Tag Archives: summer 2004

Devotional Cinema

Buy this book from Amazon.com

Nathaniel Dorsky
Tuumba Press ($10)

by Christopher Luna

Filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky's Devotional Cinema, which is based on a lecture he delivered to Princeton's March 2001 Conference on Religion and Cinema, is a beautiful celebration of cinema as a form of religion, a "metaphor…for our being." The author persuasively illuminates the formal elements that contribute to film's ability to address/reflect questions regarding our very existence. Dorsky first discovered "a concordance between film and our human metabolism" when, at the age of nine, he left a movie theater after spending more than six hours in the darkness to find that his perception had been irreversibly changed:

Quite suddenly, the normal things that were my usual reference points, everything that had been familiar to me in my hometown, all its archetypes and icons, became eerie and questionable. I felt alien and estranged…. Eventually I got home, and it even seemed odd that I was in my house. I was feeling this quite strongly and was trying my best to recover from the giant hole that had opened in the middle of my head.

Dorsky made a practice of observing the changes exhibited by himself and other audience members after films. As he "began to become more sensitive to these post-film experiences and the qualities in a film that might produce either health or ill health," Dorsky realized that this power arose from film's "ability to mirror and realign our metabolism."

An alchemy takes place when the form of a work "include[s] the expression of its own materiality," a transmutation that is evident in cave paintings, Egyptian sculpture, 12th-century French stained glass and stone engraving, and the music of Bach and Mozart. According to Dorsky, watching a film "has tremendous mystical implications; it can be, at its best, a way of approaching and manifesting the ineffable. This respect for the ineffable is an essential aspect of devotion." Cinema can achieve a "transcendental balance" in the successful union of "the internalized medieval and externalized Renaissance ways of seeing." The relationship between shots and cuts is also crucial to this balance. Dorsky sees a parallel between "our visual experience in daily life" and the intermittence of light and dark as film runs through a camera or projector at 24 frames per second. Though we do not experience the world as a "solid continuum," learning to accept the "poles of existence and nonexistence" ultimately "suffuses the 'solid' world with luminosity."

Devotional cinema captures the present moment (what Dorsky terms "nowness"), acknowledging the simultaneity of "absolute and relative time." Dorsky defines "devotion" as "the opening or the interruption that allows us to experience what is hidden, and to accept with our hearts our given situation." Just as devotion increases in relation to our openness and "willingness to touch the depths of our own being," film can facilitate revelation when it "expresses itself in a manner intrinsic to its own true nature." Ideally the cinema may even "serve as a corrective mirror that realigns our psyches and opens us up to appreciation and humility." This slim but eloquent book will touch the hearts of readers who approach film as an art form, one which has rarely exhibited the fullness of its vast potential as the one medium which incorporates all other disciplines.

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

Owls Head

Buy this book from Amazon.com

Rosamond Purcell
The Quantuck Lane Press ($25)

by Michelle Mitchell-Foust

In Rosamond Purcell's Owls Head, the search for things is the thing. Archivist, collector, artist, and consumer, she searches for eye-catching detritus in the small town of Owls Head, Maine and negotiates the purchase of found objects with local scrapyard proprietor William Buckminster. Purcell then takes the things home and makes other things—simple. And yet Owls Head is not simple, as the things Purcell makes are not simple. Three memoirs are embedded in Purcell's Owls Head: that of a man, a place, and a woman refining her aesthetic.

Buckminster handles the task of keeping and giving away the mountains of things with the grace and patience of a benign ruler, even in the face of an aggressive faction of concerned citizens who wish he would clean up the place. Purcell says: "I saw him too as a kind of deity from a Down East pantheon of gods that included the Lobster God, the God of the Outer Shoals, and the hardscrabble Potato God." Throughout she sketches his prismatic character as iron worker, host, gossip, historian, collector, rebel, philosopher, husband, merchant whose methods are a mystery—and all in the context of the "almighty thingness of our all-American world." Purcell gives us his voice, too, as he revisits objects from Owls Head that have been translated in Purcell's studio:

B: I don't remember but I remember this, though
R: —yeah—
roller skate.
If you see anything you want back…
No, no.
Is it—what you told me—arbor vitae?
Lignum vitae.
Lignum vitae. Oh, it's stuck on there—
A very…heavy wood. Matter of fact it doesn't float. Maybe dragged
up by a scallop fisherman.
Why was it in the water to begin with if it doesn't float?
The ship probably sank.

Buckminster is the thin, serious figure balancing on the precarious mound that is Owls Head. At one point in the biography, Purcell superimposes a ghost image of British collector Dr. James Petiver (1658-1716) over Buckminster, imagining the collectors past and present standing side-by-side: two men "prepared to admire the minuteness of much of the naturalia of this place as well as to take the chaos of its artificialia in stride."

Interesting, too, is the relationship we see developing between subject and biographer in Owls Head. Purcell is a character in the life of her subject; in Buckminster's presence, she becomes the being who wants. She holds up whatever she's found—a horse harness that has grown roots, or a swollen 78 r.p.m. record that sounds like "A New Year's Eve broadcast from the ballroom in London might have sounded to the soldiers in the trenches in France in 1918"—and Buckminster gives the nod or not, keeping some items "high and dry," for his own use, though as Purcell knows, "it's not for models but for love and it's no fair asking to buy them." In searching for the objects of desire she grows to wonder, as she did in childhood, "how 'want' looks"—and tries "not to look like a ridiculous Victorian" when she is turned down.

Want looks a great deal like Owls Head to those who recognize the place as a "terrifying chaos" that wants organization. But mostly Owls Head is a town with a house and a scrapyard and a barn and a mammoth collection of wooden lobster buoys—a collector's paradise whose gravitational pull Purcell cannot resist. She borrows a quotation by architect Philip Johnson (an allusion to a house built by Buckminster's relative Buckminster Fuller) to describe Owls Head: "nothing to do with architecture and all to do with dreams." As she watches Buckminster stabilize the barn, she says, "The staircase to the second floor was free-standing now, with no step at the bottom or the top. The elements of the building stood around me like pieces of a set. 'Under the Big Top only two days count, today and tomorrow.'" Purcell's circus reference is interesting in light of the fact that the objects at Owls Head are testaments to history, yet what the archivist/author/photographer perceives is what happens to these objects down the road, as weather and "translation" work on them. She notes, "Sometimes the stages of an object's evolutionary sequence are in plain sight."

Purcell defines "translation" as "to transfer from one place/condition to another." In order for translation to result in something approaching the sublime, the reader must understand the vocabulary of the image as well as relinquish the conventional classifications for things. Purcell acknowledges that "systems of classifications are [also] inventions":

I exhume the frame of a typewriter, its vestigial hammers like the ribbings of an ancient echinoid. Where does the sea end? At what point does a manufactured object turn into an organism? Do objects drown? Do they ever possess a life—beyond batteries—that might be taken away? Is an object transmuted into another substance ever, like a fossil, turned from flesh and bone to stone? When does an inanimate object become worthy of a scientific name? I name the typewriter Underwoodensis corrupta, a close invertebrate cousin to an echinoid….this typewriter aspires to the same lofty class of object as the book-nest, it too comes from the place where metaphors are made.

Owls Head is a project of nested metaphors and the joy of renaming, and Purcell's writing isolates her artistic process and refines her aesthetic. She sees in the piles of Buckminster's barn a resemblance to artist Robert Wilson's "installation of the hollow elephant, the decrepit Bonapartist watchman, mechanical rats, and opera music." Regarding her studio art—what becomes of much of Owls Head naturalia—she distinguishes herself from surrealist/collector Joseph Cornell:

I understand all too well the impulse to Joseph Cornell-box the world. Beyond a tropism for weathered surfaces and idealized microcosms, I share little of Cornell's vocabulary of lyric opera singers, celestial charts, and marbled papers. I admire his work but am wary of the romantic yearnings the constructions—so attractive—provoke in me. In the end, many of these boxes fill me with regrets. I turn away toward a closer observation of the teeming and intermingling between organic and inorganic forms, of what happens between the ice and the inner tube, the sun and a glass plate negative, the rain and a roadmap.

Purcell sees intensely how organic and inorganic forms work together in the life of an object in the wild, and she knows profoundly, "as Owls Head is a place of tireless consumption, of active burial and renewal by mice, squirrels, bees, beetles, ants, and worms, phenomena such as strings of pearls are illusory, soon dissolved by the sun." She exchanges both worm and pearl for word, for Owls Head is a prose poem, too. Not much since Walt Whitman's Song of Myself have we seen such a catalogue of Americana. Whitman writes:

My brain it shall be your occult convolutions!
Root of washed sweet-flag! timorous pond-snipe! nest of guarded duplicate eggs! it shall be you!
Mixed tussled hay of head, beard, brawn, it shall be you!
Trickling sap of maple, fiber of manly wheat, it shall be you!
Suns so generous it shall be you!
Vapors lighting and shading my face it shall be you!
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

In Whitman's poem and in Purcell's memoir, America holds still for us, awaits our careful scrutiny, during which we realize that the place is always in motion. The difference between the two approaches is that, unlike Purcell, Whitman was writing America through its people—he writes the egotistical sublime that makes himself (the human) the body of America (organic to organic)—while Purcell writes America through its things, what man has made and time has remade. Purcell acknowledges the biology of the inanimate object, considers context and associates in forensic detail. She is unafraid of what scientists may refer to as "the evil weed of metaphor" and metaphor's cousin synecdoche, which may, in stretching circumstances, move meaning away from the thing itself, rather than closer toward it. She asks herself, concerning "the ideal Platonic object—was a single leg, for instance, still a chair?" And she writes:

We are in the trenches somewhere, all the time, as far as I can make out. However apocalyptic these war scenes, their density owes everything to Owls Head. As a typewriter may also be a fossil echinoid, so piano wire is the horizon off the French coast and a piece of stained lace a bloody stretch of road. One thing becomes another, the shafts of a bird feather a broken Romanesque arch, sewing threads tangled military scrap, and an ape hanging in a museum window becomes the victim of a lynching hanging from a tree.

Purcell's Owls Head has a marvelous section of notes and photographs, but no index, much the way its namesake has no map. The digging is the pleasure. Another famous Maine resident, Stephen King, said in an interview that because we humans have so little time, we are lucky to get to know one or two places. Rosamond Purcell knows Owls Head, and as a result of this stunning book, we can too.

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 Dead Letter & The Figure Eight | That Affair Next Door & Lost Man's Lane

The Dead Letter & The Figure Eight
Metta Fuller Victor
Duke University Press ($21.95)

That Affair Next Door & Lost Man's Lane
Anna Katherine Green
Duke University Press ($21.95)

by Kris Lawson

For readers who think that Lifetime movies and the muddled genre books that combine romance and serial killers are a product of our tawdry age, Duke University Press has reprinted four 19th-century sensationalist classics that are titillating, vulgar, and moralistic by turns, full of violent action and passion, and as shallow and materialistic as reality television. Such fiction, however, provided an arena for women eager to become writers, and the novels collected in these two volumes—which each contain a fine introduction by scholar Catherine Ross Nickerson—display how vital that opportunity was.

Buy this book at Amazon.com

Metta Fuller Victor was the first American—male or female—to write a full-length procedural detective novel (the honor for creating the genre is usually bestowed upon Poe, but as Nickerson points out, "As the brevity of Poe's stories suggests, he first conceived the detective story, for all its structural sophistication, as a concentrated form"). Now-familiar elements of traditional detective novels are present in Victor's books: the crime that occurs immediately before or at the beginning of the story, clues mixed with red herrings, multiple suspects (including the narrator) who all have detailed motives, the investigation and unveiling of the criminal, and finally, retribution or justice. Victor combines these tropes with Gothic/horror elements: the dreaded family secret, the moldering mansion with mysterious locked doors and strange noises, women in long, trailing white nightgowns wandering the halls in "somnambulistic excursions." The author blends these ingredients into a crowd-pleasing sensationalist brew, but her concentration on solving the murders and detailing the steps of those investigations sets her books apart.

A straightforward mystery, The Dead Letter opens mid-story, the murder and initial investigation taking place in flashback. The narrator, Richard Redfield, is an impoverished prospective attorney studying with the kindly Mr. Argyll, who has promised him a job in his law firm. Redfield is in love with Eleanor Argyll, the oldest daughter, who is engaged to Henry Moreland. James Argyll, a ne'er-do-well nephew, also disapproves of Eleanor's engagement. Since Eleanor is a rich heiress and James has a gambling habit, Redfield suspects that James does not truly love her. On a dark and stormy night, Moreland leaves the train station but never arrives at the Argyll house; he is found stabbed to death the next morning on the path from the station. Both James and Redfield are suspects; also suspect are a mysterious woman who followed Moreland from the station and a sinister black-eyed stranger who stared at Moreland on the train. The "dead letter" holds a vital clue for Redfield's investigation, aided by Mr. Burton and his psychic daughter Lenore.

The Figure Eight is more Byzantine in plot. Dr. Meredith, recently returned from California with $60,000 in gold and a Cuban wife barely older than his daughter Lillian, is found dead with a glass of poisoned port next to him. He leaves a scrawled message containing a figure eight, which his family believes to be a clue to find the gold he had hidden somewhere on the Meredith estate. Joe Meredith, an orphaned nephew with a history of bad luck and troublemaking, is the narrator; desperately in love with Lillian, he is also the main suspect. Also suspect are Miss Miller, the upright governess; Arthur Miller, her brother who is looking for a rich heiress to wed; and Inez, Dr. Meredith's fiery young wife whose passion for Arthur is an open family secret. After the estate where the gold is hidden passes to a new owner, Joe and Miss Miller suspect each other of the murder and frequently run into each other as they search for the gold. Arthur excites Inez' jealousy by flirting with the rich heiress who now lives on the Meredith estate, and Don Miguel de Almeda appears, ostensibly to reunite with his cousin Inez, but also to fall in love with Lillian.

Victor's novels have many of the elements of sensationalist fiction. Her two narrators take on disguises and new identities; they experience hallucinations, dreams, even psychic revelations that spur them on or aid them in their investigations. Marriage is a treacherous state; love, especially passionate love, is suspect and those who profess it have sinister motives. However, her story structure, in which the crimes happen before or just as the books begin and are solved as the books progress, is a departure for the genre and more typical of detective stories, where procedure trumps character and controls the plot.

Buy this book from Amazon.com

Anna Katherine Green, writing a few decades later in the post-Civil War era, took her inspiration from Victor as well as contemporaries such as Louisa May Alcott and other women writers, most of whom hid under ambiguous or male pseudonyms. Green herself influenced and inspired later women writers of genre fictions such as Agatha Christie and Mary Roberts Rinehart.

That Affair Next Door introduces Amelia Butterworth, a wealthy maiden lady who matches wits with Mr. Gryce, a police detective, as they solve a murder together. Despite the sparks struck against Mr. Gryce's old-fashioned notions of women, Amelia's partnership with him is successful: she finds clues and matches them to motive and opportunity, while Gryce's solid investigative procedure keeps Amelia's flights of imagination grounded in reality. The Van Burnams, Amelia's neighbors, return home from a long trip only to find the dead body of a young woman crushed under their dining room display cabinet. When the victim is identified as Silas Van Burnam's estranged daughter-in-law, Amelia—having witnessed the strange midnight arrival of a young woman and her mysterious companion—uses her friendships, her maid's acting skills, and her own resources to find the clues that lead to the killer's capture.

Lost Man's Lane has more of a Gothic tone. The titular lane is in a small upstate village, where four tramps have disappeared. Amelia's best friend from school days has recently died and her children are still living in the family home, which happens to be at the far end of the lane. Urged by Mr. Gryce, Amelia drops in for a visit and to solve the mystery of the disappearing tramps. Shaken by revelations of her friend's unhappy marriage, attracted by the friendly neighbor Mr. Trohm, and kept awake by ominous noises from mysteriously locked rooms, Amelia does not enjoy her stay in the Gothic genre. With her humor and stubbornness, however, she manages to solve the mystery (again with Mr. Gryce's help) and bursts through a few Gothic conventions while she's at it.

Green's novels had a far-reaching influence on the mystery genre—any story with an unmarried older woman solving crimes owes a great debt to her. But Miss Butterworth, as appealing as she is, is only part of Green's formula. To have a woman, no matter how smart or wealthy, be seen as the equal to a male police detective—and moreover, to have that woman's skills actively sought by police detectives—was a major breakthrough. Amelia's greatest talent consists of spotting clues where others see only domestic details of no importance (a ripped dress, a broken hatpin, a misshapen ball of yarn) and linking them to motivation and character (her observations of human behavior, studied in great detail in her small circle of friends and relatives, applied widely to the human race as a whole). Those themes, along with the light humor sprinkled throughout Green's books, greatly contributed to the foundation of the "cozy" mystery, a bestseller in all its manifestations even today.

Sensationalist novels were the first American fiction to reach bestseller status; Green's 1878 work The Leavenworth Case, in fact, was (as Nickerson tells us) the best-selling novel of that year. Combining in embryonic form the elements of what became distinct genres such as Western, mystery, romance and adventure fiction, sensationalist fiction in pulp books and in newspapers reflected the mass consumption tastes of America—a rapidly expanding, industrializing America with the dirt of slavery and oppression of women under its nails, a country discovering that introspective literature only led to introspective thought (a bad thing when there was so much land to steal from the Indians, so many immigrants to exploit, so many resources to snatch up and hoard). Like the newly manufactured religions of that era or the widely available cheap beer, sensationalist fiction could be consumed easily and required no thought.

Derided in its day just as genre fiction is today, sensationalist literature had one positive result: women could participate powerfully and meaningfully in a new medium. Granted, many women writers used male pseudonyms or ambiguous initials: Victor wrote as Seeley Regester; Louisa May Alcott was A. M. Barnard. But the sheer volume of and demand for sensational fiction gave women an opportunity to dive in and swim in those churning waters despite their murky taint and odor of hellfire. Perhaps the pseudonyms were also useful to hide behind when an author was not especially proud of her pot-boiled work.

In her novel Little Women, Alcott confessed how ashamed she was of her own excursions into sensationalist literature. Jo March, Alcott's avatar, is initially proud of her moneymaking ability and of seeing her work in print, but when a friend points out the shallowness of her writing, Jo realizes "she was beginning to desecrate some of the womanliest attributes of a woman's character. She was living in bad society, and imaginary though it was, its influence affected her, for she was feeding heart and fancy on dangerous and unsubstantial food, and was fast brushing the innocent bloom from her nature by a premature acquaintance with the darker side of life, which comes soon enough to all of us."

Alcott's moral qualms may have prevented her from realizing that "acquaintance with the darker side of life" was a necessary feature if women were to participate fully in society—as faulty, shallow, and dangerous as it may occasionally be. For women such as Metta Fuller Victor and Anna Katherine Green, descending into the world of sensationalist fiction, in all its vulgarity and ugliness, provided them with the opportunity to create new genres, which today have more appeal and possibilities than they might have hoped.

Click here to purchase The Dead Letter & The Figure Eight at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Click here to purchase That Affair Next Door & Lost Man's Lane at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

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

The Long Haul

Buy this book from Amazon.com

Amanda Stern
Soft Skull Press ($12)

by Stephanie Anderson

In her debut novel, New York writer Amanda Stern depicts the anguish of a doomed and dangerous relationship between a young man and woman—two people who consume each other with the same ferocity with which they consume drugs and alcohol.

The book begins with an elegant, haunting overture: "Three years before we said out loud alcoholic, my breath rode Rochester's snow as icicles. We scraped the car, our girl, big blue. He let me drive plastered behind a wheel. Not our house, we laughed how easy stealing was. His panic attacks in each ventricle. His mother ate him young as afterbirth. His singing—mournful, never about me." This epigraph, composed of paraphrased excerpts from subsequent chapters, serves as a preview of what's to come: the harrowing tale of a self-destructive relationship told in poetic and, at times, heart-wrenching prose.

The Long Haul details the whirlwind courtship and coupling of the unnamed female narrator and her addict boyfriend, a man simply referred to as the Alcoholic, in a series of short chapters in language peppered with the pop-culture credo of "sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll." Her decision not to name her characters creates a distance between the two of them and between the story and the reader—an unsettling but ultimately effective method. The characters never come alive as individuals, since Stern situates them only within the confines of their codependency—but their venomous relationship takes on a life of its own when coupled with her lush prose.

The book's unique structure also distinguishes it from other relationship-gone-sour fiction. Stern tells the story in a nonlinear fashion, winding through the past and present, often from one paragraph to the next. The circularity of the storytelling confuses at times, but the absence of a chronological line suits the meandering lifestyle and recollections of the narrator and the Alcoholic, as they flit from college to therapy to gig to rehab. Stern intersperses odd but beautiful stream-of-consciousness passages between some of the chapters. These sections remove us from the narrative and from the conventions of space and time altogether, but they provide clear insights into the mind of the narrator:

There's a burn on your back the shape of Florida but you won't tell me how you got it. … You have secrets I want to know.… I want to see through you, memorize your veins. I lick your eyelids when you cry, run my tongue over your lashes. The salt burns on your face but tastes sweet and sad on my tongue. I want to know why people are warning me about you.

And we need these insights. Stern avoids opportunities to give her characters greater depth by introducing important (and often nightmarish) episodes that never fully develop. She dedicates an entire chapter to the narrator's obsession with her psychotherapist, but we never get a clear sense of either her resolution or continued fixation. In a chapter titled "The End of the World," the narrator and the Alcoholic attend a party together, and she narrowly escapes being raped by another partygoer. The narrator flees, finds the Alcoholic, and then the chapter abruptly ends. The characters never mention the attack again, and we can only infer the ordeal's significance. In this way, Stern plumbs the depths of co-dependence and addiction, but diminishes other dramatic elements.

What Stern chooses to explore, however, she explores well, recounting with grace and precision the depression and downward spiral of the two main characters and their relationship. Instead of growing annoyed at their incapacity, we hope they find the strength to leave each other. Even though we know early on that the relationship will fail, Stern's capacity for storytelling keeps us riveted to see how the tale unfolds.

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

Do You Hear Them?

Buy this book from Amazon.com

Nathalie Sarraute
Translated by Maria Jolas
Dalkey Archive Press ($12.95)

by Stephen Schenkenberg

There's probably never been a more serious book about the giggles than Nathalie Sarraute's Do You Hear Them?, first published in 1972 and newly re-released in English. The sounds start off lovely enough: "Fresh laughter. Carefree laughter. Silvery laughter. Tiny bells. Tiny drops. Fountains. Gentle water-falls. Twittering of birds…" and "clear, limpid laughter… living water, springs, little brooks running through flowering meadows." But there are also "long peals of laughter like thin lashes that sting and coil up"; "idiotic titters"; and "sharp peals" that "permeate every recess."

That last phrase should be remembered, for it well represents the author's narrative treatment throughout this work. Considered a key member of the Nouveau Roman, or New Novel, movement, Sarraute (1900-1999) spoke and wrote clearly about her strategies of narrative recess-permeation; in a forward to Tropisms, her first of 17 books, she described her authorial focus as those "inner moments" that "slip through us in the frontiers of consciousness in the form of indefinable, extremely rapid sensations."

Here those sensations are given life through sound. Do you hear them, the title asks? Do you hear those children giggling? The question comes from the children's father, who sits a floor below with an old friend, attempting to meditate on a recently acquired work of pre-Columbian art, a heavy, puma-like animal of rough stone that "would deserve to figure in a museum." The father is insulted, intellectually derailed, infuriated at these children of his—these "overfed babies" with access to the best cultural education but who "[turn] up their noses at art treasures" for the comfort of comics and television. Here's one remarkable passage, delivered with the dizzy poetics on which the whole novel floats:

Alone now, leaning toward each other, the two friends turn in every direction the stone set before them on the low table… the two misers tenderly stroke this precious chest, this casket in which there has been deposited, in which is locked up for safekeeping, preserved for all time, something that calms them, reassures them, ensures them security… Something permanent, immutable… An obstacle set on the path of time, a motionless center around which time, arrested, is revolving, forming circles… They hold on to that, seaweed, swaying grasses clinging to the cliff…

The most intriguing thing about Do You Hear Them? may be that Sarraute has taken one simple scene—a father's object fetishization, his children's in-character childishness, the resulting conflict—and fashioned something wonderfully strange and complex. Very little else happens in the novel except this single scene, played again and again from different angles and with different colorizations and through different voices, the author handling, flipping and turning the story like a Rubik's Cube. (This novel, intent on showing multiple sides in something of a single view, does in fact seem Cubist.)

Thus the reader is given revolving points of view, so that the book's anger and its sympathies are continually shifting among the characters. When the father marches upstairs, for instance, we are told that the children are "going to stop, cower in corners, scared to death, startled nymphs caught unawares by a satyr, little pigs dancing when all of a sudden, howling, his great teeth bared, in comes the big bad wolf." But through another lens these cowerers hold the power—"One single invisible ray emitted by them can turn this heavy stone into a hollow, flabby thing," and to counter the father's fuming stair-march we're given this startlingly poetic image: "they felt clinging to them the threads they make him secrete, that slaver with which he tries to envelop them, the slender lasso that he throws at them from behind… and they stiffened, they withdrew violently, they went upstairs, dragging him behind them, giving him hard knocks, his head bumping against the steps…"

Sarraute's elliptical prose can be exhausting and frustrating, but it will ultimately reward the reader who can keep time with the book's unusual rhythm and accept its plotlessness. The ideas and emotions the author casts a fog over—matters of taste, childhood fear, disdain for the next generation's future—remain surprisingly intact when the strange novel is over; the fog clears, and the reader sees more clearly the characters Sarraute has created. While the book includes some simple, declarative statements—"They hold art in contempt," says the father; "He holds a stopwatch on all our gestures," says one of the children—the reader senses that the richness of the book is in its faint, poetic, quickly passing passages, such as: "I believe that it's time… They rise… and inside him something breaks off and falls…"

The author's commitment to locating these "inner moments" feels, in the end, worth the labor of both writer and reader. The moments may have slipped through the consciousness of Sarraute's characters, but they have not slipped through hers, nor ours.

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


Buy this book from Amazon.com

Nuruddin Farah
Riverhead Books ($24.95)

by Scott Esposito

Nuruddin Farah's riveting new novel Links begins with its main character, Jeebleh, arriving at the airport in his ancestral Mogadiscio after building a life in America. Soon after he arrives, the question of why he returned arises, and it haunts him throughout the book; it is a fair question because Farah makes it clear that this is not a place for idle visitors. Mogadiscio is a country where death is ever present, a land where AK-47s cost $6 and street youths take potshots at their hapless elders for the fun of it. Whether by retreating to refuges or by fleeing the country, it is a place that people escape, not a place to which they return. The best Jeebleh can answer his interlocutor at the airport is that he has come to give his long-deceased mother a proper burial—yet like the American military he finds himself immediately inundated by politics and rivalries that threaten to swallow him like a vortex.

Upon arriving at Mogadiscio, Jeebleh is accosted by Af-Laawe, a shadowy man who claims to be an associate of his dear friend Bile. Jeebleh is mistrustful of Af-Laawe, but has little choice but to accept a ride in Af-Laawe's van, which doubles as a hearse that he uses to give the unending ranks of the newly deceased a proper Muslim burial. When their ride is interrupted by a murder and Af-Laawe hauls the body into his van-cum-hearse, Jeebleh is forced to ride in a separate vehicle. His new driver soon informs him that Af-Laawe is known as 'Marabou,' a bird that competes with vultures for carrion. Throughout the novel Farah uses such revelations to force Jeebleh (and the reader) to rethink his assumptions.

This first series of events sets the tone for the entire novel. Continually, Jeebleh is passed from person to person, all the while unsure if he is being manipulated or assisted, but helpless to do other than accept these ambiguous favors. Also typical of Jeebleh's travels through Mogadiscio is that he will hear two or three conflicting descriptions of any one acquaintance. It is up to him to determine who to trust, and often his life hangs in the balance.

Jeebleh's experiences are typical of what Farah calls "a nightmare of loyalties," the intricate web of interpersonal relationships that lies at the heart of Links. Just as Jeebleh is drawn into this nightmare, his fellow Somalis have also been drawn in, and these loyalties play a large part in perpetuating the violence that thrives throughout the book. Virtually everyone has blood on their hands, either directly or by association, and when it is time to go to war these loyalties ensure that no one is immune from the call of duty.

After his ride from the airport is finally over, Jeebleh checks into a dreary hotel and the next day meets with Bile, who helps run a sanctuary in war-torn Mogadiscio. Bile tells Jeebleh the story of his niece Raasta, a four-year-old child that Bile's fellow refugees believe is protected and has the power to keep their refuge safe. Raasta has been kidnapped, and many believe that Bile's war profiteering half-brother, Caloosha, is behind it. Jeebleh visits him the next day.

As Farah's narrative unfolds, the relationships between Jeebleh, Bile, Caloosha, Af-Laawe and several other characters are explained. Farah elaborates his characters through creative imagery, incidents, and heaps of dialog, and uses forthwith, consistent pacing. Like Jeebleh, the reader is in the dark as to each character's trustworthiness and past and must base evaluations on whatever evidence is at hand. As the pieces fall into place, Jeebleh and the reader must decide what the truth is. Through this incomplete knowledge, Farah conveys an idea of the ambiguity and conflicting relationships that are part and parcel of life in Somalia, and imparts the message that this "nightmare of loyalties" keeps the nation at war with itself.

Jeebleh's Western attitudes come into play as well. He disgraces his tribal elders by flatly refusing their demands for money to create battle wagons, an action which almost costs him his life; he also repeatedly flaunts aspects of Muslim law that he considers unreasonable, and fights valiantly to forge a meaningful compromise between his Western values and his Somali roots. Jeebleh's challenge is to wind his way through the thicket of relationships and links that surround him on all sides until he is able to discover why he has returned to Somalia and what he needs to do.

It is a difficult trip that Farah renders beautifully. The author's vivid images of everyday Mogadiscio create a dramatic mosaic, and this mosaic helps us understand Somalia as Farah sees it. Links is a slow book that relies more on revelation than plot, but like the rest of Farah's oeuvre, it is well worth the effort.

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

A Perfect Hoax

Buy this book from Amazon.comItalo Svevo
Translated by J. G. Nichols
Hesperus Press ($12)

by Eric J. Iannelli

Italo Svevo began writing A Perfect Hoax, the story of an aging "man of letters" who achieves what he believes to be his long overdue recognition, in 1925—a time when the author himself was receiving belated critical acclaim for his two early novels as well as his recently published masterwork, The Confessions of Zeno, thanks to a helpful push from his English tutor, James Joyce. This overt basis in autobiography makes A Perfect Hoax fertile territory for idle literary theorists looking to bind the man more tightly to his work. It also provides Tim Parks, the eminent translator of Italian, with a topic for his brief foreword.

Svevo's novella engages the same theme on which he would establish his lasting reputation: the convoluted intricacies of self-deception. Here he proves that he can craft a thoughtful, entertaining narrative about the all-too-human propensity to construct a comfortable version of reality in 70 pages as expertly as he did in the several hundred pages of Zeno. It is this, not the Easter egg hunt of deliberate autobiographical links, which amply justifies Hesperus Press's decision to republish A Perfect Hoax in a new translation by J. G. Nichols.

The hoax of the title unfolds when Enrico Gaia, a spiteful travelling salesman with a fondness for practical jokes, plans to dupe his naïve acquaintance Mario Samigli. Ever since publishing a poorly received novel at his own expense four decades earlier, Samigli has been drowning in delusions of literary grandeur. He credits his unknown work for influencing the younger generation of writers. He even wonders if the leaders of the invading Austrian army will hang him as a subversive or reward his genius. Samigli further cultivates his false self-image by writing trite fables—as inert as "little mummies"—about the local sparrows.

Spurred by a mixture of resentment and hostility, Gaia convinces Samigli that a representative from a prestigious Viennese publisher has been spotted in town among the crowds celebrating the end of The Great War. This man, he says, is looking to publish a German edition of the long-forgotten novel. Naturally, Samigli puffs with pride and arrogance. Like the mischievous praise of Samigli's gout-afflicted brother, Giulio, Gaia's flattering lie dovetails with the soi-disant author's concept of how things are and ought to be. This kicks off a daisy chain of ruses and fabrications, all of which Gaia has engineered to shove Samigli out of his waking dream.

Were Svevo's characters less pathetic, they would be contemptuous. The kindest reading of the antihero still pegs him as an inept, pretentious fool. The faux publisher's representative is described as simply "uglier than Gaia," the primary prankster himself being a short, paunchy, rheumatic man with the "hoarse voice of a boozer" who "limped like Mephistopheles" on account of his arthritic legs. Not even the characters' meager achievements are exempt from criticism. One Man's Youth, Samigli's novel, "might have been considered dead if in this world things could die when they had never been alive."

The prose of Nichols's translation is more restrained than that of William Weaver's The Confessions of Zeno, but it's safe to say that this quality is not a side effect of translation; rather, it speaks to a difference in Svevo's choice of narrator and tone. Whereas Zeno is warmer, garrulous, more informal, A Perfect Hoax is told at a superior remove, partly resembling Samigli's fables. (Only once does the story slip into the first person with "I am sorry to say it, but . . . ") The narrator speaks disparagingly—and therefore honestly, we assume—of Samigli's book, slightly less so of Gaia's modest itinerant profession; yet he refers to the salesman's hoax as "a work of art" and the practical joker in general as "a kind of artist." Iago is cited as a particularly admirable example.

We run into an issue of semantics at this point, possibly an intentional one on Svevo's behalf. A practical joke is not synonymous with a hoax. A hoax is designed to swindle, to dupe, to benefit one party at the unwitting expense of another. A successful practical joke, however, hinges upon the assumed good humor (or, more accurately, forgiveness) and retroactive complicity of its butt. The failure to properly distinguish between the two terms in A Perfect Hoax is not the fault of Nichols's thesaurus; nor is it the double meaning of "burla" in the Italian title. Instead it alerts readers to the narrator's predisposition: even while relating a tale of one man's astounding self-deception, this supposedly disinterested individual is unaware of his own biases and emphatic slants on the story. Likewise, the reader who mocks Samigli, Gaia, and the narrator for their skewed realities fancies himself equally immune to self-deception. Consequently he is just as guilty as the objects of his ridicule.

Still, all this jaded headshaking over the follies of humanity does not wholly suit Svevo, for there is something of the optimist in him. He makes certain that Gaia's malicious machinations are compensated by Samigli's wrath and a final stroke of good fortune. Moral debts are paid off. Balance is restored. It is not an entirely realistic or credible ending, but it is a satisfying one because, for one reason or another, we like to believe that this is how stories should end. Svevo knew this, and it fascinated him. It's why he kept returning to this theme.

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 Exquisite Corpse

Buy this book at Amazon.comAlfred Chester
Black Sparrow Book ($16.95)

by Mark Terrill

Originally published by Simon and Schuster in 1967, and reissued by Carroll and Graf in 1986, Alfred Chester's The Exquisite Corpse has twice gone out of print and lapsed into literary limbo, its very unavailability helping elevate it to the cult status by which it is known today. Previously championed by Allen Hibbard under the "Widely Unavailable" rubric in Rain Taxi Review of Books (Volume 4, Number 3), Hibbard closed his piece by saying "We should all stomp on bleachers, go on hunger strikes, or lay down on railway tracks until it is brought back into print." These extreme measures are happily no longer needed, for The Exquisite Corpse has at last been resurrected, in a new edition which contains an illuminating afterword by Diana Athill, adapted from her book, Stet: A Memoir.

Prior to writing The Exquisite Corpse, Chester was an accomplished writer with a reputation as a sharp-tongued critic in New York; he wrote fearlessly and pointedly about Norman Mailer, J. D. Salinger, Truman Capote, Edward Albee, Mary McCarthy, John Rechy, William S. Burroughs, Jean Genet, and Vladimir Nabokov, in such renowned publications as Commentary, The New York Review of Books, and Partisan Review. A collection of short stories, Here Be Dragons, was followed by a novel, Jamie Is My Heart's Desire, and then by another collection of stories, Behold Goliath; these books, along with work by Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, and Truman Capote, can be said to have pioneered the way for modern gay fiction. Chester's early stories earned him comparisons with Faulkner, Steinbeck, Jean Stafford, and Saul Bellow. Among his cohorts and colleagues in New York were Susan Sontag, Irene Fornes, Simon Perchik and Dennis Selby. Several of the stories in Behold Goliath were reworked or recycled as material for the surreal patchwork quilt that eventually became The Exquisite Corpse.

In 1963, Chester met Paul Bowles, who was in New York to write the music for a Tennessee Williams play on Broadway, and at Bowles's suggestion, Chester decided to leave New York and move to Tangier, Morocco. Fed up with life in New York and the confines of critical writing, Chester was determined to break away and write another novel. The three years Chester spent in Morocco were perhaps the best and most fulfilling of his life. He smoked kif, experimented with other drugs, took full advantage of Tangier's open attitude towards sexuality, and fell in love with a Moroccan fisherman named Driss, to whom The Exquisite Corpse was dedicated and who was also the main character in one of Chester's last substantial works, "The Foot." Yet Chester's increasing paranoia and struggles with his own sexual identity culminated in a vortex of madness, in which Susan Sontag and Paul Bowles figured as imaginary antagonists; eventually Chester's erratic and antisocial behavior led to his being asked to leave the country by the Moroccan authorities.

It was in Tangier that Chester wrote The Exquisite Corpse, gathering together his various talents to produce what many consider to be a masterpiece of modern writing. Chester's influences ranged widely, from Truman Capote to Pirandello, from Paul Bowles to Gurdjieff, from E. M. Forster to Jean Genet. Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author and Gurdjieff's theory of multiple "I's" were both in accordance with Chester's own personal dilemma of identity. But stylistically, Chester was all on his own. Imagine a combination of the canny camp and tongue-in-cheek absurdity of Jane Bowles, the lewd surrealism and cheeky perversions of William Burroughs, the forward-toppling condensed chapters and poetic imagery of Richard Brautigan, a touch of Marquis de Sade and Ed Dorn's epic poem, "Gunslinger," and you're just beginning to get close to what's in store in this remarkable tale.

Chester's characters continuously change names, gender and identity, and the plots and subplots morph back in forth in time and space with all the diamond-cutting authority of a dream. Ira Cohen, a friend of Chester's in Tangier, described the novel as "a homo masterpiece born in the Bronx, made hairless by X-ray treatments, lovers with burnt marshmallow faces, a changeling born of lesbian frankfurter love taken away by angels with frosted toilet glass wings, broken telephone booths in the middle of the forest." At the hands of a lesser artist, The Exquisite Corpse probably would have wound up on the cutting room floor. But by way of Chester's masterful prose style and incredible wit—along with his keen sense of pacing and trans-cinematic imagination—this is a compelling roller coaster of a book, resembling at times a long poem more than anything else. As John Ashbery affirmed in his blurb, "Chester has used the materials of a novel to make something like a poem—a hybrid thing, but a thing still very much worth doing, as the poisoned eloquence of his writing proves on almost every page."

At the bottom of this palimpsest of shifting identity and gender is Chester's own ongoing dialectic between the self and the other, between identity and desire. For Chester, desire is the self, manifesting itself in one continuous irresolvable quest, identity being something you don or discard like a mask. The personal identity crisis as a point of departure for creating art was not Chester's own invention, nor was it something he employed as part of the fashionable existential self-doubt of the time, as evidenced by his eventual psychological breakdown in Morocco. Chester's crisis was legitimate, and he used it to explore the parameters of his own psyche, creating an enduring work of art in the process. As Michael Feingold wrote in The Village Voice, "Chester carried in himself two of the great polar elements on which most 20th-century art is based: He was an intelligent homosexual—that is, a man perpetually conscious of life as a series of roles or poses to be taken on; and he was a madman—a visionary." Speaking of his own position in the nexus of expatriate writers in Tangier at the time, Chester liked to claim that Bowles was of the past, Burroughs of the present, and he himself of the future. The Exquisite Corpse goes a long way to substantiate this claim, having opened the doors (along with Burroughs) for postmodernism, long before postmodernism became the cultural catchword that it is today.

Unfortunately, the future didn't last long for Chester. After being thrown out of Morocco, he briefly returned to New York, then began a peripatetic odyssey across Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, finally settling in Jerusalem—where he died of a drug overdose in 1971, just short of his 43rd birthday, a tragic victim of his own demons and desires. Out of print and nearly forgotten at the time of his death, Chester would probably have been doomed to total obscurity if not for the scope and strength of The Exquisite Corpse. Black Sparrow has also published Head of a Sad Angel: Stories 1953-1966 as well as Looking for Genet: Literary Essays and Reviews, both edited by his long-time friend and literary executor Edward Field. With the reappearance of The Exquisite Corpse, Chester's place in contemporary letters should be as stalwart and enduring as a granite tombstone, marking the grave of one very exquisite corpse indeed.

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

Wild and Whirling Words

Wild and Whirling Words

Edited by H. L. Hix
Etruscan Press ($22.95)

a semi-anonymous symposium, organized by Brian Clements

Out of "discontent over the dialogue in our world about poetry," H. L. Hix has attempted to devise a mode of criticism (or perhaps, more accurately, of critique) by "reinventing the conditions of the dialogue." Specifically, Hix is dissatisfied with the reluctance of critics and poets to argue over poetry, dissatisfied with the assumptions that poetry is primarily self-expression and that criticism is doomed by the poem's subjectivity, and dissatisfied with a tendency he perceives as a stifling tribalism whereby poets avoid publicly discussing work unlike their own.

Hix's experiment begins with the premise that given the opportunity to comment publicly but anonymously poets might be more willing to converse about the work of their peers. So he solicited a poem from each of the 33 contributors, and rotated the poems among groups of six commentators. The commentators knew neither the identity of the poet nor the identities of the previous commentators. While the reader is given the author’s identity and has access to both the poem and the criticism on it, he is denied the names of the commentators. Anonymity, perhaps because of its novelty in this context, becomes as much a topic in the book as the poems and the critiques.

We have adopted Hix's device as the compositional model for this review. In the book, the reader finds herself guessing at the identities of commentators, just as the commentators guess at the identities of the poets. Similarly, we are identifying the reviewers here—they are, in alphabetical order, Charles Altieri, Susan Briante, Elisabeth Frost, Arielle Greenberg, Frederick Turner, and Lorenzo Thomas—but we have not associated the reviewers with their comments. While one of the reviewers wanted to come out from behind the mask of anonymity by identifying him/herself at the end of his/her comments, in the interest of more accurately imitating the dynamic of the Hix book and preserving the guidelines with which we began the review, we have elected not to identify that reviewer.

We invite further discussion from interested readers, who may send their letters to info@raintaxi.com. New comments will be posted weekly throughout the summer.

—Brian Clements

I agree with the assumptions Hix starts with: that current poetry scenes in the U.S. function as closed systems of the like-minded. Conversations about poetry too often consist of praising one's own. However, anonymous reading has the unfortunate effect of erasing questions of context and community. After all, is it really a problem that differing communities read different sorts of books? Hasn't the myth of writing for everyone (or for eternity, as voiced by one writer here) had its day?

The poems here that provoke disagreement provide the most interesting, and disturbing, reading. The confession of various "biases" troubles me—against nature poetry, poems using myth, prose poems, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry (almost universally mislabeled), self-reflexive poems. I also feel voyeuristic, as one writer's inability to interpret a poem is made clear when a later commentary illuminates the poem's sources. What does any of us really know? From what standpoint do we respond? Many refer to their students; what sort of engagement is implied when reader turns teacher? Further, even though Hix solicited eighty poets to take part, seeking as diverse a group as possible, the results are less varied than I would hope for. Just a handful, for example, eschew earnestness for humor, and these provoke disagreement about the merits of what is oddly labeled "light verse"; similarly, there are few that express direct political engagement, and these, likewise, provoke sharp debate (as if the other poems were not implicitly political as well).

Which returns me to the problem of anonymity. Of course, this is the anonymity of the academic world—of peer reviews, letters of recommendation, grant committees. But it is also an anonymity with a New Critical assumption: that one can understand and appreciate a literary work fully without knowledge of history or biography—in short, without context. The poets question this assumption time and again, pointing out, as one writes, "It sounds democratic, as if this would allow us to read poems for themselves. But artworks, like people, are not self-sufficient but part of a series, embedded in contexts that give them not only meaning but resonance, depth." The writers yearn to know the gender of the authors, whether the poem belongs to a sequence, and so on. One opens a comment: "All this discussion begs the questions: What is the occasion of this poem? What are the demands of this poem? And what are we, as readers, demanding from it?" Anonymity assumes that a lack of context is, if not ideal, at least an adequate starting point. What the book proves to me—and this is the comfort I take from it—is that this has never been the case. Our poetic cultures exist not despite but because of the reading communities, and the histories, to which they belong.

The cautious and kindly tone of the previous review cannot conceal the sad fact: this book is proof that mainstream American poetry is in real trouble. The reviewer's word "voyeur" is symptomatic; for me the book had the horrifying fascination of a freeway pileup.

The poets in the book themselves know that something is deeply wrong. I need only summarize here their own collective misgivings about what they are doing. The book is the creative writing workshop from hell, a contemporary Inferno written by the inhabitants. Only one of the poems has any real pretence to poetic form, though some have a sort of annoying ghost of meter. Two others—David Mason and Annie Finch, good poets who really should know better—submitted unusually flabby poems. So the pleasures of poetic sound, the quality of memorability, and the precise specification of the poet's intended tone and cadence are lost from the start. The subjects of the poems include the usual suspects: cancer surgery, suicide, masturbation, death, predatory sexuality, the poet's self, and the failure of love. But they are basically an excuse for the real subject—which is poetry itself. Or rather, the poems are about the poet's thoughts about his or her own analysis of the process of writing poetry, so that by the time one has read one poet-critic's hostile comment on a previous commentator's "take" on a poem about the poet's process of writing poetry, one is beating at the mirrors to get out.

But these are the poems that have a subject at all. The largest proportion of the poems is in the "language poetry" mode—essentially nonsense verse without the jaunty wit, weird logic, and infectious beat of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. It is as if all the structures that make language meaningful—syntax, lexical coherence, logical argument, large ideas, themes of public interest, stories, drama, religious experience, advocacy for moral or cultural progress, heroism, natural science, economics, history, philosophy, anthropology, politics, and theology—had already been burned down, and all a poet can do is bounce the rubble.

As critics the poets adopt the pose of the New Yorker gent with the monocle, with a nasty undertone of the new American snobbery that is only happy when it is slumming. The worldview of the writers averages that of the The New York Times op-ed page (I counted eight references to the The New York Times in the book). The level of ignorance about any subject other than creative writing is depressing—and the ignorance of basic metrics is shocking. What becomes clear is that for the most part poets themselves do not have the faintest idea of what each other's poems mean, and there would be rich comedy in their contradictory accounts, if the implications for American writing were not so sad.

The anonymity of the process was experienced by all except this reviewer as an impossible handicap. What it does is reveal that unless one knows which creative writing school the author teaches at and what gender s/he is, the poem is meaningless. And this is the stark truth about most contemporary poetry. Hix has actually done the literary world an unintentional favor—here the emperor stands naked, laid bare by his own acolytes.

In large cities anonymity offers some people exciting opportunities to shed their inhibitions, to experiment with wearing a new personality. Anonymous literary criticism, on the other hand…could it maybe allow a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet to see what it feels like to be a New Formalist?

There are many fine poems in this anthology but few real standouts. The focus after all is on the criticism. Noticing which poems provoke the most intense critical anxiety is both amusing and instructive.

Which critics will cite the Wallace Stevens poem that was most likely the inspiration for Annie Finch? Is Charles Bernstein's "Every Lake Has a House" a version of the house that Jack built or is it more akin to those word games that—like an M. C. Escher design—prompt minor substitutions until a formula morphs into its opposite? What I find fascinating about that poem is that each line—except for those that might be proverbs or references to mathematics—describes an object imagined by the poet but unnamed. If I discussed this with students, I think I'd say, "Pick a line. Do you know what he's talking about?"

One fact that emerges from this conversation is that there is no single way to read all texts. Some texts clearly resist the reader who cannot trace allusions or recall analogs; others baffle those who discount surface and insist upon finding hidden profundity. In this exercise, though, poems are mostly puzzles; and the critical commentaries are like entries in an essay contest waiting for the book's readers to select those which display the closest match to some unstated standard of relevance, timeliness, and aptness of thought.

There is less stylistic and aesthetic diversity among the poets than the moderator would have us believe. The conversation does not fulfill Hix's wish that we be disabused of the ideas that poetry is "essentially emotional" and "always primarily a vehicle of self-expression" because the poems included seem to firmly endorse those Creative Writing workshop postulates. When—as with Rachel Blau du Plessis—the poets refuse to march under these standards, the critics re-inscribe them anyway.

H. L. Hix's possible (perhaps even subconscious) intention to expose how badly we might stumble by accepting the authorial invisibility and discard of context required by New Criticism and a few other interpretive paradigms is, however, a useful effort.

Unlike the first reviewer, I don't agree with Hix's premise: he claims poets don't talk about their taste in poems, but in my experience, such discussions are a favorite pastime. And far from expanding the audience and methods of poetry conversation, the book reifies its provinciality: the same tired arguments—Language vs. Narrative, Comedy vs. Sincerity—executed in standard workshop mode, without illustrating a sense of history for the uninformed and only rarely broken by unbridled enthusiasm or loose riffs. Like others here and in the book, I think poets—myself included—benefit from less insularity and greater engagement with other communities, something this book does not do. How much more fun it might be to have a book which asks all sorts of people—children, seniors, blue collar workers, business people—to respond to all sorts of art, and for artists to work from materials provided by the lives and thoughts of all sorts of people.

That said, the conceit of this book is fun, a sort of "Dating Game" for literati. Unfortunately, the reader spends more time guessing who's who than carefully reading the work. One thing that does come across, and which some of my peers have noted, is the weaknesses of New Criticism, of analysis without context. But I wish more had been revealed, because no one hypothesis can be gleaned about contemporary poetry by what's included here: the choice of poets is eclectic but random, and more importantly, the method by which the poems were selected seems haphazard. Were poets required to submit unpublished work to insure anonymity? (Several of the selections were published, though perhaps after this project was completed.) Which of my own poems would I have subjected to this experiment: a "finished" poem? A poem in need of workshop? A poem which typified my style (whatever that might be)? A red herring?

As one reads, the book's premise grows thin, and lacks the coherence and arc that might make such a roundtable discussion genuinely constructive. In participating in this review, I am subject to and complicit in the same failings the book has: like being in a packed, anonymous and virtual chat room, I have both too much and too little to respond to for there to be a substantial conversation.

More than a literati "Dating Game, " the anonymity of the project reminded me of voyeuristic TV. It smacked of "Boy Meets Boy," the queer reality dating series in which a handsome bachelor not only tried to find Mr. Right, but also attempted to avoid picking one of several straight boys posing as queer.

So we watch our anonymous critics flirt with poems that appeared to them—like the well-groomed bachelors on the Bravo TV series—without social or historical context or companions. The critic contenders miss intertextual references, fumble with theoretical underpinnings, and struggle with assumptions about the poets behind the work ("I'd wager this was a straight man speaking," one reviewer writes about a Rebecca Seiferle poem). Several reviewers want to hold the whole exercise up as an example of the failure of the New Critical method; others use it to point to the failures of contemporary poetry to live up to New Critical ideals. At worse, when some respondents confront a poem they don't understand they turn catty, insisting on the failure of the writer instead of their own inability to read the work: "I think this poem needs to go back to the drawing board." Perhaps my favorite critic (critics?), responded (ironically?) by relating each poem to a sort of lyric autobiography: "I visited my mother out in Stony Brook last week . . . " or "I do not live in California . . . " casting some doubt on the entire critical enterprise.

But in the end, what have we gained?

On the last episode of "Boy Meets Boy", the leading man picked a bachelor who was (whew!) gay. And while the happy couple jetted off to paradise, gay and straight contestants exclaimed: "We are all more alike then we could imagine!" Unfortunately, there's no vacation getaway at the end of this experiment, and participants seem no less entrenched in performing aesthetic difference. Still the project raises many issues. Some respondents enjoyed confronting a poem they might not normally see and reading its criticism. "Maybe I would have failed to appreciate [Timothy Liu's] "Homo Ex Humo," one participant writes, "but now I'm glad of its presence, because it hones my appreciation of possibilities…" And that is the best we could hope for from a forced reading across aesthetic camps—or a glance from a beautiful, anonymous stranger across a room.

I share the view that H. L. Hix's experiment turned out to be mostly a disaster. I confess that at first sight I loved the idea: how might contemporary poetry fare if we invite comparison with more argument-based discourses and if we challenged prevailing assumptions about the priority of expressing an individual's emotions? But Hix's tale of two tribes seems to me to focus on a narrow dichotomy between disciplines rather than asking what vocabularies (rather than habits of mind) would match the resources of poetry to felt needs in contemporary social life. And the gap between Hix's high-minded aspirations and the reality of the poems and comments made me slightly ashamed of my investments in contemporary poetry.

I take consolation in the likelihood that no experiment about the social relevance of contemporary poetry can work when most of the important active poets refuse to participate. Most of the poems seem to deserve the criticisms they receive. And I would add my own disappointment at the overwrought diction that in many of the poems take the place of formal intricacy and imaginative power. More important, I was struck by a disturbing religiousity that made Charles Bernstein and Juliana Spahr stunning for their refusal of such rhetoric—why were the critics silent on this point? For me many of the poets seemed to think grandeur of reference could compensate for poverty of insight.

But if many of our best poets won't play, what can one do? Perhaps the best poets won't play because the experiment limited them to one poem. Fewer poets, more poems. Then critics could be asked to focus on how each poet's imagination establishes imaginative investments and brings the distinctive powers of the medium to bear in projecting those investments. As it is, I took heart from the fact that most of the criticism (with striking exceptions) was even worse than the poetry because it seemed myopic, exhausting itself in guessing details and affiliations rather than seeking significance. Hix's experiment at least proves we need better critical vocabularies and practices than these poets are accustomed to. Ironically, he also proved to me that there are good reasons for sticking to our own tribe, since the poems fail primarily because they settle for mediocrity on the level of craft. Perhaps the situation will improve if critics find their ideals in literary history because this creates the possibility of working to produce writers who will make those in other tribes want to participate in our vocabularies.

Click here to purchase Wild and Whirling Words at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

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

The Poetry in Something: an interview with Gerard Malanga

Gerard with Archie photo credit: Asako

by Erik La Prade

Gerard Malanga has achieved more than his 15 minutes of fame for being "Andy Warhol's most important associate," as the New York Times has rightly called him, and less than his due for his career in poetry, which earned him publication in such venerable magazines as the Partisan Review and the New Yorker by the time he was 21, as well as praise from lofty predecessors such as Robert Lowell, Kenneth Rexroth, Muriel Rukeyser, and Richard Eberhart. Over three decades of his work are presented in No Respect: New and Selected Poems 1964-2000 (Black Sparrow Press, 2001), which presents work from such noteworthy volumes as Chic Death, Ten Years After, and Mythologies of the Heart, as well as unpublished poems from his earliest efforts to the present. Malanga's verse can be heard on the CD Up from the Archives (Sub Rosa, 1999) and he is the co-author (with Victor Bokris) of Up-Tight: the Velvet Underground Story (reissued by Cooper Square Press in 2003); he is also a noted photographer with several monographs to his credit. He lives in New York City, where he continues to write poems and take pictures.

Erik La Prade: Your career as a poet began very early. Did you have a sense of your own voice by the time you graduated high school?

Gerard Malanga: No, I really didn't have a sense of my own voice until much later. And that happened when I started reading Paul Blackburn's poetry. I say that regretfully because I wish I had read him earlier. I knew Paul quite well and when I started reading his poetry—sadly, after he died—that's when I began to appreciate what he was really about and what he was trying to do. It was through his work that I realized what the voice was all about, how you can translate your voice into "voice" on the page. I realized, you can do anything you damn well please in poetry but you can still maintain your voice. Or, by maintaining your voice you can do whatever you please. That was a very healthy, insightful, enlightenment for me.

ELP: Would you say you favor an experimental style over a classical approach or style to writing?

GM: Absolutely. Once I was able to recognize my own voice and also recognize the mutations in my own voice over the years, because the voice changes too, I realized I was in control of my own destiny in terms of my own writing. And that was a lot of fun. And now I'm fully in control in terms of what is my voice. It's out there. I can certainly determine the kind of poem I'm writing by recognizing my voice in the poem. Because then I realized if I can't be true to my own voice the poem is not successful.

ELP: Your recent Selected Poems presents 36 years of work. How did you feel looking at this range of work in one book?

GM: The first draft of that manuscript was over 500 pages, but John Martin's assistant said, "Gerard, we can't do a 500-page selected poems," so I had to be merciless with myself and whittle away. My publishing career is very peculiar because I was always so far ahead of myself. There were whole poetry book manuscripts that never saw the light of day, though some of the poems appeared in magazines. So I thought, What am I going to do with this stuff? Because this was an important part of my life; I just can't yank this out and dismiss it because that leaves a big, black hole in terms of my writing. So, you'll notice in section three of the book for example, it says, "from The Debbie High School Dropout Poems." That was from a book manuscript that never appeared in print. But there were some really good poems in that manuscript.

ELP: What year is that?

GM: The Debbie High School Dropout Poems was from 1965. But I abandoned the idea of finding a publisher for that book, because I was doing my Screen Test poems in 1966. By the time I did my first book with Black Sparrow in 1969, I was publishing The Last Benedetta Poems and not the first ones. The first group of Benedetta poems didn't get published until the book Ten Years After: The Selected Benedetta Poems (1977).

ELP: If you had an hour to talk with one dead poet, who would it be?

GM: Maybe Ted Roethke. Roethke said something really interesting in his diaries, about poets helping to advance consciousness together. That's something I strongly believe in but it may be a very naive notion.

ELP: It's a very idealistic statement.

GM: A very idealistic statement coming from an extremely gifted individual whose poetry is still very vibrant today, even though he's been dead forty-one years.

ELP: You've mentioned Duchamp previously in other interviews. How was he an influence on your writing?

GM: Well, Duchamp's influence, which was a very concrete influence, had to do with discovery. Recognizing the poetry in something even if it doesn't have to do with words. The courage of discovery, whether it has to do with language or images or whatever. And the naming of things to a certain degree. If you feel what you're doing has to do with poetry then that's a very valid assumption of how you're creating the work.

ELP: Did you talk about poetry with Duchamp?

GM: Yes—he was the one who gave me the idea of writing a poem without my actually having to write it, i.e., using appropriation. This was in 1963.

ELP: That's interesting because appropriation was more common after that.

GM: Appropriation by the early 1970s was basically the norm, and that was all from Duchamp's influence.

ELP: Can you say anything about current events as poetry?

GM: No. I'm not writing current events. It depends on whatever your source material is. It could be newspapers, it could be magazines. When I was reading The Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler, that became the primary source material for my Raymond Chandler poem. The magical part is when you get to a point when you start discovering things about yourself in terms of how you want to portray the subject in your poem. And that's a lot of fun. I had a lot of fun writing the Raymond Chandler poem. It just kept on going and going. Usually the poems I'm writing today don't go beyond twenty lines but this poem ended up being thirty-seven lines. I've got a major poem here!

ELP: Do you ever find yourself being obsessed with "time" in your poetry?

GM: Not obsessed with time, but interested in time. I'm always interested in obscurity. I mean, the more obscure the person is to me, the more interesting, the more attracted I am to that person as a subject.

ELP: Like redeeming them from death?

GM: In a way. I wrote a poem for Gene Derwood, for example, and I know no one else is going to write a poem for Gene Derwood. Most people don't even know who Gene Derwood was.

ELP: And now somebody will read this and look up Gene Derwood.

GM: That, I think is very important! Let's say if I gave a poetry reading and I read my Gene Derwood poem or my Sol Funaroff poem. I'm basically saying, I know about these people and I want you to know about these people because it's important for you to know who Gene Derwood or Sol Funaroff were.

ELP: You create a historical context to continue knowing and reading the work that could be lost.

GM: Absolutely. It's creating a historical context where there was none or where there would have been one had not some quirk of time intervened to sideline someone like Gene Derwood and her work. The same thing with Weldon Kees or Willard Maas or Marie Menkien. These are important people who were very genuine in the kind of work they were creating, but through some personal calamity they got sidelined. I was reminded of all this having just finished reading a biography of Weldon Kees. Turns out we have a few things in common. First off, we're both Pisces. We're also both polymaths, visually grounded. He was a really terrific painter. My interest was more into film and photography (though he took pictures as well). As children we designed our own make-believe newspapers and kept scrapbooks of what caught our eye. We're cat lovers. Oh, and we were the only child in the family. No siblings. That explains a whole lot.

ELP: You both started young.

GM: We both published early and in a lot of the same places, like The New Yorker, Poetry, Partisan Review. And we were victims of intellectual snobbery. Well, Kees was. Delmore Schwartz turned out to be Kees's nemesis. He hated Kenneth Patchen—tried convincing Jay Laughlin into dropping him from the New Directions's roster. When Schwartz became poetry editor of Partisan Review he started rejecting Weldon's poetry. Schwartz tormented Kees by keeping his poems in a desk drawer, pretending he'd misplaced them. Little petty things like that. Schwartz was a little shit—intensely jealous of Kees because he could write a good poem and write other things besides. Short stories, nonfiction. Book reviews. Music. Intensely versatile and professional. Well, we know what happened to Delmore. He got consumed by his own bile. His insanity killed him. Kees is now having a renascence.

ELP: So you identify with Kees?

GM: I first came across Kees's work early on, not really knowing anything about the man or how versatile he was. Whenever I visited Marie and Willard I had complete run of their library. That was where I first cut my teeth on the Oscar Williams's anthology, The War Poets. One day Willard told me how Kees disappeared and they never found the body—jumped into the current under the Golden Gate Bridge, his car found in the parking lot. Willard related this to me in 1960, and the incident had only occurred five years earlier! The other day a friend rang me up and put the receiver close to her computer so I could hear Kees reading his poetry. It was through a website and it brought a lump to my throat. He sounded the way I imagined him to sound, with natural sounding friendly voice. There was none of that melodramatic artifice you still hear in a lot of the poetry being read aloud these days.

ELP: How would you characterize yourself as a poet?

GM: I've always considered myself an avant-garde poet, first and foremost.

ELP: In what way?

GM: My approach. The methods I use to write my poems. It's the entire process. It has to do with knowing what you're writing bears no resemblance to anything else anyone else is doing. What you can claim to be uniquely your own.

ELP: Can you give me examples of some avant-garde poets that have been important for you?

GM: Well, in my own time-frame, certainly John Ashbery, especially in his groundbreaking book, The Tennis Court Oath. That's a seminal book. The Dadaists as a whole certainly are primary examples and certain of the Surrealists, although André Breton was such a pedant. A control freak. But a really strong example I'd say are the Italian Futurists. I think they're the strongest of all. If you studied the movement more closely, you'd see their ideas permeated nearly every area of artistic expression. Avant-garde has its own built-in definition: a movement of moving forward. That's what the Futurists were all about. To think how much more they could have accomplished.

ELP: Why don't you write a book about the Futurists?

GM: I simply don't have the time. It takes a scholar with that kind of energy and curiosity to pull it off. I'd get distracted and go off writing poems. But it's fascinating how art history politics could impact a movement.

ELP: So what are the kinds of poems you're writing these days?

GM: They're about everything and nothing.

ELP: In what sense?

GM: I discovered I've been carrying around bits and pieces of what could be expanded on, but for a long while I didn't know how to go about doing this, and then also I didn't consider these threads relevant to anything I was concerned with in my work. I was off on some other tangent. Of course, one only has stories to tell if one already has ploughed out a history. I can't deny that, but I didn't recognize that at first.

ELP: For example?

GM: Back in the late '60s—'66 in fact—I was living on East 10th Street in the East Village between 2nd and 3rd avenues and Harold Rosenberg was my next door neighbor. I used to run into him quite frequently—always with his wife, May. He was friendly enough. We'd greet each other in passing. Harold knew me because of my close friendship with Willard Maas and Marie Menken. They were actually my mentors. Anyway, Harold and May appeared inseparable. You have to imagine. He's 6'5". She's like 5'4". That in itself is memorable. They may have been on their late afternoon constitutional, but they always seemed to be heading off somewhere, but not far mind you. Likely, they were just going shopping over on 2nd Avenue.

ELP: And this was the basis for a poem?

GM: Not exactly. I carried this visual memory for many years. Never even considered doing anything with it. What was there to do? Two people exiting their apartment building on their afternoon constitutional? Where's the poem in all this that I can relate to? No. It never entered my mind. I just filed it, but it still lingered.

ELP: Then what?

GM: One day I was sleeping and had this dream. In the dream Harold appeared to me and said something mysterious which I couldn't make out, but it sounded logical nonetheless. I immediately woke up and wrote it down. So now I have these vivid recollections of my neighbors and this voice appears out of nowhere and then I have a couple of sentences, so over a period of time I begin to put all this into some kind of context.

ELP: Information-gathering . . .

GM: Yes, but with a twist. There's a problem to be solved if this is going to work. I started surrounding the quote with everything I could remember of them on the street and soon the poem had legs and with a bit of tinkering here and there I was able to salvage tiny dream-traces into a workable and visible form—a prose poem, that is. The fun part was seeing how this past experience adhered to Harold's voice in the dream. It was like Harold's voice was able to move the past forward. The two disparate elements were able to thrive on each other. Cross-fertilization, so to speak.

ELP: The technique is like a verbal collage.

GM: Yes, a collage in the sense I was constructing a framework for these sources, seemingly unrelated, but the process itself is definitely stream of consciousness. Without it I don't think I would've made any headway. Another thing I've been doing is purposely leaving out the pronoun "I".

ELP: Why?

GM: I discovered that by eliminating the "I" altogether, I can move through the work much easier. I can say things a whole lot faster I wouldn't have done otherwise. I've now become the narrator where before I might've been more intimately involved. I'm still involved but without drawing attention to myself. I'm like this disembodied voice. The attention is now focused on what's going on in the story as it's unfolding. The story is the thing. I can go anywhere with it and inside it.

ELP: This separation reminds me of a remark Rene Ricard once made about you: "Gerard, your life is existing without you."

GM: Well, it's the inverse of that. I don't locate myself in the work because I've reached a point where I'm dislocated from whatever my vantage point might've been. Also, it gives me more time to read.

ELP: What kinds of books?

GM: George Orwell. You know it was just this past year the centennial of his birth. I decided to celebrate his life. I'd read here and there whatever titles caught my eye. His nonfiction mostly. Can't read it all. He's the pre-eminent prose stylist of the 20th century. There's no one who comes close to what he achieved.

ELP: What attracts you to his work?

GM: His take on the underdog. You find that throughout his fiction as well. The vernacular style of his essays. The lack of artifice—the kind of talking down prevalent in so much of what's being written these days, though totally devoid in his own.

ELP: What is it about the underdog that attracts you?

GM: I don't write about the underdog, but sometimes I find myself in the peculiar position of living it. I feel like the Seabiscuit of the poetry world (laughing).

ELP: What are your plans now that your Selected Poems has been published?

GM: I have none. I'm lucky. That book came under the wire before my publisher rode into the sunset. I feel like the Energizer Bunny. That's the only thing happening right now. I'm having so much fun. There are stories to tell I haven't even tapped into. A stream of consciousness triggers the unconscious to give up something inside me and I just try to keep up. That's all. If I don't I shelve it for awhile. Pick it up again some other time maybe. I would imagine all this will coalesce into a book but I'm a ways away.

ELP: Do you have a name for the book or is that something you'll think about later?

GM: I'm pretty much settled on Who's There? It's not a knock-knock joke but the first line in Hamlet. The two sentinels, Barnardo and Francisco, are guarding the castle. Barnardo has arrived to relieve Francisco and they meet each other in the dark, then Barnardo says, "Who's there?" All kinds of associations filter in for the reader, I guess. Certainly myself. That's all. No set theme. The poems are pretty much open-ended. In a way, I guess, they reflect my own mortality. There are so many stories to tell. What I don't know is which one is next. It's always a surprise.

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