Tag Archives: Summer 2021

Voir Dire

Nico Vassilakis
Dusie ($15)

by Tyrone Williams

The French legal phrase that titles this book, literally “see say,” roughly means to say what one has seen, to swear to tell the truth. Given the playful tone of some of the prose and poetry contained herein, it would be easy to read Voir Dire as a tongue-in-cheek defense of vispo (shorthand for “visual poetry”), a movement of which Vassilakis has been at the forefront. This contrast between the title of the book and the tone of the writing raises several questions: to whom or what is this defense offered? What are the charges against the “defendant”? On whose behalf does Vassilakis speak? Who are the plaintiffs?

Before getting into some of these issues, it must be said that Voir Dire is a pleasure to read. One can, if one wishes, pass over the “arguments” of some of this writing in order to delight in a loopy, surrealist practice, especially in the first section, “Then There Was You.” As in his other books, Vassilakis is unpretentious, humorous, witty, and completely self-effacing. In that, he is child-like (not childish) and absolutely serious, and so it is not surprising that toward the end of the book, he couples a straightforward description of vispo as a practice (“A visual poem is successful when it makes alternative use of writing and devalues the sequence of alphabet typically reserved for word communication”) with a critique of the formal (read: educational) development of children’s writing practices, which narrow from “free expression in drawing to rigid grid-like writing that makes everything the same.” However, as the poem “Retinal Boss” makes clear, and the surrealist reference above suggests, Vassilakis is not interested in merely reversing the word/letter hierarchy. Rather, he wants to “Wring out the smallest elements / Wring out the letters and see what’s left//Now go past that.”

We have seen this before, of course. From Freud’s and Jung’s valorization of the unconscious to Deleuze’s and Guattari’s anti-oedipal schizophrenia, the belief in a more real Real (just to bring Lacan into the assembly) has dominated thought in a number of the humanities, including poetry.

Somewhere between vispo and pure thought there is asemic art, and certainly Vassilakis’ reference to the pre-letter drawings of children verge on this recent, and increasingly popular, practice which blurs the difference between writing and drawing. It is thus surprising that Vassilakis makes no reference to asemic art, at least not by name. Nonetheless, the two sections of this book (“Then There Was You” and “Voir Dire”) may be understood as constituting two answers to those questions I posed above. Read in the plural, the “You” of the first section may refer to the reader who, by virtue of having acquired fluency in English, demands what Barthes called a readerly text, writing that checks all the boxes and is thus easily digestible. At the same time, this “you” could also refer to the skirmishes over national languages in Canada. In that sense, the book’s title might well be asserting a kind of Francophone “origin” story (Voir Dire) vis-à-vis Anglophone usurpation (“Then There Was You”). Indeed, Vassilakis may here be alluding to the Quebecois wars): J’Accuse Anglais. However, the first section’s adverb adverb verb pronoun title, “Then There Was . . .,” acknowledges the reader while refusing to give in entirely to the readerly; writerly interjections—“We’re like that—a family made from sky,” “Hey writing, I don’t know you anymore”—wrest control from the readerly.

If we, the readers, are tempted to judge this book, we, as jurors, are forced to consider that the author may be a kind of madman, a person with (at least) two personalities (Dr. Readerly, Mr. Writerly) whose testimonies neutralize one another. Rather than risk being hung, we can, as I noted above, simply go along for the ride on Vassilakis’ plainspoken flights of fancy and imagination. Even when he is mocking hierarchy per se (“He was a Disciple, a brick out of the pyramid”) or recalling the necessity of/desire for handwriting (“I was too busy looking for a pen”), Vassilakis never takes himself too seriously. And these days, that’s an all-too-rare quality.


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Artists in Residence

Seventeen Artists and Their Living Spaces, from Giverny to Casa Azul
Melissa Wyse and Kate Lewis
Chronicle Books ($22.95)

by Linda Lappin

Recently, months of lockdown have had many of us re-adapting to our homes, repurposing spaces for new needs, dealing with clutter and chores, and straining under the limited access to sunshine, fresh air, breathing space, silence, and privacy. At some point, we all have reassessed our living space with a critical eye, wondering how to improve it—to make it more functional, comfortable, or more aesthetically pleasing, to make it a better fit for the person we are now, for the life we lead now as homesteaders hunkered down while an invisible storm rages outside.

The interior of our home is also an expression of our interior. Whether we look at Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” or Joris-Karl Huysmans’s “A Rebours,” artists and writers have long investigated the influence domestic interiors have on their psyche and artistic production.

How do artists inhabit their homes and how do their domestic spaces shape and shelter their work? How are the homes of artists different from our own? Author Melissa Wyse and illustrator Kate Lewis address these questions in their charming new book, Artists in Residence: Seventeen Artists and their Living Spaces, from Giverny to Casa Azul, letting the reader peek into the homes of a diverse group of artists—some famous, others lesser known, representing different styles, races, nationalities and genders. This exquisite volume is illustrated not with photographs, but with Kate Lewis’s luminous paintings, in order, claims Wyse, to capture not just the “visual appeal” of an interior but also “the greater essence of how it feels” as a multisensorial reality.

The artists’ homes showcased in this book present a wide range of approaches to domestic space and to domesticity in general. Matisse relished family life and celebrated it in his work, while French-born New York sculptor, Louise Bourgeois, rejected the conventions of domestic routine. The artists discussed here also used their environments to experiment with different materials, colors, and aesthetic vocabularies, whether mirroring their dominant style or radically deviating from it. They erased barriers between domestic space and studio space, public and private, family dwelling and installation space. In some cases, their houses or apartments became organic works of art, as in the home created by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, which Wyse describes as “a three-dimensional painting that they could live inside.”

Henri Matisse, Frida Kahlo, and Hassan Hajjaj decorated their homes with explosions of color, texture, and patterns, as well as with collections of ceramics, textiles, natural objects, and art richly displayed. Louise Bourgeois loved to be surrounded by piles of books, papers, and photos: the “material traces of the past,” the “rich stores of archived memory with all its generative creative potential.” The interiors inhabited by Georgia O’ Keefe and Donald Judd express a more uncluttered, sober simplicity, yet include areas which would seem to be permanent installations, for a public of themselves.

The book has been constructed from a combination of in-person visits and archival research, since some of the buildings that lodged these homes no longer exist. The authors emphasize the need to preserve the legacies of artists’ homes which may provide as yet unexamined perspectives on their creative practice. Most often the domiciles of women and artists of color are the ones that have been lost to history, as in the poignant case of Brooklyn artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose SoHo house, which he rented from Andy Warhol, has become an upscale shop for Italian ceramic tiles. Basquiat’s memory persists only on the exterior, where street artists continue to leave their homage to his work.

For all these artists, their domestic space was one of regeneration and experimentation, a place to return to and collect oneself or escape “public interface,” making the house a safe space for dreaming. At a time when we are encouraged to remain within our own bubbles, Artists in Residence invites us to go exploring: strolling through a tangled garden in France, sipping tea at a rough plank table in New Mexico, or sitting on a plastic crate in a tiled courtyard in Marrakech. The last chapter, “Bringing It Home,” gives suggestions to readers on how to transform their own environments into “domestic installations of creativity” and open up to “the mysterious power we can access through the space around us,” inspiring us to turn our own homes into works of art.


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Yours Presently and Momentous Inconclusions

Yours Presently: The Selected Letters of John Wieners
Edited by Michael Seth Stewart
University of New Mexico Press ($75)

Momentous Inconclusions: The Life and Work of Larry Eigner
Edited by Jennifer Bartlett and George Hart
University of New Mexico Press ($75)

by Patrick James Dunagan

Whether or not the idea of a Black Mountain School of American poetry should actually exist is rather moot. It serves quite well as a term for grouping the poets in attendance during—as well as those associated with publishing activities surrounding—the final years of Black Mountain College circa 1951-54, when direction of the rural North Carolina institution fell to poet Charles Olson. The known triumvirate of the Black Mountain School has Olson at its center buttressed by Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan (both of whom taught at the college, however briefly, alongside Olson). Any number of poets are available for broadening the huddle, but no matter how large that huddle grows to be, poets Larry Eigner and John Wieners will always remain near its center.

Olson served as a major influence on the work of both Eigner and Wieners, though they provide widely differing examples of what qualifies one to be part of the Black Mountain School. Both appear in Donald Allen’s New American Poetry: 1945-1960, the common reference point for the idea of there being a Black Mountain School, but Allen doesn’t place Wieners under the “Black Mountain,” subheading. Instead he puts him in his final, unclassified grouping of poets, despite the fact that a young Wieners was a star in Olson’s classroom at Black Mountain. This has led to some confusion, such as Jonathan C. Creasy’s mistaken editorial claim in his Introduction to Black Mountain Poems (New Directions, 2019) that Wieners isn’t included in Allen’s anthology at all. On the other hand, Allen does place Eigner under Black Mountain even though Eigner never came anywhere near Black Mountain’s campus. Eigner’s Black Mountain connections derive from the influence of Olson and others on his work, along with his associations via correspondence and where he published.

For poets coming of age in the 1950s, correspondence proved essential to sustaining and growing their friendships and associations. Yours Presently: The Selected Letters of John Wieners opens with his missives from Black Mountain to his friend and former classmate Robert Greene from Boston College. Attentively detailed, these letters are both gossipy reports on fellow students and various events happening at the college and demonstrative of the strength of Wieners’s self-introspection. Writing to Greene on May 24, 1955, he describes presenting two poems in a class of Olson’s:

I brought in two poems, a love poem, which begins, “I have wanted to write a love poem like the river merchant’s,’” and another, an address to Hart Crane and Harry Crosby, two suicides. I did not work hard on them, especially the suicide one, as it was written while I was stinking on Friday, and written while I was in tears up to my knees. I brought them to class last night, read them in my turn . . . and I asked a question: I would like to know how I can stop writing poems like this: Olson laughed and laughed, he said you never can, and you better not. He asked me what I meant, and I answered with: preoccupation with myself. The class then launched into them. In a second, failure is turned into success, at least for other people. Olson then began answering my question. I don’t remember what he said in quotes, but he talks about the intensity, me John Wieners, the desire, the trouble in the poems, that the use of language is my image, on and on, talking as if I am a poet, possessing the talent to convert experience into form. We went to Peek’s afterward, and I could hear him talking up the other end of the table about the emotion in the poems.

Readers of Wieners will likely recognize this mention of the poem “Hart Crane, Harry Crosby” found in Wieners’s Cultural Affairs in Boston: Poetry and Prose, 1956-1985 (Black Sparrow Press, 1988), as it makes for a gripping read, demonstrating Wieners’s tremendous power, as Olson says, to “convert experience into form.” As an out gay man, Wieners never held back from being forthright in his poems, expressing his sexuality as part of the dauntless gambit with candor at play in his work. Inclusion of unpublished poems is a definite highlight of these letters, and the other poem mentioned is an example; until now unpublished, it can be found a couple pages later in a letter to Michael Rumaker wherein it is entitled “Ode to the Instrument.”

From there the letters quickly expand, covering the erratic geographical movements Wieners made throughout the first half of his adult life. Always with Boston as home base, he trekked from Black Mountain to New York City out to San Francisco before returning East up to Gloucester and on to Buffalo. The majority of letters contained in this collection span this fifteen-year (1955-1969) period of frequent relocations and general trials. A mere thirty pages of letters date from 1970 to 1997; it is somewhat unclear if this dearth is due to an actual falling off of correspondence by Wieners or merely reflects what’s currently available in archives.

As the letters amply testify, by 1970 Wieners had already had a wildly eventful life. He had been on and off hard drugs multiple times and institutionalized on several occasions for months on end. He courted and was courted by poets across the communities represented in Allen’s anthology and beyond. He edited his own magazine, Measure, which ran three issues chock full of notable friends and associates. He taught university while earning his MA in Buffalo, then traveled to Europe for a reading at the renowned International Arts Festival in Spoleto in 1965. He suffered heartbreak at the hands of wealthy arts patron Panna Grady, fantasized a bizarrely and disturbingly detailed non-existent sadomasochistic relationship with Creeley into being, and published several collections of poetry with small presses to much acclaim. By contrast, from the 1970s until his death he infrequently traveled outside of Boston, published new work less and less, and focused more on his queer activism, particularly on the local level. No matter how scorched, he lived a gloriously charged life of the imagination.

Larry Eigner embarked upon a different yet parallel track after hearing poet and editor Cid Corman’s Boston radio show This is Poetry in the fall of 1949. While Corman was never at Black Mountain, he corresponded with and published several of the associated poets in his literary magazine Origin. As a result, when Eigner fired off a postcard “disagreeing with the non-declamatory way Corman presented the work of Yeats,” it proved vital to his coming into the Black Mountain orbit and “started a nearly forty-year relationship.” Momentous Inconclusions: The Life and Work of Larry Eigner provides engaging and wide-ranging consideration of the poet’s prolific adventure in poetry. Gathering together freshly written essays by eight contributors covering an array of topics, along with a short (yet meaty and diverse) selection of letters by Eigner spanning 1953-1992, it serves as an excellent companion commentary to Stanford University Press’s four-volume Collected Poems (2010).

Similar to Wieners, Eigner’s work arose directly from Olson’s example and encouragement. As Barrett Watten affirms, “Eigner’s work is the prototype of [Olson’s] projective verse.” He shares the same seemingly inborn ability to “convert experience into form” that Olson applauded in Wieners at Black Mountain. Marie Landau describes one feature of Eigner’s success achieving this effect as deriving from challenging and transforming the traditional autobiographical lens of the lyric. The act of observation at the heart of his poetry is driven by this shift in attentiveness away from the egocentrism commonly found in Occidental history. Eigner’s poems also possess a haiku-like clarity for capturing the passing moment. Linda Russo comes strikingly close to echoing descriptions of Japanese poetic traditions when she comments: “Listening is one form of bodily registering, of creating a connected situatedness, and Eigner’s poems bear witness to a long history of open window listening.” The open window shows the world and Eigner, with discretionary discernment, allows incidentals of that world to enter into his poems.

In a footnote Russo further remarks on Eigner’s being paraplegic: “he had to extend himself outside of ‘himself’ as a physical phenomenon—a gesture that translates into a poetics.” This is not to say Eigner’s condition defined his poetry, but he discovered and pursued the means within himself to sidestep any physical limitation. Eigner’s poetry moves viscerally upon the page, sounding out in its spatial engagements with a light and open airiness. Seth Forrest argues for listening to the silent, inner attributes of Eigner’s soundings upon the page, broadening the often-narrowed understanding of Olson’s emphasis upon breath: “to think of projective verse poems as containing the ‘speech-force’ of orality is to miss the aural dimensions of writing entirely.”

Offering “writing advice” in a 1975 letter to his young niece, Eigner tosses out this pithy summation for what it all comes down to: “Words and the world.” What else is there to it? What else does the poet make poetry out of but what they hear and see? What else does any finished poem ultimately leave behind? If nothing else, the lives of Eigner and Wieners serve as testaments to the nature of their artistic commitment and the extent to which how they lived remains thoroughly immersed in the poetry they left behind.


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Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2021 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2021

Brazil That Never Was

A.J. Lees
Notting Hill Editions ($18.95)

by Douglas Messerli

Published in a small, almost pocket-sized format, A. J. Lees’s Brazil That Never Was is itself a kind of illusional publication. Although the cloth-bound book is only 139 pages in length—and that with photographs, chapter breaks, and heavy leading between lines—it took weeks to read, despite being mesmerizing from its first chapter. I’ve never taken quite so long to devour a work that totally interested me.

Moreover, though apparently based on facts, the plot of the book feels fantastical: a successful British neurologist becomes so incredibly involved in a childhood fantasy about a country far away that he simply had to take a voyage into the Amazon. Certainly, Lees would not be the first “mad” Englishman to be enticed into the vast Amazonian wilderness. Evelyn Waugh’s desperate attempt to reach Manaus in the Brazilian interior became the basis of his 1934 novel A Handful of Dust, and you might fill several shelves with books and films about European men’s failed journeys or their dreams of travel into seemingly enchanted forests. These dreams are, of course, folly, as most Brazilians knew the Amazon to be a fallen paradise due to the rubber barons who destroyed numerous acres and tribes in the South American equivalent of Conrad’s “heart of darkness.”

Lees’s fascination began innocently enough when his schoolteacher father presented him with a dog-eared copy of Exploration Fawcett, a popular 1953 work that told of Colonel Percy Fawcett’s several voyages into the Amazonian forests throughout the 1910s and ’20s, ending in his 1925 search for a lost city from which he never returned. Surrounded by the steaming smokestacks of vast cargo ships in the Liverpool harbor, the young Lees created an imaginative alternative to the drab landscape in which he lived:

Each Saturday we left the smoking works and foundries and escaped into the dank shadows of Liverpool. . . . The SS Hilary was not the only steamer destined for Brazil. The SS Raphael was leaving on the evening tide with a cargo of pianos for Santos, and the SS Herdsman was bound for the chocolate port of Salvador Bahia. Cotton bales arrived on red duster ships from São Paulo, and sacks of Pernambuco molasses were unloaded at Huskisson Dock. As we waited, separated from the shops by the towering dock wall, unfamiliar scents of Brazil drifted in on the tide streams of the North Atlantic.

Returning to this childhood favorite as an adult, Lees began to perceive that it was actually written by Fawcett’s son Brian, and slowly, through amazing coincidences and contact with others who had followed the Fawcett legend over the years, he gradually pieced together a tale that is far more fabulous than the actual events surrounding Fawcett’s search. Indeed, the third illusion of Brazil That Never Was is that it concerns a journey to the Brazilian heartland, when in truth the story Lees tells comes straight out of dusty British libraries, crumbling letters, and stories and gossip by family members, students of the occult, and science fiction writers.

Thus, this book’s journey to the jungle of Amazonia occurs more through research rather than by any canoe down a river. But what Lees finds during his “travels” is that in Fawcett lies a darkness of mind every bit as mad as that of Conrad’s Kurtz. Fawcett’s search for his “Lost City” likely ended his own life and killed his “magically gifted” son Jack and his friend. Even Lees’s rendition of the backstory about Jack involves Asian religious beliefs spiced-up with theosophist ramblings, hack psychology, and dreamy semi-scientific pipedreams.

In short, Fawcett’s falsely reported scientific expeditions into Brazil had more links to racist fantasies of faith like L. Ron Hubbard’s founding stories of Scientology than to any rational search for prehistoric civilizations. What to most people seemed like one of the last great adventures into the unknown wilds was actually an extraordinarily farcical voyage into insanity. To his credit, Lees does not judge these crackpot concepts so much as he thoroughly explores the various absurd avenues through which the Fawcett writings, correspondence, and histories lead. Even after he recognizes that Fawcett’s explorations (and what his own childhood imagination imbued those adventures with) were little more than nonsense, he is still determined to find proof by actually traveling to Manaus, the starting point into the jungle, to see for himself. What he discovers is far more mundane than the fantasies of Fawcett: Manaus smells of a “nauseous stench of diesel” and is actually an urban landscape consisting of “a Shell garage, rows of shops with roller shutters defending their windows, overhead bridges, corrugated iron shacks, sallow walls covered in graffiti, bracketed streetlights, telephone wires, parking lots filled with trucks, and a Coca Cola bottling plant.” He concludes ruefully “that what I had seen with my own eyes could never compete with the flashbacks of my dead past.”

The several layers of illusion in Lees’s book seem to reflect the Liverpool lad’s own journey through illusion while delving into his childhood dream. Only when he travels on a silkwood dugout down the Rio Negro does he briefly find himself in a world where “time had collapsed.” Clearly this, however, is not a world in which he can exist, and when he returns to society, he realizes that “trying to recapture those magic moments [of his childhood vision] was as impractical as trying to look for the path of the SS Hilary in the ocean.” A ship leaves no track, just as Fawcett’s mad march into the interior left no evidence of his even having entered it. Yet in Brazil That Never Was, something does persist: the human yearning for discovery.


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Permanent Record
(Young Readers Edition)

How One Man Exposed The Truth About Government Spying And Digital Security
Edward Snowden
Henry Holt ($19.99)

by John Hawkins

Edward Snowden’s 2019 memoir Permanent Record was chock full of the seamy details of state corruption that can get a fellow in trouble if he reveals them to the world. He told us about homo contractus, a term used to describe government employees with top secret clearance being poached by private companies to do the same work (spying) for the same people (CIA, NSA) for more tax-paid money and no public scrutiny. There were titillating details of LOVEINT, a disavowed program that allows NSA employees to listen in on the conversations of love interests and exchange pornographic material. It even told about some astonishing coincidences—for instance, Snowden’s forebears were slave owners whose land was confiscated by the government and became Fort Meade, the place where NSA headquarters are located.

The recently-released Young Readers Edition of Permanent Record takes out all that adult “smut,” snipping out about one hundred pages of lugubrious detail while leaving the language, and tone mostly intact. Surprisingly, what’s left is a hero’s tale with all the stuff kids love in a book—adventure, fighting tyrants, young love, righteous parental moral homilies, ideals turned dystopic—with Capitalism coming across as a nearly indestructible cyborg needing some Das Kapitation from a John Connors type. That's a lot to put on the shoulders of a young do-gooder, but it’s now or never, says Snowden.

The book has three parts: Snowden’s childhood years, the 9/11 wake-up, and how he became a whistleblower. Growing up, he loved Bulfinch’s Mythology, Aesop’s Fables, and, of course, the tales of King Arthur's court. Of particular interest was the story of the “tyrannical” Welsh king Rhitta Gawr, “who refused to accept that the age of his reign had passed and that in the future the world would be ruled by human kings,” writes Snowden. He tells of getting around “the System” at school, skirting its rules to do minimal work in history class, only to be scolded by the teacher and told he must mind that such cleverness could become part of his “permanent record.”

This raises the main theme of the book: We all, unwittingly, have “permanent records” that the government and its tech partners (Google, Amazon, Facebook) keep on us and are more than willing to lie about. Snowden tells his young readers that the government could one day, arbitrarily, use the information gathered against anyone, perhaps even retroactively. Some say we have already crossed the abyss, but Snowden seems to have a modicum of hope left for the next generation to reverse this negativity.

Snowden relates how the U.S. government let us down before and after 9/11—before, by ignoring warnings about an imminent threat; after, by 'taking the gloves off' and creating a colossal surveillance state that threatens to eviscerate human privacy, and with it consciousness and the ability to think freely. He also sees the mainstream media as culpable, pointing out that nine years before his whistleblowing revelations, the New York Times quashed a piece that would have brought to light the Bush administration’s order to vacuum up American cyber data without a court order. When Snowden learned of this program and others, he was inspired to reveal what he knew about the secret and unconstitutional malfeasance of his government.

So what is Snowden's final message to young heroes in waiting—the future class of democracy-lovers and whistleblowers? “If we don’t reclaim our data now, future generations might not be able to do so,” Snowden writes at the end of his memoir; “We can't let the godlike surveillance we're under be used to ‘predict’ our criminal activity.”


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Summer 2021

Check back as we add more features and reviews in the next months!

INTERVIEWS

Dispatching Dispatches: An Interview with Michael Boughn and Kent Johnson
Editors of the recently decommissioned website Dispatches from the Poetry Wars, Michael Boughn and Kent Johnson, here discuss the arc of its existence during the years of Trump’s presidency and its subsequent demise.
Interview by Julien Poirier

Thought Interruptions: An Interview with Barbara Henning
Poet Barbara Henning discusses her new collection Digigram, a collection of fast-paced, autobiographical prose poems, and other projects.
Interview by Jim Feast

FEATURE

How I Became the Narrator of a César Aira Novel
Argentinian novelist Cesar Aira’s latest work in English translation, The Divorce, is now available from Chris Andrews and New Directions. In this personal essay, Kent Johnson offers a behind-the-scenes exploration of Aira’s aesthetic.
Essay by Kent Johnson

Works by Paul Celan: Memory Rose Into Threshold Speech and Microliths They Are, Little Stones
Two new translations bring Celan’s early poetry and much of his prose to English via the heroic efforts of translator Pierre Joris. Review by John Bradley

FICTION REVIEWS

Cathedral
Ben Hopkins
A monumental debut novel, Cathedral constructs an edifice whose design ranges from the most sublime heights of inspiration to the most degenerate political depths, all of them counterbalancing each other to maintain their intricate facades. Reviewed by David Wiley

The Bass Rock
Evie Wyld
Evie Wyld is an author and bookshop owner in London whose latest novel, The Bass Rock, follows three women on the coast of Scotland over centuries. Review by Josh Steinbauer

POETRY REVIEWS

Saturn Peach
Lily Wang
This mesmerizing collection offers poetry rooted in memory and reflection, inquisitive imagery, and minimalist tones. Reviewed by Greg Bem

Voir Dire
Nico Vassilakis
A pleasure to read, this collection of poems captures the delight in Vassilakis’s unpretentious, witty, and self-effacing practice.
Reviewed by Tyrone Williams

NONFICTION REVIEWS

Artists in Residence
Seventeen Artists and Their Living Spaces, from Giverny to Casa Azul
Melissa Wyse and Kate Lewis
After emerging from months of lockdown, it’s interesting to see how artists like Frida Kahlo and Hassan Hajjaj shape their domestic and work spaces. Reviewed by Linda Lappin

Brazil That Never Was
A.J. Lees
As recounted here, a successful British neurologist becomes so incredibly involved in a childhood fantasy about a country far away that he simply has to take a voyage into the Amazon. Reviewed by Douglas Messerli

Yours Presently: The Selected Letters of John Wieners
Edited by Michael Seth Stewart
and
Momentous Inconclusions: The Life and Work of Larry Eigner
Edited by Jennifer Bartlett and George Hart
The worlds of poets John Wieners and Larry Eigner, both essential Black Mountain writers, are more deeply fleshed out in these two new books. Review by Patrick James Dunagan

YOUNG ADULT

Permanent Record (Young Readers Edition): How One Man Exposed The Truth About Government Spying And Digital Security
Edward Snowden
This recently released young readers edition of Snowden’s 2019 memoir cuts out all the adult “smut,” leaving a hero’s tale with all the stuff kids love in a book—adventure, fighting tyrants, young love, and moral homilies. Reviewed by John Hawkins

Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2021 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2021

The Bass Rock

Evie Wyld
Pantheon ($27.95)

by Josh Steinbauer

Evie Wyld is an author and bookshop owner in London whose latest novel, The Bass Rock, follows three women on the coast of Scotland over the centuries. Sarah, accused of witchcraft, is on the lam in the 1700s. Ruth is a 1950s housewife, married to a widower and step-mother to his two sons. And in the present day, Viviane has travelled from London in the shadow of her father’s death, to prep the family home for sale.

The Bass Rock opens with the dead body of a woman on the beach, but this doesn't feel cliché so much as it feels like commentary on the “dead girl” trope itself. While the book isn’t a murder mystery, Wyld does well by setting the stage with a murder, creating an implied invitation for the reader to play detective as the novel cuts across three unraveling stories. There are very few intersections at first—a house connects two of them when it's revealed that Ruth is Viviane's step-grandmother, but their stories move along independently. The through-line isn’t the similarity of the women or their connection to this house, so much as the commonality of the men in their lives who are utterly failing them. In an interview, Wyld said: “It was really when #MeToo happened that I saw I was writing about the same thing. The same problem, just a slightly different shape, I suppose.”

What develops is a mugshot of male entitlement—violence, as observed by the three main characters, that hasn't changed much over the centuries. Wyld draws red threads of connection from misogyny in advertising to creeps in parking lots and from a date's gas-lighting to a husband's institutionalization of his wife. As minor condescension crescendos to major brutality, the book begins to question what is at the core of these failings. Wyld’s delving doesn’t only concern the effects of toxic masculinity on women, however. One of the most poignant passages depicts a father confronted with the abuse of his sons at a boarding school. As we realize that he is all too familiar with the abuse his sons are suffering, we sit with him in the moment of choice between rescuing (or even empathizing) with his children or resolving to ignore the abuse as simply part of what turns a boy into a man.

Art courtesy of the reviewer, one in a series of renditions of writers alongside their words featured on his Instagram (@joshsteinbauer).

Wyld's indictment of toxic masculinity is cut with humor, as if coping with it is an artform best practiced through sardonic observation and lancing wit—a kind of Sylvia Plath meets Fleabag. One of the most notable side characters is Maggie, a homeless sometimes-sex-worker whose give-no-fucks take on the patriarchy initially comes across as madness. Under scrutiny, though, she's simply the only one who feels free enough to say what they're all thinking. Maggie speaks in raw gems like, “I trust a man who golfs less than a man who pays for sex.”

The Bass Rock works particularly well as an audio book. The sweet nectar of Scottish accents shepherd the reader through stretches of danger and dread as they come full circle to the body on the beach. The great murder mystery is femicide itself. No one cracks the case, though Wyld’s women testify to the buried weight of patriarchy, with Bass Rock at the forefront of her symbolism—a small island where long ago a castle was built that over time became a prison.



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Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2021 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2021