Tag Archives: winter 2000


Secret Asian Man by Nick CarboNick Carbo
Tia Chucha Press ($10.95)

by Thomas Fink

The "bare-chested muscled Filipino" Ang Tunay na Lalaki, "the real man" in Tagalog, is a seventies/eighties TV-commercial character transplanted to nineties New York City by Nick Carbo in his engaging second book of poems, Secret Asian Man. The book even comes with its own anticipated review, imagined by Lalaki's "[white] American" fiancee:

"The main Filipino character
is depicted in poignant and hysterical
adventures which inform us about
the complex psyche of a recent immigrant's
postcolonial experience of attempting
to survive in the motherland. However,
the girlfriend-turned-wife is left
as a stick-figure with a nebulous past
and an insipid personality." ("Sally Speaks")

As a "displaced" "postcolonial" subject in a prime metropolitan site of "cultural diversity," Lalaki has his share of "poignant and hysterical adventures"—online, with a character named Orpheus, in "the real" Nick Carbo's poetry workshop, and as a secret agent. These escapades are entertaining. However, the book's significance involves the psycho political conflict between Lalaki's "addiction to New York," including the access to "Americanness" that the not-quite stick figure Sally embodies, and his historically grounded disgust at American racism.

In "Ang Tunay Na Lalaki Considers the Historical Consequences," Carbo adroitly juxtaposes Lalaki's musings on "early anti-miscegenation laws," "a frank" and scandalized "discussion in the mid-1930's by an American judge / in [Time] magazine about the sexual / prowess of Filipino males," and a Filipino-American's apt response to the racist judge that his people, "however poor, are taught / from the cradle up to respect and love [their] women" and thus boast a very low "divorce rate." Carbo's speaker concludes that the white American "myth / of the pin-size Asian penis" stems from this "little threat, perhaps." Lalaki relishes the fact that if he were to marry Sally, "they would be / legally practicing . . . savagely good / café con leche sex with rain forest honey to sweeten / the taste."

Another ironic history lesson appears in "Ang Tunay Na Lalaki Looks at the Early Americans," which traces the causes of "the unending cycle of prostitution to service / Americans which reached its height" recently "with 50,000 precious Filipina prostitutes" at U.S. bases. In "Ang Tunay Na Lalaki Tries to Explain to His Therapist," while covering anti-Native American genocide, black slavery, Manifest Destiny, etc., Lalaki makes a convincing case for his sustained anger, but Carbo implants some subtle ironies—most notably, confusion of the thirteenth and fourteenth amendments with the 1964 and 1965 Civil Rights Acts. Further, when Lalaki argues that "all your sins seem to be erased from memory, / given scant mention in text books," he ignores the recent textbook-transforming work of historians-of-color (and feminists).

For Lalaki, subtleties of the transitional character of nineties U.S. cultural politics do not jibe with his experience of polarities, as in the AOL Chat Room poem. Learning that Lalaki is Filipino, ClaraB calls him a "mongrel American" and assumes that he is "a SUB." He retorts that his "good manners . . . can be / . . . mistaken for submissive behavior." This poem, showcasing Carbo's experimental side, marvelously juxtaposes fragments of prurient, poignant erotic dialogue with solemn epistemological discourse by philosopher of science Karl Popper. Another superbly ironic poem, "Ang Tunay Na Lalaki Lies on the Bed," describes how Sally uses Lalaki as the nude, urinating, masturbating, cringing subject—more properly, object—of a film, replete with images and "racist songs" from the Philippine-American War, that garners an NEA grant.

Although Lalaki's workshop poems, "Sally's Resume" (yes, literally), and a clinical report on Lalaki's sleep apnea are far less effective as poetry than other texts, they offer raw documentation that enriches the collagistic texture and thickens the plot of Secret Asian Man, which stands as a narrative unfolding of Lalaki's hybrid destiny and his representation by self and other.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2000/2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000


Another Part of the IslandMichael Heffernan
Salmon Publishing / Dufour Editions ($12)

by Will Clemens

Another Part of the Island is the sixth book of poems from Michael Heffernan, whose Love's Answer won the 1993 Iowa Poetry Prize. With 31 poems comprising 43 pages, Another Part of the Island may look and feel like a chapbook. Published overseas, where Heffernan co-directs the International Writers' Course at the National University of Ireland, Galway, it could be as difficult to find as a chapbook. But this small, unassuming book reads more as a complete collection of poems, several ranking among the strongest in Love's Answer, which poet X.J. Kennedy hailed as "the best book yet by one of the very best poets we have."

As readers might expect with a book of poems published in Ireland, Another Part of the Island evokes Irish settings in superb auditory and visual imagery, as in "Another Story,"

when the robe of sky droops heaviest

over the gray-blue slopes of Mullaghmore
and the black choughs come coughing out of the wind

Yet poems set in different places establish a belief that travel not only enriches the intellect with other cultures and geographies but has the power to heal a bored, grief-stricken, or wounded psyche. In "Garbology," a voice from Greenbriar Avenue in Elkins, Arkansas, where Heffernan lives, half-humorously announces:

Most of our excitement here in the Subdivision
happens on Wednesdays when the garbage truck
hauls off the stuff we don't need anymore

The three-part "The Night Breeze Off The Ocean" tells the story of a man who, grieving over his mother's death, discovers a moment of solace with a Belgian girl on a spontaneous trip to Dar-es-Salaam. In "Liberty," a slightly rhymed sonnet, a man deals with the end of a love affair by leaving the State in his car.

There are other moments when Heffernan journeys through the landscapes of dream-states and memory, as in "The Land of the Blind," where "the one-eyed man is invisible," "asking directions to the road out of town," or "Detroit," where the speaker, younger, tries to understand what Patsy Doherty's breasts are thinking, and concludes "The mind is its own place."

Another Part of the Island is, finally, even more than a collection of poems about the importance of these physical and imaginative travels to places for healing. It is a book that builds a bridge between the literary writer and the people's poet. Heffernan pits his insightful thoughts on Dante, Shakespeare, Henry James, and others against his valuable experiences with friends and family, discussing, for example, "the hearts of even the old ones at the bar," "his wife and children sleeping in," or, as in a handful of minor poems like "Forecast," "nothing but the weather."

With his senses tuned to all these different kinds of people, places, and things, not to mention his mastery of the best language to render them in a range of forms (from the Petrarchan sonnet "Two Solitudes" to the ghost of meter in the title poem), Heffernan gives us a slim book that is as the "mud on a boot" it so vividly portrays.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2000/2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000


Hard CountrySharon Doubiago
West End Press ($19.95)

by Michael McIrvin

Why write history and facts and story and autobiography in poetry? "Poetry is the true revolution," Rimbaud says, "that will end the discord between history and idea." —Sharon Doubiago

Pound famously defined epic as the "tale of the tribe," and just as famously we stopped believing him sometime after mid-century—feminists especially, who rightfully noted that any meta-narrative is an assertion of control, that Odysseus's rage, for example, is codified as a masculine value and therefore perpetuated. Consequently, the field of human action that is history dissolved to a mere rumor in our poetry; and the human speaker as a dynamic and self-conscious product of, that omnivorous force turned inscrutable cipher for nothing more than a myopic self, as if being-in-time were being-in-a-vacuum. Which is a delusion, of course, and a denial of responsibility, but more of this in a moment.

Although our fear of language as a means of control is justified, the elision of history as a response is simplistic and in actuality an acquiescence to the pathetic way-things-are, to the diminishment of human meaning and the attenuation of identity, presently a mere marker for a set of values defined by the marketplace: a demographic representation, the member of a target audience, some modicum of market share to be aimed at, corralled, controlled.

Sharon Doubiago's Hard Country, originally published in 1982 and, thankfully, recently reprinted with a new insightful afterword, represents a much more courageous response to the conundrum of the meta-narrative: the need to speak our time in order to understand it and to change it despite our fear of enshrining a set of values that must be subscribed to. What Doubiago knows is that to speak is to participate in the enterprise that is Western Civilization, frequently even against our will in as much as we must use the language of the fathers and risk our own words being turned on us; conversely, she knows that to remain silent is to abdicate the poet's primal responsibility: to bring to the level of attention what we incipiently know about the world and thereby to forge a viable self that a reader can interact with and explore in order to achieve a momentary viability him/herself.

What Doubiago knows is that we carry history around as a trace in our bodies which is manifested as both a dream and, for the descendants of the conquerors, a grief we can barely survive. For her, the very ground we walk is filled with bones from which ghosts rise to haunt the real epic of our time and place, as opposed to the innocuous and apologetic shades that fill the anti-epic of mass media. It is a burden-almost-unbearable, and perhaps another reason less courageous poets of the present have ducked the responsibility of history altogether.

Doubiago says, as she walks the streets of Cody, Wyoming on her journey across America, as she walks the remains of the frontier West where our ancestors took what they wanted and left only dry corners in which the aboriginals beg and weep and drink themselves to death:

The last time I opened to the fuck of history it broke me from the man I love and the time before that it broke me from my art.


and when [I] . . . heard the earth crying Viet Nam I took a vow never to be a poet


because I was taught the law and order of poetry and saw my brother become a killer as he obeyed the law and order of the Army. I was taught the words of a woman are almost worthless.


because art I was taught is too delicate to sing of genocide. But what else could I sing while people were being murdered in my name?

The conundrum is real, to speak with all its attendant risk or to remain silent, but there is really only one answer. For genocide is but the crime leading a long dark list, and if the poet does not speak this negativity, then he/she lies and thus participates in the status quo without meaning to. And the result of silence is self poisoning. Doubiago says later in the same poem:

. . . I understood years in my wild places writing is a physical act, erotic and dangerous, the lowering of the self into a well almost too deep. I must bring up the words or perish from their rot left inside.


This is the poet's impossible imperative, to tell the truth to the degree he/she can apprehend it in an age when the truth is diminished, or stolen and transformed, even as it is spoken. In short, the poet must endlessly offer up correction and emendation.

What Hard Country deftly enacts, however, is not merely the writer's role inflecting history as it is played out in her own psyche, but the map of that psyche itself and how it is emblematic and individual at once. The poet can say in the poem "Headstone," as she recognizes the necessary polyvocality of the tale of the tribe:

I understand we come from a truth we each wholly and separately possess to a particular house and street and time to tell the story only our body knows and our tragedy will be we will not tell it well because our witnesses will be telling their stories . . .

but also say,

I am five, I will never understand why we are stranded in our selves but in this moment I know my own story is understanding our singleness that I am destined to move my body and time into the body-time the story of Others.

The true poet's job is not the solipsistic rant of the tiny, alienated "I" of postmodernity, but the exploration of the personal as it bleeds into the inclusive, an exploration that might help us understand our suffering in its context and its complexity.

Doubiago says that as a girl she read books written by men while their women and children slept and vowed to "write books / as the woman awake," as her man and children slept ("Idaho Is What America Used To Be"). And the voice in Hard Country is very much a woman's, the equal of Pound and Williams' voice, and even of Whitman's barbaric yawp at times. And it is stridently the voice of a feminist whereby Hard Country expands the scope of the epic, which will only be complete when the race achieves radical equivocity, that hopeless dream. Herein lies the poet's greatest responsibility of all: not everyone can speak for him/herself due to lack of skill, lack of opportunity, or lack of privilege. Therefore the poet's hyper-literacy is a gift he/she owes the world.

In a fit of Whitmanic transcendence, Sharon Doubiago:

I see a dirt road inside myself and on it I am walking. At the far end where the sun is setting are my children, all the western scattering of my flesh.

Here are the voices I hear, the unaccountable melancholy, the dark hearts of my grandparents, storied in my flesh. When I look to the hills I hear shattering like glass, the red in the loam soaked from me.

Near the cabin at the clearing's center I hear a mournful Scottish melody. When I walk amidst flowering dogwood a thousand tongues lift their words to me.

Call my name in the act of love. I am full of loss and the shadowy Cherokee. At night I fall into our migrations, settlers drifting across the Great Barrier.

The cold winters you say, the loss of war paint, the images tattooed on the skin of my brain. My daughter in the river we drink, its body lifting her before she knew the body of a man.

When you call me, your face, bald as the eroded hills, is blessedly here, between me and these scenes. But when we ride the boy in your scrotum, which stores, like glass, the ruins of this place, you pull houses full of blood, mountains full of smoke, down on top of me.

("Appalachian Song")

The dead and the dispossessed speak in and through the poet and for a moment we are at home here, among the ruins. The ground may be stolen, but all those who have passed are present, whispering the truth of who we are, a truth without which the tribe cannot long survive.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2000/2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000


anatolikonJohn Ash
Talisman House ($14.95)

by Robert Kelly

It is a curious thing that travel literature embraces two utterly different, incompatibly opposite sorts of text: those that illuminate jungle pathways and sea voyages, huge tense or flabby deeds of getting there, and those quieter texts that exult in the amenities—or writhe beneath the discomforts—of being there.

A writer might well be enraged to find his new book of poems cross-listed under "Travel," even though texts in it seem to play out in Asia or the Mediterranean. John Ash's new book, however, unabashedly avows a poetry of being there—in Anatolia.

We call it Turkey, this strange land of Ash's sojourn, though I don't think he does. The country he moves in does not seem one of nowadays, not the Turkey of the Kurdish War or even of this century, Turks and Armenians, Turks and Germans, Turks and Jews. He seems closer to a Kavafis-like sense of time, or timelessness, as if in the sensuous detail of one afternoon we really can recover all of history, all the vexed kings and invaders, all the sly lovers and their vine-dazzled ruses. The title poem at the outset—wielding the longest lines of any in the book—shows this trust and his skill at their strongest.

Anatolia has long been a favorite place for Anglophone wanderers—I found myself thinking back several decades to Lord Patrick Kinross's accounts of his Turkish travels where naughtiness and wit mingle with precise observation. John Ash seems no stranger to that world, though his aims, and achievements, seem quite different: calme, luxe et volupté among the olive groves, the delicate whiff of diesel busses passing, oil slicks on the Sea of Marmara, a quiet, desperate holding to what is there.

These poems believe intensely in the world they bear witness to. That is the first thing we notice, I suppose, that we are reading texts of a believer. (Travelers, like theologians, come skeptical or credulous.) So vividly do they believe in the happenstance they behold that at times they go for quiet, unemphatic ways of talking, perfectly registered, when a more anxious traveler might press harder with description.

Robbed stone, ashlar.
Stacked reeds and sherds.

Cattle skirting the edge of the marsh,
whisking their tails against flies.

Then too, that same believingness seems to mark the persons who live in the poems, and most of all, the I-figure whose doings monopolize most of the syntactical operations of the book. They are not, ‘I' am not, described. They are the givens, the actors, pronoun-bearing shadows moving through a bright landscape. Where Bashô shows us everything he sees and we wind up remembering only the mind of Bashô, Ash shows us Ash beholding, and we remember, sometimes with a curious tenderness, the things he gives us to see. Strange, the contrariness of poetry.

Sometimes Ash is pretty prosy in his ways when narration replaces observation (as in the later sections of "The Tour"), especially when history with a capital H is at stake, but by and large he is able to cluster material musically before us, close to the ear. And he seldom makes us conscious of his verbal logic; we tend to accept his imagistic invention as if it were simply just more evidence.

What interests me most in this collection of graceful scenes and interviews is the quiet way, that word again, John Ash develops his own sort of poetics of information. It seems to me that such a poetics—be it Pound, Olson, Allen Fisher, Cage, Kenneth Irby—is the notable achievement of our post-narrative age, the ability of verse to handle huge tracts of stuff from our slaughterhouse of data, and bring them to shape, sense, social fact: where information becomes the in-forming of society. Ash can move from the vernacular to the formal very smoothly, can sound a little like Pound, or Kavafis, or even (as in "Language Poem: 2000 BC-2000 AD") like Olson written by Rexroth. The man's own voice is secure enough to allow these gestures, almost playful reminders of how other poets have been battered by this material, this Anatolia, the Rising Country, the source of the sun. I saw it from the air once, hard and red and barren, the highlands, and felt this was a place that still needs to speak. Ash is more civil than my harsh mountains, but he clearly speaks the place. And that is where travel poem becomes just poem.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2000/2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000


BreakersPaul Violi
Coffee House Press ($14.95)

by Fred Muratori

The publication of a Selected Poems is one of the two or three most significant milestones in a successful poet's career. Having a bona fide Selected—thick, filigreed with acknowledgments and dedications—means that you've made it, baby, and even if the poetry in-crowd had never read your work before, they'd damned well better pretend to know it now.

Or at least that's what Selecteds used to mean, before poets and poems swept over the American landscape of bookstores and Web sites like a tide of red ants, choking readers with choice, paralyzing them with product. Lost in this wriggling armada of indistinguishably lineated texts, a Selected is lucky to catch the heat ray of a mischievous critic's magnifying glass. But if you squint, you can almost make out Paul Violi's Breakers among the masses: it's the "one ant dancing with a dead ant in the sand."

A Paul Violi poem is like no one else's. Combining professorial erudition with the relaxed unpredictability of Frank O'Hara, the shadowy wisdom of Rimbaud, and the urban angst of Jerry Seinfeld, Violi's poems make you laugh out loud, then think really hard about what it is you're laughing at. They begin as modest eddies, then spiral outward in ever-widening circles to absorb and transform conventions of mass culture rarely incorporated into poetry: the TV program guide, the travel diary, the crossword puzzle. In Violi's hands, these mundane forms become retorts in which language and the cunning unconscious are released rather than imprisoned.

"Wet Bread and Roasted Pearls" illustrates how such borrowed forms can enhance the movement of a poem, allowing it to negotiate multiple planes of perception and rhetoric. It begins conventionally enough with a train ride that unwinds as smoothly and concretely as Philip Larkin's "Here":

Hudson Line. Gravel trackbed
dusted with snow, bank rock and piling
blackened with oil, barges,
half-rotted on granite slabs
where a deer dips her head in bent reeds

and then steps out onto shore ice:
One long wave of white ice
nightwinds caught at its farthest reach
between arrival and return
and held gleaming above the tide.

The speaker regards the actions of the deer as representing universal emotional states—recognition, amazement—much like Chinese ideograms. "Newspaper in hand, he speculates on "the numerous ideograms / for 'To fill in the blanks,'" the most obvious being a crossword puzzle, which, "newspaper / in hand, stultified / by a maze of blanks," he just happens to be mulling over:

One across: To be reasonably
suspicious of zeros and words
that contain too may os.

Two across: Prosopopoeia.

Fifty-five down: Monotonous.

Three across: Puzzle is to Mystery
as Grapefruit is to . . .

Five across: Rhymes with orange.

But this is only one passage embedded in a larger narrative that snakes outward to the tangible world, then inward toward reserves of memory, drawing on the crossword puzzle as a rhetorical armature to hold and schematize personal remnants of the past: ". . . ground // now as blank as Eight down, / the winter you decided / to freeze me out, kept / the house as cold as a morgue."

The cleverness and grace of passages like this are expertly molded and certainly admirable, but where is the iridescent humor and flesh-tingling irony Voili's readers have learned to expect? Where is "Scatter," one of the liveliest poems to ever grace a Best American Poetry anthology? Or "Errata," the inventive checklist of wild printer's errors that ends 1993's The Curious Builder? Or Violi's ransom note, titled "Tanka," also from The Curious Builder, written in that delicately jarring haiku-like form ("Where the blossoms fall / like snow on the dock / bring fifty thousand in cash // or you'll never see / your baby again")? You'll have to buy the earlier collections for those, since the eight long poems and series that comprise Breakers seem marshaled to emphasize Violi's more meditative side, as if length alone carried with it an intrinsic weight or claim on high seriousness.

Appearing more jotted down than written, "Harmartan" is a fifty-plus page travel diary recording the poet's time in Nigeria during the 1960s. You won't find this kind of information in the National Geographic or on the Discovery Channel, as Violi enumerates the quotidian collisions of poverty, politics, and perseverance, the wrenching contradictions of a nation-in-progress, with an almost journalistic detachment. "Sputter and Blaze" comes off as a dreamy chunk of late-Romantic reverie so deliberately paced, so ethereal in its extended metaphors of silence and light, that you nearly forget it's set in a propeller factory. Even "Triptych," which takes the form of a day's offbeat TV schedule, can transmit an unexpected gravity in its summaries of programs like "MODERN EXPLORATION" ("Spaces in the / air where the / wind waits / disguised as / silence.") and "KARMA "("The live / leafless / branches and the / dead tree / against the sky, / all grappling / with the wind."). Thank goodness "BITCH ON WHEELS," "MOSTLY PROSE" ("A / bug flies / through my eye. / The crowd / cheers."), and others add the signature Violi zest.

Unfortunately, the major comic enterprise included here, "King Nasty," makes its point in the first page or two, but struggles on for another fifteen. Written in the voice of a hot-shot Hollywood player spelling out every detail of his vision for a movie about an executioner in Revolutionary Paris ("Maybe we got a play here. / Or convert it into an opera. / A Musical. Or all three."), it seems to urge itself grudgingly forward until the campy absurdity of anyone's wanting to produce such a bad film begs the question of why anyone would want to read such a long poem about producing such a bad film.

But "King Nasty" is the only serious misstep in an otherwise provocative and obliquely engaging collection. Not many poets can get away with a line like "You can have your snake and egret too," but after the chuckle comes the realization of how perfectly the line functions within the context of the poem, how succinctly it encapsulates the moral fable it concludes. Having published exclusively with small presses, Paul Violi has suffered too low a profile in the poetry world for three decades—our age does not appreciate satirists unless they host talk shows—and one can only wish that Breakers will at last initiate his breakthrough.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2000/2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000


Sun Inventions and Perfumes of Carthage: Two NovellasTeresa Porzecanski
University of New Mexico Press ($17.95)

by Jay Miskowiec

Uruguayan writer Teresa Porzecanski embodies a lesser-known facet of the Latin American experience: the Jewish immigrant living amidst the continent's staunch Catholicism and Indo-African cultures. Raised in Montevideo the daughter of both Ashkenazim and Sephardim parents, she grew up in a polyglot world of Spanish, Yiddish, Arabic and German.

A teacher in Sun Inventions (1982) struggles to get her students to ask, "What elements are necessary to elaborate the interior structure of a thing?" But the author's own unsure strategies for pursuing this investigation leave the text uneven. The story meanders from straightforward prose to magic realism, where objects have a life or essence of their own, to a Sollers-like style of long run-on sentences:

. . . always be concise clear and simple, clear simple and concise, that is, never any ambiguous answers don't admit contradictions or opposition the third caveat is the key to locking up the Universe and shutting up yourself inside of that which you know with all assurance of begin able to explain the elements by the simple movement of shifting your position inside the established scheme of things very important don't forget schemes never be vague reduce the complex to the simple . . .

The next sentence after this muddle says "everything else is word play." And that's the weakness here. As Henry James might say, Porzecanski tells us, she doesn't show us, in her words "the symbol of other worlds fallen from an ancestral and already exiled paradise."

Perfumes of Carthage (1994) relates the lives of the Mualdebs, a Sephardim family living in Uruguay during the 1930s, and that of their servant Angela Tejara, a descendent of African slaves. Characters live between reality and myth, but always in the diaspora. Traveling back and forth over time, the matriarch Nazira sees herself in ancient Ur walking through "forbidden gardens . . . laid to waste by the expulsion of all humanity." One of her daughters will envision the voyage to the Americas over the seas that seemed "the waters of an ancient flood, still-turbulent waters bearing memories of the first global destruction."

Porzecanski illustrates well here how this sense of exile is central to both Jewish and Afro-American identity. Angela is also transported back to her ancestral homeland; she sees images, hears voices, feels the presence of wild animals. The din grows louder until she is caught up in the whirl of dancers who invoke the tribe's spirits, "attempting to reincarnate them, bring them back to life."

This story comes closer to finding that "place where everything had already been said."

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2000/2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000

DARK MATTER: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora

Dark MatterEdited by Sheree R. Thomas
Warner Books ($24.95)

by Rudi Dornemann

Anthologies have long been important in science fiction and fantasy. Whether pulling together previously published stories or actively soliciting new work, editors can try to shape genre development by spotlighting groups of writers or kinds of writing, as Harlan Ellison did in his Dangerous Vision series in the ’60s or Pamela Sargent in her Women of Wonder collections in the ’70s.

With Dark Matter, editor Sheree R. Thomas sets out "to offer readers an enjoyable entreé to the diverse range of speculative fiction from the African diaspora and to encourage more talented writers and scholars to explore the genre." Her particularly rich and diverse collection accomplishes this and more with non-realistic fictions (and a few essays) by a cross-generational group of authors from the U.S., Canada, the Caribbean and Britain. Thomas includes authors who are well established in speculative fiction, such as Samuel R. Delany, Octavia E. Butler, Steven Barnes and Tananarive Due—but she also pulls in writers who aren't usually thought of as writing in the speculative genres, such as Amiri Baraka and Ishmael Reed. There are new stories, many seeing their first printing here, and there are older stories as well, going back to a Charles W. Chesnutt story from 1887.

Dark Matter also offers a great variety in the worlds imagined and in the storytelling approaches that bring us into those worlds, from the fairly straightforward speculation of Evie Shockley's "separation anxiety" to the near-surreal future of Akua Lezli Hope 's "The Becoming" to the dream-intense synesthesia of Kalamau ya Salaam's "Buddy Bolden." Nalo Hopkinson, a fast-rising star on the science fiction scene, contributes two quite different stories, one drawing on Caribbean lore, the other delving into technologically augmented sex. Many of Dark Matter's stories are unique enough that they might well serve as the seeds for new speculative subgenres—there's African sword and sorcery by Charles R. Saunders, a black reimagining of vampirism by Jewelle Gomez, and science fiction cross-referenced with political and legal reality by Derrick Bell.

In his essay "Why Blacks Should Read (and Write) Science Fiction," Charles R. Saunders writes, "After all, if we don't unleash our imaginations to tell our own sf and fantasy stories, people like [white writer of science fiction set in future African societies] Mike Resnick will tell them for us. And if we don't like the way he's telling them, it's up to us to tell them our own way." His call to action echoes Chinua Achebe's Home and Exile, in which the renowned Nigerian author speaks at length of the need for African writers to write their own stories. There is happily a good deal of this taking place—editor Thomas is currently soliciting submissions for a second volume of Dark Matter.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2000/2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000


What Are You Like?Anne Enright
Atlantic Monthly Press ($24)

by Amy Halloran

What Are You Like? is the first novel published in America by BBC Radio journalist Anne Enright, and it is gruelingly beautiful. "She was small for a monster, with the slightly hurt look that monsters have and babies share, the same need to understand," begins the book, dismissing sentimentality and straightforward storytelling in one fell swoop. If you like twisted tellings of truths to be unwound over the course of a couple hundred pages, this book will pull you from sleep in the middle of the night and ask you to read it until, confused and disturbed, you can fight for sleep again.

"What are you like?" is a turn of phrase that means more in Ireland and England than it does in the U.S. The book reveals the title's context and double meaning. "What are you like?" the monster baby asks herself in the mirror when she's a woman, looking for herself in New York. "What am I like?" Evelyn, the monster baby's stepmother, asks herself and her stepchild while trying on clothes in a shop in Dublin." The stepmother is worrying what kind of substitute mother she offers the girl, but also, she is quizzing how she looks, in a kind of a put-down: how dare she look good in clothes? "No, it's lovely," her step-daughter Maria reassures her. What Maria thinks of the other meaning of the question we don't know, because what we know of Maria is limited by her own limitations; the grown up baby can't outgrow her monstrosities because she feels an overwhelming lack of self-knowledge.

The language Enright uses is stunning enough to be almost untrustworthy. The book flows smoothly into the reader, pouring its characters' discomforts like free shots at a bar. After a few rounds, the discerning drinker will wonder about the bartender's intentions. Is the desire to create empathy actually establishing distance? "The secret places of my wife," thinks Maria's mother, who literally eats words, who wears her clothes inside out. "She was a woman who mistook sex for everything else." "She drank until she was the smallest thing in the room, every organ in her body small and hard and old." "She had a violent need for fried eggs." Mostly, the poetry of Enright's prose is effective, but sometimes it is only affected, leaving the reader to wonder about a string of words. Did they describe an object or action or skirt it, by sheer description?

This is especially evident while Maria is in New York City. Her search for self leads to a nervous breakdown whose narration is laborious and stretches over too many pages. The tricks of phrase are taxing. Although they seem to serve a purpose, writing a trail of breadcrumbs to feed the reader who may not have witnessed a breakdown, personally or otherwise, reading Maria's dissolution is eventually boring. Still the book does not lose the reader, because most of us don't know who we are. Maria's sense of dislocation, even without the backdrop of New York City, is familiar to modernity. The quest for identification and identity are extreme in her instance, however, and the unveiling of her family secrets is well worth weathering the difficult middle for the overall pleasure of the read.

Anne Enright has a book of stories, The Portable Virgin and a novel, The Wig My Father Wore, both available across the Atlantic ocean. Hopefully What Are You Like? will gain her an American audience that will demand stateside releases of those titles. If this novel is representative of Enright's fiction, her writing is pithier and more intelligent than much of what is billed as contemporary literature in American and British publishing. Certainly, it is leagues beyond Bridget Fielding and for that reason alone, deserves reading in this country.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2000/2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000


Fake House by Linh DinhLinh Dinh
Seven Stories Press ($23.95)

by Thuy Dinh

“After Vietnam, however, Philadelphia will be possible again," the narrator of Linh Dinh's "Two Who Forgot" contemplates. Like the narrator of this short story in Fake House, since 1999 Linh Dinh has returned to work and live in Saigon—the city of his birth—to ponder the notion of home and personal identity after twenty-four years of living as a refugee in America.

Proficient in both English and Vietnamese, Dinh, also a poet (Drunkard Boxing) and translator (Night Again: Contemporary Fiction from Vietnam), is acutely aware of the multi-layered, transnational context that defines him as a postmodern satirist. In this sense, Dinh does not quite fit into the mold of Asian American writers born in the United States, whose literary sensibility, however affected by their Asian upbringing, are removed from the political turmoils of their parents' homeland and as a result become mainly preoccupied with assimilation issues in the American context. Dinh, wielding an ironic, contemporary vernacular filled with scatological descriptions and violent images (not unlike visions created by the cartoonist Robert Crumb), possesses an existential angst that acknowledges, yet ceaselessly strives to transcend ethnic and cultural boundaries.

The title Fake House, for example, is both specific and ambiguous. It is the title of one of Dinh's stories and refers to the shell structure of an abandoned warehouse, devoid of electricity and the accoutrements of a conventional living space. Fake House can also mean "Nha Nguy" in Vietnamese. "Nha" denotes either "home" or "country." "Nguy" is a pejorative word used by the Vietnamese Communists meaning "fake" or "puppet," to refer to the fallen, pro-American South Vietnamese government. Yet, stripped of historical and linguistic references, Fake House, as a metaphor for "false" foundation, can apply to any system of beliefs, depending on who the viewer is.

Structurally, Fake House is divided into two parts—the first part consists of nine stories taking place in the United States, and the second consists of twelve stories taking place in Vietnam. At times, however, the two countries seem to be simultaneously imposed on one another, creating a fun house, bizarro effect—the effect of living in two places at once, or in a twilight zone of cultural and linguistic travesties.

In "Two Who Forgot," for example, a viet-kieu (overseas Vietnamese) revisiting his homeland is cursed by a pedicab driver for being a "Nacirema" ("American" read backward). In "The Cave," an ethnic mountain tribesman questions his allegiance, saying "we are citizens of a country called Vietnam, a word most of us can't even pronounce." In "California Fine View," a Vietnamese living in Vietnam thinks he has vicariously attained America by his acquisition of "Levy's jeans" and his patronage of California Fine View restaurant, where "the pepperoni is real, but the cheese is fake" (because the Vietnamese digestive system generally cannot tolerate dairy products).

Linh Dinh dedicates Fake House to "the unchosen." The dedication serves as a pithy introduction to his gallery of unredeemed outcasts—variations of the wedding guest "without the wedding garment" in Matthew's parable, whose inappropriate dress and bad manners cause him to be exiled into the outer darkness, where "men will weep and gnash their teeth, for many are called, but few are chosen." (Matthew: 22.1-14.) This outer darkness—the exposed, borderless realm of Fake House—is akin to Simone Weil's concept of affliction:

We feel ourselves to be outsiders, uprooted, in exile here below.
We are like Ulysses who had been carried away during his sleep
by sailors and woke in a strange land, longing for Ithaca with a
longing that rent his soul . . . .

[Simone Weil, "Forms of the Implicit Love of God," from Waiting for
God, p. 178 (tr. by Emma Craufurd, Harper & Row 1973).]

However, unlike Weil's rational and clear-headed hero who finally arrives home, i.e., redeemed by divine grace, Fake House's various "homeless" characters—a Vietnamese-American man returning to Vietnam, who, like one of Homer's lotus eaters, allows his impromptu bacchanalia on the Hanoi-Saigon train to erase his recorded memory ("Two Who Forgot"); a divorced American lawyer dreaming of instant fulfillment in the form of a mail-order bride from Origami Geishas catalogue ("Fritz Glatman"); a Vietnam war veteran living among ghosts on a remote Vietnamese mountaintop ("Chopped Steak Mountain")—all are forever distracted and imprisoned by what Weil poetically refers to as "Calypso and the Sirens." "Dead on Arrival," perhaps the most poignant story in Fake House, presents an autobiographical portrait of the author as a young boy. In this story, Dinh illustrates how Weil's notion of affliction—induced by numbing violence, war, and a dysfunctional father-son relationship—utterly destroys a child's fragile moral universe.

For some of the inhabitants of Fake House, an inability to grow up (or assimilate) and a nostalgia for home translate into a hunger for uncomplicated sex with reverse racial and colonial overtones. In "555," a Vietnamese refugee, recently arrived in the United States, squanders his payday earnings on "not so pretty, but pleasant" Chinese and Korean prostitutes because he thinks there is no "dissimulation—only intimacy" in having sex with Asians who are not Vietnamese. In "Uncle Tom's Cabin," Bui, a broke and self-hating young Vietnamese-American (whose name ironically means "rich and savory" in Vietnamese), engages in arid, joyless sex with his sometime Caucasian friend. Bui's sexual encounter, tinged with pity and revenge, falls somewhere between masturbation and (metaphorical) incest. Bui's "friend," like himself, is neither physically desirable nor emotionally connected to others.

Dinh is an ambitious writer whose stories, while bleak and devoid of a higher moral order, are strangely, entrenchedly humanistic. In the wake of renewed diplomatic and trade relations between the United States and Vietnam—which have resulted in blind optimism and unrestrained greed on the part of denizens from both countries—his fictional characters show that the Vietnam War's consequences linger on in more variegated, insidious contexts. The central tragedy that still plagues those who have been affected by the war is the inability to forget and forgive. Yet, to forget and forgive would be to erase, to "cosmeticize" the past. In "Saigon Pull," the narrator, a disabled Vietnamese war veteran, muses, "It is true that the new generation has very little tolerance for ugliness, for whatever that is unglamorous, maimed, unphotogenic. All reminders of the war embarrass them."

In "Saigon Pull," Dinh exposes an outré sentiment that flies in the face of anti-war believers (yet shared by many overseas Vietnamese and Vietnamese currently living in Vietnam), that perhaps it would have been better for the North Vietnamese, like Germany or Japan in World War II, to lose the war and win the cash ("they see the cash-friendly Americans on the street and cannot imagine why we ever fought them"). Such sentiment reflects a profound postwar disillusionment with both American foreign policy and Communist Party rhetorics. It nevertheless represents the most honest assessment of the Vietnam debacle, by angry and depleted souls who are no longer deceived by the reductive images seen inside the Cave.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2000/2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000

Coach House Books at the turn of the century

Books discussed in this essay:

Dan Farrell

Damian Lopes

Steve Venright

by Tom Orange

In 1962, Stan Bevington left Edmonton to study in the Department of Fine Art at the University of Toronto, but within a few years he was spending most of his time with an old Challenge Gordon platen press residing in a 19th-century coach house tucked away in an alley at the edge of the U of T campus. Wayne Clifford's Man in a Window, published in March 1965, was the first title to bear the Coach House Press imprint. A short list of poets published by Coach House over the next thirty years would include Margaret Atwood, bill bissett, Robin Blaser, George Bowering, Nicole Brossard, Tom Clark, Robert Creeley, Frank Davey, Christopher Dewdney, Allen Ginsberg, Roy Kiyooka, Robert Kroetsch, Dorothy Livesay, Daphne Marlatt, Steve McCaffery, bpNichol, Michael Ondaatje, Fred Wah, and Phyllis Webb.1So when Coach House Press closed in the middle of Summer 1996, Canada lost one of its finest independent publishers, one with an at times feverish devotion to innovative North American writing.

Yet in December 1996, Coach House Books emerged from the ashes, offering new titles in two formats—online editions at www.chbooks.com and limited-edition print volumes—beginning with Darren Wershler-Henry's Nicholodeon: A Book of Lowerglyphs (which had been accepted by the press in the Spring of 1995). Wershler-Henry has since taken on the job of editor for Coach House, whose publication of Kenneth Goldsmith's Fidget has already been brought to the attention of Rain Taxi readers.2 But a flurry of activity over this past summer has yielded this crop of arresting new titles by three of Canada's exciting emerging writers. In other words, in case you may have missed this fact, Coach House is back.

Steve Venright's Spiral Agitator is part manifesto, part handbook, part marketing plan. Under the auspices of Torpor Vigilance Industries (TVI for short, or perhaps "T.V. Eye" as Iggy Pop would have it), Venright has written and filled the prescription for all who have ever hunted snarks, practiced Cranial Theremin Ouija, or counted themselves among the ranks of Post-Historical Incubi, Somnivores, Philip K. Dickheads or Rimbaudelautreamontians. (The back cover taxonomy, of which these are only a few representative species, approaches Joycean proportions.) Venright works here in short prose pieces, at times a single sentence or two standing alone, at times in short paragraphs or lists, at times numbered together in longer sequences. Together these forms work to create what Venright coins a "neureality," a rewiring of the perceptual hardware, a whirl through the champs magnétiques of the information age. Take a paragraph from "The Sepulchral Gazebo":

Deliriant cataleptic. I am a bleakness. In streams like these, motions turn up that cannot be replaced. One of us is dead, I can't tell which, but we reconnect here. Generate terrific monuments made of coloured steam. In hail we storm the edifices of a scream more incredible than the bursting of a thousand hearts amplified through vacufazers at full speed.

The passage suggests the flavor of the whole but fails to do justice to the variety of subgenres that filter through Agitator's synaptic mesh: stump speeches, proverbial wisdom, a love letter from a dithering suitor, a slide show commentary, Dada performance texts, even a send-up of Edward Gorey's "Gashleycrumb Tinies." Moreover, these pieces show a deft rhetorical slight-of-hand that, like the narratives of Maldoror, both assert and undermine the credulity of the narrator's seductive incredulities.

Damian Lopes's book—actually two books bound together head to toe—collects primarily his visual and concrete work that has accumulated over the past ten years. Readers who know only his earlier book Towards the Quiet (ECW Press 1997) will be surprised at the turn away from more traditional lyrics. But Lopes in fact wears more than one hat at a time. His micropress Fingerprinting Inkoperated has helped support and define innovative visually oriented poetries in Toronto for some time now, through a steady stream of limited edition books, booklets, and book objects. Skeptics may note that Lopes's work owes a lot to Wershler-Henry's, which is itself in many respects an homage to bpNichol. But Robert Duncan has, correctly I think, demonstrated that a derivative poetics arises not out of some of imaginative impoverishment but an awareness of the very richness that lies underexplored and under-recognized within a tradition, one that for Lopes includes other past and present Toronto-based verbal-visual artists such as Daniel F. Bradley, jwcurry, Beth Learn, Mark Sutherland, and David UU. Lopes blends more traditional-looking poems (found in portions of Sensory Deprivation / Dream Poetics) with a number of visual techniques: photo and digitally enhanced collage, found schematics, popular print media, graphemic decimations and dissemblages. The thematics are wide ranging as well: far from merely fetishizing the physicality of language, Lopes here investigates language, body, and machine as a kind of technological nexus. Indeed the book amounts to something of a compendium of current possibilities for visual poetics.

In The Inkblot Record, Dan Farrell continues and extends the rearticulatory practice evidenced in a piece like "Avail" from his previous book, Last Instance (Krupskaya, 1999). "Avail" uses responses to mental and physical well-being surveys as source material to create a text that, as I have suggested elsewhere,3not only foregrounds the split nature of subjectivity under capitalism (the subject that is both perfectly at ease and at the same thoroughly angst-ridden by the state of its health), but also critiques the status of such surveys as ideological tools through which institutions identify, classify, and evaluate us. The Inkblot Record is a logical and structural extension of such an approach, plumbing the medical literature on Rorschach testing to compile—in an unbroken, 109-page paragraph—an alphabetical list of responses to such tests. This example, chosen almost at random:

Couple of lobsters in some sea grass. Couple of men bowing to each other. Crabs. Craggy dark wood area, irregular formation bare as you see in mountains sometimes. Craggy mountain area. Crawdads. Creatures flying along because of some force. Crocodile head. Cross-section of a cervix. Crudely done face, back with toy pack, color part of idea, color leads to illusion. Crustaceans' ball.

What astounds here is not merely the range of responses Farrell has gathered, or the labor that such an undertaking has exacted of him. The Inkblot Record demonstrates all too clearly how relentlessly the need for the human species to make meanings insists. "No symbols where none intended," Beckett concludes in Watt, but here we find symbols in spite of intention. Or to put it another way, Kenneth Burke's definition of "man" as the "symbol-making animal" returns with a vengeance.

In these works, as in Goldsmith's Fidget and Wershler-Henry's own recent Tapeworm Foundry (itself a work of potential literature that should be ranked among Oulipo's best), writing approaches, if not attains, the status of conceptual art; that is, given the concept, the writing becomes a matter of working the concept through all of its implications and permutations. And as Sol LeWitt writes, "It is difficult to bungle a good idea,"4 something about which these three writers hardly need to worry.


1. For background and history see "Coach House Press, 1965-1996," a special issue of Open Letter (Ninth series, Number 8: Spring 1997).

2. Reviewed by Christopher Fischbach, Rain Taxi Review of Books 5.6 (Fall 2000), page 30.

3. Lagniappe 2.1 (Fall 1999), http://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~foust/B1.html#farrell.

4. "Sentences on Conceptual Art" (1969), reprinted in Sol LeWitt: A Retrospective, ed. Gary Garrels, Yale University Press, 2000.

Click here to purchase The Inkblot Record at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Click here to purchase Spiral Agitator at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000