Tag Archives: summer 2009

DROPPING THE BOW: Poems of Ancient India

translated by Andrew Schelling
White Pine Press ($15)

by Robert Milo Baldwin

While we now have substantial volumes of translations of Chinese and Japanese poetry, the poetry of India remains less known. Yet India’s poetic tradition is as refined and concise as anything wrought by Sappho in ancient Greece, Catullus in Rome, Tu Fu in China, or Basho in Japan.

In Dropping the Bow, Andrew Schelling provides us with a selection from King Hala’s Gaha-kosa(“Book of Songs”), the original of which consists of 700 poems from approximately 200 B.C.E. to 200 C.E. Despite being penned by hundreds of different poets, the poems are all of the same meter, and consist of approximately thirty-two syllables. Almost all of them deal with love. As selected and translated by Schelling, they are brief, usually erotic, and often emotionally charged, as this one by Hala himself:

Mother
with the blink of an eye
his love vanished
A trinket gets
dangled
into your world
you reach out and it’s gone

Schelling has also included translations from Sanskrit poems—some written as early as the 4th century, some as late as the 14th century—and these too are almost entirely devoted to love. Years in the making, these translations clearly contain rasa (“spirit juice”), the key element of Sanskrit poetry; they are as tender and beautiful in their lucid simplicity as anything you might find in The Greek Anthology or the T’ang tradition from China.

Due to the disinclination of past Indian scholars to record biographical information, dating the poems and the poets is difficult, with estimates available only by an approximate century or so—although this practice seems to have put more emphasis on the poems as poems, rather than on who wrote them, when, or why. Shining above the rest are those poems written by Vidya, a woman who “may have lived as early as the 7th century.” In one poem she describes herself as “dark as the blue lotus petal,” and Schelling notes that she “wrote freely and convincingly of love outside the conventions of marriage.” In another she describes how a “hilltribe girl,” after lovemaking, still clinging to her exhausted lover, uses her bare foot to jostle a shell necklace hanging from a vine on a fence, “rattling it / through the night, /scaring the jackals off.” And here she captures perfectly the emotional abandonment to love:

What wealth,
that you can chatter
about a night spent
with your lover—
the teasings,
smiles, whispered words—
even his special smell.
Because, O my friends I swear—
from the moment
my lover’s hand touched
my skirt, I remember
nothing at all.

This is Schelling’s third volume of translations of poetry from India, his others being The Cane Groves of Narmada River (City Lights, 1998) and Erotic Love Poems from India (Shambhala, 2004). While others have also translated Indian poetry, few have captured the condensed feel of the earth and the human spirit as well as Schelling. Maybe that’s because he not only translated these poems, he lived them: he first traveled to India as a young man in 1973 with only a little money, a pocket knife, and a spare shirt; he has “crouched over the coals of a small dung fire in the curb.” The pleasure of Dropping the Bowsuggests that such immersion is what it takes to craft the finest translations from another part of the world and a long-gone era in history.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009

BALONEY: A Tale in 3 Symphonic Acts

Pascal Blanchet
translated by Helge Dascher and John Kadlecek
Drawn & Quarterly ($16.95)

by Donald Lemke

In his encore to the critically acclaimed White Rapids (Drawn & Quarterly, 2007), award-winning Quebecois cartoonist Pascal Blanchet delivers another refreshing piece of graphic literature with Baloney: A Tale in 3 Symphonic Acts. Originally published in French by Editions la Pastèque, this slender volume reinforces Blanchet’s definitive retro style and reimagines the limitations of sequential art by introducing a musical backdrop and creating a distinctive, media-bending experience.

Translated into English by Helge Dascher and John Kadlecek, Baloney, like the fables of Brothers Grimm or the twisted tales of Franz Kafka, maintains its surrealism across language and culture. Set in an isolated village, high atop a snowy peak, the story begins with Sergei, a once handsome and prosperous butcher whose life—in a single moment of tragic destiny—suddenly changes for the worse. Forced to choose between his wife and daughter, Sergei instinctively saves his only offspring, letting his one true love fall from a rocky cliff to her death. But tragedy for the widowed meatcutter does not end there. As the years pass, his daughter loses an arm and leg to polio, and then loses her eyesight to cataracts. These curses are only exacerbated by the Duke of Shostakov, the town’s ruthless dictator, whose monopoly of the local heating company strangles businesses and keeps citizens in perpetual misery. Sergei’s misfortune, like many others’, leaves him withered and resigned to heartbreak. “Everyone called him Baloney,” Blanchet writes about Sergei, “after the saddest of all meats.” However, luck for Baloney soon takes a turn for the better when an idealistic tutor arrives to school his daughter. Their late-night lessons turn to love—sparking jovial conversations and inspiring a plan to take down the Duke of Shostakov and bring back light to the gloomy village.

Although brief, Blanchet’s narrative is delightfully lyrical, even poetic, at times, and his tale is deliciously dark and gothic; the author offers his characters hope just long enough to hurt them when it’s taken away. The real story, however, is Blanchet’s illustrations—angular geometrics and curvy lines decorate each full-page panel with the modernist flair of a Jim Flora album cover and the deconstruction of a Picasso painting. His characters bodies are perfectly spare of any details, intentionally featureless to avoid any disconnect from the reader. This abstraction of character does not lack complexity, however; instead, simplifying the characters induces greater understanding of moral concepts and creates concrete representations of the underlying themes: love, despair, and heroism. The vibrant shades of red, like the colors of raw or cured meats, enhance these emotions even further.

The most innovative aspect of Baloney is Blanchet’s inclusion of a playlist, which offers a musical pairing for each section of the book. From Prokofiev to Shostakovich, these musical suggestions are anything but ancillary. Read without minding the score, Baloney is a visual escape, but paired with these ballads the book becomes an immersive experience, evocative of the greatest silent films. With any luck, other creators will note this innovation and follow Blanchet’s lead as the sole composer of operatic graphica.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009

TIGER! TIGER! TIGER!: Volume 1

Scott Morse
Red Window / AdHouse Books ($14.95)

by Adam Hall

Replacing himself with an adorable cartoon tiger in his autobiographical graphic novel Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!, author/artist Scott Morse attempts to reconcile the responsibilities of adulthood with his own vivid and often distracting imagination. In a series of loosely connected anecdotes, Morse recounts, among other things, his anticlimactic stint in jury duty, being accosted by a homeless woman on the street, and his encounter with a child who casts his son (represented by a smaller tiger) a hateful glance on the playground. In constant search of the everyday wonder of modern life, Morse’s evocative and stylistically fluid blend of watercolor and ink morphs with the tonal shifts of each story, by turns recalling Chuck Jones, Will Eisner, Calvin and Hobbes, and even a color palette similar to Ezra Jack Keats’s.

Morse subtitles Tiger! Tiger! Tiger! “A Collection of Scattered Thoughts and Moments That Somehow Equal a Whole,” and while the scattered thoughts do offer a certain amount of poignancy when taken alone, the whole feels somewhat slight. It might seem unfair to chastise a book so playful and endearing for lacking focus when the author himself admits within its pages that “mentally, he tends to drift off,” but the absence of a central unifying idea and the casual flitting from anecdote to anecdote makes this volume read like a series of journal entries in a particularly vivid sketchbook rather than a complete work. Moreover, Morse’s verbosity tends to clutter the book, especially when large blocks of text invade the artwork and undermine the images. In the encounter with the child who scorns his son, for example, Morse’s tiger avatar mottles and distorts with rage, only to disintegrate into an ashen outline as the anger loses its hold. Yet the clunky pontification Morse inserts (“How do you qualify your good intentions when your most prominent instinct is rage? When the best answer seems to be, ironically, the most parallel?”) is directly at odds with the stark portrayal of this transformation—one of many missed opportunities to let the beauty of his artwork do the heavy lifting.

Still, the stories Morse presents here are treated with an earnestness and open-eyed wonder that prove infectious. Regarding autobiographical comics, critic Steven Grant once wrote: “They work best in short form highlighting some specific anecdote, because most people's lives are just nowhere near as interesting as they think they are.” While harsh, the statement rings quite true in a time when many comics are praised simply because they offer alternatives to the glut of superhero fare. Tiger! Tiger! Tiger! proves Grant’s assertion insofar as the specific anecdotes it recounts elevate the mundane with dreamlike renderings. What will truly set the series apart in future volumes is if Morse can let his pictures do more of the talking.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009

AN ORESTEIA

Agamemnon by Aiskhylos
Elektra by Sophokles
Orestes by Euripides
translated by Anne Carson
Faber and Faber ($27)

by W. C. Bamberger

The first sentence of Anne Carson’s introduction to these translations is, “Not my idea to do this.” An Oresteia includes Carson’s translations of three tragedies, Agamemnon by Aiskhylos, Elektra by Sophokles, and Orestes by Euripides. Each presents one episode from the tragedy of the house of Atreus: in the first, Agamemnon returns from the Trojan war and is murdered by his wife Klytaimestra; in the second she is murdered by her son Orestes with the collusion of her daughter Elektra; and in the third, Orestes fights madness, the two children are nearly stoned to death, and Apollo issues orders that more or less tie up all the frayed ends. Carson had translated Elektra in 1987 and Orestes in 2006. She thought herself done with the house of Atreus. But Brian Kulick, artist director of the Classics Stage Company, approached her to translate Aiskhylos’s version of the first episode and create a trilogy. Reluctant at first, Carson eventually agreed.

Kulick’s idea was that the three playwrights wrote from three different attitudes toward Athenian civilization, roughly corresponding to seeing it in sunrise, at midday, and at sunset, as Athens began to decline. This conceit is not a perfect fit for the plays, with the first two staying faithful to the tragic form and the third subverting and twisting it. But Carson uses different kinds of language to convey the divergent styles of the three playwrights. In Agamemnon, the language is at once recognizably modern and supple even as it retains the tone of Greek tragedy as we know it, as when the chorus says,

O Zeus king, O night of glory
You have thrown over the towers of Troy
A net so vast no man could overleap it,
A dragnet of alleneveloping doom.

But by the third play—that which Kulick identifies with the decline of a civilization—Carson’s willingness to employ the vernacular pushes the language in another direction, as when an effeminate slave tells how Orestes abducted Helen, meaning to murder her:

He leads her, he leads her, she follows away
and then it gets worse, Helen’s bad day.
The snaky guy jumps on the bodyguards
snarling out his lips,
     “You Trojan trash, I’ll clip your tips!”

This change of register, this willingness to insert more jarring anachronisms—from “okay” to “bad shit happening” to Helen being described as “that weapon of mass destruction” and more—can be disconcerting at first. But what Carson is trying to present in these plays is not just a translation of the words. She does not approach the plays as a linguist, but as the original playwrights did: as a storyteller. And as with any good storyteller, she is trying to convey the feeling of the experience of the story rather than the simple facts. So where she feels a modern expression will make us be more attentive to the playwright’s intended complex of emotions she feels free to use it. Elsewhere, Carson has written of the painter Francis Bacon’s wish to “grant sensation without the boredom of its conveyance”; at times in her translations here, Carson disregards the boredom of temporal fidelity in favor of evoking the sensations the plays are meant to convey.

Indeed, it’s the language, the rhetorical arias of the characters, that carries these plays. In Agamemnon, Klytaimestra boils over with the will for revenge, and Kassandra’s near-surrealistic but precise description of how Agamemnon is to die make audible the adrenaline terrors of anger and violence. InElektra, the title character mourns and laments to an extent that even she agrees is excessive, but it is also how she stays true to herself. In Orestes, the title character’s chaotic speeches convey his struggle to avoid madness, which threatens him as imminently as does death by stoning. But while excess is definition for all these characters through most of the trilogy, the third play finally offers a way out of the tragic maze: balance. As Orestes raves from pole to extreme pole, Menelaos offers to speak to the crowd that wants to stone Orestes and Elektra:

A mob lives on passion, but also compassion.

............................................

You know, when the sail is too tight the
ship goes under:
slack off a bit and it justifies itself.
God hates a fanatic. So do good citizens.

Orestes’s sail is indeed too tight, so much so that he considers Menelaos a coward and disloyal, and pushes for more confrontation. In the end Apollo appears ex machina, to save the unbalanced cast from themselves: he transports Helen to divine safety, stops the murdering, and marries off the cast in ways that diffuse old blood revenge by balancing it with new blood loyalties. He also says, evoking another, more terrible kind of balance, that Helen was only a “mechanism of the gods,” used to kill off a number of both Greeks and Trojans, to preserve their balance even while reducing their troublesome numbers. Because murder and coercion are used even by Apollo to attain his ends, it certainly isn’t about moderation, but it is about the power of balance.

Curiously, Carson claims not to see it this way. She writes of Euripides as seeming “to prefer maximum exasperation in the final scene, where all the lines of the plot have been pushed to impasse and categories like good/evil, happy/unhappy, mortal/immortal are sliding around so crazily that only a god can make things clear. . . . [But] the god in question (it is Apollo) dictates a series of solutions that make nonsense of all the actions and anguish of the characters up to that point.” She also says that the play is a “wild, heartless, unconstruable statement,” and suggests Euripides was simply throwing the pieces of his drama in the air to see how they might randomly fall. This is strange, as the point of the play’s resolution seems clear from the text—still, such a view is defensible. But other of Carson’s comments are even more curious, because they seem to contradict the texts as she herself translates them. In the introduction toOrestes, for example, she writes that the scene where Orestes lies to Elektra, telling her the ashes in an urn are his own, is “a hard nut to crack. Why does Orestes decide to trick his sister into thinking he’s dead? Why does he give it up in the middle?” Carson’s own translation makes it clear that Orestes does not recognize Elektra (they have not seen one another in many years), and so doesn’t know whether she is friend or enemy, but that as soon as he understands who she is he “gives up” the ruse and takes her into his confidence.

Perhaps this is why Carson makes some of the puzzling comments she does in her notes: because she wants her readers to read the text deeply, to understand and feel it. The mildly jarring, too-modern idioms in the spoken lines would do much the same for an audience, but readers are more inclined to see words as settled on the page, and perhaps even to believe they already know these old stories. But the (feigned, I believe) puzzlement in Carson’s comments refuses to let us read what we think we know. In both language and in commentary, then, Carson’s intent is to force readers to experience these plays as if for the first time.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009

INS AND OUTS OF THE FOREST RIVERS

Nathaniel Tarn
New Directions ($16.95)

by John Herbert Cunningham

Born in 1928 in Paris, France, Nathaniel Tarn became both a poet and an anthropologist. He brings both of these disciplines to the fore in his new book Ins and Outs of the Forest Rivers, which he says “arose out of, and was written during, two months’ travel in the wild regions of Sarawak, Borneo, East Malaysia, in 2005. Anthropological and archaeological interests were fed by visits to contemporary indigenous settlements and historic sites.”

The book is written in five parts: “Of the Perfected Angels,” “Dying Trees,” “War Stills,” “Movement / North of the Java Sea,” and “Sarawak.” But before this multi-stage expedition can begin, there is a prefatory poem, a moment of reflection, a meditation on the thing that makes up and encompasses life. Titled “Pursuit of the Whole & Parts,” this meditation ends:

when whoever owns the machine stands again at the doorsill
and the astonishing beauty of the understanding is detected
and the knowledge that it is always there—however many times
you are at a loss in the world, [at a complete loss in the world],
to be returned to, in that new moment, which is also all the old,
as if this moment were ageless and could always return
with the astounding recurrence of air by the unbounded ocean.

Here we feel the rhythm of the waves lapping at the shore and envision the sunrise and the sunset at the same instant, as well as all that came between.

“Of the Perfected Angels” initially seems to have nothing to do with Tarn’s trek, although it may signify the leaving behind of Western civilization. The last poem in this section, “Mathis at Issenheim,” concerns Tarn’s response to an altarpiece created by Matthias Grünewald in the 16th century, titled “Green Forest,” which was

saved over the years
from many wars and revolutions,
hidden, carried away and changing domiciles
time after time for seven centuries,
saved from perdition but not so much discussed,
catalogued only among earth’s treasures . . .

Tarn condemns war and contrasts it with the enduring nature of art, claiming that the altarpiece

has lifted him little by little,
men’s eyes sharpened for vision,
to the highest tree,
in the top branches of the highest tree,
(as lords of patience triumph over loss),
there where the stars are singing, uneclipsable.

This, to Tarn, is the essential nature of Western civilization—the ebb and flow which he recreates through his halting, returning lines between good and evil, between creation and destruction.

We move from “Green Forest” to “Dying Trees”—a poem in nine parts, each individually labelled. In the second poem, “A Hand,” we read:

Skyscrapers had not done it,
not raised it truly over all the land
around, the huge, thirsty expanses dry as
the dustbowl of our present time, choking
the trees. Now there’s to be some talk of hands—
one hand especially that has grown old, spotted
and veined in honest work and honest “husbandry.”

Is this a subtle condemnation of monoculture? And does that condemnation extend to the “skyscraper,” that symbol of man’s “progress” that has spread like a cancer across the land, literally and figuratively creating a “dustbowl”?

The final section, “Sarawak,” consists solely of the long poem “Ins and Outs of the Forest Rivers.” The tenor of this section is well summarized in the following excerpt:

Trapped in pervading stench of old ideas,
trapped in repetitive paralyzed projects,
trapped by the magistrates who never move
on cases dusty for decades, and by police
who police nothing but the new owners’ acres
they took from those who grew the land
and are now homeless.

Tarn trashes society’s institutions, condemning them for their destruction of the planet and the poor; he sees in them only the upholding of a status quo which bears the motto “might is right.” It is within the bailiwick of this rant that we find the message that has permeated this entire volume, a message that could be summarized as “this place stinks and I’m not going to take it anymore.” Tarn thus promotes rant to the rank of first-rate poetry, adding his voice to the others that try to bring light and hope to our dark time.

 

Editor’s Note: “Dying Trees” was originally published as a chapbook by Rain Taxi in 2003.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009

OHIO VIOLENCE

Alison Stine
University of North Texas Press ($12.95)

by Erin M. Bertram

Occasionally, the world splits open, revealing small animals and rusted trucks, constellations, stray dogs—familiar things you never paid much attention, now charged beyond memory. You like some of what you see very much, but the rest of it scares you, leaves you facing doorways and watching parked cars at night. This is the mood of Alison Stine’s first book, Ohio Violence.

The book begins with an epigraph from James Wright, a master of the empathetic, narrative pastoral: “I began in Ohio,” it reads, “I still dream of home.” Though Stine wasn’t born in Ohio, she did grow up there, and like Wright she suffers the strong pull of nostalgia for the locale. It’s worth noting that the word nostalgia has its etymological roots in homecoming. As Stine tells us in “Catalogue,” “The more we tell a story // the more it becomes what we want it to be.” Perhaps, likewise, the more we return home, the more it becomes what we want it to be—though not without also becoming strange to us in the process.

And don’t we always return home in memory? In “Tiresias,” titled after the ancient blind soothsayer who lived life as a man and a woman, respectively, Stine blurs the distinction between the title character, a former lover, and the many snakes she’s tried to kill throughout her life. The poem finds the speaker making a claim firmly secured in memory, a claim that may as well be about home: “I am learning // nothing has a sex. I am learning // whomever we love, we are left this way, halved.” Many of the poems in the book weave down the page in serpentine sway, a stylistic decision that’s at times quite hypnotic.

The world of Ohio Violence is rife with grief, bewilderment, and longing, but there’s no lack of the immediate experience of living life in a physical body. It’s a world replete with wonder, populated by the strange, the sometimes glorious, and always by the true. There, you’ll find dead deer splayed in carnivalesque puppetry on the side of the road; a bat lifting itself from a towel until it becomes something more specific than itself in the sky; and a woman’s voice, in the title poem, that says

Underneath my skin

is a city. Underneath my skin

is a crying out. You want to find light.

You want a picture. Break me open again.

As with Stine’s 2001 chapbook, Lot of My SisterOhio Violence is full of lush, minute landscapes, internal and external alike, and Stine’s easy (though by no means simple) handling of brick-heavy themes like desire, sexuality, and loss. Admittedly, a few poems in the collection, such as “Bones” and “In Graceland,” are less successful in terms of the narrative—and much of Stine’s work is powerfully narrative-driven, as in this happened, then this—but the tangible quality of the speakers’ immediate reality, coupled with the emotional resonance of each moment, is never wanting.

Early on in the collection, in “Moon Lake Electric,” Stine tells us, “All the world does is give me signs.” And indeed, the speakers of her poems draw meaning—sometimes whole, sometimes tattered—from their surroundings, noting the small, though hardly insignificant, stories held in every single thing. Shot through with a keen resolve, Ohio Violence is an arresting, despairing book that alternately stuns and seduces.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009

POETRY STATE FOREST

Bernadette Mayer
New Directions ($16.95)

by Todd Pederson

Like rutted footpaths, the poems coiling through Bernadette Mayer’s newest collection, Poetry State Forest, steers readers into the scrubby undergrowth. Indeed, Mayer’s poetry is so wildly overrun that the simple business of moving ahead takes discipline and effort—every root and leaf is suspect. Since Mayer often conceals intent beneath dense canopies of language, her work can seem deliberately evasive, leaving readers to guess, “What’s the point?”

With Poetry State Forest, Mayer arranges strangled, fantastic settings where no association is carelessly set aside. Anything her intellect stumbles across gets in, almost to the point of overstatement. Comprehension is rough going, but Mayer asks that readers remain alert to happenstance, because any occurrence or chance encounter has relevance. For example, consider the last stanza of “Start Almost Over,” in which Mayer cross-examines her present life against the reflection of another:

i was rolling dough for rolls—
hard to do cause it had asparagus in it—
in imitation of all the great pastries
i’d desired in a bakery window
in which i’d seen reflections in my early poems
i bought a gay pastry, words i like
to read & write, it has asparagus in it

The poem seems, initially, without clear meaning; but hidden underneath the green asparagus spears lay sentiments of longing, want, and meditative regret. Mayer speaks figuratively about the lure of imitation rather than living one’s life authentically. This theme is commonplace among contemporary poets, but in Mayer’s hands customary topics feel warm and fresh as baked bread, not derivative in any way.

Like “Start Almost Over,” Mayer’s poetry is generally uncontrolled, and its arrangements often seem arbitrary. The tangled images crowding many pieces are pleasant, but the philosophy linking each distinct idea can feel scrappy, making the poetry’s ambition appear carefully sequestered. In its worst moments, Mayer’s work is almost too loquacious, too witty for its own good. Readers who appreciate poems with a balanced narrative and unmistakable conclusions may find most of Mayer’s page-length rambles difficult to navigate. Her longer pieces are so discursive, so overweight with description and fragmentary patterns of speech, that they seem more concerned with lively chatter than a concise viewpoint.

These contentions may seem an indictment of Poetry State Forest, but if the poems disappoint as archetypes of orderly thought, they do successfully demonstrate the attraction and worth of a vigorous personality. Mayer’s preoccupation with artistry and her work’s bursts of activity imply a frenetic, intimidating intelligence which might place her audience at a distance; nonetheless, the inventive ways in which Mayer renders this turbulence encourages conscientious readers to lean in closer and take an honest look. Foremost, Mayer’s tone evokes an urgency and presence too often lacking from contemporary poetry. One long poem, “Summer Solstice 2006,” could easily menace, but Mayer sympathizes and accompanies instead:

i’ll protect you
from the guy who drives a pickup with a confederate
flag as decoration

Mayer offers a comparable solace with the concluding lines to “1980”:

Space of the waiting pastures, empty of snow,
Now for spring as in any place
We sit around and wait too

“We sit”; “I’ll protect”—given her work’s convolutions, these are crucial statements. With Mayer’s poetry, an impression of companionship, above all else, prevails. The poems are overgrown and their language is complex, yet she never abandons her readers, and even manages a surprising sense of intimacy throughout the collection. Mayer’s responsive temperament, evident in her good humor and enthusiasm for vivid illustration, engenders trust. Her readers are spoken to, never at—which makes all the difference. With sincerity established, one imagines Mayer’s poetry as an invitation to ignore disorder and enjoy, instead, her craft’s more fanciful elements.

So what’s the point? Grasping at the significant, or “getting it,” doesn’t seem Mayer’s aim with Poetry State Forest. Instead, human camaraderie is the issue at stake. Yes, the poetry is untidy, but readers who invest the time will find tame pathways among the trees, and, in this poet’s voice, damn fine company for their wooded strolls.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009

MEMORY GLYPHS: 3 Prose Poets from Romania

Radu Andriescu, Iustin Panta and Cristian Popescu
translated by Adam J. Sorkin, with Radu Andriescu, Mircea Ivănescu, and Bogdan Ștefănescu
Twisted Spoon Press ($15)

by Stephan Delbos

Essentially a three-part volume of selected poems, Memory Glyphsfeatures three contemporary Romanian prose poets, Radu Andriescu, Iustin Panta, and Cristian Popescu, translated and edited by Adam J. Sorkin, the leading American translator of modern Romanian writing. A wildly roving narrative sensibility and the ability to render surreal images with poignancy and humor is a shared distinction in the work of these three poets, whose singular achievements and stylistic idiosyncrasies make Memory Glyphsa strange compound of elements, at once playful, confounding, inspiring and ultimately serious.

Cristian Popescu writes most comfortably within the realm of imaginative possibilities, where anything is permissible; it is strange, then, that Popescu’s favorite poetic mode is autobiography. By mingling surreal and quotidian details with a cold eye—essentially a magic realist technique—Popescu lifts prosaic events to outlandish heights. Like all of the poets in Memory Glyphs, Popescu is at once logical and strange, as in the opening lines of “Cornelia Street”:

The first time I saw Cornelia was at a dance, at the Cultural Center at No. 3, where folk music was playing and night moths gathered on trumpets as if around a streetlamp in the dark.

By prefacing surreal imagery with prosaic details, Popescu plays images off each other, enhancing both the strangeness and comforting normality of each respective image. But Popescu is more than an image magician. There is a haunting sense of loss in his poems, the naïve tragedy of leaving childhood, and the realization that we are but playthings for God. One of the most poignant passages in Memory Glyphscomes in Popescu’s “About Father and Us,” an elegy for the poet’s father which serves as a testament to his entire family’s existence:

I wish I had a balloon blown up with your last breath. Every year on my own birthday, I could take a tiny gulp of it.

Even when Popescu addresses a single subject like his father, his poems are meant to be overheard by all of creation, present and future. Iustin Panta’s poems seem more sharply addressed than Popescu’s, in part because they are more precisely crafted. Panta often combines bouncing free verse with prose, creating sleek poems that advance through a series of logical statements to create a brilliant mosaic. “Magda,” the story of the poet’s first love, ends:

She adored the summer, one thing she told me is that
when autumn comes
she suffers cruelly and she’ll keep wearing shoes with
paper-thin soles through which she
can feel the asphalt,
wearing very light clothing,
she defies the season and in this way she hopes she
can delude it—
that’s about all I can remember of what we said to
one another.

Panta’s attention to radiant detail contrasts Popescu’s ranging yawp. His poems often resemble conceptual cut-ups; each image or statement has its own logic, which combines to form the polysemic metalogic of the entire poem. A tercet from the poem “Private Nelu” provides an example of how Panta uses techniques of surrealism, or “the stupefying use of the image,” as Louis Aragon called it, coining similes so forcefully the reader has no choice but to accept:

Just as you close a drawer and the toe of a sock gets
caught sticking out,
Private Nelu is thinking.

The sock image is perfectly logical, even familiar, as is the fact that Private Nelu is thinking. But Panta’s phrasing indicates a relationship of forced logic, creating a moment of strange clarity, much like a Zen koan.

Where Panta is concerned with the mind’s relationship to the world, Radu Andriescu has incorporated aspects of that world—specifically modern technology and American culture—more fully than either Popescu or Panta, which lends a fresh familiarity to his poems. Andriescu’s major themes are more clearly annunciated as well, as in “The Three Signs:”

He wants to furnish them with simple things, like thoughts about life and thoughts about death, but most of all thoughts about limits.

Limits, for Andriescu, means the individual’s smallness in the world. But Andriescu’s poems manage to retain a sense of humor against this vast and often terrifying horizon. “Rhymes for a Boundary and a Stove” presents a man stubbornly clinging to the hope of order in a brutish and uncaring—that is, realistic—world. Like Panta and Popescu, Andriescu’s poems create their own logic, perhaps as a defense against a lack of logic in the world:

His closest connection to the Heavens is his stove. Yellow and crumbling, with tiles held together in a framework of spongy clay . . . smoke that stretches to the sky, and its own massive weight pulling downward to the center of the Earth, the stove is the axis around which he spins his hopes of discovering order, few as they may be.

Andriescu recognizes the impossibility of order, and his poems flourish in a place beyond it. Hopes for us may be few, existing only in our imagination, but they are.

Each poet in Memory Glyphs takes his own path though darkness, humor, love, and mystery, and none is ashamed of groping aimlessly forward. The result is an unsettling pleasure, a collection of poems that grapple with our deepest questions, if only by representing the whims and cluttered wills of their authors.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009

MAINLINE TO THE HEART AND OTHER POEMS

Clive Matson
Regent Press ($22)

by Tim Hunt

Diane di Prima’s Poets Press published the original version of Clive Matson’s Mainline to the Heart in 1966. This reissue of the long out-of-print volume supplements the original twelve poems and the Introduction by John Weiners with fourteen uncollected poems from 1964-1966 and an Afterword by di Prima. Reading the collection, it is easy to understand why it was published by a small press. Matson writes of addiction, sex, love, and spirituality in lines driven by his recognition that these may not be altogether different things. In “Talk About Love” he writes:

I’ve gone to Hell,
I’m addicted to heroin and want a habit
so bad it’ll break the deathgrip
of love’s terminal habit with Erin.

And in “Psalm” he adds,

God loves me
and He’ll fuck me when He wants,
laying the cool breasts against my chest &
the huge cock up my ass
while the words rise from me
like a big erection for I am God, too,
and I see only what I love.

If Matson’s at times harsh and explicit perceptions kept his poetry from broader circulation when it was first published, these qualities also make it worth discovering anew. Historically, Mainline to the Heartillustrates the power of the imaginative terrain opened by the original Beats in the mid-1950s, and the very first lines of the collection (“Fuck you, Huncke / Leave me / hung up for junk, waiting”) make this context explicit. But Matson’s poetry is largely without the underlying sense of self-consciousness about the poetic tradition that lurks in Ginsberg or the devastating satire of Burroughs’ presentation of addicted imagination. He wrote without a specific theory about literature or vision of the tradition, but his poems at their best have the power to make us forget about the category of literature altogether. Some poets dazzle us with their ability to spin out imagery and metaphor. Matson, instead, arrests us with stark observation and compels us with startling, dismaying recognitions. In “My Love Returned,” for instance, his attention to how

Time binds us tighter together
in orbit around our asteroid or lovely room
where we are each other’s parasite
and no friend in sight

illustrates his ability to see, and to compel his reader to see, beneath the usual evasions and comforting constructions. Perhaps nothing in the collection makes this clearer than his refusal to see his habit, his addiction to heroin, as the “disease.” Instead, life itself is the “disease,” at times painfully so, at other times offering momentary beauties and bits of epiphany.

The poems in Mainline to the Heart are a compelling document of the Beat literary scene in the mid-1960s. That would, by itself, justify this new edition. But Matson’s work is, to adapt Ezra Pound’s phrase, news that has stayed new. These are poems that can still startle, even shock; they are also poems that can make us grieve and see something of the beauty and richness that isn’t so much in spite of the “disease” that is life but because of it.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009

COEUR DE LION

Ariana Reines
mal-o-mar ($15)

by Megan Pugh

Summarizing Ariana Reines’s Coeur de Lion wouldn’t do this thoughtful book justice—it might sound too much like a soap opera for the hip intelligentsia. But the dramatic story—a woman, Ariana, addresses her ex after hacking into his Gmail account—isn’t what makes Coeur de Lion such a tour de force. Reines uses the love plot to investigate the nature of poetic address. She writes that she has been listening to Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, and Italian opera to help her “feel the popular emotions” of an “I” for an absent “you”; ultimately, Reines is less interested in her ex than in that most popular poetic form, the lyric. “I’m so fucking sick / Of you, but that’s the real / Me talking, and not the me / Of poetry. Where literature / Is concerned, ha ha, I’ve still / Got work to do.”

Reines’s “ha ha” is wry, self-deprecating, fun, and bitter—adjectives that apply to her project as a whole. She zooms through her ruminations in steeply enjambed blocks of sentences she doesn’t even stop to title, making the whole book a single, long poem one can race through in a sitting. This speed gives Coeur de Lion a kind of chatty urgency: there’s so much to say, and no time to waste. And Reines makes her poetic manipulation explicit: “I am writing this / In order to lose you / For my own purposes.” If Coeur de Lion is a confession, it’s not just about psychology, but about the violence lyric exerts when it reduces experience into the supposedly universalizing but ultimately “closed / System of another person’s mind.”

Coeur de Lion is the name of both a French camembert and a French king, Richard the Lion-Hearted, whose Crusades in the Holy Land led to the massacre of Jews. This conflation helps us see lyric poetry as both a process of commodification and a domineering conquest. Reines writes that “fermented things” like cheese are “More unsettlingly animal, somehow / than animal flesh.” She wants her poems—experience that has been aged and squeezed into shape—to be animal too, but this means confronting the stink of brutality, in both literature and life.

Ariana learns about Richard the Lion-Hearted on the internet—the same place she learns that, throughout their relationship together, her ex had been sending lusty emails another woman, Emma, complaining that he felt trapped by the “pretentious gypsy Jewish goth,” Ariana. Toward the end of Coeur de Lion, Ariana admits her revenge: “On August 27th I wrote to my / Friend Emma Wolf that I loved / Fucking you and that you might be / A bad writer, which made me / Nervous.” Until now, Ariana has had our sympathies, but this action seems unusually cruel. Reines is careful not to play the martyr: she wants us to know that cruelty is part of her work, as it is of lyric’s.

The identity Jake assigns Ariana, the “pretentious gypsy Jewess goth,” ends up helping Reines—whose book cover , it should be noted, is in a gothic font—to strike back. In Venice, Ariana says Gothic buildings look “like / Geometry and plants fucked each / Other and went insane, a simile that fits Coeur de Lion, too. Reines mates life with form, and their spawn feels alternately heavy and soaring, edgy, and thoroughly 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 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009

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