Tag Archives: Winter 1997

The Stars, The Earth, The River

The Stars, The Earth, The River by Le Minh KhueLe Minh Khue
Curbstone Press ($12.95)

by Brian Foye

Near the end of “A Small Tragedy,” one of fourteen stories in Le Minh Khue's The Stars, the Earth, the River, a young man named Quang runs away from the woman he loves and hurriedly boards the Reunification Express. He is a French citizen of Vietnamese birth, but he's been forced to leave Hanoi for private reasons: his fiancée's father, it turns out, is also his biological father. Quang, the father, and the story's narrator (a newspaper reporter and cousin to this troubled family) are the ones who have pieced together Quang's identity. In the end the narrator receives a telegram that Quang has committed suicide in a distant hotel room. “Perhaps,” says the narrator, “behind every happiness or every sorrow lies the imprint of a culture.”

Le Minh Khue's stories from contemporary Vietnam are imprinted with separation. The mark of her stories, the imaginative pattern that fixes nearly every one, can be found in the forces at work which put and keep people apart. One historical approach to Vietnam would consider thousands of years of struggle against China's dynastic rulers and a century of struggle against French colonial interests, but it's hard to deny that the American War in Vietnam is the great divisive force that demands recognition. The devastation of that conflict is undeniable, almost indescribable. And yet there are other forces, all divisive, at work in The Stars, the Earth, the River: the land reform movements of Vietnam; foolish or corrupt government officials; profound human evil; simple human frailty. Le Minh Khue's gift, in her richly textured stories, is to see that these many forces of separation are often layered and inseparable.

In stories such as “The Almighty Dollar” and “Scenes from an Alley,” desire for the wealth and status of the West are woven into the fabric of startlingly violent and desolate lives. The characters in these stories are savagely anomic, and their separation from one another is violently clear. In even her brightest stories, however, Khue's characters are often physically and emotionally adrift. There are stories of star-crossed love, as in “The Last Rain of the Monsoon,” “Fragile as a Sunray,” and “Rain,” where the momentary joy of deep connection is marked by years of absent-spirited separation. Even the physical landscapes of her stories—a construction site in the central region that once marked the divide between the two Vietnams, a village committee building in a roadside hamlet, or just some place away from home—emphasize the sense of dislocation. The Reunification Express, full of that dreary irony of old-style communism, chugs through more than one story in the collection.

There is, as ever, hope for connection. The act of living, of forging ahead, is often a place for hope, and if some of Khue's characters are doubly crossed by their hard lot in life and their aching desire for a better one, then their self-conceptions are often direct and concrete. “Almost every morning some inconvenience would upset me,”says the narrator of “A Day on the Road.””But why did I still cherish that life and hope every day that it would keep getting better? I hoped that my pen would improve, that my tires and inner tubes would become more durable, that the rice would have fewer stones and fewer husks, that the ceiling of our house wouldn't collapse from too many leaks, and that I wouldn't have to live with any mice.”

Published by Curbstone Press, this book is the first in a series called “Voices from Vietnam.”Promising work by at least nine Vietnamese writers and augmented by an ambitious educational and community outreach program, such a series can only add to our inter-cultural understanding. The imprint of Vietnamese culture surely rests in all forms of connection, and in the finest sense of what a writer can achieve, Le Minh Khue's deep vision of the cost of human separation points the way to a genuine reunification.

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Rain Taxi Print Edition, Vol. 2 No. 4, Winter (#8) | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1997

The Word "Desire"

The Word Desire by Rikki DucornetRikki Ducornet
Henry Holt ($22)

by Carolyn Kuebler

Desire glitters, gemlike, at the center of these tales, flashing its sharp edges and catching the reader's eye with its intense color, allure, and singularity. Desire, these stories seem to say, possesses everyone at least once in their lives, no matter how chaste and ascetic, young or old, naive, promiscuous, or neurotic. While the pursuit of desire may leave its afflicted in a muddle of humiliation and confusion, it may also place one on the brink of the divine. For Ducornet, desire takes many forms: it can be fueled by a vision from a dream or a book, driven by devout curiosity, or fired by love (or pure lust) for another human being. It is also, however, likely to be tangled up in disappointment, driven by fear, thwarted by social and political injustices or by one's own shortcomings.

In twelve stories that take place in many reaches of the world—India, Algeria, France, the U.S.—and in many periods of time, Rikki Ducornet explores “the many tenses of longing.” The frail father of the first story, thwarted by his robust wife's passion for life (and officers), desires the delicacy of carved ivory chess pieces, more baffled by the disorder of love than by the complexity of the game. A young boy, in “Roseveine,” wants nothing more than to capture the heart of his mother's friend, a woman who comes visiting with a mysterious collection of seashells and thwarts his father's perverse power by pissing a bright and subversive stream straight to his feet. In “Wormwood,” two children whisper stories and obscenities while an old man dies noisily in the bed nearby. The giddiness of children in the face of death, a man's quest for a four-armed divinity, a young woman's ill—fated marriage—Ducornet handles these scenarios with a voice that knowingly winks at the reader, swooning in the richness of language and imagery.

Ducornet's work has always been inspired by fairy tales and The Word “Desire” takes this proclivity even further. The short form, with its simple plot and quickly drawn characters, works to her advantage; she can set up and unravel a situation with shocking impact in no time at all, meanwhile remarking on the many faces of cultural and individual violence. Like fairy tales, these stories pulse with the latent forces of lust, death, sexuality, and ambition, and though the tales are often humorous, lurking beneath them all are darker forces that threaten to unravel any illusion of simple comfort or joy. Irreverent while at the same time utterly in awe of the powers of body and mind, Ducornet handles the brevity of the fairy tale form with the power of a skilled poet.

Christianity, and its ill-fated attempts to restrict (if not forbid) desire, is a particularly ripe topic for Ducornet's sometimes devilish imagination; she turns the ideal of holy chastity on its ear, as vows are broken and passions pursued. In one startling tale, a spoiled and dying old pope, high on opium, drinks human milk straight from the source. At the story's conclusion, Ducornet slashes at colonialism, religious hypocrisy, and the abuse of power with sweeping, linguistic fury. Instead of being heavy handed or pedantic, however, she takes on the voice of a bard, singing the woes of humankind, its wars and aspirations to immortality. Christianity takes another hit in “The Foxed Mirror,” the story of a bored and depressed young priest who spends one hour of passion with a dionysian (and blasphemous) painter, then lives the rest of his life in deep humiliation—not for this one great sin, but for his perpetual timidity in the face of life. What defeats him, finally, is not his succumbing to desire or even his devotion to the priesthood, but his refusal to live with any form of passion. The overly orderly woman of “The Neurosis of Containment” (a revealing enough title) not only forbids herself any physical passion, but attempts to ward off any intellectual adventure, eschewing ideas she deems Semitic, pagan, African, or unholy. The acute headache she develops, a ringing in the ears that sounds like “bees the size of . . . atoms, their wings . . . cymbals of brass,” is alleviated by a supernatural convocation with some very handsome angels; frightened and aroused, she runs from the scene of her “defilement,” the one moment in which her imagination overpowers her intellect and gives her a rare, if inexplicable, moment of pleasure. There is great danger in any religion (or government, or belief system) that denies desire, Ducornet seems to warn us. The demonization of nature, the denial of sexuality, and the refusal of new ideas all contribute to the destruction portrayed in stories like “Opium.” There is, of course, also danger in passion's pursuit. A moment of bliss is always tempered by its opposite. Nevertheless, these stories side with surrender, no matter how short-lived or futile.

While the desire for pleasure, for knowledge, or for adventure may hold her characters in its thrall, perhaps the greatest desire of all is for a language in which to speak of such things, for words to describe the wonders of the human heart and imagination and to unravel its dangers and duplicity. This desire informs every phrase of the book and accounts for its meticulous imagery. In light of this, the title suddenly seems most apt; it is for the words themselves that the most acute desire is expressed, the word “desire” being just another step toward a singular, passionate culmination.

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Rain Taxi Print Edition, Vol. 2 No. 4, Winter (#8) | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1997


Dra— by Stacey LevineStacey Levine
Sun & Moon Press ($11.95)

by Steve Tomasula

Being practical has always seemed a monstrous thing, Oscar Wilde once said, and Stacy Levine's new novel does a lot to prove he was right. Here is a world of workers in an industrialscape reminiscent of Eraserhead: it is dreamlike, if you dream in drab; the technology is monumental and spelled with a small 't'—oil-sweating planes fly indoors—even work songs are “outmoded”; people are synonymous with their function. That is, Dra— lays bare the secret of even the brightest resume: the diminishment inherent in making oneself fit into a system, a pattern, an expectation.

This paradox of erasing the self in order to survive gnaws unconsciously within Dra—, our heroine. She spends the first third of the book wracked by the sensation that though the whole world is getting a job, there is nothing for her. When she finally reaches the source of jobs, she finds a room full of people sitting on toilets and reading newspapers. Here Dra— gets her chance: a choice of jobs, actually, between classifying dust and monitoring a small water pump. Ultimately, the water-pump job is assigned to her and the remainder of the book is devoted to Dra—'s journey through this cavernous factory/office to report to work.

As in The Stranger or Waiting for the Barbarians, the narrative in this slim novel of ideas is archetypal, even iconographic: webs of associations are triggered by the “dank Employee Tunnel,” the school room originally “designed to be a furnace,” and the trains and toilets of Dra— (Freud resonates loudly). Walking down a corridor of the Employment Agency, Dra— believes it to be the same corridor that ran through her former grade school with its “clamoring upset students, long mottoes and teachers grown so furious that they vanished.” Parable-like language like this makes it easy for a reader to fall into reflective pauses, sometimes at the end of every sentence. What generally comes to mind are the habits of thought we sublimate in order to live with ourselves, especially “choices” that have become a kind of nature with narrowly defined paths, be they specific to gender, class, occupation, or any of the other markers we use to identify ourselves and categorize others. In Dra—, the refusal to choose or an inability to discern difference is an invitation to histrionics, recriminations, and lectures. When Dra— is distraught because she can't find her Administrator, a co-worker says, “She's probably dead and you'll be assigned another. Why make faces over it?” Why indeed, since politeness is considered a remnant from ancient times when “dogs smiled to signify deference.”

To get a sense of how such a tale of dread and loathing can be as funny as this one, though, consider the absurdity of Gregor Samsa worrying about being late for work the morning he's become an enormous bug. Similarly, Dra— finds herself enacting the vaudeville routine of the employee ordered to box pies as they come off an assembly line. Of course, the line begins to move faster than she can negotiate, only instead of pies, Dra—'s task is to get canisters into a pneumatic slot. And instead of splashing meringue, she contaminates herself with their toxic contents. Then she discovers that a man has been watching her the whole time, laughing.

Surely, this scene is enacted daily in the world outside the book. Just turn on any TV news show and join in. But we don't want to think about it. Or as another “friend” tells her, “jobs are tedious and death making” but “we're much too busy to have time for those thoughts”—a self-fulfilling prophecy that many people take refuge in (Levine should center another novel on “hobbies”), especially when we consider how easy it is to treat tollbooth attendants and other functionaries as animated vending machines. Like Camus and Kafka before her, Levine uses the self in relation to society to crack the oppressive ordinariness of normalcy—and this may be the book's one distraction: it so strongly evokes these antecedents that it's hard to read Dra— free of their ghosts. Still, if a comparison to Camus seems like faint damnation, that's how it's intended. Like those philosophical works, the achievement of Dra— is in its universals; Levine has managed to depict something everyone knows and everyone loathes in a style that mimics the very file-cabinet blandness of her subject, yet still makes for compelling fiction. More importantly, she's written a parable of America where the average citizen won't likely enter into the absurdity of a Kafkaesque trial but can't avoid the more subtle, spirit-crushing normalcy that would have us see a choice between MCI and AT&T as an expression of individuality.

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Rain Taxi Print Edition, Vol. 2 No. 4, Winter (#8) | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1997

Paul Metcalf Collected Works: Volumes Two and Three

Photo by Steven TrubittPaul Metcalf
Coffee House Press ($35 each)

by Ed Torres

With the release of volumes two and three, Coffee House Press completes its monumental repackaging of the works of Paul Metcalf. Originally published to little fanfare by the best small presses you've never heard of, these writings—bizarre marriages of prose, poetry, history, and found texts—force the reader to confront a radical Americanist avant-garde aesthetic; at the same time these books place us in the midst of America's bloody past, taking a look at everything from the seafaring explorations of the seventeenth century to the atomic detonations of the late twentieth. With over 1500 pages of some of the most enjoyable, provocative, and unorthodox writing of the century, the publication of Metcalf's Collected Works restores a significant segment of both literature and history.

Volume Two covers the ten-year span of 1976 to 1986, arguably Metcalf's most fecund period. At the core of the book is Both, which conflates Poe and Booth—pronounce both names at the same time—through the use of a linchpin narrative called “Waterworld,”a riveting tale of cannibalism and gender confusion on the high seas. If this sounds a bit confusing, well, Metcalf doesn't connect the dots for his readers; instead, by offering a set of images and texts that just might reflect one another, he invites the reader to enter his meditation on American literature and history, those twin supporting beams whose integrity he's suspected since his groundbreaking novel Genoa (contained in Volume One). In U.S. Dept. of the Interior, Metcalf poses a synergistic link between fault lines in the earth and migraines in the brain, while musing on his role as a lecturer at an Alaskan history conference. I-57, “an ideosyncratic approach to a place,”yokes the author's shaky state
of mind during his fifty-seventh year to a physical journey along the corresponding interstate; it is perhaps the finest comment on, and certainly the most unusual example of, the road novel. (Despite what must have been considerations of space, Coffee House wisely presents I-57 and U.S. Dept. with their original photographs and drawings, whose presence is not incidental but clearly part of Metcalf's overall experiment in what constitutes a meaningful text.) Volume Two's longest entry, Waters of Potowmack, is also its most heady and historical, reimagining our nation's capital from the Mesozoic era to the Johnson administration. Yet Metcalf's powerful obsession with American history should not suggest his poem-proses are too intellectual or without humor; in an author's note to the short homage Willie's Throw, he explains: “I am a lifelong baseball fan, brought up with, and still pledging allegiance to, the Boston Red Sox. I therefore need no lessons in suffering.”

Metcalf continues his collage-like explorations of history throughout Volume Three, where once again he folds texts from old books, newspapers, and travelogues together to illustrate North America's violent and chaotic past. Golden Delicious assembles multiple narratives into one book, giving us a brief look at the Puritans in New England, the gold-diggers' grueling and gruesome trek West to California, and the history of apple-growing in the Pacific Northwest. Amarinta and the Coyotes juxtaposes the astounding story of Harriet Tubman's work to free the slaves of the South with accounts of Mexican illegal aliens who risk their lives for what equals slavery in the “free” U.S. As usual, Metcalf doesn't comment on the material he presents, leaving it up to the reader to piece together an interpretation of these often brutal and almost unbelievable events. Furthermore, his direct citations from earlier texts are informative not only for the what, when, and where but for the language used, which better than anything reveals the bigotry, hypocrisy, and occasional generosity of its original speakers. Metcalf's own voice is most apparent in “. . . and nobody objected“, a piece written for the 500th anniversary of the “discovery” of America, which takes its title directly from Christopher Columbus's report on his first voyage. Here Metcalf asks, who exactly was Christopher Columbus—a preincarnation of Don Quixote? a fearful Spanish Jew? or simply an outrageous, wholesale liar?

Volume Three is more chaotic than its predecessor, as the later Metcalf ranges formally into essays and plays, yet these divergent paths offer further vantage points from which to assess Metcalf's contribution to American letters. The short essays from Where Do You Put the Horse? question our acceptance of the categories of poetry and fiction, probe our responses to literature and creativity, and revisit American icons from Melville to Buster Keaton; the longest of them performs “a gesture toward reconstitution” of Metcalf's friend and mentor Charles Olson. The plays have more in common with his historical texts in their use of the actual words spoken by figures from the past. The Players—his only stab at comedy (and this still a “documentary comedy-drama”)—for example, consists of a rowdy dialogue between Walt Whitman and John Burroughs (“bird watcher, bird lover, and all-around celebrant of Nature”), playing off of another dialogue between two baseball stars, Mark “The Bird” Fidrych and Don Luciano. As plays, these works are highly unconventional fare, but as in Metcalf's other works, necessary imaginative leaps are justly rewarded.

The final two pieces of this volume appear here in print for the first time. Huascarán, a historical/poetic telling of the earthquake in Peru, May 1970, proves to be one of Metcalf's most succinct and sympathetic histories to date, while The Wonderful White Whale of Kansas is a humorous and clever retelling of The Wizard of Oz, interspersed with surprisingly relevant sections of Moby Dick.

In the essay “Totem Paul: A Self-Review,” Metcalf muses on his many books: “They are printed on what paper the publisher chooses, to last as long as it may . . . the books to be reprinted as anyone may or may not wish, as time goes on. Let the future take care of itself.” Happily for us, it has done just that. Yet these Collected Works are not complete; Paul Metcalf, at the age of eighty-one, continues to piece together historical poetic narratives that still seem in many ways ahead of his time and outside of his tradition. That's their strength. There is work to be done if we're to catch up with him.

Click here to purchase Paul Metcalf Collected Works Volume II at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
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Rain Taxi Print Edition, Vol. 2 No. 4, Winter (#8) | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1997


Inventory by Frank LimaFrank Lima
Hard Press ($12.95)

by John Serrano

Frank Lima first published in 1962, and though he dropped out of the poetry scene he never stopped writing, as evidenced by this recent volume of selected poems. Skip the disastrous "New Poem" that opens the book, as it reads like a prose memoir chopped into lines for no apparent reason, and begin with Lima's energetic youthful output, which quickly makes apparent why Lima wowed poets like Kenneth Koch back in the day. Lima speaks in metaphors as if they were everyday slang—"your heart's a tin cup / begging for wine" he writes of his freshly widowed grandfather in "Abuela's Wake"—and approaches love, sex, and the body with a refreshing matter-of-factness. His work becomes less bombastic and messy as he matures, but still retains his quizzical approach to the sensual world, as in a beautiful series of flower poems; and his take on New York School style surrealism during this period is nothing short of terrific. The more recent poems in this book betray an earned weariness ("The universe is shrinking / Like a small lifeboat") but still offer a wry humor ("Ron Padgett's hair is a billion years old / An international team of 439 scientists is / Working on his eyes") whose presence sometimes leads toward the inconsequential but whose absence would diminish the overall generosity of spirit these poems exult. It should also be noted that while Lima constantly weaves his Hispanic background into his poetry on the level of language, he never once uses it as an easy shorthand for emotional content (except, again, for that unfortunate anomalous memoir-poem). Such a triumph is rare in our identity-driven culture. "The face of poetry / is an expressive cut of meat that gives us a glimpse of truth," Lima writes in the magnificent "On Poetry," and his work more than lives up to this credo.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Print Edition, Vol. 2 No. 4, Winter (#8) | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1997

On A Stair

On A Stair by Ann LauterbachAnn Lauterbach
Penguin ($14.95)

by S. P. Healey

I found a joke in an obscure encyclopedia of poetics: A man walks into a bar with a parrot on his shoulder and says to the bartender, “What's the difference between good and bad experimental poetry?” The bartender looks at the parrot and says: “I'm sorry, we don't serve humans.”

This gets at the dilemma Ann Lauterbach finds herself in. Like most daring poets, in order to get at the truth, she messes with our expectations of what the human voice should look and sound like on the page, but this risks sending readers into oblivion, or at least frustration. In her new collection, On a Stair, when that voice breaks down the result can be a poem with the personality of an instruction manual and the readability of a palimpsest (as eyes scan the page, one layer of text emerges and vanishes, then another, and so on). But more often these poems find that fine edge where an alien language becomes familiar:

Father, I am deliberately
missing the events
by which time is told.
I refuse nourishment, I am
an old woman
ranting on a stoop.

And this is why Lauterbach transcends her surface resemblance to Language Poetry and its tendency toward fractious wordplay, and continues to emerge as a serious contender in American poetry with this, her fifth volume.

Aptly titled, On a Stair tries to locate us between up and down, here and there, but it's also a reminder that, as a liminal space, the stair always invites us to take another step, and moreover, may not even be attached to a grounded staircase. So dislocation is a force in this poetry, unleashing violently enjambed lines and a syntax that defies gravity. But rather than abandoning us in the confusion, Lauterbach usually uses it as a tool to build a true illumination of the mind working to know itself.

Among the most memorable poems in this volume are the most idiosyncratic, in part because they scout possible paths Lauterbach might travel in the future. Scattered throughout, there's the series of gemlike lyrical odes, each titled “ON” followed by its given subject in parentheses. At the book's midpoint, there's the formidable twelve-part epic that colors nursery rhyme innocence with a metaphysical hangover. And the penultimate poem is a confessional juggernaut called “N/EST” that explores the speaker's history of abortions and childlessness intersected with her impulses to become a poet.

Lauterbach followed these impulses like stairs toward something brilliant and sublime. If every choice is an opportunity, it's also a sacrifice. If the poet has any responsibility, it's only to write good poems, which may be what the bartender in that joke is really trying to say: a good poem is one that serves humans, and Lauterbach remembers this again and again.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Print Edition, Vol. 2 No. 4, Winter (#8) | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1997

Shroud Of The Gnome

Shroud Of The Gnome by James TateJames Tate
Ecco Press ($23)

by Kelly Everding

Caution: Shroud of the Gnome may induce temporary aphasia brought on by profound cognitive dissonance. James Tate wrestles with reality, combining the bizarre and the sublime, the ridiculous and the wistful, hesitant despair and bone-crushing absurdity. The unsettling situations which arise achieve a level of profundity beyond the enjoyment derived from their imaginative expanse and wit. Yet however one may try to dissect a poem from this collection, it is liable to lift off and slip away from the examining table. The devious and playful quality of Tate's poetry may resist exegesis, but layers of meaning reside, tucked between “felisberto” and “mergotroid.”

Within the cosmology of each poem, Tate guides the reader much as Willie Wonka guided children through the chocolate factory; the poem is a kingdom and dictates must be followed, but you're never quite sure where you'llend up. In “Never Again the Same,” a malevolent sunset exacts an irrevocable change upon its viewers. In “Smart,” a theory is freed after a long captivity within the speaker's old cage of a mind. And these are among the few poems which are mildly paraphraseable. The poems exude an eloquence which rivals any late nineteenth-century poet—“Spherically wondrous sunbeam / dwelling in the mansion / of the pine of chastity, / today we bought an ice pack / for Mildred's injured foot” (“Per Diem”)—yet they are not afraid to sample language from colloquialism, nonsense, or implicative idioms—” and I'll keep a watch out here for the malefactors / all the while ruminating rumbustiously on my new / runic alphabet, mellifluent memorandum whack whack” (“Faulty Diction”). As meanings mound, a multi-metaphor pile-up ensues so that at times we are struck by pure rhythm and sound.

For all the zaniness, a fragile sensibility emerges in these poems. In the fantastic “Dream On,” the speaker muses that “Some people go their whole lives / without ever writing a single poem.” After enumerating the many banal moments in a life lived without poetry, the language becomes suspended within a moment of reverie:

all day, all night meditation, knot of hope,
kernel of desire, pure ordinariness of life,
seeking, through poetry, a benediction
or a bed to lie down on, to connect, reveal,
explore, to imbue meaning on the day's
extravagant labor.
And yet it's cruel to expect too much.

From here the poem undergoes a strange metamorphosis: the inability to categorize is likened to a rare bird whose song is unhearable, a dragonfly that flits here and there, and finally becomes a dream. “And the dream has a pain in its heart / the wonders of which are manifold, / or so the story is told.” A paradigm of loss pervades these poems, buried in a surrealistic, semantic structure that parallels a dream. Nothing can be explained away. Any story carries within it a perceptual slant, a fairytale quality that turns the stress and sorrow of everyday life on its head and maintains the integrity of language no matter what form it takes.

Tate is utterly unique. Shroud of the Gnome allows us entrance once more into his bewildered home, in which the poet exonerates reason and unreason alike.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Print Edition, Vol. 2 No. 4, Winter (#8) | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1997

Letter To An Imaginary Friend

Letter To An Imaginary Friend by Thomas McGrath
Thomas McGrath
Copper Canyon Press ($20 paperback, $35 cloth)

by Josie Rawson

It's been nearly a half century since the long, single file of actors, writers, artists, and other usual suspects—poet Thomas McGrath among them—answered the call to testify before the McCarthy House Subcommittee on Un-American Activities. What happened during those inquisitions is old record: some of those invited danced, some stonewalled, some let loose against the disgraceful procedure of it all. And some—too many—lost their livelihoods and good names after refusing to play by the rules. In 1953 the committee blacklisted thirty-six-year-old McGrath, who in short order got booted from his teaching job at Los Angeles State College, as much, it seems, for his allegiance to that “grand old bitch” the Muse as to socialist causes.

In a kind of loose-ends exile over the next few years, and in the off hours between odd labor jobs, McGrath composed the first of what would become four parts of his epic masterwork, Letter to an Imaginary Friend. Parts One and Two were put into print by Swallow Press in 1962, Parts Three and Four by Copper Canyon Press a full twenty-three years later, in 1985. Now Copper Canyon has put the quartet finally together into one full, righted, and definitive edition, coming as close to doing justice to McGrath's tsunamic imagination as possible by making use of drafts, notes, and other sources not previously available.

Much that's already been said of McGrath's opus in its several incarnations bears repeating. Critics hailed the first installment as a “tremendous odyssey of sense and spirit,” the second as evidence that lightning does strike twice, and the two taken together as the great revolutionary poem of the American heartland. Sam Hamill introduces this new 400-pages-plus Letter as, above all else, “a grand work of memory and recovery,” full of lyrical intensity and cinematic in scope.

The poem moves like some kind of treasure-laden train from station to station in a dreamed-to-life terrain—from McGrath's native North Dakota to the golden coast of California to Portugal and beyond. As it snags on time warps and event horizons that skew the chronology of Letter's pseudo-autobiographical narrative, the poem memorializes for the record lives and landscapes wiped out by grubbing religions (especially Catholicism) and the second world war, and damns the aftermath: what he sees as the American turn away from compassion and toward the every-dog-for-himself panic state.

McGrath once remarked in an interview that he was born into a time when he felt compelled to denounce much through his writing. That may be true, but not a complaint: one would be hard-pressed to find a more musical polemic than Letter in the English language. Here are the shipyards and dark barns, the wildcat strikes and cameo appearances of courage, the graveyard shifts and grimy rigs-all delivered in elegant diatribe against the users and profiteers that grind the working-class body to ash and spirit to dust. McGrath, bottom line, is damned good at damning:

Bandits . . . murderers in medals holding hands in the
catch-as-catch-can dark
With the carking, harked-back-to, marked-down virgins
of the stark little towns
Where, once, their paper histories dropped on the
thin lawns
And rocking porches of the dead-eye dons and the
homegrown dream-daddies
Now stiff with their war-won monies.

This is captivating but not easy reading. Taking his cue from Einstein's dictum, “Make it as simple as possible, but no simpler!”, McGrath sets himself to complicated work that doesn't take well to quick description. Letter is a slippery missive on the page: its dictions switch registers from stanza to stanza or even mid-line, from that of an erudite scholar to a bully-pulpit unionizer to a sort of addled medium babbling glossalalia in rhyme. Its vernacular language is shot through with a litany of rare words—elecampane quislings chippying around the pelagic and dandiacal catafalques—that recommend keeping a good dictionary in reach. Its cast of characters is immense, including figures from McGrath's childhood, his later mentors, fictional interlocutors on the order of Berryman's Mr. Bones, a role call of esteemed provocateurs (Che Guevara, Big Bill Haywood), and a steady supply of hot-thighed madonnas from the writer's “great kingdom of Fuck.” Its irregular but usually six-beat lines spill out across the page, bouncing off both margins, and bring to mind and ear the form and cadence of Whitman, some Ginsberg, some Bible, some intoxicated elocution of long gone Emerald Islanders.

Best of all, Letter to an Imaginary Friend licks its fingers and burps at the table. Polite it is not—and the better for it when McGrath turns from his populist vitriol to what may be his most abiding talent: that of bestowing praise—grace, even—on the common, the unruly, the inconsolable, those McGrath chose to side and sing with and for whom “the world is too much but not enough with us.”

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Print Edition, Vol. 2 No. 4, Winter (#8) | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1997


Cybertext by Espen J. AarsethPerspectives On Ergodic Literature
Espen J. Aarseth
Johns Hopkins University Press ($14.95)

by Rudi Dornemann

In this book, Espen J. Aarseth has created a key text for future critical and creative work in the field of electronic writing. It's a particularly brave undertaking, since there are so many different kinds of electronic texts, most continually mutating and evolving. In succeeding, Aarseth has created a particularly valuable guide. What he does right is simple: he's general when he should be general and specific when he should be specific. Cybertext's strength is in the balance it strikes between those two perspectives; its future utility is in the bridge it builds between them.

From the first line, Aarseth marks out the territory he'll examine, defining the title neologism. In the term cybertext, Aarseth is not using cyber in the popular connotation “computer-” or “machine-”. Instead, he's returning to the sense of information theorist Norbert Wiener's coinage cybernetics, where cyber means “control”—in particular, control through the give and take of feedback loops. Aarseth, then, shifts emphasis away from the text's inner software mechanism and onto the complete system of text plus user. Nothing inherently electronic or necessarily high-tech in this idea; Aarseth sees the I Ching, Apollinaire's Calligrammes, Queneau's Cent mille milliards de poèmes, and various other works on paper as cybertexts just as much as anything currently being done on computers.

Aarseth examines various terms and approaches to electronic literature, carefully testing what really is and isn't useful. Out go familiar (and overhyped) terms like “nonlinear” and “interactive;” in comes the suggestive concept of “cyborg aesthetics.” He also finds some value in certain semiotic approaches to electronic texts and constructs his own descriptive typology of cybertexts, electronic and otherwise.

The book moves through entertaining and informative close discussions of four kinds of electronic texts: hypertexts, computer adventure games, computer-generated texts, and the collaborative environments called MUDs. With a strong of sense of the history and development of each, Aarseth provides insight into the dynamics of these species of cybertext. He does not settle for easy applications of, for instance, poststructuralism to hypertexts or narratology to adventure games. Instead, he works out where such methodologies are valid and where they fail, then develops new approaches as needed.

Even though it's unlikely that the field of electronic literature will reach a stasis point anytime soon, the ideas Aarseth develops (including the hypertext dynamic of aporia and epiphany, the “intrigue” at work in the adventure game, and the general concepts of cybertext and ergodic literature) will continue to be useful in the future. While new forms will emerge, existing forms will continually shift and change, and some forms will fall away (as the chapter on adventure games reminds us), what Aarseth has discovered about current forms will help us to understand—and create—the forms of tomorrow.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Print Edition, Vol. 2 No. 4, Winter (#8) | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1997

Cultures Of Habitat

Cultures Of Habitat by Gary Paul NabhanOn Nature, Culture, And Story
Gary Paul Nabhan
Counterpoint ($25)

by Michael Wiegers

Roger Risley has lived on the Olympic Peninsula for well over two decades, having come here from Buffalo to avoid school and slip under the radar of the Vietnam draft. Instead of in a classroom, he has worked in the rain and heat, planting seedlings in the yawn of clearcuts and hauling driftwood logs and stones in his canoe, to be milled and used to build his house. All the while he has studied the birds around him. He has learned how Steller's jays mimic red-tailed hawks and Clark's nutcrackers—a bird which hasn't lived on the peninsula for decades. He's heard jays imitate mockingbirds (a bird which itself mimics other birds) and grackles imitate RV alarms; he has witnessed hummingbirds poking at gasoline dripping from machinery, evidently thinking they were finding the alcoholic sugarwater junkfood of backyard birdfeeders. While clamming together, Roger has shown me how a stretch of beach where a week earlier we had gathered a half-dozen huge rock crabs was now filled with crows, crows that wouldn't be there looking for the clams if crabs capable of snapping their skinny legs were still there. Despite his land-learned knowledge, Roger is relegated to seasonal, temporary work for the Department of Fish and Wildlife, where he often seems to know more about this area and its habitats than his degreed coworkers.

What does all this have to do with Gary Paul Nabhan's Cultures of Habitat? Nabhan is an ethnobotanist who practices conservation notonly with the facts and figures of research and education, but also with direct experience and by listening to stories of people, like Risley, who work in and learn from their natural environments. As Nabhan expertly illustrates, an effective conservation movement cannot rely solely upon politicians, scientists, and activists, but must also learn from those who are “native” to an area.

The word “native” is loaded and in using it Nabhan indirectly raises complex, explosive questions. Who is native? For example, is an American Indian whose diet is snack foods and soft drinks more native than the gardener who preserves heirloom seeds indigenous to her region? What role might local oral history play in the face of computer models and cultural hybridization? How can science learn from the vocabulary and narrative of indigenous legends and myths? In twenty-four compelling essays, Nabhan illustrates the importance of interactions between humans and their surroundings, between plants and pollinators, between animals and weather—each instance witnessed in an effort to explore and reclaim what it means to “belong” in one's landscape rather than simply to exploit it.

Of course Nabhan could easily bog down in the semantics and commonly held beliefs of the environmental movement. Issues such as sustainability and biodiversity would then simply remain ideas. Too often conservationists pick up the tired mantle of Thoreau or celebrate the superficial qualities of indigenous peoples, translating their practices into a call for simplification. Yet plants and animals—nature—aren't simple, and the land management practiced by natives isn't either. Nabhan's genius is that he explores and embraces the complexity of habitats, taking into account the most difficult and dominant creatures—humans.

As Nabhan points out, we can't even begin to talk about the plants and animals that make up biodiversity when we are destroying the cultures and languages which know them best and which have named them: “Soon, whatever we can read about biodiversity will be written in less than five percent of the languages that have existed since Gutenberg's print revolution.” The majority of the world's insects are unnamed by western scientists, yet they are the critical mortar which holds habitats together. How can we protect complex habitats if we don't even know what to call their members and if we are exterminating the languages which describe them?

Indigenous persons are intrinsic to habitat survival. Nabhan writes of showdowns between native Guatemalans and loggers, of the importance of Aborigine burning practices, of traveling to the site of a remote Sand Papago settlement with one of its former residents, only to find it plowed under an extensive monoculture of onions.

Despite the bleak picture of a world hell-bent on homogenization, there is hope. Hope in the form of Cora Baker, a Hidatsa woman who still gardens in “the old way,” in the form of people like Roger and writers like Gary Paul Nabhan. We must tell the stories. As Nabhan says:

To restore any place, we must also begin to re-story it, to make it the lesson of our legends, festivals, and seasonal rites. Story is the way we encode deep-seated values within our culture. . . . By replenishing the land with our stories, we let the wild voices around us guide the restoration work we do. The stories will outlast us.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Print Edition, Vol. 2 No. 4, Winter (#8) | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1997