiresome, one glass, another glass, yet another, the endless wine no longer welcome, lying listless in the filthy bottom of a boat… men with leering eyes leap from the boat, unable to endure their rekindled desire… Oh, oh, burn! burn! This very night! Your red torch, your red lips…

The anthology, in fact, contains many prose poems. The lengthy "Paengnokdam: White Deer Lake" was written by Cheong Chi-Yong, one of the most important avant-garde Korean poets from the 1930s, who was later kidnapped by North Korean forces and lost to the South Korean literary world. "Paengnokdam" is sectioned and numbered; written in a fictive mode it exhibits an unhurried observance of the natural world in which the speaker is in a wandering thrall:

The perfume of the sweet orchid, the sound of orioles warbling to one another, the whistling of Cheju's whistling bird, the sound of water rebounding off rocks, the swishing of pines when the sea crumples far away; I lost my way among ash trees, camellias, oaks, but emerged down a twisting path of pale stones all tangled with arrowroot vines. The dappled horse I abruptly encounter does not run away.

Royal fern, bracken, tôdôk, bellflower, wild aster, umbrella plants, bamboo grass, rock-dragon mushrooms, high mountain plants with bells hanging like stars: I ponder them, then fall asleep intoxicated.

And no anthology on modern Korean poetry would be complete without the prominent modernist Yi Sang (1910-1937). The use of the name Yi Sang was a political act for Kim Haegyong, a response to the unwanted Japanese presence:

…a Japanese supervisor called to Kim Haegyong, "Mr. Lee!" the second-most common surname—after Kim—in Korea, which in Japanese would have been "Ri-San." According to the story, Kim Haegyong took that wrong name deliberately as his pen name, thereby joining Yi Yuksa as a Korean writer marking his notice of, resistance against, and existence within, the Japanese occupation.

Yi is notable for his rather louche surrealism; his prose poem "I Wed a Toy Bride" reads like a moment from a decadent fairy tale:

Whenever I give the toy bride a sewing needle the toy bride stabs wildly at anything around. The calendar. A book of poems. The clock. Also the place that is so worthwhile for my body my accumulated experience to enter and sit around in.

In the poem "Two People…2…" Yi writes strikingly about two favorite Western idols:

Al Capone's coins had a very good luster, good enough to use as a medal; Christ's coins were so few in number as to be nearly invisible, barely worthy of the name money.

As for the story that says Christ refused until the very end to accept the frock coat Al Capone had sent him, though famous, isn't it believable?

Another notable writer, laborer-poet Pak Nohae, writes in "plain speech," using particulars to expose the harsh reality of his economic conditions. In the poem "How Much Is This One?" a bleak cause and effect predicts the future:

My cousin at the dye factory, who stutters
had his 10-year pension embezzled by a Middle East-job broker and
killed himself.
If it's $1,000
my bed-ridden mother could be hospitalized,
my 29-year-old maid sister could get hitched.
If it's $10,000
I'd have to kiss ass for ten years.

In this anthology we thus get the high and the low, the symbolic mist and mountains and the reckoning of the kissed managerial ass. In the most ethnically homogeneous nation in the world, a culture that until recently required civil servants taking state exams to write poetry, one might expect a certain sameness of aesthetics, but McCann's fascinating tour shows otherwise. Though modern Korean poets have generally shared a common cause—writing through a tumultuous century of colonization, wars, division, Western influence, internal political strife, rapid industrialization—the 34 poets within these pages distinguish themselves with their individual visions. Each locates her or his condition in language in an engrossing way, illuminating the course of Korean poetry and the struggle of their modernization as a people.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004

The Escape

Buy this book from Amazon.com

Jo Ann Wasserman
Futurepoem Books ($14)

by Michelle Mitchell-Foust

My two hands began a fight," Franz Kafka writes in The Blue Octavo Notebooks, "I never turned my gaze from them. If they are my hands, I must referee fairly, otherwise I shall bring down on myself the agonies of a wrong decision." In Jo Ann Wasserman's riveting and important collection The Escape, she uses her two battling hands to write about her two great preoccupations: "Writing" and "My mother."

The Escape begins with "Memoria," a lengthy prose poem that resembles the style of Kafka's Notebooks. The jottings present an example of a cross section of the writing process, as we read the lines the speaker wrote and the lines the speaker didn't write in some journal that is off-page:

I said, "Thanks so much, Rob." He smiled and said, "I remember you really liked to party," as he opened a small velvet bag like you might use to carry jewels. Then he said, "My name isn't Rob," and he examined me from above his sunglasses. This is not in the notebook. In the notebook, after the bit about vitamin B, I wrote, Go somewhere. Sit. Write a poem.

In "Memoria" we read a poetry seemingly unfiltered and yet filtered, and it prepares us to watch for a number of truths happening side by side in the remainder of the book. I'm reminded of the art of Gordon Matta-Clark, who spent his time "decapitating roofs, scoring and extracting infrastructures, emphasizing internal structures through extraction, displacement, alteration, workings on buildings without constructing inside the structure between the walls, removing special points of stress, opening spaces and redistributing the mass." Matta-Clark removed the front of houses, so that we might see the house inside. He removed roofs, so that we might see down into the house. Light comes in, and the house, from a bird's eye view, is a series of geometric shapes receding. We see the house and its bones brought to light. We see more than the house. Likewise, in The Escape, we see writing and more than writing. We see an identity emerging.

Wasserman moves from the preparatory prose of "Memoria" into her "First Enkomion Sequence." In the ancient understanding of the term, the enkomion is a sub-genre of the choral lyric, which traditionally required a chorus who would sing and dance. The enkomion was invented to praise human accomplishments. In Wasserman's case, she develops a small dance between mother and daughter and sometimes father. She moves from the cryptic to the specific, and her praise of human accomplishments takes the form of descriptions of family photographs. The chorus is sometimes played by a therapist, and the gods are several, as we discover in the following enkomion:

over & away large but
way beyond
the lawn, the basketball hoop & Dairy Queen



sometimes my father would scream about
where does the money go and you would have the down-smile
slowly I learned about mythology and the tall tales
and how you could be punished and spend half the
year in the underworld which seemed very bad like
underwear something always getting dirty
needed laundering
so I asked my father what underworld was and he
said he was Jewish and there was no underworld
for him and I asked if there was underworld for you

We find a little of the mother's underworld in the middle of The Escape, where there lies a number of marvelous and excruciating sestinas. The mother is the "you" with whom the speaker confuses herself over and over again, for the duration of the collection, as in "Nature Corrected by Hummingbird":

it places us a little distance from the stucco steps, easier
to make out, the middle is me and my grandmother, circles of a heart
except she is younger, mouth like a small violet, can't be my birthday
but my mother's birthday, the air raids real and quick-heart hummingbird
the boy who is too young moves out of the photo, reaching strawberries
which my grandfather tore out in the 1960s there was just not enough sun

One of the most memorable sestinas, "Betty and Dick Tour the U.S.A.," introduces the rift between the mother and the father and the camp of Americana:

my mother's coat was too small, so ugly she hated it not the right outfit you
can see that
right away, Betty and Dick leave Hollywood for Miami where they see an
grove and everything while my little mother cut an L shape from the coat's
back but had to wear it anyway

The sestina is an ideal form for this familial deliberation, with its repeated six words pounding out a memory. In a poem about the mother's funeral, for example, we find "salt," "roast, "nest," "storm," kitchen," and "sour"; when the speaker puzzles out the fact of the holocaust while she travels with her mother into the city, she uses "stilettos," "root canal," "real life," "wintergreen," "newest," and "gray." Each poem conjugates an experience, sometimes a disaster, and the entire collection gives rise to various scenarios for the word "escape":

"to get away"
"to issue from confinement"
"to run wild from cultivation"
"to avoid a threatening evil"
"to fail to be noticed"
"to be uttered involuntarily by"
"to issue from"

The last of these is perhaps the most important meaning for the title word. Offering a meticulous fusion of independent clauses and enjambment, Wasserman's sestinas create the jarring of language, the appropriate fits and starts, for a characterization of a difficult relationship between speaker and mother:

the photo in the park, after thirty minutes or so, shows her sickly white
poaching on a bench, officially shivering in August under her camel hair
coat, smoking
of course later she laughed, light-hearted, "did I have a dress with yellow
flowers? I have no idea who this is," she looked at this part of the picture,
"a stranger?"
she said like it was a detective trip, "I wish I knew who was holding the
in this one. I can't imagine that I didn't have my eye on her," but she is
alone, shivering in the park
(from "If The Baby Comes")

The mother doesn't recognize herself as much as the speaker sees herself in the mother in these sestinas and in the photographs they re-tell. There exists a superimposition of the history of the mother and the history of her child, the speaker.

Wasserman leads us out of The Escape with a "Second Enkomion Sequence" and a closing prose poem, mirroring how she began the collection. In the penultimate enkomion we learn that the mother has not escaped her life even in the disaster of her death. Her child refuses her escape:

I say, "if I did everything,
I knew I would find you
even though I saw your purse charred by explosion
and the car and Cathy was hurt for a long time
but is better now."
and then I say, "I knew"
but you look through me
toward the waiter and begin ordering

Perhaps the only way to make a break for it where parents and children are concerned is for the child to go ahead and become the parent. In the final enkomion the speaker eclipses the mother:

so it continues choosing, unchoosing
so many times I can't write them all
far out there
so away as to remain,
temporarily, unseen
but today, right here,
ordering this salad
thinking "screw the no-wheat diet,
I will have the confit over pasta"
a flame-flash
we eclipse perfectly

Wasserman's collection ends with the title poem, another dazzling excursion in prose. The poet Killarney Clary has explained the feel and tension of a prose poem in a personal anecdote: She says that when she visits her mother, say, for a period of three days, they'll go about the business of visiting, but when she is leaving the house, her mother will suddenly tell her everything she meant to say during the whole visit. That's what a prose poem's dramatic tension feels like. It's what someone's been meaning to say for days, maybe years, and the words spill out in a matter of minutes. This explanation suits Wasserman's prose poetry uncannily well. At the close of The Escape, mother and child are saying their goodbyes outside the house, only it's the mother who's on her way home:

He rolls down the window and yells for her to get in the car, "Enough's enough," he says. I say, "Well, I guess you better get going," and she turns back toward the car and says to him, "I'm going. I'm going."

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004

Writing Through: Translations and Variations

Buy this book from Amazon.com

Jerome Rothenberg
Wesleyan University Press ($24.95)

by Jay Besemer

I had thought for a long time of preparing a book of selected translations and was faced again and again by the dilemma of where translations end and my other writings begin . . . . I have had a need (I emphasize: a need) to translate and, by translating, to connect with the work and the thought of other poets—a matter of singular importance to me in what I have long taken to be my "project" and the central activity of my life as a poet.
—Jerome Rothenberg

“Selected works” volumes are often challenging for their authors, as Jerome Rothenberg suggests above, but for readers, especially those seeking a good overview of a person's oeuvre, they can be extremely valuable. Writing Through, which covers Rothenberg's masterful "translations and variations" of the works of other poets, is an unusual collection, as is fitting for a poet of unusual range. In a sense, these provide a much more intimate portrait of Jerome Rothenberg than that offered by his original poems—whatever "original" might mean for a poet whose process involves an active dialogue with otherness, whether cultural or outside the conventional definition of poetry or language, having little relation to the popular "hermetic" notion of poetic composition.

Focusing on translations allows readers to gain an appreciation of Jerome Rothenberg as a poet, certainly, but also (and perhaps more intriguingly) as an editor and above all, as a reader of poetry. (This word, "reader," is inadequate especially when discussing Rothenberg's translations of non-written or non-verbal poetry, so it must be understood here as meaning something more akin to participant.) Writing Through is a great help to those who may be unfamiliar with Rothenberg's large, exciting, translation-heavy anthologies, such as Technicians of the Sacred and the two-volume Poems for the Millennium.

One particularly engaging aspect of Writing Through is the occasional commentary introducing sections of work or illuminating individual poems. This is an area in which we clearly see Rothenberg-as-reader, as he lets us inside his translation process. Translation begins with the reading or experience of what is being translated, of course; depending on one's relationship to the language, the first translation any work receives is the private, "silent" one taking place in the mind of the translator. In his commentaries, Rothenberg gives us a glimpse into not only his process of choosing how to render his translations, but also lets us in on the very private experience of a poet encountering what would be, in many cases, life-changing poems. Poets speak like lovers in discussing what other poets and poetries mean to them, because love is the foundation of that meaning, in many ways. It may be mixed with intellectual interpretation, philosophical coloring, or political concerns, but underneath all of that is the original passion which demands that the poet form the ongoing relationship to the work which is essential to the translation process.

Consider the emphasized word in Rothenberg's "Pre-Face": need. The most careful and passionate translators of poets can only be other poets. Tristan Tzara wrote, in the 1940s, of "poetic necessity," and this is the need that Rothenberg identifies; for poet/translators the need may be magnified and intensified by a kind of desperation or frustration at the unavailability of beloved poets in one's home language. When the poetry in question is dynamic, alive, and unconstrained by the narrative conventions of the English language (and the Cartesian obsession for the rational in European literature)—specifically, in Rothenberg's ethnopoetic work—this passionate/poetic necessity becomes even clearer.

The effectiveness of Rothenberg's translations derives in large part from the sense of need which drove them. Without that need the result would have been cold texts—reports, accounts, records—and not poems. Whether the poetic ethnography is more accurate than the "objective" is a fine and fascinating debate. However, Rothenberg prefers to focus on the poetry itself and on its making. His translation never cheats the reader out of the imaginative experience, nor does it claim some faux-scientific distancing, and yet it is respectful and an act of honoring in itself. More than that, it contains information, often in great detail. Look at this section from the sequence "15 Flower World Variations," based on Yaqui Deer Dance songs:

o flower fawn
about to come out playing
in this flower water
out there
in the flower world
the patio of flowers
in the flower water
flower fawn
about to come out playing
in this flower water

This "variation" preserves and carries forward the Yaqui love for the deer honored in the Deer Dance, the sense of unity in the many worlds of the Yaqui culture, and the feeling of the dance itself, in the cyclical repetitions of phrases. But it is clearly not meant to be a narrative or observational record of a dance ritual event. The event, the dance, makes itself felt through the arrangement of the lines, choices of certain words, etc., all of which are standard elements of poetic composition and entirely within the hands of the poet.

Jerome Rothenberg is one of a very few contemporary U.S. poets who really examine, explore, and explode the question, "What is poetry and what is it for?" His answers are constantly evolving and always compelling. Writing Through shares some of those answers, and leaves readers themselves asking good questions. Through the work of poets like Rothenberg, poetry is immediate, ever new, and necessary.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004

Fathom | Neo-Surrealism; or, the Sun at Night

Buy this book at Amazon.com

Black Square Editions ($12.95)

Neo-Surrealism; or, the Sun at Night: Transformations of Surrealism in American Poetry 1966-1999
Black Square Editions ($7)
Andrew Joron

by Noah Eli Gordon

Hovering somewhere in the ether, outside of any tangible definitions, the practice of Neo-Surrealism takes place, and Andrew Joron is both participant and elucidator. He uses the term for the title of his essay, Neo-Surrealism; or, The Sun at Night, which originally appeared in Talisman and was recently published in an expanded, 59-page edition. Subtitled "Transformations of Surrealism in American Poetry 1966-1999," the essay acts as a primer, introducing key figures whose work is exemplary of the disparate reach of Surrealism's influence on, and effluence through, postwar American poetry. From the aesthetic stasis of the Chicago Surrealist Group's orthodox interpretation to the maverick discursiveness of Will Alexander's ranging oeuvre, Joron documents the important texts of individual writers, sampling some of their work and tracing connections to ancillary disciplines. Additionally, seminal journals and presses connected to the various poets and varied practices of Neo-Surrealism are given ample coverage.

Buy this book from Amazon.com

Early in the essay, Joron explains, "surrealism does not levitate above History; the shape of surrealist subversion shifts according to the contours of the surrounding landscape." It is such a shift that informs Fathom, Joron's third collection of poetry. Wholly attuned to the original revolutionary impetus behind the often-invoked imperative with which Breton ends Nadja—"Beauty will be convulsive or it will not be at all"—Fathom embraces the move from classic surrealism (the creation of the inapprehensible image or object through radical juxtaposition) to the employment of negation, abstraction, and modulation to conjure and shape paradox. The necessity for this furthering of surrealist practice is touched on in the poem "Mazed Interior," which, like many within the book, is simultaneously an ethics and poetics: "Time to try the knot, the Not / Or to be caught / Forever in nerve-traceries of Beauty."

Although adherent to beauty, as darkly as it may manifest itself within the book, Fathom is concerned with more than pure aesthetics, preferring to push through and display the "victorious banner raised above the toppled state." In fact, he opens the book with an essay entitled "The Emergency," which begins with the question, "What good is poetry at a time like this?" Interestingly, and indicative of Joron's own poetic approach, the essay oscillates between exposition and a more enigmatic, cracked-open writing, allowing for the emergence of an "other" or aleatoric meaning, a space which essentially enacts the content of the essay's more easily parsed prose:

American poetry is a marginal genre whose existence is irrelevant to the course of Empire. Yet here, only here, at this very juncture between language and power, can the refused word come back to itself as the word of refusal, as the sign of that which cannot be assimilated to the system—

Word that opens a solar eye in the middle of the Night.

Opens, but fails to dispel the dark. Of necessity, perhaps, because it fails necessity itself. Opens, if only to make an O, an indwelling of zero, an Otherness.

This "otherness" constitutes the spirit with which Joron constellates different texts, concepts, thinkers and artists, covering an expanse from philosophic and phenomenological discourse, from Jakob Boehme's term for negation and relative nothingness, Ungrund, Newton's absolutes in Principia, the conundrum of Fatum and all of its multiple meanings, to Dada and saxophonist Eric Dolphy. Yet, as in the work of Olsen and Pound, or Howe and Mackey, these things inform but do not overshadow the book. One needn't be steeped in history or the philosophy of science, Joron's own education, to engage with it. There is, in fact, something congruous to conceptual art underlining the construction of the book. Following "The Emergency" there are four further subdivisions: the title poem, which fluctuates between the truncated lyricism of its couplets on the right hand page and the marginalia-like commentary on the left; "Constellations for Theremin," a series of prose poems, and an opening artist statement that testifies to the "marvelous confluence between Celan's early and Goll's late work," rather than "Celan's alleged plagiarism"; a collection of twelve lyrics; and "Fantastic Prayers," also utilizing the field of facing pages.

The poems progress with a compressed musicality. Tones are struck, turned and tuned (via "The purest coincidence of system & accident") into pseudo-aphorisms and nearly palpable abstractions and anti-logics, erecting "a misshapen statue of living minerals, neither natural nor artificial." Joron often employs a method of anagrammatic reconfiguration, of slight morpheme shifts and slipping syntax, where "That 'roof'/ Invited this 'proof'" and "That noon breaks into no one." Even individual letters are given an anthropomorphic significance in Joron's exploration of the connections and contradictions "brimming beneath the surface of stabilized meaning":

The pilot alone knows
That the plot is missing its

Why isn't this "ominous science"
itself afraid, a frayed

Pray, protagonist—
Prey to this series of staggered instants.

Such attention to the myriad nuances and circumstantial relationships that, as Joron notes, led to the emergence of language, makes for a reenactment of the conditions in which its course might be altered, an expanse of the possible through the unfettering of language—the unfathomable fathomed.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004

Assembling Art: The Machine and the American Avant-Garde

Buy this book from Amazon.com

Barbara Zabel
University Press of Mississippi ($45)

by Stacy Brix

In the early 20th century, America began to leave behind the romantic values of imagination, emotion, and interest in the past, and plunge forward into the age of the machine. While the country adopted a drive for objective reality and an increasingly controlled human environment, American art experienced a similar departure, espousing the visual qualities of the new industrial environment with its cold, rational geometry. A new visual language was necessary in order to communicate, express, and understand one's position within the overwhelmingly foreign technological milieu developing around them.

The flood of technological developments stirred a change in the American environment so significant that the nation was caught groping for a concrete conception of identity, an understanding of America's place in the world. The numberless factories found clinging to the nation's riverbanks were essential to what America had become—industry was feeding America's growth in population and its growth as a world power—but America's identity in respect to industry was persistently ambiguous. Americans once found their footing in myths of the unruly West, but the growing phenomena of urban growth captivated early 20th-century artists and the audiences who followed them. Artists of the Ashcan School, for example, gave glory to the cityscape, attending to the visual appeal of filthy alleys and the underbellies of bridges.

In Assembling Art, Barbara Zabel examines four avant-garde artists working in four genres to develop her evidence of this search for the new American identity: Man Ray, Stuart Davis, Alexander Calder, and Gerald Murphy. Art is never independent of cultural and scientific developments, though this is how it is often treated; yet Zabel sees it as a vehicle for understanding the growing, fluxing age, and illustrates how technology supported the avant-garde's primary impulse.

The author suggests that more technological elements ruminate in and through art of the 20th century than ever before acknowledged, demanding a deeper, more critical look at the Machine Age and the aesthetic constructions that erupted from it while complicating our view. Assembling Art re-engages the curiosity of its audience by confronting it with questions: How can a machine visually articulate one's sexual identity in an unprecedented way? Are visual constructions of machine-like compositions able to reinforce a male-dominated culture, and do these same artworks have the ability to release the female from the long-endured male grip? Zabel's approach is suggestive rather than conclusive, and thus truthfully illustrates the ambiguities and contradictions of the avant-garde.

The influence of the machine came to be evident not only in the themes artists chose but also in the process with which artists began to depict themes. Mixed media was becoming more accepted in the production of high art, as is especially exemplified in the reception of the work of the artists in discussion. To work in collage and assemblage was to choose a process much connected to the factory line; art was in its own way a machine, assembled.

Aesthetically, artworks began expressing the clean lines and hard edges specific to industrial-mechanical environments. Most of Gerald Murphy's work renders machines, whose function was often unidentifiable, with aesthetic values inspired by industry. Further, materials such as wires and gears came to be primary vehicles by which artists chose to describe, reference, and criticize the ideas, issues, and values of that time—as if to say that more traditional materials of paint and clay were no longer appropriate for the expressive needs of America's new machine-centered culture.

The role of technology and the machine became so entirely part of physical human experience that soon the body itself was conceived of as something mechanized. Zabel persuasively argues that humans understand themselves in terms of their environment. Once the machine came to be more centrally placed within the human environment, metaphors for people and human activities were derived increasingly from mechanical sources, leading to a conflation of the body and the machine. The body was understood as a system whose various minor components either work together or break down. And this machine was just one among many in the American machine—a single part of a greater system within which humans operate as gears and sprockets.

Zabel reminds us that American artworks of the Machine Age are as complex and enigmatic as the age from which they emerged, and that art serves us with not only truth and beauty, but more valuably with questions of our national, and often individual, identity.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004

Responsibility and Judgment | The Origins of Totalitarianism

Buy this book from Amazon.com

Responsibility and Judgment
Schocken Books ($25)

The Origins of Totalitarianism
Schocken Books ($25)
Hannah Arendt

by Rick Canning

Reading Hannah Arendt is a sober and sobering undertaking, and one reason for this is her business-like manner. She doesn't horse around. Her titles usually announce a weighty subject—The Origins of Totalitarianism, The Life of the Mind, "Moral Responsibility under Dictatorship, "Thinking and Moral Considerations"—and then she sets right to work. "Of about 2,000 SS men posted at Auschwitz between 1940 and 1945, (and many must still be alive), 'a handful of intolerable cases' had been selected and charged with murder" begins the first sentence of "Auschwitz on Trial," one of the pieces in Responsibility and Judgment; another starts, "There is such a thing as responsibility for things one has not done; one can be held liable for them."

Buy this book at Amazon.com

Having established this serious mode, she stays with it. Each page is a solid block of thought (often with footnotes): there are no whims, no fanciful digressions, no rhetorical or metaphorical flights, none of the breaks or modulations that a reader might expect or hope for—just a steady pursuit of serious ideas. As a result, sometimes her work, even a short review, can seem longer than it is. (The Origins of Totalitarianism, at well over six hundred oversized pages, is a mountain of a book.) On the other hand, Mary McCarthy was right when she said that Origins is "engrossing and fascinating in the way a novel is." The same could be said about the nine speeches, lectures, and essays collected in Responsibility and Judgment. And if occasionally the reader suspects that English was not Arendt's first language (it wasn't), her usual style is forceful and clear. "It is the grandeur of court proceedings," she writes apropos the prosecution of Nazi functionaries, "that even a cog can become a person again."

A second reason for the sober tone of Arendt's work, perhaps the most obvious one, is the topics she generally treats. Reading her, one is plunged back into the twentieth century and reminded what a mess it was. In 1968, she referred to the first half of the century as "decades of turmoil, confusion, and plain horror," and this was just a shorter version of her assessment in 1950, in the first sentence of the preface to Origins: "Two World Wars in one generation, separated by an uninterrupted chain of local wars and revolutions, followed by no peace treaty for the vanquished and no respite for the victor, have ended in the anticipation of a third World War between the two remaining world powers." It's a wonder sanity itself didn't disappear from the face of the earth.

Hannah Arendt was Jewish. Born in Germany in 1906, she was reading Kant and Kierkegaard by the age of fifteen, and a few years later she was studying philosophy under Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers; it seems a safe bet that when they got together, their talk was profound indeed. By her own account she was not political; politics is the realm of doing, and she was interested primarily in the life of the mind. But this began to change with the advent of National Socialism, a development even the most abstracted intellectual could not help but notice. (Heidegger, who had been not only her teacher but also her lover, made his peace with the Nazis.) Most people, if they're political at all, enter that arena voluntarily, working the phones for a candidate or carrying a petition door to door. Arendt woke up to Hitler. In 1933, the Reichstag was burned (by communists, it was claimed), opponents of the Nazis began to disappear into "protective custody," and Hitler was named chancellor; as she put it later, "Indifference was no longer possible in 1933." She left Germany for France and went to work for a Zionist organization that smuggled German children into Palestine. In 1941 she came to the United States.

With such a background, it's no wonder that totalitarianism was her great subject, and not only when she was treating it directly, as in The Origins of Totalitarianism (and most famously, in Eichmann in Jerusalem). Responsibility and Judgment shows that even much more abstract discussions—of ethics and morality, of political action, the human will, logic, solitude and loneliness, the nature of thinking and understanding—are shadowed by Hitler and, to a lesser extent, Stalin. It was as if everything had to be rethought in the light of the mid-century experience.

In an interview conducted in 1964, Arendt identified 1943, "the day we learned about Auschwitz," as a turning point for her: "It was really as if an abyss had opened….This ought not to have happened…. This should not have happened. Something happened there to which we cannot reconcile ourselves." A year later, in a series of lectures included in Responsibility and Judgment under the title "Some Questions of Moral Philosophy," she borrowed a word from the New Testament to help clarify this "something": "Evil according to Jesus is defined as a 'stumbling stone,' skandalon, which human powers cannot remove….The skandalon is what is not in our power to repair—by forgiving or by punishment—and what therefore remains as obstacle for all further performances and doings." Arendt outlived the Third Reich by thirty years, but she spent much of that time, intellectually at least, pondering that giant stumbling stone.

The most scandalous part, however, was not Hitler and his associates, or even the camp guards and SS cadres, who behaved with such brutality. In any population, she points out in the same lectures, there will always be people who are driven by hatred or cruelty—outright villains, in other words—and moral philosophy has a category for villains. The true scandal was the behavior of "ordinary people," the so-called good Germans. They never beat or shot anyone, and never ordered anyone beaten or shot; they just found a way to accommodate themselves to beatings and shootings. As long as the Ten Commandments—Arendt's shorthand for all moral codes—were in force, these people never dreamed of following anything else. But when the Nazis came to power and reversed the commandments, the good Germans adjusted themselves. And when the war ended and the Ten Commandments went back into effect, the good Germans accepted that, too.

The four pieces in the first and most trenchant part of Responsibility and Judgment explore the importance of this moral flip-flopping, this "honest overnight change of opinion." It represented, for her, nothing less than a "total collapse of all established moral standards"—the failure, in other words, of the Ten Commandments. This was simply a fact of 20th-century history: all moral codes, when put to the test, had given way. Anyone interested in finding out what had happened, or what might happen, would have to confront this fact.

The main reason for the failure is that a moral code is external; it comes from an outside authority, and an individual can therefore possess a moral code without thinking much about it—in the same way that he might possess some of grandpa's old hats. Such people, Arendt says in "Personal Responsibility under Dictatorship," have the "mere habit of holding fast to something," but no deep commitment to the content of what they hold. "Much more reliable" in a crisis, she says, "will be the doubters and the skeptics, not because skepticism is good or doubting wholesome, but because they are used to examine things and to make up their own minds." In other words, the doubter is more reliable because, as he doubts, he thinks. It's the thinking that makes the difference.

In "Thinking and Moral Considerations," and at even greater length in the "Moral Philosophy" lectures, Arendt develops the idea that thinking itself, regardless of content, has moral implications. When thinking, the individual is both alone and not alone. He is separated from other people, but within himself the thinking person discovers, and talks to, himself. Drawing on Socrates, she argues that the "I" is not singular; instead, self-consciousness produces a split in the "I," a two-in-one structure, a self that speaks and a self that speaks back. Simply put, to think is to engage in an internal dialogue; in so doing, the division within the self becomes more real and more powerful. Being aware that "I am two-in-one" means that there "can be harmony or disharmony with the self."

This potential for harmony or disharmony is what gives thinking its moral potential. The thinking person is always being watched—not by God or the state, but by himself, his partner in thinking—and should he offend that partner, harmony within himself will be impossible. The thoughtful person, faced with the temptation to commit murder, understands that if he yields to that temptation, he will forever after have to live with a murderer. In place of rules inscribed on stone tablets, handed down generation to generation, Arendt substitutes the thinking individual, asking himself in solitude a simple question: If I do what I am being asked to do, will I be able to live with myself?

Her discussion of these ideas is persuasive and clear throughout, and there's even something inspiring in the importance she places on the thinking individual, who looks within and finds the power to say No. It is essentially a negative morality, as Arendt understood. "It is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong ": this formulation, which she borrows from Socrates, tells us what not to do. It's a morality of withdrawal and refusal, appropriate in times of extreme crisis, when the system has been so corrupted that working within it is no longer possible.

For a world not languishing in totalitarian darkness, however, this morality is not enough. In dire circumstances, refusing to act can be a form of action, even of heroic action, but ordinary conditions require something else: ordinary action. Arendt understood this, too, but it seems to me that, in this book at least, she has little to say about ordinary conditions and actions. It may be that the disasters of the twentieth century tended to overwhelm her imagination, as well they might; it was a scandalous time, after all. Her mind seemed to turn naturally toward crises, and toward the riddles of individual behavior during crises.

It may also be that she was too honest to offer prescriptions, recommendations, principles, and generalizations that she couldn't believe in. In the final piece in this collection, "Home to Roost," a speech she delivered in 1975, only a few months before she died, she sneers a bit at those who prattle on about the "lessons of history." At first this seems odd, because so much of her work is grounded in history. But it wasn't the attempt to understand the past that she objected to; it was the attempt to use the past to bind the present or, worse, to predict the future. All such "lessons" are suspect because, by definition all "roots and 'deeper causes'… are hidden by the appearances which they are supposed to have caused." The "lessons" of Vietnam, for example, can only be drawn and applied by people, and it is the fate of people to wander around in semidarkness.

In 1953, she put the problem this way: "The main shortcoming of action, it has been repeated time and again since [Plato], lies in the fact that I never quite know what I am doing . . . . Since I act in a web of relationships which consists of the actions and the desires of others, I never can foretell what ultimately will come out of what I am doing now." This is a genuine dilemma, for the point is not merely that we don't know what we're doing—a situation that could be remedied by more thinking—but that we cannot know. Twenty-two years later, in "Home to Roost," she was still wrestling with this problem, speaking of the "'unbelievable' . . . aspect of reality, which cannot be anticipated by either hope or fear."

To say that the future cannot be anticipated is to say that it cannot be controlled; we make the future, but we don't really know how and we won't necessarily like (or even believe) the results. Part of the value of Responsibility and Judgment lies in the fact that it doesn't shrink from this predicament. We don't know what we're doing, yet we have to do something: this isn't a state of affairs likely to please anyone, but it ought to teach us to act with humility. The proud alternative is to believe that the future is ours to make and mold. That's when the real disasters loom.

Click here to purchase Responsibility and Judgment at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Click here to purchase The Origins of Totalitarianism at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004

Restoring the Burnt Child: A Primer

Buy this book from Amazon.com

William Kloefkorn
University of Nebraska Press ($22)

by James Walkowiak

Following his acclaimed memoir This Death by Drowning, William Kloefkorn's Restoring the Burnt Child continues grappling with how 1940s middle America shaped its boys into men. A spirit of gamesmanship permeates the entire book, infusing the story with nostalgia and muted terror. The narrative, recounting Kloefkorn's pre-teen years, opens with a game of match-throwing that nearly burns down his house. Influenced by the rhetoric of the Second World War, Kloefkorn describes the incident as a tactical battlefield maneuver: "It required speed and concentration and purpose—and the God-given ability to strike a match at full throttle and drop it burning down the shirt of the fleeing victim."

The remainder of the book pivots back and forth from the playful to the disquieting—from snapshots of boyhood mischief to dreadful incantations of a bible-pounding minister who preaches "fireandbrimstone." Wherever Kloefkorn travels—barbershops, drugstores, movie houses—he soaks up language, building a lexical cache. He draws foremost from language inflected by the violence and prejudice of war as it filters down to him through ordinary conversation. Overhearing men at a local barbershop, for example, the boy digests the era's racist slurs: he hunts down barn swallows, calling them "Germans and Japs."

A few pages into the memoir, the speaker disrupts the narrative to celebrate the aural pleasure elicited by certain words. As a boy, he loves discovering "richochet," "trajectory," and "flak"—wartime words he admires in spite of the terror they orchestrate between other men. For Kloefkorn, the music of words takes precedence over meaning: "It has taken me a long time to realize the extent to which the story, any story, relies upon a melody." This aesthetic—an aspiration for music—will appeal to readers who know and admire Kloefkorn's poetry, but his privileging of music over meaning produces a problematic narrative. Passages refract similar-sounding voices. A circular time scheme reiterates fragments and shuffles dates and places from one paragraph to another. The narrative lacks a chronological frame of reference from which the reader can assemble all the disparate strands the author gives us.

Kloefkorn, however, intends to conflate events as he retells them; he defends his amorphous time scheme, saying, "Chronology has at best a habit of collapsing, of becoming quickly smaller, like the leaky bellows of the old red-and-black accordion as my grandfather squeezed it." When the narrative compresses linear time successfully, one remembered moment bears imprints of multiple life experiences. We see boys driving dump trucks, shooting birds, climbing boulders, listening to temperance women, and saving cash for radios, all happening simultaneously. This scheme allows Kloefkorn to showcase his lilting cadence and absurdist humor, though he does so at the expense of well-defined characters or the trajectory of an emotional arc. Still, on its own terms, Restoring the Burnt Child testifies to the music of youth which many men spend a lifetime seeking to regain.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004

Mexico: The Revolution and Beyond | Mexico/New York

Mexico: The Revolution and Beyond
Agustin Victor Casasola
Essay by Pete Hamill
Aperture ($50)

Mexico/New York
Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans
Introduction by Roberto Tejada
Mexico Editorial RM / D.A.P. ($60)

by John Toren

Photojournalist? Photographer? Artist? Historians have found it difficult to place Agustin Victor Casasola comfortably within the pantheon of modern photography, due to the vast scope of his oeuvre, the violence of the times and places he covered in his work, and the unabashedly commercial nature of the agency he ran for over thirty years in Mexico City. Casasola is most widely known today for a few portraits he took of Zapata and Pancho Villa, the two populist heroes of the Mexican Revolution. He was also on hand when Porfirio Diaz, the departing dictator, set sail for Europe from the port of Vera Cruz. But scholars and archivists working in the center for photography that Casasola established late in his career have catalogued more than 400,000 images bearing his name. The difficulty of coming to any conclusions about the overall merit of such a corpus is compounded by the fact that many of Casasola's photos were, in fact, taken by other photographers.

Buy this book from Amazon.com

In Mexico: The Revolution and Beyond, we are presented with a choice selection of images from the Casasola Agency, which cover the turbulent times of revolution but also expose the life of the city during its fascinating and awkward coming-of-age as a modern metropolis. There are photos at the race track, and photos of unruly Independence Day celebrations, showing streets jam-packed with men in enormous sombreros; we're taken into dance halls, sweatshops, and "modern" laboratories; and along the way we meet up with snake charmers, riveters, and student protesters. There are bullfighters and society musicians, prostitutes and clowns. The deaths of both Villa and Zapata are represented in gory detail, and Diego Rivera, Leon Trotsky and other notables make an occasional appearance; but many of the images chosen by the editors are generic, as if to highlight Casasola's efforts (following in the footsteps of great European photographers like Eugene Atget perhaps ) to document the life of the city.

As the visual record of a region and an age, the photos in the Casasola collection are nothing less than fascinating. We may have seen similar photos taken in North American cities at about the same time, yet here the costumes, the expressions, the flavor is entirely different. The question remains to be answered, whether Casasola's work actually rises above photojournalism, to reach that level of sober-minded profundity we associate with genuine works of art.

In an informative introductory essay Pete Hamill takes a stab at the question, and brings considerable weight to bear on the idea that Casasola was a sort of genius behind the camera. "His eye often recognized what Cartier-Bresson would later call 'the decisive moment': the way bodies fell after the fusillade, the primeval joy of charging cavalrymen. But he also captured the contrast between the horses of nineteenth-century wars and the railroad trains of the modern era. He caught the bold swagger of the soldadera along with the growing indifference to sudden death."

But a careful look at the photos doesn't convey quite the same impression. After all, anyone who takes 400,000 photos is going to catch "the decisive moment" every once in a while. And anyone who takes a picture of soldiers arriving somewhere by both horse and train is going to "capture" the contrast between the two modes of travel. The most obvious thing to note about many of the photos contained in this book is that they're posed. The war pictures aside, they seldom have the instantaneity of a fleeting event, large or small, that's been captured magically on film. Several images are of the type and quality that often wins photo-journalism awards today—the execution of six counterfeiters, for example, whose bodies can be seen crumbling through a cloud of smoke (which may be a doctored negative.) But more often they display the somewhat crude lighting and the dead-pan expressions of individuals who are lined up in front of a camera. Even the pictures of couples dancing at a nightclub show them, not gliding elegantly by, but frozen in place, their faces turned awkwardly toward the lens.

In short, relatively few of the Casasola images elicit that subtle frisson we experience when a slice of time seems to echo with the mysterious import of all time—but as a tireless exploration of both the dramatic events and the incidental details of Mexican life on every social level, this book is a wonderland of engaging imagery.

Buy this book from Amazon.com

The handsome volume Mexico/New York, offers a less robust but altogether more aesthetic vision of photography in Mexico. It reproduces a few of the images that appeared in a show held at the Palacio de Bellas Atres in Mexico City during the winter of 2003. That show, in turn, was a re-creation of a show held at the New York gallery of Julien Levy for two weeks in the spring of 1935. No one knows which photos were on view at that show, though the photographers involved were the Frenchman Cartier-Bresson, the Mexican Álvarez Bravo, and the American Walker Evans. Cartier-Bresson had been living in Mexico, and knew Álvarez Bravo well. All three were exploring photography as an expressive form at the time. The subtitle of the show at the Levy gallery carried the intriguing phrase "Documentary and Anti-Graphic Photographs."

The book itself is somewhat of an enigma, however. Reading the breathy preface by Mexican photographer Mercedes Iturbe, one would be hard-pressed to discern precisely why these works are appearing together. The book itself is printed on thick, luscious paper, but a number of the pages are blank; only thirty-five contain images. The typography is stunning, yet there are also glaring typos here and there. And the photos by Evans were taken in New York City, while the rest of the photos depict street scenes in Mexico. (The photos by Evans included in the original show had been taken in the American South.)

In Roberto Tejada's introduction he refers to "the borderline relation of these three photographers to surrealism," and we might add that they possess only a borderline relation to one another. Cartier-Bresson had not yet reached the point of total inclusiveness and nonchalance that would make him the greatest photographer of his time. The works of Álvarez Bravo and Evans share a more public face and a more classical form, though their chosen subjects lay half a continent apart.

It would be tempting to remove a few of these beautifully printed photos from their binding to hang on the wall, because considered one by one, the pictures are striking; in comparison to the Casasola works, they carry far greater formal strength and iconic presence. On the other hand, much of the incidental detail that invigorates Casasola's best images—the hats, the goats, the dust, the smiling revolutionaries—has vanished. The railroad tracks have lost their trains, and the store-front displays, with their manikins and eerie reflections, have become windows to the subconscious, rather than to the aspirations of a rising middle class.

Click here to purchase Mexico/New York at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004