Tag Archives: winter 2004

R. CRUMB: Conversations

Buy this book from Amazon.comEdited by D. K. Holm
University Press of Mississippi ($20)

by Todd Robert Petersen

R. Crumb: Conversations is the latest in the University Press of Mississippi's Conversations with Comic Artists series, which has featured such luminaries as Charles Schultz (Peanuts), Carl Barks (Donald Duck), and Milton Caniff (Steve Canyon). That a university press is backing this project testifies to the official acceptance of underground comix bad boy Robert Crumb into polite conversation. Furthermore, Crumb's inclusion among this traditional crowd indicates a new level of popular acceptance and legitimization, one aided by films such as American Splendor (2003) and Crumb (1994). These films have exalted not only the underground comix movement itself but their idiosyncratic godfathers as well, bringing them in all their tenacious weirdness to a whole new audience of people who have never once set foot in a head shop.

Crumb, like Bob Dylan, is a reluctant counterculture prophet, and in these at times rascally interviews, he gives the distinct impression that he had little in common with the people who claimed him as their guru and scoured his work for insight, inspiration, and even revelation. On more than one occasion, Crumb tells of hanging out at love-ins around Haight-Ashbury during the late '60s and early '70s only to find himself feeling entirely alienated: "I'd go to these love-ins and stand there and watch all this shit go on; I never really felt like I was part of it. It was like I was a reporter from another planet." During a 1984 interview, Crumb confesses that he used to "fall asleep at those light-show concerts in San Francisco." Nevertheless Crumb credits his LSD binges as the force that changed the direction of his work forever, resulting in landmark characters such as Fritz the Cat, Flakey Foont, Mr. Natural, and Angelfood McSpade. So, while the drugs, sex, obsessions, and controversy incite a certain prurient fascination, these topics soon bore Crumb (and the reader) and he leads us to weightier pastures.

What this book ultimately reveals is a multi-dimensional, deeper, and more pensive Crumb. He is, of course, no fool—conscious of his appearance in words as well as images. When an interviewer remarks that Crumb is nowhere near as ugly as he makes himself out to be in his comics, Crumb replies, "I draw myself to look grotesque because if I drew myself better-looking, people would say, 'Gee he doesn't look as good as he thinks he does.' This way, they say, 'Oh, you look much better than your drawings!'" We always get the Crumb Crumb wants us to see, but here, it seems, he wants us to see something beyond his street-level obsessions, which is the primary virtue of this book.

Since the original pieces were never intended to find a home in a single, collected work, they don't really flow together. In fact, much of this book is repetitious—not to the point of tedium, but at least to the point of making it more pleasurable to read in snatches. A straight run-through would be as overwhelming as eating an entire box of Ding-Dongs in one sitting. Nevertheless, the repetition ultimately reveals much about Crumb's foibles and philosophies. He mellows over the years (as we all must), but a few central issues stick around: his love of old 78s, his distaste for the destruction of regional cultures in America since the '20s, and his sadness over the economic co-option of the underground and of art in general. On these subjects Crumb seems less like a misogynist with embarrassing sexual hang-ups and more like a cross between a Marxist literary critic and an economic pundit on CNN.

Crumb's insights into the business of comix and counterculture are complex. As one would expect from a collection that spans 38 years, there are variations in his take on, for example, the animator Ralph Bakshi's attempts to secure the rights to Fritz the Cat; however, he is surprisingly consistent in his feelings on why he didn't put up a fight when his then-wife Dana used her power of attorney to sign the rights over in 1970. Similarly, how Crumb lost the rights to "Keep on Truckin'," arguably his most famous work, is just as compelling. We learn that despite Crumb's claims to be indifferent to money, the copyright battles with piracy of that design left him $28,000 in dutch to the IRS, resulting in a grand charity effort from the likes of fellow cartoonists Jules Feiffer and Milton Caniff. Through all this trouble, Crumb argues that above-ground operations "automatically get involved in power" and always will co-opt artists. The clarity with which he expresses himself in this regard is concrete and level-headed.

What's great is when things are prosperous and . . . fairly comfortable, things blossom creatively and more people get a chance to create. With hard times, people get squeezed out, or have a hard time. Their creative potential is limited.

Crumb is equally articulate in his discussion of the media takeover of the second half of the 20th century through radio, causing the wholesale destruction of local cultures, which he felt were richer and more artistically interesting. Then turning it back on himself, Crumb said in 1972, "I couldn't handle all the power mass media bestows on you. I don't think anyone should have that kind of power." The problem is that in the intervening 30 years, Crumb has gained that kind of power. The sale of six of his sketchbooks, for example, bought him a house in France.

Beyond the necessary repetition, the only real fault in this book is the design, which is lackluster and doesn't feature nearly enough of Crumb's artwork. Otherwise this is a fascinating look at an intriguing figure in popular culture—one who is proving himself, step by step, to be a man for the ages.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2004/2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004/2005

MEN OF TOMORROW: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book

Buy this book from Amazon.comGerard Jones
Basic Books ($26)

by Paul Buhle

Men of Tomorrow is one of those surprise critical hits that uplift the lowest rungs of popular culture without seeking, as would surely have been done in earlier generations, to uplift and rationalize them as gentility in deep disguise. Postmodernism and a few vindications of talent in comic art—Crumb, Pekar, Spiegelman, and Katchor could almost exhaust the list beyond the aficionado's gaze—have allowed the New York Times, the New Yorker and so on to arrive at a much-postponed conclusion: Even this most pedestrian of popular arts, beloved by generations of ordinary folk via the comic strip and comic book, deserves a little dignity.

Author Gerard Jones is an erstwhile scripter for Batman and Spider-Man, as well as an unacademic scholar-of-sorts on soap operas and media violence. Perhaps for that reason, he has learned to go the other way, reveling in the subculture of the pulps that produced the market and the marketers for comic books. His research is certainly tantalizing, his writing lively. He has a lot to say in particular about the industry-shaping characters in their Jewish lower-middle-class setting of the 1910s-'40s, the crossovers they made between commercial printing, the pulp sex trade and the emerging industry mostly aimed at children. As morals witch-hunter Frederick Wertham was to repeat on every occasion during the 1950s, these guys (with honorable exceptions) were sleazy.

They were, however, an interesting sleazy because they wanted to be upwardly mobile so badly that they experimented with one formula after another until they found ways to exploit the market niche opening up to them. The muscular, semi-clothed body was definitely what caught their interest, the vision of a near-superhuman perfectly able to do all the sorts of things that male children nearly all want to do, if only they could sprout the necessary muscles and dexterity, and also fly. Is this a reading, for the middle 1930s, of futurist fascism, communism, or a miraculously rejuvenated Franklin D. Roosevelt? (Actually, one of the two creators of Superman was a young socialist, and it's reasonable to assume that he had "Mr. Socialism" Norman Thomas in mind). No political theorist, Jones does not probe this kind of issue because his interest is personality and process—above all the process of making money—much like the businessmen themselves.

Men of Tomorrow thus focuses on comic art and artists at the point where comic book sales are racing skyward. Emerging giants of the field like Will Eisner, Bob Kane, and Jerry Iger (an early partner of Eisner's who went on to produce some of the most innovative comics of the era, usually with the imprint of larger companies on them) were at the center of an industry that had grown wildly by the middle 1940s, selling tens of millions of copies each month to kids, GIs, and plenty of others too embarrassed to admit their devotion. We learn amazing details, for instance, about Lev Gleason, the near-Communist non-Jew who revolutionized a sector of the industry with noir-style documentary "true crime" comics, including one series startlingly called Crime and Punishment. And more about the origins of the EC line of goods, guided by later Mad maven Williams Gaines, whose left-liberal politics and commitment to quality afforded opportunities for the best, most serious artists that the industry has ever produced.

The story pretty much climaxes with the 1950s congressional hearings and the campaign of suppression conducted under the guise of the "Comics Code." Jones devotes a few chapters to the revival of Marvel and assorted developments leading to Underground comics and the rejuvenated (it almost never ceased) exploitation of the superhero archetype. By the end of the book, however, this "real-life Kavalier and Clay" (as it is blurb-marketed on the jacket) has many of the same limitations as Michael Chabon's best-selling novel. The day-to-day situation of the comic artist, working in the equivalent of sweatshops during the 1940s, barely registers: their never-realized desire for union representation, their mixture of admiration and resentment toward the hard-nosed bosses—all this is lost. So is the subtlety of Jewish-American life in transition, rapidly changing after World War II, but with many familiar features and attitudes lingering decades longer. Jones is so stuck with the heroic and antiheroic businessmen that the worlds of Crumb, Kim Deitch, Bill Griffith and Art Spiegelman seem part of another universe—when in fact, industry insider Harvey Kurtzman of EC and Mad offered a sun around which a different future orbited.

The story is further handicapped by an indifference to all the comic lines that did not feature superheroes. True, the zealous response to Superman outdistanced everything else in its time, as the Man of Steel inspired countless other characters and became meanwhile a star of beautifully colorful animation. But Funny Animal art was evolving steadily as well, offering the comedy of the little creature against the big creature in a thousand forms, further mirrored in other comic lines that offered the same social commentary via human bodies. It is hard to imagine a book on "the birth of the comic book" without Carl Barks, genius of Donald Duck and his gang, and equally hard to imagine such a book without Little Lulu—yet here it is. Westerns, Sci Fi, and Horror also hardly see the light. Even some of the superheroes that slip by in Men of Tomorrow, like Plastic Man, offered sustained satire on the genre, a sort of immanent critique that preceded Mad's shredding of pseudo-patriotic, authoritarian nonsense.

Never mind. What Gerard Jones does, he does well, and those readers who will tear their hair a bit over what he's left out can come to their own conclusions.

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2004/2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004/2005

LOUIS: Dreams Never Die

Buy this book from Amazon.comMúm / Hey / Metaphrog
FatCat / Metaphrog Books ($14.99)

by Adam Hall

Between its surreal illustrations and trippy vocabulary, Franco-Scottish duo Metaphrog's forays into what it terms "graphic fiction" offer something to savor and wonder at in each caption of its genre-busting works of art. Louis—Dreams Never Die, Metaphrog's latest effort, is wholly its own unique creation, unlike anything which its art or apparent format might suggest it would resemble.

The story follows the wanderings of a potato-shaped protagonist named Louis and his pet bird in their quest to discover what really happened to Louis's Aunt Alison once she stops writing him. While exploring the town of Hamlet and its maze of bright yellow fences, they are relentlessly pursued by Hamlet's police force, the Fly Catchers, and encounter a motley band of underground dwellers who disguise themselves as colorful flowers. But this is really only half of the story, as the plot itself is merely an allegory for the desperate search for meaning and comfort in a society which sometimes seems to conspire against just those things.

The artwork for the book is rendered in dreamy pastels within a patchwork of captions; the bright colors and soft tones render the creepy elements of the story even creepier. The leader of the Fly Catchers looks like an obese Hitler melded from white Play-Doh, and the Fly Catchers themselves bear a striking resemblance to midget Klu Klux Klan members in military regalia. The illustrative style lies somewhere between Marc Brown's Arthur and The Beatles's animated Yellow Submarine, though the true beauty of Metaphrog's work becomes apparent when the reader stops trying to fit it into the boundaries of what has come before.

The book comes with a CD by European bands hey and múm which contains two tracks that serve as a soundtrack of sorts for Dreams Never Die—but unless the listener understands French, the correlation of the lyrics to the story will be lost to most English speakers. The music itself, though, provides a marvelous backdrop for Louis's adventures: at turns both robotic and tropical, somber yet inspiring, it defies categorization in much the same way the book itself does.

Deftly sidestepping the twin perils of a cheery ending that could only be tacked on and an equally dissatisfying cynical one, the book's conclusion offers no easy answers, but neither does it drown the reader in a vision of despair. The final page of Dreams Never Die raises more questions than it answers, but instead of feeling betrayed, the reader is consoled by the universal nature of Louis's journey. Anyone who has felt the pangs of loneliness will relate to this book; it comforts the reader by saying "you are not alone," which is exactly what the best fiction—graphic or not—can do.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2004/2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004/2005


MTC Cronin
Shearsman Books ($15.95)

by Richard Owens

First published in 1993, MTC Cronin's work has increasingly resonated and rippled outward from her native Australia, finding solid support in the U.S. and the U.K. where small presses have vigorously promoted her work and published several of her collections. Cronin's tenth and most recent book,<More or Less Than>, is among her most complex, introducing a multiplicity of seemingly dissociated discourses which flow in organic concord throughout the text. As these discourses rhythmically intersect and diverge, coming and going in alternating currents of harmony and discord, a confusion of voices groping for the temporal origins of their common source emerges:

is it the other side of the body
what speaks from what was prevented
as they prevent what they can
and should, and should
leave the rest to fate
as if there was an arena
and not only that but themselves
as both spectators and participants
the outer and inner circles

Here meaning and conventional conceptions of the world are shattered, dualities are smashed. Outer and inner circles converge, collapsing inward on one another even though conventional illusions are maintained "as if there was an arena."

Yet there is an arena, at least for the work—an arena carefully constructed for the purpose of containing and governing the complex liaisons established between the work's various voices. The 100 parts of the work form a whole, replicating the cycles of organic life—Part 1 beginning with one line, Part 2 with two, and upward to Part 50, from which point the work winds downward, a gradual diminuendo wherein Part 51 has forty-nine lines, Part 52 forty-eight lines, and so on. Part 100 ends just as the poem began—with one line evoking water, the source from which all life flows.

The work is thus not only organic in its cyclicality but also in its momentum, its constant struggle to maintain a natural center of gravity, its relentless and unceasing movement. The opening line—"not simply the stream but they who thought of following"—charts the book's course, drawing a sharp demarcation between the natural world and human civilization. The decision to follow, however, is a conscious and voluntary one, a decision that invariably separates existence from extinction. The corresponding line which mirrors the first, Part 100, carries the reader back to the beginning in cyclical fashion: "ice follows water follows."

Just as the work is cyclically structured, the interlocutory voices which emerge and diminish and reemerge are timeless and dramatically varied. To avoid any confusion regarding the players involved in the text, the narrator clearly delineates the interdependent dialogues, outlining three main participatory spectators using simple, active and direct language:

'follow me' means three, the speaker
a page of water and they, addressed, wavering,
as the third beckons as well as it can, hidden

The narrator in the first half of the book is distanced and clinical, discussing detachedly the Objectivist conception of universality as it is expressed through the particular, "The burning circumstances straight from the pit." In this first half both narrator and audience are appointed judge and jury, plaintiff and defendant. The commerce between narrator and audience is mediated by "a page of water"—the text itself, the meeting place or crossroads where a living dialogue can be established. But the futile efforts of the third party which "beckons as well as it can, hidden" are exposed in Part 32. Here any attempt to preserve interiority and maintain a genuinely human dialogue collapses:

and they tried, in their most prominent places,
in their places most hidden,
to remember the words, to retrieve the words
that might have been spoken in chaos
but the words flew, dead and fast like stones

The confusion of voices here makes it difficult to determine who is hidden and who is not, who is following and who is not. Any attempt to construct meaning, to extrapolate meaning from language, from human relationships, via conventional, orthodox means crumbles inward on itself. Putting the horse before the cart cannot be an issue if one cannot be distinguished from the other. Narrator and audience in this first half merge, the dichotomized parties freely flowing back and forth through the text so that distinguishing one from the other by means of language becomes impossible. Language is everywhere in abundance but, despite its availability, fails to clarify and inform, to resolve. The meaning we, the audience, struggle to establish for ourselves "in the chaos" falls through the quicksand of the presuppositions that all meaning is based on.

From Part 51 forward the book takes on the feel of an epistolary novel. To read the text is to wear the cloak of a voyeur eavesdropping on a private, intimate conversation. They becomes you. The narrator engages directly with the subject—whether the subject be an isolated reader or humanity at large, or, more appropriately, both in their relationship to the sum total of human civilization uninterrupted by time and space. In the intimacy of this second half the narrator betrays the complexity of the poem in one quickly paced passage written in the simplest language. The narrator is tired of hedging bets and offers up the heart of the work, shifting to an all-inclusive we and refusing to mince words:

we are all the same
we are all the same
we are not magical
we are not strong
we think we are magical
we think we are strong

The formidable equalizer in the poem, then, becomes our common humanity, the time-bound fragility of human life we share in common. Cronin's meticulous attention to party and pronoun, to the voices that flow through the poem, give this work a complexity and penetrating depth which carries a timeless theme—the issue of mortality—firmly into the 20th century.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2004/2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004/2005

MARCH 18, 2003

Buy this book from Amazon.comMichael Lally
Libellum ($10)

by Larry Sawyer

Michael Lally's March 18, 2003 is at once as simple and commonplace as a handshake and as complex and varied as a hypothetical dissection of the strata that might compose the geological terrain of some distant planet. The poem is titled thus because it was first read on March 18, 2003 at a Poets Against the War reading at the Paula Cooper Gallery in NYC. Other featured readers that night included Ann Lauterbach, Anne Waldman, Robert Creeley, and former United States Attorney General Ramsey Clark.

Each successive line of this single long poem hypnotically speaks what nearly seems the reader's own subconscious roiling. With wonderful cover art by Alex Katz, the kaleidoscope of thought and emotion that struck all after the events of September 11, 2001, has been chiseled here in a profound stone as Lally elaborates upon the changed world in which we find ourselves.

Lally compellingly breathes new life into the unanswered questions that have yet to be sufficiently addressed by a news media that has ignored "news." Every so often, however, the real questions are interspersed with intentionally inane questions such as "who's going to win the award for best actor?" This technique underscores the gravity of the situation at hand and reinforces the relevance of the topics addressed by this important work. In this information age, the poem asks, what is really true?

Is it true even Newt thinks this attack on Iraq is ill conceived?


Isn't it as though the American Revolution
has been reversed without a fight?
Has the vast right-wing conspiracy triumphed
at last—with an almost complete takeover by an alcoholic spoiled brat with
a right-wing Christian fundamentalist makeover?

The mantra of questions begins with the lines

I don't have any answers,
just some questions:

As the poem progresses, however, it does indeed seem as though the very act of asking these supremely relevant questions is enough because the questions asked by this poem are the questions that failed us all in the lead up to the present, ongoing, war in Iraq. Better for us to keep reading and ponder the questions that should have been asked long ago.

Don't the links between the CIA and
drug smuggling date back to its beginnings?


Are we obsessed with the denial of that reality?


Did you know that the company that makes
the new computerized voting machines
that defied the exit polls and put right-wing
Republicans in power where they weren't before
are owned by the right-wing Republican Senator
who did just that in Nebraska, where
according to the results even a majority of blacks
who said they voted against him were obviously wrong
and did the opposite according to his computers?

March 18, 2003 delineates the reasons that we are involved in the morass that so many are ignoring. While it's true that collectively Americans, and the world, were stunned after the tragic events of September 11, Republican talking heads have gleefully reiterated ad nauseam why our civic duty involves ridding the world of evil via a method that has never before been so necessary—the preemptive strike. That this concept violates the very tenets that prophets of every major world religion espouse—Muslim and Christian alike—leads the reader to a very real and very necessary conclusion: Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. Our choice is to collectively endorse madness and misguided politicos or

to create, as Che once said, a world
where love is more possible?


Can't we all just get along?

Lally is riffing at the psychological anti-center of contemporary American consciousness, a very particular consciousness that is fed up and bursting over with the voices that have been far too silent. He has his finger on our pulse and doesn't let up. The prognosis is debatable; the entire poem builds to a crescendo and is over with before the reader has decided what to make of all these questions. One thing is certain, however—the time is now as it never was before. Lally dismantles the Bush dynasty and this American malady in such a subtle way by merely giving voice to what everyone has been thinking. Along the way he asks, what has happened to our voices?

Is it all about blame?
We're all alive and depend on the ocean and trees,
and the air they give us to breathe—so what are we doing?


You call this a poem?

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2004/2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004/2005


Buy this book from Amazon.comDamon Krukowski
Turtle Point Press ($14.95)

by Chris Stroffolino

When thinking about the rock star as poet phenomenon, one may notice that, in contrast to the Leonard Cohens and Patti Smiths of previous generations (who were known as poets before they became rock musicians), many of the names tossed around today first achieved their notoriety as musicians and songwriters: Jewel, Jeff Tweedy, Billy Corgan, David Berman, and Damon Krukowski all fit this pattern. Berman and Krukowski are probably the least known of these musician/poets, yet they are also the best of the bunch, because neither of them uses poetry as merely a spillover of the stray thoughts and feelings that they couldn't shape into the rigors the art form of the song demands. It may, in fact, be an irrelevant consideration to bring up the fact that Krukowski has been on the music scene for almost 20 years when considering his first book of prose poems, so strongly do they hold up in their own right.

This is not to say that fans of Galaxie 500, Magic Hour, and/or Damon and Naomi will not find some insights into one of the people behind the music in this book, but they should also be warned: Krukowski's seemingly confessional meditative mode in many of these pieces may not be as autobiographical as it at first seems. Not that Krukowski is a mere "trickster," but the trickster does make his appearance along with "the singer, the teller of tales, and the neurotic on the couch." So even though he draws on the experience of his years as a professional singer, songwriter, and musician for quite a few of the pieces in this book, they are almost always tempered with a knowledge of language's artifice and thus never become self-indulgent. Rather, the writer's attitude to writing, singing, or performing becomes a medium through which the reader (even if not a musician herself) may grapple with basic, eternal, questions about identity and one's place in society and the cosmos.

For instance, in "Song Without Words," the speaker recounts (or fabricates) his progression from being a proficient instrumentalist (which instrument is never mentioned) to becoming a vocalist:

But as I sang, I began to think of the words I was singing—these were simple words, both sad and happy ones I had picked up from different lullabies or folksongs I remembered hearing in childhood. The words, though simple, began to affect me. I thought about them more and more often, and they began to take on greater import than I had at first realized.

The danger that Krukowski speaks of here—how words can author the author—may have specific biographical relevance, but more generally points to the danger anyone who has learned to speak must navigate. Likewise, in "Raree Show," Krukowski undercuts the Freudian creation myth by employing imagination in the service of theatre. The speaker is "a prompter at our national theater. It would be a good job, if the principal actor and actress were not my parents—They are our nation's greatest actor and actress because they love the audience more than they love one another, me, or even themselves." This might be the beginning of a tragedy, and certainly there's something dysfunctional about this dynamic; the speaker is reduced to the role of the prompter, a kind of "mute" or "copyist" (which, not accidentally, are the titles of other pieces in this collection). But there is a potentially liberating paradox here—for just as "Song Without Words" could be said to be, on a literal level at least, not a song and made of nothing but words, the speaker of "Raree Show," though presented as helpless to change the predetermined repertoire of "our national theatre," is perhaps able to alter our perception of the family by presenting it as high public farce.

"At the Café Detroit," sounds like it could be spoken by a Dylan, sick of telling his audience "you shouldn't let other people get your kicks for you." "A Testimonial," "Vexations," and "Bells" are excellent accounts of the impetus to become a songwriter and singer respectively, and the struggles to translate feeling into art (which, yes, is made more poignant if one happens to have a Damon and Naomi record on in the background while reading it). "Bells" in particular is a tour de force, offering a metaphorical linkage of the cosmos with a radio. There are also some shorter but less risky pieces in this collection (e.g. "Venus and Neptune," "My Life as the History of a Town") which vary the tone and help the book move along. Other pieces, like "The Envelope," can be read as an account of the "fall" from a prelapsarian, more communally trusting time.

Throughout Krukowski is very adept at showing the possibilities an "I"-based poetry (even with an unreliable narrator) may still have for social critique in the broadest sense, but often his greatest strengths are evident in the shorter pieces, like "The Secret Museum," in which the speaker (a personified sound) squeezes himself into the horn of a Victrola and is transfigured between beats. Here, rather than lamenting the constrictions of "the envelope," the speaker embraces the former confines of his art, whether musical or lyrical.

It may seem odd that Krukowski ends this book with a piece called "Poetry." Why would he put such weight on this idea?

Irrationality, by contrast, mirrors our individual souls. In it we recognize ourselves, but never our friends, relations, or neighbors—it therefore makes poor material for religions and songs—and is the only possible material for poetry.

The distinction between religion and poetry is well-rehearsed enough to be easily grasped, but the implication that songs are more like religions than poetry is more novel and gives one pause. Is this distinction true in general or just for Krukowski himself? One could write an entire book, or perhaps an album, that explores it further.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2004/2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004/2005

Tomaz Salamun on Tomaz Salamun

Buy this book at Amazon.comBlackboards
Tomaz Salamun and Metka Krasovec
Translated by Michael Biggins with the author
Saturnalia Books ($16)

by John Bradley

Tomaz Salamun, you've done it again!

I'm only kidding, of course. I NEVER review my own books, and I would have obeyed this commandment if it were not for the overgenerous kindness of this damn editor, flogging me with so many flattering e-mails. And so I promise I will write this review as if I have never heard of this poet or seen these poems before.

What a wacky fellow, this Salamun. He can make you think you had too much espresso and cough medicine and cell phonage when you read this stuff. Take, for instance "Stefanel Jacket." He talks about "broiling gilthead bream. Hardy meat shot through the sea." Okay, but then watch—all of a sudden he says, "I'm covered in basil." Is Salamun about to be sacrificed? Is this the bream speaking? Help! Then he tells us, "I yank my catch up the stairs . . . ." Fine. But look what he does to us next: He adds to the end of that sentence the name "Metka," his wife, the artist whose artwork complicates terribly this book. Look at what he does to her—"I break down the door and fling her on the couch so it hurts her, / it hurts her, it hurts her, till she groans like a deer." Not to pry into the private life of this internationally respected poet, but why is he exposing for the world his deviant sexual activities? Has the fishing turned him into a rutting animal? Or are we supposed to think the "her" tossed on the couch is the fish and that's who he is hurting? Could this man be a sadist? What have the poor bream done to him lately? I find this very, very scary, but poetry like this is supposed to be scary, no?

In the closing poem, "Heated Passions," we find out why his passions are so heated. He writes here about a castle (I imagine spray-painted on a wall: "Franz Was Here"), and speculates on what a castle represents—apertures, soldiers, power. Ah, the P-word! Here is the key to the castle, to the poem, and who knows, maybe the whole book: "Power chews at everything." And so, even the great Tomaz Salamun must arrive at this sad truth (if it is truly true). Power attacks the castle, power in the form of nature, aided by the filth that comes out of humans and their creations, so that even stone erodes, erodes, erodes over time. But power also comes from the castle, the power of authority, words, rules. Thou shalt obey. This power chews on us all, even the poet with a nice grant to live and write in Umbria, who herds his dislocated words onto a blackboard, which means all his words keep changing, molting, goofing on him and us. Why are the lines so dislocated? Power rattles through the poet and messes everything up. It sprinkles him with basil. It makes the poet mount his wife on the couch. More than once!

This leads us to the very last line of the book: "What we've carved out will fall." Meaning, the very poems and illustrations in this book, all "carved" by Salamun and Biggins (is this a real person, or a play on "Begin, Big One"?) and Metka, who I shall assail in a moment. All words are destined, by the very fact of their wordness, to fail. Even the words of such a clever and horny guy as this Salamun. Note how the last line flashes us back to the second poem of the book, "Pumpkin." (Do they really have pumpkins in the Republic of Slovenia? Or is this code for rutabaga?) Here the book is more hopeful—"The pumpkin is aspirin," "I lean on the birds' / song," and "Cream your belly as you jump." So power giveth and power taketh away, but poetry is power, too—at least when power kindly gooses the poet.

Visual art can also be jazzed and jazzifying. Take the curious figures that Metka Salamun set loose on these pages: These humanesque creatures are lean, bereft of arms, leaping about like a human flea. Usually hopping up, but a few times also down. In the larger, color illustrations, there are sometimes two figures who hint at a silent story. The picture that kicks me in the head is where a bluish figure (a "she" person?) bends over a collapsed pinkish figure (a "he" person?). She seems to be mourning his collapsed-on-the-groundness, while just above her head four poplars sprout from a snakey stick of earth. But wait. From a distance these four slender trees are green exclamation marks springing from the blue person's thoughts! Will her grief, her song awaken him? She needs to read Blackboards to him. Eurydice bringing Orpheus back from the dead.

Do not read this book, however, on a train or bus or car or plane. It will create motion sickness, even if you do not suffer from that malady. You would toss up the lines, though they might reappear in splendid—probably more splendid than in this book—new shapes and combinations. That is the power of this (I almost said "my"!) book. To make you say to yourself, Leave me in a room alone with Language. Let me see what I can do with her. And she with me. And she and me and Biggins. And she and me and Biggins and Metka, if Metka will go for that kind of thing. (She says probably not.)

My name is Tomaz Salamun and I approve the dissolve of these words.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2004/2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004/2005

IMPORTED BREADS: Literature of Cultural Exchange

Buy this book from Amazon.comEdited by Phillip Sterling
Mammoth Books ($19.95)

by C. A. Tenz

Recipients of Fulbright grants situate themselves intimately in the countries they visit for educational scholarship, whether they arrive as student, scholar, or lecturer. The position affords these people a prestige that shines through in many of the pieces included in Imported Breads: Literature of Cultural Exchange, an anthology comprising work by American Fulbright grant recipients. Editor Phillip Sterling, himself a Fulbrighter, chooses pieces that express each writer's distinctive situation as temporary resident in a foreign society. This exploration of academic life abroad takes readers deeper into these distant destinations than most travelogues or tour books.

"Fulbrighters are not mere tourists," Sterling states in the foreword, and this collection of memoirs, poems, and short stories proves his point. James Plath's poem, "The Colonizers Return" offers a critique of Caribbean cruise ship passengers as the speaker views them:

their skin is

shockingly pink, the folds of
affluence more pronounced.

And they hide, always: wallets
in camera bags, cameras in

fanny packs, credit cards in socks,
and eyes behind glasses gradually tinted

like the windows in stretch limousines.
But it's obvious most are new to this,

assuming the (im)position for one or two
weeks and hoping to avoid discovery

as much as discomfort or danger.

Some readers might regard this anthology as elitist or disconcerting because of the distinction editor and contributors make between tourist and Fulbrighter. However, readers interested in conversations with local people and gritty descriptions of local living conditions will find pleasure here.

Offering astute meditations on life in a foreign country, these writers relate folklore and reflect on cultural ceremonies, partake in the quotidian details of life and immerse the reader in specific locales. Each author addresses his or her experiences abroad uniquely, and the collection includes a variety of poetic and prose forms. Poems follow essays; a piece on Indonesia precedes one on Iceland. These differing experiences told in various styles produce an incoherence that the anthology's alphabetical-by-author organization cannot address. Nonetheless, an assortment of powerful cultural material resides within these pages, a worthwhile read for anyone contemplating life in a foreign land.

Turn one page and venture through a war-divided Ireland with Bostonian émigré John Hildebidle as he crosses the fortified border into Derry. Turn the next page and relive Korea though Anthony Petrosky's eyes, "in a claustrophobia of humidity, cars, people / as thick as particulates in parks and palaces." This combination of outsider versus insider perspectives continues throughout the anthology, as the works pay homage to an assortment of encounters. In Donald Morrill's poem, "Junket" for example, he contemplates his time as a foreigner visiting China:

:Through which—excepting banquet toasts and drunken singing—
we avert our faces from the Ministry's cameras,
while still getting to visit this restricted area,
transported by private train, no less.

This experience, written from the point of view of a welcomed guest, differs significantly from Morrill's later essay about riding a train from Soviet Russia to Eastern Bloc Poland during the Cold War. After watching armed Russian soldiers steal jewelry from a fellow passenger, Morrill writes, "The trip has been variously wonderful and horrible, exhausting." The descriptions of travel in foreign destinations glimmer alongside the stories of hardships, no matter the locale.

This inclusion of hardship makes Imported Breads all the more necessary. As other new books, such as George Gmelch's Behind the Smile: The Working Lives of Caribbean Tourism (Indiana University Press, 2003), discuss the problematic elements in tourist travel, Sterling wisely anthologizes the literature of these less-intrusive Fulbrighters. Scholarly exchange affords Fulbrighters access to experiences an ordinary traveler cannot gain; in turn, these Fulbrighters share with readers customs and events generally often invisible to outsiders. Robert Lima embodies this point with his memoir of an elder-making ceremony in Cameroon, in which he becomes "The White Elder of the Menda Hills." The stance of knowledgeable purveyor can prove disturbing as well, as in Richard Jackson's poem of war's scars: "I would like to be able to report / that the 9 year old Rwandan girl did not hide under / her dead mother for hours. There are so many things / too horrible to say." In both depictions, the Fulbright experience offers a realistic portrayal of life in a foreign land. The poems and prose sound not like the narcissistic, confessional literature of expatriation, but instead serve as distinctive reflections on incorporated living.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2004/2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004/2005


Buy this book from Amazon.comWilliam Zink
Sugar Loaf Press ($9)

by Justin Maxwell

Released in the summer of 2004, this multi-genre collection by William Zink focuses on the then-impending presidential election, using a variety of different literary methodologies to promote a liberal/progressive agenda. This proselytization is so fundamental to the book's vision that even the copyright notice gives complete permission for the reproduction of any part of the book "in any form by anyone anywhere" until after election day, when a boilerplate copyright comes into effect.

Riffs contains some pieces that are sincerely moving. The opening fiction work, "The First Piña Colada War {Abridged}," divulges the secret motivations of over a dozen anonymous senators, then radically jumps to a narrative of Iraqi soldiers under the physical and psychological pressures of the American bombardment, then shifts again to character sketches of Iraqis, told in a chilling past tense that reveals them to be a series of intimate, extended epitaphs. The final piece in the collection, "A Letter to the People of Ohio," makes a thoroughly reasonable and cogent plea for Zink's home state to vote out a universally detrimental administration.

Unfortunately, much of the work between the aforementioned bookends has the consistently clumsy feel of hurried writing. A long section called "Death Penalty Syllogisms and Other Lunacies" points out the foolishness of logic based on assumptions or unanalyzed beliefs; a few of the syllogisms could accomplish this successfully but the section goes on for page after page. Sections of poetry called "Crushers of the Universe" and "By George" have some zip but are ultimately didactic and sophomoric. A collection of aphorisms called "Desperate Graffiti" has some wonderful, put-it-on-your-rally-sign moments, such as "A society that shrugs its shoulders at art isn't a civilization; it's a work crew." But slogans like "Intellectual midgets and wanna-be dictators rely on slogans" are obviously problematic in a collection of political work that relies on emotion over explication; a more carefully made collection would surely have removed such ideological paradoxes.

The book is a collection of different approaches—the riffs of the title—which could potentially sway an undecided voter. Made quickly, it contains all the energy and fear of its time. Its haste leads to problems ranging from distracting typos and a lack of nuanced rhetoric to writing too raw for much impact. In the end it is not a book of great political insight, but it does a fine (if unintentional) job of capturing the political panic that so thoroughly charged the time of its creation. And if it is of dubious merit after the election, when its primary purpose has passed, as a snapshot of contemporary cultural life Riffs from New Id has a unique anthropological value.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2004/2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004/2005


Buy this book from Amazon.comM. Allen Cunningham
Unbridled Books ($24.95)

by Kris Lawson

A lyrical book about a brutal childhood, The Green Age of Asher Witherow spins a deceptively simple tale from a language as delicate as lace. Told from the point of view of an old man looking back on his childhood in a California mining town, the book achieves a geological resonance with its setting: shot through with veins of memory, crushed by layers of feeling.

In the late 19th century in Nortonville, California, the title character and his family lead a harsh existence, narrowly confined within the boundaries imposed on them by their society and the boundaries they set on themselves. Asher's parents, David and Abicca Witherow, are Welsh émigrés, and their California has no gold rush or quick fortune—only the Black Diamond Coal Company that employs the men and boys of Nortonville, owns their houses, and sells them groceries, clothing and fuel.

When she finds herself pregnant, Abicca feels she is possessed by a demon; she is only calm after her husband reads Bible verses to her. Stubbornly conventional in some ways, Abicca nonetheless allows the estranged wife of the town's founder, now outcast for her skills in midwifery and herbalism, to deliver Asher, which the aged narrator considers "a good name for someone born in the night amid culm banks and black-water drainage bogs." In actuality, Asher is a Biblical name that means "blessed" or "happy." But from the first Asher is literally a creature of the ashes; as a small child he plays in the slithering piles of rocks left over from the mine's processing, where his mother urges him to search for lumps of coal for the family's stove:

The culm banks were known to shift without warning. A child picking coal always hazarded stumbling into some disguised cavity, unsettling the whole mound, and ending up entombed under the chunks of slag, all air squeezed off overhead. The company had issued plenty of warnings to this effect—tales of boys gobbled up in the dumps for their thievery, as if by the unforgiving mouth of justice. But always leery of the company's tight-fistedness, mother saw straight through the moralistic pretext of such warnings and relished the subversion of sending me out with an empty pail.

The Witherow family leads a structured life, punctuated only by Abicca's migraines, during which she becomes a "stone" and Asher and his father creep quietly out of the house. Despite her pragmatism and strong adherence to Christianity, Abicca tells her son Welsh fairy tales, which to him are as much a part of the world around him as the stories of Nortonville's founders and the history of the mine. David Witherow brings part of the mine home with him every evening, as he arrives covered in the black dust that is slowly coating his lungs as well. After Asher is old enough to become a "breaker boy," picking out slate from the coal chutes, his father allows him to work but is disappointed in his son's content in being a miner. "No man's fitted for it," he says. "We endure. Me and all those men."

As in many classic works of literature, in this novel a character's name is usually revealing of that character's personality. Thomas Motion, a small boy who befriends Asher, is always in action, pelting rocks at the boss as the two boys work together in the mine or running from behind in the darkness and knocking Asher to the ground. Thomas envies Asher's calm; Asher would like to see in the dark like Thomas. In a strange bargain, Asher shows Thomas how to be still under the lash of the boss' whip and bear his punishment without showing emotion. At night, Thomas pulls Asher through the darkness, trying to get him to sense the objects around him, the shape of the earth under his feet, until he can navigate as well as Thomas. The first time Asher actually manages to accomplish this nightwalking, he and Thomas go too far, and Thomas disappears.

Concerned townspeople blame the boy's disappearance on Josiah Lyte, the minister's young assistant. Sharing his name with a Biblical king famous for religious reform, Josiah has more than a few pagan sensibilities that unsettle and finally outrage many in the congregation. Asher meets him at the first funeral he attends, that of a boy killed in the mine. He thinks Lyte is unearthly: "he had a peaked look like a revenant: dark hair and pale eyes and a face of angular, jittering features." Lyte treats Asher almost as a contemporary, lending him books and talking to him about the Hindu religion, which he experienced as a child of missionaries in India. But by smiling during funerals and evincing other odd behavior, the young minister has stepped outside the boundaries and Abicca, among others, cannot accept him.

Lyte, not surprisingly, acts a beacon for attention; Asher is not suspected of any involvement in his friend Thomas' disappearance because Lyte has attracted all the suspicion. Asher's other friend Anna Flood also lives up to her name; like a torrent of water, she flows easily into Asher's life and takes over his waking thoughts. Appearing only at night, encased in her mother's giant cloak, Anna becomes central to Asher's development and maturity, his connection to the earth.

M. Allen Cunningham has divided his finely wrought debut novel into sections, charting Asher's evolution from "blood" to "bone" to "ash" and finally to "earth." As Josiah, Thomas, and Anna come into Asher's life, each sets off a series of events that pushes him along like a tide, finally setting him outside the physical and mental boundaries of Nortonville. Like the piles of culm Asher picked over as a child, the layers underneath the surface of his life shift to produce a traumatic change and finally emerge in a new landscape.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2004/2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004/2005