Tag Archives: Summer 2019

Autobiography of Death

Kim Hyesoon
translated by Don Mee Choi
New Directions ($16.95)

by John Bradley

“On the subway train your eyes roll up once. That’s eternity. // The rolled-up eyes eternally magnified. // You must have bounced out of the train. It seems that you’re dying.”

So begins Autobiography of Death, a series of forty-nine poems dealing with death. “In Korea, we believe that when someone dies, the spirit of the dead journeys to an intermediate space that is neither death nor life for forty-nine days,” the author explains in an interview at the back of the book. With disturbing imagery and fever-pitch emotion, the poems achieve an intensity that can be compared to Federico Garcia Lorca’s Poet in New York.

The opening poem, “Commute,” introduces a disconcerting use of “you,” a technique used throughout the poem-cycle:

You shout, I don’t have any feeling whatsoever for that woman!
But you roll your eyes the way that woman did when she was alive
And continue on your way to work as before. You go without your body.

Will I get to work on time? You head toward the life you won’t be living.

Note the distance between the woman who died on the subway platform and the “you,” who wants to continue on with her life, though the “you” has no body. Kim discusses this use of the second person in the interview, explaining that “As I began to speak through my death, my death became ‘you.’ My death made the I into ‘not I.’” She adds, “The ‘you’ in Autobiography is neither I, you, nor she—it’s ‘my death.’”

What prompted such an intense meditation on death? In April of 2014, a South Korean ferry sunk and 250 high school students drowned. They were wearing life vests but were told by the crew to stay inside the boat, which led to their deaths. The crew, after ordering the students to remain on board, jumped and were rescued. The translator of the book, Don Mee Choi, explains in her “Translator’s Note” that politics played a role in the disaster: “Many believe neoliberal deregulation and privatization that led to safety violations played a crucial role in the sinking of the ship, including the state’s dismal failure to rescue the passengers.” But references to this specific incident only appear in one poem in the cycle: “I Want to Go to the Island—Day Twenty.” The poem-cycle itself is non-specific, the images unattached to place or time. It’s no surprise to hear Kim say that at one point she called the book Seoul, Book of the Dead. There’s even an epigram for one poem from the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

Some readers may be wondering how forty-nine poems on death, plus a long closing poem, could be sustained. Here lies the strength and weakness of Autobiography of Death. Kim’s extraordinary talent make for a compelling book. Take this closing image from “Everyday Everyday Everyday—Day Nine”: “Your tongue is already there, flapping about like a tropical fish on the mist-/soaked asphalt.” Or this impossible to forget image from “Nest—Day Fourteen,” where Kim defines parts of the body: “Eyebrows: Two maggots trace strands of rain as they move.” While the emotions of horror and pain don’t vary, her use of poetic structure—long lines; short, enjambed lines; anaphora; and prose poems—does. However, whatever form the poems take, whatever style employed, the focus is relentless, as “Dinner Mommy—Day Twenty-Nine” demonstrates:

Today, Mommy cooks pan-fried hair
Yesterday, Mommy cooked braised thighs
Tomorrow, Mommy will cook sweat and sour fingers

Even for a poet as skilled as Kim, though, the emotions tend to flatten after forty-nine poems in the same tone. The last poem, “Face of Rhythm,” placed after the cycle ends, feels anti-climactic, as the images no longer surprise or shock: “Whale floats about inside my black pupil / Whale drags me / to the inside far away from myself.”

It’s likely the author was aware of the risk of an unvarying horrific tone, because the book contains ten black-ink drawings by Kim’s daughter, Fi Jae Lee. While the drawings display an appropriately dark tone, there’s also something slightly playful about them, with their wavy lines and absurd, cartoonish figures. They provide a welcome break from the obsessive focus on death.

Translator Don Mee Choi also deserves praise for her role in the book. Not only does she respond to the challenges of Kim’s demanding content and striking imagery, but her insight into Kim’s work shows in her interview with the author, as well as in her “Translator’s Notes.” She clarifies the political dimension of Autobiography of Death with her comments on the ferry incident, as well as life under President Park and “nearly two decades of US-backed dictatorship from 1961 to 1979.” She also reminds readers of the Korean War, when “About 250,000 pounds of napalm were dropped per day by the US forces.” All this helps explain the book’s deathly focus, as “All of our fingers are stained by the ink of atrocities,” she notes.

While perhaps not for all tastes, Autobiography of Death displays an abundantly talented poet who explores realms of death with great imagination, originality, and courage.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2019 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2019

Dolefully, a Rampart Stands

Paige Ackerson-Kiely
Penguin Books ($18)

by Thomas Moody

I first came across the poetry of Paige Ackerson-Kiely in Michael Robbins’s “Playlist,” a litany of Robbins’s favorite poems and songs, each with a brief descriptor as to its allure. Ackerson-Kiely’s poem “Misery Trail” is the first item on the list. Robbins writes that when he first discovered the poem, on Facebook of all places, it was the saddest poem he’d ever read. I immediately hunted “Misery Trail” down online, and while I didn’t agree with Robbins’ sentiment, I did find in the closing lines an uncanniness of tone and mystery of intent that unsettled me. The lines read: “At certain times of day a field can blind you. / So I walked. Uncharacteristically slow. / You couldn’t know how slow I walked.”

Dolefully, a Rampart Stands is Ackerson-Kiely’s third collection of poems, and it is a book strewn through with mystery and the uncanny. Lines seem to appear out of nowhere, lines that are at the same time wholly of and entirely outside their poem, reshaping, amplifying and at times destabilizing all that has preceded them. Often they come as closing lines. “Folding Chairs,” a poem that in part describes a communal meal at a church ground, ends like this: “I am afraid // I will continue to burn the supper. I am afraid / I have not made enough for everyone.” That the speaker has such fears transforms the meal into something more forbidding and intimate, bodily almost, as if the burning of the supper is an act of transubstantiation. Is the speaker worried she herself will continue to burn? That she is not enough?

Or take the ending of “Laconia,” a prose poem set around a gathering at a lakeside bonfire, to which a younger woman accompanies an older man. The poem is shaped by unsettling imagery—“Occasionally, this time of night, you hear loons calling across the water, the sound is foggy, sad, the way it fades toward the end, like a dinghy sighing before it turns to face a storm”; “The night had become black like the space where a tooth used to be”—and is propelled by the suspense found in these lines, which suggest something violent or tragic is approaching. When the event does arrive, a can of beer thrown into the fire and exploding into the eye of a loon, it seems anticlimactic, but Ackerson-Kiely closes with: “The loons suddenly screaming: where did you go? Tell me where I am! The loons screaming and screaming, trying to locate a familiar, trying so goddamn hard to know something about love and a place before you go extinct.” These lines carry more violence, raw pain, and emotional power than any single event the poet could have described.

One effect these lines have is to imbue the quotidian with the uncanny. An enigmatic miasma floats through the poems in Dolefully, a Rampart Stands, which are, in the main, founded in the routines of the ordinary—or what we generally dismiss as ordinary: the everyday struggles of contemporary small-town America, particularly the rural northeast, with all its poverty; addiction; domestic, political, and environmental violence and corruption; and the wholesale depression these circumstances generate. Lunches, bonfires, walks through the outskirts of town, are all inverted into activities peculiar and mystifying. “There is a heroin epidemic in your small, northern town,” Ackerson-Kiely writes in “Ellesmere Island”; “People go numb all over the place. You don’t know their names, you don’t name them.” This description of numbness follows an eerie account of the speaker’s job at a pet store, with duties that include freezing live rodents before feeding them to the store’s boa-constrictor: “because you’ve read Jack London and know that they will go numb, which will hurt, but then they will go to sleep, which is, in your experience, gentle.” [60] The repetition of “numb,” the allegory implied in the feeding of the snake and the feeding of addiction, and the Biblical association of the snake all work to transform the ordinary (and, unfortunately, heroin epidemics are increasingly ordinary) into something far more eerie, illusory, and powerful.

Dolefully, a Rampart Stands confronts the anxiety of small-town life defined by an oftentimes understated but increasingly distressing economic and social collapse, and illustrates how the pressures of a failing place exert themselves on the individual body and self, in particular the female body (“This isn’t an opportunity to talk about the body” Ackerson-Kiely deceptively writes in the collection’s opening poem, “Inventory of Ramparts”). This collapse divests the body of its connection to other bodies, inspiring an ever-greater sense of isolation and estrangement. As the speaker of “Inheritance” notes, these places no longer endow their inhabitants with homespun values and a sense of community, but with debt and disaffection: “O hey there gorgeous, scaling the bannister / of the mortgage I shall inherit, meekly, / in some failing town: There is no winning / except to remember I am so lonesome.” It is impossible not to be troubled by the poem’s implication: for America, alienation and ennui is the new norm. In “How the Town Looks,” a portrait of one such place, sex is had “to make someone feel better, sex // so you don’t have to listen, sex in the room / where the TV spills blue light all over // bodies, like galaxies . . .”

In “Book About a Candle Burning in a Shed”—over twenty pages describing a small community’s investigation into the murder of a young woman—this correlation reaches its apogee. The degeneration of the town is echoed and amplified by the annihilation of the body: “Motoring through the outskirts, daylight makes the downtown look like a bloated abdomen.” It is deftly written from the perspective of a male police officer, and manages to capture, mangle, and re-imagine the tone of a noir-ish detective-novel (Dorothy B. Hughes’s classic In a Lonely Place kept coming to mind). Running adjacent to the story are lines so mystifying as to stop the reader in their tracks: “The fields you walk out in at dawn, mostly alone” ends one section. “To come blindly to a thing so beautiful. To turn away as if not seeing was a choice” ends another.

Ackerson-Kiely’s talent for the uncanny is extraordinary. Her ability to create entire atmospheres through single lines elevates her poems to something approaching the oracular, while never straying from the colloquial and the quotidian. One never feels totally at ease in an Ackerson-Kiely poem, never sure when a line will appear to dismantle or transcend their surroundings, and the collection benefits greatly from this insecurity. Dolefully, a Rampart Stands announces a pastoral poetry for the 21st Century, in which farms are industrialized, towns are demoralized, their residents disinherited of the American Dream, and violence, addiction and loneliness resettle in the void. It is a brilliantly disquieting collection.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2019 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2019


Sally Wen Mao
Graywolf Press ($16)

by Margaryta Golovchenko

It’s one thing to discuss the implications of the gaze in a strictly academic style; it is another to force the reader to recognize their complicit role in the act of looking by centering the voice of the one being gazed upon. Sally Wen Mao’s collection Oculus sets out to examine the connections between the gaze and how technology has blurred the definition of sight, making it possible to see without truly seeing. While the speaker in her poems may wonder whether it is possible to break such toxic cycles of prejudice, Mao’s collection has an optimistic underbelly, asking how we can collectively grow and learn.

The question of identity and Western preconceptions of race are the external forces exerted upon the speaker in Oculus, creating the burden of expectation and bias. Mao situates writing at the crossroad of this dilemma in “Occidentalism,” where the speaker expresses worry that

One day,

a girl like me may come across [the tome of hegemony] on a shelf,
pick it up, read about all the ways her body

is a thing. And I won’t be there to protect
her, to cross the text out and say: go ahead—

rewrite this.

The Anna May Wong poems, making up two sections of the collection, discuss this same problem through the historical lens of ongoing failures in cinema. “Anna May Wong Makes Cameos,” chilling in its brevity, conveys the refusal of the dominant, white, patriarchal society to acknowledge the existence of others for more than a brief and convenient moment. In “Anna May Wong Has Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” the speaker laments:

I’ve often pined for them. My progeny. Girls with tar-black
widow’s peaks, who stumble across spotlights in purple tights,

taught to be meek. Girls who inherit my warnings, victories,
and failures too.

Creating a hybrid diary-critique in the voice of Anna May Wong, Mao shows the past is not antique or irrelevant, but an ongoing excavation that is always revealing new layers. Mao explores familiar recent works such as Ghost in the Shell and Memoirs of a Geisha, meshing the past and the present in a way that forces the reader to reflect upon the concept of time, to seek out patterns of oppression and injustice. She creates literary and cinematic case-studies that stir up renewed anger as the speaker addresses both the reader and the collective body:

Puppet Master of the laws that govern film—
let this message be clear: I do not comply.

Mao explores the obstacles Western society has placed to prevent people of other cultures from truly belonging—the central issue in Oculus. From the notion of the spectacle as entertainment in “The Toll of the Sea” and “The Mongolian Cow Sour Yogurt Super Voice Girl” to the sense of negligence and passive sight in “Dirge with Cutlery and Furs” and the title poem, Mao’s collection is a sensorial and emotional overload that will disturb the reader in provocative ways.

Click here to purchase this book
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Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2019 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2019

From Nature:
An Interview with Alan Bernheimer

photo by John Sarsgard

Interviewed by Caleb Beckwith

Alan Bernheimer has been a mainstay of the Bay Area poetry scene since 1977. He hosted the KPFA radio show In the American Tree, and his work was later collected in the Language writing anthology of the same name. Where the narrative of Language writing has largely been determined by those of his peers who later became professors, Bernheimer is one of what I affectionately call the "West Coast Weirdo Language writers" who kept on trucking outside the academy. He has published approximately one book every decade since 1980; in the following interview we catch up about his latest book From Nature (Cuneiform Press, $18) and more.

Caleb Beckwith: In your new book From Nature, a poem titled “The Truth about More” opens with the following stanza: “Everyone is an intellectual / Whose words can be exchanged for cash / Mothballs dissolved in vodka.” I can’t think of a better place to begin this conversation, because that stanza feels like such an apt description of our present moment, wherein quantity seems worth so much more than quality.

In a review of The Spoonlight Institute (Adventures in Poetry, 2009), Ron Silliman described you as the “Sandy Koufax of poets, recognized & cherished for the brilliance of his writing although the absolute quantity of that work is rather slender.” I’m struck by this same gesture in From Nature. Where many writers use the occasion of a book to gather as many pieces as possible—often compromising the effect of the book object—From Nature comes in at a demonstrative eighty pages. Rather than feeling light, this brevity underscores the intentionality of the three sections: “Sleeping with Sirens,” “Beautilities,” and “The Spoonlight Institute.”

Could you tell me about how this book came to be—the period of time in which these poems were written—and perhaps also your approach to publishing more generally? That is, how do you conceptualize the work that a book of poetry does? And how do you consider your approach to publishing in context with your contemporaries—many of whom seem to somehow produce a new “project” every year?

Alan Bernheimer: I wouldn’t mind being more prolific, but it seems to be turning out that a book every ten years is just my speed. From Nature collects most of what I’ve written since The Spoonlight Institute, including the last seven sections of that book’s title poem, so that “The Spoonlight Institute” appears now in its entirety. (Although, in fact, the prose pieces in the middle section, “Beautilities,” date from an earlier time but never saw the light of day.)

I also wouldn’t mind having a project for a book-length work or series of coherent poems, for the sake of momentum and the discipline of just keeping going on it. The closest I’ve come is “Spoonlight” with its 13 sections of 13 couplets each, 338 lines that must have taken me some six or seven years to complete. I was working along on other things, of course, such as my translation of Philippe Soupault’s Lost Profiles, Memoirs of Cubism, Dada, and Surrealism (City Lights, 2016), so I wasn’t a total slug.

On being slow: The greatest compliment I’ve heard is the report that Miles Champion, whose work I revere, having been asked about his own writing pace, replied that it was “Bernheimeresque.”

My approach to publishing is simply pragmatic, trying to put together a shapely collection whenever I’ve accumulated enough to warrant a spine. I want to keep my hand in the game. The gap between State Lounge (Tuumba, 1981) and Billionesque (The Figures, 1999) made some people think I’d dropped away, and it’s true that family and work life decreased my involvement in the Bay Area poetry scene for a couple of decades until Stephanie Young recruited me to work with her on the Poets Theater revival program that was presented at Small Press Traffic in early 2008. My reinvolvement since is pretty well documented in my flickr album, with more than 800 photo portraits of poets reading their work.

That’s a good question, the work that a book of poetry does, especially in this age of continuous access and contact. A child of the 20th century, I still get two newspapers delivered to my doorstep each morning, even though I’ve often read much of their content already on various screens. But seeing how editors play the stories on the page still holds interest. A book in hand is obviously a qualitatively different and corporeal experience, mediated not only by 500 years of evolving printing technology but by the publisher (self or other), the book-making process, and the nerve to claim our attention, its chance through bookstores and libraries to find a reader not on our friend list. Maybe that’s it, nerve and focal point of attention.

How about your own first book, Political Subject, just out from Roof? It’s insane to apply the baleful and pernicious metaphor of the marketplace to poetry, but it means something to be on the shelf at Small Press Distribution and hence available at Amazon (“one left in stock, more on the way”) and, just checking, at Target (mail order only).

CB: I’ve historically joked that any poet with a book out was “famous,” so of course I had to revise the criteria after Roof agreed to publish Political Subject. My sense is that this is more or less a universal post-book feeling, but the responses to Political Subject have been both far more and better than I could’ve imagined, yet also somehow never as much as one hopes. For now, I’m back in love of more fugitive publications like chapbooks, pdfs, and ephemera. Younger Than Yesterday, for example, includes material from notebooks that you kept in the early ’70s, when you first moved to the Bay Area, as well as two recently composed essays that reflect on that and earlier periods in your life. When I did some quick searching, I also learned that Younger Than Yesterday is the title of an album by The Byrds that supposedly "transformed rock and roll."

I’m thinking about how I missed this Byrds reference, how it somehow attests to the way that the popular lore of the late ’60s/early ’70s has in many ways paved over actual cultural materials and experiences from that time. Much of Younger Than Yesterday feels like it pushes against this tendency, setting a cultural scene that more recent residents of the high-tech/high-rent Bay Area might have trouble imagining.

This is the context in which I read the poems, drawings, and collage, and it leads me to ask about the personal essays that bookend the chapbook. What made the publication of journal materials from the early ’70s feel timely to you? How does it relate to your recent personal essays? And are there other obvious references or place settings in Younger Than Yesterday that I've missed and that should be talked about as well?

AB: Younger Than Yesterday is an oddity, at least for me, in that I never before considered raw notebook entries fit for publication, instead of simply materia poetica. But when Gordon Faylor at SFMOMA invited me to create a DIY chapbook for Open Space, he proposed including “various uncollected writings and/or images you’ve accrued over the years . . . finished works, fragments, notes, etc.,” and I ended up taking his suggestion. I was also inspired by Invisible Oligarchs, the late Bill Berkson’s Russia Notebook, which combines travel notes, letters, and other apparent ephemera into a far-ranging intellectual-experiential work.

The retrospective essays that I’d already written made sense to use as bookends, especially the opener, “13 Rides,” which gets me to San Francisco in 1971, where and when the notebook items that follow mostly originate. It and the closing essay on hypnotism were recent lookbacks, each inspired by their dedicatees—Paul Maziar, who remarked that “13 Rides” was a great title when I told him how I’d traveled cross country, and Suzanne Stein, whom I’d heard read a work in which relaxing numbness moves from a person’s extremities to their core. Both seemed like good stories to tell, and having someone to tell them to made them all the more pointed. And yes, looking back across decades gets more interesting as they accumulate.

Transformed rock and roll? Really? Certainly not for me! The only title I even recognize on the track list is “So You Want to Be a Rock ’n’ Roll Star.” But The Byrds album title had always resonated in my memory and attached itself almost autonomously when I realized what I had put together for the chapbook. (Their three earlier albums, Mr. Tambourine Man, Turn! Turn! Turn!, and Fifth Dimension were transformative to my ears, even if they didn’t make me a rock star.)

In 1971 there was no Bay Area poetry scene that I or my roommates Kit Robinson and Alex Smith could discern (the San Francisco Renaissance having wound down after the landmark 1965 Berkeley Poetry Conference), despite occasional readings in North Beach or Panjandrum bookstore—certainly nothing to rival the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in New York, where I’d become a regular after college. There was plenty going on in Bolinas (where East met West), but you had to be there. (We didn’t have cars.)

The academic calendar was an ingrained habit, so after nine months I packed up and headed home to NYC. When I checked back in here at the end of 1976, everything had changed. There was already momentum. The term “language writing” hadn’t yet been coined, but the Grand Piano reading series had been under way for several months, This magazine was up to number 6, Hills to number 3, and Tuumba Press was in the midst of its move from Willits to Berkeley. In a few months Bob Perelman’s weekly Talks series would start. Something was clearly afoot, and I wanted to be part of it.

CB: Can you tell me more about the early days of that scene, your involvement in it? I know you hosted In the American Tree, the KPFA radio show from which Ron Silliman’s anthology of Language writing took its name. How did that program come to be, from Lyn Hejinian and Kit starting it to your later taking over hosting duties, and, looking back, how do you see it contributing to the coalescing of a scene that you’re describing? Obviously a fair amount of this narrative now belongs to the institutional record, but I’m interested in the gaps between the official narrative of Language writing and your experience of the scene as a community.

AB: “In the American Tree” is a terrific poem by Kit that leads off his third book, Down and Back (The Figures, 1978). It is startling, irreverent, and optimistic:

Flipping out wd be one alternative
simply rip the cards to pieces
amid a dense growth of raised eyebrows . . .

And it is Spring.
The goddess herself
is really

Feeling great.

The 1986 Silliman anthology that memorialized “this moment in writing” borrowed the title and reprinted the poem before the preface. But meanwhile, back in 1978, Kit and Lyn were invited by sound poet, composer, and KPFA music director Charles Amirkhanian to host a weekly, half-hour, live program of “new writing by poets.” They adopted Kit’s title for it. I recall regularly tuning in. Our friends did too. It was simply another dimension of the thriving, multifarious poetry scene that would shortly also include, for instance, Poets Theater productions. After four or five months, Kit and Lyn invited me to take over, in January 1979. As you know, many of the shows are available on PennSound—including all of mine. This sounds quaint now, but we’d mail out fliers, a sheet of paper folded in thirds, to alert the audience to any poetry event. I used postcards for the radio show, and I handed it off to Tinker Greene and Erica Hunt in the summer of 1980.

The official narrative of that time is exhaustively covered in the ten-author, ten-volume series, The Grand Piano: An Experiment in Collective Autobiography, to which—as “the eleventh pianist”—I contributed some chronologies and an essay on the filmmaker Warren Sonbert.

Taking a look back at a specimen month, April 1977, I find a poetry event every other day—though that’s not all the poetry events in the Bay Area, just the ones that my friends were likely to attend. I did make it to 60 percent of those. It helped to be collecting unemployment rather than reporting to a day job. (Few of us were fully employed. A two-bedroom flat on the Mission edge of Noe Valley went for $200 and Muni fare was a quarter.) Plus there was my film education to consider. San Francisco was then a filmgoer’s paradise, with two-dozen pre-plex screens programming repertory revivals. I managed to squeeze in eight movies that month, a hair above my average seven that would bring the year’s total to eighty-four. I know it’s scary that I wrote all this down, but there was time for that too.

I don’t know what this says about social formation, but it was intense, and fluid. Darrell Gray’s Actualist Convention that month welcomed all comers. (Steve Benson improvised a performance impersonating his parents as children in their parents' own homes. I read a Valery Larbaud translation. Leonard Pitt performed. Summer Brenner read.) That September there was a softball game between SF Language writers and East Bay Punks. I don’t recall the score, but that the teams could be rostered says there was lumpiness in the socio-poetical soup. That the game was played says it was before the lumps hardened.

For me, the social intensity, or certainly the social delight, kicked way up a few years later with the formation in 1980 of Poets Theater. Not only an opportunity to explore the performative potential of language and writing, it was a chance to play with my friends in an even more collaborative arena than writing, uninhibited by any careerist theatrical ambitions.

CB: Sitting down to read your poems from In the American Tree—"Inside Cheese,” “Amarillo,” “Spinal Guard,” Wave Train”—I’m struck by the transformation that must’ve occured between the early notebooks mined in Younger Than Yesterday and the disjunctive verse and fragmented prose collected in the anthology. Obviously there’s a coming of age that occurs between those texts—1971-1976 in New York—and I wonder if you could speak to the different influences that still manifest in your practice, and how they came to affect your development as a poet.

In your recent appearance at the Kelly Writers House, for example, you described yourself as having one foot in the New York School, another in San Francisco Language writing. Do you think of this combination as simply an organic product of where you lived and with whom you studied, or was it more of an intentional aesthetic self-fashioning. And what, if anything, do you see in common between these two camps? I’m specifically interested in hearing about how your work changed after moving back to the Bay Area in 1976.

AB: Big questions! The poem “Spinal Guard,” written when I lived on Cape Cod (1973-76) before returning to the Bay Area—and so a hinge period between NYC and SF—marked a departure that has played out in much of my writing since. I wanted consequential syntax, but at the same time to let imagery and metaphor slide disparate elements into the flow and so open up many more surprising associative possibilities. I wanted to have my cake and eat it too. I wrote four more short lyrics in the same vein, forming a suite that I published after I got to SF as a slim mimeo booklet called Celestial Mechanics.

What had originally drawn me to the New York poets, fired my enthusiasm, was their vernacular diction, the opposite of the solemn academic pomp my I’d been educated to, as well as the Lower East Side ’60s scene. But I was also intrigued and attracted by the eventually fugitive abstract strain in their early work, as in John Ashbery’s The Tennis Court Oath, Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets, and even Ron Padgett’s “Detach Invading” that bookends his Great Balls of Fire (and which he said was the only poem of his he ever learned by heart)—the mystery conjured in Dick Gallup’s phrase (and later title) “shiny pencils at the edge of things.”

Something in me responded to the idea of the reader, listener, audience being called on to make connections, fill in the gaps with their own imagination, meeting the writer halfway. As Kit says on a recent PoetryNow segment, “I’m not really an authority on my own work. Any reader is authorized to come up with ideas as they read it. That, to me, is why poetry is exciting.” This is also what I found in the writing that was being done in San Francisco, as well as the formal experimentation and exploration of collaborative techniques. And, as I mentioned above, the sense that a vibrant poetry scene was forming.

The St. Mark’s Poetry Project in the mid and late ’60s had been “the most exciting place in American poetry” (as Robert Hass acknowledged in his remarks at the Berkeley Art Museum’s 2001 Joe Brainard retrospective). The open hopefulness of the times, an easy, street-level economy that provided time and space for poetry, an exultant freedom to try anything, were all reflected in a ferment of low-cost publishing (see A Secret Location on the Lower East Side). “We were young, pretty, quickwitted and excitable,” writes Larry Fagin. “The next few years were a stoned blur of poetry, music, sex, drugs and friendship.” That looked good to me, but I was only on the trailing edge looking in, and it didn’t feel like a torch passed to any third-generation New York Schoolers was going to burn as bright.

Not returning to NYC from Cape Cod isn’t a strong case for “intentional aesthetic self-fashioning,” but it was a clear choice, and a fateful one, as it turns out, since I’ve lived the rest of my life in the Bay Area. If I’d returned home to NYC in 1976 instead, would I have aligned in the next few years with writers there who would form the eastern branch of Language writing, is actually a question I never asked myself until now! I’m not sure. My social history and leanings were decidedly “downtown,” not “uptown,” as the literary rivalry there came to be known. I probably would never have written the work in State Lounge, which is very much in sympathy with the exploratory writing my friends in SF were doing. An even more intriguing speculation, at least for me, is what would I be writing now?

It’s much easier to say who than what is in common between the New York School and Language writing—easy to point to Clark Coolidge, Ted Greenwald, and Bernadette Mayer, to name just the obvious points of sympathy

CB: An anthology might present a cohesive sense of a movement, but I’m really drawn to discrete, ephemeral units like your mimeo book Celestial Mechanics. This may run contrary to Kit’s insistence that he is no more an authority on his own work than you or I, for example, but I wonder what a closer examination of recurring themes, material, even words across his volumes might yield. Is there a particular Kit Robinson or Alan Bernheimer concern or vocabulary yet to be discovered? Writers like Rae Armantrout or Bruce Andrews seem to have a relatively cohesive project/style, but I suspect that the same cohesion might emerge for almost any of us under the right set of circumstances.

Though there’s more than one way to print a book, institutional access seems to yield a longer and more stable publication trail, therefore prioritizing the university-affiliated in any sense of the canon. However, the day job in y’all’s set was at least as common as the professorship—even serving as the site of collaborations like yours and Kit’s Cloud Eight, if I’m not mistaken—and one didn’t enter the academy to remain a poet so much as the other way around.

How does the universitization of Language writing fit into the San Francisco literary community that you’re describing? What does the academic narrative get right? What does it miss? And how would your answers to these questions change from the 1970s to the ’90s to now? I’m especially curious about the gaps that emerge between any event and its recording as history, which in the case of literary history necessarily happens in syllabi and classrooms—and conversations like these if we’re lucky.

AB: I’m likely the wrong person to answer some of this, in as much as I took the non-u day-job route, working where the money was, in Bay Area high tech and eventually in the solar industry. But plenty of us all did become professors: More than half the authors of The Grand Piano made a living through teaching, though many came to it later than today’s MFAs would, or would try to. And you’re right, several entered the academy through the poetry door, rather than with advanced degrees. It felt like some of the ’70s and ’80s activities, such as the Talks series and Poetics Journal, were rehearsals for those careers.

There were times in my corporate communications work when I looked longingly at tenure (still a possibility in my generation), three-month vacations, and sabbaticals, not to mention an intellectually engaging job and interactions with bright students. My parents were both university microbiologists. But an academic audience and milieu for my own work was not an attraction (in common with many second-generation New York Schoolers), though it might have resulted in wider readership. Wideness, or “institutional access,” seem like false gods to me. And I’m suspicious of the influence that feedback loop would have had on my writing that I may not have been steadfast enough to withstand. (Ron Silliman has written somewhat controversially about this in greater depth.)

Your contrasting a writer’s body of work with the anthology view is good food for thought, though it’s harder to have schools and movements without the latter, and harder to get read and published at all without those affiliations and collations. “It is so very much more exciting and satisfactory for everybody if one can have contemporaries” (Gertrude Stein). The Donald Allen anthology was such a useful signpost in our youth, but it’s up on my shelf, while John Godfrey’s new and selected, The City Keeps, and Paul Violi’s selected are on my bedside table.

I too am drawn to the fugitive and ephemeral. Jason Morris has some wonderful thoughts and words on this subject in his “Providence”: “I would like to read through completists’ libraries like a magpie, picking up beautiful unmoored pieces of writing that might serve as metonyms for whole bodies of work. . . . Memory is an oblivion in which only ephemera floats to the surface.”

It’s not just my parentage that inclines me more towards the microscope than the algorithm, more fascinated by the insanely obsessive missing Joyce scholar than the digital humanities book crunchers, more in sympathy with a cohesion that develops in the attentive, reading mind than from machine data patterns.

The pre-corporatized university of my parents’ day (’30s though ’80s) was a more benign home to intellectuals (a term not yet demonized), with a much greater tolerance for eccentricity than most other walks of life, and one where I assumed I’d end up until the ’60s woke in me and others a stubborn contrarian, anti-institutional streak.

CB: That anti-institutional streak seems to run through your corpus: from the book publishing we talked about to fugitive ephemera to your recent translations of the French Surrealist writer Philippe Soupault. I’d be remiss if I ended this conversation without asking you about a comment that you made at the Kelly Writers House regarding Breton, Soupault, and their different relationships to Surrealism. In your words, “Soupault, though he loved Dada and Surrealism, he didn’t make it his life. Breton did, and he gets credit for that.” My question is: What drew you to Soupault in particular? Do you see any parallels between his relationship to Surrealism and your relationship to the Language and New York Schools? And what advice would you give younger writers for loving and making poetry, but not making poetry one’s life? This balance feels increasingly pivotal as the academic route becomes less available to so many of us, and it’s something for which traditional structures of mentorship, mostly coming from academic programs, cannot prepare us.

AB: What directly drew me to the Soupault memoir was an anecdote about Henri Rousseau le Douanier in Roger Shattuck’s marvelous book, The Banquet Years, where he quotes Soupault describing the painter’s routine, saying he “did not mind living in one room because when he woke up in the morning he could ‘smile a little at his paintings.’ Then he would get up and go to the corner café for his breakfast. ‘If the weather was nice, he had a glass of white wine; if it was raining a cup of coffee; and on a gray day, some cognac.’” I wanted more of that, and tracking it down led me to the previously untranslated memoir. I started translating it for fun but soon began to think it could be publishable, despite Soupault’s relative obscurity, because of the more famous writers he befriends and profiles, such as James Joyce, Marcel Proust, and Guillaume Apollinaire.

Previously I knew Soupault only through a little of his poetry and his novel Last Nights of Paris, famously translated by William Carlos Williams. As I got to know him better, I developed considerable affection for him and respect for the path he took, especially following his banishment from Surrealism by his former collaborator Breton. He was very prolific, publishing two dozen volumes of poetry, ten novels, several plays, and a half dozen biographical studies in addition to a career as a journalist in print, radio, and TV. He was a man of letters, and of the Left, spending six months in a North African prison after heading Radio Tunis under the Vichy regime. I wouldn’t draw any parallels with my relatively modest output, but his independent streak is certainly something I admire.

I love and respect those who make poetry their life, whether it’s John Keats, Emily Dickinson, or Ted Berrigan. On the other hand, speaking practically, Bill Berkson advised decades ago that poetry is not a career. When I reminded him of that more recently, he looked quizzical, and suggested, “But maybe a lifestyle?”

One thing I can say to your question about balance is that it evolves. I remember seriously wondering in my twenties whether I should take a job as a (small town) newspaper reporter for fear of its infecting my own writing. Balzac’s scorn for journalism was fresh in my mind. That quandary seems nothing but precious now. The job turned out to be one of the most enjoyable I’ve had, and could have started a career if the San Francisco Chronicle had hired me when I showed up with my hick clips. But working with words in one way or another made a good living for me, and I like to think that people who can put them together intelligently and effectively will still be valued.

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The Book

Stéphane Mallarmé
translated by Sylvia Gorelick
Exact Change ($15.95)

by Olchar E. Lindsann

“Yes, I know,” wrote the experimental poet Stéphane Mallarmé in May of 1866 in the midst of a spiritual crisis, “we are merely empty forms of matter, but we are indeed sublime for having invented God and the soul . . . I want to gaze upon matter, fully conscious that it exists, and yet launching myself fully into Dream, despite its knowledge that Dream has no existence.”1 A year later, emerging from the extended struggle, he reported that “I still need to look at myself in that mirror in order to think and that if it were not in front of this desk on which I’m writing to you, I would become the Void once again. That will let you know that I am now impersonal and no longer the Stéphane that you knew,—but a capacity possessed by the spiritual Universe to see itself and develop itself, through what was once me.”2

The ambiguous, unachievably ambitious project that Mallarmé called The Book was conceived in the wake of this experience, and remained the primary, hermetic vehicle for the atheist mysticism that now became his life’s project until his death thirty-two years later. It was to be a performance score making use of aleatory and recombinatory processes, a text with no final or definitive shape, escaping chronology and closure—a text as process and capacity, not authority and form. This unfinished project, which few even in his inner circle saw, was already legendary within the avant-garde in his own day, and has since attained near mythic status. Now what remains of it is finally available in its properly formatted form and rendered in English by Sylvia Gorelick, whose attentive and thoughtful translation has made clearer than ever the remarkable extent to which Mallarmé presaged and laid the groundwork for an array of cultural and conceptual experiments still being pursued today.

The Book is clearly what we would now identify as a “process-driven” text—it is the trace of an intensely personal and meditative practice, which hurls us precariously into the disjunctive palimpsests and lacunae of the poet’s thought. The project reflects Mallarmé’s mirror-born(e) vocation of atheist mysticism, in which ultra-rarified abstraction and the written detritus of daily life are both pushed to a literally unthinkable crisis of mutual negation, arrested in the process of emerging into a thought which continues to evade us even as we read its relics. Mallarmé is revealed here exploring territory uncannily similar to that of psychoanalysis a generation later, presenting a psychological terrain composed not of memory and self-identity but of rupture, erasure, and forgetting, in which the distinctions between words, thoughts, and physical marks are revealed as illusory. This all-important aspect of the project is rendered manifest due to Gorelick’s decision, unlike previous French editors, to present the work as close as possible to its intended graphic form: as visual poetry formatted within a page-as-field, like his seminal poem A Toss of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance, whose roots in the linguistic adventures of The Book are now made clear.

Unlike the latter poem, whose spatial unfolding is impelled by a lyric impulse, The Book refuses to cohere; like the unconscious, it is a centerless mélange in which snatches of free verse, mathematical equations, working manuscripts of correspondence, diagrams, and other relics of mental life all mingle without hierarchy or order, sometimes merged indiscriminately on a single page. Nor is the poem’s logic any more linear than the unconscious: verses often constellate and clump spatially in isolated islands separated by vast seas of white, vying simultaneously for the reader’s eye; they are connected or divided by drawn lines, partitions, and enigmatic diagrams with numerological import. The texts are riddled with crossings-out, words and formulations rejected yet legible; while explained in part by Mallarmé’s decision to retain these drafts rather than produce fair-copies, it is clear that this is not a mere consequence of the project’s unfinished state. The resonances with his poetics and metaphysics of absence are clear, as is the ludic intentionality within his playfulness, which often attains a subtle but stunning poetics of erasure and re-framing:

it’s another veneration
there still remains a piety, clum-
You You All all
sy. But you efface them right down
initial               meaning
to the original sacred sign.

We follow the most intimate action of the poet’s thought as he seeks through and beyond language—breaking off in the middle of words, leaping to another sector of the page, scattering disconnected letters and enigmatic sequences of lone punctuation, not so much expressing ideas as repelling off them—yet he remains definitively removed from us. The lyric positivist self, the “Stéphane you have known,” has been erased in its own movement before our eyes.

It is immediately striking here how Mallarmé’s practice foreshadowed the goals of Surrealist automatic writing a generation later, but his process produces results that are infinitely more disconcerting, both in their form and implications—less in line with the illogical but syntactically fluid logorrhea of Breton’s, Eluard’s, and Aragon’s experiments than with Artaud’s savage and jagged pictographic journals published posthumously as 50 Drawings to Murder Magic. If Mallarmé’s project addresses the same psychological territory as the Surrealists, his emphasis on discontinuity and fragmentation, along with the visual and lettristic poetics, are closer to much more recent anglophone Otherstream work, as exemplified for instance in Jake Berry’s Brambu Drezi.

What we have here is not technically The Book itself, but at most its score or its elements—at the least, a quasi-legible relic of its erased possibility. Consistent with the project’s radical refusal of closure, the manuscript consists of unbound pages which were to be performed together in hundreds of combinations, according to aleatory and numerological determinants. Each performance would be given to an intimate, carefully-counted proportion of invited guests to paying audience, each of whom would be offered corresponding books of that session’s particular combination of texts. This recombinatory method situates The Book’s individual “poems” analogously to letters in an alphabet—without or beneath or prior to meaning, they are nonetheless the material whose iterability will allow meaning to be performed, a Kabbalistic mode of thought to which the insistent arithmetical passages also seem to relate (“writers otherwise than / the majority, than the poor sorcerers / brothers, otherwise than Kabbalists” p. 13). Many of these constituent texts consist in turn of obsessive plans and calculations for the performance itself: a poetics of self-reflection as annihilation? Or simply adjuncts, notes-to-self mixed in among scores?

The Book renders answers impossible and irrelevant. As Mallarmé so famously said, “everything in the world exists in order to end up as a book,” and remarkably little of the content here corresponds to any commonly accepted understanding of “poetry” of his time; rather, it underscores how false and reductive is the habitual stereotype of Mallarmé and the Symbolist network as “idealist” thinkers constructing ivory towers. Many of those scraps which are still “poetic” in affect tend to address the poet’s cognitive and conceptual process:

the figure                  and then the
the phrases of rhythms of phrases, the
verse, entire system organized by like
a mysterious zodiac, implies some
   its own                                  impersonal
a own proper doctrine, and, precise
        some impersonal                                 abstract, esoteric,
like a mys theology: based

Many others deal with social and economic injustice, reminding us that Mallarmé published in numerous anarchist and socialist journals:

The bulk of The Book, however, is devoted to ephemera relating to the practical, “extra-poetic” dimensions of Mallarmé’s intellectual practice: worked and re-worked manuscripts of letters and reviews, cryptic notes referring to long-lost incidents, and dozens of computations relating to the guest-lists, timing, iterations of potential performances, and the pagination, distribution, and manifestations of the book. If the vague and ambiguous descriptions of The Book have long evoked a kind of idealist projection of totality, what we find here instead is a re-affirmation of materiality: The Book is a matter of logistics, production, situation, and dissemination.

As one can expect from Exact Change, the volume is elegantly designed and well-produced. Gorelick’s introduction is attentive and articulate, though one could wish for more extensive and detailed discussion of the history of the project (insofar as it can be reconstructed) during the thirty years between its conception and Mallarmé’s death, of the physical form of the manuscript as left to us, and of the evidence regarding the nature and modes of The Book’s proposed performance and publication. The relatively cursory treatment of these things is likely a reflection of the kind of practical restraints reflected in the equations that pepper its pages, but this very fact also underscores the importance of those material and historical concerns to the text being introduced. This context would have been more helpful than the survey of reactions to The Book by Blanchot and Derrida, as cogent and influential as those studies have been.

The Book as finally revealed to us both belies and exceeds the myths of textual otherness and mystical quest that have surrounded it from the start. As is appropriate for this enigmatic and paradoxical writer, it turns out to be both his most intimate and his least accessible work. Just as his disciple Jarry pursued the Symbolist project past the point of its own implosion in the form of Ubu’s ‘pataphysics, Mallarmé in this most hermetic of undertakings pursued his poetic vocation to the point of dissolution, and sketched out not only an impressionistic glimpse of a mind frantic to think past its own possibility, but an uncannily prescient map of the poetic adventures of the coming century, a presage invisible to us until now.

1Mallarmé, Stéphane, Selected Letters, trans. Rosemary Lloyd, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988, p.60.
2Ibid., p. 74.

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Windy Day at Kabekona

Thomas R. Smith
White Pine Press ($16)

by Allan Cooper

For the last four decades, Wisconsin poet Thomas R. Smith has been quietly writing some of the finest prose poems of his generation. Readers will find them scattered through most of his seven major collections, from Keeping the Star (New Rivers Press, 1988) to The Glory (Red Dragonfly Press, 2015). This new collection, Windy Day at Kabekona, is a gathering of riches from those books, coupled with a generous offering of new prose poems written in the past few years.

A number of these prose poems are rooted in the heritage of Smith’s midwestern world: one fine example is “Portrait of my German Grandparents, 1952.” Here, Smith doesn’t rely on simple description, although he is a master of it. He presents a grandfather in old age, a man who “hardly knows this world anymore, and will not know the world it is becoming, just as the grandchildren, grown up, will not be known.” In a few words, Smith captures the passage of time and the changing world, where old ways are disappearing and fear and uncertainty are taking their place. The final effect is deeply convincing.

There are wonderful poems in this collection about the natural world, poems about sparrows, moles, river otters, ants, and wasps. Smith discovers connections between the human and natural world that are both startling and moving. In a poem about finding a dead raccoon on a morning walk, he urges us to observe more closely and to think more profoundly about those daily occurrences we so often overlook:

Pass by in your haste, and ignore it. Or notice the coarse-furred limbs extended, reaching for some withheld deliverance. Think of the new streets and homes, the people who no longer know where they are. Notice how closely the hands resemble your own.

In “Your Inner Face,” Smith says that we have two faces: the one “others see, in restaurants and banks,” and another, “so true to its desires, unbelievably beautiful.” In a Rumi-like way, Smith suggests that if we could see everyone’s inner face at once, it would create a kind of heaven. I would add that when Smith looks at an object closely, he finds an inner connection between himself and the object, creating another kind of heaven. At a time when there are huge chasms between people, and the rhetoric of “fake news” permeates our days, Smith offers us alternatives which are both nourishing and healing.

Many lovers of poetry will be familiar with the masters of the contemporary American prose poem, among them Robert Bly, James Wright, Mary Oliver, and Louis Jenkins. With Windy Day at Kabekona, Smith takes his rightful place among them.

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After Effects

Judith Janoo
Finishing Line Press ($14.99)

by George Longenecker

Judith Janoo’s poems in After Effects are deeply personal, and at the same time historical and political. The effects of war on a soldier and his family run through these narratives, with language that speaks to personal loss. These are poems rooted in the earth and the natural world, poems which will resonate with readers. The book is in two sections: “The Department of War” and “The Department of Peace.”

In the first section, the poem “What You Passed On” speaks directly to the poet’s father and shows the complexity of his character, from fishing to literature to war mementos:

You left us:

your bronze medal,
an American flag,
German lugers,
your army green cap.

These reminders of war are a stark contrast to his other interests and abilities, such as “how to graft/ fruit trees, transplant a cedar . . .” Not surprisingly, the father figures prominently in many of these poems, but it is how he affected the daughter that is at stake:

And the man I knew who made it
up the bluff if Omaha Beach,
never really cleared the beaches
of gunfire. Nights, his bottle

half empty, he aired
the start of it and I’d listen,
then hear him pace the hall
outside my room . . .

Janoo’s precise descriptions and sense of place make these poems all the more poignant, as in “Moon Slide”:

My mother sometimes rides with me
down the old oak banister,
our shadows moon-sewn

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

I was sure I could fly,
that one day I’d take us above
the toll of my father’s war.

In the second section, she weaves together poems that have to do with race, peace demonstrations, weather, and daily life. “Stacking Wood” is a precise description of a necessary northern chore, a poem reminiscent of Robert Frost:

I cinch in the view with winter’s gold,
building round and higher
until it frames sky
purpling over stands of balsam
and cedar, green incense of winter,
softening this hardwood wall.

Anyone who’s stacked firewood knows the tedium and beauty so well captured in this poem.

Rich in praise and paradox, both the peace and war sections are solidly grounded in the northern land the poet loves, and seasoned with regret. These are complex poems, showcasing the craft of a versatile writer. Let’s hope for more from this talented author.

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Bearing Witness:
An Interview with Bram Presser

Interviewed by David Wilk

Family history for so many contemporary Jews is fraught. Most of us have relatives who disappeared without a trace, except for scattered entries in German records of extermination. Some fewer of us have had living relatives whose lives were defined by the Holocaust, almost always in horrific and devastating ways.

Bram Presser, an Australian writer, spent eight years working on an unusual novel, The Book of Dirt (Text Publishing, $15.95). It is a compelling story that explores the real-life events of Presser’s Czechoslovakian grandfather, Jakub Rand, from the 1920s through the Holocaust and into his post-War life in Australia. Combining family stories with archival research and interviews, Presser addresses the complexities of this history with the only tool that could possibly make sense of it—imagination.

The relatively large number of characters and the movement between places can be confusing for the reader, but Presser’s grandfather, his grandmother Dasa Roubicek, and their immediate family give the book focus. More importantly, their story of survival shines through the immense amount of pain and suffering through which they lived.

You do not need to be Jewish to find this novel compelling and powerful. All of us can relate to what it means to find hope in the worst possible circumstances, and anyone can find compassion for how the descendants of survivors of terror must try to understand the stories of their forebears. Readers will find The Book of Dirt to be a wonderful and transformative literary work.

Born in Melbourne in 1976, Bram Presser has been a punk rocker, an academic, and a criminal attorney. He writes the blog Bait for Bookworms and is a founding member of Melbourne Jewish Book Week. His stories have appeared in Vice Magazine, The Sleepers Almanac, Best Australian Stories, Award Winning Australian Writing and Higher Arc. In 2011, he won The Age Short Story Award.

David Wilk: This is an amazingly painful book in a lot of ways for people like myself, who like you had family members who did not survive the Holocaust. We probably should say that you call this book a novel, even though it’s hard to tell the difference between autobiography, memoir, and novel here, because that gives you the freedom to imagine, and to enter the lives of people.

Bram Presser: Yeah, and also where there aren’t records or where I don’t have hard evidence where I have to fill the gaps, it would be disingenuous of me to claim otherwise. I was really interested in what their experiences were, and I think you don’t get that from records. You don’t get that from seeing a train schedule or something like that.

At the beginning, I really didn’t have anything to go by. Though I had kind of an idea of what their stories were, I found that I had to turn to fiction to actually get to know them. I just felt that there was a different truth, a deeper truth in fiction than there would’ve been in it being a historical work, a biography or autobiography.

DW: I’ve read many memoirs of people who survived the Holocaust, and I think that it’s different for them; their imaginations are no longer capable of functioning because of the horror and the sheer destructiveness they lived through.

BP: Absolutely, and I think that the purpose in writing it is different as well. I’ve also read so many, and I think firstly they’re offering testimony. They’re bearing witness, which is an incredibly important thing to do, and so imagination doesn’t necessarily play into it. They are the ones who lived this horror that we can’t imagine, and I think they need it documented for their own sake, and for the sake of humanity.

DW: Whereas, your perspective is different. You’re living today. You’re the descendant, and you’re trying to place yourself in their history to create your own, and that is a different thing than to tell a story of what happened to you.

BP: Yeah, at the end of the day, I’m making sense of my own existence. I’m the beneficiary of their horrific experience and survival. All the stuff that’s coming out now about inherited trauma and what have you, that is part of my inheritance, and to understand that, I have to go into their lives and try to make sense of them.

DW: They’ve talked about trauma actually affecting the genetic makeup and being passed on through generations, which actually does make sense.

BP: Absolutely, and for me, it’s strange because Melbourne, where I come from, had the highest per capita Holocaust survivor intake after Israel.

DW: Why was that?

BP: Well, you ask most of the survivors and they say it was the furthest place they could possibly think of from Europe, and they’re right. Australia is out in the middle of nowhere.

DW: So, I don’t want to parse through the book to try to figure out what is true and what isn’t, but to build the groundwork for how you got there: Jakub Rand, he’s a real person?

BP: Yes, he was my grandfather.

DW: I love the beginning where you go through the locations where they lived. I know my own grandparents talked about where they were from, and I always took it as a received wisdom that they were from Hungary, but when I looked at the place where they actually were from, it’s not Hungary. It just happened to be part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at that time.

BP: Right. I actually wanted to visit the place, it’s on the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains somewhere. This is years and years ago, so it’s my grandfather’s brother and he said, “Maybe you could’ve gone there.” Now it’s abandoned and it’s surrounded with brigands and thieves and people who will attack you on the road, and he goes, “You just can’t go there, if you can even find it.”

DW: That’s so weird.

BP: I know. What’s the weirdest for me is that at the time that my grandfather was born and during his childhood, it was a reasonably vibrant small village, perfectly accessible from the nearby cities and what have you, and now it’s at best a field.

DW: Right, although as you suggest, he desperately wanted to leave this small town.

BP: Oh, very much so. It’s quite funny because he was born into a religious family. He was the son of the rabbi of that village and he was sort of the golden boy who was going to be the next rabbi, and by the time he was a teenager he was not at all interested in it. He wanted to see what the wider world had to offer so he fled to Prague in search of a secular education. I think he probably came with letters of recommendation or something like that because he was adopted very quickly into the Prague religious community. So, I don’t think he was as unknown as I necessarily make out in the book, but at the same time, I’ve got no evidence one way or the other so it could’ve been that he was just someone that turned up, they liked the fact that he was quite learned and interested in learning, and he kind of had a foot in each camp. On one side, he was part of the religious community, but on the other side he was pursuing secular education at Charles University.

DW: Again, we don’t need to go through the whole story here, but it’s sort of amazing some of the things that happened to him . . . Even as you imagine it, just the act of being a survivor in itself is pretty amazing.

BP: Yeah, the question I get asked most is, “How much is fact? How much is fiction?” Most of it is a dramatization of anecdotes that I heard that are to the best of my knowledge true.

DW: Right, as told, as remembered, it’s true, because we don’t know.

BP: But it’s not stuff that I made up out of the blue.

DW: It feels like the structure of the story is all based in acknowledgeable fact, but as you’re trying to track back and figure out what really happened, you get these kind of mixed reactions like, “That couldn’t have happened. That’s not real.”

BP: I actually still remember walking into Yad Vashem, the main Holocaust museum in Israel. The camp my grandparents were in, Theresienstadt, I remember going there and I had this story in my head: After he died, this article was published saying that he had been the literary curator of Hitler’s Museum of the Extinct Race.

DW: That’s the story he told.

BP: That’s the story that was told about him.

DW: Right, but it must’ve come from somewhere.

BP: Well, yeah. This is the thing. The one question that still haunts me after writing the book well after it’s been published is, to what extent was he complicit in telling that story? Anyway, it’s pretty clear that that story isn’t true but I’ve come to believe there is something that is similar that is true that would’ve actually made perfect sense to him at that point when he heard about this museum—that that’s what he was working on.

DW: Right, because we explain stuff to ourselves in order to be able to understand.

BP: Well, to have gone through anything in the Holocaust, must have been in many ways—I don’t mean this in a disrespectful way—the most kind of meaningless experience. It was literally horror for horror’s sake, right? And so, when you’re searching for meaning in that, you’ll end up attaching to something that in any way makes sense to you. And so I think he, without spoiling too much, was in this Talmudkommando, which was a group of scholars who were tasked with sorting through books that had been stolen from congregations around the Reich that had basically been destroyed. He didn’t necessarily know why he was doing it, so this Museum of the Extinct Race would’ve seemed perfectly reasonable to him as the explanation.

DW: Also, it was enabling him to live by having that job because he was not sent to a gas chamber.

BP: Yes, and I think there was a massive guilt complex. When he was taken to Auschwitz, he was actually still reasonably healthy, right? So he spent six odd weeks in Birkenau in the Czech family camp, and people died en masse there from starvation. They weren’t being gassed and shot or what have you in that particular sub-camp.

DW: This was slave labor.

BP: But they were still worked to death and they were still starved and there was horrific disease and whatever, but he had an advantage going in there thanks to this Talmudkommando that he’d been in, because he had better rations. He had decent accommodation for sleeping arrangements, things that his friends and his family didn’t have. His brother went to the Czech family camp and they liquidated that camp every six months, right? And his brother was in the first intake and his brother was gassed after the first six months was up. He blamed himself to his dying day for the death of his mother. He genuinely believed that having taken rations from his mother in this Czech family camp caused her to die because when they did the selections, the mother was chosen to stay behind, which meant be gassed, and he moved on. He believed that had he not taken those rations, she would’ve been healthy enough. She would’ve been at that time in her late fifties, early sixties. They weren’t moving any late fifties, early sixties women into work camps. She was gonna die whatever happened.

So, all these things, his involvement in telling his story would’ve been a way to explain to himself why he survived, and maybe not assuage the guilt, but at least understand the cause of the guilt or make some sort of peace with the guilt and say that he survived through being part of this incredible plan that the Nazis had to make this museum and that was just luck, because really, 90% of survival was luck.

DW: Maybe more.

BP: Yeah, exactly.

DW: I mean, it’s just so hard to imagine. One cannot.

BP: No.

DW: It’s just not possible to realize that humans do this to each other, it’s not a unique happening.

BP: No. I mean, that’s the horrific thing. I always think about, “Never again, never,” and it just happens again and again. Different scales, different situations, Cambodia and Rwanda . . .

DW: Now Yemen.

BP: Yeah, exactly.

DW: Which no one wants to talk about.

BP: It’s horrific. South Sudan, Darfur. It’s unbelievable what humans are capable of . . . And it’s interesting because when you really kind of commit yourself to writing about this and trying to understand it, it gives you perspective on both the best that people can be and the worst. I like to think that you end up with some sort of equilibrium because sometimes you’re like, “Wow, people are amazing and the things they can do to survive and to help each other is just extraordinary,” and then you look at the other side of it and you just go, “Wow, people are terrible.”

DW: Right. But we can contain both of those realities. And it’s painful to realize that what happened to the people in your book, they’re just a few people out of millions.

BP: Someone says, “Are there still Holocaust stories to tell?” Yes, there are so many because every survival story appears to be unique.

DW: Even the ones who didn’t survive . . . Some of the work is about remembering and allowing them to live in memory or in imagination.

BP: It’s very interesting you say that because a thing that happened for me in writing the book, one of the most extraordinary experiences, was I got an email from a 94-year-old guy in London and he said to me, “Look, here’s my class photo from 1942 in Prague. I’ve spent the last 30 years since my retirement trying to find out what happened to all the people in my class. The only person I couldn’t find was my teacher, Jakub Rand, and every year I type his name into Google”—and I just laugh, this 95-year-old guy, typing in Google every day—”Every year, I type it in Google and I try to find him and nothing, and this year it came up. It came up with you,” because people have been talking about this kind of crazy guy who’s running around trying to find his grandfather’s story and he’s on an obsessive quest . . . so he said, “I think this might be your grandfather. I think Jakub Rand, this teacher, might be your grandfather.” Now, this photo I can clearly see is my grandfather. I mean, at 85, he didn’t look greatly dissimilar to what he looked like at 25, right? A somewhat older version.

Anyway, I ended up going and meeting him, I went to London. He lives in Suffolk now, an amazing, amazing guy. He said to me, “I want you to promise me one thing, that when you come to write this book, I’m gonna tell you about all the kids in my class.” I think probably about 90% of them were killed, right? He said, “I want you to write about them as people. Make them characters, right? My quest is to give these children life that was denied them.”

DW: Right.

BP: So there’s chapters in the book that take place in the school where my grandfather was teaching. Actually, some of them reappear in later chapters in Terezin and also in Birkenau. When we came to editing it, my editor was like, “Oh, do we really need all these kids in it?” I agreed with 95% of her edits. I said, “This is one thing I’m gonna dig my heels in ’cause I made a promise to this guy, that these kids are going to become people again.”

That to me was really important. And similarly, my grandfather’s best friend, George Glanzberg . . . This guy, his name’s Frank Bright, Franticek Brichta, as he was back then, said to me, “Did your grandfather ever mention someone called George Glanzberg?” I said, “Funny you should say that because he mentioned him once and for some reason the name has stuck in my head.” He mentioned him during my brother’s bar mitzvah during his speech, and he just mentioned him in one line, which was, “Why me? Why not Glanzberg?” He’s talking about his survival, and I never knew who Glanzberg was but the name always stuck in my head. I was ten at the time of my brother’s bar mitzvah, so it’s strange. He said, “Glanzberg is the guy standing next to your grandfather in the photo. He was the other teacher. It was his best friend.”

DW: And they worked together.

BP: They worked together in Prague, unquestionably. They were absolute best friends. They hung out all the time together. They both had doctorates and were highly learned, but they were both young guys and what have you.

So, it was just amazing to hear about this man who just sounded like a fantastic guy, and I could see where my grandfather would’ve loved him, right? And also why my grandfather felt so guilty about having survived without his best friend when they actually had almost identical trajectories through the Holocaust. The only difference was that my grandfather was not well enough to go on a death march and was left behind in one of the camps, and George died on that death march.

DW: Have you heard from people who have read your book, how it affected them? Have people talked to you about how it connects to their own experiences?

BP: Yeah. I get a lot of people, particularly people with Czech backgrounds who say that they found the stuff about Theresienstadt and also life in occupied Prague particularly powerful for them to understand what their family had experienced, but also we’re talking about my grandmother’s side. My grandfather was working in a kind of hut a couple hundred meters out of Theresienstadt, whereas my grandmother and my great grandmother, that being my grandfather’s mother, were probably one in the laundry, one in the kitchen, what have you.

DW: This is the woman whose mother, if I remember right, was not Jewish, so she was able to stay in Prague and smuggle food to them.

BP: Well, interestingly, this was not meant to be about my grandparents initially. This was a completely single-minded quest to find out my grandfather’s story, which came to nothing very early. But on my way back, I went through Prague and my mum’s cousin was there. He’s a fantastic guy, and we’re having coffee and he said, “Look, I know you’re looking for your grandfather’s story, but I have something you might be interested in.” His mother, who was my grandmother’s youngest sister, had just died. He was cleaning out her house, and at the back of her closet he found a shoebox, and in it were these letters on the most fragile paper, the tiniest handwriting in pencil.

He goes, “These are letters that your grandmother sent from the concentration camps to her mother back in Prague.” In them, there was talk about food and medical supplies and there’s a line that says something to the effect of, “We were just where they use gas. I’ll tell you about it when I get home”—amazing stuff from within the actual Holocaust experience. They permitted little postcards to come out, but these were full letters, so these were smuggled out, right? They also talked about a Mr. B, who was the conduit for getting the supplies in and out.

Yeah, so my grandmother and my great grandmother were in contact through almost all of my grandmother’s time in the concentration camps. The only time they weren’t was during her reasonably short stay in Birkenau, because there was a story that one of the letters was intercepted, and this happens in the book. It was intercepted by the Nazis and they called her out during one of the parades and they called a girl out to translate. The girl was apparently a 15-year-old Polish girl. They actually just asked for a volunteer. They said, “Can someone translate this letter?” This girl comes out and she holds the letter and she reads it, in inverted commas, and literally makes up what’s in the letter so that it’s completely innocuous. My grandmother was beaten to within an inch of her life, but she wasn’t sent off and killed. And my grandmother spent a long time afterwards trying to find that girl because she owed her her life, and she didn’t even know the girl either. That’s the amazing part—this was a girl who just took it upon herself to essentially save my grandmother’s life.

Anyway, my great grandmother as you said wasn’t Jewish, or she was a convert, but by Nazi standards she wasn’t Jewish. So, she and the two youngest daughters—my grandmother was the oldest of four girls—stayed in Prague, and my great grandfather, who was Jewish and the two elder sisters, my grandmother and my auntie Irene, went to concentration camps, and yeah, they stayed in touch throughout. My great grandfather died, was killed. My grandmother and her sister survived. It was thanks to really the extraordinary bravery of my great grandmother.

So I set off to find my grandfather’s story, but I ended up being in absolute awe of my great grandmother, whom I knew. I was thirteen when she died, and she was in her late eighties. You know what late eighties looks to a little kid: She was impossibly old and shriveled and what have you. To think of her and the stories I heard about her whilst researching this, and what I found out through various family members and friends, was just amazing. She visited my grandmother in the concentration camp, in Theresienstadt. I thought that was just impossible. When my cousin, my Czech cousin Ludwig, told me that they had visited, I was like, “That’s not possible.” Not only that, my editor called me on that and said, “There’s no way that happened.” She goes, “Unless you find evidence of people actually being able to visit concentration camps, that can’t be in the book.” I spent a long time, and I found records.

So this story, which seemed completely impossible or at the very least highly implausible, turned out to be entirely possible, because Ludwig had actually spoken a lot to my great grandmother, she was Ludwig’s grandmother and he was very close with her, and in her older days, they spent a lot of time together talking about life and the war and what have you, and she told him a lot of these things.

DW: Wow. So do you mind reading a little bit? It would be nice for people to hear a little, because I think the writing in this book is really great.

BP: Thank you. So this happens when my grandfather is sorting the books in Theresienstadt. He’s met my grandmother, and this was actually a big part of the book because I wanted to find out how my grandparents met each other. And so he’s met her, because she is bunking in the dormitories with my grandfather’s mother, and he doesn’t want to admit it, but he has a crush on her. She is in love with someone else, but anyway. Okay:

She danced between the lines in the kingdom of paper. It started with the slightest glimpse, a blonde curl behind a slanting lamed, a flash of skin, perhaps a wrist, a shoulder, or even a thigh through the crook of a beit. By some mistake of gravity, he had ascended to the heavens where only gods and angels dwelled. He looked at Georg, at Muneles, at Gottshall, at Seeligman, but they were lost between pillars of pulp, blinded to this shimmering sprite. She grew more brazen with the days, revealing more of herself on each new page. There was nothing suggestive in her moves, just the sheer delight of freedom. She cared little for his startled gaze. At times she swirled the ink around her in a frantic pirouette until the words blurred like a shroud across her shoulders.

Jakub sat back and wiped his brow. No, it was pointless. It was like leering at a sister, a child. And was he not just seeing her with his mother’s eyes? He knew how Gusta looked on when they talked, imagining what might have been, what still could be, but theirs was nothing more than a convenient alliance: her packages, his privileges, pooled to create a semblance of plenty. Outside the barracks, away from these books, she danced for others. He had seen her in the park on his way back from the bastion, huddled close to a young man under a tree. And what to make of the other times when she would loiter near the gate at day’s end and run the moment she caught sight of Jakub coming up Südstrasse. Jakub was certain he saw the gendarme right himself before hurrying over to unfasten the lock.

Jakub looked at the SS man by the door. He rarely moved, as if asleep. Only once had he stood to attention, when Eichmann himself came to visit, to compliment these shackled scholars, to show that he, too, could speak in their tongue. It is very important work you’re doing, gentlemen, Eichmann had said. That was before September, before the Council announced the resumption of transports. Before they took Shmuel away. He should have known. Eichmann’s presence boded ill for them all.

DW: I really want to thank you for doing this, Bram. It’s been great.

BP: Oh, thank you.

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The Art of Voice:
Poetic Principles and Practice

Tony Hoagland with Kay Cosgrove
W. W. Norton & Co. ($22.95)
by Mike Schneider

Just as he’s gone for keeps, Tony Hoagland, true to his ironical being, is more than ever with us. His seventh full-length collection of poems, Priest Turned Therapist Treats Fear of God, came out last year from Graywolf Press just prior to his death, and is followed this year by The Art of Voice, a heartfelt, book-length essay about the craft of poetry.

As with Hoagland’s prior books of prose, The Art of Voice demonstrates that this poet’s friendly provocateur brio didn’t quit with his poems. As many of his former students (including this writer) can attest, he took teaching seriously and was an apostle for poetry as an undervalued field of learning and endeavor.

His first prose collection, Real Sofistikashun (Graywolf, 2006), evokes a seminar with a whip-smart, unpretentious, conversationally adept professor — hip, yes, but also rigorous. With purposeful misspelling hinting at the slant of Hoagland’s thought, Real Sofistikashun addressed several standard-repertoire topics, including metaphor—“the raw uranium of poetry”—and tone, an often elusive idea that Hoagland handled with exceptional lucidity.

Twenty Poems that Could Save America (Graywolf, 2014) extended the discussion with attention to diction and idiom, along with Hoagland’s takes on particular poets, including Robert Bly, Frank O’Hara, Sharon Olds, and Dean Young. The title essay is a manifesto for updating poetry pedagogy, and includes this sporty salvo: “pretentious ponderous ponderosas of professional professors will always be drawn to the poems that require a priest.”

The Art of Voice differs from the two earlier prose books in that there’s a gravitational center that holds from beginning to end. The theme, “voice,” is a concept every poet has thought about, at least to the extent that the idea of apprentice writing is to “discover your voice.” On the surface, it sounds simple enough, but Hoagland points out that voice isn’t only a means to distinctive poetry, but an aesthetic end in itself:

One of the most difficult to define elements in poetry is voice, the distinctive linguistic representation of an individual speaker. In many poems voice is the mysterious atmosphere that makes it memorable, that holds it together and aloft like the womb around an embryo. Voice can be more primary than any story or idea the poem contains, and voice carries the cargo forward to delivery. When we hear a distinctive voice in a poem, our full attention is aroused and engaged, because we suspect that here, now, at last, we may learn how someone else does it—that is, how they live, breathe, think, feel, and talk.

As Hoagland conceives of it, voice is also a branding element of American poetry. “At the risk of sounding naively patriotic,” he says, “such aliveness of voice seems like a special strength of American poetry in the last hundred years.” One of his essays in Twenty Poems, “Litany, Game and Representation,” roughed out the historical course of poetry in relation to post-modern unease about the indeterminacy of language, arriving at what he called “New Poetry”—less invested than prior poetry in conveying experience, more involved with linguistic play for its own sake.

In The Art of Voice, the poetry Hoagland mapped out previously as “New Poetry” becomes, with a shift in emphasis, “voice poetry,” and the book is, chapter-by-chapter, a user’s guide to its techniques. A core principle is that as readers we want to encounter a speaker who “presents a convincingly complex version of the world and of human nature.” To read a poem, says Hoagland, is to enter a relationship, and if we’re going to hang around, we want it “to be with an interesting resourceful companion.”

The techniques he offers—developed with examples and exercises (writing prompts)—include, for instance, having a speaker change his mind over the course of the poem, using vernacular diction and varying speech registers, and importing multiple speakers into the same poem. A voice poem, says Hoagland, may disobey the dictum that each word in a poem must be there for a reason. In a voice poem, some phrases serve no purpose, for instance, beyond inducing conversational bond with the reader. “Here’s the thing,” for instance, or famously, “This is just to say . . . .”

Consistent with Hoagland’s prior prose, The Art of Voice promotes thinking in directions that go beyond most writing about poetry, at least with this degree of clarity and concreteness. The poems he draws from as examples are fresh, not the usual suspects, and you get the feeling that Hoagland read almost every new book of American poetry as it came out.

People are strange, and personalities come in infinite variety of quirkiness and virtue. The Art of Voice wants poems of equivalent richness, poems that linguistically enact freedom of the mind at play. Some of the vivid images and sinuous sentences Hoagland has bequeathed to readers aren’t even, in an important sense, his to bequeath, but belong to poets who will write more and better due to the gift of this book.

An overview of the poetry of Tony Hoagland appears in the Summer 2019 Print Edition of Rain Taxi Review of Books. Purchase this issue here.

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Ghost Wall

Sarah Moss
Farrar Straus and Giroux ($22)

by Greg Chase

A wall can keep people out, but it can also be used to hide something shameful within. In her spare and enthralling new novel, Sarah Moss probes both sides of this age-old human compulsion to erect barriers.

Set in the north of England in the 1990s, Ghost Wall centers on seventeen-year-old Silvie and her parents, who have teamed up with an archaeology professor and his students to fulfill her father’s fantasy of re-enacting life in the Iron Age, two thousand years earlier. The novel comments on three different historical moments simultaneously: It alludes to the fall of the Berlin Wall (one of the students has recently visited Berlin), but it also looks back to the brutality of an older world—and forward to the brutality of our own.

Silvie, who narrates the story, makes clear that her father’s interest in ancient history reflects his nativist attraction to “the idea that there’s some original Britishness somewhere.” In one scene, the professor and her father debate how necessary Hadrian’s Wall was as a means of keeping native Britons at bay:

The Britons had enough training that the Romans had to build the Wall, Dad said . . . Well, said the Prof, they weren’t exactly British . . . Celts, we tend to call them these days, though they wouldn’t have recognized the idea, they seem to have come from Brittany and Ireland, from the west. Dad didn’t like this interpretation, didn’t want an Irish lineage, or Welsh or French. . . . He wanted his own ancestry, a claim on something.

Many more things are at stake in this conversation than the historical purpose of Hadrian’s Wall, and one of those things is class. Silvie’s father is a bus driver, an amateur historian who resents people like the professor—those who, as Silvie puts it, “were paid to walk the places Dad loved and write the ideas he could have had.” Silvie herself has “never been as far south as Birmingham,” and the trip marks her first extended contact with more privileged young people, those with the resources to travel around Europe for fun.

Whereas her father idealizes a world before industrialization, Silvie understands that Iron Age life demands a great deal of violence. After her mother remarks offhandedly on the possibility of gathering fish for dinner, Silvie reflects on the inaccuracy of this wording: “You don’t . . . gather fish, there has to be murder done.” And she understands that the violent practices they are seeking to recreate have never really left, given that her father is regularly abusive to her and her mother. In one harrowing scene, he beats Silvie with his belt, and she seeks to dissociate from the experience by focusing on “the leather of his belt, the animal from whose skin it was made . . . the sensations that skin had known before the fear and pain of the end.”

One aspect of the ancient Britons’ culture that especially fascinates Silvie’s father is their practices of ritual sacrifice; in order to ward off evil spirits, he explains, they would single out a person—often a young woman—tie her up, and leave her to die in the bog. “You give what you most want to keep,” he has told his daughter over the years. In chilling detail, Silvie describes how her father and the professor join forces to construct a makeshift wall of their own, and how the re-enactment begins increasingly to feel “like something real.” As Ghost Wall moves ominously toward its climax, Moss shows that sometimes even those who do know history are driven to repeat it.

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