Tag Archives: Summer 2020

Dead Astronauts

Jeff VanderMeer
MCD ($27)

by Michael MacBride

I tried, but failed, to write a review of Jeff VanderMeer’s latest novel, Dead Astronauts. The first draft began by describing the work as “a beautiful abstract mosaic.” That was both right and not right. Like an abstract piece of art, the more time you spend with it, the more it reveals itself to the reader. But that isn’t quite right either, VanderMeer’s text rewards a careful, thoughtful reader, and does that reader the honor of treating him or her with respect. Too often novels feature sections or characters whose only purpose is exposition, to make connections and allusions obvious—but this is lazy writing and makes for lazy readers. Had I said that in a review, though, my fear would be that readers would assume that Dead Astronauts is a difficult book, which it isn’t.

Is it a beach read? It depends. Do you like foxes (blue or otherwise), salamanders (and beings made entirely of them), astronauts (dead and/or alive), animal experiments, The Company, and Charlie X? A friend of mine would call this a “thinky” book, which describes every book I enjoy; I want to be able to engage with something new and to see artists push boundaries and challenge convention. That’s what VanderMeer does. Contrary to what other reviews have said, nothing here is frivolous, nothing is accidental or intentionally included for the purposes of obfuscation. In the tradition of Richard Adams’s researching rabbits in order to write Watership Down, VanderMeer researched the various animals in the novel—salamanders, foxes, beetles, a Behemoth, a Dark Bird, and more—and produces convincing, unique perspectives from each animal. The animals are treated with the respect they deserve.

In my failed attempt at a review, I addressed various design aspects: the ridiculous beauty of the dust jacket, the ornate section dividers in the text, the gray-colored font to help readers recognize a consistent voice later in the novel, the inclusion of hand-drawn art, and the careful alignment of the author’s name and title of the book on the spine, so that it reads, “Dead Jeff” and “Astronauts VanderMeer.” I also included a mention of the staff at the Tallahassee Midtown Reader, and how they orchestrated signed copies to all who wanted. And what review would be complete without mentioning that 20% of the book’s royalties go to the Center for Biological Diversity and to the Friends of the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge in Florida?

Where other reviews spoke about the narrative unwinding towards the end, mine argued that while the narrative structure became more experimental, the narrative actually came more into focus, providing a sense of cohesion (and gravitas) to everything that came before. I also challenged the label of “Weird Thoreau” that I so often see attributed to VanderMeer. It really didn’t have anything to do with this specific book, which is part of why my review failed, but I feel like the label diminishes VanderMeer’s work. Thoreau seems to be a lazy adjective for “environmentalist,” which isn’t a label VanderMeer would deny, but a comparison to Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy is more apt.

Finally, I also wrote about my experience of listening to the audiobook versus reading the physical text. When a book like this—one so beautifully constructed and carefully laid out in print—becomes adapted to the audiobook format, I’m always curious to see how that translates. It is both the same and not-same experience. Voices carry the weight of differentiating between characters, but the illustration, white space, and other graphical flourishes are lost in audio form. The audiobook is as good an adaptation as could be hoped for, and I certainly found myself engaged in different ways—catching things I missed in print—but the beauty of the book design makes the print format the way to fully enjoy this work of art.

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

Friendship is a Blank Canvas:
An Interview with Rufi Thorpe

photo by Nina Subin

by Zhanna Slor

I first came to Rufi Thorpe’s writing several years back upon discovering the paperback release of her second novel, Dear Fang, With Love, at a favorite bookstore in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood. I happened upon it completely at random and was shocked to find how much it spoke to the themes of home I’d been mulling over for years as an immigrant from the former Soviet Union; even more shocking was how accurately Thorpe was able to write about this longing without being an immigrant herself. I’m an avid reader, but as a Ukrainian Jewish immigrant who has spent much of her life in the Midwest, I don’t often see myself reflected in the books I read. This was not the case here, in a story about a despondent 17-year-old girl visiting her Lithuanian homeland for the first time. Once I finished Dear Fang, With Love, I read the author’s first book, The Girls from Corona Del Mar, which analyzes and reflects on the subject of friendship—a common thread in all of her work. Thorpe’s third novel, The Knockout Queen, (Knopf, $26.95), has recently been named a May selection for the Book of the Month Club, and is as fascinating as her previous works. We discuss the book and more in the interview below.

Zhanna Slor: I know at heart this is a story about a unique friendship, but it seems equally tied to the idea of female violence. I think Michael says it best when talking about how if his mother were a man, she would not have gone to prison for stabbing her abusive husband. This echoes back later when Bunny is given the same prison sentence of three years for an accidental moment of violence, while Michael's male attackers get away with beating him half to death. Is this hypocritical treatment of female vs. male violence the seed from which this novel grew, or did the characters and their relationship come first?

Rufi Thorpe: Certainly, as I was writing, female violence was what I saw as the novel’s subject. How the novel grew is a much more chaotic process that took place over many years. I first wrote a book about Bunny Lampert ten years ago, and while there were good things in it, it was not a successful novel and not one word of it made it into this present incarnation, although even way back then she was a bisexual female boxer.

ZS: So how did Michael come into play? Did his character come to you first, or the realization that Bunny needed a counterpart? Was it important that he be as nonviolent as Bunny is violent?

RT: I had been writing this iteration of the novel for about a year from Bunny’s point of view, and it just wasn’t working very well. She couldn’t see herself clearly enough to give the reader a sense of what was at stake. So I started to imagine someone who could act as a kind of counterpoint, nonviolent where she was violent, intellectual where she was instinctive, discerning where she was oblivious. I am not sure I thought about it so clearly. He just kind of came to me. And he came very fully formed and with that voice and that backstory. When I first started writing from his point of view, I was kind of astonished because suddenly I was writing, fast and fluidly and with great urgency, a project that I had been stalled on for months.

My experience is that when a character comes to you like that, kind of erupting into your consciousness, it’s usually some part of yourself you locked away. So that’s another way to understand him. I think with fiction it is always some serendipitous coincidence of your front brain making craft decisions and your subconscious, you know, kind of screaming into the void.

ZS: You write friendships so vividly and with such complexity. I remember with The Girls from Corona Del Mar thinking some of the same things I wondered here: Is this what serious friendships are like? As full of hatred as love? A thing of beauty that is also half-drowning in ugliness? So I am curious to know if there was a life-altering Michael or Bunny from your youth that you might have drawn from in your writing.

RT: Yes and no; I think I often reach for friendship when I want to talk about moral ambiguity because it is one of the only relationships you are free to abandon. I mean, you can abandon a spouse, but it takes a lot of paperwork and moving house. A friendship is entirely voluntary and for my purposes acts as a nice blank canvas. It gives the narrator enough distance to see the other character clearly, whereas if the relationship were familial, a mother and daughter, say, it might take years of therapy before they were even able to conceptualize their separateness enough to see each other clearly. So in many ways, friendship is a short cut, a sterile petri dish in which to grow the moral experiment.

On the other hand, I have had many profound friendships in my life, and I’m not sure if the intensity I experience is normal. It took me a very long time to understand that I was bisexual, and for many years I believed female friendship was inherently romantic. And honestly, I still kind of think it is, or can be. I don’t have any firm convictions about the way the two things are related.

ZS: Has what you look for in a friend changed as you get older? I was just talking with another mom about how we used to be more attracted to friendships with girls who would ditch you half the time you made plans, but the other half would show you the night of your life; now that we have babies, it’s more about women who have similar parenting philosophies, live nearby perhaps, and understand when to stop refilling their wine glass (among other things). For me this alone can explain the distance that grows between Bunny and Michael as their lives take such different turns.

RT: Absolutely. When I was younger, I was much more prone to become friends with someone because they captivated me, because they were mysterious or frightening or represented something that seemed impossible to me. The more mythic the person was, the greater my susceptibility. Now my criterion for friendship is more: Do I respect this person? Which is just another way of framing what I think you are talking about.

ZS: Yes, totally! That’s a beautiful way of putting it. Another thing that really stuck with me was Bunny's size. How important was it to the story that she be so tall? Did her tallness, in some ways, doom her? And did it also save her?

RT: When I was nine and ten, I was the tallest girl in my class, and not knowing my father, I didn’t really have any genetics to go by, so I believed I would continue to grow and be tall. But at eleven or so, I stopped growing entirely, and I am now five foot five, if the person measuring is feeling generous. Nonetheless, I have always pictured myself as very large and physically powerful, and so on some level Bunny must be a kind of wish fulfillment self-portrait, though I never explicitly thought of her as such.

Growing up, I spent maybe an inordinate amount of time worrying about my femaleness. As I came to understand the historic subjugation of women, I just kept wondering why. Basically, I was worried that maybe men really were better, smarter, somehow more serious or worthy. For the most part, I convinced myself these disparities were imagined or socially constructed. But physical strength—this was not a difference that could be dismissed so easily.

Any woman who has had to physically fight a man, you come up against your own physical weakness. And it’s terrifying to understand that they could kill you, and you would not be able to stop it or even really slow it down. I think this knowledge, this primordial kind of inequality, is always there between men and women to some extent, and so Bunny is kind of this fantasy of physical power. The safety of that power, and the danger of that power.

ZS: Yes! I have an Israeli husband and before I became pregnant, he got me obsessed with learning Krav Maga. My gym held classes for both men and women at the same time, and I was amazed at how much more powerful even the most out-of-shape man was over me. I’m sure there are exceptions, especially for women who train for years, but it’s definitely a difference as you say. Did you take any martial arts classes to prepare yourself for writing a boxer?

RT: No, I didn’t. To some extent, I don’t think I was truly interested in the boxing. In other words, I was not trying to capture something authentic about boxing. I was using boxing to explore something else, and so I was really only interested in reading about boxing, watching boxing. I didn’t make any attempt to understand what boxing is fundamentally about, which I think would have required me to train as a boxer to understand. People who love boxing will be disappointed with this book because it says nothing uniquely insightful about boxing at all, I’m afraid.

ZS: I don’t find it disappointing; to me, it felt more like Bunny finally putting her enormity to good use now that she can no longer play volleyball. It was probably better for her to box than turn to alcohol, like her father did. Do you think some of the violence so prevalent in the book is a direct result of living with alcohol and alcoholism? There’s also some bad parenting depicted; does that play into the violence as well?

RT: In my experience, you can have violence without alcohol, and alcohol without violence, but if you put alcohol and violence together the alcohol will almost invariably cause the violence to escalate. Even more than that, the cycles of crisis and denial that come with any addiction help to mask the violence and excuse it so both the person being violent and the people living with them tend to blame the violence on the alcohol. They were “just drunk.” They are going to do better. And how can they do better if you keep throwing their past bad actions in their face? In order for them to believe in themselves, they need you to believe in them! And on and on.

ZS: I spent half my life in Wisconsin, where everyone drinks so much it’s hard to define who is an alcoholic and who is not. And my middle school in Wisconsin was also called North Shore, despite being nowhere near any body of water. It could be a depressing place, so it was easy for me to understand what drew Bunny and Michael together. Like many friendships, especially at that age, theirs sprung from loneliness more than compatibility. Is this perhaps why it was doomed to fail? They really didn't have much in common outside of their incompatibility with their peers. In some ways, they end up feeling like siblings; they have this shared history and deep feelings for one another, but they don't necessarily seem to want a relationship.

RT: I love that your land-locked middle school was called North Shore! That’s fantastic. I think siblings are a very interesting comparison. It’s true, they are brought together by their loneliness more than compatibility, and especially as adults they have almost nothing in common. I think if the plot elements of the book that tie their lives together had not taken place they might have just drifted apart in a more typical fashion. But I think they would always think of each other wistfully. Sometimes a person in your past kind of comes to symbolize something for you, or you learned something important about the world through them, and it feels like you wouldn’t have become who you became without them. I think Bunny and Michael are like that.

ZS: One thing I keep coming back to is the total absence of Michael's father. Like Bunny's dead mother, his absence is so deep and intense it almost feels like a presence, except in his case it's a voluntary absence. Where is he all this time? What do you think keeps him away?

RT: Men sometimes just abandon their children. Women do too, but they don’t do it quite as often. It’s really one of the great mysteries of the world, how easy it seems to be for them to do this. My own father did this, and I guess I think he probably just didn’t think about me very much—out of sight out of mind.

In some ways, I think children are sort of the opposite of friendship because the entire relationship is predominantly characterized by our moral obligation to them. And if you are fucking up your life, doing so with a kid around feels so, so much worse. So I think Michael’s dad stays away because he is ashamed, but also not interested in changing.

ZS: I don’t really understand how any person can abandon a child like that, especially after having one myself; you definitely don’t hear about women doing it as frequently, probably because it’s in our DNA to be nurturing. I think it’s why I found myself not totally able to understand Michael’s mother. She still sees him occasionally, sure, but why do you think she didn’t she try harder to get him back? Was it really a miscommunication between her and his aunt?

RT: I have also felt the primordial, biological protectiveness over my children, and yet I feel so hesitant to say it is in our DNA, some way that women are inherently different than men. Certainly women do abandon their children and so I think it must be different for everyone. I don’t think there is just one experience of motherhood, but more of a range, a distribution.

As for Michael’s mother, I think they become distant while she is in prison; three years is a long time in the life of a child, and when she gets out, Michael is kind of at the height of his Pollyanna-ish moralizing and I think he makes her feel like dirt when she involves the kids in stealing gift cards to eat or other petty crimes. I think he probably did tell Aunt Deedee he didn’t want to live with her, and I imagine he was as little able to hide his emotions as most children. His mother would have felt that as a huge rejection and condemnation, almost as if Michael were siding with the judge in revoking her right to be a victim and making that trauma fresh all over again.

ZS: The idea that living with continual fear changes you, which Michael brings up while studying for his PhD, is intriguing. Was that at the back of your mind while writing Michael's history?

RT: Well, I think anyone coming out of an abusive relationship or having been raised in an abusive home, a kind of deformity of consciousness takes place that you aren’t truly aware of until you leave. As a child, Michael’s sense of himself was entirely as his mother’s best friend and confidante in the kind of war against his father, and during this time his sexuality was suppressed. Then after he moved in with his aunt, he was more focused on both courting and preventing social ostracism, this kind of need to signal that he is different while not wanting everyone to really know exactly in what way he is different, and the relative stability and yet lack of intimacy of his home life is actually pretty alienating, and he becomes this anthropologist walking around, observing everyone, taking notes on middle class life in the suburbs. Then through the friendship with Bunny, through his affair with Anthony, and through college he grows up into a man who is remarkably well adjusted and pretty happy, and so he has to kind of go back and make sense of all those disparate selves. And in each period his perception of the world was different as well, his understanding was changing.

And the paradigm he keeps returning to in his attempt to understand human beings in general and himself in particular, is the human as animal, as body, as organism, and I think that is why evolutionary biology appeals to him so much. So in that sense, I never really meant it as like a motif that I, the author, was creating, I just honestly thought that someone so obsessed with these questions might decide to study them professionally.

ZS: It definitely made sense to me that he would study evolutionary biology; he was always more observant than anyone around him. Bunny puts it perfectly on page 266: “You study yourself. You study life instead of living it. And everything you feel is like a fine wine and you sniff it and swish it around and in the end you barely fucking drink it.” Although I do not agree with her subsequent assessment—that he let those boys beat him up. Does she think that because at her size she can’t imagine letting anyone rough her up?

RT: Complicity and victimhood are interesting and complicated things. I had a bad thing happen to me, and it always bothered me afterwards that I had had my car keys. Why had I not tried harder to get away? In the moment I had felt very trapped, but was I really? It nagged at me. I would say, “You had your keys,” in my head all the time. It was very self-punishing, but at the same time I think I was desperately trying to figure out some way in which I was still in control.

Michael is in no way responsible for what those boys do to him, but I think that actual victimhood is just a lot less tidy than we are comfortable with. I’m thinking about the way the defense attorney grills Michael’s mother about why she continues in this situation, why she doesn’t just leave, and thinking about how victimized Bunny feels by her own violence. Sometimes when you are the victim, you feel you have no other option, that you are helpless, and sometimes you feel that way when you are the perpetrator, that you couldn’t help doing it, that it was somehow involuntary because who in their right mind would do such a thing?

So for Bunny, the lesson of her life has been that the moment she felt most helpless, most out of control, most a victim, was also the moment she was most truly morally responsible for. I think that is why she refuses to let Michael be a victim; if she doesn’t get to be, no one gets to be.

ZS: I can't decide how I feel about Ray. He is terrible, but also, he is sometimes a little bit comic relief. He's like a very drunk Saul Goodman. Or maybe it is Michael's hatred of him that's funny. But he's also the only parent who actually sticks around, which, sadly, makes him technically the best one. What should readers make of this?

RT: Ray is terrible, but he is also one of my favorite characters I have ever written. The thing about bad parents is that they aren’t bad all the time. Even the worst parent usually has a clutch of shining moments where they manage to do the right thing. And sometimes a good parent, or one who is trying very hard to be good, and I would put Aunt Deedee in this camp, has a moment where they truly fail.

But the way that Ray is evil, vain and venal and almost physically incapable of being honest, does indeed strike me as very funny, and I am not sure why. I have known so many Ray Lamperts in my life and even when I think of the men themselves, I kind of get the giggles. Maybe it is the disparity between the way they see themselves and the way I perceive them to be, a kind of tension created by the sheer magnitude of their delusions, which for all their unreality are of the most predictable quotidian nature imaginable. Watching such a man feel powerful and worldly as he is ordering sushi or a martini or something is so painful and exasperating that you almost have no choice but to laugh. A lot of life is like that!

Click here to purchase The Knockout Queen
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Click here to purchase Dear Fang, With Love
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Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2020 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2020

News from the Infrathin: The Work of Marcel Duchamp

Marcel Duchamp: The Barbara and Aaron Levine Collection

Edited by Evelyn C. Hankins
Prestel Publishing ($50)

Marcel Duchamp and the Art of Life

Jacquelynn Baas
The MIT Press ($50)

by Patrick James Dunagan

The legacy of Marcel Duchamp at the end of the 20th Century found him reigning as a defining figure in the art world whose work cast a far-reaching shadow. At times he played the self-assigned role of trickster and near-charlatan; his mischievous nature came accompanied by both obvious natural talent, displayed early on in his paintings, as well as the savvy intelligence, if not clear genius, with which he navigated his way through the art world’s upper echelons in his later years. His work is less understood, especially in terms of the variety and depth of his various possible intentions, than it is popularly recognized and celebrated as tres chic among art dilettantes. Duchamp’s opacity, as intentional as it no doubt was, remains central to any engagement with his work.

Marcel Duchamp: The Barbara and Aaron Levine Collection comprises a recently promised gift to the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington D.C. The show advances engagement with opacity in the work of Duchamp by way of addressing “a pivotal aspect of [his] practice [namely] his interest in reproductions, specifically making replicas of his own work.” These replicas, all of which are sumptuously treated here with full color photos and extensive commentary, run from singular examples to fairly large editions reproducing work over a period of time or in relation to previous work. The latter is the case with The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Green Box), 1934, while Comb (Peigne), 1916/1964, is an example of the former.

The Green Box was issued in an edition of 300 with an additional twenty deluxe versions, each featuring “one of the original notes or drawings” of the ninety-three individual “exacting reproductions” which comprise the work. These scraps of ephemera dating from 1911-1915 are in effect the working notes Duchamp kept as he began contemplating one of his best known pieces of the same title, also known as The Large Glass, 1915-1923. In order to reproduce these ephemera at the highest level possible “instead of employing a halftone reproduction process, such as lithography, Duchamp again turned to collotype, a more expensive photomechanical printing process that ensured the reproduction of finer details, particularly handwriting.”

He also insisted on “replicating the unique shape of each note in zinc, which was then used as a template to hand-tear 320 likenesses” printed on “a variety of papers that closely matched those he had originally used.” His intention was for this “album” to accompany any viewing of The Large Glass itself, which he thought “must not be ‘looked at’ in the aesthetic sense of the word.” He hoped an audience would “see the two together” since “the conjunction of the two things entirely removes the retinal aspect,” instead immersing the viewer into the artistic process to thereby create the work anew with each engagement.

Continuing this exchange of roles between audience and artist, Duchamp’s Comb, an everyday “steel dog comb, inscribed along the edge with the phrase 3 ou 4 gouttes de hauteur n’ont rien a faire avec la sauvagerie, which might be translated as ‘Three or four drops of height have nothing to do with savagery’” captures the seemingly sterile challenge presented by his infamous readymades (his most recognized being the urinal signed “R. Mutt,” Fountain, 1917). With these works, as Helen Molesworth describes, Duchamp achieves a central goal:

the viewer completes the work. . . . Duchamp’s readymades, shot through as they are with ambivalence and humor about the problem of work, offer us these enduring lessons: A lot of work goes into making an artwork. Sometimes that labor doesn’t look like work, but it is, and the interpretative acts that give art its meaning, the acts of judgement that bestow value on art, and the complex deliberations that establish what is and is not a work should not be left up to the artist, curator, collector, or critic alone.

Embracing this challenge, the Levines, as the range of their collection demonstrates, have long pursued collecting Duchamp. A most charming inclusion here is editor Evelyn C. Hankins’s interview with the collectors. Aaron Levine demonstrates his informed, if modestly amateur, critical perception regarding the centrality of the readymades:

The readymades are very, very important. . . . It’s thrust. You take a doggy comb and you thrust it up into the sphere of the Picasso and the Rembrandt. It’s the thrust. That’s something difficult for most people to swallow. Well, and also the infrathin. . . . When you shoot a gun, from the time of the bang to the time the bullet leaves the chamber of the barrel, that’s the infrathin. I don’t quite get it. But it’s basically the space between things. And that’s why he liked glass, because there is a space. And no surface.

Duchamp himself claimed the “infrathin” was impossible to define and could only be referred to by example, to name the feeling for that flashing awareness of recognition for what’s now but just gone. In Buddhism there is the symbol of the Wheel of the Dharma marking awareness of the constantly vanishing truth of the world around us. In her pioneering study Marcel Duchamp and the Art of Life, Jacquelynn Baas aligns this archetypal symbol with another important readymade, Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel:

An undated note by Duchamp connects this Wheel of the Dharma with Bicycle Wheel via his typical wordplay: “between the lions / lines / Riding between the lines / lions / Riding between the lions—” Duchamp turns the usual pair of reading/writing into reading/riding: reading between the lines of the turning bicycle wheel, riding between the lions of enlightenment.

Although Baas doesn’t directly mention the infrathin, this “reading between the lines” serves as a fitting description of it: Naming what isn’t there by pointing to everything around it which remains.

In her enlightening work, deeply grounded by details of Duchamp’s biography, Baas explores new territory for peering into the heretofore unmapped background behind Duchamp’s artistic accomplishment. She unravels numerous spiritual and occult esoteric influences upon his development as an artist dating from his earliest years in Paris and Munich, reading extensively into his some of his earliest figurative paintings; she also exposes the possible role tantric practices regarding sexuality and gender played in the maturation of his outlook, and links up, as well as contrasts, his later work in the 1940s with Georges Bataille’s Acéphale group. While not every reader will be swayed by the totality of her argument, it nevertheless uncovers a number of lasting insights that dispel more of the opaque aura that Duchamp drew around himself. Always at the center of the art world even as he increasingly held it seemingly at arm’s length, Duchamp utilized the keeping of secrets behind his work to further define the mysterious nature of the work.

Echoing Molesworth, Baas closes her book by noting how “the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualification and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.” The imposition of there being a shared responsibility between artist and viewer to define the work of art arguably remains Duchamp’s most significant contribution, ensuring that, as Hankins comments in her chat with the Levines: “He’s the one artists love and he’s the one they have to beat.” Yet while there is no doubt that Duchamp reigns, he does so from beneath layer upon layer of intentionally self-imposed obfuscation—a situation that, despite the successful insights Baas has brought to light, will likely always remain the case.

Eve Babitz, in her 1991 essay “I Was a Naked Pawn for Art,” remarks on the legendary photograph of herself, naked, playing chess with Duchamp while surrounded by a retrospective exhibition of his work at the Pasadena Art Museum in 1963: “I want to be on the cover, immortal, but I don’t want anyone knowing it’s me.” Duchamp would no doubt be sympathetic; he also would likely have rephrased the end of Babitz’s statement to something like: I don’t want anyone knowing who or what I believe myself to be. He was, of course, even more interested in getting his viewers to ask such questions of themselves—hence his continued relevance and the ongoing need for books such as these.

Click here to purchase Marcel Duchamp: The Barbara and Aaron Levine Collection
at your local independent bookstore
Click here to purchase Marcel Duchamp and the Art of Life
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Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2020 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2020

Duchamp’s Last Day

Donald Shambroom
David Zwirner Books ($12.95)

by Jeff Alessandrelli

By sheer coincidence I started reading Duchamp’s Last Day shortly after reading Japanese Death Poems, an anthology that contains work “Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death,” as the subtitle says. One specific passage from the anthology’s introduction lingered in my head while reading Donald Shambroom’s short account of the final day that Marcel Duchamp spent alive on earth. It reads:

However strange it may seem, many poets chose to end their lives with a satirical poem, and some even mock this mockery itself. One kyōka poet wrote down, before dying, the well-known death poem of another poet, prefacing it with the words “I borrowed this poem from someone,” and adding after it, “This is the last act of plagiarism I shall commit in this world.”

Duchamp was hardly a plagiarist—he was a determined originalist, if an idiosyncratic one—but Duchamp’s Last Day highlights how, up until his very end, the artist placed substantial emphasis on gaiety and irreverence. “I am extremely playful . . . and I believe it’s the only form of fun possible in a world which isn’t always much fun” is, as Shambroom relays, how Duchamp put it in 1966, two years before his death, and this jesterly predilection extended to his final evening. After Duchamp dined with his close friend Man Ray and a few other guests, Man Ray slipped and fell outside while walking to his car. After the shock wore off, the episode struck all in attendance as inexplicably funny:

“You’d thought I’d dropped dead,” [Man Ray] said in English. The phrase struck a nerve, and the hilarity returned. On the ride home, the friends improvised a melody with variations on the theme. “Drop dead! Drop dead!”

A scant few hours later Duchamp was indeed deceased and, at the scene almost immediately, Man Ray was photographing him on his deathbed, carefully orchestrating his beloved friend’s death mask for posterity.

Although a substantial amount of Duchamp’s Last Day is given to discussing this posthumous “collaboration” between Duchamp and Man Ray, along with the somewhat nonsensical consideration of whether the canonical artist’s last work had been his own death—“Had the master chess player done it again? Could Duchamp’s death have been a time-bound readymade?”— the most engaging parts of Shambroom’s volume instead contextualize Duchamp’s life and art within 21st-century culture, where words like “hybridity” and “mixed genre” are so ubiquitous as to be meaningless. Yet that wasn’t always the case, and it was Marcel Duchamp who played a significant role in blurring the distinctions. Disregarding or ignoring established painterly figuration (and then, in 1918, quitting painting altogether), inventing the concept of the “readymade” artwork in 1915 by signing a snow shovel and declaring it a Duchamp original (entitled In Advance of the Broken Arm), and eventually creating the now iconic readymade Fountain in 1917, a “sculpture” that to the untrained eye might appear to be an entirely pedestrian urinal with the name R. Mutt graffitied on its side—all of these schisms of Duchamp’s put forth the decree that, in Shambroom’s words, “anything can be art that is seen and treated as art.”

Certainly that was true before Duchamp’s time as well, and with every new artistic innovation, from chiaroscuro to mixed-material usage, comes denouncing and deploring. In the early 20th Century, however, Duchamp took it one step further—and that step was controversial. The readymades in particular are still able to draw artistic ire. During his lifetime Duchamp said various things about them, from calling the concept of the readymade his “most important single idea” to, conversely, simply stating that the objects were “a very personal experiment that I had never intended to show to the public.” Some think that Duchamp placed idea before artifact, concept before beauty, and that this calculation diluted all artisan-based skill and craft. For the members of this school of thought, both the contemporary viewer and the contemporary artist are still paying the price for Duchamp’s celebrated innovations/denigrations.

Death, of course, is everything and nothing, and on a lesser scale Duchamp’s work also embodies this duality. “Reality is flowerlike: / cold clouds sinking through / the dusk” reads a haiku from Japanese Death Poems. Such is the allure and annoyance. Duchamp, I think, would have basked in the dilemma.

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A User’s Manual

Jiří Kolář
translated by Ryan Scott
Twisted Spoon Press ($24)

by M. Kasper

“My aim from the outset was to find areas of friction between design and literature.”
—Jiří Kolář

Jiří Kolář (1914-2002) was one of the great collage artists of the 20th century. Like an-other, Kurt Schwitters, he was also a great creative writer, and just as Schwitters’s innovative texts took decades getting translated, Kolář’s writing has been unavailable to us for a long time. Now Twisted Spoon Press from Prague has brought out A User’s Manual, his first book-length literary work in English.

Kolář began as a poet in the early 1940s, publishing in a restless array of styles over the course of two decades: diaristic early on, then documentary, then increasingly experimental, finally concrete and visual. A prominent participant in unofficial art circles, he spent nine months in prison in 1953 for one of his books. Around 1960, he largely abandoned poetry and devoted himself to visual collages, which he’d been making on the side for years.

The collages are extraordinary, among the technique’s most inspiring. Beginning in the 1950s, Kolář (whose name is pronounced a lot like the word “collage”), invented dozens of clever ways to make cut-paper pieces. There’s “chiasmage,” tiny, irregular pieces from printed pages arranged into crazy-quilt textures of gorgeous illegibility; “crumplage,” made with crinkled damp paper; “rollage,” fine art reproductions sliced into strips and reconfigured such that the images wave and stutter; and more. Among his favored collage elements were the above-mentioned printed snippets (in various alphabets, and including musical scores) and art reproductions (Leonardo, Bruegel, Vermeer, Ingres, Magritte) as well as maps, ads, and magazine illustrations of birds, butterflies, and flowers. “Urban pictorial folklore” was how he characterized his raw material. The finished work is polyphonic and unfailingly beautiful, meticulous yet prolific.

Kolář published and exhibited infrequently in Communist Czechoslovakia, as the regime viewed his conceptualism with incomprehension and suspicion. They thought it foreign, though in fact it was mostly homegrown, much influenced by the Czech avant-garde movement of Poetism, a distinctive hybrid of Constructivism and Surrealism with a rich verbo-visual legacy. Perhaps it was shared roots in modernism that enabled Kolář to connect so easily with contemporary Euro-American conceptualists when contacts became possible due to a thaw in East-West relations in the early 1960s. By the middle of that decade, Kolář was exhibiting at Kassel and São Paulo and publishing in avant-garde journals all over Europe. In 1975 and again in 1978, he had solo shows at New York’s Guggenheim Museum.

Kolář’s writing was never as celebrated as his visual art, at least not outside Eastern Europe. Czech isn’t widely read or translated; there were translations into German and French later (Kolář settled in Paris in 1980), but the collages always far outshone them.

Návod k upotřebení (translated here as A User’s Manual) came out in 1969, a year after Russian intervention ended a brief relaxation of repressive government known as the Prague Spring. The book matched fifty-two texts from a series that Kolář had written in 1965 with his Weekly collage sequence from 1967, on facing pages.

In that first edition, the collages, the originals of which are tabloid size and gloriously colorful, were printed in black and white on coated paper and reduced to approximately seven by five inches. Twisted Spoon has done much the same, as befits the near-facsimile this is, except they chose uncoated paper and the new reproductions are consequently grayer and less crisp. They make up somewhat for this uncharacteristic lapse (Twisted Spoon’s production values have been consistently excellent since they started in 1992) by swapping in a half dozen color reproductions, which are bright and clearer.

"Homage to a Heart Transplant" Week 49, from A User's Manual by Jiří Kolář

The collages vary in composition from week to week. Some employ only one of Kolář’s methods, while others combine found scraps with small collages made using different processes, often on chiasmage backgrounds, to create what the artist called “narrative poems.” In addition to his typical imagery, Kolář incorporated self-documentation, and newspaper and magazine photos of current events into some pages. Week 8’s collage, entitled “Death of a Scientist,” features a portrait of J. Robert Oppenheimer, who passed away that February. Week 20, “At Loggerheads,” pairs Hebrew and Arabic chiasmages in a commentary on the run-up to the Arab-Israeli War. Week 49 is “Homage to a Heart Transplant,” the world’s first having been per-formed on December 3rd, 1967.

As for the poetry, it’s hardly that, though Kolář called everything he did, including his collages, “poetry.” Most of the fifty-two brief texts here are deadpan, prosy instructions for disrupting normal routines, laid out like verse. As translator Ryan Scott notes in his afterword, “The focus on the seemingly mundane allows for a poetic voice that doesn’t rely on lyricism and emotion. Instead, the voice emerges from the commonplace rendered unexpectedly.” Week 9’s text, entitled “Lips,” reads, “After bath and breakfast / apply lipstick /to make your lips twice as large / and wear it the whole day / until you’ve finished dinner / and gone to bed.” Week 31, “Sonnet,” goes, “Take a novel / you don’t know/slice off the spine/remove the page numbers/and thoroughly jumble the pages / In this disorder / read the book / and in fourteen lines / summarise its contents.”

By his own account, Kolář independently developed these “action poems” in the late 1950s, at the same time that George Brecht initiated what became Fluxus event-scores (directions for performance), which they resemble. In Kolář’s pieces, though, there’s a distinctive playfulness that seems to derive from and also transcend the grim circumstances of their production, and that maybe helps explain how those circumstances were, or could be, borne with some combination of resignation and self-respect. Week 19, “Amnesty,” reads, “From an empty birdcage / hangs / a white flag.”

We’re fortunate to have in English, at last, a real taste of Kolář’s wry, writerly sensibility. Ryan Scott and Twisted Spoon are to be commended for reviving this particular book, a neglected but significant work of Eastern European visual literature.

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Memory in the Circuit Breaker:
An Essay on Bernadette Mayer

by Stephanie Anderson

On March 30, 2020, I am breastfeeding a baby in a darkening room and looking at my phone. I have a WhatsApp message:

Clap for #SGUnited: From your windows, doors and rooftops for the doctors, nurses, carers, emergency services, delivery workers, warehouse workers, cleaners, supermarket staff and everyone else keeping Singapore safe and stocked at this time.

My partner and I each lug a child onto the porch. For a moment I think it will just be us, two foreigners clapping into the quiet night, surrounded by unlit windows. But it has already begun—not stadium clapping, not knee-knocking, but not embarrassing. Dark figures in bright windows clapping, trailing off and then starting again, and I try to clap around the balancing baby and think, What is this, what is comparable to this experience? It’s not something in my past; it’s something from a shadow memory, an atemporal sense of collectivity and the tenuous threads that lead from our hands to another figure’s across the flowering yellow-flame treetops, to another in the building beyond, to a cluster of figures at the railing of the parking garage, to the flashing phone light of the condo towering above—we can see this scene, imagine it out the windows of cities we’ve never visited, imagine it over decades down history’s deep well. We are listening for small auditory circuits, for clapping as both interruption and continuance. Until like fat drops wind-shaken from tree leaves after a rain, it stops. We stand there for a few minutes more, watching as the other dark figures slowly turn back to dishes and children’s bedtimes. I am grateful and furious: can this clapping initiate hazard pay? Can this clapping manufacture ventilators?

According to the official count, coronavirus appears in Singapore on January 23. Through March, the government implements various public health measures, including the distribution of masks. On March 18 I receive Bernadette Mayer’s Memory (Siglio Press, $45) in its new edition published by Siglio Press. A stay-at-home period called the Circuit Breaker begins April 7. The new edition is a 10 by 7.5 inch hardcover with glossy pages interspersing photo grids, single-frame enlargements, and text—a deeply satisfying visual and tactile object. And after it arrives in Singapore I can barely open it. So lost so you’re lost how lost can you be when everywhere you turn it’s morning & a flag’s going up over a map . . .

Memory has threaded through my life these past five years, but my previous encounters with it occurred when I was nearer to the Mayer who made it, both of us younger and aspiring Art Monsters (to borrow a phrase from Jenny Offill), fascinated by photography. Memory began as a 1972 installation of over 1,110 photos—one roll of slide film taken per day for the month of July 1971—and six hours of accompanying audio recordings. The edited audio was published as a book in 1975 by North Atlantic Books. Then the project became spectral: for a while Mayer’s work continued in Memory’s conceptual mode, and she wrote a short, related piece in 1989, but the book was out-of-print and the pictures in storage and archives. An excerpt of the work was exhibited at a 2008 conference in Orono, Maine. I began writing about it in 2015, and for a while I walked around Chicago saying that the installation should be restaged, until Jennifer Karmin and Fred Sasaki facilitated its showing at the Poetry Foundation in 2016. In 2017, pregnant and on unofficial bedrest in Beijing, I took many Memory-esque photos of tea cups in a fit of loneliness and frustration at not being able to see the work in its newest-oldest iteration; the original photo boards, with the audio, were reinstalled at the Canada Gallery in New York, and the slides were projected at New York’s Museum of Modern Art at an event in 2019.

Siglio’s edition of the book is unprecedented in uniting the photographs and text for the first time. But now in the Circuit Breaker, though I wish every day that I could gather all the poignancies of my life to myself, I want to do so in a way that has little to do with my actual memories. And so I don’t want to remember Memory and I don’t want to remember my previous engagements with it. I’m not interested in rabbiting down a personal memory hole. Luckily, neither is Memory. It’s a book that constantly bristles against its commitment to comprehensive documentation, and when, at the beginning of April, I finally do open it, I am surprised by how little of its contents I remember. Have I even read it before?

This time through I am drawn to the text’s gestures of collectivity. In various moments, Mayer transcribes conversations with others about the work, or describes the film production: . . . & he says do you have any memory this time at all & I say not so far & he says you will I think . . . If we had to do a plot summary of Memory—even though attempting to do so is as absurd as being told to put a rather large lake in a cup—we would say that much of the book involves the making of a film and features many artist compatriots, sometimes marked by name and sometimes by initial; these people are whirling and recurrent entities, not generally still enough to come into view as characters. To put it differently, we could say that while the work is a massive experiment in documentation, its intimacies are still out of reach, the actions emphasized. We stopped at another gas station about halfway up for coffee, remember? The collectivity is in the motions and the process. In my view, the project isn’t attempting to inhabit collective memory—Memory doesn’t suggest that subjectivities are shared to that degree—yet there is a common reverberation in forgetting.

Reading the book in the Circuit Breaker is often uncanny: . . . the house is dark it’s strangely quiet maybe I dont know how to work anymore: when you awake you will remember everything. . . . I’m itchy I’ve lost my memory I’ve lost my money in a minute. . . . & think about memory with fear, too much time went into the windows, we saw it, so stretch down, a new sign, save it, it’s needed, use it, it’s thrown, throw it & so on, safer at distances, come over here, where were worrying where were time . . . The text is difficult to hold with attention; it almost asks you to drift away, and the photos sometimes bring you back to it and sometimes cast you further out. I seemed more real yesterday to see day today as a form a triangle . . . There are the thoughts you think while reading the book, and that seems to be much of the point.

Photos from July 22, by Bernadette Mayer, from Memory

It’s not the book’s snapshot portrayal of domestic scenes or the everyday that produces this quarantine uncanniness: it’s the weird looping it does with time, clinging to and mucking up seriality, and how the pictures run parallel and at a remove, like old pictures you find while cleaning the house and can’t remember taking. July 20 includes double-exposures, a day of specters. These figures have made the circuit back, which is the anxiety of photography. They are marked as already-past, they are a way of visualizing the present that literalizes its ephemerality. It’s me, we think. I remember how I felt, a few months postpartum, when a nurse looked at my partner standing next to me and said, Where’s the mama? Our circuits leaving trails of light at the expense of our presents. . . . some memories qualify where the present endures not for a minute or an hour or a day but for weeks & months & years . . . We mourn in our temporal unmooring, afraid that the hiccupping, often-stagnant present will never be released into free movement again.

What circuits of movement are possible in the Circuit Breaker? Figurative roads, journeys, detours: literal, the lack thereof. There are circuits as in revolutions of suns and planets, circuits of time traced out. There are circuits of exercise, circuits of streaming movies. Of course there are circuits of electrical current, which circuit breakers interrupt, and the nestled circuits as brain synapses, the ways electricity runs around brains and computers: One day the toddler yells Dinosaurs have brains! over and over at bedtime, caught in several circuits. To circuit as to compass in thought, the thoughts you think while reading.

And again those circuits of attention, of paying attention and releasing attention and forgetting to pay attention in a time of waiting. I read an entry of Memory each night. Even this bit of routine is uncertain—I keep thinking I’ve forgotten my reading. Did I skip a day? Do I skip today? Often I haven’t, the days are just long. The relief when the atmosphere changes: now it’s raining. The tempo of the everyday gone off the rails: today was an eternity. Or: what even happened today? . . . a false perspective like memory laughs at the intuition of time: beyond its borders extends the immense region of conceived time, past & future, into one direction or another of which we mentally project all the events which we think of as real & form a systemic order of them by giving to each a date . . . For me, the present is also an amplification of my recent everyday—I have been on maternity time in a country that is new to me, largely at home. I say this not to minimize the differences between maternity leave and stay-at-home orders, for they are substantive, but to explain that my days and feels were doing this before, but less. It’s really raining now and everyone else is asleep and I want to sit and be alone. The quirks of idiosyncratic time, its druggy blossoming and tightening, bottlenecks and streams and all that, are coming to the front.

. . . what can a diary be not a reconstruction, something put in, use the time, pass it, stain it, pass it, it’s stained, it’s magnified, it sticks, it sticks in my mind & my hand always hurts always hurts still does when I write in this book: book, took three rolls to be developed into seen. Some place, something to drink to change my whole way of feeling & something to read, transform, transform translate transmute transcribe transfer transfuse, transform, chamomile does it make a difference? Everyday, I’m saying there are no days, of, we’ve made too much of days and, thinking & write another way . . .

Memory keeps tumbling into lists as a literary technique. Organized by the day, its realism resides partly in uneven daily duration, each dated piece of text a different length, ballasted by a fairly predictable number of photos. On April 11 we take a night walk. I only remember the date because it is a birthday. . . . & that was the night we stayed up all night willow trees waving doors slamming them some days are longer than others & someone says it might take a while it might have some value . . . I am in the Circuit Breaker with wildlings, I mean small children, which is a great pleasure but also when I step into an empty room or out onto an empty road at night a vice releases a grip on my skull. My temporal desires are all postpartum and Circuit Breaker confusion: faster please, slower please. Memory and the Circuit Breaker share an uneasiness with the day’s sudden reign. . . . a day is over another one begins exactly as it happened so let’s pool all our mysteries into one great mystery and I dont remember this at all at all . . . Oh fickle unit of the day, you syncopated slough, you slippery dream, you field of sand. Sometimes wading through you feels like trying to dry off in a sauna. You turn brittle and hollow in accumulation; we stack you carefully and then a gust comes along and scatters you about.

Mayer has said that she wrote Memory against Gertrude Stein’s continuous present and the idea that you can’t “write remembering,” but the text knows that Stein might be right, that in writing past-as-present the presents bleed all over the room and we can’t figure out which one is wounded. The concept isn’t the problem, the “data” is (. . . this is a conceptual piece lacking conceptual data . . .)—there is so much data and we’re always overloaded and forgetting it and arguing about it. Sleep training my daughter one night, I say, I feel like we’re breaking a horse, I keep seeing an animal thrashing against increasingly small circles, but then she falls into sleep, and when we wake I can’t remember how much she cried. Did we give her what she needed? Where are the handmade masks most needed? Listen, I don’t know what to say about getting through this time, this present that exposes the precarities of our movements and routines and is ripping great gashes through some people’s lives. You’ve already read all the articles. We’re breaking circuits and getting our circuits broken. These circuits are small and large, interior and exterior, a trope that keeps turning into an entire history.

On April 21, Prime Minister Lee announces that the Circuit Breaker is being extended until June 1. He says, “You will naturally ask—where does this lead us? How do we exit from the Circuit Breaker?” Memory doesn’t show an exit, and reading it now also underscores the temporal distance between 1971 and 2020—and other contrasts too. However, it demonstrates ways to willfully engage seriality—chronology especially—even as seriality’s structure becomes a fiction, or just ridiculous. Might as well use the ruler for this, might as well be exact as a calendar like remembering a calendar scares the shit out of you . . . and . . . I thought dusk was morning I thought the esophagus was the glottis . . . and . . . I drew the day up as a series, as a moment in the present, sept 20, & as an action . . . It shows us how to keep making art amidst constant uncertainty about the results. . . . I want to leave this place I want to get out of here . . . & I hate myself for keeping on going as if the production of something out of nothing out of here where there is nothing were worthwhile. Which gets us to the real question of reading it right now: what can be made in the Circuit Breaker, and what is the point? How can one see the structure of the pillow fort when you’re trying to build it in the middle of a hailstorm? What kind of art is necessary right now?

Two weeks after the first instance, the clapping happens again. And then again. Its momentum builds, tentatively. Without advance warning, I am surprised by it each time and each time it is welcome—it reroutes the atmosphere and thus my thoughts, like stepping out of an unnecessarily air-conditioned room. One night I put the baby to sleep and then pick up Memory, only to realize I’d finished reading it the previous day. I am writing and then not-writing and then writing, I am stringing painted pasta necklaces with my child—the book models a process of making that crests between continuance and interruption, a lesson forgotten every day. Together we tug the bead down the piece of twine. A process fills its old bed & then it makes a new bed: to you past structure is backwards, you forget, you remember the past backwards & forget. You have to forget again the question about art’s necessity to continue and/or interrupt the Circuit Breaker. You clap again in gratitude and critique both. You build and rebuild the pillow fort because the child requests it, and you lie down in it, and wake again in another room, on another day.

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4:30 Movie

Donna Masini
W. W. Norton & Company ($15.95)

by Bhisham Bherwani

A figurative meaning of “escape” is “mental or emotional distraction, especially by way of literature or music, from the realities of life.” A survey of such meanings and related criticism informed a 1975 essay, “Escape and Escapism: Varieties of Literary Experience,” in which Robert B. Heilman considered a range of possibilities to which the word could be applied. Though he addressed film as a vehicle of escape only briefly, his commentary suggests an approach to Donna Masini’s elegiac poetry volume 4:30 Movie.

The title references The 4:30 Movie, a genre television program broadcast on ABC in the 1970s that provides an ingenious scaffold for Masini to explore the illness and untimely passing of her sister. Sometimes played out as film, sometimes as film script, 4:30 Movie blurs the boundaries between fact and fantasy, as demonstrated in “A Fable”: “It’s grief’s freeze-framed churchyard / with its fresh-cut dirge, its pretend heaven.” The speaker, in the face of a dear one’s mortal affliction and impending death, straddles external and domestic reality, medicine and prayer, hope and despair, reprieve and frustration, dismissiveness and worry, and denial and acceptance, seen poignantly here in “Deleted Scene: Diagnosis (.23)”:

(Kitchen: Interior)

First they said allergy, then we worried.
Now she’s on the phone with the doctor, motions:
Thumbs Up! Haha, we say. Thumb cancer!
She hangs up. Pneumonia. Hooray!
Pleurisy and pneumonia! Such old-fashioned diseases.
But we’ll take them.

Film tropes provide the poet ample opportunity to escape not only from the horror of the reality before her, but also from memory, from grief, and from poetry itself. But for all the escape hatches at her disposal, Masini’s speaker remains stubbornly obsessed with the matter at hand, spawning a heartbreaking narrative through lyric and dramatic poems that entwine the reader in her emotional complex of anxiety and incredulity, of premonition and superstition. If anything, the premise grounds and contains the difficult subject Masini religiously pursues.

4:30 Movie recalls another similarly innovative poetry book, John Allman’s Loew’s Triboro (New Directions, 2004), also a volume with a New York setting and a sister that employs film as a liminal medium enabling the projection of the real to the imagined, and vice versa. Allman writes, “The movie theater . . . is the place of darkness where lives are expanded and our culture defines itself through its most common denominators.” Masini opens her book with just such a setting in “The Lights Go Down at the Angelika,” a poem in which we see the speaker after she leaves the theater tuned to what is real (“How yourself you are now / walking into the night”), as if reality were unreal: “Apples are more apples. / Paper more paper.”

With her urban, gritty voice informed by irony, Masini’s rapidly unspooling recollections are propelled through flashbacks, pan shots, and close-ups across poems with titles such as “Mind Screen,” “Point-of-View Shot: Celeriac,” “Tracking Shot: Subway Lines,” “Split Screen,” and “Scary Movie.” In her fervent outpouring, her charged tone and resounding keening contrast with a more temperate tone in other poems of loss. This intensity, reminiscent of Sylvia Plath’s, risks pitting linguistic adroitness and naked grief against each other, but this is a risk that Masini negotiates as intrinsic to and necessary for her project, especially given her immediacy to the tragedy.

The middle section of 4:30 Movie is a sequence called “Water Lilies,” which centers on Monet’s paintings where plant and water aspire to aesthetic abstraction. These may provide Masini an escape from form, but offer slim consolation, and no escape, from her loss. But while Masini’s idiom and range of prosody—a sonnet, free verse poems, list poems, even a trailer script—mirror her agitation and the incessant tug of war between affirmation and anxiety, her sister is presented as poised and thoughtful, an unassuming figure gracefully and unobtrusively facing the inevitable. Masini’s departures from her subject, like her speaker’s from the theater, are simply detours and pretexts to return to it, to escape her escapism—which is as illusory and fleeting as that of a movie-goer’s.

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Katy Mongeau
Black Sun Lit ($15)

by Isabel Sobral Campos

In Apostasy, Katy Mongeau’s lyric “I” is a miscreant in search of redemption. These two long poems read like narratives suspended over a tense allurement between wish-fulfillment and nightmare:

You came to me with your hands all bloody.
You said you killed
the woman as if I’d shriek in delight.
Then you stuck one finger inside of me
like you were looking for a pulse.

At times, one suspects the murdered woman exists as resurrection, the rebirth of the narrator’s vengeful eroticism. Yet elsewhere, the narrator and murderer become as indiscernible as the “black birds” and “black flies” on the collection’s opening page. Apostasy has affinities with Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, particularly in how it derives a pleasurable, sublime experience from the body’s abjectness, and even its destruction. Mongeau’s poems jolt us with similar shockwaves erected upon murder, sliced flesh, and the orgasmic satisfaction that emerges from defilement: “I wanted /what I tried / to denounce.”

So death opens into the sacred and the possibility of inconceivable meaning; the latter returns to sentience in the form of arresting gratification. Mongeau’s poems traverse this delicate three-fold movement as transcendent value emerges through death, and only then is our materiality validated through pleasure. Here is how the poet puts it:

When you murdered me, I called it apostasy.

I think so highly of death—You once thought
so highly of me. It is no coincidence: a bouquet
of dried thistle and bluets, fake and flame retar-
dant, and all the other falsities damning me.

Evident throughout the book, the imbalance of control between “he” and “she” is inextricable from issues of consent. The narrator seems to validate and seek precisely what will wound them, but there is also an acknowledgement of sacrifice: “You wouldn’t believe what / I cost myself.”

Apostasy is a difficult collection to read, precisely for its ability to trouble ethical boundaries and shock one into considering unexpected psychic spaces of self-mutilation. For some, this jump might lead to problematic questions around metaphorical and symbolic linguistic use. For instance, when Mongeau writes that “I carried her flesh as my flesh / in the way that rape is a daisy chain,” aesthetics seek to overturn the violence of the act; the pleasant sonic and imagistic configuration of “daisy chain” causes one to recoil from the word “rape” exponentially more. But, does it though? The work gets tricky in these places, and perhaps the point is to unsettle. Hence, a final question remains—is Mongeau’s debut collection a revival of the neo-decadent lyric? If you care to find out, one must risk danger, and generously gamble with the prospect of finishing the book a bit more scabbed and unholy, observant to the inscrutable carrion of our world.

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Language Is Never Static:
An Interview with Su Hwang

photo by Jeffrey Forston

by Michael Prior

Su Hwang was born in Seoul, Korea. In the 1980s, her family immigrated to New York City, where her parents ran a bodega in the Queensbridge Housing Projects; she later moved to San Francisco. Hwang now lives in the Twin Cities, where she earned her MFA in Poetry at the University of Minnesota. Currently, she teaches in the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop and runs the organization Poetry Asylum, which she co-founded with Sun Yung Shin. Hwang is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships, including the inaugural Jerome Hill Fellowship in Literature and the Academy of American Poets James Wright Prize.

Hwang’s debut collection, Bodega (Milkweed Editions, $16), recipient of the 2020 Minnesota Book Awards in poetry, poignantly considers how every interaction between people is freighted with history and tied to identity. The collection’s poems constantly return to the titular space—those small corner stores in New York City crammed with every good one can possibly imagine—where, between narrow aisles and across the counter, the tensions evoked by cultural difference, prejudice, and class simmer and sometimes boil over. “Instant Scratch Off,” “Graveyard Shift,” “Corner Store Still | Life,” and the title poem all explore these tensions, suggesting that the bodega is a politically-charged microcosm for life in the surrounding city, if not America as a whole.

Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted prior to the onset of the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. For an essay by Su Hwang written in the wake of these events, see here.

Michael Prior: The title poem of your collection shifts between vignettes that focus on the owners of a bodega, Mrs. and Mr. Kim; an employee, Raul; and two customers, Joseph and Sandy. The poem is written in the third person, and its perspectival oscillation seems almost novelistic—or at least a technique more easily identifiable with fiction. I read on your webpage that you were originally a fiction writer; how has that experience shaped your approach to not only Bodega’s individual poems, but also its structure overall? And how did you come to the bodega as a creative lens and structural conceit?

Su Hwang: Thank you so much, Michael, for this opportunity to talk about Bodega––it’s an incredible honor and delight.

I’m not sure I can honestly call myself a former fiction writer, rather I thought I had to write fiction to be considered a “legitimate” writer, so maybe it’s more accurate to say failed wannabe fiction writer. It’s become obvious (to me) in the last few years that I was attempting to work in the wrong genre all along. Not to say I’ll never attempt writing prose in the future, but I always struggled with the form, and it didn’t help that I lacked the discipline needed to write long narrative work on a consistent basis. I was restless and aimless, but one thing has remained consistent: my voyeuristic gaze. During pockets of inspired moments in my twenties and thirties, I started many “chapter one” folders on my computer, but soon abandoned them when I couldn’t get past a certain point in my next great American novel, constantly wrestling the obnoxious inner critic. I was living and working in NYC and Brooklyn on and off during that time, so most of my half-baked stories took place in quintessential spaces like a subway car, greasy diners, the Brooklyn Bridge, and yes, bodegas. Plot was my Achilles’ heel, yet I was pretty good at setting. I’m also a Libra, so it’s just in my nature to be relational––meaning, I’ll never stop contending with another, the ways in which we other, as well as my own otherness. I’ve always stored imagistic snapshots of the people and objects around me, and writing Bodega became an exercise to find the beauty of our collective smallness amid human hardships.

After attending my first AWP as a grad student in 2014, I left Seattle knowing the title of the book before writing a single poem. I got an intuitive hit during one of the “first book” panels and realized I could use this urban, communal space to serve as both metaphor and thematic backbone for what was to become my MFA thesis. And as a child of Korean immigrants whose parents owned a corner store, it’s also a setting I had to contend with in my writing. I didn’t know exactly what would come of the work, but I knew action and conflict were inherent in this egalitarian space where a rich white guy buying cigarettes could interact with an undocumented person of color sweeping the floor, or a college student cramming for exams could chat with a taxi driver starting his late-night shift while ordering coffee. In this place, anything was and is possible. Every interaction, conversation, observation involves at least two people, two perspectives, two histories––which creates immediate tension, a kind of narrative. I might suck at writing fiction, but I know that a good story needs to have a point of conflict regardless of genre. Fiction also allowed for the possibility for the collection to be populated by various speakers, shifting from numerous POVs, and the titular poem, which some have likened to a short play, was one of the first poems I wrote for the thesis.

In terms of structuring Bodega, I think my limited background in fiction hindered the ordering process to some degree. I was really concerned about preserving the narrative arc, so many earlier versions of the manuscript had a static, linear quality––like if this happened then this next thing must follow and so forth. Applying this logic to poetry doesn’t quite have the intended effect. Luckily, I had the privilege of having the amazing poet and fellow Milkweed Editions author Rick Barot offer his genius during the final revision phase. He instructed me to cut over twenty pages from the bloated manuscript and offered keen insights like imagining the collection as a house, and to enter and exit from different doors—namely, to start with “Instant Scratch Off” and end with “Sunchoke,” which were both buried in the manuscript. I had deemed them weaker poems, but once I bookended them like he advised, the rest of the manuscript sort of magically fell into place like some dark night of the soul. By visualizing the poems spatially and in conversation with one another three-dimensionally rather than sequentially, I was able to unearth the perfect, dynamic shape of the book. I’m forever indebted to Rick for offering me such an important key to the house of my first collection.

MP: The book begins with a letter to your parents, written in Korean; a note beneath the letter clarifies that it was translated into Korean by the poet Emily Jungmin Yoon. Could you speak to why it was important for you to position this letter as one of the first texts the reader encounters in the book? And does it, for you, relate to the book’s multi-lingual, multi-register poetics?

SH: Thank you for asking this, and a special shout-out to stunning poet Emily Jungmin Yoon for her time and labor in exquisitely translating the letter. Although I wish I could take credit for the letter’s impression and impact on the reader, the initial reason was pretty simple: I wanted to be able to communicate to my parents, for the very first time actually, the full extent of my feelings and thoughts in writing this book, and, well, being their daughter. I essentially lost my ability to speak and read Korean when we immigrated to the U.S. when I was eight years old, and my parents’ English, even now, is a work in progress, so we’ve never been able to truly express our deepest longings and fears. A lot of things have gone unsaid and will never be salvaged. I’ve joked that I didn’t want them to disown me once they got a copy of the book, but I carried a lot of anxiety and fear for many years and projected my own insecurities onto the whole enterprise. It’s never easy writing about family, and I certainly had no idea how they would respond to having the past drudged up in such a public, permanent way. I think this is a major concern for those writing about family and trauma––this inexplicable sense of guilt, worry.

The loss of language and the accumulation of missed opportunities due to miscommunication are major themes in the work, and I found it only fitting that I reserve this space solely for them. They sacrificed their own dreams and endured unimaginable suffering so my brother and I could have better lives, the least I could do was build a kind of monument within the book to thank them. It was also a letter to my extended family given the legacy of my grandfather and uncle’s work in Korean literature––I wanted a way to articulate that writing this book was an act of respect and love not only for our family but the greater diaspora. I realize now that this gesture takes on more import by the very nature of it being the first thing a reader encounters when opening up the book, but my initial motivation was completely personal. What still amazes me today is that no one at Milkweed Editions has asked to see the English version of the letter, and I really value the fact that they have honored my privacy and agency. Once I got the positioning of the untranslated translated letter approved, I realized it would act as a mirror, and the reader who cannot read Korean (like myself) can experience, even if for one second, what my parents or any immigrant continues to struggle with learning a new language while trying to survive in a country that never really welcomed them.

When I finally worked up the nerve and sent my parents a copy of the book several weeks after publication, they called me from their retirement community in Southern California, crying––proud. They were touched by the letter and in that moment, I realized that art can transcend trauma. It has to.

MP: The loss of one language and the struggle to claim another certainly haunts many of these poems. I’m thinking, too, of the intergenerational ramifications of moving to a country that presents itself as a place of welcome and “opportunity,” but whose realities starkly contradict this. Poems like “American Seismology,” “Migratory Patterns,” “The Price of Rice,” “Fault Lines,” and “Fresh off the Boat | Five Sonnets” movingly explore these traumas. In the latter, the young speaker’s parents have taken the family out to dinner at a chain restaurant; she “pretends” that her family is “royalty” until the illusion is shattered by her parents’ English:

Whenever they
asked waitresses questions in their broken
English, I’d sulk into my sticky seat—my
cheeks boiling, my claws grappling the air.

I can’t help but note how the line break after “broken” enacts the parent’s difficulties with English, the breaking of language also being the breaking of certain narratives associated with the “American Dream.”

SH: Yes, the breaking and reassembling of language as well as the flawed notion of the American Dream are major concerns of this collection, just as they have been in my life off the page. Haunt is a good word to describe it. There are so many gaps and fissures, claustrophobic fits and starts, fragments and erasures in the toll of our human stories, but how they manifested were the ways in which my parents bought into the promise of coming to America versus the reality of surviving here. I wanted the poems to enact the very issues they were trying to confront or interrogate whether through form, movement on the page, or poetic technique like metaphors and line breaks as a kind of molecular mimicry. And I don’t know about you, but nothing gives me more pleasure than a good, precise line break because you get more poetry bang for the poetry buck.

I also aimed to highlight the malleability and perceived fallibility of language especially in an immigrant household where our version of “Konglish” was the official Frankensteinian mode of communication. Oftentimes, my parents would speak to me in basic Korean and I’d respond in basic English and soon there’d be a mashup of the two to get our point across. In public, the shame of their imperfect English would puncture any semblance of normalcy or safety for a child desperate to “fit in—be non-other.” Assimilation can be a death knell for the mother tongue. In “Flushingqueens” and “Portrait of Ladymothering,” I intentionally put separate words together to create another word, however random or haphazard it may seem to the reader, because that was what it was like in my family. Language, for most of my childhood into adulthood, was at the surface level a kind of negotiation.

English is not my native language, but it’s the vehicle in which I have formed my hyphenated identity. I was eight when we moved to the U.S., so I was fluent in Korean but somehow lost it, and it’s always felt like a ghost language. I know it’s locked away somewhere deep in the recesses of my mind but I’ve never been able to access it, so yes, it’s another haunting. Growing up, I resented having to go to Korean school on weekends, which never amounted to much because my Korean never improved, but this sense of straddling two languages, two worlds has remained. What was then a burden feels like irreparable loss now. This is the trauma for the first generations of immigrants in any country––that constant vertigo of not feeling rooted anywhere, no longer there but not really here. Language, in this way, is temperamental, cruel even. I also wanted to explore my fascination with words that have no direct English translation, words that defy the language of colonizers. The “Han” sequence, “Wabi-Sabi,” and “Duende Essays” play on this idea that English is not the be-all and end-all of languages. Entire galaxies can be conjured by a word that only exists in this other language often deemed secondary to English, and I wanted to celebrate them through poetry. Yes, I realize I’m typing this in English and my book is written in English with Korean words spelled out phonetically in English, but it some small way, I wanted to honor these words that live separately from this predominant gaze, that language is never static or hierarchical.

MP: One of the poems I’ve been constantly returning to is your sestina, “Sestina of Koreatown Burning,” which deconstructs the media’s reinforcement of the model minority myth during the 1992 L.A. Riots. Form is the ultimate metaphor here, with the sestina’s cycling end-words—“glass,” “fists”, “against,” “live,” “shattered,” and “ground”— evoking the Riots. The poem movingly proposes solidarity between “Black and Korean lives,” rather than division. How did this poem find this form, and how were you thinking of the book’s formal texture as a whole? There’s a wide variety of things happening here, from sonnets to open field compositions.

SH: Bodega started out as my MFA thesis, and as a graduate student and a late bloomer relatively new to poetry, I was eager to try my hand at writing all sorts of poems, employing as much formal diversity as I could muster to flex certain poetry muscles if you will, and as a way to mirror the thematic concepts of the bodega onto the page. Just as someone can find a gamut of goods from sodas to a sewing kit walking the aisles, I wanted the reader to experience a slew of forms as they traversed the book, so as to mimic the sensation of being in a cramped corner store. Another motivation was to subvert the pejorative notion, perpetuated by mostly white poetry critics in recent years, that narrative poetry exploring “identity politics” by poets of color somehow lacks formal rigor, as if telling our individual stories seems frivolous or that it’s taking up too much precious poetry space. Fuck that. In a kind of protest, I wanted form as narrative to be one of the major threads in the book as a way to show that the two modes of writing aren’t mutually exclusive.

For me, each poem dictates the form they will eventually take as they come into being. I usually start a poem as a couplet, then it begins to take shape soon thereafter. As for “Sestina of Koreatown Burning,” I knew I wanted to write about the LA Riots since it was such a major event during my teenage years, and initially intended it to be a prose poem. But soon it became clear that the poem was reading more like a Wikipedia entry about the LA Riots than a poem about it, and realized I needed to focus on images rather than a factual retelling. Around that time, I was reading Jamaal May’s debut collection Hum and Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler, and I admired their incredible sestinas, so I thought I’d give it a shot. Adopting a formal application helped add much needed structural integrity to the poem and elevate it from a pedantic rant. The first line came to me as I set the scene, then the rest of the stanza followed. Once I typed out all the end words:

. . . glass
. . . fists
. . . against
. . . live
. . . shattered
. . . ground

. . . ground
. . . glass
. . . shattered
. . . fists
. . . live
. . . against

. . . and so on, it was like putting a jigsaw puzzle together. I also selected some end-words that not only evoked key images but those that could take on more than one form (i.e. ground, foreground, grounds, grounding, grounded) so the lines had a little more flow. The general outline of the sestina came to me in one sitting, but I revised this poem countless times over a couple of years. I’m not sure I’ll write another sestina again, it’s definitely not for the faint of heart!

MP: I know you just got back from the book tour; has reading from the book changed your relation to it? And, it might be too soon to ask, but have you been writing anything new?

SH: First, I must profusely thank the Jerome Foundation and Milkweed Editions for making the book tour possible. Without their respective fiscal and administrative support, there would have been no way for a debut poet like me to fund such an endeavor. Although I was nervous going into each reading (and probably imbibed a little too much whiskey beforehand), I was incredibly lucky to have had incredible poets read with me, which helped dissolve any lasting anxiety. Everyone I met from booksellers to event coordinators to audience members were brilliant, kind souls. Another way I tried to ease some stress was to intentionally select cities where I have a network of good friends, so it was like a mini-homecoming in many respects.

What I couldn’t anticipate about the book tour was how I began to view the book as an organic, living thing, given how each reading had its own unique energy and direction. I found myself reading different poems, allowing me to plant myself in the present moment. In many ways it felt like an exercise in performance art, which was both terrifying and liberating in equal measure. It’s also interesting how reading from the book changes the conversation between poems. New orders were created, where in one reading I’d start with a poem from the second section and close with the opening poem, altering the relationship of the poems from the printed version. Pretty neat and totally unpredictable.

I’m learning there’s a lot of follow-up work to launching a book, so I haven’t had a lot of mental bandwidth to work on writing new stuff per se, but I am piecing some things together in my head and reading as much as I can. I started a strange, long poem at a writing residency during the summer of 2017 titled “Rooster,” and it’s unlike anything I’ve written before. I’m hoping it will serve as the foundation to my second collection, Roost—broadening the scope of my work beyond narrative and lyrical modes to interrogate metaphors of containment and long-held systems of oppression by looking at history from different cultural contexts. I’m envisioning a kind of textual collage of braided essays in verse to further investigate themes of madness, modern-day slavery through mass incarceration, prison abolition, borders, time, and witchery from a feminist, woman of color lens. We’ll see where this rabbit hole goes!

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

Nietzsche and the Burbs

Lars Iyer
Melville House ($16.99)

by Scott F. Parker

  1. Nietzsche calls to the fiction writer, the mystique of his name inclining some to invoke it (When Nietzsche Wept, Nietzsche’s Kisses) or its associations (the film The Turin Horse, The Will to Power by Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche) in their titles. Into this company, Lars Iyer throws his Nietzsche and the Burbs.
  2. The economy of Nietzsche and the Burbs: book title, name of band formed by main characters, plot summary, all in one.
  3. Style is essence here. Minimal narration, more like a play than a novel. A few words to establish setting, then right into dialogue.
  4. So much dialogue, much of it funny, all of it smart. Still, it is possible to spend too much time listening in on teenagers—even clever ones—talk and talk and talk.
  5. I remember these characters from high school and how they appeared from where I was standing: culturally astute; dexterous with reference, allusion, and wit; brilliant and bored; cynical and sad. I didn’t hang out with them then, and I don’t want to hang out with them now. They can be impressive and entertaining, but they are simply too exhausting.
  6. Nietzsche and the Burbs is a kind of cinéma vérité too true for its own good. Like its characters, it’s a bit too clever, too showy, too ironic, too cerebral. It’s like a Linklater film without his tender delight in the stuff of life (Linklater is nothing if not an anti-nihilist).
  7. All theory, no action, the book knows what it needs: “Maybe we’ve got to play against our cynicism,” one character says. “Break through to something.” Something, yes, but what?
  8. “We need vocals . . . . We need someone to lead the songs. Some we can follow.” Nietzsche, of course. Through his character in the novel’s world as through his prose in our world, Nietzsche animates. His readers will recognize him here by more than name; Iyer’s Nietzsche taps the intensity, brilliance, and dynamism of his namesake. When we meet him, he is renouncing the assumptions of the bourgeoisie. His teacher is incredulous: “You want to get rid of the economy? What would we have in its place?” His answer, naturally, is “Life.” If you are stimulated by Nietzsche the philosopher, you’ll be stimulated by Nietzsche the suburban teenager who threatens the inertia of the suburbs and his peers whenever he speaks (or sings), which is not frequently.
  9. The book, like the band, is lost without its frontman. Before anyone can escape the nihilism they’re all mired in, Nietzsche—and this is just one of many playful parallels with the philosopher’s biography—has a breakdown and comes to be under the care of his mother and evil sister.
  10. But nihilism. Everyone in the book keeps saying it. Nihilism. “Sounds interesting,” the narrator says. “It isn’t interesting. It’s devastating,” Nietzsche responds.
  11. It’s only right that the young Nietzsche is cast as the philosopher of the suburbs. If you can overcome nihilism in the suburbs, you can overcome it anywhere. Therefore, for one to really live, to thrive, to become, to overcome, only the suburbs will do. But if even Nietzsche can’t escape nihilism, what hope is there for a band of ironically detached teenagers? He issues his assessment of “devastating” on page eleven. In the 300-plus pages that follow, none of his peers take his claim to heart. What hope is there for readers?
  12. The book is mired in its condition. Whereas you leave an encounter with the philosopher Nietzsche feeling—feeling—his effects, you put down Nietzsche and the Burbs with a wry smile (if you like it) or eyes hurt from rolling (if you don’t). Either way, all the action is in your head, where nihilism thrives.

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