Tag Archives: summer 2009

LANGUAGE FOR A NEW CENTURY: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia, and Beyond

edited by Tina Chang, Nathalie Handal, and Ravi Shankar
W.W. Norton ($27.95)

by Craig Santos Perez

Not since Pierre Joris and Jerome Rothenberg’s Poems for the Millennium has there been an anthology of such impressive scope. Six years in the making, Language For a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia, and Beyond weighs in at almost 800 pages and includes over 400 poets from over 60 countries writing in over 40 different languages—all translated into English. In the preface, editors Tina Chang, Nathalie Handal, and Ravi Shankar frame this anthology as an interventionist response to the aftermath of 9/11. They ask: “How could we respond to the destruction and unjust loss of human lives while protesting the one sided and flattened view of the East being showcased in the media? What was the vantage point we could arrive at in order to respond on a human level, to generate articulate dialogue, conversations that did not fall into rhetorical fallacies of us vs. them?” To create a more complex view of the “East,” the editors provide the broadest interpretation of the “East” possible, including such diverse countries as Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Sudan, and Syria—to name only the countries starting with “s.” Taken as a whole, Language for a New Century truly transcends any narrow definition of Eastern culture, with all its “voices [converging] in the dream of shared utterance.”

Instead of organizing this anthology alphabetically, chronologically, or nationally, the editors arrange their vast materials into nine thematic sections covering childhood, identity, language experimentation, politics, mystery, war, homeland, mortality, and love. The editors juxtapose this organization with various cultural applications of the number nine: the nine-pointed star of the Bahai faith, the nine land divisions of feng shui, the nine primary personality types in the Sufi system, the nine-day South Indian festival called Navaratri, and the sum of the three letters that make up the word “truth” in Judaism. In addition, the editors claim that their organization “represents an entire cosmology of planets that . . . offers a glimpse into the complex array of voices that make up these regions’ poetry.” For pragmatic readers, the nine sections simply make the massive anthology more readable; I finished reading Language For a New Century in nine days. More strikingly, the thematic sections suggest that the poets gathered—and, by extension, all poets East and West—share similar human experiences and “a devotion to the transformative power of art.”

Another beautiful aspect of this anthology is that each section begins with a personal essay by an individual editor that introduces the theme, discusses a few of the poems in the section, and relates the theme to that particular editor’s personal experience. In the first essay, which introduces the childhood section, Tina Chang describes her memory of her father’s death in New York when she was only a year old. A year after his death, her mother sent her and her brother with their grandmother back to Taiwan. Chang remembers saying good-bye to her mother at Kennedy Airport, unable to translate her feelings of sorrow. After a discussion of some of the poems, Chang ends her introduction: “The most intricate of human emotions may have no lexicon, but the poets gathered here have offered a glimpse into that complex and wondrous realm.”

Throughout each section, the poets offer a glimpse into various complex realms of human experience. At the same time, because each poet is only represented by a single poem, the book outlines the breadth of rooted and diasporic “Eastern” cultures and poetries. In that sense, Language for a New Century is truly an “unprecedented collection,” as heralded by Carolyn Forché in the Foreword.

The sections “Earth of Drowned Gods” (politics) and “Apostrophe in the Scripture” (war) are perhaps the most powerful, offering a diverse range of possibility for political/politically-engaged poetry, emphasizing poetry’s role as defiance and witness. The sections “In the Grasp of Childhood Field” (childhood), “This House, My Bones” (homeland), “Bowl of Air and Shivers” (spirituality), and “The Quivering World” (love) are the most emotional, capturing experiences of exile, diaspora, memory, relationships, family, and God. “Buffaloes Under Dark Water” (mystery) and “Parsed into Colors” (identity) are the most complex, complicating simplistic notions of identity and lyric poetry. My favorite section is “Slips and Atmospherics” (language experimentation) because it presents a fascinating portrait of an “Eastern avant-garde.” This section features some excellent, well-known poets—Cathy Park Hong, Paolo Javier, Etel Adnan, Tan Lin, Jose Garcia Villa, Brian Kim Stefans, Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, and Jenny Boully—along with poets completely new and fascinating to me: Yang Lian, Rukmini Bhaya Nair, Che Qianzi, Arun Kolatkar, Yu Jian, and Ricardo M De Ungria, to name a few. As well, Ravi Shankar writes an intriguing introductory essay for this section.

Returning to the preface, the editors describe their belief that “looking outward toward a wide spectrum of poetry would give us the opportunity for discovery and transformative wisdom.” Indeed, this is true. However, this is just the first step; another lovely aspect of this anthology is the Country Index at the back of the book, providing readers with a possible guide for future reading. The editors’ vision of a shared community and of an ongoing dialogue between East and West will surely help “lay the foundation for a poetics of a new era.” Language for a New Century gives us hope that the renewing power of language will not only matter in the 21st century, but will also help make the century new.

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


C. S. Giscombe
Dalkey Archive ($12.95)

by Paula Koneazny

C. S. Giscombe’s Prairie Style, which won a 2008 American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, is the final book in a four-part series that began with the limited edition book Two Sections from Practical Geography (Diaeresis Press) followed by Here (Dalkey Archive Press, 1994) and Giscome Road (Dalkey Archive Press, 1998). Prairie Style mirrors the series it completes, as it too is comprised of four sections: “Nameless,” “Inland,” “Indianapolis, Indiana,” and “Notes on Region.” In addition, a prefatory “Acknowledgments” section accounts for some of the sources for the language in the poems, and, as is usual for Giscombe, lists the locations where the writing took place: Pennsylvania, Scotland, Nova Scotia, California, and finally, a shifting location called simply “on Amtrak.”

Although true, it would be an oversimplification to say that Giscombe writes about place. It may be more accurate to say that he writes from places. His poetry is nomadic, both in inspiration and execution, always exploring what he aptly refers to as “range.” At the same time, his is a settled nomadism. Even though always about location’s ambiguity, what he refers to as “the verb for location” in Giscome Road, his poems do not just pass through. They are attentive to their surroundings; they stay a while and get to know a place. They never entirely move on.

Of the four books, Giscome Road is the one most interested in sheer geography; it takes place and takes up place on the page in a way that repeats the topography. Prairie Style, on the other hand, seems less concerned with mapping the page and more interested in space itself. It has more density (in the sense of compression) and more silence. Much of the geography of the Prairie Style poems remains outside the poems themselves, and the poet’s many concerns create multiple poetic trajectories: land and location (“Always the first question is Where?”) intersect with elements such as race, sex, architecture, music, language, and history. In an interview with Mark Nowak for the Poetry Foundation’s blog Harriet, Giscombe said, “I see that poetry, race, property, and geography are not one but form a very rag-tag and uncertain army, one with shifting ranks and alliances. What’s interesting to me here is that it’s possible or even necessary (at least for me) to read each one in the context of the others.” Thus, all features intertwine and overlap. They point to one another.

The impetus for Prairie Style, particularly the poems of the “Inland” section, may have been Giscombe’s tenure at Illinois State University from 1989 to 1998. Living in southern Illinois, he would have had to come to terms with the Inland Plains (also known as the Old Northwest) that lie east of the Mississippi. Considering Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio as the Old Northwest requires a leap of historical imagination, however such a leap may be built into a location, already-made. For example, the “Indianapolis, Indiana” poems of the third section focus on the history of the quasi-mythical Ben Ishmael tribe, “a tightly-knit nomadic community of African, Native American, and ‘poor white’ descent” that “arrived in the central part of the Old Northwest at the beginning of the nineteenth century, preceding the other pioneers.” The idea that a motley mixed-race group might have arrived before the official settlers of the territory disrupts the authorized version of the frontier story that recorded the push westward and the expansion of the polity called the United States of America. Color may not have initially determined who moved in, but it often decided who moved, or was pushed, out. Times have changed, but some things remain the same. In “Home Avenue,” a poem from the last section of the book, “Notes on Region,” the poet remarks that in Dayton, Ohio (Giscombe’s hometown) “nowadays black people live all over town except of course in Oakwood.” Everything hinges on that “of course”: two loaded words that will be understood in a certain way by virtually every American.

Just as Miles Davis’s version of the song “Human Nature” could be the sound track to Giscome Road, Nat King Cole’s 1948 rendition of the song “Nature Boy” plays through Prairie Style. In fact, Giscombe includes a poem with that title in the “Inland” section of the book. The word nature with its dual consciousness—both subject and context, simultaneously inside and outside—functions as a pivot around which the poems rotate, just as the prairie is the fulcrum about which the continent revolves. In “Call Me Ishmael,” Charles Olson referred to the Plains as “the fulcrum of America . . . half sea half land . . .” (Collected Prose: Charles Olson) and it is such duality (pushed to plurality) that the Prairie Style poems investigate. The poem “Nature Boy” and the speaker’s claim in “Canadian Nights” that “I’m still a nature boy” are new covers to a song that has long been a jazz and pop standard. Thus “Nature Boy,” itself a hybrid project, mirrors Giscombe’s overall re-contextualization of the prairie (the center). He revises the landscape from one settled solely by Euro-American homesteaders to one already inhabited by Nature Boy and Mistah Fox. Race enters the poems as story and history, one often looking very much like the other.

“Nature Boy” is seen in close collusion with “Mistah Fox,” who, although he doesn’t claim a poem of his own, trots through much of the book. The poet introduces Mistah Fox, wily as the Coyote and Br’er Fox of folklore, as a child and feature of the continent. Like Br’er Fox, he’s a product of miscegenation (as is Nature Boy), of Africa entering America. He’s a new twist on Native American and African trickster tales. In the poem “Very Far,” Giscombe writes, “I’d say Mistah Fox can match or resist the prairie with equal success,” a line that obliquely echoes one from Giscome Road: “I was / Africa & America on the same bicycle.”

C. S. Giscombe’s poems call attention to the shiftiness of language, in particular, to the shady border between reference and metaphor; they are all about comparison, about what’s there and what isn’t, what’s visible and what isn’t, what is stated and what is implied. For example, in “The Dear Old Northwest,” Giscombe employs juxtaposition in the service of allegory, where “Juxtaposition is a kind of melodrama. . . . Some are descendants of their own property; for others history is one miracle after another.” His is an ongoing acknowledgement that both environment and history are ambiguous, and where they most often meet is in a name. The title of the poem “I-70 Between Dayton and East Saint Louis, Westbound Lanes” reads as a cluster of coordinates, but once the poem gets underway, names enter that drag time (history) along with them: “Down to the left is Little Egypt, way off to the right’s Prairie du Chien and the Robert Taylor Homes of recent memory.” Now things get tricky. Is a name a fact or a story, or some hybrid of the two? If you look out the car window, what in the landscape of southern Illinois predicts the name Little Egypt? Why isn’t Prairie du Chien named Prairie of the Dog instead? What are the Robert Taylor Homes, and who is or was Robert Taylor? The poem suggests that landscape itself provides an insufficient explanation. We need history and culture for that.

While Giscombe’s poetic line has gotten longer and longer with each succeeding book, in this final book of his series, he reaches the end of the line, so to speak; the poems have become prose, and almost in contradiction, quite brief. White space floats above and sinks below each poem, rather than insinuating itself inside the lines. There are fewer visual gaps, but the silences are vaster. And like the prairie itself—where the space between one location and another appears both immense and non-existent, and one’s attention is riveted both on the very far away and the very close at hand—in the Prairie Style poems, our attention is drawn both to the horizon and the nearby fox in the brush. These poems read as a “commotion” in the landscape, a word that the poet himself used in the opening line of Giscome Road, one that aptly describes the relationship between the poems in Prairie Style and the places they reference.

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

ON MOVING: A Writer’s Meditation on New Houses, Old Haunts, and Finding Home Again

Louise DeSalvo
Bloomsbury ($22)

by Suzann Clemens

To corroborate an unexpected sense of loss experienced in a move from her home of thirty years, Louise DeSalvo embarks on a journey of healing. The outcome is the author’s latest memoir, On Moving: A Writer’s Meditation on New Houses, Old Haunts, and Finding Home Again. Through a close examination of the personal and professional writings of an impressive array of writers and thinkers, DeSalvo explores the “significant emotional and physical consequences” of the human experience of relocation. This essayistic presentation of the author’s investigation not only presents the author’s findings, but also the therapeutic benefits that DeSalvo experiences in conducting her search.

The restorative qualities of writing are well known to this author, who also wrote Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives (Beacon Press, 2000); because of her experience as a literary scholar, significant works of literature are a natural place for her to begin. Like DeSalvo’s previous memoir, Adultery, (Beacon Press, 2000) this new book uses literary works as filters for her personal examination. In this case, Virginia Woolf, Sigmund Freud, Elizabeth Bishop, Henry Miller, Pierre Bonnard, Carl Jung, Mark Doty, D. H. Lawrence, and many others reveal the gains and losses experienced in searching for a new home, leaving an old favorite, or exile. These narratives serve as jumping off points for DeSalvo’s examination of the history of her ancestors’ migration and her personal experiences of moving.

The inclusion of first-hand accounts of relocation and the ruminations provoked add texture to the narrative, while the retelling of Virginia Woolf’s preoccupation with houses, and Freud’s attachment to a collection of artifacts broadens the level of interest. But something seems askew. Perhaps the contrast of the author’s move—sixteen miles from Teaneck to Montclair in New Jersey—with the far more dramatic experiences of her celebrated colleagues produces the weakness in the narrative. DeSalvo’s affair hardly seems equal to Freud’s forced exile from Nazi-occupied Austria, Elizabeth Bishop’s frequent relocation as a manifestation of her endless loneliness, or the forced, tragic isolation of Pierre Bonnard as he managed artistic life with a woman who was chronically and severely depressed. These moves have been extracted from lives made extraordinary not only by their remarkable, professional pursuits, but also by their dysfunctions: alcoholism, child molestation, abandonment. Though DeSalvo suggests, “these creative people urge us to consider the complex subtext of moving’s meanings,” the complexity actually lies in the startling lives from which these relocation experiences come.

The imbalance provoked by this juxtaposition suggests an underlying mystery: why does the author think she belongs in this company? Is there more to her story that has not been revealed? This possibility taunts us as we move back and forth between historic, substantial moves and one that seems far less significant. DeSalvo attempts to balance this awkward association with the inclusion of a few less dramatic relocation stories and the wisdom of a small selection of philosophers and psychologists whose quotations are meant to substantiate the emotional reaction being explored. Both fail to achieve that balance; just beneath the surface of the reading experience lurks a desire to tell the author to “buck up.”

To be fair, DeSalvo does follow her investigation to those places that are both familiar and informative to her, and perhaps personal healing is accomplished by surrounding herself with stories far more poignant that her own. Meditations go where their authors’ minds take them, and though this meditation falls short to some degree, it does offer an opportunity for the reader to explore a human experience that “ranks as the third-most-stressful life experience (after the death of a spouse or the loss of a job).”

In addition to provoking important questions to consider when faced with a move, DeSalvo’s inclusion of significant relocation stories makes a important point: “their reflections attest to the fact that where we live matters deeply, that where we move to can enrich our lives, that wrong moves can be harmful, and that forced moves can prove tragic.” The memoir’s real success, however, may simply lie in its ability to serve as a model for how writing can provide healing when a writer is willing to explore.

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


edited by Jeff Martin
Soft Skull Press ($12.95)

by Sarah Salter

Ever wonder if the electronics geeks are laughing as you wander lost among the plasma TVs? They are. In The Customer Is Always Wrong, Jeff Martin collects twenty-one retail worker perspectives; those going door-to-door share space with veteran shop owners and teenage cashiers. Unfortunately, many of the essays, though amusing on the surface, come down unnecessarily hard on consumers strolling in to conduct capitalist business-as-usual.

The best offerings blend self-deprecation with nuanced observation, and rise above righteous indignation to supply the most successful entertainment. Colson Whitehead’s “I Scream” opens with mock Biblical gravity: “Mine is the story of a man who hates ice cream and of the world that made him.” Whitehead recognizes his own role in a crippling aversion to dessert, describing his ice cream struggles with humor instead of bitterness. Becky Poole’s retail ambition “to savor my neighborhood” delivers results: her essay pays loving tribute to a Brooklyn block’s characters. “In truth, the store feels more like a neighborhood social club,” Poole writes in a sweet, balanced account. Unlike many essayists, Poole displays a refreshing refusal to exploit the manufactured separation between customer and employee.

Martin includes several experimental selections, lending a welcome diversity to the collection. C.A. Conrad provides a stream-of-consciousness meditation, taking readers into a space far more disturbing than the break room—the mind of the angry clerk. “Some days I can’t believe my job is part of my life. It’s so painful, and I stand there ignoring everyone and pray for the Angel of Death.” In “Sixteen Retail Rules,” Catie Lazarus’s tongue-in-cheek advice effectively mixes contempt and hilarity. “When a sales clerk is helping someone else: a) Cut in, as you are in more of a hurry. Also, venting helps.” In her refusal to ridicule specific customers, Lazarus mitigates the cruelty of her pointed observations, ending the volume with a much-needed buoyancy.

Despite some standouts, much of the collection falls flat. Fatigue sets in as complaints appear and reappear. Customers demand attention; weeks merge together; hard work goes unappreciated. Eventually, even a sympathetic reader feels aggrieved by the self-indulgent slant of the least introspective pieces. While those on the employee side of the counter plead for kindness from the masses, they refuse to extend that same compassion to the buyer, miring the collection in self-absorption.

The problem is that many of the less subtle narrators, fueled by outrage instead of irony, cannot recognize the eccentricities of consumers as innocuous. Most people who have done time in the retail salt-mines know the real challenge: finding a balance between employee solidarity and tolerance for foolish, but harmless, purchaser behavior. A charitable outlook confers rich material on several essayists, while annoyance poisons the rest with excessive venom. Since, as Martin’s title indicates, the customer is always wrong, the employee must always be right. Ultimately, this distorted perspective taints the reader’s pleasure.

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

REASON, FAITH, AND REVOLUTION: Reflections on the God Debate

Terry Eagleton
Yale University Press ($25)

by Emy Farley

English Literature and Cultural Theory professor Terry Eagleton is a bold man. The highly decorated literary critic begins his latest book, Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, by brazenly admitting “since the only theology I don’t know much about is Christian theology, as opposed to those kinds I know nothing about, I shall confine my discussion to that alone, on the grounds that it is better to be provincial than presumptuous. As for science, my knowledge of it is largely confined to the fact that it is greeted with dark suspicion by most postmodernists.”

This statement should give Eagleton’s readers a glimpse into the book they’ve just picked up: a man who self-admittedly understands little about science or theology is here attempting to bridge the gap and provide context for the ongoing debate about the existence of God. The tone of Eagleton’s declaration will also give readers an understanding of the language awaiting them in Reason, Faith, and Revolution: a bit long-winded, rife with the presumptuousness he contends he does not have, and bound to go straight over the head of an average reader.

From the start, it is obvious that Doctor Eagleton (as he requests to be called, finding “Professor” too stuffy) has something he needs to get off his chest. He is tired of atheists missing the point, taking the easy road and rejecting Christianity as a whole rather than approaching it systematically. He is tired of the “ignorance and prejudice” of Christianity’s “rationalist and humanist” critics, and he is especially tired of two prominent atheist writers, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins (later referred to as the singular derivative “Ditchkins”). Though blind belief stretches Eagleton’s imagination, he finds that Christianity itself has important things to teach about politics, about “death, suffering, love, self-dispossession, and the like,” so with Reason, Faith, and Revolution he attempts to move the debate from its current dismissive tenor to one that is more reasoned.

This lecture series-turned-book begins several interesting arguments that could become coherent and convincing chapters, but these arguments are either abandoned or “proven” by flimsy analogies, leaving the reader floundering to conclude Eagleton’s point on his behalf. Take, for example, the sum of Eagleton’s argument against Ditchkins’s stance that Christianity is a useless pseudo-science that “dispenses itself from the need of evidence altogether.” “Christianity,” asserts Eagleton, “was never meant to be an explanation of anything in the first place. It is rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov.”

The main dispute between religion and science does not, Eagleton contends, concern the best explanation for how or why we’re here, but rather how far back one has to go to begin asking questions. Science looks for the spark of the Big Bang and the things that followed. Theology, he says, looks further: why is there anything in the first place? Why are we self-aware? Why do we want answers, how do we know we want them, and why do we assume the system works in a rational, explainable way?

According to Eagleton, God created the universe not because he had to, but simply for the joy and the art of it. This becomes the main distinction between liberal rationalists like Ditchkins and radicals like the author—can you see the world not as a question to be answered, but as a gift given for no reason other than love? The world exists entirely for its own sake. How do we know this? Because, explains Eagleton, in the Bible we have the story of the first rebel, the first hippie, the first slacker—and we are told to lay down our nets and follow Him.

In Eagleton’s telling of the New Testament, Jesus should be read not as a savior but as a political radical. He preached love, but not in the sense that modern audiences understand it—as an intimate, private, unique above-all bond. The love Jesus preached was the revolutionary, humanist, “justice is thicker than blood” type of love, where the good of all was ranked over the life of the individual. Through Jesus’s example, Christians have learned that through great suffering comes great faith, and, according to Eagleton, that humanity must suffer as Jesus did to “come into its own.” Ditchkins (and liberal rationalists like them) cannot understand faith because they lead easy lives in comfortable suburbia, and thus they reject faith as a whole.

Despite these frequent bouts of illogical causality, bizarre analogies, or stifling academia, Eagleton frames many fascinating questions and puts Christianity into a unique perspective. Sadly, rather than developing this arc further, the book instead becomes uncomfortably political, tying Christianity, radical Islam, atheism, and 9/11 together as a result of confusing faith with law. Eagleton spends much of the book philosophizing about politics, radicals, liberals, postmodernists, and rationalists, deriding capitalism, and using theology as a loose framework around which to hang his musings. The subtitle’s indication that Eagleton’s proclamations are “reflections” on the God debate is accurate; the book offers contemplation and consideration rather than a point-counterpoint discussion of opposing viewpoints.

Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate feels more like a highly educated professor theorizing with his other well-read friends at a pub than a true rebuttal to previously made arguments between science and theology. His points are well taken, but they are often not easily accessible to those outside academia or Marxism. With so many others writing on The God Debate, perhaps some readers should heed the spirit of Eagleton’s own words: “why bother with Robert Musil when you can read Max Weber?”

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

THE YAMBO OUOLOGUEM READER: The Duty of Violence, A Black Ghostwriter's Letter to France, and The Thousand and One Bibles of Sex

Yambo Ouologuem
translated and edited by Christopher Wise
Africa World Press ($34.95)

by Spencer Dew

In 1968—the year of the Paris Uprising—Malian writer Yambo Ouologuem found fame with the publication of his novel Le Devoir de Violence, an African epic drenched in blood, chronicling a history of cruelty and human treachery. The book, thick with assassinations, magical potions, and even orgies of drunken cannibalism, revolved around slavery and, more broadly (if not, as Ouologuem would argue, synonymously) the relation between white Europeans and black Africans. The dried asp venom scraped into a guest’s champagne, the vaginal douche of pepper essence and red ants, the roasting men whose bodies give birth to serpents—such romantic grotesqueries speak not only of a legendary past but also of a present political reality. The novel won the Prix Renaudot and established its author as a vital voice in contemporary African literature and thought, a critic of “négritude” whose tactic of truth-telling involved the language of violence, eroticism, barbed irony, and polemic assault. Yet some of Ouologuem’s language was not his own. Charges of plagiarism—involving, in particular, pages of Graham Greene used in Le Devoir de Violence—are frequently cited as the rationale for Ouologuem’s current retirement and seclusion.

The Yambo Ouologuem Reader brings together three of Ouologuem prose works, including a new translation of Le Devoir de Violence (here titled The Duty of Violence, as opposed to earlier English renderings as Bound to Violence) alongside the political “pamphlet” collection A Black Ghostwriter’s Letter to France and an excerpt from The Thousand and One Bibles of Sex, a work of erotica that likewise assaults the myths of the “open sensuality” of Africa, of “bodies overflowing and voluptuous under African skies.” In this short text, tourists on safari experience the “intoxication” of “an uncanny and aggressive style of sexuality, a sensation that evoked for them the violent eroticism of the bullfight.” Nodding to the French tradition of intellectual/mystical engagement with eroticism (see Georges Bataille, for instance), Ouologuem skewers White views of the so-called “Dark Continent,” sardonic even in his cataloguing of ripe fruits and reaching a climax (literally, with “lava… yellow like an egg-yolk, thick and abundant like the contents of an ostrich egg, spewing in every direction”) with an unnamed African (“The Black”) masturbating a lion.

In A Black Ghostwriter’s Letter, Ouologuem turns to “the satiric genre of the pamphlet” in the hope “that it will be ferocious enough that it will put an end to the comedy of the whimpering Negro, who is nonetheless untouchable—and that it will also cause both Blacks and Whites to at last stop wallowing in bad conscience, especially those who are audacious enough to love one another, but who endlessly complain of not knowing how to express it.” His thoughts here are arranged in letters addressed to various categories of people and addressing various themes—to racists, for instance, who find in their racist beliefs a profound use value, protecting them from the reality of the world; or on the formulaic nature of popular novels, which, Ouologuem argues, can be created just as simply using templates, asexquisite corpses for the mass market. Race relations and the legacy of slavery are Ouologuem’s foremost concerns, however, and he proceeds with the “contention that Negroes have lived up till now like slaves, since they have always defined themselves (not in relation to themselves) but first and foremost in relation to Whites.”

Translator and editor Christopher Wise, author of the critical text Yambo Ouologuem: Postcolonial Writer, Islamic Militant, includes a brief introduction, a tiny “Suggestions for Further Reading” (consisting entirely of criticism on Ouologuem and related African texts, with no listings for Ouologuem’s other work, including his poetry), and an essay by Kaye Whiteman, reprinted from the journal West Africa, offering some personal anecdotes regarding the plagiarism controversy (hinging on an account of seeing Ouologuem’s manuscript to Le Devoir with quotation marks and reference to incorporated texts). The attention given to the plagiarism charges vent anger at Graham Greene for not defending Ouologuem’s practice and conflate various forms of artistic borrowing, as when Wise insists, in angry defense of Ouologuem, that “few art historians speak of ‘plagiarism’ or ‘theft’ when discussing the paintings of Picasso, Braques, or Mogdiliani” (sic). Yet what this volume sorely lacks is any in-depth explanation of what, precisely, Ouologuem’s techniques of “borrowing” were and how such practice relates to his aesthetic sensibility or political goals. The protests of Wise and Whiteman are actually counterproductive in this regard, raising suspicion rather than representing a solid defense.

Part of the problem may rest in the fact that the volume is constructed for the reader who is already familiar with Ouologuem and interested merely in a fresh translation. There is scant contextualization or explanation of Ouologuem’s ideas, despite the fact that a basic understanding of “negritude”—especially in the thought of Léopold Senghor—is essential to understanding The Duty of Violence. A responsible editor would have situated Ouologuem in terms of African nationalism and devoted at least some space to the specifics of the “négraille” that Ouologuem offers as a dramatic contrast to Senghorian negritude. In a footnote Wise explains that he has rendered this word as “black-rabble” rather than, as in other translations, “niggertrash,” but these terms signify in radically different ways, with “black-rabble” hardly packing much derogatory emphasis, which was certainly Ouologuem’s intent with “négraille.” The footnote mentioned above is, moreover, one of very few notes in the text, which lacks a critical apparatus and offers no commentary on the Ouologuem works themselves, neither tracking the known cases of textual borrowing nor glossing obscure or puzzling references (such as the occurrence, throughout The Duty of Violence, of what seem to be muqatta`at, the mysterious letter combinations of the Qur’an).

“The truth is that the various journalists, sociologists, ethnologists, Africanists, literary types, Negrophile ‘specialists,’ and so on, who write about Africa, are seeking to invent an Africa that can serve as a backdrop for them to reveal to the entire world their own genius,” Ouologuem writes in A Black Ghostwriter’s Letter, insisting that Africa continues to be enslaved in “the magic lamp of literature.” The most pressing question raised by this Reader, however, is to what extent Ouologuem was aware of his own tenuous position in regard to this dynamic. How did Ouologuem imagine his violent vision of African history, his assaultive pamphlets, and his engagement with eroticism as a means of breaking such enslavement? While Wise has offered a potentially valuable contribution to the Anglophone world with these translations, this volume is too enigmatic to be of interest to anyone unable or unwilling to research and contextualize Ouologuem on their own.

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

JAN KEROUAC: A Life in Memory

edited by Gerald Nicosia
Noodlebrain Press ($21.95)

by Mark Spitzer

The only child of Jack Kerouac, Jan Kerouac lived a colorful and chaotic life. She was a raven-haired, blue-eyed beauty who shot heroin at thirteen, became a prostitute, surpassed her father in globetrotting goofery, and published poetry, fiction, and two memoirs: Baby Driver (St. Martin’s, 1981) and Trainsong (Henry Holt, 1988). Her highly awaited last novel, however, which was supposed to be published posthumously in 1999, got caught up in the legal struggles that dogged Jan toward the end of her short life. Like her father who died from complications from liver failure, she died of complications from kidney failure. Both were in their mid-forties.

To keep her memory alive, Kerouac biographer Gerald Nicosia has assembled an anthology of first-person narratives remembering Jan. This book includes essays by Aram Saroyan, Brenda Knight, Phil Cousineau, John Allen Cassady, Jacques Kirouac, and others, as well as an in-depth interview with Jan by Nicosia, who was her literary executor, friend to the end, and champion in life and death. If anything, this collection of new material provides further insight into the two major thematic battles of an extraordinary literary life.

The first has to do with Jan’s search for her father. His absence affected her psyche tremendously, and led to abusive relationships, fantasies of incest, and pressures to distinguish her own voice from that of her “noodlebrain” father’s. But in the interview, she basically exonerates him for abandoning her. “I didn’t want to bring the harsh reality of my needs to him . . . If he had hung around and been a father to me, he wouldn’t have written all his books.”

Jan’s other major battle was with John Sampas, the brother of Jack’s last wife. Sampas managed to commandeer the executorship of Jack’s estate, exclude Jan from her inheritance, and manipulate some powerful publishers into censoring any mention of her from numerous books by and about her father. Hence, as Nicosia notes in his introduction, “this book comes as a response to the fact that Jan Kerouac—both her life and her work, indeed her very existence—is being systematically erased from literary history.” This refers to one of the most polemically charged and complicated scandals in American lit, which came to a head in 1995 when Jan was prevented from addressing the audience at a New York University Jack Kerouac conference. At this point, she was already on dialysis four times per day, living in constant poverty, and had amassed medical bills she could never pay. Jan died exactly one year to the day after being booted from the conference, and in Florida her grandmother’s will is still being contested for forgery.

Meanwhile, Nicosia’s collection is full of reflections, meditations, anecdotes, speculations, and loads of engaging biographical material on one of the most overlooked writers in the wanderlust/lust-for-life lineage pioneered by her father. The chapters are brief, the voices reverent, and there’s a cache of rare photos collected for the first time. In an age when “the women of the Beats” (Edie Kerouac-Parker, Carolyn Cassady, Hettie Jones, etc.) are beginning to be recognized as artists outside the shadow of their men, Jan Kerouac: A Life in Memory is indispensable reading. It is also highly entertaining, provocative in many ways, and ultimately, a tragic portrait of the inescapable on-the-road spirit that has captivated generations.

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

ANCIENT SHORE: Dispatches from Naples

Shirley Hazzard and Francis Steegmuller
University of Chicago Press ($13)

by Douglas Messerli

In her beautifully written apologia for Naples and the Campania region, author Shirley Hazzard begins her “dispatches” with a differentiation between traveling to a country, merely living in another country, and a stay of pilgrimage. The first, no matter how rich the experience may be for the traveler, is usually defined by a brief stay in a place, with little deep knowledge of, or appreciation for, its history or culture; tourists generally travel through a country without having the time or ability to take in its rich heritage. Certainly Hazzard and her husband Frances Steegmuller (a well known editor, translator, critic, and literary biographer) could be described as a couple living in another country—Hazzard’s father’s career as a diplomat forced the family to move several times in her early life, from Australia to Japan, Hong Kong, England, and New Zealand, before she ended up in New York City and, some time later, worked for the United Nations in Italy—but their experience is quite different from those individuals living in another place who continue to define their lives by their ultimate return to their homeland. For Hazzard, her journeys, particularly her move to Naples and Campania, are of another kind, what she calls “pilgrimage,” resulting in experiences that appear as “an elixir, a talisman: a spell cast by what has long and greatly been, over what briefly and simply is.” The difference, she argues, is that the pilgrim traveler becomes temporarily one with the place, “learning to match its moods with one’s own,” combining “human expectation” with “an exquisite blend of receptivity and detachment.”

Hazzard, accordingly, takes the reader through her Italy—the headland of Posillipo, Vesuvius and Pompeii, Capri, the Sorrentine penisula, and through the streets of Naples itself. She shows us its museums and treasures—the ancient villas of the Romans, the churches, the fisherman returning with their catches, and the Spaccanapoli, the sequence of streets (Via Benedetto Croce, Via San Biagio dei Librai and Via Vicaria Vecchia) that cut through the heart of the Naples’ historical center.

In a particularly riveting chapter, “In the Shadow of Vesuvius,” Hazzard describes not only the great volcano that buried Pompei and Herculaneum, but other eruptions and earthquakes since—detecting, in the continual destruction and rebuilding right up to the lip of the volcano, the Neapolitan sense of time and the inevitable. As the author repeats, “Naples requires time,” like the city itself with its ancient layers of reality; the experience of the city must be something encountered over long stretches if it is to reveal itself. In dazzlingly beautiful sentences, Hazzard indeed allows the reader to intellectually wander the city along with her, characterizing it as a “city of secrets and surprises”:

Persisting, you will soon discover the opera house, the spacious galleria, and the huge Castel Nuovo that dominates the port. Even so, the city eludes the search for its center. The truth is that there are many centers at Naples, each vital to its own city quarter. And Naples is rifest perhaps at its oldest point, the district of Spaccanapoli, where the city splits along its Greco-Roman decumanus.

Hazzard’s writing, accordingly, is an often brilliant travelogue in which the reader is made to recognize what he or she may have missed in the elusive city. But there is occasionally a sense in her homage to Neapolitan wonders that seems almost forced, as if she were somehow in league with the city’s tourist industry. Indeed, so in love with Naples is Hazzard that she only once mentions the notorious Camorra mob—an obvious danger for those living in the entire region—and she appears never to have experienced the heaps of garbage I encountered there in 2007, a perfect invitation to a blight of rats and disease. Although she and her husband describe riding through the city in taxis, neither seem to have witnessed the complete abandonment by the Neapolitan drivers of the rules of the road. While admitting that “Unlike Florence or Venice, Naples long allowed her great monuments to languish in disorder, “ she argues that they remain in their authentic context, and that “Private acts of faith and rescue have not been lacking in recent years.” Although she advises several times that visitors should never carry a purse or bag, she hardly hints at the violence that might occur if one were to ignore her suggestions.

The longest chapter in this book, however—a piece titled “The Incident at Naples,” penned by Steegmuller—describes just such an event. Carrying an empty bag, and forgetting for an instant to roll it up or put it in his pocket, Steegmuller, dangling it by the handles, is suddenly attacked by two young men on a motorcycle, and, in the usual pattern, is dragged along the street until it becomes loosened from his arm. In this case, the victim is quite seriously hurt, with severe lacerations to his nose, hands, and legs. But even in this one instance of described violence, Steegmuller finds the decaying hospitals to be filled with kindly doctors who, because of the nationalized health system, do not even bill him. Returning to the U.S., he misses the kindnesses of the Neapolitan doctors and the immediate actions of close Italian friends. The clean white clinics of New York seem less interested in him as a human being than did the decaying facilities of Naples, and he returns to Italy, after healing, to thank the several individuals who helped him get through the affair—one of whom tells the author that the robbers might have killed his son had he not removed the baby from its stroller at the moment of attack.

I have no doubt, given my own personal experiences with Neapolitans, that he received such a genuinely personal response, and one applauds both Hazzard’s and Steegmuller’s praise of these interpersonal relationships that continue to exist throughout the region. Nonetheless, it often appears that the Naples and Campania of The Ancient Shore is a world more of the past and shadow than of the piercing glare of contemporary Southern Italian daylight.

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

CONQUEST OF THE USELESS: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo

Werner Herzog
translated by Krishna Winston
Ecco ($24.99)

by Scott Bryan Wilson

“My life seems like a stranger’s house to me,” writes Werner Herzog late in Conquest of the Useless, less a straightforward diary of 1979-81, when he was working on Fitzcarraldo, than a series of “inner landscapes, born of the delirium of the jungle.” The film tells the story of the title character (played by Herzog’s frequent collaborator Klaus Kinski), a man who dreams of opening an opera house in a remote corner of Peru; to avoid treacherous rapids and natives alike, Fitzcarraldo opts to drag all of his equipment, including an enormous steamship, over a mountain rather than sail around it. It’s classic Herzog—a relentless, obsessive dreamer refusing to bow down to the savagery of nature, the laws of physics, or common sense.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the story of making the film is as insane as its plot. Filming in the jungle, Herzog faces military coups, financial collapse, no contact with the outside world, terrible food, lice, quicksand, piranhas, numerous cast and crew deaths, poisonous snakes, tarantulas, self-amputations, and attacks by indigenous tribes. “The powers of heaven are powerless against the jungle,” he remarks. Sleep doesn’t come easy in the midst of all this, either—Herzog feels trapped in “labyrinths of weariness with no escape,” and notes that he doesn’t “know what real sleep is anymore; I just have brief, strenuous fainting spells.”

Other people are also problematic. Many of the natives that make up the majority of his crew and cast turn out to be drunks, thieves, and liars; his other associates include “the biggest crooks imaginable” as well as “the gangly young bookkeeper from the city, whose mere presence is death to any meaningful thoughts.” His actors aren’t much better, with the exception of Mick Jagger, whose part was written out after production was shut down (Herzog simply felt that he could not be replaced). The director was less kind towards American Jason Robards (who was originally slated to play Fitzcarraldo) and the Italian-German actor Mario Adorf, calling them “cowards, whose real problem stems from their appalling inner emptiness.” Adorf especially falls under the director’s harsh scrutiny; Herzog calls him “a whiner, a stupid star full of posturing who cannot stand it that the Indian extras are sometimes more important than he is, the famous actor. Furthermore, he is simply cowardly, sneaky, and dumb, high-decibel dumb.”

When Robards bolts for America, Herzog briefly considers playing the role of Fitzcarraldo himself, as his “project and the character have become identical”—that is, the quest of a madman. In the end he calls in his “best fiend” Klaus Kinski, who erupts into childish tantrums and tirades from the moment he arrives, including one on his first day during costuming, when someone touches his hair: “Not even my hairdresser is allowed to touch my hair, Kinski screamed.” Herzog admits in his journal that one of Kinski’s main problems is his “inadequate supply of human compassion and depth,” and some Indians, who have had enough of his outbursts, offer to kill him. Herzog convinces them that that won’t be necessary, otherwise the film would never be completed.

If you’ve seen any of the films which Herzog narrates or appears in, two things will stand out about him: his hypnotic voice, with its mellifluous German accent, and his inimitable syntax, word choice, and use of metaphor. In fact, it’s difficult to read Conquest of the Useless without hearing it in his slow, unmistakable speech patterns. Whether describing in great detail the unimaginative plot of a Spanish comic book called Texas 1800 or the infinite happenings in the jungle, he renders everything in the same beautiful, dry style. Often the subject matter can be pathetic or gruesome: “I saw a dog, the saddest of all; he was swaying on his feet, moving in a sort of hunched-over, squirming reptilian fashion. On his back and shoulders he had open ulcers, which he kept trying to bite, contorting his head and body.” Yet it can also be gracefully tender: “The people’s gestures are unfamiliar, gentle and lovely; they move their hands like orchestral conductors in time with a soft, shy melody that emanates cautiously from the depths of the forest, like wild creatures that emerge from the sheltering leaves now and then to go down to the rivers.”

Sometimes Herzog juxtaposes thought after thought, jamming them up against another as if to recall them later, with no care as to how they fit together: “The lookout point at Tres Cruces. Casting propellers. The business with the dolphins. Striking teachers locked themselves into the church ten days ago and are ringing the bells. At the market I ate a piece of grilled monkey—it looked like a naked child.” It’s his almost throwaway observations, though, the ones which aren’t linked with anything specific about the making of the film, which stand out as tiny pieces in the tapestry of Herzog’s experiences: “I saw a crippled young woman in shorts climbing into a tree with crutches”; “On the back of a motorcycle a pole was fastened horizontally with a dozen live chickens attached by their feet, and also a tied-up hog. Their heads were dragged in the dust kicked up by the rear tire”; “Very early in the morning the cripples bathe at the beach.” He even somehow manages to see a number of films while in the jungle: “Because of the strike there was a large rally today on the Plaza 28 de Julio, with speakers shouting and gesticulating the way Mussolini did in the thirties. I went to the movies and saw a film in which a madman wanted to exterminate the race of blacks, but three muscular athletes stopped him.”

Conquest of the Useless is a fascinating account of one of the world’s greatest living filmmakers, one who refuses to compromise in the least, and who puts himself through hell to get his films made. Herzog basically sums up the pursuit early in the account: “A fairly young, intelligent-looking man with long hair asked me whether filming or being filmed could do harm, whether it could destroy a person. In my heart the answer was yes, but I said no.”

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


Eula Biss
Graywolf Press ($15)

by Scott F. Parker

No Man’s Land was a nickname for “the sparsely populated place between the city of Chicago and the city of Evanston, the place just north of the boundary that once designated Indian Territory, a place where the streets were unpaved and unlighted.” In Notes from No Man’s Land, Eula Biss uses those three words to describe what she sees in America as a whole. What interests Biss in this volume of essays are all the no man’s lands in our country—public schools in New York, the gentrified neighborhoods of so many cities, and the psychological spaces of black children who think black dolls are uglier than white ones—places where people are cut off from themselves.

We’re all familiar with those old doll studies, but few of us have confronted what they mean as head-on as Biss:

I do not know exactly how the word “nice” was used in 1939 but I do know what it means now to describe a neighborhood as “nice” or another part of town as “bad” and I know what “nice” hair is and I know what it means when my landlady tells me, as I’m applying for a lease, that she won’t need my bank account number because I look like a “nice” person.

Biss puts her complicity at the forefront of all her essays (in this case, she takes the apartment and internalizes the guilt). She’s as devastatingly honest with herself as she is with the rest of us, and she resists the easy finger-pointing solutions that seduce so many cultural analysts. In the essay “Back to Buxton,” Biss identifies her own self-misunderstanding in thinking that when she moved to Iowa City she had found her true home: “I am haunted by the possibility that I was happy when I arrived in Iowa at least in part because of my misconception that I had come to a place where the people were like me.” Later, following the essayistic impulse to move from the personal to the cultural, she reflects on the state of fitting-in at the University of Iowa, in light of a study which found that minority students reported feelings of frustration, alienation, and unhappiness:

I found myself wondering, as I read the report on diversity at the University of Iowa, whom this particular version of diversity was serving and whom it was intended to serve. For whose sake, I wondered, did the university want to increase the number of minority students from 9 percent to 10.9 percent? It did not seem to be for the sake of those students, for the sake of their education, or for the sake of their selves. I suspected that it was more for the sake of the institution, so that it could appear properly progressive.

Whether pointing out the self-serving hypocrisy of modern institutional agendas or rewriting Joan Didion’s famous “Goodbye to All That,” Biss’s steady gaze is invaluable to the contemporary essay. It is almost impossible to imagine that any of the books Notes from No Man’s Land beat out for the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize could have been more deserving. Reading this book will force you to take a long, hard look at what’s going on in a no man’s land near you.

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