Tag Archives: Winter 100

Pandemic Reflections on Beyond Your Doorstep by Hal Borland

by John Toren

As Covid-19 forced us all to spend more time indoors last spring, I found myself drawn more than ever to simple, earthy prose. Homespun descriptions of rural life offered an effective counterweight to daily death tolls and the homicidal plotlines of standard streaming fare. I steered clear of the environmental harangues that are so common these days (important though they may be), and I also avoided narratives of wilderness adventure, which tend to focus on human endurance and close calls with disaster rather than the supple and harmonious interactions of living things.

Perhaps I'm isolating a narrow slice of experience here, but I had no trouble finding things to satisfy the need, from children's books (Selma Lagerlöf's The Wonderful Adventures of Nils Holgersson) to fiction (Jean Giono's Blue Boy) to reappraisals of agricultural history (James McGregor's Back to the Garden: Nature and the Mediterranean World from Prehistory to the Present) to memoir (Swedish entomologist Fredrik Sjoberg's wide-ranging essay The Fly Trap.) But the book that perhaps offered the most satisfying read was Hal Borland's Beyond Your Doorstep: A Handbook to the Country.

Alfred Knopf published the book back in 1962, but I spotted a pristine copy of the first edition just last summer at Beagle and Wolf Books, a small but well-stocked shop in Park Rapids, MN. The front endpaper carries an inscription to “Alice and Hamlet, from Plummer and Ida, Dec-25-1963,” written with a fountain pen in elegant cursive script that resembles my mother’s handwriting—and that of many other women of her time. Although by 1962 Knopf had been sold to Random House, the book is decorated with the same sort of wing-dings we find in earlier Knopf editions stretching from Sigurd Olson's canoeing essays back to the famous works of Wallace Stevens, Willa Cather, and Thomas Mann.

To judge from the lack of wear, I don’t think Alice and Hamlet ever got around to reading the book. Borland describes it in the foreword as a handbook rather than a field guide. His goal is “to indicate what to look for and where and when.” If he inspires the reader to move on to guide books for details, then Borland will consider his purpose to have been fulfilled.

Perhaps he was being modest, but such a précis fails to account for the intrinsic value—I’m tempted to say the “poetry”—of the prose itself, which draws on both the author’s vast knowledge of the natural world and his relaxed, slightly folksy New England tone. Though he wrote regularly for the New York Times, Borland spent much of the year on his farm in northwestern Connecticut.

Borland makes it clear early on that he knows the names of the trees, the bugs, and the fish, how they interrelate, and where they’re likely to be found. Excluding genuine wilderness from his purview, he focuses on phenomena that anyone in the eastern United States might easily come upon during a two-hour hike down a country road or fifteen minutes in a barn. To dip into any of the first six chapters, which range from “Pastures and Meadows” to “The Bog and the Swamp” and “Flowing Waters,” might be the next best thing to actually taking such a walk.

Come mid-April and the shadblow blooms in the riverside woods like tall spurts of shimmering white mist among the leafless trees. I first knew shadblow in the high mountains of southwestern Colorado, which simply proves how broad is the range of this cousin of the apple. But I knew it there as serviceberry. In the Northeast it gets the name shadblow or shadbush because it comes to blossom when the shad come up the streams to spawn—or did come when the streams were habitable for shad, not heavily polluted. It blossoms in tufts of small, white, long-petaled flowers before the leaves appear.

As an aside, the name “serviceberry” also has a New England derivation: The tree blooms in the spring at just the time when the ground has thawed enough to make it feasible to conduct funeral services and bury those who had died the previous winter.

At a few points later in the book, Borland’s attention veers off in less personal directions, as if his editor had told him, “Hal, you’ve got to write a chapter on the night sky. And how about one on foraging? And poisonous plants?” We don’t need to be told that the five major planets are Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, for example. To his credit, in the section on foraging Borland describes quite a few edible plants, one after another, but doesn’t shrink from admitting that most of them taste terrible or are not worth the effort required to gather them.

The chapter on birds also seems a little weak, though it runs to twenty-eight pages. Borland clearly knows his birds; he mentions that in the course of a given summer he is sometimes able to distinguish between five individual Baltimore orioles on the basis of slight variations in their song. But he spends less times sharing his encounters with the warblers, vireos, flycatchers and raptors in the woods around his farm than assuring readers that birding isn't as hard as it may seem, and encouraging them to buy binoculars.

All the same, there are a few things to be learned or enjoyed on nearly every page of this welcoming and erudite ramble across the New England countryside. And near the end of the book, Borland draws upon all the lore he's been sharing to take us through a brief tour of the passing seasons, month by month. As a wrap-up, he devotes an entire chapter to the issue of common versus scientific names, and provides a long list of equivalents.

Shadblow? Serviceberry? We’re talking here about the Amalanchier canadensis.

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Prairie Architecture

Monica Barron
Golden Antelope Press ($15.95)

by Andy Harper

The first collection from a seasoned poet of place, Monica Barron’s Prairie Architecture is particularly good pandemic reading. To write the rural Missouri college town where Barron is a professor of English and to live in the era of distancing both call for the patterns of observation ingrained in the form and voice of these poems.

A distanced intimacy unites the collection, introduced by the speaker of the opening poem, who listens over coffee to

in the screen-porch playing cello
to a cornfield yellowing fast . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
the dogs covered in dust
that someone bellows for or maybe it’s to
out of anger that yellows his dried-up life.

Barron conjures the essayistic idler figure, listening from diners, fire pits, and hair salons, notebook at hand. This quiet intimacy resists the trite observation of small towns (that everyone knows everyone’s business), invoking instead an ethic of witness. Histories overheard in gas stations or at parties mobilize communal grieving, share warnings and fables of imperfect justice. In “Hunting Song,” the speaker muses,

If only the river had taken Audrey under
its mighty wing. She might never have shot
her husband in the kitchen after close.
The sign still says Audrey’s Place, but
how empty, how silent the place with her gone.

Barron makes of this roadside edifice an impromptu memorial, as she does elsewhere with a grain bin, an open field. In doing so, she acknowledges dual truths: that to belong to a place is to pass daily through these ghosts of history, and that their lessons are always contingent—legible more in hypotheticals than in certainties.

Prairie Architecture displays an appropriate nonchalance regarding structure, allowing us to slip with Barron into the comfort both of form and of a small Midwestern town without allowing repetition to stifle. Form remains loose, breaks down in improvisation, adaptation. “Meditation from West of the River” introduces a rule for repeated lines around stanza breaks—

Crossing the Mississippi late at night
I saw the ground fog rising to cover the road.

I saw the ground fog rising to cover the road
give way to frost. Say what you want about love

—then allows that rule to become lax:

I want to help you live, to finally find
the synapse that connects the heart and mind.

Whatever it is that connects the heart and mind
it’s at the mercy of memory.

Here again is Barron’s commitment to ambiguity. Here, too, and elsewhere, the author invites us into the process and prehistory of the poem. In some pieces, numbered segments mediate a range of historical and cognitive chronologies, charting how observation and meditation together mobilize meaning. Throughout, segmentation and circularity highlight patterns of life from small talk and travel to climate change and resource extraction.

This book is lucidly aware of its moment. In one of a handful of poems departing Kirksville for Barron’s annual trip to New Mexico, the speaker observes,

Before the border walls
there were mission walls.
At Tumacacori they crumbled
to Sonoran sand
and the fossilized pits
of Fr. Kino’s peaches.
Jesus replants the mission
orchard with the oldest
root stock he can find.

The double meaning that here collapses Christ with a farm worker plays throughout Prairie Architecture, but “Jesus in Three Movements” keenly renders the collection’s commitment to returning to our foundations—old walls of the past—to revive and reclaim an ethic of care with which to re-/build the psychic infrastructure our present moment demands. Near the end of the book, “Looking for Democrats in Novinger, MO” processes the 2016 election, offering gratitude to “older Black feminists” and Leonard Cohen, to old friends and “those younger who want our knowledge.”

Barron offers no blueprint for living through this pandemic; she not only tolerates but celebrates ambiguity and the constructed-ness of things. If these poems do offer any model, however, it is one for observing, for bearing witness, for gratitude and friendship. What we will do in these rural college towns is what we already do best: keep on caring for each other. This is the architecture of community and the politics of place.

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The Human Journey: An Interview with Micheline Aharonian Marcom

by Benjamin P. Davis

On July 23rd, 2020, The New York Times Magazine ran a story entitled “The Great Climate Migration Has Begun.” “Our model projects that migration will rise every year regardless of climate, but that the amount of migration increases substantially as the climate changes,” the team of authors write. “In the most extreme climate scenarios,” they continue, “more than 30 million migrants would head toward the U.S. border over the course of the next 30 years.” Politicians need to respond to both migrants and what causes their migration; journalists need to document and explain push and pull factors. But just what is the role of literature during these climatic and demographic changes?

Micheline Aharonian Marcom offers an answer in The New American (Simon & Schuster, $26), a novel that follows the epic story of Emilio, a Guatamalan-American who attempts to make his way back to California following his banal, but brutal, deportation. After we collaborated on a series about politics amidst the pandemic, I asked Marcom if we could discuss further writing amidst and about human journeys, dreams, and mixings. Our discussion is below.

Benjamin P. Davis: As Emilio begins his journey north, “he is too unsettled to read.” Writing is also difficult, including on his second day, when he “stares at the paper for a time.” Can you comment on the material conditions required to read and write, to receive and to tell stories?

Micheline Aharonian Marcom: For myself at least, the best conditions for reading and writing are a certain amount of quiet, and what I think of as “settledness”: I generally find it difficult to reflect deeply when I’m traveling, in particular if I feel anxious and, as I imagine Emilio felt while beginning the journey north, uncertain about what lies ahead—in his case what awaits him moment to moment in an unknown place and focused only on the journey itself and getting back home.

BPD: A theme of The New American is what each of us carries. You write about the journey north, “Each man, each woman, carries the reasons in their pocket.” A white stone is particularly important to Emilio—“The only thing Emilio now carries on this earth.” Later “he can’t help but think about what he does not carry because he lost it along the way.” You also use the Spanish verb meaning “to carry” when Emilio explains to Matilde what he asked of the stranger: “Intenté convencerle llevarnos a una parada de autobús.” Why does it matter what we carry and who is willing to carry us?

MAM: While doing research for The New American, I was often struck by what migrants and refugees determined to take with them and what they didn’t, and by what was lost along the way. It’s a risk to take valuables north because robbery on the migrant trail is rampant, and most people only take what they can carry in a small backpack. So what does one take? Many individuals take photographs of loved ones, religious objects—crosses, icons, and the like—pieces of paper with phone numbers of relatives, a few personal items, and extra clothes. Many such items have been found in the Sonoran Desert, where it is estimated that since 1999 over 3,000 migrants have died or disappeared while trying to cross over into the United States.

I’ve also been thinking quite a bit lately about how as people travel, and goods, mostly through trade, so do ideas: cultural, linguistic, and religious. This has always been true, if we look even cursorily at the ancient world where objects and knowledge were exchanged between Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persia, India, and of course the Hellenic world. There are countless examples of shared beliefs, knowledge, technology, and goods—not least of which is our very alphabet, which derives from the Ancient Greek in the eighth century BC, and came before that from Phoenecian traders who themselves had gotten it from a Canaanite script adapted from the Egyptian hieroglyphic. And of course, the Abrahamic religions come from Near East as well.

BPD: In a way, the story is about globalization, including the colonial relationships that are inherent in that term. “Countless items crisscross the earth’s surface,” Emilio reflects, “with more ease than ever in human history, including all of the things I am carrying today that were manufactured in China and purchased in northern Mexico and sit inside a blue bag on the back of a man who is only trying to get back home.” Why is it important to depict the details of globalization, the faces and days of those who live and suffer it—instead of simply observing a country’s GDP and official stories?

MAM: One of my favorite writers of the second half of the twentieth century is Danilo Kiš from the former Yugoslavia. Kiš’s mother was Orthodox Christian and his father was Jewish, and during World War II his father was arrested and taken to Auschwitz, where he perished, while Kiš and his mother and sister managed to avoid deportation and survive because they’d been baptized in the church. Much of Kiš’s work takes up stories of individuals, including several novels based on his father’s life, who are living through periods of historical upheaval and violence that catches them in its net, much like it did his family. In an interview Kiš once gave he said, “I believe that literature must correct History. . . . Literature corrects the indifference of historical data by replacing History’s lack of specificity with a specific individual.” For myself this capacity of literature, if not in some measure part of its duty, has been a guiding force in many of my novels. Kiš puts it another way in his masterpiece, A Tomb For Boris Davidovich, about the show trials, purges, and violence of 1930s Stalinist Russia: how literature is a kind of cenotaph for the missing and defeated, the silenced dead of history who have had no proper burial, whose names and existence have been elided or erased, and who might have a reckoning, a preservation, in letters. Only literature and storytelling consider the individual in this manner.

BPD: Page after page you return to questions of belief, a more abstract form of carrying: “I see the world in you and although I am still not a believer, I believe in you and the stony dark earth, the dome of the sky, the silent gibbous moon, in human determination and even in some kind of hopefulness that we might carry.” Why do you take a step back from hope itself here, instead invoking a qualified, “some kind of” hope?

MAM: I’m not sure that Emilio, in that instance, is taking a step back from hope, but if I am to parse it now, delineating the difference between what we might do as human beings, what we might choose: faith in god/the gods, in compassion, love, and hope even under the most difficult of circumstances, versus a fall into nihilism, avarice, selfishness and despair. These are perhaps old choices and part of an ongoing debate in philosophy and religions. For Emilio, who is not a believer in the specific “kind” of hope the Catholic church delineates, there is still the possibility present for a belief that comes through observing the beauty and grandeur of the natural world, through a witnessing of care between strangers as he does on the journey north, and through the experience of love he has with Matilde. In other words: having a religious outlook without necessarily being a believer of one specific sect or another.

BPD: Early on, Emilio wishes he believed in God, but he does not and therefore cannot pray. Late in the story he is honest about his struggles with faith—“I don’t know what I believe”—even when he leverages his Biblical knowledge in asking the stranger for help. Do you see the religious impulse, what the stranger calls his “sacred duty,” as a way into larger social struggles?

MAM: To this I can say the following: when I researched and wrote The New American, and during the intervening years of interviewing individuals in California who had made the journey north, one of the things that often struck me was the devotion and faith so many individuals had in God, in the Virgin, in Christ—and the concomitant capacity to find greater meaning in life and transcend the daily suffering and miseries which a purely material positivist understanding of the world does not permit. For me personally I can add that writing books has, over time, increased my sense of wonder and of the sublime—of the godhead at work in the world and in art. I don’t think for human beings there is any “outside” of religions and cults—isn’t modern capitalism religious in its views on “progress,” “growth” and expanding GDPs where greed has become an ethical imperative devoted to the calling of making money?

BPD: You portray a moving sex scene between Emilio and another migrant. The scene occurs in the wake of her being violated on the journey, and her stress around her physical and spiritual healing is part of what makes the scene emotive. There is hesitation in her voice, “anxiety filling it up like water does a glass.” Multiple times Emilio makes sure to wait for her consent after stating his desires. “I want to see you, feel your skin against mine, and she says okay.” I found this scene important because, despite overwhelming rates of domestic and intimate partner violence in this country, there is a dearth of literature on “co-surviving,” on what it means to have a relationship with another when one or more parties struggle with the weight of previous abuse. Thank you for addressing this. Would you like to comment on the scene, on where Emilio is at in this point of the story, or on how care and companionship can heal?

MAM: There is an old Marvin Gaye song where he sings something simple and beautiful about how loving “helps to relieve the mind, and it's good for us.” I think that erotic life has the capacity to give great pleasure, connection, ecstasy—and like Gaye sings in “Sexual Healing,” to be a “medicine” in that sense. Perhaps like all medicines, it can be curative or poison—depending on its use and users. I think the way Diotima explains it to Socrates in Plato’s Symposium remains true: In physical passion there must be devotion to the beloved for eros to be of a transcendent nature.

BPD: In ending The New American—the first ending, we might say—you address what stories can do, their strengths as compared to dates and statistics but also their limitations compared to movies. Why write a novel in a time when “no one reads books anymore”?

MAM: A good question! For one, I love books, and reading, and can’t imagine a meaningful or enjoyable life without them. And at the end of the day, and despite my own doubts at times, writing makes me happy. This book, however, is very different from others I’ve written, much more ‘driven’ by the plot as it moves forward in time—and in some ways unfolded in my imagination as a series of moving images.

And it goes without saying that books are not written only for the year they are published, but, if they endure, for the readers who have not even been born, or for their time of translation into another language and culture. There are so many books which I feel were written for me, even if they were made hundreds of years ago in Spanish, Ancient Greek, Armenian, or Japanese. As with every book I’ve undertaken, I wrote it because I felt an urgency to do so, because I wanted to inquire more deeply into its subject. Nothing else could keep me in my chair for the years it takes a book to find final form.

BPD: In many ways The New American is about dreams. It takes “a tragedy” for Emilio to change his major from economics to history and to pick up a minor in film studies. When I talk to my students, I am often surprised by an overwhelming pre-professionalism. Can stories shift dreams away from professional futures, corporate jobs that reproduce the push factors driving Emilio and so many others north? Would you count yourself among advocates reclaiming amateurism, the love (amare) of work that is behind that word?

MAM: The university has, as many before me have remarked, become a place of hyper-specialization, training for particular professions, and less one where students are expected to study deeply and broadly in multiple disciplines—history, languages, art, philosophy, math, and the natural sciences. While I’m sure there are benefits for students to prepare themselves for future careers—and who doesn’t want their students to find jobs after college?—there are losses: the biggest might be having less ability to see larger, cross-disciplinary patterns. The divides of disciplines themselves are an invention after all, one that inhibits an understanding of connections, of synthesis, of seeing what Baudelaire called “correspondences”—which seems to me one of the most interesting and exciting things about scholarship and study. One of the main pleasures of being alive, I think, is tied to the excitement of coming to know, and part of what I love about writing novels is that each one inquires into various things I’m curious about and would like to know better. I also think that the imagination ought to be appreciated as an important part of our acumen and intelligence—for how can we come to know something that is not yet known except by way of our imaginative capacity (by which I don’t mean fantasy)? How can we otherwise “see” beyond the visible world into the invisible and intelligible one?

BPD: In a beautiful reflection from June of this year, you inquired into how languages and fonts have travelled in relation to “larger migrations, connections, and hybridities.” At the end of The New American, you present “the boy who will be Mam and Chorotega, Spanish, and French. The mixing of blood on this land continues.” What is the status of mixing across your work?

MAM: I love all the beautiful mixing, hybridity, multiplicity, manifestations of culture, knowledge, and life—human and non-human. Notions of blood purity, like linguistic, cultural, or racial purity, are of course fictions, but ones that can become established ideology, as history teaches, can invade minds like a virus, and are often used to justify domination and conquest. That’s one of the reasons I love the novel: it’s like one big garbage bin, with room for everything including the detritus! As long as the pattern of the book, or form, can “hold” it together.

And I remain curious about all the many ways in which knowledge, technology, and stories have migrated and continue to migrate and metamorphose across space and time. Something as familiar, for example, as the fairy tale we know as “Cinderella” had early iterations in ancient Greece and China, can be found in the 1001 Nights in Arabic, later appears in 17th century Italy and France, was included in the Grimm brothers’ collection in Germany in the 1800s, and eventually became adapted as the Disney animated feature for children in 1950 that I watched in Los Angeles in the 1970s as a young girl.

BPD: A line stayed with me from your 2008 novel Draining the Sea, that “inside America there is always a story about Europe, just as inside freedom there is always a story about slavery.” Your work has cut across geography as much as it speaks to the highest ideals and the lowest practices in the history of this country. Can you say more about these stories within stories?

MAM: Perhaps it is that we human beings who possess language and for whom language, and story, are fundamental—to the creations of cultures, religions, histories, and nations—must remember that it is so. So much of what we “see” and think of as reality is a set of accepted ideas of an age, some of which alter in time, and then there are those stories that endure, that encode a longer-lasting wisdom and truth. As it says in the Yogavasistha, quoted by the great synthesizer and thinker Roberto Calasso in his book Ka, “The world is like the impression left by the telling of a story.”

BPD: You are the founder and creative director of the New American Story Project. That’s important. Can you tell our readers something about the work you are doing?

MAM: As I did research for The New American I sought, as I often do, to read or listen to stories of individuals who had had the experience of migrating across Mexico themselves. And while there was a certain amount of journalistic coverage, mostly via Mexican and Central American or Spanish language press, there was very little in the way of first-person recounting. For both personal reasons (my grandmother was a child refugee in Lebanon after the Armenian genocide and I wish that someone had at that time recorded her story and other refugees like her) and aesthetic ones (I am a great admirer of Svetlana Alexievich’s oral literature work), I came eventually to found the New American Story Project. NASP is an online digital project currently dedicated to recording the stories of unaccompanied minors from Central America. In addition to those stories, there are interviews with scholars, immigration attorneys, human rights activists, and others to give a greater context both historically and actually to the causes and realities of this modern-day refugee crisis on our southern border. I think of NASP as a “novel in voices”—a choral, multi-dimensional way to tell a complex, emergent story—and a living archive of testimony, data, and expert analysis.

BPD: I have been talking recently with friends who are writers and artists about what we do not say, what we leave out, in our work. Sometimes we wish we would have made our point more clearly, in plainer language. Other times we wish we would have had the courage to argue for the contrarian points we hold closer to us. And of course we almost never have the opportunity to speak back to our former selves and their critics. So I will give you that opportunity. Is there anything from your work you want to emphasize to close?

MAM: There are many things I think, opinions I have, points I want to make—but, at the risk of sounding coy: I know that the novels I write are not the place for them. Novels, as aesthetic works, require a certain discipline in that sense. In a way I always have to get my ego out of the way when writing to be in service to the story itself—its truths, its contradictions even, its ambiguities and paradox—and to do so without moralizing as much as I can. And then of course a book has a pattern, a coherence and unity, a final form that must be attended to for it to work as imaginative literature.

Over time I have come to understand that literature, again to quote Calasso, is never the product of a single subject but is always the product of three actors: “the hand that writes, the voice that speaks, the god who watches over and compels.”

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Faster: How a Jewish Driver, an American Heiress, and a Legendary Car Beat Hitler's Best

Neal Bascomb
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt ($28)

by Samir Knego

In the world of motorsport, it's sometimes said that a particularly fast drive will “look slow.” Neal Bascomb mimics this in his writing as he takes the reader through a given lap; rather than emphasizing its speed, he breaks the lap down to focus on the details of the track, scenery, and driver action. After laying out each gear shift and swerve in painstaking detail, the impressive speed of the lap hits all the harder when Bascomb pans away and says it took just one minute, fifty-two seconds to complete.

Both thoroughly researched and packed with visceral action, Faster tells the story of René Dreyfus, Lucy Schnell, and the Delahaye 145—the Jewish driver, American heiress, and legendary car of the subtitle. Because they are all underdogs socially as well as technologically, Bascomb argues for the symbolic importance of their win against their Nazi-backed (and staffed) competitors.

Bascomb is interested in the power of stories and remembering, and he frames the book partly in reaction to the Nazi attempt to erase French racing history. Early on in the occupation of France, Nazi officers visited the Automobile Club de France archives and seized all the files. To the librarian, the Gestapo officer in charge said: “Go home and never return here, or you’ll be arrested. We will write the history now.”

To those who doubt the importance of race cars amidst the other events of pre-World War II Europe, Bascomb makes clear the rhetorical value of motorsport and wins. Even before having fully taken power in Germany, Hitler saw Grand Prix racing as key to the Nazi cause, both as a recruitment tool and as a proving ground for Aryan supremacy and the Nazi government. The Nazis funneled significant amounts of funding to German automakers, and for several years German teams were unbeatable in part because they were able to outspend other manufacturers by miles.

Led by team leader, funder, and occasional rally racer Lucy Schnell, the French Delahaye team attempted to challenge this status quo. The story reaches its climax with the 1938 Pau Grand Prix, where René Dreyfus won in the Delahaye, becoming the first driver and car to beat the Nazi-backed teams in several years. Going into this final chapter, the modern reader is as sure that Dreyfus will win as the German teams had been confident of winning in the preceding years. It should be a moment of triumph, but amidst the clear symbolic power of the Delahaye win there is an air of melancholy, since we know what is to come in Europe and beyond.

After the high of the decisive win at Pau, the Delahaye had another Grand Prix win before German cars swept the rest of the season. Bascomb notes that the Delahaye never really lived up to expectations; from a purely technical perspective, the story is one of failure, or at least mediocrity. But the larger story Bascomb tells is not one of engineering prowess, but of people and the symbols they hold dear.

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We Ride Upon Sticks

Quan Barry
Pantheon ($26.95)

by Jaime Miller

In We Ride Upon Sticks, Quan Barry seamlessly fuses two topics that seemingly couldn’t be further apart: witchcraft and women’s field hockey. With her stunning characterization and a picture-perfect glimpse into the rivalry and friendship involved in high school sports, Barry pulls the reader right out of 2020 and pushes them into Danvers, Massachusetts, circa 1988.

One might assume that a hockey stick and a witch’s broom would have nothing in common; Barry proves that assumption very, very wrong. She constructs a playful “zero to hero” story about the team at Danvers High School, detailing the experiences of the players as they start dipping their toes into witchcraft, signing their names in a notebook that will supposedly help them get some wins. The narrative follows the team as they see how far the “magic” will take them if they keep pushing. From pulling fire alarms to beating cars with their hockey sticks, the girls grow more and more committed to keeping their magic—and their winning streak—alive.

Barry skillfully constructs distinct personalities for more than eleven different characters in this novel. Describing one of the team members, Barry says, “it was like she had constructed a wall to keep us out, a sunroom off the kitchen where she could sit and drink her Earl Grey in peace while the rest of us crowded around a plate of stale bagels in the breakfast nook.”

Barry’s experience playing on the 1989 Danvers High School women’s field hockey team proves to be invaluable for her novel; the bond between all eleven members of the women’s hockey team (featuring one boy) are perfect depictions of the love and rivalry that all teammates feel when playing a sport at a public high school. Bus rides are chances to have a “real honest-to-god talk, not Hollywood propaganda, not tonight-on-a-very-special-episode-of-agitprop” about sex and “Gatherings” were really just bonfires with some alcohol and dancing. Even though their Gatherings involve someone playing the role of priestess and the occasional Ouija board, the spirit of their meetups boils down to a typical high school party.

Even the magic elements of this novel have a very “high school” feel. The witchcraft begins with strips of a sweaty blue gym sock, a purple gel pen, and a notebook featuring a picture of Emilio Estevez on the cover. Living in a town so close to the home of the infamous Salem Witch Trials, it’s only natural that students at Danvers High School dabble in the dark arts, especially in the 1980s; by making witchcraft a playful, improvised, last-ditch effort of the team to win some games, Barry makes it believable and hilarious.

We Ride Upon Sticks, which seems like a funny little book about teenage witches, provides a useful glimpse into the depth of the relationships on sports teams and what public high school puts teenagers through. For anyone looking for a truly unique book that has them laughing throughout and tearing up by the end, Barry’s latest novel is the perfect read.

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Wanting Everything:
The Collected Works

Gladys Hindmarch
edited by Deanna Fong & Karis Shearer
Talonbooks ($29.95)

by Patrick James Dunagan

For the past several decades, Vancouver British Columbia has played host to a lively poetry scene that in many ways mirrors the one 1500 kilometers down the Pacific coast in San Francisco. The beginnings of the Vancouver scene date back to the late 1950s, when recent University of California graduates Warren and Ellen Tallman began hosting informal gatherings in their home with Warren’s University of British Columbia students. This led directly to key developments, including the founding of the highly influential small press poetry magazine Tish (which was followed by a plethora of other Vancouver magazines and presses over the years) and the groundbreaking 1963 Vancouver Poetry Conference. Major poet-figures of the period such as Robert Creeley, Charles Olson, Philip Whalen, Robert Duncan, Robin Blaser, and Jack Spicer all made significant appearances—often staying with the Tallmans, who hosted infamous parties and used their home as a makeshift venue for events.

Since the earliest Vancouver gatherings, Gladys Hindmarch has been an active participant. Wanting Everything brings together both published and unpublished works along with several interviews and oral histories discussing the scene and memorable individuals involved, providing a remarkable testament to the vast extent her life has been intrinsically rooted within the local poetry community. As a student of Tallman’s, Hindmarch spent many afternoons at the Tallman home that stretched into evening dinners. While never officially an editor of Tish, she was nonetheless an integral contributor to the discussions from which it arose. Even if, as the editors here note, Warren Tallman felt that “the literary action that takes place in the domestic space of the house, involving Ellen Tallman and Hindmarch, is a kind of private history that doesn’t belong in print or the public record,” Hindmarch never took such judgment too much to heart and pragmatically continued pursuing her own writing, regardless of any lack of public acknowledgment by men in the literary circles through which she moved. As she says in an interview with the editors, “I’m drawn to poetry, because why else would I put up with those guys?”

Although Hindmarch’s relationship to the poetry scene is an intractable, central preoccupation, poetry per se is not a central concern of this book; poets as personalities, however, undoubtedly are. After all, Hindmarch is not herself a poet but rather a writer of fiction—yet her clipped prose reads as a poet’s might, focused on the immediacy of physical space and event, as in this passage from her linked short story collection The Watery Part of The World:

A mop next to my eye, wet, through the porthole from the fiddley, twirling. I get up, move to the side, stand next to the railing and watch, without saying anything. The mop moves to the side, quickly, back to the other side, then up and down, more slowly, retreating, a small circle, then in.

As the editors put it in their Introduction: “her location among poets is obvious. Hindmarch’s work embodies the notion of proprioception that was so central to the poetics of the TISH group and other experimental writing in the West Coast tradition. In her writing, ‘sensibility within the organism’ is revisited as a feminist stance that connects the experience of the body. . . with a keen observational reading of situations, the self, and others, played out in sentences carefully constructed and as rhythmic as verse.”

In Hindmarch’s writing, the body indeed takes a prominent role, both centering the text and seamlessly pivoting the reader’s attention to an awareness of the writer’s gender:

Up the ladder. Ocean air comes down and through my greasy uniform, slaps my face, neck, arms, chest, my belly as I near the opening. The salt air touches/surrounds all of me as I step out into it. I breathe deeply. Salt air in as ribs move out. I float at the bottom of this heavy ocean, glide along the blood-red floor. I want to merge with the real ocean, yellow and green, to fall into it. That’s too easy. Not at all. Stay here in air.

Childbirth, motherhood, and breast cancer all appear along with cooking, sex, and friendship. These are elemental forces at play in her life, yet they do not define her life and certainly do not define her writing.

In 1965, after a number of successful visits and events in Vancouver, Jack Spicer came under serious contention for a position at then newly founded Simon Fraser University. When he unexpectedly passed away at home in San Francisco, his close friend Robin Blaser, another significant figure in the San Francisco poetry scene, took his place, permanently relocating to Vancouver. Hindmarch stresses the impact Spicer and Blaser had upon her own work and the larger Canadian scene:

I would say that my stories, the boat stories which became The Watery Part of the World, and The Peter Stories would be affected by Jack; and then, to some extent, A Birth Account, where I just let those things come, in just like moments, and there was no revision (and he’s strongly against revision). . . I’d say he had probably a very healthy and strong effect on much of the writing here, and in Canadian poetry in general. So when people say, “It’s all Black Mountain,” I say, “No, you have to say Black Mountain and Jack Spicer.” And Robin Blaser, too, who came to teach up here.

Hindmarch’s body of work is remarkable not only for being one among many of consequence by the Vancouver figures who flourished during this period, but also for supplying an example of a largely untold backstory undergirding that scene. While a stellar creative achievement, it is also a lasting contribution to Women’s Studies as well as the broader cultural, social, and literary history of Vancouver and Canada writ large.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2020-2021 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2020-2021

Words are the enemy of Writers: An Interview with Richard Kalich

by Brian Evenson

Richard Kalich has been a finalist for the Pen/Faulkner Award, a winner of the New American Award, and a nominee for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. His second novel, The Nihilesthete (Permanent Press, 1987) was declared “one of the most powerful books of the decade” by the San Francisco Chronicle. Narrated by a caseworker obsessed with a quadriplegic who becomes his ward—and whom he alternately tries to help realize his artistic ambitions and to destroy—it is the first book in Kalich’s Central Park West Trilogy, which also includes Charlie P (Green Integer, 2005) and Penthouse F (Green Integer, 2010), both of which take up the investigation of the relationship of life and art begun in The Nihilesthete. In Charlie P , which Sven Birkerts calls “delightfully dark, sardonic, playful,” the titular character decides he will be able to live forever by not living at all, by living only in his mind. Penthouse F ups the ante by including a character named Kalich, and the metafictional novel—which American Book Review called “akin to the best work of Paul Auster in terms of its readability without sacrificing its intelligence of experiment”—is about both his novel in progress and the death of two children in his apartment.

Kalich’s latest novel, The Assisted Living Facility Library (Green Integer, $19.95) is also about a character named Kalich (perhaps the same Kalich, perhaps not) as he simultaneously works on a novel about a young boy and his schizophrenic mother and prepares to go into an assisted living facility, a prospect which requires him to narrow his library to 100 books. In a blurb on the back, Brian Evenson calls it “experimental fiction at its best and most human”; I (perhaps the same Brian Evenson, perhaps not) interviewed Kalich to plumb this thought a little further.

Brian Evenson: You've published five novels. The last two in particular have a metafictional quality, and seem at times to be drawing on, or commenting on, your own life—Penthouse F for instance, has a writer named Richard Kalich in it, as does The Assisted Living Facility Library, which also incorporates photographs, letters, and emails from the actual Richard Kalich's life. What's your sense of the relationship of fiction to life, and how has it changed as you've moved forward in your career? Has exploring that relationship become more important to you as you've aged?

Richard Kalich: Fusing fiction and life has become one of my major concerns in recent fictions—but that statement deserves context. My first novel, The Zoo, was an allegory taking place in Animal World. Its concern was the loss of inner life in our human world and I dramatized this by having animals expressing inner life being zoo'd by the nefarious tyrant leader of Animal World. By the end of the narrative, hardly was there a bird left that soared much less flew; all animals knew their place and stayed on the ground or below.

Next came The Nihilesthete, where I depicted a man with no body, no mind, no language except a cat's meow, and showed this person to be an artist, possessing the most significant dimension humans can have, spiritual fecundity, and which I felt our world was fast losing. I paired my character, Brodski, against his arch enemy, Haberman, a dried up civil servant who never realized his existential possibilities and for whom Brodski serves as a mirror, revealing to him all he was not.

Eighteen years later I found the courage to write my next novel, Charlie P . That post-modern comedy represents my turning point as a novelist; my coming to grips with the limitations of language and traditional narrative ploys such as plot, coherence, continuity.

Penthouse F followed. Though the metaphoric image came to me the day I finished writing The Nihilesthete, I didn't find the courage to write the novel for another twenty years. Penthouse F allowed me to incorporate concerns that still obsess me today, and that, as you say, readers will find in The Assisted Living Facility Library. The fusion of art and life. Indeed, my narrator's name, Richard Kalich, demonstrates this unbending linkage in extremis. Penthouse F's central concern is how the Image has usurped the Word and in so doing has diminished our sense of self even further. The narrative shows Kalich unable to distinguish between the real and the images he sees on screen, of a boy and girl, and how he lives his life as a voyeur, in his mind—along with the attendant dangers of doing so.

In The Assisted Living Facility Library, I went even further, hardly distinguishing between character and narrator, both deemed Richard Kalich; I made every effort I could to show Kalich's life's concerns and the narrator's fictional concerns as one. His love of books, his constant questioning to understand and transcend his mind/body split. Why can he write so subversively, create such demonic characters, and yet only live his life timidly, bookishly, in his mind? Or, as his twin brother lambasts him almost daily, live only half a life. Approaching the end of the novel I had no idea how to end it—and then I had a dream, and fortunately I had the writer's instinct to follow the dream. The dream allowed me to achieve something that was heretofore existentially impossible. It allowed me not only to dramatize this author's most vulnerable and human side, but also to resolve and transcend my own mind/body split.

BE: One of the other impulses I see in your later fiction is a kind of stripping down. You have an ability to make the most of small gestures, to see what you can do without and still have a satisfying piece of fiction. I see that in David Markson's late work as well: a careful focus on details that most other writers might not even think to mention and a disregard for most of the things that people think fiction should do: plot, for instance. There's not a plot in the traditional sense in The Assisted Living Facility Library—or if there is, it's very attenuated. And yet we learn a great deal about this character through the very simple but humane act of him thinking about the things, books in particular, that surround him.

RK: Yes, I agree. And all that is designated by my mantra: “Words are the enemy of Writers.” Or perhaps more particularly in our life experience: Words have become the enemy of Writers.

BE: Can you talk a little more about that? Writers, of course, have to use words, which may mean that the act of writing always risks consorting with the enemy. How does one use words without being used by them? And what, as a writer, do you hope to use them for?

RK: In my youth, ages seventeen to twenty-two, I revered Thomas Mann. I must have read everything he wrote or that was written about him. And when I wrote my first novel at age twenty-six, it was only logical that I write it in the High German style that Mann had mastered. However, I had the proverbial “rude awakening” when my twin read my manuscript and said: “This is the worst piece of self-conscious, constipated shit I've ever read in my life.” It took another fourteen years for me to write my first published novel, and to write it in my own voice. With a sense of levity today, I can say I blame Thomas Mann for costing me all those years. But more honestly it was my nature—a near-fatal belief system that believed in the Absolute, raised The Word to the transcendent realm.

Once published, I commenced to repeat the phrase to all who would listen, mostly writer friends. Most scoffed, some smiled ironically, but had little or no idea what I meant.

As the years progressed, my use of words became less rather than more. Instead of obsessive modernist detail and the omniscient narrator, I turned to metafiction. I honed in on clarity, economy, precision, and accountability to not only myself, the writer, but first and foremost to the reader. My mantra became writing is dialogue, not monologue; communal sharing, not self-referential isolationism. I ceased with forced or even purposeful embellishment and poesy.

And now with the digital culture reigning supreme, the image supplanting The Word, Transcendence turning to Contingency, ontology itself (our self-world relationship) destabilized, the Self, interiority, and depth gone or at least attenuated, and without them concentration, books, deep thought, and literary culture fast sinking into oblivion, it seems I was right. Alas, I was right. And so I decided to use words rather than have words use me.

And yet all the above is not to say I love words less—if anything, I love them more. For now each and every word I say means precisely what I mean it to say, or as close to “precisely” as I can get, and I feel I've held up my end of the bargain with the reader, our social contract. More importantly, we both have a chance to communicate and understand each other.

BE: So many people seem to want to see writing as giving you something you can pluck out and use in another context. But if I understand you, you’re suggesting that writing is more like establishing a relationship with a reader.

RK: Yes. The way I understand it, the writer and reader are in the midst of an existential encounter, engaged and open to each other and words are their bridge to reach the other side—the Other Side being mutuality, dialogue, and as close to becoming One as they can get. The writer uses words to cross the bridge to the reader and the reader surrenders himself to those words to cross the bridge to the writer. If the words are chosen well enough, if the bridge is constructed soundly enough, reader and writer have a chance to meet.

BE: I read your books in the order they were published, coming on The Nihilesthete by accident in a little bookstore in Oklahoma in the late ’90s and then reading each book in turn as it came out. With the possible exception of The Zoo, I see all your books as talking to one another, as part of a larger conversation. Do you think reading Penthouse F is likely to change how readers view The Nihilesthete or that The Assisted Living Facility Library will shift a reader’s sense of Charlie P? To what extent is the task of each of your books to complicate our understanding of the books that came before?

RK: I agree, and I would add that the conversations are always a kind of ongoing inner dialogue between Kalich, the writer, and the actual Kalich. Or perhaps another way of viewing them is as a continuum. Since that first novel of mine you read, I've grown, matured, evolved intellectually—even to some small extent emotionally—and I've tried to dramatize these progressions in my various novels. Better yet, these progressions, this continuum, took the liberty of dramatizing itself.

But, still, how much do we really change? My guess is there is always a sense of powerlessness in the ongoing battle of this particular problematic man, Richard Kalich, towards individuation. And so, when past middle age and having tossed away so many years on a self-defeating romance as well as squandering them by not writing, by not living my life to the full, I wrote Charlie P, a novel about a man who lives his life by not living it. This novel shows humor, playfulness, levity, perspective, and distance; and it exhibits, both in form and content, a novelist experiencing a sense of jubilation for having finally set himself (as well as his character) free.

Next came Penthouse F—a novel I couldn't hold in or put off any longer when digital culture and the image were gaining such a foothold in our lives. But look closely and you will see my villainous character from The Nihilesthete, Haberman, transplanted to the author/character Richard Kalich, and who in this now screen-dominated world plays his comparable dastardly games with the boy and girl on screen. So, yes, though there are plot and thematic changes from novel to novel, at their core my books do talk to each other.

As to The Assisted Living Facility Library, my concern was to create an autofiction about my lifelong love of books and my just-as-lifelong terror of art and fear of judgement. But as I've spoken about this book earlier, all I’ll say here is that I hope that dream I had which gave me the ending to my novel is as much a surprise to the reader as it was to its author. Though buried and not to be seen, except possibly as a glimmer, in any of my other books, it’s been inside me; it's been there all the time.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2020-2021 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2020-2021

The Girl from Widow Hills

Megan Miranda
Simon & Schuster ($26.99)

by Erin Lewenauer

Megan Miranda’s fourth novel for adults is another insightful, literary, and suspenseful mystery, inspired by the story of “Baby Jessica”: Jessica McClure Morales who fell into a well in Texas in 1987 at eighteen months and survived for the fifty-six hours it took to free her. In the novel, Arden Maynor was six when she was swept away by a rainstorm while sleepwalking; she clung to a storm drain and was found alive after three days by passerby Sean Coleman. It was a miracle, they said. Yet each anniversary brought new judgment and new pain—partly because Arden’s mother “was tragic until she was neglectful”—so Arden changed her name to Olivia and kept moving.

Now in her mid-twenties, Arden lives in shiny Central Valley, Kentucky, a place that “required more of an active process. It attracted a certain type of person, outdoorsy and weatherproof. Who would trade convenience for adventure. Stability for curiosity." She moved there with her boyfriend and liked the fresh-start feeling of the town, but recently she can’t help but think “that all of us were really only one degree from the start of a slide. Something that worms its way inside and refuses to release you. A simple thing at first, that you can’t ignore and can’t shake. Until it permeates everything. Until you can think only in terms of this one simple thing—its presence or its absence—driving you slowly mad.” Just before the twentieth anniversary of the defining incident in Arden’s childhood, she wakes up with the corpse of a man from her past at her feet. Detective Rigby is on the case, but it’s one that only Arden can solve, dredging up the ugly truth found in the past.

Megan Miranda is the master of asking what happens if one removes one’s self from one’s own story, of exploring the science of therapy and thumbing through the foggy past. Her regular readers will see shadows of women from her other books, but this plot, even more than the others, contains strong horror elements and a heroine with a shock of silver running through her soul. In this satisfyingly chilling read, Miranda once again envelops readers in dark glimpses of tortured interior lives. She crafts a story more about where you're from than where you're going, and how the truth can be slippery as rain. As Arden states, “you could hold two versions of the truth—and yourself—in your hand at the same time, and both could be completely real.”

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2020-2021 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2020-2021

Stranger by Night

Edward Hirsch
Alfred A. Knopf ($27)

by Bhisham Bherwani

Edward Hirsch has enjoyed a fecund career not only as a poet, but also as a critic, a teacher, an editor, and a public advocate of poetry. His life and work informed by artists and writers, he has embraced many to great effect in his poetry collections, beginning with 1981’s For the Sleepwalkers; most recently, 2014’s Gabriel contained a modern Lament for the Makers of parent-poets who had lost one or more of their children.

The title poem of Hirsch’s tenth book, Stranger by Night, begins:

After I lost
my peripheral vision
I started getting sideswiped
by pedestrians cutting
in front of me
almost randomly
like memories
I couldn’t see coming

If the literary figures who surfaced in the earlier books populated Hirsch’s peripheral, Stranger by Night is guided by his central vision. Here, he solitarily navigates a personal history, recalling forebears, friends, and lovers, and only occasionally conjuring canonical makers, mostly offhandedly (e.g., “Shelley’s / bright destructions”).

Erudition worn lightly, the mature poet takes life’s convolutions in stride and on his terms. In the opening poem, a partially tongue-in-cheek piece titled “My Friends Don’t Get Buried,” he zeroes in on hypocrisy:

their wives
can’t stand the sadness
of funerals, the spectacle
of wreaths and prayers, tear-soaked
speeches delivered from the altar,
all those lies and encomiums,
the suffocating smell of flowers,
filling everything.

“A House of Good Stone” manifests another kind of ripened perspective, if not reconciliation:

I wonder now
why I was so invested
in arguing
with my exemplars
who couldn’t care less
about Social Credit or usury
or all that nasty blather
about Jews,
but loved Cathay,
the way I did

The Jewish poet’s conflict between Ezra Pound's art and anti-Semitism invokes identity on intimate terms, rather than through the objective correlatives of history and biography, as in “Two Suitcases of Children's Drawings from Terezin, 1941–1944” (Lay Back the Darkness) and “Soutine: A Show of Still Lifes” (Special Orders).

Flanked by graveyard poems, Stranger by Night suggests a round-trip journey through the underworld. In “In Memory of Mark Strand,” early in the book, the bus driver to the funeral is “a figure from a myth” entrusted with “marking the passage to the other world.” Exhumed by memory, the dead are never far from life, the boundary between the two tenuous: “The silence / drums us from the other side” in “My Friends Don’t Get Buried,” and “A Small Tribe” animatedly resuscitates Hirsch’s enterprising and idealistic itinerant predecessors.

“The Keening,” “a plea from the dead / suddenly burning inside me,” draws the taciturn poet’s attention to his vocation as a necessary chronicler of grief, “walking the hall with a notebook / as if I belonged here, as if / I had something else to report.” He finds the enterprise uncompromising and exacting: “The dying goes on, it never stops” and “it’s time / for someone else to mourn / my dead, / though who else can do it?” he says in the book’s last two poems.

“The Guild,” “The Task” (“You never expected / to spend so many hours / staring down an empty sheet / of lined paper”), and “Every Poem Was a Secret,” among others, explore the poet’s life-as-artist and craft. “I Rang the Bell,” evoking one of the teenager Hirsch’s jobs—several poems recall these grueling gigs—concludes presciently by relating a nightmare of a runaway freight train:

I pulled a bookcase
down on my body
and woke up
to find my parents
frightened in the hallway
and my books—
or was it my future?—
scattered on the floor.

The tempo of the plainspoken, anecdotal poems—many a single sentence, most with short, lightly punctuated lines—makes of Hirsch’s journey a kind of slideshow (“cutting . . . randomly / like memories”), the past revived in different ways: “Let’s get off the bus / in 1979,” “I climbed the stairs / and took the ‘L’ / to 1965,” “I rang the bell / to the past / and the owner let me in.” Several poems (one titled “To My Seventeen-Year-Old Self”) address the younger Hirsch in the second person, allowing the speaker an objective—emotionally safer?—distance from recollections. Several assert experience in the imperative: “Don’t look for the Warsaw Ghetto.” While a few transitions, such as “and all at once / I was catapulted back,” are deliberate, elsewhere we’re immediately situated in Hirsch’s history (“I strolled down Nevsky Prospekt / on a snowy morning”), regardless of tense (“Moon-head is shouting at me / to back the fuck up / on the forklift”).

From a group of luminous poems about Hirsch’s early teaching, “Windber Field” is especially edifying, depicting the mimesis in early attempts at art—the outcome of his handing out Wilfred Owen’s “Miners,” a poem about needless deaths motivated by a coal-mining accident. “Soon,” writes Hirsch of his students in Pennsylvania,

they were writing
about smokeless coal
and black seams
in the ground, the terror
of firedamp, the Rolling Mill
Mine Disaster in Johnstown

Two close calls with disaster involve a young, foolhardy Hirsch. “Don’t Hitchhike,” set in Algeria—where “Annaba / is plagued by gangsters / like Al Capone / and Baby Face Nelson, / who used machine guns / to shoot up your hometown”—ends in a hospital (“you have the scar to prove it”). In “Are You a Narc?” the speaker, twenty-four, makes little of being casually sized up in a dive:

and so you sat down
at the bar next to a woman
in a postal uniform
who advised you
to make the smart play
and leave forty bucks
on the counter
and head for the door
while you could still walk.

Compiled without sections (thematic or otherwise), and with reminiscences by turns humorous and serious, unassuming and insightful, Stranger by Night is Hirsch’s most loosely structured collection. Instead of the calculated inquiry of previous volumes, it is a culling of reflections that offers glimpses into the formative experiences and encounters of a prolific poet with an enviable career.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2020-2021 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2020-2021

Winter 2020-2021

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


The Human Journey: An Interview with Micheline Aharonian Marcom
Novelist Micheline Aharonian Marcom here discusses her latest book, The New American, which follows the epic story of a Guatemalan-American college student who attempts to return to California following his banal, but brutal, deportation.
Interviewed By Benjamin P. Davis

Words are the enemy of Writers: An Interview with Richard Kalich
Award-winning novelist Richard Kalich discusses his desire to fuse fiction and life in the accreting oeuvre of his work, including his latest novel, The Assisted Living Facility Library.
Interviewed by Brian Evenson


Pandemic Reflections on Beyond Your Doorstep by Hal Borland
As the pandemic forced everyone indoors last spring, one reader found himself drawn to earthy prose that offered an effective counterweight to the daily death tolls and global anxieties.
By John Toren


Wanting Everything: The Collected Works
Gladys Hindmarch
edited by Deanna Fong & Karis Shearer
This collection of published and unpublished works, interviews, and oral histories provides a remarkable testament to Hindmarch’s life and rootedness in the literary community of Vancouver British Columbia. Reviewed by Patrick James Dunagan


We Ride Upon Sticks
Quan Barry
In her new novel, Quan Barry seamlessly fuses two topics that seemingly couldn’t be further apart: witchcraft and women’s field hockey. Reviewed by Jaime Miller

The Girl from Widow Hills
Megan Miranda
Megan Miranda’s fourth novel for adults is another insightful, literary, and suspenseful mystery, inspired by the story of “Baby Jessica,” who survived falling down a well in 1987. Reviewed by Erin Lewenauer


Prairie Architecture
Monica Barron
The first collection from a seasoned poet of place, Monica Barron’s Prairie Architecture embodies the rural Missouri college town where she teaches. Reviewed by Andy Harper

Stranger by Night
Edward Hirsch
In his tenth volume of poems, the 70-year-old Hirsch navigates a personal history, recalling forebears, friends, and lovers, as well as the ever-present reminder of mortality. Reviewed by Bhisham Bherwani


Faster: How a Jewish Driver, an American Heiress, and a Legendary Car Beat Hitler's Best
Neal Bascomb
A tribute to the power of stories and remembering, Faster argues for the symbolic importance of the underdogs beating their Nazi-backed competitors in the 1938 Pau Grand Prix. Reviewed by Samir Knego

Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and its Urgent Lessons for Our Own
Eddie S. Glaude Jr.
Weaving Baldwin’s story with his own, Glaude has constructed a narrative of psychic anguish and the heroic resistance of the heart, issuing a piercing call to the American conscience. Reviewed by Mike Dillon