Tag Archives: Summer 2015

The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia

almostnearlyperfectMichael Booth
Picador ($ 26)

by Poul Houe

The author of this book is a Brit residing in Denmark and married to a native Dane. A tightrope-walking journalistic juggler, suspended between his title’s reluctant admiration of the Nordic countries and his subtitle’s pseudo-objective delight in debunking their virtues, he labors with some success to keep his balance and do justice to both sides.

Booth is fascinated by the record-setting happiness the world so obsesses about in modern Scandinavia. He finds much of the alleged bliss inconsistent with the reality on the ground he has come to know, chiefly from living in Denmark and touring the other Nordic countries. An urge to drive a critical wedge—and to build a bridge of understanding—between these conflicting perceptions propels his book and accounts for much of its idiosyncratic zeal and entertaining wit.

So, how does such a progressive and egalitarian part of the world, blessed with social trust, free education, and universal health care, function in populations short of social intelligence and politeness? How does national happiness square with a dismal climate and sky-high taxes? How can social mores informed by ethnic homogeneity be considered inclusive without successfully accommodating ethnic newcomers? Booth is puzzled and dead set on decoding the enigma.

His journey through the maze of contradictions and ambiguities starts in his adopted Denmark, the happiest of nations. He detects the source of its happiness in the social communion that has arisen around Denmark’s incessant historical loss of power. An equally shared experience, it yielded the social trust from which the Danish welfare state emerged.

Secular Lutheran with a vengeance, Denmark has managed to sustain this costly design; but the inclusiveness has come at the price of vindictive social controls like the so-called Jante law, hidden by a facade of hygge, or coziness. The accretion of denial and complacency shows in prohibitive taxes, decreasing equality, schools promoting social cohesion by tilting towards lowest common denominators, and welfare recipients exploiting the system’s vulnerability.

A contrarian liberal, Booth is not advocating “the rampantly individualistic, child-of-Thatcher, ‘greed is good’ atmosphere prevalent in Britain” during his childhood. But he routinely challenges the Danish model with such alternatives, which—interestingly—were to materialize in a remote part of Scandinavia itself.

Of Iceland, he notes that its millennium-old offspring of West Norwegian escapees makes it Scandinavian at its roots. Yet its remoteness and puny-sized population, combined with Booth’s ephemeral knowledge of its history, warrant but a cursory story of modern day Icelanders and how their Scandinavian ways fell prey to neo-liberal capitalism at its worst. As its famed Blue Lagoon turns out to be a power plant’s wastewater, Iceland itself emerges from Booth’s account as an incestuous mini-nation of boozing elves leaping wildly from rags to riches and back again.

Contrast that, as the next and longer chapter does, with Norway, the Icelanders’ land of origin, which has also traveled from poverty to wealth in recent memory. The difference is obviously that its fortune (of enormous oil resources) has not been squandered. Still, as a land of nature, rather than culture, with periphery at center stage, the contrast is not complete. Norway’s “lottery rollover,” according to Booth, has excreted an oily psyche, a mix of spoiling laziness and low-grade racism.

The admittedly most favored nation in Booth’s rollout follows next: Finland. In one sense the most Scandinavian of all, in another not Scandinavian in the least, its understated no nonsense culture and population of unsophisticated, quiet loners appeal to the author, who barely winces when he notes a Finnish core of male alcoholic aggression and contempt for effeminate Swedes.

Yet while Finns may be better technicians than marketers, their deftness in foreign affairs and superior education domestically—all schoolteachers hold masters degrees—speak loudly of a taciturn nation of “rare, stoic heroism.” With its future ahead of it, Finland is part of Scandinavia and Europe at large, as the case may be, as one of Booth’s local witnesses testifies.

Finally, at book’s end there is Sweden. Its social policies have been spectacular, yet problems continue to pop up. The conflict shy Swedes are duktiga, or clever in a verbally reticent way, and they value consensus, the lagom: neither too much, nor too little. Compassion is in evidence but often seems bordering on indifference, if not rudeness.

Many find this social democratic modernity conformist and introvert, and Booth deems it at least benignly totalitarian and explains it with reference to Sweden’s dubious neutrality during World War II. Today’s multicultural political correctness is fit to divert attention from a record of shameful pro-German sentiments (and devotion to racial biology).

Some of these propositions are problematic, which Booth seems to realize as he spends his final pages on resetting the balance he initially set out to strike between fair admiration and well-pointed criticism of the Scandinavian way of life. For all its shortcomings, this region is “still the enviably rich, peaceful, harmonious, and progressive place it has long been,” and its exceptionalism is “a standard of education [that] is not only the best in the world, but the opportunities it presents are available to all, free of charge.”

Even Scandinavia’s controversial multiculturalism and immigration policies are now declared likely role models. Indeed, the restrictive Danish variant, blasted by Booth initially, is ultimately projected a winner—“I would argue that Denmark seems to be leading the way toward a properly integrated, multiethnic Nordic society”; as “the Danes have been confronted more directly with the challenges of integration . . . they have also made more progress.”

Why this partial retraction of earlier critical points? Weren’t they thought-provoking and deserving to stand uncompromised? And if an argument was overstated, as it sometimes was, ought the correction not to be made on location? Instead, Booth typically resorts to opening a polemic with self-deprecating humor. Or so it seems; what looks so disarming at first glance too often proves predictably self-serving on closer inspection.

A passionate outsider on the Scandinavian scene, Booth observes much that seems less visible to insiders but also misses much they would have noted. His disparagement of Swedish neutrality during World War II is but one case in point. He arrests the German leanings but not the safe haven provided for many Jews at mortal risk in Hitler’s Europe. He has pithy formulations about Sweden as a more technical than cultural society and rightly suggests a conflict between modern Sweden and the homegrown roots of its modernity. But he often lets personal, or British, biases—coyly articulated old world gender views, say—stand in the way of his critical pursuits. And many heavyweight authorities that could have helped restore his balance are conspicuous by their absence. He does cite a number of socio-cultural informants, but besides being quite few, they are disproportionately naturalized foreigners or expatriated nationals with perspectives akin to his, and with a knowledge that is similarly slanted or tenuously grounded.

This book is neither a scholarly dissertation nor a journalistic polemic. It’s an in between, executed with colloquial precision and general eloquence. Neither its share of factual errors and misconstructions, nor its occasional loss of balance on the tightrope between analysis and judgment, should discourage readers from dissecting its results.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

Eelahroo (Long Ago) Nyah (Looking) Mobo-Mobo (Future)

eelahrooLionel G. Fogarty
Vagabond Press ($25)

by Robert Wood

Precious little has been written on Lionel Fogarty’s poetic consciousness, or where to situate him in a global literary economy. An indigenous Australian writer, Fogarty is mostly considered alongside Ali Coby Eckermann and Samuel Wagan Watson in a red, yellow, and black identity politics triumvirate—and indeed, one can see in Fogarty’s writing a DuBoisean “double consciousness,” the common walking-in-two-worlds theme. But Eelahroo (Long Ago) Nyah (Looking) Mobo-Mobo (Future) demands a new analysis.

For Fogarty’s latest work, the term “homonymic consciousness” comes to mind. A homonym is one of a group of words that share the same spelling and pronunciation but have different meanings. It is thus about unity and multiplicity at once. Fogarty’s latest work shows a remarkable unity of purpose, voice, and outlook: it is not sameness, however, because there is thrilling multiplicity in his formal invention, from acrostic (“A-U-S-T-R-A-L-I-A”) to long narrative (“Thirty Years from 1983”) to numbered statement (“Register Donate”)—not to mention a multiplicity of emotion (from anger to admonishment to regret).

What results from reading homonymity into this work is the recognition of Fogarty’s distinct poetic idiom, which allows readers to reconsider indigenous sovereignty and power in a contested and occupied Australia. However, to label indigenous poetry simply as a poetry of protest undermines the work’s capriciousness and diversity. In Eelahroo (Long Ago) Nyah (Looking) Mobo-Mobo (Future), we get a complicated, dense, moving portrait of life in all its forms. The reader is challenged, opened up, and eventually lulled by this book. Moreover, we cannot separate out resistance from utopia; there is not only protest here, but also the evocation of a created world. It is this combination that makes Fogarty so compelling.

In his Sydney Review of Books essay on “The Poet Tasters,” Ben Etherington noted the prevailing whiteness of poetry and its reviewers in Australia. Fogarty not only stands out for his appreciable non-whiteness, but also because his poetry works to defamiliarize “the poetry community” from its linguistic surroundings. Few other poets can say they have a brother who died at police hands, and that othered experience comes through in his language. Perhaps Fogarty’s true poetic antecedents can be found in anthropological journals, colonists’ diaries, and explorers’ letters; in these sources we can read transcriptions of songs and myths told in indigenous voices but which deny an authorial identity. The emphasis on repetition common to many song poems comes through in poems like “Maps Gods To Whose,” “Country’s Sub’s No Suss Towns,” and “Olive Pink Fly Over Sums.”

There is also a root in ongoing oral traditions and an international context of which Fogarty is a part, which might account for why Fogarty writes how he does as well as for where we place him. Indeed, the reader will very much recognize the spoken voice in this book. Consider for example the lead poem “Murgon Brawl Cherbourg Brawls,” which begins, “They out there, not hidden / Have you heard of that brawl?” We can see a casual ordinary speech combined with direct address and line breaks, which, when taken together demand the reader to pause and reflect—is the poet speaking of us, asking of us, are we in the space of Poetry or a casual, passing conversation? The language might be ordinary but the rhythm is not. It reminds us, in its use of the vernacular, of some Caribbean writers (Mervyn Morris for instance), Black British writers like Linton Kwesi Johnson for its content, and some Americans, primarily Amiri Baraka, for its intensity. Recasting Fogarty in such a transnational Black milieu forces us to think through the nodes of association, the networks of relation, and the politics of criticism.

When reading Eelahroo (Long Ago) Nyah (Looking) Mobo-Mobo (Future), one will recognize the linguistic dexterity, unique sound shape, unity of purpose, and multiple meaning of words. For readers unaccustomed to his work, it is a good place to begin. For readers expecting more of the same, it is striking for its cohesiveness and power, which only grows with the volume. We must read Fogarty in light of traditions not immediately considered poetic, as well as in contexts that account for more than Australia. It is exciting to think of Fogarty as a starting point for many to experience the vast diversity of Australian literature.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

Antisocial Patience

antisocialpatienceDavid Brazil
Roof Books ($15.95)

by Tyrone Williams

Over the last few years David Brazil has published two chapbooks of poems titled Holy Ghost. His last book, The Ordinary (Compline, 2013), concluded with a number of poems on, among other things, “the jew” vis-à-vis an upstart Christendom. Although Antisocial Patience is, in many respects, an extension of these previous works, it does not feature the multimedia collages and appropriated detritus of quotidian urbanity that marked much of The Ordinary. Instead, Antisocial Patience is, more narrowly, a series of meditations on the dilemma of works and grace, praxis and chance, for the “defeated” but righteous crusader-cum-activist.

John Milton raised this problem in a different, albeit related, context after his vision was seemingly “defeated” by his eyes. At the turning point of the well-known sonnet “On His Blindness,” Milton, wondering how God expected him to do the Lord’s “work” after the loss of his eyesight, writes,

But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: "God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts: who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed
And post o'er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.

Allegorized, patience suspends disbelief, but if patience is also to be “personified” in one who is not part of the “thousands” who do God’s “bidding” by swarming “o’er land and ocean without rest,” how can one be “Patience” and Protestant at the same time? What are the proper stanzas—Donne’s “little rooms”—in and through which an ethos of protestation can engage the “social” by withdrawal from it? Is a stanza a nave or abbey only after its consecration by Luther’s theses? And is patience an analogue to or with (and the preposition matters) leftwing political “theory,” the condition(s) for the possibility of, social and political activism per Marx’s and Engels’ theses?

These are the questions at the center and margins of Antisocial Patience. In between is the music of stanzas, meted out in rounds of metrical and free verse singing at once sincere, parodic, bewildered, confident, angry, tender, etc. Brazil’s peripatetic poems, stanzas, and lines suggest neither patience nor protest but, rather, crusades without crusaders. Here is a soundtrack without a movie, songs of exhortation both demotic and stately. To these ends, Brazil turns scripture into script (though “what we strive for in this song is just exactly/ imprescriptible”), a template for our present circumstances and values which, separated by the very histories they unfold as, can only appear as outrageous (mis)fortune reified and/or rectified by wresting a future meaning-to-be from the tyranny of the meant.

Call it hope: the failures of social and political activism may be nurtured as the seedlings of “redemption” at some indeterminate time to come. Insofar as the “failed” Catholic but “successful” protester John Calvin is the “invisible hand” at work in these poems, the Jewish-Christian debate that closed The Ordinary is here supplemented, if not supplanted, by the Catholic-Protestant schism. This volatile divide functions as a “model” for state-enforcement of “the law” and citizen-activist resistance in the name of a “higher” law. Beginning with the given—a defeated, if heroic, left—Brazil ponders the remainder of “song,” of prosody, that both acknowledges and transcends defeat. Rejecting the commonplace narrative of the appropriation of the public by the private and the penetration of the private by the public—in brief, the problem of a “we” that does and does not speak for some (“compeers contra/ every cop who divvies up the/us into the getters and the gotten”) —Brazil rejects the temptation of a strict fundamentalist counternarrative (Marxist, religious, etc.). Instead, as a kind of negative capability or “patience,” he withdraws from the singularity of intent (stateless communism, heaven on earth) to “contemplate” plurality: any number of strategies and models for engagement must be reimagined (dead-ends entail forging new paths over or intersecting old ones) without—and with—institutionalization. This is, of course, as the epigraph makes clear, the position that Calvin took in the throes of his own personal crisis of faith. As Calvin knew, there is no refuge from the world or from The Church, a corporate body whose political, economic, and military power is the equivalent of a small nation: “a gunman in oikos & we” can always “prose us.” Brazil thus marks the constitution of Protestantism as a descant against (Anglican) London and (Catholic) Vatican cant—even as protest, suppressing its sectarian roots, towers into Protest, a twin of what was to be abandoned. The historical lessons to be derived from this relationship inform Antisocial Patience.

As the book’s title suggests, Brazil posits the world outside individual consciousness as the realm of "anti-patience," a world where one acts and interacts with others. Thus the hermetic tendencies within Calvinism, an index of its relation to Catholic monasticism, are redeployed here as revolutionary "timing"—when to act and when to wait. Yet patience is, at best, a double-edged sword; it can be a high-level strategy as well as a ceding to the world. The revolutionary's metaphysics rejects the world as is for what might be (“fuck the escape that abjures/ renunciation of the merely given as/ my opening move”), and this orientation towards a future entails “voluntary” exile from institutional structures, private and public. If the oikos is thus exposed as the originary wound—"In/the text of the rite is a cut/in cloth of sacrifice”—what remains is just the wound, a mouth from which pours song. Song, like the singer, marks and is marked by scarification: “the pith of hymns will/travel to your ears and/dwell there, doing its/small work as fate majestic/over earth decrees.” Yet, song obeys its own laws (metrics, for example) and acts upon its singers and listeners—as persuasion sans rhetoric—without or beyond the reach of a law that comes to supplement the oikos, an "echo" of the original even if "flaws in wind told. building it had failed." For want of a law, a metric, or a pattern, possibility appears as participial, a bridge between the present and future, delicate as a houseless (if not homeless) law, "fortified by song.”

Song is, of course, central to the Protestant rebellion: song and speech over and above the law, the house. But insofar as the activist seeks the secular equivalent of religious resistance, he or she remains haunted by what one had thought to have abandoned: “your law was my houses/your law settled time & now I’m/ cast to outer dark & crying/aloud for the echo, yes.” Calvin, torn between passive and active resistance, between works and grace, could not decide if it were more “holy” to enter the theater of war against the world (including a Catholicism reimagined as Babylon) or wait for God to avenge his martyrs (“Vengeance is mine,” saith the Lord, in Romans 12:19). Nonetheless, in the face of daily injustices, we as humans find it difficult to merely “serve and wait.” Waiting may lead to withdrawal from the world a la the monk and nun, exemplars of Catholic patience, while the activist nails thesis after thesis (Calvinist, Marxist, Islamist, etc.) to a door of the built, that which refuses to open to some (e.g., Levelers) and gapes way too wide for others (Babylon as the whore who refuses no one and nothing). This motif—refusing what ought to have been accepted, accepting what ought to have been refused—is never far from fin de siècle sensibilities. Brazil tries to sidestep this trap by accepting every encounter as “possibility” no matter how insignificant it might seem, and thus far this sensibility informs all his work. Rhetorically, Brazil deploys anagram (snow=nows), pun (“be my name write or be my name razed”), catachresis (“Rave, I’m homeroom, me”), and malapropos (“The past tense of seeing is seed”). Modalities dominate as Brazil gleefully uses, and abuses, inductive and deductive reasoning.

Antisocial Patience constitutes an homage to, and deconstruction of, Calvinist and Marxist doctrine. Brazil’s writing remains informed by a dialectical fin de un monde/debut de aussi monde sensibility, neither of which corresponds with a fin de siècle worldview (though they do overlap). As with much of contemporary poetry, Brazil’s lexicon can at times remain trapped within the private language of a coterie. Given the stakes, the risks he takes are perhaps unavoidable, but one cannot say that the risks are “worth” taking since such a rhetoric attaches a predetermined value to future labor, arresting possibility in advance. Contrarian at heart, Brazil imagines the risks of a patience even if, especially if, it is not worth it.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

The Ghost In Us Was Multiplying

theghostinusBrent Armendinger
Noemi Press ($15)

by J.G. McClure

At a recent reading in Los Angeles, Brent Armendinger spoke of fragmentation as a way of saying the unsayable. We know all too well that language often fails us when we need it most; it can’t contain our deepest emotions. Rather than ignoring or avoiding the problems of language, Armendinger’s debut full-length collection The Ghost In Us Was Multiplying foregrounds them: such vexed language—fragmented, faltering, insufficient, and all we have—becomes the way in which the poet accesses the inaccessible.

“The Frequencies” shows Armendinger’s many strengths. The poem begins in a fairly stable mode:

Sometimes I think I’m a tree,
the utility pole that history made of that yellow
pine shipped west from the mills of Mississippi,
sheathed entirely in staples.

The metaphor is odd, but intelligible: the self, like the utility pole, is shaped by history and commerce; it is also marked by staples, the remnants of the accumulated actions of others. As the poem continues, though, the metaphor begins to break down:

Run your fingers up and down
my little goalposts, those almost squares
that cover me, anomaly
as true as foliage.

Suddenly the mode has shifted: an implicit you emerges, and the sensual request suggests that maybe this isn’t a poem about the making of the self so much as a poem about love or desire for another. At the same time, the metaphor starts to get mixed: the staples are goalposts—but not quite, they’re much too small for that. They’re squares—or rather, almost-squares. They’re foliage—or rather, they’re “as true as foliage,” but how “true” is foliage in this context, since we’re not talking about a tree but a utility pole, long dead and incapable of producing it? The metaphor is failing, which is not to say the poet is failing. The failure of the metaphor is crucial for the success of the poem, which continues:

for the eighth anniversary
of the war or for the boy
who was shot in the back
when he tried to run away
from the police.

He was alive and he didn’t pay his fare and he ran and he was only 19 and No.

We see now why the metaphor must fail. What use is metaphor in the face of our culture’s omnipresent violence—our ongoing wars, our police brutality? For that matter, what good is poetry? The speaker tries to state the facts as clearly as possible, in a very long line that feels too urgent to be broken into verses. But that approach, too, fails: the speaker cuts himself off with the simple, heartbreaking No. “No” seems the only possible response to such senseless violence, and yet it can do nothing for the boy. The poem continues in broken sentences:

The police say –
there is no say entirely.
He was running before he even
got on the bus. 10 times in the back.
10 times running. Entirely.

In the late 15th Century
the word for victim fell into
someone’s mouth. And he had and has
and they a name. The police say their guns
can’t fire a shot like the one that No.
They say it was he it was the boy who.

“The police say”—but the speaker understands that it doesn’t really matter what they say. The speaker turns to etymology, looking to the history of the word “victim” to make some sense of this tragedy. Yet he immediately recognizes the failure of that project: to call someone a “victim” merely obscures the fact that “he had and has and they a name.” The speaker then turns back to the present, back to the police, who say that “their guns / can’t fire a shot like the one that” and who insist that “it was he it was the boy who”—but again, the only possible response is No.

The speaker then looks further into language, its histories and failures, before arriving at the final stanza:

What does it matter
the size of the caliber
after ten times kills anything
remotely resembling a him
or a them. A who. Caliber.
The internal diameter
of a name fell into
someone’s mouth. Gone.
Ten times gone. The weight
of all those wires above
and the voices stuck inside them
and when are they going to fall.

Reaching the last stanza, we have to reconsider how the metaphors have been used. They have not merely broken down. Rather, they have been broken apart so that they can be recombined in this chilling whirl. Language is “stuck inside” the wires the speaker-as-utility-pole helps support. He understands that he is implicated in all this violence and that soon—though we cannot know when—the wires and all the voices they hold must collapse.

Throughout The Ghost in Us Was Multiplying, Armendinger remains intensely aware of the troubled relationship between language and suffering. His poem “Diagnosis” is a haunting look at confronting disease. The poem begins:

What a hidden memory is electricity,
lonely as an unflipped switch,
fetal as hope inside a camera.
In the dream a doctor
scrawls the syndrome,
erasing vowels
from our ventricles.
We pull the staple
from his tally like a splinter,
scrambling his
illegible handwriting
into oxygen.

Though the title announces that the poem will be about illness, this lovely and dizzying barrage of opening images leaves us unmoored. We struggle to figure out the relationship between memory, electricity, and the fetal hope of the camera. Likewise, we struggle to figure out what is “real” here—is the diagnosis merely a dream? Or (as the poem will later suggest), is the dream a response to a real diagnosis? This confusion is an invitation to empathy: we feel a bewilderment like the bewilderment of people in the face of bad news. As the poem continues, the dream ends, the medical language becomes more and more dominant, and we understand that the poem is dealing with a literal diagnosis:

Waking breaks the bulb
over our head
with wet eyes and underwear.
We scan our face
for blood and filament,
our impossible birth
precedes us.
How did we get here?
Medicine swerving the molecules
in our body like a clock.
We ferment inside a hush,
ticking like a dance routine.

Though the poem allows us more certainty about its subject here, it simultaneously forces us into a new unmooring. How many characters are there in this poem? What does it mean to speak of “our body,” to combine the singularity of the body with the plurality of the pronoun? At this moment, the poem reaches its chilling final stanza:

Oh Hester, they cut letters
out of our dresses now
before they sew the final A –
they pin the missing shape to our skins
until our skins remember
who’s missing. Grafting
teaches an orchard to pretend –
heavy fruit only
makes it seem
to bend.

Drawing in an allusion to The Scarlet Letter, the poem continues to resist literal sense-making. Instead, it works to give us the feeling of the feeling, without allowing us to comprehend the situation fully. It shows us suffering, stigma, the sense of weight, the sense that the present is at once like the past and worse. Like the speaker of the poem, we’re thrust into intense emotion and denied even the cold comfort of understanding.

Armendinger is a master at using fragmented language with precise purpose. His poems experiment with language and form—this collection includes a poem delivered in the form of an instant messenger conversation, and a poem placed as a footnote within another poem—but never read as mere avant-garde posturing. Instead, Armendinger again and again finds new ways to use defamiliarized language to access the unsayable.

It’s a rare and wonderful thing to find a poet who can so powerfully, vividly, and gracefully engage with the problems of language and the world. The Ghost In Us Was Multiplying is a vital book: experimental, substantial, fragmented, unified, unsettled, and unsettling, Armendinger’s work is key reading for all those who care about what our broken words can do.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

Soldier On

soldieronGale Marie Thompson
Tupelo ($16.95)

by Jenny E. Drai

Soldier On, Gale Marie Thompson’s first full-length collection of poetry, begins with a poem (“Cilantro Blue”) that includes the line, “Anything is harbor. Anything is singing.” What comes after that is a poetry of loosely gathered language—just stubborn enough to cohere, just disjointed enough to take on the characteristics of a delicate but indelible lace.

Throughout Soldier On, the poet approaches well-known cultural icons with the same ethereal grace as she does the subject of the heavenly bodies (and everything in between). Thus, familiar figures stand alongside the unknowable and the mundane. Yet in Thompson’s language—often declarative, sometimes questioning—nothing is ever pedestrian, the commonplace elevated instead to an almost eerie calm that belies the friction underneath. “It is me, sinking at the bottom of the pool,” she begins “Poem to John Denver,” in both an announcement of place and an entreaty to take notice. A few lines down, the speaker reveals physical location as she discusses once almost touching the singer-songwriter’s house. On the other hand, where the poem is located in the heart of its speaker is unveiled at its end:

Existence is having a form.
No more will I race uphill
thinking delicacy, restlessness.
This mountain is famous
because, because.

In Thompson’s poetry, it is the ability to form language, to hold that subject to a place through language, that spells existence. But what do we, her readers, gain from such apportionment? Consider the second half of “Sigourney Weaver:”

All I want is for someone to let me love them, all of them.
I’d always trust them until they broke my heart.
They say snow monkeys have the greatest sense of love.
Last night I had a dream that my mother was Sigourney Weaver.
She stitched me up after my body and everything else split open.
She could smell the top of my head and know I was hers.
We were sitting there on the couch
and outside the moon rose over and over again.

Here, it is the familiar figure of a celebrity (as opposed to the reality of a flesh-and-blood person) that provides the harbor first mentioned in “Cilantro Blue,” and that serves as a stabilizing force as the speaker finds herself undone. This act is mirrored by Thompson’s long lines, which lull the reader towards complicity, even dependence, with their intentional, slightly false, sing-song. We grow to understand as we read the poems in this book that we live in a world of shapes and figures, both static and kinetic, all of whom possess an interiority and complexity that illuminate our way even as we never truly comprehend them. As the title suggests, we just have to keep going.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

Girl in a Band

girlinabandKim Gordon
Dey St. ($27.99)

by Christopher Luna

Penned by one of rock’s most sophisticated and innovative personalities, Girl in a Band is a dense, compact account of nearly three decades of cultural history. Kim Gordon’s memoir picks up where Patti Smith’s Just Kids ends, with the next generation of artists who were inspired by the addictive energy of New York City.

Gordon is an icon for fans of both music and fashion, as well as a visual artist and a mother. Her band Sonic Youth represented integrity, avant-garde fearlessness, and unironic cool. Many also admired her marriage to the group’s co-founder, Thurston Moore, and their equal footing in the group’s creative process. While Gordon claims that she does not always see herself as a musician, she remains a consummate performer with “a good ear” who “[loves] the visceral movement and thrill of being onstage.”

Gordon and her family lived in Los Angeles in the late 1960s, a city she describes as having “a Freudian death instinct” that led to the shocking murders committed by the Manson Family. Although raised on the West Coast, she came to represent the quintessential New Yorker, and music fans hoping to hear about the legendary New York hangouts CBGB’s and The Mudd Club or the ’90s grunge explosion will not be disappointed. There are plenty of behind-the-scenes stories about Kurt Cobain, Neil Young, Johnny Thunders, Billy Corgan, Kathleen Hanna, and others.

Girl in a Band is refreshingly candid, yet never vindictive or mean-spirited. Gordon does not sugarcoat the everyday mundanity of making a living as a rock star. She admits that there was a randomness to her band’s early work, and that they did not know exactly what they were doing. On the other hand, she lets us in on how it felt to be the only woman in the band:

Over the years I can honestly say I almost never think of “girliness” unless I’m wearing high heels, and then I’m more likely to feel like a transvestite. When I’m at my most focused onstage, I feel a sense of space with edges around it, a glow of self-confident, joyful sexiness. It feels bodiless, too, all weightless grace with no effort required. The need to be a woman out in front never entered my mind at all until we signed with Geffen.

We also learn about the art world in New York in the 1980s, when Cindy Sherman, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Richard Prince, Barbara Kruger, and Jeff Koons made a name for themselves. One of Gordon’s early day jobs was as a receptionist for Annina Nosei and Larry Gagosian. The latter is described as a creep who falsely claimed that he and Gordon had dated; she found it difficult to “take Larry seriously” as an art dealer, and was very surprised by his eventual success.

The memoir begins with the pain and sadness surrounding Sonic Youth’s last show. Gordon had recently learned that Moore had been unfaithful, and things were tense:

The couple everyone believed was golden and normal and eternally intact, who gave younger musicians hope they could outlast a crazy rock-and-roll world, was now just another cliché of middle-aged relationship failure—a male midlife crisis, another woman, a double life. . . .
It was as if he’d wound back time, erased our nearly thirty years together. “Our life” had turned back into “my life” for him. He was an adolescent lost in fantasy again, and the rock star showboating he was doing onstage got under my skin.

Despite their three decades of personal and professional partnership, however, Moore is often relegated to the periphery of this account, as if the betrayal were so fresh that Gordon couldn’t bear to say much more. We learn about how they met and how well they worked together as parents and bandmates, agreeing on nearly every aspect of Sonic Youth’s sound and image. Gordon admits that she “believed [Moore] was my soulmate.” Moore is absent from many of the stories because “knowing what I know now, it’s hard to write about a love story with a broken heart.” Everything that Gordon had taken for granted about her marriage was suddenly suspect. Elsewhere, she writes: “I wonder whether one can truly love, or be loved back, by someone who hides who they are. It made me question my life and all my other relationships.”

After her marriage ended, Kim Gordon formed a new band called Body/Head and focused on her visual art again. Girl in a Band is a tough, witty memoir that ought to lead more young women to pick up the guitar.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

Two Tragedies in 429 Breaths

twotragediesSusan Paddon
Brick Books ($20)

by Joseph Ballan

To illustrate the distinctly poetic manner of stitching together apparently distinct experiences, T.S. Eliot suggested that, while the ordinary person “falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.” Eliot’s choice of illustrative examples is hardly random; if not specific to the life of a writer, they are characteristic of one who lives in the company of books. Susan Paddon’s Two Tragedies in 429 Breaths creates what Eliot would call a “new whole” out of her reading of Anton Chekhov and the experience of her mother’s last months of life, as well as the aftermath of her death. Among other things, Paddon’s debut collection is a record of how experiences of relationships become intertwined with, and felt in light of, experiences of reading, of how books and the real or imagined lives of their authors accompany us.

The relation between Chekhov and death is slightly less arbitrary than that between Spinoza and love. Paddon, who comes to Chekhov by way of her former roommate, a Chekhov enthusiast whom Paddon has left in Paris before the events narrated in the book begin, is especially drawn to the scene of Chekhov’s final years in the Crimean resort town of Yalta, where, ill and plagued by what Paddon calls various “inabilities,” he was cared for by his sister, Maria, at a geographical distance from his young wife, Olga, who for the most part stayed in Moscow. As she returns to Canada to care for her mother—who, like Chekhov, was dying of an illness that affected her ability to breathe and who, like Chekhov, wanted to conceal the full extent of her sickness—Paddon thinks constantly of these three people, and she comes to identify strongly with Maria (also called Masha), imagining her life as a caregiver (“She listens / for breaths, counts them on a wooden abacus, / notes them in a book”) and regarding her as a kind of ministering presence (“Masha, Masha, // watching me tonight . . .).

Not that Paddon’s interest in the Russian short story writer and dramatist is restricted to Chekhov’s biography; his writing permeates the pages of Two Tragedies, sometimes in direct quotation, sometimes more allusively. Along with a biographical précis, the book’s back matter contains explanations, in the fashion of endnotes, of where exactly this or that reference originates in Chekhov’s published or unpublished works. It is unclear what criterion was used to determine which allusions in the poems would be explained in this rather slight “notes” section, and which of the many uncited references would be excluded. Yet one can see just how widely the author has read in the plays, short stories, and letters, as well as in secondary literature on Chekhov. She wears this erudition lightly, so that, in the poems, it feels less like erudition and more like deep familiarity with a literary companion.

The tone of the poems in this book will be familiar to readers of Chekhov, marked as it is by a composure and a restraint that eschews the flashy turn of phrase (metaphors occur infrequently in the book, although these few instances are memorable: the faith of childhood, for example, “was something you could taste at the back of your throat, like metallic blood in the dentist’s chair,” as well as an attunement to the fragile and ephemeral, as in the closing scene of Chekhov’s “Beauties,” which Paddon briefly reimagines at the end of one of her unsent letters to her Paris roommate, the Chekhov enthusiast: “There was melancholy / in the spring air. And in the darkening sky. And in the train car.” There was melancholy, that is, at every point on which the eye might happen to rest.

Loosely bound together by a chronological structure that follows Susan from her return home in April until the months after her mother’s death in August, the individual pieces are formally heterogeneous, comprising letters, invocations to Masha scribbled on various forms of scrap paper, and poems in which the poetic line plays a decisive role, or, especially in the later sections, is virtually nonexistent. From these heterogeneous parts, a whole is fashioned that is, in the end and throughout, extraordinarily—and, in the manner of Chekhov, quietly—moving.

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

Against the Country

againstthecountryBen Metcalf
Random House ($26)

by Garin Cycholl

There comes a point when you’re loading turkeys for market in the middle of the night. One escapes. You see the tom out there in the darkness, walking a fencerow, loose in a new world. You want to argue for his freedom but your friend, the farmer, reminds you that a confinement-raised tom will be dead within an hour. The guys from the plant capture the tom and load him into the last of the cages. To the farmer, the escaped tom is meat by the pound—no more and no less.

Ben Metcalf’s Against the Country moves against this same hard wisdom. The narrator’s father needs to escape “town,” so he moves the family from town life in southern Illinois to Goochland County, Virginia. The familial journey here parallels the long national flight into an imagined countryside, a “pastoral fever” with real estate. The great mistake, according to Metcalf’s narrator is, “whereas we were led to believe we had acquired the land. . . in fact the land had acquired us.”

In Goochland, this narrator comes of age amid chickens and barbed wire, school bus beatings and “rural intimacy.” In requisite theological uneasiness with a kingsnake that slithers the property, this boy comes to Jesus in a trashpit. When he reflects on his own mischief, he has to remind himself, “It was a [unloaded] rifle, not a shotgun.” And he is led to a constant reckoning of his father’s attachment to the land. His father pushes his sons through the gradual dismemberment of the farm’s outbuildings, their wood stoking the family’s stove in its constant burn. The woods come down next, the boys driven by their father’s “madness brought on by the land’s constant pestering.”

Throughout the novel, the narrator digs into the continent’s “wormy ground,” and his brutal and local history spares nothing. The nearby national landmark, Monticello, is recast as “Jefferson’s labor camp.” Yet though it might seem to fall within the confines of historical fiction, the narrator reminds, “I intend no abstract on American boundaries here.” It is real barbed wire that runs through the narrator’s hands, not any placeless, figurative line in the muck between nameless sons and fathers. In distinction, Metcalf offers a rant, testing the health of the seclusion and isolation of “the American hoedown.” Set in the confines of a family “dug-in rural,” his book pokes us to look again at our “unreal and unearned Edens.” Despite its edge, it also moves from one awful, comedic moment to the next, with a chapter on a local production of Godot that includes a live chicken as a character and a six-page footnote on the “rural Bob Dylan.”

In his 1999 essay, “Mississippi Heartworm,” Metcalf begins, “I proceed from rage.” In Against the Country, it is good to see that Metcalf ‘s rage has proceeded. His prose cuts Jefferson’s map from any framing, calling out the nonreturnable, second-hand agrarian sentiments mouthed as wisdom and patriotism for what they are: a summons always willing to send others into the woods in pursuit of life and liberty and always “bound to perish, in the American fashion.”

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

Jillian

jillianHalle Butler
Curbside Splendor ($14.95)

by Courtney Becks

Halle Butler’s Jillian is, frankly, frightening—partly because it’s a bleak look into the heart of Megan, its ostensible protagonist whose last name is never revealed. In her early twenties, Megan is right out of comedian Louis CK’s “Do Your Job” bit. She despises her job in a Chicago gastroenterology office, which her primary doctor pointed her toward as a way to deal with her “migraines and minor panic attacks.” Her boyfriend Randy and his friends seem to be finding success in their respective work lives, and Megan metabolizes her envy into mean-spirited assholery. Instead of looking for another job, though, Megan fixates on her co-worker Jillian.

Butler’s title character is a thirty-five-year-old woman who can’t adequately care for herself, her genuinely creepy daycare-aged son, or their new rescue dog. Megan’s got Jillian’s number, realizing the other woman is lying about being in a car accident to score a codeine prescription from their boss. Randy, who works at home, seems oblivious to the way a dysfunctional co-worker can sap one’s life force, telling his girlfriend: “I don’t understand why you care.”

Jillian may be grotesque and disturbing, but Megan is loathsome, although the reader feels bad for hating Butler’s mentally ill protagonist—especially since she realizes she needs “someone to help her.” One of the most satisfying moments of the book is when Amanda, one of Randy’s few friends who want anything to do with Megan, speechifies on her at a party:

You’re just a normal person who hates her job . . . Stop being so overly self-involved . . .
There’s no one on this planet . . . who I like enough to stand around and soak up this selfish, whiny-baby bullshit from. . . . You are unbelievably draining, you self-serving, shallow, talentless waste of time.

Perhaps Megan can’t look away from Jillian because she fears that she will end up like her deranged officemate. Butler juxtaposes the co-workers’ lives to great effect, exposing their similarities. After a scene detailing Jillian’s disastrous efforts to help with a 1980s party at her church one Saturday, in the subsequent section, Butler writes: “Saturday was no breeze for Megan, either.”

It’s easy to recognize one’s own shadow self in Jillian’s “concocting . . . parallel worlds in which the lies aren’t lies” or the corrosive effects of Megan’s habit of “insult[ing] the object” of her envy. This recognition, above all else, is what makes Butler’s debut novel a worthy, if truly frightening, novel for our times.

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

The Turner House

theturnerhouseAngela Flournoy
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt ($23)

by Rob Kirby

Angela Flournoy’s debut novel The Turner House is a thoroughly engrossing saga spanning more than a half-century in the lives of an African American family in Detroit. Through the Turners, Flournoy—a graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop and a real talent to watch—explores the complexities of family histories and relationships, siblinghood, parenting, and aging, all with deep empathy and zero sentimentality. The city of Detroit plays an important role, as wounded and doggedly resilient as the book’s characters. And though it is possible there is a supernatural presence lurking on the outskirts of the story, it is the past that truly haunts the family.

As the novel opens in 2008, the thirteen Turner siblings are at a crossroads. Their father Francis is long dead and their mother, Viola, is gravely ill and being cared for at the home of the eldest son, Cha-Cha (nickname for Charles). The original family home now sits abandoned, like too many others on Detroit's decimated East Side. The Turner children must decide what to do with the house—sell it for a pittance or collectively pay off the remaining mortgage—while coping with their own complicated lives. Though they have scattered, with many of them living far from Detroit, the house tethers them, a reminder of younger, happier days: "The house on Yarrow Street was their sedentary mascot, its crumbling façade the Turner coat of arms."

The book focuses on the oldest and youngest siblings of the Turner’s baker’s dozen, Cha-Cha and Lelah, born an entire generation apart (he’s in his sixties and she’s forty-something). They are both in different states of crisis. Cha-Cha, resentful that he’s become the de facto father figure to the Turner clan, has become obsessed with the return of a "haint" (ghost) who he claims attacked him in the middle of the night when he was fourteen and is again haunting him nightly. The haint, real or imagined, manifests the growing, pervasive sense of helplessness Cha-Cha feels as he grows older, losing control of his life. In addition to managing sibling conflicts over the house, his relationship with his wife Tina has become troublingly distant while he has become enamored of his female therapist, Alice. Cha-Cha, accustomed to being the family’s rock and tormented by the haint, feels increasingly isolated and unstable.

Meanwhile, Lelah has lost her job and has been evicted from her apartment—both events fallout from her gambling addiction. Desperate, she secretly moves into the empty family house and enters into a haphazard affair with David, a friend of her younger brother, Troy. She hides her dire financial circumstances from everyone, including her adult daughter, Brianne, with whom she has a fraught relationship. It is clear that Lelah has been living in quietly controlled chaos for much of her adult life, with everything now unraveling. It is also evident that she has no real idea of how to improve her circumstances. But despite her problems, Lelah, like Cha-Cha and the others, never indulges in self-pity, preferring to go it alone. This familial stoic resourcefulness is a double-edged sword: taking after their father, the siblings have a hard time reaching out for help.

Flournoy intercuts her modern-day narrative with the lives of the Turner's parents in the 1940s-50s. When Mr. Turner, Francis, migrated from Arkansas to Detroit to find work, Viola stayed behind with baby Cha-Cha, waiting for the day Francis would have enough money to send for them. This proved to be a much longer and more arduous period of time than either had suspected, with job options for African Americans in the North proving almost as limited as in the South. It isn't until 1951 that they manage to purchase the Turner House, an emblem of hard-won economic stability, especially given the rampant racism in the Detroit housing market. Flournoy underlines these grim facts in the narrative, reminding readers of the systemic problems the Turners and thousands of African American families like them endured. In the present day, youngest son Troy articulates the role racism played in the severe economic downturn of Detroit: "the surrounding suburbs hadn't wanted to do business with them—they essentially boycotted the newer, blacker Detroit—which would devastate the city's economy."

The cast of characters, from the main to bit players, all feel authentic: sympathetic, confused, spirited, obtuse, loving, stubborn—that is to say, fully human. As the story nears its conclusion, despite all their numerous conflicts and heartaches, the whole family gathers for what will likely be the last birthday celebration for Viola—a reminder that the family ties that chafe also unite. Flournoy is adept at conveying the sense that it is with our families where we can most be ourselves, however comfortably or uncomfortably: "The love pivoted between hard and unwieldy and tender and sincere." Though the futures of Cha-Cha, Lelah, their siblings, the family house, and Detroit itself are left undetermined, we leave the story with a nourishing sense of hope.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

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