Tag Archives: Summer 2018

Yellow Negroes
and Other Imaginary Creatures

Yvan Alagbé
New York Review Comics ($29.95)

by Spencer Dew

How to speak of courage or cowardice in the context of colonialism? Are these part of what Fanon dismissed as “white values,” part of the broader epistemological and ethical toolkit settlers hauled from the metropole and used to bash in the minds of those they conquered? Yvan Alagbé, a legend in French comics, addresses such a question in this stunning collection from the New York Review’s comics publishing imprint. This volume represents a contribution to that publisher’s larger goal of providing English language translations of important international works, and Yellow Negroes is explicitly international—international with a “double consciousness” emerging from its black soul.

Blackness—as racialized identity and inherited culture but also an aesthetic mode, an imagining of what scholar Ashon Crawley calls the irreducible otherwise possibility of Blackness as a way of being—shapes the stories here. Visually, the blackness of the lines dominates as well. Alagbé works in lines reminiscent at times of Zen calligraphy, brushwork at once skilled and automatic in the sense of channeled, spontaneous. At other points, the lines resemble gouges, as if, rather than putting ink on a page, the artist were scarifying his subject, imparting a physical trauma to his readers. When one protagonist, having jumped a metro turnstile, is chased down over several agonizing, freeze-frame panels (one cannot but be reminded of the final scenes of Childish Gambino’s “This is America”) and is finally tackled and apprehended by police, the gaze pans out such that the gathered crowd dissolves into blackness, a stain, then a mass of humanity so thick it takes on the appearance of the bars—which, in the final frame of this sequence, with our protagonist in jail, are not merely metal and shadow but also an immaterial and therefore inescapable force, blotting out any idea of freedom, caging this man inside his own doomed fate.

This protagonist, Alain, is undocumented, which is to say the Age of Discovery did not merely mark him with a racialized and thus stigmatized identity, but the Age of Globalism, following on the heels of capitalism’s rampant success with sugar and cotton plantations, furthered marked him as from an unenviable postcode and lacking the golden tickets of those who feel closest to an actual chance of freedom. Lack of documentation is to the contemporary world what legal classification as subhuman was in the past. Alain is no slave—he has a job, or at least had one just before this story begins; he can exercise the supposed free will required to fall in love, rescue a likely unrepairable television unit from the trash, accept an offer of cheese and eggs from another man’s fridge—but he is not a full person under French law. He is trapped in that liminal status of “migrant,” here but not here. I assume his fate, upon arrest, will be deportation, but perhaps that is because I live in America, where the tenuousness of undocumented migrants is such that, indeed, a crime so petty as hopping a turnstile can land one in an open-aired detention camp, then dumped in a country no longer—if ever—one’s own.

America figures in this book, too, of course. Trump’s face makes an appearance in the final, most brutal, story, where Alagbé connects the paving stones by the Seine to a 1961 massacre of Algerians and to a 2017 protest, by a contemporary artist, in favor of migrants seeking refuge in France. “Stones where no distinction can be made” are stones carefully considered by Alagbé, who adds paving stones to the foreground (and a conquistador’s ship in the background) to a devastating one-page inside the front cover: that drowned Syrian toddler, that refugee eternally denied refuge, that image that rose to the status of meme, briefly, and then got drowned in the latest controversy or fad. A dead boy—yet Alagbé, putting those paving stones between us, the viewer, and him, the corpse, seems to say: Look, this is the beach beneath the concrete. A beach of immense human suffering.

Where is the courage or the cowardice in that image, in the original photograph of the dead boy? Do we (with our documentation) applaud the supposed bravery of those who attempt the trek from hell to a better world? Do we castigate ourselves for failing to act, for failing even to imagine an effective path for action? Alagbé, as should already have been established, has no use for cheap sentiment. His characters struggle, they love, they find themselves inadequate vessels for the expression of the agony they bear. In the book’s third story, “Dyaa,” one of the characters from “Yellow Negroes,” Martine, thinks on her husband, who has gone back to Africa, even as she meets and has sex with a cabdriver and fellow migrant, Ibrahima, who thinks of his wife, still back there. “How to tell you that nothing is okay here?” he thinks. Europe, he tells his wife in an imagined letter, is death. “Don’t you come. The water here makes you sick, the air you breathe makes you sick, the cold kills you bit by bit. You’ll have to bring up our child by yourself. The women here do that.” Cowardice or courage? “There is money everywhere here,” he admits, “Just like the lights that shine all night long. But you have to gather it, and that takes time, so much time.”

Alagbé employs, for certain emotional moments, various forms of abstraction, often with African motifs—shapes like power objects hovering above a character’s head, for instance, as when Alain, in “Yellow Negroes,” “dreams of broad-hipped women,” his erect penis rising before him, and an image like a fertility amulet, emerges from those dreams. But the more common abstraction is achieved through a reduction of lines—a pair of lovers becoming so many agitated brushstrokes, bulges, and splayed arrays; Martine, kneeling in a prayer for death, becomes a curve and a tuck, bold black lines converging. The first story here, entirely wordless, is a series of images that slowly come into focus as a naked white woman with a black infant suckling at her breast. Serving as something like a preface to the book, it offers a glimpse of peace, even bliss, that is then followed by page upon page of nightmare.

The other central character in “Yellow Negroes”—antagonist seems too strong a word—is Mario, himself a policeman, as he is proud of noting, an example of what he might describe as the colonized made good, what might also be called a collaborator. Here the issue of cowardice—of “yellow”—comes to a boil. He played an active role in that massacre of Algerians in 1961. His cross, now, is a terrible loneliness, though he also suffers from the cold characters here attribute to Europe but that reflects, more precisely, their place in it. He has a badge, a taste for Gauloises and white prostitutes, but he is impotent and desperate, his powerlessness and need manifest in his performance with all three, whether flashing his identification at a racist landlord, or insisting that his Parisian tastes are superior to those of Africa, or, literally, when he fails to perform after paying a prostitute and then begs for a refund. The single frame of her laughter—her condescension, her pitiless revile for this pitiful man—is one of the book’s many disturbing moments. Of the whorehouse carpet, Mario observes “a tragic feeling amid the vestiges of the past, like yesterday’s dirty dishes,” but this is a description, too, of him, of his life, of the native agent serving the colonial state. If migration offers a kind of double consciousness, so too it opens the possibility for a double culpability, an abandonment not only of the lauded, supposedly universal “white values” of French ideals but also a stark and bloody betrayal of his own people—his sons, as Mario insists of Alain in a scene where loneliness tilts to madness.

In such a situation, is life itself an act of courage or merely the cowardice of postponing suicide? Is love an act of bravery—the persistence of human dignity—or is it more like the mindless need of the addict, an opiate, a way to defer pain? Alain’s white girlfriend points out, in one scene, that if they married, he could get paperwork, documentation, legal status. He dismisses the idea, insisting that one should not get married for ulterior motives. But isn’t it a lifeline, similar to a rescue boat, or groceries taken for free? Alagbé nudges us, in this book, to question the value—not the application, but the value—of documentation. The difference between buying a ticket for the metro and vaulting over the turnstile is more than a legal distinction. There are multiple desires, and angles to desires, at play in the circumstances of every character here—even one I have not mentioned, who stuffs a suitcase full of grilled fish, agouti, and monkey nuts so as to bring a palpable taste of home to this new world of Europe. Alagbé observes, in his final story, this recent trend: “all the talk of ‘migrants,’ or in other words ever since people started fleeing and dying in such numbers and washing up in such numbers on beaches.” Yellow Negroes takes us beneath the beaches to which migrants flee, down to the concrete of their irreducible, multivalent (which is to say messy, sometimes ugly, sometimes euphoric) lives. It is an extraordinarily gripping book, an urgent mirror through which to examine our moment—in its terror and violence, to be sure, but also in the otherwise possibility produced by such shadows.

Click here to purchase this book
at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018

Mrs. Fletcher

Tom Perrotta
Scribner ($16.99)

by Esther Fishman

In the first few pages of Tom Perrotta’s new novel Mrs. Fletcher, the titled character, Eve Fletcher, posts a picture to Facebook of her van loaded with new stuff for her son’s dorm room. “So excited and proud. First day of college.” Her son, however, is not in the picture, nor has he helped load the van, nor does he care about the color of the sheets she has picked out. Her aggressively cheery tone in the post is all she has to mark a milestone in her life, the departure of her only child from the home the two of them have shared since the divorce.

When the story switches to the son’s voice, we instantly recognize that casual and unconsciously cruel tribe, the “bro.” His main concerns, if they can even be said to raise to that level, have to do with partying—how he can continue his high school love of drinking, being team captain of whatever sport was in season, and getting blow jobs from his girlfriend who ups her skills by watching YouTube tutorials. His estranged father is proud of him, but his mother is deeply skeptical about his future. Inherent in her assessment of her son is Eve’s understanding of what he has lived through—divorce, and watching his father start a new family. But her son disappoints her from the start by breaking his promise to text her every day. He is drunk on his very first weekend at college, and busy chasing the first girl that presents herself. He is starting a new life.

In fact, many of the characters in Mrs. Fletcher are in search of a new life. Not that there is anything wrong with their old ones, at least not materially. Nevertheless, they can be said to be caught in a uniquely American dilemma, a type of restlessness that will not be satisfied by physical motion. It stems not from a vision of freedom in wide, open spaces, but is instead a quest for themselves, perfected. This is their very birthright. It is advertised to them personally with every keystroke. Their phones are always at hand, checked compulsively, as if any second the answers to all their problems will be revealed. Woe to them if they miss the message.

Each character in Perrotta’s work is fundamentally alone, no matter how digitally connected they are. In fact, the more connected they are by social media, the worse their isolation becomes. Relating to real people face to face becomes problematic the more their thoughts and emotions are reduced to what can be expressed in a short and pithy text, punctuated with an emoji. An anonymous message comes in to Eve’s phone one night: “U r my MILF! Send me a naked pic!! I want to cum on those big floppy tits!!!” This sends her into a state of confusion, followed, after a quick google search, by a new obsession with porn, specifically sites that specialize in amateur performances: “you could forget you were watching porn and accept it, if not as the truth, then at least as a glimpse of a better world than the one you lived in, a world where everyone secretly wanted the same thing, and no one failed to get it.” Suddenly, everything around her is permeated with sex and the promise of sex. Not only does she wonder who in her life would write such a hungry invitation, she begins to question her own sexual history, and wonders what she has missed. Instead of questioning the information she receives on-line (never google random initials!) she is sure there is a whole exciting world out there in the digital stratosphere, if only she could access it.

Meanwhile, her son continues to try to define himself at school. For the younger characters, who are more used to seeing the world through the distorting lens of the Internet, the quest is a little different. In a world where just about any sexual partner (including yourself) can be summoned and made to perform with just a few clicks or swipes, these characters are isolated twice over. They sometimes long for complex and human relationships and yet understand beyond their years how damaging reality can be. Every independent action seems fraught with emotion, and this complexity is hard to process.

Perrotta is an expert at portraying the free-floating anxiety that pervades our lives. An uncomfortable miasma is present on every page of the book. Some might say that this is our post-modern plight. We know exactly how small our own problems are in comparison to the huge issues our world faces. We know we should care more, should do our part to help change what is going on—global warming, sexual harassment, LBGT issues—but isn’t it just easier to drink too much, and regret your social choices? Mrs. Fletcher illustrates in a style both mournful and hilarious, something we know already: “Doesn’t matter where you live. You’re always just kind of alone with your own shit, you know?”

Click here to purchase this book
at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018

Rock Stars, Secret Agents,
and American Myths:
A Conversation Between
Constance Squires
and Kurt Baumeister

Pax Americana
Kurt Baumeister

Stalking Horse Press ($19.99)

Live from Medicine Park
Constance Squires

Univ. of Oklahoma Press ($19.95)

Live from Medicine Park is a pure distillation of the dream that is America, one with little time to waste on the clichéd façade of hard work and success we so often associate with that dream. A tale of anonymity, fame, redemption, and remembrance that rises like myth from the sweltering heartland itself this is, nonetheless, a deeply realistic story of postmodern America, of disappeared rock goddesses, space-suited guitar wizards, Toyota dealerships, documentary filmmakers, and last gasps at fame. Filled with characters struggling more than they know, Live from Medicine Park is an unflinching portrait of America’s realities, Constance Squires just the sort of clear-eyed stylist to steer her characters and America towards the truth about themselves.
—Kurt Baumeister

Constance Squires is the award-winning author of Live from Medicine Park, Along the Watchtower: A Novel and the forthcoming story collection, Hit Your Brights. Her numerous short stories have appeared in Guernica, Shenandoah, Atlantic Monthly, and other magazines. She teaches creative writing at the University of Central Oklahoma.

Brilliantly plotted and linguistically nimble, Kurt Baumeister’s Pax America is a high-flying book as arch as it is deft. The spy thriller plot, particularly as we know it from James Bond films, serves as a surprisingly flexible skeleton for Baumeister to tell a dystopic tale of a not-too-distant American future after thirty plus years of right wing control. Part satire, part homage to the form, Pax Americana also resonates with other parodies like Archer and the Austin Powers movies—there’s an unabashed glee in playing with the loopier elements of the genre—hidden islands rigged out with nuclear devices, sharks, henchmen, allegorical names, and a suitably oh-no-whoever-controls-it-controls-the-world Maguffin in the form of a technology, called Symmetra, with vast, cryptic spiritual power. Beneath all the fun, there’s a serious critique of tendencies in our culture that are scary, but in a way that makes considering them go down as easily as a Righteous Burger. James Bond for the #MeToo moment.
—Constance Squires

Kurt Baumeister has written for Salon, Electric Literature, The Rumpus, and others. His debut novel, Pax Americana, was published in 2017. He is currently at work on a novel, The Book of Loki, and a hybrid collection of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry entitled Superman, the Seven Gods of Death, and the Need for Clean, Romantic Poetry.

Kurt Baumeister: Connie, I’ve been eager to talk to you about Live from Medicine Park. First off, let’s cover the fact that this is a Rock n’ Roll Novel. More specifically, this is a book with a certain kinship to Great Jones Street, one of our mutual hero Don DeLillo’s earliest books. The books seem like mirror images in a way; in Great Jones Street, rock star Bucky Wunderlick is trying to escape fame. In yours, you’ve also got a rock star at the center of things, Lena Wells, but Lena’s trying to regain the fame she lost decades earlier. Do you think this is a fair comparison?

Constance Squires: I love Great Jones Street and definitely wanted to tip my hat to it in the media kit section of Live from Medicine Park. There’s always a question of how to represent the music on the page in a book that deals with music, and of course you always want whatever you do to deepen character, so I wrote a media kit inspired by Great Jones Street that contained Lena’s lyrics and some reviews. I wanted the lyrics to show sides of her that she wouldn’t show Ray in person. I don’t go so far as to think of my story as a reversal of Great Jones Street, though, mainly because Lena’s not the main character and her ideas about her career and music aren’t what drive the story. Lena is sort of a Gatsby figure, someone who the main character, Ray, thinks a lot about, but she probably changes less than anyone of the other key characters. She’s at the heart of the book, but she’s not the engine.

KGB: The idea of Lena as a Gatsby figure is an interesting one. DeLillo and Fitzgerald share an iciness in tone, a detachment critics have commented on. I don’t notice that with your work. In fact, the balance you show in developing and presenting emotional conflict is striking. Live from Medicine Park is no tear-jerker, but you take quite a few characters here and give them meaningful inner lives, even the minor ones. Is there a sort of North Star you look to as you develop characters, something that helps you succeed in developing their interiority?

CS: Thank you! I know what you mean about DeLillo’s iciness, and I’m glad to have a warmer book. I think we’re all trying to write the kind of book we’d like to read, and everybody has a different set point for what they want in an emotional conflict. I’m bored and sickened by sheer melodrama, but stuff that’s too ironic and glib feels almost like cowardice to me, like a writer not wanting to go there. I think in life I try to notice this tendency in myself when it comes up and then to make myself think about or feel or act on whatever it is that’s uncomfortable, so maybe I just extend that expectation to my characters. I do know that my favorite kind of characters are very flawed—I always feel grateful to writers that give me a flawed character I can relate to at the same time I get to watch her figure things out. It’s no different than life; a person that will say, “Hey, you know what, I was such an asshole and I’m sorry,” is a thousand times more compelling and admirable than someone who shirks and blames and avoids.

So, Kurt, to bat one back at you here: On the subject of iciness, I admire the way you manage to warm up Tuck Squires in Pax Americana so that he is so much more than just a type. I’ve read a lot of stuff in which it’s clear where the writer’s sympathies lie, and so often it means that the character representing the values the writer disagrees with is not given much humanity. Satire can be especially cold, because the conceit often trumps the characterization, but you really surprised me in how reasonable and even admirable Tuck was in certain moments. Again and again we see that he is loyal and determined; that you let those traits coexist with his less likeable ones took this book to another level for me. Tell me about writing Tuck—where did that character come from and how did you feel your way into his voice?

KGB: Tuck is a fantasy/anti-fantasy persona. Speaking superficially, he’s everything one could ever want to be—young, rich, handsome, athletic, sure of his place in the world, confident—but he’s also a complete fucking mess. To the extent Tuck is successful as a protagonist, I think the thing that makes him work is his conviction that he’s doing right even when he’s not. Like so many of the characters in this book, Tuck is, on some level, a failed Christ figure. He wants to save the day and I do think there’s nobility in that. Sure, he wants all the accolades that might go with it, but even if you’re the worst person in the world, if you want to save the world, there’s something good about you. And I think this is applicable to all the characters, including the villains. The funny thing about villains is very few people or even characters would cop to being one. With few exceptions, each of us is the hero of our own story. When people talk about heroes and villains, antiheroes and antivillains, my ears always perk up, because our perceptions of heroism or villainy, good or evil, are subjective. One woman’s hero is another’s villain.

As far as Tuck’s voice goes, I hear him as someone who’s developed a veneer of confidence, someone who conveys the conviction he’s doing right, no matter how wrong he obviously is. Because he’s so convinced of how right he is, Tuck can say and do things that are awful and funny all at once. He’s not politically correct. In this way, he’s the voice of the far, religious right in America, the part of it that seemed to be ascendant under W. Bush.

CS: I adore unreliable narrators and love Tuck for that reason, but Diana is another key voice. The alternating chapter structure, Tuck and Diana, really works; did you conceive the book that way or did you find you needed Diana for certain things?

KGB: This book was a lot longer at one point, perhaps up to 130,000 words, and there were more points of view. As I trimmed the word count, one of the obvious (though not easy) things to do was get rid of POV characters. I knew I needed Diana and Parlay; they are the drivers for the story, so I had to be able to get inside their heads directly. Tuck and Clarion drive the plot, so I had to keep them as well. I toyed with Jack Justice as a POV character and he was fun to write but ultimately superfluous. Beyond all this, if there’s one thing I absolutely needed Diana for it was her goodness, her heroism. She’s the best of these characters, the most admirable and the most intelligent. I think she understands the limits of human knowledge, the fact that we’re constantly evolving our understanding of the world.

Thinking now about heroism, and, also, failure—Diana’s, Tuck’s, Clarion’s, but also your main character, Ray’s—Ray is the protagonist in Live from Medicine Park, the hero in a way, and he’d understand that about himself, auteur that he is. He’s also a realistic character, and though ultimately successful on some level, he spends a lot of time failing.

CS: Right. Ray believes he is a cool, objective filmmaker who never gets involved or steps from behind the camera. His mantra from Star Trek about the prime objective—never interfere with the fate of a civilization you’re visiting—articulates this position. He fails utterly at this, and so the crisis of the novel involves a moment when someone he cares about on the Medicine Park set is gravely hurt because he’s practicing the same character flaws that got someone shot on his last set—he’s finally having to get real with himself about that.

KGB: Coming to terms with the truth about themselves, the realities of their lives . . . there are a lot of characters doing that in this book. What is Live from Medicine Park saying about truth?

CS: This space is also filled with the family story around Lena—her son, Gram’s search for his father, Gram and Jettie’s band, the Black Sheep, and their approaching make-or-break moment, the mystery of Lena’s relationship with Cy, and the further question of Lena’s heritage embodied in her claim to be Geronimo’s great-granddaughter. The place—the Native American history, the military-industrial history of the base, the buffaloes and the trashy bars, the prohibition-era myths of the old hotel and the rock myths walking around in silver lamé spacesuits—is important to me. It’s not a part of the world most people have their own experience with, so it felt important to show it.

KGB: Poetry and lyrics, fiction and music reviews—your book has just about everything stylistically, something few writers can pull off. Do you feel confined by form? Is the variation of form in Live from Medicine Park an attempt to move past the novel’s traditional boundaries, or are you simply doing what your material demands?

CS: I loved writing those lyrics and reviews—it was tons of fun, and there’s actually more that the editors talked me into cutting, with good reason. I felt like I had to do it. I’ve read a lot of rock novels, and it’s so important to try to find an equivalency on the page for the experience of hearing live music and watching someone in concert. You really can’t do it, but it’s important to try, because I’m not too interested in Lena as a public figure, I’m interested in her as an artist. So, I have to show her art, at least what I can. And I tried to make Lena’s lyrics and Jettie’s lyrics different—I used different models and went for different effects. I wanted them to be of equal quality but distinct stylistic variations.

As far as moving past the novel’s traditional boundaries, I don’t feel like I did that much with this novel. Aside from the lyrics, this is a very linear narrative with quite a traditional structure, really. My first novel was much more modular, not plot-driven, and the one I’m working on now is very definitely pushing against the restrictions of the form, but Live from Medicine Park felt like it needed a strong, recognizable structure. I thought of it like a song—a listener will tolerate a lot of harmonic weirdness and cryptic lyrics and what-have-you if the rhythm section keeps driving hard, pulling you forward.

Kurt, speaking of cryptic . . . I’m sure it’s pure coincidence that your initials are KGB, but I’m enough of a dork to want to try to make something of that and the fact that you’ve written in a form that reached its pinnacle during the Cold War. I guess I’m curious about your relationship to the spy thriller genre and how you chose it. Are there certain books or movies that imprinted on you? Do you want to talk about any deliberate homages, like the way my media kit is a direct homage to DeLillo?

KGB: I think my parents were trying to be funny. Maybe? Those are just my initials, though. Certainly, the Bond books (and movies) are key. You’ve very astutely homed in on my writing relationship with the genre, at least with this book. Tuck Squires sees himself as an American Bond. And his partner, Ken Clarion, I mean, he’s only fifty-something but I’ve joked about him being a geriatric Bond. To a certain extent, I think I’m also satirizing a lot of “Christian” fiction a la the Left Behind books, other spy thrillers, and to some extent perhaps something like The Da Vinci Code.

CS: Your fictional computer program Symmetra, with its genuine spiritual potential, as well as your examples of a power-mad Christianity that resonate powerfully with our own America (like “Righteous Burger,” which is so great), suggest you have something to say about the distinction between spirituality and religion. Do you, or what concerns about religion are you manifesting in these story elements?

KGB: Absolutely. I draw a distinction between spirituality and religion. I hold out a little hope for some sort of metaphysical world beyond, though I’m fairly convinced this is it. When we die, the game stops. No second chances, no bonus rounds. One never knows, though. I think what I was trying to get at with Symmetra (or maybe better to say what its inventor, Diana Scorsi, is trying to get at) is that the chances of one of the many thousands of religions being right—or really billions, if you consider that even people who accept the same dogma interpret it differently in their heads—that in the face of all that, the idea of one religion, any religion, being right, (Christianity, say, or Islam), well, it is sort of ridiculous. If any fundamentalist interpretation of one religion is correct, it voids all the others. So, it’s just sort of funny that everyone’s running around convinced they’ve got the secret sauce and everyone else is doomed. Now, what Diana’s tried to envision, which seems more likely to me, is that if religions en masse are right, it’s in their commonalities. So, she builds a database of religions and uses this as the genesis for her technology.

CS: In their commonalities—I couldn’t agree more. Onto your dialogue: it’s snappy and smart and it veers away from anything that felt expected or formulaic. You’re great with indirection and with attitude too. How do you write dialogue? Does it come easily or have you had any embarrassing experiments as you learned your craft?

KGB: What a great thing to hear. I love writing dialogue. Honestly, it’s the easiest thing for me. The conversations just sort of come to me as I sit thinking about them. I don’t use many tags when I’m drafting, just write stuff down as it drops into my mind. My editor had to convince me to put more tags in so that readers could keep track of who’s saying what.

I just try to imagine the conversation going back and forth and write it down, then go back over it again and again until it sounds true and says everything that needs to be said. Dialogue is an easy way to provide key details—I mean, it can be a trap, too, if you go too far with it—but, used correctly, it’s an easy way to accomplish just about everything from characterization to exposition, story, and plot without being too clunky about it.

Click here to purchase Pax Americana
at your local independent bookstore
Click here to purchase Live from Medicine Park
at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018

Orlando – Yeah No – Lecture Notes


Sandra Simonds
Wave Books ($18)

Yeah No

Jane Gregory
The Song Cave ($17.95)

Lecture Notes: A Duration Poem in Twelve Parts

Deborah Meadows
BlazeVOX ($18)

by Greg Bem

What is being written in books in 2018? What is being written in books of poetry in 2018? What are feminist voices saying in these books? I ask these questions again, again, and again. Reading, literally and figuratively, is a system of world-building, undertaken both by a book’s author and its reader. For the author—the instigator of this project—the forces that influence this world-building can come from her interior life or the external life spent negotiating society, if not some combination of the two. This triangulation, the intersections, the crossing over spaces of thought between realms of existence—these all offer insight into lives that are not our own.

In Sandra Simonds’s Orlando, Jane Gregory’s Yeah No, and Deborah Meadows’s Lecture Notes: A Duration Poem in Twelve Parts, three unique women write unique works using powerful systems of style, tone, and image. These authors maintain individualities wrapping around their books and their identities. And yet, despite their distinct methods of self-expression and how each book stands on its own, there are astute similarities in how these poets approach fragments of worlds larger than themselves. As they grow in complexity and dimension, their worlds inform and complement one another, all three connected by common values of clarity, intellectual inquiry, and responsibility. There is a sense of the marvelous here, too: The worlds within these publications continue a journey for American poetry, and American feminism, that welcomes, challenges, and evolves our collective aesthetic.

In Sandra Simonds’s collection Orlando, the transformation of “Orlando the city” into “Orlando the friend” is a tidal turn. Simonds confides in Orlando, shares her history of victimization and receiving of abuse with Orlando, explores power through Orlando. Orlando thus becomes more than its 80 pages of poems. It is the transition of the city. It is the intimacy of personification. It is the beauty of maturity. It is the countenance before and beyond revolution in being:

the Small World: how they weave their way inside a collective eureka,
they shriek a giddy shriek
into the phantasmagoria of this trashy arrangement, a spell on each
reverberating culture,
lit by electronic candles, the moon happy as a soldier, every piece
dances to the gnawing

Orlando represents an incredible feat of poetic prowess by its breadth and by its representations of place, person, and truth. The book explores the most human moments of the systems within which we live—systems that layer, stack, take on new meanings. We are reminded of tragedy, violence, and sadness. Systems bring us interlocking moments of emotion, thought, and reaction. A microcosmic muse in a bubble of tropical noise, Orlando becomes a sequence that shatters with the breathing of a poet who has been broken but survives, a poet who accepts mutation of and transgression toward self.

Simonds’s book is structured into two pieces, the title poem and “Demon Spring.” Written in tercets, “Orlando” tracks the speaker’s experiences with stalking and abuse, which result in a solitude that offers chances for reflection and serenity. The work is written in a sprawling verse that reads more like prose than poetry—the words are hungry to move from line to line, expressionistic and hedonistic all the same. The brutality, the seizing of ideas upon ideas through the author’s narrative turns Orlando into a gauntlet for writer and reader both, as in this passage from “Demon Spring”:

Locked in the beauty of the pearl,
far from frail, a mellow rain flows
over Orlando
Orlando, place of raw material, place of affect,
place of this lush box, the pulse so lush
it makes the live version of history
stream before you like tears

While the structure of “Orlando” breaks toward the experimental (or, rather, chaotic) in form and tone by breaking down the tercet sprawl into jagged, staccato lines, the second half of Simonds’s work is equally enticing and rupturing. It falls into place through its most gratuitous descriptions of a life built upon systems. This is a necessary repetition, a validation, a heartbreaking and entrancing position of a storyteller whose life subsides in cycles of cruelty. The book resonates with both approachable horror and the unapproachable banality of peace. An exploration but also evocation of the very environment which continues its brutality, Orlando is a book that is relentless, bold, and thorough, and yet fulfills the chaos of life, the vision of destructive and regenerative energies. Like the city which is carries its name, the book succeeds, continues, and grows.

Growth is a form of illumination, by what it brings into being and what it coincides with. While Simonds manages to explore space and time through the confines of a large, empowered symbol, Jane Gregory, in her latest book Yeah No, begins from within. Growth in Yeah No is challengingly personal and cryptically impersonal. What at first glance appears to be rush upon rush of the delusional is also consciously formed with patterns and systems in mind.

Yeah No is a book of fierce curiosity. A puzzle box of intertwined experiences that range the gamut of emotional context, this collection bears an identity of lenses, the spectral and layered models. Gregory’s persistence of language is striking. There is a dualism in form through the programmatic and the faded: language of certainty is emboldened and language of passivity lingers just beyond. On the page this appears through the poet’s use of literally lighter text, and yet the idea, in multiple iterations, extends to other spaces and forms. The language itself is thoroughly, if not universally, capable of keeping itself in check:

This is a book of paranoia obviated by paranoia      It exists a delusion
scrapped by reality      It is called RUIN HATH / THEY HAVE ME

Gregory’s work explores critique, doubt, and the means of explanation. To most poets, the act of expression is one that, in being made, represents truth. But what is truth through the myriad of emotions and other factors that make up autonomy in our own, singular sentience? And at what cost are we to take on and responsibly deal with these qualities? A system of investigation and understanding, of awareness and empathy, by and for the self, is raised up and up. The cost is investment in a mindful approach to a poetics of precise introspection. Yeah No is about the acknowledgment and respect of contradiction through the process of care.

For the reader, this form of exploration turns out to be quite dark. Despite the illumination and the complexities of engagement, Gregory’s work is often wrought with linguistic difficulties, shifts in perspective, and the challenge toward refinement and clarity. The result is a textured, polyvocal presentation of a core of humanity:

and I don’t want to work
on what’s prepared for never

to end and wonder can you
feel my love point from many a wondrous

grot and secret cell . . .

And within these small, dense stirrings are the passages we all go through. I read the feminism here as a feminism of nurture, a rite of providing gifts by taking upon weight and allowing weight to be applied. The weight in this case becomes the other, the addition, the arresting and the arousing. The poems chronicle a process of seeking as well as a reckoning with nurturing subtext of being. Being as seen from the sense of resting and restlessness. Being as elevated concept. Being as fragment and fragment as observable. But where there is an internal sense of determination, there is also the welcoming, integrated sense of the communal. Gregory’s work in this collection is jarring for being so warmly dissonant, so difficult and so satisfying.

As it persists through a restless tension between the passive and the active, Yeah No breaks into a freedom of decision: “This book was written from prison or in hiding, depending on how things go after you accept this proposal and fund us and we do the thing and more than once at that” writes Gregory towards (but not at) the end of the book. Additional room to grow? The acceptance of circumstance and that emergence through the poet’s clarity. As such, clarity moves itself to density, and in density we find ourselves, readers, a collected continuum of the poet’s system of the self. A harrowing maze of mirrors, a series of projections and acceptances, and all that we identify with. Yeah No, the contradictory phrase that complements by juxtaposition our very present, very knowing involvement. Whereas Simonds has herself and Orlando, Gregory has herself and us.

What we contain shows its holistic, enduring face in Deborah Meadows’s Lecture Notes: A Duration Poem in 12 Parts. Affirming that “notions of kind masters / are meaningless,” Meadows explores history with via a deft sense of self. She takes the energies she committed to a series of lectures, twelve in fact, mostly spoken by brilliant people, most of which are men, and has revisited these efforts. The lecturers include Ehud Kalai, Volker Remmert, Richard Andersen, Larry Neal, Steven Deyle, Frances Rosenbluth, Steve Squyres, Iwan Barankay, Marc D. Hauser, Andre Carus, Vicente Fox, and Ofer Gal.

On the surface, the writing looks poetic, vague, choppy, circling around truth by way of interpretation, representation, the art of creation. She provides notes, transcriptions, the stream of consciousness as automata arising out of dusty historical footprint, out of the land of pedagogy, where it has entered into her own brief system. With Lecture Notes, Meadows performs—like Simonds and Gregory—an act of personal examination in the context of larger systems and her own systematic reclamation, following her authorial trajectory as another conceptual project aligned with her other, most recent books. It is a book that is a monument, a summary, and an object of beauty and time:

does your brain know
it’s in it?
—moral domain, neural data
—unwind principles &
how does culture
change or shape

The subtitle of the book includes A Duration and this is a curious term. Aren’t all books durations? Aren’t all experiences writing them (and reading them) informed by the individual moments that comprise such experiences? Lecture Notes tackles the reality of the written work but goes beyond. Meadows seeks the human, seeks to portray that liberated spirit of self. It is a mindful session of knowing her own act as an artist, and the energies there, but also in agreeing to this work, she is agreeing to much more, and providing much more for the outward who might experience her system. Much like Gregory’s Yeah No, which brings the reader into a world of the intimate and personal as process, so too is Lecture Notes a magnetizing inward, an attraction to the core. In the case of Meadows, the work is filled with agreements, doubts, joys, angers, and the plethora of other reactions to experiences within the system of learning (the lectures). It is a sequence of splicing that become of relative importance for the reader as they have been of relative, fluctuating importance to the poet:

—light “same” everywhere

—human eye –pupil,
a window
(there is nothing
inherently wrong in
using an instrument.)

Indeed, the pause or break, as a sequence of qualities within the art of this book, are worth further exploration; as much about duration as it is about an anti-duration, a moment of time that is a flash or instant, Lecture Notes seeks to merge the historical with the present through the disjunction and the quizzical entry of form and style of each line. The understanding of a complex system of thought being carried along over the course of history is an understanding of morphs and mutations, as represented in the book. Meadows and her work explores these morphs and mutations by projecting the ideas of her influencers and her moments of encounters into the ether of the future reader. As conceptual works so often do, Lecture Notes invites additional participation assertively, which results in even further, fueled layers of meaning.

All three of these books feel inherently marvelous, rattling from start to finish. From the outside to the within and through the space between the spectrum’s edges come Simonds, Gregory, and Meadows. While these books all contribute to similar feminist goals with fruitful potency, they still move the female voice into uniquely individual spaces. As books of poetry in 2018, these are books that uplift, spirited and capable, proud and enduring. A fulfilling optimism lingers well-lit just beyond the shadows of the overlaying systems we must, all of us, come to terms with.

Click here to purchase Orlando
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Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018

Boatsman on a Wasted Shore:
An Interview with Peter Mishler

photo by Jennifer Wetzel

Interviewed by Michelle Lewis

In voice, form, and content, Peter Mishler’s Fludde (Sarabande Books, $14.95) is a debut collection that feels driven into existence by the present moment. Selected by Dean Young as winner of the Kathryn A. Morton Prize in Poetry, Fludde is an empirical and moral interrogation of contemporary American culture but employs none of contemporary poetry’s familiar devices—or any device I can name. The book’s music, its vivid, outsized imagery, and its surreal associations are steeped in the Romantics, shaped by the Modernists, and communicated with a language so restrained and earnest it can stop your breath.

Young states in the introduction that the collection permits the reader to “see beyond the life of a single poet, and outside our current moment.” Don’t let your guard down. Follow the book’s shadowy corridors to the community pool and find yourself in the City of Dis; surrender to its agonizing schisms only to find a doubly painful ache for unity. “I am unfeasible now,” says the speaker, “in my protective suit / and mask.” Despite its slag of municipal waste, its sarcophagi of CFOs, its flatscreen with its warbling Spice Channel, between the written words resides something deeply personal. In this exchange, Mishler provides insight into the genesis of the collection, how he pushed past the barriers to its existence, and his formative, real-life experience as a performer in the opera that is at the center of this collection.

Michelle Lewis: First, I want to tell you how much I’ve been looking forward to this conversation—living with this book the past few weeks has been something I’ve truly enjoyed. Fludde is magical, mysterious, and disturbing, but knowledge is power they say, so I’m not afraid. Are you?

Peter Mishler: Thank you for being so kind about the book, Michelle. Any fears I've had—about what my poems might say or reveal, to a reader or to myself—dissipated after writing "Fludde," the first poem I wrote for this collection, which intuitively suggested a way to proceed in writing the rest of the poems. From that point onward, I trusted myself to write lines and phrases that felt like they had some level of integrity in speaking for that which is deep within me. However, this gift came to me after a decade-long struggle with the question of whether or not I could ever use language in a way that would have that integrity, whether or not I could write poems that would "feel” as A.R. Ammons once said. So, what I feared most came before the writing of the poem that would ultimately also serve as the collection’s title.

ML: I can certainly see this poem as a locus where the arteries of the collection depart. Can you say more about what that way of writing was—what gear it was that unstuck itself and permitted you to move forward?

PM: During the time of writing “Fludde,” I was waking early, in the dark, before teaching, to work in a space which Toni Morrison identifies so beautifully when she observes her reasons for working before dawn: “not being in the light, but being there before it arrives” [her emphasis]. I sat down each morning to commune with those writers to whom I've felt closest for mostly indescribable reasons, but which I think I can articulate now: they were those writers who suggested in their lines a kind of intentional searching of the unconscious. Reading these lines allowed me to write lines that sprang from an inner well—the deepest resources of my body and mind. Reading before writing is, of course, nothing new for writers, but even knowing this and having practiced it all of my writing life, this particular experience at this particular time felt remarkable.

And it was not just my experience of reading. I also believe that, parallel to the work, I had committed myself to the difficult task of trying to pursue, understand, and unravel that which has the potential, psychically, to stop access to those depths, and this, I believe, gave me the gift of lines I wanted and needed to write.

Something wonderful happened with that poem three or four months later: it occurred to me that the poem was explicating, without my knowing it, some new understandings I was moving toward in my personal life. I was pleased to discover that I had enacted and then witnessed language’s ability to hold in it a kind of foreknowledge, a quality of seeing that would otherwise be unavailable. And of course, I wanted more of that.

ML: The title of the poem you mention is a reference to Benjamin Britten’s opera Noye’s Fludde, a performance piece for school children; in this poem, the reader is placed vividly in the school and the surroundings of the performance. It is an extremely intimate poem in a collection where the speaker often maintains a critical distance.

PM: I wonder if the intimacy you are describing comes from the fact that the poem is closely cleaved to autobiography. I did, too, feel immediately at the level of meaning that I had accurately captured what it felt like, what I had experienced, when performing in the Britten opera.

I performed in Noye’s Fludde as one of two owls at the age of seven or eight, and the experience was strange and intense and frightening and also sublime: the rehearsals that went late into the night; the adults singing operatically in their robes and beards; all of us children wearing animal heads and meant to run in exhilaration and relief toward the ark; the limited understanding of the flood story at that age, knowing just its devastation and wonder, knowing that there was a punishment and then safety; the swaying, all of us, in the boat together singing of our deliverance; the canned thunder from the PA system; and once, before the performance, the whole company went on retreat to rehearse for a long weekend at a camp called Mount Misery where I got a fever—with all its attendant childhood delirium—in the midst of these songs that I was learning and practicing, and all of them maddeningly recurring as I tried to sleep off the illness in my bunk. So it was also, then, thrilling to feel that I had remembered this whole childhood experience in the act of writing. And I think I knew, too, that the experience of performing in this particular play, and writing about it—with all of its theological, literary, anthropological, environmental, and psychological import—would at some level continue to provide the hint of a subject as I kept making new work.

And this began my experience of writing Fludde, which I can only describe in one way whenever I think of it: that I was a boatsman alone on a wasted shore or blasted heath that was littered with the detritus of English language of all kinds—of the corporate world, of my earliest childhood, of the current moment, of the songs and poems I’ve loved, the commercials I’ve memorized—and my task was to gather them and to put them in an order. And so, with as little interruption as possible, I wrote the rest of the book over the course of three years, trying almost ritualistically to work under all of these circumstances.

ML: Your discovery that language had the ability to “hold in it a kind of foreknowledge” is beautiful, and so apt for a collection where boundaries—particularly of time and knowing—are fluid. I expect you are, or will be, categorized with poets who are considered cultural critics. Do some of the fears you refer to have to do with writing within these anxieties? How much do you think about satisfying the modern reader?

PM: My first thought is to say that the modern reader I am writing for is me, and if I am writing to anyone, I do hope that this voice has spoken to and satisfied me first. I have thought intentionally about a poem’s audience only to the extent that I am its first reader—the poem can go no further without me. I hope that the poem will reflect something back at me; comfort, sadden, anger, or elate me; fill the void of what I am unable to find—and long to find—in the work of others; and I always hope this voice will bear that foreknowledge I was describing earlier. And maybe most importantly, the poem has to register its finality for me at the level of music. At that point, I can discover what I think is being said in the song and try to strike a balance between a clarity that is in service of what’s at stake in the poem’s narrative without striking that which seems anomalous or that which I don’t understand or that which fulfills the song even at the expense of sense—I don’t want to excise anything that might be valuable that is beyond my current understanding of the poem. This has to come first for me, the music and resonance of the voice within me, because a reversal of this, that the poem should consider an audience outside of myself, would be—for me, anyway—a quick way to cease the production of writing, that active searching of the depths in the dark. It would also bring me closer to the rhetorical, which isn’t the kind of music I want to make.

ML: Is there an example of a poem that began at the level of music?

PM: Well, the poem that comes to mind is “Salvation Army,” because it’s also a good example of the closest I ever come to intentionality in terms of composition, and it demonstrates how that intentionality takes on a life of its own in spite of myself. The poem’s lines were developed from the list of PRISM’s keywords for domestic surveillance as well as all of the words that signify the natural world in “The Wasteland.”

ML: That’s a fascinating insight into this poem. It includes the lines, “Done with the upper-/echelon malls, the sylvan suburbs, /the salted fields.” Those sylvan suburbs do so chime with Eliot. “Salvation Army” is also an excellent example of the collection’s music. This is the last half of this poem:

the embassy garden
is thronged for you
with freckled girls,
a hospital bed
of innumerable threadcount,
and palm
after dew-blighted palm.
You flip your pocket change
onto the boots
of the pockmarked
lyrist from Thrace,
and he play
and he plays for you,
and he dumbs down the sound
of your aircraft
dropping new tennis shoes
into the mountains.

PM: I was pleased with this particular poem’s ending, especially: “your aircraft / dropping new tennis shoes / into the mountains.” After finishing the poem, it occurred to me that it had some things to say that I do agree with: the poem appears to criticize American exceptionalism for its impulse to proselytize its “democracy,” for its view of developing nations as untapped human capital, for its ideological belief in a goodness and charity that is inconsiderate of actual human lives. The central subject of this poem, this head-of-state emeritus, gets to live in his retirement enthroned, his every personal desire attended to, while listening to the musician whom he has pitied, patronized, and subjected to his will, and who allows him the luxury of turning a blind eye to suffering elsewhere which he has probably legislated, and is responsible for, himself.

ML: The officer’s vantage point at the end seems to parallel the perspective in the final poem of the book, “Little Tom Dacre in Heaven.” Dacre is the boy at the center of Blake’s “The Chimney Sweeper.” In your poem, he is violently kidnapped into heaven where his tears fall on humanity’s spoils (“I see my tears received below / on the arched back / of a chief of staff”). Many poems in this collection are in dialogue with Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience, and just as Blake confronts the reader with the hypocrisies of class and religion, Fludde seems to confront the reader with their own ethical accountability.

PM: I agree that putting those two poems in conversation with each other says something about my reading of Blake, and about certain vantage points that are available in Fludde. I think that the poem “Salvation Army” has more in common with the critical stance Blake takes in some of his Songs as opposed to my poem “Little Tom Dacre in Heaven,” even if the latter poem does reanimate Blake’s Tom. The perspective of “Salvation Army” is a voice that, from afar, maybe even from the arm-chair, is sickened by American leadership: how could one dare give a kind of senseless charity? This seems like a Blakean impulse and a Blakean influence to me.

But to focus on “Little Tom Dacre in Heaven”—I wonder if what you are reading here as a confrontation with my, or the reader’s, ethical accountability is developed through a sense of intimacy in the poem which by extension can be experienced as a personal address. This may be an effect of what we were talking about earlier in terms of who I’m writing for. I am finding my way through the poems as I write them in order to understand how I correspond with them and how they correspond with me, at the level of music especially, and less so at the level of meaning. Any calls to action in the poems that don’t feel explicitly damning of a specific apparatus of power must be calls to action sent from me to me, and that speaking to myself, when it is overheard, perhaps resonates with others. And I wonder what, at the level of the line, in the prosody, in the “music” of the poem, creates this sense of confrontation at a more personal level? In the case of “Little Tom Dacre,” Tom tells us what he sees in a dark pool of rain before he is kidnapped to heaven: a flooded, spoiled, post-apocalyptic adult world—through an accumulation and conjoining of images, which borrow cadences from John of Revelations more so than Blake: a warning and a plea for preparedness, an account and accountability.

Many of the children in my poems have experienced trauma of one kind or another, which they must use their imaginative resources to escape. I've similarly had to disappear into my writing to escape the world, and I find that in doing so I've often written in the voice of a child. They've written me, and I've written them. What emerges in that overlay is a deep feeling of the recovery of something lost. Perhaps the poems themselves are pleading for ethical accountability at this level as well—asking me to continue writing in this way—and the poems are promising me that they will continue to repay me, if I do. There is a responsibility in abandoning one's self to poetry in this way, and I feel this sometimes even more deeply than other forms of personal responsibility I might have to take for our world and my relationship to it. My relationship to the world and to myself seems to be directly joined to the writing and reading of poems.

ML: You refer in the Notes to Poetics of Reverie by Gaston Bachelard, and this book makes an interesting companion to Fludde and some of these ideas we’ve brought up.

PM: I read Poetics of Reverie about a year before I wrote “Fludde.” I even wrote Bachelard a letter on the title page of the book, thanking him for echoing back to me nearly everything I’d ever thought about the kind of poet I wanted to be. Some writers have a way of putting into words something you’ve been carrying around with you privately with nowhere to put it. I felt that I had always known that what he calls childhood “reverie”—an abandonment to the music of the unconscious and to glimpses into the depths where the images of childhood remembered and misremembered are at play—was my greatest resource. Bachelard suggests for me in his poetics a permission to stop making sense, to eschew practicality, even to mistrust the artistic efficacy of transcribing dreams; he is against nearly any expository recounting in favor of that which can only be heard if one has let go of wanting to write in favor of letting something be written. There’s an indulgence in and trust of the images that surface unexplained as opposed to an image that is deployed as some correlative to explanation: the dreaded metaphor.

Earlier you were asking about my artistic fears; my biggest fear, to say it plainly, was that I would never have a “real subject.” I willfully searched for one. Tried to wrest one into being. Coupling that with a nagging urgency that there was another answer (made plain in Bachelard’s writing, which I would discover later) resulted in poems that, as I revised them—harmed them, really—expressed that struggle in their stiltedness, their needing to be poems.

ML: Bachelard says, “We need lessons from a life that is beginning.” It struck me as a beautiful sentiment that many of your poems embody.

PM: I assume that what Bachelard means is that childhood is an ideal, uninhibited state that does not have anxieties about what it makes, imagines; does not have anxiety about—or desire for—mimesis, but favors the freedom of pure song and reverie, unadulterated creation.

The imagination of the child can in its purest, unharmed state provides a good contrast to the kind of freedom we give up as we mature into creative animals—but I hesitate here, too. Bachelard assumes that we can divorce the traumas of childhood from an idealized childhood underneath it, though this seems dangerously uncomplicated. I’m not sure what my deepest imagination would be without the complication of lived experience. Many children are forced to employ their creativity to protect themselves from harm—which is a subject that is written about effectively and beautifully by another great scholar of Jung, Donald Kalsched, who wrote Trauma and the Soul: A Psycho-Spiritual Approach to Human Development and its Interruption. This book provided me with the same experience as Bachelard’s did; it echoed back to me everything I wanted to enact in my poetry.

Much in my life was beginning to heal in tandem with making the book, from that first poem onward. Jean Valentine, who is a beautiful poet of Bachelardian reverie, wrote me a generous letter in response to a note I had written to her when I had first started writing poems, and she gave me some kind advice about the long journey of finding my way from my head to my heart. I didn’t know what she meant at the time. But she was so right.

ML: These influences certainly help me see these poems in a new way. A poem I wanted to ask you about is “Mount Airy Resort and Casino”—this poem comes near the end of the book. It is incredibly raw in its use of direct address, and the compassion and pain of the collection seems to pool here. Would you share when this poem was written in the context of the other poems, and how you feel it serves the collection?

PM: To return to “Fludde,” to the story of Noah: at this point in the collection, I was aware that the great flood of Genesis (or floods in general, as there are of course various stories that predate the Old Testament) had appeared and reappeared, however distorted or fractured, throughout the collection, and I felt I needed my Mount Ararat, the dry land and place of safety for those who survived. I say this with some reservation, as only a shimmer of this need occurred to me. Mt. Airy, in the poem, is an imagined place—although I googled it after writing the poem, and there is an actual place, near where I grew up, called Mount Airy Casino Resort in the Pocono Mountains. I surely had driven past its billboards on the trip from where I grew up in New Jersey to Syracuse, New York where I studied poetry, and the name must have stuck with me.

But more directly, as I communed with my reading, trying to abandon all semblance of an “idea” for the poem in order to return to the art of writing lines, the poem is more directly indebted to the cadences and sensibility, of those found in Han Shan’s “Cold Mountain poems,” a series in which a poet who has exiled himself to a mountain takes pride in this vantage point from where, having shed his old life, he can look down on the rest of society’s quotidian doings. In my case, the “cold mountain” I’ve written into my poem has been co-opted as real estate—the land ruined by a casino and some shuttle system, the beautiful vista having been repurposed, depressingly, as a bottomless, thinly carpeted void of a casino that thrives on our vices. The figure who remains there, who haunts the place as if it’s a winter time Timberline Lodge, is disillusioned, lost, and desperate for connection. And so he places the death mask of a child over his own, the mask of a child who had died at a summer camp near the Casino—who died in a “cage of ice,” no less. This child has been taken in death by the speaker, who needs to become the child in order to break the spell of a world that has done him no favors. He longs to come down, to begin again, to return to his “trial life” as Bachelard calls it. But now his only chance to do so is through an uncanny reanimation of the dead.

I was talking in my last answer about the journey from the head to the heart. I errantly expected that if I was to gain access to the heart, it would generate poems of hope—but apparently not. In poems like “Mt. Airy,” in these representations of loss that I’ve found myself making, there is affirmation in giving a voice to pain. To name harm is empowering. Enacting its effects can be a way of creating space for managing personal grief and loss. This is healing. And further, to have abandoned myself to any outcomes through the focus on the making of lines and resisting meaning—trusting the deepest impulse—that is healing, doubled.

ML: How fitting that this imagined place, Mt. Airy, turned out to be real. Many figures in this book live on one threshold or another— I am struck by the idea that Han Shan himself may not have even existed. In speaking about these final poems, it appears we have returned to a place where we started, considering intimacy and critical distance and how vantage point triangulates with confrontation and personal accountability.

PM: There is a poetics of intimacy and distance, and the development of such from line to line: how the writer becomes the interlocutor who receives that first written line and decides whether to continue, to maintain, to balance, to expand on, to reject the integrity of that line, to draw deeper inward or to turn outward. This is seen, for instance, in the volta of the sonnet, when the poet can summon the energy to intensify the poem by broadening or narrowing the emotional distance of its voice inwardly or outwardly. I’m thinking of the difference between Wyatt’s turn toward “Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am” and Shakespeare’s “This the world well knows yet none know well. ” One’s reading of such effects, again, at the level of their music, dictate a direction for the poem in a way that may seem intuitive but can also be credited to the seductive music of my reading. These effects in the poems of others serve as a kind of blueprint or vessel into which I pour whatever it is I am trying to haul up and order and arrange by sound.

The Serbian poet Vasko Popa tells us the fable of the “Prudent Triangle,” in which there is a fourth side that keeps itself hidden in the burning center of the triangle. I would like to remain there too. That burning center is the place where poems are made. In his poem, Popa says that the fourth side of the triangle climbs the peaks of the other sides, until all three of the sides disappear in fire, and so the fourth side breaks itself into a new triangle, hidden inside the original three sides, and then that fourth side goes again to hide in the new triangle’s center to begin the process again. I have to remain there, hiding myself from any empirical knowledge about my work when I’m writing, and if I start to know better, I must fracture this knowing and hide again. The aim is to become as unknowable to myself as possible, and thereby, when the poem is completed, reap the benefits of having delayed knowledge in order to experience the shock of recognizing myself—to be known, and knowing, in a space much more complex than the identity and psyche with which I’d have typically assigned myself.

ML: This puts me in the mind of Bachelard again, who asserts that poetry is one of the destinies of speech. When language attempts to have a future, we find poetry.

PM: Poetry creates, in all its imaginative potential, virtues that those who have the power to legislate our lives show no talent for harnessing: its capacity to see many sides at once, to refuse to draw a line in the sand, to "contain multitudes" and to "contradict" itself, to forgive (if it wants to), to exhibit humility, to acknowledge complicity, to critique itself, and to admit or confess. And then there is an aesthetics of failure here, too, in this art I love. There is room for the incomprehensible, the jagged, and the strange; an embrace and acceptance and welcoming of imperfection; the ability to muddy ideological division—the permission to remain in mystery, in unknowing. This is a future I long to live in.

Click here to purchase this book
at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018

pray me stay eager

Ellen Doré Watson
Alice James Books ($15.95)

by Teresa Castellitto

Ellen Doré Watson’s latest poetry collection, pray me stay eager, is a meditation on the myriad ways the passage of time can be humorous, engaging, and devastating. Watson’s implementation of poetic form is as diverse as the range of experiences she explores; she moves quickly through lyrical rhyme schemes, blunt language, and enjambments that move the eyes and mind across and down the page in rapid bursts. Watson’s poetic exploration of the aging body, the ailing parent, the threat of assault weapons, and the fear of financial insecurity is both prayer and plea to retain the eagerness of youth, to avoid collapsing under the weight of so much knowledge. Divided into three sections, pray me stay eager assumes a stance that is open to the future, yet that remains firmly grounded in moments of awe fleeting through the present.

The collection begins with “Message in a Bottle,” a poem of six unrhymed tercets. It is one of the few poems here written in the third person, depicting an unnamed “her” whose “desk sits plopped lonely but points / true north,” although it ends with the first person “I” looking in a mirror at “her.” The poem illuminates all that a mirror does not reflect: a mother with a daughter whose birthday is not “regrettable” like her own. Concepts of “feast” and “fester” are equivocated as they relate to the love of forward movement for her daughter and dismay at her own aging. Watson juxtaposes words like “frets” and “bolds,” “lust” and “shame,” to underscore the range of topography trekked in the life of a woman of a certain age. The title, “Message in a Bottle,” may be a call to look beyond the vessel bobbing and floating at the surface and to discern the message inside.

“The Night Doesn’t Summarize the Day” further explores the theme of dueling dichotomies in fourteen lines of free verse laden with enjambments. This poem moves away from the obviously personal to explore ways in which we come together only to separate in fear. Invoking the recognition of Palestine creates a stark image of well-guarded borders whose impenetrability requires constant vigilance to the extent that even to question the soundness of those boundaries may wreak havoc. Watson’s language is provocative—“skin lanterns,” “waterboarding”—and instills instant discomfort. The juxtaposition, “Small doses / of darkness are permissible, light pretends to own / nothing, or everything” is consistent with the narrator of “Message in a Bottle,” who “Hates partitions and in- / decision.” What is more partitioned or indecisive as the fate of marooned Palestinians whose light is filtered through encroaching settlements surrounding specks of “something green”? The poem calls to mind a deft defense of a nation whose voice has been all but silenced by walls of political apologist chatter.

In “LAX to BDL,” Watson illustrates a brief fantasy of seducing a stranger on a plane. Beneath the craving for sexual fulfillment are fear and a bit of resignation, as she posits “¬real lust lately / gone underground from lack of habit and hope.” The divide between the narrator and the object of her interest is bridged as she catches his look: “sluggish, kind of watery, just like me.” It may not be him she desires but the distant her who had not yet become sluggish. Another example of the theme of post-menopausal intimacy can be found in “You Know What You Want and How Old Your Eggs Are.” Here Watson delivers a discreet mandate to women to seek love and sex on terms of engagement which make no false promises and will suffer no pretense. Using deceptively simple language (love, wet, dry, fluff, bluff), Watson distills the hyperbole of love and longing to reveal its naked core. There is force and certainty in this poem that has neither the time nor inclination to dawdle.

Moving from romantic love to familial bonds, Watson explores the relationship with her ailing father. In “Salad for Christmas,” she examines the discomfort of watching her father age and the frustrations and indignities that often accompany the process. The beginning of the poem employs “b” sounds that create a plosive staccato urgency that mirrors the emotion around the table—“empty of all but iceberg lettuce, / everyone but him bossed around.” She uses concrete images, “walker” and “commode,” as bulky reminders of the burdens of dependence. Chastising her own impatience, Watson conjures her arrival at the abyss and ends the poem with a reminder to self to keep walking, without losing sight of all that her father’s walks now entail. Watson continues to address the plight of her father in “Not Simple,” a poem that may be actual dialogue between daughter and morphine-impaired father. The poem utilizes bracketed asides that resemble stage direction to indicate the narrator’s actions and observations of her father during and after she’s administered morphine to him. The nonsensical utterances of the father are witnessed and grounded by the daughter’s sensible measured responses; through offers of water and pillow plumping, she seeks to connect to and comfort his loosely tethered psyche. It’s a brutal, heart-wrenching, funny, and pathetic moment, one of complete “edgelessness” where human need and disintegration are glaring.

Edgelessness, a theme running through this collection, is memorialized in the poem “Ode to Edgelessness.” The concept seems to drive Watson’s exploration of love, aging, and borders, as well as the physical and spiritual worlds; the collection’s wide array of topics and the sensitivity with which she engages them is apparent in the poem’s line, “And what is love but / us smudging edges, mad to rub them out.” pray me stay eager is a collection that seeks to erase borders wherever they arise, using language in ways that both please and provoke. The surging pace of the poems is balanced by still contemplations, creating whirls of momentum and reflection which embrace the future while cherishing the imperfect perfection of now.

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Critical Assembly:
Poems of the Manhattan Project

John Canaday
University of New Mexico Press ($19.95)

by John Bradley

“Longing to repeat God’s opening salvo, ‘Let there be . . . ,’ / they roughed out doomsday.” This is the voice of journalist William Laurence in “Medialog: William Laurence,” the opening poem of Critical Assembly, describing those who created the first atomic bomb. This poem, a ghazal, shows the skill of the author. John Canady, who won the 2002 Walt Whitman Award for his debut book The Invisible World, has not only done extensive research on a huge cast (forty-six characters deliver monologues in this book,) but he’s transformed the events and facts into engaging literary works, no small achievement.

Some readers might believe that we’ve already heard from the Manhattan Project’s major players, such as Albert Einstein, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Leslie Groves, and Edward Teller, among others. But Canaday shows us while we may know something about these figures, we most likely do not know the internal friction between many of those involved in the Project. Here’s physicist Edward Condon, for example, on the strict control of General Groves, who oversaw the physicists: “He would redact our very souls, friendships / and loves blacked out by censors’ pencil strokes, / our wives kept ignorant as aliens, / all of us thieves in his fiefdom . . .” Canaday’s Kitty Oppenheimer presents some of the most bitter lines, comparing General Groves’ stomach to “a pregnant sow’s” and asking at a party when she’s drunk, “’how does one get the come / stains off a nightie?’” Poetry has never given us a Manhattan Project quite like this.

Canaday also brings in many voices readers have never heard from before, such as Antonio Martinez, a lab assistant, who struggles with his identity: “How can I bear / a Spanish name         and speak in English / yet keep my Tewa soul?”, the very breaks in the lines suggesting his inner conflict. We hear from Appolonia Chalee, a maid, who disapproves of the gadgets used by Mrs. Fischer, the woman she works for: “I tell her discontented / spirits live in these machines, but // Mrs. Fischer twists her husband’s arm / to buy more gadgets . . .” the word “gadget” reminding us of the atom bomb, which the physicists referred to with the same term.

Essentially a series of dramatic monologues, with each poem named after the speaker, the book can easily be imagined as a play. One of the more fascinating characters is Edith Warner, a woman who came to the Southwest in hopes the dry climate would cure her tuberculosis. She opened a tea room near the Rio Grande, where she offered food and respite for the nearby physicists. Her voice is the most connected to the land of all the speakers, and reading her poems, it’s easy to see why the physicists would go to her tea room for comfort: “I will pickle winter pears, tomatoes, squash, / and then lay out tobaccy Dukey, lemons, and sardines . . . . “ But she’s nobody’s fool: “I recognize / the conversation of atomic specialists; I know / the sound of German and Italian natives, what it means / when such men staff a secret Allied military base. / They think I disapprove. They’re right. But not of them.”

Another memorable character, due to his ominous tone, is that of Peer de Silva, head of military intelligence at Los Alamos:

Oppenheimer’s childlike trust’s
the worst. Milk and honey
for some egghead’s Eden
where bleeding-hearted
fellow travelers think trust
is “only decent.” Blind
faith’s poison, even
smacks of treason. Gimcrack,
geegaw sentiment at best:
cheap beads he’s set
to trade Manhattan for.
Ideology is war.

In a section of Biographical Notes that Canaday includes, we learn that after the war de Silva “joined the nascent CIA”—no surprise.

The speakers are not only critical about each other, however; many of them have misgivings about the “gadget” itself and their role in creating it. Rose Bethe, daughter of physicist Hans Bethe, tells us: “They [the Nazis] made us all commit our lives / to evil. Which, with a will, we did.” Brigadier General Thomas Farrell views humans as less than heroic: “Puny, / blasphemous things, we dare / tamper with forces heretofore / reserved to the Almighty.” Robert Serber, a physicist, offers these words, which could be an epitaph for the Manhattan Project: “Please God / we weren’t monsters. But we loved our work.” His honesty adds pathos to his plea.

These are heavily allusive poems, and while the notes at the back of the book help a good deal, this book will be a challenge for those unfamiliar with the Manhattan Project. However, an ambitious work of poetry like this—reminiscent of Campbell McGrath’s XX: Poems for the Twentieth Century, which also contains multitudes and monologues—should be celebrated. While Canaday’s book does not include the voices of those in Hiroshima and Nagasaki who experience first-hand the product of the labor at Los Alamos, these poems do allow us to hear the psychological toll that creating this bomb had on all involved, including wives and laborers.

Critical Assembly arrives at a crucial time, when we hear casual talk of using “strategic nuclear weapons” and staging a “bloody nose attack” on a nuclear power. Joseph Rotblat, the physicist who left the Manhattan Project after the defeat of the Nazis, refusing to do further work on the atomic bomb, offers this advice to himself: “Leave the lab. Seek /naïve work and save / the heart. Grieve.” His voice resonates now all too clearly.

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Antigone Undone: Juliette Binoche, Anne Carson, Ivo van Hoe
and the Art of Resistance

Will Aitken
University of Regina Press ($20)

by W. C. Bamberger

In 2012, Anne Carson published Antigonick, a translation of Sophokles’ Antigone that is humorous in some places and Beckett-like in others. In 2014, she received a request from the Belgian director Ivo van Hove to do a more traditional translation, one that specifically fleshed out the characters for a production of the play to star Juliette Binoche. After first being “enraged” by the request to revisit a work she had already translated, Carson agreed. She and her husband then invited their friend Will Aitken, an American-Canadian novelist and critic, to attend rehearsals and the play’s opening in Luxembourg in early 2015. This book is the result of that fortuitous encounter.

Antigone Undone begins as a travel journal and record of the premiere. In Part I, Aitken records details of the production’s rehearsal, of the video backdrops and the actors’ physicality—the actor playing King Kreon “moves on action verbs,” for example—and of modern-dress production touches such as shelves of surveillance tapes. Aitken doesn’t intrude on the process of the actors’ rehearsals and staging details, but he does insert himself into the narrative he tells. As Binoche begins staking out the ways in which she will give her always-varying performances as Antigone, Aitken begins to find similarities between the interaction of Antigone and Kreon and conversations he had with his father. He begins to identify with Antigone, an identification that leads him to a bleak view of the modern world: “Nothing’s changed. In the two and a half thousand years since Sophokles wrote Antigone, the world persists unaltered.”

After the premiere, Aitken wanders Amsterdam for a few days, his thoughts occupied with emotional reflections prompted by the play: “Sophokles articulates suffering with a scary aplomb laced with scathing wit. That his world mimics my world terrifies me, for it flattens promise and any possibility of forward movement.” Aitken has a gift for presenting such thoughts effectively, even as he ties his feelings about the play into his own personal history of depression. All of this comes off not as self-indulgence, but as a clear guide to why this ancient play still works for us: namely because, despite all its wider moral and civic framing, its deepest effects come by way of the drama of individual moments.

Part II of Antigone Undone is a “collage interview” of the three principals—Binoche, van Hove, and Carson. Aitken interviewed them separately then edited their responses together to create the illusion of face-to-face interaction. Here Binoche talks about the “big themes” of the play, about how she wanted to perform an active character, someone who tries to move things forward. Carson discusses how after she had reluctantly done the second translation, Binoche requested further additions to help her give Antigone more layers—a request Carson feared could turn the play into a melodrama.

We become absorbed in this conversation—Binoche pointing to Antigonik to justify asking Carson to write an addition to the play, Carson responding that she refused to do so because it would have been the very definition of hubris, and more. (In the end, an added scene was created by the actor and director, allowing Antigone’s spirit to appear after her death, whereas she vanishes from the original two-thirds of the way through.) Then we remember that this conversation didn’t actually take place, but was created by Aitken to make the exchange of ideas the principals had during the production more immediate and real to us, the readers. Here Aitken, in part, is emulating the compartmentalized way Antigone itself proceeds—the isolated soliloquys of Antigone, Kreon, and Haimon; the emotional epicenter of the play coming in the messenger’s recitation of off-stage events—and how it is only in the audience’s experience that a whole is created. The many subtleties at work in Aitken’s writing suggest this echoing is no accident.

In Part III, Aitken moves into theoretical musing. He sketches Hegel’s pioneering writings about Antigone, and readings of it by Virginia Woolf, Judith Butler, and others. Aitken here plays the role of both messenger and chorus, bringing into his book the intellectual news from these distant sources.

Aitken gives Binoche the final words here. At Carson’s home after the next-to-last performance, Binoche says, “As an actor . . . you must embrace your character’s pain and the pain of the world. You must do that, or why bother?” This can easily be read as a final reminder of the parallels between the actor’s emotional engagement and Aitken’s own. It is a measure of Aitken’s skill as a writer that he is able to make this parallel movement a constant through this short book—at times overtly, at times almost subliminally—and, with only a few momentary lapses, not fall into melodrama.

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Splitting the Adam:
An Interview with Amy P. Knight

Interviewed by Erin Lewenauer

The skill of a scientist and the gentle impressions of a keen observer meld in Amy P. Knight's absorbing debut Lost, Almost (Engine Books, $14.95). Selected as winner of the Engine Books Fiction Prize by Rebecca Makkai, Knight's novel tells the story of the very singular Adam Brooks, a physicist whose ambition alternately builds up and destroys those closest to him. Sometimes viewed through a microscope, sometimes a telescope, these characters' lives are explored with fascination and determination. I spoke with Knight this spring about the novel’s structure, settings, and points of view, as well as its author’s background in neuroscience and law.

Erin Lewenauer: Lost, Almost in places feels like a series of linked stories. Is this how it began?

Amy P. Knight: Sort of. It started out as a single story (which became the last chapter in the book), and then for a while it was two stories. Once it expanded beyond the two stories, I started to have a sense of an overarching timeline and arc, and that’s when I really started to conceive of it as a novel. I never conceived of the pieces developed later as stand-alone stories, even though many of them are in some ways self-contained.

EL: You have degrees in Cognitive Science, English, Creative Writing, and Law. Do you bring all your interests together when you write? Does working as a lawyer each day affect your writing?

APK: It’s definitely all connected. In the big picture, all of these fields are about understanding how people work, and figuring out new ways to explore and explain that. My specialty as a lawyer is death penalty defense, and a lot of the work that goes into that involves constructing narratives about who the people involved really are, and how they got to be that way. Writing fiction is good training for that—and vice versa. And of course, a good deal of the work that lawyers do is writing. That cuts both ways; I certainly stay in practice with the careful use of language, but it can also be immensely difficult to come home from a whole day spent writing a legal brief and then try to write fiction. That’s why I usually try to write for a while in the morning before I go to work.

EL: Your book orbits around brilliant physicist Adam Brooks and his family. Do you think brilliance/genius is isolating or at odds with forming relationships? And do you view high intelligence as a weakness or a strength?

APK: I think brilliance can be isolating. Almost by definition it involves going places alone—thinking thoughts no one has thought before. But it doesn’t have to be. Brilliant people can collaborate, or share their experiences with others, often to great effect. For Adam, isolation comes through a combination of brilliance, a job that requires utmost confidentiality, and his own personality. He is really driven and focused on one aspect of his own life and success—a quality I think is adjacent to, but not the same as, brilliance. He is of course highly intelligent in a lot of ways, but in other ways he’s clueless. There’s more than one way to be an intelligent person.

EL: Your book is set in various locations and you’ve lived many places. What appeals to you about the desert, the east coast, etc., and do all the places you’ve lived play into this novel?

APK: I’ve lived places that don’t make any appearance in the novel; for instance, I spent about two years in Montana (where I actually did a lot of the writing). That never enters in. I also went to college in New York state, and law school in the San Francisco Bay Area; the book contains a brief mention that Charlotte went to college in New York and law school in California, but that’s the extent of it. Right now, I live in Tucson, in the desert, and I plan to stay here for the indefinite future. I really like the desert. It’s beautiful, with mountains all around, and it continues to amaze me that things can grow here. We get the most incredible blooms in the summer when it rains. Much of the story is set in the New Mexico desert, and one scene in the Nevada desert; those locations were originally chosen, in terms of the historical events I write about, for their remoteness. I think the desert always retains some of that feeling, even though there are a million people here in Pima County now.

EL: What was it like writing child versus adult perspectives?

APK: I always struggle with writing children. I don’t have children, or really spend any time with them, and I often have trouble relating to children when I do encounter them in the real world. Often when I read fiction with children as characters I find it overly precious, or unoriginal; it’s really hard to write characters that feel authentically childlike but still genuinely engaging to adults. For this book, add on the layer that they are for the most part rather extraordinary children, and it was even harder. Of course, in some parts of the book, the children are the only sane and reasonable ones.

EL: Your book feels very character-driven, yet also very focused on theme. For example, you write:

“Mamma,” he says, “They’ve done it. They’ve split the atom.”
Years later, she would tell him that she had taken “atom” for his own name, Adam, that she thought he had been split in his mind, painfully divided in his heart between sharing her sorrow and joining the celebrations, and yes, these things are swirling around him, a nation split between victory and shame, caricatures of horn-blowing and hand-wringing, noise and high emotion and tears of every kind, but Adam is not a part of any of this. It riots around him as though he is a big steel bolt holding the spinning carousel to the earth.

What was your primary focus when writing, the characters or the themes you were interested in exploring?

APK: I definitely view it as character-driven. That’s my favorite kind of fiction to read, so that’s what I wanted to write. Themes certainly made their way into it—I am interested, for instance, in the role of our work in our lives, and in the degree to which we are obligated to use our gifts in certain ways. But it always has to be about the people for me, not the ideas. In fact, there was a whole section I worked on for years that started out as a concept rather than an authentic display of character, and I ended up cutting it. It just didn’t have the same life to it.

EL: You chose for the book an epigraph from John Milton’s Paradise Lost: “How art thou lost, how on a sudden lost, Defac’t, deflow’r’d, and now to Death devote?” Do you think the experience of studying or being immersed in science is a paradise lost? Or is the paradise lost that of childhood versus adulthood? Or none of the above?

APK: In Paradise Lost, that passage is talking about Eve, after she eats from the tree of knowledge. I was thinking two things when I chose that epigraph. First, I think of the idea that mankind, in inventing nuclear weapons, has “eaten the apple.” We might’ve had a good reason for doing it (did we?) but in the 1940s, we peeked behind the curtain and things have never been the same. We can’t go back. I also think the characters who give up really worthwhile things in their lives in the service of their work (and there are several of them) have, in some ways, fallen.

EL: Who do you view as the heroes or heroines of your story?

APK: It’s hard to choose one, in a book with an ensemble cast like this one. In some ways Adam is “our hero,” of course—but he’s an anti-hero at the same time. I’ve always had particular admiration for Ben, Adam’s grandson. He has a very different kind of heroism; he’s the only one in the family who manages to break free from Adam’s grip. It could be that that’s just how he’s built—it’s not really heroism because he has no choice—but he does it, and he survives. The very fact that he feels he has no choice could be what makes him heroic.

EL: The inevitable question . . . what’s next?

APK: I’m working on a new novel. I don’t want to say too much about it—that’s the best way to jinx a new project. But it’s going to be quite different from Lost, Almost. It’s not, for instance, historical or science-driven. I started Lost, Almost when I was in an MFA program, and wrote a lot of it in law school and while I had a job that was a little less demanding than the one I have now. These days I’m definitely doing more “squeezing in” of my drafting time than I had to do with the last book, but it’s getting there, slow and steady.

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The Canyons

Ben Kostival
Radial Books ($14)

by Paul Buhle

The “proletarian novel,” so often praised for its vision and more often cursed for its supposed literary inadequacies, seems to be destined for perpetual renewal. In his saga of class warfare in a mining village of Colorado of the 1910s, novelist Ben Kostival offers us a new and remarkable bit of continuity.

A little background to the genre will be helpful. The proletarian novel is of distant, one might say almost ancient, socialist vintage, even in the still-young USA of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. One major part of our socialist literature remains little appreciated because it most often appeared serialized in languages other than English. The newspapers that immigrants found to be at once a comfort in their own language/culture, and useful in their coping with an often cruel American class struggle, also hosted original literature, both poems and fiction, frequently from the pen of the editor of the paper. First the Germans, then the Yiddish-language Jews, then a plethora of others, most interestingly perhaps the Finns—an editor of their women’s socialist paper was a proud feminist as well as a novelist—saw these legendary figures in their own small worlds. They wrote, edited, and toured, usually raising money to keep the paper going. They knew the proletariat up close.

The better-known second act of labor-radical novels, in the Socialist era of Eugene Debs, featured English language writers with sometimes large audiences, some of them writers still read today. Jack London and Upton Sinclair topped the list, with Theodore Dreiser close enough to have been serialized in the daily socialist New York Call. A third act, during the 1930s when the Communist Party commanded wide allegiance among intellectuals, was notably decried by liberals as artificial drama. The best of the near-Communists or sometime Communists, like Richard Wright, Jack Conroy, Tillie Olson, and Nelson Algren, defied such judgments, although a handful of the best of the latter-day novels were written in the 1940s to middle 1950s. Most often about everyday life rather than labor drama, these books offered human tragedy, usually depicting defeats without redemption.

Kostival takes us back to the Coal Strike days near the turn of the century, in part because he has absorbed John Steinbeck’s famed novel The Grapes of Wrath, but also because he found Sinclair’s King Coal, which he stumbled upon while himself working in Alaska, so overdramatized and far from the actual history of the strike.

We find ourselves, in The Canyons, with remarkable characters, so remarkable that they become altogether convincing. The notion that a skilled worker of 1910 or even a self-educated drifter of the Socialist Party or Wobbly type would not likely be a reader, let alone a reader of Greek or Latin, has become one more blurring of the past. The worker-socialist, in one of a dozen languages across parts of the U.S., was actually more likely to be a serious reader than his or her middle-class counterpart. The notion that a railroad white-collar or managerial employee automatically lacked sympathy for the proletariate is another of those assumptions, somewhat more accurate but only as a generality. Thus Kostival is a most useful iconoclast or code-breaker.

As the story—centered on a strike in a Colorado coal district—unfolds, the class contrasts are nevertheless hard set. Company towns with shacks for workers and fairly modest accommodations for the supervisory personnel—these are natural enough because the owners live far away and care only for steady profits, relying on a market for their product and labor peace to make those profits possible. With a middle-class so small as to be almost nonexistent, the class struggle atmosphere prevails; in many of these towns, it not this one in particular, socialist votes loomed significant.

Rare has been the left-wing novel that places a management figure, an opponent of a strike, sympathetically rather than casting him as the epitome of wickedness—and Harlan Baxter certainly is an agent of exploitation, an import (typical for management in distant mine villages) from the East, New York or Chicago. He is already disoriented in the first chapter and he spends the whole novel disoriented, in the sense that he does not really belong on either side of the class conflict. His wife hates her exile from middle-class, urban existence and from the proper environment for their growing children—and he can’t blame her for it.

His opposite number, labor organizer Max Hawkins, is straight out of radical labor lore, but not at all unrealistic for that reason. He’s well educated, not only in the auto-didact way but also in the shrewd understanding of how strikes can be won or lost, unions built or destroyed. I am not giving anything away by noting that Hawkins willingly puts his life in danger, not because he is eager for martyrdom but because he will do what the workers want, even if their strategy is wrong-headed. Left to himself, he would choose defeat of a local strike in the belief that success might be better had elsewhere—but he is not left to himself. He’s a follower of Eugene Debs, labor’s martyr several times over, and he’s willing to take the punishment for the sin of rebellion.

The bulk and sense of The Canyons is in the detail, and no review can do justice to the loving care with which Kostival treats the whole scene: the mine village, the mine itself, the ordinary proletarians and their families struggling for a decent existence—and, of course, the ruthlessness of the orders that emanates from the mine owners back East.

The “mine wars” figure among the most dramatic and brutal of the confrontations of labor and capital, certainly from the 1890s to the 1930s. John L. Lewis, himself mired in a history of personal corruption and yet the miners’ champion, led a campaign to civilize class relations and provide medical care for the victims of Black Lung. Today, the coal industry is almost gone but the scars remain. Among those scars, what we might call necessary wounds, is a history and a literature that will not let go.

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