Tag Archives: Summer 2013


Tao Lin
Vintage ($14.95)

by William Stobb

Tao Lin’s debut poetry collection, You Are a Little Bit Happier Than I Am (Action Books 2006), offered a dazzling display of unconstrained, direct writing, accessing the imagination and the physical world in a way that communicated human experience fully, without pretense or convention. His prose fiction—a short story collection, a novel, and a novella—showcase similar strengths, and these, along with the author’s inexhaustible electronic networking, have propelled Tao Lin to a unique kind of literary celebrity. Lin’s new novel,Taipei, may be the book that introduces mainstream readers to this significant young talent. Whether those readers are prepared for what they’ll encounter is a really interesting question.

Lin’s writing is stripped down and unaffected. Not only are his sentences and scenes decidedly non-literary, but his characters possess little affect. Because of the direct, declarative quality of his prose, it seems easier to recognize an important observation when it arises in Tao Lin’s fiction than in other, more literary writing, where the pressure on every sentence to be immersive can create an overly lush atmosphere. In Taipei, Lin flatly describes a lot of action, much of which can seem a little trivial, but out of this microscopic method, moments of keen understanding arise: “Paul grinned uncomfortably as he stared at one person, then another, thinking he had ‘absolutely nothing’ to say, except maybe what he was currently thinking, which didn’t seem appropriate and also kept changing.”

Lin’s main characters seem especially aware of the difficulty of inter-personal connection, andTaipei really captures the sense of what it’s like to possess a highly observant kind of intelligence that’s a little (maybe more than a little) anti-social. In that respect, Lin’s work engages the tradition of existential novels: Taipei echoes Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight, Albert Camus’s The Stranger, and, more recently, Michel Houellebecq’s Whatever and The Elementary Particles. If such comparisons seem like a stretch, I’m not the only one making them. Bret Easton Ellis’s blurb (Ellis himself makes a cameo appearance in the book) announces Lin as “the most interesting prose stylist of his generation,” and it’s fascinating to think about how that might be true, as Lin’s style seems like a style of no-style. Language often seems technical for Lin: there are a lot of numbers, ages, distances measured in feet or yards, estimates of crowd numbers, measurements of time. There’s not much figurative language, and the sentences aren’t especially elegant or notably crafted. But that’s the key. Lin attempts to present transcribed thinking (more than transcribed feeling), and for him, there’s no sense in putting literary style between a thought and its articulation (by contrast, it’s interesting to look at Jennifer Egan’s recent A Visit from the Goon Squad, which chronicles some of the same quarter-life energies, in some of the same New York locales, but in a much more stylized manner).

Taipei is probably not for everyone. Plot emerges, slowly, but mainly that plot has to do with drug use. There’s a love story, kind of, but “love” is not a word that the book would (or does) use; the intimacy between the book’s main character, Paul, and the woman he impulsively marries, Erin, is primarily associated with massive drug experimentation. Thousands of drugs are consumed in the book, and while Lin provides some theoretical framework for his characters’ thinking about drugs, that framework also sounds like addictive self-justification: “there was no such thing as a ‘drug problem’ or even ‘drugs’—unless anything anyone ever did or thought or felt was considered both a drug and a problem—in that each thought or feeling or object, seen or touched or absorbed or remembered, at whatever coordinate of space-time, would have a unique effect.” Overall, the main escalation in the plot is an escalation of use; the main question is whether Paul and Erin will survive. I’m sure there are readers out there who would find Taipeiindulgent and just plain tedious in its constant quest to stupefy its characters, but for me, the overt gestures toward autobiography in the book give these elements enough schadenfreude to keep me on the hook.

Since Lin hit the scene, he has been very active in the electronic promotion of his work, and in exploring the web and Twitter as expressive media. Taipei connects in compelling ways with Lin’s documented online life, including a famous YouTube moment in which Lin posted a video of himself at a literary reading and then asked viewers to identify the drug he was on during the reading. A lot of writers—a lot of people—would skirt this borderline sordidness, but what’s compelling about Lin is his approach to the whole self. There’s no pretense of heroism. There are no protagonists. If nobility emerges, so will selfishness, quirkiness, etc. “Anything’s weird if you stare at it,” writes Sam Lipsyte, and if Tao Lin is staring at himself in the mirror (or in his phone screen, more likely), it’s not entirely out of narcissism. There’s a desire to bring to light the whole array of human possibility, and to subject himself to the same critique that his writing applies to his characters.

I read Taipei in one long stretch on a six-hour air travel day. When I arrived home, I found Clancy Martin’s review of the book in The New York Times. I like the review and agree with Martin’s positive take on Lin’s work. However, Martin calls the book a bildungsroman—a coming-of-age story—and I want to resist this categorization, or at least complicate it. It arises at all largely due to the book’s final four words, “grateful to be alive,” which are thought by Paul after he survives a particularly gnarly drug episode. Certainly they are significant, but those final four words are really the only evidence the book provides of personal growth on the part of the main character; if he comes of age, it happens after the book ends.

Martin’s categorization of the book is based on his interpretation of Paul and Erin’s relationship. He sees them growing together, and argues that their love gives Paul something to live for. This too is debatable: they get married impulsively, and then gradually get sick of each other; by the end of the book, they’re barely speaking and not even living together. In the final drug episode, Erin is babysitting Paul after he has told her point-blank that he doesn’t care about her, before ingesting a combination of drugs that would sedate an elephant. Martin argues that Paul is just “reluctant to let go of the protective irony that has defined his youth,” but I think he’s much closer to the point when he says that Lin is “suspicious of notions like sincerity and authenticity.”

In the end, calling Taipei a coming-of-age story reduces the complexity of the book for the sake of increasing its comprehensibility. It’s hard for readers to face this kind of recklessness on the part of a character without imagining that he’s going to be coming out the other side of it as a better person. People might be afraid of this novel’s bleak drug content and unaffected critique of humanity, but that’s probably a more appropriate mindset to take into Taipei than the “it’ll all work out in the end” comfort promised by most coming-of-age stories.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013

The Collected Works
of Noah Cicero Vol. I

Noah Cicero
Lazy Fascist Press

by Peter Tieryas Liu

The Collected Works of Noah Cicero Vol. I assembles eight of Noah Cicero’s earliest works as parables for the American nightmare, vomiting out truths that bask in bawdy flashes of lust. Much of the prose fluctuates between long sequences that are stream of consciousness in visceral bursts and caustic dialogue that is raw, pulpy, and disturbingly authentic.

The Condemned is the most representative of the works here, with its bouts of poverty and sex in Youngstown, Ohio. Split into three parts, the first, “The Warrior,” is about Kathy, a stripper who is eight months pregnant. She’s not a likable protagonist, but she struggles, swears, and strips for survival. She lays bare the hypocrisies of everyday life and does it with an audacity and indifference reflected in the writing’s bold terseness and poignant directness:

Kathy thinks. Her thoughts are loud. Fuck, not another one! I can’t take another one! Why won’t this baby just die! Just fucking die! I already have one, and I don’t even like that one! How the fuck am I supposed to deal with another one!
. . . She must look away.
For she is the filthy, impoverished trash of America.
America, where nothing can be wrong.
For America is always. For Americans are moral and good.
They set the world straight.

“Gratuitous Kink,” the aptly named second part, offers a menagerie of unusual sexual encounters. Starting with how the narrator lost his virginity in a church, it includes a lewd encounter in an Asian spa and an uncanny experience in a XXX theater. The scenes are as pornographic as they are confessional. With a free-flowing form and lines that meld into one another, the story seems deceptively biographical. The personalization is part of the allure and even if disgust is a common reaction, so is awe at the writer’s utter honesty. Cicero encapsulates the American experience by defying it:

The both of us stood there, me a Youngstown boy, and her a really hot Mexican chick with a dick.
It was weird.
But the best experiences always are.

Rounding out the trilogy is “Civilization,” which is the most ambitious of the three. It explores the history of the world and is more philosophical in nature, if philosophy were irradiated by doubt and madness. Topics like love and identity are given surgical facelifts, though the results are far from beauteous:

The history books say the decline and eventual disappearance of the Harappan culture is a mystery.
There is no mystery here in America.
The reasons can be seen on every TV channel.
Written on everybody’s face. The people have given up.
They are too mentally deranged to even revolt.

The Condemned isn’t just about a gallery of strangers, but comes to represent the metaphysical state of our lives. It’s as much a query as it is a verdict—only the questions are more important than the final result. There is no sublimation of poverty, no glorification of sexual acts. Vulgarities are exposed as such, and the neighborhood Denny’s acts as a poor man’s Camelot. With the traditional story arc snipped short, redemption isn’t even part of Cicero’s vocabulary. This is literary minimalism at its most terse, reflecting the fact that even hope has been shredded to a tiny strip that might snap at any second:

This book is my asshole.
The books are not my babies.
They are my assholes.
After this book gets published.
I will have three assholes.

Very few authors invite readers to inspect and read their assholes. The Collected Works of Noah Cicero Vol. I never hides what it is, and even revels in its brash lewdness; it’s up to readers to decide whether they want to probe further or not.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013


Harmony Korine
Drag City ($18)

by Andrew Marzoni

Enfants terribles, from Jean Cocteau to Roberto Bolaño, are famed for their incessant demanding of people’s attention. In this respect, Harmony Korine is no exception. He captivated a wide audience for the first time at age nineteen, writing the screenplay for Larry Clark’s Kids(1995), a grimly realistic portrayal of Manhattan teenagers on drugs, booze, and skateboards, set against the backdrop of the looming HIV/AIDS crisis. The film made Korine cinema’s youngest credited screenwriter; he was twenty-two at the time of its release. At age twenty-four he became an auteur, exploding a new space for himself in American independent cinema with 1997’s Gummo, a film as critically acclaimed as it was confusingly dismissed, leading Werner Herzog to exalt a piece of fried bacon affixed to a wall with Scotch tape in the background of a bathroom scene, saying, “This is the entertainment of the future.”1 A veritable polymath, Korine has since written and directed four additional feature films (casting Herzog prominently in two of them: 1999’s Julien Donkey-Boy and 2007’s Mister Lonely), mounted exhibitions of his photographic work, and penned song lyrics with the likes of Björk. In 1998, Korine added “novelist” to his already impressive resume when a large New York publisher released A Crack-Up at the Race Riots.

And yet, upon its initial appearance, A Crack-Up at the Race Riots failed to demand people’s attention—as Korine’s films have so consistently excelled at doing—which is presumably why Drag City republished the book this year, timed to coincide with the release of Korine’s biggest box-office success to date, Spring Breakers. The timing is not inappropriate: the two works have much in common. In fact, A Crack-Up at the Race Riots illuminates an interesting kinship between the literary tradition of which it is a part and the genealogy of experimental cinema in which Korine’s films are firmly rooted: Jean-Luc Godard, John Cassavetes, David Lynch, Andrei Tarkovsky, and of course, Herzog. As a work of literature, A Crack-Up at the Race Riots is only a novel in the sense that fragmentary books such as Bob Dylan’s Tarantula (1966/1971) and the writings of William S. Burroughs and Kathy Acker are “novels.” Plot and character can only be pieced together with the most Evel Knievel-like critical leaps, and in overt defiance of authorial intention. Not to discount the “author is dead” proclamations of poststructuralist theory, which have made many such collagist works of literature possible, but Korine has said of Gummo (and one suspects, of his filmmaking methodology in general), “I just wanted you to see these things that no one else would show you. And if you get something emotional from one scene in the film—if there’s one image you can take away from the movie after you leave—then it’s a success,”2a point echoed in Herzog’s admiration of the bacon taped to the wall.

Herzog’s praise for Korine’s writing—on the book’s back cover, he vaguely blurbs, “I believe that [Korine] is a great talent as a writer”—seems somewhat less justifiable than his (and others’) championing of Korine’s films. One gets the sense reading A Crack-Up at the Race Riots that, formally at least, this has already been done before—perhaps not a valid criticism in its own right, but when Korine-the-filmmaker says such things as “When I look at the history of film—the early commercial narrative movies directed by D.W. Griffith, say—and then look at where films are now, I see so little progression in the way they are made and presented, and I’m bored with that,”3 it makes it difficult not to count novelty as central to his aesthetic. The book’s title evokes another fragmentary work of literature by another writer obsessed with the new, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Crack-Up (1945), which posthumously collects three essays Fitzgerald wrote for Esquire in 1936, as well as correspondence and various ephemera. Fitzgerald’s title essay consists of a personal narrative describing the author’s realization “ten years this side of forty-nine” that “it was his nervous reflexes that were giving way—too much anger and too many tears.”4 In The Logic of Sense (1969), French philosopher Gilles Deleuze uses Fitzgerald’s essay to elucidate the Freudian death instinct, citing its famous first line, “Of course, all life is a process of breaking down.”5

There is another sense to the phrase, though, and this is the one on which Korine seems to capitalize most heavily in his own Crack-Up: hilarity, uncontrollable laughter. The book is not without its morosity, morbidity, and entropic worldview (it is “set” against the backdrop of an ongoing Florida race war, after all), but it is the relationship between comedy and mental breakdown that is most prominently emphasized. If nothing else, A Crack-Up at the Race Riotsis funny. Whether it is the book’s attribution of the phrase “Incest is relative” to Fred Astaire, the “rumor” that “Jackson Pollack had a foot fetish,” or the inclusion of Arthur Schopenhauer’s The World As Will and Representation (1818/1844) and Antonin Artaud’s Van Gogh: Suicide Through Society (1947) in a list of “Tupac Shakur’s Ten Favorite Novels,” Korine has succeeded in putting together a compendium of juvenile surrealist jokes, many of them without punch lines, presented through both (frequently misspelled) handwritten and typewritten text along with the occasional photograph: a portrait of MC Hammer at age eleven—an adolescently scribbled caption tells us, if we’re unable to recognize it on our own—introduces the volume.

Perhaps fittingly, A Crack-Up at the Race Riots reads something like a marketing campaign for Korine-the-auteur, as it is embroiled in the elaborate marketing campaign that filled so many seats in theatres screening Spring Breakers. With glossy hedonism, a Skrillex soundtrack, and a cast of Disney graduates, the film’s marketers have essentially tricked a bunch of teen- and college-age philistines into paying to see a richly enigmatic treatise on race, gender, and capitalism realized in poetic cinematography and editing. Spring Breakers brings fully to life a fantasy world in which humanity’s basest desires are taken to their utmost extremes, providing an implicit critique of what turns us on. Taken on its own, A Crack-Up at the Race Riots presents itself as a sort of postmodern The Waste Land—replacing T.S. Eliot’s Dante and Jessie Weston with Ice-T, Billie Jean King, and other 1990s personages—and is a minor but welcome addition to the shelf of exercises in literary madness. But amid the context of Korine’s films, A Crack-Up at the Race Riots serves as a clear indicator that his artistry is better suited to a more visual medium.

1 “Gummo’s Whammo.” Interview. Nov. 1999. http://www.harmony-korine.com/paper/int/hk/whammo.html.
2 Gus Van Sant, “Forward.” 1997. http://www.harmony-korine.com/paper/int/hk/forward.html.
3 “Gummo’s Whammo.” Interview. Nov. 1999. http://www.harmony-korine.com/paper/int/hk/whammo.html.
4 F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Crack-Up.” 1936. http://www.esquire.com/features/the-crack-up.
5 Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sense. Trans. Constantin V. Boundas. London: Continuum, 2004. 176.

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Avant-garde Poems, Plays, Stories and Songs for Children
Edited by Dana Teen Lomax
Black Radish Books ($20)

by Megan Burns

With over eighty contributors ranging from seven years old to poets no longer with us, this collection of playful works and wide-ranging styles of play on language certainly earns the “most fun anthology to read” award. The title suggests that the book is “for children” and while they can certainly enjoy the contents, this collection also serves as a valuable teaching tool for educators. Because it contains some of the most active and interesting poets writing today, it also serves as an engaging anthology for writers, especially those who like to play with language in the vein of the Surrealists and Dadaists. Charles Bernstein offers silly nursery rhymes, Joan Retallack engages in a playful Seussian rhyme about a cat, and Kenneth Goldsmith plays with the alphabet and sounds. These are influential poets who have published widely in their field not just as poets, but also as critics and theorists; here in this space, the playful side of their writing is the focus.

Poets reading this text have the chance to delve into new territories with their favorite writers, while children or adults not as familiar with contemporary poetry can approach these poems without any sense of struggle. Language poetry in this company is less a movement and more a return to basics. A poet like Vanessa Place who wields often cerebrally challenging verse is framed here in a space of simple recognition as to how words bounce around each other. This is really what makes this book a resource: it’s framing of diverse poets harkens back to a “kindergarten” sensibility, one in which play is serious business and all serious business is about playing. Douglas Kearney offers a play about “word play” in giant fonts that dance vertically about the page. Language and images jump around the texts inviting the reader to wade into the visual as well as the verbal fun of the game of making writing.

One example of how this anthology can be used as a teaching tool is Juliana Spahr’s piece, which offers instructions as well as photographs for performance art pieces. Take “jumping piece,” where everyone jumps up and down for as long as they can (the accompanying photograph shows a group of kids intently enacting this performance). One way of introducing kids to art is to take them to museums and plays and let them perform the role of audience and spectator. For children, the more indelible way to approach art is to be part of the making, and this book stresses this way of engaging with poetry and plays.

Spahr’s piece notwithstanding, the book’s general lack of instructions creates a sense of removing the rules from poetry writing and instead allows the reader to discover how the poem is made, and how they too could mimic or swerve from the example they are given. The visual poems of Brian Strang or collage pieces by Julie Patton offer artistic interpretations beyond the words on the page. In a radical sense, Rachel Zolf’s bar code pieces challenge readers to understand what a poem might be and what traditional genres look like on the page. For more experienced readers, the knowledge that several of these pieces were not created for a child’s anthology but were chosen from collected works already published again gives the framing of these works in this new space a startling juxtaposition.

Over twenty pieces used in this anthology were published previously and presumably in texts considered for adult readers. With a majority of the texts then created for children, this juxtaposition opens up an interesting dialogue about audience and about the writer’s intent. Probably the only drawback to this impressive collection of writing is the lack of a CD to accompany the texts. As a learning tool, hearing poetry can be invaluable to young writers and even adults would probably enjoy hearing recordings of some of their favorite poets returning to the kindergarten side of their selves. The back of the book tells us that the Kindergarde Performance team brings this book to life, but it would have been a nice touch to have some of that available in a media portion of this publication. Regardless, the array of poets stepping up to present avant-garde approaches to writing for young writers is unprecedented; the anthology is a gift to writers of any age.

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Edited by Ann Fisher-Wirth and Laura-Gray Street
Trinity University Press ($24.95)

by Eliza Murphy

Within days after headlines announced that global carbon dioxide levels had reached the critical milestone of 400 parts per million, a survey of scientists showed that only three percent doubt that this a human-induced planetary phenomenon. Freak violent storms, salination of formerly arable soil, displacement of millions of creatures, habitat loss, and drought are among the features of the new world disorder we’ve unleashed through burning fossil fuels, sending the byproducts of our lives into what poet Chase Twichell calls the “gaseous ocean overhead.” This sobering trend ought to warn us to reconsider habits that emerged from the stale notion that we are somehow separate from nature. As this bold, irreverent collection of poems attest, we are not only part of nature, the damage our ways have caused reaches beyond the earth into the thin atmosphere swathing the planet. Out of this cacophony of voices comes an appeal to treat the world as the sacred place it is.

This volume does not present nature poetry that places the detached, observing “I” in the center, but poetry that draws from ecology, geology, astronomy, and biology. Sometimes these poems quietly bow to occurrences between organisms oblivious to us. Unlike the “cityfolk” who bypass the San Joaquin valley to “seek splendor; who would touch them must stun them,” William Everson finds solace in “nature neither freaked or amazing,” and in that stillness, he experiences “love as the leaf does the bough.”

Unabashed in their confrontation of human arrogance, these poets address absurd quandaries and human foibles. As if to shatter the belief that life is a hierarchy with Homo sapiens at the apex, poets like Susan Stewart challenge prevailing notions about human supremacy. She imagines the dream lives of animals, “the languages that fall beyond our hearing.” In a heartfelt rant, Sheryl St. Germain describes an inclusive litany of damage caused by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico: “It’s an old story, really, how we always dirty what we love.” In “Wild Geese,” Mary Oliver offers a reprieve, an antidote to non-stop bad news:

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Robert Hass’s introduction traces the “intellectual recalibration” catalyzed by Darwin’s observations about the origins and interconnectedness of the marvels found in nature, starting with the coining of ökologie “from the Greek word oikos, which means ‘household,’” in 1866 by Ernst Haeckel, a German biologist whose study of sea creatures required that he understand their forms “in relation to their interactions and their surroundings.” Hass proceeds to dismantle the Victorian cabinet of curiosities to suggest “one had to understand how [specimens] interacted with their environment,” rather than idolize objects isolated from their natural milieu as evidence of “the profligate grandeur of a deity who created so many unique animals in such plenty.” His survey of developments in science, environmental policy and shifts in consciousness provides a condensed history of American poetry that demonstrates the hybridization that results from crossbreeding disciplines. Language is dynamic and organic, and subject to jarring shifts and mutations necessary for adapting to a changing world.

As Hass points out, these poems often acknowledge that beauty is not enough, that nature is more than lovely vistas inhabited by mesmerizing flora and fauna. Beyond mere nature poetry, these poems are all-inclusive and draw considerable inspiration from ecology. They include gritty urban cities, and acknowledge the reign of terror perpetrated by colonialism, industrialized agriculture, nuclear radiation, pollution, and other human products of “civilization.”

The book is organized into two sections: the historical section arranges poets by the year they were born in homage to the lineage passed to the contemporary poets that follow in the next section, which orders the poets alphabetically. The range of carefully selected poems in the latter section is a testament to the durability and influence of the experiments with language and form conducted by poets in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. These poets wrestled with the radical shift in consciousness brought on by scientific breakthroughs, and promoted astonishing growth in the field of poetics.

The poets gathered in this anthology bear witness and they go on tirades, and sometimes bestow spiritual renewal by resacralizing the world, by calling for silence and deep connection. John Ashbery gives readers a list of rivers, Alison Hawthorne Deming provides “Specimens Collected at the Clear Cut,” and C.S. Giscombe includes a diagram of watersheds. Sparrows, seals, squash, figs, tongues, curbs, granite, nets, the LAPD, and even dynamite grooves coexist in this volume, infusing the poems with an undeniable and welcome animism. Take this book outside to read, let its whispers, elegies, shouts, laments enter you. Chances are you, too, are among the people in an Ed Roberson poem, “grabbing at the chance to see / the earth before the end of the world.” Poetry might not derail the course we’re on, but the poems gathered here just might soothe what ails us.

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Piercing the Page: Selected Poems 1958-1989

Antonio Porta
Edited with an introduction by Gian Maria Annovi
Afterword by Umberto Eco
Translated by Anthony Baldry, Rosemary Liedl & Paolo Martini, Anthony Molino, Lawrence R. Smith, Paul Vangelisti, and Pasquale Verdicchio
Otis Books/Seismicity Editions ($14.95)

by Kevin Carollo

A name is exactly the absence of definition.
—Breyten Bretyenbach

In order to make a decision I’ve chosen another name
In order to change paths I’ve called the peacocks together
—Antonio Porta, “The Sources of Deception” (I, January 29, 1968

It begins with a name—or rather, a door. Originally publishing under the name Leo Paolazzi, the poet of Piercing the Page became Antonio Porta (1935-1989) in 1960. Ostensibly meant to “pay homage to the great Milanese poet Carlo Porta,” as the solid introduction by editor Gian Maria Annovi informs, “porta” also means “door” in Italian. This can’t be mere coincidence, for Porta’s life’s work plays intensely with the many resonances of his chosen namesake. As in the Kafkaesque proportions of “Before the Law,” wherein each door implies a greater one behind it, Porta’s poetry keeps opening itself into new realms of expression. The door functions as a liminal space between the self and the world around it, a hermeneutic circle that opens both ways.

It’s fitting, then, that we see Porta occupying a threshold of poetic experience that both embraces the past and presages the future. At times reminiscent of the visual and material experiments of Mallarmé, Porta’s oeuvre also prefigures the newspaper and duck-hare poems of Valerio Magrelli in terms of its investment in playing with the limits of poetics, politics and metaphysics. In this light, Porta might also serve as a door between his even more experimental Gruppo 63comrade, Edoardo Sanguineti (1930-2010), and the Marxist cultural critic Antonio Negri of Art & Multitude. A predilection for the episodic and sequential, including lists, letters, series, calendars, dates, chronicles, and numbers—these are the interstices where Porta’s poetry lives and breathes.

One of Porta’s visual poems—from April 9, 1963, to be exact—employs a newspaper-ransom note approach to great effect:

there is       an open door

they love

the fox hunt

between atrocious suffering       the marvels of Earth

“What, then, is the tru-

sans explanation

the villa       of vice

(my translation)


On the adjacent page, we see three people with their backs to us staring through a door, or perhaps a window—a threshold, at any rate. The lower right hand corner of the collage asserts “pop art” while two headless bodies discuss a giant hamburger of indeterminate material. Directly above the burger, and to the right of the three lookers, the name “Antonio Porta” is inscribed on the concrete (get it?) wall, a large graffito functioning as both signature and signified to the hermeneutic rectangles, if you will, of the work. To me, the last three visual poems of the series, including this one, seem to put Monty Python’s collage animation in conversation with punk rock’s penchant for humorous cut-and-paste.

As with all good selected compilations, the offered parts of Piercing the Page suggest a greater collected behind the next door. After staring at the six visual poems included here, the visceral response is simple: more, please. One could say the same regarding the sequential offerings and anaphora-driven single poems alike. Featuring the works of seven translators, and concluding with a critical essay by Umberto Eco, Piercing the Page proves there are indeed many points of entry to the poet known as Antonio Porta. Here are two brief excerpts from “2 (7.26.80)” of the excerpted series poem “Heron,” a poem begun in 1979 and ultimately finished (abandoned?) in November 1987, and one that rivals Mahmoud Darwish’s epic exaltation of the hoopoe:

I salute you, I sing of you, heron
returned to sink your claws
into Lombardy’s rice fields
I sing my freedom
I’m just out of prison
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
heron, sound of contact, of union
handclaps in the air
mimic your wings
I stand still on the ground
my feet, like yours, in water
as if I were still blind and deaf

We don’t get to read “Heron” in full, but we get enough of the poem to wish we could. Porta’s dialectical poetics of the self—which struggle to delineate the metaphysical tensions between bird and bard, body and mind, silence and sound, life and death—are on display here, just as a much earlier poem, “Dialogue with Herz,” depicts the manifold and dialogical tensions between all of these elements at once. To begin again with a name, keep in mind that “Herz” means “heart” in German:

“I was seized by terror turning into a hare,
and then accepting, I got used to it.”
“If it were true I could kill myself.” “What
happens to hares?” “A simple death.”

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

“For a long time I’ve wanted to fly
through the trees: to become a bird and
discover a tunnel in the summer foliage,
to reach the ground.” “To hit the roots
and lick up nutritive juices.”

Who is having this conversation with Herz? Following Pascal, we might say that the heart has its reasons that reason never knows. Or, thinking of Anne Sexton, we might infer that the truth is a lie is a truth. Then Porta opens another door of interpretation by ending the poem with a question: “Will the power of day and night never end?” Upending T.S. Eliot, we might come to believe that in the end is our beginning.

What is lost in excerption is gained otherwise in this bilingual edition, which intimates the impossibility of arriving at a completely satisfying sense of completion to the art of translating poetry, namely that of the Italian ilk. If sound is as important to Porta as novelist-semiotician Umberto Eco contends—incidentally, “Eco” indeed means “echo”—then a successful rendering into English occurs despite, or because of, a poem’s multifarious untranslatability. We see the same difficulties in translating Spanish-language poets from Vallejo to Machado; the deceptively easy and hyper-sonorous Romance languages prove difficult to translate convincingly into an English that appears sonically challenged by comparison. Things fall apart based on an exclamation point or vernacular turn of phrase, and always, always, sonority suffers—either from too much attention to it in the target language, or not enough. One might argue that to contain the multitudes of Porta à la Whitman is not the point; rather, we want to set them free, to “sing my freedom / I’m just out of prison.”

Piercing the Page, in other words, provokes a sequence of questions on the ground, a word alternately used for “suolo” in “Heron,” and “fondamento” in “Dialogue with Herz” in the above citations. Though “Earth” and “earth” typically derive from “terra,” the excerpts above can support this valence to “ground” as well, just as for various reasons the translations eschew the possibilities of “soil” and “foundation.” One could play with the sounds of these few lines of “Heron” a bit, gaining and losing something by going with “the hands clap in the air / alongside your wings / suddenly find me rooted to the ground.” Similarly, the choice of “power” for “l’arbitrio” at the end of “Dialogue with Herz” doesn’t ring quite the same in English as the more accurate “Will the will of night and day never end?” In the end, a translation succeeds when it intimates a world of possibility lying beyond its myriad impossibilities.

Speaking of lying, “The Sources of Deception” seems to get something right in section V of February 1, 1968:

In order to continue believe in the elephant ears dream
In order to go out hide the hand with the scissors
the same stanza follows =
to wait—to be—to enter—to disappear

Indeed, we are like a door. Waiting defines our being, and crossing a threshold means irrevocable transformation. Then again, “stanza” also means “room,” and that must mean something, too. What does it mean to enter the room of a door? Pierce the page, dear reader, and find out.

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Taking the Consequences — An Interview with Karin Tidbeck

Interviewed by Matt Bell

Born in 1977 in Stockholm, Sweden, Karin Tidbeck lives and works in Malmö. An alumna of the 2010 Clarion San Diego writers’ workshop, she studied comparative religion and social anthropology at the University of Stockholm and creative writing at Skurups folkhögskola, where she also trained as a creative writing instructor. Continue reading