Tag Archives: winter 2001

With The First Dream Of Fire They Hunt The Cold

With The First Dream Of Fire They Hunt The Cold by Trevor JoyceTrevor Joyce
Shearsman Books ($15)
by Harriet Zinnes

To consider the poetry of the contemporary Irish poet Trevor Joyce one must start with a biographical fact: Joyce stopped writing poetry for about 20 years. And the reason was not biological: he did not have a strange disease, a fever, a loss of memory or a loss of intellectual rigor. Indeed, the silence was the result of a distinctive intellectual rigor. He could no longer write poems where, as he has noted, "all that is significant crystallizes in a perfection of plot and motivation, and all the rest, wanting any real brush with language, retreats once more to ground." His attack of a perfect plot and motivation was the consequence, he is saying, of a reluctance to come to grips with language. Just as American poets, and certainly not only the Language poets, emphasize language today, so does this Irish poet maximizes its importance.

As a result of the emphasis on language in the later work of Joyce, there is an avoidance of the Irish lilt, its more obvious lyricism, and a dominance of linguistic texture, a texture of sound, not easily comprehensible, filled with ambiguity and with the dexterity consequent of an admirer of John Cage, Samuel Beckett, Adorno, and Benjamin. Yet when John Cage wrote, for example, such a line as "A piece of string, a sunset, each acts," that successive juxtaposition, because of a musical coordination somehow pleases the ear and the poetry does not perplex. But this is another century. Globalization has taken hold. The old substance of poetry is gone. Love, loss, friendship, nature may still be written about by some poets but poets who see a world on the edge of chaos and disaster must break for it, must take language and pull it apart, render it with distortion, assemble its syllables from texts rarely before the matter of poetry. And here is a poet who wishes "to work comprehensively with the world which I inhabit." He must therefore pull his sentences together from regions remote from poetry, regions that are explaining the new world. Hardly a Billy Collins, more like a Bruce Andrews, he writes, "Damaged, we bleed time." Time is no longer floating. It does not flow. We are its warriors: "We bleed time." Even the mouth of the innocent "is like a bowl of blood."

American readers can now read Trevor Joyce's work in an edition collecting work from 1966 through 2000. The title is provocative: With the First Dream of Fire They Hunt the Cold. A bit perverse? Yes, Joyce is hunting the cold, namely, paralysis, death, not fire, passion, life. This is no Romantic writer. And we are all living in 2001, where fire is not passion but bombs, war, and hate. Even the poet's early poetry reveals a poet who though he observed nature closely he cared little for the material world, for he saw it as cruel and strange, a world that made the human observer uneasy because all was unfolding toward death. Even speech he saw as "a broken bird on stunned wings."

His recent poems, for example, the 1999 long poem called Trem Neul (meaning "through my dream") contains what the English poet Douglas Clark notes as "vaguely impersonal voices emerging from a Galway landscape." The poem mixes prose and verse facing each other but not in any way complementing or explaining each other. Its language is as in Joyce's poetry frequently difficult, leading to a seeming nowhere or to an incomprehensibility that seems part of the very meaning of the poem. The poet's dream is filled with the illogicality of today's world. How could the syntax, the flow of language be anything but a blur of sound, of a sound of unknown or at least of unusual meanings? Here is a page that is characteristic:

I sat there, my heart beating                             If you be not wise
shaken by what had happened, for                                then have
are we not all prone to error, all                                                (bitter)
strangers at home? As the language                              memories
changes course through time, a pla-
cemame gets stranded, parched, cut                  May you not have
off from the stream of meaning, until                            the memory
another inundation reach, reinter-                                   of the deer
pret and reanimate. The sound may
have to be bent for this to happen,                     It is my earliest
and the first sense left for ever irre-                       recollection
coverable, or the stuff of books,                                 Quite unexpectedly
though locally, as stuff of lives, it
stays a name, a pointer (maybe mis-
leading) to the place.

Yes, quite unexpectedly, there is another Joyce of importance.

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Interrogations at Noon

Interrogations at Noon by Dana GioiaDana Gioia
Graywolf Press ($14)

by Michael McIrvin

I have long been suspicious of poets who write in form because form runs counter to the world bequeathed us: we know the infinite reticulations of matter are as random as a thunderbolt, for example, and consequently our attempts to make it all cohere remain provisional by definition—and therefore our language must be fluid, transformational, always in flux. Which is to say, the urge to form is at once human (the need to temporarily freeze in time what flows past us and through us)—and thus the impetus for all poetry, all writing, all art—and nostalgic, especially if it includes reaching after an ideal of order when we no longer believe in the possibility.

Somewhere in human history a sonnet could hold the world because we knew the world as a series of observable cause and effect relationships that reflected the divine will. In short, we knew the world precisely as order, and thus poets had little trouble pouring everything they knew into 14 lines with a particular rhyme scheme—the form itself was a natural thing that rode into creation on the breath of God. What better participation in the universe than to actualize incipient form, to turn our thoughts and emotions into a palpable thing?

But then we awoke to the bloodbath that is human history, and any notion of order crumbled into the dirt, sonnets and villanelles included. For how could such perfect vessels hold this terrible carnage, the poets asked? How could form exist at all in art when it doesn't exist out there, in the world at large? The trick became, and remains, how to speak at all; but more of this in a moment.

It doesn't help matters that the majority of postmodern formalist poetry (which is not the oxymoron it appears) is terrible—a pastiche of Spencer or Donne that hides bad content behind strident end rhyme and perfectly distraught iambs, as if form were an inherent excuse: after all, I did rhyme the whole damned thing, and each line is perfect iambic hexameter, which is quite hard to do, you know. But even as I write this, it occurs to me that the observation begs the question of poetical competence: most poetry in America stinks at the moment. I suppose some poets have retreated to form thinking that if those who don't know a dactyl from an anapest write garbage, maybe stark rhythm and rhyming everything abab will make one's utterance sufficiently poetical. Sadly, however, no such easy fix will suffice.

Which brings me to Dana Gioia's latest collection, Interrogations at Noon. Like it or not (and Gioia doesn't seem to mind), the poet is associated with the New Formalists, a loose affiliation of poets ranging from those who think naively that form in and of itself will save American poetry from the vacuous trap it has made for itself to a more enlightened minority whose notion of form (generally) is more complex—who seem at least to intuit the contradiction they are up against. The latter tend to remind us that the best poems, regardless of the issuing camp, are incipient song, that rhythm (of breath and heartbeat) separates us elementally from the dead. But they also seem to recognize that strict form is anomalous, a wistful backward glance at a conception of the universe we simply can't abide given the abundant evidence to the contrary.

And the best formal poems in Gioia's collection do just that, employ their self-imposed patterns in the service of meaning while recognizing the limitations of applied forms, but there are also poems that fall apart precisely because the poet has strained too hard to fit them into their own overly tight little shirts. An otherwise good poem like "Entrance," for example, ends weakly because the poet insists on exact end rhymes for the last two lines.

It is telling, however, that the poem is a failed sonnet, twelve lines instead of fourteen, which symbolizes the contradiction a poet attempting formal poetry faces: the desire to formalize (in a structurally determined poem) the chaotic world. But more than this, the slipping in and out of poetical forms, their manifestation only to deconstruct before our eyes, is innately elegiac. Consider this stanza from "Metamorphosis":

And you, my gentle ghost,
Did you break free before the cold hand clutched?
Did you escape into the lucid air
Or burrow secretly among the dark
Expectant roots, to rise again with them
As the unknown companion of our spring?

This is the world held at arm's length for observation. Even the speaker's emotions in response to a terrible loss appear only obliquely, as a culmination of imagery. Wordsworth could have written this stanza, except for the fact that its sprung iambs in a book of poems that aspire to one form or another, usually purposefully failing to achieve it in the strictest sense, makes the stanza far darker than Romantic nostalgia. The world has gone awry, has both exceeded our bleakest expectations and overwhelmed our belief that human experience makes sense (i.e., overwhelmed our belief in humanly authored form). The result is a profound disappointment.

The titles of poems like "The End of the World" or "Song for the End of Time" suggest the depth of the speaker's sadness, a recognition that the shadow of death now haunts the culture if not the species itself. In "A California Requiem," the dead themselves say,

Forget your stylish verses, little poet--
So sadly beautiful, precise, and tame.
We are your people, though you would deny it.
Admit the justice of our primal claim.

This is a recognition that the poet's forms are empty gestures on the void, that poems generally, regardless of the poet's formal assertions (from spoken word to this solemn and pedestrian rhyme scheme), are at best a personal rant against time (as Williams told us), but they are ultimately ineffectual in the face of the cold facts of human existence at the dawn of the 21st century (in this case the despoliation of the poet's native state). As a poet acquaintance at Harvard told me recently (in the same disparaging breath in which he told me that if he were to throw a rock in a random direction in Cambridge he'd hit a teaching poet), poetry will never be the reason the masses storm the barricades or otherwise act to change the messy state of things. In short, as Williams asked himself aloud (and thereby asked us all), the unspoken question in Gioia's collection seems to be, why write at all?

The most telling title in Interrogations at Noon is perhaps "The Lost Garden," which is about an actual place but also emblematically a reference to Eden—from which we have not so much been cast as we have cast ourselves. In "Juno Plots her Revenge," Gioia tells us, "[Hercules] will use violence to make his claim. / It will not bother such a man to rule / A decimated and demolished kingdom." He could easily be talking about the human race. Which is to say, at best the poet offers up an indictment, a picture of the world crumbling, but he cannot save the kingdom, cannot save the garden, cannot incite the masses. But, indeed, every poem is homage to the innocent belief to the contrary, and therefore a heroic (if futile) act.

However, we cannot live for long in the dark territory of our recognition that humanity stumbles helplessly, gleefully, toward some awful abyss of our own making. Despair over the poet's lot, impotent understanding, leads only (and always) to self-destruction. In "Descent to the Underworld," the poet tells us that to be "Confined to this black place is worse" than death. And thus we must ascend, become an instantiation of Orpheus singing even as we climb out into the light, where

What matters most
Most often can't be said. Better to trust
The forms that hold our grief.

(from "Corner Table")

For as Williams accused Crane, failure to find a form to hold our reality (and grief is the poet's operative mode in postmodernity and, therefore, elegy the poet's most likely content) will certainly destroy the strongest among us. At the very least, I must give Gioia credit for trying.

I still can't trust poets who write in strident form; too many are weak writers hiding behind self-imposed constraints, and the urge to absolute form still smacks of unrestrained nostalgia. But Gioia, for the most part, struggles with the concept of form on that larger scale: how to make sense of the world for the race, which after all is the poet's primal job, however perfect or disrupted one's syntax, however useless the act in the end—which, somehow, ennobles the attempt.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2001/2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001/2002


Plot by Claudia RankineClaudia Rankine
Grove Press ($13)

by Bonnie Blader

Oh, action of narrative Oh secret plan To chart To chart A small
piece of land

Plot. Claudia Rankine mines the word thoroughly. Her armature for this engagement with emotional implications and consequences is an Ur-plot: married woman and man make baby. Her characters exist elsewhere in art; Liv (Ullmann) and Erland (Josephson), who played Marianne and Johan in Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage, are replotted here. The actors are present as their characters; Rankine wants an echo of the film to shadow her project as she gives voice, mostly, to Liv, recording her resistance and submission to the idea of her unborn son, Ersatz, who inhabits her, body and mind, and plots to be born.

Plotted also are Liv's internal monologues and subtle emotional shifts. She is harrowed by threats to "I" in the face of Ersatz's "Here," which demands her recognition of flow, of a continuum, the stone-like weight of lineage and connection. Liv paints and repaints Virginia Woolf's drowned body floating, without volition, in the River Ouse. Plot, she reminds us, rhymes with rot. Woolf's pockets were filled with stones. The womb plots with death. Ersatz should turn back. The body sloughs cells: "She lets the tissue fall, wondering, Is the new always a form of a truce? a bruising?" To be fully here is the risk Rankine considers: "lost // far from here though I am here aiming."

Her devices bear notice. She shows the power of 'r' pressed with alliterative consonant weight and long vowels, finding these sounds markers for emotional content:

Ideally (so already never) what they desired, sired, is a love that
would flood everyday fears communicable: each broken step,
open depth, blackened call, searing grasp, oh ruined cell—but
it's a retarded and retarding love that frets.

Rhyme and rhythm controlled by stops force the ear to take in what Rankine has called the trace elements in words, how one word has a sound memory of other words in it, although their meanings may not be similar. She exploits this idea at various points in the book, producing sections in which word "proximities" are made to work as plot. The characters travel the distance between the words and link them. Thus, in "A short narrative of hand and face entitled Proximity of Clock to Lock," a repeated phrase ("He was biting his cuticle.") ticks off time. Meanwhile, the characters consider all of the decisions they must now make in preparation for Ersatz, decisions which spell confinement and systems, or lock. The skin Erland bites is dead, "little rips in the claims / the birth would make," and "where sperm dried this morning, his skin looked / ashen." Clock marries lock.

The text works like a mind: variously. Its visual surprises, Rankine's use of block print, boxed text, full stops mid-phrase, open field, conversation, word paintings and proximities, all complicate "Here" at the textual level: ‘Here, I freely give you this book to read; here, my hand is attached and this is between us.' The text, like Ersatz, is born with a cord that paradoxically frees readers from fixed (known) forms in order to allow them to be intimately present in its nuanced mind.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2001/2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001/2002

The Mercy Seat: Collected & New Poems 1967-2001

The Mercy Seat by Norman DubieNorman Dubie
Copper Canyon Press ($30)

by Joel Weishaus

Norman Dubie was born in Vermont in 1945. He received the usual fellowships for those writers who toil in the fields of Academe (Guggenheim, NEA, etc.), and teaches at Arizona State University. The Mercy Seat, which collects over 30 years of work, including 21 new poems, is his twentieth book.

Although he sometimes writes in the first person, Dubie seems more comfortable assuming a persona, usually an historical revenant. ("Vulnerability is a writer's best defense," he's written; "Why intellectually do I reject this?") In Dubie's hands, Western Theater's tradition of alternating between the twin masks of tragedy and comedy are molded into an irony that borders on the grotesque. In "A True Story of God," for example, Henry Thoreau is "lost in the Maine woods / At the center of the black pond," where he stands in an "Old Town canoe…welcoming a moose." The moose is already dying, and Thoreau, of delicate constitution, faints "back into his rented canoe."

The first allusion is of course a nod toward Dante. The poet is lost in the woods, and finds himself in the darkness of his soul. As for Old Town, I think of the Southwestern shops that hawk native pottery and jewelry to tourists in a cavernous semi-darkness created by thick adobe walls. We buy Amerindian trappings to warm souls grown chilly from the excesses of Capitalism's ethos of ownership. Standing in his rented canoe, Thoreau—still one of our most insightful cultural critics—raises his arms and welcomes Nature in the form of a moose. The animal floats toward him, already dying, "drunk with the methane / of bottom grasses." Then the poet faints. His guide—in a Dantean universe, he must have a guide—has "sliced off the upper lip of the creature / As a delicacy for his woman." That night, "The long rubbery hairs of the lip" will be burned in the campfire, while the poet

…is brooding, telling himself
That God is in nature and nature
Is in men; in that order…
Lies the salvation of all animals
Who are placed closer to God than to humans.

This is a sophisticated rendering of an idea that the poet Gary Snyder (whom many critics hail as a contemporary Thoreau) introduced in his poem "Long Hair," where he humorously wrote that when we eat deer meat, the animal occupies us. "When enough Deer have occupied enough men, they will strike all at once…and everything will change some. This is called ‘takeover from inside.'" While both poems address the spiritual investment humans have in animals, and the karmic opportunities humans give animals to realize a higher consciousness through them, Dubie adds the angst of someone desperately trying to think his way out of an uncomfortable position, while Snyder has created the myth of a man who can astutely handle any situation.

Dubie continues by having Thoreau observe that humans, "knowing they possess a soul," become "useless. Useless and cruel." A bitter commentary, with which I can agree only on the worst of days. Instead, I would say that presumption of a soul is humanity's greatest boon and heaviest burden; it makes us more restless than useless, more arrogant than cruel. But I'm splitting philosophic hairs, just as "Thoreau jumps, / the fat of the lip / snapping from the fire like gunfire."

Another representative poem in this 434-page volume, "The Dun Cow and The Hag," begins: "Beside the river Volga near the valley of Anskijovka, / On a bright summer day // An old woman sat sewing / By the riverbank. If asked she would say // She was lowering the hem of a black dress." This Impressionistic scene—Dubie's imagination flows easily between literature and the visual arts—is filled out with a cow standing beside her; a dun cow, dull grayish brown, dun being also a fishing fly of this color, which ties the woman to the river.

The woman sat all day sewing, while the cow, I suppose, grazed on the succulent summer grasses. When evening came, "a merchant / From Novorod arrived with his family." The family begins to eat "chunks of pink fish." Now, like a flat rock skipping over a placid pond suddenly changes direction, the picnicking family is poisoned by the fish, which was spoiled on their journey, all but the buxom daughter, who had gone bathing, and is now "floundering" in the river, crying for help, with "Just her arms above the water / Working like scissors."

With his knack for turning ordinary events into surreal gestures, the poet has the hag (in the Middle Ages the hazazussa was a woman who straddled the fence separating civilization and wilderness) leave the cow—contently producing the milk of life—and walk to the girl, whose arms, "Working like scissors…cut the thread for the old woman."

What are we to make of this? "Various people have held the belief that human life is determined (sometimes at birth) by maternal goddesses or supernatural beings, and that life ends when a cord, or thread, is severed," wrote the anthropologist Geza Roheim. Thus the hag had been sewing the black dress of the girl's death, wanting for her to arrive: "The black water / Ran off her dress like a lowered hem."

Even when disguised as a woman, Dubie's tutelary spirit is Dionysus, whom psychologist James Hillman has identified as a god of "downwardness, darkening, and becoming water." Indeed, though he makes his home in a sun-drenched desert, Dubie's roots are in the moist dark woods of the Northeast. While retaining the artist's necessary connection with the child's imaginal realm, he also nurtures a conscious affinity with his death. However, as many of his poems end in ellipses, and as he is said to practice Tibetan Buddhism, Dubie inscribes death as an exit, rather than an end. As his "Elegy for My Brother," one of the new poems in this volume, puts it, "The requiems are melting back into music."

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2001/2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001/2002

The Not-quite Noir of Charles Willeford

The Machine in Ward Eleven by Charles WillefordThe Machine in Ward Eleven
Four Walls Eight Windows/No Exit Press ($12.95)

The Woman Chaser
Four Walls Eight Windows/No Exit Press ($12.95)
Charles Willeford

by Kris Lawson

Charles Willeford (1919-1988) grew up an orphan who attended boarding schools when not running away to ride the rails as a hobo. He served for 20 years in the military and commanded a tank in WWII. It was during his military service that he began writing, publishing poetry, short stories, and pulp novels, as well as taking classes and earning his bachelor's degree. After retiring from active service, Willeford taught English for 16 years in Miami before becoming a fulltime writer. He wrote 16 novels, four autobiographies, poetry and criticism, and three of his novels—Miami Blues, The Cockfighter and The Woman Chaser—were made into movies.

Willeford's life occasionally overlapped into his writing. In The Woman Chaser, for example, Willeford—who reached the rank of master sergeant—introduces a character who happens to be a newly-retired master sergeant:

His face, with it's [sic] secret, knowing, covering smile, was a reflection of and on every commanding officer he had ever served. He had done their work for them, and he had received no credit, but he knew, and that was enough for him. There were hundreds like him in the Army, a not-so-secret society of non-commissioned officers who actually ran the Army year after year, watching tolerantly as the Reserve officers entered, served a couple of years, and departed in disgust with the system.

Willeford's prose is spare and laconic. What's riveting about his fiction is how he leads the reader gradually, with matter-of-fact descriptions, into a completely off-kilter world that the reader—and the narrator—see as normal, only to have the real world come crashing down on the head of the poor sap who's telling the story.

Although Willeford is often referred to as a hardboiled writer, his stories are neither classic noir nor entirely pulp. His style seems to be more in the Hemingway-esque "one-man-against-the-world" existentialist tradition, mixed with a healthy dose of post-war "Twilight-Zone" paranoia. Willeford's first-person characters are lonely men who have been isolated by lack of family, by lack of meaning in their lives, and by an uncaring, machine-like society that punishes people who try to step outside their designated functions. And as opposed to the classic noir tradition, where women are archetypes or two-dimensional floozies, Willeford's female characters actually have a little more depth—not a lot more, but enough to get a sense of their personalities.

The Woman Chaser by Charles Willeford

The Woman Chaser introduces Richard Hudson, a virtual orphan whose ability to manipulate people makes him a very successful used car salesman. Instead of being contented with the material trappings of this success, Hudson finds himself driven by the need to create something real, and coolly arranges his world to give himself the best opportunity to produce something amazing. Unfortunately, the creative goal he pursues is not conducive to his manipulations, which begin to rebound on him.

Hudson has a mother who has always spent her days dressing up as a ballerina and dancing in the basement, living off the royalties of a song her first husband wrote before killing himself, and carrying on a pseudo-sexual relationship with her son. Her second husband and stepdaughter are spiraling down the social ladder and are one step away from economic disaster when Hudson steps in and saves the day. The price he exacts is high: his stepsister's innocence and his stepfather's last remnant of pride. But Hudson ends up paying the highest price of all in exchange for pursuing his dream.

In The Woman Chaser—a title, incidentally, that seems to have been chosen for purposes of titillation rather than for its aptness—Richard Hudson visualizes the societal machine as a trailer truck brutally running over an innocent little girl. "The Machine in Ward Eleven" uses an electroshock machine to represent this process in a more intimate way. This title piece in a sextet of stories presents J.C. Blake, an inmate in a mental hospital who savors his memories the way other people probe a sore tooth or pry at scabs. Blake, a director, has higher ideals and expectations than his producers, and his career plummets. In despair he tries to commit suicide and is institutionalized. He enjoys being in the hospital, finding it easy to live there on his own terms, comparing it to a monk's cell and a womb—until he's told he will receive shock treatment. To Blake, the machine represents a living death, burning away his personality and his memories:

His memories, his ability to laugh at his follies and stupidities—when the chips were finally down, these were the only things a man had left to him. Otherwise, a man is a pine tree, a turnip, a daisy, a weed, existing through the grace of the sun and photosynthesis during the day, and ridding himself of excess carbon dioxide during the long night.

In his struggles to evade the machine Blake does everything, including debasing himself, to keep his individuality. The irony is that the struggle changes him into someone willing to accept compromise, someone who fills his role very well: a docile mental patient who is willing to trade his freedom in order to keep his memories.

There are three Blake stories in all, ranging from Tibet to Hollywood. The Blake stories at first seem to be in reverse order—Blake in the psych ward in "The Machine in Ward Eleven," "Selected Incidents," wherein a movie executive muses over Blake's life contrasted with his own, and finally, "Jake's Journal," Blake's memory of his younger days, an odd twilight existence in a lonely airfield in Tibet. Did Blake die in Tibet, and was the whole Hollywood dream just that, a dying vision? Or is the Tibet episode the result of the inmate's half-remembered, half-manufactured memories? Willeford provides no definitive answers.

The non-Blake stories in The Machine in Ward Eleven are entertaining and move quickly. "Just Like on Television—" is a darkly humorous look at the influence of popular entertainment on a vulnerable audience. "The Alectryomancer" brings in Willeford's interest in cockfighting parenthetically, but concentrates on the ability of a man to believe in something inherently unbelievable, even in the face of mockery, because it works for him. "A Letter to A.A. (Almost Anybody)" is another example of Willeford's bleak humor: an alcoholic discovers that no matter how low he and his family sink, sobering up may not be the best solution for all concerned. Willeford's not-so-subtle digs at mass entertainment, organized religion, and social service continue his theme: society will punish individuality no matter what form it takes.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2001/2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001/2002


Scorch by A. D. NaumanA. D. Nauman
Soft Skull Press ($12)

by Justin Maxwell

Fear and its relationship to the human condition is a powerful current throughout A.D. Nauman's first novel Scorch, but its depths are inadequately soundedinstead we get an unanalyzed Marxist diatribe. Scorch is a reductio ad absurdum critique of free-for-all capitalism. Its characters are pseudo-willing participants in a perpetual orgy of trying to pass one's self off as a supermodel amidst a dizzying continuum of stress, television screens, and people dying with comic-book excess. The protagonist, Arel Ashe, is a librarian—in a video library of course—who stumbles onto a cache of actual books and, on reading them, discovers Marxism and a raison d'être. She must save society from itself, a spontaneous workers' revolution of one.

Unfortunately, Marxist ideas and moral epiphanies are clunkily interjected into the text and shallowly espoused—which would be fine, even believable, coming from the main character, but often they come from the narrator. The ideas are belligerently clichéd: "When everyone tries to take them [safety, love, and meaning] instead of give them, they no longer exist"; "I'm very concerned about the children"; or, with complete p.c. vapidity, "A grass-roots movement to raise consciousness and challenge the oppressive capitalist system in which we live." It's occasionally hard to tell who's speaking, the 3rd-person narrator or the protagonist, and the author frequently seems confused as to whether the world of the text is a reality or a potentiality.

At its best Scorch is a surreptitious comparison of the failures of the two surviving utopian ideals. Once the protagonist sets out to introduce Marxism into the world, the last two utopian methodologies go head-to-head. Both systems are defeated by the same thing: the human. Each time Arel has some success proselytizing for the revolution, she falls into the capitalist sloganism of the system she's trying to subvert. When she gains the illusion of some upward mobility she instantly begins to invoke the same motivational-speakerisms of the workaholic bourgeoisie. She lives in a mad-house of capitalism. Arel is continually entranced by the idea of herself as an individual and not able to see herself as part of a cultural collective, Marxist or capitalist. She, like everyone else in the text, has fallen into a kind of collective somnambulism. Nauman has given us a world of Situationalist sleep, a world of pop-culture lemmings.

Both social systems fail—Marxism because it can't accommodate the desire for personal success, and capitalism because it's nothing more than an opiate, short-term happiness followed by profound discontentment and the super-cession of the fix over all else. We are continually shown how the same fear that creates culture brings about culture's destruction. What that fear is or how it works is never engaged. Nauman knows her characters participate in their hyper-culture to quell some kind of internal fear, but she never truly explores this essentially human element.

Scorch, had it smoothly postulated a new and viable socio-economic system, could have been revolutionary and groundbreaking, but then it wouldn't be a dystopia. In the end Arel dies, casually and violently burned to death by a former co-worker in a scene of weak and obvious irony. Although Scorch has moments of powerful and well-worked prose, the author is never able to see her own ideas in a broad enough scope to truly get to the essence of the human in society. Nauman wrote an entertaining book about perilous economics, never realizing that she needed to write a perceptual book about her true subject, the genesis of culture.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2001/2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001/2002

My Name Is Red

My Name is Red by Orhan PamukOrhan Pamuk
Translated by Erdag M. Göknar
Knopf ($25.95)

by Eric J. Iannelli

In the wake of the September 11 atrocities, some booksellers have been eager to seize the prevailing fervour and stock their display windows with literature relating to Islam, Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaeda terrorist network, and the Taliban. While this is undoubtedly a means to a monetary end, it is also an admirable attempt to educate a public that until now has been content with only vague ideas about the second-largest religion in the world. Sadly, however, one particularly excellent work is often missing from these sales exhibits.

First published as Benim Adim Kirmiz nearly four years ago, My Name Is Red is Turkish author Orhan Pamuk's fourth novel to be published in English. Set in Istanbul during the late 16th century, a period of severe religious repression, its plot is rooted in Islamic history and custom, yet this does not limit the breadth of its potential readership. Much to the contrary, My Name Is Red addresses the sort of timeless, universal issues that make for superb literary fiction.

The opening chapter leads with the announcement, "I Am A Corpse," effectively luring the reader into a firsthand account of murder and the afterlife. As in the 1950 movie Sunset Boulevard, this is told by the victim himself, the gilder Master Elegant Effendi—but unlike the movie, narrative duties are also passed on to several major characters in the novel. We are introduced by turns to Black Effendi, recently returned to Istanbul after a period of self-exile; a mongrel dog, one of the remarkable comic asides; and the enchanting Shekure (a name etymologically related to our English word "sugar"), much-desired by more than one man. Even the anonymous murderer himself is given his say. Some of these personal accounts overlap. Others offer interesting clues, or perhaps fail to provide crucial details. In addition to demonstrating a deft authorial hand, this constant shift in perspective illustrates just one of Pamuk's larger themes: the role of art in society and religion, oft-disputed on account of its inherent subjectivity.

As the mysterious events before and after the tragedy develop, we find that Elegant Effendi has been at work on an important and highly circumspect book commissioned by Ottoman Sultan Murat III. He is only one of a handful of expert miniaturists who have been selected to realize the Sultan's masterwork, which, it is hoped, will incorporate and surpass the work of the Frankish masters. These "infidel" painters have adopted the practice of representational art, a style first encountered by the appointed head of these miniaturists, Enishte Effendi, on an ambassadorial trip to Venice. These Western artists do not render the essence of what they are painting—for instance, the idea of the perfect tree—but rather an exact likeness of the thing itself. Furthermore, the perspectival shift of representational art lowers the central focal point to the level of the artist himself, not as Allah would see it from the heavens. Therefore the Western style causes trouble on two counts. In terms of physical execution, it creates additional problems of dimension and painstaking detail. Ideologically, it runs entirely antithetical to the lessons of the Great Masters; that is, the Persian miniaturists who began and perfected the Islamic method of drawing.

The Sultan's book and the new style therein become an issue of gross debate among the more traditional Islamic miniaturists, agitating the internal dynamic of the coterie because it raises important questions among them about the very nature of their profession. Style, for one, is called into question. Is it a subtle display of individuality, and later a path to recognition and immortality? Or is it merely the intrusion of ego upon one's work? One character suggests that style is only an artist's accumulated imperfections, while another counters that it gives a personal depth to the work under scrutiny. Later we are confronted with the issue of artistic influence and imitation. A passage by "Butterfly," one of three nicknamed master miniaturists, demonstrates how convincing and nuanced these arguments can be:

"As long as the number of worthless artists motivated by money and fame instead of the pleasure of seeing and a belief in their craft, increases," I said, "we will continue to witness much more vulgarity and greed akin to this preoccupation with ‘style' and ‘signature.'" I made this introduction because this was the way it is done, not because I believed what I said. True ability and talent couldn't be corrupted even by the love of gold or fame. Furthermore, if truth be told, money and fame are the inalienable rights of the talented, as in my case, and only inspire us to greater feats.

By allowing his narrators to voice such diverse opinions, Pamuk enables the reader to sympathize with every viewpoint, even those with a less than noble worldview. (Incidentally, the chapters related by the coffee-house storyteller—from Satan's point of view, to name just one—are especially brilliant.) The most compelling arguments are to be found in a series of episodes early in the novel, in which the central characters relate a series of anecdotes designated Alif, Ba and Djim (later appearing as Alif, Lam and Mim). Via this layered dialectical approach, we come to see that art, much like life itself, is neither X nor Y, but a more ambiguous Z. Art is the combination of tradition and progress, vision and blindness—at once real and ideal, telluric and ethereal.

Well-crafted as it is, My Name Is Red is not without its shortcomings. The book has an implausible pace: In one day, for example, Black Effendi wins the heart of his beloved, conducts a series of bribes, sails across the Bosphorous, secures a divorce through an extensive trial, returns to a wedding with full procession, and goes about dressing and cleaning a corpse. He even manages to squeeze in a haircut. The cumulative events of this novel take place in the space of about one week, with a hastily drawn epilogue that rockets ahead decades into the future, marring an otherwise realistic tone and setting. Also, the revelation of the murderer is haphazard. Clues and hypotheses keep the reader merely curious rather than actively engaged; main suspects are left underdeveloped, their most distinguishing traits omitted. In the end, the reader is led to suppose that the killer's identity has been created—or possibly argued into being—rather than existing from the outset. This results in an awareness of an author at work, much like pulling back the curtain to reveal the puppeteer, limiting the enjoyment of a well-constructed ruse.

Much like its primary subject, My Name Is Red operates on many contrasting levels. In addition to an ingenious and engaging analysis of art, the edges of the story bleed into the categories of murder mystery, Islamic folklore, and historical novel. Thus metaphor builds upon metaphor, establishing an intricate dialogue within the text that speaks to the reader—made possible by the smooth and credible translation—as much as it speaks to itself. And for the benefit of those like myself who need a quick refresher course in Middle Eastern geography and historical highlights, there are appendices that feature a historical chronology and a map of the region.

If anything is to promote understanding between two cultures that often see the other as antithetical, it will be a work like My Name Is Red. Pamuk's clever ending, in which he identifies himself as the author, resembles an O. Henry twist as closely as it mimics a standard Islamic narrative device. Through a tale rich in the various shades of human existence and vivid historical detail, this book portrays the small gap between these two faiths more accurately than any current non-fiction account.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2001/2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001/2002

An Interview with JT Leroy

by Kevin Sampsell

Bloomsbury ($14.95)

A couple of weeks ago I received a raccoon penis bone in the mail from JT Leroy. It measured over six inches long and one end was mounted in a silver cap with a tiny hole at the top. I was told to make a necklace out of it. Similar bones play a strange role in JT Leroy's first novel, Sarah. In it, a twelve-year-old boy, who willingly becomes involved with a stable of truck-stop whores, wears such a necklace as a status symbol and sexual good luck charm. The bigger the bone, the more valued you are to the truckers. What's more startling than that, is the fact that JT Leroy is barely of drinking age, and yet tells us every small detail of this dark world as if he's lived there every day of his life.

In fact, he almost has. Born to a young mother in 1980, he was given to foster parents who loved and cared for him during his first four years. When his birth mother turned 18 she was able to win custody with the help of her father, a strict militant-like preacher. From there he split his time between his traveling prostitute mother and her abusive boyfriends and his grandparents in West Virginia, where he sometimes preached on the street as a child.

Leroy's most recent book, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, a collection of linked stories that were actually written when he was sixteen (before he wrote Sarah), chronicles this shocking and brutal childhood up through his teen years. It's being billed as fiction, but is obviously autobiography. In interviews as recently as last year, Leroy even admitted that he sometimes still turned tricks despite his blossoming writing career, which included writing articles for magazines like Spin and NY Press and having Sarah made into a movie by Gus Van Sant.

Leroy is easily accessible to his fans, as his e-mail address is printed in his books and his comprehensive web site (www.jtleroy.com) lets readers know what he's up to. Indeed, after reading his work, I was surprised at how friendly and well-adjusted he seems in his e-mail messages, despite having a reputation for being painfully shy and never being seen at his readings (where other writers read from his work with an exuberant and almost parental pride). Others have described him as a typical 21st-century-kid, gladly answering e-mails all day long but without social skills in public.


Kevin Sampsell: I've told people that Sarah is the best southern book by a non-southerner that I've read. How important is place in your writing?

JT Leroy: I don't consider myself a southern writer really. I've lived all over the place and the stories take place in different parts of the country. I think a lot of my writing really shows a search for place that is not constantly fleeting. I mean I was with a wonderful family for the first four years. It was a very stable environment and they tried to adopt me. My mom sued to get me back when she turned 18 and she won, being the birth mother. She was young, and it was overwhelming to her, so I would end up in placement and then when they found out about my grandparents I would be sent to live with them in West Virginia. But then I would take off with my mom and we would live all over the country, in a car, in a truck, in hotels. We'd get separated and then I'd go back into placement and then get sent back to my grandparents. And the cycle would repeat, many, many times so I got to live all over.

KS: With both of your books, you are writing from personal experiences. Are you worried about the prospect of having to eventually write more "fictional" work?

JTL: Well, I envy writers who sit down and say "I'm going to write a book about a man and a woman and they do whatever" and then they write it. I can't do that. I have my obsessions. For novels I still have stuff to vomit, so to speak. When I run out, maybe I'll have to tell the love story on the banks of a snowy lake in Minnesota or whatever, but in the meantime, I'm still not done. The Heart is Deceitful is the prequel to Sarah. The book I'm working on now is the next part. Sarah had a lot of fantasy in it, I mean it is not autobiographical. So, I know I can write fiction. I am working with Gus Van Sant on a film for HBO (based on Sarah). I'm writing the screenplay and Diane Keaton is producing. It's really cool because I can stretch and write stories that are not my experience. It is still filtered through me, obviously, so my issues are there.

KS: Tell me more about working with Gus Van Sant.

JTL: It is still unbelievable to me in many ways to have Gus Van Sant making Sarah into a movie. It was a dream of mine to have him make Sarah because he is one of my all time favorite directors. When I hang out with him, it always washes over me, oh my God, this is Gus Van Sant! I don't know if that will ever go away. He has been wonderful and really taken me under his wing, really mentoring me. He asked Patti Sullivan to write the screenplay. She is fucking amazing. The three of us work together very closely. It is tight, the connection, like a family.

KS: So much of the new book is so intense, but there's that great moment of comedy in "Foolishness is Bound in the Heart of a Child" where you innocently sing punk rock songs to your grandfather. Are you comfortable writing humor scenes and do you think you might go in that direction more in the future?

JTL: Yes, that's one thing that reading Mary Karr has taught me, how humor makes the story more powerful. You reach a saturation point with pain and if you have humor, you can take people further with you on your journey. You won't trip their wires. I am currently in collaboration with Todd Kessler (creator of Blue's Clues) and Rebecca Goldstein at No Hands Productions on an independent television series called House Arrest, and an animated children's feature film. It requires a lot of humor. One of the guys working with us is involved with the Rugrats folks.

KS: I've seen interviews where you have defended your mother and say that you love her. Most people reading these books would wonder how you can have any positive feelings about her. Where does this compassion come from?

JTL: Throughout The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, Sarah tries really hard to be a good mother. She is just too young to know what she is doing and is incredibly overwhelmed by her situation and her own issues. Although she acted out many of her own horrors, she did love and care for Jeremiah but her ability to do so was just incredibly scarred.

KS: I'm interested to know if your time spent with your grandparents have lingered with you as far as your religious opinions go? Do you ever see them anymore?

JTL: My family doesn't feel happy about my writing and really doesn't like me to talk about them. I don't give too many specifics. What, when, where, why.

It was very sterile with the grandparents. It was very strict and religious, very literal with the Bible. The only way I really felt love with my grandfather, the only way I really ever got touched was to be punished by him. So when you learn that growing up, have that kind of experience, the idea of getting a beating becomes a way to soothe. I think the Bible is full of that shit. And folks take that very literally and beat their kids because that is what it says to do. I want people to look at that and see how fucking sick it is. My wiring got screwed up and I feel that loss. When folks use the Bible to hurt their kids it enrages me.

KS: Speaking of parental units, I'm also curious about the foster parents that your mom took you from when you were four. Do you have contact with them?

JTL: Probably the best thing that could have happened to me would have been for me to have been adopted and raised by my foster family. However, if I'd stayed with them I would not have written Sarah or The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things. I may not have even been a writer at all but I would probably be happy or happier. I have not had any contact with them. But I dream of trying to find them.

KS: How did your mom or the people around you respond to your sexual awareness when you were so young?

JTL: My mom had a theory that if she met a guy he would feel challenged by a son, but if it was a girl, her sister or daughter, it would be easier. I just found that people were nicer to me when they thought I was a pretty little girl. I liked that power. It's kind of like Pavlov's dog; if you get more attention for wearing a certain item or looking a certain way, you're going to want to do that. It really was never about sexual awareness. I mean there wasn't like a coming of age you know.

KS: You have interviewed people for various magazines yourself. How did you get involved with that?

JTL: Bruce Benderson did a story about me when I was 17 for NY Press. After that article they had me writing for them under (the pen name) Terminator. One thing led to another.

KS: Most of your interview subjects are musicians. Do you have a secret aspiration to be a rock star in your lifetime?

JTL: Yeah! I'd never be on stage doing it though. I was joking with Tom Spanbauer and saying how Amy Tan and Stephen King have the Rock Bottom Remainders which is this rock band of famous writers. I said we should get together with some other writers and call ourselves the Jockstrap Remainders. Music is just something I relate to. It is hugely important to me. When I write I usually hear it as music.

Click here to purchase The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2001/2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001/2002