Tag Archives: Summer 2020

Romantic Nihilism/Hopeful Abandon: Two from Saturnalia Books

All the Gay Saints

Kayleb Rae Candrilli
Saturnalia Books ($16)

Let It Ride

Timothy Liu
Saturnalia Books ($16)

by Allison Campbell

What must one sacrifice to be honest and in love? To face desire and endure its emptiness? To create and maintain relationships, or to abandon the idea of “relationship” meaning anything at all outside the present moment of conversation or coitus? Two recent books offer two vastly different takes on, for lack of a better phrase, modern love. Kayleb Rae Candrilli’s All the Gay Saints and Timothy Liu’s Let It Ride bring to mind William Blake’s archetypal Songs of Innocence and of Experience, if the former grappled with the burgeoning selfhoods that come with mapping a transitioning body, and the latter included radiographed faux-Bosch paintings and fleeting encounters choreographed via Grindr.

Blake’s narrator in “The Lamb” asking, “Little Lamb who made thee / Dost thou know who made thee” could not have anticipated the depths Candrilli plumbs throughout All the Gay Saints around questions of identity. Poem after poem in the collection looks brazenly and lovingly at how we are both made and unmade by ourselves and through our relationships. As in Blake, the exploration is both physical and metaphysical; in “Our Root System is a Tangle of Pipecleaners (Or, Being your Man has Made Me One)" Candrilli addresses their partner, “You lick my wounds / and yours, and we are both healing faster than ever, aren’t we?” The statement of faith here, followed quickly by the question “aren’t we,” is emblematic of the simultaneously hopeful, reticent, and continually nascent tone that dominates and energizes All the Gay Saints. Here’s another example:


and no answer will satisfy true
blood flow or this boy who loves me.

The truth is, as I sleep, everything directly above
my heart will be cauterized.

Facts are difficult
if you are able to recognize them

as fact. And I am scared
of my partner

being faced with my blood
because I love them.

When we talk of the future, my future chest is as flat
as our future backyard. We plant

a lemon tree and it grows
even in winter.

The narrative voice of Timothy Liu’s Let It Ride may be less nascent than that of All the Gay Saints, but the poems are no less searching. In Songs of Experience, Blake’s child-narrator in “The Chimney Sweep” claims adults are the ones “Who make up a heaven of our misery.” In kind turn, Liu’s “True Value” begins, “Why not destroy the thing you / love most?” And after working back through adolescent memory, the poem comes to explain,

You can walk
past a painting a hundred times

and never stop to take it in,
then one day, you’re thumbing
through a gift sent by someone

you adore, and you have to
work hard to keep your tears
from splashing on a godforsaken


Here, and in other poems in Let It Ride, Liu seems to question how we truly see what is physically, literally before us. To put it simply, Candrilli’s poems reach from the inside out, asking: How do you see your way to physical manifestation of what you want? By contrast, Liu’s poems seem to move from the outside in, asking: How do you fully see what is physically manifest?

In “Pilgrimage,” Liu describes his encounter with the Met’s one legitimate painting by Hieronymous Bosch, Adoration of the Magi. About the work’s pastoral background—a couple dancing in the distance, rolling hills—Liu concludes the scene is

reminding us all
that we are nothing
more than a wayward
flock in search
of someone to gather us

This is a depiction of life that Liu rejects, or at least finds disappointing. And who can blame them if the narrator prefers, as the poem states, the “angst-ridden / tableaus of the flesh / scorched and flayed / in the next gallery”? These other scenes may be critically complicated by their once-false attribution to Bosch, instead of a “follower of Bosch,” but this detail does nothing to detract from the speaker’s engagement with Christ’s Descent into Hell, a painting they are compelled to reach out and touch when the security guard has turned their back. Liu’s imagery and interiority make it easy, by the end of the poem, to share the speaker’s attraction to “layers that render / this particular hell / more translucent.” At least we can see what we’re getting into! Similarly convincing is the poem’s ending, which values presence over some possibly contrived form of authenticity. The speaker observes teenagers taking selfies in front of the painting and comments that it

hardly matters
who or when
this thing was painted—
only that we’re here.”

Both poets repeatedly expose something hopeful in the present moment. Although they approach these moments from varying places of solace or suffering, they both seem to believe in an inherent promise to being here. In “There is a Point at Which I Tire of My Own Fear,” Candrilli admits that “Queers are killed / and have always been       killed in any number / of ways” and holds space for a redeeming love:

When I meet my partner, my partner meets me
back. Against the wall
we kiss and both note that today, what breaks us
is only the sun
through the blinds.

In “The Beloved,” dark and frolicking, Lui writes of “the new steps / you took to choreograph grief.” And “Ars Poetica: At Fifty” ends:

Love allows
our tongues to follow

thirst to whatever needs

to be reached—a cube
of ice on a hot stove

riding its own melting.

Candrilli’s “Thoughts on Romance as the Heat Index Rises” can be read as an inadvertent response to this melting:

I open my mouth and, despite the world,
use it almost daily to fall in love.

This is so direly human of me—
so egregiously alive. I feel

lucky to hold my partner’s skin
and their hunger on my tongue

always. I am thankful that, most
mornings, the day still opens

its mouth
for both of us.

Both Let It Ride and All the Gay Saints encourage us to be attentive and alive, unapologetically wary and simultaneously hopeful. It’s not an easy balancing act and requires an almost heroic mix of romanticism and realism; Blake had to write two separate books to get at this mix. Readers today are lucky to have Kayleb Rae Candrilli’s All the Gay Saints and Timothy Liu’s Let It Ride to reintroduce us to the complexities of being and becoming, to the ways in which we never truly escape either innocence or experience.

Click here to purchase Let It Ride
at your local independent bookstore
Click here to purchase All The Gay Saints
at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2020 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2020

Catfishing on Catnet

Naomi Kritzer
Tor Teen ($17.99)

by Aidan Bliss

The emergent media targeting today’s young adult demographic will necessarily make some allusion to the internet and its perpetual reconstruction of social activity. Contemporary works inevitably cut away to text messages and social media, from John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars to Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why. These new modes of communication will occasionally inform the entire format of a piece, as is the case with Lauren Myracle’s ttyl and Andrew Hussie’s Homestuck.

Naomi Kritzer opts for a restrained immersion into the cyber teen experience with her young adult novel Catfishing on Catnet. From the title alone, Kritzer’s specific interest in the internet is apparent. There are entire chapters of this novel reserved for chat room dialogues and the internal musings of artificial intelligence, but Kritzer strives to leave space for her main character’s irl tale as well.

Steph’s story is one of constant turbulence, as she is perpetually on the run with her mom from a shadowy and very abusive (pinkie mutilating!) ex-husband. Unable to stay in one place for long, the majority of Steph’s social life takes place in internet chatrooms that provide cute narrative pit stops throughout. Kritzer makes a significant nod to the newfound accessibility of queerness for young people on the internet, as cyber confidants with usernames like “Boom Storm” or “FireStar” vent about getting dead-named or misgendered. The authenticity of this dialogue is impressive and could be trusted by any high schooler who’s even tangentially on Tumblr.

Steph herself is questioning her queerness or lack thereof, a tender tie-in to the fundamental uncertainty of her life. Her writing frequently includes iterations of “I don’t know” and “I’m not sure,” which works well as a healthy, realistic acknowledgement of the process that is coming out and/or coming to understand one’s own sexuality and identity:

“Are you talking about one friend or more than one friend?”
“One friend. They use singular-they pronouns because ‘they’ is non-gendered and my friend is nonbinary.”
Rachel makes a face, and I wonder if I’m going to have to explain nonbinary genders. But instead she says, “Bryony said last year she wanted everyone to use xie instead of she, but her father threw a fit and told the teachers at the school they weren’t allowed. They didn’t want to, anyway. Does everyone just call your friend ‘they’ and it’s not, like, an issue?”
“Bryony is non-binary?”
“I don’t know.”

When combined with Kritzer’s convincingly queer-high-school-student dialogue, this unknowingness is just fine. However, the nearly omnipresent uncertainty has some unpleasant side effects.

It’s frustratingly rare for her characters to experience meaningful resolution—in terms of coming out or in pretty much any other regard. When shit hits the fan, when Steph’s mom is hospitalized and can’t protect her, when Steph doesn’t know what to do (often the case), things just gets fixed—not by her, but by the self-aware A.I. CheshireCat. A deus ex machina written like C-3PO if 3PO were programmed to be a vigilante queer advocate, the A.I. trivializes almost all of Steph’s obstacles. Bad teachers at her new school get blackmailed into quitting. Her abusive father gets incapacitated first by hacking into a self-driving car and then kitchen robots. Anything at stake gets tossed.

Kritzer eventually goes all in on the speculative, making the A.I. the only truly dynamic character in the novel. This flaw aside, however, Catfishing on Catnet offers a promising character study of awkward teenage girlhood, with a captivating backdrop of familial instability and queer questioning in the internet age.

Click here to purchase this book
at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2020 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2020

The Case Against Reality
Why Evolution Hid the Truth
from Our Eyes

Donald Hoffman
W. W. Norton & Company ($27.95)

by Quinton Skinner

With our current times flavored with an ample dose of unreality, we might be more receptive than usual to ways of thinking that transcend the familiar and anodyne. In other words: strange times have a way of opening the mind.

It’s an appropriate moment to engage with the profoundly provocative The Case Against Reality by cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman. Although one might be tempted to regard it as hyperbolic, the book’s title is a straightforward description of what lies between its covers; Hoffman indeed methodically makes his case over 272 densely reasoned pages.

The essential argument is twofold. First, Hoffman posits that the lessons of Darwinian evolution lead us to the conclusion that fitness—broadly defined as actions that promote our well-being, survival, and capacity for reproduction—will always take priority before truth in our perception of reality. Second, he argues for what he terms the Interface Theory of Perception: The information our senses provide to us, including their variability and textures, are representations of another, currently unknowable reality. It’s an elusive concept that Hoffman undergirds with the sturdy metaphor of the computer desktop, populated with icons and symbols with choices and consequences that do nothing to reveal the actual workings of the processing machine underneath.

Once we’ve ventured into this terrain, Hoffman presses further into contemporary quantum physics to make the case that there actually is no reality that exists outside of consciousness and observation. After a somewhat repetitive style in the early chapters, Hoffman gathers momentum, elegantly explaining and interpreting concepts such as Quantum Bayesianism and Stephen Hawking’s holographic principle to show how objective reality itself is being discarded on the cutting edge of physics. “What we do understand, many physicists now tell us, is that spacetime is doomed,” Hoffman writes with characteristic bluntness. “Space and time figure centrally in our daily perceptions. But even their sophisticated union into spacetime, forged by Einstein, cannot be part of a true description of the fundamental laws of nature.”

The Case Against Reality includes a great deal of thoughtful exploration into vision, color, and illusion to bolster Hoffman’s essential point that our perceptions take shortcuts—that they are an imperfect approximation of something potentially unknowable (though he maintains scientific optimism on that front). In these passages, his narrative feels assured and focused, and more experientially relatable than earlier references to mathematical proofs that purportedly predict outcomes of natural selection.

Hoffman has a lot of heavy lifting to do with this short book, and the result is potentially paradigm shifting for the receptive reader. Furthermore, while his persuasive focus is on the districts of scientific understanding, his ideas are easily applicable to such realms as Buddhist philosophy, which in some interpretations maintains that our world is indeed generated by consciousness, with no existence independent of it.

This is essentially Hoffman’s sweet spot, and the final passages of his book are metaphysically challenging but also intellectually thrilling. Positing a theory of “conscious agents” that make up higher reality, and which coalesce into entities of greater and greater complexity through natural processes, Hoffman again employs math to point a flashlight into the void. He speculates on the possibility of our eventually understanding the infinite, suggesting a “scientific theology” that could point the way toward a God who is not “a magician” but understandable within a framework of the mind. It’s a high-wire act that could only stay aloft after the argument built by the earlier chapters.

In this, Hoffman delivers on the promise of his title. While it’s an impactful work indeed that’s capable of making one question one’s assumptions, it’s another thing entirely when it calls into question the veracity of the senses, the passing of time, and the existence of objects themselves. Rather than inspiring despair, however, The Case Against Reality lends hope for the vision of a real synthesis between science and spirit, and the possibility of bridges between the two realms long thought to be mutually exclusive.

Click here to purchase this book
at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2020 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2020

Poetry Flowing Everywhere:
An Interview with Trapeta B. Mayson

photo by Anna Mule

by John Wall Barger

Trapeta B. Mayson is the City of Philadelphia’s current Poet Laureate. Born in Liberia, Mayson moved to the U.S. in 1975 and grew up in North Philadelphia. She describes herself as the “sum of two continents . . . two countries, two sets of powerful people: my birth country of Liberia, and my beloved Philadelphia.” By profession, Mayson is a licensed clinical social worker, with a focus on mental health. As a poet and artist-teacher, she has led many workshops, working with children in schools and adults in shelters, detention centers, jails, churches, barbershops, restaurants, art museums, colleges, and universities. She is the author of a poetry collection, She Was Once Herself (2018), and a chapbook, Mocha Melodies (2008), and has published poems in American Poetry Review, Epiphany, and many other magazines. Her poems focus on the immigrant experience, Liberia, and community; both political and personal, they are always compassionate and pack an emotional wallop as well.

Trapeta and I conversed online together in June—she from her study in Germantown, Philadelphia, and I from my kitchen in West Philadelphia—while much of America marched in the streets to support Black Lives Matter, and as the COVID-19 pandemic and its corresponding economic turmoil continued.

John Wall Barger: Your poem “Arrival” talks about arriving in America from Liberia in 1975. It ends with the phrase, “But you mustn’t carry Liberia with you.” Have you carried Liberia with you all these years?

Trapeta B. Mayson: I have, despite some real challenges. When we arrived here, initially, my family’s legal status was “undocumented.” We had to quickly acclimate to this culture, living in the shadows. So part of it is a literal “carrying,” and part is mourning for the past. I had to adjust and adapt to American culture. Even though people speak English in Liberia, it’s heavily accented English, so I felt pressure to hurry up and straighten my English so I wouldn’t stick out like a sore thumb and get detected. But I’ve always carried Liberia: the food, the culture, the country. It means a lot to me. I do go back. I have family there that I help and support as much as I can.

It’s an arrival to a place you’ve dreamed of. You’ve heard all these wonderful things—the streets are paved with gold, and there’s a price that you have to pay to fully get it. Then when you get it, all that glitters isn’t gold, you know? [laughs] It’s devastating, in a way. So then there’s a point when that person reckons with that—realizes that everything that you have, everything that you bring, is already okay. You want to add to what you are with your experiences here. You don’t want to erase it. I want to tell the young character in my poem, “You can have all these things.” She’s so excited about the milk-and-honey land. But that’s not really what it is.

JWB: That immigrant experience is a very important one for us, as a culture, to consider right now. I love that idea, of “All that glitters,” compared with the shock of arriving here.

TBM: It might be a little different these days. There’s not very much acceptance of immigrants. At that time, living undocumented, we were in the court system for many years, fighting off the deportation order to return back home to a country we didn’t know, that was in a war. Someone asked me, “Why did you come here?” Because you want something different, you want an opportunity for you and your family. This is why my parents came, when I was a child. You just want a shot, a chance.

JWB: Does your day job as a social worker provide inspiration for your writing? I imagine in some cases the stories must be devastating.

TBM: They are. But I also meet people with a lot of joy. There’s joy in surviving and thriving. I meet people who are artists and poets and writers and musicians in their own right, but they haven't had the ability or the privilege or the access to be able to write those poems or haven’t had the luxury. So although there’s a lot of pain and suffering, there’s also something about the human spirit, and survival, that encourages me in my work. And I try to balance that in my poems: not to just focus on the downtrodden stories. Because there’s also a lot of stories about light and survival and love.

JWB: That’s more important now than ever, isn't it? Not too much joy going around these days!

TBM: No, not too much. I have a saying, that I say every day: “Happiness is a choice.” Even with all of this darkness happening, there’s a lot of power happening and movement happening. You want to be able to find it and claim it for yourself on a daily basis.

JWB: During the Iraq War, the band The Chicks (formerly called The Dixie Chicks) said critical things about George W. Bush and were lambasted for it. But in these weeks, as people take to the streets in support of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, there seems to be more space for all of us to respond. In Dave Chappelle’s recent special, “8:46,” he says we don't want to hear from famous people like JA Rule at this particular moment. What is the role of poets (and poets laureate!), in these current waves of protests?

TBM: Artists have always spoken up, especially poets. We’ve been persecuted, prosecuted, for speaking up. Even when people were suppressed, they continued to speak up. That’s what makes this struggle. It’s not just something that happens because people were rioting and protesting—it’s been happening. It’s a continuation. The violence and the injustice continues. The poems and the art continue, right?

I feel like a lot more people are speaking up. And I hear from one camp where someone says, “Yeah, but are they genuine? Do they really mean it?” It’s a beautiful thing to be able to say, “Yeah, we believe Black Lives Matter,” and not be afraid of speaking up. I’m here to really focus on the struggle, because we’re not at that finish line. And if all those voices help us get there, to help us find true liberation and true conquering of the injustices, that’s what matters.

There are two phrases I like. About the pandemic somebody said, “We’re doing the very best we can.” For me, that’s a phrase I always say to myself. I’m not here to judge how you handle what you’re doing. We’re all doing the best we can. And about the protests the phrase that stays with me is, “This stuff has been happening a long time.” Now, there are all these courageous individuals, mostly young people, who are on the front lines. You used to hear people say, “Well, what’s going to happen with this generation? We’re so worried! They just seem like they don’t care.” I’ve never thought that, because I’ve worked with these kids in schools. I know the power of the youth. And here we have proof of it.

You asked me about my voice earlier. I kind of feel like a Dave Chappelle, right? We’re all the poets laureate. We all have to get our voices out. It doesn’t matter about having the title. And I struggle with, “Am I saying enough? Am I doing enough?” But we’re all doing it the best we can.

JWB: We were worried about Millennials a few years ago, but they’re killing it at the moment. They’re out on the street, making change happen, right now. It’s beautiful.

TBM: Enough is enough, they said. And I love it. We’re all a part of the movement, and I just love it. Someone said, “We’re all doing it different ways.” And that’s what I appreciate. So maybe one day I’m not able to be on the protest line. But I can write lines of a poem. I can feed the hungry. There are different levels to this struggle, and each of us have to contribute to it in a way that makes sense.

JWB: When Greta Thunberg came to the U.S. last fall to talk about the climate crisis, there seemed to be momentum happening for environmentalism. But then, after, it kind of fizzled. I’m afraid that fizzling might happen also with the Black Lives Matter protests, after a month or two, after all this momentum has passed.

TBM: Yeah, but the reality is the violence still continues, the injustice still continues, the systemic racism still continues. So even when the popular voices fizzle, we’re still living the struggle. We still have to keep passing that baton. Like Greta. All these wonderful things that the youths are doing to highlight environmental concerns: they have to keep up that struggle, because it’s about the life and death of the earth, right? And this is about the life and death of human beings, of Black bodies, and marginalized people. You can’t just take a rest. Like I always say, It’s always happened. This is just another level. So the question becomes, what’s next in this?

JWB: Philadelphia has so much emerging poetic talent at the moment, like Raquel Salas Rivera, Kirwyn Sutherland, Warren Longmire, and so many others, you among them. Who do you see as the rising stars of Philadelphia?

TBM: One of the tragic things about the Philadelphia poetry scene, which I noticed when I was coming up back in the day with Panoramic Poetry, was what a big deal it was for us Philly poets to go read in New York: at the Nuyorican or Busboys and Poets. We always entered those spaces with a frame of mind like, “We’re going up yonder. We’re going up to the promised land!” I’ve read in New York many times, for different events. I always had the sense that Philly people felt like, in New York they arrived. And I was saddened by that because here in this place, in Philadelphia, the talent is overwhelming. I remember Yolanda Wisher saying, “A hero is never accepted in their own home.”

So, the rising stars of Philadelphia. There’s Kirwyn Sutherland, Enoch the Poet, David Gaines, Kai Davis, Husnaa Hashim. And Mia Concepcion, Philly’s Youth Poet Laureate. And then you have the people holding up the mantle, like Nzadi Keita, Ursula Rucker, Sonja Sanchez. Yolanda Wisher is at the top of my list. She’s a phenomenal poet.

So it’s a really healthy scene in Philadelphia, a really rich scene. What I love about what the younger poets are doing is that not only are they making space, they’re making it entrepreneurial a lot more and that speaks to the spirit. They aren’t shy about being vocal when access is denied, calling out places and people. Back in the day, we just wanted to write and read and get our words out there. Today, it’s a lifestyle, the poetry. And along with honing their craft, they’re really creating a culture—poetry readings, venues, workshops, mixing it with art, t-shirts—and I respect that.

JWB: Who else should we be reading these days?

TBM: There are my poets who I adore, who I always read: Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton, Sonia Sanchez, Yusef Komunyakaa. I love Marie Howe, Louise Glück, Natasha Trethewey, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes. I co-taught a class at the Rosenbach Museum with Yolanda Wisher on black women writing, and the healing aspect of black women writing, with a focus on Toni Morrison. We’re teaching another course at the Rosenbach on black women’s short stories, exploring people like Alice Dunbar Nelson, Toni Cade Bambara, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Reading outside of my comfort zone informs my writing.

JWB: What is your hope for poetry?

TBM: My hope is that poetry keeps its integrity, but be just as loose as it needs to be. I want poetry to still maintain its integrity but I want it to be loose in the streets. I want it to be focused on honing and crafting, and really paying attention. But I want it to be accessible. I want it flowing everywhere. Yeah, that’s what I want. My hope is that it’s attainable. It’s not intimidating. I’ve had the pleasure of teaching poetry in shelters, in detention centers, jails, colleges, universities, and churches—to people who would never think about poetry. And at the end of every one of those sessions, one or two of those people in the room, they smiled at themselves, proud as a peacock, and they said, “Wow! You like that, miss? You like that? Well, I guess I’m a poet!” That’s what I want poetry to keep doing. [laughs] So many young people say, “Miss, I’m not a poet!” And at the end you can’t get them off the microphone. For me, I want it to keep its integrity. Because I don’t want it to be, “Any old thing is a poem.” But any old thing is a poem. But it’s what you do with that any old thing.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2020 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2020

The Melancholy of Maturity

Translation and Adaptation in Normal People, The Story of a New Name, and Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots

by Sarah McEachern

After Parasite’s win for Best Picture at the Academy Awards last year, Korean director Bong Ho asked in his acceptance speech for American viewers to “overcome the one-inch barrier of subtitles.” Global literature, likewise, now offers more than ever if readers can accept the added presence of a translator. Some U.S. readers have been receptive to translation, and a few major international books have become bestsellers in the States, like Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, and Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights. In recent years several books originating in the U.S. have also found an audience through their ability to deviate from a predictable, Western plot, including Louise Erdrich’s National Book Award-winning The Round House, Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth, and Marlon James’s Black Leopard, Red Wolf.

This spring has seen several limited television series adapted from books, each of which tell stories from languages and cultures outside the American mainstream: Ireland’s Normal People (Hogarth, $17), Italy’s The Story of a New Name, (Europa Editions, $18) and Hasidic Brooklyn’s Unorthodox (Simon & Schuster, $17). These three adaptations have made several meaningful choices to remind viewers where their stories sit in the world. All three demonstrate that adaptations of translated books now have little interest in going out of their way to pander to a U.S. audience, and more interest than ever in calling attention to their roots.

To start, a little summary. Normal People is based on Irish novelist Sally Rooney’s sophomore novel of the same name, published in the U.S. in 2018 and an immediate bestseller. Normal People tracks the ever changing relationship between Marianne and Connell, first as secondary students in County Sligo and later against the background of Trinity College in Dublin. Their Irishness remains iridescent while their feelings for each other morph and rearrange. The Story of a New Name is unmistakably Italian; as with Elena Ferrante’s other Neapolitan Novels, it spends no time on softening the harsh realities of young girls growing up in a poor Neapolitan neighborhood, instead focusing on Lenú and Lila’s ever-changing friendship from elementary school through their sixties. The Story of a New Name picks up after Lila’s marriage at sixteen. While Lenú continues as a gifted student in high school, Lila finds herself surrounded by local crime and a violent marriage, and both of the girls find distraction and teenage infatuation in Nino, Lenú’s classmate. Unorthodox allows viewers a look inside the deeply insular Satmar Hasidic dynasty in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, by showing Esty’s sudden flight from the community after a disastrous arranged marriage. The show’s storyline is loosely adapted from Deborah Feldman’s 2012 memoir, Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of my Hasidic Roots, which chronicles her dysfunctional marriage and later exit from the community. Esty arrives in Berlin like a deer in the headlights, and the series delights in her discovery of secular frivolities like cappuccinos, pants, lipstick, and techno raves while flashing back to her life in Williamsburg and her decision to flee.

Mixed into each of these adaptations is the deep importance of language. My Brilliant Friend: The Story of a New Name, which airs on HBO, is one of the first major U.S. television series entirely presented with subtitles. Unorthodox is Netflix’s first series predominately in Yiddish, and the episodes are split between languages both in speaking and subtitles in a similar way to how Feldman’s memoir offers italicized Yiddish words on every page. Normal People, which is being aired on Hulu in the U.S. and the BBC in the UK, doesn’t take time to explain Ireland to its viewers, whether it’s how far Sligo and Dublin are from each other or how applying to college works there.

Each of the series grapples with the difficult—and at times impossible—nature of translation in a different way. As readers of the novel may remember, The Story of a New Name contains some of the longest separations between Lenú and Lila. Lenú narrates the episodes as she does the novels, and she is only able to chronicle Lila’s reality after reading her friend’s journals. Lila’s magnetism to Lenú is hard to pinpoint throughout the books, as it moves between a fascination with Lila’s prodigy in grade school, love in a world with little warmth for them, and bitter rivalry. Lenú later finds herself unable to write without her prose undercut by Lila’s voice, and their identities and choices at times are chaotically entwined. Consider the Matryoshka-like process of storytelling at work here: Lila writes the journals, Lenú presents them to the reader, these are translated for an English-language audience, they are adapted for screen by screenwriters, actors, and directors, and then they are given English-language subtitles. Unlike the novel, television adds an element to the portrayal we see of Lila, which feels like a flashback rather than Lenú’s retelling. The novel offers a layer lost on screen.

Meanwhile, Yiddish words remain untranslated in Unorthodox, appearing italicized in the subtitles. Their meanings are never explained for viewers. When Normal People was released in the U.S., it retained Irish vocabulary (culchie, press, lads) with changes to spelling. Many of the earlier episodes of the series were written by Rooney herself with a similar approach: The characters constantly speak in a distinctly millennial pish-pash of Irish slang you either get or miss. All of these adaptations accept that the exporting of a story is a messy business, choosing to include moments of confusion and admitting some words have no equivalents.

Normal People, The Story of a New Name, and Unorthodox each have moments where they simply refuse to translate for viewers, forcing their (largely) American audience to remember these stories come from somewhere else. In Normal People, Marianne’s older brother tells her she shouldn’t be seen with Connell, who he calls a knacker. For an American audience, this word might seem interchangeable with asshole or douchebag, in the same way that the dance at their secondary school, the debs, feels interchangeable with prom. Lost entirely are the racial tinges of the term cast towards Irish Travellers. An American viewer would simply know that Marianne’s brother looks down on Connell, which isn’t too hard for us to understand, since Rooney makes clear the social divide between Connell and Marianne; they meet because Connell’s mother cleans Marianne’s house. The intricacies of the term, what it means with regards to social class and ethnic identity, are left untranslated for an American audience, and perhaps lost.

In the first scene in Unorthodox, Esty is told she can’t leave her apartment with a bag because the eruv has fallen, so she returns to her apartment and leaves her bags, fleeing with only what she can slip in her clothes. We’re not told how what looks like an electrical wire dictates what Esty can carry. The show goes to lengths to convey the shock involved in joining the secular world as a sheltered Esty encounters a modern Berlin with accessible abortion, same-sex relationships, and Holocaust jokes, but the series doesn't stop to explore the meaning behind many of the customs found in her Hasidic upbringing (like bald brides and ritual baths), forcing us to accept their reality without understanding their motivations.

The only series set in the past, The Story of a New Name depicts Italy at a moment of cultural change. Unlike the first installment, My Brilliant Friend, where the neighborhood remained insular and the girls were only aware of their immediate community, both Lenú and Lila begin to slowly understand the greater world around them and straddle the line between adolescence and adulthood. When Unorthodox and Normal People depict leaving your childhood home, they reckon with the internet, texting, etc., but Lenú has to make calls from the grocery store since her parents don’t own a phone. Moving on from their childhood social positions offers further complications for both girls throughout the season. Both speak a dialect of Neapolitan Italian and their thick accents adhere them to the socio-economic status of their neighborhood even as they reckon with social mobility through education and marriage. The difficulty of their accent comes through in experiences, but linguistically it is drastically softened for a viewer reading subtitles in ways it was not by the book’s eloquent translation by Ann Goldstein.

Each of these series centers non-American characters in non-American countries with the exception of Unorthodox, which emphasizes the American-ness of its characters though it is primarily set in Berlin. The enclave of the Satmar Hasidic community remains isolated and poorly understood even though Brooklyn is home to the largest Hasidic population outside Israel. This is clear when Esty’s husband, Yanky, and his cousin, Moishe, check into a German hotel, where they are mistaken for being Israeli. The Satmar dynasty is set apart from other Hasidic communities by being vehemently anti-Zionist, and an offended Moishe slaps down a U.S. passport. Later, to hide their payots, the two men don Yankees and Mets baseball caps. The series goes to lengths to remind us that its characters, and their Satmar Jewish community, are uniquely American. The alienation an audience may feel because of unfamiliar customs is reinforced throughout the series while also being contrasted with the story of a distinctly American Jewish woman.

As so often happens in bildungsromans, the characters in these books-turned-shows find themselves: Connell becomes a writer, Lila takes up reading after being denied education as a child, Esty plans to audition for a musical scholarship after not being allowed to perform, Marianne becomes an intellectual among peers, Lenú becomes a novelist. They become less defined by their families, and the discovery of their agency feels terrifying and thrilling, but these triumphs come alongside the melancholy of maturity. Their stories fit cleanly together, but the choices their translators and adapters make in fashioning their stories for screen set them apart. The decisions of how to center their stories within their languages and cultures remind us of the inherent importance of characters telling their own stories in order to find their freedom.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2020 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2020

Are Snakes Necessary?

Brian De Palma and Susan Lehman
Hard Case Crime ($22.99)

by Joseph Houlihan

Co-written with Susan Lehman, a former editor at The New York Times, Brian De Palma's debut novel, Are Snakes Necessary?, is a fascinating exercise in genre—a minor work by a major cultural voice.

De Palma has always been an obsessive stylist. His cinema pulls viewers through intricate long takes and plot machinations with a classical understanding of suspense. And he's always been fascinated with pulp fiction. Are Snakes Necessary? is pure pulp, with the trappings of political thriller. It's stupid, and as with some of the bad novels of Bret Easton Ellis, stupid is the message.

Are Snakes Necessary? follows the story of a fixer working for a womanizing Senator. There are plenty of clichés, with snarling casino magnates and icy blondes, and more than a few De Palma flourishes as well, such as a photographer sniffing out intrigue on the set of a remake of Vertigo. The style is bare, taking on some of the cadence of The West Wing or a Tom Clancy thriller, but there are also certain strange additions, including a subplot with a rural “Dear Abby” character.

De Palma is often mistakenly criticized for the content of his films: a film about pornography is called pornographic, a movie about rape during the Vietnam War is called misogynistic. Most recently De Palma made a film about the manufactured idea of international terrorism, and it was drubbed as anti-Muslim. Generally, it's been said that he suffers from the curse of people liking his movies for the wrong reasons—Scarface, a film about the shortcomings of the American dream more than a gangster flick, being the obvious example—and surely some people dislike his films for the wrong reasons as well.

Are Snakes Necessary? is obviously a silly experiment in pulp fantasia, and yet there are some indelible images, almost like the intricate set pieces of any De Palma film, that are breathtaking. This is part of the paradox of De Palma's enduring brilliance: He uses the language of trash to talk about trash, and finds an erotic excitement in the transgression, because sometimes it's necessary to roll that shit around in your mouth.

Likewise, De Palma twists genres to catch moments of realness. He deconstructs war pictures in Casualties of War, for example, about the kidnapping and rape of a young woman by American troops in Vietnam. He later revisited this material in Redacted; both pictures reject American militarism, and highlight the violence and venality of military occupation.

The realness of Are Snakes Necessary? comes out in overwhelming cynicism. As more “my years at the White House” books emerge from the past two administrations, it only becomes clearer how self-serious the public workers of the executive branch hold themselves to be—and that this self-seriousness, this acting, is also a violence wrought upon the public.

While De Palma has proven to be capable of epic work in cinema, Are Snakes Necessary? is not exactly another symphony—it's an exercise, a late quartet. But it's quick, and it’s fun. So don't take it too seriously.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2020 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2020


William Gibson
Berkley ($28)

by William Corwin

Continuously lurching forwards, backwards, and sideways, and steadfastly refusing to give the reader a moment’s respite, Agency is a 400-page car chase resting atop a giant mound of metaphysics and gender politics. What are we to do with this formula? Gibson’s prose has never been easy for those looking to relax, but with its vertiginous, almost nausea-inducing fast-paced dialogue laced with invented but déjà-vu-familiar lingo, perhaps it’s the best way to deliver a similarly disorienting sociological message.

Unlike many of his other novels, Agency has a rapturously simple premise: a sci-fi reinterpretation of A Room of One’s Own written by a man and set in the now-arrived world of Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto. It is the tale of the unstoppable drive to public presence and universal consciousness of the world’s first truly conscious Artificial Intelligence, whose human avatar is an African American woman—one who is self-reliant, super-humanly organized, benevolent, and charged with the salvation of the earth. The details of the plot involve a confusing list of recurring personalities from the book’s 2014 prequel The Peripheral—a collection of detectives and security forces from an alternative dystopian future in London, and goofy caricatures of the San Francisco hipster start-up scene set in a disarmingly prescient depiction of the present. Reading Agency under quarantine, with the book’s constant flak of financial collapse and impending pandemics, is certainly exciting, but in that immediate, we-are-all-going-to-die roller coaster kind of way.

Typically Gibson composes his plots using a selection of stock but wonderful noir types: scheming middlemen, infinitely confident adventurers, and flawed heroines/heroes with a past that make them mesmerizingly sexy but terrible romantic partners. These types show up in the convoluted twistings of the current work, but there is a softness to the main quartet of actors—Eunice, the A.I.; Verity Jane, her real-world advocate; and Wilf Netherton and his wife Rainey—that heralds Gibson’s carefully choreographed transition from a scribe of our darker angels into a prophet of a touchy-feely self-care future. In brief, Verity is a San Francisco “App Whisperer,” hired by a shadowy start-up to field test a new interactive AI personal assistant. She soon realizes that “Eunice” is a conscious cyborg and internet-age messiah who will help right all the world’s wrongs. The shadowy start-up, for a never entirely clear reason, wants to thwart Eunice; on the opposing side, a team from several alternate future worlds makes contact with Verity in an effort to help save Eunice, because she will assist in preventing an apocalyptic series of events (cheerfully referred to as “The Jackpot”) that will devastate human society and wipe out 80% of the population.

Agency commutes between contemporary San Francisco and a bleak future London gutted by the ravages of The Jackpot. Motorcycle and car chases, zig-zagging across the Bay Area with momentary breathless pauses in high-tech drone labs and quick bursts of usually non-lethal violence, are juxtaposed against a calmer fabric of meetings over pints, tea, and English breakfasts in Cheapside and Fitzrovia. With this English calm also comes emotional support for the overwhelmed ingénue Verity: Rainey, the wife of Wilf (coordinator of the future-world rescue effort), periodically asks after Verity’s well-being, exemplifying our culture of “checking-in.” A portable rest-area is thoughtfully provided on several occasions for Verity and her accomplices by a shady manufacturer of killer drones, and she makes sure to take a shower and have a meaningful discussion with Eunice before the climax of the book. In Agency, our heroes avoid slaughter as best they can, and decide not to wantonly kill the non-descript but persistent bad guys—instead offering them compromise and painless, if not cowardly, exits. It’s hard to discern how much of this is tongue-in-cheek lampooning of contemporary mores and how much is Gibson pointedly closing the chapter on the gritty lifestyle and self-destructive drug use of his characters from Neuromancer and other cyberpunk novels.

While the non-stop action and feisty dialogue can distract from Gibson’s philosophical and political conjurations, there is still plenty of room to unpack what is going on intellectually. The author gently edges us toward solutions to our myriad social, environmental, and economic problems that he personifies in Eunice. Playing free and loose with David Lewis’s “Possible Worlds” theory, we get the fun of time travel without the disruption of upsetting the future by messing with history. All of Gibson’s interrelated worlds, or “stubs,” are alternative futures emerging from a shared past. The mirror present in which most of the action of the book takes place has been conveniently relieved of two of the greatest stumbling blocks currently facing our lived reality—the current U.S. president and Brexit—so at least in the face of an emergent omniscient AI and a precipitous nuclear situation, there is rational female leadership. But Gibson’s fictional solution to the all-too-recognizable impending Jackpot in our own IRL is a troubling one: Eunice is a too-good-to-believe Golden Ticket, and she’s just too nice. As with many a writer before him, Gibson’s depictions of possible futures seem all-too-happy to dispense with ill-functioning and pesky democratic institutions in favor of an eternal and kindly AI caretaker, a benevolent tyrant of sorts. If his own writing, and much SF literature, serves as a guide, the progeny of human creation would more likely magnify our flaws than ameliorate them: in other words, watch out, it’s a trap.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2020 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2020


Sharon Olds
Knopf ($18.95)

by John Kendall Hawkins

Since things and my body are made of the same stuff, vision must somehow come about in them; or yet again, their manifest visibility must be repeated in the body by a second visibility.
—Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Eye and Mind,”
The Primacy of Perception

The opening line of “No Makeup,” the fourth poem in Sharon Olds’s new collection, Arias, states: “Maybe one reason I do not wear makeup is to scare people.” It’s funny, has a political edge, and gets you thinking about all the people who hide behind thin-skinned masks. Olds’s engaging humor always leads the reader toward an edgy question, like: Makeup for what?

A winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and the only woman from the U.S. to win the T.S. Eliot Prize, Olds is in a fine fettle here. Mixing up memory and desire, but with nothing wasted, her humane, savvy, lyrical takes on ordinary experiences, albeit ones that often exist somewhere between the concrete and the abstract, are thoroughly enthralling and often movingly accessible. There are many strands and streams of themes that run through the river of Olds’s work. In Arias, she has many poems about dealing with strangers, human self-destructiveness, sexuality, motherhood, and the brilliant flashes of a personal pantheism. All that, in addition to paeans to language, love, and social awareness.

Born in 1942, Olds spent her early childhood in the Bay Area before being sent to the Dana Halls School in Massachusetts. She did her undergraduate work at Stanford and earned her PhD at Columbia University in 1972. According to the biographical information at poetryfoundation.org, she grew up a “hellfire Calvinist,” which seems to have had a significant effect on her psychosexual development and later personal mythopoeia. She has lived in New York City for decades.

Olds has been called a “confessional” poet, but that label is not quite right, as confessional poets are often stuck recounting trauma from their past, which can strain an empathetic read. But Olds, for all her mother-meted (and metered) childhood abuse, survives with witty and strange ontological bursts of insight. She puts her head into gas clouds of life-affirming atoms. She never strains empathy, but seems to produce new streams of it.

She’s also too hip to be darkly backward—she’s tuned in to the Now and Future, politically, sexually, intellectually, and poetically. Her poem “My Godlessness” fits right in with the times. Surprisingly, and anti-confessionally, she writes:

My mother beating me was not the source
of my godlessness. The source was not
the rape and murder of my classmate, or the rapes
and murders of our fellow citizens.
It was not earth, or water, or air.

Instead, perhaps envisioning Trump and the circus in Washington D.C., she writes: “The source of my godlessness was cruelty / and abuse of power, its minions were like the / flame-headed one roaring now / from the pulpit, the orange-haired extinctor.”

Arias contains six parts: “Meeting A Stranger,” “Arias,” “Run Away Up,” “The New Knowing,” “Elegies,” and “First Child.” This gives some of the game away, but there’s more. I like to think of the collection as an opera, loose, decentralized, postmodern, but full of arias—38 of them to be exact—and leitmotifs (“My mother beat me in 4/4 time” being the main one), and it's a collection that features beginnings, middles, and ends. An opera, but more Tommy than Rigoletto—and Olds is a diva from birth to death in these poems.

Early in the collection, Olds conjures up a familiar remembrance of the confusion and horror of 9/11. Suddenly, there is that image of white dust and smoke coming at you like a billowing fog monster, people running for cover. In “Looking South at Lower Manhattan, Where the Towers Had Been,” the poet in Olds wants to make sense of the horror and panic, but stops herself:

if you see me starting to talk about
something I know nothing about,
like the death of someone who’s a stranger to me,
step between me and language.

She observes: “oxygen, carbon, hydrogen” and the “sacred ashes / of strangers,” coming at the onlookers—the in-your-face failure of humanity.

But there is humor, too, in these transactions with strangers. At the airport, in “Departure Gate Aria,” she imagines herself at the airport as a “guardian spirit,” who comes across a beclouded woman with sandals and engages her in conversation just long enough to praise how her sandals complement the woman’s garments and soul: “You look / beautiful and good,” she says, and watches the clouds disappear from the woman’s face. The poet is chuffed and thinks:

I bustled off—
so this is what I’ll do, now,
instead of kissing and being kissed, I’ll
go through airports praising people, like an
Antichrist saying, You do not need
to change your life.

Olds is known for going to poetic places where other more angelic types fear to tread, like the joy of sexuality—as if it only belonged on TV, but must get itself to a nunnery in poetic form. Olds mocks this notion immediately in “Breaking Bad Aria,” when she imagines why the shifty Heisenberg (Walter White) resonates with men: “he gets sexually aroused by cooking meth and having / killed someone, it excites him so much he fucks / harder than he has ever fucked.” Later in the poem, she has her own quake: “What was arousing, to me, / for three decades, was faithfulness, the / chains of orgasms extreme beyond violent /in safety.” She never lost her faith.

In “Gliss Aria” she celebrates the bliss she’s had with the gliss of her lower lips, although, she writes, “sometimes I have left them untouched, / so they cannot sing, yet they’ve been sweet to me, / liquidy, sleek, lissome, with some / faint fragrance of salted nectar.” At other times it’s more about the music, as when she carts some LPs over to her lover’s place and gets laid for the first time in “Long-Playing Aria”:

—my body which had hardly been touched,
even through my clothes—to be that passive
verb, with flowered in it, by a light-shedding
laughing man who seemed to not love
anyone, like a god.

Her caesuras open like orchidal maneuvers in the dark, an erotic mythopoesis at work.

Some of the best poems in Arias come in the joie de vivre and humor of her baby poems. In “Objective Permanence Aria,” Olds imagines that first self-conscious moment of delightful other-being:

What a moment it was, in my life, when my mother
would leave the room, and I knew she still
existed! I was connected to that giant
flower on legs, that huge human
bee, even when the evidence of her
was invisible to me.

In “My First Two Weeks,” the baby drolly recalls that “I lived in a collective, / a commune of newborns” and, as for her relationship to Mom, “I commandeered those teats!” Oh, sweet liebfraumilch!

But such Blakean songs of innocence are more than balanced out by the poet’s songs of experience in a childhood of beatings at the hands of her mother. In “Waist Aria,” we hear the child being told, “Young lady—go up and wait for me / with your clothes off, below the waist.” Over and over again, these words cry out from the page—unexpectedly, at first, until the 4/4 time becomes the scene of a crime the poet must return to or die in.

Because of her ardent love for her mother, Olds keeps searching for answers in the poetry of her pain. In “I Do Not Know If It Is True, but I Think,” she introduces the musical pathology she shares with her mother, as if the mother, too, found release in rhyme and time:

My mother beat me to the meter of “Onward,
Christian Soldiers.” She speeded up
the tempo which dragged, in church—Slow-ly
On-ward Bo-ring Chris-tian Sol-diers

and she got to give pain, maybe the same
pain her mother had given her
and her mother’s mother had given her mother . . .

She is beaten because her mother wanted a boy, pre-named Timothy, and, instead, much to the mother’s dismay, a girl emerged out of the pain and quagmire of birth. In “Timothy Aria,” Olds writes, “I had been a star, / for a while, and I did not forget that I’d been / held, once, at some length, in passionate regard.” She holds the moment like a changeling, taking simple succor in the fact that her mother can love. In “Cold Tahoe Today,” the poet sub-merges with elements and goes to watery places: “I was an agate hunter, /a diver for transparent stone. / It meant so much to me to be / entirely inside that liquid world”—because there, “No one could hit you, in there, no one could / pull their arm back fast enough / to strike.”

Several lovely poems are devoted to the release of her trauma after her mother dies. She tends, with her sister, to her mother’s pain-driven last hours from this realm in “Morphine Elegy.” She becomes mother to her mother in “Dawn Song,” laying to rest a woman never at home in the world with these words:

And I want to say, to my
mother, my journeying laborer
who wandered here, with me in her hobo
sack—I want to put her to sleep
like an exhausted animal. Sleep, baby,

Olds possesses a keen sense of existence as not merely anthropocentric, but as pantheistic—that there is a divine force identifiable in everything, right down to the molecular level. Such phenomenological poems here include “Her Birthday as Ashes in Seawater,” where her mother’s ashes have been dispersed, leaving “her nature unknowable, dense, / dispersed, her atomization a miracle.” She is part of the sea and the sea is part of the galaxy and the galaxy is part of at least one of the universes. It’s a reminder that when we scale up, anthropocentrism doesn’t fare well.

“My Parents’ Ashes (New York City, October, 2001)” returns the reader to the earlier poem written not long after 9/11, when the acrid dust of bones and buildings was still in the air, holding memory in place. It evokes an image of her parents’ ashes dispersed 3000 miles away in the San Francisco Bay:

Maybe a molecule of her
has lain beside a molecule
of him, or interpenetrated
it, an element of her matter
bonding to an element of his
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
the currents carry them
back and forth under the Golden Gate.

Olds’s caesuras move back and forth, with and against the current, her rhythms and imagery stretching into the diaphanous reaches of language’s primordial brine.

For Olds, these interpenetrations of being can be playful and funny, too, as in “Animal Crackers,” where she pokes fun at the notion of transubstantiation: “I ate Christ, and the bunny, / I want a Levine matzoh, I want / Dickinson by her own recipe, / and Keats, bright oatmeal brooch.” It’s pagan cannibalism: ingesting the other, incorporating their power. But like most poets of Olds’s caliber, intertextuality has significant influences—she’s read everybody, and it can be difficult to discern her responses to other poets’ language. There’s some Plath, but only in an anti-Plath way; there’s Dickinson in her caesuras and maybe in the loneliness at the core of her ostensible extroversion; in at least one poem, “Cervix Aria,” I hear Blake:

When I held a snapdragon gently by its jaws
and squeezed, so they opened, it was as if
the volt at the hinge of the maw of the blossom leaped
open at the same instant as the glug!
at the core of my body
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
We almost knew this, at five, four,
three—when we saw the truth of beauty,
our body, abashed, gulped.

“Cervix Aria” could probably go far in summing up the aim of this collection. We come into the world already full of the knowledge we will spend our lives seeking and we talk each other out of wisdom; our common language is also our common ignorance. We can only approximate each other’s being, and that we do through the poetry of love.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2020 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2020

Poetry Breaks Through the Silence:
A Conversation with Ed Bok Lee
and Steve Healey

Poets Steve Healey and Ed Bok Lee both live in the Twin Cities and have known each other for over a decade. Both have published a number of poetry books with Coffee House Press, their most recent ones coming out in 2019—Healey’s Safe Houses I Have Known (Coffee House Press, $16.95) and Lee’s Mitochondrial Night (Coffee House Press, $16.95). Both collections were named finalists for the Minnesota Book Award.

There are intriguing overlaps between these books. They both explore fatherhood and family experience in starkly personal ways. They consider how past trauma haunts the present, and how imperial and colonial brutality has continued to manifest new forms through the Cold War and into our twenty-first century.

But these books also come from radically different social positions. Lee writes through the lens of his Korean ancestry, his parents’ experience of physical and cultural displacement as refugees and emigrants, his life growing up in the U.S. with its uniquely insidious ways of marginalizing Asian Americans. In contrast, Healey’s book dissects his white suburban childhood and complicity in his father’s covert professional life as a CIA spy—how that same culture of secrecy infected their family and caused large-scale devastation around the globe.

This conversation was conducted prior to the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic and the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Of course, the social inequities and atrocities spotlighted in recent months have deep histories and contexts, so it is our hope that readers will find this conversation even more relevant for our current moment.

Steve Healey: Congrats to you, Ed, for publishing Mitochondrial Night—such a powerful book with so many layers. One pervasive theme I find in these poems is how the past, memory, history, ancestry, ethnic identity, all continue to emerge in our present lives and bodies (our mitochondria). Can you talk about how this theme became so important for this book, for you as a poet & person? Is there something empowering and healing about this accessing of the past, tracing these continuities? Is there also something dangerous and destabilizing about it?

Ed Bok Lee: Thanks. And congratulations to you on the incredibly poignant, thought-provoking, formally playful Safe Houses I Have Known. The Cold War as a ghost that has moved so quietly through so many families is chillingly felt in your new book. As the child of immigrants from the two Koreas—my mother from what is now the communist North and my late father having haled from the (capitalist) South—your book makes me think about how the Cold War has affected my own family. Maybe we’ll get more into that. But, to your question, I’ve spoken before about how our cellular mitochondria, with their own “invasive” history and specific DNA, seemed like an apt, centralizing metaphor for Mitochondrial Night. My book explores what it means to be a migrant, a refugee, an immigrant, by looking at certain commonalities not only between all humans, throughout history, but also fundamental commonalities between all seeds, stars, cells, and ancestors.

One thing I haven’t touched on before is the Korean cultural patriarchy. This is changing slowly due to #metoo and other social injustices coming to full light in the digital age, but bloodlines on one’s father’s line are still to this day immensely important, especially to the classes that have the most to maintain in terms of power. Becoming a father for the first time, as well as becoming very aware that my mother doesn’t have much time left on this Earth, catalyzed something very deep in me. I wasn’t taught by any culture to think this way, but often when looking at my daughter, it’s very clear to me that I’m literally half my mother, half her genes and in many ways, also half her physicality. I see myself more wholly through my daughter. I see my mother more wholly as a human being through my daughter. I think I can also see certain glimpses of all of humanity through my daughter. A lot of men grow up identifying more physically with their fathers—that is, we often look for our wholeness as a man through our fathers—yet we’re half our mothers, and partly their mothers, their mother’s mother, and so on, ad infinitum, back to what biologists term “Mitochondrial Eve.” (Mitochondria, the energy factories in each of our living cells, is inherited solely matrilineally.) The book is dedicated to my mother, a refugee three times over before she was ten years old, and also was written with my daughter’s future questions about who she is and where she comes from in mind—questions that I realized I can't truly ever hope to answer until I satisfactorily pose those questions to myself, and not just as a current member of the human species.

Your own book contains many poems about growing up as the son of a CIA agent during the Cold War. Yet I’m as intrigued by the mother’s silence as I am the father’s silence (or secrets). I find myself wondering what it was like to be her? What was shared with her, what was not? In this way, the State enters into her unspokenness like a third patriarchal (to the child) figure. Can you speak to what was healing and what was destabilizing in the process of composing this book in poems?

SH: Great question—you’re getting at something that was really unexpected for me while writing this book. I’d thought it was mostly about my relationship with my father—how he lived a secret life as a CIA spy, how he descended into mental instability and alcoholism, and then died decades ago at the age of 62.

But my mom is still alive, now 80 years old, and I still feel the effects of this past family history in our present. We’re very close, but she’s always been a private person who doesn’t talk much about feelings, and I was getting anxious and uncomfortable about that long “unspokenness.” So the last poem I wrote for the book, “How I Become a Son,” was one I never thought I’d write while my mom was still alive. It reveals some particularly painful events that triggered my parents’ divorce. I decided to share the poem with my mom, and we finally talked about what had happened, and it was such a relief to break that silence.

You’re totally right about that silence being bigger than individuals—it was (still is) built into the State and the larger culture. In a way, it was the coldness of the Cold War, and my mother was produced by it like so many others. She came from an Italian Catholic family, and her own father was a demanding, abusive man who actually tried to erase his ethnic identity, changing the family’s last name (Loschiavo) to one he thought would assimilate more into mainstream American whiteness (Higgins). My mother was ordered not to reveal their true Italian identity to anyone, so she too lived “under cover” while growing up.

I think deciding to divorce my dad was her most powerful act of self-expression, her way of gaining some control in her life. But as so many poems in Safe Houses I Have Known show, we still didn’t have the tools to cope with the psychic mess that unfolded from there. We still didn’t know how to talk about it.

I’m wondering about how you depict your mother in Mitochondrial Night, especially in a poem like “Metaphormosis,” not only as someone who remembers or connects you to various pasts, but also as someone who increasingly forgets. Later, there’s a poem called “Portrait of a Blind Couple Reverberating,” with these great lines: “Each body is an ark. We store enough / clarity and obfuscation to survive.” How might obfuscation and forgetfulness be ways of surviving? Your book obviously yearns for memory and clarity, but do you see obfuscation and forgetfulness operating in these poems as well?

EBL: This idea of forgetting is interesting, especially given that some old people, as they’re losing their memories, seem to remember things they haven’t experienced in years, like a childhood song or figure from their childhood. I don’t mean to romanticize losing one’s memory. But I’ve been thinking lately that every human being is drawn to poetry at an instinctual level, in part because when you’re an infant and teetering toddler, everything in the world, every sound and image and sensory detail, is new and mysterious and just beyond comprehension, yet monumentally present, even potent. In short, the world and everything suffusing us in it feels like a powerful, slowly unfolding poem. I don’t think we ever really lose this relationship to the poetic. At some point, we convince ourselves that we can finally now understand the world in a rational way as adults. But it’s all akin to an illusion. Ask anyone on their deathbed. The world, life, was one long poem, they will tell you just before they close their eyes for the final time.

Knowledge, it seems to me, is parochial, as is “reality.” Ask any scientist from a hundred or a thousand years ago about the nature of “reality.” As Richard Wright wrote, in part in the context of Black and White America, “Literature is a struggle over the nature of reality.” On that tip, power just as much as poverty warps one’s experience of “reality.” Thus, some who are powerful are often simply doing what they feel with every bone in their bodies is moral and just and for the betterment of all. So it’s not necessarily that they’re evil, or gone over to the “dark side,” as some would have it, or are even lying to themselves to remain sane. It’s that their reality, the formation of molecules around them and everyone else around them (also usually powerful) is a kind of different plane of existence. But the error comes too often in the sense that that plane is inherently superior. I think poetry can be very useful here.

In the case of Safe Houses I Have Known, the father is co-existing in two different realities, with two different identities. Once the son, you, learns of his secret in adolescence, and especially after the divorce, it’s as if the speaker gets atomized, disintegrated, spread so thinly across various competing realities. This is where poetry comes in, as a form to hold all these disparate realities into one larger, more comprehensive and cohesive whole. If you’d written a prose memoir, I wonder how you would have been able to get at the kind of disembodied psychic state of the speaker and situation and nation. The U.S. and world was living for the first time in a constant mode of potential sudden annihilation.

In “Invisible Civil War,” you write of a neighbor boy, Brad, who later killed himself as an adult. The speaker articulates: “I wish I were making this up, but I’m not. It’s really true that / I threatened to kill him if he didn’t sponsor me for a charity walk. / I must have needed an easy way to forget my own pain by / threating someone who was nervous and spoke with a stutter.”

We then learn that these boys live in “Stonewall Manor,” which was named after “’Stonewall’ Jackson, / the Confederate general known for killing many Union solders,” and that the speaker’s parents are in the process of divorcing. The recursive nature of the poem, with its repeating lines and sentiments, captures the speaker’s deep urge to both remember and forget what the people in the poem are striving so hard to remember and forget. The final result is silence and death. Yet the poetry lives on.

Do you see any useful parallels or differences between the constant threat of the Cold War in your childhood, and the constant threat of terrorism in our children’s and all our lives in America now?

SH: For sure, the supposed threat of terrorism we still live with is really an extension of the Cold War threat, and then you can keep reaching back in history (to the Civil War, etc) to see this pattern of gaining power by creating a false threat of the “other.” In the Trump era that bogeyman has become the immigrant or refugee, and clearly Trump became president by magnifying that threat to provoke fear and resentment.

As you say, those in power often really believe that they’re doing the right and moral thing, creating “security,” protecting people, even while devastating others along the way. As I was doing research for my book, I confronted so many disturbing atrocities the CIA committed “to save the world for democracy” from the “Communist threat,” and those who suffered most were often poor, nonwhite people, often in former colonies, in Asia, Africa, Latin America. It occurred to me that the modern intelligence industry was built to continue colonial control in less obvious ways. As overt colonial rule became too messy and morally questionable, global superpowers invented covert operations to make their power less visible or more justifiable.

That bullying I describe in “Invisible Civil War” is a true story, and I still feel great shame for threatening that kid in that way—I’m still haunted by that memory. And yes, that tension between remembering and forgetting in the poem—it happens not just on a personal level for the speaker and me, but also on larger social and historical levels.

In a way, that suburban neighborhood was like a monument to forgetting the real Civil War, a whitewashing of the real racism, pain, and death. The suburban American dream says, “Let’s forget the trauma, keep smiling, keep moving forward.” But of course the trauma keeps manifesting and repeating, not only in little acts of bullying but also in the anxiety and paranoia that pervade society, in systemic inequities, and in State-sponsored acts of mass violence and war.

I love that idea of life being one long poem, experienced most intensely by those recently born or about to die. Do you think becoming a father for you has been a kind of link between these two spaces? The speaker in Mitochondrial Night so often composes the world of the poem around his daughter, observing her, but also observing himself as a parent. How has becoming a father inhabited your poetry or changed it? Do you write differently now?

EBL: She was born in 2016 (the first year of this current presidential administration), and I think this intensified the experience of both events. But it’s hard to generalize. As much as a parent, I feel like a steward of this “new” soul on earth. Watching her go through phases of what Piaget termed disequilibrium and equilibrium, and learning these cycles continue throughout one’s entire life, albeit at varying lengths, lately makes it clear to me that we’re presently in a social and cultural stage of disequilibrium. Just look around and listen not only to what people are saying, but to the quality of their voices. I think writing is like that, too; even the creation of a poem, even a single line.

As the son of a man who was spy for the CIA, did putting the poems and book together in any way give you any revelatory perspectives on him that you wouldn’t have otherwise arrived at? Which of these perspectives, if any, have been most surprising? And what do you think he would have thought about the book?

SH: I think my father would’ve been okay with the book’s larger critique of the CIA and U.S. interventions abroad. Earlier in his career he believed he was doing ethical and patriotic work, helping to prevent World War III, but late in his life he grew pretty cynical and disheartened about his CIA career. I don’t think he fully reckoned with the devastation the CIA caused—propping up brutal right-wing dictators, training death squads, etc. But he occasionally talked about how the CIA consumed enormous resources but never really accomplished much, and how some of its biggest intelligence victories were just happy accidents, like some janitor walking into an American Embassy asking if they wanted to buy a classified document he’d found in a trash can.

Safe Houses also looks at the personal tragedy of my father’s life, and I’d probably be less comfortable sharing those poems with him—the fact that he’s been dead for over two decades perhaps gave me the distance to be more blunt and honest. I think what surprised me most is when I started to admit that my father had severe but undiagnosed mental health problems. He was actually very kind and gentle as a father, but he was deeply troubled, probably battling depression, anxiety, and suicidal thinking for many years. The title poem, “Safe Houses I Have Known,” and another one called “Drinking,” show my dad at his rock-bottom worst.

That Piaget term “disequilibrium” could certainly describe the last half of my father’s life. He was never able to find equilibrium. And I agree that disequilibrium happens on larger levels of society and culture. I see my book as at least partly investigating the dysfunction of privilege—this might connect to what you said earlier about how power warps reality as much as poverty does. I grew up with all the safety and benefit of my white suburban middle-class life, but there was something broken or diseased at the core of that privilege. I have my story of that dysfunction, but so many other people who grow up with privilege have their own stories. And I really believe these stories need to be heard—we need to keep diagnosing the dysfunction, because that can help move us closer to equilibrium, equity, empathy, justice.

I wonder how that social disequilibrium might be reflected in the formal aspects of Mitochondrial Night. I’d say your poems—more than those of many other contemporary poets—have a wide range of impulses, so they don’t all look the same on the page. There are compressed associative lyrics, like the amazing “Reading in Bed Is Like Heaven.” There are prose poems—or almost prose poems—driven more by narrative or essay-like inquiry. And there are others that mash-up multiple formal impulses. Why are you drawn to this kind of formal range, and is there any connection to what’s happening in the world?

EBL: Here’s a terrible (but hopefully terribly effective) metaphor. Anyone into martial arts knows that the most effective style of defense/fighting is no one single style of martial arts; the most effective method is to become familiar with many styles to be employed as the ever-shifting situation requires. In an actual fight, in the ring or bar or street or combat field, the more styles of martial arts you’ve become familiar with, the better you can hope to deal with the wild, unpredictable force of the matter that is rushing toward you. I think poetry is similar. If I’m going to take on a poem, I’m less interested in poems that don’t risk hurting me with their sometimes hidden weapons of awareness and insight. In other words, in extreme cases, regarding form and content, is it better to have a naked human being running around wild, screaming gorgeous, haunting, ear-splitting songs, or a fashionable, impeccably dressed corpse? Both are a kind of death.

In Safe Houses, you employ many forms such as pantoums and erasure poems to contain the often raw and gangly emotions and subject matter. It seems to me that living as a spy is all about formalities, and yet what about the incredibly messy human being within the vessel of the professional formality? We all experience this to varying extents, because we all subscribe to identities. Can you pan way out and speak to what surprised you most about what the various forms you employed yielded—things you perhaps hadn’t even seen in the material before examining them through the prisms of these forms?

SH: I get what you’re saying about cultivating a multitude of styles or forms, whether in martial arts or poetry. I’ve seen this impulse especially when I teach creative writing—I find myself trying to help each student become many different kinds of writer. I don’t want them to find their “one true voice,” which the traditional workshop model encourages, but to keep gathering diverse approaches and techniques, always defamiliarizing themselves.

In this new book I explore traditional form a lot more than I have before: pantoum, villanelle, haiku, sestina, ghazal, rhyming couplets. Some of the poems follow traditional rules more closely, but some are more flexible, occasionally adjusting the rules beyond recognition. The pantoum-like poems scattered throughout the book—they use tercets instead of quatrains, and each stanza only repeats one line instead of two from the previous stanza. But they still have that spiraling pantoum motion, and I found this variation to allow more nuance for the material.

For a long time, I was kind of terrified of traditional form, afraid I’d either fail at it or it would limit me too much. But I’ve been learning how liberating it can be. The constraints led me to all these unexpected, weird, off-kilter ways of organizing my life on the page. I found that you can be loose and playful with it while still respecting where it comes from. Which makes me wonder—can poetic form have that kind of mitochondrial memory you investigate in your book? I mean, whenever we build a poem, either in traditional or organic form, are we tapping into a poetics DNA?

I like how you see the forms in Safe Houses containing the “messy human being.” I agree—that plunge into autobiography needed something else to hold it together, like a spy needs identities or safe houses, like we all need just to survive in the social marketplace.

But there’s the danger of losing the balance, suffocating in that identity. Maybe that’s what happened to my father—he covered up his messy self so completely, eventually he couldn’t breathe.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2020 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2020

Conversations with
William T. Vollmann

Edited by Daniel Lukes
University Press of Mississippi ($25)

by Chris Via

At this point, one cannot dismiss William T. Vollmann. Far from being a mere cult sensation with subversive inclinations and a penchant for publishing unwieldy books, Vollmann has in recent years made waves with unassuming reportage (Poor People, Imperial); a National Book Award-winning novel (Europe Central); another installment in his heptalogy about Native-European clashes in North America (The Dying Grass); and a two-volume exploration of the ideologies behind coal, oil, gas, and nuclear energies (Carbon Ideologies). Perhaps the only rival of his staggering prose output is the mythos surrounding the man himself. Conversations with William T. Vollmann offers readers an illuminating portrait of the enigmatic writer through articles and interviews from 1989-2018 that often temper wild assumptions with even more stimulating truths.

The mythos of William T. Vollmann. “He won a scholarship to Deep Springs College . . . that solicits applications from high school students whose IQs are in the top half-a-percent.” He wrote his first novel at night while working for a software company, sleeping under his desk and subsisting on Three Musketeers. He crossed into Afghanistan in 1982 to join the mujahideen in a quixotic blunder. He almost died alone in the magnetic North Pole. He developed Repetitive Strain Syndrome from sixteen-hour days typing his manuscript about Jesuit missions to New France. He smuggled a Thai sex slave to safety while on assignment for Spin magazine. He is intensely private, eschewing the Internet and email. His phone has been tapped and his mail has been opened without consent—due to the Patriot Act, he suspects.

The vision of William T. Vollmann. As he tells one interviewer, “One thing I think is so beneficial to all of us as human beings is that we can set ourselves the mission of trying to identify with and appreciate as many different people and things in this universe as we can.” Or as he puts it to another, “my whole work is an attempt . . . to try to understand the Other.” Vollmann’s mind overflows with curiosity about the world and a concomitant disregard for his own safety and ignorance. His altruistic plight to present the Other in the fullness of their humanity is backed by his famous unwillingness to make editorial trims to his writing, even at the cost of readership and money: “he agreed to a one-third cut in his advance in order to have [The Royal Family] published in its voluminous state.”

The craft of William T. Vollmann. Throughout the interviews Vollmann shares his desires as a craftsman. As he says of himself versus Thomas Pynchon, delivered in winking braggadocio: “I think my sentences are better.” Indeed, he cites poor attention to good writing as his indictment of a lot of American literature. Such invectives gain authority in the volumes of the Seven Dreams series, where his innovative prose matches the time period of each book. It seems Vollmann can take command of any style from at least the tenth century to the present and make it shine.

The selections in this volume are arranged chronologically, highlighting the development of Vollmann and his work, and there is a good balance of pithy banter and slower, more thoughtful conversation. Despite a fair amount of topical overlap, each interview colors in a little more of the author’s portrait—and it is a complex portrait, though one feels Vollmann would disagree. He can be egotistical and humble, reckless and prudent, passive and empathetic, subversive and reverent, evasive and direct—sometimes in the same breath. As such, he is a contemporary writer well worth reading, and Conversations helps get to the meat of why.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2020 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2020