Tag Archives: Summer 2014

Selected Stories

machadodeassis-storiesJoaquim Maria Machado de Assis
translated by Rhett McNeil
Dalkey Archive ($15.95)

by Kristine Rabberman

Machado de Assis is known for his blending of classic 19th-century style with a sensibility that seems to presage postmodernism. His ironic voice, his love of dark humor, and his predilection for reflexivity and metafictional frames make his works, such as The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas (also translated as Epitaph of a Small Winner) read as if they were written in the late 20th century. This new collection of his short stories, translated by Rhett McNeil, focuses particularly on what McNeil describes as his experimental period, from the publication of Posthumous Memoirs in 1880 up to his death in 1908.

Fully half of the collection is comprised of the novella “The Psychiatrist” (also known as “The Alienist”). The story, in which Machado de Assis sends up provincial life in a Brazilian town, reveals the author’s sensitivity to social class, political alliances, and religious affiliation. Through a series of increasingly over-the-top scenes and reversals of fortune, the story lambasts bourgeois and village pretensions; it also destabilizes our understanding of insanity, as the psychiatrist asks, “But were [the patients] truly insane, and cured by me, or was what appeared to be a cure nothing more than the discovery of their perfect mental disequilibrium?”

As opposed to “The Psychiatrist,” most of the other stories in this collection are short pieces. Some works are brief sketches, parodies with doses of the author’s subversive sense of humor. “On the Ark” presents three “undiscovered” chapters from Genesis that describe a scene of sibling rivalry on Noah’s ark. “To Live!” is written as a Socratic dialogue between Ahasverus and Prometheus, who meet at the end of time and interweave their Biblical and Classical stories. And “A Visit from Alcibiades” presents an epistolary retelling of the Greek orator’s death, related by a judge who calls him from classical Athens to 1875 Rio de Janeiro with disastrous consequences.

Other stories feature themes relating to life, death, eternity, and identity. Splitting and twinning are interesting subthemes; “The Academies of Siam” explores gender and identity through King Kalaphongko, who “was practically a lady,” and the beautiful Kinnara, who was “a masculine woman—a buffalo with the feathers of a swan.” As the academics of Siam engage in bloody fights over the question of whether souls are gendered, Kalaphongko and Kinnara enact their own experiment to see what their lives would be like if they switched bodies. In ten pages, the story highlights politicized infighting, gender norms and roles, and the gendered nature of political power.

In “Voyage Around Myself,” Machado de Assis combines his interest in split identities with an homage to Xavier de Maistre’s “Voyage Around My Room.” Early in the story, the protagonist quotes the following lines from Camöes: “I know not what occurred / Between myself and me / To make me my own enemy.” He then speculates, “It’s possible that the meaning of these lines is merely figurative, but there is no proof that it isn’t literal, and that ‘myself and me’ aren’t really two separate, tangible, visible people, standing face-to-face.” Similarly, the most inventive story in the collection, “The Priest, or The Metaphysics of Style,” depicts a priest’s efforts to write a sermon, not simply by describing his attempts to distract himself from his struggles, but also by taking a trip inside the priest’s head, where a noun is using “the language . . . of the scriptures” to call an alluring adjective to his side. Most of the story focuses on their struggles to find each other: “It’s a difficult and complex path, this trip through a brain filled with things both old and new. There’s a rustling of ideas in here that barely allows the lovers’ calls to be heard . . .”

Such tales make this collection a rare opportunity to explore Machado de Assis’ experimentation, particularly through ten stories translated into English for the first time. The tight temporal focus of the collection, from 1878-1886, provides an enlightening perspective on the author’s development as a writer during this critical period.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2014 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2014


ressurectionMachado de Assis
translated by Karen Sherwood Sotelino
Latin American Literary Review Press ($19.95)

by Douglas Messerli

Brazilian novelist Joaquim María Machado de Assis is the author of several important 19th-century fictions—among them Quincas Borba (Philosopher or Dog?) (1892) and Dom Casmurro (1899)—that chronicled Brazilian society of the period, taking the reader into a world of Portuguese-speaking eccentrics, parties, small-talk, societal gossip, and, most importantly, love and delusion. His first novel, Resurrection (1872), now translated for the first time into English, has nearly all the elements that make Machado de Assis’ work so popular, the major difference being that here the scale is much less epic than in his later works. While its lack of complexity slightly disappoints, it gives us a kind structural glimpse into the underlying themes in those later masterworks.

The plot of Resurrection—and in this author’s books, plot is crucial—focuses on a retired doctor, Félix, and the two women he loves: Raquel, a shy and retiring young woman, and the beautiful and well-to-do young widow Lívia. Minor but important characters include Lívia’s brother Viana and a mutual friend, Meneses. Numerous other figures fill the rooms for the book’s several parties, but only one other figure stands out, the villain of Machado de Assis’ tale, Luís Batista, a man who has been spurned by the widow.

Although the story of these figures’ comings and goings are the heart of this Brazilian fiction, the action is often pared down in this work so that the author can center his attentions on the psychological conditions of his three major figures. Both women are in love with the so-called “hero,” although in time he rejects both of them, because he himself—as we gradually come to discover—has no heart, justifying his rejections and his unperceived misogamy to be the fault of the two irreproachable women. In that respect, Félix can be seen as an early fin de siècle dandy, a man somewhat like characters out of works by Wilde or Huysmans, albeit not recognizing himself as homosexual.

In this case, it hardly matters; the doctor’s core problem, as the author makes clear, is his inability to live life. If we, as readers, might be able to forgive his rejection of the fragile Raquel in order to marry Lívia, we cannot forgive Félix for believing an anonymous letter castigating the widow for driving her husband and others to despair because of her unfaithfulness. The letter, in fact, has been sent by Luís Batista, in revenge for Lívia’s dismissal of him. And it is Félix’s reaction to that Iago-like act that tells us of the doctor’s inability to love. Even though he later discovers the letter to have been Batista’s lie, Félix continues in the illusion:

When all had calmed down in his heart, Félix naively confessed to himself that the breach in his love, as painful as it had been, was yet the most reasonable solution. The doctor’s love experienced posthumous doubts. The veracity of the letter that had prevented the marriage, with the passing of years, not only seemed possible to him, but even probable. One day Meneses told Félix he had ultimate proof that Luís Batista had written the letter. Not only did Félix refuse his testimony, he did not even ask what proof he had. (160)

As Machado de Assis sums up his protagonist: “Nature placed him among the class of men who are cowardly and visionary, whom the poets describe as ‘losing the good for fear of seeking it.’” So does this brilliant author transform his “hero” into a kind “anti-hero,” a figure who begins the work as a possible romantic but in the end becomes a modern everyman, unable to act because of inner opposing forces. The title of his work becomes ironic as what the hero perceives as having “saved” him has, in fact, prevented him from having lived a full life.

While Machado de Assis wrote into the early 20th century, he never adopted modernist transparent narrative strategies as did Henry James (and later Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, and William Faulkner). If his storytelling often takes us into a psychological world akin to modernist writing, Machado de Assis remained an interruptive narrator, which is one of the reasons his work is so charming. When Meneses first convinces Félix that Batista is behind the letter, for example, the author intrudes:

     Reader, let us understand each other. I am the one telling this story, and can assure you the letter was indeed from Luís Batista, However, the doctor’s conviction . . . was less solid and well thought out than befitted the state of affairs.

In short, Machado de Assis humorously criticizes his characters for believing what they do—even when they are right! At other times, the writer uses his authorial powers to speed up or slow down his narrative as in a film: “It was mid-December. The wedding date was imminent. Everything required a swift solution.”

Like several writers of the period—Zola, Stein, Lewis, Barnes, etc.—Machado de Assis retained his authorial voice in order to entertain the reader and point to his themes in a way that would be picked up again by postmodern fiction writers. Accordingly, while some readers may see these intrusions as “old-fashioned,” they are in fact original and fresh, and they help to enrich his art. If Resurrection is far from being a major work, it reveals much about this great writer’s literary methods.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2014 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2014

Amiri Baraka and Edward Dorn: The Collected Letters

baraka-dornEdited by Claudia Moreno Pisano
University Of New Mexico Press ($59.95)

by Eliza Murphy

Intended “if not to overthrow, to at least disrupt the status quo of preconceived notions in American letters” by seamlessly incorporating snippets of historical details between the missives of two American literary figures, editor Claudia Pisano hit her mark. Instead of an epistolary, she’s created a narrative assemblage with artfully selected materials whose backdrop never overshadows the shifting tones contained within the correspondence between poets Ed Dorn and Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones).

Complete with misspellings, quirky punctuation, complaints about the weather (which they often attributed to nuclear bomb testing), money woes, relationship difficulties, and other details that reveal their personal turmoil and triumphs, the correspondence took place from 1959-1965, just as the poets were establishing themselves as artists. Arranged chronologically, the letters show the development of two avant-garde poets confronting race, the necessity to break free of formal constraints established by mainstream academia, and their different approaches to dealing with official versus actual history. Moody, testy, exciting and exasperating, the letters show two individuals forging their paths during a time of incredible cultural upheaval. At times contemporary readers will want to pitch the book across the room because of the intense misogyny (“Man is she cruising for a bruising”) and homophobia, though to be fair, we are still only beginning to chip away at the hateful currents such comments reflect.

From the excitement and enthusiasm expressed in their letters, they were maneuvering during a heady time. Everything was up for grabs. Post-World War II malaise had no place in a world encumbered with the Cuban Missile Crisis, nuclear weapons testing, the Vietnam War, and the Civil Rights movement. Neither Dorn nor Baraka led sheltered lives, yet their letters reveal the progression of radical stances that replaced the glaze of innocence as they became more aware of the larger world. They were both coming into their own as writers during incredible artistic foment across disciplines. Jazz was informing poetry and painting. Politics seeped into theater. Charles Olson and other Black Mountain poets had liberated poetry from academia, freeing language and challenging mainstream values. Like-minded poets found one another, celebrated one another’s resistance to mainstream academic poetry in letters, lit mags, and at public readings.

Baraka grew increasingly militant as he rejected the white New York culture he knew and came to identify with Black Power. Way out in the rural American West, Dorn honed in on Native American issues, as well as the myth of the frontier. As each wrestled with the monkeys on their backs, they sought intellectual companionship through (what is now considered old-fashioned) letter writing.

Both poets actively resisted writing the sort of poetry codified with prizes and posts as poet laureates. (Baraka was removed from his brief stint as the New Jersey poet laureate for making remarks considered anti-Semitic after 9/11). Poetry was not a pretty, risk-free arena to lyricize, but a place to take action, to wrestle with ideas, to engage the head as much as the heart. Pisano refers to Dorn and Baraka as “outsiders,” presumably because they deliberately defied convention, eliminating their potential to win major prizes like the Guggenheim Fellowship (which Olson won twice, as they jealously point out). Yet, they were both engaged in a diverse community of experimental writers who actively supported one another by publishing their work in lit mags and arranging public readings.

A lively outgrowth of the series Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative, this volume adds another layer of scholarship that offers a glimpse of two men devoted to creative and intellectual pursuits during an era marked by imaginative resistance to institutionalized values. Pisano deftly contextualizes the tumultuous backdrop against which these two poets maintained their long distance friendship while establishing themselves as writers. In so doing, these two jazz-infused poets emerge as feisty, driven agitators whose heretical stances will undoubtedly continue to vex and delight readers and scholars alike.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2014 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2014

On Amiri Baraka: Who Was That Masked Man?

by Richard Oyama

“Who was that masked man?” I asked myself when Amiri Baraka passed in January. It wasn’t just that Baraka was a man of various gifts. He was a man of swift metamorphoses and violent repudiations, leaving wreckage and confusion, friends and former wives in his wake.

The early “In Memory of Radio” includes these lines: “Saturday mornings we listened to the Red Lantern & his undersea folk. / At 11, Let's Pretend / & we did / & I, the poet, still do. Thank God!” Poetry, like radio, is a form of artifice and imposture, and the voice of the poem may be persona, like Lamont Cranston the Shadow.

As Imamu Amiri Baraka, a black nationalist, he cultivated a quasi-mystical racial mystique, using words like “spirit” and “vision” often. But before he took a new name Baraka was LeRoi Jones, a poet who associated with gay poets like Allan Ginsberg and Frank O’Hara, wrote the ferocious play Dutchman, the novel The System of Dante’s Hell, and the nonfiction books Blues People and Black Music.

This early work was crucial to me, as it was written from the tortured perspective of a black intellectual in jagged, poetic shards. A child of Nisei parents interned during World War II, I grew up on Morningside Drive west of Harlem and attended Harlem schools. Intermittently, I was the target of anti-Asian epithets. The effect of internment was dispersal and diaspora. The vilification instilled a “double consciousness” in me. I was both American and not-American, as masked by “the face of the Enemy” as Jones was.

Jones’ collection The Dead Lecturer was another key work, one informed by the poetics of Charles Olson and Robert Creeley. Consider these lines: “I am inside someone / who hates me. I look / out from his eyes. Smell what fouled tunes come in / to his breath. Love his /wretched women. / Slits in the metal, for sun.” (from “An Agony. As Now.”) Adrienne Rich said Creeley saw in this poem “life . . . in a literal body which the surrounding ‘body’ of the society defines as hateful—an unacceptable condition.” It isn’t difficult to extrapolate from Baraka’s poem the intolerable status of the yellow body during World War II, the brown body hunted by la migra, the “Arab” body suspect after 9/11.

But fissures appear. As Rich wrote in 2009, “The reflexive, un-self-critical use of ‘fags’ and ‘jews’ as familiar, still-poisonous code names for class enemies certainly disfigures the poet’s achievement, along with misogyny and its images craving the woman victim.”

After Malcolm X’s assassination in 1965, Jones fled the East Village for Harlem, changed his name, and was instrumental in growing the Black Arts Movement. With Black Magic Poetry, he lost me. After centuries of white supremacy and racial stigma, it was understandable—even necessary— to affirm black culture and personhood. Yet the mystification at times verged on incoherence, “later parodied by genius Black comic minds like Richard Pryor and George Clinton as soon as they felt safe,” Greg Tate wrote in a lengthy memorial essay on Baraka this year.

And mystification was the least of it. From “Black Dada Nihilismus”: “Rape the white girls. Rape / their fathers. Cut the mothers' throats.” Assume Baraka’s poem is an anti-art gesture that extends Andre Breton’s statement: “The simplest Surrealist act consists of . . . firing blindly . . . into the crowd.” Still, the imperative form could be inflammatory in an inflammatory time. What Baraka touted as “EXPRESSION” could degenerate into feeling for feeling’s sake, validating spoken-word/sound performances sometimes more cathartic for the maker than the listener.

In 1975, Baraka rejected cultural nationalism, proclaiming himself a Communist. At benefit readings for an anthology of Asian American poets at Basement Workshop, an arts organization in Manhattan, Baraka read recent work including the poem “Dope.” The performative skills were intact, but these pamphleteering poems evidenced decline. One poem included a nasty Uncle Tom slur against novelist Ralph Ellison, ignoring Ellison’s Invisible Man as a vital contribution to American literature. The mean-spiritedness was palpable.

In the end, Baraka’s work suffered because he preferred ideology over art, forgetting the latter outlasts us all. The conclusion to his Autobiography was marred by Marxist rhetoric. His post-9/11 poem “Who Blew Up America?” was construed as anti-Semitic, resulting in the defunding of New Jersey’s Poet Laureate post that he held. Its paranoid logic is impeccable: “Who killed Princess Di?” Huh?

LeRoi Jones once meant a lot to me. But Baraka’s career came to represent a cautionary tale of the worst “tendencies” of the 1960s—the alienating rejections, the fanatical self-righteousness, the impulse toward separatism and Stalinist repression versus multi-racial/class coalition-building.

I write this not with any real delight, but rather with the regret one feels at lost possibilities, the evanescent hopes for something grander than a black corporatist president who Band-Aids a nation that’s slipping irrevocably into the second-rate.

Richard Oyama is a poet. His first collection, The Country They Know, was published by Neuma Books in 2005. His forthcoming novel is titled Orphans of the Storm.

Rain Taxi invites other reminiscences, thoughts, experiences about the late, great poet Amiri Baraka. Please submit no more than 1000 words to info [at] raintaxi.com, and we will consider it for publication!


Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2014 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2014


gravesendCole Swensen
University of California Press ($21.95)

by Celia Bland

Poetry may be, as Wordsworth opined, “emotion recollected in tranquility,” but a sub-genre of contemporary poetry could be described as “projects executed with efficiency.” Cole Swensen, a major practitioner in this sub-genre, dedicates herself to a certain topic of interest—the creation of the Crystal Palace, for instance, by royal consort Prince Albert—exhaustively examines the massive construction’s cast-iron and glass protuberances, the striated populations who visited, the words “crystal” and “palace,” and the views, whether pastoral vistas or Victorian philosophical perspectives. So academic is her approach, she might easily include a syllabus!

In this, she is not alone; Mary Sybist’s Incarnadine, which examines various guises of the Virgin Mary, exudes the whiff of “undertaking,” as do such poetic projects as Tyehimba Jess’s treatment of the life of Leadbelly, or Chris Llewellyn’s eulogy for victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. Such works are at their best, gloriously fervent, as in the case of Alice Notley’s reimagining of Homer’s Odyssey, The Descent of Alette, or Louise Glück’s botanical opera, The Wild Iris. At their worst, they are self-consciously didactic, the equivalent, say, of Gordon Matta-Clark sawing an entire house in half. First, you think: cool. Then: how long is this going to take?

At first glance, Swensen’s latest collection, Gravesend, exhibits the requisite elements of this sub-genre. It is sectioned off by poeticized interviews with people-on-the-street about their beliefs in, or contact with, ghosts. It all seems rather airless and predictable—grave’s end, indeed! The surprise is that Gravesend is humanized by Swensen’s very real interest in the belief in ghosts and anchored by her interest in belief itself. Yes, there are the requisite ghost stories (by Defoe, Wilkie Collins, Le Fanu, Henry James, et al), and yes, she quotes Dylan Thomas’s “Refusal to Mourn the Death of a Child in London,” but the poems treating these topics have such verve, such curiosity and focus, that they read as “inspired” rather than “required.” The opening pages include a dedication to three Swensens, presumably the poet’s near relatives, and personal interest, even longing and grief, lingers in her voice and the voices of the interviewees.

The question what is a ghost? brings a litany of response. Ghosts are: “tangled electricity,” a “radiogram of the air,” a “broken window”; “a knot in the otherwise smooth flow of time.” Ghosts are examined so exhaustively (titles of poems include “Etymology,” “Varieties of Ghost,” According to Scripture,” and perhaps best of all, “Ghosts in the Sun”) that they redefine their subject, as if “ghost” was a prism for multiple perspectives, distorting and clarifying at once. Or as Swensen writes, ghosts are:

   more widely a tendency
to recur, which is a kind of clock      that stopped      the endless circling

that traces a circle      there in the dust in the floor
(“The Ghost Is in Itself”)

In “Crowds,” a ghost passes through a woman. She senses his fingers “inside my chest” and, having intersected with the non-living, shifts from third to first person (i.e., the she of the poem becomes the I), asking:

           will you ever be
a sound in an empty house       an inexplicable mark that, washed off, grows dark

This gives some sense of Swensen’s prosody. In justified paragraphs, the tabbed spaces between phrases resemble caesuras (a kind of visual representation, perhaps, of the boundaries between life and death, the gap into which she posits her poems). Punctuated throughout, Swensen neglects to place periods at the end of the final lines (rejecting, as ghosts do, end-stopped finality).

This structure serves her well, reminding the reader of C.K. Williams’ move from short to long lines in With Ignorance (to accommodate, he has said, the stretch of his long limbs); Swensen’s “paragraphs” could have been organized into lineated phrases but the caesuras give room in interstices for lost connections, changes of tense, and recursive narrative threads. For example, in “A Good Friend,” she eerily contextualizes Wharton’s famous phrase:

  . . . a woman is a mansion      and half the rooms
unentered       and lost       in the rooms       it’s the soul that splits       into times

and she ends with that woman, a ghost to herself, haunting her own life:

         . . . as a child       she lay dying       as a woman       full of leaves       in her own
it’s love that steps into the hall    all in erasure   decked out in the latest   ivory, ecru, bone

These lines, excised from the beginning and the end of the poem, enact the split between soul and body with lyrical efficiency, as if Swensen were playing multiple melodies at once with minimal effort and lyrical efficiency, a Thelonious Monk striking structure, mouth-music, biography, and insight at one and the same time.

Flaubert wrote that “art has often given me a kind of revenge over life,” and if we, as we near the final pages of this fine collection, begin to see ghosts as a dream of an unchangeable self, equivalent to raw ideas and free from dissolution and decay, we recognize the method in Swensen’s obsessive focus. (Indeed, the weakest part of the book is the inclusion of Gravesend, the town on the River Thames, as a starting point for questions—one resents the sudden swerve toward off-the-cuff explanations of the etymology of its name and away from our study of haints and hauntings.)

The total effect may remind readers of Calvino’s Invisible Cities, a tour de force of imaginative response that entertains even as it touches something of the longing to escape or transcend what Schiller called the “mere world” of ourselves. As Swensen writes (or transcribes) in one of her “Interviews,” ghosts are

         . . . all around us; I mean, so all
around us they’re simply the background. We don’t see air either, or wind. We live in

Which makes of them houses . . .
(“Interview Series 1”)

And as she proves here, they live in us. Which makes us houses, too.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2014 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2014

Where the Blur Occurs

Jay Besemer and Magus Magnus on the Call of the Imaginarybesemer-magnusq

Jay Besemer’s most recent poetry collections are A New Territory Sought (Moria, $12.95) and Aster to Daylily (Damask Press, $10). As Jen Besemer, he also authored Telephone (Brooklyn Arts Press, $14.95) and Object with Man’s Face (Ohm Editions, $10), and has work in Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics (Nightboat Books, $27.95).

Magus Magnus’s books include The Re-echoes (Furniture Press, $12), Idylls for a Bare Stage (twentythreebooks, $12), Heraclitean Pride (Furniture Press, $14), and Verb Sap (Narrow House, $12). His Poets Theater work has been presented around the country; several of his poems and an Idyll appear in the latest two editions of Pearson Longman’s anthology textbook, Literature.

Jay and Magus met in autumn of 2013 at a poetry reading in Chicago. The dialogue below is adapted from their ongoing correspondence on poetics and performance.

telephoneMAGUS MAGNUS: In getting to know your book Telephone, I sense the momentum of growing resolution: “we declare our intent,” “the cry of tomorrow advancing.” The book unfolds with cumulative implication: “an exile into sincerity is your doom.” I find an ongoing, deepening engagement with the open question of “existence as a body.” This progression makes itself evident, even though one doesn’t necessarily read the pieces in the given order. In fact, while sometimes I’d read each dialogue through as printed, from full call to full response, sometimes—almost as an imperative—I would flip forward to read a call stanza and then consider the matching (at least in order of appearance) response stanza: “my efforts rewarded by ripple of starlight” in so doing.

JAY BESEMER: I think you’ve picked up on the things I was exploring and—for lack of a better concept—manifesting in the making of the book. The call-and-response relationship is not always logical, maybe not even perceptible through the workings of the imaginary. But I dissemble when I deny the link between my embodiment, my psyche, my life at large, and my words. That link isn’t always logical or perceptible—in fact I’d say that it’s usually quite obscure to the audience. But you perceive some of it. I want to break that pernicious idea that the source of poetry is always or should always be personal expression, the communication of one’s experiences and emotions.

As a trans poet, that’s huge—I imagine a certain population of readers feeling upset that my work isn’t more consistently and narratively self-referential, as I’m claiming an identification but not attempting to represent it legibly in what I do. A good bit of my task these days is to allow those things to take up space somehow in my work, even if they’re not its origin, nor what it’s “about.” It feels necessary.

MM: Call-and-response implies a back and forth, or progressive angle-to-angle, mobility. I perceive in Telephone a heading towards something momentous, touched by risk, and yes, as you say, an experience of the sacred making its way into the work. I think this is where authorship can’t be denied. Poetry can be momentous when there’s something at risk in a fateful manner—truth-telling, integrity, decision—and the fateful depends upon an element of the personal, however implicit.

thereechoesFor some, my book-length poem The Re-echoes has been taken as a fairly abstract work, approachable only on the level of intellect, but it remains deeply important to me for being a reflection of steady “feel”—a personal immersion in Heraclitan flux. The piece often went forward by feel, and involved a strong spiritual relationship to what was being felt, or being felt for: a “listening close to the source,” rills from the source, that wellhead from Beckett’s Words and Music, ripples of thought, and more removed, more voiced, echoes off the canyon walls, a spring at the bottom somehow affecting tone and timbre. The word “spiritual” is at this point so useless, as is the word “reality” when relied upon for trying to get at the underlying, but I think poetry/the poetic has that capacity for drawing to the edge of what is knowable.

JB: In The Re-echoes, the outward experience is somewhat different for readers than that of Telephone. You’re responding to a different text than I am in Telephone; you’re receiving a different “call”! But we’re both going into a Heraclitan flux, in terms of process, as well as in the reading experience offered in both books. When we first met I mentioned the way the poetic “trance of making” has become indistinguishable to me from the state of being I enter when I experience poetry, as a reader/audience member. This had a direct connection, in my mind, to the call-and-response process, because as an audience member I am hearing the call of whatever text I’m experiencing. I wonder how The Re-echoes used its source text—how were you hearing that text and what did it give you?

MM: I make a distinction between source text and the word source, which I perhaps sacralize. Now, certainly there are other sources in The Re-echoes: found text, appropriations, homages—but most of the material is sprung from reverberations of collected words or phrases in my mind (or jottings in notebooks). I like how you say you’re hearing the call of whatever text you’re experiencing. I understand that, even as I agree you and I are responding to different “calls” in each of our books. In The Re-echoes, it’s true that the text itself frequently initiated what came next; I had to respond—as a reader—to the calling of the text. Yet, a more immediate listening (hearing) was primary to its composition, and key to the conscious intention of the work. I wanted to stay close to the source echoes, whether they are correctly interpreted as patterns and language in my own brain, neural firings, or the rebound of thought across the universal hollow inside my skull, or as Calling, Intimation, the Resounding Silence, music of the spheres.

You mentioned trance. The listening in question is trance-like. In order to write, I always have to enter into a specific state of mind. To hear that calling, to listen; really, for me it involves a light trance—a requisite for my writing, and at this point a decades-long habit. Meanwhile, you equate the “trance of making” with the trance state of an audience, and I can see how this informs your sense of call-and-response as text responding to itself. What place do you then give to that “making” in the first place, the initiation of the text? Specifically in terms of poetry as “making,” as generating form in language.

JB: I agree about the necessity of trance-like working states. I find that poetry is best understood for me as “making,” and the trance of making is necessary both in listening for the language that wants to come through me, and in locating the language that I might find in a source text. Earlier you said that “authorship can’t be denied” in the process of back-and-forth involved in poetic sacralization. I’m necessary to the processes I use, of course—my personal trance of making would be different from yours, or anyone else’s. I still initiate the text—I find it somehow, somewhere—and so my hands or eyes or ears or whatever are certainly necessary. My mind has to compile it, whether it’s taken from or responding to an existing text, or whether it is compiled from whatever internal language landscape I have access to.

idyllsforabarestageIn Idylls, you’re talking more about text/performance as evocation than as an imitation—you’re after a bringing-forth of an original experience to share, rather than the conveyance/delivery/communication of an account of someone else’s lived experience (even if it is a fiction). And that’s key, because that’s what I’m after too, whether I make a purely verbal text or a hybrid form combining text with something visual or sound-based. But my performance work does not necessarily fulfill that “bringing-forth,” at least not in the same way an idyll would. In discussing this elsewhere, and in the introduction for Idylls, you describe (theatrical) “blocking in the imagination.” To me this seems linked to a call-and-response between the sacred/imaginary and the “real,” as well as to the trance of making. For me, what’s worthwhile is not communication but contagion. I don’t make poems so that someone else can understand my experiences, feelings, ideas—I make poems to invite audiences into their own experiences.

MM: Performance as a bringing-forth of an original experience to share, as you put it (as contagion!—I like that) accords with my intention, yes—to bring forth something original, not mere delivery of an already set thing. The originality is a new moment created by the performance, and so that puts the performance on the level of an act, rather than representation. At least that’s what I want out of live performance: the living present, the actively expanded and experienced presence. Performance as a vital act. But then, this might just be what was always sought—and maybe why the art of the performer is called acting.

The practice of blocking in the imagination brought greater awareness to the boundaries between interior and exterior, mind and world. We worked deliberately on three levels of reality/imagination: 1, the physical presence and being of the performer, and the physical space of the venue and everything/everyone in it; 2, the character, the imaginary being, taken on and embodied by the performer, and the detailed imaginary setting; and 3, the character’s inner life, whether memory, or fantasy, or projected interactions. It was easy to create lines between each of these levels, and so we were able to work on these levels: and yet, the line we created between 2 and 3—which was very practical, also discernible to the audience (for instance, the audience will know the placement of the imaginary moon within the theater space, as well as see with the character the remembered inside of a bar from earlier that night)—quite obviously is wholly imaginary.

Yet what about the line between 1 and 2, 3?

JB: Yeah, what about it?

MM: We ourselves subjectively draw the line between the performer and the performed in an almost hyper-defined way, which is especially discoverable if we approach it first from the side of the imaginary. The difference between an imagined setting or set piece (such as the moon) and a character’s interior projections (say, a fantasized bride-to-be, thought of beneath the moon), is a shared illusion that takes shape and has contours within the actual space of the theater venue. Similarly, we experience our interiority as having “space.” Yet, that perception, with its sense of boundedness, is a product of imagination. The boundary lines that give shape and size to our mental life are concocted imaginatively; it is the same imaginative process that allows us to perceive a performer as a character, and it is the same imaginative process that allows us to deduce a moon and a lover from stage props.

Through this practice of the Idyll over the past few years I’ve come to be absorbed in the idea of a phenomenology of the mental image, of the imagination. Here’s what I find increasingly intriguing: objectivity depends on reduction—it excludes, but doesn’t explain, the imaginative phenomenon. Aside from the opposition of subjectivity to objectivity (those boundaries again), there’s the fact of imagination itself, and the image of imagination; one can even start with the image provided by the “visible object”—the so-called objective image.

I went back to the Greeks a lot in approaching and re-conceiving the Idyll as an ancient practice, as theater of imagination: the Stoics, notably, understood the image as material, physically impinging upon us and impressing itself upon us. That materiality applies equally to all images, whether of objects in the visible world, directly perceived or depicted in art, or images in our minds, whether memory, fantasy, or projection, or symbol, or vision/eidolon. Although we’d doubt their materiality, images can be considered in their reality or fact regardless of category. A fantasy can be a recognized as fantasy, illusion, but the images of that fantasy can be conceived by us as no less real than any other class of image.

Whether or not you ascribe to a weakening of external and internal boundaries—or really, the strengthening of the image in and of itself in its practical, active power (the poetic image included)—how do you think your poetry realizes itself in the “real world”? I mean, first off, do you think poetry realizes itself in the real world?

JB: My first impulse is to ask “what real world is that?” But I take the question as an invitation to look at what is meant by “poetry,” and what it might be, what it might mean, if we let it move through and beyond the page, and if we broaden our definitions of language as well.

As to how my poetry realizes itself in the world I move around in, I suppose it does so through my books and my other publications, performances, and exhibitions. But I think there are some other areas of poetic realization I’ve only recently become aware of. I’m curious about the poet as poetry—living life as a poet and as a poem. I’m also exploring the relationship of embodiment to language. In my Poetic Statement for my part of Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics, I wrote, “What I am is how I work and what I make.” It seems from this that I’m continually, simultaneously bringing forth not only the poem I make but also the poet that makes it. In that light, it seems like we’re both most interested in the blurring of subjectivity and objectivity in ways that place us—as poets, as performers—directly in that unstable zone where the blur occurs.

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Unchopping A Tree

unchoppingW. S. Merwin
drawings by Liz Ward
Trinity University Press ($14.95)

by James Naiden

It has been well over half a century since W. S. Merwin won the Yale Younger Poets Award in 1952, at age twenty-five. Since then, he’s published prolifically, twice winning the Pulitzer Prize and once the National Book Award. He has always displayed an incisive literariness, but he has also managed to say something with each new book. Unchopping a Tree, focused on his ecological concerns, is no exception.

The title of this beautifully printed book may seem idealistically fanciful, as if somehow a tree can be “unchopped” after it has been knocked down. Merwin goes through a set of near-surreal exercises here, complemented by the subtle yet ennobling art of Liz Ward. So how does one undo damage? It can’t be done, of course, but Merwin lists steps as if it can—marrying the sawdust to the bark, enticing dead branches and leaves with a former luster. Wood chips, shorn from the essence of a tree, are “fitted back” in these untitled prose poems:

       There is a certain beauty, you will
notice at moments, in the pattern of the chips as
they are fitted back into place. You will wonder
to what extent it should be described as natural,
to what extent man-made. It will lead you on to
speculations about the parentage of beauty itself,
to which you will return.

Human-caused damage, whether from harvesting for wood or clear-cutting for “development,” is what Merwin addresses here, but not in a political sense. Instead, the poet shames the reader into almost believing that such matters could be put right from the point of view of the forest and all those trees:

       Finally the moment arrives when
the last sustaining piece is removed and the tree
stands again on its own. It is as though its weight
for a moment stood on your heart.

To say that ecological damage can be undone after humans have wielded their cutting tools is surely fanciful. But then again, so is poetry. This collection of pristine prose poems and delicately rendered art is surely a reminder that perhaps our wanton destruction of the planet can be reversed. Some might say, a single tree—who cares? The poet and artist here remind us that we cannot do so and remain ethical.

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Selected Translations

translationsW. S. Merwin
Copper Canyon Press ($40)

by Zack Rogow

Justly famed as a poet, W.S. Merwin is also unparalleled in his reach as a translator of poetry into English. The index of his Selected Translations is a remarkable document in itself, listing thirty-three different languages from every continent, including Crow, Kabylia, Malgache, Occitan, Tzeltal, and Tzotzil, and of course, all the major European and Asian languages.

While there have been two earlier additions of this book, from 1968 and 1978 respectively, the new sections in the 2013 edition contain many memorable pages. Merwin’s introduction is particularly fascinating, and much more revealing of his beginnings as a writer than anything in his poetry, which reaches universality but is not particularly personal. He describes his father, a Presbyterian minister in the Midwest: “For him, I think, the function of words in public was almost entirely rhetorical.” Yet in this volume, there are many translations that could derive from Merwin’s upbringing, from the long translation of the anonymous Middle English spiritual meditation on “Patience” to his version of Dante’s Canto XXXIII of the Paradiso, an impassioned prayer to the Virgin Mary that springs to life in Merwin’s hands:

      you are the one who so ennobled
human nature that the maker of it
condescended to be made of it.

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

      And I, who never burned for my own vision
more than I do for his, raise toward you all
my prayers, and pray they may not be too little . . .

Merwin also describes in the introduction his intriguing encounter and correspondence with Ezra Pound. Their meeting took place when Merwin, as a college student, visited Pound at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, where the older poet was incarcerated following his treasonous broadcasts during World War II. From Pound, Merwin gained an appreciation both for staying true to the original text, and for creating poetry in English using the raw material of poems in other languages.

At times Merwin is remarkable in his ability to mimic the feel of the original, as in his translation of Dante’s sestina, “Al poco giorno e al gran cerchio d’ombra” (“To the short day and the wide ring of shadow”), which Merwin recreates using the same form in English, though without the rhyme. At other times, it’s puzzling how Merwin can have such disregard for the original form, as in his translations of Ghalib’s ghazals.

Some of the best new translations in this volume are Merwin’s versions of Yosa Buson, one of the great Japanese haiku poets:

This is happiness
crossing the stream in summer
carrying my straw sandals

Merwin is equally inspired in his translations of the 20th-century French poet Jean Follain. Sometimes a poet and a translator are a match made in heaven, and Merwin and Follain are perfectly paired. Merwin’s unpunctuated lines that quietly build to revelation or a stunning moment go hand in hand with Follain’s writing. Here’s one of his new translations of Follain:


In the year eighteen twelve in Russia
when the soldiers were retreating
among the corpses
of men and horses
the coarse wine had frozen
so the digger’s ax
had to cut away
from the rest even from the dying
the block of red ice
in the shape of a barrel
which no museum
could have preserved.

One might wish that Merwin had revisited some of the translations he had done in earlier books that could stand correction; I’m thinking particularly of his translation of Lorca’s gorgeous love poem “Gacela of Unforeseen Love,” which Merwin mistranslated as a heterosexual poem in an era when explicitly gay love almost never found its way into print. Be that as it may, W.S. Merwin’s Selected Translations is one of the most global and beautifully rendered collections of world poetry that any one translator from the U.S. has ever assembled.

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Chatting with Henri Matisse

chattingmatiseThe Lost 1941 Interview
Henri Matisse
with Pierre Courthion

translated by Chris Miller
edited by Serge Guilbaut
Getty Publications ($45)

by Patrick James Dunagan

Nearing what proved the last decade of his life Henri Matisse granted a series of interviews to Swiss art critic Pierre Courthion. At the time, as Matisse was recuperating from the latest of many surgeries, it seemed quite possibly to be the end of his life, so when approached by Courthion he embraced the opportunity to set down these breezy reflections. Matisse obviously wished his words to have an unstudied appearance yet also retain a sagely weight. He speaks freely of his life and times, focusing on his own personal artistic development with little to say regarding broader historical events of the period.

Though noted as "the lost 1941 interview," the manuscript has for years been located among Courthion's papers at the Getty Institute, readily available to Matisse scholars who have drawn upon it for their research. The manuscript’s backstory is as fascinating a tale as the interview itself. As is revealed in the introduction, critical essays, after-the-fact correspondence, and several pages of material cut from the manuscript, the critic and the artist were at odds when it came to their conception of the project and final product.

Courthion prioritizes the setting of the scene. He gives short introductions before each of the nine interviews. He interjects asides, describes Matisse's general outward disposition, and notes significant bodily adjustments made by Matisse during the conversation. He also preferred the idea of grouping the remarks according to common themes, rather than a strictly adhered transcript of what was said. Matisse, on the other hand, wished to exclude remarks which might personally offend acquaintances and sought to clarify any murky references and correct his mistaken recollections where needed. They ended up meeting each other somewhere in the middle.

Matisse's ultimate decision against publication seems mostly due to his sense of the interview simply having been dragged out longer than was necessary. The urgency with which he had at first accepted the project dissipated as his health continued to stabilize into his final years of life. Yet combined with the story of the manuscript going through multiple drafts as it travelled back and forth between Matisse and Courthion as they readied it for the ultimately stalled publication, the interview makes for a perfect art-house film melodrama. While the title of "Chatting" doesn't have the same abrupt elegance to the ear as the French "bavardages" (or the rough quality of Matisse's rejected descriptor "radotages," which would be rendered into English as "ramblings"), it does convey the casually embraced nature of these exchanges. This is Matisse on Matisse, from the hip.

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Pleading in the Blood

pleadinginbloodThe Art and Performances of Ron Athey
Edited by Dominic Johnson
Intellect Books ($35.50)

by Spencer Dew

My first introduction to the work and life of Ron Athey—life as in saint’s life, a hagiography—was through Catherine Saalfield Gund’s documentary Hallelujah! Ron Athey: A Story of Deliverance at its debut in the 1998 Chicago Underground Film Festival. Here was a response to and from the Plague Years of an AIDS crisis that was already historical, something younger artists had read or heard about but had not personally experienced. Athey—even in two-dimensions, spread across the silver screen—changed that, forcing feelings onto the alternately enraptured and flinching audience, an audience that staggered out of the theater as, perhaps, ancients used to stagger out of the mists of the Delphic shrine: dazed and burdened with enlightenment.

In Athey’s Martyrs & Saints, the artist embodies the iconic, dragging Saint Sebastian into the modern world. As described in this new book edited by Dominic Johnson, “a mass of needles criss-cross the skin of his head, and are bound in acrylic thread to produce a brutal crown of thorns. Collaborators flog him with whips, insert arrows into the skin of his arms, legs and torsos, and bind his tortured body to a stake.” Blood flows, and while it is impossible not to associate blood, in the context of such an image, with redemption—with cleansing, as the church songs say—it is HIV-positive blood, coded by science and society as impure and infectious and polluting. The piece shares pain with us—offers us a broken body, blood—forces us, the audience, into a kind of communion. We are drenched in lament, shaken with prophetic rage, confronted with suffering and mortality in a concrete, quivering form, and shown something of society’s recently conditioned paranoia about bodies and body fluids via this channeling of an archetypal sacrifice—a body made porous, pierced, and dripping with that which is most intimate and essential.

In droplets and smears, used like ink for printing on paper, mixed with sweat and pouring down in sheets, Athey’s work gives us a babel of blood—that hyper-signifying symbol presence of which, outside the body, roils with visceral potential “meanings” in multiple registers—such as, to name recurring themes in Athey’s work, sex and religion, pain and intimacy, life and death. That could, of course, be a list of abstractions, clichéd terms for categories only half-acknowledged, experientially ignored. What Athey does is defy abstraction, using, as a tool, his own body. There’s an account in Pleading in the Blood of a performance from 2004 called Judas Cradle, named for a medieval torture device with a pyramid-shaped point, around which the rectum of the victim contracted and loosened, his own weight pushing him down and open. In the account here, someone swiped the specially prepared, polished, and waxed prop from backstage, forcing Athey to make do with “a splinter-ridden hatchet job.” What follows sounds like torture, to be sure, but in the telling—tellingly—becomes something else, transcending mere pain or witness of pain. Juliana Snapper describes the sounds in the space where the show took place:

Mewling sobs tightened around melodious wails, fuelled by long rattling pulls of snot and air. I have since thought of Ron’s impaled rectum as simply the lower portion of his glossolalic throat—a part that does not speak but rather pulls sounds up and out of witnesses to its breach.

This surely gets at something key to Athey’s art—the vulnerable presence of the body, which, via its opening (to use the organic language offered here), pulls the audience into a shared experience, into new and immediate perceptions of reality.

This collection is, remarkably, the first such set of essays devoted to Athey’s work, studded with, even more remarkably, photographs from across a career characterized by a resistance of the production of images and traces generally associated with the business of performance art. Early archival photos of Athey in the duo Premature Ejaculation, for instance, are coupled in this volume with reproductions of Catherine Opie’s large-scale studio shots of Athey and collaborators, images choreographed to capture some essence of the performances from which they come, as when Athey is cradled in the arms of Divinity Fudge, a reimagined pietà. The writers anthologized here offer contextualization as well as critical theorization, speaking as audience-members and friends, tattoo artists and collaborators. Bruce LaBruce describes Athey’s removal of objects, in performance, from his anal cavity as “like a magician pulling reams of knotted scarves out of his sleeve,” while Dominic Johnson considers Athey’s emphasis on the presence of the body in relation to that “shift in semantics of touch” that came in the wake of AIDS (“the implied horror of body fluids” that the focus on prophylactic protection implies, the widespread “anxieties around the body’s openings”), and Amelia Jones articulates an argument that “Athey’s work elicits a bodily response that is also always already an affective and aesthetic response.”

Athey, as several contributors here note, is a deeply literate artist, using and entering into and reworking and embodying texts in his performances but also, as evidenced by several fascinating pieces here, a creator of texts, many of which address his upbringing (the realm of hagiography) and the ongoing centrality (albeit, perhaps, ambiguous) of religion to his life and work. Raised by female relatives with prophetic pretensions and mental disorders—Christian spiritualists preparing for birthing the Second Coming and, after that, marrying Elvis Presley—Athey details both what he calls the “demented grandiosity” of such worldviews (and their theatricality) and his break from that world. He describes narrating his story to a friend, at fifteen, and coming, by that telling, to “a pathetic excuse for an awakening,” rushing home to beat his head against the floor, knocking free fantastic conceptions while reiterating the visceral truth that he was at least “a piece of animated meat.” Yet Athey is far more than meat, just as his performances are about far more than bodies. What he calls “spiritual feelings” remain central to his work, which, after all, follows a familiar Christian framework of bodily suffering as a path to transcendence. Enemas of glitter stars and double-headed dildos are, of course, not props mentioned in the gospels, but Athey’s passion is no less classical in pattern; the idiom shifts with context, his crown of thorns is hypodermic needles, but Athey represents one of the most compelling contemporary interpretations of the radical—scandalous, as some theologians say—notion that sovereignty can manifest as and be experienced via abjection.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2014 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2014