Tag Archives: winter 2011


Amanda Boetzkes
University of Minnesota Press ($25)

by Deborah Karasov

Since the mid-1990s, artist Chris Drury has constructed dark earthen spaces of rock, wood, dirt or branches, called cloud or wave chambers, in rural areas around Britain. Already intense and evocative, these shelter-like structures also have a periscope lens at the top, projecting vapor-like images of sky or water onto the floor of the chamber. Entering for the first time one of these cloistered, dark interiors, Wave Chamber (1996), Drury writes, "At that moment the afternoon sun was hitting the water just where the mirror was angled. Inside it was as if a thousand silver coins were dancing across the floor. As the sun moved away, this changed to ghostly ripples, giving you the feeling of standing on liquid."

In her new book, The Ethics of Earth Art, Amanda Boetzkes, assistant professsor of art and theory at the University of Alberta, reads Wave Chamber as an allegory for an ethical mode of sensory exploration. And she sees this new paradigm running through the work of many earth artists, such as Robert Smithson, Ana Mendieta, James Turrell, Jackie Brookner, Olafur Eliasson, Basia Irland, and Ichi Ikeda. Similar to Drury’s Wave Chamber, the works of all these artists are like apertures through which the earth manifests itself without being reduced to our own frame of reference.

Like Drury, for example, American eco-artist Jackie Brookner also deploys her art as a vehicle to evoke sensation. Prima Lingua, a biosculpture made in the shape of a giant tongue, stands in what began as a pool of polluted water. Between 1996 and 2001, Brookner pumped the water over the surface of the tongue, and over time vegetation grew and thickened on the sculpture, gradually purifying the pool. In Boetzke’s words, “The tongue offers the lively growth of mosses and plants as though they were a burst of flavor.” Further, she suggests, the continuous pouring of water over the tongue “stimulates the emergence [not of words but] of what we might call vegetal utterances that rise up and fall away.” Natural processes become a primary language, a prima lingua, to which we are privy before human language. As a metaphor the pieces exposes the unintelligible transaction of sensations that proceed speech.

In addition to her dense descriptions of specific art works, Boetzke burrows into ethics as defined in the phenomenological tradition, not only by philosophers such as Emmanuel Levinas, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Martin Heidegger, but more eagerly by feminist philosophers such as Luce Irigaray and Judith Butler. For example, Boetzke expounds how Irigaray is particularly attentive to the way that an ethical acknowledgment of “the other” is associated with an abundance of sensation.

In a somewhat more controversial move, Boetzke proposes continuities between the land art of the 1960s and contemporary earth artists of today. Some philosophers and critics have attacked earlier earthworks—like Michael Heizer’s Double Negative, a 1500-ft trench Heizer cut into the side of a mesa in the Nevada desert—decrying them as eyesores and intrusions similar to industry, mining, and construction. The standard art history would describe a shift from this early “land art” to contemporary “eco-art,” like that of the Osaka-born artist Ichi Ikeda, who is dedicated to raising global awareness around water issues and conservation through international conferences, community activism, public performance and interactiveWaterArt installations.

Boetzke makes two main points in writing her history of earth art: the earlier generation of earth artists were not just sculptors, she says, but multi-media artists who were interrogating the aesthetic experience of the world and attempting to create alternate modes of perception. The aesthetic dimensions of the artworks had ethical implications. Equally, subsequent generations of earth art have not simply been concerned with restoration, but consistently explore how aesthetics are inextricable from ecological investments.

In the end, perhaps, our anthropocentricism is inevitable, but Boetzke argues that earth art posits at least a humble position in the face of the earth’s excessiveness. This stance of ontological humility, she feels, is the beginning of ethics. By encountering the limits of our perceptual expectations, sensing the earth's excess beyond those limits, artists like Drury and Brookner align their aesthetic project with an ethical acknowledgment of the earth's “otherness.” Contemporary artists create spaces to let nature be, allowing it to manifest itself in all its uncomfortable difference. In Boetzke’s words, the “earth does not stabilize the world but rather stands as an enigmatic presence that continually drives the world to reorient itself.”

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2010/2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010/2011


R. H. W. Dillard
Factory Hollow Press ($14)

by Greg Weiss

At first glance, the most striking thing about R.H.W. Dillard’s new volume is its premise; as the inside-jacket copy tells us, this long-awaited seventh collection consists of a sequence of fifty-two poems, each sixteen lines long, each addressed to a dead poet or several times to more than one dead poet. Each is a meditation of sorts upon that poet’s work, secondarily that poet’s life. But the manner in which Dillard delivers that premise is inseparable from the premise itself. As an example, here is “Next War” in its entirety:

Dark early morning, (11/04/1918), the Sambre,
Canal bank, very heavy fire, pontoons shell
Shattered, trying to cross, a raft, and then,
“The old Lie,” you Wilfred, hit and hit • • •
The Great War, “five healthy girls died of fright,”
French village, British barrage, “in one night,”
And always another war—1944, dad, Captain, USAAF,
Pedaling an English bike, V-1 sputters, glides, explodes,
Buzz bomb, doodlebug, in the ditch, “This one’s,” triage,
“A dead one,” always choices, always, attacks, betrayal,
November 1918, day by day 2,088 die, no point,
“By choice they made themselves immune,”
For what? Dryburgh, Haig’s grave, single cut stone,
Simple wooden cross, wreaths, wreaths, wreaths
Of red paper poppies (06/28/1987), “to pity and whatever
Mourns,” father survived, “pro patria,” you did not.

Wilfred Owen: “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” Letter (10/29/1918), “Insensibility”

“Next War,” which is the first of five poems of the same name, is typical of the volume in its use of short phrases separated by commas, dates, the black circles to represent gunfire, footnoted quotations, and the powerfully recurring thematic reference to Wilfred Owen. Most of the poems footnote more than one writer, however, and the winner of the footnote contest is the penultimate poem in the book, “Passion 3,” which features ten.

There are many dangers in such a combination of premise and style, but the two greatest strike me as the related issues of the parlor trick and the inside joke, both crimes of hubris. In relation to the parlor trick, I, for one, don’t want to watch Dillard (or anyone else) display his intellectual and technical ability, and in relation to the inside joke I don’t want to be excluded. But Dillard, even in his eight-footnote poem, falls prey to neither of these options. As in any volume there are unsuccessful poems, but they nearly always falter attempting generosity, not superiority. Despite the allusive style, What Is Owed the Dead is quite moving; the volume’s allusiveness, particularly in relation to the personal lives and publication histories of writers, is in fact largely responsible for one of its most important attributes: Dillard treats poets like human beings. (Claudia Rankine does a similar thing with celebrities and politicians in her 2004 volume Don’t Let Me Be Lonely.) In “Anxiety,” for instance, addressed to W. H. Auden, Dillard writes:

Today as then, “divided days,” forced
To “choose from ways, all of them evil,
One,” border crossings, lies, lies, lies,
Wystan, you fled NYC, mugged in Oxford,
Never ends, remembering once a voice
Through morning mail slot, “O all the instruments
Agree,” years later, hearing older lady to a friend,
You, reading (03/21/1972), intoning, “I thought,”
Greatest hits, one last appearance in US,
Wrinkled, slippered, lionized, “he was going
To read poetry,” even now, words about love,
“About suffering,” just stew for the pot,
“Emptied of its poetry,” scholarly pissing
In the kitchen sink, you scrawled name over
OED , tagging, and yet always seemed aware
That “goodness,” lately or early, “is timeless.”

W. H Auden: Paid on Both Sides, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” “Musée des Beaux Arts,” “Archaeology”

The tribute of the last line is only enhanced by Dillard’s earlier honesty about his dismissive attitude towards Auden’s later poetry. But as the “scholarly pissing / in the kitchen sink” hints at but skirts, Dillard’s weakness in such an erudite volume isn’t pedantry but short, anti-intellectual rants. In “Satyricon,” for instance, which footnotes Petronius Arbiter and Merle Travis, after twelve fascinating lines about the relationship between distraction and reality, the final four holler like a grumpy old man:

Makeovers on every TV tube, “reality,”
Poetry, all arts debased, while everything
Is “art,” Britney proclaims her art, shake it,
Shake it, “pecuniae cupiditas,” you said it.

The relevant Britney is, of course, Spears, but Dillard’s unsupported notion that the pop star and “art” are mutually exclusive is childish, and a rare lack of magnanimity on the poet’s part. Overall, however, What Is Owed the Dead is excellent, and its premise does just what a premise should: not dictate or overwhelm the material, but create a setting for the material to emerge, allowing its divergent threads to cohere naturally, without insisting. As a final example, here is “Exile,” the first of three poems of that name:

Loneliness, you, Ovid, on the Black Sea, Pontus
, year 8, exiled, imperial claim, for love,
Ars Amatoris, Nelly, 1940, safe in Sweden
From Nazis but not from die Blicke, glances,
Der Toten, of millions going up in black
Smoke, Joseph, 1972, you, safe, too, in U.S.A.,
persona non grata in terra incognita,” behind
All of you, landscape, pines, lindens, aspens,
Those faces, most of all, language, “vix
Subeunt ipsi verba Latina mihi
,” old words
“Rusty and stiff,” intoned (04/01/75) Russian
Verse, few understanding, sleeves rolled up,
Cigarette poised so carefully on filter,
Joseph, hand on shoulder, to shy student poet,
New room, new world, ΠYCTOTA, emptiness,
“Don’t be,” exile’s best advice, “nervous.”

DAVID R. SLAVITT: The Tristia of Ovid
NELLY SACHS: “You onlookers”
JOSEPH BRODSKY: “Abroad,” “December 24, 1971”

The “Next War” and “Exile” series form the backbone of What Is Owed the Dead, and “Exile” is typical of many of its best poems in its sense of affirmation. Engaged conversation, even if about bleak subject matter, is at least one answer Dillard gives to the question posed by the book’s title.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2011/2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011/2012

ENGLISH FRAGMENTS: A Brief History of the Soul

Martin Corless-Smith
Fence Books ($18.95)

by Daniel Tiffany

Martin Corless-Smith’s fifth collection of poetry, English Fragments: A Brief History of the Soul, is a deeply companionable book; I was touched by its musicality, its powers of reflection, its candor, its sensuality, its intellectual tastes, but also by its sympathetic and contagious magic: the ability to gather into poetry, despite the reference to “fragments” in its title, the sense of a life, a way of life. Evoking the relation between fragment and panorama, the many elements of this book might be regarded as relics comparable to the elusive (and sometimes counterfeit) sources of the ballad revival of the 18th century. Yet, just as the ballad scandals of the 18th century represented the leading edge of a tumultuous wave of poetic modernization (associated with the promiscuity of vernacular speech), so the self-conscious anachronism of Corless-Smith’s panorama signals the emergence once again of a tension between interiority and the enigma of the surface, between individualism and impersonality—between lyric and ballad.

Although some readers may be inclined to see something vaguely neo-Romantic in Corless-Smith’s work, such speculation would be plausible only if one has in mind the infidel Romanticism associated with Thomas Spence and the radical London Corresponding Society of the early 19th century.

The labourer’s heel must spade
Through roots and ruinous foundations
For his fruit—silent to his own antithesis
Under no old name nor in secure
Bond—no college ties his wit
Nor patron offers order
He may grasp. But to his soil
And simple burial he works
His hours his own—his elements apparent
All efforts are exact—all sober
Air and light until his lapse
To ordinary earth and extraordinary breath

Here is a renegade Romanticism more concerned with making than with speculation, with theworker’s knowledge of the relation between labor, pastoral, and the soul’s breath.

As for poetic models, it might be more helpful to note Corless-Smith’s curious affinities (in diction, sentiment, and naked susceptibility) with certain 18th-century poets (Oliver Goldsmith, William Cowper, Christopher Smart) whose writing was torn between lyric, ballad, and didactic exigencies. Each of these poets experienced periods of insanity or dissolution (anticipating the similar fates of John Clare and Ivor Gurney), conditions arising in part from the exposure of their work to violent cross-currents between literary and vernacular, or secular and spiritual, poetries. The fragmentation of Corless-Smith’s writing may be read as well—in poetic and cultural terms—as an expression of “madness” in the face of similar tensions in our own time.

Not surprisingly, given the promiscuity of his text, Corless-Smith’s apocryphal model of the soul (traces of which can be found in most of his earlier books) never strays far from the concept and experience of reading: “The language of poetry is infinitely open, and as such is a model of the divine soul.” Over the course of the book, Corless-Smith develops what can only be described as an ontological theory of reading, imitating, translating, imposture and, ultimately, writing: a life suspended between epochs, nations, personae. Yet, since the soul is always somehow corporeal (“the soul conceived in God’s alembic flesh”), meteoric, or mediumistic, one must therefore descend into the flesh of reading—that is, the dwelling, or habitation, of the soul.

Biblio mundi
Two weeks later
The dead now living
that we can never
Touch the soul’s hem

Even more broadly, the poet’s doctrine of the soul (psyche-logos) is also a theory of matter, of society, of landscape: “and our soul is of foliage and standing ponds—the lofty elms—kissing the sand and the penny-loaf—the colour of amber crabshells—and the pink-eared wheat flower.”

To be sure, as the object of its own doctrine of reading, the book is crazed with texts of all kinds: treatise, confession, annal, song, translation (of Trakl, Ronsard, Petrarch, Horace), aphorism, jingle, burden. If the book is indeed a tractatus, Corless-Smith builds his treatise on the soul (in a manner resembling the erotico-philosophical manifestos of Norman O. Brown) from the broken ranks (and words) of philosophers. Yet for Corless-Smith—unlike many poets lingering at the jinxed crossroads of poetry and philosophy—it is never a matter of poetry trying to legitimate itself by citing philosophy, or taking instruction from philosophy, or even looking over its shoulder at philosophy, but rather finding moments when philosophy reveals its inescapably poetic orientation, its ancient familiarity with poetry

More important, however, than the didactic, or miscreant, lyricism of philosophers, are Corliss-Smith’s poetic kin, the “southron” poets—many quoted in the book—from his native Worcestershire, or neighboring counties: Robert Herrick (his eroticism and his daintiness), the forger Chatterton, Cowper, Robert Southey (experimentalist), Ivor Gurney, David Jones. And lest one forget the music of the place, or how it sounds today, recall that the music of Portishead and P. J. Harvey drag Blake’s Jerusalem—and the spell of the West Country—into the present moment. Corless-Smith's rude (and lovely) songs belong in the same company.

At the core of Corless-Smith’s confession and tractatus of the material soul stands a pair of invented personae, embodying different aspects of the poet-philosopher: “Thomas Swan” and “William Williamson.” In Corless-Smith’s previous book, Swallows, an author’s note claims, “During WW2 the poet William Williamson worked as a radio operator on a remote Hebridean island. A series of poetic fragments and long prose pieces were later found written on the walls of his weaver’s cottage.” Corless-Smith appears to be the sole reader of Williamson’s wall-poems, yet this ambiguity—is it a forgery or not—is immaterial (or without material witness) in light of the tenets of the Selenlehre of the English Fragments.

Corless-Smith’s invented (or real) personae are frequently cited in a manner recalling the epigraphic custom of marking the landscape with inscribed tablets (or composing succinct poems in this style). The numerous citations of “W.W.” or “T.C.” in English Fragments indulge in the ancient practice of apostrophe, addressing the passing stranger in a manner recalling the speech act of a beggar (a genre in the tradition of canting songs). Moreover, since “W.W.” and “T.C.” may be regarded as creatures of the authorial imagination, and since the author refers to himself as a “creature” and a monster (“I am become a monster to myself”), one should recall that Dr. Frankenstein’s “creature”—the Gothic counterpart to Corless-Smith’s lyric species—inscribes curious epigraphs in the woods, taunting the scientist as he pursues his tragic invention. Corless-Smith’s English Fragments is a book that will haunt readers for generations to come.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2011/2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011/2012


Susan Briante
Ahsahta Press ($17.50)

by Abby Travis

Utopia Minus is built on a subtle but pervasive distinction. Susan Briante takes her title from Robert Smithson’s A Guide to the Monuments of Passaic New Jersey, in which Smithson discusses a “ruins in reverse,” where “the buildings don’t fall into ruin after they are built but rather rise into ruin before they are built. . . . the suburbs exist without a rational past without the ‘big events’ of history. . . . A Utopia minus a bottom.” This gives a haunting sense of inevitability to the future of the suburbs: because they lack a foundation, they also lack intent and direction.

Briante’s poems articulate the stagnancy of a population born and raised in the suburban sprawl—not just that of her own New Jersey and Texas, but everywhere in America—with ease and even a playfulness with the language. While the poems of this collection are often in verse, many break out into sentences and whole paragraphs of prose. And the author is direct and deliberate in image and word choice, which makes her lines resonate all the more. Here is the center of “Nail Guns in the Morning,” in which external tensions build upon one another:

this weather, this fiscal year, this end of empire during which I am reading
the circulars stuck in my screen door, ice waiting
in the highest breath of atmosphere.
It will get to us.

In the next stanza, Briante writes: “I told Farid / I would never write a poem that just said: Stop the War.” But, another stanza later, the poem ends in a burst indicative of the era of Bush: “Stop the war, stop the war, stop the war, stop the war, stop the war.”

These poems push against their margins, just as Briante pushes against the margins of her world and of herself. “How does a tree move when it is angry?” she asks. “I want to be angry like that.” Sometimes, yes, she is angry, but she is never moralizing. Hers is a cultivated anger, informed by sorrow and longing, by personal and cultural memory. In “Isabella,” much of this collides:

Last night’s sleep was shallow, and I dreamt
I flung myself over a group of children
with arms spread until my winter jacket
opened to wings. Men torched
parked cars. Police hurled grenades
across a street. And while we huddled
behind a Gap advertisement near a subway
entrance, my father ran towards
the barricades calling
another woman’s name.

The structure of Utopia Minus adds to these themes. Of the three sections, the first two conclude in three memoranda each, with poems addressed to particular officials: “Dear Madam Secretary of Homeland Security,” “Dear Mr. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development,” “Dear Mr. Chairman of Ethics, Leadership and Personnel Policy in the U.S. Army’s Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel,” and so on. Despite the imperative that falls into some of these poems (“Pull over. Price what you see. Privatize this rush-hour traffic. Look disappointed”), the first sections build, in lyric images, the tone of expertly handled moral outrage: of urban sprawl and abandoned buildings, of storms building up, all in “the year of the Dixie cup, in the year of the orange construction cone.”

Tellingly, however, the final section turns inward, realizing that memory—despite what it reminds us of—is perhaps what can save a place that has, inevitably, been built into ruin. Take “Up the Road”:

The streets should be shorter
sentences between us.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Bring your daughters                         to this place
tell them there was something special,
tell them we were something special,
our struggle has too few chroniclers.

In this final section, the once fluid prose that conveyed stagnation through imagery now fractures and proceeds haltingly, and a storm finally begins to bloom, though still in the distance:

Today I am tired
of being American.           I am done           with advancing.
In the utilitarian insistence of the Midwest, beautiful maps                     show heat
and intensity of storms     red and greengold blossoms cross prairies
on my television screen.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I tell the wind, Hurry.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2011/2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011/2012

BODY SWEATS: The Uncensored Writings Of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven

Edited by Irene Gammel and Suzanne Zelazo
The MIT Press ($34.95)

by Gary Sullivan

If, as according to the Baroness von Freytag-Loringhoven, “All America is nothing but impudent inflated rampantly guideless burgers—trades people,” nowhere is that more true than in the desiccated art of our poetry. This is, after all, a culture that has allowed, inexplicably, the Baroness’s own significant body of English-language poetry to languish in boxes, uncollected and mostly unpublished, until now, 101 years after their author, the most outrageous dada poet of them all, landed on these shores in late June of 1910.

In their introduction to this long-awaited collection, Gammel and Zelazo make much of the Baroness’s prefiguring of any number of art and poetry movements: the punk-DIY aesthetic, beat poetry, ’60s feminist performance art, Canadian sound poetry and, most recently, conceptual writing. They see the Baroness in everything from Madonna’s cone bra to Carolee Schneemann’s “Meat Joy.” They’re right, of course, on all counts. But there’s so, so much more. Opening Body Sweats randomly to one of the 150 poems collected in its pages:

This early in spring—I notice my shouldersweat
Of such rife—penetrating—rank—frank redolence—
As advanced cadaver—fresh myrrhstuffed
Mummy let’s off—maybe.

I immediately think of Edwin Torres:

Computereen—spits out
cloudy beach hardon              empty squeen
outlines the modern raindrop

dear foamali to manside—what is ecstasy
of the divine free

there’s no one here—transfer son
to foreskin

Torres has had a foot in at least three of the most visible contemporary camps: the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, language writing and, most recently, the Flarflist Collective; but that poem, “To Come,” from his latest collection, YesThing NoThing, feels as if the Baroness wrote it herself, her ghost-digits guiding Torres’s fingers over the keyboard.

Best-known for her frank sexuality (the first poem in Body Sweats is, not surprisingly, “Ejaculation”: “I want to die— / I want to live— // Between this / lovembrace!”), the Baroness was not simply the modernist period’s most body-focused poet. Rather than organize the book chronologically, the book’s editors slot poems into one of ten numbered sections with subtitles designed to emphasize the range of von Freytag-Loringhoven’s oeuvre. So, in addition to “Poems of Love and Longing” and “Poems of Embodiment,” we get “Poems of the City and Consumption,” “Poems of Philosophical Contemplation,” “Visual Poems,” and the rather conference-y “Performing Nature.” One can’t imagine the Baroness herself agreeing to this academically imposed structure on what even the editors refer to as the “uncorsetted” “chaos” of her poems.

But this is not so much a collection of loose and crazy poetry as it is an argument for the weight and import—ultimately, the academic viability—of the Baroness’s work. The editors are careful in who and what they name-check in the introduction: Sylvia Plath but not the more obvious Anne Waldman; Kenneth Goldsmith but not K. Silem Mohammad, whose work far more resembles the Baroness’s in form, content, and all-important spirit; the Four Horsemen but not the far more kindred Canadian bill bissett. Most surprisingly, there is not a single mention of theGurlesque anthology, the one collection of poetry that seems closest in all aspects to the Baroness—she’s practically its patron saint. It’s as though everything Gammel and Zelazo know about the art comes from reading uber-critic Marjorie Perloff—who, you guessed it, is name-checked in the Intro.

The framing of this book aside, the selection of work is incredibly generous, including nearly 300 pages of von Freytag-Loringhoven’s poems and texts and dozens of illustrations in color and black and white, mostly of manuscript pages in the poet’s hand. It would be daunting if the work weren’t so immediate and engaging.







The avid reader will find in these poems at least something connecting this work to just about every genuinely thrilling thing that has happened in American poetry in the last hundred years, from Black Mountain to the Harlem Renaissance to the New York School. And, like them, it still feels as alive and filled with possibility and surprise as it must have when it was first written and performed. This, more than a poem’s craft or even its influence, is what keeps us reading.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2011/2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011/2012

CIENTO: 100 100-Word Love Poems

Lorna Dee Cervantes
Wings Press ($16)

by Sharon Olinka

Cynics beware: this book will stir sensual memories, and make even the most jaded reader smile. In a world full of hackneyed love poems, Lorna Dee Cervantes manages to be witty, lyrical, and wise without a trace of self pity or sentimentality. Her voice is direct and natural, like the voice of a friend. Each poem in Ciento is exactly one hundred words long; this almost creates its own form, and Cervantes plays it like a jazz clarinetist out to soar one last time before the set ends.

The first thirteen poems deal with that shadowy time before love is acknowledged, and how the speaker finds herself changing as stagnant energies dissolve. This is expressed beautifully in “100 Words On Being Done”:

I'm done with demons; dying
by the dram. I'm done
with dealing diamonds from my
hand; done doubting the way
destiny pays; done doubling up
on trouble; done with the debits
defining me, dollars dividing me;
done doing it up just
to have it undone; done
denying the outcome. I'm done.
I want bread and your red
arabesques on my neck. I
want the guards at my
borders to grant you entry.

Not only is there a clever use of alliteration, with that pounding “d” like a triumphant drum, it also signals the speaker’s release toward a new world shared with her lover. “I am radiant to imagine you,” says Cervantes in another poem.

And imagine him she does: in salmon, a geode, a full refrigerator, olive oil, a whale, heartwood, a horse, lottery tickets, and many other images. There are also homages to Lorca and Neruda. But from the very first page the reader knows how the story ends: things won't work out. The lover will be gone. In “100 Words, 100 Toys For You” the speaker says, “The villain was our own. Possibly”; in another poem, which mentions wind, there's the disturbing image of an exhausted wind-up doll. Cervantes knows every love has its crest and decline, and if there's sadness in many of the poems there's also humor and gratitude, even if the love becomes a distant memory. A generosity of spirit prevails:

I don't carry a grudge
against the government.
I have the nation of you.
I have your hands and
what they can do. I have
the heart of you—special
core of your purpose and
power. I have the gift
of your sweat stained sage,
your hummingbird's bliss,
sanctuary that you would find
in me. I don't carry
a grudge for any mortal.

Ciento is a book to cherish. Give it to your seventeen-year-old student who just fell in love, or to your grandparents, married forty years. Or when in doubt yourself about love, go to these pages. You will find a worthy voice who speaks to you.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2011/2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011/2012


Forrest Gander
photographs by Raymond Meeks, Graciela Iturbide, and Lucas Foglia
New Directions ($15.95)

by Justin Wadland

Climatologists drill core samples from rock, soil, and ice, seeking evidence of the most fleeting of natural phenomena: ancient weather. Perhaps it is no coincidence, then, that each of the four sections in Forrest Gander’s Core Samples from the World opens with a poem titled “Evaporation” that simultaneously orients and disorients the reader to what follows.

A noted poet and translator, Gander is drawn to the physical structure of the earth. In 2005, just before beginning this book, he told fellow New Directions author Eliot Weinberger in a conversation published in BOMB Magazine: “For me, besides a lifelong interest in rocks and fossils and a degree in geology, it’s Oppen’s proposal of inquiry into ‘what we stand on,’ in the combined mineral and ethical sense, that matters.” This notion certainly informs the writing gathered inCore Samples from the World, especially the haibun about Gander’s journeys to China, Mexico, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Chile.

Haibun is a condensed prose essay originally developed in Japan as an accompaniment to haiku. Sparse, diary-like entries frame and set the stage for the haiku, often discarding the pronoun “I” and collapsing objective and subjective perspectives so that the reader is invited to witness experiences as they occur. Gander writes in the tradition of his predecessors, notably Basho’s Narrow Road to the Interior, recounting a pilgrimage into the unknown that at the same time evokes the strangeness within us all, but he also manages to crack open the form using the American idiom.

Twenty poets visit the Summer Palace on the outskirts of Beijing, for example, and as they make their way through the rooms, one “peers around a painted screen and discovers a white-haired man face-down on a table strewn with syringes.” And then comes the haiku, which doesn’t follow the conventional thematic or syllabic requirements but doesn’t need to:

Behind everything
the foreigner sees, something he doesn’t
know how to look for.

In a pattern that persists through the book, the sequence of image and insight jolts to the core. The stunned reader may begin to wonder: Did I ride upon an uneasy horse and see a dust storm blowing across the rocky plains of the Kyrgyz Autonomous Prefecture? Will I ever forget that night when Aline Davidoff stretched out on a red-carpeted staircase in a Japanese chintz dress? Why am I haunted by that old man glimpsed on a bicycle in Chile?

Core Samples from the World also contains poetry and photographs. The verses do not describe or comment on the pictures in a traditional ekaphrastic mode, but instead cohabit and resonate within the same emotional space. The four sections each feature the work of one of the three photographers—Raymond Meeks, Graciela Iturbide, and Lucas Foglia—who collaborated with Gander on this project. Foglia’s photographs, for example, come from a series called “ReWilding” that shows various people in the southeast who are attempting to live off the land. One depicts an almost naked young girl standing at the entrance of a bark wigwam, another a twenty-something white woman with a fox pelt over her bare shoulder. Here are a few of the accompanying stanzas, chosen almost at random:

Ever eat a blue heron?
Supervisor said there’s no common law
in Virginia. We don’t know how fast it’s going

to happen. Food’s going to be
number one. Next is going to be
ammo. We figure we’ll end up feeding

a lot of outsiders.

These statements resemble snippets a journalist might collect through interviews, but Gander threads and jams the phrases together to conjure the idealism and environmentalism, claustrophobia and xenophobia, divine foolishness and apocalyptic imagination that hold together such communities.

Another section features Raymond Meeks’s photographs from a series called “A Clearing” where men, women, and children mine a bleak landscape with rudimentary tools. The verses seem to speak for the subjects of the photographs, such as a shirtless boy covered in dust and carrying rocks upon his head: “I cannot be discarded, his eyes say.” But they also reveal how impenetrable these scenes may be:

I can be read, say the rocks, but not by you.
The air is burnished, almost mineral, like a thin peel of mica.
Mound in the photograph, iris in the eye.

What does it mean, a cauterized topography?
To salvage rocks the color of all else from all else the color of rock.
I can be read, say her eyes, but not by you.

This last line presumably refers to the photograph of a young woman a few pages on, another worker squinting in a pained yet dignified expression out of the frame—but it could be about any the individuals who reside in the photos and text of this book. While Gander’s work requires close study for the layers of associations and meanings to penetrate, it leaves an impression not unlike the first morning in a foreign land. One moment, things seem to the make sense, and the next, mystery ushers in “eyes from another language.”

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2011/2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011/2012


Adele Ne Jame
Manoa Books and El León Literary Arts ($15)

by Zara Raab

Poets weave textures with words that reach back in threads of association through our shared histories. The Lebanese American poet Adele Ne Jame, who has lived for four decades in Hawaii, creates a rich cloth of colors and scents, visions and reflections, in this handsomely produced collection of poems.

However attuned Ne Jame may be to the sounds and syllables of Lebanon refracted through 21st-century America, she translates from the language of her eyes, ears, and skin rather than the Lebanese culture of her grandmother who, a lifetime ago, chose to follow her grandfather from a small Lebanese village and settle with him, as his wife, in New Jersey. An areca leaf, bamboo cones, and fields of wild red anemones coexist in the world of these poems with date palms and fig trees, an uprooted hau tree, stalky purple ginger, and the oak trees of Mamre. The vivid imagery of dazzling blue light follows flying red clouds, wild dandelion and snow.

This blending of textures can be disorientating, at times, as if this poet were not quite present in the world. Ne Jame builds this sensuous texture even from the bricks and mortar of conflict and disappointment. She writes with a thoughtfulness born, one suspects, of a generous nature, and perhaps the ideology of the 1960’s Left Coast. In “A Chouf Lament,” a lament to an historic region of Lebanan ravaged by war, for example, she writes, “So that we might forget / for a moment how, like the fields of // the wild red anemone, we are waving / our songs in the air before night falls.”

The slogan “the personal is political” entered the lexicon of the 1960’s with Carol Hanisch’s famed feminist essay of that title, but its meaning has never been clearer than in Ne Jame’s poem “Cheating.” It is morning; the poet’s grandfather returns to his wife after a night at the gambling house. Only the poem’s title tells us the nature of his betrayal. It is a short poem of eleven lines, but says much about expectations we have for one another, the judgments we make, and contrasted to all of that, the simple truths of our human lives:

the two of them
beyond denial and the gorgeous morning light
flooding just the same through the glass.

Despite the husband’s sheepishness and the wife’s anger, the morning light floods “just the same through the glass” returning us to life. In other family poems here, there is at times very little light, only “sleep and forgetfulness,” as when the poet’s father is “already asleep in the small room / off the kitchen, having given himself up / to the next small loss.” But life goes on even when dreams are lost, or husbands and wives argue—or warring factions in Lebanon kill each other, and houses and relatives in Lebanon must be abandoned.

In “To Haas on Returning from Baalbek,” Ne Jame writes a message of “redemption / out of the unspeakable” from Beirut, where the poet stops in mid-traffic to gaze on the famous statue in Martyrs’ Square of four bronze figures honoring the sixteen people—some Muslins, some Christians—hanged on trumped-up treason charges in 1916 during the Ottoman rule of Lebanon. Ne Jame ponders,

How we manage beauty, if not redemption
out of the unspeakable—
how we love the dead we didn’t know
who somehow shuffle by in our dreams.
Be foolish—let your heart grow larger,
the mystic says. Salt to the wound
that burns and saves.

Quotations from, and references to, many writers and a few philosophers and artists appear in these pages—Federico Garcia Lorca, William Blake, Dante, Chagall, George Eliot, Delmore Schwartz, William Bronk. Rumi, Darwish. But perhaps the most palpable presence is that of the Lebanese American poet Haas Mroue, who died suddenly at the age of forty-one in 2007. Ne Jame borrows his words for an epigraph: “We are all refugees, / we drift through places / like pollen in May.” They are apt lines to preface a collection of poems that does sometimes seem to drift, for a poet at sea in the world. Ne Jame also addresses her title poem to Mroue, a poem in which the poet dreams of a mountain lion stalking her at night, “huge, whirling / figure eights brushing heavily against me.”

This book of fifteen poems, Ne Jame’s fourth book, has an afterword by Hayan Charara, who edited Inclined to Speak: Contemporary Arab American Poetry (University of Arkansas Press, 2008). In his afterword, Charara cites Naomi Shihab Nye’s description of Ne Jame’s poetry as possessing a solitude that “weaves it spell around you.” This description is apt; Ne Jame sets aside expectations and ideas of an Arab American identity throughout these poems, and creates a sensual, immediate, and generous reality, one that asks you to “let you heart grow larger.”

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2011/2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011/2012


Sarah Gorham
Four Way Books ($15.95)

by Nick DePascal

Sarah Gorham's fourth collection of poetry, Bad Daughter, is a varied and dynamic meditation on the many manifestations of family life, from husbands and wives, to sisters, and especially mothers and daughters. Gorham's poems consider these relationships from a multitude of viewpoints, including prayers, deconstructed sonnets and more, all the while working in a lyric style. Gorham has an ear for music and many of the poems have a pleasing sonic quality to them, though at times the lyrical qualities of certain poems take precedence over sense, and the reader can occasionally get lost.

The strongest poems in Bad Daughter subtly evoke an event or emotion with sharp imagery, tight lyricism, and just enough strangeness to challenge the reader, but not elude them completely. "Juncture," for example, begins:

At the join
of sea to sky
a line of whitecaps

like a row of horseheads,
or ghost parapet

as in your dream

A series of metaphors describing a particular scene, the images are clear and easily envisioned, and the word choices give the poem an ethereal yet foreboding quality. But the real skill of the poem is the subtle way in which the ending fulfills the promise of the beginning, extending the reach of its imagery to deepen a specific moment of emotional relevance in the speaker's life:

as of late when you lean
against your mother
and there's no

she has stood firm
as long as she can

there at the horizon
where the clouds begin.

Thus the emotion evoked by the opening images of the poem is brought to bear on the terrible futility one experiences upon the loss of a parent or the deterioration of their health, deepening it by avoiding the sentimentality inherent in such a situation. By the end of the poem, the mother seems like a part of nature, enshrined forever in the speaker's memory in particular images or scenes.

"High Tea" uses this same sort of strategy, interspersing snatches of conversation about a possible murder with the details of an uncomfortable family meal. It beautifully captures the naivety and innocence of children in the wake of death:

(I dare you to kick her shin. I dare you. She's kicking me.
She's a stupid ass. You're a stupid ass.)

No fighting. There's been a death.

For second helpings, for the plates clattering and scraped.
For more waiting, our bodies like the itchy center of the sun.

Nick. A pocket knife, we think. . .

And then a couple lines later:

Someone may have murdered him.

For the crumbs swept into a bowl. For the napkins folded and piled.
Chairs squealing, candles blown.

There'll be an investigation. Your mouth . . . wait

The linen stiff, the weep forbidden.

Consider for a moment that arresting movement from "Someone may have murdered him" to "For the crumbs swept into a bowl. For the napkins folded and piled." It's as if the victim was murdered because of these trivial dinner table actions; this constant piling of speech onto details creates a very clear tension between the world of high tea and that of the dead man, though the narrative implicit within the poem is never revealed. These jarring shifts in tone also deftly mimic how children interpret, or perhaps fail to interpret, significant events like death. And like "Juncture," it's as much about what is not said as what is said. These particular poems succeed because they bring the reader into a moment with the speaker without being heavy-handed and expository, while at the same time allowing the reader into the world of poem.

At times some of the poems seem a bit too heavy-handed and dry, or else give the reader very little to experience with the speaker. Take "Sixteen," which begins the collection's second section:

Tangerine was her trut
h and tangerine her hair
and may were the toughies
who backed into her fire

Most were but flickers
that lifted her to smoke,
the one I grew to care about
she burned with lines of coke.

Then glanced a tangerine glower
and shed an orange pride
and conjured the toughest boy of all
to push my love aside.

While the poem has a lovely music and some interesting moments, its inclusion in the collection seems a bit baffling. Its title and place at the beginning of a new section seem to indicate that we've moved forward in life, that the speaker is in adolescence, and thus things are changing. Yet the reader is given next to no context in which to see the poem's action, and the specificity of the action and the colors have little meaning for the reader overall. Poems like "Juncture" and "High Tea" build tension and seem to tread lightly on the page; "Sixteen" simply feels clunky by comparison. And there are several other such poems in the collection, which seem to draw the reader out of the poem's world and declare themselves to be poems.

Despite these occasional moments, Gorham's skill in controlling and manipulating voice and tone makes for a number of wholly original and enjoyable poems. Bad Daughter is ultimately a pleasure to read for its sharp imagery, unabashed lyricism, and its deft portraiture of the vagaries of family life.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2011/2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011/2012


Cedar Sigo
City Lights Publishers ($13.95)

by Bethany Prosseda

John Wieners, in “A Poem for Record Players,” states, “The scene changes”; it is more than just a matter of coincidence that this line should so aptly describe Cedar Sigo’s collection Stranger in Town. Sigo, whose work is in conversation with poets such as Wieners, Jack Spicer, and Eileen Myles, as well as an array of visual artists and musicians, succeeds in creating an intertextual collection that is as rich as the many sources of inspiration from which it draws.

In this collection, the scenes are ever changing and never fixed. Sigo’s prominent use of reference to location creates a feeling of perpetual movement through the text, and this movement bears strong associations to that of a road trip. In this sense, the reader and his movement through the text can be likened to watching a fixed point through a car window: a never-ending state of approach and departure from a series of objects.

Sigo achieves this state of fluid movement through his distinct use of enjambment and punctuation. The collection’s title poem prominently displays Sigo’s use of such devices:

More than one death

from a square
bottled ink

The MARVEL brand

I enjoy reading signs

through the fog—


Then that evening

and all of

Fox Plaza was the same white

A permanent

on my blue bike

I raise my hood

I think there are other lost men

in surrounding blocks

alike in their thinking.

In this poem, Sigo rarely uses punctuation, though he capitalizes some words; the lack of punctuation combined with the use of capitalization allows one line to flow seamlessly into the next, creating a constant state of approach and departure in which we find ourselves looking outward to worldly things—approaching the Hotel Huntington while the Marvel sign is waning in our rearview mirror but is not yet out of sight.

On a larger scale, the collection as a whole functions in the same manner. We may approach and depart from one poem, but we encounter elements of that same poem again at a different point in the collection. One example of this phenomenon occurs in “The Emerald Tablet,” in which Sigo writes, “What I was seeing was half a hotel / so I wrote that down to see the picture better.” Here, we again approach the Hotel Huntington; the effect of this cyclical reference brings to mind driving scenes from old movies in which the background plays on a loop. At times, the cyclical nature of the text can become hypnotizing, perhaps suggesting a commentary on the planned uniformity that characterizes so much urban life.

In this sense Sigo’s Stranger in Town also reflects on queer identity. While the jacket copy states that this theme plays a prominent role in the collection, queer identity is barely visible within the poems themselves. This lack of visibility is in conversation with the uniformity of urbanity. While queer identity is, to a certain extent, visible in contemporary culture, it is not nearly as visible as heterosexual identity. In this manner, Sigo’s collection creates a cyclical, hypnotizing, and planned landscape that mimics the uniformity of our culture. Within this landscape, Sigo’s poems function in a manner similar to graffiti; the text, in its constant state of approach and departure, aims to disrupt its surrounding landscape and thereby dispose of the order upon which it stands.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2011/2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011/2012