Tag Archives: winter 2003

Problem Pictures

Buy this book from Amazon.comSpencer Selby
Sink ($15)

by W. B. Keckler

Verbo-visual poetry, or whatever designation you choose to use for those works which integrate or conflate text and images, is often given short shrift in American literary criticism. Critics such as Bob Grumman, Johanna Drucker and Richard Kostelanetz have tried their best to rectify this situation, but there is still a sense of stonewalling, if not an outright ghettoization of the art form. Spencer Selby—one of the most accomplished and visible practitioners of verbo-visual art, who has also published many celebrated books of textual poetry—once authored a book on film noir, and I'd wager this fact occurs in most reviews of his verbo-visual works, since the noir aesthetic seems to appear passim in these books of black-and-white palimpsests of text and image. Noir is by no means the predominant atmosphere in Problem Pictures, however, which consists of more than 100 pages of alarming configurations of ink (not all of which are truly verbo-visual productions, as some pages consist of images sans text). The predominant atmosphere is one of politically-adrenalized wariness; the collages of Rodchenko come to mind, or some of the verbo-visual works of other Russian Futurists, like Mayakovsky.

Attempts to rationalize the meaning of these productions is probably defeatist, since Selby's art wants to destabilize the complacency of meaning, our poorly bartered peace with meaning. He wants to show us the ground of meaning, which isn't really pretty. These poems, and I do consider them poems, sucker-punch the reader, especially when they directly engage the violent American zeitgeist by re-presenting past acts of inhumanity and vile repression. Stark images of car crashes, people drowning, protesters being herded by police, are placed under jingoistic and exhortatory phrases (often handwritten) such as a few bars of a joyous hymn, and the contrast often achieves a grim, literally black humor. Science and scientific hubris are often targets; many images look like they come from Cold War-period science textbooks that were actually thinly veiled propaganda. There seems no doubt that we are now living Under Empire, and Selby backtracks to show us where this all began.

Texts are rarely given in complete form, since fragmentation is the prerogative of power and the motif of our age. We see on Selby's page what a condemned man might have time to read in the moments when a sentence is handed him on paper just as he's being led out to stand against the wall. Reading down his pages, we find phrases like "watched / doorway / of writing" and "is alive / implies / universe" and "gaping / cover / motive." These are words of different sizes floating in space over images so the use of virgules is a modified convention here. There are a few images excerpted from Un Chien Andalou, usually different stages in the razorblade slicing the eye. (One senses Selby is summing up the 20th century by selecting one image to represent it; if this is indeed the case, I could hardly think of one more apt.) This book really has to be held in your hands to be fully appreciated. You have to be able to read it almost as a flip book, to get that sense of testimony that the works build through conscientious, disquieting accretion. One is fairly certain Oppen and Reznikoff would recognize their legacy in the works of this unflinching artist. This is an age of problem pictures. Selby is one of the few who refuses to look away.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2003/2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003/2004

Deer Head Nation

Buy this book from Amazon.comK. Silem Mohammad
Tougher Disguises Press ($12)

by Aaron Kunin

How to create a community through poetry: (1) A poem can describe an existing social organization such as "adolescent girls in America." (2) It can describe a society from an earlier historical period: "I spent 20 years in the army / of the most powerful nation on earth / the army of the Pharaoh / biting kids in your street." (3) It can invent one--for example, Martian teenagers, magical kittens, "the army of the negaverse," etc. (4) It can even invent the symbolic rituals through which societies define themselves: "many pledge allegiance to the 'blood god' / I pledge allegiance to the freaky horse / who watches over me as I sleep."

These examples of community awareness are quoted from K. Silem Mohammad's poetry collection Deer Head Nation. The title suggests a commitment to nation-building: this book wants to be America, although it may not particularly like America and may occasionally demand "DEATH TO AMERICA!" In any case, the "head nation" designated in the title is not exactly singular. For one thing, it's a pun: it both describes a nation of people who collect and display deer heads as hunting trophies (or, more simply, a nation in the shape of a deer head), and, in the respectful but impersonal language of form letters, it addresses that nation as a world superpower: "Dear Head Nation." This addressee is also not singular; since nations are in conflict, both the militant "deer head nation" and the "raghead nation" have some pretensions to being recognized as the "head nation." And Mohammad's America is not singular either; behind the oppressive "voice of America ad nauseam"—a monoculture where everyone is apparently saying the same thing, "the same deer's head for instance / appears over and over"—many distinctly articulated voices, including "the voice of Yogi Bear," project their own self-images as collective identities.

Thus, (5) a poem creates a community by incorporating multiple voices through quotation, allusion, and influence—intertextual rather than international relations. The poems in Deer Head Nation are a little coy about their use of source-materials—in "Spooked," the first poem in the collection, "the voices have no source"—and the front matter and jacket copy are disappointingly unforthcoming about Mohammad's methodology, but it's apparent that most of the language is derived from internet searches for keywords or phrases. In his word searches, Mohammad tends to prefer language that's inarticulate, vulgar, anti-literary; some of the words in this collection have probably never appeared before in poems. (Also, for a book of computer-assisted writing, the ethos is surprisingly low-tech: the basic model for artistic technique is a preserved and mounted deer head—"warning: skinning a deer head really and truly sucks"—although some poems imagine a post-apocalyptic "public transit system of hovercrafts.") This language is then presumably reduced, arranged, divided, and otherwise doctored. The collaged results are sometimes relatively seamless ("NAFTA, 6 pesos to the dollar / that is downright spooky"); less frequently, the presentation emphasizes the prior situatedness of the materials in a computer-generated word list ("Misfits Attitude.mp3 Misfits Braineaters.mp3," etc.).

One might also argue that (6) a poem is an expression of a community of poets. Deer Head Nation is a state-of-the-art collection of a kind of writing that's sometimes called "flarf." (The term was originally supposed to designate uses of language that would be inappropriate in poetry, but now it seems to be primarily associated with poems based on internet searches.) Some of Mohammad's colleagues in flarf writing (Drew Gardner, Gary Sullivan, Katie Degentesh, Jordan Davis) make cameo appearances in the charming, witty, and only mildly offensive poem "Puritan": "there's a bunch of people in Drew's pants / and not forgetting Gary's pants / police also noticed a bulge in Katie's pants / . . . we are in 'Jordan's Pants' / oh great—/ let's go find Michael Jordan's pants." (I'm using the term "offensive" in, if possible, an objective sense, although anyone who claims to be offended by this book is probably being disingenuous. What did you expect from a poem called "Puritan" in a book called Deer Head Nation? Which is just to say that (7) a poem is also part of a community—a collection of poems, or a sequence such as "Deer Head Suite"—and should be judged mainly for its behavior within its peer group.)

Finally, (8) a poem establishes an artificial community among its readers. Everyone who reads a poem is connected to it and to its other readers—an occult fact that Mohammad cheerfully exploits in "Full Summary and Analysis of Paradise Lost" and in "Wallace Stevens," poems that recount misinformation about the lives and works of major authors—e.g., "Satan turns into a cute little cherub / . . . 'spent $17,000 on a new car,' he laments." Because the context of reading is a social one, poetry acquires its real significance in use.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2003/2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003/2004


Buy this book from Amazon.com

Pentti Saarikoski
Translated by Anselm Hollo
La Alameda Press ($18)

by Gregory Farnum

Look for information on Pentti Saarikoski at your local library or (in English) on the net, and you'll find precious little. Yet he is a major Finnish poet, and Trilogy, completed shortly before his death in 1983, is his crowning work. Fortunately the cycle has been masterfully translated by the Finnish-born Anselm Hollo (who grew up to be a German poet, then a British poet, and is now indisputably an American poet), the man who, along with the Englishman Herbert Lomas, has made Saarikoski's work accessible to the Anglophone world. Hollo eloquently describes Saarikoski's legacy in the forward to Trilogy:

He left us twenty-two books of poems, six volumes of essayistic and autobiographical prose, three plays written for radio, a posthumous volume of diaries, and seventy book-length translations into Finnish from classical Greek, Latin, Italian, German, English, and Swedish, including Homer's Odyssey and James Joyce's Ulysses, the fragments of Herakleitos, Sappho's poems, Aristotle's Poetics...

And on and on. On top of all this, Hollo goes on to say,

He was, for a time, a youth idol—the popular press referred to him as 'The Blond Beatle of the North'—whose often scandalous behavior and pronouncements, combined with his introduction of uninhibited Finnish vernacular into the language of literature . . . shocked his elders in much the same way that William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsburg jolted the establishment in the United States.

Saarikoski twice ran for parliament as a Communist, and was famed for his extrovert tendencies during the '60s. In the '70s, however, he moved with his new wife, the writer Mia Berner, to an island off the coast of Sweden to live a quieter, more private, rustic life. At this point one can hear the noise of half-witted comedians, bow-tied conservatives, newspaper jabberers and other fast thinkers who dominate so much of our mental ecology speaking disparagingly of hippies and their laughable back-to-nature efforts. Here are Saarikoski's words:

Snakes with their small tongues
licked my ears clean
once again I can hear
the sounds of the world
the rowan-berries

I want to keep this peace
in which I have creatures sit on my shoulders
and dance floor on the mountain

That's the fifth poem constituting The Dance Floor on the Mountain; published in 1977, it was the first volume in the trilogy, followed in 1980 by Invitation to the Dance. In both, the poems are numbered rather than titled, and cling to the left of the page as they ramble, jaggedly and serendipitously, between the personal and the universal, the present and the ever-present past. The classical motifs (serpents' tongues and the dance) recur throughout in a manner that is consistently discovered rather than merely cited.

The dance motif might be seen by American readers as a charming metaphor striving to overcome its encrusted overlay of triteness, but Saarikoski means something more profound; think instead of martial arts or healing disciplines, or contemporary physics, such as string theory—i.e., the magical power of movement and rhythm to open doors. That rhythm includes the less bucolic aspects of the poet's environment, such as the factories on the island. Saarikoski, a streetwise leftist, was very familiar with factories. The yuppie getaway villas on the prime beach-front real estate were a newer phenomenon:

in the café I sit
look at tall villas on the opposite shore
inhabited by people with their own brand of contentment
other people
they've turned the wind around so the spirit of the city
won't breathe on them
sunny mornings busy with sailboats
on the bay
cool highballs early summer evenings
they have those coming to them
new thoughts won't be needed for a long time

The final volume in the trilogy, The Dark One's Dances, hearkens back to Saarikoski's groundbreaking 1962 work What Is Really Going On (as discussed by Hollo in the introduction)—the lines are jagged, dancing around the page and creating their own form, and the Dark One (Herakleitos) is ever more present. Pound, an acknowledged precursor, is there, but so perhaps is Ron Padgett—an example (which Herakleitos would no doubt approve of) of remembering the future:

I make the kind of observations a depressed person makes
the boat's been left there
to rot in the water
now that he who used to row it
is dead

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2003/2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003/2004

Chances Are Few

Buy this book from Amazon.comLorenzo Thomas
Blue Wind Press ($19.95)

by Christopher Luna

In his introduction to this expanded second edition of his first major poetry collection (originally published in 1979), Lorenzo Thomas provides an extremely pragmatic statement of his poetics:

Always it has seemed sensible to me to accept the proposition that the poet is the man who suffers; that to speak of that suffering helps us to understand how such experiences shape people and the world. Understanding such things might teach us how to make life less painful, our relationships less brutal. As our nightly entertainments and the watchman's alarums both reveal, ours is a society full of brutalities decked out in excuses. True civility would show us how to install intelligence and wisdom in the place now haughtily occupied by destructive sophistication.

Chances Are Few is a thoughtful collection of plainly spoken and unpretentious observations, some which underscore the brutality of society, and others that are more subtle. There is a specific "I" present in many of these poems, but "he" is never intrusive or self-aggrandizing. The immediacy of his social commentary is compelling, as in the final two stanzas of "Security," which describes the increasingly "crazy" behavior of Thomas's fellow Americans:

All Americans are going going
"Those honkies" hissed
The protestants at the pier

And "I, too, am an American"
Dreamed a lovely desirable gone white girl
Marvelously sedated in a chair

Similarly, "Broadway-Lafayette Espadrille" captures the particular rhythm of the inner monologue that often accompanies travel in the city, as well as the anxiety created by both the close quarters and lingering tension between persons of different ethnic backgrounds.

Another standout piece is "The Rule of Thumb," a poem dedicated to Ron Padgett which follows the mind's meanderings in a Tulsa motel room, as the narrator watches TV and drinks Coors. In "Sketches of Susan," Thomas admits the difficulty of capturing the essence of a person in words, and contrasts the work of other artists, such as Mary Cassatt and Frank O'Hara, to his own perceived inability. "Hiccups" is a vibrant and sometimes humorous poem that consists of sketches of a "typical West Indian childhood."

"Class Action" makes effective use of movie-going customs to illuminate racial and socio-economic disparity. The futility of both defiance and indifference in response to segregated theaters is debated. As Thomas states, the former solution, "hurling Jujubes" from the balcony onto the heads of the white folks below,

Does as little good as the pleasure of being ignored
Being stolen away from yourself
One casual phrase at a time, or suddenly
A traumatic abduction from your own protection
Anxious yes and easeful as your "own"
Or after slackening of care by days
Being looked at as if you were wallpaper;
As strategy, it isn't logical a bit
But if it works, it's a breakthrough to logic.

Unlettered negroes called this logic Jazz
Relating thought to life, love to projection
Spirit entertained by spirit
as in life
And when the movies chose to speak
The voice was Jazz

Thomas is as skilled at evoking the power of speech ("Discovering America Again") as he is at providing unflinching scenes of race relations ("Art for Nothing," "Souvenir of The Manassah Ball") that are both shocking and poignant.

The ambience of many of the poems is provided by geographical setting, and the book closes in Houston, Texas, the "Liquid City" that provides the final section with its title. Thomas leaves us with an image of hope, discovered in the reflection of the sun upon the glass windows of the tall buildings that may help to correct the "gulf between us and ourselves":

We need a song that all of us can sing
A true reflecting. A moody, bright, expansive song.
In all this glass, when every face is seen,
These mirrors will hold conversations with the sun.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2003/2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003/2004

A Needle for the Searcher

Buy this book from Amazon.comThe Midnight
Susan Howe
New Directions ($19.95)

by Michelle Mitchell-Foust

I recently visited an exhibit called "Two Rooms," featuring installations by the artist Rosamond Purcell. The "rooms" were first, a "Recreation of scientist Olaus Worm's room," a cabinet of curiosities which Worm created in Amsterdam in 1655, and second, a reconstruction of Purcell's studio in the Eastern United States. Purcell is famous for photographing naturalia from museum collections; her collaborative books with the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould feature photographs of bones, shells, husks, feathers, and organs suspended in chemical fixatives. Purcell is a photographer, researcher, collector, arranger, and writer whose pieces carry titles such as: Grown Round By, Chair for Olaus Worm, Picture Stones and Figured Roots, Metal Wall, Overflow, Cement Slabs Used to Weigh Down Lobster Traps, Seed Rack, White Shelves, and Suitcase. The installation included a root shaped like a dancer, a horse jaw through a tree branch, books weathered into rocks, and a bearded bird. In the brochure for the installation, Purcell explains she is "after...the fact-free, provenance-lacking, bucket-kicking, burnt-out, no-good nameless shard that, in passing, just happens to look like something else." She is expert in classification, and yet she is most interested in objects that avoid characterization.

Purcell has a preference for "objects at the edge of decay," so along one metal wall we find petrified books whose swollen pages are mostly unreadable: they are sculpture now. In another corner of the room entitled "May I Warm You Up: Objects from the Fire," Purcell has placed burned things in neat rows: melted plumbing pipes from a hotel fire, burned scissors, bottles from a bonfire, a burned telephone, and a grave stone that had been recycled into a warming block.

I have been an admirer of Purcell's work for some time, and as the daughter of antique dealers and a collector of natural artifacts, I'm interested in the desire to collect, in the theories surrounding collecting, and in the incarnations of objects. Those who collected in centuries past filled their collections with what they believed was evidence of miracles, yet theories of collecting are both favorable and unfavorable. For example, as Purcell points out, Francis Bacon disapproved of cabinets, calling them sites of "broken knowledge." Freud's theories on collecting have to do with anal retention and childhood toilet training. Then there are the collecting theories of French philosopher Jean Baudrillard: "Surrounded by the objects he possesses, the collector is preeminently the sultan of a secret seraglio." Ralph Waldo Emerson said of cabinets of curiosities, or "arks," (the traditional terms for collections): "causes and spirits are seen through them."

With theories of collecting in mind, I was delighted to encounter Purcell's work in person. I was equally delighted to encounter Susan Howe's new book The Midnight, which also appeals to those of us with a thirst for juxtaposition. It appeals to those who collect because we are always making scientific and/or emotional connections among words and things. Moreover, poets make connections between words because words are mercurial natural artifacts.

Howe and Purcell are artistic contemporaries, and although they may never have met one another or seen one another's work, Susan Howe could caption Purcell's grand project with a single poem from The Midnight:

Counterforce bring me wild hope
non-connection is itself distinct
connection numerous surviving
fair trees wrought with a needle
the merest decorative suggestion
in what appears to be sheer white
muslin a tree fair hunted Daphne
Thinking is willing you are wild
to the weave not to material itself

Howe's line "It's an aesthetic of erasure," from another room of The Midnight, could also describe the sensibility Purcell and Howe share. Erasure is a key concept in contemporary poetry; as scholar/poet Donald Revell has noted: "When history proves useless and consensus chimerical, the poet's necessity is invention, and this does a lot to explain our century's preference for revision over mimesis." With an erasure, the poet does not imitate; the poet revises, crosses out—sometimes leaving in signs of this process, sometimes not. The erasure-ist must consider the following questions: Is what I leave un-crossed out emphasized? Is what I cross out emphasized? Am I working toward narrative or non-narrative writing? What do I want the erasure to say? Is what is crossed out obliterated? Or should readers be able to see what's been erased? What do I say about the erased text in my erasure? Is erasure "correction"? "perfection"? "un-perfection"? Will I do away with the erasures and see what writing is left? A poem? How can an erasure make something "larger" in importance? What words can I add to my erasure to work toward reconstruction?

One thing seems certain: in erasing from a text, the artist inevitably brings a new one into the world. Erasure seems akin to finding work in a cave and bringing it to new light and to new language, and the tears in the original fabric make for other silence that can also be read. In her book Pierce-Arrow (New Directions, 1997), Susan Howe revises, mixes, the manuscripts of Charles Sanders Pierce. She says, "Perhaps the Word, giving rise to all pictures and graphs, is at the center of Pierce's philosophy. There always was and always will be a secret affinity between symbolic logic and poetry." Howe exemplifies her aesthetic of erasure, including allusions to her Pierce project, in her latest work.

The Midnight demonstrates less what poets do with history than what history does to poets, how the residue of history and biology imprints on the poet. The collection is partly an erasure of the works of Robert Louis Stevenson, and partly a autobiographical, non-narrative quest tale whose fabric is woven with photographs of pages from various printed texts.

Howe's quest begins with a series of poems under the heading "Bed Hangings," pieces of history that starched linens hold for the world and for Howe. These are Irish linens some of the time, as Howe's Irish heritage is chronicled in The Midnight. The first sort of "bed hanging" we encounter is a reproduction of a crude Xerox of the tissue paper page between the frontispiece and the title page, taken from Howe's copy of Stevenson's The Master Of Ballantrae. Howe's introduction to The Midnight consists of her brief deliberation on the use for the tissue, which is there to "prevent illustration and text from rubbing together." Merely turn the page after the brief deliberation, and the poetry of The Midnight starts, each poem in the shape of a bed hanging. For example,

A small swatch bluish-green
woolen slight grain in the
weft watered and figured
right fustian should hold
altogether warp and woof
Is the cloven rock misled
Does morning lie what prize
What pine tree wildeyed boy

But why bed hangings? Perhaps the bed and bed linens provide the best image for history and biography, and, at the same time, for the poet's work; the embroidery and care of the linens, the needling of the cloth, the thread, has always been a wonderful metaphor for creation, for writing, Penelope's weaving in Homer's Odyssey leading the way. Howe illuminates some of the mystery of the bed hangings early on in The Midnight. Within the section "Scare Quotes I," which follows "Bed Hangings I," we find a relevant quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay "Poetry and the Imagination":

Great design belongs to a poem, and is better than any skill of execution,—but how rare!...We want design, and do not forgive the bards if they have only the art of enameling. We want an architect, and they bring us an upholsterer.

We can never accuse Howe of being an upholsterer in The Midnight. The architecture of the work is complex, and we should take a moment to backtrack and acknowledge it here. The book is divided into five sections, alternating what looks like poetry and what looks like prose, or prose poetry: "Bed Hangings I" in poetry, then "Scare Quotes I" in prose, or prose poetry, then "Bed Hangings II" in poetry, and "Scare Quotes II" in prose, and finally, the poetry of "Kidnapped."

Howe relays the Emerson "upholsterer" quotation along with an anecdote about a prolific bed hanging maker, just after the poet defines, in one "Scare Quotes" section, the word "bed":

BED, to lie or rest on. BED of Snakes, a Knot of young
ones. To BED, to pray. Spenc. BED [in Gunnery] is a thick
Plank which lies under a Piece of Ordnance on the Carriage.
To BED with one, is to lie together in the same Bed; most
usually spoken of new married Persons on the first Night.
To BED [Hunting Term] a Roe is said to bed, when she
lodges in a particular Place.

Both the Emerson quotation and the "bed" definition are typical of the kind of entries we find in The Midnight's prose sections. These "Scare Quotes" are especially interesting for the reader who craves arcane knowledge, such as more dictionary definitions, allusion to Edgar Allan Poe's sleep-waker, Orphic plot lines, obsessive compulsive disorders, train whistles, Shakespeare, Greek choruses, and family trees, with most of the images involving sleep and sleeplessness and bedding. The "Scare Quotes" have sub-titles like "cutwork" and "darn" and "traffic control" and "Ovaltine," letting us know that connections between these "Quotes" might only be in the writer's (or her reader's) mind.

The literary in-betweeness of The Midnight recalls for me W. H. Auden's Commonplace Book and contemporary experimental projects that could be called belles lettres, such as Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire, Lyn Hejinian's My Life, Franz Kafka's Blue Octavo Notebooks, and Anne Carson's The Beauty Of The Husband, an essay she claims is written in "tangos." But Howe's in-betweeness governs her grammar as well; her lines in The Midnight are not guided by punctuation at all, but by break and by capitalization, everything enjambed. We have to trust in the subjectivity of line breaking. We have to consider that line breaks may not indicate a break in sentence logic. And the poems have no traditional beginnings or endings, like the objects of Purcell's rooms. Note the following "Bed Hanging" poems:

Nor hemp to pleasure pillow
Nor clay scorn to cover as if
sphere of the pent lake hold
Infold me bird and briar you
fathom we cannot to another
declare character in written
summit granite cramp marble
Simple except a blank that it

and later

Glide my shadow through
time curtains will dwindle
Far be it from me whatever
reaction splits into willing
things absolute but absent
are not alone Nominalism
While I lie in you for refuge
it is sanctuary it is refuge

We wait for recognizable phrases like watching a fish come to the water's surface for a bread crumb we've just thrown down ourselves. These two bed hangings may be addressed to a lover. They seem so coded, so secret, so intimate. They might also be addressed to the act of naming, which is the action of poetry itself. Howe's tone seems very like the tone of Emily Dickinson's work here, poems perhaps addressed to the other, or to the creator, or to the act of creation. And like Dickinson, Howe sacrifices sense for sound in her poetry. No surprise, then, that as part of her project in The Midnight, Howe narrates, in her second "Scare Quotes" section, her experience of her library search for Emily Dickinson, or more specifically, Dickinson's original manuscript for "My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun—," which she never gets her hands on, according to her story. Howe pays homage to Dickinson because "She has shown [Howe] that access to the metaphysical is the requirement of a NEED."

We might be tempted to look for the hymn in each "Bed Hanging" because Howe conjures up the "white linen" poet whose work has hymnal structure; after all, Howe provides us a roll call of ministers and sermons in "Scare Quotes I"; and she explains in the definition of "bed" that "to bed" also means "to pray". However, we will not find the hymn meter in Howe's individual poems of the "Bed Hanging" sections (though the poems taken together do sound incantatory). We can look instead to Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland for some clues to Howe's grammatology and her non-applications of grammar in the individual poems.

Standard English grammar can be thanked for the sense that nonsense makes in Alice's adventures underground. Carroll spoofed traditional English education this way. And Carroll's words in the book may have been inventions, but the syntax and parts of speech kept order in the text. The most famous example is from Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky," which appears in the "Humpty Dumpty" chapter of Through the Looking-Glass:

Twas brillig and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

We comprehend these lines on the level of syntax and can identify the parts of speech. The words "slithy" and "mimsy" are certainly adjectives, while "toves" and "borogoves" and "raths" are certainly nouns. We know that these lines are providing the setting for the nonsense poem.

Howe's syntax, on the other hand, defies diagramming—one is tempted to read the lines backwards as well as forwards, just as in the chess match in Wonderland, to move your man backward was to move your man forward. Yet there is structure to Howe's tropes; for one thing, Howe uses anacoluthon, which causes grammatical inconsistency to be stitched into the same sentence. We might think of anacoluthon as a cousin of portmanteau, a term that Howe uses in its original connotation in the "Bed Hanging" poems. According to Alice In Wonderland, a portmanteau is a "traveling bag which opens, like a book, into two equal compartments." Carroll attached the term to his method of inventing words, words in which "there are two meanings packed up into one word." Howe's title, The Midnight, could even be considered a figurative portmanteau, as midnight is the spliced moment of night and day.

Let us move then from the personalities of double words to the double personalities of phrases. When the line follows the "workings of the mind," starting "according to one pattern and abruptly" changing to another, we have anacoluthon, the way John Frederick Nims defines the term in his book Western Wind. He uses a line from Peter Viereck's "To Helen of Troy (N.Y.)" as an example: "I sit here with the wind is in my hair." We can see an example in the following lines from "Bed Hanging I":

Glide my shadow through
time curtains will dwindle

which might be separated into three different phrases: "Glide my shadow through time" and "through time curtains will dwindle" and "time curtains will dwindle." Meanings are nested in Howe. And we might apply an Alice-esque "Scare Quote" to this nesting of Howe's: "It is fun to be hidden but horrible not be found—the question is how to be isolated without being insulated."

Howe's grammatical play brings to mind the alchemy of the Irish language, Howe's inheritance. When Irish poet Cathal O'Searcaigh talks about poetry, he reminds us of the power of the word, relating that there is no difference between the Irish word for song and the Irish word for poem. The word for "poem" also means "fate," "gift," "offering," and "what is in store for you." The word for a poem's creator actually translates, in O'Searcaigh's mind, to "the one who sees what other have forgotten to see," and when the poet speaks, even the way she speaks the words shifts the meaning. The poet may cure illnesses with poems by saying the poems aloud, but she must have the voice and soul for healing. Likewise, words spoken incorrectly cause harm to the world. Even the clearing of the throat has meaning.

In other examples of the alchemy of Irish, O'Searcaigh is fond of pointing out that the Irish word for "priest" (sagart) might be changed to "little priest" by adding "in" to the word's end (sagartin). However, the word for "little priest" also means "indedible perriwinkle" and "ram with one testicle missing." One must be careful in translating such a word. Along the same lines, the word for "chain," spelled "buarach," might be joined with the word for "die" or "perish," spelled "bais," yet the combination of "buarach" and "bais" or "buarach bais" would not mean "dying chain"; rather, the phrase would translate into "An unbroken hoop of skin cut with incantation for a corpse across the entire body from shoulder to foot sole and wrapped in silk off the colors of the rainbow to produce certain effects by witchcraft." The grammatical constructs of Irish phraseology, we find, make for tricky translation, and Howe's poetry may reflect these underpinnings.

Earlier I chose the term belles lettres for Howe's The Midnight because, like epistolary projects, Howe's book may have a "crisis of destination," a phrase philosopher Jacques Derrida uses for letters that might be lost in the mail, and for when time changes from sender to sendee, and the epistle is no longer immediate. In the case of The Midnight, the project is a difficult one; the poems are syntactically complicated. Yet Howe includes commentary on her process in her finished product. She defines her project throughout her project. At the book's opening, she writes:

For here we are here
daylight does not reach
Vast depth on the wall


Revisionist work in
historic interiors spread
from House to Museum

Other documentary evidence
Friends who wish to
remain anonymous

The reader, I assume, is the "Neophyte," who must learn that the Bed Hangings prevent illumination. They prevent the reader from looking out into the day. We must read them and not the world beyond. The Bed Hanging is all the world one needs. It is the personal history and biology; it is the inheritance.

But what happens when the people in the house create something that must move outside the house, or from "House to Museum"? This is the ancient quandary of audience. Alice Walker has said that she thinks it's important for people, writers in particular, to be bilingual, but she doesn't mean that people need to be able to use two entirely different languages from two different cultures. What she is referring to is her ability to remember the simple English that her mother and father spoke when she lived at home, which is an entirely different language (though still English) from the one she writes in. Both are extremely important, and sometimes they overlap, but they are never the same language. I think Howe is addressing a similar issue. What happens when the embroidery, the craft of linen, goes out on display? What happens when craft becomes art? Or is taken as seriously as art, when it's normally been taken seriously as inheritance? A poet must consider these questions as part of her process. How does one reconcile the Bed Hanging of one's childhood and the Bed Hanging of one's adulthood? Perhaps this is a good time to bring in Howe's definition of poetry: "the impossibility of plainness rendered in plainest form." And here is another example of "the impossibility of plainness," an excerpt from the very last poem of the book:

Style in one stray sitting I
approach sometime in plain
handmade rag wove costume
awry what I long for array

Howe comes before her style wearing simple clothes made by hand. She perhaps is humbled by her own approach. And she is even more specific about her process in "Scare Quotes I," where she again sounds so like Rosamond Purcell:

I am assembling materials for a recurrent return somewhere. Familiar sound textures, deliverances, vagabond quotations, preservations, wilderness shrubs, little resuscitated patterns. Historical or miraculous. Thousands of correlations have to be sliced and spliced. In the analytic hour that is night in which Olmsted, not being able to see what has happened in his mind with regard to his mother, sleeplessly exists, perhaps there is the surety that after a silence she will contact him again in bits. Escape may be through that dawning light just filtering through the blinds. After all he is forty-five, and certainly not a child.

Olmsted is one of the many members of the cast of characters that appear in The Midnight, most of them actual historical figures. He was the first-born son of Charlotte Hull Olmsted and superintendent of the construction of Central Park in New York City. When Olmsted appears in The Midnight, the text focuses on two of the most important themes that run through the book: sleep and sleeplessness and the mother, the motifs of midnight. Howe says in one "Scare Quote," "Furthermore I am now writing from a dreamer's point of view." She follows the statement with an anecdote that could apply to the speaker of The Midnight as well as to Alice in Wonderland:

In the dream we heard from high above the sound of splintering glass. A birdwoman had flown in by accident, and got trapped. She could have been a dancer, or an actor using any number of prosthetic devices. We are all outfitted with prejudices over a long period of years. Wired and hardwired. Cut one tree down for fuel, another for rural philanthropy. Bits of wall and broken window frames get tangled in times of crises, even the cleanup of large oil spills. It's the split between our need to communicate and our need to understand when the other one signals. This is why some people fly in their sleep over urban escarpments. Anxious about communicating in a foreign language, she offered a different route to salvation. I aligned myself with half of her history as if it were a lifebelt.

Howe continues the anecdote in the next paragraph of the "Scare Quote": "She trusted no one. She kept signaling us to come up and free her. We couldn't. I have an uneasy feeling she is still in the building and we will have to work quickly if"

A bird in the house, according to the superstitious, is a bad omen. What about a birdwoman trapped inside one? She is like Alice, who grows large once she has already stepped inside a house in Wonderland. One of her large arms reaches out of a window, and she becomes a monster who frightens the residents of Wonderland as much as they frighten her. Alice has already unnerved the locals because she has never been able to speak their language. Her gigantism adds insult to injury. She becomes a metaphor for a crisis in communication, like the birdwoman of The Midnight, only the birdwoman is somehow a salvation for the speaker of the "Scare Quote," maybe because she provides an image for the speaker's literary crisis of destination.

Howe follows the dream of the birdwoman with an anecdote about her own mother, and a comment about how perhaps a child may be able to perceive a deeper reality in terms of a parent, even while the child might never be able to see the parent as she truly is.

We have finally come to the muse of Howe's collection. Howe punctuates The Midnight with pictures and stories of her mother, "Dublin girl" Mary Manning, who was an author herself, an actress, and a lover of Yeats poetry. Howe walks in her footsteps. At the beginning of this essay, I said that The Midnight was a quest tale, but a quest for what? In the old Arthurian tales, alluded to in The Midnight, the hero has a number of tasks. He walks around a tower and a fountain. He saves someone. The hero learns he has committed the sin of pride. Perhaps the hero sees god at the end and disappears because no one survives a deity's gaze. What is our speaker questing for? At the end of the second "Scare Quote," Howe writes:


Midnight is here. The brig Covenant. I go in quest of my inheritance. Portmanteau for a voyage—hazel wand—firings—tattered military coat and so on. Are the children asleep? All who read must cross the divide—one from the other. Towards whom am I floating? I'll tie a rope round your waist if you say who you are. Remember we are traveling as relations.

Well it's the way of the world

Howe expresses here the necessary symbiosis between writer and reader. Howe finds the relationship adventurous, not the wound that Franz Kafka always thought it was. Her inheritance is the word that Mary Manning has brought her. The Midnight is Howe's work at reconciling the issues of her inheritance. Most little girls of her generation were handed the starched linens and aphorisms of their mothers, the literal Bed Hangings and Scare Quotes. Howe was handed a loaded language. She wills that language to us.

I would like to end with another look at Rosamond Purcell's aesthetic here, and describe a final bed hanging, the oddest example of sewing I've ever seen. Purcell's photograph of a Harvard University Museum artifact shows a detail of a square of shiny yellow fabric. Three rows of long needles, about three hundred in all, are threaded with the eyes upward through the cloth. The cloth looks golden around the needles and their impressions, dark and light gold, like a wheat field under cloud shadows. Her caption reads:

These needles taken from the body of an insane woman after her death reflect not only the extraordinary mental anguish of a morphine addict but also the peculiar sensibility of whoever arranged the morbid collection with such care; it is as though the needles, once a source of frantic and fruitless anticipation, might now be used methodically by a person mending clothes.

Apparently the morphine addict who used these needles in the mid-19th century believed that the drug came inside every needle. Now they are "mounted tidily" as if by a seamstress, a most frightening inheritance. A witchy presentation.

We might be reminded that when Howe says, "It's an aesthetic of erasure" in The Midnight, she's actually referring to the very first seamstress of bed hangings, Thorgunna of the 11th century, who embroidered so fantastically that she was accused of practicing witchcraft. Gossip deepened, darkened, until she declared that "ownership of her hangings could mean curtains" for the owner. She tossed or burned her existing tapestries in "an aesthetic of erasure." What lasts are the corroded needles that can injure cloth in something sublime, that can injure cloth into poems. What lasts is language.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2003/2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003/2004

A Book of Transmissions

Buy this book from Amazon.comMaría Sabina: Selections
Edited by Jerome Rothenberg
University of California Press ($16.95)

by Hank Lazer

Jerome Rothenberg has done it again, having put together a compelling and important new book, María Sabina: Selections, which he correctly claims is "a devastatingly human book and testimony." Rothenberg's opening remarks in the editor's preface hint at the range of issues raised by this powerful, exciting book: "In Mazatec, María Sabina's calling was, literally, that of 'wise woman'—a term that we may choose to translate as 'shaman' or, by further twist, as 'poet.' But that's to bring it and her into our own generalized kind of reckoning and naming." By one person's reckoning, the Mexican poet Homero Aridjis (president of PEN International from 1997 to 2003), Sabina "is one of the greatest Mexican poets of the twentieth century and a great shaman." The extraordinary book that Rothenberg has assembled places readers at the intersection of so many issues crucial to the present moment: translation, oral poetry, exile, loss, transmission (and the complicated ethics of how to represent the work of a writer/healer/singer/improviser such as Sabina), ethnopoetics, the spiritual and the shamanic, and the inevitable "impurity" or mixed nature of all such cultural endeavors.

Rothenberg's is not a romantic or sentimental presentation of a poet and poetry somehow imagined to be "pure," "primitive," or "authentic." He acknowledges from the outset that his attention to the celebrity that Sabina achieved may "frustrate the reader's enthusiasm for things Indian and remote." Sabina was "known" by the late 1950s—recorded for Folkways (The Mushroom Ceremony of the Mazatec Indians of Mexico), featured in Life magazine's Great Adventure Series, the subject of an opera by Nobel poet Camilo José Cela, and, in the US, the inspiration for Ann Waldman's Fast Speaking Woman. But the coming of "the blond strangers," the hippies and seekers of the sixties, the celebrities, and others, also meant such a radical change in Sabina's spiritual universe that eventually the language of the divine mushrooms no longer worked. The anthropologist R. Gordon Wasson, who made the Folkways recordings, worries that through his own work he bears some responsibility "for the end of a religious practice in Mesoamerica that goes back far, for millennia." As another shaman concludes about the divine mushroom language: "Its sacred language has been profaned. The language has been spoiled and it is indecipherable for us." According to Sabina, before the coming of Wasson, "nobody took the mushrooms only to find God." She tells the consequences of cultural "contamination" very directly: "from the moment the foreigners arrived to search for God, the saint children lost their purity. They lost their force; they spoiled them. From now on they won't be of any use."

This volume also asks us to consider who or what are our contemporaries: "it's clear she was a contemporary of ours in many fundamental ways—supported and abused by the same powers that have impinged on all our lives and works." Though the book implicitly asks us to think through what results from the interaction of various experimental writers and writing communities with an essentially shamanic, indigenous, oral poetic tradition, Rothenberg is careful to note that he has "tried to avoid the impression that María Sabina is being presented here as herself a kind of experimentalist."

What results is, as Rothenberg notes, "a book of transmissions." Sabina's oral autobiography, her Vida, is told to (and translated into Spanish by) Álvaro Estrada (and translated from the Spanish into English by Henry Munn); the anthropological line of transmission occurs through the accounts of R. Gordon Wasson; several of Sabina's chants have been recorded and translated. And as Sabina herself tells it, the transmission of the chants, the language itself, raises questions about agency: "'Language belongs to the saint children'—the sacred mushrooms—'They speak and I have the power to translate.'" The book that Rothenberg organizes and transmits gives us an oral autobiography, several chants, essays (including Munn's superb, informative study of the traditional and idiosyncratic elements of Sabina's poetic forms), commentaries, derivations (including a few poems), a bibliography, and various source notes. He suggests that "the first work and the key to all the others is her Vida"—and I concur.

Estrada examines and interrogates his own motives in recording Sabina's life story. He also reminds us that it is impossible to verify the accuracy of that life: "I have been conscious of the responsibility incurred in writing down the autobiography of a person who, because she can neither read nor write and does not even speak Spanish, could never herself know with exactitude whether what has been written about her is correct or not."

When we turn to the chants/poems themselves, which in some sense is her "poetry," we get little or no sense (reading the poems as isolated written texts) of the overall power, importance, value, and impact of Sabina's work. Here, for example, are the opening lines of a 1970 session:

I am a saint woman, says
I am a trumpet woman, says
I am a drum woman, says
I am a woman born, says
I am a woman fallen into the other world, says
That is your Book, says
That is your Book, says
Book of sap, says
Book of dew, says
Fresh Book, says
Book of clarity, says
Woman of sap, says
Lord of good will, says
Father of the dew, says
Father of the harvest, says
Rich Father, says
Green Father, says
All powerful Father, says
God the Son and Holy Spirit
There is no problem
Her children are crying, her babies are crying, says
I am a woman who looks into the insides of thing and investigates, says

The "poem," when presented in a book format, taken out of the context of the healing ritual, loses much of its significance. When accompanied by the essays and explanatory notes, we can begin to recover some of the surroundings that are crucial to an understanding or appreciation of Sabina's poetry. Wasson, for example, describes the sensation of hearing Sabina's chanting as "hitting us with a cutting crispness from unpredictable quarters, as though an air-borne choir of invisible creatures was peopling the dark void around us, perplexing us with their assorted and shifting cries." Because the transcription of Sabina's chants begin with "words," we miss an important pre-word passage of time which Wasson describes:

Suddenly the Señora began to moan, low at first, then louder. There were silent pauses, and then renewed humming. Then the humming stopped and she began to articulate isolated syllables, each syllable consisting of a consonant followed by a vowel, sharply pronounced. The syllables came snapping out in rapid succession, cutting the darkness like a knife, spoken, not shouted. After a time the syllables coalesced into what we took for words, and the Señora began to chant.

And Henry Munn reminds us that Sabina's expression was a total physical expressivity: "Her activity of expression is total: musical and gestural as well as verbal. The whole body speaks."

Rothenberg suggests that here, "if we let it, is also a book of healing, ...language as a medicine, its ancient function." And therein lies the problem, or the challenge, of this book: what can be transmitted from Sabina to us? What of her life in language may we take up and continue? What aspects of our responses to and imitations of Sabina would not be merely superficial romanticized cultural tourism? Can we learn "techniques" from Sabina without accepting her radical version of transmission, inspiration, and agency, without in fact believing in the powers of the sacred children? (Sabina, from the Vida: "The mushrooms have power because they are the flesh of God. And those that believe are healed. Those that do not believe are not healed.") How is it possible for Sabina's life in language not to be something exotic that we witness and admire and perhaps inadvertently sentimentalize from a considerable distance?

We may feel comfortable—or at least on somewhat familiar ground—when Sabina says that "my only force is my Language"; perhaps even when she adds, "And all my Language is in the Book that was given to me. I am she who reads, the interpreter. That is my privilege." These remarks have overtones which resonate with similar remarks by writers such as Mallarmé and Heidegger. But what about when Sabina says,

I take Little-One-Who-Spring-Forth and I see God. I see him sprout from the earth. He grows and grows, big as a tree, as a mountain. His face is placid, beautiful, serene as in the temples. At other times, God is not like a man: he is the Book. A Book that is born from the earth, a sacred Book whose birth makes the world shake. It is the Book of God that speaks to me in order for me to speak. It counsels me, it teaches me, it tells me what I have to say to men, to the sick, to life. The Book appears and I learn new words.

Rothenberg's book presents us with a rich set of challenges, questions, and provocations, while recovering and transmitting some elements of María Sabina's unusual, great life as poet, healer, and shaman. As extraordinary a record as María Sabina: Selections is, it also forces us to consider what the container of the book is able to hold and what is, inevitably, withheld from and beyond the confines of the book.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2003/2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003/2004

Phoebe 2002: An Essay In Verse

Buy this book from Amazon.comJeffery Conway, Lynn Crosbie, and David Trinidad
Turtle Point Press ($21.95)

by Steven Moore

Even less than the epic itself, the mock-epic is not a popular form for poets today; indeed, it would be hard to match, much less improve on, the great mock-epics of Alexander Pope, "The Rape of the Lock" and "The Dunciad." Twenty-five years ago, Richard Nason had a go at A Modern Dunciad, but no one will ever touch the utter perfection of Pope's "Lock." Undaunted, three poets decided in early 2000 to pool their talents to write a mock-epic on All About Eve, Joseph L. Mankiewicz's 1950 film about ambition and betrayal in the theater world. As unlikely a topic for a poem as the snipping of a lock of a girl's hair, perhaps—but the challenge of mock-epic is to spin straw into gold, and our three poets have discovered a goldmine in that old movie.

The scope is the literary equivalent of Super Panavision: Phoebe 2002 is an oversized volume 650 pages long, divided into 16 books, with 30 pages of source notes and a number of stills from the movie. The text is an overflowing prop box of verse forms and styles: lines of various lengths and stanzas; poems reviving old genres like the ghazel, double sestina, villanelle, various acrostics, and the 17th-century emblematic poem (here we have poems in the shape of a champagne glass, an Oscar trophy, and one illustrating the contrasting bust shapes of two actresses); letters, lists, quizzes, recipes, plays, extended quotations from such books as Mommy, Dearest and Craig Nelson's Bad TV; and lots of parodies (including a hilarious one of the Ouija board pronouncements from James Merrill's The Changing Light at Sandover).

In proper epic form, the poets announce their theme early on: "All About Eve is a Creation story which deploys deep literary and iconic tropes: it is also an analogue for film and television; a treatise on fame; and an exposition about women and aging, women and sexuality: 'women . . . and their men!" The line break here is the only indication that these particular lines are poetry rather than prose; it must be said that this "essay in verse" reads more like essay than verse in many places, despite the panoply of poetic forms. But the poets are ingenious at uncovering those "deep literary and iconic tropes": Eve's name evokes Milton's Paradise Lost, of course, and the smoke-filled opening scene of the movie Dante's Inferno. And they go far beyond whatever tropes Mankiewicz intended to find parallels in an encyclopedic range of other writers (Spenser, Byron, Baudelaire, Dickinson, Eliot, et al.). At times it's like a DVD audio commentary by the oral examination committee for a doctorate in literature.

The "treatise on fame" angle leads the poets to examine the celebrity culture and geeky fandom that was emerging around the time of All About Eve, thanks to columnists like Walter Winchell, and which has assumed such ghastly proportions in our time, not only in movies and music but in poetry, where ambition and betrayal also rear their ugly heads. Phoebe 2002 becomes more personal in the last third of the book as our poets share horror tales of their fellow poets, and the 9/11 attack during the composition of the book casts the whole project into triviality, as they're the first to admit. But also knowing that good work is the only antidote to scheming poets and uncontrollable tragedies, the authors soldier on and bring their mock-epic to a satisfying conclusion.

If Phoebe 2002 doesn't sweep every poetry award this year, it will be as unjust as Bette Davis's failure to win an Oscar for All About Eve. The endless creativity on display here, the deep erudition, the Talmudic ingenuity, and the sense of fun against all odds make this the most impressive book of poetry I've read in years. As the movie's theater critic Addison De Witt says, I am once more available for dancing in the streets.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2003/2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003/2004

Stories From the City of God: Sketches and Chronicles of Rome, 1950-1966

Buy this book from Amazon.comPier Paolo Pasolini
Edited by Walter Siti
Translated by Marina Harss
Other Press ($24)

by Tom Sanfilip

It is difficult to pinpoint the cultural impact of an artist who ranges over so much creative territory in decidedly unique ways; simply approximating their universal importance becomes no small feat for the critic. In the case of Pier Paolo Pasolini—neo-realist Italian film maker, poet, novelist, and Marxist theorist—we have the even trickier task of trying to assess the cross-cultural value of an icon. This iconic status can largely be attributed to his open homosexuality, for Pasolini the inspired source of his Marxist politics, and his mysterious death in 1975 at the hands of an Italian hustler on the beach of Ostia.

These well-edited stories and sketches with Roman backdrop, written by Pasolini between 1950 and 1966, include thinly fictionalized accounts of Roman life, wherein the author describes the youth of the city in various stages of awakenings to their selves, their sexualities, and their surroundings. As such, there is almost a voyeuristic quality about stories such as "The Passion of the Lupin Seller" and "From Monteverde Down to the Altieri Theater," as Pasolini describes, often poetically, the source of his fascination with Italian youth.

There are also skillful exercises in self-absorption, especially in many of the non-fictional works such as "The City's True Face" and "The Periphery of My Mind." This latter piece is particularly interesting for Pasolini's explanation for his own preoccupation with the young. "It was need (my own poverty, even if it was that of an unemployed member of the bourgeoisie) that drove me to the immediate human, vital experience of the world which I later described and continue to describe. I did not make a conscious choice, but rather it was a kind of compulsion of destiny."

One of the great virtues of this collection is how editor Walter Siti and translator Marina Harss build Pasolini's perspective into and around the collection as a whole, giving it a cohesion that brings out the literary value of these disparate pieces, which benefit enormously from the light they shine on each other. If anything, however, this collection proves that Pasolini's most polished artistic form was poetry, whereby he was better able to synthesize the disparate sources of his theories and passions. In the end, it is the poetry in his prose that redeems this collection from being merely the fringe fair of an intensely complex Italian writer forever embedded in the landscape of Italian culture.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2003/2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003/2004

Dürer in the Window: Reflections on Art

Buy this book at Amazon.comBarbara Guest
Roof Books ($24.95)

by Corinne Robins

Dürer in the Window contains the poet Barbara Guest's writings on art from the '50s to the present; designed by the artist Richard Tuttle, the book (with its multiple typefaces and idiosyncratic layouts) is also a beautiful object. It opens with a marvelous essay on Jean Arp that begins, "I like to be in the presence of Arp, the gentle solace of his anarchy." The essay's type shifts from short lines to long stretches of sentences, and turns into floating paragraph discussions of Arp's ideas and his poetry. Written in 2000, the Arp essay has a timeless air as opposed to the pages that follow it, which provide neatly dated paragraph reviews that Guest wrote as a working critic for Art News from 1952 through 1954. Her writing here is at once brisk, forceful, and succinct. In between the double-page spreads of reviews are reproductions (though not very good ones, unfortunately) of the art works discussed. Guest's collaborations and longer individual essays follow, and then finally, best of all, we are given a small selection of poems where art itself becomes the poet's muse.

Dürer in the Window is the second book of Guest's prose to appear this year, following Forces of Imagination (Kelsey Street Press), a collection of her writings on writing. It is no accident that the essay, "The Shadow of Surrealism" appears in both books; Guest is unable to separate the experience of writing about art from the experience of being a writer in the art world. "The Shadow of Surrealism" describes Guest's experience as a poet among artists in a time when there was no "recognized separation between the arts," though the gap between poets and artists was beginning to widen: "Money," Guest writes, "rolls into the pockets of painters with a frequency that stuns poets." During the '50s she saw how artists went on to become accepted and iconic figures, part of mainstream American culture, in ways unimaginable for poets. But Guest's affinity with surrealism goes deeper. Witness her deep sympathy with Jean Arp (who was also a writer), her collaborations with Joe Brainard, and her appreciation of Louise Bourgeois—who, Guest writes, "works her way through the influence of surrealism. . . using a surrealism that exists in terms of her own identity." Bourgeois is one of the first artists to reintroduce the notion of performance and like her forebears "uses sexual imagery." Guest rejoices in Bourgeois's excesses—as perhaps something not open to poets; certainly it is an approach she herself never uses. Ironically, Guest's appreciation of Mondrian is a low-key description of her encountering a Mondrian painting back in the '50s and being unable to respond to his abstract aesthetic. And yet, Guest's own poetical practice seems much more in keeping with Mondrian's stripped down iconic abstractions than with Bourgeois's tumultuously angry, passionate lurking spiders.

Dürer in the Window contains both journeyman art criticism and essays of dazzling writing and insight. Guest's writing on Frankenthaler and Goodnough are serviceable, but her appreciation of Richard Tuttle, written in 2000, is gorgeous. Titled "The Color Green in the Art Work of Richard Tuttle," it is at once a meditation on the uses of green in painting and of Tuttle's technique. "He likes to surprise the viewer. The surprise is a subsidiary of his technique," she observes, which strikes this reader as equally true of Guest's own poetry. The essay concludes, "Color remains this artist's alphabet."

Interspersed between the essays are two Guest poems specifically written in conjunction with artworks, specifically a sculpture by Tony Smith and a lithograph by Grace Hartigan. "Egypt," the Smith poem, is a witty, Steinian mediation on the physical stance of the sculpture. The Hartigan poem, on the other hand, "The Hero Leaves His Ship," is full of unexpected metaphors, e.g. "The sea has its own strong wrists." The poem manages to encapsulate a change, a life shift, without literally describing it.

Modestly grouped at the very end are eight Guest poems of varying lengths, all of which are reproduced on plain white paper (i.e. without the backgrounds of unexpected pale yellow rocks and green strips or delicately colored page-long stripes that appeared in the prose pieces). The longest here is the five-page poem "The Nude," beginning "Studios are stations of reminiscence." Its two line stanzas are at once about art and life, the painter's job in the studio and experience with the body ("The painter desires the image he has selected / to be clothed in the absolute silk of his touch"). What one confronts in front of the blank canvas—or for that matter, the blank page—is matter for lyrical meditation. Art, Guest discovers, is a contradiction of time, a thing of ecstasy, a summoning of the supernatural, a celebration of Leda and the Swan on the one hand and of "local ornamental mundanity" on the other.

Barbara Guest is a lyrical poet par excellence. Sharp and perceptive and never sentimental, her tribute to the architect Frederick Kiesler and her meditation on a painting by Haydn Stubbing are inspiring in their own right. They stand on their own without the reader needing to know what the art work in question looks like. This is a book for anyone interested in melding the verbal with the visual. It is a book for lovers of art, and for readers of poetry. The uniqueness of Barbara Guest's gifts and the originality of her vision are all over the pages of Dürer in the Window.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2003/2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003/2004

A Place So Foreign And Eight More

Buy this book from Amazon.comCory Doctorow
Four Walls Eight Windows ($13.95)

by Doug Pond

Stripped of the superfluous detail typically found in science fiction, the stories in Cory Doctorow's new collection, A Place So Foreign and Eight More, nevertheless move through worlds that are well fleshed out. Take "0wnz0red," in which a computer programmer named Liam hacks into his own body to make it "user-accessible" so that he can reverse the course of his HIV—a process that takes only three hours. The U.S. military initiated the project to create super-soldiers, but Liam decides to take over when the procedure goes awry on a fellow patient: "The membranes of all of Joey's cells had ruptured simultaneously, so that he'd essentially burst like a bag of semi-liquid Jell-O." Instead of exercising caution to prevent a "liquidity event" like Joey's, Liam hacks into his body even more aggressively. In addition to curing his HIV, he accelerates the growth of his muscles, enhances his reflexes, makes himself immune to cancer, and creates "metabolic controllers" so that he can eat whatever he wants without gaining weight.

The Faustian motif of the desire for forbidden knowledge—transformed into the desire for dangerous technology—runs through much of Doctorow's fiction. In his novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, the protagonist has a cellphone implanted in his inner ear and a networked computer wired into his brain—but he's essentially a traditionalist who feels depressed by the homogeneity that technology can create. In A Place So Foreign, the characters don't voice objections to technology, but their lust for it often gets them into serious trouble.

"0wnz0red" is also a polemic on fair-use freedom, which is another motif in Doctorow's fiction—and in the presentation of it. Doctorow offers six of the nine stories in his collection for free online (www.craphound.com) under a Creative Commons license. He writes on his Web site, "As with my novel, I've shipped these stories without doomed, dumbass DRM [digital rights management], without user restriction, and without requiring any kind of proprietary reader."

Essentially, Doctorow believes in sharing, and no behavior will turn his characters into villains (or "dumbasses") faster than refusing to share. In "0wnz0red," the war-mongering Feds refuse to share their technology, even though Liam discovers a way to infect himself with a cure for HIV: "It's a sexually transmissible wellness, dude," he tells a friend and co-conspirator. "I've been barebacking my way through the skankiest crack-hoes in the Tenderloin, playing Patient Zero, infecting everyone with the Cure."

Doctorow embeds exposition in the action and dialogue, making his fiction fun to read—in other words, you don't have to slog through idle descriptions of technology or mythical family trees. When the "robutler" in the title story affixes its "electrode fingertips" to the narrator's temples to "juice" them and clear away his headache, the incident passes so quickly that it doesn't seem too cute or campy. The author's minimalist style is a refreshing change from the meticulous, heavy-handed prose of classic fantasy and SF novels, aptly conveying what it might feel like to have your temples juiced.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2003/2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003/2004